Are Family Farms the Answer?

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family farmCountry singer Willie Nelson recently acknowledged black farmer Philip Barker and the work of Barker’s organization Operation Spring Plant, “which provides resources and training to minority and limited resource farmers, including a program that introduces young people to farming and provides youth leadership training”. Part of their goal is to to help young people “come back to the farm to understand the wealth of the land.”

In the course of Nelson’s essay, he strongly defends the future of small farming, not just as a way of life, but as a means of sustaining our food supply:

Phillip believes the next generation must see a sustainable livelihood from the land, but the wealth he refers to can’t be measured only in dollars. It is measured in the experience of working on the land, tending the soil, and caring for the animals and crops that grow from it. It’s measured in the ability to be independent, to feed himself and his family. It’s measured in the way he and Dorathy sustain and strengthen their community. It’s measured in being rooted to a place and passing something valuable to the next generation.

It seems to me that understanding the real wealth in the land is key to a sustainable future for all of us.

Our greatest challenge is in re-visioning how the majority see “wealth.” The wealth of the land cannot be boiled down to the investors’ return on investment. It cannot be gauged by the commodities it returns to us — in gallons of oil and bushels of corn.

The drive to extract as much value from the land as possible — to maximize production without regard to whether we’re exhausting the soil, to give over our farmland to Wall Street investors, to seize land held by families for generations for corporate profit — bankrupts the land, our food, our nation and our future.

I don’t doubt the value of small farms as a way of life or the vision of sustainability that infuses Nelson’s writing. But I wonder if small farms are capable of feeding the planet. Is large-scale, industrial agriculture necessary for producing the massive amounts of food required for feeding 7 Billion people, many of whom live in regions of the world that lack fertile soil and a climate conducive to productive agriculture?

I don’t know the answer to this question but paeans to the personal virtues of the family farmer often don’t raise this issue. I assume we don’t want to go back to the days when most human beings were subsistence farmers.

Have You Tasted an Illusion Lately?

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magic hatWine tasters have come in for their share of ridicule as the result of studies that seem to show we can be easily confused about what we are drinking. Foodies are now getting the same treatment.

In the video, two Dutch pranksters sneak into a large food-industry expo in Houten, The Netherlands. (The video doesn’t name the event.) There, the duo ask exhibitors and attendees to sample their “new, organic alternative to fast food” from their “high-end restaurant.” In reality, they are serving up cut-up pieces of what appears to be McDonald’s fare including muffins, burgers and nuggets.

Presented with bite-size samples attractively arranged on a platter with serving toothpicks, the patsies in this little experiment react with effusive praise.

Happily, unlike most media treatments, this story at NPR’s The Salt adopts the proper skepticism about what this shows.

(While the pranksters are clearly gleeful about duping people whom they describe as culinary or organic “experts,” we don’t really know who they are or whether they consider themselves “foodies,” as much of the coverage has styled them.)

Furthermore, the article raises an issue that is seldom discussed in these kinds of articles:

Research has found that when you tell people that what they are eating or drinking is a high-end product, they won’t just say that it tastes better than a cheaper product — their brains will actually experience it as better.

In one study, researchers gave subjects wine to sample and scanned their brains using an fMRI scanner. The subjects all drank the same wine twice. But on one occasion, they were told it was a $90 bottle, while another time they thought it was a $10 bottle.

Not only did these subjects report that the wine tasted better when it was presented as a much pricier vintage, but their brains reacted differently, too. Scans showed increased oxygen and blood flow to the medial orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain believed to play a role in how we experience pleasure in food and other types of rewards.

In other words, how a food is branded really does seem to affect how we perceive it on a neurological level.

 

Apparently, we are wired to allow expectations to influence what we experience. This result is reinforced by experiments using other sense modalities. We know, for instance, that stroking a fake hand placed in your field of vision and your real hand at the same time can fool your brain into thinking the fake hand is yours. But as recently reported in the New Yorker, when researchers using cotton swabs simultaneously stroked a real tongue and a rubber tongue placed within the subjects field of vision, subjects experienced what was being done to the fake tongue. Subjects watched lemon juice being applied to the cotton swab stroking the fake tongue, and they experienced the flavor of lemon even though the lemon was applied only to the fake tongue. The swabs stroking the real tongue were soaked in water.

So the problem of our senses being influenced by what we believe is not peculiar to wine tasting. Evolution has shaped our sense of taste to guide us to seek the food we need to survive, while avoiding harmful foods. Expectations help us do that by limiting our need to experiment which might be deadly.

Does this mean that some degree of objectivity is impossible. Not at all. Professional wine and food tasters have to be aware of the kinds of bias that can influence their judgment. But once we are aware of it those biases can be controlled at least up to a point. The expectation that the price of a wine or the lovely setting and good company might be influencing my judgment can cause me to take a second, more critical look at a wine. When I enter a high-end tasting I know from experience that several of the wines will disappoint. That knowledge tends to stanch the “oxygen and blood flow to the medial orbitofrontal cortex”. Expectations that warrant caution and increased scrutiny are expectations nonetheless and they influence judgment as well.

Experts are no different from anyone else in their susceptibility to cognitive bias. Where they (may)  differ is in their commitment to the pursuit of the truth. Casual wine drinkers and foodies can happily allow their expectations to govern their experience. After all, enjoyment is enjoyment whether it is subjectively induced or not. However, presumably, those who take taste seriously and want to understand it, and who have the proper training and experience, take steps to reign in cognitive bias—at least that should be their moral commitment.

Review: Nevada Ridge Tempranillo Nevada 2011

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Nevada ridgeYes. They make wine in Nevada. There are four wineries in the state to be precise. Pahrump Valley Winery, who makes Nevada Ridge, is the best known and for good reason—they make several good wines, from both Nevada-grown and California grapes.

When I was a kid, my favorite candy was Red Hots—small, hard, cinnamon-flavored candies with peppery heat. The nose on this Tempranillo reminds of those candies, although it is thoroughly dry with no hint of sweetness. Packed with fresh, bright scents of black cherry, pencil lead, and cinnamon, the nose has remarkable focus and clarity. The medium weight palate adds coffee notes to the flavor profile. A little coarse but piquant and vigorous on the finish, the medium plus acidity and robust tannins make this a sassy Tempranillo with a fiery flare not often associated with this grape. Made from grapes grown in Nevada’s Amargosa County.

Their Viognier, Primativo, and Zinfandel were also impressive.

Pahrump Valley is about 1 hour West of Las Vegas. Their tastings are free, they offer scheduled tours of the winery, and there is a fine dining restaurant on premises. It’s worth a side trip when you tire of games.

Score: 89

Price: $22

Alc: 14%

Budget Wine: Fecovita Broke Ass Red Wine Argentina 2013

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broke assI must confess, sometimes when looking for that gem in the sea of cheap, undistinguished, mostly generic wine at the supermarket I will buy the label. The label is usually more distinctive than what’s in the bottle.

The label on this wine features a donkey with a bandage pasted on his rump and includes the message “bandage your budget” on the back. Give the winery credit for knowing its customers. Most of us can identify with being “broke ass”; that’s why we’re searching the bottom shelf. The wine is 50% Malbec and 50% Syrah with a simple but pleasing nose of dusty earth over black cherry and red plum. The palate is fruity up front with oak notes but turns thin and dry mid-palate with a finish of sour lemon. Medium plus acidity, low tannins, and meager fruit make this wine unbalanced. The sour finish is a deal killer. Even if you’re broke you can probably do better.

Fecovita is a large cooperative representing over 30 producers operating out of Mendoza.

 

Score: 82

Price $6

Alc: 13.5%

A Disneyland of Food?

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eatalyItaly’s slow-food grocery Eataly has announced it will be opening a theme park devoted to Italian food.

On October 8th, an Italian contingent from Bologna descended upon New York’s Union Square Market to announce the city’s latest venture, Fico Eataly World. Launching in late 2015, this food mecca will feature 20 different restaurants, ten classrooms, two aquariums, an abundance of fruit and vegetable gardens, event spaces and much, much, more across its 80,000 square meters.

As you might expect from a venture this ambitious, corporate funding is the prime mover.

I’m not quite sure what this will offer the casual “theme-park” visitor. I suppose animated animals can sell risotto as well as movie tickets. Will they serve bistec florentine on a ferris wheel”?

But a “disneyland of Italian food” would seem to offer little to dedicated culinarians who get their thrills by discovering small, local restaurants with distinctive cuisine, without the high prices or the inevitable kitschy presentation.

I hope it succeeds in promoting Italian food, but their choice of a marketing slogan “disneyland of food” probably tells you all you need to know about this venture.

The Great Snack Mix in the Sky

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the thinkerPhilosophical discussions of food have seldom been recorded. But thanks to Slate.com, we can now listen in on real philosophers discussing eating? Here is Socrates summing up his long discussion with Thrasymachus on the ethics of picking out your favorite nuts from a snack mix.

There is only one true snack mix, the Great Snack Mix in the Sky, which flows endlessly through the vast trough of time. From that mix, every conceivable bite can be composed at once, and no ingredient is ever lacking.

But when we eat snack mix, as we have done here today, we partake not of that most pure mix, but of a particular representation of it. These representations may vary, but when we eat them, we are all seeking to know and taste that highest Form, that most delectable reality, the one true mix. Each snack mix experience is another step in the same endless journey, not a discrete moment in time independent of the others. As with any long voyage, some steps may bring you closer to your destination while others may bear less fruit, or pretzels. Some days you may arrive at a snack mix that has been cherry-picked to oblivion, but over time and with persistence, you’ll move ever closer to that Great Snack Mix in the Sky. Indeed, it is this most just pursuit of deliciousness that is the defining characteristic of the Eater.

It is comforting to know that when you pick out all the cashews you’re not robbing your friends and family of an experience, but contributing to the quest for deliciousness.

Aren’t you glad philosophers have been admitted to the conversation.

Wine Review: Lyeth Meritage Sonoma County 2011

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lyethIt is ordinary people who make the world go ‘round. A jack-of-all-trades who can competently handle anything you throw her way is a valuable person to have around even though she may not do anything particularly well. So it is with wine.  Wines that perform well on any occasion—pair well with a variety of foods, can be enjoyed as a sipper, on hot days or cool days, etc. –are praiseworthy even if they lack features that make them standouts.

This Lyeth Meritage is one of those wines. Nothing stands out. It’s medium across-the-board, medium intensity, medium weight,  medium acidity, medium length. But it made every dish at the table sing—potatoes and brussel sprouts, veal meatballs in a saffron sauce, bacon jam, oxtail and black rice risotto—it seemed to adapt itself to any flavor profile showing a different side of itself each time. Subdued cherry and berry notes make way for cedar and earth components with hints of thyme. Complex for a wine at this price. A taut and dry mouthfeel but a very smooth finish .

Its secret of course is balance. Not too much fruit so the herbal and spice notes can come out to play. Dry, persistent tannins to cut through meat fat, but not so big as to accentuate the bitterness of vegetables. Light enough to complement seafood but with sufficient weight to satisfy during the meat course. This won’t stand out as a must-have wine or provide a memorable experience but in a supporting role it shines.

A blend of 35% Merlot, 32% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Cabernet Franc and some Malbec and Petite Verdot.

Score: 87

Price: $14

Alc: 13.5%

Budget Wine: Frontera Pais Chile 2013

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frontera paisIf you are familiar with the history of American wines you’ve heard of the Mission grape. This was the varietal grown by the early California missions that was quickly supplanted when Bordeaux varietals, which made more complex, age worthy wines, became available. The very same grape was the most widely planted varietal in Chile, where it was called Pais, until Cabernet and Carmenere gained popularity. It was recently discovered to be identical to the Palomino grape used in Spain to make Sherry. It has a long, glorious history but tends to be low in acidity and its high yield produces wine that lacks concentration. Plantings have been declining for years.

Concha Y Toro the huge Latin American producer is trying to revive interest in this grape through its Frontera label, its entry level label designed to appeal to millennials.

Bright red fruit showing cranberry and cherry compete with floral aromas—in this case a not-so-harmonious combination. On the palate, it is light weight and fruity with some pleasant spice notes and very soft tannins. There is some sweetness but it is not overwhelming. Thin and meager but well-balanced, smooth, and easy to drink. No doubt there is a market for this wine. It is superior to that horrid Beaujolais Nouveau that sells so well in November. If this is what it takes to get younger people to drink wine then so be it.

Score: 83

Price: $8

Alc: 12.5%

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