Wednesday, June 18, 2008


For the moment, at least, I'm writing about food here. Please come check it out -- there's more nutrition info and I've been trying to post more often...

Monday, May 26, 2008

This spud's for you, Jack.

J.R. Simplot passed away yesterday evening at 99. He has a fascinating life story that I first read about in a Rolling Stone article by Eric Schlosser 10 years ago, before Schlosser finished Fast Food Nation. He started out at 14 and made money from the minute he left home. He eventually learned how to freeze dry onions and potatoes for WWII and then when a food scientist figured out how to freeze potatoes without turning them into mountains of mush, Simplot figured out what to do with them: sell them to McDonald's. His company has been supplying them ever since, and as I've probably written, today's french fry is a complicated little thing, covered with a spray of maltodextrin and this and that for flavor and texture, etc. Simplot and Lamb Weston pretty much have the fry market sealed. But Simplot is a HUGE company and he owned something like a million acres of land and had investments everywhere. Anyway, you might want to read up on him since he's been a big part of your food landscape whether you knew it or not, and his is an interesting story. The poor guy fell on his head a year or so ago and I thought he was a goner, but he recovered and was calling friends over for a game of cards when he suddenly passed from a bout of pneumonia. What a life.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Slap that bitch up on a bun, bartendah!

Okay, so the Whopper is over the hill at 51, and some executives are trying to find a way to make it hipper and more appealing to the younger generation (the golden 18-24 demo, and believe me, most of them haven't cooked a thing in their lives, so how much of a stretch is it to get their business?). Enter the Whopper Bar. When I read it in print without a picture I though they were somehow going to try to make the damned thing into a bar shape, but that's just because I don't get "contemporary syntax" on account of my being out of the demo, hopelessly uncool, and obviously more mentally hitched to the idea of chocolate than bellying up for meat on a bun. The concept: a custom burger joint that fits into a small space with high output, and you can order your burger however you like, or choose from burgers like The Angry Whopper (spicy onions...), the Texas Double Whopper (bacon, jalapenos), etc.

Can we name our own? I'd like a Fat Cheesy Bastard Whopper (3 patties 5 pieces of cheese). Or an I Just Told A Whopper (1 onion ring, hiding). I'm feeling younger and more refreshed by the Whopper Bar already.

It's a good concept for selling burgers, as much for the possibilities afforded by dropping a tiny burger factory into a food court than merely for the novelty, but the quotes at the end of the New York Times story had me falling over laughing. The lack of awareness displayed by executives trying to explain the coolness of their concept is nearly always a laugh, but this one is just fab:

So, is this for real?

“Absolutely,” said Russ Klein, the company’s president for global marketing, strategy and innovation. “We have a tremendous amount of resources and passion and, most importantly, franchise fever over the prospects of this concept.”

Mr. Klein came up with the idea five years ago, while on a trip to a Burger King outlet in Germany. The franchise owners had set up a bar in the back of the restaurant, serving Whoppers and beer. (Alcohol won’t be appearing in the American incarnation.)

“Even just the syntax, the idea of a concept called the Whopper Bar, it’s very contemporary,” Mr. Klein said. “Like sushi bars, juice bars, oyster bars.”

The Whopper Bar will also feature a build-your-own option for customers hoping to customize their burger.

“The concept is like ‘Pimp My Ride,’ ” Mr. Klein said, referring to the MTV program about customized cars. “To take up your Whopper, make it your own, put you in charge.”

So much so that the company initially considered labeling the concept Pimp Your Whopper. But Mr. Klein quickly insisted that was an early idea that would most likely be abandoned.

“My guess is, we’re not going to use that language on our menu board,” he said.

What, no Bitch on a Bun Whopper?

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Vodka and vanilla: two tastes that go great together!

Oh those long vacations in the Netherlands…which allow people like this guy Ian to whittle away at his spare time with the joys of making…his own vanilla extract!?

There are so many things that benefit from vanilla, it’s just an amazing, weird little substance. As much as I like the stuff, I don’t know that making a quart of it would help matters much (vanilla vodka, anyone?). Ian from the Netherlands who is getting his PhD (in something not food science, but obviously something else that requires a technical mind), gathered a good bit of helpful info on vanilla, and there is much to be learned about the mighty bean (he even includes a link to the FDA standard for heaven’s sake).

For the rest of us, Trader Joe’s makes an excellent vanilla using bourbon and no other additives, which is why I’ll fork over the $4 it costs me to buy it instead of trying to buy vanilla beans and make it. Be sure to see Ian's sources for vanilla in case you should ever need some, however: at Whole Foods a single bean can cost $4-6!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Get properly blasted!

No, seriously. We're only 1 day into the new year, and lookie: One of the most wonderful-weird convenience foods ever to hit the refrigerator case: Batter Blaster. Steven clued me into this as he's a fervent reader of boing-boing.
Batter you shake and squirt, Reddi-Whip style, into the pan. Hilarious. Clever. Organic. Bizarre. I'm slightly horrified that our culinary prowess has come to this, yet I'm drawn to it like a moth to flame.

Whether it actually makes a good pancake is almost immaterial because if you're the sort of person looking to squirt pancake batter into a pan your expectations could really only be one very small stumble above stopping at McDonald's, or microwaving a pre-frozen breakfast. You're just willing to wash a pan (gasp!) and possibly a plate. And/or you're me, followed by a prancing child who in the morning expresses interest in ONE pancake, preferably from McDonald's because that's where the kids at school get their pancakes and it's so unfair because she's never gotten to go that magical place and anyway, she just needs something, just about anything in the house we can find, that can be dipped into that liquid gold, that passageway to childhood wakefulness that is real maple syrup. Must. Try. Cannot. Resist.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Rich, creamy...or, maybe not

Most people don't know that the government has something called a "Standard of Identity" for lots of the food we eat. And it might seem odd, but back around the turn of the century, one could add say, plaster of Paris into flour to increase bread weight -- or, okay, maybe poison -- and still call it "white bread." (And, maybe not just during the turn of the century but in modern day China using melamine to boost the protein content of wheat or rice gluten?!)

So. The Pure Foods and Drug Act of 1906, and eventually the birth of the FDA right around 1938. It's supposed to be an independent entity, not subject to politics, but the business over Plan B (the morning after pill) has once again proven that it just isn't so. The FDA is also supposed to inspect loads of food, but only looks at 1% of the billions of pounds of ingredient products entering our ports each year so it's all working out just swell. Or, was that Customs who was supposed to do that? USDA? Who can tell? Of course we could just grow our own damned ingredients, but we're all busy sending manufacturing and farming jobs overseas where they're cheaper. Just what is it we're doing around here anyway? (I'm starting to rant. Reh).

Anyway, to transition to something not quite as compelling, the chocolate titans are clashing over potential changes to the standard of identity for chocolate (take the link, type in "chocolate" and read the second listing if you dare). Recently this issue came up when Kraft was found to be making guacamole with no avocados. The standards for chocolate include how much cocoa content, milk fat, etc. one must use to call the product "milk chocolate" (10% chocolate liquor; 3.39% milkfat) or "bittersweet chocolate" (35% chocolate liquor; generally no milk).

At stake: if the standard of identity changes and the government allows less milk fat in favor of canola oil and milk protein concentrate -- as the Grocery Manufacturers of America would like -- manufacturers can make cheap, and perhaps even lower fat chocolates (dark and milk varieties). This might undercut the growth of premium chocolate sales, so See's (YUM!) and Guittard (acc. to the L.A. Times) are peeved in the extreme. Funny though, Hershey's is all for it, which isn't surprising except that they recently purchased the giant yumminess that is Scharffenberger. I guess diversification means not having to worry.

From a food science perspective, they really have little to worry about, because chocolate made with cheaper ingredients and lower fat generally means lower quality and taste. It might work for a chocolate coating I guess. But if I'm eating 12 pounds of chocolate per year, as the article suggests we all do in America (and I'm guessing that I'm busting the average upward, especially during baking season), I'm eating the real thing.

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

"I could eat that every night!" -- The Cloning Issue

The FDA finally released their risk assessment about cloned animals today, and if you eat animals or any of their byproducts (like milk) you might want to hear this: They've been deemed safe for eating. This really isn't news -- it's been expected that the FDA would come to this conclusion for some time now, since the components of food from clones are largely the same as those from conventionally bred animals.


No labeling. And some people just don't like the idea. Should they have a choice in the matter? Well, the FDA wants to know what you think about that and the matter in general and will be taking public comment for the next few months on the matter. You can do that here (though as of today it wasn't set up -- wait a few days perhaps). The docket number is 2003N-0573 if you want to paste that into the search on the link.

My take on it: Clones do have problems. The fetuses die more often, and genetic expression can be off, causing a higher chance for the animal to die in the first 18 months. But surviving animals are direct genetic copies (the FDA likens it to twins delivered at different times). The animal may have problems, may be more susceptible to illness -- not a lot is known. These are expensive animals to breed and they are mostly used to promote desirable characteristics for breeding programs that produce conventional animals -- but when they outlive their usefulness, they might be on your dinner table.

When you eat food, your body denatures the proteins, and for good reason. Those proteins are foreign and were only of use to the food source. Your body needs to break food proteins down and rebuild them in ways that are usable to you. Dietary proteins are uncoiled by stomach acid and your digestive enzymes go to town, breaking them apart into individual amino acids. Your DNA then directs the rebuilding of amino acids into proteins for muscle, hair, nails, other DNA, hormones, organs, etc. Proteins you ingest include DNA from the food source itself, and you will probably be unaffected by that DNA, (though some proteins do pass through the digestive system without fully breaking down, hence the probably part). This is the reasoning behind the FDA's decision that the products of that animal, the meat, milk, etc. should be safe. Of course, you will still be susceptible to any diseases the animal might carry, etc.

But because scientists haven't fully explored the effects of cloning, I am for labeling such items. If they decide against it, marketers will be savvy enough to figure out what to do anyway: lots of GMO (genetically modified organisms) products are not labeled as such, but plenty of foods are labeled GMO-free for those looking to avoid them. I'm sure a Clone-Free beef sticker will find it's way onto the cellophane and a Clone-Free carton will bear your milk if it's perceived to be a problem.