“The End of Overeating”

April 21, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Posted in Nonfiction, Slow Food | 5 Comments

“Why can’t I stop eating Snackwell’s?”  It’s a question that should rank right up there with “Follow the money” as the launch of a legendary investigation.  David Kessler, a formidably educated and accomplished man and a medical doctor, asked himself why certain foods made him want to pig out.  Then he started asking neuroscientists and food industry people.  What he found out should have people rioting in the streets.

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The answer is shocking: food has been deliberately designed to act on the brain like a drug and to induce what Kessler calls conditioned hypereating.  In other words, just like the cigarette industry, the food industry is manipulating us to addict us to unhealthy foods, driving up health care costs, just to make money.

The End of Overeating is an understated masterpiece.  I read it aloud to my husband, who has struggled with his weight for 30 years but has just succeeded in taking off 20 pounds since the holidays.  (Nobody can get fat off my cooking, I joke).  He would keep chiming in, often anticipating the final sentence of a paragraph, progressively more outraged.  He started sharing what we’d learned with a friend of ours at work, who said, “You just ruined my nachos for me.”  The book truly is gripping.  While the chapters measure only 3-5 pages in length, nearly every one could merit its own book.  Kessler could easily, easily have written and sold this as an 800-pager.  Instead it’s about 250 pages of graceful text.

A caveat:  The first section of the book goes straight into neuroscience, which can be a bit daunting.  Let me assure you that it swiftly moves along into more approachable discussions of the food industry, and finally, what the individual can do to fight back.  In between are a multitude of descriptions of engineered foods, and individuals responding to them, that are nearly pornographic.

What Kessler tells us is that the food industry needs to regulate itself or be regulated.  It’s no wonder we have an obesity epidemic, and it’s easy to see why it started when it did.  That’s the main point of the book – to inform us of what’s going on and get us worked up enough to do something about it.  In the meantime, he helpfully includes some tips to help us try to resist the magnetic pull of sugar, fat, and salt.  (I’ll end with mine, as I sit here smugly in my size four jeans:  Switch to a diet based on organic vegetables and whole grains and start cooking at home at least 80% of the time!)

“Mindless Eating”

February 15, 2010 at 12:41 am | Posted in Nonfiction, Slow Food | 3 Comments

The best of pop psychology, funny, fascinating, and with a bit of a Candid Camera sensibility, Mindless Eating makes a great read even if you don’t find the topic relevant.  Honestly, though, how many of us can claim we never eat mindlessly?

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I listened to Brian Wansink’s book on audio, mostly while cooking.  Luckily for me, food prep makes me less likely to snack, perhaps because raw onions aren’t very good.  I can vouch that the narration is superior, and the only bad thing about it is that it’s hard to turn off.

What you’ll learn from the book is that no matter how bright you are, no matter how dedicated you are to healthy eating, there are pitfalls and snares to trip you up at every turn.  I’ll summarize the points that seem the most helpful for my family.

  • Identifying a few small ways that extra calories tend to creep into your mouth can help you effortlessly lose about 10 pounds a year.
  • It’s best to dish up meals directly onto the plates, putting serving platters on the table only for salad and other vegetables.
  • Smaller plates and bowls, and tall skinny glasses, help us dish up less.
  • Make half your plate salad and vegetables.
  • One person in the family is usually the “nutritional gatekeeper” who does most of the meal planning, shopping, and cooking.  That person has a lot of say over whether the family is fat or healthy.

I’m in my skinny jeans again – size 4! – since it appears that I only really snacked and ate junk food in the office.  I’m good at keeping it out of my shopping cart and my cupboards.  My dear hubby is in a weight loss contest at work, with two months to go.  I’ll use what I learned from Mindless Eating to see if my role as nutritional gatekeeper can help him along.

T-Day with Vegan Cookbooks

December 1, 2009 at 10:46 pm | Posted in Nonfiction, Slow Food, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

This year I hosted Thanksgiving dinner for the first time.  I’m 34, and I got married a few months ago, so I guess my mom decided it was time to pass the apron.  Without cookbooks, I would have been in big trouble, because I never really learned to cook as a kid.  I’d also never so much as contemplated cooking for so many people at once!  I wanted to give thanks for the books I used, for anyone who might be hunting around for what to make next year.

I cooked for a mix of vegans (my parents and me), omnivores, and guests with allergies to gluten, citrus, and potatoes.  My husband served a turkey breast, but otherwise everything was vegan.  I was pleased to see that nothing got left behind on anyone’s plate!  (Especially since I committed the ultimate sin of serving untested recipes to guests).

Thursday (for 6).  My husband said, “You kicked Thanksgiving’s a–!”

The Candle Cafe Cookbook by Joy Pierson and Bart Potenza:  Cornmeal-Crusted Tempeh.  A hit, and my omnivore family are begging me to make it again.  I did the baking part the night before and fried them at the last minute.  Incidentally this cookbook also has the only tofu scramble recipe worth making.

You Won’t Believe It’s Vegan! by Lacey Sher and Gail Doherty:  Marinated Stuffed Mushrooms with Tempeh Sausage and Garlic Aioli.  A giant snarfing sound.  The aioli recipe made at least 4x what was needed, but it would be good to eat with other things like artichokes.  I did them the night before.  Sauteed Greens.  I did these with kale, something I don’t think most of the guests had ever eaten before, and they snapped it right up.  In fact we just made it again last night and ate it all in one sitting between the two of us.

The 100 Best Vegan Baking Recipes by Kris Holechek:  Sweet Wheat Rolls.  My husband made these because I’m useless at breads.  He forgot to put in the flax seeds he’d ground moments before, but you’d never know it – if they were being used as an egg replacer they weren’t necessarily needed.  Delicious, and we’ll do them again.

Vegan Planet by Robin Robertson.  Rapini with Figs, Garlic, and Pine Nuts.  A great recipe from one of my favorite cookbooks, by one of my favorite cookbook authors.  You just can’t lose with her stuff.  I made this with one bunch of rapini and one of chard, because that was what I had, and it worked fine.

The Millennium Cookbook by Eric Tucker & John Westerdahl:  Allspice-Roasted Butternut Squash.  Surprise hit of the meal.  “It tastes like pumpkin pie!”  (Which was good, because the actual pumpkin pie… didn’t).  Baked Hazelnut-Crusted Pears.  I made these the night before.  The reduction had a bit too much black pepper, but otherwise they came out great.  There were a couple left that got eaten the next morning, standing up in a bowl of oatmeal.  Pumpkin Pie.  Can we not talk about it?

We also had mashed potatoes (my husband’s recipe), cauliflower,  steamed broccoli, a family recipe of sweet potatoes with canned peaches and cranberry sauce with pecans (they like it, don’t ask), this gravy my hubby made at the last minute out of mostly bouillon cubes, and a fantastic brussels sprouts recipe I found online.  My mom, who has hated Brussels sprouts for 50 years, said if she could choose only one side dish she would have chosen that one!  I’d never cooked them before, everyone at the table was an avowed hater, and yet they cleaned the pan.

Saturday (for 10):  My dad said, “That may have been the best meal I ever had.”

The Millennium CookbookMushroom, Walnut, & Rosemary Pate’.  I made this the day before and forgot it was in the fridge until the last minute.  It didn’t set up, but that’s okay because some pate’s [that’s supposed to be an accent mark, not an apostrophe] are spreadable.  It was good but I would definitely recommend putting it out as an appetizer – it didn’t really get eaten with dinner.  Curry-Crusted Tempeh with Pomegranate Sauce.  I caught my omni stepdaughter trying to snag the last two of these on leftover day instead of the turkey.  Argument over whether they are “just as good” without the sauce.  Another argument over whether they are better than the Cornmeal-Crusted Tempeh from Thanksgiving.  We’ll be making this again, too.

Vegan World Fusion Cuisine by Mark Reinfeld and Bo Rinaldi.  King Janaka’s Maple Glazed Seitan.  This was a bit simple for me, but the guests loved it and it looks like it will become a regular dinner staple.  Kaya’s Kosmic Korn Bread.  This was amazingly moist and lightly sweet (we used the agave nectar).  I was going to use it for the apricot stuffing, but decided not to mess with a good thing.  My stepdaughter claimed not to like corn bread due to a “bad experience” (which turned out to involve 10-year-old boys and a living history field trip) but suddenly a piece turned up on her plate.  This is my go-to corn bread recipe now.

The Artful Vegan by Eric Tucker with Bruce Enloe:  Five-Lentil and Chard Soup.  I kinda just wanted to make this soup, because I always seem to want a soup with Thanksgiving dinner, but I didn’t think anyone would actually eat it.  Again, a surprise hit.  I found the black lentils at Trader Joe’s, and where the recipe says “Drench lentils” I’m pretty positive it’s a typo for “French” lentils.  That’s what I used, anyway.  It was comparatively easy to make and it’s one of the most delicious soups I’ve ever had.  Most guests ate it with a piece of the corn bread stuck in the bowl.

You Won’t Believe It’s Vegan!Sesame Yams.  Perfect and pretty easy.

500 Vegan Recipes by Celine Steen and Joni Marie Newman:  Curried Apple Sprouts.  Another rave.  After two perfectly edible recipes of Brussels sprouts in one weekend, my family had to concede that they are in fact a food.

Get It Ripe by jae steele: Buttahmilk Biscuits.  Luckily my husband made these spelt biscuits, or they would have gone in the compost, I’m sure.  He said they were way too wet and almost impossible to work without major adjustments.  He’s also frustrated that he believed the instructions to bake for 13 minutes and they nearly burned.  I suspect that’s due to higher altitude in the part of Canada where the author lives.  They were good but I have no idea how they would be if he’d followed the recipe more strictly.

V Cuisine by Angeline Linardis:  Wild Rice with Hazelnut Sauce.  A disappointment, and an expensive one.  For starters, the wild rice takes more like 45 minutes than 25 minutes to cook.  I wish I’d just made it plain.

Sweet Utopia by Sharon Valencik:  Holiday Pumpkin Trifle.  It tasted good, but it didn’t look like the photo.  For some reason (my inexperience, natch) the cream and custard layers didn’t gel and got all runny, but it soaked into the cake layer and was nummy.  If I were to do it again, I’d keep the cake, the relish, and the nuts, and fill in the rest with Soy Whip and perhaps a layer of pears or some other fruits.  My trifle bowl is slightly tapered, so I would definitely need something that wouldn’t run down the sides to get that ‘parfait’ visual effect.  NB: When the serving size says 18-20, they are not joking.

We also had spicy kabocha squash from a recipe I found online (too hot, not a hit), and my brother’s top secret cranberry sauce, which was a hit.

I spent about two hours on Wednesday, five on Thursday, another 90 minutes on Friday, and a frightening eight hours on Saturday cooking all this stuff.  In retrospect, I would either stop at eight dishes or do all the vegetable prep the day before.  I would also avoid doing two almost back-to-back dinner parties, because the fridge was so full of leftovers until lunchtime Saturday that I had zero room to pre-cook anything that needed refrigeration.  Last, I would have done a smaller, probably simpler dessert.

Addendum:  I’ve started a new vegan cooking blog, The Viable Vegan.

“Eating Animals”

November 18, 2009 at 4:14 pm | Posted in Nonfiction, Politics, Slow Food, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

When I picked up this book, I thought it was in defense of Eating Animals.  I might be the only one – that’s what happens when you quit reading reviews and book jackets.  Note:  Why is there not a grammatically equivalent term to ‘vegetarianism’ for ‘the practice of eating an omnivorous diet’?  Omnivorism?  Omnivorousness?  Omnivorosity?

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The one thing about political books of this nature is that they tend to attract people who are already interested in the topic (and infuriate everyone else).  There are scads of books on the food industry; what’s different about this one is that the author is a famous novelist.  (I didn’t care for Everything is Illuminated, or the beginning of this book, but I grew to appreciate it and I prefer Foer’s nonfiction writing style).

Since you’re reading this, I’ll assume you’re interested in the topic and possibly questioning the role of food in your life, so rather than review the book, I’ll give you my personal reactions to it.  I’m a vegan.  I’ve been vegetarian for half my life (17 years, 13 as a vegan).  For me it was a natural and obvious choice, and it would be unimaginable to do things any other way.  If there are brownie points to be awarded for this sort of thing, I wouldn’t get any.  I’m not sure if I would have maintained a diet that ensures constant social opprobrium for so long if I hadn’t been totally repulsed by the sight and smell of meat since I was a little kid.  It’s, ah, not exactly asking much of me.

I agreed with the gist of everything Foer had to say, although I hate reading about factory farming because it seems the conditions get significantly worse every time I check into it.  In spite of our essential harmony, the very fact of the book annoys me.  I’ll tell you why.

It takes a certain temperament to change one’s diet.  Turn down a beer because you’re a recovering alcoholic, and people applaud.  Turn down dessert because you’re a diabetic, and people care.  Turn down shellfish because you’re allergic, and people are concerned.  Turn down anything because of an ethical commitment, and it’s rude.  People frickin’ hate it.  This is hard to face because I was taught that the burden of hospitality falls on the host, not the guest, yet people will a) shun you for “rejecting” their hospitality and b) refuse to come over and accept yours.  Peer pressure over diet is incredibly, incredibly strong.  Most people will not make a permanent dietary change even if a doctor tells them their very life is at stake – ask any nurse.

So, why would anyone do it over a book?  I would bet my next month’s pay that there are at least a few people who are experimenting with vegetarianism right now after reading Foer’s book.  Most of them will be back to their old ways by this time next year (or next week: “Turkey Day”), just like the gym is always full between January 3 and Valentine’s Day.  And with each person who tries the diet and gives it up, there will be one more addition to the mythos that it’s too hard, or unhealthy, or spiritually demanding, or whatever else it is that people think.  And it will be that much more confusing for people when they deal with lifers like me.

Vegetarianism has nothing to do with health.  I think different diets are right for different constitutions, though I think the vast majority eat too much junk and too little produce.  (My family of 2.5 goes through 20 pounds of CSA/locavore produce a week).  I was sick a lot as a kid, bruised easily, and was prone to dizzy spells and mysterious ailments.  I’ve never been robust and I’m still the last person you’d pick for the softball team – it has nothing to do with diet.  Yet if someone else gets the flu, everyone is sad; if I get the flu, people ask me, “Do you think it’s diet related?”  The knee-jerk reaction is to associate health issues or food cravings with the absence of meat in the diet, rather than consult a doctor or nutritionist.

Vegetarianism also has little to do with body weight.  I’ve been veg for my entire adult life, so this diet has seen me at both my fattest (college) and thinnest (post divorce).  People will insist, though, on thinking it alone will solve their weight problems, and try it temporarily just like any other reducing plan.

Foer is right that vegetarianism has a great deal to do with public health and the environment.  That’s one of my frustrations with the book – he should have led off with the chapter on how incredibly drippingly filthy factory-farmed meat is and then the one on its ineradicable connection to epidemic disease (something that came up, incidentally, in Guns, Germs, and Steel).  Yet, like all veg books, he starts off with a chapter on his lovable pet.  Sigh.  People do not actually care enough about animals when the chips are down – don’t you get it?  Most people just don’t give a rat’s — once an animal falls into the category of “food unit.”  Even a “pro-life” person will cry over a single human fetus and shrug over the deaths of hundreds of millions of animals.  “Life” – just for humans, dogs, cats, and the occasional hamster or ferret.

My other issue is that Foer leaves out virtually any mention of the dairy industry, perhaps because he and his family still consume it.  (He doesn’t say).  He was brave and he did a lot of research and he made an inconvenient change, but he could have pushed it farther and I believe he knows it.  If you’re in a seeking state about this issue, I personally believe there is a greater impact to giving up dairy than to giving up meat, and I include health as well as environmental and animal welfare issues in that opinion.  It’s worth looking into, at least.

So, yeah.  Ultimately I think this will be another tempest in a teapot.  It will produce another round of dilettante veggies, who will annoy people by proselytizing and will then give up after a short time because they didn’t do their research.  Frankly, another major cause will be that most are still young enough their cooking skills are undeveloped, and their food is gonna kinda suck.  And it will serve to convince yet more people that “vegetarians” eat chicken and fish (the correct term is flexatarian, and there’s no shame in it) or that all vegetarians try to “convert people” or that vegetarian food is awful.

Incidentally, I married an omnivore who can dress his own game, and we cook together.  Meat hits our table about once a month, his choice (we keep separate color-coded pots, plates, and utensils).  I have one brother who quit eating meat because he’s a proud union man and he doesn’t think it’s right to expect others to work in a modern slaughterhouse.  And, both my parents became vegans about ten years ago, though they have stricter rules about food additives (like salt) and fewer rules about clothing and such.  My other, omnivore brother keeps secret Boca burgers in his freezer.  There are lots of ways to play this game; we find it’s a piece of cake.  Vegan cake, that is.

I will close with recommendations for what I regard as the best vegan cookbooks, for those who have gotten this far.  Anything by Isa Chandra Moskovitz, Robin Robertson, or Dreena Burton, especially including (in order) Vegan With a Vengeance, Vegan Planet, and Vive Le Vegan.  The Millennium Restaurant cookbooks and anything by Ron Pickarski for fancy, experienced cooks.  And write to me any time if you’re hungry for more – especially you, Mr. Foer, ’cause there’s a bit of a learning curve ahead.

Addendum:  I’ve started a new vegan cooking blog, The Viable Vegan.

“In Defense of Food”

July 14, 2008 at 3:20 am | Posted in Nonfiction, Slow Food | 5 Comments

The latest from Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food is not only fascinating, but also a quick read – a relief if you’ve carted around one of his earlier tomes.  Pollan is a noted food writer, and his message is that there is something seriously wrong with what he calls the “Western diet” and what we veggies refer to as “SAD” (for Standard American Diet).  The first half of the book talks about the problem, and the second half is about what to do about it, summed up in the handy mnemonic, “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”  (You’ll see this on the front cover, so it’s not a spoiler or anything).

Reading the book is one thing, but trying to follow its precepts is another thing entirely.  Essentially, Pollan asks us to cut out packaged food whenever we can.  He says we’d all be much healthier if we spent both more money and more time on our food, since it would help keep us from overeating as well as introducing us to a healthier lifestyle.  It’s true that part of my fantasy life revolves around having a lush garden, cooking fancy meals, and having legendary dinner parties.  Ah, but that’s fantasy for you.  In reality, my attempts at cuisine are usually somewhat alarming to my dinner guests, who surreptitiously pick olives and things out of their dish and wonder what the spots are on their pasta.  (That’s whole grain!)

America loves her diet fads, and we’ve seen plenty.  In fact, pasta was one of those: if you ever look at a cookbook dated prior to about 1984, there most likely won’t be a single pasta dish.  Suddenly, it was everywhere!  Likewise, you can go to any small, isolated town and find things like hummus, soy milk, and edamame.  Our grandparents probably couldn’t pronounce edamame (unless they were Japanese, of course) yet now everyone knows what it is.  What all these earlier food waves had in common, though, was that they were easy to package, market, and distribute.  Pollan is advocating the exact opposite – that we eat a greater variety of local things, and focus on things that aren’t packaged.  He recommends the farmer’s market and CSAs, or Community Supported Agriculture, in which your family helps sponsor a local farm by subscribing and eating whatever they deliver to you, even if it means eight pounds of turnips.

This would be a completely revolutionary lifestyle change for most people.  Sure, we were ready for Fatkins Atkins, but are we ready for this?

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

July 12, 2008 at 7:41 am | Posted in Nonfiction, Slow Food | 2 Comments

(June 30, 2008)

I decided to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma because I wanted to read Michael Pollan’s more recent In Defense of Food, and I knew I would have to wait a few weeks for my turn at the library.  I’m also interested in the Slow Food movement, and find that I almost always have to pick around the “animal parts” in omni-focused foodie books for the “vegetable parts” that interest me.

The basic premise of the book is that, as omnivores who can and do eat virtually anything, we are presented with the problem of what we should eat.  For a koala or a monarch butterfly, the answer would be simpler, as they each eat only one food.  My own answer to this dilemma, made over a decade ago, was: if it’s vegan, I’ll eat it.  (I had to temper this by excluding chilies, because they set off my migraine.  I also don’t consume coffee or alcohol through plain dislike).

Pollan spends 400 pages traveling around to different farms, grocery stores, and restaurants, in search of a sustainable way to eat.  He shows us some fascinating experimental farms, and does his best to puncture our attachment to Whole Foods organic salad greens.  Like me, Pollan is looking for a pure way to eat, and he finds it by focusing on sustainable, local farming that supports family and community.  Hey, I support these things too – though in the sense of family, it’s easy for me because my parents are vegans and one of my brothers is veggie.

I have a few things to say about Pollan’s treatment of the ethics of eating.  He spends a full chapter exploring vegetarianism, which for his purposes he conflates with veganism.  (If you ever want to watch two people in “violent agreement,” get a vegan and a vegetarian together – we often can’t stand each other, as the vegetarians think the vegans are pompous and anal-retentive, and the vegans think the vegetarians are hypocritical sybarites who are deluding themselves about what constitutes suffering).  Anyway.  Here’s what happens.  Pollan reads Animal Liberation while eating a steak dinner.  Also like me, Pollan concludes that one can’t continue to eat animals after reading that book.  Unlike me, he spends his veggie days trying to find a moral justification for resuming his former diet.  He makes it for about a month.  This chapter is an anomaly, in that Pollan does not describe a single vegetarian meal that he makes, while the rest of the book is saturated with description of meal after meal after meal.  He complains that cooking veg involves too much chopping.  He goes on to complain that now other people have to accommodate him, and says that vegetarians are missing something by excluding themselves from social traditions when they shake their heads at whatever animal product their hosts are trying to feed them.  In the next chapter, he goes off to hunt his own pig, and says, “there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater.  Yet part of me pities him, too (362).”

Here I pause to say, “Arrrghhhh!”  Once again, the omnivore presents the fallacy that being vegetarian means sitting in the corner, sucking on an ice-cold white cube of tofu, glaring at all the partiers enjoying their rump roast in perfect conviviality.  Now, I love tofu.  I crave it sometimes, and usually I pick around it so I can save it for last.  But I don’t think I eat it more than once or twice a month.  If I met Pollan, I would ask him what he cooked while he “gave up meat.”  Did he make things up himself?  Did he have an experienced veg come over to fix him something?  Did he round up a cookbook?  If so, which one?  And, most obvious of all to me, did he stop by any of the dozens of great veggie restaurants in the Bay Area to see how it’s really done?  He lives in Berkeley, and could have taken BART almost directly to Millennium, a four-star vegan restaurant that, in my experience, is always packed to the rafters with enthusiastic omni diners.

On a side note, Pollan is a Jewish guy who just went on a pig hunt.  Tell me again how social and cultural considerations are important when we decide what to eat?  Undoubtedly it’s more important to fit in with one’s new WASP friends and eat pork than to fit in with one’s cultural heritage by following millennia-old dietary customs.  More convenient, anyway.

I have other issues with this book.  For one, I think some important concerns are left out.  First and foremost, Pollan does an awful lot of traveling to show us ways that our food could be produced sustainably, but he skips the part at the end where he’s supposed to show us how he carries this on once he’s back home.  Instead he shows us his attempt to put on a local meal, and all the problems he runs into.  Second, he leaves out any mention of how American dining habits affect people who live in other parts of the world, other than to say that there are now more “overnourished” people than malnourished people in the world.  If it’s fair for a particular area to trade its food for foods it can’t produce – are there any ramifications for North Americans who want to eat coffee and chocolate when the people who produce those foods live in poverty?  Third, how about the environment?  Okay, yes, if all omnivores sustained their meat habit with the farming practices Pollan describes, there might be no net environmental harm.  Might.

This, finally, is my big frustration with this book.  Pollan does more than rationalize his meat-eating habit – he also glosses over his (former?) marijuana habit, though it is against the law.  (Entirely typical for Northern California hedonists).  Here is a person who is prepared to justify any pleasure, bending to our region’s unofficial Follow Your Bliss mantra.  And this is exactly what I think will happen with anyone who reads, buys, or hears of this book.  Anyone who reads a 400-page book is not going to walk away remembering every word.  The audience will boil it down to the basics: 1. “Organic” isn’t so good after all, 2. Eating meat is a-okay, 3. It’s more important to eat things we enjoy that don’t bother our friends and family than anything else, 4. If I like it, it’s probably healthy.  What will come of this?  Precisely zero change.  We’ll remain a culture that eats unhealthy food, joylessly prepared, in our cars or on our laps while we stare at the TV.  It would take more than a book like this to light a fire under someone’s butt.

“Twinkie, Deconstructed”

July 12, 2008 at 7:40 am | Posted in Nonfiction, Slow Food | 2 Comments

(June 6, 2008)

I learned several interesting things from reading Twinkie, Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger.

One: If you know what’s actually in a Twinkie, you probably won’t ever want to eat one again.

Two: Back when they were made out of actual food, Twinkies had a banana-flavored filling.

Three: Thomas Jefferson introduced vanilla to the United States. That guy really got around.

Four: Most ingredients in Twinkies are mined, that is, they come from big rocks underground.

Five: Most ingredients in Twinkies are explosive.

The only thing missing was an experiment, to leave a Twinkie out and see how long it took to get moldy. Ettlinger does this with a homemade sponge cake wrapped in plastic wrap, and it’s moldy in a week. He reports that the idea that Twinkies could outlive a nuclear holocaust is an urban legend. So, okay, why not test this out in the interests of science? I heard a rumor of a friend’s college professor who had a Twinkie in its original wrapper sitting on a shelf in his office for several years, simply to watch it and see if it ever turned color or anything. [In the links below we find that, while the professor probably never taught one of my personal friends, he is a real guy and the Twinkie in question has lasted 30 years so far]. It’s my guess Ettlinger is a man of science, not a man of rhetoric, and isn’t out to pick a fight with Hostess or get sued for libel.

Probably the most interesting thing about this book was that the author avoided discussing the health and labor aspects of this particular convenience food. The trend is to damn fast food manufacturers both for their business practices and for the negative effects of consuming their products. Twinkie, Deconstructed began by simply attempting to answer a little girl’s question: “What is polysorbate-60?”

Now you want to know, too. I’ll simplify it, so I can pretend I didn’t get a D in chemistry: Polysorbate is the chemical, and 60 refers to how many molecules it has. (Though that number 60 refers to tallow, and the polysorbate in Twinkies isn’t made from that any more, so to be technically accurate they would have to go back and change the number). It’s an emulsifier, or oily liquid, that is made from ethylene oxide, which is explosive. Now, the numbers that come after the dye names are a different story; for example, red dye number 40. That number relates to the order that the patent application for the dye came in to the patent office. So there actually are dyes for each number, but some were never developed to be sold and some were pulled off the market because they were toxic.

Toxic! That’s the hidden message I got out of Ettlinger ‘s book. Modern convenience foods seem to require ingredients that are seriously borderline. When is something a chemical used in paint or detergent, and when is it a food? Basically it depends on who’s using it.

The moral of the story is, don’t eat anything if you don’t know what it is. Often enough, once you find out what it is, you won’t want to eat it anyway.

PS: Here are some articles relating to Twinkies experiments from the Web. See, it’s not so hard.

http://www.twinkiesproject.com/

http://thefooddoc.blogspot.com/2007/03/is-it-gluten-that-prevents-bread-mold.html

http://www.dagenander.com/twinkie.html

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4780900

http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2004-08-13-twinkie_x.htm

http://www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/blogs/editor/2008/02/good-reason-to.html

(I tried to find a picture of a Twinkie with mold on it, but as far as I can tell there isn’t one anywhere on the Internet).

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