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Sourdough starter and no-knead multi-grain bread

The bread

This blog was supposed to be about food too, so in this post I’ll describe how to maintain a sourdough starter and make a simple no-work bread.

A sourdough starter is a culture of lactic acid bacteria and wild yeasts that is used to leaven bread. (And waffles, pancakes, etc.) It is more potent than pure yeast, but also adds different flavors to bread. To use it, the first step is to find someone who is willing to share a bit of sourdough starter with you; if that fails, other sources exist. Read More…


When voting with your dollar, interpretation matters

Much is made of consumers’ ability to influence how things are produced and services performed just by choosing how (or whether) they spend their money. But instead of “What is my dollar supporting?” a better question to ask is “How will my dollar be interpreted?”

Say you want to support local producers, and you go buy local apples at the grocery store. The grocery store might misinterpret your dollar for local apples as just a dollar for generic apples. When they run low on that variety, they will get more from their distributor – who may be carrying imported ones this time around. If they are not paying attention to the distinction the consumer is making, then they might miss it.

A concrete example is with hydroponic on-the-vine tomatoes in local grocery chains. Even during the same time of year, sometimes they’re from Canada, sometimes they’re from Mexico, and sometimes there’s both kinds in the same bin – and all have the same scan code. If I buy only the Canadian ones, to that grocery store it’s a vote for hydroponic tomatoes, whatever their source.

Perhaps you buy some household item in part because it is made in Canada and not China. The manufacturer could easily interpret this as a dollar for that item (regardless of source). When they ramp up production, they decide their customers won’t notice and take manufacturing offshore.

Or say you buy something from a local, large-scale producer. Your dollar is supporting them, but do they interpret it as a “local dollar” or just as a dollar? It’s very possible that they don’t pay much mind to where their business comes from. With initial local support they can expand to nationwide sales and cease to care about local sales, and then perhaps move their production elsewhere.

The direct question of “What is my dollar supporting?” is still a valuable one, and I am not suggesting to disregard it. What I would suggest, however, is to pay attention to the cases where the interpretation of the dollar will differ significantly from the intent – and to try to remedy them. Wherever the dollar vote may be misinterpreted, one can try to point out the intention to the party responsible for interpretation. However, in some cases the misinterpretation is likely endemic, and the only way to have your dollar understood properly is to take it elsewhere.

Deconstructing Dinner

Why does my tomato look so perfect, and how much fuel was required for it to travel here from Mexico? What about the truck my tomato hitched a ride on? How much energy was required to build that truck, and wait a minute, how much energy was required to make that fuel? I know a guy down the street who grows tomatoes. Why doesn’t the grocery store around the corner sell his tomatoes? What about the road my tomato travelled on. How many workers are required per year to maintain that road? And how much fuel do they use to get to the highway that they’re paid to maintain? Didn’t I buy this tomato like a month ago? Why does it still look so perfect? And why did that girl at the checkout counter assume I needed a plastic bag for my tomato? She even gave me a puzzled look when I told her I didn’t need one! Did I mention the guy down the street grows tomatoes?

Deconstructing Dinner is a radio show and podcast produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio in Nelson, British Columbia, and hosted by Jon Steinman. Over the last half-year I have listened through the entire archive of the show going back to 2006 — well over 100 hour-long podcasts. So with some confidence I can recommend Deconstructing Dinner as an excellent program that touches on many aspects of food security. The delivery is matter-of-fact, and occasionally incredulous (as it should be). The show’s point of view is clear but transparent, the interviews are well conducted, and the recorded talks are generally good and sometimes great.

The Deconstructing Dinner podcast archive is perhaps the easiest way to become aware of the issue of food security and all its facets. I’d recommend starting with a few episodes to get acquainted (or whichever ones suit your fancy), but then to just go chronologically. (Note, as I neglected to do, the remastered versions of a couple of the earlier episodes.) My listening was mostly done during my daily commute — generally on foot.

Fair trade organic coffee (and only coffee)

The ubiquity of fair trade organic coffee is a bit puzzling. I guess coffee is something people take particular pride in? Regardless, the reason I find it strange is because the coffee tends to be the only thing available fair trade or organic in establishments that carry fair trade organic coffee. In this area, a couple of such places are City Cafe Bakery and the University of Waterloo coffee shops, but I’ve seen it elsewhere as well.

You’d think that at least the coffee-related things would get lumped in, but this is not the case. The sugar tends to be just regular refined sugar, or perhaps “raw” sugar; but never fair trade or organic. The milk and cream are usually the conventional stuff, with the latter also generally having all the thickeners and stabilizers. In my view, it is at least as important to support organic farming practices closer to home (i.e. for cream) as it is to do the same on the other side of the world.

The only place I have ever seen go all the way with coffee and its add-ins is eXhibit Cafe at the Children’s Museum in downtown Kitchener — though the name gives away that it may be trying to prove a point.

Layers of added value and the cost of ingredients

If organic ingredients are 50% more expensive, then an organic bagel should cost 50% more, right? A moment’s thought should convince you otherwise. The moment you take the components out of the field, off the tree, into the slaughterhouse, the expenditure on “organic” or whatever other method was used to grow the food stops.* After that, you start “adding value” to it: first to get the thing cleaned and packaged, then to process it into a foodstuff. Foodstuffs are combined to produce food, or in the case of more processed food, just ingredients for a later step. This all has to be shipped carefully, be stored, take up shelf space, and be sold. The steps may very well vary, but what remains is that there is a lot of human and machine labor and resources used up for steps beyond the actual growing of food.

With every layer of processing, the cost of ingredients becomes a smaller and smaller proportion of the total cost of food. One instance which I find striking is that of organic products that are sweetened with organic sugar. The “organic evaporated cane juice” I see on ingredient labels is never fair trade. It being so would hardly increase the overall cost.

With this line of reasoning, restaurants should be the first to go organic, local, fair trade, everything. Ingredients there simply do not make up that large a fraction of the eater’s cost. The cost of ingredients in a meal might double, say from $3 to $6, and that would convert a conventional meal of $12 to a local, organic (, etc.) meal of $15. With that sort of marginal difference and with the number of people who would prefer the latter meal, economics suggests there should be more such restaurants than the two or three that exist around here.

*The exception is the cost of additional steps necessary to ensure lack of cross-contamination in processing, including having to run smaller batches.

Kamut and marketing

There’s a decent chance you’ve heard of Kamut grain. It’s in cereals, some breads, pasta, and so on, especially ones found in health food stores. Think back to the last time you had it; was it organic?

The answer is yes, it was. That’s because Kamut is actually Kamut®, a registered trademark of Kamut International. The grain is generically known as khorasan wheat, a heritage variety of wheat that was barely cultivated until one Bob Quinn decided to market it. As near as I can tell, the company currently contracts with farmers in various parts of the world, though mostly around Saskatchewan and Montana, to grow their wheat, pays them a fixed high price, and then markets the resulting products.

Here’s the twist: Kamut International does not own the grain. What they do is ensure for the consumer a standard for the production of that variety of wheat, which standard includes that it be certified organic and free of other wheat contaminants. You can peruse their justification for using a trademark.

The intriguing thing about this business model is that the company has popularized the name Kamut and created both a supply of it as well as a rapidly growing consumer demand for it. Success for Kamut the brand leads quite directly to increased organic agriculture and more money for wheat farmers. It is probable that eventually generic khorasan wheat will appropriate for itself the name “kamut” and the corresponding market share. But I don’t see that serving any particular interests right now, so it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

I’d always found it somewhat odd to see an ingredient in various organic foods be something trademarked, but I was pleasantly surprised by the results of this investigation.