Articles in Soapbox

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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In La Semilla, New Mexico, FoodCorps service members are learning to help students love kale in salad and tacos. Credit: Courtesy of School Meals That Rock Pinterest board

Dayle Hayes, a registered dietician, was not happy. That was clear from the moment she began her presentation at the Culinary Institute of America’s “Healthy Flavors, Healthy Kids” initiative May 8 in San Antonio. In the morning she had watched Katie Couric, on national television, present a 10-minute clip from her new film “Fed Up” that detailed the nutritional horrors of the school lunch program.

“This information is out of date! It only tells half the story!” Hayes said.

Hayes is the founder of School Meals That Rock, a blog whose purpose is to communicate the positive developments in school lunch programs across the country. Presenting at a session titled “Best Practices for Increasing Participation: Making the Most of Social Media and Social Marketing,” she then exhorted the participants at the conference to put online their photos of salad bars and nutritionally sound school lunches. “Post it, Pin it, Tweet it, Eat it!!!” she told participants, most of whom either administer or cook for school lunch programs and have made it their mission to improve the diets of young Americans through their programs.

“We are in competition with a lot of Mommy bloggers who only see the negative side of school lunches. And “Fed Up” is going to be huge. We need to show the good work that we are doing. Take pictures in your cafeterias and send them to me so that I can post them on School Meals That Rock — but please, make sure they’re in focus! Post your menus online. Use social media!”

School Meals That Rock has a Facebook page that Hayes describes as “a place to share and celebrate what is RIGHT with school nutrition in America. It is a counter-revolution to the media bashing of school meals and a tribute to every lunch lady (and gentleman) working to do amazing things for kids’ nutrition.”

On May 12, School Meals That Rock launched a “Dear Katie Couric, Let’s Do School Lunch” campaign. (#InviteKatieCouricToSchoolLunch). Starting on the West Coast and moving east every few days, Hayes has invited her followers to post invitations to Katie Couric to visit their lunch programs on the Facebook page, on Twitter, on the School Meals That Rock Pinterest board and on the School Meals That Rock website.

Within 24 hours, Couric and @SchoolMealsRock were engaged in a lively conversation on Twitter, and lunch programs from school districts in Alaska, Washington and Oregon had posted invitations with winning photos from their schools and links to their sites. The next day California came on board. On May 15, Hayes posted a call-out to Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana and Arizona.

From the Pinterest board for School Meals That Rock: #Katie Couric: We "mustache" that you visit us for lunch here in Provo, Utah where we bring fun to the fresh!

From the Pinterest board for School Meals That Rock: #Katie Couric: We “mustache” that you visit us for lunch here in Provo, Utah where we bring fun to the fresh!

More invitations have gone up by the hour on the Facebook page. Each virtual invitation has a great photo — kids on a farmers market salad bar line, kids making food, plated good food in school cafeterias — overlaid with the invitation to Couric and a link to the specific school lunch program site or school district site.

Overlays of the small yellow invitation photo give a little information about what the school district is doing, and you can scroll down the post to get more information. Here are just a few examples of the invitations that have gone out since the campaign began:

“Dear Katie Couric,

Let’s do school lunch!

They make some delicious soups from scratch in Walla Walla, Washington.”

* * *

“Dear Katie Couric,

Let’s do school lunch!

In Solvang, California, they ‘rescue’ organic veggies and kids love them on the daily salad bar at lunch!”

* * *

“Dear Katie Couric,

Let’s do school lunch!

Rosa might make you some of her famous Oregon roasted red potatoes with rosemary at the Bethel School District in Eugene, Oregon.”

* * *

I love scrolling down this page and reading about what the school districts are doing, because it is truly impressive and it gives me some hope. In Lodi, Calif., the food service department teams up with Food for Thought and brings fresh produce from local farms to elementary school students.

They teach students about the benefits of fruits and vegetables, and students use “school bucks” to shop for fresh produce. Another small California school district, El Monte, posts that they have “rock star status because they work closely with the Clinton Foundation and The Alliance for a Healthier Generation.” That district also makes “AWESOME fresh whole grain sub rolls!” A small school in the Santa Ynez Valley of California works with the Santa Ynez Valley Fruit & Vegetable Rescue and offers items such as roasted organic fennel and kale chips. In Haines, Alaska, they’re serving “fresh boat-to-school crab cakes.”

I hope that Couric and Laurie David, one of the film’s producers, visit some of these schools. Many school districts in this country have a long way to go, but thanks to the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, dedicated school nutrition professionals now have access to healthier foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and quality dairy products such as yogurt. This is especially true of districts that provide subsidized school lunches. After reading about the crab cakes in Haines, I thought a virtual visit would not be good enough for me — If I were Katie Couric I’d make a beeline for Alaska.

Main photo: In La Semilla, New Mexico, FoodCorps service members are learning to help students love kale in salad and tacos. Credit: Courtesy of School Meals That Rock Pinterest board

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Grilled vegetables to light up a Meatless Memorial Day. Credit: Sarsmis / iStockphoto

Peggy Neu knows Meatless Monday is an easy way to reduce meat without a lot of sacrifice. But what happens when Meatless Monday and Memorial Day converge? What about the sizzling barbecue ribs? What about pleasing a holiday crowd with varying tastes? What about the kids?

Neu sees an opportunity.

She’s president of The Monday Campaigns, and when she spoke about the growth of Meatless Monday this spring at TEDxManhattan, she told the crowd that research shows that people tend to see Monday as a chance for a fresh start. With respect to health, people are more likely to make a change Monday than any other day. A study of health-related Google searches over a multiyear period showed a consistent pattern of Monday spikes. “It’s kind of like a mini New Year’s, but you get 52 chances to stay on track,” Neu said.

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.

Isn’t New Year’s more pleasurable? That’s exactly Neu’s hope for Meatless Monday. At TEDxManhattan, she said that it’s important to make the day “a fun ritual, something that people look forward to” and to approach it as “choice and moderation, giving people vegetarian choices rather than taking something (meat) away.”

So if it’s sizzle you want from your barbecue, there are plenty of cool ways to grill vegetables too. (See tips at the end of this story.) If it’s variety you crave, former Meatless Monday Web editor Tami O’Neill suggested “know when you won’t notice,” as in that freshly wrapped burrito or five-alarm chili in which the flavor might be just as wonderful without packing in the meat.

For kids, the fun particularly matters. Some tips from Meatless Monday include:

– Let kids choose a fruit or vegetable to include in a Meatless Monday dinner. They can help research how to prepare it.

– Involve kids in cooking. Their participation will vary depending on age and ability, but cooking is fun and preparing new foods helps demystify them.

The Monday Campaigns has a site filled with tips for cooking with kids, recipes for different ages and other resources at www.thekidscookmonday.org.

The idea behind Meatless Monday is simple. Launched in 2003 as a nonprofit initiative of The Monday Campaigns, in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, it asks people to give up meat one day a week, and the name tells you what to do and when to do it.

There’s plenty of science to support the concept. Cutting down on meat can help reduce the risk of obesity, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. There are also environmental benefits. Meat production uses vast quantities of both fossil fuels and water; and industrial agriculture, which produces the bulk of the meat sold in the U.S., is linked to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, air and water pollution, and other environmental ills.

Meatless Monday’s reach is global. It has since been adopted across the U.S. and in 30 countries. Restaurants, school districts and media outlets such as the Food Network, Self and Prevention have signed on, offering special Meatless Monday menus and recipes. Celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Padma Lakshmi, Al Gore and Paul McCartney have endorsed the campaign.

“To me, though, the most powerful aspect of Monday as a behavior-change idea is that we can do it together,” Neu told the audience at TEDxManhattan. “How cool is it that this Monday there are going to be people in Iran that will be doing a Meatless Monday and they’re going to do it because they share the same goals, to be healthier and to have a healthier planet. … I think sometimes by synchronizing even simple actions, we can synchronize our hearts and our minds around bigger ideals.”

(See Neu’s TEDxManhattan talk below on YouTube.)

The Meatless Monday website offers an abundance of recipes, searchable by category or ingredients. Numerous food and health websites, bloggers and others also feature Meatless Monday recipes on a regular basis.

Vegetarian grilling tips for Meatless Monday

For those pondering how Meatless Monday can mesh with barbecues as summer begins, The Monday Campaigns offers a list of grilling tips, including:

1. Many vegetables can be thrown right on the grill with just a light brushing of olive oil (with delicious results)! Fresh corn, tomatoes, asparagus, eggplant, zucchini, squash and bell peppers are just some to try.

2. Kabobs are a barbecue staple that make the perfect meatless entree. Add tofu cubes, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, roasted potatoes or just about any other vegetable that strikes your fancy.

3. Grilled fruit is amazing too. For a sweet side dish or dessert, try peaches, pineapples, plums, melons, kiwis, pears or figs with a touch of honey marinade.

4. Swap a hamburger for a portobello mushroom burger or grilled eggplant slices. Put the barbecued veggies on a bun and add your favorite toppings, such as avocados, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers or an olive spread.

Peggy Neu at TEDxManhattan. Credit: Screenshot from TEDxManhattan on YouTube.com

Peggy Neu at TEDxManhattan. Credit: Screenshot from TEDxManhattan on YouTube.com

5. Try a veggie burger recipe that celebrates hearty ingredients such as black beans, lentils, quinoa and chickpeas. You can also find healthy pre-made patties at supermarkets and natural food stores.

6. Make a delicious, smoky pizza pie right on the grill — all you need is pizza dough, sauce and your favorite vegetables thinly sliced or pre-grilled.

7. Use your favorite marinade recipe to add flavor to extra firm tofu cubes. Grill them up and add them to a salad, serve them with veggies or enjoy them on their own.

8. Add grilled vegetables to a filling summer salad. Garnish fresh lettuces with a bit of fruit, feta cheese and olive oil to complete the dish; or think beyond lettuce and concoct a bean or grain salad.

9. Consider your sides when planning a meatless barbecue. Pasta salads, raw vegetables and hummus dip are great ways to turn your plant-based dishes into a full meal.

10. End the meal on a healthy note with a tray of fresh fruit, a parfait or homemade smoothies.

Trying new recipes and methods of cooking can help turn Meatless Monday into an opportunity to add variety to your diet and explore new tastes. At the same time, as Neu said, “You can draw inspiration and feel part of a larger movement trying to improve our health and the health of the planet.”

Main photo: Grilled vegetables to light up a Meatless Memorial Day. Credit: Sarsmis/iStockphoto

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Argan nuts are harvested from the forest, then fire-roasted to soften the husk. Credit: Serenity Bolt

Liisa VonEnde, a dental hygienist from Vermont, pauses in the checkout line at Whole Foods Market and considers the last-minute temptations: local chocolate, exotic licorice, obscure brands of gum. Finally she tosses a 2 Degrees cherry almond energy bar into her cart. Why that one? This particular bar helped feed a hungry child. These days, “cause marketing” — an idea that for many began with Paul Newman’s salad dressing — has spread to everything from shoes to eyeglasses, with small specialty companies combining flashy graphics with philanthropy to sell their products.

The Author


Serenity BoltSerenity Bolt, a writer and photographer based in Rabat, Morocco, reported this story in association with Round Earth Media.

California-based 2 Degrees Food provides one meal for every bar sold. In Morocco, meanwhile, women have organized into small cooperatives to sell argan oil, hoping the tie-in will boost sales for their vendors. Both cases sound like a win-win-win, satisfying the disadvantaged, a company’s bottom line, and consumer cravings. With so many food companies adopting the do-gooder model, however, consumers need to think about whether their well-meaning purchases are delivering as promised.

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman defines cause marketing as a business campaign “promising donations from the sale of products or the use of services.” Recent research shows that consumers are indeed affected by a company’s corporate social responsibility. A 2013 study by the New York-based Reputation Institute found that 42% of the 47,000 participants were influenced by their perception of a company’s social mission. This trend is most apparent in the rapid growth of smaller businesses like 2 Degrees Food, along with such well-known brands as Toms Shoes and Warby Parker, which make direct donations of shoes and/or eyeglasses as part of their business model.

Insight from 2 Degrees Food

Lauren Walters, cofounder and CEO of 2 Degrees Food, believes that simplicity is key. “One of the things that appeals to consumers is that it’s concrete, it’s clear: You buy a bar and this is what happens,” he says. Founded in 2009, 2 Degrees produces the promised meals in-country using local labor and food sourced from regional farmers whenever possible. So far, he says, Two Degrees has donated over 1 million meals in Colombia, Haiti, Malawi, India, Kenya, Myanmar, Somalia, and the United States.

The social business model has been criticized for promoting a situation in which people in developing countries rely on the whims of a first-world consumer: If the influx of free shoes, eyeglasses and meals stops one day, the people may be left without the wherewithal to produce and purchase these items for themselves. The model may also unwittingly discourage consumers from engaging in more thoughtful or sustained philanthropy. “If we buy a T-shirt and feel we are financially supporting a cause by buying the T-shirt, a lot of people will already think they’ve given, and may not be amenable to other requests,” says Ray Dart, professor of business administration at Trent University in Ottawa.

While Walters acknowledges that the cause marketing model has issues, he says he hopes more businesses embrace it. He envisions a “culture of choice” that empowers consumers to make a difference. “The problem is not that there are getting to be too many of these companies, but that there are too few,” he says. “Everyone should be doing this.”

bolt_cause-marketing-photo-2b

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Argan nuts are harvested from the forest, then fire-roasted to soften the husk. Credit: Serenity Bolt

The women who process argan oil in Morocco have experienced the downside firsthand. The seed of the argan tree is native to Arganeraie, a UNESCO biosphere in the southwest region of Morocco. The Amazigh women have been extracting the oil for centuries using a complicated hand-pressing process. Jamila Idbourrous is director of UCFA (Union des Coopératives des Femmes de l’Arganeraie), a large argan cooperative in Morocco’s Agadir region. She says the oil, which is used for cooking and cosmetics, is the area’s only financial resource. “Within the cooperatives, we care deeply about offering these women fair pay for their work,” she says. But even after her cooperative stopped supplying some companies with the oil last year, Idbourrous says, at least one continues to promote its connection to UCFA — and the social benefits for the women.

As companies feel increased pressure to factor social responsibility into their marketing and as consumers adjust their perception of what defines a “good” company, people will expect to see companies giving something back. For her part, VonEnde says that “the social stuff is an added bonus that makes me feel like I did more that day than just buy an energy bar or a pair of shoes.” CEO Walters thinks that feeling could spread. “If they can help someone just by buying a bar, maybe they’ll start to think of other ways to make a difference, too,” he says.

How to assess a corporation’s social responsibility

How can you evaluate a company’s commitment to social responsibility? Last October, the New York attorney general issued some best practices for cause marketing campaigns. These tips are based on those recommendations:

1. Expect your donation to be clear: Look for companies that use a fixed dollar amount — such as 50 cents for every purchase — rather than generic phrases like “a portion of proceeds” will go to charity.
2. Look for transparency: Be aware of any contractual limits on the giving campaigns or of charitable contributions that won’t be made in cash. See whether a fixed amount has been promised to the charity regardless of number of products sold.

3.  Demand the details in social media, too: Watch that companies conducting cause marketing through social media clearly and prominently disclose key terms in their online marketing.

4. Find out how much was raised: At the conclusion of each campaign, you should be able to go to the company’s website and see the amount of charitable donations generated.

Main photo: Moroccan women like Fatna Boufoss first gathers nuts from the argan forest, then grinds them after they are roasted as her daughter Meriam looks on. Credit: Serenity Bolt

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Child obesity is one of the targets of the documentary film

“Fed Up” is a jab to the belly of many of the myths we hold about the causes and culprits responsible for the obesity epidemic in America. The well-crafted, accessible documentary’s focus is on kids, the food industry, Congress and most directly on the sneaky amount of sugar present in almost everything we pluck off a supermarket shelf, including all those helpful foods labeled “natural” and “low fat.”

In an era when one-third of our kids are diagnosed as clinically obese and have prospects for shorter lives than their parents, “Fed Up” should be shown to schools, youth groups, PTAs, projected on the walls at shopping malls — you name it. Anywhere that kids and parents hang out.

Produced by Laurie David, cookbook author, activist and the producer who shared the Academy Award with Al Gore for “An Inconvenient Truth,” narrated and co-produced by Katie Couric and directed by Stephanie Soechtig, the film is an indictment of the powerful hold that the packaged and processed food industry has over the American waistline. The film also pokes at the industry’s too cozy relationship with our government and suggests that the power of the food lobby has been quietly putting a muzzle on one of the great icons and advocates of health in America, Michelle Obama.

“Fed Up” is a labor of love and measured outrage. But it is the kind of outrage that translates into a call to action. “Fed Up” will cause you to think hard and critically, not in some abstract way, perhaps as soon as the next time you lift a fork to your lips. The tone of the film is a little in your face — an excellent thing, especially if you want to bring your school-age and older children to see the film. They will get it.

"Fed Up" poster. Credit: Courtesy of "Fed Up"

The narrative thread of the documentary follows a few young teenagers who are desperate to lose weight. It’s heartbreaking to see the pain these boys and girls suffer as obese kids. The director gave the kids their own mini-cams so that they could film soliloquies as the thoughts occurred and in moments of teenage privacy. One young girl, bewildered by the fact that she couldn’t lose weight, no matter how much exercise she added to her weekly routine, made me cry with compassion. In a theater full of strangers. One of the main arguments of the movie is that exercise isn’t the answer to obesity. The film argues that there aren’t enough hours in the day in which even the vigorous calorie-burning activity can balance out the calorific and toxic food environment that we live in. (Remember it is a documentary and has a specific point of view.) Watching the kids and their families struggle with weight issues, the shame of being young and fat, the fear of the health consequences, the possibility of early death from metabolic syndrome — haunts me still.

A fresh look at food issue

Honestly, as someone who swims daily in the conversation about our food system, I found the film fresh and energizing. I learned new things, and the takeaways were presented in ways that resonated for me.

"Fed Up" looks at the surreptitious way sugar shows up in our diets. Credit: Screenshot from "Fed Up" trailer

“Fed Up” looks at the surreptitious way sugar shows up in our diets. Credit: Screen shot from “Fed Up” trailer

The film has the requisite number of familiar talking heads that no serious foodie film would be without (among them Michael Pollan and Mark Hyman), but it also introduces less familiar talking heads who I am thrilled are connecting to a broader audience about food. Top among these is Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatrician and medical academic from San Francisco whose clear-eyed research on sugar has had me agog for years; and President Bill Clinton, the recent vegan who sorta/kinda admits that his administration “missed” the dawning of the obesity crisis with its misbegotten public health emphasis on low fat and under regulation of the food industry. (P.S.: There’s a neat statistical correlation between the uptick in obesity in the U.S. and the years that “low fat” became the diet watchwords.) Almost at once, all the major food companies decided to make up for the sawdust taste of low and reduced fat products by loading them up with sugar.

Surprisingly, the movie isn’t a downer. At the end of the film in a packed theater, everyone stood up and cheered. The documentary offers a Fed Up challenge: Go sugar free for 10 days. That’s more complicated than just giving up sodas and desserts, by the way. You have to suss out the sugar in your salad dressings, your spaghetti sauce, your healthy super-power packed granola bars! But it’s a challenge well worth accepting. If only to prove to yourself that like Laurie David and Katie Couric and all the team that created the film, you are Fed Up too.

Main photo: Focusing on the causes of child obesity is one of the targets of the documentary film “Fed Up.” Credit: Courtesy of “Fed Up” film website

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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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