Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

As part of the Masters Program at the University of Wisconsin, I had to create two semester long blogs on separate topics.

The first blog looked at modern and unique technologies.

I dubbed this blog “The Swittle Monkey” after my small video production company known as Swittle Monkey Productions. Below you will find an entry about different technologies in sports.

With the NCAA tournament in full motion there is not a better time to discuss the way sports and technology merge to create some of the greatest spectacles in the world to be viewed at this point anywhere at anytime.  After the first day it was reported over 3.4 million hours of video/audio were streamed to watch parts of this event. And with an incredible first day, the numbers for the rest of the weekend can only be assumed to at least match that for the next three days.  Obviously on Thursday more people were working and sneaking in some viewing time, opposed to the weekend at home to enjoy the action on TV.  Coming into the tournament CBS projected over 10 million hours streamed, after the first day’s pace, I’m going to assume they won’t have much of a problem especially with this year’s tournament being a lot more exciting than last year’s tournament.  When NBC streamed winter olympics they only managed 3.5 million hours of streaming through the three weeks of coverage. In addition to streaming on computers, a $10 iphone app allows people to stream the games and companies like FLO TV were right in the mix both with heavy advertising and showing of the games on their portable digital TVs.

Gotta love seeing sports anywhere, anytime. Photo via Ron Sanford, LSJ

Within these events though, even more hidden nuances exist. While watching the NCAA tournament the Michigan State Spartans hit an incredible game winning shot, but the after analysis on ESPN helped show how far breaking down plays had become too. At the 1:20 point in the video here a feature known as ESPN Axis breaks down how close a ball is to hitting a players head on a pass by turning the view and zooming in.  These are just some techniques used that is helping sports evolve with changing times. Another analysis technique in the sport of basketball helps combine video games and styles of play to show what may happen or what previously happened on the basketball court with an analyst right in the thick of the virtual action.

Although sometimes sports can become overkill at times with the stories they choose to constantly harp on, at least advancing technology helps make the moments you just can’t get enough of a little more interesting into the 72nd time viewing the same thing.

The second school blog, known as The Meaty Matters, looks at the meat industry, its relationship with restaurants, and uses of unique meats around the world.

Let’s get the basics out of the way. At some point in your life, you’ve eaten some form of fast food meat. In fact, you probably sneak a taco, roast beef, or bacon double cheeseburger every once in a while. But, there’s also been that point where you’ve questioned what exactly you are eating. I’ll come out and admit, I used to be a bottom-tier fast food junkie*(see below for details). In my undergrad days of college I’d have McDonalds breakfast at 4 a.m daily. Luckily, after I graduated I quit that habit and shy away from fast food. If I’m going to eat unhealthy food, I’d much rather do it at one of those places on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives or unique to the city I’m in.

Before I go any further, let me say: this is not an attempt to turn you off from fast food. If you want to eat it, more power to you. In recent times, movies that attempt to exploit the fast food world and the occasional story documenting the ill health effects have been the craze. I’m just taking the simple approach of looking at the meat (to determine how much is actual meat), how they get their meat, and some regulations out there. Some of this stuff might be tough to digest (both literally and figuratively.)

First, fast food meat is legal and edible. For example rumors of Arby’s roast beef being liquid or gelatin are not true. The packaging the meat arrives in has a gelatin type broth/preservative that helps maintain freshness and flavor, causing confusion to those looking to take out the industry. These companies do stringent testing on the meats. Whether places like Mcdonalds and Burger King do so to avoid insane lawsuits or out of caring for their customer base is up for debate. The biggest problems, however, stem from animal care, production, and a low-grade quality product. These are the areas where things begin going downhill.

The question of “where does this meat come from?” is perhaps the most legitimate question surrounding these chains. And the truth is, they couldn’t tell you specifically. Fast food chains have their meat factories and suppliers they use, but in the ground beef they create dozens of different cows may be used. There aren’t farms used to produce the meats, these are in fact factories. Many are just feeding lots where the cows stay in one spot eating as much corn/grain mixed with antibiotics and hormones as possible. It sounds bad, and it probably is, but it still produces an acceptable quality of meat if the production methods go correctly.

Within the production is where the problems lie. Because these animals are essentially living in one solitary spot, and constantly eating, they can get quite dirty. A combination of food, fecal matter, and any other excess waste might end up on or around them. That’s where the debate begins when addressing poop making it into hamburgers. Does it happen? Yes. Very rarely and that’s when E.coli comes into play. Is it as common as some people like to make it seem? No.  Check out these interviews from Frontline to see both sides of the safety argument.

The process of cleaning these animals and retrieving the meat can be very difficult and must be done thoroughly. In an industry that produces obscene tonnage of meat that is expected to be processed extremely fast, mistakes can be made. The fast food meat factories have to supply so many places around the world that almost 400 cattle an hour are slaughtered. The number itself is crazy, but to think workers must wash every animal, clean out intestines and other body parts, plus be careful enough not to hurt yourself with these machines and knives, it’s a difficult task. Since 1993, when there was a huge outbreak almost ending the Jack in the Box franchises, companies and the country are a little more strict in the way they go about the process before and after. Jack in the Box went bankrupt at the time and are just now expanding nationally, a plan that may have been set back by 20 years.

The company most attacked now for their process isn’t Mcdonalds or Burger King. The fast food chain: Kentucky Fried Chicken. Led by those crazy folks at PETA (just watch the video and you’ll see), a site called Kentucky Fried Cruelty has led undercover investigations to see how this company treats their chicken and the quality that comes after. While they tend to overdramatize some of the stuff, it has been found workers at these plants abuse these animals beyond their ultimate fate of slaughter. Chickens have been found in cages that are unsafe causing them to get stuck and break wings or legs. The chickens are also shocked, cut and dumped into boiling water. The chickens that are used have gained weight in double the amount of time of a normal life span.

So now that the processing is complete, how bout the meat itself?  This is where things get interesting. In Europe, the meat is better quality. They have more restrictions and better regulations. It tastes better and smells better.  In America most the meat used is commercial grade. It’s nothing spectacular, but it’s also not really graded. In fact, meat goes by 8 different categories: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner. Within these categories, there can be grades of “1-5” placed on the meat. But this is not a requirement. Thus, majority of the commercial grade meat just makes it through USDA inspection so it won’t kill you and it goes from there.  Once again, the meat itself is edible. Poultry uses different grades as well. For the whole grading scale and to learn more check out the whole grading scale and regulations of all meats and poultry.

So you’re thinking I didn’t really explain how the meat truly is. But, thanks to an article published last December in USA Today, fast-food standards for meat both safety and quality are actually better than those in the Educational system. Who said our country didn’t care? The truth is, commercial grade meat is exactly as it sounds. Of course, don’t be fooled by Angus Beef either. The newest trick for fast food restaurants has been the “Angus Beef” craze. It’s “higher quality” than other meats they serve. It’s juicy and has more to it. Certified Angus Beef brings on the illusion, as Joe’s Butcher Shop explains, that this means high quality. He also shows a solid comparison of what each meat grade means. While that is more based on steaks, it still helps show the difference.

Finally, once the actual meat must preserved to reach these places, this is where the true problem lies. If there was a way for McDonalds to constantly process cows in a magical basement of everyone of their restaurants, the quality of the meat might actually be better. Unfortunately, because of the amount there is and the distance each little strip of beef must travel to join with it’s little beef strip friends, stuff must be added. For many chicken products, sodium phosphate seems to be popular. Throw in some MSG, Oils, Disodium Guanylate and Disodium Inosinate, and you’re almost halfway to what they give you. For a great list of added chemicals to all foods, beyond meats click here.

So… I won’t deny, I’ll still eat fast food every once in a while. The process is bad and what they add after is bad. It’s even worse that the government isn’t as strict as they should be. That might be even more alarming than the fast food chains themselves. Some of them do it the right way. Five Guys, In-n-Out Burger, and so on have healthier operations. Even Chipotle, once owned by Mcdonalds, does it in a way that isn’t cruel and even a bit healthier. The prices might be a little bit more expensive, but there are at least options out there.

Don’t worry, I will soon be looking at fancier meats from high quality restaurants. As well as more parts of the body for you to enjoy. If you have any suggestions or comments, feel free as always…

*To make myself feel better in life, I have separated different styles of fast food into “tiers.” McDonalds, Taco Bell, Burger King, Arby’s, KFC, and so on in my mind are example of bottom-tier fast food. Restaurants like Pancheros, Potbellys, Five Guys, and Pei Wei are second-tier and thus acceptable in my world.

The final blog included is not school related, but a blog I felt I should mention with a link. It is known as Benjie Off the Leash (named after the hit movie about a dog “Benji: Off the Leash”). This blog was used to chronicled my travels throughout Europe and the United States.

A new neighbor full of smiling women, a bevy of alcohol and 18 big screen televisions arrived next to East Towne Mall a year removed from shutting its doors across town.

The risqué beach-theme restaurant, Hooters, officially opened its doors on Sept. 24 bringing a bevy of reaction to the east side of Madison. Having to restart in Madison, Hooters knows neighborhood reaction, city legalities, and the benefits they offer in a downtrodden economy must be addressed. In evaluating these areas the franchise brings a unique mix of positive and negative attributes with its storied past.

Hooters history in and out of Madison

Established in Florida in October 1983, Hooters features a wide array of food ranging from chicken wings to seafood to accompany the alcohol and visual stimuli. The company is most known for their gregarious Hooters Girls, waitresses expected to entertain in addition to serving food, wearing tight white t-shirts and orange shorts.

The history of Hooters in Madison began in 1994 at 6654 Mineral Point Road neighboring the West Towne Mall.  The location also bordered a residential community bringing negative reaction to that spot 15 years prior. Although negative reaction on the west faded, the Hooters experienced turbulent years. The franchise set a company goal to seek a new location.

“We had been looking since 2004 to take it over to the east side,” said Doug Long, regional manager of Hooters in Wisconsin. “The west side location was not optimum for us because it was in the backside of the mall and it just didn’t fit into what at one time was a good location.”

A year after shutting down on the west side Hooters found a place they believe fits. More visible and closer to the interstate, Hooters pounced on the vacated Country Kitchen building at 2639 E. Springs Drive.

“We felt like this is a good location, easy access to the community with the mall around and hotels we feel like we have easy access for people who want to come see us,” said Long.

With the site selected, Hooters rejoined the city of Madison. Knowing the east side may bring similar reaction to the past opening, the company wasted no time.

Hooters in the Neighborhood

Hooters quickly embraced the prospect of joining the east side of Madison and a new neighborhood. The company sprung into action contacting local officials. Alder Joe Clausius of District 17, where the restaurant now resides, jumped on the opportunity to fill the unoccupied building.

“To me right away it was a win-win. I did two things for the district.  I eliminated a vacant storefront and I provided some much, much needed jobs,” said Alder Clausius. “The biggest thing we want to do right now is jobs in Madison.”

The new Hooters brings over 100 jobs to the district in Madison; adding to the 25,000 currently employed by over 450 Hooters restaurants according to the company’s website. The jobs consist of bartenders, cooks, managers and the previously mentioned Hooters girls.

Despite the fact the restaurant has brought new opportunities, others are not so glad this establishment joined their community.

“Personally, I would rather see a more family oriented restaurant in that location,” said the president of the Carpenter-Ridgeway Neighborhood Association, Randall L Glysch. “I don’t feel it brings a positive image to the community, its focus is very specific.”

Mary Polancih has similar sentiments to Glysch.

“I really think it sends the wrong message, I would put it in the same genre as Tilted Kilt and about one step from strip clubs,” said Polancih, “It’s not any place I’d frequent or let anyone I care about frequent.” Tilted Kilt refers to the Celtic themed sports bar with scantily clad women waitresses in Madison.

Long has yet to hear any negative comments directly about the restaurant. He feels Hooters largely emphasizes integration in communities, helping to thwart negative reaction. Hooters kicked off their Madison opening with a VIP benefit for the University of Wisconsin’s Carbone Cancer Clinic.

“We like to do philanthropic things through out the community and we do want to be a good corporate citizen,” said Long.  “All our employees, the stuff they get, we offer tuition reimbursement so being in a college town we feel that’s important for employees.”

With skeptical neighboring communities Hooters leaves no situation to chance, knowing they must go beyond local charitable work.

Finalizing the details

With the location secured, an alcohol license loomed as the final hurdle in reopening on the west side.

Owned by the actual corporation, Hooters of America, the franchise sent many executives including their general counsel from Atlanta and the vice president of training and development to present their case. Katherine Plominski, alcohol policy coordinator of Madison, was very impressed with their presentation for approval.

“What I was focused on were their alcohol policies.  They do have very strong corporate policies regarding use of alcohol, over-serving, IDing underage patrons,” said Plominski.

Working in favor of Hooters for this license was their previous establishment on the west side.  Due to no prior police instances or alcohol violations at the Mineral Point Road location, reestablishing authorization in the city went smoothly.  The Hooters of east Madison was permitted to serve alcohol in June.

The grand opening of Hooters of East Madison took place on Sept. 24, 2009. Only time will tell if the move is successful.

“They probably feel that being closer to the interstate will bring in more business, I’m not sure they will survive on the Eastside,” said Glysch.

*This story was a joint effort between Will Mueller and Benjie Klein that was originally published in the Badger Herald on 04/27/10

Slideshow breaking down the World Cheese Championships

Video story about Gary Grossen’s attempt to achieve cheese greatness

Thirty world class cheese judges from around the globe gathered in Madison to take part in crowning the best cheese in the world at the biennial World Cheese Championship Contest at the Monona Terrace.

According to John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, the contest started in 1891, but did not become a worldwide contest until 1958.

“It’s grown from a competition just for our members, to a statewide and then a United States competition, and now a world competition,” said Umhoefer. “So it’s kind of an organic growth that it’s had for 120 years.”

Umhoefer, a former journalism student the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of WCCC for 17 years, said submissions for this year’s contest surpassed all previous marks with 2,318 cheeses and butters from 20 countries. Both international and local judges evaluated the cheeses and butters to declare a winner.

“To be a grader in Wisconsin, you have to have a license. So a lot of these folks are licensed cheese graders,” said Umhoefer. “But for this contest it’s actually…just a look at their resume, their judging experience.”

While some of the judges at WCCC were local, many, like David Lockwood from Neil’s Dairy Yard in London, traveled thousands of miles to judge cheese. Regardless of origin, judges evaluate cheeses by the same methods.

“We’re looking for what is wrong,” said Lockwood. “We assume that something is perfect to start with and we are actually looking for faults. It’s a way to evaluate the cheese and help the cheese maker improve.”

Competitors from all over the world submitted their cheeses to the contest, but one cheese maker practices his trade right here at UW.

Gary Grossen makes his cheese in Babcock Hall. Grossen was raised above a cheese factory and grew up to become partner there with his father.

“I took it over myself. My dad and I were in partnership and we were there for 51 years,” said Grossen. “In 2001, I sold out and stayed with the new people for three years to get the change over fine and then came to Babcock Hall.”

Grossen submitted his Gouda and his aged Gouda for the 2010 WCCC and faired quite well. He received fourth place for the Gouda and second place for the aged Gouda. The aged Gouda from this year’s contest was the same cheese he placed in first under the Edam, Gouda, category in the 2009 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest. By saving batches of that cheese, Grossen was able to age the cheese for over a year and enter it into the aged Gouda category for the world competition.

The cheese that won the individual gold medals from the 80 possible categories went on to the championship round where all 30 judges determined an overall winner.

For the third straight year the overall winning cheese hailed from Switzerland. Cedric Vuille’s Gruyere, a cheese from Fromagerie de La Brovine in La Brovine, Switzerland, took home top honors. The Swiss also captured the first runner-up spot with a smear-ripened hard cheese.

The winning cheese, along with other finalists, was to be put up for auction at the International Cheese Technology Expo held April 20-22 at the Alliant Energy Center. While the winners get prestige for their creations, the competition is funded by their quality products. In 2008, the award winning cheeses were auctioned off for more than $65,000, with the winning cheese selling for $7,500.