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.

 

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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.

 

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Your World is Awash in Pig Products

image via 52 Infographics in 52 Weeks

Things With Pig in Them – image via 52 Infographics in 52 Weeks

 

You probably had a dozen or so pig encounters before you even left your house this morning.
Pig-derived ingredients add color to soap, a pearly sheen to shampoo, and give texture to toothpaste. They’re the moist in moisturizer, the anti-cling of fabric softener, and the reason that crayons smell that way. Shoe leather, cell phone batteries, laundry soap, wallpaper, sponges—they can all harbor pig byproducts.

Then there’s the pig that you don’t know you’re eating.
Pig-derived ingredients and processing agents make unannounced appearances in every aisle of the supermarket. A multi-tasking gelatin made from pig bones and skin puts the chew in gum and licorice and the creaminess in cheesecake and tiramisu. It smooths out cream cheese and whipped cream and makes ice cream melt more slowly. Beer, wine, and fruit juices are filtered through pig gelatin, and it’s turned into pill coatings and capsule casings for thousands of prescription and over-the-counter medications.

Squishy soft bread and sandwich wraps stay pliable because of an added protein that’s extracted from pig hair, and a pig skin-derived protein is added to energy bars and yogurt. Another protein, this one from clotted pig blood, is used to bind the smaller scraps of beef or fish that appear in fresh and frozen form as portion-controlled filets. Even the plate you eat from can contain ash from pig bones, and your napkin was probably made with more of that gelatin.

It’s a staggering, stunning array of food and non-food uses for pig parts.
To say the least. It’s deeply troubling if you’re vegan or vegetarian, keep kosher or eat halal, or just want to avoid pig products. The fact that most of the products don’t have to be labeled with the information is the real shocker.

Pig-derived food additives are hiding in plain sight.
Processors will deliberately remove the word ‘animal’ from their ingredient list. For example, hydrolyzed animal protein becomes hydrolyzed collagen, and animal protein is labeled L-cysteine. There are thousands more technical and patented names for variations on pig-based food additives. Some probably sound familiar if you read a lot of product packaging, but you probably didn’t know that glycerides, sodium stearoyl lactylate, and oleic acid can all be derived from pig byproducts. Adding to the confusion are the pig parts that don’t wind up in the final product but are used in the manufacturing process like bone char that’s used to whiten sugar and gelatin that removes tannins from wine. These don’t even have to be mentioned by the manufacturer.

Learn what’s really in your pantry. The PETA website maintains a list of common animal-derived ingredients.

Phone apps like Is It Vegan? and Animal-Free are handy reference guides for many common and hidden animal ingredients.

See if your favorite beer, wine, or spirit is animal-free. Barnivore maintains a massive and up-to-date vegan alcohol directory with nearly 15,000 entries.

Posted in food knowledge, vegetarian/vegan | Leave a comment

Soylent: When Silicon Valley Dreams of Food

soylent

 

Soylent, a high-tech food alternative, has been grabbing headlines and investors.  
The meal substitute has the wind at its back with millions raised through crowdfunding, pre-orders, and the backing of prominent venture capital firms. Many in Silicon Valley think that Soylent could be a real game-changer.

Soylent is an engineer’s approach to food. 
It’s an odorless, neutrally-flavored sludgy mix of nutrients in a base of oat starch. It’s gluten free, vegan, and halal. It’s appropriate for sufferers of food allergies, acid reflux, or digestive disorders, and can be used to control weight or cholesterol. Soylent is essentially an efficient, inexpensive, clean-burning fuel. Its taste, to put it kindly, can be characterized as pretty much like you’d expect.

This is food by and for the tech crowd.
The concept took shape in Y Combinator, the preeminent bootcamp for digital entrepreneurs, and the story of Soylent’s development is peppered with techspeak about optimizations, inputs, and beta-testing (what regular eaters call nutrition, ingredients, and tasting). Its creator refers to meal replacement as a default diet, while regular dining is called recreational eating.

Soylent was influenced by the kind of sci-fi futurism that’s so beloved by engineers and technologists. 
The film and literary genre often depicts a bleak, dystopic future whose inhabitants subsist on lab creations like the vats of goopy gruel in the Matrix series or the blue milk of the Star Wars trilogy. Even the name Soylent comes from the novel behind the 1973 sci-fi classic Soylent Green in which Charlton Heston’s character discovers the unthinkable secret behind the edible solution to the twin problems of overpopulation and an insufficient food supply (It culminates in one of filmdom’s most memorable lines, captured in this YouTube clip).

Could this really be food’s future?
Soylent is regularly showing up on lists of the top food trends for 2014. It’s seen as the perfect food for the stereotypical, heads-down coder who subsists on takeout pizza and data packets. It’s also expected to appeal to people who think that home cooked meals are not worth the hassle of shopping, cooking, and cleaning up afterwards.  
The investors are betting that even outside of Silicon Valley, that adds up to a sizable population.

 

 

Posted in food business, food trends, Science/Technology | Leave a comment

Standing Out From the Crowd With the $450 Starbucks Metal Card

status mug available at Zazzle.com

status mug available at Zazzle.com

 

The Starbucks card is the most ‘gifted’ item in America.
Last December, 1 in 10 adults received one as a holiday gift. This season, the company expects it will be closer to 1 in 5. And then there’s the Starbucks Metal card. For the second year in a row  Starbucks is rolling out an ultra-limited edition gift card just in time for holiday giving. For the low, low price of $450 the card gets you $400 worth of coffee.

That’s not a typo. $450 gets you a card preloaded with $400 in store credit. Oh, and you also get a gold-level Starbucks card membership, a frequent buyer perk that gets you some freebies like drink refills and a birthday frappuccino, but those benefits are already free to regular customers who sign up for the My Starbucks Rewards program. Still, they plan to sell 1,000 of the cards through the luxury goods website Gilt.

Why stop at 1,000? Did they forget that there’s one born every minute?
Starbucks calls it the Metal Card and it really is made of metal. Watching someone pay for coffee with a slab of etched steel is a little like seeing Fred Flintstone buying his brontosaurus burgers with a stone credit card issued by the Bank of Bedrock. Conspicuous? You bet. Isn’t that the point? Last year’s Metal Cards sold out in less than a minute and then immediately popped up on sites like eBay and Craigslist where they were flipped for as much as $1,000. It was a tidy profit for Gilt shoppers while the new buyers ended up with a couple hundred dollars worth of vastly over-priced lattés. Clearly it’s not just about the coffee.

5,000 Metal Cards were sold in 2012, but this year Starbucks plans to limit the offering to a mere 1,000.
While that just about guarantees that the next guy in line won’t have the Metal Card in his wallet too, it’s hard to see how the card confers some kind of insider status. Starbucks lost its aura of exclusivity the minute it opened its first shop outside of the Seattle city limits. You can’t be an insider to something that you can buy on every street corner, turnpike rest stop, and hospital cafeteria.

It might not be exclusive, but the Starbucks Metal card will be scarce. But who really wants a $12 cappuccino anyway?

 

 

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The Subminimum Wage for Tipped Workers– how low can you go?

pennyonplate

 

The federal minimum wage is not rock bottom.
In the midst of the intense focus and national debate on the minimum wage, we don’t want to forget a group that falls even lower on the pay scale. There’s something called the subminimum wage for tipped restaurant workers, and by law it can be a shockingly stingy $2.13.

Increases to the federal subminimum wage haven’t even kept up with the standard minimum wage.
For most of the 20th century, the subminimum wage was pegged at 50% of the standard wage. In 1991, when the minimum wage was  set at $4.25, tipped workers received $2.13 per hour. In 1996 workers won a 90-cent per hour increase, but for the first time the subminimum wage was uncoupled from the standard wage and it was held at $2.13. It’s been stuck there for going on three decades. While the minimum wage has been increased four more times to its current $7.25 an hour, the subminimum wage, unchanged at $2.13, has been reduced to less than one-third of the minimum. Factor in the rising cost of living, and the buying power of the subminimum wage has effectively shrunk to $1.28.

Think about that $2.13 when you calculate a server’s tip. 
It’s called a gratuity, but the way the pay scale works there’s nothing gratuitous about tips. The subminimum wage is based on the assumption that tips will constitute the vast majority of a server’s earnings. As customers we think we’re rewarding good service, but in fact we’re subsidizing the ability of restaurant owners to pay a mere pittance to their employees. Tips are necessary just to get server compensation up to the minimum wage.

While wages are stuck at $2.13, tips are trending down. 
The recent recession and current recovery have kept a lid on restaurant menu prices and taken a toll on individual spending habits and corporate travel budgets. Tips are calculated on stagnant spending, and customers have gotten chintzy with that calculation.

Restaurants can also choose business practices that will erode tips.
Employers can keep payrolls down naming more of their workers to the subminimum wage category. And when those workers aren’t in typically tipped positions, it’s perfectly legal for restaurants to institute mandatory tip-sharing pools and take a cut from the servers to subsidize the paychecks of non-serving employees. They can also deduct the tip-related portion of their credit card processing fees from the tips given to servers. It’s a small amount from each tip (typically around 2%, and can go as high as 4%), but it adds up to nearly $1,000 a year for full-time workers. For a restaurant chain like Olive Garden, it can be upwards of $10 million in credit card fees that are skimmed from employee paychecks.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Servers
We have a seafood watch list, fair trade labeled imports, and we know when the eggs are cage-free. How about looking at the sustainability of restaurant workers?
There’s a measure in the Senate that will increase the minimum wage to $10.10. Let’s make sure that subminimum wage workers are included this time.

 

 

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Forget Wine Flights. Now We Have Gravy Flights.

Numbered dishes available from Magenta Wholesale Home Décor

Numbered dishes available from Magenta Wholesale Home Décor

 

Tasting flights aren’t just for wine anymore.
The migration began with other drinks, and we started to see flights of beer, whiskeys, and tequila, often served on wooden pallets with cutouts to hold all the little tasting glasses. Now they’re showing up all over the menu, at any meal and every course. There are tasting flights of country ham at breakfast, lamb flights for dinner, and flights of cheesecake for dessert. And of course that gravy flight, so suitable at any time of day.

A flight is not just so many small plates.
It’s meant to be a progression of tastes that’s presented to allow for sampling and comparison. The selection should be deliberately chosen to show depth or breadth, to highlight differences or to emphasize similarities within a category. Traditional wine flights are often vertical tastings of different vintages of the same wine, or horizontal tastings of a certain vintage from different wineries. A cheesecake flight might offer tastes of cakes made from goat, cow, and sheep’s milk, while a chocolate flight could start you with a sweet and mild 60% cocoa Dominican Republic, move on to a smooth 72% Ecuadorean, and then contrast those against an earthy, cocoa-heavy 85% African blend. Whatever the category of food or beverage, a flight should always be constructed with a guiding discipline.

Here are some of the more interesting flights we’ve found:

frenchtoastflight

 

Experience the full range of sweet and savory playing off the egg-battered challah of the French Toast flight at Chicago’s Batter and Berries.

 

 

stew potsNew Orleans’ R’evolution Restaurant explores the seven nations that settled Louisiana (Native Americans, French, Spanish, Germans, English, Africans, and Italians) with a flight of seafood stews including French bouillabaisse, Spanish zarzuela, and Tuscan cacciucco.

creme-brulee-flight

 

Pisces Sushi and Global Bistro in Clearwater, Florida presents a fusion of Asian flavors and French custard in its flight of crème brûlée.

barclayprime

You’d break the bank trying to taste your way through the luxe steakhouse menu at Philadelphia’s Barclay Primebut the flight of NY strip steaks lets you compare and contrast among prime examples of wet-aged, dry-aged, and wagyu beef.

 

A flight of popsicles is appropriately the only dessert offered at Brooklyn’s street-food-themed Nightingale 9.

9OH2O_ONE_LITER_GLASS_STILL_BOTTLE_FRONT_WITH_TUMBLER_ON_WHITE_MAX_10_WEB

 

The menu at Ray’s and Stark Bar explains its water flight thusly: Martin Riese, General Manager and Water Sommelier of Ray’s & Stark Bar, has curated a water selection that demonstrates the difference in taste between twenty different waters sourced from various regions of the world. Terroir affects water just like wine. Let us take you on a global journey of water. You have my permission to roll your eyes at this thankfully only-in-Los Angeles phenomenon. Oh, and that global journey of water will run you $12 for three three-ounce pulls of the tap.

gravyflightAnd about that gravy flight, you’ll find it at Biscuit Head in Asheville, North Carolina. The ‘big as a cat’s head’ biscuits are paired with a rotating menu of gravy specials plus the standard lineup of sausage, espresso red eye, sweet potato coconut, smoked tomato creole, and vegetarian seitan gravy. $7 gets you three bowls of three gravies. And there’s not a gravy sommelier in sight.

 

 

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Detox Away the Turkey Weight

image via Ayay.uk

image via Ayay.uk

 

Are you feeling the turkey weight?
The typical Thanksgiving meal was a whopping 4,500 calories. That’s two day’s-worth of food for most of us, or, to put it in especially vivid perspective, the equivalent of nine large orders of McDonald’s fries. 
Is it any wonder that you woke up feeling overstuffed and bloated?

This holiday season is just getting going.
It’s too soon to be feeling a pinch in your waistband. But it’s the perfect time for a between-holidays detox. Flush the alcohol, sugar, and toxins out of your body now and you can boost your immune system and improve metabolic function through the rest of the season.

There are plenty of online resources to prep you for a few more weeks of bacchanalian excess.
Detoxification blogs like The Detoxinista and Detox the World are full of seasonal suggestions..
A variety of approaches are taken by smartphone detox apps:

The app from Juice Master has a 3-day juice detox  that will have you losing up to five pounds in just 72 hours.

How to Detox Your Body leaves you sparkling on the inside with colon cleansing regimens. Detox Diet Pro claims to do the same but without enemas and colonic. This app shows you how to flush out the liver, intestines, kidneys, lungs, skin, blood, and lymphatic systems through a very high fiber diet.

The Health Detox promotes an acid and alkaline balanced diet that claims to boost your energy level by optimizing your body’s pH balance.

There are apps for detoxing on all raw foods, or by following the lemon regimen popularized by Beyoncé’s post-partum detox. You can find gender-specific detox apps like Body Detox 4 Women and Man Up Detox, or learn to detox with smoothies.

The Official Online Holiday Detox Kit professes to understand:
to overdo it is human. to overdo it over the holidays is almost mandatory. we’re here to help. choose your flavor of holiday splurging, confess your excess, and get the perfect detox plan.”
Just enter your specific overindulgence into the quick and easy online tool and it suggests the appropriate cure.

Posted in health + diet, holidays, phone applications | Leave a comment

The Family Dinner. It’s Not Just for the Holidays.

Dinner with the Andersons: Jim, Margaret, Princess, Bud, and Kitten

Dinner with the Andersons: Jim, Margaret, Princess, Bud, and Kitten; via Screen Gems

 

The reality of a family dinner bears little resemblance to its mythical counterpart.
It’s the rare household with mom, dad, and kids sharing the events of the day over meaty roasts and noodle casseroles. There is probably more texting to outsiders than sharing with family. And a weekday roast? In your dreams.
But that’s okay because family mealtime is not just about the warm and fuzzies of the cultural ideal.

A regular shared meal can pay huge family dividends.
Study after study points to the same thing: regular family dinners lead to happier and healthier kids. They’re less likely to smoke, drink, abuse prescription or illegal drugs, or develop eating disorders, obesity, or depression. They watch less television, delay sexual activity, and get better grades in school. 
Clearly there’s something to this.

Whatever it is, it’s not just about the food.
The ‘secret sauce’ of a successful family dynamic is not in Mom’s meatloaf. Obviously there are plenty of other factors that contribute to a family’s well-being and anchor its values. A common mealtime is just one piece, but it seems to be the bellwether.

Go heal the planet, but don’t be late for dinner!
Since producing the environmental crusade An Inconvenient Truth, Laurie David has been advocating for family well-being. The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time doesn’t have Al Gore’s narration, but it does have child-care experts, writers, artists, and chefs sharing their personal dinnertime rituals. Participants include Maya Angelou, Jamie Oliver, Mario Batali, Alice Waters, Arianna Huffington, Nora Ephron, Judge Judy, Michael Pollan, and Sheryl Crow.

The differences between families that eat together frequently (defined as eating five or more family dinners per week) and infrequently (fewer than three times per week) are striking. The definitive studies have been conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Read the full report: The Importance of Family Dinners VI.

Try it, even if it’s just a takeout pizza and nobody has anything to say.
There’s no guarantee that the food is any healthier just because we eat together as a family. It doesn’t guarantee meaningful conversation, much less moments of genuine intimacy.
But the ritual of the family dinner at least makes these things possible.

 

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

There’s Just One Kind of Turkey in This Great Big Land of Plenty

image via Minnesota Turkey Growers Association

image via Minnesota Turkey Growers Association

 

Everyone in America eats the exact same turkey.
Of the 242 million turkeys raised this year, maybe 30,000 of them are not broad-breasted whites.

Virtually every turkey bred in the U.S. comes from a single genetic line. Even most free-range farmed turkeys have been raised from poults purchased from large-scale breeders working from that line. The broad-breasted white is a genetically-engineered hybrid developed in the 1970′s. It was bred to be ‘broad-breasted’ because breast meat sells, and ‘white’ because that way the little feathers missed in plucking won’t show, cutting down on processing costs.

The broad-breasted white is a triumph of efficiency in factory farming.
It was engineered to convert the minimum amount of feed into the maximum amount of white breast meat in the shortest possible amount of time. The turkeys are ready for market in as little as 12 weeks and 70% of the weight is breast. The over-sized breasts make it impossible for appropriate body parts to meet, so 100% of factory-farmed turkeys are the result of artificial insemination. By contrast, heritage breeds take seven months to reach market and are about 50% dark meat. The heritage designation demands that they mate naturally with no human intervention. 

A lot of turkey parts have to fall by the wayside to get that much breast meat on a broad-breasted white.
Mass market turkeys have scrawny legs and tiny little skeletons. Their body cavities are so small that their organs are too crowded to reach full functionality. They’re too frail and top-heavy to walk, roost, or fly, often painfully crippled by the stress of all that breast weight perched on under-sized frames. Industrial producers actually prefer immobilized turkeys because there’s no chance of movement that could lead to muscle development. They want to see all of the growth aimed toward the singular goal of breast production.

The broad-breasted white turkey is not a robust bird.
Their oversized breasts constrict their lungs so that they are constantly starved for oxygen. They develop the cardiovascular diseases that seem to find the overweight and sedentary members of every species. Even if they’re not headed to slaughter, the ‘natural’ life-span of these turkeys is only a year or two, versus the eight to twelve year life expectancy of heritage breeds. There’s nothing robust about their flavor either. All that white meat is flabby; the protein level is low, the taste is mild, and the texture is soft. Gaminess and chew have been bred out, and while broad-breasted whites are higher in fat than other breeds, there’s none of the richness.

A naturally raised, free range broad-breasted white turkey can be a vast improvement over a factory farmed specimen. It has a foraged diet and develops muscle mass that contribute to superior flavor. But for a turkey that tastes like a turkey should taste, you’ll have to seek out a heritage breed. ‘Heritage’ is not a federally-regulated term, and it’s an over-used marketing buzzword, but a true heritage turkey is one of the ten specific breeds that were raised in the U.S. prior to the 1950′s when the poultry industry began to genetically engineer turkeys on the way to developing the broad-breasted white.

Don’t eat a Thanksgiving turkey that tastes like every other turkey in America.
You can order a heritage breed turkey online at Heritage Foods USA and D’ArtagnanOn the east coast, Mary’s Turkeys can direct you to local markets that carry their birds. Local Harvest and the The US Ark of Taste at Slow Food USA both maintain national directories of heritage turkey farms, markets, and breeders.

Breed makes a huge difference to the taste of chickens too. Read about heritage chicken varieties in Chicken. Just Chicken.

 

Posted in food business, holidays, Thanksgiving | 1 Comment

For The Terducken Curious

cartoon via Dr. Fun

cartoon via Dr. Fun

 

By now, the turducken should need no introduction.
In the span of a few years, it’s gone from urban legend to regional curiosity to your neighborhood Whole Foods freezer. You can buy fresh or frozen turduckens; free range, organic, and kosher turduckens; turducken for your pet (canned or dry); and a mock tofu-based turducken for vegans (with apologies, the tofucken).

When plain old turducken just won’t do, there are endless can-you-top-this variations like the fowl de cochon (turducken stuffed pig) and the quaducant (quail, duck, and pheasant). At the opposite end of the spectrum is the hotchken, known as the poor man’s turducken, consisting of a humble chicken stuffed with hotdogs. This year’s rare collision of the Thanksgiving and Hanukah holidays is bringing a never-again-in-this-lifetime-please brisket stuffed turkey  (the tursket) to some tables.
For those who like to keep track of these things, the largest documented nested bird roast is the rôti sans pareil, or ‘roast without equal,consisting of 17 successively stuffed birds, starting with a 5-foot long Great Bustard and finishing with a 5-inch Garden Warbler, so tiny that can be stuffed with no more than a single olive.

The turducken effect has spilled over its poultry borders.
A cookie is baked inside of a cookie to create the chocoOreochip, and a cream cheese-frosted behemoth known as the cherpumple bakes entire cherry, pumpkin, and apple pies inside the tiers of a three-layer cake, laying claim to the title of the turducken of desserts. The online magazine The Bold Italic asks the question ‘why stop at the turducken?’ suggesting stitched-together hybrids for every part of the meal. The stufftatobrussyamberry combines stuffing plus all the traditional side dishes in a marshmallow-topped terrine; and the coffwinder brings together a meal’s worth of beverages in nested glasses of a cider aperitif, wine, and after-dinner coffee.

Turn your relatives into a turducken. 
The Bold Italic doesn’t stop with the menu. They figure that a little turducken-style tinkering can keep the inevitable family dramas to a minimum. The cousunclma packs all of your least favorite family members into a single body. 
If only Thanksgiving could really be so simple.

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_fOzYgq3p3O4/TAgnOAPWy0I/AAAAAAAAAdo/4f4jopg4jAw/s1600/12birds_600.jpgThe terducken– like Russian nesting dolls rendered in pimply poultry flesh

http://www.seriouseats.com/images/20100111-cherpumple.jpg       brusselsThe mighty Cherpumple and the multi-tasking Stufftatobrussyamberry

familyfamilyThanksgiving with the cousunclma–just seat him at the opposite end of the table.

Posted in funny, holidays, Thanksgiving | Leave a comment

A Hacker in the Kitchen

image via Beauty Through Imperfection

[image via Beauty Through Imperfection]

 

Hackers have a bad reputation.
We think of disaffected teenagers looking to circumvent security measures and wreak a little havoc on society, and of bottom-rung hoodlums in former eastern bloc countries trolling online for passwords and credit card accounts. 
Actually, that kind of nefarious tampering is not hacking. It’s more properly referred to as cracking.

Hacking is in fact a higher calling.
In the classic sense of the term, a hacker is a fixer, a tinkerer, a lover of processes. The original Internet Users’ Glossary defined a hacker as ‘a person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.’ Wikipedia’s definition goes so far as stating that ‘Hacking entails some form of excellence.’

Hackers are everywhere.
The term has been co-opted by groups outside of the tech community to describe any kind of clever, non-traditional improvement to process and productivity. Pick a noun, follow it by ‘hack,’ Google the combination, and you’re bound to find a community sharing tips and hints and suggestions.

Kitchen hackers are hacking in the pure sense of the word.
They devise elegant solutions to clumsy processes. 
The following is a sorted, selected, and edited list of websites offering food, cooking, and kitchen hacks. Think of it as a kind of list hack.

Life Hackery claims to ‘hack your life into shape.’ It offers up time-tested kitchen wisdom with its list of 50 Amazingly Helpful Time-Tested Tips for the Kitchen.

Tip Nut has 34 Handy Kitchen Measurement Hacks & Tidbits that free you for improvisational cooking.

Instructables offers step-by-step instructions for esoteric projects like making rainbow vodka with Skittles and edible shot glasses from gummi bears.

DIY Life will whip your kitchen into shape with its instructions for things like stove top tuneups and new uses for aluminum foil.

Cooking for Geeks and Cooking for Engineers are full of clever cooking shortcuts. Both are pitched toward the seriously enquiring mind as they delve into the why along with the how.

Food Network Magazine rounds up the best hacking advice from the network’s roster of television chefs.

Did you know that you can make perfect hard-boiled eggs in the oven or that a rubber band can keep apple slices from turning brown? Kitchen Hacks is brimming with pragmatic saves and shortcuts about buying, growing, cooking, preserving, and eating food.

Table Matters hacks into kitchen appliances and equipment, breathing new life into muffin tins, crockpots, and immersion blenders.

The granddaddy of life hacking sites is, of course, Lifehacker, which tackles a wide range of food, cooking, and kitchen topics.

Posted in appliances + gadgets, cyberculture, food knowledge | Leave a comment

As Seen On TV: Gifts that make a lump of coal look good

Remember when fruitcake used to be the worst food gift for holiday giving?

hamdogger rollnpour eggstractor

Now we have the HamDogger, and the Roll ‘n Pour, and the Eggstractor.

Holiday time ’tis the season for kitchen gadget infomercials.
The airwaves fill with long-winded, fast-talking pitchmen hawking the latest gizmo that no home should be without. They come on late at night when your guard is down and the logic of a push-button butter dispenser seems less dubious than it would at 3pm.

Resist the urge!
Especially when they tempt you with a two-fer offer. Your holiday shopping may be too long, and when you shop on TV that second one can be had for nothing more than the cost of shipping and handling, but deep down you know that a matched set of Rotato Express electric peelers is not the answer. It only doubles the chances of things ending badly on Christmas Day.

pancakepuffs

 

According to the ad for the amazing new Pancake Puff™ Pan, simply use your favorite pancake batter, pour and flip.’ Amazing.

 

betterbagger

 

Better Bagger? Actually, I’ve always considered my hands to be pretty good baggers. 

 

fatmagnet

I’m holding out for the Fat Repellant.

robostir

 

 

 

 

Robostir promises to be ‘like a third hand in the kitchen.’ No mention of the contraption’s plastic feet that fall off in the pot.

 

 


rollie-eggmaster-cooking-system-1Egg-Genie-Electric-Egg-Cookereggcracker

 

Eggs are like the Law and Order franchise of the infomercial world with their own programming block. There are the tubular creations of the Rollie Eggmaster; the Egg Genie that magically combines water and eggs to create boiled eggs (in just minutes!); and the Clever Cracker and Clever Scrambler, two separate devices that are available in a combo pack. Who knew so many cooks are stumped by eggs?

 

big-top-cupcake

 

If a little cake is a cupcake, wouldn’t that make this… cake?

 

 

buy-bake-popsDoes-Pop-N-Fun-work

 

 

Tough call: cake pop baker or pie pop maker?

 

 

Let’s let the fortune cookie maker decide.  fortunecookie

 

 

 

 

Posted in Christmas, Entertainment, gadgets | 1 Comment

The State of the ‘F’ Word

foodies gif

animation via Foodies Distributors

     When the word first appeared in the early 1980′s, who would have thought it would be used as a slur? Foodie has a pleasingly egalitarian ring to it with none of the haughtiness of gourmet or the implied gluttony of gourmand. It’s not effete like epicure, and doesn’t suggest the scholarliness of a gastronome.

The first foodies were rebels. They broke with the old-guard, with its formality and its singular attachment to French cuisine. Appreciation of food and wine was taken out of its context of formality. A Chinatown noodle joint could achieve the same stature as haute cuisine on the Upper East Side. A single peach could be as sublimely pleasurable as a Grand Marnier soufflé. The true foodie could properly enjoy both.

Somewhere we lost our way.
The genuine passion of early foodies gave way to hype. Food became an over-heated emblem of status and lifestyle as a new breed of foodie giddily scampered after the shiniest new thing. They weren’t looking for genuine gustatory exploration and experiences; they were collecting superficial foodie trophies to post on their Facebook walls.

The backlash was a foregone conclusion.
The
New York Observer coined the phrase ‘foodiot’ to described these tiresome gastro-diarists: ‘They used to talk about sex and politics and TV shows. Now they can’t stop yapping about what they’re shoving down their pie holes.’ The Atlantic challenged the self-involved elitism of the food obsessed, calling foodie bashing a ‘moral crusade.’ Then came the smart, snarky blog Shut Up, Foodie! that announced its arrival on the scene with these words: ‘Attention, locavores, omnivores, urban butchers, backyard beekeepers, cheese fanatics, and conspicuous consumers of consuming: Your chickens won’t save the world and we don’t want the life story of everything on the menu. We don’t care what you eat–we just want you to lower the volume. Also, please stop talking about ramps.’

We’re 20 years into the era of runaway foodism.
First We Feast
 chose this moment to take stock. They ask the question: What does the word foodie really mean in 2013?
Responses come from many of the chefs, media editors, and television personalities who define contemporary food culture.
Go to State of the Union where they sound off on pop culture, ingredients, and lexicography.

 

Posted in cyberculture, diversions | Leave a comment

Rice Cooker Owners: What do they know that you don’t?

 

image by anomalous4

image by anomalous4

 

Few things divide the cooking community like the rice cooker.
If you don’t own a rice cooker…
You can’t imagine why any self-respecting home cook would. We’re talking about rice– boil water and you’re there. Why squander precious counter space on a single-purpose appliance that takes over such a basic function? And doesn’t even do it any faster than the stovetop?

If you already have one...
You smile knowingly, patiently. You remember when that was you.

It’s true, it’s a glorified water-boiler.
Manufacturers add in all manner of functions and features and upgrades, but at its core, every rice cooker is a bowl to hold rice and water that’s set inside a housing with a heat source and thermostat. The cooker heats the water to boiling, and when the temperature reaches 212° F, it switches to  a prolonged simmer. The thermostat recognizes a second temperature change when all of the water has been absorbed, and it switches to a lower setting that holds the rice in a perfect state at the perfect temperature for serving.

Perfect rice?
Perfect. Short-grain, long-grain, sushi, and brown rice; grains like quinoa and barley; beans and lentils; all perfect. In countries like China and Japan, where they know a thing or two about rice, you’ll find a cooker in every kitchen. Every Asian restaurant everywhere has a huge commercial version in its kitchen. You can even get a travel rice cooker that plugs into a car’s power sockets.

Rice cooker advocates will speak of its versatility in the kitchen, its ability to cook so much more than rice. Think dumplings and fish, custards and hot cereals, soups and stews. They’ll praise its safety and ease of use, with no open heat source and an automatic shut-off, so well-suited to children, seniors, and dorm rooms. They’ll tell you how it doesn’t heat the kitchen in the summer, humidifies it in the winter, and is easy to clean.

All true. But that’s not why I love my rice cooker.
There are so few certainties—in the kitchen as in life. Cakes don’t always rise and toast can burn. Phone calls aren’t returned, cars don’t get the mileage they should, and children don’t always listen.
But I can always count on the rice that comes out of my rice cooker. It might only do the one thing, but it does it perfectly.

 

Posted in appliances + gadgets, cooking | 2 Comments

Every week, each of China’s 1.4 billion citizens tosses out a pair of disposable chopsticks.

chopsticks

Nearly 80 billion pairs in a year– China’s disposable chopstick habit is an environmental disaster.
25 million native trees are cut down annually to keep the chopstick factories humming. Every day 100 acres of old-growth forest are whittled into chopsticks; 20 years of growth ends up with a useful life of about 10 minutes in a bowl of rice before landing in the trash. If China continues to use timber at current levels, Greenpeace China estimates that its remaining forests will be gone by 2020. Even as spilled oil barrels bob in its waters and its cities are blanketed in a miasma of hazy smog, a bunch of wooden chopsticks has emerged as one of China’s leading environmental woes.

It’s cheaper to toss them.
A pair of disposable wood or bamboo chopsticks wholesales in China for about a penny. With reusable chopsticks there’s the initial investment plus the time and energy to wash them. Restaurants are required to sterilize them between users, which can add 15 cents or more to the cost for each use, and wooden or plastic chopsticks degrade and require replacing after a relatively low number of cycles in a commercial dishwasher. Single-use chopsticks are cheap and convenient, until you figure in the environmental costs.

The campaign for chopstick awareness
The Chinese government tried but couldn’t break the habit. Its consumer ministry tried to sell the public on the cleanliness of reusable chopsticks, and the tax ministry imposed a 5% tax on disposable chopsticks. These efforts did little to change consumer behavior.

More successful is the independent Bring Your Own Chopsticks movement that has sprung up among young environmentalists and found a spokesman in U2’s Bono. Its founders looked to replicate the success of the reusable shopping bag movement in western nations by marketing a variety of eco-friendly bags and carrying cases for transporting reusable chopsticks. The movement is gaining traction in the younger, hipper quarters of China’s cities where markets and takeout noodle shops now ask if customers need chopsticks rather than sticking them into checkout bags by default. Some of the newer, entrepreneurial employers will fine workers who don’t bring their own sticks to the office, and trendy restaurants are offering incentives like a free bowl of soup or tea for customers who bring their own utensils.

Here in the U.S., chopsticks don’t have much of an environmental impact.
But we make up for it with the 39 billion plastic forks, spoons, and knives that annually make their way to American landfills.

 

Posted in sustainability | Leave a comment

Does ‘Headless’ Chicken Breeding Eliminate Issues of Animal Cruelty?

headless-chicken-toy-2803711

 


There’s a plan going around farming circles to breed ‘headless’ chickens.
The idea is to remove the cerebral cortex of the chicken while keeping the body alive through an arterial system that pumps food, water, and oxygen through the ‘living meat’ and pumps waste directly out of its digestive tract. The brain stem of the chicken is left intact to continue to regulate the metabolic systems involved in muscle growth, but the chicken is blind, unconscious, and has no sensory perceptions.

The chickens are oblivious to their surroundings and feel no pain. Unnecessary body parts like beaks and feet and wing tips can be trimmed off to save on space, and the birds can be densely packed and stacked like firewood. The ‘farms’ would make good neighbors even in urban and suburban areas because the chickens are completely silent, sanitary, and odor-free with all of the messy in- and outflows contained in tubes and tanks.

Is it humane to farm the unconscious?
Consider the current state of animal welfare.
Billions of chickens—fully 99% of the 7+ billion raised each year in this country—are currently living the entirety of their miserable lives in confinement. They’re crammed together in filthy sheds and cages where hundreds of millions of them have broken limbs and can die from stress and dehydration, unable to reach the water nozzles, and another hundred million are deemed unfit for meat and are tossed into bags to suffocate or ground up alive.

These are social animals with the intelligence of cats, dogs, and even some primates. Yet there are no federal regulations governing chicken welfare, and except for cockfighting prohibitions, they’re ignored by most states. Chickens are even excluded from the Humane Slaughter Act that protects every other land animal.

Is ‘headless’ chicken production an act of humanity?
The blind, footless, lobotomized chickens are no longer sentient beings. They’re merely an agricultural crop like vegetables that we ready for harvest. Proponents argue that removing the chickens’ higher cognitive abilities is a kindness in an agricultural system that currently disregards them.

The Chicken Matrix?
There are obvious comparisons to The Matrix. In the movie, humans are kept alive in power plants where their brains are plugged into a simulated reality while their bodies are being harvested for bioelectrical energy to power the machines that dominate the Earth. A few rebels are given a choice: a blue pill allows them to stay in the safety and comfort of the simulation while a red pill releases their brains into the harsh, post-apocalyptic reality of the physical world. The hero Neo opts to live and die authentically, but the choice is not so clear-cut. The rebel Cypher regrets the trade-off telling the leader Morpheus: If you’d told us the truth, we would’ve told you to shove that red pill right up your ass. 

While chickens might not suffer from the existential crises of free will, they also don’t exist in a world of red and blue pills. We don’t provide adequate welfare for agricultural animals, but it doesn’t mean we can’t. Ignorance for chickens might be more blissful than the current horrors of factory farming, but it’s not a kindness.

Our dominion over animals means we bear a responsibility to care for them humanely. It means stewardship, not exploitation. ‘Headless’ chicken production tries to circumvent that responsibility by rendering compassion irrelevant to the process. In doing so, it diminishes our humanity.

 

Posted in food policy | 4 Comments

The More We Spend On Our Kitchens, The Less We Cook In Them

Julia Child in her pegboard kitchen

Julia Child in her pegboard kitchen

 

Are you looking or are you cooking?
According to Remodeling Magazine, the average cost of a midrange kitchen remodel in 2013 was $53,931 and the average upscale project cost $107,406. For all that expense, we’re not cranking up the six-burner Viking rangetop very often. About half of our food spending is in restaurants, and as incomes rise, cooking drops off even more. Just 11% of Americans eat two hot, home-cooked meals a day, and in households earning more than $120,000 a year, a mere 2.4% have those two hot meals at home. And presumably the higher earners represent the households with the pricey remodels.

We salivate over acres of gleaming granite and stainless steel and 22-slot blocks of Japanese knives from a hot new bladesmith, even when the dual door Sub-Zero is stocked with nothing more than red-boxed Stouffer’s, Trader Joe’s burritos, and pints of Ben & Jerry’s. Kitchen square footage has doubled over the last 30 years to give ample space for high-end appliances and specialized cookware. We spend giddy hours online drooling over the design possibilities on display at Houzz and Pinterest, and we’re consumed by choosing among the 55 different shapes and sizes of whisks for sale at Sur la Table. We love everything about our kitchens except for the actual cooking.

We love to watch others cook.
There’s a tv set in 35% of American kitchens and it’s probably tuned to a cooking channel. When it comes to our own cooking, we spend an average of 27 minutes a day on food preparation —less than half the time it takes to watch a single episode of Top Chef. Even when we do cook, the Viking’s 30,000 BTUs of firepower are sitting idle. In fact the stove is only our second favorite kitchen appliance with first place going to the microwave. Entrées are prepared from scratch just 59% of the time, down from 72% in the 1980′s, and we’ve even decreased the number of ingredients per dish, from a 1980′s average of 4.4 to a current 3.4. One in ten adults will literally never turn on their stove or oven.

Who wouldn’t want a spacious, good-looking, well-equipped kitchen? But real cooks know how to make the most of whatever they’ve got, and some of the best cooks work their magic with the least impressive batterie de cuisine.

Author, cooking tool expert, and home cook extraordinaire Michael Ruhlman shares his equipment recommendations in My Essential Kitchen Tools
Food writer Mark Bittman, formerly of the ‘Minimalist’ column in the New York Times, gives us the flip side, sharing his picks for 10 non-essential kitchen items in A No-Frills Kitchen Still Cooks.

 

 

Posted in appliances + gadgets, cooking, home | Leave a comment
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