Sunday, December 30, 2012

Deconstructing Chicken

A nice short film about "fabricating" a chicken--basically, deconstructing a chicken into its component parts. Derek Allen does a nice job of explaining how to cut up whole chicken. My only complaint is that he doesn't discuss making stock from the leftover bits.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Frankenfish Rises

Yeah, I know it's just a genetically modified salmon, but Frankenfish is the name it was given and it sure has stuck. And why not? This is a "salmon [that] has been modified by the addition of a growth hormone regulating gene from a Pacific Chinook salmon and a promoter gene from an ocean pout to the Atlantic's 40,000 genes. These genes enable it to grow year-round instead of only during Spring and Summer. The purpose of the modifications is to increase the speed at which the fish grows, without affecting its ultimate size or other qualities." (Wikipedia)

illustration credit: The Independent
The AquAdvantage salmon (to address it by its proper name) is intended to be raised in on-land fish farms from supplied eggs and is expected to grow at least twice as fast as a normal Atlantic salmon. Of course, that does mean it needs to eat an enormous amount.

We Are What We Lost

Food holds so many important places in our culture and lives. This short film by Srdjan Mitrovic leads you in one direction and you end up at quite another. But the beautiful simplicity of the meal and the way it is prepared stay with me.

Friday, December 28, 2012

A Place at the Table (a grassroots film)

A short film about re-thinking food banks. Too often, food banks are used as a dump for poor quality food that, while it contains calories, doesn't properly feed a person. A Place at the Table is the story of one church's desire to re-think their approach to food security for their community.  Patnering with local farmers, the introduction of community gardens, from top to bottom the way they thought about what they were doing changed.
The local farmer talking about the difficulty of access to land struck a real chord with me, as I live near some of the priciest farm land in the world--some $16-$20K/acre. A forty-five acre (18 hectare) pice of land can easily run $750,000C. And that's in a province with strict rules about keeping agricultural land agricultural.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Some Good News

Safeway has exceeded its cage-free egg goal, reports Triple Pundit. It's not perfect--the goal was to increase from 6 to 12 percent of its eggs coming from cage-free, Humane Farm Animal Care-certified farms, and they've managed to achieve 15 percent. But it's still a big and positive step forward to having humanly-sourced eggs available at one of North America's biggest food retailers.
Free-ranging rooster.   credit:wikipedia
This is a big company--2011 sales of $43.6B--that's making a change driven by consumer demand. And that's a powerful thing. But if it hurt their sales, they would spin on a dime and go back to the old ways in a New York second. So consumer support will be required over the long term.
The standards the farm meets are pretty good, too:
The Certified Humane label is described by HFAC as a “certification and labeling program that is the only animal welfare label requiring the humane treatment of farm animals from birth through slaughter.” In order to qualify for the Certified Humane label, an egg farm has to meet certain standards:
  • Cages are not allowed, and housing facilities must include areas for hens to nest, dust bath, scratch and perch
  • The animals must have enough space, shelter and gentle handling to limit stress
  • The animals must have access to ample fresh water and a healthy diet of quality feed with no animal by-products
Also important is Safeway's commitment to  a gestation crate free pork supply chain, as well. So kudos to a major retailer and it's response to consumer demand to do the right thing.

Sunshine and Seawater

If you're trying to grow vegetables--perfect vegetables--It's going to cost. But it can be done differently, as the Guardian reports:
Which makes it all the more remarkable that a group of young brains from Europe, Asia and north America, led by a 33-year-old German former Goldman Sachs banker but inspired by a London theatre lighting engineer of 62, have bought a sizeable lump of this unpromising outback territory and built on it an experimental greenhouse which holds the seemingly realistic promise of solving the world's food problems.
Indeed, the work that Sundrop Farms, as they call themselves, are doing in South Australia, and just starting up in Qatar, is beyond the experimental stage. They appear to have pulled off the ultimate something-from-nothing agricultural feat – using the sun to desalinate seawater for irrigation and to heat and cool greenhouses as required, and thence cheaply grow high-quality, pesticide-free vegetables year-round in commercial quantities.
So far, the company has grown tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers by the tonne, but the same, proven technology is now almost ready to be extended to magic out, as if from thin air, unlimited quantities of many more crops – and even protein foods such as fish and chicken – but still using no fresh water and close to zero fossil fuels. Salty seawater, it hardly needs explaining, is free in every way and abundant – rather too abundant these days, as our ice caps melt away.
This is a fascinating story about a British visionary, and the business-focussed people who turned his ideas into food. 

Thinking About Production

Chickpea plant   credit: Wikipedia

Just as Britain has moved from the land of "meat and two veg" to a country full of curries and celebrity chefs (Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, etc.), so to has DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, changed its way of thinking about what the country should look at producing.
DEFRA is actually one of the more forward-thinking government departments around, and looking at the current vasriety of food consumption in the UK, they've figured out that it might be time for a change. As the Guardian reports:
Growing ingredients for Indian curries such as chickpeas for pakoras as well as a range of exotic herbs and spices would open up new markets for British farmers and reduce dependence on imports, according to government report into how the agricultural sector can operate more sustainably in future. Growing more curry ingredients domestically could also potentially reduce carbon dioxide emissions from food imports.
By examining the problems facing the UK's food production and countryside through key sectors and foods including curries, breads and dairy products, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is hoping to improve food systems at a time when they are coming under increasing threat. The Green Food Project report says that major changes must be made to agriculture, food processing and retailing, if price rises are to be kept in check and the natural environment preserved.
Lord knows, DEFRA may not be perfect (but really, who or what actually is?) but at least they, and by extension the British people, are grappling with questions that the majority of Canadians still haven't heard of.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Food Security Failing in Britain

The World Health Organization uses this definition of food security:
The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. Commonly, the concept of food security is defined as including both physical and economic access to food that meets people's dietary needs as well as their food preferences.
Food security is built on three pillars:
  • Food availability: sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis.
  • Food access: having sufficient resources to obtain appropriate foods for a nutritious diet.
  • Food use: appropriate use based on knowledge of basic nutrition and care, as well as adequate water and sanitation.
 Seems pretty simple, doesn't it? Access to a consistent supply of food that meets your nutritional needs and that you know how to use. The ruling classes long ago learned that if you expect a functioning society, your people need food, water, and shelter. So why is this so hard to accomplish?
In Canada, we have tens of thousands of citizens unable to access clean, safe water, never mind a secure source of food. And in Britain, the seventh-wealthiest country in the world, there are now 13 MILLION people now living below the poverty line and new food banks are opening every day.  And in the US about a third of the population qualifies for what used to be called "food stamps."
Suzanne Moore, writing in the Guardian, has called 2012 not the year of the Olympics, but the year of the food bank.
In fact, this has been the year of the soup kitchen. The switch from "soup kitchen", which smacks of Victorian desperation, to the more neutral "food bank" is a semantic coup d'├ętat. An economic crisis initiated by the immorality of the banks ends up with nice "banks" that offer food for free.
I regularly volunteer at a soup kitchen, where we struggle to provide a balanced, home-style meal to those who need it five days a week. We are part of the Food Bank Canada network. A country so rich and with such a small population living so far above the global norm has 800 food banks and 3000 food programs. And no safe water for a significant part of its population.
Amartya Sen, the Nobel-winning, Bengali economist wrote a book called Poverty and Famines: an Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation in the early 80s, which looked at the food system and the way it delivers to the poorest--particularly under emergency conditions. Far too frequently in famines, there is food available, just not available to those in need. This was true during the Great Potato Famine in Ireland, and has been true since. Ethiopia during LiveAid was exporting food to Europe in the same way the Irish did a century and a half earlier.
The stories coming out of England in Suzanne Moore's essay sound so familiar:
a man who joined the army and found that while on basic training his wife and children, who had not yet been provided with accommodation, could not cope with increasing bills and his decreased income. His wife broke down at her children's nursery and was taken to a food bank. Is he a soldier or a shirker?
Wages too low to access food. Benefits packages too low to afford both housing and food. These are structural problems implicit in our food system. As Sen points out, it's too often about poverty, not famine. And poverty is something we can deal with, have dealt with. The 1970s saw the lowest rates of systemic poverty we've ever seen in the developed world--until it was decided that the poor have it too easy. That if being poor isn't so bad, workers won't fear it enough. That the whole "income redistribution for greater income equality" thing had gone too damned far, and that workers were just getting too damned uppity. 
And this isn't just me being some socialist mouthpiece. The historical record from the Mulroney/Thatcher/Reagan years bears this out. Greater income inequality, greater poverty and homelessness, and an inadequate and shredded safety net were choices, choices made by those with power to change the way the rest of us live. Greater globalization, the anti-union movement, greater inequality, these were decisions, choices.
And now, when, as Moore says "An economic crisis initiated by the immorality of the banks ends up with nice "banks" that offer food for free," we see people forced into desperation. Because famines rarely cause revolutions. And if you can keep poor people just on the edge of desperation, you can keep them too busy trying to survive to revolt.
But the problem is, the system isn't stable. It's predicated on having enough surplus food to make sure the developed world's poor can eat. But that may no longer be the case; the US drought of 2012 is continuing into the winter, with the Mississippi river at its lowest levels possibly ever (which is interfering with the ability to move barge traffic on the river). The World Food Price Index is expected to top out at 240 this spring--a level that, as NECSI points out, spreads enough hardship around that social instability results (as in the Arab Spring--revolutions at least partly caused by the price of bread).
Here in Canada,as the rest of the world, the global system is unstable. The bad news is that we have people in power who don't actually get this, and don't understand any of what needs to be done. Their prescription is simply for more of the same only cranked up to 11.
Food shortages and climbing prices. A bankrupt (morally, financially and theoretically) economic system held in place through political repression backed up by increasingly thuggish "police forces." A rapidly warming planet (really really rapidly warming). Collapsing ecosystems. A middle class in utter denial and desperate to maintain their privilege. A plutocracy willing to do anything to maintain theirs. This all makes it difficult to hold out any hope for te various systems we rely on.
The only thing that gives me flashes of hope is people. People engaging an issue, any issue, and struggling to reform a piece of the world. Like the anti-pipeline  crowd at the Dogwood Initiative; despite the fact that Canada is a hostage (Or, as Andrew Nikiforuk calls us, slaves) to the revenue from oil (the Feds rely on oil for about 25% of their budget, and that's set to rise to 33%), they are saying no to Enbridge and the Northern Gateway.
Te rise of the urban farming movement, to bring the food supply home, is encouraging. Cuba has shown us just how much can be done, and the Campasino a Campasino movement is spreading the word around the world.
All this is to the good, but until we're all engaging with the need for democracy and local decision making, until we're all forming linkages both within and between communities, hope is in short supply.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Making Presents

With the holiday season upon us (I just saw a city bus drive by with the interior decked out with silver and green garland) I thought it time to make some presents for the season.
We acquired a half-dozen bail-top or Kilner jars, and I thought they might prove nice for a couple of presents. I've seen the rubber rings fail badly when in contact with a 5% acetic acid (you know, vinegar), so flavoured vinegar was off the table. Instead, I dropped by For Good Measure, our neighbourhood bulk/health food store and bought some vanilla beans. Then I dropped by a neighbours place...

Yeah, that's a rosemary bush. Over 1.3 metres high and a good metre across. There's two of them, and we talked to the homeowner this summer and it turns out they never use rosemary in cooking. I was knocked out--such beautiful bushes and not using them for anything other than garden decor. I shake my head in wonderment....
The gentleman we spoke with about the rosemary invited us to take some when we needed it, so I went back over and clipped a couple of ends and brought them home.
It's been a mild winter so far--so much so that I had to take this picture:
Yes, the rosemary was in bloom at the beginning of December. In Canada.
I washed the rosemary sprigs and then measured the vanilla beans against the jars. I cut the beans almost in half, and split one half and scraped the seeds out and put them in one of the jars. Then I put the other half of the bean in and poured warm honey over the vanilla. The split and seeded half went into a jar of sugar to make vanilla sugar.
I added a couple of sprigs of rosemary to the other bottles and poured warm honey over them as well.

If you look at the full size version of the picture, you can see the tiny vanilla seeds in the honey.
So vanilla honey (should be good in cookies or tea) and rosemary honey (which I use as a glaze), and I have a couple of presents made.

Monday, December 17, 2012

When Is Lobster Not Lobster?

When Red Lobster is selling langostinos as lobster. Not langostines, the Norwegian lobster and possibly the most commercially important crustacean in Europe, but langostino, a non-lobster crustacean.
Let's compare, shall we? Here's a picture of a lobster:
Lobster Homarus americanus credit: Wikipedia
Big ugly sea bug--but tasty. In 2005, the FDA in the US ruled that it was okay to sell this guy, the langostino, as a lobster:
A squat lobster or langostino Munidopsis serricornis photo credit: Wikipedia
That's not really the same, other than being a tasty sea bug. And it's not the langostine or scampi:
Langostine Nephrops norvegicus credit: Wikipedia
which is a smaller version of the true lobster.
Now, I'm not saying it's bad to eat the squat lobster (anyone else got the B-52s running through their head?). But the FDA has ruled that it's okay to sell it as lobster, under the name lobster, at the same price as lobster, even when it isn't lobster.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Change, It Comes...

Slowly, but it comes.
From the village farm blog
Village farm has some great ideas in building a new style farm. Based on Vancouver Island, they seem clear that the current food production regime is just absurd. This is the Mediterranean Basin of Canada and should be a showcase for local food production.
The land will be used for Co-op owned enterprises like Fruit Orchards and Forestry, and also individual enterprises run by Participating Supporters who don’t live on The Village Farm but have bought shares to use the land for activities like bee keeping, farming produce and seed cultivation.
We plan on having a community building where there will be a Farm Stand Market, a Cafe, a commercial kitchen and a gathering space where we will hold classes, workshops and apprenticeships.
Some of our members have expressed interest in creating a healing centre using medicinal herbs grown on the farm. Others have a desire to produce artisanal food products like charcuterie and hold farm table dinners for the community. As you can imagine, the more we share ideas, the more excited we get.
Read the post, keep up to date on the blog.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Breadlines, Sweet Charity and Beyond

Breadlines, Sweet Charity and Beyond: a conversation with Jan Poppendieck and Nick Saul is a webinar I attended this morning, sponsored by Community Food Centres Canada.  Essentially a way of bringing an audience to a talk, rather than bringing a speaker to an audience, and as such it worked pretty well. Sadly, there was no Q&A session at the end, but the interview with Janet Poppendieck was very interesting.
Janet Poppendieck is the author of three food security related books: Breadlines Knee Deep In Wheat: Food assistance in the Great Depression, Sweet Charity?: Emergency food and the end of entitlement, and Free For All: Fixing school food in America. Amazingly, I haven't read any of them yet (in my defense, I've got at least three books on the go at the moment, and a stack of unread volumes on my desk, to say nothing of the ones on hold at the library).
The discussion ranged from a brief overview of the history of the food re-distribution movement, to changes in the way food banks (Canada) and community pantries (US) have changed. For example, how food banks were seen in the early '80s and being an emergency response to a short-term situation to becoming a structural part of food delivery.  A great example of this is the Boston Food Bank's 117,000 sq. ft. building. Or, as Mark Bittman reports in the New York Times:
Food banks may cover an entire state or part of one: the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, for example, serves 53 counties and provides enough food to feed 48,000 square miles and feeds 90,000 people a week — in a state with fewer than four million people.
As I've pointed out far too often, this was the result of a series of political decisions we made under Mulroney (Canada), Reagan (US) and Thatcher (UK). And once made, there has been no effort expended to reverse them; private charity has had to make up for imposed structural inequality. And with 1 in 8 Americans using SNAP (what used to be called food stamps), the problems is embedded in the current system. Jan Poppendieck pointed this out when she said words to the effect of " People who care about the poor have to focus on what's happening at the top. This is not just about growing poverty, but about growing inequality." Again from Mark Bittman's article Hunger In Plain Sight:
Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs brought the poverty level down to 11 percent from 20 percent in less than 10 years. Ronald Reagan began the process of dismantling that minimal safety net, and as a result the current poverty level is close to 16 percent, and food stamps are not fully doing their job. “There was a time in this country,” says Maryland Food Bank president and C.E.O. Deborah Flateman, “when food stamps had practically eliminated hunger; then the big cuts happened, and we’ve been trying to recover ever since.”
The situation is quite similar in Canada. As in the US, snack foods have become cheaper while fresh foods have become more expensive--and prices are expected to rise considerably as we move into 2013. 
All in all, I have to say that this has been a positive experience--I like the whole webinar idea. The Stop Commmunity Food Centre's Learning Network is planning to post the audio portion of he webinar soon (I'll likn to it then), and, I think, did a good job setting this up. I suspect that the other 160 or so participants would agree with me.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

More About Cheese

14th c. Cheesemaking.   Credit: Wikipedia
Cheese is in the news today, as Richard Evershed, who co-authored a study of ancient cheesemaking at the University of Bristol has published a paper pushing back the date of the earliest cheesemaking to about 7000 years ago. There is some suspicion that it was going on another thousand yars before that, but in this latest paper, pottery shards with fine holes them have been analyzed and shown to have milk residue on them.
This is important because most humans were lactose intolerant at that time, losing the ability to digest milk at an early age. But the conversion process of milk into cheesebreaks down lactose, making in tolerable for consumption by humans. It wasn't until dairy farming moved out of what is modern day Turkey and into Europe that it met with a group of mutant humans who retained the ability to digest lactose into adulthood. Once daiying met lactose-digesting humans, milk consumption--particularly raw milk consumption--really took off. Access to a broader range of high-quality food helped spread the genes for lactose tolerance.
Wheels of Gouda   Credit: Wikipedia
Listen to CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks on Dec. 15 for an interview with Richard Evershed, who co-authored the study of ancient cheesemaking at the University of Bristol.