A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
It is 2017, not 1906. At least, that is what the calendar says. But if you read Michael Grabell’s recent article in The New Yorker about work at Case Farms, a chicken processing company in Ohio, you might think you were reading something by Upton Sinclair, from the early 20th century in Chicago. Underaged, undocumented, immigrant workers, working in extremely dangerous conditions, without benefit of unions, always in danger of being fired, living in awful conditions…this article is essential reading. Read it, assign it to your students, discuss, act. Also, after reading this, you may wonder if Mr. Trump and other anti-immigrant advocates have been discussing the wrong problem all along.
Here in Louisiana we are quite used to hearing about the toxic dead zone that appears regularly in the Gulf of Mexico. It is huge—the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island, combined—and deadly to sea life. It is mostly caused by agricultural runoff from the Mississippi River, which drains a huge portion of the United States. As it turns out, such hypoxia zones exist all over the world (the Baltic is actually the largest, the Gulf of Mexico is second). This graphic article from Civil Eats provides an overview of the situation and some forecasts for this coming year. The impact on our food system is enormous. That said, dead zones are reversible. Countries along the Rhine River and the North Sea have reduced pollution sufficiently to diminish their dead zones by upwards of 35% in recent years.
And yet, do we really know if chemical runoffs are creating the dead zones? What if we could find studies, produced by faculty at real universities, that suggested the chemicals used to fertilize, kill pests, etc. on farms are not really harmful? In this article, Bruce Livesey, writing in the Canadian publication “The Walrus,” examines the role of industry in funding research that at the very least tries to create doubt about the impact—on the environment, on food, on humans—of the chemicals used on farms. He looks particularly at industry funding for research at one Canadian university, but this is a persistent issue at many universities and seems likely to be more important as public funds for research are cut.
On a cheerier note, John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance (an organization whose work often turns up in this digest) has recently published a new book, “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South” (Penguin, 2017) and, possibly as a consequence, he is suddenly everywhere. John T. also recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, “The Hidden Radicalism of Southern Food,” which is about food sovereignty and race in the U.S. south (and specifically, the work and life of Fannie Lou Hamer). In addition, Kim Severson wrote an interesting bio of John T. for the same paper, which goes into some of the intellectual battles that have arisen around his work. Our advice: read it all!
Another leading member of the food intelligentsia, Jessica Harris, has published a memoir that we are looking forward to reading. The book, “My Soul Looks Back,” (Scribner, 2017) has already been reviewed by the New York Times, which you can read here.
Can a salad be a racist symbol? In this article, Writer Bonnie Tsui explores the continued existence of the “Asian Salad” on many restaurant menus. This is a useful way to get into a discussion about casual racism in the food world. As she points out, the situation for this (and other) salads with names referring to nations or ethnic groups, is not simple. It is worth noting that there may still be a few restaurants (usually Italian) in New Orleans with a salad named for an ethnic slur for Italians. In this article from a few years back, a chef explains where that fits in local culinary terms.
Ever wonder about the story behind Indian-Chinese cuisine? You should, because the world is full of all kinds of great stories about traveling foods and people. To that end, read this article by Sharanya Deepak, on the development of Chinese cuisine in Kolkata over two centuries ago. And while we are tracing foods across the globe, check out this blog posting from food historian Rachel Laudan about the Islamic influence on Mexican cuisine. She traces a chicken dish from “Moorish” to “Mestizo” over a few centuries.
Following on this theme of ethnicity and foods, we have often featured here articles that take on questions about how foods from different groups are represented. Are they “ethnic” foods, immigrant foods, or just food? And who can speak about them, cook them for the public, etc.? These are important questions because they help (or prevent) thinking about the lives of the people who make the food. And because these discussions are far from settled, here is another one, in which Angela Dimayuga, executive chef at Mission Chinese (in New York), discusses the food they serve as maybe Chinese and maybe “New American Food.” This is the same Angela Dimayuga who was recently in the news for having refused an interview with an Ivanka Trump-affiliated website using very powerful language.
The Trump administration has picked a fight with Canada over milk and apparently both American dairy farmers and Democrats are happy. But should they be? Does the U.S. have a strange policy that generates huge milk surpluses? Perhaps. Read this, from Tom Philpott at Mother Jones, to learn about this situation.
During the last French presidential election debate, we learned a new word from France’s now-president elect, Emmanuel Macron: poudre de perlimpinpin. That is French for “snake oil” and Macron was accusing his opponent of being a purveyor. Dietary advice is, in America, one area where the poudre de perlimpinpin is regularly on offer. In this recent article from the Atlantic, James Hamblin looks into recent claims that lectins—substances found in plants—are to blame for American dietary woes. He critiques a book by a doctor who advises avoiding foods with lectins and who, as it happens, sells dietary supplements that he claims can help you deal with them. Along with casting serious doubts on the claims made by the anti-lectin doctor, Hamblin does a particularly good job of pointing to the signs and symbols deployed to lend legitimacy to this attempt at creating the next dietary fad. For that alone, this is worth a read.