What do you want see here?

Below, entries from my other blogs, because contrary to rumor I don’t cross-post everything. But first, a request for feedback. With three other blogs on my plate right now, I’m not quite sure what to do with this one and posting has slumped after a good start in January. I’m open to hitting a few new topics repeatedly, like I have with smoking bans and coffee (and lobsters, oddly enough), or creating some regular features. I think I’ve also been relying too much on the del.icio.us feed and should write more short posts in addition to the longer stuff. What do you want to see here? Any requests?

In the meantime, recent posts from two of the other sites:

At A Better Earth, Posner and Becker on water conservation, Branson’s new prize, the Dutch back away from biofuels, a surprising look at hybrids versus SUVs, and an innovative approach to solar power adoption.

And today at EatFoo, three ways the government stands between you and a good drink.


Government vs. good drinks

As a barista and bartender, I love drinks. And as a libertarian, I hate the government. So it’s no surprise that I get annoyed by the many ways government stands between you and a better beverage. Read on for three current examples of how the state violates your rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of a damn good drink.

First off, via my friend Justin Logan, a cover story in the Washington City Paper on why it’s so hard to get a good bottle of wine in Montgomery County. The three-tier system of producer, distributor, and retailer/restaurant has gotten a lot of press lately as entrepreneurs struggle nationwide to cut out the politically protected middle man. But in MoCo, it’s even worse: there business owners must deal with a fourth tier, run by the county government, with all the added costs and inefficiencies one would expect from a local bureaucracy. The result is that specialty wine is both more expensive and harder to get in the county, making life a lot harder for wine sellers and consumers:

To get special-order wine from the DLC, [Black’s Restaurant Group wine buyer Brian] Considine must first find out who distributes the product in Maryland; the distributor’s sales rep can be invaluable in helping move the product through the system. Considine then tracks down each wine’s six-digit code from the county’s wholesale price book, writes the codes on his order form, and faxes it to the DLC. With order in hand, the county turns around and purchases the wine from the distributors, whom Considine just spoke to earlier. The distributors ship the product to the DLC, which will log the wine into the system, write up an invoice for the restaurant, and finally deliver the product to Black’s COD. The process, if it’s working well, will take between one and two weeks.

To make matters even worse, the DLC is not just the wine supplier, but also the liquor law enforcer. This makes local restauranteurs not only frustrated with the system, but also afraid to speak out against it lest the county lash out against them. Read the whole thing.

Speaking of the three tier system, Tom Wark at Fermentation discusses a great position paper about the situation in Texas, which carries over well to many other states. It argues that the system, developed after Prohibition ostensibly to keep the alcohol supply safe, has been captured by wholesalers to blatantly protect their own economic interests. An excerpt:

A statute that was designed to promote public health, safety and welfare has, over time, been subverted by the economic interests of the entities it was intended to regulate. Now, the legalized system operates primarily to prevent competition, protect anti-competitive conduct and otherwise thwart the functioning of a free market in the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcohol beverages.

Finally, my friend Chad Wilcox has a post up about one of his pet issues, the use of high fructose corn syrup in American soft drinks. In the old days, drink makers used real cane sugar. Alas, US sugar subsidies have artificially raised the price of sugar relative to corn, leading most major manufacturers to switch to the inferior tasting syrup. Today one must search for real sugar cane from a few niche brands, the original Dr Pepper bottler in Dublin, TX, and bottles of Coke made especially for Passover.

As noted approvingly by Chad, Jones Soda has just announced a bold move to switch to pure cane sugar across its product line. It’s a cool story that makes me want to give the brand another try. Read the whole post here.

[This post was originally published at EatFoo(d) on 2/27/07.]


Chad ranks the DC coffee scene

My friend Chad Wilcox has, surprisingly enough, visited more coffee shops in DC than I have. Today he posted rankings and reviews of many of the local indie shops, based on drink quality, atmosphere, and location. Read the whole thing here.

Chad’s also nice enough to credit me with getting him interested in coffee in the first place, leading to many hours spent with a laptop and a good latte. In return, he turned me on to quality beers. Given the relative impacts on productivity our mutual beverage influences have had on the other and the price of beer compared to coffee, I figure he owes me a significant round of drinks by now.

[Cross-posted at Smelling the Coffee.]


Lobster is not a shape

Remember when instead of being obsessed with miracle fruit, I was obsessed with lobsters? That was a strange week, especially since I hardly ever eat lobster. At the time, Italians were protesting the creatures’ live display on ice while an eccentric British inventor was marketing his CrustaStun, an expensive electronic device that promised to kill them painlessly. Meanwhile, in the US, Whole Foods was pulling live lobsters off their shelves just as a business in Maine started selling a live lobster arcade game. Throw some oddly hued langoustines into the mix and you can understand why I couldn’t help but devote a few blog entries to the subject. Well, that and the fact that I was drinking while typing.

I’m not drinking right now, but when Whole Foods and the CrustaStun resurface in the same news story, I feel obliged to bring it up:

When Maine’s first Whole Foods Market opens next week, it will have something no other Whole Foods store has: live lobsters.

The Austin, Texas-based natural foods grocery chain announced in June that it would stop selling live lobsters and crabs in the name of crustacean compassion. But it’s making an exception in Maine, a state synonymous with lobster.

Whole Foods Market Inc. decided to sell lobsters at its Portland store after finding a company that met its demands for how the lobsters should be treated.

The lobsters would be kept in private compartments instead of being piled on top of each other in a tank, and employees would use a device that zaps them with a 110-volt shock to spare them the agony of being boiled alive in a pot of water.

Maine lobster growers are understandably unhappy:

First, they were offended by Whole Foods’ decision to banish live lobsters from its stores. Now they’re offended by its selection of a New Hampshire lobster supplier.

“When they say they buy local and support local fishermen and farmers, and then they tell us we’re doing everything wrong, obviously it doesn’t sit very well with us,” said Tom Martin, a Portland lobsterman.

The CrustaStuncould be a good option for some customers, but it is not necessary. I linked before to the weblog of Trevor Corson, author of The Secret Life of Lobsters, and his post about killing lobsters humanely with a kitchen knife prior to boiling them. That post has now been updated with a link to a recent entry he wrote about new lobster killing technologies. You must read this post. In addition to the CrustaStun, he covers an amazing 80,000 pound lobster processing machine. I won’t go into the details here, because words don’t do it justice. You’ve got to see the pictures that go with it.

As a bonus link, also check out Corson’s review of the unappetizing soy lobster recommended by PETA. As my friend Chad says:

“Why would you buy a soy lobster? I understand a soy burger. They call it a ‘burger’ not a ‘hamburger’ because burger is a shape. But lobster is not a shape, it’s an animal. What are they thinking?”

[LA Times article via Slashfood.]

Lobster link fest
All lobsters, all the time


The anti-miracle fruit

In response to our miracle fruit posts, David got an email about an herb that has the opposite effect of our new favorite berry:

If you’re interested in another plant which dramatically affects sweetness, try the herb Gymnema sylvestre (commonly known as gurmar, or “sugar destroyer”). Placing an extract of the herb on your tongue will almost completely eliminate one’s ability to detect sweetness. However, I wouldn’t recommend a tasting party based on it… eating a banana after taking gymnena is particuarly gross experience, for example)

Yeah, I’m going to pass on the gurmar party. Wikipedia says that the herb has been used as a natural treatment for diabetes, as it may also reduce blood sugar levels when used for an extended period of time (though this has not been throroughly established).

I also got a really neat comment from Jan Walløe, who as a kid in Denmark got her hands on some miraculin tablets that her dad’s friend was trying to market in the 70s. The marketing plan failed, but she says the pills made her the star of the playground. Read it here.


Smoking ban kills again

My posts from last year about smoking bans being unfair to elderly smokers weren’t taken very seriously, but according to this article they actually have become a real problem in Ontario:

A worker at a Manitoulin Island long-term care home has been charged with criminal negligence causing death in the case of a resident who died after he went out into the cold to smoke…

If Patterson’s death is linked to the fact he went out for a smoke, it would bring under scrutiny the Smoke-Free Ontario Act, which became law last year.

The stringent guidelines allowing smoking in long-term care facilities and psychiatric hospitals include creation of ventilated smoking rooms.

But with most facilities deciding not to build them, a situation has arisen where many elderly, frail and often sick long-term smokers who can’t kick their habit have been forced outside – sometimes into the bitter cold – to smoke their cigarettes.

Can’t kick their habit? Maybe they just don’t want to. Regardless of that, it doesn’t look like the care centers are just casually choosing not to build smoking rooms. The anti-smoking law actually makes it really hard for them to do so:

The health ministry says only 1.5 per cent or 10 of the province’s more than 620 long-term care facilities have been given permission to construct the smoking rooms after they met the new standards. Another 16 applications are in the pipeline.

“We fought the (new law) as valiantly as we could,” said Pat Prentice of the Ontario Association of Resident Councils, a group that tried to have less restrictive rules in place for construction of smoking rooms.

Among the group’s fears was that residents would furtively smoke inside buildings – in closets and stairwells – rather than go outside, increasing the possibility of fires.

A significant number of the homes had no smoking policies before the act came into effect. Many with older smoking rooms decided against building new ones because of the associated costs and complications.

Margaret Toni, director of care for Regency Care with 15 long-term care homes in the GTA, said as much as they’d like to build the rooms for residents, they can’t for lack of funds.

Under the law, money for smoking rooms must come from the home’s “accommodation budget” which funds food, general housekeeping, utilities and administration.

The province, which funds all long-term care homes has made no provisions for extra construction money.

One administrator of a downtown long-term care home, where many residents smoke, said a 22-foot-by-16-foot room that meets provincial standards would cost about $180,000.

Another administrator said they had only recently opened and built smoking rooms under the old guidelines, and were wary of investing in the new ones because the rules could just as easily change again.

I’m not going to say that cases like these are the most compelling reason to oppose smoking bans — a general respect for liberty fits that bill — but it’s worth pointing out the unintended consequences these laws create.

Geezers hate the Butt Hutt
Dying for a smoke

[Via H/R]


Bad timing

Add this to my list of disappointments with Hostexcellence, the cheap but unreliable hosting service I’ve put up with for the past 8 months: going offline for several hours on the same morning I get linked on the most popular weblog in the world.

That’s just not cool, man.

To add insult to injury, the reason they had to go offline is because they screwed up their own power upgrade. The same upgrade that they had to go offline for three hours to perform last weekend. Idiots.

So now I’m switching hosts yet again. Right now I’m leaning toward Dreamhost. Any other suggestions?


3 Cups — Doing more with less

Last week I was in Chapel Hill, NC for a family event. Ever since the lamented closing of Fowler’s in Durham a few months ago, I haven’t had a favorite coffee hangout in the area. Now I’m glad to say I do again.

I tried to visit 3 Cups for the first time a couple months ago, but the place turns out to be closed on Sundays. This time around I made a point to drop in when it’s open. My family and I stopped in on a busy Saturday afternoon to find the shop near UNC buzzing with people.

I already knew 3 Cups serves Counter Culture Coffee, as does my current employer, so I was looking forward to trying their espresso. I was in for a surprise: no espresso machine! The only coffee on 3 Cups’ menu is drip and French press, with an emphasis on the press. Cafes au lait are available for people who really want a milk drink, but otherwise it’s all about the coffee.

This is a cool approach to running a coffee shop. I’m sure the many other shops in the area surrounding UNC all sell espresso. By choosing not to, 3 Cups offers less than its competitors. Yet by offering less, it offers more.

First of all, serving only drip and French press coffee puts the emphasis on the kind of coffee customers can make at home. This fits with their goal of becoming their customers’ favorite coffee retailer. People love espresso, but except for the rare enthusiasts who invest in expensive equipment and put in lots of practice, the stuff they make at home is always going to disappoint compared to what they get from the pros. Anyone can make traditional coffee with a little care, and with the equipment and excellent selection of beans available at 3 Cups, they can recreate the taste experience at home.

Secondly, coffee fits in better with the shop’s focus on single origin, artisinal products. Espresso is pretty much always blended and it’s rare for a shop to switch blends very often. Very few customers are going to drink straight espresso anyway; most of them are going mute its flavor with a lot of milk. Coffee, on the other hand, comes from a practically endless variety of origins, making it easier to communicate the differences among them.

Finally, skipping the spro makes running the shop a lot easier, leaving room and time for complimentary goods. Serving espresso entails making space for the machine, grinders, and beans, paying at least one barista to be on duty, and devoting a whole lot of time to training. My guess is that sticking to simpler brewing methods allows the staff to be better informed about 3 Cups’ other offerings: tea, chocolate, and wine.

At most coffee shops, even really good ones, tea is something of an afterthought and chocolate and wine may not be available at all. 3 Cups has all three items in abundance, all with extensive information available. I didn’t get to spend too much time talking to the staff, but they seemed to be just as informed about these other products as they are about the coffee; the guy I talked to was definitely into the chocolate part of the business.

3 Cups doesn’t offer much food, but they have a cozy relationship with the neighboring SandwHich, an artisinal sandwich shop selling some delicious fare. A hallway connects the two places and customers, dishes, and employees are free to pass back and forth. They also share a courtyard. The friendliness between the shops is a great solution to the problem of fulfilling customers’ wants without getting distracted from one’s core mission. Why have a great sandwich shop with bad coffee and a great coffee shop with bad sandwiches when you can just put a door between them and enjoy both?

(SandwHich got nice write-up in the local press here. The chips sound tasty but they were sold out by the time I got there. That’s how you know the place is good: the owners would rather sell out of fresh stuff than only sell things they can guarantee to always have on hand.)

Visiting 3 Cups reminded me of the less is more design philosophy espoused by the 37 Signals crew. By taking away a feature that almost every other coffee shop puts at the center of its business, this shop has really set itself apart with its simplicity and focus. I like it — so much so that I even forgot to see if they have wi-fi. Either way, I’ll be sure to drop in from now on whenever I’m in town.

[Cross-posted on Smelling the Coffee.]


Miracle fruit — I’m a believer!

[Update 3/30/07: Miracle fruit in the Wall Street Journal! Read about it here.]

A few days ago I received an invitation from my friend and EatFoo co-blogger David Barzelay to try some “miracle fruit.” According to rumor, this unusual fruit possesses an amazing property. Eating one temporarily alters one’s sense of taste, making sour, bitter foods taste sweet and delicious. People in West Africa, native home to miracle fruit, have reportedely used it for centuries to make their diets more palatable.

It’s also a literally forbidden fruit. Attempts to market it and its active protein miraculin to diabetics were mysteriously thwarted by the FDA in the 1970s, relegating miracle fruit to underground cult status. David, however, had found a source willing to ship a supply next day air to DC from Florida.

Given David’s history of practical jokes, I was skeptical at first. Miracle fruit? Works with “miraculin?” Sounded like just the kind of crazy thing he would make up. But if it was a joke, the Athananius Kircher Society was in on it too. So with barely a touch of trepidation, I told David I was in. Besides, if worst came to worst, “libertarian foodie dies eating fruit banned by the FDA” is about the most appropriate obituary headline I could ever imagine for myself, so there was really nothing to lose.

The miracle fruit party was last night. I arrived to find a group of twenty-five or so curious people, a spread of citrus items, and, wrapped up in a Ziploc bag in the refrigerator, a bunch of little red fruits: the understated star of the show, miracle fruit.

They’re bright red, about the size of an olive, odorless, and just a little bit soft. The center is mostly pit. To get the most of them, David explained that we should chew the pulpy part for about a minute and coat as much of our mouth as possible with it. Then we’d be free to spit or swallow and experience the magic of miraculin.

We started out by taking a quick taste of lime, just to get a fresh impression of what lime tastes like. Then we passed around a plate of miracle fruits, all of us taking one like eager cultists taking punch. A minute went by as we swirled the stuff around in our mouths.

The fruit itself is mostly tasteless, though slightly sweet. The pit is surrounded by a weird, slick layer of pulp. It’s not bad to eat, but one would get bored with it pretty quickly. The true test came next, as we again sampled the lime. The result? Utter astonishment. The very same lime we’d tried moments before suddenly tasted like it had been dipped in sugar. All the stinging acidity was gone, leaving only the pleasing citrus and an amazing sensation of sweetness that left us craving more.

Our sense of taste completely transformed, we orgiastically began sampling everything we could get our hands on. Lemons tasted like lemonade. Meyer lemons tasted like the sweetest oranges. Grapefruits tasted awesome, and I don’t even like grapefruit. Goat cheese tasted like candy. Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate Stout tasted bigger and sweeter than ever. (One of us had never had a stout before. After drinking stout with miraculin, every other will probably be doomed to disappoint.)

My own contributions were a beer and a coffee. The beer was Magic Hat’s Roxy Rolles seasonal ale, which kept its intriguing flavor while losing its normally hoppy bite. For my friend who doesn’t like hoppy American beers, the miracle fruit “fixed” it.

The coffee was Counter Culture’s Rwanda Karaba, which is well-balanced and boasts some rich fruit notes. This was the one thing that the miracle fruit didn’t seem to change much for me, except perhaps for a very slight increase in sweetness. One of the other guys was amazed that he was able to drink it black, but I’m not sure if that was the result of the miracle fruit or if he just wasn’t used to drinking really good coffee.

The bottom line: miracle fruit is amazing. Imagine a party of people chomping into lemons and limes with abandon, and you’ve got an idea of its power.

As miracle fruit devotees have noted, this produce ought to be more than just a foodie’s underground novelty item. Aside from being interesting on its own merits, it has practical applications. Before the FDA stepped in it received a warm reception among diabetics who were able to enjoy sweet flavors without worrying about their sugar intake. Dieters could use it to avoid items high in calories, which is how one dessert spot in Japan markets the stuff. In Japan it’s even being sold in tablet form now. In the US, I bet innovative restaurants would do well with a dessert course of miracle fruit, citrus, and cheese.

Alas, the FDA’s refusal to allow marketing of miracle fruit has kept it an unknown treasure. The exact reasons for the ban are unknown. Perhaps lobbyists from the sugar industry blocked its approval. Or perhaps it was for the children; the FDA feared miraculin would mask the taste of aspirin and other things that are toxic in high quanities, causing kids under its influence to chow down on them. This lengthy article on miracle fruit says that miracle fruit doesn’t actually have that effect. Aspirin wasn’t on our tasting menu last night, but I believe it. The article also presents a lot of other evidence that the fruit is completely safe.

But who cares about the sugar industry? Who cares about the children? I’m not sure exactly what the FDA ban entails, whether it’s on all sales, all marketing, or just marketing as a sugar substitute. In any case, miracle fruit is awesome. Everyone should be able to try the stuff. A fruit this fun deserves a wider audience.

[Cross-posted on EatFoo.]

Update: Abi has photos.

Update 3/5/07: Recaps from Abi and David.

Update 7/8/08: I’ve now tried the miracle fruit tablets, which are easier to handle, and reviewed them here.