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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 Books, Essays, on March 18th, 2012.

extravirginitybook

First I must tell you I actually haven’t read this book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil . I have 3 books going right now and there’s definitely not time in the near future for me to add another. But I would like to read it (I’ve ordered it actually), especially after reading the review of it in the Los Angeles Times  last weekend. It’s the review that prompted me to go searching further on the subject. And to write up this post about it.

If you do a search for the title of the book you’ll find any number of links, to amazon of course, but also to NPR who did a review of it. Also a couple of naysayers who have olive oil blogs or websites. And I’m no expert – I’m only telling you about what I read in the article in the Times.

Russ Parsons (the Time’ reviewer), a long time writer for the newspaper, and major food/recipe contributor, is someone I trust. I like the way he writes. I like what he writes. In this article he talked about how, in 1985, he heard from a friend who had just returned from Tuscany, that there had been a major freeze there, which cracked most of the producing olive trees in half, killing them. So Parsons jumped to the conclusion that there would [surely] be a deep shortage of Tuscan olive oil the following year. Indeed, the Tuscan trees were devastated. But that next year, using a little-known fact about the agricultural system in Italy, the olive oil producers in Tuscany merely imported oil from Spain and Algeria. It didn’t matter how much “real” Tuscan oil was in the can or bottle – they could use mostly Spanish and Algerian for that matter and still call it extra virgin Italian (Tuscan) olive oil. It’s also supposed that there was a lot – a LOT of cottonseed oil added to the olive oil too (also okay by Italian regulations).

What we may know as “light” olive oil is actually (most likely anyway) low grade olive oil mixed with cottonseed oil to thin it out, making it less olive-y, less pungent. So why not just use vegetable oil? Indeed!

So based on that, I’m paying heed to Mueller’s points. So who is Tom Mueller? He’s a writer for the New Yorker,  but he lives in Liguria amidst his large olive tree farm. Over the years, he obviously has done a lot of research about olive oil – probably a real eye-opener when he discovered that the Italian rules are rather lax about the derivation of their olive oil. And incidentally, that phrase about “first press” or “cold press” oils – that’s all bunk, because really nobody actually uses an olive press anymore – they use more modern equipment.

I did a bit of sleuthing and found this quote from his very interesting website.

[During the writing of the book, I] immersed myself in olive oil. I’ve traveled on 4 continents, meeting olive millers and oil-bottlers, lipid chemists and fraud investigators, oil-making monks and oil crooks, chefs and government regulators and oil sommeliers, as well as countless eager consumers, some of them life-long experts, others enjoying their first taste of great oil. In the process I’ve learned a lot about one of humankind’s most magnificent foods, this essence of health and flavor. I’ve met olive growers and oil-makers whose divine nectars deserve to be celebrated around the world, treated with reverence and gratefulness. And I’ve seen that they’re losing their shirts.

The book, I’m supposing from the article, tells you which olive oil producers are the fraudsters (his word) and which are reputable. We all know we can buy very expensive olive oil, and we can buy the cheap stuff at the grocery store. Those cheap brands likely contain a significant amount of cottonseed oil and little actual olive oil. Price doesn’t always indicate quality, either, although it should go some distance that way. If I paraphrase the article, it does indicate you should choose an extra virgin olive oil that indicates an expiration date – the better producers do that – they’ll provide a lot number and a use-by date.

Until the book arrives and I have time to read it, I’ll just have to use my trusted brands. I think I read recently that Costco’s Kirkland brand is a fairly good olive oil – I use it for some things. I have several others than are better oils. I also visit a little olive oil store about 20 miles from our house (they carry just oils and vinegars, under their own labels, mostly infused with herbs, spices, and fruits). You probably know already that you don’t need to use EVOO for frying – you never garner the flavor from it for frying – use a vegetable oil (in fact my most recent Cook’s Illustrated, they tested brands of oil and Crisco’s Natural Blend was the clear #1. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it in any market. Anyway, their test was preparing home made mayonnaise and using the oil for frying. All the oils preformed differently depending on the use, but this one, the Crisco Natural Blend, brought the best flavor to the mayo, as well as frying. Anyway, don’t waste good EVOO for anything unless the flavor is going to come through. You’re paying for that flavor, be it bland or peppery, herby or floral, and you might as well taste it. So that would mean relatively plain salad dressings or drizzles on things. Don’t use it for frying, for baking, or in your favorite carrot cake. Use a very bland oil instead, like the one above. So there’s your olive oil lesson for the day!

Posted in Essays, on May 23rd, 2010.

A friend of mine in my book club told us this story the other day. It was so funny – yet not so funny – I decided I had to share it with you.

My friend’s daughter works at a local bank. Her best friend at the bank has a mid-20’s aged son who is autistic. I guess the son has never really been able to do much – he’s unable to work – but he manages. Mostly he stays at home while his mom works. [And I would guess the son watches a fair amount of cartoons and/or he reads.] Anyway, one day last week she got a frantic phone call from her son.

“Mom, Mom,” he said, “. . . come quick, I caught a troll!!!!” She, naturally, said “WHAT?” What do you mean, you caught a troll? He said again, “Mom, I caught a troll.”

She was able to leave work and drove like crazy to her home. As she turned the corner onto her street she went into complete panic mode when she saw her house surrounded by police cars. She screeched to a halt, and ran out of the car. The police, at first, wouldn’t let her pass until she identified herself. She ran into the house to find out that this is what happened. . . .

Earlier, when the doorbell rang, her son had answered the door. The dwarf/little person at the door was a 2010 census taker. The autistic son grabbed the little person and dropped him in a closet in the house. Then he quickly shut the door and put a chair under the knob so the “troll” couldn’t get out. Then he called his mother!

Fortunately, the unharmed census taker had the presence of mind to have his cell phone on him and he called 9-1-1. The police arrived. The census taker was very gracious and decided, once he understood what had happened, not to press charges. True story.

Posted in Essays, on May 22nd, 2010.

My friend Cherrie was telling me a week or so ago about how much she enjoys reading Saveur magazine. Now I’d not ever read it, so I bought an issue. And have now subscribed. Cherrie was telling me that her hubby Bud reads it from cover to cover whenever it arrives. Usually before Cherrie gets to read it. And that he’d really enjoyed the May issue’s story about refrigerators, written by Sara Dickerman. All the info comes from her article. (He was also intrigued by the article about mac and cheese and they’ve already made one of those recipes to great praise, apparently.)

Sure enough. He’s right. I found the article just fascinating. I wanted to snap photos of the page with pictures of all the old refrigerators on it, but I don’t want to get in trouble with the photo police. So I went online and found a couple of images that were on lots of sites, so figured they were safe to use.

Not only did I enjoy reading about the timeline of the refrigerator, but they included a blurb at the end about the misinformation regarding food storage in today’s refrigerators. I learned a thing or two.

So here’s your history lesson about fridges:

7th Century AD – icehouses were known to exist in Persia – cold stream water was routed into dome-shaped, tile lined huts

1803 – the engineer Thomas Moore coined the word “refrigerator”

1810s – Zinc or tin lined wood cabinets (ice boxes) become the forerunners of today’s fridge – home ice delivery made it possible – with a compartment for the ice and a tray below to catch the melt-off

1926 – Clarence Birdseye invented the blast freezer and his frozen vegetables and fruits zoomed in popularity – they produced over 500 tons a year

1927 – GE sells the first home fridge equipped with a round compressor that sat atop each unit – it cooled with sulfur dioxide

1933 – a fellow named Guy Tinkham (an engineer) invented the flexible ice cube tray at a cost of 50 cents

1933 – Crosley Radio Corp introduced the “Shelvador,” with shelves in the door, increasing space inside the fridge by 50%, they claimed

1947 – fridges with separate freezer units came on the market

1949 – the first self-defrosting units were introduced

1955 – Kelvinator introduced the Foodarama, the first side-by-side unit (8 feet wide!), which also had a non-refrigerated drawer for bananas – and supposedly it also had a built-in plastic-wrap dispenser [you ever see one of those? I haven’t]

1970’s – Fridges started adding crisper drawers, lazy Susan’s, butter compartments, and the interiors became plastic – oh yes, colors like avocado green and harvest gold were popular (yup, I had one of those)

2000s – we’re demanding more compartmentalized fridges, and the way of the future, apparently, is separate units (not necessarily put together in one place) which all cool at different temps (like meat, cheese, produce etc) – in my kitchen I have a separate refrigerator and freezer (both big) and a 2-drawer under-the-counter refrigerator unit where we store beverages and overflow from the refrigerator – AND we have a 2nd more traditional refrigerator in the garage with a bottom drawer freezer, which is where I store all of my frozen meat

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

And here’s the definitive guide to how to store food in today’s fridge:

Butter shouldn’t be kept in the butter compartment – it’s too warm – it should be in the coldest place which is the front of the top shelf [I don’t think that’s where I want to store butter . . . it would be in the way of everything for me]

Leftovers should also be kept in the coldest spots – either top shelf front, or middle shelf rear [actually I do store leftovers in that area]

Meat – only goes in the meat drawer if you have one – should be kept the coldest [we have a middle, wide drawer, but it has grids that are open to the whole refrigerator . . . it’s where I store cheese, and as I learned that’s not where I should be storing cheese . . . sigh]

Crisper drawer – good for greens, produce of most types AND cheese – it’s moist (good) [well, good thing the crisper drawer is for keeping things crisp since that IS where I keep all my produce, but not cheese]

Herbs – believe it or not, THEY should go in the butter compartment (warmer spot) [wow, this was a big surprise – I keep herbs in the crisper – and actually my DH stores his injectable insulin in the egg compartment because I already knew we aren’t supposed to put eggs in those egg depressions in the fridge – they’re supposed to be left in the boxes and stored on a fridge main shelf area]

Drinks and condiments – in the door (that’s a warm spot) [yes, I do store bunches of bottles of condiments in the door, plus milk, cream, juices . . . spot on that one]

Cold-sensitive veggies (like mushrooms, corn) – should be kept in the warmest spot in the fridge – that’s the front of the bottom shelf [this was a revelation – maybe this is why mushrooms don’t keep very long in my fridge because they get too cold in the crisper – maybe they’d be best in the butter compartment . . . ]

That’s it, folks. Hope you enjoyed this little lesson in refrigeration . . .

A year ago: Seven sins of chocolate (a book)
Two years ago: Cream of Cucumber Soup (my friend Jackie’s recipe, SO good)
Three years ago: Apricot Ice Cream

Posted in Essays, on March 17th, 2010.

Recent discoveries show us that practically everything we think we know about the science of taste is wrong, wrong, wrong.

. . . by Bruce Feiler, from Gourmet, July 2008


Having just told you how I learned about the different taste receptors in the mouth (and tongue) at my first wine tasting class back in the late 1970’s, and how they affect my perception of wine taste, I ran across this article in a 2008 Gourmet article, which completely counters most of what I learned. (I’m still trying to go through a stack of magazines collecting dust in my family room.) All of this post comes from Bruce Feiler’s article.

So why this change? The human genome. But, of course. Scientists are only now discovering new information about us humans. Off the head of a pin. Hard to comprehend. And what they’ve found is that flavor chemistry is all over. It’s about how those chemicals interact with our bodies – like the fact that one person likes the taste of cilantro, for instance, and other people think it tastes like soap.

Up until recently all the food scientists worked on two basic truths: (1) there are four basic tastes – bitter, sweet, sour and salt (and they added umami later); and (2) different tastes are detected on different parts of the tongue – the “taste map,” they called it. I wrote up a previous post about those tastes. What they’ve determined is that we taste everything, everywhere in our mouths. And scientists are debunking #1 above too.

Mr. Feiler talked with biochemists, geneticists, sensory specialists and food psychologists. Consumers (like us) use the words flavor and taste interchangeably. Scientists do not. What’s important is that the tongue and mouth, assisted by the nose, are considered the body’s primary defense against poison. Ah. The human body tastes faster than it can touching, seeing or hearing – yes, we detect taste in as little as 1.5 thousands of a second, compared with 2.4 thousandths for touch, and 1.3 hundredths of a second for hearing and vision.

To be tasted a chemical must be dissolved in saliva and come in contact with tiny receptors that are grouped together in buds (taste buds, right?). They’re not just on the tongue but all over the inside of our mouths. They convert the chemical into a nerve impulse, which gets transmitted to the brain. Apparently the number of taste receptors we have has yet to be determined. Terry Acree of Cornell says it will likely be around 40 – a fixed number. Olfaction receptors, on the other hand, is much higher, around 300.

Now here’s some chemistry stuff – or the biological part – molecular biology has allowed scientists to identify which proteins, in which receptors, send which signals to the brain. Only one receptor can identify sweet . . .  but more than 20 receptors detect tastes that are bitter. Because scientists are identifying the chain of messages (receptors to the brain) they can begin to manipulate the “conversation.”

When I first read this I thought, uh-oh. We’re going to start doing unnatural things to food (well, yes, they are). It’s not exactly like genetically modifying corn (see my essay about Monsanto if you’re interested), but it’s not too far off. What Feiler did was participate in a taste test of tomato juice. He drank 4 types: (1) V-8 juice with 480 milligrams of sodium; (2) low-sodium V-8 (doubling the amount of potassium chloride, thereby cutting the amount of sodium by about two-thirds); (3) and (4) were tomato juices containing low-sodium V-8 mixed with different amounts of Betra (something that is designed to block the unpleasant aftertaste of potassium chloride). Betra is a new substance made by Redpoint Bio, a very small company in New Jersey (located in an area called the Flavor Corridor). Betra therefore, blocks that taste of potassium chloride, which is fairy awful IMHO. So I like the thought of blocking that taste, but I wonder about what that will do to our bodies over time.

The bottom line is that we all taste things differently. So suppose I serve a French, succulent long-slow-baked beef pot roast to a group of friends. If you went around the table and asked them to be brutally frank, I’d probably hear mostly good remarks, hopefully because it was prepared well. Maybe I’d hear some raves about it. But there would likely be a couple of people who would say something negative – or maybe just “it was okay,” or didn’t have much flavor. Or even, “I don’t like beef.” We’re not talking texture here, but flavor.  So even though we all have the same number of receptors, how the brain interprets what those receptors transmit can be very different (even among family members).

Did you know there are people referred to as “supertasters?” They experience almost all taste with more intensity – sugar is more sweet, Brussels sprouts more bitter, chiles hotter. Supertasters happen to also dislike plants with higher degrees of toxicity.

Now you throw into the equation culture. And they’ve identified – so far – about a dozen haplotypes (collections of persistent mutations within a particular population). How that plays out is, for instance, with lactose intolerance. Many African and Asian peoples can’t produce the enzyme lactase, which breaks down sugars in milk. Yet lactose intolerance is almost unheard of in European populations – people with traditions of herding and milking.

Where this leads us is that eventually every one of us will have our own food type (like a blood type). Hence the photos throughout the Gourmet article of people’s name tags – they said things like Joe – I am pumpernickel negative (meaning he can’t stand to eat it); or Stephanie – I am broccoli positive (meaning she adores it, I suppose); and lastly Frank – I am truffle negative.

Food companies are scrambling to find additives (see, this is where I don’t like the sound of this) that might improve or block particular flavors. Guess who’s paying for the research? Nestle, Coca-Cola and Campbell Soup. They want to know how to enhance the taste of sugar or salt in their packaged foods. For products that would trick the taste receptors into perceiving ingredients that aren’t there. Like sugar (expensive, and not so good for us) and salt (definitely not very good for us in the quantities most food processors use). And because the amount of this additive would be so small it could be listed on the label as “artificial flavors,” and the label wouldn’t tell you that it contains these bio-products. That part worries me a lot.

So how did the author do on the tomato juice taste test? He knew right away which one was the full-sodium V-8. The 2nd one with potassium chloride had a tinny, artificial taste, he thought (I agree, and I don’t buy it; I don’t buy V-8 either because of the high sodium). The other two, containing the bitter-flavor blocker, tasted more satisfying. The scientists can even figure out in the laboratory exactly how we’re going to like products containing these blockers. No taste tests needed – they do it all with test tubes and droplets of things.

The proponents of this (including many famous chefs like Ferran Adria at El Bulli in Spain and Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck near London) use chemistry and biology all the time in their chef-ing. At the London restaurant Blumenthal serves beet jelly and bacon and egg ice cream. He’s really into savory ice creams and sugar is a vital ingredient. So if the scientists have their way, the sugar would BE there, but they’d put in a sugar-blocker so we wouldn’t TASTE the sugar. Hocus-pocus, with chemistry. I’m just not convinced we should be doing this.

At the end of the article they included a short explanation about the human genome project:

Humans are 99.9% identical to one another – and to the archetype mapped and sequenced by the international Human Genome Projects (which had nothing to do with genetic engineering). The nucleus of each cell in our bodies (except mature red blood cells) contains the entire genome, and the genome’s DNA (composed of 3 billion chemical components) is arranged in 23 pairs of chromosomes, which in turn contain 20,000 to 25,000 genes. Genes only comprise about 2% of the genome; the rest serves other functions, including regulating the production of proteins, the molecules that perform most of the work of the cell. By isolating each taste receptor of the human genome, scientists can now begin to see how they react to every flavor known to humankind.

– – – – – – – – – –

And, I do happen to be peppermint negative. Almost makes me sick to my stomach. No red and white striped candy canes for me! Or mint chocolate ice cream either. And I’m mostly liver negative too – except duck liver (foix gras).

Recipes, from my archives, having nothing whatsoever to do with genomes or genes, or flavor-blockers:

A year ago today: Steak (beer marinated) with creamy peppercorn sauce
Two years ago today: Mace Cake

Posted in Essays, on March 12th, 2010.

ebay.jpg

You see, my DH, Dave, has this book that lives in “his” bathroom. We have two bathrooms on our main living level. The half bath is where lots of people visit . . . but the full bath is really for guests who stay in the bedroom close by. Dave considers that bathroom “his.” And in that bathroom lives this book, Uncle John’s Unsinkable Bathroom Reader (Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader).  It resides on the floor just next to the  . . . ahem . . . throne. It contains a jillion snippets of stories, articles, jokes, and general miscellaneous information, suitable for a short read. My cousin Gary gave a similar book to Dave one Christmas, and it finally was so tattered and used it needed to be replaced, so last year I bought him a newer one. Thus.

So my DH brought the book out to me, as I was sitting at my kitchen computer (which I’ll just mention here, is brand new about 3 months ago and it’s already crashed and died this week, so I’m currently typing on my mini-laptop that I usually take on trips). Anyway, I was writing up a post, and he said “do you want to know how eBay got started? It’s not what you think.” I said “sure.” It was interesting. Enough so that I thought I’d share it with you.

The general myth about eBay is that Pierre Omidyar (the genius who did start e-Bay) was talking with his then fiancée (now his wife) Pamela, who was a collector and trader of PEZ candy dispensers and she said something like “wouldn’t it be great if there was a place online where people could trade?”

The real story is somewhat different. Pierre Omidyar is French-Persian, and moved to the U.S. from Paris when he was six years old. His father was attending a medical residency at Johns Hopkins University. Young Omidyar, became positively enchanted with computers and programming. Having graduated from Tufts University in Boston with a degree in computer science, he moved to Santa Clara, California. He did work as a programmer for awhile, then he and some friends started Ink Development Corp, and pen-based computer company. But he veered the company off to an area he thought would be a hot item – internet shopping. And he came up with the name eShop. It was successful (mildly so, enough that Microsoft eventually bought it). Omidyar then decided he wanted to look into starting an internet auction site. He thought that bidding on an object would create more interest, some excitement too. You can look at a more graphic history of Omidyar (and eBay) on eBay’s website.

Over Labor Day weekend in 1995, he stayed home, holed up, and wrote the computer code for an auction-based website. On September 3rd, 1995 he launched it – as ugly, clunky and awkward as it was – merely adding it to an existing website he had already for his internet consulting business. The address of that site was the company’s name, Echo Bay Technology Group. Omidyar tried to register his new “business” as EchoBay, but it was already taken by a Canadian gold mining company, so he shortened it and eBay was born.

At this point eBay was just a hobby for Omidyar. He was still working full time at his day job – until his internet provider forced him to change from a private account to a commercial one because of the volume of traffic. His fees went from $30/month to $250/month. So, he decided to start charging users a small fee – thinking that he’d hear a backlash about it. Not so – checks began arriving. So many checks he had to hire an employee to handle all the payments. By March of 1996 Auction-Web’s monthly revenue was up to $1,000. April it was $2500. May $5000. June it leaped to $10,000. That’s when he quit his day job.

Next he hired a computer geek, Jeff Skoll, who happened to have a master’s degree in Business Administration from Stanford. What he did first was make this auction web thing a stand-alone site. Up until then it still shared a website for his consulting business, and a site about the Ebola virus (yes, really). Early on, Omidyar had done just a little bit of “advertising,” if you could call it that, by mentioning his auction website on some bulletin boards. So he added a bulletin board at eBay too. Some people began asking questions on the bulletin boards – about how to use eBay, mostly answered by other, more experienced users. Thus giving eBay it’s own (free) tech support. One of the early bulletin board gurus was a man who called himself “Uncle Griff.” A curious questioner once asked him what he looked like. He responded, “I’m wearing a lovely flower print dress and I just got done milking the cows,” which put Griff (Jim Griffiths by name) into eBay lore as their “cross-dressing bachelor dairy farmer who likes to answer questions.” Uncle Griff was so respected on the bulletin boards that finally Skoll hired him as their first tech support employee.

The company was so successful it went public in 1998 – eBay was worth $2 billion that day. By 1999 it was worth over $8 billion. And somewhere in there Meg Whitman (currently hoping to run for Governor in our state) held the CEO reins for some years. What made eBay a bit more unique is that they kept updating the model – adding the feedback feature (rating the sellers) in 1998; then adding PayPal in 2002.

Omidyar and his wife Pamela are worth more than $7 billion (maybe not so much now since this book was published – I haven’t gone to look up the stock’s worth) and they devote most of their time to Omidyar Network, a philanthropic organization that helps poor people around the world get into business. They’ve pledged to give away all but 1% of their fortune over the next 18 years. Omidyar says: “My mother taught me to treat other people the way I want to be treated and to have respect for other people. Those are just good basic values to have in a crowded world.”

Amen. This certain was a departure from my usual food stories, but I hope you enjoyed reading about this as much as I did . . . Carolyn T

Posted in Essays, wine, on March 3rd, 2010.

wine cellar racksThere’s another photo of our wine cellar – different angle. With a few empty wooden wine boxes on the lower shelves (they did contain wine, but we just keep them there for the looks). And if you have sharp eyes you’ll see on the left side a couple of little boxes of ScharffenBerger chocolate. I really need to bring those upstairs because they’ve likely oxidized down there in the wine cellar.

Back in my early wine-drinking heyday of the 1980’s I did drink Chardonnay. But I never really liked it – it’s too acidic for me. With the exception of one label – Kistler. That’s it. The only one, and a bottle of Kistler Chard today will set you back about $50. I think we have one bottle in our wine cellar, and it’s about 15 years old. We should be drinking it. Soon.

I also like Sauvignon Blanc, particularly Cloudy Bay (from New Zealand). And Fume Blanc from Ferrari-Carano. My DH keeps reminding me that I have a stash of Cloudy Bay (a very fresh, clean white wine from New Zealand) in the wine cellar that I need to drink.

Once in awhile we will enjoy a Riesling, as long as it’s not too sweet or acidic. Grey Riesling can be very dry, actually, so you can run the gamut of sweet to tart and low to high acid in that wine type. You can also have a sweeter Riesling that has a lot of acid. The kind that almost gives me sores on the inside of my mouth like I’ve overdosed on fresh pineapple (that happened to me once when we were in Hawaii – I had no idea that eating too much pineapple could cause mouth sores, did you? I mean, I didn’t eat THAT much!). Anyway, I seem to have a narrow spectrum of wines that appeal to me. My hubby calls me a cheap date these days. Most often when we go out I don’t even order wine.

But then there’s champagne. But I’m going to write up a separate essay about champagne, or sparkling wine .  . .

So now, down to the subject at hand. What do I use when I’m cooking:

WHITE WINE: If we happen to have some open, I’ll use that. But usually we don’t, because neither of us drink much white wine. So I go to other options. If I don’t have Vermouth available, then I’ll go hunting in the wine cellar for something – generally we have some generic kinds of white – maybe a bottle of Chardonnay (usually because somebody gave it to us since we don’t buy it). That works. Fume Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc are both almost herbal wines – they’re made from grapes – that’s not what I mean – but when you stick your nose into the glass you’ll almost smell an herb garden. I won’t use Riesling in cooking – generally it’s too sweet, and since most Rieslings are on the acidic side (even though sweet) you can’t add lemon juice with that to make it so. Just don’t use Riesling in cooking. But here’s what I DO use:

DRY VERMOUTH: First of all, I keep a bottle of Vermouth quite close to my stove. It’s nothing very expensive – somewhere I was told that Trader Joe’s vermouth is actually quite good. The best thing about Vermouth is that even though you open the bottle, it doesn’t deteriorate – it stays the same forever. With a normal bottle of wine you’d have to drink it or use it within a fairly reasonable time. Most likely Vermouth has been stabilized with some neutral spirits so it doesn’t spoil. That’s why it has a long shelf life, even when it’s been opened.

SUBSTITUTIONS: If I had neither a generic white wine or vermouth, I’d use some chicken broth. Maybe with a little added fresh squeezed lemon juice. Or if the dish could handle it, I’d use half apple juice, half water with a little lemon juice. I store a container of frozen apple juice concentrate in the freezer just for things like that. I also keep small cans of pineapple juice in the pantry to use in marinades and things like that. The other option is VERJUS – (means green juice) an unfermented grape juice from under ripe grapes. A perfect solution, I think, although it’s a bit hard to find and not inexpensive. It contains NO alcohol. And it’s on the tart side (some cooks use it in lieu of vinegar), so be careful. Use less than the quantity called for in your recipe and taste it before adding more.

There are resources abounding around the internet on this subject:

Gourmet Sleuth

About.com: Home Cooking – this site has an amazing list of substitutions for oodles of alcoholic beverages, including liqueurs.

Posted in Essays, wine, on February 26th, 2010.

wine cellar

The above is our wine cellar. It’s about 10 x 8, I’d guess, with room for the small table you see, although we’ve yet to sit down there except to catalog some wine (the room is below ground) and sip something because it’s too gosh-darned cold. We have a special refrigeration unit that keeps the wine cellar at a consistent 58. There’s also a little low cubbyhole off to the left (out of view) that can hold about another 8 cases of boxed wine. The cellar itself (with more shelving over on the left side) holds about 900 bottles. You can see that it’s nearly full. Everything you see above is red wine. White is over on the left side, and it’s only about half full since we drink so little white wine.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Essays, on February 6th, 2010.

navel oranges Pictured left, two Navel oranges in the back, a blood orange front left, and a Valencia at far right.

When you live in an agricultural area, you tend to take fruits and vegetables for granted. We certainly do. And oranges might be the pivot for that since where I live, in Orange County, California (oranges, Orange County?) we used to be THE center of orange growing. For a long, long time. But now more of them are grown in Riverside County, the next county over (east) from Orange County. There’s still lots of rural land in Riverside County. Not so much here in Orange County.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Essays, on January 11th, 2010.

Every year Epicurious does a prediction of what’s going to be UP and DOWN as far as food for the coming year. Where I live we’re not really in the epicenter of the food biz. We certainly have some good restaurants within a 20-mile radius. We could drive to Los Angeles more often where we might find a more serious mecca of dining, but the traffic is awful. What used to be a 60-minute drive in moderate traffic, is now usually a 90-minute tortured drive of brake lights and flaring tempers. So we stay closer to home and enjoy what good restaurants we do have. There really are many good ones, but they’re not necessarily at the forefront of gastronomy. California offers more healthy alternatives – from Pacific Rim cuisine, to that eclectic kind of California-esque cooking that’s ever so popular. Lots of salads, vegetables, even tofu and sushi. We have ample barbecue, steak in all forms and sizes, burger joints, and pho (Vietnamese soup). There’s comfort food, formal food, cheap and high-end Italian food too.

So, I read the predictions with a slightly askance eye. Will it have any bearing on our eating habits? I’m not sure. You decide:

MOVING UP: Fried Chicken

Really? Hmmm. I’m not so sure we even HAVE any restaurants that feature fried chicken. Fried food doesn’t feature much in most California restaurants. Sure there’s some – like calamari, zucchini sticks, jalapeno poppers and french fries. But not many others. Seems to me that most appetizer menus feature fried food. I rarely order any of those things with the exception of calamari. But maybe I need to dust off some of my 1960’s era cookbooks and find some new methods for making fried chicken at home. It’s just not very healthy, which is why I never attempt to make it.

MOVING DOWN: Burgers

Somehow I doubt burgers are going to take a back seat in most places in our neck of the woods. Everybody loves burgers. And with fries. What is popular here in California is turkey burgers – I do order one on occasion.

MOVING UP: Mini Whoopie Pies

This surprises me. These aren’t popular here at all. As I recall, they’re quite the thing in the midwest somewhere, near their origin. You know what they are? Two soft cookies sandwiched together with a kind of marshmallow filling. I’ve made them, but they’re altogether too much sweet/sugar for me.

MOVING DOWN: Mini Cupcakes

Personally I’ve not even SEEN mini-cupcakes. With the popularity of places like Sprinkles, where the regular-sized cupcake reigns supreme, how could mini-cupcakes even be on the radar?

MOVING UP: Lamb

Hmmm. Maybe so, but it certainly is a pricey ingredient here in our stores. Costco has good deals on lamb, but I think they only carry boneless legs from Australia and racks of lamb. I do enjoy Colorado lamb, though, and seek it out when I can. But have you looked at the fat content? That’s why it’s normally a big treat for us – not only for cost, but for calories.

MOVING DOWN: Pork

Barbecue certainly has made a big impact here in California. We find barbecue (beef and pork mostly) in lots of places. A few restaurants that truly do the barbecue thing (long, slow smoking) are quite popular still.

MOVING UP: an Immunity-Building diet

This has to do with eating foods that are now known to be helpful for building your immune system. I’ve read some about this, but not enough as I couldn’t recall any of them. Apples, onions, organic tomatoes, chicken soup, broccoli, green tea, Vitamin D rich foods (salmon, sardines, tuna), yogurt and chiles all feature large in such a diet.

MOVING DOWN: the Omega-3 foods

I was surprised to read this, but the reason is logical – so many of the Omega-3 fish contain so much mercury, that it’s considered almost more like a health hazard. Some are recommending pills rather than eating the real thing. Besides, we’ve so over-fished our waters there are only so many kinds of fish we can eat. Sad.

MOVING UP: Butchers

It’s becoming a new “in” profession. I’ve been quite disappointed of late when I have visited a store with a real butcher – sometimes they have no idea what I’m asking for. Has made me wonder if the apprenticing has changed its methods so greenhorns are allowed to wait on customers and only one real butcher even works there. I wish I knew more about it.

MOVING DOWN: Mixologist

All those fancy drinks (like martinis and other blender drinks) are apparently going to move out of fashion. We’re not much into trying all the fancy drinks as we’re mostly wine drinkers. We don’t even sample beers much either.

MOVING UP: Homemade beer

Speaking of beer, guess there are now kits for making your own rather than paying the premium prices for some of the boutique brews. This doesn’t even figure on my food radar. Sorry.

MOVING DOWN: Mad-Science Cocktails

Kind of a repeat of the Mixologist downturn. People have been oversaturated with the fancy, crazy cocktails.

MOVING UP: Vancouver

Partly this is because of the Winter Olympics, but Vancouver has become a new mecca for fine dining, I guess. We were even there this past summer for about an hour (before our cruise ship headed out to sea), but had no time to seek out a restaurant.

MOVING DOWN: Barcelona

Seems like there aren’t all that many people who would be affected by this – I mean – flying to Barcelona just to eat? Kind of an expensive trip, I’d say. We’ve been there once, and were quite amazed at the fine dining available. Enjoyed it a lot, but it isn’t exactly going to figure strongly in any of my travel plans in the near future.

MOVING UP: Potluck Dining at Home

This sounds like a great idea. Especially with our current economy and less expendable income at our fingertips.

MOVING DOWN: Formal Dining at Home

So few people do formal dining anymore. We here in California probably started the trend toward casual dining at home about 15+ years ago, so this isn’t news to us.

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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