Thursday, October 30, 2008

Name That Veggie

It‘s the end of the growing season, and our local Farmer’s Market has cut back to one morning a week. That morning falls on a work day for me, so I can’t go. I’m really missing my weekly visits. Where else can I get the strange and wonderful veggies available at the Farmer’s Market? Certainly not at the grocery store. Over the summer I found wine-coloured carrots, and crunchy nano peas (purchased in honour of my techie husband) at the Farmer‘s Market. It’s where I discovered magical purple beans that turn a brilliant green when cooked, and it’s also where I found these:

These little items prompted a coast-to-coast international discussion (only because my sister and her family live on the east coast of the US, while I live on the west coast of Canada). They were so cute that I had to take a picture. I sent the photo to my family and invited them to guess what they were.

My nephew guessed that they were gourds. My niece guessed that they were tiny watermelons. Both reasonable guesses. My sister, on the other hand, thought that “they may be a snake.....but since you think snakes are oogly googly it must be one of their (the kid’s) answers.” That was her first guess. Her second guess was “cheese curds“. Apparently my sister needs new glasses.

My father provided the most creative guess. He thought they were “probably Fairy and Dwarf watermelons. They grow them small for the small people in the forests” on the west coast.

The items are actually Mexican sour gherkin cucumbers. They are a rediscovered heirloom variety and are in the same botanical family as watermelon. I guess that explains their melon-like appearance. (Actually, all cucumbers are related to watermelon. The other cukes must have missed out on the cute-gene.)

As for their taste, I must admit they were so much fun to eat that I didn’t really notice how they tasted. I put them in a marinated veggie salad, so there were a lot of competing flavours. I’ve seen them described as “lemony cucumbers with a not-off-putting note of watermelon rind”. I can’t confirm or deny that. I guess I’ll have to try them again when I see them at next year’s Farmer’s Market. There’s something to look forward to.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Danger! Dark Chocolate!

I continue to discover the most interesting things when I check the labels on food packaging. For instance, the following disclaimer was just above the ingredient list on a bar of Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate:

I had to wonder why the warning was there. I immediately thought lawsuit, and went lurking about the internet to see what I could find. I expected something between the McDonald‘s coffee case and a Seinfeld episode. What I did find was even funnier. Parody newspaper, The Onion, ran an article that was exactly what I thought I would find when I started looking for an explanation for the disclaimer. The only difference is that I expected to find an actual lawsuit. The lawsuit reported in The Onion was, obviously, a joke.

Of course, just when I thought fiction was strange, the truth jumps in with something stranger. A Fortune Magazine article, which was published more than 2 years after The Onion's article, talks about a lawsuit filed by New York City attorney Sam Hirsch on behalf of a group of obese teens. I think I knew about this case, which was dismissed, but I wasn't aware that any serious discussion came out of it. Apparently a few people were concerned about the impact of the case on the food industry. Impressive for a lawsuit that was referred to as a "laughingstock".

I never did discover why there was a disclaimer on my chocolate bar. Maybe Hershey's has put it there as a public service, although after reading the Fortune article I'm inclined to think that it's more about covering their assets.

UPDATE: November 6, 2008

After writing about the warning on my chocolate bar, references to Hershey’s chocolate keep cropping up. First there was the reappearance of chocolate bars that had been recalled two years ago for possible salmonella contamination. The bars were stolen from a disposal site. Makes me wonder how recalled items are disposed of. Somehow I thought they’d no longer resemble a saleable product.

Then I found a cute little Hershey bar in the basket of Halloween candy at work. I thought it would be too small for a warning, but when I turned it over there was a shorter caution. This one reminded consumers to “make sure you read the label every time”. Given the current concerns with Hershey products I don’t think reading the label is going to help. Unless you’ve memorized the barcodes affected by the recall, and if you have you probably have other more pressing concerns.

Monday, October 20, 2008


I’m reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. After reading about the feedlot and the processing plant, I was sure I’d never want beef or processed food again. Then I started reading Pollan’s description of his fast food meal. I suddenly felt like my will to make wise food choices had been overruled by a demonic lolcat demanding a cheezburger. Such is the power of his writing. Fortunately Pollan then went on to describe what was in a McNugget, so I was able to resist the pull of the Golden Arches. That, and a friend called and asked me to go for a walk. It never hurts to have a little extra insurance when battling the forces of processed carbs and fat.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Loaves and Labels

I’m learning all kinds of new things as I research the mysterious ingredients I find on food packaging. Just trying to identify the components in a loaf of bread has been most enlightening. I've discovered that the breads from my supermarket’s bakery contain an ingredient also used in the production of rubber and plastics (azodicarbonamide - used in the food industry as a wheat flour improver). I’ve discovered that all-purpose flour can be bleached with benzoyl peroxide. Yep, the same stuff I used to zap zits 20 years ago is also in my store-bought bread.

On the plus side, I’ve learned that suspicious-sounding biga is actually a starter used to make traditional Italian bread. It’s a type of pre-fermentation that seems rather complicated and makes me appreciate the work that goes into a local bakery’s Italian Country bread.

I also appreciate that the local bakery lists ingredients clearly on the front of the package. Not so with the supermarket bakery. I had to look up their bread ingredients online. Easy enough to find on their website, but because the information wasn’t on the package, I didn’t realize their bread contained unidentifiable and unpronounceable ingredients until after I purchased it. Lesson learned. Just because a product has a wholesome name doesn’t make it wholesome. Who would have thought that something as simple as whole wheat bread would contain an ingredient also found in Silly Putty and breast implants (Dimethylpolysiloxane - an anti-foaming agent. Because no one wants foamy bread, or putty, or boobs.)

I wonder how these ingredients make their way into such a variety of products. What sane person would try putting the active ingredient of acne medication into flour? Of course, they may have decided to use the bleaching agent from flour to make acne medication. I have no way of knowing which application came first. Either way, I marvel at the imagination it takes to make such a connection, even though I’m not sure I agree with the wisdom of the choice.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Hormones, Holidays and Other Excuses

Grocery shopping yesterday. I will admit to buying a few things that are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike food.* I was shopping by myself, so I have no one else to blame for the rogue items that slipped into my cart. Instead I’ll blame it on hormones and the upcoming holiday. (That’s Thanksgiving for those of you who are unfamiliar with our strange Canadian customs.)

I cannot make pie pastry. Many have tried to teach me, but in spite of their best efforts, my pie crusts end up rock hard from overworking, or soggy from my tears of frustration. In my house pastry preparation involves extreme swearing, screaming and throwing things. I no longer attempt to make pie pastry. I buy pre-made pie shells. In fact, I bought one today. It was one of those items that slipped into my cart. You see, I want pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving dinner. I can make pumpkin pie filling, and it’s far superior to anything you will find in a prepared pumpkin pie. I just needed something to hold the filling. Thus the prepared pie shell. I’m just going to ignore that I can only identify four of the eight ingredients listed on the package. I’m hoping that by the time Thanksgiving rolls around again I will have found a better alternative.

I’m in the early stages of re-thinking my food choices, so I’m trying to give myself some leeway. I consider it part of my goal not to drive myself crazy about this process. Instead I’ll give myself credit for the many good choices I did make. Given the PMS emergency, I’m actually pleased that so few extras followed me home. I mean, how could I resist candy-coated chocolate or microwave popcorn? Besides, I’m sure the chocolate items don’t count. I bought them from the bulk section, where there are no ingredient lists. I’ll assume they are of the highest quality, organic, healthful ingredients. For today. When I feel less like I’m being hijacked by my hormones I’ll try to find reasonable alternatives. Then the next time I feel like I’d trade my house, my car and my cat for a bag of chocolate-covered potato chips I can be prepared.

(Note: When I wrote the bit above, I thought chocolate-covered potato chips existed only in my imagination. Then I Googled “chocolate covered potato chips” and found out that they do exist. In fact, you can get a 3lb box of them delivered to your door. What a time to discover that little bit of information!)

* My humble adaptation of a wonderful, useful turn-of-phrase coined by the great Douglas Adams.