If the Water is American, Can the Beer be German?

image via East Falls House

image via East Falls House

 

We’ve learned through a recent class action lawsuit that Beck’s German pilsner is brewed with water from Missouri.
And it’s not the only American-made import: Foster’s tagline is “Australian for beer, ” but its water is pure Texas; Red Stripe is more Steel City than steel drums, brewing its “Jamaican-style lager” in a suburb of Pittsburgh; and Colorado’s Killian’s Irish Red hasn’t been brewed on the Emerald Isle since the 1950’s.

We’ve been misled, and it sure looks intentional.
These brands trade on their foreign roots (or in the case of Red Stripe, they’re concealing the less-than-exotic birthplace of Galena, Illinois) with foreign-accented spokespeople, kangaroos, and coats of arms. Beck’s was dinged in federal court for deceptive advertising and packaging labeled with phrases like ‘Originated in Bremen’ and ‘German Quality.’ The lawsuit asks the question: Did the beer’s maker violate consumer protection laws? But what consumers really want to know is: Can Beck’s be an authentic German pilsner when it’s brewed in St. Louis?

Water has a profound effect on the character of beer, and not just because it’s 95% of the brew.
Classic brewing cities like Antwerp, Dublin, Burton-on-Trent in England, and Pilsen in what’ s now the Czech Republic are as famous for their local waters as for the iconic beers they produce. The unique composition of each of those city’s water supplies drew early breweries and it was the water’s characteristics that helped define each city’s distinct beer style. The water profiles of the great brewing cities are still revered by today’s beer makers who endlessly analyze and compare their own local water against the standards of the classics.

When it comes to local brewing, nothing is more local than water.
And in our globalized economy, it’s most likely the only local ingredient that’s used. The hops might be from New Zealand, the barley from Canada, and the brewer’s yeast is probably imported from Croatia. The alkilinity, hardness, and mineral composition of the native water is the one ingredient that can give a sense of terroir. Its makeup will impact every ingredient and every brewing stage, defining the ph of the all-important mash, adding ions that flavor the beer, and even determining the color of the beer.

Can Beck’s be an authentic German pilsner when it’s brewed in St. Louis?
If you don’t think so, you can join the class action. Refunds of up to $50 will be offered, and no, they don’t expect you to have saved your beer receipts. A final approval hearing for the settlement is scheduled for October 20th.

 

Posted in beer + wine + spirits, food knowledge | Leave a comment

They Say the Highest Altitude Produces the Best Donuts

 

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There’s a legendary donut shop that sits at three miles above sea level.
You could argue that the donuts taste better because of the spectacular views or the effort it takes to get to the top of a Colorado mountain, but those who’ve tried them swear that they really are outstanding. And the science of high altitude baking makes a case that the donuts served at the summit of Pike’s Peak could very well be the world’s best.

We low-landers never think about air pressure, but if you’ve ever baked a cake or brownies from a boxed mix you’ve seen the high altitude directions. As soon as you get to about 3,500 feet, baked goods require a lot of tinkering with baking times and temperatures, leavening and liquids. There’s less oxygen and the air pressure is lower, and ingredients don’t behave as they do at sea level. Liquids evaporate quickly and gases expand more. Boiling speeds up, baking slows down, and yeast and baking powder rise like crazy.

Pike’s Peak can claim the highest elevation deep fryer in the country.
The conditions at the 14,115 ft. summit of Pike’s Peak are so extreme that liquids boil at a balmy 91°; it literally takes hours to cook an egg. The donut ingredients have been adapted and adjusted so much that the recipe is truly unlike any other, and the low-temperature boiling oil makes for an unheard of long and slow deep frying.

The Pike’s Peak Summit House has been serving high altitude donuts to tourists since 1916. Not only have they perfected the technique, but they maintain that the recipe can’t be replicated at any other altitude. And as light and crisp as the donuts are on the mountain, visitors confirm that the reversed air conditions transform the pastry to disastrous effect when they’re transported to lower elevations. The donuts are not only unique, they are site specific.

 

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Compliments of the House? Teaspoons, Napkins, Sweet’N Low Packets: These are not on the takeout menu.

restaurant retribution via Curb Your Enthusiasm

Larry Sanders endures restaurant retribution via Curb Your Enthusiasm

 

Diners are notorious for pilferage.
They waltz out the door with silverware, glassware, and salt shakers stuffed into pockets and handbags. They load up on bottles of hot sauce, straws, and thick stacks of paper napkins. Artwork disappears from walls and flowers from from tables. Restrooms have their own subculture of thievery with patrons treating it like a Costco run, stocking up on toilet paper and cleaning products.
If it’s not nailed down…and sometimes even when it is.

This not about need. You’ll find sticky-fingered diners in every class and category of restaurant. Sizzler gives up a lot of steak knives but so does Peter Luger. Particularly exalted locales are often especially targeted. The Stockholm hotel that hosts the Nobel Prize winners’ banquet replaces silver teaspoons by the hundreds after every awards ceremony, and the restaurant at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria runs a no-questions-asked amnesty program for larcenous guests with troubled consciences. But troubled consciences are rare; whether it’s a handful of condiment packets or a logoed coffee mug stashed in a coat pocket, most pilferers tell themselves that it’s practically a victimless crime.

Restaurant thieves have a knack for rationalizations.
They shift responsibility to the restaurant: ‘If they didn’t want me to have it they wouldn’t have put it out'; or ‘They want the PR.’ They’ll call it a ‘memento of a special occasion’ or justify the theft because ‘it has my initials on it.‘ There are brazen ‘collectors’ who display stolen treasures in gilt frames and china cabinets, and serial scroungers who boast that they haven’t bought their own coffee creamer in years.

Who among us doesn’t grab a few extra Starbucks napkins for the glove compartment? Or a handful of mints from the bowl? What about those teeny, tiny Tabasco bottles you sometimes see? Aren’t they perfect when you bring lunch from home? Whether it’s a handful of condiment packets or a logoed coffee mug stashed in a coat pocket, the perpetrator is convinced that the moral stakes are low; it’s not like you’re stealing an old lady’s handbag. Restaurant thievery has been called a crime of the moral majority, committed by otherwise upstanding citizens.

Neon signs, plumbing fixtures, taxidermied animals, novelty urinal mats: read about the most epic, outrageous, and audacious acts of restaurant thievery in Eater’s ongoing series Shit People Steal.

 

 

 

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Virtual Reality? How About Virtual Lasagne?

Virtual Reality can create a world without calories or food intolerances. 
Diabetics can eat donuts, dieters can indulge in fried chicken, Jews can eat bacon, and every child can have peanut butter—and it’s all sugarless, low calorie, kosher, and allergen-free.

Virtual Reality is not pie in the sky. 
VR devices are already a reality with Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift, and Samsung Gear VR headsets, and major tech players are gearing up with strategic partnerships and billion dollar acquisitions. While food scientists work out the fine points of virtual taste and texture, developers are bringing VR food applications to market.

The Russian Tea Room via YouVisit

The Russian Tea Room via YouVisit Restaurants

 

YouVisit Restaurants offers VR tours of an impressive list of New York City restaurants. It’s more 3-D tour than fully immersive experience, but the application is free and they’ve signed up hundreds of restaurants including iconic locations like The Russian Tea Room, Tavern on the Green, Delmonico’s, and Le Cirque.

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CyberCook Taster calls itself “the next evolutionary step in cooking media.” It’s designed to “tackle the disconnect” between what we read and watch and what we actually cook. The app combines a hyper-realistic kitchen simulation with hands-on, interactive elements.

laboratory pie, Project Nourished

laboratory pie, Project Nourished

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virtual reality pie, Project Nourished

 

 

Virtual Reality meets molecular gastronomy at Project Nourished, developed by the West Coast think tank Kokiri LabThe project utilizes sensory inputs through a VR headset, external food detection and motion sensors, and aromatic diffusers. The physical food is crafted mostly from algae, seaweed, fruits, vegetables, and seeds bulked up with hydrocolloid polymers and gums, while the simulated dining experience transforms the substances into a savory and sumptuous meal. The plate says ‘vegan, lo-cal, gluten-free’ while the brain is duped into perceiving steak and cheesecake.

Tastes are relatively easy to recreate. Textures are much trickier. The lab-created meals are essentially jello-like substances enhanced with salt, sweeteners, and flavor compounds. Early simulations have focused on foods like steak, lasagna, and fruit pies—all foods with large, regular surfaces and simple geometry—that are easiest to mimic and work well with the sensors.

the digital interface of taste over internet protocol

Taste I/P: the digital interface of taste over internet protocol

 

The ‘Taste I/P’ approach to Virtual Reality removes physical food from the equation. 
It borrows from the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) methodology that’s used for the delivery of voice communications over IP networks. Instead of voice messages, Taste Over I/P formulates XML-based taste messages that can travel within existing communications frameworks.

It’s earned the nickname ‘the digital lollipop’ because the transmitter communicates with tiny electrodes that are placed on the tongue. The electrodes receive electrical currents that stimulate the tongue’s heat, sensation, and taste receptors tricking the brain into perceiving flavors. The technology could make it possible to send a taste of cake with a Facebook birthday greeting, or for a television chef to share real time tastes with a viewing audience.

Virtual Reality has a long way to go before it’s the truly immersive, ultra-sensory media experience demanded by food applications.
But the early signs point to its enormous potential, both culinary and clinical, and these early glimpses whet the appetite.

Posted in diversions, gadgets, media, Science/Technology | Leave a comment

When Life Gives You Lemons… The Snow Edition

 

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via ReBloggy

 

You’ve shoveled, plowed, and salted it, but there’s still plenty of snow on the ground.
49 states began this month with snow cover, and in some places a new foot and more has fallen since (yes, Hawaii, I’m talking about you). As picturesque and pleasing as holiday snow can be, the honeymoon is over for most of us in January; by March we just want it gone.

Maybe the problem isn’t the snow. Maybe it’s us.
It’s possible that the snow hasn’t overstayed its welcome; perhaps we’ve just run out of imagination in dealing with it. Instead of thinking of snow as an inconvenience or a nuisance, maybe we should treat it like just another backyard surplus, like an overgrown rosemary bush or too many zucchinis in the garden. In which case, it’s time to rifle through the old recipe box and see what we can come up with.

Food.com has a recipe for Snow Cake that calls for 2 cups of freshly fallen snow to be folded into a batter of sugar, shortening flour, and milk.

The Massachusetts Maple Producers Association offers Sugar on Snow, a kind of maple candy made by pouring heated syrup over packed snow. It forms glassy sheets of chewy taffy that they claim pairs best with sour pickles.

Paula Deen recommends Snow Ice Cream, an easy three ingredient mix of vanilla, sweetened condensed milk, and snow.

Traditional farmhouse cooks swear by Snow Pancakes, claiming that new snow makes  for an exceptionally light and fluffy version.

Wherever there’s snow, you can bet that someone’s making a sno-cone: Hawaii has shaved ice, Filipinos have the halo-halo, in Guatemala it’s called granizada, and in Taiwan it’s the bao bing.

Falling snow is as pure as most drinking water, and usually cleaner than rainwater, which picks up more pollutants and particulates as it makes its way from cloud to ground. Certain dangerous algae can exist in snow at extremely high altitudes, but most snow is perfectly safe to eat and if it’s cooked in a recipe, that should take care of most micro-organisms.

 

Posted in cook + dine, diversions, recipes | Leave a comment

California’s Inmate Population is Housed Less Humanely than its Chickens.

via Getty Images

via Getty Images

 

Since January 1 of this year, California’s Proposition 2 has required all eggs sold in the state to come from chickens that live in more spacious quarters.
Any producer, whether in-state or out-, that wants to sell eggs in California has to raise its laying hens in enclosures large enough to allow the birds to freely stand up, lie down, turn around, and fully extend their limbs and wings.

California consumes more eggs than any other state.
It’s a large producer but still imports more out-of-state eggs than any other state, so the Prop 2 regulations effectively created a new national standard. Six of the big midwestern egg-producing states tried to invalidate the new rules and charged California with restraint of interstate trade. At this point most of the lawsuits and appeals have been dismissed, and producers are either conforming to the standards or selling their eggs elsewhere. In the meantime, the attention drawn to the issue has prompted some major egg buyers like Burger King and Starbucks to go beyond the requirements by vowing to switch to eggs from completely uncaged hens.

It’s more than a little hypocritical.
Chickens and inmates are both key to the California’s egg production, with prisoners processing around 35 million eggs a year from inmate-raised hens. Like its chickens, the state’s inmates live in confinement that can be inconsistent with acceptable standards of health and welfare. While we applaud the passage of Proposition 2 for improving housing standards for chickens, it also serves to highlight the inadequate and even inhumane housing of prisoners.

It was no small task for California to reimagine henhouses.
It involved input from architects and engineers, environmental scientists, climatologists, agronomists, and poultry specialists. They ran simulations and field trials evaluating chicken behavior, psychology, and physiology, ultimately increasing the minimum amount of space per chicken by 73%.

Clearly, laying hens have the full attention of regulators. Less so for the prisoners who tend to the chickens.
Their right to humane treatment is constitutionally protected, but relying on the old chestnut of cruel and unusual leaves a lot of wiggle room for pretty deplorable conditions. Currently, a prison cell can truly be smaller, relative to an inmate’s size, than a laying hen’s cage, relative to a chicken’s size.

You might be wondering why inmates are raising chickens in the first place.
Forget about license plates; prison labor has been used to make everything from IKEA furniture to Victoria’s Secret lingerie, and is especially welcomed in agriculture and food processing, including upscale and artisan food production. Inmates have packed bags of Starbucks coffee beans, and grown chardonnay grapes for award-winning wine bottlers. They’ve produced raw milk goat cheeses for high-end cheese shops, and raised the tilapia sold at Whole Foods Markets.

Correctional institutions and their corporate partners are fond of these arrangements. Depending on the circuit in which an inmate is incarcerated, the worker may or may not be subject to protection under the Civil Rights Act, and businesses can pay pennies on the dollar of prevailing wages. Whether you believe, as the courts do, that this is part of the penalty that criminals pay for their offenses against society, or you see this as codified exploitation and discrimination by an unjust prison system, the irony of inmates liberating their post-Prop 2 chickens is undeniable.

Litigation, advocacy, and public education worked wonders for California’s chickens.
Let’s see what they can do for another group of the state’s confined residents.

 

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Wall Street Goes for a Ride on a $100 Million Grilled Cheese Truck

Grilled Cheese Truck 003

 

In January, The Grilled Cheese Truck, Inc. became the world’s first publicly traded food truck business (ticker symbol: GRLD).
Its early valuation of $108 million is based on 18 million shares that started trading at around $6. For less than the price of a Plain and Simple Melt off the lunch truck’s menu, you can now own a piece of the company.

By all accounts The Grilled Cheese Truck makes a pretty darned good grilled cheese sandwich, and who doesn’t love grilled cheese? But before you put your lunch money into a brokerage account, let’s do a little reality check on what it means to have a $100 million valuation in something called ‘the mobile gourmet grilled cheese space.’

The company owns four licensed catering trucks, a whole lot of cheese, and not much else. In the SEC documents filed ahead of the public offering, GRLD claimed assets worth $1 million while owing nearly $3 million against them. If those were my trucks, I’d be looking out for the repo man. Their track record in sandwich slinging is even more dismal. The financial statements they filed showed that their best stretch was the third quarter of 2014 when the company lost more than $900,000 on sales of $1 million. For the first nine months of the fiscal year, GRLD reported a total loss of $4.4 million on $2.6 million in sales.

Once you get past the woeful fundamentals, GRLD still isn’t looking so hot.
None of its sandwiches showed up last April (a.k.a. National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Month) when Women’s Day paid tribute to the 10 greatest grilled cheese sandwiches. Nor were they cited by Zagat on its list of 30 Awesome Grilled Cheese Sandwiches around the U.S. The Grilled Cheese Truck didn’t even make the cut when Mobile Cuisine named the 2014 Grilled Cheese Food Truck Of The Year and its four runners up.

Before you plunk down cash for shares, you might want to talk to some Cereality franchisees, or more accurately, former franchisees. Every one of their businesses has failed. Like grilled cheese sandwich trucks, the cold cereal cafés were based on a single, universally loved dish that most people already prepare at home. A decade ago more than 6,000 potential investors lined up for the opportunity to buy into a franchise concept that USA Today described as “so absurdly simple, self-indulgent… well, how can it fail?” Well, it did, after each owner had ponied up franchise fees and startup costs ranging between $145,650 and $461,300. Cereality is currently in retrenchment mode, down to just two company-owned outlets; one an airport kiosk and the other located inside a hospital cafeteria.

When it comes to grilled cheese sandwiches, I’d pass on Wall Street and stick to lunch. But if you really want a wild ride, Cereality is still looking for a few new franchisees.

Posted in food business, sandwiches | Leave a comment

Domaine versus Domain Name: This is why the new .wine websites are bad for wine

image via Hypographia

image via Hypographia

 

Dot Wine is coming.
The internet has gotten too big to be contained by .com, .net, .org, and .gov, so the organization in charge of internet addresses is pushing a major expansion in domain name suffixes. For years we’ve been making do with just 22 suffixes, plus a few dozen country-specific ones like .uk and .fr for Britain and France, but now the floodgates have been thrown open and everyone can choose from thousands of new keyword suffixes like .coffee, .vote, .football, and .wine.

The next step for the new suffixes, known as top-level domains (TLDs), is that internet name registries will bid for them at auction. The winning registries then own the rights to issue URLs with those TLDs. This has winemakers in an uproar.

Up till now, TLDs have basically come in two flavors.
There are open TLDs like .com and .net that anyone can register, and there are restricted TLDs like .gov and .edu that are limited to governmental and educational entities. Under the new plan, brands can apply to own their own limited domain suffixes so we’ll start to see TLDs like .pepsi and .nike, but the vast majority, including .wine, .vin, .napa, and .chardonnay will be open. The problem for winemakers is that the language speaks volumes.

The wine industry is very particular when it comes to names.
There are varietal names, vineyard names, winery estate names, and geographical appellations, and each describes a very specific combination of grape varieties and winemaking practices, topography, climate, soil, traditional methods, and sourcing of ingredients. In some European countries, these names are based on classification systems that date back many centuries—France’s goes back to 1411—and even the relatively new and evolving standards for America’s wine regions are considered critical to the industry’s integrity, quality, and reputation.

That’s why winemakers on both sides of the Atlantic are fighting the new TLDs.
They fear that the new domain names will open the door to misrepresentation. Think of how true Champagne has continued to exist in a world of lesser sparkling wines. Everything about Champagne from pruning to vineyard yields to the degree of pressing to release dates has been codified in its name, and that name has been legally protected for hundreds of years, extending into more than 70 countries and reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. But the new TLDs allow anyone and everyone to register a .champagne URL. It essentially gives cyber permission for the makers of any old rotgut- fizzy or otherwise- the imprimatur of centuries of history, terroir, and reputation.

Old World (and some New) winemakers want protection for their geographic indications.
They argue that names like ‘Napa Valley,’ ‘Champagne’, and ‘Bordeaux’ should be treated in the same way as trademarks. Third parties aren’t allowed to buy up the TLDs for ‘Olympics’ or ‘Tylenol’ or ‘Sony’, but as it stands, anyone with the auction fee can saunter in and claim ‘Côtes du Rhône’ as their own.

The right side of the dot is pitting nation against nation and ancient traditionalists against new world rivals.
Most European winemakers are pushing for protection, most Australians and Canadians want a free-for-all, and there’s a split decision from the U.S. wine industry. Critics of protection like to trivialize the argument as tedious squabbles over all the silly circumflexes and and hyphens in old chateaux names. They like to point out that nobody will ever confuse a .vin Chardonnay with a .vin Chevy just because the French wine suffix can double as an acronym for vehicle identification number. They assert that geographic indications are not settled international law and that proponents should take up the fight in venues like the World Trade Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

Cyber-squatters are already lining up to buy the most illustrious and treasured of the appellations.
These are disinterested third parties who simply smell money in the domain name dustup and are looking to lock up ownership of wine-related TLDs. And who knows what happens then. The squatters can sit tight and charge extortionary usage fees; they can ‘flip’ ownership at a vastly inflated price to legitimate wine industry constituents; or they can dismantle a centuries-old institution, selling the related URLs to anyone and everyone with a case of plonk and a GoDaddy account.

What’s in a domaine name?
History, terroir, reputation, quality.
What’s not in a domain name?
Transparency, accountability, oversight, legal protection, global international agreement.

Learn about the new domains from the issuing agency: the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers.

Posted in beer + wine + spirits, cyberculture, food business | 1 Comment

The Terroir of the Shopping Mall Food Court

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Alaskan food court favorite Hot Dog on a Stick

 

Mall dining is much more than a shopper’s pit stop.

There’s an uninspired sameness to mall stores.
Close your eyes and you could be in any mall, anywhere, with the same overstuffed department stores at each end and the predictable mix of national retailers and ear-piercing kiosks. But if you’re looking for a sense of place, you just need to head to the food court. In between the ubiquitous soggy pizza and cinnamon buns you’ll find surprising expressions of regional preferences, and even, dare we say it—terroir.

Terroir, which is usually used to describe wines, is that ineffable sense of place that comes from the sum of the effects of a local environment. It takes in geography and geology, climate and heritage, class and culture. Instead of Mosel Riesling and Loire Valley Muscadet, shopping mall terroir is embodied in regional affinities for grilled subs, bubble tea, and cheese steaks

Terroir is where you find it.
While many restaurant chains are named for localities, they can be surprisingly popular outside of their namesake regions. Boston Market and Uno Chicago Grill are both more beloved in Mid-Atlantic states than in hometown malls, while Moe’s Southwest Grill and Ted’s Montana Grill are Southeast favorites. The Great Lakes embrace Texas Roadhouse in greater numbers than native Texans, while Jersey Mike’s Subs are all but shunned in the Garden State but have become a favorite on the West Coast. California Pizza Kitchen and South Philly Steak & Fries both are true to their names, and everyone everywhere loves A&W All-American Food.

Cupcake and donut bakeries are disproportionately represented in New England malls. Mid-Atlantic shoppers take more bagel and bubble tea breaks than anyone else, and in the Great Lakes they like to sit down with a bowl of soup. Southwesterners like to nosh while they shop with gelato and roasted nuts. They line up for buffets in the Plain States, and a single mall in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania is home to five separate Auntie Anne’s soft pretzel outlets.

Mall food courts are so much more than Cinnabon and Sbarro. See what you’re missing with Thrillist’s coverage of lesser-known delicacies: REGIONAL FAST-FOOD CHAINS THAT NEED TO BE EVERYWHERE, IMMEDIATELY.

 

 

Posted in fast food, local foods, travel | Leave a comment

Eating Your Way to a Good Night’s Sleep

 

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Forget that glass of warm milk at bedtime.
It might feel as cozy as a tuck-in from Mom, but it’s doing more harm than good when it comes to falling asleep.

The right foods before bed can contribute to restful sleep. Sleep-friendly foods are rich in tryptophan, the notorious nap-inducer found in Thanksgiving’s turkey dinner. The wrong foods have amino acids that keep the tryptophan from crossing into the brain where it’s converted into the sedatives serotonin and melatonin.
A glass of warm milk is one of those wrong foods.

Ideally you’ll start a good sleep diet hours before bedtime. 
The best begins as soon as you wake up in the morning when a little protein in your breakfast kickstarts your blood sugar levels, hormones, and neurotransmitters. Regular meals throughout the day, each including some more protein, keep things on an even keel and have you reaching less often for afternoon pick-me-ups like coffee and candy, which can have lingering stimulative effects up to 12 hours later.

When nighttime rolls around, a well-chosen bedtime snack can help you get a restful, restorative night’s sleep. According to the sleep specialists at the Mayo Clinic, you want to avoid garlicky, spicy, fatty foods before bed. Here are the three most highly recommended bedtime snacks:

  • Popcorn, preferably air-popped, washed down with cherry juice
  • Oatmeal with sliced banana and just a splash of nonfat milk
  • Low- or nonfat yogurt with a sprinkle of almonds or sesame seeds

The meal of your dreams:
Monastrell Restaurante in southern Spain serves a special “sleep menu” that is purported to cure insomnia. The chef claims knowledge of a secret ingredient prized during the Roman empire for its soporific qualities. Courses include grilled octopus, pumpkin lasagne, turbot with lemon calamari, lemon sponge cake, and olive oil sorbet.

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Why, oh why do companies give the public access to unmoderated, real-time Twitter feeds?

Oops, they did it again. This time it’s Coca-Cola.
The company has pulled its #MakeItHappy brand campaign after it was used to tweet excerpts from Hitler’s Mein Kampf into sweetly innocuous cartoon images of kitty cats and happy hamburgers.

The #MakeItHappy campaign launched with an ad during the Super Bowl. 
Designed to combat the bullying and negative language found on social media, the beverage giant asked Twitter users to forward negative messages tagged with the #MakeItHappy hashtag. An automated algorithm would transform the words into cutesy ASCII cartoons and @CocaCola would retweet the images to its millions of followers with the message We turned the hate you found into something happy.

Coca-Cola, with its 100,ooo+ employees, seems to have launched it unmanned into cyberspace.
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Nobody at the company noticed when the famous ‘Fourteen Words’ slogan of white supremacist movements was turned into a happy little puppy that tweeted out “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children.”j8hqjk6ljn2sprtonorr  It was, however, noticed by the media pranksters at Gawker who created the Twitter handle @MeinCoke and fed a line-by-line reading of Hitler’s manifesto into the #MakeIt Happy algorithm, and then watched Coca-Cola’s official twitter account as it rendered Hitler’s words into smiling bananas and sunglass-wearing palm trees.

This is hardly the first Twitter campaign gone wild.
McDonald’s began promoting the sponsored hashtag #McDStories with the idea of getting people talking about their experiences with the fast food giant. The company started the conversation with a few innocuous tweets: Meet some of the hard-working people dedicated to providing McDs with quality food every day and When u make something w/pride, people can taste it. As hoped, people shared their #McDStories by the thousands. There were stories about diabetes and diarrhea, a video posted of a mouse working its way through a bag of hamburger buns, and a heated back-and-forth with PETA over the inhumane use of mechanically-separated chickens. Apparently some McDStories are better left untold.

Wendy’s had a similar experience with a Twitter campaign built around its 25-year old TV commercial with the little old lady crying out “Where’s the Beef? When the chain promoted its hashtag #HerestheBeef, plenty of users responded with their pornographic versions of Here it is!

Even Starbucks, a company that parlayed its usually spot-on social engagement to become the best loved online brand, has had its own stumble in cyberspace. The coffee seller created the seasonal hashtag #SpreadTheCheer and invited its customers in the United Kingdom to tweet out holiday greetings with a direct feed to a giant screen at London’s Natural History museum. Before it could be shut down, the unmonitored, uncensored tweeter feed was flooded with profanity-laced sentiments blasting Starbucks as economy-busting tax dodgers who push overpriced milky coffee drowned in sugar syrup.

Missteps like these are not limited to the food world.
Screen_Shot_2014-11-13_at_9.51.33_PMThe New England Patriots celebrated reaching 1 million Twitter followers by thanking fans with custom digital jerseys—basically a photo of the back of a Patriots uniform with a Twitter handle where the player’s name usually appears. Patriots fans gleefully retweeted the automated images of irreverent and unsavory Twitter screen names until one fan’s hateful, obscenely racist Twitter handle finally shut it all down.

While the Patriots’ stunt was naïve and a bit misguided, what’s Bill Cosby’s excuse? The comedian’s website recently posted a link to a photo meme-generator and the message: Go ahead, meme me! Twitter followers were in no mood for poking fun at Jell-O pudding commercial or his penchant for wearing loud sweaters, and #CosbyMeme was quickly populated by darkly humorous evocations of Cosby’s decades of rape allegations. Who didn’t see that coming?

Twitter can be a powerful tool for brands to interact with their customers, but it also puts power in the hands of the public where it can all too easily backfire. Disgruntled customers and bystanders can shape or even hijack a promotional campaign to disastrous results. When a brand like Coke loses control of its own product’s narrative, things can go downhill in a hurry as the tweets are shared with their millions of Twitter followers, and the followers’ followers, and the followers’ followers’ followers….

 

 

Posted in cyberculture, fast food, social media | Leave a comment

Chef Watson: The Supercomputer that Cooks

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Watson promotional images via Thornberg and Forester

 

A head of lettuce, a can of beans, a single potato, and a few stray onions—it looks like mighty slim pickings to you, but factor in a half a dozen pantry staples and Chef Watson can come up with 3,628,800 menu suggestions.

You might remember Watson from TV’s Jeopardy!
In 2011, IBM’s supercomputer made headlines when it trounced the game show’s most formidable human contestants in a million dollar tournament. The current Watson is smaller, faster, and smarter by a factor of 24. Its natural language processing and computational creativity benefit a wide range of industries, running financial markets, improving retail shopping experiences, and diagnosing cancers in hospital oncology centers. And now Watson is coming out with a cookbook.

It’s much more than a gimmick.
The scientists at IBM Research worked with chefs from New York’s Institute of Culinary Education. They created preparations and combinations that the world has never seen, but that still steer clear of wacky. Most recipes are twists and fusions that borrow from a global kitchen of ingredients and techniques like Portuguese Lobster Rolls, Peruvian Chile-Potato Poutine, Creole Shrimp and Lamb Dumplings, Indonesian Rice Chili con Carne, and Vietnamese Pork and Apple Kebabs.

Could the talented chefs at the ICE have come up with these dishes on their own? Perhaps, given enough time for research and experimentation. But human creativity is defined by the limits of personal experience and biases, known and conventional food associations, and the brain’s finite bandwidth. By contrast, Watson is able to instantly sift through vast amounts of culinary data while simultaneously evaluating the potential of an infinite number of ingredients and combinations in a process known as cognitive computing.

Watson was fed an encyclopedic data diet of recipes, food chemistry, molecular compounds, chemoinformatic flavor profiles, hedonic psychophysical taste models, behavioral psychology, cultural preferences, and nutrition. The ICE chefs originated the creation of each recipe by prompting the system and steering it through its algorithms and analytics. They then sifted through thousands of outputs looking for dishes that were appealing, workable in a home kitchen, and contained an element of surprise through new and unique flavor combinations. And finally, the chefs did something that a computer can only simulate—they tasted their creations.

Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: Recipes for Innovation from IBM & the Institute of Culinary Education will be released on April 14 and can currently be pre-ordered on Amazon.

You can participate in the Watson project by applying to beta test the Chef Watson app that IBM is developing in conjunction with Bon Appétit.

 

Posted in recipes, Science/Technology | 1 Comment

Regulating junk food will make the tobacco battle look like a walk in the park.

via US Department of Health & Human Services

via US Department of Health & Human Services

Unhealthy diets are now a greater threat to global health than tobacco. Just as the world came together to regulate the risks of tobacco, a bold framework convention on adequate diets must now be agreed.

–from  the opening address of the sixty-seventh session of The World Health Organization’s AssemblyGeneva, Switzerland, May 2014.

Tobacco and junk food—here’s how they’re the same:
We all know that both are bad. It’s a universally-accepted truth that tobacco and junk food are implicated among the leading causes of premature death and chronic disease.
Both are incredibly addictive. Last year the American Medical Association officially classified food addiction as a disease. Eating junk food triggers physiological changes and neural responses; in the food -addicted (estimated to be one of us in twenty) the brain’s response is virtually indistinguishable from that of smokers, alcoholics, and drug addicts when they’re given their drug of choice.

Here’s why junk food is more perilous:
Tobacco is sabotage, and every smoker knows it, but food is supposed to be good for us.
Tobacco is a binary choice—to smoke or not to smoke. Eating is not a discretionary activity; food is sustenance. While cigarettes can be avoided, food addicts are forced to confront their demons three times a day. How long do you think abstinence would last if former smokers were offered a pack of cigarettes at every meal?

You can argue that junk food is a choice, but is it really?
There’s no scientific or nutritional standard to separate the junky stuff from the healthy foods. Junk food has no official classification or designation in the food industry, the medical community, or governmental agencies. Some say that if you have to ask it’s probably junk. Or they’ll point to the classic pornography definition that relies on prevailing standards: you know it when you see it. Until there’s an acid test or even basic agreement on a simple definition, we can’t be sure of our choices, and more importantly, there’s no way to regulate it.

It’s not as simple as avoiding the unholy trinity of salt, sugar, and fat.
You can’t just draw a line in the sand. Pixie Stix and Doritos are easy, but most foods–even those with a surfeit of the reviled ingredients–have some redeeming nutritional value. Rarely are calories truly empty. There are also plenty of foods–think of nuts, olives, and dark chocolate–that could qualify as junk food for their salt, sugar, or fat levels but are decidedly healthy. Truly dangerous ingredients and additives like artificial trans fats, nitrites, and food dyes should be banned, but mostly we just need to know what’s in our food; we don’t want to be told what we can eat.

The World Health Organization gets it right when it argues for the highest level of global agreement and collective action in dealing with junk food.
It’s also right that there are lessons to be learned from the world-wide effort to reduce smoking like warning labels, stringent advertising guidelines, and limited access to child-oriented media. Like tobacco, taxes should be hiked on unhealthy food products with the revenue funding healthcare and health education, and agricultural subsidies should be distributed to align with our nutritional goals: cheap broccoli and pricey high-fructose corn syrup.

Where the WHO gets it wrong is comparing junk food to cigarettes. Junk food is so much worse.

Posted in food knowledge, food safety, Health | 1 Comment

Actually, Grandma Isn’t All That Good a Cook

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                              [grandmothers and their cooking- images via Gabriele Galimberti]

 

According to a CNN/Eatocracy poll, Grandma’s cooking is pretty hit-or-miss.
21.5% report ‘wonderful’ food coming out of both of their grandmothers’ kitchens, but most rate at least one of their grandmas in the range of ‘decent’ to ‘yuck.’

Does it even matter?
Nonna, Bubbe, Grammy, Abuela– Grandmother in every language is synonymous with warm and squishy feelings. It’s associated with the soft focussed nostalgia of childhood celebrations, family gatherings, and traditional dishes. So what if Grandma over-cooks and under-salts everything?

Grandma probably doesn’t know from whole grains, goat cheese, and fresh ginger. She started cooking when lettuce meant iceberg, the best coffee came ground in a can, and yogurt was strictly for health nuts. But she also wasn’t cooking with mono- and diglycerides, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, modified food starch, and the multitude of flavorings, preservatives, and texturizers found in today’s food. We call it ‘whole food’ when we cook without processed and refined ingredients; grandmothers just call it food.

Scientists theorize that feeding grandchildren has essentially transformed human evolution.
The grandmother hypothesis looks at the role of grandmothers in the early history of our species. It says that healthy, long-lived grandmothers helped feed their grandchildren, freeing their daughters to produce more children at shorter intervals. This meant that grandmothers with the greatest longevity ended up feeding the most grandchildren. Those descendants, who also carried the longevity gene, went on to enrich the gene pool of our ancestors. Recent simulations run by the Anthropology Department at the University of Utah suggest that 60,000 years of Grandma’s cooking has added 20 years to our lifespans.

With In Her Kitchen, the Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti celebrates the breadth of grandmothers’ cooking. He visited 58 countries, documenting family matriarchs and their traditional meals in a multitude of cultures and contexts. Each is photographed with a symmetrical arrangement of ingredients paired with a second image of the completed dish. Click through the images for a brief biography of each woman as well as recipes for each dish.

All those proud grandmas in their kitchens; you can’t help but smile. Who cares if any of them can really cook?!

 

 

Posted in cook + dine, diversions, home | Leave a comment

Holy Cow! Faith-Based Farming

 Joseph Ritter von Führich - The dream of the St. Isidor

Joseph Ritter von Führich – The dream of the St. Isidor, patron saint of farmers

And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise, and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer.
                              –Paul Harvey

The modern food movement has found an ally in God.
Organic farmers and faith-based farmers have discovered their shared mission in matters of growing, managing, and even consuming food.

Divine and earthly imperatives intersect at the farm.
That’s where creation, mission, community, land stewardship, and social justice all converge, and and for some, theology and spirituality are thrown into the mix. There are shared concerns for animal welfare, the environment, hunger, and poverty. Religious texts like the Bible and the Koran have as many food references as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and faith-based farmers recognize that Jesus wouldn’t want us factory farming any more than Michael Pollan.

Farming has always been imbued with meaning, both sacred and secular.
Plants grow and bloom on their own, and the human hand of agricultural reinforces the knowledge that we’re not just in the world but also of it. We’re part of something larger that will continue without us, and while we can tame it with knowledge of genetics and soil microbes, we don’t fully own it. You can call it philosophy, karma, or the hand of God; that’s just perspective.

Many faith-based farms welcome visitors.
There are classes, retreats, camps, farm stands, and celebrations where you can nourish body and soul.

Koinonia Farm has been growing Georgia pecans and peanuts as a ‘demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God‘ since 1942. It’s the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity and other ministries for social justice.

You’ll be up even earlier than the chickens during an overnight visit with the monks at South Carolina’s Mepken Abbey. There are 3am prayers and meditation before the workday begins on the mushroom farm.

There’s a goat named Bagel and the organic pickles are kosher at Adamah Farm, housed at a Jewish retreat center in Connecticut. Or you can study Yiddish while helping with the kosher wheat harvest (for Passover matzoh) at the language-immersion farm camp started by a graduate of Adamah’s fellowship program.

The big daddy of faith-based farms has to be Castel Gandolfo. Every Pope since Pius XI has gathered eggs and bottled olive oil as the overseer of its 50 acres. Later this year, Pope Francis will be the first to open its vegetable gardens, chicken coops, and eight-hundred-year-old olive groves to the public.

Posted in agriculture, sustainability | Leave a comment

The Surprising Names Behind the Brands You Trust

 

 

The average American supermarket carries nearly 40,000 products.
It sounds like myriad options until you realize that most of them—estimates run as high as 90%—come from fewer than a dozen companies. Acquisitions and consolidation have left us with Unilever-Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, ConAgra-Hebrew National kosher salami, and PepsiCo-Sabra hummus, and all but 15 of the nation’s organic food processors are in the hands of multinational giants.

The melding of brands matters.
When you buy Sweet Leaf organic tea you’re a customer of a company that funds initiatives to block GMO labeling; the parent company of your Morningstar Farms veggie patties is party to the mass destruction of rain forests. Stealth ownership of brands means that your carefully spent grocery dollars are ending up in the hands of the top 10 food and beverage producers who together emit more greenhouse gases than Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway combined. If you care about poverty and hunger, child labor, living wages, women’s rights, and climate change, then you should care about who really owns the brands that are lining the shelves of your supermarket.

Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign rates the social and environmental policies of the world’s largest food and beverage companies. The top 10 companies are megacorporations whose products are sold virtually everywhere on the planet. Millions of people, most in poor countries, rely on them for employment in agriculture and production. Their policies and business practices shape national economies and influence lifestyles for billions of global citizens. Oxfam evaluates the companies according to seven criteria: corporate transparency, women’s rights, labor practices, farming practices, land use, water use, and pollution. While some companies are doing better than others, overall it’s a fairly bleak portrait of the food system.

Oxfam’s campaign highlights the massive reach and global influence wielded by just 10 companies. If these industry leaders can be prodded to use their power responsibly, they could play a major role in the world-wide fight against hunger, poverty, inequality, and climate change.

Posted in food business, food knowledge, shopping | Leave a comment

We’re Hungry and We Want It Now

We’re fussy, we’re fickle, we’re inconsistent, and unpredictable.
We say we want healthy but opt for decadence. We chase the new but choose the familiar. We demand quality but reject premium price tags.
Somehow, restaurant operators need to parse all the contradictions and inconsistencies to give us what we really want.

Restaurant Business Online has come out with one of their periodic snapshots.    
They compiled data from numerous business intelligence sources (including Consumer Reports Magazine, Technomic, The National Restaurant Association, and Pizza.com) to capture our ever-changing dining preferences at this singular moment in time.

infographic via Restaurant Business Online

infographic via Restaurant Business Online

 

Posted in food business, food trends, restaurants | Leave a comment

Oh, Is It Just You This Evening?

We’re being ridiculous and we know it, but we still feel stigmatized by solo dining. Take a confident, capable, rational adult, plunk him down at a table for one, and residual memories of a middle school cafeteria come back to haunt him.
Everyone’s staring I look like a pathetic friendless loser I’m going to die a lonely virgin.

A scene from the 1984 movie The Lonely Guy dramatizes those fears. Steve Martin, the titular solo diner, requests a table for one. You can hear a pin drop as the restaurant’s service grinds to a halt. Busboys stop clearing, diners’ forks freeze in midair, and out of nowhere a theatrical spotlight bears down on the poor sap as he follows the smarmy maître d’ to his table.

It’s the middle school scar that never fades. 
Contemporary media continues to fuel the insecure with the parade of odd characters on the Tumblr table-for-1 and on Facebook’s heavy-hearted exercise in dining desolation I feel sad when I see an old person eating aloneIkea’s 2014 April Fools offering of the Löne Singleton Dining Table, a mirrored table for one, hewed so close to the stereotype it left many wondering if it was really a put-on.1

One woman who believed other diners saw her as ‘a sad, lonely spinster’ founded the dining companion search service Invite for a Bite. The website SoloDining.com is ‘dedicated to supplying you with the information and tools you need to take charge of this important life-style skill’ and advises you to purchase their $7.95 e-booklet. And then there are forever alone tables, partitioned cubicle-style cafeteria seating that are popping up on American college campuses, especially in the socially awkward milieu of engineering schools.

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In fact dining alone comes with its own distinct pleasures.
You can engage in satisfying eavesdropping and people-watching or immerse yourself completely in the sensory satisfaction of the meal. You can set your own pace, you don’t have to gauge your menu selections to others, and nobody will stick a fork in your dessert. We need to take a page from the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher who, in her iconic Gourmet Magazine essay An Alphabet for Gourmets, captures the bitter and the sweet of solitary dining with A is for Dining Alone… She suggests that ‘snug misanthropic solitude is better than hit-or-miss congeniality.’ In other words, sometimes you can be your own best dining companion.

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The National Kitchen Audit

 

image via NPD Group

image via NPD Group

 

Every three years a massive study reveals what’s in our kitchens.
In 1993, the NPD Group, a market research company, first asked American consumers to tell what’s in their pantries and on their countertops. The published reports have taken us through the era of George Forman grills and South Beach diets to coffee pods and Greek yogurt. And through it all there’s a block of cheddar cheese lurking in everyone’s refrigerator.

Here are the latest findings from the 2014 Kitchen Audit:

Pod-based coffeemakers are now found in 23% of kitchens, up from 9% just three years ago. And they’re using them regularly—80% in the past month, even though 55% of these households held on to their electric drip coffeemakers. Other dedicated appliances like rice cookers, slow cookers, juicers, and waffle makers have also found a place in more kitchens.

You’ll find soda in 54% of kitchens, and home soda makers in 4%; that rises to 10% if there are children under age 6 in the household.

Sriracha hot sauce was barely a blip in previous audits. Now it’s found in 9% of total households, and an impressive 16% of households with a cook under the age of 35. This reflects the influx of new flavors shared by Asian-Americans, the country’s fasting growing ethnic group, plus the much larger Hispanic population, which opened us up to bolder, spicier flavors.

There’s a slew of new pantry staples.
Sea salt, formerly a specialty food item, has officially crossed over into the majority of kitchens. 
Nut products are becoming a standard way of adding meatless protein to diets; hazelnut spreads like Nutella are now in 14% of kitchens (up from 8% in 2011), and nut milks, especially from almonds, reached 10% (up from just 4%).
Of course the reigning king of the high-protein meat alternatives is Greek yogurt. In three short years its market penetration more than tripled, and it can now be found in 29% of all household refrigerators.

Instant and prepared foods are losing ground.
Home cooks are using microwave ovens less frequently. Canned foods are slipping (lima beans and mushrooms dropped out of  20% and 6% of pantries, respectively), and the dry cereal manufacturers are in full panic mode. There’s still a ready-to-eat box of in around 90% of American households, but unless there are small children, we’re just not eating it like we used to.

The biggest surprise revealed in the audit is that we’re cooking.
Consumers- especially millennials- say that they want to be hands-on in the kitchen. They still like convenience (remember all those coffee pods?), but the buzzwords are fresh and customized. Think of bags of pre-washed and trimmed salad greens with homemade dressing or tacos constructed at home with a takeout rotisserie chicken. More people consider themselves good-to-excellent cooks, and 53% of that self-identified group is cooking at least some elements of a meal from scratch- with recipes even- at least once a week.

Posted in cookies, food business, food trends | Leave a comment

The Power of the Cartoon

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A few simple pencil strokes from a talented cartoonist can say more in a glance than most journalists accomplish in dozens of column inches.
The terrorists responsible for yesterday’s horrific attack know this. That’s why, when the gunmen stormed the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, they named four prominent cartoonists as they recited their hit list.

Political cartoons can bite without venom.
The best practitioners are literate and to-the-point, but balance the invective with sardonic humor. Tragedy can be limned with irony, brutality with farce, and personalities lampooned with hyperbole and caricature. We laugh and then we think as the commentary hits its mark.

It’s about freedom of expression and freedom of the press. 
The massacre at Charlie Hedbo is an assault on the core elements of a free society. That’s why nous sommes tous Charlie.

Visit the Cartoonists Rights Network International where they’re leading the fight to protect the rights of political cartoonists and the people they give voice to around the globe.

Climate change deniers, politicians, flash mobs, pesticide manufacturers, and many more players and policymakers appear in the satirical graphic novel #foodcrisis. It’s set in the near future of 2025 when North America is hit by a massive collapse of its food system. You can purchase the print edition or read the first three chapters for free online.

 

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