Environmental eating out

Paper straws from Ted\'s Montana GrillFor dinner tonight, we went out to Ted’s Montana Grill. Even though we only picked it because we were fainting with hunger by the time we passed near, it turned out to be an appropriate choice. In addition to serving bison (burgers, pot roast, and meatloaf), which is healthier and usually more organically-raised than beef, they attempt to be environmentally friendly.

The soda (Maggie had Jackson Hole Sarsaparilla) is all served in glass bottles and presumably recycled. None of the food is frozen. The doggie bag containers are made from recycled material.

Of course, it’s not all good. They still have a big neon sign, which has to use lots of electricity. Worse, they ship their food around the country. It’s nice that they don’t freeze the food, but they’re still creating quite the carbon deficit.

The coolest thing is that they’ve reintroduced the paper straw (according to their website, they hadn’t been made in the US since 1970). My parents remember using paper straws as kids but Maggie and I had never heard of them. They seem pretty robust; even after sitting in a glass of water for the whole meal, they weren’t soggy.

It’s neat what eco-conscious companies can come up with (or rediscover) with a little imagination!

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Dry It! You’ll Like It!

Peaches in Dehydrator TraysThis evening I went over to my friend Bobbi’s house to help her dehydrate some peaches.  I am still a novice food preserver but I am really excited to learn more about drying food and Bobbi has been doing it for awhile.  Her persimmon leather is particularly tasty but she works seasonally and the fruit-of-the-month is peaches.  She buys seconds (the ugly, small, or slightly blemished fruit) from Olde Lane Orchard and dries, freezes, cans, or jams them although her preference is drying.

Washing PeachesWe started by washing the peaches in a sink full of water.  (Kind of makes you want to bob for peaches, doesn’t it?)  Eliza, Bobbi’s daughter, had requested that we do a batch without skins so our next step was to drop each peach into boiling water for a few minutes to loosen the skin.  This is the same technique used to get the skins of tomatoes for people who like their tomato sauce smooth.  Bobbi and I are both of the opinion that it’s easiest and most nutritious to leave the skins on most everything but we were curious to see how it went.

Peeling PeachesThe peeling part wasn’t too bad once we let the peaches cool a little.  The clingstone peaches seemed to peel a lot more easily than the freestone peaches, which may explain why they’re still a popular variety even though they’re a pain to cut up.  However, skinned peaches are incredibly slippery and I think it was sheer luck that none of them landed on the floor.  They also seemed juicier than normal when cut, perhaps because they were partially cooked by the boiling water.

Cutting peachesWe sliced them into roughly even chunks and put them on the dehydrator trays to dry.  In an ideal world, all the pieces should be exactly the same size so they dry at the same rate but in reality some of them get a little drier and some not quite as much and life goes on.  Drying at low temperatures preserves a lot more vitamins and nutrients than canning or freezing and if the moisture content is low enough, it can be stored for many months.

Dried PeachesBobbi’s dehydrator is much nicer than mine with adjustable heat and a timer so you can turn it on and set it to magically turn itself off in X number of hours, which is helpful since drying times for fruit tend to be pretty long – say 20 hours.  I left just a couple hours after we got the dehydrator loaded so I won’t be able to report back on the results for a few days but I’m sure they will be tasty and probably look like this batch that Bobbi did last week.  I’m looking forward to trying out a few recipes from “Dry It!  You’ll Like It!” with my baby dehydrator and hopefully finding a serious dehydrator of my own some day.

Special thanks to Eliza for taking pictures while we worked and for nourishing us with nori rolls!

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Pickling Party

dill picklesI had a small pickling party this weekend and canned 23 jars of dill pickles, which made us all very happy.  I had hoped to thoroughly photodocument the whole process but even with three people it was tricky to make pickles and take pictures at the same time…  I hope I can at least give you the general idea of how to make pickles.

Step one is to gather a large pile of cucumbers.  Many came from my mom’s garden where the five cucumber plants are completely taking over.  Others came from our CSA and from the garden at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard where Stephanie is the gardening coordinator.  Once you have gathered the cucumbers, start chopping them into pieces (slices, spears, chunks, whatever)

Lindsey cuttinc cucumbersStep two is to make a boiling brine mixture.  We used a basic recipe from Keeping the Harvest – 3 cups of apple cider vinegar, 3 cups of water, and 1/3 cup of salt.  They recommend adding a garlic clove to every jar but we were feeling saucy so we added two or three or sometimes five.  We also added a pinch of fresh dill to every jar and half of a grape leaf from our wild grapes.  Grape leaves are supposed to make the pickles crisper and I had good luck last year.  Oh, and we also added a few spices to the brine – mustard in one batch, a “pickling spice blend” involving cardamom and cinnamon to another, and some fresh coriander to a third.

Step three is to combine the ingredients.  Start with hot, sterilized jars – we ran ours through the dishwasher and pulled them out to use while still hot.  Stuff each jar with cucumbers (and garlic and dill and grape leaves) and get ready to add the brine.  Ladle boiling brine into each jar, wipe the mouth of the jar, and apply the lid (which should also be hot and sterilized – we pulled ours out of a pot of boiling water).  Tighten down the lids and put them in the canner.

canning picklesStep four is canning.  You can skip the canning if you plan to keep your pickles in the fridge and eat them fairly quickly but if you want them to keep for months, you need to can them.  Since pickles are pretty acidic, they are less likely to harbor bacteria than low acid foods like green beans.  This means you can can them using the boiling water method, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – boil the cans in a big pot for 10-20 minutes (depending on jar size and altitude).  This sterilizes the content of the jar and also pushes most of the air out, creating a vaccuum seal.  If we were dealing with low acid foods like green beans we would have used a pressure canner, which increases the pressure as well as the temperature to make it as inhospitable to bacteria as possible.

Stephanie with garlicThat’s it!  Making pickles definitely takes some work but it’s a lot of fun when you make it a party.  Stephanie is always a blast to hang out with and being a dill pickle addict, she kept the energy high.  Lindsey had just moved to Bloomington on Friday and was excited to stock her pantry with her own pickles.  She is also already planning to recreate the Sunday Night Dinner Club she was involved with in Chicago and in Portland.  People getting together to cook fabulous meals for each other on a weekly basis?  Sounds great to me!  Perhaps I’ll find some more grunt labor, er, I mean partygoers for my food preservation projects…

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A subprime food crisis?

Money propping up a house propping up moneyI’m a big fan of NPR’s This American Life (TAL) even thought I don’t listen to it as much now as I used to. When I was driving to NC semi-regularly, I got a subscription to Audible.com and burned some CDs of old TAL. I also got to see a screening of the TV show, which was amazing. It’s now at the top of my queue in Netflix (and if I could buy just one show through cable, I’d probably do that).

Last week’s episode on The Giant Pool of Money has gotten a lot of attention recently, and for good reason. Despite Ira Glass’s fading voice, it’s a great partnership with NPR’s money section that goes over the subprime mortgage crisis (and ties it all back to the eponymous Giant Pool of Money).

Having listened to it one and a half times (I was playing Mario Kart during one listen-through, so it only half counts), here’s how I think things broke down. Over the past ten years, the amount of money governments have been looking to invest in safe returns has doubled to over $70 billion! In the same period, the number of investments of that type hasn’t kept pace. Alan Greenspan and the Fed made things worse by by keeping interest rates low, making them unappealing compared to things like… real estate!

Of course, real estate is messy. These investors don’t want to have to deal with actual houses and mortgage payments and so on. To make it attractive as an investment, the market used a sort of alchemy to change them from the messy, risky things to AAA rated (the highest rating, shared with guaranteed government bonds) investment “vehicles.” A house-hunter would get a mortgage from a broker, who would sell it to a bank. The bank would then group mortgages and sell that package to larger firms on Wall Street (like the infamous Bear Stearns). Those companies then got the mortgage payments with a 5-10% return (much better than the 1% you could get through the Fed) and sold shares in that collection of long-term income. Investment firms would buy shares in many different packages and sell those to investors. Historically, the default rate on mortgages has been about 2%, so the investments were rated AAA.

In order to keep up with demand, companies kept relaxing their rules about what mortgages they’d buy, leading eventually to loans that didn’t require you to prove your income or your assets. Since 2005, some packages of these types of loans have had default rates of over 50%, rather than the expected 2%.

The problem is that everyone based their ratings on assumptions that they changed. The 2% default rate on mortgages was true only for the types of mortgages that had been given out in the past. By changing what they were selling without looking at how that would affect the larger picture, these companies set up the crisis that we’re seeing today.

Listening to the program, I was struck by how similar this all is to our food industry as described in King Corn. We start with a noble goal (cheap food/savings) and build a system to promote it (farm subsidies/subprime loans) and assume everything’s going along fine. In the long-run, though, we have no idea whether or not it’ll work because we’ve changed all our assumptions. Instead of mortgages to people with good incomes, we’re giving mortgages to anyone. Instead of diverse family farms, we’ve got huge monocultures.

Okay, so maybe it’s kind of a stretch. I still can’t help but feel that the problem in both cases is that to make something work widescale, we’ve turned something very local and personal into a semi-arbitrary set of rules. That’ll work for a while, but eventually, people will start doing what the rules reward them for rather than what’s actually best for them and the rest of us. It’s not about bad people or even greedy people. It’s about setting up a system that encourages people to act badly.

I’m happy buying locally because I know that when they do right by themselves, they do right by my community too.

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The Crunchy Chicken Extreme Eco-Challenge

Extrme Eco Challenge - Crunchy Chicken It’s almost May and it’s time to decide whether or not Will and I are going to accept Crunchy Chicken’s Extreme Eco Challenge. She is a blogger like us who leads a pretty normal life but is working to make life a little greener. One of her favorite methods for greening the world is creating challenges for her readers. This winter she offered the Freeze Yer Buns challenge asking folks to lower their thermostats and this month she’s running a Buy Nothing Challenge. Next on the agenda is a hardcore eco-throwdown.

There are seven options, increasing in difficulty. According to the rules, participants may have one day off a week (sorta like Lent, depending on which teachings you follow). Here they are along with some of my thoughts.

1. No plastic (don’t buy or consume anything in plastic). I initially had visions of starving to death. No tubs or shrink wrap or produce bags or bread bags, which means no frozen food, no cheese, no condiments… Will told me I was being melodramatic and with a little more thought I realized it was manageable. But definitely challenging.

2. No paper products. This seems easier to me except for three items: my calendar, my notebook, and toilet paper. I have been experimenting with a TP-free method but so far I’m not ready for a total switch. Hmmmm.

3. No driving. Will says he would happily do this and let me chauffeur him but I told him I didn’t think that would count. Actually, he would have very little trouble giving up his car but I use mine almost daily to commute to work and to field trips that are not accessible via bus. I’m sure I could cut back my usage dramatically but I couldn’t go car-free. And we do have a driving vacation planned at the end of the month that involves his brother’s wedding…

4. Local food only. I’m thinking about trying this challenge in July but right now we’d be eating an awful lot of eggs and salad greens. I also think that eating 100% locally is too extreme and it makes more sense to shoot for a diet that’s about 80% local so you can still enjoy other cuisines and foods that simply don’t grow where you are. But maybe I’m just a wus. 🙂

5. No garbage output (compost and recyclables only). This is a noble goal but it seems pretty unattainable. No waste at all? There are pieces of trash like candy wrappers that literally just appear in our yard. And there are a few things I’m not sure will ever be recyclable or reusable. Used dental floss? Sticky labels from produce? I think we already do pretty well minimizing our trash. Still, I’m sure if we took up the challenge we could find a few more areas of waste to trim.

6. No excessive water usage (drink as much as you want but use a bare minimum for bathing, brushing teeth, washing clothes, washing dishes, etc).
This actually sounds easier than some of the others although I do enjoy long hot showers and using the automatic washing machine. And if I took Crunchy Chicken’s advice and really thought about what it would be like to haul in all the water I use from a stream, I’m sure I could cut back on my usage dramatically.

7. No electricity (you can leave your fridge on if you must). There are three big challenges for this one. One is heat, which we could probably do without in May. One is cooking, since we have an electric stove and oven, although I guess if necessary we could eat cold food most of the week. And the last is computers. Will really needs his for work and he works from home most of the time. So maybe we could do a modified version with an allowance for computer use for work only. Oh, and it would suck a lot to not have hot water. But maybe I would be motivated enough to procure a solar shower bag. And I’m sure we’d find a whole new set of ways to entertain ourselves in the evenings without electricity.

Which one should we try? Which one would YOU try? Or has this crossed over into the realm of crazy crunchy eco-extremists? Let us know quick – May 1st is just around the corner!

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The cost of abundance

King Corn movie posterTonight, Maggie and I were finally able to watch King Corn. We’ve been hearing good things about it for a while, so when we noticed that it was playing on PBS, we headed over to Maggie’s parents’ place last night to check it out. Unfortunately, the times listed were wrong, so we watched a really interesting Frontline on universal health care instead. Tivo rescued the situation and recorded it for us to watch tonight.

The documentary follows two Bostonians as they head to the small town in Iowa where (coincidentally) their grandfathers made a living based on corn. The one grandfather grew it and the other made tractors to plant it. The creators, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, borrow an acre of land from a local farmer and plant (what else?) corn. As they say on their website, “a story about one acre of Iowa corn quickly becomes a story about everything: soil, water, energy, history, genetic modification and, of course, food.” Focusing primarily on food, the two friends go from farm subsidy to planting to spraying to growing to harvesting to industry (and end with another little subsidy). Once industry gets a hold of corn, it uses it everywhere, from a rather unhealth feed for cattle to rather unhealthy food for people. There’s a great scene whereh Cheney and Ellis brew up some homemade high fructose corn syrup. Neither of them like it at all.

The great thing about the movie is that there are no villains. Even the much maligned Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture who told farmers to “get big or get out,” is given a fair viewing.

Overall, the story of US corn since the 1970s is one that’s familiar to any reader of The Monkey’s Paw. Butz’s goal was to make food cheap and he was incredibly successful. We now pay half as much on food (as a percentage of income) as did our parents or grandparents. Imagine paying twice as much for food as you are now! And that includes eating out.

The monkey’s paw comes in with the fulfillment of the ideal of a land of plenty. We pay a lot less for food because our food is almost entirely based on getting higher yields in return for increases in fat, pesticide use, antibiotic use, and reduction in nutrients. Corn nowadays has almost no nutritional value and yet it’s a cheap filler for everything.

Cheap corn affects all of our food supply. One of the scientists quoted said that a grass-fed T-bone steak has 1.3 grams of fat. A T-bone steak from corn-fed steer has almost 7 times as much at 9 grams!

So yeah, we’ve got cheap food which allows us to spend more on other things. Unfortunately, one of those things is our increasingly high health care now that our food isn’t as healthy.

Abundance is great, but not at the cost of our lives. This may be the first generation that doesn’t live longer than its parents.

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Leftover Preparedness Kit

Leftover Preparedness KitWill and I like to go out to eat.  Our restaurant budget is limited so we have identified several tasty and inexpensive options around town.  One of Will’s favorites is Bajio, a Mexican chain restaurant specializing in burritos.  He likes it because he can get a huge burrito dinner for less than $7 while avoiding his arch-nemesis, cilantro.

I like Bajio but I get a little frustrated with their disposable dishes.  The meals come in little foil pans and they have plastic lids for anyone who wants to take leftovers home, which we usually do.  We now have a collection of, oh, maybe twenty sets of pans and lids as well as fifteen sets of plastic silverware.  It’s recyclable but it seems like we can do better than that.

So we put together a “Bajio Leftover Preparedness Kit” which consists of one foil pan, four sets of plastic silverware, and four plastic lids.  That way all we need to get at the restaurant is our foil pan of food and then we’re set with our own eating utensils and carry-out lid.  I eventually hope to upgrade the kit to include some cloth napkins and reusable cups (they have a self-serve drink fountain so I think they’d be okay with us bringing our own cups).  For now, the key will be keeping a kit in the car so we are constantly prepared for impromptu burrito runs.  (We have been doing pretty well with the cloth grocery bags so I’m hopeful.)

Eventually I hope to also develop a more generic Leftover Preparedness Kit that contains some tupperware containers suitable for any type of leftover.  I really hate the styrofoam containers that most restaurants provide.  Number 6 styrofoam is recyclable here now but I still think styrofoam is creepy and eating out of it just sets my teeth on edge.  I’ve thought about carrying around some ziplock bags for emergency leftovers but as uncouth as I am, it still seems a bit awkward to pull a ziplock out of my pocket and fill it with leftover pad thai.

Any tips?

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Girl Scout Packaging Update

RecyclingIn other news, I got an e-mail back from the Girl Scout cookie company about my packaging complaint. Here’s what they say:

Dear Megan:

Thank you for contacting us to learn what our company is doing to help protect our earth. We share your interest in our environment and give environmental concerns a very high priority.

Today, almost all of our cartons are made of 100% recycled fiber. Most of the recycled material is made up of a mixture of newspaper, office paper, cardboard and printed waste paper from publishers and printing companies. Our cartons are usually accepted by recycling facilities which accept magazine or mixed paper. The plastic trays are all polystyrene 6 (PS 6) and can also be recycled. The recycle symbol is printed on all trays with the exception of Tagalongs due to a lack of space. The Tagalong tray does have the PS6 printed on the bottom.

We have also developed a waste management/recycling program at our company. Through this program we have recycled millions of pounds of paper, wooden pallets, and scrap metal as well as thousands of gallons of used motor oil. In addition, we ‘recycle’ waste food (food that does not meet our high quality standards) by sending it to food processors and farmers for use as animal feed.

We appreciate your support of the Girl Scouts in your community!


Joanna K. Grennes
Sr. Manager Consumer Communications
Consumer Affairs Department

Pretty cool! A little on the generic side but a lot better than when I called Planters to find out if the inner lid on their cans of cashews are recyclable and they said “most of our packaging is recyclable in most communities.” Now I know for sure that the Tagalong packaging is recyclable in Bloomington so I feel a little better about eating them. Yay Girl Scout cookies!

I also feel better knowing that my voice was heard. I will keep this letter in mind as motivation to spend a little time writing letters to businesses, politicians, and the editorial staff of my local newspaper. And maybe some day I will get a response from Steak N Shake about my suggestion that they offer a veggie burger so I can eat something there besides cheese fries and milk shakes, as tasty as they are.

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Confession of a convenience addict

I admit it, I’m a fan of convenience. I’m the guy that Slow Food hates, the one who eats PB&J well into his twenties (and counting). I do eat at home a lot but that’s mostly because I’m cheap. If there were a restaurant that were as cheap as eating in, I’d probably eat there every day.

Since there isn’t, I do the next best thing. Many of my lunches are microwave meals. Sometimes, it’s good stuff like soup from good chicken stock or frozen homemade lasagna. Other times, pickings are slim and I return to my collegiate habits. At times like those, I head right right to the noodle bowls. Yeah, ramen is cheaper (and I do make it occasionally, with added veggies and half the “flavor”) but there’s something satisfying about tossing some hot water into a bowl and coming back just minutes later for a delicious noodle dish. Of course, I’m easy when it comes to noodles so ‘delicious’ might be an overstatement.

The only thing keeping this from being the perfect lunch crime, apart from the very real threat of sodium overdose, is the packaging. I can’t very well pretend to Maggie that I’ve been good when there’s a styrofoam cup leering at her from the drying rack.

Cue Annie Chun’s kung pao noodle bowl. Instead of the plastic wrap some of the noodle bowls have, it’s got nice, recycleable cardboard. Even better, the packaging says that the bowl is biodegradeable! After my coworker Ian told me about them, I walked down to Kroger to check them out. Normally, they’re $3.20 which is pretty steep for eating in, but they had a special offer of $1.60, which was pretty good. I took it as a sign and grabbed one.

Annie Chun’s disappointing kung pao noodle bowlIt seemed to good to be true and, to my chagrin, it was. Disappointment, thy name is Annie Chun. Inside the cardboard box and the biodegradeable bowl were four plastic packets of food and spices. I’m also not convinced that the “biodegradeable” bowl would actually biodegrade in a landfill, which makes it effectively plastic. The bowl’s website is more of an ad for Annie Chun’s charity than information about the bowl so I can’t tell.

There’s not much point in replacing the styrofoam cup with a “biodegradeable” bowl if you then add in as much plastic as you saved. I wish the microwave meal people would take a cue from the mac and cheese boxes. With just a cardboard box around noodles and a small plastic “flavor packet,” there’s very little packaging and all of it recycleable.

After mentioning my throught to her, Maggie upped the ante by suggesting that I create my own microwave meals out of bouillon cube “flavor packets,” frozen veggies, and rice noodles. At $0.99 a pound, the noodles are cheap, the frozen veggies almost as much, and bouillon is even less, so the frugal Dr. Jekyll in me definitely approves.

We’ll see how my convience-driven Mr. Hyde feels when I try it out!

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When is walking worse than driving?

MilkDon’t you hate it when someone takes something you’ve said out of context and uses it to support the exact opposite point of view? Chris Goodall, British environmentalist and author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life has found himself in that situation. Recently, in How Virtuous is Ed Begley, Jr, John Tierney of the NY Times mentioned that Goodall had calculated that it’s worse for the environment to walk 1.5 miles to the store and replace those calories with a glass of milk than it is to just drive there. Most of the commenters assume that Goodall is encouraging people to drive and lambast him under that assumption.

Like many assumptions, it’s totally off-base. Goodall isn’t using the numbers to say that driving is good; he’s trying to show that the current state of food production is terrible. When driving a mile and a half is better than drinking a glass of milk, something has gone terribly wrong. In Goodall’s view, it’s the whole factory farming system.

This analysis, and the similar one about biking at BicycleUniverse.info assumes that you’re buying into that system. If you’re buying local organic milk (or beef, for that matter), then you cut out a lot of carbon emissions (for pesticides, etc.) and reduce others (transportation).

As an aside, the assertion made on the BicycleUniverse.info page that cost implies energy (“Since the costs of water and energy for laundry are much lower than [the cost for driving], they can’t possibly use more energy than driving.”) drives me crazy. There’s almost no relationship between cost and energy density. Maggie and I have this argument all the time when we’re bemoaning the price of fuel. I’ll complain that gas is $3.30 a gallon and then Maggie one-ups me by saying that diesel is up to $4.50. Once you take into account the fact that diesel is more energy dense, though, Maggie spends about half as much as I do to go as far. As a more extreme example, burning wood that you cut yourself is very cheap but very polluting. It’d be much better to use solar to heat your shower water, even though it’s much more expensive.

But back to the original question. When is walking worse than driving? When your food drives out to meet you.

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