More on the organic business

I've gotten several emails and pointers to related articles about the whole eating organic vs. local vs. sustainable thing that's grabbed my attention of late. Alas, I don't have time to read them all or write proper posts, but in the interest of sharing, here are three:

Is Organic Food Safer?
The Organic Verses: On organic food and farming
Measuring "Organic-ness?"

And for fun, two inspirations for your weekend cooking: Bravissimo! Sweet Stirrings of Springtime, "Creamy, luscious risotto is easier than you think. With the right rice and a light stock, it's a showstopper." and Recipe: Braised Pork With Red Wine. The second one might a bit wintery, what with daffodils opening and trees blooming. It's almost a real spring weekend here in New York City, and it should be a good one for me. I hope it is for you too.

Sustainable looks at organic

Over at the Sustainable Table blog, Choosing sustainable does not always mean choosing organic, they're mulling over the same issues about when it makes sense to buy organic. I used the word "local" in my arguments, but I think a better word for what I'm thinking about it, and what's important to me, is sustainable. Though I suppose local, sustinable, and organic is my sort of culinary triumvirate. And ultimately, my goal.

What’s not wrong with eating organic

Because it's never easy to figure out what the "right" thing to do is, (see recent post on Less fish and more cow in my belly) I am now unsure about what I just wrote yesterday regarding what's wrong with eating organic foods. Reader Erik from MA writes:

I think the article might be wrong. Organic from far away might be the kinder apple.

From page 62-64 of the Union of Concerned Scientists' "Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices" (1999):

"Our findings suggest that although food processing, packaging and transportation play a significant role, they are not the leading cause of environmental damage due to food consumption. … The majority of impacts come from the cultivation stage … [T]ransportation accounts for 26 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from the fruit, vegetable, and grain category… [and] only 0.6 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions traceable to consumer purchases."

The book doesn't address organic vs conventional since it's looking at avgs across the whole economy, but the above makes me think it's better to buy the organic.

Well, that makes sense to me too! What to believe? What to do? Erik reminded me about the Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce (.pdf) which, "lists the 12 popular fresh fruits and vegetables that are consistently the most contaminated with pesticides and those 12 fruits and vegetables that consistently have low levels of pesticides." It also gives you a handy guide to print out and carry around.

Of course, what's on the most contaminated list? Apples! Doh! I should have chose something else for my example. Also, spinach and potatoes and bell peppers and celery. When did eating become so complicated?

What’s wrong with eating organic foods

Slate takes a look at, "[t]he dark secrets of the organic-food movement" with Is Whole Foods Wholesome? As a regular Whole Foods shopper, I am often irritated by what's available in their produce section (apples from the west coast, or even farther) vs. what's available a few hundred yards away at the Union Square greenmarket (apples from upstate New York). Ideally I'd like to eat local and organic, but often I'll take local over organic, if I can get it. The article sums up why quite nicely:

Let's say you live in New York City and want to buy a pound of tomatoes in season. Say you can choose between conventionally grown New Jersey tomatoes or organic ones grown in Chile. Of course, the New Jersey tomatoes will be cheaper. They will also almost certainly be fresher, having traveled a fraction of the distance. But which is the more eco-conscious choice? In terms of energy savings, there's no contest: Just think of the fossil fuels expended getting those organic tomatoes from Chile.

Now that spring is nearly here, I'll be shopping at the greenmarket more often. I'm looking forward to a summer full of local and organic veggies. And a summer of meeting the people who grow my food.

More on fruit PLUs

Several people have emailed with more information about the numbers on your fruit, also known as PLUs, or product look ups. It seems the 8 or 9 are just modifiers, added to the original number. So 4011 is a regular banana, while 94011 is for organic bananas. If you're interested, here's a big list of PLU codes. Also, our emailer notes, "When there was such an uproar against GM foods, only one GM product, a modified version of papaya, was registered. So you'll almost never see an 8 and if you do, it will be 84394." Speaking of, some emailed to point out that GM food wasn't bad, and that's what gardners and growers have been doing all along with selective breeding. I don't agree, but that's a post for another time. Thanks Robert!

Read the numbers on your fruit

Another little tidbit gleaned from April's Food & Wine: those sticker numbers on your fruit actually mean something. Here in the US, fruit often comes with stickers on it, sometimes telling you where it's from and/or what it is. There's also a number, but I never paid attention to that. But on p. 72 I spotted this interesting bit of information:

"[T]he sticker labels on fruit: The numbers tell you how the fruit was grown. Conventionally grown fruit has four digits; organically grown fruit has five and starts with a nine; genetically engineered has five numbers and starts with an eight."

Yesterday I checked out the organic apples at the market, and yes, the numbers did indeed have five digits and started with a nine. Pretty handy, if you can remember it. I'm not sure whose bright idea it was to have the genetic numbers and the organic numbers the same length and begin only one digit off. Seems like a potential source for confusion. I'm remembering it this way: organic is better than genetically engineered (IMO) and nine is a bigger number than eight, therefore it's "better." Uh, yeah. That's honestly what I came up with to differentiate the two.

A burger joint for Keller

According to a little blurb in April's Food & Wine, my fav Thomas Keller (of French Laundry and Per Se fame) is doing a burger place:

"Rumor has it that Keller, who is a huge devotee of the West Coast chain In-N-Out Burger, will also be launching a burger joint of his own in the Napa area."

This is in addition to the butcherie he plans to open this summer across from Bouchon (his bistro) in Yountville, CA, where he'll sell, "his favorite cuts of meat." Imagine living in Yountville: you could eat TK's food nearly every day, and on the days you didn't, you could be cooking his favorite cuts of meat in your very own kitchen. It's enough to make me want to pack my bags this minute!

Looking for the elusive wine bargains

You may remember last December I wrote a post about How to order a good bottle of wine. Well today I spotted this article, San Francisco numbers wizard calculates which wines are bargains. I was hoping to see some formulas in the article, but it's more of an advertisement for this fellow's wine value newsletter. And part of his calculations are based on wine reviewers' opinions, which doesn't sound very scientific to me.

Vacuum packing for the home cook

I was reading about culinary trends of 2005 over at when a little bit of information ragarding sous vide cooking struck my eye, Slow and Low: Sous Vide Goes Mainstream. Sous vide is French for "under vacuum" and refers to a process by which chefs vacuum-seal a product and then simmer the product in its pouch in a water bath at a low temperature. While the results have been yummy, the process seemed overly complicated for a home cook, and I anticipated a prohibitive cost. Then this quote from the above-referenced article:

The term sous vide was actually coined more than 30 years ago in France, to describe a technique widely used in the commercial food industry — mostly to package frozen food products. But in 2005 the technique went mainstream, as chefs across the country realized that they didn't need to invest in expensive commercial-grade Cryovac machines. A simple countertop FoodSaver machine is really all you need.

Really?! Quick, to Amazon! Where, voila, a FoodSaver Premier Series V1205 Vacuum Sealing Kit can be yours for $129.99, and there's free shipping! Now not only can you buy a bunch of meats and things at Costco and stock up, filling your freezer with vacuum-packed cuts of whatever, when you thaw them, you can cook them like a pro! If in 2005 sous vide when mainstream in restaurant kitchens, then perhaps 2006 will be the year sous vide hits it even bigger in home kitchens!