Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Barbecue Restaurant Inside Whole Foods - BBQ Shack

As soon as the massive new Whole Foods on Poplar near Mendenhall opened up I started getting messages about the barbecue restaurant inside the store. Everyone spoke highly about the quality of the food there so I stopped in a little after 1 p.m. on Monday, hoping the catch the store at a time when it wouldn't be completely overrun with customers.

I used to dread visiting the old Whole Foods store that was located a little further back in the same parking lot. It had a lot of quality products you couldn't find anywhere else in Memphis, which drew crowds that could make it a pain to navigate. Luckily the company responded to the obvious consumer demand with a far roomier new store that offers an even wider range of goods. Even at an off time on a Monday afternoon the parking lot was packed and there were a lot of people in the store, but it didn't feel cramped or crowded. Rather than ask someone where the barbecue restaurant was I simply spent some time wandering around checking out the impressive assortment of merchandise until I came across it.

The BBQ Shack restaurant operates as a separate entity from the rest of the grocery. Once you go inside it you pay for anything you get there before exiting. This allows it to serve beer for on-premises consumption, you just can't take any beer you purchase in the BBQ Shack out into the grocery store area.

Once I arrived at the order counter inside the BBQ Shack I was impressed by the appearance of the meat on display, which included pulled pork, pork ribs, beef brisket, chicken and duck. I chatted with supervisor Jacob Dries about the impressive bark and smoke penetration on the meat and he ended up letting me sample a few bites of everything, along with all the house-made sauces, before I ordered.

The most delicious meat I sampled was the duck, but there wasn't enough of it for me to get a full order. Apparently word has gotten around about how good it is and it sells out quickly whenever it comes out of the pit. The Shack uses a gas-assisted Ole Hickory cooker loaded with enough hickory wood to get some good smoke into the meat.

The quality of barbecue cooked on a gas-assisted smoker depends on the technique being used to cook. Since they are controlled by a thermostat, if they are fired up with no added wood they will simply cook with gas and create the kind of oven-cooked pork with no smoke flavor common on Beale Street. But the cookers can create great barbecue with a real wood fire going in them. Local restaurants like Leonard's and Jim Neely's Interstate cook shoulders in gas-fired pits loaded with a mix of charcoal and wood. Gas is lighting the fire, but the flavor is coming from the smoke.

I ended up talking to marketing manager Emily Lux on my way out of the store and she told me the BBQ Shack sources its hickory wood from Pert Whitehead at the Charcoal Warehouse on Florida Street. That speaks well for Whole Foods' commitment to offering real Memphis barbecue. She said a lot of the bigger locations have area-specific restaurants inside them, so barbecue was an obvious choice for Memphis. All the meats used in the restaurant meet the same standards for humane animal treatment as the ones sold in the Whole Foods grocery for a refreshing alternative to all the commodity pork common in the restaurant industry.

Despite the higher animal welfare standards and the chain's "Whole Paycheck" reputation, lunch from the BBQ Shack was surprisingly affordable. I paid $9 for a two meat, two side combo that provided generous portions of brisket, pulled pork, beans and slaw.

The brisket and pulled pork both had a good enough flavor from the smoke and rub they were seasoned with to be eaten without sauce, but Dries had given me samples of six different sauces; Kansas City, Memphis, South Carolina Mustard, chipotle, North Carolina vinegar, and Au Jus. The Kansas City sauce was too sweet for my taste but I enjoyed the tangier Memphis sauce on my pulled pork with a little of the chipotle added for an extra bit of kick. The mustard tasted like it would have paired great with the duck if there had been enough for me to get a full order. The Au Jus was a perfect match for the brisket. I think the vinegar would go well with the ribs based on my experiences with the vinegar sauce at Central BBQ, although the single bone I tried had a good enough dry rub flavor that it didn't require any accompaniment.

The slaw was overly creamy and had too much carrot in it. A little carrot is nice for some adding a little sweetness and variety to a slaw's flavor and texture but this was like a half-and-half mix of carrot and cabbage. On the other hand I give a hearty thumbs up to the beans for having a half-and-half mix of beans and brisket meat.

It was refreshing to see Whole Foods embracing traditionally prepared meats full of rendered fat since the company has been criticized in the past for promoting a fat-phobic plant-based diet. Ironically, even one of the workers in the BBQ Shack was wearing a button saying "take the Engine 2 challenge." The Engine 2 Diet is a popular book, sold at Whole foods, largely based on the bad science and tortured data found in The China Study, another book sold at Whole Foods.

The Engine 2 Diet and China Study both promote a plant-based diet while vilifying animal products and processed foods. There is no question that processed junk foods are bad for you. Removing sugars, flour, and vegetable oils from your diet will make you much healthier. It certainly did for me. That is why the diets are initially helpful for a lot of people. But there is no reason to shun animal fats, which are also a healthy whole food

Most modern chronic health problems are caused by inflammation and high blood sugar, which are caused by processed foods containing refined carbohydrates and vegetable oils. Avoiding those foods is the easiest way to lose harmful extra weight. The human body does a great job regulating hunger and the storage of fat when its hormones aren't messed up by foods it didn't evolve to handle. Natural animal products aren't one of those foods. In fact, archaeological evidence strongly suggests we evolved the big brains, made almost entirely of fat and cholesterol, that make us human specifically because we where eating so much animal fat, and steadily developing tools to get more of it.

If you watch a documentary like Forks Over Knives where formerly obese people talk about how much weight they quickly lost while not eating processed foods and animal products do a little simple math. There are 1,500 calories in a pound of fat. Take the amount of weight they lost, divide it by the number of days it took to lose it, then multiply by 1,500 to get the amount of fat they were burning each day. They felt so good because by avoiding vegetable oils and most carbohydrates they were getting most of their calories from natural animal fats; their own.

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Government Food Policies - Demanding Foxes Guard the Henhouse

While doing some research going through old microfilm at the Memphis Library's main branch on Poplar I ran across this old piece of dietary advice from the Memphis Press Scimitar newspaper in 1964.

The paper was recommending a diet full of fatty organ meats while dismissing plant-based foods like beans and peas as lesser quality proteins. Going through the old microfilm it is also jarring to notice how fit and slim almost everybody looked back then. Young, old, rich people, working-class people, men, women, black, white; I mean almost everybody.

I was an era in the South where almost every vegetable consumed was cooked with animal fat and when breakfast meant eggs cooked in real butter with bacon or sausage. When "whole milk" was simply called milk and the skimmed milk  leftover from making cream and butter was used to fatten pigs. It was nearly 30 years before the release of the USDA Food Pyramid in 1992. It was before people started following advice from the government, processed food companies and the medical industrial complex to cut animal fats from their diets. When you look at a picture of slim middle-aged men in suits at a Rotary Club meeting in the early '60s it is safe to assume that most of them had desk jobs and they weren't attending spin classes or running on treadmills after work.

Since then Americans have cut back on their consumption of animal fats. They've cut back on pork and beef and embraced boneless, skinless chicken breasts. They've dramatically increased their consumption of whole grains. They've cut fat from their diets and most of the fat they do consume comes from seed oils full of polyunsaturated fats instead of old staples like butter, beef tallow and pork lard.

The result has been a steady increase in rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, cancer and heart disease. The only area where people have ignored the food pyramid has been sugar, which has seen consumption rates increase dramatically. Of course, when you demonize dietary fat people have to find some way to get some flavor with their food. And government subsidies for corn have turned sugars like high fructose corn syrup into incredibly cheap calories sources.

I was reading today's Commercial Appeal when I ran across a column by Deborah Cohen, a physician and researcher at the Rand Corp., decrying the "food swamp" that we live in today. No argument there. Visit a modern grocery store and you'll find shelves lined with what food writer Michael Pollan has termed "edible food-like substances" instead of the fresh foods humans evolved eating.

But where Collen lost me entirely was her conclusion that, "Today, the harms associated with overeating in America are at least as great as the harms from drinking. Just as we needed policies to protect people from having alcohol thrust in their faces everywhere they went, we need to develop and implement policies that protect people from food cues and triggers designed to make them eat when they're not hungry and over-consume. It's time to drain the food swamp."

She is calling for government policy to dictate the availability of food. What would the basis for those policies be? In a previous column for the Healthcare Blog she wrote that, "The FDA should take a disease prevention approach — as it is currently doing with trans fat — in promoting standards that address how all foods are prepared and served away from home. Such regulations could be based on existing U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary guidelines that limit exposure to foods that increase health risks and optimize exposure to foods that protect against chronic disease."

The USDA dietary guidelines call for a grain-based diet with severely limited saturated fat. It's a diet that is responsible for our current epidemic of high blood sugar and all the other medical problems that stem from it like obesity, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer's. It isn't a diet based on science. It is a diet based on a government agency being charged with selling the agricultural products our government subsidizes.

Subsidies make foods like corn, wheat and soy appear cheap. They make farmers replace grazing land for animals with fields of monocrops that get harvested, shipped to high-density feedlots and fed to animals there instead. They turn unhealthy junk like flour, high fructose corn syrup and corn and soybean oil into ultra-cheap ingredients for the processed food industry, which makes those empty calories a huge part of the modern American diet.

People following government dietary guidelines have been a huge boon for a medical industry that absorbs 17 percent of the U.S. economy largely treating symptoms instead of making people healthy.

Cohen is correct that the obesity epidemic isn't a simple matter of lack of willpower in the general population. People are being manipulated and mislead. But she places all the blame on the food industry while calling for the government to help. Our modern food system is already the result of an unholy marriage of government and industry. The military industrial complex created a blueprint for making vast fortunes tying business to government policy. Our current agricultural industrial complex, like our current prison industrial complex and medical industrial complex, is just copying a successful formula.