Stained Glass Jam

My husband and I have been making jam for a couple of years, and this holiday season we decided to get creative with our jam making.  So we created “stained glass” jam and they turned out so lovely that I wanted to share.

Our finished “stained glass” jam

We used Fruit Roll Ups and some home made cookie cutters (courtesy of my husband’s 3D plastic printer) to stamp out festive shapes, like Christmas trees.

We tried several types, and found that while Fruit By the Foot was easiest to cut out into shapes, its narrow width limited us to small shapes, like hearts and fish (we aren’t especially religious, but several of our family members would appreciate the symbolism).  The all natural “fruit leather” products were much too thick to stamp shapes from, and refused to stick to the inside of the jars.  Fruit Roll Ups were both thin enough to stamp, and wide enough to make a basic tree shape.  The Gushers were determined to be delicious.

Once the shapes were cut, we stuck them inside our very clean half pint mason jars and began making our Peach Pineapple Mango jam.  We chose this flavor because it was a big hit with our friends last time, and because it allowed the colors of the shapes to shine through.

This is our basic jam recipe, with details listed for the Peach Pineapple Mango flavor, but you could use any fruit, or combination or fruits, that you enjoy.

To make jam you’ll need:

  • 2 lbs of fruit, give or take (we used 1 cored fresh pineapple, two ripe mangoes and a 1 lb bag of frozen peaches thawed).
  • 4 to 5 cups of sugar
  • 1 box of pectin=7 or so tbsp.
  • Cooking pot (around 1 gallon).
  • Stirring implement.
  • 4 very clean pint jars or 8 or 9 half pint jars with very clean or new lids (its good to boil the lids too).
  • Blending device.

Directions:

  • Put a small plate in the freezer.
  • Put fruit and 2-3 cups of sugar into a blending device (we used a Cuisinart). Blend it as much as you want.

  • Put 2 cups of sugar and a box of pectin in a big cooking pot. Dump in about half of the mixture you just made.
  • Turn on the burner somewhere in the “heat things quickly” range. Stir this mixture constantly.
  • Give it a rolling boil for 60 seconds. It’s cool to go over by a few seconds, but try not to go under. The point here is that the pectin needs this temperature for at least 60 seconds to undergo its chemical reaction.
  • Add the rest of the sugar. Stir it in and wait for the mixture to bubble a little bit…

  • Dump in the rest of the smoothie. Stir constantly.
  • Boil again for 60-70 seconds while stirring. Watch out for foam and splashes (an oven mitt on your stirring hand is a good idea) If the foam threatens to boil out of the pot, you’re doing it right. Then shut off the heat and remove the pot from the burner.
  • Dip a little bit of this sugary lava onto that plate you stuck in the freezer (just let it run off your stir stick). If it sort-of hardens up in 30 seconds (may still be a little runny) then you’re good to go. If not, keep the jelly on low heat for another minute or two. Lick jelly off plate.
  • Let the pot sit on low heat for a couple of minutes. Then scrape off the foam with a slotted spoon. You don’t want it in the jelly, but it still tastes awesome.
  • Dump sugar lava into canning jars (used jelly jars will work too). Warm canning jars are ideal. If you don’t have a canning funnel, use a ladle so you don’t spill all over the place. Leave about 1/2″ of space at the top. Leave the caps off for a couple of minutes. Wipe away any jammy globs from the lip of the jars. this is a good time to start heating the water to boil or pressure can them.

  • Put the caps on and can them. (submerge them in boiling water for 15 minutes or stick them in a pressure cooker with an inch or two of water in it on a medium setting for 5 minutes. Start the timer when the water is boiling or the steam is venting) Note: make sure the water is pretty warm before you put the jars in it, or they may crack. I prefer the pressure cooker method. It’s overkill, but it guarantees that anything alive in the jars is well cooked.
  • *NOTE: Boiling them for too long will melt your fruit roll up shapes into bluish blobs. I boiled them for 5 minutes… enough to get the lids to seal, I suppose, but they should be gifted, opened and eaten in the next couple months.

  • Set them on a towel to cool. Pulling them out of the water is tricky without a jar lifter. Check the tightness of the lids, as they tend to loosen up a little bit in the canning process.
  • Note: Doing as many steps as you can at the same time will speed up the process. Also, if you’re dealing with really sweet fruits, such as kiwis or over-ripe strawberries and peaches, add a splash of lemon juice to the mixture. This helps the pectin do its thing.
  • Note 2: If, after a day or two, your jelly is still syrup, you can dump them back in the pot and reprocess them with more pectin and a little bit more sugar and fruit. Add a splash of lemon juice, too. Or you can have syrup. Either way, you win.

What do you think?  Do you have a favorite jam recipe that you like to make for your loved ones?

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Peaches and Cobblers: a Sweet History

I apologize for my prolonged absence from updating but I have been finishing my Master’s Thesis and updating the artifact blog that showcases the fruits of those labors (http://oldmainartifacts.wordpress.com/).

But a visit to the local farmers market yesterday reminded me of what I had been missing.  The soft, sunset colored, fuzzy southern Illinois peaches they had brought me back to the basics of food, and pulled my attention away from the cerebral study of historical foodways.  Biting into a ripe, juicy peach, with its velvety soft skin and its intense sticky sweet flavor is one of the most visceral, and sensual food experiences.

Peaches were originally cultivated in China, and archaeological evidence suggests they were cultivated as far back as the Neolithic era.

According to The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs, although its botanical name, Prunus persica, suggests the peach is native to Persia, it was in fact the Persians who brought the peach from China to Europe along the ancient Silk Road.

According to Foods & Nutrition Encyclopedia, “Alexander the Great introduced the fruit into Europe after he conquered the Persians.”

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs also mentions that the Romans called peaches “persicum malum, meaning Persian apple.  In Middle English, it melded into peche, much closer to what we call it today.”

According to the History of Food, a sixth century Italian poet, Venantius Fortunatus, wrote “first I was given those sweet fruits the common people call peaches; they never tired of serving them to me, and I never tired of eating them; soon my stomach was distended like that of a woman giving birth.”  In modern vernacular, that condition would be described as a food baby.

Inspiration for what to do with my peachy treasure came from NPR’s recent Pie Week special series.  During one of the interviews, Deborah Duchon, a nutritional anthropologist, mentioned that cobblers were uniquely American.  She said in the interview, “There are variations on pies that are very American, like the Apple Betty and cobblers … Those are all variations on pies that were developed by pioneers who didn’t have the equipment that they needed – the right kind of pan, the right kind of oven. So those are all American-style variations.”

Cobblers are defined as “an American deep-dish fruit dessert or pie with a thick crust (usually a biscuit crust) and a fruit filling (such as peaches, apples, berries). Some versions are enclosed in the crust, while others have a drop-biscuit or crumb topping.”

According to cookbook author Nancy Baggett “Despite the old saying, ‘more American than apple pie,’ Americans can’t really claim credit for pie; English settlers brought recipes for it with them. However, we can take full credit for the old-fashioned fruit dessert called cobbler. It was created here in the late 18th or early 19th century, around the time that baking soda became available and cooks began using it to puff up their doughs. One of the first mentions of “cobler” was in Mrs. Lettice Bryan’s 1839 cookbook, The Kentucky Housewife.  In a recipe called Peach Pot Pie, she commented: ‘Peach pot pie, or cobler as it is often termed, should be made of clingstone peaches, that are very ripe, and then pared and sliced from the stones.’ At the end of the recipe, she added: ‘Eat it warm or cold. Although it is not a fashionable pie for company, it is very excellent for family use… While cobbler is indeed a fine dish for families, all the company I’ve served it to has also been thrilled with this succulent, richly flavored homespun treat!'”

As for the source of the name cobbler, Rob Gusche notes “The earliest meaning of the word “cobbler” refers to one who makes (or “cobbles”) shoes. Sometime later, “to cobble” came to mean “to put together clumsily or roughly” (American Heritage Dictionary). This second meaning is most likely the origin of the name of fruit-based dessert known as “cobbler,” in which the ingredients are thrown together with little of the precision required to make a classic fruit pie.”  Food historian Lynne Olver also suggests that the name cobbler could be attributed to the lumpy cobblestone appearance of the freshly baked confection.

The recipe I used was a variation of the Easy Peach Cobbler but it might as well be called Magical Peach Cobbler, because the pastry batter for the crust is poured into the bottom of the pan, but while baking, the dough rises up to the top and makes a golden crust with a sugar crisp crunch.

Makes 4 generous servings.

Ingredients:

1/4 cup butter

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup sugar, divided in half

1/2 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teapsoon salt

1/2 cup milk

4 cups fresh peach slices

1/2 tablespoon lemon juice

Ground cinnamon

Preparation:

Melt butter in a baking dish.

Combine flour, 1/2 cup sugar, baking powder, and salt; add milk, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened. Pour batter over butter (do not stir).

Bring remaining 1/2 cup sugar, peach slices, and lemon juice to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly; pour over batter (do not stir). Sprinkle with cinnamon, if desired.

Bake at 375° for 40 to 45 minutes or until golden brown. Serve cobbler warm or cool.

 

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My Sister’s Springtime Baby Shower

One of my favorite things to do relating to food is to cook for other people.  Since we are a family of foodies, my sister Amanda’s baby shower provided an excellent opportunity for cooking fancy foods.  And because the gathering was small, it allowed my mother, my sister’s friend Melissa, and myself, to do the cooking ourselves and use our fancy china and glassware. So if you’ll permit me the indulgence, here is a photo post of the foods we made and served at the baby shower.

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We set the table with my mother’s china, and set plenty of daffodils on the table in small bud vases.  We used bronzed and ceramic baby shoes as decoration.  Image

ImageMy mother filled her antique wicker baby carriage with daffodils too.  The quilt on the wall was made by my mother’s friend when Amanda was a baby.  The yellow duck was an Easter toy my mother found at a discount store.

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For the party favors, my husband and I made this peach pineapple mango jam at home.  I made the labels in Photoshop.

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My sister’s friend Melissa made this lovely and delicious cake.  It was a yellow lemon cake with almond flavored filling.  She even made the little baby shoes on top.

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Our main luncheon included 3 varieties of quiche, from left to right: 1) broccoli cheddar, 2) ham and Swiss, and 3) spinach and tomato with mozzarella and goat cheese.  We also served Italian style pasta salad, and spinach salad with apples, pecans and blue cheese, as well as a loaf of french bread.Image

We made as much of the food ourselves as possible.  My sister was very pleased with the event, and all our guests appeared to have a good time.  And I’d like to think that an event celebrating a new life should also be an event that also celebrates good food shared with friends and family.

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Casserole: the eternal crowd pleaser

When the first crisp day of fall arrives, I immediately start day dreaming about hot meals, in a way that would have seemed like madness in the intensely hot days of summer just a few weeks before. Yesterday was just such a day, when I reached for my coat before walking outside, and noticed a few leaves at the tops of the trees that were eager to put on their fall colors. At the end of the day, coming home cold and wind blown, I knew what I was craving was a homemade, hot and crisp from the oven casserole.

It doesn't get any better than this

This craving for casserole made me wonder about the history of this dish, when and where it originated, how it became such an iconic American staple, and why it eventually fell into culinary abandonment. While the casserole has not been forgotten at the average American table, it certainly seems to be passé to the trend setting foodie elite, where recognition of its glory is relegated to Thanksgiving.

In one such holiday issue of Saveur magazine, in a feature about green bean casserole, Todd Coleman  suggests a starting place for our historical investigation. “Like most American casseroles, this one can trace its roots to the Depression era, which gave rise to a number of one-dish meals that made the best of readily available and inexpensive ingredients” (The Queen’s Beans, Coleman 2007). The Great Depression as the origin of the casserole is surely a common and logical conception, but evidence suggests that it is much older.

“Casserole cookery has been around since prehistoric times, when it was discovered that cooking food slowly in a tightly covered clay vessel softened fibrous meats and blended succulent juices” (The Oxford companion to American food and drink, Smith 2007: 97).

The name for the food comes from the container in which it is cooked. The historical time line of the ceramic (or now glass) cooking vessel that we commonly know as the casserole dish is telling one. According to The Oxford Companion to Food, “The word [casserole] has a complicated history, starting with a classical Greek term for a cup (kuathos), progressing to a Latin word (cattia), which could mean both ladle and pan, then becoming an Old French word (casse), which then became casserole. Historically, casserole cookery has been especially popular in rural homes, where a fire is in any case burning all day and every day” (Davidson 1999: 143).

In An A-Z of Food & Drink, John Ayto writes, “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of its history is the complete and sudden change in the dish it refers to that has taken place within the past hundred years. When English took it over from French at the beginning of the eighteenth century it meant a dish of cooked rice molded into the shape of a casserole cooking pot and then filled with a savory mixture, say of chicken or sweetbreads. It was also applied by extension to a border of rice, or even of mashed potato, round some such dish as fricasee or curry. Then some time around the 1870s this sense of casserole seems to have slipped imperceptibly but swiftly into a dish of meat, vegetable, and stock or other liquid, cooked slowly in the oven in a closed pot”(Ayto 2002: 60-1).

“With the addition or subtractions of leftovers or inexpensive cuts of meat, the casserole is flexible and economical in terms of both ingredients and effort. Fannie Meritt Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book (1896) had one casserole recipe, for Casserole of Rice and Meat, to be steamed for forty-five minutes and served with tomato sauce. During the depression of the 1890s, the economic casserole provided a welcome way to stretch meat, fish, and poultry. In the twentieth century, casseroles took on a distinctive American identity” (Smith 2007: 97).

“Although the casserole has a long history in America, it did not begin to attract major attention until condensed, canned soups came on the market” (The Casserole Makes A Comeback With New Tricks And New Tastes, American Institute for Cancer Research 2000).

Dr. John T. Dorrance, a chemist with the Campbell Soup Company, invented condensed soup in 1897. The Campbell Soup Company aggressively marketed these products, “through regular offerings of cookery pamphlets and cookbooks emphasizing how soups could be enhanced or used as ingredients to make other dishes. Campbell’s published its first advertising cookbooklet in 1910 and has subsequently put out dozens of such items” (Smith 2007: 97).

Steven Gdula, author of The Warmest Room In The House, notes that the casserole was embraced during World War 1 for its ability to conserve both food and fuel. “The saving of fuel during wartime was just as important as the saving of food, and both noble efforts were combined in casserole cooking. There were few ways to cook that were more economical that tossing vegetables and meats into a pot with some broth and allowing them to stew for hours over low heat. In fact the casserole was really nothing more than an update of that old standby, the one-pot meal, which had been present in the America Kitchen for centuries” (Gdula 2008: 26).

Gdula cites an article from Good Housekeeping from March of 1917, titled the Law and Lure of Casseroles, quoting “The primitive woman herself was the inventor of casserole cooking, and in her pottery dishes she boiled and stewed meats, vegetables, and fruits, everything which she did not cook in the ashes or on a hardwood stick over the fire.”

Campbell’s efforts to market its soup for recipes increased, and “when the Depression hit in the 1930s, the company’s advertising budget shot up to $3.5 million. Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup was an absolute boon for housewives when it was introduced in 1934” (Smith 2007: 97).

The casserole “became an American staple in the Depression, when cheap but filling meals were essential, and rose in popularity during World War II as women began to enter the workplace in large numbers. It reached its heyday in the fifties” (American Institute for Cancer Research 2000).

“The idea of casserole cooking as a one-dish meal became popular in America in the twentieth century, especially in the 1950s when new forms of lightweight metal and glassware appeared on the market. The virtues of easy-to-prepare meals were increasingly promoted in the women’s magazines of the era, thereby supposedly freeing the housewife from the lengthy drudgery of the kitchen” (Mariani 1999: 59).

The casserole was not free of controversy during this time, however, as it was suggested in a 1954 newspaper editorial that “the next war between the sexes will be fought over the delicate issue of casseroles… A woman is never more coy than when she has cooked a coy casserole. All casseroles, I submit are, coy. They reflect the basic tease in women, the urge to attract by the mysterious, the tendency to persuade us that there is more to a dish female or culinary than meets the eye. Casseroles symbolize woman’s reluctance to face the fact that yesterday’s roast beef or chicken is still yesterday’s roast beef or chicken, now defrocked, sliced up and hidden like a poor relative under a melange of whipped potatoes, noodles or rice.” (Casseroles May Cause Next War Between Sexes, Saul Pett, The Tuscaloosa News, Jun 7, 1954)

While the casserole enjoyed tremendous popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, its popularity began to decline. “By the 1970s casserole cookery took on a less-than sophisticated image” (The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, Mariani 1999: 59).

“Part of the decline in the casserole’s popularity was due to an over-reliance on leftovers, canned foods and “instant” sauces.” (American Institute for Cancer Research 2000).

Whatever the reason for the decline of the casserole in the past, there has hardly been a more suitable time than now for us to give the casserole a second life.  The life history of the casserole shows peaks of interest when times are tough.  As we are facing tough economic times, with wages stagnant and food costs rising, as well as temperatures dropping, the advantages of the casserole can again make it relevant for foodies and eaters alike. With its hot, filling and creamy character, there has never been a better time to break out that old casserole dish and make something fantastic.

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Bacon: a delicious investment

I always hear it first, the distinctive sizzling sound of bacon, cooking in the kitchen on a weekend morning.  A few minutes later, the signature smell wanders in, and I am enticed out of bed and filled with anticipation and desire.  On weekends, my fiancé likes to make breakfast, and while he is vegetarian by choice, he is also a bacon enthusiast.  According to NPR, he’s not the only vegetarian making this sizzling exception.  There is just something so irresistible about bacon, and it got me thinking about how a simple breakfast food has been elevated to a place of reverence for cooks and eaters alike.

The Bacon Wallet from ThinkGeek.com

While it might seem like a straightforward topic, the story of bacon, pork and the pig is complicated, and much too long for a single blog post.  The prehistoric relationship between humans and the humble pig is complex and dynamic, as domestication of the pig occurred independently in at least seven places across the globe. (Larson 2005)

Yet pork was not universally embraced through history, as some groups, including Jews and Muslims, were forbidden from eating it.  I wondered what health or social advantages a pork-free diet offered to ancient peoples, that they sought to eliminate it from their lives, with threats of eternal damnation.

I wondered why pork is favored at breakfast over other meats.  Bacon, ham and pork sausage are breakfast favorites, at least in the US, while beef and chicken (except for eggs) are rarely found in the a.m. and mostly relegated to lunch and dinner menus.  What historic or cultural conditions lead to this special treatment?  Does pork lend itself more easily to preservation methods than other meats, ensuring it would be both ready and safe to eat first thing in the morning?

I may cover all these topics in time, but for this post, my interest is in the present.  Bacon is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, a renewed popularity in recent years, after it was exiled during the 1990s in the low fat diet days.  Bacon got a reluctant invitation back to the breakfast table when the low carb diet was big, only to be pushed aside again when swine flu was the big fear.  Yet when comfort food came on the trendy food scene, bacon became its poster child.  Since then it has been upwardly mobile and fueled by the internet and foodie culture, as the bacon fascination today is at a fever pitch.  Wikipedia calls it a bacon mania and traces its origins back even further.

Bacon has tremendous appeal as a flavor enhancer, recipe improver, and novelty act, which brought it into the spotlight, and hurled it into food superstardom.  There is a new cookbook made up exclusively of bacon recipes, called I Love Bacon!  The best recipe I’ve tried so far from the book is the chocolate bacon cupcakes.

For many of us, bacon is widely regarded to be so fantastically delicious that it seems to create a charismatic cult following, and can be a type of enhancement drug.  Check the internet for bacon and you will be amazed at the love and dedication that people express for this magical food.  One can find it manifesting itself proudly in fantastical piles of bacon, atop mighty burgers, daintily reclining over lettuce and tomato, wrapped around scallops, steaks and hot dogs, or even woven into a meaty textile covering a chicken, turkey or ultimately, the turducken.  Bacon bits can be found in salads and chocolate, and bacon flavor in ice cream, soda, gum, vodka, beer, popcorn, and salt, among thousands more. There are also several non-food bacon flavored items including toothpicks, dental floss, scented candles, lip balm, envelopes and lubricant.  Stephen Colbert recently featured two new bacony products, Denny’s maple bacon sundae and a bacon scented cologne.

With bacon becoming such a hot commodity, what should a bacon lover do?  If you are the gambling type, now is a great time to invest in your favorite anytime food.  Consider a recent blog post from the Idaho Farm Bureau “Pork belly prices are on pace to set records this summer as demand for bacon skyrockets. The big jump in bacon use is coming mostly from fast-food restaurants and casual dining establishments that are adding bacon to everything from salads to ice cream sundaes. About 44 percent of U.S. consumers will eat bacon within a two-week period, which is a record high, according to consumer research conducted by the NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm. Much of the growth comes from cooks using bacon as an ingredient to enhance the taste of a dish, according to the NPD study.”

The historical and economic origins of this tasty breakfast staple are only slightly less interesting than they are delicious. “Cured pork belly (also known as bacon) evolved as a way to preserve the meat after slaughter. Pork belly is the result of harvesting both bellies from a pig, salting or smoking them, and refrigerating them. The pork industry’s growth was fueled by the demand for pork bellies as the rail system in the U.S. improved. At the same time, the country’s population and economy shifted from rural to urban, bringing a taste for pork belly to the cities. Considered a longer lasting and easier way to transport pork with little to no perishing, pork bellies became a staple in the American diet. With the increased production and distribution of pork bellies, the first pork belly commodities contract was created in 1961 by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Pork bellies are easy to transport, can be preserved nearly indefinitely with proper refrigeration, and are a byproduct of the most popular meat in the world. Needless to say, pork bellies are commodities that will always have a supply and demand chain.” (Noble Drakoln www.investopedia.com)

The widespread love of bacony goodness is also reflected in the increasing global demand.  “China’s continued urbanization presents an opportunity for explosive growth in pork product demand, much like the migration from rural to urban life in the U.S. spurred the domestic popularity of pork bellies. The pork industry has seen tremendous growth worldwide – more exports are heading to China and Japan than ever before. Pork has long been considered the leading consumed meat in the world, and the pork industry saw 105 million pigs go to slaughter in 2006, plus a doubling in export demand in 2007. With much of the pork heading overseas to fulfill growing demand, the industry’s continued growth appears healthy.”  (Noble Drakoln www.investopedia.com)

And this graph from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Daily Livestock Report, shows how demand for bacon increased over the last decade, with prices nearly doubling in that time.  You can see clearly how the 2009 swine flu had a downward effect on prices, and how ferociously demand returned in 2010.

According to the Daily Livestock Report, “This surge in bellies prices has been driven by a confluence of factors. Bacon featuring this spring was quite aggressive by many manufacturers and retailers with many brands being promoted in “2 for $5” ads where the 2 refers to 2 one-pound packages. The resulting draw-down in frozen pork bellies inventories pushed those stocks to their lowest level since October 2007 — in August. That is important since bellies stocks normally continue to decline through October due to lower summertime hog slaughter runs and late-summer BLT sandwich usage. When these lower stocks met lower-than-expected hog supplies since July 1, the bellies supply situation became critical and prices began to rise rapidly.”

The next question now is, are we in the midst of a delicious, bacony bubble? It certainly could be, but judging by current trends it should last a while longer, and even then it might be the most appetizing bubble to burst in economic history.

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Poisoned by tableware: Historic parallels of plastic and lead

In recent years, the evidence that some plastic products are leaching harmful chemicals into our food supply has become irrefutable. Legal bans on some plastics have been enacted, and awareness campaigns have been undertaken by concerned citizens, to make the public aware of these problems, and to advocate for safer alternatives. Safer plastics are being developed and marketed to the public, with many consumers eager to pay a little more for a better product. Other people avoid plastics altogether, fearing that there may not be a “safer” plastic. For more details visit my previous post on the subject.

"Vanitas" by Willem Claesz Heda. Dated 1628, a typical vanitas painting, a calvinist form of 'memento mori'.

There is a historical precedent for this social, environmental and health problem, with a link to food related items. Lead, and lead containing metal alloys such as pewter, were used widely in the manufacture, storage and service of food and beverages, going back as far as the Bronze Age, despite the fact that they carried tremendous health risks from their production and use. According to Milton A. Lesser, of the Department of Physiology at Ohio State University, lead and cast copper artifacts made during the “Bronze Age indicated that ancient man had discovered the smelting process and was rendering and purifying metals to make useful and decorative objects” (Lesser, 1988).

Even as these metals came into wider use, their health risks were known. Hippocrates (460-377 BCE), the ancient Greek physician, “described the symptoms of lead poisoning as appetite loss, colic, pallor, weight loss, fatigue, irritability, and nervous spasms. Among the earliest records, there are notes that lead miners and individuals who worked with lead developed ailments that resulted in their early demise. This was first well documented by the Egyptians who used slaves in their mines and later by the Pre-Greeks, Greeks, and Romans” (Lesser, 1988).

Harry Arthur Waldron wrote, “the Romans’ lead technology was impressive. They manufactured sheet lead and had ingenious methods of rolling and jointing pipes, which were the basis of their water-carrying systems. The amount of lead consumed by the Romans was extraordinary. In building the great aqueduct at Lyons it had been estimated that 12,000 tons of lead were used on just one of the siphon units” (Waldron 1973).

Lead was used in the manufacturing of many items, including utensils, cups and plates, in ceramic glazes, as well as in vessels used to manufacture wine and cider. Sapa was made by boiling acidic wine in lead-lined vessels. “This yields a sweet syrup due to the formation of lead acetate. Most early Greek and Roman wines contained sapa, which also was used to sweeten food because these civilizations had no readily available source of sugar. Recent analyses of ancient Greek and Roman wine vessels indicated that wine stored in them had a considerable lead content” (Lesser, 1988).

Waldron wrote that the practice of adding sapa was “so universal that Pliny remarked indignantly that ‘genuine, unadulterated wine is not to be had now, not even by the nobility.’ And he was right to complain for, he comments, ‘From the excessive use of such wines arise dangling . . . paralytic hands, echoing Dioscorides, who wrote that corrected wine was ‘most hurtful to the nerves’” (Waldron 1973). As the Roman Empire expanded, the mining and manufacturing of lead increased across Europe. And while several notable historians have suggested that lead poisoning contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire, this theory is still rather contentious.

Lesser indicates that during the Middle Ages, “the writings of medieval physicians indicated an awareness of both the sources and symptoms of lead poisoning. U. Ellenberg in 1473 published “On the Poisonous and Noxious Vapors and Fumes of Metals” and later G. Agricola (1556) published “De Re Metallica.”” Even with this awareness, “the Middle Ages saw a marked increase in the use of lead and lead-containing products” (Lesser, 1988).

According to Neil Beagrie, “in the Medieval period there were essentially two main grades of pewter used for vessels. A hard high-quality alloy of tin with perhaps 1-3% copper used for plates and dishes and a softer cheaper alloy of tin with 10 to 20% lead used for hollow-ware such as pots or flagons [pitcher]. Analysis has shown that sepulchral chalices [footed cups] and patens [plates] of the late medieval period could contain much higher levels of lead, in some cases as much as 75%” (Beagrie 1989).

Lesser adds that, during the Colonial period, “there was extensive manufacture and use of glazed earthenware, pewter, lead pipe, lead shot, and lead type for printing. Red and white lead was used as pigments for paints and lead acetate and lead oxide were used to sweeten and whiten bread. Lead intoxication was rampant during the Colonial Period in America and may have been involved in accusations of witchcraft because individuals with lead poisoning neuropathy often show weird behavior” (Lesser, 1988).

With the well known effects of lead poisoning, it can be hard to believe that it took thousands of years for the use of lead to be discontinued, at least at the consumer level. However, it was concern for occupational and environmental health that eventually tipped the scale against lead. Lesser wrote, “it was not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that occupational health was recognized as an important governmental public health issue. The United States and several European countries (Britain, France, Germany) passed legislation designed to protect workers from dangerous toxic environments. Congress passed the Occupational Health Act in 1970, which created the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Limits for the acceptable levels of lead in air, water, and food were set by NIOSH. These levels have been revised downward as new evidence became available on the vulnerability of infants and developing children to relatively low levels of lead in the environment” (Lesser, 1988).

Luckily for us, the story of lead has a happy ending, at least in countries where such legislation has been enacted and enforced. “The reduction of lead in gasoline, controlling the use of lead pigments in paints and printing inks, and banning of lead-based glazes on pottery and ceramic ware have resulted in a reduction of both industrial and population exposure to lead. There is no way that an important metal like lead can be removed from the environment, but with increased vigilance and control we can markedly reduce the exposure of animals and humans to lead” (Lesser, 1988).

Will we be so lucky with plastics? Only time will tell.

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Hunger: New efforts to combat an old enemy

The hollow face of hunger was given a euphemistic face-lift in the 20th century with the term “food insecurity”. Even so, hunger has too long been on the periphery in the discussion about food culture, but this is beginning to change. It started creeping into the wider discussion as the global recession put more people at risk for hunger, and food pantries saw their donations decrease and their requests for assistance increase. According to the World Health Organization “food security is defined as including both physical and economic access to food that meets people’s dietary needs as well as their food preferences. In many countries, health problems related to dietary excess are an ever increasing threat.”

In the United States, food insecurity is becoming a major economic issue. According to the annual USDA report, Household Food Security in the United States, “14.6 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 5.7 percent with very low food security—meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.” They also found that “prevalence rates of food insecurity and very low food security were up from 11.1 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively, in 2007, and were the highest recorded since 1995, when the first national food security survey was conducted. Fifty-five percent of all food-insecure households participated in one or more of the three largest Federal food and nutrition assistance programs during the month prior to the 2008 survey.”

More recently, according to The Wall Street Journal “nearly a year and a half into the economic recovery, some 43.6 million Americans continued to rely on food stamps in November [2010]. More than 14% of the population drew food stamps in November to purchase groceries as high unemployment and muted wage growth crimped budgets. The number of recipients was up 0.9% from October, according to the new report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Compared to a year ago, the number of people receiving food stamps was up 14.2%.”

As if being hungry wasn’t bad enough, according to the New York Times, “a range of studies has shown that low-income people, especially those who receive food stamps, face special dietary challenges because eating healthy costs more and healthier food is harder to get in their neighborhoods. This is the problem of “food deserts” — a lack of grocery stores selling fresh produce in rural and underserved urban areas.”

Adding further insult to injury, The Chicago Sun-Times reports, “Major manufacturers of consumer goods are again coping with rising commodity costs by cutting back on portion sizes, chipping away a few ounces here and taking out a few slices there rather than ask the customer to pay more. But the net effect is just as costly. Companies often attempt to “ease” a downsizing in — increasing the indent on the bottom of a container of ice cream; decreasing the thickness of plastic wrap. Consumers respond much less negatively to a portion reduction than a price hike, companies contend. Consumer advocates counter that’s because consumers are less likely to notice a stealthy downsizing. And they do complain, online and to the companies.”

New efforts have been made recently to combat food insecurity, to widen the availability of healthy food and promote good eating habits among the most impoverished Americans. These social and economic efforts often attempt to focus on the connection between food and health related issues of childhood obesity and diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “In the last 2 decades, type 2 diabetes (formerly known as adult-onset diabetes) has been reported among U.S. children and adolescents with increasing frequency. The epidemics of obesity and the low level of physical activity among young people, as well as exposure to diabetes in utero, may be major contributors to the increase in type 2 diabetes during childhood and adolescence.”

First Lady Michelle Obama has made healthy eating and reducing childhood obesity the centerpiece of her agenda. And Walmart the nation’s largest grocer, is planning to “reformulate thousands of products to make them healthier and push its suppliers to do the same, joining first lady Michelle Obama’s effort to combat childhood obesity.”

And here’s where it gets political. Rich liberal social safety net Democrats face off against rich conservative small government, assistance cutting Republicans, and feeding the hungry becomes a campaign issue and nothing is accomplished. For an example of the recent political mudslinging, Courier Post Online columnist writes, Michelle Obama “has transformed the East Wing of the White House into Big Nanny’s new Central Command headquarters. The biggest threats to Mrs. Obama’s 70-point plan for national fitness: parental authority and sound science. Mrs. O’s real interest isn’t in nurturing nursing moms or slimming down kids’ waistlines. It’s in boosting government and public union payrolls, along with beefing up FCC and FTC regulators’ duties.” When did charity, compassion and feeding the hungry become a conspiracy?

“Protecting the poor is not a partisan issue,” Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America. Proposed federal budget cuts “include cuts to programs that serve low-income families. As a result, many of the people served by Feeding America, the country’s largest domestic hunger relief organization, are likely to experience increased hardship.”

Let’s take a moment to step outside of the political debate on this “issue” and look at the realistic, ground floor experience of being broke and hungry. In case you are fortunate enough to have never faced the sort of economic hardship faced by millions of Americans, another blogger, Elisha, (at elfstaranymore.tumblr.com) can break it down for you. “First, you plan your protein. This is generally the most expensive part of your diet, and also the part which makes you feel like you have actually eaten a meal. Your first priority as a poor person is to get enough food to not be hungry, and proteins and yes, fats, are highly desirable for that. This tends to be fatty food like chicken thighs, hot dogs, fatty ground beef, peanut butter, eggs, and highly processed ‘cheese food.’ The second part of the food budget “goes toward breads and starches because those are digested more quickly than proteins and thus sate your hunger quickly in the short-term, while proteins keep you feeling full longer. So once you’ve got your proteins, you then go for potatoes, rice, breads, cereals, and pastas. It is worth noting that in all instances white is cheaper than whole-grain. Next, you get things that will allow you to put your base ingredients together as meals. This is where vegetables first start to enter the picture, particularly cheap flavor-adding vegetables such as onions and celery. But this is also where you buy butter, milk, cooking oils, salt, jelly, Hamburger Helper and Shake n Bake. Don’t underestimate the value of those! An extra dollar to turn a flavorless wad of beef into a satisfying meal is an extremely good choice.”

At this point in her post, Elisha takes a turn for what might be called ‘radical realism’. She voices a truth about how food is greater than a combination of nutritious elements. Even though food is tied to health, it is also tied to happiness and self esteem. “…Sometimes when you’re poor, eating for entertainment is the only entertainment you can afford. If a dollar box of Twinkies makes you feel happy when the rest of your life is no fun, that is a dollar well spent. Sometimes you need to have some small luxuries to feel human, and personally, my need to feel human is more important than my need for broccoli.”

These would be the eating habits that Mrs. Obama, and many other policy makers, are attempting to change. And for those who are distressed at the lack of fruits and vegetables in this realistic diet, Elisha has a logical point for them too. “Produce spoils quickly and is often an enormous waste of money, and you can’t afford to be spending money on food you will only throw in the trash. So when you are poor, you have to be very, very careful what vegetables you buy.”

Elishamakes several more excellent points from a perspective seldom heard in this debate, someone with a personal experience dealing with hunger. The most valuable point she makes is that the upper classes often use an offensively condescending tone to those who are hungry and in need. “I grew up on food stamps and quite frankly by about age 7 I was already sick of every purchase my family made being scrutinized. Oh you bought ice cream? But those two dollars could’ve been spent on VEGETABLES! See, because you don’t deserve ice cream, not even $2 generic ice cream, because you’re poor. You deserve to be told what to buy by richer people, because richer = smarter and we know what’s best for you.” Think of that the next time you’re tempted to judge another person at the checkout counter.

For any program, initiative or assistance to actually help people, it must take into account their needs, as well as their wishes. Remember the World Health Organization includes in its definition of food security “both physical and economic access to food that meets people’s dietary needs as well as their food preferences.” A prescriptive approach will likely fail in this situation. We need to include the beneficiaries of these efforts in the planning stages in order to make any progress on improving their situations. It may seem like an odd notion to people at the top levels of policy making, to ask the poor for input. But I think asking the people most dependent on these assistance programs what sort of help they most need might improve the effectiveness of the programs, and could even reduce dependence over time. Maybe they need a farmer’s market more than a Whole Foods or a Walmart in their neighborhood. Shouldn’t we ask them?

NPR featured one activist and urban resident of a L.A. food desert, Olga Perez, who suggests that something as simple as available transportation can help make a difference. When the nearest supermarket is three miles away, Perez “can buy only what she can carry back home in her arms. Instead of a head of lettuce, she buys a small bag. She can’t buy more than a few cans, and she can manage only half a gallon of milk. Now, with help from a community group called LA Voice PICO, Perez and some of her neighbors are speaking out and lobbying politicians to help them get more healthful food options.

“They recently won a small victory when Superior grocery store district manager Marco Sosa brought back free shuttle van rides for customers, something he dropped last year because of cost. Perez is glad for the shuttle but says that’s just a partial solution. Her goal is to get a real supermarket in Ramona Gardens. She says her mother’s early death from diabetes still haunts her, and she wants something better for herself, her family and her neighbors: fresh, organic foods, like the rest of L.A. “It doesn’t matter if we live in a low-income area,” says Perez. “We all deserve to eat the fresh fruits that nature provided for us. We shouldn’t be divided.”

New efforts and new ideas to address the hunger problem are emerging. NPR covered an effort that has the dual benefit of feeding the hungry while reducing food waste. “On U.S. farms, gleaning is making a comeback, as a national anti-hunger organization has turned to the ancient practice to help feed the poor. And it also gives farmers a way to use produce that would otherwise be wasted.” Similarly, the North Berkeley Harvest, featured in the New York Times is “part of a small but expanding movement of backyard urban gleaners — they might be called fruit philanthropists — who voluntarily harvest surplus fruit and then donate it to food banks, centers for the elderly and other nonprofit organizations.”

The New York Times also detailed an partnership in California where the “California Association of Food Banks has struck deals with farms and packers across the state, where, on behalf of its members, it collects truckloads of fruits and vegetables that are too small, ripe or misshapen for supermarkets to sell.”

More innovative ideas are still needed, however, because as demand for assistance continues to rise, and government funds are reduced, a bigger problem is looming. According to NPR “The United Nations says food prices hit a record high last month. The UN’s food agency says prices of sugar, wheat and other staples have risen for seven straight months, and are likely to continue going up. Frustration over food prices has helped fuel the protests in Tunisia and Egypt.” If there was ever a good time to use the cliché, a “perfect storm,” I think it has arrived.

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