Will Restaurant Menus Go the Way of the Album Cover?

photo collage via Popphoto

Some of us are still mourning the passing of the album cover.
First shrunk to CD jewel box size, it’s all but disappeared into the straight-to-iPod download.  A once vital contribution to the culture of music, album art and liner notes are increasingly the preserve of gray-bearded collectors.

Could the same thing happen to restaurant menus?
Many of the quick-serve and national chains now use electronic menu boards, self-serve ordering kiosks, and digital table projections. iPad menus and wine lists are popping up at even high-end restaurants, and a restaurant’s website has become the ultimate ambassador for an establishment’s brand identity.

The menu used to be the heart of any restaurant.
Like album covers, menus reflect social, cultural, and artistic values. They are big canvases where restaurateurs can create a visual and tactile experience that invites us in and tells us a story about the meal to come.

Thankfully, there are some who will carry the torch into the digital age.

The preeminent design champions of Under Consideration recently launched Art of the Menu to catalog what they call “the underrated creativity of menus from around the world.”

The fine art publisher Taschen has just released Menu Design in America, a yummy, coffee table-sized book that provides an epicurean tour of dining in America over the past 100 years.

The Italian gastronomic society Academia Barilla has a rich collection of menus dating back to the early 1800’s, giving us a rare view of regional Italian cooking that predates the unification of the individual Italian states.

The Harley Spiller Menu Collection documents one man’s love affair with Chinese takeout. 6,000 of the 10,000 menus in his private collection are of the tri-fold variety that urban dwellers find stuffed in their mailboxes.

The New York Public Library has one of the world’s largest historical menu collections, with more than 40,000 menus that are regularly perused by historians, chefs, novelists, and everyday food enthusiasts.

You can help carry that torch.
For years, the librarians at the New York Public Library have been slogging their way through the process of digitizing their massive menu collection. The progress has been slowed by the idiosyncratic nature of menus. The Optical Character Recognition technology is stymied by handwritten menus, unorthodox layouts, and fanciful typography, and the digital scanners aren’t able to read the menus in a way that creates indexable, searchable data.

The library has created the What’s on the Menu? project to enlist the public’s help in transcribing the menus, dish by dish. Eventually they plan to formalize the process a bit, but for now there are no user accounts or tracking systems. You just click on a menu and type what you see. It’s easy and it literally takes just a few seconds of your time for you to contribute to this important preservation of our culinary past.

Give it a try—you can start transcribing right now, right here!

 

 

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6 Condiments You Really Should Get to Know

In the beginning there was ketchup.

Ketchup has reigned supreme for nearly 200 years. At its peak, it was found in 97% of U.S. households.
But global influences have perked up our palates. There’s a big world of flavor out there. Clear out some space in the pantry and push aside the ketchup bottle in your refrigerator. It’s time to make room in your kitchen and your cooking repertoire for six new condiments.

Sriracha, oh how I love thee. Squeezed on vegetables, drizzled over noodles, mixed into dressings, dips, and sauces; a moderately spicy chili base with a healthy garlic kick, Sriracha is a condiment chameleon. It transcends cuisines and national boundaries meshing equally well with dishes from Asia, Latin America, and the American South. It rivals ketchup as a tabletop catch-all.

 

Fish sauce requires a leap of faith. Comprised largely from fermented anchovies, on its own it is potent and smelly. Use it judiciously as a dipping sauce or an ingredient in curries, casseroles, and stir fries. The flavor is pure magic.

Chimichurri sauce can be green or red (with added tomatoes or peppers). It’s primarily a blend of parsley, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, and pepper flakes, with different spices added to suit the dish. It’s used as a marinade and as a sauce, mostly with grilled meats. It’s popular throughout South and Central America; especially in Argentina where they know a thing or two about grilling meats.

Doesn’t this look familiar? Canned tahini has been found on supermarket shelves in the kosher aisle forever. A creamy paste made from sesame seeds, tahini is most closely associated with the Middle East, where it is a familiar ingredient in hummus, falafel, and eggplant dishes. Tahini has the consistency of peanut butter but with a milder taste, and adds nutty richness as a sandwich spread, salad dressing, and dessert ingredient.

Harissa is a chili sauce that appears on every North African table; sometimes in every course at every meal in all kinds of dishes. To my taste, a little goes a long way: a dab added to stews, sandwich spreads, soups, and sauces adds a distinctively tart, fiery finish. It is available in cans and jars, but for me, the little tube, as shown, is plenty.

Cook Moroccan food without preserved lemon and it just doesn’t taste Moroccan. These are lemons that have been essentially pickled in their own juices along with salt and some spices like cloves, coriander, pepper, and cinnamon. Maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but whatever the preserved lemons are added to take on complexity and a kind of exoticness. Beans or vegetables, sauces and salsas, dips and desserts will all have a little Moroccan je ne sais quoi.

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Food Addiction: When food is like heroin, only worse- it’s everywhere.

image via Health Freedoms

The American Medical Association just got a lot closer to defining food addiction as a disease.
A new study from Yale University measured the brain activity of women tempted, and then rewarded, with a chocolate milkshake. For all the test subjects, neural activity surged in regions that govern cravings, identical to the neural response of alcoholics and drug addicts when they’re given their drug of choice. In the food addicted, activity fell off in the brain regions involved with self-control, just like the brain response of substance abusers. The findings suggest that setting a chocolate milkshake down in front of the food addicted is just like dangling a dime bag of heroin in front of a junkie.

There are more than 70 million food-addicted adults in the U.S. according to David Kessler, a biostatistician and a former commissioner of the U.S Food and Drug Administration; and they’re sick of being a pop culture punchline. To them, willpower is not enough to just say ‘no’ to french fries; they hope the biological basis of the Yale findings will bring understanding and compassion to their plight.

Food addicts are forced to confront their demons three times a day. Every meal challenges them to resist the pathology of the brain’s reward center. They reel from the constant temptations on the calendar—Halloween candy gives way to Thanksgiving dinner followed by Christmas and New Years feasts. Just when they’ve made it through the back-to-back candy holidays of Valentines Day and Easter, the doorbell rings and it’s the Girl Scouts hawking those damn Thin Mints cookies. How long do you think sobriety would last if a glass of whiskey was placed in front of an alcoholic as often?

Then there’s the pervasiveness of foodie culture, which runs amok on dedicated cable channels, in the food porn everyone is snapping, and in countless tweets and food blogs. For too many, food appreciation has become an obsession. While some of us feel food fatigue, for the food addict it’s a constant, punishing minefield of temptation.

Foodies have created an environment in which celebrations of narcissism and gluttony are socially acceptable, blurring the line between preoccupation and pathology. Disordered, compulsive eating can be hard to spot. It rarely has the rock-bottom, aha moment of other addictions, but instead tends to be a slow, chronic creep of abuse of a substance we’ve indulged in our entire lives.

Are we all food addicts waiting to happen?
CBS News has an online test of addictive behavior based on the Yale Food Addiction Scale underlying the study.

 

 

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Back to School with McDonald’s Hamburger University

McDonald’s Hamburger University
click on image to enlarge

It’s not the special sauce on the Big Mac or even the legendary french fries. McDonald’s is McDonald’s because of Hamburger University.

The school turned 50 this year and has 275,000 alumni, most working as store managers, franchise owners, and executives in McDonald’s headquarters. There’s no tuition, no SAT scores, and with 36,000 people vying each year for franchises, Hamburger University claims to be more selective than Harvard, with an acceptance rate of less than 1% compared to the Ivy League school’s 7%.

Most students at Hamburger U train at the picturesque Illinois campus near McDonald’s headquarters. They are a combination of current employees selected for their store management potential, mid-managers looking to move up, and potential franchise owners who have a minimum of $500,000 of non-borrowed personal resources and have demonstrated a kinship with the McDonald’s ethos, usually through a low-man stint as a floor mopper and french fry maker.

There’s some prep work before students arrive on campus, 5 days in residence spent in auditoriums and interactive classrooms, kitchen labs, and service training labs. Graduates also participate in follow-up course-work with one of the 22 training teams around the country. The average restaurant manager completes the equivalent of a semester of college–21 credit hours–that some colleges and universities will accept as transfer credits.

Like 60 per cent of the senior management of McDonald’s Corporation, CEO Jim Skinner began his career as a restaurant crew member. A Hamburger University grad, in 1971 Skinner was a McDonald’s manager trainee with a high school diploma. As CEO of the company (with annual personal compensation of around $18 million), he’s overseen the global expansion of Hamburger University, which has opened 6 additional campuses: in São Paolo Brazil; London, England; Munich, Germany; Tokyo, Japan; Sydney, Australia; and the newest Hamburger University in  Shanghai, China.

McDonald’s is the world’s leading global food service retailer with more than 32,000 locations serving approximately 64 million customers in 117 countries each day. Bloomberg Businessweek looks at the company’s plans to leverage the leadership skills of Shanghai’s Hamburger University graduates to fuel its big expansion plans in China.

 

 

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A Most Unusual Restaurant Map

CLICK !

 

You ate what?! You ate where?!

You know the feeling. Chinese—been there; pizza—done that. The taste buds are feeling a little jaded, the neighborhood spots are old hat. If only there was a restaurant where you could be served by monkey waiters. Or nuns. Or a restaurant with an all-blueberry menu, or one with straw-hatted donkeys wandering between tables waiting for leftovers.

The Google Map of The Most Unusual Restaurants in the World is here to rescue you from the same old, same old. The map, assembled by an eccentric Russian foodie, is marked with hundreds of little map pins, each with the promise of a unique dining experience. There are rare delicacies, exotic settings, quirky service, and wacky themes.

Restaurants with unusual settings.
You can dine in a quarry or a tree house, underground, or under the sea. There are working prisons, churches, cemeteries, and sewage treatment plants with restaurants open to the public. You can dine at the rim of an active volcano, in a Mediterranean fishing hut, or feast on cabbage soup and pelmeni in Stalin’s bunker.

Restaurants with unusual service.
Yes, there really are monkey waiters at Japan’s Kayabukiya Tavern; they prefer their tips in edamame. At Rome’s L’eau Vive, the serving nuns (who favor the title  ‘Missionary Workers of the Immaculate,’ or  ‘Daughters of the 44th Psalm’) dish up a fine plat du jour—today’s is steak served with an eggplant mousse and potato croquettes—or you can always order from the John Paul II Beatification Menu.

You can find meals delivered by robots, model trains, and catapult (at Bangkok’s Ka-tron Flying Chicken). Child labor laws are skirted at Holland’s Kinderkook Kafé, and good taste goes out the window at Hobbit House and Dwarfs Island (yes, little people do the serving).

Restaurants with unusual food.
There’s plenty of exotica; the bats, snakes, and sheep heads of foreign menus, but the map also points you to the prosaic. In addition to blueberries, you can find menus with nothing but potato dishes, grilled cheese sandwiches, apples, eggs, cheese, or breakfast cereal. For the truly undecided, one Thai restaurants checks your blood type and personality traits and then brings what it thinks is best; or you could try a restaurant where the customers choose each others meals.

There are restaurants where you catch your own fish or cook your own meal; others lend lonely diners a cat or bunny for company. You can eat in a recreated Jewish ghetto, Alice’s Wonderland, a vampire’s lair, or  a hospital room.

The Google Map of The Most Unusual Restaurants in the World  links to websites, menus, and directions. It’s a work in progress that welcomes your suggestions.

 

 

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The Best Cup of Coffee You Ever Had.

The New York Times called it “majestic” and “titillating; Time Magazine named it to the list of The Top 10 Everything of 2008; and when Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz happened to stumble across one at a tiny café in lower Manhattan, he declared it made “the best cup of brewed coffee I have ever tasted.”

They’re all raving about the Clover, an eyebrow-raisingly pricey coffeemaker that brings high-tech precision to gadget-loving coffee drinkers. It also brews a hell of a cup of coffee.

Schultz discovered the Clover in 2006, curious about the customers lined up to get into a small, independent coffee shop. The Clover was then a cult object, hand-built in a converted, Seattle trolley shed. Costing $11,000 and requiring the equivalent of a masters degree in barista arts to operate, there were fewer than 200 in use worldwide—you could find more Flickr photo tributes to the Clover than there were machines in existence. So wowed was Schultz that Starbucks bought the Clover’s maker, and now distributes Clovers exclusively to Starbucks.

Why all the fuss?
Your home coffeemaker is probably an automatic drip; it boils the water and pours it over the beans, dripping the coffee into a carafe. You control the beans and the grind, and the coffeemaker and gravity do the rest. Some prefer the pour over; basically a manual drip that lets you adjust the water temperature and timing of the pour for a bit more nuance.

The next step up the scale of coffee fanatacism is the French press. The grounds and sub-boiling water steep until you push down on a plunger attached to a mesh filter that uses pressure to separate the brewed coffee from the grounds. The vacuum pot, those glass-globed contraptions found in cafes frequented by coffee geeks, achieves similar results. The pressure is created by heated water vapor that’s forced into the top globe; it agitates the ground coffee until the pot is removed from its heat source and the finished brew filters down to the bottom globe. Both of these methods add elements of control to the temperature and brewing time.

None match the precision of the Clover. It brews one cup at a time using pistons and valves that alternate a pressure push with a vacuum pull. It’s outfitted with proprietary Cloverware software and an Ethernet port connected to an online database that micromanage every variable of the brewing process. In the hands of a skilled barista, the choice of bean, grind, coffee dose, brew time, water quantity, and temperature contribute to one perfect, magnificent cup of coffee that will have you reaching into a wine lover’s vocabulary to describe it: a cocoa nose to the Sumatra; hints of tobacco and walnut in the Nicaragua; a voluptuous, plummy Peaberry.

Where can I get this ambrosial brew?
Starbucks has placed Clovers in just a few hundred locations, and done so with so little fanfare that you have to wonder if the company really wanted the Clover coffeemakers or just didn’t want them in the hands of the competition. You can click Clover Brewing System in the search filter on the Starbucks Store Locator and hope there’s one nearby. And keep an eye out for Clovers in the independent coffee shops, where they are holding tightly to those they purchased before Starbucks cornered the market.

 

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Americans Love Ice Cubes. And we’re the only ones.

They do things a little different over there in Europe.
The main course comes before the salad, and they eat cheese for dessert. We’ll grant them a certain logic there. But the ice thing is a mystery.

Nothing refreshes a European like a lukewarm glass of Coca Cola.
We can assume they are refreshed, since that’s the beverage of choice when the thermometer hits 32° (that would be 90° to you and me). Ask for ice and the request is either met with a blank stare or fulfilled with two tiny slivers that dissolve on contact with the tepid beverage.

Here in the land of plenty, we take ice cubes for granted. We expect them in our soft drinks and in every glass of water at every restaurant. Our home refrigerators dispense a continual stream of them, and when there’s a party we buy bags of ice cubes to fill buckets and tubs. There’s an ice machine in the hallway and a bucket in every room of every hotel or motel from coast to coast. Just try and find that in Paris’ George V.

The ice cold war.
Historians, cultural critics, economists, culinarians, and the medical community have all weighed in on European ice avoidance. Theories abound to explain the continent’s cold shoulder:

  • The poor quality of many of Europe’s urban water supplies produces unpalatable cubes.
  • Energy costs are higher.
  • Smaller houses, smaller, kitchens, smaller freezers.
  • Teeth are overly sensitive to cold due to the notoriously inferior dental hygiene of certain nations.

And then there are the explanations for America’s warm embrace:

  • Big cups, loads of ice, free refills—in the U.S. we believe that more, not less, is more!
  • The taste of our inferior whiskeys and other spirits welcomes dilution.
  • Our taste buds lack an appreciation of nuance and subtlety.

Puis-je avoir de la glace s’il vous plaît?
Posso avere un po di ghiaccio per favore?
Могу ли я иметь лед, пожалуйста?
Kann ich etwas Eis bitte?¿Puedo tener un poco de hielo, por favor?
Can I have some ice please?

 

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First Date Groupon: Frugal genius or extreme cheapskate?

 

image via Jay I Kemp

It’s awfully tempting to use an online coupon on a first date.
With the right Groupon offer, you can offer a splurge that’s otherwise out of reach—the crème brûlée tastes just as rich at half price, right? Even if it’s just a neighborhood joint, you’re demonstrating thrift and fiscal savvy, and who wouldn’t want to see such admirable qualities in a potential mate?

Wrong!
Sorry, but most seasoned daters and relationship experts see it as a mistake. It’s considered cheap, tacky, and so unsexy. In the world of dating don’ts, it’s right up there with asking for a doggie bag.

I know what you’re thinking: who wants to date someone so obviously shallow and materialistic, with such disregard for your circumstances and best interests? Those are valid points, and the experts recommend you hang on to those thoughts for a future date, maybe the third or fourth. The best first dates are about mood, magic, and romance; a big dose of practicality wrecks the atmosphere and brings a couple down to Earth.

Groupon is working furiously to overcome the first date stigma.
The company conjures up its own first dates through its Date Assistant, a free matchmaking service for singles looking to couple up and redeem two-for-one offers. Groupon also brought together unattached-and-looking coupon clippers with an offer of $85 worth of speed dating discounted to $40, which set a Guinness World Record for the largest speed dating event in history.

And then there’s Grouspawn.
If a couple uses a Groupon coupon on a first date and subsequently produces a child, they may be rewarded with a $60,000 college fund. Two such couples will be chosen each year, which should help push them past that awkward first date moment—photographed hand in hand with the coupon and the day’s newspaper—when the relative strangers/prospective parents gather the requisite documentation. Just in case.

As a general rule, a relationship needs a firmer foundation before couponing can begin. Groupon on a first date and your crush may not respect you in the morning.

 

 

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How Green is Your Coffee?

Actually, it’s pretty hard to tell.
There’s fair trade and organic coffee, shade-grown, and even bird-friendly.
You can drink it in a recycled cup with organic soy milk and sugar from plants that haven’t been genetically altered.
And there’s the carbon impact.

By the time the beans have been grown, harvested, processed, roasted, shipped, ground, and brewed, your morning cup of coffee has left a pretty big footprint on the planet. About 3 pounds of CO2 are released into the atmosphere for every pound of coffee that is produced using environmentally responsible practices. More when it has been factory-farmed.

You can buy carbon neutral coffee.
Carbon-neutral means that the sum of the world-wide activities that produced your coffee did not contribute to the carbon in the environment. To accomplish this, a grower or roaster conducts an audit of their energy usage and emissions, and then plants trees (which are naturally carbon-sequestering) to mitigate the impact. Carbon offsets are purchased in an amount to make up the difference.

We know what ‘carbon neutral’ means, and there are private companies that provide audits and certifications, but there’s no national standard or official certification, and no regulations or protocol for the FTC to enforce. Until we get some standardization and clarity, here are a few things you can do to green your coffee-drinking habit:

  • Minimize your footprint by shopping locally. Unless you live in the tropical band around the equator, you can’t buy locally grown coffee, but you can reduce the number of miles that your coffee has to travel to reach you by finding a roaster close to you to cut down on the trip and the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by your coffee delivery. Coffee Habitat will tell you where you can find roasters in your area that have demonstrated social responsibility in both their bean imports and their own business practices.
  • Consider the source. Shade-grown, bird-friendly, and fair trade are not mere marketing ploys to ease a guilty conscience. They are all designations and certifications that have real, enforceable teeth that guarantee ethical and environmentally sound growing practices.
  • Use a permanent filter in your coffee maker. The little paper filter might seem like a small thing, but disposable coffee filters are a strain on the environment both at the start of their life and at the end. They use paper, which is made from a consumable resource that is slow to be replaced. Toxic chemicals are employed when the paper is processed, and after they’re used, they end up in a land fill for decades. Worst of all are the snowy white filters that were bleached to get that way.

 

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College Dining: It’s Not Like You Remember

image via GraphJam

 

Sushi Bar … Espresso Bar… Carving Station … Mongolian Barbecue… Made-to-order Pasta
This is a college cafeteria?

The old dining hall was supposed to be a taste of home. There was little choice: a green salad, a main and some sides, bread and butter, and  jello or a slice of cake for dessert. There was little imagination, plenty of repetition, and mediocre execution—just like Mom used to make.

Steam trays full of meatloaf and homey casseroles don’t cut it for a generation raised on Starbucks and shopping mall food courts. They have eclectic tastes, broad palates, and a long list of food allergies and specialized diets.

Colleges are more than happy to cater to fussy, finicky students. Campus dining is a $9 billion market—as much as Americans spend in fine dining restaurants. More importantly, according to the food service consultants at Technomic, 44% of college students give significant weight to college dining programs when deciding where to enroll. And it’s a lot easier for a school to boost the meal plan than the average SAT scores.

Sodexo, the food service provider to 650 U.S. campuses, gives us their predictions for the top 10 trendy dishes of the 2011-2012 school year:

  1. Grilled Chicken Souvlaki Kabob
  2. Paella
  3. Spanakopita
  4. Couscous Chicken Stew
  5. Orecchiette with Broccoli and Garbanzo Beans
  6. Fattoush and Sumac (Pita Bread Salad with Tangy Dressing)
  7. Spanish Tomato Bread with Manchego Cheese
  8. Edamame and Corn Salad
  9. Pesto Pasta Bowl
  10. Wild Mushroom Risotto Balls with Pesto Aioli
According to the Princeton Review, these are the top 10 college cafeterias :
  1. Wheaton College (IL)
  2. Bowdoin College
  3. Virginia Tech
  4. Bryn Mawr College
  5. James Madison University
  6. University of Georgia
  7. Washington University in St. Louis
  8. Cornell University
  9. Colby College
  10. University of Massachusetts- Amherst

 

 

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7 Foods the Experts Won’t Touch

image via Care2

Where do the chefs eat when they have a night off? That’s where you want to go. In the market for a new computer? Ask the head of your company’s IT department what he uses at home. If you knew what toothpaste your dentist’s family uses, you’d probably buy it too.
The skinny, the scoop, the inside track—that’s what you want.

Experts from a variety of food-related fields have made these 7 insider recommendations of foods to avoid. They’re based on professional wisdom and expertise, but more importantly, they represent personal choices. None are banned in the U.S.; they’re all USDA or FDA approved, but those in the know won’t eat them, and they won’t feed them to their own families.

1.Conventional Apples
The grafting techniques of conventional apple growers demand some of the most extensive pesticide usage in all of agriculture. While chemical producers and regulators duke it out over the residue, Mark Kastel, former executive for agribusiness and co-director of the Cornucopia Institute, a farm-policy research group, buys organic only. When that’s not feasible, then peel the apples and wash up well afterwards.

2.Canned Tomatoes
The resin linings of cans contain bisphenol-A, what we know as BPA. It’s a synthetic estrogen that has been linked to ailments ranging from reproductive problems to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. The acidity of tomatoes causes a large amount of BPA to leach out of the lining and into your food—so much that the BPA level from just a few cans’ worth of tomatoes is enough to have a health impact. Fredrick vom Saal, PhD, an endocrinologist and bisphenol-A scholar at the University of Missouri, won’t touch them.

3.Microwave Popcorn
Actually, the popcorn is fine. The microwavable bag is another story. Its lining is coated with chemicals that, when heated, vaporize and migrate to the popcorn. One of those chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid, accumulates in your body for years and is linked to infertility, liver, testicular, and pancreatic cancer. It’s such a known threat that DuPont and other manufacturers will phase it out by 2015 under a voluntary EPA plan. Dr. Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, won’t be indulging until then.

4.Farmed Salmon
Dr. David Carpenter is the director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany and a leading authority on contamination in fish, and he won’t go near farmed salmon. Commercially farmed salmon is raised in packed pens and fed an unnatural diet of  soy, poultry litter, antibiotics, and chicken feathers. Contaminants in those items include carcinogens, PCBs, flame retardants, and nasty pesticides like dioxin and DDT. These substances are so concentrated in the fish that Dr. Carpenter says you increase your risk of cancer after just two salmon dinners in a year. Since there are no remaining commercial fisheries for wild Atlantic salmon, Dr. Carpenter sticks with Pacific salmon, like wild-caught Alaskan.

5.Conventional Potatoes
Conventional potatoes are chemically dosed three time: fungicides during the growing season; herbicides before harvesting; and a second herbicide after after they’ve been picked to keep them from sprouting. Since potatoes grow underground, they can’t be sprayed directly. Instead, the chemicals are put into the water and soil where they’re absorbed into the flesh of the potatoes. You can’t washing and peel them away. According to Jeffrey Moyer, chair of the National Organic Standards Board and farm director of the Rodale Institute, potato growers “say point-blank they would never eat the potatoes they sell. They have separate plots where they grow potatoes for themselves without all the chemicals.”

6.Grain-fed Beef
A cow’s steady diet of corn and other grains is, simply put, unnatural. Their multi-chambered stomachs are built for grass, and have never adapted to the corn and soybeans of the feedlots, so favored by most cattle ranchers because they are cheaper than pastured grazing and can fatten a cow for slaughter much more quickly. The feedlot environment, combined with the lack of adaptation in digestion, makes grain-fed cattle vastly more disease prone than grass-fed, and the bacteria they pass to beef eaters is much more dangerous. Joel Salatin, co-owner of Polyface Farms and author of numerous influential books on sustainable farming, would never, ever allow grain-fed beef to cross his lips.

7. Hormone-treated Milk
Most dairy cows are fed artificial growth hormones to increase milk production, and that milk contains elevated levels of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor (IGF). Unless the milk is organic or explicitly labeled hormone-free, it’s in there. IGF  is linked to breast, prostate, and colon cancers, and while the exact mechanism in milk is not clear, Rick North, project director of the Campaign for Safe Food at the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility and former CEO of the Oregon division of the American Cancer Society points out that the hormones are banned in nearly every other industrialized nation.

 

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Did You Inherit the Supertaster Gene?

Most of us are born with around 10,000 taste buds on our tongues; many more and you’re a supertaster.

About 25% of us are supertasters– more women than men. It can be a mixed blessing. Flavors are perceived more vividly. Salt is saltier. Sugar is sweeter. But carbonation bubbles can be distractingly prickly. Hot peppers can be punishing. Hardly a garden of gustatory delights.

Taste is one of the most basic of all human experiences. It is also one of the most complex. It is dependent upon experience, context, and genetics. It embraces all of the senses.

It begins with the tongue.

Supertasters’ tongues are distinguished by two genetically determined traits. One is the profusion of taste buds densely packed into each square inch of the tongue’s surface. The greater sensory capacity leads to more nuanced sensing of flavors. The second trait is the perception of the chemical compound 6-n-propylthiouracil known as PROP.

Most people perceive PROP as a slightly bitter taste. About a quarter of the population will fail to taste it at all. Supertasters are overwhelmed by an intense bitterness.

Supertasters tend to prefer orange juice to grapefruit, tea to coffee, green beans to broccoli, spinach to kale. They have a penchant for creamy, fatty foods but as a group are thinner than the general population, perhaps because the palate is more easily satisfied. As children, they are often known as picky eaters.

Supertasters that succeed in developing tolerance for strongly-flavored foods can benefit from this genetic endowment. They can perceive far more subtle and nuanced flavors than the rest of us, distinguishing individual notes in a complex dish. Quite a few wine connoisseurs attribute their discerning palates to supertaster status, including wine writer Robert Parker who famously insured his taste buds for one million dollars.

Does this sound like you? There are a few tests to determine if you possess either of the attributes of a supertaster.

Bland, vile, or somewhere in between? The Supertaster Test Kit contains two sets of PROP-infused strips and a detailed test guide.

For an easy home test, swab a little food coloring on your tongue and check the number and concentration of taste buds.

Take this quick and easy quiz about food preferences to see if you could be a supertaster.

 

 

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Offal for Beginners

Clockwise from top: pig's tongue, heart, foot, ear. Image via Eat Me Daily

We are having an offal moment.
Nose-to-tail, organs, innards, variety meats, the nasty bits—whatever you want to call it, whole-animal cookery is experiencing a revival in restaurant and home kitchens.

There are good reasons to eat offal.
It’s cheap, full of nutrients and protein, and adds variety to our diets. It reduces waste, maximizing the resources of food production, and pays a kind of respect to the animal that gave its life to appear on our plates. Of course those reasons are probably the last thing on your mind when you’re confronted with a grilled sheep heart (very tender, distinctly ringed with chambers) or boiled pig ears (simultaneously crunchy and gelatinous, still looking very ear-like).

Offal doesn’t challenge us with its taste. Most innards and extremities are subtly flavored and not unfamiliar. And intellectually we appreciate its virtues. The problem is an emotional, elemental, visceral response—one we feel in our own viscera. Its homophonic name (yes, it is pronounced awful) doesn’t help.

Offal is the stuff of nightmares for vegetarians and carnivores alike. Some might recoil from brussels sprouts and others gag on cottage cheese, but offal provokes a squeamishness that is nearly universal. It’s a shame, because some of today’s most creative chefs have embraced whole-carcass cooking as a badge of honor, producing innovative, exciting dishes based on offal and odd bits like heads, tails, and trotters.

If you’re ready to take the plunge, here are some tips to get you started.

  • Leave it to the professionals.
    Preparations can involve some fairly gruesome peeling, snipping, and soaking. You want to be sure it’s done right and hang on to your resolve and your appetite. Eat out.
  • Start with sweetbreads.
    You probably thought I was going to say liver, but no, the thymus gland (or sometimes pancreas) is the better gateway offal. Sweetbreads are sweet and mild, and in expert hands will emerge tender and crispy, sort of like a cross between monkfish and fried chicken. Liver, on the other hand, is chalky with a powerful mineral tang—paté and terrines did not prepare you. Trust me, you want the sweetbreads.
  • Know your limitations.
    The true challenge is not to your palate but to your head. Pig brains might taste like nectar from the gods, but if you can’t get past the ick factor, then don’t go there. We all draw our lines somewhere, and there’s no shame if yours is this side of ram testicles.

The U.K. Guardian explains all the nasty bits in An A to Z of Offal.

AOL’s Gadling travel blog has A Guide to America’s Most “Offal” Restaurants.

 

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The Fat Tax is Coming!

image via the Army of Epiphenomenon

How would you like to trim the deficit, healthcare costs, and your waistline in one fell swoop?
That’s what a fat tax can do. it’s been embraced by much of Europe, and the idea is gaining traction in Washington.

Hungary’s so-called ‘hamburger tax’ goes into effect next month, just a few weeks ahead of Denmark’s ‘saturated fat’ tariff, targeting pork, cheese, and butter. Finland is looking to add a fat tax to those it already levies on salt and sugar-laced foods. Germany, Romania, and Spain all have similar legislation moving through government channels.

Instead of taxing fatty foods, Japan taxes body fat. The Ministry of Health requires businesses to administer obesity checks for all employees and their family members ages 40 to 74. The legislated upper limit for the waistline is a strict 33½ in. for men, and 35½ in. for women, beyond which a tax is levied (by comparison, the average waistline in America is 39 in. for men and 37 in. for women).

We actually have some fat tax history in this country. In the months following the 1942 Pearl Harbor attack, a handful of states taxed obese citizens–per excess pound–to encourage them to eat less and preserve food resources for the war effort. The fat tax was revived in the 1990’s when a proposal was floated to tax certain foods and put the proceeds toward nutrition literacy programs. The concept was debated publicly when it was ranked #7 on U.S. News and World Report’s  list of 16 Smart Ideas to Fix the World, and the debate grew louder when Rush Limbaugh spearheaded the opposition.

The fat tax debate has stayed with us.
Current supporters include the World Health Organization, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, food writers Mark Bittman (with the New York Times as his soapbox) and Michael Pollan (who contends that the insurance industry is ready to get on board), and President Obama, who supports a tax on soda and other sugary foods.

Congress, though, has shown little enthusiasm for a federal fat tax, although most states are already getting their cut in the form of taxes on junk food and soda. The public, too, consistently shows low approval ratings for the taxes in polls. Critics point to its regressive nature, with the burden falling on lower income Americans who are the biggest consumers of junk food and already spend disproportionately on food, relative to their  incomes. And of course the notion of the food police is troubling in terms of both privacy issues and the broader concept of the role of government.

There are few privacies more worthy of protection than what we choose to eat and drink. While these are personal decisions they’re not private ones; not when our healthcare system spends nearly $150 billion dollars annually to treat obesity, nearly as much to treat diabetes, and hundreds of billions more goes toward the treatment of cardiovascular disease and cancers that are linked to diet.

How do you weigh individual freedoms and social responsibilities?

 

 

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Contest Winners: Designing a new food label

 

Daniel Campuzano

http://thewonderlustjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/nutrition-label.png 


 

 

The old label (far left) just isn’t working for us.

Not that it ever really did. In fact when the FDA first introduced nutrition labeling in 1993, the agency deliberately didn’t choose the best option; instead, it opted to play it safe by choosing the design that was characterized as ‘the least poorly understood.’

The FDA is taking another crack at it. Later this year it will introduce revised food labeling, and the hope is that it set its sights a little higher.

Melissa Messer- Daily Nutritional Value Paul Frantellizzi

The School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, is lending an unsolicited hand. It held a public competition called Rethink the Food Label,  judged by a panel of designers, health professionals, and food activists (including faculty member Michael Pollan). Entrants were encouraged to “re-imagine the label to include geography, food quality, food justice, carbon footprint, or lesser-known chemosensory characteristics.”

Joanne Frederick- The Real Food Label

The biggest shortcoming of the current label is the nutritional arithmetic. All those grams and percentages tend to cause our eyes to glaze over. It also gives manufacturers the ability to ‘game’ the system by adding irrelevant and inert ingredients that improve the labeling profile without making the food any healthier. Instead of improving food and nutrition literacy, the current label is a distraction that doesn’t directly answer the real questions:  Is this good for my health? Is this good for the planet?

The best of the contest submissions (some seen here) use a visual shorthand to answer those questions. They finesse a graphical yes or no with design elements like thumbs up or thumbs down, report card-style letter grades, color coded food groups, and red light or green light.

We will soon find out if the FDA has incorporated any of these elements in its final redesign. The contest makes one thing clear —the existing model can be vastly improved with a dose of simplicity and a little creativity.

See who won at Rethink the Food Label.

 

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I am Jonathan Stark’s Starbucks card.

Hi! I’m Jonathan Stark’s Starbucks card. You can download a picture of me to your phone and buy coffee with it. Seriously.

http://jonathanstark.com/card/

It’s true. You can use Jonathan Stark’s Starbucks card to get yourself a free coffee. The real card lives in Jonathan’s wallet, but he has posted a downloadable copy that can be scanned at any Starbucks. An iced vanilla latte, a French press pot of Guatemala Antigua— name it. There’s no cost, no catch, no strings, no restrictions.

Jonathan Stark was curious about the concept of social sharing.
About a month ago he loaded $30 onto a Starbucks card and posted the image for his friends to use. They quickly turned it into caffeine, so Stark added another $50 and invited a few more friends. This time, the card wasn’t depleted. His friends were adding money as well as spending it, starting a twitter conversation in the process. So he created a program that allows coffee drinkers to check on the card’s balance, updated every minute, and encouraged users to share it with their friends.

Jonathan Stark’s Starbucks card has become an experiment in anonymous collective sharing that turns a cup of coffee into an act of participation and social engagement. It’s kind of a high-tech version of the take-a-penny-leave-a-penny dish next to a cash register. Sure, you could order 8 pounds of French Roast and a round of venti frappuccinos for the office, but there’s a karmic toll to it; the same one that keeps you from dumping the whole take-a-penny dish into your pocket, even when you see a bunch of quarters peeking through the copper.

The card occasionally struggles to find its equilibrium between generosity and  moochers. As of this writing, a few hundred dollars is passing through the card every hour or so, with nearly half of the users also giving back.

Say ‘Hi!’ back to Jonathan’s card.

 

 

 


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Burgernomics: The Big Mac Index

image via Say It Ain't So, Joe

Yes, there’s endless news of the economy’s continuing slide into oblivion. But there’s another reason to be pessimistic: have you seen the price of a Big Mac?

A Big Mac is a Big Mac wherever you go. Same sesame seed bun, same special sauce, same double beef patties. It’s a truly global consumer product comprised of the same tradeable goods and non-tradeable services worldwide. It should, in theory, cost roughly the same anywhere in the world.  Swap your dollars for the local currency, and the four dollars that got you a Big Mac in Des Moines should still buy you a burger in Kuala Lumpur, give or take a few Malaysian ringgits.

In fact we don’t have burger parity. Buy a Big Mac with Ukrainian hryvnias and you’ll pay less than two dollars; spend some Norwegian kroner and it will set you back more than eight dollars.

The Big Mac Index, compiled annually by The Economist, is designed to test the theory of burger-buying parity. It demonstrates the purchasing power of consumers around the globe by converting the world’s currencies to a hamburger standard. The fair-value benchmark– the point where there is purchasing parity between the nations– is the exchange rate that has every consumer world-wide paying the same price for a Big Mac. If you’re paying more than the benchmark price for a Big Mac, it tells you that you live in a country with an overvalued currency.

The burger barometer .
The ‘raw’ index is adjusted for GDP per person as a more meaningful guide to currency under- and overvaluation. The closer the adjusted index gets to zero, the closer a country comes to burger parity. The larger the difference, the more expensive it is, in real buying power, to purchase a Big Mac; a smaller number tells you the burger is a  bargain.

A look at the chart, below, and it’s clear that you pay a premium for special sauce in Latin America; the Brazilian real is the world’s most overvalued currency, with the Colombian and Argentinian pesos not far behind. The British pound is running almost even with the dollar, while the overvaluation of the euro zone seems to hint at the currency struggles of Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain. And for all our griping about the devalued Chinese yuan, when it comes to burgers, China’s currency is surprisingly close to its fair value against the dollar.

The Big Mac Index is undeniably simplistic. But it does make exchange rate theory a bit more digestible.


 

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How Did Rich and Fat Become Rich and Thin?

Richer, thinner, younger, smarter; what if you could change one thing about yourself? Which would you choose?

A recent Harris Poll asked this question.

Not surprisingly, given the current economic climate, richer was the top choice. But thinner came in a strong second picked by one in five respondents overall, and one in four women.

We tend to forget that this has not always been so.

Thinness was, for most of recorded time, the fate of the lower classes with their inadequate diets and physical labor. Traditionally, only the rich could afford to be well-fed. Fat was a status symbol.

Not any more. In fact the polar opposite is now true: as income and education falls, obesity rises– both the rate of obesity and the amount of excess weight. The poorest Americans, those living below the poverty level, are the most likely to be morbidly obese.

The underlying causes are many, especially for the urban poor who face high concentrations of fast food outlets and low concentrations of grocery stores, plus limited time for exercise or access to outdoor space. But the big culprit is our out-of-whack food system that can sell highly refined, fat and sugar-laden, processed foods at far lower prices than fresh, whole foods.
The terrible irony is that these days, thinness is a luxury reserved for the rich.

For the record, the complete poll results are:

  • richer    43%
  • thinner  21%
  • smarter   14%
  • younger   12%
  • and 9% seem to like themselves just fine.

Visualize the caloric bang for the buck: see why a Big Mac costs less than a salad (spoiler alert– it’s the federal subsidies).

The Rich & Thin Club claims to simultaneously whip your waistline and your bank account into shape by monitoring calories coming in and dollars going out. It theorizes that small, unnecessary, everyday indulgences are the undoing of both. Calculators demonstrate the impact of 10 years of Starbucks lattés or restaurant appetizers in terms of accumulated pounds versus an early mortgage payoff or the compounded interest of savings. It’s an eye-opener.

 

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The Milkman Cometh

Remember the milkman?

Once a fixture of the early morning landscape, making deliveries to about a third of all households in the United States, the milkman was all but extinct as the 20th century drew to a close, with sales down to a paltry 0.4% of the retail dairy industry. It appeared that the milkman would remain a bit of quaint nostalgia for those old enough to remember, and younger generations would never know home delivery that doesn’t arrive in an Amazon box.

Home milk delivery had been dying since the 1970’s. Improvements in refrigeration and pasteurization had extended the shelf life of dairy products allowing for less frequent purchases. The burgeoning supermarket industry had begun selling milk as a loss leader to lure customers into their stores. And Americans were drinking less milk.

The return of the milkman
Recently, this old-fashioned service has been making a comeback for reasons that can be personal, practical, and political. It’s a convenience for working parents who can strike a chore off their list, and for seniors who can lighten the load they lug home from the market. It fits with consumer interest in local products and small-scale producers who likely bottle in reusable and recyclable glass bottles and adhere to natural and organic dairy practices.

This is not the milkman of yesteryear.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that it is still almost always a man slinging the bottles. But smaller customer bases and larger areas of coverage demanded tweaks to much of the business model, so in addition to traditional dairy products, high-profit items like specialty meats, bread, jams, and cut flowers are often added to the orders.

Dairies are availing themselves of plenty of 21st century technology with online ordering, route optimization software that works with the delivery truck’s GPS , twittered delivery announcements, and hand-held scanners that track barcoded products and generate the customer accounts.

Businesses range from the small mom and pops with a few hundred local customers to Oberweis Dairy, which delivers to more than 50,000 households throughout Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Dairies in Maryland , Virgina, Washington, and Boston are reporting annual sales growth of more than 30% and massive waiting lists as they expand into new delivery areas. Even New York City has Manhattan Milk, although its trucks are more likely to drop the bottles with doormen than on doorsteps

You will pay a premium for the convenience, usually a delivery charge of around $3, but the milk itself probably costs no more than the supermarket price for organic dairy products. In exchange, your milk will be the freshest you can get and you will be doing your part for the local economy and the environment. And between the nostalgia, the cream on top, and the glass bottles, you’ll swear it just tastes better.

 

 

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Black Licorice: The Confectionary Whipping Boy

image via Pammy Shep

 

It’s the candy we love to hate.
In a candy land of sugary, fruity, creamy, chocolatey, there’s licorice. It’s herbal, salty, medicinal, and barely sweetened; and doesn’t apologize for it.

We are of course talking about black licorice; the only true licorice. Red Vines, Twizzlers, and the like rely on mostly fruit flavorings; there is not a drop of licorice in them. The red-black connection is limited to a similar extrusion process in their manufacture.

Licorice haters spend their days picking the black ones out of the jelly bean bowl, immune to the charms of the jumbo-size box of Good & Plenty. They gather online, congregating in places where they can bash black licorice in the supportive environment of like-minded licorice loathers; places like The Official Black Licorice Hate Thread and the I Hate Black Licorice Facebook page where it’s referred to as the devil’s candy.

And then there are the celebrants.
There’s the Licorice Lovers blog and newsletter, which takes a look this month at what makes licorice the perfect summertime treat (it’s versatile and doesn’t melt) and features a dress made entirely from nine pounds of licorice whip;s and The Magic of Licorice, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the many health benefits of licorice (it’s been prescribed to treat coughs, ulcers, and constipation; it’s also one of the most sexually arousing scents around.)

Whether you love it or loathe it, a good place to explore your deepest emotions is Licorice International, the web’s most complete licorice resource. It offers the largest selection of European licorice varieties available in the U.S., with more than a dozen countries represented. A downloadable tasting guide will match your taste and texture preferences with suitable licorice varieties.

 

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