Monday, December 30, 2013

movie review: vanishing of the bees

It's amazing to think that something as tiny as a honeybee, which we routinely swat away from us, can carry the fate of billions of dollars of produce and the food supply of a nation on its shoulders. But honeybees are an essential part of our ecosystem and they are threatened by modern agriculture.

Vanishing of the Bees takes a look at the issue of colony collapse disorder (CCD). CCD is the term used to describe when a colony of bees disappears, leaving behind no dead bodies, but only the queen and a few young bees. No "official" scientific cause has been found for this phenomenon, though this film investigates the different possibilities. 

I've written about bees briefly before, where I mentioned I have always been scared of bees. After watching this film, I'm more in awe of them than afraid. Did you know one single bee can hit up 100,000 flowers every day? That's some productivity. Bees are responsible for pollinating $15 billion in crops in the U.S. alone. I think we owe them our attention.

The documentary talks about the religious, historical and cultural significance of the honeybee and how for centuries, bees have been thought of as an indicator of environmental quality - the healthier the hive, the healthier the environment. If bees can't thrive, we can't either. 

And right now? Bees are not thriving. CCD is affecting billions of bees and thousands upon thousands of hives with no exact known cause. 

Some who are proponents of organic/holistic beekeeping believe that it's a byproduct of industrial/commercial production of bees. Practices like artificially inseminating queens to select for certain traits (thereby reducing genetic pool) and taking honey away from the hive and replacing it with sugar syrups are blamed for compromising the health of the colony, making it more susceptible to diseases and sickness. Makes sense - that's happened for other animal species due to our industrial farming practices, so it's not too far fetched to believe it could happen to bees.

When colonies in 37 states were affected by CCD in the mid 2000s, scientists started trying to understand the cause. Even theories about cell phone towers or Russian sabotage were floated. They found viruses and bacteria in many of the colonies that collapsed that can kill bees, but not in enough of the collapsed hives to determine that these diseases were the cause of the collapse. 

More and more beekeepers and scientists started to look to our modern farming practices as the culprit. Our vast fields of monocultures are incredibly susceptible to pests, which explains the vast use of pesticides in our crops (you know, the same chemicals that were developed to kill people in WWII, which are now sprayed on our vegetables). But pesticides were put in use in agriculture years ago - and CCD is a more recent phenomenon. So how are they connected? 

Older versions of pesticides were sprayed on crops, and bees could be removed from the fields during spraying time. The pesticides were on the surface, where insects would eat portions of the leaves and die from system failures - not necessarily in the flower/pollen portion of the plant that bees access. If you had an issue where bees were affected by these pesticides, you would know it from the dead bees present.

It was when systemic pesticides were introduced that bees started to be affected. Systemic pesticides are part of the plant's seed and express themselves in the growth of the plant through its life, including pollen and nectar, which makes bees susceptible. When these pesticides were introduced, the only testing done on them was whether or not a dose was lethal. One flower isn't enough to kill a bee, so they were deemed "safe" (or the risk was deemed "acceptable"), but no research was done on low level, sublethal doses - the kind that accumulate over time and are brought back to hives. These pesticides have been found in high levels in hives, but science has yet to prove that CCD is caused by them. 

I find it highly problematic in this country that minimal testing needs to be done to prove something is an acceptable environmental risk, but conclusive testing must be done to be able to take it off the market after the fact. Our government throws caution to the wind and relies on the industry to do its own testing instead of doing independent, third-party testing. (Sound familiar?) Even watching European countries such as France ban these systemic pesticides and see bee populations recover somehow doesn't convince people in our country to take the same action. We're too concerned about the welfare of our corporations and our greed. 

I don't want to give away everything about this documentary, because I highly recommend you watch it for yourself and evaluate the science presented. Also, note that it's not just the organic loving people that are raising the alarm about bees - industrial beekeepers and industrial farmers that rely on bees to pollinate their crops are speaking out too. If you eat ANY fresh food whatsoever, you need to care about the plight of the bees. What's happening to our honeybees is a sign that our current system is unsustainable (one of many signs, actually.) 

The film also suggests some things you can do to take action for the bees - contacting your legislators is one way, but buying local, unadulterated U.S. honey, refraining from using chemicals on your lawn, eating organic produce that doesn't use systemic pesticides, growing a garden with a habitat for bees with lots of flowering plants - those are all important ways you can make a difference.

I can't recommend enough that you watch this film (I watched it on Netflix). Visit their website at and follow them on Twitter at @vanishingbees to keep up to date on the latest info about how you can help. For locals, check out Edible Allegheny's info on bees and CCD in western PA from their August/September issue.     

Thursday, December 26, 2013

reading this week

Some great reads from around the interwebs. Also, I often tweet links to stories that are especially important to me, since it's faster than waiting to compile them for a post. So follow me on Twitter if you're interested in food journalism or are a news junkie like me.

FDA: Anti-bacterial soaps may not curb bacteria (AP)
I'm not at all surprised by this. The growing threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria is only one of the threats posed by overuse of triclosan and antibacterial products. In 2013, we switched to Honest products at home, and their handsoap doesn't contain triclosan. Sometimes soap and hot water is the best way to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria (without the hormone disrupting side effects. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out with the FDA.

Forget Golf Courses: Subdivisions Draw Residents with Farms (NPR)
Totally fascinating new concept called development supported agriculture - residents sharing farms and agricultural production. Would make for an interesting HOA, that's for sure.

Soybeans: Factory Farming and the Destruction of Lands and Lives in Argentina (Eat Drink Better)
For all those who think soy is the great savior of food - a lesson about what Big Soy does to the environment and agricultural workers. 

Food Policy Stories that Mattered in 2013 (Civil Eats)
A great round-up post of the large issues in food policy that captured the nation's attention in 2013. Includes the battle over GMOs (which is far from over), labor, bees, nutrition and even antibiotic-resistance.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Mastering the Art of French Cooking dinner party

Ever since I was introduced to Julia Child, I've had an item on my bucket list - to cook an entire dinner party from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Everything from appetizers to desserts. I was able to check it off my list this month when we had a few friends over for a Christmas feast. (Excuse the poor phone photos - way too busy that day to break out the good camera.)

The first course was French onion soup (Soupe a l’Oignon Gratinee). The soup was really simple to make, though it takes awhile, since the onions cook low and slow, releasing the most amazing flavors. Once it's finished, it's topped with swiss cheese, toasted baguette and a bit of olive oil drizzle and set in the oven to brown and melt. We ate every drop.

The main course was beef stew with red wine (Boeuf a la Bourguignonne) over parsley potatoes with buttered green peas with shallots (Petits Pois Etuves au Beurre). The stew was so tender and flavorful - unlike any crock pot stew I've ever made. I don't know if it was the ingredients or the method or a combination of both, but the stew was also worth its effort. I made enough potatoes to feed an army (I overestimate how many will be needed every single time I make potatoes), but they paired well with the richness of the stew. The peas were also a hit, even with a few guests who only took the peas to be polite, but ended up really liking them. (That's always the mark of a great dish - when people who ordinarily would pass it up find it delicious.)

The French bread (Pain Francais) was something I had been wanting to make for a long time, having never made bread only from my hands before. (I've always relied on the dough hook of my mixer for kneading, the few times I've made homemade bread.) Jacking up the heat in our house that morning really helped the dough rise, since usually we keep it pretty low in the winter. I'm glad I thought to do that and followed Julia's recommendations on temperature. After hours of kneading and rising cycles, the payoff was worth the effort: crusty on the outside, soft on the inside loaves that rang hollow when you thumped them - Julia's indication that they are done. We ate all three loaves in a matter of minutes and they were so delicious in and of themselves that we didn't even need the honey butter! 

For dessert, it was a chocolate almond cake (Reine de Saba) and upside-down apple tart (Le Tarte des Demoiselles Tatin). Somehow I only took a photo of the apple tart when it was still upside down (crust on top) in the frying pan. At first I was skeptical that the cake recipe could really feed 8 people, especially when I saw that the frosting was nothing but a few tablespoons of butter and an ounce of chocolate. But it was so rich and creamy, we had leftovers - a little goes a long way. I should know by now not to doubt these recipes. I'm glad I didn't do the American thing and slather the cake in 50 pounds of icing and make 6 more layers. It was perfect the way it was. And adorable on a cake stand, too.

The apple tart was tricky, and I was nervous about burning the apples, so it was a little less caramelized than I'd like, but it worked out fine. It was also rich and very heavy on the sugar, so a little piece went very far. Perhaps that's the theme of these French recipes - a little goes a very long way. 

My friend Anthony chose some fantastic wines to pair with the food, according to Julia's recommendations in the cookbook. Even people who aren't usually wine people were impressed - it was like the wines were made for this specific menu!

Though the meal took 13 hours from start to finish and required assistance from other people (greatly appreciated), it was worth it. I feel like even through the busy, frenzied prep (and the fact that I needed this white board to keep track of where everything was in the process), I could find the joy in cooking these recipes and realize the painstaking care that was made in writing them. 
I could hear Julia's voice in the text and knowing that the hands in the bread making photos were hers makes it all the more special - and really makes it stand out from other cookbooks of today. Ghost writers abound in today's celebrity cookbooks, so knowing that Julia wrote and developed these recipes and their specific methods was having a connection with an author of a cookbook that I haven't experienced before. And to have people linger over a meal at the table for three hours blissfully full and content? Probably just how Julia intended.

For more on my obsession with Julia, check out these posts on watching The French Chef and a book review on her biography, Dearie.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Give the gift of a full belly - #pghsavesXmas

There are so many deserving charities that need help this time of year, especially with the demand of the holidays. While there are many good causes to support, I have a soft spot in my heart for hunger relief agencies, as evidenced by my desire to run for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in May for the Pittsburgh Half Marathon.

Also, I'm a lurker/follower of a great local blog called IheartPGH, which is exactly what it seems from the title - a blog about this great city and its people.

And I read this week that she's raising money for CHS, an organization that provides many needed services - mental health, homeless assistance, housing assistance, and today I found out - a food pantry. In cooperation with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, they serve as many people as they can in the Oakland area. And many in our city need food more than they need a fun Christmas present, as great as that is.

Not only is she raising money, but she's holding giveaways as well, and donating and spreading the word helps you win entries to walk away with some great prizes. Helping others have enough food to eat and spend Christmas with a roof over their head and a full belly while also getting to enter for great prizes and use the awesome hashtag #pghsavesXmas? Sounds good to me. Makes me feel like Pittsburgh's a super hero, and that let's me geek out a little bit too. Win.

Visit IheartPGH to check out the giveaways and ways to donate! (And follow her blog while you're at it - you'll learn so much more about Pittsburgh that you'll wish you had three extra days in the week to fit in more cool stuff.) 

Real Life CSA: winter share 2

Second winter CSA from Penn's Corner Farm Alliance this week, with some gems - and even one I had to research! (Also, those eggs in the background came from our backyard. Too lazy to remove them for photos, as well as the recipe holder.)

Mark and I are both excited to try the dilly beans - definitely a popular preservation for green beans in this region, but one that we've never tried. Maybe this will inspire us to can some next year!

I love the other supplemental item we got this time too - the goat cheese. Cheese never goes to waste in this house, and goat cheese is definitely a favorite. It's nice to get some extra pieces like that, which are still locally made, during the winter.

Potatoes from Weeping Willow Farm and these rutabegas from Clarion River Organics will make great sides this week. The purple color is so pretty - there's truly something edible in every color in nature!

This week I also had to research what salanova was - a lettuce varietal. The Post-Gazette even wrote about it last summer! We eat salads year-round, and we're excited to get fresh, local lettuce when it's snowing and 20 degrees outside. (Though it seems we're about to have a heat wave - high 60s in December? What is going on?) (The salanova is from Crighton's Farm and the bibb lettuce from Harmony Grove.)

The fresh ginger from Crighton's Farm is a cool find too. We use it in Asian dishes a lot (though we usually go easy on it, since for some reason it upsets my stomach, which is the opposite of what it does for most people!). Might be time for cashew chicken this week!

The onions from Blue Goose Farm (what a cool name) are also beautiful - really firm and a perfect size. Already used one for dinner the day we got them! Same with the Jona Gold apples from Kistaco Farm - crisp and delicious, especially with peanut butter. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

spreading holiday cheer with cookie boxes

The first Christmas Mark and I were together, we combined our baking super powers to make assorted holiday cookie/treat boxes for friends and family. The tradition grew over the next few years, each year upping the ante and making the box bigger and badder. Last year, because of Maggie's surgery and its associated expense, we had to forego the cookie boxes. This year, we prepared to resurrect the tradition and got our plans together, including the necessary three days off of work it requires. And then Maggie passed away the morning we were supposed to start.

We decided there would be no better way to work through our sadness than to spread some cheer and joy, so we forged ahead. Two and a half days later, we had 16 cookie packages ready to be sent across the country and hand delivered to family and friends. And our dining room looked like Santa's workshop exploded.

Mark has a family recipe for fruitcake that actually tastes good. It's such an intense job to make that it has to be mixed in a food grade bucket, but it's worth it.

My grandma Taylor was known for her cookies, and the molasses cookies she always made came from her mother's recipe. They are amazing chilled in the freezer, dipped in hot coffee.

I am slowly becoming a biscotti fan, and after I made chocolate peppermint biscotti with candy canes and white chocolate for our 2011 boxes, I had to repeat it this year.

I also experimented a few years ago with homemade marshmallows, and they made an appearance as well. This recipe is even good as they dry out, and they go great over a mug of cocoa.

Mark made batches of a classic favorite - white chocolate cranberry oatmeal.

Shortbread is one of my favorites, so I tried a new recipe for vanilla sables, which was delicious (and also didn't crumble like a lot of shortbread does).

Mark made eggnog fudge, which was a hit even with people (like me) who don't like traditional eggnog. 

I can't bake anything without considering at least one item that includes peanut butter, so I tried a classic Good Housekeeping recipe for toffee peanut butter rounds. Not the prettiest cookies in the world, but definitely the kind where you can eat 4 without even thinking.

Two boxes got a special addition, due to these particular family members having an affinity for them - vanilla coconut macaroons.

And last but not least are my favorites each year - sci fi gingerbread. Being geeks to the core, we love our Star Wars and Star Trek cookie cutters. (The Star Wars once are from Williams Sonoma and the Star Trek ones were custom-made for me by an Etsy seller, though Think Geek sells some now.)

In the interest of time, we used white royal icing and colored sugar instead of coloring all of the icing and filling in the cookie details. But they still turned out awesome and close to the right colors (Chewy got close with orange).

I particularly love the red symbol of the Klingon empire. The warrior's cookie of choice.

Star Trek: Delta shield, Vulcan salute, Klingon empire

Star Wars (light side): R2D2, Yoda, C3PO and Chewbacca

Star Wars (dark side): Darth Vader, Storm Trooper, Boba Fett, Death Star

We even had enough grape jelly that we could share a half pint in each box!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

the first and the best

There's an empty spot in front of our fireplace tonight. And when I walked in the back door today after work, the jingle bell that hangs on the handle made its usual noise, but no one came to greet me.

We lost our cat, Maggie, last week. She died in Mark's arms after a recurrence of her mammary cancer made her health and vitality rapidly deteriorate. She was a very sick little cat, and we are grateful her suffering was short-lived. Mark buried her at my grandparents' house, on land that is special to us, where many other beloved family animals have been buried. 

I won't ever forget the day that it happened or the raw sadness and grief that overwhelmed me in a way I hadn't expected. This was the first time I ever really lost a pet, having not grown up with cats or dogs. I'd only ever had two hamsters and some random goldfish, which just isn't the same.

But what becomes more amplified as the days have passed is the emptiness - the places she should be in our house and the things she should be doing. The window seat is empty. She's not pacing back and forth in front of the staircase waiting for us to wake up and come give her attention or shake the bag of treats. 

We curled up on the couch to watch Christmas movies yesterday by the light of the Christmas tree she loved to lay under, and I realized that I didn't just miss her - I missed the weight of her on my lap and the soft vibration of her purring. She purred constantly - something I like to think was a marker of her genuine happiness and contentment. 

Ironically, she wasn't always that way - the year that we got married and Mark moved into my apartment? Well, she spent most of that year hissing her face off, primarily at me. I was a stranger and so was my apartment - and it didn't help that our upstairs neighbor had cats, and sharing an HVAC system made Maggie constantly think other animals were near that she couldn't see. A move to our house quickly turned it around and the gentle cat that Mark had known since he rescued her as a kitten came back - and we became fast friends. 

Last year around Thanksgiving she had surgery to remove the tumors that had developed, and the surgery not only gave her another 13 months, but somehow an even more loving and gentle nature, if that's possible. She even let us put a Santa hat on her for all of 10 seconds. Back in 2009, I never thought I'd say this, but my heart is broken that she's gone. 

Maggie stands sentinel in my blog header - both the current holiday version and the regular one. And I'm going to keep it that way, since she will always be a part of the Next Gen House. I hope she could understand in whatever cat way she had, that in my heart, she will always be the first and the best cat.

Monday, December 9, 2013

book review: Pandora's Lunchbox by Melanie Warner

I do a lot of reading about food production, so you'd think there wouldn't be much left to shock me about processed food. You'd be wrong.

Pandora's Lunchbox by Melanie Warner is full of information about the origins and development of some of the most recognizable processed foods in the average American diet. I didn't realize that the average American's consumption of processed foods totals 70% of total food intake.

That's pretty amazing. And kind of really gross at the same time.

I listened to this on audiobook, so it was hard to keep notes. But if I did, I would have been scribbling down information constantly. This book is engaging and packed with information, without reading like a textbook. By presenting the information without editorializing, it also leaves the judgment passing to the reader. 

The author takes a practical approach, suggesting that if we can't get rid of processed foods altogether, even reducing our intake is important. Small changes add up over time, and if the consumption of processed foods in this country was even reduced to 30% of our diet, it would make a very significant change in our overall health as a nation.

If you're looking for information to make an informed decision about your diet, Pandora's Lunchbox is a great, accessible place to start.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Real Life CSA: winter share 1

This week we received our first winter CSA share! This is our first year with Penn's Corner Farm Alliance. (Just for the record, we switched for winter due to pickup locations - not because we have complaints about our spring/summer/fall CSA.) Penn's Corner is a 30-member farm cooperative in southwestern PA - their members use sustainable farming practices and have a huge variety of food items available. (They even run an online farm stand with various pickup locations around the city!)

So here's what we got for the first share!

We get an email with details before each share, but Penn's Corner also posts even more information on their blog. It includes recipes and a list of where each item came from, since they aren't all from the same farm. 

I am psyched to see honey from Bedillion Honey Farm, which is an essential ingredient in the homemade granola I make for breakfasts. 

It's amazing that even after being a produce CSA subscriber for years, we still get things that we've never had before. (Oh the wonder of not limiting your vegetables to the ones in the grocery store!) The giant rock of a vegetable above is a black radish from Nu Way Farm, which happens to be very close to where I grew up, in Mercer County. (For those of you locals, Fredonia!) 

I absolutely adore brussels sprouts, so these ones from Clarion River Organics will be roasted with the shallots we got in this share from Crighton's Farm.

It comes in really handy for us that we also got a dozen eggs, since our chickens have been going through a decently long period of not laying, with the time change and lack of light, plus molting at the same time. Only within the last week did one of them (Ensign Ricky the champ, we think) start laying again, so our egg supply has dwindled significantly. These eggs are from Heritage Farm

All of the great greens will be eaten up in salad, including the hydroponic bib lettuce. The pears will make great snacks too! Definitely thrilled with the selection and quality of this first share - and can't wait until we get to discover the next one in two weeks!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

movie review: hungry for change

Hungry for Change is a film made by the same people that made Food Matters, which I previously reviewed. Like the first one, I think this is a compelling documentary with a lot of salient points. Plus, I think it touches on a lot of great points about the diet industry - which is something a lot of food studies/clean eating resources forget about.

Diet and weight loss is an industry that brings in $60 billion a year. At the same time, 2/3 of all dieters regain more than they lose. So why do we keep pumping money into diet foods and weight loss programs when they clearly don't work, and we're sicker and more malnourished as a nation than ever before? 

This film delves into the chemical processes in your body that make you crave and retain fat (and sugar and salt). Which goes to explain why when the "no-fat" crazy gripped the nation, tons of people didn't lose weight - they just started eating carbs like crazy and then got addicted to sugar. We become habituated to the effects of things like sugar and caffeine over time - which isn't surprising, because they are drugs. The film notes that more people die from food related chronic disease (like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes) than illegal drugs each year.

Hungry for Change spends a lot of time on the harm that we do ourselves when we make ourselves miserable dieting and don't give our body and minds what they need to be healthy. Dieting can trigger feelings of deprivation and desperation that aren't a part of a generally healthy lifestyle change. This film makes the compelling case that you're much better served by looking at your diet as a way to achieve health and balance and not as an enemy.

It did delve into JUICING IS AMAZING territory, as well as DETOXING IS AWESOME-ville, which induced my usual eye rolls. But if juicing gets people to stop eating Doritos and drinking Pepsi, I'm down.

All in all, this film was a good reminder of the most basic principles of healthy living - and that the benefits of eating clean are myriad, from whatever perspective you hold.

Monday, December 2, 2013

run for a reason: Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank

In 2013, I became a runner. Sure, before this year I ran a few 5Ks and an adventure race, but wasn't really into running. It wasn't until February of this year that a group of my friends decided to challenge ourselves and run in the Pittsburgh Marathon Relay in May that I started to train. My goal was just to make it to 5.5 miles, but some last minute shuffling made it so that I needed to run the 6.1 leg. That race hooked me in a big way. The feeling of running through my city on roads where I'd normally sit in traffic, with the crowds cheering my every step and knowing my friend was waiting for me to get to her for the last leg? Amazing.

So then I kept training and kept setting goals and signing up for races. I just finished my last race of 2013 on Thanksgiving Day - a Turkey Trot with my dad at Presque Isle State Park in Erie (in packed snow and ice, to boot). It was, fittingly, my 13th race of 2013. It's been a good year. So what's on the docket for next year?

This year I'm returning to the Pittsburgh Marathon event to run the UPMC Health Plan Pittsburgh Half - 13.1 miles of glorious Pittsburgh, the first weekend in May. And this year, I'm running for a reason. My goal is to raise $350 for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank - $26.72 for each mile I'm going to run that day.

I chose to run for the GPCFB because there's nothing so important as making sure people's basic needs are met. And through more than 350 agencies, the GPCFB helps to feed people in an 11 county area surrounding and including Pittsburgh. They distribute 27 million pounds of food in the area each year. 27 million pounds. But they don't just stop at distributing food - they also work toward ending hunger by education and advocacy. And that's a cause that's near and dear to my heart.

Through their partnerships, they are able to make every $1 donated translate to $5 of food for hungry people. You can read more about their work here.

So next May 4, I'll be running my first half marathon of the season to support GPCFB. If you'd like to make a (tax-deductible) donation to my fund, you can do so by clicking here. Share it around with anyone you know - or if you're feeling like running through my city, register to run for GPCFB too!