Archive for ‘Gastronomy’

August 9, 2012

Julia Child’s 100th Birthday Celebration

When I was little, my family and I would watch a lot of PBS.  Of course this meant many sessions of watching Julia Child cook in her Cambridge, MA kitchen.  We enjoyed watching her cook with other master chefs, and in particular I liked her series with Jacques Pépin. Fun fact: I thought Jacques was Julia’s husband until I learned about Paul Child many years later.

When I went to Smith, I learned that Julia was a Smithie too.  She was rumored to have been on campus my first fall in Northampton, but I didn’t get a chance to meet her.  Which is sad, because on August 13, 2004 (two days before her 92nd birthday) Julia passed away in California.  I was at a family reunion at the time.  That evening, my sisters and I prepared dinner for our extended family, and held a toast to our fellow jovial Smithie.

Three years later, I would be accepted into the Gastronomy Master’s degree that she and Jacques Pépin helped found, and in Fall 2007 I enrolled in the culinary program at Boston University that Julia developed. In November of that year, I spent three magical days cooking food with Jacques Pépin and his best friend, Jean-Claude Szurdak. It felt like a dream, a wonderful, delicious dream. We deboned whole chickens, prepared sweetbreads, oysters Rockefeller, omelets, candied citrus, caramels, and so much more. We put the huge, 8-station lab kitchen to the test, and all 12 of us students were pushed to the edge of our culinary abilities. We cooked with so much butter Julia would have been proud.

Next Wednesday, August 15, would be Julia’s 100th birthday. I’m thankful that almost fifty years after her first TV show launched, her accomplishments and her enthusiasm for food are still being celebrated. I’ve been drafting a multi-course meal for the occasion. Because that’s what Julia did on her 80th birthday (she had multiple such celebrations across the country). And what better way to celebrate birthdays than with food, family, and friends?  We’ll be celebrating a bit late, so check back here at the end of the month for a round-up of my culinary attempts.

In the meantime, if you feel inclined, pick up one of her cookbooks and prepare one of her dishes next week. Counter to popular belief, not all her recipes are complicated. In fact, many of them are quite simple. I highly suggest her easy-to-use cookbook Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom. If you have an iPad or Nook, and want to be a bit more adventurous, download the Mastering the Art of French Cooking app. Or, simply give a toast in her honor when you eat your regular dinner. After all, Julia’s mission was to help us all celebrate good food and good friends.

February 2, 2012

Why We Shouldn’t Drink Bottled Water

I put “Tapped” on my Netflix cue over a year ago when I first read its brief description.  Bottled water is not good for the environment.  I knew that.  I also knew plastic causes cancer.  That’s probably why I put off watching this documentary.

Do not put off watching this documentary.  Watch it now.  And then tell all your friends to watch it.  Here is a preview:

First: Yes, “Tapped” is a one-sided documentary.  This is because the other side refused to interview for the film.

Okay, we got that out of the way.  The movie begins in rural Maine, where Poland Springs pumps Fryeburg’s municipal water into its bottles (Poland Springs is owned by Nestle, which owns Arrowhead, Calistoga, Deer Park, Ice Mountain, Nestle Pure Life, Ozarka, and Zephyrhills as well).  According to the interviews, residents were not made aware that the bottling company had requested and received permits until they began pumping.

My first reaction to this was that it was not news to me.  Then they said that bottling companies are selling bottled water at 1,900 times the price they are paying for the raw material.  I knew it was a significant margin of profit, and obviously there are other overhead costs, but seriously: 1,900 times the price???

But I did have my doubts about this film still at this point.  I root for the little guy.  But in the pond of little guys, there are little guys and there are smaller little guys.  These residents of Fryeburg, Maine were coming together and fighting the water industry.  They had the support of resident Jim Wilfong, a former cabinet member of the Clinton Administration. The average household income is $54,000 a year (for an average of around 2.2 people per household).


In other words, the democratic system was on their side.  What surprised me is this: they are still losing.


And not only they are losing.  The film continues down the Eastern Seaboard to North Carolina and Georgia, where droughts are occurring at the same time as Coca Cola and Pepsi are quite literally pumping the wells dry.  Next the film turns to Corpus Cristi, Texas, where the oil refineries produce the plastics that become the bottles we drink out of.  And here the story really turned into the sad case of the weak being preyed upon by the mighty: people who purchased their homes years ago when they received local jobs (not necessarily at the refinery) are now sick with all kinds of ailments due to the harmful particles in the air produced by the refinery.  They cannot sell their homes, because no one will buy a home nowadays that is so close to an oil refinery.  They are sick, and they are stuck next to the thing that is making them sick.  It is an Erin Brokovich tale without a happy ending.



Until this point, I could see the average bottled water consumer’s response might be “Well, this doesn’t affect me.  It affects communities far far away from me.”  or “It won’t affect me for a very long time.”

Let me now share with you the film’s opening statistics:  over 75% of the Earth is covered in water but only 1% of it is drinkable.  By 2030 two out of three people will not have access to potable water.

That means, statistically speaking, in only seventeen years, the people sitting to the left and to the right of you will not have water.  Scratch that: YOU likely won’t have water.

Okay.  Now that we’ve clarified this, let’s go back to the 50-minute mark of the film.  We all by now likely know that BPA is bad for us.  Very very bad for us.  While individual water bottles don’t have BPA in them, the 5-gallon water cooler is made of BPA plastics.

Let’s go back to that opening statistic again: likely your place of work has a water cooler. It is also likely that it is filled with a BPA 5-gallon jug.  Is this water potable? Although the FDA and EPA standards say that those jugs are safe (based off of 2 industry-funded studies reported to them for analysis), there are over 200 independently published, peer-reviewed studies raising concerns about BPA.  One study has indicated that even incredibly minor amounts of BPA can substantially damage human organ development and reproductive system. Potable water?  I think not.

Lastly, let me briefly touch on their discussion of waste, because it’s what gave the producers the idea to make this movie.  I want to talk about this in more detail on the blog here, but here’s a start.

There are trash pits all over our world’s oceans.  Two in the Pacific, two in the Atlantic, one in the Indian Ocean.  There are likely similar gyres in every ocean in the world.  Captain Charles Moore’s tests of water in the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch showed in 1999 that there was 6 times as much plastic in the waters as plankton (which feeds marine life).  In 2008, there was 46 times as much plastic.   That is almost 8 times as much plastic accumulating in our ocean in only 9 years.



If you’ve made it this far, and you only remember one thing from this blog post that reads more like an activist platform than an informative post, remember this quote from Captain Charles Moore standing on plastic-strewn Kamilo Beach in Hawaii, where trash is washed up by the currents:

“Eliminating the scourge of bottled water will eliminate one of the biggest environmental problems that we face.”

It’s that simple. We can’t undo the damage that is done, but we can stop more from happening.  This isn’t global warming where the cause and effects are murky.  The solution is right in front of us: stop using bottled water.

Recycling is not enough.  Only 50% of Americans have curbside recycling, and in the US only 1/3 of the 80 million bottles used daily are recycled.

So here’s the takeaway for you: don’t drink bottled water except in disaster situations and when there is no otherwise safe water to drink.  Drink your tap water. Filter it if you need to.  Bottled water and the industries it supports (ahem – oil – ahem) do not only hurt your health, it hurts the health of your environment, the world’s environment, your municipal works, and your own access to safe, potable tap water.


For more information on the film “Tapped” visit:   This is an independent review not supported, requested, or sponsored by the film or its affiliates.

January 24, 2012

Food Labeling and TEDx Manhattan: Changing the Way We Eat

This past weekend, TEDx Manhattan hosted a day-long symposium on our food system.  If you’ve been following my twitter feed, you’ll know that I attended a viewing party hosted by Boston University’s Gastronomy program.  The event has given me many things to think about, and much to share with you here on the blog.  Today I want to start with something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time: food labeling.



Urvashi Rangan is a senior scientist and director of Consumer Reports’  Her talk focused on why labels mean close to nothing in the United States, and here are some of the main points that I took away:

To preface, I consider myself an excessive label reader.  I probably spend twice as long in the grocery store as the average person because I’m not only trying to figure out what to buy but also analyzing labels and trying to figure out the marketing tactics behind them.  I am fascinated by labels. And I am constantly confounded by them.

Rangan stated that research shows consumers will pay more for better (i.e. clearer) labeling, but that they are also easily and constantly mislead by the labeling that exists.  Case in point: a consumer’s goal may be to purchase the best quality food that won’t make them sick.  Due to the way labels are promoted, people confuse “natural” and “organic” all the time, and many will even value the term “natural” over “organic.”

Here’s the clincher: the label “natural” has no industry guidelines.  Any company can use the term with whatever intended definition they want.  However, the label “organic” has been defined by the USDA in 600 pages.  So why are we still even paying attention to “natural?”  Because marketing companies have created a value in the term, and we’ve fallen for it because we (understandably) don’t have the resources available to us to know not to.

Rangan also told an example of Creekstone Beef requesting the use of clarifying labeling that was denied by the USDA.  A few years ago, Japan refused to import US beef because it was not being tested for Mad Cow disease.  Creekstone wanted to test its beef and label it tested in order to continue export to Japan.  The USDA refused, saying the test Creekstone wanted to use was not sufficient to determine the presence of the disease.  Guess what?  It is the exact same test the USDA uses to determine the presence of Mad Cow Disease in the US market.

The takeaway here is that we need more clarification, and laws, on labeling our foods.  It should be clear to me what the difference is between a carton of eggs that says “free range” and one that says “cage-free.”  Furthermore, if a carton shows a picture of a hen in a pasture, this should be an accurate visual description of the conditions in which these eggs were laid.

The question I pose today is: aside from paying  a premium for foods labeled “organic” (a term which Rangan says is the most reliable label we have, but which still has its own problems and limitations), what can we consumers do to ensure that we are not being ripped off by labels?

January 18, 2012

Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen

I’ve finally recovered from jet lag and travel fatigue and caught up with my chores.  Which means that I finally had time to sort through my hundreds of photos from vacation.  And what I found on my memory card only captures one small portion of the time I had in Germany.  What I’m finding is that no travel story or photograph collection can ever tell the full story of a journey.  And I’ve learned that many people don’t want to know about my journey (or at least don’t know what questions to ask to get me talking).  So I’m telling it here, because I have to process it in some way, to understand it and come to terms with it.  It’s not a typical vacation story.  It has all the usual symptoms on the surface, but it was something else.  Something else entirely.

The first thing I did upon landing (after an unnecessarily long trip) was grab a (local German!) beer with my sister and bake a few Christmas cookies.  Afterward, I hopped on a train and headed to Saxony (Sachsen), where I lived for a year teaching English at a Gymnasium (Germany’s version of high school).  A good friend of mine still lives there with her husband, and over the next three days, the three of us went to as many Weihnachtsmärkte.  I am not normally a person who enjoys crowds and festivals, but we always managed to go when there were fewer crowds (i.e. before everyone else got off work), and had drunk enough Glühwein by the time the crowds arrived, that it didn’t matter anymore.  We just soaked in the beauty and spirit along with the cold and crowds.

Walking through my old stomping grounds and catching up with my friend was a wonderful way to start the trip.  Seeing it decorated and lit up for Christmas only made me more nostalgic:  the wooden figurines and glowing stars made in the mountains outside of Dresden; the little huts decorated with pine sprigs and filled to the brim with gifts, foods, and toys; the Sächsisch dialect spoken over steaming cups of Glühwein; the Frauenkirche peeking out from behind the Kulturpalast, a socialist remnant that houses the Dresdener Philharmonie today; and the beautiful museums and School of Visual Art that line the Elbe River, loaded with pleasure boats waiting to take the next group of merry-makers for a ride.

Traveling is a funny thing, and many people have written about it much more eloquently than I can here.  Nevertheless, my thoughts as I wandered the streets of Germany, were that it is at the same time an experience of extreme solitude and extreme connectivity.  My travel was solitary because it seems inconceivable to explain the effects these experiences had upon me, much less have the same experiences as others on the same trip.  Yet it had a sense of connection because it was impossible not to engage with the people, culture, and history of the places visited.  There is so much history that came back to me walking the streets of Dresden, Leipzig, and Hamburg.  History I had learned in what feels like another life, when I poured over German Studies books day in and day out; history I forged with my friends; and the palpable sense of history being made in the moment.

I mentioned to David that I was writing this post (I admit I’ve been writing it for over a week now), and I found it hard to connect my specific thoughts on travel with food, and he looked at me dumbfounded and said, “But you experience travel and memories through food.”

It is true: I rediscovered these histories not by sightseeing, though I did do a bit of that by visiting an amazing museum in Hamburg and attending concerts and even the Stuttgart Opera.  Instead of sightseeing, I engaged with these memories and experiences through Germany’s bakeries, restaurants, food stands, and the dishes I cooked and consumed with friends and family in their homes.  And I came home with my suitcases full of bread, candies, and chocolate (so much so that my family had to bring back things for me in their bags).

I spent my weeks in Germany eating Brezeln every morning, and especially caring for those from my grandparent’s neighborhood bakery (the master baker of which my parents are now good friends with); sharing pho with my mom in the restaurant she enjoyed eating in when she visited her mother in her last years; purchasing a Stollen from the best Stollen bakery in Dresden; cooking the same meal with my friend that we cooked years ago, a traditional Saxon meal of goulash, red cabbage, and Kartoffelknödel; wandering the Isemarkt stalls and having lunch at my favorite vegetarian stand; tasting the samples at the Fruchtgummiladen in Hamburg; taking a family outing to the Swiss grocery chain Migros and stocking up on cheese, pasta and chocolate (all of which the Swiss make the best); sharing homemade meals such as my sister’s Japanese lunch feast, Dad’s Linsen und Spätzle, Mom’s Krautkrapfen, and finally ending the trip by making a five-course New Year’s Eve meal for my family.  Each time I put something in my mouth a flood of memories came back.   In my time in Germany, I was traveling not only to another country, but to other times, places, people, and experiences.  And I had the time of my life.

In between though, I had a constantly nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I still can’t put it into words, and interestingly I think that was the nagging feeling.  The feeling that this trip was beyond words, at once so simple: a vacation in Germany; and at the same time so complex: a returning home, to the past, and to a future that has yet to write itself.


November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving friends!  I hope you all have safe travels today and enjoy the holiday. This is my first year celebrating Thanksgiving not with family (I count my JYA Thanksgiving as a family event, as well as my Fulbright Thanksgiving, because those two years were so intense and awesome, and we all bonded as if we were related).  I was sad at first, but then a dear friend from childhood asked David and me to have Thanksgiving with her, and now I know it’s going to be a great holiday.  I can’t wait to spend the entire day tomorrow cooking and eating with her and her husband, and Friday and Saturday lounging around (and packing their house for a cross-country move – sad!)



Thanksgiving for me is about family, and about community.  My good friend Kristina organized a bunch of musicians, artists, and other friends of hers and edited a community cookbook.  This isn’t just any cookbook – it’s probably the best community cookbook you can have!  It was organized through an online community, and its story is pretty amazing.   I love the book, I love the recipes, the art, and the obvious fun that comes out of the book.  It’s clear these are cool people, eating awesome food, and I kind of want to be friends with each and every contributor (there are over 50 people who worked on this book)!

If you’re looking for a great new cookbook, consider Cook Food Every Day.  100% of proceeds of your purchase goes directly to the Greater Boston Food Bank, and the book has raised over $1000 dollars, and there are still books left.  Click over to the Cook Food Every Day blog where a PayPal donation gets you your very own copy of the book.

Also, Kristina writes a pretty incredible blog called No Gluten Required.  I recommend it whether or not you eat gluten.  She’s currently got a pretty sweet round-up of Thanksgiving recipes up!