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Resolution 2013: Better Health Through Labels

Well, its that time of year.  The holidays are hay-making time among the bon vivants here at Island Creek.  We all toil: hair-on-fire oyster harvesting is followed by long hours filling immense amounts of retail orders and getting product out to our restaurant customers for the ravenous post-shopping hordes and in-the-spirit merrymakers who pour into their dining rooms.  We also revel: its a great time of year to call in a few dues from our beverage industry friends and worship in propia persona at the altar of our loyal chefs.  And of course, there’s the not-to-be-missed Island Creek Christmas Party.  In short, we are doing what we do best: working hard and playing hard.

Within this vicious cycle, which to be honest exists at moderate levels throughout most of the year, there is very little time or energy left for being “healthy”.  It is important to here note that being healthy is neither fun nor does it pay the bills.  So after a mad dash through the technicolor world that is an Island Creek summer, fall, and holiday rush we all, arm in arm with the rest of Western Civilization, trudge back down the yellow-brick road into the grayscale world of diets and sobriety.

There is something to be celebrated in this annual January thaw, though.   Finding ourselves struggling to pull away from the allure of the Winsor House‘s warm fire and its meatloaf-and-shepherds-pie menu (not to mention the accompanying draft beer and brown liquor)its time to explore our oft-neglected Puritan roots–quite literally in the form of root vegetables.

Oysters are, naturally, our favorite winter food.  With much fresh water locked in ice and snow most years, there is very little flowing into the Bay and the oysters are hibernating, living off of stored up fat.  This means they are very salty and very plump, just the way we like them.  For all other winter produce we are fortunate enough to have not one, but two rival winter farmer’s markets just across the Bay in Plymouth with more than enough gourdes, beets, potatoes, and other subterranean specialties to get us through the long dark.

Alas, truth be told none of us would have made very good Pilgrims and by February I for one can get about as excited about root vegetables as I can for another weather forecast of “wintry mix” (also know colloquially as “snain” or snow + rain).  This year we’re heading to Miami’s South Beach for the Wine and Food Festival (shameless plug: come see at us at the Island Creek Oyster Bash with Ming Tsai at the Hotel Victor) but for those who are constrained to the barren north country you can now have your cake and eat it too.

You will find both health and gustatory enlightenment at New York’s Michelin-starred, Rouge Tomate.  Indeed, they have developed a (wait for it) labeling system called SPE (“Sanitas Per Escam” or latin for “better health through food”) to let you know what items on their menu (and eventually on cruise ship cartes and light-up drive-thru ordering stations) will not do anything to hinder your ticker from ticking or your waistline from thinning.  Now, this is very exciting for yours truly–a seasonally reformed foie-gras addict in search of a guilt-free fix before the weather warms–who will go into a place like Rouge Tomate and for a handsome price, purchase the best of both worlds.  Thus, is the nature of my food addiction.  I would even argue that asking a chef to execute cuisine at that level without excessive amounts of salt, butter, and cream is like asking a ballerina to dance with one leg tied to the other and, thus, all the more impressive when its pulled off on a level such as that at RT.  Forgive me, however, my skepticism when it comes to labeling pretty much anything else in this way.  As the Times article on SPE linked to above suggests, it doesn’t really seem feasible that health will be so cheaply bought in other venues where corporate budgets and lagging consumer confidence have more to do with menu writing than things like flavor and seasonality.

As farmers and fishermen we live in a label rich world; Certified Organic, Commonwealth Quality Protection Program sealed, Whole Foods Responsibly Harvested, MSC approved, GAA approved, red green blue and purple level fisheries courtesy of every aquarium in the country, dolphin-safe, and just about any other pocket guide or sticker you can think of has passed across our desks.  In  our experience these are almost all incredibly well-intentioned programs that provide overly simple answers to complex questions bought at the price of third-party auditing fees or forward-striving bureaucracy.  Difficult issues like sustainable food security and personal health are just not that easily or cheaply solved unfortunately.

It is my wish for 2013 that fewer new labels are created and more people like me will learn what it is to truly eat a healthful and responsible diet so that when it comes time for a tasting menu or  a late-night pizza it can be a guilt free indulgence rather than a way of life.  Better health though better education, better choices, and better policy feels a little more realistic to this glutton–who is going to continue to eat as many oysters as possible and try to make it through to March on root veggies.  I will also probably make a pilgrimage to Rouge Tomate.

★ Chris Sherman is Island Creek’s vice president.  He is grumpy when he’s dieting.  Follow him on Twitter: @moresaltplease 

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