Life as an Extreme Sport

Chobani Learns That HowMatters – and so Does Science

HowMattersChobaniDuring the last Super Bowl, Chobani debuted an advertisement focusing on their use of natural ingredients and limited preservatives. It was an innocuous, somewhat bland, typically feel-good commercial, emphasizing that how things are made matters. And it probably would have gone largely unnoticed by media critics, science writers, and scientists, save for one wee problem:

Chobani extended the thought of the commercial to messages inside yogurt lids. But a commercial is 90 seconds of words and images; a yogurt lid is a lot less space. And in that space, they opted for the fatefully bad phrase:

Nature got us to 100 calories, not scientists. #HowMatters.

They might as well have painted a bullseye on the label.

Since then, Chobani’s social media team mistakenly tried to take the tongue-in-cheek approach, realized it was backfiring even further, apologized, explained they use science, and reassured consumers that the #WordsMatter and they’ve discontinued the lids.
Overall, I’ve seen worse responses from companies, and chances are excellent that this will blow over and be nothing but Google search memories in another week or so. But a couple of us were chatting on Twitter about what Chobani’s ideal response would be, even if it included a bit more risk for the company.1 We spitballed for a bit and then the conversation moved on, but the idea didn’t leave me. During what was undoubtedly procrastination on another project over the weekend, I realized that my ideal? Would be for Chobani to modify their #HowMatters commercial with the opening voice-over from Numb3rs:2

Chobani uses science every day:
to pasteurize milk, to tell temperature, to isolate probiotics.
Science is more than formulas or equations;
and it’s not something to be afraid of.
Science is using our minds to solve the biggest mysteries facing food production and safety in America.3

How does matter, and so does the science behind our yogurt. At Chobani, we’re committed to using the best advances in science to benefit everyone. We’re not saying we’re perfect, but our minds are in the right place.


Chobani is right: how they got to 100 calories matters, and they have a great opportunity to support and boost the positive benefits of science and STEM in America, peeling back the curtain a bit to let people see how science is truly part of everyday life. In a society where fear of chemicals (and thus science) is growing, thanks in large part to misinformation4 and lack of education, and when we need more rather than less people interested in STEM, this would be a small but significant gesture of goodwill—and it’d probably generate some positive PR, too.5

Food is Complex

Food is complex.

That’s really the only conclusion I can draw after reading Francis Lam’s NYTimes article Cuisines Mastered as Acquired Tastes, and the following back and forth Lam had with his friend Eddie Huang over at Gilt Taste, Is it Fair for Chefs to Cook Other Cultures’ Food?

Because of paywalls and irritating things like “flaky commute wifi access,” I actually read the second article, Lam and Huang’s back-and-forth, first. This was probably a mistake, since it made me cranky in a sort of ineffable way. I knew I disagreed with the piece, but putting my finger on a single reason why was elusive.

Lam’s original NYTimes piece actually addressed some of the things that I think bothered me about the subsequent give-and-take. He did talk about how it’s difficult to start your own restaurant, and that non-immigrants may have a leg up there, not just because they may have the financial capital not accessible to new immigrants, but because they have the innate cultural knowledge necessary to start a business, especially one as volatile as a restaurant. Pulling back to my education, and piggybacking on what Chefs Bayless and Ricker, as well as Dr. Ray, said in Lam’s article, there is a bilingualism in cooking food from another culture that allows these chefs to be liminal people – they become translators understanding both cultures.

Anyone who has learned another language in a formal setting will come across the word “gloss.” It’s a translation or interpretation of a word. There are linear glosses: champignons versus mushrooms, for example. But then you have interlinear glosses, when you have to understand not only the words but the structure of the language itself. The interlinear gloss I’m most familiar with is that of American Sign Language, given that it’s my second language. Here’s an example, via Wikipedia:

“I don’t like garlic.”

Now, picky linguistics people will note that this also contains prosody – telling you the emotional inflection of what’s being signed. (The signs are in brackets, the prosody in superscript, and the interlinear gloss would be the structure shown in the written text, and how you’re getting “I don’t like garlic” from that series of signs.)

So what does linguistics have to do with cooking and food? Well, I think that what we’re seeing with these “bilingual” chefs is the ability to do what is functionally an interlinear gloss, “explaining” food from other countries in a way that is comprehensible to people who are missing the cultural connection that typically comes with food.

Which means that I pretty much agree with Lam’s basic NYTimes article. What, then, was my issue with the followup in Gilt Taste?

I think what bothered me, ultimately, was the lack of focus on the things Lam did bring up in his article: access, culture, and perhaps even desire. (For example, one of the best restaurants I’ve ever eaten at is the pub around the corner from my house. It’s Irish American food, it’s a pub, and they have no desire to be noticed by Beard. Does this mean that they’re not good food, or that I wouldn’t cheerfully put them up against some of the best “fine dining” I’ve eaten? No. It just means that getting the notice of a Beard award isn’t something that happens if you run a pub. Or food cart. Etc. Just like there are fine writers out there who will never receive any of the numerous writing awards: Pulitzer, Booker, Nobel, etc.)

What the Lam and Huang article did focus on was ideas of access and appropriation, with Huang apparently taking the position of gatekeeper: keep those damned whities out if they don’t have permission to be cooking the food.

Well, who gives that permission?

But perhaps worse, or at least beyond that, is this idea that Americans should cook American food. What is American food? Is it Native American food? You can’t really say “yo white person! Just cook things that the Mashpee Wampanoag or Powhatan ate,” because well – that’s not “white American food.”

There is no white American food. There are European foods – French and Spanish and Italian and German and so on for each country, each of which have been horribly butchered and beautifully elevated by American chefs and cooks. But none of them “belong” to American chefs any more than Powhatan recipes do.

Does a chef have to do a complex genealogy before being able to open a restaurant?

And then what in the world do you do with fusion chefs, like Morimoto, who come from another country and infuse local mishmashed American cuisine with Japanese standards, to amazing effect? Is he doing appropriation, or is it okay because he’s not white?

See what I mean? Food is complex, and this isn’t even getting into deeper cultural resonance tied to food and eating and social expectation and experience.

Ultimately, I think that my friend Lisa summed it up best: there are a lot of perspectives in this issue, and it’s illuminating to see that there is anger over this issue.

From my own perspective, discussions of authenticity shouldn’t be limited to the “lesser” or “non-French-based” cuisines. We should always be discussing authenticity, provenance, history and skill – and culture should be as much a part of that discussion as education.

Attempting Goals – Weekly Schedule

The problem (okay, a problem – there are more than one) with parasthesia is it doesn’t give you much warning. One minute, your hands are working fie, and the next minute you’re marveling at your ability to both save the mug and spill iced coffee in your freezer, down front and back of the fridge door, all over the floor, and of course, all over yourself.

It’s hot, so at least the shower – although sooner than anticipated – was not unexpected.

Anyhow, there was a point there, and I think it went something like this: sometimes, you’re in the middle of living life and something happens to change everything. You either sigh, clean up the mess as best you can, and then go back to living best you can, or you sit in the middle of the kitchen floor and cry over spilled coffee and milk. Both are valid choices, but either way, you have to clean up the spilled coffee and milk.

Which is related, in ways that make sense to me, and might to you if you’ve seen things for a while, to the fact that a writer (and producer – would not want to shirk credits) I quite like and admire, Paula Yoo, happens to be on Twitter; she also blogs. Now, first of all, read her blog – she’s funny, she has adorable cats, and you will learn a lot. But, secondly and more relevant for this post, she just set up a new blog schedule, and I am shamelessly stealing it, with a few modifications. So this will be my schedule, with inspiration from Ms. Yoo:

Music Monday
As I’m making an effort to get back into writing, I’m finding myself listening to music again. Music is really interesting on several fronts, but I’m particularly interested in how we physiologically react to music, from having an influence on energy levels and heart rate to chemical changes within our brain.

Most of the time it’ll probably just be something like “so when I’m polishing an essay, did you know I listen to the Buffy Once More With Feeling soundtrack on repeat?”

Tuna Tuesday!
I have two adorable cats, and if they had their way, I would spend every waking moment worshiping them. While they slept, I would spend all my time explaining to you, via pictures and Venn diagrams, how they are The Best Kitties Ever. As a favour to everyone, I shall try to keep cute cat stories limited to Tuesdays. (Yes, Paula’s doing hers on Thursdays. To my ear, “Tuna Tuesday” is a more pleasant alliterative.)

Writing Wednesday
I’ve gotten extremely off-track with my writing in the past two years – once upon a time I blogged at four different blogs several times a day (you know, in the good old days of being paid to do that kind of thing). A lot of things happened that encouraged me to silence my voice, and I’m trying to find it again. Thoughts on the process on Wednesday. (Or you know, less serious crap and more fun stuff that I’m learning from obsessively studying writers under the Twitter microscope, reading, discussing in the writer’s group I’m a part of, or just general accountability towards my own goals.)

Pop Culture Thursday
Unlike Ms. Yoo, I am not a TV professional. I am, however, a pretty big pop culture geek – and it’s about time I got back into writing like it. My pop culture writing is what got me first noticed in the blogging world lo those many years ago, when I was actually recapping Grey’s Anatomy for the now-defunct Metroblogging Seattle. My irritation at House, MD became a bit legendary.

Foodie Friday
As long-time readers know (if any of you are left), I am a foodie from a family of foodies. I love to eat, I love to cook, I love to read about cooking and recipes and the whole nine yards; I even studied food ethics for a while. I think I follow more writers than chefs on Twitter – but not by much. Friday’s will be for recipes, restaurants, and …I cannot think of another alliterative. I’ll blame the time on that one.

Anyhow, it’s a bit of an ambitious goal to go from essentially not writing for two-plus years to writing daily and blogging at least five days a week – but hey, it’s a goal, and it even feels relatively sane and achievable, so far as goals go. And of course, the best thing is, I can write more if I so desire – it’s just that this makes sure that “less” doesn’t go below a certain number. So, starting Monday the 30th of May, we shall see.

Have Your Sleep & Eat It, Too

I have insomnia. (Thus explaining the time this is being posted.) It comes and goes, as insomnia is wont to do, and I’ve apparently been in an upswing period of late. A friend of mine on the other coast, who blogs over at Geek Girls Rule, is also plagued by insomnia, and sometimes I think we trade off on who has to be awake in some sort of cosmic balance. We’re defenders of the night, each taking shifts to maintain vigil over the sleeping world, in case… well, I’m not sure in case of what, being that about the only weapons Mickey and I have are awesome racks and rapier wits, neither of which are likely to save the world from imminent destruction. But, I digress, which is common when I’m tired.

If certain dessert-makers have their way, Mickey and I, along with the rest of the Sleep is for the Weak Not Cranky club really will be able to have our sleep and eat it, too. It seems that the latest fad is melatonin baked into pastries, sort of a pot brownies for the convenience store crowd.

In an article of concepts that jumped out and did a samba for attention, the Len Goodman-pleasing number was the idea that the makers of these baked goods label them as “not for food use.” This appears to be the way that Lazy Cakes, Kush Cakes, and Lulla Pies (all rotten tomato worthy puns) get around FDA labeling laws. You see, while using melatonin as an additive in food would be regulated under federal law (and likely not allowed), dietary supplements don’t need what’s known as FDA premarket approval, and (more importantly) are not required to be proven safe or effective.

So regardless of the fact that we’re talking a sugary Ho-Ho hopped up on a neurohormone, it’s perfectly fine so long as it’s a diet modifier, and not so fine if it’s just part of the diet.

It’s this kind of splitting of hairs that drives people batty – and leads to the odd regulatory issue where it’s better (at least cheaper) for a company to attempt the “dietary supplement” route and change if forced to, than to start out following the rules in the first place. It is, in other words, a bandwagon-seeking food manufacturer’s version of the choice to ask permission or to say sorry.

Much like the toddler who has figured out that if you say you’re sorry rather than ask permission, you at least get to do what you want, these companies know that it is both cheaper and more profitable to sell your food as a dietary supplement and hope to fly under the radar than it is to play by the rules in the first place.

It’s a broken system, and one that can cause harm to the people who don’t realize how unsafe what they’re taking could be – the lack of regulation in the dietary and herbal supplements market is extremely concerning. The solution here is simple: make it much, much more costly to ask forgiveness after action, and reward those who ask for permission first.

The Unhealthiest City Has an Unhealthy Attitude

Jamie Oliver took a lot of abuse from locals when filming this show. It was amazing, and sad – people were arguing that they weren’t going to let a poncy Brit come in and tell them they couldn’t eat their good, wholesome, traditional foods. I was following the entire thing as it filmed, both via Jamie’s Twitter account, the tweets of locals expressing their outrage, and other media outlets where locals vented. I think the best thing I heard (with best being very loosely defined) was that Jamie was trying to force British food on people, and take away their all-American cuisine.

Newsflash: deep fried food is not all-American, nor is it healthy to eat at every meal.

Look, I’m a good gamer geek. I have done pizza for breakfast as much, if not more, than most (especially when I worked in software). But I’m not about to argue that deep dish pizza is a great breakfast every day. And that’s what really got me in this video clip – not the kid mistaking a tomato for a potato, or anything else. It was the deep-seated belief that it was tasty food, it was “traditional” food (how boxed food is a tradition, I won’t begin to contemplate), and that it was their food, so there was no way it was bad for them. The denial was, quite simply, amazing.

Somewhere, somehow, people got the idea that if it’s sold, it’s good for them, and therefore it’s okay to eat. (That many of these people are violently opposed to health care where the government tells them how to take care of themselves is just sad irony, given that they seem to have placed their full faith in the government to protect the food system – something that it does not do, and in fact barely even regulates.)

Michael Pollan has argued that we have become removed from our food traditions, and that what we eat today is food that our grandparents and great-grandparents wouldn’t recognize. Huntington appears to be a perfect example of this disconnect from food, health, and how we eat.