Salt, Time, Smoke

The Day the Organic Movement Died

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In the past couple weeks there have been numerous skirmishes on social media and in the news on the not-so-new debate over the benefits of organic vs. conventional foods and farming. A Stanford study published in the September 4 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine pissed gasoline all over the fire and set it alight anew.

Let me begin with one semantic gripe about this debate. To call this “organic vs. conventional” is a misnomer. Conventional farming is an invention of the 20th century whereas organic farming was invented some time around 8,000 b.c. Therefore the burden of proof is upon “conventional” farming, not organic. But I digress.

I read about the Stanford study the day it was published. There wasn’t anything too surprising or groundbreaking about it. The study’s conclusions were basically that no significant difference was found between organic and conventional meats and produce in nutritional value. It also concluded that organic foods contained considerably less pesticide and antibiotic-resistant bacteria contamination.

The conclusions were based on 17 studies in humans and 223 studies on nutrient values in foods.  One detail I think was important but largely overlooked was that the study was non-clinical and heterogeneous. Meaning, for example, its conclusions could be drawn by comparing a ripe tomato from one part of the US to an unripe tomato from a different part of the US.

The problem started when the media grabbed ahold of it, knowing this could be spun into a controversial topic, and a frenzy ensued. Headlines read “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce” from the New York Times and “Organic food no healthier than non-organic: study” from Reuters. Really Reuters? Is that the most accurate way to depict the findings?

Following the media reaction as always is the social media over-reaction. First came a million “I told you so tweets” from the curious anti-organic camp.

Dozens of foolish straw man arguments have been popping up on the internet recently to purport this as the silver bullet that killed the organic movement. Their approach is to poorly refute an argument that we never made, and then call us all hippies (I wish this was a joke).

 

I don’t know if Michael Specter would characterize me as an “organomaniac,” since I generally prefer organic foods but have been know to occasionally devour an entire bag of Cheddar Cheese Jalapeño-Flavored Cheetos. Nothing but full on hypocrisy here at Mr. Delicious, and that’s a promise!

But ignore it they did not. To the contrary this study became a huge inflammatory topic amongst organics enthusiasts and activists with many crying conspiracy, even attacking the scientists behind the study.

Now everyone, please, take a deep breath and relax. The organic movement isn’t going anywhere, and for those of you who prefer the taste of pesticides on your produce, I’m sure Monsanto isn’t either. This study really didn’t change anything and we’re all going to die on December 21 anyway. So you might as well just settle in.

For those that are at all informed on the topic, it was never about nutritional content, but rather a distrust of the effects of chemical pesticides and reckless use of antibiotics in or foods.

It’s also about the effects that conventional farming is having on the environment. With a relatively short history it’s hard to determine what the long term effects might be. I remember being stung by a lot of bees when I was a child. Somehow I suspect my son will not be so imperiled as they’re a lot harder to find now.

Many of us find it hard to believe or even a bit arrogant the claim that science has an exhaustive understanding of the effects all of the chemicals in our lives. Each generation looks at the last in disbelief. How could they not have known better? What will the next generation think about this?

Trust us, we’re scientists!

The conclusion here is that there is no conclusion. I really don’t believe these scientists did anything wrong and were only furthering our understanding of important issues. So don’t kill the scientists, we might need them. By there own admission there is still much to study. And the debate will go on.

My Trip to Barangay Encanto, a Visit to GK Enchanted Farm

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I get lost a lot living in the Philippines. Sometimes I don’t even have to leave Makati to get hopelessly lost.  So for me to drive solo deep into Bulacan was an ambitious endeavor.

A dozen wrong turns later after desperately looking for street signs that don’t exist I saw a beacon of hope, a wind power turbine. It looked every bit as much out of place in its surroundings as I did. Found it!

Gawad Kalinga is a non-profit organization whose goal is to eradicate poverty in the Philippines through community building and social enterprise. What’s unique about them is they build an economic platform for the poor to sustain themselves. So it’s not about handouts but making profits in a socially responsible manner. Capitalism 2.0.

The Enchanted Farm is the model of GK’s vision. They have brought in the poorest families from the surrounding province. Many of these people came from other parts of the Philippines to Manila looking for work. When they were unable to find work they would live as squatters, under bridges and in the slums of Manila. The local government would literally truck them out to Bulacan where they would remain.

GK would offer them homes, education and a livelihood. Some of these people were even involved in communist militant groups. Many will turn to militancy when they perceive no other options. When they are given other options they would follow peaceful pursuits. After all many of them have marketable skills. There are farmers, basket weavers, textile makers, etc. What they did not have was the means to produce and market their wares.

Hand-crafted baskets ready to be sold

One such product is Enchantea which is a brand of healthy brewed tea drinks made from local fruits and botanicals. One product was being developed that was a blend of lemongrass, calamansi and comote leaves. It was delicious, especially on a brutally hot day.

 

One of the best things I’ve tasted in 90+ degree heat

A means to produce and market is precisely what is provided here. There is a village university to teach the community how to earn a sustainable livelihood. The farm also serves as an incubator for businesses. It’s a place to test and develop products, especially agriculturally-based products. In addition to that it is being developed into a tourist destination with up to a hundred guest villas being constructed as well as a spa and restaurant.

One of the air conditioned guest villas

Upon entering I was greeted by a flurry of activity. Flowers and landscaping everywhere, the farm is a green oasis dotted with buildings made from local materials. There is a small community that houses over 50 families. There were dozens of people gathered there for an event that day.

I had the opportunity to tour the farm and see what is being produced. Each family is given a plot of land to work. They grow all sorts of fruits and vegetables. There were papayas everywhere, ube, chilies, corn, tomatoes, etc.

Ube field (local purple sweet potato)

Dill grows like crazy all over the farm

Samples of products under testing were being served, giving me a perfect excuse to have two desserts.

Malunggay langka ice cream, they should package and sell this. They should do it now!

It’s hard not to be inspired by a place like this. As a chef I feel it is my responsibility to support local agriculture and to build a bridge between the diner and the farmer. I grabbed up some samples from the farm and brought them back to begin experimenting. Unfortunately the salted duck eggs were sold out on my visit but I will be back for them.

Golden Egg salted duck eggs are dyed naturally with tumeric

To those who would like to help you can give through GK’s website. I would also encourage you to visit the Enchanted Farm. It’s a great escape from the city. But you can also help by supporting GK community brands, such as Human Nature, Kape Maria and Enchantea.

The Philippines is a country that has always imported a lot despite what is available locally. There is an assumption that exists here that imported goods are superior to local. However local goods have been steadily improving and it’s time to refresh that assumption. Every vote counts and you cast your ballot with every peso you spend.

Stand up for Foie!

No animals were harmed in the making of this beefcake....well maybe just a few

Foie gras is life-changing delicious-ness

The time draws near. July 1st will begin the ban of sales and production of foie gras in the state of California. This ridiculous Hollywood-backed bill signed into law by Hollywood personality-turned Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger has won this battle against one of the best practitioners of animal welfare in the meat industry.

No animals were harmed in the making of this beefcake....well maybe just a few

No animals were harmed in the making of this beefcake....well maybe just a few

Which one you ask? Artisan Sonoma Foie Gras. There is only one producer of foie gras in the state of California and the law will specifically ban the production of foie gras in the state. So this is in effect an assassination on one of our brethren, somebody who’s doing it all the right way. These people handle their ducks with greater care and humanity than most who raise ducks as pets.

Without any grounding in science, the proponents of the ban have resorted to emotional appeals and Hollywood personalities to persuade the unknowing public to support their campaign. Their long sappy internet videos make me sick, not from their content but from their low quality of thought. It’s quite easy to make a villain out of that which is misunderstood and most people simply do not understand what foie gras is or how it is raised.

Foie gras or fatty liver is produced by force feeding ducks or geese (usually ducks) in the final weeks of their lives. Avians, like pythons, will store food in the esophagus for a slow digestion process. They use this mechanism to consume whole fish. They are very different physiologically from humans or other mammals. For example the trachea of a duck extends out through their tongue and they are in no way choked or gagged by the force feeding process. These animals also naturally store fat in their skin and livers to be stored for long migrations.

Anthony Bourdain did a great segment on No Reservations on the topic.

The truth is foie gras is an artisanal product and its producers are some of the more ethical in the industry. The anti-foie gras movement found them to be easily bullied because of their relatively small voice and lobbying power. Tyson Foods is a far greater villain and these people know that but it’s a hard target. But imagine the backlash if America couldn’t get its frozen chicken tenders in the freezer aisle.

Furthermore this is not just an anti-foie gras campaign but an anti-meat campaign. This is just one step toward painting meat eaters into a corner and they know very well that they can’t tackle the whole industry at once. Thus one by one, your choices will be taken away from you.

So! In defiance to this encroachment of personal freedom and in solidarity with our friends in the foie gras industry I will create a foie gras theme brunch menu on Sunday, July 1st. This will surely be even more epic than the Epic Brunch at the Slagles’. Now clearly this is no great act of courage or defiance as nobody is trying to ban foie gras in the Philippines but it will be a hell of a good time. Comment below if you’re interested, six seats available.

Inside the Flavor Matrix

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We live in a world where things are not as they seem. So much so that we are no longer able to decipher reality from mere illusions.

It all started with methyl anthranilate. Thought to be the first artificial flavor, this was discovered by accident in a lab by a German chemist who found his lab suddenly smelled like grapes. Since then it has been used to make numerous sweet things taste deliciously purple and strangely is also an effective bird repellent.

Last November 60 Minutes did an interesting segment on the Swiss-based flavor company Givaudan which develops and manufactures chemical flavorings and aromas for foods. Here’s a link to the Youtube video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7Wh3uq1yTc

This is an uber-secretive industry with carefully guarded trade secrets. They will not reveal who their clients are or certainly their formulas. So you mean to say that they’re putting chemicals in our foods and won’t tell us what chemicals or which foods? Yeah, pretty much. By their own admission they are trying to create habit-forming flavors to keep the user coming back for more. They formulate the flavors to be intense but short on the finish. These flavors overstimulate the brain and cause the consumer to seek them out again and again. When you’re used to shooting up meth every morning it’s hard to go back to waking up with just a cup of coffee.

 

Call me a luddite, but if I’m trying to introduce an orange flavor in a food that I’m preparing, I’m going to start with a goddamn orange. And the chicken hose in the 60 Minutes video defies my definition of food. I must confess I watched with a sense of indignant satisfaction the chefs that had sold their souls even worse than I have.

Chicken-less chicken...whoa...

To further complicate things, there is no clear definition of what can be labeled as ‘natural ingredients’ on a food label. Even a synthesized chemical can be called natural if it otherwise exists in nature. In the US there have been calls for the FDA to offer some clarity on the matter but they still have not yielded any success. So if you want eat natural foods there is nothing on a food label to tell you if you are eating food of the earth or of the chemistry lab.

Yep, all natural. Says so right here.

But I regress. The overwhelming majority of us are guilty and I’m a hypocrite too. We are all willing accomplices to this trend that could obsolesce my own craft. I come from the country that invented Nacho Cheesier Doritos. I would wager to say that most people don’t give a rat’s ass.

So what’s the point? Why bother simmering bones for hours to extract flavors when all it takes is a small amount of super-umami-meaty powder to blast your taste buds into slobbery Pavlovian submission? Because it’s all fake. And because we are all guinea pigs in a giant experiment. Are these chemicals edible? Are they carcinogenic? Does your body process them the same way whether they are synthetic or naturally occurring? I don’t know and neither do you because it’s all still new. There’s very little case study to draw from and those with the information aren’t sharing.

I know these things aren’t going anywhere so the best strategy would be to manage it. I’m not an activist or an absolutist but I would like to know what I’m eating and what I’m feeding my son. We should demand to know and share information. So I say buy fewer processed foods and more natural foods. Go to your local farmer’s market. Eat less fast food. And don’t take the red pill.