Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Hidden Kitchens

The studies reviewed in class all dealt with the impact of diet on cardiovascular disease or risk factors, such as high cholesterol.

One study examined the effect of fish consumption and levels of inflammatory markers in men and women from Attica, Greece. Fish consumption was assessed by food frequency questionnaires and a variety of inflammatory markers were assayed from serum samples. Fish consumption was associated with a decrease in inflammatory markers over the period of the investigation.

A second study looked at the association between polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFAs) consumption and both fatal ischemic heart disease and non-fatal myocardial infarction in the elderly. Higher plasma levels of PUFAs was inversely associated with fatal ischemic heart disease in the cohort, but was not associated with non-fatal myocardial infarction.

The third study examined the effects of garlic extract on plasma lipid profiles in normotensive and hypertensive individuals with high cholesterol. Each participant served as their own control before receiving the garlic extract for a period of four months. The garlic extract, equivalent to about 10 grams per day, was found to decrease blood lipids and cholesterol.

After the break, we delved into the role that immigrants and their native foods played in shaping American cuisine, how they made due with what they could find here in the way of foodstuffs, and what impact that had on agriculture and the food industry in the United States.

To illustrate this point, we watched a scene from the movie The Big Night in which two brothers from Italy are trying to make it as resturanteurs in America. The patrons are expecting spaghetti and meatballs or, at the very least, a side of pasta with everything, including the special risotto prepared so expertly by the chef Primo.

We also listened to excerpts from NPR's series called Hidden Kitchens: the sound of Ojibwa tribes gathering wild rice in canoes in Minnesota, Brazilian cab drivers buying traditional fare from under a tarp in a parking lot in the wee hours of the morning, and tales of the Chili Queens of San Antonio.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

North Africa

Northern Africa is comprised of seven different countries; although there are fertile areas, the Sahara dominates the geography. There have been trade routes through this desert in the past, but it still provides a barrier to movement of people and products.

The Berbers were the original North Africans; they are now spread out, with large populations in Morocco and Algeria. Throughout history, many different cultural groups invaded the Berber lands, and while many assimilated into the new cultures, others were driven to the mountains in search of freedom. Prior to the Arab invasion in the 7th century, most Berbers were Christian; presently, 90% are Sunni Muslim who observe Ramadan. Though their cuisine has changed over time, there are a few staple foods considered truly Berber, including argan oil, bourjeje, bouchair, and especially couscous, which was invented by the Berbers and has been adapted to many cultures.

Unlike the majority of Berbers who became part of their conquerors’ cultures, the Kabyle Berbers maintain ties to pre-Islamic Northern Africa. These people remain self-sufficient, farming olives and figs. In contrast, the Maghreb is a region of Northern Africa where a majority of the residents consider themselves of Arabised Berber origin.

Moroccan cuisine is extremely diverse due to the interaction of Morocco with native Berber, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and African culture. The Arab invasion during the 7th century brought new spices, nuts and dried fruits such as dates, and the technique of sweet and sour cooking. This technique is achieved through the addition of honey, sugar or fruit to casseroles and couscous sauces. Moors in southern Spain influenced Moroccan cooking by introducing bisteeya, a popular pigeon pie. It is large pastry with a chicken or pigeon stuffing wrapped in a very thin, crispy pastry crust, and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. French rule, during the 20th century, introduced cafes, pastries and wine.

The main ingredients in many Moroccan dishes are couscous, seafood, lamb or chicken, spices, nuts, fruits and vegetables. Many commonly-used raw ingredients are home-grown such as olives, almonds, peppers, melons, oranges and lemons. Moroccan’s excel at using spices to enhance the flavor of food. Spices commonly used include cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger, saffron, cayenne and paprika. Tagine, a stew cooked in an earthenware bowl and made with vegetables and meat, chicken or fish is a national dish of Morocco. Mint tea is typically served with every meal in Morocco.

The Nile River has played an important role in the history of agriculture and farming in Egypt, both in ancient and in modern day times. Because of the modern building of a dam, there has been formation of a lake beneath it, and therefore there has been a change in the ecology and agriculture around the Nile. The ancient Egyptian culture with languages and dialects are still spoken around Egypt today. However, since the invasion of the Arabs around the 7th century A. D., Arabic has been the most predominatly spoken language. Islam is the predominant religion in the country, and certain periods like Ramadan are very important in incorporating the family meal when Muslims breaking their fast. There are many dishes that are Egyptian speciaties. The national dish is ful medames, or mashed fava beans, and kochari, a dish made of lentils, macaroni, rice and a garlic tomato sauce mixed in it. There are desserts eaten only during Ramadan like konafa and atayef.

In 1954, the guerilla Algerian War of Independence was launched to free Algeria from imposed French rule since 1830. Algeria has been recovering from war since their1962 independence. They rely on oil and gas to support industry and agricultural improvements. Main crops include cereal grains such as wheat, barley, and oats. Other crops include cotton, crin vegetal, olive, and tobacco. Algeria exports vegetables and fruits, especially citrus. Most of Algeria’s population lives near the coast with a few groups occupying the mountains. Algeria is Islamic, Arab and Amazigh with 99% Sunni Muslim. Staple foods include couscous which pairs well with meat, fish, vegetables, and sweet dishes, rice, and chickpea-cakes. Popular foods are more westernized and include pizza, fried chicken, and potato fries.

Spice characteristics utilize cumin, coriander, paprika, cinnamon, mint, & fennel with the influences of Berber, Arab, Turkish, and French cuisine. The traditional diet of desert nomads is based on couscous and the meat of the sheep or goats they herd. When traveling, desert people carry pressed dates or figs, and hard cheese, which keep for a long time. Flat, unleavened (yeastless) bread can be baked on hot embers of camp-fires. Hot sugary mint-tea quenches thirst and boosts energy.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

"Miracles of Agriculture"

The first article discussed in this week's class involved a study examining the effects of fish consumption on Alzheimer's disease risk and cognitive decline. The study involved analysis of dietary consumption of fish and tests of cognitive decline in male participants in the Chicago area. The researchers found that cognitive decline was slower in those individuals who ate fish at least once per week.

The second article involved lycopene and prostate cancer risk. In this multi-center, prospective study, dietary lycopene intake was correlated with prostate cancer diagnosis. In men with a family history of prostate cancer, a decreased risk of prostate cancer was observed with increased lycopene consumption.

The third article examined consumption of vitamin C and gastric cancer risk. This study was part of the EPIC cohort study in Europe (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer). Plasma vitamin C showed an inverse association with gastric cancer risk in the highest versus the lowest quartiles.

Following the break, the evening's lecture concerned the history of agriculture and the food industry in the US, the impact of immigration on food patterns, and the impact of food trends, such as the Mediterranean diet, on the food industry.

The history of the US food industry is the history of agriculture in America. The influence of immigrant groups and global conflicts has impacted the way in which people in the US obtain and produce food as well as the foods that they eat. From the earliest days of colonial America, agriculture and food have been key issues and are still key issues today. Total USDA expenditures for 2007 are estimated at $89 billion, with 75% of expenditures going to mandatory programs that provide services required by law, which include many of the nutrition assistance, commodity, export promotion and conservation programs.

In 1862, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln created the United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA. The “people’s department”, as Lincoln called it, was created to “acquire and to diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected to agriculture.” That year the Morrill Act also gave each state thirty thousand acres of public land per seat held in Congress, to help build and maintain agricultural colleges. The Hatch Act of 1887 granted additional lands and funds to universities for agricultural research and experimentation. In 1890, a second Morrill Act funded black agricultural colleges.

Government support of science, technology, and education to improve agriculture gave American farmers an edge over the rest of the world. Research into new varieties of foodstuffs (such as navel oranges for California and sugar beets for the Midwest), the introduction of early organic insecticides, and fertilizer testing programs were a few of the early USDA projects undertaken to improve agriculture and life in America. As the USDA shared its discoveries with the American public the landscape began to change. Farmers returning to their crops and livestock from agricultural science schools and agricultural demonstration and extension programs began experimenting with new techniques to improve production.

In 1930 the impact of the stock market crash of October 1929 was beginning to be felt in rural America. The price per bushel for wheat and corn plummeted more than 25 percent in a single year. As the depression continued, prices for almost all agricultural products dropped even further. The number of acres harvested and the yields per acre also fell for many crops during the first years of the depression due to severe flooding in some parts of the country, and widespread drought in others. Arthur M. Hyde, the Secretary of Agriculture, called the drought “the worst. . . ever recorded in this country.”

Agriculture was devastated as fields and streams dried up. Even the Mississippi River was down to historically low levels. Cattle couldn’t be fed, crops failed, money was short, and there was less food on the table. On top of everything else, agricultural exports crashed; reduced a billion dollars a year during the early 1930s.

In 1939 the growing clouds of war worldwide caused trouble for American farmers. United States agriculture braced for the unknown as foreign markets closed and surpluses surged higher than ever. Although some expected an economic boom, farmers were asked to produce only what was needed at home. However, the situation quickly deteriorated in Europe and elsewhere. America’s allies needed help—in massive quantities.
Early in 1941 the USDA urged American farmers into no-holds-barred production. Hog farmers and cattle ranchers were also told to produce more. The Lend Lease Act of that year guaranteed the Allies food and other supplies. At the same time, officials urged American families to conserve food, fuel and other resources.

Although surpluses were high, supplies could run out quickly if America entered the war. To foster conservation, initiatives such as the National Victory Garden program encouraged people to grow their own food at home. As the manufacturing of new armaments for the U.S. military and its allies swelled, jobs opened up everywhere and great numbers of men and women, especially minorities, left farm work for higher paying jobs in industry.

As the world entered the post-war recovery period, agricultural improvements continued with new research in plant and animal science, human nutrition, soil conservation, and research into new food and agricultural products.

When Congress passed the G.I. Bill in 1944, providing Veterans with educational and other benefits, enrollment in land grant colleges soared. More and more men and women graduated and took agricultural jobs off the farm with the goal of feeding the world. A post war boom was in motion, and major changes in the field of agriculture lay on the horizon.

Life in the United States changed. A higher standard of living increased home and car ownership and brought more educational opportunities for many Americans. A whole new economy based on consumerism was created as television images increased the public’s appetite for all kinds of new products.

American eating habits changed along with American lifestyles. In 1954 T.V. dinners were introduced and became an instant success. Fast food restaurants became popular after the first McDonalds franchise was bought in 1955. More and more prepared foods entered the marketplace while supermarkets began to replace the corner grocery store. The frozen food industry boomed as Americans bought larger refrigerator freezers and sought more convenience foods. The number of working wives increased by fifty percent during the 1950s, and the percentage of working women with children also rose. Food preparation needed to be quick and simple for the new American family. Improvements in refrigeration, transportation and processing enabled Americans to enjoy a wide variety of foods while spending less of their income on food than ever before.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Mambo Italiano

The origins of modern Italian cooking began with the ancient Romans. Instead of hosting lavish, extravagant banquets as is commonly thought, most Romans were simple shepards or farmers along the Tiber River. Their staple was pulmentum, which was a mush made of chickpea flower eaten hot and mushy or hard and sliced like a cake. The modern day version of pulmentum is what we know as polenta. Cultivation of olive trees began around 400 BC. Olive oil was a much cheaper cooking fat than butter whose use quickly caught on in the south and is a mainstay of the southern Italian diet today. Fruits and vegetables were also a part of the early Roman diet, most notably apples, figs, cherries, dates, peaches, melons, fava bean, boiled greens, and cabbage, which was praised for its medicinal powers.

The second century BC was a time of enrichment and development of Roman cuisine. The emperor Trajan ordered the construction of the Forum of Trajan which was an enormous market place in which virtually any food could be found. Cooking became more complex and ambitious. Often people used spices with reckless abandon and tried to get every single flavor into every dish. The fall of the Roman Empire brought the progression of Italian cuisine to a screeching halt. Traditional recipes would have been lost if Italian monks hadn’t taken care to preserve the recipes in books at their monasteries.

In the 9th century AD, the Islams invaded southern Italy and brought with them techniques for making ice cream, sherbet, honey-based sweets, almond paste, and marzipan. They also planted cane sugar and introduced the eggplant. There is considerable debate as to who invented pasta: was it the Italians or did Marco Polo bring it back with him upon his return from China? Marco Polo’s return opened up a direct spice route to Asia and coincided with the dawn of the Renaissance, which was a time of culinary rebirth for Italy. Ancient recipes were revisited and modernized, reducing the use of lavish spices and replacing them with the simpler flavors of wine, orange, and lemon juice. In the 1500’s the potato found its way from Peru, coffee was introduced by the Arabs, and red pepper, corn, kidney beans, turkey, and chocolate arrived from the new world. Most importantly, the tomato made its debut from Mexico and became the basis for many sauces including Neapolitan pizza sauce!

By the 18th century the list of Italian cooking ingredients was pretty much complete. Techniques and eating habits had been established, many of which are still in practice today. Although unification of Italy occurred in 1861, years of separation due to geographical and political boundaries had created sharp lasting differences in regional cuisine, which are still apparent to this day.

The cuisine of Italy varies greatly from the north and the south, as well as from region to region. Northern Italian dishes are generally creamy and mild tasting. Butter is the predominant fat and risotto and polenta are more common than pasta. In contrast, Southern Italy has been traditionally poor and more agricultural, relying on basic and inexpensive ingredients from the land and the sea. Southern Italy is composed of five regions, Campania, Abruzzo, Puglia, Basilicata, and Calabria. The Southern Italian diet makes up what today is known as The Mediterranean diet. Fruits, vegetables, seafood, nuts, durum wheat pasta, olive oil, and a minimal amount of meat are used with fragrant herbs and spices in the unique and flavorful dishes of Southern Italy

There are similarities between the north and the south. The eating habits and mealtime traditions are universal in Italy. Italians typically eat meals slowly, relax, savor the food served, and enjoy the time spent with family and friends during a meal. Wine, water, and bread are served during the two main meals, lunch and dinner. Several courses are offered during the main meals and each dish is served separately.

Sicily is an island of dramatic contrasts and extravagant combinations. These contrasts and combinations are never more evident than in the culinary history of this island. The Sicilian saucepot blends ethnic flavors and regional foods effortlessly. These influences can be traced back to the first known inhabitants. However, beginning around 800 BC, the traditional culinary habits were merged with traditions and foods from other lands. The Phoenicians, with their deep sea fishing skills, and later the Greeks, with their love of simple, fresh foods, olives, and cheeses remain the first major culinary impacts. The simple Greek culinary traditions grew complex in Sicily, forever changing the way Sicilians cook. Later, the Roman Republic and their need for vast amounts of grain would forever change the face of the island. With the Arab invasions of the 9th century AD, the flavor of Sicilian cooking was forever changed again. Exotic flavors, fruits, vegetables, and nuts blended into the Sicilian saucepot to add a distinctly Middle Eastern touch. In the following centuries, the island was conquered by many nations, with little culinary impact. This changed under Spanish rule, when olives and olive oil were incorporated back into Sicilian cooking, thus bringing the Sicilian culinary journey full circle.