November 19, 2010

Turkey Talk: Go Organic This Thanksgiving

As a graduate student in the mid-1990s, I worked for a generous businessman who handed out fresh, free-range, organic turkeys to his employees for Thanksgiving. It caught me by surprise
the first time he proudly handed me a large box with a raw turkey inside. That hadn’t happened before.

I didn’t plan to cook a meal at home that year, I wasn’t sure if the bird would fit into my refrigerator, and I wondered why he went to the trouble of ordering this particular type of turkey for all of us. How’s that for gratitude? But after my initial adjustment to the idea of it, and once I’d figured out when and how to cook it, I began to understand the importance of his gesture.

My employer had just introduced me to something far superior to what I’d usually bought on sale with a coupon at the grocery store. Better tasting, moist, no fuss about thawing since it’s fresh, nicely shaped, more compact - this turkey actually appeared to have more vitality than all the previously frozen, conventionally grown ones I’d seen before. Since then, I’ve insisted on the same. Who could go back?

In addition, I became aware of something I’d not paid much attention to up to that point: the unsettling treatment of poultry in conventional farming practices. The majority of turkeys eaten on Thanksgiving have been raised in crowded indoor conditions under heat lamps and fed genetically-modified (GMO) corn, soybeans, and fillers. This feed is laced with pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics (to try to reduce the number of birds getting sick from an uncomfortable life in extremely crowded conditions).

Some of the turkeys are fattened to the point they can’t walk. “Broad Breasted Whites” are huge breasted turkeys bred to satisfy the American love of white meat, but many of them die on the floor of their crowded coop, unable to survive the inhumane treatment.

After an unthinkable slaughter, dry industrial turkeys are often injected with a saline solution in an attempt to get them to be more moist and taste better. But they truly don’t taste that well, which is why there are so many recipes for helping a turkey taste better: brining, basting, barbecuing, deep-frying, and all sorts of marinades, seasonings, and gravies. Put it in a paper bag, put it in a plastic bag, stuff it with onions and apples, start it in a hot oven then turn down the oven while basting every half hour. Who wants to do all that in the midst of setting the table, keeping the house cleaned up, managing side dishes, and welcoming friends and family with a smiling face?

With a fresh, organic, free-range, humanely-raised turkey, none of that is necessary. You can add a few seasonings if you want, but even with just a little salt you’re good to go. Put it in the oven and it’s going to taste great. I butter the skin and add garlic, sometimes putting a rosemary sprig and onion in the cavity, or even good old stuffing, which is less of a concern because organic turkeys don’t have the same risk of salmonella poisoning as conventionally grown birds.

An added bonus is you’ll know your bird had a good life roaming around in fresh air, eating bugs and grass and things turkeys eat in nature. The drawback? A higher price tag. If more people supported organic farming methods, the prices would come down. In the meantime, I’d prefer to pay a bit more and support an organic farmer who has our health and the wellbeing of the earth in mind.

November 13, 2010

Zero VOC, Non Toxic, Healthier Painting

For several years my home office has been the color of sea foam green. This particular room is always cold, even in summer, and needs an extra heater to bring it to a comfortable temperature.

A few weeks ago as the weather began to turn chilly, in a moment of do-it-yourself enthusiasm I decided I was done with the sea foam green, a shade that can in fact make the room feel colder than it is. I wanted a color that would make the room warmer.

Have you tried to decide on a paint color lately? It’s daunting. Standing in the middle of an enormous home improvement warehouse, I actually began to consult the names of the colors, as a way to help me decide. Who has the job of thinking up these names? I selected “Moroccan Sky,” an earth tone resembling terra cotta. Perfect.

I wanted my Moroccan Sky to be zero-VOC to limit my toxic exposure. VOCs are Volatile Organic Compounds found in a variety of products such as furniture, carpeting, adhesives, and paints. The compounds release into the air and can cause ailments from allergies to cancer to ozone layer depletion.

Nowadays you can take in a swatch of color that can be matched in almost any brand of paint. But getting my exotically named orange-brown paint without VOCs apparently meant complications for the paint department employee, who seemed more interested in stocking shelves than mixing paint. So he said, “It’s a lot more expensive and really doesn’t matter. Today’s paints are all very low in VOCs. It’s not like the old days. These are all incredibly low, so just get what you want in any brand and you’ll be fine.”

I doubted this, truly, but I was on a DIY enthusiasm roll which doesn’t come around often. I went ahead with Moroccan Sky and its “low” VOCs. Once back home in full paint mode, it was clear there were plenty of toxins coming out of the can, into the air, and onto my wall. The smell was so strong I took frequent breaks even though a good breeze blew through the windows. I began to wonder about cancer. I painted one wall, got out quickly, and let the room air out overnight with an air filter running on turbo.

The next day I went to my small local hardware store and inquired about a paint color that is a few notches down the scale. It was a bit too ambitious after all, to have four “Moroccan” walls. I wanted warmth, not a cave. This paint department employee was very agreeable that zero-VOC, non-toxic paint is the way to go. He gave me literature supporting the reasons why it’s better for our health, which I knew but had lost sight of in my eagerness to get started. I settled on “Spiced Cider” and even the employee said it sounded wonderful.

Let me spare you the further details of my painting adventures and get to the point, which is to say, if you are up for a change and would like to paint your home or office, spend the extra $10 per gallon to get paint that is safe for you, your pets, and the environment. Here are more reasons why:

•    There are little or no noxious fumes.
•    There isn’t toxic off gassing, which can occur for years with ordinary paint.
•    You can use the room right away without having to wait for the smell to dissipate.
•    You’ll be exposed to zero carcinogens. Be sure to verify this in the brand you purchase.
•    There will be no risk of toxicity to your kidneys, liver, and nervous system.
•    You’ll avoid sinus inflammation and allergies.
•    You won’t harm the ozone layer.
•    A zero-VOC, non-toxic paint won’t add more caustic chemicals to landfills.
•    You’ll protect your pets from breathing toxic indoor air, which in many cases is much more polluted than outdoor air. Ordinary paint fumes can kill birds, and you'll not have to worry about this at all.

Once I brought home my new gallon of Spiced Cider, I opened the lid and swiped a bit of it on the walls. Breathing easy, it felt like the best extra $10 ever spent.