This Man Has Eaten at 6,300 Different Chinese Restaurants Across America

image via LA Times

image via LA Times–and yes, he prefers a fork

 

Meet David Chan. 
He’s a 65-year-old lawyer and accountant, a native of Los Angeles, and a third-generation American who doesn’t speak Chinese. He’s probably eaten at more American Chinese restaurants than anyone else on the planet. 

He didn’t plan for it to happen.
Mr. Chan sees himself as more of a cultural historian than a foodie. As an undergraduate at UCLA in the 1960’s, a single class in ethnic studies inspired him to explore his heritage, and he embarked on his own gastronomic roots tour after graduation. Sometime in the 1980’s he realized he’d been to every single Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles and that achievement urged him on to further challenges. His dining became more deliberate, reaching 300 restaurant meals a year and taking him to Chinese restaurants in all 50 states.

An avid collector (before Chinese restaurants there were record albums and stamps) and, as befits a CPA, a highly organized and methodical man, Mr. Chan catalogs menus and documents each experience on detailed spreadsheets, including childhood meals that he retraced from a time when Chinese food could only be found in metropolitan Chinatowns. The subsequent spreadsheet entries track more than just a series of meals; they reveal much about the migration patterns and evolution of a half-century of Chinese-American life.

It’s a collection of memories and experiences that are unmatched anywhere.
Fortunately for us, Mr. Chan is generous in sharing his passion and insights. He blogs as Chandavkl and contributes to Menuism as the resident Chinese Restaurant Expert. His Twitter account gives a look at his prodigious dining habits and the stream is frequently trolled by restaurant critics and travel writers searching for recommendations. He also shares general guidelines for choosing excellent and authentic restaurants:

  • The best Chinese restaurants are almost always influenced by Hong Kong-style cooking.
  • You don’t need a Chinatown to find authentic cuisine—look to the suburbs.
  • Vietnamese-Chinese restaurants or Thai-Chinese restaurants are fine, but avoid Japanese-Chinese which Chan says ‘mix like oil and water.’
  • Never eat at a restaurant that’s been open for more than two decades; by then they’ve lost their edge and are lagging behind newcomers

David Chan calls Koi Palace the best Chinese restaurant in America and he’s not alone in that estimation.
True to his guidelines, Koi Palace is a Hong Kong-style restaurant and it’s located in a suburban strip mall outside of San Francisco. You won’t find sushi or other pan-Asian dishes on the menu. But what of its opening in 1996? In 2012 Chan added 5 years to what was then his 15-year rule in order to keep the 16-year old Koi Palace on top of his best restaurant listings.

The next Koi Palace could be out there waiting to be discovered by David Chan.
What happens in 2016 is anyone’s guess, but there are still another 40,000 or so Chinese restaurants across America that he has yet to visit. 

 

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Even a Genius Can’t Figure Out What’s Next in Food

Blackboard with mathematics sketches - vector illustration

 

If you track enough consumer behavior you should be able to spot the trends.
Spot the trends and you can own the future. That’s why Big Data is a big deal.
But what if you collect all the data, crunch all the numbers, and still come up empty?
That’s what happened to Food Genius.

Food Genius provides Big Data to Big Food.
They’ve attracted millions in start-up capital and have built a gold-plated client list that includes Kraft, Applebee’s, Arby’s, and Safeway supermarkets. The company currently tracks 50 million menu items from over 87,000 unique menus at more than 350,000 restaurant locations. The Food Geniuses work their quantitative magic to provide ‘industry analysis and actionable insights.’ In other words, they’ll spot the trends before they pop.

But what if there are no new trends to spot?
Food Genius has been aggregating menu data and working their algorithms since 2012 and they’ve seen nothing but big flat lines across their graphs. Gluten-free and farm-to-table already have a few years under their belts. Cupcakes and craft beer are just a part of the landscape. The next big thing? The Geniuses can only shrug.

Kale? Cronuts? Artisanal toast? 
They’re barely moving the needle. Food Genius blows up our widely accepted notions of trends. They don’t start on one of the coasts and then migrate to the middle of the country. That rarely happens. Our sense of trends is mostly an illusion, fueled by foodie conceit and an over-heated food press. The data they amassed says that different foods get popular at different times in different places. Fluctuations are small and localized, and overall eating patterns are basically static with only minor shifts over very long periods of time.

This was not what Food Genius expected to find.
The company was hired to keep its clients ahead of the curve. The Genius reports were expected to be predictive, allowing food and beverage purveyors the time to get innovative products and menus in place before nascent trends took hold. 

Food Genius has essentially shifted gears.
There’s still plenty of gold in all the data they mined, and it’s proven valuable in the sales and marketing functions rather than product development. Instead of the big picture of national fads and trends, the company offers detailed insights on a market-by-market, menu-by-menu basis. It’s just more granular than they expected, more gold dust than the hoped-for nuggets. More like food intelligence than food genius.

 

 

Posted in food business, food trends | 1 Comment

The Bumpy Road to Nutrition Labeling for Alcohol

Beer_Nutrition_Facts_Pint1_POP
image via Wear Your Beer

 

Think about it– everything has a label.
Every box, bag, can, and bottle; if it’s meant to be be consumed it’s required to have a a rundown of ingredients and calories, fats and carbs. Everything but alcohol. For years labels weren’t even allowed.

For an explanation, you have to go all the way back to Prohibition.

The Food and Drug Administration was already in place regulating what we eat and drink, but Congress, recognizing the tax potential, assigned oversight of the newly legal alcoholic beverages to the Treasury Department under the auspices of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and passed the Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1935, which is still in force.

The TTB holds beer, wine, and liquor manufacturers to very different labeling standards than other food and beverage makers.
TTB standards have never included the nutrition facts you see everywhere else. Beer makers were actually forbidden from putting alcohol content information on their labels, finally suing for the right to do so in 1987. There are some arcane legal distinctions that put labels on the food content of things like low-alcohol wine, light and gluten-free beer, and hard cider, but you’d have a tough time hunting down the carbohydrates in Chardonnay or the sugar content of Jim Beam.

Between the obesity epidemic and rampant food intolerances, consumers shouldn’t be kept in the dark.
Fortunately we’re finally moving toward greater transparency, helped along by the Affordable Care Act, which requires most multi-outlet restaurants and food and beverage retailers to post calorie information for all menu items, including alcoholic beverages. Last May, the TTB lifted its mind-boggling ban on nutrition labels and adopted an interim policy of voluntary disclosures in advertising and on packaging for beer, wine, and spirits. Mandatory labeling can’t be far behind.

For now we have to satisfy ourselves with the rather sketchy information provided by the government’s National Nutrition Database for Standard Reference. It’s a humorously arbitrary, semi-useful assortment of nutrition facts offering vague profiles of wine (simply ‘red’ or ‘white’), generic averages of beer (‘regular’ or ‘light’), but gives a detailed analysis of three different recipes for a whiskey sour and includes one mysterious entry for ‘tequila sunrise, canned.’

 

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Me, Myself, and I: Table for One

INB-table-plate-FPO

 

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

It’s a displaced dishonor that just won’t die.
Newspapers and magazines regularly run features on the how-to’s of this unnatural state. It’s treated as the extreme sport of food and drink, calling for nerve, verve, practice, and pep talks. It doesn’t help that there are restaurateurs who still grumble Here comes lost revenue for the 2-top, and there there are servers that will treat you as if you have a communicable disease.
ikea-singleton-table-w724

 

The internet pokes fun while fueling the insecure with the parade of odd characters on the Tumblr table-for-1I feel sad when I see an old person eating alone is Facebook’s heavy-hearted exercise in dining desolation that has attracted 749,000 likes. And Ikea’s April Fools offering of the Löne Singleton Dining Table, a mirrored table for one, hewed close enough to the stereotype to leave many wondering if it was really a put-on.


alonetablesOne woman who believed other diners saw her as ‘a sad, lonely spinster’ founded the dining companion search service Invite for a BiteThe website SoloDining.com is ‘dedicated to supplying you with the information and tools you need to take charge of this important life-style skill’ and advises you to purchase their $7.95 e-booklet. And as further proof that middle school scars will never fade, there are forever alone tables. The partitioned cafeteria seating from Japan has been popping up on American college campuses, especially in the socially awkward milieu of engineering schools.

We all know the joys of the communal dining experience, but eating alone comes with its own distinct pleasures.
You can engage in satisfying eavesdropping and people-watching or immerse yourself completely in the sensory satisfaction of the meal. You can set your own pace, you don’t have to gauge your menu selections to others, and nobody will stick a fork in your dessert.

Eenmaal is a recurrent pop-up restaurant in Amsterdam that aims to take the shame out of dining alone. The dining room is filled exclusively with tables for one and the wine list is stocked with half bottles. There are no couples, no families, no chattering groups of friends to prey on a solo diner’s insecurities. 

The great food writer M.F.K. Fisher, in her iconic Gourmet Magazine essay An Alphabet for Gourmets, captured the bitter and the sweet of solitary dining with A is for Dining Alone…

I still wished, in what was almost a theoretical way, that I was not cut off from the world’s trenchermen by what I had written for and about them. But, and there was no cavil here, I felt firmly as I do this very minute, that snug misanthropic solitude is better than hit-or-miss congeniality. If One could not be with me,“feasting in silent sympathy,” then I was my best companion….

 

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Just Because You Can Make It In a K-Cup It Doesn’t Mean You Should

Are you really stumped by soup?

PJ-BU294_OATMEA_DV_20140415113507Campbell-Soup-K-CupFor everyone who’s ever struggled with the complexities of Cup-a-Soup or instant ramen, Keurig®, the inventor/maker of the K-Cup® coffee pod has teamed up with Campbell’s® to bring us Fresh-Brewed Soup™ in pod form. Never has broth and noodles been so easy or had so many superscripts. You can also say goodbye to the onerous task of mixing water into a packet of instant oatmeal with the just-announced Keurig-General Mills partnership that will manufacture an oatmeal K-cup. Pans and stoves? Who are we, the Waltons?

Is is time to consider the possibility that food can be too convenient?
Have you looked around the supermarket lately? The garlic has been peeled, the pineapples have their cores removed, and the onions are already chopped. There are pre-cooked slices of bacon, pre-boiled eggs, and shrink-wrapped potatoes— washed and poked and ready to bake. When you tire of spreading cream cheese on your bagels just pick up some Bagel-fuls, and frozen Uncrustables come to the rescue when you forget the recipe for PB&J.

We’ve all bought our share of pre-washed salad greens and pre-trimmed baby carrots, but some of these packaged, processed shortcut foods boggle the mind. Taste and quality are compromised, they’ve lost nutrients and gained preservatives, and the price has risen exponentially. They take a minimally-packaged, shelf-stable food and transform it into a product that is encased in pouches, packets, and pods. They commit egregious culinary and environmental offenses in the name of ease and convenience.

The siren song of lazy food
One in five adults will drink a pod-brewed beverage today, and it’s not just coffee. Keurig makes K-Cups for tea and cocoa, and cold drinks like Snapple iced teas, lemonade, apple cider, and vitamin waters. And now oatmeal and soup. Where they’ll go next is anyone’s guess.

 

Keurig K-cup™ 5-Star Meals via Think Geek

Keurig K-Cup™ 5-Star Meals via Think Geek

 

 

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Thousands Go Hungry as Instagram Crashes

via The Meta Picture

via The Meta Picture

 

It was around 1:30 pm on Saturday when Instagram, the mobile photo-sharing platform, experienced a worldwide outage.
Selfies went un-shared, cats did the cutest things that you’ll never get to see, and cruelest of all, no food photos could be posted just as weekend brunch time was peaking.

The thwarted Instagrammers found a supportive community on the still-working Twitter where they soon sent #instagramnotworking to the top of the trending topics. Much of the turmoil was centered around a philosophical conundrum not unlike the classic inquiry into perception and reality posed by the question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.49.53 PM

There were expressions of anger

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and of frustration

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Some tweeted out tales of resilience and ingenuity

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 1.42.35 PM Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 2.17.34 PM

and others completely folded under the pressure

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 1.26.03 PM

Socrates once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. In the wake of the Instagram Crash of 2014, we have to ask: what about the unexamined meal?

 
 
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The Ethical Easter Basket Tastes Sweeter

fairtradeeastereverybunny_webfairtradeeasterchocolate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the year of the ethical Easter basket, but it doesn’t have to make you a killjoy.

Food activists of all stripes are bringing their agendas to the spring holiday reminding us of all the pesticides and food dyes and GMOs and child labor that create cheap chocolate bunnies and tongue-staining jelly eggs.

Roll your eyes if you must at the litany of fair trade, cruelty-free, shade-grown, bird-friendly, carbon neutral causes, but the designations and certifications aren’t mere marketing ploys to ease a guilty conscience. They have real, enforceable teeth that guarantee the soundness of manufacturing and growing practices. The hard truth is that a conventional Easter basket is a treat for you but it can be an environmental and humanitarian nightmare for someone else.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ethical alternatives for all your jelly beans, pastel marshmallows, and foil-wrapped chocolate eggs:

tims-real-easter-basket-grass-home

 

Tim’s Real Easter Basket Grass
lose the chemical-laden shredded plastic and go organic from the ground up


IMG_4873

YumEarth Jelly Beans
they’re organic with no gluten, dairy, nuts, soy, artificial colors, or dyes

 

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Not Peeps, Veeps
they’re vegan; who knew there’s a pork byproduct lurking in the conventional marshmallow bunnies?


imgres

Annie’s Bunny Fruit Snacks
don’t forget about Annie’s many organic bunny products, available year-round

Full_Tub_of_Organic_Fair_Trade_Milk_Chocolate_Eggs-large

 

Sjaak’s Chocolate Easter Eggs
fairly traded, organic, vegan, and best of all they come in really big tubs

images

 

Lake Champlain chocolate bunnies
always widely available and this year they’ve gone fair trade and organic

 

 

 

Posted in candy, Easter, sustainability | Leave a comment

I’m Stuffed. What’s for Dessert?

Rabelais's Gargantua

Rabelais’s Gargantua

 

Full or satisfied: How do you know when the meal is over?
There are foods that fill you up with their sheer physical bulk and some that satisfy with taste and texture. Then there are the physiological consequences of different foods—they trigger receptors in the digestive tract or send signals to the brain that carry their own messages about appetite. Foods like oatmeal and legumes will fill you up without much textural gratification, while candy and chips provide satisfaction with little filling power. A high satiety food will give you both.

The satiety index tells you about food’s bang for the buck.
The satiety index takes into account the combination of physical, psychological, and physiological factors that contribute to a sense of fullness, and then it factors in the calories. It rolls all of that into a single number that is a simple tool for evaluating and comparing foods. A high satiety food will satisfy hunger better and for a longer time than the same number of calories of a low satiety food. The SI is full of surprises:

  • While all energy-dense foods pack a big calorie wallop in a little package, calorie-for-calorie, beef and chicken are better protein sources than eggs.
  • It makes no difference if a man (but not women or children) drinks full-sugar soda, sugar-free soda, or bottled water. Lower satiety beverages have him seeking out other treats, and at the end of the day the total calories consumed will be the same.
  • Steamed white potatoes rule the satiety index. Their stuffy blandness gives four times the bulk and three times the filling power of the average food.
  • Jelly beans can curb the appetite. Their nutritional profile should score low on the SI, but a handful of jelly beans leaves dieters feeling so queasy that they’ll eat less afterward.
  • Apples and oranges—actually you can compare them, and oranges have a slight SI edge. Both are more satisfying than grapes and bananas.

Here is the satiety index of common foods, adapted from the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition:

satietyindex

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We Hear the Crisp and Taste the Crunch

 

image via the Loud Food Club

image via the Loud Food Club

 

Sometimes we eat with our ears.
So say the food scientists. They contend that crispy and crunchy are two different sensations. One we sense with our mouths and the other with our ears.

Naturally, they looked to the ultimate crispy and crunchy food: the potato chip.
It’s just potato, hot fat, and salt, but together they make sensory magic. When we eat potato chips we hear the crunch, but we’re really sensing it in our mouths. When it comes to their crispness, even though it’s bound up with the crunch, we’re assessing it with our ears.

Pringles. The favorite chip of the scientific community.
Researchers love the unnatural uniformity of Pringles with their low level variances. It’s what made them an ideal test material for a team of Oxford University scientists who designed a chip mastication study to confirm the link between sound sensation and taste perception. Chip-eating test subjects were outfitted with microphones and headphones to capture and deliver the sounds. When the sound level was amplified, the potato chips were perceived as both crisper and fresher. Fresh or stale, crunchy or soggy, the subjects happily chomped away, as long as the auditory cues continued to suggest freshness.

In the first study the test subjects enjoyed stale chips that sounded fresh; in a second study they rejected fresh chips when they didn’t hear the crispness. This time the Oxford chip-eaters ate Pringles while wearing sound-blocking headphones. Without an auditory cue they quickly lost interest in the Pringles no matter how fresh and crunchy they tasted.

Crunching the numbers.
Potato chips are a $6 billion business in the U.S. That big chip business means that serious research dollars flow to the community of food scientists in the quest for the perfect crunch. Engineers employ signal analyzers to measure the sound frequencies of airborne crunches (the chew you can hear from across the room) and artificial mouths(?!) to gauge the mechanics of something they call oral residence—the combination of teeth time and tongue compressions. They regulate chewing with metronomes to perform frequency-time studies of mastication, and study chip eating among different ethnic groups to determine if there is a genetic or cultural component to the range of crispy/crunchy sensory perceptions.

It’s all about that first chip out of the bag.
Pristinely crisp with a crunch that is unsullied by time or ambient humidity, it’s clearly both a gustatory and an auditory pleasure. With all the chip analysis and quantification of sensory inputs, we can only hope that the snack industry can crack the code, and someday every potato chip will be as satisfying as the first one out of the bag.

Posted in food knowledge, Science/Technology | Leave a comment

Requiem for a Foodie

nailDo you know what that is?
It’s the final nail in the foodie coffin.
The word has run its course. There’s no doubt about it.

Here’s the unequivocal, undeniable proof    finger right    foodies billboard

You’re looking at a billboard erected on a Michigan roadside. McDonald’s has launched a campaign for its new Bacon Clubhouse sandwich with the tagline foodies welcome.

That’s right, foodies, come on in to Mickey D’s.
The poster child for the salt, fat, and high-fructose corn syrup of factory farmed, heavily processed foods now speaks your language with its artisan-bunned thick-cut applewood smoked bacon burger.

Foodie was once the juvenile but still proud name for a gustatory explorer, someone with genuine passion and even a hint of a rebellious spirit.
The early foodies broke with the old-guard; they separated fine food and wine from its context of formality and its singular attachment to French cuisine. 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.

Today’s foodie is a different breed.
Years of over-hyped foodism took care of that, treating food as an emblem of status and lifestyle and turning the food-loving foodies into conspicuous consumers of consumption. The McDonald’s promotion can’t be blamed for tarnishing the image of foodies. That damage was already done. The foodie moniker, for a while now, has stood for nothing more than an overweening interest in food accompanied by self-involved, romanticized pretentions. By co-opting the name, the fast food giant is just helping it along to its deservedly early grave.

tombstone (1)

 

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Chefs on Twitter: Why Do You Want to Follow Them?

image via Bon Appetit

image via Bon Appétit

 

Really, why would you read the 140 character musings of chefs?
It’s not a rhetorical question and I’m not asking it snarkily. Chef twitter streams are as individual as cooking styles, and some chefs are as adept with social media as they are with a boning knife while others careen from mundane to puerile like a bad banana split. 

The first thing you have to ask is why is the chef on twitter? 
The chefs themselves have their own varied reasons for tweeting. Some tweet within an inner circle of other chefs, sharing support and tips and keeping tabs on far-flung colleagues. Others expand the circle to include friends, fans, and loyal customers to create interest and build loyalty. Twitter can be a platform for the personal and political agenda of an activist chef, or it can increase a restaurant’s bottom line when it’s used as a promotional tool or a barometer that gauges customer satisfaction.

Then there are the brand-building celebrities.
Their tweets don’t originate from the depths of a steamy kitchen but from the carpeted offices of social media managers. Instead of the off-the-cuff remarks of a chef with two thumbs and a smartphone, you’re getting a twitter stream that’s maintained by a marketing professional who analyzes the demographics of followers (who can number in the millions) and crafts targeted messages that hone a chef’s public persona and plug their line of cookware.

Now ask yourself what do you want out of it?
You can find out about tonight’s dinner specials, put in your two cents about a recent meal, get some industry insider commentary, or see what your favorite chef eats for breakfast. You can rub online shoulders with a high-flying celebrity or be a fly on the wall of the bistro down the block. Twitter can bridge the gap between cook and customer, chef and fan. Once you know why you would want to follow a chef, here are some lists that will help you find one that fits the bill.

The 15 Most Followed Chefs on Twitter
The Huffington Post presents the big dogs.

Michelin Starred Chefs
ElizabethOnFood focuses on European restaurants with lists of Nordic Michelin starred chefs on Twitter and British and Irish Michelin starred chefs and restaurants on Twitter. @MichelinGuides publishes a list of starred chefs from their New York, Chicago, and San Francisco guides.

11 Flavorful Celebrity Chefs on Twitter
Mashable considers these to be the tastiest feeds out there.

The Archetypes
Zagat 
divides celebrity chefs into five categories: The Real Me, The Highly Edited, The Retweeter, I Am Who You Want Me to Be, and The Politicos.

118 Twitter Feeds Every Food Activist Needs to Know
Not just chefs but also farmers, writers, researchers, and policy makers, this exhaustive list comes from Food Tank.

Yahoo Food! gave us an April Fool’s Day gift of 7 Funny Foodie Twitter Accounts.
There’s the absurdist @coffee_dad, the inane @tofu_product, the tongue-in-cheek fetishism of @daily_kale, and other feeds that parody and skewer our foodie culture.

Who Chefs are Following on Twitter
Restaurant Hospitality magazine’s list of chef-recommended feeds.

14 Chefs and Their Very First Tweets
They all had to start somewhere, and Grub Street shows us where.

 

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SPAM Defies the Odds to Emerge Triumphant

image via Happy Trails Computer Club

image via Happy Trails Computer Club

 

Is SPAM, dare I say it, trendy?
Recent headlines tout the mystery meat as hipster approved and are heralding its comeback at hip New York restaurants. House-made artisanal renditions are showing up on charcuterie plates, and it appears straight from the can as the featured ingredient in a Quickfire Challenge round on Top Chef

SPAM: a gelatinous block of porky luncheon meat.
Spam: a steady e-mail assault of erectile dysfunction ads, entreaties from Nigerian princes, and replica watch offers.

It’s hard to imagine a brand surviving this kind of association, but Hormel SPAM is doing just fine, thank you very much, not just surviving but thriving.

Hormel used to be awfully touchy on the subject.
In the mid 1990′s they watched their once-proud brand become synonymous with a detestable digital menace. They cried foul, suing a chunk of Silicon Valley for trademark infringement. A Hormel spokesman explained the company’s position with a statement on their website: “We are trying to avoid the day when the consuming public asks, ‘why would Hormel Foods name its product after junk e-mail?’

In 2001 their worst fears were realized.
That’s the year that ‘spam’ made it into the Oxford English Dictionary— not as a luncheon meat but as “The practice of sending irrelevant, inappropriate, or unsolicited postings or e-mails over the Internet, esp. indiscriminately and in very large numbers. Still, after years of legal debate, the judges of the Trademark Board came down on the side of the tech companies. They ruled that the brand wasn’t truly damaged because no one confuses the internet application with a canned meat product.

For all of Hormel’s anguish, SPAM seems unmarred by the negative association.
Born in the Great Depression, SPAM is an emblematic food in America’s hard-times pantry. It’s so closely linked with vagaries of the economy that it’s been suggested that the Federal Reserve Bank should track SPAM sales as an economic benchmark. After a sluggish stretch, SPAM roared back during our last economic downturn and has been posting record sales and profits ever since.

SPAM has finally made peace with the internet.
In 2012 the brand introduced Sir Can-A-Lot, an animated spokescharacter with his own YouTube channel. He’s a little tin can of a knight who’s on a crusade to rescue your meals by infusing them with some pink processed meat. SPAM also has a presence on all the usual social media sites, and lists more than 3,000 mostly ill-advised recipes on its website.

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The Food Porn Index Asks: Kale or Cronuts?

Foodpornindex

 

Without the internet the cronut would be but a gleam in Dominique Ansel’s eye, bacon would be a lowly breakfast meat, and the ramen burger would have stayed on its own side of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Nothing can blow up a food phenomenon like the internet. Social media gave traction to introductions like the Taco Bell Dorito-chipped taco (a billion sold in its first year) and Tastykake’s Birthday Kake Cupcake flavor (21 million photos and hashtags in its first 2 weeks), and even gave kale its 15 minutes of internet fame.
The Food Porn Index wants to see more kale, fewer cupcakes.

The Food Porn Index tracks the food we’re sharing online.
It trawls Twitter and Instagram looking for hashtagged mentions of fruits, vegetables, junk food, and keywords like ‘snack,’ ‘condiment,’ and ‘fried,’ tallying a few hundred million in the six weeks since the site launched. It keeps a realtime count of two dozen items and regularly updates the standings as the numbers toggle between healthy and unhealthy foods.

It’s lively, mesmerizing, and well-worth a few minutes of your time. It might even be good for you—according to a Harris Interactive poll conducted in conjunction with the site launch, of Americans who use social media, 51% claim that seeing photos of fruits and vegetables motivates them to eat healthier.

 

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It’s Better for You When it Tastes Better

happy couple via Man/Beer Love

happy couple via Man/Beer Love

 

Guacamole with salsa, tomatoes with olive oil, tea with lemon: they’re the power couples of food. 
They taste better when they’re eaten together, and they’re also better for you. One plus one does not always equal two when it comes to food pairings—certain foods eaten in combination can make the sum of a meal healthier than the individual ingredients. The fatty acids in guacamole make you absorb five times more of the healthy beta-carotene and lycopene found in salsa; olive oil pulls key carotenoids from the tomato skins; and the vitamin C in lemons increases the absorption of tea’s natural antioxidants.

Ceasar salad is another naturally synergistic combination. Olive oil and a bit of cheese boost the body’s ability to absorb the nutrients found in romaine lettuce—and it has to be a full fat dressing to work (how’s that for good news?!). Sushi is a good-for-you pairing because the vinegar used in the rice neutralizes much of the glycemic impact of the carbs; you’ll feel fuller longer without the spike and plummet of your blood sugar levels. And sauerkraut has a natural affinity for hot dogs where it improve the absorption of animal proteins and bolsters digestion-friendly probiotics.

It’s no coincidence that those foods taste so good together. 
It seems that nature has arranged things so that many of our favorite complementary flavors are also the best for us. As subjective as taste can be, food scientists and science-minded chefs know that when foods are compatible on the plate, there’s chemical compatibility at a molecular level, and that synergy can translate to higher quality nutrition.

Here are some other high-impact food pairings that we crave naturally:

  • Rosemary + Steak: The acids in rosemary prevent the formation of carcinogens on grilled meats.
  • Eggs + Cheese: The vitamin D in eggs optimizes the absorption of calcium from the cheese.
  • Beer + Nuts: A beer or two plus a handful of nuts can reduce your risk of heart attack.
  • Spinach + Lemon: You’ll absorb six times as much iron from the spinach.
  • Garbanzos + Beet Greens: The vitamins in the beans maximize magnesium absorption from the greens, and we could all use a little extra magnesium; the mineral is responsible for modulating anxiety levels, and nearly three-quarters of us are depleted.
  • Orange Juice + Oatmeal: The real breakfast of champions, the combination doubles the artery-cleansing powers of either on its own.

You’ll find more power food strategies in Web MD’s Top 10 Food Synergy Super Foods.

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Caffeinated Communal Cat Companionship

image via Chonostöff

image via Chonostöff

 

There are a lot of obstacles on the path to opening the first U.S. cat cafés.
Cat allergy sufferers and animal welfare organizations need to be placated. There are health codes to navigate. And of course there’s the matter of the litter boxes.

What, you might be wondering, are cat cafés?
A cat café is just what it sounds like: a hot beverage, a little nosh, and a whole bunch of kitty cats. Popular in Japan—40 in Tokyo alone, at last count— the bizarre trend first spread to about a dozen European cities and now it’s arrived on our shores. The Bay Area is leading the way with the soon to be open Cat Town Café in Oakland and San Francisco’s KitTea, while Los Angeles, Portland (OR), Montreal, and Vancouver have cat café projects in various stages of development.

In Japanese cities, where household pets are a rarity, the cafés are seen as a kind of relaxation therapy. There are specialty cat cafés featuring specific breeds, or just black cats, or all fat cats. Japan also has rabbit cafés and goat cafés, and currently there’s a penguin bar craze sweeping the country. The phenomenon travels remarkably well: Paris’ Le Café des Chats is already a roaring success with weekend slots booked up to three weeks in advance, and in London, within hours of the announced opening, the website for Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium crashed as 3,000 cat fanciers tried to book at once.

Commingling the species.
Some locales permit customers to mingle freely, cappuccino in hand, with the felines in residence, while other health codes require a separation between food-ordering areas and cat-interaction space. All of the cafés have human-free zones to enable kitty timeouts for the inevitable bouts of hissing, shedding, hairballs, or other calls of nature. The best of them maintain strict human-animal ratios and keep tabs on feline happiness through cat behavioral consultants.

Now if we could just do something about all those LOL cat memes…

 

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What Can You See at 175 Chickens-Per-Minute?

chicken-inspection

image via Linco Food Systems

 

That’s how fast the line of eviscerated chickens will soon be flying by slaughterhouse inspectors.
The speedup is just one of the controversial features of the USDA’s planned deregulation of the poultry business.
The proposal is officially named ‘The Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection Regulation,’ but it’s known informally as ‘The Dirty Chicken Rule.’ For good reason.

Not everyone is on board with the plan, and its critics are not just the usual suspects from food safety and consumer watchdog groups. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported on its potential to negatively impact food and worker safety, and 68 members of Congress have already written to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking him to suspend action on the proposal.

Criticism has focussed on four distinctly troubling features of the regulation:
• Increase inspection line speeds from an already inadequate maximum of 140 chickens per minute to 175. 
• Reduce the number of government poultry inspectors by 40%. 
• Allow poultry processors to opt for ‘self-inspection’ by their own, non-certified employees in the place of trained government inspectors. 
• Allow poultry processors to subject chickens to higher levels of antimicrobial chemicals.

Add it all up and you have inspectors that get one-third of a second to inspect each bird inside and out, while the number of eyes on them is cut almost in half. The remaining eyes need no particular training in inspection techniques and they’ll rely on the slaughterhouse owner for a paycheck. Is it any surprise that there’s a provision for more pathogen-killing treatments? Processed chickens are already typically dunked and doused with antibacterial chemicals four separate times, but the industry wants to be ready for the onslaught of feces, tumors, lesions, deformities, and other abnormalities that it expects to pass unchecked through the rejiggered inspection lines.

The USDA has already been test-driving the new inspection model through a pilot project in two dozen slaughter facilities, and the agency’s regulatory agenda indicates it hopes to finalize the plan in April. Poultry workers, chicken industry lobbyists, and food-safety advocates have been bringing dueling efforts to Capitol Hill, while the Obama administration is having a hard time looking beyond the cost savings that arise from reduced and privatized inspections.

Don’t let the USDA play chicken with your health.
Change.org is petitioning the agency to abandon its plans to overhaul and privatize the poultry inspection system. Add your signature to the nearly 200,000 already collected at the petition with the appropriately unsavory name of Scabs, Pus, and Feces in Chicken? USDA, Keep It Off My Plate!. 

Posted in food policy, food safety | Leave a comment

The Food Avoiders

 

food-allergy

Contemporary eating habits have given rise to a whole new segment of the food market. The industry is calling them food avoiders.
These are people who read labels for the un-ingredients. They’re more interested in what’s not in their food than what’s in it.

Food avoidance is way of life for tens of millions of American consumers.
Some avoid certain foods because of allergies and sensitivities or specific health problems like celiac disease, diabetes, or lactose intolerance, but they’re in the minority. Most are opting out of certain foods and ingredients as a lifestyle choice.

Eat this! Don’t eat that!
There’s a steady barrage of nutritional advice and medical headlines, and they usually contradict earlier messages. Should we drink red wine for heart health or avoid it because of liver disease? Are eggs high quality protein or little cholesterol bombs? Are we eating butter this week? Additives, dyes, GMOs, gluten; we eye our plates warily, shunning those foods that make us most anxious.

Marketers love the food avoiders.
They get to charge a clean label premium to a larger share of the market than is medically or nutritionally justified. Take gluten-free products: less than one per cent of the population needs to avoid gluten but more than 29 per cent chooses to avoid it even though it’s estimated that a gluten-free diet can double the cost of groceries. Surveys conducted by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness show that the number one stressor for celiac patients is not the disease itself but the cost of the diet.

It’s a fine line between food avoidance and food fear.
Americans have a love/hate relationship with food based on an eating history full of pesudo-scientific trends that emphasized discipline over pleasure. Now the American Psychiatric Association is considering recognizing Selective Eating Disorder as a medical condition. A task force has been convened to study and categorize finicky eating in adults (known as the Food F.A.D. Study). Researchers at Duke University and the University of Pittsburgh have launched the first public registry of picky eaters that has already attracted thousands of respondents.

The late, great Julia Child had some advice for food avoiders:
“If you’re afraid of butter, just use cream.”

julia-child-kitchen-425tp0901092

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Place Your Bets: It’s Bracket Time

 

Bracketology Cake via Cloverfields Farm & Kitchen NCAA Basketball Tournament Recipe Booklet

Bracketology Cake via Cloverfields Farm & Kitchen NCAA Recipe Booklet

 

Why should basketball fans have all the fun?

Every year around this time food lovers and sports lovers are both overcome with the same impulse. I’m talking about their shared compulsion to turn everything into a tournament bracket. It’s blueberry vs. corn in March Muffin Madness and parm vs. wings in the Final Four of Chicken. There’s a beer bracket and a booze bracket, Munch Madness and Starch Madness, and a bracket ranking of the campus food for each of the NCAA tournament teams.

Some say the madness is out of control.
We have breakfast joints vying for Morning Meal Madness in San Antonio and Oklahomans choosing the top state fair food-on-a-stick for Food Fair MadnessAnd we hardly need a bracket to tell us that Thin Mints are the top dog of Girl Scout Cookies.

There are also some rather specious competitions out there.
There’s something fishy about the Southern Food Bracket over at Garden & Gun Magazine where Duke’s Mayonnaise bested Tabasco, and Moon Pies never made it out of the first round of southern brands. Then there’s the Bar Food Bracket: should Zagat voters really have the final word on fried pickles and jalapeño poppers? And who made the brackets in the Fruits and Vegetables Tournament? The banana pepper is a number one seed? Really?

Nothing ignites passions and stirs debate like the annual condiments tournament, this year’s courtesy of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. Past condiment contests have brought legendary matchups like ketchup vs. dijon mustard, and surprises like satay sauce’s unexpected run to the Elite Eight. We’ve been introduced to regional long-shots like chow chow and Pickapeppa, and they’re still debating Nutella’s 2011 disqualification for being an edible candy.

You can find more alternative brackets at Sports Grid’s meta Bracket of Brackets: In Which We Bracket All The Best Non-Basketball Brackets So Far, or create your own at The Bracketizer.

 

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Bang for the Buck: How to Ration Your Organics Budget

pricevalue

 

Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.

There’s no two ways about it: we pay through the nose for our organics.
But it’s worth every penny when the conventional counterparts are laced with toxic chemicals. That’s good value, regardless of the premium. Have you checked the sticker price of cancer lately?

But an all-organic diet isn’t always practical or available, much less affordable. Thankfully, there are times when it’s not essential. With some foods, there’s room for compromise.

There’s a good rule of thumb when you’re choosing produce: if it’s thin-skinned, leafy, porous, or has a lot of cracks and crevices, you want to go organic. Pesticides tend to leech into the flesh or get trapped in the openings, and even with careful washing and peeling there’s no way to avoid ingesting a good-sized dose.

Reduce your total pesticide exposure by 80% with these organic fruits and vegetables:

•Apples  •Cherries  •Grapes (imported) •Nectarines  •Peaches
•Pears  •Raspberries  •Strawberries
•Bell Pepper  •Celery  •Potatoes  •Spinach

The flesh of thicker-skinned, husked, or podded fruits and vegetables are less susceptible to most contaminations, cold weather crops are grown when pests are less prevalent, and tree fruits often require fewer pesticides because they’re high above the ground where they’re less susceptible to insects.

You can safely stretch your grocery budget with the conventionally-grown versions of these:

•Avocados  •Pineapple  •Mangos  •Papaya  •Kiwi  •Grapefruit
•Onions  •Sweet Corn  •Asparagus  •Peas  • Cabbage  •Eggplant
•Broccoli  •Tomatoes  •Sweet Potatoes 

Conventional processed foods can be a minefield of toxins and contaminants, but it’s impractical if not impossible to keep track of the safer choices among the ever-changing selections and brands. The FDA performs pesticide residue monitoring, but the allowable levels that meet federal safety guidelines are still pretty hefty, to say nothing of the various and sundry dyes, preservatives, and other additives.

You can keep your sanity in the supermarket while still limiting the toxins with a few key recommendations:

•Baby Food
This should be a no-brainer. Baby foods are often cooked and condensed versions of fruits and vegetables, intensifying the chemical levels present in the ingredients. Factor in the baby’s small body size and they can pack a real wallop. Since toxins can also pass through a mother’s bloodstream to a developing fetus, the switch to organics should start in pregnancy.

•Bread
Insects love grains, so it takes a lot of insecticides to keep them at bay. Malathion is especially popular with food processors, showing up in most conventional, grain-based packaged foods like bread, saltines, graham crackers, tortillas, cookies, and breakfast cereals. School lunches are full of it; so are doggie flea dips and head lice shampoo, but there its links to lower IQ and ADHD are less troubling.

•Frozen Lasagne
Beef, cheese, tomatoes, and pasta—four of the big chemical carriers join forces in a single dish. Popular brands even contain DDT-class pesticides. Have you read Silent Spring?

•Pick your poison
Is it chips and salsa? Ice cream? Coffee? What’s your personal favorite indulgence? If you eat a lot of it or eat it often, it’s a good idea to eat it organic. A little bit of a particular toxin can be tolerated, but buildup and overexposure to a single substance can be harmful.

Organic foods can be costly, but they represent long-term investment in our health and environment.  Shop strategically and you and the planet will get the most value out of those splurges.

 

Posted in shopping, sustainability | Leave a comment

The Coffee Break- A Vaunted Worker Tradition

coffee cup cozy available at Handmade Coffee's Etsy store

coffee cup cozy available at Handmade Coffee’s Etsy store

 

The lunch break has all but disappeared under a mountain of emails, but the coffee break seems inviolable.
It’s a highlight of the workday, the favorite employee benefit even at perk-heavy companies like Google with their ping pong tables and free haircuts. The Department of Labor even gives it special status—lunchtime can be off the books but coffee breaks have to be paid.

Some of us need more coffee than others.
Every year Dunkin’ Donuts teams up with CareerBuilder to survey Americans about their workplace coffee habits. The most recent survey ranked the top 10 heaviest coffee drinking professions:

  1. food prep and food service workers
  2. scientists and lab technicians
  3. sales reps
  4. marketing and PR professionals
  5. nurses
  6. writers and editors
  7. business and finance executives
  8. K-12 teachers
  9. engineers
  10. IT managers and network administrators

Even if your profession didn’t make the top 10 you’re probably drinking coffee on the job. Optimize the habit with these apps for coffee breakers:

coffee-break-app

Caffeine Tracker monitors the body’s metabolization of caffeine. Just provide a few body specs and record your consumption and it displays the current level of caffeine in your bloodstream in a color-coded pie chart.

Are you the one making the Starbucks run? Skip the post-its and keep all the no-foams and half-cafs straight with Coffee Order.

Up Coffee correlates your coffee drinking with your sleep patterns. Give it a few days of your habits and it can tell you how long you’ll feel wired from that last cup and when to cut off the caffeine so that you can get a good night’s sleep.

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

 

 

Posted in coffee, phone applications, workplace | Leave a comment
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