Efficiency v Health

The Western industrial style diet has spread across the world, gobbling up acres of grocery store space as it expands. This diet focuses on presenting foods on the wholesale and retail shelves and in refrigerated cases that are stable, long lasting, and appealing. The corporate food model is one of if not the most successful economic force in human history because it has transcended political systems, wars, and the territorial nature of proud countries. These corporations smugly declare they are feeding the world efficiently and they are. Whether our health can handle the efficiency is a question they do not answer.

Making ziti explains the crisis of efficiency. Marilyn’s parents lost their caretaker temporarily and the daughters had to step up, cooking meals in large pans that would last several days at a time. The shopping list was easily fulfilled at the nearby regional chain grocery store with a few boxes, cartons, and a package of ground chicken, all name brand products at reasonable prices. Released from its can, the red sauce was seasoned in the pot, the noodles dropped in boiling water, and the ground meat was quickly browned. With the ingredients prepared, all of it was combined with a whole milk ricotta and placed in a baking dish with a spread of shredded cheese on top. The ziti took forty-five minutes to prepare. While the dish baked in the oven, all the prep ware was washed and dried. The dish was easy-peasy to prepare, although my garbage can was bulging with more packaging than usual.

Unfortunately, Marilyn got a dab of ricotta on her finger as she mixed the ingredients together. She licked her finger without thinking and her tongue went numb immediately. She reacts to msg.

Marilyn’s home version of ziti takes four times as long to prepare if she is willing to put in all the effort. Pasta dough is easy to make in the food processor, although the raw dough must sit for thirty to sixty minutes before using. The dough must be rolled, dusted with more flour, and shaped into noodles or cavatelli, because we only have two machines, manual, for shaping pasta. Room must be made for the pasta to dry before boiling.

While one brand of crushed tomatoes in a can printed with “no citric acid” on its label exists, the brand has disappeared from the local shelves. Roma tomatoes are slit on the bottom with a crisscross and placed in boiling water for two minutes, dipped in cold water, and then peeled. Once chopped, the tomatoes are cooked down with herbs; a blender is used for a smooth sauce after cooking.

A half-gallon of milk is heated to 200o F, taken off the heat and the juice of two lemons and salt are added to the milk and stirred. Ten minutes later, the curds and whey are separated. The mixture is poured through cheesecloth and the ricotta is trapped in the cloth.

Ground chicken is deboned raw from whole chickens that are purchased from trusted sources. After deboning, she hauls out the mix master and inserts the meat grinding attachment. Salt and herbs are added.

The dirty dishes, bowls and pots overrun the sink and continue down the counter. However, the squashes must be roasted and the cheese shredded on the box grater, before the ziti can be assembling for baking.

Marilyn demonstrates making a ziti from scratch takes an entire afternoon while using the corporate food model reduces the time to an hour. When efficiency is primary, the corporate model using industrial processes wins hands down. However, the industrial version of ziti is toxic to Marilyn, leaving her no choice in the matter. She may be extreme, but the western diet on a corporate scale with its emphasis on stability and consistent taste across vast geographic distances affects the human body in a variety of adverse ways. Many to most fail to tolerate all the offerings at the grocery store, from mild discomfort to ongoing medical issues.

Studies in Europe and the United States highlight a myriad of deleterious effects of the western diet. Insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, dyslipidemia (abnormal levels of cholesterol), cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and cancer are the top of the list at the National Institutes of Health. According to the Royal Society for Public Health (UK), obesity and cognitive decline are major outputs of the Western-type diet. Minor effects may be small weight gains, the inability to lose weight, bloating, momentary fatigue, or listlessness.

These consequences are old news with studies presenting similar conclusions going back decades. While the peer-reviewed studies project objectivity, time has demonstrated that many of these studies are flawed. The bias in these studies, both government and corporate-sponsored, is the concentrated focus on one ingredient, full fat milk or eggs for example. The overlooked bias operates as a good magician does, look here and not there, where I do not want you to look. The health consequences come not just from the milk over here, but from what was added to the milk over there, which may be consequentially worse. The chemical additives that make skim milk drinkable may be worse for the body than the full fat pasteurized milk. Declaring “eggs are good for you” or “eggs are bad for you” ignores the fact of where and how the chickens are raised grossly affects the quality of the laid eggs. France grades the quality of its eggs as a regulatory necessity.

The bias in the science blossoms in the public realm. The media presentation of food and diet, from advertising at one extreme to documentaries on the other, places the responsibility to control health consequences of diet on the individual. “Your poor health is your fault” is the overriding message from FDA food pyramids and heath columns on news sites. The food you chose to eat made you sick. People with good health must make better choices than you do is the corollary.

The narrative is fundamentally false. Some human bodies can handle industrial food chemicals, either removing them or neutralizing them before they harm the various systems. Other bodies react strongly and negatively. Even more, the effects of exposure may be over a time scale of decades, and the accumulation of adverse reactions is slow growing. The effect may be molecule by molecule, tiny and slow to grow although the ultimate result is permanent damage to the body. Updating the media presentation of diet by adding the missing nuance, the only productive conclusion is individual choices come into play only when credible choices are available, but not until then.

The corporate model grocery store offers very few non-industrial chemical-added food products. Unsalted butter should have unpasteurized cream as the only ingredient; most brands add a second ingredient, which is msg bound in one form or another. In the produce aisle, fruits and vegetables that travel far distances are sprayed with chemicals to retard rot or they are picked un-ripened and gassed with chemicals to force ripening. Meats are painted to retard smell and discoloration. Dairy products are usually ultra-pasteurized (UHT) or mixed with additives to fix the taste and slow decomposition. Inexpensive eggs are from chickens fed an industrial diet, giving a new sordid twist to the truism “you are what you eat.” The middle aisles of the store are populated with boxes, bags, and cans of industrial chemically enhanced food products. Even table salt, which should be NaCl (sodium chloride) only, has citric acid added to it.

The prudent food choices, to use the terminology of the Royal Society, are the less adulterated foods. The grocery store is not the place to find unadulterated foods though.  An estimated 95 to 98 percent of the offered grocery products are affected by the drive for efficiency, stability, and shelf life. Corporate food producers have added industrial food chemicals or utilized highly processed methods to enhance the probability of the consumer choosing their product and choosing it again during the next shopping trip.

When health is moved to the forefront and efficiency ratcheted backwards to a lesser priority, food choices take on a different set of sensibilities. Local produce is less likely to be treated. Locally butchered meats are also less likely to be painted with retarding chemicals because their distribution channels are short and direct. The expectation of long transit waits, the purpose of retarding chemicals on produce and meats, disappears.

The foods that are safe to eat take more time to prepare and turn to rot more quickly. Efficiency has great benefits, except for the fact the processes can negatively affect health. In a health-first diet, ziti becomes a weekend dish instead of a weeknight staple. Healthy dining influences our schedules as well, readjusting time allocations.

The health costs of quick dishes were papered over or ignored for decades. Other unmentioned costs include pollution, the explosion of one-use plastics, land degradation, and worst of all, climate change. Efficiency is a carbon belching patchwork of destructive agricultural practices, long transportation routes, and spewing factories, all of which are hidden from view.

By choosing health, demanding real choices for a healthy diet, the positive consequences cascade. Our health is intimately tied to the health of the planet, and we can help both at the same time when we step back from efficiency first models.

Will Meatless Meat Save Us?

Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat have made their media debut and are deep in the marketing plans for their publicity campaign. Their products are now available at fast food restaurants and coming soon to as many food-product streams as possible. Venture capital firms are bullish on the companies and the financial outlook in the press is positive. While meatless meat is the latest in processed foods to be offered to the consumer, the products, like their predecessors, follow the arc of other highly-processed food products rigorously marketed to a skeptical audience.

The marketing departments of these meatless meats are pursuing two sales pitches to woo us to their savory offerings. The first pitch is for human health, complete with a set of points of how this product is better for the human body than the meat it is replacing. They are arguing that meatless meat is the healthy choice. The second pitch is a series of arguments about climate change and degradation of the environment, and how these products benefit the planet. Their pitch is that each of us can help save the planet from ourselves by choosing meatless meat. Between the two arenas of argument stands the acclamation: they are tasty, and they taste like the meat these products are replacing; therefore, you should eat them.

The first pitch takes a page from the Heart Association, removing red meat from the human diet promotes better health. The heart and the rest of the circulatory system benefits from the removal of large quantities of animal fats in any given diet is a true, evidence based statement. These meatless meats do meet this healthier heart criterion by removing animal fats. However, these products are still higher calorie foods than grains and vegetables. They are not necessarily healthier either. The complex composition of these food products provokes other issues of human health.

These meatless meats are highly-processed, which is only a descriptive term. No scientific consensus exists on the definition of a processed food. Pasteurized milk is processed, and ultra-pasteurized (UHT) milk is highly-processed; however, the comparison between the two milks is like night and day. Pasteurized milk is heated to 212oF (100oC) until the harmful bacteria and enzymes, the pathogens, are killed. The milk is chilled and ready for consumption. Due to the application of minor heat, there are only minor changes to the nutritional quality.

Ultra-pasteurized milk is sterile milk. The milk is heated beyond boiling to 275oF (135oC) and has a burnt taste. Chemicals, including msg, are added to give the milk flavor and to mask the burnt taste. Vitamins and minerals must be added to the product as well to reproduce nutritional benefits that were destroyed by the major heat. Packaged in sterile containers, UHT milk has a typical unrefrigerated shelf life of six to nine months. All the ultra-pasteurized dairy products go through the same thorough process.

The lack of definitions of mildly processed, processed, and highly-processed is exploited by the food industry. Food producers are legally allowed to market their products as they wish, and the FDA boundaries are few. Companies trot out food scientists who will go on the record saying without a definition of processed food, no one can determine when a food is processed beyond its original state. After all, eggplant must be cooked in order to be edible. From a specific legal standing, manufacturers of highly-processed food products can claim that their foods are healthy. In every other reasonable context, the claim is ambiguous.

This ambiguity is what the meatless meat companies exploit as well. Yes, the meatless meat is processed, but so is milk and eggplant. Who is to say what product is highly-processed? Besides, the FDA approved the food product for human consumption, which means the food cannot hurt you.

Except, long term food studies on ingredient safety do not exist and even if someone were willing to pay for such a study, how would the researcher compensate for the variables of the other 20,000 different botanical and animal foods humans consume. Such data is impossible to collect and even if it were, what human would want to be constrained to such a limited diet for years? The safety testing is limited and instead of adding caution because of the limits, food companies fill the vacuum with positive marketing campaigns.

All the debate over what is processed food deliberately ignores one inescapable element of food. Vitamins and minerals in our fruits and vegetables do not present as discreet components of food. The essential elements for human health are integrated into other components, other chemicals, which help with the absorption of vitamins and minerals in our gut. These other chemicals help with digestion, providing bridges and catalysts that promote absorption. The publication of added fortified vitamins and minerals are listed on the side of the cereal box, does not confirm that the body absorbs any of them by consuming the food product in the box. The more processing, the less likelihood of absorption takes place, because most of the helpful bridge and catalyst chemicals are not present.

Whether these meatless products are healthy for you is still subject to confirmation. They are healthier in one area, no animal fat. Beef is more than fat though, giving us the essential nutrients from the muscle tissue. The more processed a product is, the more “empty calories” devoid of essential nutrients we consume. While the human digestive system digests beef efficiently, the gastrointestinal tract tends to react to artificial ingredients, creating side effects such as gastric distress. The FDA can confirm the food product will not kill you on a short-term basis, but agency’s confirmation does not verify that the product is good for you.

In the end, the consumer is left to decide with a paucity of evidence whether or not to eat highly-processed food products. While the food industry can spin the lack of evidence as a “not bad thing,” the long-term health of your physical body is what is at stake. No one knows the outcome of those stakes.

The second arena, climate change and the environment, is easier to parse as a benefit.

Cattle and their beef on one side and the environment and climate change on the other conflict in surprising ways. The raising of cattle from birth to the slaughterhouse and onto the wrapped packages in your grocery bag accounts for 25 percent of the greenhouse gases in the United States every year. Huge swathes of land are necessary to raise cattle to adulthood and these lands are not used sustainably because of the monoculture ranching business model. Large herds of cattle degrade the soil and the flora because the other natural systems that would complement bovine herds are gone. The contribution of carbon to the atmosphere from cows is far more than the intestinal gases emitted from both ends of the cow, although bovine methane is a recognized contributor. The feedlots at the end of a cow’s life are another ethical and environmental travesty with huge environmental consequences.

The pursuit of healthier beef for human consumption has a larger impact on the environment than the standard ranching models. Standard models allocate three acres per cow while grass fed cows require nine acres per cow. Three times as much land is required to raise a healthier-for-consumption cow, which hastens degradation of the land and quickens deforestation.

Reducing the amount of beef in the human diet is the non-negotiable requirement in addressing climate change. Those societies that eat large quantities of beef will be forced to cut back their consumption, some to zero. The present model is unsustainable, and as the droughts spread across the land and deepen, cattle ranching will become untenable. One way or the other, the falling consumption of beef is coming. Most people would prefer the voluntary cessation of beef without environmental devastation than the climate-induced model, one would think.

Into this great shift in diet from beef to more sustainable foods, wades the meatless meat products. Their argument is that they can give beef eaters what they crave without the actual beef, and the world is saved. While everyone welcomes the reduction in carbon, the argument overreaches.

First, we are not going to save the world through fast food franchises or through frozen meatless meat patty bundles in the freezer section of the grocery store. The absurdity of the positive impact of the food product is undeniable. Perhaps these burgers can be a small part of the solution, but they will not be the solution.

Second, highly-processed infers many steps from the point of bringing in the raw materials to transforming the ingredients into the food product. These products are complicated and the production process is complex. Quantities of energy are burned to create these burgers at scale, and that is carbon producing. Limit the manufacturing to a few regional plants and the carbon price of transporting by truck or rail go up exponentially.

Third, both Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers are soy products. Soy farming is a mono-culture farm product, meaning the soil is degraded and becomes unusable unless large quantities of artificial fertilizer are added. Corporate model farming produces far more carbon than the dynamic, multiple-culture farms where different crops rotate and complement each other, one crop taking nitrogen out of the soil and another locking nitrogen into the soil.

Further, all soy grown in the United States is GMO. The closest producer of non-GMO soybeans is Brazil, and the carbon cost of shipping between continents is astronomical. Shipping is, far and away, the most polluting form of transportation on the planet. GMO in the case of soybeans refers to soy plants that are immune to glyphosate (RoundupTM). The entire field of nearly ripe soybeans are sprayed with glyphosate. When the plants turn brown and dry out from the chemical, the field is harvested, giving the farmer a higher yield per acre. Meanwhile, glyphosate has been definitively linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma by science and the link has been upheld in court.

The meat eaters of the world will have to change their diet, or the planet will change their diet for them. Technology will not save us or our burgers. Only by changing our habits and making carbon-conscious choices will we save the planet.

These meatless meats are high-tech vegetable patties. Strip away all the hype and hyperbole, and what is left is one set of tradeoffs for another set. Try a meatless burger and if the product is tasty, enjoy the experience. However, much deeper and complex changes are necessary if we are to save our planet from climate change.

On Table Manners

We were not overtaken by the pandemic pounds from the forced isolation like we expected. Instead, my wife and I looked up from our roasted chicken meal last night and realized that we had thrown most of our table manners out the window. We had devolved into slobs.

Please understand, we have had to practice topnotch manners for decades, as we attended weddings, b’nai mitzvah parties, desserts, business meetings, congregational dinners, and private invitations to congregant homes. We learned to cut up anything served in a red sauce smaller than usual to avoid a “whoopsie,” an advertisement of clumsiness on good clothes. At shiva calls, if the offerings were not finger foods, then all was to be avoided lest the paper/garish plastic plate become our downfall. “Just a cookie please, we have more obligations.”

Yet, we sat across from each other with greasy fingers, picking tidbits from chicken pieces and chasing errant pieces of zucchini and sweet potato threatening to fall off the edge of the plate. Looking down from my fingers, I realized there was no napkin waiting in lap, which I usually need for the whoopsies. Dressed in my old, stained sweats with dogs hovering beneath my stool with bated breath, what was the point of having a napkin? Oh yeah: I cannot touch anything clean without smearing grease on it.

We are not going to restaurants anytime soon, so what is the point?

The point is the lack of attention has demeaned our daily rituals. Our ritual of table manners has served my family for years. Every so often, my adult children thank us for demanding they learn how to carry themselves in public. They have experienced the business meal where their good manners stood out as polite, conscientious, and engaged while those without such knowledge were diminished. We all sat across from diners in any situation with confidence that our conversations would not be sidetracked by an obvious faux pas.

I always considered table manners to be the great equalizer amid the American melting pot. The rituals of sharing a meal with others transcends cultures, countries, education, and economics. This is not a matter of whether one culture belches loudly after a good meal, which can be interesting. Table manners, no matter what culture where one is seated, is about demonstrating respect for the other. They are the simplest vehicles for offering respect, whether the etiquette is over chopsticks, hand foods, or western utensils.

Table manners broadcast respect for ourselves and for others in a most personal and intimate setting. Our use or lack of these rituals telegraph who we are and what we think of others. The cliché, actions speak louder than words, is oh-so-true at the dinner table.

Let not the sticklers for etiquette deter us from the task of giving respect for others. No one really cares if the bananas foster is served with a fork or a spoon; we only care whether you will wait for mine to be served so that we may share together. Table manners are something we do together, a ritual we share that confirms quietly and unobtrusively the respect we each offer.

Unless it’s barbeque in my house, in which case all bets are off and you are on your own, sucker.

The Animals of the Serengeti

East Gate, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

You are viewing an iconic photo that I snapped with my little point-and-shoot camera as I took a “happy stop” at the main gate at Serengeti National Park. While people come from around the world to snap pictures of the animals of the Serengeti, I was struck by the most pervasive creature of all, the human visitor. You will see humans in the back of safari vehicles from early in the day until 18:00 every evening, when the travelers are either gone from the park or corralled into their camps.

In hopes of explaining the response of the Tanzanian economy to the foreign visitors to the park, this little shop brings their experience with tourist needs into sharp focus. Looking closely at the windows from left to right, one can identify the priorities of the tourist as liquor, wine, beer, and Pringles. You may read whatever commentary you would like into those documentary facts.

The Masai have been removed from the national park and the wildlife is resurging. The Masai do not hunt wildlife and eat it (for the most part), but their cattle herds were destructive and competed with the herbivores for grasses on the endless plain. The few roads in the park are lightly maintained, remaining in kidney-crushing condition, discouraging vehicles and promising “African massages” to the few who dare to speed.

Unfortunately, climate change is having a significant impact on the Serengeti. The seasons of the region are long dry, short wet, short dry, and long wet. January is supposed to be the short dry season, yet it rained every day, confusing both flora and fauna. Zebra and wildebeests are supposed their birth their babies altogether at the end of the short dry and the beginning of the long wet. They did not know when to drop. The sex of crocodiles in the egg is determined by the outside ambient temperature. The higher the temperature, the more eggs will hatch as male. The warmer temperatures accompanying climate change has created a severe lack of females. The migration itself is under siege, an endless counterclockwise pattern of grazing across the plains. Short grass benefits the grazing animals and the long grass benefits the carnivores. The misplaced rains are making chaos of the grazing cycles.

This park is dependent upon the tourists who come with their cameras and their appetites. The tourist fees and opportunities to camp in environmentally conceived camps sustain one of the best maintained and better protected parks in East Africa. There is nothing quite like listening to cape buffalo munch grass next to your tent in the middle of night, who will remind you with a delightfully large buffalo patty just outside your tent flaps in the morning.

Someone tell me though: Is Pringles an international sensation that far-ranging tourists just cannot put down?

Lessons of the Book Search

In the process of researching a new article-maybe-book, a down-the-rabbit-hole investigatory thread emerged. The origin of the thread begins with the novelist Herman Wouk (The Winds of War), a 20th century author of deserved literary repute. Mr. Wouk was also an Orthodox Jew, proud and practicing his faith so personally that he wrote a non-fiction text “This is My God.” His book is a well-written introduction to a Jewish theistic God concept, which is an accessible recommended read. In his introduction, Mr. Wouk explains  that his book is in response to a derogatory text promoting agnosticism. The hunt began.

The book that invokes Herman Wouk’s ire has almost disappeared from library shelves in the first decades of the 21th century; in contrast, Mr. Wouk’s book is still in print and easily available. Homer W. Smith was a biologist in the first half of the 20th century who wrote three books of some publishing success. The third was “Man and His Gods,” published in 1955 and running at 485 pages before the index. However, what makes the book stand out is that the Forward is written Albert Einstein. The book sold well in its day.

As Dr. Einstein stated, Professor Smith attempts “to portray man’s fear-induced animistic and mythic ideas with all their far-flung transformations and interrelations.” One of the major arguments of the book is that Western religions are a magnet for all destructive fears that have haunted humankind. Further, these religions are also a significant broadcaster of these pernicious narratives that promulgate terrible results such as war and widespread unhappiness. The book is a thoroughgoing condemnation of religion and its application up through the beginning of the 20th century.

One can clearly understand why Herman Wouk despised this text.

There is no doubt that Professor Smith was extraordinarily well-read. Besides the Bible and biblical scholarship, he was intimately familiar with Enlightenment philosophers, the volumes of Gibbon’s “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Darwin along with his milieu of detractors and supporters, Medieval magic and literature on the Devil, literary criticism, Christian theology and metaphysics. He saves some of his highest praise for the eleventh edition of Encylopedia Britannica, published in 1910-1911. (p. 483)

“Man and His Gods” is an archetypal text of its time. The writing is long-winded, and the grammar is complex, which was typical of the academic presentation of the day. Reviewers of that decade would declare that the book was erudite and well-written, whether or not they agreed the provocative argument.

The thesis is that knowledge and rationalism trump religion and superstition. Most of the text is a review of the religions of Western world and the Ancient Near East through history using the lens of 20th century rationalism. Professor Smith hoped to put the final nail in the coffin of superstitious religion with this book. He did not.

A funny thing happened though, which is why there was a hunt. “Man and His Gods” has nigh disappeared. In a dash of irony, I believe that the book would have certainly slipped away totally, despite a forward by Einstein, if Herman Wouk had not mentioned the text by name in his introduction. If Mr. Wouk had simply dropped a few sentences explaining his angry motivation for writing his book, time would have accomplished his goal for him.

I went searching for the text. My university lists a copy of Dr. Smith’s text in its catalogue, having purchased it in 1956. According to their records, the book was never checked out of the library. After I and the university librarian perused the shelf, we both concluded that the book had been stolen, probably decades ago. The Library of Congress (Card no. 52-5512) has a copy, buried in one of their offsite repositories. Having access to an academic national search function, someone located a copy at SUNY-Buffalo. Ten weeks after an initial request, I was holding the book.

The book did not meet my needs though. I was seeking a text that explained and promoted agnosticism in the 20th century. Dr. Smith’s text is the other side of the coin, exclusively attacking theism and orthodox religions. He states that rationalism is the better/best way, yet he offers no arguments for this stance. While the book may have made a splash at the time of publication, this lack of a positive argument may explain why the book disappeared from the great discussions on religion, culture, and individual relevance.

Having read through the book only to find the book only to find disappointment, I am reminded of a quote from the end of Ecclesiastes. “The making of many books is without limit and much study is a wearying of the flesh.” (Eccl. 12:9) Homer W. Smith taught me two lessons: first, erudition easily falls into hubris and second, pre-determined conclusions can produce a myriad of ever-escalating mistakes and misreadings.

Mr. Wouk’s book also taught me a lesson: Anger is a tool and it should never be a reason.

The Peanut Butter Cookie 2018

Peanuts

During this anniversary of the assassination, a condemnatory critique has come to the fore in our cultural conversations. This well-documented argument concludes that the image of Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. presented today is a sanitized version of the real life and times of the reverend, especially his last years, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. The legislation was present but the racism, the poverty, and the disparities in opportunity were still deeply embedded in the United States. He was fighting as hard as ever, with every growing headwind against his movement and his goals.

“They pay us peanuts,” many Americans on poverty wages say. The cliché is old, even dated now. Few realize that this statement is rooted in American slavery. Peanuts are intimately bound to the black slaves of the United States, including the commercial success of tan, highly nutritious kernels.

Peanuts reached the United States by a circuitous route. The peanut we know today is a hybrid of two plants that originated in South America, at least 3500 years ago. The record is scant, but kernels have been found with mummies on South American continent.

The European explorers discovered peanuts in the 1500’s and brought them back to Europe. From Europe, the peanut was distributed to Africa and to Asia. The peanut became a staple crop in parts of Africa.

In the 1700’s, the peanut makes its debut in North America as another commodity accompanying the slave trade. As slaves were loaded on ships, so were peanuts. North American farmers did not know how to grow or tend the peanut crops though, although they were interested in investing in them. They relied on their African slaves, who were already familiar with the peanut, to manage the crops. At this time, the peanut crops were considered appropriate for feeding livestock and slaves. Peanuts were slave food.

Peanuts rose in stature with the Civil War for military reasons. As the Union soldiers make their way through the South, they encountered peanuts as a snack and as a staple, appreciating the taste and the health benefits. Enjoying their new nut, the soldiers brought peanuts back to the northern states, incorporating them in their diet. Decades later, P.T. Barnum adds roasted peanuts to his circus show to boost his profit margin.

Peanut butter emerged more than once during the 1800’s. but gained a stronger hold in the American diet late in the century. A St. Louis doctor concocted a peanut spread recipe for his elderly patients who no longer had enough teeth to chew meat. He recognized that the nut was a good source of protein, which could be gummed.

Peanut butter produced by the large conglomerates today is a sweeten gooey concoction of what the slaves ate and the good doctor invented. Peanut butter was pureed roasted peanuts with nothing added. Today, we pay extra for the pure product while the adulterated one is less expensive.

One commentator called the presentation of Dr. King in today’s history books and holidays “cotton candy.” I have used the same term for years to describe many peanut butters on the grocery shelves, which is the origin of this essay. Food and images of a civil rights leader and minister are not the same phenomena and should not be equated with the same gravity. Nonetheless, the same sanitizing of the slave origins and the following historical chapters of purging the repercussions of that slavery do run in parallel.

Many of the best tasting dishes today began in poverty. The peanut, however, does not come from poverty alone, but from American slavery as well. Enjoy your peanuts; these nuts carry much history with them.

 

PEANUT BUTTER COOKIES (gluten free)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Ingredients:

½ cup sifted coconut flour
¼ cup rice flour
1 cup natural peanut butter
1½ cups sugar
3 eggs
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup peanuts, coarsely chopped (optional)
¼ cup peanut oil
½ teaspoon vanilla

Directions:

1. Mix together peanut butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, peanut oil and salt. Stir in peanuts and coconut and rice flours.

2. Drop by the spoonful 2 inches apart on greased cookie sheet. Bake for about 14 minutes.

3. Cool slightly and remove from cookie sheet to racks.

Garage Sale Reflections

I proposed to my wife over thirty years ago when we were both in grad school, poor but happy in a small midwestern city. My mother-in-law to-be telephoned her relatives in Canada to inform them of the upcoming nuptials and they asked the obvious question: what do they want for a wedding gift? Without consulting us or her husband, she replied, “Silver service.”

For thirty years, my wife and I have dutifully wrapped and boxed a least twenty pieces of silver service and schlepped them around the country as we moved for jobs. We cannot remember ever using one piece although my wife swears that we must have served on silver at least once. My only memories are pulling out the silver, moaning over the tarnish and wasting an afternoon polishing the pieces before wrapping them in fresh plastic wrap and putting them back in the cabinet.

We are moving again but this time we are paying for the move ourselves. After packing and unpacking the silver into cabinets and cupboards to be conveniently forgotten for years I insisted, the silver goes. We never use it and I am done polishing it. Thus began a series of conversations that culminated in a garage sale on a Sunday morning.

Downsizing has been a process. The back corners, the utility shelves and the closets were searched. Once we decided the task was insurmountable and someone else’s fault, we rallied our energy and started. The first weekends concluded with piles of junk on the curb. The weight of paperwork, notebooks and outdated materials of one Ph.D., one D.D., three M.A.’s, four undergraduate degrees and several careers was alarming. The unsalable was depressing. Metal for salvage was set aside for those entrepreneurial souls who cruised the neighborhoods on certain nights. By Monday morning, some of items were gone and others were dutifully thrown into the back of the garbage truck.

The house was purged and the garage was refilled. The digital notice went out and in the early evening the night before the sale, I nailed a sign at traffic light at the top of my neighborhood. Everything from the backyard was moved around to the fence for quick setup. The early morning alarm was set.

All the items were arranged for display on the asphalt of the driveway. I euphemistically referred to the furniture, the housewares, cd’s, silver, and other items as “crap” as in, “I put all the crap out; let’s see if it sells.”

By midmorning, I no longer thought of the items as crap. I had been blinded by my privilege. The couch, love seat, stuffed chair combo that had worn poorly was offered for free because bedbugs are an issue in my area and no reputable organization accepts them now. A family came somewhat early, asked about the furniture and claimed the set. A friend had phoned them, telling them of the offer. They took off all the cushions and then began calling everywhere to find a truck or van. In the late afternoon, we loaded the furniture in the back of large pickup belonging to a friend of a friend. The family was exhausted but content.

The gas grill went. The dresser was purchased by an employer for a woman who had no money after paying rent on an empty apartment. A woman who ships or delivers goods to poverty-stricken homes bought a box of bedsheets, mattress covers, bed ruffles, and tablecloths. We had a long conversation about the lack of supports. Her friend bought the mini-fridge for a house kitchen that only had a stove. More than one grandparent swung by searching for tools for their grandsons who work construction for a living.

Few if any want used books. No one wants dated stereo equipment either.

Almost everything went. Most of the items went to people without much means rather than the professional resellers that trawl garage sales early in the morning. Everything we sold was in working order. People needed what we had to offer, from tools and home goods to school supplies.

We had expected to make a couple hundred dollars with the assumption that we did not want anything we offered for sale to go into the landfill; better to sell it than dump it. Whether we realized what we had done, we had priced everything or repriced everything to get it out of my house into other households who would use it. I told the family who bought my gas grill where to get their propane tanks filled at the best price. I tied the eleven-foot extending ladder to the roof of a young woman’s car, after she walked her toddler in his stroller home first.

In Hebrew, business is called maseh u’matan, give and take. Nothing was priced to make a profit but I made a goodly one nonetheless. Everyone who chose to speak with me was treated with respect and the respect was reciprocated every time. People walked away with a smile and I smiled with them. The young man who purchased my lawnmower must have needed it because the relief on his face was evident when I quoted the price.

Their need struck me. Several of my visitors walked over from one of the main avenues only a few streets away. I must pass their homes daily, never giving them a thought or even a glance. As we talked and bargained, late model SUV’s trundled past, heading out of the neighborhood, their occupants staring at us as they passed. People said “thank you” and shook my hand. We exchanged names, neighborhood updates on traffic and congestion, and political commentary.

I probably gave away too much and priced lower than I could have. However, what I received in return for used goods that I no longer wanted was more than worthwhile. Said one man as we discussed the cushion-less couch in the mid-afternoon, “You understand; you have a good heart.” I truly got more out of my garage sale than profit.

As for the silver-plated serving pieces that started this process, on my wife’s advice, I swept them up into a box and sold them in bulk for a quick price to the purchaser of the dresser. I placed them in her car to be doubly sure she took them. There was a happy dance on the driveway when her car disappeared around the corner.

Response to Charlottesville

Having lived in David Duke’s home state of Louisiana for two years, I can tell you what he did today. He woke up and got to work, as he has done every day since he decided to spread his message. The man neither paused nor did he let defeat deflate his drive or let success give him pause through all these years. He may be cheering and celebrating today yet he was on the phone, posting online, and planning his programs, intent on his goal just as he has done every other day.

He is a racist, a bigot, and an anti-Semite but the First Amendment protects his right to spew his hatred.

What about you? What about me? Do you and I have the same depth of passion, but for justice and right? After all, fighting for climate change legislation is tough in a fossil fuel world. Explaining racial injustice and raising awareness of the economic injustices of energy policies to communities that do not want to hear facts and reason is a stubborn climb. Holding proudly to one’s faith in a cynical world can be a daily hurt. Are you still fighting?

This missive is not about the Neo-Nazis and the White Supremacists though. This message is about those who have the passion to fight for what is right, good, and godly, about those who stand up to the evil and hate. These people are our family, our friends, acquaintances, workmates and our members-in-faith.

One died and nineteen more lay wounded in the Charlottesville confrontation. Many, many more though, people of all colors, creeds and faiths, marched; they held the lines, and shouted down the hatred. Their passion brought them forth and their courage kept them going. The citizens of Charlottesville refused to accede to hatred, to acquiesce to murderous rage. Instead they welcomed those who hold beliefs of equality, justice, and freedom for all of God’s children. Together, they gave the voices of hatred no quarter and no measure of comfort to broadcast their message of intimidation and confrontation.

Evil only expands when it is allowed, when people of goodwill do not stand as a bulwark against the malicious tide. Silence, apathy and vacuum are tacit permissions to continue to fill the streets with hate-filled rhetoric. The streets of Charlottesville were not silent though and intimidation was met with spirited determination.

What about you? What about me? Are we going to sink into the sofa cushions or lean back into our computer chairs, and watch passively as a few good souls contest a contagious fear and paranoia? Whether the summons is the Hindu call of Gandhi, the Christian call of Martin Luther King Jr., or the beckoning of the ancient Israelite prophets, the universal demand of justice is broadcasting loud and clear across the land.

Will you and I answer the call? Shall we answer with unequivocal passion?

“Then I heard the voice of my God saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? Then I replied, ‘Here I am; send me.’”  Isaiah 6:8

Here I am; send me.

Dirty Rice; Dirty History

One of the weekly standby dishes easily found in Louisiana cooking is dirty rice. A boxed version of dirty rice located the grocery shelves offers a popular version of the dish, “just add ground meat” and you have a great family meal. There is nothing grand about the history of the dish though and today’s recipes for the dish are a far cry from its origins – thankfully.

 

Dirty Rice was a poor family’s cooking. While the slaughtered chicken went into the stew pot up in the plantation house, the slaves or the tenant farmers were left with the chicken guts, even the chicken feet. The Louisiana plantations planted rice in the bayou where it grew plentiful and cheap for the locals. The original dirty rice was cooked chicken guts, the gizzard, heart, and kidneys, cooked in a pan. Afterward the cooked organ meats were chopped fine while the rice cooked in added water in the same pan. The two ingredients were seasoned with salt and pepper before serving. Dirty rice tastes good but the appeal loses some of its luster when considering what was being served in the better houses.

 

For the poor of Louisiana, Black, White and Cajun, dirty rice was a filling staple dish. The dish required local ingredients only and provided stomach filling satisfaction. As a family gained more wherewithal, they kept dirty rice but added more ingredients. Andouille sausage was ground pig stomachs and spices, yet, cheaper than cuts of pork but more expensive than chicken guts. The sausage was added to the pot of rice. Vegetables came and went as they became available and then disappeared with the seasons.

 

Dirty Rice has not changed. Organ meats are still the least expensive items in the meat case. Ground beef and ground chicken are more expensive but adding more rice to the dish stretches out how many mouths one dish can feed, so penny-pinchers can still indulge. Of course, one can sauté vegetables and fold them in, or add hot sauce for an added flavor burst. The dish continues to be trash cooking at its finest, perfect for wilting greens and forgotten items in the back of the refrigerator that are still usable if cooked.

 

Just as an aside, after swapping out the organ meats for sausage, chicken meat and vegetables, the dish is called jambalaya. Add some chili powder for a kick if you want.

 

Dirty Rice is presented as “authentic Louisiana” cooking, a dish that every visitor to the state should seek out and savor. For tourist dollars, one can taste the echo of poverty. Everyone should and while sampling the food, a person should also appreciate the ingenuity and skills of these poor communities that turned the least desirable ingredients into a specialty.

 

Dirty Rice

1 lb.          ground meat (any kind will do)

3/4 cup   medium grain white rice

2 cups     water

Salt & pepper

 

Sauté the meat in a heavy pan (like cast iron) until browned. Remove and set aside, leaving the grease in the pan. Add rice and water, cooking 15 minutes or so until rice is soft. Return meat to pan. Season with salt and pepper to serve.