16 May 2009

Cooking with Seasonal, Regional Food

Have you ever cooked a meal of entirely seasonal and regional foods? Before last week, I really don't think I had.

Walking through the supermarket these days, you will see food coming from all around the world. Though it certainly convenient -- hey, it gives North Americans the ability to eat strawberries in December -- this global food market is also impacting the environment. Did you know that 90% of bananas eaten by people in the United States are grown in South America? How do these millions of bananas get to the U.S. from Brazil? And how do strawberries, seasonal only in summertime, magically appear in the produce section year-round? Let's just say some of your food may have more frequent flier miles than you do. Food is being shipped around the world for buyer convenience, but at the expense of the environment.

As if there weren't enough things to feel guilty about!

I was always overwhelmed by this fact. I felt helpless. Certainly I couldn't change the system. But I don't necessarily have to comply with it either.

When my Eating San Francisco class was assigned the final project of cooking a delicious dish of all seasonal, regional foods, I had a brief moment of panic. Cooking for me usually involves a trip to the grocery store and the use of at least SOME packaged or processed foods. I decided to check out a local farmers market and I hoped something would fall into place.

Lucky for me, my local farmers market was extremely local: USF recently started having a farmers market on weekends and, living on campus, it just doesn't get more convenient than that.

There I found an abundance of food that I would feel guilt-free about eating. Fruits and vegetables that come from local farms are not shipped halfway around the world, and the money goes directly to support small farmers and their families. And of course there are also your fresh meats, eggs, and dairy products. At a farmers market and you can assume the animals were treated way better than any you'll find at the supermarket.

At the farmers market, I met up with local food lover and recent USF alum Lulu McAllister, who secretly wishes she was in Eating San Francisco. She advised me on some ingredients to pick out, and we devised a sort of recipe for a fava bean dip with pita bread and feta cheese.

I put my recipe in a Flickr set. I think it makes more sense visually.

Look at all the delicious dishes my classmates made!!!

Thanks for the great semester ESF!

11 May 2009

What's for dinner

ESF at McDonalds on Haight St.

ESF at Zazie on Cole St.

The question of what to eat for dinner has become increasingly complicated. With new technology and more efficient farming methods, the focus of food production is all about maximum profit and with little regard to quality. Quality seems to be the lowest of all priorities in the industrial food chain, as all efforts are focused on producing massive quantities of certain foods at low costs. And consumers eat it up -- most Americans value low price above all, which is why they are willing to eat mystery meat from McDonalds, so long as it's only 99-cents.

Let's back up. In our Eating San Francisco class, we've been lucky enough to eat at some pretty cool and interesting restaurants in one of the greatest culinary cities in the world. Our plan all semester was to end class by reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, and dine at none other than the McDonalds conveniently located on Haight Street.

But as we read Pollan's masterpiece, which explains just how screwed up America's food industry is, the thought of eating at this mega-chain (which is no worse than its competitors, but for better or for worse has become icon for fast food, and thus the brunt of all criticism) was no longer very appealing.

So our class decided to go to Zazie, a French Bistro in nearby Cole Valley. At around $15-20 per dinner entree, this place was clearly a cut above good old Micky-Ds. And oh, was it a noticeable difference! The quality was evident in the service and meal. It was the kind of place where the food was truly special, and the reason for being there. The waitress chatted with us about her favorite dishes and spoke enthusiastically about what drinks should accompany it. When the food was presented, each dish was a work of art.

I ordered salmon, and it was laid over a bed of couscous and sprinkled with fresh herbs, sweet cherry tomatoes, snap peas and a wedge of lemon. It was so fresh and well seasoned that each bite was exciting. Also, the food looked like what it was: the fillet of salmon clearly was fresh from the sea - no unnecessary processing or preservatives. The vegetables were fresh, not frozen, and came from local farms. Couscous is a processed wheat product but is still fairly natural, as it is an ancient dish, not a byproduct of the modern food industry.

There was something so pure and good about the meal. It's the feeling of eating "real food," not something we always get these days.

In comparison to Exhibit B: Fake Food

After dinner we headed over to McDonalds to basically fulfill our obligation of eating there. I eat at McDonalds from time to time, but it's not a decision I like to consciously think about. Having just read The Omnivore's Dilemma, and just dined on such high quality food at Zazie, the idea of McDonalds did not seem appealing.

In his book, Michael Pollan talks a lot about McDonalds. The most astounding point he makes about fast food (and all industrialized food) is that it is made up primarily of corn, due to corn farmers constantly growing a surplus and selling it for various uses (from feeding livestock to fueling cars as ethanol) on the cheap.

The French fries, for example, would seem to be a potato product, but really half of the calories come from corn, in form of the oil they're fried in. Or the McFlurry (I enjoyed an Oreo one that night) seems like an ice cream dish, but contains plenty of corn: corn syrup solids, mono and diglycerides (from corn) and milk from corn-fed cows. The chicken nuggets and hamburgers: corn. The soda: tons of corn. You'd really have to read the book to understand just how much corn goes into the food we eat. Pollan doesn't conclude that this is going to lead to mankind's extinction, but it sure doesn't seem like a good idea.

Comparing the two dining experiences, there was really no contest. Zazie was a relaxing culinary experience. We wined and dined slowly, conversed merrily, and practically licked our plates clean from the delicious entrees.

At McDonalds we were herded like cattle into a line where we ordered, waited, went up to the counter to retrieve our feed, and sat down at tables. We bussed our own trash. The employees seemed irritated that our large group had come. They told us not to take pictures. The food tasted good, but in that manufactured kind of way. The McFlurry had a fake feeling, not like real ice cream. It is cold and sweet but there is something different.

Nonetheless, there are obvious reasons we can't all eat at Zazie every night. For one thing, the price would make it impossible for many people to go. I personally could only go as a rare treat. My meal cost $16, which I would make in about two hours of working. I'd go broke in a hurry eating like that. Also there's the time factor. We spent about two hours at Zazie, whereas most days I devote about a half hour to eating dinner. If I had to eat out on a typical day, I'd have to go somewhere that could serve me quickly. And cheaply. Hence the reason why I do eat fast food occassionally.

However, reading The Ominvore's Dilemma has made me more conscious of the impact of these decisions. I do feel inspired to make an effort to eat whole, natural foods more often. There are farmers markets all over the city that put local, organic produce just a walk or busride away. While I may not be resolving to abstain from meat or fast food altogether, I am determined to make small, positive changes for the sake of the earth and my own health.

05 May 2009

The Foghorn: A year in review

It's a Monday night. Well technically it's more like Tuesday morning, but let's leave my crazy insomniac lifestyle out of this. Most Monday nights are spent entirely in the Foghorn office. The Foghorn is the University of San Francisco's student newspaper. Our small staff spends Monday nights laying out the weekly paper, usually staying up til 2, 3, or 4 in the morning. It is a labor of love. We usually crawl off to our respective apartments (or just crash on the couch in the office) late and wake up the next morning, slightly refreshed, only to return back to the office to catch the mistakes made by our tired selves the night before. Classes, homework, projects, all seem to take a backseat to this.

But tonight that is not the case. The school year is quickly wrapping up, and the paper has gone to bed for the semester, leaving me and my colleagues to run around like chickens with our heads cut off with no paper to attend to until next fall. What do normal people do Monday nights?

This time has given me a chance to reflect on the crazy, crazy year the Foghorn has had. It really was groundbreaking, and not to sound self-important, but it was perhaps one of the most significant in the paper's 106 years.

I say this almost primarily because of the new website. After several years of an unimpressive online site, the Foghorn now has a dynamic, interactive, multimedia supporting and, most importantly, fun to utilize web PRESENCE. Yes the word presence is important. Presence implies that people know we are present, which they do. By the time content is uploaded to the site, often before the PAPER paper has been distributed around campus, page views are already soaring, and comment discussions beginning to heat up. There is an online presence.

Eternal thanks go out to Michael Villasenor for this, a USF senior and web guru, who envisioned and created the site. His creative vision and technical expertise made the site all that it is today: user friendly, engaging and community oriented with minimal technical difficulty.

Having the Foghorn Online become so important has helped the Foghorn in paper as well. I know I personally have stepped up the quality of stories I am working on and am taking extra care to cover things fairly. Heaven forbid, I think, if I covered an important story unfairly, I would be attacked by the online commenters. If the press is supposed to check big business and government, then finally readers have the opportunity to check the press, beyond a letter to the editor. There is now instant feedback, completely public for the world to see. Let's just say I'm being more careful than ever. I'm also choosing to cover more stories that are of significance to the community because, from an egotistical standpoint, I want to see people reading and discussing my articles. I expect other writers feel this way as well. This concern for what the readers want is obviously what we should have always been doing, but now it is just more clear to see what readers enjoy.

This has also been a year filled with some significant news in the University community. An alleged rape case made headlines around the Bay Area when a senior in the ROTC program was accused of rape by four unique female students, and I covered this for the Foghorn. It was one of the most interesting experiences I ever had as a student journalist: real news, right on my campus. The full news story can be read here. I also covered much of the aftermath: student reactions and anti-rape events. The whole issue also sparked a series of very thoughtful opinion columns by community members; such a great dialog I will never forget.

It was also the year that the 44th US President Barack Obama was elected and inaugurated into office, which I covered for the Foghorn as well. The night he was elected, sharing that moment with my campus community, and then heading into the newsroom to type up a story in time for print -- definitely something to tell the grandkids about.

I have also covered controversies involving USF faculty: a popular professor Andrej Grubacic not being rehired and faculty union negotiations (which I did a rather shoddy job at, but read anyway if you must).

After this monumental year, the Foghorn staff was surprised to have our stipends cut by the student government. Rather than sit idly by, we wrote an impassioned staff editorial. This article, within hours of being posted, received more comments than any other article ever posted to our site. Though I did not write this piece, it inspires me to see how powerful the Foghorn Online can become. The readers, the USF community, can have an extremely powerful voice. After this was printed (and we filled out a formal appeal), our stipends were almost completely reinstated. Perhaps because the student body at large was so widely in support of us. That felt good.

This year I went from co-news editor to managing editor of the Foghorn. Next year I will take over for the infamous Hunter Patterson as editor in chief. Hunter leaves large shoes to fill, not to mention he's pretty much the only EIC I've ever known here at the Foghorn. I am excited for another tumultuous year with the newspaper, hopefully with more drama and breaking news than ever.

Thanks for reading.