Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween

Be sure to eat a balanced diet -- as illustrated.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

News of the Fat

I just discovered an amusing website/blog with ironic news of fattening food and related trends. The first story I came across was about the "Small World" ride at Disneyland. In "Small World ride revamped for bigger passengers" I learned that the average size of riders has increased enormously since its origin in 1963. Thus, the cars, which float in a very shallow flume of water, sometimes bottom out when twenty-first century sized passengers ride on them. And the passengers become irate when they have to get off to let the ride start up again. So the aptly named "Small World" ride has to be revamped.

In another post, the blog offered the following diagram, predicting future increases in Big Mac size:
The blog is called Calorie Lab.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Peg Bracken: She Didn't Hate to Cook

Today I read the obituary of a culinary figure whose books were popular in the 1960s: "Peg Bracken, 89; author struck a chord with the irreverent 'The I Hate to Cook Book'" by Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer, October 23, 2007. My venerable copies of Bracken's most famous books -- with a 60¢ price on them -- are pictured at left.

I always found The I Hate to Cook Book and its sequels very amusing. I also learned a few good recipes from them -- especially "Cockeyed Cake" in Chapter 9, which is titled "Desserts or People are too Fat Anyway."

This chocolate cake recipe regularly appears in other easy-cooking sources: it involves a flour and cocoa mixture placed in a greased pan and then stirred briefly with oil, vinegar, vanilla, and water and baked.* Advantages: you need not have milk or eggs on hand, and you never have to wash a mixing bowl.

I Hate to Cook...
offered just one cake recipe -- in Bracken's opinion, the ready-mix aisles of the supermarket "make you see clearly how far science has come." She suggests that "ready-mixes, fresh fruit, frozen fruit, canned fruit, and ice cream" should provide the solution to most dessert challenges.

Although I've read her books, I found much to learn from the article. Here are some highlights:
Peg Bracken, the dry-witted former advertising executive who relieved the kitchen anxieties of millions of readers with her 1960 bestseller, "The I Hate to Cook Book," died Saturday at her home in Portland, Ore. She was 89....

Bracken sold more than 3 million copies of "The I Hate to Cook Book," which helped busy women save time in the kitchen by cutting steps and shamelessly relying on convenience foods such as dry onion soup mix as key ingredients....

Although [Julia] Child addressed an audience eager for sophistication, Bracken -- who sold three times as many copies of her book as Child and company did of theirs -- spoke to everyone else. And although Child explained in step by voluminous step how to beat egg whites into a perfect froth or mash potatoes for gnocchi, Bracken stuck to tried-and-true basics, such as lasagna and beef stroganoff, leavened with a dash of sarcasm....

Culinary historian Laura Shapiro said Bracken wrote in a genre she calls "the literature of domestic chaos." Like Jean Kerr and Shirley Jackson (and, later, Erma Bombeck), Bracken approached the experiences of mid-20th century wives and mothers from an ironic perspective.

She also was truly interested in good food.

"James Beard used to cringe when her name came up," Shapiro told The Times. "He thought she was one of these can-opener cooks. He was underestimating her and misreading her. There was a real food person in there. She had no particular wish to get out of the kitchen. She just didn't want to be a maniac when she was in the kitchen."

*The Recipe for Cockeyed Cake:
1.5 cups sifted flour
3 Tbsp cocoa
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
5 Tbsp cooking oil
1 Tbsp vinegar
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup cold water

Put your sifted flour back in the sifter, add to it the cocoa, soda, sugar, and salt, and sift this right into a greased square cake pan, about 9 x 9 x 2 inches. Now you make three grooves, or holes, in this dry mixture. Into one, pour the oil; into the next, the vinegar; into the next, the vanilla. Now pour the cold water over it all. You'll feel like you're making mud pies now, but beat it with a spoon until it's nearl smooth and you can't see fhe flour. Bake it at 350 degrees for half an hour.

Over the years I have tried various changes to this, but I don't recommend any of them.

The image by the recipe shows the cover of the most recent edition, which seems to combine both volumes from the 1960s. However, the obituary in the New York Times notes: "Today, 'The I Hate to Cook Book' is out of print, doubtless a casualty of the Age of Arugula." From Peg Bracken, ‘I Hate to Cook’ Author, Dies at 89.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

164,000 year-old man is a bold man...

"It was a bold man that first tasted an oyster." The mirrored walls behind the oyster bars of New Orleans post cute, catchy sayings like this -- you also see them on T-shirts. According to Bartlett, Jonathan Swift was the author: "He was a bold man that first eat an oyster." -- Polite Conversation. Dialogue ii.

Well, now we know: Swift's bold man did his tasting far earlier than anyone suspected.

"Evidence of early humans living on the coast in South Africa, harvesting food from the sea, employing complex bladelet tools and using red pigments in symbolic behavior 164,000 years ago, far earlier than previously documented, is being reported in the journal Nature."

The new finding about food from the sea: "is the earliest dated observation" of humans eating seafood, said the author of the Nature article, Curtis Marean, a paleoanthropologist at Arizona State University. He stated that at that time, "in coastal South Africa humans expanded their diet to include shellfish and other marine resources, perhaps as a response to harsh environmental conditions."

Quotes are from: "Earliest Evidence Of Modern Humans Detected," in Science Daily yesterday. The story has been widely re-hashed in the press.

Monday, October 15, 2007

What if global warming makes our crops fail?

Global warming may have uneven effects, but sooner or later, it will cause scarcity. More immediately, America has intensified efforts to use grain for our possibly insane demand to fuel our vehicles. In response, the price of food is already rising in poor countries like Mexico. The result of global warming may be slow, but the major crops of the world are at risk.

Americans today have no experience of famine. Rather, we live with incessant glut. We middle class Americans don't even use grain as our main source of food: for us, bread is not the "staff of life." Reference to bread as food has become a metaphor. Consequently when we read about food disasters in the past, we can't imagine how it could happen here.

In reading about the past, I've collected a few quotations on how peasants and farmers coped when their crops failed and their governments had taken no measures to help. Maybe agrarian coping mechanisms won't be relevant in the coming era. And who knows how major food shortages will affect the majority of world populations who live in cities -- will they eat rats? Thats one thing city people have done during sieges in historic wars.

European peasants even until the mid-20th century had long-standing practical methods for making some facsimile of bread during grain-harvest failures and other disasters: "When the dark days of famine came, the [Italian] peasants tried to make bread with an infinite variety of materials. In practice almost anything could be used to prepare a rude surrogate: darnel or tares, licorice, erba del vetro (a rough grass commonly sown in fallow fields, used as animal feed), roots, thistles, various leaves, scorzonera, hawthorn, etc." Other famine breads could be made from acorns, chestnut flour, grass, bran, and other less desirable foodstuffs such as pear-tree or apple-tree sawdust or animal fodder. Children in those days would sing: "The master gets the grain, the peasant gets the straw."

When their crops failed, English farmers may "have eaten the bark from trees and grass from the fields. . . . the French peasantry, in their extremity, ate unripe grain, roots, grass, and the intestines and blood of animals that had been slaughtered as food for the better-off."

In 1585-6, French peasants were "forced to eat acorns, wild roots, bracken, marc and grape seeds dried in the oven and ground into flour -- not to mention pine bark and the bark of other trees, walnut and almond shells, broken tiles and bricks mixed with a few handfuls of barley, oats or bran flour." They also ate "bread made from a mixture of couch grass and sheep's entrails." Even in good times, peasants would practice eating bark and other inedibles to ensure that they could still survive in case of famine.

In the potato-crop failure of the mid-19th century, the Irish starved or saved themselves by coming to America. British colonial-era planning reduced the impact of famine in the Indian subcontinent -- at least sometimes. In Africa, scarcity has never been conquered. Lack of resources may be one of the causes of some of the 21st century horrors taking place there already.

Every specific famine I've read about had both political and environmental causes that led some people to starve. While the potatoes rotted, Ireland was exporting food to England -- but the poor had no right to it, and the politicians in Parliament preached about the Free Market. (Really.) This won't be different if global warming and governmental indifference begin to decrease the world's food supplies.

Basically, we've lost the knack. I don't think history can prepare us for what might happen.

References: Camporesi, The Magic Harvest, pp. 23-4 and 95; Appleby, Famine in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 8; Mennell, All Manner of Food, p. 26; MacClancy, Consuming Culture, p. 44; the source for the "practice famine" is Eugen Weber. The first picture was taken by Evelyn. The second is Van Gogh's "Potato Eaters" -- hungry people. This post is inspired by my earlier post for Blog Action Day.

Today is Blog Action Day

Today is Blog Action Day. I have already posted my thoughts on the environment, focus of today's action. I agree that danger to the environment is a very important issue. I plan to see what other bloggers have come up with as well. See Saving the Penguins, What if global warming makes our crops fail?, and Environmental Issues and the Food Supply.

Environmental Issues and the Food Supply

Blog Action Day October 15 inspires me to ask: what is the impact of environmental and climate changes on the world food supply? A variety of causes and effects have been debated, and I've read a number of different analyses in the past. I'd like to know: do we expect widespread famine? Will the Great Plains dry up? Will there be mass starvation in India?

I found no simple answers. Here are a few of the areas and what I found.

Increase in average temperatures worldwide has already decreased crop yields. According to a Carnegie Institute study -- "on average, global yields for several of the crops responded negatively to warmer temperatures, with yields dropping by about 3-5 percent for every 1 degree F increase." Crops studied were those that are most important to worldwide nutrition: "wheat, rice, maize (corn), soybeans, barley and sorghum.... These crops occupy more than 40 percent of the world’s cropland, and account for at least 55 percent of non-meat calories consumed by humans. They also contribute more than 70 percent of the world’s animal feed." -- From "Crops feel the heat as the world warms," News Release, March 16, 2007.

Global warming in the future will continue to affect crop yields. Optimists claim that warmer summers and increase in CO2 levels would actually improve crop yields. However, field tests give a different result: "for all four of the world’s main food crops -- maize, rice, soybean and wheat -- the real-world fertilization effect was only half as great as predicted by the contained experiments." Further, increasing ozone levels will reduce crop yields. Prediction: even CO2 effects "will not prevent the world’s crop yields from declining by 10% to 15%." Occasional extremes of high temperatures could also lead to crop failures and famines in India. -- From Climate change warning over food production, 26 April 2005, news service, Fred Pearce.

The Great Plains of the US produce significant food resources, and will experience significant impact from climate change. The Great Plains Climate Change Workshop, held in 1997, produced a long website concerning this issue. They state that: "the potential impact of climate changes is expected to affect winter snowfall, growing season rainfall amounts and intensities, minimum winter temperatures, and summer average temperatures. The combined effect of these changes in weather patterns and average seasonal climate will affect numerous sectors critical to the economic, social and ecological welfare of this region."

In India, government reports have warned of serious consequences from extreme weather. "Developing countries are right to be concerned about the negative impacts of climate change as they will suffer most," said a government spokesman. An Indian government report warned "that the cost of rising greenhouse gas emissions will fall predominantly on the poorest people. Global warming ... threatens to reduce India’s farm output by as much as a quarter." The spokesman said: "Climate change will increase the frequency of natural disasters. Long-term changes will lead to water scarcity, food insecurity and increased risk of malaria and major displacements of people and economic activity.'" -- From "Warming impacts Indian food supply," Sajeda Momin, March 24, 2006.

Corn-based ethanol has been promoted as a replacement for petroleum-based fuels. But this has a number of environmental consequences, and draws resources from the global food supply. "An O.E.C.D. report two years ago suggested that replacing 10 percent of America’s motor fuel with biofuels would require about a third of the total cropland devoted to cereals, oilseeds and sugar crops. Meanwhile, the environmental benefits are modest. A study published last year by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, estimated that after accounting for the energy used to grow the corn and turn it into ethanol, corn ethanol lowers emissions of greenhouse gases by only 13 percent." -- From "The High Costs of Ethanol," editorial, New York Times, September 19, 2007.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Fenugreek Leaves

One of the intriguing foods that Madhur Jaffrey frequently mentioned in Climbing the Mango Trees is fenugreek leaves. Inspired by the book, we stopped -- after a long walk in the park -- for the lunch buffet at Madras Masala, a local Indian restaurant.

I enjoyed all the food. There were a large number of dishes with distinct flavors and different sauces and textures, including some chick-pea patties (seemed like a spicier version of falafel), goat biryani, several types of potatoes, and various breads. I really liked the lemon pickle and mint and coconut chutneys. The kulfi, a dense pistachio ice cream, was also very good. However, I have no idea which flavors and dishes corresponded to the many tastes in the book.

At the end of the meal, I asked about fenugreek leaves. For all I knew, maybe I was eating them. No, I wasn't. First the waiter (who didn't seem to understand me very well) went into the kitchen and brought me a napkin with around a tablespoon of fenugreek seeds on it. They were a little more fragrant-smelling that the ones I have in my spice collection.

I thanked him, but tried again about leaves. He asked the manager or someone. The answer: the leaves are only found in India. So I came home and googled: of course lots of bloggers and food writers have written about this Indian herb. For example, see Green Blog Project - Fish with baby methi (fenugreek) leaves -- incidentally, this is a very interesting-looking blog.

"Climbing the Mango Trees"

Madhur Jaffrey's memoir about her childhood offers a list of spices associated with every incident she describes. In her prologue she relates that at age four, in her grandfather's orchard, she shared with her many cousins sliced mangoes dipped in "salt, pepper, red chilies, and roasted cumin."

At the end of the book, she records the foods ritually prepared by the family and served at the final ceremony of mourning for her grandfather, "all prepared according to rules followed only on such a day." In particular, the meal included a delicate rice pudding. She continues: "The green pumpkin, cooked with cloves, fennel, and fenugreek was impossible to ignore. ... The potatoes, made mainly with ginger, tomatoes, and cumin, were simple yet extraordinary -- earthy, gingery, and hot. There were slim stuffed okra, tiny taro patties smothered with ajowan seeds.... and assorted desserts, including the rice pudding. I ate and ate until I could eat no more."

I was fascinated by descriptions of her bicycle trips to school with her books and her tiffin carrier -- and its contents. I enjoyed reading about her family's picnics where 30 adults, adolescents, and children could ride in just 2 cars. Later picnics, attended by just the high-school and college-age cousins and their friends, showed how her family's social life was changing. In every episode the most vivid element seems to be the spices.

For example, a trip to her maternal grandparents' house -- rarely visited -- seems dominated by a stop at a famous "Lane of Fried Breads." The young author ate paratha -- fried puffy bread -- stuffed with "green peas, potatoes, fenugreek greens, chickpea flour, spiced split peas, cauliflower, or grated white radish." She also describes special mushrooms that were never as good anywhere but her grandparents' house.

Yes, the book lists plays she read, leading to her career as an actress. She tells stories of her relationships to parents, uncles, and cousins, who lived as one large family in her grandfather's large house and adjacent houses. She touches on her family's reaction to British colonialism and to the Partition of India -- in fact, I hadn't really realized how passionately Hindu citizens of India opposed partition and favored a united country. But the book is really about her childhood experience of food, especially spice -- her early life is shown to predestine her to be a famous cookbook author and interpreter to the West of Indian cooking.

A delicious story!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Lamb with Eggplant

When I was around 12, a friend gave my mother some lamb and eggplant casserole -- a daring experiment she had cooked. She said it was a Persian recipe. I was the only one who liked it. I might have been the only one in the family who even tasted it. I started looking for new-tasting foods quite early, and wanted to try every new food that I could. I had never tasted eggplant before this, and never lamb except for lamb chops.

I think my next experience with eggplant and lamb was the moussaka in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the first volume by Julia Child and her collaborators. Though maybe I tried some other version of this French adaptation of an eastern Mediterranean dish. Moussaka contains many of the ingredients of the recipe I tried this evening -- as shown in the photo. Tonight's recipe is from Binnur's Turkish cooking blog -- Lamb with Eggplant in the Oven. It's a little simpler to make than the Julia Child recipe, which isn't surprising.

We ate the eggplant-lamb casserole with some mujadara (a lentil, rice, and onion dish), Greek olives, and small Roma tomatoes from Whole Foods. I haven't made a meal like this one for a while, and it was a nice change.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

News of the Fat

From the NY Times, a suggestion that obesity might be connected to prosperity:
Cuba’s economic crisis in the 1990s had a silver lining, scientists are reporting: a decrease in the rates of obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke.And no wonder. Average calorie consumption dropped more than a third, to 1,863 calories a day in 2002 from 2,899 in 1989. Cubans also exercised more, giving up cars for walking and bicycling.
from Nutrition: An Up Side to Hard Times by NICHOLAS BAKALAR, October 9, 2007.

The article continues with a number of statistical measures of the obesity-related diseases that declined during the crisis, but notes: "As more food became available, obesity increased to about 12 percent again by 2002." As we keep hearing, in one form or another, people just seem to eat more when they can, and that makes them fat.
I also wanted to mention that Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, a book I've mentioned several times, received an Ig Nobel prize for his invention of the bottomless soup bowl! What a great choice. From the CNN article:
The Ig Nobel for nutrition went to a concept that sounds like a restaurant marketing ploy: a bottomless bowl of soup.

Cornell University professor Brian Wansink used bowls rigged with tubes that slowly and imperceptibly refilled them with creamy tomato soup to see if test subjects ate more than they would with a regular bowl.

"We found that people eating from the refillable soup bowls ended up eating 73 percent more soup, but they never rated themselves as any more full," said Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior and applied economics. "They thought 'How can I be full when the bowl has so much left in it?' "

His conclusion: "We as Americans judge satiety with our eyes, not with our stomachs."

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

What did Columbus Discover?

Everything Columbus did, someone else did first. Or they did it better. Millions of people – whole civilizations -- lived in North, Central, and South America and the Caribean for thousands of years before Columbus “discovered” them. The formulation “Columbus discovered America” is an insult to them – especially since most of them died when European disease flashed across the Americas.

Columbus wasn’t even the first European in the Americas. Vikings had once settled in Vinland, which is where you get if you keep going across the North Atlantic after you pass Iceland and Greenland. They beat Columbus by hundreds of years. But no one ever heard of the Viking settlement. A change in climate quickly made it unfeasible, and it was forgotten for centuries. Only a bit of recent archaeological evidence proves it ever happened.

When Columbus came back after his first voyage, everyone in Europe took notice of the news he brought with him. Portuguese, English, Italian, Dutch, and more Spanish explorers followed him. Pretty soon they were making their own voyages and starting settlements. European writers found the New World fascinating and challenging. Whole areas of theology and deep-seated beliefs had to be re-examined in reaction to the news of what Columbus had found. Formerly important trade routes between Asia and the Mediterranean suddenly were dwarfed by commerce in the newly discovered direction.

The biggest change was in what the Old World ate. The New World offered vast new farmlands for cultivating European wheat, sugar, and other products. By 1505, Spanish sugar plantations were already underway in Domenica. Ability to expand sugar production was one of many big New World effects. The European diet changed thanks to increased consumption of refined sugar and of rum distilled from sugar. On both sides of the Atlantic, a new fusion cooking started to develop, combining the best of old and new.

American natives had been brilliant at domestication of plants, quickly adaptable to European and Asian tastes. Tobacco smoking, totally new to Europeans, was discussed and tried in Spain within less than 10 years of Columbus’s return – the Inquisition is said to have punished a smoker by 1501.

In 1502 a Spanish ship captured a trading canoe on an island near Honduras. The canoe carried a load of an important medium of exchange among the native Americans: cocoa beans. The ship’s chroniclers noted this event, though they didn’t understand what they had found. However, during the exploration and conquest of Mexico, Europeans began to find out what the Mexican chocolate drink tasted like, as well as the use of cocoa as “happy money.” Europeans who conquered and settled Mexico became familiar with chocolate in the 16th century, though its consumption in Europe is not clearly documented until the following century. Thereafter, of course, chocolate became indispensible.

The Portuguese introduced chili pepper cultivation into India by 1542. Only 50 years had gone by since Columbus’s first voyage and first contact between Europeans and the new-world pepper (which had been in cultivation in Mexico for several thousand years by then). Peppers became associated with Eastern food and later were introduced to Europeans – who thought they were of Indian or Turkish origin. A spoonful of curry powder – which came to England from its colonies in the 18th century – contained spices from almost anyplace you could think of.

The New-World turkey – named for the wrong place – was another food that reached Europe from America by a circuitous route. While we call it the turkey, the French call it dinde – meaning from India.

In time, Europeans and Asians began to grow and eat tomatoes, potatoes, vanilla, and Indian corn. All made major changes in European tastes and nutrition. The Irish dependence on potatoes and the ensuing potato famine, for example, was at least in part a consequence of the “Discovery of America.”

Beginning with Columbus, how many times have peppers gone around the world? Mexican descendants of the Aztecs and Mayas today still use chili peppers as a main flavor in their cooking. Indian curry, Japanese curry, Szechwan stir-fries, hot Thai dishes, and North African harissa would all be unrecognizable without chili pepper. In Madrid, Spain, plates of tiny green grilled chili peppers are one of the tapas on offer to stylish crowds of office workers having a beer before heading home. Can you imagine a New Orleans oyster house without a bottle of Tabasco? Asian Indians brought spicy chili pepper cuisine with them as they went to work all over the British Empire, and so peppers returned to Jamaica and the Carribean in another new form.

Columbus had definitely proved that something more interesting than sea monsters lay beyond the Atlantic Ocean. If he and his supporters hadn’t persuaded Ferdinand and Isabella to bankroll him, another explorer would no doubt have soon found backing and have sailed across the Atlantic, touching off a similar series of changes. But Columbus was the one who did it.

References for Food History

References (all fascinating) for the post "What did Columbus discover?"

David Burton, The Raj at Table. London, 1993.
Sophie D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate. London, 1998.
Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors. Oxford, 2006.
Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. New York, 2005.
Amal Naj, Peppers: A Story of Hot Pursuits. New York, 1992.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Japanese Performance Cooking

Fairfax, VA. This is not the chef who can juggle an egg into his hat, but he spins them on the spatula. The flavor is mainly from the sauce, it's the experience that counts.