Pollan, not pollen

Michelle, Zev and I heard a great talk tonight by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. It wasn’t specifically relevant to beekeeping, but is certainly relevant to the locavore mantra we’ve been preaching here lately. Indulge me then a tangent.

Pollan suggested that Nutritionism has become the dominant ideology of Western food-thought. Its tenets are:

  1. Food is a nothing but a sum of its constituent nutrients
  2. Because you can’t directly see nutrients, knowledge of what to eat is a mystery that must be guided by experts (a priesthood, if you will)
  3. The goal of eating is to improve bodily health (not, say, to savor the meal or one’s company at it)
  4. Nutrients are either good or evil (e.g., Omega-3 is Good, high fructose corn syrup is Evil)

This ideology leads to various flawed conclusions. For one, the “good” and “evil” nutrients change over time, like fashion. At the turn of the century, Kellogg preached that protein was evil, and that a healthy diet consisted of primarily carbohydrates (yes, that Kellogg).

Worse, if there are “good” nutrients, then eating lots of them must be better. And this exactly has been the recommendation of the goverment (at the behest of the agriculture industry): encourage people to eat more things with “good” nutrients in them, rather than to eat less of anything.

As a result, obesity, diabetes and heart disease have skyrocketed over the past several decades, to the point where the CDC predicts that 1 in 3 children born in the year 2000 will eventually develop Type 2 diabetes!

Pollan’s recommendation? He has lots, but one that resonated with me is “shorten the food chain”. If you know the person who you are getting your food from, it’s much less likely to be processed “edible food-like substances” than if you are buying it anonymously in the store. In other words, eat local!

And now, for those annoyed at my non-beekeeping tangent, is the obligatory bee-relevant tidbit of the story: another rule he suggested was “only eat things that rot” (i.e., if it has so many preservatives or is so far removed from biology that molds and bacteria don’t want any of it, neither should you). He caught himself though, and exempted that one natural food that never rots, that has been found edible in Egyptian tombs after millenia, honey.

Honey Laundering Revisited

The Seattle Times ran a series of five articles by Andrew Schneider this past week on honey laundering, a topic I blogged about some time ago. The articles are a good read, he manages to bring a bit of James Bond flair to the business:

Seven cars with darkened windows barreled east toward the Cascades, whizzing past this Snohomish County hamlet’s smattering of shops and eateries.

The sedans and sport utility vehicles stirred up dust as they rolled into the parking lot of Pure Foods Inc., a Washington honey producer.

Out popped a dozen people in dark windbreakers identifying them as feds — agents from Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Some raced to the loading docks. Others hurried through the front door. All were armed.

The gist of it is that Chinese honey producers are apparently no safer than Chinese dairies, using antibiotics and pesticides that are banned for use in foods in the U.S. and adulterating their honey with corn syrup, cane syrup and water.

To get around tariffs and rightly skeptical American consumers, the Chinese honey is shipped to Vietnam, Russia, Thailand and the Grand Bahamas (the Grand Bahamas?!), where they are relabeled as Vietnamese, Russian, etc. and shipped to the United States (a practice known as “transshipping”). American companies such as Sue Bee, Silver Bow and Pure Foods that import and distribute the honey seem, at best, willfully ignorant of the practice.

The articles go on to note that even honey labeled “natural” and “organic” isn’t necessarily, as there are few federal standards on what makes honey “organic”. Plus, given that bees will forage for miles, it’s virtually impossible to ensure that a given hives bees don’t come into contact with chemicals somewhere in their travels.

So what’s a honey loving consumer to do? I’ll tell you what to do!

Buy Local Honey!

It makes sense for dozens of reasons. First, if you want to be sure that the honey wasn’t adulterated with antibiotics and pesticides in China before being shipped in a supertanker by way of Russia, buy it from a guy with beeswax under his nails in a farmer’s market. Beekeepers working the farmer’s market are not in it for the money, believe me. There are way easier ways to make a living. If you’re in Seattle, go to the Ballard Sunday market. It’s the best.

But there’s more to buying local than avoiding contaminants. Think about the carbon footprint. What does it take to ship honey from deep in the interior of China to Russia and then to the United States? How much oil is consumed as those cargo ships chug across oceans? When I deliver honey, I deliver it by foot to friends (and occasionally by bicycle).

But there’s something special about local honey, more so than any other food product.

Honey that was produced from flowers in the environment in which you live is better for you by helping you build up immunities to allergies from local pollens. It doesn’t do you a spit of good to get immunities to Chinese pollens or Californian pollens if you’re sneezing in Snohomish.

OK, soapbox moment over. As you were.

(Photo credits: Customs agent by Meryl Schenker / P-I and Local Honey by Melissa_Thinkspace)

Mad Science Indeed

Jeff forwarded me an article from Mad Science that claims that bees on cocaine are “more altruistic” than their straight edge counterparts. The evidence: bees riding the rails perform the waggle dance (which shows the other bees where the honey source is) more often than sober bees.

Ummm…so bees on coke dance more than straight bees? And that’s altruism? I guess ecstasy promotes more aggression because it makes people wrap their arms around other people.

Mad science indeed.

The Littlest Bee

IMG_7640Michelle and I are proud to introduce Zevin Rolihlahla Schwartz, born Nov 16th, 2008 at 10:22 pm, 6 lbs even, 20 inches long. Happy, healthy, wise beyond his hours.

Z’ev means “wolf” in Hebrew, which is where we found his first name. Rolihlahla was Nelson Mandela‘s given name (he was named “Nelson” by his schoolteachers, who forbade African names). It means “treeshaker” or “bender of branches” in Xhusa.

Or, as Nelson tells it, “troublemaker”.

My middle name is “Luther King” (my father marched at Selma), and that has been a big influence on my life. It was something to live up to, a challenge to make right and strong decisions. Any time I considered the low road, I felt it would dishonor Dr. King’s memory if I did.

I hope Zevin feels the same.

More photos…


Pickled Green TomatoesAlmost forgot to mention: after I’d jarred some honey on Sunday, I figured it was time to do something with all those green tomatoes that failed to ripen over Seattle’s weird 2008 summer. I remember from growing up in Connecticut that my mother always made pickled tomatoes with her greenies and they were total heaven, so I rang her up for the recipe. Here’s it is:

Into each sterilized quart jar, put:

  • 1 clove garlic
  • 6 peppercorns
  • 1 clove
  • 1 flower of dill
  • Tightly packed green tomatoes

Boil the following and then pour over the top:

  • 2 quarts white or cider vinegar
  • 1 quart water
  • 1 cup coarse (Kosher) salt

I used cider vinegar, as I’m a believer that it has health benefits.

After that, let it sit for a week in a cool, dark place, after which point, eat. I’ll let you know how it turns out.