Thursday, August 14, 2008


Who doesn't think about food at least three times a day? I admit it -- I not only think about it nearly constantly, I even dream about it. I think it's in my DNA as food was always on my family's mind and we talked about it constantly. What should we make for dinner? Who's bringing potato salad to the picnic? Can we eat at the Fish Shack soon? Let's make cookies. You get the drift.

As soon as I could stand on a stool and stir something I begged to cook and bake. So it's no surprise that for me, writing about food is like riding a bicycle; even my adolescent journals are filled with anecdotes about food.

As much as I love planning and preparing great meals, these days my concerns are more about what we eat and how our food is produced. As a child growing up in the
40s and 50s, we learned all about "modern" food production and how we could grow bigger, better and larger crops. Better for farmers, better for us! And wow! The convenience of canned foods and frozen TV dinners!

As kids, our biggest worry was being served too much especially of something we hated. Ever wonder why Popeye loved canned spinach? Madison Avenue advertising companies knew they'd need a cartoon character to force us to scarf down a wretched tasting, grey-green mess.

And how about,"Starving children in India (or Africa or China)would be grateful for this food, so eat your vegetables!" After one such lecture, a friend's brother actually packed up his vegetables and gave it to his mother to mail to India. Bet the kids in India would have loved a package of moldy canned peas and 'Tater Tots!

Well folks, here we are in the Twenty-First century and boy have things changed! Processed food tastes better, we've got fast food on nearly every corner and there's a never-ending abundance of food in all the stores. Of course, this come with a price. Obesity, increased health issues, food so processed that there is no nutrition in it. How could something so good go so bad in such a short time?

Food has always been enormously political and unfortunately that isn't going to change anytime soon. What's important is that we be as aware as possible about the politics of what we eat and make informed and ethical choices, whether it's about today's dinner or speaking up when we see inequities, be it poor farming practices or the manipulation of the food supply by mega-corporations.

Agri-business has a death grip on how our food is produced. While humans have been genetically modifying food since the agricultural revolution, until now we've done it in a way that improved the product without causing potential harm to those who eat it or plant it. Not now. Monsanto, giant of the agri-corps created grains for export to countries like India. In traditional farming, a percentage of the crop is saved for seed production the following year. But this wouldn't be good for Monsanto's bottom line so they engineered the plants so the seeds would be sterile. Imagine the surprise of the Indian farmers when the seeds didn't germinate the following year! And imagine how that affected the children.

Monsanto also introduced the genetically engineered, recumbant Bovine Growth Hormone rBGH, used to induce more milk from cows. Unfortunately, rBGH is a dangerous drug that poses unacceptable dangers to humans from increased antibiotic residues and elevated levels of a potent cancer tumor promoter called IGF-1. Organic Consumer Association's (OCA)"Millions Against Monsanto" campaign generated over a quarter million emails and petition signatures on the topic of rBGH, making rBGH one of the most controversial food products in the world.

After 14 years of controversy, August 6th Monsanto announced that they will sell off or "divest" rBGH and take it off the market. The OCA is now working to break Monsanto's stranglehold over seeds and take away their mandate to force-feed genetically engineered food to an unwilling or unaware public. You can help to push through federal legislation to require mandatory labeling and safety-testing of GMOs (genetically modified organisms.) Learn more about the Millions Against Monsanto campaign:
I admit that I'm obsessively curious, which translates to way too much research. And, hey, it's so easy with the Internet! When I find something I find interesting, I invariably print it out and force it on my kids and friends. Sometimes they're taken in and sometimes I either get a "why?" or that ever-familiar rolled-eyes look for doing something too dumb for words. Since you can't roll your eyes, but only make comments to my blog, I'm going to give you some more links to some --and short entries on other -- articles about food that I think are worth reading. We'll start with Michael Pollan.

Michael Pollan is an award winning writer and author whose articles can be found in the New York Times and The New Yorker. This particular article, "Why Bother?" is from a New York Times issue devoted to green issues. t.html?_r=1&emc=eta1&oref=slogin

MSNBC has an article, "Eating Only What Grows Around You: Extreme Locavorism." While I will freely admit that I'm not an extreme locavore,
I love farmers markets and buying fresh local produce. It's as much a social event as it is a way to shop. I also happen to be blessed by living in a food paradise as we have farmers markets all year around, live on the Monterey Bay where fish is abundant, and cheese is made locally as well. However, that isn't a year-around option for lots of people. Practicality and good nutrition are valid considerations; we do the best we can.

We also have to take into consideration the tropical growers who produce coffee, chocolate and vanilla, bananas, sugar and other important commodities. If we completely stop buying these products, how will they survive? In this case, wise purchasing is what matters. No matter what your position, this article is thought provoking.

What many of us don't know is how far our food travels before we get it. This quote from the From the Union of Concerned Scientists: is telling:

"Grocery chains are increasingly buying foods from around the world in an effort to cater to consumer tastes and to take advantage of cheap labor in other countries. But shipping Norway cod to China for processing and back to Norway for sale has a hefty cost, not just in fuel but in the global warming pollution generated by these long trips. The European Union is at the forefront of a movement that aims to make shippers and shoppers pay for this pollution through taxes or new emissions trading rules. Measuring total emissions is a complex business because miles traveled, form of transport, and time in storage all contribute to food's carbon footprint."

Concerned about Childhood Obesity? Whether or not we have children, it's important to be concerned about the issues of obesity related diabetes and heart problems in children. Poor health at any age puts a huge burden on our medical system. These children are also our potential future leaders, the very same children who will be affected by, and responsible for, the choices we make for our planet. What drives children to want junk food? Well, in part it's advertising that they see every day on TV. Read on:

Finally, I found this quote by Dr. Shiva very to-the-point regarding today's blog topic. Dr. Vandana Shiva is a scientist, world-renowned author, and grassroots leader in India.

"Globalized industrialized food is not cheap: it is too costly for the Earth, for the farmers, for our health. The Earth can no longer carry the burden of groundwater mining, pesticide pollution, disappearance of species and destabilization of the climate. Farmers can no longer carry the burden of debt, which is inevitable in industrial farming with its high costs of production. It is incapable of producing safe, culturally appropriate, tasty, quality food. And it is incapable of producing enough food for all because it is wasteful of land, water and energy. Industrial agriculture uses ten times more energy than it produces. It is thus ten times less efficient."

In closing, I want to say that it's not necessary to be obsessed or fanatical about every bite we take, but it is important to be conscious and aware. Small changes on a regular basis become big changes over time. Enjoy your food but be conscious about its health and its footprint on the planet. And to add a light-hearted but thought-provoking end, I introduce to you my daughter's funny and enlivening blog. One entry that speaks about our enormous abundance of food and the waste that occurs daily is as follows: Dumpster Days

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Twelve years ago I bought a home. This was monumental; I'd dreamed of owning a home since I was a child. Even better than the house, there was a large yard that was effectively a blank slate waiting for an artist's muse. A large rectangle of lawn covered most of the yard with shrubs and a few rose bushes around the perimeter.

Lawn wasn't on my agenda. It's not only a water hog that needs feeding, mowing and edging, I'm deathly allergic to it. Sitting on grass gives me red welts; mowing it triggers asthma. The lawn had to go.

Over the next two years I created a haven for birds and butterflies. The lawn was replaced with a variety of groundcovers such as wooly and creeping thyme, Scottish moss and miniature succulents. Mounds of dirt bordered with decorative rock were filled with flowers and dwarf lemon and lime trees. Raised beds held strawberries and kitchen herbs. The final touches included a semi-dwarf Blenheim apricot, Arctic Rose nectarine and Santa Rosa plum in the backyard and Red Gravenstein and Sierra Beauty apple trees in the front. The classic suburban look was gone, replaced by a county garden.

A few years later, out of room in my own garden, I added a yellow nectarine on the vacant county land nearby. If I lived a little farther inland from the Coast, I would have added a couple of cherry trees. I was living my childhood dream of a home of my own with beds of flowers and fruit trees galore. I only wished for another acre to add more trees and a large vegetable garden. It was paradise right here in Santa Cruz – my dream garden.

Well, sort of. My garden, in technical parlance, is a "studied wild garden." This means that it looks kind of like a woodland park with flowers interspersed, beautiful flagstone walking paths meandering throughout. Or, maybe I should say, it kind of looks this way. (I'll explain in a moment.) Visitors exclaim about its beauty, especially as just beyond my back fence is a 100-acre urban wildlife park owned by the State, creating a pastoral backdrop. It's peaceful here most of the time. Quiet except for the squawking of jays and crows, the flutter of doves in flight, Hairy woodpeckers drilling the pine snags and Red Shouldered hawks calling for a mate. Birds and butterflies fill the garden year-round as we're on a flyway. All part of the fantasy I had envisioned.

The ideal scenario would be no fence at all. However, Southern Pacific has a railroad spur between my fence and the park. The train comes through four mornings a week, bringing coal and sand to the Davenport Cement Plant. It returns four afternoons a week with cement and sometimes wood from Big Creek Lumber. This is a romantic vision, one I enjoy very much as I grew up with trains in my hometown and it adds to the country garden atmosphere.

As always, however, there are problems, even in paradise. In this case, seven days and nights a week, people walk along the railway. Grafitti artists see endless opportunities for marking their territories. It's a straight shot for homeless encampments and a convenient place to sell drugs. Yes, there are folks walking dogs or just meandering, but there are also occasional angry drunks and shouting middle school boys throwing rocks, testing out their lawless fantasies. So the fence has remained, along with a barrier of blackberry brambles instead of barbed wire.

The first couple of years I had a sprinkling of delicious fruit, which I begrudgingly shared with the raccoons. I proudly talked to the trees, encouraging them to mature and produce enough fruit for eating and jam and pie making. Yes, I spent time pruning and weeding, but it was a labor of love. I put in a drip system and felt pleased with my environmentally correct fantasy-come-true.

Then I launched The Vanilla.COMpany and was soon working 60 to 80 hours a week. Days, nights and weekends. I wanted time off to walk and relax which didn't necessarily equate to pruning, weeding and watering.

I had naively assumed that perfect lawns with flowers bordering the edges and boxy hedges required more time than mine to remain perfectly manicured. Neither the look nor the effort suited me. Studied wild was my dream: just let it do its own thing. How wrong was that! I have since learned why people put in dry rock stream beds, wood chips and gravel paths.

My lovely dwarf fruit trees continued to grow and soon were the size of standard trees, their branches intertangling and breaking. The beautiful ground covers aggressively battled each other in a Darwinian tango. The weaker ones succumbed; the others crept over the decorative rocks and flagstones, obliterating the walkways. Beautiful clumps of scabiosa, with bright pink flowers in the Spring, which had blended with the blue flowers on the isotoma, grew together in the front yard, overwhelming the isotoma and flowing over the curb and into the street. Neighbors were fascinated and suggested we leave it to see if would cross the street completely. Easy for them to say; they weren't paying the water bill. And you can imagine how attractive the ground cover would look covered with tire treads and skid marks. Even the roses, the salvias, the coreopsis and the penstomon grew to mammoth proportions. I'm not sure why this happened. There was little time to cut back the dead flowers, they rarely were fed on schedule and yet, the entire garden rapidly outgrew my carefully installed drip system.

And then the gophers arrived. They ate the vegetables I'd interspersed with flowers and some of the best lily bulbs. They turned the entire garden into a miniature golf course. I even caught them walking along the raised beds above ground – right in front of my eyes! But this didn't slow down the growth of the rest of the garden and my attempts to fill their holes with mothballs and flooding did little to deter their own ideas of landscaping. And it didn't stop the trees from producing evermore abundant crops. Even the raccoons couldn't keep up with the fruit!

I looked forward to winters when I could stop dragging hoses with sprinkler heads around the garden and hacking away at the blackberries' relentless march over, under and around the fence and into the yard. Have you ever noticed how non-kink hoses do anyway? Or how those cute little twirling sprinklers break apart after four months? And how about the plant food getting wet and clumping in wads and then the boxes fall apart? Martha Stewart rarely talks about the downside of bountiful gardens. And why should she? With an army of assistants I wouldn't complain either!

In the winter we're told that serious gardeners pore through catalogs, looking for new hybrids, heirloom raspberries, sweeter squash and corn. Not me After three years of my garden any winter aspirations had vanished. I enjoy every minute of doing nothing for the garden. I can visit friends, go to movies, read a good novel. Then Spring arrives and amnesia hits. I've forgotten again how I had no life beyond my business and the garden from May until September. I'm thrilled with each beautiful bud, the aroma of lemon blossoms, the iris blooms. Oh, and the fruit trees' promise! Then reality hits and I wonder yet again why I hang onto studied wild when a desert cactus garden would save water, energy and…my sanity! Some Saguaros, Bishop's Hats and aloe, an expanse of white gravel and a few ceramic statues for effect.

But on warm summer afternoons I watch the hummingbirds drinking from the salvias, the Monarch, Painted Lady and Swallowtail butterflies dipping and fluttering, the hawks swooping down and calling, and I remember why I have worked so hard and diligently. It's one small spot that helps to erase some of my carbon footprint and provides a source of comfort for the creatures who come to visit. And after all, it's so hardy now, I only water once a week.