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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More Fish More Food More Profit – good news for people & #nature #environment #innovation #usa

"Fish" includes creatures like this King Crab

“Fish” includes creatures like this King Crab

Protecting the environment doesn’t have to mean sacrifice – at least, not in the world’s fisheries.

Fish populations are crashing in most of the world’s fisheries and it looks like remaining fishermen will fight each other to be the one who kills the last food-fish. That’s a sad dystonian view of the future.

Fish Up, Jobs Up, Money Up
A type of quota system called catch-share or fishing-rights is turning failing fisheries around. In Australia, Belize, Chile, Denmark, Namibia, the United States, and elsewhere, catch-share has accomplished something amazing.

In the U.S., since 2000, there has been a 70% drop in the number of overfished species. The number of fish with rebuilt populations has risen from zero to 39. At the same time, the number of jobs in fishing has risen by 31% in the past three years while revenue has risen 44%.

The total catch allowed is set by scientists using their latest data and each fisherman is allotted a percentage of that total. All fishermen have an incentive to use best practices and police their own waters. They advocate to protect spawning groups so there will be more fish, reduce wasteful “by-catch,” and police each other against cheating. It works when the quotas are rigorously and fairly enforced, so a country must have enough political will.

Enforcement was beautifully illustrated on the season premier of Deadliest Catch. As all the crab fishing boats waited for noon – the legal start of the season – a Coast Guard helicopter patrolled overhead. One captain made a mistake and dropped his first crab trap at 11 o’clock instead of 12 o’clock – realized his mistake, and radioed the Coast Guard to report himself. Self-reporting is a key element of the system – the Coast Guard told him to empty the trap and start over. Punish cheaters and reward those who play fair. It’s working – crab populations and quotas are up this year.

Catch-share turns the classic Tragedy of the Commons into triumph. It will take long-term discipline to support data collection year after year, and to fight the human desire to cheat. It’s a job that will never be done – but then, commercial fishing will never be done either – if we show enlightened self-interest.

Thanks to nationalgeographic.com

Warm Blooded Fish – Will Wonders Never Cease?

OpahThe opah or moon fish – name like a children’s rhyme and looks like a speckled orange Frisbee – does something I never thought possible.

“The opah… can consistently keep its entire body around 5 degrees Celsius warmer than its environment. It doesn’t burn as hot as a bird or mammal, but it certainly outperforms its other relatives.” The secret is in the blood vessels of its gills.

“Wegner’s team confirmed this by catching opah, implanting them with small thermometers, and then releasing them. The instruments inside the fish recorded consistently higher temperatures than those dropped into the surrounding water. The opah’s brain is warm. Its muscles are warm. And perhaps most importantly, its heart is warm—a first for a fish. Not even a great white shark [which warms some of its muscles] has a warm heart.”

Our human attempts to shove every creature into a neat little category are once again defeated by Nature. The world is so much bigger than we realize. That makes me happy.

Thanks to nationalgeographic.com. Also see wikipedia.

Weird is Wonderful

Frilled_shark_head2I don’t usually go for the “weird creature of the week” post, but this is too good to pass up. Several outlets covered the capture of a rare deepwater fish, probably because of the great image taken when it was transferred to an aquarium. It’s the frilled shark (Chlamydoselachus anguineus).

It seems no one can resist calling the fish a “living fossil” which is a pretty silly term. The frilled shark has been swimming the oceans and adapting as nature requires for as long as any of us. It’s just that some of us encounter changing environments and others – not so much. But it is a weird looking fish.

“The frilled shark has been scaring the bejeezus out of humans who pull it out of the water to find an animal with rows of needle-like teeth in a gaping mouth.” Who can resist that?