December 22, 2010

Scrapin' Up the Bits... Important and Not So

This may be my last post of the year. I know all tens of my readers will be terribly disappointed. And it's a digest, but an excellent one, I assure you. It's broken down into two categories. The first is...

Things that really matter

The first being, the food safety bill, which, somehow -- despite the fact that it does not involve giving very rich people more ways to pay less taxes and over the objection of some members of the sustainable/small farming community who, IMO, saw evil where there was none... well, at least not that much -- has passed both chambers of Congress and is headed to President Obama's desk.

Next, when people say money is the single-most corrupting influence in politics, this is what they're talking about:

the incoming Agriculture Commissioner [former congressman Rep. Adam Putnam] has been the benefactor of a significant amount of money from both the sugar and dairy lobby during the campaign – both of whom have a strong financial interest in keeping sugary drinks in schools. Despite Florida’s $500 contribution limit for both individuals and PACs, Putnam received at least $61,000 in campaign funds from sugar and dairy interests, including maxed-out contributions from Coca Cola’s lobbyist in Tallahassee Brian Ballard and a slew of maxed out contributions from the Sugar Barons of South Florida, the Fanjul family.

And what does the incoming Ag Commish think about efforts to ban soda in schools?

This is a topic your Board has discussed recently for possible policy recommendations. However, instead of looking at the entire nutrition intake of students, you have chosen to focus only on the nutrition content in beverages served in Florida schools. It is my belief that any nutrition improvement plan needs to be certain that students are receiving the best possible nutrition package, in concert with total wellness initiatives, to allow them to reach their optimum achievement potential. [...]

Of course, there is nothing to say that passing a soda ban now will stop Florida schools from developing a more comprehensive nutrition plan. But I doubt Rep. Putnam's benefactors would support that approach.

Also, if you take fish oil capsules and you care at all about the sustainability of the fish in the ocean, you  might want to think twice...

And, finally from the 'stuff that matters' file, Michael Pollan -- without whose writing a food safety bill would likely not have happened, IMO -- gets a bit of smackdown for tweeting about an essay somebody else wrote on the role of genetics (or lack thereof) in health and disease. It's a long story, and a somewhat complex one, so this is something to which  you have to devote some time.

Matters of Little Consequence

From the essential news of food safety and genetics to the trivial -- at least in these difficult times -- those of taste.

Beginning with:

Had lunch at Brgr in East Liberty yesterday (a break on a day off to take care of last-minute holiday preparation tasks). I got the kobe beef burger, wife got the "fire in the hole" burger.

Mine had arugula, pickled onions, blue cheese. Cooked to a perfect medium rare, tender, fatty without being too greasy, full of flavor. A great burger. Wife's had jalapenos, guac, pepperjack cheese, chipotle mayo. Pretty much a ditto of mine, but with more kick, perhaps a little less beefy flavor because of the toppings and that it was not kobe beef. Still a really good burger.

Didn't get one of the spiked shakes. Next time. Only nitpick: the fries. They were good. Nothing to write home about. IMO, one element that can always elevate an excellent burger experience are fries that go above and beyond what can be had elsewhere. Of course, I still ate a ton of them. They're fries, after all.

And, finally, the centerpiece of the food we'll be serving on Christmas eve will be (drum roll............) mini meatball banh mi and pistachio and mozzarella stuffed arancini. Never made the latter before (and only made full-size of the former), so wish me luck.

December 17, 2010

Hunters Are Awesome

This is just really, really cool.

Deer hunters in Pennsylvania are expected to donate about 100,000 pounds of venison to help meet the surging demand from the state's food banks.

Hunters will shoot about 300,000 deer during the two-week hunting season that began on November 29. Some of their haul will be given to Hunters Sharing the Harvest, a program run by the state's agriculture department.

Much of this meat -- high in protein, low in saturated fat -- will be ground for use in hamburgers in chili. And this year, more than ever, such donations are really needed.

Donations from major food manufacturers are the bank's main source of food, but the increased demand in recent years has forced it to buy more supplies at a cost of about $1.5 million this year, Hanna explained.

The state's estimated 750,000 first-day hunters can donate their deer to any of the 125 participating butchers. The state pays the butchers 85 cents per pound of venison processed.
 Some people could learn a thing or two from this.

December 15, 2010

Hunger in America? Bah-Humbug

Returning once again to politics and policy. This time: hunger in America. It's a serious concern and a growing problem, including in our own area:

Almost 100,000 more Pennsylvania households were receiving supplemental nutrition assistance, or food stamps, this October than last October, from 698,678 to 795,554, said Michael Race, spokesman for the state Department of Public Welfare.

In Allegheny County, the jump from last to this October was 17,000, for a total of 153,681.

Ken Regal, co-director of Just Harvest, a nonprofit that helps people enroll and tracks countywide numbers, said food stamp recipients in the county totaled 100,000 six years ago.

Based on comments from people seeking help to receive food stamps, he said, increasing numbers are new at being needy. Agencies that distribute food also saw demand jump this year with a marked increase in first-timers.

But, one conservative a@#hole asks, in looking at the most recent report from the USDA on food security in the United States, are these people really hungry?

The remaining one-third of food-insecure households, with 17.6 million people, experienced "very low food security" in 2009. According to the USDA, "very low food security" means that, at least once during the year, some members of the household reduced their intake because of a lack of funds to purchase food. Most of these households temporarily cut back the sizes of their meals. At the extreme, about 1.7 percent of all adults in the U.S. went at least one entire day without eating because of a lack of funds for food.

Fortunately, children are generally shielded from food cutbacks and food insecurity. Only one child in 75 went "hungry" for even a single day during 2009 because of a lack of food in the home. And only one child in 100 missed even a single meal during the entire year because of food shortfalls in the home.

I particularly like the quotes around "hungry" in that paragraph above. I mean, I guess it's not really that big a deal that some poor child didn't get dinner because his family has no money. I mean, that's life in the current incarnation of America: A@#holes like Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation will argue 'til Ronald Reagan emerges from the grave that rich people should have their taxes cut -- despite no evidence that it does diddly to create jobs or improve the economy, while at the same time only further growing the deficit -- but expanding school lunch programs to more kids, which does have a price tag, but only a small portion of the price of those tax cuts -- well, that's just downright socialism. Or, as he concludes later, just an excuse to expand the welfare state. Ah, such insightful commentary.

Then we have another rich white person, the generally loathsome Kate O'Beirne, who simply cannot understand that a parent isn't able to give his or her kids a decent breakfast. How can this be?

And if we’re going to ask more of ourselves, my question is what poor excuse for a parent can’t rustle up a bowl of cereal and a banana? I just don’t get why millions of school children qualify for school breakfasts unless we have a major wide spread problem with child neglect.

Yup. Many of these parents whose kids need a meal at school, they're purposefully making their kids hungry. Heck, I betcha they enjoy not being able to give their kids a decent meal.

Are there parents who game the system? Undoubtedly. Of course, that's just wrong. But those Wall Street bankers who did it, and in so doing nearly brought down the entire financial system, well, their just being overrun by excessive government regulation and being unfairly characterized as evil when they're just trying to make an excessive living doing nothing but gambling like a Texas Hold 'Em junkie on a last-ditch binge in Vegas.

I can think of some things other than coal I'd like to put in Ms. O' Beirne and Mr. Rector's stockings this year.

Oh, and donate to the food bank. They really need your help, this year more than ever.

December 8, 2010

Time to Participate in the Political Process

As odious as it can be -- and it gets worse every day -- some times you have to participate in the political process, beyond just voting.

This is one of those times.

The details are below, via the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. The action item: calling your elected officials.

Alert from NSAC:
Action Alert
December 8, 2010
Local and Regional Food at Risk
Call Your Representative

Food Safety Legislation passed by the Senate and to be considered by the House as early as this week is in trouble.  Big Ag is out in force, lobbying House members to ditch provisions that are friendly to small and midsize farms.  They know that if they can impose expensive and one-size-fits-all food safety rules, they can stop the growing local food movement in its tracks.  Lawmakers are dealing with significant misinformation and confusion and our hard won amendments may be lost.  We must send a loud and clear message about where we stand. 

Call Your Representative Today!

Urge them to pass the Senate Bill with the Tester-Hagen Amendment Intact

It's easy to call:  Go to and type in your zip code.  Click on your Representative's name, and then on the contact tab for their phone number.  You can also call the Capitol Switchboard and ask to be directly connected to your Representative's office: 202-224-3121. 

The message is simple:   "I am a constituent of Representative ___________ and I am calling to ask him/her to pass the Senate version of the Food Safety Modernization Act (S.510) with the Tester-Hagen Amendment intact.  We need a food safety bill that cracks down on corporate bad actors without erecting new barriers to more local and regional food sourcing. Regulation that is scaled appropriately for small and mid-sized farms and processors is vital to economic recovery, public health, and nutritional wellbeing."


Read our latest report:  A Sustainable Agriculture Perspective on Food Safety.

What's in the Tester-Hagen Amendment?
(1)  The amendment clarifies existing law which says that farmers who direct market more than 50% of their product to the consumer at the farm or at a retail location off the farm such as a farm stand or farmer's market need not register with FDA.  This clarification is especially important for off-farm retail locations such as farmers markets.

(2)  It provides a size appropriate and less costly alternative to Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Plans (HACCP) for farmers who:

Direct market more than 50% of their products directly to consumers, stores or restaurants, and

Have gross sales (direct and non-direct combined) of less than $500,000, and

Sell to consumers, stores, or restaurants that are in-state or within 275 miles.  

Farmers who qualify must provide documentation that the farm is in compliance with state regulations. Documentation may include licenses, inspection reports, or other evidence that the farm is in compliance with State, local, county, or other applicable non-Federal food safety law.  The farm must also prominently and conspicuously display the name and address of farm/facility on its label.  For foods without a label then by poster, sign, or placard, at the point of purchase or, in the case of Internet sales, in an electronic notice, or in the case of sales to stores and restaurants, on the invoice.

If there are no state regulations or if the farmer prefers a different option, the farmer must provide FDA with documentation that potential hazards have been identified and that preventive controls have been implemented and are being monitored for effectiveness.  

(3)  It provides alternatives to the produce standards for farms that:

Direct market more than 50% of their products directly to consumers, stores or restaurants, and

Have gross sales (direct and non-direct combined) of less than $500,000, and

Sell to consumers, stores, or restaurants that are in-state or within 275 miles.  

The farm must prominently and conspicuously display the name and address of farm/facility on its label.  For foods without a label then by poster, sign, or placard, at the point of purchase or, in the case of Internet sales, in an electronic notice, or in the case of sales to stores and restaurants, on the invoice.

Also in the Senate Bill:

(1) An amendment sponsored by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) to provide for a USDA-delivered competitive grants program for food safety training for farmers, small processors and wholesalers.  The training projects will prioritize small and mid-scale farms, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, and small food processors and wholesalers.  The grant program will be administered by USDA's National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

(2) An amendment sponsored by Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) to reduce unnecessary paperwork and excess regulation required under the preventative control plan and the produce standards sections of the bill.  FDA is instructed to provide flexibility for small processors including on-farm processing, to minimize the burden of compliance with regulations, and to minimize the number of different standards that apply to separate foods.  FDA will also be prohibited from requiring farms and other food facilities to hire consultants to write food safety plans.   The Bennet amendment applies to all small farms and processors, not just those who direct market within 400 miles of their farms.

(3) An amendment sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for farms that engage in value-added processing or that co-mingle product from several farms  gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to either exempt farms engaged in low or no risk processing or co-mingling activities from new regulatory requirements or to modify particular regulatory requirements for such farming operations.

(4) An amendment championed by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to strip the bill of wildlife-threatening enforcement against "animal encroachment" of farms is also in the manager's package.  It will require FDA to apply sound science to any requirements that might impact wildlife and wildlife habitat on farms.

(5) An amendment proposed by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) will not require small farmers to meet extensive traceability and recordkeeping  if they sell food directly to consumers or to grocery stores and allows labeling that preserves the identity of the farm to satisfy traceability requirements.    The amendment also prevents FDA from requiring any farm from needing to keep records beyond the first point of sale when the product leaves the farm, except in the case of farms that co-mingle product from multiple farms, in which case they must also keep records one step back as well as one step forward.

December 7, 2010

Quick, First-Bite Review: Salt of the Earth

The long-awaited and much-hyped Salt of the Earth -- well, long-awaited and much-hyped in certain circles of food-obsessed freaks like myself -- opened several months back. Since its opening, Salt has received some exceedingly glowing reviews from the official food media, and on the various nonofficial outlets, it's also been described (mostly) with adjectives that suggest the people really liked it.

Salt of the Earth on Urbanspoon

I (joined by my wife and several other friends) finally managed to make it there on Saturday. And I have to say that it lived up to its billing. Everything I had, from the cocktails to the food, was excellent. I won't go into too much detail, but it included:

Drinks: My vodka cocktail (Boyd & Blair), and the sip or two of my friend's gin cocktail (Bluecoat) were really good, but I think the gin was better. Then there was the beer "cocktail," which blew away me and the two others in our group who also got it. Never has a chocolate stout been used in such genius fashion

Appetizers: Octopus (me) and salt cod (wife), both of which were delicious, the perfect size, and perfectly prepared. The octopus was ridiculously tender. Man was I glad it was still on the  menu.

Entrees: Duck breast (me) and pork loin (wife), broken record territory, but prepared perfectly, great flavors and textures, and perfect portion sizes.

Dessert: Only two options to choose from, and only one that is sweet, so went with the sweet: little squares of chocolate pudding, a scoop of coconut ice cream topped with some type of foam, a few roasted hazelnuts and this goji berry glaze smeared on the plate. Hit all the right notes. The chocolate and coconut really like each other. A great way to end the meal.

The space is very cool. The massive chalkboard wall with the menu is almost daunting, if not kind of hard to read, depending on your angle. I suspect I could sit at the bar along the open kitchen for 3-4 hours and not get bored in the least, particularly if I had a few of those beer cocktails.

Our group was large enough that we sat at one of the big reservation-only tables upstairs, which are isolated just enough for the group to be able to talk without feeling like we'd been banished to another place entirely.

The service was warm and the food came out at just the right clip.

Overall, a great experience, and I hope to make it back in the not-so-distant future. Well done, Salt of the Earth.