Monday, May 24, 2010

Free Will v. Junk Food

When it comes to junk food, do we have free will? Not exactly.

On my recent greenwashing post, my friend and former collaborator (and former human rabbit) Jay raised an interesting question. He wrote:

"Their patrons [Pepsico] don't have to buy that stuff. Maybe organic is tough to get, but it's still not that hard to eat cheap and healthy. As you know, I'm a fat guy who really should stop eating the stuff Pepsico puts out, but I'm not going to blame them for my problems or try to shut them down."

Clearly, Jay is a model citizen. He knows the risks, he takes them, and he blames no one but himself for doing so. You can tell that he's not the kind of guy to make his fortune by suing over hot coffee burns.

But not everyone is Jay. For instance, Jay is very, very smart. He went to college: I know, I was there. And that means he acquired certain skills, such as analytic thinking, as well as funneling, that not everyone has the chance to develop.

If you're getting ready to accuse me of saying that poor people are stupid and need the government to hold their hands and tell them what to eat, relax, and then consider joining the Tea Party (notice willful omission of hyperlink). But what I am saying is that there's a fight going on for your mind -- and therefore your money -- and it's not always a fair one.

Odds are Pepsico is trying harder to influence your decisions than you are trying to resist them, and that's a battle that you're going to lose unless you're actively on the offensive. Junk food companies spend millions each year to dupe you into thinking that their products won't kill you, which they will. They create entertaining marketing campaigns, fund bogus studies and hire lobbyists. Can you still think straight despite their effort to manipulate you into thinking that their products are anything but dangerous?

Yes, but it helps if, like Jay, you have a college degree.

Could you eat healthily without going to college? Of course, but most of the statistics that I've seen generally link education with higher income, better health and living somewhere with access to fresh fruits and vegetables, i.e. in an arugula oasis rather than a food desert. In other words, much of the population is at a disadvantage when it comes to resisting Funyuns.

Perhaps the most damming evidence of this being a unfair fight is new talk about the addictiveness of junk food comparing it to hard drugs like cocaine. And let's not forget that Coca-Cola, a junk food, once contained actual cocaine.

Would we let a company market a potentially lethal product that's as hard to quit as a drug to our children? We don't let cigarette companies advertise on TV, so I'm inclined to think not. Yet turn on Saturday morning cartoons and there's Chester Cheetah, pushing his salty, brightly colored, crunchy dope.

Of course I do believe in free will, even when it comes to junk food, and if someone lifts a soda to their lips, it's their choice to do so. But do you still have free will if you're hypnotized?

You are getting very sleepy... have a Pepsi!

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Friday, May 21, 2010

What I Ate in Hawaii Part 7: The Final Chapter

What better way to end a series on Hawaiian food than with fruit?

In Hawaii, fruit abounds. You'd have to work not to eat it.

Fruit nearly bursts from the corner market bins that barely contain it. It sprouts out of cracks in the sidewalk. It hypnotizes you, forcing your hand, until you come to holding a limp, empty papaya skin with seeds scattered around your bare feet like buckshot.

"What have I done?" you wonder. It was your third papaya that morning.

Our friends Jon and Layla aren't gardeners or even particularly fruit-crazed, but the apartment they rent just happens to have growing in its modest yard figs, pomelos, and avocados. I happen to have growing in my yard poison ivy.

Their next door neighbors have bananas, and nearly every other house on the street -- and everywhere else in Honolulu -- has at least one enormous papaya tree standing sentinel, its bombs of fructose ready to drop. Coconuts, pineapple and guava are similarly omnipresent.

In Hawaii, fruit just happens. While hanging out in a city park we realized that we were standing under a tamarind tree, and we picked them out of the grass and feasted (wincing). Rogue mango trees grow on vacant lots just daring you to make a dent in their incomparable bounty.

Appropriately, while in Hawaii I was reading Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel. In it he declares the Cavendish, essentially the only banana available to most of us, to also be the worst banana in terms of flavor. He describes other, more desirable bananas that have the texture of apples, and bananas described by the adjective "juicy."

Luckily I could go get bananas anywhere I wanted. And nearly every banana I saw was an apple banana, which are a little shorter, a little fatter, a little more tangy, and a lot better.

And so I stumbled around Hawaii high on fruit most of the time. I thought about government recommendations for fruit servings and laughed. It seemed all I needed to do was open my mouth, and fruit would fall into it, or maybe be placed there by a mongoose.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What I Ate in Hawaii Part 6

In Hawaii, Korean barbecue means something different than it does on the mainland. And that difference is price.

My good friend Layla, who we were staying with, grew up in Honolulu and then lived in New York for a number of years. The first time she had Korean barbecue outside of Hawaii was on another island: Manhattan.

She ordered what she always ordered, and when the bill came, she ordered a tranquilizer and a padded van to haul her to the nearest asylum, having gone completely insane at the difference in price. That asylum burned down to the ground, but they say you can still hear Layla's voice calling out over the ashes.... "Why!? Why was the panch'an fifteen dollars?!"

I may have exaggerated about Layla, but despite Honolulu's high cost of living, the city boasts a very low cost of Korean barbecue. The to-go container pictured at top was a massive amount of food, and though it was dominated by a huge hunk of kalbi, most of the weight was comprised of vegetable matter. These veggie sides included spicy, shredded daikon, steamed Chinese (Korean?) broccoli, bean sprouts in sesame oil, and... cuttlefish. Macaroni salad was another option. Each plate cost about eight bucks and felt like it weighed eight pounds.

The beef had that irresistible combination of sugar, soy and charcoal. Most of the sides had a twang of fermentation, and I really can't emphasize enough how much food this was. Four very hungry adults and one kind of hungry 3-year-old could barely polish off three containers. You do the math.

Apparently Korean BBQ is a popular food to pick up en route to the beach. When I was growing up in Florida, we often stopped at KFC (then Kentucky Fried Chicken) on the way to the beach.
That makes me wish that I grew up in Hawaii instead, and not just because of the beach snacks. Well actually, yes, exclusively because of the beach snacks.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010


The Times recently ran a story about the rise of corporate gardens. Is it a good thing to have more fresh produce in the world? Yes, especially since some of the crorps (corporate crops) are donated to food banks. Am I now going to say something about corporate gardens that isn't answered with a "yes?" Yes.

This is a blatant case of greenwashing. And if you don't know that word yet, learn it, 'cause you're going to see a lot more of it.

Is anyone really going to forgive PepsiCo for all of the diabetes, obesity, and environmental mayhem they've contributed to just because they're now growing some mint? I hope not, though I'm sure many will.

I also find it obnoxious that the people who produce junk food have the privilege of having access to organic veggies while so many of their customers don't. So I'm glad that there are a few more gardens out there, and that a few overworked execs have a chance to reconnect to life's essentials by digging in the dirt on their lunch breaks. But I almost wish they'd force everyone at PepsiCo to stick to the products that the company produces so that they'd have to share the same fate as all of their patrons.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What I Ate In Hawaii Part 5

When I first heard about butterfish, I assumed it was just a clever name. Never did I imagine that such a supple, butter-like fish actually existed. But of course it exists in Hawaii.

Or does it? Turns out that butterfish is not actually a kind of fish, though there is something called a butterfish in England, which is an eel, which is okay, because an eel is a fish. ( I know because I googled the phrase "is an eel a fish?") Here's what Hawaii Magazine had to say about all this:

"In Hawaii, butterfish is a preparation, not a species of fish. What you are looking for is actually miso-marinated black cod. (This is another confusing fish name, since black cod is actually a North Pacific sablefish, named for its dark black skin.)"

I ate butterfish -- or whatever kind of fish it was, prepared in the butterfish style -- at the Honolulu farmer's market. The fish was just one of many wonders there, including local coffee and chocolate and of course all of the stunning tropical fruit the islands are so well known for. As you may recall from previous posts, I'm a big fan of coconut juice, and it was nice to not have to drink it out of a can for once.

Another astounding feature of the market were the plants being sold. At Massachusetts farmers markets we can buy plants like rosemary. In Hawaii, you can buy a vanilla vine.

The only downside to the market was that the produce we bought there was not allowed out of the country. The staff at the airport made us take it out of our carry-on's, even though we swore we'd eat it all by the time we reached the mainland. They wouldn't even let us eat it there in the airport.

I just hope that they bent the rules and had themselves a little forbidden fruit feast as soon as we turned and walked away.

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Thursday, May 6, 2010

What I Ate in Hawaii, Part 4

When I couldn't remember the name of the Japanese pub we ate at in Honolulu, I knew that there was a single word I could google to have my answer. In seconds I had it: Tokkure-Tei.

That word was "norichos." And what, pray tell, is a noricho? Only the most delicious portmanteau I've ever tasted.

The noricho is a zany marriage between nachos and sushi (where the "nori" comes from). Now that I re-read that description, it kind of makes me want to vomit, but I swear that they're delicious. Who doesn't want to eat deep fried, nacho-shaped wedges of seaweed piled with roe, avocado, daikon sprouts, tomatoes, and American cheese?

Okay, so the American cheese still kind of makes me want to vomit, but after much sake it made me want to do the reverse of vomit (eat it).

The somewhat kitschy, fusion-born noricho is surely the signature dish of this very fun to eat at Japanese pub-style eatery, itself a cross between a sushi bar, a gastropub, and a tapas restaurant. But they also do straight-up sushi very, very well, as in the butter-soft, super fresh, not even remotely fishy tasting mackerel nigiri.

I happen to love mackerel in all forms, even canned, but this was the best I've ever had it. We also ate tender, charcoal grilled slices of tongue....

A sweet, creamy portabello dish that was like slow-cooked mushroom candy...

Baked Alaska rolls....

And the boiled peanuts that start the meal, which are oddly similar to the hot boiled peanuts found throughout the South.

We finished with a perfectly good grilled okra, but at that point in the meal and after that much sake, I think we were all secretly wishing we'd just ordered a second round of norichos.

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Monday, May 3, 2010

What I Ate In Hawaii Part 3

I'd like to dedicate this installment to what Hawaii might do best, and that is snacks.

Fun, cheap, filling, steamed, slightly sweet, Asian, rice-based snacks, to be more precise. It seemed that everywhere I went, be it fruit stand or convenience store, such snacks were to be had.

Perhaps my favorite was the sticky rice and banana treat wrapped and steamed in a taro -- or was it banana? -- leaf above. The thick, toothsome rice was redolent with banana, at the center a slice of the actual fruit, which seemed to have surrendered most of its substance to the surrounding starch. Though small and delightful, this was a serious dose of sticky rice, and it took both Elise and I to finish it while cruising down Waialae to the beach.

From the same fruit stand (the one across from Town) we purchased little buns which turned out to be stuffed with (surprise) pork as well as hard boiled egg. They were faintly sweet, and I could have eaten a million of them.

Other snacks included a trio of Malaysian handhelds from the food court in Honolulu's Chinatown. Once again, each was either rice-based or contained banana. There was a steamed log of sweet-salty glutinous black rice, a skewer of three sweetened balls of rice flour cooked with milk and with a somewhat caramelized crust, as well as a perfect little banana crepe. Each cost a dollar. (Not pictured: a jackfruit smoothie with tapioca pearls.)

Yesterday I was in Northampton, MA, which is generally a good snacking town. I was hungry. I wanted something fun, cheap, filling, steamed, slightly sweet, Asian, and rice-based. I wanted something like what I'd eaten nearly every day in Hawaii.

I couldn't find it.

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