Tom Philpott

Cocina de Tom: Pork Ribs in Red-Chili Sauce

| Fri Jan. 13, 2012 5:00 PM EST
Chili Mecca: a stand in Mexico City's Mercado Lazaro Cardenas.

I grew up in the northern reaches of the original Mexican territory (now known as Texas). This accident of geography exposed me at a tender age to chili peppers. I've never recovered, and my chili obsession only deepened when I lived in Mexico City for two years in the late 1990s.

After years of immersion in other culinary traditions—Italian, French, etc.—I'm now capable of not lashing everything with tear-jerking quantities of chilis. And in fact, in actual Mexican food, people use chilis with great subtlety—there are condiments that are wickedly hot, but in most dishes, chilis offer a low-key, back-of-the-mouth burn, not a punch in the mouth.

I still love chilis, and use them pretty much every chance I get. They are a magical ingredient—bright-flavored and fiery when fresh; deep, rich, and often smoky (while retaining the fire) in dried form. Mexico City's neighborhood markets are each a kind of dried-chili Mecca, featuring several stalls that specialize in a variety of these dark-colored treasures.

Buying celery fro the broth at the market. A vendor sells me celery for the brothOn a recent trip to that wondrous city (hectic, scary, glorious all at once), some friends and I met at Mercado Lazaro Cardenas  in the city's Del Valle neighborhood to shop for dinner and have a coffee at a fantastic small-batch roaster called Café Passmar that randomly resides in the middle of the market. Except for the fancy coffee, Mercado Lazaro Cardenas is really just another neighborhood market in a city that's still teeming with them, despite the advent of corporate supermarkets. That is to say, it's a pretty spectacular place, packed with stalls featuring all manner of fruit and vegetables and meat. We picked up a bunch of chilis, some tortillas—and stuff for way more side dishes than usually go into a Tom's Kitchen column (fresh fava beans, huitlacoche (corn fungus), little red potatoes, wild mushrooms, and chard).

For pork, I confess that I forsook the mercado for one of those supermarkets. I did so because Mexico's pork production has dramaticaly industrialized over the past decade and a half—as chronicled in this excellent Nation article by David Bacon on the topic—and I no longer can be sure that even independent meat purveyors aren't hawking Smithfield dreck. So We took a detour on the way home to a fancy supermarket called City Market—in English, no less—and got pork ribs labeled "natural." Whether that label actually means anything will require more investigation.

Fortified with some terrific mescal, we did the following to the pork. Warning: Cocina de Tom is a bit more involved than Tom's Kitchen; but it's easy!

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Is Walmart the Answer to 'Food Deserts"?

| Thu Jan. 12, 2012 9:44 PM EST

Walmart and other mega-retailers hold the key to bringing fresh, healthy food into low-income urban areas where grocery options are severely limited.

At least, that's what some prominent observers argue. At a July 2011 press conference with execs from Walmart, Walgreens, and SuperValu, Michelle Obama heralded a pledge by those retailers to open or expand 1,500 stores in areas defined by the USDA to be "food deserts"—i.e., lacking in access to fresh food. "These stores estimate that they will create tens of thousands of jobs and serve approximately 9.5 million people in these communities throughout the country," a White House press release declared. The First Lady herself, flanked by Walmart execs, added: "The commitments we’re announcing today have the potential to be a game-changer for kids and communities all across this country."

Will Allen, the pioneering urban farmer and community-food activist, evidently agrees. After his group Growing Power received a $1 million grant from Walmart last fall, the McArthur genius grantee declared:

Wal-mart is the world's largest distributor of food—there is no one better positioned to bring high-quality, locally grown food into urban food deserts and fast-food swamps.

Such assertions jibe with Walmart's latest growth strategy, which is to expand aggressively into dense urban zones after having already saturated suburban and rural areas with outlets. But do they jibe with reality? Obama and Allen are assuming that the presence of the globe's largest retailer and grocer would automatically increase healthy food access in low-income neighborhoods. I've never seen any research to back that claim up.

Meanwhile, a recent study released by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's office throws serious doubt on the idea of Walmart as food/jobs panacea for the urban poor. Stringer's staff put it together the report amid a bitter controversy over Walmart's stated intention of opening a store in New York City, which the New York City Council and several community groups oppose but have limited power to stop.

Are Pesticides Behind Massive Bee Die-Offs?

| Tue Jan. 10, 2012 4:05 PM EST

For the German chemical giant Bayer, neonicotinoid pesticides—synthetic derivatives of nicotine that attack insects' nervous systems—are big business. In 2010, the company reeled in 789 million euros (more than $1 billion) in revenue from its flagship neonic products imidacloprid and clothianidin. The company's latest quarterly report shows that its "seed treatment" segment—the one that includes neonics—is booming. In the quarter that ended on September 30, sales for the company's seed treatments jumped 28 percent compared to the same period the previous year.

Such results no doubt bring cheer to Bayer's shareholders. But for honeybees—whose population has come under severe pressure from a mysterious condition called colony collapse disorder—the news is decidedly less welcome. A year ago on Grist, I told the story of how this class of pesticides had gained approval from the EPA in a twisted process based on deeply flawed (by the EPA's own account) Bayer-funded science. A little later, I reported that research by the USDA's top bee scientist, Jeff Pettis, suggests that even tiny exposure to neonics can seriously harm honeybees.

Now a study from Purdue University researchers casts further suspicion on Bayer's money-minting concoctions. To understand the new paper—published in the peer-reviewed journal Plos One—it's important to know how seed treatments work, which is like this: The pesticides are applied directly to seeds before planting, and then get absorbed by the plant's vascular system. They are "expressed" in the pollen and nectar, where they attack the nervous systems of insects. Bayer targeted its treatments at the most prolific US crop—corn—and since 2003, corn farmers have been blanketing millions of acres of farmland with neonic-treated seeds.

Peak Maple: Climate Change Wants to Ruin Your Pancakes

| Sun Jan. 8, 2012 7:00 AM EST

For many of us, climate change is an abstract topic, as tedious as a droning Al Gore lecture complete with wonky charts.

But not if you're a maple farmer in New England. The region has long provided a robust ecological niche for maple trees. But just a few decades of steadily warming weather has changed all that. Once-flourishing trees are shedding leaves too early in the season and producing sub-par sap.

Maple syrup—dark, minerally, its sweetness cut by a caramel edge—surely ranks among the great traditional foods on planet Earth. Climate change means we can no longer take it for granted. If current trends continue, maple syrup production could well be an historical memory by 2100.

In this video, Climate Desk's James West profiles Martha Carlson, a 65-five-year-old maple farmer, retired teacher, and citizen-scientist who is documenting and publicizing the declining state of maple trees in New Hampshire. "We need lots of citizens to observe nature," Carlson says at one point. I bet if we all opened our eyes like Carlson has, we'd find that climate change is affecting our own landscapes, too. And then maybe we'd be able to motivate our political class to actually do something about climate change.

FDA Takes a Baby Step on Factory Farm Antibiotics

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 7:37 PM EST

For a few months now, President Obama's FDA has been showing zero appetite for standing up to the meat industry on factory-farm livestock use. In two key decisions (here and here), the agency declined to impose real restrictions on farm drug use, promoting a "voluntary" approach instead.

But today, the FDA abruptly canned the lapdog shtick and growled like a real watchdog: It banned certain uses of the cephalosporin family of antibiotics. The FDA declared in a press release:

Cephalosporins are commonly used in humans to treat pneumonia as well as to treat skin and soft tissue infections. In addition, they are used in the treatment of pelvic inflammatory disease, diabetic foot infections, and urinary tract infections. If cephalosporins are not effective in treating these diseases, doctors may have to use drugs that are not as effective or that have greater side effects.  

Citing concern that routine use on factory farms will push pathogens to develop resistance to these antibiotics, the FDA has banned certain uses of them. Now before I show just how limited this move is in the grand scheme, I have to stress its historical significance. For 34 years, the agency has been wringing its hands over the dangers of farm antibiotic abuse, all the while doing precisely nothing about it (save for appointing committees and issuing polite requests for "judicious" use). Now it's actually regulating. The Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farms, which advocates a ban on routine antibiotic use, praised the move Wednesday as an "important first step" in addressing the problem.

But make no mistake: This is just a first step, and nothing more. It turns out that cephalosporins make up a tiny—and shrinking—percentage of the antibiotics used in factory farms. This 2010 post from Ralph Loglisci Ralph Loglisci, Center for a Liveable FutureGraphic: Center for a Livable Future of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Liveable Future (h/t Helena Bottemiller) offers the chart to the right listing the amounts of various antibiotic families used on factory farms in 2009.

Note that these operations used 91,113 pounds of cephalosporins—an amount that literally rounds to zero compared to the whopping total of 28.8 million pounds they burn through. By comparison, they consumed more than 10 million pounds of tetracycline, also an extremely important drug for humans.

Now check out the FDA's 2010 numbers (the latest that have been released) on livestock antibiotic use. The following chart compares 2009 and 2010 FDA data.

Note that the industry's already-modest use of cephalosporin plunged 41 percent between 2009 and 2010. Meanwhile, overall antibiotic use held steady (rising 1 percent), tetracycline use jumped 21 percent, and consumption of penicillin—another important medicine you may have heard of—soared 43 percent to 1.9 million pounds.

Precisely why the industry is ramping up use of these two particular drugs is something I'll be investigating. At first glance, what I'm getting from these numbers is that the FDA has courageously restricted the use of a drug the industry barely uses and is already phasing out, and it is cravenly looking the other way as the industry increasingly leans on other antibiotics as a crutch to prop up a reckless production system. Indeed, as Wired's excellent Maryn McKenna points out, penicillin and tetracycline are in the very antibiotic families the FDA recently decided not to regulate.

We'll know whether the agency is changing its ways if, in the coming year, it follows Wednesday's ban with ones on drugs the industry is actually abusing. If not, then what we just heard from the FDA isn't much more than the growl of a toothless watchdog.

Taste Test: Pricey Winter Tomatoes From Whole Foods

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 8:00 AM EST
Organic winter tomatoes at Whole Foods' flagship store in Austin.

Responding to this great New York Times article on large-scale organic farming on Mexico's Baja Peninsula, I alluded yesterday to the "stacks of pristine, glistening organic tomatoes" now gracing the produce aisles of upscale supermarkets. The Times piece raised some important questions about the ecological impact of large-scale organic tomato production in Baja.

That very same evening, I found myself in what must be one of the most upscale supermarkets on the planet—the flagship Whole Foods in the company's (and my) hometown of Austin. (I'm here for the week visiting family.) And in that cavernous circus of high-end food, I did indeed find a large display featuring several varieties of organic tomatoes from Mexico. But here's the thing: they didn't look very pristine to me. Not unlike the non-organic winter tomatoes found in supermarkets throughout the land, their red hue looked sort of pale. And when I handled them, they didn't seem particularly ripe.

Now, I revere tomatoes. Maverick Farms, the North Carolina operation I help run, grows several varieties, some open-pollinated from old seed lines (i.e., heirloom), some hybrid. Our August-September tomato season is sacred to me, as are the jars of them we put up for the rest of the year. But when they're out of season and not in a jar, tomatoes are dead to me. If I hadn't written about organic winter tomatoes from Mexico that very day, Whole Foods' mediocre-looking display would not have caught my eye at all.

And while Whole Foods' offerings didn't look much different from normal supermarket tomatoes, their price tag did capture my attention. Big beefsteaks and medium-sized greenhouse-grown orbs both went for $4 per pound; "vine-ripened" numbers (with vines still attached) went for an eye-popping $6 per pound.

I decided to take home one of each and subject them to a taste test. Were the tomatoes worth their lofty price? Were they worth the environmental impact they exact on their growing region?

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Organic Tomatoes in January: Sucking Mexico Dry

| Mon Jan. 2, 2012 5:18 PM EST

Walk into a fancy grocery store today and you'll see them: stacks of pristine, glistening organic tomatoes. But what does it take to generate a bounty of organic tomatoes in January?

According to a great New York Times story by Elizabeth Rosenthal, the bulk of organic tomatoes now gracing the produce aisles of US supermarkets hail from Mexico's Baja Peninsula—a desert. Rosenthal reports that Baja's production of US-bound organic tomatoes has expanded dramatically in recent years. And growing large monocrops in a desert, organic or not, requires lots and lots of water. Here's Rosenthal:

The explosive growth in the commercial cultivation of organic tomatoes here, for example, is putting stress on the water table. In some areas, wells have run dry this year, meaning that small subsistence farmers cannot grow crops.

That's a pretty brutal tradeoff: A luxury product for export—fresh winter tomatoes—squeezes out people who are trying to feed themselves from their own land. And lest anyone argue that the arrangement is somehow building wealth and pulling people out of poverty in this part of Mexico, Rosenthal notes that the going wage for working in these mercilessly hot fields is $10 per day—twice the local minimum wage, but not enough to pull anyone out of poverty and certainly not sufficient compensation for drawing down the water table and snuffing out other forms of agriculture.

My Four Best Road Meals of 2011

| Fri Dec. 30, 2011 3:45 PM EST
Just another strip mall—that, and so much more.

I travel quite a bit for my job. Honestly, long hours in airports and hotels weigh on me, as do the rigors of the conference room and the speaker's lectern. Sigh. Salvation lies in city streets, where I go hounding for good, relatively inexpensivce chow. In no particular order, here are my most memorable road meals of 2011.

Lou Wine Bar
724 Vine Street
Los Angeles, CA

It's really just another strip mall amid a galaxy of them in L.A. It offers a laundromat, a Thai massage parlor, a discount store, a burger joint, a "nail spa," … and what might be the greatest wine bar in America. OK, so not every strip mall in L.A. has a Lou Wine Bar. But they should! Lou delivers what you want from a wine bar: low lighting, zero pretension among the waitstaff, the murmur of animated conversation, "small plates" containing big flavors, and, most importantly, a terrific list of off-the-beaten-path bottles. Lou is a temple of what has become known as "natural wine"—wine made without the homogenizing manipulations of industrial technology (here's the house manifesto). Both the menu and the wine list change frequently. The food savors of the Santa Monica farmers market; and the wines offer flavors as idiosyncratic and welcome as a great bar in a nondescript strip mall. I remember well a particularly gruelling day in L.A. last February; Lou made it all better that night with a glass of Cabernet Franc from France's hallowed Loire Valley and a plate of wicked-fresh arugula with glorious cheese and charcuterie.

Northern Spy
511 East 12th Street
New York, New York

I have but six words for this intimate, farm-focused restaurant tucked into the East Village: lamb burger with duck-fat fries. Order it next time you're skulking around Manhattan at lunchtime and feeling dented. Or go for the raw-kale salad featuring a market basket's worth of veggies and a couple of baked eggs. Either will set you right—as will will the terrific list of regional brews.

Green Table
75 9th Ave (Chelsea Market)
New York, NY

The name sounds earnest and a little precious, but the food at this small Chelsea Market restaurant is anything but. Any doubters will be silenced by the "GT Burger," which plays perfectly cooked organic beef against the sting of house-made kimchi. The local-seafood cevichRight up my alley. Right up my alley. e is also terrific, as is, come to think of it, everything else I've tried. Bonus: Right outside of Green Table in Chelsea Market, there's an outpost of 9th Street Espresso, one of the city's shrines to great coffee.

Green Goddess
307 Exchange Alley
New Orleans, LA.

In New Orleans, it's no secret that people sometimes get stuck in a bar and end up having too many Sazeracs. Not that I have any such first-hand experience! But I do know where to go the morning after. Step gingerly through the French Quarter and find the quiet alley graced by Green Goddess. When I did so, they sat my friends and I at an outdoor table and poured us cups of coffee so strong we had to nurse them through an entire leisurely brunch (not our standard practice). Then they started bringing out amazing and even radical food. First up: sliced heirloom tomatoes topped with a mat of molten manchego cheese and then caramelized sugar: a bizarre and scrumptious spin on crème brûlée. Then French toast, stuffed with sauteed apples and  finished exactly the same way as the tomatoes. All to myself, I had the ultimate hangover platter (strictly for research purposes): two fried eggs with strips of fried pork belly, all sitting on a bed of collards. And my friend had the greatest Cuban sandwich I've ever had a bite of. All the while, the gentle autumn sun of the greatest US city fell upon us, and all was well.

A Quarter of All Burgers Tainted With Drug-Resistant Bacteria

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 5:00 PM EST

Responding to the same FDA cave-in to the meat industry I flagged earlier today, Mark Bittman points to a damning study I missed when it came out in April.

In it (press release; full text), researchers gathered 136 samples of beef, chicken, pork, and turkey from supermarkets in five US cities and tested them for staph aureus, a common food-poisoning bacteria that causes everything from from minor skin infections to serious diseases like pneumonia, endocarditis and sepsis.

The results: 47 percent of the samples contained the staph; and of those, fully half were resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics. This suggests that a quarter of the meat in US supermarket shelves are tainted with multi-drug-resistant strains of this potentially deadly pathogen.

The FDA's Christmas Present for Factory Farms

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 8:00 AM EST

On Dec. 22, while even the nerdiest observers were thinking more about Christmas plans than food-safety policy, the FDA snuck a holiday gift to the meat industry into the Federal Register. The agency announced it had essentially given up any pretense of regulating antibiotic abuse on factory farms, at least for the time being.

Wired's diligent Maryn McKenna has the background. She reports that way back in 1977—when livestock farming was much less industrialized than it is today—the FDA announced its intention to limit use of key antibiotics on animal farms. The reason: By that time, it was already obvious that routine use of these drugs would generate antibiotic-resistant pathogens that endanger humans.

In the decades since, the agency has ruminated and mulled, appointed committees and consulted experts, all the while delaying making a final decision on the matter. Meanwhile, the meat industry built a multibillion-dollar business based on stuffing animals by the thousands into tight spaces amid their own waste. To keep them alive and growing to slaughter amid such conditions, feedlot operators give their animals daily doses of antibiotics. The FDA recently revealed that factory animal farms now burn through fully 80 percent of all antibiotics consumed in the United States.