Category Archives: food and cuisine

Why I won’t touch farm-raised (Atlantic) salmon

The oceans are under duress from overfishing and pollution. Global fish stocks are in steep decline. The price for high quality fresh fish continues to increase at the same time that more and more studies are coming out showing the demonstrable benefits of a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids. People want fish for the delicious taste and the health benefits and are willing to pay for it, even though there may be serious questions regarding the whole industry.

S_I_FIG1The demand for salmon especially has remained high as it has been shown to have some of the highest levels of precious, brain boosting omega-3. Hence, where there is demand, a supplier will work to meet that need. Our stores are filled with frozen and fresh salmon, restaurants and sushi bars all feature salmon on their menus and it appears that supply is meeting demand.

There is just one problem. The vast majority of that salmon, over 90 percent, is farm-raised. Most of the supply is currently coming from Norway and Southern Chile. It is usually labeled as ‘Atlantic Salmon.’ It is rarely labeled as farm-raised. Even if it were labeled as such, it is doubtful that most consumers would know what that means, or care.

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When I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1999, I started to eat wild salmon fished out of the the Northern Pacific Ocean off the California, Oregon and Washington coasts and from Alaska. I gradually started to eat it more and more and during the fishing season when you could buy it fresh for seven or eight dollars a pound, I would eat it two or three times a week. I noticed the effects on my health from eating a  regular diet of fresh salmon. I felt more energized and happy, and my hair, skin and nails had a healthy glow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI became curious about the history of the Native Northwest cultures and their ancient relationship to salmon, reflected in their art, traditions, songs and rituals. I studied how salmon had sustained entire tribes for millennia. I learned about the science and biology of the fish and their amazing ability to swim for thousands of miles into the ocean and return to their original breeding ground. I read about the history of dam building in the American West and the devastating impacts of dams on salmon populations.

fish artThe ancient and recent history of the Pacific Northwest is so intertwined with the story of salmon that numerous books have been written about it. Sometimes people I meet wonder why I am so passionate about salmon and so vehemently against farm-raised salmon. A salmon is a salmon is a salmon, right?

No! Unfortunately, many consumers around the world have no education regarding what they are eating and restaurant owners, fish market sellers and others are trying to protect their bottom line. As far as they are concerned, the consumers’ ignorance is not their problem. Buyer beware.

Book salmonThe massive problems with farm-raised salmon have been written about extensively, though much education remains to be done, judging from how ignorant the average consumer remains and how often these fish appear on menus. Salmon were designed by nature to swim freely in wide open oceans, for thousands of miles. They most definitely were not designed to be crammed into aqua pens with hundreds of thousands of other fish, swimming in a muck of antibiotic laden fish feed, feces, and sewage. Farm-raised salmon have much lower levels of omega-3 and significantly higher levels of PCBs, mercury and DDT- all of them toxic and carcinogenic compounds.

Additionally, the aqua pens consist of nets which trap sea lions and other mammals. The toxic waste from the farms is often discharged directly into coastal waters, severely damaging fragile coastal ecosystems.

king-of-fish-bookThe decline of wild salmon is one of the worst ecological and biological tragedies of our era. The emergence of this farming industry to fill the gap between supply and demand is a horrible development. These fish even have to be dyed pink so that unsuspecting consumers believe that they are eating the real deal.

I’m quite sure that some of my friends and acquaintances have in the past seen me as elitist and pretentious for saying I will only eat wild salmon. So be it. I know what real wild salmon is. It’s not just that so called ‘Atlantic Salmon’ is a poor substitute. It is no substitute at all. Shame on the industry and the sellers who continue to peddle these creatures.

 

http://glipho.com/toasttofood/four-reasons-why-you-should-never-eat-farm-raised-salmon

http://alexandramorton.typepad.com/10_reasons_not_to_eat_far/

The three stooges: Ramsay, Bourdain, and Flay

Recently, my students and I were viewing a cooking show on youtube when Gordon Ramsay’s name appeared on a related video.  A handful of girls in the class became quite excited and yelled out, “Hey, we want Gordon Ramsay. Please! He’s so handsome.”

I was surprised that young teenagers in Viet Nam had heard of the pugnacious chef from Scotland. Apparently, he has fans all over the world. We watched a quick video of the Michelin chef instructing the youtube audience on the proper way to cook  a steak. It was obvious that even when Ramsay does a three  minute cooking video from  home, he has professional videographers to do all the filming. One camera stayed focused on Ramsay himself, zooming in and out,  tilting up and down, and panning left to right constantly. The other camera was focused on the food. The post-production  editing produced a rapid-fire jump cut video that literally made me dizzy with the zooming, panning, tilting and cuts between chef and food. It was horrible. Add to that Ramsay’s narration, in which he spoke so fast that I could barely follow him, (let alone my students) and the end result was confusion. The chef didn’t look interested and rarely looked at the camera. Perhaps his business manager suggested doing a few youtube videos to increase sales of his cookbooks.

Gordon Ramsay, (b. 1966) exists  in the rarefied air of ‘celebrity chef.’ His restaurants, television reality shows and books combine to give him a net worth around 80 million USD, according to some sources. His television shows include Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, and Celebrity Chef. Watching these programs, viewers are treated to a close-up view of Ramsay’s explosive  temper, foul mouth, and penchant for verbal abuse and humiliation. His favorite targets are other chefs, though he is not averse to insulting and cussing out restaurant patrons as well.

 

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He claims that he is only dishing out ‘tough love’ to struggling chefs and restaurant owners. Interesting. This guy is giving tough love a bad name. After watching a handful of video clips on youtube, I said to myself, “Enough.” The shows are  repetitive and boring : Ramsay storms into a restaurant kitchen, berates and humiliates the chef, tells him that all of the food was inedible, and then, when the other chef becomes indignant, looks at the camera and says, “Wow, this guy doesn’t take constructive criticism very well. What a loser.”

Anthony Bourdain, (b. 1956) is another well-known celebrity chef and ‘television personality.’ Bourdain gained notoriety in 2000 when his book Kitchen Confidential was released and became a best-seller. The semi-autobiographical book gives firsthand insight into the high stress and sometimes chaotic world of restaurant kitchens. Based strictly on its merits, the book is merely a decent read, but the New York press and reading public went absolutely ga-ga over it, with various publications and writers stumbling over themselves to guess which restaurant he was referring to in chapter 4, pg. 53, etc., etc.

Much of Bourdain’s popularity stems from the image he has carefully crafted of himself: a talented chef who inhabited the elite world of New York’s finest restaurants but who is really a tough man’s man, a no nonsense dude who despises wimpy faggot vegetarians and so on.

With the runaway success of Kitchen Confidential combined with Bourdain’s ego and charisma, it was inevitable that the the media establishment would come knocking. He soon landed a deal with the Food Network, followed by the Travel Channel, and then finally with CNN. Watch a few minutes of these shows, and you will see a strange spectacle: this multi-millionare New York chef trying his best to come across as an ‘everyman’ while at the same time flying around Sao Paulo Brazil in his friend’s helicopter, and bragging about his wealthy friends in far-flung countries.

Why viewers would want to tune into his show to watch him chow down a huge pastrami sandwich in Santiago, Chile and have a conversation with some rich local is beyond me. He has no insight into the culture, the people, or the history of the places he visits. During a beachside  chat with his Chilean contact, the man talked sadly about the destructive impacts of the salmon farming industry in Southern Chile and how he had seen so much wildlife disappear from the coastline over the last 20 years. Instead of pursuing that potentially rich thread of conversation, Bourdain brushed it aside with some remark about how ‘everyone’s gotta make a living.’

Bobby Flay  (b. 1964) is a spiritual brother to Bourdain and Ramsay. Wikipedia refers to him as a ‘celebrity chef, restaurateur, and television personality.’ As you would expect from someone with such titles, he has a gargantuan ego. He never tires of showing off to the world his cooking skills, which are undoubtedly prodigious. He has won numerous Iron Chef competitions over the years. But watch him jump on top of his cutting board after a competition with chef Morimoto and ‘woop-woop’ with his New York audience and you will get an idea of the guy’s character and ego. Only a guy with Flay’s ego could dream up a show with a theme like this: travel around the country and challenge chefs at their speciality.

 

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There are so many great chefs and cooks in the world who are unknown to the public. Even many who have gained respect and notoriety, such as Masaharu Morimoto and Mario Batali, manage to keep their egos in check and retain their humility. Do people like Ramsay realize that young kids around the world watch his shows? What kind of a role model is he? Does he care?

Any chef who claims to be the executive chef at half a dozen restaurants has  gone overboard with his ambitions. Isn’t it enough work to run one successful kitchen? How can one man oversee six or seven kitchens? And do all that while writing cookbooks, doing television appearances, and generally promoting the hell out of himself? No. These guys are merely selling their names. They don’t spend much time in their restaurants actually cooking for the patrons.

Let’s put these egotistical celebrities into a small one bedroom apartment for a week, fill the refrigerator and lock the door so they can’t escape. We can observe them with hidden cameras and see who comes out alive. Now there’s reality show I would watch.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100622112558.htm

http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/04/chilean-fish-farms-and-the-tragedy-of-the-commons/#.U2BtRiis3ww 

 

 

Ten reasons to hate starbucks.

There is no shortage of ‘I hate Starbucks’ postings on the internet and blogosphere. Indeed, there is even a website devoted to SB haters: http://www.ihatestarbucks.com. So I wondered if it would be pointless to add one more voice to the chorus. Perhaps this little blog will not separate itself  from  the ocean of voices, but I feel that as this vile company continues to spread all over the world,  we need to continue relentlessly exposing it.

I thought that by moving 7,000 miles away from the USA to a developing  country, I might be able  to avoid SB and its ilk. Then again, I  should never underestimate men like Howard Schultz, men whose ambition and greed  know no bounds.  Last year, I watched as Viet Nam’s first SB opened across the street from my apartment. In the intervening year, more stores have sprouted like weeds around Ho Chi Minh City. At times, I feel as if SB is following me, as they have just bought the large corner building in my new neighborhood and are quickly throwing up another store, accelerating the rapid gentrification of the area.

 

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At last count, SB has 20,891 stores in 64 countries. 2013 revenue was 14.9 billion dollars. That’s a whole lot of coffee drinks. The company’s website and wikipedia page have to be updated daily, as Schultz and team are opening, on average, two new stores a day!

Here then, for the record, are my top  10   reasons for despising Starbucks:

1)  SB runs small, independent coffee shops out of business. You remember- the funky coffeehouses with real coffee, cushy sofas, chess boards, and eclectic music which used to dot all the medium sized and large cities in the Western world.

 

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2) Their drinks are overpriced. Actually, everything in the stores is overpriced.

3) Their drinks are unhealthy and are contributing in no small way to the obesity epidemic around the world. A venti iced caramel macchiato may taste delicious to a 13-year-old, but the price to be paid comes not just at the cash register, but years later as these calorie bombs fill our arteries with sugar and fat.

4) The drinks have stupid names, befitting a status-conscious, trend obsessed , dumbed down population, who can utter phrases like ‘Grande Iced sugar -free vanilla latte with soy’ with a straight face.

 

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5) The names of the drink sizes are ridiculous to the extreme, pretentious to the core, and could only have sprung from the brains of  marketers with master’s degrees in ‘mocking the public.’ Small, medium and large have morphed in planet starbucks into tall, grande, and venti. Are you f—ing kidding me? The last time I entered a SB years ago, I refused to play the game and ordered a small coffee. The barista didn’t bat an eyelash. She obviously had seen my ‘type’ before-unrepentant old school types-  and she casually gave the order to her co-worker: ‘tall drip.’ Management must have prepped her that some holdouts might not even know what a ‘venti’ is. My, how untutored we are!

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6) SB is wasteful and a blight on the environment. Years ago, a friend I was meeting insisted on a rendez-vous at the SB in Lima. I made sure to order my coffee “For here.” I glanced at the neat stack of attractive ceramic mugs behind the barista. She instantly grabbed the paper cup and started to make my drink. I inquired. “Did you not understand me? I said ‘for here.’ ” She stared at me blankly.

Finally, she said, “So, you want a mug?” She had a curious expression on her face. I could see why. As I looked around the store, of the three dozen or so customers sitting and drinking, not one had a ceramic mug. Many of them had been there for hours. This is the standard scene at every SB. Management says, ‘unless the customer specifically asks for a mug, give everyone a paper cup.’ With the conspicuous logo, of course. All destined for the landfill.

7) The store interiors are sterile, faux hip wastelands, filled with overpriced coffee merchandise, corporate music, and a corporate vibe that is impossible to ignore. To escape the bad music, many patrons put in earplugs to listen to music on their laptops, but they must also contend with baristas shouting things like: ” Iced skinny caramel frappuccino to go!” Every ten seconds.

8) SB doesn’t want just any location in a city. They want the location. They want the beating heart, the cultural center of whatever city they land in. In Seattle, you find SB at Pike Place Market. In Portland, they are right there in Courthouse Square. In Lima, they are front and center in Kennedy Park. SB will pay any price to get the location they want. Their marketing team identifies wherever the young, trendy and rich hang out, draw an X in the middle, and go to that landlord with an open checkbook.

9) SB employees are forced to wear ugly green aprons.

10) SB’s logo is ugly, creepy, and probably satanic.

Bonus:

11) Their coffee is bad, but most of their customers probably don’t even notice. How could they? With all the sugar, milk, cream, whipped cream, chocolate, caramel and ice in SB’s drinks, how can one taste any coffee?  While people say they like SB coffee, what they really mean is they like the caffeine buzz. Put a cup of black coffee in any of these people’s hands, and they would spit it out instantly. “Ugh, what is that?”

 

Peruvian food in Viet Nam???

An article appeared recently in Viet Nam News about a Peruvian cooking class which took place recently in Ha Noi. The class was organized by the Peruvian embassy and was for invited guests only, mostly diplomatic staff around the city, some local chefs and various media.

A Peruvian chef cooked up a number of traditional dishes for the guests, most of whom had never sampled the cuisine previously. According to the writer of the article, there were many ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ as the Vietnamese chefs were surprised and delighted to learn many unique ways to prepare potatoes and corn.

Reading this article, I was filled with nostalgia for the time I spent in Peru. I have been there three times; in 2012 I was fortunate to be able to live in Lima for 6 months. Even if the country did not boast an exceptional cuisine, it would still be well worth visiting, given its astounding natural beauty and numerous archaeological treasures.

Ceviche_mixto_con_zarandajasIf Viet Nam is lucky enough to attract a Peruvian chef to come here and open a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City or Ha Noi, it will be time to celebrate. I think we are probably still years away from that happening, but who knows? The country is developing quickly and opportunities abound.

In the U.S.A., foodie types in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington DC have known about Peruvian cuisine for years. However, outside of those metropolises, it is still virtually unknown. Portland boasts one excellent restaurant, but when I was living in Seattle in 2011, it still did not have a Peruvian restaurant. I often sent emails to my friends in Peru, begging them to come to the Northwest and open a restaurant.

peru_mapThe staples of Peruvian cuisine are potatoes, corn, and chili peppers. The potato is native the Andean region of South America and there are somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 varieties, depending on who is counting. When I was a young man, I remember reading Jack Weatherford’s classic book Indian Givers, in which he explained, in great detail, how native American foods, once introduced into Europe, changed the course of world history. The potato in particular was to have an astounding impact on population growth in Northern Europe.

The humble spud: so unpretentious, boring, and often ugly. Yet, it is so versatile, easy to grow, delicious and filled with carbohydrates and calories that it can sustain a population almost by itself. Recently, I introduced my Vietnamese girlfriend to the joy of fried rosemary potatoes, and she became instantly hooked.

quinoaThere are many other native staples besides corn and potatoes, which are stars in their own right. Quinoa, for example, is slowly and steadily gaining popularity all over the world; its rich, nutty flavor, high protein profile, and easy preparation make it an ideal carb sidedish. It is now available in Viet Nam though it is prohibitively expensive.  Kiwicha, which is known as Amaranth in most English speaking countries, is another delicious and nutritious grain, with an almost muciloginous texture. Kaniwa, which looks similar to Quinoa, is yet another. Maca,  a tuber native to the Andes, is now a wildly popular add-on at smoothie bars in stores like Whole Foods Market. The tuber is ground into a fine texture, which can easily be added to shakes and smoothies or even sprinkled onto muesli and yogurt. Maca has a powerful physical and mental energizing effect. I once did a report on it for a nursing school class.

Peruvians eat meat dishes which are rarely seen outside South America, such as roasted Cuy (guinea pig), Alpaca, and marinated and roasted beef heart, called anticuchos.

variedades_nativas_500These staple ingredients are just the base of the cuisine. From the numerous immigrant groups who came to Peru over the centuries, including the Spanish, Italians, Africans, Chinese and Japanese, a truly unique and wonderful fusion cuisine has developed.  The chef Gaston Arcurio, who is a national icon,  has done more than anyone to popularize it around the world.  While living in Lima, I made sure to eat at least once in his flagship restaurant, Astrid y Gaston, and it was an experience I will never forget.

Gastón-AcurioA signature dish of Peruvian cuisine, and one served in every restaurant along the coast is ceviche, sometimes spelled cebiche. It a small, simple, and elegant dish made from fish which is marinated or ‘cooked’ in lime juice, with sliced onion, corn and often a side of sweet potato. You will often see a mixed seafood ceviche as well. Another well known dish is causa, which is made from boiled, mashed  potatoes which are then artfully layered with other foods and presented in a colorful manner. Papa a la Huancaina is a dish of boiled potatoes which is layered with melted cheese and served on a bed of lettuce. It is extremely popular in Lima and featured on most menus.

 

LucumaLucuma, native to Peru, is a fruit that is easy to become addicted to once you have tried it. Many restaurants in Lima serve it as an ice cream or smoothie flavor. Chicha Morada, a refreshing drink made of boiled purple corn (to lend color), cloves, cinnamon, sugar, and ice, was a daily staple for me. The Pisco Sour is the national cocktail of Peru. It is made from the Pisco brandy, key lime juice, syrup, ice, egg white and Angostura bitters. Though it will never achieve the fame of the mojito, it too is becoming well known around the world.

 

Chicha_moradaAs Peruvian cuisine  becomes known in new markets such as Southeast Asia, the never-ending story of food and cuisine cross pollination continues. Hopefully soon, average Vietnamese will have the opportunity to sample ceviche and causa, and Peruvians in Lima and Cusco will perhaps try their first bowl of Pho.

 

 

 

Smoking: a modern tragedy

One of the most difficult aspects of living in Asia for an non-smoking American  is experiencing the huge gulf between smoking attitudes in the U.S.A. and here. Whereas smoking rates have been in decline in America  and in some other parts of the developed world, they are increasing in most  of the developing world and remain stubbornly high in Eastern Europe.

The giant tobacco companies have seen their bottom line take a hit over the last couple of decades in the U.S.A. as a result of litigation, increasingly strict laws,  and an educational  campaign run by health advocacy organizations. However, R.J. Reynolds , Philip Morris, British American, and Imperial Tobacco have not been sitting on their hands. Their boardrooms all have large maps of the world on the wall. They are trans-national corporations and for every smoker they lose in the U.S.A., they gain two or three in Nigeria, Egypt, Viet Nam, China ,  Singapore, and Brazil. China now has 320 million smokers.

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Here in Viet Nam, I’m situated at their furthest pole from America in terms of tobacco education and public/government attitudes toward smoking. The Vietnamese have the unfortunate distinction of having one of the highest smoking rates in the world, especially among men. The official government statistics claim that over 50% of the male population smokes, though I estimate  the figure is closer to 75% based on my observations around Ho Chi Minh City.

According to statistics from the World Health Organization, Viet Nam has 18 million smokers with tobacco killing  40,000 every year. Over 8 million people are exposed to second-hand smoke in the workplace and 47 million are exposed at home. The future does not look bright and one major reason is that the government has a disincentive to decrease smoking rates as it has a monopoly on cigarette production. Additionally, cigarette production employs 15,000 and taxes  on cigarettes bring in $350 million to the state budget yearly. Given this situation, I think what we will see is more laws will be passed to placate those sounding alarm bells, while simultaneously doing nothing to actually enforce them.

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The laws that do exist, such as the 2009 decree which banned smoking in public places, are universally ignored. People light up everywhere and anywhere. The only non-smoking establishments which I have come across are a few European-run, fine- dining restaurants in the middle of District 1. (Which, by the way, are always packed.)

Cigarettes are sold in stores and on the street. According to law, vendors are not supposed to sell to minors under 18, but again this is widely ignored. Vendors sell to anyone who asks for them. It’s a ritual here for groups of men to sit on the street and drink iced coffee and smoke. Young men, especially in the working class, are expected to smoke. You may be considered a sissy if you don’t.

Drive around Ho Chi Minh City on a motorbike, and you will see young men riding with their phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Most of the 15 or 20 billion cigarettes consumed yearly here are tossed into the streets.

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In the evenings, one can often see groups of Asian men sitting in restaurants, enveloped in a cloud of smoke. This scene occurs not before or after the meal, but during it. The men will hold their fork or chopsticks with the right hand and the cigarette in their left. Take a bite, inhale, take a bite, inhale. The first time I saw cigarettes listed on a menu, I was astonished.  Not only do the restaurants here allow smoking, they encourage it. Might as well make a little money if everyone is already doing it.

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I have had to quit going to a few excellent restaurants, simply because I cannot tolerate the smoke. There’s a restaurant on Le Lai Street near my house which serves excellent food and has a wide selection of hard -to- find European ales. Unfortunately, it is quite popular with Asian men who come sample the ales and they all smoke. Once,  I noticed a young boy of 10 years old, probably the son of one of the servers, who was sitting inside, and I remarked to the women, “Do you know how much smoke this young boy is getting exposed to every night he hangs out here?”

The woman replied to me, “I know you are right, but what can we do? These are our customers. I cannot tell them to stop.” I explained that she could indeed make her restaurant non-smoking and that her customers would still come back for the good food and drink. She was unconvinced. This is the common mind-set here. The fear is that if you enforce a non-smoking rule, the smokers will become irate and abandon your restaurant.  I use the example of the USA as a counter argument to this, but it is an uphill battle to convince business owners.

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Finally, it should be noted that Vietnamese are hardly the only ones who have problems with tobacco addiction. I live near one of the prime tourist areas of downtown Ho Chi Minh City, known as the ‘backpacker district.’ Judging from what I see amongst the European crowds sitting on the sidewalks, in the cafes and in the restaurants, their smoking rates nearly match the Asians. I see mothers and daughters placidly sharing a pack of smokes. The majority of young European females I see around the district smoke. It’s a given. The French, of course, smoke like chimneys. Just last week, I sat in one of my favorite diners in the district to have  some lunch. At a small two-top in front of me sat a middle aged  French woman with an older  French woman, possibly her mother or an auntie. When the older woman finished her meal, she casually took one of her expensive European cigarettes out, lit it, and began blowing smoke into the younger woman’s face, while she was still eating. They were sitting not more than a foot apart.

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What can be done? Considering the wealth, power, and advertising budget of the tobacco companies, combined with the addictive power of cigarettes, the struggle for a healthier world promises to be a long and arduous one. The native Americans used tobacco ritually, and safely, for thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans. The  new arrivals discovered  the plant and started smoking  it but, divorced from its ritualistic and cultural context,  its addictive properties soon took a toll. The tobacco companies, not surprisingly, added their own cocktail of chemicals to the natural plant  to increase its addictiveness. It’s been said that tobacco is the red man’s revenge on the white man for alcohol, which has so devastated Native American communities all over the Americas. Looking at the world today, the red man’s revenge has also extended to the yellow man in Asia , the brown man in Latin America and the black man in Africa.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-lam/smoking-vietnam_b_3839177.html

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2162732/New-Vietnamese-law-bans-smoking-public-places.html

http://tuoitrenews.vn/society/9197/smoking-kills-100-people-in-vietnam-every-day

http://yourhealth.asiaone.com/content/cigarette-smoking-puts-millions-risk-vietnam

Whole Foods Market- one man’s recollections and thoughts

Whole Foods Market, the large grocery retailer based in Austin, Texas first opened for business in 1980 and now operates 365 stores in three countries, with  even more new stores in development. A publicly traded corporation, Whole Foods has revenue close to $20 billion and employs more than 58,000 employees.

I grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC and during the 1970s and  1980s there were no such thing as a ‘natural food’ store, save for a couple of old, dusty co-ops- holdovers from the 1960s and supported by a small but dedicated clientele of aging hippies and vegetarians. As a young kid and teenager, I wasn’t even aware of those co-ops. My family  got our food from Safeway and Giant Foods, two of the dominant grocery chains around the DC metro area. Those stores were characterized by their bland interiors , bright fluorescent  lighting, grumpy  employees, and sorely neglected produce sections. Whenever I accompanied my mom on a trip to the neighborhood Safeway, I wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible.

In the mid 1980s, I landed in Austin, Texas to attend university. For two and half years, I existed on dorm and student union food, supplemented with outings to local fast food joints. Then, in 1987,  I started dating a new girlfriend and I noticed that she had a number of interesting fruit juices in her refrigerator, with names like ‘pineapple-coconut’ and ‘hibiscus’ and ‘cherry-lemon.’ When she offered me a taste, I invariably ended up drinking the entire bottle. Sheepishly,  I offered to go to the store to replace them. “By the way, where do you buy all this delicious stuff?”

“Oh, I do a lot of my shopping at Whole Foods Market.”

“Whole Foods Market? What’s that?”

“Oh, that’s the cool hippie natural foods store down on Lamar Boulevard. Come on, I’ll show you.”

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And so I took my first trip to a real natural foods store. I’ll never forget it. It was a revelation. When I walked through the door, I couldn’t believe that I was in a grocery store. Instead of the harsh fluorescent lighting of Safeway, the lights were soft and unobtrusive. Hip music was playing over the speakers. Employees milled about, most with smiles on their faces, and appeared to be enjoying their work.

At the front of the store was a juice bar, something I had never heard of , selling bizarre stuff like grass put thru a modified crank. Not only could you get a fresh squeezed carrot or fruit juice, but you could also add on a host of extras like bee pollen, vitamin C, and spirulina, a blue-green algae which an employee assured me was very healthy.

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After trying to digest all that, I wandered over to the produce section and turned to my girlfriend and said, “Oh my god, everything looks so delicious!”  The fruits and vegetables were arranged and displayed artfully, piled high in beautiful ceramic bowls and earthenware.  Signs on the wall proudly stated that all of the produce was organically grown.

Going further, I encountered the spice section. Small and large mason jars by the dozens lined an entire wall, filled with what seemed to me to be every spice known to mankind. From Anise to vanilla bean, the aromas beckoned me. Starting at the beginning of the alphabet, I took down the jars, unscrewed the caps, and began to smell each one. My nose was introduced to a multitude of new and exciting smells and bouquets. After the spices, I dove into the essential oils. It was intoxicating to smell Basil, Bergamot, Cedarwood, Clary Sage, Eucalyptus, Grapefruit, Jasmine, Lavender, Patchouli, Peppermint, Pine, Rosemary, Ylang Ylang,..My girlfriend had to eventually pull me away and said,”We don’t have all night you know.”

 

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From that day on, I was constantly pestering her to drive me down to Whole Foods. Having no money at the time, I didn’t buy much. I really just enjoyed wandering around the store and  familiarizing  myself with all the new foods, fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs, flowers and essential oils that I was finding.

Our Saturday itinerary was usually the same: Spend an hour or two at Whole Foods , then go over to Book People for a couple of hours, followed by a trip to Barton Springs.

 

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This time, during the late 1980s was what I now refer to as the ‘good old days’, before WFM expanded, went public, and went on to become well known all over the country. Even before the company went public in 1992, it had started to expand into other states and to acquire competitors in the natural foods retailing market. It voraciously bought out most of its competition, including well established companies like Wellspring Grocery, Bread and Circus, Mrs. Gooch’s , Bread of Life, Fresh Fields, Nature’s Heartland, and Fresh and Wild.

In 1994, I finally fulfilled one of my dreams and got a job with the company, in a new store in North Austin. I would later work in one of their new stores in Washington DC, as well as in smaller co-ops and natural foods markets, in Austin, Washington DC, and San Francisco. Speaking with WFM employees in the early 90s,  I noticed that they were excited and yet more than little trepid about the company’s explosive growth. Rumors swirled that within a few years, WFM would have 100 stores! At the time, it seemed almost inconceivable.

Yes, my beloved Whole Foods, where I had received  my baptism into organics, juicing, vegetarianism, veganism and so much more, had sold its soul to the devil. Expanding your business is one thing- going public and getting in bed with Wall Street, as well as destroying your competition is something else altogether.

 

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Expanding so quickly and so aggressively  is inevitably going to earn you some enemies, and WFM was  no exception. With its strategy of buying out the competition and  fighting unionization of its employees, it has earned the enmity of many erstwhile supporters, including myself. Other controversies have popped up over the years, including  CEO John Mackey coming out vigorously against universal health care and continuing to sell GMO foods, while at the same time continuously proclaiming  that it is a ‘natural’ foods store.

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My bitterness and disappointment in WFM and the direction it went does not go so deep that I boycott the company. Whenever I visit or live in a city where there is one, I still shop there, occasionally. Their store designs still set the industry standard and even now, 27 years later, I get a kick out of wandering through the stores and admiring the eye-popping displays, and unparalleled selection of international foods.

 

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Also, the impact that WFM has had on the old guard grocery retailers cannot be overstated. Without WFM’s impact, many cities and towns across the USA would still be stuck with those horrifically bland and unimaginative stores. Almost every grocery store in the country, from tiny co-ops to the largest big box stores, has had to redesign itself to compete with WFM and become more warm and user-friendly. The ones who were belated in doing so lost customers to WFM.  Now though, many have caught up and added large organic sections  and are consequently drawing in some of Whole Foods’ customers. The game goes on in the cutthroat world of food retailing.

Best wine in the world

My favorite wine in the world is the Moscato (Muscat) from Alois Lageder , a winemaker from the Alto Adige in Northern Italy, near the Austrian border. The unique terrain here, combining the cold mountain air from the Alps with warm Mediterranean sunshine, helps to produce outstanding wine grapes.  I have never smelled a wine that so bursts with tropical and citrus fruit as this wine. Papaya, banana, lemon, guava, and mango blend into an impossibly enticing bouquet. On the palate, it is silky smooth, with just the right amount of acid to balance the fruitiness. Lageder also produces Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Gerwurtzraminer, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir.

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His family has been making wine since 1823 and they are devoted to biodynamic viticulture. I have been fortunate to be able to taste a dozen or so biodynamic wines, and there is definitely some ‘thing’ about these wines that distinguishes them from the pack. Gary Vaynerchuk once did  a great interview on www.winelibrarytv with a biodynamic pioneer, Nicolas Joly,  and I loved the way Joly  discussed biodynamics. He stated that one way you can tell a biodynamic wine is that you can chug it down like lemonade (not that you would want to), the purity is so refined. The entire interview is well worth watching.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolas_Joly

Biodynamic farming, invented by the late mystic and educator Rudolph Steiner,  takes years, even decades,  to master. It is a blending of the spiritual with the scientific,  requiring a deep understanding of  nature and cosmic principles. It is a profound synthesis of the earthly with the heavenly, and the rewards for humans who practice the system are healthy, resilient and fertile soils which grow remarkably delicious fruits and vegetables to nourish us.

 

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There are many wines available which are delicious, well-made and reflect a terroir with style and elegance. Very few wines, in fact only a tiny percentage, do all that and make you feel different inside, as if you have just ingested something infused with true cosmic energy.  Lageder’s wines do that.

 

 

http://www.aloislageder.eu/en/vogelmaier_moscato_giallo

 

Monsanto moves into Viet Nam; disaster looms for the country’s farmers

Monsanto, with the aggressive backing of the U.S. embassy and State Department,  has been busy lobbying  the Vietnamese government to introduce its GMO crops into the country.  Events are moving along at a good pace for Monsanto who, along with Syngenta and DuPont,  has  been pushing their ‘frankenseeds’ into developing countries for years.  Monsanto tested its first seeds here in 2011.

Eight years ago, the government in Viet Nam issued a blueprint regarding agriculture which envisioned having 30-50% of the country’s arable land planted with GMO crops by 2020. With such a momentous change on the horizon for  Viet Nam, its farmers, its land, its food and its people, you might think that there is a robust debate going on within the media, the government agencies responsible for coordinating food policy and in the general populace. You would be wrong. In fact, almost no one in Viet Nam is even familiar with the term ‘GMO’, let alone aware that there is a global debate raging over the harmful effects of these seeds on human health, the environment, animals, and plants. In my random sampling of locals here in Ho Chi Minh City, I did not encounter a single person who could tell me what a GMO is.

 

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This is dangerous, and potentially catastrophic for the country. Decisions about the introduction and widespread implementation of GMO crops are being made by a tiny handful of government officials, who have been engaged in many closed-door meetings with executives from Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont. Furthermore, with the current government wanting to maintain warm relations with the Obama regime, it behooves them to be friendly with some of Obama’s biggest supporters.

The government has done absolutely nothing to inform the population of what GMO seeds are and the science surrounding them. So, it is left up to the local media to bring some awareness to the issue. In that regard, a local paper, Thanhniennews has run some admirably hard-hitting pieces in the last few months, finally calling the government to task on this. The local English language paper, Viet Nam News has done a pathetic and criminally negligent job of covering this story, only running pieces that blithely quote government mouthpieces who work for the ministry of natural resources and the environment and the ministry of agriculture and rural development. We have people like Le Dinh Luong, professor of genetics at Hanoi University, who gleefully trumpets the benefits of GMOs and says that activists shouldn’t ‘make a fuss’ over the hazards of these scientific monstrosities.  Another scientific stooge, Professor Nguyen Lan Dung warned Viet Nam was ‘too cautious’ in planting GMOs on a wide scale. I guess he’s never heard of the cautionary principle.

 

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The fact that GMOs are being embraced so enthusiastically by the government and upper scientific establishment here is not too surprising given the overall direction that they hope to push agriculture in. Since I arrived here, I have been collecting articles on food and agriculture printed in the local media, and looked thru them while preparing to write this piece. In every one, the government talks only of improving agriculture with ‘modern technology’,  ‘hi-tech agriculture’, ‘bio-technology’ , and ‘applying advanced technology to agriculture products.’ More machines. More chemicals. More fertilizers. More technology. The direction is clear, and in this context, it is natural   that they would jump on the GMO bandwagon, even without the arm twisting of  Monsanto and the U.S. State Department.

Viet Nam sits at a crucial juncture.  GMO corn is set to be planted in seven provinces in the North, Central Highlands, and South. If these crops are allowed to be planted in the next couple of years, there really will be no turning back. Neighboring fields will quickly become contaminated. It is much more difficult to rip them out of the ground and try to go back to organic crops than it is to halt this whole process at the beginning. However, there is little chance of a grass-roots movement getting started in time, given how ignorant and uniformed the population is.

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The impoverished and uneducated farmers who have been subsistence farming for hundreds of generations will be easy targets, as company PR flaks, accompanied by agricultural officials from the government, will entice them with golden promises of higher yields, less work, less pests and crucially- more money.

Instead of working toward truly sustainable models , such as permaculture- based systems, which rely on building up the health of the soil, crop rotation, and the implementation of polyculture systems to make the land resilient to pests, the government is heading in the wrong direction:  to a high-tech , machinery dependent, high external input- based agriculture system geared toward the export market and not toward a reliable food supply for the Vietnamese people.

 

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Most of the population is not even aware that Monsanto was the biggest producer of Agent Orange, used to such devastating effect during the war in the 1960s. When they are made aware of that connection, most of them realize that they don’t really want a chemical weapons manufacturer to be responsible for providing their rice.

Apparently, a GMO labeling law was enacted some years ago, but like many laws here, it is not enforced in any way, and therefore useless. A ‘Non-GMO’ label has yet to make an appearance on a store shelf in Ha Noi or Ho Chi Minh City.

As global elitists such as Henry Kissinger have long said, “Food is a weapon.” And that weapon is set to be unleashed on Viet Nam.

 

 

The Fast Food Invasion of Viet Nam

The food landscape of Viet Nam, especially in the large cities, is changing rapidly. In fact, it is being altered almost overnight, thanks to the rapid and loosely regulated introduction of American-based fast food chains.

Three weeks ago, McDonald’s opened its first franchise here, on a busy street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. People queued up for blocks and waited hours to get in, anxious to finally try some of that American fast food which the rest of the world appears to be so crazy about.

Last year, Starbucks opened its first outlet in Viet Nam, sensing big opportunities here with a deeply ingrained coffee culture, a young, Western-oriented population, and a well-established coffee shop scene. Within a few months of the first outlet opening, three more had sprouted up in nearby neighborhoods and more are on the way.

 

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KFC and Pizza Hut  (Yum! brands) have been here since 1997. Burger King arrived in  2011. Dairy Queen just opened its first franchise in Ho Chi Minh City. Baskin Robbins jumped in during 2012.  Dominos Pizza opened its first franchise in 2010.

Even before these companies arrived, Viet Nam had seen an alarming rise in obesity, especially in children living in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam’s largest cities. A number of factors, including rising incomes, increasingly sedentary lifestyles caused by the rise in popularity of computer games, the increasing availability of sugar laden soft drinks and a rapid increase in meat consumption have contributed. With the onslaught of the Western fast food chains, this trend will vastly accelerate.  It’s quite common now to see obese young children in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, especially in the wealthier districts, such as District 1 and District 7. According to a study published last September, ,Viet Nam already has 300,000 children classified as obese under the age of 5.

And it’s not just obesity. The number of cases of diagnosed type 2 diabetes is also skyrocketing, as is heart disease and hypertension. Nationally, the percentage of people with diabetes has climbed from 1% to 6% and in Ho Chi Minh City, 10% of adults have the disease. Given the large problems Viet Nam already has with one of the highest rates of smoking in the world (4 billion packs consumed  in 2013) and an increasing thirst for beer, the public health situation is set to deteriorate rapidly.

While the government has made some pronouncements recently regarding increasing taxes on cigarettes and putting stronger warning labels on packs, its blithely indifferent attitude toward Western fast food is curious, to say the least. Locals sigh cynically and point out that McDonald’s entered Viet Nam thru a partnership with Good Day Hospitality, which is owned by Henry Nguyen, son-in-law of the prime minister.

A Reuters article dated February 3, 2014 (and not picked up by any of the Vietnamese press)  states: Governments could slow or even reverse the growing obesity epidemic if they introduced more regulation into the global market for fast foods such as burgers, chips, and fizzy drinks, researchers said yesterday.

The article continues, “Unless governments take steps to regulate their economies, the invisible hand of the market will continue to promote obesity worldwide with disastrous consequences  for future public health and economic productivity,” said Roberto De Vogli of the Uinversity of California, Davis, in the U.S., who led the study.

 

The Brave New Restaurant Menu

Media, and its related technologies, over the past 100 years has moved us from a literary, left-brain dominated, society to a visual, right-brain focused society. Photography, ‘moving pictures’, television, and computers have all contributed to a new focus on the image, and moved us away from our print  technologies. The late Leonard Shlain, author of the ground-breaking book “The Alphabet vs. The Goddess: The Conflict between Word and Image” argued that this process is taking us full circle, as our goddess-worshipping ancestors ten thousand years ago were image based, and lacked the aggressiveness, hierarchy, linear thinking and male domination so prevalent today.

 

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Shlain contends that many academics and intellectuals today have it all wrong with their hand-wringing about plummeting literary and reading and writing standards. A shift toward a more balanced right/left hemisphere will ultimately be a positive thing for our societies, he says. His thesis is fascinating and controversial. I grew up with a love of books and reading and have watched with great consternation and anxiety as bookstores close by the thousands and younger generations take less and less interest in reading. While I would love to think that all my worries about the dumbing down of humanity are, in fact, baseless and that we will evolve just fine by simply staring at images, I’m not so sure.

When “USA Today” was launched in September 1982, it was the first newspaper to incorporate big color photos and splashy graphics. It was appealing to the television generation , even going so far as to design the boxes containing the newspapers to look like television sets. Newspapers would never be the same. Textbook manufacturers have also had to radically redesign their books over the last 30 years to incorporate more photos, drawings, and graphics. Pick up any text today, from kindergarten thru post-grad level,  and 50% of any given page will be given over to images and photos.

 

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I have been thinking about all this recently as I’ve noticed a distinct trend in the restaurant industry. Here in Asia especially, the trend of putting photos in menus has taken off and gone to extreme levels. Way back in 1989, the brilliant comedian Bill Hicks performed his ‘Sane Man’ routine and mocked the Denny’s restaurant chain for using pictures on their menus. At that time, there were only a handful of restaurants which did this, and Hicks saw it as a classic example of a business catering to- contributing to- a dumbed down society. He metamorphosed into an ape-man and entered the restaurant, needing to use only grunts and growls and a finger to point at the dish he wanted.

If you were going to design a menu for a group of 5-year-olds, how would you do it? Perhaps use thick cardboard pages, thus making it easier for their little fingers to more easily flip thru the menu. Place only two or three items on each page. Put a big color photo underneath each selection. Sadly, this describes most menus in restaurants today, at least here in Ho Chi Minh City, 2014. With so many photos, some menus are 60 pages long. If they are not cardboard, the pages are at least plastic laminated. Many restaurant menus now require punched holes with a three ring binder. Even drinks need a photo: a glass of orange juice. A coffee. A cup of tea. And on and on.

But wait, it gets worse. Or,  at least more weird. As if expensive and detailed color photos on menus weren’t enough, many Japanese restaurants construct elaborate plastic reproductions of each dish. In order to display them properly, they have had to build large display cases , glass-enclosed and stretching for 10 feet or more. One can only hope that these restaurant owners put as much effort into making real food in their kitchens as they do constructing these bizarre plastic recreations. Visiting a restaurant with just a simple one- page menu on nice bond paper, with no televisions playing and soft candlelight and old-fashioned incandescent lighting is feeling more and more like a trip back in time. These trends in restaurants, like all the other trends we are witnessing in our society, seem irreversible. Perhaps I will do an experiment, in Bill Hicks’ honor, and venture into a restaurant making  only ape sounds and pointing at my favorite picture on the menu. Who needs language anymore when we have such pretty photos?

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