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.
May 10, 2011
The old method of getting goodies from a vending machine is being revamped by the Pepsi Corporation with its new Social Vending System. Dispensing with clunky slots for coins and bills in favor of a touchscreen that allows you to look at the nutritional information of the products therein, this new species of machine is also hopping on the social networking bandwagon: people can use the machines to send drinks to friends, complete with personalized text and video messages. (The recipient gets a message on a cell phone and they have to go to a Social Vending Machine and enter a code to redeem the gift.) But because you have to enter telephone numbers to use the social features of the machine, questions arise about how personal data is stored and used, an issue inherent in all social media. At this time, Pepsi says that personal data will not be stored unless the user grants permission.
Is this the next logical step in our ongoing quest for convenience or does it make accessing foodstuffs more complicated than it should be? Corporate efforts to create glowing vending-machine eye candy have a long and sometimes ridiculous history. (If you have the patience, this mid-century video walks you through the ins and outs of vending machine salesmanship.) Would you go to a machine for any of the following things?
This variation on the claw machine arcade game may very well be the greatest visual pun in food marketing. That’s right: you use your gaming skills to catch your own live lobster; however, if you are fortunate enough to nab one of the skittering crustaceans, you may find yourself in a bit of a pickle. Apparently takeaway bags aren’t a standard part of the machine rig, so you may need to bring your own.
Farmers who sell their eggs directly to consumers can pop a vending machine at the entrance of their property and passersby can drop in their money and walk away with a tray of farm fresh goods. Some famers have even noticed an increased demand for their products since installing the machine. The German branch of PETA offered its own variation, placing live hens in the machine to make a statement about the living conditions of these animals on farms.
In 2010, Pennsylvania unveiled two wine vending machines—however, users have to swipe their ID and pass a breathalyzer test before they can lay their hands on a bottle of vino. And if you have wine aficionados for friends, would you ever tell them that you’re serving them something that came from a vending machine?
4. Pecan Pie
The Bedroll Pecan Farm, Candy and Gift Company in Cedar Creek, Texas offers its wares via a vending machine, from a 9″ Pecan pie to pecan brittle.
The Shop 2000 allows users to buy toiletries, milk, snack items and other convenience store fare. In 2002, one of these machines was installed in D.C. near the intersection of 18th St. NW and California St. under the name Tik Tok Easy Shop. (It no longer existed as of 2003)
And for more on unique vending machines, check out Around the Mall blogger Megan Gambino’s piece on the Art-o-Mat, which sells you works of art out of a revamped and refurbished cigarette machines.
April 26, 2011
Some readers out there may wonder how libraries kept track of all their goodies before the advent of computerized catalogs. You had one of two options: You could either consult a giant wood cabinet with drawers jam-packed with little 3 x 5 cards or, better yet, you could consult a reference librarian who could lead you to treasure troves of information. Cultural institutions now make their collections available digitally for people who are unable to do on-site research; however, for those places that have been building up resources for a century or more, digitizing their holdings is an overwhelming game of catch-up that requires time and money.
Such is the case with the New York Public Library’s menu collection, which contains approximately 26,000 pieces, about 10,000 of which have been digitally scanned. Specializing in the period between 1890 and 1920, the menus are especially useful to historians or chefs or authors—anyone trying to capture an era down to the dining details. One problem, however, is that it’s difficult to present the digital images in such a way that people can do searches across the entire collection. Searches are an easy way to look at trends in dining, which food fell in—and out—of favor, price fluctuations and other information of that ilk. And it sure beats flipping through the collection menu by menu if there’s only a nugget of information you’re after.
Some purveyors of digital information—like Google books—use optical character recognition software to convert the printed page into digital, searchable text. But many of the Library’s menus are handwritten or use ornamental typefaces that can’t be easily read by computers. And really, when it comes to dining, presentation is everything—even when it comes to menu typography.
Flesh and blood transcribers really are the best way to get the job done, and now anyone with an internet connection can lend the library a helping hand. If you’d like to lend your services, and get a taste—intellectually speaking—of American cuisine from a bygone era and enjoy some really stunning works of art, go to the project’s main site, select a menu that grabs you and dig in!