Why I Love Burrito Van, or Down With Kale!

The first time I tried kale was at a swanky automotive event in New York City. There were swanky drinks, swanky cars, and swanky appetizers on swanky little trays. It was swank. And then, there was kale.

I had never tried kale before, but had heard of its wonders. It was supposedly delicious and easy to make and the perfect substitute for not-healthy potato chips. This is what everyone told me. Everyone.

So, when I spied the funny-looking green things I asked if they were, in fact, the wondrous kale. I was informed that it was kale and that it had a light dusting of some kind of fancy salt I can no longer remember. I decided to try the kale.

You people, you all lied!

There is nothing tasty about kale. It is like munching on a piece of particularly crunchy grass. Pieces of it stuck to the roof of my mouth leaving me to awkwardly try freeing it with my tongue like a communion wafer in church. You cannot stick your fingers in your mouth to free that wafer and you cannot stick your fingers in your mouth to free stupid kale in a room full of swanky people being swanky.

I should mention that my partner-in-crime at this event, Emme, was equally appalled by the kale. She is not swanky. I love her and love that she thought the kale chips were the spawn of Satan. I’m pretty sure she encouraged me to use a strong swanky drink like mouthwash to free the kale. I say pretty sure because things are a bit of a blur after that, likely due to the strength of the swanky drink.

I have not once knowingly consumed kale since. I have no idea how anyone eats the stuff. Burritos, however, I totally understand. That is why I love this video by Parry Gripp and animator Nathan Mazur. Not only is it an ode to burritos, but it comes out firmly against kale.

Down with kale! Long live burritos!

(via ThatsNerdalicious)

A Bacon Scented Pillowcase For Sweet Bacony Dreams

Bacon Pillow

Image: J&D’s

There’s nothing quite like waking up to the smell of bacon in the morning. It doesn’t matter how comfy your bed is, the smell of bacon is a lure that cannot be resisted by any means known to humankind. Even the most world-weary of us will put on slippers and a warm robe and trudge down to the kitchen for some fried pork bliss. Now, with this pillowcase, you can enjoy the smell of bacon all the time right from the comfort of your bed.

J&D’s is offering a bacon-scented pillowcase ($12.99) that will keep the sweet smell of bacon swirling around your head while you sleep. The smell is supposed to last for 6-12 months as long as you wash the pillowcase according to the care instructions.

They do include a list of possible side effects that includes:

  • Happier dreams of breakfasts past, floating on bacony clouds or placing the winning hog at the 4-H contest.
  • Effortless, overnight weight loss by kicking your digestive system into high gear – try not to eat your pillowcase.
  • Dramatic increases in your intelligence and higher brain functioning because… Bacon.
  • Easier wake-ups – your mornings will be like being shot out of bacony cannon.

Nothing we can’t all handle. Bring on the bacon!

(via ThatsNerdalicious)

The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review Presents Macbeth

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Image by First Second.

“I like how it got all the plot points across, but kept it kid-friendly.”

This was my son’s comment after reading The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth by Ian Lendler and Zack Giallongo. He recently took a Shakespeare course, and Macbeth was one of the plays studied, so I was curious about his take on this graphic novel. My son gave it a thumbs up.

The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review Presents Macbeth is a First Second offering for this fall that will appeal to Shakespeare fans of all ages, but especially the younger set just meeting the Bard. This version is full of animals, food, and humor.

The story takes place in a zoo, where the animals put on shows for each other after the human crowds go home. The audience is as much fun as the cast, with silly-to-witty commentary throughout. I particularly liked the little aside from the vultures with their opera glasses:

“Ooh! I love the witches look!”
“They say warts are the new black.”

Macbeth is played by a lion who thinks he loves food more than anything until he meets the witches, and realizes he’s really hungry for power! However, he would have to eat the king to become king himself. He talks to his wife, Lady Macbeth the leopard (out damn spot… hee-hee!), who hands him a cookbook, “100 Ways To Cook A King,” suggesting they saute in lemon-butter sauce.

“But still, Macbeth refused. Eating someone just didn’t seem polite.”

He finally relents and eats the king: “What follows was horrible and gruesome and definitely the best scene in the whole play…” But of course, we don’t see it because the elephant shows up right then to see the play and blocks the whole stage.

And so the silliness continues in this amusing version of classic theater. The artwork bounds through the pages, with the dialogue and narration clear, but with a kid-friendly twist. Like the best animated movies, the jokes are on a couple of levels, so parents reading this to their children will find it just as fun.

The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth comes out the end of this month, recommended for ages seven and up. Check it out!

GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.

Our Totally Unscientific Food Box Experiment

Screen Shot 2014-07-07 at 9.46.26 PM

Screenshot from plated.com, the recipe and food delivery service.

For a few months this spring, our household had trial memberships to two recipe and food delivery services: Plated, the “Chef-designed responsibly-sourced recipe and food delivery service,” and Blue Apron, which features “Fresh ingredients, great recipes, delivered weekly.”

I called it our food box thunderdome experiment.

“Why?” said the spouse. “For science!” said I.  (Also, I was sick of all of our recipes and we were both working late hours. The family was in a cooking rut and time-crunched. And, both Plated and Blue Apron had trial offers that made testing them out fairly affordable. Cheaper than a babysitter + dinner + a movie, at least.)

“Science?” he said. “This isn’t scientific. To be scientific, you’d have to control for date, time, temperature… essentially getting two boxes on the same week and then comparing to groceries on the same week—and no. That is not going to happen.”

“No problem,” I said. “I declare this a totally unscientific food box experiment, all mistakes and impressions are my own doing, and reproduction of this experiment is at your own risk.”

And away we went. We ordered nine different meals from Plated, including their “first two plates free” trial. Plated’s “recommend your friends” option also gave us more free meals. Thank you, friends! Then, we ordered nine meals from Blue Apron, including their “first three meals free” trial.

For both services, there were hits and misses. Here’s the totally unscientific breakdown:

Delivery: Both boxes arrived when they said they would, with thorough insulation.  Box size is nearly identical. All of the produce was fresh and ready-to-cook: Avocados were ripe, fruit was ripe, vegetables were ripe. There were no rock-hard avocados. This was fantastic.

Home Ec 101: A base order is two Plated meals of two plates each or three Blue Apron meals (feeds two to three people each) per delivery.

Selection: We could select meals from an available menu at Plated. We had to list our preferences and a selection was chosen for us by Blue Apron.

Minimum Cost Per Box: (This was per our experience only. YMMV depending on the number of family members and how well you work those refer-a-friend deals.) Blue Apron was $59.95 (three meals, no choices aside from dislikes and allergies). Plated was $48 plus the monthly membership (two  meals/four “plates,” with multiple delivery options).

The Breakdown: Three meals from Plated costs $72, plus membership; three meals from Blue Apron costs $59.50. This is a $12 difference, plus Plated’s membership fee.

Screen Shot 2014-07-07 at 9.46.35 PM

Screenshot from blueapron.com, a recipe and food delivery service.

Membership Fees:

Plated has three options: $10/month billed monthly; $8/month billed annually; and pay-as-you-go (this puts the per-plate cost up to $15/plate). There is no minimum monthly order, although each Plated order must include four plates.

Blue Apron has a minimum three-meal plan, but you have to un-check the calendar when you don’t want a box or else, surprise, a food box will appear on your doorstep. (This totally bit me in the butt a few times.)

A very not-scientific gut feeling: Our feeling was that many of the recipes from each service could be made for much cheaper. That’s obvious with some of the tomato-and-cheese and chicken items. But not all of the recipes were a budget blow-out, especially when we factored in driving around for ingredients and the cost of certain spices. With Plated, we were able to pick the menu items that provided the most bang for our buck. With Blue Apron, we weren’t able to choose. We also found ourselves less motivated to cook the third meal of the week from Blue Apron, especially since we didn’t pick it. That’s pretty expensive apathy.

Allergies: We could stipulate no dairy, meat, fish, etc. on both. Only Plated offered no-gluten-added meals, which was really important for us and led to much less food substituting versus Blue Apron.


While a lot of produce arrived bagged in a group, with a contents labeled, we received wrapped single items from Blue Apron—always carefully tagged. Photo: Fran Wilde.

Packaging: Plated’s packaging seems more environmentally conscious. The items aren’t individually wrapped unless they need to be (sauces, grains). Both Plated and Blue Apron send liquids in bottles that can be re-used. Other packaging can be recycled. There just feels like a lot more of it from Blue Apron. And really, non-scientifically speaking, there’s a lot of packaging in general, from the boxes to the cold packs and on. If you got these meals regularly, you’d be drowning in cold packs.

General Impressions About the Recipes (From Me, My Patient Spouse, and Our Child):


Me: I loved Plated’s recipes. They were beautiful, delicious, and highly intricate to cook. I learned many new techniques.

The Patient Spouse: Was all good.

The Child: Nope. Not for me. Too spicy, too fancy. Too much fish. Nope. nope, nope.

Blue Apron

Me: I also loved many of Blue Apron’s recipes, though it felt like we wasted a lot of food. Three meals a week is more than we wanted, but that was the minimum. We often substituted out the pasta and couscous because of food allergies. And oh my goodness, does Blue Apron love zesting! Lemons, limes. Seemed like every recipe required zesting. We didn’t need that much zest, really.

The Patient Spouse: Was all good. Have you figured out how to stop the boxes from coming yet?

Me: Nope, still trying.

The Child: Some of it was okay. I liked the gnocchi. Can we have more gnocchi? But without those flowers. (There were edible zucchini flowers for one recipe. Those got the nope.)


1. The best part of this unscientific experiment was when we all started cooking a recipe together. In the kitchen, all of us, at one time. That happens sometimes, but not always. There’s something that happens when you all have to figure out a new recipe together. It’s kind of like a puzzle.

2. Another big pro: Never having to go back to the store for a missing item on a complex recipe.

3. And not having to buy a big box or tin of something that we’d only use a bit of unless we wanted to be eating elaborate food for a month.

4. And we can reuse the recipes.


1. Price and selection—and the contents of each box were a bit overwhelming at first.

2. There was a lot of packaging for each, and there’s no way to return the cool packs for reuse.

3. Being stuck with items one or more of us couldn’t eat was annoying (especially when it came to allergens that were not specifically weeded out).

The Upshot: The upshot is that these boxes are spendy, unless you go with their “suggest a friend” option—and for families, it may be way on the fancy side.

I have some friends whose picky kids turned into gourmet chefs once they started getting into the “build-your-dinner” kits. Not mine. Nope.


I’m no food photographer. And this was delicious. Photo: Fran Wilde.

But for an occasional “night-out” dinner in? The fun of cooking together again without having to remember anything at the store? Or having to figure out which recipe? That was so good. That means, for us, Plated would be a better choice.

Both services seem to default to auto-enrollment in regular/weekly food deliveries. Plated’s team helped me work that out pretty quickly. It took me forever to figure out how to stop the boxes from coming on Blue Apron. I unchecked everything on their widget. Twice. They still came.  (Eventually Blue Apron did help me fix this; thanks you guys!)

Our Favorite Recipes: Blue Apron had catfish and jicama slaw with amaranth and watermelon radish. So very good. A hands-down winner. Pan-seared salmon with lima bean and olive relish was also good, but this is one that we had to substitute out the couscous.

Plated had vegetable lasagna, chicken paillard (so much fun smashing the chicken to make paillard, I can’t tell you.), miso rice portabellos, and chicken tikka masala. It was all just completely awesome. (I wish I could link you to these pages at Plated.com, but I can’t.)

So, one family, two food subscription services: Plated and Blue Apron. When we emerged from beneath our pile of boxes (oh so many boxes), we discovered something: We liked cooking again.  I’ll call that a win.

Fund This! A New Role Model for Boys, Eating Good and Cheap, and a 3D Printer for Kids!

Welcome to the second Fund This! of June. In this edition the theme is hacking the norm. Meet Generation Grit, a company that’s trying to expand the options of role models for boys in the toy industry. Check out Good and Cheap, where eating healthy and well can be done on $4 a day. Finally, take a peek at a 3D printer that uses a new tech method and an iPad app to make designing and printing even more accessible to kids and teachers. Happy funding!



Image courtesy of Generation Grit.

Generation Grit

It is not enough to change the role models girls are given; we must also change the role models given to boys. It is not enough to empower girls, but to shrug at the macho, one-dimensional examples guiding our boys to manhood. Apparently, Laura Hale has also had enough. Reminiscent of another toy line based in historical adventure and storytelling for girls, Generation Grit seeks to take the classic action toy, give him a cool backstory, and engage boys in a creative storyline about character values. Not in the weird way, in the alternative-to-machismo way. Show some diversity in interests and strengths in men, perhaps? Stellar idea, in my opinion as the mother of two boys. Also, the packaging and accessories are gorgeous.

Now, my boys are a bit older and don’t play with toys much anymore, but I showed them this campaign and they were very interested in the book plot. My younger son even liked the idea of having the action figure for “display.” Is that code for “I like it, but I don’t want to admit it in front of my older brother?” Anyway, he is just the kid I would buy this for: full of humor, sensitive to other people’s stories, imaginative, and creative. In fact, he is really into Marvel right now, but what he loves most is the backstory, not the action. So, if you also think it’s about time we start expanding toy choices for boys, I urge you to check this out. Act fast—there’s only a few days left!



Image courtesy of Leanne Brown/Good and Cheap.

Good and Cheap

This is one of those campaigns that makes a difference. The PDF version of Good and Cheap (a cookbook on how to eat well on $4 a day) is already available for free. Go download it. It is genius. But this campaign isn’t for those who have the ability to do that. It is a living well effort to bring this information to the thousands of families living on food stamps through a hard copy version that will be distributed to agencies across the nation. The more money that campaign organizer Leanne Brown raises, the more families she can impact. I probably don’t need to lecture on the importance of eating whole, fresh food, but for many, it seems like a luxury. Brown has made eating healthy accessible and affordable. I completely support her effort. Selfishly, I checked out her book, since my own family has had to move to a much stricter budget—and was pleasantly surprised.  Simple, easy to follow, not a problem substituting gluten-free ingredients. Good and cheap.


Image courtesy of Mission Street Manufacturing.


The other GeekMoms will tell you that this campaign ignited a bit of a quandry for me. It is well over its funding goal and for good reason. It has a great platform: A 3D printer designed for kids! I am including it because what I hope is that it is a better entry point for 3D printing for many teachers and families who have no background in 3D printing. I also love the entirely new thing they have done with it—using an iPad app to design and print. Perfect for young hands. At our Oakland Lab, which was designed and built for kids, we use a PrintrBot Simple, Mendel Max 2, and a TypeA Machines 2014 Series 1, and the kids must learn to not only run them, but also fix them. My only concern, and one that I hope the creators take seriously, is the technical support they provide. 3D printers take a lot of tinkering—a lot. Makers who are buying this, presumably to have an easy, user-friendly experience (and not just for the fun primary colors), will become easily frustrated if these are as finicky as many other printers. That said, welcome to the market, Printeer!

Cooking the Books: Attack the Geek with Michael R. Underwood & Giveaway!

Since 2011, I’ve hosted an interview series on my own blog called Cooking the Books, which explores the intersection between food and genre fiction. Cooking the Books’ interviews with science-fiction and fantasy authors, agents, and editors have a thing in common: there’s a recipe at the end.

I was all set to post this great interview with Michael R. Underwood, author of Attack the Geek, the new book in the Geekomancy series (more on that in a moment), when I thought, “Waitaminnit, I think the GeekMom audience would love this a lot.” Mike thought it was a great idea too and offered to throw in a worldwide giveaway (more on that in a moment also), in addition to answering random food-related questions about his work and giving us a fabulous pizza recipe.

Book Giveaway! Recipe! Interview with awesome author! This is a brilliant plan. Let’s get rolling…

Michael R. Underwood’s Geekomancy series follows the adventures of Ree, who discovers that some people have the power to bring geek-culture icons to life, for better and worse. From Geekomancy to Celebromancy to Attack the Geek, Underwood keeps the action high and the geekery even higher. Welcome, Michael, to a special edition of Cooking the Books on GeekMom!

Attack the Geek Full

With permission, Angry Robot Books.

Cooking the Books/Geek Mom: The Geekomancy series’ main character, Ree, has worked in several service industry niches—food and sales, with Cafe Xombie (Geekomancy)—as well as getting her break in Hollywood (Celebromancy). Now she’s a barista at Grognard’s. Can you talk a bit about the restaurant/bar culture as it relates to both geeks and geeky writers? 

Michael Underwood: As geekdom ascends in popularity, it’s not surprising that we’ve seen geekdom seep into bars and restaurants. Brooklyn has steampunk/SF-themed bar The Way Station, a group has kickstarted a geek bar, and there are others around the country. Fantasy taverns are the archetypal meeting place of adventurers and bars are frequently the cornerstone of any convention, from small regional conventions to big gaming and SF cons like GenCon.

Restaurants and bars are cruxes of socialization, and geekdom is social—it’s about sharing passion. So there’s really nothing better than some good food and drink to accompany shared enthusiasm and friendly arguments about beloved shows, books, comics, and more.

CtB/GM: Do you feel that you’ve taken the fantasy-style tavern brawl to a whole new level in Attack the Geek? How so?

MU: I honestly hadn’t thought much about Attack the Geek as a fantasy tavern brawl. I was more drawing on bottle episodes of TV shows, where our heroes have to hold out against attackers (like the “Jus in Bello” episode of Supernatural), on siege stories like the battle of Helm’s Deep from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and from “game comes alive” stories like Jumanji. Making the fortress a gamer bar and the gaming gear that comes alive in RPG/strategy games, I mixed up the influences to create something new.

CtB/GM: What are your favorite tavern/bar brawls from TV/film/literature?

MU: It’s hard to beat the bar brawls from Firefly and Serenity—from the pool cue bludgeons wielded by Jayne to people being thrown through holographic windows and Mal’s overly-cocky mugging for Inara to River’s subliminal-advertising-induced-intricately-choreographed ballet of violence that kicks off the plot of the whole film.

What makes these fun for me is how the fights so clearly reveal character: Jayne’s highly tactile approach to life, Mal’s chronic mis-calibration of morality to the situation and his devil-may-care attitude when things go wrong, Wash’s charming bravado as he threatens the locals with the Serenity’s non-existent guns, and River’s graceful, intricate approach to fighting and moving through life.

CtB/GM: If you could have one food item from pop culture, what would it be? 

MU: If it weren’t for the trout-zombie virus included, I’d want to try the energy drink from The Middleman!

I could stand an Ent-draught or two to get a tad taller, or maybe some lembas as emergency survival food. My Whedonite tendencies would lead me to wanting to try the Fruity Oaty Bar from Serenity—or maybe that’s the subliminal programming talking.

CtB/GM: When we discussed your CtB visit, we talked about new business models for publishing. It seems as if the restaurant industry is looking into similar business model changes… do you foresee “book trucks” (like food trucks) on the horizon?

MU: Penguin debuted a book truck at BEA last year, and then they sent it around the country for promotional purposes. We already have bookmobiles run by libraries, so it seems only sensible that someone could start a book truck—especially if they teamed up with food trucks to offer fun reads that would accompany the great eats. Though it seems like they’d probably end up spending a lot on napkins/hand wipes.

Being more serious, I think that book trucks are less of a no-brainer than food trucks, just because technology has already delivered mobile reading devices—phones, tablets, and e-readers. Airports still sell a goodly number of books to a captive audience, but I think that quite a bit of the appeal of book trucks would be the novelty, and it’d take some innovative thinking and business planning to get beyond that initial novelty. Genre-specific trucks with decoration themes are obvious. Fantasy truck with ’70s fantasy mural on the side? Hell yes. Steampunk truck with Victoriana and airship stories galore? For sure. Truck done up like a CSI lab with mystery/crime novels? Go for it.

CtB/GM: What about publishing with Angry Robot do you like best? Are publishers like restaurants?

MU: One of my favorite parts of working with Angry Robot is developing supportive working relationships with authors, each of whom is their own literary chef, bringing their expertise and aesthetic to our big restaurant of food for the mind.

The other part is the innovation mandate. My boss Marc Gascoigne is dedicated to forging ahead, to finding new and cooler ways of connecting with readers, whether that involves trying out print+ebook bundling, partnering with new business models (like Oyster), or another cool and crazy idea.

Publishers are definitely like restaurants in a number of ways: They develop followings based on selection/menu, presentation/packing, and on the personalities. And like restaurants, most publishers aren’t as much in direct competition with one another as you might think. The more restaurants there are that deliver incredible food and a welcoming atmosphere, the more likely customers/readers are to take a chance on another publisher or restaurant, since they’ve already had good luck at least once when they expanded their horizons.

I think there’s also a degree to which individual authors are like restaurants. You still have to cultivate a following, get your work out in front of more people than just your core audience, and that most restaurants/authors become known for one particular feel. You’re a pizza place or an epic fantasy author. Any time an author tries out a new flavor, there’s a risk, but the reward, the upside of finding a new combination, is more than enticing enough to be worth going out on an aesthetic limb.

CtB/GM: What’s next for Ree? What’s next for Michael Underwood? 

MU: I’m currently plotting and am soon to start writing Hexomancy, the third full-length Ree Reyes story. This will roll the plot of Attack the Geek into the overall plot of the series, and will also include some major developments in the characters’ relationships—plus, the usual mix of geeky comedy, superpowered geekdom, and action/adventure.

After Attack the Geek, my next release is Shield and Crocus (June 10), an action fantasy novel about a group of revolutionaries in a city built among the bones of a titan. They strike a bargain with one of the tyrants that rules the city in order to stop the magical storms which transmogrify and/or level entire neighborhoods at once, killing or transforming people along the way. It’s like what would happen if you set Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn in China Mieville’s New Crobuzon.

CtB/GM: Where might we expect to be seeing you this spring and summer?

MU: I’m going to be all over the place this year. Here are my scheduled appearances through the end of the summer:

  • May 23-26, BaltiCon, Baltimore, MD
  • May 28-31, Book Expo America, New York, NY
  • June 5-8, Phoenix Comicon, Phoenix, AZ
  • July 3-6, CONvergence, Minneapolis, MN
  • July 10-13, ReaderCon, Boston, MA
  • August 14-18, WorldCon (LonCon), London, UK

CtB/GM: Would you share a recipe with us?

I’m going to share my recipe for Ree’s favorite pizza from Turbo’s Pizzeria, affectionately known as…

The Pizza of Win 

For the dough:

  • 22 oz. warm water
  • 1 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 30 oz. unbleached bread flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 T medium or dark rye flour
  • 1 ½ tsp wheat germ
  • 1 ½ tsp mild-flavored honey
  • 1 T kosher salt
  • 1 T dried basil
  • 1 T dried oregano
  • Dash of garlic powder.
  • Olive oil for greasing

This is going to take several stages, so I recommend podcasts (like The Skiffy and Fanty Show, or Fran’s own Cooking The Books podcast with Mur Lafferty [coming soon!]) to listen to while you work.

  1. Start by making a sponge with 15 oz. of warm water, the yeast, and a pinch of sugar to help get the yeast get going. Wait a few minutes for science!
  2. Add 13 oz. of bread flour, the rye, and the wheat germ; stir to combine. Wooden spoons are best, because tradition. And flavor.
  3. Cover the bowl and stow it somewhere room temperature warmish. Listen to podcasts.
  4. 90 minutes of podcasts later, add the rest of the water (7oz.), the rest of the bread flour, the barley malt, the garlic powder, the basil, and the oregano. If you have a mixer, use it. If you like being old-school and hardcore, mix with the spoon and then knead the dough yourself. This will also give you the sexy baker look (and the less sexy dough-all-over-your-hands look).
  5. Mix/knead until the dough will pull away from the edge of the bowl. Another rubrick I’ve heard is that you want to mix the dough until it has the consistency of your earlobe (folkways!).
  6. Get your pizza pan and use cornmeal to dust the pan and the dough, so it doesn’t stick. Plus, cornmeal gives the dough a great mix of textures.
  7. Once you’ve got your dough ready, you’ll need the materials to make the pizza into a pizza of win:

Basil Pesto Oregano:

  • Roma tomatoes (sliced)
  • Mild Italian sausage (or soysage)
  • Feta cheese
  • And a standard mozzarella or mozzarella/Parmesan mix
  1. The basil pesto is your sauce and the mozzarella/Parmesan is your cheese base. Then, top it with pre-cooked crumbled Italian sausage, feta cheese, and the Roma tomatoes.
  2. Cook for 12 minutes at 400 degrees.
  3. Raise a glass to Ree Reyes, Turbo’s pizzeria, and the glory of pizza.
  4.  NOM.


Cooking the Books fans and GeekMoms alike, Michael has generously agreed to do a GIVEAWAY!

The details, from Michael himself: “I’ll give away a copy of Geekomancy (get in on the ground floor) or Attack the Geek (get the new book).”

How to enter: Comment below with your favorite food / geekdom pairing for a chance to win. [Forex: Earl Gray / Star Trek]

Michael will randomly pick a winner and announce it here and on Twitter on April 14.The winner will be contacted for mailing information.



photo courtesy of Michael R. Underwood

Michael R. Underwood is the author of GeekomancyCelebromancy, as well as the forthcoming Attack the GeekShield and Crocus, and The Younger Gods. By day, he’s the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books. Mike grew up devouring stories in all forms, from comics to video games, tabletop RPGs, movies, and books. Always books.

Mike lives in Baltimore with his fiance, an ever-growing library, and a super-team of dinosaur figurines and stuffed animals. In his rapidly-vanishing free time, he studies historical martial arts and makes pizzas from scratch. Visit him at michaelrunderwood.com and on Twitter.

Want to read more Cooking the Books? The updated library of interviews is here.

How to Make Game of Thrones Weirwood Tree Cauliflower Steaks


Photo by Cindy White

Some time ago, I came across an intriguing recipe for cauliflower steaks. They’re easy to make and quite elegant, resembling lovely white trees on a plate. Of course, being a Game of Thrones fan, I couldn’t help but see a white tree and think “weirwood,” so I immediately started coming up with ways I could adapt the recipe to make it fit the description in the books. Now that the show is just about to return for a fourth season, I thought it would be a good time to share this slightly altered version of the innovative dish.

In Game of Thrones, weirwood trees are considered sacred by the people in the northern region of Westeros. The trees are distinguished by their pale white bark and blood-red leaves. Many of them also have eerie faces carved into their trunks. It is believed that the gods dwell in them and can see the past, present, and future through their eyes. In the first episode of the HBO series, Catelyn and Ned Stark meet beneath Winterfell’s heart tree, a grand weirwood that sits at the center of the castle’s godswood.


Image credit: HBO

Here’s what you’ll need to make Weirwood Tree Cauliflower Steaks:

  • One head of cauliflower (yields two to four steaks per head)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes

Begin by trimming the leaves and stem from the head of cauliflower until the bottom is neat. Then, cut the head into 1/2-inch cross sections, straight through the top. You’ll end up with a few steaks and a lot of florets (save these to roast later or make into a delicious soup).


Photo by Cindy White

Using a paring knife, carve the faces into the trunks of your trees. You can make any kind of expression you want: angry, sad, laughing, whatever. It almost always ends up creepy, no matter what you do.

At this point, you can sear the steaks in a skillet with the olive oil (about 3 minutes on each side). However, that will make them golden brown and for our purposes, we want to keep them as white as possible, so straight into the oven they go. Coat them on both sides with the oil using a pastry brush or your hand, sprinkle with salt, and place them on a baking sheet.


Photo by Cindy White

Cook for 25 to 30 minutes at 350 degrees, or until the edges start browning. To make the faces stand out more, I used a little kitchen torch around the edges to darken them.


For the final touch, sprinkle the branches with paprika and red pepper flakes to get the red leaf effect.


Photo by Cindy White

And that’s all there is to it. Here’s the finished product:


These are great as a main course or a side dish, depending on the preferences of your guests and your other menu options. They’d also make a perfect addition to an entire Game of Thrones-themed meal. After all, the books are full of lengthy descriptions of elaborate dishes that’ll make your mouth water and your stomach rumble. For more culinary inspiration from George R.R. Martin’s world, be sure to check out the ridiculously comprehensive collection of recipes at Inn at the Crossroads, the official Game of Thrones food blog.

Game of Thrones returns to HBO for its fourth season on Sunday, April 6 at 9:00 p.m. ET.

Feeding Mr. Banks: Secrets of a Hollywood Food Stylist


Photo courtesy of Disney.

What do Saving Mr. Banks, Dinner for Schmucks, How I Met Your Mother, and Boardwalk Empire have in common? They all feature the work of food stylist Chris Oliver. As chef and owner of Hollywood Food Styling, Oliver has provided beautiful, edible creations for hundreds of movies and TV shows.

“My niche is the on-camera food for film and TV,” Oliver explains. “I’m a chef, and one of the reasons I get a lot of jobs is when the actors actually have to eat the food. Or they’re supposed to eat the food. So it’s not like I can use glue for milk or any kind of chemicals or take cornstarch to thicken stuff. It really has to be natural stuff that they can ingest.”

But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a few tricks of her own up her sleeve. Oliver shared some of her tips with a few bloggers at her test kitchen in Huntington Beach, California, where she designs and prepares a wide variety of screen cuisine. She gave us a demonstration of how she recreated some 1960s dishes for Saving Mr. Banks.

In the film, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) attempts to convince author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to sign over the movie rights to her Mary Poppins character. One of his tactics is to try to impress her with a steady parade of snacks and refreshments, which get fancier (at least by 1960’s standards) as the wooing goes on. It was Oliver’s challenge to make sure the dishes were not only appropriate for the period, but also reflected the story director John Lee Hancock wanted to tell.


This Mickey Mouse Jell-O mold illustrates Chris Oliver’s creativity and resourcefulness. Photo courtesy of Disney.

“What I was told when I got hired was, ‘We want to see junk food—Twinkies, Ding Dongs—and then we want to have a progression,'” Oliver says. “So they thought they were going to impress her.”

To make a buffet table look appetizing, she uses risers and double-sided tape to position the dishes with a slight tilt to the camera. Color is also important. A red plate, a garnish of parsley, or a sliced olive on top can liven up even the most boring dishes. She showed us how she carefully layers her plates to add interest without making them too busy. With a few well-placed strokes of a paring knife, she demonstrated how to make a rose out of a tomato or lemon peel. She also cautioned us to be mindful of the placement of the food and how it will appear on-screen, and illustrated her point using a photo from an old cookbook.


Food stylist Chris Oliver shows off an old cookbook with unfortunate baguette placement. Photo courtesy of Disney.

Cookbooks, it turns out, are Oliver’s secret weapon. She has shelves full of them in her kitchen, from every era and culture. She refers to them often to research era-appropriate ingredients, recipes, and presentations. It was so much fun flipping through pages and coming to terms with the truly horrifying reality of mid-century American cuisine.

But food isn’t all she creates. She’s also had to come up with edible facsimiles for things like vomit and dirt. For one war film, she got very detailed instructions on the kind of dirt they wanted her to make for a group of starving prisoners of war.

“They shipped in samples of Pakistani dirt so that I could match it, so they could eat it,” she said. “It’s a lot easier than you think. I did an edible arm for an alligator to actually eat. We did like a million of them. They’re huge and heavy and we had to figure out a way to cast it and make it.”


Chris Oliver transforms a plate of boring deviled eggs into a more photogenic dish. Photo courtesy of Disney.

After recreating a few signature dishes from Saving Mr. Banks, Oliver let us try our hand at a few classic recipes, including deviled eggs, fruit kebabs, chocolate tarts, and sandwich pinwheels. I was teamed up with a partner and assigned something called “Moss Balls,” which are basically several different kinds of cheese (cream, blue, and cheddar, among others) rolled up into a balls and covered in parsley. We picked a set of pretty wooden bowls and made them look as appetizing as we could. It wasn’t as good as Oliver’s work, but we were proud of our creation.


An amateur attempt at food styling. Photo courtesy of Disney.

Before meeting Oliver and her team, I didn’t think much about where the food in films and television comes from. Now I have a healthy appreciation for all of the thought and preparation that goes into it. What a food stylist really does is blend cooking and art in the service of creating the perfect culinary backdrop. Plus, you get to cook for some of the biggest names in Hollywood. As far as dream jobs go, it kind of takes the cake.

Saving Mr. Banks is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

GeekMom Holiday Traditions: Holiday Open House

Our family hosts a fun open house for our friends and neighbors. This is a popular holiday tradition, particularly among military families. This is from our 2012 open house when we were still living in Florida. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Our family hosts a fun open house for our friends and neighbors. This is a popular holiday tradition, particularly among military families. This is from our 2012 open house when we were still living in Florida. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

When I was younger, I remember helping my mom make oodles of Christmas cookies every year. The majority of the cookies were destined for our friends, neighbors, mailman, bus drivers, and our schoolteachers. It was an inexpensive, homemade tradition in my family.

These days, my own family hosts an open house for our friends, neighbors, and colleagues. We started doing this in 2005 when my husband and I couldn’t wrap our heads around having a more-formal holiday party that might combine his PhD-program friends with my toddler-playgroup friends. Not only would the two worlds not necessarily have much in common, but we weren’t sure everyone would fit into the house at once.

In 2005 we came up with the “open house” idea. We’d open up the house for a 6-8 hour period, welcome everyones’ kids, and offer a more-laid back food plan. This is totally my family’s style and we have really enjoyed doing this every year.

Eight years later, we have our annual open house down to an art form and I would love to share the best practices we’ve learned in case you’d like to host a holiday open house of your own.


There are two things that we have to take into account when we set the date for our open house. First of all, we attempt to have our open house on a Saturday. This usually means deconflicting with holiday piano recitals, office parties, and other friends’ open houses. We also try not to have it too close to Christmas itself, so we can catch many of our friends before they head out of town. Secondly, we usually start in the late afternoon and allow it to extend into the late evening. This way, families with young children can come earlier, and then those without younger kids can stay later. This worked out well when our sons were toddlers and preschoolers: they could celebrate with their friends.


We do the same thing every year: two kinds of fondue with all the goodies for dipping. Cheese fondue and chocolate fondue are universally appealing, and we offer a variety of breads, cakes, fruits, and vegetables to dip.

In addition, we have an assortment of Christmas cookies and dips, such as my mother-in-law’s very popular shrimp cheese ball.

In 2010 we went to a fellow Air Force member’s open house and learned a new favorite: bacon roll ups! The first year we offered these I couldn’t make them fast enough! We have learned to make up a double recipe the night before and bake them in small batches.

While we certainly don’t ask it of anyone, we have learned to count on our guests to bring their favorite treats, dips, spreads, and snacks. We welcome all of it and it adds to the festivities.


We typically have alcoholic beverages available at our open house. I wonder if the convention at an open house is to not overdo things, because we’ve never had a problem with drunk guests. <Knock wood!> We have beer and wine available, and I try to come up with a unique beverage to offer in our punch bowl, Crock Pot, or Christmas-tree-shaped glass dispenser. In years past we’ve offered hot mulled cider in the Crock Pot and “real” egg nog in the punch bowl.

For those who choose non-alcoholic option, we have plenty of non-spiked cider, soda, juices, and egg nog, as well as multiple options for the kids.

I always set out a bowl of Silly Bandz for guests to use as wine charms!


Did your kids go through a Silly Bandz phase? Re-purpose them into wine charms! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Other Activities

One of the perks of this being an “open house” is that very little else is expected of us as hosts. We are free to mingle and talk. Usually, I’m in the kitchen monitoring the bacon roll ups in the oven, or refilling the egg nog punch-bowl, but I can enjoy visiting with friends during all of that. We aren’t the least bit formal! For the kids (and adults!) we have plenty of board games and video games.

A couple years ago, I learned to put all of my recipes on a Pinterest board for easy reference and easy sharing with friends. Pay a visit if you need ideas for your own open house.

Thanks to uprooting ourselves every 2-3 years, we are able to have the same menu items every year and it seems like a fresh new party! This has made planning for our open house much less stressful… and more of a holiday tradition!

Review: NatureBox Subscription Box, A Snacking Alternative

Image: NatureBox

Image: NatureBox

NatureBox subscription boxes deliver unique foods to your door every month to give you an alternative to the stuff found in your local grocery aisle.

Most parents are very concerned about the quality of food their children eat, and one of the biggest challenges tends to be snack foods. You can guide your kids toward healthy snacks, but the options are limited and often don’t taste so great. NatureBox aims to provide a healthy and tasty snacking alternative.

The service provides a new box each month with five full-sized snacks with options for 10 and 20 pack boxes. The basic five-pack box will run you $19.95 per month so it’s roughly $4 per bag. My sample box had bags from 3.75 to 5.5 ounces so despite being called full-sized, they’re not large bags.

What exactly do they mean by “healthy?” All the snacks are nutritionist-approved and have no high fructose corn syrup; partially hydrogenated oils; or artificial sweeteners, flavors, or colors, and have 0 grams of trans fat. Basically, they’ve gotten rid of all the stuff we avoid when we read labels in a store.

Image: NatureBox

Image: NatureBox

The one major drawback to the snacks is their high calorie count. My Fall Feast box came with Harvest Nut Mix (675 calories/bag), Baked Sweet Potato Fries (280 calories/bag), Flax Fortune Chips (520 calories/bag), Honey Crunch Crisps (800 calories/bag), and Dried California Peaches (250 calories/bag).

I listed these by the bag because, despite having serving sizes that are much smaller, these aren’t big bags. They’re the kind of thing that the average kid, or adult, could easily eat in a sitting. Now, of course you don’t have to eat the bag and they can be sealed back up to finish later, but you’re going to be having a high-calorie count even for a handful of food.

The snacks themselves were very tasty with plenty of crunch and flavor. They were also very different from what you’ll find in the snack aisle at the grocery store, which may be a challenge if you have picky kids.

Image: NatureBox

Image: NatureBox

I admit, I didn’t tell them what they were eating until they tried it and deemed it delicious. That’s just my kids, who aren’t the most adventurous eaters, so you might be able to sell your kids on Flax Fortune Chips. Mine would have scrunched up their face at the name.

And they were definitely the kinds of snacks that an adult would love, too. I can see stashing these in your desk drawer or munching them on a long commute home. As long as you watch the high calorie counts, or if that’s simply not where you choose to focus your efforts, NatureBox subscription boxes are a tasty and unique snacking alternative.

GeekMom received this product for review purposes.

Food Allergy Cards for International Travel

Food allergy card in Hindi. Photo: SelectWisely.com

Food allergy card in Hindi. Photo: SelectWisely.com

Select Wisely offers a very valuable service: laminated wallet-sized cards translated into over forty languages, describing your food allergy or other health condition. This looks like an invaluable resource if you or your child is traveling internationally. Along with common allergies such as peanuts and shellfish, they also have cards for eggs, gluten, milk, latex, Type 1 diabetes, asthma, and penicillin, among many others. The languages available include everything from Arabic to Vietnamese. They accept special orders, and can also send you a document over email which you can print and carry yourself, or show to people on your smartphone.

As one of the (many) testimonials on the site put it:

My 12 year old son has gone on 2 school international tours using your food allergy cards. 5 different countries with no allergen exposures. Parents do not travel with the school so so having the allergy cards is a great worry reducer.

This could easily be a lifesaver for some people. The prices range from $4 to $15, depending on the complexity of the document. That seems like a very reasonable price to pay if this is a major concern and you have any worries about communication barriers.

Thanks to Esther M. Friesner for the link.

Teenager Aims to Un-Junk Junk Food with Unreal Candy

Unreal candy comes in five varieties, including Candy Coated Chocolates. Image: Unreal.

I’m a candy geek. I know in today’s healthified world, it’s not proper to say such things. But, I do love me some Twizzlers, M&Ms, and even the occasional filling-pulling Mary Jane. I know these things aren’t good for me. Some are downright awful. However, there’s a relatively new company out there named Unreal, and they’re applying different methods and familiar ingredients in an effort to un-junk some of our favorite junk foods.

Now, it’s a bit of a stretch to use the words “candy” and “healthy” in the same sentence. “Healthy candy is an oxymoron,” says Adam Melonas, Unreal’s co-founder and chief innovation officer. “Candy is candy.”

It’s true that each Unreal product has both calories and fat, so there’s no miracle at work here. However, the Boston-based company has made it a mission to eliminate all of the unrecognizable, unacceptable ingredients from its products. In other words, the company is cutting out most of the stuff that you’d find filling out today’s candy section.

Even more impressive, Unreal was the brainchild of Nicky Bonner, who came up with the idea for the company at the ripe age of 13.

It all started a few years back, after a fruitful Halloween haul. “I went trick-or-treating one night, woke up, and half of my candy was gone,” Nicky says. “My dad took it.” Like many parents, Michael Bonner didn’t like the idea of so many chemicals at Nicky’s disposal. Determined to show his dad that candy wasn’t so bad after all, Nicky did some research. “It was the only time in my life that I had to say he was right,” he says. Nicky then decided that there had to be a better way.

With Michael’s help, Nicky talked to doctors, food scientists, and several other experts all over the world. He also spoke to Adam, a renowned chef.

“I’m not sure how many chefs you know, but generally we take ourselves very seriously. This kind of threw me off-balance at the beginning,” Adam says. “However, it was literally seconds after we started speaking that I knew that this was no ordinary 13-year-old child. The power that existed within the message he was spreading; it was very contagious.”

Nicky had an idea to create an indulgence, without all of the bad stuff. “We wanted it to be made out of all real ingredients, less sugar, no artificials, ” Nicky says. “All good stuff and none of the junk.”

Adam Melonas sourcing ingredients for Unreal in Equador. Image: Unreal/Casey Neistat.

Currently, Unreal offers five types of candy using real ingredients — stuff you’d actually recognize and would be able to pronounce. The lineup includes options that are similar to a few of the candy classics. There are Candy Coated Chocolates, Candy Coated Chocolate with Peanuts, a Chocolate Caramel Nougat Bar, a Chocolate Caramel Peanuts Nougat Bar, and Peanut Butter Cups (Nicky’s personal favorite). To keep the costs down, it’s not 100-percent organic. That said, Unreal promises to deliver its products without the use of corn syrup, hydrogenated oil, artificial flavors and colors, or even GMOs.

Adam says that coming up with Unreal’s lineup was a bit of a science project. The staff went through thousands of recipes, as well as testing on Nicky’s friends and countless others. “It would make your head spin if you understood how we went through 18 months on roasting peanuts,” Adam says. “Selecting the right peanuts, roasting the perfect roast on the peanuts; it sounds like the most inefficient or unskilled process you could imagine. It was literally that level of detail to give the people what they want.”

Another important part of the experimentation process involved reducing the amount of sugar in every product. Adam says that at one point, they actually took out so much sugar, it stopped tasting like candy. “Sugar on the market today is the greatest possible filler because it’s the cheapest possible ingredient,” he says. “We did the opposite and put in protein and fiber. However, we will never call it healthy or a healthier candy. The aim of the company and the aim of the mission was merely to give people a better alternative.”

Unlike some of those candy companies using faux ingredients, there’s no secret to Unreal candy. “We got back to basics,” Adam says. “We used real ingredients and it sounds cliché — but we used ingredients that your grandmother would recognize.”

My husband, 6-year-old son, and I tested out some of the Unreal lineup and were pleasantly surprised. While it doesn’t have the same level of sweetness as our old favorites, it also doesn’t have that toxic taste. It also includes a hearty dose of fiber, which makes having less of the candy a lot more satisfying.

Unreal just launched a year ago. The company is working on wider distribution, as well as making better candy. Adam says that each Unreal product is a project that’s never complete. Nicky is also very involved in day-to-day operations, in between his home-schooling and all of the other normal responsibilities of a 16-year-old. Besides the actual candy, Nicky is always thinking about the company’s potential and new innovations. He says that he hopes to expand the Unreal line to sodas and snack foods in the near future.

Unreal makes candy that’s very similar to some of your old favorites. Image: Unreal.

Unreal candy is currently available across the U.S. Check out the company’s website for a list of retailers.

History Geek: 1930s Week

Image By Lilianna Maxwell

Image By Lilianna Maxwell

Swing dancing! The creation of Superman! Adagio for Strings! Radio Plays! Migrant Mother photojournalism! Heath bars! The Wizard of Oz! Monopoly!

The last few weeks I’ve been preparing for and directing a History Through the Creative Arts Camp about America during The Great Depression. Originally history was written down by conquerors who took political power. This legacy continues in history textbooks that think that war and politics are the most important parts of history to study. I disagree. I think history is the whole human experience during a time period. Of course, this makes it tough to design a children’s summer camp that only lasts five days. So I turn to passion.


Rebecca explaining something with lots of hand movements…. Image By Lilianna Maxwell


Tasting historic recipes each day. Image By Rebecca Angel

Passion makes for great teaching. I’m passionate about the creative arts, culture, and social justice. So that’s my focus on history. And when students learn why certain songs were written, when the photographs were taken, how the plays were created, they learn about the power struggles during that time and place. I run the week by having the campers sing, dance, write, eat, sew, and create their way through the time period.


A student talking about their own research. Image By Lilianna Maxwell

I also asked for help. During the week of camp there were other adults bringing their expertise (geeky excitement) to the campers. Plus, the kids themselves taught each other. My daughter ran the camp newspaper, “Typewriter Talk,” with the campers taking turns being reporters for the day. Another student of mine asked if I was covering Europe during the ’30s. I wasn’t getting into the details of the start of World War II with this camp. She asked if she could do a five minute presentation each day because she thought it was really important for everyone to know this stuff. Sure!


Campers taking their parents on a tour of camp. Image By Rebecca Angel

What I wasn’t covering in active learning, I put out on display. In the space I use for camp is a huge wall for push-pins. The other counselors and I fill this wall with all the things we found out, but couldn’t squeeze into the time allotted. Scientific achievements, slang terms, maps about the Dust Bowl (then and what’s happening now!), details on the stock market, the 1936 Olympics, weird advertisements, and lots more. My daughter created a display on photojournalism. My son did one on the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP—he pointed out it sounded like a sound effect). There were puzzles and written activities available during downtime where the answers could be found on The Wall. Whoever completed a sheet got a tiny harmonica (so they could sound like hobos around a campfire…) or candy created during the 1930s.

In the spirit of the '30s, I asked the kids to wear the same clothes everyday (washing was encouraged) and they worked on making outfits for Friday's party. Image By Lilianna Maxwell

Sewing clothes for Friday’s party. Image By Lilianna Maxwell

I’ve run many history camps over the years, but this was the toughest to research; so many aspects made me cry. A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kindness—and a Trove of Letters—Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression is one example of trying to get to the heart of The Great Depression. I read some of it to the campers. I focused on the positive things of sharing and kindness, but the fact that people were so grateful for so little during this time—is enough to make the tears flow. (I kept myself in check during camp.)


Family history as decorations. Image By Rebecca Angel

I’ll write a few more posts about aspects of camp I think you might enjoy: games, comics, movies, and radio plays. If anything, I encourage everyone to do one of the projects during camp: Research your own family history. The campers presented how their families got through the hard times of the 1930s, and there were some great stories. My own grandfather was a newsboy in the lower East side of NYC.

I could write so much more because everything was so cool! I hope I inspire you to get geeked about history! Here’s a video of the swing dancing each day:

Chop Chop – A Fun Cooking Magazine For Families


Photo: Chop Chop Magazine
Photo: Chop Chop Magazine

 Back in the day, when there was no internet to distract and encourage a mom who might happen to be spending her days surrounded by four little ones, we had to rely on magazines to keep us connected.  It was a glorious day when a fresh copy of Parents or Parenting arrived in my mailbox. One of the first things I did was turn to the food section and tear out the kid friendly recipe of the month. After trying it out a few times it was neatly filed in my little home office, right next to files containing car paperwork and bank statements.

But it’s a new age for mamas and the hungry little ones who live in their houses. Now we have the internet. There are recipe sites by the thousands. There are parenting sites by the millions. But one of the most exciting resources I’ve found lately, that brings it all together beautifully, is a bright little magazine called Chop Chop. [Read more…]

Chew on This: Is Big Biz influencing dietitians? – San Antonio Express-News

Image: Wikipedia Commons.

Image: Wikipedia Commons.

A group of registered dietitians has taken to Facebook to protest their professional organization’s more and more intimate relationships with “Big Food”. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics often counts on funding from ConAgra, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s and other large corporations for its conferences and training.

I don’t necessarily think this is a new trend; many professional organizations need to follow the funding to keep afloat, especially in today’s day and age. Do you think it’s a conflict of interest?

Chew on This: Is Big Biz influencing dietitians? – San Antonio Express-News.

The GeekMoms Podcast #16 Hunting and Teaching Kids How Food Gets to the Table

GeekMom Nicole Wakelin talks with author Tovar Cerulli about his new book The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance and his journey from vegetarian to vegan to hunter. He discusses how his decisions changed as he came to understand more about how food really gets to our table. Tovar also talks about how we can help our kids understand the process, and that food doesn’t just magically appear in the grocery store. You can also check out GeekMom Jennifer Day’s review of the book.

Nicole Wakelin: Website and Twitter
Music: Rebecca Angel

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Transparency in Nutrition Labeling–The FDA Wants Your Input

If you are what you eat, do you have any idea what you are? In an increasing push for nutrition transparency, you’ll soon at least know how many calories you’re taking in, whether you want to or not.

If you live in California, you’re already familiar with this. In 2008 it became the first state to require calorie counts on chain restaurant menus and menu boards. A visit to In ‘n Out Burger feels a little different when you look up to order and see that a Double Double, fries, and shake will total 83% of a day’s allotment in a 2,000-calorie diet. (Download a map of other areas that have attempted or passed such legislation.)

Last year’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act includes a provision that would require restaurants and vending machines with 20 or more locations to give their patrons specific nutrition information, including on drive-through boards and buffets by January 1, 2014. The FDA has written two proposed regulations about menu calorie labels and is inviting public feedback on them through July 5, 2011.

“Americans now consume about one-third of their total calories on foods prepared outside the home,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “While consumers can find calorie and other nutrition information on most packaged foods, it’s not generally available in restaurants or similar retail establishments. This proposal is aimed at giving consumers consistent and easy-to-understand nutrition information.”

Not everyone supports the change. Study results are mixed. Some show that offering the information doesn’t make a difference. One study of parents showed that while they didn’t make different choices for themselves, the did choose lower-calorie meals for their children. The Wall Street Journal cites two other examples, one of New Yorkers in 2009 that showed no influence from menu labeling, and one from Stanford University that showed average calories per transaction fell by 6% among Starbucks customers after calorie labeling started.

And it’s not strictly restaurants. The LA Times reported last week that the National Association of Theatre Owners is particularly displeased with the proposed rules. They feel that because their primary business is providing movies, not food, that their revenue from food (up to 1/3 of a theater’s income) will decrease when customers see that a bucket of popcorn is, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, as much as 1,460 calories, or the equivalent of three McDonald’s Big Mac burgers. They also contain as much as 60 grams of saturated fat.

“If a movie theater is going to be serving people with 1,000-calorie tubs of popcorn, the least they could do is tell people about it,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the center, in the LA Times story. “Just because you happen to be doing something else while you’re eating doesn’t mean that those 1,000 calories won’t stop going to your waistline.”

Movie theaters may see a drop in the number of popcorn buckets sold, but an increase in nutrition transparency can have only good results for consumers. Even if it makes no change for some, for those who do take it into account, it could lead to better choices. (I confess that my earlier In ‘n Out example was from recent personal experience. And I chose to skip the fries when I got the shake.)

The one possible difficulty is in customizable menus where calorie counts can be complicated. Attention to menu design and making the choices as clear as possible (again, increased transparency) to customers can help alleviate that.

Further nutrition transparency is also, of course, only one step in changing how we eat. Calorie intake is but one aspect of a person’s complex nutritional picture. (Under the proposed rules, further information would have to be available on request, but if you’re dedicated to looking, it usually already is.) And just knowing the number of calories you’ve eaten in a day doesn’t help if you don’t know an appropriate total number, or if your sources are not themselves the healthiest.

Arguably, some people would even return to eating out more. Imagine if increasing transparency on this one factor led to an increase in labeling in other ways, not just about vitamins and fiber, but potentially even about things like the sources of your food and how it was produced. The increasing subset of the population that is concerned about such things has turned inward, shopping at farmer’s markets and from CSAs, purchasing locally grown vegetables and meat produced on small farms with friendlier, more sustainable practices. Beyond them, there are even more people who would like to make more such choices but find it difficult. What if when they all sat down to eat in a restaurant, they could know which farm the meat came from and that the vegetables were seasonal and locally produced?

Scientia potentia est.

Review: Eaarth – Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

eaarth-200As a girl, I read the Little House on the Prairie series and dreamed of a time when people cooked over an open fire and gave handmade gifts. As an adult, I actually hoped that Y2K would bring a change. While we called it a “scare” back then, few would have guessed Y2K  could actually have saved humanity. A forced change in our lives of excess might have depressed the masses, but the idea of living closer to the earth always appealed to me. Reading Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet was like spending time with an old friend who shared my desire for a simpler life. A smart old friend. While I’m passionate about living a simpler life, author Bill McKibben lays out for readers exactly why drastic changes are necessary to the way we’re living.

Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen. We’ve created, in very short order, a new planet, still recognizable but fundamentally different. We may as well call it Eaarth.

While some people stubbornly cling to the idea that we can continue driving our children to school in over-sized vehicles more suited to farm chores, McKibben makes a strong case for implementing changes immediately if we want to continue to inhabit this planet. Global climate change isn’t coming soon; it’s here.

Safe carbon dioxide levels in order for this planet to remain healthy are – at most – 350 parts per million. Currently? Our planet clocks in at nearly 390 parts per million, resulting in the relatively recent rise in the number of hurricanes, the melting of Arctic ice, and devastating floods. These phenomenon appear on the surface to be Mother Nature at work, but McKibben carefully spells out with statistical evidence just how humans are at the root of this devastation.

We can make changes that will get our carbon dioxide number down. But it’s going to be hard. While each of us can make changes that will make a difference, the change needs to be bigger. The change needs to come in our attitudes, in world politics, and in global economy. In America, for instance:

…our most ingrained economic and political habit was growth; it’s the reflex we’re going to have to temper, and it’s going to be tough. Across partisan lines, for the two hundred years since Adam Smith, we’ve assumed that more is better, and that the answer to any problem is another burst of expansion. That’s because it’s worked, at least for a long while: the lives of comfort and relative security that we Westerners lead are the product of ten generations of steady growth in our economies.

Now, McKibben insists, we must break that habit of bigger is better. Counting on just a few big businesses to provide food, energy, or drinking water to the entirety of America is nonsensical. Instead, he proposes providing for our needs closer to home in our own communities.

I have solar panels on my roof, and if something happens to them … I have a problem. But it doesn’t cause a problem for my neighbors, the way it would if a giant power plant or two suddenly crashed.

Instead of globalization, instead of a world in which we can order a product from another country and have it within days, the author reminds us that while such practices offer near-instant gratification, it’s also changed the way we live.

Access to endless amounts of cheap energy made us rich, and wrecked our climate, and it also made us the first people on earth who had no practical need of our neighbors. In the halcyon days of the final economic booms, everyone on your cul de sac could have died overnight from some mysterious plague, and while you might have been sad, you wouldn’t have been inconvenienced. Our economy, unlike any that came before it, is designed to work without the input of your neighbors.

While the book offers a staggering and scary look at the damage that humans have done to the planet, the author also offers a look at just what we must do to survive. We can’t fix it – as McKibben points out, we can’t regrow rain forests or refreeze the Arctic – but we can figure out a new way of living on this planet. We need to reduce our consumption of everything from energy and fuel, to produce that’s been shipped from far-off locations. (Did you know that a gaming console can use as much energy as a refrigerator? Now, nobody’s suggesting you give up your passion for gaming. But unplugging the unit when it’s not in use will cut down on your energy use, save you money, and diminish – if only slightly – your footprint on the planet.)

We need to move in a direction that is more self-sustaining and less wasteful. We need to be willing to step away from convenience and put forth some effort in caring for ourselves and our communities. Growing food. Eliminating our dependence on fossil fuel. Noting the difference between needs and wants. This is an important book. It’s not a book that will leave you feeling all rosy inside when you’re done, though. If the author has done his job, he will leave you pondering how we have come to this point in the first place – and how you and your family can help to save humanity.

On a final note, you’ll be happy to hear that while McKibben speaks of hard work and drastically altered lifestyles more resembling my beloved Little House on the Prairie than Modern Family, he believes that the Internet, with its ability to connect people over the miles, will be just the tool we need to maintain a global connection while we’re building a sustainable community in which to live.