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$36 a day for a "low calorie diet"?

Here's that old myth again: obesity is an economic issue because poor people can only afford to eat high-calorie food. AOL reports the latest version in Skinniest People Grocery Shop HERE. Seems that Adam Drewnowski, an epidemiology professor at the University of Washington claims that:

People who are poor and have less to spend on food try to get the biggest calorie bang for their food buck. That means they not only shop at cheaper stores, but also buy less healthy food.

They do not have to get the biggest calorie bang for the buck! Ideally, they will be trying to get the biggest nutritional bang for the buck. Obesity indicates in nearly all cases that too many calories are being consumed, which would permit purchase of fewer, more nutritious foods on the same budget.

You can afford to shop at Whole Foods even if you are on food stamps ... and I've got the data to prove it. Last month, my green meals averaged $1.83 per person. The North Carolina food-stamp allowance is $1.99 per person or 27 cents more. And my plan includes buying everything every month, including salt and cooking oil, and does not use coupons. Yes, my thrifty plan costs less at $1.18 per meal, but I could have spent less at Whole Foods if I hadn't chosen organic ingredients whenever possible.

But Dr. Drewnowski must consider Evian water or reduced-fat foie gras to essential Weight Watchers fare. How else to explain his study results that say:

a calorie-dense diet costs $3.52 a day, compared with $36.32 a day for a low-calorie diet.

That's more than $12 a meal, including breakfast.

I agree wholeheartedly that access to good ingredients isn't enough. People need the money to buy food plus the skills and a place to cook it. But you don't have to be rich to be thin.


Hard sell on salt? No, on processed foods.

The Hard Sell on Salt in today's New York Times tells in many ways how salt enhances or masks the flavor of processed food. Writer Michael Moss seems to assume that processed foods are our only option and that only corporations can stop our dangerous salt habit. Oh, when will Kellogg save us all by reducing the salt in the Cheez-It? Hooray for Campbell Soup, which has already heroicly reduced the salt in its soups, making them only very very salty instead of very very very salty!

What Moss doesn't say is that when you cook with good, fresh ingredients, salt only enhances flavor and texture. It doesn't hide or preserve, so you need much less. Ask yourself why are we eating food based on such disgusting ingredients as these:

Beyond its own taste, salt also masks bitter flavors and counters a side effect of processed food production called "warmed-over flavor," which, the scientists said, can make meat taste like "cardboard" or "damp dog hair."


Without salt [Cornflakes] tasted metallic. The Eggo waffles evoked stale straw. The butter flavor in the Keebler Light Buttery Crackers, which have no actual butter, simply disappeared.

Maybe Campbell Soup should consider reducing salt in its "Buttery Crackers" by using butter. Maybe you should consider making your own crackers. (Crackers sound hard but are fast and easy.) But if not crackers, at least make your own soup. Use ingredients that taste good to start with, not ones that require a mask of salt.


Taste for salt "intractable"? — Moss reports that:

Now, the industry is blaming consumers for resisting efforts to reduce salt in all foods, pointing to, as Kellogg put it in a letter to a federal nutrition advisory committee, “the virtually intractable nature of the appetite for salt.”

That's not been my experience, and I've got a salt tooth instead of a sweet tooth. Given the choice between potato chips and sorbet or cashews and cookies, I'll usually take the saltier choice.


But after nearly three years of eating mostly home cooking, I've lost my taste for the super-salty snacks that used to tempt me. At one long driving day through Alabama on the Cook for Good tour, I bought a single-serving size of potato chips in desperation. (Most of the other choices were variations on fried pork skin.) To my surprise, this former treat had no potato taste but an almost burning level of salt. I ate a second mouthful in disbelief, then threw the rest of the bag away. Can't eat just one? No, can't eat any.

Our appetite for salt is not intractable. Our dependence on processed foods is not complete. It's time for individuals to reclaim their kitchens as a source of health, pleasure, and independence.


Don't eat more oil than you need

It's easy to feel helpless while watching oil gush into the Gulf, spread to the wetlands, and ensnare wildlife. While most of us can't do anything about that disaster, we can make a difference by limiting the oil we use, starting with our food choices. Reduce demand for oil and watch the prices drop and the requests for drilling permits lose their urgency. We may even be able to take a step towards peace by reducing the incentive for war in oil-rich regions.

Eating the Cook for Good way helps reduce your oil consumption because you:

  • Eat low on the food chain. The website PB&J Campaign describes why this works:
    Everything we eat comes from plants, whether we eat the plants directly or through an animal intermediary. The basic problem is that animals are inefficient at converting plants into meat, milk, and eggs. Relatively little of what they eat ends up in what you eat because animals use most of their food to keep them alive - to fuel their muscles so they can stand up and walk around, to keep their hearts beating, to keep their brains working.
  • Choose local and seasonal.Cut the fuel used to ship and store your food. The National Center for Appropriate Technology says that about 5% of all the fossil fuel used in the U.S. goes to transporting, packaging, and processing food. That's the same amount used to grow the food and to store and prepare it at home.
  • Eat pure, minimally processed food. Have a tomato instead of a can of V-8 or walnuts instead of potato chips. Eat beans that are recognizably beans instead of ones that have been spun into mock soy meat. Processing takes fuel, about 10 calories of fossil fuel for every one calorie of food energy, according to Richard Manning in The Oil We Eat: Following the Food Chain Back to Iraq. Even seemingly simple food, like breakfast cereal, takes 4 calories to process for every one calorie of food energy. Bonus: pure food tastes great and is better for you.
  • Go organic. Avoid the fossil-fuel fertilizers and pesticides used in industrial agriculture. Richard Manning writes:
    On average, it takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy to restore a year's worth of lost fertility to an acre of eroded land-in 1997 we burned through more than 400 years' worth of ancient fossilized productivity, most of it from someplace else.

Thrift can make all these choices automatic. Pesticides, processing, transportation, storage, and links in the food chain cost money to the producer, who passes the price on to the shopper (us!).

Making these choices as often as you can will not solve the oil crisis, but you can make a real difference. Enough people eating wisely may give society a chance to wise up.


Farm to Fork Picnic: Arguably "Best AYCE Feast in Country"

I drove through a merciful break in the thunderstorms to the Farm to Fork Picnic yesterday, anticipating a delicious experience but not convinced that I'd find what Bon Appetit restaurant editor Andrew Knowlton calls "The country's best all-you-can-eat feast."

Oh, Andrew, you are SO right! Nearly 50 booths served up breathtakingly fresh and creative food, ringing a field not nearly as muddy as it could have been. In the center, folks sat on hay bales or their own lawn chairs. The unamplified band sounded more like klezmer than bluegrass: another sign that while the barbeque may rule in the Triangle, there's much more going on.

After making my first sampling tour, I came back to the Magnolia Grill booth for my Best of Show round. I told baking genius Karen Barker, "This is even better than Host City Night at the IACP in Portland!" "Welcome home," said Karen with a smile as she offered me another slice of her cornmeal cake.

Why better? Not afraid of flavor. Luxury in the form of super fresh, local ingredients. Fun and wit. Here are some highlights:


  • Box Turtle Bakery's savory croissant with heirloom red fife wheat, Castlemaine Swiss chard, roasted garlic, and spring onions. I didn't recognize this super-tender and tasty stuffed whole-wheat bread as a croissant: no tell-tale flaky layers. But baker Abraham Palmer told me butter is one secret to the rich taste and texture. Another secret? Palmer arranged to have the red fife wheat grown by a local farmer, then grinds it himself just before baking. Freshly ground whole-wheat flour is to store-bought all-purpose flour as a ripe garden tomato is to a shrink-wrapped grocery-store tomato. It's hard to believe they are related.

  • Farmer's Daughter's spicy napa cabbage kimchi. April McGreger makes this spicy fermented Korean dish using a variety of organic or pesticide-free produce. Her kimchi's still-crisp cabbage in pungent tomato sauce will wake up any meal.

  • Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe's vegetable pakoras with various chutneys. Oh, I can hardly wait for Vimala's Cafe to open this summer. Her hot, crispy vegetable fritters will entice hushpuppy lovers to try Indian food. Vimala's booth was one of many that paired a chef with a farm: in this case, Fiddle Creek Farm.


Other great bites and sips included a pea-green garlic wasabi shot, beet gazpacho, and zucchini frittelle.


Hats off to the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, the Orange County Cooperative Extension, and Slow Food Triangle for organizing this great event. Every detail worked, including the butcher-paper covered tables upon which the chefs had scrawled the names of their offerings.

I drove back through stormy weather, admiring a rainbow on the way (could it get any better?) and thinking about all the great people in the area who collaborate to make the eating here so excellent, from farm to fork. It IS good to be home.


Small actions, big changes over time

I'm taking a few days off mid-tour to hike in two spectacular areas: the redwoods of northern California and red-rock country in Utah. The ancient trees and the wildly formed arches and canyons may seem to have little in common, but they both show the effects of small changes over time.

Redwoods seem to have more personality than other trees: straight or spiraling, huge columns or mini-forests unto themselves with side branches the size of full-grown East Coast trees. Many redwoods show evidence of recovering from fire or lost bark or even tops from wind, lightening, or the falling of other giants.

The canyons, rock fins, and arches in Utah show dramatic results from erosion and shifts in the planet's layers.

And the people on the trails and at the overlooks show the effects of diet, exercise, education, and other means we have to shape the bodies and minds we were born with.

Personally, I'm very glad to be carrying about 15 pounds less on the trails this year. I lost weight gradually by eating the Cook for Good way most of the time. As a patch of sunlight may bend a tree over time and drops of water may carve a canyon, small eating and not-eating choices create the Future You.

And on this Mothers' Day, I'm glad to look back on our family tours when I was growing up. Thanks to my folks for never saying what I heard one mother say to her daughter in response to a question about skunk cabbage:

I don't know what it is and I don't want to find out.

But that's a rare response here in the park. For the most part, everyone keeps up a lively conversation about the glories of our world.