Here it is. A Chicago public school has officially banned lunches from home. And I have mixed feelings about it.

In other countries, this is common practice. In fact, in France it is rare to find a home-made lunch in a school, and they're probably better off for it. The difference is that the French use meal times as an opportunity to educate their children about food and eating. The US typically jams all of their students into a mess hall, where they are fed french fries, chocolate milk, and goddamn breakfast pizza. I have little confidence in this movement. But I'm not so quick to judge!

The tricky part about an issue like this is that once children and children's rights are mentioned, everyone seems to get completely libertarian. It was hard to find anything written on this that didn't condemn Principal Elsa Carmona's decision, which was made with some justice. I mean, from what I know I'm against it, but it certainly makes sense if everyone's bringing Lunchables and soda to school. On top of that, the feedlot mentality that seems to befall most school cafeterias really sets up a kid for a life of not enjoying food. Being herded into a big, white room to sit down in front of a piece of goddamn breakfast pizza (I really have an issue with the whole breakfast pizza thing, in case you couldn't tell) is not exactly conducive to encouraging one to think about their food, much less enjoy it.
 
So. Campbell's soup might be facing a class-action lawsuit now. They've marked some cans of tomato soup "Low Sodium," even writing on the can that it contains 25% less sodium. But then, after paying .39¢ more for the low sodium version, let's look at the nutrtional information. Not only do they contain the same amount of sodium, but the reduced sodium version has almost identical nutritional facts, except it contains less potassium (wat). Now, I don't know about you guys, but to me, this is the exact same thing as something mentioned in Upton Sinclair's classis, The Jungle.
In his masterpiece, Sinclair investigates the horrors that were the pre-regulatory meat packing industry. He writes: "All of their sausage came out of the same bowl, but when they came to wrap it they would stamp some of it "special," and for this they would charge two cents more a pound."
Hey. Campbell's. This is the exact same damn thing. Only instead of charging 2¢ more a pound, you're charging 39¢ more for 10 oz.
In defense, Campbell's claims that when they say "25% less sodium," they actually mean 25% less than their average soup. In that case, it makes perfect sense. In that case, you're just paying 39¢ for the bright green and yellow indication on the label, as well as the mysterious extraction of 330mg of potassium...
 
Okay, read this. Or at least skim it. Or you could probably get away with just reading the headline. I'll probably inadvertently summarize the rest.

The first thing that strikes me as odd about this strange alliance is the fact that, as mentioned in the article, First Ladies aren't exactly known for their direct praises of corporations. As I've written before, I rather like Michelle Obama's work with Let's Move. It's level-headed, logical, and well-run. This Wal-Mart thing... sort of rubs me the wrong way. Partly just because I have trust issues with Mega-Corporations like Wal-Mart. Actually, pretty much all that. I don't trust Wal-Mart to do this right.

On this subject, Bill Simon, President and CEO of Wal-Mart and a man who makes more money in on hour than most  his 2.1 million employees do in a year, very rightly said that "Wal-Mart is uniquely positioned to make a difference." The retailer has, after all, 60,000 different suppliers worldwide and generates more than $20,000 in PROFIT every MINUTE! It sells more food than any other business in the world. If Mr. Simon willed it so, the hyperstore could easily improve the health of at least one country.

For more fun numbers and facts about Wal-Mart, go here or here.

What I worry about this deal is not Michelle Obama's involvement, and it's not even Wal-Marts capitalistic intentions. It's Wal-Mart's food suppliers. When said suppliers are asked to supply healthier foods, they aren't going to do what they really need to do, which is sell fresh fruits and vegetables and unprocessed foods. If anything, they'll end up adding yet another middleman between farm and table. Adding some Metamucil to a can of soup isn't nearly as healthful as eating whole foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, but if the only steps involved in producing a food are to grow it and to sell it, then far fewer people stand to capitalize on it, which makes the benefit of the people very corporation-unfriendly, as if that's anything new.
 
I don't think anyone – aside from Ronald Reagan – has ever claimed that children voluntarily pick healthful foods. Even on their best days, most kids I've met would pick a McNugget over brown rice without an iota of hesitation. Can we really blame them? I didn't start to like what I considered "health foods" until I was about 17. But to be fair, I also never liked school lunches. From Kindergarten through 9th grade (when I got sent off to boarding school and thus no longer had the option), I had a sandwich assembled by my father to take to school every day, as did my siblings (he estimates he's made 9,900 school lunches). The flaccid squares of pizza and crumbling burgers that my classmates ate never appealed to me, and I think I'm better off for it. However, being a picky little butterball, my choice was solely one of taste – not one of health. In the 8th grade, I visited McDonald's about twice a week (in stead of attending a last-period study hall. What angsty tween would've chosen otherwise?). It was at my 2nd boarding school/wilderness program that I chose (read: was forced) to eat healthily. I was fed lots of quinoa and whole grains and no red meat. Defecating thrice a day and munching on TVP is an interesting adjustment for an adolescent to make, but I was eating well and I felt great.

Uhh... Oh, right! School lunches! One of the biggest charges in school lunches as of late is to lower sodium. Salt, being of course sodium chloride (NaCl), is virtually the only source of sodium in the human diet. It also just happens to taste great (not on its own, however). School cafeterias load up their French fries and breakfast pizza with salt because it's a cheap way to feign quality and stimulate the taste buds. From experience throughout my various dietary cycles, once one gets used to salty foods, it's hard to cut back. Selling out our kids like this could send them down a salty path, from which there may not be coming back. Excess salt intake can cause a stroke or cardiovascular disease, hypertension (that is, high blood pressure), and has been linked to edema, a gross fluid buildup beneath the skin. Blaah! Scary!

About a year ago, Michelle Obama launched Let's Move, a campaign aimed at getting kids to eat healthier. Since then, Barack Obama passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which, among other things, aimed to increase the nutritional value of school lunches being served in cafeterias. To read more about that, click on one of these words. Or this one. Wait, why is this in my opinions section? Oh yeah, I think it's good.

Back to sodium. Over the next ten years, the HHFK Act will reduce the amount of sodium in school lunches by almost half. When school systems immediately overhaul the entire menu, students start selling candy and soda in cafeterias, and making the kind of money of which their teachers would probably be jealous. Sure, it's great practice for a lucrative career in drug dealing, but I think we could do without that mess going down in 4th grade. It makes sense to de-salinate our cafeteria's menus gradually, but it kind of sucks for all the little fatties cramming their faces with coronary disease for the next few years. And needless to say, improving school lunches is just a first step. There'll still be zillions of people ordering Domino's or swinging by Burger King every night, getting enough sodium to kill a horse. Me? I just want everyone to feel great. I know that I feel great when I eat well, and I used to be quite a little chunker. I believe that physical health in super-duper important and stuff, and I hope other people are as happy as they can be. Personally, I don't think gorging myself on Big Macs and dying at 40 is the best way to spend my life, but if someone else genuinely believes that, more power to them. As long as they know their options and their decision is informed. I don't believe in serving crap in public schools, because that's unfairly stacking the odds, but I'd also hate to understate the importance of teachers and parents in the matter.
 
It's times like this that I love my deliberate omission of punctuation and capitalization in my titles. This one could be interpreted as the following:
Campaign (for "A"), Commercial: Free Childhood!
Campaign for a commercial-free child! Hood?
Campaign for: (a) Commercial, (free) Childhood
(c) Amp AIG 'n' fo' RACOM 'mercial-free chil (d) Hood
Camp a IGN for a commercial. Free child-ho. Od.
Campaign for a .com! Merci, Alf. Reechil, dhood!

But alas, I will herein discuss the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), which can be found, and can thus explain itself and its mission at http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org/. It's a relief, too, because most of those options I presented would be hard to write about, and the rest didn't make any sense.

I spent a grand total of 6 years in public schools myself (kindergarten notwithstanding), and I turned out fine (I think). Granted, that makes 6 years in 2 public schools to 5 years among 4 private/boarding schools, so it's anyone's guess what messed me up the most. I often unintentionally advocate public schools, saying that at least a year or two of public school is a necessary social experience. Not to say that I have anything against public schools as an entity, but the fact of the matter is simply that if all other variables are the same, the sheer class sizes and school populations in public schools are likely to be detrimental to one's education. I know I certainly functioned better in smaller classes in high school, and many of my peers who were in a similar situation would surely testify identically.
Picture
The CCFC's creepy logo
That being said, my gut instinct is to agree with the CCFC. I mean, who wants corporations running and funding our schools? They've got a pretty mean stronghold on our society as it is (the corporations, that is, although the line is fuzzy at best...), and it seems unusual to "sell out" our kids to the discretion of fat cats and ad agencies. But after some circumstantial introspection, the idea of the CCFC seems a bit... silly. Granted, I'm no psychologist, nor am I a child life expert, but this is my blog, dammit! Hear me out. I may not have a degree that says so, but I'm pretty smart.

The first, and most obvious, reason one might find to derail the CCFC's mission is that public schooling is miserably underfunded, and that all that juicy cash from Kraft helps pay for football teams and art supplies. To be honest, I don't really like this argument. Sure, it's true, but it's a bit like offering someone a jewel-studded tiara to wear at their sweet sixteen, and then muttering about how you can't wait to see it on them at the party to which you don't have to be invited, but you sure would like to go... And the tiara also happens to be laden with blood diamonds. Regardless of this corporate scumbaggery, it is nice that the public school system is getting money from somewhere... I suppose.

What's really, as I said, silly about the CCFC is the sweet-'n'-innocent utopia as which it seems to imagine childhood. Sure, there's childhood obesity. Sure, there's violence in the world. And sure, there are huge, devilish corporations perched over your shoulder, waiting to wrest you allegiance, money, and innocence! But what makes us think that the longer we shelter our kids from learning about this kind of thing the better off they'll be? If you think there are a lot of ads in schools, have you seen a newspaper? A train? The Internet? And if we were to abolish all of those ads, what experience would we have when dealing with actual, real-life corporations? I say, the sooner kids can learn to call "bullshit," the better, and practice makes perfect in such an art. Where can we find ample bullshit? Ads! Rather than allowing our money-minded corporate overlords to strangle our intellectual capacity, why not use the tools they are giving us to expand it?
 
Scholastic and Sunny D recently embarked on a symbiotic campaign, called the Sunny D Book Spree, which gave children "free" books in exchange for a certain number of Sunny D labels. The stunt lasted from August 2nd 2010 to November 30th 2010, and in that time forced a 382-kid California school, with perhaps the assistance of their friends and families, to guzzle thirty thousand Sunny Ds within that 121-day period! That does not stop baffling me! (http://www.sunnyd.com/contest-martina-mcbride-book-spree/, http://www.city-data.com/school/ridge-crest-elementary-ca.html)

A friend of mine once suggested to me that Sunny D is perhaps named so because it is made from just about everything under the sun. If you look at the ingredients of Sunny D, which the corporation tries pretty hard to hide on its flashy website, you will doubtlessly notice that the swill contains less than 2% of anything derived from a fruit, and NOTHING derived from an orange, the fruit of which the lucrative libation claims to be the juice! One will also observe that the other 98% of this scatological solution is water and sugar. But not real sugar, that's far too expensive for such an avaricious association as Proctor & Gamble, the owners of Sunny D.  No, they've chosen to use the kind of sugar that is actually worse-for-you-than-sugar sugar. The kind that will fatten you like swine and is cheaper to produce than foot fungus. Perhaps most alarmingly, the dreary drink also contains cornstarch and canola oil. Now, I don't know if anyone else thinks the way I do (I don't think this world could stand two of me), but I'm rather uncomfortable with the idea of someone putting oil in my beverage (no lipids in my liquids!). Sunny D's slogan is "Sunshine in a Bottle." I hope they realize that too much sunshine gives you cancer.

That being said, do we, as a country, really want to encourage, nay, require our children to drink this unnatural amalgam in order to get their hands on some books? What part of that makes sense? I'm certainly not advocating children abstaining from any form of junk food, I could even bear to promote a trip to Wendy's now and then, or a Dr. Pepper here and there. but the Sunny D Book Spree made schools across the country sell out their students to a corporation which already preys on children, but is now using two perfectly innocent entities as vehicles for advertisement! In the dying realm of print, Scholastic certainly isn't excelling, putting more focus lately on audiobooks, ebooks, and a smorgasbord of other software, but altogether struggling in a downtrodden economy. And schools, although palliatively highlighted in Obama's 2012 budget, are desperately underfunded, and have been for decades. Slyly seeing this missed opportunity, Sunny D decided to take advantage of these weakened organizations, fully knowing that they would take whatever they could get from such a begrudging benefactor. Evil? That's a question for Aristotle. Of whom I'm not particularly fond either.
 
            For a decade, Dr. Vladimir Mironov of the Medical University of South Carolina has been trying to grow meat in a lab. With an eerie mad-scientist tone, he discribes what he calls “Whole Organ Printing,” through a process called rapid prototyping. It seems he can crank out a working organ, but what matters to me is how it tastes. This organ Biofabrication, as it’s called, is the first step to growing KFC in a Petri dish. He pictures one day meat will be grown in huge, football field-sized laboratories, however his organs on work in theory. None have ever been put into a living being… yet!

            Speculation aside, what would become of us if Mironov succeeds in creating a convincing fake meat product? Granted, this is a very long-term goal for the Mironov-headed group. To introduce a product like this “costs $1 billion” says Mironov, not an economics expert but fairly well informed. The economic makeup of South Carolina would certainly change, as meat factories would start popping up like… (well, I can’t think of an appropriate end to that simile, but some of my ideas involved crude phallic references and high school promenades). Granted, the meat industry in general is a large contributor to global warming, so perhaps this would be for the best! The stubborn gastronome (such as myself) is unwilling, or at least skeptical, to accept a Petri dish Porterhouse into their hearts and stomachs. Think of it: with a homogenized labmeat, we would have no bones from which to derive stock, no gristle to give to the family dog after dinner, no delicious marrow to spread on a toasted baguette slice, and most of all, no difference between one chuck of science and the next! Part of what makes food and the food industry so successful and dynamic is the subtle differences between different animals, and the products thereof. I certainly wouldn’t pay $40 for a steak if I knew I could get the same meat in a McDouble for 99¢.

Most people seemed content eating Taco Bell’s “seasoned beef” for years before a lawsuit emerged claiming that the sinister cinnabar sludge was only allegedly 36% beef. How little do most people really think about the earthly origins of their food? Comfort Zones aside, does it not bother anyone else that the meat aisle in any given grocery store doesn’t make so much as a nod to the fact that the cellophane-wrapped hunks of protein were once part of a living creature? Even butcher shops are sterilized! It’s hard to find a primal cut in Boston, let alone one on display! Would people be more or less inclined to eat meat if there were more obvious connectivity between their Big Mac and Bessie who birthed it? I, being particularly food-obsessed, like to know where my food comes from, and what’s in it, and what it’ll do to me.

 
            Thispast Tuesday, I heard an NPR piece about the Beasley-Allen Class Action lawsuitagainst Taco Bell for referring to its greasy beeflike taco filling as “beef.”The representative of the Alabama-based firm, whose name eludes me, contends thatfor it to be called beef, it should contain at least 80% beef, and for it to becalled “meat,” it would have to contain 40% meat, a threshold which the Californiachain’s taco innards does not apparently pass. According to the plaintiff, TacoBell’s vermillion gruel contains only 36% beef, listing other ingredients asincluding gluten extender, sodium phosphate, water, maltodextrin, “isolated oat product,” and,perhaps most notably, silicon dioxide, which happens to be the primary ingredientin sand and many varieties of makeup.

            Idid a bit of fact checking on the issue, starting with the beef levelrequirements, which FDA.gov quickly confirmed. So that just left Taco Bell.Almost needless to say, in their statement, easily available on their website(in fact, it’s a sponsored Google search result for the phrase “taco bell classaction lawsuit”), they deny everything they can. They stand firm in theirattempt to capitalize on the stupidity of the average American, using wordslike “authentic” and “all-natural,” which have absolutely no meaning in legalstanding. Taco Bell claims that their beef is 88% beef and 12% “seasonings,spices, water and other ingredients that provide taste, texture and moisture.”Notice the lack of Oxford commas, which should pretty concisely summarize my personalfaith in the education levels of Taco Bell’s lawyers.

Nonetheless, withsuch a large gap between the plaintiff’s and the defendant’s claims, this caseshould be easy to resolve by simple measurement and experimentation. But foranyone who’s had an ungodly Taco Bell taco, it is certainly not a stretch toimagine what might be in that cockamamie concoction claimed to be beef.

 
Well, I thought I was done with nog, but as my schedule cleared, I decided to drive on up to Dracut, MA to pay a visit to Shaw Farm, an adorable little place with a very impressive store. In the window beside the store, you could see the milk processing facility, and the farm itself was just across the street. I bought some Nog, of course, and some pretty good ice cream, and some cheese that's still sitting in my fridge, as it probably will until i put it into the freezer. The nog did fairly well, although it was a bit thin. It had a perfect mouthfeel: eggy almost to the point of gooeyness. The color and aroma were spot-on, but the taste was a bit lacking. Delicious milk undertones felt wasted by not enough nog flavor. All in all, it's a pretty good nog, but if you're going up north, it's best to just go to New Hampshire and buy Oakhurst.
http://www.shawfarm.com/



Also, below is an updated scoresheet, including Shaw Farm.
egg_nog.xlsx
File Size: 51 kb
File Type: xlsx
Download File

 
Egg nog is without a doubt the most marvelous thing in existence. It is sweet, rich, aromatic, and just screams holiday spirit. To the connoisseur, the delicate balance between eggy thickness vs. creaminess, and that of sweetness to spiciness lent by nutmeg and, usually, cinnamon, are unlike anything else as yet perfected by mankind. Unfortunately, there are only 25 days in an entire year (December 1st-25th) on which one can drink egg nog without being a total weirdo!

I evaluated 10 different brands, and a total of 15 egg nogs. I gave them each a score out of thirty-five, based on taste, mouthfeel, viscosity, and color. For my complete scorecard, see the Microsoft Excel file attached below (it is a .xlsx file, so if you have an older version, or if you don't have Microsoft Office at all, email me and I can provide the file in a .txt format).
egg_nog.xlsx
File Size: 51 kb
File Type: xlsx
Download File

Picture

A local favorite in the Boston area, or at least a common brand, was Hood (Hood Golden EggNog), and, I have to say, I was more than a bit underwhelmed. I found it far too sweet. Whatever spices may have been present were overshadowed by the excess of high-fructose corn syrup, which also provided an unwelcome syrupy feeling on the tongue, neither eggy nor creamy. In my book, Hood Golden EggNog is lucky to get a D+.

I also tried two of Hood's novelty flavors, Vanilla and Sugar Cookie. The Vanilla Egg Nog made no apparent attempt to actually be egg nog; it was just milk, cream, and sugar, with so little egg yolk that it was hardly discernible from melted vanilla soft-serve (as you will see in my upcoming egg nog experiment, I churned and froze it to try to detect the difference. Keep an eye out for that). The sugar cookie egg nog was, like all of the Hood products I tasted, offensively sweet. The beautiful balance that is a perfect egg nog is apparently lost to the folks at Hood. After these three nogs, it became apparent to me that I did not need to proceed with any other Hood products, and opted to skip Cinnamon-, Gingerbread-, and Pumpkin-flavored egg nogs. Altogether, skip Hood this, and every, holiday season.

Picture
Another major producer in the area is Garelick Farms. Like Hood, Garelick Farms is based in Massachusetts. It is the largest producer in New England, and now owns over 1,000 farms in 7 states. Impressive numbers, sure, but their nog didn't fare much better under my scrutiny. Again, this nog was just too sweet! While it did have a better nog flavor and aroma, the mouthfeel was just the same, and the sweetness overbearing, but this nog had a very odd tinge to it. It was sort of a snot-beige color. This nog can safely be skipped as well.

Picture
At any given time, my apartment is stocked almost exclusively with Trader Joe's products. My unwavering faith to the California-founded chain just made their weak egg nog that much more disappointing. While the flavor was quite good, with an appropriate level of sweetness and a full, deep flavor, it was dead-thin!  It had, altogether, the viscosity of milk. As much as a the beautiful aroma filled my heart (and apartment) with holiday hope, the watery nog that spouted out of the carton dashed my high hopes of finding a winner available so close to where I live. At this point, it became apparent to me: if I wanted a good nog, I'd have to get in the car.

Picture
Well, it doesn't take long for an urban white guy like myself to find himself at Whole Foods. Here, I bought three nogs. The first was Silk Nog, a soymilk farce on egg nog. It is no surprise that this, which contains neither egg yolk nor cream, failed to even be egg nog, according to my grading system, even with a generous grade boost for not clogging my arteries, which I appreciated. I then contemplated the redundantly titled Organic Valley Organic Eggnog. My knee-jerk reflex was one of love; I very much appreciated the creaminess, and more-so the prominence of nutmeg, which was critically lacking in some of the other nogs. But upon re-evaluation, I missed the sweetness associated with my amorous memories of egg nog from my childhood! In a truly Goldilocks fashion, I decided that this one wasn't sweet enough.

Picture
However, the last nog I bought from Whole Foods did not disappoint. Horizon Organic Egg Nog was proverbially just right. Not literally, but damn close. The flavor was perfectly subtle, supported by the sweetness, as it should be! It was beautifully flecked with brown specks of nutmeg, and the hue was spot-on: a pale yellow that feels eggy. Unfortunately, that eggy feeling went a bit too far, and I thought it would have been helped by a bit of cream, to add non-egg thickness.

At this point, I must admit, I was getting pretty sick of egg nog. I knew that I would need to step it up a proverbial notch if I were going to be able to tolerate any more. I went to Cooper's Hilltop Farm, a small dairy just outside of Worcester, MA. I was impressed to learn some details about the farm, such as that most of the feed given to their cows is grown right on premises! The main thing that attracted me to this dairy was their low-temperature vat pasteurization method. Most large-scale milk producers pasteurize their milk at 165˚ for ten minutes, because it is the cheapest and fastest option, especially when you're dealing with hundreds of gallons at a time. Cooper's Hilltop, however, is a much smaller distributor, and can afford to pasteurize theirs at 145˚ for half an hour.

Now, this all may sound like mumbo-jumbo, but when you heat milk up to 165˚, you kill healthy bacteria, stifle enzymes, and you... well, you just kill all the flavor! Many dairy aficionados buy into raw milk co-ops, but that is a whole other article. Cooper's Hilltop Farm produces, hands down, the best milk I have tasted in memory. Counterintuitively, this delicious milk overwhelms the nogginess I expected in their nog. While their milk gets a perfect score, the nog was just a touch underwhelming.
http://www.coopershilltopfarm.com/

My next move was to go north. If anyone can appreciate a good egg nog, it'd be the folks of Northern New England, where your spit freezes before it hits the ground. Visiting Derry, New Hampshire in December took some willpower, but I did it and I'm glad I did. I went to Hannaford, a Maine-based grocer. Hannaford's brand of egg nog was delicious, but it felt a bit greasy, and left me still yearning for that ideal standard to which I held all other nogs!
Picture

At this point, I was starved for the perfect egg nog I remember from childhood. Was there such a thing? Was this yet another delusion I had created, like me thinking someone would want to date a guy who studies egg nog religiously? At Hannaford, I was relieved to know that it was not. Oakhurst Dairy had been a name with which I was familiar since childhood, since I have always spent much of my summers in Maine, where I would frequently indulge on some magnificent chocolate milk. But I had apparently never been to a Oakhurst-carrying grocer in egg nog season, because If I had ever drank this nectar of the gods before, I would not have forgotten. When this succulent ambrosia touched my lips, I may as well have died right then and there, because nothing in my life will ever measure up to such an experience. Until next nog season, that is.

Well, as you can see, this nog-based adventure was more than rewarding. Please take this into account when doing your nog shopping. Even if you're in a situation like mine, it is well worth it to make a bit of a journey up north to buy some exquisite Oakhurst Egg Nog. We also learned an important lesson: seek out small dairy producers, their milk is better.


Until next nog season, fellow nogheads. Cheers.