ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

In Search of the Perfect Loaf Gets Early Notice

Just under two months away from launch of In Search of the Perfect Loaf, reviews are starting to trickle in. Here's what Library Journal had to say in a starred review (July 1, 2014):

This impressive work falls somewhere between a cookbook, an exploration of bread-baking techniques, and a history of bread. It’s thoroughly researched and engagingly written, and his dedication is inspiring.

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The last pass of my manuscript, "In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker's Odyssey," is done!

And I'm sending it back in the mail to Viking/Penguin. (Yeah, at this stage it's hard copy, not electronic). This is the final stage before the whole thing goes to rest. I can't believe it's over. But there have been so many of these last stages, turning in the manuscript, going over the edit, doing the second draft, etc. etc that it almost feels anticlimactic. And any remaining mistakes are now my own damn fault!

For those who are curious, the book will be out right after the summer. 

How your smart phone may be more valuable than you think

On an 8-minute video shot with a smart phone that won a film festival prize

I recently heard Carlton Evans, the director of the Disposible Film Festival, speak about “disposible films”— all the video that is made when you click open your smart phone and start shooting away.We’ve all done it, but what I didn’t realize was the possibility of the medium. Luckily, Evans and his team did and created a film festival around it.

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The warrior: a remembrance of Sol Yurick

Shortly after I heard from my mother that our close friend, the novelist Sol Yurick, had died at age 87, the obits began appearing. I was glad that Sol, the first serious writer I knew and a strong influence on me as a teenager, was getting recognition. But I was also chagrined that the obits almost exclusively focused on The Warriors, a work he wrote in 1965 about warring New York gangs based loosely on Xenophon’sAnabasis that went on to became a movie and cult hit. Sure, it was a fast read and his most popular work, filled with his requisite cast of rogues, misanthropes, disaffected youth and innocents but the gang bang work hardly defined Sol, who liked to remind people that he wrote it in all of three weeks.

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Cantaloupe from the garden, after three attempts

image from the past three years, I've tried to grow cantaloupe in my community garden plot in Washington, DC.

The first two years, I planted my seeds in late May or early June and then transplanted the plants to the garden a few weeks later. All would go well. The vines would spread on the ground, the flowers would appear, the bees would show up to help pollinate the plants, and then I'd see tiny fruit. The fruit would get bigger and bigger -- and then, I'd leave for vacation in August.

Once, I picked the fruit while still green hoping that it would ripen fully on the trip. It tasted awful. But when I left the fruit to ripen on the vine, the melons were usually half eaten by the time I returned. After all, these melons were extremely fragrant. If I were a rodent prowling the neighborhood, I'd want a bite too.

This year, I took a different approach. I planted the seeds in early April, and transplanted the seedlings in May, under row cover for warmth. I began to get fruit by June. By July, when DC was basking in 100-plus temperatures, everything was humming. 

Then I went to extreme measures. I bought a solar powered owl, which I propped up on a stake. The owl's head turns periodically (it actually freaked out my wife, who went to the garden and didn't know about the owl. She jumped when its head turned). So far I've had no pest damage. While this owl made for a helluva an expensive melon, I am enjoying my lucious, juicy and delicious fruit. And I bet it will work for my tomatoes too.

- Samuel Fromartz


What's the link between bladder infections, CAFOs and Missouri farmers?

I want to highlight a couple of stories we recently produced at the Food & Environment Reporting Network (@FERNnews on Twitter), where I serve as editor in chief. I'm pointing them out because I'm particularly proud of these stories and they took some time to come to fruition. 

The first, which appeared last week in a joint investigation with ABC News was reported by Maryn McKenna, a brilliant science journalist who focuses on nasty microbes (check out her recent book Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA). This past spring, she told me she had come across a number of studies that genetically linked the microbes in antibiotic-resistant bladder infections with antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in chicken. I immediately sensed there was a good story here, because bladder infections affect, as the story points out, one-in-seven women.

What was new, Maryn told me, was that the number of antibiotic resistant infections appeared to be rising, at least based on anecdotal medical evidence, since they are not officially tracked. Secondly, there was this curious link to the microbes in chicken, which develop resistance because chicken are fed antibiotics to promote growth and prevent illness. (For a more in-depth look at this issue, read Maryn's story FERN produced in collaboration with The Atlantic.)

Although the researchers had, in effect, genetically fingerprinted the bacteria, the question arose whether chicken causes the infections. The researchers assert that chicken are a likely and important source of these highly resistant infections, although as Maryn points out, establishing that in a scientific experiment would be unethical because it would risk infecting healthy subjects with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The chicken council also issued a press release questioning the link and we quoted these scientists in the Atlantic item mentioned above. 

The second story, "Whose Side Is the Farm Bureau On?", which ran at The Nation, concerned the big agricultural lobby (and insurance firm) known as the Farm Bureau. The Farm Bureau puts itself forward as the voice of family farmers but reporter Ian Shearn, a Pulitizer Prize winner, focused on a case in Missouri that showed how the bureau actually operates. When giant CAFOs were polluting the waters around small farms, not only did the bureau support the CAFOs, but it pushed for state legislation that would limit civil suits against such operations. Those suits were being filed by small farmers. 

Unlike Maryn's health story, Ian's focused on farmers, but the link between both of them were the practices of concentrated animal operations. While these operations produce plentiful and inexpensive food, they have costs that ripple through society -- whether in being the likely source of recurrent bladder infections commonly suffered by women or in the pollution suffered by Missouri farmers. In short, these stories put a cost on cheap food.

- Samuel Fromartz

Here's the video from the joint investigation between FERN and ABC News.

Crop insurance - safety net or $9 billion boondoggle?

One of the toughest things about the 1,080 page Farm Bill is to write about it in a way that's accessible to readers, since the policy touches everything from agriculture to food stamps. Rather than cover the whole thing, the Food & Environment Reporting Network, where I serve as editor, decided to focus on one element: crop insurance.

The piece by Stett Holbrook, running on, begins:

Here’s a deal few businesses would refuse: Buy an insurance policy to protect against losses – even falling prices -- and the government will foot most of the bill.

That’s how crop insurance works.

The program doesn’t just help out farmers, however. The federal government also subsidizes the insurance companies that write the policies. If their losses grow too big, taxpayers will help cover those costs.

In the farm bill now making its way through the Senate, crop insurance will cost taxpayers an estimated $9 billion a year.

Never heard of it? This isn't your mother's car insurance, nor the home policy you have to cover disasters. No, this is a program that insures that farmers make the revenue they expect from crop sales. It's hard to imagine anything else like it in the business world, which is why one fund manager who buys farmland in the U.S. was quoted as saying in the Financial Times:

"I don’t know of any other business where you can insure 90 per cent of your P and L (profit and loss),” said an adviser to large farmland investors. “There’s a lot more understanding in the institutional world about this than you might think”.

In other words, investors are buying up farmland in part because the government makes sure they won't lose money. For details on how the program works -- and how crop insurance companies make money even when disasters strike -- read the rest of the article on msnbc.