Friday, December 16, 2011

Top 5 Tricks for Healthy Christmas Cookies

Sometimes I think Ebenezer Scrooge has been sorely misrepresented.  I mean, the poor guy just wanted to be left alone; is that so much to ask?

This time of year, it's cold and dark and all the stores are not only over-crowded but playing absolutely terrible music, and everyone is rubbing in your face how happy they supposedly are because some old fat guy who's been stalking their children is going to sneak into their house in the middle of the night.  I don't know about you, but if I look at the holiday season from a certain angle, the whole idea really seems to fall apart at the seams.

And that's when I start to bake cookies.  Around the time I start to feel my heart shrinking to two sizes too small, I do the one thing that never fails to get me at least passably close to "in the Christmas spirit."

Experimenting with lots of different recipes for Christmas cookies is something I've done for a few years now, but this time around I challenged myself to make them as corn-free and minimally processed as I could.  I won't write all the recipes I used here, but I'll give you five ingredients- any or all of which can be used in whatever cookie recipes you already know and love to make them much healthier and- I think- much tastier too!

5. Local eggs.
I say "local" because that's really the easiest guarantee that other claims made on the package actually mean what they seem like they should mean.  Eggs from a small farm are going to be more nutritious because the hens who laid them had a more diverse diet than conventionally raised hens.  And I'm pretty sure most small farmers don't inject their eggs with hormones the way those from a certain well-known large-scale chicken farming operation have been known to do.  

4. Taza chocolate.
Any minimally processed chocolate will do, but this is my favorite brand, partly because it's made right here in Somerville, and partly because it's delicious.  It's available to purchase online if you don't live in the area, and it's all vegan.  I also like the variety that's available.  I use the 87% dark chocolate bars as baking chocolate to flavor batter.  There are also flavors like cinnamon, orange, and ginger available, which you can use in lieu of chocolate chips to put your own unique spin on old favorites. (Like my chocolatey peanut butter cookie recipe in the corn-free cookbook.)

3. Maple syrup.
Maple syrup is less processed than the white sugar you find in the baking aisle, and rumored to contain actual nutrients!  If you're worried about the consequences of replacing a solid with a liquid, I found this helpful fact sheet on the right sugar: maple syrup ratio.  I also used some actual maple sugar in crystal form, which lends the cookies a subtly robust flavor, but I'm not sure whether the further processing destroys any of the nutrition.

2. Grass-fed butter.
The butter I used in these particular cookies was from Vermont Creamery.  Just looking at this butter, the color, the texture, you can tell it's different from the stuff you buy at the supermarket.  The benefits of choosing grass-fed- to your health as well as that of the environment, the cows, and arguably the economy- can be found, among other places, in my post What's So Bad About Corn? from earlier this year.

1. Pecan meal.
As with all the other ingredients on this list, pecan meal adds a rich flavor and texture to the cookies, and this one made the number one slot because of how ridiculously healthy it is.  Replacing a highly processed grain with a minimally processed nut?  It doesn't get much better than that!  You can order it and other tasty treats from Sunnlyand Farms.  One note on pecan meal, however:  The texture isn't exactly the same as that of all-purpose flour, and when I tried to use it by itself the cookies just didn't hold together, instead flattening out and melting into each other.  I suggest using half pecan meal and half whole wheat flour.

Have other baking tips you'd like to share?  Leave them in the comments.  Happy holidays, everyone!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"The Wisdom of Our Culture"

This year will be my first Thanksgiving as a food blogger.  It's a little intimidating to write about a national holiday centering around food, especially since so many more well-known bloggers have already published their Thanksgiving posts, featuring recipes I would never think of.  So, like a good English major, after staring at a blank screen for half an hour rejecting idea after idea that seemed brilliant until I tried to put it into words, I went to my favorite bibliographic source for inspiration.

The great sage and imminent foodie himself,  Mr. Michael Pollan, has recently published an updated version of his book Food Rules, with illustrations by Maira Kalman, who also illustrated the 2005 version of William Strunk and E.B. White's The Elements of Style.  To the now-well-known mantra "Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants." Pollan has added suggestions sent in by readers who learned them from their parents and grandparents.  As Pollan said on his interview with Good Morning America, these new rules contain "the wisdom of our culture."  This is a hopeful message in and of itself, since from reading the news it sometimes seems as though we don't even have a unified culture, let alone a wise one.

The rule that I want to focus on this Thanksgiving is "No Labels on the Table."  This rule states that even if you are just eating pizza from Domino's, or Chinese takeout, it will taste better if you first sit at an actual table, and second, take the food out of its packaging and put it in the plates and bowls that remind you that you're in your home where you can feel relaxed and enjoy your meal.

I will be celebrating this Thanksgiving at my great-aunt's house.  As she has done for the past several years, I expect that she will buy the boxed Thanksgiving Dinner option from Stop & Shop, complete with pre-cooked turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, and pie.  In a way this feels like cheating, of course.  A way to cut down on the amount of preparation time required for the meal, and a way to avoid thinking about the specific ingredients it contains and where they came from. (High fructose corn syrup in that gravy?  I betcha there is!)

But Aunt Lena always presents the food in her own serving dishes, and banishes the Stop & Shop box to the kitchen, where a full two rooms separate it from the dining table.  That's because the beauty of any Thanksgiving dinner is that no matter where you eat it or what level of preparation goes into it, through sheer alchemy, it manages to look and taste like a home-cooked meal when it's served with a bit of care and a personal touch; whether that means bone china, a new and festive tablecloth, or just hiding the box.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Food Can Make You Thin?

This week's guest author is my mother, Judith Manzoni Ward, who taught me to love writing and very local food.  Click here to annoy her with a Facebook friend request.


As the daughter of post-Depression hunter/gatherer/farmers, I knew “unprocessed” to just mean food as usual: wild game in the fall and winter made good company for the root cellar’s carrots, onions, potatoes, and an occasional turnip. Canned garden tomatoes provided color. Ham and bacon and pork chops were the products of my grandfather’s farm; roast chicken and eggs were from our own backyard.  It was interesting, in a gruesome way, (especially with snow on the ground,) to witness “chickens running around with their heads cut off,” but a steady diet of it made me long for the antiseptic packages neatly stacked in the refrigerators and cupboards in the homes of my playmates. 

Was that long-ago diet, which was forced upon me by necessity, healthy? Probably.  Boring and embarrassing?  Absolutely!  Was I fat?  Nope!
Luckily, public school gave me a more realistic view of the outside world’s eating habits.  Being fat wasn’t a big deal then anyway…everybody was too interested in being part of progress, part of the big changes that were unfolding. No self-respecting U.S. child of the 50’s wanted to be caught dead  without cream-filled cupcakes, marshmallow fluff, bagged chips of odd shapes and odder colors, packaged cookies, luncheon meats, or, of course…Coke.    TV dinners?  Yeah!  Canned ravioli?  Wow!  Hot dogs ‘n’ beans?  Yippee!  We were the post-war prosperity kids; hunting, gathering, and dirt farming were way out of style; we were building our bodies strong in 12 easier ways…with Wonder bread!  It was soft as cotton candy, substantial as a puff of smoke from the factories that created it.  We all wanted a piece of that action; it went with the machine age.  It tasted good, it was fast; it got our mothers out of the kitchen and into the stores to buy stuff.   Those times of innocence and hopeful good will, however, turned and delivered a good slap to our fluff-smeared cheeks; it gave birth to cravings that could be satisfied only with massive quantities of what we demanded: cheap tasty food, with emphasis on the “tasty.”  Nobody was sicker than I was of the bland flavor of shriveled root cellar carrots on a cold February day. We wanted our food to be “out of this world”  like the Jet Age we lived in.  America, along with its boundless energy and big-hearted generosity, was also a land of limitless opportunism where moderation had always been a dirty word. Our cravings opened the door of opportunity to King Corn and his cohorts: chemicals and mass-produced foodstuffs. Before we knew it, corn sweeteners, corn starch, and countless chemical compounds started to pop up in the oddest places, like in toothpaste, spaghetti sauce, and canned soup.  The great generation that had given the world antibiotics, Salk and Sabin vaccines, and all but eliminated TB, polio, and whooping cough, accidentally ushered in rampant asthma, chronic fatigue, and physical fatness.

People say it’s all in the genes, whether we’re fat or not, but anybody, no matter how slim, can work up a layer of flab without much effort.  All it takes is a diet of tasty junk.  Less than a year ago, I finally admitted to myself that I was jelly-like, and also didn’t feel so hot.  Having just passed my 66th birthday didn’t help.  There was more to it, though: achy joints, back pain, crankiness, zero patience, constant sinus infections, icky thoughts.  A wise and enterprising chiropractor took me on as a patient, along with three of my teaching colleagues, who all felt as washed-out as I did.  His night job is nutritionist, and he put us all on a food diet.   This was definitely not a bad idea.  Since none of us seemed chubby, he never mentioned weight loss; he just emphasized feeling well.  All we had to do was give up junk.  Junk included most wheat products, corn products (surprise, surprise!) and that old devil sugar.  He never said “unprocessed,” but he made up for it by using “fresh” and “organic” as often as possible.  Within weeks, life started being fun again.  Trips to the grocery store became adventures, farmers’ markets were heaven, and pick-your-own farms the finest of amusements. 
Decades-old memories of gathering took on a rosy glow.  I stuffed my face with real food, a lot of it from bush to mouth, with no package in between.  Wonder of wonders, eleven pounds of flab melted. All this from one summer’s eating!  My teacher pals have experienced similar results; all of us, far beyond the initial blush of youth, feel well and look healthy. That pale pinched look, so often seen on faces of dieters over 40, seems to have bypassed all of us.  Observers can’t be quite sure of why we look different, but one of my students put an honest spin on it when she commented last week,  “you don’t look so old today!”  How’s that for a compliment? Happy eating!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Soup Weather

Doesn't it always take you by surprise, that first Fall day when you realize that your jacket doesn't seem quite warm enough anymore, and you almost wish you were wearing gloves?  Every Autumn this sensation seems to come out of nowhere, as if I haven't been bundling up for the winter year in and year out my entire life.

This year, I’m afraid, the cold is going to be more of a nuisance than usual.  Since moving to the city, I’m spending a lot less time in my car, and a lot more time walking, or at the very least, standing outside waiting for buses.  The cold, the dark, the snow, they’re all going to be especially wretched to deal with this winter.  But one thing that cold weather has going for it is the food.  Hot tea, hot chocolate, hot toffee nut lattes, not to mention all the various incarnations of holiday feasts.  The enjoyment of nice warm nourishment really gets augmented when the temperature drops.

Which brings me to one of the underrated simple pleasures of cold weather: soup.  Soup takes just a few minutes to heat up, and can be served as a first course with a fancy dinner, or taken to work in a Tupperware and eaten for lunch with a small sandwich or salad.  You can make a big pot of soup one afternoon and have a ready-to-go meal whenever you want it for the rest of the week, almost like those ever-convenient microwavable dinners of which I was so fond before I started paying too much attention to ingredients lists and what they really mean.

Until recently, finding broth had been an impediment for me in making soup.  Store-bought broths tend to have all kinds of sweeteners and generally unpronounceable additives in them.  Plus, they feel like cheating in a way, don’t you think?  If you’re going to make soup from scratch, go all the way. 

My roommate gave me the suggestion that I make my own vegetable broth with scraps from vegetables I already have.  Apparently this is very common practice, and it’s so easy that it just doesn’t make any sense not to do it. When I was making a stir-fry one night, I took stock of the odds and ends that I was going to throw away:  the top, bottom, and outer skin of an onion, a couple of green pepper stems, carrot peels, and the like.  Instead of throwing these away, I put them in a plastic bag and put the plastic bag into the freezer.

When I was ready to make soup, I simply put the veggie ends in a pot of hot water and simmered for about a half hour.  The result was a delicious smelling and rich colored broth, which I strained to get rid of the solid vegetable pieces, and used as the base for my soup.

My personal favorite part of this is how much sense it makes.  I mean seriously.  Why spend money on something you had all along?  Soup broth at worst has unhealthy preservatives, colorings and sweeteners in it, and even at best it's simply a waste of money and packaging once you realize how unbelievably simple it is to make your own vegetable stock.

The real reason this idea appeals to me, though, is that I hate throwing food away.  Where I grew up, we had woods all around, and any scraps left over from dinner went out to the woods to either be food for the raccoons, or to turn into next spring’s compost.  One of the adjustments I’ve had to make as a city-dweller is throwing things away that, in a rational world have no business being thrown away.  Make-your-own vegetable stock is a great way to get a second use out of materials that would otherwise go into a landfill, and at the same time have a healthier, more nourishing meal and save money.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Veganism Unprocessed

Corn-Free July's first-ever guest-authored blog post comes from my friend Krisha.  She's been successfully pulling off a diet of zero animal products for almost two years now, so she's no stranger to conscientious eating.  I tried the breakfast bars from her recipe below and they're great!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

World Food Day

Today is Blog Action Day.  Started in 2007, it encourages bloggers to post on the same day about the same global issue.  As it coincides this year with World Food Day, a movement run by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to raise awareness of food shortages around the world, this year's topic is food.  I hope you'll forgive me if I get a bit more political than usual.

First of all, World Food Day could not have come at a better time.  There's so much in the air lately: world population approaching the seven billion mark, the race for the 2012 Republican nomination, and the exponentially expanding Occupy movement to name a few key points.  And it's getting more and more apparent how much the food system plays a part in all of it.  So much of our global economy and the state of our environment are tied up in the industrial system that has taken over how the average person is fed.

We all know the health benefits to the individual that can result from cutting back on processed foods (poor white flour. I'm starting to feel bad for it, with the reputation it's getting. It's not like the stuff asked to be separated from the nutritious part of the plant), but it's not always as obvious that our everyday food choices are part of a much, much bigger story.

The July 2011 issue of National Geographic ran an excellent article by Charles Siebert entitled "Food Ark," which sheds light on the real-life consequences of growing just one variety of certain plants, as opposed to the genetically diverse array of heirloom varieties that small farmers have been using since the dawn of agriculture, and, to some extent, still do.

Let's take a hypothetical example.  A farmer wants to plant corn.  He uses some seeds that he saved from last year's harvest, he trades some to his neighbor in exchange for seeds from the neighbor's previous harvest, and buys still others at a local market.  Now this farmer has a least three different varieties of corn. 

Maybe the seeds he bought at the market do best under dry conditions.  If there is a lot of rain that year, then those seeds will not flourish.  Maybe the neighbor's seeds need a lot of water.  Those won't produce a good yield if there is a drought.  And maybe the farmer's own seeds are particularly tasty to a certain kind of bug.  If that bug happens to migrate this year to the farmer's field, then those seeds will die. 

In any of these scenarios, most of the crop stays healthy; healthy enough to produce seeds that will be planted the next year, and theoretically yield a better harvest because they will be better adapted than their predecessors to the environment of the farm. 

But if there were only one variety of, say, the seeds that need plenty of water?  In the drought year, most of them will die, severely affecting the farmer's yield.  Luckily, it's still unlikely that they will all die, because each seed is slightly genetically different from the next, and there will be some variation in hardiness.  These seeds are a lot like biological family members, who share many, but certainly not all, of the same genetic characteristics.  Again, only the best will survive to reproduce, making for a healthier harvest next year.  That's how natural selection works, right? 

OK. Now think about the fact that the vast majority of the field corn grown on an industrial scale in the united states is not just of the same variety, but genetically modified to be exactly the same.  Sure this particular variety was chosen for its hardiness under any kind of weather condition, ability to resist pests and disease, etc., but still.  Aren't we tempting fate just a little bit here?  Do we really think that there is never going to come a time when our national corn crop fails?

And of course, the kind of corn we're talking about isn't just corn.  It's meat, ethanol, shampoo, chewing gum, all of which add up to a huge part of the U.S. economy, which we all know is tied up in the economy of the rest of the world.  And when something goes wrong, the people it hits first and hardest are the people who were poorest to begin with, in this country and abroad.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Harvest Time

A rare three-day weekend finds me in my hometown of Guilford, Connecticut, enjoying some time away from the city.   It being apple season, I decided to kick the foraging for local produce up a notch and visit Bishop's Orchards.  Apples were always my favorite fruit to pick at Bishop's as a little kid, because you get a ride up to the orchard on the back of a tractor.
Still fun.

I guess apple picking was a popular activity this year, because a lot of the trees were picked clean.  There were plenty of Staymans and Ida Reds left though, both crispy, tart varieties great for making desserts. 

My mom and I got a bag each, and then went home to figure out what to do with them, keeping the October Unprocessed challenge in mind.

I found some cocoa powder in the kitchen claming to only contain that one ingredient, and a package of grass-fed butter, and decided to give them the unprocessed ok. ("Unprocessed" really has an aggravatingly loose definition, but I suppose part of the excercise is making yourself think.) 

After melting four tablespoons of butter in a small frying pan, I mixed in seven tablespoons of cocoa, and about six ounces of maple syrup for a sweetener.  When the mixture was nice and smooth, we shined up a couple of apples and dipped them in it, then sprinkled on some raw oats for texture, and left them in the fridge for about an hour so the chocolate would set.

The chocolate sauce was still quite dark, which, together with the tang of the apples, made a really interesting bite.  A great fall snack, if you ask me!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

October Unprocessed

For a minute there, I really thought I was off the hook until next summer.

And then and I had to go and read a Tweet mentioning something called October Unprocessed, and I just couldn't stop myself from finding out more.

Andrew Wilder's blog Eating Rules is about healthy, unprocessed foods and the positive impact they can have on our health and the environment.  (His last name is fitting, don't you think?)  As recently as 2009, he got the idea to take the month of October off from processed foods, which he defines as foods that contain ingredients you wouldn't or couldn't find in an average kitchen.  In the third year of the movement, he now has over 1,200 people signed up to participate!  Is it possible that the future holds the same for Corn-Free July??

Needless to say, I signed up too, and for some reason I thought it would be easy.  I figured eating unprocessed was pretty much the same as eating corn-free; I already knew all the rules.  It would be a piece of cake.  Well, not literally a piece of cake.  Unless I went out of my way to make the cake with whole-grain flour and pasture-fed butter and...oh no.

It all came back.  That feeling of being lost at the grocery store, the over-thinking everything.  I was back to reading all the labels, to rejecting entire meal ideas because of one key ingredient I couldn't use.  And then, of course, there were the debates with myself over gray areas- and there are many more shades of gray surrounding the term "unprocessed" than the term "corn".

But it's Rosh Hashanah today, and just because I'm not Jewish doesn't mean I can't appreciate the idea of a new beginning.  I can't help feeling like the crispness in the air and the hint of orange coming into the leaves are challenging me to something a little more important than coming up with a brilliant Halloween costume.  If anyone else is participating in this, leave me a comment with your favorite unprocessed recipe!  I'll need some inspiration.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Reclaiming the Value Meal

Once upon a time in Rome, they decided to put up a McDonald's.

This isn't news, I know.  McDonald's is everywhere.  It's quick, it's cheap, and as much as we might not like to admit it, those golden arches hold something of a psychological comfort for the homesick- or at least jet-lagged and mildly lost- American traveler.

But imagine what it was like to live in Rome and walk by that McDonald's for the first time.  We're talking about Italy, where good food is practically a religion.  Not just the quality of it, but the time and care people invest in preparing it and enjoying it with friends and family.  Opening a McDonald's in Rome is like opening one of those Las Vegas quickie wedding chapels in...well...Rome.

It was in protest against this very event that the Slow Food movement was born.  If you haven't heard about Slow Food, it's exactly what it sounds like: an alternative to fast food that promotes local culture and flavor, and it now has over 100,000 members in 132 countries.

This past weekend, the US chapter put out a challenge to "reclaim the value meal" by cooking and sitting down to enjoy a meal with friends and family at a cost of no more than five dollars per person.  There's been a lot of hype in the media lately about how tough it is to eat healthy on a budget.  We're constantly bombarded with statistics about how the less money you earn in this country, the more likely you are to suffer from obesity and all its accompanying health problems, like heart disease and and type two diabetes.  What kind of a world are we living in where the poor people are overweight?  Seriously?

So, on Saturday night I took the challenge, along with Krisha, my foodie partner-in-crime, whose super power is her Whole Foods employee discount, and we made a delicious dish of mustard-maple tofu (I know, it sounds really weird, but I was pleasantly surprised), along with a salad featuring sliced almonds and sunflower seeds for extra protein.  The bill for the two of us came in at just under $10.

The secret to non-soggy tofu?  Fry it, then bake it.

This particular dish turned out to be corn-free completely by accident.  Which, I think, goes to show that it might be easier to get the health results we want not by changing what we eat, but by changing how we eat, and letting the rest fall into place on its own.

It's almost impossible to find a frozen dinner that's good for you; even the "healthy" kind.  Even the "organic" kind.  Because, when you get right down to it, you're still eating something that was conceived out of a demand for convenience, with everything else being secondary.  And very often, you don't actually save money at all.  What's more expensive?  Five microwavable chicken Parmesan meals, or the ingredients for five sandwiches?

What I found great about the $5 Challenge wasn't the money, but the rules that the meal had to be home-cooked and you couldn't eat it alone.  There was a lot of buzz on the internet in the days leading up to the challenge, and one Twitter user asked which of a list of ingredients he should forego in order to keep on budget, to which the Slow Food USA account answered that he should use all the ingredients and invite more people to dinner so his budget could grow.  What a great idea!

My challenge to you:  Next time something in your fridge is on the brink of going bad, don't admit defeat and throw it away.  Invite someone to dinner.  You won't have wasted your money, and you might just have a nice time.


- 1 cup maple syrup
- 6 tablespoons dijon mustard
- 1-2 tblspns balsamic vinegar
- 2 pounds tofu
- 1/2cup flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1 teaspoon tumeric
- 1 teaspoon basil
- 1 teaspoon thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder


1. Slice each block of tofu into 8 pieces.
2. Wrap tofu slices in a dish towel, and leave it to dry out for 30  minutes.
3. Preheat oven to 350.
4. While tofu is drying, mix together flour and spices in a small bowl, then mix together maple syrup, mustard, and vinegar separately.
5. Cover the bottom of a frying pan with canola oil, and place over medium heat.
6. Coat tofu slices with spiced flour, and fry them in the oil until golden brown, about five minutes on each side.
7. Place fried tofu in a shallow glass baking dish, and cover with marinade.
8. Bake for 30 minutes, until marinade is bubbly and thick.

Serves 4.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Rain Check

There was supposed to be a cookout today, but someone up there had other plans.  It got me thinking about the weather, and how, in our modern age of instant gratification, there's still nothing we can do about it.  In hindsight, it's odd that I thought as little as I did about the weather during Corn Free July.  I was lucky enough to have a very sunny month in which to try my experiment.  There wasn't a single July farmers' market I planned to go to that got rained out, and not a single day on which I got caught walking home hauling bags of groceries in the rain.

The sun, the rain, and the wind were such an integral part of my life when I worked on the farm.  Too much and the crops will be ruined, too little and the crops will be ruined.  Hurricane (or Tropical Storm, or whatever she is now) Irene has reminded me that, as much farmers' market shopping I do, and as many farmers and farmers' markets and people who think local food is cool that I follow on Twitter, I'm still experiencing these things out of their true context.  Back in the days when the shoe was on the other foot, I laughed at people like me: people who patted themselves on the back for getting up "early" on a Saturday morning to feel like they were getting back to nature.  For the urban locavore, a rained-out farmers market means having to get that week's trendy vegetables at Whole Foods instead.  For the farmer, it means not making any money that day.  It might mean having a harvest go to waste because it can't get to the consumers before it spoils.  Or, depending on the scale and set-up of your farm, it might just mean letting the vegetables grow a bit bigger while you take a much-needed day off to tend to the greenhouse, or maybe just sleep past 4AM.

My city-dweller experience with inclement weather this weekend turned out to make for a delightful plan B.  As I just hadn't been able to stop myself from buying the ingredients for enough baked goods to feed two dozen people even though I knew the cookout probably wasn't going to happen, I spent a chunk of yesterday afternoon experimenting with a cornless peach-blueberry-apple crumble.  As I was taking it out of the oven, my upstairs neighbor, Melissa, happened to poke her head into my kitchen on her way downstairs to the laundry room.  I explained to her my dire problem of too many baked goods and not enough people to eat them, and she generously volunteered to help in any way she could.  As it turned out, the weather wasn't bad enough to keep me in, and so I brought the crumble to dinner with friends in Medford, where it was a big hit.

I've got enough ingredients to make another one today, and, as long as the power doesn't go out before I get around to it, that's just what I'll do, and I'll be sure to bring some upstairs.

Here it is, adapted from a recipe by Corky Pollan, Michael's mother.


1 1/2 cups unbleached flour
1 3/4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon firmly packed dark brown sugar
10 tablespoons pasture-fed butter, softened
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

2 peaches
2 apples
1 quart blueberries
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 cup white cane sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon


1. Preheat oven to 375.
2. Slice up peaches and apples into evenly sized pieces
3. Mix fruit filling ingredients together in a large bowl, and pour mixture evenly over the bottom of an  8-inch square baking pan.
4. Mix dry crust ingredients together in a separate bowl until well blended.
5. Mix in butter evenly.  Pour mixture on top of the fruit layer in the pan.
6. Bake for about thirty minutes, until top is golden brown and fruit starts to bubble.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A-Maize-ing August

I can’t believe it’s over so soon.  I’m not ready.  I didn’t even get to make a “corned beef” pun.

On second thought, this croissant I’m chewing tastes like Heaven.

I wonder what’s in it.  Probably milk, butter and/or eggs from some very unhappy factory farmed, corn-with-a-side-of-antibiotics-and-growth-hormones-for-dessert fed animals.  And most likely at least one if not half a dozen sweeteners, emulsifiers, and general “why not?” additives.  And all that vagueness is scary in and of itself.  I’m not sure what is in this croissant at all or where those ingredients came from.  Were you ever hired for a job without your employer reading your résumé first?  When was the last time you bought a used car without at least looking at the odometer to see what you were getting yourself into?  But eating, the most basic and urgent of human necessities, that we’re more than happy to leave up to chance.

Did I mention this croissant is delicious?

It’s not the corn that makes it delicious, of course.  I’ve had some truly excellent vegan pastries.  And, as I discovered with my cookie experiments over the last few weeks, it’s entirely possible to find everything you need for baking without those pesky additives, if- and this is a big if- one is willing and able to put in the extra time, effort, thought, and money.  And that’s just not something I can do twelve months a year.  Who can?

Yup.  At least for now, Corn is King, and like it or not, we're all his loyal subjects.
Look how mad he is!  He's gonna have me beheaded if I don't fall back in line!

I've learned a heck of a lot over the past month, though, and I hope I've been able to pass some of that along to you.  I won't be updating the blog as much from here on in (until next July, that is), but I hope you'll check back once in awhile for updates and insights on the sustainable food movement in general.

Happy August!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Hidden Gem of Cambridge

Luckily, at the Foodmaster just now, there was a lady taking forever to search through her bag for coupons, so everyone else in line was too busy being annoyed with her to take any notice of the weirdo engrossed in the Tic-Tacs label muttering "Screw you, Maltodextrin."

With just a few days of that foolishness left to go, I'm proud to say that I finally got around to having dinner at a restaurant.  The website prides itself on being "#1 For Grass-Fed Food and Facts".  It's a great resource for finding farms, grocery stores, and restaurants that focus on local, sustainable food.  It was there that I found T.W.Food: the tiniest, most out of the way restaurant I’ve ever been to.  I almost don’t want to write about them on the internet for fear of blowing their cover.

Needless to say, I was pretty excited about the evening, but shortly after being seated, we were presented with an amuse-bouche featuring corn.  I’m afraid I didn’t do a very good job of stifling my laugh when the server said what was in it, and I was worried that maybe this wasn’t going to go so well after all.

Next came the bread, which looked homemade, so I took my chances with it, foregoing the butter.  And then for a look at the menu.  I’m coming to realize that the “grass-fed” label in restaurants like this is a lot like the giant picture of a salad in the window at McDonald’s.  More than anything, it's there so you can say to the person in the group on a strict diet, “Look!  There’s even something for you!”  Then, once you’re in the door, you realize it’s not that easy.

In general, there does seem to be quite a bit of grass-fed beef available on the market if you know where to look for it.  The problems arise when you start wondering if the vegetables served with it were sautéed in grass-fed butter.  Or where they got the milk that goes in your after dinner coffee.  And so, I found myself asking the proprietress a list of obnoxiously specific questions.  Tim was a real sport for agreeing to sit at the same table. 

For some reason, outside of a farmers' market (and that one seasonal brand of butter at Whole Foods), grass-fed eggs and dairy products just don’t seem to exist.  Although there were three entrées featuring corn-free proteins on the menu, all the sides had some kind of corn-fed dairy involved.  I eventually settled on the flat-iron steak, which I was told did come with buttered potatoes, but the chef would be happy to use olive oil instead.

I've had quite a bit of experience with grass-fed beef now, and the myth that it doesn't taste as good as corn-fed isn't just a myth, but a flat-out lie, told by the USDA to increase demand for the surplus of cheap grain out there.  I hadn't previously tasted grass-fed meat that wasn't delicious, and the steak from T.W. Food was no exception.  Maybe I was just thinking too hard, but I swear I could actually taste the lack of anti-biotics.

But the best part?  A lovely corn-free, vegan, lactose-intolerant-friendly dessert:  A scoop each of chocolate and peach sorbet, which I was assured were not sweetened with HFCS.  The dish was garnished with sprigs of mint and candied pecans.  OK so if you’re allergic to nuts, I guess you couldn’t have this.  I guess you really can't please everyone.

Anyway, as July comes to a close, I'll be cramming to do and read and write everything that I said I would.  It’s gonna be a busy weekend.  Check back on Monday!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

You Probably Have Scurvy

So, I just finished reading an informative, if terrifying book by journalist Mary Frost called Going Back to the Basics of Human Health.  I liked that it took a straight-forward, common-sense-first approach to health.  Her thesis is that, for thousands of years, our ancestors survived just fine on the diets that were available to them with nary a pill in sight.  Most of the problems we Westerners face today, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, according to Frost and many others, are just as much a result of what we're not getting as of what we're getting too much of.

She brings to light, specifically, the fact that many vitamin supplements are synthetic, not derived from foods, and therefore don't respond to our bodies in the way that, say, just a plain old fruit or vegetable would.

One food additive I've been avoiding this July is ascorbic acid, because it's often derived from corn.  As I mentioned in previous posts, Corn-Free-July is a very open-ended experiment, raising questions I hadn't originally thought to ask, and having unforeseen outcomes.  As it turns out, avoiding ascorbic acid has an added benefit, other than boycotting the unsustainable environmental and economic system from which it springs.

Now, first of all, let's backtrack to where ascorbic acid is often found.  For most purposes, its name is interchangeable with Vitamin C.  In fact, the word "ascorbic" is from the Latin prefix "a-" meaning no, and word "scorbutus", meaning scurvy, since scurvy is exactly what you get when you don't have enough Vitamin C.  When you see in the grocery store that your orange juice is "fortified with Vitamin C", it probably means (and correct me if I'm wrong here; once my research gets to the part where I'm looking at those little hexagonal molecule drawings, I'm a bit out of my element) that industrially-grown corn has been broken down into glucose, and then that glucose has been broken down further into ascorbic acid.

All right, so it's not naturally occurring in the oranges, but it's still derived from a plant, so how bad could it be?

Well, apparently, according to Mary Frost, vitamin C (and other vitamins, but I'm using the C example because it relates to corn) are actually complexes of many different components.  One of the components in vitamin C is ascorbic acid.  And many synthetic vitamin C supplements, in foods and in pills, contain only ascorbic acid and not the whole compound, so they're not really doing anything positive for your body at all.

Or are they?

Lab tests apparently show that rats fed just ascorbic acid don't get scurvy any more than rats given the full Vitamin C complex.  So I guess we're in the clear after all.

But wait.  We're talking about rats.  And here's another one of those facts that seem so obvious once you read them that you wonder why you didn't think of them yourself years ago.  I've run into dozens of these this July.   

Rats do not digest or metabolize foods in the same way that humans do.

Of course they don't!  We know that!  We've all read Charlotte's Web.

Rats can find nutrition in some weird stuff.

And, sure enough, in 1985, Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary published the finding that rats can convert ascorbic acid into the full Vitamin C complex, but humans can't, as proven by a study done on humans with scurvy who did not improve from the condition when they were treated only with ascorbic acid. (One can only hope that the scientists doing the study eventually took pity on these people and gave them the full complex before they died like Elizabethan sailors, but the article didn't say.)

According to Frost and the research she's done, too much ascorbic acid isn't just not good for you, it can actually be bad for you, since the acid will try to reform the vitamin C complex from other components thereof that your body has already stored, disrupting the delicate balance of chemicals and enzymes that were in your body to begin with.

And now we get to the good part.  All this is interesting in theory, but it's pretty easy to miss how it directly affects you.  I admit I read much of the book with a healthy dose of skepticism, and, I'm ashamed to say, a bit of self-righteousness:  I'm young.  I'm not overweight.  Do I really need to worry about all this?

Yes.  Yes I do.

Symptoms of a condition Frost calls "pre-clinical scurvy" or "marginal vitamin C deficiency" include "painful joints, bruising easily, and gums that bleed with brushing of the teeth".

For over ten years now, my dentist has been assuring me that my gums bleed because I don't floss enough.  Even though I floss every day.

Nobody flossed until dental floss was invented in 1815!  Heck!  Cavemen didn't even brush.

So, the next time you experience one of these everyday annoyances and blame it on your hygiene habits or the weather or something, eat an orange and see how you feel.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

What's So Bad About Corn?

Like any good research project, my corn-free month has so far asked many more questions that it has answered. The main one is "What exactly am I boycotting?"

Now, the simple answer is, "Duh.  Corn.  What do you mean what are you boycotting?  Did you have a stroke?"

And, OK, yes, I'm boycotting corn.  Mostly in the form of an additive in processed foods, and as a feed ration for meat animals.  But as I touched on in the first post, it's not actually corn the food that I'm concerned with.  In fact, the corn we eat on the cob and the corn that ends up in the places I'm trying to avoid it are two such different things that I almost don't want to call them by the same name at all.  Here's a list of what sets industrial corn apart:

-It has been strategically bred, and most of the taste and nutritional value have been phased out in favor of qualities that make it easy to grow, harvest, store, and distribute.

- This corn is grown in an environmentally irresponsible way.  The crops aren't rotated, and therefore the soil is robbed of nutrients, making more and more chemical fertilizers necessary, which contributes to pollution, among other things.

-It makes no economic sense.  To keep up with low corn prices, farmers keep planting more, which saturates the market and drives prices down.  In fact, corn costs more to produce than it does to buy, so to keep farmers from going broke, the government pays them.  So the next time you save a few bucks by choosing a corn-fed steak over a grass-fed one, remember the tax money you're paying to subsidize the corn.  There is evidence that, looked at on a large enough scale, foods without corn are more cost-effective than their counterparts with higher sticker prices.

For more specific information about any of that, read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, or watch the documentary King Corn.

OK so we know there's big industrial chemical-ridden corn that ends up in french fries, and there's happy, hand-picked, delicious corn corn.  But what about the gray areas? 

I bought a block of cheese this morning at the Union Square Farmer’s Market right here in Somerville. I spoke to the woman selling it, an employee of Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown, and she assured me that of course all the cows roam free in the pasture and eat nothing but grass.

But then she added an interesting corollary.  She said that in the winter, when fresh grass is scarce, the cows are given a ration of what she compared to humans taking vitamins.  It accounts for very little of the herd’s overall diet, but it does contain, among other things, corn.


I opted to buy the cheese anyway, but it raised questions.  The first question, I suppose, and one I would have asked had the market not been so busy, was where they got the corn.  Based on what I’ve learned in my research, it’s extremely unlikely that this corn comes from the agro-industrial machine, but where exactly does it come from?  My guess would be that the supplement was bought pre-mixed, either at a feed store, or from a magazine like The Stockman Grass Farmer.  It’s probable that this corn, though grown on a relatively small scale and more sustainably than the other stuff, involved some pesticidal or fungicidal chemicals, or even genetic modification.

So I’m left with the question of whether I did the right thing buying the cheese.  And different people will answer that question differently according to their views on nutrition, treatment of animals, the environment, and the local and global economy.  And I’m sure there’s someone who will take the attitude that It’s "corn-free July." It’s not "mostly-corn-free-except-when-you-don’t-feel-like-it July." 
And in a way I suppose they’re right too.  But you’ve got to admit it makes you think.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Greek Roast Lamb

As promised, I’ve got a recipe for an actual entrée this time. It's a slightly modified take on one that I found on, with adjustments made for the fact that the farmers market didn't have as large a cut of meat as the recipe called for.  Now there's a problem you don't often run into at the grocery store. 

After choosing a recipe that looked manageable, I wrote down the ingredients I'd need and headed out to the Copley Square Farmers Market, this time remembering to bring my trendy- if somewhat overpriced considering what it is- re-usable grocery bag from Whole Foods. 

The first booth I visited was Siena Farms, based in Sudbury.  They had an impressive array of pretty much every fruit and vegetable currently in season in southern New England.  I picked out an onion and some garlic for the lamb, and lettuce and tomatoes for a salad, which was rounded out with some delicious grass-fed mozzarella cheese from Narragansett Creamery.  It turns out Narragansett exports something even better than cheap beer.

The meat itself came from Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm, where I’d shopped the previous week.  The same woman who cut my carton of eggs in half then said she didn’t have the four pound leg of lamb the recipe required, but recommended a leg steak and some kabobs, assuring me that it would be more than enough to serve two.

As I browsed the rest of the farmers market, I exchanged knowing smiles with several other people carrying trendy reusable grocery bags from Whole Foods, each of us basking in the knowledge that we were clearly much more serious about sustainable agriculture than the shoppers without them.

After I got home, the actual roasting of the dish itself, as well as adjusting the amounts of ingredients, involved a little bit of guesswork, which wasn’t helped by the fact that there was nothing on the package the lamb came in saying exactly how much it weighed.  I estimate between a pound and a half and two pounds.  Anyway, Tim and I agreed that the dish ended up delicious, though the meat could have been slightly less well done and the potatoes were a tad too crunchy.  Based on this thorough analysis, here’s the revised and revised again version of the recipe that I would use if I were to try it again.  If anyone does make it, let me know how it turns out.

  • 2 pounds pasture-raised lamb kabobs
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • black pepper, to taste
  • juice of 1 lemon (some bottled lemon-juice has corn)
  • 2 tablespoons pastured butter, softened
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 9 small white potatoes
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  1. Preheat oven to 325.
  2. Take the meat out of the packaging and place it in a roasting pan.
  3. Sprinkle garlic, onion, and pepper over lamb.
  4. Juice the lemon and combine the juice with butter.  Brush mixture over lamb to coat, then sprinkle diced onion evenly over ingredients in pan.
  5. Add water and wine.  Cover with tin foil and back 45 minutes.
  6. While the lamb is cooking, chop up potatoes and cook in boiling water for 5-10 minutes to soften.  Let them cool, then toss them in olive oil.
  7. Remove pan from oven, add potatoes, re-cover, and continue baking at least another 20 minutes, until lamb is slightly pink in the center.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Return of Dessert

Despite temperatures in the eighties making for less-than-ideal baking conditions, I had a wonderful time Tuesday afternoon putting together some corn-free chocolate chip cookies.  To my surprise and delight, it actually isn’t hard at all, given the time, resources and willingness to research all the ingredients and go to a few different places for them.
First stop was Copley Square Farmers Market.  The second biggest farmers market I’ve ever been to (the first being on 14th Street in Manhattan, but everything’s bigger and louder and flashier in Manhattan), it takes full advantage of its location, where there’s both scenery and plenty of foot traffic.   

John Copley, who arranged the lesser-known Boston Corn Party.
I lucked out with Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm, based in Hardwick.  Theirs was the only booth I saw offering eggs from free-roaming chickens.  Stillman's also wins the prize for providing the most literal half-dozen eggs I’ve ever bought; the woman got out a pair of scissors and cut a carton containing a dozen eggs in half right before my eyes.

I was frustrated in my search for butter, however.  No one had brought any to the market, but, encouraged by finding the eggs, there was no way I was going to give up on the idea of eating a fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookie before the day was over. 

So the next logical stop was Whole Foods.  If I couldn’t find grass fed butter here, there was always the option of looking up a vegan recipe, but I have yet to master the texture issue with vegan cookies, and besides, you usually need to substitute something like applesauce, and that would mean I’d have to look around for applesauce that didn’t have ascorbic acid and...luckily, the dairy section offered Organic Valley brand pasture-fed butter, saving me a whole bunch of trouble.  

Now all that was left were the chocolate chips.  All the other ingredients can pretty much be taken at face value, and were already in the pantry at home.  I was a little worried about the chips though.  Do they normally have dairy ingredients in them?  I’ve been eating them for more than two decades.  How do I not know this already?

Whole Foods doesn’t carry Toll House, of course, and I almost scrapped the whole project right there.  How can I be expected to bake cookies if the chocolate chips don’t come in that comforting yellow bag we all grew up with?  It’s downright un-American!

Nonetheless, I screwed up all my courage and read the ingredients list on the Whole Foods brand chocolate chips (which come in an unfortunate blue bag).  With a huge sigh of relief, I realized the cookies were going to happen after all.  Nothing in these chips but pure cane sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, and pure vanilla extract.

But wait. Right next to these, in a green bag, were vegan chocolate chips.  What could possibly be on the above list that isn’t vegan?

The ingredients in the vegan chips were: evaporated cane juice, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, ground vanilla beans.

Am I missing something here?  Technicalities in the processing of the sugar and the vanilla, but nothing else is different…right?

I opted for the vegan chips just to be on the safe side. They don’t come with a recipe on the back, by the way.  What is that marketing team thinking?  Thanks to the internet, I was able to get my hands and the good old time-tested Toll House recipe, which is reproduced below, with corn-free adjustments in italics.

·        2 ¼ cups flour (unbleached if you don’t like chlorine in your food)
·        1 teaspoon baking soda
·        1 teaspoon salt
·        1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened (The package should specify grass fed and finished, or, better yet, pastured.  "Organic" can still mean that the cow has a very unpleasant life on a factory farm eating an unnatural diet of government-subsidized corn.)
·        ¾ cup granulated sugar
·        ¾ cup packed brown sugar
·        1 teaspoon vanilla extract
·        2 large eggs (Even free-roaming hens are often fed at least some corn.  The only way to be sure is to get the eggs straight from the farmer, and ask what he or she feeds the animals.)
·        1 12-ounce package chocolate chips (Check the ingredients list and make sure there are no animal products or corn-derived sweeteners from our growing glossary)
·        1 cup chopped nuts (optional)

Preheat over to 375.

Combine flour, baking soda and salt in a small bowl.  Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla in large mixer bowl until creamy.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Gradually beat in flour mixture.  Stir in chocolate chips and nuts.  Drop by rounded tablespoons onto ungreased baking sheets.

Bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown.  Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.  

And voila!
They ended up tasting great.  It's back to the farmers market on Tuesday.  Maybe next time I'll have a recipe for something a little more nutritious.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Corn Free July

I miss corn.

I miss corn, and I’ve got so much respect for anyone on a special diet, whether it’s because of allergies, health, ethics, or anything else. 

It’s really hard.  Checking labels all the time, going the extra mile (literally) for grocery stores that will sell what you’re looking for, turning down dessert.  Anyone who can pull this off for longer than the three days I’ve been at it deserves a 

I was lucky to kick off the month at a cookout with a group of extremely indulgent people.  Not to say that there weren’t plenty of “corny” jokes at my expense, but on the whole, my idea is being met with much more support than skepticism.  Here's a sampling of what a corn-free party looks like, starting with bison burgers; grass-fed of course:

I couldn’t have the cheese, or the bun, but miraculously, we had organic ketchup that contained nothing derived from corn.  That was surprising; that ketchup, synonymous as it is with all things processed and unnatural and generally unhealthy, would be available without the help of America’s favorite artificial sweetener.  It gives me hope that I might make it through July after all.

My friends Tristan and Andrea grilled some shrimp kabobs with zucchini and peppers; great summer flavor and easy to cook!

My contribution to the meal was a grass-fed steak from John Crow Farm, purchased at Kendall Square Farmers Market.  It turned out to be quite the crowd pleaser.

So I guess corn isn't in everything, and you don't even have to be a social pariah to enjoy the alternatives.  I've really got to get sweets back into my life, though.  This week's farmers market excursions will be focused on searching for baking ingredients.

Happy Independence Day!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

2 More Days

My last chocolate bar until August sits on my desk, taunting me, asking me if I really want to go through with this.

It’s all very exciting when I’m in the mindset for it, but what about when, like today, I’m just on my way home from renewing my parking permit and all I want is to get in and out of the grocery store as quickly as possible so I can go home?  That’s the attitude most of us have about grocery shopping, isn’t it?  I mean sure, it can be fun if you’re shopping for a party, or ingredients for a new recipe, but just stocking up for a typical week?  That’s what gives rise to that one-more-thing-on-my-errands-list feeling that I’m going to have to overcome if I’m going to make this work.

And maybe that’s a good thing.  Maybe that’s a part of the experiment.  As my favorite food guru, Michael Pollan, is quick to point out, far less time is devoted today to finding, preparing, and enjoying food than ever before in history.  Maybe something that’s so basically essential to our survival deserves a little more of our time and consideration than we give it.

So I went to Whole Foods, knowing that finding corn-free products there wouldn’t be quite the needle-in-a-haystack search that it is at some of the more mainstream grocery stores.  I know I can kiss frozen dinner goodbye, but I don't have time to cook up meat and vegetables every single night.  There has to be a way to work something relatively quick and easy into this diet.  Hasn’t there?  What about spaghetti?

Whole Foods’ store-brand pasta is made up of, among other things, the following list:
·              - Niacin
·              -Iron
·              -Thiamine mononitrate
·              -Riboflavin
·              -Folic acid

No “oses”, that’s a relief.  At least all of these things are (supposedly) good for you, but where do they come from?  Spell-checker has drawn that angry red squiggle under the word “mononitrate”, suggesting that this list is more of a lesson in organic chemistry than it is a group of “whole foods.”

It would be nice to believe that all these wonderful nutrients are picked straight from the Nutrient Tree (there was one of those in the Garden of Eden, right?) and then hand-stirred into the pasta dough by a jolly old woman in Italy, but I owe it to the growing list of people who actually read this not to slack off on the details.

So, just to be safe, I spent the extra dollar fifty per box on the “100% Organic” Dellallo brand pasta, which consists of a single ingredient: organic durum wheat semolina, and when I got home, got out the old Sherlock Holmes hat and pipe to try and figure out where nutrients come from.

The answer was inconclusive.  I won't bore you with the whole list, but in the case of niacin, for example, I learned that it's naturally occurring in many different foods, including corn (uh-oh) and wheat (so does that mean it's naturally occurring in the pasta?  But if that were true, why did they list it separately?).  It can also be synthesized from tryptophan, which is the stuff in turkey that gets the blame for making you drowsy at Thanksgiving.

So, what do you think?  Do I put niacin on the blacklist just in case, or do we give it a pass?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Fructose and Glucose and Sucrose, Oh My!

I did a practice-run grocery shopping trip today.  It took longer than my normal trips to the grocery store take, which I was expecting.  But what I wasn't expecting was how successful I would be at my mission, and how accomplished, how informed I would feel at the end of it.  I've read ingredients lists and nutrition facts before, of course, but with a completely different attitude.  After finishing another book by Michael Pollan just yesterday, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, I'm seeing the whole experience of eating in a new light.  Instead of looking for the percent daily value of vitamins and the ever-expanding list of subcategories of fats and carbohydrates, I was just looking what kinds of food things contained.

The produce section was easy, of course.  The simplest way to know what's in your food is to buy foods that don't look any different than they did when they were still growing.

The next step was the non-perishable aisles.  That was a matter of scanning the list for the obvious and not-so-obvious signs of corn-derived additives.  I'm going to have to do some more research on exactly which ingredients to look out for, but a good jumping-off place seems to be sugar, which means anything ending in "ose".  Glucose, fructose, and dextrose, in the U.S. anyway, are almost exclusively derived from cornstarch, according to Wikipedia.  Sucrose is Corn-Free-July approved, as it refers to sugar derived from either good old sugarcane, or beets.

Although, on second thought, it might be simpler and safer to boycott all the "oses" just in case.  My mother, who once visited a farm that grows commercially-sold sugar beets, reports being alarmed, to say the least, at the sight of bright blue seeds planted by the thousands.  The unnatural coloring was a chemical herbicide present in the seed before it even gets planted.  (At least one website discussing various sugar beet herbicides strictly warns not to inhale, touch, or otherwise directly contact the chemicals in question.  Great advice for something going in your food, eh?)  When my mother asked the farmer where the sugar from his beets ended up, he said the majority of it was used in candy.  That's good news for all you homicidal neighbors of small children.  This year you don't have to bother poisoning your Halloween treats; the manufacturer has done that for you!

After grabbing a bag of Cape Cod chips (ingredients: potatoes, canola oil, salt) and a can of black beans (ingredients: black beans, water) I faced the real challenge: the animal products.  This one is the most challenging because of the one-step-up-the-food-chain nature of my project.  An ingredients list on a carton of eggs won’t tell you what the chicken who laid them ate.  And, as you probably know, the labels on animal products boast an array of conflicting and confusing adjectives including “cage-free”, “organic”, “natural” and “vegetarian fed”.  This part of the shopping trip also proved to be the most rewarding, however, because it allowed me to set free my common sense.  Instead of rifling through my brain for the memory that “glucose” is Science for “one of the types of sugar molecules into which corn starch breaks down,” I simply thought about what everyday words and phrases really mean.  

“Cage-free”.  All right, no cage.  The chickens still could have been (and probably were) raised in a barn with very little sunlight or room to move around.  Which leads us to “vegetarian fed”.  Why would you advertise that a chicken was vegetarian fed?  Chickens on traditional farms get fed corn, sure, but they also roam around foraging for seeds, leaves and bugs!  They’re omnivores just like us!  So a vegetarian fed hen has almost certainly not been raised humanely.  Although it’s a step up from the egg cartons that make no claims whatsoever, since it’s a safe bet that the processed-corn-based feed on which those hens were raised included trace amounts of dead chicken bits!  Yum! 

“Organic” and “natural” are two words I’m frankly just sick of seeing on food.  Really think about what these words mean. Of course food is organic and natural.  What did you think it was?  Inorganic?  Unnatural?  Are the shoppers here people or robots?

You know what, don’t answer that.

In the end, I bought a half-dozen of Pete & Gerry’s Organic Eggs, which had all the aforementioned labels that make me skeptical, but also claimed to be “Certified Humane Raised & Handled”.  And for an added bonus, on the inside of the carton, there was a photo of a smiling woman with a chicken in her arms.  It was the best I was going to do at the Foodmaster.