The Imperialist Economics of Blueberries

Blueberries from PeruThere was a cooler right at the front of the fruit and vegetable section of the local Walmart store packed with clear plastic containers of blueberries. Plump, dark, fresh-looking berries. And value-priced at $2.87 a container. I love blueberries on my morning cereal; these looked inviting, and so inexpensive! Who can resist such a bargain? I put a container in my shopping cart. Only when I got home did I read the label: product of Peru.

Peru lies more than 6,000 km away from me by air; more than eight hours’ flying time from Toronto, plus a two-hour drive north to here.  Not to mention the time to pick, package, sort, distribute, and shelve them. Yet here was a container of what appeared to be recently-picked blueberries selling for less than a cup of coffee, and less — perhaps less than half — than I usually pay at the local farmers’ market for a similar or even smaller amount. How can that be?

How is it possible to pick these fruit, wash, sort, package, refrigerate, ship to a warehouse, sort, distribute, ship to a store, then stock in that store for as little as $2.87? Along that route are hundreds of people, all of whom need to be paid, from pickers to loaders to pilots, drivers, and store personnel. There’s a whole chain of dependencies in getting them from Peru to my local grocery store while still edible, and a staggering cost in fuel.*

Peru, is, of course, just one South American country sending blueberries worldwide, but this year has become the largest exporter of blueberries: 165,000 metric tonnes in 2020, up from 120,000 in 2019. Half of which goes to the USA. Blueberries — native to North America, not Peru— are also grown in Mexico and South Africa. And how convenient for us here that they do so: we can enjoy these fresh fruit well outside our own limited growing season, as we do with so many other vegetables and fruit. And we can enjoy hundreds of others that can’t possibly grow here: limes, grapefruit, avocados, bananas, lychee, kiwi fruit; our grocery stores are well-stocked with all sorts of imports for our eating pleasures. And often so inexpensive.

Yet again: at what cost? Not to us, of course: our grocery and box stores are locked in a penny-pinching competition to offer us the lowest prices, to lure us in with bargains like these, understanding that while we’re here we’ll also buy more. Yet to enjoy our $2.87 package of ripe blueberries, we must accept that we benefit from the cheap labour and even poverty in the home countries where these are picked; wages we could not possibly live on here. And along with those low wages come predictable lower standards of health, quality, and safety: foods contaminated with pesticides and herbicides, or some noxious or even lethal bacteria are, sadly, rather too common (as of Oct. 9, 2020, the Canadian government site listed 4,012 food recalls; however not all of which are for imported produce).

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More loafing about

bread-oct-14-2013

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I am always trying to create the perfect loaf; that one loaf that captures every element of bread in perfect harmony with the others: taste, crumb, crust and appearance. An impossible quest, I appreciate, given my lowly talents, but great bread is the Holy Grail of cooking and I cannot stop searching. It’s the journey that matters. Every step leads me towards the mountain.

Good bread is easy to make – or at least relatively easy after you’ve learned and mastered the basics. You can even make reasonably good bread in a bread machine with almost no effort aside from measuring the ingredients. But not great bread. That requires the human touch. That, and a combination of serendipitous conditions like the right heat, humidity, flour, yeast and time.

Those loaves that approach that hallowed perfection are works of artistic excellence. Mona Lisas of bakery. There is something that is both physically and spiritually gratifying about their creation. And their eating. In the latter the art proves transitory. Great bread does not last, and cannot be judged without being consumed. You give it life, then death. Then start another. Religious metaphors abound in bread baking.

Like every obsessed home baker, I have a stack of books, a binder of recipes printed put from the Web, and a head full of ideas, all collected to aid my effort to sort out what makes a more than just a good loaf, and do it consistently. To date, no single recipe, no single technique seems to achieve that every time – but that does not discourage me. In fact, it energizes me to continue my efforts.

I have a particular affection for those few of Peter Reinhart‘s dozen books books I own, especially The Bread Baker’s Apprentice (Ten Speed Press), which has the appropriately challenging subtitle, Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread. In it he has explanations, not just recipes, that help me understand the chemistry behind the magic of baking.

Reinhart is not just a remarkable baker, but he has a personal story about his life and his search for meaning that resonates with me. In a delightful interview at onlifeandmeaning.com, Reinhart – of a similar age to me – talks about his spiritual quest that began with his native Judaism, then branched out to Eastern religions in the 1960s and threaded itself through to becoming a Christian, a seminarian, and then back to the secular world. A journey that took decades. And becoming a chef and a master baker along the way. Bread is a metaphor in so many ways for his life and his beliefs.

My own journey in search of meaning – despite some parallels in pursuing Eastern philosophies – has been much less exciting and perhaps less adventurous. And my journey as a cook stumbled; I never climbed those steep peaks he conquered. But I try to follow in his footsteps – at least where they lead towards bread in the kitchen. Okay, maybe not in every footstep – I tend to experiment by traipsing outside the beaten path rather often. It’s not so much the different drummer as the different baker.

Anyway, this post is about a particular recipe that makes good bread, but which I think can be improved for consistently great bread.

I found it in a 2018 grocery-store magazine called Cooks Illustrated: All-Time Best Bread Recipes. It’s actually quite a good resource because it explains a lot of things in sidebars, like ingredients, equipment and techniques. The recipe that caught my eye was the “No-Knead 2.0” bread (p.14-16). I’ll come back to the recipe in a bit.

The basic ingredients are:
3 cups (15 ounces) all purpose or bread flour
1/4 tsp. instant or rapid-rise yeast
1 1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup plus 2 Tbs. (7 ounces) water at room temp
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs. (3 ounces) mild flavored lager
1 Tbs. white vinegar
Yes, I realize those are old-fashioned imperial, not modern metric measurements, and mostly volume not weight. But it’s from an American source, so you have to make allowances for the anachronisms.
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The arts of politics and baking

In his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, author Robert Prisig wrote about how dealing with the small things of daily life  – like fixing his wayward motorcycle – could teach us about the world at large. A sort of microcosm-becomes-macrocosm perspective, with the vagarities of motorcycle repair to colour the learning. What we learn in one we can apply to the other. *

Baking bread, too, offers a meta-window into other arts and crafts, in particular (for me), politics. Bakers and thinkers have oft cited bread as a metaphor for life (listen to master baker Peter Reinhart’s comments on that topic here or watch his TED talk here).

As an opener, I love making bread. I find it relaxing, rewarding, stimulating and challenging. And sometimes incredibly frustrating and disappointing. Like life. It’s both a creative process and an experimental one. When I bake, I transcend the politics, the worries, the noise of daily life and concentrate on the act itself, a focus I only rarely apply to my daily activities.**

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from making bread I feel apply to politics. They’re not necessarily in the order of importance.

Lesson one: start simple.

You can make bread with four basic ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. Everything after that is chrome. You can make some pretty spectacular breads by adding more, but if you can’t master the four, you can’t make anything. And you can make stellar breads with nothing more – if you understand how they work together.

In politics, you have to master the basics of procedure and process, of legislation, of policies, and of budgets. These are the superstructure on which you will build everything else. If you don’t have a firm grounding in these, you cannot build anything.

Lesson two: start small.

I have a terrific textbook (Jeffrey Hamelman: Bread – A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes) about baking with recipes for commercial bakeries and restaurants. These produce from half-a-dozen to dozens of loaves. But I’ve learned to make one loaf at a time, scaling back every recipe – even many of those online that are intended for one or two loaves. If I do it properly, I’ll have a small, single, good loaf to enjoy. But if I make a mistake or try something that doesn’t work out well, I’ll probably end up tossing most of it out. I don’t want to waste bread.

Many municipal projects are grandiose dreams. But often smaller, less ambitious or even phased projects over a longer term are better and more efficient. Things change, public needs change, tastes and demographics change – what might seem a great project today in a few years might seem outdated and inefficient. Better to be conservative now than end up with an expensive white elephant in a few years. And politicians should never waste taxpayers’ money.

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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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