Tag Archives: Food Philosophy

Notes From Last Nights Reading

(Note: I gave a brief talk last night at the reading of Sweet Tooth at Theo Chocolate. I’d thought I’d share what I had written down before the event and later shared with the many folks who showed up last night. I didn’t cover everything listed below, but was able convey the key points.)

This is my second book, the first one being 99 Drams of Whiskey released in 2009(Quick! There’s still time to buy a copy for Father’s Day), and now this book release.  I have to say, I’ve enjoyed the process surrounding the researching, writing, and promotion of the book. 

The reason I’ve enjoyed it is because there is no “Orientation 101″ to being a published writer. There is no, “when you find yourself here, this is the only correct course of action.” No “here’s a list of things you should never, ever do”. Writing a book and having it published is a text-book example of the “sink or swim” principle.    

It’s when it comes to the “promotional interview” that this concept becomes clearly understood. You are on your own, with a complete stranger, who wants to talk about your book, but on their terms. Your publisher isn’t there. If you’re lucky enough to have a publicist, they aren’t there either. And when you’re in a “sink or swim” environment? All you can do is learn. 

And do you want to know what I’ve learned about participating in “promotional interviews?” 

I suck at them.  I’m horrible.  I’m the promotional equivalent and an elementary school choir trying to sing Handel’s Messiah. The only ones who think I’ve done a good job are my friends and family. 

I’ve tried to figure out why I’m bad at them, and I’ve come up with several reasons. And they boil down to three key reasons. Me, myself and I. 

First, I have to give a shout out to interviewers because they do a heck of a job. They’re trying to do twenty-five things in any given day, and their interview with me is often 24th on the list of their priorities, right below making sure that their dog has taken their heart-work medicine.  They work under deadlines everyday, which is an environment I could never work under, as I would seize up like a Catholic Cardinal who had just received a phone call from a reporter from the New York Times. 

I can only imagine what they think when they deal with me.  I’m horrible at remember ing specifics. This is why I’m a writer. I write them down specifics because I can’t possibly remember them all.  There seems to belief that writers have committed to memory everything that they’ve written, and instant and total recall of every fact, figure and sentence that was committed to the page. 

“So Kate, what were you thinking as you wrote page 64?”

 “Oh I don’t know. Maybe, that, I had to write another 230 pages?

 Or my favorite question that I received when I was promoting my whiskey book:

 “Do you remember in your book when you wrote about the tax legislation that the English government imposed on the Irish distillers?

“Uhh…No.”

 This is what I call a learning moment.  And what I learned was three things:

  1. That under no circumstance was it a good idea to imply to thousands of listeners that the host of the their trusted radio program had invited an idiot onto their show.
  2. If you must make that implication, it’s best not to do it with a single word answer.
  3. If you must give a single word answer, preceding it with “uhhh”…well, that  just makes you sound silly.

 These are the things I learned when I was doing interviews for 99 Drams of Whiskey. And now, with this Sweet Tooth book, I vowed to be more prepared for these interviews. I approached the problem in the same way that a press secretary would, creating talking points- several key points that I conveyed in the book that I should work into the interviews as much as possible in order to make either the book, or by extension, myself sound interesting enough that it would encourage people to buy my stuff. After all, that’s the point of promotion.

 And after several interviews for my book, not one has yet to use the bits of the interview where I effectively and adequately used my talking points in the correct context.

 I have, however, repeatedly used the phrases “phlegm” and “bowel movement” to a National Irish audience during a recent interview with their national radio service.

 Yeah, I suck at interviews.

 The reason I bring this up is that these talking points are relevant to why I’m here at Theo.

 For those who haven’t read the book yet, Theo plays an important part in the book. They are the last company I visit, and it was this company that allowed me to come to terms with certain aspects of the candy industry.  However, when Audrey Lawrence, the Sales and Marketing Manager here at Theo, first contacted me back in January via e-mail to ask how can they help- I don’t think they knew they were in the book. 

 I e-mailed Audrey back, with a plan on getting her an advanced copy of the book, so she could read it to ensure that I didn’t refer to their tour as “an ecstasy trip gone horribly wrong”.

 You may laugh, but that phrase does come up at least once in the book when referring to another company…like Cadbury.

 So St. Martin’s sent Audrey a copy, she read it, enjoyed it, and again, asked “How can we work together?”

 To which I answered with another question  – Could we do a book release at your place?

 The result of that? Well, this is why I’m here.  And as I’m here in front of you, I thought it would be the perfect time to tell you of the key talking points that I had written for the interviews surrounding Sweet Tooth.

 If there’s one thing I’ve learned in writing this book (and the whiskey book, to some extent), is that I have a list of characteristics that a company must have in order for me to respect them. I’m not saying this list is universal, nor that everyone should look for them and judge companies based on them. This list is personal and is little more than an opinion base on my experiences.

 Now hold on, because here’s the talking point:

 In my opinion, a good candy company should have 3 things

  1. A sense of responsibility
  2. A sense of place.
  3. A sense of fun

 Let me extrapolate on them a bit:

 A Sense of Responsibility – This comes in two forms: Respect the ingredients, and respect the people.

 First, ingredients – Let’s use Hershey’s as an example. Did you know that Hershey wanted to change the legal definition of milk chocolate? They wanted the definition be changed to allow for less expensive ingredients –  specifically replacing cocoa butter — the ingredient famous for giving chocolate its creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture —with vegetable oil.

 This practice – resulting in what is now known as “mockolate” – leaves the chocolate gritty and oily, and notably less in quality than a standard milk chocolate bar.

 I don’t know how to make a great piece of chocolate, but I do know how to make a mediocre one. Create a recipe that aims at the lowest common denominator of the marketplace, and then ensure to over process it with lower quality ingredients. Good candy takes thought and an ability to coax the best aspect out of every ingredient.

 There’s no better way to demonstrate this than to compare two alike products from two different companies. More often than not, the company that respects the ingredients will make a better product than a company that is looking to have a greater profit margin.

 But it’s more than being responsible to the ingredients. It’s about being responsible to the people invested in the product.

 I’m not just referring to stockholders and stakeholders in a company, but everyone who has a vested interest in the company, from the farmer who supplies the cocoa and sugar, to the consumer who buys the product.

 There are aspects of the current start cocoa farms that are nothing short of tragic, including the worst forms of child labor. A lot of this is the result of the major chocolate companies wanting cheaper prices for the commodities used in their products.

 Theo has a different business model. Their  founding principle is that the finest artisan chocolate in the world can (and should) be produced in an entirely ethical, sustainable fashion. In other words, they have that sense of responsibility to those who supply the cacao used right here in this plant.

 A Sense of Place:  This relates to the sense of responsibility, but ties it to the local community.  One of the constants I’ve come across in my travels is how proud communities are to the confections that define their region. Whether it’s the Pontefract Cakes that come out of Pontefract, England, to Hershey in Pennsylvania, there’s a deep sense of pride that defines the people of these regions, and they surround confections. It becomes part of their identity.

(This community identity existed in a small town outside of Bristol, England called Keynsham (KEEN-shim). The entire region had deep roots to the history of chocolate, thanks in large part to the Quakers in the area who played an integral role in that history.  As per their traditions, the Quakers who owned the chocolate companies (Fry’s, Cadbury, and others) committed themselves to the success of their communities.  But as the companies became larger, the more the more these community traditions were lost. When Kraft bought out Cadbury in 2009, they closed the one remaining plant in the area in Keynshem, and the history of chocolate to the region is little more than an afterthought. We have a multi-billion dollar chocolate industry that started in the Bristol region, and today the only marker we have to that history is a closed factory. )

 And if you think it couldn’t happen here, I should let you know that Hershey’s has talked about on more than one occasion about moving their plants to Mexico, a move that would devastate the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania.

 When I look at Theo, I looked at a company that’s a perfect representation of Seattle and its work ethic. In my mind, Theo represents perfectly what being from this area means. I can’t think of any location better in the United States  for Theo to exist and thrive than here in the Pacific Northwest,  here in Seattle, and here in Fremont.

 Finally – A sense of Fun! Let’s be honest here – candy is a luxury, possibly the cheapest luxury on the planet. And Luxuries are meant to be fun. Candy is meant to be fun.  I believe the great candy companies know  this, and it manifests itself in two ways.

 The first is obvious – they add a goofy, silly name to the confection.  This is how we end up with candies with the name: Abba Zabba, Big Daddy, Big Hunk, Snickers, Twix, Jelly Babies, Hubba Bubba, Skittles, Gobstoppers and a whole list of other names to numerous to list here. This sense of fun is what allowed  Roald Dahl to come up with names such as Nut Crunch Surprise, The Everlasting Gobstopper, and Fudgemellow Delight and allowed Monty Python to invent the name “Whizzo Chocolate Company” for their “Crunchy Frog” sketch. We ascribe playfulness with the words we choose surrounding candy. Why, because  sweets bring out the playful side of us.

It is this playfulness that mark the better candy companies. Rare is the great confectioner who sits down and tries to “engineer” a candy bar based off of market research and sales patterns. This approach is for hacks and industrial giants. 

No, the best confectioners in the world get into their kitchen and play with their food, and ask some variation of the following question “Ooo…Wouldn’t it be cool if we did THIS?!?”

It is this playful attitude that has resulted in a world renown chocolatier adding marmite to his chocolates just to see if it would work (It does). It has resulted a marketer at General Foods deciding to release a confection called Pop Rocks that fizzled in your mouth when consumed.  And we see that here at Theo in their Fantasy Flavors line, where Chai Tea can be found in one bar, and Curry can be found in another.

These are candies that play with our inner child, that allow us to have “fun”, even if only for a moment. 

And as I looked at these three different characteristics,

  1. A sense of responsibility
  2. A sense of place.
  3. A sense of fun

 I realized something. These aren’t just characteristics I like to see in a company. These are characteristics I like to see in people too.  So, in search for a solution for my mid-life crisis, what I found was my own personal definitions of what I think are the best qualities of all of us. I admit, that’s a little woo-woo, but there you have it.

 But how did I arrive at that conclusion? Let me read to you the first chapter of the book, which sets the stage for all of what I just said.  (read first chapter)

A Non-Vegan Response to “Death By Veganism”

Barbara of Tigers & Strawberries gives one of the better responses to Nina Plank’s “Death By Veganism” op-ed.

As a side note, one of the things that many people are getting wrong in this discussion is that veganism is only a diet. It’s not always. It can be an ethos that is interpreted in many different ways by different individuals. It can affect, not only diets but many other personal choices, including consumer, religious and even friendships.

UPDATED: Added verbiage to correct the absolutes that I had initially written.


Cooking – Arts or Crafts?

This is more of a philosophical post, written in response to someone trying to convince me of the artistry of cooking.

Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve played on the periphery of the arts. Sometimes I have been paid for my endeavors, but most times not. In my earlier life, I’ve also studied various media and mediums in a larger context.

As such, I’ve arrived at a very precise definition of what is art and what isn’t. People may debate it, and that’s fine. These definitions work for me, but may not work for others.

For me, art is the ability to use a medium to convey and/or elicit any number of emotions, be it sadness, joy, angst, whetever. The medium’s function is to convey a wide range of emotions. Whether these emotions are effectively conveyed are limited strictly by the skill of the person using the medium.

Crafts, on the other hand, are media that have a limited amount of emotions that can be effectively be elicited. For example, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to elicit sorrow or anger or any other of a wide variety of emotions in, as an example, a well made rug. The rug’s primary function is not to convey emotion, but to provide warmth.

Using these defintions as my guidelines, I don’t believe that cooking is an art. Food’s primary function is not to convey an emotion, and the amount of emotions available to be conveyed through the various cooking media are severly limited.

So if you’re saying that cooking is an artform – I ain’t buyin’ it.

(updated for spelling errors)

Technorati Tags: Food, Philosophy


What is Free Range Chicken?

Free-Range has two definitions in the United States of America, both of which are used by various poultry farmers.

Its premise is that animals should not be kept in pens or cages throughout the duration of their lives, and should be allowed to…well…behave like animals. What this means is that cows should be allowed to graze in pastures and chickens should be allowed walk around unfettered by cages. So first and foremost, it’s a farming philosophy that is advocated by some.

The second definition is a legal one, a “requirement” that must be applied to the chicken. It differs from country to country, but here in the United States it says that if meat has been labeled free range, then it means that “Livestock or poultry has been allowed access to the outside”(You’ll need to scroll down to the appropriate definition).

However (and there’s always a “however”), some poultry producers intepret the above in different ways. Some apply the standard exactly the same way as the philosophy intends.

But as Michael Pollans found out in “The Omnivore’s Dillema” while researching orgnaic chicken, some producers apply the legal definition of “free range” while ignoring the spirit of the law. What this means is that during the chickens life-span, they live in large buildings with doors that the poultry managers hope never are used.

About the “free-range” moniker – no other criteria are covered by this term. The food the birds eat, the size of the range, the number of birds raised together, or the space allowed to each bird are NOT covered by the “free-range”. If a poultry company wishes to apply “free range” to their lable, the must show that their birds have access to the outdoors. That’s it.

Even more interesting is the fact that there is no legal definition of the term “free range” when applied to eggs. What that means is that “free range eggs” may have a philosophical definition, but there is no governing body to which any requirements can be judged. Something to keep in mind when looking at eggs.

Technorati Tags: Food, Chicken, Free Range, USDA


An Organic Observation

Out of all of the questions and observations surrounding the organic food industry, I feel that the primary lesson that we should all take out of its success is this – At it’s core, The success of the organic industry has to do with consumer’s distrust of the conventional industrial food model than for any other reason.

That distrust may be overt, inherent, or subdued, but it’s still there none the less. If a person buys organic because they think it’s more nutritious, more environmentally sustainable, tastes better than food provided by Agri-business, or any variation of a “better alternative” argument, all lend credence to the above observation.

Think about that for a moment…most everyone who has helped maked organic food a 51 BILLION dollar industry, did so because they thought that this alternative was better than the conventional model.

Whether correct or incorrect, I believe it is safe to say that purveyors of the conventional model have a problem on their hands. And I’m not necessarily sure that it’s a problem that can be solved by direct means. In fact, the cheapest (and some would argue, most effective) means that the conventional purveyors have is not in delivering a better product, but rather in affecting the reputation of the organic model for the worse.

Just some thoughts.

tags technorati : Food Organics Organic Food


We Get Letters – v. 14: Organic vs. Local

James weighs in with a thought provoking question:

Hello Kate,

I regularly read your site and have always found your thoughts very insightful. Anyways, I’m a college student and I’m currently taking a public speaking class. For the class, we pick a theme and then deliver an informative speech, a persuasive speach, and then an action speach on
that theme. Well I picked GMO food. I am currently researching for the action speech. I just talked with the manager of my school’s main cafeteria, Goudy. I found out that about 60% of the food is from local sources, which is about the same price as other food, while only about 10% of the food is organic, which is more expensive. They usually label all the food as local, organic, vegeterian, vegan, etc. with stickers (Bon Appetite is my school’s catering service). I was planning on the theme of the speach being that you should eat more local organic food to
avoid gmo’s and then tell the audience about the options at goudy. Well, what I was wondering do you think it’s worth it to just focus on local food, given the limited and more expensive options for organic? Is organic not that important compared to local? Is it more important to
set an action that would be easier to follow (especially considering that these are college students I’m talking to) by exluding organic and just focusing on local? Or would organic be as important part of the equation as local? Thanks a lot.

Sincerely,
Jamie

Jamie, this is a great question, and I appreciate you asking it. Please note that what I’m about to say is my opinion, and so not to take it as gospel. When it comes to food philosophies, many people have differing opinions and agendas, and it’s difficult to claim that one is more valid than another.

When it comes to the organic vs. Local debate, I fall more onto the local side of the equation. But to explain this position, I have to take a step back and move beyond what we here in America deal with in regard to our food choices.

We’re lucky to be living in America. I don’t say that as a flag-waving Toby-Keith-Listening type of patriot, but as a matter of practical fact. We can, for the most part, feed ourselves. In fact, our local food delivery infrastructure is so efficient and so plentiful that it allows us to ask questions about food that other countries cannot afford to.

Such as “How do Organic Foods fit into the equation?” When you have a country that can only deliver 1500 calories, on average, to your citizens, you’re not overly concerned about which chemicals are used, nor how animals are treated, nor which foods are genetically modified. These are the problems faced every day in several countries in Africa, as well as most assuredly North Korea. Granted, I’m simplifying the geo-political landscape here, but the point is still valid.

So from a global aspect, local far outweighs organic. If you can’t grow food at home, it has to be imported (at additional cost) or given freely (often in times of famine). Not being able to produce food locally carries with it tremendous problems. Encouraging folks to grow locally helps alleviate those problems.

Let’s focus on America now, where we do have the luxury of asking more of our food – Which is more important: Organic versus Local? My answer? It depends.

Some foods have been so destroyed by corporate farming that organics are really the only option when it comes to taste. Apples come directly to mind, as well as tomatoes.

However, when it comes to meats, such as beef or poultry, I choose local farms as I want to ensure that I know where my food has come from, for reasons far too scary and too numerous to bring up in this post. That a great majority of these farms can be considered “organic” os not coincidental, as most farms who are transparent enough to advertise where they originate also are usually transparent enough to let you know how they treat their animals.

I could go down, item by item, on how I make my food choices in a store, but that’d be boring. What it comes down to are the following questions:

  • Which product has the superior tastes?
  • What process was used in order to develop this product? Does a company use lesser or untested ingredients? How does a company treat their animals?
  • Is the company local or not?

I ask these questions in differing order depending upon my basic knowledge of product. Eggs and Milk? I ask about processes. Broccoli or meats? I ask about proximity. Apples and Oranges? Organic or not.

I realize an answer of “It depends” doesn’t lend itself to a great paper or speech, but there is a larger meta-aspect to this. I can ask these questions because of where we live and how much money I make. In many places of the world, people don’t have this luxury.

Good luck in your class.

Technorati Tags: Food and Drink, Organic Food, Buy Local