February 22, 2010
Last week Nadia Arumugam in Slate validated my long-standing skepticism about food expiration dates. I have always operated on the assumption that if food looks okay, smells okay and tastes okay, it should be fine. I have been known to cut mold off a block of cheese and eat the rest.
As Arumugam writes, the government mandates dates only on baby formula and some baby food. The rest of the dates came about voluntarily. She writes, “In the 1930s, the magazine Consumer Reports argued that Americans increasingly looked to expiration dates as an indication of freshness and quality. Supermarkets responded and in the 1970s some chains implemented their own dating systems.” One of the problem with the dates, says Arumugam, is the lack of consistency in the terms surrounding the dates. What’s the difference between “sell by,” “best if used by” and “use by”? Even though the F.D.A. doesn’t mandate the use of them, it does offer some advice to decoding the terms. None of them, not even the “use by” date are considered safety dates. The food might not be at peak quality after the date, but it can still be eaten safely. Even the “use by” dates on baby food are related to nutrient retention and texture rather than safety. I had always suspected that the printed expiration dates on food were more about protecting the companies than the consumers. But Arumugam writes that the dates don’t even have any legal bearing. Last year, a judge reversed the conviction of a man who relabeled more than a million bottles of salad dressing with a new “best when purchased date.” This extended the shelf life of the product so he could continue to sell them. In the reversal, the judge said, “The term ‘expiration date’ … on a food product … has a generally understood meaning: it is the date after which you shouldn’t eat the product. Salad dressing, however, or at least the type of salad dressing represented by Henri’s, is what is called ‘shelf stable’; it has no expiration date.” Even though the company decided to print a date on the package, a judge dismissed the date as not having any legal worth. When it comes down to it, it’s really the consumers job to determine when to toss food. And that’s the conclusion Arumugam comes to. But she also brings up an interesting point: “Better yet, we should focus our efforts on what really matters to our health—not spoilage bacteria, which are fairly docile, but their malevolent counterparts: disease-causing pathogens like salmonella and Listeria, which infect the food we eat not because it’s old but as a result of unsanitary conditions at factories or elsewhere along the supply chain.” (Soda fountains, for instance, or slaughterhouses or turkey farms.) Unfortunately, the solution to that problem isn’t as simple as a date stamped on an egg carton.
February 16, 2010
The restaurant where I work has been collecting order forms for king cakes for the past few weeks. The other night, a woman who had recently moved to the States asked me about the cake and its importance to American culture. Unfortunately, all I could tell her at the time was that it is served during Mardi Gras and is very popular in New Orleans. But the cake’s history actually starts way back in Europe.
In the book “Mardi Gras, gumbo, and zydeco: readings in Louisiana culture,” Marcia Gaudet writes an essay about today’s king cake and the European Epiphany cake from which it evolved. The Feast of Epiphany is celebrated in many Western branches of the Christian faith on January 6, the proverbial “twelfth day of Christmas.” It commemorates the day when the three wise men—also called magi, or kings—arrived in Bethlehem bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. Epiphany is also the start of the traditional Mardi Gras season.
King cake is traditionally a yeast-based sweet bread baked in the shape of a crown, covered with white icing and gold, purple and green sprinkles—the official colors of the carnival. Although Mardi Gras itself can be traced back to the medieval ages, the colors weren’t chosen until 1872. Gold represents power; purple is for justice, and green represents faith.
Another key element is the inclusion of a trinket inside the cake. The trinket is often a tiny baby figurine that represents the baby Jesus, but it can also be a bean, an almond, a horseshoe or many other things. Whoever gets the token in their piece is considered the king—or queen—and becomes responsible for the next king cake. Of course, this custom varies from place to place and family to family.
Although it’s not clear when or why the cake tradition migrated from Epiphany to later in the Mardi Gras festival, Gaudet theorizes that it has to do with other Epiphany-related customs, such as gift-giving, being observed in conjunction with the Christmas holiday.
I was surprised to learn that unlike other tradition-centric holiday foods, the king cake is usually bought rather than made at home. (If you’re feeling ambitious, though, here’s a recipe.) Even Gaudet’s grandmother in New Orleans did not make her own—in an 1899 diary entry, she wrote that she and her aunt picked up a king cake at the store for King’s Day.
The cake has made the leap from New Orleans to other cities in the United States as the Mardi Gras celebration becomes more widespread. But I think Gaudet has the cake’s popularity figured out: “[King cake] also provides both Cajuns and ‘newcomers’ a means of participating in a food custom that is certainly easier to adapt to than eating boudin and crawfish.”
I can’t speak for boudin, which is a word used to describe various sausages used in Creole and Cajun cuisine, but I had a rather unfortunate experience with a crawfish during last year’s Mardi Gras and won’t be eating that again. A cake covered in frosting and sprinkles, however? No problem at all.
February 11, 2010
Sweets are not in short supply around Valentine’s Day. But here’s an option a little more sophisticated than candy hearts or chocolate kisses: try Red Velvet cake. The rich red color always surprises people and makes it perfect for a holiday that is celebrated with a lot of crimson.
This allegedly Southern gem has been gaining some popularity, see 1989′s Steel Magnolias and Jessica Simpson’s wedding cake for her 2002 nuptials to Nick Lachey. The New York Times noticed the trend in 2007, and said that more than 20 bakeries in New York City were serving the dessert.
The cake gets it red color from copious amounts of red food coloring, though beets have been used in times of war rationing and recently as a concession to the health-food craze. (But it is cake after all–it isn’t supposed to be healthy.) My favorite versions are covered in cream cheese frosting—a sweet but tangy layer on top.
The origin of the cake, like that of so many of our favorite foods, is less than clear. One of the most popular stories is that the cake was invented at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. An urban myth held that a woman asked for the cake recipe, was charged a ridiculous amount of money for it, and then circulated the recipe in revenge. A version of this myth has been spreading for decades, most recently related to a cookie recipe from Neiman Marcus.
The first credible reference to red velvet cake comes in 1972′s American Cookery by famed chef and food writer James Beard. He notes that the reaction between the buttermilk and vinegar—both common ingredients in red velvet recipes—can enhance the reddish color of cocoa powder. In the days before Dutch-processed cocoa powder was widely used, natural cocoa powder had more of a reddish tint. The use of processed powder might have necessitated the use of food coloring.
After I discovered the cake in junior high, I brought Red Velvet cupcakes into class for every Valentine’s Day party. The cake was relatively unknown in Chicago, where I grew up, and never failed to get a smile or two.
February 1, 2010
My roommate recently asked me to pick up a few bottles of agave nectar for her at the store. She works at a restaurant and was using it for a signature cocktail. Not wanting to seem ignorant, I agreed. I had no idea what the stuff was. When I got to the store, I found it sitting innocently next to the honey. It looked pretty similar.
To start, an introduction: Agave nectar is a natural sweetener, sweeter than honey though thinner, that is derived from the agave plant. (The sweetest variety, the blue agave, is the plant from which tequila is born.) Agave is an important crop in the Mexican regions of Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas. The juice from the center of the plant is heated and processed to produce a syrup.
Agave nectar is being marketed as a healthy alternative to other sugars, and Americans are taking the bait. According to a 2009 Los Angeles Times article, sales of agave products more than tripled in number between 2003 and 2007.
Agave nectar is beloved by vegans in search of a replacement for honey. (The debate over whether or not honey is vegan has been going on for a long time.)
One selling point of agave nectar is the type of sugar molecule that gives it its sweetness. Table sugar, sucrose, breaks down into two simpler sugars, fructose and glucose. Agave nectar can be made of up to 90 percent fructose, although the percentage varies from producer to producer and can be as low as 55 percent. It’s not clear that fructose is any healthier than glucose, though, or than the related and lately maligned high fructose corn syrup.
When it comes down to it, agave nectar is still sugar. To quote Kantha Shelke, a food chemist specializing in natural foods, from the Los Angeles Times article, “A sugar is a sugar is a sugar.”
January 26, 2010
Amanda recently wrote about cinnamon having a reputation as a good food for healthy eyes, and it got me thinking about spices. I tend to think of them merely as flavor, but cinnamon isn’t the only spice that people are investigating for its possible health benefits. I was looking for a recipe for sweet potato curry the other night and remembered another spice that some people think of as a health food: turmeric.
Turmeric is a rhizome, like ginger, that is native to South Asia and used commonly in curries. It’s famous for its yellow color, which stains almost everything it comes in contact with—even your skin.
Last year in TIME magazine, Dr. Scott Haig penned a piece about turmeric relieving pain in a patient of his who took capsules of the stuff daily. (The story was anecdotal and rightly labeled “one doctor’s opinion.”) Turmeric made Oprah’s list as a top 25 superfood for 2010.
Asian cultures have been using the spice for centuries. In India, turmeric has been used in Ayurveda medical practices as a “blood purifier.” Traditionally, it is ingested to treat indigestion, gas, liver and urinary tract diseases. It is also used as a salve for skin diseases and inhaled to alleviate the symptoms of the common cold.
Recently, curcumin, a chemical found in turmeric and other spices, has been the subject of research testing its effect on cancer, cystic fibrosis and Alzheimer’s disease among others. A cancer research center in Ireland found that curcumin began to kill cancer cells in 24 hours. Curcumin has also been tested, with some success, as an anti-inflammatory. Most of the research is still preliminary, but it might yield some interesting results.
My guess is that with the Oprah effect, jars of turmeric will be flying off the shelves this year. I’d resist the urge to pop pills of the yellow stuff until more substantial evidence comes along, however. But having an extra curry dish here and there couldn’t hurt. Turmeric isn’t just for curry either, I put it on baked chicken breasts and to add some kick to rice.