As for butter versus margarine, I trust cows more than chemists. ~Joan Gussow

Food Politics

Chefs, I Encourage You to Step out of Your Semifreddo Igloo

Hello Friends! Well, that is hello if there are any of you out there. I realize it’s been a LONG time since I last wrote in the blog. To make the story short, SXSW happened, things in my personal life happened, I ate sandwiches for about a month straight (no cooking) and then I wasn’t really inspired to start writing when I started cooking again. I explained to my mom tonight over dinner that I hadn’t felt the passion in a while to write, but what did make me passionate was all the articles I read daily (for work mainly) and opinions I make from the world around me, primarily focusing on food/health/politics/inequality.

One such article I read today in the NY Times struck a chord in me–“For Them a Great Meal Tops Good Intentions”. Basically the premise of the article is that famous chefs, Thomas Keller and Andoni Luis Aduriz, argue that they don’t have an obligation to the greater human good to promote certain agendas other than pushing the artistic/culinary envelope with a tantalizing meal. And you can bet this didn’t sit well with yours truly. Why? Let me explain–

There is something I coined “The big brother syndrome.” No, not the Orwellian Big Brother, but rather the typical big brother or sister in a family. No first-borns were asked to be first born, they just were. And they certainly didn’t ask to be a role model for their younger sibling(s); it just happened that way. And often times they don’t want to be the role model. But, inherently, they are. That’s just life.

I think this is a common argument made by celebrities, whether they are athletes or actors or chefs.  Many celebrities rationalize their behavior with the same argument that they “didn’t ask to be famous” or “didn’t ask to be a role model.” But no matter if they asked–they are! That is what fame brings you. But with that fame brings you the power to do something positive. And not just positive in the fact that you blow everyone’s starry Michelin eyes off with your “desserts that evoke dustings of pollen or skeins of frogs’ eggs.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I love that people are combining food and artistic expression. Chefs Keller and Arduriz are famous because they make some of the BEST friggin’ food on the planet.


 While their restaurants may be accessible only to the world’s 0.1 percent, chefs at top restaurants influence the entire global food community with the way they think, write, tweet and talk about food — not just the way they cook it.

This line of the article hits the nail on the head–

I believe that if you are famous for doing good in a specific vein such as sports or culinary arts or theatre, why not use your fame and power to do true good for the rest of world? After all, none of us lives in a vacuum. And less now than any other time in history. Furthermore, there is a growing division between the haves and the have-nots–especially in this country–we haven’t seen this sort of division since well–since I have been a live. As I write this, HBO debuts it’s Weight of the Nation series telling the obesity epidemic story. Americans are sick. Because of our food.The climate is changing. The world is warming.

And maybe I just don’t get it. Maybe I am so hell-bent on being socially and environmentally conscience that I expect everyone to do so, especially celebrities. But is that so bad? So chefs out there, I challenge you to wander out of your strawberry semifreddo igloo and do good that will reach more of the masses for a better tomorrow.


Can Vegan Barbecue Exist?

Traditional TX BBQ @ Salt Like, Driftwood, TX

This whole notion started when a conversation surfaced on a food blogging Facebook group I am a part of. The complaint was that there was no good vegan barbecue in town [Austin, TX]. Upon reading it, I thought to myself, “Well, honestly, vegan barbecue is an oxymoron, is it not?” The entire concept behind barbecue is smoking and cooking a large piece of animal flesh for hours over a wood-based fire to make it tender and then mix it with region-specific flavors. This is different from grilling which often uses charcoal or gas to cook meat or vegetables in a relatively short amount of time.

The more I thought about it, the more I became perturbed by the idea of vegan barbecue. I know there are many vegan and vegetarian takes on food with meat. But is there a point at which the food created to serve a vegan/vegetarian audience no longer qualifies it to be in that category? I think barbecue is an excellent example because the technique used to make barbecue—smoke, heat, wood and time—would do something completely different, to say, a piece of tempeh or a mushroom. So can vegan barbecue exist?

Francis Mallmann's Chimicurri Sauce I made (garlic, flat-leaf parsley, fresh oregano, red pepper flakes, red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt)

I argue that no, it cannot exist because the main ingredient (and therefore the tradition) would not be present. Famous Argentine/Uruguayan Chef, Francis Mallmann, hits the nail on the head in his book, Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way. He writes the following in reference to chimichurri sauce:

“At a Latin American themed James Beard Award evening in NYC, I couldn’t believe what some of the chefs had done with it: mango, strawberries, mint! I was so sad, I wanted to crawl inside my oven. Invention is fine, but you have to stay true to the original idea.”

Grilling a piece of tofu or smothering store-bought barbecue sauce over soy crumbles is not staying true to the original idea of slow-cooked-animal-flesh-over-burning-wood. It’s simply not barbeque. Do we ever think that maybe not all dishes should be made to fit a certain perimeter or culture?

Cellar with Parmigiano Reggiano, Italy

So beyond technique, this is really getting at semantics. What does barbecue mean? Does it just mean throwing sauce on something? I’m definitely not the only person who has debated these “semantics.” Food labeling is incredibly strict around the world in order to protect certain varieties of products and food.  Take, for example, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Per Italian law, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese can only be made in defined northern regions in Italy. Furthermore, the government dictates the types of inputs and the methods used to make the cheese. What this does is protect the intellectual and cultural property of traditional foods. I personally am a fan of this as more and more of our food supply becomes monopolized and homogenized.

I am not aware of a government-sanctioned definition for barbeque. And I am not about to create a campaign for one. But, I do find it fascinating to think about the context in which our food is marketed and even created. Does it exist as we know it? Should it?

Winter Garden!

For the past three years, I have been putting in my winter garden the second weekend of October. I was hesitant to plant anything given our “worst drought in Texas history” status. Thus, I decided to go cheap this year by only using seeds, as opposed to a mix of seeds and transplants (you can buy one plant for about $2.00 vs. 100 seeds for $2.00). This way, in case the weather does not cooperate, I would not be out that much money. (And it doesn’t look like it will….read on…)

It felt good to get back in my garden and rub my hands through the dirt and compost. I’m pretty proud of my soil–each year it gets better and better. That is the secret to good crops, you know–it’s all in the soil.

Not only did I go cheap this year, but I went easy. The plants I chose are mainly a mix of greens and herbs, though I couldn’t resist planting beets (which always seem to do well for me) and turnips (first time!). Plants in which you only eat the greens (lettuce, arugula, dill, cilantro, bok choi are some I planted) do not need as much energy as plants that produce a fruit or flower in which you will eat–tomatoes, squash,  cabbage, broccoli. Less energy also means less water, which I feel is my only choice right now.

Mixing in compost to the soil--I do this every time before I plant to enrich the soil


Arranging seed packets according to where their contents will be planted


Burying a shallot to grow more shallots

Two weekends ago it did rain. In fact, over 2 inches fell at my house. For the first time since last winter, my rain barrels are full!!!!!!!!!!!!

So that’s the good news. It rained–really rained–for the first time in 7 months. I actually celebrated the occasion in style by taking a walk through Zilker Park and along Town Lake with Dixie by my side. We returned to the house both soaking wet.

But the good news ends there as I read this headline in the Austin American-Statesman: No More Outdoor Watering in Austin by Spring? This article scares the bijesus out of me as I know that this could be a reality awaiting us just around the corner. My grand Cedar Elms in the backyard could die. All my native plants would even have a hard time surviving. And gardening food, forget it. A reader commented at the end of the article that the City should have enacted Stage 1 and 2 water restrictions earlier in the summer; I could not agree more. Throughout the whole dreadfully awful summer of 2011, I questioned why we were allowed to water twice a week or hand-water anytime. Give me a break! It also angers me to think that the City would ban all watering–can you equate watering St. Augustine with native plants that provide habitat for fauna or what about golf courses and community gardens? Are they equal? (I’m curious if Austin’s Sustainable Food Policy Board will take up this issue in the coming months…)

Anyway, its a sad way to end this blog entry, but the situation here in TX is dire. And Gov. Slick Hair Perry, you better keep praying for rain (and for a better debate coach).

Dinner from a Subsidy Garden

Kitchen Gardeners International created this graphic to show what the White House Garden would look like if it were planted according to agricultural subsidy dollars. Which garden would you eat dinner from tonight?






Beans AND Rice? Nah, I don’t have the time…

Yesterday I had the chance to attend a bit of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Conference. Chefs, food writers, food stylists, publishers, food historians, educators and more are attending the annual conference which is taking place this week at the Hilton hotel downtown here in Austin.

This morning I attended the session titled, “Meat: It’s Changing Place on the Plate.” The three panelists that lead the session and subsequent discussion were writer/author, Kim O’Donnel, Marissa Guggiana, President, Sonoma Direct Sustainable Meats and author of Primal Cuts: Cooking with America’s Best Butchers and Ralph Loglisci, Project Director,  Johns Hopkins Healthy Monday Project.

The basic premise of the session was that meat has changed its place on the dinner plate because of public health, animal welfare and environmental concerns. Furthermore, with the rise of farmers’ markets across the nation (there are now more than 6,000), more Americans are purchasing their meat directly from farmers, ranchers and/or neighborhood butchers. So not only are Americans looking to cut back on their meat consumption, but they are also looking to know the source of their meat. So what does the dinner plate look like now?

As of a recent poll, 50% of Americans have now heard of the Meatless Monday movement. Oprah has embraced it, as have large companies like Sodexo and school districts in Baltimore. Just yesterday, the First Lady and the USDA revealed the new “My Plate” which replaces the “My Pyramid.” And let me tell you, it consists of mostly plants and the protein section is labeled just that—protein, not “meat” as the 2005 My Pyramid was. The USDA also recently released the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, which specifically recommend that “half the plate should consist of fruits and vegetables.” That doesn’t leave that much room for a steak, folks. The times, they are, in fact, a-changin’.

During the Q and A section with the audience, a woman piped up from the back-row, wanting to address the questions of grass-fed labels and the decreased consumption of meat. To paraphrase what she said: “Now a lot of the meat that is being sold at farmers’ markets, well, their products are not inspected by the USDA, but instead fall under state regulations. And let me tell you, there are some pretty scary regulations. And 50 different states, so 50 different regulations. [None of which are as stringent as the USDA inspection process]. And by advocating for people to replace meat…you have to be careful for them not to replace it with things like cheese, because cheese has a huge amount of saturated fat.”

By this time, there was some whispering in the audience and it became clear that the woman was a representative of the pork board. She continued:

“And so you have to be careful that people get an adequate protein source [if they cut out meat]…”

And then more murmurs from the audience, this time the word “beans” and “lentils” were seeping out of various corners of the room. And she continued again:

“Sure you can eat beans…but then you’d have to cook rice with it for a complete protein. People aren’t going to do that. They don’t have time.”

Rice and beans are too hard to make because no one has time!? Really?! A couple more things I noticed:

(1)    She used the classic industry scare tactic: The 6,000+ farmers markets across the country that are bolstering local economies and fresh food are not safe because they are state run. This is completely false.

(2)    She perpetuated the myth that there is no such adequate protein replacement for meat. You’d have to be under a rock to not to know that plant-based proteins, if done right, can be more than adequate.

I think what struck me the most about this woman’s statements is how hard she came out swinging to an audience, that by and large was nowhere near vegetarian. I did not mention this yet, but as part of the opening, the Moderator, Kim O’Donnel said that none of the panelists were vegetarians (including her) nor were any of them advocating for vegetarianism. What they were exploring, however, was how meat consumption had changed over the course of the last decade, and probably for the better.

This certainly reminds me of NYU Nutrition Professor Marion Nestle’s book Food Politics when she describes the “behind the scenes” situations she was privy to when working on government nutrition standards and guidelines. The large food industry, be it the Salt Institute, the Beef Council, The Corn Refiners Association, etc. did NOT want the government to advocate eating less of anything. Period. What they lobbied for (and won), was for the government to advise to “eat in moderation” not to “cut back” or “eat less of.” To eat less of anything, they argued, would be bad for business.

So there you have it folks, food policy is alive and kicking in Austin, TX. I enjoyed my time at the conference as that is what conferences are supposed to do—make you think, get inspired. Upon returning to the office this afternoon and sharing this story, one of my co-workers asked if we could find out what hotel the woman was staying at—maybe buy her a rice cooker and deliver it to her room?

Mark Winne @ BookPeople May 31st @ 7pm

If you are  in the Austin area next Tuesday, May 31st, I invite you to come to BookPeople as author and food policy guru, Mark Winne, will be in town. Mark Winne came to Austin in 2008 to shadow Sustainable Food Center’s The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre Program. He subsequently published his second book, Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners and Smart Cookin’ Mamas. The Chapter titled “God Didn’t Make Nachos” is all about The Happy Kitchen’s impact on families in the central TX area. Various community-based Facilitators will be there as well–if it weren’t for them, this program would not exist. And yes, your’s truly is in the book! We would love to see you there!



School Food: Another Reason to move to France

There’s been a lot of buzz regarding the passage of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization/Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. But forget the stuffy politics for a second and check out this website, which compares what school children from around the world eat for lunch.
And if kimchi or risotto is not your cup of tea, what about escargot or cassoulet? Check out this mind-blowing video. Yes, three-year olds eat better in France than all K-12  US school children combined. Ah-mazing.