Pollan’s Food fallacies

Food Rules, by Michael Pollan“Don’t overlook the oily little fishes,” is rule 32 in Michael Pollan’s small book, “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” (Penguin Books, 2009). I recently acquired a copy. I’ve read Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and have his In Defence of Food on my shelves for summer reading and have two other titles by him on my wish list. I’ve enjoyed his work so far. Maybe not so much this time around.

I am skeptical about any attempt to reduce any subject to a set of basic rules because life is way too complicated for that sort of ideology. I have a particular disdain for self-help books and life-coach videos as being intellectual pablum. Pollan’s book is self-described on the back cover as “a definitive compendium of food wisdom.” Hyperbole like this always makes me cautious and raised my skeptic’s hackles.

As the New York Times points out in its review of the book, is a professor of science journalism in the USA, not a biochemist or nutritionist or even a renowned chef. But Pollan is a good writer with credentials, so I decided to give it a chance.

As someone interested in eating and food – from many aspects: historical, social, botanical, zoological, industrial, cooking and ethical among them – I am always keen to learn more and read what others say about eating. In Food Rules, Pollan offers sixty four rules with a brief explanation of each (you can read the whole list here). It’s described on the book jacket as as “indispensable handbook” full of “straightforward, memorable rules for eating wisely.”

Well, I beg to differ. Yes, it has some wisdom – especially for the junk-food-sugar-pop-and-energy-drink-pizza-and-doughnut crowd. But some of it is the same sort of ideological, anti-science claptrap you get from the Food Babe or the anti-GMO crowd. Diaphanous piffle, some of it. And way too arbitrary – at least when you read just the rule without bothering to delve into his (sometimes too brief) explanations that follow it.
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A cup of mao jian

Mao Jian teaThe tea bag is an example of remarkable serendipity; an unexpected, simple invention that changed the world. But it was entirely unintended.

Tea, from the camelia sinenis tree, is the most popular beverage in the world after water, and the most popular hot beverage period. Before the tea bag appeared, barely over a century ago, all tea was sold loose. Today more than 90% is sold in bags (if you include tisanes, or herbal “teas” that figure is about 70%*). For what is arguably the most popular drink in the world, that’s quite a change in a few decades.

At the turn of the 20th century, New York tea and coffee merchant Thomas Sullivan was shipping samples of his product to customers in small silk bags. He expected them to pour the loose tea out before brewing it. But customers didn’t know that and instead plunked the bag into the pot with the tea inside. They quickly found it easier and more convenient than messing about with measuring and cleaning. Sullivan saw the opportunity, and worked on perfecting the design. By 1908 he was selling his bags.

A century before social media accelerated ideas and products, tea bags went viral.** Other American companies started selling hand-sewn fabric tea bags around the same time as Sullivan. In 1930 Salada brought out the first heat-sealed, paper fibre tea bags. The design – a thin flat pouch either round or square – didn’t change much until the 1980s when the pyramidal design was invented in Japan (although not widely used, the design is gaining popularity for whole-leaf teas through companies like Tea Pigs).

teabagWhile big in the USA, it wasn’t until the 1950s when the tea bag took off in Britain, in the post-war, post-rationing bloom of convenience and newness. In 1953, Tetley was the first British tea company to offer bags and the rest quickly followed. Even in the 1960s, tea bags represented only 3% of all tea sales. But by 2007 that was at 96%!

(The Brits have many tea habits that are well described here and you should read George Orwell’s essay on tea here)

Tea bags meant convenience: tea became easier to buy, store, and to shelve. Speciality store sales gave way to supermarkets. The image of tea as an elite drink was eroded by the democratic nature of the easy-to-use tea bag. ***

What changed in the tea world was not just the packaging. The bag changed the way consumers saw, evaluated and purchased tea – by brand as opposed to actual product. This meant marketing became an overriding factor in sales.

Tea leaf readers went out of business. Who reads tea bags? The whole art of tasseography has pretty much vanished. (okay losing some cons and carnies isn’t a great loss to society, but we also lost a useful literary trope and cliché…)

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Dinner at the Bent Taco

Bent TacoWe had dinner at the Bent Taco on Pine Street last night. Collingwood’s nuevo-Mexican restaurant is not exactly Mexican but influenced by it, and in a good way. Food was excellent. If you haven’t been there, you should go. Very popular place and I wondered why it took so long for us to get there.

Don’t go expecting traditional Mexican fare (hint: go to Mexico and get outside your resort for that!) You won’t get huachinango a la Veracruzana or Oaxacan tamales here, but you will get recognizable choices like tacos, burritos and tortas (the latter sadly red meats only, no fish or chicken or veggie options – there are some veggie choices in the tacos and burritos, though).

Go expecting food that pays tribute to Mexican style, tastes and flavours but with local flare and inventiveness. (Another hint: Taco Bell is NOT Mexican food, so open yourself to new ideas if that’s all you know).

There are homemade loteria cards posted around the restaurant as part of the theme. That caught my attention. See how many you can spot (and where possible get up close to see what they are). If you don’t know what they are about, ask your server. Or look them up online ahead of time. I hope one day the restaurant expands on that element – maybe a game night. Or a tequila tasting night that incorporates the cards…

No pico de gallo salsa at the table. This is a common side dish in many Mexican restaurants and when we’re down there we eat it by the shovelful – at least when it’s fresh. With Ontario’s great tomato crop this year, it might be the perfect time for them to develop their own (hint, hint). But also for you, dear reader, to give it a try. And you can add it to scrambled eggs to get a good huevos a la Mexicana for breakfast.

Most places we visit in Mexico offer two sauces on every table: a red (roja, which has a broiled tomato base and often has chipotle and/or ancho chiles for a smoky overtone) and green (verde, made with roasted tomatillo and jalapeno chiles; not as hot as the roja) sauce. Neither is usually hot enough for my taste and I often have to ask if there is something ‘mas picante’ in the kitchen (there often is, but seldom served to gringos).

But don’t get me wrong: this doesn’t detract from the BT’s food or service. Just that if you go looking for some traditional items, you won’t find them (yet). The BT’s hot sauce is good, but I would like to see more options in their salsas.

Bent Taco makes their own hot sauce however, a roasted garlic habanero, which is also very good although not quite as hot as I like (hot enough for Susan). Food at BT is not spicy, BTW, so you might enjoy some of this hot sauce as a garnish. I went through one of their small bottles of it with my meal.

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Spiralizing out of control

SpiralizerI bought myself a spiral veggie cutter recently – a spiralizer, they’re called – after hearing a friend rave on about how wonderful his was. And since I both like to cook and I’m a gadget freak, I thought I ought to get myself one, too. And as an added bonus, I eat a lot of veggies and stir fry dishes. Sounded like a perfect match. Oh, and they are called by other names, too, like spiral slicers and spiral cutters.

Somehow I must have missed the bandwagon because these things are all the rage, with dozens to choose from through in store and online sellers and websites gushing all over them. I suspect they get advertised on TV, which, of course, we don’t subscribe to.

Locally, I found a few models in the nearby Bed, Bath & Beyond, both the handheld and tabletop varieties, each marked with packaging claims to be the best, easiest, toughest and so on, but nothing independent to tell me which was good, better, or would best fulfill my fantasies as a soon-to-be madly spiralizing chef. I didn’t go on to search for them in other stores, because at this point I realized I needed to know more to be a properly informed consumer. That meant the internet.

Research time. One of my favourite pastimes. I quickly ruled out the models that are basically bladed funnels into which you corkscrew a veggie shaft (never mind the sexual innuendoes…). Not enough control over the results, only one type of output, too likely to make my wrists sore and, from what I could see, the most likely to create waste from the ends. Besides, I figured that exposed, sharp blade was an accident in the waiting. At my age and declining dexterity (daily ukulele playing notwithstanding), you think about things like that. Not to mention the arthritis.

Other handheld models looked safer, but still required dexterity. Turning out continuous, unbroken strands is a skill that appears to require some practice. It was said on several reviews to be much easier with a tabletop versus a handheld cutter.

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Teas or Tisanes?

Real tea plant not some herbal shitI suppose it’s crotchety of me, but whenever I hear the term “herbal tea” used to refer to an infusion of leaves or fruits that contains no actual tea, I get shirty.

They’re actually not tea at all, they’re tisanes, a pleasant French word that means’herbal infusion.’ They should be called such and labelled appropriately in stores.

Tea is, properly a plant originally from China: Camellia sinensis. How the word came to be used as a descriptor for any hot drink in which leaves were infused or decocted, I don’t know, but it’s lazy language; misleading and dishonest.*

Tea drink is, of course, an infusion, but not all infusions are tea. If it doesn’t contain actual tea leaves, it should not be called a tea. Period.

The original word tea itself (te and its Cantonese equivalent, cha) have specifically meant Camelia sinensis in China since at least the eighth century CE. That’s what they meant when European traders started bringing the stuff back. The Online Etymological Dictionary explains some of its European use from the 16th century:

The distribution of the different forms of the word in Europe reflects the spread of use of the beverage. The modern English form, along with French thé, Spanish te, German Tee, etc., derive via Dutch thee from the Amoy form, reflecting the role of the Dutch as the chief importers of the leaves (through the Dutch East India Company, from 1610). Meanwhile, Russian chai, Persian cha, Greek tsai, Arabic shay, and Turkish çay all came overland from the Mandarin form.
First known in Paris 1635, the practice of drinking tea was first introduced to England 1644. Meaning “afternoon meal at which tea is served” is from 1738. Slang meaning “marijuana” (which sometimes was brewed in hot water) is attested from 1935, felt as obsolete by late 1960s. Tea ball is from 1895.

“Herbal tea” might be derived from the Latin: herba thea means “tea herb”(LAtin was still more-or-less a living language in the 16th century) or maybe it, too, came via the Dutch traders: herba thee (which also means tea herb). Either way, we ended up with “herbal tea.”

Whatever its origin, it is incorrect. It’s like pointing to a dandelion and calling it a rose garden because they’re both plants. Or handing someone a cola and calling it a cold coffee because they both have caffeine. The only thing tea and tisanes have in common is the hot water.

Why aren’t these non-tea infusions called “herbal coffees” of “herbal colas”? That would make as much sense as calling them herbal teas.

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