Wednesday, January 25, 2006

French Women Actually Do Get Fat - But Only When Living American Lifestyles

Mireille Guiliano's surprise best selling book, "French Women Don't Get Fat" caused quite a stir last year in America. Some saw it as yet another condecending swipe at Americans by the tres-arrogant French. A cynical few even challenged the title's assertion by claiming that the reason French women are svelte is that they smoke far more than their American counterparts.

But arguing about whether the title is 100% accurate is missing the fundamental point of the book. It would be more accurately although less provocatively titled, "French people who eat a balance of high quality food, take time to sit down and eat meals properly, walk a great deal and drink lots of water don't become overweight". Obviously this tongue-twister on the cover would have killed sales. But that's the essence of the book. And it's good advice in my view. If you do what Guiliano recommends you will not get fat. And if you are already fat, the odds are good that you will lose weight and keep it off. Best of all, you will maximize the pleasure and joy of your eating experience. Purchasing, preparing and eating food involve rituals that we should learn to cherish. And the majority of French people do.

But apparently French lifestyles and eating habits are changing - unfortunately for the worse. Today's New York Times article, "France Battles a Problem That Grows and Grows: Fat" shows that many French, especially children are now getting fat and the country is experiencing the health consequences of obesity that American's have been facing for several years now.

The cause? Adopting American eating (fast and prepared foods) and exercise habits (i.e., little or none).

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Diabetes Epidemic - A Consequence of Our Culture

Diabetes is a disease I am painfully familiar with. My 13-year old son has had Type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes since he was 13 months old. There are about 2 million Type 1 diabetics in the U.S. The cause is unknown but it is believed to be connected to an immune system disorder.

Type-2 diabetes afflicts at least 18 million (health experts say there are millions more undiagnosed cases). It is caused primarily by poor diet and lack of exercise, although genetic factors strongly affect one's predisposition to the disease.

This terrible disease is rightfully getting a great deal of attention. Last week the New York Times ran an excellent series of articles examining the impact of diabetes on people in East Harlem and the affects on the health care system.

Today, the Boston Globe's lead editoral deals with the topic.

I can talk all day about the diabetes epidemic in America. But I just want to make one point here. Everyone focuses on the causes - processed foods, poor diets, too many calories, lack of regular exercise, too much marketing of junk foods. And they should. But the remedies offered usually focus only on changing eating and exercise habits.

Both are necessary but not sufficient. Diabetes is the consequence of America's convenience culture and the stigma attached to spending time in the kitchen cooking. An entire generation of Americans believe that preparing meals from scratch takes too much time and work. Until this belief changes, the fight against obsesity and its terrible consequences like diabetes will be a losing battle.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Real food 1, McDonald's 0

A great article about how a small Italian baker put McDonald's out of business in the Italian town of Altamura. This shows that the little guy providing quickly prepared but real food can compete against the big guys selling fast industrialized food. (at least in Italy)

Tony's Ragu Recipe

This is a favorite among my kids although my wife finds it a bit too heavy. Still, its a simple peasant dish with a few basic ingredients that produces a rich concentrated flavor.


10 cloves of garlic
1 small onion
2 cans of whole tomatos (preferably San Marzano)
1/2 cup of red wine (preferably Italian and fruity - e.g., Salice Salentio or Primitivo)
3 lbs of ground beef (you can use other meats - I often do a combination of beef, duck and buffalo)
2 tablespoons of olive oil

  1. Mince garlic and onions and sautee at medium high for about ten minutes or until carmelized in 12 inch high edged fry pan.
  2. Add meat and cook until brown.
  3. Pour off excess fat.
  4. Add wine and cook for 5 minutes.
  5. Chop tomatos in blender or food processor and add to pan.
  6. Cook at low for 5 hours stirring occasionally. The key is to simmer it long and slow and gradually reduce all the liquid until meat and tomato are concentrated.
  7. Serve on pasta - the best is penne or rigatoni. Sprinkle freshly grated pecorino romano cheese to taste and garnish with chopped fresh basil
Recommended wine - A robust red wine goes best with this hearty fare - I suggest any southern Italian such as Salice Salentino, Primitivo, Montepulciano D'abruzzi or Sicilian Nero d'avola or even a Sardinian Cannonau.

Feeding Kids Right From The Start

A great little piece puncturing the myths about kids and food appears in today's New York Times magazine. Check it out: Generation Pad Thai

This piece should be must reading for any parent concerned about raising children to have a healthy attitude toward food.

The recommendations are especially good:
  1. Make your children eat at the table from a very young age - This sets the tone for kids that dining is something the family does together - that means everybody.
  2. Make them eat what you do, even if you have to purée it. - Okay this is a little over the top with babies, but I agree that pureed real food is better than anything in the jar including organic baby food. Remember, children's palettes are formed very early, so the sooner they get exposed to a variety of tastes and textures the better.
  3. Pack lunches fashioned from leftovers. - This means you need to cook meals in the first place - but there is nothing better than a sandwich made from a leftover roast, or as my kids love, left over pasta and ragu
  4. Eschew Baggies filled with Goldfish - The key here is to not fill up kids with junk between meals.
  5. Buy them the most expensive chocolate you can afford. No this is not crazy advice! The sooner kids learn what real food and even the best foods taste like, the sooner they will understand the difference between the authentic good stuff and the industrially produced erzatz food that permeates American groceries and tables.
My favorite quote from the article:

"I look in people's fridges and it appalls me," said Hugo Matheson, a chef at the Kitchen in Boulder, Colo. "The demographic around here doesn't have financial issues, but they still buy prepackaged lasagna from Whole Foods when all the kid really needs to eat is half a chicken breast."

Some will note that all this advice comes from professional chefs - but believe me you do not need to be one to feed your kids good, wholesome food. It doesn't need to be fancy but only needs to be made with love, care and good basic ingredients.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Beyond Organic - Recreating Local Agriculture and Food Production

On Christmas Day my wife, three children and I sat down to a home-cooked 7-course meal. One of the dishes featured a standing rib roast. This is a wonderfully flavorful cut of beef so we knew it would be good. However, there was something else special about it. It was locally produced. In fact, it came literally from "the steer down the street"! Our wonderful beef was raised at Mill Iron Farm which is located near enough to our home that we sometimes hear the contented nightly moos and bellows of our bovine neighbors.

The steer was grass fed, allowed to roam all day in the field and received no anti-biotics, hormones or anything else save for an annual worming pill. As they say, you could really taste the difference. It was absolutely superb - a rich, tender and juicy flavor that one would have to pay three times the amount in a restaurant to experience.

Such food ecstacy raises the question - why can't we have more locally raised and produced food products? I'll take organic products produced from afar any day over conventional ones but the aesthetic, environmental, health and flavor benefits of locally produced food make a strong case for communities to promote them.

I'm lucky to live in Carlisle Massachusetts where in addition to locally raised beef, we are also able to get a weekly delivery of fresh eggs from chickens cared for by a friend's 14-year old daughter, a wide variety of vegetables from local gardens in summer, honey, cranberries from the town bog and cheese made from the milk of goats raised by another neighbor! I don't expect that every community can produce this sort of bounty but it sure would be nice if more were able to reestablish local food production.

Fortunately there are many people ahead of me on this quest. For example, I recently heard a report on PBS radio's "The World" entitled 100 Mile Diet about a couple in British Columbia that have undertaken an ambitious one-year experiment. They are eating only food grown within 100 miles of where they live. I applaud them for their courage - no coffee or tea for a year! Sure this is a bit extreme, but they make the point just how much local food has disappeared over the years and that it's possible to reintroduce some of it.

Another interesting piece on the locally-produced movement appeared today in the New York Times Dining Out section (0ne of my favorite things to read). "In Oregon, Thinking Local" describes how this trend is taking off in the Portland Oregon area thanks to a local grocer called New Seasons specializing in "home grown" food.

This reminded me of another attempt to recreate a local, self-contained food ecosystem in Vermont called the Farmer's Diner. The idea is to feature only locally produced products on their menu of traditional diner fare. This wasn't easy - much of the local food production infrastructure had disappeared and needed to be recreated. For example, they joint ventured with a pig farmer to build a factory to produce bacon.

These different reports really hit home just how much our food production system has become nationalized and internationalized, to the detriment of the environment, and of course to the palate. Imagine the aesthetic, health and taste benefits to our communities if there were more real Olive Gardens and less ersatz ones.

Food for Thought

I originally wrote this in 2004. It gives a business perspective on one of my American food heros - Alice Waters. One correction, I don't believe she invented the mesculin mix as I claim in the article, but rather popularized it in America.

Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse, is a business visionary that transformed the American restaurant industry and changed our eating experience forever. She pioneered the preparation of cuisines based entirely on local ingredients. She invented a new way of working with suppliers by cultivating collaborative relationships with local organic farmers. Waters is responsible for introducing many of the innovations in restaurant cuisine that we take for granted today. For example, she worked with local farmers to cultivate obscure varieties of lettuce that few if any people had ever heard of or eaten before. Today the “mesculin mix”, which she invented, is served in restaurants everywhere and is widely available in supermarkets.

Alice Waters is now taking on a new challenge. She is raising the $400,000 annual budget for the Edible Schoolyard program ( ). It provides urban public school students with a one-acre organic garden and a kitchen classroom. Here’s how the organization describes its mission, “Using food systems as a unifying concept, students learn how to grow, harvest, and prepare nutritious seasonal produce. Experiences in the kitchen and garden foster a better understanding of how the natural world sustains us, and promote the environmental and social well being of our school community”.

Why is Waters leading such an effort? A piece in the Sunday March 7, 2004, New York Times magazine (see explains that Waters wants to reverse the obesity epidemic among American children that she believes is a symptom of the deeper issue of how fast food and industrial agriculture are destroying the environment and our culture. “The way children are eating now is teaching them about disposability, about sameness, about fast, cheap and easy. They learn that work is to be avoided, that preparation is drudgery”.

One could say the same things about how many corporations operate today. They are built for disposability, dominated by numbing sameness and obsessed with the endless pursuit of the fastest, cheapest and easiest way of doing business. But the success of Alice Waters proves that business doesn’t have to be this way – there is an alternative. It’s possible to improve people’s lives and make a profit. How? Chez Panisse shows the way. It treats suppliers and employees like real partners not adversaries or chumps. Waters has worked in a mode of collaborative interdependence with the same group of local farmers for over thirty years. The farmers grow and supply an ever evolving mix of organic produce for the restaurant. They benefit by having a strong and committed partner that plays a leadership role in the marketplace. Chez Panisse gains by having a loyal supplier network dedicated to providing quality ingredients and changing its product mix to enable Chez Panisse to steadily produce new culinary innovations.

Inside the company, Waters runs her kitchen along the same collaborative principles. Morning menu planning meetings are exercises in group participation and decision making. The day’s deliveries of fresh ingredients are inspected by the entire culinary team. Ideas for dishes are proposed by everyone, test batches are prepared and evaluated, and the group decides the menu through a process of collaborative consensus.

In Chez Panisse, Alice Waters has created a prosperous and self-sustaining business ecosystem held together by a powerful common vision, shared goals and communal values. It exhibits real commitment to its mission and purpose and to all the stakeholders who make the system work. These are Next Generation Company principles in action. And they are just as applicable to a bank or a manufacturer or a professional services organization.

But for this alternative approach to business to work, it takes leaders with the courage and conviction to stick to these principles. When Waters started her restaurant in the 1971 people told her she was crazy. The tables were too close together. The atmosphere was too casual. Finding a reliable network of local farmers who used sustainable methods was inconceivable. And serving just a single fixed price menu for dinner was absurd. But she stuck to her beliefs and swam against the tide. Eventually the rest of the country began to follow. This is the fundamental challenge of Next Generation Leadership. It demands the courage to take an alternative path and to stick to an ennobling vision and core set of principles despite the skepticism and even scorn of others. Creating Next Generation Companies will never be easy – but the rewards are worth it. Think about this the next time you dig into that nice bowl of fresh mesculin salad.

The Choice is Ours

I wrote this originally at the end of 2004. It reflects some of my core beliefs and philosophy about food and life as well as the importance and consequences of the choices we make.

Philosopher Bertram Russell said, “Change is scientific, progress is ethical, change is indubitable, whereas progress is a matter of controversy.” And here’s one way the battle between change and progress plays out somewhere in America everyday. A huge retail chain moves into the area. It offers product variety and one-stop-shopping at a level unmatched by any competitors. Its goods are so inexpensive that it soon begins putting local shops out of business. One by one, Main Street stores close and are replaced by down market businesses or national chain outlets. Has the community merely changed or progressed?

Many economists would argue that the town is better off. The standard of living is increased. Locals now spend less for essentials and can afford more discretionary purchases. Growth is fueled as savings are redirected to more productive uses. Small business owners and community advocates on the other hand would take the opposite view. A far smaller portion of every sales dollar brought in by a national chain stays in the community than does with a locally-owned business. And behemoth businesses threaten commercial diversity and local authenticity. Before you know it, every town center or shopping plaza looks the same. An important piece of the community’s physical and social identity is lost.

Regardless of which side of this debate you are on, it is important to understand that changes like these happening in communities and in the workplace result from choices that we make each and every day as consumers. We have the freedom to choose what we buy and with whom we do business. And those decisions have far-reaching impacts on the economic health and aesthetic quality of our communities.

Many Americans can’t seem to get enough of stores like Walmart, Home Depot, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts or Costco. If you are one of them then by all means keep shopping in these places. But don’t be upset when local merchants go bust. Would you miss businesses such as Ferns, Carlisle Auto Repair, West Concord Supermarket, Idlewylde, The Cheese Shop and West Concord 5 & 10 (These are businesses in Concord and Carlisle, Massachusetts where I live. Please substitute them with the beloved local establishments in your area) were they to disappear? If so then make sure you patronize them too. Don’t calculate value purely on price. Is saving two bucks a pound on ground beef at the Walmart Supercenter or three dollars on a bottle of merlot at Costco worth the larger price of decimating local businesses?

America, for better or for worse, is one giant marketplace where the customer is king or queen. We may feel powerless as workers and ignored as voters, but as customers we rule. Our influence is vast. So think twice about what kind of locality and region you wish to live in the next time you set off shopping. Because where you shop, and what you buy affects the make up of our community. Favor chain stores and big box outlets? Keep shopping in these places - more will pour into the area. Love local merchants, farmers and artisans? The best way to ensure they are here tomorrow is to buy from them today.

Some might assert that locally-owned businesses like the ones I’ve mentioned are an anachronistic luxury that only well-off people in communities like Concord and Carlisle can afford to keep going. Maybe so - but there is evidence that businesses that compete on authenticity and quality can more than hold their own even when they go up against big and powerful national firms. During the 1950’s and 1960’s national bakery and brewing corporations became dominant. Local and regional bakeries and brewers got acquired or went bust. Soon the big players began producing standardized products to reap efficiency and cost advantages. Quality standards plunged (remember Wonder Bread?) Were these changes for the better or worse? It took more than two decades to answer this question but eventually consumers voted with their pocketbooks. Today many communities have locally-owned bakeries producing top-notch breads, pastries and cakes. Local breweries and brew pubs producing a wide variety of high quality beers and ales are now common in many regions and cities around the country.

Is this change or progress? We decide – every time we reach for our wallets. The choice is ours.