October 21, 2011
The first single-use food service item was the paper plate, invented in 1904. Paper cups followed soon after. Over the next century, disposable cups, utensils and plates were developed in increasingly durable—and environmentally unfriendly—materials. The low point, as far as the planet’s health is concerned, was probably the original Styrofoam cup. It was durable, lightweight and kept people from burning their hands while holding a hot cup of coffee, but it was also made using chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which break down ozone in the atmosphere. CFCs were phased out in the late 1980s, but that didn’t eliminate the problem of polystyrene, like other plastics, hanging around landfills for centuries after being used just once.
According to Time magazine, Americans throw away an estimated trillion disposable plates and utensils per year. The best option, of course, would be if everyone stopped using disposable products altogether. That’s probably never going to happen—it’s just too convenient to be able to grab a cup of coffee on your way to work. But some ingenious new products have come out in recent years that might be able to reduce the damage, including disposable cups and utensils made from a material derived from corn. They look just like plastic, but can be composted by a commercial composter so they don’t end up in landfills. Even more interesting—not to mention seasonally appropriate—is a line of plates made from fallen leaves, which can be naturally home-composted after use.
In the natural order of things, leaves fall from trees and eventually disintegrate, their nutrients enriching the soil to help the next generation of leaves and other plants grow. If those leaves happen to be in someone’s yard or a public place, they are usually picked up. Gardeners and other environmentally conscious people will add the leaves to a compost pile to become a natural fertilizer. But more often than not, the fallen leaves are incinerated or taken to the dump, where they will still disintegrate over time, but the plastic bags that were used to collect them will stick around for a good, long while.
VerTerra, a company founded in 2007, just adds another step to the leaves’ natural life cycle: dinner. The idea for plates made from fallen leaves came to VerTerra founder and CEO, Michael Dwork, when he was traveling in rural India. He saw a woman soaking palm leaves and then pressing them in a kind of waffle iron. She then served food on the pressed leaves. When he returned to the United States and business school, he experimented with adapting this simple and resourceful concept to make a line of attractive, durable and environmentally friendly single-use plates and bowls. (Not as cheap as paper or plastic, though; they can cost up to about a dollar per piece.) After they’re used, they can be thrown in the compost pile, where they will naturally compost within two months. The company website even includes a tutorial on composting at home, whether you live in the country or in a tiny apartment.
According to the company, the plates are made from leaves in India because no American leaves would produce the right effect. Only fallen leaves are used; steam, heat and pressure are applied to form the plates. Since nothing but leaves and water are added, they’re nontoxic and can be safely added to the compost pile.
That means the plate you eat your food on can help grow your next meal. Pretty cool.
September 30, 2011
Whether for career development or their own edification, the culinarily curious can gorge on all kinds of food knowledge online. Here are a few of the offerings:
Sharpen your cooking skills. Everything from nifty tips on peeling garlic to full-fledged cooking shows are available online. Saveur (source of the amazing garlic video), Epicurious, Chow and Cook’s Illustrated (for subscribers only) are good sites to check for short technique and recipe demonstrations. The Culinary Institute of America’s ciaprochef.com is full of recipes and videos. And a number of YouTube cooking shows have gained a loyal following, including Show Me the Curry, where Hetal and Anuja help you navigate South Asian and occasionally other cuisines; Great Depression Cooking, starring 96-year-old Clara; and the amusingly enigmatic Cooking with Dog (tagline: It’s not what you think…), where you can learn to make all kinds of Japanese dishes while the host’s coiffed poodle looks serenely on.
Get a culinary degree. Until someone figures out how to transport food via the Internet, you can’t actually attend cooking school online. But you can earn an online degree in a culinary-related subject that doesn’t involve cooking. Le Cordon Bleu USA offers a bachelor of arts in culinary management and an associate of occupational studies in hospitality and restaurant management. If you can’t move to Vermont (which you should consider, because it really is lovely), the New England Culinary Institute offers an online bachelor of arts in hospitality and restaurant management. And Virginia College Online’s culinary arts associate’s degree is designed for those who have already completed cooking school elsewhere.
Feed your inner geek. One of the greatest developments in recent years for people like me who love to learn but live far from a big university is iTunes U. Institutions like Oxford University, the University of California at Berkeley and the National Portrait Gallery upload audio and video of lectures—and most of them are free to download from iTunes. A few of the foodie offerings are Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Science’s public lecture series on science and cooking, with demonstrations from top chefs like Wylie Dufresne, on meat glue (transglutaminase), and José Andrés, on gelation; the University of Warwick on how to build a chocolate-powered race car; and culinary historian Jessica Harris speaking at the Library of Congress National Book Festival.
Learn how to write about food. If you already know plenty about food and want to share your knowledge with the world, online food-writing classes can help tune up your presentation. Indian cookbook author Monica Bhide offers occasional e-courses covering everything from recipe writing to food memoir. The latest class started in September, but check her site for upcoming dates. Gotham Writers’ Workshop’s next 11-week course, which includes a Q&A session with a New York Times food editor, begins October 4.
September 28, 2011
Conscientious eaters want to know all about where their food came from, how it was grown and who grew it. Part of the appeal of farmers’ markets is getting face time with those who spend their days with their hands in the dirt. Suddenly, consumers want to have a “relationship” with their small-scale farmers, ranchers and cheese makers — people who once toiled in obscurity. (This is still usually the case in the larger agricultural industry, where the vast majority of our food comes from.)
One unintended consequence is that, now, personality counts. A grower with a winning smile or the gift of the gab may get the sale even when the wares at the next table are just as fresh and succulent-looking. There’s a pair of young, attractive male farmers in my area whose tent always seems to be crowded with female customers.
Now, technology that wasn’t around a decade ago—blogs, smartphones, Facebook and Twitter—is taking the farmer-consumer relationship to another level. It’s how CSA members can find out what’s likely to be in their share soon, get recipes for what to do with bok choy or celeriac, and read cute little stories about how the farm animals are doing. The farmer gets to communicate with current and potential customers, and office-bound readers get to live vicariously through their computer or phone screens.
Ree Drummond, who has parlayed her rural life as the wife of a cattle rancher into a wildly successful site called The Pioneer Woman, gives a glimpse of the possibilities for savvy online self-marketing. She doesn’t quite qualify as a rancher herself—although she often rides along and helps out with the chores, she seems to usually have a camera in hand—but her gorgeous photographs and folksy anecdotes about life on the range are about as good an advertisement as any for making a living off the land.
Most farmer blogs are far simpler (and, some might argue, more authentic). The Dairyman’s Blog, written by a young Alabama dairy farmer, offers “MooTube” videos of life on the farm. Self-described farm wife Jill Heemstra focuses on the funny side of farming at Fence Post Diaries, with blog titles like “You Might Be a Farmer’s Wife If…” (example: “…you use the phrase ‘semen tank’ in casual conversation”).
Blogs and tweets are also providing a new platform for farmers of all stripes to express their views on agriculture and politics. Missouri hog farmer Chris Chinn advocates on her blog for fewer government regulations and conventional farm practices that she feels have gotten a bad rap, while small-scale farmer Gavin Venn tweets as @morethanorganic with his thoughts on animal welfare and genetically modified foods.
Social media has become a stand-in for the kind of conversations farmers have always had in person, about the weather, what’s growing, advice and opinions. The Twitter hashtag #agchat encompasses discussions of parenting on the farm, venting about too much or too little rain, links to agriculture news and just about everything else of interest to the ag-minded.
But tweeting from the tractor has its perils. As Stewart Skinner, a Canadian pig farmer with the Twitter handle @ModernFarmer tweeted recently about his gadget, “The blackberry can’t stand up to the rigors of the barn. RIM needs to come up with a smartphone for farmers.”
July 20, 2011
For the past year or so I’ve been hearing people rave about this amazing new contraption that magically turns your tap water into seltzer or, with the addition of flavor concentrates, soft drinks. As someone who goes through a 12-pack a week of lime seltzer, this struck me as a brilliant idea—a way to save money and send fewer cans to the recycling center—but I never got around to buying one.
Last week I finally got to try one of these SodaStream gadgets at a friend’s house, and it worked as promised. I was completely sold.
I’m embarrassed to admit that it didn’t occur to me until I mentioned it to my editor that do-it-yourself seltzer is hardly a new concept. Seltzer bottles—also known as soda siphons—have been bringing the fizz to the table for centuries, and in snazzier style.
SodaStream works the same way as those old-fashioned seltzer bottles, by infusing water with pressurized carbon dioxide.
Even SodaStream itself is just an update of a product that’s been around for years. The company’s roots go back to 1903, when Guy Gilbey (a surname familiar to gin drinkers) invented the first home carbonation machine, in the United Kingdom. A smaller version of the machine was popular in Europe and elsewhere for decades, but it wasn’t until 2009, after a global brand revamping, that the product became widely available in the United States.
A recent article in Slate points out how successful the retooling has been: Worldwide sales climbed from 730,000 units in 2007 to nearly 2 million in 2010. The gadget’s entry into the U.S. market seems to have come at just the right moment, when a perfect storm of economic, environmental and health concerns about sugary sodas have converged with an increased interest in do-it-yourself everything, including food and drink. There’s also a nostalgia factor—not for the modern-looking device, but for the old-time soda fountain treats like phosphates and egg creams that the seltzer recalls. Last week the New York Times highlighted a new crop of soda jerks around the country who are bringing fizzy back.
Customization at home is one of the SodaStream’s selling points: It allows you to adjust the amount of fizziness and flavor syrup (and hence, sweetness) in your drink. It’s also possible to make your own creations. During maple-tapping season in the Northeast, Kristin Kimball, farmer and author of The Dirty Life, tweeted her recipe for “Essex Farm soda”—carbonated maple sap with a splash of vanilla. Blogger Andrew Wilder wrote about the SodaStream bar he set up at a party, which led to some creative mock- and cocktails—the Cucumberist, with cucumber and mint, sounds right up my alley. Even better, the blog Former Chef gives a recipe for a spicy-sounding homemade ginger syrup that includes cardamom, allspice, black pepper and star anise.
Suddenly my old standby, lime seltzer, is looking a little vanilla. It may be time to experiment. But I haven’t decided which home carbonation system to buy: Those vintage soda siphons would look great with my other retro barware, though they may or may not work well anymore. New versions, like the sleek aluminum seltzer bottles made by iSi, are also an option. Or, of course, there’s the SodaStream.
One thing is clear: My 12-pack-toting days are numbered.
July 14, 2011
When a new parent is trying to get a toddler to eat, playing the spoon-swooping game of “here comes the airplane” or “here comes the train” may very well do the trick. (And, for those who remember the dinner scene in A Christmas Story, a round of “Show me how the piggies eat” turns out to be another successful stratagem a mother uses to get her picky child to clean his plate.) But as kids get older, that game gets tired and they demand more sophisticated ways to, well, play with their food. Some toys, such as the Easy Bake Oven, are miniaturized versions of home appliances meant to prep the young, aspiring chef for cooking in a real kitchen. But then there are foodie playthings that veer off into sheer ridiculousness when it comes to interacting with what’s on our plate. Here are a handful of notables:
Ice Bird: This 1970s-era toy from Kenner invites kids to crack out a bright orange duck that will shave a block of ice for the purpose of making ice-cold sno cones. With flavor packets, two cups and a bucket for freezing water in, it’s not a bad toy for summertime entertaining. (And when it’s 90 degrees out, who does tea parties?) Certainly there were other toy sno cone machines on the market at that time, but Ice Bird has an awesome jingle and its unabashedly exposed grating plane is a wicked reminder that our toys did not always intend for us to survive childhood without a few nicks and dings.
Happy Hot Dog Man: This “As Seen on TV” offering is a specialized plastic slicing device that turns a plain old hot dog into a smiling stick of mystery meat with whimsically wiggling arms and legs you can dress up with pickles and condiments. I am also a fan of the octo-dog, where you can use the knives already in your kitchen to create hot dog octopi that can be eaten alone or used to dress up other dishes.
Build a Meal Plates: With cranes and buckets installed in the plate that encourage kids to construct their meals, you can give your kids an early sign that an adult’s kitchen can be like a construction zone.
Lightsaber Chopsticks: My chopsticks skills are very hit and miss—but the Force may be with me if I try plying these puppies. (Sure, these are cool for the kids too.) And how could you pass up an opportunity to make all the appropriate lightsaber sound effects as you ingest your meal? (Just make sure you’re among fellow Star Wars fans before you do.)
This list is by no means comprehensive. If you know of more strange and funny food toys aimed at kids, share your memories in the comments section below.