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Meatless Monday: Labor Day Pains

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Purple mountain majesties, amber waves of grain, we've got it all, but one of America's greatest natural resources is you. Yeah, you sitting in your lawn chair on the last day of summer. That's why we honor you today. Labor Day is more than a day off, it's a tradition dating back to 1882, a celebration of America's work force.

You want to be treated right on the job and you deserve to be. So do the people who grow our food. But our labor practices aren't always what we preach. You need only to see Robert Kenner's film Food, Inc. and read Barry Estabrook's expose of Florida farm workers to realize the food the comes to your table sometimes does so via labor abuse that'll kill your appetite.

We want food that's healthy, safe, delicious, responsibly sourced and, everybody's favorite buzzword, sustainable. Sustainability means committing to practices that help the environment flourish, now and for generations to come. The immigrant labor force caring for and harvesting our food deserves the same treatment. What's the good of clean, organic food if it's harvested in filthy conditions? Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser has said, "If there are organic tomatoes being picked by indentured servants, I'd rather not have the organic tomato."

Plants grow, that's their job. They're producers, literally making the fruit, vegetables, nuts and grain we eat from nothing more than dirt, sun, water and air. They get top performance evaluations, doing their work efficiently and well. We're not nearly so talented. We can't generate our own food. However, we like to eat. Fortunately, we have farm workers who bring the producers to us, the consumers. Their dedication puts many of us to shame. And for what? The glamour? The money? Video from the immigrant farmworkers group Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) reveals workers enduring hazardous working conditions and pay so pathetic you'd tell your boss to shove it.

Schlosser, Slow Food USA president Josh Viertel and other leaders in the fight for sustainable food have been working with CIW to take on Chipotle, McDonald's, Taco Bell, Burger King, Subway and other fast food giants, the ones who buy up most of the tomatoes CIW picks. They've been working to get the same things you want and feel are every worker's right -- a fair wage and living conditions that are indeed livable.

When we buy and eat food grown in ways that support fair labor practices, "It puts us on moral and ethical and aesthetic ground we can stand behind," says Viertel. "We think of responsibility as a burden we bear, but the deepest, most authentic pleasure comes from fulfilling responsibility. We have an obligation to do the the right thing, particularly when it comes to food. When you're supporting a system you believe in, the food tastes better."

Whether you're a CEO or under the thumb of a manager who makes Machiavelli look like Oprah, when it comes to choosing food that's truly sustainable -- for you, for the planet, for the people who bring it to you -- you're the boss. Happy Labor Day.

Southwest Corn and Sage Saute With Chili-Dusted Tofu

Too often we think of sage as an herb for hearty winter food, but it's abundant now and pairs beautifully with other major summer producers, corn and zucchini.

2 pounds extra firm tofu
1 to 2 teaspoons olive oil
1 tablespoon cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 good pinch sea salt
juice of 2 limes

1 tablespoon olive oil
3 onions
3 red peppers
1 jalapeno
3 zucchini
3 celery stalks
1 generous bunch sage
6 ears corn
1 pint grape tomatoes
sea salt to taste

Preheat oven to 350.

Gently squeeze water from tofu. Blot dry.

Slice each blog of tofu into four equal slices, giving you eight tofu planks in all. Place on cookie sheet or in large casserole and brush lightly with oil.

In a small bowl, stir together cumin, chili ipowder and sea salt. Sprinkle spice mixture evenly on top of the tofu and bake uncovered for 30 miniutes.

Meanwhile, heat the tablespoon of olive oil a large soup pot, over medium-high heat. Chop onions, red peppers and jalapeno into small pieces (you can show off your knife skills or pulse with a food processor). Add vegetables to pot. Stir occasionally till vegetables soften, about 5 minutes.

Dice zucchini and celery. Add to onions and pepper mixture and continue cooking for another few minutes. Reduce heat to medium and cover.

Working over a large bowl, cut kernels off corn, letting juices drip into bowl. Run a knife along the corn cob to get every drop. Add corn and corn juice to pot, along with grape tomatoes.

Stir in sage, chopped fine, and season with sea salt to taste. Stir until heated through.

Tofu should be done at this point, fragrant, with a burnished finish. Squeeze lime juice over tofu. Serve it atop or alongside corn and sage.

Nice with fresh corn bread and a green salad. Serves 6 to 8.

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