Articles in Health
Why let gingkos jar this glorious New York City scene? It’s late November. Central Park is at its peak in fall color. The Conservatory Garden up on Fifth Avenue and 105th Street is all decked out with its fall array of chrysanthemums.
More from Zester Daily:
Yet it happened on my afternoon doggie walk, as I passed under a ginkgo tree, and the pungent smell about bowled me over. I am familiar with what is often called “nature’s stink bomb” and have developed a kind of acceptance and regard for the ginkgo, knowing its benefits, but simply, it smells like vomit. The stench is supposed to keep animals from eating the fallen fruit from this ancient Asian tree.
Ginkgo’s famous healthful qualities
But as a baby boomer who is keen to stave off memory loss, I know ginkgo biloba made from this tree species is one of the best-selling herbal medications. It is used in traditional medicine to treat blood disorders and improve memory. It also is an antioxidant, so I welcome the stench.
This time of year in Central Park, one will find many older Asian people on their knees, some wearing rubber gloves, picking through the fruit that has fallen on the ground. And each year, I ask myself, why don’t I collect a bag and try them out? So this year I did just that.
Ginkgo leaves are fan-shaped and green until the fall, when they turn a bright yellow. The leaves contain two types of chemicals, flavonoids and terpenoids, which are antioxidants. Studies show that ginkgo is good for promoting blood flow and treating anxiety, glaucoma, premenstrual syndrome and Reynaud’s disease.
It is important not to use ginkgo for at least 36 hours before surgery or dental procedures because of the risk of bleeding. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should also not take ginkgo. Ginkgo may also interact with some medications and antidepressants. As with any supplement, it’s good for users to read up on ginkgo before ingesting it. Also keep in mind, the nut can be toxic to eat raw, and even picking it up can cause a rash like poison ivy.
Recipes from around the world
Asian women to whom I’ve spoken say it is no mistake that the nuts fall at this time of year because when they are cooked, they helps fight flu and colds.
The best way to use them is to remove the fleshy insides and skin from the nut. The flesh is discarded, and then the nut is boiled in salt water, fried, roasted or broiled. The nuts are used in Asian rice porridge and other desserts. Another chef used the nuts to make dried scallop and ginkgo nut congee, but instead of hassling with fresh ginkgo he uses tinned nuts because they are easier.
In a piece called “Gathering Ginkgo Nuts in New York,” a couple wrote about collecting the ginkgo nuts and trying various ways of cooking them. They finally hit on something when they separated the smelly pulp from the nut, washed the nuts, coated them in egg, salt, pepper and flour and dropped them in hot oil. Delicious was their assessment of this cooking method for a local, sustainable nut.
I have now collected about two pints of ginkgos, and today is the day I intend to try them. A friend gave me this recipe, which seems easy enough.
Roasted Ginkgo Nuts
2 pints of ginkgo nuts
Oil for frying, such as coconut or olive oil
Salt to taste
1. Using rubber gloves, collect the yellow squishy nuts from the ground. You know they’re ripe because they have fallen from the tree and they stink to high heaven. Still using rubber gloves, separate the pulp from the nut. (I did this outside on Park Avenue.)
2. Wash the nuts thoroughly and let them dry.
3. Pour a half-inch of your favorite oil into a pan. Salt the nuts. When the oil is hot enough to sputter, place the nuts in the pan. The nuts should pop like popcorn, except much louder. When they have split open and you can see the green of the nut.
4. Drain, and let cool. Eat like popcorn.
Top photo: Roasted ginkgo nuts. Credit: Katherine Leiner
Carbs will be out, fats will be in, if a ketogenic diet proves to be a tool in the battle to fight cancer.
A ketogenic diet starves cancer cells of glucose, thereby stunting the disease’s growth and compelling the body to burn fats, which trigger the production of compounds called ketones that, scientists hypothesize, cancer cells can’t use for fuel. The effectiveness of the diet, which should only be used in consultation with a doctor, is in the pilot-study phase of human research.
The diet may work for other reasons: Like a campfire burning wood, cells burning glucose for energy undergo incomplete combustion, thus creating free radicals of oxygen that can damage DNA. In addition, scientists are increasingly studying the insulin the pancreas produces in response to glucose. It appears to trigger a cascade of actions that may stimulate cancer’s growth. Close to a century ago, German scientist Otto Warburg first suggested that glucose may play a role and in 1931 won a Nobel Prize for identifying cancer as a sugar feeder.
Recently, two American scientists collected a smaller prize for their pilot study. Dr. Eugene Fine, a physician and professor at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y., and his colleague, Richard Feinman, professor of cell biology at State University of New York’s Downstate Medical Center took 10 patients with advanced cancers who had failed or refused standard chemotherapy and put them on ketogenic diets for 28 days, then looked at tumors on PET scans. Patients with the least ketosis (which they defined as least insulin inhibition) showed progressive disease whereas higher levels of ketosis were accompanied by stable disease or partial remission, they reported.
“We think what’s important is that we may have opened a door, long overdue, to studying dietary change as a component of cancer therapy,” Fine said, cautioning against reading too much into a small study.
Ultimately these scientists hope to identify which cancers might best respond to carbohydrate restriction. “For sure, they all won’t,” Fine said. The common slow-growing form of prostate cancer, he said, feeds on fats as well as glucose and glutamate, a protein that’s been implicated in a few cancers. “Even within a single individual with a primary cancer and metastases, the cancer’s behavior … can vary from one cell to the next.”
Ketogenic diet research takes off
Ketogenic diets are actually ancient. That’s how cave dwellers ate, Fine explained, and today’s paleo movement and the similar Atkins approach are bringing them back.
More from Zester Daily:
Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore has been using forms of a ketogenic diet since the 1920s to control epileptic seizures.
But in the cancer field, clinical trials of ketogenic diets are just sprouting up. Among the scientists touting the “fat as fuel” approach is Dr. Craig Thompson, the president and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Thompson founded a private company that’s helping develop drugs to lower glucose and glutamine.
In his recent book, Boston College biology professor Thomas Seyfried takes the ketogenic diet one big step further. He advocates that patients fast periodically. There’s nothing more powerful than calorie restriction in reducing a tumor’s ability to grow blood vessels and spread, he said.
The diet he proposes includes 70% of calories from fat, 12% to 15% from protein, and the rest from carbs. How low carb is that? According to Fine, you need to eat 50 grams of carbs or less a day to get your body into a state of ketosis, where it produces ketones as a result of utilizing fat as its main energy source. The typical U.S. diet provides 250 to 400 grams daily.
Do the types of fat matter? Like the answers to most questions, it depends on whom you ask. Many versions of the ketogenic diet may include bacon and butter, albeit not on toast, but why consume saturated animal fats that are known to promote inflammation and disease? Unsaturated fats, such as those found in avocado and nuts, are good for your heart and may help control insulin. Omega 3 fats, abundant in fatty fish and flaxseed, fight inflammation.
And coconut fats contain medium-chain triglycerides, a type of fat that promotes the production of ketones. How about low-calorie vegetables immersed in high-fat coconut milk? One day that might be just what the doctor orders.
Top photo: A ketogenic diet of fats such as avocados, nuts and seeds is the focus of cancer research. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller
Rebecca Swanner wipes her hands on her frosting-caked jeans. She lets out her squeaky laugh and arranges her homemade gray cupcakes into a semicircle among the other gray desserts. A woman in her mid-20s reaches for the goodies, and without hesitation picks one of Rebecca’s cupcakes. As the customer devours the treat within seconds, Rebecca can’t stop smiling.
Welcome to the Depressed Cake Shop, a sweet idea for a pop-up fundraiser that raises awareness about chronic depression. Swanner organized this end-of-summer event, the first of its kind in the United States, at Buckwild Gallery on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. Depressed Cake Shops in Houston, New York City and Seattle will follow. It’s a trend that has already jumped the Atlantic, and one Swanner hopes will sweep worldwide.
Emma Thomas, the founder of Eat Your Heart Out, an association of creative food artists based in the United Kingdom, started the awareness campaign this summer. She sees the cake gatherings as a way to open up topics that are not widely discussed, such as depression. She had previously started other pop-up bake shops, such as Cakes for Japan, which donated an array of tasty sweets inspired by Japanese flavors to raise money after the earthquake in 2011. She wanted the Depressed Cake Shop to bring awareness to depression, a mental condition that affects more than 350 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. She opened the first pop-up bakery in London on Aug. 2, and it was followed by locations in Bristol and Essex, among other British cities.
Swanner, the owner of the online baking company Secret Marmalade, brought this movement to L.A. after discovering the Depressed Cake Shop on Thomas’ blog, Miss Cakehead. Thomas suggested that Swanner, who has dealt with depression since she was a teenager, start her own pop-up bakery movement.
More from Zester Daily:
“A lot of people suffer in silence,” says Swanner. “I didn’t think I knew anyone who was depressed. I only started finding out that other people were depressed when I started doing this.”
The laid-back event attracted a wide assortment of people, from 5-year-olds who came to munch on sugary goods to 50-year-old tattooed women who came to drink cocktails and bid on the art. A sign read “Cakes Cakes Cakes” in flashing lights at the opening of the gallery. The space was small and dark, but smelled sweet and delicious. The pop-up included an art auction and a sugar-flower demonstration by Shaile’s Edible Art. However, the baked goods were the center of attention and spread over three long tables in the front of the gallery.
All the sweet treats reflected the bakers’ imagination. Cookies shaped like Prozac pills, macaroons twisted into anxiety squiggles, mis-fortune cookies and blue velvet cupcakes with gray frosting lightened the room.
Customers lined up at the tables, grabbing their gray cupcakes, gray macaroons and gray cronuts (a croissant-doughnut meld) and placed them into their big white boxes that each had stickers that read “Depressed Cake Shop.” Swanner worked swiftly with her friends and volunteers to meet all their customers needs. At the end of the event, she reported that, including all the desserts and art sold, more than $6,000 had been raised.
Each pop-up bakeshop donates proceeds to a charity that raises awareness about mental illness. Swanner chose the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Los Angeles because she was impressed by how the organization reaches out to people who have depression and their families, with funding for education, support groups and advocacy.
Once Swanner set up a Facebook page for the event, many people reached out to her, including all the bakers who made the goods. The bakers shared personal stories about how depression affected a family member or themselves, and how they used baking to cope with and express their feelings. She came in contact with Sweet Insanity Bake Shop, which donated gray macaroons; Miss Ali Cake Pop’s in Temecula, Calif., which made cake pops that looked like monsters and gray-dipped Oreos; Alexis Lowery, who made mis-fortune cookies; and more than 20 other bakers who added their desserts to the table.
Swanner says that starting a Depressed Cake Pop-Up is simple. All you need is to find a location, make gray desserts and donate the proceeds to an organization that raises awareness about mental illness. No frosting-caked jeans necessary.
You can follow the spread of The Depressed Cake Pop-up Shop at depressedcakeshop.com. Swanner is looking for bakers for a holiday event in Los Angeles on Dec. 13.
Top photo: Cookies in the shape of a Prozac pill sit next to lemon cookies at the Depressed Cake Pop-Up Shop in Los Angeles. Credit: Julia Adams
We all have a habit of taking something for granted until, all of a sudden, it’s gone or it hurts. Have you ever really thought about your stomach? And I don’t mean whether it’s flat, flabby or fit. I mean, how it works and how what we ingest affects stomach health. Well, to be honest, I never did. I used to say I had a cast-iron stomach.
More from Zester Daily:
I pretty much ate real food my entire life. After all, that’s what my culinary movement Heirloom Meals is all about, the celebration of real food and our connection to our ancestral foods. However, I did subject my stomach to lots of aspirin, Advil and diet soda. Why suffer from muscle aches or worse, headaches? I also bought into the calorie-free bliss of diet soda, which for me began with Tab in college.
I swore off meat and french fries for a good chunk of my adult life only to return to them when I finally had a full-time man in my life. I have always mostly eaten real food, though. I eliminated diet soda more than five years ago and read ingredient labels. If I don’t recognize an ingredient or can’t pronounce it, it doesn’t get a free ride in my grocery cart to the checkout counter.
So, why oh why, did I wake with an odd stomach (just stomach, not abdomen) pain last summer? It wasn’t an ache, it was a dull pain. And it didn’t go away.
Freaked out and worried, I went on vacation to my parents’ beach house. My mom coincidentally had an appointment with her gastroenterologist, so she brought me along. The compassionate doctor had me hop up on the table, felt my stomach and abdomen and noticed that I was worried and scared. So she scheduled me for an endoscopy and a colonoscopy in two days. I was relieved and distressed. What would she find?
After many tests, ultrasounds and biopsies, I was told I have leaky gut. The gastroenterologist prescribed Prilosec and antacids, forever. Interestingly my primary care physician wanted me off those but he didn’t really have a solution. And of course I wanted a solution, not a mask. I decided to figure it out myself. I asked my primary care doctor to run a food sensitivities panel. I knew fundamentally that our stomachs are really our second brain. Everything we ingest goes through the stomach.
Getting to the bottom of leaky gut
Harnessing the power of the Internet, along with my affinity for research and my love of books, I started getting to know my stomach. I knew I had some inflammation, some acid reflux and irregularity. I also had the term “leaky gut” to research. I think leaky gut has become the all-encompassing diagnosis for when we can’t find anything medically wrong but something clearly is. Such comfort!
In Elizabeth Lipski’s book, “Digestive Wellness, Strengthen the Immune System and Prevent Disease Through Healthy Digestion,” she explains that leaky gut is really a “nickname for the more formal term increased intestinal permeability … It is not a disease or an illness itself. It’s a symptom of inflammation and imbalance that has many causes.”
After I received the results of my food sensitivities test, my primary care physician suggested that I add digestive bitters to my diet. I initially didn’t pay attention but then re-read my notes and reconsidered. He also recommended a probiotic. Lipski also writes “replenish your bacterial flora with probiotics … You may need to support your digestive function with enzymes, bitters and hydrochloric acid.” So I knew my primary care physician had set me on the right path.
I went on a quest to find digestive bitters and discovered that they are a tried-and-true ancient remedy for stomach issues. The list of ingredients includes such things as aloe, myrhh, saffron, senna leaves, camphor, rhubarb root, manna, thistle root etc. I also learned a lot about manuka honey. It is a monoculture honey from the tea tree, which is known for its antimicrobial qualities. It acts like hydrogen peroxide.
While I was at it I discovered a list of anti-inflammatory foods. If I had inflammation, I figured I should avoid foods that cause inflammation. Sadly the nightshades are high on the list, which include tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant. I also eliminated all the food to which I was sensitive, including wheat, chocolate, bananas, beef, eggs and casein, which is the protein in cow’s milk. I credit the dietary eliminations along with the manuka honey, Swedish bitters and 4 to 6 cups of fresh ginger tea a day with healing my acid reflux and stomach pain.
I also started drinking almond milk, using Earth Balance butter, and cooking with olive, walnut and coconut oils. I also take a probiotic every day and eat lots of kale, lentils and fish. I rarely drink alcohol or caffeine and avoid most sweets.
Addressing stomach woes for the long term
Over six months, my stomach pain went away. One day I woke up and I didn’t notice my stomach, just like in the olden times. However, I know it’s not an invitation to throw caution to the wind. I am wiser and healthier knowing my stomach is fragile and is the main organ in my body to protect. As Dr. Alejandro Junger says in his book “Clean Gut”: “Your overall health is connected to a singular area of the body, your gut .… [sic] most diseases being diagnosed … can all be traced back to your injured or irritated gut.”
So I say, hello stomach, nice to meet you and now I respect you. I also understand that food is medicine and you, my stomach are the key to my health. Somehow I think our ancestors already knew that.
Top photo: Food for stomach health. Credit: Carole Murko
Greece’s agony is painful to watch. For those who know and love the country, the long fiscal battering, now in its third year, has often seemed excruciating, most of all, of course, for the Greek people, especially the young, who face a staggering unemployment rate of 54%. But there are ways to help, small perhaps but nonetheless significant. One is to seek out, buy and use some of Greece’s many fine food exports. Extra virgin olive oil should be at the top of that shopping list.
Patriotic Greeks, not content to sit by, are looking for ways to encourage not just economic recovery but the development of a new generation of innovative thinkers, which the country so desperately needs.
More on Zester Daily:
Kefalogiannis is what would be called in France a négociant of fine extra virgin olive oil. He doesn’t actually produce oil himself and has no ancient trees to show off to visitors. Instead, he works with existing producers to promote and market high-quality olive oil and olive products. Gaea is a specialty foods giant, with award-winning olive oils and other olive-based products — such as tapénades and cooking sauces — in its inventory. In the U.S., the products are sold under the “Cat Cora’s Kitchen” brand.
Extra virgin export
Greece is primarily what economists call a domestic demand-oriented economy, meaning most products are geared to the domestic market. It has the lowest ratio of exports to gross domestic products, or GDP, in the European Union, just 27% (compared to the EU-wide average of 45%). Most experts think Greece should be selling more abroad — much more. And olive oil, given the high quality of Greek production, should have a big role to play. Keep in mind that about three-quarters of all the oil produced in Greece is extra virgin — unlike Italy, for instance, where extra virgin accounts for a little less than half, or Spain where it is barely a third of total oil production. Most of this extra virgin comes from modest family farms, the backbone of the country’s agricultural economy. But such small enterprises find it difficult to compete on the international scale, lacking both investment capital and marketing skills necessary to play the game.
The statistics surrounding Greek olive oil production are amazing. First off, Greeks consume more olive oil per capita, by far, than any other people in the world — 18 kilos or nearly 40 pounds per person annually, according to the European Commission. (By comparison, Italians consume a little less than 11 kilos — about 24 pounds — each, while the U.S. is still less than a measly kilo). A third of all Greek oil is exported to other countries, mostly extra virgin, mostly to the European Union. But 90% of that is sold in bulk to Italian and Spanish packagers who either bottle and rebrand the oil or blend it with more expensive home-produced oil to make the kind of cheap, indifferent oils found in supermarkets all over the world. Only 10% of this remarkable product is exported in branded bottles.
For consumers aware of the price commanded by a bottle of premium quality Italian, French or Spanish oil, or for anyone who has experienced the quality of top Greek olive oils, there is something inherently odd about such high-quality extra virgin oil being sold off as a cheap bulk commodity. True, no one is forcing Greek producers to sell in bulk, but the olive oil market, like most agricultural niche markets around the world, is deeply conservative. The Italian market for Greek oil has always been there, going back probably several millennia, so why change things now? In short, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Tapping a young market with Greek olive oil
But Greece’s economy is indeed broken. Faced with a steady drain of exactly the youthful population that should be helping to put Greece back on track, Kefalogiannis has set up a think tank where young Greeks, straight out of high school or university, present business plans for evaluation by a group of expert judges who then select the 10 most likely to succeed. Each of the 10 winners is awarded seed capital amounting to 25,000 euros (about $32,500) plus a low-interest loan from a reliable Greek bank, plus access to Gaea’s broad international distribution network.
The whole project, “Reinspiring Greece from the Youth Up,” is funded through sales of Agrilia, a remarkable single-estate, certified organic olive oil from Antiparos, a tiny Cycladic island in the heart of the Aegean. The oil, which comes mostly from the favorite Greek olive variety koroneiki, is extraordinarily high in polyphenols — 550 mg per kilogram at the time of processing. High polyphenols mean the oil is not only exceptionally healthful, but also that it has a long life, protected by its own polyphenols from the taint of rancidity.
When I heard about the program, I rushed to buy a bottle of the oil through the Greek America Foundation, which sponsors the project.
So what does Antiparos Agrilia Estate oil taste like?
In short, it’s an outstanding oil, beautifully balanced among the three critical points of fruitiness, bitterness and pungency. (That last characteristic is an indication of the presence of polyphenols.) I found delicious hints of apple and fresh almond, and a balanced roundness, without the least hint of greasiness or fatty textures.
This is an oil to reserve for garnishing. Dolloped generously over buffalo-milk mozzarella or a fresh goat’s milk cheese or added at the table to a plain bowl of pasta with tomato sauce or a hearty beans-and-greens soup, it will take such simple dishes to heights of elegance. At $38 for a 17-ounce bottle, Agrilia Estate is not cheap, but it’s worth it: It’s worth it to support Aris Kefalogiannis’s generous vision, it’s worth it to celebrate the potential of Greek recovery, and it’s worth it to experience one of Greece’s finest products.
Top photo: Old olive trees in Kritsa, Crete. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Juicing and juice cleanses are all the rage these days. Dr. Mehmet Oz, the cardiac surgeon turned TV personality is a great proponent of juicing. He has his own 3-Day Detox Cleanse, which seems very easy to follow.
My system needed a jump-start, a complete cleansing. I knew that if I had to make the teas and juices myself, it would be a miracle if I got through one day.
More from Zester Daily:
So I opted to buy a 3-Day Detox Juice Cleanse from Pressed Juicery, knowing that every time I opened my refrigerator and saw all those rather expensive juices, I was going to drink them.
Day 1 of detox cleanse
8 a.m.: According to the company’s website, the cleanse will arrive by FedEx by 11 a.m. After dropping off my daughter at school, I head home to await my juice delivery.
10:15 a.m.: The juices have arrived, are unpacked and in the refrigerator. They are numbered in the order they should be drunk. Three rows, six bottles each, of nutritionally dense, cold-pressed juice to rid my body of the toxins of modern life.
I open juice No. 1, a blend of kale, spinach, romaine, parsley, cucumber, celery, apple, lemon and ginger. It was really good, quite refreshing actually.
“I can do this!” I thought.
11 a.m.: I am hungry.
Noon: It’s about time for juice No. 2, a blend of cucumber, pineapple, lemon, coconut water and aloe vera. It went down smooth and easy.
12:15 p.m.: I am hungry.
2 p.m.: Juice No. 3 is carrot, cucumber, spinach and parsley. This was a more substantial juice, slightly thicker from the carrots.
“This one should stick to my ribs,” I thought.
2:30 p.m.: I am hungry.
2:35 p.m.: The “cleansing” aspect of the juice kicks in. I am extremely grateful to work at home.
4 p.m.: Juice No. 4 is another light blend, with pineapple, apple, lemon and mint. By this time, I am feeling very fatigued, probably from lack of caffeine. Or the complete lack of food in my body.
4:15 p.m.: I am hungry. No, I am starving.
4:30 p.m.: Trying to distract myself from food I start surfing the web. Bad idea. My Facebook and Google+ feeds are full of food writers and bloggers, all with new posts about what they were cooking. Pinterest is a visual feast. Rethinking this web surfing thing.
6 p.m.: Time to make dinner for my daughter. I am trying not to be resentful of her being able to eat, but the lack of food is distorting my ability to think clearly. Or even think at all.
6:15 p.m.: Juice No. 5 is horrible! I do not like the taste of this blend of cucumber, celery, watercress, lemon, ginger and cayenne. It was like drinking spicy grass.
6:30 p.m.: I am hungry and irritable because I didn’t like my last juice. I believe I hissed at my cats as they were loudly meowing for their dinner.
8 p.m.: They saved the best for last. Juice No. 6 is a delicious blend of almonds, dates, vanilla bean and sea salt. Luscious, rich and satisfying, it was almost like a dessert. Almost.
I finished the day with a bottle of aloe vera water, which is supposed to help with the “cleansing” aspect. After drinking all that juice I cannot possibly see how you would need any more help with the “cleansing” part!
8 a.m.: I am feeling akin to what you might scrape off your shoe. I understand this is par for the course from others who have done a three-day cleanse. They all say Day 2 is the hardest.
9 a.m.: Juice No. 1 down. Time to get to work. Except for not being able to focus on anything, this should be a piece of cake. Cake! I want cake!
11:30 a.m.: I have to go to my daughter’s school to help with her kindergarten graduation party. Then they bring in the pizza. Just the smell almost sends me over the edge. I start getting dizzy, which may be because I tried to stop breathing so I wouldn’t smell the pizza anymore. I excuse myself and go home for another juice.
2:30 p.m: Back to my daughter’s school to pick her up. Cranky, irritable, starving is how I would describe my state of mind. I may or may not have growled at my daughter.
4 p.m.: If I do not eat something I am going to start chewing on my laptop. The juice people tell you to have a few slices of cucumber or apple if you really have too. Ha! I make a lovely salad of baby greens dressed with vinegar.
I decide to skip the nasty juice, since I had eaten that salad.
7 p.m.: Time for my dessert juice! I could drink this one everyday.
I wake up feeling rather good. I am not hungry, or overly tired. The crankiness level is down, and I am feeling a real sense of accomplishment.
Noon: I go pick up my daughter after her last day of kindergarten. For her special graduation meal, she chooses to go to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal. When you’re 6, McDonald’s is a destination restaurant. The smell of the fries almost gets me, but I am strong!
The rest of Day 3 is uneventful. I even drink the nasty juice, albeit quickly while holding my nose. As always, I finish with my dessert juice, happy to know the 3-Day Detox Cleanse is over.
I made it.
And I am 10 pounds lighter.
Top photo: Bottles for the 3-day detox cleanse. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee
The European Commission has shown customary timidity in abruptly withdrawing a proposal made last week to exert minimal control over the quality of olive oil served in restaurants. The idea behind the proposal was admirable — that olive oil be served in original, tamper-proof bottles that state the oil’s credentials on the label, rather than poured from an anonymous jug into cruets or bowls on the table. In that way, consumers would be certain of what they’re being served and there would be no easy way of substituting bad oil for good. Restaurants, in the commission’s words, should be “obliged to use oil bottles equipped with an opening system which cannot be resealed after the first time it is opened, together with a protection system preventing them from being reused once the contents indicated on the label have been finished.”
This was not a sudden decision. It had been discussed for at least a year. And to those of us who have encountered, over and over again, rancid, fusty, smelly, old oil in those colorful little bowls or cruets on restaurant tables — even in some very fine establishments — it made good sense. But the proposal evoked an outcry from journalists, chefs, restaurateurs and the public at large such that you might think the EC had proposed reinstating capital punishment.
Consumer protection? No way! This was out-and-out interference in commerce, the naysayers cried, especially commerce that involved “little guys” — small-scale restaurateurs and café owners and small-farm producers of olive oil. This was Brussels interfering with time-honored traditions, forcing out modest concerns in favor of big industrial-sized multinationals that promote commodity olive oil. The virtue of this argument is difficult to understand because large producers would have very little to gain from the proposal. But in the end, the EC, bowing to pressure on all sides, withdrew the regulation.
Much of the uproar came from sources with nothing on the table. I cannot speak for the German press, but British journalists suddenly had, as they themselves might say, their knickers in a twist over the proposal. Silly Europeans, the Brits snickered, there they go again, fussing over trivia, imposing ridiculous rules on innocent restaurateurs, as if they didn’t have anything else to worry about in Brussels. Why don’t they do something about the economy instead?
Elsewhere, however, the outcry was even more difficult to understand and I got the impression that most people simply had not read the proposal. It is not a hardship for restaurateurs to provide tamper-proof bottles of olive oil since that is the way most small quantities of olive oil are sold. I buy oil in half-liter bottles or tins in local shops where I live in Tuscany. These containers almost uniformly have a plastic pour spout inside that is difficult to remove, and through which it would be difficult to refill the bottle. Furthermore, bottles such as these are the product of many different olive oil purveyors, from small, local farmers to substantial wineries that also produce oil for large, supra-national concerns. Disposing of the bottles once the contents are gone is also an easy task — they simply go into the glass-product recycling bins that are universal in most of Europe.
Check out the following excerpt from Public Radio International’s “The World,” a daily NPR news program:
At a little café in a Spanish village. . . the owner, a guy named Aris, says he’s indignant [about the new regulations]. Aris drives to his favorite olive orchard . . . to buy his oil right out of the presses. He tops up his big five-gallon jugs, and each morning at the café he fills his oil flasks by hand, then sets one on each table. . . . He says he doesn’t understand how Europe can have a problem with this.
Not necessarily extra virgin olive oil
The problem, simply stated, is that all over Europe, thousands of restaurateurs, large and small, top off oil flasks or cruets or bowls with what is most likely not extra virgin at all but a much lesser grade of olive oil — if, in fact, it is even olive oil and not some cheap substitute. And if it is extra virgin, it will most likely be rancid, fusty and several years out of date — just a few of the most common faults in extra virgin olive oil that not only give bad flavors and aromas to the food served, but also ultimately are bad for diners’ health. And even if it happens to be good olive oil when it goes into the flasks that are filled, day after day over the years without being cleaned, it’s inevitable that the “fresh” oil added will be thoroughly contaminated by the nastiness at the bottom of the flask.
I would hazard a conservative guess, based on long years of experience, that at least 70% of the oil on tables in European restaurants, and at least 85% of the oil on tables in American restaurants, would not pass muster if the research team at UC Davis’ Olive Center were to take up the challenge and test them for their extra virginity. When they tested imported extra virgin oils available in California retail shops a couple of years ago, 73% failed to meet sensory standards.
Which is why, when I go to an ordinary restaurant, and even sometimes to extraordinary ones, even in the olive oil-producing regions of Spain, Greece, Italy and California, I carry with me a small, discreet tin of high-quality extra virgin to adorn my dishes when necessary in order to avoid what’s in those cute glass, or rustic terracotta, or other type of cruets that sit on every restaurant table. (Of course, that doesn’t save me from the fact that they’ve been cooking my food with that junk, does it?)
Essentially, the problem the EC was trying to address was consumer fraud, a serious concern with olive oil, in Europe as everywhere else in the world — as many of these same journalists have been whining about for years. The new requirement would have prevented unscrupulous restaurateurs from filling their cruets with questionable oil. It was a tiny step forward in government efforts to combat fraud and to prevent what is all too often nasty, out-of-date, fake, unacceptable oil from being served up as if it were something genuine and special.
One simply cannot have it both ways. We cannot moan over fraudulent olive oil masquerading as fine extra virgin, and then gripe and sneer when the government takes a first, tentative step toward rectifying the situation. If we truly want reform, if we truly want to be sure that the oil in that bottle or on that table is what it says it is, then we must expect a lot more similar, and quite possibly even more stringent regulation in the years ahead. And welcome to it!
Top photo: Bottled olive oil. Credit: Flickr / foodistablog
Simplicity is ubiquitous: if you — like I — get sucked down the gorgeous wormhole that is Pinterest, you know what I mean. Click on the DESIGN tab, and there they are: hundreds of rooms painted a dull monochromatic gray/beige/ecru. A single, long Forsythia branch stands imperfectly perfect in a chipped wabi-sabi bud vase, which is set upon an ancient pine side table chinked with time. Click on the FASHION tab: passels of tranquil, doe-eyed models dressed in dull, monochromatic gray/beige/ecru. They’re wearing loose-fitting overcoats, and modern and expensive versions of their grandfathers’ 1930s cordovan wingtips. Click on the FOOD tab: chipped, matte-finished Heath coffee bowls in gray/beige/ecru hues, filled with variations of the same thing — grains, beans, usually some kale, a drizzle of olive oil, a tangle of lemon zest — and set down on askew cream-and-red dishtowels that have seen endless washings and line-dryings. The image, or any number of versions of it, has been re-pinned a thousand times which, in Pinterest parlance, is a really good thing.
Oh, the simplicity, a work-harried friend wistfully whined to me one morning while we were on the train, commuting two hours to our Manhattan jobs from rural Connecticut. I really want to live and eat like that, she added, looking over my shoulder at my iPad — simply and quietly.
Of course you do, I told her. And so do I.
ZESTER DAILY LINKS
And, apparently, so does everyone else these days, so much so that a new crop of magnificently-produced, nearly wordless, expensive magazines — maga-Tumblrs, really — has arrived on the scene, promising vicarious calm, conviviality and aspirational serenity of the sort that Thoreau went to the woods to find 159 years ago. Instagram-softened images of meaningful dinner parties abound; young flannel-shirted men in their 20s — Smith Brothers look-alikes — smoke vintage Meerschaum pipes as they gaze across placid ponds at tire swings swaying in the distance while their ladies thoughtfully pour local herb-infused gimlets into authentic 1930s Ball canning jars. You read the sparse text. You swoon. You study. You wonder if these people have day jobs.
The message is clear: You – yeah you, with the three kids in daycare and the divorce, getting off the IRT and running into Starbucks for your McVenti before hunkering down in your cubicle under those fluorescent lights for eight hours while the jackass next to you yammers on his cell phone about the great sex he had last night — you, too, can live a simple life.
That is, if you work hard enough at it.
If you wear the right authentic clothes and drink the right authentic drinks out of the right authentic vessels. If your food is unfettered and unfussy and thoughtfully produced and served in the right coffee bowls of the right color, and was perhaps procured from the right CSA or the right farmers market.
For those of us who have suffered through the fashion of anxious, nervous food — inauthentic, tall, overwrought — such simple, gastronomical style is exactly what we’ve been breathlessly waiting for. But has the style of living and eating this way, with its gorgeous prepackaged rusticity and come-hither appeal, just become exigent fetish? Are our attempts to be “simple” so self-conscious and superficial that the benefits of real simplicity, peace, mindfulness, thrift are lost? Will being simple — eating simply, living simply — go the way of the Pet Rock?
Trends are a direct reflection of our ever-changing cultural and socio-emotional needs. In the greed-is-good 1980s, everything was big — shoulder pads, hig hair — and the contrived food of the time, unnatural vertical and architectural, was an extension of that style. In late 1988, I was served an elaborate, human fist-sized chocolate piano at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. A scaled-down replica of a Steinway baby grand, it had eighty-eight black and white chocolate keys, and strings fashioned from spun sugar. After the grim 1970s, life was suddenly all about the frantic quest for the elaborate and ornate, and the food on our plates reflected it. In the 1990s, everyone declared themselves a home-schooled chef — the Food Network went on the air in 1993 — and we all went out to buy kitchen blowtorches and home foamers and timbale molds. After 9/11, we craved peace and conviviality, and the next big thing was comfort food. The sale of crockpots and Creuset casseroles took off like they’d been shot from a cannon.
So what created this fraught mandate for the ancient saucepan — dented to perfection — that we spend hours searching for at Goodwill? Why the farmhouse tables laden with elemental dishes and the longing gazes serene as stone? Desperation for simplicity and authenticity smacks of a sort of psychic exhaustion, and the stark realization that living and eating in a complicated overdone way will take a toll on our souls. It compels us with an almost furious hysteria to return to preconceived notions of what’s real, even if what’s real is nothing more than an often fetishized metaphor for ever-elusive safety, and a commodified yearning to bind our frayed connection to equanimity and control.
In a world of constant digital connectedness, of nebulous relationships and jobs that disappear before our eyes, of an often fraudulent and dangerous food system, where we feed our children pink slime and anyone can slap a green label on their over-processed product and pretend it’s organic, we’ll pay anything we can to get simplicity, or some semblance of it back.
But if simplicity really is just a fetish, what will happen when the fetish fades and the trend is over? What will we eat and how will we live?
Top photo: Elissa Altman. Credit: © Susan Turner