Head Cheese (WTF?!)

All this talk of ‘nose to tail’ eating, but still we don’t cozy up to the head cheese.

Let’s start by getting the ‘head’ and ‘cheese’ business out of the way.
Yes, it’s made with a head; usually that of a pig, but sometimes from a calf, cow, or sheep (good to know if you keep kosher); no, there isn’t any cheese involved (the lactose intolerant can relax). The name evolved from the Latin word forma—a basket or box used as a mold—most often to compress and form cheese curds but also for meat terrines; as forma, and then fromage, became the word for cheese, the molded meats were swept along.

Said head is plucked and shaved, the earwax is cleaned out, and it’s simmered for hours— skin, snout, eyeballs, tongue, and all. The cooked meat is seasoned and packed into a mold along with the collagen-enriched stock (from all the bone and cartilage) which gels as it cools.

Looking at a well-constructed slice of head cheese can be like peering through a stained glass window with its mosaic effect of shimmering aspic dotted with suspended jewels of braised pork bits. At its finest, a slice of head cheese is tender meat and wobbly gelatin that melts on the tongue. Bad headcheese can be grayish, dry, and pasty, studded with the occasional bristle or tooth missed in straining, but that’s another story…

Any cuisine that cooks with pork has a version of head cheese, since when it comes to the pig’s head, it’s pretty much head cheese or toss it. In Germany it’s called sülze, it’s queso de puerco in Mexico, giò thủ in Viet Nam, and formaggio di testa in Italy. The Brits call it brawn and in the southern U.S. it’s known as souse. You probably eat more head cheese than you realize a slice can be snuck into a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich or served as a salumi alongside its charcuterie cousins.

Your kitchen will look like the set of a slasher flick, but it’s otherwise not that difficult to make your own head cheese. So if you ever find yourself in possession of a whole pig’s head and a dozen or so friends willing to share in the results (that’s why they’re your friends), you’ll be amply rewarded with pounds of the stuff.

You’ll find recipes for head cheese and other ‘nose to tail’ cooking at The Rooter to the Tooter.

Posted in cook + dine, food knowledge | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Mike Tyson: Vegan Role Model ?!

[billboard: Sunset Boulevard and Doheny Drive, West Hollywood, California]

Mike Tyson snacked on Evander Holyfield’s ear. He threatened to make a meal of Lennox Lewis’ children. He is perhaps the planet’s most notorious flesh-eater.

But these days there’s nothing meatier than a seitan cutlet in his George Foreman Grill.

Mike Tyson: holier than thou?

Vegans have a reputation for self-righteous arrogance. They are in the trenches combating  environmental degradation and world hunger through personal deprivation and self-sacrifice. They can claim moral superiority over meat-eaters for the greater compassion they show to animals.

Does this mean we want to be like Mike?
He’s a man known for brutality in and out of the ring, he has been dogged by a string of charges for assault and spousal abuse, and has served time in prison for a rape conviction, drug possession, and DUI. Currently embroiled in a PETA controversy for pigeon racing(?), he is hardly the poster boy for a compassionate diet.

Iron Mike, not iron deficient.

But then again, he can be a heck of a role model for the healthfulness of the vegan diet. Vegans have labored under a wimpy, neo-hippie label for far too long. The robust, bulked-up physique of an elite athlete can invalidate lingering misconceptions about meatless diets.

Real men do eat plants.

Bill Clinton’s a vegan; even Glenn Beck gave it a shot this spring.
Has your manly man gone green too? Learn to spot the tell-tale signs: Brace Yourself: Your Man Might be a Vegan.

Politicians, movie stars, scientists, pop stars, and athletes; vegans come from all walks of life: check out The VeganWolf’s list of herbivores.


Posted in Entertainment, vegetarian/vegan | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Food Fraud

Walk down a midtown Manhattan street and you’ll see a folding table piled high with knockoff Prada handbags, Rolex watches, and Louis Vuitton wallets for a fraction of their retail prices.

Shoppers are well-acquainted with the fake designer goods racket. They know they are buying counterfeits, choosing to be complicit in a crime in pursuit of a bargain.

But what about the shadow economy for counterfeit food products?

The eggs of a Mississippi river fish passed off as sturgeon caviar, French Perigord truffles that actually come from China, cow’s milk masquerading as water buffalo’s in mozzarella di bufala; these are just a few of the scams perpetrated in the specialty food marketplace.

Fraudulent foods are estimated at five to seven per cent of the U.S. food supply. The Food and Drug Administration has been focused on forms of mislabeling and adulteration that threaten food purity and public health, giving little attention to forms of debasement that don’t raise safety alarms. Unscrupulous producers and importers have had a heyday in fake origins and low quality substitutes for premium-priced specialty foods.

Technology makes it easier to detect fraud that would have previously passed unnoticed. DNA can be extracted from the cells of foods like fish, meat, rice, and coffee to be compared with authenticated samples. Isotope ratio analysis can tell you what waters a fish came from and whether it was farmed or wild. When it comes to imports, only 2% of fish are subject to testing, although spot checks have shown mislabeling to be as high as 75% or more for some varieties. And Coldiretti, the Italian farmers’ union, claims that 7 out of 10 Italian products in the U.S. are misrepresented.

Whether they are imports or home-grown fakes, some of your favorite foods are likely to be frauds.

Fish is the most frequently faked food, usually in the form of what the industry calls “species adulteration.” A Consumer Reports nationwide investigation found that a majority of the wild salmon samples it collected were actually less expensive, farmed varieties whose color had been enhanced by dyes added to feed pellets to mimic the vibrant flesh of wild fish. Grouper and red snapper ordered in a restaurant is more likely to be tilapia or catfish than the real deal. But the urban legend of skate wings cut into circles and sold as scallops is just that— a legend. The FDA has never found an actual case of it.

Honey and maple syrup are high-value items that, being mostly sugar, are easily faked. The costly sweeteners are often diluted with cane sugar, corn syrup, or even water. The sneakiest hucksters will substitute beet sugar which passes muster with most product testers.

Vanillan, the chemical copy of the richly organic flavor of true vanilla appears all-too-frequently in prepared foods under the guise of the real thing. Safflower and turmeric are used to extend saffron but contribute little more than yellow color to dishes. And much of the cinnamon we purchase is really cassia, a harsher, cheaper cousin of the real spice.

Fraudulent olive oil is rampant. This must-have for even the casual home cook is subject to numerous forms of fakery. High-grade extra virgin oil might not actually come from the first, virgin pressing of olives, and the actual country of origin is anyone’s guess. Bottlers have long been known to top off with  inexpensive soybean oil in quantities that range from ten to ninety percent of the oil’s volume. Chlorophyll is added to maintain the deep yellow-green of true extra virgin olive oil.  Connecticut became the first state to set olive oil standards, followed by California where 60-70% of the state’s extra-virgin oil has been estimated as adulterated.

You can report suspected food fraud to the FDA either through its website or food hotline at 888-723-3366.

Operation Rotten Tomato, the Great Rice Scam: read about the biggest food frauds of the past decade.


Posted in food business | 3 Comments

Food Photos: Why we share; why we look.

If, as Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living, what does that mean for the unexamined meal?

Every meal, snack, sip, and chew…
We photograph, document, catalog, upload, tweet, and post.
Online food photos can be delectably compelling or hypnotically dull, and most are, in turn, some of each.

The interactive agency 360i examined the impulse to share our meals, and found that we are most often motivated by nothing more than gustatory navel gazing. Some people find that they become more adventurous eaters as they seek to jazz up the meals they share online; some find that it can keep them honest on a diet; but mostly it comes from a simple desire to share the routine, mundane activities of our lives.

The special occasion meal is also high on the list.
We photograph our food when we gather with friends, when we travel, when it’s a holiday, or when we finally got a reservation at the hottest new restaurant.

Then there are the exhibitionists.
They document food lust-inducing creations in the way others make sex tapes. The food porn-pushers bring us into their kitchens to follow every step in lingering, loving, color-saturated, hyper-idealized detail—the same visual language and techniques as the x-rated variety. Glistening jam-glazed pears might substitute for a gym-toned body, but it’s the same ego-driven desire to put their own fabulousness on display.

Is it bad form?
The food arrives at the table and the cameras come out before forks. Restaurateurs are conflicted. Of course they appreciate the exposure provided by diners who blog, but flash photography annoys the other customers. Some restaurants are now offering dedicated food blogger dinners complete with backdrops and light boxes right in the dining room.

Nearly 100 billion photographs have been uploaded across various social platforms, with food photos grabbing an ever-expanding share. Food photography can be provocative, social validating, or just plain tedious, but it’s here to stay.

You can download the full report Online Food & Photo Sharing Trends from the 360i website.


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Palettes and Palates: Artist Cookbooks

[Claes Oldenberg, Spoonbridge and Cherry]

They paint food— from 17th century still life paintings to Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans.
They cook foodnot always as successfully; taste can be secondary, but it always looks good.

The French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists knew a thing or two about good food. You can recreate meals from Renoir’s Table, Matisse: A Way of Life in the South of France, Cezanne and the Provencal Table, Toulouse-Latrec’s Table, and Monet’s Table, which proves that the gardens at Giverny didn’t just look good. Vincent Van Gogh wasn’t known for domesticity, but Van Gogh’s Table explores the role of the cafe in the artist’s life with recipes from the Auberge Ravoux where he took his meals.

The Artist’s Palate looks at the private lives and appetites of artists from Michelangelo and Mary Cassatt to Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Jeff Koons. It mixes family snapshots, artwork, and personal memorabilia with recipes created by contemporary chefs like Mario Batali, Ming Tsai, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Frieda’s Fiestas is part scrapbook, part recipe collection, detailing the meals and events in the life of Frieda Kahlo.

A Painter’s Kitchen: Recipes from the Kitchen of Georgia O’Keeffe shows us that her cooking, like her art, tends to be compelling, over-blown, and not to everyone’s taste. Who’s up for a garlic sandwich with fried locust blossoms? Also specific in its appeal is the Futurist Cookbook. Dishes are provocative, tactile, and often bizarre: chicken stuffed with steel ball bearings (removed before serving), raw onion ice cream, and an appetizer of olives, fennel, and kumquat that is supposed to be eaten with one hand while the other caresses a progression of textures, from sandpaper to velvet.

Salvador Dali’s Les Diners de Gala is a gastro-surrealistic journey of surprisingly precise and well-grounded cooking. Who knew that Dali had once dreamed of becoming a chef? Recipes are full of luxuries and exotica like towering crustacean tableaux, veal stuffed with snails, and frog leg turnovers, and nearly every other dish is showered with caviar or encased in aspic.

Contemporary art museums will occasionally solicit recipes from their rosters of living artists. Often they are more notable for the artist selection process than for the food. One exception is the California Artists Cookbook, from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The food-centricism of the 1980′s Bay Area is reflected in both the artists’ work and the sophistication of their global recipe contributions. It appeared just a few years after The Museum of Modern Art Artists’ Cookbook, and the contrasting local scenes for both food and art is striking. More conversation about food than proper cookbook, some of the high points of the MOMA book include Helen Frankenthaler’s complaint about the dearth of red leaf lettuce in New York’s markets, Louise Bourgeouis railing against the provincial nature of American cookery, and Will Barnett taking us through his favorite bakery.

Food is another medium for artists to explore through color, form, texture, and visual presentation. The culinary arts, like the fine arts, can speak to history and culture, religion and ethnicity.  Each can be site-specific and performative, or solitary aesthetic experiences. Artists and cooking: it’s a natural crossover.


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The Fish of the Sea

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Genesis 1:28

So how’s that dominion thing working out for you?

There’s nothing like a perch at the top of the food chain.
We’ve got the handy opposable thumbs and complex forebrains, and when it comes to a fish dinner, we’ve made the most of them. We’ve developed a taste for predators—tuna, salmon, swordfish, cod—all the high-protein, high-fat fish that are enriched by their own diets of feeder fish.

The traditional food chain concept taught us that the sun makes plankton that’s eaten by the crustaceans that are eaten by small forager fish; those are eaten by small predator fish, which in turn are eaten by larger predators and mammals.

We’ve since learned that the food chain concept is too simplistic. The oceans are full of picky herbivores, cross-over omnivores, and predators that double as prey. The new terminology is ‘food web,’ a more holistic approach that explains the complex interconnectedness of ocean species. Mess with one marine relationship and you’re messing with them all, plus a whole host of habitats and ecosystems. But you know us and our dominion—of course we’ve been messing.

Here’s what our taste for striped bass and red snapper has done:
The large predator fish we’re so fond of are in steep decline from overfishing. Popular species like cod, swordfish, and tuna have dropped by 90% in the past 50 years, their very existence threatened with extinction. With their natural predators disappearing, wild forage fish populations have exploded, and with too many foragers gobbling up the krill, there’s nothing to feed on the plankton. Now we’re seeing vast and unseasonable plankton ‘blooms’ turning swaths of the oceans into a plant-laden green soup that sucks out all the oxygen and wreaks havoc on ecosystems.

Hang on to those fish forks.
The best way to rebalance the oceans is to eat around the food web—fewer of the top predators and more from the burgeoning population of forager fish like sardines, herring, and anchovies.
Eat prey, not predators.

Seafood Watch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium has recommendations and recipes for ocean-friendly fish, available online and as a mobile app.


Posted in sustainability | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Getting Burned by Culinary School.

Are culinary schools selling a fantasy?
That’s the question being asked by students who are graduating with loans to repay and job prospects that offer little more than minimum wage for often menial kitchen work. It’s also the question being asked by lawsuits filed on their behalf.

Last week a $40 million settlement was reached in one of the lawsuits.
Allison Amador et al. v. California Culinary Academy is a class-action lawsuit representing 8,500 former CCA students. The suit claims that the school misrepresented itself and the value of its degree. The settlement offers tuition rebates and student loan forgiveness for the grads, without an admission of wrong-doing on the part of the school.

The students were recruited by admissions officers who used the high-pressure tactics of a used car lot to fill their classrooms. CCA did in fact treat its staffers like salesmen, with quotas, commissions, and finders’ fees—no-no’s in education, and possibly even violations of federal law. Touting the school’s supposed selectivity and standing in the culinary community, the staffers pointed to celebrity and television chefs on its roster of graduates to hook starry-eyed recruits. Claiming a 97% placement rate—twice the documented rate—they encouraged applicants to pile on student loans to pay for the nearly $50,000, 15-month program.

CCA did have a distinguished reputation for turning out many of the passionate and creative culinary professionals that made the Bay Area a top dining destination. But all that changed in 1999 when the school was bought by the for-profit Career Education Corporation. In its first two years of ownership, the company quadrupled the number of students enrolled, increasing class sizes and cutting kitchen hours. Admissions standards and education quality dropped while tuition continued to rise. And CCA is not the only one. Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, Western Culinary Institute in Portland, the Texas Culinary Academy, and at least a half a dozen other cooking schools are facing similar lawsuits.

The business model doesn’t work.
A year’s tuition at a culinary school like CCA is nearly $50,0000. Most graduates land low-paying jobs as baristas, dishwashers, and prep cooks. Do the math: those student loans won’t be repaid for a long, long time.

Get a dose of reality: peruse the StarChef survey of culinary professional salaries.


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How About a Nice Tall Glass of Vinegar?

We were just getting used to the strangeness of bubble tea, with its chewy pearls of tapioca.
Here comes another Asian import of a curious drink fad: vinegar drinks.

This isn’t like the vinegar you splash on your salad.
Drinking vinegars have much lower acidity and are flavored with fruit. They’re typically sweetened with sugar or honey and mixed with water or soda for a tart and snappy warm weather drink. Trendy mixologists blend them into concoctions for cocktail scenesters, and restaurants in Japan and Korea might even have a vinegar sommelier.

Vinegar drinks are hardly new to the U.S. Shrubs made from vinegary fruits syrups were popular in colonial times, and saw a brief revival during Prohibition. They have always had a following in wellness circles where they are considered effective as a digestive and weight-loss aid, balancing pH levels in the digestive tract and giving a sense of fullness; and they’re high in anti-oxidants.

If you’re still crinkling your nose at the thought of a cool glass of vinegar, remember that refreshment comes in all shapes and sizes. Turks like their yeasty, sour kefir; Northern Europeans prefer a glass of drinking yogurt; and Indians have salted, creamy lassi. Here in the U.S., even pickle juice has a solid fan base.

Slow Food USA has a brief history of colonial era shrubs, as well as sources for purchasing American-made fruit vinegars.

Farmer Jo gives you recipes for making your own.

Portland, Oregon’s Pok Pok restaurant is widely credited as the earliest adopter of the new wave of vinegar drinks. They’ve begun bottling their own Pok Pok Som brand for retail sale in flavors like honey, pomegranate, and tamarind.


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How Local is Local?

Is it 50 miles? 100? Can an entire state be considered local? You can drive the length of Rhode Island in under an hour, but Texas is larger than entire European nations.

There is an audible buzz about eating local foods. According to the food service marketers at Mintel, the appearance of a local label on restaurant menu items has gone up 13% in the past year, with 58% of restaurant-goers interested in seeing more locally grown products on menus. Everyone from growers to retailers to restaurateurs is looking to capitalize on the trend, and yet with so much at stake, we have no real definition of what local really is. What we have instead is an awful lot of wiggle room.

The local food movement is part of a broader movement toward sustainability. The global corporate food model separates producers and consumers through a chain of processors, brokers, distributors, shippers, and retailers. By contrast, the goal of localizing is to build food systems that are built into the economic, environmental, and social health of a particular place. Sustainability is paramount when everyone is a stakeholder in the future.

In the U.K., the National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association (farma.org.uk) defines local strictly in terms of a producer’s distance to the market– usually within a 30 mile radius. In France, there is the concept of terroir, which is tied to the special characteristics that the geography, geology, and climate bestow on its products. Here in the U.S., the standard hasn’t been codified, but the USDA is moving toward a radius of 400 miles- essentially a day’s drive, which is known as a DGD or day-goods-distance. The distance is a mere jaunt for a Texan, but for the Rhode Islander, 400 miles is a trip through nearly a dozen states and even more distinct ecologies and growing regions.

The definition does matter. There is a lot at at stake, and the potential to abuse the public’s trust. Clearly, the geography matters. But it seems impossibly arbitrary to apply the absoluteness of miles traveled to the creation of sustainable economic communities.

Posted in food business, food trends | 1 Comment

Your Beer has a Secret (and you’re not going to like it).

The clear amber hue? Thank the fish bladder that filtered out yeasty sediments.
That creamy head of foam? It comes courtesy of a froth conditioner derived from the gastric enzymes in a pig’s stomach.

Water, malt, hops, yeast: the label might list as few as four ingredients, when in fact a whole host of unnamed additives were used as brewing ingredients or processing agents. It’s a dirty little secret of the beer industry.

There can be hidden animal by-products in your beer. It’s troubling, to say the least, and if you’re a vegan or vegetarian, keep kosher or eat halal, it’s wholly unacceptable.

And it’s not just beer—animal-derived ingredients and agents make unannounced appearances in virtually every aisle of the supermarket. Gelatin from pig skin puts the chew in gum and licorice and the creaminess in frozen cheesecake . You’ll find beef fat in Twinkies, fish oil in Tropicana’s Heart Healthy Orange Juice, and dough conditioners sourced from duck and chicken feathers that are added to bagels and donuts.

As for beer, with the exception of specialty brews made with honey or dairy products, animal products are most commonly used for flavoring, coloring, head retention, and as a clarifying agent. Not all brewers and brewing processes use them—animal-free alternatives are often available—but they appear almost universally in English and Irish brews (yes, Guinness too), and in beer that has been cask-conditioned. The U.S. doesn’t require labeling for animal ingredients or agents in beer, and even the stringent Reinheitsgebot, Germany’s 500-year old purity law, permits their use.

See if your favorite brew is animal friendly: Barnivore maintains a massive and up-to-date list of the vegan options available through nearly 1,500 breweries world-wide.

Perhaps in homage to cock-ale, a 17th century favorite, the Boston Brewing Company recently cooked up a Sam Adams beef heart brew that is served exclusively in David Burke’s restaurants.



Posted in food knowledge, vegetarian/vegan | Tagged , | 4 Comments

We Had it Wrong: Skip breakfast to lose weight

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.

Could we have been wrong all along?
That’s what recent studies are saying.

Eat breakfast to lose weight: it’s what we’ve always heard.  The theory went that breakfast would jump start the metabolism for a steady burn of calories throughout the day. Skip it, and your body adapts to the longer between-meals gap by burning nutrients more slowly to make them last longer. We were also taught that we would be hungrier during the day if we skipped the morning meal, that the big blood sugar swings from empty to full would have us gorging when we did finally eat.

Now we are hearing a different message. There is a new weight-loss theory that involves ‘intermittent fasting,’ which basically means skipping meals. Intermittent fasting puts the old ‘breakfast like a king’ adage on its head telling us to eat like a king at night after a pauperish day. It claims that the episodic deprivation of missed meals takes your body off its usual track, allowing it to reinvigorate and recalibrate, and in doing so, you end up burning more fat. [Intermittent Fasting 101 – How to Start Burning Fat]

While I’m not sure I buy into something that IF proponents call ‘up-regulating your gene expression,’ there is plenty of evidence that exercise and other activity performed on an empty stomach coaxes the body to burn a greater percentage of fat for fuel instead of relying on carbohydrates from food. Athletes and bodybuilders have known this for years. [The Journal of Physiology - Training in the Fasted State]

And the notion that skipping breakfast leads to less controlled eating throughout the day—you can scratch that one off your list of diet do’s as well. A new study published in the Nutrition Journal suggests that all a big breakfast leads to is a bigger calorie count for the day. In itself, breakfast doesn’t curb appetite later in the day.

What researchers now believe is that regular breakfasts occur along with a constellation of other healthy habits. Individuals with a breakfast routine are more likely to exercise, abstain from smoking, and generally maintain a healthy diet. The reverse holds true as well: individuals who don’t have regular breakfasts are more likely to have a cluster of unhealthy behaviors; in fact fewer than 5 percent of smokers eat a daily breakfast.

The message is this: if breakfast is already in your routine good for you; if not, you’re probably better off not adding it.


Posted in health + diet | 2 Comments

The Craft Spirits Movement: What took you so long?

We have craft beer brewers and boutique wineries, farmstead cheeses and small-batch coffee roasters. And now we have distillers cooking up artisanal spirits. Finally.

We’re in the midst of a national renaissance in craft distilling. We had, at one point, more than 14,000 mostly small-batch distillers in this country. Then Prohibition hit, and their numbers were reduced to fewer than a dozen licensed distilleries. It remained a highly concentrated industry throughout the 20th century with fewer than 80 distillers operating by 2000, and more than 90% of the market is still in the hands of a mere 20 companies. Small craft distilleries have been doubling in number every two or so years for the past decade, currently totaling 264 operating in 38 states, but still only capture less than 1% of the market.

Distilling has unique challenges and entry barriers that you don’t find in craft beer and wine-making. For starters, distilling of any kind requires a slew of federal and state licenses. That’s right, any kind; even home distilling for personal use is illegal. No mere by-product of America’s puritanical streak, home distilling is in fact illegal in every single country in the world, with the sole exception of New Zealand. As a result, while many in the craft beer industry have roots as home brew hobbyists, would-be distillers have had few opportunities for the free-wheeling experimentation and technical exchange of a community of amateurs. As a distiller, you’re either a scofflaw or a professional.

If you’re a home distilling who wants to go the legal route, you’ll need a distillery permit from the Federal Tax and Trade Bureau and another from your home state; you’ll need separate licenses and bonds for production, bottling, labeling, and storing spirits; and of course your kitchen, basement, or garage has to pass muster with health and safety inspectors. $100,000 or so later, you just might be approved to cook up your first mash.

And then you wait.
The time frame for spirits is another hurdle. Beer spends a few weeks in the bottle and it’s good to go; whiskey might need three years in a barrel before the first sip. Vodka is a popular choice within the craft spirits movement because it’s essentially ready to drink as it runs out of the still. There’s also been an effort to attach cachet to artisanal renditions of unaged whiskey that are marketed as ‘white dog’ or ‘new make,’ whiskey —a.k.a. moonshine.

Many within the new generation of craft distillers share an experimental ethos and commitment to sustainable and local ingredients, like so many of the food and beverage artisans that preceded them. They’re a little late to the party, but we’re glad they got here.

Proof 66 rates and reviews more than 4,000 spirits, including many homegrown and microdistillery releases.

Homedistillers shares news, tips, and techniques among a community of 5,000 members. No doubt each and every one a New Zealander.


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

Why Skinny Mothers have Fat Babies.

It’s been said that you are what you eat.
Now a new study tells us that you are what your mother ate.

For years, scientists have been stumped by a phenomenon they observed during the Second World War: the babies born to underfed, malnourished mothers were more likely to grow up to be obese adults. There was an obvious explanation—it was only natural that after the war the mothers became overindulgent, spoiling their children to compensate for their wartime suffering. But the scientists postulated that something physiological was going on as well.

They suspected a certain metabolic occurrence. They already knew that a poor diet can trigger a metabolic survival mode that increases the body’s ability to store fat—very handy in times of famine; less so when food is abundant, and then the result is a propensity toward obesity with its constellation of weight-related health problems  They theorized that the babies’ metabolism had been impacted in the womb by their mothers’ diet, but had no idea of the body’s mechanism that would cause it to take place.

After decades of research with mother/child test subjects and advances in the study of genetics, the scientific community finally has an explanation. Details of the breakthrough appear in this month’s Journal of the American Diabetes Association.

The researchers concluded that the quality of an expectant mother’s diet can actually cause modifications in the baby’s DNA. These modifications won’t change the DNA sequence, but they will change how it functions. They are like volume knobs that attach themselves to DNA and can raise or lower the activity level of certain genes. In this case, researchers have located the tags on a particular gene—one that creates vitamin receptors that determine how fat is processed.

A diet that is very low in carbohydrates, particularly during the first trimester of a pregnancy, can be an obesity time bomb that wreaks habit throughout a child’s life. And we’re not talking about concentration camp levels of starvation. One of the popular low-carb diets like an Atkins- or Zone-type regimen is probably enough to trigger the effect.

The DNA modification can be identified in a newborn, but the impact won’t be immediately obvious. In controlled studies, birth weights were normal, but follow-up studies at ages 6 and 9 already revealed significant obesity in children with tagged DNA.

It’s a fascinating piece of research that carries a vital warning for parents-to-be. But perhaps more significantly, it has the potential to change the way we manage and redress the current runaway rates of obesity.

Read the full text of the study Epigenetic Gene Promoter Methylation at Birth Is Associated With Child’s Later Adiposity in the Journal of the American Diabetes Association.



Posted in health + diet, Science/Technology | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Gwyneth versus Martha: Battle of the lifestyle gurus.

Two frosty blond celebrities. Two accomplished, ambitious, multi-tasking moguls.

Martha—the one we hate to love.
We roll our eyes at the laborious detail of her recipes, instructing us to bundle our asparagus with braided strands of chive, and arming us with stencils, X-acto knives, and a carpenter’s level to decorate cookies. We know that our chives, braided or otherwise, will never come from the herb garden  just past the cutting garden but before you get to the apiary.

But this is a woman who paid her dues. She’s the child of working class Polish immigrants who commuted to college from her aunt’s apartment. She’s a self-taught cook who built an empire from a little catering business that she ran out of her basement. She’s had a troubled marriage, a difficult child, and did a stretch in federal prison. We’re intimidated by the manic perfectionism and envious of the lifestyle, but we never begrudge her one smidgen of her success.

Gwyneth—the one we love to hate.
Hollywood dad, movie star mom, a posh and fabulous early life of exclusive schools, A-list family friends (Steven Spielberg is her godfather!), and vacation villas in Spain. She’s blond and willowy with a killer wardrobe, some not-too-shabby romances (Ben Affleck, Brad Pitt) before the rock star husband, and an Academy award while she was still in her 20′s.

And now she’s a food and lifestyle brand.
If you’re not acquainted with Gwyneth’s sideline, to bring you up to date: she dined her way across Spain, star chef (and friend) Mario Batali at her side, for a PBS television series; she started an online lifestyle magazine called GOOP, in which she instructs us to “nourish the inner aspect;” and she just published a cookbook.

The obvious problem is that unlike Martha with her ethnic striving and transparent self-reinvention, Gwyneth is not herself relatable, and she compounds the matter through blinkered entitlement that renders her incapable of relating to us. Her cookbook is packed with examples of her cluelessness, and its high-profile, celebrity-stacked launch and best-seller status set it up as a target for snarky critics who’ve made a sport of locating its most unintentionally funny line (sample: “I first had a version of this at a Japanese monastery during a silent retreat…”).

Her rundown of kitchen essentials includes Global knives (their smallest 3 in. paring knife retails for $60), a Vitamix blender ($400 for the low-end model), and a le Creuset Dutch oven (discounted to about $250 if you don’t care what color). Gwyneth allows that in a pinch you can substitute bacon for duck prosciutto, and brown rice syrup can stand in for agave nectar, but plenty of her ‘essential’ ingredients will have you scouring specialty stores, digging deep in your wallet, and wondering what the hell to do with an opened bottle of $40 ginger liqueur.

Not that Martha has escaped criticism. She’s plenty unapproachable for her steely manner and mania for perfection, and her elaborate, intensely detailed holiday meals with their hollowed-out-gourds as soup bowls and wreaths of 12,000 hand-strung cranberries have always been ripe for parody. She built an empire that is a testament to her ideal, and she’s the obsessive striver who personally sweated every detail.

By contrast, Gwyneth is building a testament to Gwyneth—to her own tastes and sensibilities. To her credit, she has fantastic style. It’s earthy but sophisticated, elegant and playful; but she is no less insufferable for it.

She’s also seen as a carpetbagger who gains entry to rareified lifestyle spheres through birthright and famous friends. It’s doubtful that she’s ever hand-strung even a single cranberry, although she was once given a cooking lesson with Jamie Oliver as a birthday present.

Could Gwyneth ever be the next Martha, or will her achievements forever be seen as celebrity dabbling? Time will tell.
Oh, and I hear that Eva Longoria has a new cookbook….



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The Return of Jell-O

Did you feel that?
It’s the Jell-O groundswell, and I’ll bet you’re sensing it too.

Jell-O is primed for a comeback. It’s a most modest indulgence, inexpensive and fat-free. It has a nostalgic earnestness, evoking memories of tonsillectomies and Mom’s bridge club, but it can also play the irony card as an amusingly kitschy party dish, all retro-cool atop a Mid Century Modern chrome and glass table. Plus, it wiggles.

Jell-O comes with its own mythology.
Prototypically American, for years Jell-O was the official welcoming dish served to immigrants as they passed through Ellis Island. It’s been found to have numerous medical applications, as a testing medium for pancreatitis, mimicking brain waves for an EEG, and as an experimental cancer therapy; and by day 3 of the stomach flu, it’s just about the only food you can handle.

Jell-O has even been touched by scandal. In the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the case hinged on a meeting between two communist spies. One spy had stolen atomic secrets from the military compound at Los Alamos, and the other was to deliver the secrets into the hands of the Russians. The prosecution alleged that Julius Rosenberg had arranged for a meeting between the pair of spies by tearing a Jell-O box in two and giving a piece separately to each. The theory went that when the spies met up to pass along the stolen secrets, they would  be able to confirm the other’s identity by fitting the Jell-O box together. The torn Jell-O box shown in court was seen as a damning piece of physical evidence that led to the Rosenbergs’ controversial convictions and executions. That Jell-O box is now held in the Public Vaults of the National Archives.

A distinguished past and a bright future.
Our infatuation with all things DIY should help kickstart the Jell-O comeback.
The unique properties of Jell-O make it a magnet for tinkerers. Play with the ratios and it can be a liquid, a solid, or something in between. You can use it as finger paint or hair dye; as a powder it will deodorize the cat’s litter box, and as a paste it’s a household cleanser.

In its gelled form, Jell-O is edible entertainment. Its color and opacity are endlessly variable. It molds into any shape and suspended objects can be layered in, making it a favorite of both holiday hostesses and office pranksters who are endlessly amused by gelatin-encased staplers.

Jell-O is an enduring symbol of American ingenuity. It’s also a remnant of the unpretentious traditions of American cookery. It reminds us that there was a time in the not-so-distant past when a wiggly, jiggly, gaudy mass was the height of sophisticated dining.

Liz Hickock is an internationally exhibited sculptor and photographer who is currently working in the medium of Jell-O. Best known for her gelatin renderings of urban landscapes, she has transformed the San Francisco skyline, the Arizona desert, and the city of Wilmington into fragile, shimmering mosaics.

In upstate Le Roy, New York, birthplace of Jell-O, the Jell-O Brick Road leads to the Jell-O Gallery. General Foods moved the factory out of state years ago, but the museum still hauls in busloads of tourists drawn to artifacts and exhibits like the evolution of Jell-O packaging and a Jell-O-themed Barbie doll; and a gift shop that carries boxer shorts bearing the Jell-O tagline: Watch it wiggle,see it jiggle.

The motto of My Jello Americans is ‘in order to form a more perfect union of gelatin and alcohol.’ In other words, they blog about jello shots. But that simplification belies the artistry of their creations: intricate, elegant sculptural objets wrought in boozy Jell-O.


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Clicks or Bricks: Is it greener to buy groceries online?

Who wouldn’t want to cut out all those trips to the supermarket?
Hopefully you’ve already cut way back, with a larger portion of your food coming from farmers markets and other local sources, but you just can’t get everything. There will always be a need for the cans and bottle, cleaning supplies and paper goods that large chain stores offer cheaper and with better selection. We are still left with that most detestable of all household errands—the trip to the supermarket.

It’s misery from start to finish: the parking space in the next county, the shopping cart with a cranky wheel, the checkout line that inches along, and finally the multiple trips from car to kitchen hauling all those grocery bags. What if you could eliminate that dreaded chore AND reduce your environmental impact?

A study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University’s Green Design Institute concluded that online purchases with home delivery can result in 35 percent less energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions than traditional shopping. Approximately 65 percent of total emissions generated by the traditional retail model comes from driving your own car to and from the store. Even though a huge, fuel-burning truck will be bringing the groceries to you, the incremental energy consumption and emissions created by one more shopping order and one more delivery stop added to the truck’s route is less significant than if you make the drive yourself.

There are also logistical differences in the supply chain that can lessen the environmental impact of online shopping. Traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers generally have items shipped from manufacturers to distributors to regional warehouses, where they are then redistributed to individual store locations. Online sellers can streamline the process. They usually eliminate at least one tier of regional warehousing, and some can even skip a few steps by relying on distribution partners to ship directly shipping to customer homes. This cuts back not just on the transportation of products, but also the bundled packaging and packing materials needed along the way.

Online grocery shopping is making a comeback.
The retail model was full of promise in the 1980′s, flamed out notably in the dot-com bust of the 1990′s (CNET named the failed online grocer Webvan the top flop of the era), and has gradually found its footing  in the aftermath. But online grocery purchases have never grown beyond a miniscule 1-2 percent portion of overall sales, thriving in just a few urban niche markets.

Here come the game-changers.
And this time around it’s a new ballgame—we’ve grown comfortable with online shopping, the modems are a lot faster, and gas prices have passed $4.00  a gallon. Walmart, already the nation’s biggest grocer, is experimenting with a new online service called Walmart To Go, while Amazon, the king of online retailers, has big plans for a national roll-out of its own service, AmazonFresh.

There are plenty of alternatives for the Walmart averse. SOS eMarketing compiled a list of 50 online grocers including ethnic, regional, and specialty retailers, and plenty of sources for organic and environmentally-friendly products.

You can read the full Carnegie Mellon study, Life Cycle Comparison of Traditional Retail and E-Commerce Logistics for Electronic Products: A Case Study of Buy.com, at the publications page of the university’s Green Design Institute.



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Open Table: Putting the squeeze on restaurants

Remember when…
It started with a well-timed phone call—if you made it too early, no one was there; too late and the dinner rush was under way. Maybe there were a few busy signals before you got through to the reservationist who promptly put you on hold, leaving you hanging with a little smooth jazz to keep you company. Then she came back to you for a spin through the reservation book. Friday at 8? Sorry, nothing till 9:30…

That was then.
Since the advent of Open Table, you can immediately see what’s available and when, and book a table with a firm confirmation any time, day or night. Friday at 8 is still a tough get, but now you just move down the list of available tables without doing another dance with another reservationist.

Win-Win, right?
It’s true that there are two real winners in the transaction: the diner gets the ease and convenience of going online, and Open Table makes a little pocket change on each reservation. The problem is that there are three parties to the transaction, and the advantage to the third—the restaurant—is not so clear.

When a restaurant signs on with Open Table, it pays a set-up fee that hovers somewhere around $1,000. For that it gets a rented terminal connected to the Open Table network and system training for employees. It costs the restaurant $199 each month to stay connected, plus it pays a fee for each seat at a table booked through the service—$1 per diner if the reservation was made through the Open Table website and 25¢ per seat if it was made through the ‘online reservations’ link on the restaurant’s own website.

There’s always been grumbling about the one-size-fits-all fee structure.
The 30-seat neighborhood spot pays the same $199 monthly fee as the 300-seat corporate-owned chain, which can be punishing to the bottom-line of small, low-volume restaurants where the charge is spread out among few diners. And the same dollar-per-diner charge that is inconsequential to a high-end restaurant with $30+ entrees is eating up a big share of the revenue at a modestly-priced bistro.

Open Table does have its advantages.
The arrangement benefits the restaurant in three ways: the restaurant can cut staffing costs by reducing or eliminating the reservationist function; it manages reservations in a way that optimizes the seating chart; and it creates a customer database full of food, wine, and seating preferences, ordering history, and significant dates like birthdays and anniversaries.

What it doesn’t seem to do is bring in more diners.
Few restaurateurs credit Open Table with adding to their customer base. The difference, they say, is that thanks to the subscriber fees, they are now earning less on the same business. Busy nights are still busy and off nights are still quiet.

About 14,000 U.S. restaurants—one-third of all those that accept reservations—use the service, which seats more than 4 million diners every month.
Open Table has become the gatekeeper to the nation’s restaurant seats, and for the restaurants, it’s become the pathway to both old and new customers.

The service has become indispensable for the way it has inserted itself in the middle of a restaurants’ relationship with its customers.
Diners used to ask “Where would you like to eat?” Now they turn first to Open Table and ask the question “Where can we eat?”


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Get the Damn ‘X’ Out of My Espresso!

Something in me snaps when I see an ‘x’ in espresso.
Or an extra ‘r’ in mascarpone. The salad is ‘Caesar,’ not ‘Ceasar,’ and there is no ‘n’ in restaurateur (and a server’s incorrect pronunciation affects me like fingernails on a chalkboard, but don’t get me started…).

Yes, we all make little mistakes sometimes. And it’s true that excellent spelling skills are seldom a prerequisite for a restaurant job. But no, I will not lighten up; not until every misplaced ‘x’ has been eradicated.

There’s no room for creative expression when it comes to menu spelling. Get it wrong and it undermines your credibility and leaves doubts about your expertise. If you can’t spell it right, how can I trust you to cook it properly?

Wrong tells me that you couldn’t be bothered to check. It makes me wonder what else you couldn’t be bothered with, like trimming the tough stems from the spinach or washing your hands.

I’m not saying it’s easy.
Menus can be an etymological bomb field. They can challenge even the word-nerdiest diner with their technical jargon and regional and obscure foreign phrases. It’s what makes food terms such a favorite of the Scripps National Spelling Bee (50 food-related words appeared in the last Bee).

If (like me) you love food and you love language, then you should be excited (also like me) by the forthcoming release of Scrabble’s Cooking Edition. You can pre-order today for shipping next month. [Cooking Edition of Scrabble]

For the final word on menu language, pick up a copy of The International Menu Speller with its 10,000 alphabetically arranged names of dishes, ingredients, culinary techniques and nutrition terms, all correctly spelled and accented. [The International Menu Speller]



Posted in food knowledge, funny | Tagged | 2 Comments

The Shape of Things to Come

Ice comes in cubes. Same for sugar. White Castle even sells its hamburgers as little cubed sliders.
Yes, we’ve always liked a good cube.

It’s a Platonic solid, a perfect shape in terms of its symmetry and aesthetics. Scientists and mathematicians have always been mad for cubes.
But that still doesn’t explain why the food business is suddenly cubing everything in sight.

Not that we’re complaining about hot chocolate cubes that you swirl into a cup of milk. It’s like the foil-wrapped chocolate Ice Cubes you see by the cash register, but on a stick, and  the chocolate’s better. [The Ticket Kitchen Chocolate on a Stick]



It’s instant coffee and it’s cubed. As far as we can tell, just ‘cuz.  [Little Delights—The Original Coffee Cube]



If you make a lot of smoothies, this one will make a lot of sense. It’s frozen smoothie cubes. You add them to milk or juice in a blender.  [Creative Gourmet Smoothie Cubes]


In the midst of all the cubing, the traditional bouillon cube is bucking the trend. The familiar shape has seasoned the stew for generations of cooks, but this year it’s being reformulated as a blocky ‘X’ said to dissolve easier. Can you say New Coke?








The big daddy of cube introductions is the restaurant cube. It’s a fully equipped, self-contained restaurant inside a semi-translucent cube that will be placed atop a series of European landmarks. It will operate as a temporary, 18-seat pop-up restaurant at each location, using a resident chef and locally sourced ingredients. It’s currently perched on the main arch at the Parc du Cinquantenaire in Brussels, Belgium. [Cube by Electrolux]

And finally, we would be remiss in our cube roundup if we failed to mention the cube known around the ‘net as ‘is it a puppy or a loaf of bread?’.



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Can You be Green and Eat Fast Food?

That’s the question that went through my mind when this year’s Greenopia fast food ratings crossed my desk.

Each year, the green-living website rates the environmental impact and healthy dining characteristics of popular fast food chains. The rankings are based on factors like sustainable building design, integrity of the supply chain, and participation in recycling and composting programs. We learn that McDonald’s is greener than Burger King, and Subway is doing a better job than Taco Bell. Good to know, yes, but doesn’t this beg the question? Can you be green and still eat fast food?

Can fast food ever be green?
Fast food chains generate tremendous amounts of waste. Recycled or not, no other dining format can touch its levels. And once you peel back the wrappers and packaging, you have the food miles and greenhouse gases, and the salt, fat, and high-fructose corn syrup of factory farmed, heavily processed foods.

Fast food will ultimately hit the wall when it tries to go green.
We, the customers, are hooked on fast, cheap, and convenient. The fast food giants can improve their use and disposal of packaging materials. They have the clout to push food producers toward more sustainable options that are organic, fairly traded, and additive-free. But the high volume, low cost model will always dictate the terms and impose its own limitations. Processed travels better than fresh, fruit-flavored is cheaper than fruit, and a Big Mac is still going to cost less than a salad. Getting it ‘to go’ will always mean wasteful packaging, and cars will continue to idle in drive-through lanes.

Let’s go back to the original question: Can you be green and eat fast food?
There are plenty of anti-waste crusaders and Slow Food advocates who would answer with an emphatic, unequivocal ‘no;’ that even the greenest of fast food options run counter to their missions, producing more waste and carbon emissions than home cooking served on real dishes. But isn’t that like telling the owner of a Prius that hybrids are pointless, or even counterproductive, because they still burn fossil fuels?

While it’s true that a bicycle is a greener, more ethical option than any car, it obviously doesn’t work for everyone and in all circumstances. As an alternative, a hybrid car is a laudable, pragmatic solution, and even a catalyst for change—the presence of each one on our roads helps promote a worthy message in the public sphere.

Unfortunately, most of us won’t be giving up our quick, inexpensive meals eaten on the fly any more than we will quit driving. So when we opt for fast food, we need to patronize those chains that are making a true effort to minimize their impact on the environment, the ones given a 3- or 4-leaf rating by Greenopia.

Choosing to eat even the most ethical, sustainable fast food is an imperfect option in the same way that a Prius is an imperfect vehicle, and the self-righteous among us might challenge the ‘greenness’ of the choice. But it represents distinct, incremental progress and creates public awareness that just might be the catalyst for further change on our way to a greener future.

Just how bad is fast food’s impact on the environment? Jamais Cascio breaks it all down for you in the Cheeseburger Footprint.


Posted in fast food, sustainability | Tagged , | 3 Comments
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