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 16, 2012
The first thing I did when I got into the office this morning was a Google search for DIY Sno-Balls because I woke up to the sound of NPR confirming my worst fears: Hostess, the bakery responsible for Twinkies, is declaring bankruptcy and liquidating its assets in light of a labor strike that began on November 9. I’ll leave the discussion about how the bakery ran afoul of its workforce to other information outlets and instead focus on the actual baked goods. In the pantheon of novelty foods, Hostess was the prima domestic diva bar none. Not only were her wares fun to look at—a Sno-Ball’s shaggy mound of pink coconut-topped creme-filled chocolate cake, the curlicues of icing atop their branded CupCakes—but also fun to say. Oh that there were some sort of diagnostic to measure the volume of tittering that Ding Dongs and Ho-Hos elicited in schoolchildren over the decades. And while I used to joke that Twinkies could survive a nuclear holocaust on account of the preservatives, they and their brethren now seem to be on the critically endangered list of supermarket snack cakes. (There is the possibility that Hostess’ nostalgia factor will attract the attention of another company will buy out and continue certain product lines, but as of this writing, that remains to be seen.) So what does one do should these cakes go extinct?
The cream-filled sponge cakes debuted in 1930 with banana-flavored cream filling—later changed to vanilla when World War II made sourcing bananas a tough task—became a cultural touchstone in the 50s after becoming a sponsor for Howdy Doody, the wildly-popular children’s television program. Ever since, Twinkies have been the everyman’s eclair, and of all the Hostess cakes, they may very well be the most versatile. A staple at state fairs, you frequently see them battered, and fried. In 2006, an entire cookbook was concocted, inviting fans to expand the horizons of the humble Twinkie—sometimes in strange directions, such as the recipe for Twinkie sushi. The cakes have even inspired mixologists. Michael J. Neff, co-owner of Ward III bar in New York, admitted to experimenting with muddled Twinkies in his cocktails—although he found the combination of cake and booze to be perfectly unpalatable. Most people, however, approximate the flavor by combining a few choice liquors. So on the one hand, there’s an entire cookery subculture that would die off should these products no longer be available to sustain and inspire trash food devotees. On the other hand, this situation may be a win for our national fight against obesity and diabetes.
During a lunchtime trip out to the nearest CVS, I had a George Bailey moment and saw a vision of what the world would be like if Twinkies ceased to exist. The prepackaged cakes rack was stripped down to the wire, with the only Hostess products remaining being a few packages of Zingers and a healthy supply of fruitcake. If there’s a run on Twinkies, like I think there will given this morning’s news, what’s a person to do? It is not impossible to replicate these snack foods at home. Twinkie pans have been available to home cooks for ages and America’s Test Kitchen even came out with their iteration of Hostess CupCakes. For me, the more difficult treat to make at home is the Sno-Ball, because in this case, you have the component of marshmallow frosting that has to be sticky enough to make the colored coconut flakes stick, but no so sticky that you can’t eat it out of your hand without making an epic mess. It’s a delicate line to tread and I’m amazed at whatever chemistry and unpronounceable ingredients converged to produce this scientific marvel of modern baking. I found a recipe or two to work with, so we’ll see how this goes. So it is possible to more or less get your fix. But what you give up is the convenience of cakes that will stay fresh ad infinitum and packaged so that you can only have one or two at a time. If you make batch, you need to liquidate your stock in a matter of days. And that’s a lot of sugar—and fat—to have to consume in a short span of time. On the upswing, you may be able to produce a higher-quality product at home because you have control over the ingredients. And to be honest, part of Hostess’ downfall has been a cultural shift away from the processed foods that are the company’s bread and butter. (Well, Wonder Bread was the company’s bread and another culinary icon that may be biting the dust.)
Faced with the prospect of cowboy mascot Twinkie the Kid riding off into the sunset, is it worth the elbow grease to produce your own novelty cakes at home? And is the media buzz about the loss of the Hostess dessert products simply a case of overblown nostalgia or are we losing something more than a line of junk foods? Talk to us in the comments sections below.
September 25, 2012
Once upon a time, Americans went blind from homemade moonshine, and meatpacking plants produced something more mystery meatloaf than pasture-raised. The ever evolving dance of food safety and regulation marches on, this time to protect us from…Wisconsin dairy farmers?
1. Raw Milk: In a state where citizens proudly wear giant wedges of foam cheese on their heads, dairy is king. Yet even in Wisconsin the lactose-centric cheer is quiet around raw milk. Many people swear by its such and such properties but plenty of others, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agree that “While it is possible to get foodborne illnesses from many different foods, raw milk is one of the riskiest of all.” In Wisconsin, raw milk devotees can acquire the semi-illicit substance only if purchasing it directly from a farmer. Roughly half of US states forbid the sale of raw milk entirely.
2. Foie gras: Long considered the height of indulgence, foie gras became a symbol of civil disobedience in July when chefs staged foie gras-themed dinners protesting California’s recent ban. The luscious, spreadable goose innards (specifically duck or goose liver that has been fattened up with force-feeding) raised protests from animal rights group but the debate turned particularly vile when complaints of animal cruelty were coupled with death threats for the chefs who serve foie gras. Known for his conflict-mediation skills, Anthony Bourdain tweeted “Every time a chef is threatened, someone should skin a panda.” But the ban came to pass and neither panda nor chef was harmed.
3. Soda: New York City made headlines on September 13 when it passed
a ban and a size limit on sodas available in restaurants, movie theaters and other establishments that fall under the supervision of the Department of Health. The ban will take effect in six months, according to CNN. Identifying the sugary calories in sodas and other sweetened drinks (including some of Honest Tea’s 16.9 oz. bottle beverages), Bloomberg defended the decision as a matter of public health. But seriously, who’s paying for drinks at the movie theaters anyway? Isn’t that what purses are for?
4. Horse Meat: While not illegal to consume, it is illegal to slaughter horses in the States. The situation is in a state of limbo currently after Congress lifted a ban on using federal funds to inspect horse slaughterhouses in November. Without any money to support the inspections, however, horse has yet to appear on many menus and the slaughterhouse industry isn’t picking up steam. Even if it did, culinary interest does not seem high and some have pointed out that the antibiotics and drugs given to these animals not intended for consumption makes them unfit for our plates. Something about that whole symbol of the American frontier also seems to keep My Little Ponies from the appetizer options.
5. Fly larvae cheese: Known as casu marzu, this cheese hails from Sardinia and is completely forbidden here. Because of its status as a traditional food, the cheese managed to maintain its legal status within the European Union. Just listen to this description of how the cheese is made and you’ll understand the ban. According to Delish, the cheese “develops when cheese fly larvae are introduced into Pecorino to promote advanced fermentation. As the larvae hatch and eat through the cheese, it softens. Diners have to dig in before the maggots die.” Poor Pecorino.
6. And one surprising food item that is not illegal: Roadkill. It is absolutely legal to haul that hunk of meat from the side of the road and bring home a feast. In certain respects, the practice makes economic sense and gets rotting carcasses off the street. But it also means an awful lot of meat is going without inspection. The finer points of roadkill cuisine were indeed part of my driver’s education materials though I have yet to try it.
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 29, 2012
The unassuming town of Buñol, Spain, home to 9,000 residents, is situated along the quiet Buñol river. It boasts a great paella, along with its many fruit, almond and olive trees, and compared with its neighbor to the east, the city of Valencia, is rather sleepy.
Until 40,000 people from around the world start throwing over 100 metric tons of tomatoes at one another.
La Tomatina, Buñol’s annual tomato throwing food fight, took place this morning with participants trying hard to reach one goal: to throw as many tomatoes as possible in what has come to be known as the world’s biggest food fight. With one single fruit and one single color, it might not be all that aesthetically pleasing, but you’d have to be crazy to say that it doesn’t look like a hollering good time.
The event began with its traditional Palojabón (literally, hamstick), a greased wooden pole two stories high topped with a delicious-looking Spanish ham. One brave participant must climb the slick stick and retrieve the ham in order for the events of La Tomatina to officially begin. This year, like most, nobody reached the ham. And this year, like most, it did not matter. People began throwing tomatoes anyway. Heeding only a few rules–tomatoes must be squished before being thrown to avoid injury, and tomatoes are the only weapons to be used–participants in this year’s festival donned protective glasses and gloves to protect themselves from the flying fruits. You may be asking yourself, what is the point of such chaos? It is just that. Pure, chaotic tomato-celebrating fun.
But La Tomatina is not only a food fight. Though the tomato throwers might be the most memorable part of the week-long event, the festival is a true celebration of cuisine and the end of the summer. It features paella cook-offs, parades, dancing and fireworks and attracts tourists from around the world to enjoy the scenic city and take part in its local pride.
The origins of the tomato fight, which dates back to the 1940s, is unclear. The AFP says that it began with a friendly, neighborhood food fight, while townspeople in Buñol claim that the first tomatoes were thrown by residents angry at the city’s councilmen. Whatever its humble beginnings, the event is now an internationally recognized event.
Dictator Francisco Franco banned La Tomatina for its lack of religious ties, but when he left power in 1975 the event was swiftly resumed. While most raucous, obscure European traditions seem to date back centuries (Oktoberfest, for example, began in 1810), La Tomatina is a relatively new event, fueled by a nationalistic passion for celebrating even the most everyday oddities.
When the fight ended and the participants were covered in tomato puree, the streets were left cleaner than they were before. Bunol’s officials say that it is the acidity levels of the tomatoes that scrub the concrete clean, but it might also be the water used, sourced directly from a Roman aqueduct. Town residents kindly sprayed down a couple of hundred residents, while other tired food fighters headed to the Bunol River to wash themselves free of tomato residue.
It’s a shame they never added any garlic or basil to the mix, to spread over a nest of angel hair, but we can only hope that tomato fighters will be more industrious and culinarily-inclined in coming years.