Part I: My McD’s Double Cheeseburger, Hold the Pickles, Extra Mayo

Musings and recommendations for your Labor Day cookout from a former McD’s enthusiast, a one-time vegetarian, a buyer of whole pigs and cows, a four year CSA work share at Sprouting Acres Farm, an urban agriculture enthusiast, a lover of vermi-compost and a willing slaughterer of turkeys and goats

My relationship with meat has run an interesting course ever since my second year in college when I started to try and eat more sustainably. Wait a minute….

Actually, it has run an interesting course ever since the yearly family road trips eons ago took us to places like Chincoteague and Maine. Vacations that included me and my Dad forcing my Mom to eat at McDonalds or for that matter any fast food chain that was available and met our whimsical desires. I still remember the day she got a McDonalds salad, took a bite and disgustingly trashed her salad, and through her attempted demonizing glare, silently said never again. Even if you know my Mom you’ve probably never seen that look. I’ve only seen that glare once and proceeded to quickly scramble up the stairs and kept my door locked for hours. Terrifying. Here is total opposite of that look!


Nevertheless, her death glare failed to dissuade the Curtis family’s love for the pink slime, ammonium laced “meat” that left many American’s truly scared of American-made meat; and, was what Huffpo’s Michael Jacobson argued a much needed “wake up call” about U.S. food systems. Daddyo’s and my fancy for fast food was fervent. There were many more drive-through stops for years to come. Honestly, too many to count…

That love for fast food, namely the 

Golden Arches double cheeseburger for me – hold the pickles, while adding every condiment available, extra mayo – ran unabated, throughout high school. My diet used to be atrocious. I mean I still remember wolfing down six-to-eight dollar menu items each, on the regular, with Josh Tom as my partner in crime. Gorging on two Chipotle burritos after practice was totally normal. Unsurprisingly, it was actually a badge of pride.

Does the “Chipotle Challenge YouTube” ring a bell? The protagonist was a couple years ahead of me in high school. And what he managed to do, eat four Chipotle burritos and immediately after, with half a burrito still in his mouth, run a sub-six minute mile. Quite the feat. Absolutely remarkable, even if it borders on insanity. Such actions though, are a stark reminder of the U.S.’s sick meat-fanatical culture, but if you have ten minutes to kill it is worth a watch. At least 417,577 other viewers thought so. Kudos Luke, honestly.

Even with a basketball game tipping off in no more than 90 minutes, one could find me, Josh and Daniel at McD’s scarfing down food. It was our junior year and the only one of us getting playing time was the proclaimed, NBA star, Daniel White. Not even Daniel was buying the prediction. In hindsight it was not good training for either Daniel or I that our little league baseball coach for the Cap City all-stars, and for my team the Yankees, would show up before games with $50 worth of McDonalds to feed us.

Daniel and I had been trained from a young age that athletics and junk food were two peas in a pod. I loved it. The coach for the most competitive 12 and under team in the DC area was feeding us fast food on a regular basis; a team that was good enough to play in Bristol, competing in the Little League World Series. Literally, minutes before games we would be coming off from warm-ups to three-to-four red and white bags with Ronald McDonalds’ smiling figurine, staring us down. I mean WHAT!?!

Shockingly, it is also totally normal to go out for Burger King, McD’s or Subway following any Sidwell Friends School (SFS) away sporting event or during the yearly, sports related, spring training trips. A school that prides itself in embracing “sustainability” with their new eco-friendly lunch buffet – and everything else that SFS purportedly does “sustainably” – yet, whose students go out to eat Chipotle or McD’s at lunchtime and whose coaches stop at fast food joints on the way back from games. The tragic part is that SFS and Sidwell faculty kind of get it. Three teachers, quite the foodies, come to mind right away. I mean, imagine the food environment in public schools in PG County, parts of S.E. DC or for that matter almost any underfunded public school in the country.

The hope in my blog series “America’s Homegrown Crisis” is to start a conversation about America’s meat-obsessed culture. Investigating how disturbing, pervasive and entrenched the societal norms around food have become in the U.S. The series will attempt to illustrate that it is not individual actors, such as the aforementioned coaches, who are to blame for America’s health epidemic. The paper strives to highlight the importance of having conversations like this one – and yes, I do hope that people will comment freely and even objectionably, creating a real conversation – by presenting the daunting and shocking truths surrounding the country’s homegrown crisis.

Most importantly, “America’s Homegrown Crisis” seeks to highlight that the epidemic is a societal ill, which we are all at fault for; and, that our collective efforts, acting as a community unafraid to speak out about the issues at hand, or more literally on our plates, will make a difference. Speaking out and educating others in America on issues that for many seem like common sense, such as the need to protect the environment from CAFOs and Big-agro farms; tackling the more complicated problems of food justice, which plagues the ghettos; and, addressing the social justice concerns of American-made meat. The purpose of the “American Homegrown Crisis” is to illustrate the complex social issues that are intertwined with the food epidemic that America currently faces. Ultimately, the goal is to start a conversation that can help identify solutions, which will shift us away from and abate the country’s homegrown crisis.

Who is Liable for America’s Homegrown Catastrophe?

The catastrophe is a crisis that is strongly linked to childhood obesity, drastically increased rates of diabetes and ultimately, more expensive healthcare bills for everyone in America. If people vehemently disagree, I am happy to write a follow-up post evidencing these claims. The “greatest society on earth”is plagued by pervasive malnutrition. Yes Benny, this is a stab at your sophomoric comment during our sophomore year at college. Understandably and predictably I overreacted at Benny’s commentary, something that I am prone to do, especially when discussing American society, food and/or politics; and especially prone to happen when discussing food and politics. That night we were discussing politics.  Enough of the aside and back to farming and food.

With some of the most fertile farmland in the world, what is America doing wrong? Unlike elsewhere in the world, such as here in Ethiopia where malnutrition is mainly caused by a lack of resources – huge oversimplification but that conversation is for another time and place – in the U.S. the problem is different. I am well aware of food deserts and the greater issue of food justice in the U.S., where poverty is the reason for the horrid diets of underprivileged blacks and Hispanics. A destructive diet of quarter pounders, grape soda, Cheetos and fried chicken, and no, please do not be so ignorant to think that they, the racial minority, really choose these foods. The social justice issues (more in Parts II & III) surrounding food and food production are among the multitude of arguments for why urban agriculture is a key solution that must be undertaken in the 21st century. The greater issue of food justice, led me to get involved in Urban Ag, and is why I have such a deep abiding respect for my friend and one time colleague and boss at Growing Power, Robert Pierce, and my hero and CEO of growing power Will Allen, written about here in NYT Magazine piece.

Calorically speaking, fast food is the best bang for your buck by a mile. When money is tight, when you’re hungry, you buy food to be satisfied, ie. not hungry. Disclaimer, the only times I have ever been truly hungry are through experiments with fasting, so I cannot speak authoritatively here. Nevertheless, in talks with youths from the inner cities of Madison and Milwaukee, in attempting to understand why the five-piece KFC bucket is dinner three times a week, the prevailing answer is because it’s cheap; cheap in the most negative connotations of the word, evoking synonyms such as shoddy, inferior and second-rate; just as is their all-too-often fenced in citizenship.

Food is a humongous social justice issue in the U.S. and a ticking time bomb whose manifestations are already apparent. These decisions to eat fast food are not a result of minorities’ “innate laziness”; in truth, they really are not decisions; and, the result of America’s fast food empire is wreaking havoc on the health of millions of Americans, at great cost to society. Regardless of the adverse health effects, food in the U.S., for too many people is about not being hungry.

It is an epidemic that is in part driven by the government, which subsidizes mono-cropped corn and soybean that is primarily used as animal feed. Feeding cows this “superfood”allows McD’s dollar menu to thrive. Big-agro farms and CAFO’s that operate with a total disregard for the environment are ruining the planet. Oh, and by the way, cows shouldn’t really be eating corn or soy-bean, seeing that their ruminant is made for digesting grass, and only grass. However, I will admit that with a population boom taking place in the “Rest” of the world, feeding cows and more importantly chickens – poultry has a much more efficient feed to protein output – may have to partially rely on the use of these “super” foods.

The fact that cows are supposed to eat only grass is why I led the way in buying a grass-fed cow in my final year at UW-Madison. It cost us $2,400, split between eight of us, and at $300 bucks a pop it was a very reasonable price. We did not have a clue how to cook with it because it was so different from what we had been raised on and what we had cooked with previously. It was a shame because in the end we only really enjoyed the ground beef, because unlike with the steaks, it was hard to overcook. Nevertheless, it was the best ground beef I have ever cooked with. It was 97% beef, truly amazing. So next time you buy beef, go for the grass-fed, or better yet, skip it and eat some delicious veggies. But if you do buy beef, understandably so for occasions like a Labor Day cookout, when you fire up the grill for that sumptuous steak, cook it at 350 rather than 500.

End of Part I

Okay I’ve gone past my self-imposed 1,500 word limit, 1,750-ish and counting. To be continued next time, and don’t worry, it is already mostly written so it will be posted soon! And yes, the wheels all started rolling after I helped killed this “tabot beg” – a delicious, tasty lamb that now sits in my freezer…

I am hoping Part I makes for some good Labor Day reading before you fire up that grill this Monday. I, quite subjectively, think there is lot to digest and hope that this series encourages vibrant conversation. I probably will not finish “America’s Homegrown Crisis” that soon but I will try! My guess is it will be one of those papers that sees many versions, drafts, turns here or there and critiques from friends and family before it gets truly, finished.

Hope everyone enjoys a fun and relaxing weekend back home, and for many reasons, most importantly for your lucky guests, cook up some delicious portabella mushroom burgers (And I would substitute fire-roasted fresh peppers rather than canned), or some black bean and mushroom burgers (disclaimer I’ve never made this exact recipe but just used it for grounding), or some quinoa and black bean burgers, rated number one on list of 40 best veggie burgers – 101 reviews gave it an average rating of almost 5 stars – however, I would tweak the recipe but it is a good barometer for a standard black bean burger.

I already hear my good friend _________ (for anonymities sake) saying no way is a veggie burger any good… It is, I promise, especially the mushroom ones. Add a little guacamole and some home-made salsa verde or pico de gallo to either for a nice Mexican twist. Deeeeelightfully deeeeelicious! Finally one more gruesome picture from the killing of the lamb experience (do not look if you cannot stomach gruesome photos) –