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Rainy Day Interlude

February 12, 2014

*Picks up Surburbivore, blowing off a year and a half of accumulated dust*


I’ve been a little remiss on updating this blog since the spring of 2012 (the year we were ALL GOING TO DIE OMG because the Mayans needed to go buy a new calendar) as it went on hiatus for a while, as blogs tend to do when either real life intervenes or their writers deal with personal problems. In this case it was a bit of both. I generally try to keep this blog focused more on food, but a long silence like this does need some explanation, so for those who don’t mind a little January post-resolution navel-gazing here’s what was going on in the background.


I don’t talk about my depression much (although a little glimpse can be seen of it here), but that last rainy spring was when I hit my lowest point since I moved back from Southern California. I had recently given up on teaching, my career plan A, since the deep recession had left states unable to support local colleges and adjunct faculty like myself were some of the first cuts they had to make. Plan B, working in the industry, failed to materialize since most of my skills were in hard rock rather than hydrology and soil testing, and I had no prior work experience from back when the economy wasn’t terrible.


I had invested in a plan C, buying some time with additional schooling to broaden my abilities to include Cultural Resource Management and archaeology, both of which tend to be traditionally active in the area due to the large populations that have always lived in this area (there is there is almost nowhere in the Bay Area where you can build anything that you aren’t going to hit human remains or shell mounds). Unfortunately those skills are mostly linked to construction, and construction goes dead when budgets get tight. Plan D, brush up on my microbiology skills via taking additional classes ran, into the same problem as plan B.


So we ended up on plan Z, the “screw it let’s apply for retail” plan, which also managed to go nowhere, probably because everyone was looking at the above list and wondering why I wanted to be there. By this point I’d been living in my parents’ house for four years with no hope of ever leaving.


And so the signal on this end, sporadic as it was, fell silent.


Things have finally started to change slowly over the last year, enough that I’m hoping to get this ball rolling again. A few things have changed in the interim that I should probably mention for context, however:


1. I got married

The idea of doing a full, traditional wedding scares the hell out of me – I don’t like being the center of attention (I realize this makes total sense when I say I used to be a college professor, but seriously) and I’ve watched at least two friends do it and go crazy in the process. It’s largely something you either do because you want to or because your family wants to, and both me and Mark come from families that said to hell with that and went to Vegas. So instead we’re carrying on a sort of family tradition. Both of us had been together for ten years, and we mostly hadn’t gotten married because we were putting it off waiting for a brighter future that never came.

Fittingly enough for this blog, we were married on Thanksgiving Day.

Wedding

2. We still have four chickens, just not the same four

Pepper, the stray Black Orpington we picked up at our friends’ behest, had to be put down due to chronic pain problems we think had to do with her nonstop laying – while all our other chickens put out an egg every day or three (depending on weather) she never did any less than an egg a day, and the stress had drained the calcium from her bones and her body.We had her gently put down at a local vet and took in a sort-of-rescue, an extra chicken from that same friend that someone hadn’t come by to pick up this year.  Her name is Tiffany, and she’s an extremely fluffy, extremely laid-back, and extremely whiny Light Brahma hen.

Tiffany2

3. The animal contingent has shifted

We had our very old ferret put to sleep when her quality of life had degraded to the point where she couldn’t eat and couldn’t play anymore. Rather than leave her with the vet, we brought her body home and buried her in the backyard under a thornless boysenberry bush that has proceeded to go absolutely insane ever since (apparently mustelids make good fertilizer). The two rabbits we were caring for went back to their owners, and we picked up another rescue in the hopes of making friends with the abandoned Easter bunny we had taken in previously. Several failed bonding attempts and two Watership Down-esque fights later, we now have two spoiled bunnies living at opposite ends of the house instead.

Buddyfeet

This is Buddy, the newcomer. He likes apple tree bark, toast crusts, microwave popcorn, and the oatmeal clinging to my Mom’s breakfast bowl. His dislikes include being crammed in small spaces with Cinnamon to try and get them to bond, and being picked up like this to show off his little grey feeties. He also wags his tail like a dog when he gets excited.

4. I have a job again

I managed to get a seasonal job at a nearby department store during the 2012-2013 holiday season, which gave me enough background to get into other retail jobs in the area. Right now I work at Whole Foods, which means that I spend a lot of my day either helping customers with their food, talking to customers about food, or generally keeping the area clean and maintained for eating and customer service. General observations from work will probably pop up here now and again, but a lot of the rage from earlier posts will probably disappear.

While there’s a lot of injustice in the food system and our cultural construction of food to be angry about, what ended up bleeding over instead was more about unmet cultural expectations of education = job = stability – a social contract which had largely eroded before I even reached adulthood. In my case, understanding why it had ever existed at all and why the present is so different from the past helped me come to terms with it again. This will probably come up again at a later date in another blog post, since a lot of the new by-the-fingernails positions most of us Millenials are left holding are in – surprise surprise! – food service, and there is a lot of cultural baggage surrounding the whole thing that needs some unpacking.

5. The local climate has gone weird

Winter of 2012 was the last year that serious rains fell during the months that we’re supposed to get most of our rainfall. A high-pressure ridge had been parked out over the Pacific Ocean since December of 2013, rerouting storm systems up to the Pacific Northwest to cause wintertime havoc (large chunks of Oregon shut down due to cold and extreme snow) while down south it has remained warmer than normal, and extremely dry. What rain we did have was in July in an area that normally sees no summer rain, and even then it was just enough to set off a massive powdery mildew bomb in the backyard. I’d never had a year with as few tomatoes, and I’ve never seen zucchini plants curl up and die like that before.

Fruitbeetle

I’ve also never seen this little guy outside of my time in Southern California, when they would suddenly be everywhere in the summer. This was taken in my backyard this last year.


As I write this now I sit overlooking a wet backyard finally greening as it should have months ago, due to an atmospheric river dodging the blockage and bringing some much-needed rain to the area. While it isn’t enough to offset a full year of dry conditions, it does help break the ridge and allow some rain to return to an area that will still be hit hard by summer droughts.


It’s a good metaphor for the blog, I suppose; the return of rainfall after a long absence, familiar to California natives as the time when the dusty blonde hills turn green with a burst of new life. With luck this space will again flourish as well, as tangled and resilient as the weeds that follow the winter rains.

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DIY

May 23, 2012

I make a lot of bread at home.

And I mean a *lot* of bread.

There are several reasons for this, some of which I’ve talked about previously regarding the sorry state of commercial bread in Staff of Life, but others of which also hold true even given the availability of good local bakeries such as Watsonville Bakery and Acme Bread Company.

For one, it’s much cheaper to make your own even when you take into consideration energy and material costs; as Jennifer Reese notes in Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, her everyday bread recipe (which I frequently use) costs less than a dollar a loaf, while standard store-bought whole wheat bread runs about $4 and an equivalent Acme loaf costs $5.501.  This is a big consideration in this house, where depending on people’s appetites and the availability of other snack foods we can either sit on a 2-pound loaf for almost a week or go through four 1-pound loaves before we’ve even hit Friday.  For another, consumption rates really are that variable; either I can’t keep these people in bread to save my life or I’m trying to eat it myself before it goes stale for lack of preservatives, and doing it myself means I can shift production up or down depending on how much we need.  Producing only on demand means a lot less waste, too.  I remember when Mark and I lived by ourselves how often the store-bought bread would bloom with fuzzy white and black spots, preservatives be damned.

There’s another large consideration too, which comes up a lot when you read about or talk to women (it’s pretty much always women) that have decided to make as much food as possible at home.  Women are most likely to be what are called nutritional gatekeepers, the person who purchases and prepares the food in the home, and as such they control 72% of all the food the family eats2 Data from 2011 suggests that food preparation and consumption at home as family means is climbing – the share of meals eaten at home as a family went from 52% in 2003 to 73% in 2010, while 55% of grocery shoppers prepared more meals at home in 2010 than they did in 20093.  The impact of the nutritional gatekeeper is therefore growing dramatically in lockstep with economic recession and insecurity, and much of this has to do with the fact that it is far more cost-effective to cook and eat food at home.  The other reason has to do with an increased awareness of additives and health issues in our food supply, and the determination of the nutritional gatekeeper to protect her family from them.  39% of consumers cited chemicals in foods as the most important food safety issue of 2010, versus 44% who cited concerns about bacteria; half of consumers deliberately avoid preservatives, 49% avoid MSG, 47% artificial flavors, 44% colors and dyes, 43% growth hormones, and 29% genetically modified foods3.  Homemade foods are frequently a backlash against the opaqueness that characterizes processed foods (which I have talked about previously), but they have also taken on a political bent.

Women’s Work

As much as people might prefer that their hot dog mean no more than a hot dog, the truth is that what we eat and how we get it is in itself a culturally- and politically-charged act.  What we eat is tied deeply into our cultural identity, a reminder of home for those who left it in search of opportunities, and a link to the past for those born here who never knew another home.  What we eat is also a political statement, either an acceptance of the current status quo method of food production and distribution, or a repudiation of it.  I focus on producing a lot of food by growing or making it because it’s a way that I can keep food healthy and safe while keeping costs within a strict cash budget, my mother’s (very good) method for ensuring that only a certain percentage of household income gets spent on buying food for the house.  For others it becomes a feminist statement:

Most of the urban homesteaders Paska [a Brooklyn urban homesteader] knows are female.  “Women find this lifestyle very empowering,” she says.  “Some people assume  that this is a backlash against the feminist movement, but I see it as a continuation of it.”  In the past couple of years, a slew of hipster home-ec books has arrived to fill us in on lost domestic skills, recasting housework as scrappy, anti-establishment self-fulfillment4.

While I love the general groundswell of support for doing things at home, recapturing domestic life skills and producing one’s own food (I love this stuff, as this blog illustrates), the gender essentialism in many of these back-to-basics books, anecdotes, and stories worries me deeply.  Notice how I said above that the nutritional gatekeeper was most likely to be a woman? Cooking is still a highly gendered activity, as much as we like to pretend that feminism’s push for equality is over.  Women are still in charge of food preparation, whether it be baking bread for the house from scratch or buying a rotisserie chicken from the grocery deli to bring home, just as we are in other gender-coded activities that a family requires in order to function, such as childcare.

People say the glass ceiling doesn’t really exist, that women could earn as much as men do and advance like men do if they weren’t so likely to require breaks or even leave the workforce to care for very young children – but in an economic environment where costs have been steadily rising while real wages have stagnated5, the costs of outside childcare may simply outweigh the income loss of one parent.  Even before the economic downturn, there had been a steady decline in the percentage of mothers working full time, part time, or seeking employment; where only 31% of mothers fell into this category in 1976, the numbers had climbed to a high point of 58.7% in 1998, and then steadily dropped to 52.9% in 20046.   When Rothman asked a college class she was teaching how they anticipated to combine work with child-rearing, at least half of her female students would reply that they were already handling it through part-time or home-based work, while male students would expect their partners to care for the children.  When pushed on how they can reconcile that expectation with our cultural low regard for childcare, they have no answers except to point at the students who were already following expectations and staying “but she chose it.6

I bring this up not so much because I consider food production to be a manifestly sexist pursuit, but because it is very, very easy to have it become so, and I worry that this is where it is currently heading.  The concept of “women’s work” and its inherently low status (either the activity ends up being women’s work because it’s not high-status, or the fact that women mostly do it makes it women’s work – it’s a bit of a circular process) is well known in anthropology and sociology but perhaps not as well known as it should be outside of such circles.  We’re probably more familiar with the concept of domestic pursuits, although most of us probably don’t know where the idea originated.  A quick history lesson is in order, then.

The History of Domesticity

The concept of women = domesticity dates back to the early 1800s, when the industrial revolution and the urbanization of populations shifted most production of goods from individual household to centralized factories, with the associated shift to wage work outside the home.  Labor was divided among the middle class by age and sex in ways that it wasn’t previously, with women being assigned to “domesticity” rather than production, men assigned to wage-earning, and the removal of children from work (assuming they were middle- or upper-class, of course; the childhood development of lower-class children didn’t matter).  This shift in household labor division was largely supported in upper and middle class families by shunting the more difficult portions of household labor onto hired domestic help, typically the same sorts of poor families and slaves that also worked the factories and fields and freed middle- and upper-class women from time-consuming farm labor or cloth-making2.

This is ultimately the base family model on which our more recent idealized past, the 1950s, drew its inspiration from.  Here the protected middle-class family did not depend on stolen childhoods and immigrant labor to support itself.  Instead, advances in technology that drastically reduced the time required for household chores such as cleaning or cooking to a point where one person could handle it by themselves, and very heavy government subsidization and rising national wages allowed a household to function with one parent at home – and it was going to be the wife, because they sure as hell weren’t going to be allowed to stay in the jobs they had held down while the men were off to war6.

The last part is the really, really important part that keeps getting lost in all these back-to-the-land narratives, as much as I dream of them myself: the idealized world of the 1950’s that many of them seem to be creeping back towards, where mother happily stayed home and took care of home things, father brought home all of the money, and the family managed without any outside help didn’t even exist in the 1950’s.  Media erasure of diversity and strife helped to make it appear so, and they continue to aid our cultural amnesia about how things really were back then.  Even less visible was the dependence of the 1950s family on government handouts, despite it being far higher than even the pernicious 1980s myth of “welfare queens”.  Most of the upward mobility experienced by families at this time was subsidized by government spending, whether it be Federal GI benefits, subsidies in American industry and science education, government regulation of insuring and regulating loans for home construction, or the turnover of government wartime inventions and production processes handed over to private industries (which then boomed, and hired many new workers) after the war6.

Reprogramming the Self

I say all this not because I want to discourage anyone from the idea of doing it themselves or growing/raising their own food at home or baking their own bread because damn, it’s expensive at the store and that stuff goes fuzzy in a week.  I say this because the cultural programming that tells us that doing so is our job – nay, our moral imperative – as women is both pervasive and insidious, so deeply rooted we may not have even realized it was whispering in our ear all these years.  Am I immune?  Hardly, since I pretty much hit all the qualifications for nutritional gatekeeper and hey look, I’m a woman.  Mark can cook quite well when he wants to; I’m a bit less certain about my Dad, since he only cooked when Mom was sick, but I don’t know if that’s due to a lack of skill or inclination.  But when it was just Mark and me living together, I did most of the food preparation and I couldn’t have told you why.  If you had asked me to my face then if I thought cooking was specifically a women’s job, I would’ve told you it wasn’t even as I thoroughly embodied the idea at the same time.

My point, ultimately, is that if you’re the adult woman in the house, food preparation should not be your job by default.  It shouldn’t be something you do out of a sense of obligation or because nobody else is doing it and because damn it, we’re not living off of take-out anymore.  Doing so makes the modern feminist idea of “choice” ring hollow – how much do you really choose when you find yourself simply following the path of least resistance, unmindful of the very deep cultural programming that tells you it’s ultimately your responsibility?  On the other hand, of course, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be in charge of food preparation and procurement simply because you are a woman because doing so means that you’re giving into the patriarchy.  It means that you should be doing something that I emphasize over and over in these posts: be mindful of what you are doing and why you are doing it.  Food preparation should be something you do because you enjoy it, or (as in my case) because you’re the picky one in the family about where your food comes from and how it’s produced, and you feel that since you’re the one that knows the most about it and makes the most stringent demands, that you should be the one responsible for it.  It should be a responsibility that is shared among the entire family so it doesn’t always come down on one person and everything goes to hell when they get sick.  That’s a recipe for resentment, to say nothing of a diet of burgers and take-out during flu season.

Food is a cultural and political act, both in the way it is produced and the way it is prepared.  There’s an interesting passage in The Way We Never Were that, while referring to women in the workplace and its impacts on family, parallels quite nicely with the gender-essentialist concept of food preparation that I’ve illustrated here:

The crisis of commitment [to family responsibility] in America is usually seen as a problem with women’s changing roles because women’s family functions have  historically mediated the worst effects of competition and individualism in the larger society.  Most people who talk about balancing private advancement and individual rights with “nurturance, mutual support, and long-term commitment” do not envision any serious rethinking of the individualistic, antisocial tendencies in our society. . . Instead, they seek ways – sometimes through repression, sometimes through reform – of rebuilding a family in which women can continue to compensate for, rather than challenge, the individualism in our larger economy and polity6.

In many ways, this is what we’re doing as nutritional gatekeepers, radical urban homesteaders, and DIYers: we end up trying to make up for society’s failings ourselves rather than challenging the basic assumptions behind how everything is made and the gendered division of home labor.  It’s less difficult and the results certainly are faster (and tastier), but this approach has its casualties.  We end up sacrificing part or all of our non-home lives, whether intentionally or not (with the latter being particularly common after the economy imploded – that’s how I got here, after all).  We leave behind those who don’t have the spare cash and time to follow our example and do everything ourselves while still maintaining a roof over our heads, and so end up abandoning the same people we did when we first developed the concept of domesticity: the poor and disenfranchised, who don’t have the option of working less or having one partner stay home.  To treat urban homesteading as the beginning and the end of addressing the problems of the food system is to withdraw once more into the protective cocoon of the upper- to middle-class household and leave everyone else to the lions.

To those who are putting their energies into being more self-sufficient and doing what they can to produce at home: this isn’t supposed to be an indictment, but a reminder.  Keep your backyard chickens (I’m serious, they’re adorable) and bake your bread, but resist the urge to isolate yourself or to accept society’s definition of such chores as your job and obligation.  But at the same time don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t changing the world right now or even matching up to such lofty ideals.  I don’t live up to all of these ideas myself, as much as I would like to try harder to do so in the future.  I still plan on baking the bread, and it’s a lot easier when one person handles the groceries instead of two or three working at cross-purposes.

But I think next week I’m going to bug Mark to bake a chocolate cake.

References

  1. Reese, J.  2011.  Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn’t Cook from Scratch – Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods .  New York: Free Press.
  2. Potter, J.  2010.  Cooking for Geeks.  Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media Inc.
  3. Sloan, A. E.  2011.  “Top 10 Food Trends.”  Food Technology 65(4).  Online.  Accessed May 23, 2012 at http://www.ift.org/food-technology/past-issues/2011/april/features/food-trends.aspx
  4. Rothman, J.  2011.  “The new domesticity: Fun, empowering or a step back for American women?”  Washington Post, November 18, 2011.  Online.  Accessed May 23, 2012 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-new-domesticity-fun-empowering-or-a-step-back-for-american-women/2011/11/18/gIQAqkg1vN_story.html
  5. Draut, T.  2006.  Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead.  New York: Anchor Books.
  6. Hirshman, L.  2005.  “America’s Stay-at-Home Feminists.”  The American Prospect.  Online.  Accessed May 23, 2012 at http://www.alternet.org/story/28621/?page=entire
  7. Coontz, S., 2000.  The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.  New York: Basic Books.

Spring Chickens

April 25, 2012

So in the spring we got chickens.

This is probably less surprising than it sounds for two reasons.  One, the numbers of backyard chickens continues to climb as interest in homesteading goes up and confidence in the food system continues to plummet; backyard chickens are “cute and trendy”, as Jennifer Reese notes1.  Two, we’re already a household with a lot of animals, so the care involved in taking on more of them is not as big a deal as it would be if we didn’t have pets already and weren’t inured to randomly finding poop all over the lawn.

To give you an idea, as of December this year we had three rabbits (two of which we’re caring for on a long-term temporary basis, the third of which we got the same way we ended up with a lot of our pets – what I call the “love of God, take this animal” method); one elderly ferret, who we were originally taking care of temporarily until it turned out her owner could no longer keep her; an extremely needy, neurotic dog my parents had adopted from the pound; and an irritable adult California king snake that I’m still working on taming down to make her easier to handle.  We’d also had a lone sugar glider for a while a few years before, which we got in much the same manner as the rabbit and the ferret, but single life isn’t good for those animals and we eventually gave him to a rescue that could introduce him to friends and take better care of him as an exotic than we could.

With me and my Mom already used to spending most of our time feeding or cleaning up after something (not always pets), taking the plunge and getting backyard chickens didn’t sound much more difficult than what we had on our plates already.  We’d have someone to help eat down the grass, that we could turn out on empty garden beds to turn over for cutworms, earwigs, and various other insects, and they’d be given whatever kitchen scraps weren’t already going in the dog’s pot or being fed to the rabbits (which, truth be told, isn’t a whole lot anymore), and in return we’d get the kinds of eggs we found at the farmer’s market, which cost six dollars a dozen but still made the eggs at the grocery store seem like pale, tasteless imitations of the real thing.

Our area is zoned for four chickens maximum, no roosters.  Having lived two doors down from an illegally-kept rooster before and having learned that the whole “crowing at dawn” thing was a lie – roosters crow whenever the hell they want to, especially all day long – I wasn’t exactly broken up that we couldn’t keep one.

Finding the Chicks

So the first step in having chickens is to figure out which breeds are best for the kinds of conditions they’ll be kept under, and then to figure out where you’re going to get them.  I had originally chosen three breeds that sounded good in terms of friendly temperament and ability to withstand enclosure – Buff Orpington, Cochin, and Americauna – and figured I would check in at feed stores in Santa Cruz or Gilroy starting in March.  On the other hand, one of my mother’s coworkers at Red Cross always put in a big order of chicks every spring from Murray McMurray Hatchery, and since chicks have to be shipped in large quantities to ensure they’ll stay warm in transit she always had plenty to give away.

I looked over the breed listing she had ordered.  Among them was the Buff Orpington I was looking for, as well as Aracaunas, which Americaunas are hybrid descendents of.  No Cochins with their sweet temper and fluffy little feathered feet, but they did have a very pretty type of Plymouth Rock, which sounded like a good breed to take its place.  We decided to pick up three little chicks from our friend and then work out how we were going to house them outside while they spent time indoors, growing big enough to handle the outside weather.

When we arrived, we were faced with this:

Oh wow.  The images on the website of breeds didn’t exactly help much in identifying which chick was which outside of some very distinctive breeds.

The Buff Orpington was simple enough to find (it was the only traditionally yellow chick in the batch) but we couldn’t entirely figure out the difference between the Plymouth Rocks and the Auracauna chicks, so we ended up with two of the former.  She had also gotten about seven extra chicks as a bonus for ordering so many, and convinced us to pick up a fourth.  We scooped up a little Black Australorp, fluffy black with a white belly, and tucking the four of them in a small box took them home to settle into their new brooder.

We settled the chicks under the swing lamp, which had a reptile’s basking bulb set in it to ensure it would produce enough heat.  They had some medicated feed from my mother’s friend as well as the normal chick starter we’d bought for them before, and a waterer with pebbles in the bottom to ensure they wouldn’t drown (chickens are not the smartest birds in the box).  We let them huddle up and attempt to sleep while we worked on figuring out names for them; they always say not to name food animals, but we’re still at the “they’re pets and we’re going to let them die of old age” stage here.

And so we ended up with Pepper, Penny, and the two we have difficulty telling apart and will probably need a leg band for (Ginger and Nutmeg).

Pepper

Penny

Ginger and Nutmeg

Then we spent a lot of the rest of the day trying to get the dog to leave them alone.  She was absolutely fascinated by this tiny peeping box, much as she is whenever any new pet comes into the house, and desperately wanted to eat greet the fluffy little newcomers.

 It took a while both for the novelty of new chicks to wear off (at least as far as the dog was concerned) and for the chicks to start growing in their new feathers, which they did starting with the wings:

Penny (Week 2)

From what we could see, Penny was probably the oldest by perhaps a day or two, Pepper just behind her, and the two Plymouth Rocks were either the youngest or the slowest to develop.  They had started to peck at spills in their brooder, as well as at anything that looked a bit different, like poop.  A little disturbed by this, Mom and I tried giving them little bits of other things to pick at: a jelly jar lid with cut grass, or a little handful of rolled oats.

This was about the time we learned that their absolute favorite thing in the world was oats and they would do about anything to get it, including learning how to beg.  But that came later.

Building the Coop

While the chicks were starting to grow in their feathers, I began the search for either pre-made chicken coops or chicken coop plans that would suit what we needed.  Mark and I downloaded a few and did price checking on the materials before finally settling on the Garden Ark from http://www.thegardencoop.com/ (which I highly recommend for its nice design and very detailed instructions).  Arks are mobile coops, both to move chickens to new pasture and to prevent them from turning any one particular spot in the backyard into a poop-lined moonscape.  We had seen a few at the local feed store that were priced at around $300, but we figured that this one would cost maybe $50 more for an ark that was easily four times as large, with room for four adult chickens.  We printed out the plans, bought the materials, and began cutting the wood into the necessary pieces and painting them. . .

And then it suddenly decided to be winter again.  All work on the coop was halted while we waited for the rains to clear long enough to finish the paintwork before assembly.  While this wasn’t a problem early on while the little chicks were too small to go outside, it didn’t stop raining for more than a day or two for weeks, and the chickens didn’t stop growing in the meantime.  The brooder box soon became too cramped for them, and after initially trying to move an outdoor run inside (and finding that it couldn’t keep them warm enough), we upgraded to a plywood box on the floor of my father’s office, hastily constructed on a dry day.

The chicks went out when it was dry too, for longer and longer periods as their feathers grew out.  They were pretty scraggly looking for a while, and during the changeover they still had bald patches that easily let in the spring cool:

Not just an unhappy chicken, but a half-naked one!

As soon as the weather was clear enough for long enough again, we resumed building.  Most of the time that we’d needed was actually for painting, drying, repainting, and wood treatment; the actual assembly itself took two afternoons.

And we finished none too soon.  By this point the chickens weren’t very small anymore, and they were getting awfully big (and rather smelly) to keep in the house.  With the rains they hadn’t been able to get out to run in the grass and their box was too small for them to move around much, so we ended up putting them in the bathtub for a little bit just to make them stop whining.  I had never realized that chickens could be whiny, but somewhere along the line one of them – Penny, I assume, who’s the most people-oriented and always beelines for humans in the hopes of treats – figured out how to call in a particular pitch that could be heard clean across the house, was annoying as hell, and couldn’t be ignored.

It took the chickens a little while to get used to the idea of being inside the coop, but they acclimated pretty quickly.  The first night was a bit rough, however.  The chickens cried (loudly) in with that same irritant voice once night fell because they were outside, it was dark, and they weren’t in their familiar box anymore.  To quiet them my mother gave them some oatmeal and set a few solar-powered LEDs on the mesh on top of the coop to give them a little night-light.  Then three otherwise sane adults spent a rather rough night worrying the whole time about whether we would wake up to a set of tiny frozen bodies all huddled up in a row, to the point where we woke up around seven to make sure that they were still alive.

They were fine, of course, and greeted us by trying to climb around us and begging for oatmeal.

8 Weeks and Counting

As I type this the chickens are now eight weeks old.  They look like miniature versions of their adult selves, about half  the size that they will be when fully grown, and nowhere near as heavy.  Penny for example looks like this:

All of the chickens have acclimated to being outside or in their coop, and being extreme creatures of habit are used to us coming out to open their door to the outside run early in the morning, and to close them up (and maybe give them a little oatmeal, or a few mealworms) in the evening, usually around 6 or 7pm right now.  They’ve also come to love wandering around in the backyard free-range, although we’re still working out exactly how free-range we’re going to let them be.  For example, they’re an excellent weeding and pest control service, and they’re immediately by your side (and frequently underfoot) when you turn over the beds for new planting to eat any weeds, seeds, and bugs:

However, it didn’t take Pepper long to go from picking fat aphids off the bottom of the Swiss chard to pecking out holes for her and the others to eat, so we ended up fencing off most of the planted portions of the garden beds.  The fences don’t seem to have to be very tall to keep them out as long as there’s plenty of grass, weeds, and bugs available outside, as the chickens seem to prefer the path of least resistance.

It’s worth noting, however, that although they are adorable pecking through the grass, stretching their wings and rolling in the dust, they’ve already cost us at least $700 in coop-building, chick-buying, feed and straw, and accessories, and it’ll be another twelve weeks yet for them to start potentially laying eggs.  Jennifer Reese notes that you don’t really keep backyard chickens as an economical alternative to buying either chicken or eggs1, since they come with high capital costs (the coop at the very least), they still take time to produce either, and they’re likely to be kept in very small numbers that don’t lend themselves to the bulk prices that larger operations use to keep their costs small.  Furthermore, chickens lay best in their first year and slow down over time before they stop laying altogether, but they can live for up to 15 years2.  Unless the backyard chicken keeper is willing to take an axe or a killing cone to their unproductive layers, the chickens stop being food sources and simply revert to pets at that point, costing money to keep (mostly in feed) but providing no eggs.

But that’s not why we have them.  We keep them because they are cute and fun pets, because having homegrown, pastured eggs is a wonderful option that we wanted to try, and because we honestly don’t mind if they do end up as pets in their old age, toddling around the backyard.  As long as we have someone to eat the slugs, cutworms, and earwigs in the backyard, to trill musically in the morning and to expectantly run up to our feet when we come outside, they’re worth it.

. . . but I’m still looking forward to the eggs.

References

  1. Reese, J.  2011.  Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn’t Cook from Scratch – Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods .  New York: Free Press.
  2. Coyne, K. and E. Knutzen.  2010.  The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City.  Port Townsend, WA: Process Media.

Happy Valentine’s Day from Suburbivore

February 14, 2012

Today is Valentine’s Day, which depending on your current relationship status and level of cynicism can be reinterpreted as “Hallmark Day™” or “Singles Awareness Day,” considering that the holiday (like many holidays) has been largely taken over as a means of selling you something.  This is the big day for cut rose sales, which I’ve talked about a bit before, but it’s also a major holiday for candy makers, chocolate producers, and jewelers.  More than 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate1 and some $3 billion dollars or more in of jewelry2 are expected to be sold this year in America, and considering how all of these things are coded in our culture as feminine it’s kind of depressing, if not necessarily surprising, to find the jokes that usually circulate about a month later regarding “Steak and a Blowjob Day,” the day in which the women in the relationship are supposed to make up to their men for all the romantic bullshit they had to go through and spend money on a month ago.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that our view on foods is not completely objective.  Cultural norms dictate how we view specific foods, frequently based on who is perceived to be the primary consumer of them.  For example, Big Macs™ are considered “bad” foods for the ostensible reason that they are unhealthy (and they are).  However, similar scorn is not heaped on those frilly Starbucks drinks with calorie counts from refined sugar and whipped cream that can easily put McDonalds’ meals to shame.  Healthiness is not our core motivator of cultural judgment calls on food so much as the social status of who we perceive as being the primary consumer of that food; because those who eat McDonalds’ are more commonly lower-class and those who drink Starbucks are upper- or middle-class, one is to be denigrated and the other glossed over or ignored3.  This is a trend that has existed for a long time in America, where Italian food, now frequently a staple component of typical American fare, was once viewed as obviously unhealthy with all its strong spices and smells – and more importantly, the fact that such spices and smells came from poor neighborhoods in places like New York, where recent southern European immigrants lived shortly after their arrival4.

This is relevant to Valentine’s Day because chocolate is viewed as a food that primarily women desire, despite the fact that 50% of those heart-shaped boxes are going from women to men1.  Meat in general, and red meat in particular, is viewed as masculine food; hence the “Steak and a Blowjob Day” joke.  The manly meat meal is all the better if there are no vegetables present save perhaps some grilled onions or a baked potato, since vegetables are coded as feminine or girly (and God help you if you order a salad).

American culture originally descended from that of England, a country that has long held a tradition of beef being a high-status food.  Although American consumption of chicken surpassed that of beef some time ago, we still hold dearly to the cultural idea of the cowboy and the steak as icons of Americana in general and male America in particular.  This is unfortunate, considering that the current availability of meat in America far outstrips healthy levels of consumption.  Doctors frequently urge the eating of less red meat for heart health, and the only reason the USDA doesn’t do the same is because when a government committee last issued a statement urging people to reduce their consumption of meat to improve their health (the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, 1977), the beef industry went ballistic.  It has been badgering the government into increasingly euphemistic statements ever since, such as “choose lean meats”, “limit use of animal fats”, or “. . . make choices that are lean, low-fat, or fat-free.”  Advice such as “eat less meat” rather than vague statements about making the right choices conflict with the assigned mission of the USDA, which is to basically sell agricultural products to the people of the U.S.5  We eat far too much meat in the United States, with meat prices held artificially low by the ready availability of cheap, government-subsidized corn6, and far too much of it is of terrible quality specifically because it is primarily based on corn.

The omega-3 fatty acids that food companies are slipping into everything from eggs to energy drinks, and the reason why fish pills exist (for those of us who want the health benefits of eating fish but can’t stand the taste) would normally be found in meat if the animals were allowed to graze6.   Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically alpha-linolenic acid or ALA for short, are produced from phytosterols in green plants.  Cattle and chickens convert it from grass during digestion just as fish would normally get it from plankton – or in predatory fish like salmon, from eating fish that eat the plankton.  Corn-fed meat also loads the animal’s tissues up with fat from the extra calories present in corn6, so even though chickens and pigs, for example, have been bred to be leaner than they were in previous generations, the effects of this improved breeding are somewhat lost in a sea of corn calories present in meat.

A corn diet does produce a nice marbling and tender meat.  However, the recognizable costs in human health and hidden environmental costs in oil, water, and carbon emissions are not worth a diet anywhere near as heavy in meat as we have become accustomed to.  In this household meat is generally not the centerpiece of the meal but an ingredient (if it is present), and what meat we do eat is grass-fed or at least grass-finished and organic, whenever possible.

But that’s for normal, everyday meals.  Meat centerpieces such as steaks are great as celebration food!  Since they’re rare meals for special occasions, it’s easier to spend the money on buying so much good-quality meat.  Rather than spending money on trinkets like jewelry or perishable gifts like roses, I’ve always preferred turning to food to celebrate the holidays; even when I didn’t have time to cook as much, Mark and I usually celebrated Valentine’s Day by me bringing him home some chocolates and then both of us going out for a good dinner.

So here’s a Valentines’ Day meal plan for both men and women, great for a private meal for two or for sharing with family and friends, depending on how much food you make.  There’s little to show how much you love someone better than making a meal for them. . . and as a bonus, no reservations are needed.

Dinner: Pan-Seared Ribeye, Baked Potato, and Brussels Sprouts with Bleu Cheese and Bacon

Alton Brown’s Pan-Seared Ribeye

(From the Food Network site, available here)

Ingredients

  • 1 boneless rib eye steak, 1 1/2-inch thick (preferably grass-fed and organic)
  • Canola oil to coat
  • Kosher salt and ground black pepper

Directions

Place a 10 to 12-inch cast iron skillet in oven and heat oven to 500 degrees. Bring steak(s) to room temperature.

When oven reaches temperature, remove pan and place on range over high heat. Coat steak lightly with oil and season both sides with a generous pinch of salt. Grind on black pepper to taste.

Immediately place steak in the middle of hot, dry pan. Cook 30 seconds without moving. Turn with tongs and cook another 30 seconds, then put the pan straight into the oven for 2 minutes. Flip steak and cook for another 2 minutes. (This time is for medium rare steaks. If you prefer medium, add a minute to both of the oven turns.)

Remove steak from pan, cover loosely with foil, and rest for 2 minutes. Serve whole or slice thin and fan onto plate.

Alton Brown’s Baked Potato

(From the Food Network site, available here)

Ingredients

  • 2 or more large russet potatoes
  • Canola oil to coat
  • Kosher salt

Directions

Heat oven to 350 degrees and position racks in top and bottom thirds. Wash potato (or potatoes) thoroughly with a stiff brush and cold running water. Dry, then using a standard fork poke 8 to 12 deep holes all over the spud so that moisture can escape during cooking. Place in a bowl and coat lightly with oil. Sprinkle with kosher salt and place potato directly on rack in middle of oven. Place a baking sheet on the lower rack to catch any drippings.

Bake 1 hour or until skin feels crisp but flesh beneath feels soft. Serve by creating a dotted line from end to end with your fork, then crack the spud open by squeezing the ends towards one another. It will pop right open. But watch out, there will be some steam.

NOTE: If you’re cooking more than 4 potatoes, you’ll need to extend the cooking time by up to 15 minutes.

Brussels Sprouts with Bleu Cheese and Bacon

(Modified from a recipe from the Pacific Coast Farmer’s Market Association)

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
  • 2-3 ounces bleu cheese, crumbled
  • 4 thick slices bacon
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil or other mild-flavored vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • Kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper

Directions

Heat a large skillet over medium heat.  Once the skillet is hot, add the bacon and cook until most of the fat has rendered out and the bacon is crispy.  Remove the bacon and allow the bacon to drain on paper towels, set aside for later, and crumble once cool.

Drain off all but one tablespoon of bacon fat from the skillet, and add the peanut oil to the remaining bacon fat and turn the heat to medium/medium high.  Once the skillet has had time to reheat, add the Brussels sprouts and toss to coat with oil, then season with salt and pepper.  Sauté the sprouts for about 10-15 minutes or until the sprouts are tender and caramelized, stirring occasionally.

Deglaze the pan with the red wine vinegar, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to get up the caramelized bits of Brussels sprouts and any bacon scraps left on the bottom of the pan.  Taste one of the sprouts to check the seasoning level, then adjust as necessary with salt and pepper (although remember, you will be adding bacon and bleu cheese and thus more salt).  Add the crumbled bacon and stir.  Add the bleu cheese, stirring briefly to coat the sprouts in the melting cheese, then immediately remove the sprouts from the pan.  Serve hot or at room temperature.

Dessert: Chocolate Cream Scones

(Taken from The Art and Soul of Baking7)

Scones as we’ve become used to experiencing them are a completely different beast from those made at home.  They’re dense, greasy, and typically more than I could ever eat at a sitting.  These fast, easy-to-make scones are light and airy, and contain that quintessential Valentines’ Day ingredient – chocolate!

Since they are typically cut into wedges, it’s simple to produce heart-shaped scones for Valentines’ Day by slightly adjusting the shape of the wedge.  To produce 8 hearts I separated the dough into two disks rather than working with one.

Ingredients

  • 1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
  • 1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 cup chilled heavy whipping cream
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 tablespoon refined sugar or 2 tablespoons turbinado or raw sugar

Directions

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and position an oven rack in the center.  Line the baking sheet with parchment paper or a thin silicone mat.

Place the flour, cocoa, sugar, baking powder, and salt in the bowl of a food processor or a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and process for 10 seconds to blend well.  Add the cold butter pieces and pulse 5 times at 1-second intervals, or until the butter is cut into medium pieces.  Add the cream and pulse another 20 times, or until the dough holds together in small, thick clumps.  Use a spatula to scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, and gently squeeze the clumps together until they form a cohesive dough.

Pat the dough into a circle 7 inches in diameter and about 1 inch thick (for smaller portions, as above, cut the dough in half and pat into two smaller circles about 1 inch thick).  Use a chef’s knife to cut the dough into 8 equal wedges and transfer to the prepared baking sheet, spacing them about 2 inches apart.

Brush the tops with a thin coating of the lightly beaten egg (you will not use all the egg; store the remainder in the fridge to add to scrambled eggs or for future baking projects).  Sprinkle the scones evenly with the sugar.  Bake for 14 to 16 minutes, until firm to the touch and golden brown.  Transfer to a rack and let cool for 5 minutes.  Serve the scones warm or at room temperature.

References

1. Brogham, R., 2012.  “This Valentine’s Day, say it with chocolate.”  Accessed online at http://www.petoskeynews.com/news/featured/pnr-this-valentines-day-say-it-with-chocolate-20120210,0,5694455.story

2. Jones, S.M., 2011.  “Jewelry sales sparkling again in time for Valentine’s Day.”  L.A. Times, February 12, 2011.  Retrieved online from http://articles.latimes.com/2011/feb/11/business/la-fi-jewelry-sales-20110211

3. Glassner, B.  2007.  The Gospel of Food: Why We Should Stop Worrying and Enjoy What We Eat.  New York: Harper Collins.

4. Pillsbury, R.  1998.  No Foreign Food: The American Diet in Time and Place.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

5. Nestle, M.  2006.  What to Eat.  New York: North Point Press.

6. Rule, D. C., K. S. Brought on, S. M. Shellito, and G. Maiorano, 2002.  “Comparison of Muscle Fatty Acid Profiles and Cholesterol Concentrations of Bison, Beef Cattle, Elk, and Chicken.” Journal of Animal  Science 80(5): 1202-11.

7.  Mushet, C.  2008.  The Art and Soul of Baking.  Kansas City, Missouri: Andrews McMeel Publishing.

Black Boxes

January 22, 2012

At my house we normally get our supply of coffee through the mail, but since we ran out of coffee in the middle of the week I ended up buying us a small can to tide us over until the next shipment arrived.  It’s Yuban, and it comes with a little notice on the front that tells the buyer that it’s Rainforest Alliance Certified*, in such a way that’s obviously meant to be a selling point.

What’s the asterisk for, you ask?  Well, as it turns out, more than 30% of the content is so certified (exactly how much is never specified), and exactly what the certification means isn’t entirely clear.  The label says that the 30% or more is from certified farms, and it tells us that the Rainforest Alliance helps farmers “improve their skills and environmental practices enabling them to grow better beans, receive better wages, and build stronger communities.”

You’ll have to forgive me for some of my cynicism regarding this claim when the last Rainforest Alliance certified farm I visited in a foreign country looked like this, and much of my work in cultural anthropology while I was there involved collecting data on how these cash export crop farms were destroying the health of their workers and their families, tearing families apart, and generally ripping up the local culture1.  While this wasn’t a food plantation (because we were in the highlands of Ecuador, it was roses; export food crops for the country such as bananas, chocolate, and coffee are grown closer to the coast), it does give a shocking insight into how little we actually know about the conditions in which most of our food is produced, and how little we can actually determine from the certification that does exist in our country.  For example, take a look at this bucket of roses, photographed at the same plant (on the right).

Roses being prepped for shipment at a plantation in Ecuador.

That’s a Whole Foods label.  But the roses that were grown there weren’t grown organically at all, because the plantation owners literally cannot afford to.  All it takes is one opportunity for an insect or a virus to get loose in one of the rose hothouses, and literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of crop will be lost and cannot be replaced any time soon, as rose bushes aren’t very fast growers.  The labor practices on the site leave much to be desired as well, as plantation workers are exposed to insecticides and herbicides that can linger in their blood until they are declared unfit for work at any more plantations and frequently develop urinary tract infections because they don’t have time to go to the bathroom at work (especially in the run-up to Valentine’s Day), or perhaps are not allowed to1.

This is one of the better rose plantations, mind you – Rainforest Alliance Certified and all.  Unfortunately, think about what this means for other typically imported crops such as bananas, coffee, and chocolate, where organic may simply mean that they spray their child workers with fewer pesticides in order to bring us these luxury foods.  I ooze cynicism on the topic simply because we do not know, because we must trust the people trying to sell us a product to tell us the truth, and because not everyone has the recourse to sidestep the labels, go to the country in question, and actually see how these products are being made (the way I ended up doing with roses).  Hell, right now I’m not sure anyone would really want to.  It’s pretty disillusioning seeing other countries being forcibly turned into agricultural fiefdoms for First World luxuries.

Economic imperialism isn’t a problem limited to the food supply, as the rose plantation example aptly demonstrates.  However, it does highlight something that I mentioned in my previous post.  Namely, that the issues one encounters with wild fish, however thorny, are similar to those seen in literally everything else, food-related and otherwise.  The biggest of these issues, and probably the primary reason why these and other less savory practices can continue, is what I refer to as the Black Box approach to food: food arrives on supermarket shelves as if out of the aether, and we have very little information of where it came from or how it got there, and little recourse to find out if we were so inclined.

Unpacking the Black Box

When looking at what we would want to know about our food, there are a number of different levels at which we can look at it:

  1. Production – How was it obtained/grown/made, and where?  Are the practices used to produce the food environmentally unsound, produced using types of labor we find abhorrent (e.g. children), or cruel to the animals?  Does it actually matter if food is produced organically?  How about locally?
  2. Content – Although by law there must be lists of ingredients, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we know what all of them mean (and this is not unintentional).  For example, an otherwise innocuous word like “cellulose” apparently means processed wood pulp in a great number of processed or prepackaged foods2.
  3. Labeling – What do the labels mean?  Foods nowadays are covered in health claims, all forms of food are touted as organic, and “fair trade” shows up quite often on the outside of certain types of products such as coffee and chocolate – but as noted above, what fair trade implies and what it actually means are not necessarily the same.

Of the three, production is the most problematic.  Although the health claims and various labels placed on food may be confusing, there are rules that must be followed in the U.S. and there are ways to find out what the words and labels mean (for those who want an in-depth read on the topic I recommend Marion Nestle’s book What to Eat).  Although the recent adoption of country-of-origin labeling (COOL) in 20083 provides us with more information about where the food comes from, allowing us to make more informed choices about things like seafood, it doesn’t address other questions, like the conditions in which our food animals are raised or the labor conditions under which our produce is grown and harvested.

Looking more deeply into the issue is like turning over a rock and watching the various squirmy inhabitants underneath writhe, glistening, in the unexpected sunlight – and it doesn’t take much digging to find some truly horrific practices going on.  Muckraker documents like Food, Inc. and The Omnivore’s Dilemma illustrate the terrible conditions in which our meat is produced and killed: fed on cheap corn until it is chronically ill, typically unable to move around freely, kept in darkness and kept alive through the heavy and chronic use of antibiotics.  Additional antibiotics, up to 70% of those used, is given at subtherapeutic levels in order to boost growth rates in pigs, cattle, and poultry4.  The feed they are given is not entirely corn, either.  As noted previously, where it once was a dumping ground for cheap fish taken from the waters (and local food chains) of equatorial nations, later it became a place to use up the inedible portions of their own and other food species as well as the final resting place for an uncounted number of euthanized strays, housepets, and roadkilled animals4.

As Michael Pollan observed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

When you think about it, it is odd that something as important to our health and general well-being as food is so often sold strictly on the basis of price. . . instead of stories of how it was produced accompanying our food, we get bar codes – as inscrutable as the industrial food chain itself, and a fair symbol of its almost total opacity5.

However, he notes that the bar code doesn’t have to be a veil of secrecy.  In Denmark, supermarkets have experimented with adding a second bar code to meat that, when scanned, brings up images of where the animal was raised as well as information about its feed, medication, and slaughter date.  This sounds like an awesome idea, but truthfully most of the meat produced in the U.S. would never be sold if such information was so easily available – not even the organic and free-range animals sold at Whole Foods and other such upscale markets5.  The best indicator of the value of such information to consumers is amply illustrated by the herculean efforts of the industry to stifle any and all of it, as illustrated by the uproar over recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rbST.

Asterisks and Disclaimers

Remember that little asterisk noting that there was only 30% rainforest certified coffee in the can?  Asterisks aren’t only used to provide a caveat or disclaimer to loud advertising claims (e.g. “50% OFF ALL PRODUCTS that meet specific criteria, limit 4) but also are sometimes there because a powerful industry doesn’t want consumers getting the idea that there might be something wrong with their product, whether or not there might be actual science that there could be.  For example, milk can now be advertised as rbST-free, but only with a little asterisk that goes to a disclaimer stating that the FDA has found no significant difference between the milk of rbST-treated and untreated cows6.  This is actually somewhat unusual, as no milk that is treated with rbST is actually labeled.  When the FDA was considering the initial approval of rbST as safe to be used in milk, Monsanto (the company that produced it) mounted an enormous lobbying campaign to prevent milk from being labeled as to whether or not it was produced by treated cattle.  Their argument was as follows: since rbST is not chemically distinguishable from the natural bST that cows produce in their milk, there should be no label since it would suggest that milk from treated cows might be different and that untreated cows’ milk might be better6.

An rbST disclaimer, from The Food Enquirer

Although they are probably correct in that the rbST itself does not pose a danger to human health, cows that are treated with rbST are more prone to udder infections and mastitis, requiring more frequent antibiotic treatments that then end up in the milk.   For reasons unknown it also causes them to produce more insulin-growth factor (IGF-1) in their milk, which is identical to the human form of IGF-1 and may possibly represent a health issue6.  Unfortunately, the effects of both of these secondary side effects of rbST treatment in milk cows is unknown, because such milk cannot be identified in the absence of labeling.  The only way milk can provide information about whether or not rbST is used in its production is by the addition of the FDA disclaimer.

The rbST episode actually stands as a good example of what the industry will push the government do when not reined in by public outrage, as well as what the government will let them get away with.  The latter is less surprising than you may think, since the primary goal of the government regulatory bodies that monitor food production and safety is to encourage agricultural business, including meat production – in other words, their primary goal is to make you eat more (American-grown) meat, milk, produce and grains6.

If this sounds like a clear conflict of interest, it’s because it is.   It is why we have to treat our meat like a biohazard and why we can’t be told what foods contain genetically modified ingredients without a forest of disclaimers.

Pushback

All is not lost, however.  Take organic standards, for example.  There are specific rules that must be followed to allow food to label itself as “organic”, and when the organic movement was originally building real steam in the 1990s, agribusinesses fought to make the definition as loose as possible.  In the original set of standards released by the USDA in 1997, operating under industry pressure, genetically modified crops and irradiated crops would have fallen under the “organic” label.  Public outrage from farmers and consumers alike forced them to tighten their rules and omit both GM and irradiated food5,6.  Whether you consider the current standards to be meaningful or meaningless, they are nonetheless representative of the power of the consumer to force tight rules onto the industry.  In response, the attempts by the industry to weaken the rules for organic standards and our confidence in organic labeling are relentless and never-ending6.  As Marion Nestle notes:

The best evidence that Organic Standards really do mean something – and are not so easy to achieve – comes from the unrelenting efforts to weaken them from Big meat, Big organics, the USDA itself, and now Congress. . . [The] repeated pattern – the USDA proposes weakening the rules, sees how much fuss its proposal causes, and backs down if it causes too much – is a clear indication that Organic Standards are meaningful and worth fighting for6.

I don’t quote this because I necessarily think organic, especially in its current incarnation, is the answer to our industrialized food system woes.  I quote it because it provides a hint of what we can do, and proof that we are not just pawns for the multinational corporations to push around.  There are two lines of attack and both must be pressed if any actual standards for food quality, safety, improved labor practices, and reduced externalities are going to go into place.

The one we are most familiar with is purchasing power – “hit ‘em where it hurts”, “vote with your dollar”, and so forth.  This does have tremendous influence and is not to be underestimated, particularly in the food industry; the decentralized farming industry of Japan, so very unlike our increasingly consolidated meat and farm industries, actually works the way it does because of a cultural emphasis on freshness.  Consumers won’t buy food that’s more than a day old, so the system remains heavily decentralized to avoid having to transport anything very far (which takes time)7.

However, as noted above, our own government and the industries it works so closely with constantly attempt to remove the information that we need as consumers to make such choices.  This is where the second approach must be applied, and this is where it gets difficult.  Pressure must be applied politically, to uphold standards, to tighten standards, to stop making the USDA and FDA simply another wing of the industries they are meant to regulate.  This is difficult both because of the immense political power wielded by such entities as Big Meat and Big Agriculture, and also because my generation and those after it (X and above) have long been inculcated with the idea that we have no political power, that nothing we say will change anything, so why bother8?  Vote with your dollar and call it a day, because at the end of the day, the Baby Boomers overshadow us politically.  We won’t get anywhere until they’re dead.  Probably not even then because the corporations own us all, and the government only listens to them.

Well, they will if we don’t say anything, and simply roll over and let this happen.  We have forced change on them before through the harsh lens of public outcry; the FDA and any industry standards exist at all because of the rage that followed the release of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and as more and more evidence of the dangers and externalities of our current food system leak out, steam is building.  It’s why organic anything even exists.

And the coffee, that I mentioned before?  Fair Trade rules in any form exist because of public outcry, and political pressure forces tighter rules.  FLO-CERT is a form of certification followed by certain European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, which enforces tight labor rules as well as environmental impact rules (no 12-hour days, for example, nor child labor).  These rules are followed because if they are not, these markets are literally impenetrable to imports.  Contrast this with our own markets, in which Fair Trade-certified tropical goods by any regulatory body are rare and typically found only in upscale (read: expensive and very specifically-placed) markets.  Lobbying for more FLO certified goods in our markets would take a combination of market pressure – willingness to pay extra to ensure that the people that produce it are protected by the same sorts of labor laws we require of businesses at home – and political pressure.

But even with the version of Fair Trade that is commonly applied in the U.S., the pressure from outside forces has forced the Ecuadorian government to make changes in its laws that improve the health of its workers.  For all the horror stories I collected while interviewing health professionals in Ecuador, the common refrain that followed was that it used to be worse – more miscarriages in the female workers, more birth defects, and a faster buildup of poisons in the blood of workers1,9.  Change was happening, even if it wasn’t as fast as anyone might have liked.

We are not powerless victims of the system.  We made corporations and allowed them certain rights, and we can take them away.  We allow modern-day trusts to exist in the meat and food industries (hello there, Monsanto and Cargill) but we’ve broken their backs before.

The Black Box can be cracked.  But first we need to know, and to care, and to have a will to change things.

 

References

  1. Roland Marrino, field interview, 20 July 2011.
  2. Reimer, M.  2011.  “15 Food Companies that Serve You ‘Wood’.”  TheStreet.  Online.  Accessed: http://www.thestreet.com/story/11012915/1/12-food-companies-that-serve-you-wood.html
  3. United States Department of Agriculture, 2009.  “Country of Origin Labelling (COOL): Frequently Asked Questions.”  Accessed Online: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5074846
  4. Leffers, L.Y., M. Kucharski, S. McKenzie and P. Walker.  2007.  Feed for Food-Producing Animals: A Resource on the Ingredients, the Industry, and Regulation.  Report from The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future: Baltimore, MD.  Accessed online at http://www.jhsph.edu/bin/i/l/animal_feed.pdf.
  5. Pollan, M.  2006.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Penguin Books: New York.
  6. Nestle, M.  2006.  What to Eat.  North Point Press: New York.
  7. Diamond, J.  2004.  Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.  The Viking Press: New York.
  8. Draut, T.  2007.  Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead.  Anchor Books: New York.
  9. Esteban Cardiños, field interview, 25 July 2011.

Good Fish, Bad Fish

December 23, 2011

Fish are a paradoxical food in our society.  On the one hand, the American Medical Association exhorts us to eat more of them on a daily basis, since they provide a much leaner source of protein than conventional meat and come loaded with beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.  On the other hand, Americans never were much of a fish-eating society except for specific subcultural pockets, fish frequently come with warnings about how they come loaded with toxic mercury in their flesh and limits on how frequently you should eat them to be safe.  Add in the issues of overfishing and environmental destruction of Earth’s oceans, and trying to figure out what you should and should not be eating becomes a hassle that most people would rather avoid.

Ignoring the issues don’t make them go away, however.  Let’s look at each of them a little closer, and see what, if anything, can be done.

The Last Wild Food

“Planet Ocean Sphere” by Ray Troll, from http://www.trollart.com

Part of the problem with fish is that even in an age where aquaculture is increasingly common, very few species are actually domesticated.  Most fish are caught from the wild, making them susceptible to environmental damage both on land and in the sea.  My last post discussed the issues of garbage in the ocean and photodegraded plastics, an issue which is currently being researched to determine if these plastics are working their way back up the food chain into us (the little plastic pieces have already been found in fish that humans eat)1.  Mercury, the reason behind the warnings on many fish, is also primarily derived from terrestrial sources.  About two-thirds of all elemental mercury in the ocean is produced by man, with the largest culprit being the burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal (160 tons a year in the U.S. alone)2.  Mercury is released as particulates into the atmosphere after burning, and rainwater washes the mercury particulates into the ocean where it is thought that midwater bacteria may be converting it into toxic, biologically-active methylmercury, although the exact pathway by which elemental mercury enters the food chain is not currently clear.2

Anadromous or catadromous fish – those that spend part of their lives in seawater and part in freshwater – are susceptible to environmental degradation around the streams that they spend part of their lives in.  Salmon are probably the best known example, as they spend most of their lives at sea but must return to fresh water to spawn.  Damming of salmon rivers or deforestation around the edges of the streams, allowing more sediment to wash into the water and water temperatures to rise without the protective shade of the trees, can and have destroyed entire salmon runs throughout the United States.  The Atlantic salmon, as common as it is to see for sale at fish market counters, is almost extinct in the wild.  All of the individuals sold today are farmed fish, as the American East Coast lost its salmon to industrial development long ago.  West Coast salmon in the continental U.S. are also in dire straits, with the Columbia River containing 3% or less of the salmon it once held when Lewis and Clark arrived in the region and the Sacramento chinook population currently nosediving3.

Sardines drying in the sun, Monterey, CA, 1908
Sardines drying in the sun at Monterey, 1908.

Even for fish that don’t live in fragile freshwater habitats, the future is often bleak due to overfishing.  Market demand for fish can easily exceed the abilities of wild populations to reproduce themselves, especially if the species in question is long-lived and late-spawning.  Unlike mammals, many fish reach their reproductive peaks late in life when they are older and larger – precisely the point at which most fisheries are likely to target them.  Deepwater fish such as the slimehead (market name: orange roughy) or Pacific rockfish (market name: red snapper, Pacific snapper) live for a very long time, with some species having an estimated lifespan of 100 years or more.  With such long lifespans and limited habitat to fill, they may not reproduce before they are 15 or 20 years old in the rockfish4, and perhaps 23-40 years in the roughy5.  Even fish that are low on the food chain and reproduce rapidly can easily be overwhelmed, with crashes occuring even in enormous and fast-replacing populations such as the California sardine fishery (1950s), the Peruvian anchoveta fishery (1970s), and Newfoundland cod (1990s).  Fish catches of all species worldwide peaked at 78 million tonnes in 1988 and have been declining by about half a million tonnes a year since6.

In our increasing desperation to collect the last remaining wild fish, those fish and crustaceans that live in deep water or on and near the ocean bottom are frequently collected by trawling – dragging heavy, weighted nets across the seabottom to literally scrape the seafloor clean, a destructive and bycatch-heavy method to collect seafood that has been likened to clearcutting the oceans, or, to put it in more graphic terms, “using a bulldozer to catch songbirds for food.6”  Trawling has already damaged 40% of the coldwater reefs off of Norway, obliterated 90% of Florida’s fragile coral reefs, and can reach seamounts one and a half miles below the surface, scouring an area twice the size of the continental United States.  This destructive industry is not even economically sustainable; the world’s governments subsidize the trawler fleets with $152 million in taxpayer money, without which they would operate at a loss6.

The Tragedy of the Commons, espoused by Garret Hardin in 1968, is hard at work in Earth’s oceans as every industrialized country on Earth races to grab all the fish it can before anyone else does – to the detriment of all, but particularly those poorer countries that depend on wild fish simply to meet their protein requirements.  A terrible example is the oceans off the coast of West Africa, where Europe has leased the right to fish from the political leaders of these poverty-stricken nations and proceeded to strip the oceans of the fish that the local people depend on.  In countries where 50% of the dietary protein once came from fish, European trawlers have halved the local populations of shrimp, squid, and hake, driven others into local extinction, and are ravaging the sardine populations that lie near the base of West Africa’s oceanic food chain to fatten tuna for wealthy consumers at sushi bars in Los Angeles and Tokyo6.

To Farm or to Fish

If catching wild fish obliterates the habitat for them and everything else that lives in the area, strips populations of their adults before they have a chance to breed, and frequently catches unintended species (e.g. bycatch) and then throws it back to die, wouldn’t farmed fish be the answer to relieve the pressure on wild stocks?

Well, yes and no.  Whether the farmed fish fixes problems or simply adds more to the list depends a great deal on the type of fish it is, and part of the problem is the types of fish we typically eat.

Americans are not very adventurous types when it comes to seafood.  Shrimp is the most popular, with 4.4 pounds consumed on average per capita by 2006, or 1.3 billion pounds annually (and that just in the U.S.)7.  Although catching wild shrimp can be exceedingly destructive – shrimp are bottom-dwelling, and thus trawler-caught, animals – most of what we eat nowadays is farmed in developing nations such as Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and China6.  Where those farms stand now, extensive mangrove forests once stood, once a haven and a nursery for many of the fish species that locals depend on for food, and a protective wall against the destructive energy of typhoons and tidal waves.  If they occur farther inland they replace rice paddies that once produced food for the local people, and the salty water that the shrimp require to survive can and does leak out, rendering the local water supplies too salty to drink or grow food with.  The shrimp they raise is frequently caught as wild, tiny fry using mosquito nets, producing horrendous amounts of bycatch in the young of other species and stripping the wild populations of their replacements6.  And to make matters worse, since shrimp are detritivores (scavenging bottom-feeders) they must be fed fishmeal, which comes from wild stocks.  Approximately two pounds of wild fish must be sacrificed to produce one pound of farmed shrimp6.

From Ray Troll’s website, http://www.trollart.com

This is not simply an issue in shrimp, either.  Many of the flagship fish that we farm – the Atlantic salmon, the European seabass/Branzini, and more recently our attempts at fattening (and even farming) wild tuna – were chosen not for their ease in domestication, but for their popularity as food7.  Unfortunately, most of the fish we eat are predators, and in the case of tuna sit extremely high on the oceanic food chain, making eating them the equivalent of eating something that preys exclusively on lions and tigers.  In the case of our most common farmed fish, salmon, we’ve attempted to bypass part of this problem by supplementing its fishmeal diet with “poultry meal” – all of the nonfood parts left over from processing feedlot chickens such as blood, necks, feet, and intestines – as well as chicken manure and the normally indigestable feathers6, ensuring that any pesticides, antibiotics, or other chemicals that get into them then get passed into the fish as well.  Farmed fish thus not only use up perfectly edible wild fish, but they often inherit the problems of industrial farming on land as we attempt to make up the protein shortfall with the less palatable leftovers from our factory farms.

Farmed fish, then, only produce a net gain in available food when they are species that feed at low trophic levels; herbivores or filter-feeders, in other words.  Fish such as tilapia, catfish (American and Basa), carp, and barramundi meet this criteria, as do farmed shellfish such as oysters, clams, and mussels  Still, you have to be careful as to where your seafood comes from, as aquaculture in other countries frequently makes use of pesticides, piscicides, and antibiotics to ensure that their crop survives the overcrowded conditions often found in farming.  Farmed shrimp, like many other farmed fish, come treated with diesel oil, chlorine, and antibiotics – many of them banned in the U.S., such as chloramphenicol or nitrofurans6.

For some species, farmed fish aren’t just a suboptimal choice, but a dangerous one.

Eating Down the Food Chain

If after all this you’re feeling a bit queasy about the idea of eating seafood, don’t.  The primary problem facing fish eaters is the same one facing anyone that eats farmed meat (or anything at all, really), and that’s a lack of information about the way our food was produced or procured.  The issues with farmed fish mirror those seen in factory farmed mammals and birds: environmental degradation due to overconcentration of the animals and their wastes; overuse and abuse of antibiotics, many of them hormone disruptors at best and all of them selecting for antibiotic-resistant bacteria at worst; and the deliberate lack of information on the consumer side as to the conditions in which the animal was raised and killed.  There are additional issues to consider with wild fish, mostly having to do with how they are caught and how resilient the wild population is to fishing.  That said, keeping a few guidelines in mind can help make it easier to find good, healthy, and environmentally-friendly fish.

  1. Eat Lower on the Food Chain – In addition to the worries about methylmercury, the simple reason to avoid eating large predators is that they are top predators.  Predators reproduce themselves slowly since there needs to be less of them than their prey, and while predatory fish can still produce many offspring at a time, most of them will not survive to the stage at which we like to eat them.  While this doesn’t mean that you have to cut them out of your diet  it does mean that we need to stop viewing fish such as salmon or tuna as equivalent to chicken and trying to farm them as such.  Herbivores (sardines, tilapia), filter-feeders (mussels, clams), wild detritivores (Eastern lobster, dungeoness crab), and low-level predators (jellyfish, mackerel, squid) should make up the bulk of anyone’s seafood meals.  Not only are these fish more numerous and generally more resilient to fishing, but because they are lower on the food chain, the mercury in their flesh is far less concentrated (and dangerous!) than it is in big predatory fish.   This rule also encompasses the idea of eating less protein at a sitting, or using meat (whether terrestrial or marine) as an additive in a recipe rather than the main course.  This reduces pressure on fish stocks even indirectly, as fishmeal is fed to farmed land animals as well as fish8.
  2. Avoid Long-Lived Fish – This overlaps somewhat with number 1, as predatory fish can live a long time (tuna can live for 15 to 30 years or more).  But there are fish out there that live even longer, such as the orange roughy or Pacific rockfish.  These should never be eaten, since there is no level at which you can fish these animals and maintain an economically-viable fishery.  If eating tuna is like eating a tiger’s predator, then eating these fish is like eating elephants.  Both fish and elephants live long, breed late, and breed slowly.  They are not adapted to heavy predation and cannot survive being fished at levels that are economically viable.
  3. Do Your Homework – This sounds like asking a lot, but as I noted before it’s really no more than you should be doing with the rest of your food as well.  Know which fish are under too much pressure and should be avoided, which fish you should never eat, and which fish you can only eat if they come from certain countries or are caught in certain ways.  Ideally you would know how they were caught in all circumstances, but the people behind most fish counters are unlikely to know since most people don’t think to ask.  In such cases it may be safest to stick to choices that are generally easy to recognize like “farmed tilapia” or “wild-caught Pacific salmon.”  The Monterey Bay Aquarium provides a good list of which seafood represents your best choices and why.

Ultimately, the onus is on us to be informed consumers and to apply both market pressure (to shift fishing away from overfished or badly-fished stocks) and political pressure (to stop the artificial subsidies that are all that keep the world’s great industrial fishing fleets afloat) to ultimately change the way seafood is brought to market.  There’s already a shift in the way that meat is being produced, with grass-fed becoming more common of an option where once it had disappeared under the drive to produce more, faster, and cheaper.  We must do the same for fish, or there will be literally nothing left in the ocean but oozes and jellyfish, and one of the world’s most dependable sources of food will have been devoured in a 20th-century blitz of greed and shortsightedness.

More than 70% of our planet’s surface is covered in water.  It is time we took better care of it, so our children will still find that there are plenty of fish in the sea.

A school of anchovies, from http://news.discovery.com

References

1. http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/pure-genius/following-plastic-debris-from-the-ocean-onto-our-plates/3535

2. http://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/viewArticle.do?id=79706

3. Tucker, A.  2008.  “On California’s Coast, Farewill to the King Salmon.”  Smithsonian Magazine, October 2008, accessed online at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/salmon-king.html.

4. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2008.  “Protecting British Columbia’s Rockfish.”  Accessed online at http://www.pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/publications/docs/rockfish-sebastes-eng.htm

5. Lack, M., K. Short and A. Willock, 2003.  “Managing risk and uncertainty in deep-sea fisheries: lessons from Orange Roughy.”  A WWF/TRAFFIC Oceana report, accessed online: http://www.mar-eco.no/learning-zone/__data/page/89/WWF-orange_roughy.pdf

6. Grescoe, Taras. 2008.  Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood.  New York: Bloosmbury USA.

7. Greenberg, P.   2010.  Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.  New York: Penguin Press.

8.   Miles, R.D. and J.P. Jacob.  1997.  “Fishmeal in Poultry Diets: Understanding the production of this valuable feed ingredient.”  University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.  Accessed online at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ps007.

Thinking Outside the Can

November 25, 2011

There are two things I have been trying to excise from my life as much as possible lately: plastics and canned food.

The aversion to plastics probably makes more sense on the face of it, since as a petroleum product it is made from an increasingly scarce, nonrenewable resource and will not biodegrade once discarded.  This does not mean that it doesn’t break down at all, mind you; plastic photodegrades, or breaks down under ultraviolet light into ever smaller and smaller pieces without reverting to its most basic components (carbon dioxide, water, and other molecules, a process known as mineralization)1.  It remains a polymer, but becomes too small to easily collect or even to see.  These tiny pieces end up trapped in the water column where ocean currents concentrate them, such as the centers of gyres, the great circular ocean currents that ring Earth’s oceans.  In some places, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the accumulated plastic debris covers an area estimated to be twice the size of Hawaii2 – although exact size estimates are difficult when much of the debris is less than 5mm in size and is suspended as a tiny particulate cloud underneath the surface.

So, avoiding plastics wherever possible makes sense, especially in an era where they’ve become so ubiquitous and disposable.  But why canned food, exactly?

BPA-free labelling

The canned food issue actually goes back to plastics again, or more specifically to a component frequently used in it: bisphenol A, or BPA for short.  You’ve probably heard of the abbreviated form of this compound, as more and more plastic products proclaim themselves to be “BPA-free” and therefore safe to hold food and liquids.  The BPA issue circles back to the avoidance of plastics, since I don’t only eschew plastic products due to their total inability to break down but because of their potential for chemical pollution – not just of the surrounding environment, but of ourselves as well.  BPA is ubiquitous in the American population, with the CDC reporting that 93% of Americans tested have measurable amounts of BPA in their bodies3.  This is not slow accumulation, either; BPA is rapidly metabolized by the human body and will break down in just a few hours4.  For us to contain so much of this polymer, we must be constantly reingesting it multiple times a day.

This is not as difficult as it sounds.  BPA is one of the most commonly produced chemicals in the world4.  Some 70% of it is used to make polycarbonate plastic, the type of clear plastic used to make everything from CDs and DVDs, water bottles, drinking glasses, baby bottles, and even the reusable water bottles commonly used to replace the disposable plastic ones (hence the stickers on so many now that announce their lack of BPA).  About 20% is used in epoxy resins, used as adhesives, in dental filling material, the protective coating around wires – and the lining of pretty much every tin can currently on the market4.  Bisphenol A acts as a hormone disruptor, a chemical mimic that simulates estrogen and can interact with our bodies’ own hormone receptors and ends up either sending the wrong signal, too much of the right signal, or the right signal at the wrong time.  Unlike more conventional pollutants, which have toxic effects that scale with exposure, hormone disruptors are extremely toxic at very low levels because our bodies do not make much hormone to begin with and thus are sensitive to very low doses, causing extreme reactions to even small doses of the compound.  As hormones can have different effects at different levels, how the body reacts to BPA depends on the amount of exposure, with vanishingly small doses signalling for one set of genes to activate, higher doses turning on a different set, and very high doses shutting the genes completely off due to over-toxicity4.  In short, with BPA there is no level of exposure that is ever safe or will not cause toxic side effects, and the side effects are legion: depending on the timing of exposure, the genital tract and breast tissue can develop malformed (fetal exposure); testosterone levels can fall (fetal and neonatal exposure); breast and prostate cells become more predisposed to cancer (fetal and infant exposure); brain structure and function become impaired (young adult exposure); and the release of a key hormone involved in insulin sensitivity and inflammation is inhibited, possibly making us more susceptible to type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease (adult exposure).  These changes can occur with exposure times as short as two to three days4.

Although we’ve known about the hormone-disrupting properties of this compound since the 1930s, it was only in the 60s and 70s that BPA production became widespread4.  Even the few cans labelled as BPA-free can contain traces of the chemical, albeit at lower concentrations than more conventional cans and despite the linings of these cans not being epoxy-based5.  This stuff is everywhere, and it is very easy to ingest dangerous levels of BPA in a single serving.  The BPA-free cans are a safer alternative on par with frozen food in plastic packages, at least, but still – it’s there.

So, screw the cans.  As an experiment this Thanksgiving, I decided to try making my usual dish, pumpkin pie, without the use of any canned ingredients.  I even eschewed the Crisco I normally use to make the crust in favor of organic butter, which doesn’t necessarily come wrapped in a BPA-laden package (Crisco may not either, but since manufacturers are not currently required to tell you what’s in their packaging, it seemed safer to go the route wrapped in paper).

Preparing pumpkins for bakingStep 1: Pumpkin Puree

The primary canned ingredient in a typical pumpkin pie is the pumpkin puree.  Truth be told, the canned stuff is probably as much squash puree as pumpkin, but the two are quite similar and it still tastes appropriately pumpkinish, so I didn’t mind it for that reason – just for the can.  I started with a few small pumpkins from our kitchen garden (this was not a good year for them) and one hefty five-pounder from the farmer’s market.

First off, slice off the top of the pumpkin and cut the whole thing in half so you can scoop out the seeds and strings with a heavy-duty spoon.  If you’ve made Jack-o’-Lanterns before, this step is probably old hat.  Afterwards spray a baking pan with nonstick spray and place the pumpkins on to bake at 350°F for anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour and half – in this picture I’ve cut a slice off the bottom and baked them hollow-side up, but afterwards my mother told me it would probably have worked better with them the other way up, and with a little water in the pan to allow steaming.  In hindsight I was treating them a bit too much like the squash halves I regularly bake with butter and sugar in the center (one of my favorite fall and winter vegetables) but either method will probably work as long as the pumpkins are baked long enough.  Since I put so many in the oven, mine baked about two hours.

Once the pumpkin is soft and pierces easily with a fork, scoop the flesh from the skin or peel the skin away with a knife (whichever is easier) and puree the roasted flesh.  At this point, depending on what tools you have at your disposal, you can either run the pumpkin through a food processor or a food mill.  I prefer the use of a food mill to remove most of the significant pumpkin strings that might have been left behind.

Food mills are useful for stringy, seedy, skin-laden fruits and vegetables.

Step 2: Piecrust

I used a butter-based recipe from The Art and Soul of Baking6, reproduced here.  The original recipe I normally use and inherited from my great-grandmother, a turn of the century recipe, actually uses lard.  However, using fat from conventionally-farmed pigs when most of the hormone-disrupting antibiotics they are given are lipophilic (that is, retained in body fat) did not sound like a safe alternative.

Unlike a Crisco- (or lard) based crust, a butter crust was more difficult to work with because it had to be kept colder.  Butter has a lower melting temperature and must be kept relatively cold to behave like shortening when building a crust.  Since I’m relatively unpracticed at rolling out crusts in general (I make pies perhaps twice a year), this made getting the right size a little difficult, which was helped somewhat by the use of a pie sheet that also made it easier to peel up the rolled-out dough.

Flaky Pie or Tart Dough

Makes 1 (9- or 10-inch) pie shell
  • 1 stick (4 oz) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 3-4 tablespoons cold water
  • 1 1/4 cups (6 1/4 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar (omit for a savory crust)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
Butter being cut for piecrust

The butter looks odd because Mark had been using it to grease a pan just before I got to it.

Place the butter pieces in a bowl or on a plate and freeze for at least 20 minutes.  Refrigerate the water in a small measuring cup until needed.

The "crushed crackers and peas" stage.

The "crushed crackers and peas" stage.

Place the flour, sugar (if using – I didn’t, even for the pumpkin pie) in the bowl of a food processor and process for 10 seconds to blend the ingredients.  Add the frozen butter pieces and pulse 6 to 10 times (in 1-second bursts) until the butter and flour mixture looks like crushed crackers and peas.

Immediately transfer the butter-flour mixture to the large bowl.  Sprinkle a tablespoon of the cold water over the mixture and “fluff” it in, then add another, and another, until 3 tablespoons have been added.  Continue to fluff and stir 10 or 12 times.  It will not be a cohesive dough at this point but a bowl of shaggy crumbs and clumps of dough.  Before bringing the dough together, test it for moisture content; take a handful of the mixture and squeeze firmly, then open your hand.  If the clump falls apart and looks dry, remove any large, moist clumps from the bowl and add more water, a teaspoon at a time and mixing it in immediately, testing again before adding more water.  The dough is done when it holds together.  If the butter feels soft and squishy, refrigerate before continuing.

(Note – all of the above can be done in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment set to low speed.  Add three-fourths of the liquid to the mixer bowl, test for moistness, then add the remainder as needed).

Turn the dough onto a work surface and knead gently 3 to 6 times.  If it won’t come together and looks very dry, return to the bowl to add more water as described above before trying again.  Flatten the dough to a 6- or 7-inch disk, wrap in plastic or parchment paper, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.  This allows time for the dough to rehydrate fully and for the butter to firm up again.

If the dough sits for more than 30 minutes, it may be very firm and hard and will crack if you try to roll it.  Let it sit on the counter for 10 to 15 minutes until it is malleable but still cold.  Dust your work surface generously with flour and set the disk on the flour.  Dust the top with flour.  Roll, turning the dough, until you’ve got a 14- or 15-inch circle about 1/4 inch thick.  If at any point the dough becomes warm and sticky, gently fold it into quarters, unfold it onto a baking sheet and refrigerate for 15 minutes or until the butter is firm again.

Rolling out the pie crust

Fold the dough circle into quarters, brushing off any excess flour as you fold.  Put the point of the folded dough in the center of the pie pan, tart pan, or baking sheet and unfold, lifting it slightly as necessary to ease it into the crevices of the pan.  Do not stretch or pull the dough, which can cause thin spots, holes, and/or shrinkage during baking.

Using a pair of kitchen scissors, trim the dough so it overhangs the edge of the pan by 1 inch.  Fold the overhanging dough under itself around the pan edge, then crimp or form a decorative border.

Step 3: Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin pie ingredientsThe normal recipe for pumpkin pie filling that I usually use (that is, the Libby’s staple on the back of every can) normally uses canned condensed milk.  To avoid that, I used another recipe from The Art and Soul of Baking that replaces it with whipping cream and whole milk.  Although I couldn’t completely get away from plastics – the organic cream came in a plastic bottle, but at least it wasn’t polycarbonate – this method does not use canned ingredients, and if you can find the dairy ingredients in a glass bottle all the better.

As it turns out, part of the reason for using condensed milk is because it is already thickened.  This recipe requires you to make a true custard filling by gently heating cream, sugar, and eggs without scrambling them.  A candy or instant-read thermometer is probably necessary here to track the correct point at which to stop cooking the filling and add it to the pie shell.

Great Pumpkin Pie

Makes 1 (10-inch) regular pie or 1 (9-inch) deep dish pie
  • 1 prepared, unbaked pie shell (see above)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (about 20 grates on a whole nutmeg)
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups (12 oz) heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup (4 oz) firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup (1 3/4 oz) granulated sugar
  • 2 cups (16 oz) pumpkin puree

Preheat the oven to 375°F and position an oven rack in the bottom third.  Line the chilled pie shell with heavy-duty foil, pressing the foil smoothly and firmly into the crevices of the pan.  Fill the pan with pie weights, making sure they reach to the sides of the pan – the center does not need to be filled quite as full.  Bake the shell for 20 to 22 minutes, until the foil comes away from the dough easily (if it doesn’t, bake another 5 to 6 minutes and check again).  Remove the pan from the oven, lift out the foil and weights from the shell, and return the shell to the oven to continue baking for about 20 minutes, checking after 10 minutes to see if any cracks have formed; if they have, use some extra pie dough to seal the crack to patch it and bake for another 10 minutes.  The pie shell should be a nice golden brown all over when it is done.

Preparing the custardRemove the shell to cool slightly and turn the oven temperature down to 350°F.

While the pie crust is baking, make the filling.  Whisk the eggs to break them up, then add the cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and salt and whisk well to blend evenly.  Whisk in the cream, brown sugar, and granulated sugar and blend well.  Add the pumpkin puree and whisk until the custard mixture is thoroughly blended.  Cook over medium-low heat, stirring continuously with a spatula and scraping all over the bottom of the pan to prevent the eggs from scrambling for 7 to 9 minutes, or until the mixture feels lightly thickened and registers 150°F on a thermometer. Do not let the mixture scramble or you’ll have to start over.  Remove from heat.

If the pie crust has cooled completely, reheat it in the oven for 5 minutes.  Scrape the hot custard into the hot pie shell and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the custard is set.  Test by tapping the pie pan – the center of the pie should look firm and move as  one piece.  Transfer the pie to a rack and cool completely, about 2 hours, before serving.

Results

The finished pie was, quite literally, the best I’d ever had.  Although it does take significantly more time and work to make I’d argue that it’s worth it, especially since several steps can be broken out of the sequence and performed ahead of time to avoid having to do it all at once.  The pumpkin puree made here made a batch large enough for at least two and potentially three separate pies, with the excess frozen; the pie crusts can be made in large quantities if you have a stand mixer, and the dough can be refrigerated for two days or frozen for up to one month.  Even if I wasn’t worried about the health issues of BPA in cans, I’d definitely be doing this again!

 

The finished pumpkin pie, plus extra filling baked in a ramekin.

Addendum

Since I was making the pumpkin pie already, I also made a second pie recipe for lunch on Thanksgiving since we tend to eat Thanksgiving dinner around dinnertime, i.e. about 7pm or so.  This recipe (from the same book as the other two) used some of the leftover cream as well as one of the many butternut squashes we had brought in from the garden.

Homegrown butternut squash, being cubed

Homegrown butternut squash, being cubed. I hadn't realized until I cut this one open just how big a difference there is between homegrown and store-bought squash.

Roasted Butternut Squash-Onion Pie

  • 1 unbaked pie shell
Squash
  • 10 ounces butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons light brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
Onion
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 large (10 to 12 oz) onion, cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
  • Salt

Custard

  • 3/4 cup (6 oz) whole milk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup (4 oz) heavy whipping cream
  • 1 cup (3 oz) finely grated pecorino cheese, separated into two half-cups
  • 1 tablespoon snipped fresh chives
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh sage
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 8 grinds black pepper

Bake the shell in the oven as described for the pumpkin pie recipe (see above).  While the crust is baking, line a baking sheet with a silicone mat or lightly coat it with cooking spray.  Use a spatula to

Caramelized onions

Caramelized onions, for the pie.

toss the squash cubes in a bowl with the olive oil, brown sugar, salt, and pepper until it is evenly coated, then scrape onto the baking sheet and spread the cubes apart slightly.  Roast on the top oven rack for 20 to 25 minutes, until deep golden and tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp, thin knife.  Let cool on a rack and decrease oven temperature to 350°F.

While the squash and pie shell bake, heat the olive oil and butter in a sauté pan over medium heat until the butter melts.  Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until deep golden, 20 to 25 minutes.  Season with salt and set aside to cool.

In a large bowl, whisk together the milk and eggs until well blended.  Whisk in the cream, 1/2 cup of the cheese, the chives, thyme, sage, lemon zest (I used lemon oil), salt, and pepper.  Spread the caramelized onion in the bottom of the cooled pie crust, then scrape the squash into the pie shell and spread into an even layer on top of the onion.  Slowly pour the custard over the squash in a circular pattern.  Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup of cheese over the top.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes until the edge of the custard puffs and the center is set.  Transfer to a rack and let cool for about 30 minutes before serving.

One roasted butternut squash-onion pie, ready to eat!

Happy Thanksgiving!


References

1. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  2011.  “Plastic Marine Debris: What we know.”  Retrieved from NOAA Marine Debris Program Website: http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/plastic.html

2. Moore, C.  2003.  “Trashed – Across the Pacific Ocean, plastics, plastics everywhere.  In: Natural History 112(9): 46-51.

3. Calafat, Antonia, X. Yee, L.-Yang, J.A. Reidy and L. Needham, 2008.  “Exposure of the U.S. Population to Bisphenol A and 4-tertiary-octophenol 2003-2004.”  Environmental Health Perspectives 116(1): 39-44.

4. Smith, R. and B. Lowrie.  2009.  Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things.  Berkeley, California: Counterpoint Press.

5. “Concern over canned foods: Our tests find a wide range of Bisphenol A in soups, juice, and more.”  Consumer Reports Magazine, December 2009, accessed online: http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine-archive/december-2009/food/bpa/overview/bisphenol-a-ov.htm

6.  Mushet, C.  2008.  The Art and Soul of Baking.  Kansas City, Missouri: Andrews McMeel Publishing.