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.
April 25, 2012
Many of the food outrages you’ve been reading about recently—pink slime in your hamburgers, insects coloring your Starbucks’ Strawberries and Crème Frappuccino, or the political frenzy over dog-eating—all revolve around revulsion. They’re foods more disgusting than they are dangerous. Similarly, there’s little evidence that low levels of arsenic harms chickens or the people eating them, but it sounds toxic, right? Policy makers wrestle with the popular notion that water recycling—going from toilet water to tap water—sullies otherwise refreshing drinking water.
What do they all have in common? Magical thinking.
Carol Nemeroff is a professor of social and behavioral sciences at the University of Southern Maine who has, among other things, studied how we react to drinks in which a dead, sterilized cockroach has been dipped or how we react to fudge in the shape of dog feces. These studies, she suggests, demonstrate two kinds of magical thinking. The law of contagion describes how, in the absence of any perceptible differences, we get grossed out by a food’s history of contact. The law of similarity describes how we get grossed out when something benign resembles something disgusting. I talked with her recently about how we think about eating.
Food & Think: Despite the proliferation of exposés and shocking facts about our food—say, how barbaric slaughterhouses seem to those of us far removed from the process—we’re somehow persuaded at the supermarket that meat is pure and clean and perfectly acceptable to eat.
Nemeroff: In order to undo the connection, what we can do is to frame certain things out of awareness. Framing is a technical term from cognitive psychology. The supermarket is a great example: You see neatly packaged hamburger, you do not see dead muscle tissue from a previously living cow. The way that it’s presented is divorced from its history. This is exactly what we want to figure out how to do with recycled water because in the water’s case, it would be a good thing to do. With the case of meat, when people go to the Middle East or Europe and they go to a meat market, they’re shocked because they see a whole cow or a whole chicken, with feet, beak and head. The response they experience is revulsion because it highlights—no, simply, it doesn’t hide the fact—that this is a previously living animal, or sometimes even a still-living animal. So you can frame out of awareness all those elements that interfere with people’s desire to buy it and eat it. We have to do that. If you couldn’t do this, you would end up with a version of OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder]—if we were to think about contagion every time we touch a doorknob or we’re in an elevator breathing someone else’s air or we think about how many hands touched our money. We frame naturally, but by manipulating the framing you can determine what things people focus on and what things they don’t.
October 7, 2011
This year’s Nobel Prize winners were honored for, among other things, discovering that the universe is expanding at an accelerating pace; their work on women’s rights and peace-building in Liberia; and advances in the understanding of immunity. But in years past, a number of winners have been recognized for food-related achievements—making food safer, more available or just increasing our knowledge of it. Here are five notable cases:
1904: Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Better known for his research with canines to explain conditioned responses—training dogs to salivate when they heard a sound they had come to associate with food—Pavlov won the Nobel for his earlier work on the digestive systems of mammals. Before he devised a way of observing the digestive organs of animals, there was only a limited understanding of how the stomach digests food.
1929: Christiaan Eijkman, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Eijkman and his co-awardee, Sir Frederick Hopkins, were honored for discovering of the importance of vitamins in health and disease prevention. In the 1890s, Eijkman, of the Netherlands, studied the disease beriberi in the then–Dutch colony of Java, where he made the connection between a diet lacking rice bran (the bran had been removed to make the rice last longer) and high rates of beriberi. This was an important milestone in the eventual formation of the concept of vitamins, though the word itself wasn’t coined until 1911.
1945: Lord John Boyd Orr, Nobel Peace Prize
Orr, of Scotland, devoted much of his life to improving world nutrition and to the equitable distribution of food. After helping shape Britain’s wartime food policy, Orr became director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a World Food Board in 1947. Two years later, by which time he had retired to a lucrative business career, his efforts were recognized by the Nobel committee.
1970: Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize
Possibly no one on this list had as great an effect on so many people as Borlaug, the American considered the father of the “Green Revolution” for his development of methods that vastly improved yields and disease-resistance in crops. Although some of his methods were later criticized for having a negative environmental impact, they greatly increased food security in poor countries such as India and Pakistan. The debate over how to balance environmental concerns with the food needs of a growing world population continues today.
The prize in economic sciences is the only category to be added since the establishment of the Nobel prizes. It was first awarded in 1969. Sen, an Indian living in the United Kingdom, won in part for his study of the underlying economic causes of famine. In his 1981 Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Sen debunked the common notion that food shortage is the sole cause of famine, and his later work explored how to prevent or mitigate famine.
September 20, 2011
California is on the road to becoming the fourth state in the union to ban shark fin soup on account of the ecological impact that rising demand is having on shark populations. A bill nixing the sale, trade or possession of shark fins passed the state senate on September 6 and is awaiting governor Jerry Brown’s signature to be passed into law. The namesake ingredient for this Asian delicacy is harvested by fishermen who catch sharks, remove the fins and dump the carcasses back in the ocean. While other parts of the shark are edible or can be used for other purposes, it makes more financial sense for the fishermen to haul back the fins because they are the most valuable: they can sell (depending on size and the species of shark) for upwards of $880 per pound on the Hong Kong market. (In 2003, a fin from a basking shark sold for $57,000 in Singapore.) It is estimated that between 26 and 73 million sharks are killed worldwide each year for their fins, and with sharks unable to reproduce at such a rate to meet human demand, sustainable shark fishing is a bit unrealistic.
So what’s the big to-do over this dish? It’s certainly not the fin’s flavor—which has been described as being relatively tasteless—but rather it’s unique, rubbery texture. Once dried, processed and incorporated into the soup, the fin looks like fine, translucent noodles whose culinary value is in their mouthfeel—all the flavor has to come from the other soup ingredients. Some chefs have tried using gelatin-based substitutes, but, for those intimately familiar with the dish, imitation shark falls short of capturing the feel of the real deal.
“This is the most stunning aspect of the entire economic empire that has arisen around shark’s fin soup” environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin writes of the soup in her book Demon Fish. “It is, to be blunt, a food product with no culinary value whatsoever. It is all symbol, no substance.” Indeed, with some iterations costing upwards of $100 a bowl, it’s a dish that, if nothing else, displays one’s social status.
The dining tradition that dates back to the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 A.D.), becoming a mainstay of formal dining during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 A.D.), and it continues to be a popular dish at Chinese weddings. Opponents see the ban as an act of cultural discrimination, with the language of the bill singling out shark fin soup and giving no mention of other shark-based products, such as steaks or leather goods.
But shark populations are declining. In the 1980s, Hong Kong’s local shark populations were overfished to the point that its fishing market went bust. In the U.S., dusky shark numbers have declined by roughly 80 percent since the 1970s, with conservationists estimating that it would take upwards of 100 years for those populations to rebuild. In western Atlantic waters, hammerhead sharks have declined by up to 89 percent over the past 25 years. And in spite of cultural traditions, the international community—with the exceptions of Japan, Norway and Iceland—has placed bans on whaling because humans put such a strain on those populations. Should the same reasoning be applied to sharks?
September 7, 2011
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “home economics”? Perhaps the image of a perfectly attired Stepford wife criticizing the texture of the first pound cake you attempted to make or memories of the flyby course you took when you wanted to put in minimal effort and come out with a passing grade at the end of the term. For many people, the class has a reputation for being an outdated course where the most you learn is how to make biscuits and maybe a cake from a mix and use uni-tasker kitchen appliances. (During a perfectly useless semester in seventh grade, I was made aware of the wonders of an electric sandwich press, but it’s not something I would ever include in my kitchen arsenal.) But with a little retooling and updating, home economics classes could be a valuable tool in the fight against obesity.
Home economics had its start in Lake Placid, New York during a series of annual conferences held between 1899 and 1910. Organized by MIT sanitary engineer Mary Richards, librarian Melvil Dewey and a host of other educators, the meetings were dedicated to finding ways to apply the latest in science and technology to improve life in the American home. In 1908, the conferences led to the creation of the American Home Economics Association, which lobbied the federal government to fund educational programs, and the resultant classes were a means of guiding young people through modern consumer culture. Between stocking a pantry, furnishing and maintaining a home, caring for children and managing a budget to take care of it all, there are a lot of issues a person has to juggle in order to make a home function smoothly.
But along the way home ec attained the reputation of being a relic, a gender-stereotyped course meant to confine women to domestic roles. Some school systems have managed to breathe new life into the course by divvying it up into more specialized classes—like courses that specifically address food preparation, which might be more attractive to prospective students in the age when Food Network-style programs inject fun and excitement into life in the kitchen. However, because home economics is typically classified as an elective course, it—like art and music classes—is prone to being eliminated from a school’s course offerings.
Furthermore, over time the cutting-edge knowledge about nutrition and sanitation that was the impetus for home ec in the first place came to be viewed as common sense. But is common sense really all that common? We hear all the time that Americans are getting fatter, and a cultural preference for prepackaged convenience foods isn’t helping matters. If this is the case, couldn’t a home economics course focused on planning and preparing nutritionally balanced foods help alleviate this problem?
It’s a question assistant professor of history Helen Zoe Veit explores in a recent New York Times oped. A victim of the stereotypical kind of class where you learn how to make doughnuts from prefab biscuit dough, she argues that instead of condescending to students’ fledgling abilities in the kitchen, classes should teach them how to cook real food. “Too many Americans simply don’t know how to cook,” she says in the article. “Our diets, consisting of highly processed foods made cheaply outside the home thanks to subsidized corn and soy, have contributed to an enormous health crisis.” Those sentiments are shared by nutrition scientist Alice Lichtenstein and physician David Ludwig, who wrote an editorial on the subject in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “[G]irls and boys should be taught the basic principles they will need to feed themselves and their families within the current food environment: a version of hunting and gathering for the 21st century,” they say. “As children transition into young adulthood, they should be provided with knowledge to harness modern conveniences (eg, prewashed salad greens) and avoid pitfalls in the marketplace (such as prepared foods with a high ratio of calories to nutrients) to prepare meals that are quick, nutritious, and tasty. It is important to dispel the myths—aggressively promoted by some in the food industry—that cooking takes too much time or skill and that nutritious food cannot also be delicious.”
Personally, I couldn’t agree more. I learned my way around a kitchen because I had a mom who cooked all the family’s meals. That’s the standard of living I want to maintain because I prefer the taste of “from scratch” food over the prefab stuff. If I didn’t have that kind of a model at home to follow, I might have ended up trying to sustain myself predominantly on convenience food. Wouldn’t giving home ec a much-needed facelift—and maybe even making it a graduation requirement—potentially turn out more savvy, self-efficient and healthy young adults?