Saturday, April 23, 2011

Bacteria in Local Food

Lactobacillus bulgaricus from
This is a post about thinkin.  No recipes today.  Probably not many pictures.

We are doing 7 Days 100% Local Challenge again and a couple issues have come up.  This time the work of the experience is easier.  I am expecting not to drink coffee.  I am expecting to eat smaller meals.  I am expecting to have limited choices.  Definitely no going out with clients out for beers.  I dealt with these issues last time.

But this time the issues are deeper.  They are more complicated.  They are asking me to look deeper into what 7 Days 100% Local really means.  We went to the farmer's market a couple weekends ago and were talking to a vendor about the challenge.  She was pretty clear that 100% local was nit-picking.  95% local was just fine.

This seems to be coming up more often.  More and more the negative feedback is coming from the people who either have no interest in local food or the people who are eating mostly local already.  These two opposite groups seem to view the 7 Days 100% Local challenge as far-fetched?  Comical?  Ridiculous?

But what they don't understand is that is not the point of the Challenge.  The point of the challenge is for people who want to try to push their diet more local than it currently is, with the ultimate goal of 100% local.  Someone who is 20% local may work their way to 80% local for the week.  Afterwards, they may end up being 50% local because they learned some new things and found some great sources in the process.  Someone who is 90% local already, if they are willing to try to stretch a little bit further, may make it to 95% local.   That is the beauty of this challenge.  It is not for people who are done looking.  It is for those of us who are willing to go a little bit further and see what is there...

Ok, back to the point.  In my house, we're past the surprise of local food limits.  Now we're facing the tougher choices around what those limits of local food really are and what we are going to choose for ourselves.  My wife is thinking always about the baby and my daughter--what to feed them, how to make meals for them, how local limits are impacting their food choices.

The issue of yogurt has come up a lot.  What is "local yogurt".  The baby loves yogurt.  At 8 months, we are trying to give him more and more "solid" foods.  This includes yogurt mixed with all sorts of berries, etc.  The problem is that yogurt is milk + bacteria cultures.  The milk is local fo'sho.  But what about the Lactobacillus bulgaricus cultures? I can guarantee they aren't home grown.  And even if they were, they would be home grown in a laboratory which is the anathema of small farm goodness we also look for in local week.

So, I've been doing some research.  Here is what I found out:
  • Bacteria grows fast and dies fast. The lifespan is hours to weeks.  That's it.
  • It reproduces itself as clones asexually, making it the least fun organisms on earth.  
  • It is microscopic and lives in a world very different than ours.   
  • Live ("active") cultures are good for you because they are probiotics.  
  • The bacteria cultures needed to make yogurt are called a thermophillic starter.  Cheddar cheese also uses a thermophillic starter, so you can see that when we address the topic of yogurt, we can extend this topic to cheese and, ultimately, all fermented milk products.  
Now, how does this enter into the topic of local food?

An apple and a tub of yogurt walk into a bar...
If you have a quart of yogurt made from the cows down the street + a packet of yogurt starter ordered from a laboratory in California, can you call that 100% local in Portland, Oregon?  No you can't. It may be 99% local, but it is not 100% local.   By extension, does any fermented milk product that uses bacteria automatically get excluded from the 100% local challenge?  Seems like it.  If you are adding foreign ingredients to your mild to make yogurt, then it's doesn't meet the 100% local standard.

Here is another way to think about it.  Hood River, Oregon, is famous for the apple orchards. No one would disagree that a Hood River apple is a local apple.  But the saplings and the seeds used to grow these orchards very likely came from somewhere else.  I really really doubt that these are indigenous apple trees.  We have no problem eating these "local" apples even though they originated at one time from foreign sources.

Why is bacteria any different than an apple tree?  Both are cultured. Both are living organisms. Both are used as food producers.  Both are transplants. Why be a size-ist and say that bacteria grown from an east-coast starter kit isn't local while a tree grown from an east coast seed supply company is?

Let's talk about yeast for a minute. Yeast is very small and is used in bread.  If you make a loaf of sandwich bread, you'll probably need some packets of instant yeast. But if you make a sour dough from a cultured bucket of wild yeast, then it is local.  Also, if you culture your own yeasts in San Francisco it will taste different than yeast cultured in Portland .  Wild yeast has it's own flavor profile depending on where it is.  That is one of the things that makes it so great.

Now, does this mean that a natural yogurt culture will taste different in Portland vs. Ohio?  Probably not.  There is more to the flavor than just the bacteria and these other factors will most likely overwhelm.

But what is not different is the idea that you can do things in a variety of ways. You can get Fleishman's Instant Yeast out of a package or you can culture your own.  You can order apples from Idaho or you can plant a seed and grow a tree.  You can empty a packet of Lactobacillus bulgaricus into your milk and make a quart of yogurt, or you can cultivate a "mother" culture of yogurt bacteria.

In each case, culturing the thing is what makes it local.  It imparts an artistry.  It shows a certain amount of care.  It creates a local "colony".  Also, it creates a chance to fail.

Failure Can Be A Good Thing
A big part of appreciating local food is appreciating that there are lots of things that are not local.  There are lots of things that will fail if they are planted here. Mango tree = fail.  Raspberries = success. That is how we separate what is true to this place from what is not.  That is how we know we are someplace distinct, that we are not just floating in a Willy Wonka wonderland of edible conveniences.  It is the opposite of Ray Krock's dream of universally accessible and homogeneous food.  As a person interested in local food, I'm glad for that.

Eating local means understanding that this place is not like every other place.  You're feet are on this ground.   This air is in your lungs.  This wind is on your face.  This food is in your belly.  These horizons are your horizons.

Back to yogurt.  Does yogurt have a chance to fail?  I guess that depends a lot on the competency of the yogurt maker.  If you constantly supplement the yogurt and keep pouring in more starter, it won't fail because you have it on life support.  But if you are cultivating something and you take it off life support, then it has a chance to fail.

Supplementers or Cultivators
Because of the nature of bacteria, it really does come down to either it's okay or it's not.  There cannot be much gray area with something that has a lifespan so short and reproduces by cloning itself.  These things will never become "acclimated".

It is the intention of the producer that matters more here.  Are they cultivating the culture, or are they just supplementing?  If the intention is to cultivate the yogurt rather than just pour in another packet of yogurt starter each time, and if the intention is to create a local yogurt bacteria colony, then I'd say we're on track to local.  It represents a local intention, with a kick-start.  Those east coast apple seeds are a kick-start too.  They start a local orchard, and we eat the local apples.
    I don't think my family's struggles with sorting though the finer points of local food are done. The question of fermented foods and bacteria presents a real challenge, especially when you realize just how much of these sorts of things we eat.  We'll keep working it out.

    In the mean time, we figured out that making yogurt at home is actually really really simple.  It just takes milk, yogurt, and an oven.  Using some yogurt bought from a local dairy as the kick-start, we're starting our own yogurt colony. Then we'll have local yogurt and the baby will be happy.

    Sunday, April 10, 2011

    Get Ready for another 7 Days 100% Local

    We're going to do it again and it's almost here.

    7 Days 100% Local, redux.

    7 days doesn't seem like it should be that hard.  It's only one week.  How hard can that be.  I think it would not be hard on its own.  But when you add in the 100% local part, things change.

    Most people are aware of local food.

    Many people choose to eat local food.

    Hardly anyone goes 100% local.  And by 100% I mean 100%.  Every ingredient in every food item sourced locally.  No added salts.  No packaged yeast.  No spices.  No lemons.  No cultured enzymes.  No coloring.  No added anything that wasn't sourced locally.  That makes for a lot of "No"s.

    The thing is, there is a lot of ways to make products from local sources, and we just don't.  For instance, if you want to make cheese you need rennet.  Vegetable rennet can be made from thistle. Thistle grows like crazy in the Northwest.  Why doesn't someone start a thistle farm, press the juice out of it, make vegetable rennet, and corner the Pacific NW cheese market?

    Another example.  Vinegar.  We got the apples.  We got the wineries.  We don't got vinegar.  Why?  Someone needs to take that last step and make vinegar.  They'd own 100% of the local vinegar market.

    Salt.  A subject close to my heart.  We have a whole ficken ocean of salt just across the valley.  But no one has thought to set up a commercial kiln and corner the PNW salt market.  Why?  Local salt would be a snap!

    Commercial yeast.  Yeast is in sooooo many things.  Why is there not a yeast producer around here?  Maybe that is a little more work than vinegar, but come on.  It can't be that hard.

    I digress...

    Anyway, we're getting ready for the 7 Days.  I think we'll do a very similar plan to last time.

    Breakfasts -- hot cereals.  eggs and toast.
    Lunches -- finger foods.  Nut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Leftovers.
    Dinners -- Meats and veggies.  Savory custards.  Frittatas.
    Desserts -- Simple sweet custards.

    No client lunch meetings.

    Seems simple, but when you start deconstructing everything you eat, it becomes harder.  That's part of the point, I guess.  I'm glad it's only 7 days...

    I'm excited that there are a bunch of people joining us this time.