This is simply awesome. The High Fructose Corn Syrup guys are suing the Sugar guys. Take a moment and let that soak in…
Okay, so here’s the deal: A group of agriculture conglomerates, like Cargill and Archer-Daniels Midland (Remember The Informant with Matt Damon?) are suing the Sugar Association, a trade group that represents the growers and processors of beets and cane for sugar. The makers of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) had lobbied the FDA to call their stuff “corn sugar” but were told no. That would be misleading. They then argued that their product should be called “natural” as it was, after all, made from corn.
Radioactive waste is made from uranium rocks, so natural, but still radioactive. Just saying.
The sugar guys seized on this and said, “Hey, we make our stuff with sugar beets and sugar cane, so we’re the real natural product.” The HFCS guys said that they were being maligned and consumers were being misled. “Sugar is sugar, right?” But HFCS, depending on who you ask, is directly linked to obesity and other fun stuff like diabetes. A Princeton University study said that it may actually make you dumber.
So some background:
Sugar and HFCS both contain two basic ingredients: Fructose and Glucose. In regular sugar, that split is about 50/50. They have to rearrange molecules to make HFCS, so the ratio becomes a little skewed. Not to get all technical, but the molecules become bonded and unbonded depending on which you choose, so your body absorbs the molecules differently. Most studies are pretty certain that HFCS causes your body to produce more triglycerides, the fats that give you that pleasing pear shape.
The two regulatory bodies that are involved are also somewhat lax in how they define “natural.” The USDA says that you can use the label if it contains, “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” You cannot fundamentally alter the product. This pretty much applies only to the production of the raw product, but says nothing about what you do to get it to market. So you can pump a chicken breast full of salt water to plump it up and still call it “natural.”
The FDA says that you shouldn’t use artificial flavors or colors, and avoid chemicals, but it’s not really easy to define. So a company like General Mills can pump a breakfast bar full of HFCS and maltodextrin and still say “natural.” They started out as natural ingredients, didn’t they?
And then there are the companies involved in the suit.
Cargill started in 1865 and is quite possibly the largest privately held business in the United States. They make corn, soy, beef, and feeds. In the 1970’s they sold 63,000 tons of grain to Iraq. The grain had been treated with a fungicide (that had been banned here) and was supposed to be for planting. People ate it and died. They’ve also been forced to recall millions of pounds of beef and turkey because of contamination. The International Labor Rights Fund sued them over child labor practices in Africa. Their co-defendant? Archer-Daniels Midland.
A-DM is a major producer and trader of grains and seeds. They got busted in the early 1990’s for rigging the prices of the world market, and several of their top officials went to prison. They’ve also been sued and fined numerous times for violating environmental regulations. Their CEO, formerly of Chevron, teamed them up with Bayer CropScience and Daimler AG (Mercedes) to create more biofuel. They are also one of the largest traders of crops grown in former rainforests. In 1902 they were basically a couple of guys with a grainery. My, how they’ve grown.
What’s perhaps so perplexing about this case is that it is sugar vs. sugar. It’s like Celine Dion suing Whitney Houston for recording the most annoying song ever. No offense to the legacy of either artist, but My Heart Will Go On and I Will Always Love You would drive anyone to drink high fructose corn syrup.
We’re going to eat an apple.
One of our favorite days is coming up. Ironically sponsored by American Express, it’s Small Business Saturday. Held every year, Small Business Saturday encourages everyone to support the little guys, and buy something from a local or privately owned business. Well, we’re both. Sure, we have our Farmer’s Market gig and a second location brewing, but we’re a small business. We have a pretty small group of dedicated Urban Farmhouse farmhands, and we count every penny.
And we appreciate those pennies! Keep them coming!
This year it will be on November 24th. We hope that you’ll do your part.
That “small business” mentality extends to many of the vendors that we do business with. Like Olli Salumeria. That’s the namesake company started by Oliviero Colmignoli. His family calls him Olli, as do his friends. In case you haven’t figured it out, he’s Italian. He is also the fourth generation of his family to make salame. He grew up in Rome and learned the art of making awesome cured meats at his grandfather’s side. After spending time in London and chasing a photography bug, he ended up in the United States and found work at the subsidiary of a large salumi manufacturer that was founded in Italy by his grandfather. So the mela was not far from the tree. And that’s Italian for “apple.”
Olli was at a dinner party with some friends and had brought some meats that his family had made in Italy. One of the guests asked why his meat was so much better than the ones that could be found here in the States. “Because it’s better! Listen, we use the same recipes in the same sort of rooms equipped with the same Italian equipment. We even have Italians running things over here!” To Olli, the biggest difference was the quality of the hams. The pigs, it seems, were better in Italy.
The discerning guest had a fondness for good pork products and a few spare dollars, so he made a deal with Olli – He’d buy some good pork and Olli would make him some banging Italian cured meats.
The guest made good on his promise, and Olli kept up his end of the deal. A few glasses of wine later, they had forged a partnership, and Olli Salumeria was born. They’re right across town in Mechanicsville. Kind of an unassuming place in an office park, but when you go inside it’s magic. Sure, they have commercial grinders and mixers, and huge walk-in coolers and curing rooms, but it’s a personal place. A small group of dedicated guys and gals are making cured meats using organic pork from heirloom pigs that are raised by dedicated family farmers. And they are using a recipe that is 160 years old and was handed down to Olli from his family.
Olli has been very lucky. There are a lot of restaurants like us and Secco in Carytown scattered across the country, and like us, they carry Olli’s meats. He’s even gotten his product into some bigger chains like Williams-Sonoma and Whole Foods! But he has a fondness for people like himself – small business.
It’s kind of the same deal with Bearer Farms, and you know how we feel about local honey. Cy Bearer bought some land in Louisa because he was a landscaper and was tired of buying other people’s trees. After tending to Japanese maples for a few years, he let his uncle put a couple of beehives on the property. And he grew fascinated with the little buzzers. He met a guy in North Carolina who was looking to get out of the buzzy business, and Cy came home with 150 hives. He now sells to restaurants like us and Kuba Kuba in the Fan, and yes, to Whole Foods and Ellwood Thompson’s. But it’s still just Cy, a handful of enthusiasts who help him, and a few thousand bees. Well, given that each hive contains as many as 150,000 bees, it’s more like a few million bees, but they’re so small that we won’t count them. Cy is therefore still a small business.
We imagine that it must be nice to be Apple Computer or Ford. There is some safety in being a huge company with thousands of products. But you could make Twinkies.
Well, the election is over. Everyone can go back to putting cat pictures on their Facebook wall and we can get caught up on some of our favorite reality television shows. Some of us won, some of us lost, and some states passed some initiatives. Colorado embraced the wacky weed, a bunch of states recognized gay marriage, and California said, “to heck with all of you, we’re going to raise some taxes.” There are a few out there, however, who are having a hard time letting go. We kind of feel like we should show everyone the closing scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. You know, the one where he looks into the camera and says, “It’s over. Go home.” We just rolled up into The Urban Farmhouse and started some coffee. We like a good rant about politics just like every other guy, but we’re really just a restaurant. Wednesday was just another day.
One thing that we watched closely, however, was Proposition 37 in California. It would have required the labeling of all genetically modified foods. It had the support of hundreds of thousands of citizens, was based on the research of some pretty reputable organizations, and would seem on its’ face to make a great deal of sense. After all, wouldn’t you want to know what sort of tinkering had been done to your food?
And then it got all Super Pac and political.
A bunch of organic farms and advocate groups lent their weight to it, organizing and contributing almost $10 million to educate the public about the issue. And then Coke, Pepsi, Bayer Cropscience, Dupont and Monsanto whipped out their checkbooks. They raised $46 million to fight the bill. Monsanto alone spent over $8 million to protect their patents and seeds.
Now, many have said that GMO foods pose no real health risk. Some of those offering opinions are the World Health Organization and the National Academy of Sciences, so pretty solid credentials. But according to the USDA, 88% of all corn and 93% of all the soybeans grown in the United States is genetically altered, and if your popcorn has been supercharged to resist pesticides, don’t you have a right to know?
The initiative was also tweaked to exempt restaurants from the labels. In addition to Coke and Pepsi, one of the big contributors to the “No on 37” campaign was Kraft. You know who buys a great deal of product from Coke, Pepsi and Kraft? McDonald’s. Who is the largest distributor of toys in our country? McDonald’s. And the largest real estate holder in America? McDonald’s. So there were a lot of big players with dogs in this fight.
In September, almost 70% of the people surveyed in California were in favor of Prop 37. But as the money kicked in that percentage began to drop.
The initiative failed. It’s over. Go home.
But just when we thought that we’d lost our faith in humanity, we looked out of the window and saw the coolest thing. If you’ve not been to The Urban Farmhouse, we sit on a corner in Shockoe Slip. If you walk out of our front door, take a right and then a right, you’ll pretty much run smack dab into The Martin Agency. They are the big advertising agency that created the GEICO Gecko, the funny as all-get-out “This is Peggy” ads, and does work for Mentos, Discover, and the American Cancer Society, among others. Well, they have an office in New York City, and as you may be aware, in the midst of all of this election nonsense they got pounded by Hurricane Sandy. To add insult to injury, a winter storm jammed up the coast this week and dumped a bunch of snow on millions of people who are just trying to get their lights back on.
What we saw outside of The Urban Farmhouse was a whole bunch of people loading stuff in a truck. Big truck. It was bottles of water, diapers, pet food, clothes and all sorts of other things that folks in the New York Metro area lost during the storms. And then a guy from Martin was going to jump in the truck and drive the darned thing up 95. No politics or rants about big government. Just doing something good.
We vote yes on that proposition.
They’re calling for some rain. Maybe you heard. No really, if you look outside you’ll see that it’s a good day to have some soup and a delicious Starr Hill beer. Or maybe some soup and a dozen Starr Hill beers. Just saying.
But it really is pretty nasty out there. We got a bunch of photos from some friends in the Outer Banks, and it ain’t pretty. The Beach Road looks like someone crumbled it up like a great big cookie, and water is coming in from the Sound. Our pals in Kitty Hawk are going to surf to Charlotte.
Another friend is giving us updates from Delaware. She’s a few miles from Ocean City, Maryland and reports that about 8 feet of water is washing over the main drag. Pretty much connected the Ocean and the Bay. No crabs or Thrashers fries for a while.
And then the update from our friends in the mountains. These folks live in Asheville, North Carolina, and they’re frolicking in about a foot of snow.
Really? And isn’t it a bit ironic that every news channel has a “Hurricane Center?” Don’t you want to avoid being near the center of a hurricane?
Truth be told, we kinda dodged the bullet on this one. Sure, a great deal of wind and rain, but looking at our history it could be a heck of a lot worse.
Remember walking around after Irene? Most of Richmond looked like a bomb hit it, and Western parts of the city are probably still cleaning up tree debris. Irene brought a bunch of wind, but not much water, unlike Gaston. Tropical Storm Gaston was a hurricane for only a day or two before parking over Richmond. During the afternoon of August 30, 2004, Gaston deposited a little over a foot of rain on Central Virginia, with most of coming right over The Urban Farmhouse. The old Main Street Station, just down the hill from us, was splashing in 10 feet of water. City busses and tractor trailers from Lovings Produce were floating down Main Street like rubber ducks. On the other side of Shockoe Bottom, entire sections of East Grace Street disappeared. The Army Corp of Engineers said that at the height of the flooding, more water was flowing past the Farmer’s Market than was flowing in the James River.
Let’s buy some tomatoes. Got your surfboard?
But Gaston was only a year behind Isabel, and that one hit in September of 2003 with some pretty severe results. Like Irene (what is it with the “I” storms?) it was plenty blustery but not much rain. Those winds, however, left most of us in the dark, and for some folks that was for days and weeks. And Agnes? That was way back in 1972, but we’ve seen pictures of people canoeing over the Farmer’s Market. OVER the Farmer’s Market.
And keep in mind that what we’ve seen recently hasn’t been the best of what Mother Nature has to offer:
When Hazel came through in 1954 it hit our area with 100 mph gusts. In 1944 the Great Atlantic Hurricane lashed Cape Henry (at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and really not THAT far away) with sustained winds of 134 mph. Those aren’t gusts, but wind. That one kicked up 20 foot waves in the Bay and 70 foot waves just off of Virginia Beach.
Many are also grousing that Sandy is coming to us so late in the year. Aren’t hurricanes a summer thing? Well, hurricane season actually runs through the fall and officially ends on November 30th. But, if conditions are right, you can have a hurricane any darned time you want to. September is a very popular time for the storms to visit, we’ve had many in October, and every once in a while in November. We also had one that hit Virginia in early December of 1925. The classic Nor’Easter is basically a hurricane without the palm trees anyway, so Merry Christmas.
We’re hoping that our friends in the Outer Banks, Delaware, and the mountains weather this storm (and the coming blizzard in Blacksburg). In the meantime, where did we put that bottle opener?
Had lunch yet? Maybe a Turkey & Havarti with Cranberry Salsa? Delicious Yellow Fin Tuna on 9-Grain bread? We offer some pretty tasty and nutritious meals here at The Urban Farmhouse and many of them are great for lunches. Hang out here or grab something to take back to the office…we don’t care. But what if you’re stuck in the second grade?
In the early history of our country, the midday meal was the largest of the day. You had a quick bite in the morning, a light “supper” at the end of the day, and a big, honking “dinner” in the middle. Most kids went home for lunch, which was easy because most kids were educated in the home. If you were lucky enough to go to a boarding school, the midday meal was served by hired cooks and staff. That all kind of changed with the industrial revolution and the Great Depression.
Factory workers at the turn of the century ate their meals in much the same way as kids. They would frequently go home for lunch, or dig into a lunch pail. Factory owners came to the realization that they could get more work out of their staff if they fed them like Henry Ford made cars, in an efficient assembly line. It was the birth of the cafeteria. During the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt began a hot meal program to offer some nourishment (and some relief to farmers) to kids as a supplement to charity soup kitchens. Harry Truman signed the USDA National School Lunch Act in 1946, and our public school lunches became a standard.
And what did you eat when you went to elementary school?
The typical school cafeteria was a long hot line full of mashed potatoes, soups, beans, Salisbury steak, meat loaf, and chicken. Traditional meals served by a cranky lunch lady. You filled up your tray, got a bowl of pudding, grabbed a carton of milk, and headed into the impending food fight.
But all of that changed when it started becoming a business.
The school lunch menu began to be dictated by commodities in the 1970’s and 1980’s. If we had a lot of beef, we fed kids burgers. When we had a glut of dairy cattle, we served tons of processed cheeses and more burgers. To meet nutritional requirements during the Reagan administration we classified ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables. Sodas and chips from vending machines, long the denizens of the mysterious Teacher’s Lounge, began to pop up right there in the student cafeteria. Sure, the school got some of the revenue from sales of the sugary and salty snacks, and companies like Coca Cola and Frito Lay opened up lucrative new markets with millions of hungry young consumers.
There’s a big stink right now because we’re trying to clean up our school lunches. Ketchup is no longer a vegetable, we’re paying attention to the amount of sugar and sodium in the meals, and we’re watching the number of calories we allow our kids for lunch. And they’re miffed. School children in Pittsburgh went on strike. A student in Detroit started posting pictures of her daily meals. And a group of students in Kansas posted a parody YouTube video that currently has over 1,000,000 views.
Aside from the grumbling about trading chips for broccoli, there is also discontent about the amount of food offered. But a 90 pound 2nd grader needs less than 2,000 calories per day to stay active and grow, and the current programs call for a 750-800 calorie lunch. That does not include breakfast, dinner, or snacks. And we’re still being dictated to by commodities brokers. The Farm Bill offered tax incentives and credits for growers who provided nutritious things like broccoli and peaches for school lunches, but the Bill had to be re-written to accommodate growers of “healthy” foods like potatoes and corn syrup. While most fast food restaurants have stopped using “pink slime” (ammoniated beef trimmings – YUM!) we bought tons of it to serve in our cafeterias. When chickens get old and stop laying eggs, they’re referred to as “spent hens.” Your local chicken joint won’t touch them, but they show up on your child’s tray come lunchtime.
Ann Cooper is in charge of nutrition for a school district in Colorado. She made her bones in California, where she got rid of frozen pizzas and sugary drinks and introduced fresh fruits and vegetables. She admits that it can be hard, but more than forcing food on kids it’s about educating them. “It’s education, it’s presentation, it’s marketing…you have to work with the kids, work with the parents.” In her eyes, if you can introduce the idea that an apple is much better from off of a tree than baked into a frozen tart, then you’re headed in the right direction.
Since we can’t host elementary schools at The Urban Farmhouse, that may be a good place to start.
Had to do a bit of shopping the other day and found ourselves at a mall. Shocking, isn’t it? After overcoming our initial revulsion and wiping the scales from our eyes, we found ourselves browsing through some slacks at Banana Republic. And then we thought, “What a horrible name for a store!”
In 1904 William Porter, better known as O. Henry, released a book of short stories called Cabbages and Kings. O. Henry had been working at a bank and was charged with embezzlement, so he fled to Honduras to avoid prosecution. His experiences there were recounted in the stories, and it was in Cabbages and Kings that he coined the phrase “Banana Republic.” The term has become synonymous with any small country that finds itself exploited of its resources to the benefit of a foreign corporation.
That has sadly been the history of many of the small countries in Central and South America. The United Fruit Company was founded in 1899 by merging smaller fruit companies with operations in places like Columbia and Ecuador. The whole thing had started decades earlier with a railroad. Minor C. Keith was looking for something cheap that he could feed laborers, and found that bananas were plentiful. He soon discovered that he could make more money selling the fruit than he could by being in the railroad business. At one point United Fruit owned a railroad, a shipping line, and was the largest landholder in Central America. They held onto this land to maintain their dominance in the banana world, and used their influence to topple the regime of any leader that didn’t see things their way. In 1954 they helped to get rid of Colonel Jacobo Guzman, leader of Guatemala, because he seemed to think that Guatemalans should own Guatemala. Silly man. Heard of Dulles Airport? Named after John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under Eisenhower. His brother, Allen Dulles, was Director of the CIA. Oh, and a board member for United Fruit. But that’s another conspiracy theory.
That all changed in 1984 when United Fruit became Chiquita Brands International and decided to clean up its act. Sort of.
In 1998 Chiquita was targeted by several activist groups for its failure to pay living wages to workers. It has also been criticized for environmental actions that led to heavy polluting, excessive pesticide use, and cutting down rainforest to grow more bananas. In 2007 they were fined $25 million by the United States Justice Department for funding terrorism. By growing bananas? No, but by paying Columbian paramilitary groups to protect their employees.
But they’re in good company.
In the 1800’s the islands of Hawaii were a peaceful kingdom ruled by a benevolent queen, Lili’uokalani. In 1894 she was overthrown, and it became the Republic of Hawaii, ruled by Sanford Dole, whose cousin James founded the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, later to become the Dole Food Company. By annexing Hawaii into the United States, the Dole clan was able to bypass millions of dollars in tariffs and taxes for bringing their tasty fruits and sugar into the country. They were sued in 2007 by workers in Nicaragua for using banned pesticides. They remain the world’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables, and are the second biggest producer of bananas behind our friends at Chiquita.
So why is all of this history and government overthrowing important today? It’s a global economy, right? Well, sure it is, but our global food production isn’t really doing a whole lot to feed people. According to the United Nations, one out of every eight people in the world are malnourished. Part of this is the cost of food, but a bigger part is how we make it. You see, about 25% of our fellow earthlings consume 80% of our resources. And according to OxFam, an international organization fighting famine, over two thirds of the commercial agriculture in the world provides little to no benefits for the people who live on or near those farms. Big agriculture companies and organizations like Chiquita and Dole plant their seeds, reap their crops, and then send them to hungry shoppers at suburban malls in places like Richmond. It has become a big business. In Africa, a third of the arable land in Liberia belongs to large corporations. Over half of the farmland in Cambodia belongs to private companies.
And often times it isn’t even for food. The original Banana Republic, Honduras, is ripe for growing palm trees. Honduras is a small country with steep mountains that aren’t really suitable for growing food. Over the last 20 years they have plowed over acres and acres of land to grow palm trees for palm oil – a biofuel. Over the next decade the land used for biofuel in Honduras will be about the size of Iowa. And Honduras is about the size of Iowa.
Peel that and eat it.
The first time that we ever heard French spoken, the words were “bon appétit!” The speaker of these magical words was a wonderful, funny, cartoonish matron in a cramped kitchen twirling chickens and hacking vegetables with the intensity and random ferocity of a whirling dervish. Stocks simmered, onions deglazed, sauces reduced, and sherry flowed like the soothing ocean tides of Elysium. But she was just a housewife from Pasadena named Julia Child.
Watching Child made us love food, and the preparation of it. It was kind of an accident that we even saw her. It was a day home from school, and illness found us curled on the couch, safely wrapped in the soothing cadence of the minister, educator, and magic trolley operator Fred Rogers. We learned about making penny whistles, learned to tie our shoes, and were transported to a whimsical world inhabited by bad puppets. At the end of his show, we found out how to get to Sesame Street. Ernie showed us how to clean our room, Oscar showed us that everyone gets grouchy, and Big Bird showed us that everyone can contribute something. And then Child popped up on the screen. At the end of her show we saw a swirl of light, heard a twinkling of piano, and saw the words “Brought to you by WGBH in Boston and a Grant from National Educational Television.”
After Child we began watching Jeff Smith, The Frugal Gourmet, from WTTW in Chicago. He wasn’t as colorful as Julia Child, but he taught us how to roast a chicken with coffee grounds. And then we met Justin Wilson, The Cajun Chef, who taught us about crawdads and brought “gar-awn-tee” to our limited vocabulary. He was authentic, coming from WYES in New Orleans. WYES also brought Paul Prudhomme into our kitchen. A bona-fide chef with a silkier patois than Wilson, Prudhomme taught us the difference between gumbo and etouffee, and like Child, reaffirmed our belief that butter just tastes darned good.
All of these shows and stations were under the banner of National Educational Television, which later became the Public Broadcasting Service. PBS. And watching it was like being in school, although on the couch in pajamas with one’s mouth open.
We found drumming inspiration in Art Blakey, discovered in the Ken Burns series Jazz. Antiques Roadshow found the hidden value in the most mundane pieces.
“When a nation goes down, or a society perishes, one condition may always be found; they forgot where they came from. They lost sight of what had brought them along.”
That’s Carl Sandburg, seen on American Masters. All on PBS.
And we still make serendipitous discoveries on PBS. Wilco and Allen Toussaint on Austin City Limits. The history of our breadbasket through Homes on the Prairie. Monty Python, the Kennedy Center, This Old House, BBC News, and Jacques Pepin (occasional foil to Julia Child), all on PBS. It’s called “Public” broadcasting, and it’s as valuable as a public library or museum. It is a service. It was founded for education. And sometimes it’s a lot of fun. Have a look and listen:
A friend of ours has been strumming away on his guitar for so long that he’s beginning to wear a groove in the sound hole. He plays and sings for Strummer, and his gang has played here at The Urban Farmhouse a time or two. If we can get him off of his porch we may have them back.
Scott plays a beautiful Taylor guitar that conveys a perfect tone and is butter to strum. It’s quite an instrument. But he has a new baby coming soon – a Paul Reed Smith. He has, for quite some time, had a nice PRS electric. Like the Taylor, it is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship and plays like a dream. His new one is the SE Angelus, and it will no doubt pick itself into beautiful acoustic heaven.
And what’s so danged special about a Paul Reed Smith guitar? Paul Smith started the company out of an apartment in Annapolis, made all of his first guitars by hand, himself, he still owns the company, and they still pretty much make every guitar by hand, in Maryland. Scott placed his order several months ago, and keeps getting little notes from the guys in Maryland saying, “Patience, friend. Not just yet. We’re building it.”
That’s really the clincher, though, isn’t it? They make stuff. Isn’t that what made America great? The fact that we make stuff? Sure, PRS has computers and lasers and machines, but each of their luthiers is a craftsman, and quite often a player. They build things that they would like to play.
That’s kind of what we look for when we search out vendors for our foodstuffs here at The Urban Farmhouse. People who make things. Like the Veggie Sausage that we get from Twin Oaks in Louisa. It’s good, because the people out at Twin Oaks like veggie sausage, and they make it themselves. Or the baked goods that we get from the Flour Garden. These guys wake up early every morning and bake stuff. They load up their ovens with breads that they’ve kneaded by hand. People.
We like to liven up our breads with products from Family Fruit Basket. James and Betty Hershberger make jams and preserves in small batches and sell them under the “Tastes Like Grandma’s” label. No preservatives or funky chemicals or assembly line. They just make it.
Or Sweet Leaf Teas. Those guys started brewing tea with pillow cases and crab pots. They’ve graduated to machines that put the caps on their bottles, but are faithful to their love of music, family and friends, and bringing their dogs to work. Not a huge company, but doing quite well by peddling stuff that they make.
That’s what we like. Like the guys making Scott’s guitar, these people are artisans. They’re practicing a craft. They’re making things. And unlike the manufacturers who squeeze unthinkable things into tubes and jars, these people are looking at ingredients, caring about where they came from, and carefully crafting them into wonderful products for us to enjoy.
So there’s this grove of trees in Utah. They’re called “quaking aspen” and in the fall they turn this beautiful, golden color. The grove is called Pando. Here’s the thing – they make little aspens by expanding their root systems. A little shoot will run off from a big tree, head skyward, and in a few years you have what looks like a new tree. It’s known as “clonal propogation.”
What this means, is that this grove of trees, a spread of around 47,000 trees covering over 106 acres is one great big organism. All of the trees are a genetic clone of a single aspen, and they are all connected as one through this massive root system. But here’s the truly curious thing:
While the average age of a tree in Pando is around 160 years old (a pretty good age for a tree), the whole system is estimated to be around 80,000 years old, making it not only the largest known organism but the oldest. When there is a fire and everything above ground burns to bits, the roots stay alive. Glacial ice age covers the forest? Roots stay alive. These trees have been quaking in Utah since before human beings arrived on this continent.
Let that soak in for a minute.
Now, you may ask, what the heck does this have to do with food? Well, nothing really, but it does have to do with what we stick in the ground. You see, Pando has seen a lot of crazy stuff come and go. Those roots have been hanging around in the soil for quite a long time. Kind of like the stuff that we put in the soil.
For years, many areas of the South were perfect for growing cotton. And for years, we grew a lot of it. The only problem is that there is a little critter, called a boll weevil, that also likes to eat cotton, and kills it pretty readily. So for generations and generations we sprayed our cotton with arsenic-based chemicals, because the little weevils didn’t really go for that. We also used arsenic when we fed our chickens. We still do, as a matter of fact. It makes the chicken grow faster on less feed, fights disease, and makes the chicken meat an appetizing pink color. Irony being what it is, one of the symptoms of arsenic poisoning is weight loss, but whatever.
Here’s where it comes around full circle. We use chicken manure to fertilize rice fields that are being planted on former cotton fields. Consumer Reports tested 200 samples of commercially available rice, and guess what they found? Arsenic. Go figure, right?
When Consumer Reports did their testing, they found that the type of arsenic found in these rice samples was the kind that causes cancer and disease, and in some cases the levels were high enough to cause alarm. The Food & Drug Administration decided to test 1,000 samples and said, “Based on a preliminary review of FDA’s testing of approximately 200 initial samples of rice and rice products, we find that the results from Consumer Reports appear to be consistent with those we are reporting based on our initial testing.” So what does the FDA suggest that we do? “Based on the available data and scientific literature the FDA is not recommending changes by consumers regarding their consumption of rice and rice products.”
Wow. Just wow. It’s like someone saying that sticking your foot into an icy pond shows the water to be too cold for swimming. The FDA sticks its foot in, declares the pond to be too cold to safely swim, and then hands us some swim trunks. “Dive in.”
It would seem that we would learn. After all, Pfizer volunteered to pull Roxarsone, an arsenic-based poultry drug, based on concern about what it was doing to our chickens. And Maryland is passing legislation that would ban all arsenic in chicken feed. And Maryland grows a lot of chickens. But they aren’t the only state that grows chickens, and there are a host of other arsenic products out there for chicken growers (ranchers? farmers?).
And what of our old friend cotton? We wanted to phase out arsenic and dangerous chemicals, so we created a GMO super-seed that was Roundup Ready (ahhhh…Monsanto). No more boll weevils, but we’re now fighting a pesky weed, Palmer pigweed, that can choke out a cotton plant. And the Palmer Pigweed has developed a tolerance to Roundup, like it just don’t care. So now the USDA has approved a nice little chemical to fight the weed: MSMA. That stands for monosodium methanearsonate. You know, arsenic.
Pass the rice.
We know that all of you like to shop at a farmer’s market instead of going to the big box grocery store. Yes, all of you. We’re lucky in that we get to deal with some vendors and growers that we’ve grown to trust, so they kind of do our shopping for us. But what of you? Do you just grab the first thing that you see? We hope not, for shopping in a farmer’s market is very different from dashing in and out of the mega-mart. And if you’re hitting up the local guys, there is a pretty good chance that you’re doing it wrong.
What time do you go? A real popular time for most folks, and some of the most lucrative days for the vendors, are the weekends. It’s Saturday, and it’s noon. What do you feel like doing? Let’s find some local produce. First of all, the farmer has probably been up since at least dawn, and they got to the market to spread their cornucopia just after coffee and a quick cow feeding. If you want the best that a farmer’s market has to offer, get there early. And remember that vegetables and artisan cheeses don’t punch a clock. If they want to be ripe and ready on Tuesday, then Tuesday it is.
Don’t just shop for potatoes. Certain fruits and vegetables can be stored for longer periods. Part of the allure of the farmer’s market is the freshness of the food, so buying something that has been hanging out in a root cellar for a few weeks kind of defeats the purpose. Another perk to doing this kind of shopping is the ability to broaden the horizons of your pantry. When you go into a grocery store, the apples that you see are grown for very specific characteristics, and you lose some of the variety as a result. There are hundreds of different types of apples, and you’ll only see a few of those in the grocery store. A good farmer’s market will have different types of apples, lettuces, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables. And not all cheese is neon-orange, sliced, and individually wrapped. Don’t know if you were aware of that.
Look at the food. Really look at it. Much like our lesson on cheese, not all produce looks alike. Your wonderful tomatoes look plump and ripe and red because they were gassed. Ethylene gas occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables, but if you pump in some extra they will ripen in the truck on the way to your grocery store. Many of your grocery produce items are treated in a similar fashion. When you go to a farmer’s market, you may notice a blemish, or something that isn’t perfectly shaped, or…ready for this…has dirt on it.
Nature is not perfect. If it were we wouldn’t have presidential candidates. But nature creates warts and dirt and bruises and scrapes. The stuff in your farmer’s market should reflect that. When you see these signs of nature, it’s a signal that what you are eating is something that was picked out of the ground by a real live person. And that’s often the person who is staring at you from across the bin.
And let’s talk about that person. We like to think of ourselves as having some knowledge on these matters, but that person behind the bin is your real expert. And you should take advantage of this resource. Do you want to know what’s ripe? Are you looking for a new green? Need something to spice up a dish? The vendor is more often than not the one who grew the food that you’re looking at, and we’ll bet dollars to donuts that they eat it on a pretty regular basis.
Lastly, be prepared. A farmer’s market is generally a cash & carry business. These folks don’t usually go for credit cards and checks, so bring your wallet. And there will be no happy checker walking your purchase across the parking lot, so bring your bag…an eco-friendly reusable grocery bag, thank you very much.