Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Kale tastes like dishwater: A rant.

I decided to give kale another chance, and ordered a kale salad at a very beautiful restaurant in Hawaii recently.
The goat cheese, candied nuts, and fruit in the salad were delicious. But kale is... well, kale.
Of all the overrated foods I know of, kale is the most overrated. I know it's a personal thing, as any taste is, but I'm overwhelmed by the ever-increasing presence of kale in so many places at every level -- a trend that's lasted quite a few years now. Some people like it, but can its health benefits really be as extreme as they are claimed to be? I hate the term "super food" for a lot of reasons, but kale is definitely one of them.

Just a random look at the featured recipes on the Bon Appetit website gets you to a suggestion for a nice white bean and sausage dinner. The recommended ingredients are illustrated in the photo at left.

"Cooking without recipes" is the name of the section with the white bean dish. The whole approach looks great until you get to the instructions: "Add a big handful of shredded kale until slightly wilted." Now why would you do that to a beautiful dish of white beans, parmesan cheese, sausage, poached egg and other delicious ingredients. I would totally enjoy that dish, except kale tastes to me like dishwater. Yeah, that kind of dishwater.

At least they say this in Bon Appetit before they link to fourteen more kale recipes:
The myth: Kale is the most nutrient-rich of all the leafy greens. 
The truth: Actually, spinach, romaine, parsley, and chard are “healthier” for you. That’s not to say kale is bad—it’s still packed with Vitamin A, C, E, K, and fiber.
I know people who are grateful for such an abundance of recipes because kale is also the nemesis of those who subscribe to farm shares. I recall one friend with a farm share who made kale pie. Her children even ate it. She was a bit rueful about it though since the main ingredients were eggs, cream, and pie crust.

Kale isn't just for rich spoiled foodies, though. Food banks love to give away kale to their customers. I was just reading about a food bank in Washington, DC, where they have convinced supermarkets to stop donating junk food including cakes and other sweets. They want more kale!

I read an article by Julia Belluz titled: "This food bank doesn’t want your junk food. Good." The article described several reasons why food insecure people may binge eat (fearing scarcity) and why offering them unhealthy or super-fat junk food just makes their lives more difficult. The link between food insecurity and obesity becomes more obvious when you think about the ups and downs of too little or too much food that may be their experience. Belluz explains:
"Like other low-income Americans, many of these folks struggle with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and high-blood pressure... sending them highly processed, sugary foods — which are energy-dense and nutrition-poor — isn’t going to help matters."

 Food Gatherers in Ann Arbor has a less severe policy about cake, but makes a huge effort to find fresh fruit and vegetables for their clients. I completely support and applaud this effort to help their food-insecure clients choose healthier foods. Even kale. I just don't quite understand its sacred place in all this, though.

Left: illustration of kale from the kale recipes page of the Ann Arbor Food Gatherers' website. Of course there are also recipes for over a dozen other veggies! I hope the people who receive the food from Food Gatherers get a choice.

Bees in Flowers

Bees and one lady bug. Matthaei Botanical Gardens, Ann Arbor.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Tokyo Stories

Bonsai at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, Ann Arbor, on a walk today.
Tokyo is almost unimaginably large for someone like me to imagine. Though the official city of Tokyo has 13 million people, the greater Tokyo area has close to 38 million. The Book of Tokyo, edited by Michael Emmerich and others, presents ten very recent short stories that take place in this huge urban setting. I decided to read this collection to become more familiar with current Japanese authors.

Surprisingly, almost all of the stories had some type of food theme. I wasn't expecting this! Cooking at home, including food purchases, preparation, and sharing among generations; eating sushi, Thai food or cheap Chinese meals out; quirky responses to food -- all seem to pop up in these stories of domestic and city life. Small grocers, fish-mongers and bakers; medium-sized supermarkets; large food halls in the sub-basements of the major downtown department stores; or high-end bakeries: all have a place here.

The lives of the characters are often depicted by their food thoughts and what they eat or how they feed others. An out-of-work man, cooking to save money, restores the kitchen in his apartment, which he's been using as a clothes closet. A woman for whom life has no meaning begins to cook occasionally for her aging father (though it doesn't help her). Another woman rebels against her traditional mother by having a totally messy house with ready-meals and take-away containers left on the table and her husband doing the laundry. Most of the stories are sketches of the lives of pretty ordinary individuals, and food is not neglected.

Here are some examples from the highly varied stories in The Book of Tokyo:
"When he pressed her over her dislike of basement food halls [in Tokyo's department stores], her reply was simple: ‘Just the thought that everyone there is thinking about eating gives me the creeps.’ But Watanabe had the feeling that there was some other, more personal reason and began imagining what it might be. There must be someone in her past she didn’t like eating with. She hated being watched while she was eating, and she didn’t like seeing the other person eat. Maybe she felt vulnerable, as if she was being stripped naked by whoever it was staring at her while she ate. On the other hand, if she watched someone else while they were eating, she was being forced to see that person’s nakedness, or listen to their pathetic whingeing." -- From "An Elevator on Sunday" by Shūichi Yoshida (Kindle Locations 2443-2448) 
"Sitting next to me on the sofa, Mother asks, ‘When will the grocery delivery arrive?’ 
"‘It should be here tomorrow.’ 
"‘Thanks. That’s such a big help. Rice and the like are so heavy I just can’t carry them myself anymore. Ooh, this cake is delicious. That new shop’s a real winner.’" -- From "A House for Two" by Mitsuyo Kakuta (Kindle Locations 463-466) 
"In a daruma-patterned rice bowl and a rabbit-patterned rice bowl, I heaped white rice, as densely and as appetizingly as I could. There were two lights on the kitchen ceiling, but both were dead and had been left that way, because I couldn’t be bothered, for a year. In the dim light, Yukari brought the plate of miso-pickled mackerel, the small plate of pickled radish, and a little bowl of seasoned boiled spinach to the table and said, ‘Let’s eat,’ handing me chopsticks. 
"I took them and said thank you. 
"‘I don’t know how good this is.’ 
"‘You don’t have a club meeting tonight?’ I asked. 
"‘It’s only Wednesdays and Saturdays,’ Yukari said, putting a fish bone on the edge of the plate. ... 
"All the side dishes were bland. I’m originally from the Kansai region so I like bold flavours, but all the meals that my Kyūshū-born wife made were basically bland. Yukari’s cooking was even blander than her mother’s." --  From "Dad, I Love You" by Nao-Cola Yamazaki (Kindle Locations 1433-1442)
"But it’s the second time this year we’ve come for a picnic in this park, five minutes’ walk from our house. We’ll probably do the same thing 20 more times until winter arrives and the grass becomes completely withered. We did that last year, and the year before. We have sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, curried cauliflower, meatballs cooked in tomato sauce and more besides, packed together and arranged in different-sized airtight containers. We also have two vacuum flasks – one of coffee and one of sweet-corn soup. 
"‘Is it okay?’ Kyoko asks, as I put a piece of cauliflower in my mouth. 
"‘Mm, it’s good,’ I say. She looks slightly relieved." -- From "Picnic" by Ekuni Kaori (Kindle Locations 302-307).
"The monster prepares his meals with ingredients purchased at supermarkets, or convenience stores, or delicatessens. But four times a week without fail he must eat ashitaba. He cannot go without it. Which means that first he must obtain it. According to the explanation on the package in the vegetable aisle of one supermarket, ashitaba is a large perennial of the parsley family. The explanation goes on to say that ashitaba is in the angelica genus of the parsley family, a name that comes from the Latin angelus, which means angel." -- From "Model T Frankenstein" by Hideo Furukawa (Kindle Locations 281-284).

If you are expecting to find Bonsai, Tea Ceremonies, formal Kimonos, Noh Drama, or any of that sort of thing, you'll
be very disappointed in the very modern life depicted in The Book of Tokyo! Those things are for us, over here.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Picnic, End of Summer

We began a planned walk through the woods towards the boardwalk.

The bright sky darkened. We saw streaks of lightening. Heard thunderclaps.
But we stopped to enjoy a pond covered with lotus blossoms. We've never managed to see the full blossoming before,
though we've been to this park a number of times.

We were soaked in the rain, but stopped at another part of the park in our soggy clothes. The clouds were scuttling
towards the east, the line of storms moving over Lake Erie.

From the lakeshore we could see another wetland full of lotus blossoms. 
An osprey wearing a red leg ring landed in a tree as
we were heading back to the car to return home.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Another Spenser Novel

"The cabbie drove me down from Route 1 to the center of town, through the hot green tunnel of July trees. Lawns were being watered, dogs were being called, bikes were being ridden, cookouts were being done, pools were being splashed drinks were being had, tennis was being played. Suburbia writ large. There was some kind of barbecue underway on the common around the meeting house. The smoke from the barbecue wagons hung over the folding tables in a light good-smelling haze. There were dogs there and children and a balloon man. I did not hear him whistle far and wee. If he had, it wouldn't have been for me." (Robert Parker, The Judas Goat, p. 157)
My 1983 paperback edition.
Back in the late 1970s when Robert Parker published The Judas Goat,  editors (as far as I know) were fanatic about the rule that one should not use the passive voice. I wonder if Parker had to fight to keep this paragraph as is. It reads as if he meant to demonstrate how the passive voice could work in his sparse style. Each time I reread it, I wonder about it. Did he mean to emphasize that in Suburbia all these things -- watering lawns, cooking out, etc -- were done without agency (the technical term critics use when they decry passive voice use)? I wish I knew.

In fact, Parker could really do a lot with language! Spenser, the fictitious private investigator who narrates the novels about himself, has a very powerful and entertaining voice. The Judas Goat is only the fifth of Parkers thirty-nine Spenser novels, so his exaggerated short sentences, wisecracks, and self-praising remarks hadn't yet become formulaic.

As always, Spenser's love of good food offers lots of chances for the reader to admire his prose. Sometimes the descriptions read as if he was auditioning to write for Jane and Michael Stern -- who published the first Road Food a year before The Judas Goat appeared. I suspect both were reflecting a trend of some kind.

On the way to the suburban scene in the quote, near his girlfriend Susan Silverman's house, Spenser had gone to Karl's Sausage Kitchen and Donovan's Package Store. (Parker always seemed to use real food places -- Karl's still existed as recently as 2012.) Once in Susan's kitchen, Spenser tells us:
"I found some Utica Club cream ale in the refrigerator and opened a can while I unpacked my delicatessen in the kitchen. There was veal loaf and pepper loaf and beer wurst, and Karl's liverwurst, which you could slice or spread and which made my blood flow a little faster when I thought of it. 
"I had bought two cartons of German potato salad and some pickles and a loaf of Westphalian rye and a jar of Dusseldorf mustard." (p. 158)
You get the idea. Quite a bit later, after greeting Susan whom he hasn't seen in a long time (during which he'd been out hunting assassins and killing some of them) they get around to eating -- "I put two slices of veal loaf on some rye bread, added a small application of Dusseldorf mustard, put another slice of bread on top and bit. I chewed and swallowed." (p. 164)

That's Spenser. His descriptions of killing bad guys are just as wry and detached as his descriptions of food. Another thing The Judas Goat has going for it is that the great character Hawk plays a big role. If you don't know Hawk, you should read this book. You could (re)read it even if you do.

P.S. If you didn't notice the reference in the quoted paragraph to an e. e. cummings poem, look at this. Spenser is not just sensitive, handsome, talented, cold-blooded, food-appreciating, and a fabulous lover of Susan Silverman -- he's also very well-read in poetry and world lit.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Some things don't seem to change: Robert Parker's Spenser

As I read Robert Parker's 1980 detective novel Looking for Rachel Wallace, I was slightly unnerved by how little in it was obsolete. The novel begins when Parker's cool, suave detective Spenser is hired to be a body guard for Rachel Wallace, a feminist/lesbian author who has received threats from shady anti-gay right wing organizations.

Though he's very macho, as in working out all the time, drinking a lot of beer, and always carrying a gun, Spenser is also quite open-minded: a combination that contributes to the appeal of these novels. His reaction to Rachel Wallace is to wisecrack, and she constantly reminds him that she has no sense of humor. However, he demonstrates that he takes her seriously and acts without prejudice.

The hatred of gays, communists, and social activists that motivates Rachel Wallace's attackers is all too familiar. Her attackers, as you'd expect in a good plot, turn out to have more motives than just their politics, but the people that follow them and the thugs they hire bear a creepy similarity to the alt-right and other extremists that have emerged as a force in the current US presidential election -- and how creepy is that?

In the Spenser novels, Parker always included a lot of notable characters of various types. Spenser's extraordinarily beautiful girlfriend Susan Silverman, for example, is a practicing psychotherapist with a PhD from Harvard. In later novels, Parker makes her kind of quirky and two-dimensional, but in this one she's a really enjoyable and self-assured character worthy of the respect of the author, the reader, and the other characters in the book.

Spenser expresses his semi-secret intellectual side by reading books. He impresses and maybe annoys Rachel Wallace not only by having read her book but also by saying it was a kind of repeat of Simone de Beauvoir, which he's obviously also read. Spenser demonstrates his sensitive side by enjoying fine dining and cooking, sometimes just for himself:
"I had cornbread and country sausage and broiled tomato for breakfast and read the Globe. Then I put on my gun and went looking for Mulready and Cody." (Kindle Locations 1976-1977)
 And sometimes for very appealing and sophisticated Susan:
"I had another Molson and brought my two pots to a boil again. In the big one I put a pound of spaghetti. In the small one with the steamer rack I put the frozen broccoli. I set the timer for nine minutes. ... 
We ... set the table while the spaghetti boiled and the broccoli steamed. The bell on the timer rang. I went to the kitchen and drained the broccoli and tried the spaghetti. It needed another minute. While it boiled I ran the Cuisinart another whirl and reblended my oil and spices. Then I tried the pasta. It was done. I drained it, put it back in the pot and tossed it with the spiced oil and broccoli. I put out the pot, the leftover loaves of Syrian bread that I bought for lunch, and a cold bottle of Soave Bolla. Then I held Susan’s chair. She sat down. I put another log on the fire, poured a dash of wine in her glass. She sipped it thoughtfully, then nodded at me. I filled her glass and then mine." (Kindle Locations 2214-2223)
As I read the book I wondered if the only obsolete detail was a reference to Master Charge. (If you aren't old enough to remember, Master Charge was the previous name for MasterCard, and changed around the time this book was published.)

Robert Parker died in 2010. But Spenser and Susan live!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


Chocolate Soufflé
Beautiful decorations on a chocolate tart -- too bad the judges
didn't like the macarons!
Chocolate tart by Nadia, eventual winner of the entire season of The Great British Baking Show.
Finally, we have watched the last two episodes of the PBS series "The Great British Baking Show." The second-to-last episode was all about chocolate, and I love chocolate. I think I may actually be capable of making a chocolate soufflé, in fact maybe I did so once years ago. And I might some time try a chocolate tart. Everything else: just too hard or labor-intensive for me to try. The last episode was emotional, and every baked object was over-the-top!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Sunday in the Park

Walking in Huron-Clinton Metropark near Ann Arbor Sunday we saw lots of mushrooms in the grass, probably abundant because of several recent rainstorms. I'm not a wild mushroom hunter so I have no idea if these could be eaten or if a bite of them would strike me dead.

On the circular trail around the park we saw other people strolling or running. There were quite a few cyclists, some grouped in families, others togged out and looking serious. We often walk or cycle this trail, enjoying the open fields in the eastern part of the park and the wooded river banks on the west side. We've seen sandhill cranes here in the past, but yesterday we saw only a flight of Canada geese. Songbirds, very audible in Spring, were silent. They've no doubt finished nesting: the chicks are fledged, and many birds must be nearly ready for fall migration.

This  tent caterpillars' nest against the blue sky doesn't seem as disgusting
as these pests often are.
Tree roots along the Huron River Bank.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Current Books, Airplane Books

Again, I don't have time to write complete reviews even of books I enjoyed. However, here are my three most recently completed reading projects:

An early painting by Pissarro, before he
became firmly an Impressionist.
Alice Hoffman, The Marriage of Opposites, is historical fiction about the parents of Camille Pissarro, one of my favorite painters. His mother was born in the Caribbean island of St. Thomas in the 1790s, into a family of Jews from France (who had of course earlier been expelled in previous centuries from Spain and Portugal). Pissarro's father was born in France into a similar community. The love story of the parents, whose marriage was not approved by the strict rules of their local community, is a central part of the book. The artistic life of Camille Pissarro is presented in less detail.

By making up a number of fictitious characters that don't appear in the historical record, the author turns this into a nice novel, almost a romance. I suspect she used the artist's paintings like the one at right as inspiration for her inventions.

I'm fascinated by the historic time and place featured in the book, but a bit skeptical about the details of the author's research. Some of the descriptions of food and of Jewish practice seemed to me to perhaps be based on modern Caribbean foodways and religious traditions, not the result of thorough research. I may be wrong, and I may do some of my own research.

Peter Robinson's Inspector Graves is a nice British policeman like the ones on PBS Masterpiece, and his book Innocent Graves is a nice British police procedural with grisly victims' bodies, much suspense, several reversals of police hypotheses, a dramatic trial, and a satisfying conclusion. Great beach read! A few good police meals! Lots more books in the series!

S.J.Rozan's The Shanghai Moon is just as good as her three other books that I've read and reported at greater length. Her combination of setting in the New York Jewish community and New York Chinatown with background in the World War II Shanghai ghetto (where around 20,000 European Jews were saved from the Nazis) is really great. I know this history and I think it's very well represented here. Rozan devotes the usual excellent attention to what the detectives Lydia Chin and Bill Smith were eating and what it shows about their character and relationship.

And coming soon:

Next on my list -- this collection of essays about the Black community of the USA.

New Guinea Mask

Our new mask, made in New Guinea.
We don't have detailed information about its tribal origins.
We have hung the new mask with our African masks.
This store in Hanalei on Kauai has a fabulous collection of carvings and other artifacts from New Guinea, the Solomon
Islands, New Zealand, and other parts of the South Pacific. The owners travel to purchase most of the merchandise.
They obtained our mask from a collector who bought it in New Guinea.

Inside the shop

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Goodbye to Kauai

A waterspout near Poipu Beach, Kauai.
Home again: we arrived yesterday after a red-eye from Kauai to Detroit via Los Angeles, around 15 hours door to door. What a beautiful island! Hawaii is known for rainbows and waterfalls. I've already posted some rainbows, now it's time for water action. First, the waterspout: video below.


The waterfall at the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.
Opaekaa Falls
Wailua Falls (the rainbow in the falls was very beautiful).
Closeup of Wailua Falls
Waterfall along the Na Pali coast.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Kauai Chickens

A rooster crowing at Poipu beach on Kauai.
Can you eat the chickens that roam the beaches, parks, parking lots, front and back yards, and everywhere else in Kauai? Yes, said our bird guide Jim Denny. You take a chicken and a perfectly round lava rock; put them in a pot and bring to a boil. Keep the pot boiling until the rock is tender.

Kauai's chickens are closely related to the junglefowl native to Africa and Asia.
Of course we saw many more interesting birds than these chickens -- including rare native species that may be competing for food or territory. But it's hard not to be intrigued by these feral chickens. We had heard that they were descended from a combination of introduced chickens: those of the early native humans who brought them in their outrigger canoes as long as 1000 years ago, and more recent introductions of domestic European barnyard chickens. Evidently the large numbers of birds were a result of escapees whose cages were destroyed during the devastating hurricane Iniki in 1992.

We were amused by all the chickens and their chicks. Also like the other tourists I couldn't resist taking photos, which I've selected for this post. Intrigued, I looked up the natural history of these half-wild half-domestic birds. In Modern Farmer magazine I read:
"The Hawaiian islands, incredibly remote from any continent, were largely absent of large animals prior to Polynesian settlement in (this is disputed) somewhere between 300 and 800 AD. There were no mammals, besides some bats, and the largest animals were some mid-sized birds. Most everything in Hawaii, geologically speaking, is new.... 
"Kauai is home to thousands of wild chickens, a particular variety that’s vibrant in plumage but of mixed value to the ecosystem of the island. They eat the venomous centipedes native to Kauai, a trait that people seem to like, but they have no natural predators besides pet cats and dogs, and the population is growing at an alarming rate." -- The Mystery Of Kauai’s Thousands Of Feral Chickens

What's known about the ancestors of the present-day feral chickens? Researchers at Michigan State are studying their DNA to try to understand their origins and also to gain insights about chickens everywhere. Most of the articles I found described this research along with general natural history of the Kauai chickens.

On the remotest beach where we sat, the chickens came right up to where I was sitting.

I found more natural history in the science journal Nature:
"... Kauai is teeming with feral chickens — free-ranging fowl related both to the domestic breeds that lay eggs or produce meat for supermarket shelves and to a more ancestral lineage imported to Hawaii hundreds of years ago. 
"These modern hybrids inhabit almost every corner of the island, from rugged chasms to KFC car parks. They have clucked their way into local lore and culture and are both beloved and reviled by Kauai's human occupants. Biologists, however, see in the feral animals an improbable experiment in evolution: what happens when chickens go wild? 
"The process of domestication has moulded animals and their genomes to thrive in human environments. Traits that ensure survival in the wild often give way to qualities that benefit humans, such as docility and fast growth. Feralization looks, on its surface, like domestication in reverse. But closer inspection suggests that the chickens of Kauai are evolving into something quite different from their wild predecessors, gaining some traits that reflect that past, but maintaining others that had been selected by humans. In this way, they are similar to other populations of animals, including dogs, pigs and sheep, that have broken free of captivity and flourished." -- When chickens go wild 

An article in the New York Times described more about research into the Kauai chickens:
"Fossils of chickens dating to the Polynesian era, long before Capt. James Cook, the British explorer, arrived in Hawaii in 1778, have been dug up in a cave on Kauai. From the fossils, scientists led by Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Center for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, have extracted mitochondrial chicken DNA, part of the data they used to reconstruct the paths of Polynesian expansion. ... 
"In the new research, the scientists sequenced DNA from 23 chickens from eight regions of Kauai. As the influx of farm chickens encountered the older Polynesian red junglefowl population, Dr. Gering [the researcher] wondered, 'How is that population evolving?'
"The mitochondrial DNA of a few of the chickens matched that of the Polynesian chicken bones from the Kauai cave; more had the DNA of recent European breeds. Not all of the feral chickens had the mutated thyroid hormone receptor of modern domesticated chickens. The birds’ appearances also indicate that ancient traits persist. Some look as if they have just walked off the farm, but many others, with burnt orange and black plumage for the males, look like red junglefowl from the forests of India or Vietnam." -- "In Hawaii, Chickens Gone Wild
While I couldn't resist taking photos, I wasn't in the least tempted by the tee shirts, magnets, and many other touristy items with cartoon roosters or double-meaning slogans about Kauai's chickens. What has me fascinated is the research about their behavior and their history.