Thursday, June 26, 2008

Rise up, people!!

I watched this new Humane Society video on today of downer cattle being shocked, kicked, dragged, and otherwise abused by the people running a livestock auction in New Mexico. According to Daren Williams of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, "The [beef] industry is committed to producing safe, high quality, wholesome beef for our dinner tables, for our school lunch tables." If that sounds like a reasonable quote to you, I'm sorry to inform you that you are living in fairyland. If that sounds like a reasonable quote to you, I implore you to read Fast Food Nation. Fast Food Nation can be read for free online at this link.

I believe a more accurate re-write of Daren Williams' quote would be something like this: "The [beef] industry is committed to producing profitable beef for our dinner tables, for our school lunch tables, no matter the cost to the environment, public health, or standards of treatment of the animals involved."

While I am convinced that there are a select group of people in the National Cattlemen's Beef Association who are concerned with producing a high quality product, let's get real. The bottom line is what drives the American economy and if speeding up the rate of slaughter or including downer cattle in the slaughter means more profits for the big beef companies, it's going to happen. To believe otherwise is childish and naïve.

So, what can we, as consumers, do to affect the beef industry's bottom line? Don't eat meat at fast food joints. Don't buy beef from a grocery store. You can start there. Eat meat less often and when you do, substitute bison meat (which even Wal-Mart sells now). Bison have somehow remained separate from the disgusting conditions that plague the beef industry. Plus it's healthier than grain-finished beef without tasting much different. Or, buy beef from small, local ranches or from local meat lockers who know where their beef comes from. You could also buy grass-fed beef. That's what we do. And we've been eating vegetarian for the majority of our meals each week. You can also ask the managers of the restaurants where you eat about the origins of their meat. If restaurants (even chains) know that consumers care about the where their food comes from, the buyers for the restaurants are more likely to care, too. Making these changes is not difficult, but if enough of us do it, the beef industry will understand that they must change their practices in order to make money. No ban on downer cattle, voluntary or mandated by our slow, clunky, bureaucratic government, is going to cause change the way that consumers can.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Frijoles Charros

My cousin's companion, Phil, recommended the book World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey when I told him I was looking for a good Indian cookbook. This book is actually better than just a good Indian cookbook, because it has vegetarian recipes from all over the world. Knowing that Phil is a stellar chef, I trusted him enough to borrow the book from the library (requiring about a two week wait because all copies of the cookbook were already checked out). Now I'm ready to buy the book. From only one recipe. Yes, my husband had the same reaction: "Don't you want to try some more recipes before you buy it? All I want's a damned lantern! And I already have it picked out!" It's a seven hundred page book -- I can't possibly try them all in the nineteen days left I have with the beloved book! Just let me buy it! Maybe I'll check it out from UCCS where I would get to keep it for three months. Ahhh...the benefits of being "faculty." By the way, if you're thinking about going vegetarian for a month like Liz, Michael, and we are, this would be a great book to have! We're going veggie in August (just for kicks) and would love for you to join us!

Anyway, we had our first dinner out of the new cookbook tonight. Frijoles Charros (or, in English, Black Beans Charros). I've seen other recipes for the same thing, made with pintos and bacon, but I'm going to trust Madhur on this one. I don't know that I could improve on her recipe. Although, I did add a few extra condiments at the end. I googled the recipe to see if I could find one already on the web, but apparently nobody's copied it word for word onto the web. So here, as a service to all of web-surfing humanity (and especially my father-in-law, whom I know will love this meal -- plus he will soon be entering the Guiness Book of World Records soon as the oldest man known to have his wisdom teeth removed and this would be a great post-surgery meal), I'm posting the recipe.

Rosario Guillermo's Black Beans Charros

This stew, spicy and tart, may be served with heated corn or wheat tortillas, or with plain rice.

1 1/4 cups dried black beans, picked over, washed and drained
1 1/2 tsp salt
3 teaspoons canola or olive oil
5 tsp very finely chopped onion
4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
6 canned plum tomatoes, finely chopped, plus 1/4 of their liquid (or one 28-oz can of crushed tomatoes)
1/2 cup of the tomato liquid
1/2 to 1 jalapeño chile or any other fresh hot green chile, very finely chopped
2 T finely chopped cilantro leaves

Soak the beans overnight in water to cover by five inches. Alternatively, you may quick soak the beans (in large saucepan, cover with five inches of water, boil for two minutes, turn off the heat and leave for one hour). Drain thoroughly and discard the soaking liquid.

Add four cups of fresh water to the beans and bring to a boil in a heavy medium pan. Cover partially, turn heat to low, and simmer gently for one and a half hours, or until the beans are tender. (Alternatively, cook the beans in a pressure cooker. Cover them with water, bring the pressure cooker up to pressure, cook for 12-15 minutes, turn off the heat and let them sit until the pressure is back to normal.) Transfer half the beans and their cooking liquid to a blender or food processor, add the salt, and puree. (Alternatively, blend in the pan with a handheld blender.) Return the pureed mixture to the pot with the whole beans and combine well.

Put the oil in a large frying pan and place over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onion and garlic, stirring and sautéing until golden. Add the chopped tomatoes and their liquid (I used 21 ounces out of a 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes because I wasn't about to finely chop canned tomatoes) and the jalapeño, and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook gently for ten minutes. Stir the tomato mixture and the chopped cilantro into the beans, and bring to a simmer over low heat. Simmer gently for five minutes and serve hot. We garnished it with diced avocado (sorry, Michael) and sour cream. Should have added a bit of queso fresco, too. Or cheddar cheese.

Serves six.

I had leftover basmati rice from a previous meal that I put on the bottom of the bowl, plus the avocado, sour cream and a garnish of chopped fresh (local from our CSA!) cilantro on top. It was so good that Scott had two servings and both the girls ate their meals...well, until Callie discovered the cilantro. She's not eating anything green these days. Maybe it's a rebellion because green is nearly opposite orange (her favorite color) on the color wheel. Okay, she's clearly not thinking it in those terms, but maybe subconsciously. By my assessment, it was a successful meal.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bananas: The ultimate insult.

To a locavore (one who eats only local food), the banana is the ultimate insult. It's a piece of fruit that has traveled thousands of miles in a refrigerated container, was picked long before reaching peak ripeness, is available in only one variety, and costs next to nothing.

I stopped buying bananas in January when I began learning about the value of eating local food, but then when we joined Costco, I honestly couldn't resist the cheap fruit. I mean, $1.41 for a huge bunch of perfectly ripe, non-bruised bananas? I've been withholding Chilean and Mexican-grown grapes from my kids, waiting for some American grapes to hit the shelves, but I knew I'd never get domestically-grown bananas, so I gave in. Now, here I sit, eating a banana and typing this post. How ironic.

I've been thinking about reading the book, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World, by Dan Koeppel, but I really didn't think I could handle it. I knew that if I read the book, it would mean crossing bananas, one of Callie's staple foods, off my grocery list. Between the ridiculously poor treatment of banana workers (which I've known about since my Latin American Studies class in 1997 but chose to ignore) and the amount of fuel required to get bananas to Colorado Springs, Colorado...I just know that I shouldn't be buying bananas. But, still, $1.41?

When I saw this op-ed piece in the New York Times today by Dan Koeppel, I thought, "Okay...maybe I won't read the whole book, I'll just read this little article. This one little article. How much damage can that do?" We'll...I've crossed bananas off my grocery list. It's either got to happen now or 5-20 years from now. According to Koeppel, that's how long bananas will be available in our grocery stores before they return to being the "exotic fruit" that they should be.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Fast Food Nation

I finished reading Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser, last week. Several of my students last semester told me I should read it. They were reading it for an English class (hooray for their instructors for choosing such an applicable book!) and they knew that the book would get me going. I hadn't bothered to pick it up yet, but while in California last weekend, my friend Suzanne also thought I should read it and gave me her copy. I think the book was originally published back in 2001, and it kind of makes me sick that I didn't read it earlier. Just seeing how my family's buying habits have changed over the past six months, I know that if I had read the book earlier, it would have piqued my interest sooner and changed our family's consumption sooner. In order to maintain some sanity, I'm going to have to stick with the "better late than never" attitude.

Most of the information in Fast Food Nation was a repeat of what I've learned elsewhere -- very little of it was news to me. But, the way it was packaged was much different. The author, Schlosser, looks at the topic of industrialized food from a more political perspective than other books I've read on the same subject. His solution to the industrialization of our food is increased government regulation. If you know much about my political beliefs, you'll know how much that bothered me. I kept reading the book because it seemed like he had to find a better solution than increasing government regulations on slaughterhouses, advertising agencies, and fast food companies. For example, the government strictly regulates slaughterhouses already (although they way they do it is really screwed up) and it hasn't made slaughterhouses a safer place to work or a more humane killing machine for the animals we eat. The only way slaughterhouses have been made better is from McDonald's demanding it. Schlosser acknowledged the problems inherent in government regulation throughout the book, leaving me shouting at the book the same way that I shout at the TV. "Government regulation isn't the answer!!" I would yell. "The people have to rise up and demand change! Long live the free market system!!" Unfortunately, Mr. Schlosser wasn't actually present to engage me in debate. So instead, I looked to my sweet husband who ends up being the target of my ongoing food rants.

Scott's response was this (I've tried to restate it more diplomatically for this public forum): the majority of Americans are either too poor, too uninformed, or too blissfully ignorant to demand changes in the American food system. I tried to find ways to refute his statement, but couldn't really think of any appropriate evidence, even anecdotal, to counter him. Granted, I'm not much of a debater and I know that. Still, it was disappointing to me that I couldn't find a way to tell him that he's wrong.

At the very end of the book, Schlosser agreed that the only way to really change the American food system is through consumer demand. Somewhere in the book, he said something like, "McDonald's has the world's biggest shopping cart, so when they demand a change, their suppliers listen." I shudder when I imagine what positive changes could befall our country, our environment, our health, our medical system, our food industry if Americans suddenly stopped buying meat off of supermarket shelves. Our collective shopping cart is even bigger than McDonald's. I know such a change will never happen -- at least not that way. I know that my vision is a dream, a hope, maybe a hallucination. Still, when I think of how things would change if Americans demanded it, I get all teary-eyed and patriotic. Isn't that a weird thing to be patriotic about? I do think that we're a powerful group of people...when we work together. But then there's the little devil sitting on my shoulder (I mean, the big hunky husband sitting in my kitchen) who tells me that it won't happen.

This defeated attitude is where I was sitting this morning when I got my daily Mercola email. Usually I just skim the headlines of my Mercola email and then delete the email. Today, though, there was this article called The Rise of the Eat Locally Locavore and I couldn't help but open it up and read it. The article is encouraging and brought me a ways out of my husband-induced haze. But, Mercola does get realistic in his comments at the end, saying that although we're making progress toward changing the industrialized food system, we've still got quite a ways to go. He also includes some really helpful links for people looking for a local farmer's market, CSA, and non-factory-farmed meat.

What I've found as I've changed my family's consumer habits is that, in the end, it really isn't that hard to make a change that at first seems daunting. Yes, it took me a while to figure out where I could buy meat and no, we haven't had chicken more than three times in the past six months. But, we're not spending more money on food than we did before -- although we were already buying premium (but still mostly factory farmed) meat. We're paying the same for our meat as we used to, but we're eating less of it because it isn't as convenient to get grass-fed, pastured meat. We are spending significantly more on dairy than we did before, but we're also drinking significantly less milk. We are spending less on eating out than we used to because there just aren't a lot of places where we can eat and feel good about it. We still go to Chipotle (I think it's the only chain we visit and we only eat the veggie option and the carnitas) and we eat at a few local restaurants where we have vegetarian options or seafood, plus one local burger joint that uses local ground beef from a small slaughterhouse, fresh potatoes, and buns from a local bakery.

Six months into some pretty big consumer changes, I'm feeling really optimistic about the inroads that we've made. We're only giving our money to organizations and families that we feel good about. The majority of our food budget goes to small, local farms, ranches, and restaurants. We still buy a few products from ginormous companies like P&G (I can't give up Charmin), Kraft (we accidentally bought some chocolate made by Kraft Foods Belgium), and General Mills (can't avoid Cheerios) but for the most part, we've taken our money (and our power) elsewhere. I know that we're only one family, but I hope that as we make these changes, other families are making similar changes, too. Alone, our little family can't cause much of a difference. Together, and over time, we can accomplish change.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Fishing photos

Scott and the girls went fishing for the first time this weekend. And bowling for the first time last week. Click on the slide show below to see the photos.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Fun new photo stuff.

This is not new to real photographers, but it's new to me. It's this thing called TTV, which is when you build some kind of box and use your SLR to take photos through it. The photos come out textured, grainy, and kind of vintagey-looking. I downloaded a bunch of digital TTV layers today to use in Photoshop and have just been playing with it for a few minutes. Here are a few photos that I doctored using the layers. There are literally hundreds of different TTV layers that people have created and are free to download on the internet. These are just a couple of examples using three different layers. I know most of you prefer clean this probably isn't your thing. But for the artsier of my readers, you might enjoy these...

The last one is of a cute little guy I got to meet this weekend while I was in the Bay Area for a wedding. This is my friend Suzanne's son, Peter. He's sweet and a total ham for the camera. At least, as much as a seven month old can be. He started smiling as soon as he saw me pull the camera out. Apparently he's had some practice...

Look at those eyes!