This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
I know I've been blogging about public school lunch a lot lately, but I think it's a great example of everything that is wrong with the food system in America and what will happen if we allow the government to be in charge of more and more of the food system.
A few months ago I noticed that the USDA school lunch standards were restricting starchy vegetables (like potatoes), corn, and legumes. I neglected to blog about it, I suppose because I was so busy. Had the USDA read Gary Taubes?
Nope. Apparently, it was based on a report by the Institute of Medicine that recommended restricting them not for any problems with the foods themselves, but in order to encourage schools to try other vegetables.
That seems a little sanctimonious to me, like something a moralistic grandmother would do. In the meantime, I don't see any USDA restrictions on fried food or chocolate milk.
If you read the IOM recs, it's clear they are unable to think about food holistically. They are not seeing that it's not the potatoes or the chicken that's the problem, it's the fact that they are often breaded and/or fried. If only our problem was overeating potatoes and lima beans! And we could solve that be eating them less and making sure we get our chalk-colored fortified water, I mean 1% milk. It's laughable once you think about it.
But never fear, don't forget the government guidelines are often a combination of paternalism and lobbying interests. This time, I guess they canceled each other out and the USDA abandoned the plan.
Eowyn talking to Grima in LOTR in case you are not a nerd
At the conferences I go to it's mostly cheese pizza, soda, bagels, and coffee with crap powdered creamer. It's like sugar flavored bread and it's not worth eating because it not only makes me fall asleep in the afternoon session, but it doesn't even taste good. I think I first thought of Eowyn because I had eaten the normal lunch and I was in an afternoon session on improving server performance and I was just crashing. I couldn't pay attention at all because I felt so low in energy.
I have learned that I should just hope there is a decent restaurant around the conference center and not eat with the nerds, which makes me feel antisocial. There are so many paleo/primal folks in IT, maybe someday we can take over?
The exception, which I should mention, are the cool events run by Food+Tech Connect.
While I'm not fan of nanny states dictating what people can eat, vegetarians really are the bane of institutional food. The core of ancient peasant cooking was using the whole animal and that meant cooking things in broths, sauteing and frying animal fat, and using bits of dried/cured meat in soups/stews/beans/etc. Countless restaurants and cafeterias have switched to MSG-based bouillon and vegetable oils so that their dishes are vegetable-friendly. I admire Chipotle for standing its ground and continuing to cook many of their beans with pork bits/fat. This is truly sustainable cooking, utilizing regional products to their full extent. Some other favorite restaurants of mine, such as Momofuku, also explicitly do not serve vegetarian dishes because they buy and USE whole animals.
Contrast this with meat-free Monday, which encourages cafeterias to serve foods based on imported industrial monocultures (soy/corn/wheat) in the form of "textured vegetable protein" or "veggie burgers" and often utilizing industrial vegetable oils, additives, and flavorings. Or low-quality factory-farmed dairy, often with food coloring and sugar added.
I've eaten at many cafeterias and tend to think there is really no way to do institutional cafeteria food well. The goal is to feed a large diverse group of people as cheaply as possible. And the industry is dominated by a few large corporations that have deals with processed food companies.
And the cafeteria model in general may encourage over-eating and other problems. Since I was homeschooled until high school, I didn't encounter cafeterias until I was older. That's also when I started to gain weight. It's no wonder scientists use a "cafeteria" diet in experiments to induce obesity.
The solution probably lies with smaller schools with more local control and parental involvement. Unfortunately, the Federal government is increasingly dominating education, so this may be limited to private or homeschooling-hybrid* systems.
I think there is also a clash here between the politically-correct ideal of accommodating everyone and the fact that this accommodation often leads to inferior compromises.
*homeschooling hybrid is what I did for a lot of my youth. Some education is at home, but some classes/other stuff is done with other homeschoolers communally outside the home.
Yesterday I wrote about the fact that an unpredictable over-powerful government and excessive regulations can quash the desire of young people to be creative and work hard.
I think there is an opportunity here for states and countries to attract more young people, both by fostering the flourishing of small businesses. While the Federal government unfortunately continues to grow in power, the fact is that some states are more free than other states.
This is a cool site where you can rank states based on freedom and weight things that you care about. New Hampshire and many Western (but not West coast) states rank pretty high no matter how you slide things.
New York ranks pretty badly. The fact we have so many innovative things here is a testament to the value of urban concentration, but even while I've lived here, I've seen many small businesses and small farms go under thanks to regulation or government persecution. That's one of many reasons I didn't want to build a business here. And one of the reasons I think upstate is so economically depressed and why many young folks in NYC consider themselves temporary residents.
This might seem small, but one of my favorite markets was the Greenpoint food market. It was full of interesting and innovative micro-businesses created in the "gig economy." I used to buy all kinds of interesting food and crafts there, until word got out and the health department shut it down because some food wasn't made in government-approved kitchens. You can argue about those regulations all day, but I think if they are going to have that kind of burden, there should be more public-funding for projects that help small businesses get around the extremely capital-intensive regulations. Some of these do exist already- there is a commercial kitchen you can rent in Long Island City and it has helped some of the businesses kicked out of the market go on to become legitimate.
I think that's also why the freedom rankings have some limitations, because there are states that rank kind of badly, but still manage to encourage innovation. Public funding towards things like kitchen incubators and agricultural extensions can make a difference, though it comes along with higher taxes. And individual towns even have the power to attract small food businesses, such as a town in Maine that declared food sovereignty.
Beyond our borders, I think small countries that are experiencing brain-drain or that are just developing might be posed to attract educated innovative immigrant "pioneers" through favorable policies. I already know some people my age who have moved to SE Asia and others that have invested in African countries like Rwanda (bad reputation, but the government is trying to rebuild). Unfortunately in Eastern Europe the EU is destroying freedom and the ability for Americans to invest, but perhaps that will be broken by their recent crisis since it's clear a lot of these countries really need investment. Iceland and parts of Canada are also contenders.
Of course this requires that young people be wiling to be pioneers and move somewhere new, but I figure that's something Americans are pretty decent at already.
Q: What extreme techniques are you talking about?
A: New strains have been generated using what the wheat industry proudly insists are “traditional breeding techniques,” though they involve processes like gamma irradiation and toxins such as sodium azide. The poison control people will tell you that if someone accidentally ingests sodium azide, you shouldn’t try to resuscitate the person because you could die, too, giving CPR. This is a highly toxic chemical.
But the plants generated from this technique (it's not just used for wheat) don't contain sodium azide...these techniques are used to accelerate mutation rate, so selective breeding projects that once took hundreds of years now that ten years: "The process leaves no residual radiation or other obvious marks of human intervention. It simply creates offspring that exhibit new characteristics." I guess your view on this depends on your intrinsic conservatism. But it's one of the techniques that has produced sustainable yield increases in the developing world without GE, expensive hybrid seeds, pesticides, or synthetic fertilizer.
I hope nobody told Dr. Davis that we used NPK fertilizer or animal poo to make plants grow faster. If you eat that stuff you could die too.
Don't get me wrong. I don't eat wheat. Even the good old fashioned Weston A Price fermented breads make my stomach malfunction, and yes even the most ancient wheat varieties do this to me. I also lost a good amount of weight removing it from my diet. But I prefer the paleo approach because it emphasis that wide variety of foods someone can be sensitive to, as well as the importance of good foods like fish roe, liver, and grass-fed beef. Paleo isn't just about demonizing wheat and frankly I know some serious Crossfitters who drink real beer with real wheat often and are very lean and have excellent blood lipids.
I'll get around to reviewing this book eventually, but from an agriculturalist's perspective I remain skeptical of it. In the past I've taken his blog less and less seriously because of his rather conventional views on meat:
Atkins Diet Common Errors: Excessive consumption of animal products–Non-restriction of fat often leads to over-reliance on animal products. Higher intakes of red meats (heme proteins?) have been strongly associated with increased risk for colon and other gastrointestinal tract cancers. It is not a fat issue; it is an animal product issue. We should consume less meat, more vegetables and other plant-sourced foods.
That's what the men of Vanuatu proclaim in this really interesting series called Meet The Natives. I don't usually enjoy reality TV, but I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed this show, which is posted on Youtube. The premise of the show is that five men from Tanna, a village in Vanuatu go to Britain and live among what they refer to as "three tribes": the working class, the middle class, and the upper class. I often find that shows about tribal people can be dehumanizing and prevent people from seeing the tribal people as individuals, but this show does not suffer from this. Chief Yapa, Joel, Posen, Albi and Jimmy Joseph are all very interesting and wise people. Jimmy is the narrator, as he speaks very good English, but the voices and personalities of the other men are very distinct as well. Interestingly, Jimmy also seems to be the uploader on Youtube and has some comments on the show there.
I actually learned about Vanuatu from The Paleo Guy's blog. The people of Vanuatu are not hunter-gatherers, but foraging horticulturalists who grow roots and raise pigs. It's clear from the documentary that the people are very healthy, with lean muscular bodies, clear skin, and strikingly white straight teeth. As I have written before here, horticultural and foraging cultures are very diverse. I can understand why the people of Tanna were chosen because their tribe seems very happy and healthy.
It becomes obvious that the five men aren't going to Britain just to experience the culture, but because they dream of meeting Prince Philip, who they believe is the son of their God. The rest of this post contains spoilers for the show, so if you want to be excited about finding out if they achieve their dream, watch the show first and then come back here.
The first family they visit is a middle class pig-farming family. I thought it was interesting that they chose a free-range pig farmer, since most pig farms these days are not free range. I would imagine that the men would have had a very difficult experience if they visited a typical pig farm.The people of Tanna also farm pigs, but there were amazed by the size and fatness of the pigs in Britain. However, the fact that the farmer artificially inseminated the pigs bothered them. The chief said that "animals and human beings are the same thing, mating should be done in private." Posen, the pig farmer, says that pigs are possessions and they must treat them with respect. They then cut to a video of Posen feeding his pigs some coconut. The pigs in Tanna are even more free ranging than the British pigs, wandering about the village. I suppose they stick around because the people feed them.
However, while animals and human beings are the same thing to the Tannans, the chief also says that "animals are made to be killed, but not human beings." The Tannan views on animals are among the most interesting parts of the show. While eating dinner with the middle class family, it comes up that the Tannans eat dogs. The middle class mother asks if they eat their pets. They say that they do not, but some dogs are pets, others are not.
Dogs come up again later in the show when they are staying with the working class family. While out shopping with them, the Tannans see homeless people for the first time. They cannot understand how people can be homeless. Jimmy says that in their village anyone can build a hut and everyone will help them and share food with them. Later in the show the Tannans say that sharing is the source of their happiness. The sad fact is that if a homeless person tried to build their own house on unused land in the US they would be evicted. It is even illegal to share food with the homeless in some cities.
After they learn about the homeless the Tannans are brought to a place where women spent all day "treating dogs like humans." It's a dog grooming parlor. After seeing this the chief says that "English people care a lot for their animals but they don't care about people's lives."
The Tannans meet a kindred spirit when they meet a professional rabbit hunter. They are impressed with his skills and philosophy on life, which is that he wants to do what he loves and not be part of the rat race. They say he is like a brother to him. When they are skinning the rabbit, they learn that people no longer want to wear fur. Jimmy is mystified, he says it makes sense to wear the fur since the rabbits are living in England and it's cold in England and the fur is warm. The hunter says this mystifies him too, but that he is so happy to spent time with the Tannans since they understand him and many people in England do not understand hunting anymore. Later when they are visiting the upper class people, the Tannans see a fox hunt. Because of animal rights activists, real fox hunts are banned in England and they carry on the tradition by having fake fox hunts. The Tannans think this is a crazy waste of time.
Another interesting this is that when they see the homeless people they ask "does this mean they have no fathers or mothers?" Later they learn about the fact that many families in Britain are broken. Their working class host, Ray, tells them he has a son from a previous relationship who he never sees. Now he is off to war in Afghanistan. This makes the Tannans very said. They explain that the bond between fathers and sons is very important.
Another thing I really liked about the show is that it also wasn't exploitative of the people of Britain. I've seen a fair number of British reality shows that portray British people, particularly the working class, as being very uncivilized, but while it's clear the working class family on this show had problems, they were shown as very nice and welcoming people. The Tannans form very close bonds with the working class family and are actually happy that they have to share a room because they like sleeping near each other so they can talk.
Unfortunately when they visit the working class family they have their first tastes of truly processed foods from boxes and KFC. I think some people have the idea that taste is more culturally relative than it actually is. The truth is that all humans are vulnerable to hyperpalatable foods, though increasing exposure seems to lead to increasing divorce between craving and needs. The Tannans say that KFC is very good, even better than home cooked foods. I was heartened to see that during a meal with the middle class family, the chief asks to be passed the butter and he eats all of it up with a spoon.
I was very happy that they do get to meet Prince Phillip, though they want him to come back to the island with them to fulfill their prophecy and he doesn't. It's funny because they say that they understand that son of their God chose to live among the upper class tribe because the upper class tribe follows the ancient rules of the ancestors. In the end Joel says "I think the English should return to a more traditional life. I think they used to be a lot like us, living with love and respect and unity. But if they carry on the way they are, they won't be able to find that life anymore."
Interestingly, the people there credit some Westerners with having taught them important things. According to legend, a US serviceman during WWII named "John Navy" taught them to end tribal warfare.
I think it's amazing that we are at the point that we can listen to the wisdom of people from places like Vanuatu, but underneath there is a tension. In the show it's clear that on their island there are gender roles that most Westerners would be uncomfortable with. Some jobs are lady's jobs, some are men's jobs. When they visit a gay club the Tannans are very uncomfortable. I learned later that parts of Tanna are part of a movement known as Kastom, which is a traditionalist movement. They resist things like public schools, believing them to be a threat to their customs (correct, IMHO). The commenters on Youtube praised the Tannan's ability to "live in harmony with nature" but were clearly put off by these attitudes as well as the attitudes towards animals.
Either way, I learned a lot from the show and I'm looking forward to watching the next one, which is about their trip to the US.
Jimmy home with his baby
Cops have busted a group of oddball poachers in Prospect Park — a band of vagrants that was trapping and eating ducks, squirrels and pigeons.
Parks officers wrote four tickets — two for killing wildlife and two for illegal fishing — totaling $2,100 in fines during a two-day period last week.
The city would not immediately release details of the incidents, which occurred on July 17 and 18 — just days after park-goers told rangers about a “Beverly Hillbillies”-like scene on the southeast side of the lake, near the ice skating rink.
“This is a dodgy group,” said park-goer Peter Colon, who spotted one of the men catching a pigeon while his friend started a fire. “They are the most threatening people in the park.”
The disheveled — and possibly homeless — tribe in question uses “makeshift” fishing poles and traps to catch the critters, then grills them over the fire, according to park watchdogs.
“One woman uses a net to bag the ducks,” said wildlife advocate Johanna Clearfield.
How dare those vagrants eat animals! A host of sanctimonious commenters says they should go down to the food bank and get themselves some normal stuff, like Chef Boyardee (that was the kind of stuff they had at the food bank I briefly volunteered at before it made me too depressed to be motivated). Or wait in line for hours at the food stamp office only to be turned down because they don't have their original birth certificates, or a real address, or some other nonsense. Or as one commenter said, they should just be vegans like her friend.
Personally I wouldn't eat the animals there because of the fact that the city is poisoned by pollution, but honestly they are probably healthier to eat than whatever is served up at the local soup kitchen.
Let's all be reminded that the government regularly kills the geese in the park and ships them to ANOTHER STATE to feed the homeless. Remember, it's only OK if the government does it.
Whatever happened to "teach a man to fish?" Maybe they should go back to stealing like in the old New York City? So far a rise in crime hasn't accompanied the economic difficulties of The Great Stagnation, but it could happen.
I have to give credit to the sane comments too. A lot people reminiscing about how their grandparents caught vermin to service the Depression.
Sometimes it seems like NYC government isn't sure what to do about food. There is a push towards a more paternalistic food policy, but it's rather laughable. For example, the "food desert" issue. Some time ago, food policy researchers started talking about "food deserts", places where it's almost impossible to get fresh fruits and vegetables without traveling a great distance. Some places in NYC were pegged as food deserts and the city had a few insipid initiatives to "help" the situation. One of them was fresh fruit and vegetable carts, called "green carts." They subsidized these carts, hoping to encourage them in these "food deserts." The problem was that savvy folks were more than happy to take the subsidy and set up in a gentrified area on the edge of a "food desert," such as Morningside Heights near Columbia University. They set up near upscale grocery stores, who were unhappy that the city was subsidizing their competition. In the meantime, I wonder how well those food policy experts who study food deserts looked into the grey market here. Get off a subway in East New York and you'll usually find several hawkers of fresh mango and other fruit. The problem is that these carts are illegal for some reason. So at the same time the city has been subsidizing Green Carts in areas where they weren't needed, they have been cracking down on some of these sidewalk vendors. The crackdown has unfortunately also happened in my neighborhood, which is economically mixed. The government says the produce might be unsafe because of car exhaust from the roads. I wonder if the government has ever heard of pesticides? The government has also been cracking down on people gathering wild berries, greens, and mushrooms from parks, a hobby of both immigrants and locavores.
Either way, I think in urban areas like NYC, the idea that people are suffering from diabetes because they don't have fruit is delusional. Harlem is a diabetes hotspot and there is PLENTY of healthy fresh food in most of the same areas where diabetes, obesity, and heart disease is rampant. Every other store seems to have sidewalk displays of ample fresh produce, some very exotic
Display of fruits and vegetables in Hamilton Heights in Harlem, the restaurant next door is Dunkin Doughnuts
The problem here isn't lack of produce, the problem is that every other store that doesn't have produce seems to be a fried chicken joint or Dunkin doughnuts. People are so focused on the myth that produce is a magic bullet that they forget that plenty of unhealthy people eat fruits and vegetables. What's more important in making someone healthy? The inclusion of fresh produce or the exclusion of vegetable oil and sugar? Remember how much better the latter two taste anyway. In areas of the city with less of an immigrant population, efforts to get bodegas to sell fruits and vegetables have led to many bodegas having displays of rotting bananas and apples. If your store sells slurpies and apples, which one are the children going to pick? There is also the issue that in many immigrant communities vegetables might actually be a source of unhealthy eating, as they are frequently fried in the same way as in places like China, where produce consumption is connected with obesity. I find that in many immigrant communities there isn't much awareness about the health effects of using things like vegetable "ghee" or hydrogenated lard. Indeed, now that researchers are finally studying such immigrant communities, they are finding that access to produce doesn't have a connection with obesity. There have been some efforts in certain cities to limit the number of fast food restaurants, usually targeting chains, but a lot of restaurants serving fried sugary food are not chains, they are little mom and pops like the arepa stand in my neighborhood, where the well-meaning woman blissfully coats all her arepas with the cheapest margarine available. I have to wonder if she really knows that margarine isn't a good choice? The government certainly isn't about to tell her.
I've mentioned before the fact that you can get all your necessary animal-based nutrients from invertebrates like oysters. Why do people with ethical qualms about eating cows and pigs becomes vegans and forgo foods like oysters? Animal rights propaganda is full of stories about how invertebrates feel pain and are enslaved to make honey etc. etc. etc. Like this fine example of wingnuttery:
But it really doesn't matter anyway, does it? Vegans typically don't judge species based on their intelligence. If it were ok to eat someone because he's dumb, a lot of humans would be in trouble. It must be because bees can't feel pain. But why wouldn't bees feel pain? They are animals with a large nervous system (Snodgrass, 254) capable of transmitting pain signals. And unlike in the case of plants, pain as we know it would be a useful evolutionary feature since bees are capable of moving to avoid it. Which, as far as I'm concerned, is all that matters. Pain must be unpleasant or else it wouldn't work. If common sense isn't good enough, we can always resort to scientific studies that indicate that bees feel pain.
The next section is titled "The Enslavement of Bees."
Unfortunately for these folks, our entire crop-agricultural system is founded on growing food that invertebrates love as much as we do. Obviously letting them share in the bounty is infeasible, so we kill them with various pesticides. Take BT toxin, used in both organic and conventional agriculture:
When insects ingest toxin crystals, the alkaline pH of their digestive tract activates the toxin. Cry toxin gets inserted into the insect gut cell membrane, forming a pore. The pore results in cell lysis and eventual death of the insect.
Cell lysis...sounds like fun! My choice of pesticide last year was one based on soy oil, which coats the insect so it suffocates and is arguably the proper use of this noxious oil. In the end, what is the point of arguing about whether or not a bee feels pain when our agricultural system kills millions of insects with identical cognitive capacity every year? I suppose you could argue about intent, but intent doesn't particularly matter to insects when they are suffocating to death. It underscores the fact that veganism is a nonsensical ideology where people would rather consume synthetic supplements made in a factory than eat an oyster or some bee larvae.
Weekend meals are waaay fattier for me since I have time to cook and Chris is here and lower in carbs since I seem to suck at storing roots and found that all my potatoes had sprouted.
Friday: fasting, ate some Thai Papaya salad at office lunch
Dinner was at Takashi with Patrick from PaleolithicDiet.com. I've mentioned this temple of raw and lightly grilled meat before. The first course is raw meat and the second is cooked. We enjoyed the raw liver (seriously it's good and I don't know how they make it taste so awesome), raw chuck flap with sea urchin, raw chuck eye tartare, and flash-boiled shredded achilles tendon. Second course we had "the tongue experience," heart, kalbi, sweetbreads (HIGHLY recommended, like a piece of delicious fat), and beef belly. I also recommend the stomach and cheek.
Oops, I exhausted my eating out budget for the week, so I only ate what was already in the fridge. For breakfast we had "double yolk" baked eggs adapted from Michael's Genuine Food, a cookbook from a chef in Miami. They have a layer of tomato sauce and sour cream, a layer of eggs (mostly yolks), and a layer of cheese. I just made a small dish of these baked in the toaster oven (my summer oven since it doesn't heat up our tiny apartment) and it was very satisfying.
For lunch we had some pork chops from Spring Lake Farm and yogurt with berries. We drank some cold-brewed Oolong tea.
For dinner we had a leftover hash inspired by the hash at Red Rooster in Harlem. I baked some sweet potatoes in the toaster oven until crispy, tossed in some chopped bacon, cooked some plantains in the bacon fat, and topped with key-lime Hollandaise sauce. Fantastic! We had some small, but fatty goat chops from Glynwood farm and some hibiscus cinnamon tea. I like that Hollandaise tastes pretty darn good even when I mess it up and it's lumpy...I'll try the Alton Brown method next time.