Articles in Soapbox

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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Faux basil caviar is one of five trends to watch.

After tasting 2,734 entries, it was easy to spot food trends. I was one of the dozen judges for the coveted sofi Awards given to this year’s outstanding artisanal food products. One of the unexpected benefits of being a judge was the opportunity to taste everything in neatly organized categories. Usually, when attending a food show, you sample food in a random order, tasting the 2,000-plus exhibitor’s products in the haphazard order of booth geography, meandering from a taste of vinegar to jam, salsa and beer. But not this year.

In April and May the Specialty Food Association, which gives the awards, grouped the entries into categories. Finally, instead of a  random mix of flavors, submissions were organized into 32 groupings, such as appetizers, beverages, condiments, desserts, salad dressings, snack foods, and USDA-certified organic products. The items in each group were set out on long tables in a half dozen rooms in the association’s New York City offices. We tasted more than 2,000 entries! We taste-tested 111 cheeses, 167 cooking sauces, 154 diet lifestyle foods, and 144 snacks in 1½- to 3-hour sessions. Palate fatigue was kept at bay by slices of green apples, crackers, pitchers of water and seltzer.

10-commpression-dehydration-manicaretti-italian-food-capperi-croccanticrunchycapers

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Manicaretti’s dehydrated capers add a crisp, briny crunch to pasta, salads and seafood. Credit: Specialty Food Association

This year’s sofi Awards finalists reveals five fascinating trends, where new tastes meet classic traditions:

1. Molecular gastronomy

Also called modernistic cuisine, molecular gastronomy combines chemistry with cooking to alter the texture, look and taste of foods. This kitchen-based rocket science, popular with many top chefs in recent years, is moving into specialty foods. Several companies are introducing faux caviar, little gelled spheres that burst in your mouth. They can be filled with just about anything, from pesto to balsamic vinegar to espresso to truffle juice.

2. Flowers

Get ready for floral-flavored waters, teas and even cocktail mixers, the next wave cresting in the beverage category. Blossom Water combines fruits and flowers in tandem, such as Lemon Rose, Plum Jasmine and Grapefruit Lilac. Rishi Tea is blending blueberries with hibiscus, and bergamot with sage. Owl’s Brew Pink & Black is a tea-infused cocktail mix blended with hibiscus. As unusual as these combinations may sound, they’re nothing new. Rosewater and orange flower water, familiar to Moroccan food enthusiasts, date to the Renaissance.

3. Savory sweets

Pushing the envelope on savory sweets has been a growing trend since the realization that chocolate and caramel only get better with a sprinkle of sea salt. At this year’s Fancy Food Show we’ll be introduced to cauliflower kale muffins, savory ice creams, and Blue Hill’s vegetable yogurts, which derive their vegetal sweetness from beets, sweet potatoes or winter squash.  Bacon marmalade, anyone?

4. Smoke

Smoke as a flavor component began as an important food preservation technique for our early ancestors, but now it’s showing up in items you wouldn’t expect. Smoke goes beyond barbecue and moves into chocolate chips (Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery Co.), smoked pizza flour, shortbread with smoked hickory sea salt (The Sticky Toffee Pudding Co.) and even smoked cocktail mixes. The aromatic allure triggers a primitive taste memory that we seem hardwired to love.

5. Compression and dehydration

Compressing or dehydrating foods not only changes their textures, but it also concentrates their flavors. Manicaretti’s dehydrated capers add a crisp, briny crunch to pasta, salads and seafood. The compressed cube of concentrated maple sugar made by Tonewood is so hard it can only be grated, but the delicate wisps that gently fall from a microplane taste more intensely of maple than maple syrup or maple candy. Grace & I’s tightly pressed Fruit + Nuts Press not only looks like a pretty pound cake, but slices like cake too. Coach Farms has transformed some of their goat cheese into grating sticks that allow you to easily add a subtle, cheesy tang to pastas, salads, and vegetables. It won’t be long before these trends and most likely many of these products will appear in the aisles of your favorite supermarket and specialty food shop. When you do see them, it’s fine to feel a little smug — you read about them here first! This year’s award ceremony will be hosted by Cronut creator Dominique Ansel on June 30 at the Javits Center in New York City.

Main photo: Among the food trends is molecular gastronomy; in this case, faux caviar that tastes like basil. Credit: Specialty Food Association

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Douglas Gayeton makes a portrait of Xuyen Pham at East New Orleans garden. Credit: Dane Pollok

When my wife started a goat milk ice cream company in 2004, I didn’t know much about our food system. While I had previously documented Italy’s Slow Food movement for a book, that work mainly focused on the cultural aspects of food. I knew nothing about the complex faceless journey food often takes to reach our plates. Watching my wife negotiate with trucking companies and storage facilities about shipping a frozen product, then haggle with supermarkets that required her to purchase ads in their papers or pay to stock the shelves when introducing a product, and even helping her scoop ice cream at endless supermarket and farmers market demos, gave me more insight into how truly difficult it is to profit from producing value-driven goods in a low-margin world.

The experience also showed me how opaque our food system has become. The simplest products — like soda crackers — have hundreds of ingredients, many of which can’t be pronounced. But what bothered me most about the industrialization of our food system is how brazenly companies have hijacked terms like “sustainability” to explain their business practices.

Defining the lexicon of sustainability

In 2009, my wife and I asked ourselves a question: What if we took the meaning of sustainability back? What if we identified the key terms and solutions that really define sustainability in food and farming, then sought out thought leaders across the U.S. who best exemplified these ideas. And then, what if we translated their knowledge into information artworks and films and books and academic materials that would raise the level of discourse and hopefully lead people to live more sustainably?

We began by making information artworks with farmers and food producers in our Northern California community, which includes West Marin and Sonoma counties, then looked across the Bay toward Berkeley and San Francisco. I use “with” instead of using “of” because each artwork displays the actual words of the photo subject we document. This highly personal, handmade approach is time intensive, but the results create a more authentic representation of these people’s valuable ideas.

Conscious of being too geographically focused, we quickly extended our project to cover the rest of the country, even traveling up to Alaska and crossing the Pacific to Hawaii. At first we worked alone, but volunteers and interns quickly appeared (it remains a mystery how these angels always arrive at critical junctures in our project’s development). And while we initially self-funded our work, a mix of companies, foundations, NGOs and even individuals eventually came forward with financial support. Their vote of confidence continues to remain vital to our project’s success.

Part of the lexicon: Erika Allen's garden in Chicago defines food security. Credit: Douglas Gayeton

Part of the lexicon: Erika Allen’s garden in Chicago defines food security. Credit: Douglas Gayeton

Our initial perceptions about sustainability, at least as it applied to food and farming, have shifted greatly in the years since. The centralization of nearly every aspect of our food system has dismantled much of the infrastructure necessary for local food systems. Many of these systems must be rebuilt: local slaughterhouses, mills, dairies and processing centers for raw goods that disappeared must return, not only to ensure food security, but also to create the sense of place vital for any community.  Who knew food had so much attached to it?

New food movement  has no center or single leader

Despite the challenges, this New Food Movement reshaping our country has no center or no single leader. It isn’t composed of people waiting for governments or companies to step in with solutions. Instead, these people are doing it themselves — everywhere.

To capture the explosive growth of locally-based food movements across the country, the Lexicon has expanded to include more than 200 information artworks, a series of short films with PBS called “Know Your Food,” a book called, “Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America,” and an educational initiative for high school students called Project Localize. In all our initiatives, our core principles remain the same: Use words as the building blocks for new ideas, ideas that create conversation, foster an exchange of new ideas and hopefully shift the way our country looks at food.

The New Food Movement’s rapid growth has made it fractious and hard to unite. Competing organizations often stymie the coalitions so necessary to translate popular sentiments into legislative action. But words are powerful. They can become tools for building a common language. With that in mind, we will launch The List this summer.

Each week we will introduce talking points for a new conversation dedicated to a single term from the Lexicon. These conversations will feature a network of partners from across the food and farming spectrum. By collaborating to share their own unique vantage points on a shared theme, our partners will enable us to share compelling stories of innovative and inspiring sustainable solutions over a variety of social media channels, allowing users to translate these talking points into communities and conversations around ideas that matter. These conversations are open to one and all. If you’d like to join, sign up at thelexicon.org. As we often say, a conversation starts with words, and we’ve got a few of them.

Main photo: Douglas Gayeton makes a portrait of Xuyen Pham at East New Orleans garden. Credit: Dane Pollok

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A plan for phasing out antibiotics in animal feed could hurt sustainable farms. Credit: istockphoto.com

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent deal with the farm antibiotic industry to voluntarily phase out the use of antibiotics as animal growth promoters sounds like a real step forward — until you look at the details. That’s because this action does nothing to stop the ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming nor does it prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It may also harm many sustainable farmers.

Protecting public health is one of the FDA’s key responsibilities. Sadly the agency has remained largely impotent in addressing rampant antibiotic use on industrial farms, largely due to the powerful meat and pharmaceutical industry lobby. Despite mounting public pressure to take real action, the FDA has focused on persuading the meat industry to voluntarily phase out using some antibiotics considered medically important for humans.

In late December 2013, the FDA proposed that major “farmaceutical” manufacturers voluntarily withdraw certain antibiotics used to speed animal growth, and relabel those antibiotics to require veterinary approval before farmers could use them. The FDA gave the antibiotic manufacturers three months to notify the agency whether they intended to comply with the proposal. At the end of March, the FDA announced that 25 of the 26 manufacturers had agreed to adopt the voluntary measures.

Despite these manufacturers previously denying any possible link between widespread antibiotic use on industrial farms and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria over the last four decades, we now have a situation in which almost every major manufacturer has signed on to the FDA’s voluntary approach. Why? Because they know the agreement won’t change a thing on industrial farms.

What’s more, the meat industry is quite aware that this agreement — if left unchanged — could harm independent farm businesses already using antibiotics responsibly. After all, these farms — not exactly their best customers — present a small but growing threat to the entire antibiotic-reliant industrial farming model.

Antibiotic agreement penalizes smaller farms

Many farm antibiotics now are available “over the counter” at any feed store in the U.S. Clearly, some form of control is necessary to prevent misuse or abuse. Under the FDA’s new agreement, the reclassification of antibiotics as “prescription only” would require every farm business to get a vet’s OK each time it buys an antibiotic. On the face of it, this seems like a sensible way to rein in the abuse of antibiotics on farms. But in practice, it could put tens of thousands of independent family farms out of business.

Smaller farms often work on tight margins and vets can be very expensive — particularly when all you need them to do is tell you something you might already know: This animal needs a course of antibiotics to get better. What’s more, in some parts of the U.S. there are few — if any — vets available. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, only 15% of qualified vets work with farm animals. Under the FDA’s voluntary agreement, we could see a situation in which the very farmers who use antibiotics only as a last resort could face the appalling choice of letting animals suffer for lack of sufficient veterinary oversight or breaking the law and treating their animals without a vet’s input.

Real danger lies with industrial operations

It’s important to remind ourselves that the risk of antibiotic abuse — and antibiotic-resistant bacteria — does not come from pasture-based, high-welfare farming systems. No, the real hazards come from large-scale industrial confinement operations in which low-dose antibiotics are routinely used to speed growth or to prevent inevitable outbreaks of disease. It is this ongoing abuse of antibiotics on an industrial scale that the FDA needs to address.

The FDA’s voluntary agreement leaves the door wide open for such continued antibiotic abuse on industrial farms. As agricultural commentator Tom Philpott says, “There is little distinction between giving animals small daily doses of antibiotics to prevent disease and giving them small daily doses to make them put on weight. The industry can simply claim it’s using antibiotics ‘preventively,’ continuing to reap the benefits of growth promotion and continuing to generate resistant bacteria. That’s the loophole.”

Andrew Gunter of Animal Welfare Approved says federal-industry pact won't stop ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming. Credit: Courtesy Animal Welfare Approved

Andrew Gunther of Animal Welfare Approved says the federal-industry pact won’t stop ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Approved

These concerns are echoed by Dr. Raymond Tarpley of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science at Texas A&M University. He recently wrote that “if low-dose concentrations of antibiotics continue to be allowed for preventative use (even by prescription), they provide a ‘back door’ through which growth promotion effects can still be exploited under another name.” Perhaps that’s why Juan Ramon Alaix, CEO of Zoetis — the world’s largest animal pharmaceutical company — recently said that the new FDA agreement would not substantially affect the company’s revenue.

The real win for the industrial livestock lobby is that we’re not even talking about enforceable regulations, with the threat of legal action against any noncompliance. No, this is simply a gentlemen’s agreement among the major farmaceutical corporations to abide by the FDA’s voluntary guidelines. While the FDA contends that this “collaborative approach is the fastest way to implement the changes” it seeks, others are less supportive.

New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, who has long campaigned to end the misuse of antibiotics in industrial farming, says the agreement “falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis.” As Slaughter points out, without the necessary resources to police antibiotic use on farms — or even gather data on antibiotic use on individual farms — we are effectively relying on the intensive meat industry to put public health ahead of its profits.

The intensive livestock industry has manipulated this whole situation to protect its own interests.

When you consider that the FDA first accepted the evidence of a link between antibiotic use in farming and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria back in 1977 — and has not done anything substantial about the issue since — you begin to wonder if protecting public health is an FDA priority at all.

Animal Welfare Approved, where I am program director, has long argued for strict regulations to control antibiotic use on farms. We have supported Slaughter’s efforts to end the inappropriate and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in intensive farming systems. From the outset we have raised concerns that the FDA’s voluntary proposals would be ineffective at reducing antibiotic abuse on industrial farms and would devastate thousands of high-welfare, sustainable family farms across the U.S.

Animal Welfare Approved intends to keep pressing the FDA and others to ensure that high-animal-welfare, sustainable farmers have access to antibiotics to treat individual sick animals — without going out of business in the process. And we will continue to support and promote the independent family farms striving to feed this nation sustainably while protecting human health, animal welfare and the planet.

Main photo: A plan for phasing out antibiotics in animal feed could hurt sustainable farms. Credit: istockphoto.com

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The Meat Hook's partners at work. From left, Ben Turley, Brent Young and Tom Mylan. Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

I’m a butcher, but I’m also a part-time vegetarian. This might seem a little strange, but let me explain.

If I’m out and about and need to grab a bite to eat, I try to eat as a vegetarian. I don’t do this because I’m a self-hating butcher shop owner, but rather because I prefer not to eat meat if I don’t know where it comes from. In my weaker moments, I have been known to eat a Big Mac, but my personal lapses aren’t really the point. The reason I try not to eat meat when I’m unsure about its source goes well beyond what I choose to put into my body; to me, it is really a question of where I want my money to go to.

The cold, hard truth in this country is that everything comes down to money. In my new book, “The Meat Hook Meat Book,” I try to make sense of these economic webs. When you buy a family pack of steaks at your neighborhood chain store, about 11 cents of each dollar goes to the farmer. The rest of that price? To multinational corporations, out-of-state distributors, giant packing houses and all manner of middlemen in the complex supply chain that brought that package in your hands thousands of miles from where it was produced.

At my Brooklyn butcher shop, The Meat Hook, roughly 32 cents of every dollar goes directly to our farmers, giving them a financial incentive to continue raising local animals properly on pasture. And what about the other 68 cents? It pays small family owned slaughterhouses, local trucking companies, and the salaries of the people who make it worthwhile to shop at a small butcher shop.

Buying local

Our local sourcing makes us a part of a community, which inspires us to visit the people behind our products. We have amazing relationships with our farms and slaughterhouses — we can call them up and make butcher jokes, ask them about upstate agricultural gossip, and generally shoot the breeze in a laid-back way that just isn’t possible when you buy your meat in a shrink-wrapped Styrofoam tray.

But this goes beyond riding around in a truck, looking at animals grazing in beautiful pastoral landscapes, and patting ourselves on the back for being such good human beings. When we call on folks such as Mike Debach of Leona Meat Plant in Troy, Pa., we learn all sorts of things.

He goes out of his way to share his lifetime of hard-won knowledge — not just with my partners and me, but also with interns and regular customers we talk into coming along on our farm trips. We are now a part of the evolution of a  host of small businesses, and we are in constant conversation with them, asking questions, giving feedback and anteing up our dollars to engage in experiments.

Tom Mylan. Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

Tom Mylan. Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

When you buy something, you’re actually voting with your money for that thing to continue to exist. When you choose to buy good meat, you’re supporting  family farms, pasture-raised animals, humane handling practices and a better ecological outcome. When you buy commodity meat, you’re choosing mammoth corporations; CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feed Operations; dubious animal welfare standards; and drug-injected animals that are developing pathogens resistant to treatment with antibiotics.

The important thing here is that the money spent on good meat stays in the local economy, creating more jobs and hopefully serving more people who want to buy local meat.

Is this reductive? Dumbed down? Of course it is. However, I think that at least on this issue, being reductive is helpful. Not everyone wants to, or can deal with, all of the gray areas and minutiae of meat. There’s so much to know and consider, and the conversations can get so cluttered and complex, that it can lead to apathy on the part of the average person. But that apathy isn’t possible when you know that your meat comes from a visible chain of farmers and slaughterhouses and butchers.

I believe that this kind of local connection with our meat can preserve a community — the businesses, the environment, the way of life. Who knows? It might just save the world.

Main photo: The Meat Hook’s partners at work. From left, Ben Turley, Brent Young and Tom Mylan. Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

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Caravaggio's

To an evolutionary biologist you and I are little more than machines for propagating our genetic code. Food is fuel and sex a stratagem for blending two organisms’ DNA. Yet however elegant and simple, the model goes only so far in explaining our lusts and urges. To understand how sexy selfies and tweets of Twinkies fit into Darwin’s theories requires a little more exploration.

As more than one commentator has noted, the human animal’s largest sexual organ is the brain. Something similar could be said for the way we approach eating. We can often taste food before any of it touches our lips. Just a whiff may be enough. To one person, the briny odor of mussels that once made her sick may be repugnant ever after; to another, the same garlic-scented mollusks remembered from a holiday in sunny Provence make her drool with anticipation. And, of course, we eat with our eyes.

Which brings me to pornography.  For a variety of reasons having to do with survival, we judge our food and our sexual partners long before any exchange of bodily fluids.  So it’s not surprising that a visual representation of an especially tasty morsel gets us salivating. As with prurient depictions of the human body, there is a centuries-long history of graphic pictures catering to gluttonous appetites: from old Dutch still-lifes with their luscious oysters to two-page centerfolds in Gourmet magazine. As if to underline the connection, food and sex are often mixed, whether in Old Master canvases of ripe bodies and even riper fruit or the fellatio-like ads for Dove ice cream bars.

Devolving to ‘Hell’s Kitchen’

With the arrival of cable TV’s Food Network, food porn changed from a static, and to some degree solitary, experience to a dynamic and more participatory one. Yet there is something fundamentally odd about watching food (or sex) on a TV monitor rather than, say,  a drama or a music show. When you watch “Mad Men” you are seeing actors act; on “American Idol” you hear singers sing. In both cases you are directly consuming what they have to give. But on many food shows — and in this they’re a lot like your basic smut — you get your kicks secondhand. All you get is the visuals without the visceral pleasures. You don’t get to taste, smell, touch or swallow anything the performers show you, you just get to look, and let your imagination do the rest. Undoubtedly there occasionally is an educational factor to these shows; there’s a good chance you’ll walk away with a tip or two you can share with your significant other.

Sure, the Food Network isn’t as sexy as it used to be. Food television in general has devolved from a generation where hunky chefs like Jamie Oliver and Bobby Flay and sensually endowed women like Rachel Ray or Nigella Lawson sipped, slurped and savored delectable dishes on camera. When you watch “Hell’s Kitchen” or even “Cupcake Wars,” the food is almost a side note, an occasion for the drama to unfold; like a murder on “CSI,” a fallen soufflé is just another plot twist.

Yet even as television’s age of XXX food show fades, what I call “Food Porn 2.0″ has flooded cyberspace. It’s a more intimate, handheld version of the age-old phenomenon. In much the way teenagers send suggestive selfies to each other (to say nothing of a well-known congressman and his infamous texts), America is tweeting its supper. Is all of it sexy? Undoubtedly not, but there is a degree of exhibitionism. Instead of flashing open your raincoat (or smart phone) to reveal your endowments, you’re showing off the dish you are about to devour. The message is a lot more “Look at what you’re missing!” than “Wish you were here!” Whether your audience is enraptured or mortified is another matter.

Where restaurant reviews enter the picture

This voyeuristic approach to food photography apparently has a parallel in samizdat restaurant reviews. In a recent academic paper, Dan Jurafsky reported on the language used in online consumer restaurant reviews. At the risk of oversimplifying his findings, language associated with positive experiences at more modest restaurants tended to use metaphors of drug addiction while reviewers of fancier restaurants were more likely to reach for sexual language. Commonplace were descriptions such as “the apple tarty ice cream pastry caramelly thing was just orgasmic” or “succulent pork belly paired with seductively seared foie gras” (I can’t quite get my mind around the concept of “seductively seared,” but I’m probably just a prude.)

Fat poultry liver notwithstanding, the food group most associated with sexual vocabulary apparently was dessert and the better the review, the more lascivious the description. More expensive restaurants got  longer reviews utilizing more complex vocabulary: Thus cupcakes were compared to crack, but the yuzu cheesecake with Meyer lemon curd were sinfully voluptuous. “By using the metaphor of sexuality and sensuality in these long reviews,” Jurafsky wrote, “the reviewer further portrays themselves as a food lover attuned to the sensual and hedonic element of cuisine.”  Shift the vocabulary ever so slightly and it sounds just like former congressman Anthony Weiner.

It may be time to revisit Brillat Savarin’s aphorism, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.” Maybe today, you are what you tweet.

Main photo: Caravaggio’s “Boy With Basket of Fruit.” Credit: Wikimedia

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Curry powder. Credit: Courtesy of Hippocrene Books

I love playing with flavors, adding an Indian touch to almost anything that comes my way, minced chilies to my grilled cheese sandwich, a touch of ginger to the kids’ mac and cheese, and cilantro to almost everything that I set my eyes on. So the idea of a curry-flavored chicken sandwich sounded just right for lunch, and quite an exciting choice for a meal to be eaten on the go. I ventured to our local deli and picked up a nice-looking curried chicken sandwich, made on crisp well-toasted whole grain bread. The salad had the proverbial yellow color that seems to be the color of almost all things “curry” in commercial outlets. However, since it is most often derived from the addition of turmeric (a very healthy spice), it did not faze me when I bought my lunch.

But a few bites of the curried chicken sandwich convinced me that I was wrong about turmeric! I had misunderstood the intense taste of turmeric, overlooking the fact that this beautiful yellow powder tastes awful when uncooked. This unfortunate culinary experience also made me realize (not surprisingly!) that my mother was very right in her advice about never using spices without cooking them. Spices, as she always emphasizes, can be cooked and used in many different ways – they can be roasted, toasted, steamed or fried, but should never be used raw. A few ill-considered spices, with an emphasis on turmeric, does not quite make a dish curried. That had been my mistake with the chicken sandwich.

Looking at the bright yellow creation dotted with white almond chips and deep red cranberries, I could not help but observe that curry is probably one of the most misunderstood concepts about Indian cooking. Raw turmeric masquerading as curry has made me eloquent and thoughtful. But, seriously, I have probably heard it all when it comes to misconceptions: that curry is a single spice, or that it is essential to all Indian cooking. Leading the charge is probably the question about whether my cooking and cooking classes include a lot of curry.

What is curry?

So let me tackle a few of my favorite peeves in an attempt to give curry a sense of identity. At this point, I am really restricting this to Indian food and cuisine, as stretching this to a global context makes it an even broader exercise. Indians use the word curry in a multitude of ways, but most commonly it’s used in referring to a saucy spiced stew. So, a chicken curry would essentially mean a spiced chicken stew. However, something like the well-known chicken tikka masala would also be a curry, just a curry with its own specific spicing. But, of course, not everything on the Indian table is a curry. It really is a term used in lieu of sauce or gravy.

Rinku Bhattacharya. Credit: Aadi Bhattacharya

Rinku Bhattacharya. Credit: Aadi Bhattacharya

So, what is in the world is the spice or concept that we call curry? Well, here is the first often-confused perception: that curry is a single spice used in all Indian food. Curry, even as we think of it in mainstream parlance, is not a single spice but rather a blend of spices, possibly concocted to offer a quick-fix formula to Indian cuisine. The popularity of the blend and the curry concept can be largely credited to the British, who fell in love with the culinary flavors of India (in the 1800s during the colonial period of Indian history that extended over a hundred years) and wanted to bottle and synthesize them into a single concept. There is no standard preset formula to curry.

Most Indian homes have several spice blends that are essential to their cooking repertoire, and they may not be called curry. These blends vary from region to region and often chef to chef, possibly with most of them having cumin, coriander seeds, and turmeric and cayenne powders as some common ingredients. It is very uncommon to add these blends in their uncooked form to dishes, so really the curried chicken salad that started this line of thinking would not have a place in most typical Indian tables.

Commercial curry blends seem to have affection for turmeric, since it yields the yellow color associated with curry powder, and fenugreek, whose characteristic mildly maple-like scent is  associated with the supposed fragrance of curry. This brings us to the second misconception about curry: that it has a particular smell. There is no specific fragrance associated with a curry. Since a lot of the core spices are the same, we often call it the fragrance of “curry”; however, what is typical and easy to define is the scent of these individual spices, rather than the curry smell.

In various parts of India (most commonly in the South), the cooking and sauces use a fragrant leaf called the curry leaf. Aromatic, with gentle citrus-like notes, the curry leaf is used to add flavor and fragrance to stew, much like bay leaves. This brings us to the third misconception about curry: the belief that all curries have curry leaves. There are curries without these leaves and then dishes that use the curry leaf but are not called a curry. Curry leaves are added to some, but not all, curry blends.

Shrimp With Creamy Bell Pepper Sauce, a dish from Rinku Bhattacharya's "Spices and Seasons" cookbook, uses curry powder. Credit: Courtesy of Rinku Bhattacharya

Shrimp With Creamy Bell Pepper Sauce, a dish from Rinku Bhattacharya’s “Spices and Seasons” cookbook, is just one of the many uses of curry powder. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Other spices in Indian cooking

This brings me to the last and final misconception (at least that I will discuss here): To like Indian food, you need to like curry. Well, that really gets us back to the first point. While there are spices in most Indian cooking, it is more complicated than just curry. By identifying the object of your dissatisfaction, chances are you will be just fine with some of the offerings on the Indian table, such as maybe a light stir-fry, sweet and tangy chutney or even a delightful grilled and smoky dish, marinated with light and balanced seasonings. All sans curry, and all very Indian!

Having said all of this, I do have my own all-purpose blend that I call curry powder (see, I told you this was confusing). It is a hybrid of flavors from my mother-in-law’s North India and my mother’s Bengali kitchen. It is one of the flavors in my kitchen and is one of the spice blends in my upcoming cookbook, “Spices and Seasons.” But I do not use it in everything.

Basic All Purpose Curry Powder

Ingredients

2 tablespoons cumin seeds

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick

3 dried red chilies

10 to 15 curry leaves

1 teaspoon turmeric

Directions

1. In a heavy-bottomed pan, dry roast all the spices except the turmeric on medium heat for about 2 minutes. The spices should smell fragrant and toasty.

2. Mix in the turmeric and grind to a powder in a spice mill or coffee grinder.

3. Store in an airtight jar in a cool dry place.

Main photo: Curry powder. Credit: Courtesy of Hippocrene Books

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