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Follow Danielle Nierenberg, and you will end up in interesting places. I learned this reading the missives she e-mailed from developing nations around the world during her tenure with Nourishing the Planet and the Worldwatch Institute. The Tufts-educated Missourian delivered awful truths about the world’s broken food system with an upbeat focus on inspiring individual-sized solutions. I missed her ever-present freckle-face grin when the e-mails stopped.
Now she’s back! With her new venture, Food Tank, Nierenberg and partner Ellen Gustafson remain focused on solutions, but this time they are the sweeping, world-altering kind.
Food Tank will bring together farmers, policymakers, researchers, scientists and journalists with the funding and donor communities to participate in a clearinghouse of information and data. Solid information about what’s working, they believe, will lead to more and better research and development. It’s a step-by-step scientific process toward food justice and a sustainable agricultural system.
I recently asked Nierenberg to share some background on herself and Food Tank.
You have worked to raise awareness about food quality and availability for a long time. What led you to become involved in this cause?
I’ve always been obsessed with food. I’m the person who wants to know what she’s having for dinner at lunchtime. I had the opportunity to work with a lot of farmers right after undergrad as a Peace Corps volunteer and that really helped me understand the connections between how we grow food and the impacts on health and the environment. Since then I’ve really tried to highlight what farmers, business, entrepreneurs, researchers, youth, policymakers and others are doing to make the food system more sustainable.
How did that work lead you to create Food Tank? What do you hope to accomplish?
We want to build a network of eaters, producers and policymakers and highlight the solutions that are already working.
There is so much focus on investment in big, sexy technologies, and we want to highlight how many of the answers to our most pressing social and environmental problems are already out there.
If we start now, there is an opportunity to develop a better vision for the global food system. Fixing the system requires changing the conversation and finding ways that make food production — and consumption — more economically, environmentally, and socially just and sustainable.
We also want to work with our advisory group to develop a new set of metrics to measure the “success” of a food system. For the last 50 years, the measurements have been based on calories and yield and not on the nutritional quality of food, or whether a food system protects water and soil, or whether it promotes the empowerment of youth or gender equity.
What organizations and individuals are working with you on this project?
Ellen Gustafson is the co-founder of Food Tank. She and I have had a mutual crush and admiration for one another for years. Often she and I are the only young-ish women who end up at both industry conferences and sustainable food conferences. Ellen’s work has been more on the entrepreneurial side. She co-founded FEED Projects with Lauren Bush and started 30 Project.
My work has focused on more on-the-ground research and evaluating environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger and poverty. Over the last few years I’ve traveled to more than 35 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America talking to farmers and farmers groups, scientists and researchers, policymakers and academics, youth, journalists and others collecting their thoughts about what’s working to increase incomes, raised yields, improve nutrition and protect the environment.
People around the world seem to be far more aware of the issue of food quality and food security. What has caused this awakening?
I think that since the food and economic crisis began in 2007 and 2008 there’s a growing movement around how not just to feed people, but nourish them. Most of the investment in agriculture is on starchy staple crops and less has been invested in leguminous crops, protein-rich grains or indigenous vegetables. These are crops that are not only more nutritious, but tend to be resistant to drought, disease, pests, high temperatures, etc.
And more and more young people are getting involved in the food system — as producers in urban gardens in Asia, as bakers in New York, as seed distributors in Kenya, and as chefs, food manufacturers, etc. The food system and agriculture have often been something young people feel forced to do, rather than something they want to do. We need to find ways to make it more economically and intellectually stimulating so it becomes something that people want to do and know that they can make money from.
If you could snap your fingers and make one change in the food system, what would it be?
There’s no one thing that can happen to change the system, but a big thing I’d like to see is more investment in agro-ecological practices. Again, most of the investment in agriculture is in sexy technologies and commodity crops and starchy staple crops, and not in the things that are already working — everything from agroforestry and solar drip irrigation to combining “high” and “low” technologies through using the Internet and cellphones. The solutions are out there. They’re just not getting the attention, research and investment they need.
Top photo: Danielle Nierenberg at a site visit to the AVRDC-The World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania. Credit: Bernard Pollack
At Zester Daily, we scour the world for interesting food and drink stories to share with our fans. As luck would have it, we only had to drive an hour south to Orange County, California, to find our latest discovery: Best Wines Online, a new wine e-tailer we know you will enjoy.
We have trusted the talents of founders Kyle Meyer and Tristen Beamon since their years managing another wine store. Their well-earned reputations as wine sleuths able to sniff out values in the obscure corners of wine’s ever expanding universe are complemented by an encyclopedic knowledge of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Their picks reflect a preference for balanced wines that shine on the dinner table. Kyle and Tris take the time to learn the backstories of the wines they sell. With their guidance, wine shopping is more treat than chore.
When we learned this dynamic duo was opening a store of their own, we jumped at the chance to introduce the venture to Zester fans.
Discounts for hand-selected wines
Today, we are proud to announce that Zester Daily and Best Wines Online have launched a marketing partnership. Each week, Kyle and Tris will hand-select a wine they will make available to Zester subscribers at an exclusive 10% discount below the store’s already competitive prices.
Zester newsletter subscribers will find a Best Wines Online promotion detailing the weekly wine offer in our new Weekender newsletter sent out toward the end of the workweek.
On bestwinesonline.com, you’ll find detailed wine descriptions and a growing library of videos both from Kyle and Tris’ travels as well as interviews with winemakers who visit their shop. Their personal touch extends to customer service. When you call their store during California office hours, you’ll get a living, breathing human being on the phone.
They are limiting their stock to 1,000 labels — enough variety to represent the wide world of top-shelf wines along with stacks of tantalizing under $20 treats. Rare among boutique e-tailers, the pair also feature hard-to-get older vintages straight from the wineries.
We know you will enjoy getting to know Kyle and Tris and their particularly delicious take on fine wine at bestwinesonline.com. Sign up now for Zester’s newsletter so you won’t miss out on any of these delicious deals.
Top photo: Kyle Meyer and Tristen Beamon of Best Wines Online. Photo and video credits: Matthieu Silberstein
“People have the right to know what is in their food,” Whole Foods Market founder and co-CEO John Mackey told a gathering of customers at his company’s Pasadena store. And when it comes to eating genetically modified anything, he said, the folks who shop at Whole Foods have made it clear: “They don’t want it,” he says.
Mackey listens to his customers. Last week Whole Foods announced that, within five years, all genetically modified ingredients for sale in its stores will be labeled. He is the first retailer in the U.S. to take this step; the story ran on the front page of the New York Times.
In the battle over the American shopper, Mackey, a baby boomer vegan from Austin, Texas, has called out the big boys of GMOs — Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and other multinational chemical companies. If they want access to his customers, they’ll have to play by his rules.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Mackey told the group in Pasadena in February, smiling as he shifted his thin frame from one desert boot to the other. “But if the government won’t act, we will.”
Most of the corn and soybeans grown today in the United States is genetically altered, as is a growing list of fresh produce sold in neighborhood grocery stores. And while Mackey has 339 Whole Foods stores in the U.S. and Canada, he’s a junior varsity player in the North American grocery business. The Grocery Manufacturers Assn., a trade group representing major food companies and retailers, wasted now time in denouncing his GMO labeling decision.
But Mackey’s 30-plus years of paying extraordinary attention to his customers’ wants and needs have earned him a fierce loyalty that allows him to punch well above his weight. No one is counting him out in this fight.
It was Mackey’s business philosophy that took me to Pasadena last month to hear him speak during a stop on the promotional tour for “Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business,” a new business management book he co-wrote with Raj Sisodia, a Bentley College marketing professor.
“I believe capitalism is the greatest force for good in the world. It alleviates poverty, creates goods and services and allows the culture to advance,” Mackey said in his opening remarks. His goal in writing the book was to help companies claim an individual sense of purpose, something he believes many businesses lose in the struggle to survive.
If the only goal of a business is to make money, he says, it will fail to reach its potential. In the book, Mackey writes, “Conscious businesses treat satisfying the needs of all their major stakeholders as ends in themselves, while traditional businesses often treat stakeholders other than investors as the means to achieving their ultimate goal of profit maximization.”
Doing it right starts by establishing a “core value” to guide your business, he says. At Whole Foods, it is to be a financially successful retailer providing customers high quality whole, organic products.
With its core value in mind, a conscious business then considers the needs of all of its stakeholders. Meeting the needs of the customers is first and foremost, but it extends to the needs of employees, suppliers, investors, the communities around stores and the environment as a whole. When a company gets the balance right, it can improve the lives of all stakeholders.
GMO labeling follows business philosophy
Viewing his decision on GMO labels through that prism, Mackey didn’t have much choice. His key stakeholders — his customers — made it clear that they wanted to avoid GMOs. But he took his suppliers’ needs into account as well. Rather than force them to immediately comply with Whole Foods’ new requirement, he gave them time to secure non-GMO ingredients or to accept the effect of being labeled accordingly.
Mackey has made similar moves at the Whole Foods meat and fish counters. Some customers won’t eat anything but grass-fed beef. Others think conventionally raised beef is just fine. Which fish are sustainably caught or raised? The labels tell the story. And while the effort is at best a work-in-progress, he is setting a standard that other grocery stores are struggling to match.
It’s all a process, he says. A “conscious business” gradually becomes more and more aware of its “reason for being,” or its core value. Enlightenment, wisdom and all of the higher thinking implied in those words, he says, gets easier with experience.
Conscious capitalism “is about leadership that serves the higher good of the organization, a culture that helps humans to flourish and self-actualize themselves.
“We are not retailers with a mission as much as missionaries who retail,” he wrote in the book. And his mission is to spread the gospel of conscious capitalism and change the world for better, forever. An optimist, Mackey believes any company can be saved. Maybe even GMO giant Monsanto.
Top photo: John Mackey. Credit: Chris Fager
I met Shauna James Ahern last September at one of Molly O’Neill‘s Longhouse Writers Revivals. These one-day, single-subject conversations draw an inspired group of food and drink writers, editors and activists. Shauna was there to talk about “Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef,” her website and books sharing her approach to living with celiac disease.
No surprise, Shauna was funny and charming. She was generous with her writing advice, just as she is with her recipes on her site. But she is a serious woman on a mission. A writer by temperament, training and talent, Shauna launched her blog to help others with celiac disease. Her wit and wisdom have made her an online muse not only for her gluten-free tribe but also for legions of food lovers of all stripes.
Shauna doesn’t suffer celiac disease. Diagnosis was liberation; gluten is a toxin that can be easily banished. Her delicious solutions are welcome at any table.
I asked Shauna to share some tips on how to manage the balancing act of cooking for family gatherings when some folks are following a gluten-free diet. This is a high-stress time of year for people with celiac disease, she said. No one wants to be the “special” person who can’t eat what is being served.
What is the best way to ease the kitchen tension when holidays bring together the gluten-free with the gluten-addicted members of a family?
Well, the first tip is to remember the reason we’re doing all this! It’s about gathering, family, friends and lots of lights. And food. But it doesn’t have to be a specific food, the one cookie your grandmother made and your mother made and you want to make gluten-free now. Make great food. Fill the table with it. And ask everyone to gather around.
The second tip is to ask the gluten eaters how they would feel if their entire holiday was spent in the bathroom. That’s what happens if I get 1/2 a teaspoon of gluten by mistake. Explaining what actually happens if gluten becomes part of the holiday celebrations may help others find a little more compassion.
Also, board games. Lots of really dopey board games help break the tension.
What are the easy substitutes — the gluten-free dishes that no one even notices are gluten-free?
Well, think of most of your favorite foods. Prime rib. Mashed potatoes. Pomegranates. Chocolate pudding. Potato latkes. Roast chicken. Omelets. Kale salad. Peanut butter fudge.
Those are all naturally gluten-free.
Celebrate the foods that are gluten-free without much work. No one will know these are special diet foods. Especially if they involve chocolate.
What is the best reason for someone with an iron gut to lighten their gluten intake?
Oh, I don’t think anyone has to lighten their gluten intake. There’s nothing inherently wrong. It’s just that for millions of us, it’s a toxin.
I will say this. We eat far too much wheat in this culture out of inertia. It’s very, very easy to eat pancakes, toast or muffins for breakfast. Pizza, sandwiches or calzones for lunch. Meatloaf with breadcrumbs or garlic bread with pasta for dinner. Pie for dessert.
Without realizing it, people are eating wheat — and mostly bleached wheat flour, which has no nutritional value — at nearly every meal. Dan Barber, the chef from Blue Hill at Stone Barns, said recently that “We eat more wheat than meat in this culture.” We’re having an important conversation about how much meat we eat in this culture, and where it comes from, and what we could do, but we are not talking about cheap wheat.
So it would be interesting if everyone had to be gluten-free for a week to see how unconsciously they are eating.
When your cousin rolls his eyes about the faddish rush to eat gluten-free, how do you make him smile?
Oh gosh, I probably wouldn’t try to make him laugh. I’d educate him.
Maybe I’m not so much fun at those parties. Then again, most of my cousins have celiac, since it runs in families, so I’ve never actually had to have that conversation.
How do you explain the gluten-free fad?
Well, the first thing to understand is that it isn’t a fad.
So here’s the deal. For decades, wannabe doctors were taught in medical school that celiac disease was really rare, only attacked those who were super-skinny and couldn’t put on weight, and was a childhood disease that people outgrew. They were also taught that 1 in 5,000 people had celiac. Well, it was only about 10 years ago that several doctors in the U.S. petitioned the National Institutes of Health to test the nation’s blood supply. See, those doctors who were celiac experts were all from other countries, where celiac happens anywhere from 1 in 100 to 1 in 500 all over the world, and yet America is 1 in 5,000? So they tested the nation’s blood supply. Guess what? The rate of celiac in the U.S. is actually 1 in 133. (And since those who have anemia cannot give blood, and anemia is one of the most common symptoms of celiac, it’s informally understood that 1 in 100 people have celiac in this culture.)
The University of Chicago Celiac Center tweeted an interesting fact. If you packed Yankee Stadium with everyone in America who has celiac, it would be filled 57 times. But 55 of those times Yankee Stadium would be filled with people who don’t know they have celiac. Still, I think 10 years ago it would have been 56 of those times.
We’re slowly, slowly diagnosing the people who are suffering for no reason.
And then there are folks who have non-celiac gluten-sensitivity, gluten-intolerance, wheat allergies, and people suffering from diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis who report they feel much, much better without gluten in their lives. That’s a LOT of Americans.
This isn’t a fad.
What is a favorite gluten-free joke that makes everyone laugh, gluten-free or not?
Well, I like to tell people that nobody expects gluten-free baking to be any good. (Psst. Here’s a secret. It’s often better than baking with gluten.) So I like to tell people in cooking classes: “The expectations are so low that you’re bound to look like a genius when people eat your cookies!”
Top photo composite: Shauna James Ahern and a screen capture of a video on her website of how to cook gluten-free pasta, with Daniel Ahern. Credit: Courtesy of glutenfreegirl.com
Jamie Geller opens the door to the kosher kitchen at Joy of Kosher, her 2-year-old website dedicated to expanding the audience for traditional Jewish foods. Author of two “Quick & Kosher” cookbooks, her site is packed with thousands of her own recipes as well as tips and insights from the best kosher chefs.
A former CNN and HBO producer, Geller founded Kosher Media Network, which publishes the magazine Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller. Founder of Jewish Culinary Heritage Foundation, Geller seeks to connect the broader international community through traditional Jewish food. She recently moved to Israel from New York City.
With the lighting of the first candles of Chanukah, Zester Daily asked Jamie to bring us up to speed on the kosher kitchen.
Tell us why you created Joy of Kosher with a brief history of your site.
Let’s start with the name. If you didn’t grow up in a house that kept kosher, you probably think it’s some kind of a restrictive diet that takes all the fun out of cuisine. To most of the world kosher has a bad rep, it implies boring and limited. You know: syrupy sweet wine and Granny’s gefilte fish.
But nothing could be further from the truth! Today’s kosher kitchen is full of exotic dishes and culinary adventure. The range of kosher ingredients is broad, and kosher wines are winning prestigious prizes all over the world. There’s so much joy in cooking kosher, but who knew? So I wanted to share the news with the world.
The site premiered a little over two years ago as a place where people could think of kosher cooking in a whole new way, and to encourage sharing among kosher cooks. The response has been incredible, not only from traditional Jewish cooks, but from non-kosher chefs who want to expand their repertoire. We’re like family now.
There is a rise in the purchase of kosher products. What’s driving the new interest?
Kosher certification symbols on the package (like OU and Star-K, to name just two of many) do not mean that a rabbi came and blessed the factory, the food or the people therein. It means that every ingredient of what’s inside the package meets certain standards. There are representatives from the certifying agency checking every aspect of production, making sure that no unidentified flying objects or ingredients sneak in.
I want that kind of supervision with my food don’t you? Apparently, millions of people want that too and go out of their way to find kosher products. Moreover, foods or ingredients designated “Pareve” mean that the product has no traces of dairy or meat. This is very important to people with allergies or lactose intolerance. And the rabbis are very trustworthy about this. Another reason is that many Jews who never kept kosher before are turning back to tradition and want to keep kosher now. You’re talking to one of them. I didn’t grow up kosher. But I am now.
Why should someone who doesn’t keep kosher seek out kosher foods?
Because they’re good, and they’re reliable. Whatever is on the label is really there, and nothing else. You can have confidence in a kosher product. And remember all those people going kosher that I mentioned earlier? Often, when there’s a family get-together, many hosts will try to use only kosher foods to accommodate their newly kosher family members, guests or friends.
If you had to choose between Ashkenazic or Sephardic cuisine, which would you choose? Why?
No fair! That’s like asking me which of my kids I love the most. I adore the bold, bright, spicy Sephardic foods, and I’m mad about their music and culture. I often play Sephardic music when I cook, dancing round my kitchen, channeling my inner Sephardi. Did you know that in a past life I was a raven-haired Sephardic princess? At least that’s what my hubby thinks; says he has to watch out for my camel in the driveway.
On the other hand, Ashkenazic food brings me back to my grandparents table, sitting on telephone books, with my feet dangling off the floor. In a flash I can taste their incredibly rich, clear chicken soup, their mile-high perfect potato kugel, their homemade kishka. All of that is what we call “heimish” — literally homelike, but so much more. It’s like every bite comes with a big, warm, cuddly hug.
Now that I live in Israel, I’m culturally engulfed by Sephardic food and my palate is changing: I think everything is better with humus and tahini; I eat falafel for breakfast and sautéed eggplant with cumin and cilantro for a snack and baklava when I have a sweet tooth. I guess, eventually, it will all balance out.
Among the most frequently requested kosher recipes on your site, what surprises you?
Can’t say I’m too surprised by anything anymore. But I do see that kosher folks keep trying for kosher versions of foods that are inherently non-kosher and even more popular — they want tips for turning real decadent dairy recipes non-dairy.
Let me just tell ya, you can’t sub heavy cream with coconut milk and call it a day. And of course we have stuff like imitation bacon (called “Facon”) and mock crab, and you can melt soy cheese on a beef burger, but you can’t really sub out everything in a recipe and expect it to taste spot-on like the original. So while I’ll occasionally cook “mock” versions, there’s no sub for genuine ingredients.
What keeps the kosher cuisine on the sidelines of the international restaurant scene? I don’t think a kosher chef has been recognized by Michelin as among the top in the world.
Well, they should be. I think part of the reason they’re not recognized is that old stereotype about kosher food I mentioned earlier. People just don’t expect to find creative, tantalizing innovations in a kosher restaurant. But kosher chefs should be given a second look: They do real miracles with food, using only kosher ingredients. For instance, Moshe Wendel, at Pardes Restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, is doing kosher progressive French food like you’ve never had it before (read: the likes of which has never before been done in the kosher world). Check out places like Solo and Prime Grill (both in NYC) and you’ll find plenty of award-worthy dishes.
What have you learned from JoyofKosher.com that has stunned you, really knocked you for a loop?
Jews love to eat even more than I thought! Everyone loves to eat more than I thought. And I used to think it was only me. I also found that food, especially kosher food, is serious business. And while we all enjoy a fun night out at a restaurant, where we can try new dishes, I discovered that hundreds of thousands of people want to experiment right in their own kitchens, serving up all kinds of fascinating cuisine day in and day out to their families. The demand for new and better recipes keeps us cooking on all burners. I’m always experimenting and tasting, and tasting, and tasting. That’s why I look this way.
Photo: Jamie Geller. Credit: Kosher Media Network
This Thanksgiving, welcome your family into your kitchen and let the adventure begin. This is the story of the Hinton-Brown family’s adventure.
* * *
Fresh from law school at the start of a promising legal career, Norrinda Brown longed for a creative outlet, a way to keep her pressure-filled professional life in balance.
More than anything, she wanted to bake cakes. Growing up in her grandmother’s kitchen, every day had been baking day, layers of fragrant pound cake cooling on the counter, bowls of fluffy frosting in the fridge, butter was the essential ingredient in everything. Mothers baked with daughters, grandmothers with grandchildren. Baking by yourself, for yourself? Who does that?
Talking with her mother Linda Brown and grandmother Betty Hinton, an idea took hold that grew into a plan that became an obsession. Together, they could bake to their hearts’ content if they opened a cake shop.
Crazy. It was crazier than it sounds. Norrinda Brown Hayat had a full-time job as a lawyer. Her mother was a public school teacher. And her grandmother had long ago sailed past her 70th birthday. None of them had been businesswomen or worked in commercial bakeries.
Faith. Norrinda was convinced this was a particularly good time to open a bakery in their hometown of Philadelphia. Most of the city’s bakeries were Italian cannoli cafés. Competition in her family’s Southern layer cake culture was limited, as many of the older stores had gone out of business. More encouraging, the traditional pace for these bakeries was leisurely. It was common for cake shops to close in the late afternoon and stay closed Sunday mornings and all day Monday.
Recipes. No one made cakes like Norrinda’s grandmother, who baked by instinct and memory as her mother had before her and her mother before her.
By Linda Hinton Brown, Norrinda Brown Hayat
(Wiley, 2012, 192 pages)
Research. Together they were able to capture their family’s sense memory in recipe and for six months tested their creations on groups of friends, then groups of friends of friends, community gatherings, country club parties, women’s groups. They served their cakes with a chaser of questions. Sweet enough? More butter? How do you like the strawberry cake?
Brown Betty Bakery opened in 2004; its name is a play on her grandmother’s first name, her mother’s married name and a sly reference to Apply Brown Betty, a signature menu item.
Luck. “We stumbled into a really supportive community,” says Norrinda. An abandoned manufacturing area in the Northern Liberty area of Philadelphia was being revitalized with small shops and businesses. Spaces were small, rents were low and the tenants helped each other survive. “Almost all of our neighbors were first-time, one-off female-owned businesses.”
Oops. They needed all of the help they could get. Norrinda had misjudged Philadelphia’s bakery market. “A lot of the older bakeries had closed. And I didn’t fully appreciate why,” says Norrinda. Rather than retiring, as she had assumed, they’d collapsed, unable to keep up with the quickening pace of retail.
Customers patronized shops that were open early and late, every day of the week. “We weren’t ready for this,” says Norrinda. “I didn’t know how hard it would be. Baking had always been relaxing. I underestimated how successful we’d be and how demanding it was to serve the public.”
Sweat equity. For the first three years, Norrinda and her mom ran Brown Betty Bakery by themselves with only one extra employee. Betty came in every Friday night and left Saturday morning to test new recipes and oversee quality control. If that meant fewer cakes than buyers, so be it. “We did everything so we could keep overhead low,” she says.
It wasn’t until Norrinda Brown became Norrinda Brown Hayat that they broke down and hired more staff. “We knew we couldn’t continue to be the ones who took out the trash and swept the floor.” And, of course, as soon as they delegated more work to others, business grew quickly.
Success. There are two Brown Betty Bakeries in Philadelphia now operated by a staff of 25 with plans to open more shops as well as an online store. But what has them “traumatized,” says Norrinda, is the book. “Mom really didn’t want to do the cookbook and give out the recipes.” “The Brown Betty Cookbook” (Wiley), released last month, is the first time they’ve shared their family’s secrets.
“We’ve stayed close to what baking means to our family. It brings us together.” Though she is 89 years old, Betty still creates new cakes. Linda has yet to retire from teaching. And Norrinda never gave up her law practice.
And they’ve never stopped making time to bake together.
Top photo: Three generations of bakers, Norrinda Brown Hayat, Betty Hinton and Linda Hinton Brown