Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Advice for the Diet Dilemma (A Bit Lengthy, I'm Afraid)

Once again the New York Times has provided me with my topic du jour. In the Times magazine on Sunday, January 28, there was an article about food science and eating by Michael Pollan, author of the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma." He talks about how scientists have broken “food” down in to “nutrients” to the point where we, the American public, don’t have a clue what we should be eating. As a result, we subsist on Diet Coke and Lean Cuisines.

Pollan offers a few “rules” for eating, which I’ve been thinking about. This is a little stream of consciousness, but here are his rules, along with my thoughts. It’s worth noting that I’m not setting out to answer any questions here; I’m just asking them. If I answer them through my thought processes, well, bonus.

1. Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.

My great-great-grandmother was a woman we call Grandmother Henley (well, one of them was…I’m picking the one I’m actually familiar with, although of course I never met her, but my great-grandmother told me about her, and my grandmother always speaks of her as Grandmother Henley). Going back to her is smart, because I know for a fact that my great-grandmother ate things like Wise Potato Chips, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and other Evil Processed Foods. Grandmother Henley would not, it’s true, recognize Go-Gurt as a food (I barely do, in spite of the fact that my son likes them; blue yogurt—how vile!), but I’ve got some questions and hesitations about other things.

Chocolate graham crackers spring to mind. Graham crackers have been around for a long time. Doubtless Grandmother Henley would recognize them as “food,” but what about the chocolate part? Making graham crackers chocolate involves nothing more than adding some cocoa powder to the dough, and she would also recognize cocoa powder as food. Does that mean chocolate graham crackers are OK? Of course, according to some of the later guidelines, the answer is pretty much no, but there’s more.

I eat egg and cheese English muffins from McDonald’s (you order an Egg McMuffin and tell them to hold the Canadian bacon). Based on this guideline, this is food, but I quite doubt Grandmother Henley would recognize it as such. There was no such thing as a “breakfast sandwich” in her day. Even if I make this at home (since we all know that the McDonald’s cheese and English muffins are loaded with Evil Preservatives and other naughty ingredients), would it still count as food according to this rule? I suppose so, but I don’t really know.

OK, moving on.

2. Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. They’re apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best. Don’t forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was more healthful than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks. When Kellogg’s can boast about its Healthy Heart Strawberry Vanilla cereal bars, health claims have become hopelessly compromised. (The American Heart Association charges food makers for their endorsement.) Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.

I’ve heard this before and it gives me pause every time. Quaker Oats, probably the most benign food in the free world, carries a health claim about reduction of the risk of heart disease. Am I to avoid Quaker Oats? And what about Bush’s Black Beans: “May Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease”; or Libby’s Pumpkin: “Excellent Source of Vitamin A & Fiber”; or Del Monte Sliced Carrots: “Only 5g of Net Carbs Per Serving”? Or my Fresh Express Baby Spinach: “Packed with Nutrition! Vitamins A, K & C! Folic Acid! Iron! Lutein!” (If you think I spend a lot of time wandering around my kitchen reading food labels, well, that’s where you’re right.) I can see that Mr. Pollan is talking about something like a plain old leek from the produce department, which bears no label at all, but this particular piece of advice could prove confusing to the average idiot (of which there seem to be a frightening number in this world, alas, alas).

Of course Kellogg’s Healthy Heart Strawberry Vanilla cereal bars are something on which I’d take a pass. Besides sounding downright revolting, they’re clearly processed within an inch of their lives, and the fact that the person who dreamed these up had a Strawberry Shortcake doll as a kid is the closest they ever got to anything even vaguely resembling a strawberry.

3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup. None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed.

Here we have a slight problem with the deluge of food and nutrition reporting interfering with the recommended course of action. Thanks to Better Living Through Chemistry, I can pronounce Aspartame, guar gum, titanim dioxide, and ascorbic acid, and worse, I know what they all are (respectively: an artificial sweetener whose arrangement of molecules closely mimics that of real sugar, a thickener from the guar bean shrub, a chemical used as a “brightener” in products such as white toothpaste and canned frosting, and the formal name for vitamin C. I got a D- in high school Chemistry. Pathetic, isn’t it?)

More than five in number is tricky, because sometimes perfectly healthy products have more than five ingredients. I’ve never heard of anyone slamming Worcestershire sauce (except my friend E, who hates it—but then, she’s not deriding its health properties, only its taste), and yet my bottle of Worcestershire sauce lists 13 ingredients, including the much-dreaded high-fructose corn syrup.

High-fructose corn syrup is the next trans fat. Or maybe it’s just a companion evil to trans fat. It’s said to be in just about everything (a claim I won’t dispute, since it’s bloody true), and it’s said that the human body does not need that crap. Again, no argument. But if we can’t eat ANYthing with high-fructose corn syrup in it, what ARE we to eat? Are we expected to sit around and gnaw on raw, unseasoned carrots and celery sticks? Or am I to comb natural foods stores for Worcestershire sauce that doesn’t have HFCS in it? With four kids, I frankly don’t have that kind of time.

So maybe we go with the last sentence here and assume that none of the characteristics mentioned is harmful in and of themselves, use the Worcestershire sauce (except E) and get over it.

4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. You won’t find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer’s market; you also won’t find food harvested long ago and far away. What you will find are fresh whole foods picked at the peak of nutritional quality. Precisely the kind of food your great-great-grandmother would have recognized as food.

I’ve whined about the inconvenience (timing) and availability (seasonality and location) of farmers' markets before. I will not again.

5. Pay more, eat less. The American food system has for a century devoted its energies and policies to increasing quantity and reducing price, not to improving quality. There’s no escaping the fact that better food — measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond) — costs more, because it has been grown or raised less intensively and with more care. Not everyone can afford to eat well in America, which is shameful, but most of us can: Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation. And those of us who can afford to eat well should. Paying more for food well grown in good soils — whether certified organic or not — will contribute not only to your health (by reducing exposure to pesticides) but also to the health of others who might not themselves be able to afford that sort of food: the people who grow it and the people who live downstream, and downwind, of the farms where it is grown.

“Eat less” is the most unwelcome advice of all, but in fact the scientific case for eating a lot less than we currently do is compelling. “Calorie restriction” has repeatedly been shown to slow aging in animals, and many researchers (including Walter Willett, the Harvard epidemiologist) believe it offers the single strongest link between diet and cancer prevention. Food abundance is a problem, but culture has helped here, too, by promoting the idea of moderation. Once one of the longest-lived people on earth, the Okinawans practiced a principle they called “Hara Hachi Bu”: eat until you are 80 percent full. To make the “eat less” message a bit more palatable, consider that quality may have a bearing on quantity: I don’t know about you, but the better the quality of the food I eat, the less of it I need to feel satisfied. All tomatoes are not created equal.

Ah, this is an interesting argument, and one that really got me started thinking about this article. Eat Less. As Americans we eat an enormous amount of food. This morning alone I’ve probably eaten more food than some inhabitants of the Third World eat in a week. It was all, I might point out, pretty much crap.

I completely agree that if the food is of a really high quality, I need far less of it to be satisfied. The caveat is that if I spend a lot of money on it, I feel like I should bloody well eat it all, instead of tossing it when I’m full. In my home I can, of course, better control portion sizes. In restaurants it’s a different story.

Yesterday I had lunch at a local pub that serves pretty decent food. Since this article was still on my mind, I ordered something that I felt pretty closely adhered to the guidelines set forth here. It was a spinach salad (see #6 about eating more leaves), with bleu cheese, sautéed red onions and apples, walnuts, and a balsamic dressing. I asked for sautéed shrimp to get a little protein as well. The salad was $8.95. The added shrimp were $5.95 (roughly a buck a shrimp). You can bet that at that price, there was no Hara Hachi Bu-ing for me. I ate it all. I could probably have stopped about two thirds of the way through—maybe even half way through--but that would have meant leaving about three shrimp, and I just couldn’t stand to do that. Yes, better in the trash than on my tush, I suppose, but I just couldn’t do it. I wasn’t brought up as a member of the now-cliched “Clean Plate Club,” but something in me (years of my grandmother’s frugality finally wearing off on me? Sheer guilt?) just wouldn’t let me send that plate to the kitchen with two or three uneaten shrimp, and a pile of other salad ingredients, on it.

We Americans seem to have an interesting problem of our own devising. We’ve forced restaurants to provide huge, huge portions in response to our insistence that we “get what we pay for,” and yet we feel guilty wasting the money if we don’t eat every bite of food, no matter how overfull it makes us feel. Personally, I would have been just as happy with a $5 salad, and $3 worth of shrimp, and been able to eat it all without feeling too full or too guilty. The restaurant didn’t offer $5 worth of that salad, because their patrons want a bigger salad, something more filling.

I’m happy eating at home most of the time, but what’s a pig to do when she goes out to eat? Try to control myself, I guess, and see if I can get half orders of things, or maybe doggie bags (however, salad does not lend itself to a doggie bag).

6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. Scientists may disagree on what’s so good about plants — the antioxidants? Fiber? Omega-3s? — but they do agree that they’re probably really good for you and certainly can’t hurt. Also, by eating a plant-based diet, you’ll be consuming far fewer calories, since plant foods (except seeds) are typically less “energy dense” than the other things you might eat. Vegetarians are healthier than carnivores, but near vegetarians (“flexitarians”) are as healthy as vegetarians. Thomas Jefferson was on to something when he advised treating meat more as a flavoring than a food.

I’m tired of hearing this “meat more as a flavoring” line, even from Thomas Jefferson. How about if I just eat less meat and more vegetables?

7. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. Any traditional diet will do: if it weren’t a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn’t still be around. True, food cultures are embedded in societies and economies and ecologies, and some of them travel better than others: Inuit not so well as Italian. In borrowing from a food culture, pay attention to how a culture eats, as well as to what it eats. In the case of the French paradox, it may not be the dietary nutrients that keep the French healthy (lots of saturated fat and alcohol?!) so much as the dietary habits: small portions, no seconds or snacking, communal meals — and the serious pleasure taken in eating. (Worrying about diet can’t possibly be good for you.) Let culture be your guide, not science.

Oh dear. What about mixing the eating habits of different cultures? What if I want to eat like the French AND the Italians? And the Chinese? And the Indians? And the Thais? I like all those different kinds of food, and I don’t want to limit myself to just one. Maybe there are some similarities in all those cultures that can be incorporated into our own eating habits. The small portions, and no seconds or snacking ideas sound like they might bridge all of the healthy non-American styles of eating. Is that the way to go? So many questions.

8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden. To take part in the intricate and endlessly interesting processes of providing for our sustenance is the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values implicit in it: that food should be cheap and easy; that food is fuel and not communion. The culture of the kitchen, as embodied in those enduring traditions we call cuisines, contains more wisdom about diet and health than you are apt to find in any nutrition journal or journalism. Plus, the food you grow yourself contributes to your health long before you sit down to eat it. So you might want to think about putting down this article now and picking up a spatula or hoe.

I do cook, so problem solved there. Right now I can’t plant a garden, but when I can, I will. Case closed on that one.

9. Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet. The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases. That of course is an argument from nutritionism, but there is a better one, one that takes a broader view of “health.” Biodiversity in the diet means less monoculture in the fields. What does that have to do with your health? Everything. The vast monocultures that now feed us require tremendous amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep from collapsing. Diversifying those fields will mean fewer chemicals, healthier soils, healthier plants and animals and, in turn, healthier people. It’s all connected, which is another way of saying that your health isn’t bordered by your body and that what’s good for the soil is probably good for you, too.

Earlier in this article, Pollan mentions that four crops account for two-thirds of the calories humans eat: wheat, soybeans, corn, and rice. So adding new species…hm. That’s kind of a tricky one, because really, what’s available to us? Fish, chicken (I’ll lump duck and turkey in here too), pork, beef, lamb. Various fruits and vegetables. The Grains (and things like seeds and legumes).

I think his statement about adding new “species” as opposed to new “foods” to one’s diet is confusing. The dictionary definition of a species is “…the smallest group of classification. A species generally consists of all the individual organisms of a natural population which are able to interbreed, generally sharing similar appearance, characteristics and genetics due to having relatively recent common ancestors.” So Brassica oleracea is a species, but I’m sure Pollan would say that we shouldn’t just add cabbage alone to our diets, but also add brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli, all of which fall into the species B. oleracea. I think the advice “add more different foods” is sufficient. It ought to be followed by the statement “Try everything you can find that’s edible.”

What I find to be a problem about this is that often some fruits and vegetables just aren’t good in their natural state. Ever eaten raw broccoli rabe (or rapini, as it’s sometimes called)? Or raw quince? Yuck. Yet cooked, those two things are wonderful, and I love them. The problem is twofold, it seems to me—first, people don’t eat enough of a variety of fruits and vegetables, and second, we don’t know how to prepare them to make them tasty. If we just follow the “add more” rule, stroll into the grocery store and buy the first unfamiliar vegetable that comes to hand, and eat it as is, more likley than not we’re going to be turned way off. What’s a would-be adventerous eater to do?

My solution, as always, is to buy more cookbooks. I’m not recommending this for everyone, necessarily, but based on the advice above to cook more, I’d say it would work for those truly dedicated to trying to eat better. I have several vegetable and vegetarian cookbooks, and I like “regular” cookbooks that have big sections on ways to cook different vegetables. In fact, say what you will about the “low carb” craze, it has produced a few very good cookbooks that focus on vegetable preparations.

At the beginning of this article, Mr. Pollan gives the solution to our diet and nutrition problems in 7 words (with a couple of sentences of clarification): Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. A little meat won’t kill you, though it’s better approached as a side dish than as a main. And you’re much better off eating whole fresh foods than processed food products.

And buy more cookbooks. He forgot that.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

What a Crock

Here we are smack dab in the middle of Crock Pot weather, and I have yet to use mine. Interestingly, I’m in a position where the complaints I have with how Crock Pots (or I should correctly say “slow cookers” since Crock Pot is actually a name trademarked by Rival for their brand of slow cooker) function shouldn’t really be an issue. Right now I’m home all day, so I’d be able to put things in a slow cooker and have it cook for just 6 or 8 hours, the way most recipes recommend.

In general, I don’t think slow cookers work the way they’re supposed to. The idea is that you put a bunch of stuff in the pot, plug the pot in, leave for work, return home and find dinner waiting. That’s the theory. When slow cookers first seemed to hit their stride, back in the 1970s (at least, that’s when I remember my mother most using a slow cooker) that was probably fine. People in general didn’t rush out of the house at 6 a.m. and come tearing back in at 6:30 at night, or later. My mother used to leave for work at a very civilized 8:30 a.m. She was generally home by 6.

Today, when I’m working, I leave my house at 6:15 and return home just about 12 hours later. That’s approximately three hours longer than my mother’s absence from the house in the 1970s. Most slow cooker recipes—at least the ones that I have—all seem to call for food to be cooked for 8 hours, give or take. That’s four hours less than I’m gone from home. I could see if my mother put something in to cook at 8 a.m., and came back home at 6 that it might be OK; slow cookers are, after all, a very low heat, so an extra hour or two really shouldn’t make too much difference. However, I have trouble believing that an extra four hours wouldn’t impact the quality of the food. Unless, of course, all you make is beef stew.

Those who develop recipes for slow cookers would have you believe that you can make just about anything short of chocolate éclairs or ice cream in a slow cooker. Yeah, maybe in their slow cooker, with them standing around developing recipes next to it all day long, available to turn if off when the cooking time is over.

Additionally, many recipes (even those for beef stew) call for a fairly significant amount of prep work prior to the actual pot-plugging-in. Slicing vegetables, dredging with flour, browning meat. This is too much work for me to undertake at 5:45 a.m., even assuming I did have the time to do it then. I’m just not that highly functional at that hour. I’d slice off a finger, or the baby would wind up dredged in flour. It would be hard to explain that to daycare.

So ideally, I should be able to prep everything the night before, put it in the pot part and refrigerate it overnight, then drop the pot into the heating element and turn it on as I head out the door. Again, however, we have that 8 hour cook time versus 12 hour “away” time issue. The obvious solution is a pot that has a timer built into it.

They make this. I was so excited when I found it. It’s called a Smart Pot and it’s made by Rival (so it’s a Crock Pot). I told my husband, “This is what we need!” and he bought it for me then and there. Smart man. Dumb me. I should have looked more carefully to see how the thing actually worked. They did almost what they needed to do, but they missed the mark in a very critical way.

The Smart Pot allows you to set the cooker to cook for two, four, six, or eight hours. After that amount of time, it shifts to a “low” or “hold” setting. The catch is that as soon as you plug the pot in and select the number of hours you want it to cook, it starts cooking. Well, duh, you say. Yes, but what it needs to do is turn itself on 8 hours before I arrive home. Assuming that’s 6 p.m., that means the pot needs to turn on at 10 a.m. The Smart Pot doesn’t do this. It needs a clock that can be set for “On: 10 a.m.” and the length of the cooking time set to 8 hours.

I see the problem the slow cooker manufacturers face. If I took a pot of food out of the refrigerator (or even just put the ingredients into the pot cold) at 6 a.m., and then it didn’t start cooking until 10 a.m., the food would be sitting unrefrigerated, growing bacteria and god knows what else, for four hours before it started cooking. Here in Litigation Land, that would be a field day for people who felt a little queasy after Mom’s Slow Cooker Spam Loaf or whatever it was. Clearly the fact that the Spam Loaf ingredients sat out for four hours before starting to cook caused bacterial growth that led to food poisoning (and never mind that the idea of Spam Loaf is, in itself, pretty nauseating). Let’s sue!

At the same time, what they’ve got now simply doesn’t work. Don’t tell me that the hold setting it uses is really, really low heat. Any heat is going to continue to cook the food. I just do not believe that four-plus hours at even the lowest of heat settings isn’t going to compromise the quality of the food produced (unless, as I said earlier, it’s beef stew—but then why do I need a single appliance just to make beef stew?).

I know I’m going to be driven to what my husband’s mother finally did. She had this same complaint about slow cookers years ago (it's not just whiny me). She went out and bought one of those timers you plug your lamps into when you go on vacation so the lights will go on at dark and back off again a couple of hours later, so it looks like someone turned off the lamp to go to bed. She plugged her slow cooker into it, set it for the correct time to begin cooking to ensure that dinner would be ready when she got home, and went off to work. None of her family ever got food poisoning that way. They got to eat more than beef stew from the slow cooker, too.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Obsession (A Mostly Non-Food Entry)

Ever since I was a small child, I've found myself obsessed with the printed word. I'll read just about anything. Of course, I have my preferences, but when the chips are down and there's nothing around that I want to read, I'll read what I can get my hands on. I've read the user's manual for our car on many occasions when my husband has run into some store for "just a minute." I have to read.

There's a blog out there called Whatever, which is authored by the friend of a friend. In addition to being a blogger, the guy also writes science fiction books, so his blog is pretty well visited. Once in awhile he holds a sort of open forum, where he'll answer questions submitted by his blog readers. Someone once asked him about his early life, or something like that, and one of the things he mentioned was that he doesn't recall how or when he learned to read. It just seems, he said, as though he'd always known how. Me too.

My parents tell me I learned to read at age three, but I have no recollection of the process. I just remember sitting in the classroom of the Montessori school/daycare I attended as a small child with a Dick and Jane book reading aloud (to myself) "Dick likes sweats. Jane likes sweats. You like sweats." I should clarify that the book was not titled "Dick and Jane Go to the Gym"; it was just that I read the word "sweet" and pronounced it "sweat." (I said I learned to read at age three; I didn't say I learned to read well at age three.) In later years my Montessori school teachers were frustrated with me because I didn't want to do any of the other activities available to me; I just wanted to read.

I spent a lot of my childhood with a book. My mother didn't exactly hinder me--every Saturday we used to go to McDonald's for lunch and we'd each take a book to read. We'd sit there together, eating and reading. She had a policy that at the bookstore, I could buy as many books as I wanted. I recall staggering out of Crown Books under the weight of all the juvenile paperbacks I'd bought. Even now I complain about having been an only child, but I suppose those book buying free-for-alls were one of the advantages of being an only. Of course, if I'd had siblings, I might not have had to find companionship in books. I can remember sitting at the dinner table by myself, eating and reading a book. Even now I read while I eat if I'm alone. Sometimes I even like to eat alone, just so I can read.

In college I tried majoring in interior design and business at different times. After being completely disgusted by the vapid fixy girls that filled the interior design program, and flunking economics, I broke down and majored in English, as I should have all along. I stuck pretty close to the DWEMs and Classics (that's Dead White European Males, for those not familiar with the acronym). I was well served by this course of study--my DWEM-opposing husband took a Dickens class (doubtless under protest, or maybe because it was the only thing that fit into his schedule that semester) and that's where I met him.

Over the years I've found myself having to swerve to correct my course while driving, as my eyes are drawn to the wording painted on the side of a truck going the opposite direction on the highway. I hate bumper stickers, because I so long to read them, but I can't do so safely most of the time. I don't want to read them in the way most people do--to see what amusing or irritating sentiment someone has been dopey enough to slap on their vehicle--I long to read them so my eye can pore over the printed word. I am sometimes amused or irritated by bumper stickers (let's face it, generally the latter), but I don't read them for content.

I've spent one or two nights in hospital emergency rooms, and I have to give them the award for the environment most barren of reading material. There was one night I had been checked in, and was waiting for a room to be ready (it had to have been 11:30 at night before I finally got into a room--I couldn't figure out why the room was occupied until that time; who the hell leaves a hospital at 11:30 p.m.?) and was casting around for something to read.

Absolutely the only thing (after the labels on the packages of gauze) was a copy of People magazine. I read every article in it, and even started the crossword puzzle at the end. I couldn't finish it because I don't watch TV, so I didn't know a lot of the actors' names that were answers to the clues. It was clearly a puzzle for people of the intelligence level that you would expect to be reading such a fine, intellectual publication. I think one of the clues was actually a four letter word for "Accessory used to hold up pants." By the time I got done my IQ had dropped 20 points, and my brains were leaking out my ears.

I think this obsession with the printed word is one of the reasons I love grocery stores so much. I was thinking about this as I was picking up a couple of things the other day. The grocery store is just papered with things to read. Obviously there are all the labels on the products that scream for your attention. Even beyond that, though, is all sorts of wonderful printing to catch the eye. It doesn't matter if it's a food product or cleaning supplies, there's always plenty to read.

There's all that great marketing text on every item that tells you how superior the product is, gives the history of the company, talks about the purity of the ingredients, or describes the outstanding results that can be obtained using the product. There are instructions for use, nutritional information, government warnings, and sometimes recipes.

This isn't necessarily true of every store. Hardware stores and clothing stores, to offer two examples, are pretty deficient in the incidental things-to-read department. Hardware stores do have some good stuff--paint can labels and things like fertilizer and weed killer have fairly interesting text (all those instructions for use, and dire threats about the hazardousness of the fumes, and "keep out of reach of children" warnings accompanied by a skull and crossbones).

So often, however, they're lacking. Wrenches, for example, are purchased loose. They don't come in a blister pack with a cardboard backer that some marketing person looked at and thought "What an outstanding place to put some self-promoting drivel about our company!" This is true of many of the findings in hardware stores.

Clothing stores are really just hopeless. In clothing stores, once you get past the care instructions on the Orlon garment, you're pretty much done. Although I will read the fine print on their credit card offers in a pinch, it's mostly just boilerplate text, with the only variation being the APR. This may explain why I have literally hundreds of books, but very few store credit cards.

Fortunately my husband enjoys reading as much as I do. He reads different genres of books, and I've never caught him reading the recipe for Mock Apple Pie on the back of a box of Ritz crackers, but we do exchange magazines, and we both read select sections of the Sunday New York Times. Our evenings are often spent sitting on various comfortable chairs, reading different varieties of books, newspapers, or magazines.

I'm hoping my children will inherit our love of reading (although perhaps not to the same extreme--I'd hate to have one of my kids wreck a car just so they can read "East Side Plumbing Supplies" on the side of a truck). So far my older son loves being read to, and is now starting to like looking at books by himself, although he can't actually read yet. The twins like to look at books, but they seem to have an uncanny ability to hold them upside down, and shriek objection if you try to turn them right side up. I have high hopes for the baby, although she's just getting to the point where she can bat at a toy by herself, so actual recognition of letters may be a little way off.

A friend once asked me somewhat jokingly, prior to the birth of my first son, "What if he doesn't like to read much? Will you send him back?" (it's probably worth noting that this was a friend who didn't like to read all that much) and I said "No, of course not!" In reality I was thinking, "Yes, I will." I can't send them back where they came from, naturally, but I can't believe that children who have such easy access to all manner of books, who get books from their relatives for every gift-giving holiday and birthday, who see their parents reading as a form of relaxation, and who are surrounded by a family that contains avid readers, a used book collector, and a writer or two wouldn't come to like reading. They may not read road signs out loud on long car trips (as I used to do when my husband and I were first married, earning me the joking nickname of "Sign Girl"), but I'd like to think they'll always have an answer when someone asks "So, what are you reading these days?"

Monday, January 22, 2007

You'll Eat It and You'll Like It

As I think I’ve made pretty clear, I was a picky child who would eat only hamburgers and junk food for about the first fifteen years of my life. I was thinking about this when I was trying to coax my own children into eating something other than chicken nuggets and hot dogs the other day. While trying to get the tunnel to open so the choo choo could go in, I was remembering how I came to be won over by certain foods. I realized the process of learning to like new foods can be pretty odd. I don’t remember when I discovered that pizza was tasty, or learning to like steak or lettuce, but my first experiences with some foods are so distinctive that I remember them with startling clarity.

I tried broccoli, for example, in an effort to get a child to eat it. I was babysitting a little girl, and her mother had made her dinner to use as a distraction while they were leaving. It worked, but the child was dead set against eating the steamed broccoli her mom had served. In a trick that would never work with my own kids, I said, “How about if I eat a little, and then you eat a little?” Clearly I was desperate, because I loathed broccoli at the time. Talk about making sacrifices for your work. I took the tiniest bit of a stalk and put it in my mouth. I breathed through my mouth the whole time I was chewing, to avoid tasting it. Once it was chewed up and swallowed, I breathed normally and of course I could taste a little of the “aftertaste.” It wasn’t too bad, really. I ate a slightly larger piece to get her to try a little more. This time I let myself taste it. It was pretty good. I liked it! I liked broccoli!

This discovery led to my tasting cream of broccoli soup. I loved this too. Somehow a high school friend and I stumbled on a place in The Shops and National Place in downtown Washington, DC that sold what I considered to be the best cream of broccoli soup there was. We’d make special trips downtown to get it after school let out for the day.

The same friend was also responsible for my introduction to Ethiopian food. This was before “When Harry Met Sally…” came out, so I couldn't back out of it using Billy Crystal’s joke “I didn’t know they had food in Ethiopia…this should be easy: I’ll order two empty plates and we’ll leave.” My friend talked me into going to a place called Zed’s in Adams Morgan. We ordered a sort of sampler platter that came with the bread (which immediately struck me as looking exactly like a Nerf ball that had gotten into an unfortunate situation with a steam roller). The restaurant was dark, and my friend gave me a quick rundown of what everything was that I didn’t really take in. In this case I did the culinary equivalent of holding my nose and walking off the high dive (which, for the record, I’ve done only twice, and both times it was under protest—I don’t like heights). I tore off a piece of bread, scooped something up, and ate it. I don’t remember now much of what I ate, except that there were potatoes involved, and red lentils, and that I was surprised to find that I liked it all.

Those red lentils on that Ethiopian food platter led to another revelation. Lentils were good. From that day on I was no longer averse to pulses, and this led me to a willingness to try various legumes as well. I now love white beans, both in soup, and as the puree that is the low carb fad replacement for mashed potatoes. I tolerate kidney beans (they’re so big and coarse-looking that they intimidate me sometimes, but I can handle them in chili). I really don’t care for chick peas much. Maybe it’s their name. Peas aren’t my favorite vegetable. Also, I find them to be sort of grainy.

There are other foods I’ve learned to like by forcing myself to try them. One year we spent the New Year’s holiday with my in-laws in Northwestern Massachusetts. After two days with my father-in-law, both my husband and I felt the need to get out of the house (indeed, out of the state) and spend some time alone. On New Year’s Day we drove into Vermont to a little town called Manchester. There we went to lunch at a tavern, in a hotel called The Equinox. On the menu that day was cream of mushroom soup. Maybe I was subconsciously reminded of my experience many years earlier with cream of broccoli soup, or maybe I just figured that anything made with butter, flour, and cream couldn’t be bad. In any event, I remember saying to myself “THIS year I’m going to learn to like mushrooms. I’m an adult now—I need to stop shying away from them.” I ordered the soup. My rationale didn’t fail me—anything made with butter, flour, and cream is worth taking a chance on, and I liked the soup. Now I can eat mushrooms cooked, but I still have difficulty with them in their raw state. The resolution was largely a success.

Somehow a restaurant environment is safe for trying new things. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it, and no one is offended. Restaurants were my introduction to a number of things, including more exotic Chinese foods (Mongolian Lamb that I had at a Chinese restaurant in Sydney, Australia, which so far is the best Chinese dish I’ve ever had in my whole life; I’m guessing the quality of the lamb had something to do with it, although the restaurant itself was a total dive), and olive tapenade that I tried at a restaurant in Georgetown with the same friend who turned me on to Ethiopian food (clearly this friend has been responsible for a lot of my culinary awakenings—thank you, Reese).

A restaurant was also where I learned to like calamari, about five years before the deep fried rubber bands started showing up in every restaurant in North America that had a deep fryer in the kitchen. On my way to Australia, I stopped for a day or two to visit my uncle in San Francisco. The first night he took me to a tapas bar he liked. This was also before the “little plates” craze hit this country; my uncle had spent a number of years in Spain and had stumbled on this tapas bar near his house. He ordered for us, and among other things, they brought out a little basket of deep fried cone things. I started eating, and the cone things weren’t bad. I ate a few more. He asked me if I knew what they were. I shook my head. He told me they were calamari; did I know what calamari was? Again, a response in the negative from me. “They’re squid,” he said. I remember pausing for a moment, teetering between OK with it, and grossed out beyond belief. After a minute, I went with OK. Hey, they were pretty tasty, and since at the time I wasn’t 100% sure what a squid looked like, I let it go. It was just that word. Squid. It sounded so ooky—like something slimy and slithery. Since then I’ve come to believe that if you want Americans to eat something, you deep fry it and give it a slightly exotic sounding name and you’re in business.

An old boss and I used to get to work very early, and spend an hour or more just talking before everyone else got into the office. At one point we were talking about food we liked, and food we didn’t. We had both heard or read that the human palate changes every seven years or so. What you tasted at seven or ten years old and hated, you might try again at twenty or twenty five and find you loved. I had this experience myself with cream cheese. I must have been about four when my mother took me to a baby shower for one of her coworkers. They had something on the food table that looked like slices of chocolate cake with white icing on them. Right up my alley, of course. I asked my mother if I could have one. She responded with a sentence that I’ve sworn never to say to my children: “Yes, but you probably won’t like it.” Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies. I’m not saying that I would have liked the pumpernickel bread with cream cheese on it if she hadn’t said that (I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have—when you’re counting on chocolate cake and you get pumpernickel bread, you’re bound to have a moment of disappointment, and are probably more inclined than not to hold a grudge), but I refuse to automatically assume that my kids will dislike something just because I don’t think it’s something a juvenile palate will appreciate.

As a result of this experience, I actively disliked cream cheese for many, many years. Finally at age twenty, I was working in a catering kitchen. On a whim, I tried something that we made as an hors d’oeuvre—it was called a mascarpone torta, and it was supposed to be made with mascarpone cheese. We made it with equal parts butter and cream cheese (clearly, a low fat offering), whirled in a food processor. This was then spread into a mold in two layers, with a layer of pesto and chopped walnuts in between, and served with slices of French bread. I have no idea what actually inspired me to taste this, unless I didn’t realize it was made with cream cheese (probably the case). I loved it, and when I was told how it was made, I thought that maybe cream cheese was worth giving another chance. I’ve been eating it ever since in every state known to man—cheesecake, on bagels, in dips, you name it.

There are still things I really don’t like: eggplant, pomegranates, avocado, okra, grapefruit. Maybe one day I’ll try some or all of those things (well, probably not the pomegranates—sorry, Reese) and discover that I do in fact like them. After all, my palate will keep changing, albeit more slowly as I get older. As my old boss and I used to say to each other, “When was the last time you tried it?”

Status Update

My hard drive is still dead, and I haven't bought a new one. I'm using my husband's crappy laptop on which the "u" key sticks. You never know how many times you use a letter until the key doesn't work and you have to keep going back to put the letter in where the key failed while you were typing. Argh.

Then, on the day I started back to work from maternity leave, I got laid off.

Bad things happen in threes, don't they? Uh oh.

In answer to the first question everyone asks me about the layoff, yes, they can do that. It was a reduction in force, not a performance-based dismissal. The company laid off 14 people that day. They had over-hired in anticipation of work that then failed to materialize. I fell victim to the "last in-first out" rule of layoffs. I'm not thrilled, naturally, but I'm looking for another job and I have some solid leads. As a result, I hope not to be out of work for much more than another month. According to my husband, I'd better not be.

Thus, although I am not working, I still may not be posting with the frequency which I had hoped. If my husband finds out I'm blogging instead of searching job boards (which he could only do if he reads my blog, which he does not), I'll be in big trouble.

More updates as they become available...

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Stock Text

As I read through the multitude of food magazines I receive each month, I notice that there are words and phrases that they use over and over to describe food, and actions involving food (mostly they have to do with food, although there are others that don’t exactly refer to food, but that still show up in food magazines for one reason or another). Some of them have been around for quite a long time, while others are fairly new to the vocabulary. In every case, I notice that they’re things I simply refuse to do, or have anything to do with.

For instance, the newest buzzword, particularly in quotes from restaurateurs is “provision.” Not a month goes by that I don’t read an interview with some new restaurant owner who insists that “…we provision only the finest organic products to use in creating our menus.” This usually is followed by the tired spiel about using only fresh, seasonal ingredients (and, if it’s a healthy cooking magazine, how they use herbs and spices to enhance flavor, instead of added fat and salt). Personally, I do not “provision.” I buy, I purchase, I get at the store, but I do not provision.

Often articles suggest various items to eat between meals, more commonly referred to as snacks. These, the magazines urge, are perfect when I want a “nosh.” Or they offer suggestions for things I can “nosh” on. Noshing is something else I refuse to do. Primarily, I have a snack. Occasionally I’ll have a little something to tide me over. I can safely say that I have never intentionally noshed.

I can also safely say that I have never “jonesed.” We’re often assured that such-and-such a substitute can stand in successfully as a treat when we’re “jonesing” for something less healthy. Usually this is something patently ridiculous, like eating baby carrots when one is “jonesing” for potato chips, but that’s another story. I myself want, or may on rare occasions crave, but never do I jones for anything.

When deciding what to have with an entrée, I do not “round out the meal” with either a “green salad” or a “crusty loaf of bread.” I may have a salad for a vegetable, or choose to have bread with a meal, but rounding out the meal is not part of my planning. Recipe headers for entrees are always urging us to round out the meal, generally with the aforementioned green salad and/or a crusty loaf of bread. Occasionally they’ll suggest a dessert (very often some form of fresh fruit, or ice cream and cookies) to “complete the menu.”

A suggestion that’s often made, particularly in recipes for casseroles, is to “double the recipe and freeze half for later.” I find that if I do this, what I do is freeze half to throw out later. Somehow I never like the texture of prepared foods when they’re thawed and reheated. I’m really only talking about homemade food here, not frozen dinners, which can occasionally be OK and sometimes even tasty. Commercial quick freezing techniques are far superior to the job done by my Kenmore refrigerator.

Although I understand the need to find verbs other than choose and pick, which certainly can become repetitive, I almost never find myself in a position to “opt.” Frequently we’re encouraged to “opt for a whole grain bagel over a muffin” and things of that nature. I’m more one to pick, choose, or select, as opposed to opt. I really never opt if I can help it.

Then there are cutesy words that fill in for the more staid nouns—spuds instead of potatoes, kicks instead of sneakers, mitts instead of hands, tresses or locks instead of hair, peepers instead of eyes. You get the general idea. Probably the most abused of these words these days is bling. I had never heard this term before to describe that which is bright, eye-catching, and generally somewhat ostentatious. A friend commented in an email that she was sick of seeing this word everywhere. This always happens to me, particularly with this friend—I’ve never seen or heard of a word, phrase, product, or person before until she mentions it. Once she does, it’s everywhere and of course it promptly begins to annoy the crap out of me. Thus it was with bling. (I got back at her—she’d never heard of the Lee Brothers from Charleston, South Carolina. These two men moved to New York City, so missed some of the various foods they could get “back home” that they started a mail order company, and now they’ve written a cookbook and are everywhere you turn. Needless to say they’re irritating as hell, primarily because they let on to be good ol’ south’n’ boys from a long line of good ol’ south’n’ boys, when in fact they merely moved to Charleston at some point in their earlier lives. I think they’re originally from Nebraska or something.)

I’m sure there are dozens of other examples of this sort of thing I could dig up, but not without becoming more tiresome than I already have been. Magazine copy writers seem to read each other’s work and seize on the clever turn of phrase (or what’s clever once, anyway) and reuse it until it sounds like they use one of those refrigerator poetry kits full of stock magazine phrases and just rearrange them to suit the story they’re writing. That’s probably what they do, in fact. If I could provision one of those kits, I could use my mitts to do some copywriting of my own and opt for some bling with the money I'd make doing it.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


My hard drive crashed. Hard. As in "no bootable devices found" hard (bootable? Is that even a word?). As in "replace me now" hard. This means that not only am I using a backup laptop (a work one that--if you can believe it--I'm not the administrator on, so I can't actually add any software to much for Instant Messaging!), but that all the drafts of posts that I had saved on my old hard drive are history. Bye-bye!

I've got paper-and-pen notes of lots of topics, but all the drafts are gone, so I'm starting over from scratch.

In addition to that, I start back to work on the 22nd, and I have quite a bit to do to get ready for that (such as looking up the address of my office, and finding some clothes that aren't sweatpants).

Check back with me now and then--I'll try to put up a couple of posts between now and the 22nd. When I'm back in the groove, I'll put up a post to that effect, and start posting more on the one- to two-times-per-week schedule that I always intended to maintain.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Internal Debate Rages

This organic thing is still an issue for me. I promise not to do many more (or maybe even any more) entries on this subject, lest my two readers become bored and abandon me, but I’m still mulling this whole thing over. Some reading I’ve been doing on the subject, along with some detective work I did this morning, have raised some questions for me.

There’s an article in the New York Times this morning about a phenomenon called “greenwashing.” (I’d provide the link, but I think the Times requires registration—that opportunity for you to protect your privacy by giving phony information so it looks like a male World War I veteran in Toledo, OH is reading the Times Online; that’s what I do at least, but I’m kind of evil that way, and can’t understand why the Times needs to know my birthday. Should I expect a card? Age range I can handle, actual date of birth is none of their business.) “Greenwashing” is the practice employed by food companies to make their products look wholesome, environmentally friendly, and socially correct. They may use images of rolling fields, huge dew-wet vegetables or fruits, perhaps a barn in the background, and maybe a tractor to convey the impression that the product has a strong connection with the land. Anthropomorphic animals may also play a role—dancing cows, instrument playing insects, and what have you.

The text on such packages may also perpetuate the myth. It often uses the word “organic,” frequently talks about the company’s philanthropic efforts, and uses the recognized catchphrases we’ve all come to associate with “green” products. Words like wholesome, all natural, earth friendly, responsible.

This whole movement is not unlike the use of green packages to convey “fat free” or “reduced fat.” Back in the late 80s and early 90s, when Nabisco introduced the Snackwell’s line, they used a kelly green box. Go to the grocery store today, and many of the fat-altered products are in green packaging. Healthy Choice is the other obvious example. Even products like Sara Lee pound cake will have a green banner or ribbon with the fat reduction indicator. That bright green is a form of shorthand for consumers—“I am low fat: pick me, pick me!”

So the first question is, without actually calling, or looking up on the Internet, all these companies that make allegedly organic and healthy foods, how can one sort them all out? Even if I were to do all that research, there’s no assurance that the information I’d get would be completely reliable, provided as it would be by the company’s own marketing people, who obviously have a vested interest in my thinking highly of them. There’s the USDA Organic seal, but that doesn’t mean whatever it is will actually be good for you. I mentioned organic tortilla chips and cookies in my last rant on this subject.

Then there’s the question of organic versus local. Again, I refer to my previous driveling regarding “organic” foods that are hauled into my local grocery store from faraway places. I checked out the organic section of my local Safeway this morning (because I didn’t have much else critical to do at 7 a.m.) and found a wide range of origins. The closest items came from Oregon, with some coming from California. That’s tolerable, I suppose. However, when I got to the (out of season) blueberries and raspberries and saw “Product of Mexico,” I had to cringe. That was only the products that listed origins. Most did not. Those carried under the Safeway O Organics label merely designated themselves as being “Distributed by Safeway, Inc.” and had the company’s address in California.

So I ask myself again, what’s better? The advice I’ve read is local organic is best, imported organic is second, local conventional is next, and imported conventional is the least desirable. I’m not sure I’d agree—I think I’d put local conventional ahead of imported organic. I guess that’s my choice to make.

Lastly, I’m noticing all these bogus health claims on food labels more and more now. Frankly, they’re starting to piss me off. It kind of goes hand-in-hand with the food labels showing the little red tractor and the dancing chicken, but the fact that the food industry thinks I’m such a dope that I’ll fall for the “No Cholesterol!” banner on every single thing I buy is starting to grate on my nerves. Of course olive oil has no cholesterol. Cholesterol comes from two sources—animal meat, and the human body. Therefore big letters proclaiming that my olive oil has no cholesterol in it (or is “sin colesterol” as my package actually says, since it’s a product of Spain) is kind of an insult to my intelligence. Unless a cow fell into the olive oil processing equipment, it’s physically impossible for olive oil to have cholesterol.

Cholesterol is the big offender, but trans fats are close behind, along with things being a “good source” of this or that. I checked out a bunch of stuff in my kitchen—peanut butter, bread, olive oil, cereals, crackers, applesauce, Hostess donettes (don't ask). With the exception of the donettes, every single product made some health claim or other. When I read the nutritional information and ingredients on the donettes, I began to realize why they kept quiet. Partially hydrogenated this, enriched that (which of course means that the healthy stuff was stripped out and then put back in using chemical versions), genetically modified this other thing. I’m just waiting for the day when Hostess pumps donettes full of powdered milk and is allowed by the government to announce that they’re “A Good Source of Calcium!”

Once again, how do I weed through all these health claims and find what’s actually healthy? I suppose following the advice of a million diet magazines and nutritionists and “shopping the perimeter” of the store is the way to go. This advice, in case you haven’t heard it, recommends that most of what goes in your grocery cart come from the outer edge of the store—in most store layouts, this includes the produce, dairy, meat and bakery sections. Reasonable advice, but now there are more and more ways to trip up, even there. Organic milk? What brand? Evidently there’s quite a bit of debate over the claims that Horizon, one of the largest suppliers of organic milk, makes regarding the treatment of its cows. Free range eggs? Cage free eggs? Is there a difference? As a matter of fact, yes—free range means the chickens do get to go outside and scratch, whereas cage free just means they’re not confined in cages with nine birds in a tiny cage; they may never see the light of day, but they’re not as inhumanely confined, either. Free range chicken? Kosher chicken? Don’t even get me started on cheeses.

So I continue to mull all this over, and I’m starting to actually get tired of thinking about it. I’m not going to throw in the towel and go buy a box of Twinkies and a frozen pizza. I’ll come to some kind of a conclusion. I think, however, that that conclusion is going to primarily consist of my resolving to just do the best I can, and let it all come out in the wash. I think that’s about the only way I’m not going to send myself (and everyone around me) completely up a wall on this subject.

Monday, January 01, 2007

The Organic Debate

I’m facing a dilemma here. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about food in general, and more and more I’m feeling like I should be considering organic foods, in particular milk, meat and produce (I can’t see much benefit to things like organic steak sauce or corn chips). Oh yes, the organic food movement annoyed me excessively when it started. The fact that Safeway and Wal-Mart have both started marketing their own line of organic products is almost a strike against organics, in my opinion, but I’m starting to question my prejudice.

I have said, and I still believe, that organic will be to Americans in this decade what fat free was to Americans in the 1980s. Horror stories were famous of dieticians and nutritionists in the 80s whose clients weren’t losing weight, or were even gaining it, and, when asked what they’d eaten, would reply “An Entenmann’s Fat Free Danish.” The dietician would ask “One serving?” and the client would reply “No, one whole Danish” (meaning one whole 10” cake). Fat free, we were admonished, did not mean calorie free. I see organics headed in this direction. Every time I walk into my local Safeway, I see huge cardboard display cases with O Organics Tortilla Chips. I can just hear the puzzled client saying to his or her nutritionist “Yes, I did eat the whole bag, but they’re organic.”

Of course, as Americans we always go to extremes. A little is good, therefore more must be better. If organic produce, meat and dairy products are good for me, then I should also eat organic cookies, soy sauce, potato chips, and Pop Tarts! Surely if it says organic on it, it really can’t be that bad for me.

However, I’ve read several different books lately that talk about the growth hormones in milk and meat, and the pesticides used on crops. The idea of eating those chemicals, or letting my kids eat them, is starting to seem less and less appealing.

We have to use common sense, of course. An organic peach flown from South America someplace to my neighborhood grocery store is a lot less good for the environment than a peach grown using conventional methods (and in season) in a farm 200 miles from my house. The amount of pollution generated by the South American peach getting from the farm, onto an airplane, across a continent (or two), and from the airport to my local store is a lot greater than the amount of pollution generated by the truck that drives from the local peach farm 200 miles away. Although environmental health isn’t what’s making me think twice, it’s still a concern.

Cost is another fact that presents itself and bears consideration, and it concerns me how much of a price difference there is between conventional and organic products. Just for laughs, I looked up the prices Niman Ranch charges for their beef. Niman Ranch is a California cattle ranch that sells hormone free, antibiotic free, humanely raised beef, pork and lamb. It started as a single guy raising cattle and selling it to restaurants like Chez Panisse (which I have long called Chez Painintheass, and still find to be pretentious and annoying), and has grown to be a network of like-minded ranchers selling their meat under the single, recognizable Niman Ranch name. Niman Ranch charges $45.95 for two 7-oz filet mignons. That’s almost fifty bucks for under a pound of meat. I can’t justify that, I’m afraid. Vegetarianism beckons if that’s the price I’m going to have to pay.

The other alternative for meat is to find someone who raises their own cattle in a healthy way and buy directly from them. I used to have a friend back East who raised cattle. She couldn’t legally call them organic, but they were as close to organic as you can get without the actual label. The organic designation, she told me, requires all kinds of testing and paperwork. The grass the cows eat must be organic—no chemical pesticides used on it. Their feed must be certified organic. The water they drink must be tested regularly for various chemicals. I think she did qualify for a humanely raised designation, because her cows truly were (as she herself said) the happiest cows in Loudon County. I met them—they were happy. I ate them, and if flavor is in any way attributable to temperament, they were deliriously happy. They received no growth hormones, and very little in the way of antibiotics. Occasionally one of her calves would have a little illness in its early days, and she’d give it an antibiotic to clear it up. They received no antibiotics on a regular basis.

In any event, this woman would sell you a side of beef for about $2.50 a pound for everything. You paid that price for what was called the “hang weight” (meaning the weight of the animal after slaughter, but before any trimming or cutting had taken place). The hang weight on a side was about 300 pounds, give or take. You could specify what size roasts you wanted, how thick you wanted the steaks, and so on. Everything else was ground up into hamburger. The first year we wound up with about 60 pounds of hamburger. In case you can’t visualize 60 pounds of hamburger, let me help you: it’s a lot. We actually bought a quarter chest freezer to accommodate all our beef. This was the best beef I’d ever had, and the price was hard to beat.

That was back East though. Now I live out West, so I’m going to have to find someone to sell me a side of beef. I doubt I’m going to find that person the same way I did back East—hiring them as my replacement when I go out on maternity leave from a high tech company, and having them stay on when I return, become my friend, and sell me meat. Not a set of circumstances that’s likely to ever occur again, I’m afraid. So I’m looking through more conventional channels. I think I’ve found someone who does lamb, and possibly pork, so maybe that person knows someone who raises beef cattle.

Your objections, you may say, are somewhat vague. You just say “not good for you.” What do you mean? Well, without getting into endless details about how cattle are raised, post World War II munitions plant repurposing, and the chemistry of growth hormones, let’s just say that a “normal” cow (such as those happy ones raised by my friend in Loudon County) takes two years (or even three) to be ready for slaughter, and is grass fed and “grain finished,” as they say. The cattle that are sent to slaughter commercially in this country are about twelve to sixteen months old, and are grain fed for as long as possible (because grain is cheaper than grass—it costs less to buy grain feed than it does to buy grassland and put the cattle out to pasture). When the cattle are started on grain too early, it makes them sick (just as starting a human baby on solid food too early would make it sick). To combat these sicknesses, the cattle are given antibiotics aplenty, which don’t leave their system when they’re turned into Beef Wellington. They’re also given more chemicals in the form of growth hormones to make them bigger, faster, therefore providing the seller with more meat (more meat, as you may gather = more money). Again, these chemicals stick around in their flesh and go right along into the Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

[As an aside here, I should point out that although I refer to beef cattle as “cows” regularly, I am aware that those animals that are sent to slaughter are steers, not cows. Cows are the things that have the calves, steer are the things we eat.]

As far as produce goes, the best choice, of course, is local organic produce. Well, sure. You find it for me, and I’ll eat it. Oh and it has to be somewhat reasonably priced. My grocery store sells organic baby spinach. From California. That to me is not local. California is two states away. Two big states. I love the idea of farmers markets, but they’re not open all year long, and often they’re only open when I’m at work. When I lived back East there were a couple of farmers markets I could go to—with one exception, they operated at times like 9 to noon on Tuesdays. Hey! What a coincidence—I work then too! I believe I’ve ranted about this phenomenon before, so I’ll stop there.

There is a market that I could go to, and it’s about a mile from my office. When I go back to work (from my current maternity leave) I’ll arrange to leave work early and walk up there one day a week to buy produce. I’ll be somewhat limited to how much I can carry since I’ll be walking. I also have reservations about just how much of what I’ll be buying is truly “local.” This market caters to both “townies” and tourists, and in my experience when something caters to tourists, it tends to put appearances before ethics (if you will). I suspect that if they got a case of really gorgeous strawberries that weren’t local and weren’t organic, they’d put them front and center in the display, which kind of makes me wonder what else they’d readily sell without full disclosure. Of course, I can always ask, but really the whole idea behind farmers markets is that the products are local—to not say “Product of Argentina” on something is deceptive, letting the consumer assume that what they’re getting is locally grown when it’s not. The prices will probably be higher at this market too.

So as I say, all this reading I’m doing is making me think, but then the price comparisons I’m doing are making me think too. I also have a problem with the idea that I’m just jumping on a bandwagon for the sake of jumping. I don’t believe that I am, but I’ve been so scornful of organic food for so long that I have difficulty overcoming it. At the same time, however, I don’t want to let my stubborn prejudice affect mine or my children’s health. I don’t want to cut off my nose to spite my face, to employ a cliché. Or my kids’ faces either.