If there’s one thing that frustrates me more than any other at the grocery store these days, it’s the labeling on meat products. There are so many stickers and labels that it’s almost impossible to tell how quality any specific piece of meat is or where it has come from.
Some of the definitions are worse than others though and seem to be made by the USDA with the exclusive purpose of confusing people. It’s very (very) hard to find the origins of these definitions. They are probably the results of countless hours in conference rooms and who knows how many millions of lobbying dollars.
So I wanted to take a day and write about the labels on meat products. This might be information you already know, but the more it’s discussed and written about, the more there is a likelihood for change.
I’m a pretty huge Mark Bittman fan. I like his books (especially How to Cook Everything and Food Matters), and we have similar goals with our writing which is to get people excited about cooking good food in their homes. I guess you could say that he’s a bit better at it than me, but I have like 40 years to catch up so whatever.
In any event, one of my favorite things besides his books is his videos on the New York Times website. Most of them are under five minutes and have some inventive ideas. These nachos are lifted off of his rant on bar nachos with their orange cheese sauce and soggy chips. I definitely agree with him.
These Greek nachos are piled high with ground lamb, a feta cheese sauce and tons of toppings, so they lose none of the flavor. Even my traditional nacho-loving fiancee didn’t have a problem polishing off a plate of these.
Different and delicious
I’ve written about nachos before on Macheesmo. I did the near perfect nachos which in my opinion is the only way to make traditional nachos. Then I made some fish nachos over the summer which had some awesome flavor. Greek nachos are a departure from both of those things, but equally tasty.
Every other weekend, I review a cookbook in an attempt to lend some guidance in a field that has become overrun. These days everyone is writing cookbooks and it’s incredibly upsetting to buy a dud and have it sit on your shelf for years – staring at you, mocking your poor judgment.
I was excited to get my copy of “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. I was excited because I know he’s a good writer, it’s on a subject that I care about, and it got more hype than a Tiger Woods scandal (ok not really). And while it was kind of masochistic of me to decide to read this over the holidays when meat is such a staple in my family, I’m very glad I did. After thinking about it for two weeks, let me see if I can put it into words why I think everyone should read this book. (And it’s not because I want you to be vegetarian. Trust me. I don’t.)
A Fiction Writer on Food
The question that was most pressing for me when I saw this book is, “Why the heck would a fiction author delve into the incredibly complicated world of food politics?” The answer was given pretty early in the book. First, turns out Mr. Foer is a smart guy. He was a philosophy major, he’s incredibly well-read, and he has a fantastic and, I think, poignant writing style. He appears to be genuinely interested in the topic. Second, he had the skills and the financial means to devote himself to nothing else but researching the meat industry for years. Very few people can do that – just travel around and poke and prod into something… Finally, and most importantly, he had a baby. And while he seemed to be content for many years eating whatever, he suddenly felt the need to explore WHAT exactly he was going to be feeding his child and WHERE it came from. Three years later, this book is the result.
What this Book is Not (Sort of).
Very early on, Mr. Foer does his best to combat the assumption about this book that it’s a strict and straightforward case for vegetarianism. He says:
“I, too, assumed that my book about eating animals would become a straightforward case for vegetarianism. It didn’t. A straightforward case for vegetarianism is worth writing, but it’s not what I’ve written here. Animal agriculture is a hugely complicated topic. No two animals, breeds of animals, farms, farmers, or eaters are the same… And eating animals is one of those topics, like abortion, where it is impossible to definitively know some of the most important details.”
SPOILER ALERT: I say sort of in parenthesis because after 260 pages he is a vegetarian. Although he does a better job than most at presenting different views to show how complicated this issue is, he’s still a vegetarian. So the book is a case for vegetarianism, but just not a straightforward one.
Foer says that it’s telling that people assume this book is going to be a case for vegetarianism, because it means that deep down, we all know that if you closely analyze agricultural methods of meat production it will lead to a vegetarian answer. I think he is reaching here. Honestly, I assumed it was fiction until I read about it. I started thinking it was about vegetarianism when someone told me it was a book about vegetarianism.
What this Book Definitely IS
This book is, without a doubt, the most effective and straightforward case I’ve ever heard against industrial factory farming. Some of the facts are nothing new if you’ve read other books on the subject. But what he does really well, I think, is make the material very real for people who may not normally be open to reading about such things.
Foer does this through story-telling, which is something he is very good at. He tells various stories throughout the book to get his point across. One chapter, for example, is about poop, or shit as he says. Just how much of it is produced by factory farms, how it’s disposed, and why you should care. And seriously, this shit matters!
Throughout the book Foer uses some interesting methods to get his point across. Some that stuck with me weeks after reading the book include:
A rational argument for why we should start eating dogs. Think A Modest Proposal only he isn’t joking. It might be simple to cast aside his proposal as ludicrous, but it’s much harder to rationally answer it.
Writing a short phrase enough times to equal 21,000 characters (it takes five pages). If you’re an average American, in your lifetime you will eat one animal for each character on those pages.
Comparing the amount of space an average broiler chicken is raised in to the area of an open page of his book. Hint: You have to subtract.
Other People’s Views
One of my favorite parts of the book was near the end when Foer does his best to show how complicated this issue really is. There are various chapters written by real people that show the complicated nature of agriculture. There’s the chapter written by a vegetarian beef farmer. Even better – there’s a chapter written by a vegan person who is building a slaughterhouse.
In My Opinion…
I’m trying to keep this review as objective as possible even though I’m obviously very passionate about the subject of food and I don’t agree with some of Foer’s conclusions (I tend to side more with the farmers in the later chapters). I do believe though, that regardless of whether or not you are vegetarian, there are some obvious things that can be gleaned from Foer’s book. And as Foer would say, these things matter.
First, our meat supply system is broken. People’s demand for super-cheap meat (how is a pound of flesh ever cheaper than a pound of broccoli?) has created a system that supplies that super-cheap meat but with near disregard to quality. It’s an incredibly cruel system that also passes on a number of unseen costs (environmental, disease, etc.) to future generations.
Second, our food labeling system is broken. It’s basically impossible to know where 99% of the meat you eat comes from or under what conditions the animal was raised in. Even if you don’t care about animal welfare, you should care about this as a matter of public health.
Third, it’s important to eat lower on the food chain. I’m not sure that he ever really states this in the book, but this was something that I took away from it. As other food policy writers have said, it’s basically impossible to fix a lot of these problems as long as we are consuming billions of animals a year. As a society, we need to eat less meat.
Fourth, we have to figure out a way to talk about these issues without name-calling. I was talking to a good friend about this recently and they said, “Nick, you realize that you sound very self-righteous when you talk about this stuff right?” And maybe I do, but that’s not my intent. Foer occasionally comes off as a self-righteous hippie liberal in the book, but it’s not good enough to discount his argument for that reason. You can be self-righteous and still be right. So if you are interested in discussing these things (and I think everyone should be), try not to be judgmental of someone else’s choices and try not to be sooo defensive if someone questions yours.
So, if you’ve read this book, leave a comment and let me know what you thought of it. Or, if you don’t feel comfortable leaving a public comment, shoot me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you haven’t read this book, I would very much recommend it. Even if you don’t agree with everything in it, it’ll get you thinking for sure.
For the last two weeks or so, I’ve been spending some spare hours trying to upgrade Macheesmo to a new WordPress Theme. It’s one of those semi-thankless parts of blogging. I want some of the new functionality with the latest WordPress (like the ability to respond to individual comments), but that means I had to change themes.
This might be all gobbledygook to some of you, but if everything went as planned (it didn’t) you would notice no changes visually on Macheesmo, but it would just have some slick new functionality. Turns out though I forgot a few things while testing it and some areas do look a bit different. And not in a good way. So if you see something that looks wonky, sorry. I’m gonna try to get to it this weekend. If you see something that doesn’t work at all(like you click a link and it breaks), please please please email me.
Enough computer speak. Let’s cook some food.
And some links as always!
Not Too Much. Mostly Plants. A friend and reader sent me a new food blog (yes another one) this week. Her goal is pretty straightforward - Stick to Michael Pollan’s rules for a year and document it. Will she succeed? Who knows. She takes pretty solid photos though and is humorous. What more could you want in a food blog that doesn’t rhyme with Blacheesmo? (@ Not Too Much. Mostly Plants)
The Best 11 Foods you Aren’t Eating. A list of some foods that are good for you that I guess the average American doesn’t eat. I think almost all of them have made a Macheesmo appearance before and two of them did just this last week! (@ NY Times)
My First Madeleines. Not my first ones obviously. I’ve never tried them. But Nicole’s first ones. I must say I would have to give her a grade of A+ based on photos only. If I had one of those nifty madeleine trays, I’d be making these suckers. (@ Pinch My Salt)
Have a good weekend everyone and guess what! If you leave a comment on this post, I will totally reply to your comment individually just to show off my new comment functionality that took me two weeks to achieve.
Honestly, I’d never even heard of a Buddha bowl until a week or two ago. I was kind of shocked that it won last week’s poll by so much! At first I thought it was a recipe, then after a few google searches, I realized it was more of a product – an actual bowl.
Oh well. All I know is that I read in a magazine (Body + Soul – Betsy subscribes) that you could make a Buddha bowl meal. The magazine presented it as more of a concept than a recipe though. If I had to, this is how I’d define it:
Buddha Bowl (n.) — Various flavorful veggies (and occasionally meats) packed into a bowl over grains or rice and normally accompanied with a sauce of some sort.
So that’s the idea and this is my take on it:
The name is a mystery to me.
You can probably spot most of the ingredients, but instead of rice, which is on the bottom of the bowl, I used a turmeric-spiced quinoa. Quinoa is the new hip grain that all the cool kids are cooking and with reason. The stuff is pretty tasty!
When I was in college, I would have cook-offs of sorts with a good friend of mine. The only problem being that we were eating in the dining hall at the time where there was very little to actually cook. So we took our competitive spirit to the one section we had control over: Salad Dressing.
There was always a big section of vinegars and oils and mustards and honeys at the salad bar and we could mix up countless varieties every day. The challenge was always the same: Find a recipe that beat yesterday’s recipe and that you would want to eat forever.
I’ve sort of carried on this competition with myself after college. I make different salad dressings a few times a week. The problem is that sometimes they suck. One night after a particularly failed dressing, Betsy opened up her recipe box (by the way Betsy having a recipe box is like me having a McDonald’s Gift Card – not gonna use it). Anyway, she opened it up and pulled out a plain white card. “Try this tomorrow,” she said.
This was the card:
The recipe looks standard enough. I got some further insight from my future mother-in-law on what kind of oil to use as “oil” is just a little broad given the selection available these days.
These are just a few of the resolutions I’ve read or heard from people over the last few weeks. I hate to say it, but I’m fairly sure that if you have one of the above as a resolution you will most likely fail at it. You won’t fail because you’re a slacker, but you’ll fail because they aren’t really measurable.
I know. Normally, people write resolutions for themselves and it’s not really my place to stick my nose in other people’s resolutions, but I just can’t help it! So here are 12 ways to make your resolutions more tangible. Some are more difficult than others and it’s not a coincidence that there are 12 of them.
1) Bake a loaf of No Knead Bread. I’ve mentioned this before, but over the last few years one of the most significant changes I’ve made to our diet is to make bread every week. It is really easy to get down and takes just a few minutes of actual work. Once you get the basics down you can add all kinds of things to change it up. Here’s the base recipe if you want to try it out!
2) Chop an onion. I’m sure if you cook at all you probably know how to muddle through an onion – crying the whole way. If you chop anything enough times it will eventually get to the size you want. But there’s a right way to chop an onion actually. Learn it and give it a shot!
3) Spice up your kitchen. The next time you are at the store, buy a spice you’ve never used. Then learn a little about the spice. Maybe check out wikipedia as a start. Once you have the basics down, find some recipes that use it! I like to find recipes on Food Blog Search.
4) Dust off a book. Everyone has a cookbook or two that they’ve never opened. Maybe it was a gift. Maybe it was a poor purchase. But here’s the thing. Most of the time if a book makes it all the way to the printhouse there is probably at least a few solid recipes in there. Give them a shot! For me this would mean making something from an unopened Rachel Ray book…
5) Make a dish more difficult. If you have a dish that’s a go-to for you, one that you could make with your eyes closed, spend an extra five or ten minutes to try something new with it. If it’s a pasta dish, add something new to it or make the sauce from scratch. Yes. You’re making it harder, but you’ll learn something in the process!
6) Make a dish easier. When you have a few hours on a lazy Sunday, find a recipe that looks too difficult for you. Don’t go really far out of your comfort zone, but push your boundaries a bit. It might be hard, but it’ll probably be easier than you thought. And it will definitely be easier the next time you make it.
7) Make a soup from scratch. There’s nothing like a nice homemade bowl of soup. Try to make the stock from scratch also if you have time. You’ll be shocked at the quality difference that your soup will have if you start with homemade stock. Heck. Double your recipe and freeze some. Soup is always good and it won’t lose much by being frozen.
8) Get Cheesy. Make some cheese on the weekend! Some cheeses are hard to make and you need special equipment. Some cheeses are easy to make and you can do it with practically no new equipment. I’ll be trying some of the latter variety in a few weeks!
9) Change techniques. Try taking a dish or ingredient that you’ve only had one way and cook it in an entirely different way. One example that’s very common in America is calamari. Most Americans only have it sliced and fried. That’s it. But it’s also good grilled. You can even make a salad out of it!
10) Pancakes! Throw out the Bisquick people. Let’s make pancakes from scratch. It’s not that many more ingredients. Some flour and melted butter and a bit of milk. Maybe buttermilk if you want to get crazy. A good pancake can save a lousy day. If you’re a Ben and Jerry’s fan, check these out.
11) Braise something. Sure it might take a few hours to do correctly, but it’s a great technique. The good news is that it’s basically impossible to overcook something that’s braised. I mean, it’s cooking in its own juices. Brisket is always a good braising subject.
12) Stay Healthy. Pick a few dishes off of this list. They are all super healthy and will help with any cooking resolutions you have plus any weight loss resolutions you have!
If you have a reoccurring resolution, I found this awesome and simple website that lets you track them. You don’t have to sign up for anything and it takes about 10 seconds to figure out. All you do is enter the info and then bookmark the results page and it will update it for you throughout the year and keep you on track!