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Tag: "food"

America’s Greatest Failure

[ 121 ] September 12, 2016 |


I still maintain that the United States allowing Canada to exist is the nation’s greatest policy failing. Here’s yet another reason why:

I’ve tried to remember when ketchup chips first came into my life, but it’s a little like trying to remember the first time I wet the bed. I grew up in the 1980s in Canada, a country that takes its wack-job salty snack foods seriously. Few of these are more revered than ketchup chips. For a while in my early teen years you could determine my age from the blood-red rings of ketchup seasoning that permeated deep into my fingers and palms.

This is the point where my American friends usually start retching loudly, as if the thought of ketchup-flavored potato chips is somehow too much for their delicate constitutions—too upsetting for a nation of people who’ll happily down a couple Doritos Locos Tacos Supreme, three pints of Coke, and a family pack of Flamin’ Hot Funyuns as a post-breakfast snack.

Though ketchup chips are pretty much the most American snack food ever invented, by most accounts their origins, along with their fan base, lie north of the border. Canadians, being Canadians, remind Americans of this at every chance. We want ketchup chips to become a part of you like they’re a part of us.

The best ketchup chips are made by Lay’s and sold only in Canada. They’re a masterpiece of MSG-laden zip and crunch. The beauty of Lay’s ketchup chips is that they don’t taste at all like actual ketchup: They taste like ketchup’s component parts, without the wet. You get the slap of vinegar and citric acid, the sweet, synapse-twerking pull of cooked tomatoes and sugar, the crunch of deep-fried potato starch, and all the lip-sticking salt of a Dead Sea skinny dip. Which is to say they’re snack-time solid gold. Most good Canadians can eat a quarter-kilogram bag in a go.

A “quarter-kilogram”? Is this some sort of code for infiltrating our great nation without ketchup chips? Or do they use some sort of weird anachronistic measurement that proves their savage nature? If we simply invade and obliterate Canada, we can provide them freedom, by which of course I mean they will now be eating this:


Remember 1813!


Hey, White People Have Appropriated Black Culture Again!

[ 252 ] September 1, 2016 |


Nashville hot chicken has become a thing. A recent write up of this phenomenon of a dish long eaten by the area’s African-American population credited white people for making it happen. Um, no.

George Embiricos at Food Republic has written a hot mess of an article on Hattie B’s hot chicken that gives credit for the popularity of the dish to the white guys who took a piece of black culinary culture and made it cool. This is not me paraphrasing. This is literally what Embiricos says:

Today, Hattie B’s has two Nashville locations, in addition to one in Birmingham, Alabama, with plans to expand throughout the Southeast. Lengthy lines — packed with locals, tourists and celebrities alike — regularly stretch down the block during peak times. Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack may have created hot chicken in the 1930s, and institutions like Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish may have helped preserve the tradition over the years, but Hattie B’s has made hot chicken cool.

Before Hattie B’s opened, there was plenty of hot chicken in Nashville, but the emphasis was always on the “hot” part. Lasater put more focus on the chicken, using high-quality birds. That, combined with a central location, an outdoor patio, pairing the chicken with sweet options like waffles and offering local beers on tap, changed the hot-chicken experience. All have proved vital to Hattie B’s sustained success, cementing its place among the city’s staples.

Let me remind you, it’s 2016. We’ve lived through white people “inventing” rock & roll so they could sell it to white people and then half a century of people — black and white — pointing out that it’s an older art form than that. We’ve lived through a century of “vulgar” “exotic” “indecent” dances done by black kids becoming “fun” and “energetic” and “cool” when white kids do it — see everything from the hop straight through breakdancing through whatever kids are doing today. Graffiti, when black kids were doing it, was criminal and fed into gang culture. Banksy does it and now it’s worth preserving and spending money to collect it. There’s not a black art form, food included, that by this point hasn’t been popularized by white people and then the popularized version celebrated by white media like white people invented it, or at least, perfected it.

If, at this point, you’re still writing articles where black people have been doing shit for years, going mostly unnoticed by white people, and it’s only when the white people come in and decide to monetize it that you declare it cool, then you are the problem with America.

Indeed. Racism has many forms. Among them is ignoring long histories of African-American food culture to appropriate it for whites using fancy hipster words.

Local Food? What About Local Farm Working Conditions?

[ 36 ] August 25, 2016 |


Liberals love local food. But for the most part, they really don’t want to know what’s going on at the farm. They are fine with pictures of community members going out to the co-op farm and picking tomatoes or whatnot. But working conditions simply do not matter to most consumers. That’s almost as true for the liberals going to the farmers market as the everyday person shopping at Walmart. What is happening on those farms? Don’t we have to know this to know if we are creating a sustainable food system? Can sustainability exist in the face of exploitative working conditions? These are the questions Margaret Gray explores in this excellent Jacobin piece.

But my research, dating back to 2000, reveals that working conditions on local farms in New York’s Hudson Valley are not very different from those on the factory farms that dominate the headlines.

Of the farm hands I met, 99 percent were foreign born. The vast majority, 71 percent, were non-citizen Latinos; 20 percent were on H-2A guest-worker visas and hailed from Jamaica or Latin America. Most of the Latinos spoke little English, had low literacy in their native languages, and, on average, received a sixth-grade formal education.

The lack of English skills actually benefits their employers, who see learning the language as a stepping-stone to becoming American. The problem with American workers, farmers told me, is that they don’t have a work ethic.

Hudson Valley farmworkers were not primarily migrant workers: they lived in New York year-round, even if their farm jobs were seasonal. About one-third of those I met also lived with their families. This family reunification counters the workers’ loneliness, but it also undermines their financial goals.

Manuel expounded on this point:

I currently have nothing. You make dollars, but here you spend dollars, not like at home where the money goes further. The situation would be different if I made money here and sent it back to my country, but my family is here. You honestly cannot save money here.

The workers reported even worse economic exploitation in their home countries: age discrimination in factory work, bosses who paid in food, and subsistence living.

One comment raised both environmental issues and the retraction of irrigation programs and farm subsidies in Mexico post-NAFTA: “I used to have my own potato farm, but there is no water. Nothing happens with land that is dead.”

Those I spoke to also described their fear of losing their jobs or being deported. They also did not know their rights.

These factors, coupled with their desire to return home, created a vulnerable workforce willing to make tremendous sacrifices. To protect vital income for their families, they kept their heads down, set aside concerns about their own well-being, and complied with employer demands.

Many acutely analyzed their positions — they were utterly dependent on farm wages, lonely, and alienated.

A twenty-two-year-old Guatemalan woman broke into tears when she described how much she missed her home. She spoke to her mother often over the phone, but said she never related her sadness or complained about the work. Like others I interviewed who downplayed their hardships, her goal was to optimize her income even as she was painfully aware of her meager earning potential.

The work they perform is difficult, dirty, and strenuous; it requires repeated bending or crouching, sometimes with sharp implements, and sometimes in extreme weather for long hours. “You are dead by the end of the day; your arms and your feet ache because of standing all day,” one worker said.

A field hand told me he thought dogs were treated better than he was. But then he got worried that he was telling me too much. Many workers were reluctant to share stories about their working conditions, using phrases like “I better not say” and expressing fear of reprisals.

There are stories of wage theft, human trafficking, sexual harassment, illegal firings, and intimidation. But even if employers were prosecuted for such violations of existing law, the job would still exploit workers.

In New York — as in most other states — farmworkers do not have a right to a day of rest, they do not have a right to overtime pay, and they do not have a right to collective bargaining.

This means that some work eighty to ninety hours a week, for minimum wage, sometimes over seven days. Farmworkers argue that the law sets them up for exploitation since it fails to recognize them as equal to other workers. Heriberto, a farmworker who has given public talks, tells New Yorkers that they should be embarrassed by these laws.

This is not agribusiness. This is the local farm out in the countryside, growing such tasty veggies sold at roadside stands and farmers’ markets. There is massive exploitation on these farms. Yet none of this is really on the radar for most food consumers, even those who describe themselves as having a food consciousness, who buy organic and local. For food writers like Michael Pollan, these issues are even less important. And he should know better. But he’s never really paid much attention to work, preferring a romanticized past of mom laboring in the kitchen for hours each day without pay, ignoring the reality of modern life. Simply put, a food movement that allows for labor exploitation has no right to call itself sustainable. And yet the food movement has never cared about workers. As I discussed in the food chapter of Out of Sight, the fear of vegetables laden with pesticides led to a real consumer movement. But the companies completely defanged it by changing the pesticides to a new style that hits hard and fast and then dissipates. That protects the consumer but makes the lives of workers far more dangerous and poisonous. Consumers were fine with that. Once again, Margaret Gray:

If we are sincere in our solidarity with farmworkers, we must pay equal attention to labor conditions at smaller farms. Organic produce is thriving because consumers said they wanted it; animals are treated better because consumers said they cared.

While supporting farmworker efforts against corporate giants is commendable, we also need look in our own backyards and confront our local farmers — which should be one of the benefits of intimacy.

And that’s only the start. Those concerned with the politics of food need to think more clearly than Kingsolver, Pollan, and the other avatars of the “locavore” movement about the range of problems contemporary farms, industrial and “pastoral” alike, face — and to be more sanguine about the limits of consumer activism.

The plight of hyper-exploited workers on small farms will remain hidden if activists continue to portray factory farming as a unique evil facilitated by some kind of spiritual disconnect from the land, rather than one particularly telling example of capitalism’s inhumanity.

There is much to admire about small, local farms. But any serious effort to address the food supply chain must be big and international.

Until there is a food movement that takes place on those terms, produce cultivated under fair labor conditions will stand for little more than “organic” and “cage-free” do now: the costly mark of good conscience available only to the small few who can afford it.


Cherry Catsup Salad

[ 96 ] August 24, 2016 |

As is clear by now, like many others, I am both fascinated and horrified by postwar food. The terrible recipes of the 1950s-1970s are a wonder to behold. Today, I was introduced to this.


Color me shocked that this horror comes from South Dakota. Probably some distant relative of mine. Really, this is the single worst ketchup-based recipe I have ever seen. And that’s a high bar!

I have discovered as well that there is a website devoted to making and trying these food catastrophes. You may not be surprised that this is a terrible recipe.

This didn’t go together at all. At all! If you have ever had a bite of ketchup-covered hot dog in your mouth and washed it down with a gulp of cherry Kool-Aid, then you know what this gelatin tasted like. It tasted like a bad idea. Add a bite of salad to that mouthful, and you have the complete flavor profile: A bunch of random ingredients, thrown together and suspended in gelatin. I can guess that this was supposed to be a type of side to be served with meat, like a sauce or a chutney, but I can’t think of the type of meat that this would compliment. Except for hot dogs, apparently. In this gelatin’s defense, it had a good, crunchy texture. And it did remind us of summer through the whole hot-dog Kool-Aid thing. But other than that it was a bunch of different flavors all happening at once. And all those flavors told us ketchup and cherry gelatin do not go together well.

The canned black olives may be the worst part of a very bad idea. Even worse than the ketchup. What’s with canned black olives? It’s like postwar food companies decided to take a wonderful food, with hundreds if not thousands of awesome varieties, and breed them to make a really terrible tasting olive that somehow worked brilliantly on the market. I guess it’s forgivable in the 1970s. Not sure why on earth someone would eat them now. I figure the use of canned black olives is a good sign that one shouldn’t eat at a given pizza place, although the even less forgivable use of canned mushrooms is more telling. Anyway, you all should make this recipe and report back.

Also, this California prune cream salad from 1934 is seriously the most disgusting historical artifact I have ever run across.


Night night! Sweet dreams!

Saturday Night Open Thread

[ 170 ] August 20, 2016 |

I had a red eye last night with the dreaded Chicago layover, meaning that sleep was even more disrupted than normal. I got nothing. Except for this.

It takes a lot to make me viscerally disgusted at this point in my life. But that’ll do.

Talk about whatever you want.

Chicken Minced Meat

[ 31 ] August 16, 2016 |

I am soon returning to East Coast Exile, reality, and regular blogging. Until then, this.

Whole Paycheck

[ 104 ] June 16, 2016 |


I too am shocked that a company founded by an anti-union libertarian jerk would completely ignore not only basic food safety principles but the FDA’s orders to do something about it.

“Sausage-Wielding Nationalists”

[ 130 ] June 6, 2016 |

grilled aubergine and courgette

I’ve heard of meat eaters showing contempt for vegans, but I guess I never made the connection between veganism and undermining the nation-state.

A vegan cafe in the centre of Tbilisi was shocked to find itself the subject of far-right ire after a group arrived and threw meat on patrons’ plates, leading to a public brawl.

Customers said a group entered the cafe wearing sausages around their necks and carrying slabs of meat on skewers, before attacking customers and staff.

Witnesses described the attackers as “far-right extremists”, and said the clash spilled onto the street outside after the attackers were asked to leave. Minor injuries were reported but the perpetrators fled before police arrived.

A statement issued on Facebook by the Kiwi Cafe on Monday described the incident as “an anti-vegan provocative action” accusing the attackers of being “neo-Nazis” who support “fascist ideas”.

According to the statement, the attackers “pulled out grilled meat, sausages, and fish and started eating them and throwing them at us… they were just trying to provoke our friends and disrespect us.”

This gets us closer to the real issue:

The statement also alleged that memberes of group had come to the neighbourhood a month earlier and asked a nearby shopkeeper whether foreigners or members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community frequented the cafe.

Of course. It’s the queers and their quinoa undermining Georgian manhood. For conservatives, it’s pretty much always some version of this.

I suppose all this means is that our commenter Progressiveliberal will see himself as even more of a martyr….

Book Review: David S. Shields, Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine

[ 39 ] June 1, 2016 |


David Shields is a food historian of the South, particularly the Carolina lowcountry, who has spent more than a decade working specifically on the recovery of Carolina Gold rice, a nearly lost breed central to Carolina cooking, particularly before 1900. He builds upon that work in Southern Provisions to provide a series of essays on southern food traditions, with an emphasis on the pre-industrial South. Shields’ primary concern is recovering and contextualizing the lost breeds of the agricultural South as his contribution to the larger project of revitalizing and recovering southern cuisine in all its complexities, fighting against the stereotype of it, outside of Louisiana, as nothing but BBQ and grits. Although he’s English professor at the University of South Carolina, he works in the primary sources and generally writes solid history. The breeding of plants in the 19th century South was exceptional. Early in the book, he lists the notes of a mid-19th century Georgia breeder, discussing 25 different pea breeds for their qualities. Of course, these are almost entirely lost to us today.

Shields however doesn’t make a fetish about lost breeds or tradition. In his chapter on truck farming, he notes that the goal of recovering the best of lost southern cuisine is about taste and as post-Civil War South Carolina farmers produced strawberries to ship to the north, they focused on breeds that would stand the trip more than taste. There’s not anything per se of culinary value there. Moreover, he dismisses those who don’t want to improve on his beloved Carolina Gold, because tradition for tradition’s sake will not keep rare breeds on the market. Shields is part of a movement focusing on breeding for taste and nothing else, one that reflects the water and soil of a particular place, something only recoverable with several plantings of organics to leech the pesticides and fertilizer out of the soil.

Fundamentally, reading about old recipes is just interesting. There’s a recipe for “Turkey, Oyster Sauce” that sounds like it would be good enough to make Thanksgiving a day not to dread if oysters were as common as in 1860. Basically you stuff the turkey with oysters, steam it, thicken the oyster gravy, add some cream, and pour it over the turkey. The chapter on everyday pre-Civil War food like possum and greens is just as fascinating, as are the various 19th century breakfast recipes using Carolina Gold.

It’s in the book’s final chapter that Shields’ real mission is best articulated. Titled, “The Return of the Tastes,” he makes a strong case for growing particular crops not to maximize nutritional value, but for taste, for understanding how soil can affect a crop, for cultural heritage. This doesn’t mean that all modern food is bad or worthless, but it states the inherent benefits of growing breeds for maximum flavor and preserving those breeds to produce a historically-grounded cuisine that tastes good. Shields is obviously frustrated with the current state of agricultural policy (for good reason) but also believes that once people taste this food, they will want more of it and that will help these breeds survive.

One rather major quibble. For a book that largely paints the pre-Civil War South in a positive manner, I am naturally going to examine the discussion of slavery and the plantation elite, who largely are his protagonists. It grates. Although I do not believe he is a native southerner, as he mentions his move from the Hudson Valley to South Carolina, his sympathies really are with those planters. For instance, in his chapter discussing a gigantic meal served at an elite Charleston club in 1860, he notes how it was discussed in a New York “sporting journal,” which I assume to mean a horse racing journal:

For the plantocracy to appear in a northern periodical as a class of humane, intelligent, and companionable human beings in 1860 was something of a minor miracle. The abolitionist press in the North had invested years of energy to envisioning the great planters as violent, grasping creatures of passion, sadistically obsessed with oppressing slaves. The Spirit of the Times supplied a rare discursive spaces in which the southern elite shared values of civility, good taste, sociability, and a love of sport with like-minded persons in other sections of the country. In the periodical’s pages, Saratoga Springs was in the same cultural vicinity as Washington Park. (133)

The problems with this paragraph are legion. I don’t have to go deep into the historiography to refute these points, I just have to link to the book reviews of other random books I have reviewed at this site. First, horse racing was a space where northern and southern elites often met and mingled. Second, the connections between cotton and violence are well-documented. Whether sadistic or not, South Carolina planters wrested every last drop of profit out of their slaves. Denying or trivializing that does no one any good, especially the author. Third, the idea that the North was completely filled with abolitionists demonizing the South was just not true, not when you had a whole generation of northern Democratic politicians and their newspapers more than willing to serve the slave masters’ cause. And if the abolitionists were envisioning the “great” planters as violent sadists, good! Many of them were.

So that’s a problem. That’s not to say that Shields doesn’t give African Americans and Native Americans some credit for their role in developing southern cuisine. In his chapter on citrus on the Florida coast, he notes how what Europeans thought was a wild, native orange was the descendants of Spanish-planted oranges Native Americans brought north, but here again, his hero is a white ex-Confederate citrus breeder named Colonel F.L. Dancy. He also writes on how Charleston lacked a decent fish market or tradition of cooking fish until the African-American Charles Leslie developed one during Reconstruction, building an empire because now black people could choose their own work and diets and because he sought to expand the number of species available for consumption through working closely with fishing crews.

In the end, this is a pretty interesting group of essays. Yes, it’s marred a bit by the author sympathizing with his subjects a bit too much, a problem when those subjects are slaveholders who would commit treason to defend slavery. But anyone interested in American food cultures will like Southern Provisions.

Who’s Ready for Some Pork Sashimi?

[ 93 ] May 30, 2016 |



Since the popularization of beef tartare in the 1950s and sushi in the 1980s, raw animal products have been a widely accepted luxury item in the US. But historically, raw pork was seldom, if ever, seen on menus, even in the most adventurous of nose-to-tail restaurants. In fact, there’s no other non-poultry meat that is so insistently served well-done. Recently, though, that’s started to change, albeit slowly and with great resistance.

“I’ve been serving and eating pork raw for years,” says California chef Chris Cosentino. “Pork has really nice intramuscular fat, so it has a great mouthfeel.” He serves a pork crudo, dressed simply with olive oil, Meyer lemon, mint, and radish, at his Los Angeles restaurant, Pigg. Meanwhile, at The Black Hoof in Toronto, a pork carpaccio is plated with maple blossoms (turns out they’re edible, too!), pine nuts, and pickled onions. And across the pond, at London’s Taberna do Mercado, pork tartare regularly makes its way onto the seasonal menu.

Raw pork may still be a restaurant rarity, but increasing numbers of chefs are starting to serve their pork cooked to medium-rare. Then again, many of them acknowledge that even faintly pink pork seems to freak the hell out of their diners.

The question is, should it?

Maybe? I mean, as much as I love rare beef and raw fish, I always thought that raw or rare pork was a good way to die. Was I wrong? Evidently.

The biggest misconception about raw pork isn’t necessarily that it’s dangerous, because, well, it can be. But exactly how dangerous it is—and why—is another matter entirely. Considering that the word “trichinosis” has been drilled into us since our childhoods, you might be surprised to learn that it’s a virtually nonexistent risk. Trichinosis is a disease caused by roundworms of the Trichinella genus. It is horrible and repulsive, if not usually fatal; this is a worm we’re talking about, after all. But it is also incredibly uncommon in this country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found only 84 confirmed cases in the five inclusive years between 2008 and 2012—none fatal—and, interestingly, only 22 of those could be traced to pork. (Game seems to be much more affected by trichinosis than pork, so you may want to think twice before digging into a bear-meat tartare.)

It’s cliché to say, but you are significantly more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than afflicted by even a nonfatal round of trichinosis, at least in the United States. (Results from other countries vary; the USDA says that trichinosis is essentially extinct in countries like Denmark and The Netherlands, but in many countries it’s more common. China is usually good for a few outbreaks each year, and in some provinces, especially in the west, the incidence is as high as 4% of the total population.)

I may need more than one foodie article to convince me to try this. Thoughts? And if you are of the grilling type on Decoration Day, does this mean you are going to throw some pork on just to get it seared on the outside and serve it pink to the kids?

The Breakfast-Industrial Complex

[ 190 ] May 25, 2016 |


While I enjoy most standard breakfast foods to various degrees, the American fetish for breakfast is completely out of control. This is especially true for bacon, a vastly overrated meat. But really, the fetish is for the whole experience. There are multiple parts to it. One of course is the bacon thing. The second is idea of eating a big ol’greasy meal that supposedly provides us with joy. The third, and really the most ridiculous, is that not eating breakfast is somehow unhealthy and therefore those of us who don’t eat breakfast are hurting ourselves and should be lectured about it. Personally, I find eating a large meal in the hours after waking up repulsive. Perhaps a yogurt or an egg, maybe a bagel if I am feeling indulgent, but that’s it until at least noon if not 2. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m doing it right. It just means that I’ve figured out the combination of how much I can eat to maintain my weight and enjoying own aesthetic preferences. There are however days, when I’ve had a large meal for dinner, that I don’t take in a single calorie until 4 or so. The point is that you have to read your own body and act accordingly. At least now those of us who eschew breakfast have some hard evidence that the breakfast-industrial complex is behind our demonization.

It does not take much of an effort to find research that shows an association between skipping breakfast and poor health. A 2013 study published in the journal Circulation found that men who skipped breakfast had a significantly higher risk of coronary heart disease than men who ate breakfast. But, like almost all studies of breakfast, this is an association, not causation.

More than most other domains, this topic is one that suffers from publication bias. In a paper published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2013, researchers reviewed the literature on the effect of breakfast on obesity to look specifically at this issue. They first noted that nutrition researchers love to publish results showing a correlation between skipping breakfast and obesity. They love to do so again and again. At some point, there’s no reason to keep publishing on this.

However, they also found major flaws in the reporting of findings. People were consistently biased in interpreting their results in favor of a relationship between skipping breakfast and obesity. They improperly used causal language to describe their results. They misleadingly cited others’ results. And they also improperly used causal language in citing others’ results. People believe, and want you to believe, that skipping breakfast is bad.

Good reviews of all the observational research note the methodological flaws in this domain, as well as the problems of combining the results of publication-bias-influenced studies into a meta-analysis. The associations should be viewed with skepticism and confirmed with prospective trials.

Few randomized controlled trials exist. Those that do, although methodologically weak like most nutrition studies, don’t support the necessity of breakfast.

And who is behind this?

Many of the studies are funded by the food industry, which has a clear bias. Kellogg funded a highly cited article that found that cereal for breakfast is associated with being thinner. The Quaker Oats Center of Excellence (part of PepsiCo) financed a trial that showed that eating oatmeal or frosted cornflakes reduces weight and cholesterol (if you eat it in a highly controlled setting each weekday for four weeks).

Fight the Man. And Tony the Tiger! Don’t give in to Big Breakfast!

Food History Reading List

[ 26 ] April 28, 2016 |


Backlist has published an excellent food history reading list for those of you interested in those sorts of things. I did a labor history reading list for them a few months ago. These are good lists and excellent primers for smart readers like you who want to read more history and support the efforts of poor historians through your generous readership.

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