Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Monday, May 4, 2015

What we can learn from a burrito-maker


If you hadn't heard the news, Chipotle, the burrito chain, has declared that it'll be "GMO-free". While some are celebrating at this bold marketing move, others have accurately pointed out that this company capitalizing on anti-science hysteria. It's not really a surprise: Chipotle's demonization of industrial agriculture as a marketing stance is old news. GMOs just happen to be the convenient scapegoat.

And to be fair - Chipotle is perfectly within its rights to change their ingredient sourcing. They can certainly adopt these arbitrary production practices - efficient or otherwise - to cater to the whims of their customer base (while simultaneously creating a cultural divide). Despite what some entitled folks may think: Chipotle burritos are not an essential food group.

But what we can learn here is the tricky burden of carrying a label. One of more commonly used bromides used by the "Just Label It" campaign to get legally mandated labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients is that it's cheap. Just a label. Why fight it?

Well, had that law been passed, could Chipotle declare itself "GMO-free"? As many point out, the chain is keeping high fructose corn syrup sweetened sodas and standard cheese - which are products of the transgenic technology. The hypocrisy can exist because we aren't invested in an infrastructure to inspect for this - that'd be a waste of taxpayer money. As the question isn't something that is chemically detectible at the end - glucose is glucose whether is degraded from sugar cane or Bt corn - then it's the process that is in question. And monitoring that isn't easy. Try earning a kosher label. Moreover, as with any law, we should consider what penalties are in store for violators.

Arguably, Chipotle is violating truth in advertising laws, but we have bigger problems to deal with. And if you don't understand why sensible people are fighting against mandatory labeling laws (note, not "against labeling" per se, as it is often shortened to), then this is an example that illustrates the bureaucratic madness such laws portend. And "Certified Organic" is a big enough waste of money and time.


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Drinking chocolate another way

Chocolate chip cookie
When we say chocolate, the common thought is that it is a sweet of some sort, like those ubiquitous chocolate chips or bars. Those are fairly recent, though - initially, chocolate was a drink. Well, a better drink than what most places in America think of as hot chocolate. That milky, overly sweet concoction that is provided as a patronizing nod to children while the "adults" have (bad) coffee is a tragic waste of the potential of chocolate.
Drinking Chocolate, Bean Traders, North Carolina
That delicious chocolate bar is a complex emulsion of fat and crystals - some of that unctuousness can be conveyed by making sipping chocolates (rather than hot cocoa). The key is to use whole milk, or even half and half, and not to heat it too much as to cause the emulsion to break. And great restraint on the sugar - the complexity of flavors in chocolate can be overpowered easily. Sip slowly in the company of friends. 

The source of chocolate is the cacao plant, Theobroma cacao. The name literally translates to "food of the gods", and in its mesoamerican origins, chocolate was very much a drink for the gods. In Oaxaca, Mexico, hot drinking chocolate is prized even above coffee. Traditionally, it's made with water, not milk, and without the cloying milk fat, this style reveals more of the nuance on chocolate flavor. A foam atop the hot chocolate is great prized, as it has to manually beaten into a drink with relatively few foaming components. 

Chocolate de agua, Oaxaca, Mexicp
But there's a lesser known sibling to chocolate, a different product of the cacao bean: tejate.
Tejate
Perhaps the ancestral energy drink, it is purchased as a pick me up the middle of the day, drunk out of  colorful gourd cups. The white layer atop the giant bowl is pretty much cocoa butter, released by the slow massaging of the ground cacao with masa and various ingredients. A tejatera (tejate is almost exclusively made by women) will scoop out the liquid and separately top it with the fluffy white mass.
Lime treated cacao beans for tejate
Sweetening the drink is optional. The flavor is floral, chocolatey, light. Tejate is refreshing respite on a hot day, but preparing it is a laborious and manual process (with a surprisingly large number of ingredients.
Key ingredient to tejate - the seed of the mamey fruit

Friday, April 10, 2015

Misinterpreting facts to promote fear

Did you know that turkeys are actually native to Mexico and the Americas? 
At least five people forwarded me an article on Gawker, penned by Yvette d'Entremont (aka ScienceBabe), dressing down the profiteering fear mongering by Vani Hari (self promoted "Food Babe" - no, I will not send her any additional traffic). At least two have plainly asked me if I helped write it. I assure you, I had nothing to do with it, though I sympathize with the sentiment. Hari has since posted a response chock full of ad hominem and evasion, and the media blogosphere as taken to reporting this as a type of blogger vs blogger fight. Just portraying it as any sort of "debate" lends false equivalence to to both authors, when in fact science is squarely represented by d'Entremont.

In Orac's blog, Respectful Insolence, he alludes to the entertaining nature of the virtual dressing down Vani Hari is getting straight in the title. Aside from recapping Hari's numerous historical demonstrations of scientific ignorance, and accompanying arrogance against being educated, he did point out a small tactic she uses: citing a scientific study based on peripheral relevance, and overinterpreting this proof of validity. In this case, she pulls out some preliminary cell culture papers to imbue kale with exaggerated cancer protective properties. This underhanded tactic cloaks an outlandish claim with unearned veracity, but Hari isn't alone in doing so.

Over interpreting science articles are common stock in "scienciness" articles in mainstream media.  Extrapolating from a few observations, one can paint up speculations of miracle cures or doomsday scenarios, even as the actual scientists publishing responsibly note restraint in interpretation. Last November, I noted that respected science journalist Maryn McKenna used such tenuous justification in linking "antibiotic-free" turkeys (if they even exist) to the rise of antibiotic resistance in human pathogens. Hari is certainly a relatively easy fraud to spot given her loud and obvious trumpeting, but we should hold our other popular communicators responsible, particularly if they potentially profit from creating fear.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Wonder Technology Bread


In a recent trip to the market, I encountered perhaps the most outrageous bread product I've ever seen. It's crustless industrial bread. I realized that this thing is a wonder of technology. For one thing, given the vapid sponginess of this type of supermarket bread, the crust is the only textural contrast it has. While I'd like to rail against the act of cutting off the crust, I have to admit that this isn't exactly good bread crust. Maybe that is the source of why so many Americans regard crust retention on sandwich bread as distasteful. 


Reading the label though reveals how far along our technology has come when it comes to industrial bread. Note that there are no preservatives used, yet the bagged bread, naked and soft, is rated to last five months. Simply incredible. I can only guess that it must be due to the technique of packaging. 


And that is indeed the case, as spoilage apparently commences when the bag is opened. But here we find another impressive fact: this is imported Italian bread. Unlike any other Italian bread I've ever encountered. The combination of good preservation has made it feasible to actually manufacture crustless bread in Italy to sell in Texas. For all the quasi-Luddite homage to tradition food culture engenders, this is quite a feat of technological advancement. 

PS: I got it because it came with a free jar of speculoos cookie butter.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Seeking chepiche


The Mexican dish menudo is a stew of organ meats (usually stomach and tendons) with chiles, and sometimes hominy, often eaten as curative for hangovers. Eating Mexican stews demonstrates convergent evolution with Vietnamese soups: the hot bowl is presented with uncooked vegetables and herbs to doctor up as one eats.

But a distinct flavor comes from the herb chepiche. It is ubiquitous in the Oaxacan market areas, and is intensely aromatic. So, is there a substitute? Sadly, according to Gourmet Sleuth - there isn't. So, it's a novel ingredient worth looking for - the aromatic profile is pretty unique.

Chepiche