October 30, 2013
In 1971, Walt Disney World had just opened in Orlando, Florida. Led Zepplin was about to blow our minds, a prison riot had been shut down at Attica, and all across America, kids were pooping pink. Hundreds of mothers hospitalized their children for fecal testing out of fear of internal bleeding. Within that same year, not-so-coincidentally, General Mills released their classic monster cereals Count Chocula and Franken Berry. The latter was colored red using “Food, Drug and Cosmetics” (FD & C) Red No. 2 and No. 3., originally and chemically known as amaranth, a synthetic color named after the natural flower. The synthetic dye can’t be broken down or absorbed by the body.
A 1972 case study, “Benign Red Pigmentation of Stool Resulting from Food Coloring in a New Breakfast Cereal (The Franken Berry Stool),” published in Pediatrics explains the phenomenon later known as “Franken Berry Stool.” A 12-year-old boy was hospitalized for four days after being admitted for possible rectal bleeding. “The stool had no abnormal odor but looked like strawberry ice cream,” Payne reports. Further questioning of the mother revealed that the child had enjoyed a bowl of Franken Berry cereal two days and one day prior to his hospitalization. By the fourth day, they did a little experiment: They fed the boy four bowls of Franken Berry cereal and for the next two days, he passed bright pink stools. But other than pink poop, there were no other symptoms, Payne reports, “Physical examination upon admission revealed [a boy] in no acute distress and with normal vital signs…Physical examination was otherwise unremarkable.”
At the time of the study, the product had only been on the market for a few weeks. The author warns that “physicians should be aware of its potential for producing reddish stools.” Other monster cereals at the time also used dyes that caused stool to change colors. Booberry, which debuted in December of 1972, for example, uses Blue No. 1 (a dye currently banned in Norway, Finland and France) and turns stool green. Apparently, green stool seems less life-threatening than the reddish hue caused by Franken Berry.
But pink poop wasn’t always the worst side effect from colored confections. Ruth Winters’s A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients details the history of commercial food dyes, including those later used in Franken Berry. At the turn of the 20th century, with virtually no regulation of more than 80 dyes used to color food, the same dyes used for clothes could also be used to color confections and other edibles.
In 1906, Congress passed the first legislation for food colors, the Pure Food and Drug Act, deeming seven colors suitable for use in food: orange, erythrosine, ponceu 3R, amaranth (the color later used in Franken Berry cereal), indigotin, naphthol yellow, and light green. Since then, upon further study, several of these choices have been delisted.
More than 20 years later, in 1938, Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act which gave these colors numbers instead of chemical names—every batch needed to be certified by the Food and Drug Administration, though some problems still arose: in the fall of 1950, many children became ill from eating an orange Halloween candy containing one to two percent FD&C Orange No. 1, for example.
Red Dye No. 2, the one used by the original Franken Berry cereal, was one of the most widely used color additives at the time, until a 1971 Russian study reported that the dyes caused tumors in female rats. Years of research led the FDA to find that even though the Russian study was extremely flawed (the FDA couldn’t even prove that amaranth was one of the dyes used), the agency would remove the dye from its Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) list in 1976. Between public outcry against the dye and the chance that trace elements could potentially have carcinogens, the FDA banned a number of other dyes as well. According to the FDA, 47 other countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, still allow for the use of Red Dye No. 2.
That same year, Mars removed their red M&M’s from the candy-color spectrum for nearly a decade, even though Mars didn’t even use Red No. 2; the removal of the red candies was a response to the scare, livescience.com reports:
The red food coloring in question was not actually used in M&M’s chocolate candies, according to mms.com. “However, to avoid consumer confusion, the red candies were pulled from the color mix.”
Inquiries to General Mills as to when the Franken Berry ingredients switched to less poop-worrying dyes, were not responded to. These days, the only red colors accepted by the FDA are Red No. 40, which appears in all five of the General Mills monster cereals, and Red No. 3, typically used in candied fruits.
The symptoms of “Franken Berry Stool” were pretty benign compared to other more notable confectionary mishaps in history: The accidental poisoning of more than 200 people in Bradford, England in 1858 comes to mind. The sweets were accidentally made with arsenic. Let’s be thankful there’s a bit more regulation of food dyes these days.
Another stool scare in cereal history: Smurfberry Crunch Cereal, released in 1982 by Post Foods, turned the poop of those who ate it blue—the ultimate Smurfs experience. Post then changed the formula and re-released the cereal in 1987 as Magic Berries Cereal.
Looking for a sugar high now? You’re safe. When you open your celebratory, Franken Berry or any of the other monster cereals this Halloween, [for the first time, all five monsters are available in stores since the well-received re-release of Frute Brute (1975-1984) and Fruity Yummy Mummy (1987-1992)], expect a sugar high—without the pink poop aftermath. We tasted all five of the cereals and Count Chocula is the best by a long shot.
The best part is when the chocolate “sweeties,” as the marshmallows were called in the original commercials in 1971, are all gone: the plain milk becomes chocolate milk. Let’s be real, what child—or “adult”—prefers regular milk to chocolate? I haven’t met this kind of person.
September 20, 2013
You have to hand it to Chipotle. Not only has the company released a captivating and buzz-worthy viral ad/video game package, with The Scarecrow, but it has also managed – in just a few short years – to position itself as a viable alternative to other fast food menus leaden with industrially produced meals.
Indeed, a slick dystopian storyline and a heart-wrenching soundtrack do go a long way these days. And Chipotle made a smart choice when they hired MoonBot Studios, a meticulous, craft-obsessed media firm, which apparently spent two years developing nearly 200 incarnations of the brief story before landing on the current scarecrow-as-farmer-who-bucks-the-system narrative. The final product has been called hauntingly beautiful, brilliant, and amazing by more some of the most influential voices online.
Now that the dust has settled, and nearly 6 million people have seen the video on YouTube, some viewers may be left wondering: Could it really be that simple? Does Chipotle really represent the “other side of the food debate,” as this article from Midwest-based food and farming reporting collaborative Harvest Media implies? As I see it, the answer is: Yes. And no.
On the one hand, Chipotle has built its brand — and taken a significant business risk — by sourcing higher quality ingredients. In addition to buying some locally sourced produce, the cornerstone of this effort has been a commitment to serving meat raised without subtherapeutic (or growth-promoting) antibiotics. But that hasn’t always been easy to do, and finding a consistent source of this meat can be difficult. In Chipotle’s 2012 Annual Report, the restaurant acknowledges this fact, saying:
Some of our restaurants served conventionally raised beef for short periods during 2012 and the beginning of 2013, and more of our restaurants may periodically serve conventionally raised meats in the future due to supply constraints. When we become aware that one or more of our restaurants will serve conventionally raised meat, we clearly and specifically disclose this temporary change on signage….
More recently, the company has been in the spotlight for considering a switch to less-stringently produce “naturally raised” meat, and acknowledges that it may take less of a hardline approach to antibiotics. The company, says NPR, is “evaluating if this strict ‘never-ever’ antibiotic protocol is best for the animals, or whether animals can be treated when necessary and allowed to remain in the herd.”
We’ll go a little further into these supply constraints later, but for now, it’s worth acknowledging that these practices (and the company’s expressed interest in remaining transparent about it) has legitimately set Chipotle apart from many competitors.
On the other hand, let’s not forget that Chipotle is, ultimately, a giant company that does many things on what is more-or-less an industrial level. According to the latest annual report, Chipotle has close to 1,500 restaurants and, by the end of2012, it employed about 37,000 people, including about 34,000 who work hourly. Their average starting salary is $10.50 an hour, or a little higher minimum wage. In 2012, AOL reported on their employment practices:
A crew member is paid an average of $8.51 an hour, according to Glassdoor.com, compared to $7.63 at McDonald’s, $7.69 at Wendy’s, and $7.80 at Burger King.
Still, some Chipotle employees gripe anonymously on Glassdoor.com that they’re underpaid, given the intensity of the grind.
“Full-time effort for part-time pay,” wrote one crew member in Brunswick, Ohio. “The amount of pressure for a burrito joint is unheard of!” chirped another in Austin, Texas. And true enough, most Chipotle employees work full-time hours, Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said, although schedules can vary.
None of these employees are unionized or covered by a collective bargaining agreement. Last year, after refusing to do so for six years, the company finally signed on to a fair food agreement that provides tomato pickers in Florida with one penny more per pound.
Chipotle’s business model also requires a few other departures from the scarewcrow’s quaint little taco stand sourced with produce fresh from his farm. For one, the average restaurant sales were $2.113 million, meaning it sells around 3 billion dollars of food every year, resulting in revenue of over $800 million.
Of course, none of these factors mean that Chipotle can’t, or shouldn’t be sharing its interpretation of the realities of our food system. But “The Scarecrow” raises other, bigger questions about just how far a private business can truly go to change that system on their own.
In a corporate statement released by the company on the day the video went live, Mark Crumpacker, chief marketing officer at Chipotle said:
In a system that is so heavily dominated by industrial agriculture and factory farms, we are committed to finding better, more sustainable sources for all of the ingredients we use and to helping build a better food system, much the same as the character in ‘The Scarecrow’ is taking important steps to fix what he perceives as being broken in his world.
Providing a larger market for sustainably raised food has its value. But as the shortage of antibiotic-free meat mentioned above implies: That’s not all there is to it. Companies like Chipotle can help drive a small wedge into, say, the highly consolidated livestock industry (where in four companies—Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield—process more than half of the meat we eat). But they’re much less likely to get involved when it comes to say, helping new farmers access the land or capital required to start the kind of antibiotic-free and pasture-based operations that many consumers are asking for. Food industry consolidation has also resulted in a great deal of political power for the industry in the states where the nation’s farm policy is decided, so that efforts like The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act in this year’s Farm Bill, for instance, often lack a solid base of support.
This is not an argument for Chipotle to start lobbying in Washington (although things could get interesting if they did). But let’s not pretend that three minutes of dramatic, well-scored animation (nor the upcoming “TV show-length Big-Food-busting dark comedies, Farmed and Dangerous, that Chipotle will post online sometime in 2014”) is enough to single-handedly turn a huge, entrenched industry on its head. And we shouldn’t expect it to. But this ad – and the response it has generated – certainly says a lot about the increased expectation on big businesses to solve the problems other big businesses have wrought. Or, maybe that’s just what we tell ourselves — as we wait for the next sleek video to be released.
January 28, 2013
Excited for Sunday’s Super Bowl? Learn more about this Baltimore delicacy from Bonny Wolf, writer for AmericanFoodRoots.com, where this story was originally published.
What the madeleine was to Proust, the Berger cookie is to Baltimoreans. When the French author’s narrator dips his shell-shaped cookie into a cup of tea, he is flooded with 3,000 pages of childhood memories.
So it is with the Berger cookie. (The company is called Bergers but to most Baltimoreans, when discussing the cookie, the ‘s’ is silent.”)
For nearly 200 years, this cake-bottomed cookie topped with a generous hand-dipped mound of dark fudge icing has sparked home-town memories for Charm City natives. For a very long time, the cookies were unknown outside the city.
“It was a great little business,” says Charlie DeBaufre, who has worked at the company for much of his life and became the owner in 1994. Customer demand and word of mouth led to incremental growth over the last 15 years. “We had two trucks,” DeBaufre says, “and then some of the major supermarkets said, ‘We wouldn’t mind selling your cookies.’ ”
People aged and retired or moved outside Baltimore, but they still wanted their Berger cookies. Those who moved to Maryland’s Eastern Shore didn’t want to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to get their cookies, says DeBaufre. So he sent his trucks across the bridge with the goods. Then they got requests from northern Virginia, southern Pennsylvania and Frederick, Maryland. Now DeBaufre has seven trucks. He tried using brokers but, “They don’t care like you care,” he says. “I like having my own trucks and drivers. I like having more control over what’s going into the store.”
What’s going into the stores is an “unusual product,” says DeBaufre. “New Yorkers talk about their black and whites and it’s not a bad cookie, but it’s nothing like mine.”
The cookie is made using nearly the same recipe Henry Berger developed when he opened a bakery in East Baltimore in 1835. There have been a few modifications, according to DeBaufre. For example, vegetable oil has replaced lard in the recipe, reducing the saturated fat content considerably. “Some people say the cookie is just there to hold the chocolate,” says DeBaufre. “They eat the chocolate and throw the cookie away.” Bergers has even been asked to put together a Berger cookie wedding cake, which DeBaufre describes as a stack of cookies with a bride and groom on top.
Berger, a German immigrant, was a baker by trade and his three sons followed him into the business. The cookies were sold from stalls in the city’s public markets. Today, there still are Bergers’ cookie stands in Baltimore’s Lexington and Cross Street markets.
As they have been since the beginning, Berger cookies are hand dipped. Four employees dip them all – 36,000 cookies a day. DeBaufre says he’s considered new equipment but has resisted. “I have to keep the integrity of the cookie,” he says. Yes, they have trouble keeping up with demand and often run out. But he doesn’t do it just to make money, he says. “I take pride in what I do. When you tell me they’re good cookies, I’m proud.”
After World War I, George Russell, a young man who worked for the Bergers, bought the bakery. The DeBaufres – who had worked for the Russells – bought the business in 1969. In addition to expanding distribution outside Baltimore, Bergers cookies are shipped all over the country. DeBaufre says a woman from Baltimore who lives in California sent holiday tins of cookies this year to her clients – 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and Steven Spielberg. “She wanted them to have something they wouldn’t have had before,” says DeBaufre.
Read more stories from the 50 States’ best culinary traditions at American Food Roots.
August 30, 2012
Some 3,000 people evacuated Plaquemines Parish outside of New Orleans early Wednesday as Tropical Storm Isaac quickly became a monster of another name: a Category 1 hurricane that slammed into Louisiana with 80 mph winds sending water over levees and flooding areas throughout the Gulf Coast. Things have calmed down—maximum sustained winds have since decreased to 45 mph—but a peek at the Waffle House Twitter account is one of the best ways to tell which region has been hit hardest by Isaac.
It’s no news that the Waffle House has got some moxie when it comes to natural disasters. During Hurricane Katrina, the chain shut down 110 restaurants from Tallahassee to New Orleans. Seventy-five percent of them reopened within a couple days of the storm. “We’re a 24-hour restaurant anyway,” Waffle House spokesperson and vice president of culture, Pat Warner says. “We don’t know how to close.”
FEMA Director Craig Fugate has joked that he watches a “Waffle House Index” to determine the severity of a disaster by the state of a Waffle House in a community. By seeing how much of its menu Waffle House is serving, he says he can tell just how bad it’s been with these three zones:
GREEN: Open and serving a full menu
YELLOW: Open but serving from a limited menu
RED: Location is forced to close
Furgate believes in it so much so that he owns a Team Waffle House Shirt.
But what started as a joke, has become something so much more.
“We started incorporating the social media last year with Irene and what we found was that people not only in the affected area but people who have family in these cities and haven’t heard from anybody look to that as another source of information about the storm.” Warner says. “We did it mainly to let our folks know which restaurants were open at first, but after Irene we realized what people were using it for so we really have paid attention to that.”
The crew has been tracking the storm since it was first spotted near Cuba and by Tuesday afternoon, the Waffle House response team including Warner, set out from Saraland, Alabama to bring aid to the 100 or so restaurants in the Gulf Coast region. The caravan includes two RVs equipped with satellite communication, a trailer with portable generators for restaurant coolers and a pickup truck with a fuel tank on the back.
While it’s great that the company has figured out a way to serve hash browns in a hurricane, what’s more important, Warner says, is the efficiency in informing communities in danger. From the “War Room” located in the company’s headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, communication specialist Meghan Irwin and her team monitor storms the minute they on spotted on the radar.
“With a title like “War Room,” the room itself might underwhelm you,” says Warner. “It is a conference room with the maps taped up on the wall, a speakerphone and about 7 computers to monitor local news reports. Meghan is constantly scanning government websites, closures and curfews and tweeting it out immediately.”
Here is a roundup of tweets from @WaffleHouse over the last three days that maps out the damage of Isaac:
While providing tactical support to their own stores may seem crassly commercial, the reopened Waffle Houses serve an important role for the devastated communities; often, its the only place in town to get a much-needed meal. “People see that we’re open and they say, ‘Okay, we’re working through this.’” says Warner. “Our customers want to regain that sense of normalcy.”
Warner and his team plan on checking on a restaurant near Lake Pontchartrain in Oak Harbor, Louisiana and then they’ll head back to the restaurant in Slidel that they are using as a command center.
August 20, 2012
When James Joyce sat down and wrote, in Ulysses, “Her griddlecakes done to a goldenbrown hue and Queen Ann’s pudding of delightful creaminess,” he probably did not imagine that decades later, bloggers in the 21st century would be attempting to cook the very foods he described. But in the past few years a proliferation of literary food blogs have crept up all over the internet, claiming the recipes for literature’s most epic delicacies and culinary disasters.
With both real and invented recipes, today’s literary food bloggers attempt to recreate not just a dish, but also the scene surrounding a dish in its greater literary context. The chocolate cake in Roald Dahl’s classic Matilda, for example, is not just an ode to gluttony but also a symbol of the Trunchbull’s demented torture tactics as she forces poor Bruce Bogtrotter to gulp down the cake in its entirety.
Nicole Villenueve, author of the popular Paper and Salt literary food blog, digs deep to find the real recipes of famous authors and literary personalities. “I can occasionally find the recipes that they used themselves,” she says, “whether in their letters or their collections of papers.” Villenueve focuses not only on the dishes in fiction but also on the real life favorites of authors like E.B White and Raymond Chandler. (Most recently she posted the recipe for Robert Penn Warren’s favorite cocktail).
Cara Nicoletti, a blogger, baker and butcher in New York, invents recipes inspired by literary food scenes on Yummy-Books, a blog that relies mostly on literary descriptions. “Most fiction novels don’t have actual recipes in them,” she says, “which is what makes them so creative and fun. My favorite literary food scenes are somewhat vague—like the unspecified red berry pie in Steinbeck’s East of Eden—because they leave me lots of space to interpret and imagine.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Nicole Gulotta, whose blog eatthispoem invites readers to try recipes inspired by basic fruits and seasons. She uses the framework of a poem and develops a recipe that “reflects the essence of the original text in some way.” The recipe follows the sentiment of the text as opposed to a measured formula. “The poem now lives on and off the page,” says Gulotta.
And why do this? What good is it to eat like characters from a novel? For most, it’s the chance to insert oneself into a favorite novel or poem by sharing in the most quotidian of human activities: eating. “Because I connected so deeply with these characters,” says Nicoletti, “eating the food they ate just seemed like a very natural way for me to be closer to them.” Cooking the food dreamed up by a favorite author can make us feel part of the bookwriting process, because, as Villenueve adds, cooking “is a very similar process to writing.”
The process works both ways; on the one hand, eating like a character from a novel invites readers into our favorite books, but it also beckons our favorite characters out into the real world.
No one has brought more attention to this theory than historian and curator Lucy Worsley, who performs the feats (most notably by cooking the same foods) of famous historical figures in an effort to experience what life must have been like in say, the days of Henry VIII. On any given day Worsley can be found buying pounds of pheasants and gulping gallons of saltwater. Lauren Collins, in her profile of Worsley in The New Yorker, describes this phenomenon precisely: “Food and drink are perhaps the most effective of Worsley’s tools for revivifying the past.”
Food scenes stand out to readers in the same way that food-related memories seem to triumph over even the grandest events in real life. Of all the scenes in a book, the most memorable are often the ones with visceral descriptions of food, the kind that leave you either starving or retching. “I remember certain scenes in books based soley on the foods that were eaten in them,” says Nicoletti, “but it goes the other way too. My memories of certain foods are bound up in my memories of reading certain novels, as well.”
If food is the way to a man’s heart, then descriptions of foods might be the way to a reader’s eyes. And cooking those descriptions brings them right to the table. “Food often allows you to step into the story just a little bit more than you otherwise could,” says Villenueve. “You may not have been to Paris, but with Hemingway you can down a few oysters and live vicariously through him.”
What food from literature would you most want to be able to cook for yourself? Let us know and we’ll pass along your requests!