It’s Not That Hard: Risotto

Risotto was not a part of my vocabulary until maybe the mid 1980s, around the same time I learned about food processors and decent coffee. Suddenly these foods appeared in the mainstream American food supply without warning or explanation, as did kiwi, kumquats, and more recently, kale. Topic for a future post, I think.

The book that showed me that I need not fear risotto.
The book that showed me that I need not fear risotto.

By the time I tried risotto, it was pretty well established among the cognoscenti. I loved it, and had to learn how to make it. Word on the street held that it was tricky, fussy, and easy to ruin. Still, I needed to try.

The recipe is basic, and endlessly versatile. It’s true that this dish requires attention—it’s not a “set it and forget it” affair. But the attention is not fussy or difficult—add liquid a half-cup at a time and stir.

Vary the cheese, the vegetable, the broth; add meat at the end if you like; mix two or more cheeses; add different spices. It’s pretty difficult to make this inedible.

All you need to know about proportions and categories of ingredients for risotto.
All you need to know about proportions and categories of ingredients for risotto

 

Mark Bittman provided a further revelation—that pasta could be cooked à la risotto! His article in the New York Times in 2009, Allowing Pasta to Drink Its Fill, lays it all out, with his usual tips on how to vary the recipe to suit your taste and what you might have on hand in your fridge.

 

 

It’s Not That Hard: Rice

The July 22, 2014, New York Times Dining & Wine section rained down a lot of worry about the way to cook rice. I am a fan of Kim Severson, but this struck me as way much ado about not much: Fluffy. Tasty. Tricky. Learning to Cook a Good Pot of Rice. The money quote for me: “Sweetie, buy a rice cooker.”

Trusty rice cooker, circa 1989. Still going strong!
Trusty rice cooker, circa 1989. Still going strong!

Great advice. The rice cooker we received as a wedding gift 25 years ago is a one-trick kitchen pony well worth having. I had no idea what it was in 1989, but would not be without one now. It makes excellent rice (with the crunchy bits at the bottom) from all kinds of rice, and I use it for oatmeal, too.

It’s not that hard.

It’s Not That Hard: Pesto

A couple of recent articles renewed my interest in how people think about food and cooking. Some dishes hold the reputation of being difficult, complicated, and time-consuming. This series looks at three of these, and assures you that it’s not that hard.

Today, pesto!

Pesto (from Italian pestare, ‘to pound’), the sauce originating in Genoa, and classically made with basil, olive oil, parmagiano, and pine nuts, probably has as many variants as there are cooks. While I respect, revere, and relish the classic version, I have developed my own take on this sauce over the years. And isn’t that really what good cooking is about?

But when I saw this well-done, detailed post on Serious Eats last week, I had to jump into the fray. Well, there was no fray, but I had to say something.

Maybe it’s the technique more than the ingredients that makes people nervous. The “real” way to make pesto is to use a mortar and pestle and grind the ingredients into a paste. Nothing wrong with that. I’ve personally never been able to get the hang of the m&p, but then again probably didn’t give it enough time either. I am an impatient cook, and I use a food processor.

I am not alone. Lidia Bastianich, the doyenne of Italian cooking, and an owner of Eataly in New York, uses a food processor for pesto.

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The ingredients for anything you cook are the most important, hands down. If you start with anything sub-par, it won’t be good no matter how you slice it. Maybe the most experienced and creative chefs can save a dish from the lesser raw materials, but most of us cannot. My guess is that Lidia has easy access to sublime olive oil, the best parmigiano-reggiano, the freshest, most fragrant basil, good pine nuts, and flavorful, not sharp, garlic.

I do with what I’ve got and what’s available in the Boston area. I am lucky to live near excellent cheese shops, good farmer’s markets and fruit stands, and several Trader Joe’s.

Here’s what I use and how I do it (photos to come next time I make pesto). It may not be the most transcendent pesto you’ll ever have, but it’s pretty darn good and easy to make.

Amounts approximate and fluid; feel free to scale up or down. This recipe makes enough sauce to use on pasta for 4-5 meals for two. I mostly use the pesto on pasta, but its uses are wide and varied: on chicken, as a spread for a sandwich, etc. etc.

INGREDIENTS 

Feel free to substitute nuts of your choice–make it your own!

2 tightly packed cups fresh basil (washed, stemmed)

1/4 to 1/2 cup Trader Joe’s California estate olive oil (it’s good and it’s cheap)

1 cup shelled pistachios (yes, I’m a monster!)

1 cup grated parmagiano-reggiano

1 clove garlic, smashed then minced as finely as you can

Salt (I use kosher) and pepper to taste

STEPS

Put basil and olive oil in the food processor. (Start with less olive oil and add as you add ingredients.) Pulse a few times.

Add everything else to the food processor. Start with a bit of salt and pepper; add more if needed.

Run for 15-20 seconds, adding a drizzle of oil as it runs.

Stop and check consistency and mix. You don’t want it too smooth.

At this point I pack it into single-meal containers and freeze! It lasts pretty well for several weeks.

G-L-O-R-I-A

Gloria Steinem celebrated her 80th birthday this month, still fighting the good fight.

I became aware of Steinem probably in the fall of 1978. I had just started my first semester at UMass Amherst, at the ripe old age of 23. Let’s just say I took the scenic route to college. I snagged a work-study job at what was then called the Everywoman’s Center, a five-year-old haven for women of all kinds, but especially the atypical UMass student, the single moms returning to their education, people like me who took the scenic route to college, and women from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

In my Steinem phase. Northampton, Mass., 1979.
In my Steinem phase. Northampton, Mass., 1979.

And here I am, obviously influenced by her style, around the time I was working at the women’s center. A newly awakened, if self-conscious and inarticulate, feminist, I lived in one of the women’s movement’s Ground Zeroes: Northampton, Mass.

I wasn’t the most ardent of nascent feminists, falling somewhere between poser and bra-burner, but I did embrace some of the ideas sincerely. I helped organize Take Back the Night marches, hung banners in the student union, went to plenty of meetings. I met friends I have to this day, and still embrace those ideas. The lot of women globally is still abysmal, even with the progress we’ve seen in the industrialized world. But at a time when the Boston media crackles with talk about Jared Remy, the son of a popular Red Sox commentator, who stands accused of murdering his girlfriend, it’s apparent that attitudes die hard. More to come.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

I’ve written about my recent tradition of buying one or two Irish soda breads from Whole Foods every year. This year, however, WF changed their game, and at first I wasn’t sure I liked it. Having tried another soda bread, from Formaggio Kitchen, I think it’s still pretty tasty. (I am a huge fan of Alice, the baker at Formaggio–excellent granola.)

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Anyway, I finally made my own soda bread this year, something I’d been promising myself I’d do for some time. The recipe is from the Food52 blog. An easy-to-follow recipe with some excellent tips from the author and from the community, it turned out a very nice dough, and I think would have been perfect if I’d used the correct pan size and some lemon oil. The pan I used was too small, and I realized about halfway through baking that the center was going to take a lot longer than the edges.

The bread tastes great, and mostly has a decent texture and crumb, although it does not slice cleanly. As I suspected, it is a bit too gummy in the center, but if you toast it and butter it the problem disappears. So next time I’m making 2×8″ loaves instead of one.

I will be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day by running a half-marathon in New Bedford, Mass., and thinking about Moby-Dick and the soda bread I will devour afterward. Slainte!

Five Easy Places


Watertown, Massachusetts, has been my hometown for 25+ years. It’s not the kind of place where you would go for a night on the town, it’s a bit gritty and not uniformly scenic, but it’s also right on the banks of the Charles River and is home to the historic and beautiful Mount Auburn Cemetery, the final resting place of Buckminster Fuller, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But if I had to quickly say what I love about Watertown, I’d have to go with the food.

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Watertown has a large Armenian community, and also sizable Greek and Italian populations, which, combined with the local custom of independent retailers, makes for some delicious food choices. And one good thing about being a densely populated town, you don’t have far to go to enjoy a variety of cuisines.

To get you started, here are five reasons to spend an afternoon in Watertown: Iggy’s Bread of the World (Iggy is from Siberia), Sevan Bakery (Armenian and Middle Eastern), Fastachi (sublime roasted nuts and chocolates), Sofra (Turkey, Lebanon, and Greece), and Sophia’s Greek Pantry (Yogurt!). And even though Iggy’s is now in Cambridge, it all started in Watertown, so we can lay some claim there.

This short video features noted Boston chef Ana Sortun, talking about how her love of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern spices led to her celebrated restaurants, Oleana and Sofra.

You could make a nice walking tour of four of the five places I mention here. I had to include Iggy’s, which is a short drive away, because I am loyal to my first local love. Iggy’s breads are available in many supermarkets and grocers, but going to the source is worth a trip. For a quick bit of background, check out this short article I wrote for the food blog Eat With Me, A Short Love Letter: Iggy’s Pecan Raisin Rolls.

 


Back to the Future Reading

At a friend’s recommendation I started listening to a PRI podcast, “The World in Words” last week. I really liked the few I listened to—good variety, nice pacing, perfect length for one-way commute to work. The one that really grabbed me was the one on invented languages—”Beyond Elvish.” An unapologetic Tolkien fan and veteran of grad-school Old English (Beowulf in the original!), I am a sucker for this stuff. The podcast touched on Tolkien and a couple of other authors who used invented languages as plot devices or ways to play with ideas in their novels.

Ursula K. LeGuin talked about the language she invented for her novel from the 1970s, The Dispossessed. I had read the Earthsea Trilogy back then, but never got around to The Dispossessed. The podcast includes an interview with LeGuin, now in her eighties, about Pravic, spoken by a group of anarchists who “want to remove from the language anything that implies ownership.” I love that kind of talk, so I downloaded the audiobook and got to it. So far, I’m loving it. [more tk]

The real treat, from the website, was a New Zealand weather forecast delivered in Elvish.

A Mid Winter’s Nor’easter


 
The storm I won’t call NEMO crushed the Boston area about 10 days ago. It was a worthy storm, windy and snowy enough for the hardiest New Englander.

I was lucky enough to be well stocked with food, drink, and electricity, and unlucky enough to have to ride it out alone. I’m pretty sure I frittered away most of the weekend, but I was productive enough to have made a potato leek soup, cream biscuits, and salted cashew oat cookies.

Sunday Brunch in York, Maine

Cooking classes: demo or hands-on? Even though I learn by doing it myself, in a group cooking class I prefer demo. This one was perfect for the day and my mood. This mid-January gathering for a group of friends who don’t see each other much during the winter provided a way to chat on the 75-minute drive to and fro, a good meal, and learning a bit about cooking from an experienced chef. Stonewall Kitchens Cooking School was the destination.

“Breakfast for Brunch or Dinner” with Christine Rudalevige presented a menu of sausage, egg and broccoli frittata with roasted fingerling potatoes; chicken curry with yogurt sauce served with whole wheat coconut waffles; and candied bacon served with cinnamon and spice breakfast puffs.

 

 

Christine was engaging, funny, and knowledgeable, with an easy rapport with the attendees. The whole thing was well-paced with enough air between courses. The physical space was inviting—sunny and comfortable—with easy access to a bunch of kitchen gadgets and tools that you didn’t know you needed.

Probably my favorite course was the candied bacon and cinnamon “donut.” What can I say? And I learned a few things: Harold McGee has a fairly recent book out, Keys to Good Cooking; making rosemary simple syrup is easy and delicious; you can clean a stubbornly dirty cast iron pan with kosher salt; use half canola or corn oil with half olive oil for cooking at high heat; fontina is a good melting cheese; cut peeled fresh ginger into “coins” and then smack with a knife to avoid the “threads” you can get when grating ginger.

Bon appetit indeed.

Why Do Stars Think It’s O.K. To Sell Soda? – NYTimes.com

Just saw this opinion piece in today’s NYTimes. I am a huge Bittman fan, and I know that he will say things to provoke thought and discussion, something he is able do from his high-profile perch.

When I first heard of Beyoncé’s deal with Pepsi, I agreed with Bittman that she has a responsibility to her fans to refuse certain types of promotional involvement. But as I thought about it further, I came to think that Beyonce has no such responsibility as a celebrity.

As I put it in my comment on the article, “Why should we expect high-wattage celebrities to do what our government won’t? Pepsi has an obligation to make money for its investors, and Beyoncé has an empire to run. While I wish she had said no to this deal, she had every right to say yes. Regulation of food marketing is the only thing that will make a difference, but the political will is just not there.”

Why Do Stars Think It’s O.K. To Sell Soda? – NYTimes.com.

Cultivating Patience

Anyone who knows me probably wouldn’t list patience as a defining quality of me. Neither would I. Patience is, for sure, something I value and marvel at. A good storyteller or joke-teller (not that different, right?) who can measure out each piece in digestible chunks; a singer who is a master of phrasing and pacing; a writer who knows what’s going to happen but is not going to let you know. A recent nonpareil example of this skill is contained in Hilary Mantel’s books, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Mantel lets out the thread of the story so finely and with such subtlety that you can forget that the events she writes about are in the historical record. We know what will become of Thomas Cromwell, but the story we’re being told so absorbs our attention and excites our senses that the outcome is not the point.

Cookie cutter stars! Martha, Martha, Martha!
Cookie cutter stars! Martha, Martha, Martha!

Another use of patience is in sports. I admire baseball players who have plate discipline, who can just wait for their cookie instead of leaping for some unknown treat. It’s not easy. In rowing, my main sport, I have fought my impatient nature for as long as I’ve rowed. While things have improved somewhat, I still “rush my slide” and apply stroke power before my oars are fully immersed. I just want to get it done, dammit! Not smart. Since I’m rowing against type (not much athletic ability, not the typical rower’s body), good technique would go a long way toward the finish line. Which brings me back to baking.

Cultivating patience, then: the next apple pie will flow in the making because I will not rush to roll out the dough; the slow-rise sourdough will look halfway decent because I will pay attention to the day’s moisture; and the time to write two to three blog posts per week will materialize.

Chocolate mousse pie a la Smitten Kitchen, without whipped cream topping. Still.
Chocolate mousse pie a la Smitten Kitchen, without whipped cream topping. Still.

 

So Happy New Year to everyone! Will be back soon.

 

Nutzola! Sweet ‘n’ Salty 2012

I’ve been making granola for Christmas gifts since about 1992—wow, that is 20 years! Since I can’t be sure of the first year, maybe I will make 2013 the 20th anniversary of Nutzola! and come up with a new blend.

Nutzola! Sweet ‘n’ Salty on its way to the oven

I still make the original–what I call Nutzola! Classic—for the greater part of my gift list, but Nutzola! Sweet ‘n’ Salty, a mere two years in production, has become my favorite. Does the world need another granola? Yes and no. Yes, because it is endlessly variable and always good; no, because . . . hmmm . . . cannot think of a reason.

Sweet ‘n’ Salty just out of the oven

Sun and Shapes

At the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MassachusettsNov. 23, 2012
At the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
Nov. 23, 2012

Just started taking photos of interesting shapes illuminated by sunlight or artificial light. Really only practicing, capturing stuff I like. These three were taken on the same day in Salem, over Thanksgiving weekend.

PEM lobby #2
PEM lobby from another angle

 

 

 

PEM lobby #3
And yet another angle

 

 

 

 

 

I took this photo on Dec. 23, 2012, after a 7.25-mile run along the Charles. Fabulous run, topped off by a view I never tire of.

Cambridge Boat Club, Dec. 23, 2012
Early morning light on the CBC boathouse

What I Think about When I Think about Running

I’ve been listening to Haruki Murakami’s book, What I Talk about When I Talk about Running. Murakami is a far more serious runner than I am, logging 30 or more miles a week, compared with my average of, say, 15. He talks about the rhythms of running and how the discipline involved in running regularly mirrors the kind of discipline you need as a writer. He loves the simplicity and freedom of running, and the fascination of watching your body change shape as your running speed and style evolve. Today, as I ran in the 36th Tufts Health Plan 10K for Women, I thought about a few things myself.

Tufts 10K finish area
Should I try the kids’ race next year?

The Tufts 10K, a Boston institution, takes place every Columbus Day. The course runs through downtown, and loops over the Charles River. Thousands of women run/walk/wheel the USTAF-sanctioned course. Today, Joan Benoit Samuelson came in second in my age group, with a pace of 6:11/mile. Let’s just say I’m a tad slower.

So, what did I think about today?

Mile 1: Way too crowded. Lots of elbowing. I can’t get any speed going. Still, fun to be in the pack. Legs a bit tired. Sciatica. Quads.

Mile 2: Yep, I’m tired! Heart rate and pace decent but not up to what they were my last 10K—the Lone Gull in Gloucester. Running over the Mass Ave bridge is less intimidating than rowing under it. Sciatic pain goes away at about Mile 2.5. Yay. On to quads…

Mile 3: I’m warmed up now. Should be hitting my stride but not quite there. How can people actually be carrying on conversations at this point? About party dresses? Aieeee! The cut-through on the Mem Drive median strip looks very tempting. Did not do it! Did I have the optimal breakfast? Too long ago? Not long enough ago?

Mile 4: Am I really going to toss my cookies? Why did I have that beer last night? Will I ever write a book? A decent blog post? A good shopping list? More than one woman is wearing a tutu. Pink, as if there were another color.

Mile 5: OK. How is this woman, looking about my age, just sailing on past me like I’m standing still? Did she start at Mile 4? Trying to sprint a bit as I notice the heart rate going down. Little kids extending hands for high fives. Too zoned out to play.

Mile 6: Almost there! I am not going to break 1 hour. Recording of a girl-group singing “We Are the Champions”! Whoa…

Post race: Lost my bearings looking for the Park St. station. Why not walk around an extra half hour?

I guess what I have in common with Murakami is a real appreciation of running, and how it can build a structure, a foundation. When I run on my everyday solo runs, I solve problems without meaning to, remember things I said I’d do but haven’t, think of people I need to see or talk to, imagine what I’d like to do when I have time/money/opportunity. As Murakami said in his memoir, he doesn’t really think about anything in particular when he runs, but somehow the rhythm, the habit, and the love of it gives him something to put in his pocket for later. You don’t remember it, but you remember it.

Fomenting Ferment: Guru of fermented foods holds forth

This story in today’s New York Times reminds me of why I love fermented foods–perhaps not to the extent that Sandor Katz does, but I do. Yogurt, beer, bread, wine, pickled lemon, pickled anything, really.

Fermentation Guru Seeks Out New and Old Flavors – NYTimes.com.

Old Recipes, Old Friends

Mark Bittman’s topic in today’s New York Times Magazine, “Short and Sweet,” presented a basic recipe for shortbread cookies, with a bunch of variations, from sweet to savory and in between. This is one thing I appreciate about Bittman’s approach: he gives you a base and several ideas on how to make it to suit your mood, your preferences, and your pantry contents. It’s learning to cook instead of just following a recipe.

I love shortbread–who doesn’t?–and this column reminded me of the pepper-cumin cookies I have been making since I first saw the recipe in the Times Magazine in 1996. I’ve been a recipe clipper for many years, and here’s what this one looks like now. These cookies really are fantastic, by the way. Easy to make, they have been a surprise hit at parties.

 

It Ain’t Pretty, but It’ll Do

Formaggio Kitchen, Cambridge MA, 8/29/12

It’s fall, and I’m at long last reviving my blog, Nutzola! I could wait until I’ve had time to rework, rebrand, and renovate it, or I could just get on with writing it and get to the other stuff later. I’m going with the latter.

My posts will be food and fitness oriented, with the occasional side trip. Glad to be back.

Your Food, Digested

Your morning bowl of cereal: An ounce of prevention, a pound of cure?

Consumers, manufacturers grapple with food packaging claims

Like most parents, Denise Devine, 49, a busy mother of two teenagers, cares about the food she feeds her family. Her main concern is to avoid foods, particularly cereals, that contain a lot of sugar. “I try to buy cereal that has fruit in it or isn’t too sugary,” she said. “Serving cereal has been a way I could get my daughter to drink milk, especially when she was younger. But too much sugar can make her agitated so I try to be careful.”

Denise Devine gears up to hit the aisles

Even though Devine is motivated to buy healthy cereal, she always doesn’t read the Nutrition Facts Panel or the list of ingredients because she just sees a string of long words that don’t mean anything. Instead, she makes buying decisions using the information on the front of the package or a recommendation from a friend. As Devine said, “Sometimes you just don’t want to see the list. You think, ‘What is that’?”

 

Health claims up front

Research suggests that Devine is not alone in how she reacts to front-of-package labels. Short health claims on packaged foods tend to lead time-pressed shoppers to disregard the longer and more complete information on the back. The average consumer may believe the front-of-package claims are sanctioned by the government and are somehow “true.” While health claims on food packages are officially regulated by the FDA, they are not consistently enforced. Messages on the fronts of packages tend to be eye-catching and positive, while those on the back look less inviting and may include some negatives about the food.

The cereal canyon at the local supermarket

The question is what can be done to help consumers make better food choices. Writing in the February 24, 2010, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University, and David Ludwig, a professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston summarized the problem: “Front-of-package labels may so thoroughly mislead the public that another option deserves consideration—eliminate all nutrition and health claims from the front of processed food packages while strengthening the Nutrition Facts Panel.”

Keep it simple

In early May 2012, the FDA released its Foods and Veterinary Medicines Strategic Plan for 2012-2016. Included in this plan is a goal to “provide accurate and useful information so consumers can choose a healthier diet and reduce the risk of chronic disease and obesity.” Part of this goal is to update the nutrition facts label so that serving sizes, daily values and important nutrients are easier to grasp. In addition, one key initiative of this plan is to “explore front-of-pack nutrition labeling opportunities.” These goals and initiatives have been met with guarded enthusiasm by some nutrition experts. As Nestle wrote on her Food Politics blog, “The FDA has already sponsored two Institute of Medicine reports on front-of-pack labeling.  Does this mean the agency is ignoring them and intends further research?”

On October 20, 2011, a committee of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued a set of recommendations to create a single, standardized front-of-package labeling system that will make “healthier options unmistakable.” The key feature of this proposed system is a system similar to the Energy Star ratings, using a standard symbol placed in a consistent location on all products to represent calories “in common household measure serving sizes.” Also displayed on this symbol is a simple point system to rank foods, requiring no calculations or nutritional knowledge, based on amounts of three nutrients per serving: saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars. In addition, the recommendations include incorporating this system across all food products to allow comparisons across products.

One example of IOM proposed labeling

 

 

Criteria for a proposed point system for ranking packaged foods

The labeling jungle

All of this is a far cry from the current labeling landscape. Allowable health claims for immune system support, cardiovascular health and cancer prevention commonly appear on the fronts of food packages, the first point of engagement for consumers. Also on October 20, 2011, two food industry trade groups, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, issued a joint statement launching Facts Up Front, a voluntary nutrition labeling system “to help busy consumers—especially parents—make informed decisions when they shop.”

Facts Up Front Icon

The statement goes on to say that Facts Up Front was created in response to consumer preference “to make their own judgments, rather than have government tell them what they should and should not eat. This is the guiding principle of Facts Up Front, and why we have concerns about the untested, interpretive approach suggested by the IOM committee.” Facts Up Front displays nutritional information on four required elements per serving: calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars. Individual products may include additional nutrients. Outside the food industry this system has been criticized as a cynical end run around the IOM recommendations.

What consumers can do

How can consumers make better food choices with the currently available labels? In a telephone interview, Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University and vice-chair of the IOM committee on Examination of Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems, said that “consumers should focus on the Nutrition Facts Panel and what’s most important to them from a health perspective, for example, calories, sugars or sodium,” and pay special attention to ingredients and nutrients that are most relevant. She added that “it’s difficult to automatically or easily compare across cereals because they have different serving sizes. Lichtenstein herself does not buy many packaged foods, but when she does, she looks at the calories per serving and the position of whole grains in the list of ingredients.

Larry Cornick, marketing manager at New England Natural Bakers, a small organic food company in Western Massachusetts, agreed that “serving sizes drive the information on the nutrition facts panel,” adding that some manufacturers practice labeling deception, using serving sizes that might be better characterized as “snack” sizes in order to keep the calories per serving down. Cornick takes pride in his company’s conscientious approach to marketing, saying that the front-of-package health claim that the company’s Organic Antioxidant Superfruit Granola “supports the immune system” wouldn’t be there if it weren’t true.

Regulation past and present

Regulation of health claims on food packages in the U.S. has its roots in legislation from a century ago, beginning with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which prohibited statements that were “false or misleading in any particular.” For many years this wording was interpreted to mean that no health claims were allowed. By the 1960s, packaged foods had become much more common, and accurate labels more necessary. In the mid 1980s, Kellogg challenged this restriction by adding a health claim to its All-Bran cereal. This action was challenged by the FDA, but Kellogg fought, and won, the challenge, ushering in the era of allowable health claims on foods, as long as they were based on scientific evidence. The 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Actfollowed, allowing, after food companies demanded it, foods to make the same labeling claims as dietary supplements could.

Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats

 

Kellogg has continued to push the health claim envelope, and was reprimanded by the FDA twice in recent years for claims on Frosted Mini-Wheats (attention improvement in children) and Rice Krispies (immunity in children). Today, three types of claims are allowed on food packages: health, nutrient content, and structure/function. As Cornick noted, “The big companies push the legislation.”

 

Health claims are not universally allowed on packaged foods. In the European Union, for example, health claims are not allowed on the labels until after they’ve been reviewed the European Food Safety Authority. Asked why this approach to labeling isn’t used in the U.S., Yoni Freedhof, a family physician and founder of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute, said by email that “there needs to be political will to make regulatory changes to labeling, and if politicians care more about ensuring the food industry’s interests are met than they do about the health of their constituents, then we certainly won’t see any changes.”

When Freedhof buys packaged foods he reads the fine print on the back, but pays little attention to front-of-package claims. “I use the nutrition facts panels to quickly scan for calories and sodium per serving, and front-of-package messaging to assume the food contained inside is one I ought to avoid, because if something needs to convince me it’s a healthy choice, it’s probably not. I’m not sure if any claim is more or less dangerous than any other, as all claims tend to influence the increased consumption of processed foods—something I think we should as a society be doing less of.”

In the end, are the health claims true? The answer might be a resounding, “sort of.” They generally seem to adhere to the letter, not the spirit, of the law, and are, after all, allowed by the country’s federal food and drug safety agency. One axiom common among nutrition experts is, “the front of the package is marketing, the back is truth.”

The New Label Readers

Meanwhile, Devine said she intends to try reading more of the Nutrition Facts Panel and ingredients lists, but really hopes something can be done to make it easier to understand the nutritional information and health effects. Her daughter is going off to college in the fall, and will be buying her own cereal—and probably ignoring the labels.

Photos: IOM recommendations; Facts Up Front Icon
All others by Susan Karcz
 

Profile writing 101

Jack White Keeps the Freak in Control Freak

The recent profile of Jack White in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, by Josh Eells, provided a welcome 30 minutes of distraction on a lazy-ish Sunday afternoon. In addition to reminding me how utterly uncool my life is, it also deepened my appreciation for what it takes to maintain a relevant creative vision for as long as young Mr. White has done. What I gleaned from this profile is that it takes a lot of work, talent, money, and a steely certainty about what you’re building.

I am a fan of White Stripes, and love White’s work on Loretta Lynn’s and Wanda Jackson’s recent albums. The Times profile didn’t add much to what I know about White as a musician, but did reveal a bit about the person. For me, profiles are a somewhat mystifying breed of writing. For this one, Josh Eells spent 6 months researching and hanging out in Nashville to get to know White a bit. I’m not sure he succeeded in really getting to know his subject, but I’m not sure anyone could have done better given the raw materials. White talks about Bob Dylan in the piece—the original “jester on the sidelines in a cast.” Dylan, of course, is infamous for canny manipulation of his persona, and White seems to be following in the tracks of those wandering boot heels. And that’s fine as far as I’m concerned. I think of it as an extension of his artistic vision—I don’t know Jack, and never will. But at the same time, a sliver of his real self shines through the music, the tight control on all he cares about, and the cagey posturing. As long as he doesn’t truly believe his own b.s., he should be able to maintain some authenticity. We’ll see.

But back to the writing. I think Eells did an OK job with an enigmatic subject. It’s hard to tell where his sympathies lie, and maybe that’s good profile writing. In describing the Third Man offices, he does seem to sort of sneer about the number of redheads in the office, the threat to levy a fine on one worker for not being in uniform, and the obsessively strict design aesthetic. But that could have been me rolling my own eyes.

 photo: pitchfork.com

Prevent Alzheimer’s? You sure?

“Keep your brain healthy for the rest of your life,” reads the book jacket. If you’ve watched a family member or friend fade into dementia, this is one promise you wish with all your heart to believe even as doubt simmers on that back burner. Dr. Gary Small is on the book tour to promote The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program, and as accessible, positive, and reasonable as the program is, I still balk. Not that I think Dr. Small is selling snake oil or is otherwise untrustworthy. He’s a well-regarded neurologist who is recommending, based on evidence from research, a program of nothing more than regular exercise, good nutrition, stress management, and memory exercises to maintain brain health. Nothing harmful here, and nothing we haven’t heard before. And even if it doesn’t keep your brain sharp, his program might just help you avoid or delay heart disease or diabetes. So why not? And why don’t I feel a sense of unease when the talk is about preventing heart disease using similar methods?

Maybe my attitude is emblematic of the Baby Boomer zeitgeist–we’re living longer, we’re fighting aging, and we’re scared to death we’ll exit this vale by staring off into space uncomprehendingly or “wandering off,” as some of our parents have already. I saw my mother gradually lose her engagement with daily life, her capacity to speak, her ability to eat, and, finally, her self, as she slipped steadily away from us. It just might be her shade that pulls me up short when I’m about to fully believe in prevention. I’m sure she’d want me to believe, much as she wanted me to believe in the Holy Trinity or transubstantiation, but it’s just not in me yet. I’ll gladly eat my fruits and veg, exercise to the point of injury, and OM with the best of them to keep heart disease, cancer, or diabetes at bay, but dementia? It can’t be that easy to save a soul, can it?

The Amazing Mets 1962

At this time of year, even Mets fans might feel optimistic.

A look back at the Mets’ first game of their first season appeared in the March 9, 2012, edition of the New York Times, marking the 50th anniversary of the birth of the new team in New York. The story centers on an audio clip preserved by a young Mets fan, Marc Gold, who used his grandmother’s bar mitzvah gift–a tape recorder–to preserve the radio broadcast of his hometown team.

The audio clip is wonderful, and made all the more so by hearing the unmistakable voice of Howard Cosell on the pregame show. Listening to baseball on the radio puts you right there in a way that watching it on television doesn’t. The crackling noises and the old-school diction of the announcers add to the feeling that you’re right in the ballpark.

And the facsimile of the game coverage from March 11, 1962, also adds to the feeling of being there. It may be an acquired taste, but I am a sucker for old-school sportswriting. Here’s Robert Lipsyte’s opening graf from that day: “Seven white yawls rocked idly and ineffectually at anchor in Tampa Bay today, in perfect harmony with the New York Mets at bat, in the field and on the mound.”

A brief photo slideshow rounds out the multimedia elements and adds to the ambience of the story. Each element contributes something; that is, none of them is gratuitous. But the star of the show, for me, is the audio. Play ball!! Oh, and Go Red Sox!

Tend your own garden

This is a look inside a raised-bed greenhouse on the grounds of Boston Latin School. I need to find out who built the beds, who is tending them, and what the project is meant to accomplish. It’s hard to think of a downside to this exercise. Wish I’d had something like this at my grammar school. Our next-door neighbor had a garden to end all gardens, which inspired all sorts of fancy, but we weren’t allowed to enter.

UPDATE: According to the November 22, 2011, issue of the BLS Community Service Spotlight, this garden was launched in 2010 as part of the 10.10.10 National Day of Service. Now in its second year of operation, this student project has introduced students to gardening and the concept of sustainable food sources. The garden’s location on busy Avenue Louis Pasteur also gave student the opportunity to talk with passers-by about the project, a nice community-building bonus. Nice work, BLS!

Greenhouse at Boston Latin, Avenue Louis Pasteur, Boston

 

Moment in TV News

Not sure this qualifies as “favorite,” but it is memorable. Seems almost quaint these days, but the Watergate hearings were a national preoccupation in the early 70s. I actually watched the proceedings after school (that’s high school), and nobody was making me. I don’t even recall why it was so compelling, but it captured my teenage attention. Heroes and villains maybe? The roll call of characters (unaided by Wikipedia!): Sam Ervin, John Dean, Martha Mitchell, Donald Segreti, Archibald Cox, Howard Baker… The next time the nation’s attention was drawn this tightly may have been 9/11.

Sounds Like…

The question is about the power of sound in my life. There’s music, of course, but that’s the easy answer. There’s ambient sound, and quiet, too. Although it’s never really quiet in metro Boston. I live on a busy street, a main route for just about every type of emergency vehicle in this town. Yeah, it gets loud. Usually when you’re on an important phone call or at the exact moment that House speaks the correct diagnosis–what??

I’m so glad television didn’t kill radio! I still love it. College radio for music, public radio for news, sports radio for baseball–all good with me. Baseball season starts in about 6 weeks, and there is nothing that says summer more than having the Sox radio broadcast on, listening to Dave O’Brien and Joe Castiglione bring the game to life. As much as I enjoy watching games, listening is even better.

The advent of the audiobook has had just a huge impact on daily living. If you get just the right book read by just the right reader, it’s like having someone you really like tell you (personally) a story. I once listened to Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, read by the actor Ron Silver–magic! The full-cast production of Philip Pullman’s series, His Dark Materials, was fantastic in a very different way.

Then there’s podcasts. I don’t listen to as many as I’d like, but manage to get in a one or two short ones or part of a longer one each week. Current favorites include The Guardian Books Podcast, On the Media, StarTalk.

I’m interested in developing my podcast form. I’ve been at my job for about 9 months now, and was turned loose to do a podcast a while back. It did not turn out well, because I didn’t control the discussion as I should have (plus it was my first try!), and instead conducted the interview as if it were for print. (Part of the piece was for print, and part for podcast.) A good interview podcast has to be a conversation, and the interviewer has to ask specific questions and get concise answers.

For me, the quality and feeling of listening is so much more intimate than watching.

Brain Food: One Doctor’s Prescription for Preventing Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease, the bane of Margaret Thatcher and now Glenn Campbell, may be preventable, said Dr. Gary Small to a crowd of about 100 people at a church in Cambridge, MA, last night. Speaking about his new book, The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program, Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center, challenged the notion that Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, cannot be prevented. Small’s plan combines physical activity, nutrition, stress reduction and memory training to defend against Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Gary Small in Cambridge, Mass., February 2012

Paying attention to these four factors, Small believes, will help you delay or prevent the brain changes that may lead to Alzheimer’s. The same problems that are believed to contribute to heart disease—chronic inflammation and oxidation—may lead to the buildup of the plaques and tangles seen in the brains of people with the disease.

Despite the promise implicit in his book’s title, Small said he agreed with the substance of the National Institutes of Health 2010 Consensus Statement that there is not now enough evidence to associate the modifiable risk factors of his program with delaying or preventing the disease. The NIH statement also said that there is reason to continue research to discover ways to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, if not prevent it.

Small’s book is accessible and energetic, and the program’s components boil down to behavior changes that many people find extremely difficult to make—exercise more, eat better and reduce stress. The audience, most of whom appeared over age 50, was animated and involved in the topic. Asked for a show of hands to gauge the level of personal connection to Alzheimer’s, about 95% responded. During the question-and-answer period, about 15 audience members approached the microphone with thoughtful and well-informed questions.

For example, one query asked whether people may be more motivated to follow his program to prevent Alzheimer’s over a similar one to prevent heart disease. Small’s response was that there is a fear factor, especially if one has watched a family member descend into dementia. The second is age. “As we get older we notice changes in ourselves,” he said.  “But there is something about Alzheimer’s that strikes at the core. Our identity—who we are, memories, cognition, define who we are.”

Small’s language in selling his program—“slam dunk” techniques to improve memory, for instance, and a bright, can-do style—could be interpreted as manipulative or overpromising. However, Small’s scientific credentials are solid, and he does cite evidence and acknowledges the limitations of his approach. Preventing or delaying onset of Alzheimer’s, or reducing the risk of contracting it, is a growing area of research, and is far from the fringe.

After Small’s remarks, the event moderator, Dr. Margaret O’Connor, director of Neuropsychology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, introduced the question-and-answer period with a question of her own. When should a person be worried about changes they notice in themselves? she asked. Small answered that people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a transitional stage from normal age-related changes to dementia, should get medical advice.

MCI is a stage of early dementia, when people are beginning to have some cognitive difficulties, but can still live independently. This is a stage where drug therapies may be most effective. However, once cognitive changes are observed, it is likely too late to do much to delay progression. For this reason, any attempts at prevention or delay should begin early—in one’s 30s or 40s.

So, can people with MCI manage a program such as Dr. Small’s? O’Connor, in a telephone conversation the next day, said that MCI and dementia are heterogeneous, meaning they affect people in different ways. Some are more affected in their multitasking skills, others in language. If an individual is not too memory-impaired, then he or she could probably manage such a program. Otherwise, O’Connor said, a caregiver would have to be very involved.

Gary Small, MD, spoke about his new book, The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program, as part of the “How We Live Today” series presented by the Cambridge Forum. For further information on Alzheimer’s disease, visit the Alzheimer’s Association.