Tom Philpott

More on the Ethical Restaurant Guide

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 8:00 AM EST

When I was in high school in Texas in the early 1980s continuing into my college years, I worked first as a busboy/dishwasher, then grill cook, at a classic steakhouse. You know the kind: low lighting, lots of red everywhere. Indeed, busboys wore red jackets, white shirts, and black bowties; cooks had to adorn their white uniforms with an annoying red scarf.

The place was part of a small Texas chain that had begun in the '30s. When I started in 1980, employees with more than six months of seniority were automatically enrolled in a profit-sharing plan. After a year, you got a decent health-insurance policy. The company even ran a credit union that paid decent interest on savings and financed cars and homes for employees. People who worked hard and excelled got steady raises. For long-time cooks, work there charted a path to the middle class.

But at a certain point, the founding owner died and his stepchildren took over. Simultaneously, the Reagan '80s came into full flower. Slowly, all of those perks disappeared. Wages froze for current employees, and dropped for new ones. Older, high-paid cooks were given the option to accept wage cuts or be fired. Long-time employees began to struggle to maintain their lifestyles.

I was a college-bound kid earning cash on the side, so the changes didn't affect me much personally. But it was an embittering experience to see people who had become like family to me be treated like dirt. In the end, the draconian changes didn't do much for the company's bottom line—it has long since collapsed, and exists now only in rump form.

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My Favorite Cookbooks of 2011

| Sat Dec. 3, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Part of me swore off cookbooks years ago. I used to dive into them, creating feasts that started with huge shopping lists and ended in towers of dirty dishes. No regrets—it was a great way to learn to cook and get some tangible, edible education about the culture of faraway lands.

I actually still love that sort of thing. But I don't have time for it anymore; my cooking has become streamlined and simple, driven not by some vision of, say, authentic Moroccan cuisine, but rather by what's coming off the farm, what basics—grains, beans, oils, spices, etc.—are in the pantry, and what meat I can get from neighboring farmers for the occasional splurge.

If I have largely turned away from cookbooks, though, they have not done me the same favor. One of the perks of writing about a topic is receiving via mail a steady stream of "review copies" of books on the subject. One kind of food book is the cookbook—and once a month or so, unsolicited new ones arrive, usually hotly promoting some aspect of "green" or "sustainable" cooking. I confess that until recently, most of those books, worthy as they are, bored me. I don't need to "green my kitchen," or be harangued to buy local and eat lower on the food chain.

But this year, I started receiving what I consider a new genre of cookbooks, put out by inspired writer-cooks whose lives are deeply embedded in their own foodsheds—a condition they take as a given, without hitting you over the head with it—and who share my fixation on simple, seasonal, high-flavor cooking. I learned they can can teach me new tricks without wrecking the kitchen or sending me scurrying to the grocery store for special ingredients. For the first time in years, I found myself digging into cookbooks for ideas and inspiration—and falling in love with them all over again.

In addition to being highly practical and in tune with the way I cook now, these new-wave cookbooks are all lovingly put-together artifacts—things you want to hold, pore over, and return to, in a way that no website or app can simulate. Here, in no particular order, are the cookbooks that have won me over this year, in spite of myself.

River Cottage Everyday
By Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall

Fearnley-Whitingstall, who runs the runs River Cottage farm/restaurant in the UK, made his authorial rep with a celebrated tome on meat (which I confess I've never cracked). In this one, vegetables take center plate, giving meat just a single (okay, quite brilliant) chapter. As suggested by the title, what Fearnley-Whitingstall is doing here is laying out a blueprint for fitting home cooking into a busy life. So we get chapters like "Making breakfast," "Weekday lunch (box)," and "Thrifty meat." Thrift, indeed, is a theme running throughout—for a superb fish soup, for example, he has you "buy an inexpensive fresh fish, get the fishmonger to fillet it for you, and use the head, fish, and bones to make a flavorful stock."

But the mood is whimsical, not earnest, brightened by the delightful photography of Simon Wheeler and Fearnley-Whitingstall's droll prose. And every recipe I've tried—from "Roast carrots with butter, cumin, and orange" to "Easy rich chocolate cake"—has been both dead simple and a winner. It is, in short, the most charming and irresistible cookbook I've come across in ages.

Killer dish: "Beet and walnut hummus" (my favorite discovery of 2011)
Dish I'm dying to try: "Neck of lamb with lemon and barley"

Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch
By Nigel Slater

Here we have another charming and useful book by a British writer, this one from the veteran Observer food columnist Nigel Slater. Slater's shtick—and it's a good one—is that he intensively gardens the 40-by-20-foot lot behind his London townhouse. Somehow, he has managed to write an entire thick book about his rarefied urban-homesteader lifestyle without sounding the least bit self-satisfied or snobbish. Again, the photography is gorgeous—in the elegantly written introduction, don't miss the bird's eye shots of Slater's garden as it progresses from early spring to the dead of winter. Even more so than Fearnley-Whitingstall's, this book is a valentine to produce—meat turns up in some of the recipes, but each one highlights a specific vegetable. And Slater's focus isn't on just the cooking, but also the growing. The chapters take us alphabetically from asparagus to zucchini, with wise and hard-won tips on growing each, followed by a dozen or so recipes, all of them quite practical. The cooking style is Anglo-Mediterranean, in the proud, unfussy tradition of the great postwar UK food writer Elizabeth David. Not long after the book arrived, I caught my roommate, Maverick Farms director Hillary Wilson, leafing through it with a frown. I asked her what was the matter. "This is the book I wanted to write," she said. "Damn it." I suspect a lot of cooking-obsessed growers will feel the same.

Killer dish: "Carrot and cilantro fritters"
Dish I'm dying to try: "A soup of broccoli and bacon"

Cooking in the Moment: A Year of Seasonal Recipes
By Andrea Reusing

If Slater's book is a love letter to fresh produce, Andrea Reusing has written one to her food shed: North Carolina's highly fertile Piedmont region, with its gently sloping hills that separate the state's mountainous western region (where I live) from the sandy lowlands to the east. Her home base is Chapel Hill/Carrboro, the epicenter of one of the nation's most vibrant small-farm scenes: talented youngsters, back-to-the-landers from the '70s, and traditional smallholders all producing top-flight produce from the region's rich soil and warm climate. In her restaurant Lantern, Reusing takes those raw materials and transforms them into correct and elaborate pan-Asian fare: just the kind of stuff I love to eat in restaurants but am too time-strapped to attempt at home these days. (Full disclosure: Andrea is a friend, and I've had many terrific meals at Lantern). In this book, though, Andrea sheds her chef's toque and shows us how she cooks those same staple ingredients at home with her family: dishes that are simple, fast, and full of flavor. The book is structured seasonally, each chapter containing a mini-profile of a local producer, written in prose as friendly and precise as her cooking. My favorite vignette is the one about her clandestine source for raw milk (which can be legally sold in North Carolina only as animal feed, wink, wink). The story climaxes with a showdown between a food processor and a stand-up mixer over which can turn fresh cream into butter faster and better. Again, the photography is a delight.

Killer dish: "Spinach with melted leeks and cardamom"
Dish I'm dying to try: "Hard-cider braised pork shoulder" (Andrea is an artist of pork)

The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts
By Frédéric Morin, David McMillan, and Meredith Erickson

This bizarre and spectacular book isn't like the other on my list—but then again, it's not much like any other book I know of, cooking-related or otherwise. "What the fuck is Joe Beef?," the great New York chef David Chang asks in the book's introduction. He notes that the name evokes "images of Sloppy Joe's, of ground meat in ketchup, and of hairnets." What Joe Beef is, by all accounts, is one of the best restaurants in North America, crammed into a tiny space in an unfashionable Montreal neighborhood. (The restaurant takes its name from a colorful tavern keeper who kept Montreal's working stiffs well-fed and -lubricated a century ago.) The Art of Living According to Joe Beef is a kind of artist's statement for an idiosyncratic and unlikely restaurant. It doesn't follow seasons or ingredients or meal genres, but rather the quirks and obsessions of the Joe Beef's founders. A cookbook only "of sorts," it offers chapters on the history of eating in Montreal, on nostalgia for trains, on booze (sample sentence: "I love red Burgundy wine so much I want to pour it in my eyes"), on building and mastering your own smoker, and on transforming a crack den into a garden worthy of Nigel Slater. Interrupting the Gonzo-style essays and dazzling photos are recipes for straight-ahead, unfussy French food—a little chefy and rarefied-ingredients-based for my current cooking habits, but deeply appealing. I want to try them all. Even more, I want to make my debut at the bar of Joe Beef.

Killer dish: "Cider turnips" (so far, it's the only recipe I've had everything on hand to try)
Dish I'm dying to try: Every single one, but if I had to choose: "Scallops with pulled pork"

There's Arsenic in Your Kids' Apple Juice

| Wed Nov. 30, 2011 3:08 PM EST

"I'd hate to take a bite out of you," Burt Lancaster hisses at Tony Curtis in the classic '50s film Sweet Smell of Success. "You're a cookie full of arsenic." The line resonates to this day, because it's jarring to picture something as comforting and innocuous as a cookie being laced with a notorious poison.

And that's precisely what Consumer Reports forces us to do with its just-released story on apple and grape juice—you know, the stuff millions of people feed to their kids every day, sometimes several times a day, in those little boxes. And as with the confection in Lancaster's insult, the poison in question is arsenic.

The FDA currently does not regulate arsenic levels in fruit juices, CR reports. But for bottled and tap water, the agency enforces a standard of no more than 10 parts per billion of arsenic.

Should Fair Trade Certify Giants Like Nestle and Folgers?

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 2:37 PM EST

Just before Thanksgiving, the New York Times' William Neuman published an interesting piece on an emerging rift within the US fair-trade community.

Fair Trade USA, the main US fair-trade certifying entity, has announced plans to essentially lower its standards in the new year, Neuman reports. The group announced it would sever ties with Fairtrade International, "which coordinates fair trade marketing activities in close to two dozen countries," Neuman writes. And large coffee plantations will be eligible for certification—before, only small cooperatives could receive the seal—as will "products with as little as 10 percent fair trade ingredients, compared with a minimum of 20 percent required in other countries."

The plans have enraged the people behind Massachusetts-based Equal Exchange, a stalwart purveyor of fair-trade products. "It's a betrayal," Equal Exchange president Rink Dickinson told Neuman. "They've lost their integrity."

Fair Trade USA, of course, defended the changes. Here's Neuman:

Paul Rice, chief executive of Fair Trade USA, said the fair trade movement was dominated by hard-liners who resisted needed changes. "We're all debating what do we want fair trade to be as it grows up," Mr. Rice said. "Do we want it to be small and pure or do we want it to be fair trade for all?"

He dismissed criticism that his group was seeking to increase revenue for its own sake. "The more we grow volume, the more we can increase the impact" of fair trade, he said.

Who's right? To think it through, it helps to remember why fair trade exists in the first place. The idea behind the movement is pretty simple: International trade in tropical commodities like coffee, chocolate, and bananas may sound like a great deal for workers and small producers in the Global South, but it really isn't.

Study: Common Herbicide Causes Menstrual Trouble

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 8:00 AM EST

Yet again, scientists have looked at populations routinely exposed to the widely used herbicide atrazine and found trouble.

The latest: In a study published by Envionmental Research (summarized here), researchers found evidence that atrazine could be causing menstrual irregularities and low estrogen levels in women, even when it appears in drinking water at levels far below the EPA's limit of 3 parts per billion.

The study showed that women in ag-intensive areas of Illinois, where atrazine has been shown to leach into drinking water from farm fields, were significantly more likely to experience menstrual irregularities and low estrogen levels than women in ag-intensive areas of Vermont, where atrazine use is much lower.

The Vermont/Illinois paper comes on the heels of an analysis of the Agricultural Health Study—an ongoing look at people who regularly apply pesticides and their spouses—that found similar trends among women exposed to atrazine, as well as a 2009 study finding that atrazine levels in drinking water tracked with low-weight birth incidences in Indiana.

LEAKED: Secret Sara Lee Marketing Memo

| Mon Nov. 28, 2011 6:30 AM EST

I write a lot about the meat industry from the outside looking in. So I was delighted when an inside look at the industry fell into my hands: a real-life meat industry image makeover plan.

A source who wishes to remain anonymous gave me printouts from an internal presentation delivered by an official from Sara Lee. The company is best known for its sickly-sweet pies and cakes, but it has emerged as a major player in the packaged-meats market, with a brand list that includes Ball Park franks, Jimmy Dean sausages, and Hillshire Farm deli meats. (Well, it's called Hillshire Farm for the time being anyway—as you'll see below, that may subtly change soon.) Sara Lee has announced plans to split into two parts, one of them focused solely on packaged meat company (a "pure play" meat company, in Wall Street jargon). The plan I received highlights marketing ideas for the emerging meat company.

Below are some highlights. Warning: We are about to enter the strange arena of marketing, where fictional worlds are conjured up out of whole cloth for the sole purpose of moving goods.

From what I can tell, the intention expressed here is to brush up the image of Hillshire Farm and roll out two new premium brands: "Smith & Smith Fine Meats" and "Flat Iron Ranch." The campaign is "foundational," the one slide declares, "and demonstrates how the new, purposeful Sara Lee will manifest: Modern. Authentic. Simple."

From there, we get the new plan for Hillshire Farm(s):

 

So, this "small network of farms" isn't so much about actually supplying the company, but more about projecting "aspirations." Then we get a slide featuring the logo:

 

 

Note those dangling peppercorns ripening on the vine. Those will be a key aspect of the new Hillshire Farms brand—particularly, the roast-turkey product.

 

 

 

And in that image, we find my favorite line in the whole presentation: "Give it up for pepper!" Black pepper isn't the only non-meat ingredient to take a star turn in this plan. Check out what gets highlighted in the ham product:

 

 

Good job indeed, bees! Though I have to wonder if our friends in Sara Lee's marketing department have been reading about all the dodgy Chinese honey that's been gushing into the United States as our own bee populations decline. Generally, I find it interesting that the plan isn't to herald any claims about the meat or where it comes from, but rather to focus meaninglessly on flavoring agents like honey and pepper.

 

From there, after a boring slide on the roast beef product—"sprinkled with salt, pepper, and herbs and roasted oh-so-slowly"—the presentation moves on to a summary of the Hillshire Farms strategy:

 

 

So Hillshire Farms is the everyday brand. The presentation then pivots to the upstart high-end brands, Smith & Smith Fine Meats and Flat Iron Ranch:

 

 

 

I should note that I did reach out to the Sara Lee press office to give the company a chance to comment on the document. Officials there confirmed that the presentation was a draft of a marketing plan for the meat division's 2012 launch as a stand-alone company. They emphasized that the effort was a "work in progress," and that what I had gotten hold of was already "way out of date." That wouldn't tell me anything else, except that all questions about the meat arm of Sara Lee would be answered at the company's March 2012 launch presentation for Wall Street analysts—to which they graciously invited me. And maybe I'll even take them up on it.

Draft or not, what we're seeing here is marketing professionals straining to put lipstick, so to speak, on a pig: to swath an industry built on abuse in the gauzy platitudes of sustainability, rarefied taste, and agrarianism.

A recently released, agribusiness-funded marketing study (PDF) put the challenge like this:

There is an inverse relationship between the perception of shared values and priorities for commercial farms. Consumers fear that commercial farms will put profit ahead of principle and therefore cut corners when it comes to other priority issues. As farms continue to change in size and scale we have to overcome that bias by more effectively demonstrating our commitment to the values and priorities of consumers.

 

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A Peek Inside Our Farm

| Wed Nov. 23, 2011 9:00 PM EST

My boss: Maverick Farms director Hillary WilsonBoss lady: Maverick Farms director Hillary WilsonAs some of you may know, when I'm not scribbling away for Mother Jones, I help run a small farm and grassroots project in Valle Crucis, a small community in the Appalachian mountains just outside of Boone, North Carolina.

You may be wondering what precisely the hell is Maverick Farms and what my role is there. Mainly, these days, I'm sort of the farm mule. I tend to our flock of 40 laying hens—let them out of their house in the morning, keep them fed and watered, etc. I do heavy lifting jobs, like moving vast piles of compost from one end of the field to the other in a wheel barrow. I help set up irrigation pipes when the rains don't come; things like that.

I also earn my keep in the kitchen, cooking most lunches and dinners during the growing season for a farm crew ranging in size from three to seven or eight, depending on what's going on—a task which provides the fodder for my Tom's Kitchen column.

But now that I'm so busy writing, I'm no longer involved full-time in farm operations. Like so much of the broader sustainable food movement, Maverick is pushed forward these days by a young woman: Hillary Wilson, 27, the daughter of the couple who started the farm in the early '70s and the younger sister of my girlfriend, Alice Brooke Wilson. The three of us took over the farm in 2004, along with our friends Sara Safransky and Leo Gaev, and the project has evolved considerably over that time.Rebecca Bilodeau, a 2011 farm hand, tends plants in the passive-solar greenhouse.Rebecca Bilodeau, a 2011 farm hand, tends plants in the passive-solar greenhouse.

Hillary grew up here and started working on the farm with her father Bill when she was 17—and from the start, she was the most experienced farmer among us, despite being the youngest by a decade. Hillary now oversees not only a 3-acre vegetable farm, but also the crazy projects I'll get to below. I'm kind of her consigliere these days; she's the boss.

When we first launched, we knew we never wanted to be a niche operation selling to the high-end country club and resort restaurants that dot the area, which is a magnet for vacation homes for people who live in the hotter regions to the south and east. The idea of growing for a small elite while most people who live here year-round rely on fast-food chains and multinational grocery giants for food never appealed to us. We wanted to work on the ground to build an alternative food system that works for everyone.

So from day one, we saw the farm as a laboratory for finding solutions to what I see is the main riddle facing the sustainable food movement: how to expand access to healthy food in a way that works for farmers. The laboratory has had its share of spectacular near misses, like the major effort our first several years to transform the farmhouse into a restaurant one weekend each month. It was fun to play chef and come up with elaborate menus, but we realized that unless we were willing to charge exclusive prices, the dinners took up too much time to justify the money they brought in.

Alice Brooke Wilson and I, hoeing the corn. Alice Brooke Wilson and me, in the early-season corn patch. Over the years, we've concluded that the task of creating an accessible alternative food system is really about community building—about working with other farmers and with the broader community to create new economic models. In 2009, after four years of running a small CSA on our own, we launched High Country CSA, a multi-farm year-round CSA project designed to help stabilize the market for locally produced food and take advantage of our region's particular mountainous geography.

In the three counties that surround us, elevations range from 1000 feet to 3500 feet above sea level (we're at about 2800 feet). As a result, the area has a stunning diversity of microclimates, long winters, and mostly small farms (in the 1-3 acre range). The multi-farm CSA model gives our community a robust institution that delivers a variety of high-quality food even under challenging growing conditions.

And it's not just for people who can afford a big upfront payment for the season's produce. We invite people to pay for their shares in installments throughout the season, and in 2010, after a slog through the USDA's byzantine bureaucracy, we became one of the few multi-farm CSAs in the nation that can accept SNAP/EBT payments (ie, food stamps). As far as we have been able to find out, we are the only rural multi-farm CSA that takes EBT—although we would love to find out otherwise.

With the multi-farm CSA up and running, we're embarking on our next project: a farm incubator program, in collaboration with Appalachian State University, which has vacated a 13-acre educational farm a couple miles away. In our community, as in most of the nation, the only way we're going to create a food system that makes sense is to get more smart young people on the land. Hence, what we're calling FIG—the Farm Incubator and Grower Program.

The new incubator will create an "agricultural commons" to give landless farmers access to land and equipment to start new farm businesses, and will help link them to affordable land once they're ready. Hillary is a natural to lead the incubator—she's been teaching novices how to farm since I showed up here nearly eight years ago, when my entire growing experience involved a rather weedy eight-square-foot community-garden bed in Brooklyn. She's also worked closely with the dozens of young interns who have moved through Maverick over the years, eager to get experience working the land.

Kaitlin Melven, 2011 farm hand, tends our farmers market stand in Boone. Kaitlin Melvin, the other 2011 farm hand, tends our farmers market stand in Boone. 

So that's pretty much what we're up to here at Maverick Farms—that and eating well. For Thanksgiving, one of our star former interns, Hana Crouch, is coming over to cook a turkey that she raised and slaughtered (and that I have requested that she dry-brine). I'll be making those side dishes I wrote about a few days ago, along with a classic apple pie. We'll have some friends and family over, and we'll cook and laugh and drink and enjoy this most unlikely holidays in our fast-food nation: a day to celebrate food, the land it came from, and the people who grew it.

Did BP Oil Make Shrimp Lose Their Eyes?

| Wed Nov. 23, 2011 4:51 PM EST

Little more than a year after BP oil disaster, seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is "as safe to eat as it was before the oil spill," the FDA insists on its website.

But along the Gulf itself, questions linger within the very fishing communities that rely on the Gulf's bounty both for sustenance and a living, as this CNN report shows (video below). For one thing, shrimp populations have plunged. The New York Times reported last month that Gulf fisherperople were complaining of the worst white-shrimp season in 50 years, with yields 80 percent lower than normal.

Several fisherman and processors make similar complaints in the CNN piece, and admit that they feel less safe eating shrimp now than they did before the spill. One makes an even more startling claim (see 2:47 mark of the video): "fisherman are bringing in shrimp without any eyes … they evidently have lost their eyes and they're still alive."

Your Tax Dollars Help Cargill Export Factory Meat

| Tue Nov. 22, 2011 8:03 AM EST
Pigs stuffed together in a factory farm—or agribiz giants lined up at the government trough?

The US Meat Export Federation has a straightforward mission: to open foreign markets to the output of our vast factory animal farms. The group represents all major players in the US industrial meat machine: the dominant meatpackers (Cargill, Smithfield, Tyson, and JBS); the big farm interests that grow their feed (American Soybean Association, the Iowa Corn Growers Association); and the agrichemical giants that supply corn farmers with inputs (Monsanto and Dupont).  

Now, I deplore the US meat industry for all of its many abuses, but I'm not shocked that it has formed an interest group to push its suspect products on overseas markets. But this? It's nuts. Under a USDA initiative called the Market Access Program, US taxpayers will be cutting a check to the US Meat Export Federation for $19.7 million in fiscal 2012.

Tom's Kitchen: 2 Quick and Easy Sides to Spice Up the Thanksgiving Table

| Sun Nov. 20, 2011 2:00 PM EST

Thanksgiving is upon us; that means it's time to spend hours in the kitchen grinding through really, really elaborate recipes.

Or not. Our national feast day is a time to enjoy food with a large table of friends and family. And for me, enjoying cooking for a crowd means keeping everything simple and low-key—leaving plenty of time to relax, hang out, and enjoy adult beverages. (Or, if you want to go dysfunctional-family-traditional, plenty of time to plunge into a snarling family meltdown … and enjoy adult beverages.)

But staying simple doesn't mean sacrificing flavor. What I advise is to focus on getting the best ingredients you can find—and farmers markets will be brimming with great stuff this time of year—and let them speak for themselves, with just a little tweak to push them over the edge.