Articles in Opinion

Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

News travels faster in small towns than on social media, so when Parade Magazine announced last week that my hometown of McMinnville, Ore., was a finalist in a race for the Best Main Street in America, the town’s good gossip suddenly took on a national flavor. Parade praised McMinnville’s Third Street for its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms.

I hope when people come to town they discover that what sets McMinnville apart is the food –  not just the restaurants we love, but how differently people eat here. After all, Third Street is not just a quaint strolling village for wine-country tourists — though its antique storefronts, friendly people and the way every person crossing the street  stops traffic might suggest otherwise. Third Street, our Main Street, is the backbone for the food system, and all tendrils reach out from it.

 

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Third Street draws residents with its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms. Credit: Chuck Hillestad

Pride in food

Our restaurants use local food as a source of pride and a matter of fact. For Thistle, a farm-to-table restaurant of the highest caliber, sourcing local is its calling card, the ethos that drives its turn-of-the-century (as in, last century) menu. Thistle has received a lot of deserved attention for the almost holy way its chefs approach food, but the truth is nearly all of the great restaurants on Third Street source from home. Bistro Maison, where diners can relax in the most gracious service in wine country, uses local produce because there is simply no better way to coax out exceptional flavors using French techniques. Nick’s Italian Café has long used seasonal eating to give real Italian specialties a wine country kick, topping Neapolitan-style pizza with nettles from near the river or lacing sultry Dungeness crab through its lasagna. When you eat a patty melt at Crescent Cafe, you are tasting the owners’ own cattle. What we’re discovering as each year passes is a small-town food scene rising to the demands of an international wine public but still keeping the flavors, ingredients and traditions of this place alive.

The restaurant scene is easy for tourists to experience. It is not uncommon for us to meet visitors from Texas who flew in just to eat here. But McMinnville is also the first place I have lived where shopping at the grocery store seems to be an afterthought. If you want honey, you’re not buying it in little bear jars from the shelf, you’re probably getting it in two-gallon jugs from your honey guy. If you eat eggs, they are probably from your own chickens or from your best friend’s. Other places may make a fetish out of vegetable growing, but you don’t get points here for growing a garden. If you have the space, you are feeding your family from your backyard. Half of my friends are part of a full community supported agriculture (CSA) diet and eat according to the seasons. When my friend Jasper orders his Stumptown latte at Community Plate, a breakfast and lunch hotspot, he brings the milk from his own cow.

A culture of sharing

People here live truly hyphenated lives, with eggs in many, many baskets, and for most of them, their hyphens connect in some way to the food system. A chiropractor might run a sideline salsa business, a freelance tech guy might have his hand in kimchi, winery owners might share their homemade peppermint bark at a local food swap. Everyone has access to something special and everyone shares.

Usually, you don’t have a way to get at the fabric of a place until you’ve lived it over time, but for my family, McMinnville was a quick lesson. When we arrived here in December of 2011, I was two months pregnant. When our second child was born, complete strangers walked food into our kitchen every day for three full weeks. Not casseroles, mind you. Full roasted chickens. Lovingly tended sage and rosemary potatoes. Salad greens dotted with edible flowers. What McMinnville understands more than anything else is how to feed people.

People in McMinnville know how good they have it. Not all of Oregon’s small towns have the infrastructure or the climate to eat like this. A few hours south and far to the east, in other small towns, food scarcity is a real issue. In Brownsville, the last grocery store closed shop a few years ago and the town decided to cover over its baseball diamond with a community garden to help people have better access to food. Far to the east, some towns have to drive more than an hour to find a grocery store.

I haven’t decided whether I really want McMinnville to be the Best Main Street in America. The journalist in me gets starry-eyed at the prospect of having our ordinary lives valued on such a national stage. But the budding small-town girl in me keeps thinking about what it really feels like to come in second. In the moment, you feel so close to the prize that it feels like heartbreak, but afterward, all you feel is the drive for improvement, the room for growth.

Win or lose, as every small-town denizen knows, it feels good to be part of the parade. I’ve been in three small-town parades since I moved here and know now that it is like being invited to the table. The joy comes from feeling the energy of the crowd.

Main photo: Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

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Main photo: Rolando Beramendi, left, founder of Manicaretti, with business partner, Sara Wilson, checking her cellphone, in the background. Credit: Julia della Croce

Just as fashionistas flock to the runways every season, culinary passionistas swarm the annual Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City for a staggering display of edibles from around the world. Everything from beet yogurt to  white truffle brie to bourbon pickles to duck bacon — what used to be called “gourmet,” now, “specialty food” — is represented and this year’s spectacular was the largest on record, with more than 2,700 exhibitors from more than 49 countries sprawled over 369,000 square feet at the Jacob Javits Convention Center.

I hoped it meant that quality food products were on the rise, but after working my way through the exhibits, I wondered whether we’re any closer to that than we were more than 30 years ago when Mimi Sheraton ruffled feathers by writing in the New York Times, “a good 75% of what was passed off as fancy last week at the Coliseum could just as easily be labeled junk.”

Fancy Food’s right and wrong

What is “Fancy Food” anyway? To me, it’s a microcosm of what’s right — and wrong — in today’s food world. On the one hand, we find genuine products from around the world that illustrate the durability of artisanal traditions in the face of a global economy that threatens the very existence of small farmers. On the other hand, the aisles (as mirrored in markets across America) are crammed with novelties inside beautiful jars and packages.

There’s stuff that struts the fashion, like bacon marmalade, smoked chocolate chips and — yet again — kale, a vegetable I like well enough, but not in my muffins. One year, when slipping fruit into everything was trending, it was tomato and raspberry “marinara.” Is nothing sacred? Much doesn’t fit into the category of actual food, and an awful lot of it is revved up with chemical flavorings, steroids for food.

Nevertheless, the show brings to light unique and worthy products that restaurant chefs seize upon — food such as Mugolio, a sweet pine bud syrup redolent with wild Alpine herbs made by a forager from the Trentino Alps, where the locals have been making it for centuries, or wood-roasted Calabrian figs swaddled in their own leaves.

Unless a discriminating retailer brings such ingredients to market after discovering them at the show, jewels like these don’t typically make their way to home cooks who, by using them, could just as easily elevate their food as chefs do. At the show, I always make it a point to catch up with maverick importers such as Rolando Beramendi (Manicaretti), Ari Weinzweig (Zingerman’s) and Beatrice Ughi (Gustiamo), who go off the highways and even off the map to track down exceptional producers.

Marta Lisi of Attavola. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Marta Lisi of Attavola. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Another is Marta Lisi, who discovered the wood-roasted figs and sells them and other artisanal products from Italy’s diverse regions to a few U.S. retailers. I’m a fig aficionado, and I never tasted figs so delectable as these. Headquartered in Sicily, her company, Attavola, distributes her family’s traditional Salento oils as well as a new citrus-olive oil under the label of Piana degli Ulivi. Recently I tasted all of these splendid oils at their estate in Miggiano, Puglia, which has been making olive oil for 750 years. Lisi also runs tasting tours to small “intergenerational” food and wine producers who are off the tourist track.

Discoveries

At Manicaretti’s booth, while dipping a spoon into a jar of Il Colle del Gusto pistachio spread to give me a taste, Beramendi recounted wandering the open market in Rieti, a hilltop city near Rome, and finding a couple selling pistachio and chocolate-hazelnut spreads that looked like Nutella but tasted a lot better. “I told them on the spot that I’d buy everything they made,” he said. Before he knew it, he was back at their farm, sleeves rolled up and helping them to make more. His newest product, ZeroTre, is the first line of organic artisanal vegetable pastinas introduced into this country, the brainchild of an Abruzzese elementary schoolteacher whose family happens to be in the pasta business. It is a product I consider long overdue here, as readers of my column know.

Beatrice Ughi of Gustiamo and Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman's in the foreground, with producer Sergio Cinque of Faella Pastificio, left, and Edoardo Dal Santo, right, of the Gustiamo staff in the background. Credit: Gustiamo

Beatrice Ughi of Gustiamo and Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s in the foreground, with producer Sergio Cinque of Faella Pastificio, left, and Edoardo Dal Santo, right, of the Gustiamo staff in the background. Credit: Gustiamo

Gustiamo’s Ughi is as fierce a champion as there could be for the products she hand-picks. She’s been a veritable Joan of Arc for her San Marzano tomato producers, denouncing the big corporations for their fraudulent practice of counterfeiting “San Marzanos” to make us think we’re buying the real thing. Another of her finds, Sant’Eustachio coffee, has had a cult following since it was established in 1938. International celebrities and discriminating locals alike flock to its cafe in Rome, just across from the Italian Senate where the organic and fair trade beans are roasted over a wood fire. Even though the open fires are illegal in Rome, the government never shuts them down. What politician would want to be without his Sant’Eustachio espresso?

Ultimately, “Fancy Food” may seem to symbolize the tastes of an affluent society for new and exotic foods. Yet, in the best of all worlds, it also celebrates the enduring cultures of those whose lives are inextricably tied to the vitality of their soil. The Fancy Food Show, along with other exhibitions such as the International Artisans Show in Florence I attended just two months earlier, provide an invaluable platform for new generations who continue the ancient traditions.

 

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Attavola’s wood-roasted fig ball. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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Fancy Food Show product highlights

Benedetto Cavalieri Pasta: artisan dried semolino pasta from the Salento | From Cavalieri’s own local heritage wheat; bronze die-extruded, intense wheat flavor, ideal elasticity and chewiness | Producer: Benedetto Cavalieri, Puglia, Italy | 1999 sofi award winner, best pasta

Broccolo Friariello di Napoli: friarielli in extra virgin olive oil | As yet undiscovered in the U.S., friarielli is a variety of broccoli rabe that has inspired endless poetry in Naples; preserved in the producer’s own olive oil, to toss with pasta. | Producer: Maida Farm, Campania, Italy

Crunchy Capers: dried capers (new product) | Exceptional floral flavor and big crunch; the best thing you could ever put over deviled eggs. | Producer: Gabriele Lasagni/La Nicchia, Pantelleria, Sicily, Italy | 2014 sofi awards nominee

Faella Pasta: artisan dried semolino pasta from Gragnano, the original pasta-producing area around Naples | Anelli Rigati, ridged rings” are elusive outside of a few of Italy’s regions; it’s about time they were exported here; great for pasta e fagioli — the beans fall right into the holes. | Producer: Pasta Faella

Gustarosso Pomodoro S. Marzano D.O.P.: The real San Marzano plum tomato, meaty and simply the richest-flavored tomato in the world, grown in the Sarno Valley, near Naples | Producer: Danicoop

Marina Colonna’s Citrus Oils: bergamot, clementine and lemon extra virgin olive oils | The citrus zest is pressed with the estate’s olives, resulting in delicate and fragrant oils that are suitable for finishing and baking. | Producer: Marina Colonna, Molise, Italy

Mostarda: Mixed fruit mostarda | Lombardy’s unique, ancient sweet and pungent fruit preserve, spiked with zingy mustard oil; an essential ingredient in the pumpkin tortelli of Mantova; accompaniment to the region’s famous boiled meat dish, even better with roasts. Producer: Corte Donda, Lombardy, Italy

Mugolio: rare pine cone bud syrup | The Alp’s answer to maple syrup, with complex and delicate wild flower and rosemary essences, used for finishing anything from roasted pork, poultry and game to topping ice cream and panna cotta. | Producer: Eleonora Cunacci/Primitivizia, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Italy

Palloni di Ficchi: wood-roasted fig ball | Just eat it. It’s incredibly good. | Producer: Dolci Pensieri di Calabri, Calabria, Italy | Importer: Attavola

Piana degli Ulivi: extra virgin olive oils | Estate bottled extra virgin olive oils from Cellina di Nardò, and Ogliarola Salentina olives from the Lisi family trees; also, a new, intensely citrus extra virgin olive oil made from pressing one-third lemon fruit with two-thirds olives — for finishing and flavoring. | Producer: Merico Maria Rosa, Puglia

Pomodoro del Piennolo del Vesuvio D.O.P.: These famous organic cluster tomatoes from the mineral-rich volcanic soil of Vesuvius are an ideal balance of sweetness and acidity; they’re what make Neapolitan pizzas and tomato sauces incomparable. | Producer: Casa Barone, Campania, Italy

Pistacchiosa, Noccioliva, Granellona Brut: pistachio or hazelnut-chocolate spreads (smooth or chunky) made with extra virgin olive oil | Move over Nutella, not only does this stuff taste lightyears better; it’s actually good for you. | Producer: Il Colle del Gusto, Lazio

Sant’Eustachio: Wood-roasted Arabica espresso | With coffee quality on the decline, Italians have resorted to inventing new ways of drinking it — more and more “latte,” “macchiato” and the like. Not so with Sant’Eustachio — they drink this straight up. | Producer: Raimondo and Roberto Ricci, Lazio

TreZero: Organic pastina (new product) | Italy’s baby food, four varieties: zucchini-spinach, pumpkin-carrot-tomato; gluten-free; classic wheat | artisanal process | Producer: Rustichella, Abruzzo, Italy

Main photo: Rolando Beramendi, left, founder of Manicaretti, with business partner, Sara Wilson, working on her cellphone in the background. Credit: Julia della Croce

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Megan Miller of Bitty Foods. Credit: Jonathan Snyder

Crickets, love ‘em or leave ‘em, are the soundtrack to our summer nights. Megan Miller, co-founder of Bitty Foods, sees them a bit differently.

“When I think of crickets, I think of the future of food,” she says. “Insects are in fact the most efficient form of protein on planet earth.” Miller spoke about the benefits of eating insects at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference featuring leading innovators in the food movement. (See video of her talk below).

Insects are eaten in many cultures, but Miller is well aware that many people find the idea less than appetizing. Bitty Foods has taken steps to reduce the barriers its products might face by turning crickets into something more palatable.

AUTHOR


Pam WeiszPam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food,  a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

“It might be difficult for a lot people to consider eating whole insects, but they become a lot more manageable when they’re in the format of cricket flour,” she said.

The flour is made from whole insects dried and milled into a fine powder. Bitty Foods sells the flour, which has been mixed with other ingredients that enable it to be substituted for baking flour, as well as cookies made from cricket flour. These are available in three flavors: chocolate chip, chocolate cardamom and orange ginger.

These products represent the beginning of what is envisioned as a complete line of goods, beyond just snacks. As Miller explains, the vision is to take foods “that are normally completely carb-based and boost them with protein so you end up getting a much more nutritious meal.”

“The basic premise is that we are trying to introduce people in the U.S. to edible insects with delicious foods with good design,” she said. “We have gotten a really great reception faster than we expected.”

Miller lists five of the many reasons why the idea of eating insects should be taken seriously by those concerned about their health and/or the environment:

  1. Cricket flour has 7 grams of protein per quarter-cup serving as well as healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. Bitty Foods’ cricket flour is also gluten-free.
  2. Insects can be grown with very little land and very little water. If you feed crickets 10 pounds of feed, they will produce 9 pounds of edible cricket protein. By contrast, it takes 10 pounds of feed to get 1 pound of beef.
  3. If eating insects becomes common, we could reclaim some of the 30% of the Earth’s land surface — one-third of the Earth — which is currently being used by the livestock industry to grow animals and the grains the animals eat.
  4. We could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 18% if insects become a part of the mainstream food supply.
  5. Having insects take the place of more resource-intensive sources of protein could lower the cost of food all around the world by about 33%. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has published a report  concluding that edible insects may be the key to stabilizing the global food supply.

 

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Chocolate chip with cricket flour. Credit: Jonathan Snyder

Miller notes that there are 2,000 species of insects that can be, and are, eaten by people. She chose crickets because they don’t carry any diseases that are transmissible to humans and they don’t destroy crops, so people don’t have negative connotations. “I think crickets have a very nice cultural association for Westerners, with the nice chirping and the summer nights,” Miller says.

Bitty Foods now sells its products through its website, www.bittyfoods.com. The company recently began working with a food distributor and hopes to be in stores within a few months, starting in its home market of the Bay Area and then expanding to New York City.

Miller, who began her career as a trend forecaster and consumer researcher before turning to edible insects, thinks that edible insects are on the cusp of becoming trendy.

“I see a powerful shift happening in the way that people think about food,” she said. “People are more interested in sustainability than ever before and understanding where their food comes from. And thanks to the Internet we’re constantly being exposed to new trends and new ideas and even new cuisines.”

As a result, she predicts, “There’s an emerging edible insect industry in the U.S. In the next decade, insects will move from being a crazy, edgy food to being a completely mainstream food for most people.”

Main photo: Megan Miller in her Bitty Foods kitchen. Credit: Courtesy of Bitty Foods

This story was written by Pam Weisz, deputy director of Change Food,  a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

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Why stop at superfoods like blueberries when you can discover new ones? Credit: Nolan Hester

I’m browsing the superfood aisle at Whole Paycheck, wondering if the companies that sell these products just discovered they’re super or they’re food. They discovered they’re superprofitable — that’s for sure. High in antioxidants or other powerful nutrients, their chia and hemp seeds, cacao nibs, maca powder and goji berries are going for $18 to $25 a pound. And South American acai, camu and maqui superfruit powders sell for a whopping $80 to $138 a pound! Apparently there’s nothing dense about the marketers of nutrient-dense foods. But since there’s no USDA certification for superfoods, who’s to say my maca’s not mediocre?

I don’t see any scientists using the term “superfoods,” and critics say there are plenty of whole foods that are really and truly nutritious. Still, there must be some authority deeming these foods so super. I’m picturing this superfood czar in a corner office of the jungle surrounded by mountains of seeds, berries, roots, nuts and nibs with a big, red rubber stamp that says, “SUPER!”

Hey, I’m as good a judge of super as the next foodist. Maybe I could cash in on this new cash crop! I’m thinking the best way to do it is to discover my own superfood. First I’ll pick a country — one that’s outside the superfood spotlight yet has vast jungle offerings. There are already Brazilian and Amazon superfoods; Incan, Andean and Aztec superfoods; Turkish, Persian, Kashmir and Chinese superfoods; Mediterranean and African ones, too.
Hmm … Bhutan might work. It’s got amazing biodiversity with the Himalayan mountains, rainforests and jungles and is still largely untouched by the West. They must have something I could forage to make my fortune. I can already see a jungle-to-table logo on the packaging. And since the Bhutanese are Buddhists who coined the term, “Gross National Happiness,” they should be pretty chill over my intention. But berries and seeds are so last year. Wouldn’t it be neat if I could find a berry and seed superfood in one? A berryseed would be the super-est food ever!

The Koch sister of sustainability

Yep, I’ll swoop into Bhutan, find all the berryseeds, form a corporation, get the local women to harvest them, create a women’s cooperative, and then donate 10% back to them and claim my company is all for their benefit. Ooh, I like it. I just need to get Fair Trade, USDA Organic and Rainforest Alliance certifications, and I’ll be on my way.

Adair Seldon in Cascais, Portugal. Credit: Niles Seldon

Adair Seldon in Cascais, Portugal. Credit: Niles Seldon

It shouldn’t be too hard. I’m sure there are lobbyists swarming that corner jungle office. I can hardly wait to hobnob with the palm oil-maker mucky-mucks at trade shows in Indonesia. I’ll be the Koch sister of sustainability. I’d hate to give up this lucrative career as a food blogger and all, but the world is awaiting my product for health, healing and happiness — all while benefitting an underserved community — me!

I’m thinking I’ll sell more product if I can pinpoint exactly what it’s so super for. Maybe I’ll search for a berryseed that curtails lethargy in women. What a lofty, pro-planet goal! When my superfood cures this debilitating symptom, women will have enough energy to make the same wages as men. Yessss! After the Bhutanese women spend a few back-breaking seasons picking and harvesting my berryseeds, lethargy in women and income inequality will be totally eradicated! First I’ll empower the Bhutanese women — then I’ll empower every woman on the planet! Watch out, world! Women are coming to save humanity from Greedy Guy Syndrome!

Well, I better get packing. Let’s see … gardening gloves, mini shovel, BPA-free container for my berryseeds and, oh yeah, my Dzongkha Bhutanese dictionary. I wouldn’t want to say anything culturally insensitive when I demand access to my berryseeds. I want the Bhutanese people to know I understand and respect them — that we’re all equals on this sacred planet. Well, except for women. But with my berryseed twofer, we’ll be one soon enough.

Saving womankind feels great! I don’t know why I waited so long! Really, you should try it! But pick another country for your superfood. Bhutan’s mine.

Main photo: Why stop at superfoods like blueberries when you can invent new ones? Credit: Nolan Hester

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Kissing couple with food

Can the kitchen hold the recipe for romance — or is the gender divide too great?

On a reality TV show known for romantic fantasy, a recent cooking-themed date fizzled more than it sizzled when “The Bachelorette,” Andi Dorfman, sought to heat things up with Brian (one of about a dozen eligible bachelors at her disposal) on a foodie date in the most romantic of locations — Marseille, France. But like a stubborn soufflé, the evening fell flat.

Before Andi and Brian enter a kitchen in which one can imagine Julia Child herself finding passion, contentment and satisfaction within the pleasures of French cuisine, they snuggle together in a private cinema. Andi and Brian view “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” a cinematic adaptation of Richard C. Morais’ best-selling novel, in which a cross-cultural culinary rivalry yields compassion, transformation and love. The film inspires Andi to bring its plot to life. She and Brian visit local markets and shops, gathering ingredients for a French feast, an experience that Andi describes as one out of a movie or fairytale. Beyond a gastronomic adventure, however, Andi hopes to cook up some romance, to find her own recipe for love.

But instead of the sumptuous cooking and feeding scenes that viewers associate with food films, the passion quickly cools between Andi and Brian. As a man who does not cook, Brian admits that he is “outside of his comfort zone” and grows so uncomfortable in the kitchen that he emotionally shuts down, communicating with only curt responses and making no displays of affection. As they chop carrots, marinate frog legs, toss a salad and slice a baguette, they are spatially separated, standing back-to-back or on opposite ends of the kitchen space. Mimicking a scene from “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” a disappointed Andi waves a limp asparagus spear in the air, the vegetable’s figurative impotence displaying the date’s failed chemistry.

Cooking, gender and the celebrity chef

Andi and Brian’s disastrous food-focused date echoes a collision of expectations that surround cooking. Although the gender divide is softening in many households, conventional roles dictate that women are expected to cook in the home. Men more often are not. Rather, it is typically men who cook in professional kitchen as chefs. This episode of “The Bachelorette” taps into the increasingly commercialized sex appeal of celebrity chefs, who, even as female chefs make great strides in restaurant kitchens, continue to be mostly male. For example, a study from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that women are hired for only 19% of chef positions, a gender gap worthy of our ire.

And, in the American media, popular chefs exude a particular brand of rugged masculinity. Consider this description of Todd English in the New York Post: “By turns macho and sexy, charming and just a bit cheesy, he’s the guy you get your mojo back with on some far-flung Mediterranean island.” The iconic male chef is always in control — of himself, his knife, his ingredients, his suppliers and his staff. He is commanding. He is as “hot” as the roasting, boiling and sautéing that take place around him in the kitchen that he manages with an unwavering authority.

An unfulfilled food fantasy

Held to these standards of professionalism and macho masculinity, Brian fails to fulfill his role as the sexy chef in Andi’s food-film-inspired fantasy. He is not knowledgeable on cheese. He cannot describe how he prepares broccoli. He fails to seize the moment in every way. Beyond not playing his part, by not complimenting Andi’s command in the kitchen, he also fails to validate her femininity.

Cultures map gendered expectations onto food and cooking. Who cooks, why, how, what and when speak volumes about how a culture defines masculinity and femininity, professional prowess and familial devotion. There are also literal connections between food, sex and desire — from aphrodisiacs to food foreplay à la “9 1/2 Weeks”  or Tampopo.”

In the end, though, eaters need not hold themselves to professional standards or aspire to culinary fantasy. It is always an option to “just leave cooking to the movies,” as Andi and Brian did, rekindling their budding relationship at a restaurant over beef bourguignon, a dish whose depth and richness they can only hope their love might come to emulate.

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Fighting Hunger: Ashley Dress helps Addison Neville, a preschooler at Iowa's St. Joseph Community School, plant pepper seeds. Credit: Teresa Knutson

We live in a time when child hunger operates undercover. We rarely see the images of sunken eyes and distended bellies that we commonly associate with hunger. Yet many of America’s children face the double blow of being undernourished and overfed. One in five is food insecure and one in three is overweight. They get plenty of calories, fat, sugar and salt in their daily diets, but not enough of the vitamins and minerals required for their growing bodies.

Such a complicated problem requires a multi-pronged approach, and FoodCorps aspires to be part of the solution. Our nationwide team of young adult leaders tries to provide kids access to “real food” that will help them grow up healthy. We do that by teaching kids about foods that are locally grown and nutritious, based on the USDA’s MyPlate recommendations.

In addition, we teach them how to cook such foods and grow them themselves in their school gardens. We also help introduce these foods into their school cafeterias since kids spend most of their time at school. Schools also happen to be where low-income children consume the most calories each day, so it’s a good place to begin fostering life-long healthy habits.

Postville, Iowa, the community I serve, calls itself the “Hometown to the World.” A small town in northeast Iowa surrounded by farmland, Postville is full of diversity with families from Mexico, Guatemala, Kenya and beyond. Almost 80 percent of the students served by the Postville Community School District receive free or reduced-price lunches. Knowing that so many families depend on these meals — and not knowing what foods are available at their homes –  makes the food served at school even more vital. It must be fresh, healthy and satisfying.

Nutrition education is one part of FoodCorps’ approach to solving both hunger and obesity. Iowa’s Department of Public Health offers a program called Pick a Better Snack. I visit 11 elementary classrooms each month to teach students about a new fruit or vegetable, often one that many of them have never tried. Through such encounters, students learn how fiber regulates their digestion and why they need at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

In March, I offered the students samples of three vegetables: cauliflower, celery and purple cabbage. After telling one class that I couldn’t give them more because they were going to lunch right after, one girl proclaimed, “But we’re just trying to be healthy!”

Tracking food’s path from seed to plate

FoodCorps also tries to create a connection between children and the path food takes from seed to plate. Postville has a large community garden, an oasis in a landscape dominated by corn and soybean fields. A few community volunteers and I help kids from the 4H Club as they plant vegetables in the spring, maintain them through the summer and then, come fall, harvest them for the school lunch line. The kids have seen the kohlrabi they have harvested appear in the cafeteria’s “extras” line, which gives them a sense of accomplishment by providing real food for themselves and their classmates.

Finally, FoodCorps’ approach gives students the chance to actually eat foods grown by local farmers. This has prompted changes in school kitchens. In Postville, there has been a shift in the cafeteria climate: using scratch cooking instead of ready-to-eat. The kitchen staff no longer simply unwraps and reheats food. This requires more staff, more equipment, more time. Change has been slow; gone are the days of chicken nuggets and french fries, and at first, the kids complained.

Nowadays, though, I see them making connections that they may not have before. They know that the purple cabbage I serve them during snack time is the same kind that they tried during the Purple Power Wrap taste test last month, and that purple cabbage can be grown right in their community.

Hunger is a complicated issue that will require changes in our economy, politics and society. For hungry children, those things don’t matter in the short-term. But by working in the schools, where children often eat two of their meals and usually a snack or two, FoodCorps is helping educate them about making healthier choices as well as teaching them to grow a thing or two for themselves.

FoodCorps Service Member Ashley Dress won the 2014 FoodCorps Victory Growers Award “for a compelling account of hunger and food insecurity,” winning a $5,000 prize for her service site, the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative. The award, sponsored by C&S Wholesale Grocers, highlights that many children struggle with hunger and food insecurity, and that the food they receive at school is the most important meal they will get all day.

Funding for FoodCorps is provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, AmeriCorps, and a diverse array of private and public donors, including the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). NCAT is the host for FoodCorps in Iowa, working with local partners in Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Decorah, Des Moines and Waterloo. Find out more about NCAT and the FoodCorps team in Iowa at www.facebook.com/FoodCorpsIowa or https://www.ncat.org/midwest/

Main photo: Ashley Dress helps Addison Neville, a preschooler at Iowa’s St. Joseph Community School, plant pepper seeds. Credit: Teresa Knutson

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A report by Consumer Reports is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to kill off one of the most misleading — and downright contemptible  — claims you will find on food packaging today.

The natural label claim epitomizes everything that’s wrong with our food labeling laws — or should I say lack of them. The natural wording is found on the packaging of millions of food products sold every day, including meat, dairy and eggs. Consumers consider it an important claim: According to new research from Consumer Reports, nearly 60% of people surveyed look for the natural label term when food shopping. When it comes to meat, dairy and eggs, almost 50% of consumers assume that natural  means the animals were raised outdoors and not in confinement. Many consumers also think natural means that no growth hormones were used (68%), or the animals’ feed contained no genetically modified organisms (64%) or that no antibiotics or other drugs were used (60%).

In truth, any of these practices would be acceptable under the natural label. In fact, the term is pretty much a blank check for food manufacturers to mislead and deceive consumers into thinking they are buying something better — when they are not.

Despite what you might think,  a natural label claim  has nothing to do with how an animal might have been raised or treated. According to the USDA, “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural.”

In other words, the term applies only to how the meat or poultry product is processed. So the farming system may have involved feedlot or confinement systems, or the routine use of antibiotic growth promoters or artificial hormones (for beef cattle), or the feeding of GMOs, or the mutilation of beaks and tails, and other questionable practices associated with intensive, industrial-scale livestock production.

The reality of  ‘natural’ meat

The sad reality is that millions of conscientious consumers are potentially being duped and exploited on a daily basis by unscrupulous meat processors that use the natural label claim — many of which are household names and brands. That natural beef you specifically chose, which also happened to display happy cattle in a green pasture, doesn’t mean the animals were raised in a pasture, or fed a healthy diet, or treated according to higher welfare standards.

AWA's Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

AWA’s Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

It simply means the beef contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed after slaughter. In reality most of the cattle slaughtered for natural beef brands are finished on dirt feedlots, where thousands of cattle have little space for their last few months and eat mainly corn and grain to quickly gain weight. Such feedlot cattle are routinely given antibiotics and hormones in a losing battle to prevent disease and maximize growth rates. It’s hardly a natural existence.

Similarly, most natural-labeled eggs will come from industrial indoor poultry operations, where thousands of hens are confined in battery cages. Each bird lives in a cage with several others with each allotted less space than a sheet of letter paper. Beaks are routinely cut back using a hot knife to prevent hens from pecking each other to death out of boredom and frustration. The birds also are fed various pharmaceuticals — such as arsenic  — to control pests and diseases. They never see grass or sunlight, let alone roam and forage.

It’s the same story for the 60-plus million intensively raised pigs in the U.S., confined to indoor concrete runs, fed growth promoters such as ractopamine, with their tails cut to prevent tail biting. This pork also is labeled natural. Again, would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural?

Yet the major meat processors that dominate the food industry are making billions of dollars by knowingly misleading well-meaning consumers each and every day. And the USDA — the government agency responsible for “ensuring the truthfulness and accuracy in labeling of meat and poultry products” — is doing nothing about it.

Scientists argue that these marketing claims — in addition to fooling consumers — may also be leading to obesity and diet-related ill health. According to the latest research from the University of Houston, health-related buzzwords — including natural — are lulling consumers into thinking food products labeled with those words are healthier than they are.

We at Animal Welfare Approved are calling on farmers and consumers to unite behind Consumer Reports in its effort to “Kill the Natural Label.” Please sign the online petition. If you have bought natural-labeled foods, why not write to the food manufacturer and voice your displeasure? Tell them with these petitions that you won’t buy their products again until they are honestly labeled.

Misleading labels confuse consumers and threaten the livelihoods of farmers striving to feed the nation honestly and sustainably. Seek out and buy honestly labeled food. The AWA logo is a pledge that our animals were raised outdoors for their entire lives on an independent family farm using sustainable agriculture methods. No other food label offers these distinctions. You can find your nearest supplier of AWA-certified foods at animalwelfareapproved.org.

Main photo:  The “natural”  label does not cover how animals are raised. Credit: Courtesy HUHA

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Japanese Knotweed. Credit: maljalen / iStockphoto

Tama Matsuoka Wong is a lawyer turned professional forager who is working to get people to think differently about plants that are often dismissed, or denigrated, as weeds. Rather than focus on the bounty that home gardeners traditionally celebrate, she spoke about foraging for wild plants at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference featuring leading innovators in the food movement. (See her talk on YouTube at the end of this story.)

Wong said her interest in this abundant source of nutritious and delicious ingredients began with a failed attempt at gardening, which she tried after moving back to New Jersey following several years in Hong Kong. “Gardening was a lot harder than I remembered it,” she said. “There are a lot of rules.”

Tama Matsuoka Wong. Credit: Thomas Schauer

Tama Matsuoka Wong. Credit: Thomas Schauer

Instead, she began learning about native plants, including many varieties that the average homeowner regards as intruders. The turning point came, Wong said, when a visitor from Japan told her that the plant known here as knotweed, considered an invasive species because it can damage building foundations, is viewed as a delicacy in Japan, where it’s known as itadori.

“That was the moment,” Wong said. “The weeds I was trying to battle are great food. Why is it that all this great food is around us and we don’t recognize it?”

In addition to being plentiful, wild plants are nutrient and flavor dense. “They haven’t been bred for shelf life or yield,” she said.

Wong began to research which wild plants are not just edible but delicious, a category that for her includes daylilies, chickweed, wild cress, wild garlic and creeping jenny. She began working with chefs interested in foraging to develop recipes, and today works with such heavy hitters as Eddy Leroux, head chef de cuisine at Restaurant Daniel, and Mads Refslund of ACME. She and Leroux teamed up on a cookbook, “Foraged Flavor,” which includes recipes as well as tips on finding and identifying edible wild plants.

Wong’s business, Meadows and More, provides foraging workshops. Her latest project is a wild sumac farm, which she successfully funded on Kickstarter earlier this year. She is planting 500-plus wild sumac trees on about an acre of unusable farmland preserved and owned by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. Sumac is used to make za’atar, an increasingly popular spice traditionally used in Middle Eastern cooking.

In Wong’s words, “the wild farm crop will exist not only as part of a natural landscape that supports the health of the soil, water, air, pollinators and larger community but also actively restores it, without the need for irrigation, fertilizer, tillage or pesticides.”

Foraging tips to live by

Wong has several tips for anyone interested in foraging for wild plants, some of which she shared recently on NPR’s “Science Friday”:

AUTHOR


Pam WeiszPam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food,  a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

– It’s critical to identify plants properly. Meadows and More offers help on its website, including a seasonal foraging calendar with helpful photos, and a plant identification forum where users can post photos of plants and have them identified by a botanist.

– Make sure you’re not picking in a place with heavy industrial use, which can contaminate the soil and water and, ultimately, the plants.

– Get permission from whoever owns the land on which you plan to forage. Not only is it more polite, but you’ll also be able to find out if there is any risk from pollution or pesticide use.

– Be environmentally responsible. Some native plants are very connected with the local ecology, and over-harvesting can lead to problems. For example, there is concern that ramps are suffering from their popularity, with an estimated 2 million ramps now being harvested annually. If you want to harvest ramps, Wong recommends clipping the top of the plant and leaving the root so it can regenerate.

– Some wild plants are “garden worthy.” You can plant them, as Wong is doing with the wild sumac farm.

Those looking for recipes for foraged plants have several resources in addition to Wong’s cookbook. There are recipes on the Meadows and More website, and Wong has contributed recipes to Serious Eats and Food52.

Wong firmly believes that wild plants will become a more important part of how we eat. “Weeds are the ultimate opportunistic, sustainable plants all over the world,” she said. “I don’t think we can top Mother Nature.”

In addition, Wong said, foraging for wild plants has benefits that go beyond the kitchen. Looking for plants in a meadow or in the woods, “you will notice things that are beautiful that you never noticed before,” she said. “We spend our lives chasing after fulfillment, and we can find it literally under our feet.”

Main photo: Japanese knotweed. Credit: maljalen / iStockphoto

This piece was written by Pam Weisz, deputy director of Change Food.

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