25 February 2010

The Omnivore's Dilemma

Every so often a book comes along that totally changes your outlook. Within a few pages of starting The Omnivore's Dilemma, I knew it would be one of those books.

Ultimately, The Omnivore's Dilemma seeks the answer to the query "What should we have for dinner?"; a question that is only simple on the surface. When agriculture (even organic agriculture) becomes industrialized and we are faced with a surfeit of food choices, when animals are raised in factories and our culture suffers from major food anxieties, the question (and resulting dilemma) starts to take on some serious depth and a tangled mess of implications.

Michael Pollan explores the question by following three types of meals from their origins to the table. Part One focuses on Industrial Corn and its corresponding meal of McDonald's fast food (eaten in the car, no less). Part Two takes Pollan to the diminishing (but hopefully rebounding) world of Pastoral Grass, and the meal originating from a truly sustainable "grass farm," where the farmer works with nature instead of trying to turn it into a commodity. Part Three is all about the forest and a completely foraged meal. Pollan talks to farmers, visits CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations aka Factory Farms), bales hay, risks life and limb, kills chickens, tries vegetarianism, discovers the secretive world of mushroom hunters, philosophizes, and questions everything. He also shares fascinating bits of information--from the "beauty and wonder" of corn sex to why rats (fellow omnivores) are so difficult to poison. I guarantee you'll never look at food (or the way it's produced) the same way again. I know I haven't.

Changes I've been inspired to make after reading The Omnivore's Dilemma:
  • Besides buying organic, free-range meat, I'm now switching to grass-fed beef. Part One of the book (Industrialized Corn) convinced me beyond any shadow of a doubt that cows should not be grain fed. It's bad for them, bad for us, and bad for the environment.
  • This isn't a change, but my commitment to free-range, organic eggs has been reinforced.
  • Given the choice between two similar products I'll choose the locally produced one now. If it's also organic, so much the better, but local now trumps organic for me.
  • I'm slowly weaning myself off as many over-processed foods as I can. Breakfast cereals (my major weakness) are the first to go. I'm switching to homemade granola or oatmeal for breakfast.
  • No more fast food for me: cheap in price but expensive in other, less immediately obvious ways.
  • I'm going to give foraging a try. Starting this spring I'll be heading out with my mom to pick wild dandelion greens and grape leaves. Ultimately I'd love to go mushroom hunting (I'll need to find someone experienced to show me how, though).
  • I'm considering growing more food than I already do, but the squirrels tend to get to it before I have a chance, so I'll have to think about that one!
I hope (and believe) these changes will result in a positive effect on my health, the local economy, the environment... and homemade/locally grown food tastes way better too. All this from reading one book. Of course, now I have to read Pollan's other books too--what a hardship.

Quote from The Omnivore's Dilemma:
So we find ourselves as a species almost back where we started: anxious omnivores struggling once again to figure out what it is wise to eat. Instead of relying on the accumulated wisdom of a cuisine, or even on the wisdom of our senses, we rely on expert opinion, advertising, government food pyramids, and diet books, and we place our faith in science to sort out for us what culture once did with rather more success. (p 303)
If you're interested, check out this interview with Michael Pollan and Bill Moyers. (Thanks to my friend Kimmy for the link!)

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. From Penguin. Also available as an e-book.

17 February 2010

Killing Them with Cleanliness

Cleanliness might be next to godliness, but antiseptics are next to paranoia. I've been noticing something when I go shopping for soap and cleaners--it's getting harder and harder to find any that aren't labelled "antibacterial." This is a problem.

As a borderline germaphobe, believe me when I say I understand that bacteria, germs, cooties, and all things gross can be damn scary. I mean, seriously--you can't even see them and they can kill you! So it's not really surprising that store shelves are as clogged with antiseptics as our airwaves are with fear-mongering commercials featuring helpless children and germ-laden surfaces.

The thing with germs is that they are living organisms, and as such they adapt and evolve. On top of which, even the best antibacterial products only kill 99.9% of bacteria. I know it seems weird to say "only" with a percentage like that, but those 0.01% bacteria that survive? Well, they're stronger and even more resistant to those antibacterial products. And as they reproduce and get hosed down again with said products, the next batch of surviving 0.01% are even stronger and even more resistant. You know what you end up with over time? Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, aka Superbugs. And then we're screwed.

That's not to say that washing your hands with antibacterial soap is the sole cause of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but why add to a growing problem when you don't need to? So, what should you do instead?

  • Stop buying antibacterial products and cleansers.
  • Regular soap and hot water are all you need to keep your hands and most surfaces clean! Regular cleansers will take care of the rest.
  • Wash your hands (with regular soap and water) regularly and thoroughly.
  • Be aware of cross-contamination. If you sneeze into your hand, don't touch anything else until you wash it (you might find sneezing into your sleeve easier all around). If raw meat touches a cutting board or utensil, don't use that board or utensil for anything else (the commercials would have us believe that everyone places raw meat directly on counter tops. If you're doing this, you need more help than I can offer here!)
  • Buy organic meat, milk, and eggs (the use--and overuse-- of antibiotics in agriculture is a huge contributor to the problem).
  • Get over the paranoia--our bodies are teeming with bacteria and micro-organisms, most of which are harmless or even beneficial. When you go out of your way to kill the bad bacteria, you end up killing the good ones too (that's why people on antibiotics often experience yeast overgrowth, e.g., thrush). Besides, exposure to a little dirt builds up the immune system.
Just remember: clean is good; sterile is overkill.

Image from freeimages.co.uk

05 February 2010

Hot Mormon Muffins: February Edition

February's muffins ("Amy's Relief Society Raspberry") are brought to you by Amy, 32, mother of three, and dressed in a particularly fetching red Cupid outfit (you can see her here).

Raspberries about to be folded into the batter (click photos to enlarge):

After folding in (a messy business):

Ready to go into the oven:

Golden and smelling heavenly:


My sad attempt at presenting a muffin in an artistic fashion:

Amy's Relief Society Raspberry

2 cups enriched flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp (baking) soda
2 tsp baking powder
6 tbs butter
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup raspberries

Combine flour, sugar, salt, soda, and baking powder. Mix in butter (it's easier if you cube it first) with 2 forks or a pastry blender. Add slightly beaten egg and buttermilk; mix just enough to moisten dry ingredients. Fold in berries. Fill greased muffin pans 2/3 full. Bake at 400F for 20 to 25 minutes [20 minutes was slightly too long for me].

Makes 12 muffins.

My Verdict: The muffins are certainly easy to make--always a plus. They also have a good texture and smell amazing while baking. But man are they not sweet enough! When I was making them I thought 1/2 cup of sugar wasn't much--turns out it was far too little, especially with the tart berries. I don't know if the recipe was a misprint or if the Relief Society likes their food bland, but if you make these you might want to increase the sugar (by at least another 1/2 cup). As they are, the SO refuses to eat more than the one he already had. Anyone want some mediocre raspberry muffins?

If you're wondering what the heck all this Mormon Muffin business is about, read this.

All photos by Domicile.