Armory Review

As I opened the door into the quaint dining area I was overcome by a plethora of aromas dominated by a strong smoke. This was going to be amazing. The menu was posted on the classic 90’s display board, little white magnetized letters that latched onto a black backdrop. Four tight columns divided into different categories detailed nearly 10 items each. The kitchen, located right underneath this board, was open and displayed a large flattop, a few fryers, a small range and a massive smoker. The healthy chef was casually completing his orders using nearly all the equipment.

I approached the register and placed my order: Water Street tacos – which I was informed were being sold a la carte in honor of ‘taco Tuesday’ – one chicken, one brisket and one pork, a rib platter, where I doubled down on the meat for only six extra dollars, served with cornbread, and my two sides of mac and cheese and smoked baked beans. I took my seat at the only two seat table I could find and began to peruse their menu further. As I picked up a menu wedged between a napkin holder, I was exposed to FIVE separate bottles of barbeque sauces. I took my time reading their descriptions and before I could finish the cashier brought over my appetizer. Three loaded flour tortillas stuffed with my meats of choice and topped with cole slaw and cilantro and green onion. Okay, probably the most sacrilegious tacos I have ever eaten but easily some of the finest. The chicken was cooked perfectly, effortless tearing with each bite I took. It was spiced with a mix of spices that had a nice kick and resembled a blackening spice. The cole slaw cut the chicken with a nice burst of acid finished with a rich sweet sauce. The brisket and pork offered nearly the same level of enjoyment.

Again, quicker than I was ready for, the cashier brought my rib platter. Piled high a dozen ribs, a massive portion of mac and cheese and healthy cup of baked beans. The smoky aroma of the ribs was enchanting. I wanted to taste the sides first, as I dove into the mac and cheese I noticed it could have been hotter. The macaroni also had lost of some of its texture and I presume both factors were because it was pulled, ready-made, out of a steam table. The flavor did amend these issues though, a rich creamy sauce with a sharp cheesy bite coated each noodle in a velvety layer of mornay. The beans, contrary to the mac, were nearly boiling and I was appreciative. Each bean, also coated liberally in a smoky sweet sauce, was incredibly tender and almost creamy in texture. I took a quick bite out of my cornbread which I only need to describe by detailing what my notes of the meal said: Holy shit, moist. I now turned my attention to the ribs.

I wanted to experience that ethereal rub that was assaulting my nostrils, so I ate one dry. As I took my bite the entirety of its meat fell right of the bone. My palate was blasted with a hard smoke, and a complex mixture of spices I can’t even fathom. As I finished the tasty morsel I was teased by a slight kick of heat, something I came to enjoy each and every bite. The first sauce, Kansas City Barbeque, was subtitled simply as sweet. I caught tones of molasses – which could have been accurate, although I think I was tasting the molasses in brown sugar – a pleasant mixture of onion and garlic, a very slight hint of acid and tomato. (One of my biggest peeves about barbeque sauce is when it is crafted with ketchup – essentially high fructose corn syrup and tomato concentrate – but I asked the chef about this sauce and told it wasn’t I was thrilled.) Next up was a tangy Memphis style sauce. It was, as expected, a vinegar-based sauce. The level of acid was high, but it was appropriately balanced with a sweetener, the lack of that rich molasses taste leads me to believe they used honey, although white sugar is also an option. I followed this with a smattering of Georgia Peach barbeque sauce. This lightly sweetened sauce, exploding with peach flavor paired excellently with complex rub on the ribs and helped mellow out that slight burst of heat at the end. My next sauce I was somewhat apprehensive about. Labeled only as chipotle barbeque I was expecting some bastardization – although the tacos should have given me

some insight – of a chipotle sauce. The heat was gradual, slowly enveloping my palate as I gobbled down my rib. It’s complexity of flavors and sensations left my head spinning as I was greeted with heat and sweet playing off the undertones of the rub. I had just found my favorite sauce. My last was Carolina Mustard sauce which had me intrigued from the start; it was the only bottle on the table that had an intense golden color. At first bite I was greeted with the familiar flavor of mustard, a gentle biting bitterness that slowly developed into a colorful burst of tanginess and sweetness that ended on almost floral notes. This was easily the most complex sauce on the table. My preference though was still towards the Chipolte and so I doused my remaining ribs in a health portion of it with a few drops of Kansas Barbeque in between.

Touted as one of the top 10 barbecue joints in Iowa, the Armory makes good on this promise. The intoxicating aroma as you open the door should be enough, but for those who are still not convinced the diverse menu offers items from brisket to pulled pork and all matters in between. The tables are clean, and the service is quick. Both impressive feats considering I saw over 30 people in the establishment during the hour I enjoyed my meal. Authentic main dishes, innovative appetizers, solid sides and a playful collection of sauces will leave any barbecue fan satisfied and satiated. If you are breezing through the little town of Decorah I highly recommend spending some time in one of the top 10 barbecue restaurants in the state: a true taste of mid-western barbeque.

Old Armory BBQ
***
Address: 421 W Water St,

Decorah,

IA 52101

(563) 382-6208
Website: www.oldarmorybbq.com

Atmosphere: A quaint barbecue joint in the heart of Decorah. Service is quick and employees are friendly.

Sound Level: moderately loud

Recommended Choices: Water St tacos are a must and one of the meat platters.

Drink’s, Wine and Cocktails: Only fountain drinks and water.

Price $ (Inexpensive)

Open: Monday to Thursday from 11a-8p; Friday and Saturday 11a-9p; Sunday 11a-3p

Reservations: No

What the stars represent: ratings range from zero to four stars. Zero is poor, fair or satisfactory. One star, good. Two stars, very good. Three stars, excellent. Four stars, extraordinary.

My Chicken

This post may have disturbing content to some.
The night’s sleep was interesting. I had about three separate episodes of dreams where I was late to get up. One of them I found myself back in Rhode Island and after glancing at the time I knew I wouldn’t make it back to the farm. David had expressed that he wanted me ready by 8.00am. We had a busy day but our first farm chore was lengthy. Before feeding the chickens and checking for eggs we needed to grab a rooster.

I held the old wooden door as David slipped in and plucked the white bodied rooster from the mass of birds. Disapproving squawks resonated through the valley. David eased the door open, rooster tucked snugly under his arm, and walked across the pen. The cool morning breeze rushed through the valley catching the budding walnuts and burr oaks creating a whooshing that resembled the ocean. Was I still dreaming, back in Rhode Island? David inverted the bird, to much of his disapproval, and placed him snugly in a metal funnel shaped apparatus. He turned toward me and held out the worn wooden handle of a knife, one that his father had used in his lifetime. With a quick gesture towards the bird he told me, “You’re up.” David grasped the bird’s temples and exposed it neck so I could get a good view.

The rooster was calm, as calm as any inverted bird with its head sticking out of a metal cone could be. The breeze pushed the earthy aroma of manure into my nostrils and the valley – song birds still asleep – was almost silent. I’ve never seen fear in an animal, but I am confident that the rooster wasn’t scared. David drew and invisible line with his finger to show me where to make my cut. With him holding the birds head still I made a swift cut deep enough to severe the artery. The exsanguination took no more than a minute, the crimson blood flowing steadily out of the bird’s body. After the flow decreased to a slow dribble the body seemingly came back to life. David had forewarned me about this; it wasn’t the animal struggling to live, rather the cells, starved for oxygen, going into shock. As the bird went through its final throes, I turned away.

Once all the life had drained from the rooster we took it inside. David had put a pot of water on the stove, now at a rolling boil. He plunged the bird into the pot for about 60 seconds and removed the bird handing it to me. After a quick demo, I plucked the bird, removed the feet, and, with David’s help, eviscerated it. Once extracted, I placed the warm offals in a small dish to be used later. I asked David how I should process the meat and he gave me a fabulous answer, “It’s your chicken, you do whatever you want.” He was right, it was my chicken. I quickly butchered the bird just to separate the parts to make them cook faster. After a quick sear, I dropped the meat into the soup and let it simmer for a few hours. I used the bones for stock. The offals – liver, heart, gizzard and testicles, which I found to be delicious- and meat in the soup. The remaining pieces of meat clinging to the bones were cleaned and I gave them back to David for his dogs. All told not a single part of the bird went to waste.

We dined the following night on my chicken and it was amazing. The rooster had such a strong ‘chickeny’ flavor, that when I mentioned it to David he jested, “It almost tastes like rabbit.” He wasn’t wrong. I have never been able to make a dish from an animal I knew; something I processed from the beginning to end. As a chef it was one of the finest experiences I could have asked for. As we enjoyed the meal I fully understood what David meant: “It’s your chicken.” I certainly felt like it was.  If anything my dreams that night may have been an indication of my apprehension. I had asked David, when he first told me the plan to slaughter a rooster, that I wanted to participate. I wanted to understand a process of the food system that happens hundreds of miles away from any kitchen. From start to finish I felt a myriad of emotions. I was nervous that I wouldn’t deliver a swift death; anxious about the killing itself; remorseful that I was taking life; but most of all humbled to be able to witness and participate processing a chicken from start to finish in a humane, responsible and respectful manner.  But not just any chicken: my chicken.

The Purpose: Why I Came to Pepperfield Farm

This notion, titled above, began and evolved before my arrival at Pepperfield.  From its inception this trip was intended to expand my knowledge of food. I desired to learn how many of the products I use on a regular basis are created. I had interests in acquiring some of this knowledge for both future applications and to begin to further develop my respect for food. One of my goals was to participate in all the steps – intensive labor and intimate care – required to propagate plants, specifically fruits and vegetables, and animals. Being in the industry for the last seven years I believe that I began to lose sight of some of this. It’s easy to become disconnected from food when its acquisition is boiled down to a basic interaction; rather than going to a store or market to look at products, I would just pick up the phone and place an order to one of the purveyors. I wanted to correct my mindset: food doesn’t just come off the shelf or off a truck. This trip was also to act as my sabbatical. I noticed, unfortunately later than desired, that my environment – high stress and pressure – was beginning to transform me into someone else. For better and worse I developed and grew, learning a lot about myself and the world around me, at the expense of my happiness and that of my co-workers and acquaintances.

As I took the 1600-mile drive across the nation my brain began the transition. A combination of reading and thinking helped me realize that I wanted to make changes in my operation as a chef, but as an individual too. Subconsciously, this was where the refining of my food philosophy commenced. These thoughts perpetuated even further during my brief stay at my uncles for Easter. I prepared the evening’s meal and shared my methods and thought processes with anyone interested. But it wasn’t until the actual meal that I began to observe the potential growth I could achieve. Sitting among a lawyer, theoretical physicists, writers, a naturalist, and a clergyman, all new acquaintances, the evening unfolded into discussions about food, politics, religion and philosophy. I remember saying to my uncle, “I don’t think I ever have participated in conversations stimulating as those.” I realized I was in an intelligent environment where I could learn about topics and ideas about food and life that never had occurred to me.

But that wasn’t the end. The next day I drove out to Pepperfield and began to settle in. I was given a warm greeting, with some delicious snacks, by David. We proceeded to talk for the rest of the day about my history and what I hoped to achieve while here. I told David my goals – same as detailed above – and left it open ended by stating, “I don’t know what else I want to learn, I’m here to take it all in.”  The week that followed was where my ideas about my future, both at Pepperfield and in life, were rocked to their core. David asked me brilliant thought provoking questions that caused me to delve deeper into my conscious than I have previously. He has made me question my beliefs, the natural – and unnatural – universe, my predispositions, strengths and flaws, and my capacity in the food and hospitality industry. My understanding of what I hoped to learn began to broaden and my mind has never been more open.

I expect my purpose for coming to Pepperfield will continue to evolve, like it already has. I am excited to learn about the intricacies of food through direct participation and learning to develop a legitimate understanding and respect for everything that is responsible for the creation of food. I’m thrilled to begin the process of defining who I am and identifying who I hope to become. And anxious with anticipation to see what my future holds. I have felt more relaxed, grounded, open and happy then I ever have. I have concluded that my only real purpose is to – as the Pepperfield mission states – grow my body, mind and spirit.

Basic Tomato Sauce

Yields 10 Portions

Ingredients

2T Olive Oil
8c Tomato
1ea Onion, minced
1ea Anchovy
2T Brown sugar
.5c Red wine
1oz Dry basil (Double if using fresh)
5ea clove garlic, grated

Method

  1. Sweat onion, anchovy and sugar in oil until soft.
  2. Deglaze with red wine, cook out all alcohol. The sharp, stinging aroma will dissipate.
  3. Add tomato and simmer for 45 minutes stirring often to prevent burning.
  4. Finish sauce with basil and grated garlic. Cook for another 15 minutes.
  5. Season sauce with salt and pepper to taste and serve. Can be stored for a week or frozen indefinitely.

Corn Bread

Yields 16 Portions

Ingredients

3ea Eggs
.5C Milk
.5C Whey or milk
.25C Butter melted
.5C Brown Sugar
2C Cornmeal
2t Salt
4t Baking Powder
1.25C Corn kernels (optional)

Method

  1. Mix all dry ingredients.
  2. Mix all wet ingredients.
  3. Rest batter for 10 minutes.
  4. Bake 350 for 35 minutes in a 8×8 baking dish or for 14 minutes in 8oz muffin tins. Be careful not to over-bake or it will be quite dry.

Omnivore’s Dilemma: Excerpt Synopsis and Review

Synopsis

The modern supermarket offers such a maze of maize. All cleverly disguised behind ‘All natural’ and lines upon lines of literature composed to draw the attention of consumers. But, to many, the supermarket offers “outstanding biodiversity”. Hundreds of species gathered together in a beautiful union to create a bounty no biome could even hope to produce. Unlimited choices are quite the dilemma. But upon closer inspection these choices dwindle, because between the “canyons of breakfast cereals and condiments” and unfortunately the meat, the ingredients start to look the same. This vast array of sections: beef, pork, chicken, fish, the entirety of all processed foods the boxes that so cleverly market these items, the pesticides used to protect them, the “linoleum an fiberglass” providing their home and of course the fuel used to transports these goods thousands of miles to you, can all be factored down into one common denominator, corn. To those appalled, here is the shocking answer to the one central question. Why?  Click here to find out!

 

Review

Pollan has masterfully created a piece for the ages. Carefully constructed through not just his own experiences but also the flora and fauna shared with him. With blinding, and possibly revolting, comprehension, he eviscerates the industrial food system. Carefully tackling issues and making sacrifices that will leave readers incredulous and inquisitive about the very food system they knowingly or unknowingly participate in. From CAFOs to corn fields he endeavors to call to attention some of the leading cause of health issues plaguing America, increasing devastation to the planet for the short term gain of profits as well as the clever marketing ploys that hide what’s truly in your favorite breakfast cereal or organic TV dinner. With absolutely no reservations, Pollan thoroughly investigates the industrial organic industry. At every turn, providing facts and information that allow the reader to make criticisms and ask questions about an industry regarded as healthy and sustainable. Pollan has done his research getting down and dirty with manure-caked boots, hazmat suits, and crushing physical labor to demonstrate not just an interest in his subjects but also the passion and dedication for creating a truly, authentic narrative. Emotionally aware and chillingly honest, he composes astounding vignettes, laced with shocking facts, blunt criticisms, creative insight and devastating conclusions about himself and his experiences.

To the chef, the consumer, the eater, or the young adult just beginning a journey in this world, one that is so unavoidably connected with food: I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, with paramount praise and extreme admiration.

Final remarks

Pollan has changed how I think and operate as a chef and made my question myself as an individual. For that, I would like to extend my undying gratitude. My only regret in reading Omnivore’s Dillema, is that I haven’t done it sooner.

Omnivore’s Dilemma: Full Synopsis and Review

Synopsis

The modern supermarket offers such a maze of maize. All cleverly disguised behind ‘All natural’ and lines upon lines of literature composed to draw the attention of consumers. But, to many, the supermarket offers “outstanding biodiversity”. Hundreds of species gathered together in a beautiful union to create a bounty no biome could even hope to produce. Unlimited choices are quite the dilemma. But upon closer inspection these choices dwindle, because between the “canyons of breakfast cereals and condiments” and unfortunately the meat, the ingredients start to look the same. This vast array of sections: beef, pork, chicken, fish, the entirety of all processed foods the boxes that so cleverly market these items, the pesticides used to protect them, the “linoleum an fiberglass” providing their home and of course the fuel used to transports these goods thousands of miles to you, can all be factored down into one common denominator, corn. To those appalled, here is the shocking answer to the one central question. Why?

During the settlement of America, corn offered such a versatile product while also providing tremendous efficiency of food production. It was capable of adaption to a myriad of climates and conditions, offered “high genetic variability” and could be stored indefinitely. Among the indigenous populations and then later settlers, its applications included providing a ready to eat food, acting as a source of flour, and even alcohol. The other plant matter could be repurposed into “rugs and twine”, “silage for livestock”, as a heat source and – to much discomfort – toilet paper. This versatility propelled corn into the center of developing America which ensured the plants survival.

Pollan’s journey tracing the flow of corn begins in Iowa. On a small farm owned by George Naylor, in Greene County, he begins this voyage by sitting in a roaring tractor helping Naylor plant, in less than a day, what would eventually equate to, 1.8 million pounds of corn. It is no surprise that the ‘rural’ state of Iowa is more developed than many cities with only “two percent of the state’s land” remaining as it originally was, grass prairies. All of this was made possible by post WWII industries as factories switched from bomb production to fertilizer. The excess of ammonium nitrate was cleverly converted into “an excellent source of nitrogen for plants”. With the help of the Department of Agriculture, the idea of using as fertilizer took root. What had once been an industry of chemical agents and explosives, now was shifted into an industry of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. As Vandan Shyva so accurately states, “We’re still eating the leftovers of World War Two.”

With this change, an industry that was almost exclusively ‘solar powered’ now relied so heavily on fossil fuel for all aspects of production that “every bushel of industrial corn requires the equivalent of between one quarter to one third of a gallon of oil to grow it”. Simplified: 50 gallons per acre of corn. Even further discouraging “more than a calorie of fossil fuel energy” was required “to produce 1 calorie of food”. Before chemical fertilizers farms, like Naylor’s, managed to produce caloric energy at a rate of 2:1, that is food produced to – alternative – energy sources invested. Why chose to go to a less energy efficient system? Ultimately, it is cheaper in dollars to produce corn with synthetic fertilizer. Traditional methods were slower and provided less yield; lower energy input yielded less profit.

Due to the desire for higher yields which ultimately equates to more profit, farmers use “yield insurance”, in the form of laying, in Naylor’s case, 80 percent more fertilizer than required. That excess evaporates into the air where it “acidifies rain” and contributes to climate change. Some finds it way into the water table where it converts into nitrite, which “compromises the bloods ability to carry oxygen to the brain, when consumed. The rest runs off through drainage ditches, the into rivers which flow into the Gulf of Mexico. This stimulates “the wild growth of algae”, and as a result smothers the fish. This is cause of the hypoxic or dead zone that is now the size of the state of New Jersey. These practices can be traced back to the end of the New Deal Era.  With the fall of Russia in 1972, Earl Butz, Nixon’s second secretary of agriculture, helped arrange a sale of 30 million pounds of American grain. The goal was to boost crop prices, and it did, A combination of rapid demand aired with poor growing conditions that year “drove grain prices to historic heights”. Butz was then in charge of fixing this issue. It began with pushing farms to increase yield; he called upon farmers to recognize themselves as agribusinessmen. This was all because he believed that larger farms were more productive. Simultaneously, through passing the 1973 Farm Bill, he dismantled the New Deal programs such as the price supports.  Rather than supporting farmers through “loans and government grain purchases” he moved to a “system of direct payments to farmers”. This shift in farm policy dropped the, previously steady, market price of corn. Farmers could now sell corn at any price and the government would make up some of the difference. During all this, to “make American grain more competitive in world markets” nearly every farm bill lowered the target price of corn It was only several years later that ADM and Cargill – “the largest privately-owned company in the world” – began to shape these policies further. This shift of direct support to farmers through government programs to indirect support through subsidies marked, what Naylor calls, “the plague of cheap corn”.

In late 2005, Iowa State University estimates it costs a farmer $2.50 to grow a bushel of corn, while market prices were sitting around $1.45 a bushel. Yes, you read that right. Farmers now, unlike previously, have on option when the market prices fall: produce and sell even more corn. ‘Cheap’ corn has many hidden reasons why it is priced so low. On top of bankrupting farmers, continuously dropping the market price – creating an unsustainable down-spiraling market – it also costs the Federal Treasury $5 billion a year in corn subsidies. This “plague” has seemed inevitable. Return to 1856, the Chicago Board of trade created a new grading system for corn. Number 2 corn, not the corn that many are accustomed to enjoying, was guaranteed as being “as good as any other number 2 corn”. Instead of farmers striving to produce the best product they could, they began to recognize the only critical criteria: yield. Now, when Naylor brings his crop of number 2 corn to sell, it is quickly weighed and graded. Shortly after he is written a check, by in his case, the Iowa Farmers’ Cooperative. Surprisingly this only accounts for a fraction of his income, Pollan notes that over half of “the income of the average Iowa corn farmer ” is from government subsidies. A bill that represents nearly a quarter of the “$19 billion that U.S. taxpayers spend each year on payments to farms”. One primary reason, since 1970, the supply of corn has increased from 4 billion bushels produced annually to, now, 10 billion. And where does all this corn go? Pollan responds bluntly “What’s involved in absorbing all this excess biomass goes a long way toward explaining several seemingly unconnected phenomena, from the rise of factory farms and the industrialization of our food, to the epidemic of obesity and prevalence of food poisoning in America.” Pollan’s intent by joining Naylor on his farm was to track the flow of, specifically his corn through industrial food system. But shortly after he soon realized that this task was nearly impossible.

Pollan now transitions to Poky Feeders, a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO in Kansas. His goal is to observe how his cattle, now named steer #534 participates in the industrial food system. As the name implies, CAFOs seek to do one thing: feed its occupants, in this case cows, quickly to produce meat. These operations have created a world where anyone can consume these products as frequently as desired. It has managed to do this with many techniques, but most crucial to the operation is the ability to convert corn, among other supplements, into raw protein. But before understanding the functionality of a CAFO, it is imperative to understand that cows aren’t naturally consumers of corn. Pollan notes, “The coevolutionary relationship between cows and grass is one of nature’s unappreciated wonders; it also happens to be the key to understanding just about everything about modern meat.” In a natural cycle the cow and grass form a symbiotic relationship. As the cow grazes it “expands [grass’] habitats” by preventing the growth of other flora that would steal resources, specifically sunlight. In return the grass provides the cow with a “high-quality protein”, possible because of the rumen. This organ houses a plethora of bacteria that enable the cow to break down grass. Pollan tactfully asks “Why isn’t it that steer # 534 hasn’t tasted a blade of grass?” And then answers, “speed”. One indication of this trend Pollan remarks is how cows have gone from a slaughter age of four to five years, to three to four, in the fifties, and now in 14 to 16 months. And aptly jests, “Fast food, indeed”. In just that short period of time, modern practices can turn an 80-pound calf into an 1100 pound mass of beef. This is all possible because of corn. Incentives for heavily marbled meat, set forth by standards of the USDA, and the nature of corn’s calorically dense composition have created a fantastic outlet for the 10 billion bushel “mountain of corn”.

It is important to note that using all this cheap corn comes at a cost, especially since producers aren’t incurring it. One common ailment that afflicts cows – and other ruminants – is bloat. It is caused by an increase in gas production from the fermenting grain. Additionally, this high corn diet can cause acidosis. A cow’s rumen is normally neutral, but its high corn consumption causes it to acidify, this causes the cow, what human’s recognize as, heartburn. If left untreated this causes the cow to “scratch their bellies” and “eat dirt” which can worsen into “diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, ruminitis, liver disease and general weakening of the immunes system.” This can leave the animal susceptible to a myriad of feedlot diseases. The prevention of these symptoms is combated through Rumensin and Tylosin. The former helps “buffer acidity” and the latter “lowers the incidence of liver infection”. This practice has now been widely accepted as the direct “evolution of new antibiotic-resistant superbugs”. These practices ultimately leads to a terribly inefficient product that requires eight pounds of food to produce one pound of “gain”, which includes “muscle, fat and bone”. They also have aided in the proliferation of E. coli, something unseen before 1980, now occupying the gut of 40 percent of feedlot cattle.

As for the other two kernels, from five, that don’t make it to factory farms, they end up finding their way into our food system. Consumers are responsible for “consuming a ton of the stuff every year” through indirect consumption all made possible by processed foods. This consumption has created quite the epidemic. With three in every five adults, one in five obese and a rise of type two diabetes, the American health care system incurs annual costs of $90 billion. “Since 1977 an American’s average intake of calories is 10 percent higher.” Some of this caloric intake is due to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), but that isn’t the sole contributor. Since 1985 consumption of HFCS has increased from 45 to 65 pounds. Simultaneously the average American’s sugar consumption has risen five pounds. This is partially a result of the price of sugar consistently falling in the over the same period.

Pollan concludes his journey of following corn through the industrial food system at the most appropriate venue: McDonalds. During which, he examined a chicken nugget to discover thirteen of its more than 30 ingredients, were “derived from corn”. He then provides a detailed breakdown of his family’s meal. Some of these include a milkshake and salad dressing, composed of 78% and 65% corn, respectively.

Pollan presses on with his quest of the omnivores dilemma, now back in the supermarket. His arrival has been sparked by his curiosity in the industrial organic system, an $11 billion industry and “the fastest growing sector of the food economy”. Now researching an entirely different food system, Pollan finds himself surrounded by “wordy labels point of purchase brochures and certification schemes”, housed in Whole Foods. Perusing the isles, he selects an organic chicken, an assortment of vegetables and greens, and several other items. Just like the corn, and his steer #534, he traces these items, among others, back to their roots.

He begins with Rosie, the organic chicken, who was marketed as “sustainably farmed” and “free range chicken”. Pollan’s account of the farm is that “the chicken houses don’t resemble a farm so much as military barracks.” To further understand this step in the process he wanted to see what goes into a “sustainably farmed” chicken. Admittance into one of these chicken houses required, what Pollan describes as a, “hooded white hazmat suit” to be worn. The birds aren’t allowed any antibiotics to remain organic. Paired with their proximity to each other they are extremely susceptible to disease. Upon entrance he notes “20 thousand birds move away as one” and “the air was warm and humid and smelled powerfully of ammonia.” At the end of this football field stretch of chickens is a small door leading outside. “Access to the outdoors” is what allows Rosie to be considered free range. But while the birds are given this choice, they seldom exercise it. Standard procedure at Petaluma Poultry is to keep this door shut for the first five weeks of the birds’ life. By the end they are so “settled in their habits” that it makes no sense to them to leave the warmth, protect and food provided by their home.

Pollan treks on to visit Greenways Organic. He notes how, between the conventional farm – located adjacently – and the organic farm that “the fields were virtually indistinguishable”. Industrial organic must combat the same issues as conventional farms but with much greater limitations. Rather than petro-fertilizers, Greenways sources local horse manure as their input for nitrogen. To combat weeds most organic farms practice a series of tilling cycles. A combination of irrigation and tractor tilling helps manage the weeds. Once the crops are to large to allow tractors to continue, farm hands go around with butane torches and blaze all unwanted new growth. This “heavy tillage – heavier than in a conventional field – destroys the tilth of the soil and reduces biological activity as surely as chemicals would.” Pollan deems this “a compromise at best”. Pollan continues to challenge the organic industry as he investigates Earthbound Farm. As he follows the processing of the largest producer of organic greens, he explains that “sorting, mixing washing, drying and packaging” continuously occur at 36 degrees. An estimate from a Cornell scientist determines that it takes 57 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of food. Companies like Earthbound do try to consume less energy and offset their fossil fuel consumption by planting trees. Through their farming practices they have reduced their fossil fuel reliance by four percent compared to the conventional farm.

Pollan concludes his journey through the industrial organic food system with a meal crafted from only ingredients that were produced from that same system; Rosie the chicken, Earthbound Farm salad greens and several other items. While the meal is fantastic, the questions that Pollan asks are even more so: Is organic food better, but specifically “Better for what?”

Pollan then transitions to Polyface Farm, a place he regards as standing “so far away from industrialized agriculture” as possible, “without leaving the planet”. The farm is owned and operated by Joel Salatin. Salatin regards himself as a grass farmer even though Polyface produces “25,000 pounds of beef, 50,000 pounds of pork, 12,000 broilers, 800 turkeys, 500 rabbits and 30,000 dozen eggs”, annually on only one hundred acres of pasture. Salatin’s operates his farm by allowing his cows to graze freely during the warmer months. As they finish their meal from the pasture they are herded and relocated to another area to prevent overgrazing. As the cow sheers the leaves of the grass the plant desires to maintain balance. Its roots die back providing the soil with direct nutrition and indirect fertility by providing other microorganisms with food. By moving his cattle on a precise schedule, Salatin can eliminate the problem of overgrazing which, if left unchecked, can transform a lush grassland into a desert. Several days after the cows have vacated, Polyface’s “sanitation crew”, Salatin’s hens, are given access to the pasture. They pick the fly larvae out of the cow manure helping to manage diseases and pests and also spread the manure around. This exchange gives the chickens free protein that is wasted in conventional systems. This combination of diet and grasses drastically increases the quality of their eggs. Use of these practices eliminate the need for “antibiotics, wormers, pesticides and fertilizers”. Pollan later gather ingredients from the farm and creates a meal entirely out of – mostly – local products.

Pollan finishes this saga by striving to create, what he calls, the perfect meal. Now moving to the least connected portion of the food industry he heads to the forest. He begins by spending several days in the woods where he spent time tracking and hunting wild California boar. His guide, Angelo, an old world Italian, helps him along by training him what to look for as well as the techniques of hunting. Pollan create a surreal narrative of this experience and touches about the ethics of eating meat. He last spends time with Angelo, as well as a cast of other characters, hunting for chanterelles and morels across many forests of California. His adventures all take him to some unsavory conditions where he braves treacherous waters in the quest for abalone and salt. His meal combines all these ingredients, as well as some others foraged from his neighborhood and from the freezers of his friends and acquaintances.

Pollan spends his final chapters planning and creating his perfect meal, which he describes in great detail. His meal is taken from the land with one of the smallest carbon footprints he could manage. And while he spent a large majority of his time in the forest, he also spends nearly as much time pondering some of the larger issues that ultimately culminate in identifying the omnivores dilemma.

Review

Pollan has masterfully created a piece for the ages. Carefully constructed through not just his own experiences but also the flora and fauna shared with him. With blinding, and possibly revolting, comprehension, he eviscerates the industrial food system. Carefully tackling issues and making sacrifices that will leave readers incredulous and inquisitive about the very food system they knowingly or unknowingly participate in. From CAFOs to corn fields he endeavors to call to attention some of the leading cause of health issues plaguing America, increasing devastation to the planet for the short term gain of profits as well as the clever marketing ploys that hide what’s truly in your favorite breakfast cereal or organic TV dinner. With absolutely no reservations, Pollan thoroughly investigates the industrial organic industry. At every turn, providing facts and information that allow the reader to make criticisms and ask questions about an industry regarded as healthy and sustainable. Pollan has done his research getting down and dirty with manure-caked boots, hazmat suits, and crushing physical labor to demonstrate not just an interest in his subjects but also the passion and dedication for creating a truly, authentic narrative. Emotionally aware and chillingly honest, he composes astounding vignettes, laced with shocking facts, blunt criticisms, creative insight and devastating conclusions about himself and his experiences.

To the chef, the consumer, the eater, or the young adult just beginning a journey in this world, one that is so unavoidably connected with food: I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, with paramount praise and extreme admiration.

Final remarks

Pollan has changed how I think and operate as a chef and made my question myself as an individual. For that, I would like to extend my undying gratitude. My only regret in reading Omnivore’s Dillema, is that I haven’t done it sooner.

Week 3: New Friends and Good Weather

My third week has been, the most productive by far! Probably most exciting is that David and I finished edits on my food philosophy. Monday was sunny but cold and we spent the morning with David’s neighbor, Dave. To make things easy we call him the maple syrup guy. We spent an hour discussing his most recent trip to California as well as the progress hes making with his sugar maples. Since it was too cold to melt the snow, we spent the day running errands in town. One of which included going to pick up David’s truck from the shop and I made a wonderful tomato sauce (check back this week for recipe). Tuesday climate was identical. I spent much of my day reading one of David’s manuscripts about the history of his family. It was a great story about “living life as art and art as life”. Birte, the newest intern, also arrived and spent time catching up with David as I attended another discussion about the book Democracy in Chains.

Wednesday proved to be disappointing as we received eight inches of snow, supposedly the largest storm of winter, spring. I spent the next day shoveling snow off the pea trellis so we could have the ground thawed later in the week. I met another one of the neighbors who has asked me to help cater an event shes hosting in early June. We went to town to buy some farm supplies and when I got home I prepared some vegetarian chili for Korbin. Check out how that night went. Friday was very hospitable and we used the time to transplant nearly all of the brassica varieties. We spent the night, after a fairly long day, enjoying a dinner of curry made by David.

We spent the following day finishing up the rest of the transplanting. Once finished David ran off to the local film festival and I stayed behind to catch up on some garden clean up. I managed to clear out the tomato trellises as well as the beans. I finished my evening by cutting down the rest of the tall grasses around the farm. Sunday turned out to be fabulous. We had full sun and temperatures in the high sixties.  Birte and I spent about seven hours in the garden. I managed to finish cleaning off the rest of the bean poles. I took down some bean tepees, pulled out many wheelbarrows worth of dead plants and then cleaned the perimeter fences of vines. By the end of the day Birte and I had managed to complete about 80% of the work in the garden. Next week Ellis, the final helper, will arrive and things will jump into full swing. Hope to see you back then!

What makes a great meal?

One of the statements I frequently encounter when someone serves me food frequently resembles “I hope my cooking is good enough for you.” Usually there is some follow up with a remark about my occupation as a chef. And more often that not my response is always the same. It usually entails something like “I am just thankful that you would invite me to eat.” Sometimes I jest that its nice to enjoy a meal just sitting down, other times I say I’m grateful to not be eating it off a tasting spoon or directly out of a saute pan. While these statements are true, there is more behind it. Enjoying a meal with friends or even with strangers is something that I have come to recognize as sacred. Anytime someone offers to share food with me I’m honored that I have been chosen to participate. It takes a lot of courage to make a meal for someone, whether they are someone you are trying to impress, a casual friend or even a customer. It’s not something that I take lightly. So when I make these statements, in partial jest and out of consideration, I really am expressing gratitude.

Much of this is because the majority of the “meals” I have eaten over the past few years have taken place in the little stairwell at work. I relished the few minutes I had to simply sit down, let alone cram food into my mouth, simply so I could return to my work. I want to stress that this wasn’t a product of my environment, even worse, it was something that I chose. Some days, I would even forego the meal just to ensure that everything was setup for service. Often receiving flak from my manager to “Go eat!” I have had my fair share of real dining. In fact my friend Chris and I frequently enjoyed extravagant weekend meals to compensate, and my credit card can attest.

But even still, anytime I get to enjoy a formal meal I am overwhelmed by a multitude of emotions indescribable through words. This is compounded further if I am the one providing it. I personally believe that cooking, even sharing food, requires more than courage. It needs passion, precision and attention which if often summed up as “love” for the food. Just yesterday I was granted the privilege of making a meal. Nothing fancy: vegetarian chili and corn bread. I was joined by David, Birte, our new intern arrival here at Pepperfield, and one of David’s friends, Korbin. The meal started with a few light hors d’oeuvres prepared by David. Some homemade brie, a beautiful bleu goat cheese, olives, crackers and some local summer sausage. We spent the first part of the evening snacking and chatting over David’s homemade wine and grape juice. The conversation mostly involved catching up as we spent turns filling each other in on our history as well as how we were connected to Pepperfield.

The meal casually transitioned to the dinner table. I heated the the chili, prepared some garnishes and sliced the corn bread. Within moments of serving our small group descended into light mumbles, of which I thought were satisfaction, and the light clanking of spoons against porcelain. Everyone finished their plates and went for a second helping, some even thirds, on the chili and the corn bread was decimated. I felt pretty good. My personal critiques, which I later shared were that the beans were lightly under-cooked. And much to my surprise I was met with disagreement. Both David and Korbin noted that the texture in the beans was perfect because acted as a nice contrast against the backdrop of the chili. I’m gonna chalk up Birte’s silence as agreement. As our appetites began to subside we returned back to casual conversation. Korbin began to
talk about part of her day at work. She had spent much of it on the phone as customer service for the Seed Saver’s Exchange. One of her calls, from what she referred to as a “Doomsday Lady”, involved an hour long exchange. Most of which was spent listening and answering general questions about sorghum – this is mostly due to a recent news segment on China’s new tax on the grain. Although the conversation slowly devolved into abstract questions like: which crop can I grow to feed the nation? David went on to reminisce about the time he spent with his first wife out in California, where the two of them were regarded as Mr. and Mrs. Naturalist. This set the two of them up, David in particular, for a wide variety of similar phone calls that would come in all hours of the night. Two of which David remembers quite well: “Um, hello. I have this turtle and hes sick, should I brush his teeth” and after a fit of hysteria from myself and all gathered
at the table “I found a snake in my bedroom, can you tell me what it is?” “Sure”, David replied, “Can you describe it for me?” “Sure, it looks like a shoelace.” Again we all roared with laughter. The only time I’ve shared that same level of laughter was over meals with my family.

We shared great food and many laughs all among strangers. (Sure I have been around David for a few weeks, which really is no time at all, but I just met Birte and Korbin within the last 24 hours.) Nonetheless, this was one of the greatest meals I have had the fortune of enjoying and sharing. I was proud of the great flavors and judging by everyone’s consumption, I had every right. But the laughter, the kind where you’re stomach aches and you cant breathe, that’s what i loved the most. It made me realize, that the food is almost irrelevant. Sure it helps that it tasted good, but we all genuinely enjoyed the experience of each other, even if the beans were under-cooked. For probably the first time in my life, I took a step back and let myself enjoy what the food provided, rather than the food itself. Sustenance, yes, but fabulous stories and the joy of hysterical laughter shared among almost complete strangers.

Next time you cook, for a chef, for your friends and family or just a stranger remember that food is only the medium for sharing a great experience. It doesn’t define the experience of a meal, it only enhances it.

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