The Tactile Experience in the Digital Age

Yesterday, Rosie DiManno wrote a column for the Toronto Star bemoaning the move from newsprint to digital media. And while I agree with a lot of her points, there are others that just don’t jibe.

DiManno equates the move to a digital platform over newsprint with a dumbing down of the news. That’s fair enough, to an extent, and yes, there is plenty of fluff out there. As someone who writes what would likely be considered “fluff” for the Star (face it, restaurant news is seldom hard-hitting journalism), I’ll go so far as to agree with that sentiment (can we get over all the celebrity crap, please?). But let’s not equate lack of quality writing with the topic of the articles.

When Greg and I ran TasteTO, we made every attempt to emulate a mainstream publication, even though our publication was online. Articles were were fact-checked and edited and we had a strict ethical policy. We regularly refused to run articles by other writers because they didn’t meet our level of quality. This left us with a few pissed-off writers, but we couldn’t with good conscience run these pieces.

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The 9/11 Club

Like everybody else in the western world, I remember where I was on the morning of September 11th, 2001. Like everyone else, I spent most of the day glued to the television, crying. Unlike everybody else, I got dressed up and went out to dinner at a local restaurant… to celebrate my birthday.

It’s been an ongoing joke through most of my adult life that my birthdays always suck. They just do. Many of my friends abandon me for the Toronto film festival, and plans have a tendency to not work out – like the time Greg and I planned a day at a museum and a nice restaurant for lunch, only to discover that both were closed. Last year, we were supposed to go see KISS at an outdoor concert the night before, but my allergies kept me trapped at home. So I woke up that morning in 2001 expecting my birthday to suck in some way. I just didn’t realize it was going to suck for the whole world.

Ten years later, I’m still not sure going out was a good idea. But we had a reservation for a dozen people and we didn’t really know what else to do. Being together seemed like a better thing than being alone. A few of us brought cell phones and throughout the sombre meal, phones would ring occasionally with news that another NYC friend was safe. A call from Carla to let us know she was home, but tired after walking to the Bronx from midtown. A shell-shocked Marcus, telling me that he had to walk past body parts on the ground outside his office near the Trade Centre, and hitch a ride back to New Jersey. Erika, who until only a month or so before, had been working at Deutsche Bank in one of the smaller buildings near the Trade Centre that collapsed from the force of the other buildings coming down, sat across from me, quietly shell-shocked.

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Critics vs Bloggers (Again), with an Evil Twist

There’s yet another article making the rounds on the differences between professional food critics and bloggers. It mostly trots out the same old arguments; ones that we still haven’t been able to find a solution for, and mostly skewers bloggers for all of the same old things we’ve been skewering bloggers for all along (visiting too early, not being informed about the cuisine, not doing research, not writing well in the first place, being shills for the restaurant in exchange for free food), but there’s a new allegation I haven’t seen before…

Quite a few publicists double as bloggers to raise the profile of their clients.

Uhh… I am boggled by how seriously uncool this is. I mean, this is a huge conflict of interest, and makes all publicists and bloggers look suspect. How is a reader (and potential customer) supposed to know the difference between a fair and unbiased opinion and a blog post by someone who is not just getting paid to write about the business, but who is getting paid to promote the business to other writers? I can’t believe that people are allowed to get away with this.

If I was approached by a publicist who did this,  I’d refuse to work with them.

The question is, do I have to start checking out every PR company that approaches me to find out how ethical they are? Or is the hassle of that why they’re allowed to get away with it in the first place?

Not cool, folks, really not cool.

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First and Foremost – For the Greater Good

Like so many people who watched and took part in the proceedings at Toronto City Hall yesterday, I was enthralled by the sense of coming together to support the city. People from disparate groups and organizations all took the time, despite Mayor Ford and the committee making it more and more difficult for them to do so, to stand up and tell the committee, and the people of the city, what they believe in. As a city, as a community, I think this will make us stronger. I think that it will provoke more and more people to become engaged in municipal politics, which is a very good thing – that lack of involvement is what got us into this mess in the first place.

But I’m not sure I believe it’s going to do much good.

The hand-picked executive committee went into these sessions having clearly stated that they were not going to be swayed by the deputations. Councillor Mammoliti made it clear that he was there because it was his job but that he wasn’t interested in opposing points of view, something that he continually made clear through the 22 hours of deputations with his attitude and condescending questions. In the end, the committee voted unanimously to take the advice of the KPMG report and look at making cuts, essentially telling every deputant that their time and effort didn’t matter.

The hope now is that the deputations DID sway all of those other, middle of the road councillors so that when it comes time for the full council to vote on the recommendations, decisions will be made with consideration for issues other than budget line items.

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The Feminists Are Coming – And They Have Cupcakes

When I think of “feminism”, Nigella Lawson doesn’t really come to mind.

Not because I don’t think that she’s a strong woman, in control of her own career and destiny, but because the stereotypes that she plays to use a certain kind of femininity that puts women barefoot and back in the kitchen.

Most of the female chefs I know have had to work twice as hard as their male counterparts to be taken seriously. Women who opt to make pastry for a living – whether because they genuinely enjoy it or because the hours and physical demands are easier – are considered cop outs. It’s utterly unfair, but it’s still a stupid stereotype of the industry. And even the women who do choose to make pastry for a living do so in a professional context – wearing a proper uniform, hair tied back, back and neck and shoulders aching at the end of a day bent over a cake doing hours of icing work.

Nigella sets these ladies back, if we want to be honest about it. Because even if she IS running her own empire and selling lots of books… she creates a stereotype of a woman and a bowl of frosting that the rest of us all have to live down (or up to, depending on how insecure you are). Nigella causes people to assume that real pastry chefs flit around sticking their fingers in the bowl, making sexy face as they test their new products. And for the home cook, Nigella creates food porn aspirations that can never be achieved, causing men to wonder why their wives and girlfriends don’t wear sexy sweaters over tight-laced corsets while they bake cupcakes (yes, Nigella, we can tell you’re wearing a corset… come on honey, let that belly hang out!), and causing women to compare themselves unfavourably to someone with a team of assistants that undoubtedly not only includes photographers and food stylists but hair and make-up people as well.

I’m not saying that you can’t be a pretty feminist. I’m not saying that feminists shouldn’t bake. Hell, I’m not even saying that feminists can’t/shouldn’t own their sexuality and use it to get ahead. But let’s not kid ourselves into believing that Nigella posing with a bowl of batter and a tight sweater actually helps move the cause forward at all, okay? That’s she’s out there representing all the women trying to break free of the sexist stereotypes. And let’s really not pretend that real female pastry chefs don’t cringe when her name comes up because of the imagery she employs to sell some cookbooks.

 

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Yogurt – Still Full of Lies

Am I beating a dead horse if I link to yet another article pointing out that health claims on packaged food are (intentionally) misleading?

This NY Times article doesn’t really reveal anything new if you’ve been following the whole story over the past few years, but it speaks to the stretches of truth advertisers will make and the overall gullibility of consumers when you consider that people are still buying these products.

It just feels like a battle food advocates can never win. Between advertisers and media willing to repeat any study that touts a “superfood”, or an ingredient with nutritional properties, the people standing up and saying, “hey now, wait a minute, do more research” are the ones made to look like kooks.

But how sad is it that we’re willing to buy yogurt, or juice or cereal because of false promises of restored health? I’m angry that people don’t take more time to inform themselves about what they’re buying and putting into their bodies, but I’m also a little shocked at the desperation of people willing to try anything that offers any kind of promise of improvement, be it weight loss, digestive health or, scariest of all, cancer prevention.

I don’t agree with everything said by author Michael Pollan, but “don’t buy food with health claims on the package” has to be one of the wisest things I’ve ever read.

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The Gung Ho Food Race

At this moment, I am sitting on six… no, eight different bits of Toronto restaurant news/gossip that I cannot share. I can’t share them for a number of reasons, either because I’ve specifically been asked not to until the restaurant is ready to formally announce their news, or because what I know is unconfirmed gossip and I’m still working on fleshing out the story.

It is my job to find out (factual) restaurant news. And I love my job; I love the excitement that chefs and customers have when a new place opens, I love watching the buzz spread, I love seeing the reviews roll in. What I don’t love – and this is why I’m sitting on all of these secrets – is when we all jump the gun, or get way too excited about a potential new restaurant or project before it’s even opened.

Case in point: the David Chang thing. I’m as enthusiastic as anyone for a David Chang restaurant; he’s considered one of the best chefs in the world. But didn’t we all look pathetically desperate a couple of months back when gossip spread and then the news was confirmed that Chang would be opening restaurants here… in late 2012? Standing back and watching the frenzy from a safe distance, anybody would think that Torontonians had never eaten anything fancier than Kraft Dinner and bagged salad, so desperate were we for Chang’s noodles and pork buns. Could we even be trusted in a fine dining restaurant? Were we familiar with those crazy things they call “utensils”?

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I Will NOT Buy That for a Dollar

Way back a decade ago, before people had their own personal food blogs and everyone just hung out on LiveJournal, there was a group blog on that site about food. The premise of this group was the same as your typical food blog today – people wrote posts about food, shared recipes, etc., the only difference being that there were hundreds of people who all posted to the same blog. One of the regular contributors to this LiveJournal group would post recipes and photos of the dishes he made, and always, somewhere in the photo of the dish, was his cat. It was his “thing”. Sometimes the cat was sitting on the dinner table, next to the completed dish. Often the shot showed the cat on the counter, next to a rolled out pastry or a bowl of batter. These posts elicited two types of responses; those of us who were utterly grossed out by the proximity of dirty kitty feet to a food preparation surface, and those who thought it was perfectly okay.

It’s that second group that worries me.

There have been various articles in the media over the past week or so about one Toronto woman’s idea to hold a copy of an “underground” food market that originated in San Francisco. The premise being that people bring food that they have prepared in their homes and gather in a market-type setting to sell their wares. Hassel Aviles thinks that this is something the city wants and needs. She thinks it’s such a great idea, in fact, that she’s already created a website, despite not having anything confirmed with regards to venue, licenses, insurance, or, oh yeah, those pesky health and safety regulations.

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The Special Treatment – Just For Girls

I’m not sure who to blame for my outrage. The subject line in my RSS feed says “France’s Anne-Sophie Pic Named World’s Best Chef”. And the post it represents says the same thing. But the website The Food Section really only aggregates posts from other places, and clicking through to the full article at The Independent makes for a very different story. Anne-Sophie Pic is, according to the bottled water company that decided the contest, the world’s best FEMALE chef.

And what pisses me off is – why should there be a distinction? Why are we still separating our chefs by gender?

Sure there are fewer female chefs, for a whole variety of reasons ranging from family choices (men can’t have the babies) to history (hundreds of years ago, because men were always paid more, male chefs were seen as status symbols), but it doesn’t mean that the female chefs who are working and running kitchens and restaurants aren’t every bit as good as the men.

Is the gender segregation meant with good intentions – to level out the playing field? Or is it misogyny, pure and simple?

Pic, like her father and grandfather before her, holds 3 Michelin stars. To my knowledge, Michelin doesn’t have a separate set of stars or awards for restaurants run by female chefs versus male chefs. So why the segregation for this contest?

Image: Anne-Sophie Pic photo: Jeff Nalin/Maison Pic

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The Downward Slider

Foodies are a fickle bunch. Since eating is, in many ways, a game of one-upmanship, we’re always on to the hot new thing.

But whatever happened to the old things? Do you remember when oil-soaked pasta salad was fancy? When we all first discovered sundried tomatoes? Or in one of the health-driven trends, when we put oat bran in every damned thing?

This piece in the New York Times explores fickle food trends and their cycles, specifically looking at the rise and fall and rise again of mac ‘n’ cheese. Homey and comforting, lurid and plastic, then back to fancy and artisanal.

But think of all the other food we once swooned over but soon grew bored of. I can remember the first time I drank Perrier in the 80s and felt oh so cool and European. And who drinks bubble tea anymore? Remember how enthralled we were with brie, especially wrapping it in pastry and baking it for parties? Chocolate-covered strawberries were once the height of sophistication, now they just seem sad to me, all bland and out of season.

It will happen to our current food trends too. Some day we will look back out the current obsession for bacon and cupcakes and shake our heads -what were we thinking? Pho? Boring. Craft beer? What was all the fuss anyway? The marketing scam that is probiotics will hopefully leave us embarrassed and humbled for being such suckers.

And maybe, just maybe… we’ll figure out that sliders are really lame and tacky.

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Why You Shouldn’t Buy Girl Guide Cookies

It’s Girl Guide cookie season. But before you get too excited, stop and ask yourself if you know what’s in those tasty biscuits? We look at the sustainability of everything else we eat, why not foods made/sold for charity?

It turns out that the cookies made for the Girl Scouts in the US are loaded with palm oil. In the news a great deal lately, palm oil has a scurrilous reputation. While it is the cheapest food oil on earth, it requires deforesting huge swaths of South Asian rain forest (and destroying the habitat of sensitive species like the Orangutan) to get the stuff.

Girl Guide cookies (the Canadian equivalent, with only the vanilla/chocolate combo in the spring and the chocolate mint cookies in the fall – not the plethora of flavours to be had down South) are just as bad. Made by Dare for Girls Guides Canada, they have made changes in recent years to decrease the transfats in the vanilla/chocolate cookies (there’s still some in the mint ones), but palm oil (because it is cheap and contains no trans fats) is still the main oil ingredient.

The saddest part is that members of  Girl Scouts/Guides in both countries have tried to get their respective organizations to change the recipe and omit the palm oil.

Carolyn Thomas of the blog The Ethical Nag suggests not purchasing the cookies. Instead, she tells her readers to give the girls the money, but refuse to take the cookies, making it clear why. And if you’ve got time, an email to Girl Guides of Canada wouldn’t hurt either. As an organization that promotes learning about, respecting and being part of nature (specifically to “protect our common environment”), it seems a bit shameful that they’re not more concerned about this issue. And as an organization that depends on donations (and cookie sales), letting them know that consumers expect them to source their product ethically is a lesson that would seem to be at the heart of the organization’s mission to teach girls to contribute responsibly to their communities.

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Is ADHD Caused By Food?

I read this piece on Civil Eats with great interest. It discusses a study that links ADHD in children in with the consumption of processed foods.

There are a multitude of credible scientific studies to indicate that diet plays a large role in the development of ADHD. One study found that the depletion of zinc and copper in children was more prevalent in children with ADHD. Another study found that one particular dye acts as a “central excitatory agent able to induce hyperkinetic behavior.” And yet another study suggests that the combination of various common food additives appears to have a neurotoxic effect—pointing to the important fact that while low levels of individual food additives may be regarded as safe for human consumption, we must also consider the combined effects of the vast array of food additives that are now prevalent in our food supply.

This is interesting because back when I was first diagnosed with allergies, as well as multiple chemical sensitivity, I read plenty of books, studies and articles that linked ADHD to chemical exposure. Not necessarily in food, although food was certainly an important medium of transfer.

Having said that, I have a friend with a child who has ADHD. She relates knowing that her son had the illness only a few weeks after he was born, based on watching him in his crib. It may have been that her diet while she was pregnant was high in processed foods, but I think it’s more likely that children are born with ADHD and that the symptoms can be made worse by exposure to the chemicals in processed foods.

But it’s certainly a reasonable excuse to ensure kids get a wholesome diet of real food, grown as organically as possible.

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The Mania For Meat

In yesterday’s Globe and Mail, Katrina Onstad questions the recent frenzy trend towards gorging on meat. As usual, the comment section of the piece devolved into the same old tired arguments of carnivore types ranting about how we were meant to eat meat and vegetarian types talking about how horrible it is.

Having been both a vegetarian and now an omnivore, I’ve see and heard all of these tired old arguments before. They’re particularly annoying in this case because not one of the commenters seem to get Onstad’s point, which is not a rant about how meat is bad, but rather to question why it is so trendy and more importantly, how folks in the sustainable food scene hide behind artisanal meat as an excuse for our own gluttony.

Certainly, if we’re going to eat meat, happy cows, chickens, pigs and goats are a good place to start as opposed to the factory-farmed stuff shot full of antibiotics, living their short lives without ever seeing the light of day. No one is arguing the fact that happy animals are better, not only in terms of animal husbandry but also in terms of taste.

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TV Chefs Need to Clean Up Their Acts

When I was a kid, my Mom had a plaque on the wall that said: “My house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy.” Never one to be happy living in dirt, or even disorganization or clutter, I was never really fond of the damn thing.

Sure, there are times when a little dirt won’t hurt us. And yes, studies are all very clear on the fact that children exposed to dirt and germs end up being much healthier than kids brought up in sterile environments, particularly because all the cleaners used to make the environments so sterile are probably making them more sick than the dirt might.

In the kitchen though, poor sanitation habits can indeed make us sick.

The problem is that we have really poor role models.

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Which Came First – The Health Inspector or the Idiot?

A friend sent me this link to an article on the CBC website about a farmer/B&B owner in Prince Edward Island who is no longer allowed to serve eggs from his farm to guests at his B&B.

Paul Offer has been told that, as a food service operation, his B&B must serve federally-inspected eggs. As a small organic farmer, he’s allowed to sell his (organic, free-range) eggs to the public at the Charlottetown Farmer’s Market, but can’t serve them to guests in his own home. Rather than adhere to the law, Offer and his wife plan to shut down the B&B aspect of their business.

Holy crap, does this ever hurt my head. Supposedly this is a federal law, but Offer has been eating and serving eggs from his farm for decades.

And why is it okay for him to sell the eggs to the public via a farmers’ market? You would think it would actually be the opposite situation, as it is here in Ontario, where small farmers can sell eggs “at the gate”, but to sell them to the public, the eggs must be inspected.

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Moo Juice – Not the Magic Food You Think It Is

I’m kind of boggled to see this article about milk and calcium on a mainstream media website. For years, pretty much everyone has fallen in line with the dairy-industry-promoted tagline “milk does a body good”. But there has been lots of proof, for years, that milk, in fact, doesn’t do a body good at all and that the animal fat proteins in milk outweigh the good you get from the calcium.

I came across this same information years ago when I was diagnosed with a dairy allergy and started researching the dairy industry to maybe try and find out why (as I was also diagnosed with some chemical sensitivities, the doctor wasn’t sure if the allergy was the milk protein casein, or something else like antibiotics that might be in the milk). I came across lots of articles and studies touting the party line of milk being such a wonderful food. But in almost every case, the piece could be traced back to the dairy industry, which, it must be noted, have a HUGE vested interest in wanting people to equate their product with good health.

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This Shit Is Bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S

Who among us hasn’t stolen a look at another shopper’s cart in the grocery store line-up and passed judgment? And if you happen upon a lost grocery list, why, it’s as much of a vicarious thrill as reading someone’s diary. You can tell a lot about a person by what they put in their grocery cart, after all.

This grocery list, found at a Wal-Mart store, has been making the rounds online for the past week or so. The spelling, as has been noted everywhere, is atrocious. The list itself, while including some fruits and vegetables and cooking basics, also calls for a lot of ready-meals, dump and stir mixes, or outright junkified prepared foods.

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Well, Now We’re Screwed

This is the letter I just sent to the Minister of State for Agriculture regarding the announcement that the Conservatives are considering loosening the restrictions on functional foods. If you care about the fact that food companies are allowed claim their foods are healthy because they’ve added extra vitamins, or “healthy bacteria”, please contact the Agriculture Minister and the Minister of State, as well as the shadow cabinet ministers from the opposition parties and your own member of parliament and let them know that you want these restrictions tightened, not loosened.

The Honourable Jean-Pierre Blackburn
Minister of State (Agriculture)

cc: Gerry Ritz, Minister of Agriculture,
Wayne Easter, Liberal Agriculture Critic,
Alex Atamanenko, NDP Agriculture Critic,
Olivia Chow, Member of Parliament, Trinity-Spadina

Dear Mr. Blackburn,

I am writing to you regarding the announcement that the government is considering easing federal restrictions on “functional foods”, as detailed in today’s Toronto Sun: <http://www.torontosun.com/news/canada/2011/01/24/17017606.html>.

Given the overwhelming research indicating that function foods are merely advertising ploys; that the addition of vitamins and minerals serve only to help sell products; and that front of package nutritional claims are intentionally misleading, why would our government be so foolish and naive as to consider loosening these restrictions instead of tightening them?

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White as the Driven Snow

Thank you, Morgan Clendaniel, for using the phrase I was recently too afraid to use for fear of pissing people off. I’m not sure why I was afraid of pissing people off, I tend to live my life assuming that most people are pissed off by something about me, and undoubtedly my Loca-Bores piece (despite all of the positive comments it got) pissed people off. Because that’s how I roll. And I’m okay with that, as long as it gets people thinking about stuff.

But in employing fancy words like xenophobic and elitist, I really wanted to just rant about “white people food”, and the subtle undercurrent (that would undoubtedly be denied if you pointed fingers at specific people or groups) of racism (another word I wanted to use in that piece but was afraid to).

But seriously folks… white people food. Not that it isn’t good. And tasty. And ethical. And local. But. But, but but… It makes us shoves our heads up own own asses, really. It means we wear blinders to the other delights around us. It means we treat people who make non-white people food as second class citizens.

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