Articles in Academics

Cattle at a factory farm. Credit: tepic/iStock

The meat case at your local supermarket could contain something far scarier than the most bloodthirsty Halloween zombie.

That’s because current methods of meat production are leading to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or “superbugs.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, and at least 23,000 people die as a direct result of these infections.

AUTHOR


ChangeFood, Pam Weisz

Pam 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.

“The most diabolical villain could not design a better system for creating superbugs than the modern concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO),” or factory farm, said Lance Price, professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.

In CAFO’s, large numbers of animals are crowded into a confined space, meaning that trillions of bacteria can easily be transmitted from one animal to another. “When I see these operations, I don’t see factories making meat. I see factories making trillions and trillions and trillions of drug-resistant bacteria,” said Price, who holds a doctorate in environmental health sciences.

Antibiotic use in livestock

Price spoke at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference in March featuring leading innovators in the food movement.

In his talk, Price pointed out that the vast majority of antibiotic use in this country is in animal food production. While human medicine accounts for 7.7 million pounds of antibiotic — which, he noted, is “way too much” — 30 million pounds of antibiotics are used in industrial farming.

Further, he said, “the best estimates suggest that only 20% of that is being used to treat sick animals. The other 80% is being used as production tools, to make animals grow faster, to prevent diseases, or treat diseases occurring just because of the way we’re raising animals.”

This leads to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “You have tens of thousands of animals crammed together in filthy, stressful conditions. You have loads of bacteria living in those animals. And you have the magic ingredient — a steady stream of low-dose antibiotics,” Price said. From there, he said, “it’s just a matter of evolution.”

“Every now and then, one bacterium will pick up a mutation that makes them resistant to antibiotics,” Price explained. “If that’s happening in an environment where you have a lot of antibiotics, then the susceptible bacteria are going to die off and the resistant ones are going to multiply. And the thing about bacteria is they multiply very quickly. You can go from a single drug-resistant E. coli to a billion in 24 hours.”

Dangers of ‘superbugs’

Drug-resistant bacteria end up on meat when the animals harboring them are slaughtered. “Those bacteria go on to cause drug-resistant infections in people,” Price said.

Major health organizations have been raising the alarm about superbugs. The World Health Organization, for example, states that “antibiotic resistance is no longer a prediction for the future; it is happening right now, across the world, and is putting at risk the ability to treat common infections in the community and hospitals.”

Yet despite this bleak picture, Price says there is room for hope — if we make some fundamental changes.

First, he said, “We have to embrace this idea that antibiotics are different, and value them for what they are. They’re just short of a miracle — they save people’s lives. We should only be using them to treat sick people and sick animals.”

The key to making this happen is changing the way we raise animals for food. “If you remove the antibiotics from food animal production, many of those bacteria will revert to being susceptible to those antibiotics again,” Price said.

Other changes are also needed, he said. “We need to increase hygiene in our hospitals, homes and food production systems,” Price said. Development of new antibiotics is also needed, although, he noted, bacteria have been developing resistance to antibiotics ever since Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.

Decoding meat labels

Consumers can play a role by only buying meat from animals raised without antibiotics. Organizations such as Consumer Reports offer guidance on how to decode labels to ensure your meat comes from such animals. The National Resources Defense Council and the Pew Charitable Trusts are among other groups working on this issue.

The meat industry has taken some steps in response to the increased concern. Earlier this fall, for example, Perdue Farms announced it would stop using antibiotics in its hatcheries.

“The good news is the models exist,” Price said. “My dream is that we stop propping up this broken system with antibiotics, that we let farmers be farmers again, that we have animals live like healthy animals again, and that we save antibiotics for future generations. We can do this. But we have to act now.”

Main photo: Cattle at a factory farm. Credit: tepic/iStockphoto

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pumpkins

The days following a holiday are always a bit of a downer. And all too often it’s just a matter of time before the importance of the occasion becomes a distant memory as we return to the status quo of living our everyday lives.

Wait, you didn’t know Friday, October 24, was a holiday?

OK, perhaps not a holiday exactly, but for food geeks like me it was a day where houses were filled with brightly colored fruit and vegetable balloons and salubrious meals were followed by delicious-but-still-nutritious desserts. Food Day was created by the Center for Science in the Public Interest to raise awareness about the story of food from farm to table and back to soil to encourage dietary changes that support health, community, and the environment.

Why what you eat matters

In my own world, though, October 24 is just another day to do what I always do: teach people about why what you eat matters, farm to fork. I first began making the connections between what I ate and how it affected our planet and its peoples almost 20 years ago, learning from a professor who had been teaching “nutrition ecology” for decades. Learning to think beyond myself when it came to food was an “Aha!” moment for me. It has had an indelible effect on everything I’ve ever done in my career as a nutrition scientist.

As you probably already know, nutrition is a science focused on how food impacts health and disease, which is in essence biochemistry and physiology. Fundamentally, nutrition is based in the biological sciences, hence rooted to an individual. The concept of “nutrition ecology” was first coined in the early 1980s and remains unfamiliar to most people (including most nutritionists, by the way, since thinking outside the body is not standard practice for them, either). In essence, nutrition ecology expands how we think about food beyond health, a paradigm that includes the impact of our food choices on the environment, economy and society as a whole.

In other words, when it comes to what you eat, it’s not just about you.

Of course, diet impacts your own health, weight and risk of disease: 80% of chronic diseases are essentially preventable through modifiable lifestyle factors such as diet, and better food choices will lead to a longer life filled with more active years. If you’re not yet paying close enough attention to your own well-being, now’s a great time to think about the kinds of changes you can make to improve your own health. Yet the spirit of Food Day truly becomes alive when we step outside ourselves and deeply consider why what we eat matters — apart from our own bodies. How food is grown and what resources are used to produce it, including feed, land, water, fuel, fertilizers and soil; who grows it, and how fairly she or he is treated and remunerated; how it gets to you and how much it costs; and how food is disposed and/or wasted — should you be lucky enough to live in a place where surplus exists — all matter.

Sound like a tall order to consider all of that next time you’re making a meal?

Sustainable eating

It’s true that the road to healthy and sustainable eating is rife with complexities. Yet if you’re not up for a semester-long course in farm to fork eating, like the kinds of classes I teach, the good news is that cutting back on animal foods like beef, pork, lamb, and poultry (especially processed products) and increasing your consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans, and legumes will go a long way toward improving your health as well as the environment, due to the much smaller carbon- and water-footprint of plant-based diets. And that simple change, if enough people do it, can lead to many other large-scale positive effects elsewhere in the food system.

Sure, there’s a lot more you can do aside from consuming less meat, and Food Day is a terrific opportunity to educate yourself about critical food issues from farming to food waste, chemicals to climate change. And, as long as you ensure your sources are science-based, there are myriad places to help you put into practice the principles of nutrition ecology.

P.K. Newby

P.K. Newby

But Food Day is just one day, and now it’s over — and, if we’re being honest, most people probably didn’t even know about it, anyway. And that’s OK because, let’s face it, every day is food day, really. Not only do we need food to live, but food is an integral part of our cultural identity and, for many, a source of joy and connection to ourselves, others, and the planet we share. To quote Kurt Vonnegut, food is practically the whole story every time. Far more important than celebrating a day that quickly lapses into the past is to make your food choices matter in the present every time you shop, cook, eat and drink. With each bite, you have the opportunity to invest not only in your own health, but to cast a vote about the kind of world we want to live in, together.

I hope there will be a time when we don’t need a special day to remind us.

Main photo: The Copley Square farmers market in Boston. Credit: P.K. Newby

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One

The cause and cure for much of what plagues our society — obesity, ill health, social injustice — have roots in what we eat. Fix our food system and we are on track to resolve those larger issues.

Belief in this food-first approach is inspiring food entrepreneurs across America to find healthier, more sustainable ways to produce and process food. On Sept. 7, PBS premieres a series championing these food heroes. “Food Forward TV,” a 13-part series underwritten by Chipotle Mexican Grill, is uplifting and educational, packed with stories of people creating food solutions that point toward lasting change.

A sour note? I’ll get to the episode on genetic engineering later.

Many of the food producers and experts featured in the series are familiar, trusted names to anyone who tracks the food movement. Journalist Paul Greenberg shares new optimism that aquaculture has improved to the point that farmed fish can be a healthy substitute for their wild brethren. The folks at Belcampo Meat Co. — a livestock operation in the shadow of California’s Mount Shasta — explain how they raise animals on a grass-only diet on their ranch, slaughter and butcher them on site, and then sell the meat through their own stores; their system is so old-fashioned it’s positively revolutionary.

There are many reasons to watch the series. An innovative effort to revitalize worn-out farmland using compost containing livestock and human waste has a nice star turn. Effective new methods for teaching inner-city kids to love healthy food in Detroit gives us hope. And far-sighted plans show how urban farms are redefining “local” agriculture. There is so much new information about milk, particularly raw milk, that it gets its own episode.

Among the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

Among the backdrop of New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

A cast of young musicians performing food-centric ballads — interstitial segments that by all rights should have been too precious by twice — buoy the series and keep things moving. The Detroit rappers are eloquent.

“Food Forward TV” offers concrete, meaningful ways to use your food dollars to hurry along the happy day when our misbegotten food system exerts a positive impact on both our health and environment.

Slip-sliding away from the GMO issue

The misbegotten-ness of things, however, is important. And the series grapples only reluctantly with how we ended up in this food pickle. This is particularly true in the episode on genetically engineered seeds, ironically the one issue many Americans are being asked to consider in the voting booth.

In this episode, a young Midwest farmer growing GMO crops explains how she switched to non-GMO strains of corn and soy only to switch back because non-GMO crops required more pesticides and herbicides. A round of applause for GMOs might have caused me to raise an eyebrow, but I would have respected the producers for taking a stand on a difficult subject. I would have appreciated hearing the reasons for their endorsement.

Never mind. They punted. The farmer flips the issue by saying she would never feed her family the corn she grows. The GMO debate is far too polarizing to address head on, says series producer Greg Roden. “We wanted to show the two sides of the debate through a farmer who is caught in the system.”

Why wouldn’t the farmer feed her children the GMO crops she grows? Turns out she grows corn for ethanol. It isn’t fit to eat. I wondered what other obfuscations I might have missed.

PBS and Chipotle should be applauded for their support of this series. The profiles of extraordinary folks undaunted by the challenge of bucking conventional agriculture left me more hopeful than not. I learned things that empower me to support food producers who reflect my values.

The show’s underwriters and producers are far from alone when it comes to giving GMOs short shrift, but I expected more from this group.

Check your local PBS listings for show times.

Main photo: One “Food Forward” episode focuses on school lunch programs, including some where kids are not only served healthy food but are growing it. Credit: “Food Forward” TV

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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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At the C-CAP fundraiser, left to right, President Susan Robbins, C-CAP alum chef Brandon Bryan and chef Philippe Bertineau of Benoit, C-CAP founder Richard Grausman. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis

“Learning to cook changed my life,” said Kelvin Fernandez, a Dominican New Yorker and graduate of Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), an organization that prepares public high school kids for college and careers in the hospitality industry. “I followed a girl into a high school cooking class and ended up finding my passion,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez cooked for C-CAP’s 16th annual gala recently, which drew more than 800 guests for a grand tasting benefit scholarship fundraiser. The event raised more than $1 million for scholarships, most of which will help underserved students.

As he put the finishing touches on his signature dish, Fernandez said, “Tonight, everything must be perfect. We are ready and we worked very hard. But in a way, my journey is just beginning.” Fernandez is the new executive chef at Blend on the Water, New York’s hottest new Latino restaurant.

A national nonprofit organization founded in 1990 by cookbook author and educator Richard Grausman, C-CAP has awarded students $40 million in scholarships and donated more than $3 million worth of supplies and equipment to classrooms. C-CAP operates in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland and Arizona.

The recent culinary showcase featured an all-star roster of New York chefs and restaurateurs including Marcus Samuelsson, Daniel Boulud, Bryce Shuman, Drew Nieporent, Alexander Smalls, Joseph “JJ” Johnson and Banks White.

Tattooed arm of C-CAP alum and executive chef Sean Quinn as he plates a signature dish from Chadwick. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis

Tattooed arm of C-CAP alum and executive chef Sean Quinn as he plates a signature dish from Chadwick. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis

C-CAP alumni in New York include Mame Sow, The Cecil and Minton’s executive pastry chef; Thiago Silva, who is also known as the baker to the stars of the General and the EMM Group; and Sean Quinn, executive chef at Chadwick’s. Everyone turned out to raise scholarship funds but  most important to work alongside and mentor 60 C-CAP students. This gala was their first step into the big leagues.

Most C-CAP students are from communities where few students can afford culinary training or are aware of culinary career opportunities. An event that promotes diversity in the culinary-hospitality industry is very timely; statistics show the industry is diversifying.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms a 3% increase in black chefs and head cooks from 2012 to 2013, according to a PBS report. It is important to note, though, that minority chefs still face challenges from traditional social and racial hierarchies in professional kitchens.

Going from table to table, some of the event old-timers gave unsolicited pointers. “Check out the Peking duck over there! There are two different quail egg dishes tonight!” Some of the other luxurious food samples included Samuelsson’s signature chicken donut, Mame Sow’s pineapple upside-down cake, and Daniel Boulud and Brian Loiacono’s braised veal shank.

C-CAP ‘set me on an amazing path’

“Once you’re a C-CAP graduate you are always part of the C-CAP family,” said founder Richard Grausman in his greetings to the packed room at Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers. The live auction, which raised $80,000, was highlighted by bidding wars on private dinners cooked by celebrity chefs.

“The annual benefit is critical in supporting C-CAP’s mission of providing scholarships, education and career opportunities to at-risk youth who are interested in pursuing careers in the restaurant and food service industry,” said Susan Robbins, C-CAP’s president. “For more than 20 years, we have been transforming lives for thousands of qualified students across the country, from culinary education in high schools to career placement assistance upon graduation. We continue to manage the largest independent culinary scholarship program in the nation and, to date, have awarded over $40 million.”

Carlton McCoy, one of the youngest Master Sommeliers in the world, and only the second African American to hold the title, credited C-CAP with introducing him to his career.

Celebrities turned out for the C-CAP Gala to help the next generation of chefs (from left) Banks White, Minton's Chef de Cuisine; Alexander Smalls-The Cecil and Minton's restaurants in Harlem; Tamara Tune, actress ("Law & Order"), and her husband Gregory Generet, jazz singer. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis

Celebrities turn out for the C-CAP Gala including, from left, Banks White, Minton’s Chef de Cuisine; Alexander Smalls of The Cecil and Minton’s restaurants in Harlem; Tamara Tunie, actress (“Law & Order”), and her husband, Gregory Generet, jazz singer. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis

“My story is known to most of you. I was a high school student in a tough Washington, D.C., neighborhood where I was mugged twice and lived in constant danger,” McCoy said. “My family had no exposure to fine wines or fine dining. Luckily, my high school had a C-CAP program. So, I am especially proud and honored to be with you tonight. Mr. Grausman’s program set me on an amazing path.”

Honoree Michael White is the chef/owner of Altamarea Group, which includes Marea, Ai Fiori, Al Molo, The Butterfly, Chop Shop and Osteria Morini. He praised C-CAP’s mission to reach underserved students.

“The success that I enjoy was not done alone. I received lots of advice along the way from industry insiders. So, I accept this award with a message to everyone to pay it forward and mentor someone.”

Filling a culinary education gap

C-CAP developed its culinary education program just as many public schools were discontinuing old-style home economics programs. Those school kitchen cupboards were bare and many were torn out to make room for computer labs. It was the height of “cookless” kitchens and microwave ovens.

But Grausman aimed to save culinary arts in the classroom. Using his cookbook “French Classics Made Easy,” (previously published as “At Home with the French Classics”) as the basis for the curriculum, he developed the first culinary  enrichment program in the New York City Public Schools, said Joyce Appelman, C-CAP communications director who has worked with Grausman from the beginning.

The program continues to feature teacher development, student job training and alumni resources. A new initiative offers pro bono legal services to help students negotiate contracts and establish their own restaurants.

C-CAP is credited with holding the first cooking competition long before TV’s Food Network existed. At this annual event, students must memorize, prepare and present classic French dishes before a panel of judges in order to receive their scholarships.

Top photo: At the C-CAP fundraiser, left to right, President Susan Robbins, C-CAP alum chef Brandon Bryan and chef Philippe Bertineau of Benoit, C-CAP founder Richard Grausman. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis

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Brad Jones (left) and Chris Maggiolo stirring strawberry preserves at Quince and Apple in Madison, Wisc.. Credit: Sarah Makoski

I set out this summer curious as to how our food is produced and in search of the people producing it. Armed with a little money generously donated to our cause and a whole lot of enthusiasm, my colleague Chris Maggiolo and I traveled 15,000 miles in more than 100 days to investigate the food system. Living in the back of our 20-year-old 20-foot van, we spent time in nearly every state in continental America.

In that time, we worked with just about every kind of artisanal food producer you can imagine (nearly 80 in all). We harvested oysters in Rhode Island and made tortillas in Portland, Ore. We foraged herbs for bitters in the mountains of Colorado and spent the day shrimping off the coast of Houston. We chopped and we cured; we brewed and we baked. We met those enthusiastic to tell their story while others were more laconic. We met fifth-generation farmers who’ve barely managed to hold on to patrimonial land while green-thumbed others have taken to agriculture for the very first time. We met producers with a profound social or sustainability mission and others who simply wanted to eat or feed their family better.

Think beyond the grocery store shelves

We were fortunate to experience a goat being born in central Virginia and took part in a pig slaughter in Oregon. These are profoundly emotional experiences in their own respective way — the alpha and omega of life. It’s easy to forget the seemingly obvious fact that our food comes not from shelves at the store but is the result of a natural life cycle that includes death and rebirth and that extends to distant (though hopefully not too distant) farms and fields. In the case of meat, this means living breathing animals whose death was necessary to bring our sustenance.

Appreciating this fact is to consume more critically, and for my part, perhaps not to eliminate meat consumption altogether but to certainly take measures to ensure that the meat I do eat is responsibly raised and humanely slaughtered. Once you’ve experienced the profundity of the cycle firsthand, to do otherwise would be incongruous. I want to take steps to be a little more intentional. I encourage you to do the same, and it can start with the simple act of consuming meat.

Though we may hold romantic notions of “craft,” it isn’t always what it’s made out to be. This pertains to food production in the general sense (“artisanal” bread at Subway comes to mind, the largest fast food chain in the world) but it is especially true, and especially well veiled, in terms of alcohol. For instance, many of the top spirits brands are owned by the same monolithic parent companies.

They buy neutral grain spirits from large distilleries in Indiana. Sometimes they age them elsewhere. Sometimes they run them through another still. Sometimes they just slap on rustic label to give an aura of hand-crafted authenticity.  This isn’t to say these spirits are necessarily worse for being produced in this manner but it is to reiterate the importance of looking behind the label. We are experiencing a revival of truly small-batch artisanal spirits throughout America. I encourage you to seek out something made with local grains, by local people, feeding into local economies. All stand to benefit, your taste buds included.

Meet your makers

Relationships matter. This applies to people, to places, and to products. Never have I been more aware how critical it is to meet a farmer at the local farmers market. Ask questions. For instance, “What exactly are garlic scapes?” And ask for advice. “How would I use them?” These individuals are proud of what they do, and their labors of love shine through in conversation. It’s a contagious sort of enthusiasm. What’s more, I encourage you to create not just a relationship of mutual benefit but of one actual friendship. We live in an age that feels quite solitary at times. We can begin to build resilient communities in the most natural way possible, by sharing sentiments.

Get out to the farm. If I learned nothing else from our adventure across America it’s that experience is the best educator. I can read how cheese is made a hundred times but just one opportunity to milk a sheep before dawn, to culture curds in a vat and to taste from wheels in odorous caves designed for aging, cheese comes alive with a significance entirely new. This stands for farmers and brewers and bakers (and the rest) as well as cheesemakers.

Be curious

In the end, I simply encourage you to be curious. Ask thoughtful questions and search for meaningful answers. Don’t take things at face value. Experiment! Pick up a couple pots and soil and grow your own herbs. Try (and fail) to make cheese. Try (and fail) to bake bread. Get your hands dirty. You’ll feel not only a tangible and edible sense of accomplishment but you’ll have acquired a measure of self-reliant contentment. The next time you’re in the grocery, you’ll be better informed because you asked and answered these questions. You’ll appreciate your food, and those who made it, in whole new way. You’ll demand more from the food system. And with the help of artisans across America, you’ll continue to see it change.

Top photo: Brad Jones, left, and Chris Maggiolo stirring strawberry preserves at Quince and Apple in Madison, Wis. Credit: Sarah Makoski

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Paul Lukacs. Credit: Marguerite Thomas

Myths are fictional stories that satisfy shared desires. In the contemporary world of wine, the most pervasive myth is that of terroir, the story of how a wine’s essential identity comes from where the grapes for it were grown. Like all myths, this one contains a metaphoric, not a literal truth. Terroir’s story fulfills our longstanding wish to believe that wine comes from more than human hands, and so possesses a significance that transcends artifice.

Grapes were first cultivated and wine made deliberately some 8,000 years ago. From its earliest origins, wine assumed a special because a sacred cultural status. In societies as different as ancient Babylon, the Pharaohs’ Egypt, classical Greece and Imperial Rome, it was viewed as a gift to humanity coming directly from the gods. No other beverage, indeed no other foodstuff, was thought of in this way.

Wine and the divine — absent terroir

Why was wine valued so highly?  Unlike other food and drink, it did not require human agency. And unlike other natural products such as milk or honey, it possessed a seemingly mysterious power to relieve care. Put simply, drinking wine made a person feel good. That is why Euripides in “The Bacchae” has the prophet Tiresias declare that “when we pour libations . . . it is the god himself we pour . . . and by this bring blessings on mankind.”

In today’s world, we do not credit a god with wine’s power. Instead, we attribute that power to the presence of alcohol, which is produced through the interaction of living yeasts and the sugar in ripe grapes. And we no longer consider fermentation to be mysterious. From a rational modern perspective, wine is simply fermented grape juice. It can be controlled, even manipulated, by human beings.

The problem with this perspective is that it robs wine of its uniqueness. And the solution appears to be the story of terroir, according to which wine is, if not sacred, still special because it reflects its origins. Or to be more exact, it is special because it can embody a specific natural origin — not just a region but a vineyard. Many contemporary wines, particularly mass-produced ones, do not do this. But artisanal wines made with attention to the distinctive character of each plot or parcel of land — those are the wines in which one supposedly can experience the gôut or taste of terroir.

The back story

Terry Theise, a leading American importer of artisanal wines, makes the case for terroir eloquently. “Wine can be a bringer of mystical experience,” he declares, adding that the wine “has to be authentic . . . [with] a rootedness in family, soil, and culture.” And what constitutes “rootedness?” Thiese recalls a well-regarded German vintner telling him, “I hope my wines convey a story.  Otherwise they’re just things.” It’s the story of the vineyard and, if this doesn’t sound overly sentimental, a man in love with the vineyard, that enables wine to be what Thiese calls “a portal into the mystic.”

This all sounds great, if admittedly a bit New Age-ish, and it’s true that many of the world’s best wines convey a sense of place. They would not taste the same if made with grapes grown somewhere else. But that does not mean that they actually taste of a specific place. After all, tasting a place literally means eating dirt. Moreover, plenty of fine wines are made with blends of grapes from different vineyards. And some of the world’s most prestigious wines — many classified growth Bordeaux, for instance — come from vineyards containing separate plots, with diverse soil types and exposures.

It’s worth noting that the very concept of terroir is a relatively recent invention. The word, derived from the Latin terratorium, entered the French lexicon during the Renaissance, when it meant “territory.” Not until the 1920s and 1930s was terroir used to designate a vineyard’s natural environment. Then it began to signify a particular feature of wines grown in that environment, features that may be both sensed physically and recognized intellectually.

The emergence of the story of terroir corresponded precisely with a period in which fine wine experienced a profound crisis. The phylloxera plague of the late-19th century had devastated vineyards the world over; virtually all winemaking countries were experiencing deep economic depression; a generation had been bled dry by world war; and people with money to spend on drink were increasingly downing cocktails, all the rage among the middle and upper classes. Even in France, wine was being valued less for any magical properties and more simply for its alcohol.

A drink apart

The people who still cared about wine — some consumers surely, but more significantly, vintners, merchants, agricultural ministers, and then importers, writers, critics and others — needed to elevate wine and separate it from its competition (beer, hard spirits, and in the second half of the 20th century, when refrigerators became a household staple, fruit juices, soft drinks, and the like). What better quality to single out than terroir? It, after all, was what allegedly distinguished wine. Its story made wine special.

The elevation of terroir as the primary source of a wine’s value was not the result of some grand conspiracy. Nonetheless, marketers have used it with great success. And though terroir is not always considered a portal to the spiritual, its story continues to satisfy an apparently widespread desire to consume something that is more than just another man-made thing. In reality, the wines we drink are modern consumer products. They come in many different forms, but the differences have less to do with the taste of the wines themselves than with the attitudes that human beings bring to them. Put another way, if you want to taste terroir you can, but its source will be as much in you as in any vineyard.

Top photo: Paul Lukacs. Credit: Marguerite Thomas

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Kimbal Musk at Samuel Gompers School in L.A.

Kimbal Musk has an audacious plan to destroy America’s appetite for junk food.

His big idea? Plastic.

Musk wants to revolutionize Alice Waters‘ concept of school gardens as societal change agents by making the gardens easy to build and maintain. More gardens will be installed and more students will learn the joy of growing and eating healthy fruits and vegetables.

As it is, Musk says, school gardens are a laudable idea that is dying on the vine. Raised wooden beds that look pretty when they are first planted disintegrate in a few short years. The alternative — concrete beds — is an ugly, expensive and permanent albatross schools grow to hate. Tear up school-yard blacktop to create green space? No public school has that kind of money.

Volunteers Assemble School Gardens

Volunteers from the Wasserman Foundation and Kimbal Musk’s Kitchen Community help assemble module units made of food-grade, indestructible plastic for school gardens in Los Angeles. Credit: Corie Brown

Musk made it a personal project to design a solution. His modular plastic garden containers snap together to create customizable outdoor classrooms that can sit on top of existing hard scape. His concept is so slap-your-head simple that less than a year after launching his nonprofit Learning Gardens, Musk has commitments for at least 60 gardens each from Chicago, Los Angeles and Colorado to be installed by the end of 2013.

“I want to make the school-garden movement work,” says Musk, who was in Los Angeles two weeks ago to witness the planting of two giant gardens, a total of 3,000 square feet dedicated to fruits and vegetables, at Samuel Gompers Middle School in South L.A.

The key to ensuring that the gardens flourish is local control. Musk partners with a local sponsor, who raises the funds and works with the individual schools to design the gardens. “I don’t make a dime from this,” says Musk, “which gives us credibility with the people raising money to build these gardens.”

The Wasserman Foundation, led by sports business entrepreneur Casey Wasserman, took the lead at Gompers providing all of the funding and 100 Wasserman employees for the planting.

If gardens increase student engagement, they are a good investment, says Wasserman. “The success of our kids in our schools is the leading issue for our city.”

High tech and an apron

Musk comes to the school garden party with a rare combination of technology expertise and kitchen cred. In 1995 at 23, he and his brother Elon founded Zip2, an early content management system that provided the first maps and door-to-door directions on the Internet. The company built online restaurant and city guides in partnership with 100 major media companies, including the New York Times. It was sold in 1999 to Compaq for a reported $307 million.

Among several investments in startup software and technology companies, Musk helped his brother launch the company that would become PayPal. That venture was acquired by eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion in stock. Elon used his winnings to found SpaceX and Tesla Motors while Kimbal redirected his energies into his passion for food, attending the French Culinary Institute in New York City.

After traveling the country with his wife in search of a community to call their own, the Musk family settled in Boulder, Colo., and, in 2004, the couple opened The Kitchen. Its composting, wind-powered, recycle-everything culture earned immediate applause from Boulder’s environmental community. Food critics from across the country raved about Musk’s garden-fresh cuisine featuring ingredients harvested from the massive garden he planted near the restaurant.

Turning point for more than Kimbal Musk

From the earliest days, Musk’s vision included a modest nonprofit to support school gardens, an effort he named The Kitchen Community. The huge leap from supporting Boulder-area school gardens to today’s sweeping ambition to build gardens in every school in the country came after nearly dying in a tubing accident 2½ years ago.

“After my accident, the stuff that mattered was stuff that made a difference in the world, not the stuff that made money,” Musk says in his soft South African accent, a lingering artifact from his childhood in Pretoria. He moved to Canada when he was 18.

“After Kimbal broke his neck, it super-charged the giving philosophy,” says Travis Robinson, Kitchen Community managing director, who also traveled from Boulder to help with the Gompers planting. “Kimbal is a visionary, but he is pragmatic. It’s step by step, day by day to create communities and empower people.”

Kimbal Musk's finished gardens at homeless shelter for female veterans

Finished gardens at homeless shelter for female veterans. The gardens at Samuel Gompers School will be 10 times this size. Credit: Corie Brown

Building school gardens costs a fraction of what it would cost to lobby Congress to change farm policy, says Musk. And in the long run, it is the more effective way to change society. “Start with the young, work with them until they are adults, and they will demand real food. When you have the demand, you can change the government policies that create McDonald’s and junk food.”

“I knew if I could make this work in the South Side of Chicago with $2 million, I could raise $2 billion and make it work everywhere,” he says. “We will have gardens in about 20% of Chicago’s schools. That’s a critical mass of students, enough for a movement that can change the food culture in that city. You do it child by child.”

Students aren’t the only people who can benefit from Musk’s novel approach. Last May, I asked Musk for help on a project to overhaul the outdoor space for a shelter for homeless female veterans. The backyard of the Venice, Calif., home was one giant cement slab, and they wanted a vegetable garden.

Musk came to the rescue with a “starter garden” that could sit on the cement. The lady vets loved how they could move the modules around to redesign their garden whenever they felt like a change.

Building the demand for fresh, wholesome food one person at a time.

Photo: Kimbal Musk with a student and special education teacher Holly Driscoll at Gompers Middle School in South Los Angeles. Credit: Corie Brown

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