Eating Liberally

Eating Liberally Blog

SEASONAL SOBA

Until Alice Waters and some of her colleagues launched the “eat local” movement, the concept of eating seasonally was all but extinct, thanks to our globalized food system.

Now, we mark the passing of the seasons by the arrival of blueberries at the farmers’ market. Or sugar snap peas, or winter squash. And we know the leaves will soon be turning when Mallomars turn up on the store shelves.

October is also peak season for buckwheat, as it happens, and therefore the perfect time to sample fresh soba noodles made from just-harvested buckwheat. We had the pleasure of doing so at Sobakoh, an East Village noodle shop where you can watch the soba noodles being hand made daily in their window. I don’t know how the guy making the noodles feels about being on display, but it’s fascinating, and fun, to watch him roll out the dough and carefully cut the noodles.

Sobakoh’s buckwheat flour is organic, too, but that’s no surprise, because buckwheat requires virtually no chemicals to grow or process. Birkett Mills, in upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region, has been growing buckwheat without pesticides or chemicals since 1797. No, that’s not a typo; these people have been producing buckwheat for over two centuries, and they’re currently the world’s number one source for buckwheat.

Farmers and some gardeners grow buckwheat as a “cover crop,” a plant that puts nutrients back into the soil to enrich it for the next crop. It puts lots of nutrients in our bodies, too. In fact, buckwheat is practically the healthiest grain you could possibly eat, except that it isn’t really a grain at all; it’s a relative of rhubarb, and therefore, a kind of fruit.

However you classify it, buckwheat is the best source of complex carbohydrates in the plant world. And because buckwheat is high in all eight amino acids, it’s closer to being a complete protein than even soybeans, as Bert Greene noted in his classic Grains Cookbook.

Buckwheat has what nutritionists call a “protein-sparing effect,” which Green compares to “an interest-bearing bank account; it allows the body to meet its energy requirements without dipping into its protein reserves. Any excess that the body accrues are reserved, like interest, to be called upon for cell building and tissue repair if the body malfunctions.”

Buckwheat honey has the highest antioxidants of any honey, too, but enough about its miraculous medicinal properties; the main thing is, buckwheat’s got a unique and delicious flavor, whether you have it in pancakes or blinis, as kasha (aka buckwheat groats), or in soba noodles, fresh or dried. The fact that it's so good for us, and the planet, is just a bonus. Like mushroom gravy on kasha.

ROLL OUT THE ASTROTURF ADS

As Election Day draws near, fake grassroots groups sprout up like malevolent mushrooms, poisoning the political landscape with swift-boat style negative ads. The latest is a group called Americans for Honesty on Issues, who’ve launched a campaign targeting nine Democratic House candidates. The NY Times reports that the group “is spending more than $1 million on the advertisements, which accuse Democratic candidates of carpetbagging, coddling illegal immigrants, being soft on crime and advocating cutting off money for troops in Iraq.”

Americans for Honesty on Issues is headed by Sue Walden, a Republican political consultant from Houston who counts the incorrigibly corrupt Tom Delay as a close friend and was an advisor to Enron’s morally bankrupt Ken Lay. I'd have more to say about this, but the irony leaves me speechless.

THE GRASSROOTS MOVEMENT TO GROW FOOD, NOT GRASS

The American suburb is “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world,” as peak oil prophet James Howard Kunstler is fond of saying. In his latest book, The Long Emergency, Kunstler predicts that our fossil-fueled way of life is going to literally run out of gas, precipitating, among other things, an agricultural crisis of epic proportions:

The crisis in agriculture will be one of the defining conditions of the Long Emergency. We will simply have to grow more of our food locally. The crisis will present itself when industrial farming, dependent on massive oil and gas “inputs” at gigantic scales of operation, can no longer be carried on economically. The implications for how we use our land are tremendous, and the unavoidable change is likely to be accompanied by severe social turbulence, not to mention hunger and hardship…food production at the local level may become the focus of the American economy.

If Kunstler’s dire forecast turns out to be accurate, we’re all going to need to get our hands on a copy of Food Not Lawns, a terrific and timely new paperback from progressive publisher Chelsea Green, authored by activist and urban gardener H.C. Flores.

Flores is a proponent of permaculture, a sustainable way of landscaping inspired by natural eco-systems. Her book presents a nine-step plan to transform the typical wasteland of turf into a productive, environmentally friendly “paradise garden” bursting with edible bounty. “The average American lawn,” according to Flores, “could produce several hundred pounds of food a year.”

Food Not Lawns began as an offshoot of the grassroots group Food Not Bombs, a non-profit with chapters all over the country that provides free vegetarian meals to the hungry using donated ingredients that would otherwise end up in a dumpster.

Flores’ experience cooking and serving meals with Food Not Bombs gave her a new ambition; instead of simply providing food to others, she wanted to teach people how to provide for themselves. She describes Food Not Lawns as a “grassroots gardening project geared toward using waste resources to grow organic gardens and encouraging others to share their space, surplus, and ideas toward the betterment of the whole community.”

The more Flores learned about food, agriculture, and land use, she says, the more she came to see the typical suburban lawn as a symbol of “gross waste and mindless affluence.”

Michael Pollan, always ahead of the cultural curve, documented the downside of our mania for manicured lawns fifteen years ago in his book Second Nature, an entertaining and enlightening account of his evolution as a gardener. Like so many Americans, Pollan once thought nothing of devoting four hours each Saturday to mowing his lawn. After a season of this, though, disillusionment crept in:

I tired of the endless circuit, pushing the howling mower back and forth across the vast page of my yard, recopying the same green sentence over and over: “I am a conscientious homeowner. I share your middle-class values...

…The more serious about gardening I became, the more dubious lawns seemed…I became convinced that lawn care had about as much to do with gardening as floor-waxing, or road paving. Gardening was a subtle process of give-and-take with the landscape, a search for some middle ground between culture and nature. A lawn was nature under culture’s boot.

Mowing the lawn, I felt like I was battling the earth rather than working it; each week it sent forth a green army and each week I beat it back with my infernal machine. Unlike every other plant in my garden, the grasses were anonymous, massified, deprived of any change or development whatsoever, not to mention any semblance of self-determination. I ruled a totalitarian landscape.

In fact, our lawn fetish is downright fascistic; lawns gobble up more resources and create more pollution than industrial farming, and yet, so enshrined is the American lawn as the suburban ideal that it’s quite literally against the law in some places to opt out of the lawn loop and plant a more sustainable landscape.

Salt Lake City’s maverick Mayor Rocky Anderson decided to defy a local ordinance that makes front lawns mandatory when he got rid of his grass and replaced it with drought-tolerant native plants. Anderson, a Democrat, supports all kinds of radical concepts, such as same-sex marriage and a living wage. He worries about climate change, and is opposed to sprawl. His front yard, which now consumes 65% percent less water, is a shining example of conservation—and totally illegal.

There’s nothing green about America’s love of lawns, and there’s something terribly wrong with a culture where conservation has become a form of civil disobedience. The weaknesses of our industrial food chain and the unsustainable terrain of turf that surrounds suburbia have inspired a grassroots movement to grow not grass, but food.

The Dervae family of suburban Pasadena is the perfect embodiment of this movement. The Dervaes manage to grow three tons of food organically each year on one-tenth of an acre of land, enabling them to not only feed themselves but to sell surplus produce to local chefs. They share their gift for self-sufficiency gardening through a project they call The Path to Freedom.

If you’re ready to be liberated, Food Not Lawns is the perfect introduction to the permaculture revolution, sowing the seeds for an enlightened, sustainable way to nourish ourselves and our neighbors. James Howard Kunstler claims we’re all going to have to start growing our own food, anyway, so you might as well get a head start. People who know how to grow their own produce are going to be very popular in the post-petroleum era.

CORE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE LETTUCE RECALL

We’ve learned, in the wake of last month’s E. coli outbreak, just how weak a link the FDA is in our nation’s food chain. It’s certainly nice of the Nunes Company, a Salinas-based grower of salad greens, to voluntarily recall its Foxy brand lettuce after traces of E. coli turned up in the irrigation water where the lettuce is grown, but supposing they chose not to?

"Clearly, the company did the right thing in terms of taking a cautious approach,'' said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer for the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the branch of the federal Food and Drug Administration that handles food-borne illnesses.

Acheson said the agency would rely on the company's tests initially, but said federal authorities would conduct their own testing "if deemed to be necessary.''

When it comes to food safety and produce growers, we have to rely on the honor system, because the FDA lacks the resources and the regulatory clout that help the USDA safeguard the country’s meat supply, which is far more closely monitored now than in the past.

Why shouldn’t produce be held to the same high safety standards as meat and poultry? And how can the FDA proclaim that spinach is safe to consume when they freely admit that they still haven’t figured out how the bacteria contaminated the spinach in the first place?

Irrigation methods are under suspicion as the most likely source of last month’s outbreak, in addition to being the reason for the lettuce recall. Frank Pecarich, a retired USDA soil scientist, asks the question “Is There a Cover-up of Poor Decisions on the Type of Water Used for Irrigation of Croplands in the Salinas Valley?

The California State Senate Governmental Organization Committee is holding a hearing tomorrow entitled "Unraveling the E.coli outbreak: Are state emergency response systems prepared for outbreaks of foodborne illnesses?" As Pecarich points out, “Perhaps the state should be asking other questions as well.”

IT’S A FLAT WORLD, AFTER ALL

Thanks to Tom Friedman’s fearless forays into the backwaters of Bangalore and Beijing, we know that the world is flat. It may have been a well-rounded place when Columbus set sail, but what we’ve got now are boatloads of cheap produce from Asia and South America flooding the western world’s markets.

Pears from Chile and tomatoes from China have forced French farmers to throw in the trowel in droves. The NY Times provides a sobering snapshot of a French farming town in the south of France, Châteaurenard, where apple orchards and grapevines have been supplanted by pre-fab warehouses, auto-parts dealers and a poultry processing plant.

The number of farms in France has plummeted to 590,000, “one-fourth the number 50 years ago. A third of the French earned their living by farming then; today less than 5 percent do,” according to the article. A way of life is vanishing because our globalized food chain has pulverized French farmers’ profits.

Take the local tomato canning factory in Châteaurenard; it’s now owned by a Chinese company that ships tons of tomato paste from China to can in France.

“I used to grow tomatoes, wonderful tomatoes,” one French farmer told the Times. “But price is everything. The Chinese don’t want to pay. So I stopped.”

French youth, understandably, see no future in farming. “You work like a beast on the farm, and there’s no real sense of dignity,” according to Laurent Ioss, the head of the town’s youth social services program. The word “peasant” has become a synonym for “idiot,” Ioss says.

Is it provincial to think that farmers in Provence should be able to make a profit?

WEEKEND GREENMARKET BLOGGING

Today’s Greenmarket made this kitty blue; he suffers from a special kind of SAD, aka Seasonal Affective Disorder, which comes from knowing that these glorious grapes and beautiful bell peppers are the last of the season. Cheer up, crybaby cat—it’s time to dig up our root vegetable recipes and celebrate the arrival of autumn.

ANDY STERN: THE MAN WITH A PLAN FOR PROGRESS

The federal minimum wage would be a whopping $23 an hour if the minimum wage rose at the same rate as CEO compensation has since 1990. It’s been stuck at $5.15 for nearly a decade, instead. The “flat earth” economy is flattening Americans’ earnings, too, and globalization sometimes seems poised to push U.S. workers right off the edge of that flat earth into an abyss of shrinking paychecks, vanished pensions, and barebones benefits.

Remember Mary Mornin, the divorced, fifty-something mother of three brought onstage at an Omaha, Nebraska town hall meeting to help President Bush tout his campaign to “reform” Social Security? She informed Bush that she had to work three jobs to make ends meet:

THE PRESIDENT: You work three jobs?

MS. MORNIN: Three jobs, yes.

THE PRESIDENT: Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.)

Even now, a year and a half later, I find this exchange singularly appalling. We are, indeed, working harder than ever, but our much-vaunted productivity only seems to profit a privileged few. Many American workers are stressed out, and stretched to the breaking point, while Wall Street wonders why we’re not all feeling flush in this supposedly rosy economy.

The middle class malaise is no mystery to Andy Stern, the head of America’s largest and fastest-growing union. In the decade since Stern took over at the helm of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU,) he’s revitalized the American labor movement with bold ideas that put him at odds with the ossified leaders of Labor, who seem stuck in the last century like so many fossils at the LaBrea Tar Pits.

Last year, Stern declared independence from the AFL-CIO, freeing the SEIU to pursue a more progressive vision for the future. Stern’s immersed himself in our new Internet-based global economy, traveled to China a half-dozen times to size up our flat-earth future, and isn’t afraid to sit down and have a civil conversation with a CEO or even (gasp!) the odd Republican (that would be Newt Gingrich.)

Unions have been on the decline in the U.S. for decades, but thanks to Stern and his crew of committed “comrades,” as Stephen Colbert might call them, workers have new reason to hope that the American Dream might not be on the verge of extinction, after all.

Stern’s new book, A Country That Works: Getting America Back on Track, assesses our ailing way of life and offers a prescription for progress. As Stern told Amy Goodman, “Change is inevitable, but progress is optional, and I think America needs a plan.”

If you saw Stern on Stephen Colbert last Tuesday, you got a taste of his populist passion and optimism. We share his hunger for change, and that’s why Eating Liberally is so pleased to be serving up a labor-flavored menu for a Drinking Liberally-sponsored celebration of the publication of this important and inspiring book. If you’re in NYC, please join us from 5 to 7pm today at Rudy’s backyard at 627 9th Avenue (bet. 44th st. & 45th st.) Meet Andy Stern, and have your fair share of our chicken-in-every-pot pie!

APPEAL OF THE BITE-SIZED, PEEL-FREE KIWI

The Fuzzy Fruit Formerly Known as The Chinese Gooseberry, until New Zealand claimed it and renamed it to heat up sales during the Cold War.

Kiwi Korners, a Pennsylvania farm with a penchant for cutesy names, is trying to work some marketing magic of its own by selling a super sweet , grape-sized kiwi that you don’t need to peel under the not-very-appealing name Passion Poppers.

Passion Poppers are certified organic, if not orgasmic, but I kinda wish they’d just stick with their other trademarked name, “kiwi berries,” because these delectable little fruits are so delicious they deserve to be more widely known. They’re in peak season now, and when I saw that Passion Poppers had arrived at Trader Joe’s this week I was so excited that I bought three half-pint cartons.

But a lot of people clearly have no idea what Passion Poppers are, including the guy at the checkout, who held up a carton and asked, perplexed, “what are these things?”

Regular ol’ kiwis require a more temperate climate, which is why most U.S. kiwis come from California, but Passion Poppers are a variety of hardy kiwi that could be much more widely grown in this country. Kiwi Korners’ has devoted the past eighteen years to the research and development of this fantastic fruit; their goal, they say, is to provide consumers with “high quality Kiwi Berries™ that are naturally vine-ripened, highly nutritious, rich in antioxidants, and outrageously great tasting.”

Hardy kiwis are so good, there’s really no need to try to goose sales with a gimmicky name. But whatever name they’re sold under, if you see ‘em, grab ‘em, because these tiny, tasty kiwis are only in season for a few more weeks.

FIGHT OF THE FATTY ACIDS: HOW OMEGA 6’s UNDERMINE OMEGA 3’S

Our brains and bodies need omega-3’s to function well; they don’t call these fatty acids “essential” for nuthin’.

But there’s another branch of the fatty acid family tree you may not be aware of, even though your diet might be full of it. They’re the omega-6’s, and if you’re overconsuming them, as many Americans are, you may be undoing all the good those omega-3 eggs and fatty fish dishes could be doing you.

Science writer Susan Allport, author of a new “nutritional whodunit,” The Queen of Fats: Why Omega-3’s Were Removed From the Western Diet and What We Can Do To Replace Them, explains that excess consumption of omega-6’s cancels out the benefits of omega-3’s. Because of the way our bodies metabolize fatty acids, all the omega-3’s in the world won’t do you much good if your diet’s too high in omega-6’s, according to Allport.

Her lively, scholarly book documents how experts have changed their thinking about fats over the decades; she presents compelling evidence that many vegetable oils widely used in this country, such as cottonseed, corn, and safflower oils, may in fact be a significant source of heart disease and other illnesses.

To put it in a nutshell (ideally, from an omega-3-rich walnut), Allport makes the case that it all boils down to grains versus greens. All grains are high in omega-6’s, and all greens are high in omega-3’s. Our bodies need a balance of both, but our current diet is so skewed toward the omega-6’s that it’s thrown everything out of whack, according to the scientists Allport cites in her book.

As Allport explained in a lecture at New York’s Museum of Natural History last night, the source for all those omega-3’s in fish comes from the plankton and algae they consume. It’s all about the greens. That’s why grass-fed meat and dairy offer omega-3’s that you won’t get from their grain-fed counterparts.

Corn and soybeans, “the primary ingredients of many processed foods and the feed choice of most farmers,” as Allport notes, are, on the other hand, high in omega-6’s.

And though researchers have found significant evidence of a correlation between overconsumption of omega 6’s and disease, the USDA and most health organizations don’t distinguish between omega-3’s and omega-6’s.

Allport quotes Artemis Simopoulos, a physician and former head of the National Institutes of Health’s Nutrition Coordinating Committee: “It’s a question of economics. The edible oils industry is a very powerful lobby and soybeans and corn are some of our largest commodities.”

The Queen of Fats delves into the complexities of fats in all their incarnations: saturated fats; monounsaturated fats; polyunsaturated fats; hydrogenated fats; and partially hydrogenated fats, aka the notorious trans-fats. It’s a lot to digest, but Allport renders it readable, and, mercifully, offers some simple advice for how to achieve a better balance of essential fatty acids:

~Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, a wide variety of fish, omega-3-enhanced eggs, and pasture-raised meats, dairy and poultry.

~Avoid safflower, sunflower, corn, cottonseed, and peanut oils. Cut back on saturated fats and skip trans-fats altogether.

~Consume more flaxseed, walnut, and canola oil. Small quantities of soybean oil are OK if it's not hydrogenated, and olive oil is healthy, too; although it’s low in omega-3’s, it has beneficial antioxidants.

Back when our larders actually contained lard, we didn’t have the kind of obesity and heart disease that we’re battling now. But agribusiness and processed foods have created all kinds of chemically altered permutations of fat that seem to be wreaking havoc with our metabolisms. It takes a scientist—or a science writer--just to make sense of it all.

WAL-MART’S ANTI-FAMILY VALUES

Americans now spend about 10% of our disposable income on food. Back when the USDA first started tracking such expenditures in 1929, the figure was closer to 25%. At a time when the cost of other necessities, from housing to health care, is rising, how is it that food costs have fallen?

More Americans buy their groceries from Wal-Mart than any other food retailer. But would they still pile their shopping carts high with low-priced food if they understood that those low prices are made possible, in part, by lousy labor practices?

If Wal-Mart really wants to shake off its image as the Big Bad Big Box Behemoth, it could start by not treating its employees like crap. But Wal-Mart executives have apparently concluded that it’s better for Wal-Mart’s bottom line to chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out.

Wal-Mart’s begun implementing new labor policies aimed at pushing experienced workers out the door and replacing them with part-time workers who cost the company less. Several Wal-Marts in Florida have gone so far as to literally pull the stools out from under older employees with back or leg problems, who previously were permitted to sit while working as cashiers, greeters or fitting-room attendants.

The changes also require employees to make themselves available to work nights and weekends on short notice. As Susan Lambert, a social science professor at the University of Chicago who’s written several research papers on retail workers pointed out, this can wreak havoc on a family’s schedule.

“You have to set up child care for every day just in case you have to work,” she said, “and this makes it hard to establish routines like reading to your kids at night or having dinner together as a family.”

Tracie Sandin, who quit her job at a Wal-Mart in Yakima, Washington, last year after the new policies took effect, told the NY Times, “It makes it hard, if you have a function with your child or you want to go to church on Sunday, you don’t want to miss those things.”

The new policy apparently doesn’t take seniority into account, and workers who are reluctant to make themselves available round the clock have found their hours cut significantly, to the point where some felt they had no choice but to quit.

Which, presumably, is the whole idea. In an internal memo leaked last year, an executive pointed out that a Wal-Mart worker who’s been with the company 7 years costs the company “almost 55% more than the cost of an associate with 1 year of tenure, yet there is no difference in his or her productivity.”

A spokeswoman for Wal-Mart characterized the changes as “a productivity improvement through which we will improve the shopping experience for our customers and make Wal-Mart a better place to work for our associates.”

I guess it all depends on what your definition of “better” is.