Move Over, Cows. Almond Milk Has Arrived.

Calvin and Hobbes via United Feature Syndicate

Calvin and Hobbes via United Feature Syndicate

Got milk? Gotten milk recently? 
The dairy case is overflowing with milk alternatives—creamy liquids derived from non-dairy sources. Alt-milk is a hot commodity, even as cow’s milk has been in a decades-long decline. And it’s not just the lactose-intolerant or dairy-allergic who are buying it. TV commercials are daring consumers to try it just for the taste.

Fat, cholesterol, animal welfare, pesticides, GMOs….there are plenty of reasons to give up dairy milk.
We know that a cow’s life on a dairy farm is hardly the bucolic idyll of our imaginations. Supporters of animal rights and anyone looking to avoid growth hormones and antibiotics are all on the lookout for alternatives to large-scale dairy producers. There are also vegans, the allergic and lactose intolerant, and anyone looking to reduce fat and cholesterol.

Most people, when they first look beyond dairy milk, make a stop at soy milk. But there is growing awareness that soy is a high spray, intensively farmed, rain forest-depleting crop, plus most of the soy grown in the U.S. is genetically-modified. There are also concerns that the estrogen-like chemicals naturally occurring in soy have been linked with an increased risk of breast cancer, and doctors are recommending that we limit our soy intake.

Nut milk first appeared on supermarkets shelves in the late 1990’s when their square, shelf-stable boxes were mostly relegated to the natural and health food aisles. The game-changer took place at the end of 2009 when almond mild was repackaged as a fresh beverage and was slotted into the refrigerator case. The demand took grocers by surprise, and they have continued to add more space for the category.

Almond milk has pulled ahead of the alt-milk pack.
It’s made with roasted almonds that are crushed like you’re making almond butter, then thinned with water. Commercial producers usually add vitamins, stabilizers and, in some cases, a sweetener and flavorings like chocolate or vanilla. Almond milk is especially low in calories, compared with dairy as well as the other milk alternatives, and it’s low in fat and high in protein.

It also wins the alt-milk taste test.
Not that it’s much of a contest: rice milk is thin and watery, oat milk is thick and gloopy, and hemp milk is chalky and tart. Almond milk tastes slightly sweet with slightly bitter undertones. It’s very creamy, has an off-white color, and foams impressively for cappuccinos. It’s a good dairy substitute for cooking and baking, and it’s so nutty-good poured on top of dry cereal that you’ll wonder why you waited so long to try it.

 

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Dinner Party Wars

image via MissOmniMedia

image via MissOmniMedia

 

There’s a show on the Food Network in Canada called Dinner Party Wars:

Dinner Party Wars invites you to enjoy a deliciously hilarious hour of wining, dining and undermining as three couples go head to head in a ruthless, no-holds-barred dinner party competition. Hidden cameras capture every detail as testy guests come to blows and taste buds are either tickled or tortured.

A Canadian chef and a British etiquette expert serve as arbiters of taste and style by mocking, critiquing, and choosing an eventual winner from competitions like Gnocchi Knockdown and Chicken Bingo.

This is home entertaining as a full contact sport.
It’s soulless competition, a manifestation of our over-heated foodie-ism that has turned dining into an emblem of status and lifestyle. And it’s a far cry from the simple pleasures of sharing a hand-crafted meal with friends.

It’s easy to see where we lost our way. 
It started with Martha—the one we love to hate and hate to love. Martha Stewart taught us to sweat the details with her asparagus bundles braided with strands of chive. She instilled in us her mania for perfection and armed us with stencils, X-acto knives, and a carpenter’s level to decorate cookies.

Then the foodies took over. We learned to critique every morsel, abandoning genuine gustatory pleasures as we vet the preparation and provenance of each locally-grown, artisan-crafted, bee-friendly bite. Entertaining is fraught with political correctness and one-upmanship knowing that you’ll be drummed out of polite society if you serve the wrong coffee.

Dinner party perfection should be at most aspirational. We shouldn’t expect to reproduce the slick pages of Bon Appetit or Martha Stewart Living any more than a reader of Playboy expects to date a Playmate. 
And in any case there’s always a lot of air-brushing going on.

Our current favorite antidote to dinner host anxiety is Kinfolk. 
It’s a magazine, dinner and workshop series, online journal, and film series that celebrate the soul of the dinner party. It’s about artistry, but it’s scaled back to a simple elegance. You’ll find recipes, table settings, and shopping resources, but it’s more inspirational than instructional. There’s nothing super-human about any of it. Feet on the ground, sleeves rolled up, and you’ll get there by dinner time.

 

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Nothing Says ‘I Love You’ Like Custom, Edible, and Anatomically Correct

gumpaste mold via CK Products

gumpaste mold via CK Products

 

When flowers just wont do…
Digital imaging and 3D printing put a modern spin on Valentines gift-giving.

Choc-Edge-3D-printed-face

 

Choc-Edge will render your face or your beloved’s in dark, milk, or white chocolate. Just send in a photo; custom molds start at $80.

 

parkerscookie

 

Parker’s Crazy Cookies turns your likeness into a caricature of fresh-baked goodness. The design process costs $25 for an initial proof and three revisions, and then you can order all the cookies you want.

gummymold

 

It’s hard to top the Valentines Day gummy mini-me, but unfortunately it’s currently available only in Japan. A 3D scanner maps you from head to toe to create a detailed silicone model that’s turned into a candy mold.

wedding-cake-toppers-superman-couple

 

Fondant doppelgänger cake toppers aren’t just for wedding cakes. Like Butter creates plenty of custom, edible sculptures (starting at $60) in the days leading up to February 14th.

 

sex_drugs_chocolate1

Send in a photo and Chocolate Dreams will render pretty much any shape or image in chocolate, even so-called exotic designs that they claim are ‘not for the fainthearted.’

 

 

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What You’ll Eat in Sochi

Sochi

 

Forget everything you think you know about Russia.
Sochi, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, is the most un-Russian of cities.

Sochi is warm; subtropical in fact, with palm trees, exotic flowers, and tea plantations. Sochi is the warmest city to ever host the winter games. Sochi is so warm that organizers began stockpiling snow last year, plowing it up under frozen tarps, and snow-making experts from the world’s top ski resorts have descended on the city for a massive snow-making operation that converts 12,000 gallons of water a minute into snow. More importantly, the climate means that Sochi’s local cuisine doesn’t rely on the smoked meats and cellared root vegetables that are so ubiquitous in the rest of the country. Instead, Sochi’s markets are filled with locally-fished Black Sea flounder, sturgeon, and mussels. Citrus, berries, and tropical fruits grow wild, and local artisans sell their own wine, cheese, and caviar.

The Olympics mark the city’s global debut
In a country that’s known for its dour national character, Sochi seems downright cheerful. The city hopes to use the spotlight to market itself as a carefree playground for an elite, cosmopolitan crowd. It aspires to a St. Tropez or Cannes kind of tourism, calling the region the ‘Russian Riviera,’ and plopping outdoor café tables on every block of sidewalk. There are pricey steakhouses, sushi bars, Italian and French restaurants, and of course Starbucks outlets are everywhere. But the refinement is more of the homegrown variety. There are no Michelin stars, and traditional dishes like kebabs, borscht, and blini tend to be your best bet.

If you’re heading to Sochi (which requires you to disregard the security-related travel alert posted by the U.S. State Department, ignore the god-awful human rights policies of President Putin, and banish the image of the infamous ‘twin toilets’ of the Olympic Village from your mind), you’ll find more than 500 English language listings and reviews for Sochi restaurants on Trip Advisor.

 

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Food Storytelling: The (Old) New Genre

image via ManayunkDish.com

image via ManayunkDish.com

 

Everyone has a food story in them.
I don’t mean the tiresome chatter of conspicuous consumers of consumption who collect foodie trophies to post on their Facebook walls. I’m talking about the human narrative of food. It might be the gumbo your neighbor brings to every potluck; the pineapple upside-down cake you always request on your birthday; the skinned knuckles from grating onions when you make Bubbe’s chopped liver; or the pasta you learned to roll in Nonna’s kitchen.

There are always new food stories in the making.
The artisanal food movement has expanded the narrative by adding passionate and creative producers to the tale. We still celebrate heritage and traditions, ethnic and familial bonds, but now the food itself has a backstory, and our own relationship with its creator may be central to it.

It’s an evolution of food reporting. It’s also a longing for a kinder, gentler food era when food arrived on our tables through a series of interconnected, human relationships, not as the result of industrialized production.

Here are some places where you can explore the (old) new genre of character-driven food storytelling, and even a few where you can contribute your own food story.

Life & Thyme is home to what it calls ‘culinary storytelling.’ It documents the story of food from the farm, to the kitchen, to the table, with an emphasis on the people behind each of those phases. It mixes essays, interviews, film, recipes, photography, and even some offline events. The site accepts contributions from anyone with ‘an eye for beauty, a knack for storytelling, and a passion for food.’

The Stanford Storytelling Project is an arts program at Stanford University that explores the transformative nature of storytelling with a special emphasis on stories of food and the modern food movement. Students, academics, and food professionals have all contributed to the ongoing series of podcasts, radio shows, and live events.

American Food Roots asks what we eat and why we eat it. AFR combines original reporting, archival material from immigrant communities, and recipes and stories from home cooks. The site welcomes contributions that celebrate heritage in all its variants–regional, religious, ethnic, political, and familial–’because that’s how we know who we are.’

Food Stories wants to know how you celebrate food holidays. All of them. You probably thought February has little more than Valentines Day chocolate on its food calendar. In fact it’s the month of World Nutella Day (February 5th), National Tortellini Day (the 13th), and a full seven days for Kraut and Frankfurter Week (9th-15th).

Southern food is especially evocative, particularly for a Southerner. Diverse food cultures combined to set a common table for black and white, rich and poor. The Southern Foodways Alliance, based at the University of Mississippi, is the keeper of the flame for disappearing traditions. Spend a little time with SFA’s massive collection of oral histories and you’ll gain an appreciation and understanding of the American South’s unique food culture .

The next generation of food storytellers 
I’m keeping an eye on the Fulbright Scholars. The distinguished Fulbright Program that counts 43 Nobel Prize winners, 28 MacArthur ‘geniuses,’ and 80 Pulitzer Prize winners among its alumni has created fellowships for food storytellers. The first Fulbright class of Digital Storytelling Food Fellows will be announced this spring.

 

 

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Should You Just Say No to Kale?

nutellaneedle

 

You know by now that food can be addictive.
Studies have even shown that certain foods can light up the same region of the brain as heroin and cocaine. We’re told to stay away from things like chips and cookies because they’re loaded with the kinds of processed and refined carbohydrates that trigger our junk-food cravings. But other studies show that choosing healthy foods—leafy greens, fruits, and salads—can promote something called ‘vicarious goal fulfillment’ that convinces us to eat even more junk.

Picture two menus.
One menu offers burgers and fries. Some people will choose a burger only; some add fries to their burger orders.
The other menu has the same burgers, same fries, but it also offers a side salad. It seems logical that there are still some burger-only orders; some of the burger-only folks will now add a salad; some of the burger-with-fries will stick with fries; and some will switch from fries to a salad. You’d figure that the orders would go up by a few salads and down by a few fries.

It doesn’t work like that.
When a salad option is added, french fry orders actually increase. In fact three times as many diners will go for the fries when a salad is on the menu. Apparently the mere presence of healthy options encourages us to make unhealthy choices. The findings were the same, whether it was Oreos or fried chicken, salad or veggie burgers.

Researchers confirm that this ‘vicarious goal fulfillment’ happens when a person feels that a goal has been met if they have taken even a teeny, tiny step towards it. It’s like joining a gym you never get to, or buying an important book that sits on the shelf.
The fleeting thought of ‘Hmm, I could have a salad,’ is enough to satisfy dietary goals.

It’s an ironic kind of indulgence.
There is a certain logic to it. The researchers contend that the virtue conferred by the salad gave diners license to lower their guard. And the more self-disciplined an individual is, the more powerful the effect—the healthiest test subjects were actually the most likely to add fries from the second menu.

Kale as a gateway drug?
I’ll bet it’s news to you. But you can bet it’s not to the fast food industry.

 

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A Cautionary Tale for Yelp Reviewers

anonymousmask

 

Yelpers beware!
Last week the Court of Appeals of Virginia affirmed a lower court’s ruling that ordered Yelp to pass along the full, legal names of seven reviewers to the business they had reviewed. Posting anonymously or using their Yelp screen names, all seven individuals had left reviews that were highly critical of the Alexandria carpet cleaning service.

The ruling sent a chill through on-line communities.
There’s an assumption of privacy when you sit at home sounding off on sites like Yelp; you’re just one more disembodied voice in the cacophony that unites in digital forums. The ruling is intended to pierce the veil of privacy so that the carpet cleaner can challenge specific claims contained in the reviews and potentially sue the reviewers.

The carpet cleaner would not be the first business owner to sue for a negative review. Defamation lawsuits are becoming more common as the free-wheeling chatter of review sites collides with the growing importance of online reputations. Judgements–some running into millions of dollars—have targeted individual reviewers on sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Angie’s List.

Where’s the First Amendment in all this?
Anonymous communications have always been privileged and protected as an important element in our political and social discourse. If those communications are deliberately false and damaging to a business, they’re illegal; they lose their First Amendment protection and the target can sue for defamation. You can freely give your opinion, and it can be as vulgar, abusive, or outrageous as you want, but if you’re making a statement of fact, you’d better have your facts straight.

Dining reviews: where chef egos collide with sharp-tongued critics 
Restaurateurs are especially litigious toward reviewers but incidents of genuine defamation are rare. There’s a lot of leeway in the highly subjective world of dining reviews, as long as you stick to opinions. Go ahead and bash the meal but be careful of suppositions about the grade of beef, health code violations, ingredients that you think you do or don’t detect, or anything else that can be countered factually. That means a meal can be described as nauseating but unless you can verify the salmonella bacterium you better not claim food poisoning.

The review sites themselves are off the hook.
Sites like Yelp are merely the messengers and are not liable for the messages. They can be aware of or even make editorial judgments regarding objectionable content, but they’re still treated as simple intermediaries for third party content. Legal claims can only be directed at the reviewers themselves.

A cautionary tale for the social media era
As the internet continues to mature the stakes are getting higher, and we can expect to see many more lawsuits. Online reputations keep growing in importance and their significance is extending to more and more business sectors. This makes businesses that are targeted by defamation more inclined to sue, and the courts are growing more cognizant of the scope of damages and are awarding plaintiffs accordingly.

 

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The Coffee Break

image via Visual Photos

image via Visual Photos

 

The coffee break is a highlight of the workday 
The 2013 Workonomix Survey of workplace spending reports that 50 percent of the American workforce has a $20 weekly coffee habit. That’s a $1000 a year on 9 to 5 coffee. Most consider it money well-spent.
Younger workers (ages 18-34) spend almost twice as much on coffee during the workweek as their older colleagues ages 45+: $24.74 vs. $14.15; men outspend women: $25.70 vs. $15.00.

The coffee break is a vaunted worker tradition. Legend has it that the world’s first coffee break took place around 1000 A.D. in Abyssinia, today’s Ethiopia. Long before the power and pleasure of the coffee plant had been discovered, a goatherd noticed his goats dancing around after eating its red berries. Following the goats’ lead, herders began indulging in the berries to stay awake during the long, boring stretches of watching the herds.

The coffee break first appeared in the U.S. in Stoughton, Wisconsin (home to the Stoughton Coffee Break Festival held every August) when the wives of 19th century Norwegian immigrants agreed to cover their husbands’ work shifts on the condition that they be allowed morning and afternoon breaks to go home to tend to household chores and brew up coffee. It was formalized as a workplace ritual in 1902 at the Barcolo Manufacturing Company of Buffalo, NY (rather appropriately, the manufacturer of Barcalounger recliners). In 1964 the coffee break was etched into U.S. labor history when negotiations between the United Auto Workers and the big three automakers nearly broke down over the practice. Other issues at those historic negotiations included health insurance, retirement benefits, and a 5% raise, but it was the coffee break that nearly brought about a strike. 74,000 workers at Chrysler came within an hour of walking off the job when the company relented and agreed to a 12 minute daily coffee break.

Did you know…
the espresso machine was invented in 1901 by an Italian factory owner as a way of speeding up his employees’ coffee breaks?  The first espresso machine, the Tipo Gigante, used a combination of steam and boiling water forced through coffee grounds to make a cup of coffee quicker than any other method in use.

Take a real break with the Coffee Break App. It darkens your computer screen for the duration, guaranteeing the pleasures of a work-free cup.

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Things To Do with a Freezer During a Polar Vortex

 

Move over, freezer. You’ve been replaced by a polar vortex.
The weather phenomenon has spawned an online craze for homegrown science experiments that exploit the frigid temperatures. There’s the boiling-water toss (I’ll spare you the frozen urine iteration), the frozen egg on a New York sidewalk, the shattering frozen t shirt, and everyone’s favorite frozen bubbles.
How can a household appliance compete with that?!

Here are some alternative uses that will restore your freezer appreciation:


burned_pot

Clean a pot
Stick pots and pans in the freezer to remove stuck-on, burned-on messes. It works even better than soaking.

 

Beeswax-taper-candles

 

 

Extend the burning time of candles
Frozen wax burns more slowly.

 

top-secret-envelope

 

Open an envelope 
A minute in the freezer and a sealed envelope pops right open. Snoop with impunity with none of the telltale rippling marks left by steam.

 

Harddrive on Ice

 

Revive a hard drive
A few hours in the freezer can be a temporary fix. It won’t bring a crashed drive back to life but it will buy you a few precious minutes to copy files.

 

gum

Unstick gum
Sticky gum and candy will flake right off. Freeze the host object—clothing, shoes, upholstery—long enough for the gum to harden.

 

booksale

Eliminate musty smells
A day or two in the freezer kills molds, mildew, dust mites, bacteria, and other nasties that come along with old books and attic-stored clothes.

 

Even in a polar vortex your freezer can come in handy. Anyway, winter can’t last forever.

 

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What to Drink in a Polar Vortex

polar vortex photo via nasa.gov

polar vortex photo via nasa.gov

 

That nice hot cup of tea could actually be making you colder.
Alcohol? It might feel warm going down, but it’s just about the worst thing you can drink on a cold night. And these nights are really, really cold.

The frigid air holding us in its stinging embrace is the ominously-named polar vortex that slipped away from its arctic perch. It’s shown us how woefully unprepared we are for the record cold temperatures we’re experiencing. We’re particularly misinformed when it comes to choosing winter warmup drinks. It seems to defy logic, but a cold beverage can help you hang on to body heat better than a hot one.

When you drink a hot beverage on a cold day, you feel warmer at first because the hot liquid increases blood flow to the skin, but the body’s regulating mechanisms kick in and quickly turn things around. A hot drink tells the nerve receptors in your mouth that things are getting hot in there and it automatically turns on a cooling response. Basically it makes you sweat, which is a welcome response in warm weather when the perspiration carries heat out of your body and into the atmosphere. But right now, the goal is to keep that body heat tucked away in your core.

A cold drink has the opposite effect. There’s some brief chilling while the liquid is going down, but instead of opening up the sweat glands on your skin, the cold causes blood vessels to contract and your surface skin actually tightens up. Less blood flows through the constricted outer layers of skin, which leaves more to circulate through critical core areas. You might get shivery from the surface chill, but that’s not a bad thing; it just means your muscles are trying to balance the cold surface by creating even more core heat.

If constricted blood vessels protect your body’s core temperature, it follows that beverages that can dilate blood vessels are a bad idea in freezing weather, which is what makes alcoholic beverages so dangerous. Drinking increases the blood flow to your skin; that’s why your cheeks are flushed and you have a warm glow inside and out. It’s deceptive though, because all of that peripheral heat comes at the expense of your vital organs. And the body has no need to shiver because the muscles near the surface are warm. If you venture outside, the shallow surface heat dissipates quickly and your core temperature, which is already lower than it should be, will continue to drop. It’s a surprisingly narrow margin between a safe core temperature (the standard 98.6°) and hypothermia (95°), and alcohol gives you a big head start. Just a few boozy minutes spent outside in polar vortex conditions can get you there.

Can a couple of billion subcontinental residents be wrong?
Remember that most of the world drinks hot tea in hot weather, and Alaska leads the nation in per capita ice cream consumption. It’s counterintuitive but true—hot drinks cool you down and cold drinks warm you up.
In the midst of a polar vortex, when you hear the clink of ice cubes in a tall glass, you know you’re about to get toasty.

 

 

 

Posted in beer + wine + spirits, food knowledge, Health | 2 Comments

Two New Magazines Mix Food and Fashion

Egg Dress designed by Agatha Ruiz De La Prada

Egg Dress designed by Agatha Ruiz De La Prada

 

You’d expect it to be the unholiest of alliances.
In the Venn diagram of life, food and fashion aren’t supposed to intersect— food is what fashionistas avoid so the fashion will fit. Isn’t hunger supposed to be the ultimate fashion accessory? As Kate Moss once said, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”

Two new crossover magazines are proving otherwise.
There is some common ground. Both food and fashion are seasonal and colorful. They can be stylish or trendy, and they both photograph well. Purists may grumble but the coalition gives a much-needed boost to the food publishing business. While most print media spent the last few years struggling with online challengers and a balky economy, fashion magazines have been busy breaking sales records for advertising pages. Food gets to hang onto fashion’s coattails with this new category of mashup publications.

cherry-bomb-magazine

 

 

Cherry Bombe thumbs its nose at Kate Moss with a breezy, sample-size-be-damned approach to food. The magazine’s founders have their food industry bona fides, but they also worked together at Harper’s Bazaar, and that’s what on display. Cherry Bombe has the look and feel of a traditional fashion magazine, from the cookie-baking supermodel on the inaugural cover to the glossy, stylized photography inside.

alla-carta-collage

 

Alla Carta’s founders say that they bring together food and fashion (and art and design) by exploring the social act of eating. The publication’s fashion-related interviews, editorial content, and photo spreads revolve around meals; good food and good design pull it all together.

There’s one more thing that ‘foodies’ and’ fashionistas’ have in common: both groups detest those fatuous and disparaging nicknames.

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5 Popular Brands That Could Disappear in 2014

Five different brands, five different reasons, but each of these household names could reach its expiration date by 12/31/2014.

Michelob Light

Michelob Light hit number one on the Wall Street Journal’s list “Nine Beers Americans No Longer Drink.” Annual sales have dropped to about 350,000 barrels from the million barrels sold in 2007. The company might cede the ‘light’ category to another of its own brands, the lower calorie, lower carbohydrate beer Michelob Ultra.

 

tab

Who knew that Tab was still around? Apparently not enough soda drinkers to stop the Coca-Cola Company from looking to dump the brand this year. It was the grooviest diet soda around when the hot pink can hit the market in 1963, but Tab’s sales took an early hit when its original sweetener cyclamate was banned by the FDA. It didn’t fare any better with saccharine as a replacement, and the stylish can spent a few decades sporting a mandatory label warning about its link to bladder cancer. The brand’s pretty much been down and out since Diet Coke was introduced in the 1980’s, but can still be found in some parts of the United States (and in Africa, Spain, and Norway) for at least a few more months.

chiquita

Chiquita Brands International made $1.7 million in payments to a nasty right-wing paramilitary group in Colombia where it’s long had banana plantations. The company has already admitted this, pleading guilty to U.S. criminal charges that it had supported the terrorist efforts of a group responsible for torturing and murdering Colombian citizens. While the company survived the media coverage and $25 million fine, it could be toppled by potentially billions in payouts to the thousands of victims’ families that have filed lawsuits against Chiquita.

leancuisine

Nestle SA, the world’s biggest food company, has drawn up a short list of underperforming businesses it’s looking to sell or shutter, and a lot of industry insiders are betting that Lean Cuisine is at the top. Frozen foods have fallen out of favor in recent years with customers are looking for fresher, less processed options. Frozen entrées have taken an especially big hit. Lean Cuisine might not be worth salvaging.

sriracha

Sriracha? What could stop the hot sauce juggernaut? Sales and profits have skyrocketed for more than a decade at Huy Fong Foods, the condiment’s maker. A passionate customer base slurps up 20 million bottles a year, and the company works overtime during the three-months of California’s chili harvest. Some say the air is perfumed with the aroma of 100 million pounds of roasting peppers; others call them ‘fumes’ and area residents say they’re driven indoors with headaches and red, stinging eyes. An injunction has halted operations for the foreseeable future.

 

 

 

 

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Destination Dining Where the Gas Station is the Destination

Eat-Here-Get-Gas

The term destination restaurant originated with France’s Michelin Guide.
In the early days of motoring, the Michelin tire company got into the travel guide business to boost demand for cars. It assigned the top score of three stars to restaurants with cuisine so exceptional that they were worth a special trip. The restaurant was the destination and a stop at the service station was, Michelin hoped, a byproduct of the journey. 
Now it seems the service station is the destination.

The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, and other media outlets have reported on the recent popularity of gas station cuisine, some even calling it ‘the next big thing’ or ‘the new food truck.’ These are restaurants you head to even when you don’t need to fill up; maybe they’re not vaut le voyage like a Michelin three-star, but they’re not just gas station convenience markets with withered hot dogs turning on grill rollers. There’s a Shell station with pan seared diver scallops on its menu; apricot glazed pork tenderloin served with a view of the Mobil sign; and corned beef that’s slow-cured in-house by an Exxon station’s deli master.

Gas station owners are willing business partners, happy to see a rent check and the increased foot traffic that a restaurant brings. Would-be restaurateurs see relatively low start-up costs for what is typically a highly visible and accessible corner location.

Gas station dining is a long-standing tradition in southern states where picnic tables are a common sight alongside the diesel pumps and locals know that the area’s best barbecued brisket just might come out of a roadside smoker. If you’re new to the genre, it can be jarring to dine on seared ahi amid a parking lot ambience of exhaust fumes, car horns, and stacked oil cans. The intrinsic kitschy charm of the experience is not for everyone.

This month Bon Appetit profiles 16 gas station restaurants around the country. You’ll find reviews of food at the pump at Gas Station Gourmet and Gas Station Tacos.

 

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Could This Be The World’s Most Perfect Coffee Mug?

 

images

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Scientists call it the Goldilocks Principle.
It comes from the children’s story The Three Bears in which a little girl named Goldilocks finds a house owned by a family of bears. Each bear has its own porridge bowl, chair, and bed. Goldilocks tests out all three examples of the items, always finding that one of them is too extreme in one direction (too hot, too large) or the other (too cold, too small), and the one in the middle is just right.

In science, the Goldilocks Principle states that something must fall within certain margins, as opposed to reaching extremes. Astronomists call Earth a Goldilocks planet because it’s not too near or too far away from the sun, but it’s just right to support life. In medicine the Goldilocks Principle defines the ideal dosage of a drug—too small and it’s ineffective; too large and side effects will harm the patient. And now a chemical engineer and an industrial designer have applied the Goldilocks Principle to coffee cup technology. They’ve created what could be the world’s most perfect travel mug.

The Temperperfect mug makes use of a phase changing material sandwiched between thermal walls. It alternates between a liquid and a solid as it absorbs, stores, and dissipates heat. Dean Verhoeven, one of the mug’s inventors who spent the last 15 years making, testing, and improving prototypes, describes its groundbreaking temperature regulating mechanism:

This project was born of my frustration with not being able to drink my carefully-brewed, but too hot, coffee right after I made it, and it then getting cold before I had time to enjoy it. I wanted it just right.
I thought about this problem and had an inspiration: why not take the excess heat out of the too-hot coffee, store it in the wall of the mug, and then use it later to keep the coffee at a pleasant drinking temperature? I realized that this could be done simply by adding an extra layer of what I call active (“Temperfect”) insulation to a standard mug. This extra insulation layer absorbs the excess heat from your drink, and brings it quickly to a comfortable temperature. Later, it slowly releases that heat back into your drink to keep its temperature just right.

It seems that the world has in fact been waiting for hot—but not too hot—coffee.
The creators found an enthusiastic audience when they turned to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. They were hoping to raise $23,500 to cover the cost of the production tooling that’s need to manufacture the mugs. Instead, that amount was pledged 10 times over by more than 4,000 backers and it’s allowed them to move straight from tooling to production.

The first Temperperfect mugs are planned to ship next summer. The company’s website can hook you up with a pre-order.

Temperperfect: a prototype

Temperperfect: a prototype

 

 

 

Posted in appliances + gadgets, coffee, Science/Technology | Leave a comment

Reports of Holiday Weight Gain Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

image via Shelton Crossfit

image via Shelton Crossfit

 

Holiday weight gain is a bit of a myth.
The perception is that we really pack on the pounds. According to a classic study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Americans vastly overestimate how fattening the holidays are. We think we’re likely to gain at least five pounds, while the reality, according to the National Institutes of Health, is a typical weight gain of between 0.4 and 1.8 pounds. That’s an average gain of just about one pound despite six weeks of free-flowing eggnog from Thanksgiving through New Years.

That’s the good news.
The bad news is that over the years, the weight adds up. 
It’s just one extra holiday pound, but most people hang on to it. Weight is on an upward creep throughout most of our lives, from early adulthood to the peak of middle-age spread. We tend to accumulate about two pounds during each of those years, and half of that can be traced to holiday indulgence.

Another myth: you’ll lose the weight at the gym.
Every January millions of Americans pat their soft little holiday bellies and vow to get fit in the new year. It’s one of the most common resolutions, and health club rosters overflow with well-intentioned new members. Gym owners are all too happy to offer January deals and promotions because they know that the overflowing yoga classes and treadmill lines will be gone before the end of the month. A full 60% of annual gym memberships go unused after the first six weeks of every new year. Our collective failure to keep our fitness resolutions is the easiest money those gym owners see all year.

We don’t fare any better with a January menu of cottage cheese and green tea. 
40% of all New Year’s resolutions relate to diet and weight loss, but women typically revert to old eating habits by January 6th, with men holding out for another week. Men are more weak-willed about cutting out alcohol, usually making it only as far as the first weekend of the new year, while women abstain for two weeks.

Dogs and cats pack on the pounds too. 
We’re just as indulgent with our pets at holiday time. The average dog gets an extra 500 calories worth of table scraps from a single holiday dinner and cats get 200 extra calories. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, pets, like their owners, pack on the human equivalent of around two pounds by year’s end.

 

Posted in diet, holidays, New Years | Leave a comment

Whole Foods Brooklyn: Fits Like a Glove

whole-foods-hipsters

 

What took them so long?
That was the obvious question when Whole Foods opened its first Brooklyn store this week.
The largest retailer of natural and organic foods and the borough that’s home to the most hobby brewers and pickle makers per capita are like a match made in heaven.

Brooklyn is of course much more than just a borough across the bridge from Manhattan.
It’s a lifestyle brand; the locus of the urban artisan food renaissance; an edgy-artsy-smart meeting of old and new, tradition and technology, rustic and haute. Its population skews toward a young, educated, creative class with deep pockets and well-traveled palates. They infuriatingly blend genuine knowledge and discernment with their hipper-than-thou pretensions of alder-smoked Himalayan sea salt caramels and secret coffee handshakes of cuppings and pour-overs.

Whole Foods is the rare retailer that speaks fluent Brooklynese.
Highlights of the new store include:

  • a bike repair station (plus dedicated fixie parking, or if you must there are two electric car charging stations)
  • knife sharpening from a local maker of knives and cutting boards whose website describes him as ‘an American multi-disciplinary visual artist and designer
  • something they call the vinyl venue, selling albums and accessories made from old, recycled records
  • a pickle and kimchi bar
  • a 20,000 square foot rooftop garden that promises to grow plenty of kale

It’s a who’s who of the borough’s food luminaries.
Brooklyn’s food heroes are all there, like Roberta’s, Mast Brothers, and Frankies Spuntino. They share shelf space (built of wood reclaimed from the Coney Island beach boardwalk) with hundreds of local, small-batch purveyors who are shooting for the same foodie stratosphere with locally-accented treats like cage-free, Sriracha-spiced mayonnaise, parsnip yogurt, vegan vanilla-hemp granola, and grapefruit-smoked salt marmalade. The Brooklyn angle is underscored by the store’s abundant signage, tags, banners, and stickers so shoppers can have no doubts about a product’s provenance.

Whole Foods has sold itself to Brooklyn as a creative, communal endeavor. 
Yes, it’s a supermarket, but it’s also a participant in the local economy, fighting the good fight against the GMOs and monoculture of corporate agribusiness alongside the visionary butchers and worker-owned collective bakeries of its urban enclave. 
A second Brooklyn Whole Foods is already in the works, this one in the uber-affluent and hipsterish neighborhood of Williamsburg.
To Whole Foods, it’s just so much low-hanging fruit.

Posted in food business, local foods, shopping | 1 Comment

Be a Lunchtime Lab Rat

mouse-dining-table

 

You’re part diner, part test subject.
Hidden floorboard scales weigh you as you walk to your table.
Take a seat and chair sensors monitor your heart rate while bites are counted, eye movements are tracked, and facial expressions are analyzed. The soup of the day is lentil.
This is the canteen at Holland’s Wageningen University, where campus hangout meets research facility.

The restaurant is a living laboratory of dining behavior, and its research is followed closely by agribusiness groups, nutrition, sustainability, and health policy makers, food scientists, and the hospitality industry.
Everything about it is modular and malleable to suit experimentation. Scientists can test the effects of center islands vs. long buffets; waiter service vs. self-service; lighting that’s dim, colored, or bright; communal tables, counters, or booths. They look for different eating patterns when sandwiches are cut in triangles vs. rectangles; fruit is sliced, cubed, or kept whole; food odors are enhanced or masked.

The control room trumps the kitchen as the real heart of the restaurant .
Joy-sticks let researchers zoom in with the dozens of cameras concealed in the ceiling. They study every move, large and small: who sits where, who lingers at the salad bar, who’s talking, smiling, and frowning. They count bites and time chew speeds, document a hesitant hand reaching for the dessert menu, and analyze food waste.

They’ve learned that coffee tastes stronger in brown mugs, small biters eat less, and when the usual conventional milk is relabeled as organic people complain of a funny taste. Fresh flowers on a table will improve the mood of table mates, nobody likes to eat in a room with blue lighting, and chairs upholstered with flowery pink fabric will be the first seats chosen.

There’s no shortage of volunteers.
Wageningen faculty, staff, and students are willing diners/test subjects. They have to sign a research waiver and photo release form, but few have balked at the prospect of lunch as a behavioral guinea pig. They’re unfazed by the scrutiny and surveillance, many even choosing to lunch there daily. It doesn’t hurt that the lentil soup is reputed to be thick and tasty and that the restaurant’s low prices make it one of the best bargains in all the Netherlands.

The canteen at Wageningen University, also known as The Restaurant of the Future, is open every school day for lunch.
I couldn’t help but notice that its Facebook page has just 2 likes.

Posted in restaurants, Schools | 1 Comment

What Is a Calorie and Why Should We Be Skeptical?

Brancas_Aeolipile_1
calorie

It’s a household word but still a mystery to many.
Ask ten people what a calorie is and at least nine will tell you ‘It’s the stuff in food that makes me fat.’ Calories are one of the most commonly counted things on the planet, but how many people know what they’re really counting?

 

calorieThe calorie is a unit of heat energy.
It was originally developed as a way to measure the efficiency of fuel burned in steam engines. When scientists turned their attention to humans, they borrowed the concept of the calorie as a way to quantify food as fuel for the human engine. In theory, the amount of heat that can be provided by any particular bit of food is the same whether it’s burned in a steam engine or a human body. More edible calories mean more energy for work, like coal in a human stove.

To measure the energy in various foods, early 20th century nutritionists burned small amounts of each inside a bomb calorimeter—a lab tool that surrounds a food-filled capsule with water. They assigned caloric values by calculating the different amounts of heat given off by different foods—one calorie for each one degree increase in the temperature of the surrounding water. These calculations are what we still use today; the calorie count on a box of Honey Nut Cheerios is calculated in 100 year-old Atwater units.

A calorie is a calorie is a calorie? 
Scientists are just now teasing out the nuances of the calorie. Advances in understanding were presented at this year’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and it’s clear that all calories are not created equal.

451343 (1)Raw and unprocessed foods have fewer calories than we thought; or at least fewer than we are able to digest. The more a food is handled the more calories it gives up in digestion, and it can mean a swing of 30 or 40%. Most foods keep the calories contained inside their cell walls, so you have to do something to rupture the walls. The chopping, mixing, and heating of cooking might be enough to crack open the cells for some foods, but if you really want all the calories, you just need to eat factory-processed foods.

We’re also learning more about the body’s mechanism during digestion. Digestive tracts and their microbes are determined by genetics and cultural factors so you see big variations, like people of Russian descent with five more feet of intestines than the rest of us, and Japanese citizens with marine bacterium in their gut that help digest sushi. The old Atwater bomb calorimeter can’t even come close to figuring calories for these populations.

We understand enough to know that traditional calorie counts don’t apply to every food and every body. 
Ironically, this understanding comes just as the federal government is getting ready to launch a nationwide requirement for posted calorie counts in restaurants. The labeling, based on out-dated Atwater units, might not be accurate, but for now it’s the best method we have for quantifying calorie values, and one worth paying attention to as a defense against obesity.

In 2013, these were the most-searched calorie terms on Google:

  1. Egg
  2. Banana
  3. Beer
  4. Oatmeal
  5. Sugar
  6. Sushi
  7. Wine
  8. Popcorn
  9. Coffee
  10. Avocado

 

Posted in diet, Science/Technology | Leave a comment

Picking Up the Tab for the White House Kitchen

image via Lame Cherry

image via Lame Cherry

 

Room but not board.
That’s the deal we make with presidents. They live rent free in the White House but meals run them extra.
If food is served at a state function, the government picks up the tab; when it comes to family meals, they’re on their own.

Groceries are delivered from various Secret Service-approved commercial suppliers, and they’re randomly rotated for added security. Household staff members fill in the basics with runs to butcher shops, supermarkets, and farmers markets. At the end of each month, the bills are tallied and submitted to Mr. and Mrs. Obama. Personal care items like toothpaste, shaving cream, and Tylenol are on the tab, plus the cost of snacks for Air Force One.

The Obamas also pay the salary of the chef who prepares the First Family’s meals.
Past First Families all opted to pay just for the groceries and have their family meals prepared by the White House kitchen staff—an executive chef, executive pastry chef, and four sous-chefs, paid for with taxpayer dollars. The Obamas chose to bring in a personal chef, Sam Kass, who works in a small private kitchen on the residence level of the White House. Kass has been cooking for the Obamas since their Chicago days and knows their likes and dislikes so well that he rarely consults with them on menu planning. He’s also notoriously tight-lipped about their eating habits saying little more than “we have very balanced meals,” and that the family “walks the walk” with Michelle Obama’s healthful food initiative for the country.

Still, a few details have leaked out about the Obama family dinner hour.
We know that the president sits down at 6:30 to eat with the family nearly every night, a practice that is much criticized for his perceived neglect of  the traditional schmoozing time for Washington’s power players. Meals begin with a quick blessing and a clink of their glasses. The family typically plays a round of rose and thorn—going around the table, each member shares something positive from their day (the rose) and also something difficult or unpleasant (the thorn). Meal-time is soda-free, peanut-free (Malia’s allergic), vegetables are plentiful, they eat brown rice instead of white, and dessert is served just a few times a week. The president detests beets and loves double-crusted fruit pies.

Dinners out are rare, in part because they turn into a major production.
A Secret Service detail conducts an advance walk-through of the restaurant, scoping out the Obamas’ points of entry and exit, and seating. Metal detecting wand-wielding agents position themselves at the front door, and a dozen or so more take up positions inside and out, including a multi-talented chef-agent who supervises kitchen security. The Obamas arrive by motorcade with leading and trailing police motorcycle and cruiser escorts. There’s an ambulance, a couple of communications vans, and some black Chevy Suburbans carrying still more Secret Service agents behind tinted glass. Somewhere in there are multiple armored limousines, one of which holds the First Family.

Why bother?
Especially when there’s a brigade of White House cooks, an organic garden, the remnants of Thomas Jefferson’s wine cellar, and never a dish to wash.

We’ll probably never know what’s on the Obamas’ shopping list.
An annual report is submitted to Congress that documents official, tax-supported White House expenses. But the First Family’s personal expenses, paid for out of their own pockets, are their own business.

 

Posted in home, shopping | Leave a comment

Would You Eat Cheese From Michael Pollan’s Belly Button?

Would you eat cheese from this man's belly button?


Would you eat cheese from this man’s navel?

 

It’s the ultimate foodie trophy: cheese cultured from the bacteria in Michael Pollan’s belly button.
Food writer Michael Pollan made his personal contribution to an art exhibit in Ireland called ‘Selfmade’ that explores the way we interact with our microbial landscape. The exhibit pushes us to consider our uneasy relationship with pungency and aroma—so celebrated in food yet reviled in our own bodies.

Bacteria samples were collected from artists, scientists, anthropologists, and cheese makers, including Michael Pollan’s navel lint and artist Olafur Eliasson’s tears. Other contributions came from inside noses, mouths, armpits, and between toes. Each of the 11 samples became the basis for a different cheesemaking starter culture, which is basically any bacteria that can produce lactic acid.

Washed-rind molds and blue veins get all the attention, but it’s mostly the nature of the microbial population that gives a cheese its flavor and texture and produces its aromatic compounds. The unique bacterial signature of each human donor truly resulted in 11 different cheeses of varying character.

If you ever thought that a cheese smelled like stinky feet, you were scientifically correct—human bodies and cheese both hoard similar microbial populations. The exhibit crosses the boundaries between culturally defined ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ smells. Its creator hopes that we’ll question why we choose to eliminate some of them with antiseptic and pair others with a 2012 Riesling.

‘Selfmade’ runs until January 19, 2014 at the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin.

 

Posted in diversions, entertainment | 1 Comment
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