Monday, June 16, 2008

Kojo on Food: The Ethics of Kashrut, and the History of Chinese Food

Long before Dan Rodricks took over from Mark Steiner, I was tuning into the Kojo Nnamdi Show on DC's NPR station (WAMU-FM, 88.5). I don't know - to me, it was always just more interesting than Steiner. Nothing against the man, I'm just not among the masses of people in the "Bring Back Mark Steiner" movement. The show always put me to sleep.

Today as I was driving around the Beltway, practicing the new hypermiling thing and doing research for my latest Beltway Snackin' installment, I had the good fortune to hear an all-foodie hour of Kojo Nnamdi (which you can listen to in streaming audio here)

  • In the first half hour, I got to hear about an issue that I'm surprised has not risen much before - the ethics of workplace conditions - of workers, that is - at kosher slaughterhouses. Apparently, conditions for workers have largely been ignored at kosher slaughterhouses in the past, one common justification being that the rabbinical concern was with dietary laws, not workers' rights. One woman among others is fighting to change that: Devora Kimelman-Block, the founder of KOL Foods (Kosher-Organic Raised-Local Foods), who was interviewed by Kojo today along with Rabbi Morris Allen, the director of Hekhsher Tzedek. Hekhsher Tzedek's goal is to get kosher companies to hold themselves to high workplace standards, shown by "[displaying] a seal on already designated kosher foods that reflects production benchmarks consistent with Jewish ethical standards, including how companies treat their employees". This is meant as a complement, not a replacement, for the traditional certification of kosher products. Most callers thought this was a very cool idea. (Listen to this standalone segment with Real Audio or Windows Media)
  • In the second half hour, we heard from New York Times food reporter Jennifer 8 Lee (yes, 8 as in Eight). Lee is also the author of the fascinating book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food from Twelve Publishing. Lee breaks down many, many misconceptions and preconceptions about Chinese food in the US, and the breakdowns came fast and fun. Among them:
    • The goopy, sanitized, boneless stuff we call "Chinese food" in the US is not known or found anywhere in China. Case in point: General Tso's (pron. Tsao's) chicken, the crispy, fatty, boneless chicken bits covered in sweet goop, paired with the occasional stalk of broccoli (an Italian veggie so it isn't even eaten in China). The villagers in Gen. Tso's hometown thought Ms. Lee was coming to research him, the man who helped end the Taiping Rebellion - the largest, bloodiest civil war in world history. But General Tso's chicken? They didn't even know he had a chicken.
    • Fortune cookies come from Japan, not China.
    • They actually eat something in New England called a "chop suey sandwich": chop suey fixings, including the crispy noodles, between two slices of bread. Ick.
    • As Lee notes, Chinese food really adapts well to the local products and tastes of the areas it comes into contact with. Chinese food in India, Italy or Ivory Coast is very different from Chinese food in Argentina, Australia, or even Antarctica (where it's eaten weekly at McMurdo Station)!
    • The best Chinese restaurant in the world? On the second floor of a strip mall in Vancouver. I forget the name, so if you want to find out what it is, either read the book or listen to the standalone segment with Real Audio or Windows Media.


theminx said...

Interesting! And your post reminded me that I have that Fortune Cookie Chronicles book on my Amazon wish list and a $20 gift certificate burning a hole in my pocket....

I used to have the biggest crush on Dan Rodricks, when we did theatre together. But that was...holy crap...23 years ago. :(

K8teebug said...

The hypermiling thing really pissed me off the other day. Driving through stop signs? Going unsafely slow on either the Washington or Baltimore Beltway? Paying more attention to your milage counter than the road? To save a dollar or two?

Not a good idea.

John said...

k8: I think there are two types of hypermilers: the ones who do indeed run the stop signs as slooooooowly as possible and drive 30 MPH on the freeway, and those who hypermile insofar as it's safe and legal. It hasn't been working for me to be perfectly honest. Then again, it's supposed to work best in non-hilly terrain, and that's all the Baltimore area is - hilly terrain. Even worse, about 95% of all the stop signs and stop lights are at the bottoms of those hills. I know - I was counting yesterday.

minx: I find myself listening to more audiobooks than reading the paper versions, because it's just easier to do that (that and I read slowly). I'll be looking for the audiobook version of this, Fast Food Nation and that new Scott McClellan tell-all that everyone on the news shows is talking about.

K8teebug said...

Good to hear they're not all like those featured on that story!