Monday, February 28, 2022

In My Kitchen and In Our World

New in my kitchen: a little oil cruet.

February fun: chocolate truffles for Valentine’s Day,
made by a neighbor.

At the end of each month, I share my kitchen thoughts and experiences with a group of like-minded bloggers who post at Sherry's blog. Other than one little oil cruet, the only new item in my kitchen is my new over-the-stove microwave oven: we have been waiting for about a year to finally replace the one that broke. It’s very nice to have my countertop space freed up again, after using a countertop microwave for a year.

As for cooking: I continue to try new vegetarian and vegan dishes, and to avoid buying meat. I’ve already documented my experiments with Ethiopian vegetarian foods, and a few others.

In this spirit, here are a few photos of my kitchen and what I cooked in February.

Biggest change: my new microwave oven.

Impossible meatballs. Made from Impossible Burger meat, following my standard recipe.
I haven’t been buying beef, so it’s been a long time since I made these, and they are amazing.
They look like beef, they feel like beef, and they taste like beef.

Brown rice, lentils, and squash.

Crispy tofu garnished with green onion: a new recipe from the web.

More vegetarian cooking: pasta with broccoli.

Soba noodles, snow peas, bamboo shoots, and peanut sauce.
Plus a glass of wine.

Along with several loaves of bread, Len made cinnamon rolls.
Salad lunch: lettuce with garlic croutons and
white beans with red bell pepper and cilantro.
Small dish: jalapeño peppers for garnish.
Soup lunch: Trader Joe’s corn chowder — with extra (frozen) corn!
Some packaged foods are really good.

In this photo of our Ethiopian dinner, you can see our glasses of wine and water,
which I’m sharing with Elizabeth’s blog party that celebrates drinks each week.

The World Outside My Kitchen

The world this month has been full of shocks. People in many cities in Ukraine are under bombardment, suffering from the worst types of fear and terror, fighting back with surprising effectiveness. As I post this,  negotiations are ongoing, but little is known. Globally, the ongoing consequences of the covid pandemic have reduced many people who were insecure before to utter desperation, near to starvation. Hand in hand with food insecurity, a large number of the world's population suffer from a lack of health care. Health care inadequacy obviously proved even more disastrous when the new, highly virulent, and exceptionally contagious virus appeared two years ago. 

One man, Dr. Paul Farmer, through the organization Partners in Health, a social justice organization which he founded in 1987, brought exceptional relief to a large number of people in the world, especially in the medically-underserved areas of West Africa, in Haiti, and in other places. Dr. Farmer believed: “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” (source)

Dr. Farmer in 2013 (Wikipedia)

Dr. Farmer's sudden death on February 21 reminds us of how he challenged the cynical view that people in the third world were incapable, or even undeserving, of being helped by modern medicine. From The Boston Globe:

"Where others saw insurmountable obstacles — civil conflict, remote villages, lack of funding, corrupt institutions and governments — Farmer found a way to deliver care in a sustainable way. Farmer and Partners in Health have been behind, directly and indirectly, scores of global public health efforts, like campaigns against tuberculosis and AIDS. The group has worked locally, too. When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit Massachusetts in 2020, Farmer and Partners in Health brought the expertise gained when they helped fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to a contact tracing initiative to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The nonprofit coordinated the state’s contact tracing initiative, which was responsible for making roughly 2.7 million calls to residents." (source)

From The Financial Times:

"Farmer doggedly campaigned to change attitudes. This did not fix the problems: healthcare systems in low-income countries remain poor. But Farmer’s campaigns helped to improve standards in some places, including Rwanda and Haiti. It also contributed to a shift in the debate in global health about what should be expected in poor nations. ... Farmer’s life reminds us that ideas that once seemed crazy can sometimes become mainstream, if they are championed with patience and passion; and that sometimes individuals can deliver real good. That’s reassuring — and heavens knows, we need to celebrate our heroes in these dark times." (source

I first heard of Dr. Farmer from the book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder (published 2003), and I’ve been aware of his remarkable accomplishments, the success of Partners in Health, and his mentorship of numerous medical practitioners throughout the world. Yes, we need heroes in times like these.

In a just world, adequate food and decent health care would be much more available than they are now.  Dr. Farmer’s contribution to such justice is immeasurable. The topics of healthcare and food adequacy, and the way that the pandemic has made global health and hunger so much worse, is frequently in my thoughts and also a topic of my blog posts. For those in need, the pandemic has made both health issues and food issues more severe. So that's what's on my mind -- along with the terrors of a war in Europe -- as I think over what happened in February 2022.

Blog post © 2022 mae sander. 


Sunday, February 27, 2022



Coffee was already very popular in America at the time of the Boston Tea Party, and consumption by Americans was rising throughout the 19th century. Demand was also rising in Europe, and thus coffee plantations were a growing endeavor. Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of our Favorite Drug by Augustine Sedgewick (published 2020) documents the spread of coffee drinking and the many issues that arose in its cultivation and distribution, beginning in the 15th century and continuing to the early twenty-first century. I found the book to be surprising in how many different topics it covered, while still concentrating on the history of coffee. 

Sedgewick focuses on one family, the Hill family, founded by James Hill in the late 19th century. Hill established and developed vast plantations in El Salvador, located on the slopes of the Santa Ana volcano where coffee-growing conditions were very favorable. With a recurring focus on Hill and later on his sons, the author explains the entire history of coffee and its economic role — to do so much through focus on a man the author has to pick the right man! That would be James Hill.

The complex history of coffee involves learning how a variety of enterprises developed to plant, grow,  harvest, and select ripe coffee beans, and to process, transport, package, promote, and sell this commodity, including details about developing ways to judge the quality and taste of coffee beans, the invention of the vacuum-packed can, of instant coffee and iced coffee, and of ways to keep coffee fresh. 

In the course of the book we learn how scientific advances in nutrition, chemistry, physics, and economics all contributed to the understanding of coffee. Coffee is presented as a trade product, an agricultural commodity, and a beverage with stimulant properties: the chemical identification and isolation of caffein, for example, was a big project.

The politics of coffee and efforts to control supply and price of the beans is a major theme of the book as well. The government of El Salvador was very involved with the coffee trade, as were governments of other producing countries (especially Brazil) and of consuming countries (especially the United States). The parallel thread of consumption in the United States also runs through the book, including the history of Hills Brothers Coffee Roasters in San Francisco, which eventually purchased most of the coffee from James Hill (no relation, slightly different name), and through the history of American institutions like the supermarket, and American political and commercial relations with Central America.

The most interesting element of the book is the focus on the workers of Hill's plantation and of workers on coffee plantations (and other agriculture) throughout the world. Hill effectively regarded workers as a source of labor but not in a real sense as fellow human beings. This was easier for him and for many other owners because he was from England, not a member of any local group, indigenous or Hispanic. Where he could, he also hired managers from groups outside the workers' communities. Managers not only organized the work, they also policed the laborers to prevent theft or misrepresentation of how much they worked. There was little or no trust between Hill and his employees -- yet on the whole he treated them better than some of his competitors, for example, providing the full measure of food owed to them.

As Hill and many other plantation owners consolidated their holdings, they had displaced workers who had farmed the land both for subsistence and for cash crops like coffee. These planters grew coffee where there had been crops like avocados, mangoes, oranges, yucca, maize, and beans, also replacing most native forests. As a result, the former inhabitants faced very grim times without food or work, and Hill and his peers wanted to exploit their desperation to make them work for as little pay as they could get by with.

James Hill worked out many ways to force more labor from the workers, and to restrict their freedom and their access to food and shelter. Before Hill took over, coffee orchards harbored many other food-bearing plants such as avocado trees and bushes with small tropical fruits native to the area; the workers could gather the fruit and eat while they were harvesting coffee beans or tending the coffee trees. A coffee orchard needs other plants to shade the coffee bushes and to return nitrogen to the soil, but Hill replaced fruit trees and bean plants and the like with poisonous species. Thus the workers became even more dependent on the food -- corn tortillas and beans made with cheap commodities -- provided as part of their very low wages. In some cases, when the adult workers requested higher pay, Hill replaced adult labor with child labor. And on and on. The callous cruelty to the natives is hard to read about.

All these changes occurred between the end of the 19th century and the 1920s. When the global economic depression began, demand for coffee plummeted, as did the price. Social conditions and wages for the workers became drastically worse, and the rise of political alternatives, especially Communism, began to spread among the people. Coffeeland includes a detailed history of the struggle between the government and the Marxists:
"The core argument of the popular communism that arose in El Salvador in opposition to the hunger-based system of plantation coffee production was that, if to be human was to be hungry, the goal of government should be provision not privation, satiety not starvation." (p. 253). 

Needless to say, the government and the planters fought against reforms or outright revolution, and not surprisingly, the US, with its own economic interests at stake, also involved itself in government affairs and economic issues, resulting in strikes and violence. An actual uprising and attempted revolution took place in El Salvador in January, 1932. With support from US, Canadian, and British warships (who arrived claiming to protect the interests of their citizens in El Salvador), the government put down the rebels and killed a large number of communists and their supporters, including the leader Farabundo Martí and a follower named Mario Zapata. These became the most famous martyrs of this revolution, as a government slaughter of their supporters -- a thinly disguised genocide of native Indians -- continued. Coffeeland tells the story through many eyewitness accounts, and is very interesting.

World War II brought an end to the Depression, and brought new demands on Central America from the United States. Coffee imports grew, as coffee became an important staple for citizens and soldiers: the soldiers drank coffee at double the civilian rate. After the war coffee exports to the US and Europe were increasing, and prices increased to four times the prewar rate. The coffee growers' association of El Salvador honored James Hill, who died in California in 1951 at age 80.

Coffee's importance in modern life continued to rise. A coffee break became the name for a practice that became widespread in the early 1950s, reflecting a "new consensus that time off for coffee was a natural part of a good day’s work." (p. 334). Further, labor laws and court decisions established that coffee breaks were part of the workday, and that the effect of coffee benefited both the employer and the workers, so they were to be paid for the time.

Politics in El Salvador continued around the issues that had been important in the 1930s: how agricultural workers were treated, and how the country could industrialize and become more modern (to put it ultra-simply). While a military government and fourteen ultra-rich families ruled the country, by the late 1970s an underground version of the communists of the 1930s was again active. Jaime Hill, grandson of James Hill, was kidnapped by the communists in 1979. Specifically, by "the People’s Revolutionary Army of El Salvador, one of five leftist groups fighting the Fourteen Families and the military dictatorship." (p. 342). Kidnapping was the way the underground revolutionaries funded their activities at the time. The politics is very complicated, but Coffeeland explains it. 

Jaime Hill was held by his kidnappers for some months, while they negotiated for ransom with his family, with the officials of El Salvador, and with the archbishop, who was a political figure. As part of their response, the Hill family was required to take out ads in major American newspapers, presenting the views of the kidnappers. After four months of captivity, the ransom was paid, conditions were met, and Hill was set free. The revolutionaries fought for their cause for years afterward -- a very long story. "The Salvadoran civil war was the largest American counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign between the fall of Saigon and the fall of Baghdad. ... Over twelve years, the countryside was again transformed into a mass grave for as many as 75,000 people." (p. 348).

In 1991, with the cooperation of the US, a peace agreement was worked out between the rebels and the government. "After the peace agreement, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front moved to secure a permanent peacetime role in Salvadoran politics and society. Some FMLN leaders took courses through Harvard University, 'a sort of Politics 101,' to learn how to set up a political party. Others wanted to go into business, in part to provide employment for their former soldiers. For help, they called Jaime Hill." And Hill did help his former kidnappers. (p. 349). 

Coffee being delivered at a cooperative
fair-trade coffee processor in Costa Rica
that we visited in 2019.

By the first decade of the twenty-first century, coffee has become another type of American obsession, with a focus on specialty coffees and regional roasts. The heirs of James Hill have responded by growing high-end coffee for this market. The fair trade movement includes pressure on consumers to be mindful of the workers in the coffee industry, especially as coffee workers worldwide suffer from extreme poverty and seasonal food insufficiency.

Coffeeland ends with the post-kidnapping life of Jaime Hill, whose experiences caused him to rethink his life and to become a worker in poor neighborhoods, trying to help people overcome addictions, poor health, and poverty, and finding peace for himself. 

Coffeeland is a complex and challenging book, but I found it worth reading for its wide-ranging insights and fascinating historic information.

Review © 2022 mae sander.


Saturday, February 26, 2022

"The Book of Salt"

The Book of Salt by Monique Truong constructs the life story of a Vietnamese cook who worked for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in the 1920s and 1930s at their home: 27, rue du Fleurus, Paris: a magic place in the history of American literature and literary Paris in the early twentieth century.

As a long-time student of the life and work of Stein and Toklas, I was curious to see what this author made of these unusual and gifted women and the mainly fictional servant. To be specific, I have been a fan of Gertrude Stein since I was in high school, when I did a project about her, and gave a presentation to a summer literature class that I was enrolled in. Ever since, I have returned from time to time to read works by and about Gertrude Stein.

When I read historical fiction, I always find myself questioning which parts of the characters' lives are made up and which parts are based on documents or memoirs from the characters. In this case, the cook, whose name is Bình, narrates the book, so there's a great deal that Truong has to invent about his childhood in Vietnam, his job from the age of six as a kitchen boy and then sous chef for in the the Governor-General’s kitchen in Saigon, and his journey to Paris where he worked for Stein and Toklas. He feels that he is looked down on or even hated for two things he can't change: his identity as a Vietnamese, and his identity as a gay man. He particularly narrates his views on cooking and what he cooked on various occasions for his employers, and his love for a particular American man that he called "Sweet Sunday-Man" because that was when they were together.

Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and their dog Basket,
who plays a role in The Book of Salt.
Although clearly based on The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (by Gertrude Stein) and The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (by Alice B. Toklas, written after the death of Gertrude Stein), as well as some of Stein's more obscure fiction, Truong's book creates a story of its own, not necessarily the exact narrative of a meticulous biographer. From a brief mention of Vietnamese cooks in Alice Toklas’s cookbook, she invents an entire life — and many food memories, as well as memories of the famous Saturday dinners at rue du Fleurus, and life in the countryside where the women spent their summers, accompanied by their cook. 

A few of the most luscious food descriptions — which all mention salt, so central to the imagery of the novel:

“She wants an omelet,” says Miss Toklas, who busies herself with the plates, silverware, and tray. Six eggs beaten with a generous pinch of salt until the mixture is thick with air, until the color lightens to the bare yellow of chamomile centers. Two large soupspoons of butter, the first melted in the pan until it sizzles, a harmonic of anticipation. The second is tucked under the puffy skin that has formed in less than a minute, if the heat is just right. A simple dish that reveals the master, exposes the novice. My omelets are well regarded and held in high esteem by all those who have partaken. Like children, gullible and full of wonder, they always ask, “What is your secret?” (p. 153)

“Pré-salé lambs are named for the salt marshes along the northern coast of France where they graze. Saltwater overflows onto flat stretches of land and leaves behind a sweet mix of herbs and flora. Elemental and tender, pré-salé lambs are salted and seasoned from the raw beginning. Now that, Miss Toklas thinks, is forethought. The first bite is a revelation of flavors, infused and deep. The second bite is a reminder of why we kill and eat the young. The third allows the brain back into the fray to ask, But how is it possible? Not a visible grind of pepper, a milky grain of salt, not even the faintest traces of rosemary, wild fennel, or thyme, and yet the lamb gives all this and more. Yes, intrigue is what my Madame aspires to in all of her creations.” (p. 178)

“The true taste of salt—the whole of the sea on the tip of the tongue, sorrow’s sting, labor’s smack—has been lost, according to my Madame, to centuries of culinary imprudence. It is a taste that Miss Toklas insists is sometimes unnecessary, as in the gazpacho of Malaga, and other times, as in the gazpacho of Segovia, it is the hinge that allows the flavors of the other ingredients to swing wide open. ‘In my kitchen, I will tell you when salt is necessary,’ my Madame said, concluding the real lesson for that day.” (p. 210)

While I didn’t like everything about the book, it’s pretty good, and I liked the effort to see Stein and Toklas as Americans with American sensibilities, American prejudices, and American judgements. Mainly, I feel that I should return to some of the books by Stein and Toklas and read them again. And I feel as if I should go back to some of my old French recipes and cook them again. And go back to Paris again, where I often walk past 27, rue du Fleurus and think of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

The door to Gertrude Stein's house at 27, Rue du Fleurus
(from my visit in 2013).

The plaque on the wall beside the door reads:
"Gertrude STEIN
Lived here with her brother Leo STEIN
then with Alice B. TOKLAS
she received many artists and writers
from 1903 to 1938."

Blog post © 2022 mae sander.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Ethiopian Recipes


"From berbere, the spice blend that takes more than three days to achieve complexity
 within heat, to injera, our gluten-free daily teff flatbread, which also requires
three moons to acquire the perfect elasticity and taste, and of course let us not forget
coffee, the country’s first culinary gift to the world, this book will open your eyes to 
culinary wonders from Ethiopia, the Land of Origins."  Yohanis Gebreyesus, Ethiopia (p. 5).

From Ethiopia: Making injera.
The introduction to Ethiopia, my newest cookbook, names the three most characteristic foods of this African nation, whose cuisine is generally very unfamiliar: teff flatbread, berbere spice blend, and coffee, which is Ethiopia's contribution to world cuisine. It's a really well-organized and well-written cookbook, and I've now tried two recipes from it, as well as one Ethiopian recipe from the New York Times cooking section (link ). I thought that I would try making injera flatbread, but the all the recipes I've seen are insanely complicated, involving days and days in order to ferment the teff, a special grain from Ethiopia, which is baked on a specialized griddle. 

While I've eaten at Ethiopian restaurants a few times, I'm really not familiar with Ethiopian food at all. The characteristic berbere spice blend contains very hot pepper as well as other spices like nigella seeds, cloves, ajowan (an herb that grows in Ethiopia), onion, garlic, ginger, cardamom, basil, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and fenugreek. I've now tried a couple of recipes with the little jar of it that I bought from Penzey's, and though it's really hot, it has a  pleasant flavor. I have one or two more recipes from Ethiopia that I hope to try. Although the directions in the cookbook are very clear, the process of slicing and chopping vegetables and cooking the various elements of each dish are rather time-consuming, but in the end, it’s worth doing.

Shiro Wat from Samin Nosrat

A vegan stew of chickpea flour, tomatoes, and berbere spice.
Hot but very delicious.

Potatoes and Cabbage in Ginger Turmeric Sauce

The Ethiopian name for this dish is  “አትክልት | ATAKILT” — while the ingredients are all familiar and available in any American supermarket, the result is surprisingly flavorful and unexpected. The cookbook gives the Ethiopian recipe names in both the Amharic script and also a transliteration, which is very interesting.

I served the potato and cabbage dish with a salad and the
green beans from the cookbook.

Green Beans and Carrots

I also made the dish ፎሶልያ | FOSELIA, Sautéed String Beans and Carrots, from the recipe in Ethiopia. It was also delicious and unusual — and made entirely from commonly available ingredients.

Green beans and carrots in a sauce of tomato and onion.

Quite a delicious meal!

Update: Two More Recipes from Ethiopia

Squash/pumpkin stew with berbere and other spices,
plus lamb chops (meat exceptional!) with recommended spices,
eaten with a very good bottle of wine.

Blog post and photos © 2022 mae sander.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Brunetti Again

A common cuckoo, Cuculus canorus. (Wikipedia)

“The first time you hear a cuckoo in springtime, you have to see how much money you have in your pockets. And the more you have, the more money you’ll get during the year.” (Donna Leon, The Waters of Eternal Youth. p. 290)

I enjoyed this bit of Venetian bird folklore in the midst of a murder investigation by Inspector Brunetti of the Venice police. Author Donna Leon’s usual depiction of local color includes family meals cooked by Brunetti’s wife, coffee and wine in cafés with witnesses and fellow police, the regular flooding of the streets of Venice, the declining quality of life for the local inhabitants, corruption and incompetence in the city and police administrations, Brunetti's wife's aristocratic family, and the clever machinations of police secretary Signorina Elettra who is a well-connected computer genius able to find out anything about anyone (unofficially, of course). This book includes all of these topics, some more fully explored than others. More important: this novel has a good solid mystery for Brunetti and his colleagues to solve, and a nice tight plot that keeps one's attention.

Brunetti has now appeared in over 30 detective novels by Donna Leon. The Waters of Eternal Youth was number 26, published in 2016. The first in the series appeared in 1992, with a new one more or less every year since then, including one that will appear in just a few weeks from now. I’ve read many of  them, and written blog posts on several of them.
My introduction to Donna Leon was her cookbook.
Here it is in 2010 with my original kindle on which
I read some of her novels for the first time.

One element of Donna Leon's books is the portrayal of Brunetti's children, who have remained as adolescents throughout the series, though their opinions and the electronic equipment they use (like phones) keeps up with the time when the book is written – while Brunetti can't master most technology. The first victim in The Waters of Eternal Youth is a young woman who suffered a near-drowning 15 years earlier, and was left with the mental age of a child. Brunetti is charged with finding out what really caused her to fall into the canal. In contrast to the victim's permanent childishness while her body ages, Brunetti and his family can spend 30 years without aging in the least ... that's definitely a mystery with the resolution left up to the reader. I've decided that I don't mind, they can stay frozen that way as long as Donna Leon keeps writing good suspenseful tales. I just wish she would go back to the detailed and luscious descriptions of food that were so wonderful in the earlier books, but her enthusiasm seems to have faded.

Blog post © 2022 mae sander.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Numbers Are Images

Charles Demuth, "I saw the figure 5 in gold," 1928 (source).

Demuth's title was taken from this poem by William Carlos Williams:

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city


Jasper Johns, "Zero to Nine," 1959.

Robert Indiana, "Numbers Portfolio," 1968

Andy Warhol, "Chanel No. 5," 1980

Francesco Alpigiano, "Numbers CU," 2019. (source)

A history of the 7up logo. (source)

Recently at her blog Altered Book Lover, Elizabeth made a collage of very colorful numbers, which made me think of ways that numbers have been used in art works, not for their computational or symbolic value, but for their image. Pop artists and conceptual artists of the mid-20th century especially did this. I'm sharing my post with Elizabeth and the bloggers who get together at her blog each Monday and Tuesday.

Blog post by mae sander for mae food dot blog spot dot com.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

A Lonely Girl in New York

Every day, the unnamed narrator of Miriam Karpilove's novel Diary of a Lonely Girl writes in her diary about her struggle with her current lover. In sequence, the lovers are named A., B., C. (for Cheek), Davis, Eshkin, and F. Almost, but not quite interchangeable. They all want the same thing. They refer to it as "happiness" but she can tell what's really in their minds, and she resists, refuses, rejects them, and even insults them, despite their eloquent pleas that cite all sorts of intellectual and political reasons why she should give in to them. Sometimes they suggest marriage or living together, but she either doesn't trust them or doesn't love or even like them. Other times she says she doesn't believe in marriage. She always says she doesn't believe in "free love." She and her prospective lovers constantly talk about the nature of women, of men, and of love. And it all takes place in New York of course.

As a reader, I found Karpilove's novel a little repetitive, but repetition seems inevitable when I think about the fact that it was published one diary-entry at a time over the course of a couple of years. It reads a little like a blog – but in fact, it dates from 1916 to 1918, and was published serially in Yiddish in a newspaper called Di varhayt. The translation that I read was the first English-language version: published in 2020.

Most of the episodes of the novel take place in a sequence of rented rooms in the households of various, mostly busy-body landladies. The poor furnishings, floor coverings, threadbare blankets, poor heating, and dim gas lights in each room are described in some detail, but we learn absolutely nothing about what the narrator does to earn a living, where she eats her meals (though it seems to be assumed that they are provided by the landlady), or other details of her daily life. Just once, a landlady offers her some borscht and teygkhts (kugel). Once there were some refreshments at a party. Sometimes she goes to a coffee shop. 

The narrator's age is never specified, except that she is embarrassed by it, which suggests it's somewhere near 30. She has a few woman friends, who are also her rivals for the love of A., B., C, and D. She evidently left all of her family behind in Minsk when she emigrated to New York, but she maintains her Jewish identity along with speaking and writing in Yiddish. Language is a topic of discussion with her friends and lovers, who sometimes say a few words in English or German or Russian.

A single woman in the narrator's position in that era had to worry that the landlady would accuse her of immorality because she sometimes has innocent conversations with these lovers that last the entire night. The laws on the books allowed a policeman (who could be called by the landlady) to arrest a woman accused of what the characters in the book called free love. And send her to "the Tombs," which was a big prison (a predecessor to the prison called the Tombs today). In sum -- there's lots of drama, but not much action.

A recent article about this and other neglected Yiddish books by early 20th century women brought this interesting book to my attention, and so I bought and read it. The article describes the novel thus:

"In 'Diary of a Lonely Girl, or the Battle Against Free Love,' a sendup of the socialists, anarchists and intellectuals who populated New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century, Miriam Karpilove writes from the perspective of a sardonic young woman frustrated by the men’s advocacy of unrestrained sexuality and their lack of concern about the consequences for her."

The article quotes Yiddish scholar Anita Norich, who has translated another of the forgotten women's novels:

"'This literature has been hiding in plain sight, but we all assumed it wasn’t there,' said Norich, a professor emeritus of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. 'Novels were written by men while women wrote poetry or memoirs and diaries but didn’t have access to the broad worldview that men did. If you’ve always heard that women didn’t write novels in Yiddish, why go looking for it?'" (source)

I think I'll read another one of these newly accessible novels soon.

Blog post © mae sander 2022. 

Saturday, February 19, 2022

After 30 years, they're still doing it!

In Today's New York Times: an example of text describing an image.
Guess what image they chose as their front-page example? 

I would have thought that people writing about computers now would have moved on, but the front page of the New York Times this morning shows otherwise.

"Use Mona Lisa in your computer ad" was the title of a little essay I wrote in the mid-1990s. Mona Lisa often appeared as an example in computer ads and in articles on how to use the emerging computer graphics software at the time. I made the point that Mona Lisa had very high recognition among computer programmers, that as a woman she had appeal to these (mostly) men, and that she was non threatening to these (mostly) nerds. In fact, a Mona Lisa rendered in numbers was one of the very first digitized images ever made – in 1965 – created to be printed out on a very early printer.

Mona Lisa's Eyes, from the Mona Lisa that was digitized in 1965. (source)

Byte magazine, 1987 cover.

I guess it's not surprising that even now, Mona Lisa is the first example you would see in an article on artificial intelligence applied to image recognition. The only surprising thing is that after more than fifty years, AI can't actually recognize the Mona Lisa and give her name!! Well, some of the AI recognition programs are doing a little better with food images:

Another example of machine-generated descriptions from the article.

Those nerds will never change. See the NYT article "The Hidden Image."

Blog post © 2022 mae sander.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Winter Birds


We've had rain, sleet, ice pellets and then snow, so no bird walks today. We are staying indoors until the slippery walkways are cleared. I hope we'll soon be able to walk in the park and see the swans and bluebirds again. I can't wait until spring!


Thursday, February 17, 2022

Grocery Store Inflation, Part 2

"Giant corporations are making record profits by increasing prices, and CEOs are saying the quiet part out loud: they’re happy to help drive inflation. American families pay higher prices and corporate executives get fatter bonuses." – Tweet by Elizabeth Warren, February 14, 2022.

Are rising prices due to fundamental economic and practical problems, or is corporate greed driving price indexes? Yesterday I wrote a post seeking to understand the causes of increasing prices in our inflationary economy. A few commenters on my post noted that corporate greed and profit-seeking are also an important factor. 

Avocados for sale yesterday…
what will they cost next week?
Yes, there's evidence that corporations that produce and sell food and household goods are using inflation to create higher profits, increasing prices faster than the actual costs require. For example, in the last quarter of 2021, Tyson's average beef price rose 31%, and their profits doubled. And Proctor and Gamble projected increasing profits in 2022 as the prices of their household products soared. (source)

CNN quoted a supermarket executive who came right out and said the quiet part:

"Our business operates the best when inflation is about 3% to 4%," Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen said on an earnings call with analysts Thursday [June 17, 2021]. "A little bit of inflation is always good in our business." 
Kroger can pass off costs to consumers when inflation hovers around that mark, McMullen said, and "customers don't overly react to that." (source)

In December, Senator Warren wrote letters to several CEOs of supermarket chains summarizing their greedy behavior. She posted copies of these letters which included the following statistics:

"In 2020, Kroger, reported $2.6 billion in profits, up 5.6% from 2019; Albertsons reported $1.89 billion in net income for 2020, an increase from $612.1 million in 2019, and Publix reported a 60% growth in profit for the third quarter of 2020. In 2021, these same companies continued to earn massive profits while pushing grocery cost increases onto consumers. " (source)

In addition to simply increasing retail prices at a higher rate than their costs increase, grocery stores have a number of ways to keep prices high. One of these is contracts with suppliers called cooperative marketing agreements, or CMAs, that reduce competition among brands and that nudge consumers to buy unhealthy over-processed foods. The Federal Trade Commission has been investigating CMAs, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The CSPI recently wrote: 

"Americans’ health is not the only thing CMAs put at risk. CMAs can threaten fair competition by creating high entry costs. For example, exorbitant ‘slotting fees,’ which charge manufacturers to place new products on grocery shelves, disadvantage smaller manufacturers and producers who are then unable to introduce or expand product offerings. ‘Category captain arrangements’ are another anticompetitive grocery marketing practice in which retailers cede marketing decisions to the dominant manufacturer in a given food category, allowing them to make placement and promotion decisions for their products and even their competitors’ products." (source)

In an ongoing investigation, "the FTC asked Walmart, Amazon, and Kroger to produce the contracts that detail their trade promotion practices that determine product choice and marketing, including the total fees received. Additionally, the retailers must disclose their use of suppliers as category captains, including their identity, services, and fees received.”

FTC action has not been announced, as far as I know.

I have only scratched the surface of the issue of corporate greed and the fact that corporations use legitimate cost increases to create even higher prices for consumers, higher profits for their shareholders, and higher bonuses for their executives. 

Blog post by mae sander, 2022.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Excuse or Reason?


What is an excuse? Dictionary definitions: 

  • "a reason or explanation put forward to defend or justify a fault or offense." 
  • "a reason put forward to conceal the real reason for an action; a pretext."
  • "something offered as justification or as grounds for being excused."

What is a reason? Dictionary definitions: 
  • "a cause, explanation, or justification for an action or event." 
  • "a statement or fact that explains why something is the way it is, why someone does, thinks, or says something, or why someone behaves a certain way."
I thought about this distinction when I read a comment on my posts about high grocery prices: "Yada, yada – getting quite tired (as most of us are) about the excuses for consistently rising prices of everything." 

This comment implies that there might be a facile explanation for the high cost of goods today: it's somebody's fault and they are covering up with excuses. Is there an entity somewhere that has responsibility for prices? Is someone hiding why the authorities (whoever they are) don't just fix the situation? When something is called "an excuse" there's a suggestion that no real causes and effects are involved. I wonder, is there supposedly someone who could simply restore conditions at the grocery store to what they were two years ago? Who is responsible for empty shelves, higher prices, and difficulties all along the supply chain? Who is to blame for current inflation being at a 40 year high point? Why is there a high increase in the Consumer Price Index? Because commodities and finished products are produced and consumed globally, prices have global as well as national causes. Critical imports particularly come to the US from Mexico, Canada, and China. So inflation is not simply due to events or policies in the US.

I searched for explanations of rising prices other than simply inflation. For starters, sudden increase in demand as the pandemic started resulted in higher prices for some types of goods (and drove down other prices but nobody mentions this). This isn't an so much an excuse, it's more of an economic principle about supply and demand, as I understand it. 

Look at these details about a few specific commodities and what is driving their prices –
  • Toilet paper? Like almost all household paper products, it's made of wood pulp, which is scarce now, due to shipping and labor issues. So prices have gone up, and panic buying in April 2020 and in September 2021 also caused some retailers to limit purchases.
  • Lumber?  Along with many other building materials, big increases in demand were driven by home repair increases during the pandemic, resulting in big price increases. In addition, lumber prices rose because of forest fires, labor shortages due to covid, and overseas shipping issues. In the fall of 2021, prices dropped, but in December they again increased enormously. (Interesting article here)
  • Oranges? They are scarce now especially because groves in Florida are experiencing cold temperatures and diseases of the trees. Harvests are dramatically lower, so orange juice prices are going up.
  • Avocados? The price recently doubled. Right now, a threat to a US inspector of avocados in Mexico has caused cessation of all avocado imports from Mexico; that is, almost all the avocados we eat.  So without credible assurance that US inspectors are protected from Mexican organized crime, there will soon be no avocados available here at any price. It's a developing situation, changing even since I mentioned it a few days ago.
  • Cocoa, Coffee, Bananas, Vanilla, Tea? All are agricultural imports with various risks from shipping problems, plant diseases, climate change, labor issues including workers infected with covid, political unrest in producer countries, and more. 
  • Meat? Costs throughout the entire US meat industry have gone up. The price of chemical fertilizer to grow cattle feed is going up. The number of cattle available to be sold for slaughter is low; there are fewer animals now because of abrupt interruption of cattle ranching at the start of the pandemic. Availability of labor in meat processing plants has been reduced by employee illness during the pandemic (also employer cruelty). Costs of meat-packaging materials like styrofoam trays and wraps has increased. Transporting meat from the processor to the supermarket costs more. Supermarket costs and labor availability are also affected by covid and inflation.
  • Gasoline? The price of gas depends on global supplies (which might be hit by a war in Ukraine next week). The price is affected by oil pipeline capacity, by refinery capacity, by weather disruptions like hurricanes, and by local gas station conditions. Vastly decreased demand for gas during the coronavirus lockdowns caused price reductions; as lockdowns end, demand goes up so prices go up.
  • Cars, clothing, household utilities, houses for sale or rent, appliances, restaurant meals, snacks, furniture, electronics? Prices of these essentials are all driven upward by increased demand and reduced supplies. A few causes: shipping delays, shortages of electronic components, covid recovery problems in China where many key commodities are manufactured, and labor scarcity.
Maybe it's a mystery, whether price increases have identifiable causes or are created by some sort of conspiracy or ineptitude. When I look for solid evidence about prices rising, though, I feel as if I'm being provided with some solid causes, many resulting from the vast number of working people who had covid, others going back to climate change, still others from various specific events. 

Once I started down this rabbit hole, reading articles about shortages and inflation, I couldn't stop, so forgive me for my amateur wanderings in economic theory. I'm no good at this.

Economist Paul Krugman (a real expert with a Nobel Prize!) writes about economics in the New York Times. Recently, he discussed the way people get their news and form their economic beliefs. He pointed out that the right wing is being primed by sources like Fox News and worse, to believe that the economy is terrible and it's the government's fault. He says: "a substantial part of the electorate has economic perceptions quite far from reality; even if things improve, they probably won’t hear about the good news or will be regaled with other negative stories." (source)