Sunday, November 30, 2008

Tao Cafe does Thanksgiving-stylin' dessert

On Saturday I went to Tao Cafe and enjoyed a pleasant meal with friends. Nothing special, but tasty and across the street from Lone Palm. What was stupendous, however, was the special pumpkin creme brule, served in a pumpkin! This choice of serving vessel was not only pleasant to look at but was also tasty to eat as the creme brule had been baked in the pumpkin thus making the sides of the pumpkin soft enough to eat. The added pumpkin to the already tasty dessert gave each bight an awesome texture and interesting flavor. The coconut ice cream is also a must :)

The Anti-Restaurants, Bay Area Style

In a recent New York Times, I read an article about the underground eating clubs, which I only vaguely knew about before. These "anti-restaurants", as dubbed by the New York Times, work to challenge the way we eat food. The eating club highlighted in the NYT article invited eaters, mostly from Brooklyn, up to a farm town 30 minutes outside of Ithaca, NY for an all day affair that began with butchering a boar at an ungodly pre-brunch hour and ended with a six course meal. Throughout the day, the participants learned how to make pasta, use hydrocolloids to make fluid gels, and improved their knife skills, strengthening the farm to table connection.

When I read this article, I got incredibly excited about the idea of these eating clubs and signed up for the listserve of the Bay Area based Ghetto Gourmet and two Sundays ago I participated in my first underground eating experience. I went with three friends and a tasty bottle of Honig wine to the address we were emailed two days before the event, just to add to the mystic. Each dinner the Ghetto Gourmet does is at a different location, which on one hand adds to the adventure and mystery of it, but on the other stops the organizers from getting in trouble with the food and wine board. Anyways, upon entering a stranger's home and taking our shoes off, we were greated by the host and told to take a seat at oneof the low lying tables around which the other guests were already sitting indian style.

At our table were several other guests already, and we began chatting with one woman from Minneapolis and a 20 year old tween from Westchester, NY along with some other folks. Eventually the food started coming out. The first course was a beet salad with a light vinaigrette. The second and third were a spicy pumpkin broth based soup and a polish chicken dish, respectively and dessert were thin, crepe-like pancakes with rose petal syrup (yes, with rose petals still in the syrup--the chef for the night had picked the petals from his in-laws bush and put them in simple syrup a few weeks before). All were tasty, but truthfully nothing really wowed me.

What was amazing and wonderful though was the random people you meet while sitting at your table. Half way through the meal, the tables were switched up and you were at a table with entirely new people. It was a wonderful experience talking to total strangers about their lives, about how they got to San Francisco and this underground meal, and about the meal itself. What was anti-restaurant about this meal was the deliberate strengthening of the community formed over the meal; at the end of the night, I ended up driving a couple home, along with the three other people I already had in my car.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

More on the Aviary System for Raising Chickens

Two weeks ago, on Tuesday November 4, Proposition 2 passed in the state of California, making one of the first state wide steps towards positive reform of our food system. I thought I would take this opportunity to explain more in depth the aviary system for raising chickens I had mentioned in November 3rd's post.

As I stated in my last posting, the basic premise of the aviary system is a multi-level chicken coup in which the same amount of space on a farm is converted into more area for chickens via the addition of floors; think of it as an apartment building for chickens. The aviary system, however, is a little more complicated. One of the main problems with the way chickens are presently raised now is waste disposal. In an aviary coup, there are specific aisles designated for litter. These areas are cleaned via a manure belt, which eliminates the problem of sickness due to feces (god, that would stink...bad joke; couldn't resist.) In addition, aviary coups are equipped with soft nesting areas that reduce the cracking of eggs.

The big advantage of aviary systems is the amount of space they provide per bird. In a paper published in Poultry Science in 1998, the effects on bone characteristics of raising chickens in cages or in aviary chicken coups is compared and the results show that chickens raised in an aviary system have stronger bones. In the aviary system, chickens have the ability to flap their wings, walk, and perch as well as other dynamic and static activities, which all increase bone strength and thus the chickens' health. In addition, there is some correlation between bone strength and calcium depletion in egg shells. Because much of the opposition to Prop 2 focused around hens laying eggs, it is interesting to realize that the aviary system would likely reduce the amount of egg breakage both by the soft nesting areas as well as by increasing the strength of the egg shells themselves. Of course, installing an aviary system will require an initial capital investment and it has been shown that there will be a brief pause in egg laying due to the stress of moving the chickens from one place to another. All in all, however, the aviary system will improve the lives of our chickens and improve the quality of the chickens and eggs that we eat. A feel good proposition, yes?

Monday, November 3, 2008

Prop 2: A Little Pre-Election Day Advice...

As we head into election day tomorrow, I thought I should write about Proposition 2, a bill designed to stop cruel and inhumane treatment of animals, specifically regulating the conditions under and spaces in which farm animals are raised in California. One of the significant things to keep in mind with this California bill is that California comparatively produces less pork and beef than it does chickens, so much of the debate for this bill is around the treatment of chickens. When I first heard about this proposition, I immediately jumped to the opinion that I was going to vote yes on Prop 2, but read a few opinions that have made me think a little more about this decision.

In the most recent Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) news bulletin, the feature article addresses Prop 2, specifically asking the Saturday farmer's market's egg producers their thoughts on the proposition, and the farmer's were surprisingly divided. Steve Mahrt of Pataluma Farms is against Prop 2 as he believes it is a well-intentioned bill but bad for business. Pataluma Farms produces both cage-free and caged chickens and is a small farming operation in the North Bay. What made me think twice about Mahrt's comment about this proposition being bad for business is that he is not part of a large, industrial farm, but rather a small, family operated one that serves the local community. Mahrt continued that Prop 2 would likely raise the cost of producing eggs by more than the 1 or 2 cents Yes! on Prop 2 suggests, and feels that long term this would mean that eggs would be shipped into California from other US states as well as Mexico. For me, this idea is a problem as shipping eggs that could be produced locally over long distances is not sustainable and would also negate the good of this bill if eggs were just produced elsewhere where the laws are different.

CUESA's feature article also presented the opinion of another farmer who is in favor of Prop 2 and who brought up a lot of good points to Mahrt's opinions. Nigel Walker of Eatwell Farms is an outspoken advocate of Prop2, believing it is a "modest measure" that will require caged chickens to go from having a space of 2/3 a sheet of letter sized paper to two sheets of letter sized paper. When listening Walker's opinion, it is important to realize that his farm will not be directly affected as Eatwell Farms raises 3,000 free range laying hens that roost in mobile coops that are moved every 2-3 weeks. In this manner, his chickens have space indoors as well as the freedom to go outside their coops to forage for food. Walker, however, does mention some creative solutions to Mahrt's concerns, saying that European egg producers, after a similar bill was passed in Europe, switched to an aviary system, where multiple levels of habitat are available, but the overall density of the house is the same. In this manner, chickens would have more room, but the farmer would still be able to produce the same amount of eggs per square foot of land.

In addition, it is important to realize that California is often considered to establish the beginnings of many, more progressive, national movements. It is thus conceivable that with a Prop 2 California victory, this law will ripple through the rest of the country. This would thus mean that it would likely not be cheaper to produce California's eggs out of state, but likely to continue producing them in state, in more humane conditions long term. In this manner, Mahrt's concerns about Prop 2 are both, for the most part, solved.

If you were wondering, I am voting yes on Prop 2, and I do strongly encourage you to do the same. With this blog posting, I simply wanted to present both sides of this bill. While Steve Mahrt's concerns with Prop 2 are valid and important to consider, I believe the long term goal as well as affects of the bill are significant and incredibly beneficial to our food system. Proposition 2 is a step in the right direction to reform the policy around the production of our food.