The Ostensible Randomness of Dining Rewards Cards

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Photo by Joanna O'Leary
Yay! I buy SEVEN burgers, get ONE free.

It seems like almost every fast-casual dining establishment offers some sort of rewards card, which is perhaps why my cheap wallet barfs out its contents into my purse approximately once a week. Poor wallet -- it just can't handle all this rectangular paperwork promising discounts and freebies.

Because I am a) compulsive and b) cheap, I keep every discount/freebie card I am offered, even if I know with absolute certainty I will never return. (Yes, sometimes food can be that bad.)

Overall, I think rewards cards are a good way to inspire repeat business and to continue to motivate already loyal patrons. The science -- or math, rather -- behind these cards, however, confounds me: How in the world do they come up with the formula of x items purchased equals y item(s) free?

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Fast Food Employees Across Houston Striking Today for Higher Wages

Categories: Food Policy, News

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Photo from fastfoodforward.com
In the wake of strikes that started in New York back in November and more protests throughout the Midwest earlier this summer, fast food employees in the South and on the West Coast are planning walk-outs of their own.

Today, fast food workers in more than 35 cities across the country are striking and protesting to demand higher wages. Workers at restaurants such as McDonald's and Burger King as well as retailers like Macy's and Dollar Tree say they are tired of being paid minimum wage or just slightly above, claiming that supporting a family on those wages put them below the poverty line in the United States. Fast food employees are now asking to be paid $15 an hour.

It's no coincidence that the strikes are happening the day after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I Have A Dream" speech. Fifty years ago, the march was a rally against discriminatory hiring and racial inequality. Today, the protesters are hoping to achieve a large pay increase in order to be able to support themselves financially.

Here in Houston, a rally is planned for early Thursday morning, but the fast food employees and organizers are keeping quiet about the exact time and location of the strike. It's rumored to be outside of a McDonald's on the west side, but none of the McDonald's employees we talked to would answer any questions for fear of losing their jobs.

One person who is answering questions is State Representative Armando Walle of Houston's District 140. The rights of fast food employees hit close to home for him.

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Best Gluten-Free Menu Items That Are Normally Off Limits (Pizza, Pasta and More!)

Categories: Food Policy

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Photo by Ongjulian
On August 2, the Food and Drug Administration finally decided to define the term "gluten free." Up until then, manufacturers had been able to slap the label on anything that they felt was gluten free enough. How much gluten to include in gluten-free products was completely up to the discretion of the individual companies.

Not anymore though! Now, according to the FDA, products labeled gluten free will have to contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. This amount is recognized by the medical community as low enough that it won't make people suffering from Celiac disease ill.

Because more and more people are being diagnosed with Celiac disease or other gluten intolerances (my mom swears it makes her joints hurt), many restaurants are also accommodating the gluten free public. We've compiled a few lists in the past of the best local joints offering gluten free menus or a number of gluten free items. They could probably use an update, as they were written in 2011 and 2012, but today's list is all about specific menu items.

Where's the best gluten-free burger (bun) in town? How 'bout gluten free pasta or pizza? We've got a round up of all that and more!

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Attack of the Frankenfish!

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Photo from AquaBounty Technologies
An AquAdvantage salmon in the background and a non-GE salmon in the foreground.
It's not available yet, but once the FDA finalizes its assessment of AquAdvantage salmon, the genetically engineered fish may find its way to your grocery store fish counter. And you may have no idea that the fish you're eating has been modified with growth hormone regulating genes.

These genes allow salmon to grow all year, instead of their normal spring and summer growing season. The idea is to make the salmon grow faster, but not bigger, so normal-sized salmon would be available to harvest sooner, meaning more salmon on your dinner plate for less money.

The FDA's review of genetically engineered salmon is ongoing, but if it passes inspection, the AquAdvantage salmon would be the first genetically modified animal in the U.S. food supply. So what's the big deal with the so-called "frankenfish?"

It depends on who you talk to.

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New York Bans Sale of Shark Fins, But They're Still on the Menu in Houston

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Photo by Nicholas Wang
On Friday, July 26, the state of New York became the eighth U.S. state to ban the sale of shark fins in an effort to protect the world's sharks. Last May, a bill to ban shark fin trade in Texas died in the Senate, but due to increasing awareness about the cruelty of shark finning as well as the expense of making the Chinese delicacy shark fin soup, many Texas restaurants are taking shark fin soup off their menus.

Shark fin soup, often served at Chinese weddings and banquets as a symbol of wealth and prosperity, is controversial due to the often inhumane way in which shark fins are obtained. Because the fins are the most useful part of the shark, hunters will catch a shark, cut off all its fins, then release it back into the ocean still alive, where, unable to move, it will die a slow, painful death from blood loss, suffocation or starvation. Releasing the sharks frees up space on the fishing vessels for more fins.

Shark finning is one reason for the rapid decline in shark populations. Sharks are slow to mature and do not reproduce as often or have as many young as other sea creatures, so killing sharks can have a large impact on the population. Other people are less concerned with the environmental impact of shark finning and take greater issue with the morality of cutting off an animal's limbs and leaving it to die.

The U.S. protects sharks from finning with the Shark Conservation Act (introduced by John Kerry in 2009), which prohibits any vessels from carrying more shark fins than carcasses. Additionally, all sharks must be brought to port with their fins still attached. Several states have outlawed the sale or trade of shark fins entirely, as New York did last week, but in Texas, shark fin soup is still legal, for now. And it's available right here in Houston.

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The Olallieberry: A Hybrid I Can Get Behind

Categories: Food Policy

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Photo by Brett
Olallieberries
God, I really need to spend more time on Facebook. Three hours a day just isn't enough time to absorb all those self-promotional posts from "friends," pressing Candy Crush Saga updates and pseudo-artistic Instagram photos.

Actually, I can say with all sincerity that I learned something new and interesting yesterday on Facebook, thanks to a good friend's (notice lack of scare quotes) casual wall post. She noted a recently developed appreciation for "olallieberry pie," which, of course, then prompted me to wonder, What's pie?

Okay, okay, I'll turn down the sarcasm meter because I really do want to impress upon you how genuinely excited I was (as an unabashed food nerd) to learn about a new berry. Well, new to me, at least.

FYI, the olallieberry has a more complicated family tree than the Kennedys; it's a triple-cross hybrid (a cross of two berries that are themselves cross hybrids). I don't know what this means exactly in terms of fruit flavor, but given that their botanical progenitors include the blackberry and raspberry, I'm betting they taste pretty damn good. I also am pretty sure I should not be wearing white linen the first time I try them.

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Fortune Cookie Messages - For Your Eyes Only?

Categories: Food Policy

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Photo by C.P. Storm
Everyone knows my spouse just filed for divorce. Do I really have to read this out loud?
It's a familiar situation. The platters of lo mein and kung pao shrimp have been cleared. Your friend moans and says, "I shouldn't have eaten that last dumpling." Everyone laughs. The check arrives and with it a tray full of fortune cookies, one for each member of your large party.

"Everybody open and share!," someone cries. A crinkle of the plastic, a snap of the cookie and the missive emerges. You gulp. Do I really have to read this out loud?

I don't know, do you? Convention if not custom dictates that fortune cookie messages are to be shared with your dining companions, but what if the words will embarrass you? Or make someone else at the table feel awkward? Or both?

Imagine, for instance, you're at Fung's Kitchen just finishing up a "team-building" dinner with your boss and co-workers. You crack open your cookie and the fortune reads something like "Your next job will be more fulfilling" or "New work is on the horizon." Ha-ha. But, um, shit, you actually were planning on leaving the company at the end of the month.

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Food for All But Bibs for Some? I Think Not

Categories: Food Policy

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Image from cafepress.com
One of many punk bibs I would totally wear.
An increasing percentage of my friends are having babies, which means the introduction of goods such as sippie cups, baby bags and onesies into my social space. I generally welcome these child-specific items; after all, happy baby means happy parent means happy host. One item in particular seems so useful that I really wonder why humans at all stages of life don't regularly embrace it.

I'm referring to the bib, that garment that is ubiquitous in the under-five set but then mysteriously disappears as you advance in age. The one exception to this rule seems to be when eating lobster, but even then people always joke, "Do I REALLY need this?" (Yes, yes, you do.)

While it may be true that most babies are messier than most adults at mealtime and therefore benefit from a bib, it is not correct that most adults are not messy when they eat. The fact that we lay napkins in our lap to shield that area from spillage is tacit acknowledgement that food inevitably marks our clothing. So why confine protection to our crotch area? (Wait, don't answer that.)

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Pump Up Your Grill Game: Marinating Dos and Don'ts

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Photo by adactio
Summer's here and it's time to grill.

Step up your grill game by checking out our list of dos and don'ts for marinating meats, poultry, seafood and veggies.

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Cage-Free vs. Free-Range: The Truth Behind Eggs and Confusing Terminology

Categories: Food Policy

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Cross Duck
"Free-range eggs" doesn't exactly mean chickens can roam freely.
Whenever I go grocery shopping, I always buy cage-free or free-range eggs, mainly because when I see the labels "cage-free" or "free-range," I imagine a bunch of chickens roaming freely in the fields and enjoying life. It makes me feel like a good person for purchasing eggs that come from chickens that live life outside a constraining cage.

However, a documentary created last year (nominated in the PBS Online Film Festival), "The Story of an Egg," reveals the truth behind these terms, which don't mean what you think they would.

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