Category Archives: Food

Death by Insurance

Bruce Schneier has posted a restaurant guide to San Jose, which reveals his particular taste in food as well as humor. I found it enjoyable and informative and noted that he, and his wife Karen, hate the idea of corporate food because corporations are not legally bound to serve the interests of the consumer:

Look up the 1919 court decision Dodge v. Ford Motor Co.; it’s easy to find with
Google. That case still stands, and it upholds the fundamental legal principle that a corporation must put the interests of its shareholders above all other interests; and that it has no legal authority to serve any other interests, customers included. A corporation can only serve its customers’ interests inasmuch as it also serves its shareholders’ interests. Otherwise, as in Dodge v. Ford, the shareholders can sue.

The Super Size Me documentary showed the dangers of being an uninformed consumer, and how the giant food corporations can get an upper hand on average people by abusing their trust. Some suggest that putting regulations on these corporations will have a chilling effect on the market, but the opposite is generally true. The problem is that the market of “nutrition” slides into a market for “marketing”, which means those who actually try to deliver nutritous meals are sidelined by the deceptive and more profitable substitutes. “Honey, are we having snake-oil for dinner again tonight? It’s my favorite!”

In related news, I just read about the tragic story of a man who paid money into a health-insurance company only to find out that they had no intention of helping him afford health-care treatment. If you think markets do not need regulation, try to figure this one out.

When [KMBC’s] Flink talked to Tracy Pierce, his cancer was attacking his body. Despite being fully insured, every treatment his doctors sought for him was denied by his insurance provider. First-Health Coventry deemed the treatments were either not a medical necessity or experimental.

“I don’t know what else to do but just wait,” Tracy Pierce said last May.

As he waited, his doctors appealed again and again, including a 27-page appeal spelling out that Tracy Pierce would die without care. Coventry dismissed each request.

“It’s purely economical. You never see an insurance company try to block an inexpensive test,” said William Soper.

Soper leads a group of doctors who filed a lawsuit last year against insurance providers. This week, Soper went to Jefferson City to lobby legislators for change.

“And you know, it’s not going to get better anytime soon. It’s going to get worse,” said Myra Christopher, who is the president and chief executive officer of the Center for Practical Bioethics.

It is hard to read this type of news and then review the Coventry Health Care, Inc. website, which boasts how shareholders are richly rewarded by sound financial management.

Coventry Health Care, Inc. (NYSE:CVH) today reported operating results for the quarter ended December 31, 2005. Operating revenues totaled $1.72 billion for the quarter, a 24.2% increase over the fourth quarter of 2004.

Their mission statement seems plausable for a health-care provider:

To be the recognized leader in providing quality, accessible, and affordable health care benefits and services that maintain and improve the quality of life of all our members and the communities we serve.

But the only news that this corporation reports seems to be related to pleasing their shareholders:

Barron’s has repeatedly made note of Coventry’s focus on keeping costs down, indicating that Coventry shared in common with 2005’s other top 5 finishers “a tightfisted approach to overhead� and an “innovative use of information technology.�
[…]
Among all companies named to Forbes’ list in the category of Health Care Equipment & Services, Coventry was recognized in the 2005 edition as having had the highest 5-yr annualized total return, a distinction the company repeated in the 2006 edition.
[…]
Among all Fortune 500 companies, Coventry was also cited in the 2005 edition as having had the third highest total return to shareholders over the prior five-year period.
[…]
The Wall Street Journal again named Coventry to its list, and cited it as having the seventh highest five-year returns among all companies. As in the 2004 edition, Coventry again ranked #1 among all health plans nationally based on five-year performance.

Take a look yourself, ALL the news items they cite are related to shareholder returns. Not a single news item related to their mission statement!! Any chance they would post a news page where they actually say something like “we helped someone stay healthy today” or give some testimonials? I couldn’t find one. In light of the news they favor, maybe they should change their mission statement to “we keep overhead down and give great returns to shareholders”.

This of course begs the obvious question what is the antidote to the powerful incentives that make companies deny treatment in order to achieve financial accolades? Who can answer? Could it be the new Coventry CEO (ex-CFO), Dale B. Wolf who reported a cool $4,364,807 income for 2005, and $1,153,490 in exercised stock options (and $16,733,300 in vested, $2,632,500 in non-vested options)? Not bad for a company that was reported in 2005 to have a $5.3 billion revenue with $337.12 million net and $3.72 earnings per share.

Ouch. Tracy Pierce died while Coventry reported a $337 million net. Something tells me if you take this case to the feds right now, they might have a hard time understanding the problem. Even though the public pays for an ambulance that the AP says Vice President Cheney always has on call, I suspect that Bush and Cheney never actually bother with health-care insurance or consumer-grade care because they simply do not trust the system to take proper care of them.

We are told a corporation in America is legally a person (as in corporeal) and yet how many of us really know the person that we entrust with our lives or health? What do you do when you get cancer and the person you paid in advance to take care of you says “sorry, I don’t think you’re worth the time/expense”? And that is not even to touch upon the insurance premiums that are forcing the cost of care to skyrocket. The health-care crisis is solidly upon America, and detailed insider information (about corporations) is power.

One final thought: I always see innocent kids drinking “Rockstar” and I wonder if they know or care who is behind the label. Does it matter? Based on the above, I would hope most people might say yes. We need information to make the market work, and yet most people find information gathering expensive and clumsy. Journalists used to make a living out of delivering quality information, but even that market has eroded in terms of quality to the point where individual contributors and boutique outfits (those less beholden to the shareholder) are a more reliable source of data.

Anyway, back to Rockstar, Russell Goldencloud Weiner is the founder and CEO of the company, which is based in Las Vegas, Nevada. It turns out he is the son of Michael Weiner, ala the extremist right-wing talk-show host Michael Savage. You might have heard of Savage as the guy who said on air that the US should murder millions of Arabs, or the guy who claims that “radical homosexuals” and “radical Islamists” are “one and the same, they’re all terrorists”. Maybe you heard about the time when he said Clinton would recover from heart surgery only because “hell was full”. And then there’s the time he explained to his listeners “When you hear ‘human rights,’ think gays. […]think only one thing: someone who wants to rape your son”.

So, speaking of sons, is there a political connection between the younger Weiner and the Savage? Sure enough, Salon reports that they are both in the business together:

Savage’s son, Russ Weiner, kicked off the show. With his spiky, dyed-orange hair and calculated scruffiness, he was reminiscent of Dr. Evil’s son Scott from the Austin Powers movies. The resemblance was confirmed when Weiner proclaimed, “I’m proud to be the son of Savage!” The 30-something Weiner is the founder of RockStar, an energy drink that he developed with his dad, drawing on Savage’s previous career as a Marin County herbalist and ethnobotanist named Michael Weiner. RockStar’s herbal liver-cleansing formula is supposed to enable drinkers to “party like a rock star,” which presumably means drinking and doping. Generous free samples had been passed out to the crowd on the way in. It lived up to its hype: The antifreeze-colored, cough-syrup-flavored beverage can only be enjoyed if you’re taking drugs.

But while Weiner has cashed in on other people’s bad behavior, he made it clear that he’s a family-values kind of guy.

Right. Drink up everybody. Here’s to healthy information.

Cheese blends

I’ve been eating Cambozola lately and trying to figure out the odd pattern of little circles on the rind. They seem to indicate places where someone has inserted something and left a scar. The name of the variety apparently refers to a mix of Swiss camembert and Italian gorgonzola, and there are dots of blue on the inside that are roughly in line with the marks around the outside. So I suspect the gorgonzola is injected via a large needle…altogether it ends up having a very creamy and soft consistency with just a hint of the typical blue’s sharpness, which was probably the objective.

Well done, I say.

Hints to Cheese Makers
by James McIntyre (1827 -1906)

Addressed to Jonathan Wingle, Esq.

    All those who quality do prize
    Must study color, taste and size
    And keep their dishes clean and sweet,
    And all things round their factories neat,
    For dairymen insist that these
    Are all important points in cheese.

    Grant has here a famous work
    Devoted to the cause of pork.
    For dairymen find that it doth pay
    To fatten pigs upon the whey,
    For there is money raising grease
    As well as in the making cheese.

12 Best Foods

I find the “12 Best” list a bit odd.

First of all, my diet’s gravitated towards this list naturally. Does that mean I share taste preferences or even a common upbringing with the author, or that there really might be something to the list?

Second, hello, what about cheese, pickles, kraut and peanut butter?!

» Black Beans, Blueberries, Broccoli, Chocolate
» Oats, Onions, Salmon
» Soy
» Spinach, Sweet Potatoes, Tomatoes
» Walnuts

Fish and chips are strangely absent as well.

Third, something tells me that a six pack of Fat Tire might have been 13th and thus barely cut from the list. Why twelve? Wait, is beer considered food?

Fourth, how many things can you indulge in if they are only loosely tied to one of the twelve? Does my favorite salmon with pepper, cream and whiskey recipe fit the plan? Slather fresh salmon steak with dijon mustard, coat with cracked pepper-corns, heat in butter. After a few minutes pour in heavy cream and a “little” whiskey…toss on a couple chopped scalions and mmmmm. The salmon’s almost just a convenient excuse just to eat hot cream with peppered whiskey for dinner.

Bittersweet Security

All the way north on the Island of Madagascar is a city named Ambanja. The E. Guittard company claims to produce a 65% cacao bittersweet with flavors from the region. If you believe their website, the bars are a product of Criollo beans from the fertile Sambirano Valley.

Personally, all I can say is that I found the Ambanja Bittersweet very dry and light in taste, and a stark contrast to Guittard’s Chucuri Bittersweet. The latter is apparently a Columbian bean, which I think has a far more smooth and spicy flavor with a rich and familiar aftertaste.

This all makes me wonder if the “unknown” method of distributing food will come under pressure from newer and better distribution methods for old-world and boutique-type brands.

Take for example the unpleasant situation when a restaurant tells you that ground beef can not be prepared “rare” because of a law meant to protect you from disease — bad beef. Someone should alert the big beef that automation can be counter-productive when it becomes overly efficient at promoting one value in spite of all the others. In fact I usually say I would pay more if I could get a hamburger that came right from the “trusted” local butcher because I know my body is happier when I eat better food. I guess I should find out if you can even have a local butcher, baker…

So although I truly appreciate the security control model provided by the US government to reign in the mass-automation meal industry I would much rather know that the origins of my meal could be traced and therefore controlled right at the root-causes. Come to think of it, how do I find out whether the beef industry has the same or better tolerance for risk that I do? Is their idea of “safe” one in 1,000,000 deaths or is it the big fat 0?

Consider for a second the BSE website, which was prominently advertised on the front page of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. It provides the following assurance:

U.S. beef producers have worked with federal authorities for more than 15 years to set up the system of science- based firewalls that is working today to keep the food supply safe.

Hmmm, last time I checked firewalls are a single control and thus widely considered insufficient on their own to provide adequate security. Not such a great marketing campaign, if you ask me. Alas, nothing else is mentioned although I found it interesting that the Cattlemen’s website also links to some anti-vegetarian propaganda.

I suspect that if a proper set of consumer-based controls were in place, they might be able to preserve “single-origin” (e.g. quality) values on a large scale, such that we would still have excellent flavor and texture along with desireable price. But until that happens, wise consumers seek out the small-batch and single-origin brands that are a healthier choice and more in tune with their real needs (better cost-benefit ratio).

Back to chocolate, I have to wonder, are you safer trying to stay on top of the additives in the giant brand chocolate bars, or are controls more likely to be present and effective with small-batch real cacao, cane sugar, lecithin and vanilla? And does fair-trade mean less chance of sabotage? Mmmm, chocolate.

Balzana Olive Oil

I wasn’t going to say anything about the 2005 batches of Balzana California Extra Virgin Olive Oil (more for me, you know) but some friends convinced me that I should be generous and share the news. It’s an oil derived from several varieties of olives chosen by Mr. Edmunds himself with an unbelievably smooth and rich hint of pepper. The “extra virgin” means the olives are grown very near the place that the final oil is produced. Seriously good stuff. The last thing I can remember from Santa Cruz that tasted this good was a 2000 Bonnie Doon Big House Red. Give ol’ Merritt a call and get some for yourself:

Merritt Edmunds, Balzana
2655 Warren St., Santa Cruz, CA, 95062
831.475.7873 or 800.815.9775

Actually, is it single barrel oil or small batch…? I’m going to have to buy a case of the stuff just to be sure I don’t run out.

It seems to go well with anything, but I’ve been tasting it with the Explorateur triple crème, a super buttery and almost grotesquely moldy cheese from Ile de France.

Roaring Forties Australian Blue

The cheese of the day was the King Island Dairy Roaring Forties Blue. Another discovery at a local grocery store, the Blue had the appearance (and name) of a typical American blue cheese, but had far less bite and an awesomely smooth texture that is hard to find in domestic varities that tend to be dry and crumbly. After I polished off the last bit this evening I searched for the King Island website and found this helpful description:

A full flavoured blue with a sweet, slightly nutty character and good aftertaste. A rindless cheese matured in wax thus retaining its moisture and creating a smooth and creamy texture. A Roquefort style mould is used to create this unique and exciting cheese style.

Mmmm. A really great cheese. A bit of googling uncovered a recent newspaper review in the San Francisco Chronicle, which might be related somehow to the appearance of the cheese at a local grocery that boasts of a selection of over 3,000 wines:

My favorite among those I’ve tasted is the Roaring Forties Blue, a creamy, mild, blue-veined cheese from pasteurized cow’s milk. Local retailers tell me it is a customer favorite, too. […] Under the wax, you’ll find a moist, smooth and creamy blue with a mellow, almost sweet taste. It has neither the saltiness nor the pungency that characterizes many blues, which probably accounts for its popularity. Its lush, velvety texture calls for an equally luscious wine. Lustau’s Rare Cream Sherry, Solera Superior, accompanies it beautifully.

I couldn’t (and didn’t) say it any better myself, especially since I’ve never heard of those wines. I can just imagine that groceries in the future will have “hyper-linked” food. For example, when you pick up a cheese and put it in your cart, the cart’s interface will alert you to the appropriate selection of crackers and wine. Talk about a powerful and ubiquitous commerce model for information…

In the meantime, does anyone ever taste cheese with bourbon?

Real Cheese

It was only a matter of time before I created a food category. A small block of Taleggio Cheese finally pushed me to document a few fun food facts:

First of all, who knew that a cheese might have a union? After tasting a fine slice of Taleggio this evening I found a site called the Consorzio per la Tutela del Taleggio, which provides English information under the title “The Union of Teleggio Cheese”. According to the Union:

“The Taleggio cheese is, therefore, one of the Italian cheeses whose peculiar characteristics are protected by the European Union, and it is for that reason that milk supplying, its production and its seasoning must be effectuated in the area indicated by the Italian and community legislation.”

Second, the Taleggio moniker apparently requires a certain degree of enforcement. Perhaps if you eat enough of the stuff you might develop a taste for it like bourbon versus rye whiskey, or merlot versus pinot, etc. It thus stands to reason that if a Taleggio doesn’t achieve compliance with Union cheese laws it will not get the required stamp of approval:

“The Union was, since 1981, charged to the vigilance on production and on commerce of the Taleggio cheese, the Union marks each cheese conforming to the requisite specified in the disciplinary of production.”

Sadly, I must confess that I was uninformed as a consumer about how to validate the authenticity of my cheese until after I had eaten it. Next time I will definitely check to see whether I am about to purchase contraband Taleggio, or at least cheese with a forged seal of authenticity.

Real Taleggio

Warning: This entry was written while under the influence of Taleggio

Happy Thanksgiving

One day I became curious how Lincoln’s Presidential Proclamation to reunify America turned into a feast of turkey legs, mashed potatoes, and pie.

I mean it seems fairly certain at first glance that the American holiday today was a result of President Lincoln’s third day of Thanksgiving, October 3, 1863, when he brought to national attention the cause for a November holiday to give thanks for “general causes” rather than “special providences” such as wartime victories. He thus declared a general and national Thanksgiving that year to be held on the last Thursday in November. Lincoln proclaimed:

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well as the iron and coal as of our precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is
permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

The actual origins appear to have been based in the observance of the bounty of peaceful industry and labor in-spite of ravages from a brutal civil war. And it was this particular Thanksgiving that was the first in the unbroken series of the national holiday tradition celebrated today. Unfortunately I never see this little bit of history brought to light during the holiday season.

Where did Lincoln get the idea from? It seems that the Thanksgiving holiday is evolved from a very routine English Puritan religious observation, which was irregularly declared and celebrated “in response to God’s favorable Providence”. Over time these observations by early settlers turned into a single, annual, quasi-secular New England autumnal celebration, but this was still a very small minority of Americans and it is not clear what Lincoln’s relationship with them might have been.

It is sometimes claimed that the first actual recorded “national” Thanksgiving was a formal declaration in 1777 by the Continental Congress. This event, however, had very little popularity outside a few peculiar and religious sects and “Thanksgivings” subsequently were only declared occaisonally and infrequently until 1815 when they apparently disappeared altogether.

The holiday thus was seen mainly as a regional observance until 1863 when President Lincoln declared three Thanksgiving days, two of which to celebrate Union military victories; the first following Shiloh on April 13 and the second a national day of thanks for the Gettysburg victory on August 6. The third day is the one described in the proclamation above. Perhaps Lincoln’s own family ties had some relevance to Thanksgiving, or perhaps he encountered it among his constituents and decided to expand the practice. Either way, today’s national holiday celebration was clearly founded at the end of the Civil War and not by the pilgrims or the Founding Fathers, as is often incorrectly claimed.

In fact, presidential declarations of Thanksgiving made absolutely no mention of the Plymouth Pilgrims or a “First Thanksgiving” until Herbert Hoover’s proclamation of 1931. This revision was apparently due to a change from how Pilgrims (and Indians) were perceived. Depictions of the settlers in America before the 19th century showed violent confrontation with people they encountered. As late as the 1910s a typical Thanksgiving “Pilgrim-puritan” image is more likely to have suggested settlers were fleeing a shower of arrows and running to safety than sitting down for a friendly meal with the “natives”.

The more modern imagery of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a communal and harmonious meal most likely found its place as an icon of American history in the early 1900s. The U.S. was concerned at that time with large numbers of immigrants and the related issues of integration into American culture. A Thanksgiving image of dissimilar ethnic communities co-existing amid peace and plenty was considered an effective message to help avoid confrontations. It was out of this school of thought that Jennie Brownscombe’s “First Thanksgiving” was painted in 1914 for Life magazine. Pilgrims were cast in a role to provide an example of the close-knit, religiously inspired American community. This also gained popularity as an image of American values and virtuosity to help boost morale during the dark days of the First World War.

Support for the holiday then unravelled a bit when President Roosevelt tried in 1936, against opposition, to move the day forward by a week to extend the Christmas shopping season. By 1941, during his administration, Congress declared the fourth Thursday in November to be the legal Holiday known today as Thanksgiving. However, since there are five Thursdays in November (two out of every seven years) several states continued to celebrate on the fifth Thursday for at least the next 15 years. Any guesses which states refused to comply?

Finally, in 1956 the fourth Thursday in November became the national holiday that Americans recognize today, observed similarly by every state in the Union.

The relevance of turkey to the holiday celebration is even more unclear than the origins of the celebration. Perhaps it stems from an early description of “men out fowling” for ducks, geese, and turkey (e.g. as described in the Bradford document, “discovered” in 1854). Or perhaps it is due to sentiment expressed in Benjamin Franklin’s note that “The turkey is a much more respectable Bird and withal a true original Native of North America”. Franklin actually was so enamored of the bird that he was in favor of using the turkey as the national Bird, instead of the Bald Eagle. Thus, perhaps he is not the person to have suggested it as a centerpiece for the dinner-table.

And so, today, I have yet to meet an American who has any idea why Lincoln started the holiday, why they are asked to celebrate the image of Indians and Pilgrims, or even why they are eating a native bird.

Packet Trap

There’s something really nice about a good pasta sauce. There are so many recipes on the web, it’s hard to know where to begin. My favorite, of course, is the easiest: a bit of your favorite oil, add some basil, pine nuts, and garlic in the blender. Just press a button and…pesto!

There’s something really suspicious about a product called the White Glove, but there’s no doubt that Fred Cohen has a unique view. In light of this, I think when I build a DMZ for a client tomorrow I will try to convince them to call it a “Packet Trap.”

It’s good to be back…sort of

Hello again! I am back from the Comoros. I have to admit it was nice to have virtually no access to electricity, let alone a phone line, for a whole month — surrounded by mangos, coconuts, guava, bananas, fish, bats…not to mention a dance every night. More news tout de suite.