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Just finished The Letter by Kathyrn Hughes. It’s a very intricate tale. At first it’s about Tina, a battered wife [at which point I paused and wondered if I wanted to read any further, but I’m glad I did]. She tries to get the courage to leave her husband. Then enters the letter she finds in a suit pocket in the thrift shop where she volunteers. It’s old – sealed and stamped, but never mailed. Then you learn about Crissie, decades earlier, a young pregnant girl who is sent off to Ireland to a distant relative by her father, then to a rigid (meaning horrible) convent [the book takes place mostly in Manchester, England and in rural Ireland]. The letter is addressed to her. Jump forward decades and William, the adopted child Crissie gave up, tries to find his birth mother. William meets Tina in Ireland [a serendipitous moment] as she’s trying to find the woman to whom the letter is addressed. This book is the #2 best seller on Amazon at the moment. It’s a riveting tale and I really enjoyed it.

Read Grace Unshakled, by Irene Huising. From Amazon’s page, it says: “In the year 2025, 17-year-old Grace Duncan finds herself in shackles because of her faith in Christ. An obedient daughter and stellar student, doing time in jail was never on her mental radar, despite the changes in religious laws [this takes place here in the United States] over the past few years. Through twists and turns in circumstances, Grace and a small band of Christians in Newport Beach, California begin a journey to discover what it means to follow Christ with unwavering faith in the midst of increasing persecution. Facing the potential loss of all her hopes and dreams, would Christ be enough?” We read this for one of my book clubs, and it’s a scary thought about what it could mean if we take God out of our country. The author is a friend of a friend and she attended our book club meeting to share about how she came to write this book. I don’t often share my faith here on my website, but this book made me stop and think about the direction our government is going, removing more and more our ability to worship God. Or to worship in any religion. Will this book ever make waves in the book world? Probably not. My copy may be a pre-edited version, as it contained numerous typos and formatting errors. But they didn’t detract from the subject, just the cosmetics. The book doesn’t come to a resolution; in fact it leaves you hanging, as some books do. It was intentional (obviously), but left me wondering about the “end of the story.”

Also just finished reading The Muralist: A Novel by Shapiro. It tells the story of a young woman, an artist, who was part of the U.S.’s WPA mural project from the 1930s-40s (she is fiction, the WPA is not). As with so many artists, even today, they live in abject poverty through much of their lives. This woman, though, had family in France, desperately trying to escape before Hitler’s henchmen rousted them into concentration camps. The story, a bit of a mystery but not of the mystery-genre, is about Alizée Benoit, this young painter, who slightly captivates Eleanor Roosevelt’s help. It also skips into current time when the painter’s great-niece uncovers paintings she believes were painted by her aunt. The painter had disappeared into thin air in 1940, and her relative tries desperately to find out what happened to her. It’s a really good story including such Abstract Expressionist painters as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner well-woven into the narrative. It keeps you guessing right up to the end. A good read. The author also wrote The Art Forger: A Novel a few years ago.

Read The German Girl: A Novel by Correa. It chronicles the story of a wealthy German Jewish family in Berlin, as the Nazis arrive and make life a living hell. The family is lucky (I guess you could say this) to be allowed to purchase passage on the M.S. St. Louis, a passenger liner, to take them to “the Americas.” The destination is actually Cuba. The story is told from two voices – the teenage daughter in this story, and from a current-day distant family member who is trying to learn about her ancestry. Of the 900+ passengers on the ship, only a few were allowed to disembark since the Cuban President decided he needed more money to accept them. Most families had no money left, as the Reich had taken nearly all of their assets. The daughter and her very eccentric mother were allowed to stay in Cuba.  The remaining passengers are rejected by the U.S. too, and eventually return to Europe, where most of the Jews end up dying in concentration camps. The story goes back and forth from the 1939 journey to current day as the link between the two women is slowly revealed. I had a tough time sometimes, tracking the people in this book, but the story was very riveting. It’s based on facts about the ship (see Wikipedia link above if you’re interested). A shameful chapter in history.

Recently finished reading a magnificent historical novel. Not new. Philippa Gregory has been a favorite author of mine for a couple of decades. You may remember her most famous book, The Other Boleyn Girl, published some years ago. I thought that was a really great book. I’ve read other books by Gregory, but most recently I read The King’s Curse (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels). The time period is the 1450s to 1541, mostly under the rule of King Henry VIII, the infamous womanizer and wife/Queen-killer. The man who cursed Rome (the Pope) – he wanted his first marriage annulled because Queen Catherine couldn’t produce a living male heir. And subsequently made himself the head of the church in England in order to do so. It was a Catholic country at the time. This story (it’s fiction, but woven with intricate historical detail) is from the voice of Margaret of York (a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine),  who was a Plantagenet in her own right (which is key to the later events in the book). Certainly I’ve read other novels over the years that dealt with Henry VIII, but not with this much breadth of info. What a wicked, sinful man he was. And did I say tyrant. Wow.  I could hardly put it down, through its nearly 600 pages. In the author’s notes at the end, she shares relatively recent medical info that suggests Henry probably suffered from a rare problem, Kell positive blood type, which can cause miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths IF the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type. And that in his later years, he may have had McLeod syndrome, a disease only found in Kell positive individuals. Around the age of 40 it causes physical degeneration and personality changes resulting in paranoia, depression and irrational behavior. All of those King Henry VIII had in spades. If you read the book, you might read the author’s notes (at the end) before reading the book. If you like historical fiction (I love any book about English history) you’ll just love this one. It’s interesting, though, as I think about the many books I’ve read covering this era in English history, that each book presented its hero/heroine as the most innocent and worthy individual vying for the crown of England. I remember thinking Anne Boleyn was dealt with so badly during her life (and certainly her beheading), and yet reading this book, I completely reversed my opinion. Anne Boleyn was called a wh–e by most people during the years she shared Henry’s bed. The “curse” from the title pertains to Henry’s inability or the curse on the Tudors, that caused him to fail in producing a male heir. In any case, none of Henry’s wives should have died for it – likely it was all Henry’s fault anyway. Just read this one, okay?

Also recently read News of the World: A Novel by Paulette Jiles. One of my book-reading friends said this is one of the best books she’s ever read in her life. That kind of praise required me to read it and I just LOVED it. It’s about an old man (a widower), who was a former military captain, during the 1800s, who goes from town to town to read out loud the current news of the world (yes, there WAS such a free-lance job.) Newspapers didn’t make it to small towns back then. By chance he’s asked to take a 10-year old girl to East Texas to reunite with relatives. The child had been captured by an Indian tribe as a baby (her family was killed in the raid), raised by the Kiowa and as was often the case of such children, she wants nothing to do with leaving. So the “hero” in this story has his hands full. And yet, they learn to trust each other on the journey. Reaching the destination, there are lots of complications (of course!). This book is truly a wonderful read – I didn’t want it to end. The author has a gift of description and the severe dangers and difficulties of an old (wild) west horse and wagon journey. The relationship is tender. Now I’ve got to investigate the author’s other books, of which there are many. Just read this one first!

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Essays, on December 31st, 2009.

It’s not often – in fact, very rare – that I use this forum/blog for talking about something . . . perhaps . . . controversial. But having just watched this movie, I’m wanting to join my voice with those of many, many others who abhor what’s happening with the quality of the food we buy. There are perhaps lots of different segments of the food biz that could use some overhaul, but in this case, I’m just devoting these words to the subject of this movie.

This isn’t just about Monsanto Corp., the public behemoth of an agribusiness. It’s also about very normal, hard-working farmers from around the globe who got themselves into the crosshairs of that big-bad-business with loads of bucks. Monsanto has tried, and is still trying to destroy them. Their farms. Their livelihoods. And in the process they [Monsanto, IMHO] decided to go down a road that is, in my opinion, on the “wrong side of the tracks.” They became the bully. But it’s a lot more powerful than that, actually. There are other companies who have also patented seed too, but Monsanto may have been the first. And the bully with the biggest fist.  And the movie is about more than just this one farmer. But the specific case is interesting enough to focus on . . .

Now I’m the first one to proclaim I’m all for business. For capitalism. For competition. Having invested money over the course of the last 30 years in a variety of public companies (stocks) I’m happy as heck when said companies make money. But I want no part of companies that use their strongarm tactics to control. To dictate. To destroy. Or ones who lie, cheat, steal, or otherwise misconstrue the facts. Or hide the real reasons.

So, here’s what happened. Back a long time ago Monsanto began doing research with canola seed. Undoubtedly Monsanto invested millions of dollars into this endeavor. They decided to push the envelope – they created a genetically modified version that would resist treatment with “Round-Up,” that ubiquitous herbicide that kills anything that grows. And makes the ground it’s been treated with unusable for a very long time – except for canola seed. So when Monsanto developed this Round-Up resistant canola seed, it meant that farmers could spray Round-Up all over their fields and it would not kill the canola plants, but it would kill everything else. Farmers thought this was the most wonderful thing since tractors. But, before Monsanto put this product out for sale, they decided, in their infinite big-business mentality, to get a patent on the genetically-modified canola seed. They were refused at the Patent Office because as we all know, it’s declared in our U.S. Constitution that you can’t patent food. Food is for everybody. But Monsanto didn’t take “no” for an answer. They took it to court. The court ruled in Monsanto’s favor. That yes, indeed, GM (genetically modified) or GE (genetically-engineered) canola seeds were, in fact, patentable. Which of and by itself allows the patent holder (Monsanto) to sue anybody who uses the patented product (the GM canola seed) without paying for it. On the surface that doesn’t sound so bad. . . Keep reading.

Cut to a few years later. The GM canola seed is being bought up in millions of tons. Farmers love it. Well, most farmers love it and pay the price to buy it. You see, you can’t hold over seed from this Monsanto-engineered canola. Not permitted. Buyers have to sign a contract to that effect. So, farmers do have to buy new seed each year. That seemed not to bother most of the farmers.

But some farmers didn’t buy Monsanto’s seed – they used their own seed – harvested from their own plants. The way it’s been done since man figured out how to save seed and plant it the next season. One such couple, the Schmeisers, of Saskatchewan, Canada, used their own seed, which they’d carefully bred and fine-tuned over their 40 years running their farm. They were extremely proud of their canola seed breeding, actually. Anyway, I’ll cut to the chase here. The couple was sued by Monsanto for growing some of Monsanto’s GM seed in their fields. (According to Schmeiser’s website: Canola fields were contaminated with Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready Canola. Monsanto’s position was that it didn’t matter whether Schmeiser knew or not that his canola field was contaminated with the Roundup Ready gene, or whether or not he took advantage of the technology [he didn’t]; that he must pay Monsanto their Technology Fee of $15./acre.) Schmeiser didn’t buy any of Monsanto’s seed, yet there were some plants found on his property. They guess that the wind, and perhaps the truck that delivered Monsanto seed to the neighboring farm, blew some seed into the Schmeiser’s property.

But Monsanto lied about their testing techniques. And did everything in their power to destroy this couple and their farm. But the Schmeisers decided to fight it. Unfortunately, in the courts, then, Schmeiser lost. Schmeiser has no idea, really, how the Monsanto seed got onto his property. He didn’t/doesn’t WANT it on his property. But Monsanto decided to make a point about Schmeiser’s plants (perhaps because he was very vocal in his dislike of Monsanto’s tactics). Monsanto wanted nothing better than to shut Schmeiser down. Well, the case went to appeal and the court determined that Monsanto’s patent is valid, but Schmeiser was not forced to pay Monsanto anything as he did not profit from the presence of Roundup Ready canola in his fields. After that, Schmeiser sued Monsanto (wanting Monsanto to clean up his fields, remove the Round-Up ready seed/plants). The court upheld the part about Monsanto’s patent on the canola seed, but told Schmeiser he was not responsible for paying any of the fees or fines to Monsanto. (From Schmeiser’s website: Monsanto has agreed to pay all the clean-up costs of the Roundup Ready canola that contaminated Schmeiser’s fields. Also part of the agreement was that there was no gag-order on the settlement and that Monsanto could be sued again if further contamination occurred. Schmeiser believes this precedent setting agreement ensures that farmers will be entitled to reimbursement when their fields become contaminated with unwanted Roundup Ready canola or any other unwanted GMO plants.)

Just to be fair, I did look around the internet for any differing opinions regarding this case and the film/documentary. I found almost none. It appears that no one can refute the facts of the case. Bottom line: it’s scary. What a behemoth company like Monsanto will do to control the selling of its seed in the world. The problem is that right now we’re only talking about canola seed and corn. It has far-reaching tentacles into the future. The EU decided that they would not permit Monsanto to sell GM seed within the EU. (Good for them, I say.) Undoubtedly Monsanto is working diligently on developing other GM seed types. The movie also dealt with a group of farmers in Central America who are growing Monsanto GM corn. Monsanto sells the seed at a very reduced price there – an inducement to get them to start the GM seed machine. Because once it’s started, it’s very hard to turn back the clock or shut the door – the movie questioned whether Monsanto would also strongarm nearby poor farmers, forcing them to pay fees when GM corn happens to pop up on their lands. Who knows. And you also need to know that other companies are working on GM seed too, it’s not just Monsanto. They just chose the lawsuit scenario and became the spokescompany for the bullying techniques that could be utilized.

The other really frightening thing is that here in the U.S. the government has not whispered a word to food distributors about labeling. I’d like to avoid eating GM corn. Or GM canola. But I can’t, because nobody makes the producers/farmers/packagers label products as GM. And it’s not likely to happen anytime soon, either. The documentary also detailed the extremely high number of high U.S. government officials who used to work for Monsanto. We’re not talking USDA underlings, here, but very top officials in many areas of the government sector (including John Ashcroft, among others). I don’t know whether buying organic will assure me of eating non-GM foods. I’ll need to look into that.

The documentary is available in a variety of places. Online you can watch it for free. I got mine through my Netflix membership. The movie production company’s site also contains good info. Schmeiser’s website contains a ton of data, including a “what if” essay about the possible implications of the use of any GM seed. It’s worth reading. But whatever you do, do see the movie/documentary.

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A year ago: My cousin Gary’s Turkey Chili

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