Stick to baseball, 11/11/17.

I have a new boardgame review at Paste, covering the card-drafting game Skyward. I also had two Insider posts go up earlier this week, one previewing some potential offseason trade targets, the other ranking the top 50 free agents this winter. And I held a Klawchat on Thursday.

Feel free to sign up for my free email newsletter, which I send out … I guess whenever I feel like it. I aim for once a week, although I’ve gone as long as two weeks between issues when I haven’t had much to say. You can see past issues at that link.

Also, don’t forget to buy copies of Smart Baseball for everyone on your Christmas list! Except for infants. They might eat the pages. Get them the audiobook instead.

And now, the links…

Pig Tales.

Barry Estabrook’s Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat didn’t make me a vegetarian or cause me to stop eating pork, but it has certainly reinforced a lot of things I was already doing to try to avoid contributing to our food-industrial complex. Estabrook exposes some of the worst practices in the pork industry, including inhumane treatment of pigs, widespread doping of animals with antibiotics, and terrible pollution that ruins surrounding neighborhoods. Estabrook’s point is that animal husbandry doesn’t have to be that way, but he doesn’t quite get around to saying that this would involve Americans accepting that meat shouldn’t be cheap.

Pig Tales is structured in a predictable way: here’s the setup, here are all the bad practices (some awful, some merely objectionable), here’s the cost of the modern meat-production complex, here are a few folks doing it the right way. It’s certainly effective, and Estabrook is a skilled storyteller. You can’t read about the horrible conditions in which factory-farmed pigs are raised – in cages where they can barely move, sitting in their own excretions, covered in sores – without at least wondering if there’s a better way (unless you’re a sociopath, I guess). I thought his descriptions of local efforts to combat pork-factory pollution were even more compelling because they illuminated a side of the industry that’s much less well-known; raising pigs indoors is a dirty job, and produces a lot of waste that pollutes local air, water, and soil, with much of it dumped into artificial “lagoons” that overflow when there’s a substantial rain. Estabrook talks to local activists and groups fighting the pernicious aspects of pork production – labor abuses and environmental degradation – and uncovers how certain states, notably North Carolina and Iowa, have bent over backwards to favor corporate agriculture over the rights of residents to things like clean air and water or safe housing. (North Carolina especially seems to have debased itself for Big Pig, hardly a surprise given how badly gerrymandered their state is.)

Estabrook also describes the breakdown in our food inspection system, largely because it has fallen too far under the sway of the industrial food producers themselves. He highlights the story of one USDA inspector who was reassigned to a job farther from his house, ostensibly to get him to quit, because the factory owners didn’t like that he was doing his job. Pig Tales was published in 2015, six-plus years into a Democratic administration that, in theory and practice, was more open to regulations than the previous one, and I can only imagine that this is going to get worse given the Trump admin’s war on science within the executive branch. The USDA is a long-running disaster anyway, pushing “nutrition standards” that rely as much on industry input as on actual science (to say nothing of the uncertainty around the science of nutrition), but the fact that it’s understaffed for the mission of ensuring the safety of our food supply only exacerbates the problem. That’s one agency I’d like to see scrapped and rebuilt from scratch, with a focus on food safety. Estabrook only gets at one of the agency’s problems, but he refers heavily to this 2013 report on swine slaughter plants that found widespread, egregious violations of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act … with no real consequences for the manufacturers.

Pig Tales isn’t all bad news for pork eaters, however, as Estabrook visits multiple farmers who are doing something right – many who’ve eschewed antibiotic use, others who don’t use cages or only use them right around birthing, and still more who raise smaller herds as part of an integrated agricultural setup. His stories all give some threads of hope, but I think Estabrook should have emphasized the “cheap meat” problem more: Americans expect meat to be inexpensive, because it has been so for so many years now, but the retail price of factory-farmed meat does not accurately reflect the negative externalities that arise from its production. He hints at the subject, but I could have used a concluding chapter here that pointed out what I think is obvious: If pork producers were regulated correctly, meaning that they adhere to food-safety standards and pay for damage they cause to their environments, pork would become more expensive because no one would be able to produce it cheaply enough to turn a profit at current commodity prices. And I’m not sure anyone is ready for a world where some consumers are priced out of some or all types of red meat. That’s a legal and ethical concern that Estabrook doesn’t broach.

The author makes it very clear that he believes there is such a thing as sustainable, ethically-raised, environmentally responsible pork production, and he’s probably right – but it won’t be available to everybody. Raising meat that doesn’t damage the environment, put us at risk of foodborne illnesses, accelerate antibiotic resistance, or mistreat the animals is expensive. It takes a lot of land, as with responsible beef production (although the economics of sustainable beef are worse), and more labor per animal. I don’t think I learned anything from Pig Tales that I didn’t already know about pork, but I did learn about how state and local governments have abdicated their responsibilities to protect their citizens, and that has only further driven me to consume less meat and, when I do consume it, to try to ensure it comes from responsible farmers. Perhaps if more consumers make those choices, the market will shift even in the absence of government regulation – but if meat is suddenly a luxury good, is it really sustainable at all?

Next up: My reviews are a few books behind, but I’ve finished Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night and Grazia Deledda’s After the Divorce (just $2 on Kindle) and moved on to Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins.

Stick to baseball, 5/27/17.

My one Insider piece this week was on Luis Robert, his deal with the White Sox, and the poor history of Cuban position player free agents. I did not hold a Klawchat, and will have another mock draft up on Tuesday.

Smart Baseball continues to sell well and I am very grateful to all of you who purchased it. I have about 100 signed bookplates that I can send out to readers who’ve bought the book, and I’ll get that info to everyone soon – probably in my next email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Grocery.

If you’re here, you almost certainly know I’m a fan of Michael Ruhlman’s work, whether it’s his narrative non-fiction books like The Making of a Chef or his indispensable cookbooks like Ruhlman’s Twenty, Ratio, or Egg. He’s also become a potent voice in the drive to get American consumers, who know more about food than ever before but seem to cook it less for themselves, to reconnect with the sources of their food for the good of our health and our planet. He brings those concerns to his non-fiction work for the first time in his newest book, Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America, a work that simultaneously a paean to the American grocery store and a lament over the importance that processed foods play in our diet (and, perhaps, many of our first-world health problems).

Ruhlman does this by revisiting a regional grocery chain from his youth, Heinen’s, which has survived as an independent business when national chains have been snapped up by multinationals. Heinen’s is still run by the grandchildren of its founder, but they take a progressive view of the business and have shown agility larger chains haven’t by being quick to offer organic produce, prepared foods, and craft beers to consumers. The overarching structure of Grocery begins with a brief history of the grocery store – I remember A&P, but had no idea it was once the biggest company in the world – an then takes us department by department, explaining not just what’s in them but how the food (or not-food) gets to the store and how the markets profit off them.

Heinen’s early forays into non-traditional areas for grocers mirrors the industry’s movement as a whole, sometimes foreshadowing changes (like prepared foods, which accounts for between 4 and 8 percent of sales for each Heinen’s store) elsewhere, sometimes lagging, as with organics. Ruhlman specifically cites the changes wrought by Whole Foods, which, depending on your point of view, either found unserved demand for organic items and higher-quality ingredients or created that demand by offering the goods and marketing themselves well; and Wal-mart, which became the country’s main food retailer the day they sold their first box of Cheerios. The industry-wide shifts have allowed medium-sized chains to add value by offering specialty products, like the Lava Lakes lamb Heinen’s offers (with Ruhlman enduring an interesting adventure on the sheep farm to tell us about it) or some artisanal cheeses from makers who could never service a large national account.

Ruhlman’s always at his best when he’s writing first-person accounts, and that’s true even here, as he spends days with various Heinen’s executives and suppliers, as well as going shopping with one of his personal doctors, Dr. Sukol, who has very strong opinions on what is and is not food. That particular chapter is one of several that points out just how much sugar is in processed foods – more on that phrase in a moment – and how eating these “not food” products, in Dr. Sukol’s eyes, may be compromising our health. She says something that has become a sort of mantra for Ruhlman – that food is not “healthy;” we are “healthy,” and food can be nutritious or it can be harmful to our health (or, I’d add, sometimes both). Some of her opinions are based in sound science and others on working hypotheses (e.g., that glyphosate residues harm our intestinal microbiomes, because that chemical targets the shikimate pathway found in microbial metabolism but not in humans). She buys organic to avoid glyphosate and antibiotics, but doesn’t believe GM foods are harmful in and of themselves. She also says something is not food if you look at the ingredients and couldn’t buy them all individually in a grocery store; by that definition, to pick one example, almond milk is not food, even though the unsweetened version is nutritious and is a godsend to people who can’t drink milk.

Heinen’s also employs a full-time doctor to oversee its “wellness” section, and in my view this is where the author could have cast a more skeptical eye, because this “Dr. Todd” sells a lot of bullshit. He’s light on the science, throwing appeals to nature at Ruhlman in between advocacy of useless supplements like turmeric (the tricky chemistry of which means it does nothing useful in the body despite positive results in the test tube). Heinen’s, like all grocery stores – including Whole Foods – makes millions off selling bottled panaceas, nearly all of which do nothing and get by the consumer with vague promises of “promoting” health but no scientific evidence that they do anything at all. Ruhlman does indeed mention their uselessness and his own skepticism of a supplement-based diet, but I would probably have been thrown out of Heinen’s for pointing out all of the woo that Dr. Todd was spinning.

I enjoy when Ruhlman lets a little snark penetrate his thoughtful tone, like when he was behind a shopper at the grocery store who was buying fat-free “half and half,” a product that, ontologically speaking, cannot exist. It’s okay to disdain such abominable food choices – but Ruhlman emphasizes that corporate marketing has contributed to consumer confusion over what’s good for us and even what certain products might contain. (The entire discussion reminded me of bread vendors who made high-fiber breads by adding wood pulp, which almost certainly wasn’t what consumers thought they were consuming.) And the media have contributed to this by jumping on single studies that appear to identify single culprits for all our food-related health woes, first fat, then cholesterol (poor eggs), then salt, and now – although this one may have some legs – sugar, which appears in products under a variety of pseudonyms, including evaporated cane juice, dextrose, maltodextrin, brown rice syrup, or tapioca syrup. They’re all sugar, and by separating them out in the ingredients, manufacturers can avoid telling you that the #1 component of a product is sugar.

Grocery tends to stick to the very common and widely accepted distinction of processed foods, what Ruhlman describes as being in the center of the store, and the other foods, like meat, dairy, and produce, that are found around the store’s perimeter. (If you’ve heard the advice to shop the edges of the grocery store, those are the departments where you’ll spend your cash.) And I may be overly pedantic on this, but almost everything we eat is processed somehow. Take yogurt: First, it’s processed by bacteria, fermenting milk into yogurt. And second, it’s further processed by man, at least to put it in plastic, but often to add sweeteners, fruits, sometimes gels or gums, and other ingredients. (True Greek yogurt is strained of whey and lacks additional thickeners, but many brands sell “Greek” yogurt that is thickened with pectin or other agents.) The meat you buy at the butcher counter is processed too – a process Ruhlman details, explaining how more of the butchering is done at central locations today rather than in-store as it was a few decades ago. Very little of what we eat is truly “unprocessed.” And there are processed foods in the middle of the store that are quite nutritious – oats, nuts, seeds, whole grains, alternative milks (if unsweetened), maybe even dark chocolate. So don’t tell people to avoid “processed foods,” but tell them, as this book encourages, to read the labels and try to understand what you’re buying.

If everyone in America read Grocery, it would cause a cataclysmic shift in our food system. There would still be a market for Oreos and Frosted Flakes, for fast food and donuts and bad coffee, but the book points out how consumer demand can reshape the food production chain, and how retailers can reshape neighborhoods in turn by bringing better food choices to “food deserts,” underserved populations without easy access to quality food. It’s a potent call to action, as well-written as you’d expect from the author of Soul of a Chef, that should change your approach to feeding yourself and your family.

Stick to baseball, 4/8/17.

I had one Insider post this week, on the most prospect-packed minor league rosters to open the season. I have already filed a draft blog post on last night’s outing by Hunter Greene, with additional notes on a half-dozen other draft prospects, including Brendan McKay and Austin Beck. (EDIT: It’s up now.) I held my regular Klawchat on Thursday.

I resumed boardgame reviews for Paste this week with a look at the reissue of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, specifically the Jack the Ripper & West End Cases set, but found it more like a solitaire puzzle than a cooperative game.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. The book now has two positive reviews out, one from Kirkus Reviews and one from Publishers Weekly.

Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 3/26/17.

My annual column of breakout player picks went up on Thursday for Insiders, and I held a Klawchat that same day. I had one other Insider post since the last roundup, on four prospects I saw in Arizona, one Cub, one Royal, and two Padres.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. The book now has two positive reviews out, one from Kirkus Reviews and one from Publishers Weekly.

Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 2/18/17.

For Insiders, I ranked the top prospects for 2017 impact, although we later removed Alex Reyes from the list now that he’s out for the year. I held my regular Klawchat on Thursday.

On the boardgame front, I reviewed the light family-friendly game Imhotep for Paste this week; it was one of the runners-up for the Spiel des Jahres last year, losing to Isle of Skye. Last week, over at Vulture, I wrote about some of the best games for couples.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 12/24/16.

For Insiders this week, I wrote up Cleveland’s deal with Edwin Encarnacion and the Clay Buchholz trade, as well as a piece last Saturday on some potential problems in the new CBA. I also held my regular Klawchat on Thursday.

My first-ever piece for Vulture ran this week, a holiday gift guide to boardgames for gamers at various levels (including newbies to the hobby).

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 12/3/16.

I had a couple of Insider pieces this week, on the trade of Jaime Garcia to Atlanta, the Cespedes contract, the trade of Alex Jackson to Atlanta, and my proposal for an international draft (written before the CBA negotiations ended). I also held a Klawchat on Thursday.

My latest boardgame review for Paste covers Grifters, a “deckbuilder without a deck” that I thought played a little too mechanically.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 10/8/16.

I wrote short preview pieces for all four Division Series:
Red Sox/Cleveland
Blue Jays/Rangers
Dodgers/Nationals
Cubs/Giants

My predictions are all terrible. But I did hold a Klawchat on Thursday.

My latest boardgame review for Paste covers the game Aquarium, which I found unbalanced and rather spiteful.

You can also preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…