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Tag: "food"

Ogallala Aquifer

[ 52 ] May 23, 2013 |

I share the general opinion of many that our industrial food system is in crisis. But I generally disagree as to the real problems. Dislike of something like GMOs (or fluoride in the water for christ’s sake) are rooted in the empowerment of the individual body and the personal as political life we lead–a phenomenon that has had tremendous benefits on our society, but that also redefines much of our lives as a series of consumer choices that I think often obscures both class solidarity and larger structural problems that are not easily solved by personal choice. In the case of food, the waste of basic food-producing resources is I believe is the biggest problem. Take for example soil erosion, as our national bounty flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Or Americans’ increased need to import phosphorous from an unstable African territory quasi-controlled by Morocco. Or the draining of the Ogallala Aquifer. The decline of the Aquifer is a huge threat to our food production on the western Great Plains. With climate change and extreme drought, the long-term sustainability of our water resources for food are questionable at best.

Most of these problems actually do have solutions–we could subsidize land conservation instead of corn production, press for farmers to adapt drip irrigation, create manure recycling programs to reclaim phosphorous. But none of this will happen because of the control gigantic agribusiness corporations like Monsanto have over the majority of senators.

The Phosphorous Crisis

[ 21 ] May 22, 2013 |

I’m glad to know that our addiction to oil from politically difficult places will soon be matched by relying on Western Sahara, an area with a long-standing independence movement against Morocco which nominally controls the area, for the fertilizer for our industrial food system. Hard to see how that could go wrong.

The Latest in Job Safety Hazards: Poop Foam

[ 117 ] May 15, 2013 |

Tom Philpott reports on a new job safety hazard developing in agriculture. The enormous manure piles on today’s gargantuan hog farms are gurgling up explosive foam.

This never really happened before 2009, but it is an increasingly common occurrence on industrial-scale hog farms.

The problem is menacing: As manure breaks down, it emits toxic gases like hydrogen sulfide and flammable ones like methane, and trapping these noxious fumes under a layer of foam can lead to sudden, disastrous releases and even explosions. According to a 2012 report from the University of Minnesota, by September 2011, the foam had “caused about a half-dozen explosions in the upper Midwest…one explosion destroyed a barn on a farm in northern Iowa, killing 1,500 pigs and severely burning the worker involved.”

This is highly understudied and of course nothing will stop the growth of ever larger and more dangerous agricultural concerns. However, it does seem that dumping a bunch of antibiotics into the manure pits may solve the problem. And I’m sure there will be no unintended consequences from that action.

Can People Distinguish Pate from Dog Food?

[ 84 ] May 11, 2013 |

This evidently is a real study (PDF at link). The American Association of Wine Economists, who published this working paper, is run out of NYU.

And the answer to the question in the title is sort of, in that they tend to like the pate better than canned dog food but can’t identify which (out of 5 choices) is the actual dog food better than random.

Memorable Summer Meals, Colorado Edition

[ 70 ] April 16, 2013 |

I guess the answer to what goes best with beef is supposed to be Jello, but the real answer is whiteness.

I also so want some Western Roundup Salad, the name of the recipe at the bottom.

Maybe This Deliciousness Will Make You Feel Better

[ 61 ] April 15, 2013 |

A terrible day what with this horrifying Boston violence. I have nothing to offer at this point except for that. And an attempt at lightheartedness that might make people feel a bit better. There’s no better way to do that except through food. Especially Crevettes dans de la Gelatine. Which seems to translate as seafood and sliced cherry tomatoes inside Jello molds. Memorable summer meal indeed.

The End of Fish

[ 61 ] April 8, 2013 |

It’s a good thing the Chinese don’t eat fish because this would be a problem:

However, over the past few years, fishery resources in the river have witnessed a severe decline, with the river’s ecological system currently on the verge of collapsing, according to Zhao Yimin, head of a fishery resource office with the Ministry of Agriculture.

According to statistics, the Yangtze River used to have some 1,100 species of wild aquatic animals, including more than 370 fish species of which 142 were unique to the river and some 20 had been categorized as endangered animals.

In recent years, however, the amount of fish has sharply declined, with particular species, such as the shad and blowfish, not spotted for several years.

This is believed to be the result of excessive fishing, the construction of water conservancy projects, water pollution and unregulated drainage.

Currently, most fish caught in the Yangtze River are only six months-old and some are even less than two months old, leaving them with no chance at any offspring.

Oh wait, you mean fish is central to Chinese food? And that this is really just a somewhat worse version of a worldwide phenomenon? Oh dear.

Once again, our children will think of most fish as they do the passenger pigeon. We will have to explain to them what a “fish” is. There will be some examples in the Museum of Natural History.

Yet Another Example of Why We Shouldn’t Privatize Basic Services

[ 219 ] April 5, 2013 |

Like many school districts, Attleboro, Massachusetts privatized its school meals, hiring the Whitsons Culinary Group. Then this happened:

Students at an Attleboro, Massachusetts, middle school went hungry this week, if they had a negative balance on their pre-paid lunch cards.

Five cents of debt was enough for cafeteria employees at the Coehlo Middle School to instruct kids at least one day this week to dump out the food they would have normally eaten, CNN affiliate WJAR in Rhode Island reported.

About 25 children left the lunchroom with empty stomachs, said Whitson’s Culinary Group in a statement. The company runs the school’s cafeteria.

The company is blaming the individual employees. We can believe that if we want; I am skeptical. Of course, we have to teach our poor kids the important lessons before the reach the age of 14: pay up to your corporate overlords or starve.


[ 107 ] March 29, 2013 |

Turns out that if you industrialize an animal and then expose them to tremendous amounts of chemical pesticides, terrible things can happen.

I know that the Green Revolution and our faith in technology has worked in the short term to feed a lot of people. But without some pretty significant changes, the most important link in the chain of vegetables, fruits, and nuts is about to break. Colony collapse disorder is a major threat to the world’s food supply. We’ve known about it for years and the likely connection between the disorder and pesticides has been suggested for almost as long. Yet we have done nothing to limit our pesticide use. After all, powerful chemical companies say they can’t be the problem! Now the bees are dying faster than ever.

Book Review: Jeffrey Pilcher, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food

[ 152 ] March 24, 2013 |

Jeffrey Pilcher, the noted historian of food in Mexico, has a new book placing Mexican food in a global context. When thinking of a nation’s food, particularly one as laden with importance and history within the United States as Mexican food, the term that inevitably comes up is “authenticity.” What does this even mean? Is anything truly authentic? That’s an overarching point in a book with too many points to discuss in a relatively brief review. Let me just list a few.

1. What is Mexico? It’s worth thinking about this question. Mexico is a constructed nation-state that even today does not really incorporate all the people who live within its borders. Given the size of the nation’s indigenous population, a lot of the nation’s residents have little invested in the nation-state. Various peoples, particularly in the Yucatan, reject the sheer idea of being Mexican. Moreover, half the nation is now part of the United States and those peoples have their own cuisines that have changed over time. Is Mexico also its migrants in the United States, in Portland and Providence and Queens, as well as San Antonio and Los Angeles?

2. What is Mexican food? Pilcher places Mexican food within a 500-year trend of globalization. Most famously, the corn, chocolate, and chile that make up key elements of Mexican food traveled to Europe while pork, beef, and chicken all came from Europe to Mexico. But that’s hardly the end of the global Mexican story. For instance, tacos al pastor, a fundamental food of Mexico and now the taco culture in the U.S., go all the way to ye olden days of the 1950s and 1960s when Middle Eastern immigrants took pork cooked shwarma style and put it on a corn tortilla, maybe with a slice of pineapple. There’s also the large Chinese immigrant population that brought their own ideas to Mexican food. A related question is whether the Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex food of the United States is truly Mexican? Or for that matter, Taco Bell? Of course in a sense it all is. Given that the United States stole half of Mexico in a naked attempt by the Polk Administration to expand slavery, we shouldn’t think about Mexican food without bringing in the indigenous cuisines of New Mexico, California, and Texas, as well as their hybrid and fusion descendants.

A related but key point is that as Mexican food has slowly spread to other parts of the world, it is seen globally as American food. Much of its original spread was to serve American soldiers near military bases abroad. Its association with American culture for much of the world, not to mention a very real ignorance about Mexico, reinforces these ideas. In most of the world, Mexican food means getting very drunk on tequila American tourist-style. American hippies helped establish a more legitimate Mexican food experience in parts of Europe, but that just reinforced its deep Americanness in the minds of Europeans. The reasons for are pretty obvious–because Mexicans migrate to the United States instead of Europe, there was never an ethnic community established in Europe that would make Mexican food part of the European foodscape.

3. The connection between race, class, and food within the Mexican food tradition is fascinating and multifaceted. The Spanish brought a food hierarchy with them in 1519 based upon the supposed superiority of their own culture. Wine, olive oil, and wheat good. Corn and chile bad. This makes sense on one level since any immigrant group wants the food they grew up with. But because of the conquest and its long aftermath, the idea that Mexican food was somehow lesser than European food was replicated within Mexican society. Elite Mexicans, particularly during the European-looking Porifirato, looked toward remaking their society with European modernism, which meant food as much as it meant creating Haussmann-esque urbanism in Mexico City.

Perhaps more unexpected is how these distinctions became integrated into American culture as well. Why exactly do we think that French food is somehow elite high-class food and Mexican food is best consumed out of a taco truck? What is intrinsically better about French food? I’d argue nothing; I prefer Mexican food to French food. When Mexican food was brought into the highest end of American restaurants, such at the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, it was cooked in a French style. In one 2002 cookbook Pilcher cites by 3 major chefs of American food, suggestions included “blue corn with rabbit, foie gras and pineapple mole, and elote with black truffles.” Nothing wrong with fusion food, but this is also making Mexican food a legitimate food on the international scene by drowning it in French styles and techniques. This is why Rick Bayless is so refreshing. There’s just a lot more respect for what Mexican food is and its potential without pretending it is something it is not.

4. When thinking about “authenticity,” a concept that is always pretty hard to defend in principle, although gray areas exist, it’s worth noting that Mexican food was not created whole cloth in 1675 or something and then remained in place for Americans to discover it. Rather, it was a series of food traditions that often, for one reason or another, became a “national cuisine.” Tacos are a Mexico City invention that didn’t much spread out of that region until after the Mexican Revolution; when they did, they took on the regional innovations that define them today. Perhaps the most controversial food within the Mexican food world is the burrito, often not eaten in much of Mexico. But burritos do go back to at least the 19th century in northern Mexico and became part of California Mexican because they were popular along the modern US-Mexico border. What is truly Anglo about them is the determination that they must be in wheat tortillas, when the available evidence suggests they were eaten with both wheat and corn tortillas. Oaxaca’s moles became standardized with the rise of restaurants that wanted to create dinner specials for different nights of the week and thus took dishes from various villages and made them “Oaxacan.” And sometimes the modernization of food technology and distribution could create nostalgia that then created its own food looking backward to lost times, such as the carne asada that came out of Sonora when processed foods began infiltrating the regional diet.

I could certainly go on. But you get the point. First, it’s a really interesting book. Second, it brings up a lot of valuable points in thinking about not only Mexican food, but how we think about food more broadly.

Soylent Drink. I Swear It’s Not People.

[ 72 ] March 18, 2013 |

Today in lunatic food faddism: Why eat at all? Just subscribe to my tasteless liquid diet and all your nightmares of tasting food will come to an end.

Via Russell Saunders and h/t to Lindsay Beyerstein for bringing this to my attention.

Food Faddism

[ 260 ] March 12, 2013 |

If there’s one thing Americans love, it’s food faddism. The history of full of weirdness, from John Harvey Kellogg’s yogurt enemas that placed yogurt cultures in our mouths and rectums at the exact same time to Sylvester Graham’s graham crackers, created so we wouldn’t eat meat and milk and get all hot and bothered and start masturbating.

We (or at least my students) laugh at all this. But are we any different today with our nutty diets? Not really.

Luckily, there are at least some people pushing back against this. Here’s a discussion of the new Marlene Zuk book exposing the absurdity of the paleo diet. The paleo diet falls under the overarching theme of recent American dieting, which can be summarized as “I want to eat as much meat as possible and will look for any justification to do so.” And do whatever you want, but it’d be nice to avoid the absurd discussions about what our distant ancestors did or did not eat.

Zuk detects an unspoken, barely formed assumption that humanity essentially stopped evolving in the Stone Age and that our bodies are “stuck” in a state that was perfectly adapted to survive in the paleolithic environment. Sometimes you hear that the intervention of “culture” has halted the process of natural selection. This, “Paleofantasy” points out, flies in the face of facts. Living things are always and continuously in the process of adapting to the changing conditions of their environment, and the emergence of lactase persistence indicates that culture (in this case, the practice of keeping livestock for meat and hides) simply becomes another one of those conditions.

For this reason, generalizations about the typical hunter-gatherer lifestyle are spurious; it doesn’t exist. With respect to what people ate (especially how much meat), the only safe assumption was “whatever they could get,” something that to this day varies greatly depending on where they live. Recently, researchers discovered evidence that people in Europe were grinding and cooking grain (a paleo-diet bugaboo) as far back as 30,000 years ago, even if they weren’t actually cultivating it. “A strong body of evidence,” Zuk writes, “points to many changes in our genome since humans spread across the planet and developed agriculture, making it difficult at best to point to a single way of eating to which we were, and remain, best suited.”

But what is evidence in the face of food faddism?

And of course there’s the gluten-free insanity. While celiac disease is a real thing that affects about 1% of the population, the fact that 1/3 of the American public is trying to shun gluten is insane. There is zero evidence that most of these people need to do this. Anecdotally, it definitely feels that a good number of people I have met who are avoiding gluten are, how shall we say, lifestyle experimenters more broadly. More broadly, I think this relates to the paleo diet in the context of how dieting has gone over the past 15 years–again, avoiding grains and eating meat. What makes gluten-free different is the theoretical health benefits as opposed to the I want to eat a steak every night blunt honesty of the paleo dieters.

Obviously, the answer to proper eating is to be healthy and exercise. One can choose whether or not to eat meat for any number of reasons. I was a vegetarian for about 10 years but couldn’t call myself that now, although I have never cooked meat and don’t really plan to. We can have that debate. But it’s remarkable how resilient magic diets are for Americans (and possibly those of other countries, but I can’t much speak to that). They all pretty much defy common sense.

All I can do is eat more wheat and drink more beer. Both of which I intend to do.

PC: I recommend Barry Glassner’s The Gospel of Food on this topic.

[SL]: Related: “I personally feel that it’s unlikely that the richest 1% of humans on earth all suddenly and simultaneously developed allergies to every single common food…”

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