Category: Food and Drink

How to feed the Olympics, a problem in procurement

It’s a daunting task to feed 15,000 people no matter what, but if food is fuel, the chefs feeding the athletes at Olympic Village are somewhat responsible for how these athletes perform. Events management and catering group Sodexo Live takes that responsibility seriously. What results is an incredible feat of logistics, combining sustainable sourcing, diversity of options, and ensuring all athlete’s nutritional needs are met by some combination of the 500 dishes that will be served.

But it’s not just baseline nutritional needs that need to be met — athletes are coming from all over the world, with their own culinary traditions. The Olympics are supposed to be a place of cultural exchange, and this extends to the food. Sodexo Live has brought on partner chefs Amandine Chaignot, Akrame Benallal, and Alexandra Mazzia to serve dishes like quinoa muesli, chickpea pommade, and gnocchi in chicken sauce to showcase modern French cuisine. Other chefs on the team are charged with creating everything athletes will need to eat, both before and after the competition.

And:

One of the funny parts that we’ve learned is that we think they’re all athletes and in their physical prime, so distance doesn’t matter. But actually it does, because our dining hall is extremely large, it’s over 220 meters long and 24 meters wide. Walking from one side to the other takes five minutes. And these competitors, they’re not going to go that far, they’re going to really ensure the minimum steps so they don’t spend too much energy. Nobody expected that.

And:

Bananas are an athlete’s favorite thing. We anticipate getting two or three million bananas. At peak time there will be 15,000 people living in one place. So that means per day, at peak time, we’re going to go up to 40,000 meals. At the end of the entire journey, it’s over 1.2 million meals. I was working on quantifying the volume of coffee, how to produce it. And then someone said, “Can we get the coffee grinds back to us to use as a fertilizer?” So what’s the volume of grinds we’ll produce? I’’s 20 tons of coffee, so that means it’ll be 40 tons of coffee residue. But all of this is going to be used to grow mushrooms.

Finally:

Americans have been extremely vocal about what they want. They were more picky and sensitive about having a lot of gluten-free items, and a more vegetable-based diet.

The piece and interview is by Jaya Saxena, the reproduced answers are from Estelle Lamont.  Here is the entire piece, via the ever-excellent The Browser.

My excellent Conversation with Brian Winter

Here is the video, audio, and transcript.  Here is the episode summary:

It’s not just the churrasco that made him fall in love with Brazil. Brian Winter has been studying and writing about Latin America for over 20 years. He’s been tracking the struggles and triumphs of the region as it’s dealt with decades of coups, violence, and shifting economics. His work offers a nuanced perspective on Latin America’s persistent challenges and remarkable resilience.

Together Brian and Tyler discuss the politics and economics of nearly every country from the equator down. They cover the future of migration into Brazil, what it’s doing right in agriculture, the cultural shift in race politics, crime in Rio and São Paulo, the effectiveness and future consequences of Bukele’s police state in El Salvador, the economic growth of Colombia despite continued violence, the prevalence of startups and psychoanalysis in Argentina, Uruguay’s reduction in poverty levels, the beautiful ugliness of Sao Paulo, where Brian will explore next, and more.

And here is one excerpt;

COWEN: What’s the economic geography of Brazil going to look like? All the wealth near Mato Grosso and the north just very, very poor? Or the north empties out? How’s that going to work? There used to be some modest degree of balance.

WINTER: That’s true. Most of the population in Brazil and the economic center, for sure, was in the southeast. That means, really, São Paulo state, which is about a quarter of Brazil’s population but roughly a third of its GDP. Rio as well, and the state of Minas Gerais, which has a name that tells its history. That means “general mines” in Portuguese. That’s the area where a lot of the gold came out of in the 18th and 19th centuries. That’s gone now, so it’s not as much of an economic pull.

You’re right, Tyler, though, that a lot of the real boom right now, the action, is in places like Mato Grosso, which is in the region of Brazil called the Central West. That’s soy country. I’m from Texas, and Mato Grosso is virtually indistinguishable from Texas these days. It’s hot. It’s flat. The crop, like I said, is soy. There’s cattle ranching as well.

Even the music — Brazil, as others have noted, has gone from being the country of bossa nova and the samba in the 1970s to being the country of sertanejo today. Sertanejo is a Brazilian cousin of country music with accordions, but it’s sung by people — men mostly — in jeans, big belt buckles, and cowboy hats. They’re importing that — not only that economic model but that lifestyle as well.

COWEN: What is the great Brazilian music of today? MPB is dead, right? So, what should someone listen to?

Recommended, interesting throughout.

Agricultural Productivity in Africa

If you look at total output, Peter Coy notes that sub-Saharan Africa looks quite impressive with gains in total output exceeding that in the rest of the world.

A chart showing the change in value of agricultural output adjusted for inflation in sub-Saharan Africa and the world.

But almost all of this has come from using more inputs, especially land. If you look at output per unit of input, i.e. total factor productivity (TFP) then sub-Saharan Africa not only trails the rest of the world, it’s falling behind.

A chart showing the change since 1961 in agricultural productivity, accounting for all inputs including land and labor, in the world and sub-Saharan Africa.

Things get much worse if you look at agricultural productivity by country. Alice Evans points us to “the most important graph” from work by Suri et al. (2024) which shows shockingly that since ~2010 agricultural productivity has plummeted in many African nations. I found this graph hard to believe.

The numbers are correct based on data from the USDA but digging deeper, I noted that the two worst performing countries are Djibouti and Botswana–two small countries where agriculture is less than 5% of GDP and where climate and land mean that agriculture has no hope of ever being a great success. Moreover, Djibouti is growing rapidly and Botswana is a middle-income country with a booming economy. I suspect that what is going on here is that a growing economy is pulling the best (unmeasured) people and resources out of agriculture which leads what was already a small sector to become less productive on paper, albeit at no great loss to the economy.

In contrast, the countries where Ag TFP is rising the most are Zimbabwe and Senegal where agriculture is a much larger share of GDP and employment (Zimbabwe ~11-14% of GDP, 70% of employment and Senegal 16% of GDP, 30% of employment). So the good news is that agricultural productivity is growing in places where it is important.

Bottom line is that agricultural productivity in Africa is low. I see the primary cause as being small firms which means there are few opportunities for economies of scale, mechanization and R&D (see Suri et al. (2024) for a longer discussion.). Climate change is a threat and developing climate-resistant crops, especially for Africa where heat stress will become increasingly important, has high potential returns.

Overall, however, my conclusion is that although agricultural productivity in Africa is low and there are threats on the horizon the situation is getting modestly better rather than dramatically worse.

With immigration, perceptions matter more than reality

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  Rather than work through the argument, which requires you to read the whole column, I’ll just reproduce the most trollish part:

When I am in a foreign city and in search of interesting food, I have a trick: In which neighborhood, I ask the locals, am I most likely to get murdered? In Stockholm, Rinkeby was the answer, even though many of the people I asked had never been.

So I went to Rinkeby, which is mostly non-White and most notably Somalian. There were Yemeni, Ethiopian, Persian and other restaurants. (I had a good chicken mandi at one called Maida.) I felt safe the entire time, and saw plenty of solo women, including some blonde Swedes, walking leisurely along the main street, as well as many women with head coverings. I saw a Western Union office and a driving school, signs that people have some funds to send away or invest in a car.

I hope to write a longer post on immigration for you all soon.

The Turku food hall

This is perhaps my favorite food hall.  Dating from 1896, the basic building is notable, the displays are lovely and suitably Nordic, and for lunch you can try a wide variety of cuisines, including excellent Mexican food, a rarity in Europe.  (They told me they buy their tortillas from other Mexicans in Czechia.)  From separate stalls I bought some salami and also black bread, and both were as good as any I have tried, ever.

Many food halls are overrated.  They create an illusion of plenitude, while not offering many items you actually wish to buy and consume.  The Turku food hall, however, is a real winner.

Overall, Turku felt more Swedish and also more stylish than Helsinki.  The Swedish name for the city — Åbo — you see all over, and one of the universities still teaches in Swedish.  It is much more of a college town.  That said, at population 202,000 it is slower and there is much less to do there.  You can see some of Alvar Aalto’s early buildings.

I was told that 77 Mexicans live in Turku.

Helsinki notes

Most of all, I like the city for its visual complexity, and for its recurring architectural surprises.  It is the best Art Nouveau city in the world, with only Brussels as a rival, and also a top tier modernist city.  Public buildings are excellent, and unlike in Stockholm you are never quite sure what is coming next.

The Finns are amazing at building out lovely, cozy rooms.  In a used bookstore you might find a room for sitting on a comfortable chair and reading.  It will look and feel perfect.  I even saw one men’s room with this flavor, and yes it had a comfy chair.

It is striking, and instructive, that the Japanese have such a strong presence in tourism in Finland.  Their groups dominate visits to the underground rock church, for instance.  Japan and Finland both have something inscrutable in common?  And they both share an obsession with design and with small detail.

One nice thing about Helsinki is you can find a good restaurant in almost any part of town.  Unlike say Paris, New York, or London, they do not have “dining deserts” where tasty places are absent for reasons of rent or zoning.  Similarly, Helsinki also has a very high quality of small shop, in areas such as jewelry, used clothing, and design.  Again, as with the restaurants, you can find these in almost any part of town.  Helsinki has avoided the trap of looking and feeling like the other global cities, as the price-rent gradients simply are not that oppressive.

Along related lines, you will see non-white immigrants in great numbers in the center of town.  In Stockholm, in contrast, non-white immigrants are priced out of the center to a considerable degree, though of course you can see them working in service jobs there,

The spaces in the new public library are remarkably inviting for sitting and reading.  The interior is also an example of an institution that has leapt into being retro, without ever having managed to be fashionable in the interim (the opposite of mobile money in Kenya leapfrogging more antiquated money and banking institutions).  In an act of supreme wisdom, they have stacked the library with “technology,” most of all 3-D printers and advanced sewing machines.  It now looks quaint and charming, much like the older buildings around town.  It is the smart phones that hold the attention of the library visitors, even in this relatively reading-sympathetic culture.

In Nordic countries, Thai food usually is better than Chinese.  Georgian food is something you also might try in Helsinki.  Salmon soup is good, but you don’t need to have it more than once.  The whitefish and small river fish I enjoyed.

The Finns are interesting to speak to, especially about Finland.  One woman said (paraphrased): “We can talk to each other for hours, and still not understand, so how do you expect the immigrants to understand us?”  Multiple meanings can be assigned to that remark.

Another said something like: “No, the Finns are not the happiest people in the world.  Once foreigners stop asking us how happy we are, we go back to complaining at each other about everything.”  Was she complaining about that?

Everywhere you go, you see Finns doing things with each other.

In my view, Helsinki is one of Europe’s great cities, information-rich and out of the ordinary. It should be noted, however, that hardly anyone else agrees with this assessment, least of all the residents here.

Eating well in Stockholm

Yes, the fancy expensive places are great.  But more generally, I recommend that you order the dishes with game and lingonberries, most of all lingonberries.  Soups here are above average, and I do not generally love soups.  The pizza is surprisingly good, make sure you order it with “pizza salad,” which turns out to be cabbage.  If you are craving non-Western food, I would try Persian before Indian or Chinese.  At breakfast, butter is consistently good.  Overall, Stockholm is a quality food city, though it is not superb when it comes to breadth.

Denmark recalls Korean ramen for being too spicy

Three fiery flavours of the Samyang instant ramen line are being withdrawn: Buldak 3x Spicy & Hot Chicken, 2x Spicy & Hot Chicken and Hot Chicken Stew.

Denmark’s food agency issued the recall and warning on Tuesday, urging consumers to abandon the product.

But the maker Samyang says there’s no problem with the quality of the food.

“We understand that the Danish food authority recalled the products, not because of a problem in their quality but because they were too spicy,” the firm said in a statement to the BBC.

“The products are being exported globally. But this is the first time they have been recalled for the above reason.”

It’s unknown if any specific incidents in Denmark had prompted authorities there to take action.

The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration said it had assessed the levels of capsaicin in a single packet to be “so high that they pose a risk of the consumer developing acute poisoning”.

“If you have the products, you should discard them or return them to the store where they were purchased,” it said in a statement.

It also emphasised the warning for children, for whom extremely spicy food can cause harm.

The notice has sparked heated discussion online with many amused reactions from lovers of spicy food. Many have made assertions about the Danes’ low tolerance for spice.

Here is more from Frances Mao.  Via Sam Mendelsohn.

Where and how to eat in Cape Town, South Africa

Don’t laugh, but basically you want to eat in the restaurants with the beautiful women.  And with the views of the waterfront.

You may recall those are usually the opposite of the correct recommendations.  But in Cape Town, there is no coherent “mom and pop” restaurant sector, based on either recent Asian or Latino immigrants, or based on an existing middle class.  You simply want to go to the nice, fancy places.  And you don’t need my list, many sources can tell you which ones those are.

The economics of that are simple.  There is a well-defined class of people with a lot of money, and the best restaurants do everything they can to target them, including seaside views.  That is by far the best way to get good food here, arguably the only way.  You cannot in fact “arbitrage against the inequality,” even if you think you might wish to.

Usually you should order seafood, and (as in Chile) be suspicious of any menu item with a cream sauce, which will be overdone on the creamy side.  You may see batches of Afrikaans words on the English-language menus, don’t worry just pull out your ChatGPT app and enjoy the feeling of strangeness.

I did have one meal of grilled meats and bbq in a black township, and it was not bad.  But I would say you are going for the sociological experience more than for the food.  You’ll also get some South African side dishes, such as the corn meal, that may not pop up in the fancier restaurants.  So do that if you can, I also found the experience to be safe and not stressful.

Prices here are very low, and an excellent meal can be well under half of the comparable cost in the United States or Europe, maybe even 3x lower.  Wherever you go, make sure they give you a seat looking out on the water!

Santa Marta, Colombia notes

The Santa Marta region of northern Colombia has, within a ninety minute radius, the Caribbean, the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada, desert with plentiful cactus, and rain forest.  The diversity of birds is remarkable, which is what induced my sister to suggest this locale for our trip.  We showed up wondering “how to find the birds,” but before that sentence was finished, some birds swooped down and stole part of our breakfast.

The “Tower” is a wonderful lookout point in Minca, a small town about thirty minutes away from Santa Marta.  You stand in an elevated gazebo, surrounded by beautiful mountains, and watch various birds go by.  The host family doesn’t even charge you for the drink of water.  Until not too long ago, Minca was a “no go” zone, ruled by drug lords and guerrillas.  Now there is a very peaceful revenue-generating compromise, with a lid on all the violence.  British women visit and order avocado toast, before setting off on their birding tours.

My sister has seen dozens of “lifers” on this trip, namely birds she had not seen before.  For me they are almost all lifers, except the pigeons.

You can take a several hour small boat trip to see a village on stilts, Pueblo Palafito.  The locale supports 1000 or so people, all using water taxis to get around and mostly working as fishermen.  It is not near anything else, and their power source is solar, due to a gift from the Italian government.  This was the highlight of the trip.  I am told families there typically average five children, and the schools were indeed full of enthusiastic young people.  Best is this video, you don’t need to understand the Spanish.

In the city of Santa Marta there are two (!) separate monuments to the 1958 Smith-Corona typewriter, both at major intersections.  They are intended as a tribute to the region’s best-known author Gabriel García Márquez.

The local economy is too dependent on coal export, but overall it feels bustling and reasonably prosperous.

The best food there is seafood, most of all fish and shrimp, in addition to coconut rice and various forms of plantains.  You can eat very well here but I would not stray from the area’s basic strengths.  Maracuya juice is consistently good.  I don’t usually order desserts, but here they are consistently interesting and original, often using honey, or sometimes waffles.

I would strongly recommend the Marriott hotel there, the one on the beach.  It is essentially an $800 a night quality place, with very direct beach access, but at far, far lower prices.  And you end up with the ocean and also the three swimming pools pretty much to yourself.  (Where is everyone?)  For the entire trip, and for the hotel, safety levels are just fine.

This is what the Caribbean should be, but rarely is.  Visiting Santa Marta, as a trip, is so far ahead of most better-known beach outings it isn’t funny.  From Virginia I can fly to Colombia in about five hours, and then Santa Marta from Bogotá is a mere 90-minute extra flight.

It is a common trope that genetic influences on individual behavior strengthen as people age.  If you take a trip with your sibling, you will see further evidence that this is true.

It is rare for me to get on a plane for reasons that have basically no work components.  That said, it is also easy to get work done here.

AI passes the restaurant review Turing test

Surprisingly easy, it turned out. In a series of experiments for a new study, Kovács found that a panel of human testers was unable to distinguish between reviews written by humans and those written by GPT-4, the LLM powering the latest iteration of ChatGPT. In fact, they were more confident about the authenticity of AI-written reviews than they were about human-written reviews.

Here is the full story, via Sarah Jenislawski.

The Screwworm

The Atlantic: Screwworms once killed millions of dollars’ worth of cattle a year in the southern U.S. Their range extended from Florida to California, and they infected any living, warm-blooded animal: not only cattle but deer, squirrels, pets, and even the occasional human. In fact, the screwworm’s scientific name is C. hominivorax or “man eater”—so named after a horrific outbreak among prisoners on Devil’s Island, an infamous 19th-century French penal colony in South America.

For untold millennia, screwworms were a grisly fact of life in the Americas. In the 1950s, however, U.S. ranchers began to envision a new status quo. They dared to dream of an entire country free of screwworms. At their urging, the United States Department of Agriculture undertook what would ultimately become an immense, multidecade effort to wipe out the screwworms, first in the U.S. and then in Mexico and Central America—all the way down to the narrow strip of land that is the Isthmus of Panama. The eradication was a resounding success. But the story does not end there. Containing a disease is one thing. Keeping it contained is another thing entirely, as the coronavirus pandemic is now so dramatically demonstrating.

To get the screwworms out, the USDA to this day maintains an international screwworm barrier along the Panama-Colombia border. The barrier is an invisible one, and it is kept in place by constant human effort. Every week, planes drop 14.7 million sterilized screwworms over the rainforest that divides the two countries. A screwworm-rearing plant operates 24/7 in Panama. Inspectors cover thousands of square miles by motorcycle, boat, and horseback, searching for stray screwworm infections north of the border. The slightest oversight could undo all the work that came before.

A reminder that civilization takes work. Excellent piece by Sarah Zhang. Read the whole thing.

Hat tip: Stone Age Herbalist.