April 16, 2012
Blame Martha. Since the early 1990s, when Martha Stewart Living Magazine published a recipe for ramps, the onion-like bulbs have gone from a rite of spring in Southern mountain culture to a compulsory purchase for those buying their way towards a foodie merit badge. Ramps taste sweet, almost like spring onions, with a strong garlic-like aroma. The plant proliferates in woodlands from Canada to Georgia and probably gave the city of Chicago its name; chicagoua appears to be a native Illinois name for what French explorers called ail sauvage, or “wild garlic.” But the recent commercial exploitation may be taking its toll.
Take one case study in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For years, the superintendent’s compendium allowed foragers to collect a half a peck of ramps. The belief was that small harvests didn’t represent a threat to the sustainability of the ephemeral woodland plant—even though, unlike collecting nuts and berries, ramp foragers dig up the entire plant. “We let this go on because we thought that it was something that was going to die out with the old timers,” Janet Rock, a botanist with the National Park Service, told me. “It turned out that it just became more and more and popular. Rangers were seeing people take a lot out of the park—more than a peck a day for personal consumption.”
Beginning in 1989, Rock and researchers at the University of Tennessee conducted a five-year study. It’s one of the few scientific studies of ramp harvesting out there. Based on what they found—essentially harvesting 10 percent, or less, of a given patch once every 10 years enabled it to regrow—the National Park Service stopped allowing ramp harvests in 2004. This, in turn, pushed foragers into national forests and also coincided with an increase in ramp poaching on private property.
What are the chances that permits could lead to a sustainable solution—could parks issue limited ramp-hunting permits with bag limits, sort of like fishing licenses? “The problem is enforcement,” Rock said. “You can say, ‘Go in and take 10 percent of what you see.’ But it’s not human nature to do that.” Especially when you can sell a mess of ramps for $20 a pound.
January 5, 2012
In the past we have seen how gelatin, ice cream trucks, raw chickens and vanilla extract have figured in to the criminal behavior those who think they can live outside the law. Food crimes don’t seem to be letting up, as evidenced by the following four incidents.
December, 2011. Port Richey, Florida. A pint and a bank job.
On the afternoon of December 22, John Robin Whittle ordered a beer at the Hayloft Bar, but left for approximately half and hour and then returned to down the drink. He was soon arrested by local authorities: Whittle fit the description of a man who robbed a nearby Wells Fargo bank but ten minutes before.
October, 2011. Punta Gorda, Florida. A slippery situation.
Why steal used cooking oil? This restaurant waste product can be converted into biofuel and on the open market it can command as much as four dollars a gallon. On the evening of October 17, two men were spotted behind a Burger King pumping cooking oil into their collection truck; however, their vehicle did not belong to Griffin Industries, the usual company that picked up the oil. The two drivers explained that the regular collection truck had broken down, but on calling Griffin Industries, the restaurant manager learned that none of their trucks were in the area collecting oil. By this time the two drivers had left with approximately $1,500 worth of oil. The manager called the police, who spotted the truck at a Golden Corral, again siphoning off used cooking oil. Two men, Javier Abad and Antonio Hernandez, were arrested and charged with grand theft. (And for a lighter take on this trend in food crime, check out the “Simpsons” episode “Lard of the Dance,” where Bart and Homer conjure up a get-rich-quick scheme by stealing grease.)
Marysville, Tennessee. July, 2004. Would you like extra cheese on that?
At about 5:00 in the morning on July 18, Marysville, Tennessee police discovered a car abandoned in the parking lot of the John Sevier Pool containing a pile of clothes and a bottle of vodka. A thoroughly intoxicated Michael David Monn, the owner of the car and the articles therein, was soon spotted running toward the authorities wearing nothing but nacho cheese. The 23-year-old had apparently jumped a wall to raid the pool’s concession area. In March, 2005 Monn pleaded guilty to burglary, theft, vandalism, indecent exposure and public intoxication. He was sentenced to three years probation and a $400 fine to cover the costs of the stolen food.
Santiago, Chile. 2004. Hot Stuff.
In 2004, Chilean hospitals began treating people for burns incurred after attempting to make churros, the treat of fried dough coated in sugar. In each case, the dough shot out of the pot, showering the chefs with hot oil. The injuries came days after La Tercera, a daily newspaper, printed a churro recipe—but neglected to test it. In December 2011, the Chilean Supreme Court determined that the suggested oil temperature was far too high and that anyone following the recipe to the letter would have ended up with dangerously explosive results. The newspaper’s publisher, Grupo Copesa, was ordered to pay out $125,000 to 13 burn victims, including one woman whose injuries so severe that she was awarded a $48,000 settlement.
December 16, 2011
Children—though by no means all of them—tend to be fairly picky eaters. Most expand their culinary horizons as they get older, but a few people hold fast to limited diets of safe, familiar things like chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. My friend and co-worker Niki is one of them.
You know that queasy, I-can’t-bear-to-watch feeling you get watching a show like Bizarre Foods, as host Andrew Zimmern slurps down fried worms or rotten shark meat? Niki feels that way about foods that most of us consider perfectly edible, like eggs or raisins. She has a byzantine list of rules for what she is willing (or, more often, not willing) to eat: No cooked fruit. No “out of context” sweetness (which she defines as anything other than dessert). No cookies with nuts. No soft fruit. No dried fruit. In fact, hardly any fruit other than apples. Cheese only if melted. Tomatoes only in sauce, and then only without chunks. No eggs. No mayonnaise. (Her version of a BLT is a bacon and butter sandwich.)
Everyone has a few popular foods they dislike—the first piece I ever wrote for Food & Think, about my distaste for the ubiquitous herb cilantro, is still one of the blog’s most commented-on—but Niki’s list is so long and inscrutable that she has become a source of fascination to our other co-workers and me.
It turns out scientists are fascinated, too. Researchers at Duke University have been studying picky eating as a bona-fide disorder, with “selective eating” being considered for addition to the next version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due out in 2013, according to the Wall Street Journal. Although the causes of selective eating aren’t yet known, there appear to be some patterns: smell and texture are often more important than flavor, for instance. A possible link to obsessive-compulsive tendencies is being explored.
With such a limited diet, people with the disorder sometimes find it hinders their social lives or even careers, not to mention the potential for nutritional deficiencies. But if it’s a disorder, is it curable?
Niki is giving it a shot. Although her friends and family have long become accustomed to her quirky preferences, I think the recent attention to her diet at work has caused her to think more about why she feels as she does. A couple of months ago, on the way to lunch to celebrate her 39th birthday, I commented (probably insensitively, in retrospect) that maybe when she was 40 she would start trying new foods.
She decided to do me one better and start that very day. At lunch she ordered her first Bloody Mary—a bacon Bloody Mary, so that there would at least be one ingredient she knew she liked. It didn’t go over well.
But Niki persisted. She resolved to eat a new food every day until her 40th birthday. She started a blog called Picky Niki (with the tagline: Choking Down 365 New Foods) to chart her results. So far many of the foods have bombed, but she has discovered a handful that she can tolerate, and a few she really likes. If she sticks with it for the rest of the year, her repertoire will have expanded considerably.
As for me, I will try to be more understanding of her predicament and stop the teasing. I admire what she’s doing, and truly hope it opens up new possibilities for her. And maybe I’ll even give cilantro another shot. Yecchh.
October 20, 2011
Salmon farming has received its share of criticism for being detrimental to the environment. Many salmon are raised in net pens, which allow fish waste, chemicals and farming byproducts to spread into the wild. There’s also the threat of pathogens that could thrive in crowded pens and escape to harm natural fish populations. One disease, infectious salmon anemia, was once thought to be a problem exclusive to farmed Atlantic salmon. A new study by a group of researchers from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia has found that this influenza-like virus is infecting naturally ocurring salmon populations.
Infectious salmon anemia was first observed 1984 and occurs most often in overcrowded, filthy salmon pens. As the name suggests, the virus causes anemia, the condition in which a body doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells to deliver oxygen to its tissues. Infected fish may exhibit symptoms—such as pale gills and loss of appetite—or they may outwardly seem perfectly fine. While the disease doesn’t pose any risks to humans, it can wipe out upwards of 70 percent of a farmed salmon population.
This is the first time the disease has been found in wild fish off the coast of North America. After observing a decline in the salmon population off the British Columbia coast, researchers collected 48 specimens for study and discovering two juvenile fish infected with the disease. While there is currently no evidence to definitively link fish farming to the presence of salmon anemia in wild populations, there could be devastating ramifications, not just for the fishing industry, but for the wildlife that depends on salmon for food. “It’s a disease emergency,” James Winton, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s fish health section, told the Associated Press. “We’re concerned. Should it be introduced, it might be able to adapt to Pacific salmon.”
October 18, 2011
The adoption of the automobile as our primary mode of transportation has impacted how we eat, notably with the proliferation of quick-service roadside restaurants replete with convenience foods. We usually think of fried and grilled fare when it comes to eating on the go, but another breed of convenience food is a direct result of the rise of car culture: road-kill cuisine. Although the concept is a source of class-conscious condescension—just search the internet for jokes on this theme—some see the roadside-cum-deli aisle as an acceptable, if not preferable, alternative to supermarket meats.
One such person is 44-year-old taxidermist Jonathan McGowan of Dorset, England. He’s been noshing on scavenged meat for decades. Living near a chicken production site prompted McGowan to seriously consider the source of his meats, especially after seeing farm-raised animals living in inhumane conditions. ”I used to cut up dead animals to see their insides,” McGowan told the Daily Mail, “and when I did, all I could see was fresh, organic meat, better than the kind I had seen in the supermarkets. So I never saw a problem with cooking and eating it.” His food-sourcing methods have resulted in kitchen creations such as owl curry and badger stew. And he’s not alone. Road-kill cuisine has inspired regional cook-off competitions and even cookbooks.
With the Humane Society of the United States estimating that approximately one million animals are killed by traffic daily, the idea of “waste not, want not” doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Even PETA, renowned for its anti-animal-eating stance, has said the consumption of road kill “is a superior option to the neatly shrink-wrapped plastic packages of meat in the supermarket.”
But is it safe? Unlike the average Joe, hunters and people like McGowan know their way around dead animals and are trained to spot the red flags that signify meat isn’t safe to eat. And while farm-raised meats undergo federally mandated health inspections,what you find by the side of the road may expose you to pathogens such as E. coli or tularemia, a bacterial infection common in rabbits and other rodents. Furthermore, a collision with a car can cause an animal such extensive internal damage—which might not be readily apparent—that it is unsuitable for consumption.
First off, if you hit an animal, call the local authorities. Regulations on what you are allowed to lift from the roadside vary from state to state, and if an animal is still living after a collision, it should be tended to as humanely as possible. And while you might be hard pressed to find formal instruction on how to handle road kill you bring home, you might try a hunter education course to get a sense of how to handle animals killed in the wild, be it by bullet or bumper. Those of you who prefer supermarket meat can satisfy yourselves with a round of road-kill bingo during your next car ride.