So what’s a gal to do when she’s spent her whole adult life as an organic farmer passionately promoting the benefits of organic food, and then she spends a weekend in the Hamptons with her in-laws and finds out that the neighboring farm — the one with the great little produce stand selling just-picked very sweet corn, crisp string beans and amazing vine-ripe tomatoes — is conventional? Well, the truth is that I ended up buying three big bags of their delicious vegetables. We cooked it up and enjoyed it, but I felt unsettled and perturbed.
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Was I wrong to support a conventional farm that uses petroleum-based fertilizers and toxic chemical pesticides because it was right down the road from my in-laws’ house? It didn’t feel better to fight peak summer traffic and drive to the mall to shop at the supermarket that had an organic produce section. I doubted those supermarket veggies would hold a candle to the farm stand’s bounty.
The truth is, I wish that I hadn’t had to make such a hard choice. If the local farm was organic, the decision would have been simple, and I would have felt 100% great about the meal our family enjoyed.
But taste and freshness are so important when you want to cook a delicious meal, and eating local food makes me feel grounded and connected to the unique environment and community I’m visiting. I love eating food harvested nearby, so fresh that it still smells like the earth it grew in. But that enjoyment is marred by knowing that the armful of corn I’m carrying away from the field had probably been sprayed with a dangerous chemical.
Come winter, residents and visitors in the Hamptons will be buying their produce at that supermarket in the mall, and I’m thrilled that they’ll be able to choose from organic options. Every time someone purchases organic instead of conventional, it creates a positive feedback loop: the store stocks more organic food, demand for organic items increase, and eventually more land is transitioned to organic methods. Right now, less than 1% of the farmland in the U.S. is being farmed organically, so this conversion is extremely important.
Don’t assume small, local farms are organic
Many people assume that all family-run local farms use safe, sustainable methods to grow their food. In truth, most conventional farms — large ones and small ones — rely on virtually the same potent arsenal of toxic herbicides, fumigants and insecticides, as well as synthetic chemical fertilizers. These chemicals pollute our water, damage our soil, and often leave residues on the food we eat. They are also unhealthy for farmworkers, surrounding wildlife and those who live, work and go to school nearby.
We need local farmers to thrive if we’re going to preserve our farmland and have convenient access to fresh-picked produce that inspires us to eat more fruits and vegetables, and to prepare more delicious home-cooked meals. But we want our local farmers to go organic so that their produce is as healthy as possible for our families, our neighborhood, and our environment.
At my local farmers market in Monterey, Calif., there are so many stalls it’s easy to buy my peaches from an organic farmer. Even if there are days when the conventional ones look a little better and cost less, I still choose organic. I want the conventional growers to see how long the lines are for organic items and eventually deduce that giving organic a try might be a good business decision, despite the challenges and additional costs involved. People willing to pay a premium for organic food creates that incentive.
Converting conventional farms one at a time
Over my three decades in the organic farming business, I’ve seen many conventional farmers transformed into organic farming advocates. When they stop using chemicals, they begin to see their soil come alive. They see it’s possible to grow beautiful produce in cooperation with nature, and that their yields increase over time. We can influence this transformation by choosing organic whenever we shop, and by letting our local farmers know we prefer our food produced without any synthetic chemicals, and that we’re willing to pay more for it.
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if next time I visited my in-laws I learned that the farm next door was converting to organic, and I didn’t have to worry that there were chemicals on my produce or being sprayed so close by?
Top photo: Myra Goodman. Credit: Sara Remington
Mexico City’s unusual Mercado San Juan is my favorite market in the world. And I’ve seen many — the exquisite Marché d’Aligre in Paris’ 11th with its roasting geese and fresh oysters, the bustling über-Mediterranean Bocarías in Barcelona and Bangkok’s eye-popping Or Tor Kor with its fragrant vats of curries. The shellfish in Santiago de Compostela’s modernized 17th century venue jump out at you as you pass by. But our beloved Mercado San Juan, 20 minutes from where I live, feeds me. I go at least once a week.
To misquote Mark Twain, I’ve never met a market I didn’t like and Mexican markets are great: aromas are heady; the feast is visual and visceral. Along with a huge variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, they offer meat, poultry and fish sold the old-fashioned way, cut and prepared to order. A stand or two invariably deal in chilies, spices and moles. There are flowers, pottery and baskets. And some of the best food can be eaten in the comedores, food stalls.
Premium goods draw international shoppers
This tradition of providing the highly demanding with premium products continues today. The San Juan is known as a place where the finest quality meat, fish and produce can be procured along with imported, locally grown and hard-to-find ingredients. Amateur and professional chefs frequent the aisles along with a few guidebook-toting tourists. Many shoppers are of Spanish origin, descendants of the Franco-era exiles. French, Italians, Americans and Asians also make the pilgrimage to this beacon of fine food.
As an amateur chef, I never know what I’ll bring home from San Juan. Maybe a plump yellow duck from Michoacán, or an exemplary rack of lamb from Hidalgo. Perhaps Pescadería Alicia will have some glistening scallops on the half shell or shiny metallic-colored sardines. I usually go with a plan: Tonight will be mussels a la Provençal followed by a scaloppini with fresh porcini. But I might end up with a guinea hen and a bunch of tiny artichokes.
Oyster, cheese and tortilla soup
The vendors are my friends. I stop to chat with the López boys at Gastronómica San Juan and sample their latest artisanal goat, cow and sheep cheeses from the state of Querétaro, accompanied by a complimentary glass of Rioja — nobody cares about liquor licenses here. I might down a couple of oysters at El Puerto de Santander. Or, if it’s lunch hour, I’ll join other vendors and shoppers at Doña Juana’s lunch stall, one of the best fondas in the city. She’ll serve up a garlicky tortilla soup, creamy black beans over rice, pork in a brick-red guajillo salsa and an agua de piña — all for 35 pesos (about $2.70 U.S.).
In addition to the standard Mexican market goods — chilies, standard vegetables, chickens, pork, etc., all kinds of locally grown, exotic meats, fruits and vegetables can be found here.
Gastronómica San Juan and its neighbor La Jersey stock the best Epoisses, Torta de Casar and Pecorino along with local cheeses. La Catalana reproduces the aged and smoked sausages of Catalonia, and very well.
From shrimp to barnacles
Pescadería Alicia sells piles of mussels, clams and squid that are usually not available at other markets. There are unusual varieties of fish, like the scaly fresh water pejelagarto from Chiapas, huge, brilliant silvery whole tunas from the Pacific and amazingly big shrimp either in or out of the shell. I’ve seen Spaniard’s eyes pop when they see the hideous but delicious percebes (barnacles) from the Pacific Coast at a fraction of the price of the old country. They are Spain’s and consequently Mexico’s gustatory secret, tasting like the offspring of an oyster and a scallop.
In the meat section (if you can stomach the piles of sacrificed cabritos – kid goats — and bunnies) shoppers can pick up an armadillo for a soirée with a pre-Hispanic theme. Sometimes venison and jabalí (wild boar) hang from the rafters. Perhaps more tempting are fresh farm turkeys, tiny quail and the aforementioned ducks, whose limp heads hang over the counter — you know they’re fresh, at least. Around holidays, Christmas and Easter in particular, the selection increases to include geese, pheasants (with the feathers on, just like in France) and other game.
Hard to find Asian produce available
Well-stocked Asian vegetable stands, the only ones in the whole country, cater to flocks of immigrants as well as people like me who want bitter melon, long beans, okra, baby bok choy and pea shoots. Many of these vegetables are grown in Mexico for export to Asian communities abroad.
San Juan’s “gourmet” produce stalls, meanwhile, offer such hard-to-get greens as crinkly kale and Savoy cabbage, tiny haricots verts and yellow wax beans, celeriac (outlandishly expensive, so only if you must have celerie remolade), tiny peas, shelled favas and sweet potatoes.
At the renowned Doña Guadalupe’s mushrooms stand, a variety of fresh wild mushrooms are sold during the rainy season, June to October. I always see French customers madly stashing chanterelles and morels, happy to pay 100 pesos instead of 100 euros. Dried versions are available all year around.
As many middle class Mexicans head to the supermarket and club-type chains, traditional markets continue to lose customers — don’t get me going. But the San Juan shows no signs of slowing down. It’s the jewel of Mexico’s markets.
Nicholas Gilman is a founding member of a Mexican chapter of Slow Food International, the author of “Good Food in Mexico City: A Guide to Food Stalls, Fondas and Fine Dining” and served as editor and photographer for the book “Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler.” He has a website, goodfoodmexicocity.com and has appeared extensively on radio and TV in the U.S. and Mexico. He lives in Mexico City.
Top photo: La Jersey stall at Mercado San Juan.
Photo and slide show credit: Nicholas Gilman
The local food movement, already a difficult undertaking in Alaska, has moved from solids to liquids. An abundance of breweries, a meadery and even a winery spill across the state, but one of the few that uses only local ingredients is Truuli Peak Vodka.
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Named for the tallest mountain on south central Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, Truuli Peak has only three ingredients: water, barley and honey. These might seem plain, but the raw ingredients are some of the purest you will find. The water is glacial melt from Eklutna Lake; the filtered version is Anchorage’s drinking water.
The honey comes from the Alaska Honey Man, whose bees feed on the wildflowers of the Chugach Mountains. The barley is grown in Delta Junction, 95 miles south of Fairbanks.
Co-founder Jeremy Loyer was committed from the start to crafting a vodka made from local ingredients, but barley was not his original choice. When he and partner Kyle Ryan started Truuli Peak five years ago, they used potatoes from land his parents leased to a spud farmer in Alaska’s fertile Matanuska-Susitna Valley. But after completing an internship with Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane, Wash., Loyer was persuaded to switch to barely.
“Potatoes only have a 9% yield per pound,” he said. “Plus, they’re big and dirty and they need special equipment to clean and smash them. Barley has a roughly 40% yield per pound and is much easier to work with.”
Using Alaska’s raw resources
Though Loyer and Ryan created Truuli Peak five years ago, they have been selling vodka for less than two years; the first release was in October 2011. Loyer had fortunately secured startup money through an entrepreneurial grant with the University of Alaska, which allowed him and Ryan to develop a strong product.
“Our goal was always to be local,” he said. “The raw products are very important to us.”
Loyer points out that vodka can be made with anything that has a starch content, and some companies even use ethanol.
“Our labels say 95% grain, 5% honey,” he explains. “If you see a label that reads ’100% neutral grain spirits,’ the producers may not even have a still.” The raw ingredients are what make Truuli Peak a premium spirit, and having them locally sourced is really just a bonus.
Loyer becomes animated when discussing not only what he calls the “mouth feel” of the vodka, but also of the glacier water with which it is made. They originally used filtered water, but the unfiltered version is far superior. The difference is like night and day, Loyer said. The water is collected and trucked to Anchorage in 375-gallon tanks.
Truuli Peak is distinct for its soft floral notes. It is slightly sweeter than other vodkas, and finishes smoothly. There is no need to chill this vodka; Loyer prefers it at room temperature.
The process for creating Truuli Peak Vodka is fairly straightforward. Barley and honey are fed into three large fermenters, where a mash ferments for three days. The results of the fermentation are basically an 8% beer. The 8% alcohol is removed and sent to a still for its first distillation. That product then moves to the rectifying run, which is responsible for purification. In this 24-foot-tall tank, the liquid is cooled to make it hard for the distillate to become vapor. From there it’s on to the mixing tanks, where it is frozen to separate impurities, and finally raised to 60 degrees for optimum bottling.
Currently, Truuli Peak is bottled on site. You can find it across Alaska, Oregon and, most recently, New York.
Top photo: Alaska’s Eklutna Lake. Credit: Frank Kovalchek / Flickr
I love chomping into a chunk of crusty, crunchy bread. There is nothing like a freshly baked loaf that is soft and springy in the middle with a crust so hard it cracks when you bite into it. I often think of this kind of bread as San Francisco-style bread because that’s where I first ate it, although it can be found across the globe. I even bought a Le Creuset cast-iron pot expressly for the purpose of making it at home.
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As much as I love eating this kind of bread, I’d always found an excuse to avoid baking it myself. About the time I decided that this beautiful little pot would never, ever see a loaf of bread baking inside it, I discovered the Los Angeles Bread Bakers and attended a workshop that has radically changed my attitude toward bread baking.
The Los Angeles Bread Bakers is the kind of organization I admire because it is full of community spirit and knowledgeable members, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The hosts of the workshop were Erik Knutzen and his wife Kelly Coyne. Together they run rootsimple.com and have written a number of great how-to books including “The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City.” So I figured why not dedicate an afternoon to hanging out with Knutzen and Coyne and making some bread.
I already knew how to make bread, just not this particular kind of bread. I grew up in the South where bread is wonderful, but something entirely different. Where I come from, bread is soft throughout, slightly sweet, and topped with melted butter. It may be brown or white, but it never has the crunchy, crackly crust that I admired.
Many of the workshop participants were also experienced bakers who shared my motivation for attending the workshop. We all wanted to learn how to bake this crusty bread, but perhaps even more important we wanted to hang out with other people who really like to make bread and really like to talk about it.
As it turns out, this is pretty much how The Los Angeles Bread Bakers got started. Knutzen, Mark Stambler and Teresa Sitz founded the group in 2011. I knew of Stambler because of his tireless campaign to persuade state lawmakers to pass the new California Homemade Food Act. Often known as the Cottage Food Law, it will open up a new world for home bakers looking to get into the food business.
When I asked Knutzen about the origins of LABB, he laughed and said, “I knew Teresa because she stalked me. Teresa and I were stalking Mark because we wanted to meet him and see his bread-making operation.”
The idea for LABB was born at Mark’s kitchen table. Its mission is to bring bread culture to Los Angeles and to introduce Angelenos to the many forms bread can take. To that end, the group has been host to workshops on a wide variety of topics including beginning bread baking, sourdough breads, soba noodles, pie crust and pizza making. They’ve even had a workshop on how to build your own adobe oven.
Membership in LABB also has privileges beyond learning great bread-making techniques. LABB’s almost 600 members are able to participate in bulk orders from high-end mills that grind flours using heritage wheat and other hard-to-find, but amazingly delicious grains.
Getting down to business in class
Our class began with an introduction to this type of bread, which is based on Jim Lahey’s now-famous recipe for “No-Knead Bread.” I always thought that bread was made or destroyed in the kneading process, but as we started to measure ingredients, Erik told us, “You have one chance to get it right — when you mix the dough.”
Knutzen showed us how to mix the proper proportion of flour to water, known as the hydration ratio. Just at the point when I started to worry (once again) that I’m not meticulous enough to be a great baker, Coyne chimed in and told us a hilarious story about doing everything wrong and still coming out with a good (or at least perfectly edible) loaf of bread.
Once mixed, the dough is left to rise for 18 hours, which is much longer than a traditional bread recipe. We all left the workshop with a bowl full of dough ready to rise in our own homes. The next day my family and I enjoyed a loaf of fresh-baked bread. It was not particularly gorgeous, but as crunchy and crackly as any I’d ever tasted in San Francisco.
The LABB is exactly what I’m looking for in a group because it encourages experimentation and breeds enthusiasm. Now LABB is taking its project to the next level. They’re growing their own wheat on a few acres in Agoura Hills, Calif. If all goes well, the wheat will be ready in early summer and milled into flour for the use and enjoyment of LABB members. As a new member, I can’t wait for the harvest.
Top photo: Boule made with all-purpose flour from Los Angeles Bread Bakers. Credit: Susan Lutz
“California cuisine?” When my friend Evan Kleiman and Santa Monica’s public radio station KCRW dedicated a Sunday afternoon to discussing the topic, I was curious.
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California has a rich and evolving food culture, but a distinctive style of cooking? Hardly.
Turns out I’m not the only naysayer on this topic. On the stage at New Roads School in Santa Monica were three people comfortable with the label sitting next to three folks who clearly weren’t. The difference was written on their faces — three older white faces next to three younger Asian and Latino chefs.
A turn toward fresh ingredients
California was stuck in post-World War II “continental cuisine” muck with the rest of the country, according to San Francisco cookbook author and chef Joyce Goldstein, whose new book, “Inside the California Food Revolution” (University of California Press), provided the background for the sold-out event.
In the mid-1970s, a group of young, largely self-taught California chefs decided to throw out the cream sauce and started building menus around fresh produce. Today the whole country talks about farm-to-table cuisine. The idea, however, said Goldstein, took root here then.
Unfortunately, “the ingredients weren’t here,” said Ruth Reichl, the former Gourmet Magazine editor who, at the time, was a cook in Berkeley.
Michael’s in Santa Monica, the first Los Angeles restaurant promoting “California cuisine,” flew ingredients in from New Zealand to serve produce good enough to take center stage, said Nancy Silverton, the chef behind La Brea Bakery and L.A.’s Osteria Mozza, who worked the cash register at Michael’s when it opened in 1979.
From the earliest days, Reichl said, California’s food revolution was part of an anti-industrial farming political movement. To get the food they wanted to serve, the chefs had to cultivate farmers willing to learn how to grow it.
“The big change — beyond just connecting with farmers — was when restaurants became personal businesses where you knew your purveyors,” said Goldstein. Chefs shared their sources with each other, something she said could not have happened in the secretive world of New York City’s better kitchens.
“We made sensible choices and cooked sensible food,” said Silverton. Formal dining gave way to raucous rooms with open kitchens; waiters dressed in khakis. Going out to dinner became fun.
California’s casual ingredient-driven way of eating spread across the country long ago, but the Mediterranean climate continues to give the state a distinctive edge. “If you go to our farmers markets, on our worst day, our produce is orders of magnitude better than what you have on any day in the Greenmarket in New York City,” said Sang Yoon, chef/owner of L.A.’s Lukshon. “California is all about celebrating that bounty.”
International influences make their mark
The difference is the personal histories of today’s California chefs. The European traditions that underscored the original “California cuisine” have been pushed aside in favor of the richer, spicier flavors familiar to chefs who grew up in immigrant communities.
“I see California beyond the food we cook as chefs and look at the way we grew up,” Kogi taco truck impresario Roy Choi told the audience. “It’s about immigration and how some of our food becomes stronger here.”
Take the taco, Choi said. “A taco from L.A. tastes like a taco from L.A. You can’t duplicate it in New York.” Yet, he added, “Korean food in L.A. is better than what you find in Korea.”
Mexican food has been slow to gain respect, said Chef Eduardo Ruiz. But the critical accolades for his Corazon y Miel in the Los Angeles suburb of Bell is evidence of change. Ruiz said he looks to his grandmother and mother for inspiration.
If he had the chance to start his career over again, Korean-born Yoon said he would skip the years he spent training in the “physically and emotionally abusive” kitchens of France’s top chefs. “I’d embrace my own culture and start there.”
“I’ve never been more proud to say I’m from L.A.,” said Yoon.
The hometown crowd erupted with applause.
“California cuisine” may have been definable back when farm-fresh, casual dining was novel. Today’s California chefs have more interesting stories to tell.
Top photo: Joyce Goldstein and Nancy Silverton discuss California cuisine at a KCRW event in Santa Monica, Calif. Credit: Timothy Norris
Shaun Rein, managing director of the China Market Research Group, is the author of the new release “The End of Cheap China,” which addresses, among other things, food safety and food supply issues in China.
Rein’s research shows that China is having an increasing impact on global food supply and that the Chinese taste for imported Western food is growing as is demand for a reliable and safe food system in that country.
Based in Shanghai, he writes for Forbes and Bloomberg Businessweek. I spoke recently to Rein about his book chapter dedicated to food safety issues in China.
How is the consumer power of the average Chinese changing?
The book is meant to dispel a lot of myths about China’s economy. The first is that Chinese consumers are price-sensitive and cheap. I have a chapter on food safety, where I explain that they’re willing to spend money on healthy and safe food, so if you’re a producer, it’s worth selling into China. For example, Yum! Brands makes over 40 percent of its global revenue in China. So the Chinese consumer is a great consumer for Yum!, McDonald’s, Kraft and any company trying to sell finished products into the country.
It’s also a great country for the agricultural sector: sales of pork and soy are going up 300 to 400 percent a year.
How is this affecting the way the Chinese eat? How has that changed in recent years?
Meat consumption was very low. Meat consumption in China is only about 35 percent that of the United States, So, Americans eat a lot more meat, but that is changing. Chinese doubled (their average per person) meat consumption in the last 30 years. As Chinese consumers are getting wealthier, they’re eating more meats, and (the country’s wealthiest consumers) are actually willing to spend more per capita on meat than (their counterparts do) in the United States.
Are they domestically producing different kinds of foods to meet those demands?
Yeah, what you’re seeing now is massive investment on the domestic side when it comes to beef, when it comes to wine … all kinds of things. But the reality is that China’s food system has a problem: There’s not enough arable land, and the water is heavily polluted. So China is actually going to have to rely on food imports, from the United States especially, and they’re becoming a massive importer of pork, chicken feet, soybeans, pistachios, all kinds of products. These consumers trust American-produced food products more than they do stuff from China. So it’s really a boom for all different industries involved in the food sector. On the lower end and higher end.
Arable land is only 7 percent (of that available around the world), so it’s a serious problem, and it’s only going to get worse going forward.
What are you noticing in terms of the impact on health in the way Chinese are changing their food consumption behaviors?
Right now, consumers are not worried that much about food when it comes to “is it healthy?” towards their overall diet. They’re eating meat, they’re eating fatty food, and they’re not overly concerned about long-term illnesses, which is why you’re seeing rates of heart disease and diabetes skyrocketing.
But people are worried about being healthy from a toxicity standpoint. We interviewed 2,000 consumers in eight cities last year, and the majority said they feel that KFC, for instance, is healthy. They know it’s not healthy in the traditional sense, but people are worried about eating cooking swill oil [that is old, used oil which is filtered of solids and then re-used for cooking] on the streets, and dying right away.
What are the food safety concerns Chinese have, beyond swill oil?
We interviewed 5,000 consumers in 15 cities last year, and their biggest concern in life, ahead of being able to pay for their kid’s education or for medical costs for the family, is actually food and product safety. People are really worried. That’s why brands like Mengniu Dairy are winning, because they’re positioned as higher priced over Nestlé, they’re about 20-30 percent more (expensive), and consumers are willing to fork out the money because they think it’s going to be safe. So Dannon and Nestlé had to shut their factories in Shanghai this year, because they were competing on price and consumers didn’t want their cheap stuff anymore. Consumers find a correlation between safety and price, and feel higher price will be safe. Now I’m not sure that’s necessarily true in reality, but that’s how they equate it.
In your opinion, how are China’s consumption trends affecting the world beyond?
[They are affecting the world] in a few areas. First, China’s become the market to sell into, so a lot of brands need to think about how they’re going to sell to Chinese consumers, especially women, because women are the decision-makers when it comes to food purchases, predominantly, in families.
It’s also going to mean that there’s going to be inflation. In the last three decades, China has really been a deflationary force on the global economy. But because everyone’s getting fat, and wanting to eat more, better quality foods, you’re going to see a pricing strain on global commodity markets. So the world needs to be prepared for global inflation. American consumers better get used to higher prices at Shaw’s, or Tesco or Carrefour or Walmart, around the world.
Will the Chinese agricultural and food production systems have to change?
They absolutely will have to change. It’s an absolute mess, it’s a disaster, and an embarrassment for China to have such a poor food supply system. Though it’s being changed by two things.
The first is, the government understands it needs to do a better job of oversight. So what they’ve done is shut 50 percent of the nation’s dairies last year, for example.
The real change is going to take place by people willing to spend money when they feel that they’re safe. So brands are going to fix their supply chain and cater to these consumers and make money. The scope of the problem is enormous.
Zester Daily contributor Manuela Zoninsein is a Brazilian-American reporting on sustainable food, travel and business from Shanghai. A former dining editor for Time Out Beijing, her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, ClimateWire and Newsweek. She writes about her passion for healthy, interesting and sustainable food at manuelasweb.com.
Photo: Author Shaun Rein. Credit: Courtesy of Shaun Rein
The recall of a half billion eggs from two Iowa agribusinesses, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, because of salmonella contamination is still dominating the news. Earlier last month the news was the withdrawal of a million pounds of E. coli tainted hamburger. That was followed by nearly 400,000 pounds of deli meats infected with listeria. Who knows exactly where the next outbreak will pop up, but it seems certain to come again from the world of industrial animal food products.
Americans have a seemingly insatiable appetite for meat, poultry, dairy and eggs, even as food safety issues increasingly become headline news. What many people are coming to realize, however, is that the majority of these farm animals are no longer raised on the pastures and barnyards of family farms but inside CAFOs: concentrated animal feeding operations. The farming of animals in these crowded, often filthy, factory-like facilities raises a host of health, environmental and ethical concerns. Salmonella is just the tip of the iceberg.
The concept behind the CAFOs is simple: Cram as many animals into the smallest possible space for maximum growth at the least expense. Laying hens and hogs seem to suffer the harshest fate under this system. A conventional laying hen lives out her days in a wire confinement pen called a battery cage. Confined in the cage with a number of other cell mates, she is normally allotted an area little smaller than a cubic foot to live out her short productive life, never experiencing the outdoors, scratching the dirt, naturally socializing or enjoying any privacy to nest. As soon as her productivity declines in a year or two, she is removed from the cage and slaughtered for processing (for pot pies or soups), asphyxiated (because her meat is not worth the expense of processing) or sometimes buried alive and composted. Charles Dickens would have a hard time conjuring a grimmer scenario.
The CAFO industry, some farmers and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture insist that factory-farm systems that house thousands of battery cages in a single building are necessary and even better for the birds and for food safety. It’s certainly true that all food production systems — small, medium, and large; organic, pasture-based and industrial; local, national and international — are prone to risks of contamination. But with tens or hundreds of thousands of animals in close confinement, when something goes wrong inside a CAFO, it can spread far and fast. Contamination can quickly sweep through the integrated production networks of feed and hatcheries, through an animal population and out into the food system. Iowa is a perfect example: Those half a billion recalled eggs came from just two so-called “farms” with 7.5 million hens between them.
Industry is quick to counter-attack that shifting to cage-free, pasture-raised or organic egg laying operations will mean higher check-out prices. Economic conditions being what they are, any talk of rising food prices creates anxiety. Yet that hasn’t stopped large numbers of U.S. consumers from flocking to small producers to buy eggs — even at a premium — in the wake of this recall.
Fortunately, millions of people are waking up to the consequences of a food system dominated by massive corporations: the loss of regional food production capabilities in the face of impending fuel shortages; tax-funded subsidies that prop up feed grains; antibiotics given to animals that pass into the broader environment; obscene volumes of waste in concentrated areas; a legacy of abysmal treatment to the animals we depend upon for sustenance. For the sake of our health, our environment and our economy, should we let this continue?
Change is in the air. Most countries in Europe and a number of U.S. states have taken measures to ban the most restrictive technologies used in CAFOs, such as the battery cages.
But we need not wait on federal or state regulations. We have a say in the kind of world we want, and it is expressed in the food choices we make every day. It’s in our power to participate in a healthier food system, one egg at a time, one farmers market at a time, one meal at a time. It starts with simply understanding and honoring where our food comes from. At that point, the foods produced in CAFOs become a lot less appetizing and ultimately, unpalatable.
Daniel Imhoff is an author, homestead farmer and independent publisher whose most recent project is “CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories” and “The CAFO Reader.“
I knew of Pascal Baudar as a fellow Master Food Preserver, so I was intrigued to hear about his workshop “End of the World Food Preservation Techniques.” He’s also a well-known expert wild food forager who runs Urban Outdoor Skills. I joined his workshop thinking it would be fun to forage for wild edible plants and learn a few historical food preservation techniques. I was not expecting to discover how to feed myself and my family entire meals made from local wild plants. Or how to use a roadside weed common in the Los Angeles area to create zombies.
The dry grass shattered under our feet as we scoured the sunburned terrain around Hansen Dam, a semi-wild park in the Lake View Terrace neighborhood of Los Angeles. Pascal is a good public speaker, and he led the hike with a mix of educational zeal and a wicked sense of humor that made the experience entertaining and slightly ominous. Pascal informed us that he’s a medal-winning marksman, and when he cautioned us not to pick all the olives off the trees in his favorite grove, we all took him seriously.
But far from being a bunker-dwelling doomer, Pascal is an upbeat guide to semi-urban food sources and pre-Industrial Revolution food preservation techniques.
We discovered more edible plants than I’d ever realized existed in such a small and seemingly barren landscape, including prickly pear cactus, California sage, horehound, elderberry, curly dock and two kinds of mustard (yellow and black). The curly dock and mustard had already gone to seed, but Pascal assured us that the seeds and shaft could be ground into flour and used to make hard tack, a kind of primitive cracker. We tried a version of his homemade hard tack later that afternoon and it was a truly post-apocalyptic food — dense, portable, nutritious and disgusting. But after the apocalypse, you might not care how it tastes.
Make your own zombies
Perhaps the strangest of Pascal’s revelations during our hike came when we discovered a jagged-leaved plant that grows gorgeous white trumpet flowers: jimson weed, or the devil’s trumpet. Pascal pointed out that this deceptively pretty plant may be one source of the zombie legend.
Jimson weed grows throughout Southern California, and you can see it along freeways and in vacant lots. It was first described in 1705, when it was called “Jamestown weed” because colonial British soldiers in Jamestown ate it and went mad. In fact, jimson weed (Datura stramonium) contains the powerful hallucinogen scopolamine, which causes delirium in low doses and death in larger doses. It has become linked to the legend of zombies because of these hallucinogenic properties and is known in Haitian Creole as concombre zombi (the zombie’s cucumber). Pascal sternly cautioned us against ever eating any part of the plant. A nurse in our group chimed in, saying that she had treated a teenage boy who had eaten jimson weed to get high. He wound up violently ill in the emergency room and is lucky to be alive.
With a deadpan expression, Pascal pointed out that one possible safe use for jimson weed would be using it to make zombies who could then help us collect mustard and curly dock seeds after the apocalypse. We all laughed nervously, but as we finished our hike I mulled over the question of how I would feed my zombies in a post-apocalyptic world. Wouldn’t it be easier to just collect the curly dock myself?
I was ready for a break when we reached our camp, but the real work had only just begun. Over the next three hours, Pascal provided a grand tour through centuries of basic food-preservation techniques. He discussed simple techniques to lengthen the shelf life of vegetables and herbs without refrigeration, such as storing herbs in cups of water and putting greens in a wet canvas bag and hanging them in a cool, dark place.
In a whirlwind of activity, Pascal demonstrated how to make salt pork and a dry salt brine for meat. He made hard tack and two versions of beef jerky (one good and one not so good). While the rest of us wilted in the shade, Pascal whipped up a brine for fermenting vegetables that could yield either sauerkraut or kimchi, depending on the vegetables you use.
Foraging for survival soup
The most complex dish Pascal concocted was a pot of “survival soup,” using his collection of dried wild plants that he’d harvested on previous hikes, including yucca shoots, wild radish pods, garlic and kelp. We sampled it near the end of the workshop and it was quite tasty, much to Pascal’s surprise. He told us that his partner Mia Wasilevich is usually in charge of making foods that actually taste good. She runs their companion organization Transitional Gastronomy, which they use to explore the idea of using locally sourced wild foods to create gourmet meals. Sadly, Mia wasn’t present at this hike, so we focused on food for the “Mad Max” world.
By the end of the workshop, I was exhausted from the hike, the heat and information overload, but I couldn’t wait to get home and share all I’d learned with my apocalypse-loving husband. I left wondering whether I could really sustain my family using only foods I found growing wild in my neighborhood, and how hard it would be to persuade mustard-seed collecting zombies to eat hard tack.
Hard Tack by Pascal Baudar
2 cups whole wheat flour (you may replace up to ⅔ cup whole wheat flour with curly dock flour)
Slightly less than 1 cup of water
2 tablespoons salt
1. Mix ingredients by hand, roll the dough and cut it into squares (2-by-2 or 3-by-3 inches). Using a fork, make about four rows of holes. Don’t push too hard, you’re not supposed to go through. Some people make holes on both sides, I only do one side.
2. Bake on ungreased cooking sheet at 375 F for 30 minutes, turn the tack over and bake for another 30 minutes.
3. Not a must, but I also dehydrate the hard tack for a couple of hours afterward, let it cool and preserve the pieces in vacuum-sealed bags.
Note: It’s not a gourmet cracker. It’s terribly hard and doesn’t taste good, but will probably preserve for years!
Top photo: Prickly pear. Credit: Susan Lutz