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THE SHREK/RATATOUILLE SNACKDOWN

At long last, we’ve got a cartoon character praising the virtues of veggies! Does it matter that it’s a rat? And he’s not even that cute. I refer, bien sûr, to Remy, the long-tailed lead in Pixar’s culinary tale Ratatouille.

Never in the history of cinema has this simple, classic French dish of summer vegetables been so lovingly celebrated. There’s a climactic scene, a nod to Proust and his much-loved madeleines, where fusty food critic Anton Ego (who looks to be on the lam from a Tim Burton film) is transported by a rather refined interpretation of this humble blend of onions, bell peppers, eggplant, tomatoes and garlic. The sequence is so stunning it reduced Slate’s Dana Stevens to tears.

Thanks to scenes like that, Ratatouille-the-movie is ratcheting up demand for ratatouille-the-dish in restaurants and inspiring newspapers all over the country to print ratatouille recipes perfectly timed for all that ripe produce that’s filling our farmers’ markets.

NY Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni hails the success of Ratatouille at the box office as a triumph of enlightened eating over mindless munching, and notes that a fable with a foodie hero would have been unthinkable until recently:

I’m not sure that two decades ago, or even a decade ago, it would have been possible to make and successfully market a Cinderella story set in the fussy world of haute cuisine, a furry fairy tale that presents a snooty dismissal of inferior victuals as a badge of honor and path to glory.

Bruni points out that Ratatouille’s alleged premise is that “anyone can cook,” but the movie is really more of a mélange of egalitarianism and elitism. Yes, even a lowly rodent can learn to cook, but just like the rest of us, his culinary endeavors will succeed or fail depending on the quality and freshness of his ingredients.

Am I the only one who finds this message pretty radical for an animated film supposedly aimed at kids? And it seems all the more astonishing when you contrast it to Pixar parent Disney’s Shrek the Third, with its endless tie-ins to processed foods that target toddlers’ taste buds.

Now, I happened to love the original Shrek—having been an ugly duckling myself, I was delighted to see a cartoon challenge our notions of beauty. But whatever good Shrek may have done on behalf of the humble and homely is being utterly undermined by the way the big ugly lug is shilling for Big Food. And he’s doing it on a global scale. NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle, who went to Australia last week to speak at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas, checked out a local supermarket and posted the following dismayed dispatch from Down Under:

Shrek was everywhere. I counted at least ten special displays of Shrek-illustrated foods positioned at the ends of 5 aisles, along one entire wall (with a blow up Shrek doll), and in stand-alone areas. Shrek III has arrived in Australia but does Australia really need a store full of Shrek-green Froot Loops (devoid of fruit, of course), Shrek cheese-flavoured snacks, Shrek-illustrated chocolate flavoured biscuits, and Shrek candies? And a local McDonald’s also has a Shrek tie-in. This is about one thing and one thing only: marketing junk food to kids.

“Not a good idea,” adds Dr. Nestle in her eternally understated way.

It’s no accident that the bad guy in Ratatouille hawks a line of microwavable convenience foods, because the real villain in Ratatouille is fake food. But can Remy’s real food revival make a dent in sales of Shrek-sanctioned snack foods? At the very least, Ratatouille’s giving Americans a taste of what cooking could be if we stopped abdicating the role of feeding ourselves to a handful of corporations.

I guess it’s fitting that Big Food’s hired a monster to market its overprocessed crap. Whether Ratatouille’s Remy will prove to be an effective spokesvermin for the Slow Food movement remains to be seen, but I’m betting he’s already got a pretty big freegan fan base to build on.

EATING LIBERALLY: CHAPTER TWO

Eating Liberally’s pleased as punch to announce the launch of our second chapter in Charlotte, North Carolina! Our mentors, the folks at Drinking Liberally, have blazed an amazing trail with their coast to coast netroots network; there are now 200 Drinking Liberally chapters across the nation. What a great recipe for socializing and social change—set a regular time and place, and just show up! It’s the ultimate antidote to alienation and isolation.

When you add food to the mix, though, the model is not quite so easy to duplicate. Sure, you can meet for coffee and donuts, but if the coffee’s from Dunkin’ Donuts, you’re underwriting the overlords at the Carlyle Group, the military-industrial behemoth that owns Dunkin’. And if the donuts are loaded with trans-fats, well, that kinda undermines our “good food” campaign.

But what’s the solution? We would have to be total control freaks to decree that any group that gathers under the auspices of Eating Liberally must consume only fair trade coffee lightened with rBST-free milk from pastured cows, and whole grain-only pastries made with grass-fed butter and omega-3 enhanced eggs.

We wouldn’t do that (would we?) But the menus for our NYC Eating Liberally events are so full of fresh-from-the-Greenmarket, factory farm-free, pasture-raised pureness with no nasty agribiz aftertaste that they border on self-parody. Easy to pull off when your neighborhood is, like, the East Coast epicenter of ethicureanism, but maybe not the friendliest format for our fellow foodie liberals off the wheatened path to follow.

So we were thrilled when Laura Paynter, who founded the Charlotte, North Carolina chapter of Drinking Liberally, came up with the brilliant notion of creating an Eating Liberally chapter that will meet on the second Saturday of each month at 10 a.m. at the Matthews Community Farmers Market, where like-minded liberals can grab a locally made muffin and a non-corporate cup o’ joe, pull up a chair and chew the grass-fed fat.

Wow! Why didn’t we think of that? Um, maybe because you can’t get coffee at our Greenmarket, unless you count the Starbucks across the street. We New Yorkers like to think we’re so cutting edge, but the Matthews Farmers Market seems to offer some amenities we haven’t got; beyond simply having coffee, they’ve got a website that tells you what produce the farmers expect to have each week, and recipes for all that exotic stuff you have no idea what to do with.

Thanks to Laura and Heather Taylor, who’s co-founding the Charlotte chapter, Eating Liberally’s taken its first baby steps toward spreading our sustainable social movement. We’re starting a third chapter later this month in DC, and we’re hoping to nurture progressive foodie communities in other regions soon, too. All we are saying is give peas a chance!

FAUX HOLY ROLLER ACTUALLY GETS ARRESTED FOR PREACHING THE FIRST AMEN!-DMENT AT CRITICAL MASS

Last Friday, the NYPD hauled the Reverend Billy off to jail for reciting the First Amendment at the monthly bicycle rally known as Critical Mass, making this particular Mass seem especially Critical.

“Reverend Billy has a First Amendment right to recite the First Amendment,” Norman Siegel, the legendary civil rights lawyer, told the NY Times. Siegel is representing the Rev, who’s been charged with second-degree harassment because he wouldn’t stop reciting the First Amendment to a bunch of stone-faced cops. Watch the incident yourself and decide who’s harassing whom.

We were deeply disturbed by this episode because: (a) I thought we lived in a democracy where people have the right to peaceably assemble, and (b) we were expecting the Rev for dinner that evening and had been looking forward to it for a whole month.

Sadly, my chilled strawberry soup turned warm while the Rev cooled his heels in the slammer. His partner, Savitri D, who rushed over around 9 p.m. to tell us Billy had been arrested, sent a mournful e-mail at 3:15 a.m. titled “Billy is still in jail,” adding that she “was able to sneak him in a sandwich…”

We’ll have to set a new date to break bread with the Rev and brainstorm about how the Church of Stop Shopping and the Liberally crew can join hands to help Americans rise above the hype and hoopla of our uber-consumer culture.

His clerical collar’s a costume, but the Rev’s rhetoric is no comedy routine; he’s on a serious mission to rescue us from the maws of the malls, deliver us from Fed-Ex delivered temptation, get the mom and pop shops off the endangered species list, banish bigotry, and preserve God’s green earth before we brown it to a crisp.

So let’s hear it for heresy! Reverend Billy’s agenda flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that we have a civic duty to shop to prop up our Made in China economy, as well as a god-given right to squander resources and pollute the planet in the pursuit of our “blessed way of life.”

My own rants against rampant consumerism and our fuelish ways have won me a halo from the Rev, so in my official capacity as Saint Kerry, I’d like to offer the following Beatitude:

BLESSED ARE THEY WHO BIKE, FOR THEY SHALL PRESERVE THE EARTH.

What could be more benign than bicycling? It gets you where you’re going by burning fat instead of finite fossil fuels. You would think Mayor Mike would be pro-bike, right? I mean, he’s throwing all his weight behind congestion pricing, and he launched a sustainability initiative whose goals include reducing emissions from vehicles and easing gridlock.

Spoke-centric spokespersons have lobbied long and hard on behalf of NYC cyclists, from Transportation Alternatives to the officially unofficial coalition known as Critical Mass. The mass transit mavericks at Transportation Alternatives advocate a “green hierarchy” which gives priority to pedestrians, cyclists, mass transit, and commercial vehicles over the single occupancy cars that create so much congestion and pollution. Transportation Alternatives has also popularized the concept of “traffic calming”—think feng shui for roadways.

But the Critical Mass crew is cut from slightly woollier cloth, and their monthly rallies routinely rub the NYPD the wrong way. Critical Mass is an international grassroots movement to green our cities by making them more bike-friendly, and the participants celebrate cycling by meeting up for a ride, typically on the last Friday of the month.

Of course, when you have dozens or even a hundred cyclists riding en masse, motorists who are used to ruling the road can find themselves displaced and disgruntled. And City Hall claims the cyclists don’t have the right to assemble and pedal--however peacefully--without a permit.

So, take a stream of green bikers, add a sea of NYPD blue, shake and stir, and you get a wave of purple-faced cops launching a free-for-all against our freewheeling friends.

This persecution of pedal pushers has been going on for years—back in October of 2004 our dear friend Liz had her bike confiscated at a Critical Mass and spent an unpleasantly unforgettable night locked up in the Tombs, a dismal downtown jail, accused of disorderly conduct and parading without a permit.

Eight months later, the NY Times reported that Liz was found not guilty:

One of 33 bicyclists arrested last October in a monthly Critical Mass bicycle protest was found not guilty on Tuesday of charges of disorderly conduct and parading without a permit. The bicyclist, Liz Shura, an art director at The Wall Street Journal, had been the sole rider to plead not guilty and take her case to trial, said Mark Taylor, a spokesman for Freewheels, a group that defends the Critical Mass riders. The cases of the 32 other bicyclists, arrested for running red lights and other violations, had been adjourned in contemplation of dismissal. Mr. Taylor said that a judge in New York County Supreme Court acquitted Ms. Shura after just 30 minutes of testimony, saying that her lawyer did not have to present a defense.

Perhaps because the charges were indefensible? Liz was so deeply shaken by this flagrant abuse of power and trampling of her rights that she left her job at the Wall Street Journal to go to law school.

The charges against the Reverend Billy will no doubt be dropped, too, because they’re equally bogus. But things are really going to heat up when the Morgan Spurlock-produced “What Would Jesus Buy?” hits the theaters this fall. This biography of the Rev and his Church of Stop Shopping on the road in their biodiesel bus is already hitting speedbumps, according to Reuters, although the Today show aired a surprisingly supportive profile of the Rev, partner Savitri, and their gospel choir.

Some folks see Reverend Billy as a social satirist à la Jonathan Swift, but given his role as a mock missionary and a champion of conservation, he strikes me as more of a modern day Johnny Appleseed, sowing a social movement dedicated to uprooting the weeds of waste that choke our democracy. The 44 words of the First Amendment “are like a magic seed,” he e-mailed me yesterday. It better be a Round Up-resistant strain, though, because the Powers That Be seem to see Billy as a pest, and they’re taking toxic measures to control him.

THE VAST RIGHT WING CONSPIRACY TO SELL YOU BAD FOOD

I know today’s newspaper is destined to be tomorrow’s fishwrap, but there’s a prematurely stinky smell coming from today’s NY Times . Something is rotten in the District of Columbia, and I’m afraid it’s our roly poly congressional fish heads, who’ve caved in to lobbyists and refused to enforce the Country of Origin Labeling Laws on meats and produce.

COOL--as we like to call it ‘cause it sounds cool--was passed as part of the 2002 Farm Bill. But the meat lobby and grocery industry have stopped Congress from implementing it for five whole years now.

The seafood industry, on the other hand, saw a marketing advantage for products like wild-caught Alaskan salmon, which is widely regarded as healthier and more environmentally friendly than imported farm-raised salmon, and can therefore command a higher price.

So Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens, a pretty scaly and flaky specimen himself, did the right thing for the wrong reasons, i.e. out of concern for his corporate constituents rather than consumers, and made sure the labeling law for seafood was enforced.

As usual, corporate interests trump consumer protection. Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s a question for you, and I’m sorry that it’s not a hypothetical: would you like to buy spoiled, rotten meat that’s been irradiated and then repackaged?

You probably wouldn’t; 71% of consumers have indicated that they’d rather not buy irradiated food. But the food industry has some spoiled, rotten food it would love to sell you.

So they’ve been pressuring the FDA to permit the use of euphemisms like “electronic pasteurization” in order to sell consumers spoiled food that’s been zapped and repackaged. And in cases where there’s supposedly no change in the taste of the food, there would be no label required at all.

Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a health policy scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union, discussed the proposed changes with Living On Earth’s Steve Curwood last week:

RANGAN:...it's a slightly unappetizing thought to know, that meat that is unfit for sale, that is so contaminated that it would be illegal to sell it, can actually be stored, irradiated and then sold to the public after that. And that's a very big concern for us because what it does is it can mask bad hygiene problems…consumers can unknowingly buy food that was previously so contaminated that it would have been illegal to be sold.

CURWOOD: Wait a second. You're telling me that spoiled meat can be zapped and then sold?

RANGAN: That's right.

CURWOOD: Stuff that I would throw out of my refrigerator?

RANGAN: Stuff that you would throw out of your refrigerator. Stuff that the stores might throw out because it's gone bad. The fact of the matter is at the processing plant if that meat is so dirty that it doesn't pass USDA inspection standards, you can hold the meat, irradiate it, and then sell it to consumers

But wait, it gets worse. According to Dr. Rangan, the radiation process converts fat into a possibly carcinogenic “radiolytic byproduct”:

RANGAN: It changes the fat into something called 2-alkylcyclobutanones, or 2-ACBs, and those things when put into rats seem to cause cancer tumors in their colon. And, so we certainly seem to think more research needs to be done in terms of really understanding the safety of irradiation, especially when it comes to irradiating products like meat. It may also be of interest to the listeners to know that in Europe irradiating meat is illegal because of those concerns about irradiated fat.

Now, if you’re not sufficiently grossed out by the thought of unknowingly consuming recycled rotted meat that may contain cancer-causing chemicals, read on:

CURWOOD: So, how does this stuff taste once it's been zapped?

RANGAN: Well, when we tested irradiated beef in 2003 our taste testers found that it tasted like singed hair. And in the industry they've also termed it as "wet dog hair." So, it's rather unappetizing and it seems to be these changes in the fat specifically that seem to cause the off taste in irradiated foods with fat.

The FDA’s accepting public comments on the proposed policy change until tomorrow, July 3rd, so if you’d like to weigh in you can go to the FDA’s website and type in the docket number 2005N-0272. (hat tip to OrangeClouds115 at Daily Kos.)

And if you’re still not convinced that there’s an entire industry dedicated to shoving unproven, potentially dangerous technology down our throats, an article in the Sunday NY Times business section reveals new questions about the safety of biotech products.

The article quotes Henry I. Miller—yes, the same Henry I. Miller who had an op-ed in last Friday’s NY Times trumpeting Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone as a tremendous boon to consumers and a great way to combat climate change—as emphatically declaring the undisputed safety of biotech food products:

“Both theory and experience confirm the extraordinary predictability and safety of gene-splicing technology and its products,” said Dr. Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution who represented the pro-biotech position. Dr. Miller was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the Food and Drug Administration, and presided over the approval of the first biotech food in 1992.

Dr. Miller gave this ringing endorsement at a 2004 roundtable sponsored by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

Now, researchers who’ve completed a four-year study organized by the United States National Human Genome Research Institute have released findings that raise all kinds of questions about the thousands of patents that have already been given to plant, animal, and microbial genes.

But then Dr. Miller doesn’t seem terribly prescient about a lot of things. If you want to have a laugh, revisit the unhinged hatchet job he penned for the National Review a few years back accusing Al Gore of being cuckoo on climate change. Do I smell roasting wingnuts? Between that and the rotting fishheads on Capital Hill, we could sure use some fresh air. Too bad the news is so stinky.

NY TIMES PLAYS PATSY TO MONSANTO’S COWPIES

(following is a letter to the NY Times from our mascot, L.C., the “Liberally” cow, in response to an op-ed the Times ran extolling the alleged virtues of Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone. We warned L.C. that the Times is not likely to publish a letter from a farm animal, much less a fictitious one, but she was bullish about it:)

To the Editor:

I nearly had a cow when I spotted Henry I. Miller’s work of fiction, “Don’t Cry Over rBST Milk,” masquerading as fact on the Times’ op-ed page last Friday.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am a cow, and as the bovine mascot of an organization dedicated to more humane treatment of farm animals I couldn’t let this half-baked cowpie of Monsanto-mandated myths go unchallenged.

There are so many flat-out lies and gross distortions in this piece that even I, a ruminant blessed with not one but four chambers in which to do my digesting, could not stomach them all.

Miller’s attempt to portray rBST as a boon to the environment is an especially nauseating display of spin, but what really made me choke on my cud was his claim that “consumers are apparently happy to drink milk from supplemented cows, in spite of efforts by biotechnology opponents to bamboozle milk processors and retailers into believing that consumers don’t want it.”

But who’s bamboozling whom? Consumers have led the stampede to reject milk from hormone-injected cows, worried not only about ingesting dairy products with added hormones, but also because the use of rBST has serious and painful side effects for myself and my sister cows. It puts us at a much higher risk of contracting a painful condition called mastitis, which requires massive amounts of antibiotics to treat and increases the somatic cell count in our milk. This means that our milk is full of pus. As Rachel Ray might say, yuck-o!

We cows do produce a certain quantity of this hormone naturally, but injecting us with Monsanto’s patented gene-spliced version in order to maximize our milk production treats us like machines, without regard for the fact that we are living, breathing creatures whose bodies break down under the burden of this supposed breakthrough.

The use of rBST is banned in Canada and the European Union, and, as Andrew Kimbrell, founder of the Center for Food Safety, notes in his book Your Right to Know, “The suffering of animals alone is enough cause for consumers to avoid” rBST-derived dairy and meat products.

Mr. Miller doesn’t even bother to mention the problem of mastitis, which is an undisputed and well-documented side effect of rBST use. I guess he figures nobody gives a damn about dairy cows. But we’re fed up, and we’re harnessing our fury; we’ve even got our own website, now: CowsUnite.org, where our Bovine Bill of Rights includes the Right To Just Say No To Drugs.

Plenty of people are willing to pay more for milk from humanely treated cows, and the dairy farmers catering to conscientious consumers are doing just fine, thank you very much. The only party who gets hurt by the rBST boycott is Monsanto, who’s spent a gazillion dollars to manufacture and promote this hormone and can’t stand to watch their investment curdle.

As a grass-fed cow, I have an easy time distinguishing real grassroots from Astroturf apologists like Henry I. Miller. What a perfect name for a biostitute! I’m just sorry the Times allocates space on its op-ed page to such flagrantly disingenuous Agribiz-funded disinformation. The Old Grey Lady, she ain’t what she used to be…

Sincerely,

L.C., the “Liberally” Cow.

WHY ISN’T “THE REAL DIRT” CLEANING UP?

We’re a nation of Purell Puritans, determined to sanitize ourselves—and our surroundings--from head to toe. Maybe cleanliness really is next to godliness. After all, without dirt, we would all be DEAD, bringing us that much closer to heaven (if such a place exists.) Do you seriously think we can feed ourselves without soil?

You probably do. And why wouldn’t you? After all, our food comes in plastic packages purchased from big concrete boxes sitting on top of acres of asphalt. It doesn’t exactly grow on trees.

Oh, wait, maybe it does! But by the time it’s been processed and packaged, every trace of nature’s been eliminated. Those pre-sliced apples, as easy to eat as potato chips? Before they got bagged in plastic, they had a core, full of seeds, and a stem that connected them to a branch on a tree, which was once a seed itself, which sprouted up out of—are you ready for this?--soil. You know, dirt.

So, really, soil is the source of all life, and as such, ought to be revered. And the people who toil in it deserve our devotion.

But we think dirt is just, well, dirty. And our palates prefer the pasteurized pablum of “reality” shows to true stories unenhanced by added sugars or artificial flavors.

Oh, and by the way? We only want to watch people who look like us, apparently, which is why HBO plopped a half-white protagonist into their version of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown’s historical Sioux saga, as a “hand-holder” to walk the white man through this particular trail of tears. The writer who adapted the classic book for HBO offered the following rational:

"Everyone felt very strongly that we needed a white character or a part-white, part-Indian character to carry a contemporary white audience through this project.''

But sometimes even a white man can’t get a break, if he’s different, or dirty. Consider the case of John Peterson, aka Farmer John. The poignant and powerful documentary of his life, The Real Dirt on Farmer John, hasn’t made any inroads at the box office despite being declared “unbelievably special” by Al Gore and reaping bushels of rave reviews.

The NY Times called it a “fascinating documentary about loss and reinvention,” offering “one man's extraordinary life as a gateway to a larger history of tragedy and transition.”

The movie follows an odd fellow’s odyssey from local-boy-made-bad to a buy-local-maverick-made-good. But this intensely personal story, filmed in rural Illinois and woven into a glorious patchwork of home movies and new footage held together by Farmer John’s endearingly quirky narrative, also highlights two pastoral plagues that infect every region of our nation: sprawl and bigotry.

If you’ve ever been bullied for being different or had people spread nasty, unfounded rumors about you, if you’ve ever mourned the sight of ticky tacky houses sprouting up on former fields, this film will touch you whether you’ve ever given a thought to the way our food is grown or not. The Real Dirt on Farmer John is a true tale of how a handful of wild and woolly idealists, faced with fear and loathing from a hostile community, turned the other cheek and sowed the seeds for an agrarian revival after the advent of industrial agriculture nearly bled the family farms to death.

Newsday’s review noted that “very few folks have the eloquence and force of personality to portray their own story on screen, at least not in the peculiarly winning combination embodied by John Peterson,” but if Peterson is the star of the film, his extraordinary mother is its anchor, holding things together through decades of hardship with a perpetually sunny outlook undimmed by disease and disaster.

Our news is flooded with tales of toxin-tainted foods from China and near-biblical catastrophes brought on by climate change, from fires to floods to record drought. It all seems so discouraging, but there’s an antidote to these scourges—the community supported agriculture that Farmer John pioneered with his Angelic Organics farming venture.

Community supported agriculture gives those of us lucky enough to live near a farm that participates in a CSA program the opportunity to buy healthy, locally grown food that’s untainted by toxins, so it’s fresher, it tastes better, it’s better for you, and it doesn’t waste fossil fuels racking up food miles from Peru to Peoria.

The trouble is, most Americans have never heard of CSAs. The Real Dirt on Farmer John could change that, doing for community supported agriculture what An Inconvenient Truth did for climate change. At least, it could if it played in enough theaters. But the movie is struggling to gain traction despite all the accolades. Why? My theory is our culture has grown so disconnected from the soil and the souls who nourish us that the words “dirt” and “farmer” are a turn-off to prospective movie-goers.

And that’s a tragedy for all of us, because Farmer John and his fellow CSA farmers hold the key to our nation’s salvation in their callused, dirty hands. The commodity crop growers are tripping over each other to plant more top soil-depleting corn and bring on another dustbowl/depression—see Timothy Egan’s best seller, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl—or, the way things are going, just wait a few years and you’ll get to relive it.

As Egan pointed out in a great NY Times op-ed on Thursday, entitled “Red State Welfare,” our current system of agricultural subsidies “sets the rules for the American food system and helps to subsidize obesity. It rewards growers of big commodity crops like corn, soybeans and wheat — the foundation of our junk food nation. So, a bag of highly processed orange puff balls with no nutritional value is cheaper than a tomato or a peach.”

Egan notes that “the American Farm Bureau, which represents some of the biggest corporate welfare recipients, is terrified that a motley mix of peasants are now at the door with pitchforks. On their Web page, the bureau warns members that “forces outside of agriculture” are demanding change.”

Are they talking about me? ‘Cause I’m doing just that. We populist bloggers haven’t got pitchforks, but we can sharpen our pitch to the rest of you to help us support folks like Farmer John, who are growing fruits and vegetables in a healthy, biodiverse eco-system, instead of planting millions of moncultured acres of chemical-dependent commodity crops destined to become high fructose corn syrup or bogus faux green bio-fuels.

So, please, call your local indie theater and ask them to show The Real Dirt on Farmer John. Just because it’s a film about dirt doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t clean up at the box office.

LET’S ASK MARION: IS UNFETTERED CAPITALISM A RECIPE FOR DIETARY DISASTER?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Food Politics and What to Eat:)

kat: You joined a panel of fellow dietary experts on Charlie Rose’s science series this week to chew the fat about America’s fat problem. The scholarly consensus seemed to be that we’re filling up—and out--with processed foods that our bodies can’t handle, which plays havoc with our metabolism, raises our blood sugar levels, and makes us want to eat even more, leading us to consume more calories than we could ever begin to convert to energy, and thereby making us ever fatter.

Dr. Nestle: That's a fair summary of that lengthy conversation. The bottom line is
that genetics matters but even good genes don't do you much good if you overeat junk food and don't burn off those calories with hard work.

kat: One of your fellow panelists expressed the hope that there might someday be a pill we could take that would mitigate the damage from such a diet—a kind of carbo-offset, if you will. Perhaps pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, who sponsors this series, is hard at work developing just such a drug?

Dr. Nestle: No doubt. With 60% of Americans overweight, drug companies would adore to find a magic bullet that would let people eat as much as they want
without putting on pounds. Finding one has been difficult so far--the
existing drugs either increase the risk of heart attacks or cause unpleasant
gastrointestinal symptoms best not discussed in polite company--and for good
reason. Metabolism is set up to defend body weight against starvation. I
count 40-50 separate factors that have something to do with body weight. If
one gets neutralized, the others kick in to compensate. But that won't stop
drug companies from trying. There's too much money at stake.

And I should point out that Coca-Cola is another sponsor--a company that is desperate to keep sales up and would be happy to sell water or anything else if people would buy as much of it as they do classic Coke. It's hard for soft drink companies to deal with the facts. More and more research shows that people who habitually drink sodas take in more calories, are fatter, and have worse diets than people who don't.

kat: You prescribe a wholesale switch to a more wholesome diet. But fruits and vegetables are the perennial wallflowers wilting on the sidelines of the supermarkets, while the packaged foods take center stage and seduce us with their promise of all things sweet, crunchy, fatty, and salty. You often note that the corporations’ primary obligation is to turn a profit for their shareholders. Can Big Food make a healthy profit without making us ill, or are consumers who contract heart disease and diabetes from a steady diet of convenience foods just collateral damage—the cost of doing business--in our capitalist culture?

Dr. Nestle: I think food companies are caught in an impossible dilemma. No matter how hard they try, they can't please Wall Street and public health advocates at the same time. Healthier foods cost more to make (they have better ingredients) and they don't sell nearly as well as junk foods. If companies make healthier foods, they lose money. If they can't keep their bottom lines growing, Wall Street complains and stockholders revolt. If we want marketing to children to stop, we need to allow companies to tick along with lower profits. And we need to change election laws so that our representatives can make decisions based on public health, not corporate health.

HOMEMADE GRANOLA: NUTTY & FLAKY, BUT NOT HALF-BAKED

Our blue bears have a soft spot for crunchy granola, and they’re big “buy local” boosters, too, so they were ecstatic to find FEED, a super-delicious and nutritious granola that is practically made in our own backyard right here in NYC’s West Village.

Unlike most store-bought granolas, FEED is neither too sweet nor too oily, and it’s chock full of organic multi-grains, nuts and berries. So the bears have become addicted to Feed’s Blueberry Almond Crunch. However, this high quality product has, naturally, an equally high price tag, and at $6.79 for a 12 ounce bag, the bears found themselves running out of FEED awfully fast.

They tried going the freegan route and foraging for FEED in dumpsters, but found only half-eaten bananas, stale bagels, and other foods their picky palates preferred to pass on.

Our cranky, crunch-craving bears decided they’d have to start making their own granola from scratch. So we showed them a simple but delicious recipe from one of our favorite cookbook authors, Lorna Sass. And we made it even easier (and ultra cost efficient) to make by stocking up on mixed bags of dried fruit, pre-chopped walnut pieces and pre-sliced, toasted almonds from Trader Joe’s, and bulk organic rolled oats for $1.19 a pound from our local health food store.

The bears still splurge on FEED as an occasional treat, but now that they’ve mastered Lorna’s recipe they’re having fun making their own granola and experimenting with alternative sweeteners like agave syrup and different kinds of dried fruits. No matter what ingredients you use, the secret to this recipe’s success is the slow baking at a low temperature.

As Lorna notes: “Everyone who makes homemade granola swears that his or her own version is the best. I thought that of mine, too, until I tasted Verlie Payne's sophisticated rendition below. One of the secrets is long, slow roasting, which relieves the cook from any worry about burning and results in burnished, golden oat flakes.”

Granola Revisited

(borrowed, with permission, from Lorna Sass’s Whole Grains Every Day Every Way, winner of this year’s James Beard Award in the healthy focus category)

2/3 Cup dark amber (Grade B) maple syrup

1/4 cup peanut or canola oil

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

3 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

1/2 cup toasted wheat germ (available already toasted)

1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

1 1/2 cups unsalted mixed whole nuts (hazelnuts are elegant), coarsely chopped

1/2 cup golden raisins

1/2 cup dried cranberries

MAKES ABOUT 7 CUPS

Place a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat the oven to 225°F.

In a small saucepan, blend the syrup and oil. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until warm, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the vanilla extract. Cover and set aside.

In a large bowl, toss together the oats, wheat germ, coconut, and nuts. Stir in the syrup mixture until the oats are evenly coated.

Spread the granola mixture evenly onto a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake until the oats are golden brown, about 1 hour and 30 minutes. Stir the mixture every 15 to 20 minutes, and rotate the baking sheet so that the mixture will be evenly toasted.

Transfer to a large storage container. When cool, stir in the raisins and cranberries. Cover and store at room temperature for up to 2 weeks or refrigerate for up to 2 months.

Variations:

~Use dried blueberries or chopped dates instead of the raisins.

~Use rolled barley, spelt, or rye in place of some of the rolled oats.

THE VATICAN AND THE ROAD TO HELL

I don’t profess to know what Jesus would drive, but I’m guessing a vintage Volvo station wagon, maybe, or a beat up ol’ VW van retrofitted to run on biodiesel. Something practical, nothing fancy, with plenty of room for shepherding substance abusers to their support groups and hauling loaves of bread and fish to the soup kitchens. And room on the bumper for an “I Brake for Bigots” sticker.

With his gift for turning water into wine, maybe Jesus could transform factory farm by-products like methane and manure into biofuels. He could wave his hand and turn amber waves of grain into ethanol. Who knows? He might even take a page from Moses’ playbook and generate some hydropower with a parting of the waves.

But would he—or Moses, for that matter--sign off on the Vatican’s newly issued Ten Commandments for Driving? This manifesto for motorists, inspired by World Health Organization statistics showing that some 1.2 million people are killed and 50 million injured in road crashes each year, has some potholes that would make any sandal-clad, shaggy-haired do-gooder type hit the brakes.

The Vatican’s “Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road" beseeches drivers to be more responsible. And yet, as my fellow HuffPo blogger Jeff Stiers noted, there is no Thou Shalt Buckle Up. Shouldn’t sanctioning the use of seatbelts be a no-brainer?

And the Bible repeatedly calls on us to be good stewards of the earth, so why does the Vatican not use its considerable clout to call for conserving resources and fighting climate change by choosing a more fuel efficient car or eliminating unnecessary trips? Why is there no Thou Shalt Give Thy Fellow Man a Lift commandment to encourage sharing the burdens of driving by carpooling? Or is there, in fact, an oblique reference to ride-sharing in commandment #2?:

2. The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm.

I get the mortal harm part—don’t run people over, intentionally or otherwise. But the road-as-a-means-of-communion thing baffles me. How can individual drivers isolated in their cars hope to commune --i.e. connect--with other drivers unless they literally collide? Which, of course, is the very thing the Vatican’s seeking to prevent. It’s far easier for fellow travelers to commune on a bus or a train, so why not a Thou Shalt Support Mass Transit commandment?

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Witness the drag car racer who lost control of his black Corvette in Tennessee last Saturday at a Cars for Kids parade, plowing into the crowd and killing six people. Nearly two dozen more were injured. The event was a fundraiser to benefit disabled children.

"I don't understand how they can let a drag car speed down the middle of a city street with hundreds of people standing beside of them," Darla Griswell told her local Tennessee news channel. Griswell’s daughters Rachel and Nicole Griswell, ages 15 and 18, were two of the drag racer’s victims. Griswell is set to lay them to rest today.

The fundraiser’s been held in Selmer for the past 18 years. "It's been safe up until this year," the local police chief noted. But is enlisting drag car racers to perform dangerous high speed stunts on city streets really such a great way to raise money for a childrens’ hospital?

The point of the Vatican’s decree for drivers “is that driving is itself a moral issue,” according to the Rev. Keith Pecklers, a Jesuit professor of liturgy at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, who told the AP, “How we drive impacts on the lives of ourselves and others."

To which the Reverend Billy would no doubt shout “Amen!” The Pope may have his Popemobile, but the Rev and his flock of Stop Shopping apostles had a biodiesel-powered bus to carry them around the country preaching the Beatitudes of Buylessness.

I say had, because back in December of 2005, near Toledo, Ohio, the “bus got rammed from behind by a Peterbilt full of lumber.” The Rev and his followers were pulled from the wreckage and taken to nearby ER’s and trauma centers. Thankfully, no one was killed.

No doubt Reverend Billy—and Jesus--would surely be on board with the Vatican’s commandment #10: Feel responsible toward others. But I bet the Rev could come up with a more progressive set of suggestions for our paved-over nation. From my laptop to God’s ear!

LET’S ASK MARION: HOW DO WE EAT “LOW ON THE FOOD CHAIN?”

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Food Politics and What to Eat:)

kat : Here’s something I want to get off my chest. Evidence is growing that diet and environment may be key culprits in causing breast cancer, according to a recent report on PRI's Living On Earth. A professor of epidemiology, Dr. Devra Lee Davis, emphasized the importance of "eating low on the food chain." What constitutes a low-on-the-food chain diet?

Dr. Nestle: This is an old idea that received wide attention when Frances Moore Lappé
changed the way everyone thought about food in her book Diet for a Small Planet in 1971. Food chains refer to who eats what. We are at the top of the food chain. We eat animals; animals eat plants or smaller animals; smaller animals eat plants and even smaller animals. The smallest animals eat only plants. This puts plants at the bottom of the food chain. Eating low on the food chain means eating mostly plants. This is better from the standpoint of food resources (it takes several pounds of plants to create a pound of meat) and of health (less saturated fat).

kat: Dr. Davis also noted that low-on-the-food-chain foods “are low in pesticides--the fatter the food, the more opportunities it has to absorb toxic chemicals, so eating a diet that is low in animal fat is important." Why do fatty foods absorb more toxins, if this is not too technical a question to ask?

Dr. Nestle: Of course not. Most toxins are organic compounds that are soluble in fat,
not water.

kat: But are all animal fats created equal? Is all red meat bad, or do
grass-fed meats have health benefits as Jo Robinson's Why Grassfed
is Best
claims?

Dr. Nestle: The fat issue is really about ruminants--beef cattle--and you have to be
able to handle some fat chemistry to understand what it is about. As I explain in What to Eat (see pages 176-179 on "Animals: Grass Fed and Grass Finished"), bacteria in the cow's rumen add hydrogen to the otherwise unsaturated fatty acids in grass. This makes beef fat more saturated, which is not so good for heart disease risk. But some of the unsaturated fatty acids get hydrogenated in a different way and form "conjugated linoleic acids " (CLAs). These are trans fats, but somewhat different from the trans fats that get formed by artificial hydrogenation (I describe the structural
differences in the endnote to page 177).

kat: Robinson also maintains that the CLAs in full fat grass-fed dairy
actually lower cholesterol. True?

Dr. Nestle: The research on CLAs is preliminary but suggests that grass-fed beef is
healthier than beef fed corn and soybeans. I am not convinced that the
evidence is all that strong but others would surely disagree.

kat: OK, so the jury’s out on whether grass-fed meat and dairy can reduce your cholesterol levels, but steering clear of factory farmed meats full of hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and chemicals may decrease your risk of cancer, and eating humanely raised (i.e. grass-fed) meats is bound to boost your karma!

Dr. Nestle: I couldn't agree more.

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