What's a word worth these days? Pick a good one like "organic" and you could be talking billions and billions of dollars.
On Monday, October 21, the National Organic Standards and Labels program went into effect, ending over a decade of wrangling in Washington, D.C. The program guarantees that all foods wearing that spiffy new green-and-white "USDA Organic" label were grown by an independently certified farmer who did not use conventional chemical fertilizers, biotechnological processes, hormones or antibiotics, irradiation or any sewage sludge to produce his food -- and, if the food is processed, the manufacturer used only products that met the above standards during the creation and packaging of the item. Furthermore, products that are entirely organic will be labeled "100% organic," while those that contain just a little sewage sludge, pesticide or bovine growth hormone (but are still 95 percent wholesome) will carry only the word "organic." Products that contain 70 percent or less organic material can be marked "made with organic ingredients" but may not carry the USDA's seal.
To put it in simple terms, this means that those shiny red (and officially labeled) apples you just picked up at the market won't be covered in malathion or Dacthal residue, the plum tomatoes in your salad weren't grown in a bath of untreated shit, and little Billy probably won't grow a set of Anna Nicole-sized knockers on his back from drinking milk from cows treated with huge doses of growth hormones.
But defining that one little word -- "organic" -- took almost ten years, beginning in 1990 with the passage of Senator Patrick Leahy's farm bill, which included a directive to the USDA to begin writing a national organic standard. The word's power -- and its value as a marketing tool in the $450 billion-a-year home-food industry -- lies in its presumed meaning to consumers. In a survey conducted in May 2000 by International Communications Research, 62 percent of the 1,029 adults polled felt that foods labeled "organic" were more healthy than foods without the label; 68 percent felt that foods with the seal would be safer than those without; and almost half felt that foods carrying the USDA organic label would be more nutritious than those without.
Frankly, none of this is true. Nowhere in the thousands of pages of government documents defining the word "organic" does it say that the food bearing the new label must be in any way safer, better-tasting, healthier or more nutritious. "Organic" is not a value judgment and is no longer descriptive in anything but a legal sense. Nowhere does it say that the organic peach you just bit into was grown by some happy little hippie with a small orchard in his back yard. Nowhere does it say that the cow from which your New York strip was cut once roamed around a sunlit pasture, blissfully living out its cowish existence until it keeled over from natural causes and was turned into steaks.
No, all it says is that farmer Frank can't shoot Bessie up with 10,000 milligrams of amoxicillin and bovine growth hormone or feed her genetically modified grain mixed with high-protein slurry from the processing plant. No one's stopping farmer Frank from using confinement pens; no one's making sure his cows are treated humanely. Hell, he could use a power drill to kill his cattle if he wanted. As long as there are no chemicals, no GM products and no drugs in the animal's bloodstream, farmer Frank gets the label.
Remember, these new rules were not enacted by the USDA to ensure that Americans have a healthier, safer or more politically correct alternative to the giant agri-corporations. They were enacted to stop the giant agri-corporations from using the word without it meaning something. And now, it means only what it means -- and it doesn't signify that anything labeled "organic" is necessarily better for you, the animals, the plants, or the earth.
Just something to think about.Ask Mr. Food Man: Not long ago, I received this letter from a desperate reader named Julia:
"I was wondering if you could settle an ongoing debate between my husband and I. We live in the South Federal area and are surrounded by many authentic Mexican restaurants. While I suspect such a thing is American, many of the Mexican restaurants say they have 'real' fried ice cream -- but to my deep and bitter disappointment, I always receive a plate of white ice cream covered in honey and breakfast cereal. Yuck. My husband thinks there is no such a thing as real deep-fried ice cream, but somewhere in the recesses of my memory, I recall the best ice cream experience ever, with a steaming hot shell of fried crispiness covering a cold, quickly melting ball of vanilla ice cream covered in hot chocolate sauce, cinnamon and honey. Please, please, please! Tell me there is such a thing and where I can get it now! I am nine months pregnant, and if there is a God, then there is such a thing, and you are going to tell me where and how and end my craving-laden search."
I asked around Bite Me World Headquarters if anyone had experienced a transcendent fried ice cream experience in Denver, and no one had. (Takah Sushi, at 420 East Hyman Avenue in Aspen, has a tempura-fried ice cream dessert on its menu, but that's a long drive for a pregnant woman.) So now I'm asking readers to help out. Where can Julia go? Is there any place in the Mile High City that serves the sort of fried ice cream she remembers?
While we await a positive reply, here's a little something to tide Julia over. The recipe's a killer, a cinch to put together, and just what her pregnant little heart desires. Julia, have your husband make this for you every night for a week as punishment for doubting the veracity of your food memories.
Fried Ice Cream à la Bite Me
Ice cream (any: vanilla is the standard, of course, but we live in a 31-flavors kind of world, don't we?)
Sponge cake (just buy it at the grocery store -- making your own is annoying)
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. veggie oil
2 eggs, whites and yolks separated
Some flat beer
Oil for frying
Scoop and roll very hard-frozen ice cream into balls -- bigger than a golf ball, smaller than a tennis ball -- then wrap them in thick slices of sponge cake. (Pack them like you would a snowball, understand?) Put all the balls in the coldest part of the freezer overnight -- at least. Mix the flour, sugar, cinnamon, salt, veggie oil, egg yolks and a couple drops of vanilla extract together in a mixing bowl. Slowly stir in the beer. (Lagers and ales work best with vanilla; Guinness and chocolate make for an interesting combination.) Refrigerate the whole mess overnight.
When you're ready to serve these suckers, heat up your frying oil. If you have a candy-making thermometer, get the oil to at least 375 degrees; if you don't have one, just make sure you get the oil really hot and keep it that way. Take those two egg whites, whip them stiff and fold them into the batter. Get your balls out of the freezer, dunk two in the batter mix, then drop them into the oil until they're brown -- no more than ten or fifteen seconds at the most. (If it takes longer than this for them to brown, your oil isn't hot enough. Stop being such a sissy and crank up the heat.) When they're brown, remove the balls from the hot oil, drain briefly on paper towels and serve immediately with honey. Repeat process as necessary until you've gotten your fill of Bite Me balls.
(Notice how good I was about not making any cheap ball jokes.)
Fried food nation: Okay, maybe fried ice cream isn't for you. How about deep-fried Twinkies? Wingin' It, open since July 12 at 8200 South Quebec Street in Centennial, is (as far as I know) the only Denver eatery currently serving this East Coast fave. Some places use batter, some places gussy things up with fancy fruit reductions or sauces in an attempt to add a bit of class to this junkiest of junk foods -- but not Wingin' It. They simply take a Twinkie -- your average, run-of-the-mill, yellow Twinkie -- and dunk it in hot canola oil for thirty seconds, then top it with whipped cream and a little drizzle of chocolate sauce, and off it goes...straight into your cardiologist's nightmares.
Surprisingly, as gross as it might sound, the fried Twinkie isn't bad. The equivalent of a white-trash eclair, it tastes like a country-fair cake doughnut straight out of the oil, bursting with warm filling and grease. The hot oil caramelizes the surface of the Twinkie, giving it a nice crunch, while almost melting the rest of the sponge cake inside, making the whole thing one massive, messy, sugary torpedo aimed straight at your inner child.
Doubly surprising is the fact that this little sports-themed, strip-mall spot fried up some excellent chicken wings (with a coating that held up even after a half-hour's ride in the car -- a criterion by which all good wings should be judged). These were big wings, meaty and juicy and cooked just right, and the medium sauce (out of ten possibilities) was a true medium -- mouth-wateringly smoky and thick at the beginning, with a nice afterburn on the tongue just begging to be washed away by a cold beer. I'd also ordered a side of Wingin' It's green chile, which turned out to be fantastic: chopped chiles, big chunks of fatty pork, and a deep, slow-simmered taste.
I don't know what owner Derrol Moorhead and crew are doing back there in the kitchen, but keep it up, fellas. I went there for a laugh and ended up with a good meal. Serves me right...
Now that we've fried up ice cream, Twinkies and chicken wings, what's next? Candy bars. Scotland -- the land that brought us haggis and single-malts -- is now on to the Next Big Thing in extreme foods: deep-fried Mars bars. Although no one in Denver has yet latched on to this gustatory gold mine, think about it: Candy bars are good. Batter is good. A battered candy bar dunked in 400-degree fryer grease, then dusted with powdered sugar is...?
Maybe I'll quit this gig and get into dentistry. I see a big future in it.
Leftovers: Ultra-hip Mateo (1837 Pearl Street in Boulder) has a new man behind the grills. Hugo Mathison, fresh from his stint at London's River Cafe, has moved into the spot vacated in June by Seamus Feeley -- who'd gone to Mateo from Citrus, the champagne bar and restaurant in Union Station. According to Mateo owner Mathew Jansen, Mathison "was a friend of mine and a friend of Seamus, and he shared our vision, so the transition has gone very smoothly." Mateo's menu remains seasonal, with specials, additions and subtractions daily depending on what's available locally.
Meanwhile, Feeley has moved down the block and will be opening the Corner Gourmet, which will specialize in prepared foods for takeout -- and, with any luck, give him more time to spend with his new kid.
Denver restaurants have been getting a lot of national press, and this month it's Dazzle (930 Lincoln Street) in the spotlight, with its recipe for macaroni and cheese featured in the "You Asked For It" section of the current Gourmet magazine.
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