First Test

So, right after my last post we made a last minute decision to go out for dinner with family. While driving to Jake’s Good Eats I went back and forth trying to decide whether I was going to start abstaining from conventional meat that night or put it off for just one more meal. When we arrived I still hadn’t decided. After looking at the menu, I realized that this place was more upscale than it looked. It’s also well off the beaten path and appears to be on the edge of a farm of sorts. Was it possible that this was a place for a conscious eater?

I made a bold move (one I’m going to have to get used to) and decided to ask the waitress a few questions about the food. Nothing’s local, but she tells me that the chicken is free range and free of antibiotics. That’s good. I mean, it’s not perfect, but it’s edible. Worst case scenario is that it came from a factory farm where free range means thousands of chickens freely ranging under a small, crowded, dark, dusty and disease filled poultry tent. That would definitely take the wind out of my sails. She mentioned that they use Sysco, which has been offering more local and sustainable foods to it’s customers (so they say). There was some hope. Click here to view Sysco’s 2009 Case Study.

There were a few other things about this place that gave me the sense that someone running it was thinking consciously about food. They make all of their own salad dressings. Balsamic vinaigrette was drizzled on the plate with some sauteed leeks and fried green tomatoes. Wow! This was a great start. I could have eaten the entire appetizer, but it was too good not to share.  At first I resisted an offer to try the scallops, but then let my guard down and tried a tiny nibble. Pretty tasty.

I should tell you that when we first pulled up to this restaurant, Haleigh practically shouted in despair and dread “UUUGH! THIS PLACE IS UUUGLY!” After chastising her for being rude and telling her to keep those thoughts to herself, we pulled into a parking spot facing a couple of horses. Things were already looking up for my drama tween.

The restaurant does slightly resemble a shack at first glance. Not really knowing much about this place, I was expecting typical local diner fare, such as hamburgers and maybe some not so healthy country cooking in a dusty old dining room. Corn hole was set up by the front door. The inside is decorated with some antiques and old plaques, but with an artsy touch. The bathroom almost had a sort of boutique feel about it. As it turns out, the place is pretty charming. I don’t know if it was intentional, but the dinnerware was not uniform. All the plates were white, but different shapes and sizes. Maybe the owner doesn’t have the money to purchase uniform sets, or maybe they like it that way. I did. Unfortunately for the wait staff, I noticed it seemed to make clearing tables slightly more difficult.

I’d ordered blackened chicken breast over homemade fettuccine alfredo. There were a few small cherry tomato halves mixed in. They didn’t have much flavor, but the rest of the dish had plenty. I didn’t want to bombard the waitress with questions, but I wish I’d asked what part of the fettuccine alfredo was homemade – the pasta or the sauce or both. I’m guessing the menu was referring to the alfredo sauce, which was very good. There was nothing special about the noodles, though they were more than adequate. They were cooked a little past al dente, but still, it was a good dish. As my sister-in-law pointed out, it would have been better if there were more vegetables mixed in – maybe some spinach or broccoli. The vegetables on everyone else’s plates looked fresh and nicely cooked. But back to my dish. The breastbone was removed from the chicken, but the drummette from the chicken wing was left intact. Nice touch. The skin was also left on, although it was a little too  charred.

This wasn’t a huge portion of food, but plenty in my opinion. I still had enough leftover for lunch the next day. The take out box offered another pleasant surprise. Instead of bringing me one of those eco-unfriendly styrofoam takeout containers, the waitress handed me a nice brown box made from recycled materials. I’m not at the point yet where I’m thinking enough ahead to remember that I don’t want to use those styrofoam ones, so it was nice that they’d thought of it.

While this isn’t a great restaurant (that would be one that uses local and organic ingredients), I still loved it. The real clincher is that it’s just a few miles away from home. There are several things on the menu that I can’t wait to try. Most of the restaurants that I would prefer to dine in, serving fresh, local ingredients, are in south Charlotte and don’t quite fit into our budget. Though I wouldn’t exactly describe this restaurant as cheap, it’s nice to have a semi-conscious option, i. e., one that I don’t have to fear, for an occasional dinner out that’s close to home.

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Random Stuff

I’ve finally had some success baking bread!! I’ll still play around with the recipe. I’m starting to get the “feel” of the dough. I’ve been trying to avoid adding gluten, which I finally figured out was like putting the cart before the horses. Whole wheat is harder to work with, so until I get the basics down, I’ll keep adding gluten (in the form of King Arthur’s organic unbleached all purpose flour for now) back into the recipe until I get it right. Then I’ll start working backward again, until I figure out a way to make it with just whole wheat. I just need the training wheels a little longer. I checked out King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking cookbook from the library, to get a few more tips.

Speaking of books, I’ve read a few lately. Mostly about food of course. Even Eat, Pray, Love had a section solely dedicated to food. In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan was okay, but honestly it wasn’t anything I hadn’t already heard. If you just skip to the last section, you’ll get the entire book in a nutshell. If you aren’t already familiar with reasons to eat whole food, Big Industry and Big Agriculture and such I recommend it. I’ve been told I might like another one of his books,  Omnivore’s Dilemma more.

I read Building Bone Vitality, which was boring, to be quite honest, but there was some really compelling information in there explaining what’s wrong with the current recommendations to eat lots of dairy and take calcium supplements to build strong bones and prevent osteoporosis.  The authors/doctors recommend eating less meat and dairy and other the high acids foods that steal the calcium right from your bones. Instead eat calcium rich fruits and vegetables like collards, kale, spinach, broccoli, carrots, oranges, dates and raisins. Even nuts and seeds have calcium.

I also read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. They actually had it on cd at the library, so I listened to most of it while chauffeuring the kids back and forth to school. (The girls were so glad when I finished it.) The author basically uprooted her family from Arizona and moved back to Virginia where they grew most of their own food (fruits, vegetables, eggs, chickens and turkeys) and ate locally for one year. Very inspiring, and there was a lot of insight in this book about eating local, whole foods.

Now I’m reading The Conscious Kitchen by Alexandra Zissu. I like this book the most because it’s more of a why and how to. She gives lots of tips and resources, like how to read PLU codes (those little stickers they put on produce). 5 digit numbers beginning with a 9 are organic and according to her, conventional produce begins with a 4 and has a four digit number (however I know that some also begin with a 3). Genetically Modified produce can be labeled with a five digit numbers beginning with an 8, but good look finding those. PLU’s are optional and I doubt those producers would be willing to divulge that information. She also has touches on almost everything I’m concerned about these days – from dairy to fish to plastic and more. Read this book!!

Next on my list is Real Food What to Eat and Why by Nina Planck. Then maybe the other Michael Pollan book.

One more thought. I caught a quick glimpse of an episode of Oprah last week in which she was discussing the horror of puppy mills. Shortly after that, I was shopping at HT and found myself in line behind a woman with reusable grocery bags (great!), but she also had a ton of prepackaged food in her cart. I know every little bit helps, so I’m not knocking their efforts by any means. In fact I need to ramp up my own. What I’m suggesting is that now that we’re paying attention and doing our part to rid the planet of puppy mills and plastic bags, it’s time to take the next step, whatever that means for you.

Pick one thing that concerns you and figure out how you can make that situation better. When it becomes a habit, choose another. Recycling is good, but avoiding all that packaging is better. (Something I need to work on.) Likewise, if you can’t bear the thought of puppies raised in a mill, then you should reconsider buying conventional meat from the grocery store. That steak or chicken was once a living animal that most likely came from a factory farm. The animal abuse and neglect happening on factory farms is much worse than that of a puppy mill. (See pictures below.) Livestock and chickens aren’t bred for adoption and the public isn’t looking to rescue them. The whistle’s been blown and still no one is listening.

For me, the next step is going to be further avoiding packaging and any meat that might have been factory farmed. I’m going to reuse all the produce bags I’ve been saving. I use them at the farmers market, but now I’m going to take them into the grocery store too. Once they’re gone, I’m going to put a couple of those handy grocery baskets inside my cart and put the produce right in there. I’m also going to try and eliminate paper products at home. That will be a little harder and the additional washing will probably fall to me. I’m not sure if I’ll get a lot of support at home for this one.

Avoiding conventional meat outside of my home will be difficult. I have been reluctant to take this step, because it’s not something I can do discretely. It will leave me vulnerable to ridicule and some people will question it. But I’m going to do it. Some might think I’ve gone vegetarian, and that’s fine I guess. In fact, this would probably be easier to explain than: I only eat minimal amounts of meat from animals that were raised humanely and fed a proper diet, free of growth hormones and antibiotics. Unfortunately, someone along the way will take offense to that. They might assume I think I’m too good to eat what they are eating or that I’m judging them, when in reality I’m just taking a stance against something I feel strongly about. I’m sure there will be opportunities for me to show my girls that standing up for what you believe in may not always be easy, nevertheless it’s an important virtue. Of course I’ll probably break the rules every now and then, when it can’t be avoided, but I am going to give it more effort. Saying “I will never eat” or forbidding myself from any food is not something I’m willing to do.

 

How is this...

 

 

... different than this?

 

 

Mama pigs are literally pinned down so that her babies can nurse freely and to keep her from rolling over on one of them, which is a real possibility. But still no excuse.

Mama pigs are literally pinned down so that her babies can nurse freely and to keep her from rolling over on one of them, which is a real possibility. But still no excuse.

 

 

These might be considered "Free Range" chickens on a factory farm, but not to me. Buyer beware.

 

Dealing with Negativity

Why is it that when you’re trying to lead a healthy lifestyle, some people (even good people), try to make you feel like a douche? Or they give you advice that is clearly not based on fact, but rather on their their own experience (of which they really have none, since they aren’t exactly the picture of health). “I turned out okay?” Ummm… no.

Somehow my avoidance of unhealthy foods or behaviors and any discussion of it, has occasionally been mistranslated as, “You are so unhealthy because you eat that or do that.” I can think of several situations (not just regarding food) in which “no thanks” or “it’s not for me” comes across like this: “You are a turd if you do that.”

In case anyone else out there is getting “the look” or the eye roll or the sneer, for choosing the more natural real food over the processed fake food (for yourself or *gasp* your children), I’d like to offer some encouragement instead. Be proud of yourself and stand your ground. You’re doing something really good! If you happen to be the one rolling your eyes and full of sarcasm, maybe try to lay off just a little. It’s easy to become discouraged when making a change. You’ve probably been on the receiving end before.

We’ve been led to believe eating fatty food is what causes obesity, but that is yesterday’s theory. Our fat intake has decreased, yet obesity is still on the rise. Sugar addiction is a serious problem. It’s an addiction that deserves the same sort of attention as tobacco and alcohol addiction. I’m not saying it should be illegal, but many people don’t realize that it’s as addictive as crack. Most kids will literally lie, cheat and steal for it. They’ll even get into cars with strangers… just kidding. Kids know not to do that now, right? I just pictured a group of sugar fiends in a vacant, condemned house splitting a tablespoon of sugar, purchased with the money they scrounged, just to get a taste. Bet it would happen though.

So many things we thought we knew about nutrition, are just plain wrong. “They” over thought it and led us astray. It’s not rocket science. Go back to eating food the way it was naturally grown. When you eat corn, it should still look like corn. Butter is better than margarine (especially if it the margarine contains trans fat). Sugar should be eaten as it naturally occurs – in fruit, and occasionally honey or pure maple syrup (not Mrs. Butterworth). Stay away from those fad artificial sweeteners. “They” can’t seem to make up their minds about their safety anyway. The whole egg is better than just the egg white, especially if they’re free range and fed well (happy, healthy chickens). Most food is better for you if eaten in it’s original form. The apple, rice, corn, potato, etc. is better and easier to digest when it’s eaten as a whole, or at least eaten together, i.e. mashed potatoes with skin, brown rice, etc. A glass a wine or beer or even a mixed drink (or two) with a meal should no longer be taboo. But all of these, along with meat and dairy and wheat products, should be consumed in much smaller quantities than we’re used to. This should go without saying, but if you have health problems or allergies you should probably listen to your doctor and ignore me.

Eat more vegetables. If you have access, buy locally, organically grown food, including pastured meats. (By the way, happy and healthy animals naturally produce meats that are higher in Omega 3’s.) Don’t support unethical, unhealthy and inhumane practices with your hard earned money. Save the gas and energy used to process, transport and store items that can’t be produced in our region. Be conscious about what you eat. Try growing your own organic food. It’s much easier than you think, and there’s a good chance you’ll actually take pleasure in it. It’s a pasttime that goes waaaaay back. I started with a low maintenance container garden, but next spring I’m actually looking forward to adding an “in ground” garden. More and more research is turning up regarding the harmful side effects of pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMO’s or GM Foods). The evidence is mounting and it’s just a matter of getting everyone’s attention now. Oh and artificial ingredients should be taboo.

Did you know that parents in western societies are likely to outlive their children if things don’t change? It’s true. Let that thought marinate for minute. Our diets and health are spiraling out of control. You might be condoning or even facilitating it by supporting fake food manufacturers and feeding this junk to your kids. If making a change for your own benefit isn’t motivation enough, then do it for your kids. Their lives, literally, depend on it. (Yea. I went there.)

Okay. I’m getting off my soap box now.

KYFT 2010

This weekend the girls and I, and a few of our friends, visited seven farms during the the Know Your Farms Tour. Twenty-seven local farms participated. Saturday we visited three: Birdbrain Ostrich Ranch, Grateful Growers Farm and Lewis Farm/Carolina Cattle Co. The ostrich farm was our first stop. The little guys were so cute. We sampled some ostrich meatballs. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but ostrich is nothing like the poultry I’m used to. If someone had told me I was eating beef, I would’ve believed them. Lewis Farms was more fun for the kids. They fed hay to the horses and there was a hayride tour.

The highlight for me on Saturday was visiting Grateful Growers. If you’ve read any of my earlier entries, you probably know that this is who I buy pork products from at the Matthews Farmers Market. It was nice to visit a farm that actually provides food for our family, and it was the only one we visited this go round. Linsey was very excited when she recognized Natalie from the market. I though we’d just be seeing a lot of happy pigs, but it turns out they grow other things as well for their own consumption: chickens, turkeys, mushrooms!! We ate lunch from their Harvest Moon Grille concession trailor. The GGQ (Grateful Growers pork barbecue) was good, but the pork burger with sriacha aioli and cheddar cheese on a homemade yeast roll – was devine! It would have been even better with the tomato. Haleigh ordered it without. This place has been highly rated (and not just by me), so if you’re ever in uptown Charlotte, hunt this orange concession trailer down!!

On Sunday we visited four farms that were really close together: Hartsell Farms, Bame Farms, Wild Turkey Farms and Landis Gourmet Mushroom (which is actually in an old cotton mill). We saw Fainting Goats, Belted Galloway Cattle and Gulf Coast Sheep (all endangered breeds) at Hartsell Farms. This is where I realized I had never really tried lamb before. I wish I’d though of it before we left and bought some while we were there. As soon as I figure out how to order some local, humanely treated lamb, I’m going to attempt cooking it.

Bame Farms was a small operation. The girls enjoyed playing with the antique corn sheller and grinder, but this is not the type of farm I want to support, at least until things improve for the pigs. I was really disappointed at how they were treated here. The pen was too small and the entire thing was just one large muddy mess, which I’m sure included the pigs’ own waste. This is better than a CAFO on a factory farm, I guess. But the chickens that we saw on the entire tour had better living arrangements than these poor pigs. I’m not saying that pigs should be treated better than chickens. However, this farmer claims that he grows the pigs to around 150 pounds (although they can get much larger). At best, that’s about 145 pounds more animal than a nice sized chicken. These guys need way more room to run than chickens do.

There were at least two faucets with water trickling out constantly and the pigs were completely covered in this dark mud/urine/poo mixture. (I’ll admit that the pen didn’t smell as bad as it looked.) The pen was no more than 10′ x 10′ and only about 3 feet high. It was covered, so the pigs wouldn’t have to worry about getting too hot. But pigs are smart and playful and enjoy running around every now and then. That was clear on every other farm that we visited. I wonder if these poor guys ever have the chance to set their feet on dry land (or whether some of them could even walk at all). Moving around in that gooey muck can’t be easy. If I remember correctly, they are fed mostly corn, which is not good. One of them appeared to be sick or injured. When asked about the pig, the farmer said he didn’t want to take it to the vet, because he feared they’d tell him to put it down. I’m not sure if he was looking out for the pig or his investment, but the pig should have been isolated from the others at the very least.

Wild Turkey Farms in China Grove was my favorite, by far. When I dream up an ideal, sustainable farm, this is pretty close to what I imagine. Everything they do here is done with care and respect for the animals, the environment and the consumer. The are even Animal Welfare Approved. All of the animals were pastured. The pigs live in huge, uncovered pens with a couple mud holes and ark shelters. There is plenty of grass under their feet. The cows roam in a huge pasture. While on our hayride tour of the farm, we could see them at a distance, relaxing under the cool shade of some trees, along with some protection – a llama (a couple of dogs also help with this). According to the farmer, llamas are extremely territorial and can sense an intruder from much further away than the cows can. They are also pretty fierce toward unwanted guests. The chickens also had nice sized pens on the pasture. The turkeys pen was a little smaller, but I’m pretty sure it’s due to their frailty. According to two different farmers on the tour, they are more difficult to keep alive and one of them isn’t planning to raise them anymore.

When one of the guests asked about slaughtering, which can be a touchy subject, the farmer didn’t flinch. The slaughtering company was in North Carolina and is family run. Based on what I had seen and heard so far, I believed him when he said it was a company he could trust to do the job with respect. I am considering ordering meat from this farm just to show my support for their high ethical standards. Standards so high, that some of their own family members and other farmers have given them a hard time about it. (Haters!)

The $25 that we paid for the ticket covered as many people as we could fit in one vehicle for both days. What a bargain. This annual tour will become a tradition for us. I highly recommend it, especially if you have kids. Even if you don’t care about the food aspect, this tour is such a fun learning experience.

Happy Grateful Growers Piglets

By the way, did you that NC is second only to Iowa in pig production, and that Smithfield is the nations largest pork producer. I wonder how Paula Deen feels about CAFO’s… Anyway, I won’t get all political on you, but if you’re interested in knowing how poorly these pigs are treated or how the waste is affecting the water supply, read this (please click the link), or do you own research.