Friday, March 26, 2010

Not Letting the Smoke Get in Our Eyes

I'm home now from two weeks on the road, enjoying the sound of spring peepers as a bedtime serenade, and watching the Earth lumber awake from the long winter with chlorophyll-engorged shafts of green poking through the decaying brown residue from last year's efforts. The sodden ground is slowly shedding its excess snow melt borne away on the kite-flying breezes of late March. Someday in my future it will no longer be muddy walking on the lawn...

Just as the bees are now building up their corps of workers in anticipation of the elm and maple pollen about to become available (fresh food for the first time in months!), Sandhill's population is burgeoning as well. From the winter trim of six adults, we've added member candidates Chris and Owen, and we're currently hosting experienced communitarians and long-time acquaintances Alex and Bri, who have stopped by for a fortnight visit en route from Des Moines (where they recently ended a stint at the Catholic Worker House) to Baltimore, where Bri will start nursing school.

Just as the activity is picking up in our beehives, it's buzzing in the greenhouse as well. The walls are lined with flats full of brassicas, onions, and salad greens started from seed and now merrily sporting little green rows of promise. Just this week we planted the more thermophilic and longer-germinating peppers seeds, which require longer in the nursery and a spot nearer the wood stove. I'm tellin' ya, spring is coming!

• • •
Over coffee this morning, Gigi checked with me about our line of condiments. We're close to completing a process of overhauling our labels that's been dragging on for years, and there was a red flag raised recently by our certifying agency (OneCert) about the liquid smoke we use as a flavoring in our barbecue sauce. As it's my recipe, Gigi wanted to know whether I preferred to alter the formula to do without the offending ingredient, or simply let go of getting the BBQ sauce labeled organic.

Apparently the brand of liquid smoke we use (purchased locally by the quart from a Mennonite dry goods and grocery just three miles down the road) contains polysorbate 80, which OneCert brands a proscribed ingredient in organic products. (I reckon anything with a name that has that many syllables and a number at the end is automatically suspect.) While polysorbate 80 is FDA approved as an emulsifier (it's a common ingredient in commercial ice cream, so that it will hold air and retain its shape better as it melts—and we all know that's important), it's suspected of monkeying with fertility among those who innocently ingest it. (Actually, it probably causes just as much trouble among those who guiltily ingest it, but you know what I meant.)

Organic certification generally allows food producers to use non-organic ingredients (up to 5% by weight) if an organic source of that ingredient is not available.
As liquid smoke is potent, I'm putting less than a teaspoon in every pint of finished product—which is to say, you're much more at risk for unproductive family planning eating Coldstone vanilla ice cream than baked tempeh slathered with Sandhill barbecue sauce. Though I did due diligence when I cobbled up the recipe years ago, my search for an organic source of liquid smoke came up empty.

While that still seems to be the case (it's conceivable, I suppose, that an organic supply does exist somewhere and mighty Google somehow failed to ferret out that particular ort of food arcana), now that I've been alerted to the health questions about polysorbate 80, I tried a different tack than the two choices Gigi offered. Instead of giving up on the coveted "organic" designation or the use of liquid smoke (a flavoring I deem essential), I started hunting for a liquid smoke that didn't contain the execrable emulsifier.

The Wright Stuff
It turned out that Google had no trouble at all pointing me to a source of no-additive liquid smoke: B&G Foods out of Parsippany NJ makes a brand called Wright's. I can get it by the gallon and I even have a choice between mesquite or hickory. Yeehah! Just to be on the safe side, we're running Wright's liquid smoke ingredient list by OneCert to make sure they don't label it Wrong.

Ultimately, we've been thinking it might be a good strategy to build our own smokehouse, where we could not only cure our own bacon and hams (starting with our own organic porkers, of course), but we might be able to smoke new-crop onions each August and then use those to flavor our barbecue sauce instead of what comes out of a bottle. If this works, salt and Irish Moss flakes (a seaweed used as a thickener) will be the only ingredients we're not producing right here on our farm. Talk about locavore.

In any event, when the smoke clears, we hope to have an organic barbecue sauce proudly bearing the Sandhill label. And by the way, it tastes great!

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