Happily ever after

How did my quest for the least toxic, least reactive vessel for slow cooking finally end up? In a trip to the Le Creuset outlet.

Le Creuset bouillabaisse pot, 7.5 quart.

Le Creuset bouillabaisse pot, 7.5 quart.

Yes, I went for the Le Creuset, the enameled cast-iron brand I decided I most trusted to be what it said it was. I initially intended to get a Dutch oven, but when I saw this weighty flying saucer, built by French engineers to convey oceans of bouillabaisse to the people of the earth, I went for it immediately, by which I mean after only a half hour of agonizing. I’ve never made bouillabaisse in it, but it’s big enough to fit a whole duck without breaking any bones (mine or the duck’s) and to make plenty of broth.

A gargantuan pot of duck.  A half-cup white wine, sea salt, and thyme. Slow-cooked in the oven for 4 hours at 200 degrees, 300 for the first half hour.

A gargantuan pot of duck. A half-cup white wine, sea salt, and thyme. Slow-cooked in the oven for 4 hours at 200 degrees, 300 for the first half hour.

It was more than just an excuse to buy something I had long wanted, though it surely was that. After all I’d learned, and more important, what I had not been able to learn, I just didn’t feel comfortable with the slow cooker. You might say I was ready to move on.

You will not be surprised to learn that food turns out better. I got some good results with the slow cooker, but these are better. Better textures, better flavors. You foodies told me so, and you were right. I’ve had to change my cooking schedule, but it’s still a pretty easy way to create satisfying meals, and I’m living by my priorities.

Do I know for sure whether I’ve accomplished anything significant as far as changing my personal risk profile? Well, given that toxin exposure these days typically manifests as the total load of low-level doses of many different compounds, and that I’m not living in a 24-hour toxicology lab, the answer is no.

All you can do is make a reasonable effort to reduce total load. And while that sounds grim, my experience is that I have fun doing it because it’s basically about shopping, which I enjoy. Every time I’ve done things like replace plastic with glass, buy real food whose origins I know, or choose my beauty products thoughtfully, I’ve discovered pleasures, rewards, and well-being I didn’t know existed.

Far from a recipe for paranoia, or for giving up because I’m overwhelmed, it’s been an ongoing opportunity for consciousness and enrichment. Every once in a while I check in, give the current evidence some attention, and make a few decisions. I don’t always get to buy cool new stuff like I did this time. Sometimes it means buying less stuff. But there’s pleasure in that, too.

Must you buy all organic?

As a holistic nutritionist, sustainability buff, and wellness exemplar to the world, you would think I myself would buy only organic produce. So do I? Well, no.

Sure, USDA organic certification tells you that produce is grown and handled using no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and that it has been inspected by an accredited certifying agent who has verified that this is so. (See http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/torg.html and http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5068682 to learn more). But that’s no guarantee that produce is seasonal, local, fresh, or produced with fair labor.

And then there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room: price. Organic certification can be costly for farmers, especially small ones. So while it enables me to know what I’m getting, it also raises the prices of very producers I’m interested in, the small and the local ones.

Part of what you’re paying for at seemingly boutique-priced farmers’ markets and other sellers of organic produce is certified product and some degree of verification and transparency on the part of the operating organization for methods used on non-certified product. (That’s not to say there might not be not some unfair prices markups or other funny business along the organic production and distribution chain, an inquiry for another day.)

But these factors are no reason throw up your hands in despair and just buy whatever’s cheapest, as the conventional agricultural industry would have you do.  (Unless your name is Gumby, in which case I’ll give you a pass, as your brain probably hurts.)

A little mindfulness goes a long way. Nothing is perfect, but once you’ve informed yourself about standards, established your personal priorities, and accepted your budget, the choices become surprisingly easy.

Here are some exceptions I make to the all-organic rule:

I sometimes buy from local farmers who claim to farm organic “under the radar,” keeping their prices down by using organic methods without official certification, especially if they give detailed, forthcoming answers to my questions. But short of perfect oversight by the operating organization (a good reason to shop at farmers markets and grocery stores you trust, and ask plenty of questions), I have to just basically take the word of the person answering the questions, which has its limitations. It’s also unfair to producers who are paying the certification fees and undergoing inspections.

I also sometimes buy from those who are partially organic (technically that’s like being partially pregnant, but pesticide-free would be an example of what I mean) or on their way to being certified. The latter often means they’re farming on soil that hasn’t yet been organically farmed for the required number of years (usually 3 for USDA). That can mean chemical residues in the soil, but it’s still a far cry from conventional.

When my money runs out, I’ll also buy certain items conventional  – those that are on Environmental Working Groups’s “Clean 15”  list and not on their “Dirty Dozen” (http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/), which of course addresses the health issue and the price issue but not necessarily the environmental/political one.

According to EWG, you can cut your pesticide load by 92 percent by consuming conventional “Clean 15” produce and avoiding the “Dirty Dozen,” buying organic only when the conventional is on the dirty dozen list. That’s compelling enough for those on a tight budget. If you can’t afford to buy all or mostly organic this is a great way to save money. But when I buy conventional, I do try to keep it local – easy enough to do in California.

Since reading about the huge amount of lead in some local soil (http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/how-safe-is-your-soil/Content?oid=2947105), I won’t buy urban garden produce unless I know they’ve tested and, if necessary, remediated, and exactly how. You’d be far better off with pesticides, herbicides, and GMO than with lead.

To understand what organic means, visit http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/torg.html.

For EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” lists, visit: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/.

Local: Phat Beets Farmers’ Markets

Phat Beets (http://www.phatbeetsproduce.org/) is an Oakland nonprofit dedicated to providing affordable access to fresh produce though the creation of farmers’ markets and youth-powered gardens. They run three farmers’ markets in North Oakland.

The farmers are all small and local, and I filled my usual shopping basket with extremely fresh produce for about 40 percent less than it would have cost me at the major organic farmers’ markets in Oakland and Berkeley.

Not all the vendors are certified organic, however. In fact, most are not. Many are in the process of certification; others provide various combinations of partially organic (e.g., pesticide-free) and what’s ultimately pretty much conventional (see vendor guide, below).

That doesn’t mean what’s on offer is not worthwhile or no better than conventional supermarket produce: it’s still local, fresh, affordable food that benefits the community and leans towards organic. But problem is there’s not much information provided about what you’re actually getting on a given item, and vending staff wasn’t able to provide much detail the day I was there.

Phat Beets isn’t making any false claims. They just want to get lower-income people fresh, local food from small local producers, and that’s what they’re doing. But if you’re looking for a deal on organic at a Phat Beets market you should use my vendor guide to know what you’re buying.

Part of what you’re paying for at the seemingly boutique-priced farmers’ markets like the ones the Ecology Center runs is organic certification and some degree of verification and transparency for methods used on non-certified food.

Organic certification can be a double-edged sword. It’s very expensive for farmers, especially small ones. So while it enables you to know what you’re getting if you understand the standards (http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/torg.html), it also raises small producers’ prices. (That’s not to say the bigger ones might not be marking up the price unfairly, an inquiry for another day.)

Organic certification is no guarantee that produce is seasonal, local, or produced with fair labor, and those are important considerations, too. But that’s no reason throw up your hands in despair and just buy whatever’s cheapest as the conventional agricultural industry would have you do.

A little mindfulness goes a long way. Nothing is perfect, but once you’ve informed yourself about standards, established your personal priorities, and accepted your budget, the choices become surprisingly easy.

I’ll shop again at Phat Beets, especially the Tuesday market, which features the 100-percent certified J & P Organics. But I’ll be sure to take my vendor’s guide with me.



5715 Market Street, Saturdays

Vang Family Farms. Clovis/Fresno, CA. Not certified organic. They use DiPel (http://www.valentbiosciences.com/docs/pdfs/learning_center/LC_DiPel.pdf), an organically-approved pesticide, to control pests in their tomatoes, and organic fertilizer. But they also use Roundup between rows and before planting in addition to hoeing and hand-weeding. So I guess you could call them semi-organic – probably better than supermarket conventional, but not organic. See http://www.ecologycenter.org/bfm/vendors/farm-facts.php?vendor=Vang%20Family%20Farm&id=10277.

Firme Farms. Stockton, CA.  In process of getting organic certification (they say by end of 2011).  Wide variety of veggies. See http://www.firmefarms.com.

J&J Farms. Hughson, CA. Not certified organic. Phat Beets says J&J grows oranges and tomatoes and pesticide-free stone fruit. I take that wording to mean the oranges and tomatoes are conventional, so I might buy the pesticide-free stone fruit (not organic but closer to it) but not the oranges & tomatoes. However, other farmers are offering organic oranges and tomatoes; you gotta ask which farm the stuff comes from to know what you’re buying. See (http://jandjfarmsca.blogspot.com/ & http://www.phatbeetsproduce.org/farmers-markets/north-oakland-children’s-hospital.

Scott’s Family Farms. Fresno County, CA.  In process of getting organic certification. Farmer Will Scott is president of California Assoc of African American Farmers. He farms without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Various fruits and veggies.  See http://www.phatbeetsproduce.org/order-a-beet-box/scotts-family-farm/.

747 52nd St  (Children’s Hospital), 2 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays.

The Tuesday Phat Beets Market has J&P organics, which says it’s is all certified organic (http://www.jporganics.com/). They also have J&J Ramos, which is mixed, so watch which one you’re buying from if your priority is certification.

675 41st Street (St. Martin de Porres Catholic School) 2:30 – 5:30 Wednesdays.

Supported by the school. The farmers are not listed on Phat Beets website; whether it’s the same farmers as above or produce grown by the school or both or some other deal is not indicated.