Archive for July, 2009

from the movie poster for the documentary “Food, Inc.” from director Robert Kenner. Image credit: Magnolia Pictures

from the movie poster for the documentary “Food, Inc.” from director Robert Kenner. Image credit: Magnolia Pictures

There has been a lot written about Robert Kenner’s documentary Food Inc. already.  Not surprisingly, the food blogs were abuzz before it even came out.  It covers topics that I’ve been reading a lot about over the past two years: topics in books by Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, et al.  Sustainability of food, welfare of animals, agriculture in general, pesticides, health, fast food, small farms, etc.  We reference The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food fairly often in our house.  (And I’ve written already on this blog about reading Pollan.)  As a family, we consider the provenance of our food, discuss toxicology on a daily basis (the wife’s Master’s degree in Environmental Science and Policy comes in handy here), and we enjoy the farmer’s market, sourcing organic and local meats when we can.  We’re on board.  We get it.  So I’d like to see the movie, but I haven’t seen too many movies (other than rentals) in the last 10 months with an infant in the house.  It’s currently showing at the Bethel Cinemas, and I’m planning to go.  I have the general idea that most of the people that will go see Food Inc. are already on board, though, that for the most part the film will be preaching to the choir.  Plenty of silent “Amens” from the crowd?  The people who would most benefit from it probably won’t go see it.  That’s too bad, because the movie sounds enlightening and disturbing.  That’s exactly the point.  There are huge parts of the food industry that are disturbing.  But not everyone wants to be enlightened or disturbed about their food, and that’s a big part of the problem.

I won’t have anything to add to the movie buzz until I see it, so at this point I can only pass along what I’ve read.  Michael Ruhlman wrote a blog post about the documentary yesterday that I thought was heartfelt and persuasive.  He writes with clarity and emotion, and he was definitely moved by the film (moreso than he thought he would be).  Read his post here, go see the movie, and we’ll talk about it.


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Sustainable Coffee

DOMA coffee, Brasil Organic

DOMA coffee, Brazil Organic

I buy coffee from all over.  It’s one of those things, along with wine and spices, that you can exempt yourself from feeling bad about not buying local.  Well, I don’t feel bad.  Not too much coffee grown in Connecticut.  So since it’s from elsewhere, I’m always happy to try a new roaster.  I like the place here in town Zumbach’s, which is a great little coffee shop, and when they’re roasting beans it makes town smell like toast.  I’ve stopped in on my way home from work just because I smell them roasting.  It’s pervasive and persuasive advertising.  But I’m also willing to look a little further afield.  My brother brought some Solar Roast Coffee home for the holidays from Colorado, and that was great.  I’m pretty sure he should bring some home every time he makes the trip back East.  Other companies pop up on the radar from time to time, and I’m willing to try those too.  So I was happy to read about the DOMA Coffee Roasting Company a little while ago on Bob DelGrosso’s blog, A Hunger Artist.

After DelGrosso’s initial post and subsequent reader interest, Doma owner and head roaster Terry Patano offered a deal where he’d throw in a free 1/2 lb of his choosing when you ordered a pound (follow “deal” link for details).  So I just ordered some coffee from them, a pound each of Brazil Organic, and a blend called Primo’s, and they sent a half pound of Ethiopia Yirgacheffe.  Thanks, Terry!

Doma seems like an interesting company, doing what it can to be sustainable in a number of ways.  From a fair trade standpoint, they are a member of Cooperative Coffees, and they partner with coffee growers to form direct relationships that help local communities.  A recent Doma blog post describes a trip to Guatemala as part of the CRS Cafe Livlihood Project. They explain: “This is a three year project which aims to improve production practices (organic and shade farming), increase productivity and yields and increase quality.  We are working with groups in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Mexico.” Additionally, from their website, “we’ve made a commitment to place the farmers, their identity, and their product front and center. We do not hide behind anecdotes of sourcing from secret, mystical mountains – we want you to know the people that grow our coffee and the cooperative organizations that they own and manage.” My Brazil Organic coffee comes with the following information, for example:

CO-OP GROWER: Fazenda Nossa Senhora de Fatima
REGION: Perdizes, Cerrado

They’re also doing what they can for the environment at home.  A new eco-friendly roaster uses 80% less natural gas to roast their beans (source: http://www.smartroaster.com/).  It’s not just marketing (although that doesn’t hurt), but something that also makes sense for business.  Why not reduce your energy usage?  I know that they’re not the only independent coffee company that’s doing something good for the environment.  That’s a good thing.  I know that “sustainability” is a buzzword on the verge of being overused, and that in advertising as a whole, many claims are undocumented (see Greenwashing post).  But being ecologically sound and sustainable is one of those things that is going to happen eventually — needs to happen, actually — and I’m happy to support and highlight a company that seems to be doing the right things.  They also happen to make some really great coffee.  I’ve been enjoying both the Brazil and the Yirgacheffe for the past couple days.  Good stuff.

So, wherever you are, they’re worth checking out.  http://www.domacoffee.com

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(I couldn’t find the picture of me surfing in Costa Rica.  This one will have to do.)

My friend Damon introduced me to the concept of one’s “Arsenal of Deficits” a while back, and it’s a phrase I continuously mangle by forgetting a word or two.  “Quill of Ineptitudes” is my favorite bastardization so far.  I don’t know if Damon coined the phrase, to be honest.  (Damon, chime in and defend yourself if need be.)  Google turned up empty, except for some results on English soccer.  But this phrase encompasses the idea that certain areas of information/skill are totally outside your experience or expertise.  It’s like the polar opposite of your Bag of Tricks.  It’s not something you’re bad at, necessarily.  The oft invoked “I’m bad at math” doesn’t really qualify.  Nor would “I don’t speak French.”  This is different, and it isn’t limited to academia.  I’ll give an example.  I’m a fairly musical person.  I listen to music all the time; I have for quite some time now, and I feel like I know a bit of what’s out there.  And I can talk a pretty good game — new bands, old bands, lyrics, album release dates, band lineup changes over time, that kind of thing.  But ask me about Zappa, and I got Nothing.  Zappa is definitely in my Arsenal of Deficits.  I missed it.  Never listened to him.  I feel like I’m past the point of being able to get into his music, because there’s so much out there, and I feel like it’s a bit of an esoteric field.  I’m also okay with this.  Zappa is not the only thing I missed, by the way.  Part of that comes from the fact that I listened to classic rock all through high school, instead of metal, burgeoning alternative, or punk.  Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits?  Great choice, Scott.

Some things in the Arsenal are meant to be conqured — “I’d really like to learn how to…” and you go out and do it — but other things I feel you can leave alone.  I don’t need to know how to surf, for example.  I’ll enjoy the beach with a book, frankly, and I’ll skip the sand burn and ingested sea water.  I tried it on vacation a few years ago, to see if there was some hidden undiscovered knack.  Maybe it would be easy.  Plus, you can’t go to Tamarindo and say you didn’t go surfing.  I should be honest here: “try surfing” might be a more accurate assessment of what I did.  “Go” surfing indicates some kind of success, with a kind of recreational quality to it.  My experience was neither successful nor recreational.  Nope.  Not that coordinated.  But I tried it.  To paraphrase my Dad, “my gifting lies in other areas.”

Other things in my quill: golf, 1980’s movies, skiing, barre chords, unicycle.

So what’s in your Arsenal of Deficits?

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I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’d really like to be a farmer.  Maybe “gardener of vegetables” would be more appropriate, but I’d like to keep the option of chickens and pigs on the table for some time in the future when we have more room, some land out back to speak of.  (Buying a farm in lower Fairfield County shouldn’t be too hard, right?  A few acres, a barn?  Would I technically be a gardener until I got some animals to raise?)  In that vein, I’ve been doing some reading on growing things.  Apparently there’s a lot of planning, planting, digging, reading, and work involved.  Choosing vegetable varieties, understanding water flow, root biology, pH, growing zones, botany.  But then you get all this free food!  I feel like several aspects of my life can all come together if I can just grow some vegetables, harvest some of my own crops and eat them.  There’s the biology of it that I’m interested in, photosynthesis actually being practical for me, beyond the details of NADPH and the Calvin Cycle (which are incredibly useful, of course*); the principle of it, being at least a little self-sufficient; and the culinary applications of cooking and eating something homegrown.  I should also mention here that I’m very interested in compost.  The idea of compost, I guess.  This is the science nerd part of me again, which I have a hard time getting away from.  It just makes so much sense: plants take nutrients from the soil as they grow, especially when they’re taking the time to dump resources into the production of fruit and seeds; return those nutrients to the soil so that future plants can grow.  Easy.  Let time, microbes, and the pull of entropy do the work so that I can get better tomatoes and carrots.

I should be more clear here, in what I mean by being a farmer.  It’s a romantic notion, I understand.  And it’s possible that I like the idea of being a farmer better than I will the reality of it.  I did mention work and digging earlier, which I’m okay with.  I like dirt.  But I’m not in for 12 hour days of plowing and picking and milking.  This is backyard farming we’re talking about, and I’m certainly keeping my day job.  Maybe I stick with “gardening,” despite the Smith & Hawken image that I’d like to separate myself from.  So for now the plan is to try it out, see how many different things I can grow in the back yard and learn from the experience.

Michael Pollan is to blame for all of this, by the way.  I just finished his Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991).  This book, along with The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and Botany of Desire (2001) have gotten me to consider gardening, farming, composting, photosynthesis, entropy, and industrial food production in a different light, one more practical than academic.  I enjoyed this book (and his others), which I read on a recent vacation.

In Second Nature, Pollan describes his experience of starting (and developing) a garden at his home in Cornwall, CT.  He is a curious beginner, and he describes his successes and failures along the way.  As several reviewers on Amazon comment, this is not a “how to” book, but one more on the philosophy (and history even) of gardening.  Which makes it not for everyone.  It might not teach you as much as get you to think about gardening, and to get you to think about why you do it.  It might also get you to start.  Pollan is at all times thorough, academic, and entertaining.  And I’ve totally bought in.  I enjoy how he writes, certainly, but I also agree with him on his food politics.  That became clear for me while reading Omnivore a few years ago, when I found myself railing against Big Corn.  I had no idea what a big mess it was, or how many millions of dollars are spent in subsidies that would be better placed supporting organic farmers growing fruits and vegetables.  So you should read that if you haven’t yet.  But here, Pollan gets you to the point where you believe you should garden.  He talks about the relationship between the wilderness and civilization over the course of history.  People believe that those two concepts are diametrically opposed.  Maybe they’re more comfortable if they are; people do love a dichotomy.  But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing: the deep dark woods or the all-American lawn.  Gardens represent a compromise, and Pollan also uses his garden as a metaphor for this middle-ground relationship between culture and nature.  Yes, humans like to (need to) carve out a place in the wilderness to make their own.  This process of development isn’t all bad.  Some is necessary.  But he makes the important point that environmental conservation today cannot revert to a completely hands-off approach.  This leads to situations like the Yellowstone Fires in the late 80’s.  In that case, managed fires and prescribed burns have become absolutely necessary after decades of fire suppression.  But I digress.  Back to gardens and planting: getting people to be involved in growing anything other than large sweeping swaths of Kentucky Bluegrass is a good thing.  It’s good for preserving the genetic diversity of plants (if done the right way), it’s good for sequestering carbon, and in the case of vegetables, it’s good for your nutrition (see In Defense of Food).

So I’ll continue planting things in the back yard, and I’ll keep you posted.

* After a discussion/lecture on photosynthesis and entropy a few years ago, I had a biology student say, “Man, plants are freaking important.”  Why, yes they are.  I think that was on an Enlightenment Friday.

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