THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Meatless Monday: Money for Nothing? Cheap Food's Hidden Costs

As if Bjork isn't enough, there's another reason to love Iceland -- now it's the land without McDonald's. The franchise shuttered last month not as a way to protest inhumane treatment of animals or employees, out of fear of food-born illness or concern over obesity -- all valid reasons -- but because of something McDonald's values -- money.

Iceland's McDonald's sourced its ingredients from Germany, so the food was never locally produced and unlike in America, never came cheap for the consumer. Flying in food to a remote island comes at a cost even McDonald's understands. With the Iceland's economic collapse a year ago, the situation got worse. At roughly $5.29, an Icelandic Big Mac cost almost double what it does in the States, and rising food costs would have pushed it up to $6.36. Iceland pulled the plug because McDonald's wasn't cost-effective.

The irony is, cost-effectiveness is what McDonald's based itself on from the get-go in 1956. As Eric Schlosser showed us in Fast Food Nation, McDonald's minted industrialized food production as we know it. Instead of local restaurants serving local food, it created a nationwide assembly line system that grows and processes food as cheaply as possible. Sounds kind of cool in a Rube Goldberg way until you realize what that really means.

That Big Mac, even at $6.36, comes with significant hidden costs. Pushing output at the expense of quality means farmers have been using chemical pesticides and fertilizers, causing toxic runoff into our soil and water. Produce is grown for durability, so it can withstand being picked early and shipped across the country without looking the worse for wear. Crop diversity, flavor and nutrition are not priorities. Nor are the people who grow and harvest our food, many of whom are exploited illegal immigrants.

Ninety-nine percent of America's meat comes from factory farms. Conditions are so grim, farmers are forced to feed their animals antibiotics so they can survive the process only to wind up as a McNugget.

Centralized meat processing leads to risks like contamination. The week that saw the Iceland's last Big Mac also saw another ground beef recall -- 546,000 pounds of it. E.coli outbreaks in ground beef in New York and environs have to date resulted in two fatalities and over 500 cases of illness.

There's other hidden costs to the consumer, by way of obesity and obesity-related illness including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Fast food is processed up the wazoo, doctored up with additives, fat, salt and sugar.

Losing the Icelandic franchise (a total of three restaurants) will not bring McDonald's to its knees, nor is it the same as the falling the Berlin Wall. But it's a victory of sorts and the convergence of events is worth noting. Saying no to fast food means we're toppling a bigger wall -- the one food corporations have erected to keep the toll of industrialized food production from consumers.

A system that engenders pollution, abuse of animals and workers and us isn't so tasty. And it's not so cheap. Buying fast food -- and buying into the fast food system -- encourages us to value nothing -- not what we eat or how we grow it or even ourselves. You want fries with that? Not so much.

Mushrooms with Brown Butter and Barley

France, Italy, Turkey, China, Mexico -- these are the great cuisines of the world, according to culinary types. Iceland, you'll note, did not make the cut. Perhaps because their native specialty is cured ram scrota -- now there's a reason to go meatless. In honor of Iceland saying bye-bye to Big Macs, here's a scrotaless, meatless recipe that pays homage to Iceland's big barley crop and its forests of wild funghi. It's a rich, stylish take on the classic mushroom-barley combo and makes a nice vegetarian addition to Thanksgiving. In Iceland, it would be topped with skyr, a superthick yogurt. Here, a blob of Greek-style yogurt makes a suitable substitute.

Serve with a green salad and nice, crusty whole grain bread for sopping up extra broth.

1 ounce dried mushrooms
5 cups vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
1 cup barley
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion
3 cloves garlic
3 ribs celery
1 pound fresh mushrooms of choice -- cremini, shiitake, portobello, or a combination
6 cups chopped greens of choice -- spinach, kale, Swiss chard, or a combination
1 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves
sea salt, freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup plain, unsweetened Greek-style yogurt

Pour vegetable stock into a large pot. Bring to boil over high heat. Add dried mushrooms. Cover pot, but leave on burner but turn off heat and let dried mushrooms infuse the stock for 30 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, remove mushrooms from broth, return heat to high and allow stock to return to boil. Chop mushrooms.

When stock boils, add barley, bay leaf and reconstituted dried mushrooms. Stir to combine. Cover pot and reduce heat to low for 45 minutes, or until barley is tender, not mushy and broth is mostly absorbed.

Chop garlic, onion and celery. Slice fresh mushrooms.

In a separate pot, heat butter over medium heat. Stirring occasionally, let it cook for about 5 minutes or until it turns golden-brown and smells nutty. Careful not to let it burn.

Add chopped onion, garlic and celery. Stir so vegetables are coated with the melted butter. Then add sliced mushrooms. Stir again to combine. Cover pot and reduce heat to low. Let vegetables cook for about 10 minutes. The vegetables will release their own liquid and combine with the brown butter to create a rich, luscious broth.

Remove lid and mix in green by the handful. Stir gently until greens are wilted, leaves are tender but color is still vibrant. Spinach will take 5 minutes, kale and chard slightly longer. Stir in thyme and tarragon. Season with salt and pepper.

Remove bay leaf from barley. Season barley with salt and pepper.

To serve, top barley with mushroom and brown butter mixture.

Serve with a dollop of plain yogurt, if desired.

Serves 6.