Sunday, November 30, 2008

Post-Thanksgiving Reflection

After spending time with my family and polishing off more pie, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and turkey than I care to admit over the last week, I'm finally back online. Fortunately, it seems that the internet has been doing just fine without me... my Google Reader back-logged more than 350 posts over the last few days and I spent some quality time this morning sifting through them all.

For your benefit, I'd like to pull out one thread that churned through the blogosphere over the holiday; namely, the state of America's turkey production. I know, I know, you've had your turkey already and have probably gorged yourself to the point that you don't even want to think about poultry until next November, but trust me... I have some interesting news for you.

WIRED's Alexis Madrigal posted an article last Tuesday about our supersized turkeys, which resemble America's wild ones in name only.
Turkeys more than doubled in size [between 1929 and 2007] from an average of 13 pounds to an average of 29 pounds . . . According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, the largest wild turkey on record is 38 pounds . . . in commercial and academic turkey-breeding programs, adult male turkeys, called toms, can reach 50 pounds at the tender age of five months, said John Anderson, a longtime turkey breeder at Ohio State University.

Perhaps the most obvious change in turkey genetics is that, unlike the colorful pictures we all drew in elementary school, modern, factory-farmed birds are all white . . . Commercial turkeys can't fly and researchers have even invented a way of quantifying how impaired the birds' walking has become. The 1-to-5 scale ranges from "birds whose legs did not have any defect" to bowlegged birds who have "great difficulty walking." After 30 years of breeding, Ohio State's big birds average a 3 . . . The birds also have a hard time regulating their own food intake. In essence, they eat too much and get fat.

Anderson, who has bred the birds for 26 years, said the key technical advance was artificial insemination, which came into widespread use in the 1960s, right around the time that turkey size starts to skyrocket . . . "It takes the lid off how big the bird can be. If the size of the bird keeps them from mating, then you're stuck."

Wondering about that last sentence? It's true. Jim Mason went to work for Butterball as an artificial inseminator in the winter of 1997, chronicling his experience in the Farm Sanctuary News. There, he notes that the mass-produced turkeys are in fact too big to breed and describes the process now substituted for turkey-on-turkey action:
I have never done such hard, fast, dirty, disgusting work in my life. Ten hours of pushing birds, grabbing birds, wrestling birds, jerking them upside down, pushing open their vents, dodging their panic-blown excrement, breathing the dust stirred up by the terrified birds, ignoring verbal abuse from Joe and the others on the crew - all of this without a break or a bite to eat (not that I could have eaten anything amongst all this). Working under this conditions week after week (Bill had been there for four years), these men had grown callous, rough, and brutal.
Farm Sanctuary posted a video on YouTube in January 2007 detailing the turkey insemination process (warning: it's pretty graphic), and Mike Rowe from Discovery's Dirty Jobs worked as a turkey inseminator in an episode that premiered in May this year. Here's the intro:

You can find Mike's "action" clips, where he works hands-on with the male and female turkeys, here and here.

PETA also ran an investigation into Butterball's practices in 2006 and found equally (if not more) nightmarish conditions. You can watch their video here (again, be warned that this isn't a pleasant viewing experience although it is perhaps more cinematic than the previous videos) and read through specific examples of the cruelty they observed here. PETA claims that the USDA subsequently recognized Butterball's cruelty to animals, although I have yet to find independent confirmation.

Oh, and don't forget everyone's favorite video of Sarah Palin:

(Sorry, it was just too good to ignore.)

Okay, now that we've established the sordid state of turkey "farms" in America, let's look at the driving force behind it. I think the WIRED article hits the nail on the head when it suggests the current state of affairs can be blamed on the market:
The accumulation of agricultural breeding knowledge and consumer testing has resulted in plants and animals that are physically shaped by consumer tastes . . . American consumers like white meat, so turkeys are grown with larger breasts . . . the United States pumped out 33 times more pounds of turkey at a lower cost to consumers in 2007 than our farmers did in 1929.
More meat for a lower cost. Ah, the blindness of mass consumption. So, now we should probably start asking ourselves what we can do to reverse this situation. I think that begins with a look at what an American turkey is supposed to look like:

Little better right? Perhaps you noticed a stark difference from the earlier videos? Here, National Geographic provides some background on the bird:
The turkey was Benjamin Franklin's choice for the United States' national bird. The noble fowl was a favored food of Native Americans. When Europeans arrived, they made it one of only two domestic birds native to the Americas—the Muscovy duck shares the distinction. Yet by the early 20th century, wild turkeys no longer roamed over much of their traditional range. They had been wiped out by hunting and the disappearance of their favored woodland habitat . . . Wild turkey reintroduction programs began in the 1940s, and the birds were relocated to areas where populations had been decimated but woodlands were recovering. Such efforts worked so well that wild turkeys now live in areas where they may not have occurred when Europeans first reached the Americas.
So, the wild turkey is actually a success story... for the most part. Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste lists five American turkeys that are threatened with either real or potential extinction and that are available for consumption in limited quantities: the American Bronze Turkey, Bourbon Red Turkey, Jersey Buff Turkey, Midget White Turkey, and Narragansett Turkey.

You might think it a bit odd that the Slow Food movement is encouraging you to eat animals that may soon be extinct, but in today's society, turning these turkeys into a commodity may be the only way to make people care enough to ensure their protection and procreation. Rest assured, these turkey farms are small-scale and sustainable. Heritage Foods USA, the sales and marketing arm of Slow Food USA, explains:
The Heritage Turkey Project, which helped double the population of heritage turkeys in the United States and upgraded the Bourbon Red turkey from "rare" to "watch" status on conservation lists, was Heritage Foods USA's first foray into saving American food traditions.
  • A true heritage turkey is reproduced and genetically maintained through self-breeding;
  • A true heritage turkey has a long productive lifespan. Breeding hens are commonly productive for 8-9 years and breeding toms for 3-5 years;
  • A true heritage turkey has a slower rate of growth. Today's heritage turkeys reach a marketable weight in 26-28 weeks.
In 2004 it became an independent company dedicated to saving not only turkeys but also Native American foods, pigs, sheep, bison, cows, reef-net salmon, goats and all breeds of food livestock.
Noble work. Still... you have to kill your turkey, and what exactly does a humane execution entail? Well, Kat on Eating Liberally posted a fantastic article on the importance of knowing the origin of your turkey dinner. Referring to the Palin video I posted above, Kat explains:

The media deemed it necessary to blur this bloody backdrop, in deference to the "unspoken covenant of ignorance" between consumers and the food industry that historian Ann Vileisis documents in Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need To Get It Back:

...we have ended up in the absurd situation today that most of us, as consumers, know very little about what we eat; and, sensing a "dark side" to our food production, many of us don't even want to know.

So now the blogosphere's a-Twitter with talk about "turkey carnage" and the "surreal... gruesomeness going on over her shoulder".

But you could argue that Palin performed a public service, however inadvertently. Americans are totally in denial about the way our livestock live--and die. Can you imagine the Food Network ever allowing Rachel Ray to slaughter a chicken in front of a live audience and millions of viewers, the way Jamie Oliver did back in January? After electrocuting the chicken, he told the visibly shocked audience:

"As far as killing anything's concerned, it's never nice. I was trained to do it, I don't feel particularly good about this. But, I eat chickens, and I'm a chef."

As the New York Times noted:

Mr. Oliver said that he wanted people to confront the reality that eating any kind of meat involves killing an animal, even if it is done with a minimum of pain.

Michael Pollan took it upon himself to learn how to slaughter chickens because, as he wrote in The Omnivore's Dilemma:

It seemed to me not too much to ask of a meat eater, which I was then and still am, that at least once in his life he take some direct responsibility for the killing on which his meat-eating depends...

...In the end I personally killed a dozen or so chickens before moving on to try another station...I wasn't at it long enough for slaughtering chickens to become routine, but the work did begin to feel mechanical, and that feeling, perhaps more than any other, was disconcerting: how quickly you can get used to anything, especially when the people around you think nothing of it.

I've watched the Jamie Oliver clip and though I found it painful, I recognize that it's the natural order of things. I hold to my belief that it is fine to eat meat, but we should do our best to ensure that it is produced in a sustainable manner that provides a reasonably pleasant life for the animal and protections for the land it is raised on. Obviously this ensures that we are subsequently eating healthier, tastier meat than is available from food conglomerates.

Thank you for making it through what is admittedly a very long post! There are none-the-less many other factors that play into the story of turkey production in America that I was unable to address here, such as corporate use of antibiotics, hormones, and bio-engineered feed as well as the debate about whether companies or American consumers are responsible for the degradation of meat production. I have no doubt that those will come up in future posts though, and in the meantime I'd be happy to answer any questions you might have. For now I just hope I haven't ruined your Thanksgiving leftovers...

Monday, November 17, 2008

Let's Talk Turkey

After making 28 turkeys in two weeks, Stuart Stein has found the best way to produce a plump, juicy bird for your Thanksgiving celebration... his solution? Brine it! Click here for details.

Not being a fan of slimy, featherless carcasses and plastic bags full of miscellaneous avian parts, I have to admit that I've never made my own turkey, but I love feasting off the labor of others. Fortunately, my brother is particularly adept at this feat, although I'm not sure he's ever tried the brining method... maybe I'll make a suggestion this year.

So best of luck with your (hopefully local and organic) turkey preparations, unless of course you're a vegetarian, in which case I recommend you stick to vegetables this holiday. I mean who really wants to sink their teeth into this?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Roasted Acorn Squash and Rotkohl

Still working on the squash...

Today I roasted a small acorn squash, using Matt's molasses-glaze recipe. I've been dying to use more of this molasses that I picked up in Asheville, North Carolina last year when I was visiting my brother, so this was the perfect excuse. It has a full, rich flavor, which isn't quite what the recipe calls for, but I thought it worked wonderfully. Acorn squash has a little stronger, a little nuttier flavor than a butternut too, so it wasn't overwhelmed.

I also used this opportunity to make use of a head of red cabbage that's been sitting in my crisper for about a month now. In college I majored in German and have spent a collective year in various parts of the Mutterland, during which time I fell in love with German cuisine. One of my favorite dishes is Rotkohl, sauteed red cabbage with apples and vinegar. This is a sweet and tangy dish that is incredibly healthy and easy to make.


2 T Olive Oil
1 Medium Head of Red Cabbage (a little over 1 pound), Chopped
1 Baking Apple, Chopped
1-2 T Sugar or Brown Sugar (depending on how sweet you want it)
2 T Red Wine or Apple Cider Vinegar
2 t Salt

Heat olive oil in a large pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Add cabbage and apples, stirring to coat. Stir in remaining ingredients and reduce heat to low-medium. Cook until cabbage is soft, about 20 minutes.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Good News, Bad News

Which do you want first?

Personally, I like to face the bad up front, so...

...a UN report released on Thursday concludes that a three kilometer high Atmospheric Brown Cloud (ABC) consisting of soot and other man-made particles stretches from the Arabian Peninsula to China and the Western Pacific Ocean, occasionally reaching as far as California and Oregon. It aggravates greenhouse gas-induced climate change in some situations/locations (notably the Hindu Kush-Himalaya-Tibetan glaciers that provide the head-waters for the region's major river systems), and is responsible for a 10-25 percent decrease in natural light in Beijing, Karachi, Shanghai, and New Delhi as sunlight is absorbed by the dark soot particles hanging above the cities.
  • ABCs result from unsustainable burning of fossil fuels and inefficient combustion of biomass and deforestation, which produce both soot and greenhouse gases.
  • Smaller ABCs exist over North America, Europe, southern Africa, and the Amazon Basin.
The worst part is that particles in the ABC are actually deflecting some greenhouse gases, effectively masking the impacts of climate change. Consequently, if the clouds were eliminated without making drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, it could trigger a rapid global temperature rise of as much as two degree celsuis (surpassing what many scientists consider a "crucial and dangerous" threshold).

Scary, huh? I'll bet you're ready for the good news now.

Greg Haegele of the Sierra Club reported on Treehugger yesterday that the EPA's Environmental Appeals Board (EAB) ruled that the EPA can limit carbon dioxide emissions from new coal-fired power plants.
The decision means that all new and proposed coal plants nationwide must go back and address their carbon dioxide emissions -- the source of 30% of our nation's global warming pollution. The decision will halt virtually all new coal plant development until EPA decides how to address global warming pollution from coal plants.
Looks like the EPA might finally be regaining some of its original wasta...

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sweet & Spicy Butternut Soup

Well, I've gone overboard. I went to the market today and came home with a little over 10 pounds of squash.

10 pounds!!!

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I'm wondering what the heck I'm going to do with it all... I guess I'll just have to take it one squash at a time.

First up: Butternut.

I love butternut squash... probably in large part because it's insanely easy to prepare. A vegetable peeler is all you need to remove its thin skin, although some people don't even bother with that because it becomes almost as tender as the flesh when it's cooked. After that, you just cut off the ends, cut it in half, and scoop out the seeds. If you plan on pureeing it for soup or gratin, you'll want to dice it too. Due to its size and pliability, this process about a hundred times easier than gutting a pumpkin. (Bonus: You can substitute butternut for pumpkin in pretty much any recipe.)

Even better, Butternut's extremely versatile. French, Mexican, Italian... it does them all, and more. This soup recipe takes advantage of the squash's natural sweetness, pairing it with just enough red pepper that it leaves you feeling warm all-over... exactly what we need as the winter cold begins to sink in!

The recipe below will make enough for 4 large servings and should be good in the fridge for the better part of a week. I'm saving mine for lunches and I've made a lovely honey-wheat sandwich loaf to go along with it. Yum!

So, one squash down, three to go. I'll keep you posted on the progress... oh, and just wait until you see what else I dug up at the market!

Sweet and Spicy Butternut Soup

1 Medium-Large Butternut Squash, Peeled and Diced
1 Red Onion, Diced
3 Cups Chicken Stock
2 Cups Apple Cider
1/4t Red Pepper Flakes
1/4t Nutmeg
1/2t Cinnamon
1/2t Salt
1/2t Pepper
2T Olive Oil
2 Sprigs Rosemary (optional)

Heat oil in large stock pot. Add onions and cook at low-medium heat until almost translucent. Coat onions in red pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Add squash. Cook at medium for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add stock, cider and rosemary (if using). Bring to a boil, then simmer until squash softens (approximately 1 hour). Turn off heat and puree with immersion blender, food processor, or blender (in batches if necessary).

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

At long last...

Barack Obama's Acceptance Speech

4 November 2008

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

It’s the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference.

It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.

It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.

I just received a very gracious call from Senator McCain. He fought long and hard in this campaign, and he’s fought even longer and harder for the country he loves. He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine, and we are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader. I congratulate him and Governor Palin for all they have achieved, and I look forward to working with them to renew this nation’s promise in the months ahead.

I want to thank my partner in this journey, a man who campaigned from his heart and spoke for the men and women he grew up with on the streets of Scranton and rode with on that train home to Delaware, the Vice President-elect of the United States, Joe Biden.

I would not be standing here tonight without the unyielding support of my best friend for the last sixteen years, the rock of our family and the love of my life, our nation’s next First Lady, Michelle Obama. Sasha and Malia, I love you both so much, and you have earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House. And while she’s no longer with us, I know my grandmother is watching, along with the family that made me who I am. I miss them tonight, and know that my debt to them is beyond measure.

To my campaign manager David Plouffe, my chief strategist David Axelrod, and the best campaign team ever assembled in the history of politics - you made this happen, and I am forever grateful for what you’ve sacrificed to get it done.

But above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to - it belongs to you.

I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didn’t start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington - it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.

It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth. This is your victory.

I know you didn’t do this just to win an election and I know you didn’t do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime - two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they’ll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor’s bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you - we as a people will get there.

There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won’t agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can’t solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years - block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

What began twenty-one months ago in the depths of winter must not end on this autumn night. This victory alone is not the change we seek - it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it’s that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers - in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.

Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long. Let us remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House - a party founded on the values of self-reliance, individual liberty, and national unity. Those are values we all share, and while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, “We are not enemies, but friends…though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn - I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world - our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security - we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright - tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.

For that is the true genius of America - that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that’s on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing - Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons - because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America - the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that “We Shall Overcome.” Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves - if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time - to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth - that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people:

Yes We Can. Thank you, God bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Why I love Barack Obama

To be fair, there are a lot of reasons (universal health care, women's rights, the economy, the integrity with which he ran his campaign, etc.), but this one struck home today.

If you haven't read Michael Pollan's article, Farmer in Chief, which ran in the New York Times on October 9th, I highly recommend that you do. It's long, but it's well written and chock full of fascinating ideas and statistics. Here's a short excerpt to whet your appetite:
After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent. And while the experts disagree about the exact amount, the way we feed ourselves contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do — as much as 37 percent, according to one study. Whenever farmers clear land for crops and till the soil, large quantities of carbon are released into the air. But the 20th-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.
Pollan goes on to discuss the American diet's effect on our health system and our economy, finally outlining a plan for the president-elect to "wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine."

If I had written a letter to the candidates, this would have been it. Bravo Mr. Pollan! Your essay resounded with many of us, even if no politician actually reads it.

But wait, what was that? One of the candidates actually read Pollan's article? In it's entirety? And then promoted it during a speech? Seriously??

...and now you know why I'm in love with the man. Here's what he had to say during his interview with Time magazine:
There is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy. I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollen about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it's creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs. That's just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board.
Photo credit: Treehugger.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

An Attempt to Make Fare Fair

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. - Michael Pollan

This phrase from Michael Pollan's New York Times article, Unhappy Meals, hit me in January 2007 like a ton of bricks. As a recent college grad who was already following the "not too much" part of his advice in an attempt to combat her senior thesis stress-eating and who had been raised by a couple of hippies with a massive garden in the backyard, "eat [real] food" seemed like a logical argument. More than logical really... inspiring. Eat real food, he implores - not that chemical-laden, bio-engineered, artificially colored stuff you find at your supermarket.

In his article, Pollan shows how major commercial conglomerates turned a roast chicken dinner into a Lean Cuisine in the name of Health and how that move actually produced a fatter nation that has lost its historical food culture in the process. Divorcing the soil from the sterile, waxed, and preserved vegetables we find in our grocery stores left a society that couldn't identify whole, healthy foods from the ones Kraft told us to eat.

Pollan's philosophy of nature-knows-what's-good-for-you - combined with memories of my grandmother's home-cooked meals and the fresh ingredients that chefs like Mario Batali, Jamie Oliver, and Giada deLaurentis were propagating - fueled my approach to food for the next year as I moved to Washington, DC, started frequenting local markets, and began a workshare at Claggett Farm. As I started making my meals from scratch, I fell in love with bread baking - the physical and mental therapy of kneading dough - and experimented with the vegetables and herbs I was bringing home. Questions like, "What the heck am I going to do with a whole pumpkin?" became the norm on Sunday afternoons as I prepared my weekly dinners.

It wasn't until March 2008 however that I figured out the real implications of Michael Pollan's command to eat "mostly plants."

In an effort to better understand the underpinnings of the organic/locavore movement that I was now fully a member of, I decided to start doing some research and began with a book that I found randomly - fortuitously? - at an old, ramshackle bookstore by Capitol Hill's Eastern Market. It was Francis Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet (1991), which spells out the waste and pollution embedded in our agricultural system, particularly with regard to raising cattle. Did you know that it takes 17 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef? And did you know that grain production in the US is unsustainable, gravely impacting our environment? Mark Bittman made a similar (brilliant, hilarious) assessment during his 2008 TED speech, that you can watch here.

Now, I'm not a vegetarian, but I have made the decision to only eat organic meat that comes from sustainable farms where the animals are allowed to graze and are not (force-)fed grain. Since that kind of meat is pretty expensive and exceptionally difficult to find without planning in advance, I'm afraid that I no longer eat a lot of meat - a sacrifice happily made however to contribute to a greater goal that I believe is just beginning to find its feet.

Pollan, Lappe, Bittman, and a host of other eco-conscious foodies are now working to illuminate the role that our everyday food choices play in the life of our planet, encouraging us to return to our culinary roots where peas don't come in cans, chickens aren't injected with preservatives, and tomatoes can be orange, or purple, or green. Choosing food that is not chemically or biologically altered preserves our natural resources, our ecosystem and the co-evolution of plants and wildlife. It also combats pollution and health problems.

My continued research on America's food policy will provide the basis for much of this blog. Being an amateur baker and occasional cook, however, I also plan to post recipes and culinary techniques in an effort to share my love of homemade food and to inspire others toward the same end. I hope that these musings are helpful and that together we can create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable world.