"Fair Trade" Chocolate or "Child Slavery Free" Chocolate?

In researching fluoride, I stumbled into a blog and had to read the article titled As A Mother, I Refuse To Buy Child Slave Chocolate This Holiday Season. And she's right.

I am reasonably certain that chocolate that is certified "fair trade" does not touch the hands of child slave labor. But the rest of it: maybe, and maybe not. I don't know what the ratio is, but given the propensity to select the cheapest source to maximize profits, I am suspicious of the cheap stuff, and, well, basically everything that does not carry the "fair trade" label.

And looking in to that "fair trade" label, the Fair Trade USA website has no mention that they actually do any kind of certification. You can download the print-ready logos right from the site. It's really a service to help manufacturers decide to select fair-traded sources. But there's no evidence that any company can't just download the logos and slap them on the side of their products. But, I guess, it's mostly better, maybe? It's all I have to go on, so I'll take it.

So I've decided to stop buying non-fair-trade chocolate. It's like my decision to not buy meat unless I can get reasonable assurance it was from animals raised on a farm in decent conditions (e.g. able to roam a close-to-natural-sized habitat).

But damn it's hard! I want to have my Raisinets with a movie, or buy a brownie from the bakery. I'm really a junkie for this stuff. I did even cave and buy a cookie that had M&M eyes, savoring every slave-picked bite.

In all honesty, this is harder to quit than alcohol. It's really quite unnerving, especially since I can get fair-trade chocolate quite readily. It's just the innumerable habits I have of buying it spontaneously.

Some Smoothies are More Equal than Others

Last night I had a hankering for a fruit smoothie, and I decided to swing by Equal=GroundsMySpace link (750 South Ave., formerly Hunt's Hardware). I got a mixed berry with mint — ordinarily I'd go with blackberry with mint, but "mixed" is really black+rasp, so it was a pretty acceptable substitution. It was perfect: so full of flavor that any more would have been too sweet, and blended so smooth it all fit through the straw.

Contrast that to tonight when I stopped by Starry Nites Café (696 University Ave., formerly Moonbeans) for a light dinner before the movie. Although the peach smoothie was acceptably flavored, the chunks of ice were too big to fit through the straw, leading to the unpleasantness of ice jams.

I tolerated the ice jams worse than average because Ali had called that Lucy (the dog) was getting stitches after having been bit by a Rottweiler. The other dog had a sketchy past and had broke its collar; its owner was horrified and shaken. Lucy will probably be fine: she got bit pretty good in her front leg, but they managed to pull off the Rottweiler before it did any mortal damage.

The Eastman House Cafe's Anti-Local Habit

Eastman House Cafe's Coolers in December, 2011

Eastman House Cafe's Coolers in December, 2011

About a year ago I complained to the George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) about the coffee in their cafe. I noticed the cafe had replaced the fair-traded coffee from The Coffee Connection (681 South Ave., formerly the Women's Coffee Connection) with Eight O'Clock Coffee. More generally, the cafe had been replacing (and continues to replace) locally-sourced products with non-local ones. In a letter from Commercial Development Director Peter Briggs, he said that the Eight O'Clock Coffee was replacing Paul DeLima coffee, not the fair-traded coffee from Coffee Connection. He added that he was pleased to note that nearly all the checks sent out go to Rochester addresses. Poor proof indeed: my RG&E check goes to East Avenue, but that doesn't mean that it's local [hint: follow Carmen Sandiego to Spain].

Well, now it's come to pass that all that's available at the cafe is Eight O'Clock Coffee (unless you specifically ask for them to brew a pot of fair-trade just for you) [and I have not yet mentioned how flagrantly inferior Eight O'Clock is to locally-roasted beans, but that's another topic]. I've also noticed that the cooler — pictured above — is also sparse of local products. If you can't see close enough, the products and their manufacturers are:

  • Minute Maid, Dasani, SmartWater, Coke, Mello Yello, Fanta, Sprite, Barq's, Dr. Pepper, Power Ade, Vitamin Water: Coca-Cola Company, Atlanta, GA
  • V8: Campbell Soup Company, Camden, NJ
  • Tropicana: PepsiCo, Inc. (Purchase, NY, NYC area), Chicago, IL
  • Red Jacket Orchard: Geneva, NY
  • Honest Tea, Honest Ade: 40% Coca-Cola, Bethesda, MD
  • Silk: White Wave Foods, Dallas, TX
  • Hood: HP Hood, LLC, Lynnfield, MA
  • Perier: Nestlé Corporation, Vevey, Switzerland
  • Jones: Jones Soda Co., Seattle, WA
  • Crystal Geyser water: CG Roxane — of mysterious sources around California

Thus, there actually is what I'd qualify a "local product" tucked in there: Red Jacket Orchards from Geneva. But why no milk from Pittsford Farms Dairy, or even Byrne Dairy (from Syracuse), or even Upstate Farms? Why no soft drinks from Saranac (F.X. Matt Brewing Company in Utica)? Why no cider from Schutt's Cider Mill? And expanding to the rest of the cafe: why no snacks from Stever's, Hedonist, or the Nut House (two-of-three of which are available at the Little). At least the gelato is locally sourced and the cookies are baked on-site.

In my mind, the Eastman House has equal responsibility to support its community as its community does to support it. Given George Eastman's contributions to this city, it's apparent he was proud of it, and I can only assume he had an interest in supporting it.

The Beast Pageant in Boston

About this time last Thursday, I was arriving in Boston. As an actor in The Beast Pageant, I was tagging along with filmmaker Albert and costume designer Vanessa to The Boston Underground Film Festival (BUFF). The Beast Pageant's artistic dream-logic metaphor was just barely appropriate for the horror-and-gore territory covered by the festival.

The opening-night screening was Hobo With a Shotgun at The Kendall Square Cinema (1 Kendall Sq., Cambridge, MA) — where all the rest of the films would be screened. I found "Hobo" fantastic — a 1980's action-exploitation film with Rutger Hauer, no less, in the lead role as a hobo trying to make ends meet but cornered into violent action. The bad guys are played with comic-absurd gusto as all parties are supported by a tongue-in-cheek script.

Afterward, that night's part was at T.T. the Bear's Place (10 Brookline Pl., Cambridge, MA), right around the corner from Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub (472 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA). There were several bands and The Whore Church was performing live video mixing. Unfortunately it wasn't much of a place to chat (nor was there food) so we went to the Middle East for dinner which was pretty good. We weren't particularly impressed by T.T.'s as service was blasé and drinks were expensive ($2.50 for a soda, really? — but I guess that's Boston for you.) We got the last train on the Red Line to get home around 12:15 a.m.

On Friday we headed to The Gallery Diner (11 P St., South Boston, MA) which was fantastic. We made smalltalk with the friendly owners Paul and Colleen and the food was great. Exploring the Harvard Square area, we stopped at a few record and comic stores and I got an excellent fresh, locally-produced shake at the regional fast-food chain b.good (24 Dunster St., Cambridge, MA).

I checked out the "BUFF Family Values" short film program back at the festival and was pleased with all the films — some disturbing, some powerful, some funny, and some just strange. Later that night, we all saw Machete Maidens Unleashed which was a pretty decent documentary about the Philippine exploitation film industry in the 1970's and 1980's. I opted to see the 1973 film The Twilight People which was made in the Philippines during that era — a terrible film by nearly all counts. I recall listening to the dialog and thinking, "I wish they'd stop talking" and a scene later when they were walking through the jungle, "I wish there was more dialog". It was astounding to me that someone put this film together and decided they were done — continuity, plot, editing, and special effects came second to, well, cost, I guess.

Saturday started with an acceptable breakfast at Mul's Diner (75 W. Broadway, South Boston, MA). From there we went straight to the festival to catch "OMFG LMFAO!" and "Psychedelicinema" — a pair of shorts programs. The first offered a few chuckles but we didn't find it all that funny. The second was, in my opinion, a little better, but it was really abstract films and not psychedelic. We stayed for about half the program, skipping out partway through the 30-minute final film.

Between screenings I met Josh MacDonald, writer of The Corridor. I skipped the "Where the Music's At" music-videos short program, to see Josh's film. It was really excellent: evenly paced and gradually asking for suspended disbelief at the increasingly paranormal activity ensuing on screen. Despite its evenness, it delves into some extremely dark and gruesome territory — I found it highly successful.

We had a break and got to hang out (finally!) with other filmmakers at The Friendly Toast (1 Kendall Sq., Cambridge, MA) — and the only event to include free food. [I realize I'm knocking the festival for lackluster treatment of out-of-town guests, but I also know they're running on a shoestring budget and just didn't plan things out very well for us.] We finished the day with a pleasant at-home dinner with friends and family.

Sunday I met with my college friends at The Daily Catch (441 Harvard St., Brookline, MA). In 2002 I went to The Daily Catch (323 Hanover St., Boston, MA) and loved it, so I had to go back. The location in Brookline is bigger so Jan, Griffin, John, Michelle, Rob, Kevin, and myself could comfortably fit. Unfortunately they didn't open until 2 so we dawdled on the street, hanging out at the super cool Irving's Toy and Card Shop (371 Harvard St., Brookline, MA). At lunch I had the pistacio-encrusted swordfish which was fantastic. Everyone had a good meal for sure. We stayed and talked for a couple hours then Kevin and I headed back to the festival.

We got there a bit early and had plenty of time to get into the big event (for us): the screening of The Beast Pageant (and on IMDb). About 40 people showed up to watch it and, as best I can tell, really enjoyed it. It was fun to be part of the question-and-answer panel.

Afterward was the closing night party at Tommy Doyle's Irish Pub and Restaurant (1 Kendall Sq., Cambridge, MA). (The festival runs once during the weekend, and then nearly all the films are repeated during the week, making it possible to actually see every screening.) I had a celebratory shot of 18-year-old Glenlivet scotch — my first alcoholic drink since the beginning of December when I quit (I permit myself a rare taste of something extraordinary, or under truly extraordinary circumstances.) The Beast Pageant won a runner-up "Director's Choice" award for best feature.

On Monday things got amusing. We got up for breakfast and I headed out around 11:05 to get the train back home. We had been averaging 15 minutes to get to the South Station where I was to get the train, but today buses were running on a half-hour schedule rather than every 10 minutes. I called for a taxi around 11:30 and was promised one immediately; I passed on boarding a bus that arrived shortly after. Alas, the cab didn't show up in time. I took the next bus and got to the Amtrak station (Summer St. and Atlantic Ave., Boston, MA) about 20 minutes late — if only I'd have hopped on that 11:30 bus. Alas, I traded my unclaimed ticket for one tomorrow. At least I got to see "Future Imperfect" — the science fiction short film program. It was okay but not great. Kevin was kind enough to let me stay at his place.

That night he and I went out and got dinner at Punjab Palace (109 Brighton Ave., Allston, MA) which really had great Indian cuisine. After that we went to see bands play at Charlie's Kitchen (10 Elliot St., Cambridge, MA). We were disappointed in the first act and headed to The Lizard Lounge (1667 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA) for an open-mic. That was a blast and we stayed quite late. We got back to his house and I slept on the futon couch.

I left when Kevin went to work, taking the T into the city packed with all the commuters. I found the Banksy graffiti art that Kevin mentioned off Essex Street then went to The South Street Diner (178 Kneeland St., Boston, MA) for breakfast. The staff was friendly and the breakfast burrito was quite good. I hung around and chatted for quite some time, arriving at the train station with plenty of time to spare.

I was happy to be on the train home. I arrived in Albany a little late but had about an hour before it left again, so my parents stopped by and we had a quick and decent Italian dinner at (if I remember right) Rudy's V & R Ristorante (483 Broadway, Rensselaer) across the tracks from the station. I was worried for a bit but got back in time to get back on the train home.

Watching Dirt

I headed to the WXXI Studio (280 State St.) to see Dirt: the Movie. It was part of the WXXI Community Cinema series which includes a couple more screenings in the coming months. Although you can see Dirt: the Movie yourself on April 20 on TV, you miss out on the panel discussion afterward. To be perfectly frank, the panel was biased toward the statement of the movie: that dirt is an essential, living part of plant and animal life on this planet. As such, there were no experts from Monsanto to provide a counterpoint to sustainable, organic farming (you may notice that I'm also biased and lean toward the message in the film).

So anyway, the film. It's basically an essay film that argues that dirt is, as I said before, an essential, living part of plant and animal life on this planet. Some cute animations and a half-dozen or so talking-heads plays into the standard structure for such a film. I don't recall whether it mentioned how much of today's food comes from non-natural farming techniques, but since I figure it's a large percentage, I think that's an important fact to remember. The film spends more time highlighting the efforts of CSA farms — "Community Sponsored Agriculture" — that provides a counterpoint to the debt-based system we've attempted to apply to farming. The overall message is that the artificial structures we've created that are supposed to increase farming efficiency and feed us all are not sustainable in the long-run, and we must develop a sustainable model if we are to not go extinct.

Now, about that "debt-based system". In modern farming, farm owners are expected to have capital up-front to buy seed and equipment they need at the beginning of the season; they recoup their expenses by selling their crops throughout the year. Typically they will get a loan — often a mortgage — for those initial expenses and hope to pay it back. However, forces of nature and market forces play a huge role and a farmer may not be able to match their upfront expenses. CSA's do away with the risk associated with a loan because members of the farm pay dues up-front to pay for the crop, distribute the risk of farming, and result in farmers not going into debt.

Anyway, they also gave out door prizes and I won a DVD set of New York Wine and Table along with a coupon for Patty Love to perform a consultation on "permaculture" in my back yard. I was trying to decide whether to join the CSA at Mud Creek Farm (McMahon Rd., Victor), so I took it as a sign and (once I pay my taxes) I'll buy myself a membership. I have felt the push to start getting into farming and sustainability — I think I'm going to start paying less attention to my technical skills and start focusing on more plain, traditional techniques and steer toward laziness through innovation.

Macaroni and Cheese Off

I did get one question about the Macaroni and Cheese Off I hosted on Sunday, but otherwise, it was just a few friends. A friend of Ali's who I see around once in a while is a great local chef; every year I've mentioned having some kind of best mac-and-cheese contest with him during the winter. And every year, January, February, and March slip by before I remember to organize it. I finally got to it this year in February … just before it ended.

We had four entries including my own. Every one was significantly different: mine was a pretty by-the-book cheddar/parmesan baked number, our chef friend brought one with prosciutto, another included condensed milk, and the final entry was chilled like macaroni salad. Amusingly enough, everyone picked different shaped pasta, too. We also had a couple people bring vegetables to counteract the starch/fat/salt wonderland. As it turned out, prosciutto (and expert cooking, presumably) wins but nothing loses.

Spell check has its own opinion

Spell check has its own opinion

Dinner at Rocco with Ali

Ali and I went to Rocco (165 Monroe Ave., formerly The Olive Tree) for dinner and it was fantastic. We dropped in without a reservation and were happy to eat at the bar. Ali got the ziti with a side of meatballs which she loved — if I remember right: I was overwhelmed by the quality of my thick-cut pork chop special with parmesan cheese and a chili-spiced red sauce. Drinks, too, were excellent: the Stormy Monday was a great choice.  Ali even liked it despite that she otherwise hates the taste of bourbon. As it ended up, we were too full for dessert.

Grumbling About the Eastman House

As regular readers know, I am often compelled to rant vociferously on one inane topic or another — particularly if there are other, more productive ways to address my grievances. This time it's the Café at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) — and in two parts.

First, why the absence of regional treats? The inventory of the refrigerated case was recently changed to exclude Saranac or Stewart's soft drinks, end even the milk is inexplicably not from Byrne dairy, Pittsford Dairy, nor even Upstate Farms. Heck, The Little (240 East Ave.) offers treats from both Stever's Candies, Inc. (623 Park Ave.) and The Nut House (1520 Monroe Ave.) — a welcome respite from the chemical sludge inside colorful corporate wrappers. At least the gelato comes from The Royal Café (15 North Main St., Fairport) and the cookies are baked in-house (and, if I recall correctly, locally made as well).

Second, what's up with these Best of Rochester bars they sell? They are chocolate bars — and I am emphatically surrounding chocolate with sarcastic air-quotes … er, I guess then I mean they are "chocolate" bars whose label features a suitably bland image of the city skyline. It takes some audacity indeed to claim these as the best Rochester has to offer — I mean, what of Stever's Candies, Inc. (623 Park Ave.), Hedonist Artisan Chocolates (674 South Ave.), or even the sweet old Peter's Sweet Shop (880 S. Clinton Ave.); each of those are not only better, they offer some real excellence. Attempting to affect bizarre upstate city rivalry, I'll say it must be made by someone in Buffalo or Syracuse (where, perhaps, this might be considered "best"). More likely [and a more bizarre attempt to affect Monroe county township rivalry] is that they were made by some ignorant suburbanite who sees Rochester not as a vibrant, muti-cultured mini-metropolis, but the root of problems their leeching ways have caused.

They are sold by a company doing business as Made in Rochester in this area: a storefront for distributing locally sold products. Why the presumably identical candy bar (which is definitively not made in every city on their site, and "best" of none of them) is also sold is a mystery. Then again, I possess equal measures of congratulations and disgust: for this site caters to people with more money than, at best, desire to stay — five 6-packs of Zweigles hots sells for $65 for instance. There must be a word for the financial abuse of a population all too glad to pay: usury? good business? — it's hard to say anything but both.

Ramen-off at the Krown

Ali and Christina each made a dish for the "Ramen-Off" at Monty's KrownMySpace link (875 Monroe Ave.) I tagged along although I didn't make anything — but, heck, a tasting and a couple beers was just a few bucks. All the dishes were surprisingly creative, although most were based on substituting ramen noodles for other kinds of pasta. Nonetheless, the Thai-peanut dish that Jeff brought was the crowd favorite among the 14 entries. Judges, however, chose Ali's "Lucky Sombreros": baked spicy ramen wafers topped with chicken, guacamole, and sour cream (not that Ali's weren't popular: her dish was the first to be emptied). So congratulations, Ali and Jeff! We'll look forward to next year's competition.

Copy Writers Get the Last Laugh

Since I'm trying to lose the weight I gained last week getting stuffed (perhaps just in time for Thanksgiving when I'll put it back on again) I peeked at the Chocolate Mousse [flavored] Peeps label to see what I was getting into:

Very small cats, indeed.

Very small cats, indeed.

I guess the label copy writers got the last laugh on that one. In case you're wondering, they weren't half bad. They actually had a chocolaty flavor over the regular mushy dust flavor you expect of Peeps. Of course, I think I didn't read the whole label so I might have made a terrible mistake:

I ate decorations.

Let's hope it's also food.