A week of eating in - An experience in culinary consciousness

Huffington Post Green, one of the top 5 websites I visit daily, has issued a challenge to its readers: "The Week of Eating In" starting today: Monday, February 22. Now, eating at home for a whole week may not sound like that big of a challenge; however, the typical day in the food-life of an American often consists of: no breakfast, or perhaps a hastily purchased coffee and danish from Starbucks, a quick run to the deli for lunch, a vending machine snack, and rushing to get home with no time to cook, maybe a quick drive through the drive-thru or pulling out a frozen dinner to throw in the microwave. We celebrate the weekend by making drinks plans with friends, and then make reservations at a favorite restaurant or two for Friday and Saturday nights.

I have to admit, when I lived in New York City, the thought of preparing a meal in my miniscule kitchen with nothing more than a sliver of formica that constituted "counter space" filled me with dread. I nearly resorted to using my oven for additional shoe storage, as Carrie Bradshaw did in Sex and the City... except I needed it to heat up takeout. I'm kind of embarrassed to admit that I can probably count the times I prepared "real" food (from scratch) on two hands during the entire decade I lived there. Braving the mayhem of the markets, cracking open a cookbook, juggling cutting boards on that aforementioned counter-sliver, and dealing with all of the cleanup (dishwasher? in that kitchen? ha!) sounded like unnecessary sado-masochism, and I avoided the whole brouhaha at all costs. Plus, in a city where any restaurant would deliver to your door almost 24 hours a day, (almost) no one I knew cooked at home.

Since living in Seattle and having more time on my hands as well as a significantly larger and more user-friendly kitchen to work in, I have become much more proficient at cooking meals at home. I usually cook four days a week, and I really do "cook," rather than "heat up." I prepare all of my foods from scratch with fresh (occasionally frozen) produce and fish. Whole Foods is two blocks away from where I live and Pike Place Market, the largest and most famous daily farmers market in the country, is just a few blocks down the street. As a result, I have tried to emulate the European market methods by shopping for food almost every other day, which ensures the produce and fish I use are as fresh as possible. I have grown to love buying bread that was baked fresh that day from the local bakery, fish that was caught that morning in nearby Alaskan waters, and seasonal produce that was picked as recently as yesterday from a nearby farm.

I like the experiment for the following reasons:
  • When you don't cook what you eat, it is so much easier to be disconnected from what it actually is and what it contains (typically, there are much more fattening ingredients in restaurant foods, and portion sizes are HUGE!)
  • Personally, I'm hoping to try out some new recipes and challenge myself further - to actually shop more often at Pike Place Market and get to know some of the growers, acquaint myself with the changing produce and fish, and create inspired dishes out of what I happened to find freshest and most beautiful that day at the market.
  • I'm admittedly a little curious about tracking cost per meal when cooking this way vs. eating out. I actually suspect it's not that much cheaper, because I kind of have a penchant for fine ingredients and all-things organic, but I've never actually compared these costs before (and I've read that it's cheaper to buy and cook your own organic food than to eat out). 
  • Cooking can be empowering, and the act of cooking requires mindfulness, depending on how one approaches the act. As the old, oft-quoted Zen saying goes: "Wash the dishes when you are washing the dishes." Staying in the moment and fully immersing oneself in the experience - of chopping, washing, stirring, sauteeing - can create a rhythmic meditative state and affects consciousness, which, according to Ayurvedic medicine, among other traditions, influences the resulting dish (in good ways).  We'll see.
For more information, or to participate, see The Week of Eating In: A HuffPost Green and Eyes and Ears Challenge

I'll post my results and the recipes I used, after the week is over. If you choose to join me, I welcome your comments and recipes too!

Science has spoken: Blowing up mountain tops is bad for mountains. Help end the madness!

Today, bloggers are banding together in a response to a "Social Media Call to Action" to bring attention to the current terrible practice of mountaintop removal mining and its financing, dominated largely by JP Morgan Chase. Rainforest Action Network are the organizers behind the effort and outline ways in which we can effect change to put an end to this practice.  

In an article published in the January 8, 2010 issue of Science, one of the world's most respected peer-reviewed scientific journals, twelve scientists from institutions around the country outlined the significant human health and ecological impacts of mountaintop coal mining (the current practice in which Appalachian peaks are blasted off to obtain coal, rather than older strip mining or seam mining methods), and conclude by calling for a ban on the practice.

In the most comprehensive study on the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining to date, the paper describes how the resulting pollutants get dumped into the surrounding valleys and streams, obliterating the ecosystem. In addition: "Adult hospitalizations for chronic pulmonary disorders and hypertension are elevated as a function of county-level coal production, as are rates of mortality; lung cancer; and chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease." The illnesses and increase in mortality includes women and children, so the incidence "...is not simply a result of the direct occupational exposure of predominantly male coal miners."

The conclusion of the paper states: "...The science is so overwhelming that the only conclusion one can reach is that mountaintop mining needs to be stopped."

If mountaintop removal sounds bad, but difficult to fully imagine, watching the following video of the practice and its resulting effects will convince you of just how terrible this practice is for our environment, not to mention how senselessly inefficient. To use Stephen Colbert's analogy (seen in the video at the bottom of this post), this practice of obtaining coal from mountains is akin to filling a cavity by blasting off the top of the skull and drilling through the brain. There is most certainly a better way to obtain energy than to obliterate our beautiful 300 billion year old mountains and all of the life that's supported by them.

What can you do? A LOT....! In addition to signing up at Rainforest Action Network and adding your name to the list of thousands who oppose mountaintop removal mining, I recommend the following:

1) Use this form on the Sierra Club website to tell the White House Council on Environmental Quality that no more mountaintop mining permits should be issued (the website address is: action.sierraclub.org/mtrscience)
2) Sign the petition at EarthJustice.org to tell Congress to pass the Clean Water Protection Act, which would protect our waters from being filled with millions of tons of waste from mountaintop removal mining.
3) Forward these two forms to everyone you know and urge them to take a minute (it only takes one!) to add their name to these petitions
4) Learn more about this practice and what you can do about it at: http://www.ilovemountains.org/
5) Forward this post to anyone and everyone you know to help spread the word about this destructive practice and that with enough grassroots action, we can help end this madness.

For an entertaining take on the subject, Stephen Colbert interviewed the lead author of the paper, Dr. Margaret Palmer, in his inimitably incisive way, and highlights the lunacy of the current practice:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Coal Comfort - Margaret Palmer
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorSkate Expectations

Spreading the Sunshine, Spreading the Love!

This Sunshine award was given to me by Radiance Within, of Watchful Eyes, Thoughtful Mind. It is a great honor and compliment to be recognized in this way. Thank you so much Radiance!

This award gives each recognized blogger an opportunity to pass the award on to other great bloggers whom they might like to call attention to.

The rules for accepting the Sunshine Award are:
  • Put the logo on your blog or within your post.
  • Pass the award on to 12 bloggers who bring sunshine into your life.
  • Link the nominees within your post.
  • Let your nominees know they have received this award by commenting on their blog.
  • Share the love and link to the person from whom you received this award.
I am passing this award to the following 12 bloggers, from whose blogs I always learn something or feel inspired by. It's a motley crew covering the gamut from the environment, to psychology, social media, technology, travel, science, and food. But such are my interests: diverse and disparate, yet all are interconnected. You'll definitely want to check out their sites:

1. The EcoSpheric Blog - Just a great blog about all things dedicated to living more sustainably. Plus, she's based where I grew up! Gotta love Coloradoans!
2. Treebanker's Blog - All about the disappearing rainforests and how to take action: we CAN replant 250 million acres of Rainforests in the next 11 years. 
3. The GreenMan's Grove - a fellow nature-lover and tireless defender of Mother Earth - he discusses issues related to the earth, nature, paganism, news, and other interesting tidbits.
4. Artemis in the City Blog - Danielle is a certified holistic health counselor and natural whole foods chef who helps people reclaim their health through the healing power of natural foods, and she writes about healing foods, as well as foods to avoid.
5. Ulterior Motives - written by Art Markman, a former grad school professor of mine at Columbia, his blog for Psychology Today is chock-full of really fascinating research and findings on how goals drive behavior.   
6. McGee's Musings - Academic and thought-provoking practical discussions on Enterprise 2.0 technology and business, organizational change, and the impact of social media in all of the above. I always learn something new whenever I check Jim's blog. 
7. TravelEco - Blog by "Eco Hotels of the World" there are some great ideas for eco-friendly travel destinations, hotels, gadgets, and general information on traveling responsibly.
8. Notes From the Road - Just about the most beautiful travel blog out there that I've seen. Gorgeous writing and photography, for armchair travelers, as well as providing constant inspiration to hit the road. The choices are endless.
9. Green Options - This is actually a community and network of blogs dedicated to all things green. I've deliberately chosen to include small, and/or individually-written blogs, with the exception of this one, which is simply a fantastic aggregate resource.
10. Neha Ayurvedic Life Spa - A new blog that is already lovely, inspiring and full of great information for those interested in Ayurvedic medicine and natural health.
11. Five Minutes For Going Green -  A really clean and well-organized blog with a team of writers, each taking a separate "category" dedicated to the green-o-sphere. The posts are short, simple, and easy to follow: every small step, 5 minutes at a time, does make a difference!
12. The Confident Copywriter - Victoria's blog is a very useful resource for any writer, freelancer, or independent contractor. She's built a very strong community through engaging the fellow copywriters, bloggers, freelancers, and the like in lively dialogue.

Now: with more USDA regulation! The shocking truth about your "organic" milk/dairy products

The other day, after I wrote about how non-organic milk is a terrible thing to put into your body (among other things), I was patting myself on the back for never having even looked at a non-organic carton of milk for years. But then when I got out the gallon of organic, non-RBGH milk to go with my chocolate chip cookie (can't seem to cut those out of my otherwise healthy diet...), I noticed some fine print on the bottom of the label that I've never bothered to read before: "*Our milk is made from cows not treated with rBGH. The FDA has said there is no significant difference between milk from cows treated with rBGH and untreated cows. No test can now distinguish between milk from treated and untreated cows." I suddenly shivered. Or maybe that was from standing in front of the open fridge. Whether I was having a paranoid reaction or not, I felt that the manufacturer was hinting subtly, or not-so-subtly, at a possible deception that they (or other "organic milk" manufacturers) may or may not be engaging in.

This is my translation of each sentence:
1) Our milk is made from cows not treated with rBGH.  = Assuming 365 Organic (Whole Foods' private organic label) is not outright lying in their first statement, their cows are not treated with rBGH, which implies other cows might be.
2) The FDA has said there is no significant difference between milk from cows treated with rBGH and untreated cows. = The FDA  "concluded that rBGH presents no increased health risk to consumers" [and approved it for use in 1993].  However, this declaration proved highly controversial, and opponents of the drug argued that the effects of rBGH were never properly assessed. In 1998, a study by Canada's equivalent of the FDA, Health Canada, recommended that the studies be replicated before rBGH would be approved in Canada.  However, as of today, the European Union, Japan, Australia and Canada have all banned the use of rBGH due to animal and human health concerns.
3) No test can now distinguish between milk from treated and untreated cows. = Irrespective of whether or not rBGH has any effect on humans, as a human, there's no definitive way of being assured you're drinking rBGH-free milk aside from trusting that your milk manufacturer is telling the truth. Apparently, rBGH-positive [if you will] cows don't test positive.

My interest was piqued enough to investigate this milk controversy further, and ah-HA, my timing was right-on! This morning, a very timely news report hit my twitter feed: "New USDA Rules Establish Strong Organic Standards for Dairy Cows and Other Livestock."

Apparently, the family farms of America have been lobbying the government for over 10 years to institute more stringent regulations around the grazing and pasturing of dairy cows and other livestock. Why? Because a number of mega-dairies, or illegitimate factory farms, who have blatantly abused the "organic" label by confining thousands of animals in feed lots and barns are able to produce very cheap organically-labeled milk against which the ethical, small-production family farms can't compete.

Although there have been a number of investigations into the alleged violations of organic livestock management practices on many of the 20 largest factory farm facilities, the biggest scandal centered around one investigation in which the regulators found “willful” violations of 14 organic regulations on factory farms operated by Aurora Dairy, a $100+ million company based in Colorado, which produces private-label, store brand milk for Wal-Mart, Costco and large grocery chains, as well as investigations into alleged improprieties by the largest organic milk producer in the country, Horizon Organic (by Dean Foods).

The new regulations "...require that dairy cows and other ruminants be out on pasture for the entire growing season, but for not less than 120 days. It also requires that the animals receive at least 30% of their feed, or dry matter intake (DMI), from pasturing. In addition, organic livestock will be required to have access to the outdoors year-round..." Read more here. 

Most importantly, “These minimum benchmarks will assure consumers that industrial-scale dairies don’t just create the ‘illusion’ of grazing and continue producing illegitimate organic milk.”

The basic lesson here is: you get what you pay for.  If your organic milk, cheese, yogurt or other dairy product was: "...such a great deal! As cheap as or almost as cheap as regular" it is highly likely that it was not in fact, organic.

The good news is that "over 90% of all name brand organic dairy products are produced with high integrity."  Cornucopia Institute, the farm policy research group representing family farms, has a consistently updated "brand scorecard" for all of the organic labels, in which each brand is given a score based on the aggregation of detailed ratings such as disclosure of information, amount of time cows are spent on pasture, antibiotics used, hormones used, oversight and processing.

I'm happy to report that Whole Foods 365 Organic brand gets a "4 Cows" rating or "Excellent" as determined by the Cornucopia Institute. Notably, with respect to Whole Foods' private-label brand as compared to other brands (e.g., Wal-Mart, Costco, others): "It is impressive that over 90% of all name-brand organic dairy marketers fully participated in the Cornucopia research study permitting their customers to understand how their products are produced. Unfortunately, 0% of private-label marketers (store brands) were initially willing to participate. Whole Foods Market should be applauded as the first retailer willing to be transparent with their private-label products."

To see how your favorite brand of organic milk fares, simply point your mouse at Cornucopia Institute's BRAND SCORECARD and scan the list: it's organized from top rated producers to the lowest, with additional details. In addition, you can search (Control-F, or Find) for brand(s) carried in your local store.

*Image Source: www.mindfully.org

Even though it's snowing on the East Coast, sorry, climate change is still happening

It's disturbing to me that something as ever-present and non-controversial as the weather has become such a divisive tool in politics. Because the east coast, and Washington D.C. in particular, has suffered a massive winter storm this week, many climate change deniers have been using this circumscribed occurrence as gleeful evidence that global warming has been disproved (or has been a hoax all along). It is pure pigheaded ignorance to blatantly ignore science, as so many of these deniers are doing. And to what end? We all inhabit the same earth... if there is one issue on which all of humankind should be in agreement about it should be to protect and nurture the only home we have.

Thinking weather patterns through rationally and calmly, it is clear that an overall increase in the earth's temperature leads to warmer temperatures overall, and one "unusual" weather incidence in one location does not disprove a pervasive and global phenomenon.  Mild temperatures and the effects of El Nino in the winter leads to increased evaporation of surface water, which leads to more water in the air. More water in the air leads to massive storms, including rains, and when the temperature drops below freezing, snow. Indeed, increased volatility and variability in weather patterns and cycles is one of the effects of climate change, leading to periods of extreme heat and extreme cold.  

NASA has shown that 2009 was the second warmest year in modern record (2005 was the warmest), and that January 2000 to December 2009 was the warmest decade in the past 2000 years.  The chart below (source: www.cru.uea.ac.uk/cru/info/warming/) shows average global temperatures from 1850 to 2008, where the dramatic rise in global temperature over the past twenty years comparative to the temperature fluctuations in the prior century, is obvious.

In addition, although December 2009 was unseasonably cool in North America (as climate change naysayers gleefully rubbed their mittened hands at such chilling temperatures, quipping childish jokes like, "what happened to that global warming? Can we get it back please...?") due to some unusual Arctic air pressure and jet stream effects, it's important to note that "the contiguous 48 states cover only 1.5% of the world area, so the U.S. temperature does not affect the global temperature much." said James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in NYC. It is undeniable that the average global temperature has increased by about 1.4 degrees F (or 0.8 degrees Celsius) since 1880 (and will keep increasing).  This may not seem like much, but this supposed negligible change in global temperature could in fact result in the extinction of approximately 20-30% of the earth's species, if increases in global warming exceed 1.5-2.5 degrees celsius (relative to the average temperature from 1980-1999). 

Bill Nye (the Science Guy) explains it all to Rachel Maddow:

Top 7 "NO-EAT" Foods (with BETTER OPTIONS): You'll be surprised by some of these "Food Terrors"

In an earlier post, I wrote about six key foods to avoiddue to scandalous practices and effects on the environment, the world, our health, or some combination of all three. Here are seven more foods to add to your "NO EAT" list - it's like the Terrorist "No-Fly" list, but for your fridge. Due to all of the toxins and chemicals in the foods listed here (which, interestingly enough, have NO overlap with the other list), stick this up under the heading: "NO EAT" - your body will thank you.

Prevention Magazine asked a group of food experts who actively research levels of chemicals and toxins in foods and packaging used to contain those foods: "What foods do you avoid, and what is a better option?" Here are their answers.

1. Canned Tomatoes.  Go with tomatoes in glass bottles or tomato sauce.
2. Corn-Fed Beef. Don't eat beef. Or make sure it's grass-fed beef.
3. Microwave Popcorn. Pop it the old fashioned way.
4. Non-organic potatoes. Buy organic.
5. Farmed salmon. Buy wild-caught Alaskan salmon, but buy it sparingly or else it will all be gone.
6. Milk with rBGH. Buy organic, rBGH-free, or rBST-free milk.
7. Conventional apples. Buy these organic too.

For more, including all the details on why these foods are chock-full-'o' terror, click below!