I was in New York recently, and the cab driver noticed me looking around and
asked if there was something bothering me. I could kind of tell what he was
thinking — he had a beard and a turban, and there was quiet chanting in
Arabic coming out of a speaker somewhere. I told him that I was looking at
the snow — that where I live, we don’t see snow very often, so this
was interesting to me. Which was true — it was beautiful.
Anyway, when we got to the hotel, and I was paying, I asked, “Is it
And he said it was. So I said, “Good idea, with all this traffic.”
And he said, “Good idea anyway.”
And I agreed: “These are terrible days.” And he agreed with that.
I am so sad that we are being pitted against each other the way we are these
days, so I am doing what I can to remind us — although I am preaching to
the choir by writing to foodies — that diversity is delicious.
Over the past several months, I’ve been taking a deep dive into cheese, with the result that I know feel that I know less than I ever did. I have, however, had a great deal of fun becoming so ignorant.
Click the cover image below to see what I’ve learned along the way.
I stumbled across the phenomenon that I documented in a Gourmet News story called “Incubating Greatness in Shared Kitchen Spaces,” and it turned out to be a very fulfilling adventure. It started when I called some folks who’d become finalists for sofi Awards, the Specialty Food Association’s award for product innovation, and Kendra Coggin, the maker of Pernicious Pickling Company’s Pickled Carrots: Ginger & Spice, told me that she was making her pickled products in an incubator kitchen in Costa Mesa, California. Then I talked to Laurie Pauker of Laurie & Sons, who went on to win a sofi Award for her Dangerously Delicious Black Licorice Chocolate Toffee, and she told me that she also was working in an incubator kitchen. And then, at the Summer Fancy Food Show this year, I met the folks from Pipsnacks, whose Kettle Pipcorn won a sofi Award in the sweet snack category, and was told that their company had started in an incubator kitchen, moved into a second incubator as it grew, and was just about to move into its own space. By then it was more than clear that something very interesting is going on.
These kitchen incubators are structured to fill the gap between a cottage industry food producer and a business that’s ready to expand into regional sales — a gap that’s caused by the capital requirements of setting up in business to sell food to strangers. As you can read in the article, some of them are publicly funded, some are privately-owned, and they offer a range of facilities and services from simple rentals of processing kitchen space to one-stop-shops offering an array of educational and consulting services along with physical space.
While sales of organic foods are booming in this country, the number of acres actually devoted to producing that food is going down. What’s happening is that the American demand for organic food is driving us to import more, and we haven’t made it worthwhile for enough American farmers to turn to organic production. On the other hand, American farmers are exporting organic apples, lettuce, grapes, spinach and strawberries — just not enough to balance out all of the organic food we’re now importing. You can read more about this in an article I wrote for Gourmet News that you can find here.
This is very serious, and although it applies only to organic agricultural production, it’s an important symptom of what’s really happening to our American food system. In the United States, we’re used to thinking of ourselves as the nation that feeds the world, but we’re rapidly losing farms and farmers along with the wealth of agricultural knowledge that’s inside their heads. The average age of the American farmer is climbing towards 60, and as these farmers age out of farming, many of them have no succession plans for their land and operations. If this doesn’t change, it’s going to threaten our food supply and it’s going to result in the abandonment of this land or its redevelopment for other uses that will rob us of the important wildlife habitat that our farms provide as well as the other benefits that come from healthy land.
It appears that if you’re buying the cheapest olive oil you can get at your discount supermarket, you’re probably not getting extra virgin olive oil, regardless of what it says on the label. The olive oil experts say that it’s just not possible these days to make a quality extra virgin olive oil that’ll sell for $6 or $7 for a liter. What’s most likely really in that bottle is a blend of extra virgin olive oil with lower grade oils or refined oils. It’s all actually olive oil, since it’s easy to detect if the olive oil was blended with other vegetable oils, but it’s not likely to offer the health benefits that consumers are expecting when they decide to give olive oil a try. You can read more about all of this in an article I wrote for Gourmet News with Gaea North America CEO David Neuman, Extra Virgin Alliance Co-Founder Alexandra Devarenne and Maria Reyes, who’s a director, vendor management at KeHE Distributors.
Over the past few months of listening to farmers from coast to coast, it has become increasingly clear to me that our noble-hearted attempt to try to make sure that everyone in our country has enough nutritious food to eat has gone heartbreakingly awry. Rising childhood obesity rates and the news that we are raising a generation of children whose lives may be shorter than our own coupled with frightening statistics about the number of children in this country who are living with food insecurity makes it clear that we are failing at the most basic level.
At the other end of our food supply chain, the country that we like to think of as a food pantry for the world is now importing more and more of our food and the low prices that farmers receive for their crops has driven many, many of them out of business. It’s really saddening to take a look at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s statistics on the financial well-being of our nation’s farmers — and if there’s one area where there’s wealth in this country’s agriculture system, it’s in the statistics by which we measure it — and realize how very precarious it is to be a farmer in this country in this day and age.
As a country, we have demonstrated a profound lack of respect for the people who produce our food. We haven’t even respected them enough to pay them properly for the food they grow for us, and we’ve encouraged them to run their operations in a way that has proven to be vastly more beneficial for other areas of our economy than it ever was for our agriculture. The only solution in sight for any or all of this: we just have to reverse course on our decades-long effort to drive food prices through the floor. It’s been ruinous for farmers, and it hasn’t even solved the problem of giving our children enough good food to eat.
Read more here in a story I wrote after hearing Joel Salatin speak this year at the Natural Products Expo East.
Like many others interested in food, I have been following with interest the political conflict over whether food manufacturers should be required to label their products if they include genetically engineered ingredients. The outpost position is that perhaps manufacturers should be required to label their products if genetically modified organisms have been used at any stage of processing, including if the product contains meat from animals that were fed genetically modified corn, even if the end products themselves contain no trace of altered DNA. At the other end of the spectrum are the folks who think we should continue today’s voluntary practice of labeling products as GMO free. And of course, there are the folks who say this is all a tempest in a teapot.
In the mix, there are people who have contributed thoughtful comments to the discussion from their various points of view. You can read here what I have written for Gourmet News about Gary Hirshberg’s opinion that a possible link between glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, and cancer coupled with scientific data that shows that glyphosate has been found in water and soil samples in regions where it has been sprayed heavily ought to be enough to convince us that it’s time to require GMO labeling. Hirshberg is the former president and current chairman of Stonyfield Organic and the founder and chairman of the advocacy organization Just Label It!
To those who fear that the use of genetically engineered crops presents a danger to the safety of our nation’s food supply, Dr. Gregory Jaffe, Director of the Project on Biotechnology for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, had good news. You can read more about that here.
I’ve had the amazing experience this summer of spending a great deal of time learning about cheese and the people who make it, starting with a visit to northern California to learn how they were coping through the historic drought that has significantly affected the entire state’s water supply over the past few years. Unlike most other natural disasters, drought is a slow motion catastrophe: it’s not one dry winter or summer that’s necessarily disastrous — it’s the cumulative effects of too little water falling down onto a thirsty land. This year, California was a very thirsty land, but I found farmers there dealing with it with courage, conscientiousness and a deep sense of responsibility to their community. The story of that trip is documented in the fall edition of The Cheese Guide from Gourmet News, and you can see it here.
In addition, I had the pleasure of renewing my acquaintance with some of the folks I met in California at this year’s annual meeting of the American Cheese Society — an event that the organization calls Cheese Camp, which is just about as good a two-word description of the mood of the three-day event as you’re ever going to get. In addition to celebrating the best of this year’s American artisanal cheeses, the very best of which turned out to be a Canadian cheese called Celtic Blue Reserve from Glengarry Fine Cheese in Ontario, Canada, the event is an education in the art and craft of both contemporary American Originals cheeses and traditional Old World varieties, an update on regulatory issues affecting cheesemakers and a chance to meet some very special cheesemakers and cheesemongers.
And there was cheese everywhere, whole roomfuls of it. Cheese for breakfast, lunch and dinner and after dinner. Cheeses I already knew and cheeses that were entirely new to me. Cheeses made by people I knew and cheeses made by people I still look forward to meeting. I loved every minute of it!