Eat This Newsletter 164: Food News in Person
The temperature suddenly dropped by about 10 degrees C a couple of days ago, a sure sign that I need to get back to producing episodes of the podcast. I hope to have one for you next week. In the meantime, here’s this week’s roundup of food news.
Tedium is a newsletter to which I subscribe mostly for its strange histories of technology, but every now and then it throws up a piece that fits right in with my foodishness. The latest example discusses an apparently iconic fast sandwich chain and its chequered relationship with sprouts. I knew nothing about Jimmy John’s and the story behind its astonishingly rapid growth, so I was also ignorant about how important alfalfa sprouts were to the success of its sandwiches. The article will fill you in on all that, and how several outbreaks of food poisoning traced to the sprouts.
That isn’t entirely surprising. Seeds for sprouts are kept in warm, humid conditions, as conducive to E. coli and Salmonella as they are to germination. Supermarket sprouts, especially, are likely to be contaminated, and America's CDC suggests one cook sprouts thoroughly, which rather defeats the point, nutritionally and hedonically.
Jimmy John’s gave up on sprouts for a while, then bowed to consumer pressure by bringing them back, but with clover rather than alfalfa. The problem, however, is not the species, it is the process of sprouting. Another big outbreak followed, Jimmy removed sprouts from his menu again, and now customers sued because they could no longer get sprouts. Jimmy brought back sprouts as an option, and customers had to sign a waiver, saying that they were eating sprouts at their own risk. Outbreaks of food poisoning kept happening.
In the end, there's kind of a happy ending. Jimmy sold out to a big food-chain holding company, becoming a billionaire in the process. And the company removed sprouts from the menu, permanently.
So, what about the sprouts? I have bought mung bean sprouts in the past, for use in stir-fries, which may not be thorough enough for the CDC. I also sprout my own alfalfa and others at home from time to time. I quite understand that pathogens on just a few contaminated seeds can quickly multiply and spread, but in my mind home sprouting minimises the dangers. It operates at a lower temperature, because speed and throughput are less important, and the sprouts probably don’t hang around as long before being eaten. There are technical solutions to improve the safety of industrial sprouts, but even when followed they do not guarantee success. In the meantime, I would like to know whether there have been any formal studies of contamination in home-made versus industrial sprouts.
p.s. In case you thought it was only hippy-dippy foods that were dangerous, beware of raw cake mix batter.
Wild rice in person
A recent court case names wild rice as one of the plaintiffs suing a pipeline company in the White Earth Nation's tribal court. The suit seeks to block the construction of the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline that transports oil from Alberta in Canada to Wisconsin in the US. On the way it passes through Minnesota, where the Ojibwe people regard wild rice, which they call manoomin, as a member of the family.
Manoomin is more than food, it is a conveyor of culture, spirituality and tradition. Therefore, legally designating manoomin as a person in the White Earth Nation’s lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources aligns with the Ojibwe world view.
The suit and its justification is complex, but the essence of it is that the pipeline exacerbates low water levels, and that encroaches on wild rice's right to “exist, flourish, maintain and regenerate their life cycles”. Low water also means that the Ojibwe cannot harvest wild rice.
I am not competent to say anything about the merits of the case or whether manoomin has standing. It does slightly worry me though that there might be other examples where what is under threat does not have quite such an advanced identity. Who will speak for those organisms and ecosystems?
Yes, we have bananas
Ancient Mediterranean People Ate Bananas and Turmeric From Asia 3,700 Years Ago reads Smithsonian Magazine's headline about a new research paper, which draws on several other news reports. Analysis of fossilised dental plaque shows that Mediterranean people were not strict locavores, enjoying many foods not (yet) native to the area. I can believe that sesame, turmeric and soybeans were traded over long distances 4000 years ago, but bananas? That seems like a stretch, given all the technology required to trade bananas globally today.
The teeth for that study came from Megiddo (aka Armageddon) and Tel Arani in modern Israel. I’ve seen bananas growing in Israel, which apparently started in the 1930s, so they're clearly no slouches at adopting novel foods. I wonder, then, what to make of an article in The Tablet on Expanding the Israeli Menu. It is not, in fact, about expanding the Israeli menu, which is already pretty much all-encompassing. Rather, it is a round-up of some of the new things going on in the country to promote innovation in food, relate some food histories and use the shared cuisines of the region to try and promote mutual understanding. Filed away, in case I get the chance to visit.
The “best” milk substitutes
Did you celebrate World Plant Milk Day last week? Me neither. But agricultural economist Aaron Smith was there for us with his daughter, sampling five iced lattes at a local Starbucks, each with a different plant-based milk.
The piece is a fun read, not least because it goes into all sorts of possible explanations for the various observations, and as such is a good account of how to think about these sorts of things. I also appreciated the fact that Smith and his daughters rated first blind and then knowing what they were tasting. No-one is going to draw any from conclusions from a study with only two participants, except, perhaps, one of the participants:
I learned that my brain plays tricks on me. If I know I'm drinking cow's milk, I prefer it. If I know I'm drinking oat milk, it tastes like oatmeal. If I'm not a huge fan of weak lattes, extra sweetness makes it more palatable.
Food and our preferences for it are complicated.
And a couple of quickies
After the item on perry and pears a couple of weeks back, my friend Luigi pointed me to the International Perry Pear Project. Kertelreiter Cider wish to play their part by creating “a traditional meadow orchard dedicated to historically significant, rare or endangered perry pear trees” and they're inviting you and me to play our part too by sponsoring a tree, half a tree, or the meadow. Trees are already pretty well covered. I could be tempted by a few square metres of meadow.
I have been wrestling with cattle and greenhouse gasses lately, wrapping my head around emissions efficiency, that is, per litre of milk or kilogram of meat, and total productivity. The interactions are fiendishly complicated. So I was glad to see a round-up from Marion Nestle that concludes “It depends on who’s counting, and what”. The simple answer is that there is no simple answer to the question “how much do cattle contribute to greenhouse gasses?” Marion Nestle's view:
I’m not sure it matters. Everyone agrees that cattle produce more greenhouse gases than produced by any other food (as a result of burps, deforestation, feed production, manure, etc).
Raising cattle more sustainably and regeneratively is a really good idea.