Plate Tectonics

Missing the watermelon days of summer

-- Karla Cook 09-28-2011

Missing the watermelon days of summer

As a southerner, I was weaned on watermelon - big slabs of glistening red flesh, polka dots of seeds that we practiced spitting from the edge of the porch -- so mixing such ambrosia with other ingredients has always seemed inappropriate.

That changed a couple of years ago, when a friend brought a salad of watermelon, feta, red onions and kalamata olives to a potluck party. My mind was further opened by the best dish from a recent meal at the Fatty Crab, in New York's West Village: Cool watermelon and hot crunchy pork belly, with Thai basil, lime and scallions.

The regret? Watermelon season, always too short for me, is waning. At my supermarket here in New Jersey, bins of them have been replaced by wan sliced specimens wrapped in plastic.


Anticipating guests, hoping for sun on the fig

-- Karla Cook 07-04-2011

Anticipating guests, hoping for sun on the fig

In a happy confluence, family and friends arrive just two weekends from now. Will the Marseilles figs be ripe?

And the question is whether we stand there, eating them from the tree and warm from the sun, or make Melissa Clark's fig tart with caramelized onions, rosemary and Stilton.

Figs are rich in potassium, calcium and Vitamin A. Tarts, especially Ms. Clark's, with pine nuts, honey and rosemary, could provide for us a virtual trip to the Mediterranean.


Pungency for the salad bowl

-- Karla Cook 06-19-2011

Pungency for the salad bowl

The sugar-snap pea harvest is waning and the arugula is beginning to bolt, but green beans are blooming, and with those flowers, there is promise of meals to come.

Salad greens aren't gone yet, and we are adding thin-sliced radishes to the bowl if we can keep ourselves from snacking.


Rebel in the arugula

-- Karla Cook 04-10-2011

Rebel in the arugula

My kitchen windowsill is home at the moment to a planter stuffed with too many arugula seedlings, which I blame on my own hunger for spring (and salad) three weeks ago. But notice the invader - a lone tomato that was lurking in the soil we dug for the pot from the near the fence.

It is one of hundreds that will rise come warm weather and it may not be every gardener's dilemma, but it is mine: How to maintain resolve for clean and orderly gardens in the face of so many volunteers? Not only did they weather the winter, I know that these tomatoes will bear fruit - copious amounts - but the flavor and texture in past years - has been undistinguished.


Collards, the earliest greens of spring

-- Karla Cook 03-07-2011

Collards, the earliest greens of spring

Two weeks after shoveling the dregs of snow from the pathways of the garden, I cleaned the beds I meant to clean before the snow fell last year and then took stock.

The creeping thyme survived, as did major stems of sage. The sorrel is returning, as are the ever/never bearing strawberries (depending on your point of view). A few straggly leaves of arugula that looked promising on snow-shoveling day seemed to have succumbed since.

But the best two surprises were chioggia beets that had overwintered and developed a candy-like sweetness after a turn in the oven and enough collard greens to serve four, scavenged from knobby survivors of what seemed at the time to have been endless snows.

I snipped them away from the stems, clipped the brown edges, then rinsed them and cut them into ribbons. After a quick blanch in boiling water salted to match the sea, I drained them, then sautéed them with a couple of cloves of crushed garlic, a swirl of olive oil, a sprinkle of kosher salt - and about a half-teaspoon of sugar. A squeeze of lemon finished the dish.

There were no leftovers, and the success was motivation enough to plant arugula, spinach and an heirloom called Ragged Jack kale, all from the Hudson Valley Seed Library, which had a booth at the winter conference of NOFA-NJ in Princeton, NJ.


When winter gives you snow

-- Karla Cook 02-13-2011

When winter gives you snow

Old snow is slowly giving way to spring in central New Jersey. I can smell the dirt, even see a bit of it where the sun has concentrated warmth at the stone foundation of the house.

Inside the light grows brighter and stronger day by day, but there really is no rushing the season: It's still winter, still time for slow-roasted pork adapted from "The Cafe Cook Book," and for winter fruits - even past their prime - sliced and sugared and spiced, then wrapped in pastry for a stay in a hot oven till the juices are bubbling and the sugars are almost but not quite too brown.


Time for building lobbying, grassroots muscle

-- Karla Cook 01-12-2011

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, writes:

The new Congress is going to force the kind of politically tough choices that many food and agriculture system reformers would prefer to dodge.

Those of us in the advocacy world can meet, tweet or blog ad nauseam with one another, dreaming up policy ideas in support of local or organic food, more fruit and veggies in schools, wildlife habitat or clean water, but what we need to do is to build the lobbying and grassroots muscle to turn ideas into funded realities. That means taking on the subsidy lobby; for instance, taking a bite out of the $5.2 billion per year in direct payment crop subsidies going out to the wealthiest landlords and farmers in a period of record earnings for those crops.

Nothing wrong with blogging, but to paraphrase Truman Capote, that's not advocacy. That's typing.


Subsidies, spending, and the environment

-- Karla Cook 01-04-2011

Citing urgent issues in science, health and the environment, the editors at Scientific American have compiled a four-item political wish list for the new Congress. It includes action on climate change (simple prudence), regulating tobacco by making cigarettes free of the radioactive isotope polonium 210 and other toxins, and ensuring that the Internet stays free and open.

But the first item appears here in its entirety (links are my contribution), because of its immediate and universal relevance to our lives:

Farm subsidies. The nation's agricultural policy is due for an update in 2012. This gives Congress an opportunity both to cut spending and to help the environment. Federal subsidies now mostly reward large farms for planting monocultures of corn, soybeans, wheat and rice. Much of that food goes to factory farms, where tightly packed animals provide a breeding ground for infectious diseases and produce vast quantities of waste that poses an environmental hazard. The current system devours fossil fuels, depletes the soil and pollutes waterways. It also makes high-sugar foods and beef artificially cheap, contributing to the obesity and diabetes epidemic. Through a transition in the way subsidies are allocated, the government should encourage a progressive return to sustainable, integrated farming, which alternates commodity crops with legumes and with grass for pasture.


The certainty of bread, and its price

-- Karla Cook 01-02-2011

The certainty of bread, and its price

Emerson and self-reliance, God and the devil battling over the heart of man, and hopeful anecdotes of activists in the alternative food system form the foundation of a veteran community organizer's new book and call to action.

In the book, subtitled "Fighting Back In An Age of Industrial Agriculture," Mark Winne lays out the battle lines for democracy itself, writing, "We will either shape our own food destiny or we will succumb to the one that is presented to us."

He draws a parallel to The Grand Inquisitor, the parable in Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov," in which the inquisitor berates Jesus for rejecting the devil's temptation to turn stones into bread and water into wine, offering instead the freedom to follow.

"Turn [stones] into bread," [the inquisitor told Jesus,] "and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient....In the end, they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, 'Make us your slaves, but feed us....give bread, and man will worship thee, for nothing is more certain than bread."

That bread that most of us eat, with or without understanding, Mr. Winne says, is from the industrial food system, which is "highly organized, rational, efficient, and possesses a singular focus on the financial bottom line as both organization and management value." This system, lauded for providing an abundance of cheap food, is linked to the epidemic of diet-related disease, runaway health-care costs and long-term pollution of soil, water and air.

Further, he says that those leading the industrial food system are fighting for more control by

"framing issues in ways that make it appear either to be doing good or at least doing no harm; undermining democracy through legislative and legal actions; taking its business offshore by expanding into new foreign markets; and painting the alternative food system as an inadequate answer to world food needs."

Mr. Winne, who also wrote "Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty," cites the work of Kelly Brownell and Kenneth Warner, who show similarities in the industrial food system framing strategy to that of Big Tobacco:

  • Focus on personal responsibility;

  • Raise fears that government action usurps personal freedom;

  • Vilify critics as "food police," leaders of a "nanny state," or "food fascists" and accuse them of looking to strip citizens of civil liberties;

  • Call studies critical of the industry "junk science;"

  • Declare there are no good or bad foods;

  • Emphasize exercise over diet; and

  • Plant doubt when concerns are raised about the industry.

"Do we forfeit our intellect, our passion and the muscles and tendons of our arms for the peace that comes from knowing that food will be provided?" Mr. Winne asks. "Do we mute our voices and let others who claim a higher wisdom in these matters make the decisions for us?"

In the second part of the book, Mr. Winne tells stories of farmers, teachers and activists who have triumphed over innate fears of physical labor, cooking for themselves and speaking up in public policy arenas.

Reasserting our control in the face of power, relearning skills that have atrophied, and rediscovering a triumphant kind of individualism that embraces both the self and community are the goals, he says, and then he paraphrases Emerson: "We must find a countermove that undercuts a system that demands our conformity...The argument we must make is for action, not contemplation...It will be through experience and participation, those rough but nimble teachers, that we re-create the skills we once had and now need again."


The delicate art of changing harmful customs

-- Karla Cook 11-03-2010

The delicate art of changing harmful customs

Here in central New Jersey, the confluence of food events continues: Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, Carlo Petrini, Alice Waters, and Carolyn Steel, a London-based architect and author of "Hungry City."

In November was a panel discussion on food politics and health care that I helped to arrange for Princeton University, with, again, Ms. Nestle and David Kessler, moderated by Ruth Reichl.

The questions about confluence were simple: What's causing this? Has this good food movement reached the tipping point? The answers are, for the former - food talk is a crowd pleaser - and for the latter, no.

Media attention aside, the good food movement - a loose collection of independent-minded people - seems more wave than water. It is normal today that most of us buy and eat industrially grown meat and shop the inside aisles of supermarkets. It is normal that we eat from boxes and bags and jars, in our cars and by ourselves. We perceive ourselves as too busy and good food as too expensive. We eat too much, and we eat for the wrong reasons; computers and videos add more sedentary time to our entrenched television viewing habits; we're undernourished and overfed; diet-related disease is epidemic and normal. It's normal, too, that joy is absent.

The good food movement is an attempt to alter those mainstream practices. But those passionate about making such changes might find instruction in Kwame Anthony Appiah's essay, "The art of social change," which looks at how, and how not, to alter harmful customs. In his piece, which is taken from his new book, "The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen," he examines foot-binding and genital mutilation, but it's easy to draw a parallel to what clearly is a harmful custom in our nation: the food-agriculture-health care system cycle. If we partake, it makes us sick, then it treats the symptoms of our sickness. Complications of diabetes, for instance, are blindness and amputation. Medicine manages the illness but does not cure it.

Foot-binding, writes Mr. Appiah, was a thousand-year-old practice and a symbol of status that had the force of convention:

"Chinese families bound their daughters' feet because that was the normal thing to do....If Chinese families bound their daughters' feet because that was the normal thing to do, you had to change what was normal."

In a single generation, the practice largely disappeared, mainly because a mixture of campaigning outsiders and modernizing insiders began "a dialogue of mutual respect, free of self-congratulation," and then, once they had converts, organized "a program of public commitment to new practices, which takes into account traditions of the community." The international community also held the practice up to ridicule, with visitors taking photographs of women's damaged feet and widely sharing them.

So. How do we change what is normal? Who are outsiders, and insiders? What is self-congratulation? How do we organize public commitment to new practices? What traditions do we take into account? It's difficult to imagine, too, that international ridicule of our food/ag/health-care system could occur today; the growing global middle class is adopting the Western diet as fast as it can.


Tending the triumvirate of late summer

-- Karla Cook 09-25-2010

Tending the triumvirate of late summer

The garden is showing its age. Tomato foliage is bedraggled; it's possible that at least one is suffering from late blight, but finally, the plants have reached some semblance of production. The peppers are beautiful, as is the eggplant.

I see ratatouille in my future, but the bar is high. A friend, wise to food and cooking and France, last week served the best version I've ever had.


Bread in the back yard

-- Karla Cook 08-31-2010

Bread in the back yard

On a too-hot day a few weeks ago, we helped build a wood-fired oven for a friend in his back yard, mixing mud and sand with our bare feet, hand-shaping mud bricks and slapping them onto the wet sand dome that, when removed, would leave an oven cavity beneath an adobe shell. The process was simple enough to inspire dreams of my own. He's thinking pizza - the best he can imagine, with crisp and tender crusts blistered to black here and there - and I'm thinking deeply flavored loaves of bread, slow-cooked stews, grilled vegetables and meats.

Our shared book of inspiration is a dog-eared copy of "Build Your Own Earth Oven," (third edition), by Kiko Denzer with Hannah Field, with a clear counterculture feel to it:

What happens when you make bread in a wood-fired oven? Plants transform the energy of the sun into fiber, food or fuel; fire transforms fuel into energy; water dissolves and lubricates stony soil, creating the clay that you model into a massive oven; the oven absorbs and holds the energy of the sun released by burning wood. After a couple of hours, the oven is so hot you can remove what's left of the fire and bake the dough you made from sun-ripened seeds, living sourdough culture and water. The hot, dense earth radiates heat at a steady rate (like the sun) so you can cook not just bread, but and also beans, meat, potatoes, soup, vegetables, pies, cakes, cookies, scald milk for yogurt, and finally, dry out the wood for your next fire...

I'm thinking more about creating community around the hearth - sending aromas across fences, drawing friends to our back yard to share meals and time together.


Finding the political courage for safe food

-- Karla Cook 07-25-2010

Finding the political courage for safe food

When it comes to food safety, caution is key: Clean, separate, cook and chill, says the USDA, which offers pages of fact sheets and resources on its website.

With the scale of our industrialized food supply, however, that is not enough. In an eloquent plea to Congress for leadership and the political will to enact food safety regulation, Eric Schlosser writes that every day about 200,000 people in the U.S. fall ill from contaminated food.

.... Every year, about 325,000 are hospitalized by a food-borne illness. And the number who are killed annually by something they ate is roughly the same as the number of Americans who've been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003.

The most vulnerable group, he says, is children under the age of 4.

Kevin Kowalcyk, 2½ (and in photo at right), was one of those children. Home video of him at play, paired with the voiceover of his mother, Barbara, telling the story of his death from eating contaminated hamburger from a fast-food eatery, was among the most powerful segments of "Food, Inc."

We do want a safe food system that protects our children and the rest of us.

What are we to make, then, of the tale (and video) from the 1,600-member Rawesome Foods cooperative in Venice, CA? P.J. Huffstutter, an able writer with an eye for detail, sets the scene:

With no warning one weekday morning, investigators entered an organic grocery with a search warrant and ordered the hemp-clad workers to put down their buckets of mashed coconut cream and to step away from the nuts. Then, guns drawn, four officers fanned out across Rawesome Foods in Venice. Skirting past the arugula and peering under crates of zucchini, they found the raid's target inside a walk-in refrigerator: unmarked jugs of raw milk.

She says that regulators point to epidemiological evidence linking disease outbreaks to raw milk, citing E. coli O157:H7 (the bacteria that killed Kevin Kowalcyk), salmonella, campylobacter and listeria.

Raw-milk fans, she writes, point to the industrialized, consolidated food system, and products from it that have been at the root of some of the country's deadliest food contamination cases.

Consider, for example, the case of the Peanut Corporation of America that killed eight people and is cited by Mr. Schlosser:

Thousands of different products, manufactured by more than 200 companies, including candies and cookies marketed to children, were potentially tainted thanks to that one plant. And in the end, roughly 20,000 Americans got salmonella; about half of them were under the age of 16 and one-fifth were younger than 5.

Another problem, he says, is the rise in imports from China, with its pervasive quality control problems - lead-based whiteners in pasta, beverages made with industrial alcohol, melamine added to baby formula, rampant overuse of antibiotics and pesticides. "About 60 percent of the apple juice in America -- like peanut butter, a product consumed largely by children -- now comes from China."

Ms. Huffstutter notes that raw milk has drawn scrutiny largely because the politically powerful dairy industry has pressed the government to act.

That government action seems to stop at the door of Congress, where food safety is stuck in limbo. Legislation, Mr. Schlosser says, has strong support among the public and advocacy groups, but:

Food processors reluctant to oppose the bill openly will be delighted if it dies a quiet death. That's because, right now, very few cases of food poisoning are ever actually linked to what the person ate, and companies that sell contaminated products routinely avoid liability. The economic cost is instead imposed on society ... about $152 billion annually.

Add that to the annual $147 billion in medical costs of obesity - a slow version of a food safety problem - and annual direct and indirect costs of $174 billion for diabetes, and the evidence is clear. It's time for a $473 billion change. Imagine having those funds to invest in clean air, good food, pure water - and the future of our children.


Foraging for tarts

-- Karla Cook 07-08-2010

Foraging for tarts

Pulling invasive species out by the roots is a good way to control them, but other than a vague sense of satisfaction at the view of bare dirt, there are few rewards. Eating them is a better solution. We did our part last weekend, picking wineberries, a Japanese relative of the raspberry, that have established themselves in a wooded preserve near our house.

The day was hot and still, the ground cracked, and the bucolic vision I had imagined was marred by the sound of heavy equipment brought in to ease the lake-dredging effort under way. But we did find abundant berries - water starved, thus tiny and overly seedy, but highly flavored. The tradition, with our berry-finding guru, a botanist (and musician) who manages the acreage, is to make tarts with the crop, and so we did: Butter crust, egg-rich vanilla custard, berries.


Give peas a chance

-- Karla Cook 05-31-2010

Give peas a chance

Time, abundant sunlight and a weight-worthy trellis have paid off in a sugar-snap pea harvest that dwarfs all previous attempts. But the season is fleeting - today the temperature hovers in the high 80s and the plants' ending leaves are curled and withered against the onslaught.

Meanwhile the girls - 13 and 9 - can often be found snacking on them in the garden. They have an idea that sugar snaps are nutritious (a very good source of vitamins A, C, K and thiamin, folate, iron and manganese), but they eat them because they are delicious.


The waiting game

-- Karla Cook 04-19-2010

The waiting game

Peas are up, their tendrils stretching to touch the trellis, a handsome creation inspired by Shepherd Ogden's directions in "Step by Step Organic Vegetable Gardening." Lettuce is making a strong showing, but kale and chard need re-seeding. Spurred by a couple of summer-like days, I jumped the season to plant green beans (common wisdom is Mother's Day), and complicated matters by watering the raised bed deeply - and then the 38-degree nights returned. I am hoping that the seeds are biding time.

I, too, am biding my time. I had big plans for the garden but on a beautiful morning a couple of weekends ago, I threw up a supposedly sticky window to celebrate the weather, catching my fingers between the sashes. Now, I wait for a broken bone and surgery to heal - and learn to type without the use of my "s" finger. And even though I can't rip a weed out by its roots at the moment, I - and others - find therapeutic value in the greens.


Toward four-season, in-town gardening

-- Karla Cook 02-28-2010

Toward four-season, in-town gardening

The experimental 4-by-8 pup tent cold frame has survived two winter storms, one with gusty winds. The next step is to plant cold-loving crops beneath its shelter. In "The Winter Harvest Handbook" (Chelsea Green, $30), Eliot Coleman lists lettuce, endive, arugula, spinach, chard, mizuna, mibuna, tatsoi, beet leaves, carrots, leeks, mache, radishes, onions, scallions, watercress, beets, new potatoes and turnips.

I want more land. But less involved than a physical move - uprooting family, changing schools - is using the eight raised beds and associated space more effectively. Hard choices: Fennel is beautiful but I use it sporadically - is it in, or out? Ruthlessness is required, especially in small-space gardening, but the sight of a volunteer tomato seedling, and knowing that it has survived the winter to fulfill its destiny - can I rip it out?


Seeding the growing season

-- Karla Cook 02-21-2010

Seeding the growing season

As a monument to optimism, hope and change of seasons, we have installed a grow-light in the kitchen window. That meant seed-starting, and so I did: two pots of mesclun and one of radishes, plus an experiment that worked in the past (and has worked again) - sticking a basil plant with rootball still attached into a spare pot filled with garden dirt.

The radishes are looking a little leggy and the lettuce needs thinning, but other than that, success.

My grow-light is fancy, but there's no need. A no-frills fluorescent fixture propped up on upended flower pots or bricks (or cookbooks) works fine. Keys to seed-starting are strong light, cozy temperatures and even moisture. Old milk cartons, washed and dried, with a side cut out, have worked as seed-starting flats, and a bit of dirt scraped up from the back yard will work almost as well as seed-starting medium (bought at any big-box store).

As for seeds, there are abundant sources, but these are my current favorites: Fedco Seeds, Kitazawa Seed Company, Edible Landscaping, Seed Savers Exchange, The Cook's Garden, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Renee's Garden Seeds.


Sweet and tart for sweethearts

-- Karla Cook 02-13-2010

Sweet and tart for sweethearts

Valentine's Day may mean chocolate-dipped strawberries to some, but to me, the sweet-on-sweet is cloying and without excitement. Like life, and love, grapefruit is more complicated and more interesting - a little bit sweet and balanced with sour, consistently nourishing without being heavy-handed.

Lucky for us - despite a reduced harvest from a virus and a freeze that may have affected 5 percent of the citrus crop, despite higher prices, grapefruit is in season.

The cliché is fruit cut in half horizontally, layered with white or brown sugar, and broiled or not. But a more beguiling dish is even simpler but more of a gift. Peel three grapefruits. Separate the sections, and then carefully, peel the juicy segments from their holders - technically, the septa. Pile them into a bowl. And serve it forth.


The classroom and the quesadilla

-- Karla Cook 02-04-2010

The classroom and the quesadilla

Middle-schoolers in our town's public education system may find themselves in a class called Modern Living, an updated version of Home Economics.

In it, my daughter last semester helped fashion brownies, pancakes, smoothies, pizza bagels, quesadillas and crepes. The brownies were from a mix; the students could add either applesauce or water. They added milk to a dry mix for pancakes.

The crepes were made from scratch, but the quesadillas were the star. They could have been the real lesson that expanded to fill all the day's subjects, with their components of whole-wheat tortillas, blue cheese, red onions and sliced roast beef.

A tortilla is the story of a culture; add whole wheat, or explore the corn variety, and the story delves into politics and grain prices and agricultural policy - and becomes book-length. Blue cheese is the story of mythology and milk preservation (and another kind of culture), of politics and penicillum. Red onions are a good source of Vitamins C and B6, a potent antioxidant and helpful for brain and nerve function, respectively. Roast beef is a rich source of protein and cholesterol and, at the same time the industrially-raised cow and legions like it (and our appetite for them) are linked to greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation, questionable public policy and the dead zone from agricultural runoff in the Gulf of Mexico.

Then there's the compelling flavor combination. And for a seventh-grader to have tasted it for the first time at a public school? Excellent.

Now, to move those edible lessons and similarly inventive foods onto school lunch trays as replacements for macho nachos at the middle school, or, better yet, as one of many replacements for chicken patties, chicken nuggets, French toast sticks and pizza at the elementary schools.

Those items offer their own lessons.


In Haiti, re-building the ground

-- Karla Cook 01-19-2010

In Haiti, re-building the ground

In Port au Prince, the bodies are being buried, small children are alone in clinics and officials fear that thousands of children have been separated from their parents.

Water, food and other emergency aid are beginning to touch the edges of horrific desolation; at the same time, there is a mass exodus from the ruined shanty city to an uncertain future in the countryside.

Two-thirds of Haitians depend on agriculture for their living, Oxfam reports. In this 2008 Joel K. Bourne Jr. story from National Geographic, farmers say "the earth is tired," but in reality, it has washed into the sea with every rain:

Virtually since 1492, when Columbus first set foot on the heavily forested island of Hispaniola, the mountainous nation has shed both topsoil and blood--first to the Spanish, who planted sugar, then to the French, who cut down the forests to make room for lucrative coffee, indigo, and tobacco. Even after Haitian slaves revolted in 1804 and threw off the yoke of colonialism, France collected 93 million francs in restitution from its former colony--much of it in timber. Soon after independence, upper-class speculators and planters pushed the peasant classes out of the few fertile valleys and into the steep, forested rural areas, where their shrinking, intensively cultivated plots of maize, beans, and cassava have combined with a growing fuelwood-charcoal industry to exacerbate deforestation and soil loss. Today less than 4 percent of Haiti's forests remain, and in many places the soil has eroded right down to the bedrock.

Contributing to the deforestation - and to the nation's chronic hunger - was the pig stock slaughter in the '80s, undertaken to contain the highly contagious African Swine Fever. Children quit school, small-scale farmers mortgaged their land, and others cut down trees for cash income from charcoal.

But there is hope in - of all things - toilets. They are the brainchild of ecologist and activist Sasha Kramer, an adjunct professor at the University of Miami, who worked with colleagues to found Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL). The nonprofit group builds composting toilets in rural communities, says the NG writer.

The toilets serve a dual purpose -- they return organic matter and fertility to fields so local food production can go up (the photograph above, from a NYT video, shows the result) - and they prevent fecal contamination of water, a common cause of childhood death, a CNN story says. Indeed, UNICEF estimates that 70 percent of Haitians do not have access to "safe drinking water and adequate sanitation."

In a holiday gift-giving column last year in The New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristof suggested donating to the group. With the exodus to the countryside, the work of SOIL will be all the more urgent.

In parallel, there are the Clemson University researchers who are exploring the use of shipping containers as emergency housing for disaster victims, and the use of

55-gallon steel drums, as a way to create a starter garden - from seed - on the roof of the container homes as a way to get food crops started when the ground may be contaminated by stormwater. Water also would be filtered through the drums before being used in a water pod comprised of shower, sink and composting toilet.

And that water and compost would nourish the soil, which, in turn, would nourish those in desperate need.


Smog, climate change and leftover dinner

-- Karla Cook 01-08-2010

Smog, climate change and leftover dinner

The EPA wants to lower limits on the allowable amount of smog-causing ozone, reports Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post. Smog exposure is linked to heart and respiratory illnesses in humans. Because it also stunts the growth of trees and crops, EPA also will set a secondary limit to protect them during the growing season.

Beyond the diminished yields of crops, there's another link to the food on our plates. A major contributor to ozone is methane, which, in the U.S., comes from the decomposition of wastes in landfills, ruminant digestion and manure management associated with domestic livestock, natural gas and oil systems, and coal mining, the EPA says.

Landfills produce 34 percent of all methane emissions in the U.S. The EPA calculates that 12.7 percent of municipal solid waste landfill material is methane-belching food waste, and that we discard about 25 percent of the food we prepare - about 96 billion pounds - at an annual cost of $1 billion. An editorial in The Guardian reports that halving the amount of food waste in the UK could have the same effect as taking one in four cars off the road.

Now, back to ozone: In 2002, it was reported that a reduction of manmade methane by 50 percent would have a greater impact on global surface-level ozone than a comparable reduction in emissions of nitrogen oxides (a component of ozone that comes from power plants, motor vehicles and the use of nitrogen-based fertilizer, among other sources).

Because ozone and methane are also greenhouse gases, a reduction of methane emissions reduces smog - and will cool the planet, say Robert Watson and Mohamed El-Ashry in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal. They suggest collecting methane in various ways, including

depositing manure into "biogas" digesting tanks where pipes collect methane produced from decomposition; and covering and lining open landfills, shunting methane into a collection pipe...

and using it to run a village or city-scale power plant.

Nice, but you and I can't capture methane. We can, however, reduce our personal contributions to the methane stream with three lifestyle changes:

Eat less meat and fewer dairy products.
Waste less food.
Compost food waste.


Is pink slime in a burger near you?

-- Karla Cook 01-05-2010

Is pink slime in a burger near you?

The USDA, with its Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign, has some explaining to do. In a recent front-page story, Michael Moss of The New York Times explored the agency's endorsement of a company's process for treating beef trimmings with ammonia to kill salmonella and E. coli. The product is now used by McDonald's, Burger King, supermarket chains and the school lunch program.

The process, conducted by South Dakota-based Beef Products, Inc., didn't kill all the pathogens, according to government and industry records obtained by the newspaper, and departments within the federal agency didn't communicate about the findings.

But beyond that, there's the product itself. Called 'pink slime' by a USDA microbiologist, the 'mashlike substance' is made by liquefying the fat from the trimmings, extracting the protein in a centrifuge, exposing it to ammonia gas, flash-freezing it and compressing it into blocks or chips.

Federal officials agreed to the company's request that the ammonia be classified as a "processing agent" and not an ingredient that would be listed on labels.

So the questions: Is pink slime ground beef? How can we know our food if the ingredients label doesn't list everything that's in it?

And, a related story suggests that even if a state chose to label the product as something other than pure beef it may not be allowed. Avery Fellow writes in Courthouse News Service that an appeals court ruled that the Federal Meat Inspection Act trumps California's stricter Proposition 65. The court warned that companies risked USDA 'disapproval' if they created special labels, since the agency has said that

Proposition 65 warnings on government-inspected meat "would only confuse the public as to the wholesomeness of the meat."

The suit was brought by the American Meat Institute and the National Meat Association after a resident sent violation notices to eight meat processors and sellers accusing them of processing or selling ground beef and liver containing cancer-causing PCBs and dioxins without warnings that Proposition 65 would require. Whether the beef contained those toxins was not part of the lawsuit, so the questions linger.

If the origins, processing and contents of the items on our plates aren't part of 'knowing your food,' what is?


A green hedge against winter

-- Karla Cook 12-26-2009

A green hedge against winter

An afterthought is growing on the glass-enclosed front porch, and soon it will fill - and refill - the salad bowl. In early October, I scattered the leftovers of a seed packet over the soil of a forlorn-looking window box, watered it when I remembered and was pleased a couple of weeks later to see lettuce growing.

We brought the box in before the killing frost, and the abundance there against a backdrop of snow, plus encouragement from Sam Kass and Kathleen Merrigan on backyard hoop houses, helped motivate us to create cold frames for the backyard garden.

They will be simply made of translucent plastic with wooden sides, most likely A-framed and sitting within the raised beds. Beneath them, I will start spinach, lacinato kale, chard, collards - and more mesclun. Salads, unlike any other green, provide the gumption required to get through the winter.


Teaching a man to fish

-- Karla Cook 12-12-2009

I grew up in a family that celebrated food. We discussed plans for the next meal at the dinner table. Summers were not idyllic; they meant endless days in our massive garden and late nights of shelling butter beans, harvesting honey, canning tomatoes, putting up food. My father and brother hunted, so the meat on the table was mostly venison, sometimes dove or rabbit that we had cleaned and butchered ourselves. We rarely ate beef, pork or chicken.

So it's painful to imagine the depth and genesis of problems described in Amy Goldstein's piercing story on childhood hunger. In a portrayal of Anajyha, a serious girl who lives with her two brothers and mother who has lost two of her three part-time jobs in Philadelphia, Ms. Goldstein writes:

In her home, in a scuffed neighborhood called Strawberry Mansion a few miles north of the Liberty Bell, food stamps arrive but never last the month. There can be cereal but no milk. Pancake mix and butter but no eggs.

And about Christina Koch, 26:

Not long ago, when she had the money, Koch bought more than 20 boxes of macaroni and cheese and stored them under her kitchen sink. The sink leaked. Every box was ruined.

Then, this:

In early November, when $650 in food stamps came, she splurged on $18 in Chinese takeout. When the food stamps run out, she buys on credit from Indio's Mini Market, a few blocks away. In October, she ended up with a $300 tab.

As Congress prepares to take up reauthorization of the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, perhaps it can mandate and fund classes in self-sufficiency, from pre-K to grade 12 - along with adequate funding for school meals and increased vegetables, whole grains, fruits and whole foods on those trays.) A $650 credit can buy an abundance of nutritious food, but without skills of cooking and planning, hunger can be quickly handled with dry cereal, pancake mix or boxed macaroni and cheese - until the money runs out.

And perhaps lawmakers can also follow the lead of Martha G. Scott, a state senator in Michigan who led the charge to change the payment of food stamp assistance to twice monthly. Ms. Scott's sensible bill (SB 120) signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2008 addresses problems of monthly disbursement: high demand for groceries in only the first 10 days of the month, forcing a boom/bust cycle of fresh foods early in the month that peters out (along with grocery workers' hours) as customers run out of money. And then there's the hunger.

President Barack Obama has pledged to eliminate childhood hunger in the U.S by 2015. As Ms. Goldstein's story shows, other problems of poverty are interwoven as well. How can we teach a man to fish? And to celebrate his catch?


Making a plan to cut out dinnertime takeout

-- Karla Cook 12-08-2009

Making a plan to cut out dinnertime takeout

Snow fell last weekend - just enough to send me out with a bowl and scissors after dark to harvest what I imagined was the last of the Swiss chard. From last winter, I had forgotten the slight crackling of icy snow falling upon all surfaces, the quiet of universal insulation. I cut as much chard as the bowl would hold and brought it in to stir-fry in garlicky olive oil with a splash of lemon and salt for dinner, but there was too much. So rainbow ribbons keep company with six heads of stiff-neck garlic (Persian Star, German Brown, Chesnok Red) in the refrigerator, each awaiting time and a plan.

Time, but mostly planning are keys to cutting out the pricey and unsatisfying takeout habit at dinnertime, and to adding more inexpensive food, more cooking and more baking to everyday life. If I want garlic scapes in the spring, I must make a plan to slide each clove of garlic into the dirt of the long raised bed at the back of the garden now, before the ground freezes. If I want to make a chard tart tonight, I'll read the recipe now to make sure I have ingredients in the house, and that the butter pastry crust from Thanksgiving can be salvaged (doubtful). Further, I can make no cake without butter, sugar, flour, salt and possibly chocolate, nor bread without yeast and flour.

But the chard? It triumphed over the snow. I have too much for only one tart, and a hard freeze is coming. I need another plan.


Providing a point of view on food news

-- Karla Cook 10-30-2009

We celebrate the second anniversary of The Food Times and its foundation of 3,000-some digests of food news and information with an expansion.

Readers expect from web publications a point of view, so we are adding just that. This new column frequently will play off the news, linking one story to another. Other times, it will address the seasons, agriculture, cooking and sustainability, or even the day-to-day challenges and triumphs of using the news that our editors gather to inform modern-day life. News will drive its publication frequency.

We also are simplifying the format - removing the digests and replacing them with linked headlines and the occasional photograph or video, and removing the beta tag that adorned the masthead.

Recalls have been moved off the home page, but they retain their own category.

Please contribute your considered and considerate comments, criticism and suggestions by clicking on the Comments button below. We want to know what you're thinking.