We Are What We Eat | Paul D. Swanson

The Origins and Current Legal Status of “Natural” and “Organic” Food Labels

The cook plays an important part in the nourishability of food. Meals which are lovingly prepared with a profound desire for the welfare of the eater always benefit the body and mind more than do meals which are commercially prepared, or which have been prepared by someone who is indifferent to or dislikes the proposed eater. No one should cook when in a state of indifference, agitation, sorrow or anger.

From The Hidden Secret of Ayurveda, by Dr. Robert E. Svoboda

The most famous gastronome of them all, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, wrote in Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante (1826): “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.”: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” For some, such as Adelle Davis — Time magazine characterized her as “the high priestess of a new nutrition religion” in December 1972 — the consequences of our food choices are stark: “As I see it, every day you do one of two things: build health or produce disease.”

How do we know if we are supposedly building health, rather than unwittingly producing disease by what we consume? We resolve what economists call “informational asymmetry” by relying on food labels, brands and trademarks to confirm the authenticity and quality of our foodstuffs. But making “correct” food choices can be daunting and baffling. In her groundbreaking book, What to Eat, Dr. Marion Nestle estimates that there are around 320,000 food and beverage products available in the United States; and that the average supermarket stocks about 30,000 to 40,000 of them.[1] While we may not understand the true origins or makeup of what we put on our tables, most baby-boomers can tell you in a heartbeat that Rice Krispies go “snap, crackle and pop,” Lucky Charms are “magically delicious,” and Wonder Bread helps “build strong bodies in 8 ways.”

Two of the most symbolic words in food promotion nowadays are “organic” and “natural.” Generally defined, “natural” means “present in or produced by nature” and is not something “altered, treated or disguised,” but rather “faithfully represents nature or life.”[2] “Organic,” in its most abstract sense, means “simple, healthful, and close to nature.”[3] Both words hearken back to a pre-industrial age and share Edenic, utopian connotations. They imply a general distrust of chemical engineering and manufacturing processes. If we are what we eat, are we not closer to “nature” if we incorporate natural and organic foods into our diet? That is the compelling allure and implicit bargain of consuming organic and natural foods.

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Comeback Caramel | Samira Kawash

There’s a bucket of caramels next to the register at my local CVS. At three for 99 cents, who wouldn’t try one? And they are good: fresh and buttery, soft, with just the right chew. They’re not exactly homemade, but they’re not exactly “mass produced” either. The company that makes them, L. Frances, is a small specialty factory in Appleton, Wisconsin. Their candies are obviously formed and wrapped by machine, but they are produced in small batches and shipped fresh, unlike most of the sweets at the checkout.

I find it pretty amazing that stores like CVS can make room for a caramel made by a company that has no more than 20 employees and operates out of a little town in the north woods. I can only conclude that people are hungry for candy that is just a little better than what’s on offer from the global food conglomerates, and small producers are inciting a renaissance.

For generations raised on Kraft cubes, the superiority of a fresh, small-batch caramel is largely unknown. In fact, the mediocrity of the overprocessed caramel helped chocolate bars rise to dominance in the candy aisle. While Kraft has been the most prominent caramel of the last half century, the company wasn’t even in the candy business when their cube took its place among confections. Kraft specialized in dairy processing—their first product was ice cream. Later, Kraft made its fortune in cheese. Caramels were just a sideline, another way to transform fresh milk into a shelf-stable product. Nevertheless, Kraft’s “dairy fresh” caramel cubes, with their particular milky flavor and fudgy texture, became the standard for American caramel—a stark departure from the sophisticated continental confection they once were.

Caramels first appeared on the American candy scene in the 1880s. The lineage of the first American caramel is obscure, and mired in ancient Anglo-Gallic rivalries. In flavor and character, what we know today as caramel candy is closely related to British toffee and butterscotch, which appeared in the early 1800s.  British candy historian Laura Mason suggests that caramels might have evolved in the spirit of dental charity—a softer counterpart to the hard-on-the-teeth British toffee. Stephen Schmidt, author of Dessert in America and an expert in the history of American desserts, looks to the other side of the Channel for caramel origins: “The inspiration behind American caramels were French caramels, which came to this country during the vogue for French cooking of the Gilded Age.”

photo by Julie Frost (Creative Commons: http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnnystiletto)

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Cooking with My 19th-Century Quaker Relative | Eleanor West

In the introduction to her 1845 cookbook, Domestic Cookery, Elizabeth Ellicott Lea writes, “[T]he Authoress offers to her young countrywomen this Work, with the belief that, by attention to its contents, many of the cares attendant on a country or city life, may be materially lessened; and hoping that the directions are such as to be understood by the most inexperienced.”1 This charge to guide novice homemakers in cooking, cleaning, and medicinal remedies has universal appeal, but for me it was more than that. The “Authoress” is a distant cousin and as it stands, I am the very audience she is targeting — a young and inexperienced apartment dweller.

In one way, it seemed fortuitous that my mother (also a Lea) should discover this book precisely when I was confronting the realities of apartment life — among them clogged drains and gas leaks — as well as my new job as a food writer. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure what relevant homemaking knowledge a 19th century Quaker woman could impart on a 21st century New York renter.

Nonetheless, the journey from college dorm room to New York apartment required a steeper learning curve than I imagined and it was comforting to find that even distant relatives of mine went through similar trials (though maybe not in a recession). Lea wrote the book for her own daughter who was unsure of how to navigate married life. Her daughter’s concerns — including how to store silver and mend china — appeared more elegant than my own questions about how to install smoke alarms and successfully ward off mice. But Lea’s constant emphasis on resourcefulness and patience applies to even the most menial chores and recipes in the book, making my less appealing problems still seem worthy of my full attention.

The book’s mere existence today — and the reason I own a copy — is thanks to food historian William Woys Weaver, who brought Lea’s work out of obscurity with his revised edition in 1982 followed by another edition in 2004. But the persistence of Lea’s Domestic Cookery in the 19th century (it went through nineteen editions by 1879) was due to its practical and often thrifty approach to homemaking. “Never try a new dish when you expect company,” she instructed her young readers, “Your guests will be more gratified with a neat and moderate table, with a few plain and well cooked dishes, accompanied with the smiling countenance of the hostess, than with a great variety of ill cooked and badly arranged viands.” Memories of crumbling veggie burgers that I’ve served to guests of my own confirmed Lea’s advice.

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Gastronomica wins James Beard Award

Gastronomica has been awarded the 2012 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for Publication of the Year. The journal shared the prize with Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs’s Food 52.

The James Beard Foundation recognizes culinary professionals for excellence and achievement in their fields. Beard was considered the dean of American cooking at the time of his death in 1985. A ceremony on May 4 honored Goldstein and other media award winners.

The awards committee cited the journal for “proving that food can be the catalyst for meaningful and serious discussions about culture, history, literature, art, and politics. Founding Editor Darra Goldstein has turned her enthusiasm for food into a substantive and intelligent publication that influences us all. In addition to editing Gastronomica, Darra is a Professor of Russian at Williams College. She is a quintessential example of the diverse and unexpected personalities you’ll find talking about food at Gastronomica, where poets, artists, professors, opinion makers, and pundits bring a stimulating breadth of perspectives to the table. In our digital age of fleet tweets, trendy headlines, and the battle to grab readers’ attention in an increasingly crowded space, Gastronomica reminds us that curiosity, hard thought, and great writing are award-worthy values.”

Gastronomica was named Best Food Magazine in the World at the 2011 Gourmand Awards in Paris. The journal also received the 2007 Utne Independent Press Award for Social/Cultural Coverage and the Prix d’Or at the Gourmet Voice World Media Festival in 2004.

Summer of Seventy-Two: Cooking with Glass | Ruth Reichl

Walker Evans, Kitchen Wall, Alabama Farmstead (1936). Courtesy Williams College Museum of Art.

We went clear across the country, backroads all the way, Scruff sitting on the dashboard, more like a dog than a Siamese cat. It was July and Route Two was as far north as you could go without being in Canada. The days stretched, long and languorous, the light lasting until ten or eleven every night.

It felt like freedom to be out of New York, out of our cockroach-ridden loft on the scary lower east side, and out of the nine to five of the jobs we hated. Sometimes, as we were rolling through empty cornfields with the sky huge above us Doug would look at his watch and say, “We could be on the Bright D train right now, with some guy standing over us, slowly dripping sweat,” and we’d laugh and think how much we didn’t want to go back.

We took our time heading west, stopping for church suppers in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where they served us fried chicken and potato salad. We bought pasties – sturdy meat pies – in the little towns we drove through – munching as the miles rolled past. In North Dakota we stopped at the Rosebud reservation, to give our friends the braids of garlic we’d brought from Little Italy; they said garlic was what they missed most about New York, that there wasn’t a single clove in the entire state. We stayed a week, talking, cooking, going to powwows where we ate fry bread and once, something they told me was boiled dog. Was it true? One night Joe came home with a wild turkey he’d shot himself. I’d never seen one, never seen that strangely curving backbone that won’t sit straight in any pan. When it came time to go Joe handed me a star quilt. “Gets cold up there in northern Washington,” he said. “You take this. Our people know about living outside and staying warm.”

Somewhere in Wyoming the radio went dead. It came booming on again, just outside Cheyenne, a Ravi Shankar raga that accompanied us for miles. A good omen, we thought, still worried about what we would find at the end of this journey. We’d done it on a lark, agreed to work at a glass workshop in the wilderness. Some patron of Dale’s had built him a place north of Seattle, and students were coming for the summer. The equipment was all there, but not much else, and Doug was supposed to help the kids build the structures that they’d live in. I would teach them how to cook. No money, but it beat another summer in the city with our shoes sticking to the sidewalk and “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard,” playing, over and over in the bodega downstairs, coming through our windows, invading our dreams.

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