Wednesday, April 30, 2014

homebrew kombucha: making a SCOBY

I finally bit the bullet on moving forward with my homebrew kombucha after writing about the status of my goals for 2014. I pulled out the supplies Mark had given me a couple years ago, as well as my copy of Sandor Katz's The Art of Fermentation and a few step by step tutorials online. (While The Art of Fermentation is awesome and gives a ton of good information, especially trouble shooting, I really needed a step by step, numbered instruction list for my own learning style. For some people, that book might be enough.)

Basically, kombucha is fermented sweet tea. People drink it for a lot of reasons - everything from enjoying the taste to thinking it cures cancer. I am strongly in the "enjoys the taste" camp, with also an added benefit I've seen with my own GI issues, since the "good bacteria" in kombucha can aid digestion. I don't think it's a cure for anything (and even a hippie fermenter like Katz doesn't claim that). The main reason I want to make it at home is because a 16 ounce bottle of it is almost $4, and I want to drink too much of it for it to be cost effective for me to buy it at the store.

To begin, you need a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). You can purchase them online, or get them from someone who homebrews their kombucha, or you can make one. While Mark had originally purchased one for me back when I got the other supplies, I'm not sure how effective it will be after this long. So I'm trying an experiment - going to brew batches with the SCOBY he purchased for me as well as one I make on my own. Which gives me the opportunity to learn to grow one. (Though thank you to Deanna who generously offered a SCOBY baby for me to use!)

So I began with my book, this tutorial and these supplies:

Water, sugar, organic black tea and a bottle of store-bought original kombucha. (I like GT's kombucha, in case you want to try some in the store to see if you like it. But I prefer the flavors that have juice in them - like mango, cranberry and strawberry. I've tried other brands, but none are as tasty as GT's.) The cheesecloth and half gallon Ball jar are for the setup.

Boil the water, and then add the sugar, stirring to dissolve.

Next you steep the tea for a bit. The marks on the bottom of my pan are from stirring through the bubbles on the bottom (though it looks like something's floating in there!). It sits until it comes back down to room temperature.

While this steeped and cooled, I measured out the 8 ounces of GT's I would use. You can vaguely see in this close-up of the GT's kombucha that there are floating pieces of brown film-like substance in it. I made sure to fish those pieces out and include them, since they are baby SCOBYs.

After the tea was cool, I added it to the mason jar. (And managed to clean off most of the kitchen island to take a photo without as much crap in the background!) The tea was quite dark, and the kombucha quite light.

Obviously after adding the kombucha and stirring, the color changed slightly. I cut a piece of cheesecloth and placed it over the top of the jar, using a rubber band to hold it in place. Then I transferred the jar to the warmest room in our house - the one that's most likely to hold temperature and one that has a door to keep the cats from their own curiosity - the office. 

It will hang out in the office for anywhere from a week to 3 or 4 weeks, depending on how long it takes to develop. The liquid from this SCOBY growing will likely be too vinegary to want to drink. So this weekend, I'll probably start a regular batch using the older SCOBY to see what happens. A culinary science experiment!

A lot of people ask if it's safe to ferment things at home - and the answer to that is absolutely. People have been fermenting things to eat and drink since the dawn of time, and certainly before modern food preservation. There are signs to look for that your kombucha is not good, but like other living foods, it should be pretty obvious in the smell and look that something is off and you should start again. So I'm not afraid to try out a batch with this older SCOBY, because I'll still be able to determine if it's ok to drink.

Are you a kombucha drinker? If so, why? What kinds do you like?

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

book review: silent spring by rachel carson

In my nearly 9 years of living in Pittsburgh, I have crossed the Rachel Carson Bridge many times - on foot and in my car. I'll cross it this weekend during the Pittsburgh Half Marathon. I've always vaguely associated Rachel Carson's name with Pittsburgh and with environmental stuff. There are outdoor programs and nature trails named after her, so it's hard to live here and not know her name.

But it struck me recently in doing some reading about pesticides, that I had never read the book that really started it all when it comes to raising public awareness of the risks of pesticides. So I picked up Silent Spring in audio format and got acquainted with Rachel Carson.

(I should note that I would not recommend the audio version that I used. The narrator had a highly obnoxious voice that made it hard to concentrate. I think I would have enjoyed this book even more had I read it in hard copy.)

The book is credited with starting the environmental movement, which still continues to this day, more than 50 years after the publication of the book. Carson's arguments are centered around the idea that the use of pesticides and insecticides is detrimental to the environment and all things that are a part of it. Actually, Carson calls the pesticides and insecticides that she details "biocides," since they affect more than just their intended targets. 

Nature doesn't operate in separate compartments - everything is interrelated. When one piece of the ecosystem is threatened, it threatens the balance and health of everything. This also holds true for water, which while in itself not a living thing is a vital part of all life on earth. As Carson points out, pollution of water somewhere is pollution of water everywhere, since we have a limited supply of fresh water on earth. Along those lines, poison at any part of the food chain travels up and down, affecting predator and prey. This simple summary doesn't do justice to Carson's extensive research or her talent with prose (which can be hard to come by in books about science).

Silent Spring is heavy on details, which while that makes it dry at times, is a good thing when it comes to the validity of her arguments. I'd imagine if I had a hard copy there would be footnotes a plenty. It's also important to keep in mind that it was written in 1962, so some of the particular details of what she talks about aren't accurate anymore - things like particular chemicals that are no longer in use in agriculture (most notably DDT). But sadly, even the parts that aren't factually accurate anymore are still relevant, since chemicals that have since been banned have been replaced by others. 

While this book won't be up your alley unless you're really interested in pesticides and their impact on ecosystems, it's worth knowing about this book in the broad sense and what it has done to impact where we are currently with these issues. For more on how Silent Spring jumpstarted the environmental movement, check out this piece in the New York Times from the 50th anniversary of the book's release. 

Pittsburgh can be really proud that one of its natives was an environmental pioneer and a fascinating person in general. (I'd actually love to read more about her life and the years before Silent Spring, since she died just two years after its publication.)

Monday, April 28, 2014

carnegie VFD 5K recap

Saturday marked my third Carnegie 5K, benefiting my little borough's volunteer fire department. For a small borough, the race is always well attended. It's even becoming a sort of tradition among my friends to do it together, since it's a well organized race with a low entry fee and a nice course through the ever more revitalized downtown Carnegie area. 

It threatened to rain all morning, and we had a few drops at the beginning of the race, but not enough to really make a difference. Ironically the weather turned beautiful just an hour or so after it was all over, but I'm glad it didn't get rained out. (You can tell it was cold from this group photo, since we're all hunkered down just a little bit. And yes, my legs were freezing. Good choice for the actual run, but standing around waiting for door prizes afterward, not so much.)

I was pretty proud of my performance, with it being the first short race of the year. I came in at 28:55, 41 seconds off of my PR of 28:14 that I set at the Armed Forces 5K in Erie last July. But realistically, none of my PRs have ever come early in the racing season, since I'm coming off of winter laziness. I'm also trying to train myself to run to my heart rate, not a particular pace. My shoes are just about ready to give out, which I started to feel more acutely this weekend. Just one more week until they are retired!

It was nice to have a low pressure, casual race before this weekend's Pittsburgh Half where I want to push for that personal record. Thanks to the generosity of friends and family, I've made it over the $600 mark for my Run for a Reason fund. Less than one week left, but there's still time to donate

Friday, April 25, 2014

Real Life CSA: week 2

Pretty standard share this week, full of staples that are easy to use, including a few favorites.

Also, this is probably crystal clear, but these photos aren't even remotely styled. I basically try to arrange everything we get within the frame so it's visible, but I don't bother de-cluttering my kitchen and setting up special lights. (Or apparently moving my purse or TV remotes or a panini press out of the background.) Why? Because this is Real Life CSA. This is what the stuff looks like, sitting on my kitchen island on the actual day I bring it home. And I enjoy the mushrooms just as much whether the photography is Pinterest worthy or not.

On to the share!

I'm feeling a baking burst coming on, so I think I might make biscuits with the chives this weekend. Potatoes will be a side - Mark often parboils them and then grills them up. I've been wanting to make twice baked potatoes for awhile, and the extra chives might come in handy for those too. 

I just love this honey, and it's so good in my granola. We use a lot of honey in this house, as a sweetener and baking ingredient. I'm telling you, if you've only ever had cheap honey from a bear and a vague source, try local honey. We have lots of options for it in this area, and it's particularly awesome because of how like raw milk, it reflects the changing of the seasons and doesn't always taste exactly the same. Really subtle differences that you won't get eating honey from China (plus the assurance that it's actually honey and not a bunch of unknown, unregulated fake chemicals).

Apple cider will be frozen for later, and the dilly beans in the pantry since we still have the last jar we got. (Sometimes a stockpile is good - you have enough to feed multiple people as a side!) Lettuce is used in our mix for our weekly salad night, which we never get sick of.

Another staple that we just love are mushrooms - particularly from Wild Purveyors. (Their store in Lawrenceville has artisan cheese, pastured meats and foraged items like mushrooms.) I love that they are part of this CSA, because the mushrooms are just delicious. We use them in pasta dishes and Mark uses them in breakfast egg preparations, but we both love them sauteed with onions on top of a burger. 

While I don't have the time to blog about every dish I make with items from the CSA, I will likely start posting some quick, not very styled pics on Instagram (@nextgenhouse) under the hashtag #reallifeCSA. Might give you some ideas for your own CSA! Follow me on Twitter and Facebook too, while you're at it!  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

garden update: late April

It seems odd to do a garden update when it's late April and nothing has gone in yet. But I find that you can appreciate the beauty of a garden in August even more if you remember what it looked like in April, when it was still coming out of the grip of winter, when the color brown was more prevalent than green.

So it's with that in mind that I show you the state of our gardens right now. Let's start with the front, where the landscaping is showing signs of spring.

This next one is one of those weeping heart plants. It grows so quickly, it's unbelievable. Probably within a week or two we'll have the pink hearts all over our sidewalk!

These are all plants that were there last year or longer, so none of this is planned or part of my bee-friendly plantings. We are waiting until a little closer to the final frost date so we can do all the gardening/landscaping starts in the same weekend. Helps with time management.

After the lovely spring flowers in the front bed, you'd think you might see a sign of spring in the backyard too. Well, the answer to that is no. Our backyard looks like a barren, brown wasteland. Kind of embarrassing, to an extent, but so far our available time and nice weather haven't matched up to really get out there. Soon, very soon.

This is the view from the deck. Notice the broken Chinese takeout container that got buried in the snow and then never picked up! (We use those takeout containers to take food and water to the chickens. We don't eat takeout in the backyard in winter.)

I didn't take a photo of the deck itself, but I have plans for it this year too. I want to adjust our grill so that the rest of the deck is usable. Right now we have only a small portion of the deck that's covered, near the door. So we pull the grill over to that area in the winter so that if the weather's crap, we can still pop right outside the door and use it. But when the weather is consistently nicer, I'd like to be able to have some chairs and a place to read among some planter boxes, etc. 

This is under the deck. The remnants of containers from last year and probably some chicken treats on the patio. And chicken waste, because that's always beautiful on concrete!

I also like how they're hanging out in the yard in a group, looking at me taking photos all "what in the world is she doing?" (I brought them some apple afterwards to say thanks.)

This next shot is the raised bed that Mark planted spinach in last fall. (Spinach we're eating now, ironically.) Also, some torn row covers, the dreaded takeout container that I really need to pick up this morning, and a giant pile of wood and straw and dirt behind the bed, which we'll get to in a second.

Here we have the little areas we grew cucumbers and corn in last year. We sort of let these patches just die out and stay there over winter, which is why they're looking so dismal. 

And the melon/pumpkin patch area. Last year once the plants were overrun by squash bugs and were done producing, we pulled off the guards around the patch that were keeping the chickens out and let them destroy it, which I think they thoroughly enjoyed. You can also see the compost area in the back, with the cord that helped us keep the chickens' water from freezing hanging over the top. Need to deal with that too! See, posting photos online about how yuck your backyard is can be good motivation to get off your lazy hind end and do a few things.

This large hole in the ground with two piles is what will be a hugelkultur bed. Once the stuff is layered back in the hole, we'll be making it a raised bed too. This is Mark's project, so I don't know as much about it, but it essentially involves burying decomposing wood. But right now the yard looks like someone's digging graves.

This tree is on the right side of our yard when you face the garages, and it's budding quickly. It gets really beautiful, and shades a little corner of the backyard for the chickens in the summer. Right now I look at it and just see "allergen" though.

As for the other tree on the left side, no real buds yet. We've had concerns about the health of this tree because of the way it's splitting and moving. We'll have to keep our eyes on this guy.

I hope that your backyard and gardens are well on their way to looking lovely, peaceful and full of spring. If they aren't, go ahead and look at these photos of mine and it will make you feel better! Thankfully this is the time of year where things transition quickly, so in just a few weeks it will look vastly different.

Now to go pick up that takeout container...

Monday, April 21, 2014

boston trail half marathon recap

First race of the season is complete - the Boston Trail Half Marathon

I am rarely out in the McKeesport/Elizabeth Township area - I think I might have been there once in the over 8 years I've lived here. So I really knew nothing about this section of the Mon/Yough Trail, which is a link in the Great Allegheny Passage. (If I had kept on running, I would have made it all the way to DC!) 

This was an absolutely beautiful trail and perfect weather conditions for a run. Not too much wind, except for a little bit coming back, lots of sun, and relatively cool temperatures for how sunny it was.

Now, me? I wasn't really in peak condition for a run, let alone a race. Having been out the evening before, getting less sleep and more food and beverage than I would typically consume the night before a race, I knew going into this there would be no PR. 

Instead, it was about like this:

  • Mile 1: Holy cow it's beautiful out today.
  • Mile 2-3: Wall. Help me. Why did I do this? Last night's dinner is in my mouth. Why did I do this? I have double digits left. Why did I do this?
  • Miles 4-9: Well this isn't so bad. Feeling pretty good. Need more water stations. But this is enjoyable. Yes, I will mouth along the words to my music. Look at me go! I'm a runner! I passed the 2:30 pacer! Holy cow, will I actually PR in this?
  • Mile 10: I need more water. Thirsty and face feels like salt monster from Star Trek's "The Man Trap."
  • Miles 11-12: My legs. Oh my legs. Oh hi, Wall. Nice to see you again.
  • Mile 13: Complete autopilot. No recollection of this mile whatsoever except for running by an 8 year old and yelling "you're doing awesome!"

Turns out, the 2:30 pacer didn't actually keep to a 2:30 pace. So, while that was some good fake motivation for awhile, I ended up really slowing down those last few miles and came in at 2:36:51. (My PR was at last year's Montour Trail Half Marathon - 2:28:18.) Also I didn't bring my own water and was relying on the water stations, which wasn't enough for me.

It was also my first race where I was entirely alone. No fellow runners and no cheerleaders. It worked out that way because it wasn't really a shining race moment, but it was also an accomplishment in that I pushed through poor prep the night before and finished. 

I really am looking forward to the Pittsburgh Half in less than two weeks and hope to prep properly and break that PR. Carnegie 5K next weekend, too. So stay tuned!

(Also, remember that there's still time to donate to my Race for a Reason fund benefiting the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. I'm just $5 away from $600 and I know I can break that mark in the next two weeks. If you haven't already donated, please consider getting me over that hump! Donate by clicking here, or read more about why I'm doing this from this post, here.)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Real Life CSA: week 1

I can't believe we're already back to the beginning of a regular CSA share. We chose the Farmers Friend option from Penn's Corner, so we have 32 weeks of goodness coming up. Each week, I'll let you know what we got in our share and a general idea of what we're going to do with it. You can find these posts under the label 'CSA' on the right side of the blog.

On to week 1! This week looks a lot like the last winter share. That's because CSAs are cyclical and seasonal, so you don't jump to tomatoes and peppers just because you've started the "regular share." So April and early May will probably still have the stuff that stores well over the winter, until it slowly phases out for what's growing now.

Looking at this photo again, I'm struck by how I didn't really do a great job transporting the lettuce home, because it looks a little crumpled. But that delicious lettuce will make it into our salads, regardless of its level of crumple.

Half of the red potatoes are already gone, since Mark immediately grilled some up for our dinner last night. Delish. Potatoes with grill marks are amazing.

We got a great variety of cheese over the winter and we've not been going through it super fast, so we are going to incorporate some of these into our meal plan more often. Our cheese drawer is ridiculously full!

Apples will likely be snacks and pre-half marathon fuel this weekend. Watermelon radishes, not sure. I saw an interesting recipe for an avocado salad that uses them which might be good.

One of my favorite things about the Penn's Corner CSA is the value-added products like their salsas. I think it's a great way to get value out of what they have in excess and it adds value fo rme because I don't have to can a full batch of something. We make our own salsa in the late summer, but tomatillo salsa is not something I'm going to likely can, because I rarely have enough access to tomatillos. So this is a delicious extra treat. 

Did you know you can buy this stuff at the East End Food Co-Op now? Yeah. Do it.

When does your CSA start? What are you looking forward to?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

2014 resolution update

Usually by this time of year, the resolutions I made in January are like a distant, vague memory. But this year in a stunning turn of events, I've been staying on track. So seeing that we're about one third of the way through the year, I thought I'd check in.

Read 75 books.
I just finished #23 this week, so I'm on track to meet my goal. I need to still pick up a Russian doorstop novel along the way, as well as several more Margaret Atwoods to finish her canon. But so far, so good. Man do I love to read! 

Write letters on three issues to my elected representatives.
I have one down, two more to go on this front. For my most recent letter, see this post on the DARK Act recently introduced in the House. Bad news.

Run a marathon.
Well, I'm in training. 
This Saturday marks my first race of the season - the Boston Trail half marathon (not in Boston). That's followed up by my town's 5K the following weekend, and then the Pittsburgh Marathon Half on May 4. Don't forget there's still time to donate to my fund for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank! Shameless plug! I'm only $5 away from $600!

Also, I'm posting photos on Instagram under the hashtag #yearofthemarathon in case you want to follow along on the adventure.

Drink 64 ounces of water a day.
Doing pretty well with this one, especially through the day at work. I also carry my water bottle around with me at home, and really it's only after runs that I don't do so well rehydrating. Going to keep working on that.

Start my home brew kombucha.
Fail. Still nervous. Will make it happen this summer though.

Sew a t-shirt quilt.
Making good progress on this one, especially since it's something I have zero experience in. I have Mark's shirts all prepped and ready with interfacing, and mine are almost complete. Then it's time to get the sewing machine cranking! I've even had an apprentice. Isn't he helpful?


Can one new thing.
Not quite into canning season yet, so this one will be a summer thing.

Plant a bee-friendly flower garden.
I recently did some research on bee-friendly plants that do well in our area, with info from the Penn State Extension. Look for a post about that in the near future!

Make the chickens some treats.
Winter has made me not want to go outside with them more than necessary, so probably once I'm in the backyard with them more often, I'll be more inclined to start making some treats.

Organize the basement.
The basement has come light years from what it was. This is a pretty significant accomplishment, as it's now a more usable space for both Mark and me. And we've kept it relatively in order!

How are you doing on your goals for 2014? Share them in the comments!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Jarosinski Farm Project needs our help, Pittsburgh!

Early this year, Pittsburgh came together in an awesome way to support a Kickstarter project for Superior Motors, a restaurant/culinary school/urban garden in Braddock. It was not only fully funded, but became the largest funded restaurant project on Kickstarter. And only a few days before the deadline, it looked like it wasn't going to make it.

And now we have another local Kickstarter that needs your help. This one is only for $5,000, but it's five grand that will go a long way to help a local, first-generation farmer.

Kevin Jarosinski is a farmer in the Butler area, north of Pittsburgh. He is dedicated to sustainability and to humane animal husbandry, and produces pastured poultry, pork and grass-fed beef. We already have suppliers of meat that we use regularly, as well as the three ladies producing eggs in our backyard. But I've heard great things about Jarosinski Farms and what he's trying to do, from the ground up.

The Kickstarter project is to build a springhouse that will allow him to utilize the fresh water spring on his property and be in compliance with all regulations concerning that water usage. The extra money from the project would go toward building more mobile chicken pens, to help him rotate the flock.

I think it's important for communities to support their farmers in ways beyond just buying their products. Farming can be resource and infrastructure intense - having the proper equipment and set-up is expensive, and farms are always susceptible to elements outside their control, like weather, pests or disease. So when I can, I try to do things like supporting their projects or writing my legislators in support of legislation that protects and supports them.

It also bugs me that so many subsidies and tax breaks are available for large agribusiness, when the same benefits aren't necessarily available to small farmers and local producers. And it can often be difficult to get traditional funding. So when they need community-sourced funds, the community that benefits from their environmental stewardship and quality products should step up.

So, Pittsburgh. Work your magic. Support Kevin Jarosinski's Farm Project with me. 6 more days and he's only just over halfway there. We can push that number up!

Monday, April 14, 2014

grocery game changer: wal-mart enters the organic market

Wal-mart announced last week that it would partner with Wild Oats to offer a low-cost line of organic products. Wild Oats was one of the first health food stores on the scene in the 1980s and was subsequently bought out by Whole Foods, who later dropped the line. 

The Wal-mart Wild Oats line intends to be at least 25% cheaper than other national organic brands and will be rolled out first in about half of Wal-mart stores. Most public health advocates and business analysts are hailing this announcement as a really good thing, since Wal-mart is the largest grocery chain in the country and as such has real power over influencing national food trends. It will give a new segment of Americans access to organic food at prices they can more realistically afford, and it's thought that long-term, this can drive down the prices of organic raw materials for these pantry products. 

Many people believe this will push producers to commit long-term to organic farming practices in order to be a supplier for Wal-mart/Wild Oats. That's a good thing for America's land too, since more of it will be farmed with organic practices than what's being currently done.

Because it takes three years for USDA organic certification, in order to have enough product to meet the demand that carrying these products in 2,000 Wal-mart stores (half of their American footprint) will create, people have speculated that they have been working on this behind the scenes since 2011. Wal-mart certainly will need absolute control over its supply chain in order to meet the demand and offer the "rock bottom prices." Many analysts are speculating that that supply chain will extend more and more overseas, which they won't have to disclose. 

I'm all for more land being farmed organically and certainly for more people having access to organic food - both physical and financial access. But I'm cautious about my excitement, since typically when Wal-mart enters a game, the rules change. It's got tremendous market power and influence, which often means smaller, local producers are shut out, something Wal-mart is well known for.

In a situation where demand for organic foods in this country already is much higher than the supply, I have a feeling that the definition of "organic" is about to be up for debate soon. There will be great pressure to weaken federal standards for organic products, which companies are constantly lobbying for in the first place. Wal-mart will now have a vested profit interest in weakening the definition of "organic." A vested profit interest by Wal-mart has never been really good news for anyone, so it will be interesting to see when the first wave of backlash comes from this.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Federal "DARK Act" introduced in Congress: why you need to care

This week, U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo (Republican from Kansas) introduced legislation called the "Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act." I don't think I've ever heard of a bill so mislabeled in my life, as what this bill would do is ensure that we never achieve safe and accurate food labeling.

Opponents have dubbed this the DARK (Deny Americans the Right-to-Know) Act, and the hyperbole actually seems to fit here. The bill aims to override state efforts to label GMO foods, as several states have taken up that charge and introduced labeling legislation. Rep. Pompeo's bill would prohibit any mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods.

He claims that the "patchwork" of state GMO laws creates no standard and creates unnecessary fear on the part of consumers. And I agree with him on the first point - we do need a federal standard. But we need one based on science, which at the current moment means that we don't know the long-term effects of GMO crops on health and the environment. So we need to be aware of where they are and how much we are consuming. If products aren't labeled, the long-term effects can't be assessed. Labels are like the informed consent portion of being part of a national experiment. People have a right to be afraid when we aren't informed. We need to know.

To me, this bill is evidence that the bioengineering companies know that consumer confidence is flagging and that their lack of transparency is an issue. So instead of changing their business practices or allowing the American people to decide what they want, they will pour their money into Congressional pockets to take the decision out of our hands and into the federal government.

In the absence of any federal transparency legislation, state legislation is important. State legislation is where the voice of the American people gets to be heard more than lobbyist dollars and Big Ag. Yes, on the state level we also contend with lobbying and misinformation, but the vote comes to the people who are affected by it, instead of members of Congress who can be and are often easily swayed by corporate money.

This bill really matters. Enough that I'm contacting my legislators, and I encourage you to do the same. Even if you have no issue with GMO foods being unlabeled, the fact that the government is trying to preempt your right to have that distinct voice be heard in a state-level vote is troubling. And right now it's biotech corn that's at the center of this debate. But if this legislation passes, what's next? Biotech fish? That's on the horizon. Maybe Farmed & Dangerous wasn't so far off with its 8-winged chicken.

So I'm sending the letter below to my federal legislators - and even some that are in my region, but not my specific area. It's a modification of a letter that Just Label It, a national GMO labeling advocacy organization, put together. Feel free to use it and tweak or personalize it to let your legislators know that you want transparency and choice in our food supply.

I am urging you to not co-sponsor the new legislation introduced by Rep. Pompeo (R-Kan) that would deny consumers a right to know about genetically engineered or biotech foods and allow companies to voluntarily label genetically engineered (GE) foods. Until independent, third-party science can truly verify the long-term health and environmental effects of GE foods, the American public deserves transparency. If bioengineering companies are to be allowed to expose the public to GE foods, which can pose risks on many levels, we have the right to informed consent.

Rep. Pompeo’s bill would pre-empt states from taking any legislative efforts towards the labeling of GE foods and allow GE ingredients in products labeled as  “natural.”  It would also prevent the FDA from requiring GE labeling in the future. As one of the 93% of Americans who support GE labeling, I strongly oppose this legislation, and urge you to not sign on as a co-sponsor.

I am asking that instead you support the GE Food-Right-to-Know Act (S.809/H.R. 1699) sponsored by Sen. Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. DeFazio (D-OR) that would require food manufacturers to clearly label any product that has been genetically engineered or contains GE ingredients. Studies have shown that the majority of Americans regardless of race, religion, class, or political party support GE labeling, a right that people in 64 nations around the world already have. Lack of labeling also complicates our exports, as more and more nations are refusing to import GMO foods. Russia is just the latest.

Please endorse federal labeling of GE foods, and vote against any legislation that would bar the Food and Drug Administration, or the states, from mandating labeling of GE food. Do not support legislation that makes the American people, your constituents, the lab rats of corporate biotech.

If you don't know who your representatives are, you can find out here. Same with senators, here. I'm contacting my senators too, in case this bill makes it to them.

We can't expect legislators to know what we want them to do for us if we don't tell them. Watching and reading the news and getting outraged isn't going to do anything if you don't push where it matters. Then we can hold our elected representatives accountable.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

thoughts on chipotle's 'farmed & dangerous'

Chipotle has been on the forefront of national restaurant chains in the movement toward more sustainable and humane agriculture practices. Their first foray into viral marketing was "Back to the Start," a video with Willie Nelson singing that emphasizes the importance of not continuing on the path of industrial animal production. 

Next was "The Scarecrow," which I talked about here. This one pushes its indictment of Big Ag even further (and also suggests that burritos are a good choice). And now they've gone even further, with a four-part TV series available on Hulu Plus called Farmed & Dangerous. I waited until all four episodes were available to do my week free trial of Hulu Plus and watch.

The series is centered around a PR firm called the Industrial Food Image Bureau (IFIB, hee hee) which has as its primary client a Big Ag company called Animoil (a stand-in for Monsanto, obviously) which wants to market a new product called Petro Pellet, which is pure petroleum. In the first episode, they realize that Petro Pellet makes cows explode. A group called the Sustainable Family Farming Association gets a copy of the video of this happening and it goes viral.

The episodes that follow are about the relationship between the daughter of the head of IFIB, who also works there, Sophia, and the head of SFFA, Chip. Over time, Sophia comes to be sympathetic to Chip's cause, but not before a lot of chaos ensues. It hits on all the big issues - sustainability, pesticide and herbicide resistance, GMOs, government subsidies, lobbying and government corruption, Ag-Gag laws, CAFOs (which they call MegaFarm, the Death Star for Cows).

First, the good. I will always applaud Chipotle for trying as a large national chain to bring these issues into the forefront of the public's awareness and concern. They have at the very least opened up a lot of conversation. And Farmed & Dangerous in some spots is genuinely funny (particularly due to Buck, the head of IFIB). 

While critics have suggested that the series really takes aim at farmers with a broad brush and paints them in a bad light, I actually didn't think the series was much about farmers at all. I think who it really skewered was PR firms and industry front-groups that blindly promote Big Ag to the point of absurdity. 

In one particularly interesting segment, Chip is on a morning show and points out how alternate realities exist for Big Ag depending on what they want at a given moment. Sometimes Big Ag wants GMOs to be seen as unique, which is why they voraciously protect their patents. But they argue that when it comes to public health, GMOs aren't unique - they aren't any different than the regular corn. Which is why they oppose labeling on consumer products. In the case of the viral video (a stand-in for the types of CAFO whistleblower videos that Ag-Gag laws aim to curtail), they claim that the videos are fabricated or exaggerated, but then claim that they own the video because it was shot on their property. If it's false, why are you claiming it as your own? 

So I think that exposing the crap that comes out of the PR firms and departments protecting industrial agriculture is something that's sorely needed. Front groups often have deceptively friendly names, which make consumers think they are advocating on behalf of us, when they are really advocating and lobbying for their big clients.

But. Here's my issue with Farmed & Dangerous. With this series, I feel like Chipotle is really starting to mislead by obscuring facts and using hyperbole and satire in a subject that already has a lot of misinformation and passion floating around. When Jon Stewart uses satire to bring communicate news, he typically brings it with a lot of video clips and facts that support his points. He may go over the top, but the message is there as well as the proof. This series doesn't do that. 

For example, Chipotle wants to position itself as a sustainability advocate, and this film makes it seem like all farms that it sources its meat and other ingredients from are like Chip's farm - idyllic and full of pasture and sunlight. In reality, that's not the case. Chipotle sources a lot of meat and often substitutes conventional products when they run out of the "better" choices. If you were really committed to better practices, you'd just not sell the option that you couldn't properly source. But that would eat into their profits and would be unpredictable, and the customers want their chicken when they want it. I would be more compelled to believe they care about humane animal treatment if they stopped selling conventional products at all. There are animals who are not given hormones or antibiotics that are still raised in confinement operations and are not out frolicking in fields for most of their lives like Chip's cow friend. 

I can see farmers' points of criticism that the series seems to pit big farms against small farms, making it seem like all big farms are evil and all small farms are virtuous. In reality, it's not really the size that determines the quality of practices. You can't lump in broad categories like that when it's really the underlying system of agriculture in this country that is flawed. It's not as easy as good guys and bad guys when you dig below the surface. What we need is less control over the food system by a select few corporations, not to be lecturing farmers on what they need to do.

And Chipotle needs to stop equating sustainability with small, family farms and throwing that word around. Not all small farms are "sustainable" - a word which is really hard to define. Not giving your cows hormones doesn't mean that your operation is sustainable. And not all family farms are small. Some mid-size and large farms have been in families for generations. Chipotle isn't knocking on the doors of tiny family farms in my area asking them to provide their tomatoes and peppers. Sustainability is a buzzword that you use to mislead unless you have facts to back up your practices. Using compostable plates isn't enough. And I don't even know that they do that.

In all, I didn't really think Farmed & Dangerous was effective satire. (They need to take a lesson from Jon Stewart on that one.) If they extended the series and added to it, I would be unlikely to watch. Chipotle needs to focus its efforts on making its business live up to its marketing, instead of marketing a business that doesn't actually exist in reality.   

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

book review: bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe

After reading Four Fish and seeing The End of the Line, I've thought a lot about sustainability and seafood. While I enjoyed that book and the documentary, neither one of them comes close to the quality and persuasiveness of Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood.

Bottomfeeder was one of the most engaging non-fiction books I've read, with artful language and ingenious organization. Each chapter takes you somewhere in the world to illustrate how a problem in one area of the world is contributing to the larger problem of our seafood and ocean life literally vanishing. If you're at all interested in sustainable seafood, this is the book to pick up. (I even found myself smirk laughing a few times, which to be honest, surprised me in a book about seafood.)

It is pretty much universally accepted by scientists that humans are driving seafood populations to extinction. Most predict that if current fishing practices continue, we will see the collapse of all of our edible sealife populations by 2050. Grescoe challenges the idea that has governed the use of the oceans for centuries - that ocean life is a bottomless resource and that humans are entitled to anything and everything they want from within its waters. This mentality is what's driving us toward future generations not knowing that many species of seafood even existed. The oceans are commons, and too much freedom is an issue, as Grescoe quotes ecologist Garrett Hardin:
"Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit--in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all." (p.10)
The book is divided by regions and their seafood of choice - from monkfish on the plates of elite high-end restaurants in New York City to shrimp in India, bluefin tuna in Japan and the cod of England's fish and chip shops and more. Throughout the book, Grescoe illuminates the issues that threaten that seafood population, but not in a heavy-handed way that makes sweeping judgements. His research is meticulous, and he makes clear that often it's not one single event or practice that contributes to a population's decline or collapse, but a convergence of different things.

The book also covers the damage that overfishing has done on different levels. It's not just the environment that is affected, but public health, the economy of traditional fishing communities and the ecosystem as a whole. Never before has eating lower on the food chain made more sense to me. And like encountering information about factory farming for the first time can make chicken nuggets hard to swallow, I'll never look at imported shrimp or a piece of deep fried cod the same way again. There are just no compelling reasons besides convenience and cost to eat seafood that is taken from overfished, endangered populations. If we want future generations to enjoy eating from the sea, the time to start practicing restraint is now.

I often have complaints about books like this telling you a lot about the problem, but not offering practical solutions. Many times you're convinced that you should care, but you aren't given ways to do anything about it. This book is clearly the opposite. I finally feel equipped with enough tools to really implement better choices in my own consumption of seafood. An extensive appendix gives resources like websites for the most up to date information (this book is now 6 years old), general principles to follow when buying seafood, questions to ask your fishmonger or restaurant staff, descriptions of the best and worst fishing methods, and lists of seafood in three categories for eating (No, never. Depends, sometimes. Yes, always.). I want to buy a copy of this book just for the appendix alone. (I'm reluctant to have to return it to the library!)

Armed with this book as a resource and Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I feel confident about being able to make better seafood choices. We even stood in front of the seafood section at Costco this weekend, checking to see if any of the fresh offerings were ones we could buy without a guilty conscience. I want my choices to be healthy and sustainable - for both the ocean and human communities that fishing supports. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

meet Vader. (yep, another cat.)

It was a pet-filled weekend at Next Gen House.

Sadly, Winter isn't living with us anymore. Long story short, he had a polyp removed from his ear right before we got him several weeks ago, and we thought everything was taken care of. After a couple weeks, we noticed that he was withdrawn and his ear was bleeding a lot. It was a recurrence of the polyp - so aggressive that it had grown to larger than its original size in just three weeks. Because it was so soon after the adoption, the agency took him back in order to get him the medical care that he needs. It broke my heart to see him go and to see him suffering with his ear, but it was the right decision for his quality of life and best interest. Poor little buddy was only our cat for three weeks, but we will miss him.

But Stormy isn't alone as the only dark lord in the house, because we introduced this guy - one of his littermates who still needed a home. Meet Vader.

It was a rough first day because he basically gorged himself on Stormy's food, which his digestive tract was not ready to handle after being on different food at the pet store where he was placed. Let's be frank. A lot of our Saturday was spent cleaning poop. But his stomach seemed to settle right down after that and we haven't had any other issues. 

He's got a lovely white coat with an orange striped tail and orange ears, plus one small orange spot on his back. He and Stormy are already plotting their dark deeds together. (I know that's what they're doing when they're playing and grooming each other.) It's weird how quickly he's acclimated - he's sitting on the window seat next to me right now and it's kind of like he's always been here, even though it's been less than 48 hours.

Vader and Stormy will probably make frequent appearances on Instagram, so follow me @nextgenhouse to see photos of their adventures (evil plots).

Monday, April 7, 2014

reading this week

While I'm catching up from a busy weekend, check out these stories I'm reading this week.

The Secret Life of a Food Stamp (Slate)
Incredibly interesting piece on the food stamp recipients that we never talk about - the stores who accept them. Often the store's own workers are recipients and then go on to purchase food from the store, giving the store an extra profit on top of the benefit of paying them a low wage to begin with. This is something that's very rarely talked about in the media; they're often too busy vilifying the recipients for fraud to even consider that the companies who receive the funds might be committing fraud as well.

FDA Found Drugs Used in Food Animals to be High Risk (NPR)
The FDA has known for many years that many drugs given to animals that we eat are a risk to human health - a "high" risk. When will we start to really take antibiotic resistance seriously? And why does it take a Freedom of Information Act request to reveal that our government agencies don't take public health and safety seriously?

The Crisis of Antibiotic Resistance: the Germs are Winning (WBGH - Boston)
Yet more evidence that antibiotic resistance needs to be taken seriously, and we need to take steps to reduce our intake of unnecessary antibiotics. Keep them out of foods and only take them when you need them for infections.

Transparency: The New Must-Have Ingredient (Huffington Post)
Americans are increasingly expecting more details about how their food was produced, what's in it and where it came from. More and more companies are adjusting their business practices to meet this demand, since as this article states, no company wants to end up in the news with a headline like "yoga mat bread."

Skin Deep - Mobile App (Environmental Working Group)
This isn't so much an article as it is a great app if you're interested in checking out your beauty and cosmetic products to see what's in them and what might be hazardous or toxic. They're working on a database and app for food products too.

Friday, April 4, 2014

run for a reason: one month to go!

In exactly one month, I'll be getting into a corral in downtown Pittsburgh to run the Pittsburgh Half Marathon for the first time. It won't be my first half marathon, but the first one that feels like it matters in more ways than a personal record. 

Part of it is that the race is probably my favorite of the year, simply because of the energy and fun along the course. I run the core of city all the time on the trails in my training, but to get to run on the actual roads that I travel on my commute is pretty cool. And being part of a swarm of runners is pretty awesome. I'll even get to retire my shoes after the race - my old faithfuls over to the left that carried me through the first real racing season of my life last year and will carry me into this year's. 

And the cheering during this race? Awesome. Last year I ran the fourth leg of the marathon relay, so this year I'll basically be running most of the first three legs. So I'll get to see sections I didn't get to see last year. And if the cheering was strong after the half marathon turn-off in the part that I ran, I know it will be strong from the start. 

But besides the fact that the Pittsburgh Marathon gives good swag, has a good expo and gives finisher medals that say "Runner of Steel" on them, this race is important to me because of the Run for a Reason program. Runners know that one of the great pleasures of racing is that the night before you get to carb up on pasta without guilt. And right after the race, when you've hauled your body for over 13 miles, a banana and a half of a bagel never tasted so good. But there are people who don't have the luxury of eating a banana and a half of a bagel for breakfast on a regular day.

I've been raising money for the last few months for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and just yesterday made it over the $500 mark. Which is pretty amazing, considering that it will provide about $2500 worth of food for families who need it. 

That's a lot of food. But I don't want to stop. I've still got a month to go until the race, and I know that $545 doesn't have to be where I stop. 

There are many great charities that people run for, usually ones that serve people or animals in need, whether groups that provide support for individuals with a particular disease or animals that need to be rescued. I've supported other runners in their causes too. And I know how many solicitations people get for charity on a routine basis. To me, there's something different about a charity that works to meet people's basic needs. 

Before anything else but water, food is a necessity for human life. There are people who need it - who go to bed hungry or have to send their children to bed hungry because there isn't enough. That's quite simply why this matters to me so much. I can't support sustainable agriculture and just food legislation and eat at restaurants that use local and sustainable ingredients (and are often high-end for that reason) without also having a deep understanding of the fact that some people don't have enough food to sustain themselves each day, let alone locally grown, organic food. It's a privilege to choose what I eat for breakfast every morning and in this country, it's actually a privilege to eat it at all.

Consider donating even a dollar to support my Run for a Reason fund. Often people feel they have to make a larger donation for it to matter, but I'd love to see my fund fill up with a dollar here, five dollars there. Every little bit matters and every dollar turns into five when combined with the GPCFB resources. So if you really want to give $50 and can't just give $10!

You can visit my donation page by clicking here. Please share it at will. I'm planning on trying to PR at the Pittsburgh Half Marathon, and I'd love to blow past my fundraising goal and leave it in the dust with the old PR as well. Thanks for helping me to make that happen! 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Real Life CSA: winter share 9

Our final winter share from Penns Corner is full of pantry goodies as well as an extra treat from Wild Purveyors - mushrooms!

It always amazes me how farms/CSA groups can manage during a winter share to still give you something new in each share, even if you have repetitions during the season. It keeps that element of mystery that I love about subscribing to a CSA - you never really know what you're going to get! (At least until they send the email hipping you to that week's share!)

It's curious that I put the mushrooms and Schof Kase cheese together in the photo, because it occurs to me we'll likely eat these in tandem. I'm seeing a mushroom cream pasta in my future. And since the Schof Kase (sheep's milk cheese!) appears to be similar to a parmesan, I'm thinking it would be good in that dish. 

Potatoes and lettuce will be used up in the course of the week, like usual. (Who doesn't like potatoes? They are in a close running with pasta for my favorite food.)

We're just finishing our last jar of farmers market salsa, so this one probably won't last very long. I also might consolidate our syrups into one large mason jar to conserve space, since we have a few little ones. That and eat more pancakes, right?

The apple cider will go in the freezer, since we're still drinking the last one. And the tomatoes will join the others in the pantry, though they are in heavy rotation. (We eat a lot of homemade penne alla vodka in this house.)

The onion greens are pretty exciting. I actually think this is the first time we've ever had them from any CSA. Their positioning in this photo is giving me an idea - baked potato bar!

Also really excited about these peppers, because we like spicy foods in this house (the number of hot pepper seedlings we have going is also an indicator). Nacho bar? I'm sensing a theme here.  

So that's it for the winter share. Overall? Couldn't be happier with the variety and quality of produce and products we've had. Makes me crazy excited for the weather to keep getting better and spring to fully arrive. Our full share for the year will start in just a few weeks, so look for more Real Life CSA posts when that begins!

And if you're not signed up for a CSA, do it! Read this post on why a CSA in the first place, and then visit some of these local groups to see if what they offer is a good fit for your family. You won't be disappointed!

Penns Corner Farm Alliance
Clarion River Organics
Edible Earth Farm

Edible Allegheny/PASA 2014 CSA Guide

If you're not from the western Pennsylvania region, check out Local Harvest to see what's available near you.