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.”

Advertisements

The Ape That Cooks #poem #poetry #nature #evolution #human

Homo erectus - the first cook. Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. (except for the hat)

Homo erectus – the first cook. Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. (except for the hat)

We are the hunting ape,
But other apes do hunt.
We are the speaking ape,
But other apes do grunt.

What set us on the path
To our enormous brain?
And brought us down
From the trees
To walk across the plain?

We are the ape with fire!
There’s evidence to show
Prometheus brought us his gift
A long long time ago.

With fire, sleeping on the ground,
Protected from the lions,
We shed our dense and furry coats,
It warmed us through the nighttime.

While other apes use their day
To chew and chew and chew
Their tubers, leaves, and wild fruits
We cooked the first fast food.

This new step in digestion
Meant more calories,
Cooked out the germs and toxins
Of wild plants and meats.

Tied to our adaption,
We’d never be the same.
“We are the cooking apes,
The creatures of the flame.”

I recently read Catching Fire, How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham. I was happily surprised at how fascinating his hypothesis is: that starting as long ago as Homo erectus, humans evolved with fire and cooking. There are lines of evidence I would have never thought about – delightful.

Wrangham is really involved in his subject. He knows how much effort it takes to chew raw wild foods because he’s studied chimpanzees and tried their various foods. With some friends he ran an informal experiment chewing raw goat meat. They found that adding old leaves to their mouths – as chimps do when they eat meat – gave their teeth more “traction” to get the (nasty sounding) mess down.

He also covers a lot of related topics, including raw foodists and modern hunter-gatherers. It’s a great book.

Thanks to Wrangham for the final quote in the poem above.

R&R 3 coversAll my books, including collections of my science-inspired poetry, are available at Amazon for Kindle and as paperbacks, and at other favorite stores in all the major digital formats. Read one today.