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The battle against Big Food is fought one meal at a time

Steak salad with onion confit Credit: Ronald Holden

At precisely noon one morning last week, in front of the U-District outpost of Trader Joe’s, a platoon of demonstrators in bright white HazMat suits unfurled a banner that read “Stop Selling Unlabeled GMOs.” The banner belongs to the Organic Consumers Association, whose political director, Alexis Baden-Mayer, traveled from Washington, D.C., to oversee the protest against unlabeled, non-organic processed foods made with Genetically Modified Organisms.

“GMOs Gotta Go,” the demonstrators chanted, tossing an assortment of packaged foods into a plastic trash can.

Inside the store, a manager in a Hawaiian shirt set the ground rules. “We don’t allow filming inside, we don’t use GMOs in our private-label products.” Unperturbed, Baden-Mayer led a couple of reporters around the stores. “These power bars,” she said, “contain high-fructose corn syrup, not labeled as containing GMOs.”

Trader Joe’s, for its part, makes no claim that its shelves are free of GMO-enhanced products, and one wonders, on behalf of its management, what has brought on this sudden wrath of anti-GMO activists. In fact, the path of protest sponsorship runs from the Organic Consumers Association to the United Food & Commercial Works Union in the nation’s capital to its Local 21 in Seattle, where it claims to be the state’s largest private-sector union.

It doesn’t seem to be news anymore that GMOs are essential to the business model of Big Food, so this might be considered a rear-guard action. Not that Trader Joe’s, which takes pains to appear politically correct, should be immune from criticism. Hawaiian shirts and nautical bonhomie aside, the chain is owned by a reclusive, hardnosed, ultra-wealthy German businessman, Karl Albrecht. (What? You didn’t know? You thought all those proprietary brands come from lovable, benevolent elves?)

Even though they continue to wrap their produce in layers of plastic, Trader Joe’s did announce earlier this year that it’s going sustainable, at least as far as its seafood is concerned, and will no longer sell Orange Roughy or Chilean Sea Bass after 2012. If memory serves, it’s all frozen at any rate.

The protestors eventually dispersed, and the sidewalk fiddler serenaded the remaining shoppers with a rendition of “Memories” from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Cats.”

But the glorious food revolution isn’t fought on a single front.

There’s a new book, Force of Nature, about the “greening” of Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer. A case study, if you will, of a corporation that changed its culture for the better once its CEO realized that doing the right thing would actually be profitable as well as responsible. We’ll leave for another day the argument that Wal-Mart’s business model has done great harm to the nation’s independent businesses over the years. For the moment, let’s applaud them for taking a stand in favor of sustainability and health.

A lot of companies are still trying to fake it. A recent New York Times article, “Foods with Benefits,” examines a panoply of packaged food products that claim to produce better health. Pure poppycock. Eating Activa yogurt doesn’t eliminate indigestion; drinking Pom Wonderful doesn’t “cheat death.” These health claims are simply part of Big Food’s campaign to sell more stuff, from “healthy” breakfast cereal to “healthy” mac & cheese. It works because the audience is gullible.

“The majority of American consumers really believe in the concept that certain foods provide benefits that go beyond basic nutrition or reduce the risk of disease,” says a spokesman for the International Food Information Council, an outfit financed by (you guessed it) the food industry itself.

Just as many American consumers have often been persuaded to vote against their best interests, they can almost as easily be persuaded to eat against their best interests by an army of hucksters and charlatans. Tax cuts for the rich may be iniquitous economics, but eating Quaker Oats for a healthy heart is no less pernicious medicine.

Which brings us to Tselani Richmond, a Paris-trained, Portland-based chef. She was hired a few years back by Jonathan Hensley, the then-rotund CEO of Regence Blue Shield, to help develop a program that would encourage better eating by his policy-holders. “We didn’t want to be a company that just looked after sick people,” Hensley explains, in what has become a mantra for HMO executives. 

Tse (pronounced “Say”) was perfect. Telegenic and down-to-earth, she travels the northwest giving hands-on cooking classes and shooting how-to-cook videos. 

Why bother? Because, Tse says, the battle against Big Food is fought one meal at a time, and if you don’t have the right weapons (knowledge, equipment, skill), you’ll be overwhelmed.

Earlier this month, for example, a group of media and public-affairs types assembled at Sur La Table’s teaching kitchen in Kirkland and learned how to hold an onion for safe and easy slicing (make a “claw” with your left hand to keep the onion steady and guide the knife); how to sauté mushrooms (no oil, no salt); how to sear a steak (hot pan, hot oil, no peeking for two minutes, don’t crowd the meat, let it rest for 10 minutes before cutting); how to make vinaigrette (tablespoon of mustard, tablespoon of vinegar, add pinches of salt & pepper before drizzling in oil, then whisk vigorously). 

Buy fresh, buy seasonal — they’re watchwords for Chef Tse, as they should be for anyone who wants to eat healthy food. Better still: Avoid buying food in boxes, bags, or cans. They’re full of unhealthy chemical preservatives. (As for that staple of American home cooking, frozen peas? Quite possibly from China.) Here’s another advantage of “real food,” as Michael Pollan calls it: It’s actually harder to eat. Eating so-called “easy-to-eat” boxed food, with its artificially creamy texture, makes it all-too-easy to overeat. You feel full  with a meal of real food because you have to chew! 

The menu Tse oversaw: vichyssoise (leeks, potatoes) with a dash of cream and a few sautéed scallops; sliced top sirloin steak with sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions over organic greens with crumbled blue cheese; frozen orange mousse with fresh strawberries. Three courses that required no particularly advanced skills, techniques or equipment (beyond an immersion blender), ready in under an hour, incredibly tasty, that added up to barely 700 calories. (A typical Cheesecake Factory entree: 2,200; recommended total daily count for American males: 2,000.) 

Regence’s Hensley has lost a lot of weight since he contracted with Chef Tse. More power to him, and to the rest of us as well. We don’t need to “kick it up a notch,” we need to get off the couch, turn off that pie-as-entertainment channel, and get our butts down to the farmers market. Or to “Be Well Washington,” a week of health-oriented local events from June 13-18. Regence is sponsoring the Healthy Cooking demonstrations.

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