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Flash in the Pan

The year in food

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A lot happened in the food world in 2009, but the year may be most remembered for one high-profile garden, thanks to the veggie patch Michelle Obama planted in the White House lawn. The symbolic gesture created an instant buzz, and many other politicos around the world have followed suit, providing countless opportunities to educate and discuss why gardens are good.

According to the National Gardening Association, the number of households with gardens rose from 36 million in 2008 to 43 million in 2009. Obama's garden certainly deserves some credit, but so does the recession, which inspired many people to stick their hands in the dirt—not just to save on grocery bills, but to also spend less on activities away from the soil.

Ironically, this proliferation of home gardeners bears some of the responsibility for the rapid spread of a late tomato blight fungus, which nearly wiped out the commercial tomato crop on the East Coast. Many gardeners bought tomato starts from stores like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe's and Wal-Mart, nearly all of which were raised by the Alabama nursery Bonnie Plants. Plant pathologists believe the nursery sent out infected plants, which slipped under the radar of agricultural inspectors and brought the spores to all corners of the country. Unusually heavy rainfall encouraged the blight to take hold, prosper and spread. The take-home message: Buy your plant starts from local nurseries, or grow them yourself from seeds.

In addition to kitchen gardens, another beneficiary of the recession is Clara Cannucciari, a 93-year-old great-grandmother whose YouTube videos combine salty commentary about life in the Great Depression with hands-on demonstrations on how to crank out simple delicacies that average 50 cents a serving. The videos helped win Cannucciari a contract with St. Martin's Press, which published Clara's Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories, and Recipes from the Great Depression this past October.

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It's impossible to discuss the year in food without an update on the activities of biotech giant Monsanto, whose year can be summed up in a single word: "chutzpah." In April, the company sued Germany when its agriculture minister banned the planting of a type of Monsanto corn engineered to thwart the advances of the corn-borer moth. Monsanto was unsuccessful in forcing Germany to allow its farmers to plant the corn, and recent research suggests Germany's concern (which several other European countries shared) may have been warranted: French scientists published a paper suggesting adverse affects of this corn—and two other types of genetically modified corn—on the kidneys and liver of rats.

Meanwhile, Monsanto's marketing practices have placed it on a collision course with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which this month has indicated it's considering anti-trust litigation. Monsanto's string of acquisitions have squelched almost any possibility of competition, while its seed prices have risen by an average of 42 percent. When the DOJ dispatched some of its lawyers to meet with Monsanto to discuss these developments, the company hired the services of Jerry Crawford, an Iowa lawyer who is a friend and financial supporter of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. It's further indication that keeping Monsanto in line is about as easy as trying to wrestle an anaconda.

While touting its products as safe for humans and the environment, Monsanto's main sales pitch is based on the claim that genetically engineered seeds will increase crop yields and facilitate pest control. But last summer, a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that genetically engineered seeds actually don't increase productivity. Another study, by the Organic Center, found that since the introduction of "Round-Up tolerant" corn, soy and cotton, farmers have sprayed 382.6 million more pounds of herbicides than they otherwise would have. This is partly due to the proliferation of Round-Up resistant weeds: between 2007 and 2008, farmers increased the use of different herbicides by 31 percent in an effort to combat these superweeds. Nonetheless, the company's website promotes the seeds as a key component in "sustainable agriculture."

While Monsanto has co-opted the term "sustainable agriculture," retail giant Wal-Mart, already the world's largest vendor of organic food, is now poised to capitalize on the popularity of locally grown food. It's looking at ways individual stores can carry foods grown by local farmers. Another large grocer, Safeway, has this year begun aggressively pushing a "locally grown" marketing campaign, while blatantly taking advantage of the ambiguity in the term "local." Stores in Missoula tried the trick this summer, posting locally grown signs throughout produce sections that included one local product—Flathead cherries that are processed in Washington before returning to Montana.

That the "sustainable," "local," and "organic" bandwagons are becoming attractive to large corporations, arguably, is a good sign. It shows these words, and what they represent, have infiltrated the mainstream consciousness. And one of the most powerful vehicles to deliver this message has been the movie Food Inc, whose depressing-yet-important message about the American diet was seen by enough people to make it the year's highest grossing documentary.

As for 2010, I predict serious soul-searching on the pros and cons of all things bovine. From the atrocities of feedlots and slaughterhouses to the environmental destruction wrought by cattle, given the skyrocketing worldwide demand for meat, the human addiction to cow products is reaching a breaking point.

Ask Ari: Game time

Q: Dear Flash,

In the spirit of the holidays, a friend recently gifted me more elk meat than I've ever had before, including ground elk, steaks and roast. I have no idea where to begin. Can you offer one or two quick and easy recipes for an elk meat novice like me?

—Flush with Elk

A: If your elk was a big stinky bull, shot by a bow hunter in the heat of the day at the height of the rut, and then ran for a while before dying, and took the hunter all afternoon to find, then cooking it becomes a process of masking gamey flavor. The best way to do this is a strong marinade with things like soy, Worchestershire sauce, vinegar, sugar, black pepper, wine, etc.

Such an animal is also likely to be very tough, and will need to be cooked until tender. I like a long, slow braise, in plenty of water or stock, until the cartilage and connective tissue breaks down to a tender crème.

But hopefully your animal is at the other end of the spectrum: a tasty cow, shot in cold temperatures, and who died a quick death. This becomes a case of getting out of the way and letting its glorious flavor shine. Some of the tougher roasts will still need a long, slow braise, but skip the marinade, brown it in a pan or broiler, and cook it in wine and stock with carrots, onions and celery at 350 degrees until tender.

As for those steaks, cook them in a pan or on a grill with salt and pepper, and wash them down with red wine. Anything else will just get in the way of the flavor. Check my archives online at missoulanews.com for more ideas, including a recipe for neck meat burritos that will work well with your roasts.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net

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