you got to know your chicken.”
Cati and I arranged a head-to-head competition of sorts. We decided to compare organic foods to their industrially farmed counterparts (based solely on dinner-time performance). I know I am opening a major can of worms here (figuratively speaking; we didn’t eat worms) with the whole organic-vs.-local-vs.-natural-vs.-industrial-vs.-sustainable discussion. There are now industrial-organic beef, chicken, and pork farms that bear a striking resemblance to conventional industrial farms (from what I have read; I haven’t actually visited any of these farms myself). There are still the cramped conditions, the proximity to feces, the same unclean slaughter houses; but now with organically-grown grains and no antibiotics– hardly a revolution in ethical farming. Depending on whom you ask, opinions on organic-food range from, “marketing ploy” and “niche food” to “the right thing to do.”
Putting the ethical/political/environmental/sustainability arguments aside for a moment, let’s focus on flavor.
Round 1: Tomatoes and mozzarella
We bought organic local tomatoes from the Honest Weight Food Co-op, and vine-ripe tomatoes from Hannaford in the Delaware plaza. Also, we bought fresh mozzarella from the Co-op and some shrink-wrapped industrial stuff (Formaggio brand) from the aformetnioned Hannaford. We sliced the tomatoes, adorned them with organic basil, a pinch of salt and some organic, extra-virgin, first cold press, olive oil.
The mozzarella from the Co-op was less flavorful than the Hannaford-purchased cheese (though it may have just been less salty). Cati was indifferent to both cheeses pointing out that they were both pretty flavorless. We aren’t big fans of mozzarella anyway; too close to call. The only mozzarella we like is the mozzarella di buffala campana variety. It’s available at the Co-op and Hannaford, but it’s the same brand, so a taste test wouldn’t be meaningful.
The Hannaford tomatoes (“Backyard Beauties”) were definitely more acidic and we both noticed this right away. They were almost tart. The organic tomatoes were juicier and a deeper red color. We both liked the Co-op tomatoes more than the Hannaford. I wouldn’t call it a landslide victory (Cati would), but the quality was noticibly better on the Co-op tomatoes.
Organic wins round 1; thanks to the tomatoes.
Local-organic tomatoes: $2.19/lb
Hannaford tomatoes: $1.99/lb
Organic (not local) Mozzarella from the Co-op: $6.29/lb
Hannaford Mozzarella Formaggio: $7.98/lb
Round 2: Chicken
We bought organic, local, chicken breasts from the Co-op (Misty Knoll Farms).
Here’s an excerpt from their website (linked above):
“We raise our birds with the utmost care, feeding them whole grain, free of antibiotics and animal by-products. Our chickens range free in spacious, specially designed enclosures. Our turkeys, when old enough to withstand Vermont’s cool nights, are sheltered in open barns with free range access to lush pasture, sunlight, and fresh water. The result— healthy, nutritious, and flavorful birds nature’s way.”
We bought Hannaford brand chicken breasts as well. They were the least expensive I could find, but still claimed to be all-natural. Apparently that means no antibiotics or hormones.
We trimmed and thinly sliced the breasts, sprinkled with a little adobo, and browned them in hot olive oil in a skillet. We cooked the chicken side-by-side to minimize any variation due to preparation. We had the chicken with some whole wheat tortilla shells. We both noticed a pretty big difference in quality right off the bat. The Misty Knoll Farms chicken was juicy, flavorful, and tender while the Hannaford chicken was rubbery, dry, and relatively bland. There was no mistaking the higher quality bird.
Organic wins round 2.
Organic local chicken: Misty Knoll Farms, $9.29/lb.
Industrial chicken: Hannaford Grade A Boneless, $2.19/lb. (Holy price-difference, Batman!)
Round 3: Eggs
We compared the local, organic, free-range eggs from Pick-A-Chick Farms of Coeymans Hollow, NY (purchased at the Co-op) to Hannaford brand large white eggs. We fried, and hard boiled eggs from each package for us to try. The following was printed on the Pick-A-Chick (great name for a politcally incorrect dating service, no?) Farms egg carton:
“Free roaming eggs which come from chickens that are kept in an open, cage-free, henhouse. They are fed completely all-natural, no added hormones, animal fats, or animal biproducts. The chickens…are free to run loose within the henhouse and outdoors.”
Fortunatley, even the industrial eggs from Hannaford are certified by an organization that sets standards for animal welfare and husbandry. The Hannaford eggs bear The United Egg Producers logo. I read their mission statement and the guidelines that must be met in order for an egg producer to get UEP certification. But once I got to page 7 on the debeaking guidelines, I realized that I will never buy grocery store eggs again. Read it yourself, this ain’t propaganda, it’s actually from a trade association representing most U.S. egg companies. [shudder] After reading the gory details on debeaking (and after reading that UEP compliance audits are announced a week in advance), I don’t mind paying more for cage-free eggs. Cage-free egg producers don’t create the stressful environment that make debeaking necessary.
Oops, I guess I went off topic. I promised not to cover ethical stuff. If you happen to care about where your food comes from, have a look at this nice little Slate.com article. I’ll get back on track…
Frying: I fried the eggs Spanish-style (I call it that, because Spain is where I first saw it done). What I call Spanish-style is essentially over-easy, but instead of actually flipping the egg, I just keep splashing hot olive oil (with a spoon) from the pan onto the top of the egg to cook the other side. It accomplishes the same thing, but there is no risk of breaking the yolk during the flip, and I think the eggs look a little nicer this way (no darkening from the skillet).
Hard-boiling: There are many ways to hard-boil an egg, but I prefer the following: add the eggs to a pan and add enough water to cover the eggs. Heat the water until it just starts to boil, then remove the pan from the heat and let the eggs sit in the water for 20 min. After the 20 min, drain the water, peel, and enjoy. I find that this technique gives a nice, firm (but not too firm), creamy, yolk every time.
Visually, the yolks in the Pick-A-Chick eggs were larger and darker yellow than their industrial cousins. Taste-wise, neither Cati nor I noticed much of a difference. The organic eggs did have a little more flavor, but the real difference was in the texture. In both the fried and the boiled comparisons, the industrial egg-whites were rubbery. Like silly-putty compared to the Pick-A-Chick eggs.
Price of 1 Doz. Pick-A-Chick eggs: $2.50/doz.
Price of 1 Doz. Hannaford eggs: 1.79/doz.
Round three goes to organic as well. Organic foods win by unanimous decision!*
Ok, my little blog post is nowhere near a scientific study, but I hope it proves interesting all the same. All I may have demonstrated is the age-old adage, “you get what you pay for.” But I hope I have shed some light on the fact there is a food quaility spectrum out there (even locally), and it certainly seems to be leaning in the organic direction. Some say that “Organic” is strictly a marketing term, but I think there’s more to it than that. The jury is still out on whether or not organic foods are healthier, but we think they’re tastier.
The online magazine Slate.com has several excellent taste-tests and enlightening articles concerned with the organic vs. industrial debate: check them out now. I am reading Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilema, and I am (mostly) enjoying it. Although Pollan rambles (I’m one to talk, eh?) and has no idea how to use the expression “begs the question,” it’s an entertaining read. Also, I found a great Slate.com review of his book, here. I particularly like (and agree with) it.
To end this post on a humorous (and slightly morbid) note: I’ve been having problems with chipmunks around The Cati Shack all summer. They keep digging holes along the house and driveway, and burrowing underneath some patio-stones that we have under our car-port. This causes the 12″ x 6″ patio-stones to pop-up when you walk on them, creating the perfect opportunity for a broken toe or two. I’ve tried several different approaches to get rid of these unwelcome varmints. I’ve tried mole-repellent, flooding, filling in their holes with soil and sand, traps, harsh-language, smoke bombs, etc.; they keep coming back. So I went to The Home Depot, and found something that made me laugh out loud. Check out this brand of smoke bombs:
“MWHAHAHAHAAAAA!” There’s nothing like blatanly appealing to a man’s sense of vengeance (at rodents, mind you) in order to sell a product. I applaud them for tuning-in to exactly what I was feeling; before even I knew it. When I saw the stuff on the shelf, I felt compelled to start rubbing my hands together and cackling maniacally while saying “REVENGE!” I feel bad enough gassing the little critters; now I feel like a psycho too for buying a product called “Revenge.” My transformation into my hero is almost complete. Man, I hope this “Revenge” stuff works.
*I have to mention that we, in no way, intend to disparage Hannaford Supermarkets with this blog post. Hannaford grocery stores are consistently clean, with high-quality, reasonably-priced goods. They have “everyday low-prices” instead of these ridiculous “value-club” gimmicks.
We don’t ever shop at Price Chopper, for three primary reasons. One, the aformentioned “value-club.” Do you think we are stupid, Price Chopper? At the bottom of each receipt the patron is told how much he has “saved.” This, ladies and gentlemen, is a pure gimmick. We aren’t saving one thin dime. Are we to believe we are saving versus the previously inflated price? Talk about spurious reasoning. Managing a value-club costs money. There’s applications, cards, database management, etc. Keep your silly “value-club” and pass the savings on to your customers. Secondly, and this one is strictly personal, Cati was treated very rudely by a store manager at the Slingerlands Price Chopper (on 85). And when she complained via their online customer service, she was blown-off. There was an automated response, then no reply; nothing. She emailed again and was ignored again. So we have boycotted them and haven’t set foot in any of their stores in more than 3 months (and counting). Lastly, they have major branding-problems. Why do some of their stores look (and smell) terrible while others are so- fresh-and-so-clean? Is their management blind to these gaps in consistency? Do they even visit their own stores? Is cleanliness a luxury at Price Chopper stores, rather than a standard? Everyone from the Capital District has probably heard someone refer to a “ghetto-chopper.” Ever heard of a “ghetto-Hannaford?” I thought not.
Also, I should mention that Cati and I are worker-members at the Honest Weight Food Co-op, working two hours per week (each) in order to receive the 26% discount. Getting the discount just makes things “freakin’ expensive” instead of “over-the-top, holy-crap expensive.” We also put in our time there as a way to support local farming. Since there is a monetary incentive, we can’t call it volunteering. I suppose it’s more like community stewardship, er sumthin’. [shrug]