Articles in Soapbox

Rinku Bhattacharya. Credit: Aadi Bhattacharya

Festivals and celebrations offer a time-tested mechanism of sharing and preserving family culinary traditions and memories. As spring approaches, the vernal calendar brings its share of festivals, all designed to welcome the fresh colors of the seasons and the spirit of renewal. There are simple backyard traditions such as foraging and starting a new garden and then the myriad holidays that fill the calendar with a call to the kitchen.

In my home, I think of the Indian festival of colors, Holi, and the Bengali New Year, two holidays that come around in March and April. I look forward to a new season, and time in the kitchen with my children sharing and talking about food memories and working with them to re-create foods of my childhood.

I have to confess, it has not always been this way! I have spent many years confused about why people would feature unchanging dishes every year at their holiday table, the same variations of festive items, at the same time of the year. I marveled at people raving over something as basic as their grandmother’s tempering for lentils and simple food memories without which their table felt incomplete. It all seemed monotonous to me. I did not have the context or need for re-creating tradition, until my children came along.

Grandmother’s gnocchi

As my children have grown, my view has changed. I have wanted them to feel grounded, to have a sense of food beyond that it is something cooked in my now-12-year-old kitchen. It’s more clear than ever why my kitchen helper, Martha, preserves the mole recipe from her husband’s mother and prepares it for many a special occasion. I now understand why my friend Patricia has taken over making gnocchi for Sunday suppers. She began this tradition after her grandmother’s recent passing because this was something her Nonna always made, until she was too fragile.

It is less about mole or gnocchi than it is about the memories and historical context the dishes carry. That context is especially important for newly transplanted expats to give their children and families a way to bring gaps and connect their newly adopted land to their homeland. It is also about the value of home-cooked food rather than something you might find in a commercial kitchen or restaurant.

Yet I remained unsure about succumbing to peer pressure, unsure how sustainable such food traditions would be. The ambience in my home seemed so different from my grandmother’s kitchen, where all my food memories were made. Suddenly I was unsure about my much-loved food processor and whether it really would work to re-create the real deal. It seemed so sterile and incapable of replicating and translating the ethos of food created on my grandmother’s time-tested grinding stone.

Bringing little hands into family culinary traditions

Then last year, around springtime, possibly to cheer myself up and break the winter doldrums, I decided to make gujiyas, a traditional sweet empanada that is typical of my mother-in-law’s north Indian kitchen. It is a traditional spring dessert, and it carries with it memories of my first time learning and working with my mother-in-law.

A dessert with multiple layers of shaping and cooking, the gujiya works beautifully as something that can be made in a group. I had often thought of making it at home, but resisted the challenge because it seemed so daunting, almost too complex, but I decided to give it a try.

As I went through the ingredients, sorting out the grated nuts, Indian cheese and flour, my kids came by. As we chatted, I began involving them in rolling the dough and stuffing the empanadas. Some of the guiiya were uneven, as the children’s little hands lacked the precision for uniform shaping. But they were excited and began asking countless questions about the dessert, about spring, about their grandmother and, most important, about the festivals. Through the shared act of cooking, I realized I was transferring traditions and some level of culture.

While I noted the irony that this was a dish few of my friends in India still made from the scratch, it was important for me to do so, in the same way it was important for my grandmother to have me around the kitchen, sharing stories about family, cooking and history.

Working with my children suddenly made it all click. It was less about the elaborate meal, the new clothes or a date on a calendar. It was the need for a reference point easily found in the context of a festival. We need traditions and memories to keep us grounded. They do not always have to be in the kitchen or centered on a holiday. I wait for the daffodils and forsythia in our back yard every year to tell me that spring has arrived. It is cheerful and uplifting for me.

The magic of connecting over a holiday and food is its predictability, and the fact that it allows us to plan. It offers our children a connection point, and the shared act of cooking offers them this context, probably the same way Pat’s Nonna was able to share stories about her childhood in a village in Italy as she rolled and shaped the gnocchi with Pat. Food is about comfort, and it is also one aspect of culture and tradition that can be easily transported from one land to another, from one generation to another, as we talk, share, cook and eat together.

Top photo: Rinku Bhattacharya. Credit: Aadi Bhattacharya

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With more than 9,000 small, cobbled streets, the Fez medina is a labyrinth. As dusk falls, shoppers grab a few last-minute items near Bab Bou Jeloud, or the Blue Gate. Credit: Serenity Bolt

We’ve all heard the warnings that travelers should avoid street food. But doing so means missing the real food culture — the simple, fresh delicacies prepared for locals. With a little common sense, it’s easy to leave your fear of the unknown (or of getting sick) behind and reap one of the greatest rewards of travel.

Moroccan culture buzzes in the ancient medina of Fez al-Bali, the world’s largest car-free area, where Gail Leonard, a British ex-pat, offers street food tasting tours through her company, Plan-It Fez.

For more than three hours, she introduces travelers to the likes of snail soup and cow’s tongue while donkeys trundle along the medina’s narrow, medieval streets, adding their own steady rhythm to the tintinnabulation of men banging copper pots into shape, playing children and the conversational din of the souks, or markets.

Tourists who avoid the food on these cobbled, labyrinthine streets are not only forgoing a culinary experience, but also something intangible, Leonard said. “Vendors are thrilled that you want to taste what they’ve produced. Anyone that doesn’t want to do that misses out on many levels of experience that aren’t just about taste buds.”

Dinner in Morocco is served around 9 or 10 p.m., so street carts are essential to tide Moroccans over between meals. Street food also suits economy-minded travelers. “We were just out of money, so we bought some sandwiches from a cart,” said Bostonian Paige Stockman, 24, gesturing with a thick piece of fresh khubz (bread) stuffed with smoky, slightly charred chicken skewers from a vendor in the Achabine area — prime territory for Leonard’s food tours.

Street food made by lovely hands

Some Moroccans do avoid street food, but not for the reasons you might imagine. Faical Lebbar, owner of Barcelona Café in Fez, abhors the idea of eating standing up. “My father taught me, you eat, you need to sit.” Comparing his restaurant to street food, he added, “The food is the same. It just costs more.”

The higher price may buy the closed doors of a restaurant kitchen, but not necessarily a more skilled chef. And there’s pleasure in connecting directly with the person making your food.

Serenity Bolt. Credit: Courtesy of Round Earth Media

Serenity Bolt. Credit: Courtesy of Round Earth Media

“When food is made by lovely hands, it doesn’t matter whether you got it in the street or in a restaurant — its value is determined by something deeper than price,” said Amine Mansouri, 25, a local who has lived all his life surrounded by the daily rhythms of the Fez medina. The hand that takes your 5 dirhams reaches through time and tradition, inviting you to taste the food that sustains a culture.

What if you can’t afford a tour but want to sample the world of street food? Leonard offers a few recommendations:

1. Look for the busiest carts because they have the most turnover.

2. Be confident. Don’t hesitate to leave and go to another vendor if the food doesn’t look fresh.

3. Make sure the food is piping hot — learn the word for “hot” in the local language so you can ask for a longer cooking time.

4. Ask for a taste to see if you like the food. Vendors will just be excited you’re trying it.

5. Don’t be afraid to say “no thanks.” If you feel awkward, learn some “get out” phrases in the local language, such as, “I’ll come back later.”

6. Eat with your hands, or use bread. You can even bring your own cutlery and cup. Always carry a bottle of hand sanitizer.

If you do run into digestive trouble, Leonard advises cumin. “That’s what Moroccans will do for an upset stomach,” she said. “It has anti-parasitical properties. Just take a spoonful, knock it back with water, and your stomach’s sorted.”

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Evening customers wait for bissara at a busy stand in the old Fez medina. This fava-bean soup, topped with cumin, paprika and a hearty glug of robust olive oil, is served with khubz (bread) baked in a communal wood-fired oven. Credit: Serenity Bolt

When in Fez, widely considered to be Morocco’s culinary capital, head to the Achabine and try these Leonard-tested delicacies: tehal, camel spleen stuffed with camel meat, olives and preserved lemons (baked like a gigantic sausage, then sliced and fried); makkouda, spicy potato cakes mashed with cumin and other spices and then delicately fried; and cow’s tongue steamed to a brisket-like tenderness.

A must-have is ghoulal, or snail soup. An infusion of more than 15  spices gives the broth a kick that complements its almost earthy, mushroomy flavor. Just look for the beaconing clouds of steam. You’ll soon find ghoulal in a huge silvery pot, boiling away atop a wooden cart manned in the medina by the soup-maker himself.

Just make sure to ask for it extra hot — “skhoun bzef!”

This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, which is mentoring the next generation of global correspondents while producing untold stories for top tier media around the world.

Top photo: With more than 9,000 small, cobbled streets, the Fez medina is a labyrinth. As dusk falls, shoppers grab a few last-minute items near Bab Bou Jeloud, or the Blue Gate. Credit: ­Serenity Bolt

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A drizzle of fresh Tuscan olive oil. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

I hardly think it needs saying, but I will say it anyway: Olive oil is the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, without which this vaunted eating style is simply a “sort of” — sort of vegetarian, sort of seafood-happy, sort of low in consumption of red meat, sort of devoted to whole grains and legumes.

Aolives

But olive oil —  extra virgin olive oil — is what truly sets it apart, and extra virgin olive oil, with its combination of monounsaturated fats and a big component of antioxidants and other phytochemicals (plant-based, naturally occurring chemicals), is a vital part of the good health message we hear over and over about why we should eat the Mediterranean way.

So it was shocking to see the prominent headline displayed on a full page, suggestively tinted olive green, in the New York Times Sunday Week in Review section on Jan. 26, 2014:

“Extra Virgin Suicide”

And in slightly smaller type just below:

“The Adulteration of Italian Olive Oil”

Tuscan olives in early October. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Tuscan olives in early October. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

“Why are you shocked?” asked my friend Beatrice Ughi, who imports, through her company gustiamo.com, excellent oils from Italy. “You know it’s true.”

Yes, I know that some (a lot!) of Italian olive oil is not what it says it is on the bottle. And so is a lot of Spanish oil and a lot of oils from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. But I know, too, that some of the best extra virgin oils in the world come from Italy, and it is painful to see all Italian oils tarred, as it were, with the same brush. How could a superior oil such as Badia a Coltibuono or Cappezzana from Tuscany, or Titone from Sicily, or Francesco Travaglini’s Il Tratturello from Molise, survive in a market in which they are universally condemned as fraudulent, probably not even Italian, possibly not even oil produced by the olive fruit? To my eyes (and to my palate), such a statement is seriously misleading, enough so as to question the wisdom of The Times’ editors in allowing it to be published.

Beyond that, the “article” (or however you describe a series of graphic images, like a comic strip, in the opinion pages) was rife with error and misinterpretation, so much so that I was not surprised to hear later that Tom Mueller, author of “Extra Virginity” (2011), to whom the designer of the graphic attributed all the information he purveyed, had divorced himself in no uncertain terms from the article. Later, The Times, too, published an elongated correction at the end of the graphic acknowledging that an earlier version “contained several errors” and that “several of [Mueller's] findings were misinterpreted.”

One of the most startling misinterpretations is that “69% of imported olive oil labeled extra virgin” for sale in the U.S. fails to “meet the standard” for that designation. This refers to an oft-cited report compiled at the University of California at Davis in 2010. (A second, somewhat more detailed report, was published in 2011.) The report was funded by Corto Olive and California Olive Ranch, two prominent California producers, and by the California Olive Oil Council, which exists to promote California oil.

Not surprisingly, the report raised eyebrows, given the uncomfortable sponsorship. But its statistical significance was also questioned, given the fact that only 14 “popular import brands” were sampled in three separate California locations. That makes a total of 42 oils sampled — hardly a significant number given the vast number of imported oils sold in this U.S.

I would be the last person to deny there is a lot of scam in imported olive oil, just as there is a lot in many other imported products, especially those that purport to be from Italy, which equates in many folks’ minds to quality. The food industry is, and always has been, a prime area for fraud, at least in part because most food is ephemeral in nature and the fraud will have disappeared by the time the good-food cops are on the case.

Do your research when buying olive oil

That said, with extra virgin olive oil, as with fine wine, as with Spanish jamón de bellota, as with English Stilton, the bottom line will tell you a good part of the story. You wouldn’t expect a $10 bottle of bubbly to contain Champagne, would you? If you’re spending $7.50 on a liter of oil, don’t expect it to be a fine, estate-bottled, Tuscan oil. The bottle alone, not including shipping costs, will not be covered by that price. Fine, hand-harvested, estate-bottled oils are not cheap, any more than fine Champagne, and that, it seems to me, goes to the heart of the problem. We too often treat olive oil as if it were mere kitchen grease — and in that sense, we get what we deserve and what we’re willing to pay for.

Beyond that, to assure you are buying high-quality olive oil, read the labels. I cannot say this often enough: Read the fine print. If an olive oil comes in a can or a dark glass bottle, if it has both harvest date and information about where it was processed and it is clearly written on the label, you can pretty much be certain it’s what it says it is. Not all oil will have that information and often, alas, the information will be in Italian or Spanish or Greek. But don’t let that throw you off: Learn what the important terms are in those languages (honestly, it’s easy), and read the labels.

In addition, find a merchant you can trust, either in a specialty shop or online. My most-trusted sources for great olive oil are the following (I am always eager to learn of others; please let me know of any you think are particularly reliable):

Gustiamo.com

Markethallfoods.com

Zingermansdeli.com

Olio2go.com

Manicaretti in Oakland, Calif., imports oil but distributes only to retail outlets and restaurants. If you see a particular oil on its website that interests you, however, you can find out from them where you might be able to acquire it.

As I write, I’m looking at a bottle of Marfuga extra virgin from Perugia in Umbria, available at olio2go.com. It’s in a dark green bottle, and it has a “use by” date of February 2015, from which I can judge that it was probably produced in fall 2013 (and I also can get that from other information on the bottle). It’s a monocultivar, or monovarietal, oil made from moraiolo olives, one of the most characteristic Umbrian varieties. It’s also excellent olive oil, rich with complex flavors yet smooth on the palate. I used it to make the following simplest and best salad dressing:

Ingredients

½ a small clove of garlic, minced

½ teaspoon of sea salt or Maldon salt

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice or good wine vinegar (not balsamic)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Directions

1. In the bottom of a salad bowl, combine the garlic and salt and, using the back of a spoon, crush the two together to make a paste. Stir in the lemon juice or vinegar. When it is fully incorporated, whisk in the olive oil. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding a little more salt, a drop or two more of acid, or another spoonful of oil.

2. When ready to serve, pile washed and dried salad greens on top and mix at table.

Top photo: A drizzle of fresh Tuscan olive oil. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Égalité sparkling wine. Credit: Kellie Pecoraro Photography

Why save all of your good deeds for the holiday season? Giving back is all about love, so this Valentine’s Day, put together a meal that helps benefit some great causes.

Set the mood with a pretty table: When you purchase these beautiful block-printed placemats by Dolma Fair Trade made in Dharamsala, India, Given Goods Company gives 15% of profits to help support education for women and children in the area. Dolma’s efforts assist women and school-aged girls by funding education and providing steady work opportunities.

Dolma Fair Trade Placemats, $12.

Start the love flowing with a splash of bubbly:  Égalité, is a new sparkling wine that donates a portion of its proceeds to LGBT nonprofit organizations across the country.  Égalité is a smart blend of 45% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 20% Gamay and 5% Aligote, so cheers to all of that.

Égalité, $23.99, is available nationwide at restaurants, fine retail stores and via wine.com.

Comfort food is loving food: Cozy up with a bean soup from the Women’s Bean Project. The organization, which also sells other mixes and spices (as well as handcrafted jewelry), has been dedicated to helping women break the cycle of poverty by giving them transitional jobs in gourmet food preparation and jewelry making. Choose from a selection that includes Toni’s 10 Bean, Sarah’s Spicy Split Pea and Giada De Laurentiis’ Lentil Soup. And let’s not forget, beans are good for the heart.

Women’s Bean Project Soup, $5.75.

Make your drizzle count: Oliovera Olive Oils come in amazing flavors like Piquant Jalapeno and Sweet Orange. Drizzle a little olive oil on your bean soup. And their vinegars, such as Ripe Peach Balsamic, make any salad happy. Best of all? For each bottle ordered, Oliovera donates five meals to a hungry child through its initiative with Feeding America. Delicious.

Oliovera olive oils and vinegars, $15.50-$34.

Chocolate, of course: By now we know that the antioxidants in chocolate are good for us, but when you buy L.A. chocolatier Compartés Chocolates for Darfur, the deed is extra sweet. Proceeds from sales benefit Relief International’s efforts in the nation to help fund a women’s health center and feed malnourished children. This beautiful gift set comes with a colorful bracelet.

Compartés Chocolates for Darfur, $20.

Finish with a cuppa: Whether you prefer tea or coffee, Laughing Man Tea and Coffee’s offerings are a charitable and delicious choice. All proceeds go to causes focusing on community development and education, and their Home Blend 184 and Dukale’s Dream are fair trade, organic and shade grown. (Actor Hugh Jackman is one of the founders of Laughing Man.)

Laughing Man Teas and Coffees, $10 and up.

Top photo: Égalité sparkling wine. Credit: Kellie Pecoraro Photography

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Women from the restaurant industry hold baguettes as swords during a flash mob at the Let's Talk About Food Festival in October 2013. Credit: Elizabeth Comeau

The noise (and well-deserved) flap over Time magazine’s recent cover story “The 13 Gods of Food” — a list that crowns exactly zero female chefs — is wonderfully opportune. I am thrilled by the zesty outrage it has sparked! A group of us in Boston has been on a mission since last spring to highlight the too-quiet media coverage of women who cook professionally.

Last May, Food & Wine magazine featured a double-truck poster ad for its annual Food & Wine Classic. It was a panoramic view of the Rockies with an elbow-to-elbow row of the usual suspects and grinning male gods of food. Gail Simmons, “Top Chef” judge and director of special projects for Food & Wine, looked gorgeous and had one wrist’s worth of room. Presumably, Simmons was in the poster to show gender balance.

Boston chef and icon Jody Adams of Rialto privately emailed many of us “that it literally felt like a punch to her stomach” when she saw the ad. “After all these years, still?” she wrote in frustration.

Soon after, I came across an article in the July/August issue of Departures called “Cooks’ Night Out” that featured chic, duded-up male chefs spending 72 hours on the town. The article featured a sidebar interview with TV chef Bobby Flay that was markedly dismissive of female chefs. Ever since, an energized group of Boston women in the food world has been thinking about how to use these testosterone-fueled slights as a teachable moment to change the media perception — and therefore the public view — of what a chef looks like. (Hint: It ain’t all tattoos and muscles, though many women in the kitchen sport both.)

The gender gap is real — and it plays out in the media

In more than a decade of covering local and national chefs for Stuff magazine and the Boston Phoenix, writing hundreds of profiles and columns, I learned a few things about the difference between men and women who cook professionally. I’d guess that my coverage was 75 percent men and 25 percent women, and occasionally I took a little editorial heat for “overemphasizing” local women.

At the time, Boston had many more male chef-owners and executive chefs than female. That is still true today. But as a feminist, I used my humble perch to give ink to women whenever I could. How else to build profile and change perception?

Here’s why men get more ink: It’s easier to write about them. Men make better copy. Men are more willing to say outrageous and eminently quotable things. Shock value is highly prized when a journalist has a story deadline to meet. Men pose more provocatively and more humorously in front of photographers.

When you interview women, many talk about their awesome, amazing teams and their mentors. Male chefs talk more about themselves. For a writer, this is helpful. It is always easier to write about a hero or star than the loyal teammates. Men are better at claiming credit for good work done. Women, who’ve done equally good work in the kitchen, are more humble and self-revealing. As an interviewer, you have to work a little harder to get a woman to say something funny or edgy. But honestly, you don’t have to work that hard if you’re patient and warm. The difference boils down to a classic sexist stereotype: the cocky male vs. the collaborative female, the badass male chef vs. the uber-competent female one.

Chef Jody Adams. Credit: Michael Piazza

Chef Jody Adams. Credit: Michael Piazza

No one quibbles about male chefs getting recognized for their talents — good is good. But there is plenty of room at the table for the hardworking and very talented women as well. Women make equally good copy.

And we are serious about this teachable moment thing. In October, women in chefs jackets wielding baguettes like bayonets held a Women in Whites flash mob in Boston’s Copley Square during the Let’s Talk About Food Festival. The goal was to highlight the sheer number of women in the culinary profession in Boston.

More events are planned, including using the topic of Changing Women’s Media Profiles as an organizing concept for the 2014 International Les Dames d’Escoffier Convention, to be held in the fall in Boston. Adams is working with the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School on the topic too. The momentum has only just begun.

It’s time to change the paradigm about men and women who cook. I thank Time magazine for making it feel even more apt. I am not suggesting professional women become badasses or men more self-revealing. I am suggesting that we who cover the scene have to be more vigilant about not falling into easy stereotypical traps. Some media training for journalists might help.

Top photo: Women from the restaurant industry hold baguettes as swords during a flash mob at the Let’s Talk About Food Festival in October. Credit: Elizabeth Comeau

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Printer Norman Clayton of Classic Letterpress in Ojai, Calif. Credit: Maria Hilgado

I was lying in bed, thinking about the family tree hanging in my closet, when I hit on the concept of The Cookbook Tree of Life. Just four cookbooks are the ancestors of all the cookbooks that are on our shelves today. Would it work? Were there clear links between each generation of cookbooks just like people? I honestly wasn’t sure whether I could connect the dots and slept on the idea feeling dubious.

The following morning I found that it did indeed fly. I stuck more than 120 cookbook titles all together on a great big sheet of paper and took it from there.

In my own way, I have tracked the development of cookbooks across four centuries and six languages. It is fascinating to see how all genres lead back down to just four original cookbooks, one in Latin, one in French, one in German and one in English.

  • “De honesta voluptate et valetudine,” by Platina, written in Italian around 1474.
  • “Le viandier,” by Taillevent (Guillaume Tirel), written in French in 1486.
  • “Kűchenmeisterei” written in German in 1485 by an unknown author.
  • “Boke of Cokery” written in English in 1500 by an unknown author.

These were cookbooks, meaning they have clear recipes with ingredients and instructions. A cookbook is a collection of recipes, or blueprints that allow a cook to recreate a dish. Cookbook bibliographer Henry Notaker has said that to be defined as a cookbook, a book should be about two-thirds cookery instruction and that roughly half of the volume should be written in recipe form.

The earliest cookbooks

Surprisingly early, right from the start of the age of printing, a number of published books fit this description. The recipes in them may be embryonic, expressed in just a few lines, but their purpose of instruction is clear.

Early books with recipes covered wide topics as well. Some sought to preserve the wisdom of the ancients, others offered advice on how to live a healthy life, and still others were preoccupied with glorifying the banquets and feasts of a wealthy patron.

In later centuries, the voices of the authors come through more clearly, and indeed, a few such books seem designed to showcase personality rather than to instruct their readers.

Before 1501 there were only about 700 books in existence, of those 700 the above four titles could be considered cookbooks.

When deciding which books belonged to which branch I gravitated to the first books that seemed to clearly break through or create a genre. Some books focused on stewardship and the early books on gardening were clearly about an original idea. Books of secrets would be household secrets and it is clear to see how those evolved into books by women and books for women, a genre that we see in full force today. The same can be said about regional cooking books, books about ingredients and even books about molecular gastronomy and celebrity chefs.

Finding a printer

It was two years before I found the right printer for “The Cookbook Library” and even then a long six months from agreement to actually printing on the press. I knew that I wanted the tree to be more than lines on a sheet of paper. I wanted it to be beautiful and handcrafted much like the books it describes.

When the artist asked me what kind of tree I would like, I said it has to be an English oak. Many of the books mentioned are English, and after all I am English, too. And now, after so much planning, you can finally see the results.

The tree is a beautiful artisan print featuring seven colors on heavy 100% cotton paper. It boasts original watercolor art and the craft of centuries in its letterpress type. I have so enjoyed making this tree come to life, a project that has been more absorbing than I could possibly have thought.

The limited print run of only 200 copies is available now exclusively at lavarenne.com. For more details on how to order yours, check here.

Top photo: Printer Norman Clayton of Classic Letterpress in Ojai, Calif. Credit: Maria Hildago

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Cattle grazing. Credit: Stephen Ausmus / USDA

Forgive me if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent announcement to control antibiotic use in food animals didn’t have me reaching for the Champagne.

For while the FDA’s recommendations to phase out the use of antibiotics as growth promoters and proposal to require veterinary approval of all antibiotic use on farms sound like a good idea, their voluntary nature will result in nothing more than business as usual when it comes to farm antibiotic abuse. Call me a cynic, but leopards don’t readily change their spots. For years, food animal industry lobby groups and drug companies have aggressively denied any link between antibiotic use in farming and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Yet the very same groups have all publicly welcomed the FDA’s recommendations. Why? Because they know they are wholly inadequate.

I won’t go into the limitations of the FDA’s proposals here, as several respected commentators have already done a very good job of that. But suffice to say that despite decades of mounting scientific evidence that the routine non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on industrial farms is leading to the development of life-threatening multiple antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the end result is nothing more than a strongly worded FDA “recommendation” for action, without any mandatory requirements or enforcement measures to stop the intensive farming industry from putting profit ahead of human health. The same old abuse of these life-saving medicines will continue on industrial farms across the U.S., just under a slightly different guise.

So why should you care? Here are 10 things we all need to think about before we allow Big Ag to continue squandering antibiotics in food animal production.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million Americans are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year, and 23,000 will die as a result.

1. There are two major factors driving the dramatic rise of antimicrobial resistant diseases. First, we’ve become too complacent about eating food from animals routinely given antibiotics. Second, we take far too many antibiotics when they are not actually needed.

2. We’re embroiled in an apparent “war” against bacteria, with antibiotics routinely given to livestock, the inappropriate prescription of antibiotics in humans, and the widespread inclusion of antibacterials in toothpaste, soap and even clothing. But all we’re doing is encouraging antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Andrew Gunther. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Institute

Andrew Gunther. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Institute

3. It might surprise you to know that we each carry more than 4 pounds of friendly bacteria in our gut. The number of bacterial cells in and on our bodies (about 100 trillion) outnumbers the number of human cells by a whopping 10 to 1. These organisms play a vital role in maintaining our health and without them we’d be dead.

4. We need to trust our natural immune systems to protect us from disease, resorting to antibiotics only when absolutely necessary.

5. When it comes to antibiotics in farming, we use more antibiotics per pound of meat produced than any other nation in the world. A staggering 80% of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used on food animals.

6. It is widely accepted that disease outbreaks are inevitable in the cramped and stressful conditions found on most factory farms. But instead of improving conditions, the animals are given low or “subtherapeutic” doses of antibiotics in their feed or water, whether they need them or not, to prevent disease and maximize productivity. For example, most chicks receive two antibiotics, lincomycin and spectinomycin, for the first few days of their lives because they are forced to live in environments where respiratory diseases would otherwise be inevitable. In other words, intensive livestock systems are actually designed around the routine use of antibiotics. It’s the only way to keep the animals alive and growing.

7. In June 2013, Consumer Reports found potential disease-causing organisms in 90% of ground turkey samples purchased from stores nationwide. Many of the bacteria species identified were resistant to three or more antibiotic drug classes.

8. While good food-hygiene practices are essential when handling and cooking raw meat, an accidental spill in the refrigerator can now result in potentially untreatable, yet entirely preventable, life-threatening antibiotic-resistant diseases. Safe handling instructions must never be used to justify farming systems which actively encourage antibiotic-resistance or to absolve companies of any responsibility for the illnesses or deaths that result.

9. The major meat industry bodies claim there is no conclusive scientific evidence that antibiotic use in farming contributes significantly to an increase in antibiotic resistance in humans. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t agree and is calling for the responsible use of antibiotics, where “These drugs should only be used to treat infections,” whether that’s in humans or animals.

10. When it comes to the responsible use of antibiotics in farming, the U.S. livestock industry is already years behind the European Union, where antibiotic use on farms is strictly controlled. Europe’s livestock industry survived this change without any dramatic reduction in efficiency of meat production and the cost of food in Europe didn’t skyrocket as a result. So why not here? New legislation — The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2013 (PAMTA) — would end the inappropriate and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in intensive farming in the U.S. Are your representatives supporting it?

This isn’t about blaming farmers and vets: They’re simply responding to the contractual demands of Cargill, Purdue, Tyson and others that dominate our food supply. No, this is about waking up to the real costs of so-called cheap meat. We’re talking about farming systems that are not only designed around the routine use of antibiotics to keep billions of animals in such abysmal conditions alive and growing, but which knowingly encourage the development of life-threatening antibiotic-resistant diseases.

I somehow doubt that any sane American would willingly allow the squandering of these potentially life-saving antibiotics simply for cheap meat. Because when you sit down and really think about a future where antibiotics will no longer be effective — and where common diseases such as strep throat may kill our loved ones unabated — there really is no such thing as cheap meat, is there?

Got you thinking? Animal Welfare Approved farmers only use antibiotics to treat sick animals, just as in humans. We also know that if farmers use antibiotics responsibly the risk of antibiotic resistance is absolutely minimal. The result? Pain and suffering in farm animals is minimized, the risk of disease is reduced, and the efficacy of antibiotics — for humans and livestock —  is protected. You can find your nearest supplier at www.AnimalWelfareApproved.org.

Top photo: Cattle grazing. Credit: Stephen Ausmus / USDA

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Valerie Burchby. Credit: Caroline Kaye

Who speaks for the trees? Craft cider producers.

The third annual Cider Week, a beverage-promotional initiative to encourage restaurateurs, shop owners and consumers to try cider, came to New York last month, and it is being celebrated in Virginia this week. I mean hard cider, the fermented juice of apples, which is an alcoholic beverage that has a long history in the United States. I am not referring to sweet cider, the non-alcoholic, cinnamon-laced apple juice often found with a doughnut for a sidekick. Cider Week is about hard cider. For apple growers across the country, that distinction makes all of the difference.

Over the last century, this beverage has so thoroughly lost its place at the American table that it’s impossible to write about it without a short history lesson. Before Prohibition, cider was as familiar a beverage as water. Often it was the more palatable and sanitary choice of the two. Thousands of apple varieties thrived across the U.S., and those most highly prized were the kinds that you would not necessarily pick up and eat raw. Bitter and astringent varieties were cherished for the complexity they could add to hard cider, the final destination for most apples grown at the time.

After a near century-long, Prohibition-induced dormancy, the hard cider industry is back with a bullet. Craft producers and sommeliers across the country are rediscovering that cider fermented from heirloom varieties of apple can express complexity and terroir, much as a fine wine. And just as wine presents vintners a more profitable product than selling fresh grapes, cider offers apple growers a much higher price  than the highly seasonal sale of fresh apples.

According to Dan Wilson of Slyboro Cider House in Granville, N.Y., his farm’s you-pick operation accounts for about 80% of  its yearly income. This business model is risky because his season for you-pick is only six weeks long, meaning a few rainy weekends could seriously damage earnings. For his operation and many like it, the benefits of cider production are manifold. Cider is a shelf-stable product, meaning it can provide income year round. It is an added-value product, selling at a higher price than the fresh ingredients used to create it.

Because apples pressed into cider do not need to be flawless, cider production  allows farmers greater flexibility to spray fewer chemicals and to make use of imperfect apples.

Cider Week spotlights craft cider makers

Glynwood, the agricultural nonprofit in the Hudson Valley where I work, started Cider Week three years ago to aid New York craft cider producers in this resurgence. This year’s 10-day celebration of regional, craft cider included more than 200 locations in New York City and Hudson Valley that featured cider on their menus.

While that commitment meant a fun week of great events for consumers, it also meant exposure and new accounts for craft producers. By focusing on artisanal producers, Cider Week is meant to carve out a niche for small growers, help them expand their businesses, and increase viability for Northeast orchards.

The rapid resurgence of this beverage means that the big players — read multinational beer corporations — in the beverage world are out in force. These companies have a part to play by moving cider from niche to mainstream. With a massive clientele and considerable marketing power, they are poised to shake up the traditional beer/wine dichotomy and introduce cider to a huge subset of the American drinking population.

Look for small, local providers

However, for American orchards, for farm viability and rural development, and for increased biodiversity, the resurgence of craft cider is where the true opportunity lies. Small companies pressing whole, regional apples (as opposed to imported apple concentrate) are stewards to the land and keepers of the craft in a way the big boys categorically cannot be.

Craft cider makers are the guides on America’s journey back to a sophisticated, complex beverage, pulled directly from the annals of our own history. As the American palate co-evolves with this new wave of enterprising craftsmen and women, we also hone our tastes for a future that celebrates food and drinks as a passionate expression of place. It is a future that moves me.

And the best way to get there is to find craft cider producers near you. Ask about craft cider on beverage menus and in wine stores. Look at the directories of the many Cider Week events held around the country to discover regional producers (and if you don’t have local cider, many producers can ship). Feature cider at your Thanksgiving dinner this year. In doing so, you will be supporting a beverage, an industry and a tradition as deeply American as the holiday itself.

Top photo: Valerie Burchby. Credit: Caroline Kaye

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