Saturday, January 19, 2008

Some Notable Items and a Word on Cloned Animals

In the news:
The US government has given the green light to the production and marketing of foods derived from cloned animals.

Then there's this:
US scientists say they have produced embryos that are clones of two men, in an attempt to produce patient-specific stem cells.

Why is it that these two articles make me think long pig is not too far away? Will dietitians soon have to counsel their clients on its nutritional benefits and drawbacks?

To be serious though, the end of the FDA's six-year investigation into the possible effects of clone-derived food showed nothing harmful. Given FDA's history of leniency toward food producers and their close ties with the food industry, this isn't a shocking surprise.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with evolutionary biology, genetic diversity decreases the virulence of diseases through the development of more effective biological defenses. One of the ways to increase genetic diversity is DNA recombination via sexual reproduction. Without this diversity, we would see more animals getting sick (think bird flu) more frequently and faster than we can cope. There is also the problem of antibiotics in that food producers who use cloned animal stock will have to rely on more antibiotics to prevent disease outbreaks from happening. The US's epidemic and bioterrorism containment programs rarely work effectively in practice runs - what makes us think we can deal with animal epidemics any better?

Right now, the final decision on whether or not cloned animals products should be labeled as such is still pending.

I can't wait to hear how food companies are going to present and justify the use and sale of cloned animals in the coming months.

At the Movies

Saw No Country For Old Men last week before heading back to Tucson. One of the best movies of 2007 and one of the best from the Coen brothers.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

United States of Arugula review

David Kamp of The ____ Snob's Dictionary's fame (notably Rock Snob's and recently Food Snob's) presents a journalistic account of America's contemporary food pedigree in The United States of Arugula. It follows the current tide of food books that goes beyond actual food and recipes to look at the people involved. Kamp proposes a food pantheon comprising three figures who have shaped today's food culture: Julia Child, James Beard, and Craig Claiborne. Child showed America in her idiosyncratic manner that French cuisine need not be inaccessible to the home cook. She also paved the way--for better or worse--for TV chefs and the idea of the chef as a TV personality (think Food Network's Emeril Lagasse or Rachael Ray, both industries unto themselves). Beard was a believer in American cuisine and mentored many of today's notable chefs. Claiborne was a pioneer in food journalism at the New York Times who held restaurants to greater standards and introduced Americans to ethnic fare.

Kamp profiles other well-known and obscure figures who have played roles in altering how Americans view, treat, and demand their food. These profiles are usually peppered with colorful anecdotes, juicy gossip, and contentious quotes. Rivalries, affairs, and arguments between the different players are laid bare with Kamp offering those involved (and still alive) the opportunity to respond. Oftentimes, I felt as if I were reading a celebrity magazine in between the layered narratives of recent food history. Kamp often inserts his own take on certain figures and institutions (he doesn't hold back his exasperation with the Beard Foundation) without great detrimental effect on the narratives. I found it interesting that he concludes the book by noting the major issues confronting various food camps and the entire food industry and culture, e.g. organic production, the viable sustainability of gourmet cuisine and consumption. The United States of Arugula is an engrossing look at how America's cuisine reached its current gourmet status.

Next on the "To Read" list:
  • The Omnivore's Dilemma & the follow-up In Defense of Food, both by Michael Pollan
  • Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes
Today's Supplements:

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Mongolian Death Worm

Today I finished Spook Country by William Gibson. This is the second book I've read of his, after Pattern Recognition. (I'll have to read Neuromancer at some point.) As in Pattern Recognition, his writing style here is sparse and honed down to the essentials, reminiscent of noir and hard-boiled detective stories. I find Gibson's fascination with objects and their cultural signification to be very interesting, especially since one of the main "characters" of the story was locative artwork, a form of art that, as presented in the story, connects and reformulates our sense of location, locational history, the physical, and the virtual. (Is this a prominent feature in his earlier books as well?) Full of astute observations about the world today, right now, and of the all-too-recent past, Spook Country is a great successor to Pattern Recognition.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Eat Here review

Brian Halwell's Eat Here is an economically elegant argument on why we need to eat more locally produced foods. Unlike other polemical works on this type of topic, Halwell provides us with not only a summation of the issues and problems surrounding food and the food industry, but also a summation of simple solutions.

There is a definite slant to it all. The book is published by the Worldwatch Institute, an organization and magazine that focuses on the environment and social justice, and the author is a senior researcher for the institute. Halwell also avowed his membership to a Slow Food chapter within the book. Despite this bias, or perhaps because of it, Halwell presents a surprisingly reasonable case on behalf of eating local foods.

Halwell highlights the numerous, widespread problems surrounding corporate-raised, nonlocal food. There is the enormous amount of fuel consumption involved in transporting produce across states. This has come about due to cheap oil prices and government trade incentives and subsidies further lowering the cost of gasoline. The result of this, alongside highly efficient industrial food production, is that the price of food commodities (yes, commodities) on the global market is artificially low. How can the Oklahoman garlic farmer compete with the Chinese farmer who grows the same type of garlic under a weaker currency, thus allowing for "cheaper" heads of garlic?

Safety standards by the USDA have little power of enforcement beyond censure and reluctant recalls in light of food outbreaks with little fear of penalty. The Food Safety and Inspection Service, an arm of the USDA, works with food processing plants to detect sources of contamination and formulates a plan of prevention. These are voluntarily followed and the plants are infrequently inspected due to shortage of inspectors and funding for inspection and testing. These concerns are further compounded by the centralization and internal expansion of food processing plants whereby one weak spot along the line can result in a few tons of ground meat being contaminated with E. coli or bushels of spinach being cleaned with sewage water.

The current business model for industrial farmers is akin to that of indentured servants where farmers often have little choice but to buy seed, fertilizer, pesticide, and equipment from different sources that are often owned by one major conglomerate. There are also the high suicide rates among farming families, children abandoning the family farm in favor of better employment elsewhere, decreasing financial returns for each successively larger harvest.

Thankfully, as often as Halwell puts a central problem under the spotlight, he also presents individuals and organizations who are working on solutions. One privately owned fast-food chain based in Oregon and Washington called Burgerville uses local ingredients for all its franchises. Halwell notes the need for farmers to group together their selling power and diversify their partnerships in order to compete with corporations.

For us, Halwell points to several steps we can take to become more involved with local food. We can visit farms near us to learn more about what is grown there. Granted, this may not be entirely possible for anyone who lives in the middle of an urban area. But that doesn't mean we can't find a farmer's market or produce grown from converted lots and rooftops. With a little knowledge and help from experienced growers and farmers, we can even harvest our own vegetables and herbs in our backyard or in pots. For the more ambitious of us, we can join food policy councils (or start one) and lobby for greater use of local food in our schools and businesses. Our concept of and relationship to "local food" does not have to remain confined to farms and ranches.

Next on the "To Read" List:
  • The United States of Arugula by David Kamp (review in process)
  • The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Today's Supplements:


My best friend helped out one of his friends on this animation short, "IM IN UR MANGER, KILLING UR SAVIOR." And a friend of a friend is also your friend. Check it out:

for tax reasons

I have good friends.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Happy New Year!

Am I late? Or not? I like having two new years every year - a good excuse to eat good food each time. I've made resolutions that I won't share here, though they're more like long-term and short-term goals made more concrete. Hope you all have been good to each other over the holidays and that it was abundant with tasty food and lovely company.

I still have irregular access to the Internet so postings will happen whenever I have the opportunity. However, I am working on a few book reviews at the moment, and there is the ever present news.

In the meantime, here's a shortlist in no particular order of singers and bands who put out some great music in 2007:

LCD Soundsystem
Suzanne Vega
White Shoes & Couples Company
Ted Leo & the Pharmacists
Roisin Murphy
Jens Lekman
White Stripes
St. Vincent
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
Sally Shapiro
The National
Kanye West
Iron & Wine
Modest Mouse
Arcade Fire
Anoushka Shankar & Karsh Kale
Blonde Redhead
The Field
New Pornographers
Simian Mobile Disco