Tom Philpott - August 2011

Tom's Kitchen: the Simplest, and Best, Tomato Snack

| Fri Aug. 12, 2011 8:37 PM EDT
Add olive oil and sea salt, and you've got the elements of perhaps the greatest of all tomato snacks.

In Les Blank's Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers (1980)—maybe the greatest food documentary ever—Blank gets the celebrated flamenco guitarist Anzonini del Puerto to describe the importance of garlic in his native Spain.

Del Puerto responds (video clip below) that there was very little to eat at the end of the Spanish Civil War; very little, that is, except garlic, tomatoes, and "muy, muy poco" (a very, very little) bread. They would often combine these ingredients into a simple sandwich of sliced tomatoes, sliced garlic, salt and olive oil. He goes on to demonstrate.

Over the past few years during tomato season at Maverick Farms, I've become addicted to the Catalan variation of Spain's tomato sandwich, an open-faced version that's even simpler than del Puerto's. I suggest cranking out a few of these with flamenco music thundering in the background, such as the song del Puerto belts out after his sandwich demo in the below video.

This recipe makes a fabulous snack before a light summer dinner; or anytime you come in from the heat during the tomato season. What to drink with it? You can't go wrong with a dry, well-chilled rosé.

Catalan-Style Tomato Bread

A loaf of good, crusty bread (I've been making my own using the no-knead method popularized by Mark Bittman a few years ago)
A clove of garlic, crushed and peeled
The best, juiciest tomato you can get your hands on
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Slice off a piece of bread about a half-inch thick and toast it lightly. A toaster works; for extra brilliance, toast it over a hot grill, taking care it doesn't burn. Now take the crushed garlic clove and rub it all over the bread's surface. If the bread is properly toasted and crispy, it will pick up highly flavorful juice and particles from the garlic. Now slice the stem top off of the tomato and vigorously rub the cut side against the bread. The bread will absorb juice and particles from the tomato, becoming quite soggy. Now give it a drizzle of olive oil, and sprinkle it liberally with salt and pepper. Serve immediately. Repeat as necessary. Prepare for addiction. After a while of cranking these treats out, you'll be holding a a ravaged swath of empty tomato skin in your hand. Time to cut open another.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

How to Avoid Salmonella Superbugs in the First Place

| Thu Aug. 11, 2011 2:16 PM EDT
Here's how not to avoid salmonella superbugs.

I've been writing a bit recently about the problem of antibiotic-resistant pathogens on factory animal farms, which are emerging as a lethal—and expensive—public-health threat.

The two major regulatory agencies that have a say in the matter—the USDA and the FDA—have acknowledged the severity of the problem, as has our main public-health-monitoring outfit, the CDC.  Even the Government Accounting Office (GAO) has gotten into the act! None of this has led the federal government to actually crack down on the practice of feeding animals daily subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics.

Judging from the inaction, you'd think there's simply no alternative to antibiotics as an integral part of livestock feed—and resistant bacteria as an inevitable product of meat factories, along with all the pork chops and chicken wings.

Turns out though, there is an alternative: Just ban antibiotics on farms, and force producers to adopt organic standards. In a study just published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a team of researchers looked at 20 large-scale chicken facilities—10 conventional, and 10 that had recently converted to organic standards, which include a ban on antibiotics. The result: The organic facilities had sharply lower presence of drug-resistant bacteria.

Here's how lead researcher Amy Sapkota of the University of Maryland School of Public Health described the findings in an interview with the Washington Post:

We initially hypothesized that we would see some differences in on-farm levels of antibiotic-resistant enterococci when poultry farms transitioned to organic practices...But we were surprised to see that the differences were so significant across several different classes of antibiotics even in the very first flock that was produced after the transition to organic standards. [Emphasis mine.] 

Berkeley and Oakland Come to the Table

| Thu Aug. 11, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Nikki Henderson of Oakland's People's Grocery and Alice Waters of Berkeley's Chez Panisse Restaurant

Alice Waters and Nikki Henderson occupy radically different places in the sustainable food movement.

Waters is a white baby boomer who was raised comfortably middle class; Henderson is an African American millennial who grew up with seven foster brothers. Waters runs an iconic white-tablecloth restaurant in well-heeled Berkeley. Henderson runs an iconic anti-poverty nonprofit in low-income West Oakland. Waters speaks most naturally as an aesthete; Henderson, as a community organizer.

The fact that a single movement can contain both demonstrates its great potential—think of the civil rights movement, which really began to coalesce when an alliance along similar race/class lines developed in the late 1950s. But it also indicates crucial fault lines: If the food movement becomes dominated by its white-tablecloth faction, it risks devolving into a high-end tasting club that has little impact on the broader culture.

So when I was invited to interview these two formidable women via Skype recently, I jumped at the chance. The occasion was a class Waters has organized at UC Berkeley this fall called "Edible Education 101," as part of the 40th-anniversary celebration for Chez Panisse, her temple to local, organic food. Henderson, executive director of People’s Grocery, will be coteaching the course with Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and other best-selling critiques of the food system. They spoke to me from the Chez Panisse Foundation's Berkeley offices.

Alice Waters: Aren't you going to ask me what I had for breakfast?

Mother Jones: We all know you had an Egg McMuffin. We'll talk about that later! [Laughs.] Let’s start with a hard question. The last time I remember Chez Panisse and People's Grocery interacting was in 2008, when People's Grocery's then-executive director Brahm Ahmadi launched a stinging critique of Slow Food Nation, which Alice organized. He charged that Slow Food threatened to "suck the air" out of the food movement, marginalizing low-income people of color. Now, here the two of you are together. What gives?

Nikki Henderson: Something else that happened at Slow Food Nation is that Van Jones and Alice Waters were on stage together for a panel. And at that point I was working for Van as his aide, and I was the one who kind of prepped him for that panel.

The Deal With $8 Eggs

| Tue Aug. 9, 2011 8:54 PM EDT

Over on the Atlantic site, the food politics writer Jane Black has a thoughtful post on farmers market sticker shock in brownstone Brooklyn.

Confronted at her neigborhood market by the spectacle of $8/dozen eggs—which had sold out, no less—Black frets that "that the 'good-food-costs-more' argument is being taken to an extreme that puts at risk the goal of a mass food-reform movement, which is to make good food available to the greatest number of people possible."

Black goes on to do a bit of analysis on the $8/dozen farmer’s production model and reckons that he probably isn't just sticking it to Brooklyn yuppies: "It turns out that's what it costs him to produce his eggs," because he uses a labor-intensive pasture-based system and feeds his birds organic corn, which is much more expensive than conventional.

Syngenta Scientist: Eureka! Atrazine Doesn't Cause Cancer

| Tue Aug. 9, 2011 12:23 PM EDT
An herbicide applicator in action.

As I reported a while back, sales of atrazine—a potent herbicide popular among large-scale corn farmers—are booming. That’s good news for atrazine-maker Syngenta, the globe's largest pesticide company; and bad news for all ecosytems (including human ones) in and downstream from the places where farmers apply the nasty stuff.

The case against atrazine has gotten so strong that the EPA is actively considering joining the European Union in banning it. The EPA announced its review of atrazine in 2009 and suggested the process would take a year. In late July, the EPA committee overseeing the review met toi compare notes. An EPA press officer told me at the time it would be "upwards of 90 days" before the agency announced any decision.

Predictably enough, Syngenta is taking advantage of the slow-motion review to do what it did last time the EPA looked anew at the toxicology of atrazine, which was back in 2003: It’s funding research that exonerates its cash-cow herbicide and submitting it to the EPA. That tactic worked in ‘03, even though the Syngenta-bought research turned out to be pretty shoddy.

Pesticide Action Network’s Ground Truth blog points out that not long before the EPA’s July meeting, a team led by Syngenta employee Charles B. Breckenridge submitted a study claiming to show that atrazine isn’t linked to breast cancer, despite much evidence to the contrary. As the Physicians for Social Responsibility put it in a recent letter (PDF) to the EPA:

Several scientific studies have found a link between long-term exposure to atrazine and breast cancer. A study of women from all 120 counties of Kentucky showed a statistically significant increase in breast cancer risk with medium and high levels of atrazine exposure. A study from UK found a significant association between breast cancer rates and the application of atrazine in rural Leicestershire. Other studies using lab rats as subjects found exposure to atrazine increased risks of breast and prostrate cancers.

Surely, the EPA will heed the vast weight of independent research and train a skeptical eye on the company-funded stuff. Right? Pesticide Action Network isn’t sure. "Are we worried"? the group’s blog post asks. "Unfortunately, yes."

Book Review: Why the "Green Revolution" Was Not So Green After All

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 12:44 PM EDT

In 1968, India's farmers cranked out a record-setting wheat crop at a time when many observers feared the nation would plunge into famine. That triumphant harvest represented the culmination of decades of work by a group of foundation-funded US technocrats. Their effort, which became known as the "green revolution," still casts an imposing shadow more than four decades later.

Its technological architect, the Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, was all but beatified upon his death in 2009. In its obituary, Reason Magazine proclaimed him "the man who saved more human lives than anyone else in history," while The New York Times wrote that he "did more than anyone else in the 20th century to teach the world to feed itself."

Meanwhile, the powerhouse funding institution most associated with the Green Revolution, the Rockefeller Foundation, has joined forces with today's richest funder, the Gates Foundation, to recreate Borlaug's magic in Africa. Their "Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa" push got a de facto endorsement from President Obama when he tapped Gates' chief ag-development man, Rajiv Shah, for a top research job at USDA. Today, Shah serves as director of United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Thus the "green revolution" idea still percolates in high-level development policy circles. But if our top foundations and development policymakers are pushing to recreate the green revolution for an entire continent, than it's worth figuring out precisely what led up to that famous bumper crop nearly half a century ago—and what it means for the future. In his 2010 book The Hungry World, the University of Indiana historian Nick Cullather does just that.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Just How Much Turkey Did Cargill Recall?*

| Thu Aug. 4, 2011 12:50 PM EDT
What once looked like the beginnings of a great dinner no longer seems so appetizing.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Cargill, one of the globe's largest agribusiness firms, announced one of the most massive meat recalls in history: 36 million pounds of ground turkey potentially laced with antibiotic-resistant salmonella, all of it from a single massive processing plant in Arkansas.

There are many hard questions to be asked about this affair, but first I want to get a grip on scale. I have trouble visualizing 36 million pounds of dodgy ground turkey. That's a lot of suspect turkey burgers! How many? Let's allot each burger a third of a pound (a little bigger than McDonald's iconic Quarter Pounder). That would make 108 million sketchy burgers—enough to sicken every resident of the globe's six most populous cities (Shanghai, Istanbul, Karachi, Delhi, Mumbai, and Beijing).*

Okay, so we've established that we have a massive recall going on here. Let's get to some more serious questions.

A Side of Salmonella Superbug With That Turkey Burger? (UPDATED)

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 4:09 PM EDT

UPDATE: Marler Blog reported Wednesday afternoon that agribusiness behemoth Cargill is behind the tainted turkey. The company will soon announce a voluntary recall of nearly 36 million pounds of ground-turkey products, the blog reports, all of which emerged from a single processing facility in  Springdale, Arkansas. This latest fiasco does not mark the first time Cargill has sent out massive amounts of product potentially tainted with antibiotic-resistant salmonella. In 2009, a beef processor owned by the company had to recall 826,000 pounds of hamburger meat laced with a resistant strain called salmonella Newport. For good measure, the same plant had to recall another 22,000 pounds for the same reason a few months later. A USA Today investigation revealed that the troubled plant was a major supplier to the national school lunch program. Cargill, among the globe's largest privately held companies, processes about 25 percent of the beef consumed in the United States, along with 14 percent of the turkey and 9 percent of the pork.


Once again, a drug-resistant "superbug" has infiltrated the national food supply. This time, the culprit appears to be tainted ground turkey, although federal investigators have not been able to definitively identify the source and thus have not issued a recall. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 77 people in 26 states have fallen ill; one person has died. Here's how the CDC describes the situation:

The outbreak strain of Salmonella Heidelberg is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics; this antibiotic resistance can increase the risk of hospitalization or possible treatment failure in infected individuals. [Emphasis added.]

"Treatment failure," of course, is a polite way of saying "death."

Such outbreaks are almost certainly related to the meat industry's practice of giving confined livestock daily antibiotic doses, both to keep them functioning under cramped, unsanitary conditions and to make them grow faster. Will this outbreak finally force federal regulators to crack down on this practice? Doubtful.

As I reported last week, the USDA recently acknowledged the factory farm/antibiotic-resistance link in a "technical review" of the latest peer-reviewed science on the topic. But instead of throwing its weight behind a crackdown of factory-farm antibiotic abuse, the agency unceremoniously stepped on the report, removing it from its website without explanation after meat-industry groups complained about it.

Then there's the FDA. As the agency that regulates pharmaceuticals, the FDA could act to protect the public from drug-resistant pathogens by limiting their use at factory farms. The agency strongly and publicly acknowledged the link back in 2009. Yet it maintains its official stance that antibiotics should be "used judiciously" on factory farms, and it leaves it to the industry to define what that means.