Wendy’s Word

Not your mama’s blog….

Sustainable Shopping and Star Sighting April 26, 2010

Filed under: Adventures in Wendyland,Food — wendy @ 12:26 pm

Life is a series of trade-offs, a fact of which I am acutely aware every time I go grocery shopping.  It always seems that I’m trading off between being green, cost, and convenience.  Do I buy produce at the farmers’ market or the supermarket?  What’s in season or what my kids will actually eat?  Grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, free-range chicken?  And the non-PC question, pre-packaged chips for lunches (can’t just grab a few chips as a between-meal snack) vs. packing chips into reusable “Tupperware-like” containers (they never fit very well).  And don’t say not to buy chips – I have no problem giving my kids reasonable-sized portions of chips if the rest of their lunch is healthy.

In response to reading Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food,” and seeing the movie Food, Inc., I decided to do all my shopping at the farmers’ market and Trader Joe’s this week.  (Full disclosure – I had already bought toilet paper, chips, bread, and coffee at Costco the day before, so I had some of the essentials covered.) 

I am lucky enough to have a farmers’ market within walking distance of my house every Sunday morning.  I am also lucky enough to live in Southern California, where we have farmers’ markets all year long.  I love going to the farmers’ market.  I always run into people I know – it reaffirms my sense of community.  Although to be honest, I run into people I know at the supermarket and Trader Joe’s too, I just feel more sanctimonious about it at the farmers’ market. 

Michael Pollan tells us to shake hands with the person who grows our food.  You can only do that at the farmers’ market.  I know I’m buying local, the produce is grown in a sustainable manner, and most importantly, it tastes much better than supermarket produce.  There’s no packaging, and I bring my own bags so I don’t even have to use their plastic bags.  It’s a lovely and healthy way to spend a Sunday morning.

The problem is that it takes a long time.  Even when I have a list, I have to figure out which farmer sells what.  Which of the many strawberry stands should I buy from?  Does the farmer selling lettuce have tarragon?  Should I get my onions here or from the next guy?  It’s time consuming.  And this is just to buy produce.  If I’m lucky, I can buy the rest of my groceries at Trader Joe’s (which thankfully, is right by the farmers’ market) but sometimes I still have to go to the supermarket too.

So on the trade-off scale, the farmers’ market wins in terms of greenness and quality but loses on the convenience factor, if convenience is measured by time spent on food shopping.  But I think it’s worth it for now.  Gandhi says, “be the change you want to see,” or something along those lines.  Even if my buying sustainable produce won’t change the world, it’s a step in the right direction.  And personally, I’m not helping to support the type of farming that I don’t want to see.  (Although I just couldn’t do the $7 a pound grass-fed ground beef.  Considered it but couldn’t.  Just felt wrong.  It’s ground beef, for goodness sake!)

While it would be nice to end this blog posting with the quote from Gandhi, I must recount my farmers’ market star sighting.  This is LA, after all.  I saw Jane Lynch.  Yes, Jane Lynch who plays Sue Sylvester in Glee and who has also been in The Forty Year Old Virgin, Julie and Julia, Talladega Nights, Best in Show, and lots of other stuff.  I never recognize anyone, but she’s six feet tall and I love her.  Also I made my daughter do reconnaissance to make sure.  So now I really love the farmers’ market!  Although I did see Richard Dreyfuss in Ralph’s and he even took my cart by mistake….


In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan April 24, 2010

Filed under: Books,Food — wendy @ 1:48 pm

I previously mentioned that I established a book club at my public health job, and that we were going to be reading In Defense of Food for our second meeting.  I thought that was pretty clever, since I frequently read books about food, to combine the food angle with the public health angle.  So imagine my disappointment when I found In Defense of Food to be rather boring and maybe a bit elitist.  However, by the end, the book had me angry and reconsidering how I eat.  My book club colleagues agreed that the book wasn’t the best read in the world but gave us much food (bad pun, sorry) for thought.  Subsequently, I saw the movie Food, Inc., which features Michael Pollan and which covers much of the same ground.

The bottom line of the book and movie is that a few large food agribusinesses have taken over our food supply in ways that we never see, and since we’re not aware of this, there’s very little the common person can do about it.  (This last sentiment expresses my own frustration, not the Pollan’s.  He actually has suggestions for things we can do about it.)  Large corporations’ goal is to produce as much food as they can, as cheaply as possible.  Therefore, fruits and vegetables are not allowed to ripen before being picked, robbing them of nutrients and flavor.  Cows are fed corn instead of their natural grass, which creates an additional market for corn growers and which introduces diseases like e. coli that would not otherwise occur.  Chickens are bred to have huge breasts, satisfying consumer preference for white meat, so they are so large they can barely move.  Wheat is stripped of its nutrients during processing and then vitamins and minerals are artificially added back in to the final products.

My summary is just scratching the surface of what the book and movie have to say.  The food industry has lobbied the FDA so they don’t make recommendations about what foods we should and shouldn’t eat but about what nutrients we should consume.  Talking about “nutrients” and “fat” instead of making direct recommendations about types of food such as meat or dairy makes it harder for people to understand.  Another infuriating fact is that corporations dictate what farmers can plant and what they can’t, placing farmers in legal jeopardy if they save seeds to plant in the next season.

My first reaction was to ask who gave companies permission to rob my food of its natural nutrients?  Even if I eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, I’m not getting the nutritional benefit that I would if they were not mass produced.  My next reaction is that food should be more expensive than it is.  Not that I want to pay more for food.  I often avoid the farmers’ market because I always spend a fortune.  And I won’t even go to Whole Foods anymore.  But I used to think that the high prices were a mark-up — now I realize that the relatively low supermarket prices are a mark-down.  Food is artificially subsidized by being mass produced and through the use of cheap sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup (another boon for corn growers).  Farmers’ market prices more accurately reflects the costs of growing and harvesting food properly.  My final reaction is one of semi-futility.  I have the luxury to buy my produce at the farmers’ market, because there’s a farmers’ market in walking distance of my house every Sunday.  I can afford grass-fed beef and free range chicken.  But so many people, in communities where obesity and diabetes rates are high, do not have access to fresh food and don’t have the money to buy high end food.  So are the agribusinesses right?  Does the subsidization of food make it more affordable for everyone?  As a society, the amount of money that we save on food, we spend on medical care for diseases such as diabetes.  However, those costs are not directly borne by the low income families that have to put food on the table every day.  My gut says mass produced food is wrong, but then again, easy for me to say.


Slab Rat, by Ted Heller

Filed under: Books — wendy @ 1:04 pm

The reviews compare Slab Rat to Nick Hornby and Bridget Jones’ Diary.  No and no.  Slab Rat is about Zachary Post, who reinvents himself to get a job at a magazine and whose only goals seem to be to get promoted, marry well, and move up in society.  Even Nick Hornby’s most superficial character, the protagonist in About a Boy, becomes introspective and is able, despite himself, to develop a close relationship with an awkward boy.  Bridget Jones might be superficial, but she’s so self-effacing and funny about it that it’s charming.  Zachary Post has no such charm.

The book that Slab Rat most reminded me of was Then They All Came to an End (reviewed on this blog; see book index) by Joshua Ferris.  Both books deal with absurd office politics in superficial industries (advertising, in the Ferris novel), both have young protagonists trying to succeed in the rat race, both have ice queen bosses, both have characters that threaten to go off the deep end in response to the story’s tensions.  But Then They All Came to an End is funnier, and has situations that anyone who works in an office can relate to.  Also, the main plot line, a company slowly downsizing in response to a bad economy, leaves the reader wondering who’s going to be next.  Slab Rat’s tension has to do with a new wunderkind who comes in and quickly moves up and kills any chance of advancement for the main characters.  Not as interesting.  And the worst part is that the main character is so superficial that I don’t really care that his career is being stymied.


The Rackets, by Thomas Kelly

Filed under: Books — wendy @ 12:45 pm

Coinciding with St. Patrick’s Day (I am very behind on my book postings), I read The Rackets, which takes place in Irish New York.  The hero, Jimmy Dolan, is a college boy working for the mayor when union politics lead him back to his blue collar roots.

There are many characters to develop, so the book seems slow-going at first, but becomes a page turner once the action gets going.  The characters were good, and the book gives a good feel for ethnic New York, blue/white collar tension, and union/mob politics.  The main character was the weakest.  When events force him back to his old neighborhood and construction work, all of a sudden he talks tough and starts using the word “ain’t,” which seems totally out of character for him.

Not a “must read,” but will absorb and entertain you if you happen to pick it up.


Chopped Liver – A Family Affair April 2, 2010

Filed under: Food — wendy @ 10:19 am

We just finished eating the last of the chopped liver left over from our Passover seder and aside from the fact that it was tasty, I love that the ritual of making it as a family has remained intact since I was a kid.

When I was really young, my grandmother would make the chopped liver and it was a solo affair.  When I got a little older, my parents would make it, with my sister’s and my contribution being merely to provide commentary.  “Ugh, worms!” we’d exclaim as the ingredients would go through the old-fashioned grinder.  Have you ever seen liver coming out of the holes of a grinder?  Yes, it does look just like worms.  Now we refer to the process of making chopped liver as making worms.  And we wonder why the kids don’t eat chopped liver?

Now that we’re adults, we help a little bit more with the chopped liver making process.  This year, my mom sauteed the onions and the liver and boiled the eggs.  My daughter and I peeled the eggs and my dad put all the ingredients through the same grinder that we’ve used forever.  I served as sous chef, pouring the oil from the pan into the ground mixture to moisten it and seasoning it with salt and pepper.  The kids were on hand to to say, “ew, worms!” although my sister and I are not above that despite the fact that we’re adults.

My sister sliced the vegetables to be used as garnish, and my cousin, sister, and I plated the chopped liver with the garnish and served.  (It sounds pretentious to talk about “plating” chopped liver, but I’ve moved too far into the foodie world to think up a normal word for it.)

Last year we had a chopped liver crisis where the kosher butcher would not sell liver that was kosher for Passover for some obscure religious reason.  We had to buy ready-made, which was horrid and deprived us of the experience of making it.  Thankfully, this year we got our “worms” experience and I enjoy it all the more for the family participation.

Happy Passover everyone, or as my Mormon friend tried her best to say to me, Chag Sameach!