Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Some Cherries are from Mars

I'm writing about maraschino cherries for a future catalog tonight. I've got a jar from the bodega around the corner and the one I'm writing about, an Italian brand called Luxardo. There's a big difference in the taste. But I think this picture tells most of the story. That's a whole lot of RED#40, baby.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Is Corn Syrup Evil?

In the latest Zingerman's catalog I wrote a piece about traditional uses of corn syurp in candy making. The full article is below.

If you'd like to learn more about the chemistry of sugars, here's a piece by Marion Nestle. Among many other things, she is the author of What to Eat, a book in that caught my eye for the simple but insightful observation that food around the edges of supermarkets is much less processed than that in the middle aisles.

How did it come to be that American companies find it profitable to turn corn into sugar instead of using actual sugar? I wrote some basics about the crazy economics in this post.

Is Corn Syrup Evil?

Poor corn.

Sometimes I feel sorry for the vegetable. It’s been the subject of exposés putting it at the center of America’s industrial food problems, including obesity and diabetes. In Michael Pollan’s (highly recommended) Omnivore’s Dilemma and the movie it inspired, King Corn, it’s nearly criminal.

Corn-derived products have also felt the bad rap, in particular corn syrup. Does it deserve it? Like most food villains, there's some truth to the complaints. But, like in a lot of debates, things are never quite as black and white as they seem.

On the negative side, corn has benefitted from specific agricultural subsidies encouraging its production and others that restricted trade on substitutes, most importantly cane sugar. The limits raised the price—up to the point where it makes sense to create the more expensive industrial high fructose corn syrup on a large scale. Most aspects of industrial corn syrup—from growing to refining—are fossil fuel intensive.

On the positive side, though, corn syrup has been a part of American culinary history since at least around the time of the Civil War. It’s been used in moderate amounts in all kinds of dishes. Most important to us, candy makers have long used the special properties of corn syrup to control sugar crystallization. If you want to keep a candy soft and gooey, corn syrup is great.

For example, corn syrup gives caramel its texture. The other sugars and dairy give the caramel its flavor. The chemical reaction that breaks down corn’s polysaccharide carbohydrate into sugar’s monosaccharide glucose is relatively simple. The main ingredient is water. Once made, corn syrup is not as sweet as refined sugar (though the high fructose version is much sweeter).

Larger concerns aside, at Zingerman’s, we don’t think corn syrup is entirely evil. Corn syrup is not the primary sweetener at Zingerman’s Candy Manufactory but it is used. Charlie, the candy maker, also sweetens his candy bars with raw honey, traditional muscovado brown sugar, maple sugar and regular old granulated cane sugar. Each one contributes to the texture and flavor of his finished candy.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Flaming Lips Eat The Reuben

It's a banner day at the old testimonial factory. These just in.

"People make pilgrimages to a town in the middle of fucking Michigan
to get a corned beef sandwich."

David Sax, in the Village Voice.

David is on the PR circuit for his new book Save the Deli. You can read the full interview here. You can also catch his interview on NPR. Our customers will be talking about this book so it's a good idea to brush up on it. I ordered a copy for the office. I read it in about an hour — not because it's bad, it's quick and fun.

And, not to dis David Sax because that's a hell of a quote, but I was really excited by this one.

"Now that's a Sandwich!!!!"
Michael Ivins, The Flaming Lips

He ordered our Reuben Kit, made the sandwich (pretty damn well I might add) and took pictures.

In case you don't know who The Flaming Lips are, well, you can watch them on Conan O'Brien tonight. Or here's a video of one of my favorite songs, where the band is eating — not reubens.

Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

Ryan|MySpace Videos

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Meet your Maker: Justin Rashid

Justin Rashid, Preserve Maker
By Pattie Shaffer

Justin Rashid is the founding partner of American Spoon in Petoskey, Michigan. His company, started in 1982, continues to make what many consider the best fruit jams in America.

Below is a brief interview I did with Justin in August, 2009.

Pattie: What made you locate American Spoon in Petoskey?

Justin: Petoskey is twelve miles east of the hundred acre homestead and berry farm my parents purchased in 1956. I spent my childhood summers there from the age of five, and fell in love with Northern Michigan. My wife and I lived in New York City for several years while involved in the performing arts, then decided to move back to the place where I’d been happiest.

You began your company with partner Chef Larry Forgione. How did you meet him?

A customer of ours at The Whole Foods Store, Roberta Kirn, became a friend, and the next year moved to NYC to pursue a dance career. When she came back the following summer she remarked that the chef at the restaurant where she worked made her promise to find someone in Michigan to supply him with morel mushrooms. I volunteered. The restaurant was the River Cafe, the chef was Larry Forgione, and he liked the morels so much he asked what else we had in Northern Michigan that I could send him. The rest is history.

Serendipitous indeed! How did you shift your mindset from morels and menus to Spoon Fruit and salsas?

I guess opening our first retail store. Meeting directly with so many of our customers in our Northern Michigan stores keeps us tuned in to what they are thinking. Sometimes we are following our own instincts about products that we wish we could buy, and in those cases are trying to anticipate where customers are headed. At other times we are trying to keep up with or respond to them. Preserving the special fruits of summer is an ancient practice, and many product ideas emerge from the desire to use a newly discovered fruit variety. When our customers' lifestyles left them more likely to put out salsa than preserves, we wanted to provide them with a truly fruitful salsa. And when we thought some of our customers would like an alternative to preserves that was lower in total sugars, we developed Spoon Fruit.

The James Beard Award is a huge accomplishment. What was your reaction when you heard you had received this award?

It was a very long time ago — 1984! At that time, there were a few of us doing interesting things that we would now call: "artisanal" all over the country. We were doing these things primarily in cooperation with dedicated chefs who wanted to cook with fresh, local and regionally authentic ingredients from all over the country. What Larry and I were doing together to bring Michigan and Midwestern ingredients into his restaurant and to a wider audience was just a lot of fun. It was exciting and rewarding in itself. So the award was a bonus and pretty unexpected.

What's been your biggest source of pride since starting American Spoon?

I'm most proud that we have been pioneers in bringing a lot of wonderful foods that had been ignored, forgotten, or undiscovered to a wider audience by doing the work and by telling their stories in a compelling way. I'm also proud that we are still doing that, and that we've held to our original principles and maintained a standard for all of these years.

What is the biggest change you have made for American Spoon since you began?

Deciding to build our company on a foundation of direct relationships with our customers, and our growers, rather than relying on the traditional food distribution system.

Has there been any product idea that sounded great but when you put it together was a definite "no"?

Happens quite regularly! Most recently we failed in a strenuous, long-term attempt to make mostarda with our special fruit varieties. They were spectacularly delicious! But, the exquisite mustard heat and the fruit flavors and aromas dissipated very rapidly in the jar and we had to abandon that project — with regret.

Of all your products, which is your favorite? (Mine is a tie between the Cherry Berry Spoon Fruit and the Raw Honey.)

They are all my children, but the products currently in my fridge are Fruit Perfect Sour Cherries and Blueberries, Red Haven Peach Preserves, Early Glow Strawberry Preserves, Wild Elderberry Jelly and Apricot Butter. The Creamed Raw Honey is an indispensable staple in our kitchen too.

What is your vision for the future at American Spoon?

After almost thirty years, I'd like American Spoon to evolve into an institution that represents something of great value to its customers and the local communities were we do business. We should be a company that sets a standard, that has shown that you don't have to sell out to a bigger company or compromise your principles by cheapening your products with junk food ingredients to be successful. I'd like American Spoon to be an example that proves that you can build a profitable company that delivers real value to customers, provides a workplace than enhances people's lives and that nurtures long term, sustainable relationships with growers and suppliers.

We want each American Spoon retail store to be a place customers want to go, not just to taste and purchase deliciously preserved fruit products, but to discover the connections between our products, their sources and the people who grow and process them. We want them to leave our stores with new ideas about food that enhance their lives

Mo On the Radio

This Sunday I was interviewed by Patrick Martins and Katy Keiffer on the Q-Report for Heritage Radio Network. It's about how to make a mail order food business work.

Heritage online radio segmented the interview into three parts. Look for the episode on 10/4 starting "Mo Frechette puts the M and O in Mail Order (7:29)"