November 20, 2012
No, the answer is not the grocery store (though technically, that is correct). While that may be the last place your Thanksgiving fowl hung out before you brought it home, chances are the turkey was born and raised on one of the farms on this map created by ESRI and compiled from data from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture (2007). The map also has data on three of the traditional side dishes: sweet potatoes, cranberries and green beans.
See a larger version of this map.
Some cliff notes before you say grace:
Turkey production in the U.S. is a nearly 5 billion dollar industry—254 million turkeys were produced this year alone in preparation for the big day. But where are all of these gobblers grown? Based on the clustering of farms in this map, you might think states like Missouri, North Carolina and West Virginia might come out on top in terms of turkey production numbers. But historically Minnesota is the highest producer of turkeys in the U.S.—raising 46.2 million turkeys in 2011.
What does this tell us about the relationship between number of turkey farms in the U.S. and the highest producers of turkey meat? Mark Jekanowski, chief of the crops branch in the Economic Research Center of USDA, says it has to do with the size of the farm. Minnesota, for example, may have fewer farms, but the ones they’ve got are more likely factory-sized—pumping out more turkeys than, say, a local farm in North Carolina.
“Most livestock you can produce almost anywhere, but in the U.S., turkey production is concentrated in upper midwest,” Jekanowski says. “The driving factor for the midwest is the abundant feed supplies in that region which is the biggest input cost for farmers.”
In other words: Turkey farmers want to be near the corn and soybeans. It only makes sense that turkey producers set up shop close to the processing plants and the cheap foods that will feed their livestock (Which explains the dots few and far between in regions like Utah and Texas.)
But not every farm is factory-sized. The map also indicates that there is a large industry of small scale production, too. In fact, it’s not unusual to have turkey farms with a relatively small number of hogs and small-scale beef production too, Jekanowski says.
A quick glance at this map and you’ll notice that the cranberry farms are heavily clustered in northern regions of the U.S. —Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Washington and Oregon—specifically. The reason? Cranberries are picky when it comes to growing conditions. Because they are traditionally grown in natural wetlands, they need a lot of water. During the long, cold winter months, they also require a period of dormancy which rules out any southern region of the U.S. as an option for cranberry farming.
“They need a wetland-type soil that you’re not going to find in more arid parts of the country like Arizona or Texas,” Jekanowski says. “The production is heavily driven by the geographic requirements of the berry.”
In this case, the number and location of farms accurately reflect the states with the highest production. The 2007 crop projections from National Agricultural Statistics Service list Wisconsin as the largest producer of the berries with an estimated 3,900,000 barrels; Massachusetts is a not-so-close second with a projected 1,800,000 barrels. Reports from cranberry growers this year show that production is down. An early spring in Massachusetts, for example, caused growth to occur ahead of schedule, leaving crops vulnerable to frost damage—just another example of just how particular cranberries can be before they end up on top of your turkey in sauce form.
Traditionally, the sweet potato is a holiday root—a staple at the Thanksgiving dinner table in particular. In fact, in recent years, sweet potato love has spiked in the U.S. due to the health benefits of the orange-fleshed storage root (e.g., high amounts of potassium, fiber and vitamin A) often replacing white potatoes as a side dish.
But, like cranberries, sweet potatoes require specific conditions to yield the best crops. They need a long growing season, the heat of the summer and a lot of water—making the South the best home for sweet potato yields.
“Over many decades the conditions in the South have been identified as an area where sweet potatoes get the best yields,” Jekanowski says. “You might also find areas they grow well in other parts of the country—Arizona even—but in many other parts of the country, other crops grow better in those areas, and farmers will farm what’s most profitable for them.”
A glance at the map will tell you that these orange spuds grow just fine as far north as Wisconsin or Michigan, but statistically, sweet potatoes are most profitable and popular in the South, where per capita use was estimated to 5.7 pounds in 2001—more than twice that of the West (2.6 pounds), which consumes the fewest sweet potatoes.
Though they are more commonly known as green beans, the USDA uses the lesser-known moniker of “snap beans,” the term which refers to the crackling sound made when fresh beans are broken in two.
Snap beans are produced for three markets in the U.S.: Fresh, canned and frozen. Fifty percent of all domestically produced snap beans are destined for canning according to the USDA’s Economic Research Center. Though there is still a market for fresh beans, the larger producers are located nearer to canneries and other processors. In 2007, 303,997 acres of green beans were harvested from a total of 17,300 farms. Sixty-five percent of that total acreage harvested was for processing.
Though the map indicates that green bean farms are evenly scattered throughout a large part of the country, in the regions with the highest production—the South and the Midwest for example—most of the production is driven by the location of the processing industries.
“Much of the production of green beans is frozen or canned— the need then is to get the beans to the processor within hours of harvesting it,” Jekanowski says.”Over decades within a fairly small area, processors have sprung up in parts of the country that tend to be good at growing green beans. It’s also contracted by the processing plant—the processor enters lines of supply in advance. Processors are not going to contract with people that are hundreds of miles away.”
Whether you’re doing the cooking or the eating (or both) this Thanksgiving, perhaps knowing where your meal came from may help you be all the more thankful…that you’re not these guys. And some other great Thanksgiving reads from Smithsonian.com:
- Emily Spivack on what to wear to the Thanksgiving table to leave room for all that food
- Megan Gambino on the science of making the perfect holiday dinner
- Joseph Stromberg on what makes overeating possible. There’s a scientific excuse!
- What was on the table for the first Thanksgiving meal?
November 9, 2012
At a morning market in Bali, the usual gaudy suspects – papayas, mangos, dragon fruit and heaps of rancid-smelling durians - are on display. For Western visitors seeking culinary novelty, however, the most enticing fruit likely will not be the biggest or the brightest, but a humble, shiny brown offering called the salak. For the uninitiated, this fleshy, spongey morsel offers a perfumed cocktail of bright flavors, with hints of pineapple, citrus, honey and possibly even soap.
In Indonesia, salaks are as common as apples or oranges in the U.S. Also called snakefruit, this strawberry-sized, fig-shaped fruit comes encased in vivid, nutty-brown scales, not unlike that of a cobra or python. Heaps of salaks turn up daily at countless local markets, while touristy hotels offer them up in breakfast buffet lines as examples of typical island fare. The odd but ubiquitous morsels can be boiled with sugar into a sweet spread, pickled, vacuum dried and fried into chips or paired with other fruits and nuts, but locals prefer them best raw and straight off the tree.
At the daily market in Padang Bai, a sleepy backpacker haunt on Bali’s southeastern coast, Tutu Aldi Wan, a friendly local who works as a chef at the Bloo Lagoon Ecotourism Village, gives a salak-eating tutorial soon after dawn. “Sorry, I just woke up,” he yawns. “It was a big party last night.” He leads us past the stalls of those less intriguing papayas and mangoes, stopping in front of a woman sitting amidst baskets brimming with salaks. Her name is Monsaro, she says, and she comes each day to the market to sell her salaks from a farm about three miles away.
“First you open the snake skin,” he says, plucking up one of Monsaro’s salaks and making quick work of its covering. Inside, lobes of garlic-like meaty fruit await. “Then, clean off the little skin,” he instructs, indicating a thin, film-like coating encasing each segment of the yellowish white fruit, like that found on a boiled egg. “The white salaks are the best,” he shrugs, handing us the more-yellow-than-white fruit. We pucker up at the salak’s unfamiliar acidity and spongy texture, which leaves our mouths seemingly both dry and full of citrusy juices at the same time. Within each lobe, a few more nibbles expose a large, dull seed in the same shade of brown as the snakefruit’s exterior.
Salaks grow in bundles on palm-like plants with vicious spiked leaves and stems, and Indonesians often surround their yards with the primordial bushes, which double as purveyors of tasty treats and deterrents to would-be trespassers. On Java, traditional dancers whip themselves into a trance in the “Kuda Lumping” dance, then stomp upon or lick salak leaves to show their immunity to pain.
Around 30 types of snakefruits grow throughout their native Indonesia, but the islands of Bali and Java vie for the best salak around. Naturally, locals tend to swear by their own island fruit’s superiority, but for foreigners all bets are off, and preference is simply a matter of taste. The Javanese variety, or salak pondoh, is the more obnoxiously aromatic of the two varieties. This intense fruit walks a fine line of ripeness that is so volatile that it will often become overripe and sweaty even before it reaches maturation.
In Bali, salak bali delivers a crunchy, starchy experience that conjures associations with watery pineapple and lemon. One strain of extra small, extra sweet salak bali called gula pasir (“sand sugar”), fetches the highest price on the island, ranging from 75 cents to $1.50 per pound, depending on the season. These little morsels also ferment into salak wine, a sweet, dry concoction of honey-gold that contains 13.5 percent alcohol. Family-owned wineries chop the mature fruits and pack them into containers to brew with sugars and yeast for two weeks. From there, they press the wine to remove sediments, a process that takes about six months. Around 9 pounds of fruit make one bottle of wine that sells for $10, so salak farmers who stick to the bottle are able to spin a better profit than those like Monsaro who sell their fruits fresh off the bush.
While salak is readily found around Southeast Asia and Australia, procuring it in the U.S. is tricky. Until Whole Foods catches on to the charms of snakefruit, curious fruit fans’ best bet may be to source salaks from online suppliers.
November 7, 2012
Should you ever encounter my Mom’s mom and get her on the subject of cauliflower, she will go on to tell you about the best deep-fried cauliflower recipe in the world, the one with the nutmeg in the batter that made the snack sing and how she could sit down and eat a whole bowl if she didn’t watch herself. She will then go on to tell you how, after making up a batch, she spent an entire workday thinking about diving into the leftovers in her fridge only to come home and find that one of her daughters beat her to it. Due to dietary restrictions, she hasn’t had it in a number of years and she, always with good humor, will never let go of the cauliflower that got away. I’ve yet to have the fabled fried treats for myself, but it’s a wonderfully versatile fall vegetable that I love roasting or using in soups. If you’re planning on getting your cauliflower fix, here are five ways to put this high-fiber piece of produce through its paces.
Roast it: The means of cooking may be simple, but you have lots of options in how you execute a dish—namely through how you season the cauliflower and if you pair it with other veggies. It can be as simple as florets dressed with olive oil and paprika gunning it solo in a roasting pan. You can find companions for your cauliflower: broccoli is fairly traditional, but explore other options such as onions and fennel or even Brussels sprouts and sunchokes.
Grill it: Cauliflower really doesn’t require a ton of elbow grease to make it a flavorful companion to a meal. Throw in those endorphin-producing flavors that only a grill can provide, and you’ve got it made. A little salt, pepper, parmesan and those endorphin-producing flavors that come from food fresh off the grill make this recipe an attractive option. You can also cut the head into steaks and put them directly over the heat—and I’m definitely intrigued by the idea of serving them up with a little A1.
Soup it: I have my go-to family cauliflower soup recipe that gets made up a few times once the weather turns cold and it’s a perfect comfort food. Now, I’m fussy—I prefer soups that have a bit of body. For those of you who are agog for for hot purees, you can try this deliciously simple version from chef Paul Bertolli. If you’re like me and like your bowl teeming with discernible bits of veg buoyed by a rich stock, this might be more up your alley.
Sweeten it: Yes, you can use cauliflower in un-savory ways. Cauliflower has a very mild flavor, so it’s easy to sneak it into desserts, like chocolate cake or jam-topped thumbprint cookies. You can also dip them in a basic batter, deep fry and top with sauce made from honey and butter. It’s a fair start at curbing any guilt you have from indulging your sweet tooth.
Don’t Forget the Greens: Well, it can actually be quite easy to forget the greens. Whenever I see heads of cauliflower in my local supermarket, the leaves are pruned back so that the white flesh of the vegetable is the main attraction. But if you grow your own or have access to freshly-harvested veg (e.g. a CSA or farmer’s market), you can use the greens to make a great side dish. With a little oil and garlic in a frying pan, wilt the greens and cook them up or add a few other vegetables and spices for a pungent stir fry. You can also season and roast them with the rest of the cauliflower.
October 30, 2012
The commemoration of the last day of the ancient Celtic calendar was a major influences on how we celebrate Halloween, but one significant tradition has (thankfully?) not survived. Kale, that leafy salad green, was a tool of marriage divination, identifying life partners for men and women in ancient Scotland and Ireland.
But first, some context: According to the Celtic calendar, on the morning of November 1, spirits and the supernatural “bogies” were free to roam the night of the 31st and into the morning as the new year represented the transition between this world and the otherworld. To fend off the spirits and to celebrate the coming year, Scottish youths participated in superstitious games on Halloween night that were thought to bring good fortune and predict the future marital status of partygoers.
Scottish bard Robert Burns describes the typical festivities for the peasantry in the west of Scotland in his poem, “Halloween,” originally published in both English and Scots in 1785. The 252-line poem follows the narrative of 20 characters and details many—often confusing—folk practices: Burning nuts, winnowing the corn, and the cutting of the apple:
“Some merry, friendly, country-folks,
Together did convene,
To burn their nuts, and pile their shocks of wheat,
And have their Halloween
Full of fun that night.”
Also included among the party games mentioned in Burns’ poem is our first Halloween kale matchmaking activity, known as ”pou (pull) the stalks.”
1) Pou (Pull) the Stalks
In this Scottish tradition, instead of trick-or-treating, young, eligible men and women were blindfolded and guided into a garden to uproot kale stalks. After some time digging in the dirt, the piece of kale selected was analyzed to determine information about the participant’s future wife or husband.
In Burns’ poem, for example, the character of Willie, tries his luck and pulls a stalk as curly as a pig’s tail. He isn’t too happy about it:
“Then, first and foremost, through the kail,
Their stocks maun a’ be sought ance;
They steek their een, and graip and wale,
For muckle anes and straught anes.
Poor hav’rel Will fell aff the drift,
And wander’d through the bow-kail,
And pou’t, for want o’ better shift,
A runt was like a sow-tail,
Sae bow’t that night.”
The analysis was pretty literal according to Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween by David J. Skal—meaning poor Willie’s curly-Q’d root didn’t look too promising. Characteristics of the stalk were thought to reveal signs about the potential partner: A short and stunted stalk meant just that for the player’s future mate. Tall and healthy, withered and old, and so on—even the kale’s flavor was thought to hint at the disposition of the future spouse (bitter, sweet, etc.). The amount of dirt clinging to the stalk post pou was believed to determine the size of the dowry or fortune the participant should expect from their husband or wife. A clean root meant poverty was in the cards.
“A lad and lassie, hand in hand,
Each pull a stock of mail;
And like the stock, is future wife
Or husband, without fail.
If stock is straight, then so is wife,
If crooked, so is she;
If earth is clinging to the stock,
The puller rich will be.
And like the taste of each stem’s heart,
The heart of groom or bride;
So shut your eyes, and pull the stocks,
And let the fates decide.”
2) Cook Up Some Colcannon
If you’re not satisfied with letting the “fates” determine the man or woman you will spend the rest of your life with, perhaps this Irish tradition may interest you. For Hallowe’en—what Christianity would later call All Hallows’ Eve—kale was used in the traditional dish, colcannon, or “white-headed cabbage” when translated from its Gaelic roots cal ceannann’. Charms hidden in the mush of cabbage, kale and chopped onions, were thought to determine who at the table would be the next to tie the knot. If you were lucky enough to find a ring concealed in your meal, no longer would you spend your Halloween dinner single and sighing—wishing you’d find a piece of metal in your food. The other hidden object was a thimble, which meant the life of a spinster for the lady lucky enough to discover it. Eating the dinner trinket-free seems to be the best of the three situations, but I suppose it depends on who you’re asking. If the Halloween dinner were up to me, the only thing on the menu would be candy.
October 2, 2012
In recent decades, Americans have extended our fructivorous tastes beyond the trusty apple, orange and banana. But the world’s tropical rainforests hold fruits that are far more alien than once-novel mangoes and papayas. The Cape Tribulation Exotic Fruit Farm, on the northern tip of the Australian state of Queensland, is a living museum of esoteric produce, from Amazonian ice cream beans to Balinese snake fruit. I stopped by recently while traveling in Australia to find out whether I could learn to love a fruit that looks like it could bite me back.
Farmers Alison and Digby Gotts offer daily fruit tastings and tours of their organic orchards. While the rainforest of tropical Queensland is off the usual tourist tracks, the couple gets a fair number of curious foodies who come to sample such oddities as the rum-raisin flavored sapodilla and the star apple, packed with sticky purple latex.
On the afternoon of my visit, the day’s selection of ten exotic fruits was arranged in a rustic bowl, like a bizarre take on a Paul Cezanne still life. A couple of them were familiar from the novelty shelf at Whole Foods– the gaudy fuchsia dragon fruit and the chartreuse carambola, better known as a star fruit. Others were like nothing I had seen before.
It was with some hesitation that I tried the black sapote, a dark, wizened orb that looked like it was about ready to be thrown away. Leslie Munro, a local dragon fruit farmer who helps out with the tastings, explained that while the black sapote was picked green, it didn’t develop its distinctive “chocolate pudding” flavor until it had softened on the ground for a week or two. She passed slices around, and the tasters nibbled nervously. It took a little imagination, but the soft, dark brown flesh was reminiscent of a Jell-O pudding cup– if you had stirred mashed-up avocado into it.
Taste-wise, the rollinia stood out among the ten fruits I sampled. Its fearsome exterior, yellow with black scales, belied the pleasant, lemon meringue pie flavor of this South American native. Also popular with my fellow tasters was the pomelo, a sweet, juicy grapefruit relative the size of a volleyball.
My pick for weirdest fruit was the soursop, which looked like a dinosaur’s big green egg, or the mutant offspring of a crocodile and a pineapple. It tasted a little like lemonade, but with the texture of a cotton ball studded with big, slippery seeds. It makes good jam, Alison told us.
Exotic fruits are often the subject of health claims, and somewhere on this farm could lurk the next trendy superfood—see the açaí, a Brazilian palm fruit that rocketed to popularity a few years ago for its alleged antioxidant content. Digby Gotts has sent fruit samples away to Brisbane, the nearest big city, to have the nutrition content analyzed, but there is little existing research on their health effects, as many of these fruits are new to science.
Meanwhile, Alison and Digby have struggled to make most of their products marketable. Some trees fail to thrive in Queensland’s harsh environment. Many of the fruits are heavy and delicate, and thus hard to ship. Others are just too weird for the average shopper in Sydney or Brisbane, let alone Peoria. The fruit the couple has had the most luck with is the mangosteen, a dark purple fruit with a sweet white interior.
“They’ve survived the cyclones, they taste fantastic, and people pay good money for them,” Alison enthused.
For now, though, most of the Gottses’ varieties are available only from the farm or at a few grocery stores in the towns nearby. Unfortunately, you might just have to travel to the rainforest to get your fix of a juicy soursop or a divine rollinia.
– written by Amy Crawford