January 14, 2013
Filmmaker Byron Hurt’s father died at age 63 from pancreatic cancer. To the end, Hurt says, his father loved soul food, as well as fast food, and could not part with the meals he had known since childhood. Hurt began to look at the statistics. The rate of obesity for African Americans is 51 percent higher than it is for whites. He saw a long list of associated risks, including cancers, heart disease and diabetes. Black females and males are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Looking around at his own community, Hurt had to ask, “Are we a nation of soul food junkies?” The search for an answer led him to his newest documentary, “Soul Food Junkies,” premiering tonight on PBS.
The film includes interviews with historians, activists and authors to create an informative and deeply personal journey through soul food’s history. Hurt unpacks the history of soul food, from its roots predating slavery to the Jim Crow South to the modern day reality of food deserts and struggles for food justice. One woman interviewed, who served Freedom Riders and civil rights activists in her restaurant’s early days, tells Hurt that being able to care for these men and women who found little love elsewhere gave her power.
Now a healthy eater, Hurt says he hopes the documentary can speak to others who find their families facing similar discussions around health, while also telling the story of soul food.
A lot of people give their definitions in the documentary, but how do you define soul food?
When I think about soul food, I think about my mother’s collard greens, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and sweet potato pies. I think about her delicious cakes, her black-eyed peas, her lima beans and her kale. That’s how I define real good soul food.
Was that what was typically on the table growing up?
It was a pretty typical meal growing up. Soul food was a really big part of my family’s cultural culinary traditions but it’s also a big part of my “family.” If you go to any black family reunion or if you go to a church picnic or you go to an [historically black college and university] tailgate party, you’ll see soul food present nine times out of ten.
Why do you think it’s persisted and is so popular?
Well, it’s a tradition and traditions really die hard. Soul food is a culinary tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. People are very emotionally connected to it. When you talk about changing soul food, people become unsettled, territorial, resistant. It’s hard. A lot of people, to be quite honest with you, were very afraid of how I was going to handle this topic because people were afraid that I was going to slam soul food or say that we had to give up soul food and that soul food was all bad.
My intent was really to explore this cultural tradition more deeply and to try and figure out for myself why my father could not let it go, even when he was sick, even when he was dying. It was very difficult for him, so I wanted to explore that and expand it out to the larger culture and say what’s going on here? Why is it that this food that we love so much is so hard to give up?
Where does some of the resistance to change come from?
I think the sentiment that a lot of people have is that this is the food that my grandmother ate, that my great-grandfather ate, and my great-great-grandfather ate, and if it was good enough for them, then it is good enough for me, and why should I change something that has been in my family for generations?
How were you able to make the change?
Through education and awareness. There was this woman I was interested in dating years ago, when I first graduated from college. So I invited her over to my apartment and I wanted to impress her so I decided to cook her some fried chicken. I learned how to cook fried chicken from my mother.
She came over and I had the chicken seasoned up and ready to put into this huge vat of grease that had been cooking and boiling for awhile. She walked into the kitchen and said, “Are you going to put that chicken inside that grease?”
That was the first time that anyone had sort of challenged that. To me it was normal to cook fried chicken. Her mother was a nutritionist and so she grew up in a household where she was very educated about health and nutrition. So she said, this is not healthy. I had never been challenged before, she was someone I was interested in, so from that day forward I started to really reconsider how I was preparing my chicken.
When she challenged you, did you take it personally at first?
I think I was a little embarrassed. It was like she knew something that I didn’t know, and she was sort of rejecting something that was really important to me, so I felt a little embarrassed, a little bit ashamed. But I wasn’t offended by it. It was almost like, “Wow, this person knows something that I don’t, so let me listen to what she has to say about it,” and that’s pretty much how I took it.
How would you describe your relationship with soul food today?
I do eat foods that are a part of the soul food tradition but I just eat them very differently than how I ate them growing up. I drink kale smoothies in the morning. If I go to a soul food restaurant, I’ll have a vegetarian plate. I’ll typically stay away from the meats and the poultry.
The film looks beyond soul food to the issue of food deserts and presents a lot of people in those communities organizing gardens and farmers markets and other programs. Were you left feeling hopeful or frustrated?
I’m very hopeful. There are people around the country doing great things around food justice and educating people who don’t have access to healthy, nutritious foods and fruits and vegetables on how they can eat better and have access to foods right in their neighborhoods…I think that we’re in the midst of a movement right now.
How are people reacting to the film?
I think the film is really resonating with people, especially among African American people because this is the first film that I know of that speaks directly to an African American audience in ways that Food, Inc., Supersize Me, King Corn, The Future of Food, Forks over Knives and other films don’t necessarily speak to people of color. So this is really making people talk.
January 9, 2013
Dan Koester wants to assure you, there’s nothing to fear. Despite having names such as the Worthy Adversary, Alimony Ale and Nippletop Milk Stout, craft beers aren’t as intimidating as they appear, though just try ordering a Fulton Lonely Blonde without feeling like a crusty, old sailor. But Koester, craft enthusiast and author of The Definitive Guide to Buying Craft Beer: Discover Everything You Need to Know About Buying and Enjoying Craft Beer, says craft beer is for everyone.
“I think the group in general, the people who are enjoying craft beer, is just a very laid-back group,” says Koester, who sports a respectable mustache and hails from the brew-loving land of Wisconsin. During the day, he’s conscientious, Oak Creek Dental Care Dr. Koester, but in his free time, he’s a bit of a Renaissance man, restoring old cars, biking with his family and trying any craft beer he comes across.
After sampling craft beers his son was bringing home while working at a liquor store, Koester began exploring a world previously unknown to him. Now he travels the country, most recently to Oregon, to try as many varieties as possible.
His interest coincides with a national boom in the craft industry. After a serious slump post-Prohibition, large companies were the only survivors, acquiring smaller operations so that by the end of the 1970s, there were only 44 brewing companies in the country, according to the Brewers Association. Koester says homebrewing grew in popularity in response to industry consolidation. Craft breweries blossomed from basements and garages and, as regulations began recognizing the smaller breed of brewers, craft beer gained a foothold in the market. Over at the Atlantic Cities, Richard Florida sifted through the data to figure out why craft brewing seemed to boom in certain states. Interestingly, the state comparison revealed that income played less of a role than education level (the higher the level, the more breweries abound). Florida also found some interesting corollaries:
“…craft brewing is more closely associated with higher levels of happiness and well-being (0.47).”
“Curiously, there was a negative connection between craft breweries and two other unhealthy behaviors or “sins” — smoking (-0.28) and even more so with obesity (-0.54).”
Some states have even begun trying to attract craft brewers as a way to boost local economies. And, in true trendsetting fashion, American craft brewers are now feeding demand in Europe, according to PRI’s The World, who argue that the big shift came two years ago at Munich’s Oktoberfest when a Samuel Adams beer took home gold. The victory in the heart of European beer country was compared to the famous Judgement of Paris in 1976 when two California wines bested the competition in a blind tasting.
There are now 2,126 breweries in the country, according to the Brewers Association, with 2,075 considered craft breweries, meaning they produce 6 million barrels of beer per year or fewer.
Before you get overwhelmed by the choices, Koester offers his expertise on everything from food pairings to essential questions to ask before you buy a drink.
On food pairings:
Spicy Foods: “With spicier food, Mexican food, that sort of thing, I like the Scotch Ales, they go very well with spicy food,” says Koester, singling out Samuel Adams’ version of it in particular.
Best Bets: For a gold medal-winning brew, try Oskar Blues Brewing’s Old Chub Scottish ale, which placed first in its category at the U.S. Beer Championships. The beer is “brewed with bodacious amounts of malted barley and specialty grains, and a dash of beechwood-smoked malt,” creating a flavor profile “of cocoa and coffee, and a kiss of smoke.”
Heavy Foods: ”The more bitter, hoppy beers, which I do like a lot, the IPAs and Imperial IPAs
like a Russian Imperial Stout, go really well with German food. The heavier, meatier foods seem to go well with the bitter, hoppy beers,” says Koester.
Best Bets: The Alchemist Brewery’s Heady Topper, with a promise to put hair on your chest, took the top honors over at Beer Advocate in the Imperial IPA category. And Paste Magazine nominated Great Divide Brewing Company’s Hercules, also a double IPA, for its balanced flavor and hoppy finish.
Sweet and…Sweet: With the glut of holiday cookies upon us, Koester says you can’t go wrong pairing a similarly sweet brew with a sweet treat. “Something like an Abbey Triple or a fruitier beer, a Lambic, with something sweet goes very well,” says Koester.
Best Bets: Developed from a Belgian recipe from the 1300s, the Allagash Brewing Company makes a Coolship Resurgam that the Wall Street Journal calls, “clean and tart with an effervescent strawberry finish.”
On craft beers for wine lovers:
So maybe you remember a little too well the stale, pale flavor of college party beers past though you wish you didn’t. For whatever reason, you’re a wine-only person. To get out of your grape rut, Koester again recommends starting with something like a Lambic, known for a refreshing, bubbly profile with hints of fruit that should appeal to the wine-lover’s palate.
Best Bets: And for another great Lambic from abroad, the New York Times likes Lindemans Cuvée René as an older, aged variety “with wonderful raspberry aromas that combined with a sort of earthiness.” For a sweeter finish, the New York Times suggests, De Troch Apricot Chapeau from Noble Union Trading, saying it had a ”nut flavor almost like Turkish delight.”
On beginner brews:
“A lot of the things that will turn people on or off is how bitter is the beer,” says Koester. “I think that’s a very basic question: Do you like more of a sweet or milder beer?” Because the hoppier brews can be a bit strong for beginners, he says brown and amber ales tend to cut a middle road. “They have some bitterness, some hoppiness, but they’re also a very flavorful malty beer.”
Best Bets: Tröegs Brewing Company’s amber ale, Nugget Nectar, has the highest user-generated score of any amber ale over at Beer Advocate. Available February through March, the brew promises to “take hopheads to nirvana with a heady collection of Nugget, Warrior and Tomahawk hops.” Meanwhile, Red Brick’s version, Laughing Skull, placed first in its category at the 2011 U.S. Beer Championships with its signature zombie logo.
December 14, 2012
It’s Christmas Eve in Japan. Little boys and girls pull on their coats, the twinkle of anticipation in their eyes. Keeping the tradition alive, they will trek with their families to feast at … the popular American fast food chain KFC.
Christmas isn’t a national holiday in Japan—only one percent of the Japanese population is estimated to be Christian—yet a bucket of “Christmas Chicken” (the next best thing to turkey—a meat you can’t find anywhere in Japan) is the go-to meal on the big day. And it’s all thanks to the insanely successful “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!) marketing campaign in 1974.
When a group of foreigners couldn’t find turkey on Christmas day and opted for fried chicken instead, the company saw this as a prime commercial opportunity and launched its first Christmas meal that year: Chicken and wine for
834 2,920 yen($10)—pretty pricey for the mid-seventies. Today the christmas chicken dinner (which now boasts cake and champagne) goes for about 3,336 yen ($40).
And the people come in droves. Many order their boxes of ”finger lickin’” holiday cheer months in advance to avoid the lines—some as long as two hours.
The first KFC Japan opened in Nagoya in 1970 and quickly gained popularity. (There are now over 15,000 KFC outlets in 105 countries and territories around the world.) That same year, at the World Exposition in Osaka, KFC and other American fast food chains like McDonald’s were met with great market testing results and helped jump start the westernized “fast food” movement in Japan. After the big commercial push in ’74, the catchphrase “Christmas=Kentucky” paired with plenty of commercials on TV caught on.
The “Americaness” and simplicity of the message rather than any religious associations with the holiday is what makes it appealing. The Financial Times reports:
“Japan is well known for taking foreign products and ideas and adapting them to suit domestic taste, and Christmas is no exception. A highly commercialised and non-religious affair, lots of money is spent annually on decorations, dinners and gifts. KFC is arguably the biggest contributor, thanks in part to its advertising campaign.
‘One of the reasons the campaign lasted so long is that the message is always the same: at Christmas you eat chicken,’ said Yasuyuki Katagi, executive director at Ogilvy and Mather Japan, the advertising agency.”
These days, KFC records its highest sales volume each year on Christmas eve. Back office staff, presidents and execs come out to help move the lines along. Fried chicken and Christmas have become synonymous: KFC’s advertisements feature major pop cultural figures chomping on drumsticks, the company website even has a countdown until Christmas.
And this year, the company launched a campaign that takes the holiday hype to new heights. From December 1 through February 28 passengers on select trips between Tokyo and eight U.S. and European destinations can enjoy KFC in-flight.
But Japan’s love of American fast food does not dim with the Christmas lights once December 25 has come and gone—KFC’s ability to take its traditional foods and adapt them to Japanese culture has made a bucket of chicken a meal worth having year round. This April, they opened a three-story restaurant at the south entrance of Shimokitazawa station in Tokyo which offers the company’s first-ever, fully stocked whiskey bar—what their website says gives visitors a taste of “Good ‘ol America.”
Though, if you ever find yourself in Japan and not in the mood for fried chicken, Wendy’s Japan offers a $16 foie-gras-and-truffle burger.
December 10, 2012
When Starbucks announced in late November that it was unveiling a new $7-per-grande-cup brew in select stores, reaction was mixed. Seattle Weekly’s food writer, Hanna Raskin wrote about an office taste test, “The consensus was that the coffee’s good, but not appreciably better than Starbucks’ standard drip.” And yet, the Costa Rica Finca Palmilera Geisha has been doing okay. The Los Angeles Times reported that the online stock sold out in 24 hours, at $40 a bag.
While the news might elicit a Liz-Lemon worthy eye-roll or shooting pangs of jealousy depending on the person, it might actually be something we just have to get used to. Published just a few weeks before Starbucks unrolled its cup of liquid gold, a study from the Royal Botanic Gardens in the U.K. and the Environment Coffee Forest Forum in Ethiopia warned that up to 70 percent of the world’s coffee supply could be gone by 2080 due to climate change.
Turns out, the warnings are actually pretty consistent across the board, the World Bank is practically hoarse with all its calls for caution. On November 18, the World Bank released a new study about the effects of climate change over a long period of time, concluding, “The world is barreling down a path to heat up by 4 degrees at the end of the century if the global community fails to act on climate change, triggering a cascade of cataclysmic changes that include extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks and a sea-level rise affecting hundreds of millions of people.”
New York University associate professor of food studies and economist Carolyn Dimitri says attention to the vulnerability of the world’s food systems is a step in the right direction but not enough. “These are really big and important groups that are talking about this, but how are they going to gain traction given the way our food system has become so industrialized?”
As someone who’s been studying organic food marketing and access since her days at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dimitri says she wasn’t too surprised to hear about the $7 coffee. “Living in Manhattan,” she says, “people would probably pay even more than that for a cup of coffee.” She sees the launch as a way to appeal to a new set of customers who might have seen Starbucks as selling adequate but not speciality coffee, whether it be for taste or for its unique ethical sourcing, which Starbucks is seeking to expand.
Though Starbucks aims to have all of its coffee meet standards for farmer wages and working conditions by 2015, Dimitri says, “My students tend to be a little bit suspicious of the big companies that enter this area,” as when Walmart began carrying organic products. But Dimitri has a hard time criticizing large companies motives if the end result is an improved livelihood for farmers. Ethical sourcing practices, as defined by Conservation International, include provisions for environmental sustainability as well as economic.
But the commitment is hard to measure. Taking Starbucks as an example, Dimitri says, “You can do a good thing but really a better thing would be for no one to buy coffee in a coffee shop in a disposable cup. Does ethically sourcing some of your coffee, is that sufficient to outweigh all of the garbage that’s created?”
The impact of climate change is hard to estimate but the study out of Ethiopia took predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to ask what would happen to Arabica bean crops if the temperature increased within a range of 1.8° C to 4° C.
The potential losses would not only mean more expensive coffee for consumers, but fewer jobs and less economic stability for producers. According to the report, “total coffee sector employment [is] estimated at about 26 million people in 52 producing countries.” The study also reports that coffee is the second most traded commodity after oil.
In another alarm-sounding report from the World Bank, the development agency writes that though global food prices have fallen from a peak in July, “prices remain at high levels – 7 percent higher than a year ago.” Some specific crop prices are much higher still, including maize, which is 17 percent more expensive than it was in October, 2011.
In the case of coffee, Colombia recently announced a plan to offer insurance to growers to protect them from losses incurred from severe weather, according to South Africa’s Times Live.
“More people should be thinking about it and talking about it,” says Dimitri. “I don’t think that our policymakers take it as seriously as the researchers do.”
For the consumers who are concerned and have the means and access to purchase sustainably, ethically produced foods, Dimitri says, “they’re willing to make sacrifices in other areas.”
Through a sheer appeal to quality, Starbucks is hoping consumers will find that reason enough to spend on the newest varietal in its Reserve line. Plus, it’s actually not the most expensive cup of coffee ever sold, if you count add-ons. One customer with a veritable blank-check coupon went wild crafting the priciest drink he could, according to Piper Weiss, and topped out at $23.60. His drink–if you can really still call it that–consisted of, “one Java Chip Frappucino ($4.75), plus 16 shots of espresso ($12), a shot of soy milk (.60), a drop of caramel flavoring (.50), a scoop of banana puree ($1), another scoop of strawberry puree (.60), a few vanilla beans(.50), a dash of Matcha powder (.75), some protein powder (.50) and a caramel and mocha drizzle to cap it off (.60).”
Still, for a straight up cup of Joe, it takes the cake. ”It is the highest price we’ve ever had,” a spokesperson told CNBC, adding, “It raises the bar.”
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.”