Refugees selling the food of their homeland to get a start in a new life is, by now, a cliché. Khaled (in the photo) joined their ranks a year ago. But cliché or not, selling food is an important way to give people work to do, wages, and hope. If it’s happening on your doorstep, which it is, and the food is good, which it is, what’s a hungry podcaster to do? Go there, obviously, and report back. Which is why, a couple of weeks ago, I found myself, microphone in hand, waiting patiently in line for a falafel wrap.
Truth be told, there aren’t that many Syrian refugees in Italy. The most recent official statistics put the total at around 5000 with a little over 600 in Rome. Hummustown is helping a few of them.
Jonathan Bethony is one of the leading artisanal bakers in America, but he goes further than most, milling his own flour and baking everything with a hundred percent of the whole grain. He’s also going beyond wheat, incorporating other cereals such as millet and sorghum in the goodies Seylou is producing. I happened to be in Washington DC just a couple of weeks after his new bakery had opened, and despite all the work that goes into getting a new bakery up and running, Jonathan graciously agreed to sit down and chat.
And almost as if to prove my point after writing about Modernist BreadCrumbs the other day, Jeremy’s latest episode is a stunning example of love and care in a podcast dedicated to food. I’m really so pleased that he can take a holiday, have so much fun with bread, and simultaneously turn it into something like this.
Even the title reads as if he were trying to out-do the entirety of eight episodes of Modernist BreadCrumbs in one short interview. I think he’s succeeded handily.
There’s so much great to unpack here, and simultaneously I wish there was more. I found myself wishing he’d had time to travel to some of the farms and done a whole series. With any luck he actually has–I wouldn’t put it past him–and we’ll be delighted in a week or two when they’re released.
“Plenty of plants, not much meat and maximum variety.”
The best advice for a good diet I’ve ever heard. It’s a maxim devised by Colin Tudge, long before anything similar you may have heard from more recent writers. Tudge, more than anyone else I know, has consistently championed the idea that meat ought to be seen in a supporting role, rather than as the main attraction, a garnish, if you will.
Tudge has been thinking and writing about agriculture and food systems for a long time, and we’ve been friends for a long time too. In fact, it’s fair to say that knowing Colin has influenced my own thoughts about food and farming quite a bit. As far as Colin is concerned, we’ve been going about farming in completely the wrong way for the past 100 years or so. Instead of asking how can we grow more food, more cheaply, he thinks we should focus on what we need – good, wholesome food that doesn’t destroy the earth – and then ask how we can provide that for everybody.
He’s expanded and built on those ideas in many books since Future Cook (Future Food in the US), which contained that pithy dietary advice and which was published in 1980. And rather than reform or revolution, neither of which will do the job he thinks needs to be done, he advocates for a renaissance in real farming.
Durrus is a village at the head of Dunmanus bay, south of the Sheep’s Head peninsula in the southwest of Ireland. Durrus is also the name of an award-winning, semi-soft cheese, while Dunmanus is a harder cheese, aged a lot longer. Both were created by Jeffa Gill and are hand made by Jeffa and her small team up above the village and the bay.
Jeffa is one of the pioneers who turned West Cork into a heaven and a haven for cheese-lovers. One of the special characteristics of Durrus and many West Cork farmhouse cheeses is that they are washed rind cheeses. The young cheese is inoculated with specific bacteria (some cheeses pick their surface moulds up from the atmosphere) and is then frequently washed or moistened with a brine solution, which gives those bacteria a boost and keeps other micro-organisms at bay. The result is what many people call a stinky cheese, although the actual flavour of these cheeses is often mild, sweet and creamy.
The really remarkable thing about West Cork is how an entire food ecosystem has grown up there in the past 50 years or so, each part depending on and encouraging the others. The fact that there are so many outstanding farmhouse cheesemakers is no accident; they all gathered originally and shared their ups and downs, from which each developed their own unique cheeses. They were supported by local shops and restaurants, who created demand not just for fine cheeses but for so many other foods too. Surely someone must have documented it; so where is it?
Remember Farm Aid, which launched in 1985? A lot of people do, and they tend to date the farm crisis in America to the 1980s, triggered by Earl Butz and his crazy love for fencerow to fencerow, get big or get out, industrial agriculture. And of course, land consolidation is inevitable, because if you’re going to invest in all that capital equipment to make your farm more efficient, you’re bound to buy up the smaller farmers who weren’t so savvy. Those “facts,” however, are anything but. They’re myths, on which much of the current criticism of American farm policy is built. There are others, too, and they’re all skillfully eviscerated by Nate Rosenberg and Bryce Wilson Stucki in a recent paper.
One villain or two?
And here’s another thing. That first Farm Aid concert apparently raised $9 million. You could presumably help a lot of poor old dirt farmers with that kind of cash. But Farm Aid wasn’t actually about poor old dirt farmers, it was about people like Willie Nelson. He lost $800,000 the year before Farm Aid. Nine million dollars doesn’t go too far when individual people are losing that kind of money.
Editing the recent podcast on Antibiotics in agriculture was far harder than I expected it to be, mostly because I had to cut away stuff that is important, but just didn’t fit. Much of that was about how, in time honoured tradition, antibiotic manufacturers and veterinarians sowed doubts about who...
I love that Jeremy goes to the effort to not only analyze the charts and graphs, but finds original copies and brings them to our attention. Too often people would look at such things and take them at face value.
This is definitely a podcast “extra”, but I’m glad he spent the time to bring up the other interesting topics that didn’t make the original episode.
Walking down the supermarket aisle in search of coffee, I have this warm inner glow. If I choose a pack that boasts the Fair Trade logo, or that of any other third-party certifying agency, I’ll be doing good just by paying a little more for something that I am going to buy anyway. The extra I pay will find its way to the poor farmers who grow the coffee, and together enlightened coffee drinkers can make their lives better. But it seems I’m at least somewhat mistaken. Certified coffee is certainly better than nothing, but it isn’t doing as much good as I fondly imagine. And the price premium I pay could be doing a lot more.
In this episode I hear about coffee that’s more ethical than fair, and about some of the ways in which Fair Trade falls short.
Tackling the problem of antibiotic resistance at (one) source
In the past year or so there has been a slew of high-level meetings pointing to antibiotic resistance as a growing threat to human well-being. But then, resistance was always an inevitable, Darwinian consequence of antibiotic use. Well before penicillin was widely available, Ernst Chain, who went on to win a Nobel Prize for his work on penicillin, noted that some bacteria were capable of neutralising the antibiotic.
What is new about the recent pronouncements and decisions is that the use of antibiotics in agriculture is being recognised, somewhat belatedly, as a major source of resistance. Antibiotic manufacturers and the animal health industry have, since the start, done everything they can to deny that. Indeed, the history of efforts to regulate the use of antibiotics in agriculture reveals a pretty sordid approach to public health.
But while it can be hard to prove the connection between agriculture and a specific case of antibiotic resistance, a look at hundreds of recent academic studies showed that almost three quarters of them did demonstrate a conclusive link.
Antibiotic resistance – whether it originates with agriculture or inappropriate medical use – takes us back almost 100 years, when infectious diseases we now consider trivial could, and did, kill. It reduces the effectiveness of other procedures too, such as surgery and chemotherapy, by making it more likely that a subsequent infection will wreck the patient’s prospects. So it imposes huge costs on society as a whole.
Maybe society as a whole needs to tackle the problem. The Oxford Martin School, which supports a portfolio of highly interdisciplinary research groups at Oxford University, has a Programme on Collective Responsibility for Infectious Disease. They recently published a paper proposing a tax on animal products produced with antibiotics. Could that possibly work?
Here’s another great example of a negative externality. Too often capitalism brushes over these and creates a larger longer term cost by not taking these into account. It’s almost assuredly the case that taxing the use of these types of antibiotics across the broadest base of users (eaters) (thereby minimizing the overall marginal cost), would help to minimize the use of these or at least we’d have the funding for improving the base issue in the future. In some sense, the additional cost of eating organic meat is similar to this type of “tax”, but the money is allocated in a different way.
Not covered here are some of the economic problems of developing future antibiotics when our current ones have ceased to function as the result of increased resistance over time. This additional problem is an even bigger worry for the longer term. In some sense, it’s all akin to the cost of smoking and second hand smoke–the present day marginal cost to the smoker of cigarettes and taxes is idiotically low in comparison to the massive future cost of their overall health as well as that of the society surrounding them. Better to put that cost upfront for those who really prefer to smoke so that the actual externalities are taken into account from the start.
In the town hall of Siena is a series of glorious frescoes that depict The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. In one of them is a pig, long snouted and thin legged, black with a white band around its back and down its front legs, being quietly chivied along by a swineherd. It is absolutely recognisable as a cinta senese, a Belted Sienese pig, today one the most favoured heritage breeds in Italy. But it wasn’t always so. Numbers dropped precipitously in the 1950s and 1960s, to the point that the herd studbook, recording the ancestry of all the animals, was abandoned. And then began the renaissance.
One place that contributed to the revival of the cinta senese is Spannocchia, a large and ancient estate not far from Siena. I was lucky enough to visit earlier this summer, to see the pigs first hand and to learn about them from Sara Silvestri.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, to me, was that not all cinta senese are blessed with the white belt that is deemed a characteristic of the breed. Some have white spots or stripes but not the full band, and some don’t seem to have any white at all. This could be flaky genetics – odd for a breed with a supposedly ancient lineage – or it could be the result of marauding male cinghiale, which are a problem in Spannocchia and elsewhere. Right now, all these visually defective animals (and most of the perfect specimens too) end up on a plate. I wonder how long before every piglet born is properly belted.
Oh, how I dream of pork… I’m beginning to wonder if there’s an Eat This Podcast 12 step program.
For a minute toward the end I though that Jeremy had slipped and let the audio quality of the episode go to pot. Took me a minute to realize that it had started to rain during the interview and the audio was really just supplementing the arc of the story–as always. I suppose I have to let go and trust his producerial sense.
I’d been away from podcasts for a chunk of the summer, so today was a great day to have the chance to catch up on one of my favorites.
What is jam? “A preserve made from whole fruit boiled to a pulp with sugar.” Lots of opportunities to quibble with that, most especially, if you’re planning to sell the stuff in the UK and label it “jam,” the precise amount of sugar. More than 60% and you’re fine calling it jam. Less than 50% and you need to call it reduced-sugar jam. Lower still, and it becomes a fruit spread. All that is about to change though, thanks to a UK Goverment regulation that will allow products with less than 60% sugar to be labelled jam.
There’s nothing like a threat to the traditional British way of life to motivate the masses, although as an expat, I had no idea of the kerfuffle this had raised until I read about it on the website of the Campaign for Real Farming.
I realize that I’m probably ruined by eating soft set American jams and jellies all my life, aside from a half a dozen or so homemade versions I’ve made myself over the years. Here in the states, we’ve slipped even further–most jams are comprised of high fructose corn syrup instead of sugar. If only that revolution had happened after the 1920s instead of the 1770s perhaps things would be different.
I’m curious what’s become of this issue four years on? Did the “hard”-liners win out, or did the regulations turn to (soft set) jelly?
Karen Coates is a freelance American journalist who writes about food – among other things. She emailed to ask if I would be interested in talking to her about a book that she and her husband, photographer Jerry Redfern, have produced. It’s called Eternal Harvest, but it isn’t about food, at least not directly. Its subtitle is the legacy of American bombs in Laos. Some of those bombs are 500-pounders. Lots of them are little tennis-ball sized bomblets, which are as attractive to farm kids as a tennis ball might be, with horrific consequences. The story of unexploded ordnance in Laos was an eye opener, for me. But I also wanted to know about food in Laos, and so that’s where we began our conversation.
Interesting to hear about the monotony of some of the local diets, which across large areas are actually quite diverse. The limited selections show a high incidence of forced locovorsim while the lack of diversity also goes to show limited trade areas and links between towns and villages. The show also touched on some longer 500 year trends in food in the area, but only in a passing manner. Even small amounts of animal protein in diets shows how important they can be in the long run.
Ah, the self-indulgent joy of making a podcast on one of my own passions.
“They” say that turning cooking from an enjoyable hobby into a business is a recipe for disaster, and while I’m flattered that people will pay for an additional loaf of bread I’ve baked, there’s no way I’m going to be getting up at 3 in the morning every day to sell enough loaves to make a living. But there are people who have done just that, and one of them happens to be a friend. Suzanne Dunaway and her husband Don turned her simple, delicious foccacia into Buona Forchetta bakery, a multi-million dollar business that won plaudits for the quality of its bread – and then sold it and walked away.
Suzanne was also one of the first popularisers of the “no-knead” method of making bread, with her 1999 book No need to knead. Using a wetter dough, and letting time take the place of kneading, has been around among professional bakers and some, often forgetful, amateurs for a long time, but it was Mark Bittman’s article in the New York Times that opened the floodgates on this method. Since then, as any search engine will reveal, interest in the technique has exploded, both because no-knead is perceived as easier and because the long, slow rise that no-knead usually calls for results in a deeper, more complex flavour. I’ve had my troubles with it, and had more or less given up on the real deal. But I’m looking forward to seeing how a quick no-knead bread turns out, especially now that I know that in Suzanne’s case it was the result of a delicious accident.
Yet another episode that I would have listened to for hours if it had gone on. It reminds me how sad it is that they’ve moved out of LA and La Brea Bakery has become so huge. It also reminds me of fond days back on Barry Avenue in my “youth”. I’m always one to daydream about having my own pastry shop, but the repeated instances of 3AM start times reminds me why I don’t do this.
If you haven’t begun binge listening to this podcast, rush out now and subscribe.
A fascinating tool for exploring how, where and when diets evolve. Foodwise, what unites Cameroon, Nigeria and Grenada? How about Cape Verde, Colombia and Peru? As of today, you can visit a website to find out. The site is the brainchild of Colin Khoury and his colleagues, and is intended to make it easier to see the trends hidden within 50 years of annual food data from more than 150 countries. If that rings a bell, it may be because you heard the episode around three years ago, in which Khoury and I talked about the massive paper he and his colleagues had published on the global standard diet. Back then, the researchers found it easy enough to explain the overall global trends that emerged from the data, but more detailed questions – about particular crops, or countries, or food groups – were much more difficult to answer. The answer to that one? An interactive website.
While this seems a short and simple episode with some engaging conversation, it’s the podcast equivalent of the floating duck–things appear smooth and calm on the surface, but the duck is paddling like the devil underneath the surface. The Changing Global Diet website is truly spectacular and portends to have me losing a day’s worth of work or more over the next few days.
I’d be curious to see what some of the data overlays between and among some of these projects looked like and what connections they might show. I suspect that some of the food diversity questions may play into the economic complexities that countries exhibit as well.
If there were longer term data over the past 10,000+ years to make this a big history and food related thing, that would be phenomenal too, though I suspect that there just isn’t enough data to make a longer time line truly useful.
D. Hartmann, M. R. Guevara, C. Jara-Figueroa, M. Aristarán, and C. A. Hidalgo, “Linking Economic Complexity, Institutions, and Income Inequality,” World Development, vol. 93. Elsevier BV, pp. 75–93, May-2017 [Online]. Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2016.12.020
S. Ronen, B. Gonçalves, K. Z. Hu, A. Vespignani, S. Pinker, and C. A. Hidalgo, “Links that speak: The global language network and its association with global fame,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 111, no. 52. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pp. E5616–E5622, 15-Dec-2014 [Online]. Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1410931111
What, really, is the point of conserving agricultural biodiversity? The formal sector, genebanks and the like, will say it is about genetic resources and having on hand the traits to breed varieties that will solve the challenges tomorrow might throw up. Thousands of seed savers around the world might well agree with that, at least partially. I suspect, though, that for most seed savers the primary reason is surely more about food, about having the varieties they want to eat. David Cavagnaro has always championed that view. David’s is a fascinating personal history, which currently sees him working on the Pepperfield Project, “A Non-Profit Organization Located in Decorah, IA Promoting and Teaching Hands-On Cooking, Gardening and Agrarian Life Skills”. I first met David 15 or 20 years ago at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah. This year, I was lucky enough to be invited there again, and I lost no time in finding time for a chat.
David pointed out that immigrants are often keen gardeners and, perforce, seed savers as they struggle to maintain their distinctive food culture in a new land. That’s true for the Hmong in Minneapolis, Asian communities in England and, I’m sure, many others elsewhere. What happens as those communities assimilate? The children and grandchildren of the immigrant gardeners are unlikely to feel the same connection to their original food culture, and may well look down on growing food as an unsuitable occupation. Is immigrant agricultural biodiversity liable to be lost too? Efforts to preserve it don’t seem to be flourishing.
Seed saving for its own sake, rather than purely as a route to sustenance, does seem to be both a bit of a luxury and to require a rather special kind of personality. John Withee, whose bean collection brought David Cavagnaro to Seed Savers Exchange and people like Russ Crow, another of his spritual heirs, collect and create stories as much as they do agricultural biodiversity. And that’s something formal genebanks never seem to document.
There’s a lot to unpack here with respect to agricultural diversity and evolution. Mass food manufacture is a boon for the world, but this type of industrial process should be working on ways to keep some programmed diversity in the process as well. I would have been perfectly happy for this interview to have gone on for several hours and in greater depth.