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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Easter Sugar!

Yesterday I wrote a bit about some of our long-standing Easter traditions that center around food.  They are based on the religious meaning of the holiday and date from pre-Christian days.

But come on.  We really know what many people think of when they Easter food comes to mind:  jelly beans and chocolate bunnies!

So here are some interesting facts about how these two confections became as big a part of Easter as lamb and eggs.
The exact origins of jelly beans are not exactly known, but most experts believe that they are
decedents of two kinds of candies: Turkish delights, which date from biblical times and had a gel-based center; and Jordan Almonds, a candy from 15th Century France which used "panning" to create the shiny shell that they share with jelly beans.

The first appearance of "modern" jelly beans were during the Civil War when, in 1861, a Boston confectioner suggested that jelly beans be sent to Union soldiers as gifts.  Perhaps because of the candy's lack of nutritional value, in the early 20th Century, "jelly bean" became a term for a man with style and no substance.  Jelly beans were the first candies sold by weight and originally were often sold by color.

It wasn't until the 1930's, though, that jelly beans became associated with Easter.  Someone realized that the candy was shaped like the egg--a traditional symbol of Easter and rebirth--and they were marketed as Easter candy.  Today, about 16 billion jelly beans are made for the Easter season.

In 1976, Jelly Belly started producing it's famous gourmet jelly beans.  Up until 1998, Jelly Belly reports that their most popular flavor was Very Cherry.  But in that year, Buttered Popcorn took over as favorite.  (I know, I don't get it either.)  But Very Cherry took over once again in 2003.  Jelly Belly makes 50 regular flavors and some specialty flavors (including blueberry, which was created for jelly bean-lover Ronald Reagan's inauguration in 1981).  You can see their list of flavors here.

Well, it's no surprise that someone started making bunnies out of chocolate for Easter.  The rabbit--a symbol of fertility--was long a symbol of Easter for that reason.  And hey, pretty much everyone likes chocolate. 

The first chocolate bunnies were made in Germany in the 19th Century.  Whitman's Chocolates started to produce them in 1842, but they didn't really catch on that much.  Around 1890, a Pennsylvania drug store owner, Robert L. Strohecker, displayed a 5-foot chocolate bunny in his store as an Easter promotion.  (Try as I might, I could not find out where in PA he was from.  If anyone knows, tell me!)  Strohecker's idea helped to popularize the chocolate bunny for Easter, where it really took off in the early 20th Century.  By the way, Robert L. Strohecker chocolate bunnies are still available and are supposed to be some of the best you can find.

During World War II, cocoa was rationed, so to abide with these regulations, confectioners started making hollow bunnies.  The process continued after rationing ended as a way for these businesses to save money by not using as much chocolate in their products.  I don't know.  It's always a little disappointing biting into a hollow bunny. 

Today, there are more than 60 million chocolate bunnies produced each year for American Easter celebrations.  And 76% of Americans say that they eat their bunnies ears-first.  You're not alone!

So there you go.  Jelly beans and chocolate bunnies.  Have a tasty and cavity-free Easter!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Easter Food Traditions

Like most holidays, Easter is filled with family traditions--most of them centered on food.  Probably more than most holiday food traditions, however, food associated with Easter is steeped in symbolism and ancient roots.

This holiday may be the most sacred day for Christians, but many Easter traditions come from pre-Christian pagan cultures.  In fact, the word Easter comes from Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility and springtime.  So it's not all that surprising that the fertile rabbit later became a symbol of Easter.

But we're here to talk about food. 

And probably the most long-standing Easter food is lamb.  The lamb holds a starring role in the Passover story where the Israelites were ordered to kill a lamb, paint above their door with the blood and eat it for their meal.  The blood notified the "Angel of Death" to pass over their home, thus saving them from destruction.  As some ancient Jews converted to Christianity, they brought their tradition of the sacrificial lamb with them--representing Christ as the Lamb of God.  Tradition has it that the devil can take the form of any animal except the lamb, because of it's religious significance.

In our country, lamb isn't as popular as ham.  Even this is not by chance.  In many ancient cultures, the pig was known as a symbol of good luck and prosperity.  That's why we put money in piggy banks and eat pork for the new year (pigs push forward as they forage as we should do into the new year).  Ham became popular for Easter (instead of fresh pork) because the animals were usually slaughtered in the fall and their meat was cured to last the winter.  So by the time Easter rolled around, the ham was ready to eat. 

Ask most people around the world, though, what food they think of in relation to Easter and they'll say the egg.  The egg has been a symbol of new birth from ancient times when many believed that the world was formed from an egg.  Eggs are part of the traditional Jewish seder meal and later, many saw the empty shell of a cracked egg as representing the empty tomb of Jesus on Easter.  In Medieval times (and in some cultures still today), eggs were prohibited during the Lenten season.  Eggs were boiled or preserved in some other way and finally eaten on Easter.

The tradition of decorating eggs goes back thousands of years.  Ancient Egyptians and Persians decorated eggs (ostrich for the Egyptians) and given as gifts as a symbol of new life.  Decorating eggs for Easter seems to have started in 1290, when Edward I of England (known as Longshanks) ordered 450 hard-cooked eggs to be covered with gold leaf and given as Easter gifts. 

Egg decorating has different styles in various parts of the world.  Greek and Slavic traditions dye the eggs deep red to represent the blood of Christ.  Those in Poland, Russia, Ukraine and other countries in that part of the world take to decorating their eggs in as fancy a way as they can--full of symbols, holy pictures and intricate designs.  Of course, in the 19th Century, the Russian court jeweler named Faberge', used precious stones, gold and more to create egg-shaped treasures. 

Even the famous egg rolling on the White House lawn has its roots in an ancient game, where the rolling egg represents the stone rolling from Jesus' grave.  Games similar to this are still played in many parts of the world.

If you haven't cooked your eggs yet, give this method a try.  It gives you perfect hard-cooked eggs every time.

Make as many eggs as you wish, as long as they are in 1 layer in the bottom of the pan and can be covered with 1 inch of water.
  1. Place the eggs in a pan, cover with 1 inch of water and bring to a boil over high heat.  Remove the pan from the heat, cover and let sit for 10 minutes.  Meanwhile, fill a bowl with cold water and a tray or two of ice.
  2. Transfer the eggs to the ice bath with a slotted spoon and let sit for 5 minutes.  Then they'll be ready to decorate or eat.

So as you enjoy your Easter meal with family and friends, think about how you are part of that long line through the generations celebrating this most holy day in much the same way!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Relationship With Food

Here's some more from Michael Pollan's book, In Defense of Food.

One of the major points that he makes is something that really resonates with me.  It's the idea that everything is connected--the earth, our food, people, animals, our health.  With the growth of processed foods, these relationships are removed from our eating--we're just ingesting instead of living in that natural circle that we were meant to be a part of.  And nowhere does this show itself than in our health.

Pollan writes:
Health is, among other things, the product of being in these sorts of relationships in a food chain....If the soil is sick or in some way deficient, so will be the grasses that grow in that soil and the cattle that eat the grasses and the people who drink the milk from them.
As I said, we were built to have these relationships with our food and the soil.  We, and other animals, are wired to recognize both the good and bad in the foods that we are considering.  These relationships have been fostered for generations--since we were out hunting and gathering.  We know when a fruit or vegetable is ready to eat--we know the color or the scent or the taste.  The plant is telling us that it is ready to spread it's seeds by being ripe.  Put seeds inside a juicy peach or apple and some animal will eat it and spread the seeds.  It just so happens that this is also the time when the most nutrition can be gotten from a plant. 

But in the Western diet, our senses are being fooled by artificial sweeteners or colors.  The processing of foods also causes us confusion.

Pollan tells the story of refined flour.  How the development of rollers, which took the place of stone grinders, removed the nutritious parts of the wheat from the flour.  The now-white flour looked great, but didn't give any kind of nutrition, as opposed to stone-ground.  Pollan says:
Wherever these refining technologies came into widespread use, devastating epidemics of pellagra and beriberi soon followed.  Both are diseases caused by deficiencies in the B vitamins that the germ had contributed to the diet. 
So what came next?  The fortifying of flour with these missing vitamins in the 1930s.  And in 1996, the government saw that our diets were low in folic acid, so millers were ordered to add it to flour.  And on and on it goes.  "Real" food becomes "Frankenstein" food--a bunch of components put together.  This is great, except it ignores the idea that "A whole food might be more than the sum of its nutrient parts."  Nutrients occurring naturally in, say, an apple, work in tandem and do more good than each of the nutrients taken separately. 

Next time, we'll talk about corn and soy--things we eat way too much of.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

More from Pollan

I'm back with a bit more from In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan.  In previous posts, I've written a kind of book report about this book.  I highly recommend reading it--I'm just touching on the highlights.  It really makes you change the way you look at the things you're eating.

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, Pollan goes into great detail of how the Western diet is the main cause of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, etc that are running rampant in this country. 

He tells of an study in Australia in 1982 where a group of 10 middle-aged, overweight and diabetic Aborigines that were living in Western Australia agreed to be a part of an experiment.  They moved from their "civilized" homes to the homes of their ancestors--back to the bush.  In a nutshell, after 7 weeks, all had lost weight, had lower blood pressure, lower triglycerides and increased omega-3 fatty acids.  In short, they became much healthier in an amazingly short amount of time.

Pollan writes:
What we know is that people who eat the way we do in the West today suffer substantially higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity than people eating any number of different traditional diets.  We also know that when people come to the West and adopt our way of eating, these diseases soon follow, and often, as in the case of the Aborigines and other native populations, in a particularly virulent form....[W]hen one Western disease arrived on the scene, so did most of the others, and often in the same order: obesity followed by type 2 diabetes followed by hypertension and stroke followed by heart disease.
Welcome to our world. 

So why does this happen?  Basically, it's the processing of most of our foods.  During processing, food is made to last longer so it can be shipped and sit on store shelves.  But to do this, nutrients--the things that bugs and other pests are seeking out--are removed. 

The interesting thing is that studies show that there is not one ideal diet to follow.  There are cultures that eat virtually all meats and dairy.  There are those that eat a majority of seafood and little dairy.  Some have lived on a mostly vegetarian diet while others eat very little green vegetation.   Yet all these cultures and traditions result in people much healthier than we are.  The common thread that runs through all of these diets--the consumption of fresh foods, whether animal or plants, that are high in nutritional value. 

Again, Pollan:
The human animal is adapted to, and apparently can thrive on, an extraordinary range of different diets, but the Western diet, however you define it, does not seem to be one of them.
Next time, thinking differently about our food.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

More Defense

I'll continue with more of my "book report" on Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food

So one of Pollan's main points is that nutritionism rules how and what we eat these days.  We're more worried about the antioxidants and low-fat labels on foods than on what the food really is.  He makes the point that these nutrients that are added to so many foods, often don't really do their job as they do in nature.  They need the relationship with other chemicals and nutrients in the food to create the benefits that they were intended to have.

And often, these "nutritional" way of eating--low-fat, for example--sometimes lead to other problems.  Pollan writes:
Like most of us, they [researchers] assumed that a bad outcome like heart disease must have a bad cause, like saturated fat or cholesterol, so they focused their investigative energies on how these bad nutrients might cause disease rather than on how the absence of something else, like plant foods or fish, might figure in the etiology of the disease.  Nutrition science has usually put more of its energies into the idea that the problems it studies are the result of too much of a bad thing instead of too little of a good thing.
Of course, other factors come into play with regard to these diseases--social class for example.  Poor people don't often have the ability to exercise or eat fresh vegetables or fish.  Many only have access or the money to buy processed foods--causing a problem of obesity even in those who are most in need of food.  This, then leads to diabetes and heart disease in many cases.

This segues into Pollan's next major discussion.  Those of us who eat a Western Diet are the ones who end up with these diseases.  Next time, I'll go into a little more about that.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Defense, cont.

So I wrote yesterday about how the 1973 FDA ruling that foods can be changed without being labeled "imitation" opened the floodgates for food producers to add all sorts of "healthy" ingredients to our food. 

One of the most prevalent was the perpetuation of the fear about fat--that it causes heart disease, stroke, etc.  Recent studies, however, have shown that for the most part, this is not the case.  Michael Pollan writes:
Only one study has ever found "a significant inverse association between poly-unsaturated fat intake and CHD [coronary heart disease]."  Let me translate:  The amount of saturated fat in the diet may have little if any bearing on the risk of heart disease, and evidence that increasing polyunsaturated fats [such as margarine] in the diet will reduce risk is slim to nil.
In addition, there's little proof that dietary cholesterol leads to CHD risk.  Some say that reducing fat in the diet leads to weight loss, but again, there's little to support this claim as well.

If that theory were correct, when we're all trying to reduce our fat intake, why the rampant spread of heart disease in this country?  According to Pollan, you need to look back in time.
...during the decades of the 20th Century when rates of heart disease were rising in America, Americans were actually reducing their intake of animal fats (in the form or lard and tallow).  In place of those fats, they consumed substantially more vegetable oils, especially in the form of margarine, sales of which outpaced butter for the first time in 1957. 
Between the end of World War II and 1976, animal fat consumption in the US dropped greatly, while fats from seed oils almost doubled.  Yet, there were more people having heart attacks.  Hmm.

Heart disease dropped greatly during WWII and Pollan hypothesizes that it's because of the war's affect on the availability of meat, butter and eggs--not to mention sugar and gasoline being rationed.  Americans were eating less of everything--except fish, interestingly.  And they got more exercise because of the gas rationing.  A theory, but an interesting theory nevertheless.

Probably the thing I agree with the most in Pollan's book is the fact that industrial food production has been the downfall of our health in this country--with thanks to the government's nutrition guidelines.  Again, he writes:
The whole of the industrial food supply was reformulated to reflect the new nutritional wisdom, giving us low-fat pork, low-fat Snackwell's and all the low-fat pasta and high-fructose (yet low-fat!) corn syrup we could consume....Oddly, Americans got really fat on their new low-fat diet....

All this helped to change the way Americans ate--focusing on the components of the things they were eating rather than the experience of eating--the taste, the pleasure, the healthful whole food.  We want to eat antioxidants and beta-carotene instead of fruit and fish.   

I'll talk about that a little more next time.

Monday, March 11, 2013

In Defense of Food

I first heard of Michael Pollan while organizing a screening of the film Fresh a few years ago.  There were a lot of great points made by a lot of interesting people in that film, but his stood out to me and made me think about not only how important eating "real" food is, but how it impacts so many parts of our lives--the environment, the economy, health care, etc.

I recently read his 2008 book, "In Defense of Food" and it was eye-opening.  If you are at all interested in how food can affect our lives and health, then this is a must read. 

In my mind as I read the book, I was going to write a blog entry about it.  But there are so many interesting and worthwhile topics that he discussed in the book, it's hard to just choose a couple.  So, if you'll indulge me, I'll revert back to my junior-high-book-report-writing days and try to summarize what Pollan's book is all about.  It'll take more than one blog entry, but hopefully, it'll whet your appetite (pun intended) to read the book.

I admit that after reading the book, I look at everything that I eat in a different light.  His ideas are thought-provoking and make a lot of sense.  The last parts of the book are his tips and suggestions for how to eat.  Some of them are things that I already do--and maybe should do more of.  Some, admittedly, are just not practical--for me, at least.  I want a Coke or a Tastykake once in a while.  But just getting people to think about these things will help to change the food culture in this country, which is at the root of our eating problems.

Part of what Pollan tries to do in the beginning of the book is to define what "food" is.  Food is not necessarily anything we eat.  In his definition, we eat a lot more than "food".  He writes:
But I contend that most of what we're consuming today is no longer, strictly speaking, food at all, and how we're consuming it--in the car, in front of the TV, and, increasingly, alone--is not really eating, at least not in the sense that civilization has long understood the term.
Eating is so much more than just ingesting food.  It's about pleasure, communion, family, culture.  I recently wrote about how important eating as a family can be to the development of a family--especially the children.  (Click here for that post.)

But despite how we in this country are eating--filling ourselves with non-nutritious foods on the run--we seem to want to eat healthily.  Pollan talks extensively about how we have become "a nation of orthorexics: people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating."  An interesting thought, huh?

Think about it.  We are inundated by ads for weight loss, nutritional supplements, vitamins, fish oil, on and on and on.  Walk through a supermarket and look at all the items with some sort of nutritional claim--whole grain, fortified with vitamins and minerals, low-fat, low-sodium, added antioxidants, etc. 

This is "nutritionism".  The idea that eating is simply taking in nutrients--with little or no regard for anything else.  And our country's obsession with this idea has helped it to grow. 

Pollan tells about a 1938 act that required the word "imitation" on any food that was in any way changed from the traditional or common form of the food.  Milk with added vitamins and the like.  If anything was changed, it was "imitation".  But the FDA in 1973, repealed this rule while passing new food labeling laws.  Now, as long as the food was not deemed "nutritionally inferior" to the "real" version, it was not "imitation". 

With that, the regulatory door was thrown open to all manner of faked low-fat products:  Fats in things like sour cream and yogurt could now be replaced with hydrogenated oils or guar gum or carrageenan, bacon bits could be replaced with soy protein, the cream in "whipped cream" and "coffee creamer" could be replaced with corn starch....
Not imitation in the government's eyes, but imitation nonetheless.  And in most cases, less healthy, depsite what is told to us by the producers of these items.  It was the beginning of the confusion of food labels that is meant to draw us in with all those promises. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


Perhaps you've been to a restaurant that offers a salad of microgreens or you've seen them sold in a farmers' market.  But do you know what they are?  And why would you want to eat these tiny versions of familiar greens and herbs?
Well, basically, microgreens are young greens like radish, arugula, lettuce, peas, herbs, etc.  But they're even younger than some of the "baby" vegetables we see--baby spinach, for example.  These greens are usually no more than 14 days old.

While similar to sprouts (like bean sprouts), microgreens are different.  According to this NPR article,
Sprouts are seeds germinated in water just long enough (usually 48 hours) to grow roots, a stem and pale, underdeveloped leaves. Microgreens, on the other hand, need soil and sunlight and at least 7 days to grow before you can harvest them.

Microgreens have been getting more and more popular because of their sweet and tender taste as well as their look--really, they are kind of cute, aren't they?

But now some studies show that these tiny leaves give us a huge nutritional package.  From the same article:
The researchers looked at four groups of vitamins and other phytochemicals – including vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene — in 25 varieties of microgreens. They found that leaves from almost all of the microgreens had four to six times more nutrients than the mature leaves of the same plant. But there was variation among them – red cabbage was highest in vitamin C, for instance, while the green daikon radish microgreens had the most vitamin E.
While microgreens will not overtake the popularity of their full-grown versions, it's good to know that great things can come in little packages.  As little fresh fruits and vegetables as we Americans eat, any place we can find to get these nutrients into our bodies is a great thing.

So next time you see some of these tiny greens on your plate, don't just move them aside like some common garnish.  Munch them down and get as much nutrition from your meal as you can!