Eating Liberally

Eating Liberally Blog


The FDA is advising consumers not to buy bagged spinach after an outbreak of E. coli killed one person and made at least 49 others ill in recent weeks in Wisconsin, Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah. Bagged spinach appears to be the culprit in each of these cases.

The source of the tainted spinach hasn’t been identified, but don’t be surprised if it turns out to be Northern California’s Salinas Valley. The self-proclaimed “Salad Bowl of the World” makes a mint off its leafy greens, selling nearly $1 billion worth of lettuce and other greens annually.

But E. coli outbreaks have been a recurring problem there; eight of the 19 E. coli outbreaks from contaminated lettuce and spinach since 1995 have been traced to Salinas Valley, according to the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy at the University of Minnesota.

The FDA announced the launch of a Lettuce Safety Initiative on August 23rd, which happens to be the same day the first case of E. coli was reported. It’s good to know the FDA can spring into action the second somebody gets sick. It would be even nicer if they could be proactive about protecting consumers from this kind of E. coli, an especially virulent strain “which produces a toxin that can lead to bloody diarrhea, kidney failure and, in rare cases, death,” according to today’s NY Times.

Forty or so farms, packers, and processors in Salinas will be inspected by the FDA, in conjunction with several California agencies, but the findings will take months to compile.

We’re left to wonder, in the meantime, how a bacteria found in the bowels of cows and people is finding its way into our salad bowls. Some experts suspect a link between dairy production and lettuce contamination; others point to E. coli-tainted creeks and rivers that occasionally flood the fields. There’s concern, too, about workers’ access to toilets and hand-washing facilities.

Most of the E. coli cases have occurred in women. Men, it seems, just aren’t that keen on greens. Although I did see a guy at an upstate farm stand the other day pointing, excitedly, to a pile of kale. He exclaimed to his friend, “Hey, look, there’s that stuff they’re always cooking on the Food Network!”

Who knows? Maybe Rachel Ray can pick up where Popeye left off and get more guys to eat their spinach; after all, look what she’s done for olive oil. One thing’s for sure; the bagged spinach industry is going to need some serious spinning.


Agribusiness giant Cargill has flooded the airwaves and print media with what I can only call Astroturf advertising.

A print ad, entitled “Better Beef,” proclaims “We’re bringing ranch quality beef to grocery stores.” Note the phrase “ranch quality,” which evokes “pasture-raised,” as opposed to the actual feedlots their livestock languishes in. Clever! A pre-emptive strike against the bad pr that’s going to cloud Cargill’s horizons when the film version of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation hits the big screen.

There’s a “Better Beef” commercial, too; it begins with a scenic, if slightly sinister, scenario of shoppers pushing their carts across a wide open prairie backed by big blue sky, accompanied by this voiceover:

Grocery store customers like to shop where the products are best, especially for beef. Consumers will go out of their way to find a better cut, so to round up more business, smart grocery chains have partnered with Cargill, who supplies stores with a line-up of top-quality beef, hand selected and prepared, so grocers can sell beef that’s so appealing, it’ll have more shoppers blazing a trail to their store…

Cue Bonanza-style theme music and a couple of cowboys to herd the hordes of hungry shoppers across that bucolic pasture.

Both ads contain Cargill’s slogan: “collaborate > create > succeed…This is how Cargill works with customers.”

Cargill, the world’s largest privately held company, makes just about every kind of food product under the sun, and feeds people all over the world. The goal of this ad campaign, according to their own website, is to showcase “mini-stories of helping our customers with supply chain and product assurance solutions, risk management expertise, new food applications, addressing health and nutrition issues, and more.”

Well, that’s funny. Because Marian Burros reported in yesterday’s NY Times that Cargill is one of the forces behind a group called the Meat Promotion Coalition, whose purpose is to fight a federal law requiring Country of Origin Labeling for all meats. The regulation was set to take effect at the end of this month, but the Meat Promotion Coalition hired a lobbying firm and succeeded in getting the regulation delayed until 2008.

Concerns about mad cow disease have fed consumer demand for more information. “86 percent of the public says it wants to know where its meat comes from,” according to an industry newsletter Burros cites. The Meat Promotion Coalition opposes the labeling because, it says, it costs too much.

This is how Cargill works with customers?


The color purple: it’s what you get when you blend red and blue. The color of bipartisanship was everywhere at the Union Square Greenmarket today. In D.C., not so much.

"I listen to my Democrat friends,” said majority leader John Boehner, the morning after the president gave his 9/11 speech calling for unity, “and I wonder if they are more interested in protecting the terrorists than protecting the American people?"

“Not a lot of unity in that statement, is there?” CNN’s Miles O’Brien asked Tony Snow.

“…what John Boehner was doing,” Snow explained, “was he was musing and he was asking tough questions on why the Democrats are taking umbrage…”

Oh, I don’t know, maybe it’s because of crap like this:

O’Brien: “Let's shift gears here. Let's talk about the perception that is out there among a lot of people that Saddam Hussein is somehow personally involved in the 9/11 attacks. Here we are five years and a couple of days post hence. We have a poll that just came out; 43 percent of the Americans believe Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11. Why do you suppose that Americans are so confused about this?

Snow: I think in part because a lot of Democrats were attributing that argument falsely to the president…this White House has never, not one time ever asserted that Saddam was involved in 9/11. So they're getting that from somewhere else. You might want to ask your people. Because it's certainly not coming from us.”

O’Brien cited Rick Santorum’s statement yesterday on the Senate floor, that "the very people that planned the attacks," referring to 9/11, "are the people who are in Iraq, Al Qaeda, in Iraq causing that sectarian violence."

Added O’Brien: “It's no wonder people are confused.”

SNOW: Huh? I'm not sure I understand what you're trying to say here.”

Great strategical ploy, Tony; play dumb. And why not? After all, it’s worked so well for your boss.

Clearly, we won't be seeing any purple reign in the political forecast for the forseeable future.


If you like to laugh, you’re in luck; a study from the University of Maryland suggests that laughter not only makes us feel good, but keeps us well, too. Laughter has the power to reduce pain, boost immunity, lower stress hormones and blood pressure, and ward off all kinds of diseases.

“…a bout of laughter may be as good for your heart as a session of aerobic exercise,” reports Newsday, adding that laughter leads to increased calorie consumption, and “as an added benefit, by reducing cortisol, laughing may also reduce hunger, helping you eat less.”

So if you need any added inducement to savor the satire of Stewart & Colbert, or peel back the pages of the Onion, there it is.

But you’re even better off sharing a laugh with friends: 

Laughter researchers say that most of the laughs in our lives come during time spent with family and friends, rather than from hearing or reading actual jokes…and because laughter is so contagious, hanging out with people who love to laugh can be good for your health.

Another recent study compared the health of middle-aged American men and their British counterparts, and found that “Americans 55 and over are much sicker than their British counterparts even though the United States spends more than twice as much per person on health care as Britain.”

The study found that the Brits, despite drinking more heavily, had lower rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, heart attack, stroke, lung disease and cancer. Maybe that’s because the Brits are sharing a pint in a pub with their mates, blowing off steam and building up social bonds, while the Yanks while away their downtime watching “Survivor” or “American Idol” with a Bud, but no buds.

So Eat, Drink, and Laugh Liberally, for your own health, and the health of our nation!


As the White House fear campaign kicks into full gear, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by fury and despair. What do these people want so badly that they’re willing to whip up fear and insecurity in order to remain in power?

Divide and Conquer is a well-worn page in the right’s playbook; pit black against white, privileged against poor, straight against gay, hawks against doves, rural against urban, and so on. They draw from this poisoned well again and again and, sadly, voters drink the Kool-Aid.

The frenzied fear-mongering leaves a bitter aftertaste. But did you know that fear can literally ruin the flavor of food?

When animals are sent to the slaughterhouse, the fear and pain they’re subjected to can unleash a rush of adrenalin that spoils the quality of the meat their carcasses yield.

That’s one reason McDonald’s hired ">Temple Grandin, a designer of livestock handling facilities and a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, to come up with a more humane system for slaughtering livestock. Grandin, a “high functioning autistic,” believes her autism has given her an extraordinary ability to empathize with animals. She’s had a huge influence on how animals are slaughtered in this country.

But fear doesn’t just ruin the flavor of meat. Chloé Doutre-Roussel, author of The Chocolate Connoisseur, writes that obsessing over whether you should be indulging in a bite of chocolate can take all the pleasure out of it:

It is impossible to taste chocolate properly when negative thoughts about it are lurking in your mind. These negative thoughts provoke the secretion of enzymes that cause an acid environment in your mouth…

And it turns out that having negative feelings about the food you eat even reduces your body’s ability to obtain nutrients from that food, as author Harriet Brown explained in a NY Times op-ed a few months back:

…when you eat something you like, your body makes more efficient use of its nutrients. Which means that choking down a plateful of steamed cauliflower (if you hate steamed cauliflower) is not likely to do you as much good as you think.

In the 1970's, researchers fed two groups of women, one Swedish and one Thai, a spicy Thai meal. The Thai women — who presumably liked the meal more than the Swedish women did — absorbed almost 50 percent more iron from it than the Swedish women. When the meal was served as a mushy paste, the Thai women absorbed 70 percent less iron than they had before — from the same food.

The researchers concluded that food that's unfamiliar (Thai food to Swedish women) or unappetizing (mush rather than solid food) winds up being less nutritious than food that looks, smells and tastes good to you. The explanation can be found in the digestive process itself, in the relationship between the "second brain" — the gut — and the brain in your head.

So it’s pretty clear that food seasoned with fear tastes bad, and doesn’t nourish us, either. And maybe an administration that serves up a steady diet of scapegoats and red herrings can make a whole country sick.


Mike S. Baksh9/11 was, among other things, Primary Day in New York City. And I was feeling guilty about not being there to cast my vote, because I was too busy trying to get our upstate weekend fixer-upper just a little more fixed up before my parents flew in from California the next day. I was painting our front door red, for good feng shui.

Speaking of feng shui, there’s an old Chinese proverb, “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

Our friend Mike Baksh had just started a new job at Marsh and McLennan, whose offices American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into that morning. He’d taken his wife and two kids to Hershey, Pennsylvania—“the sweetest place on Earth”—the weekend before to celebrate what looked like a move up in the world. He wasn’t expecting to go all the way to heaven, though. I hope Mike never knew what hit him.

My brother-in-law Jeremy, an NYPD detective, was one of the many police officers assigned to the unenviable and gruesome task of sorting through the rubble at Fresh Kills. Among other things, he came across a woman’s finger, wearing a ring.

Those of us near ground zero, who lost friends and family and smelled the smoldering wreckage for months, live with the hole in the skyline and a hole in our hearts. But when we see the chaos and carnage we’ve caused in Iraq in the name of those loved ones, it’s a whole new heartache.


Ever since we lucked out and found a secondhand Italian gelato machine that makes superb ice cream, I’ve felt compelled to share our good fortune with our friends. Homemade ice cream made from the finest, freshest ingredients is truly a taste of La Dolce Vita, and it’s even sweeter shared with friends.

So when my friend Andrew asked if I would make a batch of vanilla caramel ice cream for his birthday last weekend, I was happy to comply. All I needed was a jar of caramel sauce and some kind of caramel candy to mix in to the vanilla base.

The trouble was, here in upstate New York where we spend our weekends, we’re limited to what’s on the supermarket shelf. Every jar of caramel sauce was full of high fructose corn syrup; every caramel candy contained partially hydrogenated oil.

I contemplated buying the stuff, anyway, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Andrew wouldn’t have minded, but it just seems wrong to make something for someone that you wouldn’t want to eat yourself. Kinda like the time Michael Pollan grew a bunch of Monsanto’s genetically modified potatoes and then didn’t want to eat them himself, but didn’t feel right giving them to anyone else, either.

So I explained my dilemma to Andrew and told him I’d get the right ingredients at Whole Foods during the week and make his ice cream this weekend instead, which I did. I picked up a jar of Mmm Dulce de Leche, an “All Natural Milk Caramel Spread made with hormone-free milk from grass-fed cows.” But wait! That’s not even the best part!

Mmm Dulce de Leche, made in Argentina, is a product from a company called Interrupcion. I googled the name, and learned from Wikipedia that “Interrupcion is a global organization comprised of non-profit and for-profit organizations…Interrupcion works to integrate social change into everyday life by actively facilitating and promoting community involvement, responsible consumption (eg. the purchase of fair trade products), and microcredit enterprises.”

Wow. I set out to buy caramel sauce, and ended up supporting an enterprise dedicated to social responsibility. Sweet!


Friday’s NY Times had a great op-ed by self-proclaimed “fish guy,” author Paul Greenberg, who tackles the ever more complicated topic of which fish are OK to eat and which ones we’d be better off not netting. Greenberg cites a study from the journal Nature:

…up to 90% of the stocks of the ocean’s major predators (Atlantic cod and bluefin tuna to name two) have been wiped out. In the next few weeks, Congress will debate what to do about the dire state of the nation’s fisheries when it takes up the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens fisheries management act…

If we can learn to harvest wild fish sustainably we will have succeeded in something we have failed at on land: finding a balance with a naturally productive ecosystem. In addition, by keeping a food connection with the ocean we will retain a motivation to stop polluting it.

Greenberg points out the folly of farm-raised carnivorous fish such as salmon, who must be fed smaller wild fish, thereby depriving wild salmon of their food source.

“Go vegetarian, in a manner of speaking,” Greenberg says, recommending farm-raised vegetarian fish such as tilapia, carp, and catfish. “Because these fish generally eat lower on the food chain, they are often lower in PCB’s and methyl mercury,” he writes, adding:

…if we reduce our consumption of the big fish we can reduce our mercury and PCB load and reduce the burden we place on the marine environment. Sardines, mackerel and most fish that are shorter in total length than the diameter of a dinner plate are generally safer to eat.

I know wild salmon is healthier--and better environmentally--than farm-raised, but beyond that, I tend to forget which kinds of fish are recommended and which should be avoided (must be all that mercury-laced tuna I’ve eaten.) Thankfully, there are several websites where confused consumers can get some guidance:

(1) The Audubon Society offers a wallet-sized list of fish rated from thriving to threatened.

(2) The Monterey Bay Aquarium provides region-specific recommendations.

(3) The Seafood Choices Alliance has a comprehensive database.

Another invaluable resource is The Ethical Gourmet: How to Enjoy Great Food That is Humanely Raised, Sustainable, Nonendangered, and That Replenishes the Earth, by Jay Weinstein. Yes, it’s a mouthful, but the book lives up to its subtitle. Weinstein is a graduate of both the Culinary Institute of America and New York University, where he got a degree in journalism, and his book is a great blend of tasty recipes and thoughtful analysis of our food chain. The chapter devoted to seafood explores every fishy issue you can think of, and provides specifics on each kind of fish.

As a bonus, the book's index offers some wonderful juxtapositions: “monkfish” adjacent to “Monsanto;” “corporate ethics” before “couscous;” “free range poultry” precedes “Frist, Bill.” That’s my kind of cookbook.


Krispy Kreme, it seems, is not so hot, now; the “Hot Doughnuts Now” sign at Krispy Kreme’s flagship Chelsea store has flashed its last. Once one of the company's highest grossing operations, the Chelsea location ultimately fell out of favor in a neighborhood where gyms and smoothie shops flourish.

Demand for the delicious trans-fatty treats seems to be on the decline elsewhere, too; a bunch of Krispy Kremes in Arizona and New Mexico closed up shop abruptly in August.

Dunkin’ Donuts will be happy to fill any donut holes left by Krispy’s departure; The Carlyle Group-owned coffee chain plans to triple its outlets from 4,400 stores to 15,000 over the next decade. Can Dunkin’s military-industrial strength coffee compete with Starbucks and its latte-loving legions?

Starbucks, meanwhile, is celebrating its 35th anniversary by issuing coffee cups featuring the company’s original logo, a bare-breasted mermaid. I’ve seen the logo, and there’s nothing even remotely offensive about it; as bare-breasted mermaids go, this one’s pretty demure.

But one elementary school principal in Washington, concerned that the sight of the naked nymph could prove distracting to students, asked teachers who stop for coffee on their way to work to get a cup sleeve to cover up the image.

One parent pooh-poohed the policy. "I really don't think it's a big deal,” Dave Phelps told a reporter. “Of course, there's a lot of little, geeky kids that point out little things like that -- she's got boobies -- but other than that, I don't think there's a problem with it."

There are boobs, and then there are boobs. It’s no wonder new mothers have so much trouble finding a place to breast feed their babies in this country.


McLEAN, Va., Sept. 6 (AP)— Some species of male fish are acquiring female sexual characteristics at unusually high frequencies in the Potomac River and its tributaries, prompting concerns about pollutants that might be causing the problem.

Researchers suspect that chemicals and pesticides in the water are stimulating estrogen production, causing male fish to exhibit female characteristics, including producing eggs. The estrogen may also come from birth control pills and human waste that finds its way from sewage treatment plants into the river.

Given the lack of tolerance for the trans-gendered in some circles, odds are high that these poor, confused fish will be ostracized. Will the concentrations of Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil and Celexa that are building up in the wastewaters of our hyper-medicated nation help them cope with the depression and anxiety that sometimes accompany a sexual identity crisis?

A more pressing question is, what are all these chemicals, known as “endocrine disrupters,” doing to us humans? Back in 1996, The EPA identified endocrine disruption as one of its top six research priorities, but ten years later, according to Newsday, the EPA has yet to begin testing any candidate chemicals for their endocrine-disrupting potential.

These chemicals may be “wreaking havoc with human hormones,” too, says Newsday. But not to worry; when Jerry Falwell and James Dobson find out that something in the water may be engendering gender confusion, they’ll demand action. And they’ll say it proves they were right about Sponge Bob.