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For several years American Consumers have been exposed to an onslaught of misleading and alarming information about the foods they eat and the plants they grow. The most common of the “pseudo-scientific” or, really, unscientific claims have ignited a passionate anti-GMO movement, whose adherents believe that crops altered by genetic engineering, either by the insertion of a gene slice from the same or another organism or the use of a protein in the organic bacterial pesticide Bacterium Thuringiensis to protect plants from predators are toxic, dangerous and will destroy the environment. The Anti-GMO faction believes that the American Government conspires with “Big Ag” and “Big Food” to poison its citizens, that genetically engineered organisms and the pesticides they are engineered to resist are carcinogens, that the pesticides used on engineered organisms are killing off bees and lepidoptera and will result in over half of US Children will be autistic by mid-century, that the policies of the companies holding patents for the seeds have caused famine in the third world and wide spread suicide among farmers ruined by corporate policy and that GMO crops will cause loss of all plant diversity.
In 2014 I chose the topic of GMO fears as the subject for a paper for the excellent McGill University course 181X, Food for Thought. It’s point was not to refute the anti GMO claims but to examine the means by which half of the “greatest country on earth” and much of Europe have come not only to accept and fear them as proven fact but to defend them tooth and nail against legitimate research. A list of sources of legitimate information, which is extremely hard to find due to the proliferation of pseudo-science on the Internet, is provided below. Here is the paper:
According to an ABC poll  earlier this year, 52% of Americans believe that genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat and 13% are “unsure” Two thirds of the American public fear a technology that has been proven safe to the extent that proving anything safe is possible – Genetically engineered organisms have been shown to be safe not only by extensive FDA, independent, and international research. No legitimate studies have been able to show any correlation between modified crop consumption or agriculture and harm to humans, the environment or other organisms.
The European Commission invested over 450 million Euros between the years 2001 and 2010 on research exploring potential risks of modified organisms. None were found.  Not one of the many governmental and private research organizations around the world which have tested genetic engineering extensively for potential hazards has yet been successful in detecting risk.
The attitudes of 52% of American consumers and activists range from mild concern to outrage and extreme fear. Activists and voters have attempted and in Hawaii briefly succeeded in passing bans on GMO crops. Over half of the American population demand that any GMO foods be labeled. This demand includes foods containing sugars – fructose and sucrose – which are chemical compounds indistinguishable from/ identical to sugars from non-GMO crops. Consumer pressure has moved corporations like General Mills to remove GMO ingredients from their foods with the ironic result that those products cannot be vitamin fortified and are thus less healthy.
Consumer ecological and world political objections range from fears that modified organisms will wipe out genetic diversity to Vandana Shiva’s claim that practices of companies like Monsanto, the producer of Roundup and patent holder for many GMO seed varieties have driven Indian peasants to commit suicide. .
If GMO crops have been researched and found safe by the world’s most respected organizations and promise real solutions for current and coming ecological and world nutritional challenges, how can two thirds of American consumes reject them? How does myth, ignorance and decidedly cultish belief trump empirical data in the national consciousness?
Very few people even understand what GMO means, for one thing.
What is a “GMO”.
A GMO is a Genetically Modified Organism, which leaves the unfortunate impression that there are tiny life forms or chemical bits in GMO products. BT corn and Roundup Resistant soy are GMO’s. Cattle and Pork are not GMO’s, but cattle or chicken which has been fed genetically engineered corn or soy is termed GMO by those with GMO agendas and concerns. Sugar, as explained above, is not GMO, but soft drinks, tomato sauce or baked goods containing sugar produced from genetically modified sugar beets are inappropriately classified “GMO’s”, leading to the inaccurate claim that 90% of the food sold in America is GMO.
Crops are genetically engineered for various reasons and by various methods – generally the process involves isolating a gene from a related or unrelated organism with a desired characteristic, creating a ‘vector’ of that gene, injecting the vector into a bacterium in turn is used to “infect” plant cells .The desired altered characteristic of the organism can be water tolerance in rice, bacterial resistance in threatened species like papayas, grapes, mangos or creating grapes resistant to the devastating bacterium xylella fastidosa. A protein from a bacterium (Bacillus Thuringiensis) is inserted into the corn genome to prevent corn borer infection. The most despised and feared GMO products are glyphosate resistant plants, also known as “Roundup Ready”. Roundup is the brand of Glyphosate produced by Monsanto.
Thre are very few GMO crop varieties in production. The only commercially produced crops are corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, squash, and papaya. A newly developed Potato strain has just been released for planting, as well, and a recently announced strain of browning resistant apples is expected to be available for sale in about two years. No distribution company at this stage. however, would be prepared to bring arugula or melons with altered genes to the market. None the less, customers demand that oatmeal be labeled for genetically altered strains and ask at farmers’ markets is the strawberries are GMO free.
Many countries in Europe have bowed to public pressure and have blocked planting of some of these crops. Note that these decisions were made to comply with public sentiment and not scientific data.
We are romantics and we tend to be luddites.
Or perhaps we are simply hopelessly nostalgic. When Alice Waters stood on the steps of San Francisco City Hall and smiled benevolently over the hundreds of volunteers who had fought tooth and nail to have a spot getting their hands dirty in the Garden For America, an entire nation went out and bought potting soil, throwback overalls and canning jars. America now pickles, cans and puts up wearing designer overalls. Chemistry, physics and big industry – big food, big ag, big resale, big chemistry – has no place in the romantic imagination of people who envision their carrots dug one at a time from a halcyon garden.
When Friederich Wohler first managed to synthesize urea from organic compounds (not from pee) in the 19th century, thus paving the way for synthetic adrenaline and many other chemicals the scientific community was outraged at the suggestion that living juices should not contain “vital essences”. Today the “vital force theory” still exists.  If God had intended us to fly, he would have given us wings. Our religious roots offer world views based on belief rather than knowledge – sects like Rosicrucians and Christian Scientists reject proven medical treatment in favor of faith. We have snake dancers.
We are lazy thinkers. We want simple answers to complex questions. We perceive, partially due to more and more alarming media coverage, that many frightening diseases have exploded into the population during the same period that GMO crops were being first developed then introduced, so we want to believe that doing away with the science will reduce the incidence of cancer, autism and many others. We would rather believe charismatic speakers or writers than deal with analytical reality, which requires curiosity and some effort. In matters GMO I have heard the arguments, “You may have some facts, but I have to go with my heart” (as in Jonestown or anti vaccination?) and, “It’s best not to fool with mother nature,”, that maternal giver of polio, athletes foot, hemorrhoids, tsunamis and locust swarms. By all means. Trust Mom.
Most of us understand little or no science and are not interested in finding out: We are not a stupid country, but neither are we as a whole well educated. According to New York Magazine writer Jim Holt less than 10% of Americans are scientifically literate.  Radical anti GMO activists make fruitful use of this. I once heard an anti-GMO speaker shout to a crowd: “ I want you to ask every waiter in every restaurant, to ask every butcher, every grocer, ‘Is this MUTANT food.” And the crowd roared agreement. The crowd did not know the meaning of “mutant”. As a people we Americans lack both the vocabulary and the critical skills to distinguish between truth and rhetoric.
Americans are not critically trained: We like to believe: We are seduced by sensationalist media and the false prophets, snake oil salesmen, charlatans and quacks. If enough celebrities speak to an issue, we generally believe them. We lack the tools to determine the accuracy of studies and scientific predictions.
The GMO panic began with a 1999 publication in the Lancet by S.W. Ewen and Arpad of the Rowett Research Institute Pusztai stating that rats fed on GM potatoes suffered intestinal damage , followed by the publication of a study by Gilles-Éric Séralini stating that rats fed GMO corn suffered alarming rates of cancer. Although the first study was retracted and the research money returned by Rowett and the second ingloriously withdrawn (it has since been republished to provide the text), the anxiety they created remains in a bizarre Internet version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. – the more legitimate science tries to explain how facts worth, the more traction those dealing with angst and hyperbole attain. Anit GMO writers base many of their arguments on “Scientists have proven”, or “A published scientific article proves,” using these studies. They are convincing. Vani Hari actually persuaded the government of famine struck Zambia to reject shipments of life saving food on Hari’s advice. 
We are swamped by misinformation: Not only does passionate and irrational GMO opposition linger despite the efforts of concerned scientists to educate the public, but fanned by a celebrity created by the GMO debate it has all but overtaken the Internet and media. The anti-science community is now a profitable and well connected industry. One of the country’s impressive quacks, Dr. Joseph Mercola, has since taken up the anti GMO cause. Mercola  who is one of the forces behind the anti-vaccination campaign and who has been censured by the FDA  for other dangerous claims and practices is a frequent guest of Dr Oz, a highly vocal GMO opponent. (Oz has begun to distance himself from GMO opposition since the end of February 2014, but it is unclear where he stands at this time.)
Misinformation is an industry: Mercola is a relatively small fry compared to Vedana Shiva, a heroin of the Earth Justice movement, who has been honored for her work. It was Shiva who claimed that hundreds of Indians had committed suicide because they could no longer afford seed, among other things. She has recently been much in the news in a bust up with New Yorker science writer Michael Specter, who challenged the accuracy of her statements.  Shiva published a venomous ad homonym response, to which Specter’s editor, David Remnick, replied with violent logic.
Slow Food: The most illustrious name to ascend the soap box is probably Alice Waters: It’s a very big important thing. We are talking about the seeds that gives us life. To imagine a company that wants to buy those seeds, patent those seeds, alter those seeds and and sell them back to us, it’s criminal.”  Waters, the poster child for the Slow Food Movement, follows founder and leader Carlo Petrini’s doctrine, and foodies follow Alice.
The disciples: Their followers blog, and blogs become memes. Organic Consumers’ blog tells you ten ways (they say) GMO will kill you.  Taking things one step further “Food Babe” has set the Internet afire with claims that “wheat belly”, since the question of gluten sensitivity has been laid to rest, is caused by glyphosate sprayed on wheat – even though the wheat is not GMO. . There are so many of these blogs that finding reliable and fact based information has become extremely difficult.
Innumerable irresponsible sites like Realfarmacy.com, which hosts pieces by Mercola, offer a potpourri of faux science, alarmism and sensational misinformation, which is spread as memes via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Social networking has given false prophets a platform and leant quackery wings.
The established media repeats and thus affirms the claims: From lone prophets to the respected media: As the sheer volume of Anti-GMO sites and followers makes data harder and harder to find, legitimate organizations like NPR and Consumer Digest miss on fact checking and support the myth rather than the data. The UPI mistakenly picked up and broadcast vaccination opponent Stephanie Seneff’s claim that glyphosate (Roundup) would make half of all babies autistic stating that “MIT Scientist Claims..” , news outlets reprint the allegations, and it’s a wrap. The entire country believes false statements, since they come from trusted sources.
Universities legitimize the myths: The interaction of popular intellectual media and Universities have given Anti GMO authors and journalists like Michael Polan and Mark Bittman a legitimizing forum for thee philosophies in which they Believe. Marion Nestle of NYU, Bittman and Polan, who heads the Department of Journalism at Berkeley have all spoken against Genetically engineered crops.  University of California Berkely is currently offering a course in Food policy, Edible Education 101  .
Stephanie Senneff presents herself and is presented by the media and Anti-GMO activists as an “MIT scientist,” which makes here the defacto voice of MIT.
What’s in it for the writers, for the bloggers and the followers? Follow the money: Grants, speakers’ fees, web sites selling cures. Ads on blogs. Vedana Shiva demands $40,000 per speaking engagement. She appears to live well.  Mercola pushes miracle cures. Oz has his media empire. As for the new girl on the block, Stepehanie Seneff, whose prediction that glyphosate, the herbicide used in some GMO plantings would cause half the country to be autistic: speakers fees and possibly the gratification of being celebrated as the voice of MIT on issues biochemical. (Seneff is a computer science professor, not a microbiologist).
Further down the disinformation chain there is social cohesion. Belief and belonging foster identity. Once believers join the march they are members of a community which tolerates no contradiction.
What about the politics? A tricky part about the public consensus of democracy is that people believe that everything is democratic, including science. It is not. Science is evidence based, or to use a nice word, “empirical”. Daniel Moynihan’s :”You are entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” is poorly understood. Equipped with fear and a surplus of bad information a growing number of not only Americans but Europeans have begun to demand either that GMO foods be labeled or be forbidden altogether. The Council of Europe in a bow to public opinion granted member nations the right to ban import of GMO crops, and some have. The California County of Sonoma and Kauai in Hawaii voted on outright bans on GMO growing. The Sonoma proposition lost, but Hawaii’s passed. It has since been overturned. Politics overrules science, and by doing so negates science.
Readers’ Digest Version: A small number of blogging public activists used a discredited study to promote an anti-science / pseudo-science agenda. Their misinformation is picked up and promoted first by media figures and food celebrities then by legitimate media sources, leading an unquestioning and scientifically poorly educated public to fear food created by genetic engineering. Activists who profit from the GMO hysteria use this fear to demand cessation of genetically engineered farming and failing that to demand labelling of all products containing any substances derived from genetically engineered crops. A bad study leads to national hysteria.
There are, however, a few bright points. The media seems to be picking up on a nascent “Science is Cool” sentiment. Oz appears to have changed his opinion, Celebrity Scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has come out against pseudo scientists with his usual short tempered accuracy, and hysteria usually dies down at some point. And then there are a few very sane and very clear and unbiased voices.
Nathanael Johnson, a refreshingly unbiased agriculture writer for the ecology site, www.gryst.com, has written a series on the truth and myths of GMO’s. He has a few more ideas as to the cause of the roots of genetic hysteria. For one thing, says Johnson, the company associated with GMO crops and Roundup is Monsanto, the company responsible for and still closely associated with Agent Orange, which, in turn, is emotionally linked to Roundup. “For most people, I suspect, GMOs are a metaphor — a stand-in for of all that is vaguely frightening in our food system. People attach their mistrust of agribusiness and fear of the unknown to this metaphor.”
Bibliography and Footnotes.
1) Gary Langer. Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods. ABC Poll. June 19/?. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=97567Poll: Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods 2) A Decade of EU Funded GMO research 2. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, decade of EU Funded Research, ISBN 978-92-79-16344-9 / doi 10.2777/97784 3) Ronald, Pamela C; R.W. Adamchak, Tomorrow’s Table. Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. 5) JIM HOLT, Madness About a Method. New York Times Magazine December 11, 2005 6) David H. Freedman Scientific American The Truth About Genetically Modified Food Aug 20,2013. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-truth-about-genetically-modified-food/?page=1 7) Worstall, Forbes. 11/30/2013 That Appalling Seralini GMO Cancer Paper Has Been Withdrawn 8) Joseph Mercola’s Blog: http://gmo.mercola.com/ 9) Quack Watch.Com – http://www.quackwatch.com/11Ind/mercola.html 10)Michael Specter, Seeds of Doubt. Annals of Science August 25, 2014 Issue http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/25/seeds-of-doubt
11) Mischa Popoff & Patrick Moore & Robert Wager, Organics versus GMO: Why the debate? October 15, 2013, Genetic Literacy Project http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/15/organics-versus-gmo-why-the-debate/ 12) Alice Waters Discusses Food, Community, and GMOs November 14, 2012 Yoli’s Green Living. http://yolisgreenliving.com/2012/11/alice-waters-discusses-food-community-gmos/  Alexis Baden-Mayer & Ronnie Cummins, Ten ways GMO foods are killing you – And the Planet Organic Consumers Association, February 1, 2012 http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_24800.cfm 14) The Healthy Home Economist. http://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/real-reason-for-toxic-wheat-its-not-gluten/
15) Carlo Petrini. Ten Reasons to Say No GMOS Italy – March 5, 2015 – Carlo Petrini http://www.slowfood.com/international/food-for-thought/focus/71683/ten-reasons-to-say-no-gmos/q=25F06E 16) Keith Kloor, The Rich Allure of a Peasant Champion. Discover Magazine. October 23, 2014 3:29 pm 17) David Remnick, New Yorker editor David Remnick responds to Vandana Shiva criticism of Michael Specter’s profile The Genetic Literacy Project. September 2, 2014 http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2014/09/02/new-yorker-editor-david-remnick-responds-to-vandana-shiva-criticism-of-michael-specters-profile/ 18) Nathaneal Johnson, Panic-Free-GMO’s. Grist.com July 8, 2013 continuing.
16) BBC: Zambia rejects GMO food aid. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/2371675.stm
17) Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman and Michael Polan
Rebuttal to Mark Bittman on GMO’s
18) The UC Berkely course Edible Education 101. http://edibleschoolyard.org/ee101
Nathanael Johnson, Gryst. http://grist.org/food/rat-retraction-reaction-journal-pulls-its-gmos-cause-rat-tumors-study/ GMO mythbuster.
Nathanael Johnson’s Panic-Free-GMO series in Gryst.com beginning 8 Jul 2013 http://grist.org/series/panic-free-gmos/
(this post is about 07 Adverse Food Reactions / Food Production Stories)
Scienced Based Medicine: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org
International Scientific Organizations and State and international health organizations stating that GMO’s cause no risk. http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/GLP-Science-and-GMOs.pdf
The New York Times on Vani Hari, the most prolific of the anti GMO food bloggers and vaccination deniers: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/style/taking-on-the-food-industry-one-blog-post-at-a-time.html?_r=0
I lived an involuntarily local existence for ten of the twenty or so years in Switzerland.
It is the kind of food experience mourned by tediously delusional dreamers who have not participated in it – with a pervading nostalgia for a photo-shopped emotional landscape of happy cows and crofts and the simple elegance and purity of an age they feel we should never have left behind.
This was the good part: Fresh eggs from the farm, carried home in saved flour bags. Half a pig and half a calf butchered by the local butcher and divided under his supervision to be put in the freezer. Mache and fabulous winter salads in season, berries, stone fruit leeks and tender beans straight from the field or orchard. Fresh pressed apple juice on frosty late summer mornings and air filtered ten gallon bottles to dispense apple juice throughout the winter. Real veal. A fresh chicken every time we ran one over on the road home. Otherwise on order. Fresh cream. Wood oven baked Meringue. Bread made in a hollow of the dying coals of an oven fired at 5:00 am.. A really great still which produced Kirsch that burned with a pure blue flame. Sides of raw smoked bacon to cut off in little tiles whenever you wanted. Landjaeger, square sausages. Emmentaller. Fondue. Raclette. Venison or wild boar any time somebody ran into one on the steep road into the village. Dole wine sitting in front of a roaring fire and looking out over the snow white fields towards the black forest.
This was the rough part: Initially almost no citrus, and then at a price. Non raw milk needed to be ordered a week in advance. No avocados. Long winters. Eight or so months living on roots and cabbage. Two to three weeks of hot, sticky canning during the season in addition to a full time job. Having to break down the calf and the pig in a cold cellar until your fingers ached and the blood stung in the scratches on your hands. Seafood restricted to fish sticks (inland country). A local market with the worst of frozen foods. Canned beans. Canned peas. Canned asparagus. Leberkaese. Horse flies. Tough beef. Canned spaghetti. Tape worms (fortunately none of them ours). Grit and dirt in everything from leeks to peas. The fine smell of animal and human fertilizer sprayed over snow in winter (so it would soak in gradually) and the times when some fool farmer sprayed it on ice instead, so it entered the water system. Going down to the town with old milk cans for water until the system cleared. Dead hedgehog stuck in the dryer vent for weeks. Canned milk when we couldn’t get it fresh. Raw milk that tasted of nothing but udder and barn. Cowbells at 2:00 am.
So we cheated: We crossed the border for white asparagus. We drove all the way up to Germany to get into the American PX for beef. Of course it wasn’t cheating then, because we didn’t know we should eat local. Except for smuggling everything past customs. Fortunately Swiss customs guards never looked too closely at cars with two women and either screaming or sleeping babies in the back seats, stuffed in between the boxes of Post Exchange pampers ( not yet available in Switzerland) with American beef and plunder stuffed in between.
The day Migros finally opened a supermarket within a 30 minute drive, I joined all the women from the surrounding villages, lining up for hours to buy Spanish oranges and Israeli avocados, lemons, $40 a pound American steak and French wines and cheese. Migros is the anathema of contemporary sustainability standards: Seasonal be damned, big box and discount with a massive variety of everything including a full service cheese department that would put any cheese shop in the US to shame. The supermarket had a counter of the best of European varieties that extended from the front to the back, a full butcher shop and fresh seafood. We loved it. I still love the place, as food politically incorrect as it may be.
My forty minute commute from the school where I chaired the English department passed along a frontage road by the freight rail tracks. Things in Switzerland tend to be pristine and perfect, but beside the narrow road was an unmarked, roughhewn wood structure, like a temporary construction office, from which I had noticed people emerging with shopping bags. When I needed milk too close to the 5:30 local shop closing time, I decided to see if I could buy some there.
Inside the shotgun structure was whitewashed with myriad cheeses, produce, and salumi displayed at the front in upturned produce crates stacked to form a crude counter. Prosciuto and dried vines dripping wrinkled up tomatoes hung from the rafters, and oil, pasta, sweets and canned goods were stacked on simple pine shelves at the back.
The apparent owner was speaking rapid fire Italian to three or four men in splotchy overalls, probably guest laborers from the nearby chemical plants, and a couple of older women in black, grabbing things from the shelves, measuring out olives, rice, and cornmeal into brown paper bags. She ignored me.
I stood fixed to the floor, staring at the exotic foods and not understanding a word.
In a pause I managed to say “Scusi,” which I had heard at the butcher shop, and pointed to a cheese, holding out my hands to show the size of a piece I would like. She cut it and signaled another, apparently praising it, cut a little piece for me to taste. I took a hunk of that, too.
A man emerged from the back of the store, exchanged a few words with the woman, then turned to me and said forcefully, “Parmiggiano Raggiano della Prima Qualita”, my first real Italian phrase, pointing to the wheel. “Very good,” he said in German. I nodded and was given a piece. I signaled the tomatoes and then the prosciutto and was given a vine and a number of slices on waxed paper. They handed me pasta, olive oil. He kept saying “Very Good”. I kept nodding.
I was in a daze. What they proposed with hand signals, unintelligible Italian and a the man’s Swiss German vocabulary of perhaps twenty words. I bought. The other customers had purchased a hundred grams of salumi or mortadella, a box of cookies and perhaps a brick of ice cream. I spent about a tenth of a month’s salary, filling the back of our tree frog green 4cv hatchback with boxes of food. We parted friends.
Initially my husband was not pleased. We had what I then would have best described as cold cuts for dinner with Italian cookies for dessert. He came around. The next night we had fresh pasta.
I told my neighbors and my best friend, Ruth, who grew up in Tecino, across the border from Italy. She showed me what to do with the polenta and the tomatoes – I did not know. She went down that week, then told her friends.
I told my colleagues at work about the market. The chemistry teacher began bringing the more adventurous offerings for after class breaks. Swiss schools then were civilized, and we had white wine and food in the two long pauses. We started an antipasti pool.
The store became more crowded. I signed up for Italian lessons.
We left local in the rear view mirror and never looked back.
In those years the Swiss didn’t think much of the Italians, the Greeks or the Spanish, probably because most of them were guest labor permitted to remain in the country as long as there were jobs the Swiss wouldn’t do. Too many Swiss thought them dirty, lazy, stupid and mostly dishonest and treated them accordingly.They called them cinquen after the card game the men played in the pubs at night, a word vaguely equivalent to WOP (which interestingly enough means “With Out Papers”) and accused them of any crime or mishap in the area. Some Swiss claimed that the Italians would dilute pure Swiss blood and Swiss culture. That may sound vaguely familiar.
I had little opinion, except that I knew from my experience with our old house manager, Leo Delvasto, who worked by day as a mechanic, that they were neither lazy nor dirty, and surely not dishonest. Leo’s wife, Marinella, had moped our stairway every time one of the high rise tenants passed, outswissing the Swiss, and lured me into their apartment to pour tiny cups of strong coffee with boxed cookies every time I passed on the stairs. I liked Marina and Leo.
There is hardly a Swiss today who would own to ever having looked down on the Italians. The children of the grease monkeys became doctors and business men. My old neighbor Leo DelVasto has retired after owning the most prestigious Ferrari dealership in Northern Switzerland. Today everyone wants to speak, eat, and furnish their homes Italian. I think I always did.
I suspect, without denying the immigrants their due for hard work and intelligence, that my hut of a store and others like it throughout Switzerland helped pave their way. Pasta diplomacy. The shop, I have been told, has since moved to the center of the town and is breathtakingly expensive today. Well, good for them, although I would have wished it had stayed right where and just as it was, and that I could go back any time I got to Basel. It was one of those wonderful experiences you appreciate at the moment, but perhaps not quite enough.
The Swiss Italian culinary rapprochement and the resulting endless fun of eating those wonderful, strange foods we now all take for granted, discovering new tastes and flavors is the absolute opposite of the current locavore belief system, which places provincial prejudices above the vast offerings of the world beyond tribe, village, state or country – a silly little idea based on the false algorithm of Local = Better.
Excluding any and all distant enterprises or agriculture from commerce comes down to protectionism. Exclusively supporting your local farmer or fisherman in all fairness would implicate in the extreme that your local farmer or fisherman should not invade others’ commercial territory, Minnesota would have no oranges and Phoenix no blueberries. Whether or not that economy would function if resuscitated is a mute point, as the global economy has long crossed the Rubicon. Talk about spoilsport.
Local is not a synonym for good food and global is not an irresponsible choice. The opposite of good is inauthentic, over processed, stale, warehouse ripened, bad. Not foreign. Not imported. Not produced out of state. Everything is local somewhere. But that’s just my opinion, and those who hold eating local a necessity won’t be influenced by it. How sad for them. We apostates will enjoy the bananas, Grana Pedano and Epoisses they disdain. The injustice will remain that we will enjoy not only the best of what is grown here but supplement it with what the rest of the world produces. Back yard honey or maple syrup – the choice is ours. Pity the poor locavore. Viva Italia. Viva Helvetia.Viva il Mondo.
This year’s cherries are nearly compensation for San Francisco’s bleak and endless winter – plentiful, fat sweet and juicy. Vendors at the Alemany Market have so many that they pack up bags of four to five pounds of the nearly perfect fruit for $5 two hours before the stalls closed.
“I’m cherried out,” says Naomi, as she passes them up. “I can’t get enough of them, ever,” swears Lisa., “I can’t stop eating them.”
I used to live an a cherry economy. They were the life blood of my village on the slopes of the Swiss Jura. We were surrounded by orchards, where the white blossom lace covering the hillsides brought buses of Germans out the Basel city dwellers in hiking knickers and boots to hike the winding trains between the stands of trees in bloom and stop at Restaurants Kreuz or Roessli to wash down cold meat or cheese with a beer and a shot of local Kirsch.
The Kirsch came from the Schwarzbuben distillery in Nuglar, which processed the local fruit into a delicately cherry scented eau de vie that burns with a pure blue flame. It was the villages only real industry. The owners, the Morrand family, also owned the grocery store, which carried baby booties and tools in addition to a full line of respectable schnapps – the signature product of course being Kirsch – and a meager assortment of groceries.
For the farmers they brewed a stronger schnapps for the tax free liters allotted per cow.
Cows and orchards are symbiotic. The Cows graze the hills too steep for mowing in summer and live off silage from late summer grass in winter. In return the trees are fed with the runoff from the stalls sprayed on the snow around the trunks. The two liters, well above the 90 proof commercial schnapps, are purportedly for washing down udders. The cows, the farmers maintain, like it better than rubbing alcohol. It probably gets used for that now and then.
If you are lucky, you will be offered the good stuff straight or in Kaffee Kirsch, the Swiss equivalent of Irish coffee, in warm farmhouse kitchens smelling just a little of the adjoining stall. The farmers prefer to drink at Kreuz or Roessil, where they sit on the warm tiled oven and grumble about the cherry crop.
Cherry farming isn’t an easy way to make a living. Even if the blossoms don’t shoot prematurely in the treacherous warm days of February die in the ensuing freeze, the “Ice Saints”, killing frosts on the saints’ days of Pankratius, Servatius und Bonifatius in late May, can wipe out an entire crop. A thunder storm can bruise and decimate the fruit hours before harvest. Too much rain, and the cherries split or mildew. Not enough rain stunts or shrivels them. A good year producing an abundance of cherries lowers the prices. Cherry farmers are completely content only one day a year: when the trees have been picked bare of all but a few stragglers, the square, slat wood baskets filled with perfect, sweet black cherries have been loaded on the truck and the check for the fruit is signed.
Harvesting is communal. Children, cousins, and friends climb into the crowns of twenty foot trees with deep willow baskets belted around their waists. They descend to dump the full baskets into crates, then return to the tree tops
Most summers we picked with friends, standing high on wooden ladders handed down for generations. Their round rungs pressed through the soles of our thick boots. The sticky cherry juice stung the twig scratches on our hands and signaled to wasps that we were fair game. I miss it, none the less – the smells and buzz of summer, the shade of the tree crowns, the increasing weight of the basket hanging from my belt and the feel of the hard, cool cherries in the summer heat. I can still pick cherries out of a pile with my eyes shut. My fingers see the flaws.
The health authorities cautioned seniors not to go up the ladders, because old people now and then either died of the heat or a stroke on the ladders and fell to the ground dead, or fell off the ladders, or drop off and perished on impact. It was a sort of chicken and egg question, and, in the end, it didn’t really matter which came first. Few were deterred. There are worse exits.
Cautious elders, sore footed pickers and kids with stemmed pairs hanging over their ears sort through the crates being filled for the silver flatbed cannery truck that followed the one lane road winding along the hillsides from orchard to orchard. The buyers, usually Hero A.G., demand flawless fruit with stems. A few bad pieces in a crate get the entire lot rejected.
A day of picking probably produces enough fruit to fill thirty 20lb slatwood crates. The pickers take home a basket or two plus the culls for jam, Kirschpfannkuchen (Clafoutis), Weihe, a fruit and custard tart, and cherry pound cake.
Except for the jam, the pits stay in. Otherwise the cherries bleed and make the cake soggy. Everyone expects pits and either swallows them or spits them out. Competitive distance spitting makes cherry picking more entertaining than the plum harvest. My pastry chef friend Paul tells me that he tried real clafoutis with pits in here in San Francisco, but he gave up. Every customer complained, despite the servers’ warnings. Management had liability concerns.
For the jam I had a manual two barreled cherry picker. It sprayed everywhere, so it could only be used outside. Mostly we just ate them with the stones or stood on the edge of our porch and vied for the longest shot. I never won.
Everyone agrees that the cherries this year are magnificent. Maybe miserable winters are the secret of a perfect crop. I have four pounds in bowls around the house. I’m thinking cherry pancake, pits and all. Three or four eggs with the whites whipped a little, the yolks stiffened with a few tablespoons of flour, a little salt, a bit of milk, folded together and poured over cherries strewn on the bottom of the frying pan with plenty of melted butter, then cooked until it’s hot and sweet with dark cherry tops shining through the golden brown crust.
When they’re wrong they’re wrong.
Harold Camping isn’t the only one waffling these days, after pronouncing the much awaited rapture to have actually taken place on the 21st, then saying it didn’t happen, then saying it actually did. In case you haven’t heard, it was invisible, but the world will now really, really end on October 21st of this year, so forget your diet, and you probably don’t have to vacuum after about October 7.
Your government has been doing the same thing for years. The United States Department of Agricultured, among other bureaus, has been pronouncing what is good and what is bad, molding America’s food choices for the length of it’s 105 year existence. In 1916 the first food pyramid was created to advise parents on child nutrition. With input from the United States Department of Agriculture, congressmen from agricultural states and commodity board lobbyists, the pyramid has shaped America’s diet in ways which are hardly fact based.
In the most recent upgrade, also under the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups, the FDA said, “Gee, that was all wrong — or, ummhhh, sort of wrong,” and reshuffled the nutritional building blocks of the national diet like a tangram..
The USDA also tells you what is safe to eat and what to avoid. They change their minds a lot.
I was a baby during the waning years of rationed butter, cream and sugar. My mother was always proud that she, guided by her government, had saved the good stuff for me. I was fattened up nicely and am will fight off the pounds until dead. Milk and meat, sugar, eggs and grains flip flop in Food Pyramid world between beneficial and detrimental. My father after having had a hardened carotid artery shattered by a passing bullet, spent his life until he was about 75 eating only egg whites, chicken and poached fish. At seventy six he said to Hell with it, and lived for another twenty on a diet full of eggs Benedict, burgers, ice cream, cheese and fried calamari. It wasn’t the cholesterol that got him in the end He would be amused to hear now that butter, eggs and fat are officially healthier than margarine, to which my mother had attributed his survival. We all suffered with him. Thanks FDA.
What the federal bureau advises, local politicians legislate in a rush to show you they care (in the hopes you will care for them) by banning Caesar Salad or hamburgers or potentially sodas. San Francisco passed a rule forbidding the sale of steak not cooked through, then backed off and demanded that servers provide warnings. Raw milk is too extensive a subject for now, but raw milk wars rage on, with the US Federal and several state governments scrapping with the Amish on the subject.
These decisions and fiats are not uninformed, but they are pretty often incompletely informed, and the lag between the time when policy is determined and when it adapts to hard science can be bafflingly long, but praise the Lord and pass the medium rare pork chop, it does happen.
One of the great taboos passed down for the past few generations was that of raw pork. It was based on an extremely nasty tiny, deadly parasite called trichina, which once could be found in pork and occasionally in wild venison, and, as four US WWII Soldiers discovered to their dismay , in insufficiently cooked polar bear shot by conquering, drunken heroes and grilled on the spot at the Berlin Zoo.
In all probability you think of Babe, Animal Farm and Charlotte’s Web, when you think of pig farming – slops, smiling porkers wallowing in mud and talking to spiders. Time was, yes. Today’s pig farming, whether industrial or back to the olden days, is far different, as are most of the pigs, and there hasn’t been a case of trichinosis in the US for decades.
One of my favorite things in Switzerland was “Speck”. This isn’t the Italian speck, but raw, smoked bacon, hung in the wine cellar and sliced off to be eaten with beer, dark brown bread and mustard. I didn’t take any the first few times I was offered. On being asked why, finally, in the farm kitchen of Max The Peasant, I shared my “knowledge” , and set everyone around the long, wax cloth covered table into hysterical laughter. They were bending over and holding their sides, tears running. My creds were shot. Switzerland – like the rest of Europe – where trichina had probably been wiped out at about the same time it disappeared in the US, has been eating raw, cold smoked speck and rare pork chops for about forty years now, all the while we have been washing down dry, cardboard flavored pig.
We seem to have caught up with them, now, at least as far as pork goes. The FDA at last has realized that pink pork is not life threatening only forty years after the Swiss figured it out, so they have published formal permission to have juicy pork chops and steaks, advising cooking it to 140 (medium) and letting it sit (So it will cook more). I’d say forget that. I’ve had very pink chops, and I am looking forward to more of them. So, well, thank you FDA. Better late than never. If I were disposed to listen to Brother Camping, I’d probably eat pork without your blessing, but now nobody’s going to look at me funny.
Time was people couldn’t wait to get off the farm. My father’s family put up everything they had to leave their Oneida truck farm and head out to own and run a small transient hotel in considerably more urban Sterling Colorado. The hotel still had a garden patch – it was the depression and growing food meant having it – where my father picked potato bugs until he was able to escape to college and the eminently more luxurious life of a printer’s devil, who slept under the printing press of the Boulder newspaper. I never once heard him speak wistfully of the experience.
To a generation forced to read travails of the Job family in the Grapes of wrath, farming sounded less than romantic, until the Hippies resurrected and altered the concept in a back to the land rush of families and co-ops, living in buses and communes across the country and raising equal crops of corn and pot . I missed that bullet, but fate and hormones (call it love if you will) moved me to a town on a plateau in the Jura mountains with twice as many cows as people and a mish mash of cross hatched fields and orchards, farm gardens and eventually our own plot. In the second season our plot took on truck farm proportions thanks to a borrowed tractor, and I was, like it or not, farming, at least by todays altered criteria. I thought it was gardening at the time, but the concept has been adjusted to meet our romantic nostalgia for what you probably didn’t know, so that any meridian or sidewalk cutout with a stray carrot now counts as a farm.
I escaped the Alp in ’85 to a city house with too much land behind it and found myself caught up again in the world of digging forks and slugs and soil amendments, aiding my newly divorced budget to feed a twelve year old. It was my lonely love hate cross to bear 2008 created a gardening explosion.
Alice Waters and Slow Food, with vast funds, installed a “Victory Garden” (what were we trying to vanquish, actually?) in the City Hall Plaza. The “plots” were made of straw bumpers filled with luxury soil and planted with pre grown flowering and fruiting “crops” by a few hundred eager volunteers – there was a waiting list – while Alice stood on the steps with her hands folded and took a lot of credit but no dirt under her nails. His Honor Gavin Newsom, on the other hand, was down on his knees planted pre grows heritage beans and nearly grown kohlrabi and romaine with the disciples, Godblessem.. Waters claimed the plot was producing 200lb of food a week for the homeless, (I’d guess more like fifteen).
Of course this was not really farming. Nor, for that matter, was it extreme gardening. It was container planting. Someone described it more precisely as agro decorating – placing fully grown plants in a tastefully created pattern of improvised containers. Real farming involves seeds and weeds and fungus and worrying that grubs and funghi don’t get it before it’s big enough to resist. It’s all muddy boots and washing off the leeks so as not to stuff up the drain with mud. Containers are not farms. Nor does farming involve around the clock guards (more volunteers) to keep the bums from snatching the tomatoes and relieving themselves among the squash.
The “Victory Garden” was an immediate success. San Franciscans marched reverently through the paths separating the snap peas from the corn in awe, few remarking that the VG’s tomatoes were free from the early blight and powdery mildew which afflicts our own coastal vines. Waters, aided by an adoring and unquestioning food press, urged America to go out, rip out their lawns and plant corn and tomatoes, and rip they did. Local stores ran short of Burpee’s seed and Home Depot hired new garden sales people.
With the Slow Food spin the construct of d.i.y. food production eventually morphed from garden to “Urban Farm” – a term conveniently offered up without contest by the Urban Farmer drip watering supply store near the zoo. It inspired thousands of urbanites to plant something – most of them to plant way too much and too many. My neighbors dug up their heavy clay and asbestos containing serpentine soil and started a plot, but gave up when reality set in, leaving the weeds to blow seed into my own 26 year old vegetable garden, where my version of vegetable gardening (It really isn’t farming) involves swearing a lot of blue streaks and plenty of Advil.
Organizations like Slow and the Commonwealth Club tossed fuel on the smoldering farm romanticism through panel discussions with Farmer Al from Frog Hollow Farms. Tours were organized to familiarize the city folk with the new organic farm practices.
It was probably Farmer Al, a mountain of a man with a mind to match, who thought first of the entertainment value of farming. Frog Hollow has some of the best stone fruit in the state and a full kitchen, where Al’s pastry chef wife creates jams and pastries available at the Ferry Plaza Market. Big Al figured his packing shed could house a long table and the kitchen could provide food. For a hefty fee he could bring us city slickers out there, run us around the back forty on a tractor bed and feed us an organic banquet under the corrugated tin roof. He started something.
Farming has become a spectator sport. You take your kids to the zoo to see the monkeys, you go to the farm to see the rutabagas. There’s something enchantingly Victorian about the public’s urge for self-betterment through the investigation of the source of things.
Of course farm tours as marketing tools for seed and produce salesmen have been around for years. I have been on a few, and I enjoyed them terrifically, but I considered them part of my job. I could never resist the temptation to make a quick bend and yank out some miners lettuce or grab a handful of soil and play with it, deciding if it is loam or clay or envy it’s damp black coastal crumbs. It was fun because most of the people who were there know about the product or the process – we smelled leaves and tasted tomatoes and wondered what the market price would be.
I got an invitation today from Les Dames de Escoffier for a farm tour – $48 to visit the farms at the University of California at Santa Cruz with lunch made by a graduate. It’s one of at least five such invitations I have received so far this year to do something I considered work people who have never had the opportunity, it’s probably great fun, but I keep hearing the distant echo of Tom Sawyer and the fence in the new identity of Farming as Entertainment.
Culinary Hysteria: Anatomy of a food fad
The inspiration for Culinary Promiscuity came through a book tour presentation by Richard Wrangham, primatologist and author of “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human“. Wrangham theorizes that fire was the pivotal event for human evolution, catapulting our species from tree dwelling, leaf chewing primates to doctors, lawyers and casino magnates.
With more calories available through cooking, says Wrangham, our treed ancestors no longer needed to spend the entire day chewing to fuel their oversized bellies, could climb down from their branches, develop a brain in place of their enormous chewing apparatus, walk upright and begin hunter gathering. All that in turn permitted the development of a voice box followed language, society, tools, the wheel, the written word, the printing press, hors d’oeuvres and eventually Julia Child and Jacques Pepin teaching us how to make puff pastry and employ a Cuisinart the right way. Cooking made us human.
Once published Wrangham’s initially contested theory gained instant popularity among the food crowd. Endorsed by sustainable food guru Michael Pollan, the idea took hold in at least some of the food fixated community. Others, however, didn’t get the memo.
During Wrangham’s book tour presentation a member of the audience mentioned the burgeoning Raw movement, whose adherents eat nothing cooked, maintaining that food in its “natural state”, i.e. raw, was healthier to the point of possessing nearly magical powers. Wrangham gave it short shrift, stating that he had “heard of them” and that they were “always very thin, and very hungry,” suggesting the question : If you’ve come a long way baby, why ever would you want to go back?
The raw food movement, with little regard for Wrangham’s insights or for that matter, any empirical scientific data was gaining momentum and soon topped the foodie topic chart, it’s disciples eschewing their Wolf ranges and promoting the value of all things not only raw but vegan with a truly missionary ignorance.
The first time I heard about the Raw Movement was perhaps ten years earlier, when a restaurant asked me to find him a “special chef. As it happened, Nick Petti , a pretty special guy, dropped by that afternoon. “Have I got a job for you,” I probably said to Nick who undoubtedly raised one eyebrow under his signature jester cap, mumbled the likes of “We’ll see about that,” and took off to have a look. In a couple of hours he was back. I’m pretty sure he slammed his fist on my desk. “Don’t you ever…” he sputtered, then gave me a review of his interview. “He puts pizzas out to dry on the roof in the sun. Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? There are flies!”
I backed off the deal and dismissed the idea as one more visionary loony’s fantasy, but the idea was out of the barn and about to explode. It’s odd how easy it is for outrageous ideas to find followers. Sometime later the raw restaurateur’s book appeared, spawning an initial rush of highly vocal disciples, then suddenly “raw food” was the trend, gathering foodies as it rolled on like a cartoon snowball. Charlie Trotter adopted the philosophy, offering all raw prix fixe menues at this Chicago restaurant, and published a blockbuster book with beautiful pictures in collaboration with Roxanne Klein, who opened a raw cuisine, or “living food” as she put it, restaurant in Marin, claiming credentials from Stars, Square One and Chez Panisse – enough heavy ammunition to awaken the herding instincts of the food mad restaurant followers of the Bay Area. She apparently actually did work at Chez Panisse.
Chefs, on the other hand, scoffed: “The whole thing about being a chef, said one,” is cooking. “That’s what I have been working to learn for ten years, that’s what I went to culinary school for. You gotta have fire.” Wrangham’s point, entirely. The cooking community concurred: the reason you cook things was that a) it made food safer and b) food tastes better. Klein had asked me to find a “chef” for the restaurant, although she, herself, was generally accredited with the food. My searches led nowhere. “You don’t need a chef. That’s a pantry cook,” said potential candidate. The others noted things like, “Hey, man. I gotta do meat.”
The trio of arguments against raw food – safety, flavor and nutritional value – are convincing. The whole raw food philosophy rejects temperatures above 118F, keeping the procuts in the sweet spot for microbe growth for extended periods of time. (The Microbial danger zone is between 40F and 140F). The PH of the vegetable proteins used, for instance to make “dough” of sprouts, is perfect for dangerous critters. As for flavor, the combination of vegan dictates rejecting eggs, milk products and honey plus the processing limitations exclude hot baked biscuits. Eggs Benedict, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, oven baked asparagus, chevre and Waygu sliders. Why would otherwise seemingly intelligent people turn their back on Toast in favor of a Neolithic diet of nuts, soy and berries, skillfully combined in an expensive, high visibility restaurant? Why the lemming rush to the past?
Titillation certainly counts for some of the fad’s and the restaurant’s popularity. The food was reportedly tasty. The usual promotional tricks surely worked; Roxanne’s claimed connections to prestigious kitchens in her press releases, and that kind of provenance – fact based or not – brings in the public. The Klein’s social connections – they included some of the most glamorous figures in San Francisco and Marin, surely did no damage to the project.
One restaurant, however, does not a movement make, and a movement raw became. The press went wild. The SF Chronicle Food section all but pronounced Roxanne’s the second coming and writers around the country followed suit in the usual food press elephant walk, passing the new and outrageously edgy story about in the usual self-fulfilling prophecy mode. Other restaurants, gurus and books were created. Bloggers went bloggy. Raw web sites and “living food” communities were established.
The language was an extra plus. For the same reason “prunes” were re names “dried plums”, using the term “living food” suggests mythical powers, at least if your food is vegan. It would not work as well for omnivorous menus.
Once the herd was in motion, logic was doomed. At the height of the “living food” revolution, any protest against it became advertisement for it. In the food world, printers ink and pixels turn isolated incidents into widespread phenomena. Wealthy women began looking for private chefs who could juice.
Some of us scratched our heads.
The raw public’s unquestioning acceptance of the trend is further puzzling in light of the amount of raw food from orange juice and salad to sushi and carpaccio we were already consuming in our more or less balanced conventional diets. Nobody, at least in California, was deprived of raw food. Reason (and science) would suggest that they were getting enough fiber or vitamins already, but the diehard believers rejected all cooked foods. Why?
Like other food fads, the raw philosophy promotes the “natural” character of the foods, uncompromised by fire. We were intended, they reason, to eat raw and did so exclusively until about 10,000 years ago. (they’re off by only a little more than three million, but precision was never a prerequisite of nutritional fashion.) Raw Foods, proclaim the advocates, are healthy, insinuating that cooked foods are not. It addressed our obsession with unadulterated and real foods as opposed to the poisons we somehow feel we are subjected to. By some twist of logic, “raw” came to equal “pure”, while cooked foods took on the suggestion of toxicity. We Americans are all fools for healthy; our health grounded gullibility enjoys a fine history in this country beginning with travelling snake oil salesmen. It’s good for what ails ya’.
A claim was that cooked foods fostered allergies and food sensitivities, which various raw advocates stated were due to the destruction of natural elements in food. One chef I asked recently noted he had heard that eating foods raw kept the enzymes intact. It’s quite surprising, in fact, how many food professionals don’t discount the vital enzyme theory and it’s dual fallacy: they are not human enzymes but effective for chlorophyll producing organisms – not us – and second your own digestive enzymes destroy them.
As for the fuzzy concept that raw food is more nutritional, Wrangham and a number of nutritional scientists in the fact based side of the debate avow that cooking foods actually makes many vitamins and enzymes available.
The trend has settled as the foodists rush on to the next thing, be it cupcakes or food trucks. There are plenty to choose from. As trends will, raw food occasionally still stubbornly bubbles up in some food section article now and then, but they are fortunately no longer ubiquitous. It turned out that at least in San Francisco and Marin there were not enough raw devotees to support a large, expensive “live food” raw and vegan restaurant. Their money ran out. The principal investor, Michael Klein, withdrew his support. Perhaps those who tried the regime were disappointed when the wellness they expected from natural and uncompromised product did not materialize. My guess is that, as Wrangham said, they all just got “really, really hungry”, chucked it all in and went out for a pork chop with mashed potatoes.
The Kleins divorced it was rumored that Michael Klein was planning to invest in an Argentine steakhouse with George Morrone. For every action……..
So, how did something as silly as “live food” get so much press and how does misinformation linger on so long? A professor of mine once said that “People attach great importance to what ever comes into and exits their body.” He didn’t add that reason did not apply. When it comes to nutrition, health and food, we are frequently irrational. Give us enough semi scientific evidence and tell us that something is natural and healthy and not contaminated, regardless of the facts, and we’ll all our logical garments and follow the nearest buck naked emperor down any road he decides to lead us.