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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

“Top Chef” Check-in

The opening of Perilla, last year’s Top Chef winner’s new restaurant, seems to be stalled for the moment, but Harold Dieterle is trying to keep his name alive by blogging about the second season of Top Chef on Bravo.com. His recent post (“Why All the Hate?”), which threw all kinds of support Marcel’s way after the Seven Deadly Sins challenge, just proved what a gosh-darned nice guy he is. However, it also provoked this tongue-in-cheek response about his bathroom behavior in New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer.

Last year’s Top Chef runner-up, Tiffani Faison, spent her summer cooking at Straight Wharf on Nantucket, but has now moved down south to New Orleans, where she was named executive chef at Todd English’s Riche. (My Lord, how many restaurants does that guy have?!)

Tiffani also checked in with the blog Top Chef 2: They Cook. We Dish, where she talks about how Spain and Japan excite her and how she’s really into local New Orleans ingredients, like espelette pepper and artisanal sausages. The interview then turned to the topic of Bravo’s creative editing procedures.

BS: Bravo seems to have success with editing their programs to reflect the Hero/Villain/Clown trilogy, and Top Chef is no exception. What ended up on the editing room floor that you would have really liked for viewers to see?

TF: The amount of compliments I dished out to the other cast members in my interviews ended up on the floor. There were some people that I really liked and respected.

Those compliments must’ve ended up on the cutting room floor of those cast members’ brains as well.

And finally, posters on the Television Without Pity Top Chef discussion forums called my attention to this Top Chef–themed Kevin & Kell strip by cartoonist Bill Holbrook.

White Meat’s Dark Side

Bacon lovers may reconsider their morning strip after reading Jeff Tietz’s chilling Rolling Stone article about Smithfield Foods, the nation’s top pork producer. This exposé makes it hard to even think about eating a pork chop.

Smithfield Foods raised 27 million hogs last year—under horrifying conditions.

They trample each other to death. There is no sunlight, straw, fresh air or earth. The floors are slatted to allow excrement to fall into a catchment pit under the pens, but many things besides excrement can wind up in the pits: afterbirths, piglets accidentally crushed by their mothers, old batteries, broken bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes, stillborn pigs—anything small enough to fit through the foot-wide pipes that drain the pits.

But living conditions are the least of the problems. The real problem is the amount of waste these pigs produce—a single Smithfield subsidiary generates more fecal matter than all of Manhattan. To dispose of this in the same manner as human waste would cause the company to lose money, so instead it is pumped into open holding ponds where it seeps into the groundwater and nearby rivers or is sprayed on fields. People living nearby who breathe this spray develop bronchitis, asthma, heart palpitations, headaches, diarrhea, nosebleeds and brain damage; those who accidentally fall into the lagoons die.

A lot of pig shit is one thing; a lot of highly toxic pig shit is another. The excrement of Smithfield hogs is hardly even pig shit: On a continuum of pollutants, it is probably closer to radioactive waste than to organic manure.

Lagoon overflow is not uncommon. In four years, 2 million gallons of pig waste has spilled into the Cape Fear River alone, killing plant life and fish. Hurricanes are a problem, since they wash millions of gallons of untreated waste into rivers and out to sea, leaving a trail of dead fish and dead pigs behind. “Hurricane Floyd washed 120,000,000 gallons of unsheltered hog waste into the Tar, Neuse, Roanoke, Pamlico, New and Cape Fear rivers…. Very little freshwater marine life remained behind,” reports Tietz.

The man behind the rise of Smithfield Foods is one Joseph Luter III, who last year took home a salary of over $10 million. He’s currently been nominated as a contender for the Grinch of the Year Award, by the organization Jobs with Justice, as the national figure doing the most to harm working families. When Luter is asked about the thousands of Smithfield violations of the Clean Water Act, he points out the much larger number of violations possible. Apparently he thinks his company isn’t doing too badly.

Now Luter is planning to expand the Smithfield operation in Eastern Europe, bringing toxic pig shit to Romania. Smithfield operations in Poland, where lagoon failure resulted in skin rashes and eye infections for local residents, has recently been deemed damaging to the ecosystem by a Helsinki Commission report.

Food bloggers have gotten worked up by this article as well. Catherine at Food Musings says, “It’s foul beyond all imagining,” and asks what people can do if they live in an area that doen’t have non-factory-farmed pork easily available (The Local Harvest website is a good place to start). Chef Chris Consentino, on his blog Offal Good, points out that people can make a difference. “You the consumer can change this problem, don’t buy these meats, be sure you know where your pork comes from.”

So, do you know where your bacon comes from?

The Hormone Hustle

SF Gate culture columnist Mark Morford is all riled up. He has stumbled across a hateful piece by religious reformer Jim Rutz that proclaims “Soy Is Making Kids ‘Gay.’”

The culture wars, it would seem, have moved to the dinner table.

Rutz’s argument that the phytoestrogens in soy formula can overwhelm testosterone in baby boys seems to be rational, until you get to this paragraph:

Soy is feminizing, and commonly leads to a decrease in the size of the penis, sexual confusion and homosexuality. That’s why most of the medical (not socio-spiritual) blame for today’s rise in homosexuality must fall upon the rise in soy formula and other soy products.

Okaaayyy, we’re backing away slowly. Proclamations like this just seem to lather up Morford, who breaks out the big sarcasm gun to respond:

God hates vegans. Is it not obvious? After all, most vegans eat a lot of soy. Consequently, most vegans are, of course, violently gay, just like billions of Asians who’ve eaten soy products for millennia and are so gay and feminine and estrogen heavy they can barely stand up. Which explains Hello Kitty. And samurai movies.

As Morford himself notes, there is plant-based estrogen in soy. And there’s a world of difference between an Asian diet of tofu and soymilk and an American vegetarian diet that relies on heavily processed soy-based meats from potentially genetically modified soybeans. A mono diet is never a good thing; too much of even something as healthy as spinach can give you kidney stones. Still, I thought we put our soy fears to rest five years ago, when the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that a long-term study of adults fed soy-based formula as babies led to this conclusion:

Exposure to soy formula does not appear to lead to different general health or reproductive outcomes than exposure to cow milk formula. Although the few positive findings should be explored in future studies, our findings are reassuring about the safety of infant soy formula.

The Sight and Sound of Taste

The Sight and Sound of Taste

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Ugly but Delicious

Here in the States, the recent foodie infighting over the relative benefits of organic and local agriculture has died down a bit, but now the UK is having its own row over organics. This one—much more political, and in many ways much uglier—is being eaten up by the media.

The argument was sparked by a government official’s comments: David Miliband, the country’s environment, food, and rural affairs secretary, said Sunday that buying organic food was a “lifestyle choice” and that crops grown using pesticides and chemical fertilizers should not be viewed as second-best. “I would not want to say that 96 percent of our farm produce is inferior because it’s not organic,” Miliband told The Sunday Times.

Sorta makes sense that he’d come down on the side of conventional farmers, given his position and his constituency. Also understandably, Britain’s organic farmers’ advocacy group, the Soil Association, was hurt by the comments—and the UK media have been very attentive to the group’s reaction. The organization’s director told The Guardian:

I actually think it is rather sad because it suggests that David Miliband is profoundly ignorant of the benefits that are motivating people to buy organic food. The industry has grown without the support of the government and we thought we finally had it on our side. I find it amazing the minister is being so dismissive.

Another Soil Association higher-up and Guardian contributor called Miliband’s move a “significant self-inflicted injury.” This article in The Scotsman even gave both sides of the debate a chance to express their opinions.

Perhaps because this discussion takes place among big players in food policy (rather than, say, writer Michael Pollan and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey), it’s not taken for granted on both sides that food should be produced sustainably—and this means that the arguments are much more basic. Also a bit more embarrassing, on both sides: The Guardian quotes the founder of the online grocery store Organic Delivery Company, defending the health benefits of organics with an off-the-cuff personal anecdote:

It is not a lifestyle choice, there are health issues involved. I discovered organic food about 15 years ago when I had a chronic illness and went to an alternative health practitioner. I told him I was a vegetarian and he said ‘but your diet’s wrong, you are not eating organic food.’ He said I should eat food that is grown in harmony with the planet and the seasons. I did and within a month, my problem had gone.

OK, well, maybe that’s true—but how many organic skeptics does this guy really think are going to be swayed by the phrases “alternative health practitioner” and “grown in harmony with the planet and the seasons”? Oy.

“Top Chef” Mikey’s Wisdom

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You’ll Never Look at Kitty Litter the Same Way Again

I admit it, I’m a cat person and proud of it. I adore the little furballs and heap extensive amounts of love and attention on my two. But do I love them enough to dig around in their box for my daily caffeine high? Not very likely.

Admittedly, Malaysian and Indonesian civet “cats” are not your average run-of-the-mill house cats that curl up on your hearth and tangle underfoot whenever they hear a can opener. These jungle mammals are only “cat-sized” and have an express preference for snacking on exotic fruits like chiku, mango, and rambutan.

They are also the source for a … unique kind of coffee known as kopi luwak. According to Animal Coffee,

Kopi luwak is a unique gourmet coffee that is ‘processed’ in the stomach of a wild animal, after which it is hand collected from the floor of the Sumatran jungle.

Sounds rather nice when they put it like that, doesn’t it? “Collected on the floor of the Sumatran jungle” makes it seem downright delectable and exotic. However, I prefer Boing Boing’s more forthright description: “coffee beans excreted out of a rare Indonesian mammal’s ass.”

Boing Boing points the way to a promotional piece on Sally’s Place that explains the whole process in what is probably supposed to be drool-worthy detail, and also includes a quote from M. P. Mountanos, the first coffee importer to bring the beans to the U.S., who gushes, “It’s the most complex coffee I’ve ever tasted.” The same Mountanos also announced that Starbucks bought the savory beans “for cuppings within the company.”

There are so many things about this brew that disturb me. Aside from the expected retchings when imagining a big steaming cup of well, that, one is that the picture included with the aforementioned Sally’s Place piece ensures I’ll never look at a PayDay the same way again. The other is a quoted comment from a Boing Boing reader who suggests animal cruelty could be involved in the “processing” of the coffee beans.

BB reader Pauric O’Callaghan says, by purchasing catbuttcoffee you may be supporting animal cruelty. As foie gras is to geese, so is Kopi Luwak to civets:

‘Due to the high prices, some of the supply now comes from force-fed animals. The images shown of the solid poops consisting of nothing but coffee beans are an example of this. Traditionally natives fished through the monkey poop for individual beans. The monkey poop does fall to the ground in single solid bean rich movements.’

Well, that’s enough to put me right off the idea—you won’t find me starting my morning right with a mug of cat butt coffee.

To See a World in a Grain of Dry Ice

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