Saturday, February 22, 2014

On Eating Foods at the Wrong Time of Day

This post originally appeared at

The Standard American Diet has very clearly marked out the lines between Breakfast Foods and Lunch and Dinner Foods. And I'm OK with that. I'd never dream of eating salad before noon. It's unappetizing, but also somehow sacrilegious. Salad is a Lunch and Dinner Food. Not a Breakfast Food.

Part of what makes brunch so decadent, so only-on-the-weekends, the way it breaks down barriers between meal categories.

When else do we eat foods at taboo times of the day? Once in awhile Breakfast will make a cameo appearance when it doesn't belong. I remember in college they tried hard to appease the undergrads' young, adventurous desires in a controlled setting by serving Breakfast for Dinner at the cafeteria once a month. But that wasn't enough for us. we'd make midnight trips to IHOP every chance we got, just for a taste of the forbidden.

I've grown out of all that, though, which is why I was pretty shaken the first time I saw a recipe for Breakfast Quinoa. Now, quinoa is a Lunch and Dinner Food. You can put it in salads, or use it as a base for stir fries, pretty much anything you can do with rice, which is also very much a Lunch and Dinner Food. Just so we're clear.

Once I got up up off the fainting couch and put the smelling salts away I figured, if I saw it on the internet, it must be true, and as long as I adhere to the recipe, well, maybe in just this one very special instance with a very special recipe, quinoa can be Breakfast Food.

But then I found another breakfast quinoa recipe. And another. And then, I found a recipe expecting me to throw some fruit and cinnamon on brown rice and call that Breakfast!

Somebody find a measuring tape that uses cubits and start building an ark, because clearly the end is near. I mean, rice? For breakfast? Can you imagine?

Huh. OK. I might have to rethink some things here.

Is the only difference between Part of This Complete Breakfast and Crazy Hippy Vegan Healthfood Balderdash just that one comes in a box with cartoon characters on it? And if that's true then...

Is it possible that even if you don't make it to McDonald's before 11:00 you can still put a fried egg on an English muffin?

Was I too quick to dismiss Mark Bittman's heretical ideas about spreading vegetable puree on toast?

And, most importantly, in a world where it's OK to eat anything you want at any time of the day, what new recipes are out there waiting to be discovered?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Chipotle says "no" to GMOs. Monsanto isn't thrilled.

Chipotle recently announced, to mixed reviews, that it plans to phase out all genetically modified organisms from its ingredients list in 2014. Among those who are unimpressed with this decision is, not surpisingly, Dr. Robert T. Fraley, agriculture Goliath Monsanto's Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. Fraley wrote a well crafted article voicing his displeasure, and I just had to break it down into what makes sense, what sounds hollow, and what raises even more questions.

Fraley's first talking point was to rebut Chipotle's fear about the safety of GMOs. He started out strong by pointing out that the only study showing a significant danger posed by GMO ingestion was so flawed in its methodology that the journal in which it was published eventually retracted it, and went on to cite scientific opinions that GMOs pose no threat.

Monsanto: 1, Chipotle: 0

I found his next contention harder to swallow. Monsanto seems to still be trying to convince the public that farmers have the option to grow their seeds or not. Anyone who's ever found a stray clover in a field of grass knows that seeds don't always play by the rules you want them to. Monsanto's seeds contaminate fields. Then Monsanto sues the farmer for theft. How are they still denying that this is a thing that happens?

Monsanto: 1, Chipotle: 1

Fraley then gave us some dirt on soil quality, citing a National Academy of Sciences study that suggests that both herbicide-resistant and insect-resistant crops can actually improve soil quality by reducing the need to till, which can lead to soil erosion or even depletion of nutrients.

While this might seem like a point for Fraley and Monsanto, let's remember that these are industrial solutions to industrial problems. Farming is a complicated web of species interactions. There aren't discrete problems that require custom-made fixes. You can't do anything in an ecosystem without effecting several species. Herbicide-resistant cornstalks and soybeans encourage the heavy use of herbicides, which in turn destroys pesky weeds, but also plants we might not want to be in such a hurry to get rid of. The herbicide-induced decline of milkweed plants is having a devastating effect on the monarch butterfly population for a start.

So is there a way to get rid of weeds that doesn't use herbicides or tilling? I don't know. Have we looked into mulching? Does that work on an industrial scale?

Monsanto: 1, Chipotle: 2

Next Dr. Fraley dealt with the issue of whether GMOs should be labelled, treating us to a brusque and unconvincing reiteration of the standard line that products that don't contain GMOs are free to label themselves as such, but we shouldn't force companies to go to the expense of redesigning their packaging. This is a flimsy argument. Labels and designs are always being switched up for a variety of reasons. The real reason that opponents of mandatory GMO labeling are so vocal is that they think it will make sales plummet. It might. And it might be in part because people like to panic over nothing, and they'll run in fear of GMOs when there's nothing actually wrong with them.

I see this as nothing more than a challenge to the advertising industry. They convince us to want and need horrible things all the time. If GMOs are really as safe as Monsanto claims they are, this should be easy. Don Draper would have had it solved before his mid-morning nap

Monsanto: 1, Chipotle: 3

And then Fraley gets right down to a topic that's, strangely, not brought up very much in the debate, and that's the idea of genetic engineering itself. Whether the process in general- not its potential indirect consequences- is something we should be delving into. And this issue tends to take on dystopian proportions sometimes. Visions of Frankenstein and the Terminator tend to be on the periphery of any debate about GMOs, whether we like to admit it or not. Fraley makes the case that

"All our food has been improved through painstaking selection and plant breeding. Genetic modification through biotechnology is simply a more precise technique for making those improvements."

Charles Darwin used the same example 150 years ago to help people swallow his new, confusing, and downright heretical ideas, and now we thank him for don't know. On an intellectual level, I want to be open to the idea of GMOs. I just don't have faith that the research is being done carefully enough. If we did find out that there's something inherently horrible about genetic engineering that we didn't realize before, would it already be too late to stop it? Is that a legitimate question or have I seen too many disaster movies?

We'll call this round a draw for now. Monsanto: 1, Chipotle: 3

For the final round, Fraley delivers the popular line that we have to explore every possible avenue if we're going to be able to feed a growing population. Now this is certainly true, and again, the issue he's discussing is the concept of genetic engineering, not the actual way that it's been put into practice.

Should we be researching ways to grow crops more efficiently and with less land? Yes, of course. But the whole system to which Monsanto's GMO crops are inextricably linked is not the best way to do this, and that's where there's an important difference between the theory of genetic engineering and the practice of industrial agriculture. One that is conveniently left out of debates by those on both sides of the issue.

Final score: Monsanto: 1, Chipotle: 4

What do you think? How was my scoring? Do you have more or less respect for Monsanto after sifting through Dr. Fraley's thoughts on GMOs? And, maybe most importantly, is it actually a good thing that Chipotle is getting rid of GMOs or is just greenwashing that won't ultimately make a difference?

Monday, February 3, 2014

No Recipe, No Stress Guacamole: Quick and Easy

Home-made guacamole is one of those things I stumbled onto recently and wondered why I hadn't been doing it this whole time. And I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I was afraid to get it wrong. Having been raised by a mayonnaise denouncing mother and a father who once told me a really gross story from his childhood about a glass of milk, creamy textures make me all kinds of nervous. Guacamole, yogurt, the inside of a deviled egg: these are all things to be eaten quickly before I start thinking too hard about what's in them. Preferably in the same bite as something crunchy so that my tongue has something to focus on.

Like so many things though, a better understanding of guacamole can make it whole lot less scary. There's nothing icky in there; just vegetables! Unlike homemade cheese or- shudder- mayonnaise, which could so easily go so horribly, horribly wrong, there just isn't a way to mess up guacamole. It might end up too spicy or tangy for your personal taste, but it's never going to be unrecognizably different from what you originally had in mind. And- if you make it yourself, you know what's in there, and more importantly what's not in there. Sweeteners, preservatives, artificial coloring, the spit of an angry restaurant worker: those are the real enemies, not the slightly soapy texture of a nice, ripe, healthy avocado.

You don't need a recipe to make great guacamole every time, just a small list of ingredients and a working knowledge of your own preferences for the proportions of these things. While it isn't going to keep for very long, it's easy enough to whip up in small batches that will get used right away.


  • Ripe avocados (there are 2 used in the guacamole in the picture, for an idea of how much it yields)
  • About 1 medium-sized red onion for every 4 avocados
  • About 1 medium-sized, ripe tomato for every 2 avocados (Get a tomato that's high in acid, since that's a great complement to the texture of the avocado.)
  • A clove or two of garlic, optional
  • Salt, black pepper, hot pepper, and/or other spices, depending on what you're into
  • Freshly squeezed lime juice
  1. Chop up your tomatoes, onions, and garlic, and set them aside.
  2. If you don't know how to chop up an avocado, here's the easiest way I've found: Cut it in half lengthwise and remove the pit. The ones in the picture were almost overripe, and so the pit came out very easily. With a less ripe avocado, the pit will still be clinging to the meat. In this case, swing a large knife into the center of the pit and twist 90 degrees, then pull the knife back out, and the avocado pit should come with it.
  3. Next, take your knife and make a patchwork of cuts about 1/4 inch square all the way to the skin like so: 
  4. Now push on the part of the skin the sticks out the most in order to flip the avocado half inside out. Scrape the meat into a bowl.
  5. Now all that's left to do is put the rest of your ingredients in the bowl on top of the diced avocado and mix it all together for some fresh guacamole that's ready to go on chips, tacos, or even a sandwich.