There are four unopened bags of white flour taking up space on a shelf in our compact pantry. They've been there since March when we, like many Americans, stockpiled non-perishable household essentials. We made lots of pizza in the spring and early summer, so we used up the case of tomato sauce, but we kept finding fresh-made pizza dough and shredded cheese in the store so we didn't need to break into the all-purpose flour. Worse hasn't yet come to worst. Bread has been also readily available, along with all of our food provisions. We thought we would get into baking, that it would be a fun family activity or distraction during the lock-down, but we haven't the way many others have.


Numbers released this week from IRI, a company that tracks sales of packaged goods, show that we keep buying baking ingredients at a faster clip than last year. Not the +99% from early Spring, but still impressive growth given that per capita flour consumption has been declining for a very long time.


We're buying more stuff to bake with despite the "pandemic fatigue" assigned, among other things, to the time and effort making meals at home, day after day, with no definitive word on when we will be able to eat out without restrictions. I suppose baking is different from pulling together a meal. The rewards of baking sweets are always fresh and maybe more encompassing than what you get out of, say, making an Instant Pot meal. Baking bread is maybe different still from baking treats. I got a taste of that this week too.


There is now half a bag of fresh bread flour in the pantry, sitting on top of the other flour. We made several loaves of ciabatta this week. The motivation was neither need nor boredom. It was inspiration and curiosity. I discovered the Bread Lab while researching regenerative agriculture (the topic of an upcoming Talk to Me About Food podcast episode).


No, the Bread Lab is not a how-to blog, or a purveyor of bread-making stuff, or a space where you can learn how to bake incredible or uncommon bread. It is a real lab at Washington State University: "The Bread Lab is a combination think tank and baking laboratory where scientists, bakers, chefs, farmers, maltsters, brewers, distillers and millers experiment with improved flavor, nutrition and functionality of regional and obscure wheats, barley, other small grains and beans."


What really got my attention is the focus on taste and nutrition. Most of the bread we buy is made with wheat that's been bred for superior yield and packaged for long shelf life. Not surprisingly, taste and the full nutritional potential of wheat have been sacrificed in the industrialization of flour-making. Significantly.


Stephen Jones, the Bread Lab Director, suggests we need not make that sacrifice. What's more, we shouldn't, in any event, be growing the same monoculture wheat on immense farms, regardless of topography and climate, in poor soil bolstered by synthetic fertilizer. By cultivating a variety of wheat breeds, and grains specific to local conditions, the Bread Lab is promoting both a sustainable approach to growing these grains, as well as better tasting, better for you bread.


The other thing I'm learning is that to realize the full potential of a loaf of bread it takes a community of folks who together collaborate on creating the flour you and I buy. The Bread Lab, and others - breeders, millers, and chefs around the country - are reminding us of the true, fuller gift encapsulated in each kernel of wheat. They are resurrecting heirloom breeds, refining some, even concocting new types of wheat that are even more nutritious and make you expand the description of what bread can taste like. The variety of wheat possibilities is eye-popping.


I didn't seek out one of these more exotic flours bred for a specific flavor or texture, or tailored to our regional soil and climate. Using a national brand of bread flour, a well-known brand of yeast, coarse salt, cool water, a mixing bowl, a rubber spatula, and 475 degrees of oven heat for 20 minutes we made as good a loaf of bread as I've purchased from the store. On the first try.


There's more to it. Making bread tickles the senses. The dough sticks to your hands. You watch it rise. Then rise some more towards the top of the bowl. The bread takes shape and color in the oven while its aroma seeps around the oven door's edges. There's also the act of making bread. You're taking part in the simplest of rituals at the core of civilization-making. Fire. Water. Mineral. Fungus (yeast). And an edible kernel of grass co-created with nature's will.


At the end of the day, you can survive on a piece of bread and water.


Apparently, bread can be much more in terms of taste, texture, and nutrition if we, as consumers, invest time and effort that we don't have to if we buy Big Bakery, packaged bread built on high-yield grains. We have to give up the added convenience of a long shelf life too. Then again, after making our first loaves of ciabatta I was wondering what meals would best accompany the bread, not the other way around. The bread disappeared before we had time to even think about preserving it.


I hope the Bread Lab, Blue Hill restaurants in New York (Hudson Valley and Manhattan), Anson Mills in South Carolina, and The Land Institute in Kansas, among others, open more eyes to the possibilities of sustainably-grown grains bred for a much wider range of flavors and textures than most of us can find today (at an affordable price). Imagine craving "plain, simple" bread the way you crave a chocolate chip cookie or a bowl of ice cream.


Imagine a loaf of bread featured at Thanksgiving alongside the best homemade pies and your secret recipe dressing. Bread even more fulfilling than dinner rolls and cornbread. I'll be giving thanks for this most humble food when we break bread this Thanksgiving.

  • Ali Tadlaoui

Change Foods is setting up shop in the U.S. with the goal of manufacturing cheese using microbes and a bit of magic. No need for the real deal; cow's milk, goat's milk, or sheep's milk. This news got me thinking about a couple of things.


There's no doubt we love cheese, so it's an interesting space to build a better mousetrap. I mused about this a few weeks ago when I came across the latest dairy consumption data from the USDA which shows that annual per capita consumption of cheese was 38 lbs in 2019, the highest level recorded. Compare this to 14 lbs per person per year in 1975.


The other day I had a long conversation (which is the basis for an upcoming Talk to Me About Food podcast episode) with someone who has been following a strict whole food, plant-based diet for almost three years. I was impressed with how quickly, and relatively smoothly Michelle and her family transitioned from a typical, animal products-based diet. What's also interesting is that their favorite whole food, plant-based dish is a lasagne, the hero of which are soy curls which she insists are almost indistinguishable from dairy cheese. And Michelle lives in Wisconsin, where they know something about cheese...


So, what is Change Foods doing? They say they are using microbial fermentation to create compounds that are "bio-identical" to what's found in dairy cheese. Change Foods sees a big opportunity because plant-based cheese alternatives don't have the stretch and meltability of real dairy cheese. Here's what it says on their web site; "Using bio-engineering innovations to create real animal-free cheese and dairy products that are better for you, with no compromise on taste, function or texture. All lactose free, hormone free and hypoallergenic. Our mission is to deliver sustainable, healthier and more ethical food supplies for the future."


Stressing sustainability and ethical sourcing should crack open the door for some cheese eaters to consider trying this product. But "bio-engineering," which in this case means inserting DNA into a mix of bacteria, yeast, and filamentous fungi, and "microbial fermentation" conjure images of "Frankenfood" for many, and will make it difficult for that door to swing open.


On the other hand, consumers will likely accept this fake real cheese more easily than meat grown in a vat from animal cells. Real cheese is already a manufactured product; a derivative of what's milked from an udder. It doesn't take much to cultivate cheese from milk. No artificial ingredients are needed, or a complicated, convoluted process, but it is one step removed from food as mother nature created it. It takes some tinkering. Growing a steak through a fermentation-like process, from bovine cells adhering to an artificial scaffolding, is more than a step removed from nature's way, which I think will delay mainstream acceptance of clean, or cell-based meat. There is mystery in meiosis, in the development of an embryo in the cow's uterus, and the maturing of a newborn into a calf and steer. Maybe many of us will not want to let go of Mother Nature's still-awe-inspiring process. We will want to continue traditional husbandry and harvesting of animals.


On the other hand, substituting the wonder at how cheese emerges from traditional cheese-making practices with the magic of genetic manipulation of microbes feels like a trade-off some of us will be willing to make to keep eating cheese without degrading the environment any further.



  • Ali Tadlaoui

A few pieces of related news have scrolled past my eyes in the past week. The first wasn't really news because the article cited data published in 2017. But I hadn't seen this information from the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. According to trended data from the EPA, Americans thew out a record 40.7 million tons of food in 2017, which is almost double the figure from 1995. Our population has only grown by 22% over these 25 years, so it appears we are getting more wasteful over time, at least as measured by the amount solid municipal waste recorded or reported. And this doesn't capture all the food that is lost - not consumed by humans anyway - in the system, all the way from the farm through to the dumpsters behind food stores.


I probed a bit into the consumer responsibility around reducing food waste in a Talk to Me About Food podcast about a year ago. The random group of women I spoke with were genuinely concerned and claimed to be consciously taking steps to reduce food waste in their households. These women were doing at least 20 of the 37 things to lessen waste on a list I compiled from various sources including the USDA and EPA. People say they are shopping the fridge and pantry before making shopping lists. They say they are creative with perishable ingredients. They admit that they could do more, like storing food better, but you would think we would be doing better over time, not worse. As I mentioned in the earlier podcast, the time and budget pressures of running a household, especially one with kids, makes it difficult to find the time and attention to consistently do the little and big things to keep food out of the garbage. I read a summary of a just-published academic paper which underscores the challenges we face as consumers trying to reduce food waste.


"Towards a multi-level framework of household food waste and consumer behaviour: Untangling spaghetti soup" (Mark Boulet, Annet C. Hoek, Rob Raven) proposes a comprehensive model of factors that influence the amount of household food waste. There are micro (individual) level factors like attitudes, kitchen "skill" level, life experiences, and financial resources, then meso (household) factors such as composition, interdependence, and the physical attributes of the dwelling. Finally there are macro (outside the household) considerations. Workplaces, schools, social networks, social norms, and climate, for example. These all seem reasonable. The thing is, it's not a linear process of influence for any of us. There are feedback loops that can both reinforce and inhibit food waste-reducing behavior. If this dynamic model is accurate, it's hard to predict how much or how little food waste any one household will produce at any point in time, or over time. This tangle of influences seems to have caused more of us to produce more food waste over time, not less.


There's hope, I think. The global pandemic has forced many of us into the kitchen. More of us are spending more time in the kitchen than maybe we ever have. We're being forced to reconsider what we buy, how to make meals, and how we dispose of stuff. We're more "intimate" with our food and piling-up trash, so perhaps more willing to make the extra effort not to create food waste. And many of us are having to economize. Making the most of what we have in our fridges and pantries saves money too.


There's hope outside the home too. Too Good To Go is an app that is all about reducing food waste. It is a platform that connects restaurants holding food about to go to waste with hungry eaters looking for a good value and looking to good at the same time. Too Good to Go has made a mark in Europe and was launched in NYC a month ago, according to Eater.com. Some 15,000 eaters have signed up already to save up to 67% on items that are left over at the end of the day at 250 restaurants, cafes, and food stores.


Reducing food waste is everyone's problem. The other headline that recently caught my eye announced a broad commitment from food manufacturers, suppliers, and retailers. Food Dive reports that 200 companies have pledged to cut food waste in half by 2030. This is ambitious. And necessary.


But reducing food waste starts and ends with the consumer, from what I see. You and me. More than anything it means a mindset change for many of us. From an expectation of "plenty" to satisfaction with "enough." A mindset driven by "plenty" invites over-production and over-consumption. It also excuses wastefulness. Meeting the demands of "enough" should reduce the amount of food available to waste. We would likely also be more selective about what we buy, favoring quality over quantity, which means we could be more inspired to make the most of the food we've got in the fridge, in the pantry, and on the plate of take-out food in front of us, instead of throwing it out.

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