10 February 2008

Are we dumb!

The Story of Stuff is a wonderful 20 minutes animation movie about the chain of links behind our modes of production and consumption, and its impact on the environment. It explains clearly some economic and marketing concepts, like "externalized costs", "planned obsolescence" and "perceived obsolescence", that keep this chain going by way of our gullibility and our self-depreciation.
Every time I buy something, even if it costs 50 cents, I wonder who I buy it from, where it was made, at what costs, if I really need it, why I buy it, for how long I will use it and how I will dispose of it. Some times, I do buy things on a whim, or because I do need to feel better about myself for few minutes and it's easy to do so with shopping or just because it's fun. But I try to always question my purchases and never take them for granted. It brings a stronger awareness each time, and eventually I get to ask the same questions to the people I buy the stuff from, even if they don't have the answer - at least, it puts me back in the active part of the chain - where I can consciously exert my "consumption power".
I like the idea of buying second hand goods, of recycling jam pots for my cooking spices and herbs, of giving, lending and borrowing books, of renting DVDs, of downloading music, of sending ecards, of looking for unique handmade crafts around the world, of not caring to get the latest plasma screen (or any TV for that matter) and of staying away as much as possible from plastic, processed food, waste-generating products and chain stores / major brands items. It's not always easy, but it's actually a lot of fun because I get to play around with my habits, my temptations and my imagination.
I read an interview of Starck today in Le Monde where he addresses harsh criticism against [product] design and defines it as "useless". I don't think we should understand that point in a very literal way but I agree with him when he says "We don't need more. We need less and better." It's probably one of the greatest task designers will ever have to undertake. We have so much already, how do we think creation, production and use when we don't need more and we shouldn't make more?


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17 January 2008

Sweet Tooth

I have a problem with sugar. I'm addicted to it. I don't drink alcohol much and it's usually wine, I smoke cigarettes very occasionally, I love to cook and eat healthy food, I practice yoga regularly, I never drink coffee or sodas and instead all day long, I drink water and green tea (without sugar of course) and yet, almost every day, I have to have my hands on something sweet, since I'm a child. My teeth and I share the history of that relationship with sugar. And now I have to stop. I think this addiction (not mine, in general) should be acknowledged as a wide public concern. The health problems related to sugar consumption in western society are known and becoming more and more serious (the main ones are tooth-decay, itself being an underestimated major health risk as a whole, diabetes, and obesity). Sugar has started to be used more prominently in cooking in the 18th century as it became widely popular. Today, there's hardly any refined food that doesn't contain massive amount of it. Just take a look at some of your stuff in your kitchen cupboard, even the salty stuff. You don't need to get your daily fix of candies to get the dose. Which is why people are so hooked up on refined food actually.
In his book Anticancer, the doctor David Servan-Schreiber shows that in 1850, a westerner would consume 10 kg of sugar per year, in 1920, it would be 30 kg and in 2000, it would be 70 kg. In this essay, he establishes a relationship between refined sugar consumption and cancer, as cancerous cells "feed" on sugar.
As I'm thinking about all this, an article I read some time ago comes back to mind. The writer Nick Tosches wrote last year for Vanity Fair a wonderful article, "If You Knew Sushi", taking a glance at the recent popularity of sushi in America. I had never made the connection he made but it makes a lot of sense:
"America is addicted to sugar, but it seeks increasingly to veil its addiction. Power Bars. Sounds healthy. Main ingredient: fructose syrup. Almost 25 percent sugar. The guy, Brian Maxwell, who got rich selling these things, selling sugar as nutrition, swore by them and croaked at the age of 51. Eat a Power Bar and nobody gives a glance. Run up a bag of dope and people look at you funny. I don't get it. How about a nice, large Tazo Chai Frappuccino Blended Crème from Starbucks? Sounds healthy—I mean, after all, chai—and classy too: crème? Sugar content: 17 teaspoons.
A killer sugar addiction, a preoccupation with health, no matter how misguided, and pretensions, or delusions, of worldly sophistication. Sushi perfectly satisfies them all.
In a nation that never ate much fresh fish, it's interesting that eel sushi is so very popular. I mean, from fish sticks and Filet-o-Fish sandwiches to conger eels? "Mommy, Mommy, I want eels, I want eels." This can't be understood other than in light of the fact that the sauce, anago no tsume, used in confecting eel sushi is a syrupy reduction made with table sugar, sake, soy sauce, and the sweet wine called mirin, and that during this reduction caramelizing causes the browning sugar to grow in mass through the formation of fructose and glucose. [...]
As for the other types of sushi, they are all made with rice to which both table sugar and sweet rice vinegar have been added. Gari, the pickled ginger served with sushi, is also made with rice vinegar and table sugar. If it's cobalt pink rather than pale rose in color, it has been treated with a chemical bath of dye and extra sweetening agents."

And just so you know, if you like your tomato-sauce pasta and your pizza so much, be aware that most of time, the acidity of the tomato has to be compensated by... sugar, which is what makes the sauce so good of course (you can replace it by bicarbonate if you want). And the bread we eat from the bakery,.. also another issue..., is a lot of time filled with sugar even though it's not even a sweet bread.
So there you go, the sweet tooth hides in everyone of us.
But if it's harder to track the sugar in the common savoury stuff we eat, I should be able to get rid of the more obvious stuff.
So I categorized (I like to categorize) sweet food in 7 groups - with levels of difficulty on how to get rid of it to help me get aware of what are the things I really can't do without.
The 3 easiest groups to get rid of by far - for me - are 7. snacks, whether sweet or - falsely - salty (because they're so junk), 6. refined/frozen desserts (because they're not so good, except some recently discovered soya-based creams, not too sweet for once), and 5. desserts in restaurants (fairly easy to get over them, because unless the restaurant is really really good, they tend to always be disappointing),
The other 4 groups are trickier: 4. "pâtisseries" and "viennoiseries" (cakes and croissants from the bakery - the fact that bakeries tend to be of lower and lower quality in France helps but what do you do when you pass by Ladurée and you see that pistachio macaroon waiting for you or when your darling comes back on Sunday morning with freshly baked croissants?) 3. candies and toffees (they are so junker than all the other junk but the repetitive / compulsive action in the eating action is so rewarding somehow), 2. cookies (extra tricky because some industrially-made cookies are amazingly good: I get instant gratification for instance with the "petit beurre" that is topped with a milk nut chocolate bar and I even get to have 12 of them in one pack!), 1. homemade cakes and cookies (by my mum, my friends and myself - I am tempted often and this is where I can never resist temptation - at least, I try to avoid cooking them even though it's the funniest stuff to cook).
addendum: breakfast cereals that literally make my day are just impossible to take out of my diet but I notice that some of them are swamped in sugar (if you ditch the Kellog's line at least, that's a better step). Oh and of course ice-creams in the summer are quintessential (but I do love naturally the ones where the maker cares more for flavor than for sugar)...

I tried to stop my compulsive behavior before, but I failed many times. If you want to withdraw effectively from a drug, the best way is to stop taking even the smallest amount of it for the rest of your life. But sugar is not like the other drugs, if you're addicted to tobacco - it's easy to identify what you have to do. But sugar is everywhere, in almost everything we eat and comes hidden in hundreds of different shapes and even behind our best friends, like honey or fruits. And so as you start the day innocently with a freshly mixed fruits juice, the body sends you the signal: "fructose is a good start, now where's the real stuff?"

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03 January 2008

The year of the Rice

For my birthday, David offered me (besides a "33 Tours" of course) a Cuisinart rice cooker. Some could argue it's not very birthdaypresenty nor romantic nor passionate, but the truth is it's gradually changing my life for a better and higher spiritual dimension in which food takes yet another turn - I started to use it just few days ago and I immediately wondered afterwards how it was that I could be 33 and never have used a rice-cooker before? It's not only one of the most perfect tool ever invented to facilitate daily life but it also induces creativity, benevolence and pleasure.
The grace with which you get to prepare simple food, whether it's rice, broccoli or salmon makes you a better person. Because you not only feel like you have a greater respect for the ingredients that come into your meal, but you also get to enjoy a super yummy dish at the end. And I who thought a rice cooker was just a steam + dull food maker! How naive and prejudiced...
Among all the fun I have with the cooker, one is more inspiring that the rest: it brings rice more frequently into my life, and when I say rice, I say Basmati, sticky, Thai, Arborio, red from Camargues, Japanese for sushi or onigiri, etc... The world at my table! Of course, you can also cook other cereals, like quinoa, boulgur, semolina and most of all the beans, vegetables, fishes and some meats, with just some cups of water and pressing a button. I'm looking forward to try dozens of recipes I've put aside, mainly from Japan and Thailand. Personally, I couldn't start the year better than with the expectations of eating creatively, healthy and mostly deliciously (with a minimum cooking effort). Ah when technology meets food... the history of the world cultures lies just there...


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