Thursday, October 2, 2014

Neo-Luddites, Bread, Cheese, and Relish

I've been thinking a lot these days about material wealth. I don't need or desire it, but sometimes find myself feeling a bit blue for lack of it anyway. I consider myself a Neo-Luddite, which, if you're unfamiliar with the term, indicates -- at least to me -- a lifestyle that embraces anti-consumerism along with a healthy dose of skepticism about the use of technology. I'm not totally anti-technology (I'm obviously on a computer!), and although a lot of it appears benign some of it is downright scary, and I think there needs to be a more serious discussion on the role it plays in our society. 

Ned Ludd was the "leader" of the original anti-technology movement, although whether he was an actual person is somewhat unknown. He was purported to be a textile worker who smashed two stocking frames in 1779. The textile artisans of the early 19th century who protested that the new labor-saving machinery of the Industrial Revolution threatened to replace them with less-skilled, lower wage workers -- thus leaving them without work -- adopted the name Luddite, after Ned Ludd, as they attacked factories and smashed machinery in protest. The anti-technology movement spread from textile workers to agricultural workers to miners and others as the harsh economic climate of England at that time gave rise to difficult working conditions.

In the end, the Luddite movement was suppressed as the British government handed out severe punishments to those caught, including penal transportation and execution. The term came back into public consciousness, beginning in the 1970s, when people once again began questioning where technology was heading. The original Luddites were aggressive in their attacks, physically smashing machinery, while the majority of Neo-Luddites today are not violent. My view of the Neo-Luddite movement is probably colored by the fact that I was introduced to the term through my Quaker meeting, though. The Second Luddite Congress met in 1996, put together by a group of conservative Quakers and held at a Quaker meetinghouse in Barnesville, Ohio. They drew up a manifesto that stated Neo-Luddism is "a leaderless movement of passive resistance to consumerism and the increasingly bizarre and frightening technologies of the Computer Age." Since Quakers are pacifists, the idea of violence to achieve change was never part of my understanding of what it meant to be a Neo-Luddite. Instead, I read books by environmentalists Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, and Gene Logsdon. I admire the Amish, who live a simple lifestyle and carefully analyze new technologies before they allow any to be adopted into their lifestyle. (The idea that the Amish reject all modern technology is a fallacy. Practices vary among all the many Amish groups as to what is allowed and what isn't, but each group carefully evaluates and then comes to a consensus on whether a particular technology should be adopted by their particular church district. Their guideline on whether to adopt new technology is based on how it effects family and community.)

A huge surprise was that on almost every online search I found about the Neo-Luddites was mention of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, who felt that violent methods were the only solution to the problem of our industrial civilization. I suppose every movement has extremists, and maybe Ted Kaczynski can more accurately be called a Luddite since the original Luddites also tried to change things through violent action. There are other organizations that also advocate vandalism and more aggressive behavior in order to stop or change current technological advances and/or exploitation of the environment but without also killing people, as Ted Kaczynski seemed to have no problem doing. Violence shouldn't be necessary, isn't necessary. What is necessary is for everyone to realize this planet we're living on needs our help and attention. 

Anyhow, the reason I've been thinking so much about material wealth is that, despite my convictions and all common sense, I often have to detox mentally after I visit folks whose homes are so much bigger than mine and/or look like they belong in House Beautiful, as just happened after a recent visit to a friend's house. I have an internal war between wanting to spend money on fancy rugs and marble counters and tile ceilings and techno-gadgets (none of which I have) and accepting my house as it is: simple, comfortable, functional, outdated, small, and a bit cluttered. Often people visit and remark that our house is a home. I'm always pleased when I hear that; it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. But just as often I get remarks about how well I manage to cook in such a small space, indicating my kitchen is cramped and tiny, although I always thought of it as fairly spacious. Or how we'd never be able to sell the house because it needs so much work and updating. Or my mother-in-law tells us she had wanted to give us a new backdoor as an anniversary present, which makes me look critically at the backdoor and cringe. Or we agonize and finally splurge on a $75 rug for the livingroom to hide the tiles that have seen their day and we visit someone's house who spent (literally) ten times that, with no qualms, on a much much smaller rug that went in the foyer by their front door. I always come home from these visits and look around and sigh. There's some part of me that struggles with the thought that we failed somehow. I know it's not rational, but why does the thought pop up? How has our society managed to ingrain the need for stuff into our mentality, so that we buy things we want instead of only what we need? That the American dream equates to wealth and status? Do I really need more space or pricier appliances to cook good food? Does my ugly backdoor really need to be replaced? I know over-consumption is hurting the environment as we use up finite resources and constantly throw away stuff in order to buy more and newer stuff. And yet . . .

fresh-baked bread, habanero relish, feta cheese draining
Whenever I start to feel bad about what we don't have or what we can't afford, though, all I really need to do is look around and see abundance. We have absolutely no debt, we have shelter, we're happy, and we have food. The sun streams in our many windows, and everywhere you look you see something meaningful: music being played, art being created, sauerkraut fermenting, tea for kombucha brewing, feta cheese draining, habanero relish being canned, fresh bread just out of the oven making the house smell awesome. All of it made by hand. All of it simple but wholesome. All of it made with love. And isn't that what it's all about? 

What We Need Is Here

by Wendell Berry

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.

Update 10/5/14: Rick just forwarded this link to me; an article in the New Republic, titled The New Luddites: Why Former Digital Prophets Are Turning Against Tech. It's an interesting read and delves deeper into Neo-Luddism and the problems with technology than I did. I also recommend reading Jaron Lanier's book, You Are Not a Gadget.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Milk Dilemma

Several years ago, an e-newsletter from Mother Earth News popped into my inbox with an excerpt from the book Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages. I immediately took the book out of our local library, but found that I was unable to actually read it. I did take note of some of the history of milk and decided to be a little more discerning in the quality of the milk, i.e. the ethics of the company I was buying from and organic vs non-organic, but otherwise I loved milk too much and it was such an integral part of my diet that I really didn't want to make changes. But when Rick and I switched to organic milk we quickly discovered that the local supermarkets only sold ultra-pasteurized organic milk, which we found was unsuitable for making homemade yogurt or kefir. We also discovered that organic milk didn't necessarily equate to the cows being treated any better than the cows that give you the non-organic milk choices. Nor were the organic milk companies bastions of morality with high business ethics. The final straw was buying some organic milk that tasted so bad -- sort of like rotten cabbages -- that I decided to contact Organic Valley for an answer. I think we've all tasted some milk gone sour in our lives, but this was like no taste I'd ever experienced in milk past its prime. It was nasty. I received an answer explaining the science behind the way pasteurized milk spoils and the way ultra-pasteurized or ultra-high temperature milk spoils. I was also informed that since organic milk doesn't sell at a fast enough rate, by ultra-pasteurizing the milk it has a longer shelf life and therefore a greater chance of selling. In other words, it's all about the money and profit.

With a little more digging, I discovered that the local brand of milk (Tuscan Farms), the one you find in every store in town from the corner deli to the local supermarkets to the drugstores and gas station quick marts, is owned by Dean Foods. Dean Foods is the largest milk distributor in the country. They also happen to own Horizon Organic. They are constantly in the news for price fixing, strangling competition/monopolizing the market, unethical treatment of cows, abusing power, breaching distribution contracts, and a slew of other complaints including the issue of whether Dean Foods violated anti-trust laws. A recent article outlines some of Dean Foods' business history, although the ultimate point of the article was that buying stock in the company was a good investment choice for 2014, despite all the bad press. Dean Foods also happens to own the Silk soy milk company, among others. My advice is to not buy Horizon organic milk and to find out if your local brand of milk is a Dean Foods company and, if so, avoid buying it.

Fast forward a few years and, with my renewed interest in finding the best local sources for meat, milk, and eggs, I took the Milk book out of the library again. This time I'm finding the information fascinating. (Click on the link for an NPR interview with the author.) In the intervening years, Rick has started fermenting foods including sauerkraut, kim chi, cortido, and making kombucha, hard cider, dandelion wine, mead, and numerous other home brews. We've been dehydrating local produce so we can still eat local vegetables during the winter months when fresh produce is not in season. We have kefir going and kefir smoothies are an almost daily addition to our diet. Homemade yogurt and bread baking have always been part of our routine, but Rick took over the daily sandwich bread making after discovering Jim Lahey's No Knead bread recipe. We make yogurt and kefir cheese often and plan to try our hand at making feta. Rick has also been making tempeh and tofu and I've tried my hand at making seitan.

With our focus turned fully on food (and problems in the food industry, GMOs, organic vs local, etc.), I guess it was time to take another look at milk. The problem with milk, however, is that there is no real local choice. There are no dairy farms left on Long Island. Although I have heard of one spot where you can buy raw milk on Long Island, but the drive (i.e. gas and time) unfortunately isn't worth it. Otherwise you're stuck with whatever the local stores have to sell. And, as I mentioned above, the choice is limited to ultra-pasteurized organic milk or Tuscan Farms, which is owned by Deans Foods. Heck, if the organic milk happens to be Horizon, then they're all Dean Foods products. Rick and I took a drive to both Whole Foods and Wild by Nature to see what was available. Neither store is really a viable choice on a normal day because both are a 30 - 40 minute drive west, which means lots of roadwork and lots of traffic and headache. But we thought we could add a drive to one or the other every few weeks if we found a wider choice of foods, including milk. At Wild by Nature we were surprised to find all the organic milk was ultra-pasteurized, but the biggest choice of milk was still Tuscan Farms. Forgetting the fact that I was determined to avoid any Dean Foods products, I could have driven a mile up the street to CVS (pharmacy) to buy Tuscan Farms milk for less than it was being sold at this large health food store. Whole Foods had a slightly bigger selection, but the shelves were mostly empty of those choices. We did shop for other items in both places, but determined that, for the most part, the drive did not justify the purchases. Milk is one of those things, for us, that you want to run out the door and pick up as you do normal day-to day errands.

So what exactly is ultra-pasteurized milk? Well, pasteurized milk was originally heated to 145º for 30 minutes. Finding the process took too long for profit, dairy farmers switched to HTST (high temperature, short time) pasteurization, heating the milk to 161º for 15 seconds (seconds, not minutes). This then gave way to ultra high heat pasteurization (UHT or ultra-pasteurization), heating the milk to 280º for 2 seconds. Heating milk that high effectively kills off anything good in milk. It's pretty much useless, if you ask me. Ultra-pasteurizing milk denatures the whey protein. From the Livestrong site: "The University of Minnesota reports that pasteurized milk loses 3 to 4 percent thiamin, less than 5 percent vitamin E and less than 10 percent of biotin during the heating process.  . . . the denaturation of milk's whey proteins through pasteurization can decrease how well your body absorbs the milk's vitamin B12. Ultra-pasteurization further degrades these nutrients." Organic Valley has an explanation on their site of the different pasteurization processes, but makes UHT milk sound like the preferable choice, one everyone should make, without explaining what it actually does to the milk and the fact that you can't make homemade yogurt, kefir, or cheese from UHT milk. They offer both HTST and UHT milk, and usually get good ratings for their business ethics and treatment of their cows, but, like any large scale company, need to make a profit and so make the UHT choice sound wholesome. Stores invariably buy the UHT milk, too, for the longer shelf life. Therefore, 99% of the organic milk you find on store shelves is going to be ultra-pasteurized/UHT milk. For more reading on the harmful aspects of UHT milk head over to the Weston Price Foundation's Web site. The real bottom line on UHT milk is not that it kills more harmful bacteria and is therefore better for you, but that it extends the shelf life of the product and therefore the profit of the companies. It's a marketing tool for a product that doesn't even need to be, nor was historically, part of our daily diet. Also, unfortunately, most consumers like the longer shelf life without understanding the health implications.

Which brings me to the hardest part of all of this -- discovering the fact that milk as we think of it here in the U.S. has not been part of the human diet in any culture, really, ever. Read the book or do the research and you'll discover that unsoured liquid milk was only occasionally had fresh from the source, and that cow's milk was never really the only choice, or even the first choice, for milk. Historically, milk was soured (fermented). Depending on geography, it was made into yogurt, kefir, kumys, buttermilk, cheese, etc. In other words, it was made into something that would store. Just as vegetables were fermented, milk was, too. It wasn't until more recent history that the idea of "fresh" unsoured liquid milk was introduced into the diet. In fact, it seems that unsoured liquid milk didn't become popular until the 1830s in America, and pretty much snowballed from there until it ended up where it is today, changing small dairy farms to large operations and going from raw to ultra-pasteurized. All in a relatively short span of time in the scheme of things. In the process, we've lost sight of the fact that milk, like so many other foods, was historically a soured fermented product that was much better for us than the form we know it in today.

My conclusions are far from complete, but as of this post the best choice for milk that I can find right here in town is Mountainside Farms, a company that seems to bridge the gap between the large scale conventional dairies of today (i.e. all the Dean Foods products) and the organic ultra-pasteurized milk choices on all the shelves. An added bonus is that their milk is from small farms within a few hours of where we live, making it about as local as I can get. At least everything I've read about the company makes it seem as if they run an ethical business and their farmers treat their cows well. Hopefully this is true. Maybe one day the grocery store will offer a non-UHT organic milk choice (I've asked), or a small scale dairy farm will start up nearby, but it hasn't happened yet. My other goal is to lessen the amount of actual unsoured liquid milk I use. The only way I really use "regular old milk" is in my coffee, though, and drinking coffee black doesn't exactly appeal to me. Since I'm still going to be buying quite a lot of milk in order to continue making my own yogurt and kefir and some cheeses, maybe it isn't so bad to throw a bit into my coffee??? Soy milk is not an option. Don't even get me going on the subject of soy. (We stick to only eating fermented soy also, with the exception of small amounts of homemade tofu in some meals.) Almond milk seems quite expensive, and I'm not sure it can "smooth" the coffee down enough to give it that same creaminess and ahhhhhh taste sensation that milk does. So, the research continues. I'm pretty excited to start making feta cheese and culturing and using buttermilk. Maybe I'll find a source of milk that allows me to skim the cream off for my coffee.

Edited on October 3, 2014: Unfortunately I could never get consistent results when making yogurt and cheese using Mountainside Farms milk. It often failed to set. As of now, we have gone back to using Tuscan Farms milk until another choice becomes available.