Odd Connections

‘There’s Only One Vegan Food Truck at Save-the-Planet Talks’

Laura Millan Lombrana and Deena Shanker for Bloomberg:

In spite of Madrid’s December chill, hundreds of climate experts have queued up every day for the past two weeks in front of a bright pink food truck. That’s because it’s the lone vegan-only option available at the United Nations climate conference. […]

“It’s hard to find vegetarian or vegan food around this venue,” said Anil Datta, an observer from Australia in the midst of an hour-long wait in front of the food truck. “It’s an irony because this is COP, we’re talking about raising ambition to fight climate change and reducing emissions.”

This is the United Nations climate conference, not a rinky-dink, hodge-podge event. It shows how easy it is to talk the talk, but most places won’t even try to walk the walk.

Beer Snobbery, Corporate Brewery Takeovers, & Recording While Drunk with Podcaster Jeff McAuliff

Episode 8 of the Vegan-Carne Alliance podcast is live.

For our eighth episode, vegan-food lover C.W. Moss talks with beer podcaster Jeff McAuliff. We hear about what he thinks makes a great brewery (12:24), beer-vs.-wine snobbery (20:30), and the dangers of live recording while drinking for his podcast Bev Boyz (32:06).

Find it on:

”This is small talk purgatory’: what Tinder taught me about love’

I love this CJ Hauser’s piece for The Guardian where she talks about dating now. Over the last year, my life has been lived through the lens of eating, and because of it, everything I read now somehow reads as an analog to food. In this great piece, Hauser has this beautiful bit (with emphasis mine) about a competition where robots attempt to fool humans into believing they’re real people—and how dating can sometimes feel that way:

I knew a little bit about how to proceed with my Tinder Turing tests from one of my favourite books – one I was teaching at the time: The Most Human Human, by Brian Christian. In this book, which I have read five times, Christian goes to participate in the world’s most famous Turing test, the Loebner prize in Brighton. He serves as a human blind, chatting with people through an interface, who then have to decide whether he is a human or a chatbot. The true point of the Loebner prize is to see whether any of the chatbots can convince the judges of their humanity – but as Christian’s title suggests, there is also a jokey prize offered to the human blind who the fewest participants mistake for a robot. Receiving the Most Human Human award was Christian’s goal. In the book, he asks: what could a human do with language that a robot could not? What are the ways of expressing ourselves which are the most surprisingly human? How do we recognise our fellow humans on the other side of the line? And so, as I attempted to find the lovely and interesting people I was sure were lurking behind the platitudes the average Tinder chat entails, I asked myself Christian’s question: how could I both be a person who understood she was online, on Tinder, but still communicate like a humane human being? What could I do that a robot couldn’t?

In the same way Brian Christian wants to be the Most Human Human, I sometimes think about what it takes for a meal to transcend food. There are many questions that play in this thinking. As a writer of books, I used to fantasize about ways of putting my books into people’s hands when they’re most ready for it.

As I think about food now, more questions come to mind. Do we like who we are with? Is it our version of Proust’s tea and madeleines? Have we felt loved or had sex recently, or is what’s on our plate our primary source for satisfaction? Can we make it ourselves? Have we tried to make something like it? Does it conceal time? Is it cheap—but feel like a luxury? Can we share it? Does it make us think of someone we admire?

It goes on:

The chapter I have always loved most in Christian’s book is the one about Garry Kasparov “losing” at chess to Deep Blue, IBM’s chess-playing computer. Christian explains the chess concept of playing “in book”. In short, the book is the known series of chess moves that should be played in sequence to optimise success. In most high-level chess matches, the first part of any game is played “in book” and a smart observer will know which moves will follow which until a certain amount of complexity and chaos necessitates improvisation – at which point the players begin to play in earnest. Some might say, as themselves. Kasparov holds that he did not lose to Deep Blue because the game was still in book when he made his fatal error and so, while he flubbed the script, he never truly even played against the algorithmic mind of his opponent.

In this chapter, Christian makes a brilliant comparison between most polite conversation, small talk, and “the book”, arguing that true human interaction doesn’t start happening until one or both of the participants diverge from their scripts of culturally defined pleasantries. The book is necessary in some ways, as it is in chess (Bobby Fischer would disagree), in order to launch us into these deeper, realer conversations. But it is all too easy to have an entire conversation without leaving the book these days – to talk without accessing the other person’s specific humanity.

And it’s the same with our meals, where deviation and routine mix to create magic—one bite at a time.

Japan’s Vegan Olympic Dreams and Intimate Dumpling Dinner Parties with Chef Kajsa Alger

Episode 7 of the Vegan-Carne Alliance podcast is live.

For our seventh episode, vegan-food lover C.W. Moss talks with Chef Kajsa Alger. We hear about her life and work directing culinary at places like Veggie Grill, and how she’s helping Japan get vegan-friendly for the 2020 Olympic games through the Gunma Vegan Project (15:01), the joy of Mad Misha’s intimate dumpling dinner parties (38:05), and how novels sometimes help menus take shape (52:43).

Find it on:

‘What can Twitter tell us about our neighborhood’s health?’

H. Claire Brown for the New Food Economy:

Those connections yielded a finding the researchers called “intriguing”: Higher-income neighborhoods—defined in this study as the proportion of people making more than $75,000 a year—tended to tweet less positively about food, whether healthy or unhealthy.

Tweets from lower-income neighborhoods—those where a higher proportion of people made less than $75,000 a year—tended to show something different. “A lot of people like to talk about food and have strong opinions about food,” Vydiswaran says. This led to a new hypothesis to explore, that “food may be an isolated source of enjoyment in otherwise difficult lives.”

The researchers also made a curious discovery: Neighborhoods with more young people were less likely to tweet positively about unhealthy foods. This seemingly counterintuitive finding could auger well for future research.

‘Beloved Berlin Currywurst Stand Delivers a Bite of History’

Christopher F. Schuetze writes a beautiful piece for the NYTimes about Konnopke’s which is a small Currywurst stand in Berlin. This essay is filled with so many interesting bits about their life in-and-out of communist Berlin throughout time, but just check out this little zinger:

“I like to call it the golden West,” Ms. Ziervogel said sarcastically during an interview in her garden, where in the early years she grew tomatoes for ketchup that was unavailable in the communist state. […]

But the biggest challenge came in 1990 with the reunification of East and West Germany. Not just because of a new set of suppliers, taxes and rules, but because a new universe of customers expected a different set of offerings.

Konnopke’s started selling French fries. The currywurst, which used to be served with a bun and a hot mug of broth, is now cut up and served on a paper plate. (A tiny plastic fork is provided.)

As someone who has never worked in a kitchen or run a restaurant, stories like this feel like they’re written with gold. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to survive and thrive in Berlin through all of that time, and — of course — I love seeing they have a vegan option now.

‘How conventional soy farming starves honey bees’

Jessica Fu writing for the New Food Economy:

A significant, multi-year study […] provides new evidence that commodity crop production can be detrimental to honey bees, putting colonies at risk by depleting their access to food. […]

Now, by examining the health of honey bees in Iowa soy fields, scientists have showed precisely how damaging that lack of variation can be. Soy is one of the U.S.’s most highly produced and exported foods.

In 2018, farmers harvested 4.54 billion bushels of the crop (for reference, a bushel of soy weighs 60 pounds), with the Midwest contributing to the vast majority of this output. The industry’s rise, however, has come at the cost of traditional habitat: In Iowa, the second-largest soy producing state, the expansion of farmland has driven a steep decline in native tallgrass prairie. That, in turn, has depleted both the quantity and variety of food sources available to honey bees, according to the new research[.] […]

Typically, bees are supposed to produce honey for their colony from spring through fall in order to have enough food to survive the winter. What the researchers found, however, was that colonies adjacent to soy farms were turning to food stores for sustenance as early as August, and that by mid-October, all of them had wiped out the gains that they had made in the spring and summer. That’s like clearing out your fridge and pantry right before a power outage—and it means those hives would be far less likely to survive.

Ninety-eight percent of soy that is grown in the US is used for animal feed. One percent is grown for human consumption.

‘Vegetarian and Vegan Los Angeles’

I found an incredibly in-depth history of vegetarian and vegan food in Los Angeles from Eric Brightwell. Check out this part about the first vegetarian restaurant in LA:

By the late 1890s, there were devoted vegetarian restaurants in New York City, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco — but none in Los Angeles. In 1900, associates of John Harvey Kellogg‘s Battle Creek Sanitarium opened Los Angeles’s first dedicated vegetarian restaurant on 3rd Street. Perhaps restaurant naming conventions were different back then as it was imprecisely referred to in print as both “the Vegetarian restaurant” and “the Vegetarian café.”

This article is overflowing with interesting tidbits, but it’s especially nice to be able to see actual photos and even videos of some of the restaurants — especially the Kellogg’s spot that opened up beside Angel’s Flight.

I loved the bit about raw food being called “unfired food”. And I wasn’t surprised to see the massive connection between veggie-eating with religion and cult.

And it’s fascinating to see the power of a novel and its influence on American dining:

Upton Sinclair‘s novel, The Jungle, was published in 1906. Although Sinclair hoped to The Jungle promote socialism, most readers were more affected by the descriptions of run-of-the-mill health violations, unsanitary conditions, and gruesome violence of the meatpacking industry. Sinclair noted of the reaction, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident, I hit it in the stomach.” In its wake, a wave of vegetarian restaurants opened and a directory of vegetarian restaurants in the US from that year listed 57.

It’s hard to imagine anything having that kind of power today.

‘Farm Country Feeds America. But Just Try Buying Groceries There.’

Jack Healy writing for the NYTimes about food deserts in rural America:

The loss of grocery stores can feel like a cruel joke when you live surrounded by farmland. About 5 million people in rural areas have to travel 10 miles or more to buy groceries, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Dollar-store chains selling cheap food are entering hundreds of small towns, but their shelves are mostly stocked with frozen, refrigerated and packaged foods. Local health officials worry that the flight of fresh foods will only add to rural America’s health problems by exacerbating higher rates of heart disease and obesity.

I knew rural America had food deserts, but I was surprised recently learn they happen in Los Angeles too. I had realized it could happen in densely populated regions in the same way it could to sparsely populated places. Pop-up markets like Süprmarkt were LA’s answer in Leimert Park.

“Communities tell me: We don’t want to use the term co-op,” said Sean Park, a program manager for the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs. He has helped guide rural towns through setting up their own markets. “It’s ironic because it was farmers who pioneered co-ops. They’re O.K. with ‘community store.’ They’re the same thing, but you’ve got to speak the language.”

Yet again, it always comes down to language. People are afraid of certain words.

But the challenges of starting a small grocery store at a time of increasing consolidation in the food business are daunting. The Great Scott! market could not persuade any wholesalers to work with them, so they bought a van and make regular trips to buy basics at a small markup from another supermarket.

“I called all the major chains, and if they didn’t laugh in my face they hung up on me,” said Shaun Tyson, a farmer in Mount Pulaski, a town about an hour from Winchester that is working to start its own co-op market by the spring.

A few states including Alabama, Nevada and Oklahoma have begun to study rural food deserts. They offer tax credits and loans to help stores finance construction projects and move to underserved places. In March, a bipartisan cluster of lawmakers in Washington proposed a new tax credit for grocery stores in food deserts.

But mostly, the people setting up crowd-funding sites to buy vegetable coolers and negotiating wholesale rates with huge grocery chains say they are stumbling around with little assistance and no map.

There is no easy fix here. And I’m sad to say that it’s likely going to get worse for rural parts of America.

‘The Deceptive Simplicity of Peanuts’

Ivan Brunetti writing about Charles Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts is a perfect reflection of any culture, be it food or comic strips.

I especially liked this bit:

Peanuts has no discernible scale, because it exists simultaneously as small increments and a fifty-year totality, an epic poem made up entirely of haikus. Then again, maybe that’s also what life is: short, packed moments of intense, concentrated awareness, minuscule epiphanies that accrete as we age, an accumulation of efforts, some meaningful and some meaningless, moments all too real that unsettlingly feel somehow also not real, jottings taking note of everything, within and without. One life, all life. An isolated four-panel comic strip of Charlie Brown and Linus debating a philosophical point can be appreciated just as it is, humorous, insightful, compact, and perfect; one strip a day documenting one man’s thoughts for half a century has the weight of a full life. Peanuts endures, both from the closest micro-view and the farthest macro–vantage point.

Good meals exist forever. A perfect evening never fades. We’re all Marcel Proust falling through our memories with our version of a Madeliene cookies dipped in tea. Each bite can be much more than a bite. A bite can feel like a whole meal, make a restaurant, melt a city, build a culture, and create a new version of ourselves. Food is another wonderful opportunity to be ourselves, find ourselves, and change ourselves.