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Just finished another great book, The Girl With No Name by Diney Costelhoe. What a good book. Perhaps you’ve read before about the huge numbers of German refugee children who were sent to England before Hitler closed down any exits. This is a novel about one particular young girl, who is devastated when her mother puts her on one of the boats. She ends up in London, in an orphanage kind of place, and is eventually placed with a childless couple. She speaks no English. They speak no German, but they manage soon enough. Lisa (who eventually becomes Charlotte) is so homesick. She’s bullied at school, because most people and children don’t want any Germans there. A boy steps up to protect her, and as she grows up, she’s attracted to him. She shouldn’t be – he’s also German and from her own home town. He’s not a good match for her. You live with her through the blitz during all those war years and during one attack, she’s badly injured and loses her memory (and no ID on her). Through a series of mishaps she ends up in a village far from London, with a spinster woman who does eventually come to love her very much – they name her Charlotte and Charlotte she becomes. She goes to school there, still longing, though, for her mother and brother and her London foster family too. Then when she’s 16 she returns to London to help at the orphanage where she was originally placed and tries to find her foster parents. The story goes on from there, with the boy/man who “wants” her, the bad boy, and a good boy/man she befriends in the village in the country. Eventually she regains her memory. SUCH a good read.

The Girl with Seven Names by Hyanseo Lee. If you, like me, know little about North Korea and how it came to be what it is today, you’ve got to read this book. It’s a memoir written by a young woman who escaped from North Korea about 9 years ago. Her journey – and I mean JOURNEY – is harrowing, frightening, amazing, heart-rendering all at the same time. She chronicles the lives of the Kims (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il to current Kim Jong Un), shares the strict propaganda that surrounds every North Korean citizen, the poverty and hunger, as well as the underground black market for food and goods. It took her awhile to get from North Korea, to China and eventually to South Korea, where she currently lives. She’s well educated and speaks English quite well. She was invited to be a speaker at a TED talk – you know about those, right? TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a media organization which posts talks online for free distribution, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” I listen to them as  podcasts now and then. Always very educational, if sometimes over my head when it gets very technical. She works diligently for human rights now, doing her best to help other North Koreans escape. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

Also just finished reading The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Another WOW book. I’ve always liked the author – many years ago I read his book, Midwives and really liked it. Don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read, The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas that I reviewed recently. I think we read it in one of my book groups. He’s a brilliant writer, and this one has a lot of characters and twists. It’s a novel, but based on a lot of truth regarding the Armenian genocide. Most of the book takes place in Aleppo, Syria with some good Samaritan folk trying to help rescue people (mostly children) following the forced long marches the Turks made prodding the Turkish Armenians to exit their country. But it also jumps to near present day as a family member is trying to piece together obscure parts of her grandparents’ former lives there. She uncovers some hidden truths (many survivors of the genocide never-ever-ever wanted to talk about it) and a bit more about her Armenian heritage. A riveting book – I could hardly put it down. Lots to discuss for a book club read. I simply must read more of Bohjalian’s books (he’s written many).

The Good Widow: A Novel by Lisa Steinke. All I can say is “wow.” In a general sense, this book is based on the premise of The Pilot’s Wife. But this one has some totally different twists and turns. A young wife is met at the door by police, informing her that her husband has died in an auto accident. Then she finds out he died in Hawaii – not Kansas, where she thought he was, on business. Then she finds out there was a woman in the car. Then she meets the fiance of the woman passenger and the two of them embark on a fact-finding mission in Hawaii to discover the truth. Well, I’m just sayin’ . . . the plot thickens. And thickens. And thickens clear up to the last few pages. Hang onto your seat. A really, really good, suspenseful read.

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 Novel by 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.


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 October 5th, 2012.


We were on our recent trip, and in a hotel where we had a TV. I’d flipped on Good Morning America, I think it was. And they explained in a very short blurb that rice contains arsenic. More than we’d ever thought. And more than we should be eating. That was about it. A week later, I mentioned it to my cousin Gary, who consumes a lot of rice and rice products (because he’s gluten intolerant). His jaw dropped. Really? he said. Yup, really, but I didn’t have much detail.

Once home I found what was probably the genesis of the news item – an article in Consumer Reports. It’s in the November 2012 issue which you can read here. I’ll give you a synopsis. And if you read nothing more than this: the scientists say we should not consume more than 2 portions of rice per week. A portion is 1/2 cup for an adult. Or 1 full cup a week. And that’s a combination of all rice products. The level of arsenic varies greatly by type and by brand. Inorganic arsenic is known as a carcinogen. Bad news. And particularly worrisome are rice-based baby cereals. They’re not the worst, but then infants don’t eat much quantity of any cereal. Down at the bottom of this post I’ll give you some bullet points with recommendations.

So, here’s what happened . . . back in January Consumer Reports published an article about the level of arsenic in apple and grape juices. That was the original arsenic eye-opener. The folks at CR thought maybe they should do some more scientific study about arsenic in other foods. They chose rice, and they tested over 200 brands of rice products (everything from common white rice to rice syrups, rice cereals, baby food, rice pasta and rice crackers – my cousin is gluten intolerant, so he eats a lot of rice crackers and other rice-based products – hence my concern for him).

The scientific part of it – there are two types of arsenic that we consume in food – inorganic and organic. It’s the inorganic we need to be more concerned about, although the FDA and EPA both say there are no safe arsenic levels. Period. Scientists think the arsenic has increased because of insecticides that have been used in the past hundred years. Here’s what the article says:

. . . The U.S. is the world’s leading user of arsenic and since 1910 about 1.6 million tons have been used for agricultural and industrial purposes, about half of it only since the mid-1960’s. Residues from the decades of use of lead arsenate insecticides linger in agricultural soil today, even though their use was banned in the 1980’s. Other arsenical ingredients in animal feed to prevent disease and promote growth are still permitted. Moreover, fertilizer made from poultry waste can contaminate crops with inorganic arsenic.

I’m sorry folks. I’m just stunned. Ashamed. Angry. Angry that the gosh-darned profit engines of food commerce will, at every juncture, choose to promote growth and therefore profit (in vegetables and grains and in meat production) to the possible detriment of our health. Doesn’t it seem logical that arsenic in anything, at any level, is not good for us? For gosh sakes, it’s a POISON! So even though arsenic-enhanced insecticide was banned in the 1980’s, the ground still contains it and it passes through into crops grown in that same soil. AND, animal feed still does contain arsenic and it’s allowed. How come? And of course, chicken farmers have all that chicken poop they consider a product as well, and it’s made into fertilizer, yet IT contains higher levels of arsenic. It goes back into the ground for our food.

I also don’t like GM (genetically modified) food. I wrote up an essay about genetically modified seed a couple of years ago about Monsanto, and the genetically modified corn and canola seed that is almost everything we eat now. Monsanto is a weasel of a company. And they wield great power. Scary power. Here in California, we are voting on a proposition next month about whether food labeling must state if something is a GM product. Obviously I’m voting for that. Most people, when questioned, probably would choose not to eat GM corn; yet it’s very pervasive and I’m guilty of not asking the corner farmstand employee whether the corn I buy there is GM or not. The produce man in my market has no idea. He doesn’t care. He just preps the produce. However, more people are paying attention (I think and hope) to where food products come from. Last night my DH and I were at Costco and he was looking at a frozen case of shellfish. I walked right on by because in past trips I know the shrimp came from Vietnam. I’m not buying shrimp from Vietnam. Articles I’ve read tell me for health’s sake, I should buy only shrimp manufactured in U.S. waters. I’m all for that. But they’re very hard to find! The lobster in the case was from Brazil. I don’t know anything about lobster farming or trapping in Brazil. They were beautiful things – and expensive I might add. We bought none of them. We did buy fresh halibut from Alaska, though. New recipe coming up soon.

I’m sorry, I got sidetracked there. We’re talking about arsenic in rice. I’ll get back to that now. The bottom line is that in an extensive study CR did, people who ate more rice – logically – tested high for arsenic in their systems. Arsenic is known to cause a variety of cancers (lung and bladder first and foremost). Organic arsenic, so far as scientists know, is not harmful. We eat it in several types of seafood, actually, so in the tests, they eliminated any results from people who had eaten seafood within 24 hours of the urine test used. Over a lifetime of eating rice (and in many countries eating rice is a 3-times a day national pastime) this could cause significant cancers.


  1. If you’re pregnant, cut way, way down on rice in any way, shape or form. Adults, it is suggested, should eat no more than 2 servings (so about 1 cup total) per WEEK. That includes rice cakes, rice cereals, rice drinks, rice pasta, rice cakes.
  2. Consumer Reports recommends you find out about your drinking water – if you’re on public water, you’re okay generally. Only if you use a well water or other sources, should you have the water tested for arsenic.
  3. Change the way you cook rice – rinse it thoroughly in any case and discard that drained water. Use more water than called for when you cook it (that removes more of the arsenic to that cooking water that you’d also discard). They recommend using 6 cups of water for every cup of rice. That will remove about 30% of the arsenic in the rice. Yes, you wash away some of the nutrients, but it’s safer for eating.
  4. Don’t eat brown rice – it has higher doses of arsenic than white rice – because much of the arsenic is held in the outer layers of the grain. Remember, rice is grown in a specialized pond and the rice leeches stuff from the underlying soil.

Consumer Reports has made a bunch of recommendations to the USDA, FDA and EPA, including: (1) the industry needs to set a standard for arsenic in rice [there is none at this time]; (2) producers should develop rice types that don’t “take up” so much arsenic from the water/soil, and then use the one(s) that perform the best; (3) the EPA should phase out all pesticides [period] that contain arsenic; (4) the USDA and EPA should end the use of arsenic-laden fertilizers and manure; (5) the FDA should ban the feeding of arsenic-containing drugs and animal byproducts to animals. To learn more about this part, go to the main article (at the bottom). Of course, the U.S. Rice Federation is vehemently arguing that arsenic in our rice is way overblown as a health risk. I’m sorry, ANY arsenic in my rice is too much.

If you go to the article, you can review the entire chart about the rice products they tested. I’m going to give you a short list, though, of the products that were high (bad) that you should, for now, avoid (in my opinion anyway). And I’ll give you the names of the rice products that were better than others. No rice products were free of arsenic. If you eat any rice products at all, you’re ingesting arsenic. No way around it. Rice raised in the American South has higher levels than others – probably because of the years and years of insecticides used on that same land. It appears that rice from Indian and Thailand have lower levels, but CR didn’t test some of the more obscure brands I see in my local Indian store.

Lundberg, the small company here in California, that raises a lot of rice, has, generally, lower levels of arsenic in their products. There was one exception. But their company (and the CEO, Grant Lundberg) is investing lots of resources to test all of their products more extensively. Good for them. They may be one of the first on the bandwagon to improve the problem.

Here’s a list from Consumer Reports with THE BAD ONES – higher incidences of arsenic in their products (listed in rice type order, then alpha order, not the level of arsenic). Some had lower ratings, but CR used 3 tests of each product from different packages and some showed varying results. The ones in red had the highest levels: RICE: 365 Everyday Value (Whole Foods); Cajun Country Enriched Long Grain; Cajun Country Popcorn Long Grain; Canilla Extra Long Grain Enriched; Carolina Whole Grain Brown; Della Basmati Brown; Doguet’s Brown; Goya Enriched Medium Grain; Great Value Brown (Walmart); Jazzmen Louisiana Aromatic Brown (this one had the highest number of all); Lundberg Short Grain Brown; Martin Long Grain Brown; Texas Best Organics Long Grain Brown; Uncle Ben’s Original Enriched Parboiled Long Grain; and Uncle Ben’s Whole Grain Brown. INFANT CEREAL: None exceeded 5 micrograms per liter, but of the 4 types listed, two were higher – Earth’s Best Organic Whole Grain Rice and Gerber Rice. HOT CEREAL: Bob’s Red Mill Brown Rice Farina Creamy White. READY-TO-EAT CEREAL: Barbara’s Brown Rice Crisps. RICE CAKES & CRACKERS: Suzie’s Whole Grain Thin Cakes. RICE PASTA: DeBoles Rice Spirals, Tinkyada Brown Rice Pasta Shells and Trader Joe’s Organic Brown Rice Fusilli. RICE FLOUR: Arrowhead Mills Organic Brown. RICE DRINKS: neither tested brands exceeded the arsenic levels for concern. RICE SYRUP: Lundberg Sweet Dreams Eco-Farmed Brown and their Organic Brown (both). RICE VINEGAR: only one brand tested and it is very low.

Now, here’s the list of THE BETTER ONES – lower incidence of arsenic, not necessarily healthy levels, but still beneath the 5 micrograms considered a level of concern: RICE: there are about 20+ brands listed – I’m only listing the ones that had the lowest incidence – seek them out if you can – Archer Farms Organic Basmati (Target – it’s from India), 365 Everyday Value Organic Indian Basmati White (Whole Foods, from India), Archer Farms Organic Jasmine (Target, and it’s from Thailand), Lundberg California White Basmati (California), Martin Long Grain Enriched (Missouri), and Trader Joe’s White Basmati (India). INFANT CEREAL: Beech-Nut Homestyle Rice and Gerber SmartNourish Organic Brown Rice. HOT CEREAL: Bob’s Red Mill Organicv Brown Rice Farina Creamy Rice and Cream of Rice. READY-TO-EAT CEREAL: Arrowhead Mills Organic Sweetened Rice Flakes, General Mills Rice Chex Gluten Free, Kellogg’s Rice Krispies, Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Gluten Free and Trader Joe’s Crisp Rice Cereal. RICE CAKES & CRACKERS: Asian Gourmet Plain Rice Crackers, Edward & Sons Organic Brown Rice Snaps Unsalted Plain Rice Cracker, Lundberg Brown Rice Organic Rice Cake, Quaker Lightly Salted Rice Cake. RICE PASTA: Annie Chun’s Maifun Rice Noodles. RICE FLOUR: Arrowhead Mills Organic White and Goya Enriched. RICE DRINKS: Pacific Rice Low Fat Plain Beverage and Rice Dream Classic Original Rice Drink. RICE VINEGAR: Asian Gourmet Plain.

So what’s all that say . . . well, that we shouldn’t eat as much rice as we thought we could. Eat white rice. Be extra careful about feeding rice products to infants. Pregnant moms should be extra careful too.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on October 5th, 2012:

    That is a very thought provoking post Carolyn. I rarely eat rice but wonder if my Asian and Oriental friends are making themselves ill. It does seem to be mostly rice grown in the US that was investigated and I hope that it doesn’t apply to rice from all parts of the world.

    They studied rice from a few producers from Thailand and India – both had some arsenic, but not the levels of U.S. grown rice. I would suppose that the use of the insecticides was more limited in those countries. The ones they studied (the foreign ones) were imported to the U.S. and are readily available here. More obscure imported rice, apparently, wasn’t studied. . . . carolyn T

  2. ron kaminski

    said on December 25th, 2012:

    Uncle Ben’s ready to serve brown rice. my wife eats a cup {125g} per serving. she has collites {hope that’s spelled correct} what should she do? other suggestions? thank you.

    Based on the fact that Uncle Ben’s (converted white) rice has a rather high amount of arsenic, I’d suppose the brown does also. Brown rice in general had more arsenic because more of the pesticide resides in the brown shell of the rice kernel. Surely she should try one of the very low arsenic rices (Trader Joe’s Basmati imported from India was very, very low in arsenic) and see if her colitis improves. But, I’m not a doctor or even pretend to be! There is also a new product out – called Miracle Noodles (made from soy) and they have an orzo variety that looks very much like rice. It doesn’t have the crunch of rice, but it’s good, if prepared properly. Do read my blog post about the Shirataki noodles for suggestions on how it must be prepared. It has no arsenic, obviously! If you’re interested go online and search for “miracle noodles” and you’ll find them. . . carolyn t

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