Reading this week

The Dark Side of Soy (UTNE Reader)
Mary Vance Terrain explores the risks of soy consumption, which has been sold to consumers as a healthy alternative food. 

Mother Earth News apps
I subscribe to Mother Earth News and Mother Earth Living magazines, and they offer great free apps for starting gardening for food, as well as canning.

What are the solutions? A Place at the Table, reviewed (Civil Eats)
Review of a new documentary from the people that brought us Food, Inc. I definitely need to see this.

Obama signs the Monsanto Protection Act (Food Democracy Now)
Forget for a moment the fact that SAUDI ARABIA has more stringent laws about food labeling than we do in the United States, it’s so disappointing to see President Obama giving in to the corporate interests of Monsanto, DuPont and the like. (Particularly when he made campaign promises about GMO labeling.)

Aspartame in Milk (Food Law Firm)
This is crazy scary. A carcinogen in milk? With no label? Pass me a glass of raw milk, please.

Links from the Farm to Table Conference

Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund
“FTCLDF protects the rights of the nation’s family farms, artisan food producers, consumers and affiliate communities to engage in direct commerce free of harassment by federal, state and local government interference; it protects the rights of farmers and artisanal producers to make their products available and the rights of consumers to access the foods of their choice from the source of their choice.” In other words, these guys help defend the little guys. Plus they have great bumper stickers and t-shirts.

Edible Allegheny
Local food magazine – amazing resources, especially when you are looking to source local foods or support restaurants that do so

Marty’s Market
Located in the Strip District (and with PARKING), Marty’s is a “community-minded market featuring clean, regional and unique food items.” (I used a quote from their promotional materials because I’ve been there and I agree.) And, they serve brunch. Enough said.

Berglorbeer Farma
Sells shitake logs (logs that come “preloaded” with spores to grow mushrooms at home) among lots of other cool stuff

PG Plate
A new food themed website from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Bumbleberry Farms
Local honey from Somerset, Pa. We tried the salted honey caramel and it was insanely good. Mark has put some in his coffee as a sweetener, but you can also eat it straight out of the jar like a boss.

Zukay Live Foods
Live, fermented foods, including kvass and even salad dressings.

Whole Foods takes a stand on GMOs

In early March, Whole Foods made a big announcement: beginning in 2018, they would not carry products that were not labeled with their GMO (genetically modified organisms) status. While the U.S. does not have any rules about the labeling of GMO foods, 60 other countries in the world do. 

Transparency in food labeling is not a novel idea worldwide. But in the U.S., it is. And Whole Foods is taking the step to become the first grocery chain to require labeling. They are setting a 5-year deadline in order to have time to work with their suppliers. Even as the national debate still rages, they are making a stand on their own, which I respect. 

It’s no secret I’m a loyal customer. But that’s part of the reason I’m so happy with this decision. Consider this from their press release:

We heard our customers loud and clear asking us for GMO labeling and we are responding where we have control: in our own stores.

Regardless of whether it reflects the “moral standards” of the company itself (which I think that it does), they have listened to their customers. This is a company that has grown leaps and bounds by providing the best shopping experience out there and by providing the products that consumers are demanding. 

More than 1.5 million people have come out in support of the Just Label It campaign to federally require labeling of GMOs. To me, the argument goes beyond whether or not GMOs have harmful effects on humans. I deserve to know what goes in my food, and until science can determine whether or not GMOs are harmful, I would like to have the privilege of not consuming them. 

Why should companies be afraid to label their foods if they have nothing to hide? Those opposed to the labeling effort claim that consumers would be confused about the ingredients and believe that GMOs are harmful. How about these companies start giving consumers the benefit of the doubt and stop treating us like second graders when it comes to what knowledge we can handle? 

More independent research (read: not funded by industry) needs to be done on the long-term effects of GMO foods. One of the largest animal studies done so far on Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready GMO corn has shown it to be very toxic to lab rats over a two-year period. I’m not ready to start ingesting food that causes that level of disease in rats, regardless of what Monsanto tells the government to “generally recognize as safe.” 

This country has a history of taking a very long time to ban harmful products, and we still can purchase products with known carcinogens in them. I don’t want to wait for the government to protect me from harmful foods. For me, it comes down to this: I consider foods harmful until proven safe, NOT safe until proven harmful.

Even if someday they prove that GMO corn doesn’t hurt anyone or anything, I highly doubt that I will look back on my life and be upset I didn’t eat a bag of GMO corn chips or have a bowl of GMO cereal. I will, however, look back and be happy that I did everything I could for my own health.

Farm to Table Pittsburgh

Mark and I spent Friday at the Farm to Table Pittsburgh conference. Though we found that we were familiar with most, if not all, of the ideas and vendors presented there, we were very happy to support the conference with our tickets in hopes that each year it will continue to grow and get larger. 

We went to two different presentations in the morning. First, we saw Nigel Tudor from Weatherbury Farm (where we get our beef) talk about the benefits of grass-fed beef. Though we already eat only grass-fed beef and know and appreciate its benefits, I learned a few new things.

The mother cows will give birth to calves in mid-May, and that is the time of year when their nutrition requirements are at their peak. Perhaps not coincidentally, mid-May is also the peak time of the pasture growth. Whatever pasture the cows cannot keep up with is mechanically grazed at the farm and stored for winter. The cows on the farm are rotationally grazed so as not to over-graze certain parts and to allow the pasture itself to thrive, including all of the cows’ favorite types of grass.

The average American eats around 66.5 pounds of beef per year. If someone switched to grass-fed beef only, and made no other dietary changes, within that year he/she would see a savings of 17,733 calories, or about 6 pounds a year.

Did you know that cows can self-medicate? They know which types of grass to eat when they have specific ailments, like an upset stomach(s). That’s why having a variety of grasses in the pasture is important and monocultures don’t work. Pastures with a high level of organic matter are also less prone to flooding, since organic matter holds 8 times its weight in water.

The second presentation was on fermented foods by Scott Grzybek of Zukay Live Foods. I’ve been interested in fermentation since I first had kombucha, and I attended a class at Mother Earth News Fair last year on making your own. The presentation we saw Friday focused mostly on the basics of fermenting and the benefits of good bacteria. The more raw foods I consume, the better my digestive health, so I didn’t need any convincing. 

Probably the best thing we learned was that you can’t use city water to start your ferments because of its chlorine content, which kills off bacteria. Mark realized it was probably why his sourdough starter wasn’t really going anywhere, so we’re excited to try it again with spring water. 

I realized that I’ve been holding back on trying a few new things, like making my own sauerkraut and brewing kombucha at home, because I was afraid to mess up. If anything, this Farm to Table conference gave me the confidence to just go for it and try it. What have I got to lose?

In my link roundup on Friday, I will post links to some of the great businesses we found at the conference and also share a recipe we picked up.

Reading this week

I thought I’d try to share links weekly to the things I’m reading online on many different topics. Whatever is of interest that particular week, I’ll share.

Want to be happier? Eat seasonally  (Attune Foods via Eating Rules)
Great arguments for eating seasonally and the benefits you reap from doing so.

Whole milk or skim? Study links fattier milk to skinnier kids (NPR)
A new study shows a link between reduced fat milks and higher body weights. (I am happy to see clinical studies backing up the idea that whole fat milk isn’t something we should avoid.)

Banning the Big Gulp Ban (NY Times)
Columnist and food policy advocate Mark Bittman discusses Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban being struck down by a judge.

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food (NY Times Magazine)
A peek into the new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss. I cannot wait to read this – it seems extraordinarily well researched and compelling.

Book Review: Twinkie, Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger

Ever since I got my first taste of food journalism with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’ve been an avid reader in the genre. I’ve always felt like the more knowledge I have about my food, the more I understand the world and how it works. So I’ve decided to share my thoughts on the food books I’m reading. (To be fair, I’m not actually reading these books so much as listening to them – I use my substantial commute to fit in my non-fiction reading.)  


I stumbled on Steve Ettlinger’s Twinkie, Deconstructed when I was searching for a book on Amazon, and it was listed as a similar book. Its subtitle is My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats, and it is exactly that. For detail nerds like myself, the book provides a wealth of information on the origin of each of the individual ingredients of a Twinkie. Since many of these ingredients are the quintessential building blocks of processed foods, they are things that are not unique to Twinkies, and also not entirely unique to our own pantries. For example, baking powder is technically a processed food, as is white flour. 

However, this book will also tell you where polysorbate 60, high fructose corn syrup, sodium stearoyl lactylate, and partially hydrogenated soybean oil come from. (The book begins with a conversation that the author had with his children about where the ingredients in an ice cream bar came from. He ended up choosing Twinkies to investigate, since they are a classic American snack food and also are the subject of a great mythos, with rumors about their abilities to survive a nuclear holocaust alive and well.)

At first I thought, why do I care where these ingredients come from? If they aren’t pronounceable and I don’t already know what they are, I don’t want to eat them. But the more I listened/read, the more I realized that it IS important for me to understand the ingredients that I choose to avoid in my diet, if for no other reason than to explain to people why I’m not comfortable ingesting them.

If anything, this book made me yearn for more transparent information about where our food comes from. Even Ettlinger admits that the FDA guidelines are not as clear as the Chicago Manual of Style. Why not? We do we not demand more of our government that is charged with protecting our food supply? This is the argument that’s at the heart of the GMO labeling debate, though that’s another topic for another time.

Ettlinger asks the question, if chemicals are found in nature, when does a chemical become a food? Why are some chemicals found in nature classified as “unnatural” when they occur in nature, in some form? That’s a good question too. Shouldn’t we just admit that all food is made of chemicals and just get on with it? Even an apple is made up of chemicals, at its root.

Somehow I’m not buying that argument, though. The entire world is made up of chemicals – so are our bodies. But that doesn’t mean everything should be ingested. The book suggests that these ingredients have been vetted for safety, since the government classifies them as “generally recognized as safe.” Generally recognized isn’t a category that I’m going to put my faith in, when the only people that have to recognize the ingredient as safe are the ones who are being paid by companies who stand to make a large profit from this recognition.

Also, just because these ingredients have been around for 50 years doesn’t mean they are “safe.” Sure, eating a Twinkie may not cause you instantaneous distress or illness. But what about long term effects? Why can’t science explain why our society just keeps getting sicker and sicker? Why can’t they explain why there are little girls developing breasts at age 6 and why autism is so much more prevalent than it was even 20 years ago? Why is it “paranoid” of me to be skeptical of eating a snack cake that doesn’t really even fit the standard definition of cake?

Ettlinger’s reporting of the details of the component parts of Twinkies is certainly impressive, especially in an industry known for secrecy. But I didn’t really see the book as a compelling argument for why one should eat a Twinkie at all. At the end of the book, he describes the experience of eating a Twinkie, obviously from the perspective of someone enraptured by its taste, texture and nostalgia as opposed to someone like me, whose gag reflex is activated by the chemical, fake taste of Twinkies and the like.

But I couldn’t help but wish that after all his investigations and the knowledge of what’s IN those finger-sized spongy treats, he would have ended up a skeptic too.

Full disclosure: I will admit that when Hostess announced its bankruptcy plans last year and the Great Twinkie Rush of 2012 was on, I had Mark pick up a Snowball for me, since I had never tried one and feared I was missing out. (I think I watched The Mirror Has Two Faces too many times.) One bite and I knew exactly why I don’t eat them. Gross. I think I had to scrape my tongue.

seed starting

I wanted to have more of an active role in our house’s gardening this spring and summer. It wasn’t really planned, but over the two gardening seasons we have had in this house, Mark has migrated to outdoor chores and I’ve taken care of the inside. But this year I wanted to feel like the gardens were just as much mine as his. 

So on Sunday, we got seeds started for indoor growth on our upstairs window seat. We set aside the direct planting seeds to wait until we get past the danger of frost, and took the remaining seeds (primarily herbs, peppers and tomatoes) and planted them in the biodegradable Jiffy pots that Mark picked up last year. (The first round of seeds we started last year were in toilet paper rolls that we painstakingly saved over the winter. They worked okay, but not as well as the biodegradable pots.)

We used an organic seed starting mix for the soil. (The first year we had a small garden, we bought seedlings. Last year as novices at seed starting, we used top soil. Not the greatest for promoting germination.  But nature worked its magic and we still got a lot of veggies by the end of the summer.)

Once the soil was in the cups, I moistened it with warm water. 

We debated which seeds to use from last year, considering how well they grew last year and which ones tasted the best. Our tomatoes were unbelievably successful last year, and we are eager for them to take off again. (Picking a tomato off the vine in the heat of August and eating it 15 minutes later is a uniquely wonderful experience.)

Last year the ground cherries were not successful, but we’re giving them another go. Ground cherries are similar to cherry tomatoes, and grow in a papery husk.

Also new this year is my attempt to grow flowers from seed for deck boxes on our front porch. I’ve never been able to keep flowers alive and well for long, but I got these seeds at the Mother Earth News Fair last September from Seed Savers Exchange, where we are members and where we get all our seeds. So I thought I’d give it a try!

Once in pots and planted appropriately, we labeled them with popsicle sticks. The photo below is from the herb section – purple basil is probably the most exciting to me! I really want to make purple pesto this year because I think it would freak people out to eat purple pasta sauce.

We are trying a variety of pepper called Candlelight, which grow in clumps that are colorful and look like clusters of Christmas bulbs. Can’t wait to put those puppies in fajitas and salsa. In addition to the herbs, tomatoes, peppers and ground cherries, we’re trying broccoli again and eggplants. (Also other veggies like pumpkins, lettuces and greens, cucumbers, etc., but those are direct seed and won’t get started until it gets warm.)

I didn’t manage to get a photo of the window set up before the sun set and the decent light was gone, but they are set up and waiting for this nasty weather to go away and for the sun to come out. 

resolved – 2013 is the year of sustainable seafood

In a previous incarnation of this blog, on January 1, 2012, I wrote the following:

Before I got really serious about food, both physically and philosophically, I always made new year’s resolutions that would last for about 6 weeks if I was lucky and then fade away, only to resurface again the following year. The “lose weight” and “get more sleep” variety. Last year I made only one new year’s resolution, and I stuck to it: to stop eating chicken. More specifically, to stop eating chicken from unknown sources. If I didn’t know for sure that the chicken came from a specific farm or a store that only sells chicken up to my standards (Green Circle Farms, Whole Foods, etc.), I wouldn’t eat it. We don’t cook with CAFO-raised chicken (or any CAFO-raised meat for that matter) at home, but the biggest change was at restaurants. No more chicken nuggets, no more chicken dishes at all, except for a small handful of restaurants who have taken a stand against industrial agriculture.

At first it was brutal. I always wanted the buffalo chicken dip when I’d be out someplace, or a chicken panini or pasta. But the more I got used to it, the more I discovered other menu items I liked, and realized that over the course of the year, it really added up to something. When I think about how much chicken I would have consumed outside of my house the year before, that’s a significant number of chickens saved for just one person. I like to think sticking with the resolution made a difference.

Which brings me to my first resolution of 2012. I’m going to expand the chicken resolution to encompass all meats (including beef and pork in all forms). If I don’t know where it came from (and consequently how it was raised, what it was fed, and where it was slaughtered and processed), I’m not eating it. I will be eating like a vegetarian (or pescetarian if I know the fish was wild and not farm-raised) at all restaurants and as many occasions as I can outside of the house. 

This is going to be brutal at first, I’m sure. Sister loves her bacon and particularly hamburgers and steaks. But real change sometimes comes at a cost. I’m not going to be party anymore to a system that negatively affects so many parts of our lives. Cheap meat has a very high cost: a cost to the environment of which we are to be stewards, a cost to the animals involved, a cost to the workers who are put in danger every day in slaughterhouses across the country that have minimal to no government oversight both in workers’ rights and safety, a cost to communities and small farmers when we source everything we buy from somewhere other than home, a cost to the person who gets poisoned from e. coli or salmonella or even staph simply from eating a hamburger at a summer picnic.

Amazingly enough, with a only few exceptions of personal weakness, I was able to stick to this resolution for 2012. Now it feels like a way of life, not a resolution that I have to struggle to incorporate into my life. While in some ways it feels like this resolution is designed to stop directly and indirectly giving money to CAFOs, I have realized how much it actually had a positive economic impact. My money this year supported local farms, grocery stores that provide humanely raised meats, and restaurants willing to make a commitment to sustainable, humane and local meats in their establishments. 

Many of these same restaurants also have a commitment to local farms for produce and dairy as well as meats. And while I don’t mind giving my money to Whole Foods (which is a post in and of itself!), I am happy that much more money went into my local economy as a result of my “resolution.” 

I’ve even discovered some new vegetarian dishes that I never would have ordered before I restricted the type of meat I eat. I also ate more seafood than I would have previously (and am now enjoying more types of sushi than I ever did before!)

But this brings me to my next area of research – sustainable seafood. I’m going to explore this more this year, after being inspired by a report on NPR about what a “sustainable seafood” label really means. I am worried about what this means for the sushi delights I discovered in 2012, but if I can cut out problematic chicken, beef, pork, and other meats, I can do seafood too. 

The Next Gen House

My house is not your average house. Sure, the three bedrooms and front porch are average enough, and we live in an average city neighborhood and have an average house cat. My husband and I have average desk jobs from Monday through Friday.

But we have four chickens. And a few raised garden beds. And a big compost area. And a basement full of home canned goods, filling jars that were first filled 50 years ago. And a fridge with raw milk in it. And a freezer full of farm-raised meat.

We didn’t always live like this. In fact, this all traces back to one evening spent on my apartment couch watching Food, Inc. I’d imagine many people who have found themselves caring about the industrial food system’s impact on our world and our lives could trace that interest back to that seminal documentary. But it stirred something in me and in my husband that has refused to go away or diffuse or let go. 

Our house is the Next Gen House. Not only because it’s filled with Star Trek kitsch (which it most certainly is). But because we try to remember that we’re living our lives with an eye on the next generation – following principles of sustainability, health, good stewardship and conservation. 

It’s with this idea that I wanted to create this space. Lately I find myself bursting with the desire to do more. To have a place to share about our lives and why we do what we do – because a lot of people do ask why. At Next Gen House, I’ll write about us, but also share other things I find along the way – great works of food journalism, organizations that need support.

First up – the meat we eat.