Learning to Love Labels

Food labeling laws hit the City of Brotherly Love. PLUS: Three area restaurants offer up festive cocktails for your Thanksgiving meal.

Big Brother is Watching…Your Waistline

A few weeks ago, while en route to a Broadway show, I stopped at a Starbucks for an early-afternoon pick-me-up—you know, a non-fat cappuccino with a fully loaded chocolate chip or oatmeal cookie. The place was fairly busy, so I had ample time to peruse the goodies. It was only after reading the tags to a few unfamiliar items that I realized what was going on: calorie counts, fat counts and carb counts. I cringed, along with the four or so other customers also positioned eye level to the case. No need for diet pills. This was an instant appetite suppressant.

Back on home turf that following Monday, I still couldn’t bring myself to indulge in the tempting fare at our local Starbucks—most definitely not the mammoth Rice Krispies treats, which I’d learned tally 400 to 500-plus calories. (It’s hard to believe that anyone could devour an entire square in one sitting. Why not trim them up and make them more marketable?) The mystery had been removed, leaving a single truth: ignorance is, indeed, bliss.

I came across this headline on nytimes.com a few days later: “Bake Sales Fall Victim to Push for Healthier Foods.” The story was about a water polo team in Piedmont, Calif., who’d become nutritional outlaws trying to sell home-baked goods off campus in the wake of tightened state nutrition guidelines.

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I didn’t take the news well. “It’s wholly un-American,” I cried, suddenly feeling cheated out of the chance to score a secret family recipe for chocolate-chip cookies, brownies or apple cake—always a possibility at these now-outlawed bake sales.

Shortly after this travesty hit the media wires, Philadelphians, too, fell prey to government interference when City Council voted in favor of an ordinance requiring restaurants with 15 or more locations to show customers the numbers on calories, fat, transfat, carbohydrates and sodium for all the food and beverages on their menus. (The ordinance won’t take effect until 2010, so we can all enjoy another year living under the premise that what you don’t know won’t hurt you.)

The ordinance applies to upscale and mid-level chains (think the Palm, Smith & Wollensky, and Chili’s), the usual suspects of fast-food and quick-casual restaurants (McDonald’s, Wendy’s, BK), plus places like Dunkin’ Donuts, Rita’s Water Ice, Baskin-Robbins, Starbucks, and convenience stores that serve prepared food (yes, this means our beloved Wawa).

Ultimately, I am all for responsible eating. And I recognize that obesity is a major issue in this country, which also leaves a negative mark on the health insurance industry. I truly appreciate the mission of providing easy-to-use nutrition information that will allow customers to make informed decisions. Regardless of increased labeling, however, people still don’t have a clear understanding about the entire process of what happens to food along the way to the supermarket. I’m not just talking about local foodism here; I mean all the “junk” that’s put into packaged goods to preserve, color and sweeten them.

Certainly, limiting options and offering better descriptions of menu items are good ideas; diet experts have long been advocating “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” as an effective means to curbing binge or overeating. Education, however, is still the best means to helping people—including children—monitor eating habits. If they meet someone who is obese and struggling with weight/nutrition-related health issues, they may start to learn about the long-term effects of what they’re putting into their bodies.

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A great way to start the process is to take your kids to the grocery store and have them read the labels on their favorite cereals and drinks. Then do an Internet search on all the different diseases related to poor nutrition and descriptions of all the additives they’ve been seeing on the packages. Have them plan out menus with you and purchase the ingredients, and explain that moderation, balance, variety and freshness are four of the most important elements of a good—and good-for-you—meal plan.

For more on Philly’s labeling law, check out “Philadelphia Passes Strongest Nutrition Labeling Requirements for Chain Restaurant Menus.”

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And Now, a Complete About-Face

Yes, we know that “you don’t need alcohol to have a good time,” but having a good time is a great excuse for yummy cocktails. And while some of your dinner guests might feel compelled to push the pie away, these sweet sippers are just too good to pass up. The best part: no fork required.

Coconut Chocolatini
Riverstone Café, 143 W. Lincoln Highway, Exton; (610) 594-2233, riverstonecafe.com

• 1.5 oz. Pearl coconut vodka  
• .5 oz. Bailey’s Irish Cream
• .75 oz. white Crème de Cacao  
• .5 oz. cream  

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Mix all ingredients in a chilled shaker, and shake long enough for frost to appear on the outside of the shaker. Pour into chocolate-rimmed glass, and garnish with a Hershey’s Chocolate Kiss and coconut shavings.

Pumpkin Pie Martini
Nectar, 1091 Lancaster Ave., Berwyn; (610) 725-9000, tastenectar.com

• 3 oz. vodka
• 1 oz. White Godiva liquor
• 1 oz. clear Crème de Cacao
• 2 tbsp. pumpkin pie filling

Mix all ingredients in a shaker, and shake well. Mixture should be a little on the thick side. Pour into a cinnamon sugar-rimmed glass, and garnish with a Ginger Snap cookie.

Apple Pie Martini
Savona Restaurant, 100 Old Gulph Road, Gulph Mills; (610) 520-1200, savonarestaurant.com

• 2 oz. Grey Goose vodka
• 1 1/2 oz. apple puree
• 3/4 oz. apple liqueur
• 1/2 oz. sugar cane and cinnamon infusion
• 1/4 oz. fresh lime juice
• 1/4 oz. apricot liqueur
• 1 apple, fanned

Shake all ingredients with ice in a Boston shaker (cocktail shaker, but more fun to say), and double strain into a martini glass. Garnish with apple fan and cinnamon powder on top.

For those of you who would rather eat your dessert than drink it, here’s a lighter recipe from Nectar that’s also a great way to welcome your guests or begin your holiday toast:

Sparkling Harvest Cocktail
Nectar, 1091 Lancaster Ave., Berwyn; (610) 725-9000, tastenectar.com

• 2 cups pomegranate juice
• 2 cups cranberry juice
• 1 bottle port wine
• 1/2 cup honey
• 1/2 cup brown sugar
• 1 tsp. ground clove
• 2 whole cinnamon sticks
• 1 whole anise or 1/3 tsp. anise
• Pinch of nutmeg
• 4 shelled walnuts
• 1/2 cup fresh cranberries
• 1/2 cup fresh pomegranates
• 10 Black Mission figs, cut in half
• 2 small bunches champagne grapes, off the vine (save one bunch for garnish)

Place all ingredients together in a plastic storage container. Cover tightly, and marinate in the refrigerator for one week. (The port wine preserves the fruit.)

Remove from fridge; strain to separate. Blend one cup of the liquid portion and one cup of the fruit portion (cinnamon sticks removed) in blender until broken down (but not liquefied). The mixture can be refrigerated for up to one week or frozen for up to one month.

To make the cocktail, serve two ounces of the blended mixture with sparkling dry wine or champagne, drape champagne grapes on the side of a flute, and enjoy.

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TANGO's blackened swordfishBlack Friday Specials at TANGO

Practically a holiday itself, Black Friday (Nov. 28) is the official start of the holiday shopping season, and a great time for cheer and celebration. After the mayhem at the mall, relax and enjoy TANGO’s menu of Black Friday-inspired specialties, including blackened swordfish with roasted tomato guajillo pepper sauce. For more, visit tastetango.com. TANGO, 39 Morris Ave., Bryn Mawr; (610) 526-9500.

Sunday Brunch Chez Tinto

If you’re taking out-of-town guests for an afternoon stroll around Philly, Tinto has introduced a Basque-inspired brunch, served every Sunday from 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. The menu is a new take on Tinto’s popular brunch items, offering guests a first and second course, a side dish, and a dessert, for an affordable $25, excluding tax and gratuity. The cocktails look pretty good, too—and you’re surely going to need one after cooking, cleaning and spending all that quality time with relatives. Check it out at tintorestaurant.com. 114 S. 20th St., Philadelphia; 215-665-9150.

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