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    Copyright 2008-2015Slow 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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Vine and Fig: Charlottesville

fig tree

Charlottesville is my hometown. I grew up there from the age of seven, went to the public schools, was part of the active Jewish community as a kid, a UVA student, a young working adult. After last weekend’s events, I’m still struggling for what to say.

The Jewish recipe for fearlessness and a decent society is a lot different from the “blood and soil”,  “exercise your 2nd Amendment option” and other noxious fantasy slogans of the radical right, and it’s also different from the laissez-faire governmental and police attitudes that led to the violence in Charlottesville.

It’s  this:

“Everyone shall sit under his vine and fig and none shall make them afraid.”

Does it sound less believable than “blood and soil”? Less heroic? Which world would you rather live in?

Vine and fig sounds like a pretty simplistic recipe–only two ingredients, maybe three or four if you squint–vines, figs, sitting in your own garden without being disturbed or threatened.

Some people have confused the Vine and Fig model as passive, cowardly, sheltered, privileged. Not so. Ask anyone who grows grapes–or any food crop– for a living. To take it literally, growing plants for food successfully requires hard work. It takes looking ahead and choosing your actions today to improve your future–will you have plenty or will you have waste and starvation? Will you get to eat? If you forget to water–no crop. Overwater–rot at the roots. Plant at the wrong time of year, no crop. If you don’t transplant seedlings, your plants don’t grow and you get a late crop or none. You sure won’t get wine.

I’ve learned these things the hard way in the microcosm of my own backyard by trying them out.  I think they hold some lessons for society as well.

Everything that happened last weekend was magnified to national and international coverage one way and another. The news has been chewed and rechewed and comes down to the ugly fact that Virginia’s government, its laws and its court system failed all its residents badly, as did the federal judge who accepted the ACLU’s argument that out-of state white hate groups’ claims to first and second amendment rights and the right of free assembly should somehow outweigh the fundamental rights of local residents to be safe in their own community from threats of violence and harassment.

It’s not just the Confederate statues, which were the bald excuse. It’s not just the open-carry laws and the confusion of hate speech with free speech, for which the ACLU has taken one in the eye over the violence in Charlottesville and said they’re not going to continue defending hate groups for that in places like the Bay Area (where they’d have a lot less chance of winning, or is that by the bye?) Those arguments subverted the value of the first and second amendments as civil rights and turned them into excuses too.

It’s the favoritism and the vastly unequal application of the law. By any reasonable definition, the KKK, neo-Nazi and other white hate groups are gangs. They may not be running drugs or prostitution rings, but they’re certainly peddling open violence and amassing guns–plus explosives, plus caustic chemicals, plus plus plus. They’ve done most of their recruiting, paying, supplying and organizing online. It doesn’t sanitize them.

The white hate groups are not secretive about their aims to commit acts of violence and intimidation against minority groups and whole towns. Richard Spencer called on his online followers to harass and threaten a woman in his town in Montana a year or so ago because she’s Jewish. They’re gangs, and they should have been treated like gangs by the police, the city of Charlottesville, and the federal judge who I sincerely hope will have to account for his callousness in the ruling he gave.

Gangs do not get unfettered right of free assembly. They don’t get to amass weapons and carry guns anywhere they feel like and point them at whoever they feel like. They don’t get to throw caustic chemicals at people whose towns they invade or deface people’s property. They don’t get to run people over and  swarm around houses of worship during services, guns in hand.

Regional police and sheriff’s department networks typically collaborate extensively on gang-busting operations, often with state and federal help. Panting to participate–it’s pretty high-profile.

Unless the gangs are white, conservative, Christians, khaki-pant-wearers, perhaps? Unless the targeted victims are not?

Virginia gave the outside white hate groups a free ride and a red carpet, over the objections of Charlottesville residents, the University of Virginia and the city’s municipal government, until something bad enough actually happened. As it was bound to–who the hell couldn’t have predicted that white hate groups carrying guns and torches might actually commit acts of violence they’d been saying they wanted to commit? How else would it add up?

Last weekend, Charlottesville’s Jews were singled out by several of the out-of-town haters on Friday afternoon, before Friday night services and apparently in preparation for the march the next day. Three of them stood just outside the synagogue, sieg-heiling and waving semiautomatic weapons, pointing them at the doors several times. The synagogue had hired an armed guard, something they haven’t done regularly but which is standard for my congregation here in southern California, where Jewish community centers and synagogues have been attacked by gunmen in the past 20 years.

Saturday morning, Congregation Beth Israel had to usher its worshipers out a back exit away from the larger and riotous parade of the white hate groups, who were carrying even more guns openly as they swarmed through the downtown blocks and marched toward the synagogue’s front doors shouting death and destruction to Jews. The police were not visible on the scene. Yes, they were occupied elsewhere with active casualties, especially after Field drove his car into the crowd, but a token presence is one of the more effective tools our local police force lends us in Pasadena for as a deterrent. Even one or two police cars are an indication that the law is taking notice and that arrest is a possibility.

There appeared to be no major collaboration with other towns to send enough police to help handle the demonstrations. No significant restrictions on the permit terms. No other strategies that might have helped Charlottesville create a serious deterrent to violence. The police barriers were sufficient only to protect the rallyers, not the townspeople. That’s a really bad message to send.

If the out-of-state rallyers had been unarmed African Americans, or protesters demonstrating against violations of minority and women’s civil rights by the government, or taking away healthcare benefits, you know the state and federal response would have been a lot different. Protesters and reporters who confronted Republican congressmen or federal appointees earlier this year have been assaulted and arrested for “shouting,” asking questions at town hall meetings, even laughing.

This has been going on ever since–well, for a very long time in a wide variety of excuses and guises.  Open-carry gun laws and a long run of reactionary Republican leadership at the state and federal level have made it a lot worse, though.

I grieve for Heather Heyer and her family, and I’m grateful for hers, and her mother’s, forthright bravery. I grieve for the other local people who were injured by the rallyers last weekend, and I’m grateful for all the people who stepped forward to counter the white hate rally. They don’t deserve to have a bunch of out-of-town louts (or local ones) marching around brandishing guns and torches and harrassing them, using some generally ignored park statues as a poor excuse for the occasion.

However, the specific insult and harm that had already been done to the African American and Jewish communities in Charlottesville has gotten lost or ignored at the national level of op-eds and commentaries, and some of them have actually had the nerve to blame the African American residents and Charlottesville’s deputy mayor for the whole fracas because they dared to object to Confederate statues in their public parks. That’s shabby and fundamentally dishonest.

Last night’s Charlottesville city council meeting was disrupted by residents angry at how badly the city, the police and the mayor failed them. Police arrested three of them for disruption, but the protesters were numerous enough to insist they be released or they wouldn’t let the council meeting continue. The three were released. Mike Signer, the mayor, came in for the loudest blame, and shouted back that he tried, the city council tried, but the federal court made them allow the white hate rallyers in.

It’s true, technically. But they could have done more if they hadn’t been thinking so strictly along legal lines and had used some vine-and-fig strategies while the case was going forward. Continue reading

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?

USDA Dietary Guidelines released…a full year later

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s scientific report, essentially the major draft of the USDA “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” guidelines, was finished last February. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020 has finally been released in its official form to the public–but it’s only available online at health.gov as of this week, with promises of an eventual PDF.

To that end, because the Health.gov site doesn’t yet have a downloadable version, I’ve pulled the text and images of the final “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020” into a quick-and-dirty two PDFs you can download below for free. It’s not perfect–the pages don’t all flow with gorgeous layout and some of the graphics were so oversized I had to kind of select-cut-and-paste them in sections to get the charts to fit. I think I’ve got it all in there, though, including most of the helpful nutrition and diet charts in the appendices (with notes where I didn’t catch on that there was more to a chart than first appeared).

What can I say–“Enjoy.” Ummm….well, anyhow, here they are:

Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020–this includes the Table of Contents, Intro, Executive Summary, and body of the report (Chapters 1-3).

USDA DGA 2015-20 Final-IntroandChapters (PDF, 3.4 MB)

Appendices (14 of them) for the Dietary Guidelines –I couldn’t get Adobe to stick this on the end of the document nicely, so it’s separate but useful.

USDA DGA 2015-20 Final Appendices (PDF, 263 KB)

The original Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report from last February is available here.

What was the holdup? What are the differences from the health-basis-only recommendations of the DG Advisory Committee’s version last year?

Given the shoddy job major media gave the advisory committee’s scientific report last winter and spring, perhaps the best thing to do this time around is skip the media coverage hyperbole and compare the two reports directly and see what gives.

Professor Marion Nestle digs in with dissatisfaction as to some of the likely buyoffs this time around–she deems that the big meat, egg, sugar, etc. producing industries have won some victories in what wasn’t said. She also complains, as I do, that the online version is full of stupid bells and whistles. It’s hard to navigate, there are a lot of windows and figures that are actually slide shows and you have to know to click on them to get the rest of the information. Hopefully the PDFs above will be more readable.

Nestle’s take is more political than mine (for a change? not really). She notices more of the inconsistencies with naming food categories only when they’re favorable, and using nutrient names (sugar, saturated fat, sodium) as substitutes for the big-business food categories that are poor nutritionally.

I’m less incensed about most of that– and ironically a little more optimistic about what was included. Continue reading

Political Pancakes, or, Why is Borders flogging so much lard?

Why Borders is not getting my business this week

Why Borders is not getting my business this week

I know–highly unappetizing. I don’t think even a full teaspoon of salt would help here. And I’m getting back to actual food as of today, I promise.

But I just had to “share” my inbox this morning before I get started. Borders has now closed its Pasadena store but keeps sending me these fabulous discounts in the pretty hope that I’ll schlep to Arcadia to check them out. What does it say when a huge business that’s trying to stay afloat after two decades of leading the field misses so blatantly in its one-to-one personalized marketing?

For that matter, what does it say (reading the tea leaves here) when Newt Gingrich looks like the most coherent and readable (and properly-dressed) selection? I mean, I was there–in 1995 I started working at NIH and promptly got caught in the federal furloughs when he lost his budget armtwisting attempt on Bill Clinton.

What does it say when the Gritch is allegedly trying to run for president and his soon-to-be-available tome is grouped with those of three other deeply discounted “authors” who have no actual public service background, just a penchant for loud titles and  army drag (of various centuries)? Where the hell did Laura Ingraham get that hat? No wonder she’s not keeping up with Patt Morrison. And I thought French food was a no-no for today’s discerning ultraconservative trougher?

I do also wonder at the significance of Ann Coulter’s latest effort being discounted just that six percent more than everyone else’s…maybe it’s the fact that she’s jumped (appropriately) on the vampire-empire bandwagon? Too bad there are no handsome devils on the cover (almost guaranteed there are none inside either). I’m sure they’d sell like hotcakes. Maybe she’s included an actual recipe for hotcakes (with blood sauce or fava beans or something)?–You never know.  Can she actually cook? Without fatback?

Given the deep and undoubtedly thorough marketing research Borders has done (by sending me of all people this fabulous selection of deals), I’m sure they’ve already figured out which way the wind is blowing. I can smell it from here.

In honor of this great selection, I’ve decided to pull out the stops and dig into the older of my cookbooks for an appropriate response.

Semi-Patriotic Pancakes–No Lard AND No Blood (well, at least no added salt)!

Makes about 16 3-4″ diameter pancakes, enough for 3-4 people

  • about 1 c. bread flour, whole wheat flour, matzah cake meal, buckwheat flour, or any mix of these as desired (to preserve our individual freedoms. Put that gun down, Jeb! We’re talking first amendment, not second!) Generally if you’re using buckwheat or whole wheat, it’s better to go half-and-half with regular flour so the pancakes aren’t too heavy or grainy
  • 2 large eggs, separated–I usually toss one of the yolks but keep both whites
  • dollop of plain milk-and-cultures-only yogurt (for that Mediterranean touch)
  • milk or buttermilk (depending how sour you are, and if you use buttermilk skip the yogurt)–about a cup, but might be more to make the batter consistency come out right
  • 1 T sugar (any color, even green if that’s all you’ve got and can stomach the results)
  • 1 capful vanilla extract AND/OR a shake or two of cinnamon (keep it small)
  • oil or butter –1 T for the batter, the rest for frying

Optional mix-ins: blueberries or raspberries (fresh are good, but if you have frozen ones leave them frozen to add when you fry the pancakes; otherwise make a sauce of defrosted ones to serve at the table instead), chopped peeled apples, pecans, chocolate chips, etc. etc. NO: liver, fava beans, or blood-anything!

1. In a large bowl mix the the flour, sugar, flavoring(s), egg yolks, the tablespoon of oil or butter, the dollop of yogurt if using,  and enough milk or buttermilk to make a thick but just-pourable batter. If you’ve got chopped apples, nuts or chocolate chips, you can mix them in now.

2. In a second bowl beat the egg whites to reasonably stiff peaks, then fold them gently into the batter to lighten it. Start frying as soon as you’ve got this done.

3. Fry 3-4″ dollops (about 2-3T each) of the batter in a large (preferably nonstick) frying pan over medium to medium-high heat. If you’re adding berries, add a few to each pancake as soon as you’ve spooned the batter into the pan, and let the pancake batter rise around and over the berries a bit before flipping to the other side.  You’ll know to start flipping the pancakes when you see the bottom edge start to look solid and a ring of small bubbles appears just above it–but I sometimes go a little longer to make sure because the leavening is egg whites-only, which makes a pretty delicate batter. You don’t want the pancakes to collapse completely.

4. “Stick a fork in ’em, they’re done.”–The late, great governor of Texas, Ann Richards, July 15, 1992, in an interview with David Letterman about the Republicans’ chances, and quoted on page 61 of my swiss-dot cookbook… Incidentally, she was wearing an outfit that puts any of Ann Coulter’s to shame–she had her very, very white hair up in a classic Texas beehive and she was wearing a hot pink miniskirt that she actually had the legs for. I miss her still.

Misunderstanding Salt Research: Bon Appetit’s Shameful “Health Wise” Column

I started this blog last spring more or less just to test out blogging lightheartedly about food. However, I have just read Bon Appetit‘s appalling “Health Wise” column from the May issue, “The Saline Solution” by John Hastings.

I do actually love to cook and eat well, and that’s my main purpose for this blog, but seeing this kind of blithely irresponsible “health” advice on salt makes my blood boil (not appetizing). Worse, it starts dragging me back to my work roots and up on my soapbox (also not appetizing, though kind of fun), because I trained as a biochemist and worked for several years as a science journalist. I worked for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at NIH at the time some of the bigger studies Hastings refers to were first being published. It was my job to know about them and write about them in plain (and preferably short) English for Congress and the public. To do it I talked to national experts, interviewed the leaders of the National High Blood Pressure Education Program, and combed through a century’s worth of research on salt and high blood pressure.

But you don’t have to be a scientist to find this stuff out. Descriptions of the studies AND their updates AND the reasoning behind the basic public health guidelines calling for Americans to watch their salt AND how to do it without eating a restricted diet of cardboard and baby cereal are all easily available from the NHLBI web site or the American Heart Association.

Hastings, a former editor of Prevention and health column contributor to O, the Oprah Magazine, is someone you’d expect to be reasonably accurate in reporting health research findings. But here he gets the science on salt and high blood pressure just about as backwards and upside down as he possibly can.

Worse yet, he does it in a strangely breezy, cheerleading tone that’s really hard to believe.

Hastings’ argument goes something like this:

…here’s a little secret: salt isn’t a problem. If that sounds crazy, it’s because the public health message about salt causing high blood pressure has been very, very effective, and it’s backed by reams of scientific research…Upon this, nearly everyone agrees. The controversy arises when you ask experts about the connection between salt intake and high blood pressure…All of this is fantastic news for those of us who are already cooking with high-quality meats and farmers’-market produce…

Did you follow all that? Probably you felt like you did for the few seconds you were reading it, but look again and you start to pick out the self-contradictions–“If it sounds crazy” that salt isn’t a problem, “it’s because the public health message that salt causes high blood pressure… is backed by reams of scientific research.”

Well, yes it is. The way Hastings phrases it, you’re supposed to think that was a bad thing, that health research in general and carefully designed tests of the effects of diet on cardiovascular health in particular are part of some kind of unnamed conspiracy against the public’s right to eat every bit of salt it can get.  Personally, I’d rather that broad public health messages were backed by reams of scientific research rather than by some diet guru or brand-name chef’s nutritional fantasy that will help sell his next book or tv program, or–more realistically–by corporate marketing and pressure campaigns from big pharma and big agro. Of course, it’s less profitable if people simply eat less salt–and less processed food–and never develop hypertension in the first place than if they eat salt like it’s going out of style and call it gourmet, and then have to make up for their diet by taking hypertension pills…hmm. Food, Inc., anyone?

“Upon this nearly everyone agrees”, but somehow there’s still a great controversy over it? Really? No. Not really.

The vast majority of salt researchers look at the bulk of the study results and conclude–repeatedly, for decades now–that salt is, in fact, a direct and modifiable risk factor for hypertension (high blood pressure). Which is both a disease in its own right and a leading risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and chronic kidney disease. Combine that with the fact that the average current salt intake is about twice what the consensus guidelines recommend and that more than half the adult population in the U.S. is crossing the line into overweight and obesity–and…well, yes.

Salt IS actually a health problem for most people. Gee.

The Bon Appetit article is a jumble of self-contradictions and serious misinterpretations of the findings from two older salt research studies, one of which has since been revised,  plus a cherry-picking recent review that comes to a different conclusion about salt than most of the other reviews of the same data on diet and health. That one comes from the lab of Mickey Alderman, an otherwise eminent researcher who just happens to be a long-time, much-trumpeted advisor and consultant for the Salt Institute.

Hastings  doesn’t indicate that he interviewed the man or even recognized his name on the journal article, but he should have. Anytime somebody in the media wants to come up with the magical–and really, really popular–conclusion that lots of salt, any day, any time, anywhere, please add more, is perfectly harmless and even good for you, they go to Mickey Alderman because they can paint him as a lone hero against the Food Police (the typical name they give the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association in such cases). Because what Alderman will say–with precision, but with disregard for the bigger public health picture–is that high salt intake isn’t directly proven to cause death from cardiovascular disease.

And it isn’t. It can’t be proven directly in a well-controlled diet study large enough to reach statistical significance, because that would require thousands of participants to follow a carefully prepared diet throughout their entire lifetimes, with no deviations for dates, wedding receptions, pizza parties, etc., and it would take 50-75 years to collect the majority of the data. You’d literally have to wait until most of the participants died before you could make a public health recommendation about salt. And the cost of doing that study “right” would run into the billions. It would bankrupt the federal science budget. And maybe a few other budgets as well.

That’s why the NHLBI and the AHA have sponsored studies that look at signs of developing cardiovascular illness–heart attacks, stroke, phlebitis, high blood pressure, kidney disease–rather than death. When you look at these ailments, you find that dietary salt actually matters quite a bit–contrary to what Hastings thought he understood from the studies he mentions.

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How to Cook a Wolf, 21st Century Version

Two years ago, my husband and I took our young daughter to Paris during an engineering conference. It was our first time there, and in about five days, we spent the equivalent of 10 weeks’ grocery money on food. Just food. We couldn’t cook there, and even modest cafés charged such ridiculously high prices for mediocre food–$14 for a potato omelet or a tuna sandwich? $6 for lemonade or a bottle of water?!–that we had little money to spare for anything else. The next 10 weeks, I told our friends, we were going to be living on beans and rice. I was only joking a little.

Back in 1942, in How to Cook a Wolf, MFK Fisher’s idea of how to cook cheap was to use one’s last few francs to make a pasty, flavorless mixture of ground beef and barley-the cheapest high-nutrient ingredients she could think of at the time-and eat it sparingly throughout the week. It was not her idea of how to eat when you had the choice of anything–anything–better, but it would serve when the wolf was well and truly at your door.

Today, gas prices are double what they were two years ago. The housing market is on the edge of collapse. As a result, the once-insulated and well-educated middle class is closer than ever to the edge of poverty but almost completely unschooled in how to cope. All you have to do is look at the average ratio of credit card debt to savings.

Hence a new trend in food activism-the Food Stamp Challenge. Heartening? Disturbing? You make the call. First taken by a panel of congressmen last spring to “research” the food stamp program monthly allowances for individuals and families, the Food Stamp Challenge tests your ability to stretch $514-the amount currently allotted by the ever-generous federal food aid program–to feed a family of four for a month.

The congressmen couldn’t do it at all. Continue reading

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