Thursday, January 27, 2011

Why I Care About Bees

I'm sure by this point most of you have heard that we have a serious problem with bees. I'm not talking about killer bees, which seem to have appeared in places they really shouldn't exist. I'm talking about pretty yellow and black striped honey bees. It is called Colony Collapse Disorder and it was recognized to be a problem in 2006. Suddenly large populations of bees simply disappeared and nobody seemed to know why. Over the laste few years, several hypotheses have surfaced, none of which can completely explain the phenomenon, but all of which are plausible.

Some point toward disease as the culprit. Some have suggested that killer bees have squeezed honey bees out of their normal habitats. However, two of the theories that seem most likely to be causing the phenomenon are cell phones and pesticides. It has been suggested that cell phone signals somehow interfere with the signals honey bees use to communicate, in essence causing them to get lost. Unable to find their hives, they simply die. As far as pesticides are concerned, this is again, not a far fetched idea. Pesticides and insecticides are regularly used, particularly on commercial farms. While the flowers the bees feed from may not actually be sprayed, runoff and wind can carry these chemicals quite a ways, contaminating their food sources and killing them.

Why should I care?? Well, we should all care. Honey bees are responsible for pollinating a huge number of crops that we all rely on regularly. Without them these crops would disappear. Some of these include: onions, cabbage, peppers, melons, cucumbers, almonds, strawberries, soybeans, apples, avocadoes, eggplant, vanilla, tomatoes and grapes. The list goes on and on.

What can we do about this?? I for one make it a point to support local honey bee farms by purchasing their honey so that they can afford to keep the hives going. Beekeeping is tricky work. It can be expensive and fickle. One of the farms I frequent has 4 hives. They treat them equally and all 4 are located in the same spot on their farm. They tell me that every year for whatever reason one of the hives simply dies off and they have no idea what they did differently to cause that hive to perish when the others do perfectly well. So they buy new bees and repopulate the hive and start from square one.

The second thing you can do is to get involved in beekeeping yourself. Many people are putting up hives on their properties and letting the bees do their work. For those who are allergic to bee stings, this may not be a popular idea, but for those who have the space, the money and the desire, it can be an incredibly rewarding hobby and one they know is actually having an effect upon the environment and our future.

Ironically the company who has done the most to support research on Colony Collapse Disorder has been Haagen Dazs. Many of their flavors rely upon honey and crops pollinated by honey bees so they have created a special research fund to determine the cause and help fix the problem. Hopefully their efforts will help curtail the perpetuation of CCD and develop a course of action to help eliminate it.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Diagnosing Celiac Disease: A Work In Progress

I am currently reading yet another book about Julia Child called "As Always, Julia" by Joan Reardon. This is a collection of a series of letters written between Julia Child and her friend Avis Devoto. In one letter, Avis Devoto describes having suffered from anemia for twenty-five years. As I was reading this a red flag flew up in my mind which had celiac disease written all over it. Let me explain. My mother in law, who was finally diagnosed with celiac disease in 1997 suffered from chronic anemia to the point that she was getting recurrent iron shots which didn't seem to really help her. As it turns out, the anemia was a symptom of celiac disease but because doctors were not aware of or not accustomed to testing for this disease, they missed it and so she suffered for years without a real explanation.

Other very common symptoms that went misdiagnosed for years because of lack of knowledge were gastrointestinal problems, such as IBS, skin irritations, migraines, failure to thrive, fibromyalgia, neuralgia and any number of other diseases which involved lack of energy, stomach discomfort and a general sense of feeling ill. Many of these individuals went on to take medications for these ailments, which gave them only minimum relief and mostly just resulted in a sense of despair, a feeling that they would never feel "right" again.

I hear these stories over and over from those who have spent years getting a proper diagnosis. Ironically, most, if not all, feel an immediate sense of relief as soon as they eliminate wheat gluten from their diets. For some, these symptoms may not have appeared in their youth, but later in life. This represents basically two kinds of celiacs, those who are immediately affected and those whose effects are cumulative, meaning the build up of exposure to gluten over a period of time will eventually cause discomfort. My mother in law is the first kind. She knows within minutes and has violent reactions.

So what is celiac disease exactly?? Essentially the proteins in wheat gluten cause inflammation of the villi or hairlike projections in the intestine. These hairlike projectsions are largely responsible for absorbing the nutrients ingested from food. When they become inflamed, they shrivel up and the end result is essentially malnourishment which manifests itself in the above mentioned symptoms. These villi will grow back once gluten is eliminated from the diet and therefore celiac disease is perfectly managed through diet, not requiring any medication for most.

It is important to mention that celiac disease should not be called an allergy in the true sense of the word but rather an intolerance. An allergy by definition creates a histamine response, which causes inflammation in the whole body rapidly and may result in not only rashes, but anaphylactic shock where ones throat will close up causing them the inability to breathe. These kinds of responses can be severe and can result in death. There ARE those who do suffer from wheat allergies. An intolerance like celiac disease may result in death over the long term, mostly from lack of absorption of nutrients, but is not immediately deadly. It also cannot be treated with medication, such as an epipen, to alleviate symptoms.

Diagnosis is simple but not foolproof. Usually it begins with a simple blood test to determine a preponderance toward celiac disease. Once a preponderance has been confirmed an endoscopy is required to confirm the damage to the villi for a true diagnosis to be made. Part of the problem that has been encountered by some is that once they receive a positive blood test they eliminate gluten from their diet and then have an endoscopy. Since the villi will grow back after the removal of gluten, they will show a false negative from the endoscopy.

There is also the issue of self-diagnosis. Celiac disease and wheat intolerances have become somewhat of a fad lately. Many are jumping on the band wagon so to speak, attempting to treat a number of different ailments with the assumption that they must suffer from a gluten intolerance. This is not to say that they won't feel better, as many will actually reap the benefits of eating more whole foods and less processed foods, but the result may not actually dictate the cause. In my mind, how you feel is enough to encourage you to continue on a wheat free diet, but to truly be sure, one should discuss this with a trained medical practitioner and particularly one who is familiar with testing for and diagnosing celiac disease.

For more information on how to eat gluten free, check out my cookbook "Let's Party: Gluten Free Entertaining for Everyone." The book was inspired by and tested on my mother in law. Log onto

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Low Down on Knives

The knife is probably the single most important tool in the kitchen for both beginning chefs and professional chefs. Obviously knowing how to use them is critical, but the knife in and of itself is important as well. There are a few things I have learned about knives over the course of the last say decade that I have been cooking and I am going to share what they are here.

1) Make sure you buy a knife that has a forged blade, meaning the blade goes all the way through the handle. This will ensure a much longer life expectancy then one without.

2) Get a knife that fits your hand. People generally assume that one size fits all. Well, I have found that isn't true. I have really small hands compared with most male chefs. Therefore I require a much smaller knife. You can test knives out at quality knife purveyors and hold them to see how they feel in your hand. Go with one that feels natural and doesn't have a blade too much longer than the length of your hand.

3) Look for a knife that has good weight to it. I want the knife to do the work for me, not vice versa.

4) Get a Santoku style knife. Santoku is a Japanese style knife that has ridges along the blade. These ridges actually create air pockets that allow food to pull away from the blade rather than sticking. This really makes a difference when you are trying to chop something rapidly and don't want it spraying everywhere.

5) Get a good quality hone and learn how to use it. Keeping a knife sharp is paramount to not cutting oneself. You are infinitely more likely to cut yourself using a dull knife, which sticks than a sharp knife. About 3 or 4 times a year, have your knife professionally sharpened. Incorrect knife sharpening can actually damage the blade and destroy it. If you were to magnify a blade you would see what look like little teeth. These teeth are in alignment when a knife is sharp and are frayed outward when a knife is dull. If you incorrectly sharpen a knife, rather than realigning these teeth, you may actually break them off and create gaps in the blade.

6) NEVER put a good quality knife in the dishwasher. Always wash it in hot soapy water. The dishwasher can use harsh abrasive cleaners which can damage the blade of a knife as well as allow the knife to bang around, hitting other dishes, pots and pans again, potentially damaging the blade.

7) Store your knife safely in either a knife rack or a knife protector. Again, simply keeping it in the drawer with other utensils may result in damaging the blade fo the knife.

Nowadays one can purchase a decent quality knife for approximately $50-$75. I don't recommend butcher block sets as they tend to be mediocre quality knives even though they offer a lot of bang for your buck. Of all the equipment to invest in, above and beyond expensive pots and pans, expensive gadgets and gizmos, a knife will always get use and can accomplish almost anything in the kitchen.