Tom Philpott

The 9 Best Cookbooks of 2014

| Sat Dec. 20, 2014 5:09 PM EST

Another year, another spate of brilliant cookbooks. Here are the ones that made the biggest impression on me, in no particular order.

Bitter: A Taste of the World's Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes, by Jennifer McLagan. In 2005, nearly a decade before "bone broth" emerged as a craze, McLagan came out with Bones, a delicious defense of a culinary resource people normally discard. Three years later, when people like me were still mostly shunning the lard jar, she produced the equally excellent Fat, which she called an "appreciation of the misunderstood ingredient." McLagan, perhaps the most idiosyncratic and underrated cookbook author of our time, has now trained her powers on the stuff that makes you grimace the first time it hits your palate: radicchio, dandelion greens, hops, brassicas, chicory, citrus zest, coffee, etc. "Without bitterness we lose a way to balance sweetness," she instructs. "Food without bitterness lacks depth and complexity." Bitter brims with luminous mini-essays on the science and philosophy of taste, and delivers dozens of straight-ahead recipes that teach us to tame and celebrate the most challenging of the five basic flavors.

Great gift for: People with adventurous palates.
Killer dish: Dandelion salad with hot bacon and mustard dressing.
Dish I'm dying to try: Pork chop (bone-in, fat lined) in coffee and black currant sauce.

Bar Tartine: Techniques & Recipes, by Nick Balla and Cortney Burns. Based on a single meal several years ago, I've always assumed San Francisco's Bar Tartine—sister to the justly venerated Tartine Bakery—specialized in simple bistro food. So I wasn't overly excited when this substantial, beautifully produced tome arrived. But rather than deliver yet more versions of steak frites or coq au vin, the book reads like a manifesto written by radical gourmet homesteaders—one of the weirdest and most compelling cookbooks I've picked up in years. I got lost in the rabbit warrens of the opening "projects kitchen" section, where the authors lay out in detail all the stuff they make from scratch. "Our dairy program began humbly—with yogurt, sour cream, and kefir—and evolved to include all the products we currently use: blue cheese, pepper Jack, gouda, triple creams, feta, and fresh cheeses such as mozzarella, goat cheese, and farmers cheese," the authors declare. Whoa. Ever wondered how to make your own kefir butter? Balla and Burns have you covered. I had never heard of "black garlic" before. Turns out, "holding garlic at 130 F for two to three weeks renders the cloves as black as tar." Is that a good thing? "All of the characteristic sharpness disappears and is replaced with a molasses-like sweetness and an aroma reminiscent of licorice." Then there's the spice mixes. Forget, say, homemade curry powder. Think "charred eggplant spice," a powder that "tastes like the pure flavor of earth and smoke" (other elements: charred, dehydrated chile peppers, huitlachoche—a corn fungus—and green onions.) Surprisingly simple (but never obvious) recipes follow the opening section's wild innovations. I predict this book will be seducing and flummoxing me for years. Also, I've got to get myself back to Bar Tartine.

Great gift for: Anyone with radical gourmet homesteader tendencies; and jaded home cooks in search of inspiration.
Killer dish: Chilled beet soup with coriander & yogurt.
Dish I'm dying to try: Someday? Smoked potatoes in black garlic vinaigrette with ramp mayonnaise.
 

Plenty More: Vibrant Vegetable Cooking from London's Ottolenghi, by Yotam Ottolenghi. Have we reached peak Ottolenghi? That was my question when I cracked the latest from the ubiquitous London chef, whose classics Plenty and Jerusalem seem to grace the shelves of most everyone I know, and won a spot in my 2012 best-of list. Known for his colorful, vibrant, vegetable-centered Mediterranean fare, the London-based, Israeli-born chef has been profiled in The New Yorker and interviewed on every foodie podcast. Does he have anything more to say? Hell, yes. Plenty More ventures farther afield from the author's native Mediterranean region than his other works, copping techniques and ingredients from Thailand, Iran, India, and more. It draws you in with the delectable photography, and keeps you hooked with irresistible combinations: oranges and dates; beets with avocado and peas; leeks with goat cheese and currants; and so on. Ottolenghi isn't a vegetarian, but he's a wizard of vegetables, and a master at conjuring up hearty meals by combining them with grains and legumes.

Great gift for: Anyone who thinks vegetarian food is boring; anyone who likes to cook and eat.
Killer dish: Pea and mint croquettes.
Dish I'm dying to try: Fried umpa (an Indian semolina porridge) with poached eggs

Honorable mentions

In Afro-Vegan: Farm Fresh African, Caribbean & Southern Flavors Remixed, the Bay Area writer/chef/activist Bryan Terry pulls off a mean feat: He uses stylish, spicy vegan fare—light on tofu and heavy on grains, greens, and legumes—to lure readers into recognizing the "centrality of African-diasporic people in defining the tastes, ingredients, and classic dishes of the original modern global fusion cuisine—Southern food." Terry's argument is unassailable—as convincing as his gorgeous peanut stew with winter vegetables and cornmeal dumplings.

• Despite the ongoing gluten-free fad, bread is having its day, as are books on baking. No home baker will want to miss In Search of the Perfect Loaf, in which the food politics writer and editor Sam Fromartz visits the epicenters of the global baking renaissance—Paris, Berlin, San Francisco, etc.—talking to its main characters and committing an epic and appealing nerd-out (with recipes) in service of home-cooked leavened dough. In Josey Baker Bread, San Francisco's most celebrated young baker (yes, his name and vocation are identical) shows us how the pros do it.

• San Francisco's The Slanted Door is a fancy restaurant that applies Vietnamese techniques and condiments to Northern California's bounty. The Slanted Door, by chef-owner Charles Phan, is a surprisingly unfussy guide to working the restaurant's magic at home.

• For the drinkers on your list, American Spirit is a spirited guide to what author James Rodewald calls the nascent "craft distilling revolution." At the center of Rodwald's book is a scandal. Because of loose labeling laws, most of the "artisanal" liquor on the market involves clever businesspeople "rebottling something that had been made at a larger distiller and calling it their own." Rodewald profiles the (still relatively few) mavericks who actually are producing their own hooch—and teases out the considerable challenges of making great whiskey and other spirits on a small scale in an industry dominated by liquor giants and false marketing.

• After reading Rodewald, you'll want to sip something stiff. Death & Co.a sumptuous cocktail manual from the instant-legend East Village speakeasy of the same name—delivers dozens upon dozens of ideas for taking the edge off in high style. I can't imagine a more comprehensive snapshot of the mixology craze.

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The Best Food Books of 2014, Part 1

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 6:00 AM EST
A veritable feast of letters.

The publishing industry may be in the midst of a long, slow decline, but it's churning out a cornucopia of food books—and 2014 has been another banner year. In this post, I'll look at my favorites on the politics/culture front; here, I take on the cookbook beat.

• The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat, and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, by Nina Teicholz. This is the most provocative and assumption-shredding food book I've read in years. With exhaustive reporting and lucid science explication, Teicholz drives home her central thesis: that dietary fat, even (if not especially) the saturated kind, is actually good for us. But that's not even her most impressive feat. She also rips the halo from the so-called Mediterranean Diet (which she distinguishes from the actual diets consumed by Mediterranean dwellers), exposing it as one part sound science and three-parts olive oil industry-funded (you read that right) hokum. (I'm still reeling from the revelation that olive oil is a relatively recent addition to the Italian and Greek diets.) And she shows why the food industry's recent rush away from trans fats—whose evils she herself helped establish in a 2004 Gourmet article—may actually be a net negative for public heath. (Partial spoiler: Unlike trans fats, which are artificially hardened vegetable oils, liquid vegetable oils generate lots of "toxic oxidative breakdown products" when they're held at high heat for an extended time—as they are in fast food industry's fry bins.) All in all, a must read.

• Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, by Nicolette Hahn Niman. A longtime critic of industrial agriculture and a lawyer by training, Niman mounts a lawyerly case for pasture-based beef production. She does so from an interested position. She's the wife of Bill Niman, one of the nation's most celebrated grass-based ranchers. But critics who want to dismiss Niman's advocacy on economic-interest grounds have to grapple with the mountains of evidence she brings to bear. The main ecological question that haunts grass-fed beef involves climate change. Cows emit methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon, when they burp, which is often. But by grazing, they also promote healthy, flourishing grasslands, which suck carbon from the atmosphere and store it in soil. In doing so, they convert a wild vegetation that people can't digest into a highly nourishing foodstuff. So on balance, do cows contribute to or mitigate climate change?  The conventional view holds that the burps win. Niman casts more than reasonable doubt on that verdict. Citing loads of research, she argues that enteric emissions (methane from burps) are likely overstated and can be curtailed by breeding and techniques like abundant salt licks, and more than offset by the carbon-gulping capacity of intensive grazing (where farmers run dense herds through a pasture for a short time, and then give the land plenty of time to recover). She also shows that healthy pastures also provide plenty of other benefits, including habitat for pollinating insects and birds, which are declining rapidly as industrial grain farming—mostly for grain to feed confined animals—expands. Reading Niman alongside Teicholz makes you want to grill a steak—or, better yet, a fatty and nutrient-dense beef liver.

The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food, by Ted Genoways. If Defending Beef delivers a compelling vision for how meat can and should be produced, Genoways exposes—perhaps more clearly than any writer since Upton Sinclair—its massive human toll in an era of corporate dominance. Building on two long features published in Mother Jones (here and here), he lays out in withering detail the horrific conditions faced by workers in factory-scale slaughterhouses after decades of union busting and a relentless push to speed up the kill line. Having laid out the unsavory tale of the rare neurological disorder that overtook workers at a Spam factory in Minnesota in the mid-2000s, Genoways shifts to the plight of animals raised cheek-by-jowl in factory-like conditions, tended by workers under severe pressure to make them conform to their environment. Abuse—beating with sticks, kicking, etc.—is routine, Genoways shows; and the meat industry uses its considerable political clout to promote laws that ban efforts to expose it. Niman exhorts her readers to choose their meat "wisely and well"; Genoways reminds us of just how tricky that task is.

 

• The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America's Food Business, by Christopher Leonard. How did the meat industry amass such power? To answer that question, the veteran agribusiness journalist Christopher Leonard teases out the rise of Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, which evolved after the Great Depression from a small country business to the globe's largest meat company. Today, it slaughters and packs about a quarter of the beef consumed in the United States, and a fifth of the pork and the chicken. Tyson developed the highly lucrative model that would come to dominate US meat production: grab hold of the profitable bits of the supply chain (selling feed and meat) and foist the risky bits (actually raising animals) onto farmers working under contract. As Tyson and other meat companies scaled up, they enticed farmers to scale up, too—taking on huge crushing debt burdens to build massive high-tech barns, keeping them subject to the whims of the big processors. Leonard has written the best account I know of on the serf-like conditions faced by farmers who operate under the heel of the meat giants.

• American Catch, by Paul Greenberg. Most recent books on the state of the oceans suggest we're eating too much seafood—that overfishing strains fish populations and contributes to their impending collapse. They're probably right in global terms, but in American Catch, the excellent fish writer Greenberg shows that we Americans, at least, are eating too little of it—and that our fish-averse ways are contributing to ecological degradation, not just in the oceans that surround us, but also on land, particularly in population-dense regions like New York City and the Gulf Coast. In rollicking prose worthy of a novelist—Greenberg's vocation before he took up seafood as his great topic—he spins out a compelling argument that goes like this: Despite the 3.8 billion acres of ocean that lie in US territory along more than 94,000 miles of coastline, we eat just 15 pounds of seafood per capita annually (vs. about 200 pounds of meat and poultry)—and 91 percent of that paltry amount is imported. As a result, we have little incentive to maintain our coasts as robust ecosystems. And so we pave over vital marshlands and salt flats, leaving coastal cities vulnerable to the ever-harsher storms promised by climate change. And we foul coastal waters with agricultural runoff and the pollution from near-shore oil drilling, sacrificing an abundant source of wild, healthy food. American Catch will leave you craving a couple dozen US-grown oysters—and a beer to help ease your pain at the folly he describes.

• The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, by Dan Barber. Barber, a celebrated chef known for his obsession with farm-to-table cooking, offers a serious critique of the very trend that he rode to fame—and a vision for what comes next. The farm-to-table restaurant movement started in the 1970s, when chefs began to realize that decades of industrial agriculture had sapped ingredients of flavor. So they began to seek out more interesting produce from the few surviving small-scale farms, and helped spark a revival of agriculture focused on quality and flavor, not just volume and gross profit. But those innovative chefs never revised their vision of what Barbers labels the "first plate": a big chunk of corn-fed beef meat with a few vegetables on the side. "The steak was now grass-fed, the carrots were now a local, heirloom variety, grown in organic soil," he writes. "But inasmuch as it reflected all of the progress American food has experienced in the past decade, the striking thing about the second plate was that it looked nearly identical to the first." Using his considerable storytelling skills and his wide travels as fodder, Barber makes the case for a "third plate": a "new cuisine, one that goes beyond raising awareness about the provenance of ingredients and—like all great cuisines—begins to reflect what the landscape can provide." That is, a much more farm-centered, regionally adapted vision of the restaurant—one that puts what's being harvested at the center of the plate, not necessarily big, fancy cuts of meat. Bringing a Wendell Berry-like ecological vision to the role of the chef, Barber has produced a delicious read.

These Ubiquitous Chemicals May Be Making Us Stupid

| Tue Dec. 16, 2014 6:00 AM EST

You may not think much about the class of industrial chemicals called phthalates, which are used both to make plastics more flexible and to dissolve other chemicals. But you're quite likely on intimate terms with them. According to the Centers for Disease Control, they're found in "vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, plastic clothes (raincoats), and personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, and nail polishes)."

Because of their ubiquity, researchers routinely find phthalate traces in people's urine, CDC reports. Does it matter? "Human health effects from exposure to low levels of phthalates are unknown," the agency claims. But a growing body of research—summarized here and covered on Mother Jones here, here, here, and here—suggests they're causing us subtle but significant harm.

Kids exposed to the highest levels of two common phthalates in the womb had an IQ score, on average, more than six points lower than children exposed at the lowest levels.

The latest: A study from a team of Columbia University and CDC researchers, published in the peer-reviewed PLOS-One, found that higher levels of exposure to phthalates at the prenatal phase is correlated to lower IQ scores for kids at age seven. The researchers tracked 328 New York City women and their children through a project called the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH). They took urine samples during the third trimester of pregnancy, looking for traces of five different phthalates. Nearly all of the samples contained them. They divided the women into four groups, ranging from the lowest to the highest phthalate readings. Then they subjected their kids to intelligence tests at age seven, and—controlling for socioeconomic and lifestyle factors—found that the ones exposed to the highest levels of two common phthalates in the womb had an IQ score, on average, more than six points lower than children exposed at the lowest levels.

None of the exposure levels, the authors report, were unusually high—they fell "within the range previously observed among general populations."

The study builds on a similar one by the same team, published in 2012, that found that the preschoolers with the highest prenatal levels of exposure to phthalates showed lower mental and motor development than less-exposed toddlers. The new study suggests that these effects persist into school age—a disturbing finding. "We note that the consistency of the associations over time has implications for public health and regulatory policy," the authors declare. That's science jargon for: "shouldn't the the feds be doing something about this?" Currently, phthalates are banned from kids' toys, but beyond that, neither the Food and Drug Administration for the Environmental Protection Agency has taken any action to rein in their use.

In a press release from Columbia University that accompanied publication of the study, the researchers say that while it's "impossible" to completely avoid phthalates, we can minimize our exposure to them by "not microwaving food in plastics, avoiding scented products as much as possible, including air fresheners, and dryer sheets, and not using recyclable plastics labeled as 3, 6, or 7." That's great advice—for consumers in the know. But in the absence of federal action, the vast majority of people, including pregnant women, will continue being exposed to them, unaware of their potential downside. After decades of federal campaigns, excessive drinking while pregnant has acquired the whiff of social stigma. Using plastic in the microwave while expecting—much less using dryer sheets and air fresheners—not so much.

Tom's Kitchen: Latkes for Hanukkah

| Mon Dec. 15, 2014 1:31 PM EST

I'm a lapsed Catholic and confirmed anti-cleric, but that doesn't stop me from savoring religious culinary traditions. Judaism brims with them—and now, with Hanukkah upon us, it's time to think about one of that holiday's signature dishes: latkes.

Latkes to me are the ultimate potato pancake: hash browns goosed up with onions and an egg. They couldn't be simpler: You just grate potatoes and drain as much water as possible out of them, mix them with chopped onion and a beaten egg, and fry them on a hot skillet. From Cook's Illustrated—a journal upon which I confer near-Talmudic authority—I picked up an interesting tweak. If you let the potato water drain into a bowl, a clingy layer of pure potato starch will develop at the bottom—just pour off the water and it will be revealed. You'll want to beat the egg in that bowl and incorporate the starch—it gives the finished latkes a more robust texture.

Latkes
(About 10 pancakes)

 

3 medium potatoes, grated
1 small onion, minced fine
1-2 spring onion or scalion, white part and green part minced fine
1 egg
1 teaspoon of salt
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper
Oil that can withstand high heat with smoking, such as peanut or grapeseed

Place the grated potatoes in a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl. Press them with your fist or a wooden spoon to force as much water as possible out of them. Let the potato water sit in the bowl for a few minutes, and then pour it off. Marvel at the layer of starch that's left over. Crack the egg into the bowl and whisk it with a fork, making sure to incorporate that starch. Add everything else (except the cooking oil) and stir to incorporate with a wooden spoon.

Find your largest heavy-bottomed skillet  (preferably cast iron) and heat it over medium-high heat. Add enough oil to quite generously cover the bottom of the skillet. When the oil shimmers, grab a smallish (about a quarter cup) handful of the potato mixture and give it a squeeze to release any lingering liquid. Carefully place it on the hot skillet, and then gently press it down with a metal spatula. Repeat until the skillet is full, allowing a bit of space between each latke. Flip them as they turn golden brown, and cook until brown on both sides. When they're done, allow them to drain on a wire rack over a cookie sheet. Repeat until you're got no more batter.

They can be served just off the skillet, or reheated later in a medium-hot oven. Enjoy with apple sauce and sour cream. Happy Hanukkah!

This Glimpse Into Mexican Fruit and Vegetable Farms Is Heartbreaking

| Mon Dec. 15, 2014 1:19 PM EST

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The ongoing LA Times investigation of conditions on the Mexican farms that grow much of our produce (latest installment here) got me digging around for more information. That's how I how I found the above short documentary, Paying the Price: Migrant Workers in the Toxic Fields of Sinaloa, by the Mexico-based Tlachinollan Human Rights Center, a MacArthur-funded group that "defends the rights of the indigenous and poor people living in the mountain and Costa Chica regions of Guerrero, Mexico."

Paying the Price traces the movements of a group of workers from a tiny village called Ayotzinapa, in the southern state of Guerrero, north to a large produce farm in the ag-heavy state of Sinaloa, which churns out huge amounts of food for export to the US. (Ayotzinapa recently gained infamy after 43 students from a rural teachers college based there were kidnapped and probably massacred, under circumstances that are shaking the foundations of the Mexican state.)

The film—about 36 minutes long, subtitled in English—is extraordinary, because it includes in-depth interviews from a variety of players on a big farm that grows vegetables for the US and Canadian markets: everyone from the farm owner to several workers to the labor contractors that bring them together. The farm owner claims the workers get a good a good deal; the workers complain bitterly of pay so low that they leave the several-month stint of hard labor with little to show. Two highlights:

• Starting about at the 18-minute mark, there's a detailed and sensitive exploration of child labor. The LA Times piece reported that child labor has been "largely eradicated" at the mega-farms that directly supply huge US retailers like Walmart, but that it's still common on mid-sized farms, some of whose produce "makes its way to the US through middlemen." That's the case with the operation depicted in this video. The farm owner basically throws his hands up on the topic, claiming that the workers insist on having their children toil in the fields. By the end of the section, though, you realize that people wouldn't choose to commit their children to hours of hard labor if they weren't living in poverty and desperately trying to earn enough to survive.

• Starting about 25:50, there's a chilling section on pesticide use. We see crop dusters roaring over fields amid chemical clouds; men whose faces are covered in in little more than rags operating backpack sprayers; women complaining that nearly all the children in the camps are sick, some of it possibly linked linked to pesticide exposure, and that medical services are woefully inadequate; and worker advocates claiming that regulation of pesticide use is weak and enforcement nearly nonexistent.

In all, Paying the Price is essential viewing for anyone who wants to know what life is like for the people who grow our food.

The Horrifying Reason Why Your Fruit Is Unblemished

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 6:00 AM EST

Back in 2010, I visited a labor camp that houses some of the migrant workers who grow America's fruit and vegetables. I found people living densely in shantylike structures made of scrap metal and cinder block, surrounded by vast fields and long rows of greenhouses. Strangers in a strange land who didn't speak the language, hundreds of miles from home, they lived at the mercy of labor contractors who, they claimed, made false promises and paid rock-bottom wages. Like all Big Ag-dominated areas, the place had a feeling of desolation: all monocropped fields, mostly devoid of people, and lots of billboards hawking the products of agrichemical giants Monsanto and Syngenta.

Laborers are required to use hand sanitizer and keep their nails trimmed so that they don't damage the fruit.

You might think I had made my way to Florida's infamous tomato fields, or somewhere in the depths of the California's migrant-dependent Central Valley. Those places remain obscure to most Americans, but the gross human exploitation they represent has at least been documented in a spate of excellent recent books, like Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland, Tracy McMillan's The American Way of Eating, and Seth Holmes Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies. But I was somewhere yet more remote and less well-known: Sinaloa, a largely rural state in Mexico's northwestern hinterland.

If most Americans have heard of Sinaloa at all, it's because of the state's well-earned reputation as a center of Mexico's bloody drug trade. But in addition to the eponymous drug cartel, Sinaloa also houses vast-scale, export-oriented agriculture: farms that churn out the tomatoes, melons, peppers, and other fresh produce that help fill US supermarket shelves. And the people who do the planting, tending, and harvesting tend to be from the indigenous regions of Mexico's southern states, Oaxaca and Chiapas, where smallholder farming has been ground down by decades of free-trade policies pursued by the Mexican government, which left millions in search of gainful work to the north.

In my brief time there, I found Sinaloa overwhelming: a scary cauldron of labor exploitation, industrial agriculture, and drug violence. Now, Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Marosi and photographer Don Bartletti have documented the grim conditions faced by workers on Mexico's export-focused megafarms in a long-form investigation, after 18 months of reporting in nine Mexican states, including, most prominently, Sinaloa. The Times plans to publish it in four parts; the first, here, is stunning.

Marosi found that Mexico's megafarms adhere to the strictest standards when it comes to food safety and cleanliness, driven by the demands of big US buyers. "In immaculate greenhouses, laborers are ordered to use hand sanitizers and schooled in how to pamper the produce," Marosi writes. "They're required to keep their fingernails carefully trimmed so the fruit will arrive unblemished in US supermarkets."

While the produce is coddled, the workers face a different reality. Pay languishes at the equivalent of $8 to $12 a day. Marosi summarizes conditions that often approach slavery:

  • Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.
  • Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.
  • Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It's common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.
  • Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences, and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.
  • Major US companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.

The piece includes excellent photography and is chockfull of stories straight from the mouths of farmworkers. And it shines a bright light on a hugely important source of our food. The US now imports nearly a third of the fruit and vegetables we consume, and Mexico accounts for 36 percent of that foreign-grown cornucopia, far more than any other country. And we're only growing more reliant on our southern neighbor—imports of Mexico-grown fresh produce have increased by an average of 11 percent per year between 2001 and 2011, the USDA reports, and now amount to around $8 billion. The Times investigations demonstrates, with an accumulation of detail that can't be denied or ignored, that our easy bounty bobs on a sea of misery and exploitation.

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Watch What It's Like to Be a Factory-Farmed Chicken (UPDATED)

| Thu Dec. 4, 2014 4:00 AM EST

UPDATE: North Carolina farmer Craig Watts heard from the Perdue, the gigantic chicken processor for whom he grows his birds under contract, just hours after the below video early Thursday morning release, reports the veteran agribusiness journalist Chris Leonard. And Perdue isn't pleased—on Thursday, "Perdue employees arrived at Watts’ farm and informed him that he was the subject on an internal animal welfare audit," Leonard writes.  "If he [Watts] fails the audit, the company could cancel his contract and effectively put him out of business." The company confirmed the move, pointing the finger at Watts for the rough conditions of the birds in the video, Leonard reports. He adds: "Farmers like Watts have little freedom in choosing how to raise their chickens, and they have no control over the kind of bird that is delivered to their farm." His whole piece is worth reading.

The US meat industry maintains a strict code of secrecy over what goes on within the vast facilities where animals are fattened for slaughter, as Ted Genoways showed in a Mother Jones feature last year (which he expanded into an excellent full-length book). So the glimpses we get of these fecal-laden dungeons tend to be in the form of grainy videos, shot by undercover animal-welfare activists posing as workers—for example, the very recent, and quite gruesome, footage from inside a Seaboard Farms hog facility that supplies Walmart, captured by Mercy For Animals.

The above video is a different breed. In this one, Leah Garces, US director of Compassion in World Farming, got North Carolina farmer Craig Watts, who raises chickens on contract for poultry giant Perdue, to allow her to walk around freely, with a film crew, while he describes the scene. There's nothing shadowy about it—just a farmer talking openly about the conditions under which he's required by contract to raise chickens, over clear footage. Watts is clearly a dissident cog in the Big Ag machine. Most contract farmers walk the omertà line, for fear that the big meat packers they rely on will cut them off, leaving them holding massive debt they can't pay—a story Chris Leonard laid out in great detail in the recent book The Meat Racket. Watts, though, is speaking freely. He was a major source in a recent Reuters exposé of antibiotic use on poultry farms. It will be interesting to see how Big Meat handles this rare blast of sunshine.

How Monsanto's Big Data Push Hurts Small Farms

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 6:00 AM EST

Ask an agribusiness exec about sustainable agriculture, and you'll likely get an earful about something called "precision agriculture." What is it? According to Yara, the fertilizer giant, it's technology that "enables farmers to add the specific nutrients needed for their crop, in exactly the right amount, at the right time."

That is to say, instead of using intuition and experience to decide how much fertilizer or pesticides to apply, farmers rely on sensors, satellite data, and the Internet of Things to make such choices. In addition to selling farmers agrichemicals, Yara also sells a "knowledge platform, supported by tools for precision farming," including "an online service providing advice on the physical mixing characteristics of Yara's foliar products with agrochemicals."

Yara isn't the only industry titan to move into the information-peddling business. Genetically modified seed/pesticide giant Monsanto envisions itself transforming into an information-technology company within a decade, as a company honcho recently told my colleague Tim McDonnell. A year ago, Monsanto dropped nearly $1 billion on Climate Corp., which "turns a wide range of information into valuable insights and recommendations for farmers," as Monsanto put it at the time.

But will Big Ag's turn to Big Data deliver on the environmental promises made in the press releases and executive interviews? McDonnell lays out the environmental case succinctly:

The payoff for growers can be huge: Monsanto estimates that farmers typically make 40 key choices in the course of a growing season—what seed to plant, when to plant it, and so on. For each decision, there's an opportunity to save money on "inputs": water, fuel, seeds, custom chemical treatments, etc. Those savings can come with a parallel environmental benefit (less pollution from fertilizer and insecticides).

These are real gains. No one who has seen fertilizer-fed algae blooms in Lake Erie—or had their municipal tap water declared toxic because of them—can deny that the Midwest's massive corn farms need to use fertilizer more efficiently. Des Moines, Iowa, surrounded by millions of acres of intensively fertilized farmland, routinely has to spend taxpayer cash to filter its municipal drinking water of nitrates from farm runoff. Nitrates are linked with cancer and "blue-baby syndrome," which can suffocate infants.

But as Quentin Hardy suggested in a recent New York Times piece, Big Data on the farm can also steamroll an extremely effective conservation practice: crop diversification, which can slash the need for fertilizer and herbicide, as a landmark 2012 Iowa State University study showed. Big Data, Hardy argued, gives farms incentive to both get bigger and plant fewer varieties of crops.

His argument is twofold. First, the precision ag tools being peddled by the agribusiness giants are quite pricey:

Equipment makers like John Deere and AGCO, for example, have covered their planters, tractors and harvesters with sensors, computers and communications equipment. A combine equipped to harvest a few crops cost perhaps $65,000 in 2000; now it goes for as much as $500,000 because of the added information technology.

When a farmer invests that much in a technology, there's an "incentive to grow single crops to maximize the effectiveness of technology by growing them at the largest possible scale," Hardy writes. "Farmers with diverse crops and livestock would need many different systems," and that would require yet more investment in information technology.

Hardy finds evidence that the shift to information technology is already accelerating a decades-long trend of ever-larger Midwestern farms focusing more and more on churning out just two crops: corn and soy. "It's not that smaller farms are less productive, but the big ones can afford these technology investments," a US Department of Agriculture economist tells him.

One farmer Hardy talked to owns a family farm in Iowa that grew from 700 acres in the 1970s to 20,000 acres today. "We've got sensors on the combine, GPS data from satellites, cellular modems on self-driving tractors, apps for irrigation on iPhones," the farmer tells Hardy. 

The recent plunge in corn and soy prices might only exacerbate the trend. All that gear and information allows the farm to operate at a high level of efficiency and at a vast scale, making it more likely to eke out a profit than smaller operations in a time of lowball crop prices. As a result, over the next few years of expected low crop prices, the farmer with 20,000 acres in Iowa expects his farm to expand at the expense of "farmers who don’t embrace technology," he tells Hardy.

But economies of scale and efficiency don't automatically translate to less use of toxic chemicals and pollution. Big Data may help monocrop farmers use less fertilizer and pesticides per acre harvested than they had been before, but if they drive out more diversified and less chemical-intensive operations, the result might not be as clear-cut as the agribusiness companies suggest.

Tom's Kitchen: A Chili to Unite Vegans and Purists (in Anger)

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 6:00 AM EST
Bowl of red? You could call it that—at your own risk.

During a recent frigid snap, I found myself with a cold chill I couldn't get rid of, a pound of (grass-fed, local) ground chuck thawing in the fridge, and a fierce appetite. The thought of burgers didn't hit the spot, nor did pasta with meat sauce. My mind reached to the depths of my Texas childhood and found a primordial craving I hadn't thought of in years: chili.

Now, chili is as bitterly contested and regionally variegated a dish as cassoulet in France or paella in Spain. Like those dishes, its origin is in dispute. Some partisans insist it must not contain beans (the Texas "bowl of red" school); others demand that it do. Tomatoes are another flashpoint. Serious chili requires chunks of beef, not the ground stuff. Etc.

I usually have patience for such debates. This time, I cast them aside and got busy. I decided to add beans, critics be damned, to stretch the dish out, because I wanted plenty of leftovers. I considered starting with a mirepoix—the French trinity of onions, carrots, and celery—but decided that carrots in chili would be too hippie. (I stuck with celery though, on the theory that it would be barely noticeable).

I knew that to distinguish it from a generic meat sauce, I'd need lots of cumin and paprika, and was relieved to find both in my cupboard. But in another affront to chili tradition, I decided to ignore regular paprika and tap my little jar of that wonderful smoked Spanish version known as Pimenton de la Vera, which added a nice dimension to the mix.

And to complement my main dish, I was happily surprised to find that I had all the ingredients for a simple cornbread—to me, the ultimate accompaniment to chili. (Cornbread is another highly divisive topic, and one for another column.) What follows is a recipe that I predict will unite in fury two disparate groups: vegans and chili partisans. It's also a really good quick dinner. Enjoy!

Quick Chili

Enough high-quality fat, such as olive oil, lard, or bacon grease (I used the latter) to generously cover the bottom of a large pan
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, smashed, peeled, and minced
1 pound ground beef, preferably grass-fed
(At least) 1 teaspoon of cumin, freshly ground if possible
1 teaspoon oregano (thyme works to, as does the combination of thyme and oregano)
1-2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon of paprika, smoked or otherwise
1 teaspoon of sea salt
½ 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes (reserve other half for another use, like salsa)
1 regular 15-oz can of red beans, such as kidney beans, or a cup of dry beans, cooked
Plenty of fresh-ground black pepper
A dash of apple cider vinegar, optional
Something green, like chopped green onion tops or chives, to garnish

Place the pan over medium heat and add the fat. When it's hot, add the onions and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until they're soft. Add the garlic, cumin, oregano, bay leaves, paprika, and salt, and let it cook, stirring to prevent the garlic from burning, for another minute or two.

Add the meat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until it's brown, around 10 minutes. Add the half-can of tomatoes (along with juices) and cook, stirring, and using a wooden spoon to break up the tomato chunks.

Turn the heat to low, and let the tomatoes simmer, gently, for 20 minutes or so. After it's thickened a bit, add the beans along with about half of their liquid, bring to a boil, and let it simmer, again for 20 minutes or so. Give it a veritable cascade of fresh-ground pepper. Taste for seasoning. (I like my chili highly flavorful, but not spicy-hot—just spicy enough to tickle the back of my throat. Then I serve fiery condiments at the table.) After adding a little salt, I found that a dash of apple cider vinegar balanced the flavor.

Classic chili garnishes include chopped green onions (white and green parts) as well as grated cheese. I decided against cheese, on the grounds that the chili seemed rich enough, and I had no green onions on hand. Garlic chives from the garden did the trick.

Serve with cornbread, a green salad, and your favorite hot sauce. I used my beloved home-made salsa macha.

Watch Jon Stewart Skewer Chris Christie's Absurd Endorsement of Cruel Pig Crates

| Tue Dec. 2, 2014 1:08 PM EST

Satriale's Pork Store aside, New Jersey isn't exactly a powerhouse of hog production. Iowa's (mostly factory-scale) hog farms hold more than a million breeding sows—pigs that exist to give birth to baby pigs, that in turn get funneled into enormous facilities to be transformed into bacon, ham, and chops. New Jersey? The state houses fewer than 1,000 breeding sows. So why did the state's famously pugnacious governor bother to veto a bill—overwhelmingly passed by the state legislature—that would ban the egregious practice of housing pregnant sows in crates so tight they can't turn around (a topic I've explored here and here). Jon Stewart has answers. Spoiler: Christie's absurd maneuver has to do with presidential ambition and a key early primary held in a certain hog-heavy state.