Saturday, May 31, 2008

Crabapples Bloom

My crabapple tree has started blooming; the branches near the house, where it reflects the sun, are blooming first.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Booksellers

I ordered a book from abebooks.com (a favorite source for used books; alibris.com is my other favorite) last week. Today it showed up - in an Amazon box that the bookseller had reused. I can't decide if it shows how ubiquitous Amazon is or how inbred the bookselling world is.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Summer Storm Passes

Today we had cloud bursts off and on all afternoon. One in the evening led to a double rainbow and a gorgeous view to the southeast.

The Power of Place

It seems obvious that our surroundings affect us, and yet it is funny how often we neglect to acknowledge that. The Power of Place, by Winifred Gallagher, very carefully looks at a wide range of environments, from the womb to the weather, and investigates how each one changes us – quite literally, in the case of the womb, since the nutrients and hormones we get in that environment shape us both physically and mentally. The biology is interesting, but as a spatial learner, I found the rest of the book more intriguing.

She starts with the seasons and looks at how the longer nights of winter affect people and, by extension, how being inside affects people. Indoor living has distanced people from the natural world, and we have come to believe that it doesn't matter, that seasons are just changing decorations outside our doors. But Gallagher gathers evidence that the seasons do matter, at least in temperate (and especially polar) zones, that people are still, in spite of all our sophistication, hard-wired to hibernate - or at least slow down - in the winter and speed up in the summer; luckily, most of us can ignore this because the instinct is fairly subtle, but for some people, it can be debilitating. She notes that in Alaska, the natives who stick to the traditional seasonal rhythms (sleeping a lot in the winter, working a lot in the summer) have almost no depression, while those who follow the white 8-to-5 rhythm have just as much trouble with depression as whites do. (Some of this is due to the fact that people on urban schedules get outside in the sun very little in the winter.)

One thing that has distanced people from the outdoors is the movement to cities; not only is nature harder to get to in cities, there are more people around, which brings its own pressures on creatures adapted to live in small family groups - although Gallagher makes it clear that the scientists are by no means unanimous on whether or not people can successfully adapt to the high population density. She has also turned up some intriguing evidence that environmental cues support addictions of various types, because the cues trigger the need for the substance. She looks at drug use and how hard it is to stay clean if the drug user returns to the same neighborhood, how the familiarity of the location of drug use increases tolerance of the drug. But the concept also explains more mundane issues, like how much trouble dieters have in keeping weight off, how hard it is to stop smoking or drinking, how often prisoners released from jail end up back there; even something as innocuous as empty-nest syndrome makes more sense when you realize all the cues the daily environment holds about how you should behave and what should happen next.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Crabapples Near Blooming

The pink crabapple trees are just about ready to blossom; the white ones are already in full bloom. The chokecherries are covered in white bottlebrushes that will turn into tasty purple berries in a few months. South-facing lilacs are just starting to bloom; our north-facing bushes will be several weeks later.

Eastern Kingbirds

This week there are suddenly dozens of small birds, dark with white bellies and tail tips, sitting in pairs on the fence wires and power lines. At first I thought they were a type of swallow, but my ID books didn't turn up anything similar. I finally found out that they are eastern kingbirds, which summer here. The scientific name is Tyrannus tyrannus, which seems appropriate given the bird's habit of terrorizing any other birds, even hawks, that make the mistake of trespassing on their territory

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Population Levels and Technology

This is from The Power of Place, by Winifred Gallagher; she is quoting psychologist John Calhoun.

"For forty thousand years, the population has periodically doubled, which has meant more ideas, information, and creativity for our evolving culture. But each time our numbers double, the number of social roles and the effort it takes to maintain satisfaction with life also increase. That's one reason why India's caste system, which serves to reduce the number of social contacts, came about. We've become so overwhelmed by the roles, communication, and information produced by our huge population that we've had to become more impersonal. We've become dependent on machines, such as computers, to help us preserve order and complexity and keep us from disintegrating into chaos. These machines also make life so interesting that many people would rather concentrate on information than raising children. Eventually, the population level will fall."

Monday, May 26, 2008

Summer Begins

Summer begins today - or does it? For most Americans, summer runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, so this is the first day of summer. For school kids on traditional schedules, summer starts when school ends, whether that is early May for colleges or early June for schools. Astronomically, summer starts on the summer solstice, June 21 (or thereabouts). In Montana, July 4th marks the real beginning of summer, both for weather and tourism. So for a three-month season, there is nearly two months difference between the first and last possible starting dates; that makes the three-month difference in choices to start the year look reasonable.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Staying Out of the Way

Last semester, my oldest son did quite well in college and I gave myself a pat on the back for having homeschooled him so well, prepared him for college so well - look what a good job I did! I also breathed a huge sigh of relief at this proof of concept; until you get one child out in the world successfully, there is that niggling doubt that you might not have gotten this homeschool thing right. This semester he did even better, near-perfect grades, much better than he ever did at home, and I'm starting to think that my contribution to his success was mostly staying out of his way; somehow I managed to NOT kill his enthusiasm for learning or his belief in his ability to be successful. His achievement is so clearly his own, in ways that I didn't teach him, that I can't keep taking credit for it as a teacher. It is humbling, but also reassuring to know that my kids have already learned the most important things; my job is to let them continue to grow and thrive. So if they don't memorize every country next year in world geography, I think I can relax and be content with their knowing the major countries. I think...

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Balsamroot Blooms

The showy wildflowers are finally starting to bloom, later than usual' the wildflowers of early spring are usually hard to see under the grass. The arrowleaf balsamroot is spotting the pastures with bright yellow sunflowers, while dandelions do the same in yards (some are already turning to seed puffs). Along the ditches, larkspur flowers are dark purple slashes amidst the green grass. Meadowlarks rise from the side of the road, skipping across them like flat rocks on a lake; a few males have started singing from fence posts. (Western meadowlarks are the state bird of Montana, even though they only summer here.)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Twinkie, Deconstructed

In spite of the interesting information I have gleaned from Twinkie, Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger, I can't really recommend it unless you are truly interested in where the tongue-twisting items on a processed-food ingredient list come from. It just isn't very well written. Ettlinger gets caught up in the corporate secrecy cloak and likes to reiterate just how top-secret the places are that he was allowed access to, how hard it is to find out any useful information. I can understand his surprise at the level of secrecy, I suppose, since we don't think of food factories as housing any big secrets, but once he discovered that most of the ingredients were chemically created, often from petrochemicals, the surprise should have faded. At least I found it tiresome to have all the cloak-and-dagger mentions interfering with the narrative - especially since he just dropped them into the flow, rather than making them integral to the story.

A bigger problem is that so many of the ingredients are made in substantially the same way, with slightly different catalysts and reacting agents. His organizational structure, going down the ingredient list, forced him to retell basically the same two or three stories over and over. While this does make it easy to look up specific ingredients, the book would have been easier to read if he had grouped the ingredients by manufacture method, and it would have shed more light on the nature of the ingredients. He could even have added a lot more (publicly-available) information to clarify each major processing technique, such as explaining how hydrocarbons that fuel cars turn into carbohydrates that fuel people. Salt, minerals, and the various soda derivatives would have benefited from juxtaposition and contrast, as would the many ingredients derived from petrochemicals: how are things the same and how are they different? Instead, they are jumbled together based on the list order, making it hard to gain any overview of the processed-food industry.

The last chapter is apparently Ettlinger's defence of the processed-food industry, which is redundant (given his enthusiasm for its products), confusing, and ill-conceived (he conflates farmers with refineries at one point). He has packed a lot of information into the book, but it doesn't make for an entertaining read in spite of his best efforts.

Carolus Linnaeus

One of the challenges when working with plants or animals is making sure that you are working with the same thing someone else is. The problem with common usage is that one name can be applied to a variety of different plants in different areas, or several names can be used for the same plant. Or sometimes both.

The man who first figured out how to solve this problem was Carolus Linnaeus (born today in 1707). In 1735, he came up with a system, taxonomy, that groups organisms in big chunks, then smaller chunks, then smaller yet. Each species has exactly one name that places it exactly within the taxonomic system, indicating both the genus (like Canis for canids, or dog-like animals) and the species (lupus, for a particular canine commonly called a wolf). The scientific name for dogs, Canis familiaris, indicates that it is similar to the wolf, but not the same. (This system is similar to people’s names, where the last name indicates family and the first name indicates the individual in the family.) In general, biologists agree on these names, but there are always a few critters at the edges that are being shuffled around as new information shows up; for instance, there is disagreement over whether bison should be Bos bison or Bison bison. Still, there are few enough disagreements that the confusion can be identified and managed, so the system works even when it is imperfect.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sones

My youngest son recently sent an email to his father in which he misspelled "son" as "sone", prompting the latter to look up "sone", find it appropriate, and add a second definition.

Sone
Pronunciation: \ˈsōn\ Function: noun.
Etymology: International Scientific Vocabulary, from Latin sonus sound.
1. Date: 1948 : a subjective unit of loudness for an average listener equal to the loudness of a 1000-hertz sound that has an intensity 40 decibels above the listener's own threshold of hearing.
2: A male child in relation to his parents, before he has learned the value of quiet.

Corn and Beef

The current sky-high prices for corn may finally help wean people off corn-fed beef, as it gets equally expensive. The funny thing is that grass-fed beef is healthier, more humane, and tastes better than corn-fed. The richly-marbled meat that corn finishing produces is why eating beef is considered so fattening; bison is considered healthier because bison typically aren't corn-finished. Cattle haven't evolved to eat corn, and over time, it tears their stomachs apart. The feedlots where the corn is fed are unnatural environments for cattle, leading to stress and disease, so the cattle are fed regular doses of antibiotics to keep them healthy (with all that that entails for humans who eat them). The feedlots also produce massive amounts of concentrated manure and urine, which is hard to dispose of safely. Simply out of concern for our health, the cattle themselves, the future of drug-resistant bacteria, and the environment, doing away with feedlots and corn rations makes a lot of sense.

The good news, and the reason I don't eat corn-fed beef when I can help it, is that grass-fed beef has more flavor; beautifully-marbled corn-fed beef tastes mostly of fat - tasty fat, but still fat. I like the meaty flavor of leaner grass-fed beef, and it is healthier, too. It does take a little practice to learn how to cook the leaner beef, but it is no harder to do. Pot-roasting obviously works well, but my major compensation technique is to serve a sauce or salsa of some sort with it: sauteed onions and mushrooms, mango/jalapeno salsa, grapefruit/onion/avocado salsa and blue cheese (a winter favorite), a red-wine/tarragon reduction, salsa fresca, or anything else that sounds good with the rest of the meal; the salsas have the added advantage of making a steak more versatile, letting it meld with a wider range of flavors than a simple slab of cow. I have my fingers crossed that the rising costs of corn finishing will lead to more grass-fed beef, so I have more options.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Robins Nest

I awoke this morning to the sound of a robin landing on the top of my open window. Again. And again. I finally investigated and discovered pieces of grass on top of the window and inside it; there were also some clumps of mud. Just then, the robin brought back another clump of mud and placed it on the window top, which is protected under the eaves. The silly robin was trying to make a nest on a narrow window edge that disappears every time a storm comes up and the wind starts blowing hard. This happens every year; I don't know if it is the same robin or a different one. I solved the problem the same way I do every year: close the window when the robin is away, before she gets too much effort into it. With luck, she will find a better site next time.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Algebra Beats Arithmetic

My daughter has struggled with arithmetic for years, ever since she was supposed to memorize her multiplication tables in third grade. She has a good mind for how math works but no memory for the facts, so she regularly gets frustrated with math assignments. I have worked hard over the years to find math she could do easily (geometry was good) and to find aspects of math that were more narrative (the history of pi) - anything to keep her from deciding she was stupid and hated math. (That is a self-fulfilling prophecy I was determined to avoid.)

It worked. This year we got to a point where we weren't sure where to go next and she was unsure that she had all the background she needed. The VideoText Algebra we use has a great review of arithmetic at the beginning (to present all of it in their nomenclature), so we started that early, knowing that we would stop often to pick up anything she had missed over the years. We finally got to the point where she was starting to do "real" algebra, manipulating equations with variables in them, and we discovered that she is good at it! She likes keeping the equations neat and orderly, writing them out properly after each step. (Yay!) She likes the process, the list of things to do in a certain order, and the certainty that if she does it, she will get the right answer. Most of all, I think, she likes the ideas embedded in algebra. I am delighted that she has found some math that she likes and is good at - I knew she wasn't math-stupid! And it is really good for her self-esteem to see that she can do harder math.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Serviceberries Bloom

The service berry in our backyard is blooming, small white trumpet-shaped flowers; later this summer we will look for wild service berries to pick for pies. The naturalized phlox on the south-facing road bank have started blooming, too, with small five-petaled white and lavender flowers. The maple trees are finally leafing out; the leaves have turned a proper green instead of the magenta they started out.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Turkey Vultures Soar

I saw the summer's first turkey vulture today along the interstate between Big Timber and Livingston. They disappear in the fall and return in the early summer when the ground is warming up enough to produce the thermals they soar on. They are beautiful to watch, tilting gently as they spiral higher and higher.

A less welcome omen of summer is the first mosquito of the year, also seen - or felt - today. The moisture that has encouraged the mosquitoes to hatch has also created a green explosion at our house; after being gone for just two days, we came home to aspens leafed out, lilies of the valley suddenly full height and filling out, bleeding hearts setting flowers, rhubarb leaves unfolding, peonies nearly full height, and chives flowering. My son mowed the lawn last Thursday, and it already looks like he hasn't touched it - after only three days. Weeks of cool, wet weather combined with two days of nearly 90-degree weather to provoke a sudden, massive irruption of summer.

Mount St. Helens

"At 8:32 Sunday morning, May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted. Shaken by an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale, the north face of this tall symmetrical mountain collapsed in a massive rock debris avalanche. Nearly 230 square miles of forest was blown down or buried beneath volcanic deposits. At the same time a mushroom-shaped column of ash rose thousands of feet skyward and drifted downwind, turning day into night as dark, gray ash fell over eastern Washington and beyond. The eruption lasted 9 hours, but Mount St. Helens and the surrounding landscape were dramatically changed within moments." The sunsets were fabulous all the following summer, and fine ash fell in western Montana for months. I am looking forward to visiting the not-quite-so-extinct volcano next month; for now, you can watch in on the National Park Service's volcanocam.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Rocky Mountain Oysters

Rocky Mountain Oysters are a true western treat - one that many people are happy to try once and leave to the locals. To acquire these delicacies, you have to be invited to a branding or have a good friend who is and will bring you some oysters. If you go, the best bet is to carry the bucket for the castrator; this gives you a moral claim on at least some of the harvest.

To clean the oysters, hold them by the cord end and push the oyster toward the end of the sack. With a sharp knife, carefully slit the sack and pop the oyster out. Remove the cord down the side of the oyster and cut off the "stem". Place in cold water until ready to cook, or cover with water and freeze for later use.

A favorite branding trick is to cook a fresh oyster on the branding-iron fire for immediate consumption, but they are best fried. Add salt and pepper to flour in a shallow bowl and roll the oysters in it. Heat some lard or shortening in a skillet until hot, then add the oysters; shake the pan or stir to brown the oysters on all side. As they cook, any oysters that were nicked in the cleaning will "bloom" and look odd, but they are still good to eat. Eat while warm. They taste more like a mild liver than chicken.

Killdeer

The first cows leaving the cattle chute after vaccinations entered the dirt corral, provoking a frantic cheeping call from the center of the corral. A killdeer had made her nest in the middle of the corral, against a semi-circle of rocks; and she was doing her best to run off the huge animals before they stepped on her four spotted eggs.Although killdeer are well known for their broken-wing act to lure predators away from the nest, she was using a different tactic, fluffing herself up, showing her reddish tail feathers, and running at the cows to attempt to make them change their path. Her mate fretted around the edge of the corral, helpless. The cows hardly noticed the poor bird, and they kept streaming into the corral. We placed some extra rocks around the nest to protect it, which made the cows curious and they stopped to smell it; they avoided stepping on the unstable rocks - until one rambunctious cow didn't even notice it and stepped in the middle of the nest. I guess it is another example of evolution at work: killdeer that choose a working corral for their nest site won't succeed as well as those that choose less busy areas.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Northern Harriers

The northern harriers are back, soaring over open fields as they look for mice and other small animals to eat. In theory, these hawks are in our area all year, but I only see them in the warmer months so they are a sign of summer to me. They love the broad grasslands of central Montana where they can hang above the fields for hours, rolling and diving like a roller coaster. Their easiest distinguishing mark, besides their hunting style, is the white rump that can be seen when they tip sideways in a turn (if you can see white from below, it is a rough-legged hawk, which has white at the top of its tail and hunts much the same territory).

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Sugar

It is easy to think of sugar as just a sweetener, but it has nearly as many uses as salt does. Sugar enhances other flavors, especially in ice cream, and balances hot, bitter, and acidic flavors. Sugar provides color when it caramelizes; the caramelizing also creates a crust that retains some moisture to prevent food from drying out. It stabilizes beaten egg whites and makes cookies crisp. When sugar and shortening are "creamed" together at the beginning of a recipe, the sugar crystals trap air in small pockets that expand during baking, to create a light, airy texture; sugar also allows the air bubbles more time to form by slowing down the batter setting, and makes a cake more tender by combining with protein (which would otherwise make the batter stretchy, like a pizza crust).

Before refrigeration, sugar's most important characteristic may have been its tendency to soak up available moisture, thereby depriving bacteria of the moisture it needs to grow. This is why fruits and jellies can be preserved with canning, and why sugar or honey can be used as a rough-and-ready wound dressing. The sugar also enhances the color of canned fruit - and tastes good. No wonder so much of it is used in the kitchen.

Menarch and Altitude

Here is an odd tidbit I came across in The Power of Place, by Winifred Gallagher: "Because menarch occurs about three months later per thousand feet [of altitude], [Tibetan] girls don't menstruate until sixteen to eighteen, instead of ten to twelve." That would mean that girls who grow up in Bozeman should start menstruation about 15 months later than girls who grow up at sea level; I wonder if they do?

In another place, Gallagher mentions that female rats who are raised with brothers start menstruation earlier than females who are raised with only other females. Which I guess makes sense evolutionarily: if there aren't any males around, why use up the energy needed for menstruation?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Limerick Day

Limericks are (meant to be) funny, even naughty, probably from their origins in pubs. They often contain hyperbole, onomatopoeia, idioms, puns, and other figurative devices. The last line of a good modern limerick contains the punch line, although Edward Lear’s limericks seldom had one. But it is the rhythm and the strong rhyme pattern that set limericks apart from "real" poetry. When a limerick is bad, it is painfully so, since there is no redeeming virture or noble sentiment to rescue it.

There was an Old Person of Buda,
Whose conduct grew ruder and ruder;
Till at last, with a hammer,
They silenced his clamour,
By smashing that Person of Buda.
(Edward Lear)

There was a young hunter named Shepherd
Who was eaten for lunch by a leopard.
Said the leopard, "Egad!
You'd be tastier, lad,
If you had been salted and peppered!"

An epicure dining at Crewe
Found a very large bug in his stew.
Said the waiter, "Don't shout
And wave it about,
Or the rest will be wanting one too."

There was a young woman named Bright
Whose speed was much faster than light.
She set out one day
In a relative way,
And returned on the previous night.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Children's Song

It has been a while since I had young children and needed to find a way to keep them out of trouble when I needed a break, but Rob Paravonian's Children's Song brings back memories of the longer days. Ah, the joys of motherhood.

New Words

These useful words came out of the local high school newspaper, Hawk Talk (May 9, 2008).

Acoustic shave: The act of shaving with razor; not an electric shave. [This is one of those back formations created to differentiate something that never used to need differentiation, like analogue clock, snail mail, and land line.]

Consumerican: An individual suffering from the particularly American brand of consumerism.

Disneyfication: The act of taming the world to make it all safe, clean, and completely similar to a theme park. To remove all the sharp edges and darkness that is life.

Frienvy: Feeling of want or need for something or someone a friend might have. People often experience frienvy when a close friend of theirs loses weight, gets a promotion, or finds a new girlfriend/boyfriend.

Icemaker: The opposite of ice breaker. Something you do that makes it super awkward, right after meeting someone. [Who hasn't done this?]

Moneymoon: The time after your purchase of a good or service and before 'buyer's remorse' happens.

Peasantvision: Television channels you get without a cable or satellite TV subscription.

Wikidemia: An academic work passed off as scholarly yet researched entirely on Wikipedia.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Transcontinental Railroad

One of the defining characteristics of America is the way technology has defined it practically since the beginning. In a new world with new challenges, new solutions were welcome and there was little social inertia to retard adoption of new technology; the size of the country meant that large-scale solutions were both needed and decisive in affecting later developments. One of the largest technological solutions was the transcontinental railroad. After the California gold rush created a country divided by vast distances of rugged, empty land, railroads were built to allow people and goods to travel quickly from coast to coast; the first line, across the middle of the country, was completed on May 10, 1869. The railroads helped Americans fill in and settle their continent; they made it easy for the government to quell Indian threats and control the territories. Not surprisingly, the government encouraged the railroads to build, by granting them tax concessions and grants, the most obvious of which are the land grants.

The affects of the railroad were most obvious in the empty interior west. To people this vast area, the government made land grants to help railroads finance their tracks and get the land into private hands as quickly as possible. Land was granted in alternate square miles within 10-20 miles (sometimes as much as 50 miles, especially in difficult terrain) on either side of the tracks; the checkerboard pattern was intended to guarantee that railroad access would increase the value of the lands retained by the government. Land grant maps were frequently used by land speculators to advertise railroad lands for sale to the public; the hyperbole involved such claims as “rain follows the plow” and led many unsuspecting farmers to try their hand at farming the arid prairie. Not content with the local market, most western railroads established profitable land departments and bureaus of immigration with offices in Europe, to sell land and promote foreign settlement in the western United States; many immigrants, eager to leave unrest and famine at home, were enticed with free homes or credit on the land purchase. But the temperate climate and large crops they had been told to expect seldom materialized; instead, they found hot summers and drought, bitterly cold winters and blizzards, loneliness, hailstorms, and grasshoppers that devoured the crops. Within a generation, most of the erstwhile farmers had left the driest areas (like eastern Montana), looking for someplace more dependable to farm. But the effects of the grants - the checkerboard pattern of land ownership, the "busted" homestead, and communities descended from land-grant immigrants - are still visible around the west.

Clean Up Your Room Day

Now there's a day to celebrate! Is it only coincidence that it comes the day before Mother's Day? Clean rooms from all my kids would certainly make a nice mother's day present, but I doubt I will get it. My youngest and oldest kids have terminally messy rooms, in spite of all my efforts; entropy wins in their rooms. My middle two prefer to keep their rooms neat (unless I start nagging them, in which case the rooms get substantially messier), so I guess the messiness quotient is genetic more than age-related.

But which chromosome controls whether people like to keep their rooms neat or let them become a complete disaster. Maybe it has to do with bright ideas; if there are dozens of new ideas popping in your head, it is hard to focus on something so mundane as a messy room. On the other hand, I can't think well if the room is too messy; for me, ideas pop when my room is neat. Maybe it has to do with how visual you are; visually-oriented people might be more bothered by the mess. Or big-picture people might not notice the messy details. It can't be a matter of sensory sensitivity; some people I know who go into sensory overload easily are also tolerant of messes. I like to think that it is more practical to have a place for everything and everything in its place, but I have to admit that lots of messy people can find things very easily; they just use a piling system instead of a filing system (and I reluctantly admit that they spend less time keep their system functioning). Maybe it doesn't have to do with any other characteristics and is on a completely separate gene, inexplicable and unpredictable.

Maple Trees Flower

The maple trees are blooming, with their improbable chartreuse flowers that look more like tiny leaves; in Missoula yesterday, the residential streets near the university were lined with these yellow-green trees. The leaves are getting ready in the same bud; they are maroon instead of green. (What kind of self-respecting flowering plant has green flowers and purple-red leaves?)
Last night we had snow that turned to ice, then melted within minutes after the sun rose above the cloud bank lining the ridge. Sandhill cranes are calling their rusty-gate cries in the mornings; I think they are flying overhead, but I can't see them. My oldest son is back from college, so we have a new ecosystem in the basement as he sorts out and puts away his things; it is good to have him back, especially since college has eased him into adulthood over the winter.

Friday, May 9, 2008

More on Salt

I found more information on the cooking uses of salt in Twinkie, Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger - there are a bunch. In addition to the uses I found in The Joy of Cooking, salt combines with sugar to make sweet foods sweeter; gives dough uniform grain, texture, and strength; controls the yeast reaction in breads so bubbles are small and uniform; allows batter to hold more water and carbon dioxide, making for better holes and expansion; fights bacteria and mold growth; activates and sets food color (it also sets the color of red embroidery floss); creates texture and rind in cheeses; and acts as a binder in sausage fillings.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Now I Want a Bucket

I went to Murdoch's Home and Ranch Supply yesterday to get some mechanics' hand-cleaner, which means passing the horse department. Stacked alluringly on eye-level shelves is their collection of smooth plastic buckets, in three sizes and a wide variety of colors: navy blue, turquoise, yellow, bright blue, lime green, red, purple, pine green, sky blue, black, maroon, and hot pink. (You can get a feed scoop to match for most colors.) Someone has obviously figured out that practicality isn't the only criteria that horse owners use when buying stable equipment (and, presumably, that many of them are women). Now I am trying to come up with a legitimate use for one of these buckets...

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Gallatin Valley Microclimates

From By Spending Time with the Land, You Know, by Susan Duncan:

Most people are aware of regional differences in climate. The Southeast is hot and humid. The Southwest is hot and dry. But in the Intermountain West, mountains affect air currents and moisture distribution to create many microclimates within just one valley. Visitors don’t recognize those microclimates. Most residents find out about them by trial and error. ...

The mountains and Bozeman Pass get the deepest snow, but south and southeast parts of the Gallatin Valley get the most valley accumulations because that’s where the storms bump into the mountains and drop their load of moisture. As you go west in this valley, the snow depth tapers off, but the temperatures are colder. It gets to minus 20 or colder in winter, but it doesn’t last long, only a few days to a week. Wear layers of clothing. It’s a dry cold.

Some of the actual climate relationships defy logic. Higher elevations usually mean colder temperatures. But cold air sinks, so it is actually colder at my house down near the West Gallatin River than it is here at the Museum. I get a good crop of apples off my apple trees about once every 3 years, because the flowers freeze in spring. But along the west face of the Bridgers, at a higher elevation, apple trees produce very well, year after year. It’s warmer there, even though the elevation is higher.

The growing season is about 90 days here. I plant on Memorial Day and expect frost anytime after Labor Day, though I’ve had 28 degrees on the 23rd of June and my potatoes have frozen flat on the 16th of August. I pick my tomatoes green and let them ripen in the house. But I garden in a cold spot.

Manhattan and Three Forks have a longer growing season. In spring, it greens up two weeks earlier in Three Forks than in Belgrade. The lilacs bloom in Belgrade before they bloom at my house.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Vidalia Onions

By April, the storage onions in the grocery store are looking a little the worse for wear; they are starting to sprout and if you leave them on the counter they tend to go bad quickly. So the sweet onions of spring arrive just in time to save me from cutting up lots of green onions or skipping onions in my cooking altogether (which would be a tragedy!). Walla Walla onions show up first, but I know spring is here when the Shriners show up in the Van's parking lot selling Vidalia onions as a fundraiser. Usually they show up in late April and I was worried that I had missed them; but they were just running late, and today I was able to get my ten-pound bag. I will use some of them raw (in a bun with pulled pork and barbecue sauce) and saute some some of them, but most of them I will dice and freeze for use all summer when I don't feel like getting my hands oniony. I might make some of them into onion rings to go with the pork sandwiches, too. Most of all, I will enjoy onions with no sprouts in them.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Pico de Gallo

When I first learned about pico de gallo twenty-some years ago in San Antonio, it was a sauce based on black olives, with plenty of garlic and serrano peppers in it - not like a tomato salsa. But a recipe for celebrating Cinco de Mayo in National Geographic Kids lists the ingredients as tomatoes, onion, jalapenos, cilantro, lime juice, and salt, which looks just like a salsa fresca to me. According to Wikipedia, pico de gallo is similar to a salsa but has less liquid; it notes that "In many regions of Mexico the term 'pico de gallo' refers to any of a variety of salads, condiments or fillings made with sweet fruits, tomatoes, tomatillos, or mild chilies, not necessarily with hot chilies or any chilies at all." So apparently I learned an idiosyncratic version using black olives as the "fruit"; I've never seen one like it anywhere else.

A pico de gallo recipe from the Jalapeno Cafe looks worth trying:

1 medium jicama, pared and cut into 1/2 chunks
3 oranges, peeled and sectioned
1/3 cup chopped onion
Juice of one lime
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon chili powder

Mix jicama, oranges, onion, lime juice and salt in bowl. Let stand in refrigerator at least one hour before serving. When ready to serve, sprinkle with the chili powder.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Copernican Revolution

While educated men since at least the ancient Greeks had known that the earth was round, they believed that the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars revolved around the earth, because that it is what they saw every day. As records of the movements of the planets grew more detailed during the scientific advances of the Renaissance, and were more widely disseminated following the invention of the printing press, discrepancies in the orbits became noticeable, places where the planets didn't show up where they should have according to the accepted theories. One astronomer, Nicholaus Copernicus (1473-1543), studied the records and wondered if there was a better model to explain their apparently irrational behavior. He finally decided that the earth must revolve around the sun, along with the other planets; the moon was the only body that still revolved around the Earth.

When he first published this information, Copernicus dedicated his book to the Pope, since the Catholic Church was interested in his work in its efforts to fix the calendar, which was no longer in synch with the seasons. However, after the tug-of-war of the Reformation, church authorities decided that they didn’t like the Coperinican theory because it meant that man, created in God’s image, was no longer at the center of the universe; it also meant that “up” and “down”, the traditional locations of heaven and hell, no longer existed, which turned the theology topsy-turvy. "'No attack on Christianity is more dangerous,' Jerome Wolf wrote Tycho Brahe in 1575, 'than the infinite size and depth of the universe.'" But the improved explanation of the planets' movements won it adherents anyway; in spite of the Church’s disapproval, sailors routinely used Copernicus’s observations because, theologically correct or not, they improved navigation on the open ocean.

Quote source: Manchester, William: A World Lit Only By Fire p. 229

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Fulgent

When I run across the same unfamiliar word twice in one day, in two different books, it is time to look it up. Today it was "fulgent", which means shining brightly; brilliant, glittery, resplendent; it is almost always used poetically. I don't think I will add it to my working vocabulary - it is one of those words that have a serious mismatch between sound and meaning. Fulgent sounds like it should describe a bullfrog's sound or a voluptuous woman's shape, not something glittery.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Spring-Summer

Today marks the transition between pure spring and spring-summer. For the last six weeks, we have had Montana's version of spring - lots of wet snow and cloudy skies, birds arriving, gophers appearing, and catkins blooming. For the next six weeks or so, we will see summer days sneaking into the mix, full of sun and warmth, until by June 21 we will have full summer. The meadowlarks are just starting to sing, chickadees flock to the aspens when it snows, the robins and grackles are ubiquitous, pheasant roosters are crossing roads, and kestrels are showing up on power lines. Trees are starting to put out leaflets, the grass is greening up and is ready to be cut, yellowbells are blooming in the fields, and it is time to clean up the gardens.