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.

 


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.

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

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!