Saturday, June 03, 2017

The Long and The Short Of It

Consider rice. Not the university in Texas, not the former diplomat Susan, not the great wide receiver Jerry. We're talking the foostuff that is the basis for a thousand meals. A favorite of mine, I like it in jambalaya, in soup, in pudding. I even like it plain, where you take good old Uncle Ben's, add some butter and salt and pepper, and just eat it.

But regardless of the form, there is no doubt about what it is. White or brown, short grain or long, we're talking the seed of a species of grass. After sugarcane and corn, it is the agricultural commodity most cultivated across the planet, providing more than one-fifth of the calories consumed by humans.
Of course, anything that popular is bound to have pretenders and copycats. In many recipes you have an option of substituting pasta or potatoes to provide a starchy base and binder. To be fair, it's not necessarily a compromise. Lo mein is a nice alternative to fried rice, and chowder works better with tubers than with grains. But each of those is something different, more a case where an alternative is good in some circumstances but not in others. You would never think of a grape leaf stuffed with spaghetti, or dry sautéed szechuan beef over mashed potatoes.

Yet in a sort of a zen koan, when is rice not rice? According to an industry lobbying group, something can only be called rice when it is made of, well, rice. Or as USA Rice President & CEO Betsy Ward says, "Vegetables that have gone through a ricer are still vegetables, just in a different form. Only rice is rice, and calling 'riced vegetables,' 'rice,' is misleading and confusing to consumers. We may be asking the FDA and other regulatory agencies to look at this."

Why this declaration of principle? Because of an encroaching threat to the established order. In our ever more health conscious world, "cauliflower rice" is starting to make inroads with consumers. The vegetable in its granular form is being touted as a substitute wherever a non-starch plant-based pellet size filler is needed. You can find recipes for Cauliflower Rice and Beans, Cauliflower Rice Burritos, and perhaps most insulting of all, Cauliflower Rice Risotto.

It's a battle that bears an eerie similarity to one that's playing out over in the dairy aisle. More folks are buying soy and almond milk, making the dairy industry grit its teeth.  In a letter this past February to the FDA, the National Milk Producers Federation wrote, "In essence, milk is a product that comes from cows. Products made from soybeans or rice or almonds or any other plant are not milk, and it is a misuse of the term and illegal to call them milk." Alas, wishing doesn't make it so: in at least two cases, judges have dismissed cases in which plaintiffs sought to have companies stop using the word "milk" when marketing soy milk, saying consumers are not confused.

And so the rice folks have a tough road ahead. In fact, I can see the creep happening within our own four walls. While we generally try and eat healthy at home, when I go on the road I tend to stray to foods that are less so, meaning a pork chop or a steak. Likewise, once I'm out of the house, my wife pushes her culinary boundaries. But whereas I go for the stuff I shouldn't eat, she goes for the stuff of which we should eat more of, but she knows for me would be a quinoa soufflé too far. And that includes cauliflower pizza.

We're not talking the vegetable as a topping. To call this pizza is to describe its form. Yes, it is round, topped with cheese and spices, and baked in an oven. But other than that physical similarity, we're talking a different beast. That's because the base is made not from flour, but from the aforementioned cauliflower rice, two words that have as much to do with pizza as guacamole.

And so I feel the pain of a name being appropriated. Still, Big Rice doesn't have entirely clean hands either. They might be fretting over some shredded cauliflower, but isn't that a container of rice milk I see on the shelf? Can rice milk yoghurt or rice milk buttery flavored spread be far behind. Et Tu, Brute?


Marc Wollin of Bedford drinks cow milk and eats rice rice. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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