SFN Day 3: Taste of Excellence

by | Aug 31, 2008

I spent Day 3 of Slow Food Nation at the a.m Taste Pavilion at Fort Mason. My day began at 11am as I sat down to the first Green Kitchen session, which was a cooking demonstration from chef Traci Des Jardins (see pic) of Jardinere, Acme Chop House and Mijita. The idea behind the Green Kitchen series is to provide low-budget YouTube videos (in conjunction with NPR) of simple recipes by expert chefs to de-mystify the art of cooking. I will post a link when the videos are available.

Let’s start by making it clear that Des Jardins is a one of my culinary heroes, and Jardinere is one of my favorite restaurants. To give you an idea, in 2005 she whooped Mario Batali on Iron Chef. Today she demonstrated a simple Italian-style salsa verde, which was actually more like a gremolata than your traditional Mexican salsa verde (tomatillo-based). She started by mashing garlic, anchovies and capers with a mortar and pestle, then chopped in shallots and added olive oil. She then finely chopped Italian parsley, chervil and tarragon, topped it off with salt, pepper and lemon zest. The salsa verde was served on a slice of hard boiled egg with a sprinkle of seasoned bread crumbs. Delicious!!
My day only got better from there. I was given a ticket with “Slow Dough” that I could exchange for tastings at the various booths. Represented were Beer, Bread, Charcuterie, Cheese, Chocolate, Coffee, Fish, Honey & Preserves, Ice Cream, Native Foods, Olive Oil, Pickles & Chutney, Spirits, Tea and Wine. As you can imagine I could not get through them all. But it was not for lack of effort, I can assure you.
I started at the fish station (I already had anchovie breath) and was given three amazing tastings of cold seafood salads. In retrospect I probably should not have finished all three of them, but they were so good I could not resist and I had no idea what I was in store for later.
Completely satisfied for the moment, I realized I had better devise an attack plan or I would either run out of room in my stomach or Slow Dough before I was ready. I decided to stick with the savory flavors and move my way to more sweeter fare, so my next stop was charcuterie. Three different cured, salty meats that melted in my mouth and I knew I was in for a long, delicious day.
Full of meat, I realized I needed a little help digesting or I would never make it through the entire four hours. I stopped at the wine pavilion and picked up a glass of nice rose to cut the heaviness and salt. Feeling better I was ready to start on carbohydrates and made my way to the pizza pavilion. The line was long, which was perfect. I sipped my wine, made a few friends and by the time I got to the front I was ready for a smallish (thank God!) slice of sausage and rapini pizza. It was a bit spicy and my glass was empty so I went back to the wine pavilion to wash it down with a fantastic grenache from Quivira (2006) in Dry Creek Valley.
No doubt I was approaching full, but I was not about to give up. While in line for pizza I had overheard a discussion about the pickle station. The guy in front of me was actually munching on a plate of them and oohing and ahhing after every bite. Pickles are not heavy but are still on the savory side, so when I was ready I headed straight there.
Pickles! Who knew there could be so many and they could be so good?! I am so unfamiliar with pickles and tried so many varieties that I do not know where to begin with my descriptions. Suffice to say they were amazing and my eyes were opened to a new world. While I was enjoying an incredibly crisp pickle-bite from Georgia, I walked to a new counter and started listening in on the conversation next to me hoping to learn about what I would enjoy next. When I looked a little closer I realized I was standing right next to Elizabeth Faulkner from Citizen Cake! I told her she was my hero and she was nice enough to chat and take her picture with me. She also informed me that Citizen Cake had provided some cupcakes for the event that were at the honey and preserves station, so that was my next stop.
The quarter-sized honey cupcake with pistachio was one of the most delectable bites of cake I have ever had. I have never seen these at Citizen Cake, but maybe they are on the menu now? I guess I will have to go check. I know it’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.
Approaching capacity, I realized I was on the home stretch. Next up: gelato. I think this was my least favorite stop in the Taste Pavilion. Sure it was pretty good, but I lived in Tuscany for three months so I am kind of a tough critic of gelato. Then again, maybe it is just because I was so full. My flight included samples of Scharffen berger chocolate, molasses and pistachio gelatos. I really thought I would like them more.
To my dismay, I still had half of my Slow Dough left after gelato. How was I going to get through this? Coffee! The coffee pavilion was remarkable. Two lines led to either an espresso bar or a sampling of three different drip coffees. Each barista offered details of the origin and growing practices of each bean, truly some of the best coffees I have ever tasted (noticing a trend here?). I think the El Salvadoran espresso from Counter Culture Coffee was my favorite.
I had more Slow Dough, but I knew I was done. Cheese and olive oil tastings were very tempting, but just too heavy for me to enjoy in my state. Beer was out of the question. I went back to the wine station and had one more flight to round off the afternoon. Yet as full as I was, I never wanted to leave.
In my opinion, Slow Food Nation was a triumph of taste, culture and awareness. I encourage all of you to participate in the coming years.

SFN Day 2: Alice in Wonderland

by | Aug 30, 2008

I just returned from my second day at Slow Food Nation and it was spectacular! The sun was shining, the Market was bustling, people were smiling and I ate the most amazing sausage EVER from Fatted Calf (and an amazing pluot popsicle from Bi-Rite Creamery–it was an indulgent day).

I must confess that early in the morning I could not resist making a trip to the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market because I remembered from the previous day that the Slow Food Market did not have Padrones (maybe I should start a 12-step program?). The wonderful woman at Happy Quail Farms told me they were in fact asked to be at Slow Food, but refused because they are just too small a farm to handle the load. Totally understandable.

The late morning I spent roaming the Victory Garden, eating with my friends and even making some new ones. At around 11:30 a.m. I accidentally bumped into Alice Waters and mayor Gavin Newsom doing a spot for 60 Minutes. It was really exciting! Keep your eyes open for me in my bright orange, Slow Food Nation t-shirt….

Later in the afternoon I attended the Food for Thought session “Edible Education,” presented by Alice herself, Van Jones, Founder and President of Green For All, Craig McNamara, President and Founder of the Center for Land-Based learning, and Josh Viertel, Director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project. The session was moderated by Katrina Heron, director of the Chez Panisse Foundation. Sadly, Dr. Tony Recasner of Green Charter and New Orleans Charter Middle schools was unable to attend the session as scheduled because of the evacuation status in New Orleans due to Hurricane Gustav.

The discussion focused on ways of building a curriculum of food and health into public schools. According to Waters, we all eat every day, and our food choices impact our health, the environment and our culture. She believes we must install a system to teach kids to make the right decisions when choosing what to eat, which means teaching a new set of values. The goal is to “bring children into a new relationship with food through pleasure.”

Panelists shared a number of inspiring success stories and also addressed some of the difficulties that still need to be overcome. There was general agreement that these issues must be addressed at the national level, but that change must first start at the local level. From my vantage point, however, they seemed to be at a loss for how to close this gap in a practical way. Despite this, the conversation was inspiring and raised a lot of critical issues facing the health of our youth, our country and our planet.

Tomorrow I will be visiting the Taste Pavilions and I hope to see many of you there!

What do you think of Slow Food Nation so far?

Slow Food Nation: Day 1

by | Aug 29, 2008

Today was the kick off of Slow Food Nation, the largest celebration of food in American history.

For many, the day began with the commencement of the Food For Thought seminar series at Herbst Theater. I would have loved to attend the talks, but the ones I was most interested in were sold out before I managed to get tickets. But from what I heard as people were leaving, the lectures were inspiring and the speakers did a fantastic job articulating the environmental and health challenges facing our nation and how Slow Food addresses these concerns. I have a ticket for tomorrow’s seminar, “Edible Education,” hosted by Alice Waters. Stay tuned to hear what I learn.

Today was also the first of three days of the Slow Food Market Place at Civic Center Plaza. The Market Place features a farmers market, Slow on the Go and the Slow Food Victory Garden (see pic). The Market hosts dozens of local farms and artisan vendors selling the best of what the season has to offer. The booths were small, but well attended. Samples of everything were available and the sense of community in the air was almost tangible. While not quite matching the bountiful selection of the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, the exquisite quality of the products and the spectacle of the event definitely makes this a must-do trip this weekend.

Nearby, Slow on the Go is a collection of restaurants and vendors selling sustainable prepared food, demonstrating that you can live Slow even when you are in a hurry. The vendors there represent a veritable all-star cast (The Slanted Door, Vik’s Chaat Corner, Fatted Calf, Blue Bottle Coffee, Bi-Rite Creamery, to name a few) and the options were beyond delicious and relatively affordable.

At the center of everything stood the Victory Garden, to “herald the era of self-sufficiency .” Though ornamental, the garden is a symbol of what Slow Food represents. There is an inextricable connection between us, our food, the soil and ultimately our planet. While wandering the grounds, Soap Box talks given by various “intellectuals of the earth” on a myriad of topics share ideas and concerns for our health and our food. These events are all free and open to the public.

As mentioned above, tomorrow I will be back at the Market and at the Food for Thought seminar. Sunday I will head to Fort Mason for the Taste Pavilion. I only wish I had time to attend everything, especially the Slow Food Rocks music festival and the various dinners occurring at my favorite restaurants around the city.

Slow Food memberships are discounted at the event (only $15 for students!), so if you were considering joining now is the time. T-shirts are available for $20.

Come to the table!

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Staying Healthy on a Student’s Schedule

by | Aug 28, 2008

Students are notoriously short on time. So too are doctors, nurses, residents, professors and, for that matter, just about everyone I know. And when time is limited, the last thing we are worried about is what and when we are going to eat or hit the gym. But neglecting our health is not a winning strategy in the long-term. Here are ten tips for staying healthy year-round on your busy schedule:

  1. Shop on weekends. It is impossible to cook yourself a healthy meal if you do not have any healthy food in your house. Make it non-negotiable to make your weekend grocery and farmers’ market trip. This will ensure that you always have fresh, healthy food at home that can be prepared quickly.
  2. Stock frozen vegetables. Though frozen vegetables do not always (but sometimes do) taste as good as fresh ones, they are just as healthy and can be stored indefinitely. They are also already cut up, which means a meal can be as easy as heating a pan with olive oil, opening a package and pouring it in the pan. A sprinkle of salt, pepper and fresh herbs and you have the basis for a quick, healthy meal.
  3. Cook grains in large batches. This is one to live by. Whole grains (and legumes) take a while to cook, I admit. But prepare a large batch (on weekends), wrap individual servings in plastic wrap and store them in the freezer. To thaw run under warm water briefly to loosen and remove plastic, put the frozen grain ball on a plate and microwave, partially-covered for one minute. This produces rice almost as good as when first cooked.
  4. Roast vegetables and meats. Roasting is one of the most delicious ways to cook vegetables and meat. It takes some time but can be done in large batches with a little olive oil, herbs, salt and pepper, and stores well in the refrigerator for 3-5 days. Buying whole chickens also saves money. Put a few scoops of vegetables and chicken slices in the microwave next to your steaming pile of brown rice for a fast, delicious meal.
  5. Carry a healthy snack. You probably know how easy it is to be unexpectedly held up somewhere for hours without a proper meal, and in times like these it is impossible to break away and cook yourself dinner in the corner or hallway. Have a bag of nuts or dried/fresh fruit on you at all times to ensure you do not have to rely on the vending machine.
  6. Stock cans of soup. Canned soup is far from culinary brilliance, but it is frequently healthy. There are always reasons you cannot cook yourself a fresh dinner, but you can spare yourself a trip to the drive-thru if you have soup at home. Look for cans that have ingredients you recognize and less than ten grams of sugar. Also check the serving size.
  7. Take the stairs. Whether you have time to go to the gym or not, the stairs are a great way to get free exercise. Elevators are not always faster and stairs are not as bad as you think. For most people, the barrier to taking the stairs is more mental than physical.
  8. Subscribe to a CSA. CSA or Community-supported Agriculture is a program where a person commits to purchasing a weekly box of fresh, seasonal produce from a specific local farm. Boxes can usually be customized to the size and frequency of your needs, so you can get as much or little as you can handle. Such an arrangement ensures that you always have high-quality healthy food in the house, consume a diverse assortment of seasonal fruits and vegetables and learn to cook things you have never heard of. It is also great for the environment and community. Everyone is a winner!
  9. Carry water. Water is important, and you would be surprised at how often you mistake thirst for hunger and end up with a salty bag of chips instead of a cool glass of water. Carry a water bottle with you at all times and drink from it regularly.
  10. Get moving. The gym and stairs are not the only ways to get exercise. If you are having trouble squeezing in a workout, it is critical that you find a bunch of little ways to keep moving. Walking or biking to work is an excellent way to combat a sedentary job. You would be surprised at how little extra time and energy this takes, and it is almost certainly quicker than a trip to the gym. It is also a good idea to embrace the calls of manual labor: clean your room, wash your car, do the dishes. You need to do these things anyway, so you may as well burn some calories in the process.

This article is also available at:

http://synapse.ucsf.edu/articles/2008/August/stayinghealthy.html

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Slow Food Nation This Weekend

by | Aug 27, 2008

This weekend, August 29 – September 1, San Francisco will be host to the first annual Slow Food Nation event.

Slow Food is a movement that began in Italy in the late 1980s in response to the growing prevalence of fast food. According to their mission statement, Slow Food “envisions a world in which all people have access to food that is good for them, good for the people who grow it and good for the planet.” Thus the movement seeks to preserve cultural cuisines and encourage responsible, sustainable and local food production.

Slow Food USA was founded by local culinary guru Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley. This weekend’s event “is dedicated to creating a framework for deeper environmental connection to our food and aims to inspire and empower Americans to build a food system that is sustainable, healthy and delicious.”

Spanning four days, Slow Food Nation is literally all over the place with its ambition. Events range from inspirational talks at Herbst Theater by food policy big shots like Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan, to Taste Pavilions featuring local artisans at Fort Mason, to dining events at dozens of local restaurants, to a three day farmers’ market at Civic Center Plaza. There will also be a two-day outdoor music festival at Fort Mason, as well as organized art events, hikes and farm tours. All this is crowned by the Slow Food Nation Victory Garden that has been planted in front of City Hall.

Slow Food Nation’s city takeover is a bit overwhelming I admit, but it seems like there should be something for everyone. I will be attending several of the events and I hope to see many of you there!

Poll Results: When is healthy eating the most difficult?

by | Aug 21, 2008

Thanks to everyone who voted in this week’s poll. Here are the results:

Breakfast 0%
Lunch 60%
Dinner 40%
Snack 0%
All Day 0%
Never 0%

n = 10

Lunch! When I first saw these results I must say I was a bit surprised. For me lunch is routine and, because I’m me, it is a healthy one. Lunch is almost the same every day, so I have tuned it to be an automatic contribution to my healthy lifestyle.

In my world (I didn’t vote), dinner is the most difficult meal because it is the most likely to be laced with the element of surprise. I usually only eat out at dinner because when friends want to get together, after work is typically the most convenient time. But that’s me and I do not go out very often.

I would be willing to wager that those of you who answered lunch did so because you go out for lunch almost every day. Is this true?

I am curious to know how much of this decision is need-based (i.e., there is no refrigerator, microwave, sink or lunch space where you work) versus how much is office culture (i.e., everyone goes out for lunch, you cannot be expected to sit alone with your salad)? Or are you all just too busy to find a healthy lunch and end up at the closest, quickest food option available (rarely the healthiest)?

Please enlighten me by posting comments about your lunching habits.

Stay tuned for advice on how to re-structure lunch to actually contribute to your healthy eating.

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Questioning Journalism

by | Aug 19, 2008

Two news media reports came out today that are worth discussing. With this post I hope to show you that it is not always prudent to trust your health to the advice of journalists. The reason? They are trained to sell articles, not to make you healthy.

In the first story, CNN reports that organic food is not more nutritious than conventionally grown food. This is partially true, but not entirely. The headline is actually very misleading because the implication is that the way food is produced does not influence its nutrient levels, which is false.

The problem begins when the author claims that the study “is the first to assess the nutritional value of organic fruit and vegetables.” Seriously? Do you really believe no one has ever thought of this before?

Of course this has been tested, and there is ample evidence that the way food is grown has a tremendous impact on its nutritional quality. It is unclear to me why this statement is made, but it must be referring to something other than the hundreds of studies published on the nutritional value of organic foods.

The scientific literature on the nutrient content of fruits and vegetables strongly suggests that the health of the soil in which a plant is grown and the season of harvest are the best indicators of nutritional value. Soil health is a complex measurement (as is human health, which we’ll get to in a minute). In general, farms that have a variety of different crops tend to have healthier soil than mono-cultures with only one crop (e.g. giant corn or soybean fields). It has already been established that organic mono-cultures have no more nutritional value than conventional mono-cultures. This is not news.

On the other hand, smaller farms with diversified crops grow much more nutritious produce than large production mono-cultures. Not surprisingly, these farms tend to be the organic farms (though they are not always certified). It is therefore true that “organic” versus “conventional” is something of an artificial distinction and is not a guarantee of a difference in nutritional value. However it is also true that produce purchased from farmers’ markets that feature small, local farms is almost certainly more nutritious than anything you buy (organic or not) at a regular grocery store.

In this experiment all the plots had similar soil, so you would expect there to be no nutritional difference. This is what the researchers found.

Another thing to consider is that in this experiment the scientists are measuring nutrient retention (how many nutrients come out in urine and feces) in rats after being fed dried vegetables grown with either low-nutrient organic fertilizer, low-nutrient conventional fertilizer or high-nutrient conventional fertilizer. So, they do not measure nutrients directly from fresh vegetables, nor do they measure nutrient availability in humans, nor do they test organic food that has been grown in high-quality soil.

Is it just me or are you already starting to feel a little less enlightened?

Also remember that the study does not address the amount of chemicals and pesticides found in rats after consuming this food. However, several studies have found a correlation between conventional agriculture and pesticides in the body. This is yet another reason to consider buying organic agriculture products.

Now consider the headline: “Study: Organic food not more nutritional.” Do you think this is a fair assessment of the costs and benefits of buying organic?

Do not be fooled by CNN’s sensationalism. How food is grown can affect its nutrient content and it is worth it to buy local, organic produce.

That being said, it is far better to eat any vegetables than none at all.

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The second misleading article is in the New York Times. The main point of the story is that body mass is not a good predictor of health, with the headline reading “Better to be fat and fit than skinny and unfit.” Indeed there may be some evidence that this statement is true, but it undermines the indisputable fact that it is best to be both skinny and fit.

The study in question uses cardiovascular risk factor measures to determine “metabolic health.” Half of the overweight individuals and a third of the obese individuals were considered metabolically healthy by the researchers. Additionally, one quarter of individuals of “healthy weight” had cardiovascular risk factors.

So what the headline should have read is: “It’s better to be fit than unfit.” The writer of the article, Tara Parker-Pope, embellishes this point with the observation that being fit can be achieved at numerous different weights and brushes aside the fact that you are far more likely to be healthy if you are not overweight.

So far this is not so bad, right? Indeed it is better to be fit, and Parker-Pope goes on to argue that being fit is the best predictor of health. Okay, but what about the weight?

Evidence is abundant that being overweight or obese increases risk for a number of different diseases, not just heart disease. Fat is an endocrine organ and more fat can significantly alter hormone levels that make you susceptible to cancer and other diseases. Breast cancer is particularly prevalent among obese women. Heavier people are also more likely to have arthritis then normal weight individuals and there is a correlation between body composition and dementia risk. None of these other diseases are mentioned in the article.

It is also important to remember that calorie restriction (minimal calories with adequate nutrition) is the single most reliable way to slow the aging process and reduce diseases of all kinds. Abundant evidence has proven that overweight people eat more than slim people (though they frequently don’t know it), suggesting that their risk of age-related disease increases with the amount they eat.

Parker-Pope observes, “Part of the problem may be our skewed perception of what it means to be overweight.” I agree with this statement, but not in the way she means it. In my opinion, articles like this give people a false impression that being overweight is not a problem, when in fact it is one of the most serious risk factors for almost every disease. I think our perception is being skewed to the point that extra body fat is no longer considered dangerous.

To point, last year at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, Harvard scientist Dr. Walter Willett predicted that obesity would soon overtake smoking as the number one cause of cancer. Critics say that comments like these are unwarranted and only serve to make overweight people feel inferior. However, the evidence is too strong for me to believe this is a superficial argument about looks or laziness. The point is not to blame people for their health problems, but rather to help those people find ways to overcome them.

I would love to know your opinion on any of these issues.

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Farmers’ Market Update

by | Aug 16, 2008

Picture from Green Gulch Farm this morning at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market.

Today’s purchases include:

  • Pimientos de Padron
  • Assorted hot chilies
  • Mediterranean cucumbers
  • Mayacoba heirloom beans
  • Rainbow chard
  • Pullet eggs
  • Summer squash
  • Flavor King pluots
  • Assorted peaches, nectarines
  • Blackberries
  • Assorted eggplant
  • Heirloom tomatoes
  • Early girl tomatoes

From Valencia Farmers Market:

  • leeks
  • basil
  • mint
  • avocado

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Diet vs Exercise

by | Aug 15, 2008

Two interesting studies were published in the International Journal of Obesity this week. The first one examined how energy expenditure has changed in North America and Europe since the 1980s. It is generally assumed that the obesity epidemic is fueled partly by increased food intake and partly by a more sedentary lifestyle, but this assumption remains largely unproven. The present study aimed to directly measure energy expenditure, beginning when the technology to do so was developed (1980s).

Using three independent methods, the researchers show that energy expenditure has not decreased over the past two decades. In fact, people now use slightly more calories each day than we used to. But the authors of the study are quick to point out that energy expenditure and overall motor activity are not the same thing. This becomes clear in the second paper, which has one author in common with the first.

In the next study, scientists measured the correlation between motor activity and body composition (body fat %). They report that indeed higher body fat percentage is correlated with decreased locomotion. If you look closely, this does not contradict the first paper.

The difference between the two studies is that one measures locomotion (movement) and the other measures energy expenditure directly, independent of movement. Locomotion is related to total energy expenditure, but the relationship is highly dependent on the body mass of the individual. To put it plainly, bigger people use more energy to do the same activity as smaller people. So while it is clear that obesity is associated with moving less, these individuals are generally burning the same number of calories as leaner individuals who move more.

Even more telling is that the amount of energy people use in North America and Europe is similar to the amount used by native, indigenous populations and also animals in the wild. This makes it very difficult to argue that decreased energy expenditure is contributing to the obesity epidemic. So what is truly fascinating about these two papers is the conclusion that can be drawn about the cause of obesity: we are eating too much.

Evidence is mounting that people in Western cultures are vastly underestimating their energy intake, which is causing a tremendous rise in obesity prevalence. Based on this information it seems like dietary habits should be the first point of intervention if we want to reverse this trend.

Thoughts?

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Poll Results: How many meals do you eat in a restaurant each week (including takeout)?

by | Aug 14, 2008

Thanks to everyone who voted in this week’s poll. Here are the results:

<2:>7: 11%

n = 9

It looks like most of you eat out less than four times per week (77%), and I’m really happy to see that so many of you eat out less than twice. It is much more difficult to eat healthfully if you are eating out on a regular basis.

Why?

First, portion sizes at restaurants tend to be much, much larger than any person needs to eat. This is a problem because most people will eat whatever they are served, using environmental cues (like the amount of food you are given) to decided when to stop eating. So the first problem is too many calories.

Second, restaurants usually care more about your taste buds than your cancer risk. This is fine of course, but it means that even “healthy” foods like vegetables will frequently be accompanied by butter, cream, cheese or some other rich condiment to make them taste better. Such practices would not be a problem (in fact, this is one of the reasons restaurants can be so fun) if reason number one weren’t true. Having a little butter or cheese isn’t an issue. It is when they are served in giant, American-sized portions that you should start to worry.

This is one of the sad truths about how American life has evolved, that somehow along the way we lost the eating culture of our ancestors and it is now culturally acceptable to gorge ourselves on rich, decadent foods. It is as though we have forgotten why these foods were considered special to begin with.

In my experience, it is best to keep restaurant attendance to a minimum because the culture is too hard to fight. That being said, I absolutely love restaurants and revel in the opportunity to be dazzled by a culinary artist. For this reason I try to make restaurants a rare treat and prefer those that are exquisite (paying more money for a better experience).

But even I find myself in more casual dining venues on occasion. At these times I find the best option is to share. One appetizer and one entree is generally enough for me (tiny female) and a high-metabolism male. This is definitely a break from our cultural norm, but to be healthy it is exactly our culture–not our will power–that needs a makeover.

What is your opinion on American restaurants and food culture?