Tuesday, May 30, 2006

New camera means better food blogging

I got a new camera this weekend. It's a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ20, a so-called "ZLR" camera with a big impressive-looking lens, but without the through-the-lens feature of a true SLR and without the ability to replace the (big impressive-looking) lens. On the other hand, it's a lot cheaper and lighter than a true SLR. It's a 5MB digital, with lots of cool features, including 12X zoom and optical stabilization to reduce blurring with hand-held shots. The above photo is the first food pic I've taken with the camera; an egg (hard-boiled). (36 mm equiv, ISO 100, 1/80 s, F 8.0, natural light.) I'm sure there will be crappy cell phone photos of food on this blog for the forseeable future, but there may be some better photos too... Posted by Picasa

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Friday, May 26, 2006

Odessa Piper's Commencement Address

Consumerist pointed me at Odessa Piper's commencement address to the University of Wisconsin-Madison graduating class this Spring. I'm a UW-Madison alumnus, and so it was particularly a treat to read Ms Piper's success story. She dropped out of school, and after living on a farm commune in New Hampshire, moved to Madison where she worked for Ovens of Brittany (which I remember as being the source for unbelievably good morning buns!), doing, well, everything:

Between 1970 and 1976, in what would have been my college years, I cooked at a from-scratch restaurant on State Street called the Ovens of Brittany. Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" was my bible. This was a job that also linked me to a farm in Rolling Ground, Wis. That farm was attempting, long before its time, to supply organic meats and produce to the restaurant on State Street.

My curriculum included waiting on tables and line cooking; foraging wild plums, hickory nuts and morels in the woods; hand-milking four cows on the farm and give or take a couple of goats that came in and out of the picture. It was a very comprehensive course load.

At the age of 24, in 1976, she and a partner started L'Etoile, a Madison restaurant that was a pioneer in serving local and seasonal foods. After some early extensive financial difficulties, with the kindness of creditors, she managed to turn the restaurant into a commencement-worthy success story. It has continued to thrive, and in 2001 was rated as one of the top 50 restaurants in the country. Here are some of her additional thoughts on agriculture and slow food:

Hey, if all you can afford to eat is fast food, you can still eat it slowly. And don't discount the big solutions that can emerge out of small acts of faith in an idea. In my life, I have witnessed the decline and rebirth of entire farming communities in Wisconsin. By the '70s so many small farms were losing their hold in an ever-industrializing agriculture. Conventional farming practices were sending too much of Wisconsin's best topsoil down the troubled Kickapoo River. And yet the same region now has one of the highest concentrations of vibrant, vital small family farms organic farms, sustainable farms in the country and is rebuilding its communities through a new urban/rural partnership.

I predict that the good farmers, the citizens and the partners, and educators at the University of Wisconsin and all educators of this state of Wisconsin will lead the country in the coming decades by demonstrating regionally reliant alternatives for our food systems to the current oil-dependent food distribution system that we have. And I believe that this good state and this partnership in the Wisconsin Idea are going to do much, much more.


Monday, May 22, 2006

Hurricanes in New York

National Geographic News has an interesting article about the hurricane risk in New York City. The risk is fairly low to the city itself, since most hurricanes parallel the coast this far North, and are unlikely to run directly into the city without spending a bunch of time over land first. Long Island, sticking out to sea, is at more of a risk. On the other hand, the potential consequences of such an unlikely event are really quite remarkably bad. Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn and Queens could flood. (Not the part I live in; I'm probably at 50 or so feet above sea level.) The financial impact of New York City (financial industry, the Port of New York) being out of commission for a couple of weeks would be really huge on the US economy, more than Katrina taking out New Orleans. Also, transportation on and off of Long Island could be pretty severely impacted if bridges and tunnels were damaged.

In 1821, the eye of a hurricane pushed a 13-foot (4-meter) storm surge into New York Harbor that put Lower Manhattan underwater.

The flooding would have been much worse had the eye not arrived at low tide.

The National Storm Center is predicting another heavy year for hurricanes, although presumably not as heavy as last year's disaster. Normal years have about two major storms, last year had seven, and they're predicting four to six this year...


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

organic controversies

OK, here's another good article on food controversies, this time about organic food. Steven Shapin writes in the last issue of the New Yorker about organic food and whether it's all it's cracked up to be. I am certainly happy to buy good-quality organic food when I can, but don't usually go out of my way to do so. Here are some particularly interesting excerpts from the article, which I recommend.
In March, Wal-Mart made the remarkable announcement that it would double its organic-grocery offerings immediately. Wal-Mart is betting that, if it follows its usual practice of squeezing suppliers and cutting prices ruthlessly, the taste for organic foods will continue to spread across the social landscape. “We don’t think you should have to have a lot of money to feed your family organic foods,” its C.E.O. said at the most recent annual general meeting. (p. 84)
I think it's hard to argue that only richer people should have access to organic foods. Although Wal-Mart is not exactly a great corporate citizen in many ways, they do give generally low prices to consumers. On the other hand, it's now understood that many producers of products that Wal-Mart sells produce identical-looking but sub-standard items (thinner plastics, diluted soaps) specifically so Wal-Mart can sell them for less. (Anyone have a citation for this? I've read it several times but couldn't find a good source today.) Industrial organic food is still harvested mechanically, wrapped in plastic, and shipped around the world, even if only natural fertilizer and pesticides are used on the fields. It's worth considering what would happen to quality when Wal-Mart puts the squeeze on producers. But it may be worth the trade off if people at the poverty line can buy apples without pesticides.
The growing of the arugula is indeed organic, but almost everything else is late-capitalist business as usual. Earthbound’s compost is trucked in; the salad-green farms are models of West Coast monoculture, laser-levelled fields facilitating awesomely efficient mechanical harvesting; and the whole supply chain from California to Manhattan is only four per cent less gluttonous a consumer of fossil fuel than that of a conventionally grown head of iceberg lettuce—though Earthbound plants trees to offset some of its carbon footprint. “Organic,” then, isn’t necessarily “local,” and neither “organic” nor “local” is necessarily “sustainable.” (p. 86)
Right. I sometimes wonder if chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are the worst aspects of our current system. It might be that certain non-organic practices allow more sustainable, lower-impact farming. Maybe allowing moderate levels of nitrogen fertilizer would allow yields of otherwise organic crops to increase, allowing them to be grown in areas they otherwise couldn't, reducing the distances the crops need to be shipped to market on polluting trucks. Or perhaps using some types of herbicides wisely could reduce tilling and runoff and the depletion of topsoil.
For many fruits and vegetables, freshness, weed control, and the variety grown may be far more important to taste than whether the soil in which they were grown was dosed with ammonium nitrate. Pollan did his own taste test by shopping at Whole Foods for an all-organic meal: everything was pretty good, except for the six-dollar bunch of organic asparagus, which had been grown in Argentina, air-freighted six thousand miles to the States, and immured for a week in the distribution chain. Pollan shouldn’t have been surprised that it tasted like “cardboard.” (p. 86-87)
(This is the Pollan of the new Omnivore's Dillema book I've mentioned before.) Clearly, this is an argument for local and seasonal over strictly organic.
The organic movement that sprang up in America during the postwar years, manured by the enthusiasm of both the hippies and their New Age successors, supplemented Howard’s ideas of soil health with the imperative that the scale should be small and the length of the food chain from farm to consumer short. You were supposed to know who it was that produced your food, and to participate in a network of trust in familiar people and transparent agricultural practices. A former nutritionist at Columbia, who went on to grow produce upstate, recalls, “When we said organic, we meant local. We meant healthful. We meant being true to the ecologies of regions. We meant mutually respectful growers and eaters. We meant social justice and equality.” (p. 87)
All of this is fantastic.... and expensive, compared to the industrial agriculture that allows us to feed 6 billion people with surpluses left over. How can we balance the need to actually feed everyone with the equally important need to have a sustainable and healthy food system?
Given the way the world now is, sustainably grown and locally produced organic food is expensive. Genetically modified, industrially produced monocultural corn is what feeds the victims of an African famine, not the gorgeous organic technicolor Swiss chard from your local farmers’ market. (p. 88)
Yep. I don't know the right balance here, but I do think it's important to be aware of the complexities.

OK, I'll get away from controversies and back to writing about actual cooking very soon!

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

the Enviropig (TM)

Here's another food ethics dillema for you... In order to cost-effectively raise enough pork to meet demand, pigs in the US and in the rest of the industrialized world are fed grains (corn, soy, etc.) instead of their usual omnivorous diet. The pigs are happy enough (unlike cows, which get infections and thus preventative antibiotics when fed only grain), except that their manure is very high in phosphorus. I'll explain why in just a second, but the critical environmental issue is that the manure is then used as fertilizer to grow crops (good), but the high phosphorus levels mean that much of the phosphorus runs off into nearby rivers and streams (bad). The phosphorus causes algae to thrive, reduces the oxygen in the water, and is a bad thing for fish in the water. (You may have noticed "no phosphorus" labels on laundry detergent, since until the mid-1990s, phosphorus in powdered laundry detergent was a major pollutant.) So, it would be good to avoid having too much phosphorus in pig manure.

Now onto the explanation. The phosphorus in grains is primarily in a form called phytate. Some animals can digest phytate, but pigs can't. Therefore, they don't get enough phosphorus in their date, and require supplements, and also their manure contains all of that undigested phytate. So feeding the pigs is more expensive than it otherwise would be, and the pigs cause pollution.

There are a couple of solutions that have been tried. Some work has been done on using breeding or genetic modification to reduce the phytate in grains, but that work hasn't been very successful, as it tends to reduce yields in the crops. Many pigs in commercial farms are fed, as a supplement, an enzyme called phytase (enzymes end in -ase...), which comes from fungus and allows the pig to partially digest the phytate. But that's expensive too, only partially reduces the need for supplements, and only reduces the phosphorus in the manure by 40%. So what to do?

As I first saw in an article from the New York Academy of Sciences, Canadian scientists have taken a different tack. Don't change what goes into the pig; change the pig. They've identified the gene in the bacteria E. coli that makes that phytase enzyme, and have inserted it into a line of genetically-modified (but otherwise very pink and cute) pigs, trademarked the Enviropig. The pigs make the enzyme in their salivary glands, which allows them to digest the phytate much better, no supplemental phosphorus or fungal phytase in the diet is needed, and the phosporus in the manure is reduced 60%, which would significantly reduce the problems from runoff.

So then the moral dillema. Here's a relatively straightforward genetic modification that allows pig farming to have significantly less of an impact on the environment, and could also reduce the costs of raising pigs, lowering food prices to the poor. These are good things. On the other hand, there are safety issues that need to be addressed. As the researchers themselves acknowledge, it's unclear if the DNA or proteins might cause problems if it jumps to another species. This gene is totally novel to pigs, and who knows how it might behave. Low levels of phytase in the meat might be toxic or allergenic. The modification could interact in all sorts of unintended ways. Is it worth the fairly complicated and lengthy testing that would be necessary to make these pigs a commercial product? Would you feel good about eating a pork chop with reduced environmental effects, even if you knew it was safe, or would the genetic modification of your bacon be a bad thing?

These are of course exactly the same issues with GMO foods like Bt corn, which makes an organic pesticide, reducing the need for other pesticides to be sprayed, or Roundup Ready soybeans, which allows the relatively-safe Roundup herbicide to be sprayed on fields instead of other more harmful farming practices (excessive tilling, more toxic herbicides). Both are in widespread use, despite ongoing controversy, in the US and some parts of the rest of the world. Although genetically modified plants are fairly common now, the Enviropig may be the first animal to become a controversy, and possibly a product, in the years ahead.

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

New York photos

Three crappy cell-phone photos for you, of hopefully amusing New York scenes...

Half-crushed Froot Loops on the floor of the subway.

You know you're in Queens when a house in the neighborhood has a six-foot tall plastic Statue of Liberty on the porch. In May.

A rant posted to a pillar in the Union Square subway station. It says: "In order to purchase tobacco products at Walgreens you will need a driver's license, passport, birth certificate and pictures of your grandchildren to prove you are over 40 years of age. An exception will be made if you can prove you have lung cancer so it does not matter anyway." And then there's (I think) a photo of Edward R. Murrow and some stuff about him that's not legible.


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

caution warranted on dolphin name story

Mark Liberman over at the linguistics blog Language Log has some cautionary words about the story out today about dolphins having names. The actual paper itself isn't out yet; it'll be in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences soon, but all of the articles so far are based on press releases. As Liberman says, "[t]he media reliably overinterpret science stories that push their buttons, and nothing pushes people's buttons like talking animals."

The study seems to moderately extend something that's been known for 15 years, that the calls of dolphins include indentifying signatures. The new work, by Vincent Janik of the University of St. Andrews, used synthetic versions of the calls instead of actual recordings of a dolphin making its identifying signature. They would play the synthetic call (analgous to a computer voice saying your name) to the relatives of a dolphin, and see whether the relatives reacted to the voice the same way as they would to the dolphin saying it's own identifying call. That's fairly interesting, in that it suggests that the identifying call is based on learned patterns of whistles and what not, like some songbirds, and not on recognition of the tone of voice in a call (as in the penguins in March of the Penguins). But they don't seem to have much evidence (aside from some somewhat rare, uncontrolled evidence) that dolphins will use the name of another dolphin, either to call it or to refer to it to a third dolphin. That would be particularly interesting, and the media articles suggest that it might be true, but Liberman wisely prefers to wait for the article itself to be published before accepting that as more than speculation.


Monday, May 08, 2006

food ethics: local vs. global

There are several really interesting ethical dilemmas in food production, including whether organic food is elitist, and whether GMO food is an ecological step forward or backward. In Salon.com today there's an interview with ethicist Peter Singer, who has written a new book called "The Way We Eat." The most interesting, to me, section of that interview has to do with local vs. non-local food production. Singer takes what might be seen as a surprising point of view for a vegan who spends a lot of time worrying about where food comes from:

In the same vein, you argue that in the interests of alleviating world poverty, it's better to buy food from Kenya than to buy locally, even if the Kenyan farmer only gets 2 cents on the dollar.

My argument is that we should not necessarily buy locally, because if we do, we cut out the opportunity for the poorest countries to trade with us, and agriculture is one of the things they can do, and which can help them develop. The objection to this, which I quote from Brian Halweil, one of the leading advocates of the local movement, is that very little of the money actually gets back to the Kenyan farmer. But my calculations show that even if as little as 2 cents on the dollar gets back to the Kenyan farmer, that could make a bigger difference to the Kenyan grower than an entire dollar would to a local grower. It's the law of diminishing marginal utility. If you are only earning $300, 2 cents can make a bigger difference to you than a dollar can make to the person earning $30,000.

Now, the "standard" position when you get left-of-center folks together to talk about food production is just the opposite. For example, an esteemed panel, consisting of the authors of Fast Food Nation and The Botany of Desire/The Omnivore's dilemma, the founder of the Slow Food movement, and two others, a few years back talked about the problems of industrial food production (MP3s for your iPod available here). The consensus there was that globalization of the food supply gives people bad food, causes severe ecological damage, destroys cultures, and enriches large corporations instead of poor farmers. All very compelling arguments.

But now we have the opposite take. Globalization of the food supply allows third-world farmers to produce things they're good at, like inexpensive food, while Americans will have to move onto things we're good at, like building airplanes. This specialization process makes both farmers and non-farmers more efficient, which increases everyone's income (via increased productivity). Also a compelling argument, and related to the argument about how US and European farm subsidies keep farmers in poor countries in desperate poverty. (A point that was partially made, but somewhat hedged, by at least one member of that panel.)

So what's the solution to this dilemma? Buy locally, for environmental reasons, or buy globally, to reduce poverty? Or is it a false dilemma?

Perhaps the thing to do is to do both. Buy some of your food locally and organic, supporting heritage agriculture, quality, and ecological production. Buy some of your food globally, such as fruit and vegetables out of season, knowing that at least a small part of your money is going to poor farmers who need the business. (Or a larger part if it's fair trade, as in coffee.) And then support politicians who will stand up to the agribusiness lobby and vote to reduce or eliminate farm subsidies, allowing more opportunity for poor farmers in other countries to compete.


Saturday, May 06, 2006

Book Review: Our Inner Ape

I just finished Frans de Waal's Our Inner Ape, a pop science book about chimpanzees, bonobos, and to some extent people. Dr. de Waal is a primatologist who studies the social interactions of these apes (the first two, not people), and his book compares and constrasts their behaviors in an effort to figure out where we fit in. He covers family relationships, power in troops, sex, violence, and kindness. At the end of the book, he specifically talks about what we, as close relatives of bonobos and chimps, can learn about ourselves from studying them. He concludes that we are both more like chimps and bonobos than we typically think we are, yet are more different (particularly from chimps) than the typical cynical view. Chimps are patriarchical, fight a lot, and comparing ourselves with them seems to suggest that the "law of the jungle" is in fact our nature. By contrast, bonobos are matriarchical, have promiscuous sex, and seem like quite a contrast to our view of ourselves. We can be both more violent towards each other than chimps, and more charitable to each other than bonobos.

Dr. de Waal does an impressive and entertaining job at describing the remarkable intelligence and very familiar social relationships these apes have, extending our understanding of their natures well beyond the one-sentence summaries I just stated. For example, and to tie in the food theme of this blog, he spends quite a bit of time talking about just how kind chimps and bonobos are to each other. (And reminding us of how social we are as a species!) Chimps hunt (for monkeys, mostly) in groups, and will share the proceeds of a hunt with other hunters as well as other members of their troop. They don't have to; a large male chimp is plenty big enough to hoard a monkey for himself and defend it from other chimps, but the fact is that chimps share in very familiar ways. Here's how de Waal talks about the adaptive nature of sharing:
Food sharing likely started as an incentive for hunters to hunt another day: there can't be joint hunting without joint payoffs.

...(It is unlikely) that vegetables played any role in the evolution of food sharing. The leaves and fruits that primates collect in the forest are too abundant and too small to share. Sharing makes sense only in relation to highly prized food that is hard to obtain and comes in amounts too large for a single individual. What is the centerpiece when people gather around the dinner table? The turkey at Thanksgiving, the pig turning on the spit, or the salad bowl? Sharing goes back to our hunting days, which explains why it is rare in other primates. The three primates best at public sharing--that is sharing outside the family--are humans, chimpanzees, and capuchin monkeys. All three love meat, they hunt in groups, and they share even among adult males, which makes sense given that males do most of the hunting.

If a taste for meat is indeed at the root of sharing, it is hard to escape the conclusion that human morality is steeped in blood. When we give money to begging strangers, ship food to starving masses, or vote for measures that benefit the poor, we follow impulses shaped since our ancestors first gathered around a meat possessor.
In other words, the remarkable level of reciprocity seen in humans and only a few other animals probably evolved as proto-humans became effective hunters of large game. If we had been vegetarians, like gorillas, we probably wouldn't be as social, or as nice to each other, as we are. I think this is quite a remarkable and thought-provoking conclusion.

I very much enjoyed this book, in particular its anecdotes about apes in zoos being clever and helpful to people, and give it four out of four lamb chops.


Friday, May 05, 2006

superadditive burger toppings

I was at an American restaurant and bar in Brooklyn the other day with a couple of friends, and we noticed some very amusing things on the menu. I took photos with my trusty cell phone, which I've cropped, combined, and enhanced so that you can actually read it...

A few things to notice. First, as pointed out by Dylan, there are five types of cheeseburgers. Did they say "Cheeseburger (American, Cheddar, Blue, Swiss, or Provolone)... $6.95"? No, they did not. They listed each type of cheeseburger separately. That's pretty funny. Perhaps they needed to fill out their rather sparse menu and couldn't figure out how to shrink the margins, like I did in college?

The next thing is really funny. The cost of a plain burger is $6.75. The cost of a cheeseburger (any type of cheese!) is $6.95. That's 20 cents for the cheese. Fine. Now, the cost of a bacon burger is $6.95, making the incremental cost of the bacon 20 cents. I'm not sure I want to know where they got bacon at 10 cents a strip, but anywhere, there it is, fine. Now the kicker. The price of a bacon cheeseburger is... what's that you say? $6.75 + $.20 + $.20 = $7.15? Great guess! But wrong. They charge 35 extra cents to put both the bacon and the cheese on your burger. $7.50. I'm baffled.

I had the plain burger. It was okay.


Thursday, May 04, 2006

the neuroeconomics of dread

Neuroeconomics is an interesting new field at the intersection of neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics. It's the study of how decision making, and in particular decisions about risk, reward, and punishment, is implemented in the brain. Neuroeconomists try to figure out what parts of your brain and what biochemicals are involved when you (for example) weigh a guaranteed small reward and a chance at a larger reward. A lot has been learned over the last couple of decades.

A new study out in Science looks at an interesting phenomenon--getting bad experiences over with sooner rather than later. With rewards, it's usually better to have a reward earlier rather than later, and that may be true even if the later reward is larger. Would you rather I gave you $100 now or $200 in 15 years? Probably the $100 now, as who knows what might happen between now and then!

It turns out dread is kinda paradoxical, at least for some people. A punishment (like, say, an electric shock to the soles of your feet) is a negative reward. All things being equal, you would assume that you'd rather get a negative reward later rather than sooner, just the opposite of a positive reward. But that's not always the case. In the new study by researchers at Emory University, participants were given a choice of a large immediate shock or a somewhat smaller, but still painful shock after a delay. If everything is equal, the smaller shock later would be definitely preferable, but a substantial portion of the set of participants (9 of 32) chose the larger immediate shock. The only way this makes any sense is if the sense of dread you feel as you wait... wait... wait for the shock is equivalent to a punishment.

And, with the help of fMRI brain scans, that's what they found. The subjects were scanned while being told that a shock was coming after a certain amount of time. For the participants who would prefer the immediate shocks, the parts of the brain involved with pain perception became active while they waited. For the participants who preferred to wait, those parts of the brain weren't active until the actual shock. In other words, for "extreme dreaders", waiting for punishment is as bad as the punishment itself, and chosing the larger immediate shock is a rational decision.

I got my arm twisted to be a participant in a study involving shocks a while back, and while the cash payment at the end was appreciated, the shock really does hurt! And the dread, as you know the shock is coming, makes you nervous, which makes you sweat, which makes your skin conductivity go up, which makes the shock even worse.


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

suspicious fire; immune evolution

There was a seven-alarm (!) fire this morning in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I could easily see the smoke from my apartment, five miles away. A set of abandoned warehouses along the East River just "happened" to catch fire at 6am. As Curbed snarkily puts it: "Greenpoint Clearing Land for Waterfront Development." Photos there too. Slash-and-burn, right here in the big city...

The other particularly recommended blog entry this morning is Carl Zimmer's discussion of that drug trial that went horribly wrong recently. You probably heard about it--half a dozen healthy young men took a drug that worked great in animals, and all of them nearly died of immune system over-reactions. Zimmer looks at the cell biology of the drug, of people, and even more interesting, of our evolution. It seems that in the process of humans' recent evolution, an aspect of our immune system changed in such a way that a particular immune cell can drastically over-react in certain circumstances. Our nearest relatives, chimps and bonobos, don't get lupus, asthma, or AIDS, and this mutation seems to be a big factor in why not. Nobody really knows why we have this mutation; it was probably adaptive at some point for some reasons, but there's no explanation yet. This understanding of the immune system at this level is cutting-edge research, and it doesn't look like the drug company did anything wrong. Very interesting ongoing story.