Monday, July 3, 2017

Corn-Free July 2017

I haven't written here in awhile, close to two years if the truth be told, and a lot of changed since then. I confess that the majority of what has happened in food news has passed me by as well. A new job, a new apartment in a new town, the simply act of getting out of the habit have left me feeling adrift in the world of sustainable agriculture. I could, I suppose, also tell you that I've taken a break from the blogging game to write my novel- which is totally almost done, I swear- but I wouldn't want to push the limits of your patience with me.

I guess the easiest touch point to get back in is to say something that I think, or at least hope, that most readers will be able to relate to: A new life routine has led to a new food routine, and in turn, a new relationship with eating in general. And that's what's maybe the most interesting thing to me about writing about food- the fact that are so many different ways to experience eating. Enough to make "food writing" a known term, with sub-genres even within it, a whole ecosystem as rich, when you really get under the hood, as any other fiction or non-fiction genre, and with as much blurring of lines regarding what qualifies.

I hope I will always come back to Corn-Free July as a way to remind myself to think about the way I choose to eat and why. I went to the farmers' market in Harvard Square, Cambridge, by the Charles Hotel yesterday. Have any of you been there yet this year? For a geographically small market it has a wealth of choices: bread, fish, meat, eggs, cheese, fruit, vegetables, flowers, plants. A high-end pasta and sauce artisan. A stand that makes lemonade while you wait. If you plan ahead and don't mind dropping some serious cash, you can do your grocery shopping for the whole week there.

The need to plan, and to budget judiciously, can be daunting. But in the end, when you really measure it, did that cost you more stress than walking through the endless maze of a supermarket? Holding your tongue against the road rage of other people carts? Constantly stopping yourself from grabbing impulse items? At least if you overspend at the farmers' market, you know you're always getting something healthy. And maybe you've put less white noise in your brain as well, leaving more room for meaningful thoughts.

As summer returns to the northern hemisphere bringing with it local food, often eaten outside, how do you shopping and eating habits change?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Jazz Brunch at Johnny D's

Corn Free July has passed once more, and, as usual, it involved a lot of cooking from scratch, but I always find a new restaurant or two during the challenge, and this time I discovered the sustainable side of a local favorite: Johnny D's Uptown in Somerville's up and coming Davis Square neighborhood. Johnny's D's is mainly known for its live music, and I hadn't thought of it as a place to find good quality food, but it was recommended by the Eat Well Guide, so I checked it out.

For Corn-Free purposes, Johnny D's fits into the category that most restaurants with an eye to sustainability do. That is they have several grass-fed or otherwise sustainable items, but these make up less than half the menu. That said, free range eggs are not often to be found at any restaurant, and I was glad to be able to have the brunch experience during July. Their cheese isn't grass-fed, so I couldn't get that in my omelette, opting instead for avocado, which made up for it well.

The milk was also not grass fed, and I declined to ask about the brand and ingredients in the soy milk, because really, who wants to be that person during a busy Sunday brunch shift? Luckily, the coffee was excellent on its own (this coming from someone who rarely drinks coffee, and never without cream, so it must be real nice.)

The ambiance was also nice, with live music that was noticeable but not distracting, and a helpful and personable wait staff. If you're in the area and have never been to Johnny D's, you really must, and you've got to hurry. They're shutting down in 2016!

What corn-free brunch experiences have you had? Any tips or restaurant recommendations?

Friday, July 24, 2015

5 Years of Corn Free July

It's the fifth time I've done this, and over the years, as I describe the project to new people, the explanation has gotten easier and easier. Not because I've perfected my elevator pitch. If anything, the opposite is true. Self-promotion will never come easily to me, and on top of that, as I've fallen into the Corn-Free July habit, I've gotten too close to see the whole picture, and often have a hard time articulating why I do it.

And yet, people just get it. Back in 2011, when Sean Bean was the star of Game of Thrones, we thought Mitt Romney might be the next president, and LMFAO's Party Rock Anthem was the jam of the summer, sustainable food wasn't quite as trendy as it is now. The Corn Refiners Association's desperate ploys to exonerate HFCS in the court of public opinion were still a recent memory. Things like kale and quinoa were just slightly unfamiliar health foods instead of punch lines to jokes that you secretly hope are about you.

In 2011, when I told people I was going off corn for a month, I got a lot of confusion about what was so bad about a starchy plant that tastes great grilled. In 2015, I get wise nods and buzzwords of agreement. "Mm, yes. GMOs. Factory farming. Subsidies. Monoculture."

Is the fact that this issue has gotten more widely recognized encouraging, or simply evidence that the problem has gotten too big to ignore? Are we really doing anything about it on a large scale?

One optimistic piece of evidence is the consistent reduction in our nationwide demand for red meat. Beef is, by far, our least efficient source of protein, in terms of energy, water, and land resources. If demand slows enough, we may reach a point at which there is no longer a need for the factory farming system we now have, and more and more beef cattle can be raised on pasture. This would be a significant win, I believe.

But why has that demand gone down? It has to do, in part, with economics, as middle and lower class wages continue to not keep up with inflation, and the price of red meat continues to rise. And of course it has something to do with increasing awareness about the conditions under which cattle are raised and the associated health concerns. But I wonder how much is the ethereal X factor that takes hold and makes something unpopular simply because it's unpopular? How many people are opting for chicken instead of beef just because it's what everyone else at the table is ordering? And is that a problem, or is that what we want?

I've been saying since I started this blog that we'll only really see a large scale change in our food system when responsible eating becomes the default setting and not something you have to go out of your way to do. Are we getting closer to reaching that tipping point, or is concern for where your food comes from still for hippies and weirdos?

What about you? Have your food choices gotten more conscientious in the last five years? Have you noticed a significant rise in the availability of more responsible food choices? Let me know in the comments section!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Corn-Free Raspberry Lime Rickey with Q Club Soda

We all know Coke isn't the smartest beverage choice, no matter how wholesome our friends at McCann Erickson try to make it seem. It's got too much sugar, and too much caffeine, and all kinds of weird artificial colors and stuff, but what you might not know is how many questionable ingredients go into something as straightforward as club soda. Most of the popular brands include ascorbic acid or other additives that are kind of sort of sometimes derived from corn, highlighting the frustrating lack of transparency in the food chain once again. This is a not a good discovery to make standing in the soda aisle of a Star Market just minutes before you've promised to arrive at a July Fourth party with cocktail mixers.

Luckily, most of the big box retailers have a health food ghetto these days, and that's where I was able to find club soda from Q Drinks, whose ingredients are carbonated water and Himalayan salt. Not sure what's so difficult about coming up with that recipe, but what do I know?

After doing a little research on the company, I found that they have a whole lineup of your standard soda flavors that pride themselves on the high quality of their ingredients. I've only tried the one so far, but it's good to know that the rest are out there.

Corn-Free Raspberry Lime Rickey:

  • 4 fresh or frozen raspberries
  • 1 cup Q Club Soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon lime juice
  • 1 lemon wedge
  • 1 lime wedge
  • 1 ounce gin (optional)
  • ice
Fill a glass 3/4 of the way or so with ice and club soda. Add gin and citrus juices. Place raspberries on top, and garnish with lemon and lime wedges. Serve with a straw to muddle the raspberries. Enjoy outdoors.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Putting the Eat Well Guide to the Corn Free Test

In a way, it's surprising that this didn't happen sooner. The Eat Well Guide, a project of Sustainable Table, is essentially Yelp for sustainable food, allowing users to search its database for eating establishments near them, specifying options such as farms, stores, or caterers. There's plenty of information, and as much transparency as can be expected on the Info section of the website, which states that

"We built the Eat Well Guide to make it easier to find good food and support local farmers, restaurateurs and others who are doing their best by their customers, their workers and the planet."

The site goes on to list the standards to which it holds the organizations in its database, but I had my doubts as to how "sustainable" these places really were, so I pulled up the full list of organizations on the guide within a mile radius of my house, and here's how a few of them check out:

  • Whole Foods Market This is an obvious one, and a place that greatly facilitates the Corn Free challenge, particularly with meat and dairy products. Be careful, though. Just because you bought it at Whole Foods doesn't mean it's "good." Like with any grocery store, stay away from those center aisles. The fact that the packaged snacks are Annie's brand instead of Nabisco doesn't make all that much of a difference at the end of the day. Grade: 4/5 corns
  • Life Alive Urban Oasis and Organic Cafe I've written about Life Alive on the blog before, and it's one of the only restaurants I cant think of where just about every menu item is corn free. And vegan, and nut free for that matter. If I remember correctly, at least half the options also don't have gluten. You'd have a hard time finding a dietary restrictions that prevented you from eating here. That said, the food is dynamic and nourishing, and never boring.
  • Harvest Co-Op I want so badly for this one to get a higher grade than it does. The principles of a co-op are so fantastic. In theory it's a community-owned grocery store that brings local food to urban areas at a reasonable price. And it is. Kind of. At Harvest, for an inexpensive yearly membership, you get perks like eligibility to run for a seat on the board of directors, and participation in "Member Appreciation Day," a monthly day when all the merchandise is discounted. The selection is pretty disappointing though, with little to no grass-fed meat available, and plenty of common junk food brands in the center aisles.
  • The Independent Located in the oh-so-hip neighborhood of Union Square in Somerville, The Independent offers a "seasonally influenced" menu prepared using "local, sustainable, and fresh ingredients." While all this is true, The Independent falls into a category of restaurant that proudly name-drops the source farms of their meat and vegetables, while cutting corners on staples like bread, dairy, and sweeteners. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. I love The Independent and what they're doing. Raising the sustainability bar would likely make the menu prohibitively expensive and potentially unreliable, but for the purposes of Corn Free July, just about every dish has something off-limits.
  • Savenor's Market Savenor's is exactly what you think of when you imagine a neighborhood grocery store. A favorite food shopping destination of Julia Child, it has a long standing reputation as a place to get your provisions if you're serious about food. Like just about any other place on this list, some cookies and condiments of questionable provenance have will sneaked onto the shelves from time to time, but they have an outstanding meat and produce selection, and knowledgeable staff happy to answer questions. It's also the only place I've ever found corn-free ice cream!
  • Chipotle Chipotle is doing something a little differently than most of the other places on this list by essentially trying to infiltrate the fast food scene and raise the bar a little, both in quality of the food and the dining experience. They have strong opinions on GMOs, and high standards regarding humane treatment of the pigs that go into their delicious, delicious carnitas. The idea that fast food can be (somewhat) sustainable has increased demand for that kind of thing, and put McDonald's on the defensive in that area. It's still fast food though, and I'm not sure how much it deserves a spot on a list like this.
  • Grendel's Den and Restaurant Located in the heart of Harvard Square and boasting a vaguely literary name, maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that Grendel's has recently jumped on the green bandwagon. Menu items with an eye to environmental stewardship include local, seasonal veggies, and plenty of vegetarian menu items. (I especially like the portobello reuben.)
Overall, I think this guide is a fantastic step in the right direction. One of the biggest deterrents to eating green (or following through on anything, for that matter) is convenience, and having a user friendly tool to find what you're looking for in a hurry can be great. That said, plenty of the organizations the Eat Well Guide will help you find only have a handful of truly sustainable options. A responsible consumer will still have to read between the lines and work to find the information that's specifically important to them.

What do you think of the Eat Well Guide approved options in your city? Check it out and let me know in the comments section!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Easy 4th of July Recipe Suggestions

The winter holidays are the ones that get a bad reputation for their unhealthy food, but let's not forget the diet-breaking pitfalls of a July 4th Celebration: All those hot dogs and hamburgers, and the buns they come in and condiments that go on them are usually bought with an eye toward quantity, not quality. That means that what's not a great specimen of responsible eating gets knocked down a peg or two in the name of grabbing the cheapest thing at the supermarket and rushing back to the grill. And don't forget the token package of processed veggie burgers made from who knows what and tasting like cardboard to pacify your vegetarian friend. At least at Thanksgiving and Christmas, someone is likely to have put some time and effort into making your doctor mad.

If you've got a pot luck cookout to go to and you don't want to bring one more nondescript pasta salad, here are a few of my favorite corn-free, side dishes from around the internet:

Twice Baked Potatoes with Kale from Smitten Kitchen
Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms with Crispy Goat Cheese from Blogging Over Thyme
Quinoa Salad with Black Beans and Mango from The Post Punk Kitchen
Grapefruit Avocado Salad from Simply Recipes
Broccoli Parmesan Fritters from Smitten Kitchen

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Corn Free July 2015

Hello from the world of neglected blogs! I'm proud to report that I was able to complete a pretty decent first draft of my novel, A More Elegant Solution, during my time off. The research for that led me to explore in more depth the sustainable food movement and its pros and cons, and I'm ready to get back into that arena in a more journalistic way. That said, July has crept up on me even more than usual this year, and my kitchen is sorely ill-prepared for a month of eating unprocessed and grass fed. Maybe that makes it more of an adventure. I hope you'll join me on the journey! And please, please send me links to restaurants or recipes that might accommodate.