Future Food

Feeding People is EasyThis post was triggered by Amy Stewart’s ‘bored with the whole locavore thing‘ commentary on NPR’s All Things Considered and the ensuing discussion over at GardenRant.

When the whole local foods thing comes up, I am reminded of one of my favorite books 30 years ago, Future Foods (1980, apparently republished as Future Cooks sometime since then). This a cookbook/polemic from British science writer Colin Tudge posited we should should think of our foods as divided into three categories:

Foods of the first kind:

These are the grains and vegetable proteins that form the basis of every traditional cuisine in the world. If you live in Asia, it’s mostly rice and soybeans. In Latin America, corn tortillas and beans. In the Middle East, lentils and wheat.

Tudge argues that — for mostly geopolitical reasons — every country (indeed every region) should be self-sufficient in these crops that are locally adapted, storable and provide the calories and protein people need to stay alive. He also argues that meals based primarily on these foods can be healthy and tasty.

Despite Tudge, foods of the first kind play little role in the locavore movement.

ward and cassFoods of the second kind:

These are the fruits, vegetables, nuts and animal products (meat, dairy, eggs) that provide concentrated sources of vitamins, complete protein and flavor. Adding these to foods of the first kind take you from survival rations to healthy diet. Still, they should be considered supplements, not the center of the diet.

Tudge argues that most of these should be local as much as possible. But he grants that that’s not practical in today’s world for those of us in cold climates. While those receiving winter shares of root crops, cabbage, dried fruit, etc. from their CSA may beg to differ, Tudge sees nothing wrong with shipping citrus north in February.

Interesting that locavores focus mostly on these foods, not foods of the first kind. I think that it’s because foods of the first kind are commodities. They’re shipped all over and don’t cost very much. (They also don’t make very much for farmers.) Foods of the second kind are higher margin items, and they are also ones that suffer in quality when mass produced and shipped long distances. So local farmers can provide consumers with superior products that command a higher price.

Foods of the third kind:

My recollection (apologies: I’m writing all this from memory) is that this group was primarily spices, teas and medicinals: High ‘information’, low-weight products that are worth moving around the globe. Remember spices were among the first products in trade between Europe and the Orient. Anything that could make spoiled meat palatable had a high value back in the day.

When this book came out, I thought this was just about the most sensible approach to food — from individual dietary concerns to global econimic, justice and environmental issues — I’d ever read. I thought it would tranform the world in my lifetime.

No such luck.

While surfing around to see if Tudge was still writing, I discovered he published a new book in 2007 titled: Feeding People is Easy. Amazon describes it:

The book argues that it is possible to feed the world, forever, without damaging the environment or cruelty to animals. The book shows how governments and the food industry have created the major problems so much of the world faces today. It proposes a new global food chain based on principles of sound biology and justice.

I’m guessing that Tudge is probably operating within the same general framework as he was 30 years ago with some minor adjustments for increasing globalization.

Have any of you foodies read this? How have Tudge’s ideas held up in serious locavore circles?

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Is local food better, energy-wise?

ward and cassAn article in this morning’s NY Times calls into question whether or not local food is actually better, if you’re concerned about reducing energy consumption. (See Food That Travels Well, by James E. McWilliams, who wrote “A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America” and is a contributing writer for The Texas Observer. What’s the story on this guy, Austin folks?)

An example he provides is New Zealand lamb imported to England. Sheep put on weight very efficiently on the famously lush New Zealand pastures. Sheep in England need to be fed energy-intensive grains — enough apparently to make it cheaper (from an energy-use perspective) to ship lamb from down under.

This is no surprise to American dairy farmers. They know how much cheaper it is for pasture-based New Zealand dairies to ship milk powder into the U.S. market than it is for us to produce it here. Another counterintuitive example I’ve read concerns spuds. Turns out taters shipped by rail from Idaho to New York City use less energy than trucking potatoes to the Big Apple from Maine.

I don’t think this blows the local foods movement out of the water. But it does mean that we might need to be a little more sophisticated in our thinking about this issue.

This also reminds me that this whole local foods thing isn’t new. I remember when I first worked for Rodale back in the early ’80s. They sponsored The Cornucopia Project. The project staff did studies of how much food was imported and exported by each state and pointed out how many ‘food miles’ (as they’re called now) were invested in different commodities in different locales.

But the big thing I remember about their findings: When you think about all the energy that goes into the fertilizers and the plowing and the processing and the packaging and the shipping, do you know the least efficient step in the whole food system from farm to table?

Hopping in the car and driving to the store to return home with an average of 33 pounds of groceries.

Note on the image above: It’s an old one that I found on my hard drive, almost certainly shot in the ’80s by my old friend Tom Gettings, former photo director at Rodale Press. The farmers there are heroes — Ward Sinclair and Cass Peterson. Ward used to work the farm policy beat at the Washington Post before he and Cass started farming. Before CSAs were hot, they used to haul ‘shares’ to the WaPo’s offices during the season to appreciative co-workers. Ward died way too soon. I’ve lost track of what Cass is up to these days. But if there were a Sustainable Farming Hall of Fame, they would be charter members.

Update: Much discussion of McWilliams article at ReasonOnline.

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Frankfurter spectacular, Blowin’ smoke (#2)

Frankfurter spectacularIn the same snarky vein as Lilek’s Gallery of Regrettable Food comes candyboots Weight Watchers recipe cards from 1974. Will make whatever you’ve got cookin’ or even an 8-piece box seem that much better by comparison.

If you want to be truly inspired, food-wise, rush on over to Lucullian Delights. Even if you don’t like Italian cooking, you’ll like the photography, which includes some garden and floral themes from time to time between the sumptuous food shots.

Posting is light this weekend. #1 son is up from Florida for some end-of-season skiing. After the first day of spring dawning at a cool 4 F, we’ve had mostly 50s and 60s and the snow has pretty much retreated, except for drifts in the veggie garden. I’ve got more spring ephemeral pictures that won’t get processed or posted for awhile.

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Southern Culture on the Skids and Foodie Snark

This post has been brewing for awhile. I started it last weekend. But after Michele’s post Ah, The Taste of the Factory! over at Garden Rant yesterday, I knew it was time to roll up my sleeves and git ‘er done.

First, some definitions:

Snark, Corporal – Fictional character in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22. To prove that the soldiers had bad taste, he poisoned their sweet potatoes with soap chips, causing a diarrhea outbreak. Snark felt he proved himself correct because the men ate the soap and came back for seconds. [Paraphrased from Wikipedia.]

Snark – Sarcastic, snide, often humorous or ironic remark. Mostly found on political blogs.

Southern Culture on the Skids – Chapel Hill, N.C.-based rockability band. According to Wikipedia, their “music is generally very upbeat, as they usually write and perform songs about dancing, sex, and fried chicken.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of Michael Pollan and his simple, sage advice to eat food that your great grandmother would recognize. (Watch a webcast of Pollan and co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey in Berkely last week.)

While I’m no gourmet cook, I applauded Michele’s lament on the dumbing down of cookbooks and castigating Southern cooking queen Paula Dean for her reliance on cake mix and instant pudding.

But that’s small potatoes.

Check out the recipe page at the Southern Culture on the Skids website sometime. There are some real Southern classics (Buttermilk Biscuits and Fried Catfish). But most are celebrations of velveta and spam and other faux or fatty foods, including, assembly instructions for Bologna Cups, Tangwich (yeah, that’s what it is), and South Mississippi White Trash Drankin’ Food Stuff.

I’ve actually used only one of the recipes. I made the Elvis Party Mix for a ’50s-themed Christmas party:

1 pound banana chips
1 box capt crunch peanut butter crunch
1 large wooden tiki carved salad serving ware (preferably wooden carved with tiki idols)
Pour 1 lb of banana chips into large serving bowl. Add 1 box peanut butter crunch. Stir with large salad serving fork and spoon. Serve (best eaten by hand). Optional: Add one pound of dried pineapple chips for a greater luau effect.

These recipes are snark. They’re so good because they are so bad.

But the snark has some foundation in fact. Another favorite site is James (hate his politic, love his website) Lileks’ Gallery of Regrettable Food. Lileks has scanned actual pages from actual mostly 50s-era cookbooks (my Mom had a couple of them) and makes snarky comments about just how unappetizing food is. Don’t miss Cooking with Dr. Pepper, Meat! Meat! Meat!, and the The Unbearable Sadness of Vegetables.

There’s also a good chapter on Jello. (Garden Salad #1 is a good example of the wretched images and snarky comments Lileks provides.) I’ve always wanted to be the fly on the wall at the meeting where the corporate food technologists, product development specialists and the marketing department decided to find away to sell the sweepings from the slaughterhouse floor as a light, fruity dessert.

Hey gang. This is our heritage. We have to leap-frog over the age of industrialization of our food supply until we get to something more sensible than what we’ve got now. It’s up to we gardeners, foodies, slow-food folks, local food system advocates and others to keep pushing the benefits of eating real food.

The trouble is, as Corporal Snark proved, as a society we’ve got really bad taste. We keep going back for more of the sweet potatoes and soap chips — with predictable results.

This actually started as my Sunday music post. So here it is, Southern Culture on the Skids doing Eight Piece Box. It’s a celebration of take-out chicken. Really.

You can eat some now, you can eat some later.
Warm it back up, with that big old french-fried tater.
Snackin’ all night, it’s all right all right.
I got an eight-piece box.

The quality of the YouTube below is marginal. Find a much better flash version at the Skids’ TV Room, or listen to this live bootleg mp3.  Some full live SCOTS concerts here.

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