Articles in Media
If the average food magazine were a castaway on the ’60s TV show “Gilligan’s Island,” it would be Ginger: glamorous, worldly and somewhat unattainable. Cook’s Illustrated magazine, on the other hand, would be a hybrid of Mary Ann and the Professor: wholesome, intelligent and oh-so-accessible.
Just look at a cover of Cook’s Illustrated and you’ll see what I mean. Rather than seducing readers with gorgeous food-porn photography, Cook’s presents still-life illustrations of basic ingredients, such as walnuts or heads of garlic. Inside the magazine you won’t find profiles of celebrity chefs or reviews of the hottest new restaurants. You won’t even find color. Cook’s is printed in no-nonsense black and white, and most of its images are simple line drawings.
By the editors of "America's Test Kitchen"
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While the glossy magazines present features about how to entertain your impossibly beautiful friends on the rooftop deck of your Manhattan apartment, Cook’s chronicles its 37 failed attempts at roasting the perfect chicken before discovering the best technique.
To put it another way: Cook’s Illustrated is a cooking magazine for nerds. Nerds like me.
Through its pages I learned to make wonderfully creamy scrambled eggs by cooking them slowly over a low flame and gently stirring with a heat-resistant rubber spatula. I learned how to avoid making a watery, gray scramble by cooking the eggs and vegetables separately and combining them just before serving. I learned to make a nearly foolproof pie crust by adding vodka.
Kimball’s food publishing adventures
I have Christopher Kimball to thank for all that kitchen know-how. Kimball founded the original Cook’s magazine in 1980 and ran it as editor and publisher until 1989, when he sold it to the Bonnier Group. The magazine eventually folded under its new publisher, and in 1993, Kimball relaunched the magazine as Cook’s Illustrated. Its audience has since grown to more than a million subscribers.
America’s Test Kitchen isn’t just a TV show, it’s a working test kitchen outside of Boston where three dozen cooks, editors, food scientists, tasters and equipment experts collaborate.
It was this team, led by Kimball, that created ATK’s impressive new book, “The America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook.” This mammoth 822-page tome isn’t merely a collection of exhaustively tested recipes, it’s an education in essential cooking techniques. The book covers not only the “how” of each technique but also the “why,” and provides useful tips on such diverse topics as perfecting knife skills and choosing cookware.
We checked in with Kimball about ATK’s new book, the philosophy behind Cook’s Illustrated and the evolution of American home cooking.
What sorts of dishes did your family eat when you were growing up? Were your parents good cooks?
My mother was an early promoter of organic foods and ripped up the front lawn at our home in the ’60s to plant a large, organic garden with only partially composted fertilizer. The neighbors loved it! But she was not much of a cook. The food I loved the best was cooked at the Yellow Farmhouse in our small town in Vermont where we spent summers and weekends. Marie Briggs cooked the standard meat and potatoes but her specialty was baking — Anadama bread, molasses cookies, nutmeg doughnuts. I am still a meat and potatoes guy.
How did you learn to cook?
Marie taught me a lot on rainy days when I wasn’t out haying. I started using the old Fannie Farmer book when I was about 10. I eventually met Malvina Kinard, a friend of Jim Beard’s and the founder of the Cooks Corner retail stores. She taught me classic French cookery including coulibiac of salmon and how to make pate brisée.
In a world of glossy cooking magazines and celebrity TV chefs, why do you think Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen” have been so successful?
We ain’t glossy! The secret of teaching cooking is to put oneself in the shoes and kitchen of the typical home cook. They experience a great deal of fear and frustration (and failed recipes). That’s why we always start off with “bad” food. We make people comfortable by showing what can and often does go wrong. Then we fix the recipe together and explain why a recipe works. It’s taking the time to explain why things go wrong that is important — an educated cook is a better cook.
How many variations are typically tested at ATK before a recipe is deemed ready for publication?
The typical Cook’s Illustrated recipe is tested at least 50 times over a period of weeks.
What was involved in creating the “America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook”?
Lots of aspirin and long nights in the kitchen and at the computer. We tried to put what we know about cooking into a form that was both in-depth and easy to approach and digest. The book is really a culmination of over 20 years of kitchen work.
Why is it important to know why a particular technique works versus simply knowing the technique itself?
If you understand why, you are much more likely to do it right. When you don’t understand what you are doing you are less likely to do it, and then you end up doing something really stupid like substituting shrimp for chicken (a true story from one of our readers).
Are Americans better cooks today than they were when you started Cook’s magazine?
Yes, no question. The 1980s were a low point in American cooking. Women had fled the kitchen and left for the workplace. Convenience was at a premium and the food industry exploded with more and more bloody-awful products that nobody questioned at the time. These days, balance is being restored. More parents are choosing to stay home. Health is a major consideration, which places the emphasis back on home cooking; it’s the best way to control what goes into your body. And, finally, a whole generation of kids had grown up in households without parents that cooked much and they wanted to find out what they were missing. Plus, the emergence of food television has also brought many folks into the kitchen.
How much of being a good cook is science versus art?
There is very little art in cooking unless one is a top chef. There is also not much science to it unless you develop recipes professionally. That is, you don’t really need to know that flour does not contain gluten per se, it contains glutenin and gliadin, two proteins that interconnect to form gluten in the presence of water. Cooking is really about paying attention and caring about what you are doing.
How important are improvisational skills in the kitchen?
Too many people want to improvise rather than follow a recipe; they think that doing it step by step is beneath them. That is, however, the only way to become a good cook. Then, later in life, with many thousands of recipes behind you, the art starts to come into the process. First, you have to know what food should feel, look, smell, sound and taste like.
What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday dinner at home?
Pot au feu — boiled beef with a salsa verde, horseradish and simmered vegetables such as cabbage, potatoes and carrots. And don’t forget a couple of bottles of a great white Burgundy while you are at it, and a good store-bought baguette.
Top photo: Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen.” Credit: Courtesy of “America’s Test Kitchen”
Indigenous foods and animals are the backbone of North America and the global food culture. Native Foodways magazine is a new publication that gives voice to the rich diversity and resilience of native people. Young and old are reviving their lost biocultural, agricultural and culinary traditions, one meal at a time. They are paving a way for all to eat, live and grow in the world sustainably. It’s time to listen.
About 5,000 copies of Native Foodways are distributed free to native wellness programs and communities. The magazine is published by Tohono O’odham Community Action, a nonprofit dedicated to creating a healthy, culturally vital and sustainable community on the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona. An additional 2,000 are available for retail sale.
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The organization Renewing America’s Food Traditions, or RAFT, created a Regional Map of North America’s Place-Based Food that redraws the continent’s borders. North America transforms into a series of distinct food nations: Clambake, Maple Syrup, Wild Rice, Corn Bread & BBQ, Gator, Bison, Chile Pepper, Pinyon Nut, Abalone, Salmon and Moose. The creators sing us back visually to the continent’s native legacy. They revitalize our memory and reimagine our notions of borders and boundaries. It reminds us, we North American citizens, of the region’s indigenous food foundations. With the visual map embedded, we suddenly see the people, the foods and the cultures that came before us.
Indigenous foods of the Americas make up 60% of the global food supply, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These foods include mainly corn and potatoes but also chilies, beans, squashes, tomatoes, pineapples, avocados, manioc, chocolate, peanuts, vanilla, wild rice, cranberries, maple sugar, chewing gum, turkey and the beloved clambake.
Yet worldwide biodiversity loss continues with no change in rate and with an increase in the factors that increase loss, according to Science in 2010. North America is no exception. The mountains, canyons and deserts of the Southwest United States and northern Mexico form one of the richest biologically diverse regions. The area is home to more than 40 distinct indigenous communities alone, and within those communities reside important agrobiodiversity knowledge systems. It is not surprising that with the destruction of cultural knowledge also comes the loss of biodiversity and ecological knowledge. Today these declines are only exacerbated by climate change.
Luckily, descendants of native farmers and the culinary carriers who nourished the first settlers up to the present are actively revitalizing their foods, and not just for Thanksgiving. According to Mary Paganelli Votto, founder and editorial director of Native Foodways, “Too often, the focus in the mainstream media is on the health problems in native communities. Native Foodways focuses on the positive efforts taking place to address these issues and seeks to share practical and useful information and to inspire.”
First up, Native Foodways spotlights two chefs
I spoke with two chefs featured in the summer 2013 edition of Native Foodways Magazine: Lois Ellen Frank and Nephi Craig. Frank is a culinary anthropologist with master’s and doctorate degrees. Along with Walter Whitewater, she runs Santa Fe, N.M.-based Red Mesa Cuisine. She is of Kaiwo ancestry on her mother’s side and Sephardic on her father’s side. Her book, “Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations,” received the James Beard award in the Americana category. It was the first Native American work to win the award.
Frank left cooking school and became a commercial photographer for eight years in Los Angeles. Her thought was, “Why study cooking in an institution that championed one cuisine over the rest of the globe, let alone disregarded indigenous cuisines?” But she returned to her passion and the kitchen, this time on her own terms. “I need to work in diverse native communities across the country, especially with those suffering from diabetes. I cannot run a restaurant when I travel so much, an absent chef is just not productive,” Frank says of why she runs a catering business instead of a restaurant.
Her catering kitchen is filled with women. Native and non-natives, they find her. “It is only since the 1980s that a shift in the gender balance began in the kitchen.” Put plainly, when women are not in the kitchen, you lose. “In my kitchen, in our circle, we call in the ancestors to guide us. We do not just feed; we provide sustenance. We are powerful vehicles of cooking and techniques. And then we take the ancient foods, and we embody their knowledge, and present them in a contemporary form.”
Like Frank, but of a younger generation, Chef Craig invokes the circle. The four directions represent different and equally important aspects of the kitchen. “We work in a circular fashion instead of from the top down. We veer away from fear- and intimidation-cooking in the kitchen.” Craig added, “We work like ants, or in the Apache way, we activate ‘Ant Power’ where we are all equally strong and each is essential to the creation of the whole, that is the imagery we choose to use.” Craig, 33, is the executive chef at White Mountain Apache Tribe’s Sunrise Park Resort and the founder of The Native American Culinary Association. His core crew of eight is half men and half women, half elder and half younger and all native Apache. The elders in the crew distinctly remember the old hierarchical ways of running the back of the kitchen. Now, though, Craig proudly says he is actively “decolonizing culinary themes and the kitchen brigade by using the circle, White Mountain Apache values and qualities of leadership.”
In each instance, these pioneers of native cuisines are constructing a space to cook and create on their own terms. And they are up against not just a competitive environment but also historical odds. In the midst of fighting to use local, regional, indigenous foods sustainably, they work in and among populations that have had their education, cultures and lands stolen. Yet they plow forward with the confidence that they possess great cultural richness. Amid these obstacles, they symbolize grace, hope and possibility of inclusion for all at the big table. I know I want more.
Top photo: Chef Nephi Craig’s culinary crew includes, from left, Stephanie Dosela, Nancy James, Juwon Hendricks, Vina Reidhead, Herman Skidmore, Craig, Randall Cosen, Tamara Gatewood and Vincent Way. Credit: Courtesy of Nephi Craig
This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.
As “Symphony of the Soil,” the latest film written by Deborah Koons Garcia, points out, “One can go down thousands of years into the soil. Soil is the water and land having a dialogue. Soil is the interface of biology and geology. Soil is an ecosystem, a living thing. As long as the soil remains healthy, the planet will be healthy.”
The Soul of the Soil
First in a three-part series on soil used to grow food crops.
» Part 3: Menace in the manure: Pesticide creep affects fertilizer. (Will post the week of Sept. 22)
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In the 1970s, Garcia became a vegetarian. She also became a fanatic about good, clean food. She doesn’t eat white sugar, white flour or anything that isn’t organic. As she became educated about real food, she began to think about a film. What resulted were a number of films and then “The Future of Food,” a documentary that, among other things, deals head on with the issue of genetically modified organisms and the world of agriculture.
“Symphony of Soil” does not focus on the agriculture world. It deals with deeper issues that affect the soil. Although the film is an overlay of facts, time-lapse photography, animated water colors and beautiful soothing music, the details are deeply disturbing. Here are some:
In the last 25 years, the biology of soil all over the world has been interrupted by antibiotics, herbicides and pesticides. Whereas soil used to be full of lively diverse microbes, in most places this is no longer the case. In the last 50 years we have destroyed the world’s topsoil. In order to rectify this situation, synthetic fertilizers are used to enrich the degraded soil, which only puts further stress on the soil and increases its vulnerability to pests. This causes farmers to use more pesticides, stronger pesticides and stronger herbicides. One-third of the world’s arable land has been lost to erosion.
Seventy percent of our freshwater is used for agriculture irrigation. And that resource is quickly dissipating at an unsustainable rate. Among the chemicals that causes the most concern is aminopyralid.
Taking a toll on health
The medical ramifications of pesticides and herbicides are being studied. Research reveals they may be related to everything from birth defects to cancer.
The good news is that land that has been sprayed with most herbicides that have decreased microorganisms can be improved if it is treated organic compost for two or three years.
Although climate change is affecting every one of us, one of the ways of addressing the issue is by improving our soil. Planting a cover crop after a vegetable crop creates benefits including suppressing weeds and protecting that precious soil from erosion. Long-term cover crops also improve the soil condition. Even short term, cover crops can increase yield and save nitrogen. If the soil is improved, less water is used on crops and what run off there is goes directly to feed all the needy aqua filters.
Compost also improves soil. If the soil is organic and full of microbes, crops planted there produce large yields.
It is also important to feed nature as we feed humanity. When cattle farmers stopped using antibiotics and anti-parasitic drugs on their cows, dung beetles returned to the cows’ paddies. As the beetles did their work, cleaning up after the massive cattle herds, there were fewer weeds and thistles in the field, thus less need for pesticides and herbicides. Properly managed grazing is great for the land.
Spiraling down a 1950s hole
In the 1950s, the conventional wisdom could be summed up as “better living through chemistry.” We are now trying to repair the agricultural damage we did during that decade with “better living through biology.”
With good soil we create a food web of health and good taste.
“Symphony of the Soil” shows us where we have gone wrong and gives us a plan to begin righting those wrongs. In her last film, Garcia gave us a generous and hopeful look at the possible future of our food, and now she gives us that hope with our soil.
After watching this film, we can begin to ask our elected officials important questions such as why herbicides are being used to kill noxious weeds, some of which, like thistles, can actually be used for food. When we have the information we can do our own research.
This is a movie that should be seen. The simplicity with which Garcia handles the explanation of how we can come to the aid of our own soil is wonderful. If each of us takes responsibility for a handful of dirt, we will have enormous movement. The movie gives us another chance to know our food from the ground up.
Top photo: John Reganold in a scene from “Symphony of the Soil.” Credit: Courtesy of Lily Films
This Sunday morning, we filled our farmers market baskets with fragrant heirloom melons, the tastiest of the dozens of varieties of plums and pluots on offer and piles of fresh greens, lugging home a rough balance of fruits and vegetables.
Scientists might identify our fruits according to which produce started out as a flower. Sweetness, however, is the distinction that makes a difference to us.
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The perfect accompaniment to the season’s intoxicating abundance is Yung Chang’s film “The Fruit Hunters,” a love letter to the world’s rarest, most delicious fruits and the people obsessed with finding and eating them, which is being released on DVD and digital on July 16.
Chang calls his cast of sweet freaks “fruities” and they are manic about the taste of their favorite fruits. “There is a need to grow the fruit, to cultivate the fruit, not just to taste it,” he says. “There is an explorative, adventuresome sensibility. They want to discover the origin of the fruit they love.”
Don’t call them “foodies,” says Chang. Fruities only love to eat fruit.
Inspired by his friend Adam Leith Gollner’s 2008 nonfiction book “The Fruit Hunters,” Chang spent two years following fruit obsessed scientists, anthropologists and conservationists around the world in search of nature’s sweetest treats.
Noris Ledesma and Richard Campbell lead an Indiana Jones-like quest for rare mangoes in Bali and Borneo as they race to preserve disappearing varieties. Honduran scientist Juan Aguilar struggles to breed a banana capable of resisting a devastating fungus threatening the world’s banana crop. And in the hills of Umbria, Italy, Isabella Dalla Ragione researches Renaissance-era paintings for clues to where she might find the remaining examples of ancient cultivars.
As Gollner writes in his book, “These denizens of the fruit underworld are as special as the flora they pursue.” Largely hidden from the public eye, “they have devoted themselves to the quest for fruit.”
The passion is understandable, he writes. “Fruit is inherently erotic. After all, every time we eat a fruit, we engage in a reproductive act.”
Food porn for the smart set
“I’ve lived for the last 20 years for each day off when I can learn more about fruit,” Bill Pullman told the crowd at a Santa Monica screening of “The Fruit Hunters” earlier this summer. The star of Chang’s film, Pullman is a fruit tourist traveling to tropical fruit hot spots to meet his fruit heroes and learn their secrets, slurping and moaning over each local delicacy he discovers along the way.
At home, the actor is a fruit community organizer, leading his Hollywood Hills neighbors in a quixotic quest to turn abandoned land near their homes into a community orchard. He spreads the gospel of fruit through communal fruit harvests, known as gleanings, and homey canning parties.
There is urgency to the effort, Pullman explains. Industrial farming has taken a toll on fruit diversity. The race is on to save what is left.
Fruities believe a special bond connects fruits and humans, says Chang. Fruits nourish us and, through the act of consuming it, we ensure the future of that fruit species by dispersing its seeds.
“It is a love affair gone awry,” he says. “We need to reconnect with what it means to be a fruit hunter. These people we meet [in the film], these fruit hunters, take us through the world to rediscover our innate connection with fruit.”
As Gollner writes, “To love a diversity that, as limitless as it is fragile, both haunts us and fills us with hope.”
‘Fruit Hunters’ unearths an inner-fruit fanatic
“My connection to fruit was nostalgic,” says Chang. The people, not the fruit, drew him to the project. Several months into filming, he realized things had changed.
“At the beginning, I was very focused as a filmmaker, looking through the lens, so to speak. But people were always handing me fruit to eat. You can’t deny it. You have to taste it,” Chang says. The revelations “became overwhelming. Everywhere. Every second. Someone would have, for instance, a freshly fallen durian fruit [a spiky skinned Southeast Asian fruit with creamy almond flavored pulp] in the backyard of a grandmother’s home and at that moment that would be my favorite fruit.
“Then we’d be at a nursery in Hawaii and I’d be presented with a Burmese grape. It looks like it is in the lychee family. You open the shell, and inside is this semi-translucent pearl with swirls of pink. It tastes like Bubblicious gum.”
The tart, sweet blue Haskap berry that grows in arctic climates and has three times the antioxidant value of blueberries will be the next fruit craze, predicts Chang.
You don’t have to be a fruitie to enjoy “The Fruit Hunters.” The film is playful and joyous, a feast for the mind and the senses.
“When you watch this much food porn, you’ll want to eat fruit,” cautions Pullman. “Would you have come to a movie about vegetables?”
Upon receiving an e-mail out of the blue last week from a filmmaker asking me whether I’d like to screen his latest production, I half wondered whether he’d meant to send it to my significant other, who just so happens to be the artistic director of a film festival here in Denver. Yes, “Trubadeaux: A Restaurant Movie” is about the hospitality industry, and yes, I’ve written an article or two about food on the silver screen. As a grad student in English many years ago, I even taught a couple of classes on the relationship between film and literature. But none of that makes me a professional reviewer.
Still, living with a programmer does mean I wind up watching dozens upon dozens of movies by unknown hopefuls every year — enough to get a sense of what’s worth my time and what isn’t in all of 15 minutes. So despite a bit of skepticism, I figured I had no more than a quarter-hour to lose.
Long story short: I not only watched and enjoyed the whole thing — as you can do on the filmmakers’ website for $5 — but even laughed out loud now and then. As it turns out, this slightly blue, slightly black shoestring comedy about a few days in the lives of a fictional Chicago eatery’s staff of misfits was written, directed, produced and performed by a team with both improv and service backgrounds. And it shows in every last silly, sad-sack detail — from the deadpan exchanges with snobby customers who insist that, say, Sicily isn’t in Italy to the screaming matches in pre-service meetings to the awkward kiss-and-tells of fellow employees. (Shooting took place on location at Edgewater Beach Café.)
“Trubadeaux” stars have restaurant chops
In fact, Group Mind Films managing partner John Berka — who co-created “Trubadeaux” and stars as pitifully piggish general manager Lyle — is in the business even today: “I started at age 15 at Applebee’s, and I’m currently a private-dining manager at the James Beard Award-winning Blackbird. I have done just about everything in the industry — except work as a GM! The one I play in the film is based on a few I’ve known here in Chicago.” Co-star Todd Wojcik — who plays Lyle’s brother, the head chef — likewise based his character on real-life ex-colleagues: “Todd has a ton of restaurant experience,” explains Berka. “We actually wrote a lot of the film while working together in a Rush Street restaurant.”
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That scripting process, he adds, unfolded “very organically.” “Todd and I would meet for our weekly writing sessions and wind up talking about what had happened the night before on the job,” Berka recalls. “My business partner, Jay Sukow, stopped us one day and said, ‘Guys, this is the film.’ From there, we started making a list of all of the weird things that have happened to us working in the industry. Everything was a collaboration inspired by real events, brought to life with the ‘yes, and’ mentality that’s the pillar of improvisation. For instance, the scene about the water main breaking over the sugar supply is one that every restaurant person loves. That was entirely improvised.”
Meanwhile, the supporting cast brought their own experiences to bear on the script: “Duane Toyloy (who plays Jackson) is a very strong server. We wrote his part around his serving ability, while Jyo Minekowa (Blair) is not the best waiter, but has a great personality. Jyo sued one of our former employers; we incorporated that into the scene at the bar where he talks about how Lyle and the chef are stealing tips. And the letter Lyle reads to the staff” — a tirade on lackluster service — “was based largely off a real letter received at a restaurant that both Jyo and I worked at. Rafa the dishwasher (Juan Palomino) is also a local industry veteran; he’s from Puebla, Mexico, and he came up with the idea for his character himself.”
Ultimately, says Berka, the goal “for me, as a longtime waiter, was to show people what waiters go through. The dynamics of a high-stress environment populated by out-of-control egos fuels the natural humor in restaurants” — and also the misery, he admits. “One of the themes of ‘Trubadeaux’ is addiction. Addiction is one of the constants in this life. I don’t think people have a real sense of everything that goes into working in a restaurant. We wanted to show people what happens when no guests are around. That’s the most compelling aspect.”
For other worthy food-and-drink-fueled movies — both narrative and documentary, many lesser known — click this film list. I also heartily recommend the charming “I Like Killing Flies,” a slice-of-life look at New York City’s notorious Shopsin’s; “Blood Into Wine,” featuring Tool frontman-turned-winemaker Maynard James Keenan; and “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress,” a gorgeously detailed account of menu creation under the legendary Ferran Adrià.
Top photo: Todd Wojcik (left) and John Berka star in “Trubadeaux.” Credit: Jason Beaumont
The European Commission has shown customary timidity in abruptly withdrawing a proposal made last week to exert minimal control over the quality of olive oil served in restaurants. The idea behind the proposal was admirable — that olive oil be served in original, tamper-proof bottles that state the oil’s credentials on the label, rather than poured from an anonymous jug into cruets or bowls on the table. In that way, consumers would be certain of what they’re being served and there would be no easy way of substituting bad oil for good. Restaurants, in the commission’s words, should be “obliged to use oil bottles equipped with an opening system which cannot be resealed after the first time it is opened, together with a protection system preventing them from being reused once the contents indicated on the label have been finished.”
This was not a sudden decision. It had been discussed for at least a year. And to those of us who have encountered, over and over again, rancid, fusty, smelly, old oil in those colorful little bowls or cruets on restaurant tables — even in some very fine establishments — it made good sense. But the proposal evoked an outcry from journalists, chefs, restaurateurs and the public at large such that you might think the EC had proposed reinstating capital punishment.
Consumer protection? No way! This was out-and-out interference in commerce, the naysayers cried, especially commerce that involved “little guys” — small-scale restaurateurs and café owners and small-farm producers of olive oil. This was Brussels interfering with time-honored traditions, forcing out modest concerns in favor of big industrial-sized multinationals that promote commodity olive oil. The virtue of this argument is difficult to understand because large producers would have very little to gain from the proposal. But in the end, the EC, bowing to pressure on all sides, withdrew the regulation.
Much of the uproar came from sources with nothing on the table. I cannot speak for the German press, but British journalists suddenly had, as they themselves might say, their knickers in a twist over the proposal. Silly Europeans, the Brits snickered, there they go again, fussing over trivia, imposing ridiculous rules on innocent restaurateurs, as if they didn’t have anything else to worry about in Brussels. Why don’t they do something about the economy instead?
Elsewhere, however, the outcry was even more difficult to understand and I got the impression that most people simply had not read the proposal. It is not a hardship for restaurateurs to provide tamper-proof bottles of olive oil since that is the way most small quantities of olive oil are sold. I buy oil in half-liter bottles or tins in local shops where I live in Tuscany. These containers almost uniformly have a plastic pour spout inside that is difficult to remove, and through which it would be difficult to refill the bottle. Furthermore, bottles such as these are the product of many different olive oil purveyors, from small, local farmers to substantial wineries that also produce oil for large, supra-national concerns. Disposing of the bottles once the contents are gone is also an easy task — they simply go into the glass-product recycling bins that are universal in most of Europe.
Check out the following excerpt from Public Radio International’s “The World,” a daily NPR news program:
At a little café in a Spanish village. . . the owner, a guy named Aris, says he’s indignant [about the new regulations]. Aris drives to his favorite olive orchard . . . to buy his oil right out of the presses. He tops up his big five-gallon jugs, and each morning at the café he fills his oil flasks by hand, then sets one on each table. . . . He says he doesn’t understand how Europe can have a problem with this.
Not necessarily extra virgin olive oil
The problem, simply stated, is that all over Europe, thousands of restaurateurs, large and small, top off oil flasks or cruets or bowls with what is most likely not extra virgin at all but a much lesser grade of olive oil — if, in fact, it is even olive oil and not some cheap substitute. And if it is extra virgin, it will most likely be rancid, fusty and several years out of date — just a few of the most common faults in extra virgin olive oil that not only give bad flavors and aromas to the food served, but also ultimately are bad for diners’ health. And even if it happens to be good olive oil when it goes into the flasks that are filled, day after day over the years without being cleaned, it’s inevitable that the “fresh” oil added will be thoroughly contaminated by the nastiness at the bottom of the flask.
I would hazard a conservative guess, based on long years of experience, that at least 70% of the oil on tables in European restaurants, and at least 85% of the oil on tables in American restaurants, would not pass muster if the research team at UC Davis’ Olive Center were to take up the challenge and test them for their extra virginity. When they tested imported extra virgin oils available in California retail shops a couple of years ago, 73% failed to meet sensory standards.
Which is why, when I go to an ordinary restaurant, and even sometimes to extraordinary ones, even in the olive oil-producing regions of Spain, Greece, Italy and California, I carry with me a small, discreet tin of high-quality extra virgin to adorn my dishes when necessary in order to avoid what’s in those cute glass, or rustic terracotta, or other type of cruets that sit on every restaurant table. (Of course, that doesn’t save me from the fact that they’ve been cooking my food with that junk, does it?)
Essentially, the problem the EC was trying to address was consumer fraud, a serious concern with olive oil, in Europe as everywhere else in the world — as many of these same journalists have been whining about for years. The new requirement would have prevented unscrupulous restaurateurs from filling their cruets with questionable oil. It was a tiny step forward in government efforts to combat fraud and to prevent what is all too often nasty, out-of-date, fake, unacceptable oil from being served up as if it were something genuine and special.
One simply cannot have it both ways. We cannot moan over fraudulent olive oil masquerading as fine extra virgin, and then gripe and sneer when the government takes a first, tentative step toward rectifying the situation. If we truly want reform, if we truly want to be sure that the oil in that bottle or on that table is what it says it is, then we must expect a lot more similar, and quite possibly even more stringent regulation in the years ahead. And welcome to it!
Top photo: Bottled olive oil. Credit: Flickr / foodistablog
Simplicity is ubiquitous: if you — like I — get sucked down the gorgeous wormhole that is Pinterest, you know what I mean. Click on the DESIGN tab, and there they are: hundreds of rooms painted a dull monochromatic gray/beige/ecru. A single, long Forsythia branch stands imperfectly perfect in a chipped wabi-sabi bud vase, which is set upon an ancient pine side table chinked with time. Click on the FASHION tab: passels of tranquil, doe-eyed models dressed in dull, monochromatic gray/beige/ecru. They’re wearing loose-fitting overcoats, and modern and expensive versions of their grandfathers’ 1930s cordovan wingtips. Click on the FOOD tab: chipped, matte-finished Heath coffee bowls in gray/beige/ecru hues, filled with variations of the same thing — grains, beans, usually some kale, a drizzle of olive oil, a tangle of lemon zest — and set down on askew cream-and-red dishtowels that have seen endless washings and line-dryings. The image, or any number of versions of it, has been re-pinned a thousand times which, in Pinterest parlance, is a really good thing.
Oh, the simplicity, a work-harried friend wistfully whined to me one morning while we were on the train, commuting two hours to our Manhattan jobs from rural Connecticut. I really want to live and eat like that, she added, looking over my shoulder at my iPad — simply and quietly.
Of course you do, I told her. And so do I.
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And, apparently, so does everyone else these days, so much so that a new crop of magnificently-produced, nearly wordless, expensive magazines — maga-Tumblrs, really — has arrived on the scene, promising vicarious calm, conviviality and aspirational serenity of the sort that Thoreau went to the woods to find 159 years ago. Instagram-softened images of meaningful dinner parties abound; young flannel-shirted men in their 20s — Smith Brothers look-alikes — smoke vintage Meerschaum pipes as they gaze across placid ponds at tire swings swaying in the distance while their ladies thoughtfully pour local herb-infused gimlets into authentic 1930s Ball canning jars. You read the sparse text. You swoon. You study. You wonder if these people have day jobs.
The message is clear: You – yeah you, with the three kids in daycare and the divorce, getting off the IRT and running into Starbucks for your McVenti before hunkering down in your cubicle under those fluorescent lights for eight hours while the jackass next to you yammers on his cell phone about the great sex he had last night — you, too, can live a simple life.
That is, if you work hard enough at it.
If you wear the right authentic clothes and drink the right authentic drinks out of the right authentic vessels. If your food is unfettered and unfussy and thoughtfully produced and served in the right coffee bowls of the right color, and was perhaps procured from the right CSA or the right farmers market.
For those of us who have suffered through the fashion of anxious, nervous food — inauthentic, tall, overwrought — such simple, gastronomical style is exactly what we’ve been breathlessly waiting for. But has the style of living and eating this way, with its gorgeous prepackaged rusticity and come-hither appeal, just become exigent fetish? Are our attempts to be “simple” so self-conscious and superficial that the benefits of real simplicity, peace, mindfulness, thrift are lost? Will being simple — eating simply, living simply — go the way of the Pet Rock?
Trends are a direct reflection of our ever-changing cultural and socio-emotional needs. In the greed-is-good 1980s, everything was big — shoulder pads, hig hair — and the contrived food of the time, unnatural vertical and architectural, was an extension of that style. In late 1988, I was served an elaborate, human fist-sized chocolate piano at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. A scaled-down replica of a Steinway baby grand, it had eighty-eight black and white chocolate keys, and strings fashioned from spun sugar. After the grim 1970s, life was suddenly all about the frantic quest for the elaborate and ornate, and the food on our plates reflected it. In the 1990s, everyone declared themselves a home-schooled chef — the Food Network went on the air in 1993 — and we all went out to buy kitchen blowtorches and home foamers and timbale molds. After 9/11, we craved peace and conviviality, and the next big thing was comfort food. The sale of crockpots and Creuset casseroles took off like they’d been shot from a cannon.
So what created this fraught mandate for the ancient saucepan — dented to perfection — that we spend hours searching for at Goodwill? Why the farmhouse tables laden with elemental dishes and the longing gazes serene as stone? Desperation for simplicity and authenticity smacks of a sort of psychic exhaustion, and the stark realization that living and eating in a complicated overdone way will take a toll on our souls. It compels us with an almost furious hysteria to return to preconceived notions of what’s real, even if what’s real is nothing more than an often fetishized metaphor for ever-elusive safety, and a commodified yearning to bind our frayed connection to equanimity and control.
In a world of constant digital connectedness, of nebulous relationships and jobs that disappear before our eyes, of an often fraudulent and dangerous food system, where we feed our children pink slime and anyone can slap a green label on their over-processed product and pretend it’s organic, we’ll pay anything we can to get simplicity, or some semblance of it back.
But if simplicity really is just a fetish, what will happen when the fetish fades and the trend is over? What will we eat and how will we live?
Top photo: Elissa Altman. Credit: © Susan Turner
Among other accomplishments, the film shows us the lives of agrarians who have managed to hold onto their farms into the 21st century who are now being urged to “expand or die.” Apparently, in the beginning days of research, Bahrani spent time with the family of Troy Roush, the corn and soybean farmer who was featured in the documentary, “Food, Inc.”
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“At Any Price,” revolves around a not terribly loving father-son relationship and 3,500 acres of farmland planted with seeds from the Liberty Seed Company, which sells genetically modified seeds. It’s kind of interesting how in every film where GMOs have a major role, the seller of those seeds is always painted as a bad guy. In recent memory, films such as Bitter Seeds covered the same territory.
Ebert is right, there are many layers to the film, including the father-son relationship, power, familial individuation and greed. But what struck me was the way many of the film’s characters flagrantly disregarded each other.
This was particularly true of the farmer who is also a salesman for the seed company, played by Dennis Quaid. While at the funeral of a neighboring farmer, he expresses his condolences to the widow and her son right there at the graveside, but just seconds later he tries to buy the rights to the man’s land.
Much like the Indian film “Bitter Seeds,” there is a kind of desperation that is implanted by the seed company in those who are both selling the seeds and planting the seeds. Farmers who use genetically modified seeds must agree to strict rules created by the GMO seed companies. Once a farmer buys the GMO seeds, he is required to pay an annual royalty each time the seeds are replanted. After one season, the GMO seeds need additional fertilizers, and as the seasons move forward more insecticides and pesticides. The soil eventually requires more water than a normal saved seed would require. All of this means more and more money for the farmer to lay out, which means somewhere along the line the farmer is likely to become desperate. This is not a sustainable way to farm or live.
On the Whipple Farm, as featured in “At Any Price,” it’s all about bigger yields, bigger harvests and bigger profits. Where the farmer used to be a person of faith and integrity, he is now all about the bigger attitude, which colors everything and leads the main characters to lie about their illegal use of seeds, and to steal and then to lie some more. One of the characters in the film (a girlfriend of the farmer’s son) compares the use of illegally saved Liberty Seeds to a bootlegger who illegally copies DVDs. Ah, that GMOs were so innocuous.
Henry Whipple has two sons. He would like to leave his farm to both of them. After all, his grandfather left it to his father who in turn has left it to him. Three generations already and Whipple would like to make it four. But Henry Whipple’s sons have other lives in mind for themselves. The elder is climbing mountains in South America and the younger would rather be a NASCAR driver. Neither have any respect for their father or the work that he does or the life that he represents.
In his New York Times review in April, Stephen Holden calls farmer Whipple, “a warped caricature of a reassuring American archetype.”
Film raises specter of nation’s ‘wobbly moral compass’
‘Any Any Price’ He says the film is both “a critical exploration of agribusiness and its cutthroat, hypercompetitive ways,” and “a searching, somewhat ham-handed allegory of American hubris in the 21st century and a bleak assessment of the country’s wobbly moral compass.”
The film pays close attention to the stresses that high-tech farming involves and how it freezes small farmers out of their livelihoods. It also sub-plots the kinds of competition that exist between the larger farms and farmers. This is a rivalry that can, and sometimes does, lead to violence.
The movie raises issues that inspire deep reflection. It’s a complicated film, dealing with complicated issues. And it is certainly worth seeing. This is a film that explores subject matters on a variety of levels, all of which deserve our attention.
Top photo: Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid appear in a scene in “At Any Price.” Credit: Courtesy of Ramin Bahrani