Friday, September 29, 2006

A New Use for Factory Farms

Food & Water Watch has found a good use for factory farms: Warning other countries about the consequences of industrial farming. The organization will lead European farmers on a tour of our industrial facilities, taking advantage of their anticipated horror to educate them about the environmental and economic issues our country has created.

Hopefully our messed-up system will keep similar facilities from spreading in Europe.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Michael Pollan Responds (Again) to John Mackey

Thanks to The Ethicurean for the link to Michael Pollan's latest letter to John Mackey, president of Whole Foods. Even I might soften my anti-Whole Foods stance in light of the initiatives they've been putting into place, and I'd make a big effort to attend the live discussion Pollan proposes.

Copper Thoughts

One day last year, I added the current OWF header graphic and didn't say anything about it. It's become a symbol of the site: When I interviewed Steve Sando for SFist he said, "Oh, I've seen your blog. The one with the copper pots, right?" UPDATE: Melissa reminds me that the original picture is available on her Flickr account.

I occasionally get questions about the pots, most recently from Jennifer Jeffrey at the second annual food bloggers' picnic. I thought I'd give everyone the answers to these Occasionally Asked Questions.

Are Those Really Yours?
Melissa took that photo from our dining room. My copper collection represents several trips to France, where I've added items in fits and starts. Some have come to me as presents. The pots are Mauviel copper lined with thin stainless steel (I opted out of the traditional tin or aluminum because those need to be relined from time to time, and the few craftspeople in the U.S. who perform this service charge a fortune.). We also own a copper mixing bowl for egg whites and two copper ice buckets. A couple other items as well.

How Do You Keep Them So Clean?
I don't. Melissa spent eight hours on our second anniversary polishing and scrubbing the entire collection as a surprise. She took the photo about half an hour after I came home and saw her efforts. Copper tarnishes quickly, so I rarely bother to polish the pots. My mom polishes hers after every use. When I do polish the copper, I use the polish they sell at E. Dehillerin in Paris, which is also where I found most of my items.

Should I Pony Up the Cash For My Own?
Probably not, unless you can buy them cheaply in France. Here in the United States, the markup often makes this equipment cost about twice as much as other good-quality pots and pans. I prefer copper, but I wouldn't argue that it's twice as good as something else in the store. Of course, if you just like the way they look, nothing I say will stop you.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Invest in Swedish Vineyards

This article at Slate details how global warming might affect the northernmost wine regions and improve the quality of the grapes. This isn't particularly new—Gastronomica ran a similar article years ago—but it is interesting. The wine growers I spoke to in the Mosel are very aware of global warming, which tends to have more pronounced effects further up the ladder rungs of latitude lines. The Saar tributary no longer creates grapes with quite the same amount of acidity, and ripeness has ceased to be an issue for well-tended Mosel vineyards. The string of banner years speaks to this quiet shift.

But the Slate article fails to touch on an issue covered by the Gastronomica piece, which is that certain types of grapes might cease to do well in the regions where they now grow. Austria will lose the ability to produce great Grüner Veltliner, the Russian River Valley will no longer make Pinot Noir. Maybe that's not a problem, certainly not on the order of the worlwide famines, droughts, and disease outbreaks we can expect as the earth continues to heat up, but it does point to the creeping, subtle effects of global warming. The same long-term, unchanging-on-a-human-scale effects that make it difficult to catch the ear of policy makers.

Friday, September 22, 2006

PETA Documents Butterball Cruelty

I've participated in various online debates about foie gras, and someone always asks, "Why don't animal rights groups pick on the rest of the meat industry?"

But they do. You just never hear about these other campaigns in mainstream news outlets. For instance, take a look at this undercover PETA video of a Butterball turkey slaughterhouse. The animal rights group will file an animal abuse complaint against the plant, though one suspects they'll also use the issue to bring birds under the protection of the Humane Slaughter Act.

PETA's foie gras initiative is rich with misinformation, and I assume the same is true of this video. There's a lot of telling-not-showing, for one thing, which undermines their case. But do overworked slaughterhouse workers sometimes do cruel things? I don't doubt it.

(I should note that I don't endorse PETA's tactics and agendas. I tend to favor groups such as the Animal Welfare Insitute. )

When you're done watching the video, go to Heritage Foods and order a Heritage turkey for Thanksgiving. The birds taste better and company founder Patrick Martins has committed to a line of humanely raised and slaughtered animals.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Jojo Gets the Chron's Nod

Congratulations to Curt and Mary Jo for the nice write-up of Jojo in today's Chronicle. Carol Ness gives a shout-out to the duck confit, which I've been patiently working towards ever since Curt taught me his method. (I'm getting there, but Curt's still has mine beat.) She also gives a nod to the wine list, which I've long trumpeted for its focus and user-friendliness (I included it in my wine list piece for The Wine News).

We've become friends with the whole staff (all six or seven of them) over the years, and I'm happy to see them get some good press. Hopefully we'll still be able to get reservations at our favorite nice neighborhood spot.

WTN: Some Napa Cabs

When we had our tasting of grass-fed beef, I decided to also taste some of the Napa Cabernet Sauvignon I've received as samples in the last few months.

2000 Narsai Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Bay Area foodies will recognize Narsai David's name. His distinctive high-pitched voice fills local radio airways from KCBS's In the Kitchen program, and his colorful bow ties garnish his presence at food events around the Bay. The Tony-award-winning Berkeley Repertory Theater named a courtyard after him to recognize his contributions to the community, and one of the Rep's biggest fund-raising events is the Narsai Toast.

His involvement with Berkeley's Potluck restaurant allowed him to launch his upscale restaurant Narsai's nearby in 1971, and after the restaurant closed in the mid-1980's he licensed his name to a variety of specialty products.

Narsai's passion for food spilled into wine. Narsai's was one of the first restaurants to receive a Wine Spectator Grand Award. He helped organize the popular Winesong! auction in Fort Bragg. He owns his own vineyard, and now oversees a winery that uses his grapes and bottles them under his famous name (presumably someone else does the wine making, as David lives in Berkeley).

His Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is a good, well-balanced wine. But it's not anything like a Napa Cab. It wouldn't surprise me if it turned out that this was a mislabeled Pinot Noir. Bright cherry flavors? Low tannins? High acidity? None of those bell pepper qualities I often get from Napa's most expensive grape? It would throw me for a loop if I faced it in a blind tasting. I suppose I prefer friendly Cabernets to the extracted California Pinot Noirs I often taste. Drink if you like friendly red wines, not if you like Napa Cabs.

2003 Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
The Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other hand, tastes exactly like an average Napa Cab. Which means I don't like it. Lots of bell pepper aromas (which is what turns me off from the grape, even in Bordeaux, though I don't mind it in Sauvignon Blanc) mingled with a surprising soft strawberry note. This heavy wine has harsh acidity, high tannins, little flavor, and a a high-alcohol finish. I wouldn't even say it went well with the steak.

Fizzy Fruit Responds

You may remember my concerns about a product called Fizzy Fruit, where fruits are juiced up with carbon dioxide to make them fizzier and—according to the article—somewhat sweeter. Adam Lindemann, an investor and strategist/executive for the company, commented on my post. I'm always happy to share alternate views, and I don't know how many of you check comments on older posts, so I asked his permission to reprint his thoughts.

Here's Lindemann's comment, slightly revised for spelling, grammar, and punctuation at his request.

Hi, and thanks for mentioning Fizzy Fruit. I understand what you mean, but the thing with Fizzy Fruit is not that we are trying to stop kids eating regular fresh fruit: We are trying to give them an alternative to snack foods that are really tasty but empty in nutrition. Fizzy Fruit is not really sweeter than regular fruit. It is just more bubbly. All the nutrition of fresh fruit is kept in the fruit with no additives or preservatives. Indeed if you did not quite manage to finish your Fizzy Fruit and you put it in the fridge, it would just turn back into regular fresh fruit. Anyway, I hear your concerns and please know that we aim to be part of the solution and not the problem.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Book Review: The Ethical Gourmet

Jay Weinstein's The Ethical Gourmet is a sign of the times. Organic food is mainstream, sold from Wal-Mart to Whole Foods. Newspapers and magazines exalt humane meat producers and artisanal cheese makers. People want to do the right thing by their food, and they're learning that the right thing doesn't have room for industrial agriculture.

I imagine some, maybe many, readers will gasp at Weinstein's primer on the swamp of problems in our food system, though the natural audience may already know about the issues he covers. He includes crowded feedlots and environmental destruction but also child slavery and draining water supplies. Websites that give ethical options pepper the text, perhaps reason enough to buy the book. Simple breakdowns of government definitions decrypt the terms you'll see at the store.

But the text falters as it steps up to the teacher's podium. The book invites comparison with The Omnivore's Dilemma and Pollan's book makes Weinstein's look like the earnest essay of a college freshman. Pollan's book fills in every detail of our food chain, taking no knowledge for granted. Weinstein's book skates around large topics with hands behind his back—"This is not meant to be an exposé about the technique of veal manufacture, foie gras creation, or chicken farming. These stories are frequently reported in the news." But they're not reported. Or they're poorly reported. And he does nothing to change that. He parrots the standard "veal is bad" mantra, without asking if the industry has changed its practices in the face of consumer disgust. He pronounces foie gras "inhumane" with no supporting evidence. He glosses over modern pork facilities. And I wonder if Weinstein would be such a fervent supporter of industrial organic food after reading Pollan's book.

I'd also suggest he read George Pyle's Raising Less Corn, More Hell. He might sound less cavalier about the endangered small family farm. "The age of the industrial organic farm has arrived," he writes in the preface. "While bad news for some small organic farmers, it's a boon for the ethical gourmet." Later, he trumpets small farms but dismisses concerns about their long-term chances with a Pollyannaish there's-always-demand-for-quality-product attitude. There is reason to celebrate the change to large-scale production of pesticide-free food, but industrial organic farms are often monoculture enterprises with their own universe of subsidies, few of which reach the small farmers who practice true sustainable agriculture but struggle to survive. Small farms operate not in a free market but one in which the government funds their competition.

He breaks up the text with recipes—he trained at the CIA and has worked at restaurants and as a personal chef—and while many sound good enough, I am wary of any cookbook that suggests brining all pork, even when it's cut from tastier breeds. Brining replaces the flavor removed in the selection for industry-friendly breeds. Why bother paying for flavorful, juicy meat if you plan to overlay its taste with a coarser substitute? "The key to cooking meat that has great impact in small portions," he writes about brining, "is to make each morsel an intense flavor and texture experience." What about delighting with the subtle nuance and delicate taste of these breeds?

Finally, he seems to have had a slipshod editor. Read through the introduction and count the number of times the word "egregious" appears: It clangs like the clapper of an irregular bell. Another example from the preface, on subsidies: "Sugar is the most egregious [ed: of course] example, but wheat, soy, rice, and corn (the most heavily subsidized crop) also have hidden costs." Why is sugar the worst when corn is the most heavily subsidized? He leaves the reader hanging until some twenty pages later, when you get a sort-of answer about the destruction of the Florida Everglades. In one sentence he describes his first taste of free-range chicken thigh as banal; two sentences later he tells you how much flavor you'll find in a free-range thigh. Jarring examples leap out of each page, and someone at Broadway Books should have spotted them.

I believe everyone should know where their food comes from, and Weinstein and I agree on many things. But the book feels like it was rushed out by the publisher to meet a high point of consumer demand, and it suffers for it.

Monday, September 18, 2006

We Now Return You... your regularly scheduled obsession.

Melissa and I are back from our Provençal jaunt, having learned that Bandol is quite far from the town where we stayed, Bandol's wines just come into their own at about seven years of age and keep well for at least 30 years, and that even France's Wal-Mart-like hypermarchés carry meat products you can only special-order from a top butcher here.

Regular posting (not to mention responding to comments and emails) will start as soon as I can figure out the date, time and local language, all of which are very unclear at the moment.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Gone with the Mistral

With barely enough time to recover from the Victoria trip—maybe not enough time—Melissa and I are off to Provence until September 18. My mom and I will be hitting the markets and cooking the entire time, much to the enjoyment of Melissa and my mom's husband. Melissa and I will also be touring around wineries in Bandol, including the famous Domaine Tempier. I've been too busy to sell stories in advance of this trip, but hopefully I will after I return. Either way, some of the trip will show up here once we're back.

Be sure to come on by after September 18.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Salumi in Seattle

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

The 10:00 am flight from Oakland arrives in Seattle at 11:30. You get out of the airport at about noon. You have two hours to check in for the 3:15 ferry to Victoria, but the bus to Seattle takes one hour. That's an hour of dining opportunity in downtown Seattle.

We alit from the bus on James Street and started to walk towards pier 69, where the blue and white Victoria Clipper boats berth. I looked around at the buildings we had seen on our previous trip to Seattle—Melissa later told a friend that I put up my nose and sniffed the air—and said, "I think we're near Salumi."

My cell phone's web browser confirmed the hunch, and we took a detour. The tiny, white-walled sandwich shop is a claustrophobe's nightmare: The narrow walkway in front of the counter forces every exiting diner to bump you as they pass, and a pack of tables cluster in the back, far from any window or ventilation. But you can soothe your jangled nerves with longing looks at the canopy of traditional Italian cured meats made by owner Armandino Batali and his staff and kept in a temperature-controlled room next to the service area. Pictures of the Batali family—including Armandino's famous son Mario—line the walls, if you can tear your eyes away from the meat locker.

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

Melissa waited outside with our luggage while I decided what to order. The lunchtime crowd had already cleaned out most of the menu (no lamb prosciutto?!), but I opted for a prosciutto sandwich with fig jam and goat cheese, and a salumi platter with olives and cheese, to go. The $10 salumi platter ($3.50 for cheeses and olives) features generous portions of half a dozen different cured meats. They weren't labeled, but one had the orange tint and high heat of soppressatta and another had the black peppercorn studs I associate with cotto.

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

Salumi's cured meats have a robust but well-balanced flavor, suggesting a thoughtful hand with the spices and curing salt. The thin, fatty slices almost melt in your mouth, and every movement of the paper bag under my nose caused me to swoon in the waves of porcine aromas. I hear the hot dishes are even better, but I assumed meatballs and brisket would suffer from the two-hour delay before we unfurled our wrappers on the boat.

The meat was well worth the short detour. Support your local salumi maker, I always say, even if he's only local for one hour.

USDA Chickens Out on Grass-Fed Beef

The USDA impressed ethical eaters with recent proposals to tighten the "grass-fed" label. Officials wanted to require beef labeled as grass-fed to be, well, grass-fed: cows that only ate grasses from a pasture.

But the industry has pushed back, according to this AP story. Ranchers want to be able to use the customer-drawing "grass-fed" label under looser conditions. The USDA, which services the industry and not the consumer, seems to have responded to these protests, and now suggests a looser definition. From the article, "The Agriculture Department has proposed a standard for grass-fed meat that doesn't say animals need pasture and that broadly defines grass to include things like leftovers from harvested crops."

As always, you're better off talking to the producer, if possible, than trusting a label of dubious value.

Fizzy Fruit Coming Soon

The Fizzy Fruit company will bring their carbon-dioxide-injected fruits to retail outlets this month, says the Portland Business Journal. The gassy fruits already have a following in 50 school districts throughout the U.S., but most adult shoppers don't know about them.

The carbon dioxide boost makes the fruit sweeter and thus more appealing to kids who want a sugar fix. I'm always of two minds about these kinds of technologies. They create a healthy and appealing snack food, but they also train the eaters to prefer the doctored version. Will kids turn away from real oranges because they like the CO2 tampering?

And of course this raises another question: Isn't this just fixing a problem at the end of a production line? If American supermarkets focused on local, in-season, picked-when-ripe produce, don't you think the fruit would be sweet enough?

Monday, September 04, 2006

Not About Food

We're back from Victoria just long enough to do laundry before we leave for France. I have a couple food-related posts that I hope to get up before we go, but I'm making a rare OWF departure to congratulate some friends who just passed major milestones.

My friends Hans and Mark crossed two thresholds: They got married this weekend in Victoria, and Hans shipped the public beta of his new Inbox program, a Getting Things Done solution for Mac OS X Tiger. Hans warns me that it's "very beta," but he's eager to hear your thoughts and comments. It may be a couple weeks before he gets back to you, though, since he and Mark are taking time for a honeymoon.

My friend Sara Bennett just published her book The Case Against Homework, co-authored with Nancy Kalish. The book examines the myth of the "more is better" view of homework, and should be on every parent's nightstand. (For those who have wandered through the links on the right, Sara's husband is New York uber-photoblogger Joe Holmes.)

Okie doke. Food posts to resume shortly.