Tom Philpott

Walmart's Local Food Push: How Serious?

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 9:36 AM EDT

So I've got a piece in the March/April issue of the print Mother Jonescheck it out. I dig into Walmart's big push into local and organic food, comparing reality on the ground to the hype of press releases. My article is a short sidebar to Andy Kroll's long, beautifully reported look at the retail behemoth's larger campaign to "go green," which takes him, inevitably, to China, source of 70 percent of the goods Walmart sells. Happy reading.

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Revolving Door: Romney Ag Team Edition

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 5:55 AM EDT

For the casual observer like me, it's hard to make sense of the GOP presidential primary, what with all the crazy talk and the recurrent Santorum surges. But people who follow these things closely tell me that despite the chaos, Mitt Romney will likely emerge as the nominee.

That means it's time to start contemplating what a hypothetical President Romney might get up to on food and agriculture issues. The embattled Republican front-runner hasn't expressed his views on ag policy. But just last week, Romney telegraphed his food-and-ag agenda by announcing his Agriculture Advisory Committee.  

Surprise, surprise: Big Ag interests rule the roost. Here are some highlights.

Can Your Kid's Cafeteria Now Opt out of "Pink Slime"?

| Sun Mar. 18, 2012 10:00 AM EDT

Responding to a media storm (The Daily, CBS, ABC, me), the USDA has relented on "pink slime," the ammonia-treated hamburger filler that the agency has been ushering into school-cafeteria burgers. "USDA will provide schools with a choice to order product either with or without Lean Finely Textured Beef," the agency declared in a Thursday press release, using its preferred term for the product. .

So your kid's school cafeteria can now opt out of the stuff starting now, right? Not so fast.

An excellent post by Nancy Huehnergarth of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance (NYSHEPA) blog raises some key questions about the USDA's move. First of all, as Huehnergarth points out, the USDA's announcement only applies to the food commodities the USDA itself buys for the National School Lunch Program, which amounts to about 20 percent of the ingredients that end up on kids' plates.

Tom's Kitchen: 3 Ways to Home-Falafel Nirvana

| Sat Mar. 17, 2012 12:49 PM EDT
Falafel: the jewel of Mideastern street fare, doable in your own home.

A few days ago, I wrote about how I'm all in favor of of helping people figure out ways to eat less meat, but skeptical that industrial fake-meat products based on soy-protein isolates are the way to do it. I posited that whole-food dishes like falafel—chickpeas ground up with spices and then deep-fried—might be a better beacon toward a less meat-intensive future.  

Writing about falafel gave me a powerful craving for it. And where I live in rural North Carolina, there are no falafel joints. So if I knew that if I wanted to have some, I'd have to do something I've never done before: make falafel at home.

And that give me the opportunity to see whether falafel has a place in a practical-minded, no-time-for-fuss kitchen like mine.

Pan fry, deep fry: it's all good.Pan fry, deep fry: it's all good.The first thing I needed was a recipe, and I knew what to do: I merely typed "Bittman + falafel" into Google. Mark Bittman—whose provocative column on meat substitutes started me on my falafel journey—is the heavyweight champ of straight-ahead, minimalist cooking. I found this recipe from a 2008 New York Times column of his.

Now, my main reservation about home falafel has always centered on the fact that it's deep-fried. I love deep-fried foods as much as the next person, but I rarely use the technique at home because it requires so much oil and makes the house smell like a grease trap (unless you have a good vent).  

So I decided to give the traditional cooking method a shot under Bittman's tutelage, but also to experiment with two other techniques for cooking bean paste: pan-frying, which is basically sautéing with just enough oil to cover the bottom of a pan; and baking.

Having never made falafel before, I was surprised that you don't pre-cook the chickpeas before they're ground. You simply soak give them a 24-hour soak, drain them (reserving some of the soaking water), and drop them in a food processor with a few other ingredients: onion, garlic, parsley, paprika, ground cumin, ground coriander, a little lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Then you pulse the mixture, using as little of the reserved water as possible, until it forms a kind of rough paste.

I found that the whole thing came together quickly, with only a splash of water. With very little fuss, I suddenly had a whole bowlful of batter that looked fit for a real falafel joint—minimalist, indeed. Following Bittman's orders, I tasted the batter for seasoning, decided to ramp up the coriander, cumin, paprika, and salt, and gave the batter a few more pulses.

Bittman even delivered a tip that made deep-frying way easier than I had foreseen: Use a small pan. When I think of deep-frying, I think of chicken pieces sizzling in a huge skillet, a process that requires monstrous amounts of oil. But with a small pan, you get away with using much less oil; and falafel balls—which Bittman says should take just a heaping tablespoon of batter—are small enough that you can do several at a time even in a modestly sized vessel.

So I gave my sauce pan about 2.5 inches of oil (a little more than a pint) and brought it to 350 degrees, using a thermometer to measure. I dropped in a few falafel balls and held my breath, half-expecting them to explode into greasy mush. But they stayed whole, and soon transformed into gorgeous, deep-brown falafel orbs. And all for about 10 minutes of active cooking time.

Meanwhile, I improvised pan-fry and baking techniques. For the pan-fried ones, I heated a cast-iron skillet over medium heat and added enough oil to cover the bottom. I used the same amount of batter I had used for the ball, but tamped them down into little patties to maximize contact with the hot pan—an attempt both to speed cooking and encourage browning. For the baked ones, I preheated the oven to 400 degrees and spread some parchment paper over a small baking sheet, lightly greasing it with oil. I baked the flattened patties for 10 minutes or so, then flipped them and gave them five or so minutes more.

For me, the deep-fried balls were best: a nice crunch, and then moist deliciousness inside. And they weren't greasy at all. But the pan-fried and bake versions were worthy, too. They had much less crunch than, but delivered all of the flavor of, the fried ones. And my roommate actually preferred them. She found the fried ones too crunchy; and thought the texture inside both the baked and pan-fried ones more to her liking.

Who needs meat?Who needs meat?Of course, making falafel doesn't just entail making falafel—you also need pita bread and garnishes. In many places in the US, you can buy decent pita at a middle eastern shop or good grocery store. Not so much here, so we made ours using a simple recipe calling for a yeast dough, which we rolled out and cooked just before eating.

For garnishes, we kept it simple. We took Bittman's advice on a sauce: "mix equal amounts of tahini and yogurt, and season to taste with a little salt, pepper, cumin, raw garlic if you like, and lemon juice" (though we subbed cider vinegar for lemon juice, since we had no lemons on hand). And I made a quick salad of a handful of chopped parsley mixed with a bit of chopped red onion, dressed lightly with olive oil and cider vinegar. We also had mixed salad greens from the farm, homemade salsa macha (a diabolically hot puree of dried chile peppers and olive oil), and some chopped-up pickled cucumbers and green beans. 

The result was a fantastic and easy meal. I may have have just taken the first step down a slippery slope that will end with me shutting my laptop and opening a falafel stand. (Just kidding—I think.) I advise all omnivores looking for satisfying ways to cut down on meat to give it a try.

UPDATE: So, Bittman's recipe, which calls for 1 3/4 cups of chickpeas, make a lot of batter. I found its sheer volume overwhelming, at first, because my household right now consists just of two people. But I mixed it on Thursday and it's now Saturday—and it's still cooking up great. I just saved the original oil and reheat it when I want to fry off a few nuggets. My kitchen has become a falafel stand. Dreams come true.

Chemical-Industry Apologist Botches NRDC Satire

| Wed Mar. 14, 2012 3:23 PM EDT

A few weeks ago, I dug into the case of Jon Entine, a consultant/writer who specializes in fierce defenses of agrichemicals like atrazine and industrial chemicals like Bisphenol A (BPA). He had caught my attention with his attack, published on Forbes.com, of Dashka Slater's profile of Tyrone Hayes, the UC Berkeley professor who found that tiny doses of the widely used herbicide atrazine affects frogs' sexual development.

Entine fascinates me, because I know of few people not on industry payrolls who hold such passionate regard for profitable stuff that likely harms people and wildlife. As the email exchange that I quoted in my post shows, Entine asserts his own intellectual independence as strenuously as he defends the chemical industry. To hear him tell it, he's just disinterestedly fighting the good fight for science against the merchants of what he calls "chemophobia." Even though the homepage of his consultancy, ESG MediaMetrics, claims it "advises corporations and NGOs on Environmental, Social, and Governance issues, and on brand reputation and strategic communications," and touts Monsanto as a client, Entine told me he does no corporate PR work.

Whatever his motivations, Entine's zealous advocacy appears to have cost him his most high-profile gig: writing for the Op/Ed section of Forbes.com. At issue is a post  published on the web site early Monday afternoon and took down several hours later. Here is a screenshot of the original. In it, Entine reprints what the article's headline calls a "leaked memo" from a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) employee regarding Bisphenol A (BPA), an industrial chemical widely used in the lining of cans for food.

How NPR Got It Wrong on Monsanto's Superweeds

| Wed Mar. 14, 2012 1:50 PM EDT

Last week, NPR food and agriculture correspondent Dan Charles delivered an interesting report on a topic I've been following for a while: "superweeds." As farmers planted millions of acres with crops engineered to withstand Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, Roundup-resistant weeds have cropped up—prompting farmers to apply toxic herbicide cocktails in a desperate, and losing, battle to keep up with weed evolution.  

And Sunday, Charles followed up with a blog item asking just what Monsanto scientists were thinking when they proposed Roundup Ready technology as a blanket solution to industrial agriculture's weed problem.

In its 1993 petition to the USDA to deregulate Roundup Ready soybeans, Charles reports, Monsanto insisted that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is "considered to be a herbicide with low risk for weed resistance." Citing agreement from university scientists, the company declared it "highly unlikely" that widespread use of Roundup Ready technology would lead to resistant weeds.

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Fake Meat America Could Love

| Wed Mar. 14, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

I've always recoiled from highly processed and packaged fake meat: you know, turkeyesque tofu logs for the holiday table, or pink, spongy "not-dogs" for the summer grill. But in last Sunday's New York Times, Mark Bittman raised a provocative question:

Isn’t it preferable, at least some of the time, to eat plant products mixed with water that have been put through a thingamajiggy that spews out meatlike stuff, instead of eating those same plant products put into a chicken that does its biomechanical thing for the six weeks of its miserable existence, only to have its throat cut in the service of yielding barely distinguishable meat?  Why, in other words, use the poor chicken as a machine to produce meat when you can use a machine to produce "meat" that seems like chicken?             

Bittman's point is spot-on. You can't directly eat the kind of corn and soy that dominates US farmland—it isn't readily digestible. Modern livestock farms are really factories for turning those crops into animal flesh that can be transformed into steaks, chops, wings, nuggets, and whatnot. And in doing so, Bittman points out, factory farms rack up enormous collateral damage: horrific suffering for sentient creatures, huge stores of manure that can't be safely recycled into soil, over-reliance on antibiotics, routine abuse of labor in factory-scale slaughterhouses, and more.

Tom's Kitchen: Spicy Fried Rice with Eggs and Greens

| Sun Mar. 11, 2012 7:00 AM EDT

At around lunchtime Friday afternoon, I was working on a blog post when when my stomach began to rumble. I suddenly remembered: I had promised my editor a Tom's Kitchen post. So, not only was I faced with mid-day hunger, but also another writing assignment. Meanwhile, I groaned, there's nothing to eat in this damned house!

I took a deep breath and made a list of what we did have. There was certainly no time for a trip to the store. I remembered some garlic sprouting in the back of the field—not the garlic we planted last fall, but some semi-wild garlic that's been coming up every year from a patch that never got harvested a few years ago. It never matures into full garlic in the summer, but it provides a delicious late-winter/early-spring treat, sort of like a garlicy-tasting scallion (see photo below). There's also some kale and collards in the greenhouse, some salad greens in the field, and red-hot chile peppers we dried last summer.

Meanwhile, our laying hens have been coming up with fantastic eggs—rich orange yolks, no doubt because we've been letting them range out of their coop by day, and they've been finding all manner of good chicken food (worms, bugs) up the mountainside as the weather has warmed recently.

I concluded that all of the above ingredients—plus rice, soy sauce, and ginger we also had around—could be slapped together into a quick fried rice. After all, Tom's Kitchen has always been about making good, quick meals from whatever's on hand, not fancy stuff that requires shopping.

Spicy Fried Rice with Eggs and Greens
Serves three

1.5 cups brown rice
Oil, for sauteing (I used olive oil this time)
3-4 stalks green (immature) garlic; or 1-2 cloves of regular garlic
1 red hot chile pepper
1 knuckle-sized nub of ginger, peeled
1 bunch of collards and/or kale (I used a combo)
3 eggs
Soy sauce (my absolute favorite brand is Ohsawa Nama Shoyu)
Salad greens, to serve over

1) Put rice in a heavy-bottomed pan with a tight-fitting lid, add a little less than 3 cups of water, and bring to boil, covered, over high heat. When the water boils, turn heat to the lowest setting. Set a timer for 40 minutes.
2) In a large cast-iron or other heavy frying pan, add oil to cover bottom and turn heat to low. Peel the tough outer stalks from the green garlic (or peel the regular garlic, if using), and mince, along with the chile pepper and the ginger. Add the minced aromatics to the frying pan and let them gently cook over low heat, stirring occasionally.
3) Lay the collards and/or kale leaves flat on a cutting board and roll them up like an, um, roll-your-own cigarette. Slice them cross-wise, creating little ribbons, and add them to the pan with the garlic/ginger/chile mix. Stir them, coating them with oil, add a splash of soy sauce, and cover, letting them steam over low heat in their own liquid and the soy sauce until they're tender, stirring and checking occsionally.
4) Crack the eggs into a bowl, add a splash of soy sauce, and beat them until the yolks, whites, and soy are just blended.
5) When the rice alarm goes off, make sure all the water has evaporated. If not, keep cooking until it does, and then turn the heat off, leaving the pot covered.
6) When the rice is done and the greens are tender, add the rice to the skillet with the greens and turn the heat up to medium, mixing the rice with the greens and frying it a little. After a minute or two, clear space in the middle of the skillet by pushing the rice greens mix to the edges of the skillet. Add a few drops of oil to the cleared part of the skillet, wait a few seconds, then pour the eggs into the clearing. Let them fry there for 30 seconds or so, then, using a spatula, toss it all together. Turn heat to low, and let the whole thing cook another minute or two. Taste for seasoning—it might want a bit more soy sauce.
7) Put a handful each of of salad greens on three plates. Top with a good portion of fried rice, leaving some behind for seconds. Eat.

Is Your Fierce Wardrobe Starving People?

| Sat Mar. 10, 2012 7:00 AM EST

On the Guardian Sustainable Business blog, Pamela Ravasio caused a stir with a post called "Does fashion fuel food shortages?" 

Ravasio points out, correctly, that cotton production, like the growing of crops for biofuel, diverts farmland to non-food uses at a time of high global food prices. To make her case, she came up with a statement I've seen quoted on several blogs: "the plantations of the three largest cotton growers—the US, China and India—alone account for 50 million acres, 42% of all agricultural land."

The wording is a little vague, but Ravasio seems to be saying that 42 percent of all global agricultural land is devoted to cotton; or maybe her number relates to farmland in the US China, and India. In either case, it would would be shocking if that proportion of land were essentially growing clothes instead of food. But either way, the 42 percent number is wildly inflated.

Utah Follows Iowa in Factory Farm Video Ban

| Fri Mar. 9, 2012 6:20 PM EST

For me, Utah conjures up visions of Mormons and dramatic canyons, not factory-scale facilities stuffed with pigs and hens. Yet the state's western half contains four counties with "extreme" concentration of such facilities, and three more that rank as "severe," according to Food and Water Watch. One of those counties, Beaver, is home to Circle Four Farms, a subsidiary of hog giant Smithfield Foods. Circle Four churns out a million pigs per year in just 40 buildings.

Perhaps emboldened by their peers in Iowa, Utah's state legislators have passed a law that would help shield such farms from scrutiny. Like the recently passed Iowa law, the Utah bill would prohibit people from getting jobs at farm facilities under false pretenses—an attempt to stop animal welfare groups from documenting conditions there.

The Iowa and Utah bills represent a new wave of attempts to protect the meat industry from the scrutiny of watchdog groups. The first wave of bills, which floated around state houses throughout farm country last year, sought to criminalize sneaking cameras into factory farms. Those bills failed because of concerns about constitutionality, Amanda Hitt, executive director of the Government Accountability Project's Food Integrity Campaign, told me.