Saturday links, 10/13/12.

Fall League coverage has tied me up all week, but I’m stuck around the house today waiting for a mechanic to finish $1500 in repairs to my car’s A/C, radiator, and catalytic converter assembly (the latter rather important with an emissions test looming), so here’s a mess of links I’ve collected over the last three weeks. Enjoy.

  • Monsanto and other major manufacturers of synthetic pesticides are spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat California’s Prop 37, which would require that genetically modified foods be labeled as such. Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Nestle are also listed on the Yes on Prop 37 site among companies that have spent at least $1 million to defeat this basic pro-consumer law, which doesn’t ban genetically modified foods, but merely enables consumers to make informed choices.
  • With the Orioles’ unlikely season ending yesterday, it’s a good time to revisit Wire creator David Simon’s podcast with Sports Illustrated‘s Richard Deitsch. Speaking of Simon, he also did an interview with Salon a few days before that podcast in which he revealed that HBO turned down a Wire spinoff that would have followed Tommy Carcetti’s career in a new series.
  • Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan wrote a great piece on former A’s prospect Grant Desme, who retired from baseball to join a seminary after a breakout Arizona Fall League performance in 2009. I didn’t see Desme as a potential star or even a solid regular, but that doesn’t make his story any less interesting.
  • What your beer says about your politics. More fun than meaningful, although I think in my specific case it’s pretty spot on.
  • Via mental_floss: Why does sex make men sleepy? Amazing how you can explain things with science.
  • Bill Shaikin of the LA Times did a wide-ranging Q&A with Bud Selig. I’m having a hard time seeing the distinction between the Dodgers’ and Padres’ situations that Selig tries to make.
  • I haven’t tried this recipe yet, but I did bookmark it because it sounds and looks so good: crackly banana bread, using whole wheat flour and whole-grain millet to add a crunchy texture.
  • Michael Ruhlman on the fallacy of “follow your passion” advice. He meanders a bit before getting to the crux of the post, but I enjoyed following his train of thought, and I certainly agree that passion and $2 will get you a cup of coffee.
  • I usually avoid straight politics here, but I’m linking to this David Leonhardt piece on ”Obamanomics” because I like the underlying story of how a poor evaluation at the start of a rebuild can negatively affect policies for several years afterwards and lead to further incorrect evaluations that support the first erroneous conclusion. It could just as easily apply to teams like Houston and Colorado at the beginning of long rebuilding processes, to teams like Pittsburgh and Baltimore that had unexpected successes this year based partly on individual performances that aren’t likely to recur.
  • Maybe self-esteem is the wrong buzzword for improving happiness – experimental social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson argues that self-compassion is the real key. I first came across her writing in this July piece on success that argues (I admit without much evidence in the article) that believing in your own ability to learn and improve is a key to increasing job performance and finding happiness in your work.

Folks, This Ain’t Normal.

I’m not a big fan of polemics in general, since, regardless of subject matter, they all tend to share two traits: They are poorly written and lightly evidenced. Joel Salatin’s Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World fits that description perfectly, with a complete lack of footnotes and scant detail even in anecdotes that should, in theory, help prove his points, and while Salatin is clearly a bright guy, he’s no writer, and whoever edited his book didn’t do him many favors. Yet despite those glaring flaws, and the clear bias with which he writes (one to which I’m sympathetic), there’s still a fair amount of value to be had from reading Folks… because of the questions his arguments on agriculture and our modern, unsustainable food supply will raise in your mind.

Joel Salatin is a self-described “environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer,” as well as a libertarian, a Christian, and to some degree a bit of a chauvinist, so 350 pages of his thoughts will inevitably contain something to aggravate any reader – a tactic, however, that can have the positive effect of causing readers to investigate Salatin’s claims further to try to debunk them. He runs an extensive, traditional farm in rural Virginia called Polyface, pasture-raising livestock; eschewing the use of pesticides, antibiotics, and genetically modified crops; and employing a holistic approach to land management that relies on natural processes and diets to maintain soil quality, limit water usage, and minimize his carbon footprint.

Salatin follows three main tracks, ignoring some of the extraneous rants in the book such as his thoughts on child-rearing, that are relevant to the consumer:

  1. He explains why industrially-produced food is inferior in quality, safety, and environmental impact to food from individual farmers practicing his style of agriculture.
  2. He blames government regulators, generally in cahoots with large-scale industrial food producers, for masking the true costs of industrially-produced food, making it less cost-effective for small-scale farmers to start and grow their businesses, and limiting those local farmers’ access to markets through suffocating regulations. He even saves some ire for the government’s relationship with Big Oil, since cheap fuel distorts the market for local food, to say nothing of cheap fertilizers.
  3. And he ends every chapter with advice to the consumer on how to improve his/her impact on the food supply, including many admonitions to grow as much of your own produce as you can, as well as to raise chickens in your backyard for their eggs*, feeding them kitchen scraps and using their manure for compost.

* One of our daughter’s best friends in kindergarten has chickens in her backyard, and her mom gave us a half-dozen of the eggs last week. I have never come across any egg with shells that strong, and it was the first time I’d ever seen a greenish egg, which apparently means the hen was an Araucana. The yolks were also very well-defined. If my daughter and I weren’t both so allergic to feathers, I’d set up a coop right away.

As I mentioned earlier, however, Folks, This Ain’t Normal ain’t a great read. He backs up virtually none of what he says unless he can discuss a specific experience at Polyface; at one point, he mentions a centrally-planned city in China that grew up practically overnight, with 250,000 people and gardens on nearly every rooftop, but never mentions one minor detail – the city’s name – without which the story is much tougher to verify. You may nod your head at first to his arguments about corrupt regulators, market externalities, nanny-state policies, or the hijacking of the term “organic,” but his arguments consistently lack evidence. I think most of what he says is right – our government is way too involved in the food supply, and our policies on food and oil have led to poor land usage, soil mismanagement, the inevitability of water crises, and substandard products at the grocery store* – but it would be tough for me to carry out any of these arguments myself based solely on his book.

*Another rant: Have you ever had a truly pasture-raised chicken? The chicken breasts are small, while the legs are larger, because the chickens are more active, building muscle in the thighs and drumsticks (well, what eventually become the drumsticks), while burning off the calories that, in a caged bird, would otherwise lead to larger breasts. (Stop snickering.) I happen to prefer dark poultry meat anyway, since it has more fat, leading to better texture and less dryness, but it’s also a lot more natural; industrally-raised birds’ organs can’t keep up with the muscle growth in the breasts, so they must be slaughtered earlier so they don’t die of organ failure. And, as it turns out, pasture-raised cows and chickens produce more healthful milk and eggs than feedlot or caged livestock does, just as compost-raised produce contains more nutrients than fertilizer-raised produce.

Folks, This Ain’t Normal at least encouraged me to continue what I’ve started in our yard, composting and growing regionally and seasonally appropriate crops, and to be smarter about what I buy and where I buy it. Salatin mentioned The Cornucopia Institute, which ranks organic dairies and organic egg producers on how true their claims of organic practices are. (In Arizona, the executive summary is: Organic Valley and Clover = good, Horizon and Shamrock = bad.) They’ve also led the fight on behalf of almond farmers who want to sell raw almonds to the public, winning a lawsuit allowing California almond farmers to challenge a USDA regulation that forbids the sale of almonds that haven’t been treated with a toxic fumigant or at very high heat, a regulation in response to a salmonella outbreak at one of the nation’s largest industrial nut producers. This kind of policy – where the sins of a large corporation lead to regulations with fixed costs that crush smaller producers – is exactly what Salatin targets when he rants about intrusive, anti-farmer regulations. I had never heard of the Cornucopia Institute before picking up his book, or many of the other books he mentions (such as Gene Logsdon’s memorably titled Holy Shit: Managing Manure To Save Mankind), so Salatin’s book did at least achieve one goal – forcing me to reexamine the food my family eats, from how it’s grown to where we get it. But had he researched and supported his book with more hard data or secondary sources, Folks, This Ain’t Normal might have become a classic in its narrow field.

Next up: As I mentioned on Twitter, I’m working my way through Raymond Carver’s short story collection Where I’m Calling From – and yes, I’m aware of the controversy over his editor’s role in changing some of the text.

Why I cook.

Returning to the subject of Michael Ruhlman, the passionate and blunt food writer behind Ratio, he posted a mini-essay on his blog last week titled “Why I Cook,” giving his reasons and urging his readers to do the same. (This comment from one of his readers is alone worth the click, although it’s quite sad.) Here, therefore, is my answer to the question of why I cook.

I cook, first and foremost, to eat. When I was in graduate school, my wife was working 40 hours a week as a preschool teacher, which, some of you probably know, is exhausting work. I, meanwhile, was done every day by 3 pm, sometimes sooner, and generally didn’t have much homework to do, so I thought it was the least I could do to take over the cooking duties. And, in hindsight, I was pretty bad at it. But we ate, and we ate cheaply. That still holds today, even though I can splurge on more expensive ingredients – although I now understand the value of those ingredients, and when and where it’s worth the splurge and which corners one can safely cut for home cooking.

My life has changed dramatically in the eleven years since I’ve graduated, as I now have a demanding job but a commensurate income and at least have the excuse to slack on cooking. I continue to do so because…

* I want the control over what goes into our bodies, especially since the first-person plural now includes my three-year-old daughter. I know what we’re eating, and I know that we’re limiting her intake of pesticides, high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, or needless quantities of salt. I know the bread we eat is 100% whole wheat, because I made it. I know the beef we eat was grass- or grain-fed, and that the sea bass I purchase (rarely) came from a sustainable fishery, because I bought it and cooked it myself.

* All three of us have to monitor our diets to limit our intake of one or more ingredients or nutrients. For me, it’s lactose, and a handful of other foods that my stomach doesn’t like. For my wife, it’s sugar and a few minor food allergies. For my daughter, it’s protein, so we’re raising her as a vegetarian, and are glad that she hasn’t quite made the bacon/pig connection yet. (I did suggest we name the stuffed-animal pig we bought her “Smokey,” but my wife called that “twisted.”)

* It lets me spend my calories where I want to. I’m not on a diet, nor am I a rabid calorie-counter, but I will put on weight if I completely ignore what I’m eating, something that happens to many people in my line of work because we’re on the road so much. When I cook, I can stick with lean meals and use those extra calories on dessert, or on a big mess of waffles and sausage on a Sunday morning.

* I can vote with my mouth. Organic food isn’t for everyone because it’s expensive, and while I wish organic farms could feed everyone today, we’re not there yet. I also know that the more that people like me who are not rabid environmentalists but care enough about food safety, the environment, and the rights of farmers and laborers in the food supply chain choose to buy organic or sustainable or fair-trade products, the more that that section of the industry can grow.

* You can’t beat the flavors of fresh food. I can buy and cook the same day, and if I time it right, I might get a locally-grown vegetable or fruit from ground to table in a day or two. We pick strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries every summer and I put them up in jams so that I can still get that unbeatable taste of summer in the middle of January. I grow herbs in my backyard because pesto Genovese is sweeter and more potent when you picked the basil 20 minutes before putting it in the food processor.

* And, most of all, I cook because I love it. There is something magical about taking ingredients, applying heat and a little know-how, and producing a dinner to feed your family. There’s a tremendous reward in bringing a dessert or a basket of bread to a party and seeing people enjoy the food you crafted with your hands – regardless of whether you ever receive a “thanks” or a “wow.” And, to me, food just tastes better when I earned it in the kitchen.

Any one or two of these reasons would be sufficient for me to continue cooking, but all of them together have made it a part of my routine that borders on obsession, to the point where I miss it after too many days on the road – the sight of bright-green basil or deep red roasted peppers, smell of onions caramelizing in the pan, the feel of bread dough that just needs a few seconds of kneading, the sound of meat hitting the surface of a hot pan, and the taste of all of the above.

Phoenix eats, 2009.

Before I get to the food, the BBC’s site had a somewhat scary article about a link between hot beverages and esophogeal cancer. Consuming beverages over 160 F – which would include black tea and drip coffee – was associated with higher incidence of that very nasty type of cancer. On the bright side, green tea should be brewed at 160, so it’ll be served around 150-155, and the milk in espresso-based drinks should only be heated to 160, meaning that it’s also consumed below that mark. Of course, almost any coffee place that serves green tea will serve it around 200 degrees, including Charbucks, so do what I do and ask the barista to throw an ice cube or two in there.

On to Phoenix eats.Havana Café is a local mini-chain of three restaurants, one on Bell near 64th in northern Phoenix. The food is Caribbean rather than just Cuban, with a lot of Puerto Rican dishes and, most importantly, maduros up the wazoo. The ingredients are clearly very high quality and the food aims for a somewhat “cleaner” look than typical Cuban joints. The pollo Cubano, a half chicken breast marinated in a lime-orange mojo and pan-seared, was bright and tangy, while the pollo ajillo had hints of garlic but probably wouldn’t give your neighborhood vampire more than a brief scare. Just about all entrees come with white rice, most come with black beans, and I think all come with maduros, which were spectacular. They also have a huge selection of tapas featuring foods from the same Caribbean islands as well as a few from Spain; their mofongo is good, as are the masas de puerco, but their tostones were coasters and their alcapurrías were very greasy. I recommend it for lunch, but not for dinner, when they charge fine-dining prices for what is more or less peasant food. It’s a solid 50.

A reader (sorry, I’m too lazy to see which of you it was) suggested the Cornish Pasty Company over by Arizona State, and it’s now a major Klaw recommendation. The concept is great – it’s a tiny place in a strip mall, dark and narrow … like the mines in which the Cornish men who ate the pasties their wives made would work. A Cornish pasty is a type of pocket pie, a flaky pie crust wrapped around a filling that usually contains meat and root vegetables. The Cornish pasty company offers a few dozen pasty varieties, but I went with the “Oggie,” with the classic Cornish pasty filling of beef, onions, and potatoes. The filling was rich and thick and peppery, and the meat was soft enough and cubed well enough that it didn’t require a knife, and the crust was flaky and buttery and perfectly browned. The pasty itself cost $6.50 (I think it’s the cheapest one on the menu) and I barely got past half of it. On a sample of two meals – plus a bit of a caramel apple dessert pasty – I’m giving it a 60.

Another reader suggestion, Los Olivos, was less successful. It’s somewhere between really authentic Mexican food and chain Tex-Mex food; the portions were generous but everything was overdone – oversalted, overflavored, and oversauced. My wife, usually less critical than I am, said that her food wasn’t bad so much as “a mess.”

One of our favorites from last year, Blu Burger, is still going and still serving amazing Wagyu (American Kobe) burgers, but their location in Scottsdale near Kierland closed on March 7th. They still have three other locations and are opening two more soon (according to our server) in Peoria and Chandler. We did hit the one in north Scottsdale twice, and everything was the same except for the fact that while they still offer sautéed mushrooms as a topping for $1 extra, they no longer offer raw mushrooms as a topping. When I pointed out the absurdity of this, the server told me that they cook all the mushrooms they get.

The Phoenix Ranch Market near Phoenix airport has a full-service restaurant, Tradiciones, that offers mostly different fare from the quick-service options available inside the market. (Speaking of which, the quick-service food is still excellent, but they seem to be slacking on trimming the carnitas before cooking; the last two times I went there I ended up having to remove large chunks of pork fat from my mouth. Pork fat is good for cooking, not so much for eating.) The best thing going at Tradiciones is the tortilla chips served before the meal – just made, not in the least greasy, and salted. The food itself was just average; I tried the pollo asado, which seems to be a signature dish of the restaurant and the market, and it was … roast chicken. Good roast chicken, but really, it was just roast chicken. The absence of carnitas or chili verde (the latter only in a burrito, I believe) on the menu was a disappointment. The food is better inside the market and much cheaper. Grade 50.

Brian from Laveen has been pushing Joe’s BBQ for years, and I finally had a reason to go out that far to try it. It was solid-average. The Q had good flavor – I went with pulled pork and brisket – but was kind of dry, which is odd since the place was busy. I often find dry Q is the result of low turnover, since Q is something you have to make in advance and try to keep warm until it’s ordered. BBQ beans were good, a little sweet but not too much so, and the corn was, well, corn. The homemade root beer is good but strong, almost spicy. It’s a fringe 50 for me.

Raul and Theresa’s in Goodyear is a little tough to find – you have to go past the stadium, behind the airport, and you might drive right past it as I did – but worth the trip. It’s straight-up Mexican food with the usual suspects on the menu, but the food is incredibly fresh. The guacamole was an easy 65 on the scale, maybe a 70, bright green, chunky, and tasting primarily of avocadoes, not of all the junk that usually gets layered into it. The rice that’s served with every dish was fresh, not too salty, with a good tooth. My entrée was chicken enchiladas with red sauce, obviously made to order, and probably about 10% more food than I really needed to eat. Again, the actual flavor of the chicken came through, enhanced by the red sauce, not drowned by it. Overall grade 60.

Butterfield’s was our one breakfast out, and it’s a zoo on Sundays, not helped by a server with two personalities (alternating between friendly and why-the-hell-are-you-bothering-me) and no ability to estimate wait times (he was off by 100%, and not in the good way). The food was mostly good – I had a waffle that was light with good crust and an almost cakelike flavor, and I tasted the pancakes, which were not heavy and had that same flavor, which I’m thinking was vanilla combined with butter. The chicken apple maple sausage wasn’t dry but also didn’t have much flavor beyond apple. My wife loved her whole wheat brioche French toast. The restaurant is a solid 50, but plays up because of the big menu.

Goldbar Espresso in Tempe seems to get rave reviews, and they talk a good game about the freshness of their coffee, but the espresso there is atrocious – they pull the most diluted shots I think I’ve ever had, with maybe twice the water that they should be using, so the result is something like what you’d get if you tried to make espresso using Maxwell House grounds. I sort of knew I was in trouble when I walked in and looked at the menu board and saw a caffe mocha as the first item; if a coffee place really prides itself on its coffee, shouldn’t espresso be the top listing? And they use Hershey’s syrup in their mochas, too. Hershey’s is to chocolate what McDonald’s is to beef and what Bud Light is to beer. Anyway, my wife went to Starbucks and I went a month without coffee.

I’ve mentioned Gelato Spot before, but having stopped there at least a half-dozen times last month I’m upping my grade to a 55. I had found in the past that they kept the gelato too cold, but they’ve fixed the problem, and their chocolate seems darker than it was in the past. The coconut gelato is still a favorite. I did try the chocolate caramel brownie flavor, but it was too sweet, and there’s something about their caramel that I don’t like, a sourness that shows up in the caramel gelato too.

Whole Foods’ troubles.

Two articles from the NY Times this month on Whole Foods. One, “Whole Foods Looks for a Fresh Image in Lean Times,” covers the chain’s troubles trying to expand beyond the right-tail portion of the pool of grocery shoppers. There’s an underlying implication that this is due to the stagnating economy this year, but really, this was inevitable. Nearly every high-end brand eventually tries to move downmarket because the high-end market isn’t large enough to sustain the growth rates the company and its shareholders want to see. Whole Foods has been slowly moving left on the income curve through two efforts: one, becoming more competitive on packaged goods that are also available in other chains (like Kashi products, including their TLC Crunchy granola bars, a staple scouting snack for me because they’re delicious and high in fiber); and two, educating more consumers on the benefits of natural and organic foods. The media has helped on the latter front – a case of left-wing media bias of which I actually approve – but Trader Joes, also rapidly expanding, is a serious thorn in Whole Foods’ side on the former front. Indeed, we split our shopping among several stores, and we buy a lot of staple packaged foods at Trader Joes, including olive oil, balsamic vinegar, organic sugar, nuts, dried fruits, jarred artichokes and roasted red peppers, vanilla extract, eating and baking chocolate, and even specialty items like pizza dough and Parmiggiano-Reggiano ($5/pound cheaper than Whole Foods).

The second article, of course, covers Whole Foods’ response to their recent recall of ground beef. I can say with certainty that I bought and consumed ground beef from Whole Foods within the recall time frame, and did not end up in the hospital or with a minor case of food poisoning; I do cook my burgers at least to medium, which helps. More importantly, however, I was unaware that Whole Foods sold any beef that wasn’t ground in the store. The one I frequent most often has little clocks up that indicate when each type of beef (85%, 90%, and 93%) was last ground. Why would I assume that they were buying ground beef made elsewhere? And, as the Times article points out, why on earth are they doing business with a processor with a history of safety issues? I switched all of my beef purchasing to Whole Foods years ago when I learned more about how cows are fed; Whole Foods “guarantees” that all its beef is made from cows fed vegetarian diets. Do I need to question that now as well?

Mercury in fish.

The New York Times ran a scare piece earlier this week about high mercury levels in bluefin tuna found in NYC restaurants, focusing on sushi joints. Mercury in seafood is a significant environmental issue, no doubt, but TIME has an interesting interview with Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health, who argues that the health benefits of eating the fish noted for higher levels of mercury outweigh the risk (to adults) of mercury exposure. He also says that varying the fish in your diet limits your risk of negative effects from mercury, and points out that the studies on cardiovascular damage from mercury have not produced consistent results. The best news: Eat all the salmon you want, as it’s high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury. That’s my favorite type of sushi, so I’ll place a double order the next time I’m out for raw fish.