Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Roasted Pears

I had a long day in town yesterday, then needed to feed my parents dinner while the kids were carving pumpkins. So I needed something easy that didn't require much time in the kitchen - or much thought. I picked up some roasted chickens from the grocery store and made some rice, but the veggie took a little longer to figure out. I had what I needed to make roasted veggies, but I made that last weekend, and besides, it takes too long to clean all the vegetables. While I was stewing over this at the grocery store, I found a pile of good-looking pears on sale and bought some for breakfasts. Then it finally occurred to me that the dinner vegetable didn't have to be a veggie - it could be a fruit, instead. So I bought 4 pears (for 7 people) and some locally-made feta cheese and made roasted pears. It was easy to make and a hit with my parents and my kids, so I'll be making it again. It sounds a little odd, but it is really good and not too sweet.

Roasted Pear Salad:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Core and slice pears into eight pieces each, and place in a roasting pan. Drizzle rice wine vinegar and maple syrup (or apple cider vinegar and honey) over the top; do not salt. Place in oven and roast for 30-40 minutes. Dice the feta cheese (2 oz per pear). Toss pear slices in liquid at bottom of pan and place on plates, top with feta. Optional: add walnuts or pecans, plain, toasted, or candied.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Bad Parking, Bad Signs

For all of us who love to rant about bad parking jobs, here is the perfect blog: BadParking. I hope you don't recognize yourself there.

And for a chance to nod in recognition at the foibles of sign painters, check out Curious Signs. My personal favorite sign may be "Slow Children At Play" - fast children are apparently not playing on the street.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Pied Beauties

Magpies were originally called pies (no, not the round, edible kind), from Old French, because of the multi-color feathers; a pie-bald horse is one with two or more colors on its face, the pied piper wore a multi-color coat, etc. Mag was added because the birds chatter so much, and Mag was a generic name for women engaged in idle chatter. (Yup, very stereotypical, but I can't change the etymology.)

The etymology reminds me of one of my favorite poems:

Pied Beauty

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89). Poems. 1918. (Source)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Sapphira and the Slave Girl

It sounds like a bodice ripper, but it isn't; it's a novel by Willa Cather, set in Kentucky before the Civil War. It is a meditation on what it means to own slaves and whether it is right; the sympathetically-drawn characters show how good people could end up on both sides of the question - or stuck in the middle. I read it a couple weeks ago and loved it, so I ordered a paperback copy for myself. It came in the other day and I went to pick it up, very excited. But the copy was the ugliest book I have ever seen. The cover trumpets "A Tale of Jealousy Set in the Pre-Civil War South" (which is sort of accurate, but not what the book is about at all - like calling the Odyssey a travelogue) and the art is horrible. The type inside wasn't any better. So for once, I turned down a book and will try to find a used hardback copy over the internet.

Why in the world do publishers try to turn a book into something it isn't? Anyone who really wanted what the cover promised would be disappointed in the book, and people who would enjoy the book won't buy it. And how they can justify turning out something not just utilitarian but flat-out ugly is beyond me.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Female Brain

Years ago, I read You Just Don't Understand, by Deborah Tannen, and it changed the way I think about things; it helped me make sense of the world I saw but hadn't been able to articulate. As I read, I kept thinking, "Oh, that explains what happens!" And the insights I gained from the book have helped me understand the people around me ever since.

I think I have stumbled on another enlightening book: The Female Brain, by Louanne Brizendine. She discusses how the various hormones that "marinate" the brain at different stages affect the female brain, and how that affects women's realities. She treats women as setting their own standard, not as substandard men, without descending into male bashing. I'm only two chapters in, but so much of what she says makes sense of my experience, from the importance of connection to how mothers affect their daughters in the first two years. It's fascinating to see why we are the way we are.

If the rest of the book is as good as the first two chapters, it will deserve a place on my bookshelf next to Tannen's book, and will be required reading for my daughter.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Medieval Warm Period

It is obvious that things were different in the past, but somehow we tend to assume that the climate and weather were similar to what they are now (unless, of course, we are studying the last Ice Age, where the change in climate is the starting assumption). But the climate hasn't stayed constant over the last two millenia, and this isn't the first period of global warming. The last one occurred in roughly 1000-1300 CE, and is known as the Medieval Warm Period; summer temperatures averaged 1°C warmer than in the 20th century. During this time, Vikings settled Greenland and explored the eastern coast of North America; grapes grew in much of England and made so much good wine that the French tried to exclude it from the rest of Europe. Summer after summer of good weather led to bountiful crops, rising populations, and the development of villages on newly-cleared land in areas that were previously too marginal for crops. The general level of wealth and health resulted in an explosion of culture, sometimes called the 12th-century Rennaissance. Cathedrals rose higher than churches had before, with delicate stained-glass windows and elaborate stone carving; nobles at court had time to listen to and compose the poetry and music of the troubadours; illuminated manuscripts reached a high point of luminous beauty. All due to 1°C more warmth in the summers.

To learn more about how weather affects cultures, read The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850, by Brian Fagan. It has a chapter about the Medieval Warm Period to set the stage before discussing the subsequent cold period, the Little Ice Age, and its effects on Europe.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Smashed Yams

OK, I have a new fall veggie to add to my list of favorites: smashed yams. I peeled two large yams, cubed them, and boiled them just as I would for mashed potatoes. Then I melted a stick of butter and mixed it with 1/3 cup maple syrup and 1/3 cup cream. I smashed the yams and stirred in the butter/syrup mixture. It was wonderful! It is sweet, but vegetable-sweet, not sugar-sweet. And it makes such a pretty color on the plate.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

"Fall" Veggies

Do you have any idea how hard it is to find fall vegetables if you rule out root vegetables? We were having dinner with my parents this week and I offered to bring the veggies. But my mother doesn't like mushrooms (so much for the gorgeous local chantrelles at the Co-op) and neither of them are big on root vegetables. I try not to serve salads this time of year, although I will use spinach in a pinch if I can find it grown locally. So... now what? I ended up roasting red potatoes with a chopped onion, tossed in oil, salt, and herbs, then adding some fresh green beans toward the end. I'm not sure green beans count as fall veggies but they beat lettuce, and it worked - my parents even kept the left-overs for another meal.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Magpie Names

When I was looking for a link for my last magpie post, I discovered that some sources gave the Latin name for the black-billed magpie as Pica pica, and others used Pica hudsonia. Huh? Maybe the magpie is just being a trickster again - or maybe it is the scientists who decide taxonomic names trying to confuse innocent bird-watchers again.

The Integrated Taxonomic Information System, a very official-looking site with more about taxonomy than you ever wanted to know, notes obliquely that Pica pica hudsonia is the old name and the bird is now called pica hudsonia; that looks like a subspecies became a species at some point between 1823 and now. According to Wikipedia, the black-billed magpie is externally "almost identical with European Magpie, Pica pica, and is considered conspecific by many sources. The American Ornithologists' Union, however, splits it as a separate species, Pica hudsonia"; that would be a change in species, not a subspecies, and I am still confused.

Finally, I found some real help in the Montana Audubon website: In the winter of 2002, it noted that, "on the basis of morphological, behavioral, and genetic characters, the Black-billed Magpie in North America is considered a distinct species from that in the Old World. The English name for our magpie does not change, but the scientific name becomes Pica hudsonia . The Old World bird becomes Eurasian Magpie and retains the scientific name Pica pica ." So the confusion starts with the trickster magpie, which confuses the taxonomists, who confuse me. Got it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Preserved Lemons

This summer, I picked up a crate of lemons at Costco (I know, not exactly local - but I love lemons!). Then I needed something to do with them, so I started pickling them. The first recipe I used is from a friendly chef, and is the simplest (and the easiest to cook with). I've made it before, so this was my sure thing.

Preserved lemons:
Get good-looking lemons and quarter them. Pack them in a jar with lots of kosher salt, pressing down firnly, and enough lemon juice to cover. Turn into a new jar each day, making sure that lemons are covered by juice, for 10-14 days. Scrape salt from lemons and store in olive oil in the frig – “lasts forever”. To use, scrape or rinse salt off lemons, remove seeds, and chop with peel.

My favorite thing to do with this is to make a watercress pesto, with the lemons, chopped watercress, minced garlic, and olive oil. My daughter eats them with just about anything.

Then I got more adventurous. I tried a recipe I found on the web for No-oil lemon pickle, with lots of curry-powder flavors (I actually substituted curry powder for the mix of spices, since I didn't have many of them); the hard part was waiting two months while it cooks in the sun. I'm not very familiar with Indian food, so the flavors are taking some time to get used to - but it is good with steak so far.

The oddest one is a sweet pickle from The Joy of Pickling. The process for making them is similar to the Indian pickles, but it uses a lot of sugar and related spices instead of curry powder, and only takes one month to preserve. I have to admit that I haven't really had the courage to do much with this one yet.

All three are pungent flavors and can be challenging to use, but they are worth the experiments - and buying lemons at Costco.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Green Tomatoes

A friend was able to rescue a bunch of green tomatoes before her plants were frozen out, but didn't know what to do with them. I didn't have any good ideas because it has been years since we had any tomato plants bearing fruit late enough in the summer to provide green tomatoes for the fall. So I went looking on the internet and found some intriguing recipes. There are lots of versions of the classic fried green tomatoes; my favorites (by inspection only - I haven't tried any of them) include this one (great photo!) and one by Helen Nearing. The recipe I am most likely to try is feta-topped green tomatoes. This site has not one but four recipes for green tomatoes: fried, green tomato pie, chilled curry green tomato soup (ok, that one sounds weird, but who knows?), and green tomatoes with goat cheese, which looks similar to the feta-topped version. Our tomato plants are still bearing fruit (although they are ripening very slowly), but I think I will have to pull some green tomatoes this fall and try at least one of these recipes.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Farmers' Mini-Market

I thought all the local Farmers' Markets ended in September, and I was really bummed because, what with well issues and taking a kid to college, I missed the last few. But last night, I discovered that they are not completely gone.

Camp Creek Farm sells veggies at the Farmers' Markets in the summer, but in the off season, Kathryn sends out a weekly email listing what she has available from her farm and from other local growers: home-made granola and porridge, breads, soaps, eggs, local organic potatoes, garlic, this week. I finally got organized enough to respond and pick something up, so this week, I went to Bogart Park between 5 and 5:30 - and discovered that half a dozen local farmers have set up for a half-hour market each week. Besides Camp Creek Farm, there were organic half-beefs to order, more eggs, home-made goat cheeses and mozzerella, and homemade crackers, plus a few other things I didn't see; sometimes there are apples, too. All local, all small-scale, all people I know (if only slightly) - and based on my sampling, all very tasty food. I picked up some eggs, splurged on goat cheeses, and ordered some crackers for next week. I felt like I'd stumbled on buried treasure, and I will definitely make the effort to get back there more often.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Better Food, Less Oil

Buying food locally is all the rage, for good reason: you can feel virtuous for saving food-miles while getting fresher, more interesting food. Bozeman has a Farm to Restaurant program which connects farmers with chefs to bring local food to local diners, and a local truck farm puts on periodic potlucks with the challenge to make your dish out of ingredients from within 50 miles. But Bozeman is just one small part of the "local food" effort: the blog The Future is Green lists some success stories from other parts of the world, primarily Cuba and India. Local food isn't just for wealthy foodies: in Cuba, vegetable gardens in cities meet most or all of the local need for food without using scarce gasoline to transport it.

Another take on eating locally is the 100-Mile Diet, which organizes the kind of efforts to eat only food from your area that Barbara Kingsolver chronicled in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Gary Nabhan wrote about in Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods. Every time I read one of these books, I get inspired and add a few more local items to our diet. I can't say we eat only from a 100-mile foodshed, but there are many meals when most of our food comes from within 50 miles. Now if I could just wean my kids from Top Ramen noodle soup and commercial cereals, I'd be in pretty good shape.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Legislating Turkish History

It's funny how often something apparently esoteric that I've studied, like the Armenian "genocide" in Turkey during WWI, will pop up in the news. This month, it is Congress's attempts to condemn Turkey for the genocide. A column by Thomas Goltz, a scholar of Turkey and the Middle East, in today's newspaper makes the points better than I can:

"In essence, the Armenian discourse can be summed up by the claim that the Ottoman Turkish authorities mounted a systematic policy of mass murder against a hapless population of innocents, and that up to 1.5 million Armenians thus perished during the years from 1915 to 1918. The Turkish position is that Armenians joined forces with Czarist Russian armies in the largely roadless Ottoman East, slaughtered Muslims in great numbers, and had to be removed to more secure areas of the crumbling empire, during the course of which large numbers (perhaps half a million) of Armenians died of disease, starvation, and violence ...

"To paraphrase the eminent University of Massachusetts/Amherst historian Professor Guenther Levy, if the Ottoman government is to be accused of anything, it would be fair to condemn it for criminal negligence toward all its citizens during the mayhem of the eastern front at the time in question.... Where does the truth lie? The jury is still out among non-partisan historians of the period."

American politics comes into it because "what Armenian lobby groups are attempting is to have non-specialists, who are prone to vote according to the perceived needs (or whims) of their constituencies, legislate that history. Not only does this make for bad history, but worse foreign policy."

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Digging to America

I normally avoid reading fiction (because when it is good, I have a hard time stopping to do anything else - like feed my family), but my daughter recently handed me Digging to America, by Anne Tyler, to look at in the bookstore. As usual, I read a page at random to see if I like the author's voice, and after I turned pages twice to see what would happen next, I figured I'd better buy the book.

It turned out to be even better starting from the beginning. Tyler's voice is quiet, calm, as she tells of everyday events that change people's lives. She gave each of the main characters a chance to speak up; the chapters alternate between the two families involved, and it is interesting to see the different perspectives that they have. One of the families is standard American issue, the other is Iranian-American; they meet at the airport when they are both picking up adopted daughters from Korea. In spite of all the culture clashes between the families and the life events that occur over the years the novel covers, it comes down to the ever-so-human feeling that everyone else is part of the group and you are the only one feeling like an outsider. As a good novel should, the book uses particulars to illuminate a broader truth.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Salt

Salt shows up in nearly every recipe, which prompted my daughter to wonder why. On Food and Cooking doesn't have any relevant information, although the list under Salt in the index reinforces the ubiquity of salt in preparing food: in baking, in boiling water, in cheesemaking, curing of meat by, egg cookery, in egg foam, in freezing ice cream, in milk curdling, preservation of fruits and vegetables by, and in sauces.

Joy of Cooking is more help, starting with the observation that "the interplay of salt and water is essential to life itself", which explains why humans eat salt, and why we appreciate the flavor. What is startling is how often salt interacts with other foods in ways that go way beyond making them taste salty. Salt preserves all manner of food, from oysters to pickles to meat; the salt draws out the moisture in the food and creates a difficult environment for micro-organisms that would otherwise spoil the food. Because it draws moisture out of foods, it firms vegetables and helps maintain the shape of grain in boiling water. On the down side, it toughens eggs (oops - good to know when I scramble them: I'll try adding salt at the end, after the cooking is done), and too much of it can make for leaden lumps of bread since it inhibits rising.

So the answer seems to be twofold. The presence of salt on steaks and in eggs can clearly be attributed to the human preference for salt; a dash of salt will enhance the flavors of most any food because the tongue is presumably evolved to appreciate salt. And salt's ability to draw water out of food seems to account for its presence in most of the rest of the recipes. That seems like a pretty prosaic answer for such an amazing ingredient.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Hot Mama Salsa

When I went to the Farmers' Market this summer, I usually picked up three pints of my favorite salsa, Hot Mama's mild. I always bought one to eat and two to freeze because I knew it would be hard to get over the winter, even though it is locally made. In desperation, I held onto a lid so I would have the website address and could order some when I ran out. But today, I discovered that my usual grocery store, Van's IGA, has started carrying it! Yay! That will make my life much easier than having to order it. I might even have to try to spicier varieties.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Crickets

Why is it that we have crickets everywhere this time of year? I don't know how they get in, but every October, we end up with them in the house. Any time you go into a room, the odds are good that there will be a cricket crawling around the floor. At least they don't sting, or buzz in your ear like a mosquito. The dogs like to chase them, so pointing them out is our pest-control program; and in a couple weeks, they will be gone until next fall.

Kids Can Make You ADD

When you read about kids and ADD, it is always about the kids having ADD. But sometimes it works the other way 'round and the kids cause ADD. Over the last eight years of homeschooling, I have gotten amazingly adept at getting things done while my kids are in the room, asking questions, needing help. In fact, I've gone too far. Now that they are getting older, I find that I have trouble focusing on one task for very long. I get a lot done by doing things in little pieces. I pull summer shirts out of the closet and leave them on the bed to put away later. Six hours later, I take them downstairs. They won't get put into the storage closet until tomorrow unless I focus very hard... Getting a pile of papers dealt with takes days, because I can only deal with one folder or topic at a time before getting distracted. Sitting down to work on the well-right application is intimidating, because I know I will have to stick with it. And even without the kids in the room, I have a hard time focusing on anything for any length of time. If that isn't an attention deficit, I don't know what is. Maybe it should be called Child-Caused Attention Deficit Disorder and get its own place in the parenting manuals.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Indian Summer

Our snow has melted except on the mountain ridges and we are settling into Indian summer. I read a while back that the term used to refer to late summer, maybe August, when the western skies were hazy from the fires the Indians set to clear brush and encourage plentiful grass the next spring; this source was clear that Indian summers don't occur anymore (although with our recent fire seasons, that may be debatable).

We use the term differently, to mean the period after the first hard frost or snowfall when the daytime temps are 70 degrees, the nighttime temps are in the 40s, the skies are deep blue, the air is crystal clear, the trees are vibrant with changing leaves, and the grass is silver-gold in the fields. I heard years ago that Indian summer was a derogatory term, similar to Indian giver, because it is a "false" summer, but it is my favorite time of year and I can't believe that "Indian summer" is derogatory to anyone. Indian summer encourages you to get outside, to enjoy the sunshine lying warm on your skin, to finish up those things you let slide during the heat of the ordinary summer, to prepare for the winter that you can't ignore anymore. It is time for late harvests, for hunting animals fat with winter stores, for preparing for the long nights ahead - I imagine that the Indians appreciated this season as much as I do, or more. It is our most colorful season, too; winter is whites and blues and greys, spring is browns and greens, early summer is all greens, but Indian summer brings blues and whites, browns and golden tans, greens, yellows and oranges and crimsons, all under a brillinat sun. What more can you want in a season?

Monday, October 8, 2007

Frozen Foods

Freezers are good for keeping meat and veggies cold for a later day, but they can do other handy things, too. My youngest son was with me at the grocery store one day when he spotted a raspberry-flavored white wine; I thought it looked more like a wine cooler than real wine, but it was reasonably cheap and I bought it. Rather than drink it, I mixed it with maple syrup and poured it into a lasagne pan, then stuck it in the freezer (which took a little work, since we had to create a level place for it on top of the ice cream boxes and plastic containers); I stirred it a couple times while it was freezing, and we ate it for dessert that night, a fruit ice. It was pretty good, but a little too icy; next time, I will add some pureed raspberry to give it more flavor and to improve the texture.

Another thing I use the freezer for is getting rid of left-over drinks. It used to make me nuts when my kids would leave half a bottle of juice or lemonade in the fridge, where of course no one would drink it. I finally realized that, frozen, it would make good smoothie materials. So now I use my mini-muffin tins (not used for muffins, in spite of my romantic notions) to freeze leftovers drinks into small "cubes" that can be used to flavor and freeze smoothies; ice trays would work well, too, but mine are busy making ice cubes. I've used all kinds of juices and juice drinks, and lemonade works well. They disappear pretty quickly, especially in the summer. I can think of some adult uses, too: the lemonade cubes might be good in a glass of ice tea, and limeade cubes would be good in club soda.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Traveling Phone

My new cell phone has traveled more this month than I have. On a quick trip to Denver this weekend, I left it on the airplane; it traveled on to Cleveland and Ottawa, before it was found by a thoughtful agent from Air Canada who called the "Home" number and talked to my husband about returning it. He is sending it back via the Lost and Misrouted Luggage system, and it may take a while to clear Customs in Great Falls, but it should be here in a week, more or less. It confirms my faith in humanity when things like this occur.

The frustrating thing is that, with a little co-operation from United, we could have retrieved the phone in Denver. If the United luggage agent had been willing to call the gate, someone could have found the phone and we could have picked it up, without inconveniencing the Air Canada agent. The United agent claimed that he didn't know the number to call the gate - and maybe he didn't. But it seems like it would be simple to have an automated system for lost and found items; then he could have emailed the gate agent very easily, or emailed Cleveland with the information.

The luggage agent did provide a phone number for United's lost and found service. When we called it, we got the Arapahoe Search and Rescue Service. We finally tracked down a number for United, only to be told, "This mailbox is full. Goodbye." Some customer service there! If I ever have a chance to fly Air Canada or United, it will be an easy choice.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

First Snow

Finally - snow! It started snowing this morning before dawn, and kept coming until we had 5" on the ground. My youngest son is excited because this means that he won the snow pool we had, for the first day of real snow; he guessed Oct 1. (Now I have to figure out what the prize is.) The snow will probably be mostly gone tomorrow, but the moisture is welcome; even after all the recent rain, we can use more.

The trees still have their leaves, so the branches are bent almost in two under the weight of the heavy, wet snow; the kids will need to go shake the branches to knock the snow off, gently so the branches don't break. Aside from tree branches, the snow won't cause many problems with the plants, which are well prepared for this. Even the tomatoes in pots on the patio will probably be fine, since it isn't very cold.

The real question is whether the college kids are ready for this - today is MSU's Homecoming, complete with parade and football game. It will be a cold, wet wait for candy thrown from the floats, so we will probably skip the parade, for the first time since we discovered this parade half a dozen years ago. The football field will have to be plowed before the game, so it will be a muddy game, but the real excitement may be in traffic before and after the game, when everyone tries to remember how to drive in snow.

Friday, October 5, 2007

What Next?

I'm starting to wonder what I did, or we did, to provoke the universe: first it was our well, now it's our furnace. My husband came home to get me for a date tonight and commented on how chilly the house was. On further inspection, it turned out that the furnace wasn't working. Sigh. So I called the furnace repairman - who was out of town until next week but provided another number. I called that number and got a repairman who informed me that it would be $109 just for him to drive to our house, because it was after-hours; any work or parts would be on top of that. Ugh. But we have kids in the house and we aren't going to wait all weekend for heat - it's cold outside. So he came up and checked the furnace. It roared to life for him, of course, but then stopped working pretty quickly. It turns out that the ignition module was bad and he had to replace it. The bill for the repair was ugly, but at least we have heat again.

Since our date was pre-empted, we did take-out upstairs by the fire while the kids watched a movie downstairs. Not what I had planned, but not too bad for a house crisis evening.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

American Food

Other countries have national dishes, even if it means a variety of regional cuisines that have strong similarities. Think Mexican tortillas and beans, Italian pasta, Japanese rice and fish. But the United States doesn't seem to have a national cuisine; there is southern food, and regional specialties, but nothing that ties it all together, except maybe our tendency to grill meat and boil vegetables. It seems that the only real American food culture is the melting pot, the tendency to fuse unrelated flavors and techniques from other cuisines.

I first thought about this when I saw fahita pizza on a menu; it used barbecue sauce instead of tomato sauce and was topped with steak or chicken and sauteed onions and green peppers. I've also seen burritos made with Indian ingredients and hamburgers with wasabi. I suppose one way to look at these combinations, some tasty, some jarring, is as a bastardization of the ancient and noble cuisines; Americans are uniquely talented at ruining every food they touch. I prefer to think of it as a sign of creativity and openness to other cultures; Americans accept good things anywhere they find them. (Of course, part of this is because I tend to use flavors I like from other cuisines in my standard cooking, using curry powder on a steak or chili powder in soups.) And only the scale of the borrowing is new; the exotic combinations are simply an extreme version of the traditional response to new food items, absorbing them into the prevailing methods of making meals. Witness Italian use of tomatoes and Indian us of peppers from the Americas, as only two examples.

American mix and match more than dishes - we mix and match cuisines, eating from a wide range of ethnic foods on a regular basis. As an Iranian-American character in Digging to America, by Anne Tyler, thought, "By now, she was aware that Americans thought recipes were a matter of creative invention. They could serve a different meal every day for a year without repeating themselves - Italian-American one day and Tex-Mex the next and Asian fusion the next - and it always surprised them that other countries ate such a predictable menu."

Naming Years

In my history reading lately, I've noticed that dates are being designated with CE (Common Era) and BCE (Before the Common Era) instead of AD (Anno Dominae = Year of Our Lord) and BC (Before Christ). I figured it was a recent change to accomodate non-Christians, maybe related to the recent highlighting of Islam and Muslim culture. But based on my research, it turns out to be much older than that. According to Wikipedia, CE and BCE have been used by Jews for at least a century when using dates from the Gregorian calendar. And Communist China has used the Chinese equivalent of "common era" since it adopted the western system of years in 1949. The move toward using CE and BCE apparently started with religious writers in an effort to reach readers of all faiths in a non-offensive manner. The adoption of CE and BCE more generally is still in process among university historians and museums like the Smithsonian, but I'm seeing it in popular history books more often.

Looking at a variety of websites discussing the change, it is entertaining to see the arguments against it. Surprisingly few of the arguments were religious; they appeared to mostly be of the "I don't want to learn a new system" variety. One of the most common was the idea that if we are going to change systems to avoid references to Christ, we should find another way to calculate dates than from Christ's birth (even though he was born in 4-7 BC); some of these comments were from people who really want a complete new systems, other were from the "isn't this absurd" camp. The funniest was one person who couldn't see the point of confusing people with a new-fangled system when everyone understands the old BC/AD system - but then he used AD incorrectly by placing it after the year instead of before it. Other people complain that CE and BCE are too similar and thus hard to read; but I think two vs. three letters is actually easier to distinguish. The best argument was that using BCE and CE is just political correctness, without any meaningful content; this is pretty close to the actual reasons of avoiding causing unneccesary pain to other people, which is what the Religious Tolerance website bases its decision to use CE and BCE on, just without the feeling for other people. Regardless of the arguments, the change appears to be happening, slowly but surely - at least more surely than the proposed change to the metric system years ago.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Hot Peppers in Hot Water

An extra-spicy Thai chili sauce shut down part of central London, police said Wednesday, after pedestrians told authorities on Monday about a strong chemical smell that left a burning sensation in their throats. In response to the odor reports, the London Fire Brigade sent a chemical response team to London's busy Soho district, where roads were closed, buildings sealed and passersby evacuated. Firefighters wearing special breathing masks smashed down the door to Thai Cottage -- only to discover bird's eye chilies, an ingredient for a "nam prik pao" sauce, had been left dry-frying in the kitchen. "It's the hottest thing we make," the restaurant's owner told the Times of London. A police spokesman said there would be no arrests since "it's not a criminal offense to cook very strong chili."

From today's Wall Street Journal

Well Clean-up

One of the pieces that needed to be cleaned up after we got water again was talking to Jan Mack at the DNRC and getting our water right brought up to date. I was a little nervous about it, since I had told him we were deepening the well but we moved it instead; all this wouldn't be a big deal, but we are in a controlled groundwater area because the subdivision development has been depleting the aquifer our well taps into, so permits for change of well location is trickier than usual. Much to my relief, Jan accepted my reasoning for why we had moved the well instead of deepening it, and spent over half an hour stepping me through the permit application that will retroactively allow what we did; he even copied maps and aerial photos for me to use with the application. I am now ready to apply to do something that has been done - but I know what I need to do, and I have a resource to call if I lose the right words for the responses. It is one of the best experiences with government that I have ever had, and one of the first things to go right in this whole rodeo.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Last Child in the Woods

Maybe because of my love of natural history and figuring out what I see around me, I've wondered about the current techniques of teaching kids about nature, which tend to involve foreign ecosystems like the Arctic or the Amazon. But I've never been able to articulate my unease about the disconnect between what kids see around them and what they are taught im school. In Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv discusses elementary-school environmental education that focuses on the rainforest and starts to clarify my feelings. The rainforest is intriguing to adults and the damage done by humans there is clear, so it makes a tempting topic for teaching kids about human impacts on the environment; kids learn that each day, thousands of acres of rainforest are cut down to make way for cattle raising. The worthwhile goal is to teach kids to think about the world around them, recycle, vote for green politicians. But all too often, what kids may be learning is that environmental problems are so huge that it is best not to think about them - to not think about nature at all. The problems are too far away, too big, too adult for little kids to think about, so they don't. In the meantime, they shut off interest in the plants and animals around them and never develop a real connection with the environment. "Lacking direct experience with nature, children begin to associate it with fear and apocalypse, not joy and wonder."

The problem isn't just emotional, it's intellectual as well. Since kids don't know anything about how plants and animals work, they can't understand the rainforest any better than they can understand quantum mechanics. As Barbara Kingsolver notes in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, some kids think that when plants grow, pansies are followed by daisies are followed by chrysanthemums, because that is what they see in their local parks, as the groundskeepers replant the flower beds to keep them full; they don't understand how vegetables grow because they don't know that bud is followed by flower is followed by seed or fruit. Until they learn this relatively simple process, how can they possibly learn about the complexity of the rainforest pollinators?

The solution is easy for homeschoolers, and relatively easy for public schools in Bozeman, but more difficult for urban schools: get the kids outside and let them learn about nature firsthand. Let them collect red and yellow leaves and make pictures with them while the parent or teacher talks about why chlorophyll disappears in the fall and lets the leaf's colors show through. Let them walk in field grass in the late spring and see the tiny flowers hanging from timothy and bromegrass, then read about flowers and what they are for. Let them visit a bee keeper and see how he gets honey ready for the store, how he takes care of his bees, the role they play in pollination. Let them play in the cottonwood cotten or blow on a puffball dandelion, and hear about seed dispersal. Then when they are older, they can learn about the rainforest and connect it to what they know of their local ecosystem.

Louv has lots of other important ideas in his book, about why American culture makes it hard for kids to get to know nature, why it is important that they do, and what we can do about it, both individually and as a culture; but this small idea resonated with me, encouraging me to stick with our natural history studies rather than being seduced by the latest exotic ecosystem.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Magpie for State Bird?

In a column for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle (not available online), Betsy Robinson describes a magpie's efforts to entice her puppy away from a meaty bone by pulling its tail, then by bringing a tennis ball over and presenting it to the puppy. Neither trick worked to get the magpie a treat, but they demonstrated a "a unique behavior among animals: problem solving." Pondering the magpie, she came to the conclusion that "The magpie has everything: good looks, brains, tenacity and cunning, and is a consummate survivor" - perfect for our state bird. Unlike our current migrating state bird, the western meadowlark, "The black-billed magpie (Pica pica) embodies the spirit of people who live in Montana. Magpies stick it out all winter with us, providing us with a bit of entertainment and flash during the long, cold white months." The magpie is a sociable bird who knows how to hunker down when needed, how to wait out the long winters and have fun doing it. But, like the wild turkey in the competition for our national bird, its virtues are passed over for a flashy visitor; so I guess Montana is at least following a good American tradition.

Still, watching my parents, after 46 years of Montana winters, prepare to go south the first of November, it occurs to me that maybe the meadowlark has a place in representing Montana, too. I wonder if a state can have two official birds?

Champagne

"He who doesn't take risks, doesn't drink champagne."

Alexander Lebed