The Story Of Grits, A Dish Born Of Poverty

Kristen Hartke wrote . . . . . . . . .

Like many food writers, Erin Byers Murray enjoys taking a deep dive into learning the history and nuances of specific ingredients. For her first book, Shucked, Murray chronicled the year that she spent working on a New England oyster farm; her second book, Grits: A Cultural and Culinary Journey Through The South, however, led her on an unexpected cultural journey about the simplest of ingredients: ground corn.

“I was used to knowing grits only as something that came in a box from mass producers,” Murray says. “I didn’t really grow up eating them, so it wasn’t necessarily a natural fit as a topic for me.”

It was a passing comment from Sean Brock, a James Beard Award-winning Southern chef, that led Murray down the rabbit hole. “I was actually talking to Sean about vegetables, and he happened to float out this idea that grits have terroir” — whereby the local environment in which a food is grown is said to impact its flavor — “and I couldn’t stop thinking about that idea and wondered if it could be true.”

But as she started sampling small-batch artisanal grits from Southern millers such as Anson Mills, Geechie Boy Mill, Delta Grind and Original Grit Girl, Murray began to understand that this coarsely ground corn has deep roots in many cultures that, perhaps, transcend its flavor characteristics.

“Talking to people about grits started to open up all these conversations about bigger things,” says Murray. “I had just recently moved to the South, and it seemed like the people who were reviving grits as a food didn’t really match its origins. I was realizing that there was more to this than just following the dish through history.”

Interest in grits has been fueled in recent years as farmers have revived heirloom varieties of corn branded with evocative names like Jimmy Red, Pencil Cob, Carolina Gourdseed White and Hopi Blue, but it has not been lost on Murray and others that a food originally cooked in the kitchens of the impoverished has found its champions in recent decades among white male chefs leading fine-dining restaurants.

“The South has always been poor,” says Grits cookbook author Virginia Willis, “and so our food is a food born of poverty. Grits is the porridge of poor Southerners.”

Alice Randall, a novelist and cookbook author who teaches courses on both soul food and Southern food at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., sees grits as a food specifically associated with the South but not necessarily with a race or even a gender (although they were most commonly cooked by women in earlier history). “Grits are inherently Southern, so they identify as a taste of the South across cultures,” she says.

Murray theorizes that grits can be traced back much further than to the kitchens run by African American and white women in the antebellum South.

“For grits, every major pivot point in the story line involves appropriation,” writes Murray in her book. “It started with the fateful naming of the bowl of cracked maize.” It’s said that British colonists arriving in Virginia were presented by Indigenous people with steaming bowls of this maize, a dish that the colonists began referring to as “grist,” which later morphed into “grits.”

Interviews with Sean Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota who has been preserving and showcasing Indigenous cooking through The Sioux Chef project, and William Thomas, an African American pathologist who worked with Cherokee natives Nancy and Tony Plemmons on their cookbook Cherokee Cooking: From the Mountains and Gardens to the Table, led Murray to wonder how long grits — or some version of them — had been cooked for nourishment.

“The evidence exists,” says Murray, “that corn was being milled in 8700 B.C. in Central America. There must have been a dish of ground corn and water cooked over heat. It’s a food product that’s not just historic — it’s ancient.”

Randall, of Vanderbilt, likes seeing the rising interest in grits. “The essence of soul food is preserving and evolving at the same time,” she says. “What we are seeing in the 21st century with grits is some distillation of that: what we learn by refining and processing, as well as what we learn by going back to milling them in the old ways. It’s an ongoing study of the evolution and preservation of a food item.”

Even while Murray was delving into the archaeology, technology and agriculture of grits while researching her book, the most consistent theme seemed to be that of nostalgia — and comfort. Murray’s conversations with cooks, farmers and millers sparked deep-seated memories. She says: “You can talk about artisanal producers and the evolution of shrimp and grits in fine dining, but when you get down to it, it’s about the memory of someone — maybe your mom or your grandma or your uncle — standing at a stove and stirring. It’s the definition of slow food.”

“I think there are people who will wonder why grits are such a big deal,” Willis, the cookbook author, says, “but grits are found all over the South at almost every meal. Even when you go to someone’s house when someone dies, there’s going to be a cheese grits casserole on the table. I call them ‘funeral grits’ because it’s pure comfort food.”

Grits, Murray hopes, will help spur more discussion about how food shapes our culture, as humble ingredients are elevated into expensive dishes even as we come to terms with long-lost, or ignored, origin stories that deserve recognition.

“The real story of the book wasn’t just this dish,” says Murray, “but how I could look at this place where I lived and get to know its people better simply by talking about grits.”

Source: npr


History of Chinese Restaurants in Canada – Excerpt from Chop Suey Nation

Ann Hui wrote . . . . . . . . .

Why is there a Chinese restaurant in every small town? And who are the families who run them? In 2016, journalist Ann Hui set out on a trek across Canada to answer those two ubiquitous questions and it was only after the story was published that she discovered her own family could have been included — her parents had run a Chinese restaurant, The Legion Cafe, before she was born. This discovery set her on a time-sensitive mission: to understand how her family had somehow wound up in Canada.

Chop Suey Nation weaves together Hui’s family story with those of other Chinese restaurant owners from coast to coast. Along her trip, she meets many iconic locals, including a Chinese-restaurant owner and small-town mayor, the owner of a Chinese restaurant in a Thunder Bay curling rink, and the woman who runs a restaurant alone on remote Fogo Island. Hui also uncovers the fascinating history behind “chop suey” cuisine, detailing the invention of classics like “ginger beef” and “Newfoundland chow mein”. Using her own family’s story as a touchstone, she reveals the importance of these restaurants to this country’s history and makes the case for why chop suey cuisine is quintessentially Canadian.

While planning the trip, I became obsessed with trying to find a single answer that could explain the spread of Chinese restaurants across the country. I wondered if there was a single starting point or a single place responsible for the ubiquity and uniformity of these tiny restaurants.

Earlier in my research, Henry Yu, a UBC history professor, had warned me not to get my hopes up. Here in Canada, he said, the spread of restaurants didn’t happen in a straight line. “It’s nodal,” he told me. Major cities became main nodes for the early Chinese immigrants—cities with convenient coastal locations, like Victoria or Vancouver. With the railway, those Chinese communities pushed farther east, too. Often entire villages or families would wind up in specific areas: The Chows from Hoiping settled in Vancouver; the Tsangs settled in Toronto; the Wongs in Kenora, and so on and so on.

From each of these cities, the restaurants spread too. One family would start a restaurant in Edmonton. Their cousins—sometimes with the assistance of their family in Edmonton—would move just outside of the city, to Spruce Grove. And then to Spring Lake. Then Carvel. Then Duffield.

Across decades, the restaurants spread and spread, until there was a Chinese restaurant in just about every town across Canada.

Initially it happened through word of mouth—letters sent via air mail and carefully timed long-distance calls. Now, much of it has moved online. After talking to Professor Yu, I grew curious and searched online for “Chinese restaurant for sale.” The search turned up ad after ad.

“SOLID BUILDING,” read an ad for the Szechuan Garden in Windsor. “GOOD AND STEADY INCOME. CLOSE TO UNIVERSITY.” In Gibsons, BC, a restaurant with red vinyl booths and white plastic tables was selling for $105,000. “Plenty of local traffic,” the ad said. “4.3 stars on Google Reviews.” And in Prince George, a “Chinese/Western restaurant” was for sale. “Could be customized to a Japanese restaurant to accommodate new business.”

Often, the ads emphasized a lifestyle for the entire family — good schools nearby, safe communities, or grocery stores nearby. What they were advertising were not restaurants, but new lives.

On the sixth day of our trip, we woke up at a Best Western in Brandon where we set out for a small town about an hour south, called Boissevain.

In addition to understanding how these restaurants spread, I was still curious about why so many of them seemed to look and feel exactly the same. Already, we had seen evidence of this on our trip. The same vinyl booths. Menus printed in the same font, with the same categories, and the same dishes. The same “Wing’s” brand plum sauce.

Many of the restaurants even had the same names. (David Chen, a blogger, would later write me to share the results of a study he’d conducted on Chinese restaurant names in the United States. He found that there are over 1,770 separate, independent restaurants in the US with the exact same name: “Panda Express.” Another 511 were named “China Wok.” Here in Canada, I was able to find at least seven separate restaurants sharing the latter name in southwestern Ontario alone.) These were restaurants separated by thousands of kilometres — built well before the invention of the Internet made the sharing of ideas quick and easy — yet these restaurants somehow all wound up doing things almost identically. Why?

In my early research, I had found mention of the 1,600-person town of Boissevain, and of Chinese laundries built there as early as 1891. I had seen photos of Boissevain’s local Chinese restaurant, with its classic chop-suey menu and wood-panelled walls. It seemed like the quintessential chop suey restaurant. I thought I might find some answers there.

We drove into town along one of its main streets, past an old grain elevator. We passed the town’s main attraction, a twenty-eight-foot tall fibreglass turtle with a green shell and orange belly named “Tommy the Turtle.” The turtle clutched in one of its limbs a Canadian flag, and in the other an American flag — a gesture to the town’s proximity to the US. Not to be outdone, the wildlife museum right behind Tommy had a giant bear statue out front, staring straight at the turtle.

We rounded the corner, past a giant lumber yard and a trucking yard, towards the pink and grey building with a bright yellow sign—Choy’s Restaurant. As soon as I walked into the restaurant, a young woman wearing a hoodie and sneakers greeted me. I wasn’t sure what to make of her. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail and she grasped her hands shyly in front of her like a teenager. She looked about eighteen years old.

“Does your family run this restaurant?” I asked her.

She nodded yes.

I paused for a moment, taking in the scene around us. The dining area was split in two rooms. The back room looked just as it had in the photos, with wood panelling and tables and chairs in neat rows. At the back of the room, three familiar-looking figurines were set up. They were the three Chinese gods, or san xing, which I recognized from just about every Chinese household I’d ever been in growing up. The one in the middle, with the long black beard and holding a gold nugget, represented fu, or fortune. The one on the right held a scroll to symbolize lu, or status. And the one with the long white beard, carrying a lucky peach, represented shou, immortality or a long life.

But the room where we were standing in looked more like a family room. There was only a single dining table. And on the table were remnants of what looked like the family’s breakfast—some crackers, a few slices of toast and some cut-up cucumber. There were also what looked like a toddler’s drawings—a child, I realized, who was likely hers.

“Are you the owner?”

She nodded again, this time a little shyly, and introduced herself as Su Fen Li.

It turned out Ms. Li was actually thirty-two years old — more or less my age. She had a four-year-old daughter, and the family treated the restaurant as an extension of their living room. She nodded to the front counter, where a gold maneki-neko or “lucky cat” sat on the counter in front of a flat-screen television. That was where she spent most of her time.

Ms. Li seated the two of us at a table in the dining room in the back. As we talked, I noticed her peering back and forth between Anthony and me several times, curious, as if trying to make sense of the two of us. I wondered what she thought of this person in front of her, Chinese but barely able to speak it, and her white husband. I thought how strange I must have seemed to her.

We ordered a few dishes — a Cantonese chow mein and, at her suggestion, a plate of sesame chicken. She disappeared into the kitchen to deliver the order to her husband. Then she came back out to chat with us while we waited for the food.

They had been in Canada about ten years, she said. She spoke in Cantonese, but with a heavy Toisan accent that made her sound like one of my dad’s relatives. I did the math. That would have meant she was just about twenty when she came here. She nodded. She had been running a small clothing stall in Guangzhou. Her husband was fixing air conditioners. But their relatives convinced them they could have brighter futures in Canada. Her husband’s sister—her sister-in-law—was already living in Canada, in Brandon. Her uncle, too, lived in Canada.

They worked a variety of jobs when they first arrived in Brandon, in restaurants, and at the local Maple Leaf Foods pork processing plant. They also tried Toronto, where she worked at a commercial laundry company. But after an entire year there, she received only a 25-cent raise—bringing up her hourly wage to $8.75. Plus it cost more and the traffic was terrible. So they moved back to Brandon.

There, they settled into a string of restaurant jobs. She continued waitressing and he cooked—first at a food-court Chinese restaurant at the mall, and later at a restaurant called the Golden Dragon, where she waited tables. It was her boss at the Golden Dragon who first told her about the restaurant in Boissevain. The couple who had run it for over twenty years were retiring and looking for a new couple to take over. Were they interested?

They took a trip out to Boissevain to see the restaurant. They rounded the corner at the grain mill, drove past Tommy the Turtle and then stopped in front of the short grey building with the bright yellow sign. She pulled her hands into the sleeves of her hoodie and shrugged. “We decided to try,” she said.

When I asked her about what was on my mind—about why so many of these restaurants were so similar—she laughed. It was something she had thought about before.

It was just like all of the other Chinese restaurants, she said. When they bought Choy’s, they were buying the entire business — including the furniture, the equipment and all of its recipes. What the Choy family was selling them was not just a restaurant, but all of their expertise in running the restaurant. For the first month, Mr. Choy stayed with Ms. Li and her husband to show them how to run the restaurant, exactly the way he’d done in the past.

He spent entire days in the kitchen with Ms. Li’s husband, showing him the right way to wrap a spring roll, or the right amount of batter for sesame chicken. He also handed them a dust-covered binder filled with all of the recipes they would need to cook every single item on the menu. This binder and these recipes had been passed down from the previous owner, and the previous owner before that.

At the front counter, he showed Ms. Li how to run the front of house the same way it had always been done. He showed her how to fill out a cheque to properly bill a customer. How to punch in an order on the cash register. How to order new take-out menus from a supplier. Changing anything, including the name, would cost money. And the Choys had already proven their way of doing things could be successful, she said. The more he showed them, the more it became clear that it would easiest and cheapest to keep things exactly the same. And if they were ever to open a Chinese restaurant elsewhere, they’d likely do things exactly the same there, too.

Now, it had been almost a year. She wasn’t sure whether they would stay long-term in Boissevain. I asked if she’d had a chance to see the nearby provincial parks or lakes — or gone to the US, with the border nearby. But she just shook her head and sighed.

“We’re always working,” she said. “There’s no time to stop.”

The number of hours they spent at the restaurant didn’t seem to be adding up with the amount of money they were taking home. Each morning they opened the restaurant at nine and stayed until past closing twelve hours later. Her parents looked after their daughter.

She figured the couple was taking home maybe two thousand dollars each month.

“For this kind of money we may as well work for someone else.”

Another idea was to head out to a bigger city, like Edmonton. They’d heard stories of restaurant owners taking home profits that seemed unimaginable—four or even five thousand dollars each month. But again, she shook her head, as if to say she could never be so lucky.

“Life is made up of many decades,” she said eventually. “We’ll do this for now.”

Source: Eat North

The History of McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish

Wil Fulton wrote . . . . . . . . .

It starts with an enterprising McDonald’s franchise owner.

Sometimes strokes of sandwich genius can be attributed to divine intervention, but sometimes they’re just a matter of desperate economic times necessitating some next-level creativity.

It’s 1962. The Kennedy presidency was alive and well. The Beatles’ popularity was ascending overseas. And, more relevant to our story, Lou Groen, a Micky D’s franchise owner in the greater Cincinnati area, was at the helm of a quickly sinking ship. Sales were brutal. His had a skeleton crew manning the place that consisted only of himself, his wife and some dude named George.

“I did repairs, swept floors, you name it,” Groen, who passed away at age 93 in 2011, told The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Paul Clark in 2007.

They were on the verge of losing it all, because no one was eating burgers on Fridays, especially during the months of February and March.

The problem? The area his McDonald’s served was almost 90% Catholic.

And this ratio was bad news for meat-slingers, especially at this time. “Good Catholics” were “expected” to abstain from meat every Friday, and many would completely take meat off their menus during the entire 40-day period of Lent. Ask your grandma. Or, my grandma. Or any older person wearing a crucifix and silently scolding you with their retinas.

The laws passed by the Vatican in the late ’50s and early ’60s made it easier to get your penance in other ways (like giving random stuff up in place of meat). But at the time when Groen’s business was in the toilet, most self-respecting Catholics still followed these meat-restricting guidelines like it was the Word of God.

Which to them, it was, of course.

And on the third day, Groen created the Filet-O-Fish. And it was good.

Not only did Groen have the almost saintlike intuition to buy a McDonald’s franchise in the early ’60s, but he also realized the company was getting screwed out of some serious bucks during the sacred stretch when Catholic customers ditched the golden arches for fried fish joints — Groen noted that the nearby Big Boy was doing gangbusters business with its version of the fish sandwich.

So, he hatched a fish sandwich concept of his own that would fit with McDonald’s fast food ethos, whipped up some tartar sauce, and took his experiment to Micky D’s headquarters for an evaluation, and hopefully the go-ahead from corporate.

The brass at McDonald’s couldn’t deny that Groen’s fish-wich was a solid idea, but they were already conceptualizing ideas for a meatless sandwich, too — because if there’s one thing upper-management excels at, it’s crushing the dreams of their employees (excluding my bosses, of course).

The Filet-O-Fish was almost nixed for the “Hula Burger”

Groen said that McDonald’s head honcho, Ray Croc, envisioned their meatless sandwich as a cold bun with a slice of pineapple and cheese on it. And he wanted to call it the (**shudder**) “Hula Burger.” Seriously.

“Ray said to me, ‘Well, Lou, I’m going to put your fish sandwich on (a menu) for a Friday. But I’m going to put my special sandwich on, too. Whichever sells the most, that’s the one we’ll go with.’ Friday came and the word came out. I won hands down. I sold 350 fish sandwiches that day. Ray never did tell me how his sandwich did,” Groen said.

People prefer warm cuts of fried fish to cold slices of pineapple? What marketing department could have possibly seen that coming?! Though to be fair pineapple seems to have beat fish out in terms of popularity as a pizza topping (even if not everyone is on board).

And now, the fish sandwich is an international sensation

The Filet-O-Fish represented the first major expansion of McDonald’s original menu, and has since become a staple of Micky D’s menus around the globe, inspiring plenty of fast-food copycats. And on a micro-note, in Groen’s words, it “saved his business.”

While the man himself is no longer around to revel in the glory of his creation, his contribution to the world of fast food swims upstream eternally.

According to the original Cincinnati Enquirer profile, 23% of all Filet-O-Fish sandwiches are bought during Lent, and its religious significance has extended beyond Catholicism, as Muslims and Jews — who also have dietary restrictions regarding meat — have embraced it as well.

So the next time your Catholic guilt overwhelms you, and you opt for the Filet at the drive-thru on a Lenten Friday, thank Lou Groen and his spark of marketing genius.

Source: Thrillist

How Foods Can Help The Microbes Inside Us Thrive

Jonathan Lambert wrote . . . . . . . . .

Katherine Harmon Courage wants us to think about digestion as a collaborative journey between us and our microbes. In her new book, Cultured: How Ancient Foods Can Feed Our Microbiome, she envisions digestion not as a simple food-in, excrement-out process, but as a series of encounters with varying microbial players that takes place along the winding 30-foot tunnel of our gastrointestinal tract. Along the way, microbes digest the food we can’t, and in return we give them a warm, well-stocked place to live.

But a surge in microbiome research over the past two decades has revealed they do much more than simply digest food. They can mediate weight gain, fight off infection, and even alter our mood. Scientists still have much to learn about the identity of these microbes, which are important, and how the beneficial ones work their magic.

Incomplete understanding hasn’t stopped the burgeoning probiotic industry, which argues that we can improve our gut health by taking a pill stuffed with billions of beneficial strains of bacteria, or eating a probiotic-infused yogurt with breakfast. The thinking goes that we just need to eat the right microbes to construct a healthier gut.

Courage believes this focus on the microbes themselves is myopic. She views the process of digestion as collaborative because the food we put into our bodies affects the kinds of bacteria that live and thrive there. In her book, she explores the science behind how what we feed our microbes affects our health.

She thinks we can learn how to better work together with our microbial partners by looking to the past. From Greenland to Greece, Courage explores the ancient gut-friendly foods that have become integral parts of many food cultures, and offers suggestions on how to diversify the kinds of foods we feed our microbiome.

We spoke with Courage about the science behind pro- and prebiotics, and what she learned exploring fermented staples across the world. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

A lot of the buzz around the microbiome has been about the microbes themselves, and what they do for us. You focus much of your book on what they eat, the ” prebiotics” we feed them. Why?

It may be less interesting to talk about fiber than about all these new species we’re learning about and infusing into foods, but what we feed our microbes is just as important as what microbes are there.

I think that, from our human perspective, it’s helpful to think about microbes in two broad categories. There are microbes that we have in our guts throughout our lives that are adapted for living there, and then there are the microbes we get from food or supplements. Those latter ones just kind of pass through. They can survive the journey, and can certainly provide benefits along the way, but they aren’t long-term residents of the gut, and they’re not going to have the long-term health impacts that more-permanent residents might have.

We’re starting to learn more about how we can create the conditions for those resident microbes to thrive and potentially benefit us, and a large part of that is what we feed them. And much of what we feed them is fiber.

What happens if we don’t feed our microbes?

So then they start to eat us — our lower intestine, which is only a single human cell thick, which helps us absorb as much as we can from our digested food before we expel it. But it also makes it easy for things to escape.

When our microbes don’t get enough fiber, they can start eating away the mucus lining protecting this thin layer, and sometimes the lining can break, which can lead, literally, to leaky gut syndrome, which is associated with many poor health outcomes.

When I think of fiber, I think processed, cardboard-like breakfast cereal. Is fiber more diverse than that? How important is having a diverse diet of fiber to cultivating a healthy microbiome?

Prebiotic fiber is just any kind of carbohydrate that we can’t digest ourselves that instead passes through out digestive system as food for microbes. There are many different types of fiber that get broken down by different microbes at different stages of digestion. That’s why it’s a good idea to eat a wide variety of foods, and not just focus on a particular supplement here and there. Lots of different kinds of fibers help lots of different microbes thrive and create different beneficial compounds for us. Which is good because we’re learning that generally, a more diverse microbiome is an indicator of health. If you look at people’s guts around the world — and even in the same society — people with more diverse microbiomes tend to be healthier overall.

What are some examples of different types of fiber and the foods that carry them?

One kind of fiber that’s gotten a lot of focus is inulin. We’ve actually been adding it to foods for longer than we’ve been looking closely at it, but it’s commonly found in foods like chicory root or sunchokes. It’s a very long carbohydrate chain, which means it takes a bit longer to pass through our system and get broken down by microbes. Research shows that it encourages growth of bifidobacteria, lactobacteria [two strains of bacteria commonly associated with health benefits].

Another big one comes from fruits and veggies, called Fructo-oligosaccharides. It’s shorter than inulin and adding it to your diet has been shown to reduce markers of inflammation.

Galacto-oligosaccharides are another form of fiber found in milk, and are broken down in the colon.

I was really surprised to learn about resistant starch as another form of fiber. It comes from more simple carbohydrates that have been cooked and then cooled; think of cold potato or pasta salad. So once those starches are crystallized, they become the type of resistant starch that our bodies can’t break down anymore [but our microbes can]. Even cold pasta, which you don’t necessarily think of as being healthy, can be a great source of resistant starch.

Do other aspects of our diet besides fiber affect the microbiome?

Almost everything we eat has some kind of impact on our microbes. One example I talk about in the book is meat. Really kind of fatty meats like pork can have a negative health impact on us via our microbes, because they produce a metabolite called TMAO, which has been linked to negative health outcomes. But fish oil has been shown to be beneficial — the microbes of mice fed fish oil instead of pork lard produced much fewer TMAOs.

Another exciting area of research is looking at how gene expression in the same microbial strains can change, based on what they’re being fed. Different metabolites get produced not by different microbes, but by the same microbes being fed differently.

You looked at a lot of research comparing Western diets to more traditional, hunter-gatherer diets. How did their diets and microbiomes differ?

Researchers look to hunter-gatherer societies to try to understand what our ancestral diets looked like, before the advent of agriculture. This can give us clues potentially to the kinds of diets humans are adapted for.

These studies find that we eat a lot less fiber than we probably used to.

The FDA recommends something like 30 grams of fiber a day, but most Americans don’t even get that. Traditional hunter-gatherer cultures, like the Hadza group in Africa, eat 100-plus grams of fiber a day.

So people eating modern, Western diets are getting maybe 15 to 30 grams of fiber a day, when our bodies may be adapted to expect over 100. This lack of fiber seems to be making a big impact on the diversity of our microbiome. These traditional, high-fiber dieters have a much more diverse microbiome than [people eating] more modern diets, [and the former] is often linked to better health outcomes. It’s hard to draw hard conclusions about cause and effect here, because there are so many other lifestyle factors at play, but it certainly seems that our low-fiber diet is not great for our health.

In reporting your book, you go on a culinary quest exploring all these different fermented and microbial foods. What was the most surprising food you encountered?

By far it was Kiviak, which is a traditional Inuit food from Greenland. Kiviak is birds, specifically Auks, fermented inside a seal skin. So when Auks are in season they capture the birds and stuff [up to 500] in the seal skin, sew it up and leave it underground to ferment for a year, and then dig it up and eat it.

It’s important to remember that fermentation didn’t necessarily come about because people were thinking about the health benefits. It was a way to preserve foods and make it through a harsh Greenland winter.

A lot of these foods are not seen as individual things to be eaten for a specific benefit, but rich, integral parts of food culture. How does culture shape how we feed our microbiome?

There’s really not a culture out there that doesn’t incorporate some kind of fermented food, and many have a rich diversity of different kinds of fermented foods.

We think about things like kimchi as being the Korean fermented food, and it is actually their national food, but they have so many other kinds of fermented foods that they infuse throughout the whole cuisine.

These foods aren’t really viewed as this separate thing. You’re not eating kimchi as a little healthful snack for your microbes and then going back to your normal diet. These fermented foods are incorporated into the food culture — they’re condiments, sides, flavorings. A meal seems incomplete or unbalanced without them.

And that kind of consistency is a healthier, more sustainable way to feed our microbiome?

Yes. Generally, the kind of wild fermented foods — like kimchi, sauerkraut, or pickles — tend to have a higher diversity of microbes than your store-bought, probiotic-infused yogurts. Whether each individual strain in these foods is good for us is still unknown, but again, higher diversity tends to be associated with better health.

What advice do you have for those wanting to boost the health of their microbiome?

It’s really about creating the right environment for our native microbes, and the best way to do that is by eating a lot of diverse types of fiber for them. I don’t think probiotics or seeking out specific fermented foods is bad, of course, but focusing on fiber is a good first step.

Source: npr

Is Organic Food Over?

Lisa Elaine Held wrote . . . . . . . . .

One morning in 2015, instead of heading into the fields, a group of about 50 farmers gathered in a parking lot in Vermont — a handful on tractors. They arrived to protest outside a meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB); on a mountain of decomposing kale stalks, onion peels, and tomato stems, they objected to a proposal that would allow producers of hydroponic vegetables to put a USDA-certified organic label on berries and greens grown without soil.

The demonstration was the start of a movement called Keep Soil in Organic, and it’s one small example of the many big ways people are arguing about what “organic” really means now.

Unlike vague food label terms like “natural” and “humane,” the USDA-certified organic label has long been seen as a reliable stamp: It signals that a food was produced according to set standards that prohibit the use of most synthetic pesticides and includes other requirements related to conserving biodiversity and animal welfare. It means the farm and any processing facilities involved in producing that food have been evaluated by a third-party certifier to verify the standards are being followed.

Those who believe in organic as a solution to negative effects of “conventional” food production assumed the word would evolve into shorthand for “healthy” — but it was never going to be that simple. Talk to farmers like the ones at the protest, and “organic” is a lifestyle that involves a philosophical understanding of the relationship farmers (and all people) have to the earth; talk to a Whole Foods supplier and “organic” is a value-add that means a higher price on the shelf. Talk to a consumer, and organic is now simply confusing.

A big reason for that is that those within the industry — not to mention the institutions that use and govern the term — don’t agree on several contentious issues. First, animal welfare standards: Advocates say factory farm operations that use organic feed but confine thousands of chickens or cows into cramped indoor spaces do not meet the standard, but those farms are continually approved for certification. Second, the aforementioned soil: Should hydroponic vegetables be certified organic?

Farmers like those at the protest see these issues as related to an influx of corporations trying to cash in on the term. Organic product sales reached nearly $50 billion in 2017 and demand still vastly outstrips supply, sometimes leading to outright fraud. A Washington Post investigation last year, for example, revealed that in the rush to satisfy demand, millions of pounds of soybeans and corn from Turkey were sold into the U.S. market as organic but had been grown using conventional farming practices.

At a time when more eaters than ever say they care about where their food comes from, can “organic” weather the storms to settle on a clear definition and resell consumers on its promise? “There’s no question organic is at a very critical juncture right now,” says Max Goldberg, founder of Organic Insider. “It has become very big business, and everyone wants a piece of it.”

The history of organic

To understand the organic standard, it helps to know the history. Chemical pesticides began to transform American agriculture after World War II. With war-torn countries desperate for food, the global call was to produce as much food as possible, quickly.

Chemical companies had the answer. During the war, the insecticide DDT was credited with saving thousands of lives thanks to how effective it was at eliminating disease-carrying insects. Plus, companies like I.G. Farben — which had produced chemical weapons and gas chamber poisons like Zyklon B and participated in the operation of concentration camps — needed new markets. (The company was broken up into smaller entities after a postwar trial. Two of those entities, BASF and Bayer, are still among the biggest manufacturers of agricultural chemicals today. Bayer also purchased Monsanto earlier this year.)

With these suddenly available tools that made commodity agriculture easier, many farmers heeded the call to scale up using chemical inputs, including synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. And that call got louder in subsequent decades, when famed secretary of agriculture Earl Butz repeatedly told farmers to “get big or get out.”

However, a different idea about how to feed the world was also taking root. The American version of An Agricultural Testament, a book that sparked interest in organic agriculture, was published in 1943, and J.I. Rodale founded the pioneering research organization the Soil and Health Foundation (now the Rodale Institute) in 1947. In 1962, conservationist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a popular book that sounded an alarm about the damaging environmental (and to a lesser extent, health) effects of pesticides. In response, part of the anti-establishment awakening of the ’60s and ’70s became the back-to-the-land movement.

“It was part of a counterculture movement… moving back to the land, eating whole foods, and growing this fruit without a lot of chemical pesticides or fertilizers, right?” says Dave Chapman, an organic tomato farmer and one of the leaders of the aforementioned Vermont protest. “In the process… we learned a lot of very good reasons to do it that way.” For these pioneers, it was about more than just not using pesticides; it was about environmental stewardship, family health, and living in line with the principles of nature. And their original customers were local eaters with the same principles, who purchased food from them directly.

Over the years, as more organic food was produced and sales shifted to bigger grocery stores, a movement for an organic certification emerged. The movement was concerned with establishing a set standard for the term so that shoppers could easily identify organic food and so that the term could not be co-opted by farmers not following agreed-upon practices. In 1973, Oregon passed the first state law regulating organic, and other states followed. To create a uniform federal standard, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990. Even then, disagreement pervaded the industry. After a few failed attempts, a final rule establishing the USDA organic standards went into effect February 2001.

Chapman was in the first group of farmers to be certified by Vermont’s state program and then later by the USDA. “As the whole system became less intensely local, certification became something that was more important to the participants — both the farmers and to the consumers,” he says. “We had to figure out how to find each other. How do we identify each other in the marketplace when we don’t know each other, and be honest? As far as I was concerned, the whole thing was working pretty well.” For a while, in most ways, it was.

“Cheating” and disagreements in organic

While the vast majority of organic farmers are sticking to the standards the label established, many say that lax USDA enforcement means some are now getting away with “cheating” as they try to cash in on the growing market for organic food. “It’s a failure in the system,” says Cornucopia Institute co-founder Mark Kastel. “Now you have to look for this label and do your homework.”

Cornucopia released its first-ever Organic Dairy Brand Scorecard earlier this year because the association was alarmed by the rise of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in organic dairy, Kastel said. Many conventional dairy cows are kept indoors in large, factory-like settings (although small dairy farms that are not organic do exist). In contrast, the organic standard requires that cows have access to pasture at least 120 days per year. Investigations have revealed, however, that some of the bigger organic dairy brands are not meeting that requirement.

Kastel’s team set out to help consumers separate what he calls “the organic wheat from the organic chaff.” In fact, almost everyone in the industry agrees that the animal welfare requirements in the USDA standard are not in line with what consumers imagine when they choose organic (i.e., happy cows grazing on tall grass). During the Obama administration, a set of rules called the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) were finalized to correct that discrepancy. The rules focused on further codifying what provisions in the standard related to things like “outdoor space” really meant, so that things like small covered porches outside cramped chicken barns would no longer be seen as sufficient “outdoor access.”

The implementation was delayed, however, until President Donald Trump took office, and in March 2018, the USDA announced it was withdrawing the rules. The leading voice in the industry, the Organic Trade Association (OTA), is now suing the USDA “over the agency’s failure to put into effect new organic livestock standards.” It’s also leading a task force to prevent fraudulent food imports like the aforementioned shipments of “organic” soybeans and corn from Turkey.

“Cheating” isn’t the only issue. Organic farmers and food producers also don’t agree on how to treat companies that are getting into organic food but still primarily produce conventional food within the industry, or on which practices do and don’t belong in organic.

In July of this year, the Nature’s Path cereal and grain brand made a loud exit from the Organic Trade Organization with a press release, citing (among other issues) the association allowing controversial members to join. Those members included BASF, one of the world’s largest producers of pesticides, and Cargill, a company that dominates the market for livestock feed (GMO grain) used in CAFOs. Goldberg of Organic Insider broke the story with an impassioned post outlining how misaligned the interests of the two companies are with the organic mission. (OTA CEO and executive director Laura Batcha said that while the companies do have other interests, the OTA only represents their interests in organic.)

Nature’s Path also cited the OTA’s support for allowing hydroponics in organic as a major factor in its decision, which illustrates how contentious arguments in the organic community can center around distinctions that, to outsiders, may seem small. Hydroponic farming — growing food in water with added nutrients and no soil, usually indoors — has grown in the public consciousness as companies like Square Roots and Gotham Greens have expanded, and many argue that even if those farms are not using any of the substances outlawed by the organic standard — like synthetic pesticides or GMOs — they should not be eligible for organic certification.

“Hydroponics is a complete violation of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which says that you have to have a management plan that fosters soil fertility,” Goldberg says, emphasizing that he’s not against hydroponic farming; he just doesn’t think it qualifies as organic. Calling hydroponically farmed greens organic is “creating an unequal playing field for these soil-based farmers who can’t compete fairly,” Goldberg says.

At the end of 2017, the NOSB voted to allow hydroponic vegetables to be certified organic. Supporters of that decision see it as a sign of progress and growth, since it will mean many more fruits and vegetables will be eligible for organic certification. But it didn’t end there.

Are new certifications the answer?

Chapman’s group of protesting farmers decided to forge its own path. A coalition of farmers and industry leaders established the Real Organic Project (ROP), a certification that will function as an “add-on” to the USDA organic label. In other words, it requires farms to be USDA certified but then checks that they’re meeting additional standards — like soil fertility and animal welfare requirements — that the organization feels the USDA is failing to enforce. ROP has lined up 50 farms across the country to launch the certification, and has already inspected about half of them.

Meanwhile, the Regenerative Organic Alliance is trying to raise the bar even higher with a new certification called Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC). Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario — who also helms Patagonia Provisions, maker of packaged foods like smoked salmon and breakfast grains — said the idea came out of an observation: Many forward-thinking food producers began calling their practices “regenerative” to signify they were going beyond organic. “They were saying ‘[Organic] is not going far enough, or you know, it’s too big of a hurdle, or it’s a political lightning rod,” she says.

Marcario and collaborators like Dr. Bronner’s CEO David Bronner didn’t want the term “regenerative” to cannibalize what they saw as its foundation — organic — or to be tossed around in a way that would lose meaning. (While Dr. Bronner’s is known for its soap, it now makes food products too, like coconut oil for kitchen use.) “We thought, well, what’s the harm in putting together the highest bar certification that encompasses those three pillars: soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness?” Marcario says. “The idea is that we’re going to regenerate soil over time, sequester more carbon, and give the customer the peace of mind that the animal welfare standard is the highest level of certification and that we’re providing economic stability and fairness to farmers, ranchers, and workers.”

Twenty-one farms and brands (of 80 that applied) — including Patagonia Provisions and Dr. Bronner’s — are now part of the 2018 pilot program. Marcario expects the ROC certification label to appear on the grocery shelf in early 2019. “We believe in USDA Organic as a baseline,” Marcario says, “but we do think that these additive practices are more important for the actual transformation of agriculture.”

But will an already confused grocery shopper faced with cereals labeled USDA organic, ROP, ROC, non-GMO, and who knows what other acronym really be able to make informed choices? Advocates say certifications, no matter how imperfect, are still the best tool for quickly conveying value to a consumer and leveling the playing field for honest farmers — especially when selling not at a local farmers market, but into a growing global market.

“There’s money to be made; there are fortunes to be made,” Chapman says, “and, you know, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Source: EATER