Thursday, April 22, 2021

April Snow

A few days ago, the azalea in our front garden was blooming splendidly.

A light snow fell...
By morning, the blossoms were smothered.

And as the snow melted,
almost all the blossoms fell to the ground.

Magnolias


They were so beautiful!

... but the snow fell.

As the snow melted, the petals turned brown.


A snowy morning at 6:30 AM.
Blog post © 2021 mae sander.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

“The Strange Journey of Alice Pendelbury”

Marc Levy is a best-selling French novelist. This is the first of his books that I have read. I was disappointed for the same reason that very popular historical fiction often disappoints me: it does too good a job of meeting my expectations. As a result, books like this don't seem to offer any new insights about its historic time and place, and often portray their characters with 21st century social and cultural attitudes.  

The Strange Journey of Alice Pendelbury begins in London  in 1950, just after the war. Most readers would have some expectations about this setting: the neighborhoods that are not yet restored after the severe bombings, the lives that are affected by loss of loved-ones, the shortages and rationing of food and clothing that are still in effect, and the feeling among Londoners that the rest of the world is healing more quickly. These are cliches. And the author relies far too much on these cliches: it’s too predictable. Amidst these conditions, Alice Pendelbury, the main character, lives in a studio apartment all alone. She has a few friends and no family: they died in the bombing. 

On page 15, a fortune-teller discerns a very unexpected future for Alice. Because of her visceral reaction to the fortune-teller’s prediction, Alice soon afterwards travels to Istanbul with her next-door neighbor. The rest of the novel is a quest to discover the truth of the prediction. It’s a long quest, which many readers probably find quite suspenseful and enjoyable, but again, I found it a bit too full of cliches. (I’ll forgo presenting plot details since you might want to read it and find out for yourself.)

All in all, I found Alice’s story to be a kind of over-the-top melodrama. The descriptions of Istanbul seemed mostly the sort of thing that you could find in a 1950s guidebook. Alice’s air travel from London to Istanbul was presented with all the expected details from the early days of commercial plane travel. On arrival, Alice and her travel companion checked into the Pera Palace Hotel — which was the major high-end place for famous European visitors from early in the twentieth century until the end of World War II. By 1950 when the novel takes place it was actually a bit run down because of political choices made by the Turkish government (its Greek owners were expelled and it was given to a native/Moslem Turk), but the decline doesn’t seem have happened in the book. And on and on.

There were also some questionable details — small ones but they bothered me. For example, Alice’s traveling companion brings her a beautiful evening gown to wear to an event at the British Embassy. She says it’s lovely and he says:  

“It’s a French model called the ‘New Look.’ They might not be much at the art of war, but I have to admit that the French have an undeniable genius for dressing women ... .”  

Remember, the novel is set in the year 1950. Dior’s “New Look” debuted in Paris in 1947 and was a sensation, noted throughout the world. To show you how famous this was: the term “New Look” was coined by Life magazine. So the characters’ unfamiliarity with the style by 1950 is a bit off. This is a detail, but the kind of detail that disrupts my trust in a a historical novel.

Alice Pendelbury’s distinguishing feature was her acute sense of smell:

“Alice had a rare gift: she was a ‘nose.’ Her sense of smell was so acute that she could distinguish and memorize the slightest odor. She spent her days alone, bent over the long wooden table in her flat, blending different essences to obtain combinations that might one day become a perfume. Every month she made the rounds of the London perfume shops, offering them her new creations.” (p. 6)

Throughout the book Alice is highly aware of aromas and the way they trigger her memories. She seeks out unusual combinations of fragrance that create a characteristic ambience, and she designs perfumes and other aromatic products. Normally, I would find this a very compelling theme in a novel. Unfortunately, I thought that like many things here, the depiction of smells and the memories they elicited was presented in a formulaic and mechanical way. Again, I found this a source of disappointment.

Similarly, the descriptions of food in this novel seem done by rote. The scarce groceries in London, the cups of coffee, the Turkish breakfasts, and the fine restaurants were all described in a way that I found too predictable, too superficial, and  too close to what I’ve read in many other accounts of travel. I was also a little skeptical about the accuracy: for example, eggs, meat, and bacon were rationed until 1954, but the characters seem to find at least some of them in the shops. Maybe they had ration cards or something for the small quantities they bought; this wasn’t mentioned and again is only a detail.

I’m sure my reactions to this novel are eccentric: many readers obviously find this author very compelling. Sorry to be a malcontent. This book was one of 10 free books offered on Kindle this month. The author was on my “maybe read” list so I went for it. I hope I more throughly enjoy the others I chose.

Blog post © 2021 mae sander.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

“The Book of Eels”


Patrik Svensson’s work The Book of Eels is one of those wonderful meditations that has a very narrow focus on a single topic, but actually covers a whole world of topics. Eel fishing played a big role in the author’s childhood. The study of eels, which he documents in a very interesting way, has been a huge challenge to science. And eels, it seems, may be among the most endangered of species on earth. 

“There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” said Hamlet. Svensson makes his readers feel this way about eels. So it’s a remarkable book: also very popular.

Certain stages of the life cycle of the eel have eluded scientific observers. Svensson describes the scientists who tried, and failed, to find the exact location of eel spawning grounds, to observe the earliest stages of eel life, or to obtain fully mature, breeding eels. And thus he considers the world of science and scientific endeavor. He begins with Aristotle, the first scientist, who wrote about eels among many things. Svensson continues with sketches of the work of a number of others who sought to understand eel behavior, including quite recent efforts. Beyond science, Svensson includes a detailed description of descriptions of eels in several works of literature, where they can become a powerful metaphor or symbol.

Svensson compares Swedish traditional methods to eel fishing in other times and places. The constantly diminishing eel populations of his own region, and many other regions, lead the author to a discussion of how eels are so severely endangered that they may soon go extinct — and this thought is embedded in consideration of the whole endangered world today. Svensson does all this seamlessly. As I read I never felt as if the transition from the tiny specific topic to the broader view was forced in any way.

On the personal level, Svensson describes the way that he and his father fished for eels throughout his childhood and youth, and his father loved to eat them cooked in a variety of ways -- though Svensson himself was not as fond of them. Through this personal example, he illustrates many thoughts about his life. The father's way of eel fishing belongs to the traditions of eel fishing history in his native region: Skåne, SwedenThe eel and these traditions provide a powerful connection to his father, a road-builder, especially after he, the son, becomes a university-educated writer and very different from his family. Finally, as he describes his father’s death, the book becomes a meditation on death itself, on all that we cannot understand.

Eels are fascinating and mysterious. Scientists have searched in vain in the Sargasso Sea where their breeding grounds are thought to be located, but have never found exactly where the eggs are laid and hatched. The eel becomes for Svensson an embodiment of the uncanny, of the things that can’t be understood, and that don’t fit one’s ordinary definition of living reality. 
“THERE ARE CIRCUMSTANCES THAT FORCE YOU TO CHOOSE WHAT TO believe, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve been the kind of person who chooses to believe what people consider verifiable, science over religion, the rational over the transcendental. But the eel makes that difficult. For anyone who has seen an eel die and then come back to life, rationality isn’t enough. Almost everything can be explained; we can discuss different processes of oxygenation and metabolism or the eel’s protective secretion or its highly adapted gills. But on the other hand, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’m a witness. An eel can die and live once again. ‘They’re odd, eels,’ Dad would say. And he always seemed mildly delighted...” (p. 192)
Eels have provided food for many people who live near the streams and rivers where they live; Svensson documents many eel fishing and culinary traditions. Though their popularity has declined in Europe and in the US in the past century, they were once very important. For example, did you know that eels were a critical source of nutrition during the near-starvation year of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts? That their Indian guide (incorrectly known as Squanto) showed them how to fish for eels? 
"For some reason, this gift from God to the early pilgrims has been all but erased from the grand narrative. The story of the colonization of North America is full of myths and legends, but the story of the eel isn’t one of them. On Thanksgiving, Americans eat turkey, not eel, and other animals—buffalo, eagles, horses—have been the ones to shoulder the symbolic weight of the patriotic narrative of the United States of America." (p. 104).
By now, eels are so endangered that it’s objectionable to eat them, though I’ve always liked the eel sushi that is served at many Japanese restaurants (but would be reluctant to eat it any more); I believe I also once ate eel in the Loire region of France, where it is also fished. One passage about eating eels especially interested me; it’s about the very young eels who will later transform into the more familiar snake-like fish. They are called glass eels, and in places where they are found, they are a delicacy:
“In Italy, glass eels used to be caught in the Arno River in the west and around Comacchio in the east. There the preferred way of serving them was boiled in tomato sauce with a sprinkle of parmesan. ...These days, however, it’s a dying tradition. As the number of glass eels wandering up Europe’s rivers has plummeted, the fishing industry built around them has also ceased to exist.” (p. 90)
Eel restaurant sign, Comacchio, Italy. (Source)

Here’s why I loved this passage: we once stayed in a hotel in the vicinity of Comacchio, and we went to a highly recommended restaurant where I remember eating a dish of glass eels (though I thought they had said grass eels and just found out that this was wrong). The eels on my plate were indeed very small and exotic, but I liked the dish. I don’t think in fact that they were in tomato sauce. It was long ago, before I carried a camera with me at all times, so I have no tangible evidence of this meal, only an indistinct memory. As eels become more and more endangered, it’s likely that this dish will no longer be prepared, and in any case it’s become very expensive, so I doubt if I will ever taste it again.

To quote another poet besides Shakespeare (after all, it’s National Poetry Month) —

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour” — by William Blake

Blog post © 2021 mae sander. 


 

Monday, April 19, 2021

Kefir

Kefir used to be an exotic drink, but it's now available in most supermarkets, at least where I shop. It was popularized in the US by the Lifeway company, beginning in 1986, but now is made by a number of brands. Kefir's origins are in Russia and several other countries in the East (for more history see the Wikipedia article).

For some time, Len and I have been enjoying this yogurt-like beverage. We also like other fermented milk products such as yogurt, buttermilk, sour cream, and many types of cheese -- a large family of foods that vary widely in taste and in how they are used in many different recipes. 

Micro-organisms, including yeast and lacto-bacillus, promote the fermentation that creates these distinctive products. These organisms have been found to confer at least some health benefits on people who consume them in sufficient quantities. Kefir, which is very rich in these organisms, is especially healthful.

The yeasts and bacteria in the cultures for each type of fermented dairy product are related to one-another, but not all the same. The processes for making them, such as the temperature and length of time for fermentation, also differ among the products, whether at home or in an industrial setting. Like sourdough starters for fermenting bread, you can buy commercial starters for home-made cultured milk products.

SCOBY is the name for these starter cultures. I thought it was a cute pet name but it's actually an acronym: "symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast." When you make yogurt or sour cream, you can save out some of the product to use as the starter for the next batch. Kefir is a little different.

The starter for traditional kefir-making, which is what you would use if you wanted to make it at home for yourself, is made up of a cluster of fermentation-starter grains that are described as looking like cauliflower.  

Kefir "grains" shown with scale.
Source: Wikipedia.

Here is a highly technical description of kefir and kefir grains:
"Kefir is a complex fermented dairy product created through the symbiotic fermentation of milk by lactic acid bacteria and yeasts contained within an exopolysaccharide and protein complex called a kefir grain. ... The beverage itself typically has a slightly viscous texture with tart and acidic flavor, low levels of alcohol, and in some cases slight carbonation. Kefir is traditionally made with cow’s milk but it can be made with milk from other sources such as goat, sheep, buffalo, or soy milk. One of the features that distinguish kefir from many other fermented dairy products is the requirement for the presence of a kefir grain in fermentation and the presence and importance of a large population of yeasts. The aforementioned kefir grains are microbially derived protein and polysaccharide matrices that contain a community of bacterial and fungal species that are essential to kefir fermentation. Traditionally, fermentation was initiated through the addition of kefir grains, which originally formed during the fermentation of milk, to unfermented milk in a sheep or goat skin bag. Commercial, industrial-scale production rarely utilizes kefir grains for fermentation, but rather uses starter cultures of microbes that have been isolated from kefir or kefir grains in order to provide more consistent products." (quote from: The Microbiota and Health Promoting Characteristics of the Fermented Beverage Kefir.)
Making kefir at home appears to be a bit challenging. Theoretically when you are using kefir grains to make the product, you can retrieve some of the grains each time you make a new batch, but it's difficult to do so consistently. However, some people find it less difficult and demanding than others. 

In order to keep kefir grains going, you could find it necessary to make new kefir every day. This might be more than you want, but if you don’t do it often enough, the grains can become less effective. Thus you might need to purchase starter for kefir more often than you would purchase the starter for yogurt. Alternately, there are freeze-dried kefir starters available that may be easier to use. I have never made kefir, so I can't offer much help with this.

I'll just mention that appropriate SCOBYs are used to make fermented foods from other liquids as well as from dairy milk. For example, kombucha, soy-milk yogurt or kefir, and water kefir are non-dairy fermented foods from similar cultures.

Fermented milk products like yogurt and kefir are familiar in America today. Though very little known here before the 1960s, beginning with yogurt they have become steadily more popular over the years. I enjoy drinking kefir (sometimes with sugar) or eating it with granola or fruit. Over the years, I've also tried a number of recipes using kefir, including chocolate cake and frosting, "buttermilk" brined chicken, sourdough-discard pancakes, kefir-based salad dressings, kefir smoothies, and more. Kefir is considered a good substitute for buttermilk, and recently I have used it in baking when buttermilk is called for. The website Serious Eats kitchen-tested several buttermilk substitutes for making biscuits, and found that kefir was by far the best (link -- kefir is the last one discussed in the article). My mother's favorite buttermilk sub was milk + lemon juice -- this popular choice was rated as the worst option by Serious Eats.

Once again, I'm sharing my thoughts on a beverage with the bloggers who join Elizabeth at the blog Altered Book Lover each week. This blog post is copyright © 2021 by mae's food blog.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Five Authors and a Historic Theater



Ann Arbor’s most famous mural: five authors, painted 1984. New on the same building: views of the town.

The new mural with two scooters in front of it.
The State Theater, depicted in the mural, is down the street.

 
Detail from the new mural.

The State Theater, 2021.

The State Theater’s Grand Opening, 1942. (source)

The most famous mural in Ann Arbor:

Five authors: Woody Allen, Edgar Allan Poe, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, and Anaïs Nin.
(Blog post here)

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Toni Tipton-Martin's Jubilee

 


Let’s celebrate the great contribution of Black Americans to the many cuisines of our country. In 2015, author Toni Tipton-Martin collected over 400 Black-authored cookbooks from more than two centuries of American food ways, and wrote a book documenting them: The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks. 

In Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African-American Cooking, published in 2019, Tipton-Martin presents recipes that she found in her collection of books by Black cooks, along with their role in American culinary life. Tipton-Martin's history of Black American cuisine begins with the African sources, and continues with much more. She incorporates narratives of Black lives from sources like the Federal Writers’ Project (1935-1940), published memoirs and letters, and historic slave narratives from the 19th century. 

For the recipes in Jubilee, Tipton-Martin uses mainly Black sources for her recipes, which she explains thus:
"A common refrain in historic cookbooks about rather than by black cooks is that these cooks made delicious food through some kind of mystical power, an innate talent, rather than through honed skills and hard work. It’s a stereotype that, while on the surface complimentary, only served to pigeonhole and limit black cooks by declaring them inscrutable and denying them their earned wisdom and abilities to adapt, learn, and create." (p. 128).
The recipes in Jubilee come from many regions of the country, including California, the Southwest, and the urban North. One of her sources is a collection of "recipes and remembrances from three historically black colleges: Alabama’s renowned Tuskegee Institute, the Hampton Institute in Virginia, and Howard University in Washington, DC." (p. 112). Tipton-Martin cites recipes with an origin in the Caribbean, as well as the expected recipes and food ways from the South and the special cuisine of New Orleans. Food customs and recipes from middle-class writers, owners of restaurants and other food professionals, and well-off homes figure in this broad view, not just the foods of poor people. In sum: it's "not just Southern cooking or the soul food African Americans are known for and pigeonholed in, but immensely broad culinary interests and recipes." (p. 9). 

Tipton-Martin is one of the most upbeat writers that I have read, and I love the way she presents the material, concentrating on one general type of recipe at a time. For example, the introduction to the chapter of recipes for biscuits, breads, and other such products credits a number of cooks, the books they wrote, and the history of these baked goods, concluding:
“With so much knowledge and experience in the community, it’s no surprise that black inventors developed ways to turn out perfect loaves, rolls, muffins, and cakes without all the strenuous and time-consuming effort. In 1875, Alexander P. Ashbourne devised a spring-loaded die cutter that cut biscuits into a variety of thin, uniform shapes. Two years later, Joseph Lee, known as the ‘bread specialist,’ designed a bread crumb machine to reuse stale bread. In 1884, Willis Johnson of Cincinnati patented an improved mechanical egg beater with two chambers that allowed a cook to beat eggs in one section and mix batter in the other, and Judy Reed patented a hand-operated dough kneader and roller. And in the mid-twentieth century, Lucille Bishop Smith, a chef, home economist, entrepreneur, and author, developed and sold the first packaged hot roll mix—a commercial product that was a boon to housewives. ...

“Distinctively endowed. Professionally grounded. Supremely industrious. The recipes in this chapter memorialize these innovators as role models, equipped as they were with an inheritance from ancestors who fashioned flatware from oyster shells, carved mortars and pestles from tree logs, sewed baskets for winnowing rice using bones and sweetgrass, burned corncobs to make baking soda, and distilled salt from the soil under a smokehouse.” (p. 83)

Besides the fascinating documentation of this history, the recipes look scrumptious. Along with her own, modernized recipes, the author provides old recipes in their original format, to allow you to compare and judge what the historic version would have been like -- or to cook the original, if you wish. In addition, the illustrations are beautiful. Here is an example: Rice Muffins, a recipe belonging to the rice-growing tradition of South Carolina, from the chapter on bread and baked goods:

Rice Muffins, inspired by Plantation Recipes by
Leslie Bowers, published 1959. (p. 106)

Tipton-Martin never forgets the terrible elements of Black American history: the forced voyages, cruel family separations, abuse, and especially the misuse of women slaves. She is aware of the racism, economic injustice, social injustice, and cruel treatment of Black Americans in the centuries since the abolition of slavery. The frequent choice of slave owners or later of employers to take credit for their Black slaves or employees' work is a painful one; by giving credit to the Black professional cooks and restaurant workers, as well as family cooks who wrote their own cookbooks or left recipes to their families, Tipton-Martin in a sense is making up for these practices.

Jubilee often presents evidence of how individuals struggled against these evils, especially pointing out how employment as cooks, caterers, restaurant owners, railroad dining-car staff, and other food-service workers could create opportunities for Black Americans to improve their situation. She writes:
"Service workers who had fought for social status during the post–Civil War years by continuing to work in 'every day' careers gradually moved into the privileged class. Culinary arts helped them resist illiterate servant stereotypes, such as Mammy and Aunt Jemima, the way that the creative, visual, musical, theatrical, and cultural arts promoted notions of the 'New Negro' during the Harlem Renaissance." (p. 122).
"And while the pain of enslavement reverberates for centuries, and through the centuries, too, black bakers have used their skills and savvy to create wealth, self-sufficiency, and generations of protégés to carry on their legacy and to build their own economic power." (p. 263). 

Finally, I want to emphasize the appeal of the recipes in this book! I have not made any yet, but I love some of the ideas like the Savanah pickled shrimp, sweet potato salad, bread pudding, okra dishes, jambalaya, and many more. I'll end with a very intriguing tradition that I am sure I'll never have the nerve to try:

“Bake a sweet potato pie, a coconut pie, a custard pie, a mincemeat pie, and an apple pie. After removing from pie plate, stack each pie on top of each other. Press the stack gently, then cut into thin wedges so that everyone gets a taste of each pie.”  (p. 303, quoted from author Charlemae Rollinsee)

Book review © 2021 mae sander. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar Teach Us a Lesson

You’ll Never  Believe What Happened to Lacey is a serious book about racism in America. It relates stories of racist behavior, which are presented as “funny.” But they aren’t funny. They are painful. If you like to see other people insulted, humiliated, threatened, terrorized, belittled, and deprived of opportunities then I feel sorry for you. And maybe you’ll find this book funny. I can’t find it funny. It hurts me to read it. And I believe that every word is true.

I respect the authors for their effort to clarify racism, while trying to lead sane lives in the face of such evil. I respect their way of laughing at adversity. They can’t even experience laughter through tears (see the quote below for why no tears). Here are some serious quotes from the book:

“As we have learned, sometimes something racist happens to you and you don’t do a thing. You let people drown to death in a pool of racist thoughts and actions, as is your god-given right. You are only one person. You are not the Black ambassador to the United States. If people haven’t figured it out, it’s their problem. And sometimes you stand up and explain why they shouldn’t be doing or saying whatever insane thing they said.” (p. 100)

“I never tell white people that story because they can’t frigging stand hearing it. Honestly, they look like they’re in pain as they’re listening to me tell it and are annoyed that they have to carry this information around with them. I have never been able to understand why white people have such a low tolerance for hearing about racism. I mean, we have to live it! The least you could do is nod your head. The previous and the following are just two of the many reasons why Black people don’t want to talk about race with you.” (p. 124)

“A quick note about white tears: Why? Why do they work so well? It’s truly a great defense against being called a racist. I mean, it doesn’t work for Black people. Can you imagine if Black people cried every time we were called a name? Every time we were accused of something we didn’t do? Tell you what, I would be carrying around tissues at all times (not just when I go see musicals). I think, when a white person accused of racism cries, people think, Oh no. I need to fix this. White people shouldn’t cry. They should never have to cry! I think when white people see white people cry, they relate and feel sorry for them. And when white people see Black people cry, they can’t relate. Even though Black people have a billion things to cry about. Maybe it just boils down to the fact that white vulnerability is valuable and Black vulnerability puts the Black person in danger.” (p. 148)

“...this is real life and it does not stop. These stories only reaffirm where we are. They don’t shine a light on anything new.” (p. 202) 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

“First Person Singular: Stories” by Haruki Murakami

“My mother had drummed it into me from childhood that you shouldn’t bother people at home when it was time to have a meal. For better or for worse, this had seeped into my being and become a reflexive habit.” — Murakami, First Person Singular, (p. 59)

Haruki Murakami — always a favorite. I couldn’t resist this small collection of stories (published last week) even though some of the stories weren’t new to me. I had read around half of them when originally published in the New Yorker. 

I enjoyed reading or re-reading them, especially the one about the elderly monkey that could speak, wore clothes, worked as a bath-house attendant in a traditional Japanese inn, and stole the names of women that he would have liked to link up with. In other words, here’s Murakami’s habit of starting with something unbelievable and building it into something uncanny. 

Murakami has been a Beatles fan for a long time (remember his book titled Norwegian Wood). The story titled “With the Beatles” contains memories of Beatles music from the narrator’s adolescence, when the Beatles were releasing their famous songs. But it’s a very sad story about growing old — to summarize it quite crudely. And it doesn’t even have any magical realism, just sadness. The strangest thing is that I recognized my own past just a bit in the story, which I usually don’t do in Murakami. For example, the sentence at the top of this review about his mother’s principle of leaving when someone is about to eat: my mother drummed exactly the same thing into my head when I was growing up.

The New York Times reviewer, David Means, writes of this collection:

“Whatever you want to call Murakami’s work — magic realism, supernatural realism — he writes like a mystery tramp, exposing his global readership to the essential and cosmic (yes, cosmic!) questions that only art can provoke: What does it mean to carry the baggage of identity? Who is this inside my head in relation to the external, so-called real world? Is the person I was years ago the person I am now? Can a name be stolen by a monkey?”

Murakami’s novels are often too long. This collection is too short. 

Review © 2021 mae sander. 


Monday, April 12, 2021

Songs of Food and Drink

Miriam recently created a playlist of songs that mention food. She played them on a radio show at the University of Virginia station, where she sometimes substitutes for the usual host. She started with some that mentioned fruits (though they were not really about eating). I'm not familiar with these songs except of course the first -- I am a big fan of the Beatles!

FIRST: The Beatles: Strawberry Fields Forever.

The Beatles and the Strawberry Fields children's home.
(source)

Let me take you down
'Cause I'm going to 
Strawberry Fields
Nothing is real
And nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever
Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It's getting hard to be someone
But it all works out
It doesn't matter much to me
Let me take you down
'Cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields
Nothing is real
And nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever ...

Prince, The Revolution: "Raspberry Beret"

She wore a
Raspberry beret
The kind you find in a second hand store
Raspberry beret
And if it was warm she wouldn't wear much more
Raspberry beret
I think I love her

Plus Cherry, Kiwi, and Fruit Salad...


"Cherry"from "Cherry"

"Kiwi" - Harry Styles


The Wiggles: We're All Fruit Salad!

Plus quite a few more: 

  • "Candy" - Robbie Williams from "Take The Crown" 
  • "Candy" - Kate Bollinger from "I Don't Wanna Lose" 
  • "Grilled Cheese" - Peach Face 
  • "Honey" - Johnny Balik
  • "Peppers and Onions" - Tierra Whack
  • "I'm Just Snacking" Gus Dapperton
  • And to wind up on a different note: "Poison"- Bell Biv DeVoe

Finally: Coca Cola


"I'd like to buy the world a Coke." Not on Miriam's playlist, this song was originally a commercial about the world's most famous soft drink. The history of this song and its author was written up in the Washington Post in 2016
"In the commercial, a camera pans across faces of all shapes, colors and ethnicities, as they sing from a hilltop in Manziana, Italy, 'I’d like to buy the world a Coke.' ... The song hit radio stations on Feb. 12, 1971, and it gained immediate popularity. DJs immediately began receiving calls asking them to play the jingle, as if it were a song by The Doors or the Jackson 5. It was so popular, it began to affect the pop charts. The Hillside Singers had recorded the original vocals, and that version peaked at number 13. Backer had the New Seekers record a slightly different version of the song, titled “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony),” which peaked at number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100." 

I enjoyed hearing Miriam's playlist of music that was new to me, as I love to connect to the use of food in many contexts. I added the Coke song because I like to share a beverage reference with Elizabeth and other bloggers at her weekly drink event at the blog Altered Book Lover

blog post © 2021 mae sander with help from miriam.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Graffiti Alley, Ann Arbor


After a year of being shut in, I was happy to be walking around the Liberty Street area of our town,
and to take a look at Graffiti Alley, where several artists were working on the wall art.


This group posed for a portrait. They told me that the painter with the spray can had never been to Ann Arbor before.
I didn’t ask where they were from, but they seemed to be having fun. The art is always new!





The art work of Graffiti Alley has been evolving
since 1999, and is constantly repainted by anyone who
wants to add to the murals on the walls.

Graffiti News from Korea

Here's an amusing story from ArtNet News: "A Couple Accidentally Defaced a $500,000 Painting in a Seoul Mall After Mistaking It for a Participatory Artwork" --
"A couple visiting a street art exhibition at a mall in Seoul unknowingly vandalized an abstract painting by American artist JonOne, said to be worth $500,000, painting three large dark splotches across its surface.

"The couple were confused by the array of brushes and paint tubes scattered on the ground beneath the canvas. They were meant to reflect the creative process of the artist, but the unwitting pair mistook the display for an invitation to add to the work."
The artist is "known for his Abstract Expressionist-style graffiti." I find this extremely funny! Especially as the $500,000 work of art looks to me just like the ones in Graffiti Alley, except that it's normal to paint over the walls in Graffiti Alley. I was happy to learn that the couple who painted on the mural were not charged with a crime.

Here's a before-and-after photo of the 23 by 9 foot painting:

Above: original work. Below: defaced work. Big whoop? (source: ArtNet News)

The Murals of El Paso, Texas

The New York Times recently published a fascinating feature about the murals in El Paso: "Art Without Borders" by Diana Spechler. If you are fascinated by murals and street art, as I am, you will surely enjoy the detailed descriptions of the artists and their goals in painting murals with topics such as racial justice, immigration from Mexico, local history and communities, and more.

The paintings in El Paso reflect many trends, especially the Mexican muralism movement of the 1920s and 1930s. This movement, the author writes, "gave us some of the most important art of the 20th century, most notably from 'the Three Greats:' Diego Rivera (otherwise known as Frida Kahlo’s husband), José Clemente Orozco (a master painter despite losing a hand to gangrene) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (who once dismissed easel painting as 'aristocratic,' mentored Jackson Pollock in New York City and is said to have tried to murder Trotsky, but that’s another story for another time)."

The photographs of murals and of their artists in the article are especially interesting, and use a sort of animated technique to interpret various parts of each mural.

Blog post © 2021 mae sander.

 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

In Spring

In Spring you can fly a kite in the park.


You can lie on the grass with your laptop.

You can ride a bike or take a walk in the neighborhood.

You might have to wait for a tennis court.

You can come out of hibernation like Kathy’s Bear!



The poet wrote “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” I completely disagree. I think April is a very kind and gentle month. I just hope the Michigan pandemic resurgence becomes less cruel soon!

Blog post © 2021 mae sander.

 

Friday, April 09, 2021

"Outside the Box" by Marc Levinson

When a massive container ship blocked the Suez canal for the week of March 23-29, this year, there was a lot of talk about the blow to global manufacturing because the 200 or so waiting ships carried components from one side of the world that were needed by factories on the other side of the world. I think we are all conscious of the way vital electronics, household gadgets, cars, trucks, and industrial goods are assembled from parts that are sourced in dispersed manufacturing sites, but we don't necessarily know the details.

In the book Outside the Box: How Globalization Changed from Moving Stuff to Spreading Ideas, author Marc Levinson traces the history of internationalized sourcing of materials, as we are accustomed to thinking about it. He traces several waves of globalization that altered the production methods for goods that our lives depend on, including food, cars, iPhones, and many other commodities and products. He explains the way that shipping companies exploded the size and speed of container ships until the economies of scale were distorted, and the way that demand for their shipping services first grew and then shrunk, until now many of the ships are vastly under-utilized, and the biggest companies are in trouble. According to Levinson, a backlash against globalization has been changing many features of worldwide manufacturing and distribution endeavors.

Present-day manufacturing, Levinson explains, involves much more than just assembling parts procured through tightly-organized supply chains, as was done in the twentieth century. He traces the development of "value chains" that in the mid-20th century created a much more complex web of dependency among international manufacturers, and relied on entities in complex and loosely-organized chains. Levinson outlines the ways that this concept worked, including the major role of cheap shipping on ever-increasing container ships. He explains the benefits that derive from value chains, and also the many disadvantages -- not the least of which is a shipping incident like the one in Suez last month. Interestingly, he shows how the interdependence of factories on far-flung sources of parts has been diminishing in what he calls a "fourth wave" of globalization.

Above all, the driving force behind value chains came to be intellectual property. The design of complex products, the planning of how to build them, the calculation and negotiation of how to source their parts, and the creation of internal software for many types of modern goods means that there is often much more value from intangibles than from physical components. An important consequence is that old views of import and export surpluses and trade balances no longer illustrate the real economic impact of multiple countries' and corporations' roles in production and design. Politicians often fixate on only the physical components that may be manufactured outside their countries and their tax base, when the major value of a modern product like a car or a smart phone is in intellectual property, not in hardware. Levinson explains a great deal about the way that globalized value chains work and how this is changing right now. A new global model for manufacturing is emerging, so I guess he will be able to write a third book. (His first was called The Box, and is a history of container shipping.) 

Outside the Box is a complex work of economic history. Sometimes when reading it, I felt bogged down in too much detail. Other times I just didn't feel sure I understood the big picture. Overall, it's a book worth reading. I don't feel as if I can do it justice in a review, but here are a few more thoughts.

The Old Way: An Integrated Supply Chain

A Model-T Ford at Greenfield Village in 2012. 

"Any business faces risks, and supply chains inherently pose risks aplenty: fire might strike the plant of a key supplier; a problematic lock on a river might block shipments of an essential raw material; a gasoline shortage might make it difficult for production workers to reach their jobs. Once, manufacturers managed this risk by controlling their supply chains directly. The exemplar, Ford Motor Company, owned forests, mines, and a rubber plantation; transported raw materials to its factories on a company-owned railroad; and built blast furnaces, a foundry, a steel rolling mill, a glass factory, a tire plant, and even a textile plant at its vast River Rouge complex near Detroit, where sand, iron ore, and raw rubber were transformed into auto parts and assembled into Model A cars." -- Marc Levinson, Outside the Box (p. 153). 

Another Way: The iPhone 3G

My iPhone
In contrast, Levinson has a detailed analysis of the value chain for the iPhone 3G that was sold a decade ago, as an example of how the modern manufacturing arrangements work, and how they affect international trade. In particular, he uses this example to illustrate the fallacy of simple-minded views of trade balances:

"Consider how the iPhone 3G’s complicated supply arrangements registered in merchandise trade statistics. China exported approximately $2 billion of the phones to the United States in 2009. Apple, on the other hand, exported no goods directly from the United States to China, and other US-made components shipped to the iPhone manufacturing plant were worth only $100 million or so. Thus, if either country had published official statistics covering trade in iPhone 3Gs, they would have shown China to have a $1.9 billion trade surplus with the United States. Yet in reality, the US-China relationship in iPhones tilted in the other direction. The total value that was added in China to all the iPhone 3Gs shipped to the United States in 2009, at $6.50 per phone, came to about $73 million, or less than the value of the US-made components shipped to China. Almost ten times as much of the phone’s value originated in Japan as in China, but when those iPhones were shipped from China to the United States, they did not affect the official US trade deficit with Japan at all." (p. 135). 

Subsequently, Levinson explains, China tried to make their share more profitable: "A dozen years later, nearly two-thirds of the value of Chinese manufactured exports was created within China." (p. 168). 

The Anti-Globalization Backlash and its Consequences

"Is globalization over? Not by any stretch. Rather, it has entered a new stage. While globalization is retreating with respect to factory production and foreign investment, it is advancing quickly when it comes to the flow of services and ideas." (p. 224).
Outside the Box traces the development of global production, which relied on new agreements on tariffs and taxation, as well as relaxing many obstacles to exchange of goods among many nations. He describes both the advantages and the harms done by these changes in protective behavior by various governments. In his final chapters, Levinson documents how there are new barriers developing to totally free flow of goods, as well as new doubts about the reliability of long-distance transport of vital components and necessary goods. Distrust of the agreements both in developed and in developing nations has created new ways to do business. He cites major events such as the vote for Britain to exit the common market, and the election of Trump who restored a large number of tariffs and restraints on international trade. He writes:
"Around 2011, as the result of independent decisions by some of the world’s largest companies, trade patterns began to shift as multinational companies reconsidered their value chains. The effects showed up not only in export and import figures, but also in a set of obscure calculations that track the extent to which one country’s manufacturers use inputs that were imported from another country. In 2011, these OECD data show, 42 percent of the value of South Korea’s exports—things like Hyundai cars and Daewoo tanker ships—came from imported materials and components; six years later, the corresponding figure was only 30 percent. For China, imported content was 23 percent of the value of manufactured exports in 2011, but only 17 percent five years later. The United States, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Sweden all experienced the same trend. So did Taiwan, Indonesia, and Malaysia. There are only two likely explanations. One is that manufacturers in these countries cut back on exporting goods that used a lot of foreign inputs. The other is that they decided to obtain more of their inputs at home rather than sourcing them abroad. Either way, manufacturing became less global." (pp. 214-215). 

In China, there are thousands of KFC outlets.
A "fourth wave" of globalization is now in process, Levinson writes. The third wave, he says, could be called "the age of stuff;" manufacturing was the driving force. In contrast, the fourth wave is more about lifestyle choices, and reflects the aging of the population especially in developed nations, but also in the less developed parts of the globe.  For example, American fast food is vastly popular and widely sold everywhere -- even China. 

"Companies in industries whose products are intangible—software, accommodation, real estate, computer services—accounted for a greater share of the largest multinational enterprises, while major industrial companies shrank under relentless competitive pressure. In the emerging Fourth Globalization, moving ideas, services, and people around the world mattered more than transporting boatloads of goods—and seemed likely to create very different sets of winners and losers." (p. 219). 

The conclusion of the book takes us almost to the present moment with the question of how the Covid-19 pandemic will affect the future.

"By bringing international travel almost to a stop after airlines cancelled flights and governments directed arriving passengers to spend two weeks in quarantine, COVID-19 forced firms to manage their foreign interests without customary site visits and face-to-face meetings, and travel-weary executives may not be eager to return to the old ways even after the virus is a distant memory." (p. 227). 

Levinson obviously can't predict the future, but he offers quite a lot of economic history to help envision how life may change and how it might go on with some of the same relationships and ideals among countries and within corporations. It's a difficult book to read, but very interesting.

Review © 2021 mae sander for maefood dot blogspot dot com.