Category Archives: Food News

Chocolate milk wars

Marion Nestle continues to fight the good fight, trying to prevent every single American from becoming a Biggest Loser contestant in waiting.  This time, she’s taking on chocolate milk in schools and she’s taking heat as usual, being accused of being a Food Nazi and trying to tell people what they can and can not eat.

Well, screw that. 

Someone’s got to take responsibility for what’s being shoved down our kids throats if parents aren’t going to.

The milk industry is trying to convince parents that sweetened and flavored milk is about they only way they’re going to get their kids to drink it, and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if parents fell for that argument hook, line and sinker.

Do these parents not remember elementary school, because I do. And I distinctly recall that chocolate milk was not an option back in the austere 1970s when the term “childhood obesity rate” was hardly ever used.  We all brought our 5 cents to school and got to choose between whole milk or 2% and we’d drink it every morning.  WITHOUT A SNACK!!

No one died. No one got sick.  No one complained.  We drank our milk because that just what you did.

I always wanted chocolate milk.  I would beg for it.  My mom refused about 99% of the time.  She told me it would ruin my appetite.  I sullenly drank my white milk, because she told me to.  Every once in a blue moon she’d let me have chocolate milk when we went to the local cafeteria and I got to drink it after I ate my dinner.  Once, I gulped it down so fast I threw up.

So what happened to those days? Why aren’t parents today insisting their kids drink plain milk and not viewing chocolate milk as an occassional treat?  My short answer is that parents are lazy.  It’s much easier to give into your kids who are always going to pester you for something sweet– it’s in our biological make up to want sweets.  And that is why kids are fat and getting fatter.

Someone needs to be a parent. Right now, Marion Nestle and the others who are fighting back against this chocolate milk propaganda campaign are the only ones with the balls to do it.  Call them Food Nazis if you want, but know that term is really just another term for being a grown up.

Hell on wheels

Big food has gone and done it again. 

Following in the footsteps of individually-owned mobile food trucks and carts, like the L.A.-based Kogi truck that became a twittering sensation, Taco Bell is now tweeting the location of its taco truck.

WTF? Why on earth would Taco Bell need a mobile taco truck? You can’t swing a dead cat and not hit a Taco Bell– they are everywhere.  The people following these tweets must be seriously impaired if they can’t find a bricks and mortar store somewhere.  They probably believe in death panels, too.

The whole idea of mobile food carts tweeting their location is because they don’t have a bricks and mortar location or a multi-million dollar marketing budget like Taco Bell.  Plus, quite often, as is currently happening in L.A., the trucks get shooed away from certain areas where they park, so they have to move along– losing clientele each time they have to pull up stakes.  It would be the equivalent of cops coming and chasing away all the customers at  a restaurant with a permanent location.

Big Food has jumped the shark again.  Never, ever doubt its ability to co-opt a good idea and make it stink.

Organic Twinkies, anyone?

Sugar-coating the truth

We Americans are a bunch of sugar-addled addicts, a fact that has become  painfully clear to me while  carrying out some simple research on eating habits. 

A recent article in the  in the New York Times on the comeback of sugar completely missed the real issue at stake: we eat WAY too much sugar and sweetener of any kind.  The article did sort of pussy-foot around that issue by saying that nutritionists would like to see us eat less of all caloric sweeteners, but it really just wound up being a trend story about a backlash against high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in favor of sugar.

Perhaps the reporter didn’t want to upset the people in the HFCS industry, but the truth is, Americans started consuming more and more sweeteners just after HFCS hit the market in the mid-1970’s, according to statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).  As a basis for comparison, I’ve also dug up the sweetener consumption statistics for the UK and Australia, two countries that have fairly similar diets to ours, minus the HFCS.  Interestingly, sweetener consumption in those countries actually decreased while ours was skyrocketing upward:

Consumption of Sweeteners 1961-2001

              U.S              U.K.            Australia

1961    52 kg         52kg             56 kg
1981    56 kg         44 kg            54 kg
2001   71 kg         41 kg             45 kg


 For those who don’t do the metric system, 71 kg is 156 pounds of sweetener every year– which is the weight of an average woman, give or take a few pounds.  We eat, far and away, more sweetener per person than any other country in the world.

I’m not going to argue whether HFCS is worse than sugar.  That’s not really the point.  The point is, that ever since HFCS came onto the scene, our collective sweet tooth has gotten even sweeter and our consumption of caloric sweeteners climbed 40 percent in 40 years.  Now, you tell me why America has an obesity problem.

Would you like poop with that?

The U.S.D.A. just announced that it has approved an E. coli vaccine for cattle.  They say that like it’s a good thing.  But really, all this vaccine is doing is treating the symptoms rather than actually doing anything to solve the bigger issue of a food system gone completely awry.  It’s the equivalent of a restaurant in Mexico telling you to go ahead and eat the lettuce but giving you an Immodium A-D chaser, just in case.

Granted, the vaccine isn’t all bad if it leads to fewer E. coli infections, which affect 70,000 people each year in the U.S.  But really, the only true winners in this are the beef industry people who hope to make more money by telling us their beef is E. coli free.

What the vaccine does not do is get to the heart of the real problem, which is the American feedlot industry.  Feedlots handle about 88 percent of the beef that Americans buy, and feedlots just happen to be breeding grounds for E. coli.  Every cow has E. coli bacteria, but one strain, E. coli O-157, is the bad E. coli that makes humans sick.  It also happens to grow really well in the stomachs of cows who are fed grain, the staple diet at feedlots, as opposed to cows that eat a more natural  diet of grass.

Eating a cow that had E. coli O-157 in his belly won’t make you sick, unless for some reason you were actually eating fecal matter from said cow, or cow shit to put it bluntly.  That’s the other problem with feedlots.  Cows stand knee-deep (do cows have knees?) in poop at these places.  They go to the slaughterhouse covered in crap, and if they aren’t cleaned off real good, then poop gets into the beef, and if it’s E. coli infected poop, a lot of people are going to get really sick.

What really freaks me out about the vaccine, is what if it gives people at the slaughterhouses a false sense of security?  What if they think, “Well, hey, this poop isn’t going to kill anyone now, so if I don’t get the cow as clean as I used to, no biggie.”   To quote Betty Fussell in her book Raising Steaks:  “Sterilized shit is still shit.”

So lets review: The E. coli vaccine is merely a band-aid.  It is not a solution to the bigger problem, which is cattle raised on filthy feedlots.  The only winners in this scenario are the beef producers who are hoping to sell more beef because it’s “safe”.  The farmers don’t win, because they won’t get any more money for their cattle when they sell them to the feedlots.  The cattle sure don’t win, because they’re still living their miserable feedlot existence.  And consumers don’t win because the USDA just fed us a shit sandwich and called it a victory.

We’ve all drunk the Kool-Aid…

… so I find it kind of hard to blame a woman in Arkansas who accidentally served kids at her daycare windshield wiper fluid instead of Kool-Aid.  Of course, she can’t be the sharpest knife in the drawer if she’s stupid enough to put  wiper fluid in the fridge in the first place.

But still. Some of the Kool-Aid colors look positively radioactive.  I seem to remember one that was the color of antifreeze, so it seems entirely logical that one could mistake a household chemical for a kiddie cocktail.  And if an adult can make that mistake, how many clueless kids have been bamboozled?

If the color of some of these drinks doesn’t worry us, the names of the  flavors should at least give us pause: Purplesaurus Rex… Eerie Orange… Scary Black Cherry?  If you buy into that, you’re just asking for trouble.  Oh Yeah!

Springfield, MO: Center of the Culinary Universe

Just kidding.  But at least it is today.  I about fell over when I clicked to the NY Times food section today saw this article on Springfield-style cashew chicken. 

To those unbaptized in the oyster sauce gravy, this is a dish that unites Springfieldians culturally.  It’s basically fried chunks of chicken (all white, naturally), bathed in the aforementioned gravy and sprinkled with cashew nuts and chopped green onions.

I took this photo at Fire & Ice while I was in town visiting last summer.    This recipe is THE original SSCC.  Fire & Ice only serves this dish on Wednesdays and native Springfieldians pack the place to get a taste of  this particular cashew chicken because of its pedigree.  The then-chef at Fire & Ice was Wing Yee Leong, the son of David Leong who is the father of SSCC.

When I went back to Fire & Ice in January something was terribly wrong.  Someone had tinkered with the recipe.  I detected Chinese five spice in the batter and I was not pleased.  I looked around the restaurant’s open kitchen and noticed Wing Yee was not there.  Today’s NY Times article confirmed my suspicions. He left the restaurant in December. 

Even though SSCC isn’t authentic Chinese cuisine, its authenticity comes from its roots here in Springfield. And for people like me who cut their teeth on spare ribs at Leong’s Tea House and Gee’s East Wind, when you mess with the original recipe, you mess with perfection.

Kids in the Kitchen

It’s funny how every time I think everything’s gone to hell in a handbasket, there’s something to remind me that there’s still a lot of good in the world and that people do things for the right reasons.

Case in point: This past week there was a great article in Slate by Regina Schrambling about precocious kids who are being primed to be the next Escoffier, not that any of them would know who that is (Hint: He’s not on the Food Network).  Her article really put into focus why all the recent hype about these kinderchefs bothers me. 

I’m all for kids spending time in the kitchen and learning about food– in fact, I’d say not enough do.  But it really irked me that six year old “chefs” were becoming YouTube sensations and that a 12 year old was being touted as the next Craig Claiborne.  I thought perhaps I was  jealous of these kids with their newspaper columns and internet shows. Afterall, I am in my mid-30s and  in the process of re-inventing myself as a food writer after spending two years and a crapload of money to get a degree in Gastronomy.  But it turns out,  I’m not jealous of these kids, thanks to the insights in Schrambling’s article.  I am, however, completely annoyed by those in our society who, in fits of contextless celebrity worship, are mere minutes away from annointing the “next big thing” even if the “next big thing” knows next to nothing about which they speak.   And don’t even get me started on the parents who cashed in all their dreams to buy a McMansion in the ‘burbs and then had kids who are now just little mini-me’s living their parents lives instead of their own. 

That’s why I was so heartened to see this story on CBS Sunday morning today about a boy named Aaron Ware who started a baking business.  He didn’t go into business to earn fame and fortune, although he’s had some time in the spotlight lately, and deservedly so.  He started baking, something he loved to do, as a way to deal with his grief after the death of his twin brother.   He gives the proceeds to the organizations that helped his family during his brother’s illness.  Aaron’s just being a kid, doing a kid thing and we can learn a lot more about food from him than we can any of those celebrated kinderchefs who are actually trying to teach us something.

Frozen Foreshadowing?

I LOL’d when I pulled this out of the freezer at my parents’ house tonight.  Could any product have a name that better fits the current state of the food industry than this?  Not unless it was bagged spinach called “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Lethal”.

Thankfully, Blue Bunny’s Peanut Butter Panic hadn’t done the complicated food chain tango with the Peanut Corporation of America so we could eat it without wondering if we should also be making funeral plans.  And it tasted pretty good, too.

Not the same

Girl Guide Biscuits in Australia

Girl Guide Biscuits in Australia

We’re in the thick of Girl Scout cookie season in the U.S. In fact, my article about them ran in today’s San Jose Mercury News food section along with the orginal Girl Scout cookie recipe.
I spent six months of my life researching Girl Scout cookies for my Masters of Gastronomy dissertation, and during that time I never got to eat a Girl Scout cookie for inspiration since I was in Australia and no one, not even my own mother, was kind enough to send a box to me. 
My husband did bring home two packages of  Girl Guide biscuits which just aren’t the same.  They’re good, they’re just not Girl Scout cookies.  There are only two kinds, shortbread and shortbread with a chocolate coated bottom and Australians aren’t barking mad for them like we Americans are for Girl Scout cookies.  In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find any mention of them anywhere in newspapers, on TV, or in general conversation.  I was as shocked as anyone to see this display– with nary a Girl Guide in sight–outside of a store in Glenelg last winter.
So America, don’t get complacent about your cookies.  Don’t let them become just another lame fundraiser kids have to do so that they wind up on the sidewalk outside of a tourist trap store next to a bin of koala and kangaroo socks.  Girl Scout cookies deserve better than that.

Food Allergies: The truth is out there

I’ve seen a couple of really interesting things about food allergies in the past 24 hours (in the NY Times and on Ruhlman’s blog) which confirm the sneaking suspicion I’ve had about them for a few years now: that they are often misdiagnosed and have something to do with our ridiculous standards of cleanliness.

I certainly would never deny that food allergies exist and can be dangerous– even deadly.  But I feel like, as a society, we’re out there almost looking for something to be wrong with our kids.  In the ’90s it was ADHD. In the ’00s it’s food allergies.  When kids go to school, the essential supplies have become backpack, pencils, crayons and a list of foods they can’t have.  It’s crazy.

I just hope these two articles are the start of something bigger– a wake up call to parents who are doing their kids more harm than good by trying to keep them excessively germ free and who go looking for trouble at the allergist because everybody else is doing it.