Tar-Removing Tip For Beach-Bound Spring Breakers And Vacationers

I’m currently in Southern California, mixing a bit of business and pleasure. I’m officially visiting my parents, but yesterday, I headed up to Santa Barbara for the night to research a story for a guidebook. On my way home today, I went for a late afternoon run on my favorite beach. As a former SB resident, it’s something I’ve done dozens of times in the past.

As I pounded barefoot through the surf, I was struck by the fact that this beach, which shall remain nameless, was almost empty. It was bizarre, because usually there are lots of other runners, walkers and even the occasional horseback rider, all of whom come to take advantage of the mile-and-a-half-long swath of smooth sand. I also love this location because I never fail to see dolphins, but today, no dice.

After my run, I headed back to the car. Because I was trying to beat weekend traffic, I just brushed the sand off the tops of my feet and put my socks and shoes back on. I arrived at my parents’ house an hour later, and, upon removing my socks, discovered why the beach was deserted. Apparently one of the many offshore oil rigs had recently had an accident, because the bottoms of my feet were literally blackened with tar.

Fortunately, my 80-year-old mom spends a lot of time trawling the Internet, and she had the solution … sort of. “I’m pretty sure it’s mayonnaise,” she said. “That, or peanut butter.” Which is how I ended up sitting on my parents’ kitchen floor, rubbing both substances on my left foot with one hand, while trying to fend off their dogs with the other.

For the record, a cup of peanut butter works, although I don’t recommend you use chunky, given the choice.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Tommy Petroni]

Ten iconic foods of summer, and where to find them

Aah, summer. A time for the beach, pool parties, lazy days…and sheep cheese? While many foods are undeniably the essence of summer–watermelon, peaches, and anything grilled come to mind–there are plenty of edibles not identified as seasonal foods.

Most of my favorite things to eat just happen to peak in summer, so I decided to compile a list of both the obvious and not-so. Even the most dedicated city-dweller can find these foods with minimal effort. Farmers markets abound in major metropolitan areas, as do specialty food shops and local produce-focused grocery stores and food co-ops. Just look for the most local product where things like tomatoes or corn are concerned; they degrade quickly, and summer produce is all about freshness.

1. Cherries
I used to work for an organic peach and cherry farmer at several Bay Area farmers markets. Each year around this time, customers would start getting antsy, wanting to know when the first cherries of the season were coming in.

I understood. I also eagerly await their all-too brief appearance. Sweet cherries have a wide growing range, from the Pacific Northwest and Southwest to the Rockies. But Traverse City, Michigan, gets the title of Cherry Capital of the World. Their famous National Cherry Festival is July 2-9th, but should you miss out, there are U-picks pretty much everywhere cherries are grown. FYI: Most tart (“pie”) cherries are grown in Michigan.

[Photo credit: Flickr user dr_knox]2. Copper River Salmon
The first shipment of this Alaskan treasure hit the tarmac at Seattle-Tacoma Airport on May 17th. While season and availability depend upon how stable the fishery is during a given year, May 15th to mid-June is when you can usually find this succulent, deeply-flavored species on menus and in the marketplace. If you’re feeling really motivated, take an Alaskan fishing expedition. However you procure it, treat it gently and prepare simply, so you can best enjoy this most fleeting and precious of wild ingredients.

3. Corn
“Knee-high by the Fourth of July.” The first time I heard that old-timey phrase, I was driving with a chef through the verdant farmland of Southern Wisconsin. As with cherries, people get really amped up over the imminent arrival of sweet corn. U-picks and farm stands are a way of life in Cape Cod and other parts of the Northeast (how can you have a clam bake without fresh corn?). And “fresh” is key. Corn starts to lose its delicate, milky sweetness the moment it’s picked; refrigeration converts the natural sugars into starch. Resist purchasing until the day you need it, and don’t shuck it prior (avoid purchasing pre-shucked ears, or those with dry, brown, or slimy tassels). For a real down-home corn hoe-down, check out the Olathe Corn Festival on Colorado’s Western Slope.

4. Blue crabs
A few years ago, I went crabbing for the first time in an estuary on the Florida Panhandle’s “Forgotten Coast.” Those blues tasted all the sweeter because I’d caught them myself (Equipment check list: string, bait, and a net. Go to this site to see what state permits are required, and double-check with local authorities). Alas, BP has utterly screwed the marine and estuary life and livelihood of the fishermen on parts of the Gulf Coast (word is the Apalachicola/Forgotten Coast was spared). An alternative are Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. While commercial harvests are in decline due to habitat loss, it’s still considered a “good alternative,” according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Just don’t be greedy.

5. Santa Barbara Spot Prawns
Spot prawns–actually a species of large shrimp– can be found throughout the North Pacific, but this fishery has a rep for being one of the most sustainable, due to it’s strict regulations, catch-method (traps), and the fact that the small fleet are all small, family-run vessels. Because the cold, deep waters of the nearby Channel Islands are so clean and nutrient-rich , SB spot prawns are revered for their sweet, lobster-like flesh. Supplies are limited, however, due to loss of habitat (if you need to purchase a large quantity, opt for British Columbia spot prawns). While technically available yearround if the fishery is stable, spot prawns are an iconic Santa Barbara summertime treat, especially grilled. You can purchase them from the fishermen at the farmer’s market; at the Santa Barbara Fish Market (live and frozen) or straight off the boat at the adjacent Saturday morning Fish Market at the Harbor (7-11am).

6. Wild mushrooms
The Rocky Mountains explode with edible fungi such as morels, chanterelles, and boletes (porcini) come early August, which is monsoon season. If you’re not an experienced forager, be sure to go with someone who is, or see if your local mycological society offers forages. Never eat a mushroom you’ve collected without having it identified by an expert, first. If you live in mushroom country, which also includes the Pacific Northwest, and parts of the South and Midwest, you’ll likely find foraged mushrooms at the farmers market. If you want to really geek-out, don’t miss the Telluride Mushroom Festival, August 18-21st. Seminars, forages, special dinners, and a truly, uh, trippy parade are the highlights.

7. Tomatoes
Sun-ripened. Just picked and still warm–preferably from your own garden or container planter. Or just check local farmers markets, farm stands, specialty food stores, and co-ops for local, sustainably-grown heirlooms or hybrids such as Early Girl. Tomato-lovers understand that there ain’t nothing like the real thing.

8. Watermelon
Few can resist a slice or three of icy-cold watermelon, followed by a long nap on a sweltering summer afternoon. Cordele, Georgia, declares itself the Watermelon Capital of the World (Watermelon Days Festival ion June 3rd!), but Arizona, Florida, and California’s Imperial and Riverside Counties are the other major growing regions. My personal favorites come from Northern California’s pastoral Capay Valley, located between Davis and Sacramento. The Valley’s dry, intense heat produces melons with a syrupy sweetness and perfume balanced by fine-textured flesh. Bonus: most of the farms in the area are small, organic or sustainable family operations; look for Capay or North Valley/Sacramento Delta melons at Bay Area farmers markets.

9. Honey
Most folks don’t realize honey is a seasonal food. But during the chilly, wet winter months, bees hunker down in the hive, feeding on honey. Come mid-to-late spring, they again venture out in search of pollen. Seasonal harvests depend upon location, climate, and food source (pollens) but on average, a beekeeper can expect two to four hauls between late spring and late summer/early fall.

If you’ve never tried local, raw (unheated; pasteurizing or heating destroys flavor compounds as well as health benefits), unfiltered honey, you’re in a for a big treat. Honey has proven anti-microbial properties, and studies show consuming local honey helps prevent seasonal allergies (by ingesting it, you’ll build up a tolerance to the allergens). The flavor complexities and textures in local honey are specific to microclimate, and what the bees are eating. Where I live, in Seattle, blackberry honey is treasured. But you can find great local honey anywhere: whenever I’m in New Mexico, for example, I’ll puchase a jar from a roadside stand.

10. Fresh goat and sheep’s milk cheeses
As with honey, our urban-dwelling culture has mostly lost touch with the concept of seasonality, especially as it pertains to certain crops and food products. Cheese is of an entirely seasonal nature, especially at the “artisan” level. A small-scale cheesemaker creates product as the milk supply waxes and wanes throughout the season(s). The flavor and chemical composition of the milk also changes, depending upon how lush the pasture, if the animal’s feed is supplemented by hay or grain, and what plants are indigenous to the region.

While cows produce milk for about 10 months of the year, sheep and goats lactate only during the spring, summer, and sometimes early fall months. That makes cheeses produced from sheep and goat’s milk a seasonal specialty, especially when they’re fresh varieties such as tangy chevre or fromage blanc, or sweet, milky ricotta. I know summer has arrived when the first deliveries of cloud-like sheep’s curd arrive at the cheese shop I work at.

We live in a time when we can get whatever ingredient or food product we want, when we want it (usually at the expense of massive fossil fuel consumption, environmental degradation, and pesticide use that affects the health of both consumer and farmworker). Some things are just worth waiting for.

What’s your favorite seasonal food of summer? We’d like to hear from you!

[Photo credits: corn, Flickr user agrilifetoday; all remaining photos, Laurel Miller]

Post-Gulf Spill: The more things change, the more slippery they get

A trio of news stories out of the Gulf remind that the more things change in the region — whether natural disaster (hurricanes), manmade screw up (oil rig explosions) or government intervention (drilling bans) — the more they stay the same.

Within weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank nearly one year ago the Obama Administration banned all new deepwater drilling. The ban lasted until October 12. This week the Department of Interior announced it had approved its first new permit to drill deep in the Gulf of Mexico since the spill.

Noble Energy, a Houston-based operator, is the prizewinner, which the new Bureau of Ocean Energy, Regulation and Enforcement – the reorganized Minerals Management Service, the federal office that had cozied up to the oil industry for years — says it thoroughly vetted. Noble had begun drilling to 13,858 feet when it was halted by the spill.

The announcement was welcomed by the oil industry as its shares jumped on Wall Street. “We expect further deepwater permits to be approved in coming weeks and months based on the same process that led to the approval of this permit,” said the agency’s director Michael Bromwich.

For Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal the permit was a “good first step.” The first-term governor – who faces election this November — wants more permits granted faster. “We must quickly get to a level of issuing permits that represents a critical mass so thousands of oil and gas industry workers can get back to work fueling America again.”

It’s no surprise of course that’s Jindal’s take. As the Times pointed out this week he’s long been “cozy” with the oil industry, relationships complicated – or greased, dependent on your view — by a foundation set up by his wife the month after he was elected in 2007, the Supriva Jindal Foundation for Louisiana’s Children.

Among the biggest donors – all legal under Louisiana law – are Marathon Oil ($250,000), Israeli oil company Alon USA ($250,00), Dow Chemical ($100,000), Northrop Grumman, AT&T as well as other oil companies, insurers and construction companies.

While campaign donations are limited, donations to Mrs. Jindal’s Foundation are not.
What’s in it for the corporations, above and beyond supporting the foundation’s goal of delivering much-needed hi-tech equipment to schools in the poorest neighborhoods of Louisiana? AT&T hopes the governor will sign a law allowing it to sell cable TV rights without negotiating directly with individual parishes; Marathon was granted approval a year ago to expand the amount of oil it can refine at its Louisiana plant; Alon is seeking permit to dump more pollutants at its Krotz Spring refinery. And on and on.

Politicians using do-good foundations to (vaguely) mask corporate bribery is hardly a new tactic. PACs and political interest groups on both sides of the fence have been doing it for decades.
But in Louisiana, where corruption is a long-practiced fine art, the Jindals’ mutual interests aren’t masked at all. A picture of the governor with his wife graces the foundation’s website, his chief fundraiser is the charity’s treasurer and an employee of the governor’s office, working as an aide to Mrs. Jindal, is the contact for the foundation’s books.

While corporations continue to get their way in Louisiana, it appears many of those whose lives were impacted by last April’s oil spill will have to wait a bit longer for re-compensation.
Citing “lack of adequate documentation,” Ken Feinberg – appointed by Obama to dole out up to $20 billion of BP’s money to those whose livelihoods were affected by the spill – admitted that more than 100,000 claims currently on file might never be paid.

“Roughly 80 percent of the claims that we now have in the queue lack proof,” Feinberg said last week in Washington, admitting it was “a huge number.”

To-date his office has paid out nearly $3.6 billion, to 168,000 individuals and businesses across the Gulf, mostly emergency payments of a few thousand dollars.

Feinberg’s denials angered state governments in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, the White House … and a boatload of individuals in the region who’ve either already lost businesses or need money to jump start them. The states are appealing to the courts for redress, which means the lack of payments will certainly go on for months. Individuals are largely left holding the bag.

From its perspective, BP feels Feinberg has been “overly generous.” Any of the $20 billion not paid out goes back to BP. Meanwhile the oil company is paying Feinberg’s law firm $850,000 a month to administer the fund, which is currently being renegotiated – upwards. The lawyers are most likely happy to see the payment process drag on … and on.

[flickr photo via DVIDSHUB]

Update from the shores of Louisiana

A trio of events happening simultaneously this week along the Gulf coast is stirring debate:

  1. The team responsible for paying out damages to Gulf spill victims is about to start writing checks to those who’ve proved they deserve it;
  2. NOAA has given its blessing to reopening a 4,200-square-mile area of the Gulf of Meico to fishing, near where the BP well exploded;
  3. and chemical researchers are still trying to draw attention to what they regard as fact, that the Gulf seafood bears toxic levels that are still too high for human consumption.

Like most things in Louisiana, the three are inextricably related: In order to write checks, Ken Feinberg – charged with doling out $20 billion of BP’s cash — needs to be able, as best he can, to ascertain the long-term impacts of the spill on the region. The researcher he hired has issued a report that suggests the impacts of the spill will be less severe than anticipated, on both fish and man. Yet there is a fervent crowd of scientists and environmentalists working in the region who contend the testing being done by the government is insufficient and that the seafood is still tainted. Amid that confusion the federal government (via NOAA) feels a need open closed fishing grounds in order to get fishermen back to work and stimulate the local economies.
As reported in the Times, marine biologist Wes Tunnell was hired by Feinberg, to guesstimate how long the Gulf and particularly its seafood would take to recover from the spill. His 39-page report was released yesterday. While admitting the report would not be the last word, Tunnell – a marine researcher and associate director of Texas A&M’s Harte Research Institute which focuses on the Gulf of Mexico – says the Gulf is undergoing a “strong recovery, with overall fish populations potentially back to pre-spill levels by the end of 2012.”

Criticism came fast. Ian MacDonald, a member of the National Wildlife Federation’s science advisory panel said, “This is not a scientific report, it’s an opinion.” LSU biological oceanographer James Cowan said, “He may be right, and I hope he’s right. But it doesn’t sit well with me. I think it’s too soon to just write it off.”

Nonetheless, Feinberg will use the Tunnell report to base his payouts.

The same day that Tunnell claimed repairing the Gulf was happening more quickly than expected, the federal government reopened fishing grounds off Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama which had first been closed immediately after the April 20 spill, then reopened in the fall and closed again on November 24 when a commercial shrimper found tar balls in his net.

After some investigation, NOAA decided those tar balls were unrelated to the BP spill, so opened the 4,200 square miles again to deepwater shrimping.

None of which sits well with those who still believe that human health has been adversely impacted by high levels of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in Gulf seafood and the impact of all that oil and dispersants that were released into both the water and air.

Citing stats from recent blood tests on Gulf residents and clean-up workers, which show high levels of a variety of “volatile solvents,” the Emergency Committee to Stop the Gulf Oil Disaster has organized a public forum in New Orleans. Led by Dr. Wilma Subra the hope of the forum is to air some of these differing takes and remind local residents that the impacts of the spill linger.

The forum can be streamed live at Fluxview, USA

Read more from Jon Bowermaster’s Adventures here.

[flickr image via lagohsep]

Bowermaster’s Adventures: Checking in on the BP spill cleanup

Reports last week from the beaches of Alabama and Mississippi suggest that the post-BP gusher cleanup continues, with varying degrees of success, and that new oil continues to show up.

Near the Alabama-Florida border, a placed called Perdido (Lost) Key, BP-contracted crews have been sifting sand for more than six months to try and get rid of tar mats buried nearly three feet beneath the sand.

Having suffered 50 percent losses in tourist’s dollars last summer, the effort is being made to insure the areas renowned white sand beaches are pure white by the first of the New Year. The idea is to next move the process west along the coastal islands of Mississippi and the marshlands of Louisiana, using slightly different systems.

But locals in Perdido Key tell the Times that while a BP spokesman says he expects to eventually get “99 percent of what’s out there,” all the sifting and shifting of sand is not getting rid of the oil, just spreading it around.

Near Harrison, Mississippi, crews have been cleaning oil and tar balls off the beach for 200 days and the work continues, with expectations that it will last through next summer. A BP spokesman there says each crew is picking up 20 to 30 pounds of tar balls a day, by hand, since machinery has proved inefficient against the “small, oily clumps.” Along with the visible tar balls scattered along the shore, there is also concern about possible sub-surface oil buried beneath a layer of sand.Just offshore Harrison, the low-lying sand barrier called Horn Island took the brunt of the oil spill; heavy machinery is still being used there to try and clean it up.

Suggestions that the oil from the spill and its long-lasting impact is mostly gone seem to be exaggerated. About 135 shrimp and fishing boats are still at sea aiding in the cleanup; another 1,200 boats are waiting to be scrubbed clean and decontaminated at more than 20 dry docks across the Gulf of Mexico. Approximately 9,000 square miles of federal Gulf waters remain closed to fishing; bad weather has kept crews from getting enough species to sample and decide whether to reopen some of that area. It’s estimated that the daily cost of the cleanup has dropped to $27 million, from a high of about $67 million … a day.

Different cleanup concerns are being voiced about the Chandeleur Islands at the mouth of the Mississippi River off Louisiana. That’s where Governor Bobby Jindal and his troops attempted a quick fix at the height of the spill, bulldozing thousands of tons of sand in an effort to build-up berms to try and prevent the oil from reaching the marshes and shores.

Unfortunately, according to my friend Ivor van Heerden, a coastal restoration expert who’s been monitoring the impact of the spill since the very first day, that berm-building process buried oil as deep as seven feet. Since it was halted no effort has been made to retrieve that buried oil. He predicts normal winter erosion will unearth it and send it on to the shoreline.

He is concerned that local politicians may be purposely dragging their heels on proper clean up as a way to keep attention – and federal dollars – focused on the state.

“A few weeks back I had the opportunity to speak to some researchers at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and in their opinion Louisiana has become a ‘victim’ state. It cannot manage its resources well enough to generate sufficient income; instead it looks to get ‘payout’s’ from time to time. They also pointed out that this is a very slippery slope for a state.”

Flickr image via GT51