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It Came From The Library 13: Whither Organics?

by in News, July 14th, 2009

Media-wise, it’s been a rough couple of weeks for the organics industry. Earlier this month a prominent LA Times food journalist confessed, “I don’t believe in organic,” arguing that flavor–most reliably found in farmers’ markets–should trump all other considerations for conscientious food shoppers. Fair enough perhaps. And in and of itself, the article is of limited significance. But its timing is telling and, to my mind, reflective of the declining status of organics in general and of the federal organic label in particular. My sense of this was solidified a few days later when the Washington Post ran a front page report raising questions about the integrity of the federal organics program, which oversees the federal organic labels.

The report depicts the program as a mire of lobbyist-friendly administrators, eroding standards, and lax oversight. Specifically, it details friction between the National Organic Standards Board, which controls decisions on which synthetics are permitted under the organic label, and the National Organic Program, which administers the standards. In recent years, according to the WaPo, the Program has taken it upon itself do some standard-setting of its own and to selectively enforce standards established by the Board.

Critics charge that the Program has been all too easily swayed by industry lobbyists who’ve pushed to loosen regulations by expanding the list of allowable synthetics in processed organics. Federal administrators counter they’re removing obstacles to the growth of the organics industry.

Is any of this really news? Certainly, as Samuel Fromartz, author of ‘Organics, Inc.,’ points out in a thought-provoking blog post, a fundamental tension ‘between those who have always sought to expand the industry and those who seek a more purist vision’ has underlain the entire history of efforts to standardize and enshrine organics into law.

But there is a definite sense that, under the pressure of explosive growth, this tension is building, perhaps toward a breaking point–something recognized by the standards board’s chairman, Jeff Moyer, who observes, “As the organic industry matures, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find a balance between the integrity of the word ‘organic’ and the desire for the industry to grow.”

Fromartz seems to believe that the real story is the question of what happens to organics after this breaking point is reached. As he sees it two outcomes are likely, both dead-ends of a sort:

“If synthetics are taken out, even over a sunset period…organic processed foods would fade off the shelves. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, but the organic industry would be a lot smaller. If, on the other hand, too many synthetics are let in, and we start getting more organic junk food with a long list of  unpronounceable ingredients, that will spell the end of organics too.”

The odds of the latter strike me as vastly more likely. The organic industry has been so thoroughly integrated into (some argue co-opted by) the larger food industry that it now has tremendous weight to throw around in Washington. If the industry wants to loosen definitions of ‘organic,’ chances are definitions will loosen. If, on the other hand, the industry fails to get its desired changes, chances are it will find a work-around by creating cheaper alternatives that siphon off organic’s cache without being constrained by organic regulations–Horizon Organics’ recent introduction of a ‘Natural’ line suggests this process is now under way. Both courses of action carry tremendous risks for the industry in terms of diminishing the value of the organic label in the eyes of consumers. The LATimes article, among other things, seems symptomatic of this spreading sense of diminished value. If Fromartz is right, organics may well be approaching a tipping point.

Jonathan Milder, Research Librarian

Tales from Tales

by in View All Posts, July 13th, 2009

Am just back from New Orleans, where I spent the last couple days as a guest of Tales of the Cocktail, the annual cocktail conference that brings together bartenders, drink historians, liquor companies, and cocktail aficionados for a 6-day extravaganza that I heard referred to more than once as “spring break for bartenders.” As can be imagined, morning seminars were slightly more sparsely-attended than evening ones, and were accompanied by no small amount of hair of the dog.

I was down from Friday through Sunday, and spent the majority of my time geeking out on cocktail history, which was to be had in abundance – presentations on that front ranged from a roundup of forgotten 19th-century bartenders to a discussion on how best to resurrect historical cocktails, as well as a threatened (but not performed) experiment to see whether navy gin (thus named because it’s high enough proof that, if you spill it on gunpowder, the gunpowder can still be lit, making it a good thing to have on ships) does in fact live up to its name.

Other highlights included the annual Spirit Awards, naming the best bars, products, and bartenders in the industry. It’s rare that this happens in any field, but frankly, I agree with almost every one of their picks, most especially the Best American Cocktail Bar (Pegu Club), Best Cocktail Writing (Dave Wondrich), American Bartender of the Year (Jim Meehan), and World’s Best Cocktail Bar (PDT, where Jim Meehan is not-coincidentally the heart and soul behind the bar). Best New Product was Bols Genever – I’m always happy to see more gin, and traditional gin at that, hitting the market, and the Bols was featured in one of my favorite drinks of the conference, the Genever Collins, demonstrated at a feisty panel, where, among other notable quotes, punch was referred to (in contrast to the austerity of a martini) as “the extravagant drag queen of the gin cocktail world.”

Brief outtakes from other moments: Phil Greene demonstrating the proper form for an airborne absinthe wash (performed pre-Sazerac, and while wearing a rain poncho to protect his suit); a raucous limoncello demo with Danny DeVito and John Besh, broadcast live on New Orleans’ legendary Chef and the Fatman radio show; a fake-mustache-involving*, only-somewhat-successful attempt at a Harry Johnson-style stacked glass pour; a homemade bitters contest and tasting, with more than one participant copping to having procured the necessary herbs at “the hippie herb store;” a short history of Bourbon street’s burlesque bars, presented in part by two former dancers now in their 80s (Wild Cherry and Evangeline the Oyster Girl); and a really remarkable, The Game-style presentation, the last of the conference, about how best as a bartender to manipulate your guests into doing what you want them to.

All told, Tales was a fascinating experience, and a highly-recommended one — and, even though I’ll probably spend the next week slowly sipping water while simultaneously avoiding bright lights and sudden noises, it was worth every sip.

Rupa Bhattacharya, Culinary Writer

*Mustaches were a recurring theme at the conference, both in the context of historical bartenders (that they all had them) and modern bartenders (them too) – but honestly, I think I saw just as many Hawaiian shirts as I did mustaches. I’m wondering whether Tales 2109 will involve people ritualistically, only semi-ironically putting on Hawaiian shirts the same way this year’s non-mustachioed presenters did mustaches.

Ripe For The Picking

by in In Season, July 9th, 2009

On Saturday, just hours after getting home from a two-week vacation, I headed to the garden and felt like I was suddenly greeted by teenagers when I left toddlers behind. Every plant was twice its size and blooming fruit and flowers that were just days away from ripening.

Thankfully, I hadn’t missed any significant harvest, since I had plucked the blossoms off the tomatoes and peppers before I left, encouraging the plants to put their energy toward growing fuller before producing fruit.

These are the kinds of garden smarts I’ve learned from watching other gardeners year after year in my community garden, and I think I’m finally getting the hang of it.  If you love tomatoes and peppers too, here’s another tip: Plant early and plant often. Thanks to early and successive plantings (I’ve planted tomato seedlings every three weeks this summer), I have plants in every stage of ripening-which means we should have handfuls of tomatoes from now until October (unless I just jinxed myself by putting that in print).  I share more tips like that one with you on the next few episodes of our Good Food Garden documentary, so tune in, and dig in.

Sarah Copeland, Recipe Developer and Good Food Gardens spokesperson

Cannery Row

by in View All Posts, July 8th, 2009

Great piece today in Salon by Sarah Karnasiewicz, formerly of Saveur (and Salon too, actually, I think), about the resurgence of home canning, and whether we’re all deluding ourselves about homesteading being a logical response to a down economy.

As an avid home canner with a serious and legendary spatial-vision problem (which is what got me into home canning in the first place, as I brought home 15 pounds* of peaches entirely by accident a couple years ago), I’ve long since hit the acceptance stage, but those of you needing more justification would do well to read.

Rupa Bhattacharya, Culinary Writer

*They really seemed like 5 pounds. Not only do I have no spatial vision, I also clearly don’t know my own strength.

What!?

by in View All Posts, July 7th, 2009

I have a real weakness for imitation Herzog in pretty much any form, but in cooking show form? Yes, please.

YouTube Preview Image

For earlier forays into Herzogian food media (made, incidentally, by legendary filmmaker Les Blank, who himself has a food-film background), here. [via]

Rupa Bhattacharya, Culinary Writer

Holy Cow [rimshot]

by in View All Posts, June 30th, 2009

A Hare Krishna group in West Virginia (who knew?), faced with what appear to be mounting cases of dissatisfied cows, has launched the nation’s first adopt-a-cow program, allowing you to provide care for a retired cow for $108 a month — or, should that prove too pricey for you, you can feed a workaday cow for $51 a month instead.  And you should definitely click through to the WSJ article on it; the cow-profile woodcut is worth the price of admission.

Charlie, meanwhile, has been doing his part. He’s already adopted three. [via]

Rupa Bhattacharya, Culinary Writer