Saturday, July 17, 2010


They tantalize with seductive promises to taste like sugar but without the calories. Without the spike in blood sugar. Without the guilt. And they deliver, sort of, if you can stand the metallic flavor that dances on your tongue long after the tart sweetness fades away. They are, of course, artificial sweeteners. 

Now there's a new book (well, actually, it's due for release in September but you can order an advance copy now) with the title Empty Pleasures: the Story of Articifial Sweeteners from Saccharine to Splenda. 

According to the author, saccharine, the result of an accidental laboratory laboratory by-product, was first seen as an adulterant. But when its profit potential became apparent, it was introduced to the public at the 1893 World's Fair. From there the reader goes on to learn about the public reaction, and how the cause was taken up by women's magazine editors and public relations mavens. Nearly 300 pages long, the book offers a leisurely journey through the stories of the many sweeteners to follow, including NutraSweet, Equal, and Splenda.

Food producers and pharmaceutical companies have worked together for over a century to weave these products into our daily lives. We need to better understand what they actually are, how they work, and how they affect our health. We also need to raise our own awareness about how they are marketed to us and our families. It seems that this book might help.

Artificial sweeteners cost food companies less than natural sweeteners. It's no wonder then, that they push products that contain artificial sweeteners as "lite" or "low calorie". These products are highly profitable. In the past ten years more than 4,000 new food products containing artificial sweeteners were introduced in the American marketplace. In the meantime, even though most people purchase these products for purposes of weight loss, a 2004 study coming out of the University of Texas found that they actually contribute to obesity.

The author of this book is Carolyn de la Pena, a professor of American Studies at the University of California - Davis. This is one of the most important land grant schools in the US. She would have had access to tons of information normally not available to the average person. We owe her a big Thank You for sharing this important information.

Ordering information: Empty Pleasures is published by the University of North Carolina Press.  
 ISBN  978-0-8078-3409-1d. $32.50 cloth bound. 296 pages. 

Monday, July 5, 2010

Cooking as a Team Sport

Competitive cooking is big business. Professional teams travel the US entering competitions for glory and trophies. 

This week’s guest columnist is Mike “Gadgetgeek” Stock -- barbecue chef, radio personality, founder of, and my friend.  He helps out as a sous-chef while providing color commentary for the radio show Chef and the Fatman when Team Bobby Q grills, smokes, and slathers ‘cue at competitions around the Southeast. Chef and the Fatman have a cooking show on Sunday from 3-5 p.m. on AM 1160 in Atlanta, 
Credit for all photos goes to Mike Stock. 

I didn’t know anything about this stuff until I met Mike. It’s a world unto itself with a cast of characters that reads like a Russian novel. Oh, and if you're wondering how this fits into culinary history -- well, this is culinary history of the future. 

Barbecue  Competitions
Mike "Gadgetgeek" Stock

 It takes all kinds.  BBQ competitions are a way to spend part of a weekend or a Saturday with your family or buddies, to cook, smoke, or grill your way into bragging rights, a trophy, and/or some money. I have been following around the ABA (American Bass Anglers) tour here in the Southeast. Being the observer has let me in on some of the local cooks and a few of the regional professional teams that compete weekly using the KCBS (Kansas City Barbecue Society) sanctioning umbrella and judging rules to keep the playing field level.  The ABA has combined some seemingly disparate competitions into a fun weekend. They have two divisions of BBQ competition with local cooks competing in Backyard Barbecue and professionals from the KCBS circuit.  To round out the day, they have a bass fishing tournament and a battle of the bands music fest.

BBQ competitions are all about the "run-what-you-brung" entrepreneurial approach to cooking in the backyard taken to a whole different level. The variety of smokers from inexpensive to full-blown motor home rigs with all of the kitchen equipment found in a commercial kitchen tells the story best.  Some of the folks competing are having a wonderful time for the weekend with the family, the dog and some friends and others have their race face on and are there to WIN the prize and the money.

The bass fishing side of the event takes off at sunrise. This time they are fishing on beautiful Lake Logan Martin just west of Talladega. Their bass will not be judged until mid afternoon freeing up a nice chunk of time for the BBQ event, a battle of the local bands and sometimes an ice-tea competition.

The BBQ competitors have been tending fires and smokers since after the Friday night campfire get-together. They have the option of entering pulled
pork, beef brisket, pork ribs and chicken.  The schedule needed to pull off properly cooking all four entries is intense. They put on their Boston butt roasts late Friday night for the pulled pork judging around noon on Saturday. Some sleep, some keep one person on watch and other contestants rely on electronic equipment to keep their smoker on just-the-right temperature for that long and low cooking that pork shoulder requires. Beef brisket takes less time than the pulled pork, but more than the ribs usually taking about 6 hours.  The pork ribs will be a 4 to 6 hour adventure starting in mid morning. The chicken will take less time than the beef or pork.

Attending one of these events gives a regular home griller/smoker/cook a chance to see how really good these meats can be prepared.  Sometimes samples are shared after the contestants have turned in their boxes to be judged.  A few of the competitors are very secretive and will barely talk to regular attendees as they walk by and others are very cordial and will chat on and on about how they cooked their meat and why.  I find lessons can always be learned in these events. Having attended several of the ABA showdowns this year, I am seeing familiar faces in both the pro ranks and backyard BBQ teams again and again.

photo: Mike Stock on location in Pell City, Alabama

More pics on

Competitive barbecuing falls under the auspices of the Kansas City Barbecue Society