Cost, Health, and Flavor – they battle it out in America’s abundant, controversial, and fascinating food industry, and change your own tastes #food #cooking #sustainability #future

Heritage Red Delicious Apple varietyThis is a Red Delicious apple. You’ll notice it looks nothing like the dry, mealy mahogany fruits in your grocery store. I can tell you it tastes nothing like them either. It’s wonderfully sweet, crisp, and apple-y.

This apple came from a tree over 60 years old in the Mimbres Valley of southwest New Mexico, and you’ll have to visit a local farmer’s market to buy one.

I seem to be on a food kick lately. America’s food industry gives us more, safer, and cheaper food than ever before, but at a price. Are we poised to take a step forward to a better system?

This reminded me of a book I read recently.

Third Plate book coverDan Barber is a chef concerned with the farm-to-table journey of America’s food. He works with boutique farmers in upstate New York, including the Stone Barn Center for Food and Agriculture – a farm built in the 1930’s in a “Normandy style” by wealthy philanthropist John D. Rockefeller to “preserve a memory – the place where he sipped warm milk from the lid of the milking jug.” (No matter how nostalgic, I do not recommend drinking raw milk, more strongly the longer it’s been out of the cow.)

Barber is owner and chef at two New York restaurants, Blue Hill in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown (45 minutes from Grand Central Station). I visited his website at Blue Hill Farm.com.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns is an elegant restaurant where jackets and ties are preferred for gentlemen, though apparently fancy restaurants gave up trying to tell women what to wear.

In keeping with the ideal of serving the day’s harvest (and perhaps because of shortages of entree-sized portions), Barber serves “multi-course tastings” for about $200 per person. You’ll be happy to know you can buy Dom Perignon by the glass ($80).

Most Americans are unlikely to dine here. But rich or extravagant people serve a social function. They are early adopters for things that can become everyday benefits – air travel, electric cars, television, ocean cruises – so perhaps they can blaze the trail to better eating. Trends from expensive restaurants can affect the local grocery store so, for example, designer pizzas are now available in your frozen food section.

New York is the right place for this venture. Judging from my travels in lower upstate New York, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a farmer’s market or stand. Farm-to-table is a popular idea.

Barber presents interesting stories about growing heritage varieties of crops and rotating crops and livestock to maximize soil fertility. This is not mass market organic farming that retains America’s industrial mindset to grow monocultures and supply slabs of meat to serve with a few vegetables. It must be wonderful for a farmer to have the financial support to try these ideas and we meet many such farmers (at least one who, by the way, eats “hulking pork chops” and butters bread so thickly Barber “thought he was joking.”)

It’s not clear the average American wants the foods Barber champions. He notes that while “feeding grain [to animals] flattens flavor” and modern crops are not bred for flavor, the system produces bountiful, low cost food. “[T]he cost of one pound of meat is cheaper now than at any time in history.”

Americans prefer “soft, almost flabby meat” and “have a singular preference for blandness.” We want mild butter that tastes the same across the country and the year, rather than tastier butter that varies by region and month. But is this truly our preference or what we’re trained to expect? Maybe popular, super-spiced snacks show American’s want flavor.

Barber always comes back to flavor. His farming methods are labor intensive, generate less profit even at higher boutique prices, and produce uneven and limited supplies, but Barber says the food tastes better.

Gardeners will find the stories fascinating. Non-gardeners may find some sections too long.

What others are saying
The Third Plate remains popular four years after it was published, with 4.7 stars on Amazon from 237 reviews.
“It has taught me so much about making sustainable food choices.”
“Pretty cool take on the food industry.”
Rebecca had a pros and cons review: “This is one of the most interesting books I have read that discusses everything wrong with our food culture today. That said, it’s also one of the most obnoxious…
“managed to turn my beliefs upside down…
“[the author] works in the food equivalent of an ivory tower. His book is dripping with elitism, and most of the time I felt like he was so out of touch with reality it was laughable.”

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Story Behind a Kitchen Basic #cooking #kitchen #design

vegetable peelers

Yup, that’s my old fashioned Jonas peeler on the bottom. Imagine living this many years and never knowing it had a name!

As you consider diet and cooking, here’s a piece of top-notch design that’s so successful, I never stopped to admire it.

Swivel Vegetable Peeler.

The latest version was developed for people with arthritis, but is a better tool for everyone.

I had no clue how rich the history [of the peeler] was, including cameos from Monsanto, samurai sword makers, and retail magicians from another era… the economics of the business.

The designer figured, if he marketed his peeler for people with arthritis, it would stay in small specialty niches. But a better design would be good for everyone.

(Just watch parents navigating baby strollers on sidewalks and consider how the Americans With Disabilities Act has improved sidewalks for us all.)

The handle had to be easy to grip, even when wet. That led to Monsanto’s polymer Santoprene, which was only being used for gaskets.

Bicycle handle grips offered ridges for inspiration.

American companies of the time didn’t want to be bothered with the odd device, so Mitsubohi Cutlery, a Japanese manufacturer dating back to the 1800s when they made samurai swords, got involved.

At trade shows, they put out bowls with peelers and carrots so buyers could try it, and let the weird new handle stick out of packaging so a consumer could touch it.

But the handle isn’t actually the reason why it works. The reason the peeler works so well is because the blade is really sharp. If you put a dull blade on our peeler, it won’t peel any better than our peeler. If you put a sharp blade on a stick, it will peel was well as our peeler. [Ah ha! That’s why my swivel peeler with a cheapo metal handle works fine for me!]

At a factory, we’d just hold the blades and peel carrots. If you couldn’t hear it cut, it was sharp. The factory thought we were crazy. But that was actually the secret behind it, and is true to most of the tools.

The whole story is a fun read on fastcompany.com

You may think peelers are too mundane to think about much, but there’s a Wikipedia entry for peelers with more history.

The Jonas peeler, designed in Sweden in 1953, is a straight design with a pivoting blade attached to the end of an oblong metal loop handle… While often copied, the original is still made by Linden Sweden. [Ah ha again. I guess what I own is a Jonas knock-off.]

The user-friendly handle has gone on to grace various cooking gadgets. Check your own kitchen drawers now.

Space Elevators are a Scifi Standard – Now There’s a Real One! Promise of Technology for Cheap Space Flight #space #technology #Japan #satellite

concept of space elevator

Concept for an ocean based space elevator

A space elevator is a “planet-to-space transportation system.” Vehicles climb a cable attached to the surface and counterweighted in orbit above geostationary level. I’ve used a space elevator in my own scifi writing. Sadly, we don’t have  materials to construct one yet. Well, not a full sized one.

A miniature is now in orbit. Congratulations to Japan for their September 22 launch.

Built by engineers at Shizuoka University in Japan, comprised of two 10-centimeter cubic satellites connected by a 10-meter-long tether. A small robot representing an elevator car, about 3 centimeters across and 6 centimeters tall, will move up and down the cable using a motor as the experiment floats in space.

The Japanese hope to build a real, full sized space elevator sometime around 2050 and use an ocean-based surface tether. That allows time to solve the many practical problems that have kept this idea on the drawing boards since the 1800s. Good luck!

Scandal Rocks Diet Research – Tips You Rely on Exposed #health #diet #nutrition #weightloss

bell shaped curveEuropean science was once so quaint. A wealthy family’s second son ensconced in a small parsonage in the country was free to classify local butterflies. Or perhaps the lord himself financed his own laboratory to study whatever he wanted. Sometimes a poorer soul might rise from employment under a Great Man (yes, mostly men!) or receive a scholarship, as Isaac Newton did at Cambridge in 1664.

Innocent days are gone. A craving for glory always created some scientific fraud, but the motivation seems to be growing. Big science is big business, requires big money, and can yield big rewards if a lab produces big results. This can be insidious, because if you receive fame and fortune for what you do, it’s easy to believe that what you do must be right. Especially in a field like nutrition, where there’s so much public interest, and lots of money to be made, sometimes, mistakes happen. Sometimes studies go “down in flames in a beefy statistics scandal.”

An internal investigation by a faculty committee found that ‘Professor Wansink committed academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.’

That’s a politely phrased condemnation, and may derail the careers of grad students who did the dirty work for him.

You may not recognise Wansink’s name, but if you buy 100 calorie snack packages, you’ve been fooled by his research. Ditto for using small plates to trick your brain into thinking you ate more, or hiding potato chips on the top shelf to help you lose weight. Read more truisms that have been retracted here. Maybe your favorite tip is among them.

Retraction Watch logo

Here’s a good place to keep an eye on scientific findings

Fortunately for science, you, and me, reality is a powerful force, and there are always researchers willing to challenge a famous author. As a consumer of science, avoid becoming anyone’s acolyte, don’t get too emotionally invested in someone else’s position, and keep reading, even if only in the popular press. Good consumers, like good scientists, are honestly open minded.

It often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. Carl Sagan

Let’s all make Carl proud.

From Bombs to Bambi – newest National Wildlife Refuge #wildlife #Colorado #nuclear

NWR sign at Rocky Flats West GateYears of work culminated this week in the opening of a new Wildlife Refuge in Colorado. This one is unusual because the site used to be a nuclear weapons plant. I know. I was a Cold War Warrior there (honestly, that’s what the USA Congress called us) and later an environmental engineer turning the plant over to wildlife.

worker at Rocky Flats

Yup, that’s me during the Cold War – don’t worry, picture was released for a public report (though never used)

One odd side-effect of the weapons complex has been protection of plants and animals. Rocky Flats is home to an endangered mouse, and the State of Colorado wanted to place state-endangered birds on the property. Grazing and development around the plant left Rocky Flats as the best habitat in the area.

There was always wildlife in the buffer zone around the plant’s industrial core. I remember once a white fawn was born and the guard force tracked it daily from their towers and vehicles and reported to interested employees.

Once, a railroad car overturned and the recovery efforts were brought to a standstill by an angry rattlesnake coiled under the car.

I no longer live close enough to enjoy the new trails, which is a shame. A dear friend and colleague of mine will also miss out – he died earlier this year. He would have loved it.

The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge sits on more than 5,000 acres of trees, wetlands and pristine rolling prairie about 16 miles northwest of Denver. It hosts 239 migratory and resident species, from falcons and elk to the threatened Preble’s meadow jumping mouse.

The actual site of the former buildings will remain fenced off forever. It’s the land that used to serve as a buffer around Rocky Flats that’s reopening this weekend.  NPR

 

Here’s a Fun Monthly Roundup of Scifi Books and More #scifi #sciencefiction #review #bookreview #reading

Monthly Scifi RoundupI’ve found a neat site you should definitely check out, Alasdair Shaw’s monthly roundup.

Here you’ll find science fiction books you’ll want to read, interviews with authors, and also walking guides to ancient sites, outdoor activites, and more. Click on over and wander around – have fun.

Liberty Book CoverCheck out Alasdair’s own scifi too.

Struggling with newfound sentience and desperately trying to repair itself, The Indescribable Joy of Destruction is a ship trying to find a new home. In a galaxy torn apart by generations of civil war, that isn’t an easy task. Tired of being used as a killing machine, it has a huge decision to make: hide and save itself, or help other artificial intelligences achieve freedom. Unable to make the decision alone, it revives the sole human aboard – the enemy officer who crippled it.

Water, Water Everywhere in the Galaxy #exoplanet #space #NASA

exoplanet populationsScientists have shown that water is likely to be a major component of those exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars) which are between two to four times the size of Earth…

Hopefully atmosphere observations in the future — of thick steam atmospheres — can support or refute the new findings.   Goldschmidt Conference

Many of these detected exoplanets are larger than Earth, but it sounds like a lot of that extra mass is water – up to 50% of the planet’s weight, while water on Earth is only 0.02%. Our watery blue world is a desert in comparison.

It makes me wonder… if our Sun had more heavy elements, would Earth be larger? Would it have captured more of the solar system’s water? Would you and I be fish?

We have earlier generations of stars to thank for any watery world including our own. Hydrogen is, of course, everywhere – the most abundant element starting from the Big Bang. But heavier elements owe their existance to fusion within stars and subsequent nova and supernova explosions. That includes oxygen. So water seems to be common in the galaxy.