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The rural food desert

Even the supermarkets lack real food

August 16, 2013

Think fast: Where’s the nearest food desert?

The stereotypical food desert is a blighted, impoverished, minority-dense urban neighborhood — West Oakland, Anacostia, great swathes of Detroit. Supermarkets are scarce in these neighborhoods; the most common food sources are convenience stores and fast-food outlets.

But Seattle, that wealthy techie paradise, also suffers from supermarket shortages. In the Seattle neighborhood where I grew up, I can walk fairly easily to fancy restaurants and trendy coffee shops. But I can’t walk to a decent grocery store; in fact, it’s at least a 20-minute drive, if not more, to get to a supermarket like Whole Foods.

And the nation’s rural areas are also typically overlooked as food deserts. On a recent trip to see relatives in eastern North Carolina, we drove for miles down the rural-highway version of those urban food deserts: gas stations, Kangaroo Express mini-marts, junk-food franchises. If the fried chicken and sweet tea on offer at Bojangles are your thing, well, you’ve got plenty of opportunities to sample them. But grocery stores? Good luck.

A Paula Deen chocolate cake sold at a North Carolina Walmart, with a shelf life of 10 days.

The dominant supermarket chains in Carteret County appeared to be the regional Food Lion and the nationally ubiquitous Walmart. On the last day of our visit, on our way to the airport in New Bern, we stopped at a Food Lion to pick up some airplane snacks. I thought perhaps I’d find some rolls or something similar to placate my children, maybe some organic fruit. But after walking the length of the store — twice — I gave up.

The store had a bakery department, plus an aisle with loaves of bread and English muffins and the like. But every item had a list of chemical ingredients so long that, if I peeled off one of the sticker labels, it would cover the back of my hand. A fresh loaf of bread made with, you know, just flour and yeast and water and salt? Haw.

None of the produce seemed to be organic, much less locally grown. (No local beefsteak tomatoes, in rural North Carolina in August? Good grief.) Supposedly Food Lion produces its own line of organic foods, but if they were in that store, I missed ‘em. So I settled, regretfully, for a bag of non-organic grapes and a package of conventionally produced string cheese.

At the checkout, I was startled to see the clerk ring up a “food tax” of 2 percent. Apparently, North Carolina has taxed its residents on food since the 1960s, and the current rate of 2 percent is actually low in comparison with previous rates. (Food-stamp purchases are, mercifully, exempt.)

Washington State, where I grew up, does not tax food purchases. Neither does the state of Oregon, where I currently live. Naïvely, I had assumed that groceries, as an essential staple, were tax-free everywhere. But no. In North Carolina, you get to buy fake food at the supermarket, and pay extra for the privilege.

So it’s little wonder that eating well is so hard to do in certain — most? — regions of the country. My aunt in eastern North Carolina has a garden, from which she both cooks excellent homemade food and puts up dozens of preserves and pickles. But a garden only goes so far. It’s so much easier, after all, to just get takeout from Smithfield's Chicken ‘N Bar-B-Q, or to buy all your food in plastic clamshells at Walmart.

Back home, I have a new appreciation for my local grocery stores. My branch of the locally based New Seasons chain, for example, where bread is made fresh daily from whole ingredients and the produce department is heavily seasonal: oranges in winter, stone fruit in summer. My outlet of the Kroger-owned Fred Meyer, which, like every Fred Meyer in Portland, has a hippie ghetto full of decent bread, organic milk, and bulk foods.

And there are other markets opening up near me: the just-opened P's & Q's Market in the Woodlawn neighborhood, the soon-to-open Green Zebra chain.

All of which means that I’m within easy walking, driving, or public-transiting distance of a number of markets that sell real food, not just what Michael Pollan calls "food-like substances" strangled in plastic wrap. How many of us can do that?

Let’s close with the list of ingredients from Walmart’s Chocolate Cake With Fudge Icing and Chocolate Shavings — not quite the same as the Paula Deen chocolate pound cake I sampled at a North Carolina dinner party, but pretty darn close:

Sugar, Nonfat Milk, Palm Oil, Enriched Wheat Flour Bleached (Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Semi-Sweet Chocolate Flakes (Cocoa Mass, Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Soy Lecithin, Natural Flavor), Whole Eggs, Soybean Oil, Water, Cocoa Processed With Alkali, Whey (Milk), Egg Whites, Corn Starch, Food Starch-Modified, Invert Sugar, Leavening (Baking Soda, Monocalcium Phosphate, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Aluminum Sulfate, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate), Mono & Diglycerides, Salt, Butterfat, Chocolate Liquor, Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (Soybean And/Or Cottonseed Oil), Propylene Glycol, Mono & Diesters of Fatty Acids, Dark Chocolate Square (Chocolate Liquor, Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Whey, Nonfat Milk, Soya Lecithin [Emulsifier], Vanilla Extract), Soy Lecithin, Corn Flour, Dextrose, Polysorbate 60, Soy Flour, Sodium Propionate And Sorbic Acid (As Preservatives), Xanthan Gum, Methylcellulose Gum, Natural And Artificial Flavor, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Chocolate Liquor, Cellulose Gum, Guar Gum, Wheat Starch, Citric Acid, Natural Tocopherol, Tricalcium Phosphate. Contains Major Food Allergens (Milk, Wheat, Soy, Eggs). May Contain Peanuts/Tree Nuts.

It’s always good to have your propylene glycol in your underarm deodorant and eat it, too.

Children’s cupcakes

For birthday parties

March 18, 2013

This week, my older daughter will turn 4. In previous years, she’s either been oblivious to the whole birthday-festivity thing, or just confused by it. But this year she gets it — especially the cake-and-presents part. So, for the first time, we’re making a relatively big deal out of it.

She has requested a cake flavor — chocolate, her favorite — and wants to help make cupcakes to take to her preschool on her birthday. In the interest of transportation ease, we are going to make Black Bottom Cupcakes, which hit both the required chocolaty (the cake) and creamy (the cream-cheese filling) notes. (The chocolate chips dotting the filling are a bonus.) And then, on the weekend, we will do another variation of the whole cake-baking thing for a family party — probably Texas Sheet Cake.

All this cake-and-birthday planning reminds me of my own days of school birthday parties. The heyday for these roughly corresponds with the heyday for birthday parties in general: kindergarten through fifth grade. You bring enough cupcakes for everybody in your class to school on your birthday, and at some point the teacher sets aside time for everyone to sing “Happy Birthday” and snarf cupcakes.

Well, at least that was how it worked in my public elementary schools in Seattle. My husband, who attended East Coast public schools with a decidedly more hippie bent, was shocked to find out that cupcake parties were a regular thing.

“We weren’t allowed to bring anything to school on our birthdays,” he said. “It wasn’t fair to the kids who had summer birthdays.”

“But the summer-birthday kids got to have outdoor parties!” I protested. “Us winter kids were always stuck inside for our parties. I think it was a fair trade-off.”

black bottom cupcakes
Black Bottom Cupcakes are a childhood delight.

Of course, given that the school cupcake standard in my day was Duncan Hines, and the cupcake standard these days seems to be the equally chemical variety that comes boxed up in plastic clamshells from the supermarket, I’m not sure that my husband’s set-up isn’t an improvement.

But I still think that bringing birthday treats to school is a nice tradition, especially if you can swing the homemade variety and make them with an enthusiastic birthday kid the night before. And someday I might actually manage the gold standard from my childhood: the cheesecake cupcake.

Now, I’m not a cheesecake person. In fact, I don’t find the typical heavy, dense, chalky American cheesecake at all appealing. But the cheesecake cupcake I was privileged to enjoy as a kid was a different dessert entirely. Light, delicate, soft, creamy, with a nice contrasting gentle crunch of graham-cracker crust, the cupcakes were tangy as well as sweet, and just the right size in cupcake form.

They were a once-a-year treat, because only one kid brought them to school. I can’t think of those cupcakes now without a twinge of guilt and regret, because despite their vast superiority to the typical school cupcake, they were different. And being different, of course, is risky business in school.

Granted, I was in the “gifted” class, the class crammed with all the early readers who talked too much and all the math whizzes who didn’t really know when to talk at all. But the Cheesecake Cupcake kid stood out even in this company for his discomfort with his peers, his inability to make small talk, his difference. And so the class bullies picked on him, and the rest of us cowards stayed mum.

I think his parents must have fought, all along, for his right to be different. They had saddled him from the get-go with an unusual Biblical name — not a traditionally popular moniker, like Jacob or Michael, and not a trendy one, like today’s Ezra or Luke, but one of those truly esoteric labels along the lines of Ichabod or Jephthah. And every year, this kid showed up on his birthday with those cheesecake cupcakes.

I mean, they weren’t even cake! And they didn’t have frosting on top! And they had shiny silver wrappers instead of regular paper. And they were always plain white vanilla, nothing interesting like chocolate or even colored sprinkles. Weird, weird, weird! What were his parents thinking?

I never had the guts to tell the oddball kid how much I looked forward to his wacky birthday cakes. Sure, I liked the Duncan Hines just fine. But the cheesecakes were special. They weren’t just different and clearly homemade; they were delicious. So delicious, in fact, that they are the only cheesecake I would be eager to try again, to get the recipe, to concoct for my own children.

So far, though, I have contented myself with Googling the cheesecake kid to find out what happened to him. True to form, he is now pursuing post-doctoral work at one of our nation’s more esteemed institutes of higher scientific learning.

I admit it would be cooler if he had continued to be wildly different, along the lines of, say, Hedy Lamarr or Danica McKellar — you know, nerds who pursue unusual life paths. But I’m OK with the standard brainiac success story. Eat that, classroom bullies!

Related recipe: Texas Sheet Cake; recipe: Black Bottom Cupcakes

Fat frustration

How bad is dietary fat, really?

February 4, 2013

Sure, I understand that health writers like to beat their favorite tom toms over and over: Eat less, get more exercise, yada yada yada. But when a particular health concept becomes a cliché, you know it’s become conventional wisdom.

Here are three recent examples:

In a New York Times travel article about Alpine cheese, Ceil Miller Bouchet wrote, “The winner, by far, was the Beaufort cheese soup. Basically, Maryse explained, it’s a combination of melted Beaufort, cream, egg yolks and garlic. Fortunately, I was more concerned about my limited skiing abilities than about my cholesterol level.”

In a Bon Appétit feature about, again, eating in the Alps, Nick Paumgarten tossed off a couple of health comments:

  1. Kaseschnitte consists merely of a thick slice or two of toasted bread soaked in wine, topped with a heavy layer of Fontal or Emmenthal cheese and broiled in a crock pan. It may come with bacon, ham, or a fried egg. Zermatt is no place to lower your LDL.”
  2. “They offered me uova sometta — Italian, apparently, for “stroke on a plate”: two fried eggs, ham, and Fontina cheese. I had an espresso instead.”

And in a New Yorker profile of the health guru Mehmet Oz, Michael Specter casually reported that Oz’s father-in-law “was also among the first physicians to advocate a low-fat diet for his patients, which, although now routine, was ridiculed when he proposed it.”

baked eggs
How healthy is a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast?

The idea that eating high-fat foods will wreck your health — and, conversely, that eating a low-fat diet is good for you — has clearly attained the status of conventional wisdom in our culture. So conventional, in fact, that these authors’ offhand remarks evidently passed unquestioned by copy editors.

What’s confusing, though, is that plenty of other writers have claimed just the opposite. The well-known science journalist Gary Taubes, in particular, has declared that a low-fat diet, especially a carbohydrate-heavy diet high in refined grains and sugars, will actually make you gain weight, not lose it. A similar argument focused entirely on wheat has been made by William Davis, a doctor whose self-help health book Wheat Belly has been a New York Times bestseller for months.

It’s no wonder the average eater has no clue. Should we eat fat? Or not? If so, which fats?

We were once told that trans fats, such as those found in traditional Crisco and margarine, were good for us, because they came from plants, not animals. But then it came out (thanks in part to the work of Walter Willett) that the chemical structure of trans fats actually caused heart disease instead of preventing it.

Animal fats, we were next told, could be good for us, but only if the animal in question was raised, fed, and treated appropriately; cows fed only grass, not grain, have healthier fats in their meat than factory-farmed animals. But grilling your meat can cause cancer — or not, depending on which source you consult.

Eggs, too, were long reviled on the theory that they were high in cholesterol, and people logically (if erroneously) assumed that eating a lot of cholesterol would be bad for your blood-cholesterol levels. Over the past few years, however, a number of studies have refuted the eggs-are-bad-for-you idea; the latest study, in late January, declared that, for most people, an egg a day did not raise the risk of heart disease or stroke.

In fact, the question of how saturated fat is related to heart disease, if at all, has an entire Wikipedia page devoted to it, with competing statements from scientists, authors, medical boards, and industry associations.

In his Mehmet Oz profile, Michael Specter does not challenge the conventional wisdom that low-fat diets are healthy. But he does challenge Oz, taking him to task for being wishy-washy about science:

“Either data works or it doesn’t,” I said. “Science is supposed to answer, or at least address, those questions. Surely you don’t think that all information is created equal?”
Oz sighed. “Medicine is a very religious experience,” he said. “I have my religion and you have yours. It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. Data is rarely clean.”
All facts come with a point of view. But his spin on it — that one can simply choose those which make sense, rather than data that happen to be true — was chilling.
“You find the arguments that support your data,” he said, “and it’s my fact versus your fact.”

May the best fact win — or not.

The fruit forager

Trying to fend for herself

September 11, 2012

Last week, on a hot weekday afternoon, a woman came to my front door. I saw her shadow through the curtained glass, and went to open it before she could knock; it was the quarter-hour of the day when both my children are miraculously asleep at the same time, and I didn’t want her to wake them up.

She was about my age, in her mid-30s, and she was holding a bunch of grapes in her right hand. She looked healthy and ordinary. But her expression was contorted, desperate, almost revolted.

“Do you have any fruit to pick?” she asked.

I glanced down at the grapes in her hand. They were dusty, freshly picked; I recognized them as Concord grapes from a neighbor’s temptingly close-to-the-street vine. I looked back at the woman. She was hungry. She was ashamed, and afraid, and angry. And she was defiantly trying to retain her dignity by not asking for money or food outright, but by asking for a different sort of handout: the kind that required work on her part.

So I respected her request. “There’s a fig tree out on the sidewalk strip,” I said. “But I’m afraid it’s been a bad year, and there probably aren’t any ripe figs on it right now.”

She frowned in confusion. “A fig tree? Where?”

I pointed, and she turned and went down the steps to look. I stepped inside to make sure the kids were still quiet, then padded back out in my bare feet to see what she had made of the figs.

She had a bicycle parked out front, right by the fig tree, with a bike trailer of the variety designed for towing small children but often appropriated by the homeless for collecting and carting around recyclable cans and bottles. I was surprised she hadn’t noticed the fig tree — it’s the only tree of any significant size on the block — but then, as I saw her take a bite out of a hard, green, very much unripe fig, I realized that she probably didn’t have the least idea what a fig was.

Her face twisted and she flung the chewed fig aside. “Ach, it’s disgusting,” she said.

“Well, the neighbors across the street have pears and apples,” I suggested, pointing again. “They’re not quite ripe yet, but you can check them out.”

small apples
Small, unripe apples from a neighbor’s tree.

She thanked me and began to wheel her bicycle apparatus toward the corner, where she stopped, attracted by the pale purple berries on our currant bushes. “What about these?” she called back. “Can I eat these blueberries?”

“They’re currants,” I called out. “They’re edible, but they’re not very tasty.” She grabbed a few to try, then pushed on. And was gone, out of sight behind the bushes.

I went back inside, to listen for my children and to think about this odd woman. Part of me wanted to tell her about Urban Edibles, the community-sourced website that plots locations of free-for-the-picking edibles around our town of Portland, Oregon. Most of me knew, however, that this suggestion would be dismissed as daft — Sure, lady, like I got an iPhone in my pocket — and my follow-up idea of hitting the local library for its free Internet access would be deemed, quite simply, feeble.

Because the very fact that this woman was going about her project all wrong said to me that truly practical, big-picture suggestions would not work for her.

She was going door to door on a hot weekday afternoon. How many people are actually home at that hour? She was looking for forageable fruit with just the barest idea of what to look for. How many foragers go out without knowing what to look for? Even beginners bring a book of some kind, or preferably another forager who knows what he or she is doing.

This woman didn’t recognize a fig tree when she was standing right under it. She hadn’t spotted the bulging apple and pear trees across the street. She mistook flowering redcurrants — which produce berries palatable only to birds — for blueberries.

Ripe purple table grapes, sure — those are easy. But have you ever wondered why Concord grapes seldom turn up in supermarkets except in Welch’s grape jelly and juice? They are sweet — so sweet as to set your teeth on edge. Their skins are thick and rubbery. They are very seedy. They are, in other words, perfect for making jelly, but not much else.

Granted, this woman wasn’t making decisions based on logic but on hunger. But that, I thought to myself, was all the more reason for her to streamline her efforts, to conserve her energy. Going door to door on a weekday looking for food you can’t recognize struck me as the worst kind of ratio: exhausting expenditure for a minuscule yield.

How did this woman get to this place in her life? How did she end up not only with no material resources but no intellectual resources to call on? The best she could do was, by some measures, better than begging. But it was a largely wasted effort; it may have preserved her pride, but it didn’t fill her stomach.

Tongue tied

How to cook a cow tongue

October 24, 2009

So last summer, my husband and I bought a quarter of a cow. Hung, butchered, wrapped, and frozen, it filled our entire chest freezer. Most of it wound up as ground beef, but a few less-than-choice cuts come with the territory. Thus far, we’ve tackled beef liver and beef tongue.

The liver was, to put it succinctly, a bust. We soaked it in milk for a few days, on the theory that this would dull some of the, well, livery taste. (It’s a good theory, since, as Matthew Amster-Burton explained in his column on milkshakes, the fat in dairy can flatten out sharper flavors.) Then we pan-fried it, ate a few bites, looked at each other, and gave the rest to the cat.

It was just too strong a taste for us. And, heck, we like liver, at least the kind that comes in poultry; we’re happy to pan-fry that stuff and spread it on bread any day. But this? This was overwhelming.

At least, until I unwrapped the beef tongue. Holy cow. Holy cow.

raw beef tongue
One raw beef tongue, ready for braising.

This was, recognizably, a tongue. An enormous tongue — from a 1,000-pound steer, remember? A black tongue, covered in bristly-looking taste buds.

I was, momentarily, horrified. I mean, I was perfectly willing to butcher and grill three of my chickens, but those were birds. Not mammals. For an instant, I fully understood vegetarianism, on that visceral level where disgust and revulsion congregate.

But we had friends coming over for dinner the next night, friends who had also bought a quarter-cow with us and had expressed a willingness to try the tongue. And I had come up with an ambitious plan for cooking it: braising it and saucing it the way we’d had something sort of similar — beef cheeks — at a popular Walla Walla restaurant, Saffron. (Thanks to local food-and-wine magazine Northwest Palate, we also had the recipes for both beef and sauce.)

So I dropped the tongue — thunk — into a Dutch oven and began braising it in red wine. It simmered for a few hours, and then I let it cool. It was still black, and quite firm. I poked it with a finger, watching the rubbery surface bounce back. Jesus. What was I supposed to do next?

“Call Anya,” my husband said. “She’ll know what to do.”

It was 8:30 on a Friday night, but why not? Anya Fernald — the former director of Slow Food Nation and the current force behind Live Culture — knows meat. She’d already suggested asking our cow’s butcher for eye of round, so we could cure our own bresaola in a wine fridge. (Alas, our butcher’s skills were limited to only a few basic cuts, and eye of round wasn’t one of them.) She would definitely know what to do.

Fortunately, she was home. “OK, first you take off the taste buds. Then cut off the cartilage at the back. Then slice it really thin,” she said. “Do you have a meat slicer? No? Well, take it to your local butcher shop and have them cut it for you. Buy a sausage or something, then hold up your tongue and say, ‘By the way, would you cut this for me?’ Once you’ve got it sliced, fan it out and pour a sauce over it, like a tonnato sauce or a salsa verde. Salt. You’ll need salt. And that’s it.”

Excellent. I took a knife to the taste buds and lo, they peeled away like, well, leather. The next night, my husband tackled the cartilage and the thin-slicing while I reheated my version of Saffron’s sweet-and-sour eggplant sauce.

Our friends arrived. If the tongue was truly terrible, I thought, we could always ditch it and boil water for pasta, using the eggplant as a pasta sauce. But it wasn’t. It was good. Soft, pleasantly chewy, and good. Our pals even took some home with them as leftovers.

Will I tackle a beef tongue again? Probably not; I like lengua tacos, but not enough to devote an entire day’s worth of braising and chopping and saucing to them. Still, it’s good to know that nose-to-tail cooking at home can be successful.

Related recipe: Eggplant Agrodolce

African cooking challenge

August 20, 2009

We have friends currently living in Lesotho. (Never heard of it? Think South Africa, and you’re about there.) They are culinarily challenged right now, given their limited food options and kitchen supplies. Check out their post about it and feel free to leave them suggestions for one-pot meals.

How much $ does gardening really save?

From Caroline — Blog by
April 30, 2009

Everybody these days is gardening to save money on produce. Or raising chickens to do the same on eggs.

The articles tell you things like, say, one flat of bok choy starts will save you hundreds of dollars come harvesttime. sure, if your boy choy starts actually produce a prolific (i.e., lots of crop) and edible (i.e., the bugs and birds don’t destroy it) harvest. And if you can actually eat the dozens of pounds of bok choy you’ve grown come harvesttime. freezing all that extra bok choy? Not so appetizing.

At my house, we’ve already blown several hundred dollars in the past year on raising chickens (counting the cost of building a home for them, plus their feed costs) and another several hundred dollars on gardening supplies and classes for the veggie beds.

Yes, we get 1 to 3 eggs a day. Yes, we have unlimited amounts of parsley in the yard. But our radish crop has already failed. And we love eggs so much, we still buy supplemental eggs at the store.

Are we raising chickens and growing a garden to save moola? Heck no. We do it because it’s fun and, when the urban-homesteading stars align, über-fresh and therefore way tastier than anything at the farmers’ market. Our eggs are awesome and so, in years past, have been our raspberries, peas, favas, and eggplants. But are we laughing all the way to the bank? No way.

Hospital food

From Caroline — Blog by
March 27, 2009

After three post-partum days in the hospital, it was a relief to get home to genuine homemade food.

My hospital made an effort towards food awareness (statements on the patient menu about trying to source food locally, etc.), and some of the food was actually quite flavorful (salmon with fresh lemon and sour cream). But, by and large, the food was the expected amalgam of blah (lots of Jell-O and saltines) and pseudo-healthy (a breakfast sandwich that featured “reduced-fat cheese, lean ham, and a low-cholesterol egg”).

Most of the selections tasted canned (cream of tomato soup) instead of homemade as the menu promised. Worse, the food-service staff had been instructed to keep patients off whole grains and fiber for the first few days after surgery, on the theory that such foods would be difficult for recovering patients to digest. But if you’re already used to, say, oat-bran bread — and if you’re on constipation-inducing pain relievers — wouldn’t it be better to down some whole grains instead of white bread?

The mysteries of powdered milk

From Caroline — Blog by
March 12, 2009

Still haven’t made any homemade yogurt — although I like Sarah’s idea of using a slow cooker, a gadget I’ve been fooling around with lately. (See her comment in the Nancy’s Yogurt blog post, below.)

Mostly I’ve been poking around the Interweb and the library, trying to find out basic information about milk powder. It’s kind of like trying to research atomic scientists during WWII — very hush-hush.

One thing I’ve noticed, on ingredient labels and in the bulk bins at various local grocery stores, is that all the milk powder circulating out there seems to be of the nonfat variety. As Anne Mendelson points out in her book Milk, milk fat causes problems in the dehydration process, specifically the fat’s “tendency to develop spoiled or harsh flavors . . . This is why virtually all commercial brands [of dried milk powder] are nonfat.”

So maybe dried milk powder made from whole milk has more oxidized cholesterol than dried milk powder made from nonfat milk?

Wikipedia’s various articles about powdered milk and spray drying touch on the controversy over whether the process of turning liquid milk into powder creates oxidized cholesterol without really giving much data either way, and without discussing the whole milk/nonfat milk thing.

If you read Nina Planck (Real Food) or hang out on the Weston A. Price Foundation website, you’ll hear a lot about how powdered milk is one of the modern industrial food system’s many evils. But neither Planck nor the foundation backs up their claims with citations of actual scientific studies about the topic.

As one newspaper writer would have it, worrying about dried milk powder is silly, because there just isn't enough oxidized cholesterol in, say, a carton of yogurt to worry about.

On the other hand, I’d like to be able to buy yogurt, kefir, milk, and other liquid dairy products without fretting that they’re full of additives that I wasn’t expecting — milk powder, pectin, corn syrup, etc.

My latest purchase? Goat-milk kefir from Redwood Hill, bought because — shocking concept — it contains nothing more than goat milk and active cultures. The packaging brags that it’s “completely natural — no sugar, artificial coloring, preservatives, stabilizers, or powdered milk.” And why is powdered milk bad? Redwood Hill ain’t saying.

However, I just don’t think the powdered-milk thing is going to go away, especially as folks like the New York Times’ Jane Brody are touting it yet again as a great way to get cheap milk in tough times. Hm. Me, I’ll stick to trying to find good fresh whole milk, like Matthew Amster-Burton.

Ultimate chocolate pudding

Better than Martha

March 8, 2009

Carrie Floyd, our food editor, was raving about a chocolate pudding her daughter made recently, from a Martha Stewart recipe designed to encourage parents to cook with their kids.

So I decided to try it out, although I was a little nonplussed by the instructions to stir the pudding in an ice bath to cool it after cooking it. I’ve done this for gelatin puddings, but never for a cornstarch pudding. The results? A lot of stirring and a rather grainy texture. And for all that the Martha recipe calls for a ton of melted chocolate chips, the recipe wasn’t particularly chocolatey.

So I flipped to the cornstarch-pudding section of my 1990s edition of Joy of Cooking, which promptly admonished me for stirring a cornstarch pudding after it’s thickened — a big no-no in the cornstarch-pudding world, apparently. The extra stirring explained the graininess.

OK, then. So what about the lack of chocolate oomph? I flipped through a variety of chocolate-pudding recipes in books and online, and came up with my own version: Creamy Chocolate Pudding. Plenty of dairy, like the Martha recipe. But more cocoa powder to boost the chocolate quotient and a dash of butter for extra richness.

I think it kicks Martha’s kiddie version in the pants.

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Caroline Cummins

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