Products for Which I Am Not Optimistic on the Possibility of Long-Term Survival

The product is filtered water in disposable plastic trays.

“But,” you say, “I’m not sure I see why I should want this product, and as advertising apologists tell us, I am entirely rational and will only buy the products I truly want. Is there anything on the Aqua Ice website that might help motivate me?”

Well, how about an alarmist FAQ? What if I told you that:, an online resource center for food safety reported that in the summer of 1999, an outbreak of E. coli at a drill team camp in Denton, Texas, infected 58 people and caused severe gastrointestinal illnesses in 41 individuals. Experts believe that the cause of this outbreak was contaminated ice – the campers were using their hands to scoop ice out of the machine and contaminated the ice. For one camper, the disease spread from her kidneys into her brain, causing high blood pressure, seizures, severe headaches and nausea.

Note that in this story, the bacteria came from the hands and was transmitted by the ice – if you touched this packaged ice with your E. coli-infested hands, it might have the same result, mightn’t it? Of course, even if you do touch it with your E. coli-infested hands, this ice doesn’t sit in a filthy ice machine.

They also helpfully point out these ways you can protect yourself from contaminated ice, including the diretion to clean ice-making machines once a week, as slime and mold can build up inside, allowing bacteria to grow and contaminate the ice, despite the cold temperatures.

Or, I’ll add, since they didn’t say this and you have to give them a little bit of credit for at least letting the consumer make the link and not totally spelling it out, you could just buy filtered water packaged in disposable plastic trays.

A friend’s response to this product was “The people responsible for this should be forced to pick every single one of those disposable plastic trays out of every landfill they end up in.”

If this lasts five years, I will buy everyone in my family a case. See you in 2011, Aqua Ice. (Just watch, it’ll go like bottled water and then I’ll be sorry.)


Today’s Agriculture Moment

This is, for those of you who don’t have the pleasure of seeing such a thing on a regular basis, a field of onions. It’s one block from Highway 99 (the 99 to you real Californians) on my way to work.

This is still weird for me, being from Fairfax County, Virginia, where the major crops are laws and influence.

A couple days in a row last fall, I watched this field getting planted (by hand) while waiting at the stoplight. Before that, I had driven by while they were cleaning the field from the previous year. It had been red onions, and they looked very dramatically bright and purple when piled up on the dull and sandy earth.

The Longest Bloom

I was talking to a stone fruit grower this week – a guy in his late 50s at least – who said this bloom is the longest-lasting one in his memory. I had a sense that it was stretched out, but I’m a real newcomer in this business at two years. (A fair number of the people I sit around tables with on a regular basis were literally born into this work.)

Bloom typically starts around President’s Day; it was right on time this year. Most trees are in leaf now – small leaves – but there are definitely still blooms hanging on out there in a few orchard blocks.

An extended bloom period isn’t harmful; a short bloom or a long bloom can yield just as good a crop. What it does affect, though, is the exact window when the fruit must come off the tree.

In a short bloom, pollination is compressed into a smaller window, which means more fruit comes ripe at once. Stone fruit can’t be left to hang on the tree (like oranges) or held in long-term storage (like apples) – it has to be picked and on its way, pronto. So a short bloom means more fruit all at one time, which makes harvesting easier, because it’s all ready at once. However, it also means there’s a lot of fruit available at the same time – a spike in the crop – with all that can entail.

A long bloom means ripeness will be more staggered. Additional passes through the orchard will be needed to harvest the fruit at the right stage, as it’ll be maturing more gradually. That’s more work, but the upside of those multiple passes is that fruit will be coming into the market in the same way it’s being harvested – bit by bit. The gains of more controlled pacing are somewhat offset by the added cost for more rounds through the orchard.

So why the long bloom this year? It’s been cool and rainy. I keep finding myself thinking, “Hey, the weather’s not half bad,” which, when I’m thinking it, usually means the weather is atypical for central Californina.

The cool weather slows the trees down. It also slows down the bees that are necessary to pollinate plums – they don’t fly when it’s below 60 degrees Fahrenheit or raining or if the wind is blowing 15 mph or more, and at least one and sometimes all three of those conditions have been the case for many of the days this month. It’s kept the bees in their hives knitting antennae warmers.

The long bloom also makes for an awfully pretty commute; the last ten miles or so of my drive are lined with orchards and vineyards on both sides. The picture above was taken on my way home from work today.

An Ordinary Dinner

One day almost two years ago now, I was chopping carrots for split-pea soup. We had returned from a trip a couple days before and there wasn’t that much in the house. Split-pea soup – with chipotles for smoke flavor and copious butter to impart some of the fattiness that ham would – was one of my standard end-of-the groceries dishes. Butter, onions, garlic, a chipotle, carrots, some fresh herb if there was some in the fridge.

It was May 29, 2004, 5:45 p.m., three hours and twenty minutes after the linked post above. Having cut the carrots lengthwise, I began to cut them crossways into neat bits the size of the split peas so the dish would be harmonious, when what felt like an invisible wall of water slamming into my back and sucking me away from shore came over me. I felt frightened and disoriented; I set down my knife and gripped the edge of the counter, holding myself up, and reassured myself that I was just feeling momentarily strange for some indefinable reason, probably just one in my occasional series of panic attacks, and that it would pass if I would just keep breathing normally.

To make a long story short and sort of cliched, I am still waiting.

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Foodservice Solutions

Spotting foodservice needs through the solutions on offer always makes me feel like I’ve learned something. Some recent favorites…

French fries are not just french fries…there are fresh-style chips (Obligatory Creepy Anthropomorphized Food with Overly Large Eyes Alert! Hooray!) and unique shapes to make mealtime entertaining, plus fries designed to be especially long-lasting or both unusually shaped and higher-yielding. You devotees of roller-grill cuisine will be pleased to know there’s a product to accompany the taquito and hot dog in their endless back-and-forth journey until you show up at 2 a.m., drunk and as such, posessed of an indiscriminate palate, perhaps.

Crab cakes, too, have an enormous set of distinctions among them – six in this section, including boardwalk style and bakeable. I had a co-worker for a while who would order a crab cake at any restaurant we visited where one was available and note with detail what made it unique. She didn’t get quite to the level of specification that these product descriptions do, but I now suspect that more of the crab cakes she was analyzing were pre-made – and perhaps the same ones from place to place – than I would have originally thought.

Sometimes these solutions hurt a little bit. I know that most things come into the back of a chain restaurant frozen or at the very least pre-bagged, but I was terribly saddened recently to catch a glimpse into the kitchen of an Indian restaurant I go to fairly regularly and discover that mango lassis come pre-bottled.

I had assumed – perhaps naively – that there was something smoothie-like going on in the kitchen, with fresh mangoes or frozen mango chunks. At this restaurant I’d had a particularly good one, perfumed with rosewater, and to realize that it was a bottled drink, and as such might have contained ingredients that could have caused me to take a pass on it if I had read the label in a supermarket made me sort of sad. One more illusion of the craftwork of a professional kitchen shattered.

Then there are the problems that the home cook just doesn’t have that are a little disturbing to think about – like the need for your cooking medium to resist darkening and gumming on the grill.

Most intriguing, perhaps, are the clear descriptions of the problem with vague descriptions of how the product solves it. In reading the trade papers the last few weeks, I keep seeing a campaign for ConAgra’s Amplify with a little kid messily slurping from an enormous spoonful of soup.  This is a product that promises “salt flavor enhancement.” I’m all in favor of salt flavor – potato chips being my drug of choice – but I’m not sure exactly what “peptide and amino acid technology” means. It sounds like MSG might be involved.

I should have gone after that food science degree too.

Soup Technique

I made a recipe I haven’t used in years last night and was reminded of a good broth technique for vegetarian soups.

When I was about 20, I received Yamuna Devi’s book Lord Krishna’s Cuisine. It was my go-to cookbook for years, as I made my way through it, learning what urad badis were and how to combine spices and make homemade milk fudge. My copy reflects all of that. It’s yellowed and turmeric-stained and a little wavy on some pages from wet fingers repeatedly turning from the first page of a recipe to the second.

Many of the recipes have copious notes from my first attempts in the margins. I made this on January 10, 1996. I’ve written around the illustration of the spine being sliced off a cabbage leaf that there was a huge snowstorm the night before – about 2 feet of snow was on my car that morning.

This is a fine winter-ingredients soup – cabbage, carrots, nothing unusual there. However, what sets it apart is its approach to creating the broth.

Broth can be an issue in vegetarian soups, and that’s where this recipe shines. Chicken or beef stock is a quick way to create flavor in non-veg soups. For herbivores, there’s always the option of vegetable bouillon – I love this stuff from Organic Gourmet, as the paste form feels more flexible to me – and somehow more foodlike – than a pre-measured bouillon cube. The problem with always relying on bouillon is that all your soups tend to come out tasting the same.

In this recipe, split lentils and coriander seeds are covered with boiling water and allowed to steep for an hour, then ground until smooth in a food processor. Aromatics are added later in the process. This creates a smooth, creamy-textured, lightly spiced broth without the soup becoming overtly a lentil soup. It’s wonderfully delicate and flavorful.

The dal called for by the recipe is toovar dal, also spelled as tuvar dal or toor dal. They’re yellow split peas, basically. Devi suggests substituting moong dal for variety; I used the moong dal pictured above.

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White Flour

I don’t put much time in at the regular supermarket. I end up there on occasion when I need aluminum foil or dried chilies, but most of the time I’m living in my little specialty foods retailer cocoon.

Before we moved to California in 2003, I went to Meijer every week in Michigan, along with the health food store and oftentimes the bakery and, in season, the farmers’ market.

Before we moved to Michigan in 2000, I had been working for Whole Foods for five years, and with a 20% discount, there was no reason to go anywhere else.

I’m fascinated by the regular grocery store whenever I’m there. I grew up with regular supermarkets – the red and orange A&P logo on the front of the market my family shopped at in New England is one of my earliest memories.

I remember the logo’s shape-commonality with pills my father took while he was battling Hodgkin’s disease and the coated licorice Good & Plenty candies that I ate, mimicking his daily pill-swallowing routine and offering them to him with childhood-magical-thinking-surety that they would make him not sick any more.

In Virginia, we shopped at Safeway store #0002 and then the Giant when it opened down the street, plus the dreaded weekend-afternoon eating trips to the commissary that fill the childhood memories of lots of military dependents. When you started filling the second cart, you knew the end was in sight.

But I’ve been away from the supermarket so long, and away from the standard American diet even longer, that I’m sort of amazed by what I find there and what’s happening. I’ve always been a casual grocery cart anthropologist – I roped a date using this habit when I was working at Whole Foods by saying Hey, that’s great tofu, isn’t it? – but looking at people’s carts at Whole Foods is of limited interest. There’s the person who clearly buys all her produce elsewhere and the couple who buy six bottles of wine at a time and the family who ring up a gargantuan bill with meat and prepared foods.

At the regular supermarket, though, I get to see what most people are really buying. To tell the truth, I mostly find this depressing.

Continue reading “White Flour”