Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Worms Appear

I'm glad I pruned my rose bushes yesterday - today we have 3 inches of snow. In spite of the meteorlogical whiplash this spring, the good news is that the mountain snow pack is 114 percent of normal (and 162 percent of last year's), so we could have water in the rivers this summer, making farmers, fish, and kayakers happy. The ground is warming up between snow falls, and the worms are out on the wet driveway for the first time this spring.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Pussy Willows Bloom




Most of my pussy willows are in full fluff, like the one at the right, but one male stem has already started blooming, tiny yellow flowers sprouting from the silver catkin. Some type of bee is eagerly collecting pollen to take back to its hive for the young bees, but the flowers are actually pollinated by the wind; the male flowers produce so much pollen because the female flowers are small and very little of the wind-blown pollen will fall on them.






Monday, April 28, 2008

Another Reason to Eat Right

I've long believed that a varied diet is the best way to get vitamins and minerals to stay healthy, since unprocessed foods contain a wide variety of the nutrients in their natural form, in conjunction with all the other beneficial ingredients that we don't know to measure for yet; given my biases toward real food, it simply has to be better to get vitamins from food that from pills. Well, I just discovered another reason to use real food (especially grown locally) instead of pills: creating the vitamins that go into supplement pills is hard on the environment. Synthetic vitamins are mostly created from petroleum using lovely ingredients like sulfuric acid, ammonia, and acetylene; a few are fermented using various types of bacteria. With the exception of the fermented bacteria, these processes have all the drawbacks of the petrochemical industry: petroleum as a raw material, and toxic materials and pollution as by-products. There is a reason why many of the producers of the raw vitamins are moving their plants to China, where the environmental controls are laxer.

I think I will stick with leafy greens and focus on eating more whole grains.

Source: Twinkie, Deconstructed, by Steve Ettlinger

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Trunk Adornments

A garden on the north side of the house has two old aspen trunks, which look lovely among the lilies of the valley in the summer. In the winter, they looked a little bare until they started growing a nice crop of decorations. The decorations are conks, a type of shelf or bracket fungus:



Like other mushrooms, the mycelium break down the structure of the wood, starting the process of returning the stump to earth; unlike other mushrooms, they have no stem. And unlike the mushrooms that grow in our yard, conks are very tough and difficult to cut. They provide a tiny, almost invisible microsystem for mites and spiders. Some shelf fungi are ground and used as teas or herbal medicines, but I don't think conks fall in that category.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Fusion Cuisine as Historical Artifact

From Drink: A Social History of America, by Andrew Barr:

Far be it from an Englishman to criticize American food, but the present-day fashion for fusion food appears perfectly to demonstrate both the virtues and the failings of the American character when it comes to food: enthusiasm for novelty and a willingness for experimentation, combined with a tendency to take a good idea to such extremes that it loses its original value. Similar ideas are influencing cooks elsewhere in the world, including Australia (and even Britain), but they are not taken to quite such excess.

One could argue, indeed, that the excesses of modern fusion cuisine simply perpetuate an American tradition of mixing all kinds of different foods on the same plate. In the nineteenth century the practice of serving different kinds of food at the same time encouraged many Americans to "mix things together with the strangest incongruity imaginable" (according to the account of Fanny Trollope, mother of the novelist Anthony, who lived for some years in Cincinnati at the end of the 1820s).

More Crocuses

The purple crocuses have been joined by some yellow blooms brightening up the winter-dark flower beds.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Mustard Green Tacos

Sometimes a meal comes together almost too easily to be believed; tonight was one of those nights. I had mustard greens and shallots from the mini-market that I wanted to use, so I decided to make tacos with them. Somehow, I actually had pulled pork with salsa verde in the freezer. I picked up some local tortillas at the grocery store, sliced and sauteed the shallots in butter, rinsed the mustard greens, reheated the pork, grated some cheese, and added a little lime juice to homemade yogurt. Just like that, tasty tacos to fill tummies. The only thing that took much effort was sauteeing the shallots, and I will get double-duty from that: I plan to use some of them on a pizza tomorrow, with locally-made feta cheese, cherry tomatoes, and kalamata olives.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Robins on Roads

It snowed again last night, 3-4" of heavy, wet snow that promptly turned to slush when driven through. All the robins flocked to the roads this morning, lining up along the tracks. On the plowed roads, they were on the pavement, which makes sense: the asphalt holds the warmth from yesterday, providing a nice foot-warmer for the robins. But on the roads that were just tracked by cars, the birds were sitting on the slush piles instead of the bare tracks. Maybe the birds don't like being down in the tracks but the asphalt is still enough warmer than the surrounding snow that being close is worthwhile. Or maybe they are optimistically looking for worms, which will be out on the wet roads in a month or two. Regardless, not all of them get off the roads fast enough, and there are several bundles of feathers littering the roads now.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

William Shakespeare

One of the funny things about reading works by Shakespeare (born today in 1564) is what a great writer of fortune cookie fortunes he was:

Beggers mounted run their horse to death.
To weep is to make less the depth of grief.
A little fire is quickly trodden out, which, being suffered, rivers cannot quench.
Every cloud engenders not a storm.
Talkers are no good doers.
An honest tale speeds best being plainly told.
Unquiet meals make ill digestions.
He that is giddy thinks the earth turns round.
Wise and slow; they stumble that run fast.
'Tis an ill cook that can not lick his own fingers.
Tempt not a desperate man.
The ripest fruit falls first.
It is a wise father that knows his own child.
They that touch pitch will be defiled.

These are mostly from his earlier plays; as he got more practice, he used fewer epigrams.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Teens and Cell Phones

Teenagers are supposed to be the group most likely to lack manners, but I have noticed that they usually have better cell phone manners than most adults. Adults will routinely answer their phone in front of you, maybe saying "excuse me" or turning away, but not always. Teenagers, on the other hand, leap up and leave the room when their phones ring; this may be caused by an excessive teen need for privacy from adults, but I have seen them do it with their friends, too. Someone talking loudly to themselves in public is nearly always in their 30s-50s, too busy to take time out for the conversation, too self-centered to realize how they affect people around them or how much information they are divulging to strangers (I have heard amazing things, both business and private, in the grocery store aisles). Most teens I know would be mortified to do this; they lower their voices or find a quiet spot to talk. Teens are growing up with cell phones and creating appropriate etiquette as they go; they are still sorting out how to be part of a group, so they recognize how their behavior affects their friends and adjust it. Adults, on the other hand, are all too often past learning new behavior.

Maybe one reasons teenagers like text-messaging so much is that it is quiet (and private).

Monday, April 21, 2008

Greens Are Back!!

For the last month, I have had a hard time getting vegetables into our diet, partly because our schedule has been crazy but mostly because I just couldn't get excited about what was available. I'm trying to stick with seasonal choices - and there aren't many at this time of year. Most of the vegetables in the grocery store are summer vegetables from Mexico, if not South America. The winter options are getting old, both to my taste and literally; garlic is sprouting and dry, onions go bad after a day or two on the counter, potatoes sprout quickly, and I'm tired of turnips and rutabagas and parsnips. There is just nothing inspirational on the shelves.

But - greens are back!! Thanks to some dedicated growers who start plants in greenhouses when there is still snow on the ground, the first greens of the spring were at the mini-market tonight. I bought salad greens, arugula, spinach, baby mustard greens, baby bok choy, and radishes. After so long without greens, I am craving them; I'm not sure how we will eat them all before they go bad, but it will sure taste good to try! I also got four kinds of hand-made goat cheese and some rosemary crackers which will go well with salad one night, some big, beautiful shallots, a pizza crust, and some flourless chocolate cake. Admittedly, my hands nearly froze while I wrote the checks, but it was worth it - and now I will be able to taste spring.

Professionalism

Professional. It brings to mind a neat, dark suit, short (for men) or stylish (for women) haircut, polished shoes, articulate vocabulary. What is interesting is all the very human attributes it excludes. If you want to look truly professional, skip the visible tattoos or flamboyant jewelry; bright shirts or wild hair styles are also out. Don't show photos of your kids. Watch your vocabulary: don't use profanity or "cute" or "cool" or any kind of slang. In other words, suppress all indications of individuality and conform to the specifications so that everyone will trust you to be impartial, regardless of your actual ability.

These specifications are the last remnants of the Organization Man, usually found in the hierarchies that typified Whyte's conformist bureaucracies. Is the dark suit a slowly-fading holdover from the 1950s, or has it become a tribal costume that fills a need in society?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

War Season

Continuous year-round war is a modern invention. Up through the 19th century, war in temperate zones started in the spring and ended when the cold winter rains or snow arrived; in other climates, war was waged between monsoons or hot seasons. When the weather turned, both sides retreated to winter quarters, where they rested and planned for the next battle season. (Of course, this meant that a winter attack was a sure way to surprise your enemy, if you could pull it off.)

The American Revolutionary War started on April 19, 1775, and was fought vigorously spring through fall; the most famous winter quarters for Washington's troops was Valley Forge, where they spent the winter of 1777-78 before heading out to fight the British again in late June, at Yorktown. In 1812, Napoleon's campaign against Russia, which started in June and saw French troops in Moscow by fall, was eventually stymied by the rigors of the Russian winter; by the time Napoleon's troops returned to France, the brutal early winter weather had killed most of the men who had survived the battle for Moscow. Although the South seceded in January of 1861, the American Civil War began in the spring, on April 12, 1861; each year, fighting continued until December or January, then the troops went into winter quarters until the worst of the cold and the mud were over, in April or May. The one major exception to this was Sherman's march through the Carolinas, which marked the beginning of the end of the war.

It wasn't until the 20th century that wars were routinely fought through the winter. It is a measure of how modern technology cushions us from the weather that fighting seasons no longer seem obvious.

Garage Sales

Garage sales turn out to be a good way to learn about people, especially when you don't have everything priced. Some people are pre-occupied with "getting a good deal" and can be bitter when you don't let them bargain to half the price. Other people are shading toward dishonesty and will try to hide things in piles, or simply walk out with something. But most people are great, cheerful, happy to pay a fair price for their treasures. Some people are just eager to be garage saling again after the winter and spread enthusiasm around them. Other have a specific project in mind, sometimes with a tight budget; one dad and his three young sons were working on a playhouse with almost no budget, and it was a pleasure to help them achieve their goal. The most fun are the kids who have found a perfect treasure and come cautiously up to ask how much it is; I always ended up charging them about half the price I would have charged an adult. People-watching was the best part of holding a garage sale this weekend.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Thunder and Hail

We are in the middle of a pattern that brings us 3-6" of snow every three or four days, mostly alternating with warmer melting days. But tonight, we got a summer thunderstorm instead. Around 7:30, it started raining, then quickly changed to a crashing hail storm, exciting for the kids playing outside but not big enough hail pellets to chase them inside. The hail was accompanied by several rolls of thunder, which we haven't heard since temperatures dropped last fall. It will undoubtedly be a while before we get more of the thunder and lightning that are such an exciting part of Montana summers, but it is a great reminder that we won't have snow forever.

Crocuses Bloom

In the flower bed by the driveway, amidst all the dark mulch bark and gray rosebush stems, there are a few hardy crocuses blooming, their purple flowers startling against the muted colors. On the south side of the house, the grass is greening up (especially over the drainfield, which always warms up first). Kestrels and doves are showing up on the power lines (power lines and poles may be an intrusion on the landscape, but they provide nice perches for a wide variety of birds!). I've seen blue herons sailing overhead near the river, their necks neatly curled back on their bodies. Sandhill cranes are checking out the field to the south of us, even though it doesn't have any grain yet; maybe they are looking for bugs instead. The dogs are shedding like crazy, and it is time to clip them for the early summer.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Ford Mustangs

The first Ford Mustangs were introduced on April 17, 1964, causing a problem for the observers of the car industry: what was its model year? At that time, all car models for the year were introduced at once, with great fanfare, in October of the prior year; all the 1964 cars had been introduced six months earlier and the 1965 models would be introduced six months later. Obviously, these Mustangs were 1964 ½ models. But try explaining that to people who are used to car introductions being scattered throughout the year, with substantially less fanfare - it makes no sense to them.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Islamic Spain

Although it was never part of the Ottoman Empire, most of Spain was controlled by Muslims for three centuries, and they maintained a presence there for another four centuries. The Moors started invading the Iberian Peninsula (which includes Spain and Portugal) in 711 and made it north of the Pyrenees, into the body of modern Europe, briefly, until they were stopped by Charles Martel (Charlemagne’s grandfather) in 732. Muslim rule was unified until after 1036, when the end of the Umayyad caliphate fragmented the Muslim world, including the Muslim states in Spain. These fragmented kingdoms were more vulnerable to Christian expansion from the north, at a time when the Christians were unified and newly energized to fight the infidel in the Crusades; the Muslims gradually lost central Spain to the Christian Reconquista (Reconquest) in the 11th and 12th centuries. By 1230, only the kingdom of Granada was still Muslim. In 1492, the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon finally took control of Granada, pushing the Moors out of Spain.

The leaders of the Moorish armies were Arabs, the soldiers were Berber converts from North Africa. When they settled in Spain following their conquests, these Muslims married Spanish women, making for a distinctive mix of blood and culture that marked Moorish Spain with a cosmopolitan mix unseen in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. In particular, the Moors were literate. They had books written on paper (Europe was still using parchment), sold in bookstores and housed in libraries. The libraries contained works by Greek and Roman authors as well as newer works by Arab mathematicians and philosophers. Serious students from the rest of Europe traveled to study with the Spanish scholars – Muslim, Christian, and Jewish, for the Muslims were tolerant of other “people of the book” – to learn philosophy, mathematics, and medicine that was far more advanced than in their own countries.

After Toledo was taken by the Reconquista in 1085, Christians scholars began a massive project to translate the Arabic books into Latin. The subjects covered by the texts included algebra, astrology, astronomy, architecture, biology, botany, chemistry, geography, geometry, history, hydrostatics, law, medicine, mechanics, meteorology, mineralogy, music, navigation optics, pharmacology, physics, physiology, psychology, trigonometry, and zoology. While the Renaissance didn’t start here, the new information pouring into European scholarly circles broadened their knowledge of the world and set the stage for the later cultural flowering. In particular, the geometry, architecture, and optics texts led to the development of perspective which marked Renaissance painting so dramatically from medieval art. And the incredible strides in math and science that the Arabs had made inspired generations of European scientists to new ways of looking at the world.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci (born today in 1452, died May 2, 1519) was the quintessential Renaissance Man. (No, there was no such thing as a Renaissance Woman. Women weren’t allowed to participate in most of the appropriate activities. Sorry.) In an age that honored men who could do a wide variety of things well, he excelled at everything. He was a great painter who created pieces that are still famous enough to be regularly spoofed, such as The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa; he was an architect and a sculptor. As an inventor, he filled his notebooks with designs for flying machines, parachutes, submarines, underwater breathing devices, swim fins, pumping mechanisms, water turbines, well drills, leveling and surveying equipment, cranes, pulley systems, street lights, mechanical saws, compasses, contact lenses, and weapons; as a scientist, he proposed that the earth rotates around the sun and that that the moon's light is reflected sunlight, correctly explained why sea shells are sometimes found miles inland on mountain tops, studied anatomy from corpses, and created the first textbook of human anatomy. About the only thing he didn’t do was write poetry. And finish things – he was bad at finishing things because he was too busy thinking about something new. (This is my new excuse when I have too many projects unfinished: but Leonardo da Vinci didn't finish projects either!)

Spring Snows

Ah, the joys of spring in Montana. After three days of temperatures in the 70s, we are back to snow - 3 to 4 inches of it. People with green thumbs are itching to get out in their gardens, but the dirt hasn't dried out enough to make that practical. Snowplowers are ready to put their equipment away for the summer. Since the ski hill closed yesterday, even the ski bums are getting frustrated by the variable nature of nature. But everyone will appreciate the extra moisture this summer, when the high mountain snowpack melts and sends water roaring down the creeks and rivers.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Grilled Cheese #2

I had intended to try a grilled cheese sandwich with havarti cheese and sun-dried tomatoes on potato bread this weekend, but I forgot the tomatoes. So instead I used havarti and pepperoni - not bad, but a little bland; some banana peppers would help. Now I'm contemplating pizza grilled cheese, with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and pepperoni or Canadian bacon.

National Library Week

It's National Library Week. I'm pretty sure that the week is intended to celebrate public libraries and all the services they provide to the community; Bozeman has a great public library with lots of programs and a spacious, separated children's section, well worth celebrating. But I think I will let this week be an excuse to celebrate my own (much smaller) library.

My library is filled with books that reflect my idiosyncratic reading; looking at the shelves, I can trace the evolution of my interests and the quirky by-ways I have taken over the years. It is as accurate a reflection of me as my scrapbook - and better kept up, because organizing my books is play and gluing photos in scrapbooks is a chore. My library includes:
  • A shelf of math books left over from college.
  • Physics books from when I was intrigued by cosmology, and more reflecting my kids' interest in astronomy.
  • Boxes of books on the Middle Ages, from the time when I was studying it seriously; this section has been thinned down over the years and most of the monographs are gone now.
  • A neat pile of books on American and Canadian history, collected when we studied that in school recently.
  • Books on water law and western water issues.
  • Several shelves of books on Montana - history, biography, guidebooks, picture books.
  • Random history and biography books that I have picked up because they look interesting; my favorites trace the history of one item, such as forests or potatoes or tea.
  • Travel books and books about countries I have been to and ones I haven't.
  • Lots of natural history books, identification books, and books on plants and animals; some I use with the kids, but most of them are just for me. This section includes books on winter, snow, and forest fires.
  • My favorite homeschooling books.
  • My collection of fairy tales and folk tales, some traditional and some modern rewrites.
  • Reference books of all sorts, including many for school.
  • Too many shelves of books I'm going to read "next".
  • Shakespeare's plays and an equal volume of books about him.
  • The remnants of older collections on architecture, the English language, and horses.
  • Smaller sections of new interests that haven't accumulated much yet: economics (as it applies to society), parenting, schools, simplifying my life (good luck!), modern culture, and religions.
  • Lots of fiction, everything from Homer to Wodehouse, Patrick O'Brien to Samurai Penguin, books on tape to Cliff Notes.
  • Kid's books, which I thin at least once a year; I am looking forward to incorporating the remainders into the rest of the library someday.
  • Books on food, cooking, food history, and food in culture.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Broiler Pans

I don't understand the point of using a broiler pan if you are just going to cover it with tinfoil. Isn't the whole point of a broiler pan, the reason you use it instead of a cookie sheet or roasting pan, the slits that allow the juices to drain off instead of pooling around the food? So it you are going to cover the slits, you might as well use a different pan. (I will admit that when I am faced with washing the pan myself, I cover it with tinfoil - then cut slits in it so that the juices will drip. It keeps the juices from pooling, then baking on, and is a functional compromise.)

My favorite use of the (unfoiled) broiler pan is lemon-pepper chicken; it is quick, simple, tasty, and the left-overs make great lunch meat. To make it, get boneless skinless chicken breasts (or create them yourself, I suppose). Trim as needed and pound them flat, about 1/2 an inch thick. Place on a broiler pan and sprinkle generously with lemon pepper (in the spices section of the grocery store). Place under hot broiler and cook until done. Serve with rice and salad. Left-overs are great in a sandwich with jack or havarti or muenster cheese.

Around here, boneless skinless chicken breasts come from California. Which makes sense, since only Californians could grow a boneless skinless chicken.

Driving into Spring

Heading east from Bozeman means heading downhill toward the Mississippi River (eventually). It also means heading downhill into spring; within 75 miles, the season is several weeks further along than in the Gallatin Valley. The first indication of this is bugs on the windshield; after six months of nothing hitting the windshield besides gravel, it is weird to have bugs splatting against it. North of Lewistown, the bugs are out in force, all kinds of bugs: big ones and small ones, lots of beetles and big flying things. More poetically, the first wildflowers are starting to bloom, tiny yellowbells and shooting stars practically hidden in the grass. It promises to be a dry summer in central Montana unless there is a lot of spring rain; they haven't gotten any of the spring snows that we have, and the irrigation ponds aren't filling up like they should. Without more moisture, their nice spring will turn to late, dry summer all too soon.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Empty Train Tracks

Between Eddy's Corner and Lewistown there is a long stretch of train track that is used so seldom that the railroad is using it to store several miles' worth of container cars. At the same time, gas prices are climbing toward $4/gallon and truck drivers are feeling the pinch, which increases prices on everything they carry. The logical response to these two trends is to start moving freight by trains again. It would make use of idle infrastructure, lower transport prices since trains are more fuel-efficient freight carriers than trucks, minimize road maintenance, and reduce traffic on the highways; truckers wouldn't be eliminated since they would still be needed for the short hauls at the end of the trip.

The problem is the railroads, which seem to be stuck in the 19th century. Reports of lost or delayed cars are common; if shippers can't rely on the trains to deliver goods reliably and on time, they will stick with trucks regardless of the costs. The trick would be to get one of the logistics firms like UPS or DHL to organize the train network so that freight could be reliably and efficiently moved across the country. Then the US could allocate resources in a logical and efficient manner, putting most freight on the rails and leaving the roads for passengers and short-haul trucks.

Mark's In and Out

Different things mark the beginning of the warmer half of the year for different people: baseball spring training starting, the local ski season ending, trails drying up enough for hiking or bike-riding, horses shedding their winter coats, snowbirds returning from the southern states, swimsuits showing up in the stores, kids losing interest in class because the weather is too nice, snow shovels being put away, flowers blooming in the garden. For our family, the warm season officially starts when Mark's In and Out opens in Livingston (and it ends when Mark's closes in the fall). One of our favorite routines when we drive to Lewistown is a stop at Mark's; we schedule our departure time so that we get there about lunchtime. Part of the attraction is the retro flavor of a 1950s drive-in (which Mark's earned by opening in the '50s), part of it is the joy of ritual. And part of it is the food; the hamburgers aren't gourmet, but they are great examples of drive-in food, and they taste the way road food should taste.

Dandelion Day

Now that the grass is starting to green up, it won't be long before we see dandelions, with their sunny, opportunistic flowers. I understand that they are considered a weed, but the sight of them in full bloom always makes me smile - I see a kindred spirit in determination and cheerfulness. They are native to Europe and/or Asia and were introduced to New England by the Puritans, to California and Mexico by the Spaniards, and to Canada by the French; they were useful as medicine, as food for honeybees, and as a welcome reminder of home. They are used by herbalists to heal a wide variety of ailments: anti-bacterial, acid neutralizer, gentle diuretic and laxative, blood cleanser and purifier, weight-loss aid, and a general tonic. Dandelion is good for the bladder, kidney, spleen, stomach, intestines, joint pain, and inflammatory skin conditions; it is recommended especially for "stressed-out, internally sluggish and sedentary people". All parts of the dandelion are edible: the greens, picked before the flowers appear, are healthier than spinach; the roots can be dried and used for tea; the flowers can be used to make dandelion cordial or jelly. (Even Martha Stewart has dozens of ideas for cooking with dandelions, including a tasty looking one for dandelion greens and sweet onions.) It all seems like a good reason to celebrate Dandelion Day today, in spite of the disdain of gardeners.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Oriental Sloppy Joes

Some experiments work out better than others. I was inspired by a mention somewhere of Japanese (or was it Chinese?) sloppy joes and tried it tonight. I pulled some pulled pork out of the freezer, mixed it with hoisin sauce and heated it, then put it on a hamburger bun with mung bean sprouts; I served wasabi potato chips on the side. It wasn't bad, but I'm not sure I'd do it again - I can think of better things to do with pulled pork!

Recycling Magazines

I ran across this full page ad from the Magazine Publishers of America: A branch made of newsprint, with leaves made of pictures clipped from a variety of magazines above the text "When you're done leafing through this issue, please recycle this magazine", complete with recycling logo. Notice that they ignore the more important items in the recycle slogan: reduce, reuse, recycle. They never mention saving paper by reducing the number of magazines you subscribe to, or a reduction in the number of pages of advertising they include in the magazine. There is no mention of sharing the magazine with a friend after reading it, which is a great way to cut down on the number of trees turned into paper. So they want to generate and sell as many magazine pages as possible, then assuage their guilty consciences by reminding readers to recycle all those pages, rather than making real changes. It's a pain-free way to make money and feel virtuous at the same time.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Bluebirds Return

The weather continues its pattern of sunny days alternating with snowy ones, which frustrates people who think that the arrival of spring means that the snow should stop - these are almost always people who grew up where there is a real spring, not in Montana. It doesn't seem to faze the birds or plants, though. The first bluebird has returned to the stretch of Bostwick Road that always seems to host a pair. We have mountain bluebirds here, which are solid blue without the reddish patches of the western bluebird; when they dart across the road, they are a startling flash of sky. House finches are showing up on my crabapple tree during snow flurries; they live in Montana year-round, but we only see them in the winter if we put out a bird feeder. The house finches are easy to tell from other finches and wrens because the males have red heads; the red color comes from the quality of the food during molt, so the intensity of the color gives females a pretty good idea of the male's ability to find food for nestlings. In the garden, the pussy willow catkins are just starting to fluff out; in another week or two, they will be decorative enough that I will be faced with the decision of whether to leave them in place to grow more next year (the plant is pretty young) or cut them for the house.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

One or More Englishes

The cover article of the March 29, 2008, issue of New Scientist discusses the future of English. In the Michael Erard's opinion, English will be massively simplified as non-native speakers use it to communicate across langauge barriers; it will lose its complexity and nuances, reducing to basic nouns and verbs. He has interesting points, but there is no reason to believe that there will be only one monolithic "English" - there are already variations in the use of English even among native speakers in Britain, America, and Australia. English is more likely to follow Latin's course in the Middle Ages and split into a variety of Englishes: one (or more) stripped-down version for non-native speakers to communicate in places like India that have a wide range of local lanaguages, or internationally when people from different countries work together; a variety of local Englishes for various regions across the world, embellished with local vocabulary, such as Singaporean English; and at least one fully complex version for native speakers, probably three or more. There is no reason native speakers should be restricted to simple language for complex ideas, any more than speakers of French or Arabic or Mandarin Chinese are.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Moveable Feasts

Moveable Feasts: From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, the Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eat, by Sarah Murray, is a series of good stories about the intersection of food and transport that are marred by an ill-fitting conceit. Part of the problem is Murray's choice of subtitles; while each story connects food to transport, there is no consistent "journey" involved. Based on the subtitle, I expected to read something about the history of food(s) and how we came to eat them, similar to Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, which traces how curry evolved and developed over the centuries and how Britains ended up eating it as a national cuisine. Failing that, I expected descriptions of how food has gotten to market over the ages; this is apparently where she started, since there are solid stories about amphoras carrying olive oil, clipper ships carrying tea, refrigerated trucks carrying bananas, and airplanes carrying strawberries. A discussion of food miles in a section on yogurt doesn't really fit the pattern of transport methods but is clearly related, as is an interesting chapter on grain elevators on the Great Lakes. She gets a little side-tracked into transport logistics with long discussions about FedEx and tiffin carriers, worth reading but again a change in emphasis.

Then there are interesting stories about the Berlin airlift, Sudanese food-aid efforts, and Mongol dairy products that are good reading but definitely don't fit the apparent structure of the book. This mismatch is made worse by the conceit of a grocery basket of items, with each chapter ostensibly telling the stories of the journeys that food makes. The Berlin airlift is the most egregious example here, since it is linked to chewing gum but gum is only mentioned in passing (from my reading about the airlift, candy bars would have made a more logical connection, but it would still have been tangential). The book would be more more coherent if it were organized historically and had a more accurate subtitle; it would be best if she had simply been open about her fascination with the way food and transport have intersected over the years, and told those stories without any clever conceits.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Reading Lists

Now I understand the purpose of summer reading lists. As a kid, I knew they were designed to let teachers ruin summers by underhandedly cramming in another assignment before school started. As an adult, I could see how reading a relevant novel could help set the stage for history in the fall. But as a parent, I have discovered that the real reason is to keep kids' brains fit over the summer so they are ready for school in the fall. My daughter loves to read, but had gotten into the habit of reading brain candy: fast-reading, easy-to-follow stories that took her a day or less to read. Recently, we have eased her off the brain candy and onto more intelligent books with denser stories and more complex structure; she is loving Mary Renault's books set in ancient Greece. Not only is she losing the drugged look the brain candy could give her when she overdid them, she is finding that she can read and enjoy books that even recently were too difficult to read with pleasure. Her brain had just gotten lazy reading the easy stuff and needed some exercise to tackle the harder books without spraining anything. She is discovering that she likes the more challenging books, and has started saving the brain candy for weekends, for dessert.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

Somewhat implausibly, April is National Grilled Cheese Month. But given the weather today - we have already gone through a heavy snow storm, sun, and blowing snow, and it is only noon - a grilled cheese sandwich sounds pretty good. A quick perusal of Google space shows that there is lots of enthusiasm for this celebration; even the New York Times has gotten into the act with a list of NY restaurants that serve good grilled cheese sandwiches. I'm looking forward to celebrating the month by serving my kids grilled cheese sandwiches every weekend, starting with the basic mayo and cheddar version (sorry, we don't do American cheese here). Then I will have fun thinking about variations to try:
  • Cheddar and green chilis
  • Goat cheese and pesto (or tapenade)
  • Blue cheese and spinach
  • Brie and sauteed onions
  • Cheddar, bacon, and tomato
  • Provolone and artichoke hearts (or artichoke dip)
  • Farmer cheese and salsa (or black beans)
  • Cheddar and chili
And that's before I even try unusual breads; the Co-op's flat breads will undoubtedly suggest a few more ideas. Then there are toppings to consider; mustard is an obvious one, but mango chutney seems to have some promise - with which cheese? This could be a fun month!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Fuel Efficiency

When I bought my Audi 19 years ago, it got 23 mpg in town, 26 mpg on the highway. In the last two decades, automotive technology has made major strides, cars have gotten stronger and lighter - but they haven't gotten any more fuel-efficient. Volkswagons, Hyundais, and Subarus, the smaller cars that should be the most efficient gas users, mostly claim gas use of 21 mpg in town, 26 mpg on the highway; only a few of them get close to 30 mpg even on the highway. Clearly, the car companies don't feel it is worth their while to put any effort into making cars more efficient, leaving car buyers stuck with increasing fuel prices and stagnating fuel efficiency.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Mexi-burgers

I had planned to make hamburgers tonight - and I did make them, just with a twist. When I opened the refrigerator, I noticed that I had small amounts of salsa verde and guacamole left-over, not enough to do much with but too much to toss. Hmmm. I also had cheddar cheese and canned green chilis available, so I created stuffed Mexi-burgers. The kids loved them so much that even my two who usually leave half their burgers finished them, and they insist that I make them again. The technique works for all kinds of fillings; blue cheese and green onion are good, or parmesan and sun-dried tomatoes (in oil), or pesto and pine nuts, or bacon and jack cheese, or anything else that sounds good and is taking up room in your fridge.

To make the burgers, I sized the hamburger patties, then split off 1/3 of each. The larger piece I shaped into a sort of patty-shaped bowl, the other piece I flattened to make a lid. In each bowl, I placed a slice or two of cheese and a couple spoonfuls of diced green chilis, then I placed the lid on top and carefully sealed the edges together with my fingers. The patties were gorgeous, plump and smooth-edged. I grilled as usual (a little shorter time that you would expect for such thick patties). We topped them with salsa verde, guacamole, minced pickled jalapenos, and tomatoes. I served them with plain potato chips, but tortilla chips would work well, too.

Red-Tailed Hawks Return

The red-tail hawks are back from their winter in the south, slowly pushing out the rough-legged hawks. The robins are back, too; when the snow falls, they revert to their winter behavior and congregate in flocks. Bird song once again announces dawn, at least when it isn't snowing. The catkins, clumps of tiny red or crimson flowers, are coming in thick on the female aspens. The chives in the garden are the only green this early in the season; chives are notoriously hard to kill, so I like them in my gardens even though I object when the kids eat some because they end up smelling so strongly of chive.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Simple Bruschetta

One of the lessons that I have to relearn embarrasingly often is that for some things, simple is better. I have a tendency to think that if some is good, more is better (except for alcohol, of course - I learned that lesson conclusively a long time ago). It isn't until I am too tired to "do more" that I do less and remember that simple can be really good.

Take bruschetta ("tasty things on toast") as an example. My standard bruschetta dinner has evolved into something like pizza bread, based on a loaf of ciabatta bread sliced lengthwise and heaped with lots of tasty toppings; it makes for a filling dinner. But last night, I made more traditional bruschetta, with just a few simple toppings, and it tasted wonderful. Oh yeah. I will keep making my heaped version, but it is good to go back to basics once in a while and remember how little it takes to make a good meal.

Simple Bruschetta
Take a loaf of bread that is long and relatively narrow; I used one with roasted garlic in it, but a bigger baguette or long ciabatta bread works well, too. Slice it thinly and discard (into kids' mouths around here) the heels. Spread a thin layer of goat cheese or good feta on each piece of bread and place it on a cooling rack (or cookie sheet); it will probably take two racks for a loaf of bread. Trim and thinly slice a bunch of green onions; place a few onion slices on each piece of bread. Stick under a hot broiler for a few minutes, until the cheese is soft but the bread isn't turning brown. Slice tomatoes into small wedges or slices and place one or two on each toast; the tomato shouldn't overwhelm the toast. Return to broiler for a minute or two, just long enough to warm the tomato but not long enough to burn the toast edges. Serve promptly as an appetizer, side dish, or light main course.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Home Eating

Home Eating a Threat to Public Kitchens? State Allows Growing Trend of Eating At Home
by Angela Paul
Reunited Press, April 13, 2099

After much heated debate on the house floor, legislation was passed today to allow a growing number of families to cook meals for their families in their homes. The children must have annual physical examinations to assure proper growth and weight gain. Attempts to require weekly meal plans and monthly kitchen inspections were voted down.

A spokesperson from the National Association of Nutritionists (NANs) condemns this decision. "These children are being denied the rich socialization and diversity that is an essential part of the eating process. Without the proper nutritional background, it is impossible for the average person to feed their own children. We, as child advocates, see this as a step backwards and speak out for the sake of the children who cannot speak for themselves."

Homecooking parents say the benefits of eating at home include increased family unity and the ability to tailor a diet to a particular need. Elizabeth Crocker, a home cook, states, "We started cooking and eating at home when we realized that my son had a severe allergy to eggs. The public kitchens required him to take numerous medications that had serious side effects in order to counteract his allergy. We found that eliminating eggs was a simpler method and our son has thrived since we began doing so."

After this experience, the Crockers decided to home cook for all of their children, and converted their media room into a kitchen. Elizabeth says, "We have experienced so much closeness as we have explored recipes and spent time cooking together and eating together. We have a dining circle with other families where we sometimes share ideas and meals together."

The Crocker children have done well physically under their mother's care, weighing in at optimum weights for their ages and having health records far above average. It should be noted that Mrs. Crocker, while not a professional nutritionist, has a family history rich with nutritionists and home economists. "Surely the success of the Crocker children is due to the background of their mother," responded the spokesman from NANs. "The results they have achieved should not be viewed as normative." Mrs. Crocker counters that her background was actually a hindrance to the nutritional principles she follows. "Our paternal great-grandmother was a home economist, but she prepared most meal from pre-made mixes. In our homecooking we try not to duplicate public-kitchen meals, but to tailor our meals to the needs and preferences of our children."

In a related issue, legislation is in committee that would provide oversight for the emerging homecooking movement. Says the Home Eating Legal Defense Association (HELDA): "We want to provide umbrella kitchens to aid parents in the complicated tasks of feeding their children. Many families lack the expertise of the Crocker family, yet desire to eat at home. As we have seen, the umbrella kitchens meet the needs of all concerned. We are happy to provide this service."