We all love farm-to-table food, don’t we? The freshness, the warm sense of environmental sustainability, the delights of spending your money in the local economy. Of course we all love it.
Or … maybe we just think we love it. An exhaustive investigation by a Tampa Bay Times food critic reveals just how little of the food advertised as organic, locally sourced, non-GMO fare actually fits that description. The article is a slightly painful read, as restaurant after restaurant sheepishly tries to cover for their, um, “menu anomalies” by explaining that they totally used to buy some stuff from a local producer, then they forgot to change the chalkboard when they switched suppliers, and besides, the bus was late and the dog ate their homework. Some of these claims may even be true, but given the ubiquity of these “anomalies,” it’s hard to believe that there isn’t considerable calculation behind these unidirectional mistakes.
And it’s not hard to figure out why: Consumers don’t really want to buy farm-to-table food. What they want to buy is the moral satisfaction of farm-to-table food.
A consumer who is actually looking for vegetables picked no later than yesterday morning and trundled to their table at the peak of freshness probably isn’t going to be satisfied with the corn that just spent a few weeks bouncing around in the back of a truck somewhere; the products will be noticeably different in flavor. On the other hand, for a consumer who’s just looking for moral satisfaction — well, the nice thing about selling intangible qualities is that there’s no discernible difference to the consumer between being told that they’re consuming locally grown foods and actually doing so.
Megan McArdle, “Dining Out on Empty Virtue”, Bloomberg View, 2016-04-15.
May 28, 2016
May 26, 2016
Don’t get too smug, fellow Canuckistanis, as I suspect the numbers might be just as bad if Canadians were surveyed in this way:
You might have heard that Americans overwhelmingly favor mandatory labeling for foods containing genetically modified ingredients. That’s true, according to a new study: 84 percent of respondents said they support the labels.
But a nearly identical percentage — 80 percent—in the same survey said they’d also like to see labels on food containing DNA.
The study, published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal last week, also found that 33 percent of respondents thought that non-GM tomatoes “did not contain genes” and 32 percent thought that “vegetables did not have DNA.” So there’s that.
University of Florida food economist Brandon R. McFadden and his co-author Jayson L. Lusk surveyed 1,000 American consumers and discovered [PDF] that “consumers think they know more than they actually do about GM food.” In fact, the authors say, “the findings question the usefulness of results from opinion polls as motivation for public policy surrounding GM food.”
My summary for laymen: When it comes to genetically modified food, people don’t know much, they don’t know what they don’t know, and they sure as heck aren’t letting that stop them from having strong opinions.
April 24, 2016
In an article in the Washington Post last year, Roberto Ferdman summarized the findings of a statistical study explaining why the flavours in Indian foods differ so much from other world cuisines:
Indian food, with its hodgepodge of ingredients and intoxicating aromas, is coveted around the world. The labor-intensive cuisine and its mix of spices is more often than not a revelation for those who sit down to eat it for the first time. Heavy doses of cardamom, cayenne, tamarind and other flavors can overwhelm an unfamiliar palate. Together, they help form the pillars of what tastes so good to so many people.
But behind the appeal of Indian food — what makes it so novel and so delicious — is also a stranger and subtler truth. In a large new analysis of more than 2,000 popular recipes, data scientists have discovered perhaps the key reason why Indian food tastes so unique: It does something radical with flavors, something very different from what we tend to do in the United States and the rest of Western culture. And it does it at the molecular level.
Chefs in the West like to make dishes with ingredients that have overlapping flavors. But not all cuisines adhere to the same rule. Many Asian cuisines have been shown to belie the trend by favoring dishes with ingredients that don’t overlap in flavor. And Indian food, in particular, is one of the most powerful counterexamples.
Researchers at the Indian Institute for Technology in Jodhpur crunched data on several thousand recipes from a popular online recipe site called TarlaDalal.com. They broke each dish down to its ingredients, and then compared how often and heavily ingredients share flavor compounds.
The answer? Not too often.
April 9, 2016
For a while, I tried just cooking things I knew he’d like. These things were, to my palate, heavy and boring for everyday eating. I gained 35 pounds, a fact I blamed on my approaching 40th birthday. Then things got busy and we stopped eating dinner together so often, and like magic, the weight fell off.
I tell you all this by way of introducing a conversation we had a year or two back. I made a roast chicken and served it with a chickpea-and-raisin tagine on the side. “I like it, but you don’t have to eat it,” I told him. He looked at me, and took a tiny spoonful, featuring one carrot, three chickpeas and a raisin. A few moments later, he looked up at me and said “You should make this as a main course sometime.”
Those of you who have never lived with a picky eater probably do not appreciate the drama of the statement. Those of you who have will understand the thunderous shock I experienced. I stared. I dropped my fork. I said: “Who are you, and what have you done with my husband?”
Over the following months I kept asking the same question, with increasing concern, as he asked for sautéed mushrooms, sausage ragu, poached-egg-and-arugula salad. Was my husband being well taken care of on the alien spaceship? Did he have access to books, movies, his Xbox? Were they feeding him lots of meat? Because this guy who had replaced him was not a picky eater. To be honest, he’s now less picky than I am, since the taste of cooked fish still triggers my gag reflex.
With columnist drama, I have presented his transformation as a single cinematic moment. In fact, it was the culmination of a long process, one that I wasn’t ever sure was going to work out. And since I know that there are probably other people out there trapped in the tragedy of a foodie-picky relationship, it seems worth sharing how it happened. Some of what we did was fortuitous, but quite a lot of it was deliberate choices that we both made.
Megan McArdle, “When Your Spouse Is a Picky Eater”, Bloomberg View, 2016-03-18.
April 5, 2016
Published on 4 Apr 2016
The Netherlands were surrounded by World War 1 from 1914 onwards and their stance of armed neutrality made it difficult to manoeuvre between the Entente and the Central Powers. And while the Netherlands never joined the conflict in the end, the war took its toll on the nation.
April 2, 2016
Colby Cosh gently pokes fun at the latest outbreak of manufactured patriotic fervor:
An enterprising Toronto man wants to sell us all “Ketchup Patriot” T-shirts, so that the virtuous among us might assert the correct position on the hot issue of whether it is right to eat products made with dubious foreign tomatoes.
This presents me with a dilemma: I agree with the many words already written in this space, and in the Financial Post, about the preposterousness of tomato isolationism; on the other hand, I am pretty sure our future as a country has less to do with mid-grade agricultural products destined for pureeing than it does to do with insta-auto-robo-printing of faddish social-signalling paraphernalia. You have to admire the spirit of enterprise wherever it emerges. The best answer ever given to Che Guevara’s philosophy was the Che Guevara T-shirt.
The “Ketchup Patriot” view favours French’s brand ketchup, which is now made from tomatoes grown in the area around Leamington, Ont. Leamington is practically a creation of the H.J. Heinz Co., which was a major employer there for decades, but fled to the United States in 2014. Few Canadians are employed in the growing of tomatoes, mind you: migrant workers flown into local dormitories and paid around $10 an hour seem to do most of the hard work on Leamington-area farms and in greenhouses.
French’s, best known for selling mustard, is owned by the Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC of Slough, Berkshire. This “Ketchup Patriotism,” the closer you look at it, becomes more and more a matter solely of dream terroir. Canadians don’t get the profits, don’t pick the tomatoes and don’t even can the ketchup — that happens in Ohio, although French’s, obviously aware that it has a whole country by the tail, has hinted at plans to open a new cannery somewhere in Ontario. All we do, for the moment, is own the land. This ketchup has a mystical Canadian essence, one I defy anyone to detect in a blind taste test.
One may not detect the “distinctive Canadian ‘terroir'”, but having actually tasted Heinz and French’s products, there’s a reason that Heinz is the default ketchup for most people.
March 22, 2016
I was on the road in Texas last week, addressing Linux user groups in Dallas and Austin. I always enjoy visiting Texas. It’s a big, wide-open place full of generous people who cultivate a proper appreciation of some of my favorite things in life — firearms, blues guitar, and pepper sauces.
And, of course, one of the biggest things Texas has going for it is barbecue. And not the pallid imitation served up by us pasty-faced Yankees here where I live (near Philadelphia, PA) but the real thing. Barbecue, dammit. Red meat with enough fat on it to panic a health-foodist right out of his pantywaist, slow-cooked in a marinade sweeter than a mother’s kiss and eaten with sauces hot enough to peel paint. Garnish with a few extra jalapenos and coleslaw and wash it down with cheap soda, lemonade, or beer. Food of the gods.
I swear your testosterone level goes up just smelling this stuff. After a few mouthfuls of Rudy’s carnivoral bliss you’ll be hankerin’ to cultivate a drawl, wear a Stetson and drive a pickup truck with a gun rack. (I draw the line at country music, though. A man’s got to have some standards.)
Eric S. Raymond, “The Non-Portability of Barbecue”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-07-18.
March 19, 2016
A current New York Times news story, What If It’s All Been A Big Fat Lie, entertainingly chronicles the discovery that low-fat diets are bad for people. More specifically, that the substitution of carbohydrates like bread and pasta and potatoes for meat that we’ve all had urged on us since the early 1980s is probably the cause of the modern epidemic of obesity and the sharp rise in diabetes incidence.
I have long believed that most of the healthy-eating advice we get is stone crazy, and the story does tend to confirm it. One of my reasons for believing this is touched on in the article; what we’re told is good for us doesn’t match what humans “in the wild” (during the 99% of our species history that predated agriculture) ate. The diet our bodies evolved to process doesn’t include things like large amounts of milled grain or other starches. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate wild vegetables (especially tubers) and meat whenever they could get it.
But the evolutionary analysis only tells us what we probably should be eating. It doesn’t explain how the modern diet has come to be as severely messed up as it is — nor why the advice we’ve been getting on healthy eating over the last twenty years has been not merely bad but perversely wrong.
The answer is, I think, implicit in the fact that “health food” has a strong tendency to be bland, fibrous, and nasty — a kind of filboid studge that we have to work at convincing ourselves we like rather than actually liking. Which is, if you think about it, nuts. Human food tropisms represent two million years of selective knowledge about what’s good for our bodies. Eating a lot of what we don’t like is far more likely to be a mistake than eating things we do like, even to excess.
Why do we tend to treat our natural cravings for red meat and fat as sins, then? Notice the similarity between the rhetoric of diet books and religious evangelism and you have your answer. Dietary mortification of the flesh has become a kind of secular asceticism, a way for wealthy white people with guilt feelings about their affluence to demonstrate virtue and expiate their imagined transgressions.
Once you realize that dieting is a religion, the irrationality and mutual contradictions become easier to understand. It’s not about what’s actually good for you, it’s about suffering and self-denial and the state of your soul. People who constantly break and re-adopt diets are experiencing exactly the same cycle of secondary rewards as the sinner who repeatedly backslides and reforms.
This model explains the social fact that the modern flavor of “health”-based dietary piety is most likely to be found in people who don’t have the same psychological needs satisfied by an actual religion. Quick now: who’s more likely to be a vegetarian or profess a horror of “junk food” — a conservative Christian heartlander or a secular politically-correct leftist from the urban coasts?
Eric S. Raymond, “Diet Considered as a Bad Religion”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-07-17.
February 26, 2016
Philadelphians laugh at the pathetic imitations of “Philly steaks” offered elsewhere for the same reason Texans laugh at barbecue made north of the Mason-Dixon line. And both groups are right to laugh. It just ain’t the same.
Every time I order up a mess of barbecue at a place like Rudy’s or County Line or Dick’s Last Resort I think to myself “Someday, one of these barbecue outfits has got to start offering decent bread. Their sales would go through the roof.” I’ve been waiting for the market to correct this problem for more than twenty years now — and it hasn’t happened. And thereby hangs a mystery.
The mystery is the curious persistence of regional food differences in a country with cheap transport and the best communications network in the world. There are places in the U.S. where you can reliably get really good bread — mostly the coastal metroplexes. There are places you can get real barbecue, in the heartland South and Southwest. And these zones just don’t overlap. (Yes, they have a gourmet-bread bakery in Austin. I suspect, if I went there, I’d find it a lot like the Chinese food in Ann Arbor — impressive to the locals, maybe, but only because their standards are so low.)
I could multiply examples. Sourdough bread — I’ve had it everywhere you can get it and it just doesn’t taste right outside of San Francisco. The East Coast versions are competent, but lack some subtle tang. Yeast strain? Something in the water? Who knows?
Cheesecake. There’s a good one. Anybody who has lived in New York won’t touch most cheesecake made elsewhere at gunpoint, and with good reason. Next to a traditional New-York-style baked cheesecake (the kind you can stand a fork in because it has the approximate density of neutronium) all others are a sort of pathetic, tasteless cheese gelatin. In this case the recipe is clearly what matters.
Or deep-dish pizza. Try to get that done right anywhere but Chicago. Good luck. Actually, the Philly/South Jersey area may be the only other part of the U.S.that can almost make this nut, and our thin-crust pizza is better. But why? Why don’t the good techniques go national and drive out the weaker competition?
The obvious answer would be that nationwide, tastes differ too much for one regional variant to dominate. But many cases there isn’t even any dispute about where the best variant comes from; the superiority of “New York style” cheesecake. for example, is so universally understood that restaurants elsewhere often bill their cheesecake that way even when it’s actually half-composed of “lite” garbage like ricotta or cottage cheese. Nobody who has ever tasted one doubts that Philly steaks are the acme of the art. And nobody — but nobody — who can get both passes up Texas barbecue for what they make in New Haven or Walla Walla.
So you’d think that the market would have propagated Texas slow-cooking, San Francisco yeast starters and the Philly steak roll all over the country by now. But some food technologies travel better than others, and some seem curiously unable to thrive outside their native climes. Cheesecake recipes may survive transmission relatively well, but the mysteries of good barbecue are subtle and deep. Pizzas rely on elaborate oven and dough-mix technology that probably tends to conserve regional variations simply because it’s too capital-intensive to mess with casually.
I’ve meditated on the matter and still can’t decide whether I think that’s a good thing or not. The approved thing for travel writers to do is wax lyrical about the wonderfulness of regional variety, as if it would somehow fail to be an improvement in the world if I could get decent bread with my barbecue. The hell with that kind of sentimentality; I’d rather have a better meal.
But there’s a point buried there somewhere — something that isn’t about the bread or the barbecue, but about what it feels like to sit in a dusty roadside joint like Rudy’s, surrounded by cases of Red Pop and overweight rednecks in tractor caps and checked shirts, with the food of the gods melting in your mouth, and thinking “Damn, this place is tacky, but I hope it lives forever.”
Eric S. Raymond, “The Non-Portability of Barbecue”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-07-18.
February 17, 2016
Colby Cosh writes the epitaph for that terrible month of January 2016, when the people were sorely oppressed by the Great Cauliflower Crisis:
I must have been assured a dozen times that peak cauliflower was a dark foretaste of the New Normal, a state of permanent food uncertainty in a ravaged world of shattered supply chains and sporadic kohlrabi riots. It turns out we are, for the moment, still living in the Old Normal: food is cheap and plentiful, far more so than it was even for our parents, but there are still very occasional kinks in our system of delivering fresh produce to our tables year-round, kinks that the market can usually sort out given a few weeks.
You will note that this price event had nothing to do with climate change per se, or even with the chronic drought conditions that have existed in California for the past few years. That did not discourage anybody who was already disposed to mutter about how California is doomed, or about how the whole planet is. Others who have collapsitarian/“prepper”/millenarian streaks shook their heads and saw the first inklings of the logistical breakdown that is always just about to devour the world.
And the “food security” people: oh, they had a field day. That phrase seems to mean something different every time I see it used; often “food insecurity” is a near-synonym for “being broke.” But if you are “food insecure” in that sense of the term, fresh cauliflower should probably not be a staple of your cooking in the first place. Depend on beans, potatoes, and whatever’s on sale, and let the paleo nerds fight for cauliflower until their madness evolves into another form. Honestly, the stuff can be surprisingly wonderful if prepared right, but you have to be kidding yourself a little bit to consider it positively delightful, don’t you?
January 24, 2016
Published on 23 Jan 2016
Indy sits in the chair of wisdom again to answer your questions. This time we tell you how the food was like in the trenches and what role Andorra and Iceland had in World War 1.
January 21, 2016
What about obesity? We put a lot of social effort into fighting obesity: labeling foods, banning soda machines from school, banning large sodas from New York, programs in schools to promote healthy eating, doctors chewing people out when they gain weight, the profusion of gyms and Weight Watchers programs, and let’s not forget a level of stigma against obese people so strong that I am constantly having to deal with their weight-related suicide attempts. As a result, everyone … keeps gaining weight at exactly the same rate they have been for the past couple decades. Wouldn’t it be nice if increasing obesity was driven at least in part by changes in the intestinal microbiota that we could reverse through careful antibiotic use? Or by trans-fats?
What about poor school performance? From the social angle, we try No Child Left Behind, Common Core Curriculum, stronger teachers’ unions, weaker teachers’ unions, more pay for teachers, less pay for teachers, more prayer in school, banning prayer in school, condemning racism, condemning racism even more, et cetera. But the poorest fifth or so of kids show spectacular cognitive gains from multivitamin supplementation, and doctors continue to tell everyone schools should start later so children can get enough sleep and continue to be totally ignored despite strong evidence in favor.
Scott Alexander, “Society Is Fixed, Biology Is Mutable”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-09-10.
January 17, 2016
Perhaps I’ve been lucky to have (mostly) avoided this restaurant serving trend:
I’ve been away seven weeks now, travelling, working, researching a book, seeing friends, but it’s time to come home; I miss plates.
I’ve been staying in London mostly, visited other cities from there, and then I was in Dublin for a while. In all these places I ate out a lot, and I can report that the restaurant industry is in the midst of a tableware crisis. There’s barely a plate to be found any more, and the first time you’re served a dry-aged rump of beef with celeriac gratin, chanterelles and red wine jus on a cutting board, it’s possible to be charmed.
After all, you are not a tablecloth, but soon the tide of things being served on other things that were just not meant to be served on starts to wear on you.
I have a high whimsy-tolerance. Doctors have often remarked upon it. Sometimes half an hour into a puppet show involving a talking reflex hammer and a musical stethoscope, a doctor will say, “This is very unusual,” and make a note on my chart, but recently my whimsy-tolerance has been tested.
I miss plates. Why, in one day on this trip, I was served breakfast on a chalk slate, lunch on a clip-board and dinner on a wooden cutting board shaped like a clover leaf. I’ve been served frites in a beer stein, and the ones I could reach were delicious, and so my verdict was a resolved “Fun!” – until my slow-baked quince, wild honey ewe’s yoghurt, bee pollen and almonds arrived in a vintage teacup balanced on a strip of artfully weathered barn board, and then the next morning at breakfast, I was served a waffle on another waffle with maple syrup in a stem vase.
What was under that waffle I do not care to know, but everything I’ve been served of late suggests that that non-plate waffle presenting item was handcrafted from a substance that Dwell magazine would call “reclaimed ash flooring from a demolished church in Ohio,” and the rest of us would call “wood.”
I miss plates.
January 15, 2016
Matt Ridley on how horrible implementations of the ideas of Thomas Malthus have made the world an even more cruel place:
For more than 200 years, a disturbingly vicious thread has run through Western history, based on biology and justifying cruelty on an almost unimaginable scale. It centres on the question of how to control human population growth and it answers that question by saying we must be cruel to be kind, that ends justify means. It is still around today; and it could not be more wrong. It is the continuing misuse of Malthus.
According to his epitaph in Bath Abbey, the Rev Thomas Robert Malthus, author of An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), was noted for “his sweetness of temper, urbanity of manners and tenderness of heart, his benevolence and his piety”. Yet his ideas have justified some of the greatest crimes in history. By saying that, if people could not be persuaded to delay marriage, we would have to encourage famine and “reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases”, he inadvertently gave birth to a series of heartless policies — the poor laws, the British government’s approach to famine in Ireland and India, social Darwinism, eugenics, the Holocaust, India’s forced sterilisations and China’s one-child policy. All derived their logic more or less directly from a partial reading of Malthus.
To this day if you write or speak about falling child mortality in Africa, you can be sure of getting the following Malthusian response: but surely it’s a bad thing if you stop poor people’s babies dying? Better to be cruel to be kind. Yet actually we now know, this argument is wrong. The way to get population growth to slow, it turns out, is to keep babies alive so people plan smaller families: to bring health, prosperity and education to all.
Britain’s Poor Law of 1834, which attempted to ensure that the very poor were not helped except in workhouses, and that conditions in workhouses were not better than the worst in the outside world, was based explicitly on Malthusian ideas — that too much charity only encouraged breeding, especially illegitimacy, or “bastardy”. The Irish potato famine of the 1840s was made infinitely worse by Malthusian prejudice shared by the British politicians in positions of power. The Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, was motivated by “a Malthusian fear about the long-term effect of relief”, according to a biographer. The Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, had been a pupil of Malthus at the East India Company College: famine, he thought, was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population” and a “direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence” sent to teach the “selfish, perverse and turbulent” Irish a lesson. Trevelyan added: “Supreme Wisdom has educed permanent good out of transient evil.”
In India in 1877, a famine killed ten million people. The viceroy, Lord Lytton, quoted almost directly from Malthus in explaining why he had halted several private attempts to bring relief to the starving: “The Indian population has a tendency to increase more rapidly than the food it raises from the soil.” His policy was to herd the hungry into camps where they were fed on — literally — starvation rations. Lytton thought he was being cruel to be kind.
January 11, 2016
Cedar Sanderson guest posts at According to Hoyt:
I’m currently studying the history of the world, prior to 1500. In the first chapter of the book we were assigned to read, the point is made that humans have been around for a very long time, it took a long time to develop agriculture, but there weren’t many of them pre-agriculture. The crux of the matter is the ability to grow more food than you could hunt, or gather, in a small group. Large groups, which would build societies and cities, simply could not exist on a subsistence diet.
One of my classmates, in a discussion forum, stated that humans were desperate for nutrients and one of the main ways to get food was to graze which made me do a head-desk, and then start thinking. We take abundant food for granted. The child (in college, but still, a child) who seems to think that humans grazed on grass in pre-history has no doubt never missed a meal in their life unless it was by choice. The world we live in offers enough variety, enough abundance, that people can be ‘vegan’ and still survive, although thriving and being healthy are different matters.
The book tells me that women didn’t have as many children before agriculture, and that’s why population was lower. I snort and mutter something impolite under my breath. In reality hunter-gatherers have more in common with herds of animals, and again, it’s about the food. They were reliant on what was growing right there, right then. They had no way of producing a surplus nor of storing same. If they overhunted an area they were forced to move or die. If the tribe’s population grew too large, they starved or succumbed to disease, just like a deer herd or the snowshoe hare population collapses every few years to build slowly back up, limited by the supply of available food.
Humans lived that way for a very long time. Women having less babies? Probably, only it wasn’t through some kind of arcane desire to keep the population down. It was through the lack of food – nursing a child in the modern era is not terribly effective birth control, but in the time of subsistence the woman’s body simply couldn’t handle the dual load of nursing and pregnancy. I became pregnant with two of my children while nursing full time, I can speak to the enormous drain it is even on a well-fed body.
Because it’s fat. I have fat, on me, and in my diet. Fat is something you just don’t see prior to agriculture, and there’s a reason so many cultures revere the plump woman (just look at all the Venus statues from around the world). A fat woman could have babies and she could survive nursing and this meant the family could go on. And while we’re on the makin’ babies topic, here’s something: my history book laments the rise of the patriarchy alongside the rise of civilization after agriculture, constraining women and making them be under the thumb of the male. Well, that’s not patriarchy, that’s food. Men could hunt, and bring in the meat that was desperately needed for survival. Women gathered, but the men were the hunters.
Why didn’t the women hunt? Well, babies. Pregnant, nursing, malnourished…. The women were managing all they could, and the men were taking care of them. Women were better able to survive (yes, I am counting death in childbirth) in that harsh world than men were. Men were a valuable commodity in a time when hunting and protection of the tribe-family against others who wanted the same food they needed to live menaced the women and children. Female infanticide was practiced long before recorded history, evidence shows. Men were more valuable to the hunter-gatherers and it wasn’t even questioned it seems. But my history book complains that it was the rise of civilization post-agriculture that was to blame for the oppression of women and the gender inequality. Prior to ‘society’ it claims men and women were equal.