KAT's blog

Mark Bittman: Leafy Green Revolutionary?


For a self-proclaimed minimalist with a minuscule kitchen, Mark Bittman's had maximum impact. He's the digital dervish of The New York Times Dining section: his recipes ricochet around the blogosphere, his cooking videos go viral, he's constantly tweaking his How To Cook Everything app, he tweets and blogs regularly.

And, he pens op-eds exhorting us to eat less meat and embrace a plant-based diet. So, it wasn't exactly a shock to hear that the Minimalist is moving on, departing from Dining and bringing his "lessmeatatarian," 'go-vegan-till -six' advocacy to the Times op-ed page.

It's a natural progression, in fact, because Bittman's actually been touting tatsoi and pushing purslane for more than a decade. His How To Cook Everything books may be a kitchen bookshelf staple, but the Bittman book I reach for most often--and the one that transformed the way I eat--is a tattered, soy sauce-splashed paperback from 1995 called Leafy Greens: An A-To-Z Guide to 30 Types of Greens Plus 200 Delicious Recipes.

The introduction begins, "It's no secret that vegetables, grains and fruits are the future of the American diet."

No, but it seems to be a secret that Bittman ever wrote this book! It's been out-of-print for ages, and for the life of me, I can't figure out why Macmillan doesn't reprint Leafy Greens, because it's simply the best guide to greens that I've seen to this day. It demystifies obscure greens and celebrates overlooked ones.

I stumbled across it at the Strand bookstore in NYC when it first came out and was intrigued by the recipes featuring exotic Asian greens, sea vegetables, and common garden weeds--none of which were then in my culinary repertoire.

The recipes are classic Bittman: a few basic ingredients that you can adapt to suit your fancy and your pantry. Don't have kale? Let collards or mustard greens pinch hit. Can't find cress? Make do with mizuna. Virtually every recipe in the book offers alternative suggestions.

Leafy Greens introduced me to the whole family of sweet, crunchy Asian cabbages and spicy mustard greens. It taught me that beet greens and swiss chard are interchangeable.

Bittman also inspired me to grow amaranth, orach, and cultivated strains of purslane, dandelions and watercress in my garden, and to harvest their wild cousins instead of composting them. In a "Note to the Gardener" at the end of the book, he declares, "Everyone who has a bit of dirt should grow greens," and lists his favorite seed sources.

As an advocate for Meatless Mondays and the axis of eat well-- i.e., fruits, veggies, and whole grains--I've been delighted to see Bittman use his tremendous influence to encourage folks to become more ecologically enlightened eaters. As Slow Food USA President Josh Viertel once declared at an Earth Institute conference hosted by Jeffrey Sachs--who sadly subscribes to the notion that industrial agriculture is the only solution to world hunger--"We don't need another Green Revolution. What we need is a Leafy Green Revolution!"

I couldn't agree more, and I know just who to put in charge of it. If only we could get Macmillan to reprint the manifesto.

Let's Ask Marion Nestle: Is Monsanto's Warm & Fuzzy Farmer Campaign Just A Snow Job?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally's Kerry Trueman, aka kat, corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Feed Your Pet Right, Pet Food Politics, What to Eat, Food Politics, and Safe Food):


KT: Now that the Supreme Court has declared that corporations are people, too (happy birthday, Citizens United!), Monsanto is apparently out to put a friendly, slightly weatherbeaten, gently grizzled face on industrial agriculture (see above photo, taken at a DC bus stop just outside USDA headquarters.)

This guy looks an awful lot like Henry Fonda playing Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, which seems only fitting since Agribiz may be helping to create a 21st century Dust Bowl.

After decades of boasting about how fossil-fuel intensive industrial agriculture has made it possible for far fewer farmers to produce way more food, Monsanto is now championing the power of farming to create jobs and preserve land. Does this attempt by a biotech behemoth to wrap itself in populist plaid flannel give you the warm and fuzzies, or just burn you up?

Dr. Nestle: This is not a new strategy for Monsanto. Half of my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (University of California Press, 2010), is devoted to the politics of food biotechnology. I illustrated it with a Monsanto advertisement (Figure 17, page 182). The caption may amuse you:

In 2001, the biotechnology industry's public relations campaign featured the equivalent of the Marlboro Man. Rather than cigarettes, however, this advertisement promotes the industry's view of the ecological advantages of transgenic crops (reduced pesticide use, soil conservation), and consequent benefits to society (farm preservation). In 2002, a series of elegant photographs promoted the benefits of genetically modified corn, soybeans, cotton, and papaya.

Last year, Monsanto placed ads that took its "we're for farmers" stance to another level:

9 billion people to feed. A changing climate. NOW WHAT?
Producing more. Conserving more. Improving farmers' lives.
That's sustainable agriculture.
And that's what Monsanto is all about.

That's sustainable agriculture? I'll bet you didn't know that. Now take a look at the Monsanto website--really, you can't make this stuff up:

If there were one word to explain what Monsanto is about, it would have to be farmers.

Billions of people depend upon what farmers do. And so will billions more. In the next few decades, farmers will have to grow as much food as they have in the past 10,000 years - combined.

It is our purpose to work alongside farmers to do exactly that.

To produce more food.

To produce more with less, conserving resources like soil and water.

And to improve lives.

We do this by selling seeds, traits developed through biotechnology, and crop protection chemicals.

Face it. We have two agricultural systems in this country, both claiming to be good for farmers and both claiming to be sustainable. One focuses on local, seasonal, organic, and sustainable in the sense of replenishing what gets taken out of the soil. The other is Monsanto, for which sustainable means selling seeds (and not letting farmers save them), patented traits developed through biotechnology, and crop protection chemicals.

This is about who gets to control the food supply and who gets to choose. Too bad the Monsanto ads don't explain that.

Laurie David's Family Dinner Cookbook: The Culinary Companion to Jon Stewart's Sanity Rally?


I'm so enthralled by Laurie David's new book, The Family Dinner, that I want to shower it with superlatives. This is the only cookbook I ever got so engrossed in that I even schlepped it around on the subway (and nearly missed my stop, on several occasions.)

But, as my favorite sign at Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity proclaimed, "Hyperbole Is The Worst Thing Ever." So, I'll try to curb my enthusiasm.

David's own pedigree is steeped in late night comedy; she got her start in showbiz as a talent booker for David Letterman, and is the former wife of comedic genius Larry David.

But she's better known as the producer of An Inconvenient Truth, the game-changing documentary she persuaded Al Gore to make after seeing his Keynote slide show on the perils of climate change.

So, why would an ardent environmentalist choose a cookbook for her next project?

First of all, don't be fooled by The Family Dinner's sunny yellow cover, or its subtitle, Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time. Though it's filled with tantalizing recipes from co-author Kirsten Uhrenholdt, this is much more than a cookbook. And it's not just for parents and kids.

It's also a thoughtful primer on how to keep everyone in your social circle -- friends, family, young and old -- well-fed and well-read. David offers playful strategies for introducing word games, poetry, current events, and other great conversation starters at the dinner table that promise to engage even the most taciturn teen (or sulky ex-spouse).

Many of these games would enliven a grown-up dinner party, too, which is why (along with all the quick, easy, tasty recipes) The Family Dinner merits a spot on your cookbook shelf, kids or no kids.

If you do have kids, though, don't you want them to be articulate, literate, and well-informed? Once upon a time, that would have been the proverbial no-brainer. But in this "Dumb As We Wanna Be" era, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has dubbed it, our kids are falling behind academically as fast as they're piling on the pounds.

I don't think it's a coincidence that Waiting For Superman, the latest project from Davis Guggenheim, who directed An Inconvenient Truth, also focuses on America's educational crisis.

David and Guggenhiem are both working to combat the disturbing trend in our culture towards open contempt for science and apathy about academic mediocrity. Unless our kids learn to reason, to think critically and assess the blitz of information that bombards them daily, we'll never get a handle on our greenhouse gas emissions. And we'll continue our descent down the global ladder into that Third World America that Arianna Huffington sees looming in our future.

I first learned a few years back about the profound, far-reaching benefits of sitting down to regular meals with your kids from reading Miriam Weinstein's The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier, and Happier.

But a frightening number of sheeple seem to be taking their cues, instead, from a playbook that could be titled The Alarming Power of Tea Parties: How Bleating Together Makes Us Dumber, Weaker, Sicker, and More Miserable.

Unless you get your news from Fox, whose apparent mission is to whip its viewers into a fact-free frenzy while sowing doubt about the science of climate change, you probably know that our kids are falling behind in math and science; our youth are increasingly unfit, physically or mentally, to serve in the military; we're battling depression, diabetes and obesity in record numbers; and a growing number of us are more confused than ever about whether climate destabilization is really a problem, even as stories of extreme severe weather dominate the news.

As David learned more about the immense potential of family dinners to counter a wide range of social ills, she became compelled to inspire parents and kids to get unplugged from all their digital distractions and reconnect to each other on a regular basis.

But you know who else doesn't sit down together and share a meal anymore? Our politicians. Is it a coincidence that our nation's capital has witnessed "a precipitous decline in collegiality and collaboration in governing," as the New York Times reported last year?

The Senate's private dining room, "a place where members of both parties used to break bread," is now empty. Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, told the Times, "It has gotten so bad now that Republicans don't want to be seen publicly in the presence of Democrats or have a Democrat profess friendship for them or vice versa."

How can our two parties possibly work together, if they can't even dine together? Who needs civil discourse -- or table manners -- if you never even come to the table?

When David appeared on CNN's Parker Spitzer to promote her book recently, she noted, "Everything in our culture today is sort of putting us into separate corners."

The Family Dinner invites you to come out of your corner, pull up a chair, savor a real meal and exchange ideas and insights with your family, friends and neighbors. It encourages the preservation of family traditions, the discussion of current events, the expression of gratitude that enhances our well-being.

David enlists an eclectic mix of scholars, chefs, friends (some famous, some not) and others to write the sidebars and thoughtful tidbits that are scattered throughout the book. And, as you might expect, there are lots of tips on how to curb your carbon foodprint. I was pleased to see that she devotes an entire chapter to the Meatless Monday campaign, unequivocally condemns bottled water, and even glorifies the tiffin (a humble, reusable stainless steel lunch box much loved in India).

But what I love about The Family Dinner, more than anything, is that it celebrates lingering at the dinner table to engage in lingual hijinks. Reading this book reminded me how fortunate I am that my parents instilled in me a love of books and words, even as I rejected their politics (Republican) and religion (Christian Science). I did, however, become addicted to the Christian Science Monitor, which surely fostered my lifelong addiction to newspapers (thanks, Dad, for never letting my subscription lapse.)

I'm glad that Laurie David shares that love, and even gladder that she's using her influence to encourage others to engage in lively debates about current events, recite poems, and indulge in whimsy and word play.

David's book reminded me of the gentle, good-natured humor expressed in the signs we saw at Jon Stewart's Rally To Restore Sanity. I've already shared my favorite, but, to wrap this up, I'm offering a few more of these bon mots as a palate cleanser to purge you of the acrid aftertaste of the belligerent, bigoted slogans displayed at other recent rallies:

Think! It's Good For You, Good For The Country

I Came Here Illegally (I went 5 mph over the limit on I-95)

I Understand The Difference Between Communism, Fascism and Socialism And I Don't Use The Terms Interchangeably

Name-Calling Is Easy, But I Prefer Facts, Nuance, and Intellectual Debate

Drill, Baby, Drill...While Following Reasonable Environmental Regulations and Investing In Alternative Energy

No One Is Hitler*
* except Hitler

Free Hugs and/or Rational Discourse

I Wanted to Make a Sign, But I Worry I'm Blocking Others' Viewpoints!

Brains: Not Just For Zombies!

Those were just a few of the signs we saw ourselves. If you'd like to see more, BuzzFeed compiled photos of the 100 Best Signs from the Rally here. Want to start a conversation with your loved ones over a tasty, wholesome meal? The Family Dinner has got all the recipes you need, and then some.

Let's Ask Marion: How Did Junk Food and Obesity Become a Red State/Blue State Debate?

(With a click of her mouse, Kerry Trueman, aka kat, corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Feed Your Pet Right, Pet Food Politics, What to Eat, Food Politics, and Safe Food):

kat: The "agri-culture war" that's long been simmering is coming to a boil now, as recently noted in The Washington Post, The Daily Dish, and elsewhere in the blogosphere.

The Palin/Beck/Limbaugh axis of egos is vigorously defending junk food, lamenting the passage of the food safety bill, and decrying all efforts to address our obesity epidemic, even as David Frum, a rare voice of reason (sometimes) on the right, tells CNN that obesity poses a greater threat to our national security than, say, openly gay soldiers.

You yourself are under fire yet again (sigh) from those uber-astroturfers at the Center For Consumer Freedom for having the audacity to question whether our cherished principle of free speech entitles Big Food to emblazon the labels of its edible food-like substances with Big Lies (i.e. dubious, unproven health claims).

Why do you think that the issues of junk food and obesity have become so incredibly politicized?

Dr. Nestle: Politicized? Of course they are politicized. Junk food and obesity are key indicators of political divisions in our society. For starters, junk food is cheap and obesity is more common among low-income populations. So right away we are into divisive issues of income inequality and class and, therefore, who pays for what and which sectors of society get government handouts.

The minute we start talking about small farms, organic production, local food, and sustainable agriculture, we are really talking about changing our food system to accommodate a broader range of players and to become more democratic. Just think of who wins and who loses if $20 billion in annual agricultural subsidies go to small, organic vegetable producers who are part of their communities rather than to large agricultural producers who do not live anywhere near their corn and soybeans.

The issue at stake is who gets to decide how food is grown and what people eat. For as long as I can remember, big agriculture and big food were in control, in close partnership with congressional agricultural committees and the USDA. Today, the food movement--democracy in action, if you will--is challenging their authority and power. No wonder defenders of the status quo don’t like the challenge. It is only to be expected that they are fighting back.

I see the intensity of the debate (and, alas, the personal attacks) as a clear sign that the movement is making headway. The system is clearly changing. It has to change if we are to address obesity, climate change, and the other unsustainable aspects of our present ways of doing food business.

Anyone who is working to reduce income inequity and to make healthier food available to every American has to expect to encounter the methods corporations always use to fight critics: personal attacks, claims of junk science, invocation of personal responsibility, cooptation, and plenty of behind-the-scenes lobbying.

Telling truth to power has never been popular. But I’m convinced it’s worth doing.

Meet Mario Batali's Las Vegas Visionary


Wholesome. Natural. Sustainable. Not the first words that come to mind when you think of Las Vegas. Times Square on steroids is more like it. Ecological disaster comes to mind, too.

Yet, there it is, every Thursday, inside a warehouse on South Dean Martin Drive -- Bet On the Farm!, a farmers' market offering fresh fruits, vegetables, and other foods from the region's farmers.

And it's all thanks to one exuberant, idealistic man -- Doug Taylor, executive pastry chef at the Batali-Bastianich Hospitality Group's three Las Vegas restaurants: B & B, Carnevino, and Enoteca San Marco. Taylor, a Northern California native who cherishes that wholesome holy trinity of simple, seasonal, and local, had the quixotic notion that this ethos could take root in the epicenter of over-the-top, unbridled exotic excess.

So, with the blessing of the Batali-Bastianich team, he took it upon himself to track down the small family farmers in this region who manage to grow an astonishingly wide range of fruits and vegetables despite the bone-dry climate.

His field trips led to the launch last year of the Bet On the Farm! market, giving his fellow chefs and Las Vegas residents the opportunity to buy fresh food directly from the folks who grow it.

But Taylor's efforts to relocalize Las Vegas's food chain don't stop there. He's also an instructor at the University of Nevada's agricultural program, where he's researching new ways to grow drought-tolerant varieties of fruits and vegetables intensively in this arid metropolis.

His endeavors to create a more self-sufficient Las Vegas come at a time when this city's luck seems to be evaporating even faster than Lake Mead, which provides most of the city's water -- and is currently more than half empty.

A decade-long drought has left Lake Mead at its lowest level ever, putting Las Vegas on the shortlist of cities facing a high risk of a severe water shortage.

Nevada's job market has dried up, too. The state now has the sad distinction of leading the nation in both unemployment and foreclosures. The flood of foreclosures -- the rising tide that only floated the bankers' boats -- has brought the number of underwater Las Vegas mortgages to a whopping, jaw-dropping 80 percent.

In this dismal climate, Bet On the Farm! and Taylor's adventures in edible landscaping are two oases of optimism, bolstering the local farmers and bringing fresh, homegrown food to the community. It's a testament to the forward thinkers at the Batali-Bastianich Hospitality Group that Doug Taylor has been given the chance to pursue his passions. Taylor kindly took time out from all his culinary and horticultural duties to answer a few questions via email:

KT: What compelled you to start a farmers' market in Las Vegas, of all places?

DT: We, as chefs, (Zach Allen, culinary director; me; Jason Neve, chef of B&B; and Nicole Brisson, chef of Carnevino) were starving for better products and a relationship with producers. We partnered up with Kerry Clasby and her foraging company, California Family Farms, to help get the best food and products into the Las Vegas restaurants and community.

At the same time, we were bringing local farmers together and showcasing them at B&B, Carnevino, and Otto Las Vegas to our nightly guests and the top restaurants and chefs on the Las Vegas strip.

We decided to open Bet on the Farm! Farmers Market in the spring of 2009 so we could bring local farmers and the top selective artisanal California farmers together for the first time in Las Vegas.

Prior to Bet on the Farm!, produce that was being trucked into Las Vegas was not equal to the chefs or the restaurants of Las Vegas. Now, with the market going into its second winter, there is finally a balance of world class chefs using world class products from California and the local farmers from Las Vegas.

KT: What role does food play in Las Vegas' economy? Has Bet On the Farm! changed the landscape for local farmers?

DT: Las Vegas and the state of Nevada collect more taxes from retail and dining sales than from gambling. With restaurants and chefs buying local produce, the increase of production in and around southern Nevada has skyrocketed. In a down economy, 90% of local producers are planning on an 80% to 100% expansion of their farms in the next year.

The most significant thing that Bet on the Farm! has done is create a place where producers/ farmers have a podium to showcase their products to the local community and the restaurant industry of Las Vegas for the first time.

KT: Las Vegas presumably isn't on the cutting edge when it comes to composting. How do you deal with all the food waste and kitchen scraps from three restaurants? Have you implemented other sustainable initiatives at the three Batali/Bastianich Vegas outposts?

DT: Zach, Jason, and Nicole started the sustainable/green programs in Las Vegas. The composting of food waste and bio-diesel is relatively simple. When the farmers come for deliveries they pick up the kitchen waste (food waste and fryer oil)and take it back to the farm. It took a little organizing and figuring out schedules but it runs pretty smooth now. All the lights in the walk-ins are on timers, all faucets have water control aerators, hand dryers in all restrooms, over all communicating and education with staff about changing habits and trying to conserve where we can.

KT: You've turned your own front yard in downtown Las Vegas into an edible landscaping experiment. What have you learned so far? Are you hoping to inspire your neighbors to become front yard farmers?

DT: It's an experiment with the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension on high density urban farming. The hope is that we will educate and inspire others to do the same and change the way we eat and view food in Las Vegas. With having a front yard with 60 fruit trees and four vegetable beds, everyone who passes by can't believe what they see and smell.

In late February, the whole yard is in pink and white bloom with beets, carrots, radishes and lettuces filling the beds. I love being a part of the process of each season. We hold classes on watering with responsibility, pruning for each season, soil wealth, and planting cycles.

KT: How do you find the time to fulfill your duties at Carnevino, B & B Ristorante, and Otto Las Vegas, oversee the Bet On The Farm! market, tend your own front yard farm, and work with the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension to research drought tolerant varieties of fruits and vegetables?

DT: It's not work to me, I have a passion about food and who is producing it. Farmers are some of the most interesting and wonderful people I have ever met. I'm honored to be able to help where I can and to be considered a friend to them.

Whether I'm in the restaurants, working at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension under Professor Robert Morris, or on the farms, it's my dreams come true! I am the happiest chef in all of Las Vegas!

What A White Bread Democracy Could Learn From A Kingdom of Rye


Does the term "white bread" say "all things 'burby and bland," to you? Don't be fooled by this uber-processed slice of whiteness. Beneath its pale golden crust, white bread whispers some dark truths about our values: we cherish convenience and shelf life above taste and texture; cheapness is next to godliness, wellness be damned; and man can always find a way to improve on nature.

Highly refined flour has only the wheat's starchy endosperm, minus the nutritious--but more perishable--bran and germ. No nutrients? No problem! Just add a bunch of vitamins and minerals at the end of the process. Problem solved.

It's whole grains that go against the grain in America. Too darned assertive, and so time-consuming to chew! Our allegiance to this Pillsbury-Doughboy-pokable/Play-Doh-pliable product symbolizes, above all, a culture that resists resistance, and has better things to do than chew.

So, we're low on fiber, morally and culinarily, leaving us perpetually consternated and constipated. We'd give a shit, if only we could.

The citizens of Denmark, on the other hand, revere "Rugbrød," the very antithesis of our Wonder Bread. It's a dense, dark, high-fiber, low-gluten rye bread that Oprah Winfrey famously fell in love with last year when she attended the ill-fated Climate Change summit in Copenhagen.

Is it a coincidence that a country whose people adore--nay, are addicted to--a wholesome, nutrient-rich bread enjoys a high quality of life and leads the world when it comes to shifting from fossil fuels to a post-carbon future?

I think not, and that's one reason I heartily endorse the Rye Bread Project, which launches this Sunday, November 14 at New York City's New Amsterdam Market with "Smørrebrød Table 2010."

Smørrebrød, a hearty, open-faced sandwich, is made by artfully layering fish, meats, cheese, greens, and other veggies on a foundation of rugbrød. The Rye Bread Project brings this delightful Danish tradition to our shores in the hopes that we might embrace it, too, in our ongoing battle with obesity and diabetes.

Rugbrød is delicious proof that bread doesn't have to be bad for you. And there is, of course, room in a healthy diet for white flour, pizza, and donuts--just not the quantity and quality of such foods that Americans habitually consume.

The Rye Bread Project and its partners, including the Consulate General of Denmark and New Amsterdam Market, have invited some of our finest local chefs to create smørrebrød using rugbrød from New York City's own Nordic Breads, made from grain grown and milled by Cayuga Pure Organics in upstate New York near Ithaca.

Smørrebrød Table 2010 also marks the start of Grains Week 2010, a weeklong celebration of the re-emergence of local grains in our regional food system.

Now, I realize that it's considered unpatriotic in some circles to suggest that the U.S. could possibly learn anything from a European country, much less a monarchy, much less a monarchy with a super-duper, industrial-strength social safety net, like Denmark.

But Denmark, which has a Ministry of Climate and Energy, has seen its economy grow by 70% in the past 25 years even while "energy consumption has remained largely unchanged and CO2 emissions have continuously declined," according to the Danish government. The country's goal is to become entirely independent of fossil fuels by the year 2050. Already, Denmark gets 20% of its energy from wind power.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., as Reuters reports, the resurgence of the GOP has taken the wind out of the alternative energy industry's sales, and the tea partiers are promising to launch a hearing into what they are fond of referring to as the "climate change hoax."

The real hoax, of course, comes from the folks at Fox News, aided and abetted by the carbon cabal and their fossil-fueled fortunes. They'd have you believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that climate destabilization isn't happening. And green jobs? Why, that's just blue state blather.

But, hey, even if it is, we can't afford to do anything about it, anyway. Being proactive and encouraging conservation and investing in clean tech and mass transit? That's a job for socialist Europe and communist China. We've got two wars and tax cuts to fund, and earmarks to eliminate.

So put up another pot of tea, and pass the Wonder Bread. Just don't dunk it; it will dissolve into a soggy mess faster than a Glenn Beck pity party.

Domino’s Pizza and the USDA: The Bailout You Didn’t Hear About


Chalk up another victory for Stephen Colbert's gut. Back in January, the touter of all things truthy declared Domino's Pizza his "Alpha Dog of The Week" for a "game-changing ad campaign" to promote its new pizza recipe. Consumers had complained that the old formula tasted like ketchup-covered cardboard, a factor that presumably contributed to the company's sagging sales.

So, Domino's did two things: it reformulated its pizzas to contain nearly twice as much cheese; and launched an ad campaign which took the bold step of acknowledging just how awful its old pizzas were, while gushing about the "cheese, cheese, CHEESE!!!" that distinguishes the new recipe from the old one.

With the logos of Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Fannie Mae, Bank of America, and AIG on display behind him, Colbert applauded Domino's "for joining the great American corporate tradition of screwing your customers and then having the balls to ask them to come back for more."

Turns out that Domino's had something else in common with these ethically challenged entities, aside from the dubious products they dumped on unwitting dupes.

As Sunday's New York Times revealed, Domino's effort to rebrand itself and thereby revive its flagging fortunes was partly financed by a government handout, or, if you prefer, corporate welfare. According to the Times' Michael Moss, Domino's $12 million marketing campaign was created and financed by a USDA-funded organization called Dairy Management.

The free market had spoken, and its collective voice said "Yuck!" But instead of standing by and letting Domino's slide deeper into an apparently well-deserved decline, the government chose to intervene with an infusion of cash and a profusion of cheese.

And Dairy Management's efforts to get more milk fat on the menus at Domino's, Wendy's, Burger King, and Pizza Hut have been a huge success, boosting cheese sales by "nearly 30 million pounds," as Moss reports.

This is a great thing, if you are a dairy farmer saddled with surplus whole milk. For the rest of us, though, it raises some disturbing questions:

(1) Do we really need to eat more cheese, given that cheese consumption in the U.S. has already nearly tripled since 1970? Cheese is now the single greatest source of saturated fat in our diet. Is there no other use for all this excess milk fat? Given its artery-clogging capabilities, could it be used to fill the fractures in our ancient, decaying water mains, or the cracks in our highways?

Seriously. There's a guy in Vermont named Andrew Meyer who's figured out how to make an awesome, super durable, non-toxic floor and furniture varnish from another by-product of the cheese industry, whey. Why not use the USDA's resources to encourage this kind of innovation, instead of ladling more cheese onto every one-handed fast food item so that we can shovel even more saturated fat down our gullets like geese at a foie gras farm?

(2) Doesn't this totally conflict with the USDA's anti-obesity campaign? A spokesperson for the USDA gave Moss the department's boilerplate spiel: "When eaten in moderation and with attention to portion size, cheese can fit into a low-fat, healthy diet."

Yes, but how do the gooey, greasy, lactose-laden monstrosities that Dairy Management has helped to create fit into that mythical moderate diet? As Marion Nestle notes in my Q & A with her on this topic, "Who eats one-quarter of a pizza?"

And, about those portion sizes? Jonathan Bloom points out in his timely, terrific new book, American Wasteland (citing research from Nestle herself and her colleague Lisa Young) that portion sizes climbed steadily in the 1970's, increased sharply in the '80s and continued to rise in the '90s:

In recent years, seemingly everything in the food industry, from portions to plates, has swelled, except for our common sense.

Bloom writes that "we grow about twice as much food as we need," thanks to agricultural policies that encourage overproduction. And all that waste has to go someplace, whether it's to the landfill, the compost heap (all too rarely), or our stomachs.

In his salute to Domino's, Colbert didn't fault the company for its unapologetic admission that it had been serving its customers a sub-standard product:

After all, we're the human garbage cans who bought these trash discs by the millions. Domino's is simply advertising that they weren't fit to wipe your ass with.

The new formula is both a dietary disaster and a marketing triumph. But the Domino's campaign is only a small part of the story; Moss's piece also delves into the troubling history of Dairy Management's attempts to manipulate consumers with unsubstantiated claims touting the alleged weight-loss benefits of increased dairy consumption.

Oddly enough, the USDA's top officials declined to speak with Moss, passing up the chance to trumpet Dairy Management's evident success.

Don't they want to disprove the naysayers who claim the government can't create--or preserve--jobs? Aside from aiding the dairy industry, this partly tax payer-funded pro-lacto largesse has a few other winners. Think of all the pizza deliverers, the cardboard box manufacturers, and the producers of bovine growth hormone who might have been laid off had Domino's been left to its own devices and lousy slices. It's great for cholesterol-lowering drug sales, too.

Who loses? The 'little people'. Although, apparently, we're growing bigger everyday, with the help of a heap o' cheese.

Cross-posted from Civil Eats

Let's Ask Marion Nestle: Could The USDA Get Any Cheesier?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s Kerry Trueman, aka kat, corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Feed Your Pet Right, Pet Food Politics, What to Eat, Food Politics, and Safe Food):

KT: Sunday's New York Times has a disturbing exposé by Michael Moss about the USDA's efforts to aid the dairy industry by encouraging excessive cheese consumption. Can the USDA ever reconcile its two mandates? On the one hand, the USDA has the task of tackling the obesity epidemic by encouraging healthier eating habits. Yet it must also promote the interests of U.S. agriculture. As Moss documents so well, these two missions are in total conflict.

Dr. Nestle: And so they are, have been, and will be until public outrage causes some changes in Washington. In two of my books, Food Politics and What to Eat, I wrote about how dairy lobbying groups, aided and abetted by the USDA, convinced nutritionists that dairy foods were equivalent to essential nutrients and the only reliable source of dietary calcium, when they are really just another food group and one high in saturated fat, at that.

The USDA is still at it. As Michael Moss notes:

The department acknowledged that cheese is high in saturated fat, but said that lower milk consumption had made cheese an important source of calcium. 'When eaten in moderation and with attention to portion size, cheese can fit into a low-fat, healthy diet,' the department said.

So let's talk about "moderation," a word that I find hard to use without irony. The pizza illustrated in Michael Moss's article is described as a "thin-crust medium pie." The diameter is not given, but one-fourth of the pie contains 430 calories, 12 grams of saturated fat (20 is the daily recommended upper limit), and 990 mg sodium (the upper limit is 2,300).

Who eats one-quarter of a pizza? Not anyone I know. So double all this if you share it with a friend. If you eat the whole thing--and why do I think that plenty of Domino Pizza customers do?--you are consuming more than 1700 calories, nearly 4,000 mg sodium (that's 10 grams of salt, by the way), and 48 grams of saturated fat. This is enough to make any nutritionist run screaming from the room.

So why is USDA in bed with dairy lobbying groups? That's its job. From its beginnings in the 1860s, USDA's role was to promote U.S. agricultural production and sales, with the full support of what was then a largely agricultural Congress. Only in the 1970s, did USDA pick up all those pesky food assistance programs and capture the "lead federal agency" role in providing dietary advice to the public.

Much of Food Politics is devoted to describing the USDA's severe conflict of interest in developing dietary advice to "eat less" of basic agricultural commodities. As Times reporter Marian Burros put it in one of her articles about the fights over the 1992 Pyramid, which visually suggested eating less meat and dairy, "the foxes are
guarding the henhouse."

This is what Mrs. Obama is up against in her efforts to reduce childhood obesity and bring healthier foods into America's inner cities.

How to change this system? One possibility might be to move dietary guidance into a more independent federal agency, NIH or CDC for example. Another might be to recognize the ways in which corporate lobbyists corrupt our food system and do something about election campaign laws.

A pipe dream? Maybe, but I never thought I'd live to see the editors of the New York Times consider an article about USDA checkoff programs to be front-page news, and in the right-hand column yet, marking it as the most important news story of the day.

Let's Ask Marion Nestle: Is Stealth The Way To Healthy Eating for Kids?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s Kerry Trueman, aka kat, corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Feed Your Pet Right, Pet Food Politics, What to Eat, Food Politics, and Safe Food):

KT: NPR's Morning Edition ran a story today about "stealth" strategies that some schools and researchers are employing to get kids to eat healthier foods--for example, by sneaking pureed vegetables into a line of cafeteria foods being marketed under the name "Hidden Healthies."

But doesn't this approach reinforce the perception kids have that vegetables taste lousy? David Just, co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition, pointed out that "Taste is a suggestion more than anything else. If you think something is going to taste really good — if you've been told by others that it tastes good — you build that into your head when you eat it."

A researcher who's experimenting with enhanced cafeteria lighting to make healthy foods appear more appealing to kids told NPR, "We got to figure out some things so that the last thing in the world they know is that we're trying to get them to eat well."

We know that kids (and plenty of grown-ups!) turn up their noses at foods that are presented to them as healthy. Kids have also come to expect that their preferences should be catered to, which is why carrot and apple growers have begun packaging their products to resemble snack foods like potato chips.

In short, veggies have a serious pr problem. Do these strategies strike you as a good solution?

Dr. Nestle: Oh no! Not stealth again. I thought we were done with that in 2007 when we had to live through the plagiarism fight between Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious, and Missy Lapine’s Sneaky Chef, both of them pushing stealth strategies.

I remember being given hamburgers as a kid and how betrayed and condescended to I felt when they turned out to contain ground spinach—a vegetable I detested at the time but now think is terrific, especially when young and tender. Kids’ tastes do change, and should be encouraged in an honest way.

That is why I am so intrigued by the approach shown in the New York Times "Lunch Line Redesign" op-ed last week. Check out the way that Brian Wansink and his colleagues suggest redesigning lunch lines. These do nothing draconian or deceitful. Instead, they gently nudge kids to made healthier choices on their own.

How? By doing such things as putting salads near the cash register, using bowls instead of trays, and describing the foods more attractively. My favorite of these strategies is simply to ask the kids whether they would like a salad. All of these increase kids’ selection of healthier food choices.

But will the kids eat the foods? Of course they will. From my observations of school meals, the single most important indicator of whether the kids are eating healthfully is if the school food service people know their names and talk to them about what they are choosing. It helps a lot if the food tastes good, but kids respond to adults who care about what they eat.

When I hear parents say that the kids won’t eat anything healthy, I suspect that I’m talking to someone who isn’t willing to take adult responsibility for what kids eat and finds it easier to be stealthy than direct. Kids need to trust the adults in their lives and food should be used to instill trust, not destroy it.

Let's Ask Marion Nestle: Is Wal-Mart's Sustainability Strategy For Real?

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

KT: Why do you think Wal-Mart has decided to throw its colossal weight behind sustainable agriculture, both domestically and globally, in such a seemingly significant way? Is it a strategic pr move, a better-for-the-bottom-line calculus, or a bit of both? Is it too good to be true?

Dr. Nestle: I, of course, am a skeptic. Of course Wal-Mart wants to get into the business of sustainably and locally grown food. Wal-Mart is the largest grocery chain in the world, the 800-pound gorilla in the industry. It can demand whatever it wants from its suppliers, and at the lowest possible cost.

With these new initiatives, Wal-Mart suppliers will have to figure out ways to produce foods sustainably--without increasing the cost to Wal-Mart. So this move costs Wal-Mart nothing. It gains plenty. This move should recruit supporters of sustainable and locally grown food and induce them to overlook the company's retrogressive labor practices.

Will these initiatives help farmers? Maybe, but only if Wal-Mart pays them decently for what they produce. As for Wal-Mart employees? Ditto. But I want to wait and see how it all plays out before making a final judgment.

Syndicate content