When potato chips are outlawed, only outlaws will have chips.

The conviction that dangerous things should be regulated for the good of the masses is not new. In this time and place, it mostly takes the form of stern warnings, as on cigarette packs and those signs in bars and near hot tubs that warn pregnant women to back off.

Every few years some lawmaker re-launches the argument that food stamp recipients should have more restrictions on their purchases. The sight of some single mom with a herd of kids handing over her tax-supported food card for bags of chips is a knife to the heart of these politicos. Not one of whom has waited in line to pay $1.79 for a single bell pepper in recent memory.

The idea that junk food should be taxed is the latest buzz. This meets with predictable outrage from people like me who think telling folks  what they can eat is a civil-rights violation. (Yes, the fact that this puts me alongside a lot of right-wing and tea-party morons who hate government troubles me.)

But this notion is not going to disappear, especially with sharp guys like the New York Times writer Mark Bittman is talking it up. This respected  food writer constructs a good case with actual stats: Want to keep health care costs down? Tax the crap out of sugar-laden soda, and boom — billions saved.

He’s right, but wrong.

It would save a pile if we could make it harder for people to eat and drink bad stuff. The flaw in this plan is that the government would be in charge of enforcement. Do I need to list the reasons why that is a lame idea? I thought not.

If we’re serious about this,  the government does have a role: Give tax breaks to companies that retool their factories from soda to–oh, I don’t know–maybe whole wheat crackers in the shape of Coke bottles. Whatever. The lobby for junk food/drink is too strong to allow a meaningful tax to survive the legislative process.

Then make it easier and cheaper for folks to buy healthy food. That’s different than a tax.

Say a portion of my taxes went to a local nonprofit. The agency could oversee fresh food kiosks located all over the place, especially near transit stops. If I can buy a bag of salad greens and a sweet potato when I get off the bus or train, I’m gonna do it. Especially if the prices are reasonable and they take food debit cards.

There’s plenty of expertise out there to help the government get rolling. The smooth network of folks that sell weed and pills at the transit stations in my city have the distribution details all worked out.

Move over cilantro, quinoa is here to stay.

Everywhere I look, it’s the Quinoa Network: All quinoa, all the time.

It’s not that the stuff is shockingly tasty. Even the typically enthusiastic Whole Foods website describes it with qualifiers, such as its “somewhat nutty flavor.” But it’s called the “Mother of All Grains” for its healthful properties and versatile nature.  It works in just about any recipe and it’s hard to ruin when cooking. When The New York Times is pushing quinoa pancakes, you know the stuff is hot.

(An aside: Why does everyone feel that pancakes need to be improved upon? What other dish gives us the chance to have butter, maple syrup and bacon on the same plate without raising eyebrows? Leave the pancakes alone, people.)

Quinoa (say “keen-wah”) is thought of as a grain, although it’s a closer cousin to a tumbleweed or spinach than it is to wheat. It’s usually described as a “pseudo-grain” which is sort of like calling it a cross-dresser.

A mouthful of the stuff is seemingly healthier than a week at a spa.  It’s got essential amino acids and lots of fiber. It’s nutritional pedigree is fabulous.

I wondered how this beloved-by-the-ancient-Incas food happened to take the culinary world by storm in the last year or so.  A gang called the Quinoa Corporation promotes itself as the first to bring quinoa to the US. When was the last time you heard of a company taking credit for bringing a desirable new substance into this country? I mean, besides the drug cartels.

Actually,  research reveals that quinoa is just like those actors who are described in People and US magazines as “overnight” successes.  Quinoa been quietly taking bit parts in the US for more than 20 years–a trade group of  producers formed in the late 1980s. It’s been waiting in the wings for a break, and finally it got the culinary equivalent of a miniseries on HBO, the network that made even President John Adams a hot character.

The food’s popularity is a direct result of the influence of vegetarians and the growing number of gluten-avoiders who have risen up and demanded foods that won’t (a) offend them politically; (b) make them sick and (c) cause dinner guests to gag.

I’ve been wondering…is there anything bad about this dish? The only criticism I could find was that too much quinoa can be bad for people who need to avoid oxalates in food, which can cause or aggravate inflammation among other bad experiences.  But if there is a food or drink out there (besides water) that has less controversy, I can’t name it.

So, hike on over to the store (or the internet) and buy a bag. If you don’t like it, you can always sprinkle it on the sidewalk to create traction during freezing spells. Step over the squirrels eating it and be on your way.

 

 

Prince William and Kate, quail eggs, and other thoughts.

Sources close to the Royal Family have already blurted out the news that there will be 16 different kinds of canapes for the reception following the April 29 wedding of Prince William and his Kate.

One of the anticipated treats is quail eggs with celery salt. Now, there’s some confusion about what else will be served with the little treats; some accounts claim goat cheese and caramelized walnuts. But everyone is in agreement on the celery-salt part.

That may not sound like a difficult thing to produce, but considering that an estimated 10,000 total canapes will be served, if you divide by the 16 types, that could mean something like 625 quail-egg items lined up for sprinkling. That’s a lot of celery salt. Enough to give the chef a good case of repetitive-stress injury, even.  If they have worker’s comp in England, we’d like to see the wording on that request-for-benefits form.

(Before you bird-rights people start, uh, flocking here to comment–do not worry–this is not a lot of work for the quail. Some types apparently lay an egg a day. Which is roughly equivalent, in energy expended, to writing half of a blog post. Trust me, this is E-Z.)

Our big attraction to royal doings stems from our amazement at the ways they make simple things more complicated. Even though they can afford to send a score of footmen over the pond to get a planeload of frozen stuffed mushrooms at Costco, keeping them on ice for the return trip and up to the reception, they insist on doing things the hard way. Put out bids for quail eggs, organizing the celery-salt experts. On and on.

Given the furor over invitations to the canape reception, you know there will be someone who finds a way to smuggle a quail egg out in a pocket and get it bronzed. Or, two quail eggs, which could be bronzed and used for book-ends.

Personally, I think canapes would be much more enjoyable if they were made of familiar comfort foods. If  bubble-and-squeak is too common for the Royals (or too difficult to crowd onto a cracker) they could use American comfort foods. A square of meatloaf and a dab of mashed potato on a toast point. Carefully sculpted peanut butter and jelly towers, maybe. Tiny pancakes with bacon bits and a dab of maple syrup.

I’ve stalled long enough. No one wants to say it out loud, but someone has to tell the Queen: No one wants to stand around all dressed up and eat salted eggs. They just don’t.

 

Join me in a toast…as I raise my doughnut.

I got some good news today. It called for a celebratory moment, so I opted for a doughnut.

Some folks hoist a glass to mark an occasion. I like my rituals chocolate-frosted and not likely to lead to any test in which I must blow into a tube at the police station.

Once upon a time I would have headed for Dunkin’ Donuts, but in Portland, Oregon, that just is not the done thing.

Here one goes to a real bakery. I did not want to make do with some gluten-free, high-fiber nonsense in the shape of a doughnut, so I opted for the Helen Bernhard Bakery. All you need to know to verify the veracity of this place is that the counter and baking staff, all Women of a Certain Age, wear white uniforms. Any baker there would sooner cut off an arm than show up without a hairnet.

I got my chocolate-frosted cake doughnut, brought it home, and I cut it up with a knife to make it last. I placed it on an attractive plate.

I lifted it in a toast: “Good times!” Down the hatch.

All this brings to mind my short list of things that make bakeries so wonderful:

1. No ingredient list is ever posted with calories or fat grams.

2. Customers do not help themselves. (Laypeople do not know how to properly use those little sheets of bakery paper or tongs. Only trained professionals should get near those tools.)

3. No one ever asks, “Do you want a bag?” And in fact, any order with more than four cookies goes into a cardboard box. Tied up with string. (See No. 2; string is another thing that the customers should not handle.) This is an especially pleasing moment now that so many stores act as if handing over a paper bag is like skinning a bunny.

4. The names of the products are accurate. When they say “butter-cream frosting,” you know exactly what you’re in for.

5. No one gets surly while waiting in line.

 

Food of our fathers.

Growing up, whenever we had odd leftovers for breakfast–which was often–my father brushed aside any questions about the fitness of such things.

“Apple pie? The Pilgrims ate apple pie,” he’d say.”It’s fine.”

Childhood imprints us with many traits, and this defensiveness about food is still with me.

My husband has been known to observe that while I certainly recognize good food, I may not actually know bad food when I see it.

Even though I believe the nutritional wisdom promoting fiber, fruit and lean protein, I can’t shake the familial facts: I come from a long line of people who ate horrible food and lived a long time.

(There are glaring exceptions, but those who checked out early usually did so in some spectacular accident, so they don’t count.)

Apparently this is more common than I thought.

My Southern maternal roots grew in Crisco, Coca-Cola, Moonpies, very well-done beef and fried chicken. A bit of pork rind floated in any vegetables that made it to the table.

My refrigerator today is filled with green stuff I didn’t even know existed when I was a kid.

Now and then as I stare into its interior, wishing vaguely for something with actual sugar, fat and preservatives, I feel guilty that I have strayed so far from my ancestral traditions.

A Pilgrim would starve around here.


Rene Verdon, the “First Chef” of Camelot, is dead.

When Jacqueline Kennedy hired the French chef Rene Verdon to work in the White House in 1961, it was bigger news than Alan Shephard heading into space in Mercury Freedom 7.

Well, bigger news to my mother, anyway.

Verdon died Feb 2 at age 86. Despite other successes–posh restaurants and bestselling cookbooks–Verdon was always best known for the five years he spent in the White House kitchen. Before his arrival, the food had all the allure of a Navy chow line. Under his leadership, White House state dinners were fabulous…and guests no longer spent the cocktail hour stuffing themselves with crackers and olives.

The rumor was that Verdon was so offended by LBJ’s plebeian tastebuds that he quit. It’s more likely that he was exhausted. The White House chef  usually works with the First Lady, Chief Usher, White House Social Secretary and…get this, the Executive Pastry Chef. (Now there’s a business card worth having.) If you assume that each relationship means at least one teeth-gritting compromise a day on the part of a chef, then you can imagine how exhausting this all gets.

The workplace was fascinating, however. One section of a great time-wasting site, The White House Museum, has a selection of very cool kitchen photographs–including an award winner of Mamie Eisenhower consulting with her staff.  Ike may have been a bland, middle-of-the-road sort of guy, but his wife had some very memorable dresses.

By all accounts, the late Mr. Verdon was a talented and even-tempered man. He came close to losing it once when the Secret Service was spraying bug killer too close to his crabmeat appetizer, but you can’t hold that against a guy.

We owe him (and his patroness, Jacqueline Kennedy) a debt of gratitude for giving the White House some much-needed class. It was time for iceberg lettuce to go.

Conventional wisdom.

On a recent pass through Whole Foods I noticed one word on a few signs in the produce department.

(I also noticed that a teeny bunch of  cauliflower was going to cost me upwards of $4…that’s a story for another time.)

Right inside the entrance was an enormous display of avocados, salsa and bags of organic chips–hey, even vegans watch the Superbowl. A big sign hung over the table blaring:

CONVENTIONAL AVOCADOS:  5 for $5

No, “conventional” here does not mean middle-class, suit-wearing avocados clinging to the status quo, it means “not organic.” It is a common term now; I had somehow managed to miss this linguistic development. When I checked out the WF website, I read this:

Organic foods set the standard for top quality freshness, texture, flavor and variety. These foods are produced without the standard array of potentially harmful, environmentally long-lasting agricultural chemicals commonly used on conventional food products since the 1950s.

WF is, of course, right to label the provenance of  produce. “Organic” is a USDA designation that must be earned, and these avocados, tasty as they may be, were not worthy of the O-badge. But I couldn’t help feeling, well, judged, as I grabbed my $5 worth and hurried off: Suddenly I’m conventional, typical, pedestrian in my choice of guacamole ingredients. I am conforming.

Maybe a sign saying “Old School Avocados” would be better.


Worried about the economy? Keep an eye on the taco index.

We weren’t paying attention…and “taco” took over.

In the past month I’ve had vegan Southwest tacos, fresh-ahi tacos, and Thai basil-quinoa tacos. Just for the hell of it, I made taco-tacos the other night. You know, the ones with ground beef, tomatoes, olives, cheese, salsa all gathered quietly under the friendly roof of an actual corn tortilla.

I decided to look into this trend. First, etymology: The word supposedly comes down from a Spanish reference to a wadded-up cloth used for patches when firing musket balls. I’m guessing the cruelty free raw bar around the corner where I had the Thai taco with organic-soynut sauce does not know the origins of this word.

The idea of an entrée wrapped in an edible container isn’t new or unique to Mexican culture. Every cuisine has some version of it, from dim sum on down.

I’ve discovered something useful. Tacos, it turns out, are reliable tools for gauging the state of the economy. Here’s why: In tough times we like to touch our food. In boom times, we don’t.

Think about it. Remember those silly towers of fusion food marooned on big white plates during the dot-com years? Those cilantro truffle lamb aperitifs rising above reductions of pear that went for $19? No one dared touch that stuff with a hand…a chopstick, maybe. Mostly folks just left them on the plate and ordered more imported vodka.

Now, as our home equity vaporizes, we’re all about “finger foods.” Did you not notice that even Starbucks is selling its coffee as instant in itty-bitty bags? You can’t handle their prepared coffee because it’s heated to something like 700 degrees, but you can dip a finger into that jumped-up Sanka-esque stuff and breathe a sigh of relief: It’s all going to hell, but I’ve still got java.

There’s really no need to listen to those economic “experts” or try to keep up with the rapidly accumulating issues of the Economist that get pushed to the bottom of the magazine stack. Just keep your eye on the menus around town.

When you need a knife and fork  for all the daily specials, you’ll know that the long, dark night is ending.

Why computer chips will not replace the human brain just yet.

Conscious thoughts upon dropping a hot microwave pizza on the floor, pepperoni side down:

Shit I’m starving that thing cost almost six bucks I should have said no when I saw the price ring up but the grocery cashier was already close to tears because the woman ahead of me had $40 in food stamps and $62 in groceries and had to put stuff back while her kid watched I shouldn’t be eating this crap if I flip it over fast maybe some of the sauce will still be on the crust when did I last wash this floor will the tomato sauce come out of my t-shirt I’m not even sure what pepperoni is could any of that ant-killing stuff I sprayed last week still be on the floor if I get sick I can say it’s from the goat cheese we had last night I’ll run cold water on the shirt as soon as I finish eating

Elapsed time: 4 seconds.

High-risk sleepwalking

When I read “Raiding the Refrigerator, but Still Asleep” by Randi Hutter Epstein in The New York Times, I immediately had two questions:

1. Whoa! Do people actually binge eat in their sleep?

2. Do people do this in poor countries, or just in places where there’s a lot of extra food sitting around?

Epstein’s good reporting and respectful treatment of this makes one take it seriously:

“Consequences of nighttime eating can include injuries like black eyes from walking into a wall or hand cuts from a prep knife, or dental problems from gnawing on frozen food. On a deeper level, many sleep eaters feel depressed, frustrated and ashamed. Upwards of 10 percent of adults suffer from some sort of parasomnia, or sleep disorder, like sleepwalking or night terrors. Some have driven cars or performed inappropriate sexual acts — all while in a sleep-induced fog.”

There’s another thing I wonder about: Why don’t such nocturnal wanderings include chores? Does anyone fold laundry while sleepwalking? Clean out the spice cabinet? Give the dog his ear drops? Vote on health-care legislation?

Wait, nix that last question. I know the answer. 212 members of the US House of Representatives sleepwalked through a vote on March 21. Fortunately 219 of their colleagues were wide awake.

New math.

Remember math-class word problems? One train leaves Chicago traveling east at 40 mph, another leaves Boston an hour later at 60 mph, which one arrives first?..and so on. I’d put that painful curriculum behind me. Until yesterday.

That’s when I learned that when two cups of frozen strawberries and a mashed banana are placed in an uncovered blender and the PUREE button is hit, the berries will arrive at the kitchen ceiling a full 5 seconds before the banana.

The Old Rugged (tasty) Cross

A few years into freelancing, I have to say I don’t miss meetings. But I’d have paid real money to sit in on the one where some marketing person made a pitch for an item I saw in the grocery store yesterday:

Just in time for Easter: chocolate crosses.

As the late George Carlin might have asked: What, no chocolate electric chairs?

I did some Googling, and apparently these treats have been on the market for a couple of years. But since I don’t buy Easter goodies, I missed this breakthrough.

Somewhere, sometime in the not-so-distant past, a confident person stood up in a conference room, flicked on a PowerPoint presentation and said: “Look, we’re getting our asses kicked on the hollow bunnies. Jelly beans have not been the same since the Reagan years. The animal-rights people think the marshmallow chicks are disrespectful. We’ve got to think outside the box, dudes.”

Maybe they kicked around an Easter-season idea of a big chocolate stone that could be rolled away to reveal…well, nothing. Okay, forget that one.

(This whole thing reminded me of a headline written by a fellow newsroom occupant in New Hampshire years ago. Two schools, Bishop Brady High School and Calvary Christian faced off in some game, football probably. When Bishop Brady trounced its opponent, the sports copy editor couldn’t resist: “Bishop Brady Climbs Calvary.” It got yanked after one edition and he edited nothing but box scores for a long time.)

But, hey, it’s possible that the idea of selling confectionery torture devices isn’t all bad. Maybe it means people are lightening up about religious matters, hardly a bad thing for the world, right?

Maybe we should all pitch in and go buy these things. It’s really not going to look good when any unsold crosses go on sale for half-off the day after Easter.

The shabbos timer. Who knew?

I’ve seen one other thing that resembles our oven’s infuriating control panel. It was in the cockpit of an an FB111A fighter jet that I sat in for a few minutes at Pease Air Force Base about 30 years ago.

After spending 20 minutes trying to sort out the way to set the ridiculous bake-and-hold feature on the timer, I finally gave in and climbed to the highest cupboard to retrieve the user’s manual for the thing.

Imagine my surprise on discovering the page headlined, “To Set the Sabbath Feature (for use on the Jewish Sabbath & Holidays).” I can’t wait to tell my rabbi.

Once upon a time, this service came in the form of a Shabbos goy, the non-Jewish person, often a kid, who’d show up on Fridays to turn appliances and lights on or off for a small payment, allowing the observant Jew to honor the “no work on Shabbat” behavior.

Well, okay. I guess it would be downright churlish of me to stay mad at the stove’s timer now.

Food tips made funny

It’s conventional wisdom that most of us have less-than-great eating habits. But a New York Times Q&A with food guru Michael Pollan, author of “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual,” reminds us that we know more than we think about healthy knoshing.

Pollan, a calm voice in the babble over nutrition and health, compiled 64 pithy bits of folksy and funny food advice, such as:  “Don’t buy cereals that change the color of the milk,” and ““The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead,” a gem from his own childhood.

My favorite is the tip urging us to eat all the junk food we want — if we make it ourselves. As Pollan points out, if you had to go through the work to make your own French fries, you’d have them once a month at most, which is just about right. And Twinkees? Forgetaboutit.

Meat on our bones

A new study proves–are you paying attention?–that women with partners gain more weight than women without partners.

This finding comes out of a 10-year-long Australian study involving 6,000 women. I know scientists need statistical heft in order to confirm any finding, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t need to take so long or so many to drive this point home.

Women know it’s true because we’ve all experienced that combat-ready mindset that marks our mate-hunting years. We also know that I-can-live-on-coffee-and-air euphoria that comes with courtship. Nature wires us to snap out of such behavior the same way it programs bears to wake up in the Spring. Too much calorie-free bliss or too-long asleep in the hollow log will spell disaster.

The academics and other experts quoted by Nicholas Bakalar in the New York Times article are walking on eggshells as they offer theories for the weight gain of paired-off females. Because I’m not worried about tenure or angry readers, I can say what they’re afraid to:

We gain weight because we’re not on the market anymore.

There, I said it. When seeking a mate (or even a date for that upcoming family wedding) it makes sense that we work hard to achieve whatever constitutes attractiveness in our sphere. Usually, in this time and place in history, that means thinner vs. fatter. It can also mean adopting certain styles of dress or behaviors. (See index for “bra, push-up” and “friends, pretending to like”.)

Men, of course, have their own versions of adaptive mating-season behavior. I’m sure if any professional ballet company kept personal stats on attendees, the number of men in the audience who were on early dates would out-number the husbands by, oh, about twenty to one. (I’m stereotyping hetero guys here, but the principle expands to include any genre.)

I’m guessing that if this study monitored the diets of these same 6,000 women it would turn up some more revealing trends. We may have weighed less back in the day, but we did it fueled by Tab and Cheez-Its instead of the whole-grains and spinach we inhale now.

So, what’s better–a thin and unattached woman riddled with chemicals or a sturdier partnered female powered by fiber and sporting iron levels high enough to build a bridge? Evolution, gotta love it.

77 Words: “Food Matters” by Mark Bittman

For more 77 Words tiny book reviews, click here.

“Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating” by Mark Bittman (Simon & Schuster, 2009) –

This NYTimes foodie’s niche is healthy eating without the heavy lifting, and his timing is impeccable. What better time to urge people away from McNuggets or faux organic junk-food and in the direction of quinoa wheat bread and blueberry smoothies? His arguments for being a Lessmeatatarian for the sake of one’s health and that of the Earth are compelling, not preachy. Recipes are terrific, especially the very, very easy breads. Food-safety worriers will like his approach too.

(For book reviews with more words, see my archive at The Seattle Times, where I worked for some years. I freelance for the paper as a reviewer and over the years have been assigned some terrific books.)

Bite this: A little satire among friends…

At last, a meaningful debate about feeding the hungry:

Should food stamp purchases be restricted to healthy stuff? Or, more accurately, should the rules keep stamp users from buying bad stuff, like junk food?

The New York Times has a series of bloggers weighing in on the question, here.

I personally feel it is high time that we clamp down on the growing problem of government-funded purchases of hot dogs.

Of COURSE, we, the taxpayers who make food stamps possible, should get to decide what poor people eat! (And, admit it, that would be sort of fun, right? No more standing next to some food-stamp slacker at Winco while she buys Cheese Doodles. Now she’s gotta buy… lentils. Yeah, the 10-pound sack!)

Poor people, as everyone knows, need guidance…and a lot of it. If they could handle big decisions on their own — like buying white bread instead of whole-grain — they wouldn’t be in whatever mess got them on the bread line in the first place, would they?

Aside from the nutritional case to be made for getting more people into a high-fiber zipcode, closer regulation of food stamps would put an end to the growing problem of poor people spending so much time sitting around dining tables, yukking it up over a fun meal. A serious, focused mindset is key to finding gainful employment and pulling oneself up out of poverty. Every hour lingering over high-fat, high-sodium chicken pot pies is an hour lost.

I could flog this point, but, oops!, there goes the oven timer! Got to go!

Stranger than fiction


Who came up with the bright idea for our President to pardon a turkey on Thanksgiving?

(New York Times columnist Gail Collins writes about it here.)

And as weird as that is, imagine if pork or tofu became the national main dish for this holiday. Pardoning a ham? Letting a vat of that slimy soybean-sourced protein off the hook?

Giving food a stay of execution is just plain weird, let’s face it.

You still working on that?


New York restaurateur Bruce Buschel
is this week’s hero.

His blog in The New York Times, in which he’s chronicling the planning and opening of his new eatery, does every diner in America a personal favor.

Buschel posted a two-part list titled “100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do.” True, by the time he gets to the last 40 or so, a reader is wondering where on earth he will find enough qualified servers. But a little overkill is fine with me.

Here’s why: I live in an excellent restaurant town–lots of good places, always new cuisines to try, original interpretations of old favorites, decent prices. And terrible server etiquette.

Servers here have a high need to interrupt table conversation to ask a question, and it is almost always a question that can wait. I have yet to try this, but I am quite confident that if I staged a weeping exchange with my tablemate at almost any restaurant in Portland, the server would still butt in and ask if I needed hot sauce.

Servers also routinely try to take my plate when I’m done, despite the fact that my husband has eaten only one-third of his meal. (Why don’t they just hang a sign around my neck that says SHE EATS TOO FAST?)

They touch the rim of the water glasses. They stack every plate in a towering, precarious pile instead of clearing quietly or using a tray.

There are exceptions, of course. Places with good, professional servers. Interestingly, they are often very modest establishments. (See here and here for two such places.)

I’m tempted to print out the “100 tips” and start slipping it under the other tip…the 20 percent I leave even when the service is rotten.