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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Let's worry about the impact of apples grown on the moon

  I've never been a fan of fake meat: not having ever been a fan of eating real flesh, the imitation flesh just doesn't have much to offer me. It would be like hating roses and wearing rose perfume: no. (Though those Tofurky Italian Sausages, which are nothing like sausages, go really well with good Belgian beer. 'Just sayin'.)

A FB friend posted Processed, imported vegetarian proteins not greener than local meat | green LA girl (, 2/19/10), and it's amusing, because it contradicts that popular Global Tacoshed study that says that food transport isn't a big deal. The overall message of the article is that we should eat more veggies, but the thing that is supposed to get your attention and make it newsworthy is the idea that there are vegan foods that are over-processed far away, and that some of those are bad for the environment.

Are these strange processed foods as bad for the environment as the caviar industry? Are they as bad for the environment as whaling? As ranching on public lands? As sheep farming? What about imported versus local items of the exact same type? It would be no fun to provide context, so instead it's about how there are some really weird vegan foods out there, and if they come a great distance, they may be worse for the planet that something local that isn't as good for you.

My comment on my friend's post:
What bums me out is that articles like this always look for something absurd - an organic Oreo handmade in an obscure town in Mongolia - and then try to compare it to something awful for you - a locally made cigarette - and then say that the local cigarette is better for the environment.

It's never a comparison between two things that are good for you, because then logic will prevail - you should eat things that are good for you AND the environment! But no. It never goes that way, because that isn't news.
The article's point that you should eat more veggies (and avoid over-processed foods of any kind) is lost in an odd warning that you should second-guess the merits of surface-healthier-but-not-actually-healthy choices at a level of scrutiny you don't apply to other decisions you make.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Friday, March 19, 2010

Comparing apples and avocados

  Every so often, something comes out that reminds you that (a) people in the US, on the whole, have no idea where their food comes from, and (b) some of those same people are kind of interested in having some kind of relationship with something they understand, perhaps including their food.

There is quite a bit of reposting and linking to the store Biography of a Taco – Mission Loc@l -- San Francisco Mission District's News, Food, Art and Events (, which is heartening. The article has some charming moments about a class project on figuring out where each of the ingredients from a local taco truck originate.
"It was very difficult to trace the origins of these foods," said John Bela, a director at Rebar and an instructor for the class. "There was an intentional obfuscation of food origins that we didn't anticipate. We were stonewalled by corporations. So we had to use subterfuge, like having our Puerto Rican aunt call to ask."
It was interesting to learn that the salt used in the tacos is local -- those salt ponds that turn wild colors in Google maps actually are in use!

If I have an objection to the article, it is to the attempt to be balanced by suggesting that choosing local can be stupid by setting up a bogus example:
To grow avocados local to New York City, for example, imagine the energy it would take to mimic the climate of Chile in the middle of winter, Yu and her classmate Annalise Aldrich pointed out.
Since the localvore movement has emphasized local specialties -- eating what can be grown near you, and what is actually grown in your region - this hypothetical totally misses the point. None of us are suggesting growing pineapples in the Sunset district. We are suggesting that we grow some mighty fine artichokes in Half Moon Bay, however, and that a healthy diet could always include more artichokes.

Mmmmm. Artichokes.

It was good that the students had a look at how far food travels before getting to your plate, and that they considered the energy required to grow food. It seems like they started to touch an idea, and then dropped it: they noted that food transport is a relatively small energy consumer relative to... Well, to what? The California Academy of Sciences has a great, straightforward exhibit on the environmental impact of food choices currently, and it isn't just about the energy used to transport it.

You know where I'm going, right? We've known it for years, and the UN FAO's magazine covered it back in Spotlight / 2006: Livestock impacts on the environment (
A new report from FAO says livestock production is one of the major causes of the world's most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. Using a methodology that considers the entire commodity chain, it estimates that livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport.
So, if the students are considering the implications of the transport of the food, but not of production of the food itself, they're missing the bigger picture.

But it's a start! A good start.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:30 PM

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Go veg for pleasure and health

  Many people I know are dietary fatalists: they eat what they want and rationalize their poor choices by saying that "everyone" gets heart disease, "everyone" is overweight, and "everything" causes cancer. But it's just not true. People who are vegetarian, for example, have much lower rates of cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes than people who aren't. Veggies turn up in study after study as preventing certain types of cancer.

I'm going to provide a bit of mainstream pro-vegetarian propaganda here, in support of those of you who being asked why you are choosing the delicious pad Thai "J" instead of pad Thai with meat, or are getting the super vegetarian burrito (rice, beans, sour cream, guacamole, tomatoes, salsa, cheese) or vegan burrito (rice, beans, salsa, guacamole, lettuce, chili peppers, onions) rather than one filled with red meat and rice. You could be choosing these foods for pleasure - the super veg burrito is obviously much more interesting and tasty than the meat + rice version - but I write about food pleasure all the time, so this entry will emphasize health.

Wait! You can't possibly get all of your nutrients from plants, can you? I want to be healthy!

Vegetarians can and do get their nutrients from plants (or plants and products animals make, but which are not made OUT OF animals), and don't get many diseases at the high rates of omnivores., the website of the American Dietetic Association, "the world's largest organization of food and nutrition professionals," routinely updates their research publications about vegetarianism. Vegetarian Diets (vol 109, Issue 7) has an abstract which provides an overview to the 16 page research paper attached thereto. Excerpts from the abstract:
It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes....The results of an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than nonvegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates.

The Healthy Eating Pyramid, built by the faculty in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health ( is a replacement for the replacement to the ag-industry influenced MyPyramid, which Harvard describes as "often [] based on out-of-date science and influenced by people with business interests in their messages." There are handouts! There are graphics! And there are key quick tips in the sidebar, including:
3. Go with plants. Eating a plant-based diet is healthiest.
4. Cut way back on American staples. Red meat, refined grains, potatoes, sugary drinks, and salty snacks are part of American culture, but they’re also really unhealthy. Go for a plant-based diet rich in non-starchy vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. And if you eat meat, fish and poultry are the best choices.
Yes, someone is willing to come out and tell you that red meat is bad for you, and you can make more sensible choices. But you knew this.

In comparison, The American Heart Association's page on Vegetarian Diets ( is a little weak.
Are vegetarian diets healthful?

Most vegetarian diets are low in or devoid of animal products. They’re also usually lower than nonvegetarian diets in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease (which causes heart attack), high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and some forms of cancer.
It's odd to say that vegetarians "seem" to have lower risks of these diseases when their are studies available which prove that they do.

What about protein?

Again, The American Heart Association's page on Vegetarian Diets dismisses this popular myth:
Protein: You don't need to eat foods from animals to have enough protein in your diet. Plant proteins alone can provide enough of the essential and non-essential amino acids, as long as sources of dietary protein are varied and caloric intake is high enough to meet energy needs.
Also valuable: the note that "complementary proteins" - the idea that you have to combine certain foods together to get protein, are bunk. (This protein-combining myth still persists in some documentation on the NIH's website, to my surprise.)

This wouldn't work for me. I'm athletic.

The research paper abstracted at the American Dietetic Association's page above, found here as a PDF, notes that vegetarian diets are suitable for competitive athletes, and busts other myths.

What about iron? Aren't all vegetarians anemic?

The National Heart, Lung, & Blood Institute's Iron-deficiency Anemia page ( notes that:
Vegetarian diets can provide enough iron if the right foods are eaten. For example, good nonmeat sources of iron include spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables, certain types of beans, dried fruits, and iron-fortified breads and cereals.
(Of course, the only people I've ever known who were anemic ate meat.)

A few other resources:

US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health resource page on vegetarianism ( on their shares pages have links to additional resources.'s vegetarian tipsheet emphasizes easy adjustments you can make, especially if you're new to being veg and aren't yet eating a wide enough range of foods to feel confident that you can meet your nutritional needs. I don't recommend generally, for the reasons Harvard listed above, - they take industry input over science input - which I've written about extensively in the past.

If you are the sort of person who would rather be scared into doing good, just go to, do a search for the term "meat," and read the first many pages of results.

A note to fans who are influenced by food writers who lack a background in science: I know some of you are in the thrall of culture writers who "defend" foods and say you should eat things that are really bad for you - like red meat - because they make you a normal American and allow you to relish our culture. Writers like that may also defend smoking, or driving, or other lifestyle choices, but that doesn't mean they have your best interests at heart. Don't say "because the food writer told me so" as a reason you won't live to see your grandchildren graduate from high school.

Speaking of food writing: you know I'm a foodie, and I don't make my food choices based on health alone. I live in San Francisco, where it's easy to eat like a queen (ahem) vegetarian-style just about anywhere. If you are looking for ideas, you can always visit my food page and its included index of my recipes.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:03 AM

Friday, January 01, 2010

Last and first meals

  My final 2009 meal was a late evening, post-nap snack of: a big glass of Italian red wine (Barbera d'Asti), an apple, and a plate of ume soba (bright pink and sweet-smelling, but plain-tasting) with shiitake men tsuyu dipping sauce.

My first breakfast was an apple, a pot of miso soup, and a few squares of coconut white chocolate.

I hadn't been expecting the Japanese theme, but there it is.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)11:32 AM

Saturday, December 26, 2009

No like no boil

  TJ's, the fancy grocery chain, just happened to have a box of lasagna noodles on one of the pasta shelves the very day I was shopping for lasagna ingredients. So I bought them reflexively, thinking that all lasagna noodles are alike.

I have learned my lesson. Actually, three lessons. The first is that TJ's lasagna noodles are the "no boil" kind, which means that you put the dry, brittle, uncooked noodles in the lasagna pan between the fillings and sauce, and so long as your fillings are moist enough, the pasta will absorb liquid and cook in about 45 minutes.

The second lesson is that these noodles contain eggs. I do not approve of this. I do not want or need eggs in my diet, and prefer my pasta cholestrol-free, thanks.

The third is that I don't like the texture of no boil noodles. They are not just al dente, they are also chewier when fully cooked. I don't need that.

So these get a thumbs down from me, and I will resume cooking egg-free lasagna noodles for my delicious, vegan lasagnas.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:10 PM

Where the Wild Meals Are

  The City's new(ish) Contemporary Jewish Museum ( currently has a cafe menu inspired by Maurice Sendak. I was wondering what big monsters might like to eat: I need wonder no longer: CafeMenuNov17.pdf (pdf).

Those monsters are more veg-friendly then they look!

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Divinity through breakfast foods

  One of the more complicated conceptual aspects of studying at my religious middle school was trying not to ask why the all-powerful divine force they were teaching me about is now silent. It appeared that the being lost the ability to communicate at about the time people figured out how to write, leaving followers to look for indirect signs of its intent.

This silence leads to phenomena such as Virgin Mary seen in spray can pancake (, 12/2/09), in which a breakfast food has an outline that looks like... like the pancake is well-cooked, actually. Or, if you're looking for it, like a cartoon bull (upside down). Or of a religious figure wearing shapeless clothing.

There have been plenty of other interpretations of images and outlines - there was a tree stump Virgin Mary (, 7/10/09) earlier this year, and a number of patterns on bread, walls, and windows (, 4/22/05) that have inspired people to erect shrines in the past, but this is another edible one, like the Virgin Mary on toasted cheese from 2004 (, 11/17/04). It still lacks the level of detail you would hope for from a communication with a divine being, but its edibility is interesting to me.

Plans to make a religious icon waffle-maker aside, I find the choice of a pancake to be peculiar. It is a humble food, surely, but not a healthy one: pancakes are usually made with bleached white flour, and are high in calories without packing much nutrition.

If I were a divine being, and could only assert my existence through patterns in food, I think I would... be pretty pissed, actually. But if those are the rules (and we'll pretend they are, for the purposes of this discussion), I would choose... to have my image/message run all the way down the length of thousands of loaves of vegan cinnamon swirl bread that I knew would be skillfully sliced. I think I would be able to get some pretty fine detail using the cinnamon. And by running all the way down the length of the bread, my intentionality would be slightly more apparent.

In natural foods, I suppose I could represent myself through veining patterns on leaf veggies. Corn kernels are a bit low-res, but might also be useful for text messages. And those lovely, enormous, patterned beans, like "Christmas limas," have space for fine, high contrast, repeating messages in burgundy on white - or even white on burgundy! A million identical beans bearing my message would surely make the papers.

Of course, if I could do this, to promote vegetarianism, I would also put all sorts of messages in processed meat products that would plainly read "don't eat me" in clean, fat- or spice-based text, and in the processed foods that so many other people eat but shouldn't: ice crystals in non-dairy whipped topping, for example.


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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Obama's First State Dinner: Vegetarian

  Hooray for India! Marking first state dinner, Obama welcomes Indian prime minister (, 11/25/09 edition) provides the menu:
Samuelsson worked with the White House kitchen staff to create vegetarian dishes in respect for Singh, who does not eat meat. Foodies, start your engines. Guests will begin with potato and eggplant salad and White House arugula -- the bitter greens favored by food snobs clearly no longer are deemed a political faux-pas -- with onion-seed vinaigrette. Following some red-lentil soup, there are two main courses: roasted potato dumplings with tomato chutney, along with chickpeas and okra, or green curry prawns with caramelized salsify, smoked collard greens and coconut aged basmati rice.

Washing it all down are American wines: a 2008 sauvignon blanc from Napa Valley (Modus Operandi), a 2006 Riesling from the Willamette Valley (Brooks "Ara"), a 2007 Grenache from Santa Ynez (Beckmen Vineyards) and a sparkling chardonnay from Monticello (Thibaut-Janisson Brut).

Dessert includes a pumpkin pie tart and a pear tatin and an extravaganza of brittle, petits fours and pralines.
(You will note that there was an alternative non-vegetarian course of prawns available. Whatever.)

I had to look up "tatin" at, which means in baked upside down style, more or less.

It's a shame I didn't have a thing to wear, and so couldn't attend.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)9:19 PM

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Happiness is a bag of fresh shiitake mushrooms

  When I lived in the Richmond District, I had several favorite places to shop. There is Village Market on California at 8th, which had gorgeous produce, wonderful scented candles, and organic packaged food products I loved. There is the Real Food Market on Stanyan, technically in the inner sunset, but a pleasant walk across the park, with tomatoes, squash, and peppers that called out to be photographed. And then there was the May Wah. The incredible, infinite, alarmingly-squid-scented May Wah.

I was old school: I had been going to the old May Wah. Now it is the Richmond New May Wah Supermarket, and it moved to a larger location down the street. Though it still smells like squid, it otherwise does put "super" into supermarket. Thai rahmen, Indonesian curry paste, fresh local noodles, fresh local kimchee (including a type without fish sauce!), fresh local gai lan and other cool greens, fresh local pea shoots, exotically photo-worthy fruit, rolled bean curd sheet, every imaginable type of rice noodle, Japanese hard candies, and an incredible selection of tiny bottles of sake...

When fresh lychee is in season, I will do anything to get to this place. ANYTHING.

I know I'm not alone in loving May Wah, or in dreading the creepy aisles of ooo-smell-me-I'm-dead things in the 'recently live but not now' part of the store. The Yelp reviews on this point are a riot ( (This review, from Kristin T, is my favorite.) But I've been visiting in colder weather now, or I've learned to breathe less, or something, and it doesn't get to me the way it used to. Also, I run through that part of the store first, and then travel to the other half, which seems to have a separate ventilation system.

There are many things in this store which are anathema to localvores, having been shipped far and wide. While I am generally a localvore, I'm also a sucker for Thai rahmen and Kobe's regional sake varieties. There is plenty of fresh local stuff in my basket, but I do top it off with a few items that have traveled too far in moments of weakness.

This week's haul:
-choy sum hearts. These will turn up in all of my noodle soups, miso soups, and chili-garlic stir fries this week. The bag is alarmingly large, but I'm sure I'll make it through.
-fresh bean sprouts. For soups.
-shiitake mushrooms. So flavorful! So pretty!
-fresh Shanghai kimchee (made in Fremont). This particular version contains no fish products that I can discern. It contains napa cabbage, daikon radish (which I think breaks some kind of kimchee rule, but it is tasty), green onion, ginger, garlic, salt, sugar, and chili pepper. I'm munching on this right now. I used to pickle my own cabbage: I think I should try making this for myself. Even if it makes my fridge smell funny.
-May Lin China Vietnam-style hot chili garlic sauce. This is a local brand.
-chili oil. My local brand was sold out, so this was made in China.
-frozen steam(ed) buns containing celery, mushrooms with spinach, or mixed veggies. I [heart] vegan steam(ed) buns!
-three types of soba: cha (containing green tea), ume (containing plum), and inaka (whole buckwheat)
-Thai rahmen, the kind that comes with THREE flavor packets: one for sesame oil, one for soup base (with MSG), and one just for chili powder. The noodles are fried: this cures all kinds of fried cravings in its glorious 100 calories of fat.
-Chinese non-fried rahmen, flavored exotically with star anise, cinnamon, and four types of dried veggies.
-Yellow Thai chili paste. Mae Ploy makes red, green, yellow, masamun, and panang chili pastes, but yellow is the only variety without shrimp in it. (Generally, May Wah carries products containing shrimp in damn near everything that doesn't contain squid: READ LABELS carefully.) This paste contains: lemon grass, garlic, shallots, salt, galangal (which is available fresh in the other half of the store, near the fresh lemon grass and fresh turmeric), dried red chili, coriander seed, kaffir lime peel, cumin, cinnamon, mace, turmeric, and cardamom.

I also bought one of the Brianna's dressings (French) that no one else seems to carry anymore. I saved my fruit shopping for closer to home, since I had a long way to haul these goods back to the Ingleside, and didn't want to push my luck.

I'm a happy camper.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)7:17 PM

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Things you find 'down cellar'

  My mother, who grew up in Connecticut, is THRILLED to have found an old cookbook full of New England regional recipes and lore. She got it for twenty-five cents, and can't put it down.

It has recipes for homemade pickles, for chili sauces my grandmother made in my mother's childhood, for squirrel soup, for muskrat dishes (courtesy of Native American locals), for scrod (which I used to eat in the roadside fish shacks that existed during my childhood visits, always breaded and deep fried, always with tartar sauce), and for eels. Eels were a big New England staple, and the book even includes a poem about eels and the bounty they offer the river-filled regions.

Yes, the book has recipes for fried eel. Yes, you've just gotten over the nightmares you had when I described the preparation of fried eels in Unlike Mom Used To Make, Part VI: My Mom!!, my food interview with my mother about what she ate in the past compared to what she eats now. Sorry for bringing it up again. But I find it fascinating: the northeast has no fame for eel cuisine. When anyone mentions eating eel, I think of unagi sushi from Japan. (I've heard children whine and demand this dish from their parents. Yes, I live in San Francisco.)

My mother has pledged to sit down with me and talk about the dishes the book reminds her of. It should be fun. The whole idea of regional specialties is exciting to me, so I'm looking forward to it.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fresh turmeric root

  I love living in San Francisco. I love it, I love it, I love it.

Also amusing: watching the stock guy in the grocery store staring at me in disbelief as I delicately put rolls of bean curd sheet into a bag with tongs. I've never struck awe into anyone by buying a soybean product before. Who knew that my nostalgia for my freshman year best friends' grandparents' soup would inspire me to buy a product that would so surprise a stranger.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)9:08 PM

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Moby has a blog

  You likely know this. I get notifications of various sorts from him in Facebook - where in London he is DJing, where in New York he will drop by, all very glam stuff - but hadn't looked at the blog directly for a while.

His blog is fun, and reflects his ongoing concerns about the health of the planet. Of course! Here is an excerpt: just arrived in sweden. |
it's a concert to draw attention to and benefit the european union's climate change initiative. which i'm happy to talk about as long as no one minds me mentioning that 24% of climate change is the result of animal production (according to a united nations report a few years ago).

i asked al gore about why he didn't mention this in an 'inconvenient truth' (as animal production is responsible for more greenhouse gases than every car, bus, truck, bus, plane, boat on the planet COMBINED). he answered honestly, basically saying that getting people to drive a hybrid car isn't that difficult. getting people to give up animal products is almost impossible.
Right now you are likely thinking one of two things: either, 'golly, moby is not a fan of capitalization' or 'this really complicates my justifications for more of my heavily polluting lifestyle choices.' In both cases, you are correct!

In ten minutes, only one of these topics will be on your mind. Yes, you'll be ranting to someone about crimes against capitalization.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Pasta love

  Cookbooks often tempt me with a few mouth-watering descriptions, but when I have been separated from my money and have time to really review every recipe, I sometimes realize that the ONLY things I'd really want to cook are the few items that got my attention initially. (This sounds like some sort of analogy about relationships, but it's not, I assure you. Well, not intentionally.) Libraries provide a great workaround for this: you get to spend enough time with a cookbook (2 weeks plus) to decide if it is something you should own.

sliced fennel bulb frying in olive oil [Image: sliced fennel bulbs frying in olive oil.]

Six or seven years ago, I checked out Cooking from an Italian Garden by Paola Scaravelli and Jon Cohen from the San Bruno Public Library. And every single thing I made from the cookbook was hailed as one of the best homemade Italian dishes ever. But the book, dating from 1984, is out of print, and at the time, on-line booksellers wanted seven times the cover price. I mourned my separation from the cookbook, but vowed that someday, I would own it.

There are a lot more on-line booksellers now, and I have acquired a copy for a mere doubling of the cover price. And it is worth it. This book is a collection of over 300 recipes, each and every one of which is vegetarian. It is an encyclopedia of cooking: how to make homemade pasta, and how to use different shapes to make fancy items like tortellini or ravioli; how to make gnocchi; lasagna techniques; how to make pickled veggies; how to make risotto; and an absolutely stunning selection of vegetable side dishes that goes on and on...

There is a catch: I am much more vegan-leaning than I was six or seven years ago. Back then, I was regularly buying cheese, and could occasionally be imposed upon to cook with eggs. This cookbook has many, many recipes involving eggs and cheese, which is a surprise: I mainly remember the vegan dishes. Nevertheless, there are many dishes I am trying with great success, with minimal modifications.

Star dishes so far include:

-fusilli ai capperi: pasta spirals in a sauce of basil, garlic, prepared mustard (!!), capers, and olive oil

-rigatoni puttanesca: firm tubes in a raw sauce of tomatoes, garlic, black olives, capers, and basil

-melanzane al forno: eggplant baked with olive oil, fresh oregano, and garlic, topped with fresh tomato sauce

-finocchio fritto: sliced fresh fennel bulbs, blanched, dusted with flour, and fried in olive oil.

This is the sort of cookbook that inspires you to rush out and buy a tomato crushing machine, so you can make a full year's supply of tomato sauce to can while tomatoes are still at their peak; or a pasta machine, so you can dedicate your every evening to the production of delicate, homemade fettuccine...

Warning: you will spend more time cooking and will buy alarming volumes of capers, but you will be very happy. Just so you know.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Michelle Obama's terrifying pesticide-free garden

  Michelle Obama isn't using pesticides, and it is freaking out lobbyists. You often hear that the personal is political, that little things can make a difference. This is apparently all the more true for the President's wife, because the fact that the First Lady's little garden is organic is, apparently, a threat to big Ag.

At least, they are treating it that way.

The Nation referenced a strange letter that big Ag recently sent to the White House in protest of the absence of poison. They also circulated the letter and advised others that the entire idea of a garden without chemical pesticides made them "shudder." The idea of food with chemical residues gives someone nightmares, it turns out. Thankfully, this someone does not cooks my food.

La Vida Locavore:: Organic White House Garden Puts Some Conventional Panties in a Twist ( has the whole text of the letter, which is quite a piece of propaganda... against home gardening. Scary, scary gardening. A sample:
We live in a very different world than that of our grandparents. Americans are juggling jobs with the needs of children and aging parents. The time needed to tend a garden is not there for the majority of our citizens, certainly not a garden of sufficient productivity to supply much of a family's year-round food needs.
It takes a moment to figure out what they are trying to say. Apparently, my grandparents had lots of time to mess around growing food without pesticides, and they could ignore their families, which is a luxury modern people cannot afford. Also, if I garden, my goal must be to produce a year-round supply of food.

I hate having to choose between caring for my family and growing food. I'm so glad that farmers are willing neglect their families so that I can live a modern life... Sorry I trailed off, I was laughing again.

Lobbyists are not paid to make sense: they are paid to put the interests of their industry first. Their industry now employs very few people; requires lots of chemicals and energy inputs; requires heavy taxpayer subsidies; is so successful that farmers produce more output than can be profitably sold in this country, so that farmers may be paid not to farm because their output will further depress consumer prices and worsen the glut of overproduction... Fewer and fewer people are benefiting from this arrangement. And so the lobbyists feel the need to write letters like this, which somehow manage to make their entire industry look ridiculous.

Farming is really hard work. Farming organically, which everyone in the world did until the 1940s or so, is even harder. But it produces some really great products, it improves the land if managed properly, and farmers are paid a premium for their work. Reading letters like this one makes me take the industry position to its natural, illogical extremes: microbreweries are inefficient, and you don't have time to brew beer, so just drink Bud; you really don't have time to cook your own food or run a restaurant, so just eat frozen entrees made by professionals in modern factories; styling your hair that way takes up too much of your time, you should shave you head and wear one of our wigs, which will save you thousands on shampoo; why spend so much time writing individual e-mail messages, when professionals can send one note to all of your friends at once...

Quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive, but it is strange to see the quantity position aggressively put forth in an age when (I like to think) there is abundant evidence of quality coming back into style.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)8:33 PM

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Next up: robots recommend a barbecue sauce that will smell GREAT on you

  Robot Identifies Human Flesh As Bacon | Table Of Malcontents (, from waaay back in 11/2006).

I don't really need to say much about this: it is perfect as it is.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)9:53 PM

Monday, May 11, 2009

Love your heart

  When I was growing up, the deaths of so many of my relatives (and most Americans) to cardiovascular disease was always presented to me as a random, unpredictable, unpreventable phenomenon that struck down my family members without warning or known cause. Like being hit by a meteor or being abducted by aliens, it was considered to be completely unrelated to lifestyle, which was a convenient fiction that the part of my family that loves deep-fried, fatty, meat-laden foods (especially Southern specialty variations of same).

Funny, that.

It's been a while since I posted an scientific propaganda which would suggest that eating right and exercising can make you healthier, so it is time for me to apply some pixels to that purpose. This time around, for novelty, I'll cite a British source, which emphasizes heart disease rate differences between omnivores and vegetarians. The Vegetarian Society - Health and Vegetarians part 2 - Information Sheet ( has some good stuff. After pointing out that cardiovascular disease is responsible for about 50% of deaths in Britain, it begins to wallow in research. I will quote selectively:
...a 12 year study of 6000 vegetarians and 5000 meat-eater[s] found that the incidence of coronary heart disease mortality was 28% lower in vegetarians compared with matched omnivores, after all non dietary factors had been taken into consideration....Burr & Butland (1988) found vegetarians to suffer significantly lower mortality from heart disease than health conscious non-vegetarians. Mortality from ischaemic heart disease was 57% lower in vegetarians than the general population.... An eleven-year study of 1,900 German vegetarians has found mortality from cardiovascular disease to be 61% lower in male vegetarians and 44% lower in female vegetarians than the general population. For ischaemic heart disease, mortality was reduced still further, to only one-third of that expected (Claude-Chang, 1992)...
And on and on.

These aren't isolated, cherry-picked results: visit any good health advocacy site, and you'll see warnings against eating foods that are high in cholesterol (which is something only produced by animals) and saturated fats. By which they mean meat. But they don't want to say meat, because there is a meat lobby. Which is not a room with a high ceiling in which the couches are all made of raw beef, and the chandeliers are made of dangling sausages, either.

I know very few people who contest the harm that smoking causes to health. (Those people are smokers, and are pretending.) With figures on this magnitude, knowing that heart disease is the number one killer of Americans (per the American Heart Association ( and just about any other health-concerned website, though cancer is beginning to overtake it), what would it take for you accept these figures the same way?

I mean, beside the idea of sitting on a raw beef couch, and being all greasy and smelly.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Americans want cheap, fat-free, deep-fried cigarettes they can feel good about

  It is awkward find yourself eating with a group of people who are complaining about their health and weight while eating things they really shouldn't be eating.

It impedes conversation to drink cocktails with people who seek sympathy for their completely preventable medical conditions.

It is also very difficult to formulate encouraging comments to leave on the websites of fundraising pages for charities which raise money for new organs for drug abusing rock stars, but we can leave that topic for another time.

How do these things happen? I blame culture.

I think it often works like this:
If I was raised as a Polish Catholic (like my mother was), I believe that I’m in the one true religion, and that my national Polish foods are the best foods to eat – because otherwise, why would my mother have made them for me, and why would my family eat them? Questioning the health benefits of that diet raises questions of fundamental identity issues, which are inviolable. It is impossible that my mother would feed me unhealthy foods (she is a good person!), it is impossible that Poles aren’t making the best sausages on earth (we are a great people!), and while most of my relatives died young, I have a few that lived to be 100, which proves that it is a good diet! (If it was really that bad, they ALL would have died young!) Nutritional information from (non-Polish) scientists conflicts with what I (want to) believe, and must be discarded.

You, and all studies that say things I like are bad for me, are dissing my culture.

All that research showing the epidemics of heart disease and cancer among people who eat like me is irrelevant. I will choose to believe that "everyone" gets these diseases, that they cannot be prevented. In a pinch, I will believe that cultures that have better health statistics than mine have some (inscrutable?) genetic advantage, and that their much leaner traditional diets have no impact at all.

Studies that say that things I like are GOOD for me, however, are a completely different story, and I will clip those and carry them around with me to show you while we are drinking (some other cultural heritage's) beer.

Pass the ketchup.
This clearly isn’t true for everyone, but it explains some of the blank looks the person who is eating a deep fried traditional food while complaining about heartburn and clogged arteries gives you – facts about health simply don’t fit into this line of thinking, and so must be discarded quickly.

People who actually process this information may be more open, to a point, but you are asking them to criticize the deep-fried part of their heritage, and that may be the only part of their heritage they are really attached to.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

This is where you place an order. Please place an order. Please.

  I get some entertaining rants from a friend of mine, who has difficulty dealing with people who fail to emulate the urban model we identify with, which could be summed up in a word: decisive. We (like to think that we) walk in straight lines to specific destinations, rather than slaloming the sidewalk with our mouths hanging open; we exit through exits, rather than block them; we step completely off the escalator, rather than marvel that the ground is no longer moving; we know how to order coffee and other foods in venues that serve same, pay, and then step aside. We know these are skills. We value and respect these skills.

Not everyone does. Hence, fun rants, sometimes complete with phone photos of the offending parties.

Here is a sample, stripped of the photographic evidence:
The same two [expletive] people have been at the register for the past 5 minutes. I don't think they know what the [gentle expletive] they want and are asking the cashier to repeat the menu and then asking for substitutions. The [breakfast all day] menu is pretty simple. Not a [fancy pants European] restaurant serving small plates.

I am a control for the staff. My transaction takes about 80 seconds.
No, we should not switch to decaf. We are not addicts - we can stop anytime we wa...

But I digress. I also fail to understand people who go into restaurants - especially, but not limited to, CHAIN restaurants with limited and set menus - and want some dish that isn't really on the menu, but it is what they are in the mood for. I always assume these people were raised in places where they had to flat-bottom-boat their way to school, or where bears might have eaten their homework, and they simply don't know why restaurants have menus. Or perhaps their smart-ass cousin told them that there are 'wonderful restaurants where they serve anything you could want' in big cities, by which she meant that you can choose a restaurant that happens to serve what you want, not that ANY restaurant will serve ANYTHING you want, and that nuance was lost upon these folks when they left their caves.

I say these things for humor, but I know these people are not from caves, or swamps, or bear-country: they are from our own suburbs and even some of our own neighborhoods - they look the same as everyone else, they have our local accents, they have the same silly haircuts, they are only rarely dressed as lumberjacks. However, I still suspect this may be why cities used to be built surrounded by high walls: so people just outside the densest districts wouldn't be allowed in to waste everyone else's time while ordering food.

I've been in line behind people who had difficulty ordering a BAGEL. And I don't mean once they ask if you want it sliced or toasted, I mean they struggle to get to that phase.

I've heard people cite studies about how there are optimal LOW numbers of choices, after which people become vexed by having too many options. Because people are SILLY. But I didn't catch the details, because I had ordered my food quickly and efficiently, and was already enjoying my appetizer and beverage.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Calories by weight

  MiniMe showed me What Does 200 Calories Look Like? (, a web page which shows photos of 200 calories worth of different foods, organized from most weight to least. Although it isn't as comprehensive as I might like (I know, I know, it would have to have a full menu of prepared dishes from several continents...), it is a useful tool, and a nice way of presenting some basic information. As the text notes, you could eat a lot of broccoli OR you could eat a spoonful of peanut butter and would be consuming the same number of calories, and so should plan accordingly. (Let's not discuss broccoli in spicy peanut butter sauce, which is where I was going with that idea.)

There were a number of diet celebrities in years past, and one of them had a model of a clear stomach that he would use to make the same point. His favored diet involved whole foods, including whole grains and relatively unprocessed veggies. He would fill a stomach with a brown rice mixture, and then he would put a little lump of meat into another one. He'd ask which one of the stomachs would FEEL more full, and then point out that the rice stomach actually had fewer calories in it. It made it clear that you could eat large volumes of low calorie foods to feel full, while also limited your caloric intake (and thus, if you do everything else correctly, lose weight).

I wish more people I know who use fad diets would look at things like this, and consider how to moderate their 'regular' diets with the additions of healthy, high fiber foods that could fill them up in a more beneficial fashion than some of the odd things they choose to eat on their unsustainable fad diets.

If I was going to sell an unhealthy fad diet, I would base it around... whatever foods you HATE. You'd have to eat (depending on the caloric load) a few cups of that before you could eat small servings of anything else at each meal. If you hated that food enough, truly hated it, you wouldn't get far, and would lose weight. Yes, it's cruel. Think of it as a punishment for fad dieting.


posted by Arlene (Beth)12:17 AM

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Americans Abroad: iRant

  This from my pal Peter, during the Olympics, quoted with permission:
I've been meaning to gripe about one thing. NPR played an interview (twice, actually) with some dude at the Beijing Olympics who complained about the food services at the stadium venue. He said that there was no cooked food to be had and that he simply couldn't get a hot dog anywhere. He had to starve when at the stadium.

I really wanted to call in or email into NPR and give another point of view, but apathy overtook my iRage and now I'm griping to you guys.

Who the f*ck in the entire world wants to eat a f*cking hot dog at a stadium??! Americans. Nobody else serves f*cking hot dogs in f*cking stadiums. He can come back here and buy $6.50 hot dogs at a baseball game to his heart's content. Not everybody enjoys or wants this. The correspondent reported that a local was astonished that he could get a whole meal at American stadium sport events, as if this was fantastically good. I actually think that the local was humoring him because Old Guard Chinese folk want freshly prepared food and balk at processed or pre-packaged food. That's why people shop daily in Chinatown, not weekly or monthly.

This is an American disease. We expect the rest of the world to be just like us, with flush toilets and showers over tubs. We typically aren't educated enough to at least try to perceive another point of view. We don't have bidets here so would Europeans believe that all Americans walk around with dirty butts, then, eh? :P

On the bidet question: probably, but I try not to think about that.

Aside: did this make you think of the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors ( hot dog skit? It should have. What about the Monty Python Watney's Red Barrel skit? Oh, come on!

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

With political generalizations come cultural discussions about food.

  While I write about politics here far less than I have in the past, I still read about politics, which infuses (or infects, depending on your view) so many aspects of life. Why rednecks may rule the world, by Joe Bageant (, 9/6/08) is an article about some of the cultural conflicts in the U.S. which inform our presidential election politics. I believe I've mentioned the strong, anti-intellectual current that runs through so much of the commentary: here is an article that mentions that, while embracing a specific, regionally-based identity. Which, of course, has its own culturally-informed food.
We fry things nobody ever considered friable - things like cupcakes, banana sandwiches and batter dipped artificial cheese…even pickles.
If you combine this idea with the concept that Rigoberta Menchu described in her book - that you can't relate to people who won't eat the same foods that you do - you can see how we can wind up divided.

The question isn't whether or not you'd vote for someone who eats fried pickles, the question is... seriously? Fried pickles? [sound of my stomach churning]

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posted by Arlene (Beth)8:42 PM

Thursday, September 06, 2007

  Conformity, culture and food. Part of the reason I always informally interrogate people about what they ate for dinner as kids is that I'm interested in the influences that lead people to choose the foods they do. Americans on the whole are having a lot of health problems (like that amazing 50% cardiovascular disease rate) based on the foods they choose, and I've been very interested in how much people think about what they choose eat, and what attachments they have to specific foods. I'm also interested in culture-specific foods, since many of the foods I love now are not from my own ethnic background.

Something I am figuring out is that there is an idea of what "normal" is that our fiercely conformist culture relies on when making these decisions. I have always known people who were pressured in their youth to take up some habit (smoking, drinking really cheap crappy beer) because their peers did it, and it was the "normal" thing to do. I have always known that advertising has a huge influence, and that otherwise reasonable people I know will go out and buy something that looks stupid on them because an ad-filled clothing magazine says that it is the "normal" and fashionable thing to wear.

But I don't think I've really understood how wanting to be normal affects how people make food choices.


When my father had a massive heart attack and required a triple bypass, I was certain that he would take his doctor's horror at his description of his pre-bypass diet as a sign that something wasn't right. He was given some instruction on the subject, which he wasn't especially interested in. I bought my dad a bunch of books by Dean Ornish on how you can restore your heart's health through dietary changes. However, I should have known from reading the old newsgroups that my father wasn't going to be interested. He didn't want to eat for heart health - he wanted to eat the diet he considered to be normal, to show that he had recovered. Changing his diet would make him feel more like a patient, or someone who was recovering from a life threatening condition - and even if that were true, that wasn't "normal." (Unfortunately, having heart attacks in one's 40s is "normal" on my father's side of the family.)

My father, who is prone to going on a fad diet every year or so, even went on the horrifically high cholesterol Atkins diet a few years ago! He eventually decided that it was unbalanced. (Duh.) But even when he went on it, he thought that was a "normal" thing to do, health consequences be damned.

I have friends who go on fad diets routinely, but I've never really thought of those seriously. Fad diets don't work in the long-term. All diets that reduce your caloric intake enough can make you lose weight, but if they aren't healthy enough to use on an ongoing basis, the weight loss will fail when people return to their old habits. I've always thought of fad diets as forms of temporary insanity on the part of my friends, rather than culturally-influenced food decisions. But they are out there, and there are new ones coming out all the time!


I may have mentioned that a friend of mine said he doesn't eat any rice other than white rice (of which there are many types, of course), because he is Chinese, and that's what Chinese people eat. Even though that's not exclusively true - not here in SF, where there are Chinese people in every type of restaurant, eating things that are only "normal" in parts of the world quite remote from eastern China where he was born - he remains certain about the bounds of "normal" rice eating practice.


I also may have mentioned that I told a girlfriend at work about how one of my sisters-in-law was going to make me and Steven a lovely veggie primavera pasta dinner, and my girlfriend said, "Oh, is that in again?"

(Can you imagine? Deciding on whether or not to eat home-cooked food on whether or not it is "in?")


Watching my father choose his meals post-bypass, it's plain he was being influenced by his own idea of normal diets, and by trends and fads that were popular (and conventional, and "normal" for the time). Since I've never really cared what people around me were eating - since my own tastes are spicier, hotter, and more veg-oriented than most of my relatives and peer group - I haven't really thought about the desire to be "normal" in dining choices. But it's there as an influence. I might start asking about that in my food interviews.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

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