Tag Archives: definitions

What is “Good”? (aka…playing with an idea)

(Note: I’m just playing with an idea here. My conclusion at the bottom should not be considered as “definitive”)

The last chapter in (gratuitous plug alert!) my upcoming book Sweet Tooth, asks a question to which I have yet to find a comfortable answer: What makes “good” chocolate?

We could apply this question to many a product, not just chocolate, and get answers as vast and different as the people trying to take a crack at this puzzle. What is “Good”?

As philosophical and abstract as the answers may be, the question is still an important one to ask, especially in light that part of my job in writing about food, is to hopefully lead you to an answer that you can live with. There is an article of faith, that you, the reader, are taking any time you read someone else who carries an air of authority about them, regardless of how formal or informal the voice of the writer. By reading my stuff, or Anthony Bourdain’s, or Gael Greene’s, the goal, I believe is to have some understanding of whatever topic we are writing about that leads you to some new insight that leads you to choose something better than you would have chosen previously.

Oh, and hopefully you would be entertained while reading it, but that’s a separate part of the story. Let’s stick on the question for a moment.

The first place people go to when asking “what is good food” comes down to taste. But taste is highly subjective, even among the fooderati. What jazzes Ruth Reichl may not jazz Mario Batali. And, while they may respect a certain type of food, drink, or even a chef, they may not particularly like them enough to seek them out on a regular basis. I believe most people who write about food inherently understand this, but not to speak of it, for whatever.

This is further complicated by comparing one good product versus another. Do you think that the average person can tell the difference between one Chianti rated 92 by Robert Parker, and another, similar Chianti that had been rated a 90? While Mr. Parker may have the palate to distinguish such a difference, most people can’t.

So, if the above assertions are true (and someone may be able to convince me otherwise), if being able to communicate the finer points of “goodness” is subjective, then what’s the point?

Well, as I alluded to above, entertainment is one factor. While food writing may not be a lucrative career, it indeed does have romantic elements to it that allow readers to live vicariously through the author’s perspective. This is an important element, and one that should not be overlooked. But good writing is different from good food, and it’s the latter I wish to focus upon.

Over the past generation or so, “Good Food” has had new criteria added to it. Everything from Locavorism, to vegetarianism, to sustainability, to ensuring that the producers of the food can make a livable wage from their work, all of these questions are now being asked of food, and many people use these answers to determine whether or not their food is good. But these new criteria being asked really are based around questions of morality politics, and science. And these questions are often at odds from those being asked by the likes of Alan Richman and his ilk to a majority of food blogs out there.

The conclusion I have (just) arrived at is that there’s a vast difference between the quality of the experience of food versus the quality of the food itself. We see examples of this all of the time, and Alva Noë recently highlighted this dissonance:

It turns out most people won’t notice the difference between paté and dog food, so long as the latter is suitably presented with the right sort of garnish. And as for our ability to discriminate wine, even experts may confuse a white wine with a red when it is served at room temperature in a dark glass. And we’ll enjoy soggy old potato chips, it turns out, if our chewing is accompanied (over head phones) by the satisfying sound of crunching.

What are we to make of this?

I think there is a temptation, when we learn of these studies, to feel that we have been somehow unmasked, exposed, revealed to be, well, inauthentic in our pleasures. After all, if we can’t really taste the difference between cheap beer mixed with vinegar and an expensive micro-brew, then surely this means that our preference for the finer stuff is, well, a pretension.

Dr. Noë states that context matters, and when we apply this to food writing (and food media of all sorts, really), we’re not buying food, we’re buying the context in which it’s presented. And that context? That context is shaped by preferences shaped within us by our environment. A dinner in Paris sounds sexy to us because we’ve been told again and again that eating dinner in Paris is sexy.

Dr. Noë sums up:

We can discriminate dog food and paté, red wine and white, holding hands with someone we love and holding hands with a stranger. But what we are discriminating, when we do this, is not neural events in the mouth or hand, but what we are doing. And when the wine expert, or the lover, describes what matters in the flavor, or the caress, he or she is not identifying marks or features of the intrinsic qualities in the nervous system that only the expert of the lover can discern; taste is not a kind of measurement. Rather, the expert is calling attention to features of the flavor and the action that are precisely there for us to think about and pay attention to (emphasis mine – Kate).

In other words, “goodness” results from paying attention to the subtle differences and nuances within the context, not necessarily within intrinsic quality of the product being consumed. Taking the 92 rated Chianti mentioned above, I will be willing to bet my last dollar that drinking that Chianti at a wine tasting event in a hotel room outside of Indianapolis with a group a strangers is a far different experience than sharing that same wine with a lover while watching a sunset at the Grand Canyon. Ask a person to rate the wine at both locations, and you’ll get far different answers.

Or, to put it another way, the reason why Robert Parker rated one Chianti a 92 and another a 90, is that, perhaps, just perhaps, he got laid and/or paid on the day he gave out the 92 and didn’t on the day he gave out the 90.

7-up – Au naturel? Hardly

You gotta love marketers. Well, okay, maybe not love them…perhaps a begrudging respect at the sheer gumption of their actions.

7-up, by simply removing an artificial preservative, is now apparently 100% Natural. It takes a lot of nerve to make that claim, especially since this is now their ingredient list.

The new 7 Up, which started rolling out on April 1, is made from five ingredients that the company described as all natural: carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, natural flavors and potassium citrate.

Here’s where I call “bullshit” on their claim, due in part to our favorite whipping boy, High Fructose Corn Syrup.

The USDA’s definition of “natural” is as follows:

A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as – no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed.)

HFCS is extensively processed and does, in fact, does fundamentally alter the raw product (corn starch) used to make HFCS. The process involves changing the corn starch to glucose, and then changing the glucose to fructose. These changes cannot be made unless three separate enzymes are added to the process at three seperate points. Then, “there are two more steps involved. First is a liquid chromatography step that takes the mixture to 90 percent fructose. Finally, this is back-blended with the original mixture to yield a final concentration of about 55 percent fructose—what the industry calls high fructose corn syrup” (the entire process can be found here).

I would love to have Cadbury-Schweppes explain to me why this process does not meet the USDA’s guideline of “extensively processed”. Personally, I don’t care if they use HFCS or not. But don’t tell me that it’s a “natural” product.

(via Slashfood)

Technorati Tags: Drink, soda, 7-up, High Fructose Corn Syrup, HFCS

Corn, Maize, Etymology and Defintions

There has been some confusion surrounding my post around Maize, which is understandable because I believe it is poorly written. I feel that I should clarify some definitions.

Corn: Corn is a general term, indicating a kernel within any grain grown from a grass. The etymology of Corn is as follows:

“grain,” Old English corn, from Proto-Germanic *kurnam “small seed,” from Proto-Indo-European base *ger- “wear away” (Old Slavic – zruno “grain,” Sanskrit jr- “to wear down,” Latin – granum). The sense of the Old English word was “grain with the seed still in” rather than a particular plant. Locally understood to denote the leading crop of a district. Restricted to corn on the cob in America (originally Indian corn, but the adjective was dropped), usually wheat in England, oats in Scotland and Ireland, while korn means “rye” in parts of Germany.

What this means is that the American word for Corn is derived from “Corn on the Cob”, which initially meant “Grain still on the Cob”. Thus when the corn was seperated from the cob, it was simply called corn, which is a bit of a generalization.

Look at it this way…All Maize is corn, but not all corn is Maize. Corn can also inlcude kernals of wheat, rye, barley or oats.

Or look at it another way…The phrase “Kernel of Corn” is redundant. Clear as mud, right?

Now, to make matters more confusing, I have to admit that the term Maize is not a Native American term, but rather Tahino. When Columbus’ expedition made landfall in 1492 they reached some island in the northern Antilles, near today’s San Salvador. The island was populated by Tahino people, in whose language the name for their staple crop of this yellow grain was caled “mahis.” The Spanish spread the Taino name for the plant wherever they distributed the crop throughout the world. That word has been transmutated phonetically into today’s “maize” in English, “maïs” in French, and “maíz” in Spanish.

Then, to top it all off, When Linnaeus (the Swedish botanist who developed today’s binomial plant classification system) devised a name for maize, he used a combination of the Taino name, and its translation into Greek in order to come up with the genus and species of the plant: Zea mays.

Oooo…I think I just sprained my cerebral cortex.

The Great Barbecue Controversy

As one of the few culinary aspects of American culture which isn’t dismissed by most foodies, barbecue allows those food snobs and elitists (said with tongue firmly in cheek) connect with the common man. But the question I have is simple – What the constitutes barbecue?

For background on my befuddlement, you have to understand my background: I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. To us, barbecueing meant turning on the grill in the backyard, and cooking hamburgers and hot dogs over heated charcoal or other open sources of heat. We also have BBQ’d ham, which consisted of putting chip-chopped ham in a slow cooker along with a few cups of Kraft BBQ sauce. We may have enjoyed teh food, but we obviously didn’t know what the hell we were talking about.

For the record: if you’re turning on the grill in the back yard and making burgers and hot dogs, you are, in fact, grilling and not barbecueing. If you want to mince words, think of it this way – grilling is almost always a fast process over high heat and barbecue is almost always a slow process near indirect heat.

Using this defintion, it allows for many variations not just throughout the country, but the world. For example:

Texas: Barbecueing to what others call “hot smoking”—cooking with both smoke and low heat for hours over woods such as oak, mesquite, or pecan. The meats most often used are Sliced brisket, sausage, and pork ribs. Sauce? Sometimes, but at cookoffs, meats are judged without sauce.

Tennessee: There’s debate in Memphis on what constitutes Memphis Barbecue. For some, it’s dry-rub ribs, made with a spice rub applied during or right after they’ve been cooked that represent the Memphis style. For others, it’s wet ribs, basted with a mild, sweet barbecue sauce before and after smoking that cooks into the meat over the 10- to 12-hour process. For others it’s pulled pork sandwiches. So, generally, its pork ribs, with a spice rub or barbecue sauce. If you want a barbecue sandwich, it’ll be pulled pork with sauce.

Kansas & Missouri: Beef is the meat of choice, although others can be used. Heavy use of sauce in this area, and is basted heavily in sauce during and after cooking. The sauce usually is rather rich, tangy and spicy. Dry rubs are also used.

Carolinas: The Carolinas are pork fans. Some areas cook the entire hog, others just the pork shoulder, some make pulled pork. The sauce is what makes the Carolinas unique. They tend to use either a vinegar and pepper based sauce (in eastern North Carolina), a tomato based sauce (the Piedmont area of N.C) or a mustard based sauce (in the Columbia, SC area).

What should you use as fuel? Anything you darn well please. Charcoal, Propane, Mesquite, whale blubber, whatever gives you the taste that you desire. It’s barbecue if it’s cooked with indirect heat for a long period of time.

It should be stated that slow cooking meat over indirect heat is not an American invention, although we’ve certainly worked on perfecting the technique. This technique has been used in Italy, Australia, Greece, the sub-Saharan regions of Africa…suffice to say this technique has been around. There’s proof that this technique was used in the neolithic era.

Why? Because smoking preserves meat. Smoke can contain many components, including phenolic compoundsm which slow fat oxidation, and organic acids and aldehydes, which inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungus. Barbecueing changed the way we could get our protein. We could now store meat for months, and have it for dinner in the middle of winter. It allowed us to stay in one place, and not have to hunt for other protein sources. That’s a pretty impressive pedigree to have for a cooking technique.

Self-indulgence time. I dig word etymologies. And barbecue has a relation to several other terms which I find fascinating. Barbecue seems to have come from the Carib word of babracot, which was the cooking pit/grill technique the Caribs used to cook their meat. The French, while in the area of the Caribbean, had a synonym for babracot: boucon. Boucon is the source word for the English term buccaneer. Why? Because these soon to be pirates got their start on the island of Tortuga, grilling various meat products.

I find this stuff trivial, yet endlessly fascinating.

Another note: The spanish word for dried meat is charqui, and is the basis for the word jerk or jerky, which loops back to the Carribean jerk Chicken. So when you have jerked chicken, you’re having Carribean Barbecue.

What’s your Beef? Beef Cuts 101

If ever there was a meat that leads to confusion amongst consumers, beef is it. As John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger wrote in their book How to Cook Meat “You could cook beef every night for weeks for months without repeating yourself”, as there are so many different cuts. To add further insult, butchers follow different traditions. How a butcher in America cuts meat will most likely be different from how a butcher in Italy will cut meat.

But fret not! Learn the basics, and you too can learn the difference between a loin and a chuck. Here’s how it breaks down.

Chuck: This is the neck, upper front legs and shoulders of a steer. It’s typically very tough and full of connective tissue, because this is the area that gets the most workout on a cow. Some of the cuts within the chuck are as follows:

  • - 7 bone blade roast (good for pot roasts)
  • - chuck shoulder roast (also good for pot roasts)
  • - brisket (good for braising)
  • - chuck eye roast (tender area of chuck)
  • - chuck top blade (also tender)

Rib: The rib area of the cow, this is probably the most tender area of the cow.

  • - standing rib roast (prime rib, which if you cut into steaks you get rib-eye steaks)
  • - short ribs

Loin: This is the lower back of the cow, also very tender, but not as tender as the rib section. This is the area in which we get most of the steaks that we know and love…porterhouse, T-Bone, sirloin.

  • - top loin (the part closest to the front of the cow)
  • - tenderloin
  • - sirloin (hip area of the cow)

Round: This is the butt and rear legs of the cow. This is the area primarily used for roasts.

  • - eye round roast
  • - rump roast
  • - top round roast

Ground beef generally (but not always) comes from the chuck and the round. If you need stew meat, cubed beef from the chuck will work well. Want to grill? Loin cuts are your first choice.
Also items that should be on your radar, the flank steak, skirt steak and hanger steak, which all run horizontally along the side of the cow.

I loves my skirt steak, especially in Mexican dishes. Oddly, I am hankering for Carne Asada.

This should give a good introduction to the cuts of meat. Hopefully it will allow you to pick your cuts accordingly.

Is Horizon Organic truly Organic?

The marketplace has determined that there is room for organic products, even if it means higher prices. For the extra cost it helps ensure that a) animals are treated humanely and b) It helps sustain family farms and allows consumers a viable alternative to corporate mega-farms. It’s an idea that has exploded in the food market over the past dozen years.

So it’s not surprising that once it had been determined that there was a market for such products, some corporate farms sought to get a piece of the pie. Enter Dean Dairy, who has a vested interest in Horizon Dairy. So now, Horizon Dairies have a similar distrubution model as Dean Dairy, including outsourcing milk production to satellite dairies.

That business model has now caused some ethical problems for Horizon Dairies. The Cornucopia Institute has filed formal complaints with the USDA‘s Office of Compliance asking them to initiate investigations into alleged violations of the federal organic law by factory farms operating in Idaho, Colorado and California. These factory farms produce milk under the Horizon Organic label.

At dispute is the dairies compliance to Organic standards. The National Organic Standards Board, appointed by the secretary of agriculture, determines standards that determine what products considered “organic” and what doesn’t. When it comes to organic milk, some of the standards include:

  • Organic dairy cows must eat grain that isn’t genetically modified or treated with pesticides or fertilizers, and the cows cannot be given growth hormones or antibiotics.
  • Dairy cows must have access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air and direct sunlight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate and the environment.

The cows at the locations mentioned by the Cornucopia Institute are reported to NOT have access to pasture, violating one of the above standards which make organic…well…organic. “According to reports, both the Idaho and California operations differ little from conventional confinement dairies other than having their high-producing cows fed certified organic feed”, says Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst, at the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.

About that certified organic feed:

Craig Muchow, a diversified organic farmer from Gooding, Idaho noted that the Dean/Horizon farm has turned its back on many area farmers after initially seeking their support: “After Horizon converted their large farm to organic they solicited local hay growers and offered us a price-premium to supply them with alfalfa if we also converted to organic production. That worked well for the first few years but then they did away with most premiums and now they have abandoned many small farmers in the area altogether.” According to a number of neighbors, much of the feed the Horizon farm now buys is shipped in on railroad cars and processed by one of the largest corporate agribusiness concerns in the United States.

So now we have an organic farm that treats animals poorly and does not support local family farms. This now begs the question – Is Horizon Organic truly Organic?

We Get Letters v.3: Kraft Foods and Due Diligence

Okay, not so much a letter as much as a comment in a previous post. But hey, same idea, right?

Cathleen takes a little umbrage at my post “One reason (of many) why I dislike Kraft Food” . She writes:

In all fairness, which was missing from your article on “One Reason (Of Many) Why I Dislike Kraft” you show a picture of an orange powder substance that you claim Kraft calls ‘cheese’ and it is supported in a note from Kate who calls it a ‘fluorescent orange powder’.

However, one thing you are falling short of is due diligence. Kraft does not call it cheese, it is quite clearly noted on the label (I actually went and got a box from my neighbor) that it’s called ‘CHEESE SAUCE MIX’.

Now, Kraft is not one of my favorite manufactures of food products, however, there is no excuse for ‘fluorescent yellow journalism’ either.

Cathleen, Cathleen, Cathleen. Have you not learned by now that I would take any opportunity to take a few immature swipes at the mega-monolithic corporation that is Kraft foods?

I was offended at the idea that I am a journalist. After all, journalists have a code of ethics and standards to which they should strive to adhere to. They also get an expense account and freebies from various food companies, but who am I to quibble about that?

Me? I’m no food journalist. I’m a food writer, and a little known one at that. My own ethic is that something has to taste good, and that a food item is what it claims itself to be. For example: If a restaurant claims itself to be the best, I feel I have the right to hold them to that claim (Are you listening ‘Seattle’s best Pizza’?).

But you do bring up some interesting points which I feel do need to be addressed. So in the interest of due diligence, let’s touch upon some of the items you bring up.

Kraft does not call it cheese, it is quite clearly noted on the label (I actually went and got a box from my neighbour) that it’s called ‘CHEESE SAUCE MIX’

I actually went out and purchased a box of the stuff.

I noted that the name of the product was called “Kraft Macaroni & Cheese” rather than “Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Sauce Mix”. In fact, at first glance, I could not find any instance of where it was called Cheese Sauce Mix. I did nntice that not only did they call it “cheese”, they called it the “Cheesiest”. Unless they were using the definition of “Cheesy” which states itself to be shabby or cheap, then they are making the claim the they are the pinnacle of what cheese products should be.

That, my friend, is a scary, scary thought.

Upon further investigation of the box, I was able to find where it mentioned “Cheese Sauce Mix”. It was on the side of the box (pictured below.

What? You can’t see it there? Neither could I until I took a closer look.

Of course! There it is! How could I have missed that?

To be honest, the box does mention the phrase “cheese sauce mix” on two more occasions, noticeably with a similar font size and no where on the front of the box. I think it’s fairly safe to say that when push comes to shove, Kraft knows it’s not cheese, but they don’t really want consumers to think of their product as cheese sauce mix. Rather, they slyly make it so that the word cheese is associated with their product even when it’s clearly not cheese.

I called Beecher’s Cheeseshop at Pike Place Market, and talked with assistant cheesemaker Amir Rosenblatt. I asked him straight out “What ingredients go into making a simple cheese?” His reply? Milk, cultures, rennet (enzymes) and salt.

Let’s take a quick look at the ingredient list for Kraft’s Cheese Sauce Mix:

whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, salt, calcium carbonate, sodium tripolyphosphate, contains less than 2% of citric acid, sodium phosphate, lactic acid, milk, yellow 5, yellow 6, enzymes, cheese cultures

Does this ingredient list constitute cheese? By the letter of the law, yes. But when you end up with a plateful of fluroscent orange powder, you’re really stretching the truth to the breaking point. It’s disingenuous and Kraft probably knows this. Hence my initial post.