Category Archives: local

Meet the Pawpaw, aka the Michigan Banana

Tied down with brown twine
Up past the tree line
Up by I hope where
The King of Spain don’t care.
I’m sitting up in my pawpaw tree
Wait they make mango mush outta me.
The Fiery Furnaces

A Taste of the Tropics in the Midwest

Photo by flickr user Voxphoto, who writes Petravoxel and Silverbased, click for bigger + photostreamDiscovering the pawpaw has been a lot like discovering the ground cherry. In both cases, part of the thrill was getting to try something you can’t buy at a typical grocery store. However, they’re both pretty unpleasant when they’re green—sour, bitter and mildly astringent—so based on my very first taste of both, I wasn’t 100% convinced they were safe for human consumption. But once they ripen, they’re just glorious. They’re as sweet as strawberries or the ripest melon or peach and fill the kitchen with a beautiful citrusy, floral perfume. And they’re both strangely reminiscent of vanilla custard. Despite whatever challenges are involved in cultivating and transporting them, they’re both so appealing that I’m genuinely surprised no one’s managed to make them commercially viable, at least in some kind of frozen or preserved form.

However, the pawpaw seems just slightly more incredible than the ground cherry. The latter at least has familiar local analogs like cherry tomatoes and blueberries. The pawpaw, on the other hand, seems like nothing that ought to grow anywhere within fifteen degrees latitude of Michigan. They’re shaped like champagne mangos, but the flesh is paler and much creamier, almost like ripe avocado. They smell like a cross between orange blossom, pear, pineapple, and honey. The flavor is milder than the aroma, but still unmistakably tropical.

I hate when that word is used as an independent flavor descriptor—normally, as far as I’m concerned, “tropical” is a climate or a region, not a flavor—but whatever the common denominator is between mangos and guavas and papayas, whatever combination of volatile esters and carbonyls and alcohols artificially-flavored “tropical” candies attempt to mimic, pawpaws have it too. As the common name implies, their closest gustatory cousin is probably the banana. In addition to the “Michigan banana,” the pawpaw has also been referred to as the: prairie banana, Indiana (Hoosier) banana, West Virginia banana, Kansas banana, Kentucky banana, Michigan banana, Missouri Banana, the poor man’s banana, Ozark banana, and banango. Flourishing, it looks a bit like a magnolia bushEven the tree looks like it belongs somewhere with winters that could be described as “balmy.” It has broad, glossy leaves and big reddish-purple flowers. My supplier, a generous friend with a pawpaw tree in his backyard, says it looks like a tree that “took a wrong turn at Panama and ended up in the US midwest.”

Where to Find Them, and Why It’s So Hard

Unfortunately, unlike ground cherries, pawpaws haven’t shown up at my local farmer’s market (at least not that I’ve seen). They may be available at some markets in Ohio and Indiana or farther south. If you do come across someone selling them, don’t be turned off by bruising or soft spots. That often indicates that the fruit was ripened on the tree, which is what you want. Unlike tomatoes, which are merely lackluster when they’re picked while green and artificially “ripened,” a pawpaw picked early may remain unpleasantly bitter even after it softens into mush. Many people actually think they taste best when they’re a little spotted and soggy. However, once they’re ripe, they’re very delicate—just like a brown banana or a super-ripe pear. Probably the number one reason the pawpaw hasn’t been cultivated for mass distribution is that it would be virtually impossible to transport tree-ripened pawpaws in bulk without damaging them so much that most people wouldn’t want to buy them.

the flower, which even kind of looks a little like raw meat, doesn't it? from wikimedia commonsAnother reason they’re hard to find is they’re apparently not especially easy to grow. The flowers don’t self-pollinate and their evolutionary adaptation to that is to emit an odor similar to rotting meat to attract flies. However—as I’m sure people who grow them near their homes appreciate—the odor is quite faint, so it doesn’t always do an especially good job of attracting the desired pollinator. Some growers actually drape roadkill on the branches of the tree or around the base to attract more flies in hopes of getting more fruit out of their trees (CSMonitor).

They’re not really vulnerable to any insect pests, but foxes, possums, squirrels, raccoons, and bears are very fond of them, and may even knock nearly-ripe fruit off the tree and then leave it to ripen on the ground for a day or two before coming back for it. Just to complicate things even further, although the trees will tolerate the midwestern winter, they don’t like it if the ground is too cold for too long, so depending how far North of the equator they are, they may only grow in low-lying areas near running water.

On top of all of that, it can take a half a dozen years or more for a seedling to reach fruit-bearing maturity and even if you manage to get a pawpaw tree or two to thrive, flower, and fruit, there’s a good chance they will only yield a substantial harvest for about 4 years. They will propagate—like aspens, a single root base can send up multiple trees—so if you manage to get one tree going, you’ll probably eventually have a small thicket (which is also why references in early American literature are almost always to a “paw paw patch” rather than to a single tree). Presumably, the younger trees (okay, technically, just newer branches of the same clonal colony) will mature as the older ones pass into dormancy, providing you with a steady stream of fruit. However, that lifecycle doesn’t lend itself well to sustained, large-scale pawpaw production.

There is a research program at Kentucky State University dedicated to studying and promoting pawpaw cultivation, which should come as especially good news for anyone concerned about the future or ethics of banana consumption. And there’s some guy named John Vukmirovich in Chicago who claims to be part of a “pawpaw conspiracy,” which essentially involves planting pawpaw seeds around the south side of the city. The Christian Science Monitor interviewed him for their 2008 story about the pawpaw’s “comeback,” and his rationale was:

We need to create more than we consume. We need to reverse the process and green the world more.

I’m not sure if planting such a fussy little tree is really going to “green the world,” or what planting seeds has to do with any “conspiracy,” but I would be delighted to discover a pawpaw growing on a tree in the middle of a city sidewalk so by all means, conspire on. 

If either of those projects succeed, perhaps someday we’ll be able to buy pawpaw pulp in the frozen section of any supermarket or forage fresh fruit even in urban areas. But for now, your best bet is to make friends with someone who has a tree in their yard, try to find a commercial grower near where you live, or order a seedling and start your own pawpaw patch. Unfortunately, I missed the 12th annual Pawpaw Festival held in Albany, Ohio the weekend before last, but consider this your advance notice—if you really want to try pawpaw and can’t find them anywhere else, start planning now to attend the 13th annual Pawpaw Festival, which I imagine will probably be held in mid-September next year.

How to Eat Them

You basically just want to get them into your pawpaw-hole any which way you can, but here are some suggestions:

iago paw paws 0671) Halve or quarter the fruit and scoop out the flesh with a spoon, avoiding the large, lima bean-shaped seeds. 

2) Cut off the top and bottom and then cut the peel off in long strips, like a mango, and slice or cut into wedges, prying the seeds out with the knife as you go.

3) Just take a bite. The skin is slightly bitter, but it’s not as tough as mango skin and it won’t hurt you.

Or, if you’re the lucky sort who has too many pawpaws to eat plain and raw, there seem to be two classic ways of preserving them:

4) Make pawpaw bread by substituting pawpaw puree for banana puree in any banana bread recipe (or for the pear puree in this recipe). According to the Wikipedia article about pawpaws, in West Virginia, this style of bread is traditionally baked in canning jars and then processed in a hot water bath to seal, which will preserve it for up to a year. Presumably you could do that with any kind of snack cake, although the Ball Mason Jar folks don’t endorse it because the variable heat in the oven could cause the jars to break and the very center of the bread might not reach safe internal temperatures. It seems to me like it would be pretty low-risk as long as you test the center to make sure it’s baked through. The worst that might happen is when you went to open it, you’d find mold or it would smell rotten and you’d have to throw it away. But I suppose just to be on the safe side, you could just bake the loaves in normal pans and freeze or give away any excess.

5) Puree the flesh and freeze it, and then thaw it slightly before serving. Frozen pawpaw was apparently one of George Washington’s favorite desserts, and I imagine it would taste even more like ice cream than it does at room temperature. You could also blend frozen pawpaw pulp with other fruits and juices or milk and ice cream to make a smoothie or milkshake.

The aforementioned Kentucky State University pawpaw research group also offers recipes for pawpaw pie, custard, cake, cookies, muffins, ice cream, preserves, zabaglione, sherbet, or punch. The fruit also ferments easily, which some people take advantage of to make pawpaw wine, and I imagine if you distilled fermented pawpaw mash, you’d end up with a powerful pawpaw brandy. But I don’t expect to be trying that, or any of the other recipes anytime soon because I honestly can’t imagine wanting to fuss with the original. It tastes like tropical fruit custard right off the tree. Some people compare it to banana cream pie filling, which is like a fantasy out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: these bananas don’t taste like bananas, they taste like what people do to bananas to make them into dessert!

All of which means you don’t even have to be a locavore to lament how much harder it is to get your hands on pawpaws than bananas. If you do manage to get your hands on some and you like them too, perhaps you should join Vukmirovich and me in the “pawpaw conspiracy,” and save the seeds and plant them wherever you roam. Check back in a few years for advice on step 2: how to gather and drape roadkill all over town without anyone noticing.

Price, Sacrifice, and the Food Movement’s “Virtue” Problem

I'm not elitist, I just think you should reconsider whether your cell phones or Nike shoes or whatever it is you fat fucks spend your money on is really more important than eating heirloom beets. I just want you to make what I believe would be the more satisfying choice for you. Because I am the authority on what you find satisfying.

Urging others to eat better (and thus more expensive) food is not
elitist,
[Alice Waters] said. It is simply a matter of quality versus quantity
and encouraging healthier, more satisfying choices. “Make a sacrifice
on the cellphone or the third pair of Nike shoes,”
she said.

The Price Paradox

One of the most frequent critiques of what has been called the “food revolution” and especially its de facto spokespeople, Alice Waters & Michael Pollan, is that the kind of food they want people to eat—fresh, organic, free-range, grass-fed, local, slow, “healthy” etc.—is generally more expensive than the alternatives: processed, conventional, caged, corn-fed, industrially-farmed, fast, “junk” food. For example, in an interview with DCist to promote his newest book, Anthony Bourdain said:

I’ll tell you. Alice Waters annoys the living shit out of me. We’re all in the middle of a recession, like we’re all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market. (interview with the DCIst)

Pollan and Waters have responded to this critique numerous times, and their standard defense goes something like this:

Pollan, nomming something virtuous, I'd wagerWell, $4 for a single peach or $8 for a dozen eggs isn’t really that expensive. The real problem is that government  subsidies have made junk food artificially cheap and confused us about the real price of food. Many people have discretionary income that should be spent on more expensive food that’s better for their health, the environment, animal welfare, etc. If consumers demand it, producers will find a way to provide it.

Michael Pollan, demonstrating his undeniable talent for reducing complicated issues to pithy sayings, has summarized this in his rule: “Pay more, eat less.” In essence, they suggest that good food should cost more. But then, on the other hand, they argue:

Local, organic, [yadda yadda] food is so self-evidently superior that the primary reason most people continue to choose crappy, industrially-produced fast food that destroys their health and the environment is because it’s just so much cheaper. Many people don’t have discretionary income, and therefore something needs to be done on a structural level—possibly an entire overhaul of the agricultural subsidy system—to make “real” food affordable enough for everyone. In other words, good food should cost less.

These aren’t wholly incompatible, and indeed, I suspect that many proponents of the “food revolution” support both: people who can should be willing to pay more for fresh, local, organic food now. At the same time, we should collectively pursue policies that make that kind of food cheaper until everyone can buy it.

But what if the problem isn’t cost?

As James Williams points out in a recent article in The Atlantic, “Should We Really Pay $4 for a Peach?”, what he calls “healthy food” like apples, dry beans, carrots, and celery have declined in price right along with cookies, ice cream, and potato chips over the last two and half decades. According to the Economic Research Service of the USDA, from 1980 to 2006—precisely the period when many people claim that fast food overtook our national diet and made us into the fattest people on the planet—food declined in price across the board, and crucially, “the price of a healthy diet has not changed relative to an unhealthy diet.” As Williams says:

Evidently, consumers have chosen to take advantage of the declining prices for the cookies rather than the apples, thereby undermining the claim that we choose cheap unhealthy food because it’s cheap. As it turns out, we also choose it because we appear to like it better than cheap healthy food.

I take issue with the rhetorical move of collapsing American consumers—a diverse lot—into a single “we,” but even if what he says isn’t true for everyone, it must be true for a lot of people. I suspect that many proponents of food reform don’t want to believe that’s really the reason people continue eating “bad” industrially-processed junk because they have the special conviction of born-again religious zealots. Being converts themselves, many of them believe that all the unconverted masses need is to be enlightened the same way they were. They assume that once other people are “educated” about how superior organic, local, yadda yadda food is, they too will see the light.

But what if that’s not true? What if most people will remain skeptical about the supposed superiority of natural, organic, local, etc. food (often with good reason) or, more often, be simply indifferent to claims about its superiority, no matter how cheap and accessible it is? What if buying organic food really won’t be more satisfying to many people than a third pair of Nikes? (And could Waters have chosen a more racist or classist example of conspicuous consumption? Seriously, why not a flat-screen television or granite countertops?)

When Price IS King

from Sociological Images, click for link There’s an important caveat about the price issue that Williams left out: calorie for calorie, soda, candy, chips, and fast foods made with cheap meat, soybean oil, and white flour are significantly cheaper than apples and dried beans. For the roughly one in five Americans who lacked the money to buy the food they needed at some point in the last year, or the more than 49 million Americans categorized as “food insecure,” price may still be the dominant factor guiding their food choices.

I don’t think most food insecure people necessarily stand around in grocery store aisles looking at nutritional labels and crunching the numbers to figure out what will give them the highest caloric bang for their buck, the way Adam Drewnowski did. However, many of them probably stick to cheap, processed combinations of corn, wheat, and soy because they know they can afford enough of that to get by on, and because it tastes good to them.

In the somewhat-dated account of urban poverty There Are No Children Here, Alex Kotlowitz describes the monthly shopping ritual of a single mother on food stamps. She goes to the office where she gets her food stamps, and then goes directly to the store where she buys the same array of canned, boxed, bagged, and frozen foods every month. She has it down to a science. She knows exactly how many loaves of white bread, boxes of macaroni and cheese, cans of soup, pounds of ground beef and bologna, and bricks of generic American cheese it takes to to feed her family for a month on her government-allotted budget.

However, as those damned hipsters on food stamps have demonstrated, even people of limited means can produce the kinds of meals Alice Waters might smile upon. So why don’t they?

The Elision of Virtue and Sacrifice

As much as its proponents like to portray eating local, organic, yadda yadda food as a purely joyful and delicious celebration, there’s basically no getting around the fact that it takes a lot more work to turn fresh produce into a meal than it does to go through a drive-thru or microwave something frozen. I suspect that even most of the “food revolution” faithful rely on prepared foods and cheap take-out now and then, even if it’s more likely to be from Trader Joe’s or a local organic pizzeria instead of Walmart or Little Caesar’s. The problem is not that the ingredients of a home-cooked meal, like $1.29/lb broccoli, are so much more expensive than dollar menu meals at McDonald’s, which is what Food, Inc. implies. The problem is that broccoli isn’t a ready-made meal.

My friend Patti made a similar point on her blog recently, noting that the recent initiatives to get fresh food into Detroit smack of race/class privilege. As a friend of hers said:

If he has $3 left til payday and payday is two days away, he’s going to the Golden Arches.  There’s no denying that you can get a meal for $3 versus some tomatoes and a banana.

Eating “right” according to the the (shifting and frequently conflicted) priorities of the “food revolution” requires effort and sacrifice—perhaps not a sacrifice of objective deliciousness for people who’d rather have a bowl of homemade chili than a burger any day of the week, but a sacrifice of familiar tastes and habits and the instant gratifications of foods composed primarily of sugar, starch, fat, and salt.

For the food revolution faithful, that sense of sacrifice isn’t a deterrent, but actually seems to be central to their perception that eating local, organic, etc. food is morally superior. I first started thinking about this at a roundtable on “Food Politics, Sustainability and Citizenship” at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Studies Association. The panelists acknowledged that local, organic, and/or “natural” foods were not always objectively superior in the ways people want to think they are—they often require more energy to produce and transport even if they have a much shorter distance to travel, there’s no consensus on whether or not they’re healthier than the conventional, processed alternatives, and they are often labor-intensive and rely on child labor, unpaid interns, and the willingness of farmers to self-exploit. In short, they admitted that “bad” industrial food is often more sustainable, just as healthy, and possibly sometimes more ethical. But they all insisted that regardless of its real impact, what was more important was that consumers of local and organic foods were “trying.” And they all emphasized the importance of narratives—the stories we tell ourselves about why we do what we do, which is one realm where “natural,” local, etc. food has the indisputable upper hand. Their recommendation for the “food revolution” was to focus on fostering those narratives and encouraging people to keep trying, as if the intentions and the effort involved in eating “better”—futile or not—were more important than the actual carbon footprint or nutritional ramifications of the behavior.

And that seems to me like a serious confusion of intention and effect. If the ideal that you’re pursuing is sustainability—a slippery term to be sure, but for the moment, let’s just say it means a practice that could be continued indefinitely without making the environment inhospitable for human life—and you’re advocating a new practice in service of that goal, but it turns out to be worse for the environment than your previous course of action, I don’t think you should just shrug and say, “well, at least our hearts are in the right place” and continue with the new, worse practice. However, that’s exactly what the food revolution faithful do all the time. No matter how many studies show that food miles are far less important than efficiencies of scale and growing things in optimal climates, or that organic food is no healthier than conventional, or that people can’t tell the difference in blind taste tests, they’ll either say “that’s not the point” or insist that you must be wrong. The practice precedes the evidence, but they seize on any evidence that justifies it after already deciding on the course of action and systematically ignore any evidence to the contrary.

All of which suggests that eating “better” isn’t driven by evidence-based beliefs about what’s really healthier, more sustainable, more humane, or even better-tasting—which are often conflicting ideals anyhow. The main appeal of natural, organic, local, yadda yadda food is a deep, often inchoate, feeling that it’s superior, which precedes and trumps reason or any objective weighing of the evidence. I think what reinforces that feeling of superiority most is the experience of sacrifice, which channels good old-fashioned Protestant Work Ethic values like the satisfactions of hard work and delaying immediate gratification. The relationship between virtue and self-sacrifice actually long predates Protestantism—in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that people achieve eudemonia, which essentially means “self-actualization” or a virtuous happiness, through hard work and mastering their bodily desires (usually by denying them). The underlying belief seems almost instinctual—it is good to work hard and resist immediate pleasures. And we might like to think that what makes the hard work and sacrifice good is some long-term goal or “greater good” they’re done in service of, but that’s not necessary to produce the sensation of virtue.

Ergo, making a special trip to the farmer’s market during the few hours per week it’s open must be a good thing to do simply because it’s so much less convenient than shopping at a grocery store that’s open all the time. And turning a box of locally-grown produce you might be totally unfamiliar with into edible foods and acceptable meals must be better—morally, if not nutritionally—than microwaving a Lean Cuisine. And spending more money on something labeled “natural” or “environmentally friendly” must be better. People don’t even need to know what for to reap the psychic rewards. Things that are difficult, inconvenient, or require sacrifices just feel virtuous.

"If you care, buy our environment-friendly disposable baking cups. Buy those other disposable baking cups if you're some asshole who doesn't give a shit." From www.passiveagressivenotes.com

The Limits to the Virtuous Appeal

The problem for the “food revolution” is that the virtuous effort and sacrifice in service of questionable returns doesn’t appeal to everyone. Some people feel like they do enough hard work and make enough sacrifices in other areas of their life that they don’t need the extra moral boost of buying morally-superior food. And I suspect it’s no coincidence that the people who are most likely to make buying “superior” food a priority and get satisfaction from that are people who identify as “middle class” and often express a lot of guilt about how much they (and “their society”) consume in general—i.e. the politically left-leaning, (sub)urban elite. (The politically right-leaning elite might consume just as much or more, they just don’t feel as guilty about it.)

Many working-class people might technically have the time and money to eat the kind of food Alice Waters and Michael Pollan prescribe, but they don’t want to. They’re not looking to put a lot of effort into and make a lot of sacrifices for their diet. There’s no incentive.

It reminds me of Barbara Ehrenreich’s epiphany about smoking in Nickel & Dimed:

Because work is what you do for others; smoking is what you do for yourself. I don’t know how the antismoking crusaders have never grasped the element of defiant self-nurturance that makes the habit so enduring to its victims.

As she discovers, the real reason so many working class people smoke isn’t because of some rational calculation—like the fact that they might not get as many breaks if they don’t—just like the real reason more people don’t buy “healthy” food isn’t (mostly) because of the price. Smoking and familiar, convenient, “junk” foods appeal to working-class people for exactly the same reason they don’t appeal to the left-leaning, progressive, urban and suburban middle-class. They like them because they’re “bad,” because they’re self-indulgent, because they don’t do anything for anyone else—not the environment, not the animals, not third-world coffee-growers, not even their own health. For a lot of people, the narrative of virtuous effort and self-sacrifice isn’t just irrelevant, it’s an active deterrent.

Change I Can Believe In 

I see nothing elitist about campaigning for greater availability of fresh, local food in low-income neighborhoods, public schools, and prisons. But when you start telling people what you think they ought to be willing to give up in order to make what you’ve decided will be “more satisfying choices” for them, I think you’ve gone too far. I really like—but don’t totally believe—the concession Michael Pollan made in the WSJ interview:

To eat well takes a little bit more time and effort and money. But so does reading well; so does watching television well. Doing anything with attention to quality takes effort. It’s either rewarding to you or it’s not. It happens to be very rewarding to me. But I understand people who can’t be bothered, and they’re going to eat with less care.

He claims to understand why some people can’t be bothered, and even equates it with hobbies like reading and watching television—but his entire oeuvre is devoted to to making the opposite claim. For example, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he says:

“Eating is an agricultural act,” as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world—and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. (p. 11)

That doesn’t sound like the opinion of someone who thinks choosing junk food over fresh, local, organic food is an innocent predilection, like preferring trashy pulp fiction to James Joyce or watching reality television instead of Mad Men. The moral stakes in our steaks—a pun I’m stealing from Warren Belasco—are higher.

Even if the stakes of our food choices are higher (which is debatable), that doesn’t mean that it’s okay for food revolutionaries to try to push their priorities on anyone else, least of all the working class or disproportionately black urban poor. If they really want more people to make the choice to eat what they think is “better” food (and I think that should be based on evidence about the actual impact and not just intentions), they’re going to have to work on making healthy, sustainable, humane, etc. foods answer the masses’ needs and desires. They’re not going to get anywhere by declaring the masses ignorant for wanting cheap, convenient, reliable, good-tasting food or trying to convince them that what they should want is expensive, inconvenient, unfamiliar, less immediately palate-pleasing food.

I’m not actually sure it’s possible to create a food system that would satisfy both the desires of the “food revolution” and the needs of the working class, but if it is, it will require letting go of the narratives about sacrifice and virtue. As long as eating “better” is constructed as dependent on hard work and self-sacrifice, the “food revolution” is going to continue to appeal primarily to the left-leaning elite and efforts to get other people to join them will be—rightly—portrayed as “elitist.” And until that changes, natural, local, sustainable foods will continue to serve primarily as markers of belonging to the progressive, urban, coastal elite rather than the seeds of any real “revolution.”

Cream of Nettle Soup: Introducing the 2010 CSA Files

about 1/2 lb; perhaps 3-4 cups of leaves

CSA 2010: Needle Lane Farms

For the uninitiated, Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs) are like subscription plans for local food—usually vegetables, but in some regions, you can get CSAs for meat, seafood, dairy, frozen produce, or even prepared foods. Generally, you pay for the whole year or growing season before it begins and then every week, you pick up a pre-packed box that contains a selection of whatever’s in season. After an extraordinarily helpful consultation with Kim Bayer of The Farmer’s Marketer (which I highly recommended to anyone in the Ann Arbor area who’s interested in exploring their options for buying locally-produced food; for $25, she will distill her vast knowledge about the dizzying number of options and all their idiosyncrasies into an hour-long “matchmaking” session tailored to your wants and needs—it probably saved me 15+ hours of research), I decided to get a “single” share from Needle Lane Farms for the 2010 growing season.

The evidence about the environmental impact and health benefits of local, organic agriculture vs. industrial-scale conventional is mixed, so I’m not subscribing to a CSA because it’s morally or nutritionally superior. And I’m not convinced the stuff tastes better either—I’m still learning how to get all the grit out of the lettuce and acclimate myself to the occasional worms and bugs that are inevitable in unsprayed produce. My main motives are 1) to try things I can’t get from a normal grocery store and 2) to be forced to eat a lot of fresh vegetables while they’re in season, which improves my well-being whether or not the veggies are healthier than their conventional analogs. Kim recommended Needle Lane because they grow a lot of novel things, unlike farms that focus more on producing mostly familiar, popular crops. True to form, the first box of the season included the package of stinging nettles and handy warning/info sheet pictured above.  a simpler preparation would be to simply shock them in an ice bath after blanching and then dress them with a simple vinaigrette or some soy sauce or tamari and sesame seeds or butter and parmesan cheese

Plant Bigotry

Nettles are often considered a “weed,” but that’s a troublesome term. Like “dirt,’” it refers less to any inherent properties of the object than to the context where it appears. If dirt is “matter out of place,” meaning what might be dirt in one context (sand in your clothes) is totally appropriate in another (sand on the beach), weeds are essentially plants out of place—e.g. grass may be the only thing many people want growing in their lawns, but when it shows up in their flower beds, it’s a weed, and often an especially tricky one to remove. But there are also things—like soil—that count as “dirt”  no matter where they are, and nettles are that kind of weed, along with plants like thistles and dandelions. Even when the New York Botanical Garden deliberately grew dandelions for their recent tribute to Emily Dickinson, NPR reported that they had to “keep the staff gardeners from uprooting the tiny yellow flowering weeds.”

It’s not an issue of the usefulness or prettiness of the plant—many “weeds” are edible and beautiful, like the flowering “invasive species” that park services staff and volunteers do battle with. And it can’t just be an issue of thorniness, because obviously: roses. The main thing that seems to make something inherently weedy rather than contingently weedy seems to be whether it’s cultivated. Not the specific plant—many people welcome volunteer plants in their yards or gardens as long as they’re a species someone cultivates somewhere, but if the plan qua plant—i.e. not a nettle, but Nettle—isn’t deliberately grown anywhere, it seems to be a “weed” even if you eat it or sell it just like a “crop.” Nettles have been harvested for human consumption for centuries, but as far as I can tell, it’s almost always foraged instead of farmed. People don’t plant it or encourage it, it just grows… well, “like a weed.”

Sour Salty Bitter Sweet is brought to you today by Needle Lane Farms and the letter Q.  

According to an article in the Telegraph about last year’s Stinging Nettle Eating competition in Dorset, where people eat the leaves raw, even people who consider the plants edible tend think of them as an “infestation”:

The contest began more than 20 years ago when two customers at Marshwood’s 16th century Bottle Inn argued over who had the worst infestation of stinging nettles. "One of them said, ‘I’ll eat any nettle of yours that’s longer than mine"’ said Rory Macleod, 34, the pub landlord. "And so they had a competition. They’re both dead now.”

Making Them Edible

The Telegraph article goes on to explain why eating them raw has turned into such a big macho contest:

The plant properly known as urtica docia is a nutritional powerhouse, rich in iron, potassium, calcium and abundant vitamins. They have been used in traditional English stews, teas and beers for centuries, while the Italians cherish them for pesto and the Scandinavians make a knockout nettle soup called Nasselsoppa. The complications come with eating the things raw. Urtica is covered in thousands of microscopic hypodermic needles each filled with boric acid. On contact the needles break, causing the acid to flood over and burn the skin.

Wikipedia contests that explanation, claiming the nature of the toxins is still a matter of debate and may vary between species, but likely includes formic acid, serotonin, and histamines. So the “stinging” effect is either an acid burn, serotonin-induced dermatitis, an allergic reaction, or some combination of the three. Whatever the cause, cooking eliminates it. Most of the I think I let this steep a little too long--the part I drained immediately was pleasant, but I combined that with the part that sat for hours and it was sort of bitter and weirdly buttery. But initially, it was sort of reminiscent of barley tea.recipes I encountered called for blanching them in boiling water for a minute or two and then removing the leaves from the stems. At that point, they’re basically like any other hearty cooking green. The blanching liquid can be reserved and used in soup, consumed on its own as a hot or cold tea, or used to water plants. Some people even harvest nettles specifically to make tea and throw out the greens.

I decided to make a soup, and the first few recipes I found were all basically starch-thickened pureed cream soups—one using potato, one using oats, and one using rice. I didn’t have any potatoes or oats and didn’t feel like waiting for rice to cook, so I decided to improvise a flour-thickened version starting with a basic roux infused with a couple of shallots and a bunch of spring onions that also came in that week’s share. I also added a parcel of cooking greens because 1/2 lb nettles doesn’t actually yield all that much edible material (according to the CSA newsletter, the greens were a mix of Kale, Tat Soi, Bok Choy, Swiss Chard, Chinese Cabbage, and Lambsquarter). You could use more nettles, or substitute spinach, or use any combination of cooking greens. The recipe also works with other vegetables. I’ve made similar soups with a few cups of shredded zucchini or broccoli florets with great results, and I bet it would also be good with cauliflower or mushrooms or corn or maybe even root vegetables. It’s basically a nice way to turn a vegetable into something hearty and satisfying enough to serve as a meal, and the precise amount of vegetable matter—and most of the other ingredients—isn’t that important.

The msg and nutmeg are both optional. I tasted it without them, and it was good, but I felt like it needed a little extra boost. If you’re wary about msg (though I explain here why there’s no real reason to be), you could substitute nutritional yeast or parmesan cheese, or just leave it out.

Recipe: Cream of Nettle Soup

Ingredients:

  • a couple quarts of water or stock for blanching nettles (reserve the liquid)
  • 4-6 T. butter
  • 4-6 T. flour
  • a few handfuls of chopped alliums—shallots, onion, garlic, whatever you like
  • 1/2 lb stinging nettles (weight includes the stems)
  • an additional ~3 cups of hearty greens (kale, chard, spinach, mustard greens, or more nettles)
  • 4 cups reserved nettle-blanching liquid
  • if using water instead of stock for nettles, 4 t. bouillon
  • 1 cup milk (or cream)
  • a pinch of msg (optional, or sub. 1 T.+ nutritional yeast or 1 oz finely grated parmesan instead)
  • 1/2 t. grated nutmeg
  • salt and pepper to taste

Method:

1. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the nettles, using gloves or tongs or the container they came in to protect yourself from the needles. Blanche for 1-2 minutes, and then drain and remove to a cutting board (no need to shock them with ice water since they’re just going in a soup). Filter the blanching liquid through a coffee filter or paper towel and reserve.

like most cooking greens, they cook down considerably I initially used a knife but then found it was easier just to pull the leaves off by hand

2. Remove the leaves from the stems, which are tough and fibrous.

two shallots and a bunch of spring onions the blanched nettels and chopped mixed cooking greens

3. Melt the butter and sweat the shallots/onions/garlic until they’re golden. Add the flour, stir well to make a thick paste and cook until it begins to brown slightly. This should smell pretty amazing.

the onion roux after the first addition of the blanching liquid; it will get paler

4. Gradually add about 4 cups of the nettle-blanching water, which should still be pretty hot, stirring continuously. At first, the liquid will incorporate into the roux as the starches expand, creating growing mass of paste, but after about a cup, it should start to loosen into a creamy broth.

5. Add the greens, or whatever vegetable you’re using and simmer until tender (10 minutes for spinach, 15 minutes for heartier greens, up to 20-25 minutes for broccoli florets).

the broth, before adding the greens: just butter, flour, onions, and nettle water at this point after adding the greens 

6. Puree—I used an immersion blender, but a regular blender or food processor would work just as well.

pureeing; again if just using a softer green like the nettles or spinach, you might not have flecks of darker green left after pureeing stirring in the milk

7. Stir in the milk and season, heat for another minute or two or just until almost boiling, and then remove from heat. Season to taste.

You’re All Good Eggs: New research shows that specialty eggs aren’t any better for the environment or more delicious

Next year, I will decorate Easter eggs and they will have faces. See 39 other pictures of egg face dioramas at The Design Inspiration by clicking on image

Two articles about eggs published last week have rocked my commitment to paying the specialty egg surcharge. I’m still tentatively on the organic, cage-free, local egg bandwagon for animal welfare and health concerns, but I have to admit that even those reasons may be a little flimsy. The four main reasons given for the superiority of specialty eggs are:

1. They’re better for the environment
2. They taste better
3. They’re produced in a more humane way
4. They’re healthier

There may also be an argument for supporting local producers who might employ less exploitative or abusive labor practices, although that’s not guaranteed. In order to help offset the increased labor requirements of non-conventional practices, small and local farms often rely on unpaid interns and family members, including children. Not that I think it’s a major ethical abuse to have your kids gather eggs, but I often feel at least a little pang of sympathy for the kids—often Amish, sometimes very young-looking—manning farmer’s market booths alone. So I’m deliberately tabling the labor issue because 1) I suspect that the issue of labor conditions at small, local farms vs. big, industrial ones is, like so many things related to the food industry, complicated and 2) it’s nowhere near the top of the list of most consumers’ concerns about eggs.

1. Green Eggs vs. Ham

On June 1, Slate’s Green Lantern reported that specialty eggs (cage-free, free range, and organic) have a greater environmental impact than conventional based on land use, greenhouse gas emissions, and feed efficiency (measured by kg eggs laid/kg feed). The article also noted that according to life-cycle analysis, a recent review article by two Dutch researchers found no consistent or conclusive difference between the environmental impact of pork, chicken, milk, and eggs. Beef requires more land, water, and feed, but pound for pound (or kilogram for kilogram—most life-cycle analyses are European), the review, “did not show consistent differences in environmental impact per kg protein in milk, pork, chicken and eggs.”

The Lantern didn’t evaluate the transportation costs “since the majority of the impacts associated with chicken-rearing comes from producing their feed.” For local eggs, the reduced transportation costs might help balance out the increased feed requirement, but that’s just speculation. For cage-free, free-range, organic, or vegetarian eggs, transportation costs probably further increase the relative impact because not only do they travel just as far or farther than conventional eggs to get to the market, there are probably costs associated with transporting the additional feed they require.

I don't remember where I first heard the story about the egg yolk-inspired label, but it's documented in multiple places, including Red, White, and Drunk All Over and the biography of The Widow Cliquot by Tilar MazzeoMy initial response was basically:

Well, that’s too bad, but efficiency be damned, if it takes more feed and produces higher ammonia emissions to treat chickens humanely and produce healthy eggs with yolks the vibrant orange-yellow of a Veuve Cliquot label, so be it. I know specialty eggs are better, I can see and taste the difference.

2. Golden Eggs

Not so much, apparently. The very next day, The Washington Post published the results of a blind taste test of “ordinary supermarket-brand eggs, organic supermarket eggs, high-end organic Country Hen brand eggs and [eggs from the author’s own backyard chickens].” Blindfolded and spoon-fed, the tasters—two food professionals and six “avocationally culinary” folks with “highly critical palates”—struggled to find differences between the eggs, which were soft cooked to ensure firm whites and runny yolks.

And apparently, this isn’t a new finding. It replicates the results of years of research by food scientists:

Had Pat Curtis, a poultry scientist at Auburn University, been at the tasting, she wouldn’t have been at all surprised. "People’s perception of egg flavor is mostly psychological," she told me in a phone interview. "If you ask them what tastes best, they’ll choose whatever they grew up with, whatever they buy at the market. When you have them actually taste, there’s not enough difference to tell."

The egg industry has been conducting blind tastings for years. The only difference is that they don’t use dish-towel blindfolds; they have special lights that mask the color of the yolks. "If people can see the difference in the eggs, they also find flavor differences," Curtis says. "But if they have no visual cues, they don’t."

Freshness can affect the moisture content, and thus the performance of eggs for some applications, especially recipes that rely heavily on beaten egg whites like meringues or angel food cake. But probably not enough for most people to notice. The author also tested a simple spice cake with super-fresh eggs from her backyard versus regular supermarket eggs. The batters looked different, but once the cakes were baked and cooled, they were indistinguishable.

3. Do They Suffer?

Given how self-evidently cruel battery cage poultry production seems, I’m not entirely sure that “free-range” is as meaningless as people like Jonathan Safran Foer have argued. Sure, “cage free” chickens might never see daylight, and the range available to “free range” chickens might be a dubious privilege at best—a crowded concrete lot exposed to some minimal sunlight would fulfill the USDA requirements. But I don’t think it’s entirely marketing gimmickry, either. For one thing, if there were really no difference, the specialty eggs wouldn’t have a larger carbon footprint.

The animal welfare argument relies on the assumption that either chickens have a right not to experience pain or discomfort or that humans have a moral obligation not to cause them pain, or at least wanton, unnecessary or excessive pain. The debate about animal rights/humans’ moral obligations to animals is too big and complicated for me to cover in any real depth here, but I tend to believe that we ought to try to minimize the pain and discomfort of anything that seems capable of suffering. I used to draw the line at the limbic system—i.e. fish and invertebrates might respond to pain but don’t process it in a way that rises to the level of suffering, whereas birds and mammals can suffer and it’s often pretty apparent when they do. However, as it turns out, the boundaries of the limbic system are “grounded more in tradition than in facts,” and there are unsettled questions in my mind about what constitutes suffering and how to evaluate it. 

Even renowned animal rights theorist Peter Singer has gone back and forth about oysters over the years. I suspect that David Foster Wallace was right when he concluded that what guides our behavior in these matters has more to do with historically and culturally-variable forms of moral intuition than any objective criterion for “suffering”:

The scientific and philosophical arguments on either side of the animal-suffering issue are involved, abstruse, technical, often informed by self-interest or ideology, and in the end so totally inconclusive that as a practical matter, in the kitchen or restaurant, it all still seems to come down to individual conscience, going with (no pun) your gut” ("Consider the Lobster” footnote 19).

I hate relying on “I know it when I see it” standards, because I suspect we’re all inclined to see what we want to, but I don’t have a better answer. My gut says that chickens can suffer and that being able to flap around a concrete lot is better than never getting to move at all. However, my gut also says that chickens are pretty stupid creatures, and it might be an entirely reasonable thing to care more about the environmental impact of egg production than the happiness and well-being of the chickens.

4. Eggs Good For You This Week

Health is the issue that matters most to most consumers (see: The Jungle), and unfortunately, the available research on conventional vs. specialty eggs is frustratingly inconclusive. The most common assertion re: the health of specialty eggs concerns omega-3 fatty acids. I’ve mentioned this in passing and will try to devote some more time to it soon, but for now, I’m tentatively convinced that omega-3s are healthful and low ratios of omega-6:omega-3 are optimal.

Some studies have suggested that chickens raised on pasture—i.e. who get at least some of their nutrients from plants, especially clover or alfalfa—produce eggs with more omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and E (and less cholesterol and saturated fat, not that that probably matters). However, specialty labels like “cage free,” “free range,” and “organic” don’t mean pastured and the results of the nutritional analysis of eggs bearing those labels don’t provide very clear guidelines about what to purchase.

A 2002 comparison between five different kinds of specialty eggs and conventional eggs found differences between them, but none that lead to a simple characterization of specialty eggs as healthier:

From Cherian et al in Poultry Science 81: 30-33 (2002)

The "animal fat free and high in omega-3” eggs (SP1) had the highest percentage of omega-3 fatty acids and lowest ratio of omega 6: omega 3, and the cage-free, unmedicated brown eggs were also significantly better by that measure. However, the Organic-certified free-range (SP2) and cage-free all-vegetarian-feed eggs (SP4) had similar omega-3 content to the regular eggs. While some of the differences might be due to the feed, the authors note that the age, size, and breed of the hen can also affect the composition of fats and nutrients.

The study also showed that the shells of some of the specialty eggs were weaker, which supports other research showing more breakage and leaking in specialty eggs than conventional and my anecdotal experience of typically having to set aside the first few cartons I pick up because they contain cracked eggs.

Additionally, a 2010 USDA survey of traditional, cage-free, free-range, pasteurized, nutritionally enhanced (omega-3), and fertile eggs also concluded that:

Although significant differences were found between white and brown shell eggs and production methods, average values for quality attributes varied without one egg type consistently maintaining the highest or lowest values. (Abstract here, no free full text available)

In sum, if you can get pastured eggs (either from your own backyard or a farmer whose practices you can interrogate or even observe), they might be a little better for you than conventional. But after reading all this, I still found myself thinking: But what about the color difference? Doesn’t a darker yellow yolk mean the egg itself is healthier? Apparently not:

Yolk colour varies. It is almost completely dependent upon the feed the hen eats. Birds that have access to green plants or have yellow corn or alfalfa in their feed tend to produce dark yolks, due to the higher concentration of yellow pigments (mainly carotenoids) in their diet. Since commercial laying hens are confined, lighter and more uniformly coloured yolks are being produced. Yolk colour does not affect nutritive value or cooking characteristics. Egg yolks are a rich source of vitamin A regardless of colour. (from Wageningen University)

The record on other health concerns like salmonella and dioxin and PCB content is mixed:

4A: Can you eat raw cookie dough if it’s organic?

The salmonella thing is reminiscent of the e coli in grass-fed beef thing: some people actually claim organic chickens have no risk of salmonella. One UK study allegedly found salmonella levels over five times higher in conventional caged hens than in birds raised according to Soil Association organic standards (which are comparable to USDA Organic certification). 23.4% of farms with caged hens tested positive for salmonella compared to 4.4% of farms with organic flocks and 6.5% with free-range flocks. The explanation proffered is that the spread of the disease is inversely related to flock size and density. No link or citation for the study itself.

A 2007 UK study that tested 74 flocks (59 caged and 15 free range) from 8 farms, all of which had been vaccinated against salmonella, found a smaller but still significant difference: 19.4% of cage chicken house samples and 10.2% of free-range chicken house samples taken over a 12-month period tested positive for salmonella. However, they also noted a high degree of variation between flocks, and that the longest continuously-occupied houses were typically the most heavily contaminated. It’s possible that some of the results of other studies can be attributed to the fact that free-range or organic hen operations are likely to be newer and differences between them and conventional may diminish as time goes on.

On this side of the Atlantic, the results seem to show the opposite. A 2005 USDA study that tested free-range, all-natural antibiotic-free, and organic chicken meat (and contamination in chickens themselves has been linked to salmonella in eggs) found salmonella in all three groups at higher rates than in past years’ surveys of commercial chicken meat:

A total of 135 processed free-range chickens from four different commercial free-range chicken producers were sampled in 14 different lots for the presence of Salmonella. Overall, 9 (64%) of 14 lots and 42 (31%) of 135 of the carcasses were positive for Salmonella. No Salmonella were detected in 5 of the 14 lots, and in one lot 100% of the chickens were positive for Salmonella. An additional 53 all-natural (no meat or poultry meal or antibiotics in the feed) processed chickens from eight lots were tested; 25% of the individual chickens from 37% of these lots tested positive for Salmonella. Three lots of chickens from a single organic free-range producer were tested, and all three of the lots and 60% of the individual chickens were positive for Salmonella. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service reported that commercial chickens processed from 2000 to 2003 had a Salmonella prevalence rate of 9.1 to 12.8%. Consumers should not assume that free-range or organic conditions will have anything to do with the Salmonella status of the chicken.

Additionally, a 2007 analysis of fresh, whole broiler chickens by Consumer Reports found that 83% tested positive for campylobacter or salmonella, and that chickens labeled organic or raised without antibiotics were more likely to harbor salmonella than conventionally-produced broilers:

We tested 525 fresh, whole broilers bought at supermarkets, mass merchandisers, gourmet shops, and ­natural-food stores in 23 states last spring. Represented in our tests were four leading brands (Foster Farms, Perdue, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson) and 10 organic and 12 nonorganic no-antibiotics brands, including three that are “air chilled” in a newer slaughterhouse process designed to re­duce contamination. Among our findings:

  • Campylobacter was present in 81 percent of the chickens, salmonella in 15 percent; both bacteria in 13 percent. Only 17 percent had neither pathogen. That’s the lowest percentage of clean birds in all four of our tests since 1998, and far less than the 51 percent of clean birds we found for our 2003 report.
  • No major brand fared better than others overall. Foster Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson chickens were lower in salmonella incidence than Perdue, but they were higher in campylobacter.

Ultimately, salmonella is a always a risk when dealing with chicken or eggs and it’s not clear that specialty eggs are any better than conventional. If you’re concerned about salmonella, cook your food to 165F or stick to vegan options. You know, like peanut butter.

4B: What’s in the grass?

One final concern: a 2006 Dutch study found that free-range eggs in Europe have increased levels of dioxins and PCBs (which fall under the category of dioxin-like compounds), apparently because they are present in the soil in both residential and agricultural areas. “Dioxins” refer to a wide variety of compounds and they vary in toxicity; the term is basically just shorthand for environmental pollutants. On the one hand, they’re everywhere and we probably can’t avoid them so who cares? On the other, many are fat soluble so eggs are of greater concern than, say, apples.

There’s not really enough research on this to draw any conclusions. Which just pains me to type for what feels like the umpteenth time, because, seriously, is there ever conclusive research? Can we ever really know anything about anything? I like to think we can, but I’ll be damned if I don’t feel like every time I try to find more information about any kind of nutritional claim, the answer turns out to be “well, that’s complicated” or “well, the research on that isn’t conclusive.” Sometimes I really just want to see a chart that says YES! THIS IS THE RIGHT ANSWER! IT IS RELIABLE AND ACCURATE AND CONTROLLED FOR ALL POSSIBLE VARIABLES.

So just in case you might be wondering if I’m trying to be deliberately indecisive or vague in service of whatever ideological position that would even promote: I’m not. When I find conclusive results, I will share them with you in very excited caps lock. 

So Here’s The Deal

If you care more about climate change and efficient resource allocation than chicken welfare, buy conventional eggs; if you care more about chicken welfare, buy cage-free, free-range, Organic, or perhaps ideally, local. Taste and health-wise, there’s no clear difference, although I know that won’t prevent some of you from believing there is (remember the chocolate yogurt with “good strawberry flavor”?) Perhaps the biggest lesson is that, once again, the foods some people think are objectively superior for all kinds of reasons  may not be, and attempting to eat “better” is way more complicated than simply choosing the “green” alternative.