December 29, 2007

Just got back from Italy

I just got back from 10 days in Italy, and for the first time I ate in the homes of Italians...real Italians. And, of course, we ate in many great Italian restaurants.

I'll spend some time later telling you about all the meals and my observations, but the first thing I must mention is AutoGrill.

It's fast and it's food on the highway. But it's nothing like American fast food.

Imagine going into a great gourmet Italian sausage and cheese shoppe. And there you also find wine, bread, salads and soups, steaming hot foods and of course, fresh pasta. Sandwiches and espresso. Lots of espresso. But it's not on Fifth Avenue, or even Arthur Avenue. It's not on Rodeo Drive or on the Miracle Mile. It's on the truck-laden freeway (or autostrata, in Italian).

Since we drove nearly 1,000 miles, we had a lot of opportunities to gas up and eat up at AutoGrills, the truck and car stop along Italy's main highways. AutoGrill -- the world's biggest provider of food and beverages for travellers in the world -- is celebrating 30 years of great fast food.

Their business model proves you can have fresh pasta, paninis, grilled vegetables, antipasto and specialty foods, cheese, meats, beer and wine all in a fast food restaurant/shop. It's good and it's fresh and it's healthy.

Frank Bruni a year ago expressed my sentiments so well about the Autogrill:

It’s one of the many questions that keep flitting through my mind as I flit through Italy, eating and then eating some more.

Here are others: why do my American friends and I love the Autogrill so much? Why am I bummed when I’m on an Italian highway that isn’t a veritable autostrada and doesn’t have an official Autogrill, and why do I find myself stopping at the Autogrill more often than I need to stop for food and fuel?

The Autogrill is what Italy has in place of the oddball combination of fast food restaurants under one roof that we have at Jersey Turnpike rest stops. In that way the Autogrill isn’t a bad metaphor for differences between the Italian approach to food and the American approach. The Autogrill doesn’t throw a cacophony of options at you. It sticks with the tried and true: usually a bit of pizza and a bunch of panini, or sandwiches, that tend to showcase a few familiar and high-quality ingredients: prosciutto crudo, arugula, mozzarella, etc.
There's nothing like Autogrill pizza on the autostrada driving at 140 down to relatives in Basilicata. A little crisp dough. A touch of sun-kissed tomatoes. And a sliver of melted milky-white mozzarella. A bit of heaven in the cool dry mountains of the Potenza province.

Read what others have to say about the Autogrill.
I was a vegetarian when I was in Italy, and became completely obsessed with the Autogrill’s spinach pesto sandwiches. I still think about them. Unbelievably delicious.
  • — Posted by Kate

Related to the Italian approach to fast food, my wife and I had pizza and a simple salad at the Venice Airport food counter that in quality and freshness surpasses 90% of similar fare in so-called “real” restaurants here in the U.S.

— Posted by Fred

Autogrills rock!!!! I was in shock the first time I walked, bleary-eyed from the NY/Rome flight, into an Autogrill. And now I wish I could go to one right now!!!!

— Posted by Freddi


December 28, 2007

Ten Reasons to Buy Local Food

In the spirit of the New Year and those ubiquitous top ten lists, here's Pinch My Salt blogger, Nicole, Top Ten Reasons to Buy Local Food:

1. Local food tastes better — Food imported from far away is older, has traveled on trucks or planes, and sat in warehouses before it finally gets to you."


December 20, 2007

Congress tells the Bush administration to stop the false food claims

It's bad enough that this Bush administration is fighting every step of the way putting calorie information on menus. But it's reprehensible that three years ago it quietly allowed unscientific health claims on food products.

Congress finally has put a stop to this.

From CSPI:

WASHINGTON—The just-passed omnibus spending bill urges the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) not to permit so-called “qualified health claims” for foods until a Government Accountability Office report on the controversial program is completed. The step, first approved by the House of Representatives last August, has prompted the FDA to announce today that it is commencing a scientific review of several health claims previously permitted by the agency. The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest welcomed the move.

Qualified health claims are often based on tenuous scientific evidence and are informally reviewed, but not officially approved by the FDA. They have triggered numerous misleading labels and advertisements ranging from claims about green tea and cancer to statements that adding almonds to desserts can reduce the risk of heart disease.

The FDA, since 1993, mandated that health claims be based on “significant scientific agreement” and required companies to obtain formal approval. However, under pressure from the Bush Administration and the food industry, the FDA reversed course in 2003 and began allowing food companies to make claims based on much weaker evidence.

A coalition of medical, health, and consumer groups including the American, Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, AARP, the American Dietetic Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the American Public Health Association, the Society for Nutrition Education, the American College of Preventive Medicine, Consumers Union, and the Alliance for Retired Americans urged Congress to take action.

December 19, 2007

Americans want smaller portions for the New Year

Every year Americans make New Year resolutions, especially about food, and eating less of it.

T.G.I. Friday's survey of food-related resolutions shows Americans want more vegetables, more fruits and less food on their plates.

How do we make it the norm, then, for restaurants to serve appropriate portions for appropriate prices (AP4AP!)?

One way is to skip national fast food chains and visit your local town's restaurant. Then tell them you want a smaller portions at the appetizer price, and keep visiting those restaurants as long as they listen.

We are going to change America, one meal at a time.

T.G.I. Friday's Restaurants Releases 2008 'Food-Related Resolutions' Survey Results: "CARROLLTON, Texas, Dec. 19 -- According to a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of T.G.I. Friday's restaurants, fifty-six percent of U.S. adults plan to make food-related New Year's resolutions for 2008 and seventy-one percent feel having a variety of smaller portion entrees when dining out would make it easier to keep those resolutions.

The top three food-related 2008 New Year's resolutions among those who plan to make them are eat more vegetables (51%), eat more fruits (49%) and eat smaller portions (47%).

'The survey results make it clear smaller portions can help Americans keep their resolutions,' said Mike Archer, president and chief operating officer of T.G.I. Friday's 'T.G.I. Friday's Right Portion, Right Price menu addresses this holistically and provides big, bold flavors in a variety of portion sizes all day, every day.'

In a separate survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of T.G.I. Friday's, eighty-two percent of U.S. adults find it challenging to watch how much they eat when dining out. In addition, eighty-two percent would prefer to dine at a restaurant that offered entrees in various portion sizes."

December 18, 2007

Beef is not cool

The Cattle Network - Connecting The Beef Industry Worldwide reports that American restaurant chefs are moving away from fat-laden beef. More than 2/3 of all chefs surveyed said beef is not a "hot" food.

Small portions, however, are hot. And that's good news for American waistlines. Alternatives fatty foods are also hot.

Let's hope the trend continues.

The hottest trends on restaurant menus include small plate entrees, grass-fed and free-range items and alternative red meats and game, according to a survey of more than 1,000 professional chefs. The National Restaurant Association's 'What's Hot What's Not' survey, conducted in October, asked 1,282 chefs to rate 194 foods, beverages, cuisines and preparation methods as 'hot,' 'cool/passé' or 'perennial favorites.' Topping the list for entrees and main dishes were small plate/tapas/mezze style servings, which 73 percent of participants rated as 'hot'.

Over half the chefs polled also put grass-fed items, free-range items and alternative red meats and game animals such as buffalo, ostrich, venison and emu on the hot list. The chefs also gave the nod to preparations that incorporate ethnic cuisines, flavors and ingredients.

Only 33 percent of chefs surveyed rated beef as hot, but 55 percent rated it as a perennial favorite. Similarly, 30 percent rated pork as hot, with 46 percent calling it a perennial favorite. "

December 14, 2007

Obesity is just a liberal media myth

Sometimes I wish political conservatives got their wishes, and we all could go back to bowing to the King of England, sipping tea and sending our tax pounds back to London.

I didn't think it took a rocket scientist to know that obesity is increasing in America.

But, the conservative do-nothings, say "whoa, it's a liberal media myth. Fast foods shouldn't be regulated. We don't need 'obese' government."
On Sunday’s CBS '60 Minutes,' anchor Lesley Stahl began a segment on calorie labeling for fast food by making this alarmist proclamation: 'Obesity rates continue to spiral out of control in this country and nutritionists say one main reason is how dependent we've become on eating out.' Enter the big government hero: Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden is in charge of regulating New York City's $11 billion restaurant market...the chains are up against a formidable foe, because Frieden has a record of making big industry bend to his will. He's the one who forced smoking out of city bars and artery-clogging trans fats out of city restaurants. Both those bans spread nationwide, which is also happening with his new crusade. Frieden’s latest 'crusade' is to force big fast food chains nationwide to label the calories of all of their products, which were exempt from doing so. As Stahl explained, 'Now, one of the most powerful health officials in the country wants to change that by forcing chain restaurants like McDonald's and Wendy's to spell out exactly how fattening their food is right"

In addition to Stahl's depiction of obesity as being "out of control," both her and Frieden depicted the average consumers as morons.

Frieden condescendingly remarked that, "You might think that tuna salad, because it says it's salad, is healthier." Stahl later introduced Cornell Professor Brian Wansink, a marketing and nutritional expert, who studied mall food courts to monitor people’s calorie consumption from fast food. Stahl summed it up in this way: "He uses the mall as a laboratory, observing the food-court crowd like other scientists study rare tribes." She followed by mentioning that Wansink was also the author of "Mindless Eating."

If people really are this dumb, it would make sense to have the government take control.

Apparently, conservatives are extremely dumb. Most people -- conservatives and liberals -- cannot figure out how many calories are in the meal. Frieden just wants restaurants to post those figures on the menu.

But conservatives don't want you to know the truth. Conservatives never expose safety issues. Conservatives never bring to light financial irregularities. Conservatives never proactively protect our children.

Let me ask you: who would you trust with your food, water and medicine? An industrial conservative insider, or a big-spend government liberal.

To save our children, I'm rooting for the liberal.

December 7, 2007

NY Times says BIG dishes are dead

In Wednesday's New York Times, Kim Severson, chronicles for the non-readers of this blog, the demise of large, caloric-laden entrees: Is the Entree Heading for Extinction?

THE entree, long the undisputed centerpiece of an American restaurant meal, is dead.

O.K., so maybe it’s not quite time to write the entree’s obituary. But in many major dining cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago, the main course is under attack.

Although the entree’s ills were first diagnosed in the late 1990s, when the rise of small plates kicked off the tapafication of American menus, the attacks have become more serious lately.

Upstarts like the snack menu, with its little offerings of polpettine and deviled eggs, are encroaching from the flank. Crudi, salumi plates and cheese boards have piled on. The appetizer, once a loyal lieutenant, is demanding more attention on menus. Side dishes and salads, fortified by seasonal ingredients and innovative preparations, are announcing their presence with new authority.

But the gravest threat may be the dining public, which seems to have lost interest in big, protein-laden main dishes.

Most restaurants still offer gut-busting large portions, but a small ripple can become a tsunami.

Next time you are dining out, order an appetizer and a side dish or salad. Even go hog-wild and split a dessert. I willing to bet your hunger will be satisfied, you'll feel better and even your wallet will appreciate it.

December 5, 2007

Obesity now kills more than all cancers

More and more data keeps coming in telling us all that obesity is a killer. A big killer.

NBC Nightly News reports that for the first time since the Civil War, Americans lifespan will decline because of obesity. And it's obesity in our youths -- every one in three youngsters are overweight -- that will drive up health care, insurance rates and lead to even more disease in America.

Today, about a third of U.S. youngsters are either overweight or obese. Increasing numbers of obese children are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, bad cholesterol and other obesity complications that were seldom seen in children before. Some of those complications are risk factors for heart disease, which could explain the link between childhood weight and a higher risk of heart disease, the Danish researchers suggest. Or it could be because many heavy children — although not all — become heavy adults, they said.
We must do something about this killer.

I'm starting Fast Food Independence Day this July 4, 2008. For one day, to dramatize this issue, I urge every American to skip fast food. Tell me if you can support this moment.