Gluten Free News

As someone with celiac disease, I always take particular notice of gluten-free and celiac news when I find it. Recently, there have been a number of new articles about the world of the wheat-less.

– Dunkin’ Donuts going gluten free?? It’s true. As someone raised in the spiritual home of Dunks, I’m excited to see that one of it’s testing grounds is in Boston. Each of the donuts and muffins seems to be individually wrapped (smart) and labelled “GF.” Although initially enchanted by the idea of strolling into a Dunkin’ Donuts and picking up coffee and a donut like a normal Bostonian, I’m curious about how they actually taste. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve discovered gluten-free products where I didn’t expect them and been really disappointed by their texture. Too many bakers/restauranteurs/etc. see the potential revenue in attracting gluten intolerant customers and aren’t too discerning in their recipes, resulting in an all-rice-flour, crumbly mess.

This well-written piece by Mother Jones does a great job of synthesizing recent studies and scholarship on whether the gluten-free diet is actually good for anyone who is not “officially” celiac or gluten intolerant. It also just does a nice job of explaining how celiac disease works beyond the “wheat=bad things” synopsis offered by some less detailed articles.

– A New York Times article also discussing the rising prevalence of both celiac and non-celiac gluten intolerance, as well as why the rise is occurring (lack of “good” gut bacteria? higher gluten levels in wheat? who knows).

Another New York Times article discusses the potential link between gluten intolerance and other inflammatory diseases. Celiac is an inflammatory auto-immune disease and those who have it are more likely to have other inflammatory auto-immune diseases – lupus, diabetes, and arthritis, to name a few. The author of the article tells the story of how her son, suffering from a juvenile form of arthritis, experienced a dramatic improvement after going gluten- and dairy-free.

– Unless you are gluten intolerant yourself, you’ve never had to read ingredient labels of strange things and learned even stranger. Like finding out that the new conditioner you were about to buy had wheat germ protein in it. Or that the main ingredient of Twizzlers is wheat. You might also not have known that Play-Doh is mainly composed of wheat, which means that young gluten-intolerant children can’t play with it. According to a recent Market Watch article,Play-Doh competitors are realizing the potential and creating wheat-free alternatives.

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Apologies and Some Holiday Baking

So, sometimes I decide to teach full-time, apply to PhD programs, and train for a marathon, all at the same time. And, at those times, I forget to be a good blogger. Now, I’ve survived my first marathon, finished applying to graduate programs, and…well, I still teach. But that’s less of an excuse.

As my first foray back into writing, I thought I should reflect on one of the more interesting food-related experiences I had over the holidays. On one of my weekends on duty at the school before our winter break, my teacher friend and I hosted a group of students to bake and decorate sugar cookies. You need to understand a bit more about my student demographic to know how momentous this was. Many, if not most, of my students are Chinese, and baking, indeed, even owning an oven, is not nearly as common in China as it is in the United States. Many had never made cookies before (although I use the term “made cookies” loosely. We used the sugar cookie dough from a tube).

My students are a wonderful and powerful reminder of how our perceptions of food are colored by our cultural background. That weekend, it was not only close to Christmas, it was also one of our bakers’ birthday, so she had requested that we bake “the cake with the fun in it” for her. Funfetti cake, we assumed. After baking the cake and letting it cool on the counter, we gave the girls a simple buttercream frosting and some decorating icing. The girls proceeded to frost the top of the bottom layer and then place the other layer on top.

When they reached for the decorating icing, we asked, “Girls, don’t you want to frost the whole thing…? And then decorate it?”

“No!” they replied, shocked. “Then it would be too sweet,” replied the girls who had just consumed their weight in sugar cookies.

The end result was this:

DSCN0024

A stranger looking cake I’ve never seen. But my students were thrilled with their baking success. My friend and I clearly had a specific set of rules for how cakes should be put together and decorated, developed over years of American, middle-class birthday parties. Our students, clearly, did not. A valuable reminder for me that, despite the fact that this cake looks a little like the head of a Peanuts character, there is no “right” and “wrong” in food.

Do It For Katniss! Food Activism and The Hunger Games

(Originally posted here on HandPicked Nation)

“Starvation’s not an uncommon fate in District 12. Who hasn’t seen the victims? Older people who can’t work. Children from a family with too many to feed…Starvation is never the cause of death officially. It’s always the flu, or exposure, or pneumonia. But that fools no one.” These are the words of Katniss, the main character of Suzanne Collins’s immensely popular novel for teens, The Hunger Games, on her community’s constant struggle with hunger.

Image Source: Wikipedia

Even if you have never read the books, it has been impossible to ignore the hype around the movie The Hunger Games, released today, March 23. Adapted from the first book of Collins’s trilogy, the film is already set for a successful opening weekend, with packs of young (and not so young) adults waiting for the record-breaking midnight showing on Thursday night.

The Hunger Games and the two other books in the series are preoccupied with, as the name might suggest, hunger. Hunger dogs Katniss from her home district, where she illegally hunts for game to feed her family, to the Hunger Games themselves, where she must fight other teenagers to the death while trying to survive starvation and thirst. Katniss lives in a dystopian future version of North America in which the United States dissolved centuries ago to be replaced by a despotic Capitol ruling over thirteen subjugated districts. To ensure their cooperation, the Capitol requires two child “tributes” from each district every year to compete in the Hunger Games, a brutal challenge in which the winner is the sole remaining survivor.

The books certainly have a clear point to make about food and hunger. Hunting, for example, is illegal, although the forest’s game could easily support Katniss’s district. Instead, she and all of the district’s residents are forced into debt by purchasing rations of grain from the Capitol. The inhabitants of the Capitol, on the other hand, binge and purge in order to indulge in their feasts to the fullest. The alimental divide between the haves and the have-nots in the world of the novel is sharp, unforgiving, and, in so many ways, not the stuff of fiction at all.

Like the Harry Potter series before it, The Hunger Games series has gathered a passionate fanbase. And like Harry Potter, community organizers are attempting to harness the power of that fanbase to effect real change in the arena of global hunger. The Harry Potter Alliance, a fan activist group organized in the name of J. K. Rowling’s series, has begun a social campaign called Hunger is Not a Game in the hopes of educating fans of The Hunger Games series on the real problem of global hunger. The beauty of such campaigns, as one New York Times article writes, is that it offers kids and teens “the chance to be a hero like Harry,” providing the framework for their enthusiasm and passion to find an outlet in real-world problems. Hunger is Not a Game is working in conjunction with OXFAM and its GROW campaign to raise awareness of hunger in the United States and abroad and work toward the goals of OXFAM’s five-point plan. Using the movie’s launch on Friday as a focusing point, the campaign urged contributors to start food drives during the month of March and collect on the night of the premiere in movie theaters throughout the country.

The Hunger Games movie itself has partnered with the World Food Programme and Feeding America, using the film’s plot and characters to both educate visitors to the website and call those visitors to action by asking for donations to both organizations.

Dystopian fiction, a genre of which The Hunger Games is undeniably a part, is meant to force the reader to not only think about the future, but to think about the present. Even more importantly, the reader should take action within that present to prevent the dismal fictional future from coming to pass. Part of the excitement surrounding this film, for me, is that it is doing exactly what it is meant to do – both entertain and foster real social change.

So how about you, have you read The Hunger Games series? Know someone who has? How else do you think the book could be used to engage the YA audience in issues of food and sustainability?

Slow Food or Slow Zombies?

I’m always thrilled when the two great loves of my life, food and literary analysis, find each other in a piece of writing. This piece of writing found me, or was found for me, by my partner, who enables my weird scholarly interests.

“Katja,” you say, “why are there zombies on your blog about food?” Blame Michael Newbury, of Middlebury College.

Published this year in the journal American Literary History, Newbury’s article “Fast Zombie/Slow Zombie: Food Writing, Horror Movies, and Agribusiness Apocalypse” does much of what I aspire to do as a scholar. He places his interpretation of a series of contemporary zombie movies against the context of the modern scares in agribusiness to make a convincing argument, essentially about how pervasive our fears of Big Food really are.

Quoting from his conclusion gives you a good idea of his point: “The contemporary zombie movie, in short, is singularly and creatively alert to the difficulty of discovering alternatives outside the systemic power that brings food-like substances and brutally produced meat to our stores, our homes, our tables, and, finally, our stomachs.”

He notes that many zombie movies are placed against a backdrop of trash and junk food, showing the survivors eking out an existence on Cheez Doodles and candy. By constantly associating fast food with the zombie apocalypse, Newbury argues that these movies point out “the horror of modern eating.” He argues that, in that sense, the books of Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and others are just a watered-down, zombie-free version of the same critique offered by movies like 28 Days Later. And, just like Pollan, Nestle, etc., these movies offer a solution to the fast food crisis. Newbury argues that there are often attempts by the survivors at formal, candlelit dinners and vegetarianism in these movies: attempts at maintaining a more human/humane way of eating. However, unlike the work of food writers and activists, these horror movies don’t allow these humane acts of eating as a true, viable option by continuously interrupting them with zombie attacks.

I don’t think the article is perfect — I’m not sure that Newbury has chosen to provide exactly the right sort of background on the food movement, for example — but I think that its the sort of analysis we do actually need more of (what? a practical use for English?) This is because he argues that the fear of agricultural apocalypse in zombie movies shows how widespread this fear is, and how pervasive it’s influence, i.e. not just in stories.

I’d like to hear from zombie fans, though, and frankly, anyone else with their two cents. I, admittedly, don’t really care for all the face-ripping. For those of you who have a greater knowledge of the genre than I do — do Newbury’s ideas make sense? What do you think?

I would love to post a link to the article, but unless you have access to literary databases, then I’m afraid we’re out of luck.

 

 

New on the Internets

Check it out! This past weekend saw the launch of a new site dedicated to the sustainable food movement, HandPicked Nation, featuring, in their words, “Real food. Real life. Served fresh daily.” The site’s founders are originally involved in film production, so the site features some great original videos and interviews, as well as some really great written content. I am in no way saying this because they’ve included one of my articles for the launch. Of course.

“Chinese” Food

The Huffington Post recently ran a piece called “Food TED Talks: The Eight Best Lectures on Eating and Food Policy.” For those who haven’t seen a TED Talk, essentially, they’re videos that run from 10-20 minutes long and they feature guest experts who speak on any number of thought-provoking issues.

This Monday, January 23, is Chinese New Year, a genuinely Chinese holiday that has been celebrated for centuries. So what better time of year than this to look at genuinely not-Chinese Chinese food?

One TED Talk from 2008 features New York Times journalist Jennifer 8 Lee (yes, her middle name really is “8”) talking about the ideas behind her book and blog, both called The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Her writing and her talk explore what gets called “Chinese food” across the world. We’ve heard all this before, right? What we call “Chinese food” is totally unrecognizable to most Chinese people? But Lee discusses the idea in greater detail and with greater historical research than I’ve heard before.

For example, in one part of the video, she talks about that staple of the Chinese restaurant, the fortune cookie. My favorite part is probably the clip she shows of her offering and explaining fortune cookies to people in China, who taste it with tentative curiosity and are surprised that there’s a “prize” inside. As it turns out, according to Lee’s research, the first fortune cookies are actually a Japanese invention and were imported to the US with Japanese restaurants, not Chinese. However, with the internment of so many Japanese inhabitants of the US during World War II, Chinese restauranteurs saw an opportunity to capitalize on a popular product.

I won’t repeat the whole video, but it’s definitely worth a watch!

Apologies

If you’re reading this, you know that my posting has been somewhat lacking in the last few weeks. Please meet the reason why: 

This is Murphy. He is a 15-pound Brittany puppy/ball of craziness. He plays hard and naps harder. Consequently, I spend much of my time running with him, playing with him, training him, and otherwise keeping him busy and, when he’s napping, trying to get everything else in my life done.

As with many things in life, dog ownership makes me think in different ways about — what else? Food. When talking to our dog trainer, she gave us a stack of papers on dog food and proper puppy nutrition. The rescue that Murphy came from asked that he be fed food with no grain fillers such as wheat and corn, and the trainer gave us materials on “how to read nutrition labels.” Lucky me — thanks to my celiac, I’m already a pro at reading food labels. As Marion Nestle says in an interview on the subject, pet food ingredient lists are just as confusing as those for human food. Just as many unknown or unusual ingredients but, unlike in human food, I don’t know what Murphy needs. I know that meat is good for him, but what about “beef lungs” and other weird meat parts? Is the sausage with turkey and spinach and cranberries better than the smellier one with duck and potato?

Either way, I’ll be thinking even more about food as I restock Murphy’s treats this week.

Coming up shortly: a review of/thoughts on Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud

Words and Food

I thought that it was time I explained a little more about the inspiration behind my blog’s title — aside from the most literal interpretation (I write about food…using words). I was an English major in college and went to grad school for English, so why the sudden turn to food? What can my training in English possibly give me in this very different field?

As it turns out, I learn more and more that what my professors in undergrad told me was true: English does help with anything and everything, because anything and everything is ultimately, in one way or another, about language. Cooks, food policy-makers, and members of the food industry all use words to make food do what they want it to do, and be what they want it to be. The first time I began thinking about the cross-pollination between my degree in English and my interest in food was in reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In discussing the state of America’s food industry and the plight of the modern consumer (in both senses of the word), Pollan uses the word “legible” six times. While a completely commonplace word in some contexts, the meaning of “legible” seems a bit out of place when discussing food and agriculture: “Clear enough to be read or distinguished.” In Pollan’s usage, “ecological relationship[s],” landscapes, and food labels can all have varying degrees of legibility. 

The English major in me perked up. So it’s all about reading, you say? For Pollan, legibility means clearly readable connections between what we grow or raise, what we see in supermarkets, and what we eat. That applies to both where the food is grown and where it ends up — behind food labels. How easy are food labels and ingredients lists to understand? This is a question asked in an increasing number of debates centering around the clarity of food labels.

Marion Nestle, in her book Food Politics, deconstructs the careful word choices of food policy makers.Take, for example, the crucial difference between “eat less” and “choose,” as in “eat less meat” vs. “choose leaner meats.” “Eat less,” industry officials maintain, will always have negative connotations of avoidance and “bad” foods, while “choose” has a more positive, proactive connotation. Such a little difference, yet the source of such heated debate.

In fact, there are so many times that I’m grateful for my English major that I’m surprised that a Google search for “English major + food” only results in sites offering advice on how to feed oneself on an English major’s budget. Our experience of food is always filtered through words, so it only makes sense that careful word choices affect what food we eat and why.

Learning about the Beijing Big Mac

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, I was a grad student and I spent most all of my time reading. It got pretty exhausting, actually, and when I graduated with my MA, it was with a certain degree of relief. Over the past five months, I’ve enjoyed reading what I want to, and at my own pace.

But when I started reading The Cultural Politics of Food and Eating (you know, for funsies), the grad student in me swooned. I had missed the sound of (good) academic writing, the flow of a well-crafted argument, the sound of obnoxiously academic phrases like “cultural symbolism.” Once a grad student, always a grad student, I suppose.

As I was reading Yunxiang Yan’s “Of Hamburger and Social Space: Consuming McDonald’s in Beijing,” I came across an argument that complicated my previous way of thinking (something any good essay should do, as I try to explain to my students). I grew up in a family that treated McDonald’s as a treat, a special occasion. Consequently, it was never a part of our regular eating habits, and the fast food chain fell off my radar completely once I was diagnosed with celiac. Once I started reading about the chain’s treatment of its workers other issues, I was positive: I didn’t like what the company stood for and was up to. Its probably a knee-jerk reaction at this point. McDonald’s = bad.

Everything has a context, though, and McDonald’s Chinese context has some darkness to it. James Watson, author of “China’s Big Mac Attack” in the same anthology, argues that “McDonald’s appeals to China’s new elites because its food is safe, clean, and reliable.” These essays do a good job of explaining the nature of the native Chinese restaurants that represent McDonald’s competitors — from high-end, traditional restaurants to work unit’s shitang, or cafeterias. The cultural structure and role of these shitang mean that they’re less concerned with customer service and cleanliness than American-based restaurants such as McDonald’s. Compared to these, McDonald’s is a clean and quiet space with employees dedicated to pleasing customers.

This appreciation for McDonald’s is not only about its smiling employees. The problems Chinese restaurant patrons face with the threat of dirty kitchens and adulterated foods make McDonald’s ills seem relatively insignificant. With the threat of melamine and other adulterants in food, and the inconvenience of unreliable and unfriendly service, the almost boring predictability of McDonald’s must come as a welcome respite.

I still believe McDonald’s causes more problems than it solves, but its role in different cultures can’t be broken down into simple categories of good and bad.

 

For a useful article on Chinese food adulteration, see: http://www.merinews.com/article/food-adulteration-becoming-common-in-china/144900.shtml

For a good, brief blog post explaining the danwei system that includes the canteen or shitang, see: http://thelifelibrarian.blogspot.com/2008/09/work-unit.html