ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Salt, sugar and a Berlin farmers' market

Just a few days ago, Wal-Mart announced that it would push to cut the salt and sugar content of its processed food products. In the debate over this announcement -- was it enough? -- Jane Black hit the right note. Cutting sugar and salt from foods too quickly won't work because people are hooked on them. The effort will take time and the five-year timetable doesn't seem unreasonable. However, as Tom Laskawy points out, it makes no sense to leave national nutrition policy up to companies.  

Which brings me to Berlin, where I happened to be this past week on research for my book on bread. A chef I met told me that when he visited the U.S. he found food exceedingly salty. Made me think of those restaurants which rely on specialty salts to season their dishes right before they're served: the bright note highlights certain flavors ... or does it? Salt can also be a culinary crutch, a quick fix to entice the palate. And I've got to say, in eating around Berlin, in take-away joints, pubs and sit down restaurants, the food is less salty and no one seems to have a problem with it. 

Now, back in DC, I eat most of my meals at home and don't rely on processed foods. I try to be rather judicious with salt, but even so, I've had food here that tasted under-seasoned. I had a wonderful split pea soup at the farmers' market in Prenzlauer Berg in East Berlin, for example, and found it very mildly seasoned, but it was richly flavored with spices and dill. Instead of salt there was vinegar at the tables where people stood and ate and it did the trick when I added a few drops. (Soup at a farmers' market? Actually there were few farmers here -- mostly venders selling prepared foods and drinks, from wine to olives, soups, bread and handmade Turkish flatbread with fillings). 


Smoked fish is also usually very salty when you buy it in the states but I've found it less so here (he said, just having consumed a bagel, frischkase und lachs -- cream cheese and lox). It's not that they avoid salt, but people appear to use less of it. I'm finding the same thing with sweets too. Though I haven't consumed many, the afternoon cakes I've had were not cloyingly sweet.

The thing that doesn't seem to be in short supply is fat -- butter, of course, and the fat in meat-based products like sausages and brots that are extremely popular. What doesn't seem to be served much are greens and salads. I miss them. I've had enough cabbage and root veggies for awhile.

The bread -- or, rather, I should say, the hand-made artisan breads -- are also wholly different. They are filled with hefty whole grains, which is why I'm here. Eating a slice or two in the morning (with a bit of butter) will keep you going for a long time. This isn't like the airy baguettes or ciabattas everyone seems to like these days but exceedingly dense loaves spotted with coarse grain and seeds. Mixing these doughs at the bakery where I worked was eye-opening, since they hardly appeared like wheat-flour doughs. They were like whole grain breakfast cereals shaped into loaves. In fact, my idea when I get home is to try making them with a seven-grain mix and whole grain flour and see how they turn out.

We have gotten used to a lot of sugar, salt and refined flour in the U.S. -- which contribute to many diseases. But it doesn't have to be that way. And it doesn't mean the food will be bad, or lacking in taste, if we shift away from them. But it will be different and it takes time to get used to the change. But here's the thing -- once you do change, the old stuff just doesn't taste the same any longer. Once you've crossed over, highly refined carbs taste like what they are: treats not staples, and ones that are often too salty.

- Samuel Fromartz 

The School Food Revolution Will Be Televised

In an interview with Brit chef and self-styled food revolutionary Jamie Oliver, John Hockenberry over at the Takeaway says "I can't decide if you're the Kung Fu Zen master or The Beatles invading our shores."

What Hockenberry's referring to of course is Oliver's "The Food Revolution," which began airing last Friday on ABC and has its second episode tomorrow. The conceit: Oliver visits Huntington, West Virginia, a town of 50,000 that ranks highest in obesity in America, and tries to change its eating habits through the entry point of the school cafeteria.

The reception Oliver receives is neither one a Zen master or The Beatles would expect. Instead of quiet disciples or cheering teen-age girls, the chilly school lunchroom staff wonder just what the hell he's up to. I sympathized with them, after all, the idea that Oliver is launching a food revolution in the U.S. is, well, a tad overplayed, ya think? Regardless, he has a point to make, one which needs to be made given the sad state of our diet.

By the looks of it, Huntington is eating a lot of junk, through really no more than the rest of country. What sort of "food"? Pizza for breakfast at school, chocolate and strawberry flavored milk (which The Slow Cook pointed out was nearly indistinguishable from Mountain Dew), chicken tenders, followed by chicken tenders, followed by chicken tenders. The only real food on the school menu is the fresh-baked bread the school kitchen makes but most of which sadly ends up in the rubbish bin, as the Brits call it. Mashed potatoes form when water is added to a pearly substance. When Oliver makes roast chicken -- gosh! real chicken, not frozen stuff - the staff is nearly in shock but the kids don't bite. They go for the pizza, again.

When Oliver pitches his plan to local radio host DJ Rod, he's nearly spit-roasted. "We don't want to sit around and eat lettuce all day," Rod says. "Who made you the King?" What Rod doesn't seem to get is that his neighbors are dying more quickly because of what they eat. But maybe he can't get past the messenger.

Oliver clearly has his work cut out for him. In one home, he cooks up the mom's usual daily fare -- pizza, chicken tenders, corn dogs, donuts, etc., etc., without a fresh vegetable in sight. The family ends the scene by burying the fat fryer in the backyard.

Oliver's not alone here. In fact, the series coincides with the rather rich debate going on over school lunch and childhood obesity. You have Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, the passage by a Senate panel of a modest increase in the school lunch budget, the enormous and significant work of Renegade Lunch Lady Chef Ann Cooper, and on and on. For another take, check out Fed Up with School Lunch, which features daily offerings at a Chicago school cafeteria by an anonymous teacher who's actually eating the stuff, every day! Clearly a revolution is underway, but it's only just getting going.

The first episode of The Food Revolution is on Hulu if you missed it. When you get finished watching Oliver's trials, check out this talk Chef Ann gave three years ago at TED.

- Samuel Fromartz

Pollan's New Project - Your Family's Food Rules

Michael Pollan pressed readers of the NYT Well blog to post their family tips on smart eating, pursuing his thread that traditional, ethnic or family wisdom has more to offer than scientists and nutritionists.

In one day he got more than 1,200 comments (though a tech glitch prevents most of them from appearing, for the moment). Here are a few:

  • When (my grandmother) made her famous babka, you were never sure if it was a ‘cake’ or a ‘bread’ because she only used enough sugar to give you the illusion of it being sweet. TOO SWEET was never an option in her baked goods.
  • Eat a little of everything; take your time; enjoy your food.
  • “Don’t eat plastic food.” In other words, if it’s not a real ingredient, you don’t want it–this applies to faux sugars, chemical additives, fake colors, etc.
  • My main food rule is “cook your own food from scratch.” This was as much a food rule growing up in my family as it was a budget rule.
  • My grandmother always used to say: “Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper.” She always kept her slim figure and she never had to diet.
  • Eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, my family got a wok and made a lot of stir fries. We learned a little bit of meat goes a long way -- a rule I live by today. Another rule I try and live by though admittedly don't always succeed in following -- at least two sides of veggies with dinner; if we're eating vegetarian that night, it means at least three (including easy ones like raw carrots or hummus).
- Samuel Fromartz

Your Thanksgiving Challenge?

...To lose 10 pounds. Not.

Actually, Eat Well Guide and Consumers Union are launching a challenge you can eat -- a local and organic Thanksgiving. “Withthe holidays around the corner, and fuel-inflated food costs soaring, this is the perfect time to use our interactive Eat Well Guide to find locally produced turkey, fruit, vegetables, baked goods, dairy, meat and more, wherever you live,” says Eat Well Guide Director Destin Joy Layne. Post your recipe and check out those by Dan Barber, Mario Batali and Alice Waters on the Consumers Union site.

Another resource: The Local Harvest Catalog, which has a Thanksgiving section. I buy award-winning Pennsylvania garlic from Farmer Troy though that site (he also comments on the blog so it's mutual).


Also, many farmers markets have extended hours ahead of Thanksgiving or are opening up if they've already shut down for the season, Edible Chesapeake reports. The magazine also has a good read - and taste test - on heritage turkeys. The top bird: the Midget White which was actually bred in the 1960s.

 - Samuel Fromartz

Image: Turkeys at Nicks Organic Farm in Maryland

Junk Food: A Recession Diet?

My friend, the DC restaurant critic Tim Carman, has an interesting theory about why junk food sales are up and it has nothing to do with trading down.

Goes like this. When people get laid off and feel like crap, they eat crap. Which is why McDonald's sales are rising while Starbucks' are falling. Why not Starbucks? Because people don't need a caffeine jolt when they're worried about their job and finances. They want comfort food. Greasy food. Interesting theory. But for my comfort food, I'll take spaghetti carbonara. And no, it ain't junk. (Image from flickr)

Ceder Rapids Digs Out, After the Flood

Blend pic On an extended trip to Iowa this summer, we trekked over to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to visit longtime friend, Karen Vander Sanden. Karen also happens to be the spokeswoman for Mercy Medical Center which was evacuated during the city’s devastating June floods.

Five weeks earlier, an estimated 9.2 miles (which is roughly 1,300 city blocks) sat immersed in murky flood water when the Cedar River crested at unprecedented levels. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, we drove slowly through block after block of total wreckage, and our hearts sank with the realization of what flood victims are actually up against. It’s one thing seeing it on television. Quite another when you’re seeing it first-hand.

Different colored placards were tacked to front doors to indicate if a house was safe to enter, and while the river had receded weeks earlier, abandoned homes still sat with clotheslines that sagged with now filthy items that had been hung out to dry the day the flood hit. From the street, we could still see watermarks that stopped at rooflines and devastated lives.

Downtown was heartbreaking too. Electricity had just been restored earlier that week, but it had the feeling distinct feeling of a ghost town.

Andy Deutmeyer, chef and owner of Blend says it was a long eight-days of being shut out of his downtown restaurant. Once inside, he discovered that the water had risen to nearly five feet.

“It was a breathtaking sight. You didn’t know what to say, or where to start, or what to do. We didn’t even know how to start, so we started with the wine rack behind the bar, and after that, just started throwing stuff away,” said Deutmeyer, who hopes to reopen in October.

Fortunately, restored electricity wasn’t the only sign of recovery. An Adopt-A-Business program was launched last month, pairing hard-hit downtown businesses with companies that were less affected by the flood.

Zins, a fine dining restaurant also located downtown, was paired with RuffaloCODY, a company that specializes in fund-raising software. CEO Al Ruffalo says his company has provided Zins with access to his legal department to review their insurance polices, and to his marketing department which has been using email to update Zins’ customer base on the restaurant’s status. The company has also replaced several computers for the restaurant, and employees donated $2,000 and plenty of man-hours cleaning so construction can begin inside.

“They lost their restaurant, but on the positive side, if we do this right, their business will be better than ever,” said Ruffalo.

Karen Slaughter of the Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce says more than 600 businesses were damaged by the flood. While the Adopt-A-Business program can help, there’s a long waiting list for assistance. The news cycle has moved on, but they’re still accepting donations at the Job & Small Business Recovery Fund
Clare Leschin-Hoar

America-Jin Deska?

If you can't tell from the headline, I'm in Japan for a couple of weeks. I'll be posting more on this in a bit, maybe one night at 2 a.m. as the body continues to adjust to an 11-hour time difference.

Visiting relatives, we had some scrumptious greens along with several other dishes. Turned out to be broccoli rape.



Our Daily Bread - Wheat at a Record High


Wheat prices have surged 34 percent so far this year to a record $12 a bushel, with supplies at a 60-year low. Expect more posts soon on food prices, but already artisan bakers are feeling the pinch. Here's a few snippets from one baker's discussion board:

  • "Alberta Red winter (ARW) which I was paying $12.00 (20kg bag) for a year ago will be $27.00 for tomorrow's delivery. Every delivery it is going up."
  • "I too now join the ranks of the flour pricing oppressed. My supplier just raised my price for a 50 lb bag of GM All Trump from $17.55 to $29.95. Yes, the end may be near. Maybe I can be a barista next!"
  • "My spring wheat just went from $15.90 for a 50 lb. bag to $24.50 for 50 lbs. This is really crazy. I have called every flour supplier in my area and they are telling me to prepare for much higher prices than the $24.50 I am currently paying. The forecast by two of these suppliers was $30.00 a bag by April.

Ouch! I guess we'll see the price of a good loaf going up rather soon.

Update: Bakers are marching on Washington next month to "let our government officials know that there is a crisis happening to bakers of every type and size," according to a press release from the American Bakes Association.

Image source: Baguettes by your's truly, Fromartz.

- Samuel Fromartz