Spud History

March 17, 2009

I’ve been reading the comprehensive work of Luther Burbank, the early twentieth-century plant breeder, it’s a vivid reminder of how, as the subtitle of Plant Breeding puts it, How Plants are Trained to Work for Man. The potato, which used have seeds on the outside of it, is a classic example. Burbank writes, “Years of cultivation have removed from the potato the necessity of bearing seeds for the preservation of its race.” In other words, once humans took over the task of preservation, the tater became for us a ball of clay. “The potato plant,” Burbank goes on, “so certain now to reproduce itself through subdivision of its tuber, so reliant on man for its propagation, has little use for the seed upon which its ancestors mostly depended for perpetuation before man relieved it of its burden.” This simple observation should give us pause when we claim that we want our food today to be “all natural.”


March 12, 2009

Legislators in Congress have reintroduced LEAN–Labeling Education and Nutrition Act–and competing bills are currently negotiating their way through Capitol Hill. The proposed law would require restaurants (well, only those chains with twenty or more stores) to do what the Nutrition Labeling Education Act did twenty years ago for store bought foods: provide a basic nutritional breakdown. One might think such a measure would rile the restaurant industry, which relies heavily on the thoughtless consumption of fat and sodium-laden products. Every major restaurant association in the US, however, has offered its wholehearted endorsement of this proposed law. And this of course makes me wonder: will this law be good for consumers?

One interesting thing to note about the proposed LEAN legislation is that the federal standards would preclude more stringent local regulations. So if Austin, Texas decided that it was going to require that restaurants note foods made with high fructose corn syrup, wheat gluten, or milk powder, LEAN could prevent it from doing so. In this sense, the LEAN figures take our attention away from the hidden and possibly dangerous inputs into our food supply and direct it toward a set of caloric stats that–while they may be alarming–are ultimately protective of the underlying horrors of industrial food.  

Another thing to note is that the law would give liability protection to restaurants that follow the  law. My sense here is that franchises are concerned that some health organization might get a notion to equate triple cheeseburgers with cancer sticks, and organize a class action suit of heart disease victims against the fast food chains whose food clogged their arteries.  I suppose one way to look at this issue is to hope that consumers will experience some pause at the fact their favorite burger contains 110% of their daily fat intake. Then again, see the story below.

I think I just heard a pillar of culinary civilization come collapsing down. I want to laugh, but I cannot bring myself to do so.

 Heart Attack Grill bypasses nutrition guidelines, political correctness with ‘to-die-for’ operation

CHANDLER, Ariz. (Feb. 02, 2009 ) — The Heart Attack Grill here has proven that a restaurant with a gimmick can still succeed, especially if it knows how to throw its weight—and that of its customers—around.

The Heart Attack Grill in Chandler, Ariz., gets its guests’ blood pressure racing with giant cheeseburgers and buxom servers dressed like nurses.


Since owner Jon Basso opened Heart Attack Grill in December 2005, it has achieved widespread publicity for its 8,000-calorie Quadruple Bypass Burger, a medical theme, and a buxom waitstaff dressed as nurses that has riled public outcry as surely as it has attracted patrons.

The 3,300-square-foot, 70-seat restaurant remains a popular novelty, even if the $7.38 half-pound Single Bypass Burger outsells the cardiac-arresting $13.25, 2-pound Quadruple Bypass version. Guests also clamor for the Flat-Liner Fries cooked in lard. Basso said his restaurant is “an affordable diversion” in tough economic times.

The website proclaims the Heart Attack Grill as “a taste worth dying for.”

Basso said he “used to be a nutritionist advising others on their dietary problems but found that to be a waste of time because no one listened. Now I give them better advice that they actually follow: Be happy.”

Offering such an indulgent menu, Basso said is “giving people what they really want…to stuff their faces and laugh about it.”

The menu also includes beer and liquor shots as well as cigarettes.

“We only sell no-filter cigarettes for the adults and bubble gum cigarettes for the kids,” Basso said.

Bill S., in a post in mid-January at www.yelp.com , said: “The atmosphere is like nowhere else.… The wife’s feathers were a little ruffled the first five minutes or so after we took our seats at the counter. But halfway through her ice-cold beer, she and the waitress started swapping waitress-working-my-way-through-grad-school stories. By the second beer, they were bosom buddies swapping men-bashing stories. This waitress was sharp. I tipped her 40 percent at the insistence of my wife.”

This semianonymous poster remained impressed with Basso’s business model, however, calling it “an eatery where the entrepreneur turns ground beef, potatoes and lard into CASH, using pretty much only a heat source and a spatula!”

Basso also has received his share of negative publicity.

In late 2006, the Arizona attorney general threatened to close the restaurant because of its use of the term “nurses” in referring to the waitstaff. In addition, servers “write prescriptions” rather than take orders and customers are referred to as “patients.” Nursing advocates claimed that Basso was denigrating their profession.

Basso, who calls himself “Dr. Jon,” cited his right to freedom of speech in defending his concept. He was arrested, however, after attempting to open a live fire hose on a group of picketing nurses. That drew the national attention of conservative media commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Geraldo Rivera, whose coverage of the nurse-waitress dispute and the Heart Attack Grill has been broadly positive and tongue-in-cheek.

Basso reached a compromise with officials that called for him to put a disclaimer on his website that stated: “The use of the word ‘nurse’ above is only intended as a parody. None of the women pictured on our website actually have any medical training, nor do they attempt to provide any real medical services. It should be made clear that the Heart Attack Grill and all its employees do not offer any therapeutic treatments.”

Basso says much of the Heart Attack Grill’s success has been because of the entertainment value and the restaurant’s theatrics–part of the positioning that sets the grill apart from other burger spots.

For instance, after customers devour a quadruple burger, which also has four layers of cheese and 12 slices of bacon, they have the option of having a waitress transport them to their car in a wheelchair.

Basso said that about 10 customers take the restaurant up on its wheelchair offer each day.



Organic Oversight

March 2, 2009

Simply because I have been critical of organic agriculture by no means implies that I am somehow “against” it. To the contrary, I embrace the core values of the movement. It’s just that I think it behooves us all to be aware of its weaknesses as well as its strengths in order for it for to achieve its greatest potential as an alternative form of agriculture. It is for this reason that I celebrate developments like the one below. This is movement in the right direction. 



USDA Toughens Oversight of Organic Fertilizer
Organic fertilizers must undergo testing

By Don Schrack , The Packer, February 25, 2009

On the heels of disciplinary action by the California Department of Food and Agriculture against one manufacturer and a federal probe into yet another company, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is moving to stiffen requirements for suppliers of organic fertilizers.

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees the National Organic Program, announced Feb. 20 that it will require third party reviewers to implement detailed audit and inspection protocols for all high nitrogen-content liquid organic fertilizers effective Oct. 1.

California Certified Organic Farmers, Santa Cruz, Calif., which certifies the state’s organic growers, immediately applauded the federal agency’s action in a news release.

Reports surfaced in late December that the state ordered in January 2007 California Liquid Fertilizer, Gonzales, Calif., to halt distribution of its fertilizer products. On January 22, federal agents raided Port Organic Products Ltd., Buttonwillow, Calif. The following day, California Certified Organic Farmers directed the state’s certified organic grower-shippers to halt the use of the company’s products. More than a week before the Port Organic Products raid, the organization established its own liquid fertilizer approval policy. Since then, it has implemented a liquid fertilizer sampling initiative and members of the certifying group’s staff met with legislative leaders, testified at a Sacramento legislative hearing and traveled to Washington, D.C., to discuss the issue with National Organics Program officials.

“It’s been a busy two months, but we are very pleased with the outcome and the NOP decision to issue this new notice in a time-sensitive manner,” said Peggy Miars, executive director of the organization, in the news release.

The organization’s policies on organic liquid fertilizer may be found at http://www.ccof.org.