On the documentary, Fed Up, and giving up sugar

Last week Erik and I and our friends John and Kendra went to see Fed Up, the new documentary about America’s messed up industrial food system.

Now, Root Simple readers know that the system is bad already. This is why we like to cook at home and grow some of our food when we can.  It’s good news that this film, with its celebrity backing and a publicity machine, may get the message out to people who need to hear it. But is there anything worthwhile in it for someone already trying to disconnect from the evils of the industrial food system?

Well, the message about sugar was news to me. Not that I ever thought that sugar was a health food, but this film lays out how very hard it is on our systems, how sugar, not fat, not lack of exercise, is behind rising obesity rates as well as the rise in type 2 diabetes and a host of related diseases–and most worrisome–how sugar is hidden in almost every prepared and packaged food on grocery store shelves, especially those marketed as healthy, low fat products.

They also describe sugar as an addictive substance, pointing out that given a choice, lab rats choose sugar over cocaine.

Call me a rat and give me a wheel. I’ve been off all sugar for 6 days now, and while the first couple of days were easy, the last few have been surprisingly hard. I’m twitchy and moody.

This surprises me, because I didn’t think I was that much of a sugar fiend to begin with. I don’t drink soda. Erik and I don’t keep cookies and ice cream around the house, and we don’t have dessert after dinner. Nor do we eat prepared foods loaded with hidden sugar. We don’t even drink fruit juice.* My sugar intake comes from just a few sources: a) almond croissants from the corner bakery (oh, how I want one right now!), 2) jam on toast, 3) squares of dark chocolate or the occasional salty caramel, 4) dried fruit* and 5) kettle corn.

Is that so bad? I miss it all. I want it back. Now.

And honestly, it’s not so bad. I’m doing this because lately I’ve felt a little out of control, as if I’m seeking sugar more often and more consistently, and eating more of it in a sitting. This fast has been a useful exercise in clarifying my relationship with sugar.

Anyway, as far as Fed Up goes, what it proved to me is what I already know: that you can’t trust the government to protect you from corporate interests, and that corporate interests are not our interests, and that if we want things done right, we have to do it ourselves. No new news, right?

And when I say we have to go DIY, I don’t only mean actions within our own homes, I also mean agitating for change from the grass roots level, whether that be fighting to get junk food out of your local school, to supporting bans on advertising sugar to children, to encouraging local farmers and farmers’ markets, because change is sure as heck not going to come from the top down.

Regarding sugar, Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist at UCSF and one of the primary talking heads from Fed Up has a long, science-filled lecture explaining exactly why sugar is so bad on YouTube. It’s called Sugar: The Bitter Truth. If you don’t need convincing about the food system as a whole, this may be more useful to you than Fed Up.

I’ll end the sugar fast in a few days. The American Heart Association recommends that adults limit their intake of sugar to between 6 teaspoons (for women) and 9 teaspoons (for men) a day. That sounds pretty sensible, and I’ll try to keep to that, or less, after the fast. But when you realize a 12 oz. can of Coke has 10 teaspoons of sugar, you know most of us get far more than that on a daily basis.

*Fruit, fruit juice and dried fruit:  This is a little confusing so I thought I’d add a note. According to Lustig, fruit juice is pure sugar, and is no different to your liver than a soda. He’s all for us eating fresh fruit because a whole piece of fresh fruit comes with fiber, and fiber slows the passage of the sugars through the system, and has its own benefits besides. Also, folks don’t tend to binge on fruit, because it’s filling, so it’s a safe treat. Dried fruit has the fiber, but it’s far too easy to eat a lot of it. I might eat one apricot in a sitting, but given a jar of dried apricots, I’ll eat six without blinking. That’s a lot of sugar! Lustig recommends dried fruit as an occasional treat.

Josey Baker Bread: One Bread Book to Rule Them All

61m00cISatL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

I’ve been teaching bread baking for a few years now through both the Institute of Domestic Technology and the Los Angeles Bread Bakers. When students ask what book they should get I have to hold up half a dozen. Not any more. Now I can send students to just one book: Josey Baker Bread.

The appropriately named Josey Baker (who used to work with another baker named Dave Miller–who mills his own flour, naturally) has written a perfect bread baking course in book form. Everything I’ve figured out about teaching how to bake is in here–start with a simple white bread, graduate to sourdough and then start baking with whole grain. Having trouble shaping a loaf? Bake in a loaf pan instead! Stretch and fold instead of kneading. Simulate a commercial bread oven by using a cast iron pot. And use a damn scale! There’s even the browned butter chocolate chip cookie trick I learned from a friend who owns a restaurant. Has Josey Baker wiretapped my phone?

The book is written in an amusing and breezy bro-speak. Here he is truth telling in the introduction to his scone recipe,

Most scones suck. Why do they suck? Because they’re dry as hell. Don’t act like you do’t know what I’m talking about! When was the last time you had a scone and didn’t say, “I don’t know, this is just a little dry for me.” Or maybe you haven’t even had a scone in a long time, because the last one you ate was so crappy. . . Are they healthy? No, they are not. But what the hell, exercise feels good, so eat as many as you want and then go ride your bike, baker.

darmmountainrye

My successful attempt at the Dark Mountain Rye recipe.

Speaking of healthy, I’ve been concentrating on the recipes in the sourdough-based whole grain section of the book. Like Baker, I believe that a lot of people self-diagnosing themselves as gluten intolerant might just be allergic to mass produced supermarket bread. Baker’s Dark Mountain Rye is an example of how whole grain bread should be made and it’s and easy to bake.

In addition to the conventional breads Baker covers, there’s an interesting method of baking pizza in a home oven, a gluten free loaf that I’m going to try and some simple pastries. I also like the flexibility Baker builds into the recipes. Many can either be baked in a loaf pan or shaped into a boule. And there’s always the option to retard the dough in the refrigerator to give more depth of flavor as well as flexibility in when to fire up the oven.

Josey Baker Bread will appeal to both beginners and experienced bakers. Finally the collective wisdom from the recent bread revolution is in one book. If you want healthy, good tasting bread in your household Josey Baker Bread is a great place to start.

Farmstead Egg Guide & Cookbook Giveaway

9781118627952

You probably know Terry Golson from her addictive website hencam.com. We were lucky to meet Terry when she was on a book tour here in Los Angeles a few years ago. She’s got a new cookbook out, The Farmstead Egg Guide & CookbookThe book begins with a purchasing guide to eggs followed by a brief introduction to what’s involved in keeping chickens. Recipes–everything from omelettes to deserts–make up the majority of the book.

Terry is on a blog tour, and has dropped by Root Simple to share a recipe and give away a copy of The Farmstead Egg Guide & Cookbook. To win the book, all you have to do is leave a comment an this post. Tells us something about your own chickens, or tells us whether you’d ever consider keeping chickens. We’ll draw a winner at random.

Here’s one of the recipes from the book:

unnamed (1)

Zucchini and Mint Frittata
Mint is not just for iced tea and garnishes on plates! Used in a frittata, it adds just the right savory and herbal note to the vegetables. A frittata can be finished in the oven, or it can be flipped over in the pan and finished on the stove. This recipe gives directions for the stovetop version, but you can also finish it in a hot oven as in the previous frittata recipes.

Makes 6 servings
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup sliced onion
1 red bell pepper, julienned
1 pound zucchini, sliced
8 large eggs
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 10-inch heavy skillet. Sauté the onion and bell pepper until soft and golden. Take your time on this step to fully develop the sweet flavors of these vegetables. Stir in the zucchini and continue to cook over low heat until the edges begin to brown. Set aside in a bowl.

2. In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, 3 tablespoons of the Parmesan, the mint, salt, and pepper.

3. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in the skillet. Pour in the eggs and then distribute the vegetables on top. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes, until the eggs are set but not yet firm on top. Several times while the eggs are cooking, take a flexible spatula and run it along the edge and under the frittata to make sure the eggs are not sticking to the pan.

4. Take the skillet off the heat. Put a dinner plate over it and flip the frittata onto the plate. Then slip the frittata back into the pan, now with the bottom side up. Top with the remaining 1 tablespoon Parmesan.

Cook for a few minutes more, until the eggs are fully cooked.

Salt Sugar Fat

9781400069804_custom-dbb16a744f720dce63f086565a9fe6417893bad2-s2-c85

There are times I think this blog and the lifestyle it expounds come off as too extreme. But then I read a book like Michael Moss’ Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, and I begin to think it’s not extreme enough.

Salt Sugar Fat is a history of the marketing of junk foods. Moss’ sources are a mix of food scientists and disenchanted former food executives–most of whom, of course, are wealthy men with personal trainers who never eat the unhealthy foods they marketed.

These scientists and executives begin with a tactical advantage: we’re all hard wired to crave salt, sugar and fat. The more the better. Let’s be honest. It takes enormous willpower to resist that bowl of potato chips. I dove into a bowl of chips this weekend and probably consumed a week’s worth of salt and calories in one sitting.

Moss stops short of calling it a conspiracy but, in an interesting chapter, details the takeover of home economics associations by food industry representatives in the latte half of the 20th century. Lessons about cooking from scratch receded and were replaced by how to use cake mixes and shop for appliances.

But the primary focus of the book is how food industry has found ways to amplify our cravings. They’ve carefully calculated “bliss points,” the exact amount of unhealthy ingredients to add to a particular food to make us desire more. Moss quotes Kraft food CEO Geoffrey Bible,

The simple beauty of the Kraft General Food challenge is that everybody eats . . . This is the part of the new job I’m especially enjoying: The potential is at once limitless and incredibly daunting. The fascinating challenge is to discover unmet needs surrounding this behavior that has been with mankind since day one. Thee needs are there, waiting in the detritus of modern life to be excavated and defined as likely today to center around time or convenience as they are around taste, value or nutrition, and as likely to involve the subtleties of how, when why, or where people eat as much as what they eat. So that’s point number one. We don’t create demand. We excavate it. We prospect for it. We dig until we find it.

Bible is just rediscovering what Giodorno Bruno wrote about in his 1591 manual on manipulation, De Vinculis In Genere (On the binding forces in general–combined with his explorations of the art of memory this is what got Bruno in trouble–not his scientific endeavors). Bruno called manipulators like Bible, “soul hunters.”  Their tool is eros in the widest sense of that word: desire. They dig deep into our cravings and exploit them through the imagery of advertising. Combine abundant fossil fuel and government subsidies that make processed foods economical with advertising unhealthy food and you get a public health disaster.

Thankfully this is one of those issues we can all work on. We simply have to start cooking from scratch.

Book Review: The Urban Bestiary

bestiary

Humans in our culture operate under a rather crazed delusion that we are not a part of nature. We fight nature. We defend nature. We pack up our tents and visit nature. I am as susceptible to this delusion as anyone else, but I do try to remember that I am a creature of nature, living in a vast human habitat which exists as part of a web with the entire ecosystem. Remembering that I am not apart from nature sometimes requires a little mental judo–and some well chosen bedside reading.

Thus my recent reading has included books like Being Animal and What the Robin Knows (reviewed here) and most recently The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of the excellent Crow PlanetThe Urban Bestiary is an exploration of the intimate intersection of humans and other urban animals, such as coyotes and raccoons and opossums and squirrels.

In The Urban Bestiary, Haupt introduces us to our close neighbors, the animals which share our land, and sometimes even our homes. She gives us a naturalist’s overview of their behaviors, physiology and life cycles, interspersed with personal anecdotes and interviews with wildlife experts. The resulting animal portraits are as fresh and delicately drawn as watercolors.

The chapters cover:

Coyote • Mole • Raccoon • Opossum • Squirrel (and Rat) • Black Bear • Cougar • Birds  • Starling, House Sparrow, Pigeon • Chickadee • Crow • Hawk and Owl • Chicken • Tree • Human

The truth is we think we know all we need to know about these animals–these pests which overturn our garbage cans, scare off the native birds, eat our cats or scare the bejeezus out of us on the porch late at night–but we don’t, not really. We see what we want to see and understand very little.

This book goes a long way toward filling in that knowledge gap. And with knowledge comes understanding–and maybe even peace. With some understanding, we can appreciate  for the bits of wildness our animal neighbors bring into our lives. Haupt is not saying we should romanticize them–and am I- but rather that we can see them with a naturalist’s eye, enjoy encounters for what they teach us, and using our knowledge of an animal’s behavior, mitigate the conflicts that arise when our needs clash with theirs.

If there is anything controversial to be found in such a lovely book, it will be in this idea, which runs like a thread through the chapters. Haupt shows how common “solutions” to our backyard clashes are short sighted, and don’t even work, and offers alternate suggestions and strategies.

You see, if we kill or relocate an animal from our yard, a new one will simply move in to fill that niche. It’s a losing game. (And trapping and relocating is no kindness at all, believe you me.) Unless we plan to embark on a mass eradication program on a bison-like scale, the solutions lie with us, and our own behavior and attitudes.

Most of this is commonsensical, and not scientifically controversial. It is basically the practice of IPM (integrated pest management).  We can bring in our cats and small dogs at night. We can seal up our attics and basements. We can stop leaving pet food and garbage outdoors. We can build sturdy chicken coops. Name your pest, and there’s something we can change about our environment to make it less attractive to them. As they say, the best offense is a good defense. Beyond that, we can accept occasional messes, losses or frights as part of what it means for us to be alive, to be animals interacting with other animals in the world.

I’m writing this with a particular passion right now, because recently someone in our neighborhood (not our near neighbors, but our general area) hired a company to set snares for coyotes, and a video of a coyote thus strangled surfaced on a local news blog. I don’t doubt that those neighbors were driven by fear, or grief, to hire this trapper, but the death was so cruel and ultimately so pointless and stupid, given the number of coyotes in the area, and the incontrovertible forces which are driving them here, it made me very sad.

To be clear, The Urban Bestiary is not an no-kill polemic. I’ve perhaps put too much emphasis on the aspects of the book which focus on management and co-existence. The great majority of the book is about the animals themselves. Imagine you had a friend who was a naturalist who could explain the mysteries of the familiar yet unfamiliar wildlife which flit and shuffle through your backyard over a nice cup of coffee.  Someone who could offer you an introduction to their world, and a chance to see your own world in a new light. This would be that book.

Fabulous Postcards from HenCam

HenCam-ChickenPostcardBook-6

From Vintage Chicken Photographs. Terry says this picture reminds her of Erik. It reminds me of our friend Craig at Winnetka Farms. Whichever! Let’s hear it for tall handsome gentlemen holding poultry!

Our friend Terry over at the great chicken site HenCam has produced three lovely sets of postcard books based on antique photos of people with animals. One set is people and chickens, the second is people with other livestock, and the third in people and their dogs. (She promises she’s trying for a cat collection, but it seems kitties were a little too sly for early cameras, making good pictures (as opposed to cat-shaped blurs) hard to find.)

She tells us she spent two years collecting pictures for these collections, searching everywhere, from flea markets to eBay, parsing through thousands of photos. Her favorites are collected in books of 30. She picked good ones. Every card tells the story, and most of them leave me with questions, too.

Also, I really like how the pictures show the intimacy of people with their pets and smallstock, and their pride in these animals. Though few of us are farmers now, most of us come from farm people if you go far enough back. The land is in our blood, and as those of us who have rediscovered the joy of keeping smallstock, whether those be bees or hens or goats, our connection with animals comes right back, too.

And of course, we love our dogs, whether we’re farmers or townfolk. That goes without saying!

So we thought we’d give a shout out to Terry for her great books. They are heavy, 5″ x 7″ cards bound into books, but bound so that the postcards can be lifted out cleanly and used, in any order. They have a photo on the front and the back has the classic postcard layout. If you’re looking for easy presents for the holidays, or a set of nice postcards, so you can treat your friends to an actual handwritten note, go check them out at her store. They cost twenty bucks for a book of thirty cards–that’s about 66 cents per card.

A couple of more pics after the break:

Continue reading…

Kevin West’s Saving the Season

saving-seasons_west_small

I’m thinking of throwing out all my picking and preserving books. Why? Kevin West’s new book Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling, and Preserving blows all those other books out of the water bath.

Full disclosure here: I’ve tasted a lot of West’s jams. I teach a bread making class at the Institute of Domestic Technology. After my bread demo West does a jam making session and I stick around to watch and, hopefully, filtch an extra jar. Those West jams are coveted items around the Root Simple household.

What makes Saving the Season different from other preserving books is West’s masterful use of aromatics and alcohols. As he explains in the introduction, “My goal is for the supplemental flavor to be a faint suggestion–an extra something that you can’t quite put your finger on.” His quince jelly (that I just made) is flavored with a subtle hint of rose geranium. One of the strawberry jam recipes gets a splash of pinot noir. The pickled eggs (that I also made) is mixed with Sriracha. These additions enhance the essential qualities of the main ingredients rather than simply add flavor. It’s an approach that’s masterful and never gimmicky.

There’s also a few surprises. Did you know that you can pickle unripe stone fruit? West’s recipe for pickled green almonds doubles as a way to deal with fruit that needs to be thinned in the spring. And I now know what I can do with all that cardoon I have growing. Yes, you can pickle that.

If that weren’t enough, West has weaved together his recipes with erudite musings. Plato’s theory of forms is contrasted with Buddhism in an essay on kitchen prep that introduces a peach recipe. The grape jelly section is preceded by an analysis of a Nicolas Poussin’s painting. This is the only preservation book I’ve found myself reading for fun.

My threat to get rid of all my preserving books is not hyperbole. Saving the Season really is the definitive book on the subject of pickling and preserving.

West has a website, www.savingtheseason.com, where you can find recipes as well as info about speaking appearances (he’s also great speaker).

Review: Quaker Lower Sugar Instant Oatmeal

lowersugar

I prefer long cooked oatmeal when I’m at home, but we’ve always packed instant oatmeal with us when camping. I think the habit goes back to when Erik and I took epic backpacking trips, and food weight was a prime consideration. Now, camping is a more gentle endeavor–but the instant oatmeal has become a tradition, an easy no-brainer for sleepy grey mornings in the woods, even though its nutritional qualities are highly suspect.

While doing a quick shop for a recent camping trip, I was reaching for the usual box of oatmeal when I saw one next to it marked “lower sugar.”  In my extreme naivete, I said to myself, “That’s fantastic! They finally cut down the sugar! They could easily reduce the sugar by half and lose none of the flavor.”

Well, Quaker did reduce the sugar significantly (from 12 g. per serving to 4 g.), but they did so by adding sucralose, the artificial sweetener known as Splenda (and kicking up the sodium significantly).

The front of the box says nothing about artificial sweeteners. Diet foods will have a jaunty “With Splenda!” label, but this cereal apparently isn’t being marketed that way. The only indication that you’re dealing with a fake sugar product is in the list of ingredients, which I hadn’t checked. And that was a mistake, I know. When treading the dangerous waters of industrial foodstuffs, you really do have to bring your magnifying glass–and a chemical reference–and read the ingredients.

So I proceeded merrily to the woods, and to  breakfast the first morning, where my camping buddy and I discovered that our oatmeal tasted dreadfully synthetic and sweet, like Diet Coke, or toothpaste. There are few flavors in the world I dislike more than the taste of artificial sweeteners. The worst of it was that the sweetness persisted in the back of my mouth for hours. Fortunately, it was only a two day trip, and we were able to scrounge together random snack foods to eat for breakfast the second morning.

Soon after, I attended a nature class where we camped and the food was provided for us. The instructors had picked up a box of this stuff unwittingly, not even noticing the “lower sugar” label. They were horrified when I told them it had sucralose in it, and took it off the table.

This is why I’m blogging about this. I have a sneaking suspicion (call me crazy!) that most Root Simple readers don’t buy many processed foods, but if I can save any of you from being stuck in the woods with nothing to eat for breakfast but a box full of yuck, my job is done.

Incidentally, I checked the Amazon reviews of this product, and they are quite good. There was only one outraged fellow, who said basically what I’ve said here. Everyone else thought the product was just fantastic. I suspect that folks who consume fake sugars on a regular basis would find nothing objectionable in the flavor.