Blue Hill at Stone Barns Pocantico Hills, New York. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Zester Daily’s community of food writers recently put their heads together to create a bucket list of restaurants too wonderful to miss. These are the places where we’ve eaten that we tell our dearest friends they must visit. These are the places that, at journey’s end, make the whole trip worthwhile.

While beautiful settings are often part of the package with these restaurants, the food is the main attraction. That does not mean these dining rooms are all well known outside of their home towns. Our list includes high-toned and down-home restaurants scattered across the country. And we obviously enjoy dining with family and friends. If children are beyond booster seats and moderately well-behaved, they can join your dinner party at nearly all of these restaurants.

We’ve eaten at these places and know the chefs are creating some of America’s best food. As you plot your summer vacation, we hope this list of American eateries will inspire a few dinner detours. Happy travels!

More from Zester Daily:

» Battling chefs? Not these 5 European standouts
» Havana nights: Cuba’s new dining hot spots
» Chefs let British food shine at at Swiss gourmet fest
» Onyx chef’s modern Japanese take on fish

Main photo: Blue Hill at Stone Barns Pocantico Hills, New York. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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California's wine woes continue to mount. Credit: Copyright iStockPhoto/Avalon_Studio

For the second time in two weeks, the California wine industry is under fire. First, it was a class-action lawsuit aimed at inexpensive wines with moderately elevated levels of arsenic. Now, it’s cooties. And they’ve been spotted in the proverbial good stuff.

Cooties — formally Cutius terrebilis, a childhood condition associated with social dysfunction, formerly believed to be something people grow out of naturally by the time they are teenagers — have apparently been detected in a broad cross-section of California wines.

Curiously, the cooties-bearing wines are not connected by their region of origin or varietal makeup, but rather by their rating on the so-called 100-point scale, popularized during the 20th century but inexplicably still finding traction in lesser-evolved pockets of the U.S. wine scene today.

Dr. Isiah B. Wright — who holds degrees in medicine, enology, viticulture, psychology and statistics — revealed his research yesterday at a news conference where he also announced he is not initiating a class-action suit. Wright explained that the presence of cooties is fortunately limited to wines that have been rated 90 points or higher, and is not as pernicious or contagious as it can be in elementary schools and summer camps.

Symptoms of cooties

Symptoms of cooties transmission from wine to humans are subtle, and mostly psychological rather than systemic. “Given that said ratings are purported to provide guidance, and in turn confidence, in the drinker, the 90-point wines are particularly risky,” Wright continued. “Exposure to too many could leave imbibers with subconscious anxiety, a creeping doubt, if you will, that their own taste in wine is merely pedestrian.”

He went on to explain that, unfortunately, 90-point wines are “about 9 cents a dozen these days,” and thanks to complicity of online and traditional retailers too lazy or too unsure of their own palates to review wines themselves, these ratings have proliferated to the point where exposure is difficult to avoid.

Of course, cooties in humans under the age of 10 are fairly easily treated; once cooties are contracted on the playground, a four-finger squeeze applied within one day by a merciful peer does the trick. In adults, Wright said he knows of two treatments: “The first thing people can do, as a prophylactic measure, is to immediately reject the usage of any wine ratings outside their original habitat, i.e., in the pages of magazines that no one actually reads anyway. This is quite easy, actually. Wine ratings derived almost exclusively by middle-aged men sampling 20 wines at a pop ‘blind’ and without a crumb of food — who would consider their advice useful in real life, where people, food and context are in play?”

The second, he explained, is even simpler: “Pour yourself some wine of the masses — a crisp dry rosé, a humble Prosecco, a refreshing sangria. Go tap a box wine, pound some Pinot Grigio or share a magnum of Merlot. And then — are you listening? — add some food. Adds 10 points to every wine, every time” — especially on April 1.

Main photo: California’s wine woes continue to mount. Credit: Copyright iStockPhoto/Avalon_Studio

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The staff at Rhinegeist Brewery in Cincinnati. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rhinegeist Brewery

Craft beer now outsells Budweiser in the U.S. With two to three craft breweries opening every day across America, every region of the country now has craft bragging rights. The top-selling new craft beers come from breweries located in some unexpected small towns and cities. Find the one closest to you. Source: IRI-tracked supermarket sales.

The reporting for this story is part of a Zester Media project on craft beer, spirits and cider. Look for our book — “Start Your Own Microbrewery, Distillery or Cidery” — due out from Entrepreneur Books in June. It will be available on Amazon and in bookstores everywhere.


More from Zester Daily:

» American brewing steams along with crafts

» 12 beers that make you want to pack your bags

» The local malt issue that can change craft brewing

» Great American Festival finds: 9 craft beers you shouldn’t miss

Main photo: The staff at Rhinegeist Brewery in Cincinnati. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rhinegeist Brewery

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Foraging basket with wild greens asparagus and dock. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Spring has finally lifted her sleepy head, and while your garden veggies may not yet be ready to harvest, there are edible wild greens popping up all over that will enable you to enjoy the fresh foods you are craving.

Wild plants are hardy and can handle the weather swings that often come with spring. Take a few minutes to look at the ground, and you may be surprised at how many tasty edibles are right at your feet.

Just make certain to follow the three golden rules of foraging. First, never eat any plant you’ve not identified with certainty. Second, don’t eat anything you suspect has been sprayed or grows in contaminated areas. And finally, harvest sustainably, with an eye to the greater environment. Grab a local guidebook, and see how many of these wild greens of spring you can add to you kitchen.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Dandelion, the iconic weed, may be one of the most versatile in the kitchen, as it can be eaten root to tip. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Dandelion, the iconic weed, may be one of the most versatile in the kitchen, as it can be eaten root to tip. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Sure, you already knew you could eat the leaves of these familiar wild greens, may have even seen them at the grocery store, but did you know that every part of the dandelion is edible?

You can cook the root like you would a carrot, if it is tender enough. If the root is tough, it can be chopped, dried, roasted, and enjoyed as a coffee-like beverage. The crown of dandelion, where the leaves meet the taproot can be a delightful vegetable, cooked and eaten as a side dish, or thrown into stir-fries.

The flowers can be put straight into salads for a pop of color and bitterness, or fried into fritters. Even the long flower stalks can be boiled like noodles, if you have enough on hand.

My favorite dandelion recipe is to prepare a pizza with a salt-and-pepper garlic crust, baked with prosciutto, cheese and eggs, and graced with a generous handful of raw dandelion leaves once it emerges from the oven.

Mustards (multiple genera)

Wild mustards, relatives of broccoli and kale, bring zest and bitterness to recipes. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Wild mustards, relatives of broccoli and kale, bring zest and bitterness to recipes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Wild plants in the Brassicaceae family are botanically related to some of the most common commercial vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, turnips and kale. Wild mustard plants sometimes have a stronger flavor than their grocery store cousins, but you can use that to your advantage by pairing them with equally strong flavors.

Locally, I use musk mustard (Chorispora tenella) in much the same way as arugula, enjoying it with a bold blue cheese dressing as salad or stuffed into sandwiches. Another favorite is white top mustard (Lepidium draba), which stands in nicely for broccoli rabe in the classic pasta dish with sausage.

The trick with mustard plants is often in knowing at what stage to eat them for best flavor, which is something you can find out from your local guidebook. The great advantage of wild mustards is that they are often invasive in nature and can be harvested in large quantities.

Dock (Rumex spp.)

If you like the lemony flavor of sorrel, you may well enjoy dock, which can substituted for spinach in all of your favorite recipes. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

If you like the lemony flavor of sorrel, you may well enjoy dock, which can substituted for spinach in all of your favorite recipes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Dock can often be recognized by its tall fruiting stalk, which turns rust-colored when it dries out. If you’ve got dock nearby, seek out its newly unfurled leaves, staying away from any that are touched with red or purple, which may indicate bitterness. Because of its high oxalic acid content, dock is best enjoyed cooked.

Lovers of sorrel will immediate recognize a similar lemony green taste in dock. It makes a very nice last minute addition to all manner of soups, and is also a natural in egg dishes.

Knotweed (Fallopia japonica, F. sachalinensis, and F. bohemica)

Invasive knotweed looks a bit like asparagus when it is newly emerged, the best time for harvest. Its hollow shoots are tart and tangy, somewhat like rhubarb. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Invasive knotweed looks a bit like asparagus when it is newly emerged, the best time for harvest. Its hollow shoots are tart and tangy, somewhat like rhubarb. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

In most places outside of Asia, knotweed is considered unwelcome, even pernicious. It has taken a stronghold in several areas of U.S. Because it is reviled as an invasive, you must take great care to harvest knotweed from a place you are certain has not been sprayed. But if you find a clean area to harvest knotweed, you will be able to snap off the earliest growth of this plant and take advantage of its tart flavor.

The hollow shoots of these wild greens make an excellent crisp pickle, or can be cooked into savory sauces to be paired with game meat. Knotweed can also stand in any place you’d use rhubarb. Take care not to put trimming from knotweed into your compost, so as not to further spread it.

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)

Asparagus is an excellent plant to begin your foraging journey, because it looks identical to that which can be purchased at the store. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Asparagus is an excellent plant to begin your foraging journey, because it looks identical to that which can be purchased at the store. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

 

One of the kings of wild spring foods, you can stalk the wild asparagus just like outdoorsman Euell Gibbons did. The asparagus that grows wild in the U.S. is actually the same species sold in stores. It escaped from gardens at some point, and is technically considered feral for that reason.

The key to finding asparagus in the wild is learning to recognize the bushy yellow-gold color of the previous year’s plants. Once you have that pattern down, old fence lines, former farm land and irrigation ditches are often your best bet for finding asparagus.

Main photo: Foraging basket with asparagus and dock. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

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Some of Colomé’s oldest Malbec vines, planted in the mid-19th century and grown on pergolas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Malbec is to Argentina as the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco: impossible to imagine one without the other. Yet this deeply colored, exuberant purple grape that is automatically associated with Argentina came originally from France. Known as Cot in its original homeland, Cahors, where it continues to play a leading in the wines of that region, it was brought over by French agronomist Michel Pouget in 1852.

But it’s in the vineyards all along the eastern edge of the Andes that the Malbec vine has really found its feet. There are now more than 30,000 hectares (76,000 acres) planted throughout Argentina — six times as much as in its  homeland.

In its adopted home, the grape is celebrated for its ability to make huge quantities of juicy, fruity, uncomplicated red wine at a fair price — perfect for the upcoming barbecue season. But there’s a new wave of Malbecs that merit more than the obligatory char-grilled steak.

On a recent visit to Mendoza and Salta, two of the country’s most significant wine regions, I found (aside from a warm welcome and some gorgeous wines) a buzz of excitement, plenty of experimentation and a firm belief in what has become Argentina’s signature red wine grape.

Per Se Vines

Edy del Popolo inspects the terroir in his vineyard in Gualtallary, in Mendoza’s Valle de Uco. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Edy del Popolo inspects the terroir in his vineyard in Gualtallary, in Mendoza’s Valle de Uco. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Edy del Popolo’s microwinery Per Se Vines has just 1.5 hectares (barely 4 acres) of vineyards in Gualtallary, a top appellation in the Valle de Uco south of Mendoza, and the first harvest was in 2012. Plantings are principally Malbec with a little Cabernet Franc, and wines combine the two in varying proportions.

“I like non-interventionist viticulture” is how del Popolo explains his wine-making philosophy. “I want the place to express itself without my fingerprint showing.”

Per Se Jubileus (mainly Malbec “with a few bunches of Cabernet Franc thrown in”) is a joyous wine with good, ripe tannins, while La Craie (a Malbec-Cab Franc blend) is restrained elegance overlaid with subtle hints of orange and lemon zest.

Montechez

Montechez vineyards in Altamira at the foot of the Andes, protected from hail by netting and equipped with drip irrigation. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Montechez vineyards in Altamira at the foot of the Andes, protected from hail by netting and equipped with drip irrigation. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Fincas y Bodegas Montechez is another new venture in Mendoza’s Valle de Uco but on quite a different scale with 100 hectares (250 acres). In the prime appellation of Altamira, serried ranks of newly planted vines — every row drip-irrigated and draped in anti-hail netting — stretch as far as the eye can see, framed by the snowcapped Andes.

The aptly named Vivo is a bright, lively Malbec, briefly aged in used French and American oak barrels and designed for early drinking. Reserva is discreet and elegant after a slightly longer spell in used barrels, while Limited Edition, with 16 months in all French oak (new and used), is the aristocrat, dark and brooding and promising a long and distinguished life.

Lagarde

A collection of Lagarde Malbec and Cabernet Franc bottles in the winery shop in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

A collection of Lagarde Malbec and Cabernet Franc bottles in the winery shop in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

The Lagarde estate in Luján de Cuyo comprises about 245 hectares (619 acres), including a parcel of 100-year-old Malbec vines. Founded in 1897 and one of the oldest wineries in Mendoza, it nonetheless looks resolutely forward — “Honoring the past, imagining the future” is the house motto, explained Sofia Pescarmona, who runs the estate jointly with her sister, Lucila.

They were the first in Argentina to introduce Viognier, the aromatic Rhone white. Their house pink, 50 percent Malbec and 50 percent Pinot Noir, is a delight with all the fruit and fragrance that’s missing from many a rosé. On the Malbec front, there’s a whole slew of juicy 100 percent varietals (Primeras Viñas, Guarda, Lagarde and Altas Cumbres ). For a special occasion, look for the super-elegant blend Henry Gran Guarda, a very Bordelais mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.

Bodega Colomé

Colomé vineyard manager Andrés Hoy explains the importance of terroir in wine making. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Colomé vineyard manager Andrés Hoy explains the importance of terroir in wine making. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Bodega Colomé is hidden away up a bone-shaking track in a remote and spectacularly beautiful valley in the northwestern province of Salta, close to the Bolivian border. Wine growing here, at 2,300 meters (7,000 feet) above sea level in desert-like conditions with an annual rainfall of barely 120 millimeters (4 inches), is not for the fainthearted.

Established in 1831 and now owned by Hess Family Wine Estates, Colomé produces several whites, including Salta’s signature wine Torrontés and three Malbecs: Estate, a Malbec-rich wine with a small proportion of other red varieties; Auténtico, 100 percent Malbec, unoaked and unfiltered with rich red fruit flavors; and Reserva, made with fruit from vines aged between 60 and 150 years, with a two-year spell in new French oak barrels and one more in bottle.

Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya

Arnaldo Etchart, joint owner of Bodega San Pedro Yacochuya, in his vineyards above Salta's Calchaquí Valley, Salta Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Arnaldo Etchart, joint owner of Bodega San Pedro Yacochuya, in his vineyards above Salta’s Calchaquí Valley. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya is a boutique winery in Salta’s Calchaquí Valley, a joint venture between the Etchart family and French winemaker Michel Rolland. The estate’s 20 hectares (50 acres) used to be planted largely with Torrontés, the finely aromatic white grape that thrives in the rarefied altitudes of the northwest. Nowadays Malbec rules, plus Cabernet Sauvignon and a little Tannat.

Ranked by Wine Advocate as one of Argentina’s top five wineries (Parker points abound here), they make three impressive reds in which the Rolland fingerprint is clearly visible: opulent and mouth-filling Malbec Yacochuya has a little Cabernet Sauvignon added to the mix and is aged in new oak; San Pedro de Yacochuya is a dense and delicious 100 percent Malbec; and the impressive Yacochuya made from 60-year-old Malbec vines is one to cellar.

Bodega Tukma

Painstaking selection of grapes for Bodega Tukma’s top-of-the-range Gran Corte, before de-stemming and crushing Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Painstaking selection of grapes for Bodega Tukma’s top-of-the-range Gran Corte, before de-stemming and crushing
Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

José Louis Mounier, one of Salta’s most celebrated winemakers with an impressive track record working for many of the region’s top wineries, is responsible for wine making at Bodega Tukma in Tolombón, south of Cafayate. The estate has about 25 hectares (62 acres) of vineyards scattered throughout the Calchaquí Valley, with red wine production centred on Tolombón.

The entry-level Malbec Reserva is an uncomplicated, fruit-forward Malbec that’s perfect with a plate of empanadas, while Gran Corte, a blend with Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon for which the grapes are rigorously selected and the wine aged for one year in new French oak, calls for your best piece of bife (steak).

Consult www.wine-searcher.com for worldwide availability and prices of all wines mentioned.

Main photo: Some of Colomé’s oldest Malbec vines, planted in the mid-19th century and grown on pergolas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

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A platter of

Of all the influences on Spain’s distinctive culinary style, it was the Arab impact of bringing the spice azafrán or saffron known as “red gold” to the Spanish table that infuses Spanish cooking with its classic deep yellow color and slightly musky, rich taste.

For many American cooks like myself, saffron is still surrounded in a bit of mystery. The three-pronged stigma from the center of a saffron flower, at almost $20 a gram, it’s super-pricey. It has an aroma and flavor that hovers between floral and bitter citrus with metallic undertones. And like extra virgin olive oil, its somewhat dodgy history of fraud and adulteration serves as yet another culinary example of all that glitters is not necessarily gold.

When I returned from a trip to Spain 15 years ago, the customs official discovered three precious glass vials of saffron buried deep in my suitcase. With a raised eyebrow and a slight shrug, he waved me through. I stashed it away like my grandmother’s heirloom jewelry, anxiously waiting for the perfect recipe to showcase these dark red-orange threads, unknowingly saving it well past its prime. Because like other spices, saffron is best when fresh and does not improve with age.

Recently, I traveled back to the La Mancha region of Spain. While it might be best known for its iconic windmills and hapless hero Don Quixote, it was the acres and acres of inches-tall small crocus flowers that I was after. As a guest of Verdú Cantó, one of the largest saffron distributors in Spain, I spent the morning with Rodolfo Encarnación Marin, manager of the Corporacion de Operadores de Azafrán Español, deep in the heart of Spain’s saffron country, to learn all I could about this quintessential Spanish ingredient known as the world’s most expensive spice.

While saffron may be the world’s most expensive spice, used properly these exquisite red-orange threads are worth every dollar. Here’s are a couple of pointers to help you make the most of a very wise investment:

  • Always buy saffron in thread form, not powder, which is known to be easier to adulterate with other spices like turmeric.
  • Look for a Spanish D.O. (denominación de origen) and production date on the label to ensure best quality.
  • Before adding to most recipes, grind it gently between your fingers and rehydrate with a bit of very hot water. You might be advised to roast it to bring out the flavor but if it’s truly fresh this will diminish, not enhance, its subtle aromas.
  • Use a deft and light hand. Fortunately, just a few threads of saffron add a slightly smoky aroma of tobacco and cedar, a luscious flavor infused with undercurrents of pepper and citrus, and brilliant red-orange color.
  • Saffron is equally at home in dishes from savory paellas to sweet intensely flavored ice cream. Don’t be afraid to experiment — you will be rewarded with a unique twist on traditional tastes that add a bit of Spanish mystery to your menu.

Note: The best, most reliable shop I know to source saffron is the Spanish specialty online store www.latienda.com.

Main photo: A platter of “Spanish gold” — freshly harvested saffron threads in Albacete, Spain, before drying. Credit: Copyright Caroline J. Beck

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Polenta cake makes a healthy breakfast option. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman

Cake. It’s what’s for breakfast.

And why not? Some studies show that a high carbohydrate and high protein breakfast actually helps people shed pounds. So it turns out your Marie Antoinette breakfast need not be a guilty pleasure. You can actually have your cake and lose weight, too.

In fact, this easy one-bowl take on the classic Italian Amor Polenta cake of Lombardy is far healthier than most processed breakfast cereals — full of the wholesome goodness of corn, butter, eggs and almonds. Flavored with citrus zest and apple eau-de-vie, and served with berries, it’s a satisfying breakfast that will keep you going all day long.

While cornmeal can be made from just about any variety of dent corn, the older heirloom varieties such as Mandan Bride, Floriani Red and Painted Mountain are superior in taste. Now that locally grown and locally milled grains are enjoying a renaissance across the U.S., you can probably find delicious and nutritious corn grown by someone near you. And if you want the freshest and most nutritious cornmeal possible, you can even invest in a countertop grain mill.

If you don’t have a source of freshly ground corn, just about any store-bought cornmeal will be fine in this cake, whether it says polenta on the package or not. But if you want to make the traditional Amor Polenta or Dolce Varese, look for the finely ground farina di mais fioretto or the even more refined farina di mais fumetto.

Although this cake has butter, eggs and sugar, as any good cake must, it is not a butter bomb or a sugar rush. Rather it’s a not-too-rich, not-too-sweet slice of perfection — just right as an accompaniment to your morning tea or coffee. So say goodbye to processed cereals and hello to healthy polenta cake for breakfast.

Healthy Breakfast Polenta Cake

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: One (8- or 9-inch) loaf cake, about 10 servings

Ingredients

2 sticks (8 ounces) butter

3/4 cup sugar

Zest of one lemon

Zest of one orange

3 eggs

3 tablespoons apple brandy, amaretto, or other liqueur

1/2 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia (or vanilla or almond extract)

1 cup cornmeal

1 3/4 cup almond flour

1/3 cup unbleached wheat flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a loaf pan and dust with cornmeal.

2. Put the butter, sugar, and lemon and orange zest in a mixing bowl and beat until light and fluffy. Then add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition, and scraping down the sides of the mixing bowl.

3. Beat in the liqueur and Fiori di Sicilia or other flavoring.

4. In a separate bowl, stir together the dry ingredients: the polenta, almond flour, wheat flour, baking powder and salt.

5. While the mixer is running at low speed, slowly add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture until just combined.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake until a lovely aroma comes from the oven, and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes

7. Let cool in the pan for about 1/2 hour, and then loosen the cake from the sides of the pan with a knife and tip it out onto a rack to cool completely.

8. Slice and serve with fresh fruit, or frozen fruit or fruit jam you may have from last summer.

Main photo: Breakfast polenta cake. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman

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Researchers at Cambridge University have shown that pigs are as clever as 3-year-old toddlers, and they have a well-developed sense of self, a trait once thought to be limited to humans and great apes. Credit: iStock

When I told my partner that I was writing a book about pork, she asked: “Does this mean I’m going to have to give up bacon?”

I spent two years trying to answer that question. I visited a pig farmer who raised 150,000 animals annually in warehouse-like confinement barns, and a Mennonite who raised a few dozen on open pasture. I spent an afternoon in a slaughterhouse that killed and processed 20,000 hogs a day, and spent a day at a boutique abattoir that handled 30, and I spoke to dozens of people in 12 states whose lives had been affected by Big Pig.


“Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat”
By Barry Estabrook, W.W. Norton, 2015, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book


My partner and I still eat bacon, but not if it comes from a factory farm. Here’s why:

Animal welfare

Pigs are kept in crates in a factory farm.

On factory farms, these intelligent creatures are kept in barren stalls with hard, slatted floors with nothing to stimulate their minds. Credit: iStock

I knew that pigs were smart, but I had no idea how smart — much more intelligent than man’s best friends. Researchers at Cambridge University have shown that pigs are as clever as 3-year-old humans. Experimental pigs can be taught to play computer games. Hogs can adjust thermostats to keep their pens at comfy temperatures. Pigs have a well-developed sense of self, a trait once thought to be limited to humans and great apes. On factory farms, these intelligent creatures are kept in barren stalls with hard, slatted floors with nothing to stimulate their minds. I will never forget the chilling sight of 1,500 sows in a low, dark barn in crates that were so small that they could not turn around.

Environmental damage

Agricultural pollutants can poison water and earth.

The manure from hog farms poison nearby rivers, killing fish. Credit: Copyright 2014 Courtesy of Iowa CCI

I stood on a bridge over the Middle Raccoon River in central Iowa and watched vast floes of brownish foam drift on the current. They were the result of liquid hog manure that had been washed by rains into the river. The Raccoon is a source of drinking water for a half million citizens of Des Moines, who have to pay $1 million a year just to remove agricultural pollutants from their water. The same water flows into the Mississippi, contributing to a Connecticut-sized oxygen-depleted dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, where no fish can survive.

In North Carolina, the once-pristine Neuse River, now polluted from hog farms, experiences regular die-offs with billions of fish turning belly up in putrid masses. American Rivers, an environmental group, lists the Neuse as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the United States.

Hog farms also pollute the air. I sat with Elsie Herring in her small frame home in eastern North Carolina as she described not being able to mow the lawn, hang laundry or even sit outside on a summer’s evening because of the stench that (literally) rains down from a neighboring pig operation. And this is no quaintly rural whiff of manure. Sophisticated air monitoring equipment set up by Steve Wing of the University of North Carolina revealed that Herring and her neighbors were inhaling poisonous hydrogen sulfide. They experience difficulty breathing and have developed high blood pressure.

Labor abuse

The rate of injury has soared for slaughterhouse workers. Credit: iStock

The rate of injury has soared for slaughterhouse workers. Credit: iStock

For 13 years, Ortencia Rios worked at a pork-packing plant. She was an exemplary employee. But after her hands gave out, her shoulder rotator cuff tore, and she developed carpel tunnel syndrome — all because of the job — the company told her there was no work for her, according to Rios. During the past 30 years, the wages of slaughterhouse workers have gone into free fall, dropping by 40 percent. The rate of injury has soared. Human Rights Watch declared that the United States is “failing to meet its obligations under international human rights standards to protect the human rights of meat and poultry workers.”

Drug-resistant bacteria

Antibiotics used in livestock feed are giving rise to antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), seen above. Credit: iStock

Antibiotics used in livestock feed are giving rise to antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), seen above. Credit: iStock

In 2004, Everly Macario’s 18-month-old son died a painful death after being infected by bacteria that were resistant to every antibiotic doctors administered. There’s a good chance that the germs that killed the toddler evolved on a pig farm. Four out of five hogs raised in the United States are fed constant low levels of antibiotics — to prevent, not cure infections — a perfect recipe for bacteria to develop resistance.

Food safety

USDA inspector examines pork meat at a swine processing plant. Credit:  Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

USDA inspector examines pork meat at a swine processing plant. Credit: Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

When Jim Schrier, who worked as a USDA inspector at a 10,000-animal-a-day pork slaughterhouse in Iowa, began to report unsanitary conditions such as carcasses with hair and feces on them or with cancerous tumors and pus-filled abscesses, Schrier said he was promptly “reassigned” to a slaughterhouse two hours away from his home — an impossible commute. The USDA’s own inspector general reported that there is a reduced assurance that government inspectors effectively identify “pork that should not enter the food supply.”

Taste

Pork from a pastured, heritage pig tastes better.

Most supermarket pork looks like the real thing but possesses none of the gastronomic qualities of pork that comes from a pastured, heritage pig. Credit: iStock

One bite of a chop from a pastured, heritage pig is enough to convince. Like January tomatoes, most supermarket pork looks like the real thing but possesses none of its gastronomic qualities. Good pork costs more than factory stuff, but enjoying great meat while not supporting an industry guilty of more than its share of travesties is well worth the price. But be warned: Once you try real pork, you probably won’t go back to the other white meat.

Main photo: Researchers at Cambridge University have shown that pigs are as clever as 3-year-old toddlers, and they have a well-developed sense of self, a trait once thought to be limited to humans and great apes. Credit: iStock

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