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Just finished reading The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes. What a WONDERFUL book. It opens up a shameful part of America’s past, but one you might not have heard about before this. In the late 1800s thousands of Chinese workers were brought to the West Coast to help with a variety of construction projects and a myriad of other things where laborers were needed. Many settled, married and made a new life for themselves. But suddenly the white population didn’t want them here anymore and they summarily ordered them ALL out of our country. This book chronicles a young Chinese girl, who was on a ship that was supposed to take her family to China, but the ship’s captain decided en route to dump them all overboard, to drown. The girl’s father knew it was going to happen and in order to save her, he threw his daughter off the ship as they were passing Orcas Island (in the San Juan Islands west of Seattle). She was saved. The book switches from that time to current time as a woman is rebuilding her family’s home on Orcas and finds a beautifully embroidered silk Chinese robe sleeve hidden under a stair step. The book is about that sordid past and the young girl’s descendents, and about the woman who is rebuilding. Stunner of a novel. Good for a book club read, I think. It has a reader’s guide at the back with good questions for book groups.

How It All Began: A Novelby Penelope Lively. I find it hard to describe this book – it’s wonderful. I loved it. But describing it is perplexing. The title relates to one of the characters, a woman of a certain age, who is mugged, and has to go live with her daughter and son in law for awhile since she’s stuck with crutches and has mobility problems. That starts the cavalcade of events that spread around her, with the characters. And she knows nothing whatsoever about them, hardly. They’re all somewhat inter-related (not much family, but mostly by circumstance) and they all get into some rather logical and some peculiar relationships. You engage  with each and every one of them; at least I sure did; and was trying to tell some of them to back away from what they were about to do. Or “be careful;” or “don’t go there.” That kind of thing. There is nothing insidious, no mystery involved – it’s all about these people and what happens to them. I was sad when the book was finished. The author, Lively, does add a chapter at the end – I wonder if it wasn’t part of the master plan – that kind of tidies up everything, and you get to see all of the characters move on with their lives, happy or not, but mostly happy. Really enjoyed the book. Am not sure it would be a good book club read, as the only thing to discuss are the characters themselves. Lively paints these characters well; you can just picture them as they get themselves in and out of relationship mischief.

The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas. It’s a very, very good read. It tells the story of an older married woman who lives in a small mining town in the Colorado rockies (this is the mid-1800’s), and is well known by all because she’s the only midwife in the area. Often people can’t pay her anything, or very little for her days of service with little or no rest or food. Suddenly, a couple accuse her of strangling their infant (she arrived after the birth, actually). Hence the story is about how this small town rallies or rails for or against Gracy. She didn’t commit the crime, but not everyone can be convinced since the father is a wealthy man in the area who carries a lot of clout. There’s plenty of relationship issues here, which make really great fodder for a novel. And there are plenty of characters in the book that you’ll love or hate. Some secrets get dredged up too. Oh, such a good read.

On my recent road trip, I visited one of my local libraries and borrowed 5 books on tape. We listened to 3 of them. I’m a big fan of Craig Johnson, the author of a series of mysteries taking place in Wyoming, and a TV series on Netflix called Longmire. This book, A Serpent’s Tooth: A Longmire Mystery was really complex. Hard to explain, but it’s about graft and greed and oil. Worth reading, for sure. Also read Stone Kiss by Faye Kellerman, another complex mystery about Lt Decker, an LA cop who journeys to NYC to help out his family when a murder occurs. Lots of violence in this one.  Not particularly a fav book, I’d venture. Then read Leaving Time: A Novel by Jodi Picoult. I’ve read most of her books – always very riveting. In this book, you’ll learn a whole lot about elephants since the protagonist in it is a young girl whose mother disappeared when she was quite young. Her parents ran an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire. In the ensuing years, Jenna has tried to find clues as to her mother’s whereabouts because she just cannot believe her mother would have up and abandoned her. There are a whole cast of characters (her mother, her father, employees at the sanctuary, a cop or two, and a psychic). All play fairly prominent roles. Fascinating book – I really liked it, almost as much for the education about the behavior of elephants as about the mystery. A great read.

Also on the trip, I read a book (on Kindle) for one of my book clubs, The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin. It’s about the relationship between Truman Capote and his “swans,” a group of middle-aged high society ladies, and specifically Beth Paley. I don’t know whether to recommend this book or not. Truman Capote was not a nice man, although the whole novel (vs. non-fiction, which this is not) is conjured from speculation about the years Truman was kind of adopted by the group of women. He cared about all of them (most were married/divorced, and wealthy) but in the end he betrays them all by writing a novella about their secrets, their marriages, their affairs (theirs or their spouses, information they’d all shared with him, thinking he could be trusted with their innermost secrets). It was scandalous, and yes, all that part is true. I finished the book, but almost felt like I’d read a “dirty book.” There is no graphic detail in this book – it’s just what Capote did to destroy these women, supposedly his dear, darling “swans.” He was the villain in the book, and in his old age . . . well, I won’t spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it.

 

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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