November 30, 2012
It’s not peanut butter jelly time. In fact, put down the peanut butter and walk away slowly. If the spread you are putting on your morning toast is from a jar of Organic Trader Joe’s Creamy Salted Valencia peanut butter, you may just want to stick with jelly. The reason? The Food and Drug Administration issued a summons to shut down the country’s largest organic peanut butter processor earlier this week, per the Associated Press.
Salmonella in peanut butter is no new discovery—in 2007, contaminated Peter Pan products resulted in 329 reported cases in 41 states—and this past September, Trader Joe’s voluntarily recalled its Creamy Salted Valencia Peanut Butter due to contamination with salmonella thought to be from Sunland, Inc., located in Portales, New Mexico. The outbreak of salmonella poisoning—41 people infected in 20 states—has since been traced to the New Mexico plant, which distributes to major food retailers including Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Target. FDA inspections found samples of salmonella in 28 places in the plant—unclean equipment and uncovered trailers of peanuts outside of the factory, too. Not to worry, though, Sunland Inc. hasn’t manufactured peanut butter since the initial voluntary recall in September.
But how does salmonella get into peanut butter in the first place? Dr. Mike Doyle, who has assisted in helping Sunland getting their plants back up and running again and serves as director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, explains that peanuts grow in the ground and can be contaminated from a variety of sources: manure, water, wild animals—even the soil. Studies have shown that once present, salmonella can survive for many months—even years—in peanut butter, according to Scientific American. Before treatment, in fact, about two percent of all peanuts are contaminated with salmonella.
“When harvested, we assume there can be some salmonella present and we have to use a treatment to kill it,” Doyle says. A roaster with air temperatures set to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit destroys salmonella in peanuts. For this reason, this moment in the process is often referred to as the “kill step” by manufacturers. The biggest challenge, then, is to prevent contamination in processing plant after the roasting.
“Water is one of the biggest problems in dry food processing for salmonella proliferation,” Doyle says. “If water is available to salmonella, it will grow.”
Dry food manufacturers like a peanut plants or breakfast cereal producers, for example, must minimize the use of water in the plant. Everything from leaks in the roof to the water used to clean up a mess needs to be controlled.
So what can be done to prevent future contamination? There are a variety of things that can be done to upgrade systems and facilities, Doyle says. But all food processors are different in how they control harmful microbes in their plants. As for the Sunland plant, Doyle says they’ve traced the root cause of the contamination to the roaster room.
“The company is in the process of making changes to prevent future contamination,” he says. “They’re gutting the room—new walls, new floors—and fixing other things that need to be addressed.”
August 6, 2012
In Italy, working on assignment for several magazines, author Bob Spitz got an unusual call from the Italian Trade Commission in 1992.
“Would you like to be an escort for an older woman?”
Spitz was quick to answer, “Lady, I don’t do that kind of work.”
“It’s for Julia Child,” the woman on the phone informed him. Even quicker to answer this time, Spitz said, “I’ll be right over.”
And thus began his month long tour with one of the greatest culinary figures in American history.
Julia Child would have been 100 years old this August 15. Known for her distinct vibrato voice, her height and her role in bringing French food across the Atlantic in the 1960s, Child stood an impressive 6-foot-2 and couldn’t help but be noticed.
The first time Spitz met her, all he could hear was a chorus of lunching Americans chirping, “It’s Julia. It’s Julia.” Seated at a hotel in Taormina, he watched her walk across the piazza. “Every head in the place turned,” he says, everyone referring to her simply as Julia, not Julia Child.
Together the pair ate their way across Sicily, talking about food and reexamining her life. Child had just watched her husband and business partner Paul enter a medical facility as his mental faculties began to fade and she was in a contemplative mood, says Spitz.
Of course, that didn’t diminish her spirit, which Spitz describes as “relentless.” Even though she didn’t particularly care for Italian food (“The sauces were too boring for her”), Child took her tour seriously.
“We went into the restaurants, but then she would head into the kitchen,” often without invitation, says Spitz. “She talked to the chef, she’d shake everybody’s hand in the kitchen, even the busboys and the dishwashers,” Spitz remembers, “And always made sure to count how many women were working in the kitchen.”
If Child received warm receptions from vacationing Americans, the Italian chefs were less than star struck. Many, says Spitz, didn’t even know who she was. “The Italian chefs, most of them men where we went, were not very happy to see a 6-foot-2 woman come into their kitchen and, without asking them, dip her big paw into the stock pot and taste the sauce with her fingers.” Her brash behavior often brought reproachful, murderous stares, says Spitz. Not easily daunted, she found it amusing. “She would say to me, ‘Oh, they don’t speak English. Look at them! They don’t know what I’m made of. They don’t know what to do with me.’ It was great,” Spitz says.
Few people in Child’s life seemed to know what to do with her. She grew up in a conservative family in Pasadena, Calif. playing tennis and basketball. After college and a brief copywriting career in New York, she headed back home and volunteered with the Junior League. Craving adventure, she tried to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps but was too tall. Instead, she wound up in the Office of Strategic Services, beginning her career in Sri Lanka in 1944 before heading to China and eventually France after Paul was assigned there.
The rest is a familiar history. She developed a devoted passion for French food and technique, trained and worked tirelessly to record her findings. The first volume of her Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961, with a second volume to come in 1970. In between, she began her TV career hosting “The French Chef.”
“She never tried to work on a personality,” Spitz says of the show’s success. “The day she first walked on TV, it was all there–the whole Julia Child persona was intact.”
Her dedication to getting real French food into American homes that were used to TV dinners and Jello desserts energized every episode. But Spitz insists, she didn’t just change the way Americans ate, she changed the way they lived.
Given the opportunity to clear one thing up, Spitz has one misconception on his mind: “Julia never dropped anything. People swear she dropped chickens, roasts–never happened.” Likewise, the mythology around her drinking on the show, which was limited to the close of each show when she sat down to enjoy her meal, also developed its own life. “Julia was by no means a lush,” says Spitz. “Although,” he adds, “when we were in Sicily, she consumed alcohol in quantities that made my eyes bug out.”
“She was a woman who liked adventure,” Spitz says. The pair would sometimes tour the Italian countryside by motorcycle. “Just knowing that this 80-year-old, 6-foot-2 woman, no less Julia Child was on the back of a motorcycle, riding with me–it told me everything I needed to know about her.”
Spitz will read from and discuss his new biography, Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, Wednesday, August 8, at 7 p.m. at the Natural History Museum. He will also attend the 100th anniversary celebration August 15.
July 19, 2012
Beating the lazy, mid-afternoon summer heat with a cold energy drink?
Energy drinks are a staple among active Americans, who substitute the canned, sugary beverages for coffee or tea and have launched brands like Red Bull, Monster and Rockstar to the top of a $7.7 billion industry. Not only do energy drinks pack a caffeine-punch, they are filled with energy-boosting supplements.
It’s a tough call whether the benefits associated with supplemental boosters outweigh all the unhealthy sugars that give energy drinks their sweet flavor. Red Bull contains 3.19 grams of sugar per fluid ounce, Monster contains 3.38 g/oz. and Rockstar has 3.75 g/oz. Marketed as health drinks, energy drinks are as high in sugar as classic Coca-Cola, which contains 3.25 g/oz. of sugar.
So what exactly are those “energy-boosting natural supplements” that supposedly set energy drinks apart from other sugary beverages — and how do they affect the bodies of those who consume energy drinks?
Taurine: Although it sounds as though it was dreamed up in a test-lab, taurine isn’t foreign to the human body. Its name stems from the fact it was first discovered and isolated from ox bile, but the naturally-occurring supplement is the second-most abundant amino acid in our brain tissue, and is also found in our bloodstream and the nervous system.
The taurine used in energy drinks is produced synthetically in commercial laboratories. Since excess taurine is excreted by the kidneys, it’s improbable that someone could overdose on the supplemental form. To be on the safe side, one expert recommends staying under 3,000 mg per day. Animal experiments have shown that taurine acts as an antioxidant and may have anti-anxiety and anti-epileptic properties. Some studies have even suggested that dosages of the amino acid may help to stave off age-related bodily degeneration.
And taurine’s anti-anxiety effects might be useful when consumed as part of an energy drink; the amount of accompanying stimulant found in popular beverages is capable of causing some seriously anxious jitters.
Guarana: The caffeine component of many energy drinks is guarana, which comes from a flowering plant native to the Amazon rainforest. In fact, most people in South America get their caffeine intake from the guarana plant rather than coffee beans. Guarana seeds are about the same size as a coffee bean, but their caffeine potency can be up to three times as strong.
Both coffee and guarana have weight-loss inducing effects through the suppression of appetite, a common side-effect of caffeine. Although caffeine can improve mental alertness, it can also cause dizziness, nervousness, insomnia, increased heart rate and stomach irritation.
Ginseng: Some of the most interesting, if not debatable, effects come from supplemental Panax ginseng, which is included in 200mg doses in several energy drink brands. As a traditional herbal treatment associated with East Asian medicines, ginseng has many folkloric uses — although many of those uses are not proven scientifically. Rumored uses for ginseng have included improved psychologic functioning, boosted immune defenses and increased sexual performance and desire.
Myths aside, ginseng does offer some attractive benefits. Studies have indicated positive correlation between daily ginseng intake and improved immune system responses, suggesting ginseng has anti-bacterial qualities in addition to boosting a body’s “good” cells.
Ginseng has also been shown in animal and clinical studies to have anticancer properties, due to the presence of ginsenosides within the extract of the plant. Ginsenosides are a type of saponins, which act to protect the plant from microbes and fungal and have been described as being “tumor killers”. Scientists are still working to understand the effects of ginseng supplements for use in preventative and post-diagnosis cancer treatment.
Energy drinks may be overhyped as a source of supplemental substances. All of the supplements found in energy drinks can be bought individually as dietary supplements, which allows consumers to ingest the substances without the complementary sugar load found in energy drinks.
Please, though, if you’ve ever sprouted wings after chugging back an energy drink, we’d like to be the first to know.
January 20, 2012
The Perennial Plate is an online documentary series by Daniel Klein about food and communities. Season 1 had a Minnesota and Midwest focus. Season 2, which is still being rolled out, covers the continental United States.
Gilt Taste’s stories section is also worth watching as a “must-read” site. It started up last spring. While the section can get a little recipe-heavy during the holiday season, it features stories about food and culture from a wide variety of writers.
McSweeney’s, the book publisher, is putting out David Chang’s dude-centric Lucky Peach and also, get this, a cookbook written by Eat Pray Love‘s Liz Gilbert’s grandma.
Nicola Twilley of Foodprint/Edible Geography. She writes about “smellscapes,” the odors that define certain places; wacky food-based artists; edible insects; and she runs a lot of Q&As with interesting characters.
January 9, 2012
When salmon swim into the open ocean, the fish essentially disappear. They travel thousands of miles for one to seven years and then, against all odds, they head home—and not just home in the general sense of the word. Salmon go back to the exact location, the exact river, lake, or stream where they were born. The fish launch themselves hundreds or thousands of miles upstream, then dig a little nest called a “redd” and mate, often their final act before dying.
For years, scientists wondered: How do salmon find their way home? What is the mechanism that they use? Do they navigate using the ocean’s currents, temperature gradients, a solar compass, the polarity of light underwater, or the earth’s magnetism? “There had been many suggestions because it’s a great question,” says Gene Likens, an ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York. “How does that work?”
Here’s where Arthur Hasler comes in. Hasler grew up in Utah. As a boy he hiked in the Rocky Mountains and eventually went out on mission to Germany (he’s a Mormon). He ended up in Madison, Wisconsin, where he studied zoology and founded lakes studies in the United States. One day in 1946, he went back to Utah on a vacation, to the Wasatch Range, where he had spent much of his time as a boy.
As Likens told me: “He was riding a horse in Utah, on a trail, and came up over a ridge, and he noticed that there was a familiar smell. It smelled like an area that he was used to—that was familiar.” As Likens writes,
He suddenly had what he called a déjà senti experience, “as a cool breeze, bearing the fragrance of mosses and columbine, swept around the rocky abutment, the details of this waterfall and its setting on the face of the mountain suddenly leapt into my mind’s eye.”
“So that was his ‘Aha’ moment!” Likens told me. “He thought, ‘Well, maybe salmon do the same thing, maybe they can smell their home river.’
Others had previously speculated that fish used of odors as homing cues, but Hasler and Warren Wisby introduced the idea of olfactory imprinting in the American Naturalist in 1951. They then went on to show that salmon had an extremely sensitive sense of smell: They could detect one or very few molecules in their nasal chambers. Salmon with plugged nostrils (olfactory pits) were unable to find their way home. The fish’s powerful, ingrained sense of smell allows them to return to the exact stream of their birth for spawning.
“If you think about it, we all do that,” Likens says. “When you come into your house and put on a familiar jacket, it may have a familiar smell.”
It’s almost seems like Hasler took a page from Proust—only if Proust dipped his Petite Madeleine in tisane, then Hasler immersed himself in his waterfall.
I generally don’t believe in epiphanies. In my experience, discoveries and breakthroughs tend to be the result of a slow process, a large accumulations of small things, so that’s why I think Hasler’s revelation is worth sharing—for any of us, trying to find our way home, wherever and whenever that might be.
As Smithsonian’s newest contributor, I’m excited to find a new home to explore the wonder and awe found in our food, where science intersects with storytelling, where epiphanies can cross species and senses and where what we put in our mouths can reveal something greater about the world. I look forward to you joining me in Food & Think.