Eating Liberally

Eating Liberally Blog

'Tis The Season For Local, Organic...Beefcake?

Our economy may be collapsing, but as the holidays approach we still feel compelled to exchange gifts with friends and family. Some folks enjoy the quest for the perfect gift, but for those of us who haven't got a lot of time, money, or imagination, schlepping around town hunting down thoughtful presents for our loved ones can be an angst-ridden errand.

The pressure to please collides with our limited resources, and the ensuing wreckage litters living rooms all over America on Christmas morning with mounds of stuff we have no use for. Oh, sure, there are the happy exceptions--the book you've been dying to read, the cordless drill that you actually needed--but all too often we find ourselves sincerely saying "oh, you shouldn't have".

So what happens to the sweater you don't really like, or the cheesy fondue set you'll never use? Sometimes you give it away, but other times you let it stick around and clutter up your life, because it's a symbol of someone's affection for you.

And then you die, and somebody has to go through all the crap you accumulated over your lifetime. For me, it was my mother's things; she died unexpectedly a few years back and my father delegated the depressing task of sorting out all her clothes and bric-a-brac to me, her only daughter.

For my friend and fellow foodie blogger Jill Richardson, it was her 23 year-old brother Adam, who died several weeks ago, right before Thanksgiving, after years of struggling with obesity. Yes, even at 23 you can leave a lot behind, and Jill's been going through Adam's things trying to figure out what to do with it all. She posted a poignant diary on Daily Kos Sunday in which she noted:

I have been buying stuff for my family members throughout the year, to give them to them at Christmas/Hanukkah. Decorative wine bottle stoppers, Christmas tree ornaments, satchels of lavender, artisan made soap... I've been accumulating them in my closet all year. Now I feel I'm just adding to the load of things my loved ones will some day leave behind...

...Maybe I'm just being morbid, but this sad experience of trying to resurrect my brother with his stuff and utterly failing has affected my view of the holiday season. Instead of buying people more stuff, here are some ideas I've come up with: donations/trees planted in their names, theatre or ballet tickets, art, massages, and food. I would add to the list soaps, lotions, and candles but only if the person will actually use them.

I second Jill's sentiments, and I'd like to add one more thing to her list--a calendar. Down To Earth: The Farmers Of Columbia County has got the kind of dirty pictures sure to seduce greenmarket groupies, from the cover's close-up of a farmer's soil-encrusted fingers lovingly cupping a plump, ripe tomato, to the portraits inside of upstate New York farmers captured in all their muddy agrarian glory, their faces pleasantly weathered and stubbly, surrounded by the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.

A calendar's a great gift because it's one of those things that everybody needs anyway, and it's got a finite shelf life that guarantees it will never become clutter. But the Down To Earth calendar isn't just useful and lovely; when you purchase it, your $12.95 goes to support the Sylvia Center, a non-profit enterprise dedicated to introducing New York City school kids to "the life-giving pleasures of fresh food from the farm." The Sylvia Center pursues this mission at two locations: the Children's Learning Center in Soho, and Katchkie Farm, a couple of hours north in Kinderhook.

The Sylvia Center is the brainchild of Liz Neumark, founder of the upscale New York City catering company Great Performances. Neumark did something quite visionary and wonderful several years ago when she bought the patch of land that she dubbed Katchkie Farm. Neumark hired Bob Walker, a farmer committed to sustainable agriculture, to manage the farm and provide year-round locally grown produce for Great Performances' events.

I first met Farmer Bob--as he was known before he became Down To Earth's "Mr. October"--at a swanky Manhattan loft back in January where Michael Pollan was giving a reading from In Defense of Food. The event, catered by Great Performances, was a benefit for Just Food, the non-profit organization that has been New York City's foremost advocate of CSAs (community supported agriculture) for more than a decade.

When Farmer Bob found out I was a blogger, he said, "You oughta blog about my farm," and proceeded, with great enthusiasm and charm, to tell me all about his energy efficient greenhouses. He gave me his card and told me I should come up and check out his operation sometime. I said I'd love to, but as a non-driver I'd have to rope a friend into giving me a ride.

In July, I got an invite to the 100 Mile Menu, an event Great Performances was hosting at the Plaza Hotel's Grand Ballroom. It was the perfect high society showcase for a low-on-the-food-chain feast made from foods grown within a hundred mile radius of New York City. But as intrigued as I was by the prospect of scarfing sustainable hors d'oeuvres in a room where the Duke and Duchess of Windsor once danced and Truman Capote held his legendary Black and White Ball, I was even more curious to visit the vegetables in their native habitat, before they, and Farmer Bob, got all cleaned up and made the pilgrimage to the Plaza.

So, the day before the event, my friend Robin kindly agreed to take a field trip with me up to Kinderhook to get the grand tour of Katchkie Farms. Farmer Bob took us through the fields and the greenhouses and showed off the clever home-made jumbo salad spinners he'd fashioned out of wastebaskets with the help of a hole saw. He told us that when Neumark chose the site for her farm she didn't realize that the water table was so high that the soil would be too soggy to farm in. So Farmer Bob cheerfully told us, he had to lay, like, 20,000 feet of drainage pipe before he could hope to grow any decent crops.

But what fascinated me the most was the quirky odyssey that turned Bob into a farmer at the age of thirty. A California native, he had been doing theatrical lighting for rock concerts. One day while driving around Los Angeles, he heard Terry Gross, host of NPR's Fresh Air, interview Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird about their book Secrets of the Soil : New Solutions for Restoring Our Planet. He was so enthralled that he headed to the nearest book store and bought the book on the spot, and soon found himself studying biodynamic agriculture in Europe.

On the day Robin and I dropped by, Farmer Bob took us to a pavilion by a pond where the folks who run the Sylvia Center were showing a group of kids from the city how to make salsa from just-harvested vegetables. On this hot summer day, the kids were happily chopping away under the pavilion's shade, taking time out to munch on slices of sweet, golden yellow heirloom watermelons. They were having a great time, as were we. Robin even took a dip in the pond, braving a dock peppered with piles of Canadian goose poop to go for a quick swim.

The Sylvia Center offers urban kids a taste of country life and fresh, wholesome foods that help them understand the connections between the weather, the seasons, and the life cycle of a vegetable from seed to table. In an era when so many children--and grown-ups, too--suffer from nature deficit disorder and a disease-inducing diet dominated by over processed pseudo-foods, programs like the Sylvia Center can steer kids towards a healthier path and lay the foundation for a lifetime of better habits.

The Down To Earth calendar supports this valuable mission even as it celebrates what Neumark rightly calls "the new American Heroes", farmers like Bob Walker who are equally passionate about nurturing the soil and nourishing their communities. They're good-looking guys, too, but the real beauties in this calendar are the gorgeous peaches, apples, and veggies in the background (not to mention the vintage red tractor and the cute critters). So get your friends and family a copy of Down To Earth this holiday season; you'll be giving them a dose of homegrown happiness to inspire them each and every day.

If It's Friday, It's Meet The Bloggers

Some of my fellow Kossacks got their knickers in a twist the other day over the news that David Gregory's set to become the new host of NBC's Meet The Press. Why the outrage? Well for one thing, they can never forgive Gregory for dancing with the devil, aka "MC" Rove. Plus, as one unkind Kossack noted, "I think he looks like he's from Planet Of The Apes" (admittedly, the photos offered as evidence made a compelling case).

Why not Chuck Todd? Better still, Rachel Maddow, patron saint of progressive wonks?

Look, I worship the luminous Rachel just as much as the next lefty blogger, but when are you guys gonna wake up and start sleeping in on Sunday? Why waste another precious hour of your life watching all those inside-the-Beltway bozos compete to see who can offer the most ossified observations, the stalest sound bites? (I make an exception for Donna Brazile, for whom God created the DVR.)

Get with the program--Friday is the new Sunday. You've got Left, Right, & Center on KCRW, and now there's Meet The Bloggers, live every Friday at 1 pm Eastern. Meet The Bloggers is an online video show from Robert Greenwald's Brave New Foundation, dedicated to providing a forum for "unconventional political opinion and analysis." It's got the talking heads you actually want to hear from, the folks just beyond the scope of our myopic old media.

And, it's got no commercials. Which makes this Friday's episode especially apt--just in time for the holidays, when so many Americans are "addled by advertising," as the Reverend Billy likes to say, Meet The Bloggers brings us the Rev and the righteous Savitri D from the Church of Stop Shopping, along with tips from the Center For A New American Dream's LaToya Peterson on how to simplify the holidays.

Last Friday, our culture's rampant consumerism literally ran amok and robbed Jdimytai Damour of his very life. Tune in this Friday to honor Damour's memory by learning what we can do to pull our people back from the maw of the malls and restore sanity and humanity to the holiday season.

Shopacoplypse Now

image: Breeding Zombie Consumers by Sam Sebren

I've tried to put myself in the shoes of the Long Island lemmings who stomped the life out of Jdimytai "Jimbo" Damour in their rampage to ring up a bargain, but I just can't seem to fit into their frenzied footwear. Black Friday--this travesty of a tradition of dashing out the door to score a discounted tv or dvd player before you've even begun to digest your Thanksgiving dinner--is a sign of how badly we need to heed the Reverend Billy and seek salvation at the Church of Stop Shopping.

Damour's death was shocking but not surprising. Isn't the whole point of this retail ritual to feed a shopping stampede? Hopped-up Black Friday buy-bunnies pawed their way through the madding crowd at big box brouhahas all over the country this year; the fatal mall mauling on Long Island was just a new nadir for our nation.

Make no mistake--this was not a tragic accident. According to Newsday, the police were dispatched to the Valley Stream Wal-Mart at 3:10 a.m.--about two hours before Damour was trampled to death--to investigate a disturbance. They spent half an hour admonishing the unruly crowd of 500 or so shoppers "to be orderly," and then they left.

By 5 a.m. the crowd had swelled to 2,000 people pushing against the soon-to-open doors with such force that the glass shattered and the doors came off their hinges. "A metal portion of the door frame crumpled like an accordion," Newsday noted, adding that:

Other workers were knocked to the ground as they tried to rescue Damour, and customers simply stepped over him and kept shopping even as the store announced it was closing because of the death, police and witnesses said.

"It was crazy," a worker who witnessed the stampede told the New York Times. "The deals weren't even that good."

Police trying to clear the crime scene were stymied by shoppers who refused to stop shopping even as Damour lay dying, because they'd waited so long for the chance to profit from those special "5-a.m.-to-11-a.m.-only" prices.

So who's to blame for this barbaric episode? It seems pretty clear that both the police and Wal-Mart failed to provide sufficient crowd control, but New York Times media reporter David Carr fingers another faction: the "newspaper writers and television anchors who are now wearily shaking their heads at the collective bankruptcy of our mass consumer culture"--you know, the ones who cheered it all on as the countdown to Black Friday began.

But what about the frenzied folks who left their sweatshop sneaker track marks on Damour's back? Who created these monsters, these real-life incarnations of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead zombie shoppers? As Wal-Mart warrior Al Norman observed on HuffPo:

The 2,000 or so Wal-Mart shoppers at the Valley Stream store were merely lab rats responding to a stimulus. When the door opened, they went after the cheese.

Reverend Billy mourned Damour the morning after, imagining the horrific last moments of this young man's life before the glass gave way:

I read that there was a Magnavox flat-screen DVD player on sale at the Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, Long Island yesterday, available on Black Friday only, for $147. That is the deal that waits behind Jdimytai Damour. There he stands at the electronic doors, looking out at us. We stand in the darkness, pushing out with our elbows, spying the shiny packages up the aisles. We are a distorted America standing in the pre-dawn darkness. We have turned our Pursuit of Happiness into this desperate feeling. Jdimytai watches us. We push on the glass.

Jdimytai Damour we will slow down! We will stop shopping!

On Sunday's Face The Nation, Bob Schieffer was appalled and baffled by the deadly stampede:

It made me wonder: What were they shopping for? Christmas gifts? They didn't show much Christmas spirit.

When store officials ordered the mob out of the store because someone had died, many called it unfair, because they said they had been waiting hours to shop.

The terrorist attack in India will cause us to redouble our anti-terrorist efforts, and economic recovery plans are already in the works.

But shouldn't the death of that poor sales clerk give us some pause as well?

If we have become a people so self-centered that we are willing to step over a lifeless body to get a bargain, we have problems that go beyond terrorists, a credit crunch and bad mortgages.

Surely we can do better than that.

Yes, we can. But will we? There are 24 days left till Christmas. It's not too late to stop shopping.

Giving Thanks For Harvey Milk

Today, millions of families will sit down to the obligatory feast with all its fixin's and rejoice to be reunited with their loved ones. Or not. For thousands of gay teens too terrified to come out of the closet, this family gathering will mean tip-toeing through the minefield of aunts and uncles saying things like "You're such a nice-looking young man, why don't you have a girlfriend?" Legions of lesbians have brought their partners home for the holiday masquerading as their "roommate," a charade deemed necessary to preserve domestic harmony.

How many tormented young gay people commit suicide every year rather than risk rejection by their friends and families? How many more are singled out and savaged for being "different"?

The number of such tragedies is fewer today than it was a generation ago, thanks in part to Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay politician. Though the office he held was minor--he served on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in the late seventies--he became a powerful advocate for gay rights, giving untold numbers of tortured young men and women the hope that they could lead a life free of persecution.

This Thanksgiving also happens to be the thirtieth anniversary of Harvey Milk's assassination at the hands of an unstable colleague. Gus Van Sant's brilliant biopic Milk, which just opened, achieves a breathtaking authenticity in its recreation of Milk's extraordinary life (and death), thanks to a phenomenal performance by Sean Penn, a terrific supporting cast, and painstaking attention to detail.

The most poignant aspect of this period piece, whose sets and costumes evoke the era of Milk's ascendance perfectly, is that the story it tells--of the fight against ignorance and intolerance--is, unlike the hairdo's and the Haight couture--all too current.

Even as we're grappling with the aftermath of the passage of Proposition 8 in California, denying gay couples the right to marry, Milk takes us back to Proposition 6, a 1978 ballot initiative sponsored by a conservative Orange County politician named John Briggs that would have banned gay teachers—or possibly even any public school employees who supported gay rights—from teaching in California's public schools.

Milk and his fellow activists galvanized opposition to the initiative, rallying the support of everyone from Ronald Reagan to then-president Jimmy Carter. Proposition 6 lost by a million votes despite vigorous campaigning by anti-gay crusader and citrus industry sweetheart Anita Bryant. The previous year, Bryant had succeeded in repealing a Florida ordinance that banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, calling her campaign "Save Our Children."

Part of Bryant's legacy was a Florida law passed in 1977 that banned adoptions by gays and lesbians. Yesterday--three decades later--a Miami-Dade judge declared the law unconstitutional, stating that “The best interests of children are not preserved by prohibiting homosexual adoption.”

Yes, and the best interests of families are not preserved by preventing committed partners from benefitting, if they so desire, from the covenant of marriage. Someday, gays and lesbians will enjoy the same rights as the rest of the human race. In the meantime, give thanks for the Harvey Milks of the world, who really want to save our children, be they gay or straight.

Has Palin Been Pallin' Around With PETA?

Looks like plucky Sarah Palin is expanding her fan club from evangelicals to vegangelicals. Seriously, how could any animal rights activist not love the sight of Palin blathering to the press while a worker in blood-spattered overalls blithely slaughters turkeys a few feet away?

The media deemed it necessary to blur this bloody backdrop, in deference to the "unspoken covenant of ignorance" between consumers and the food industry that historian Ann Vileisis documents in Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need To Get It Back:

...we have ended up in the absurd situation today that most of us, as consumers, know very little about what we eat; and, sensing a "dark side" to our food production, many of us don't even want to know.

So now the blogosphere's a-Twitter with talk about "turkey carnage" and the "surreal... gruesomeness going on over her shoulder".

But you could argue that Palin performed a public service, however inadvertently. Americans are totally in denial about the way our livestock live--and die. Can you imagine the Food Network ever allowing Rachel Ray to slaughter a chicken in front of a live audience and millions of viewers, the way Jamie Oliver did back in January? After electrocuting the chicken, he told the visibly shocked audience:

"As far as killing anything's concerned, it's never nice. I was trained to do it, I don't feel particularly good about this. But, I eat chickens, and I'm a chef."

As the New York Times noted:

Mr. Oliver said that he wanted people to confront the reality that eating any kind of meat involves killing an animal, even if it is done with a minimum of pain.

Michael Pollan took it upon himself to learn how to slaughter chickens because, as he wrote in The Omnivore's Dilemma:

It seemed to me not too much to ask of a meat eater, which I was then and still am, that at least once in his life he take some direct responsibility for the killing on which his meat-eating depends...

...In the end I personally killed a dozen or so chickens before moving on to try another station...I wasn't at it long enough for slaughtering chickens to become routine, but the work did begin to feel mechanical, and that feeling, perhaps more than any other, was disconcerting: how quickly you can get used to anything, especially when the people around you think nothing of it.

Sarah Palin clearly thought nothing of the fowl play taking place behind her, and why should she? She may be disconnected from the "fake" America, but as someone who's comfortable gutting a fish or field dressing a moose, she's more connected to the food chain than most. The fuss over this clucked-up photo op says as much about our own willful ignorance as it does about Palin's blasé embrace of topless turkeys.

Let's Ask Marion: Shouldn't The FDA Keep Melamine Out Of Our Domestic Food Chain?

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

Kat: The FDA announced last week that it was detaining a wide variety of milk-based Chinese products--everything from candy and baked goods to, once again, pet food--in order to verify that these foods aren't contaminated by melamine. But as an op-ed in Monday's New York Times revealed, melamine turns up in our own domestic food supply, too, and the FDA appears to be pretty blasé about it:

Fertilizer companies commonly add melamine to their products because it helps control the rate at which nitrogen seeps into soil, thereby allowing the farmer to get more nutrient bang for the fertilizer buck. But the government doesn't regulate how much melamine is applied to the soil. This melamine accumulates as salt crystals in the ground, tainting the soil...

...Regulations might be lax when it comes to animal feed and fertilizer in China, but take a closer look at similar regulations in the United States and it becomes clear that they're vague enough to allow industries to "recycle" much of their waste into fertilizer and other products that form the basis of our domestic food supply.

If melamine-tainted milk from China poses a potential hazard, why is the use of melamine in American agriculture acceptable?

Dr. Nestle: It is most emphatically not acceptable. The FDA says this quite clearly on its website:

...Melamine also has been used as a fertilizer in some parts of the world. It is not registered for use as a fertilizer in the United States.

This means that if farmers are using it as fertilizer, they are doing so illegally. And they are doing it stupidly. Melamine may be rich in nitrogen (67%), but bacteria in soil break it down very slowly so the nitrogen isn’t very available. It would just sit there for a long time. As I discovered during the research for my book Pet Food Politics, the main use of the nitrogen in melamine is to fool tests for protein into thinking that pet food, animal feed, and, for that matter, infant formula, has protein when it doesn’t. So any time you find melamine in pet food, animal food, human food, or fertilizer, it is there because some unscrupulous person has committed fraud. It is not supposed to be there at all, ever.

The FDA’s standard of 2.5 ppm as a “safe” level for melamine in food is a tacit admission that the situation is out of control. I agree that 2.5 ppm is unlikely to harm anyone, even babies. As I discussed in my book, the levels that caused crystals to form in the kidneys of sheep in the 1960s and cats and dogs last year were 100 times higher. But the kidney crystals are formed from melamine and its breakdown product, cyanuric acid. When both are present, crystals form at 32 ppm; the lowest level at which crystals form has not been defined.

Melamine should not be in American—or Chinese--food, feed, or fertilizer at any level whatsoever. If it is in our agricultural system, it’s time to put a stop to it before any more harm gets done.

As for human food: Last week, the FDA issued an import alert on a long list of Chinese foods ranging from milk to candy to pet food because of suspected contamination with melamine. This week, the FDA opened an office in Beijing. While waiting for all this to do some good, it’s probably a good idea to be careful about what you buy from China. Or, as the concerned designer Sokie Lee would say, don’t buy anything at all until China cleans up its food safety act. (see above illustration).

Time To Mothball The Butterball!

Even our most progressive presidents can be addled by Agribiz propaganda. President-elect Obama--thanks to his corn-fed constituents, we presume--is regrettably fond of ethanol, unlike his rival, John McCain. And McCain's not the only Republican who slams the grain-for-gas scam. Arch conservative P.J. O'Rourke airs his aggravation with industrial ag in the current Weekly Standard:

Agriculture is a business that has been up to its bib overalls in politics since the first Thanksgiving dinner kickback to the Indians for subsidizing Pilgrim maize production with fish head fertilizer grants. But never, since the Mayflower knocked the rock in Plymouth, has anything as putrid as the Farm, Nutrition and Bioenergy Act of 2008 been spread upon the land. Just the name says it. There are no farms left. Not like the one grampa grew up on.

A "farm" today means 100,000 chickens in a space the size of a Motel 6 shower stall. If we cared anything about "nutrition" we would--to judge by the mountainous, jiggling flab of Americans--stop growing all food immediately. And "bioenergy" is a fraud of John Edwards-marital-fidelity proportions. Taxpayer money composted to produce a fuel made of alcohol that is more expensive than oil, more polluting than oil, and almost as bad as oil with vermouth and an olive.

But Obama wouldn't be the first liberal leader to be conned by Con Agra & co. Jed Bartlet, that wildly popular--though sadly fictitious--West Wing populist, once called the Butterball hotline seeking expert advice on how to cook a salmonella-free stuffing, and gushed "I think this is a wonderful service you provide."

And maybe it is, but there are some not-so-wonderful aspects to Butterball's signature product, America's top selling turkey for more than forty years. In a concession to our obsession with big breasts, American turkey breeders created an avian abomination. As Barbara Kingsolver noted in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:

Of the 400 million turkeys Americans consume each year, more than 99 percent of them are a single breed: the Broad-Breasted White, a quick-fattening monster bred specifically for the industrial-scale setting...If a Broad-Breasted White should escape slaughter, it likely wouldn't live to be a year old: they get so heavy, their legs collapse. In mature form they're incapable of flying, foraging, or mating...

...So how do we get more of them? Well you might ask. The sperm must be artificially extracted from live male turkeys by a person, a professional turkey sperm-wrangler if you will, and artificially introduced to the hens, and that is all I'm going to say about that.

Ah, but no such reluctance on the part of Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton and co-author of The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. Singer and his co-author Jim Mason actually got themselves hired to work for Butterball's artificial insemination crew in Carthage, Missouri, to experience first hand this foul method of poultry propagation.

Singer and Mason lasted exactly one day. Their description of what the job entailed, from extracting semen from the "toms" to working as "breakers"--i.e., grabbing panicked hens so the inseminator can inject them--is gruesome. A breaker has to wrestle with each hen to insert a tube, whereupon the inseminator releases a blast of compressed air, blowing the semen into the hen's oviduct. Singer and Mason describe this revolting ritual in fittingly coarse terms (sorry, Dad, but I'm just quoting an illustrious Princeton professor):

Routinely, methodically, the breakers and the inseminator did this over and over, bird by bird, 600 hens per hour, or ten a minute. Each breaker "breaks" five hens a minute, or one hen every 12 seconds. At this speed, the handling of birds has to be fast and rough. It was the hardest, fastest, dirtiest, most disgusting, worst-paid work we have ever done. For ten hours we grabbed and wrestled birds, jerking them upside down, facing their pushed-open assholes, dodging their spurting shit, while breathing air filled with dust and feathers stirred up by panicked birds.

On the bright side, this is one job that can't be outsourced to India. On the other hand, do you really want to make this miserably manufactured creature the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving feast?

But, you ask, what else is there, beside the ubiquitous Butterball?

Well, before the Broad-Breasted White came along and gobbled up the market, we relied on ordinary, normal-sized turkeys whose modest proportions enabled them to strut, fly, and, yes, engage in good old-fashioned turkey sex. These "Heritage" varieties were bred for flavor, not size, so while they're smaller, they're far tastier.

But, you say, that "Heritage" label sounds so hoity-toity. Surely, they're more expensive? And when so many of us are struggling with rising food costs, is it fair to urge folks to splurge on a fancy fowl?

Well, yes, it costs more to produce poultry in a sustainable and humane way. The small family farmers who raise these Heritage breeds don't benefit from the economies of scale enjoyed by the industrial turkey producers. You could argue--and many do--that factory farms are more efficient and give us cheaper food.

And sure, exploitation is more economical--just think of all the tax payer dollars we saved using slave labor to build The White House. Some things are just wrong. Factory farming abuses animals, workers, and the environment in the name of efficiency. It breeds disease, and depends on toxic pesticides and chemicals and hormones and antibiotics and genetically modified organisms--causing untold damage to our health, and that of the planet's.

That's why I'm asking you to please join the Thanksgiving Local and Organic Food Challenge co-sponsored by Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, and the Eat Well Guide, North America’s premier free online directory for finding local, sustainable food (and for whom I sometimes consult, in the interests of full disclosure.)

As challenges go, this one is modest but meaningful. The Local and Organic Food Challenge simply asks you to include one dish--or even just one ingredient-- that's fresh, local, and sustainably grown, in your holiday feast. And by partnering with The Eat Well Guide, Consumers Union makes it supremely easy for you to participate. There's no need to embark on a marathon foraging expedition to hunt down organic cranberries or locally grown squash, because the Eat Well Guide’s comprehensive online tool does the searching for you--you just have to do the gathering!

The Challenge invites you to share your locally-flavored recipes, and offers additional recipes and inspiration from legendary chefs Alice Waters, Mario Batali, and Dan Barber. Waters recommends that you "roast a delicious Heritage organic turkey. These birds are slow growing and spend a large part of their lives grazing and foraging which results in a deep and complex flavor. You will be supporting the poultry farmers who are raising special breeds, like Narragansett and Bourbon Red, in a sustainable way that cares for the land."

But what if you're on a budget, and you're not ready to bag the Butterball? Well, OK--you can still spring for some organic sweet potatoes, say, or whip up a sustainable stuffing with some Granny Smith apples from the farmers market, and maybe some locally milled cornmeal. As the Eat Well Guide's director, Destin Joy Layne, explains:

“The local food movement is about sustainability, broadly defined. This not only means consuming wholesome food that sustains our bodies and spirits, but supporting agricultural practices and distribution networks that sustain family farms and local economies–something that’s especially important in these economically uncertain times. Consuming local food also helps to preserve the soil, air and clean water that support life on Earth–something we can all be thankful for!”

If only President Bartlet had known about the Eat Well Guide. Instead of putting in a call to Butterball, he could have flipped open his laptap, logged on to the Eat Well Guide, and punched in his area code to find dozens of stores in his own neck of the woods where he could find a free-range Heritage turkey raised the old-fashioned way. And then he might have said, "I think this is a wonderful service you provide! My fellow Americans, say buh-bye to the Broad-Breasted White and bonjour to the Bourbon Red." Now, there's a slogan for us sustainable socialist types--better off red than overbred.

Food Fight Documents The Agri-Culture Wars

I'm just too immersed in the foodie activist world to be able to gauge how effective a film like Food Fight is at explaining the bizarre state of the American diet. This movie strives mightily to explain how we arrived at this sorry state in which our government's policies (i.e. your tax payer dollars) have managed to foster a system of agriculture that enables big food companies to make a killing while quite literally killing us with their disease-inducing "food" products.

I put "food" in quotes because food is defined as a "source of nutrients" or "solid nourishment," and much of the processed crap that fills the supermarket shelves not only doesn't meet this definition, it's so bad for you that it's practically poison.

That's why real food fanatics generally heed the advice of Michael Pollan, the dean of clean food and one of Food Fight's stars, to steer clear of conventional supermarkets. We prowl our farmers' markets instead, scooping up vegetables so fresh that the soil still clings to their roots. We buy our other basics at the local health food store or Whole Foods, or maybe Trader Joe's.

But, once in a while, we run out of toilet paper or cat food or some other staple and, in a pinch, we dash to the supermarket across the street. Whereupon we are confronted, aisle after aisle, with the reality of what the average American eats--and, quite frankly, it freaks us out.

That's not to say that you can't find healthy food in the supermarket. It's there, as Food Fight notes, on the periphery in the produce department, or in the "ethnic" aisle with the soba noodles and dried beans. But most of the stuff that's sold in supermarkets is of negligible nutritional value and loaded with salt, fat, sweeteners and all kinds of additives to make it taste better. For too many Americans, wholesome foods are hard to find, and even harder to pay for.

Food Fight rounds up all the usual suspects to decry this rotten food system; along with Pollan, there's Alice Waters, Dan Barber, Wolfgang Puck, Marion Nestle, etc. There are a few fresh faces, too--most notably Tom Philpott of Grist and Growing Power's Will and Erika Allen, the true foot soldiers in the battle to make real food available to all of us, regardless of income or region.

There's a lot of talk about how locally grown foods simply taste better, and are better for you. All well and good. But as the Ethicurean's Bonnie Powell noted in her excellent, even handed review, the film lingers a little too long at the altar of Alice Waters. Treehugger's Kelly Rossiter had a similar take, giving the film high marks overall but lamenting Food Fight's excessive "focus on the charismatic chefs and marveling at the array of beautiful vegetables at the farmers' market."

I would have liked to see a greater emphasis on the disastrous environmental consequences and inhumanity of factory farming, or even a passing reference to the link between meat consumption and climate change. I was troubled, too, that the film suggests that hunger is a thing of the past in our country. As Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, recently noted at a World Hunger Year forum in NYC, "there will be 40 million people going hungry in the richest country on earth by the end of the year". And don't forget the folks who, thanks to our toxic food chain, manage to be both obese and malnourished at the same time. I can't think of a more damning indictment of our agricultural policies.

To be fair, Food Fight gets a lot of things right; I was especially gratified that it hammers home the fact that Agribiz is wedded--or should I say welded--to the military industrial complex. And it's great to see my personal heroes like Tom Philpott and Will Allen getting their due--Allen's just received a much-deserved MacArthur genius grant, by the way, for the extraordinary work his foundation, Growing Power, has done to promote urban agriculture as a viable way to nourish our inner city communities.

So although I share my fellow foodie bloggers' reservations about this film, I think you should see it for yourself--and if you live in Los Angeles, you'll have your chance soon: Food Fight premieres this Saturday, November 8th, at a free 3:15 pm screening at the AFI (American Film Institute) festival in Los Angeles, at Mann's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.

Election Confections

(photo from Yes We Cake)

We went to vote at 6 am this morning and arrived to find a line already stretching around the block. The cafe on the corner had created a window display just for the occasion:

It took us about a half hour to cast our votes, and by the time we left the line had doubled in length. We headed to the local diner, where Jon Stewart sometimes eats breakfast with his wife and kids. Didn't see him today, though--presumably he's getting ready to dig in to the next administration:

(photo from Yes We Cake)

Thanks to NYC's Local Gourmand Jeanne Hodesh for tipping us off to Yes We Cake, a website devoted to Obama-themed baked goods. Here's another of my favorites from their site:

Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish posted this yummy-looking pie from a reader in Ohio:

Finally, it's not exactly edible, but here's a tasty tidbit from an imaginary interview with Obama posted on Monday by Daily Kos "Cheers & Jeers" author Bill In Portland Maine:

Cheers and Jeers: Thank you so much, Senator, for sitting down with us today. I know Daily Kos readers are eager to hear more details about the issues that affect them. First, let me just get a sense of tomorrow's election. Can we really win this thing?

Barack Obama: Yes we can!

One thing you've talked a lot about on the stump is agriculture. Do you ever grow your own vegetables and preserve them?

Yes. We can.

Will you fire the incompetent cronies that populated the Bush administration for the last eight years after you take office in January?

Yes. We'll can.

On a lighter note, you and Michele both danced separately on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Do you ever dance together?

Yes, we cancan.

Is there anything in particular that'll keep Sasha and Malia occupied when you're trying to concentrate in the Oval Office? I mean, besides sending them upstairs to do their homework?

Yes. Wii can.

Let's Ask Marion: Kidney Stones In Kids: Time To Shake Off The Salt?

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

Kat: Last Tuesday's New York Times reported that kidney stones, "once considered a disorder of middle age, are now showing up in children as young as 5 or 6." One of the primary culprits appears to be excess consumption of salty processed foods. The problem is especially bad in the "so-called stone belt, a swath of Southern states with a higher incidence of kidney stones."

You noted in What To Eat that because the food industry--especially the snack food sector--relies so heavily on salt to make its products taste better, it's pretty easy to exceed one's recommended daily allowance for salt. The Center For Science in the Public Interest calls salt "perhaps the deadliest ingredient" in our food supply, because excess salt consumption is a major cause of heart disease and strokes.

That's why the CSPI has been petitioning the FDA for years to revoke salt's "GRAS" status--i.e., "generally recognized as safe," and reclassify it as a food additive, as well as establishing limits for its use.

But the government is notoriously reluctant to advise Americans to consume less of anything, as you noted earlier this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Meanwhile, the big food corporations are trying to score reduced-fat, low-sodium brownie points by adopting new, improved nutrition standards for their products under the "Smart Choices Program," which will supposedly make it easier for consumers to make healthy selections at the supermarket.

With our kids up to their hineys in brine, do these kinds of voluntary measures do enough to address the problem, or is the CSPI justified in calling for greater regulation of salt?

Dr. Nestle: Pity the poor food industry. First the makers of junk foods are under siege over sugars and childhood obesity and now they have to deal with salt-induced kidney stones.

We are talking junk foods here. Without sugars and salt, nobody would buy this stuff. That, at least, is what food company executives tell me. When they reduce the sugar or salt level below the “bliss” point, sales drop. This, of course, is because we are so accustomed to a junk food diet that it takes more and more sugars and salt to stimulate our taste receptors. Try two or three weeks on a low sugar, low salt diet. Do that and you will soon see that processed foods now taste unbearably sweet or salty.

Food companies are responding to pressures to reduce calories, saturated fat, sugars, and salt with their Smart Choices Program. This is designed to replace the PepsiCo Smart Spot, the Kraft Sensible Solutions, and other such company self-endorsements of “better-for-you” junk foods—an oxymoron if I have ever heard one. The way these programs work is that each company sets up its own nutritional criteria for qualifying for the logo.

The Smart Choices program works the same way except that participating companies have agreed on a unified set of nutritional criteria. These, as you can see on their website, are not especially stringent.

The salt standard is a good example. It is the same as that of the American Heart Association—a remarkably generous 480 mg of sodium per serving, or 20% of the Daily Value maximum. Salt is 40% sodium and 60% chloride, which means that 480 mg sodium corresponds to 1.2 grams of salt per serving. This, for example, allows salty soups to qualify.

But if you want to try to eat less salt, just try and get food companies to cooperate. Processed foods are by far the largest source of salt—90%--in American diets. What you add at the table hardly counts. This is because food companies are addicted to salt. Adding salt is a great “eat more” strategy. Salt heightens flavors and extends shelf life. It is cheap. Even better, it binds water and makes foods weigh more, and companies can charge more for heavier packages. Unfortunately for them, just about every scientific group that has examined the evidence says salt raises the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease—and now premature kidney stones--at least in a significant fraction of people. And now even kids are getting salt-induced kidney stones.

To me, the salt issue looks like one in which I have no options except not to eat processed or restaurant food at all. This is completely backward. If people want their food to taste saltier, nothing stops them; all they have to do is pick up a salt shaker. But the rest of us have no choice. Someone else has already made the decision for us. Salt, and usually lots of it, has already been added to the foods we are served or sold. As I see it, the responsibility lies squarely with food companies. I wish they would lower the salt in their products, starting right now. The generous salt allowances in the Smart Choices program won’t help much.

What that program really is about is preemption of the traffic signal approach for labeling food products, under serious consideration in Australia. Food companies hate the idea. Too many of their products will qualify for red (don’t eat) and yellow (once in a while) labels.

One final thought: Why am I thinking that lawyers will be most interested in the relationship between salty products marketed to children and kidney stones?