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    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.

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    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.

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    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).

Why you shouldn’t buy precut veg

I know perfectly well that I’m preachy about buying bulk produce because it’s cheaper by far, the supposed “convenience” of precut amounts to less than a minute’s time difference in many cases, and the fiddly little precut plastic bags are a lot less fresh. But the current recall for a number of precut packaged veg products at Trader Joe’sand elsewhere reminded me of something my mother (who cooks reluctantly, very reluctantly) used to point out when I was a kid.

She would wash everything well under the tap and then (in a rare show of good lab technique) trim the cut ends off further because, as she pointed out, a lot of the produce is cut out in the field, where dirt and pesticides abound. People harvesting out in the field are not washing their hands or their knives every few minutes, nor are they in a position to wash the produce well before cutting it off the stalk or vine. It wouldn’t really improve things that much if they did.

The fancy precut veg producers are doing the washing and cutting up under less dusty conditions, but they’re actually creating more risk of contamination. Every time you cut into a vegetable, you’re exposing an inside surface. That’s usually fine when you’re cooking or serving it right afterward. But let it sit around, especially in a plastic bag, under dubious refrigeration, for several days, (how many more questionable conditions can I pile on here)–as the precut prepackaged veg does in the supermarket, and you’re pretty much begging for something to go wrong. The peel is there for a reason–it seals and filters out a lot of the bacteria and fungi that are always around in the soil, the air, the water, your hands.

Usually when fruit and vegetables are hand-harvested with a knife, it’s on an inedible stem or stalk, and if left in the open air, the cut will dry and more or less seal over–think how cauliflower and celery stumps look, or the dryish root ends of broccoli or cut asparagus. Not particularly appetizing, and generally that’s the bit you’d discard. The rest of the vegetable stays pretty fresh for several days–it’s essentially still alive (sometimes, as with bok choy, even still growing new shoots from the cut stump), so the plant’s own internal chemistry provides another natural hedge against outside bacteria.

But when it’s bagged and cut in small pieces, all the exposed surfaces provide a lot more opportunity for contamination and the plastic bag lets whatever moisture is lost collect on the outside of the pieces. Not good. So the less your vegetables and fruits are cut up before you buy them, the fewer chances to contaminate the inside parts of the vegetables.

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

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

Fast fix for ripening peaches

peaches ripening on counter

People are STILL hitting up two of my early posts on possibilities for improving spongy, underperforming peaches that don’t ripen properly even after being left out on a countertop in a paper bag for a day or so (the best-known strategy).

My recommendation back then was first of all to try to buy local or US produce because under-ripened imported fruits are heat-treated at Customs, which disrupts their potential for ripening naturally off the tree or for keeping well.

If your only options for fresh peaches and nectarines are supermarket fruit shipped long-distance, and the produce you get doesn’t ripen on its own within a day or so at room temperature, even though the color’s right, my next suggestion was to cut up the fruit, leaving the skin on, and microwaving them with a little sugar and lemon juice. What you’d get wouldn’t be full-on raw, fresh peaches magically fulfilled to the height of the season–they’d be cooked, suitable maybe for peach jam, and they’d be tolerable, not exquisite, but it was better than having to throw them out in disappointment.

Neither the paper bag scheme nor the microwave scheme produce particularly stellar results with spongy peaches. Also, even though it may work, a 24-hour wait isn’t terrible but it isn’t particularly fast either.

Back then I thought the old Victorian-era trick of cutting up fresh strawberries and sprinkling a spoonful of sugar on them, then letting them sit out a bit to macerate–ten minutes? half an hour? who knows–wasn’t working on the spongy peaches. And maybe it wasn’t, or maybe I just wasn’t waiting long enough (ten minutes might not have been enough). But with domestic underripe peaches that aren’t rock-hard, it does seem to improve them quickly without cooking them.

The sugar draws out some of the juices to the surface but it also seems to enhance the color and perhaps creates a bit of conversion to riper flavor within the fruit itself.

Caveat: the peaches I bought yesterday were US peaches, and they had a tinge of aroma to them. They’re not rock-hard after sitting out on an admittedly warm counter near a window overnight, and they’re not hideously spongy and flavorless like the ones I bought when I was really upset about it in the original post. But they’re not really going sublime on their own either, or at least not as fast as I thought they should. Given their high color when I bought them (which used to be the other main signal for ripening and flavor potential), I wasn’t happy to find that they weren’t ready yet this morning.

I took the most yielding one, washed it, sliced it up in a bowl and took a bite–underripe, tart without the sweet (at least there was some tartness, though) and that hard yellow that isn’t really peachy yet. Potential, perhaps, but I’m impatient, as everyone knows.

So I dusted on a little sugar, turned the slices in it to get some contact, and waited about 10 minutes. Which may not be enough to see anything obvious, but it did make the slices noticeably juicier and they also seemed a little sweeter than the amount of sugar would account for. Not perfect, but not bad.

Half a guess based on the success of my faux-sour cherries experiment and last year’s nectarine sorbet (which I did again just last week):

If your peaches are really not tart either, just dull, you might try either a squeeze of lemon, or preferably, if you have it, a light dusting of citric acid powder along with the sugar. Citric acid will give them tartness that goes with their own flavors, so you don’t end up with something that tastes specifically like you added lemon. Let them sit a while and see what happens–take a sample taste and if it’s good, eat them, and if not, you can always go ahead and microwave them.

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?

Another reason to avoid processed and fast food

In the past five or ten years, obesity and diabetes researchers have started taking a closer look at environmental factors that have unexpectedly strong disruptive effects on our appetite, food consumption levels and metabolism, even at levels currently deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration. The potential of artificial sweeteners to lower glucose tolerance in less than a week by shifting the balance of gut bacteria is only one unnerving example.

Environmental chemicals like fungicides, pesticides and plasticizers (BPA and the like) have long been of concern for cancer, endocrine disruption and infertility. Some extensive and carefully conducted studies now reveal that some of these chemicals can also increase fat cell development and storage as well as insulin resistance. Low levels of exposure directly increase the rate of obesity in rats, and  population studies, though not as extensive, show that exposure also tracks with obesity in humans.

These common chemicals are now being considered obesogens–chemicals that cause obesity or at least make people more prone to it. And these are effects that may end up being passed down.

In the rat studies, the effects lasted for several generations, and that also seems to tally with earlier findings on environmental endocrine disruptors and male infertility. Some of the tests that were conducted on rats in the obesogen study were too invasive to perform on human subjects, and a human generation is a lot longer than a rat generation–20+ years vs. 6 weeks–so it may be hard to trace inheritance in humans just yet.

Well–so what does it mean for us while we wait for the perfect definitive human study to come along?

To my mind, it means taking a harder look at how we choose the food we eat. We can’t remove all pesticide residues from the environment but we can probably eat fewer things wrapped pristinely in plastic and cut down our reliance on plastic utensils and disposable containers.

As I look around my kitchen, I realize just how often I reach for plastic sandwich bags–daily for lunches, but also for leftovers, herbs, halves of onions or lemons, cheese, vegetables. Stacking plastic storage containers keep soup, salad, rice or beans–or this week, an overload of stuffed shells, since I finally got my cook-once-eat-six-times-or-so batch cooking mojo figured out. And almost everything else in my fridge and on my shelves is in contact with plastic at one time or another.

Plastic wrappings pervade most of the supermarket offerings–overwraps on plastic-coated juice boxes, plastic see-through windows on cardboard pasta boxes, sacks of dried beans and rice, loaves of bread, plastic inner bags for boxed cereals and snacks, and plastic linings on the insides of tin cans. Also, of course, all those bottles of soda and energy drinks and vitamin waters and juices and milk. And yogurt. To say nothing of fast food, vending machine food, and so on.

Plastic is everywhere because it’s cheap, light, flexible, avoids breakage in shipping, and it helps you keep your food dry if you want it dry or moist if you want to keep it from drying out. You can keep everything separate and clean and airtight even when stored side by side. You can store it in the freezer and take some types of plastic containers right to the microwave. If you want to give up plastic, either for health reasons or environmental ones, you have to give up some of those advantages too.

Your next best bets are glass, which is heavy and breakable and no longer reliably tempered borosilicate, at least not in the US. Or perhaps stainless steel, at least for cold containers–maybe a stainless steel kit for lunches? I don’t know–if you don’t take strict care of it, or if it’s in contact with wet or acidic foods for long periods, it may rust. Storing salads or tomato-based items might be a problem. Ceramic bowls and containers–also heavy and breakable, and some of the food-approved glazes still leach measurable amounts of copper and other metals.

I do occasionally see someone from the homesteading and health food store generation, or else in Amish or Mennonite-style dress, loading up on bulk buy drygoods at Whole Foods with their own glass jars and cotton drawstring bags. And I always admire them for it, but I also think that’s an awful lot of stuff to trundle around to the store and get the clerks to okay. It is not easy to do and it’s obvious they’ve saved up for a monthly trip to stock up because you wouldn’t want to have to do it more than that often, especially when you have young children in tow, even very well behaved young children as they often do (another thing to admire them for; my daughter used to go and play hide-and-seek in the corner grocery when she was that young. At least she knew not to take anything).

But back to plastics and food storage. The obesogen phenomenon is intriguing but probably not the main source of the current obesity epidemic. Common sense says people might have slightly more propensity for developing fat cells but they’d still be small cells if people weren’t overfeeding them by eating more calories than they used to. That’s the major trend, by far. It’s still the food itself that matters most.

Processed and fast food still dominate as popular items of diet, and they’re very high-calorie-density compared with most nonstarchy bulk vegetables, which never seem to be recommended first on any popular weight loss and fitness show anymore (cough–Dr. Continue reading

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