• Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 166 other followers

  • Noshing on

    Happy 2019! It's a new year--time for a restorative. Me? Bok choy broth with tofu for lunch. The purple tinge is not your hangover talking to you--I added purple and gold "black" carrots to the bowl and it got a little Rose Parade on me.

  • Recent Posts

  • Contents

  • Archives

  • Copyright, Disclaimer, Affiliate Links

    Copyright 2008-2019Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

    ADS AND AFFILIATE LINKS

    I may post affiliate links to books and movies that I personally review and recommend. Currently I favor Alibris and Vroman's, our terrific and venerable (now past the century mark!) independent bookstore in Pasadena. Or go to your local library--and make sure to support them with actual donations, not just overdue fines (ahem!), because your state probably has cut their budget and hours. Again.

    In keeping with the disclaimer below, I DO NOT endorse, profit from, or recommend any medications, health treatments, commercial diet plans, supplements or any other such products.

    DISCLAIMER

    SlowFoodFast sometimes addresses general public health topics related to nutrition, heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes. Because this is a blog with a personal point of view, my health and food politics entries often include my opinions on the trends I see, and I try to be as blatant as possible about that. None of these articles should be construed as specific medical advice for an individual case. I do try to keep to findings from well-vetted research sources and large, well-controlled studies, and I try not to sensationalize the science (though if they actually come up with a real cure for Type I diabetes in the next couple of years, I'm gonna be dancing in the streets with a hat that would put Carmen Miranda to shame. Consider yourself warned).

Windfall deals in the produce section

A weekly haul from my greengrocer's comes in under $30 even with coffee, spices and special items.

I looked up and suddenly it was June–and I realized I haven’t posted for a full six months. Not because I no longer cook or have an interest in it. But with my daughter away at college, I was cooking just for my husband and myself, we were both working long hours on other things and I kept figuring I’d get back to posting regularly in a week or so.

It’s easy to get bogged down–do we need more recipes for things? what can we say that hasn’t been said, and what does it mean in the face of my growing sense of unease about both the political and physical climate changes in this country? The damage, especially at the detention centers near our border with Mexico and the brute squad ICE raid tactics in our cities, is ongoing.

It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed as an individual, and I have rarely felt less like celebrating the 4th. I’m not good with big crowds or protest marches, even though they can be effective in the short run. But there are some specific and effective things we can do to help repair the damage and they can help us feel less awful, isolated and helpless.

First and foremost is to take action to protect immigrants being persecuted at our borders and in our cities. Definitely write to your congressional reps and senators, local mayors and DAs. But also try and help directly, even if you’re far from the border or can only contribute a few dollars of financial support.

The long-established Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which my grandmother used to volunteer with in New York, is partnering in Southern California with Jewish Family Services of San Diego. JFS has opened an emergency shelter for immigrant families released from ICE detention under a recent court order and basically dumped on the streets of San Diego–no food, shelter, clothing or contacts, nothing. JFS’s San Diego Rapid Response Network shelter helps several hundred families a week. In addition to their direct donations page they’ve set up an Amazon wishlist registry for basics like underwear, coats, toiletries etc.

Migrant Family Shelter/SDRRN

Several such havens are being set up around the country by both Jewish and non-Jewish volunteer organizations, so donate to this one or look for one in your area. The ACLU and SPLC both have significant programs for legal aid and restoration of families, as do some state and local governments like California’s.The HIAS website also has a wide variety of social justice programming recommendations and sample action plans for getting your congregation involved.

Another area of concern–and more directly about food–is the likely state of the national food supply in the coming year due to the huge shifts in global weather patterns and unseasonal storm damage this spring, to say nothing of the tariffs. A month ago, the USDA was estimating that the midwest floods would lose us about 1.5 percent of our agricultural production of staples next year in wheat, corn and soy. Now farmers are deciding not to plant at all in those zones near the Missouri River, and the latest estimate as of this week is up to 3.5-5 percent loss in total US staple crops for next year. I desperately hope I’m wrong, but at that rate, given how loss projections often escalate over time, the eventual loss totals could actually be a lot worse–maybe as much as 8-10 percent of total US production.

What will that mean for food prices and availability? Nutrition and agricultural scientists have been concerned for years about the loss of diversity in our national average diets and farm subsidy crops, and the chokehold fast food and processed food have had on the American public. So you can imagine a 10 percent cut in wheat, corn and soy would mean Trump might have to cut back on his Burger King habit next year, and you’re probably thinking “boo-hoo.”

But for everyone else, losing these staple crops is no joke. In food deserts, urban and rural areas with no grocery stores or access to fresh produce, it could mean having to pay significantly more for the only food they can get easily. This in a country that has no real excuses for the degree of poverty we already have.

More than that, these staples, especially the corn, are also key ingredients in chicken and cattle feed, which means we could well see significant shortages and price hikes in dairy products, eggs and meat next year too.

Aside from attempting to hoard, though, what can we as individuals do about it? We can push our congressional reps and senators on climate change policies, lower our personal carbon footprints, and so on, but we can’t control the weather through our food choices–can we? Well, maybe we can. We can’t make the Trump administration see reason but that’s no reason to abandon our own considerable power for change.

Contrary to what we usually believe, our individual choices definitely can make a difference in climate within a surprisingly short span of time. Certainly the pollution damage of any decade carries nearly immediate consequences, but it works the other way too. Consider the ozone layer–once we could actually see the disappearing heat shield from satellite photos, government policy  did the heavy lifting on banning chlorofluorocarbon emissions, forcing companies to find better refrigerants and ways to apply deodorant, and making hairspray a lot less popular. Did it work? Only a few decades later, the shocking ozone layer bald spot of the 1970s and ’80s has actually recovered, even if Final Net™ sales haven’t.

Or consider the California standards that led to the Clean Air and Water acts. We all take unleaded gas, catalytic convertors, hybrid vehicles and energy-efficient appliances as desirable standards these days partly because of those efforts. Do they make a difference? LA’s air alone improved so much in one generation that I can see 20-30 miles worth of the San Gabriel mountains just north of town. They’re literally walking distance from many neighborhoods in Pasadena, but they were completely masked by lead-lined smog in the ’60s when my parents lived here.

How then could we use our ordinary weekly food shopping to mitigate climate change on a scale that would come anywhere close to these successes and maybe make up for the crop shortfalls?

One possibility is to start diversifying what we eat–more beans and lentils; more bulk vegetables, less fast and processed food–to cut our overdependence on the top-three crops for most of our daily diet. Ironically? maybe not so ironically, this might push growers to diversify and plant more greens, which would use up some of the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and choose more legumes, which put nitrogen back in the soil as they grow.

We can also waste less food by using more of what’s already been grown and harvested. Ever since last May, when I wrote about food waste documentaries, I’ve been thinking more often about what goes to waste in my kitchen each week–not that much, actually, because I’m an undignified veg freak and a competitive cheapskate. But go to your local big-chain supermarket and you’ll see just how much still-good food gets culled every hour or so from the vegetable bins to maintain their corporate image as a guarantor of sterile, sanitized, pristinely packaged neatness. Only a tiny portion of it gets repackaged for a last-chance sale, even though most of it is probably still quite useable.

bargain-bin romano beans

Unpurchased fresh produce, I’ve decided, is an opportunity waiting to be recognized. Using more produce could not only save us a bunch of pocket money each week but also cut back the costs we pay for farm resources (many of which taxpayers subsidize pretty heavily), including gasoline and diesel, pesticides and water. Between all that and just not stuffing the landfills with methane-belching food waste, it’s certainly worth a try.

The supermarkets may have one or two bags of discount apples or peppers–almost indistinguishable from the new ones–somewhere in a corner at the back of the store, but you really have to hunt to find them. They and most of their customers, stuck on boxed and pre-made packaged food, and often afraid of getting their hands dirty with bulk produce, obviously think there’s some shame in it.

The ethnic neighborhood greengrocers have no such inhibitions or delusions. At my local Armenian greengrocer’s in a back corner of the store is a wire rack with large plastic bags of fruit and vegetables that are bruised, slightly wrinkled, or too ripe to last much longer, and a bag holding two or three pounds might be going for a dollar. They know their customers cook often and in quantity, and are generally careful of their food money. Vegetables and fruits are still a large part of traditional kitchens, and many of the customers will check the back bins for end-of-the-day bargains.

Why would you even look at these last-chance buys? What are they even good for?

First, it’s a couple of dollars to spare in my pocket and a couple of extra pounds of fresh produce every week for a pittance–so I don’t have to feel self-conscious about the cost of playing around. Second, buying them, even at a discount, gives a little back to my local smalltime greengrocers, who would otherwise take more of a loss and still have to pay for disposal. Third, whatever I can use (or compost, at a last resort), stays out of the municipal landfills.

This spring I’ve come out of the greengrocer’s several times with two or three loaded-down shopping bags full of my regular purchases to which I’ve added one or two extra bags of marked-down veg or fruit snagged from the back bin. It’s a small hedge against hard times, and a reminder not to waste food or just throw things away. As with our grandparents’ generation and all the ones before, we need to look ahead and develop some lost survival and innovation skills in this area.

It is not actually hard to do something good with a bargain bag of produce, and because it’s cheap, you get to exercise your creativity, your inventiveness and your willingness to take a chance on something you don’t already know how to do or do well. That is just as much of a lost skill and one we definitely could use more of. Continue reading

Waste not: food documentaries, recycled

“Wasted” is an upcoming Huntington Library event that costs nearly $100 for members. They’ll be showing the 2017 Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored food waste/ecoresponsibility documentary of the same name (featuring executive producer Anthony Bourdain, with Dan Barber of Blue Hill, Danny Bowien, Mario Batali and various other chefly friends, though none of those guys are slated to show up in person at the event). Plus local/LA top chefs demonstrating gourmet-ish fun things to do with the parts of vegetables and herbs we normally throw away. A lot of them seem to involve cocktails.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on why that rang hollow, or at least kind of shallow. Much as I love the Huntington, I’m not going to be blowing a hundred bucks any day soon just to screen a Netflix doc from last year at a posh drinks event. I’m not a hipster, I’m barely capable of a glass of wine, so hard drinks are out, and my kid is heading off to college on the other coast in the fall, so I’m feeling poor-ish in anticipation.  But I was kind of curious to see what was in the film.

I went online and then to my local film-heavy libraries (this is the LA metro area) to see if I could screen Wasted in full for free. I tend to be crabby and skeptical of anything glib, or as Bourdain puts it, “smug.” But I was prepared to find something worthwhile in it–I enjoyed Kitchen Confidential when it came out. As much as I pick on him for gonzo style, I have liked various of Bourdain’s interviews and essays since for their attempt at consciousness-raising on life and food availability issues in other countries.

The issues raised in the movie itself are pretty serious: America discards about 40 percent of its total food production, 160-plus billion dollars a year worth, into landfills (and generating a lot of methane gas through anaerobic breakdown, which apparently doesn’t occur if you compost properly). At the same time, nearly 1/7th of the people in this country have food insecurity–they go hungry. And the causes aren’t even buying a head of broccoli with best intentions and letting it sit in the vegetable bin for too long. They’re mostly issues of transportation cost, supermarket dumping past the sell-by dates, fear of lawsuits if the food’s donated instead, and imperfect-looking produce. It’s a national shame. Shots of poverty around the world, a claim, possibly justified, linking our waste of grain products in America and Europe to shortages in India and elsewhere, literally taking food out of their mouths. So far, picturesque and righteously thought-provoking.

The film’s positive side also starts out promisingly enough: a Greek yogurt processing plant in Tennessee diverts the excess whey, which is full of sugars, to a fermentation vat where it produces methane gas in a closed-loop system. The methane generated powers the entire production line. Clever, frugal, reasonably clean energy, at least in this controlled context, keeps some of the waste out of the municipal wastewater, and it’s about Greek yogurt.

Leftover and discarded sandwich bread–an awful lot of it, primarily end pieces from loaves used in sandwich-packaging factories–is being reclaimed and used creatively in the UK as the base grain for “Toast” ale and a similar beer (perhaps the same brand?) is now available in the US at Whole Foods stores (of course). We quickly sense a theme here.

In fact, Wasted’s approach to a dirty and complicated topic is surprisingly clean-hands compared with most other films and books that address food waste and hunger.

The live coverage and interviews are shot in-studio, in the restaurants, in the high-level, high-tech, high-ideals startups. A lot of footage is devoted to what great, cool and innovative things you can do for high-end, gourmet niche products if you’re creative with vegetable trimmings and give the less-familiar “garbage” fish a fancy Latin name and a place on your menu alongside the tuna steaks and branzino.

The global poverty and waste discussions you expect to give the film its depth are nearly all voice-overs (mostly Bourdain’s) with statistics, animations, and quick flashes of exotic scenery for illustration. These are things you don’t notice right away, perhaps not until afterward. But this divide starts to explain why I felt such a disconnect between the supposed message and the actual focal points of the film. Continue reading

Three nonsense words

That I don’t really want to hear about food or nutrition, pretty much ever, and certainly not as a way to welcome in 2018. Courtesy of the New York Times’ T Magazine this week:

To usher in the new year, we asked creative people to share the homemade recipes they count on to detox, cleanse — and refresh.

Please. When you start describing breakfast in terms better suited to a moist towelette, and when the breakfast product itself comes out looking…well, let’s not even go there. I mean, check out the before and after food photos and tell me I’m wrong.

The fashion-slash-yoga world tends to be convinced that cleanses and detox schemes are legitimate. Physiologists, internists and RDs with board certifications tend to disagree.

Juicing, while obviously ultra-fashionable (still? boggles the mind), actually removes all the fiber, concentrates the sugars, and makes you wonder, given the thinness and the (frankly hideous) color of the stuff in the goblet in the right-hand “after” photo, whether it wouldn’t have been more genuinely nutritious, tastier, satisfying and visually appealing at the same time just to make some chunky vegetable soup–with garlic and herbs, not this sweet swill–and just wash and eat the apple with the peel. Because of course it would.

Another article in the series shows the breakfast for a conceptual artist who includes “human bacteria” and Teva sandals in her exhibitions (why? and I mean, are you really tempted to follow her food conceits after reading that?)–a bowl with about 10 hazelnuts and a dusting of chia seeds, not exactly a meal, and on the side a shotglass of something that is admittedly a much better green than the first interviewee’s due to dark leafy greens rather than celery and carrots, but would still be better left unjuiced, lightly cooked in stirfry or soup form, and without any sweet stuff in it. And preferably with a hit of garlic.

No major calories in this kind of breakfast, and perhaps we should be grateful that they don’t throw in any bacon or its variants with the veg, but really. Those breakfasts look pretty bleak and cold and less balanced than they ought to be, whether green or not-such-a-good-green.

Why the “detox” label? Why the crash-style diet drinkies? Why an article series–not even just one ill-judged gush piece–on food that doesn’t really look or taste all that good or deliver that much actual nutrition as given in the recipes, and frankly isn’t necessary if you actually eat things like vegetable soup or broccoli and other greens as part of your regular meals? Is the NYT readership really that into these things? Are they in it for the post-holiday self-castigation value?

None of the women interviewed (and of course they are all women, at least so far) are  particularly unfit or overweight or heavily broken out or anything, and none of them look ill or hung over. Raises the question: just how badly did these people really eat during the holidays?

You’d think from the tone of the articles that these artists had all been rolling around in crappy green and red sugar cookies of increasing staleness and chugging quarts of full-on eggnog all December just for something to do.  It’s the only way the articles even begin to justify themselves.

This Thanksgiving, give something to be thankful for

This time of year is fraught with newspaper, food mag, blog, and Twitter advice about how to set the perfect iconic Thanksgiving table with all the right stuff. If you’re carb-conscious, weight-conscious, health-conscious,  or just worried you don’t have the classics down fashionably enough, it can be more nervewracking than calling the Butterball hotline while your turkey (or Tofurky–is there a Tofurky hotline?) sags on the counter waiting for expert advice.

So…

I was going to do my usual roundup of microwave-friendly vegetable (and pie) recipes for Thanksgiving–things that can help green the table (the only real remedy for huge stodgy menus) at the last minute with relatively little fuss and expense. If you want that, I’ve got it–hit the new, updated-for-2017 Thanksgiving roundup link in the sidebar. Or you can just search “Thanksgiving” in the little box and find more posts than I realized I had–it’s kind of tedious scrolling through all of that and wondering whether there’s anything amusing in them (answer: yes, and sometimes it involves turkey-wrestling). Hence, the new link in the sidebar.

But then again, this morning I caught sight of an email from Vroman’s, my local independent bookstore, which was hosting a food drive for one of Pasadena’s innovative food pantries and homeless services organizations, Friends In Deed. I missed the drive last week, but I had heard the retiring director speak last March and the new director is a friend (and my former rabbi). And I thought, this is what we forget in all the babble of newspaper articles on stuffing and how to make more of it, use cauliflower rice instead, or avoid it altogether.

You can do any or none of those things. But while you’re thinking about the shopping list of the century, there is one way to stop panicking and get real about how many potato and sweet potato dishes your guests need on the table and how hard it will be to fit in the extra one your sister-in-law always carps about when you skip it.

Find your local food pantry or homeless shelter online or in the old-fashioned phone book.  They have a list of most-needed grocery and toiletry items, and if they don’t, use the list below and just add “new toothbrushes, toothpaste, bars of soap and shampoo.”

When you do the frenzied last-minute shop, add at least one item–and if you can, a bag of 5-10–to your shopping list, and bring it over to your shelter. Or send a cash donation online or by mail–keep it local, you know your town almost certainly has or needs a food bank, and your cash donations can go far. It doesn’t have to be big to help, and it all adds up.

The people you help will have something to be thankful for. And you will too.

And there’s that side benefit–if someone at your table complains that you didn’t make their version of whatever dish it is, you’ll have the perfect, righteous response.

Here’s the list from my local food pantry and homeless services organization. Take a visit online and see some of what they’re doing–it’s innovative and might inspire you.

Friends In Deed, an interfaith collaborative, is dedicated to meeting the many needs of the most vulnerable residents of greater Pasadena-homeless and at-risk individuals including women and children. Celebrating more than 120 years of service, we meet the needs of our clients by leveraging our small, but dedicated staff, with many volunteers. Friends In Deed meets people where they are, without judgment or restrictions that deny people the help they need.

The Pantry’s Most Needed Shelf-stable Items:
“Gold” Items – these items are extremely popular and are the most difficult to keep in stock:
Peanut Butter, Canned Tuna/Chicken, Cereal, Rice, Cooking Oil, Sugar, Flour, & CAN OPENERS

Other Non-Perishable Foods
Proteins: Chili, Beef Stew, Dry Beans
Whole Grains: Pasta, Oats, Sliced Bread
Milk: Shelf Stable or Powder
Other: Jelly, Tomato & Spaghetti Sauces, Soups

Post-Election: Food and, well, everything else we value

Not a good week. At all. Even Garrison Keillor is jumping in and warning the Rust Belt states that they’ve made an extreme mistake that will keep them down (and they’re probably not listening or aware that he’s even left NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion”) and prevent them from enjoying anything but more Hamburger Helper and Mac ‘n’ Cheese in all its fabulously innovative variations for the next ten years or so.

And how do I explain this development to my daughter, who came home from a high school election night event as ashen-faced as we all were?

Certainly mac ‘n’ cheese, posed in this case along with brussels sprout gratin and leek casserole as fabulous Thanksgiving options (and so transportable!), was at the top of the New York Times food article server to show alongside all the disaster inch-high election result headlines and the not-quite-mea-culpas for having called it wrong for months. I’ve never encountered something so unappetizing in my life–at this point, MnC looks much too much like a certain infamous hair don’t. And despite blog after blog and cookbook after cookbook extolling the midwestern ecstasies of MnCs in every possible not-gonna-happen-because-you-can’t-get-roquefort-or-chervil-in-Middle-America, I find myself in revolt.

Heartened by yesterday’s thousands of young protesters taking to the streets, but in revolt nonetheless because street protests aren’t going to be enough to solve this mess.

So yes, I’m going to be alarmist for a few minutes here. Maybe more if I get on a roll. Every prospect for a decent, diverse, civil and prosperous society is about to be thrown under the bus by Congress and the president in two months, if the bloviators have their way. Mac ‘n’ cheese is the least of it, the most trivial and trivializing point. I’m not trying to be elitist here–more like, why favor what is essentially a flavorless stodgy heart attack on a plate and then whine about high drug prices?

But the anti-trade rants that seem to have won over the red states are a damn good place to start. I’d just like to point a few items out to people who already have a limited selection of food at their local supermarkets because they live in small towns across the country (and that includes plenty of us in California as well).

What the hell are us cooks, foodies or no, wherever we live, going to do? We have two months to stock up on actual spices that didn’t come in a tiny, uptight, never-to-be-used tin box or jar as part of a wedding set from however many years ago. Because most spices come from…overseas. That’s right. Or Mexico.

Thanksgiving, utterly whitebread and middle-American as it so often seems, requires spices. Pumpkin pie is not the same with “pumpkin pie spice” artifices developed in chemistry labs in New Jersey. It needs cloves. And ginger. And cinnamon. And nutmeg or cardamom or both. Also mace, if you can get it. Sweet potato pudding requires crushed pineapple. Which comes from Mexico or worse, in the eyes of our next president, Hawaii.

The last time we were on an hysterical close-the-borders binge, in one of the Bush eras, cloves started to run over $50 a pound. Because they come from places like Iran. For those of you who don’t know, cloves come from a clove tree–hard to find in the gardening catalogs and apparently somewhat tricky to grow in most of the US. Cinnamon, the most “American” of spices, is the bark of one of several trees, either “true cinnamon” or cassia, grown in Vietnam, some places in Latin America, Sri Lanka, etc…

Peppercorns–India, mostly. Limes, Mexico again. Where will all the Margaritas go? Also many varieties of hot peppers.

And don’t forget the two great American drugs–coffee and chocolate. Both imports from countries the newly elected right-wingers would like to ban altogether. African countries. Arab countries. Latin America. Indonesia which is, yes, primarily Muslim.

Recreational marijuana, which almost anyone can grow in the US, pales in comparison and everybody knows it.

More disconcerting to me for most of the year, sesame seeds. Tehina requires them. All Arab and most Israeli and some Caucasus/Persian food requires them (all those amazing cookbooks the past couple of years and this fall season–Zahav, Samarkand, Persepolis, Balaboosta, you name it). Also Chinese food. And Korean. Bagels wouldn’t be the same without them. Sesame seeds are grown primarily in Ethiopia and are traded through a variety of countries on Trump’s bloviating rant list.

There’s more. Cookware–China. Almost all of it at this point, with the exception of Lodge cast iron frying pans and whatever Shinola decides to produce in the way of an orange-and-tan hipster le Creuset wannabe with detachable split calf handle covers or whatever. Wonder how well Shinola’s gonna be selling in Brooklyn now, or whether discerning New Yorkers will cut them a break and realize Detroit voted blue, it was all the surrounding Michigan counties that clutched up.

The worst hit of all, probably, may be for print. As in, cookbooks. It’s well known that our next prez does not like to read much and may find print expendable (and he’s no fan of the free press either). Most American publishers print their hard copy books of all kinds in China and Singapore and ship them back to the US. So do many magazines and brochure and business card companies. DVDs and Blu-Ray. All that stuff–made in China.

Although I would welcome a return to American printing for major publishers, retail prices for everything would probably go up. A lot. And a lot of trees would be killed here unless we can get that elitist tree-hugging recycling thing going properly without sending all our paper waste to China for processing.

And, as I say again, coffee. And chocolate. If there’s a shortage or an embargo, serious chocolate may disappear in this country and be replaced by stuff about the quality of typical Halloween candy, most of which is brown without noticeable chocolate content.

Very depressing.

Well, screw all that. In fact, corkscrew it. (Wine may also end up harder to come by, because it comes from the Blue States–California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Virginia, Maryland…)

The two cookbooks most blogged about this fall are MnC-like in ways I hadn’t expected from either of their authors. Then again. probably both of their authors were looking for a more united state of the Union when the books came out.

Mario Batali has decided he’s the new Jane and Michael Stern and surveyed some regional American recipes he thinks are worth putting in a cookbook. There are, contrary to his Italian-focused cookbooks, almost no vegetables and an awful lot of bland-looking starch dishes. On a quick flip-through, none of it looks exceedingly delicious, to be honest with you.

Then there is the self-consciously infamous Anthony Bourdain doing his Hunter S. Thompson-as-foodie act with Appetites–this one’s also sort of American-ish, and focused on “dad food”. The prose veers back and forth between “still badass in his heart” and handy dad tips you never knew you needed because “it’s all about the little girl,” who’s age nine or so at this point. Things like how to fix a broken hollandaise sauce for Eggs Benedict and not to bother with risotto for birthday parties for nine-year-olds and their friends. A little surreal–what typical American dad really aims for hollandaise sauce, broken or un-?

To make up for the mawkish sentimentality, the photos are unnecessarily aggressive: a combat helmet filled with Korean Army Stew, rice noodles slopped over the side and onto the table (a Lucky Peach original motif). A cotton gi with bloodstains from his boasted-about workout routine. Bourdain, sitting on the seat of a toilet in a stylish and thankfully clean bathroom, and even more thankfully fully clothed and pants zipped, but eating a sausage and pepper sandwich on the pot.

Is it necessary? Is it ornamental? Is it even particularly entertaining? No. It’s overshare and trying a little too hard to stay provocative.

The real puzzler for most food journalists has been how he conned Eric Ripert, head of Le Bernardin in NYC and also the author of the well-received recent memoir 32 Yolks, into posing for the gonzo photographer with pale gravy dribbling down his universally-acclaimed-to-be-handsome chin, like a 6-month-old fed something he or she doesn’t care for. The expression on Ripert’s face tells it all–dismayed, dyspeptic, slightly helpless and trying to be a good sport in the face of his friend’s over-the-top enthusiasm and that of the photographer. It is not a solid advertisement for the supposed deliciousness of Bourdain’s biscuits and gravy recipe on the opposing page.

All of which…doesn’t give you a lot of hope for serious food prospects come January 20.

We have two months to make a point and also put up some reserves so our kitchens don’t devolve into flavorless beige wastelands of mediocrity.

How do you grow sesame seeds in your back yard again?

BMI criticized again…by psychologists?

The International Journal of Obesity has just released a short article by Janet Tomiyama (UCLA) and Jeffrey Hunger (UC-Santa Barbara) et al–a team of psychologists. They analyzed NHANES data from 2005-2012 for about 75,000 individuals, and concluded that BMI status doesn’t correlate well with six concrete markers of cardiovascular and metabolic health–blood pressure, blood triglycerides and cholesterol, blood glucose, insulin resistance, and C-reactive protein. Extrapolating a bit from the NHANES study participant numbers, they conclude that millions of Americans–54 million–have been misclassified as unhealthy due solely to their BMI numbers.

According to their analysis, 47% of the overweight people in the study had healthy status (0-1 of 6 markers) other than their weight. About 30% of obese and even 16% of morbidly obese people had healthy status according to their protocol, whereas about 30% of those in the healthy BMI range had more than one actual cardiovascular or metabolic disease marker that would be ignored if only BMI is considered.

Is this really the death-knell for public concern over weight? Should it be?

Here’s how the UCLA press release puts it (with my emphases in italics):

But a new study led by UCLA psychologists has found that using BMI to gauge health incorrectly labels more than 54 million Americans as “unhealthy,” even though they are not.  […]

“Many people see obesity as a death sentence,” said A. Janet Tomiyama, an assistant professor of psychology in the UCLA College and the study’s lead author. “But the data show there are tens of millions of people who are overweight and obese and are perfectly healthy.”

Incorrectly labels? Perfectly healthy?

The definition for “healthy” used in this study is 0 to 1 known risk factor for CVD and diabetes. But clinically, one risk factor is often enough to be of acute concern, especially if it’s untreated high blood pressure or blood glucose. Those generally need treatment sooner rather than later.

Furthermore, the study as posted on Hunger’s web page excludes obesity and overweight a priori from that count of risk factors for CVD and diabetes. I don’t know the absolute latest research consensus, other than what was in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee’s report last February, but my general understanding is that weight does show some statistically independent influence on CVD at least. That picture may be changing as we learn more about its interactions with other risk factors, but if it’s still valid, weight should have been counted as one of the existing “known risk factors” along with the other markers and that would have skewed Tomiyama and Hunger’s analysis considerably.

Even without those considerations, the different weight groups classified by BMI cutpoints do in fact show a significant increase in health risk from one category to the next. Turn Hunger and Tomiyama’s percentages around and you see that 70% of people in the 18.5-24.9 healthy BMI range have 0-1 risk marker other than weight; 53% in the 24.9-29.9 overweight range have more than 1 marker, 70% in the 30-35 range have more than 1 marker, and 84% in the 35 and over BMI range have more than one marker other than weight.

Plot those crude percentages and you’ll see a very sharp rise in risk incidence between the healthy and overweight categories, a reversal of fortune from “most people healthy” to “more than half at risk,” with further solidification of “most people at risk” as you venture further into obese and morbidly obese. There’s really no debating that trend, even given the narrow way this team has defined “healthy.” To say nothing of “perfectly healthy.”

Researchers in biomedicine (i.e., physical as opposed to psychological medicine) have recently reexamined whether the current BMI cutpoints defining healthy, overweight, obese and morbidly obese are in the right places to describe most people’s 10-year risk of overt CVD events (heart attacks and stroke), diabetes, or all-causes mortality, or whether BMI is just a continuous gradient of increased risk without definable cutpoints. At last count, the conclusion was that the current statistical best-fit cutpoints are pretty much correct, even though the data for individuals have a pretty big spread (and that each BMI step or number still has incrementally higher risk than the one below).

The upshot: BMI categories are still a pretty good marker of the overall health status of Americans when you’re talking about trends. Crude, yes. Exceptions for athletes with much more muscle than fat, yes. But the numbers are still strongly in favor of using BMI as a general warning flag to check for more specific cardiovascular and metabolic disease markers in individuals.

It’s very odd to see a paper like this coming from a team of behavioral psychologists, which Tomiyama and Hunger are. They’re at least nominally outside their field here, doing a statistical analysis on physical health data, and the paper’s methodology and definitions (along with some of their position statements in the American Journal of Public Health and elsewhere) show a specific agenda toward deconsecrating BMI and downplaying overweight and Continue reading

“The Dorito Effect”: Fervor over Flavor

So, the party’s over, the halftime show’s over, Denver won, a variety of pop stars are brushing off media criticism over what they wore, and a nation is figuring out how to deal with the caloric aftermath of buffalo wings and a variety of dips and chips. (My biggest excitement: locating the owner of a red Corvette with a leaking gas tank in time to deal with it and avoid a more dramatic spectacle. Luckily it was mid-afternoon and the owner was alert, sober, and not smoking. She  also wasn’t whining about having to go out to look at the car. As some of the male guests might have been, Corvette or no.)

Mark Schatzker’s recent book, The Dorito Effect, is an energizing read for those of us who aren’t really into the classics of Superbowl Sunday.

Kroger Superbowl recipe booklet

I’ll spare you the inside pages, but the closest to nutritious was Kroger’s own recipe for double-coated baked cauliflower “hot wings”–ingredients: a head of cauliflower, a little flour and water, garlic powder, Kroger’s store-brand hot sauce, and some melted butter to doll up the cauliflower florets before dipping in…ranch dressing. 

Not that it’s really so much about Doritos, but rather that it takes the 1960s invention of Doritos–a “taco-flavored” taco chip without any actual meat, cheese or salsa, just what has become known to all as orange cheez dust–as the first serious divorce between food and intrinsic flavor.

It isn’t really the first, of course, and Schatzker traces the history of post-WWII mass agriculture as the story of more food, grown quicker, with less and less flavor. Everything from tomatoes to chickens to broccoli to wheat comes under the microscope lens here. Yes, it’s another Michael Pollan-style examination of some familiar complaints about how and why nothing tastes the same anymore.

He collects reactions from champion kvetchers as diverse as Julia Child (she did it first, he claims, calling modern–1960s–American chicken tasteless and with the texture of “teddy bear stuffing”) to the Slow Food Movement (no relation, ahem!) to Michael Pollan himself, to a variety of old bickering couples who remember the flavor of old long-legged breeds of chickens now relegated to the remote gourmet sidelines of the vast factory-farming chicken industry…

Schatzker tells a fairly entertaining version of this tale–how Big Food and Big Agro convened with flavor chemists to alter the course of human gastronomy in the wake of WWII. As we breed livestock and produce to grow more, bigger, faster, he discovers, we lose not only flavor but nutrients and replace them with water and carbohydrate filler even in things like broccoli and tomatoes. And then we try to make up for that by dousing them in ranch dressing and orange cheez dust and artificial flavorings; hence the title of his book.

Coatings, dressings, artificial flavorings, salt, sugar and oils–these, he says, have become the substitute for intrinsic flavor in real foods, and a mainstay of the unsubstantial snack foods–starting with Doritos–that have pushed out bulk produce and unprocessed ingredients in the American diet.

Schatzker takes it a couple of steps further, though, presenting his theory that the loss of flavor in real foods is the key factor to blame for American overconsumption of calories, and that flavor is one criterion we should work to restore at a national level.

Yes, we’ve read much of this before elsewhere, but his interviews are still eye-opening. He interviews flavor chemists at McCormick, which does a lot more of its work behind the scenes of the restaurant and processed food world than you might think. Those little bottles of herbs and spices on supermarket shelves are just the tip of the iceberg.

Schatzker also profiles one of the original breeders of today’s heavy-breasted, fast-grown, efficient-feeding mass market chickens–though the man is still proud of that early work given the economic pressures on postwar America. He gets the inside story on the decline of flavor and nutrition in broccoli, kale, tomatoes, strawberries and other common produce, and learns why some top agriculture researchers eventually quit the corporate world to try and restore some of the diversity and quality that had been lost during the peak years of their careers. Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: