Thursday, March 23, 2023

What’s Cooking?

Plum cake for breakfast. Made with summer plums that I froze last September.

Breakfast coffee cups from the zoo.


Delicata squash with other vegetables,

A squash taco on a tortilla with salsa and salad.

Another lunch, another salad.

Mapo tofu with vegetables

Mapo tofu, baby broccoli with onions, and simple cucumbers with vinegar and salt.

Broccoli, tofu, and cucumbers. We bought a big pack of chop sticks!

Cooking a fish

A whole snapper, stuffed, trussed, and ready for the oven. One fish serves two people.

Serving plate and cilantro for garnish, ready for the fish.

The baked fish served with a dish of mushrooms in butter and garlic. It was delicious!

Blog post and photos © 2023 mae sander

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Which World Do I Live In?

Everyone everywhere loves “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” In it you can learn lots of things about parallel worlds in the Many Worlds Theory, as experienced by a middle-aged immigrant named Evelyn (played by Michele Yeoh) who has trouble with the laundromat she owns with her husband and they have trouble with an audit by the IRS and an evil IRS agent (played by Jamie Lee Curtis). Freaking realistic!

But here are some things that are different in Evelyn’s parallel worlds than in the usual Hollywood universe:

  1. In the Hollywood universe, young and beautiful women (played by ingenue actresses) frequently have a problem with their mothers, and the mothers, who are old or at least middle-aged, might turn out to be monsters. In EEAAO the laundromat-owner-mother has trouble because her daughter is difficult, and in the parallel worlds, her daughter is a monster.
  2. In the parallel worlds of EEAAO instead of being a drab house-wifey person, Evelyn is a glamorous rich lady. Or a Kung Fu fighter. Or some other romantic or dramatically brave figure, not a scrawny old thing like Frances McDormand in “Nomadland.” (Except they both won Oscars.)
  3. In most of the parallel worlds, the monster-daughter, named Joy, wears different makeup every time. Really complicated makeup with sort of opalescent beaded stuff stuck to her cheeks. Very dramatic eyes, too. And she seems to have superpowers. And want to kill her mother. Or maybe that’s just a villainous identity named Jobu Tupaki that’s infiltrated her. Not like Hollywood worlds.
  4. Also, Joy/Jobu worships a bagel. (Sorry, that might be a spoiler. But it’s an important part of parallel worlds, maybe even in the original Physics Theory.)
  5. There are lots of other worlds too. Evelyn encounters different versions of the evil IRS lady in these worlds. For example, there’s a world where a pianist can use her toes instead of fingers on the keyboard. (Were those real toes or CGI toes? Can anyone really play the piano with their toes? Informed minds want to know.) 
  6. Also Evelyn inhabits a parallel world exactly like the one where the space ship ends up in “2001 A Space Odyssey” — the characters are big rocks. This parallel world is hard to understand, and something happens there at the end but no more spoilers.

You know what? Unlike everyone in our world, I seem to inhabit a parallel world where I don’t like this movie. How can I snap back into the real Oscar-dominated universe where I perhaps belong?

This not me, it is Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn the fractured character.

Review © 2023 mae sander, images from google.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

"The Premonition"

The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis tells an interesting, and even a compelling story. But when I finished, I felt as if the story here was incomplete. The focus of this documentary book is on several people who began working in the early part of this century on epidemic and pandemic preparedness and on suggesting what should be done when an inevitable mutated virus began to spread throughout the world. Indeed, in late 2019 as we all know, the novel coronavirus that arose in Wuhan, China, was just such an organism. In the early days of 2020, the virus posed a severe threat to every human on the planet.

Lewis concentrates his narrative on a group of people who had been thinking hard for a number of years about the potential for such an event. Much of the book is about these people, including about the experiences they had in their childhood, youth, education (mostly in medical school and early years in medical practice), and their dealings with government bureaucracies. Quite a lot of the background is set in California, especially Santa Barbara where one physician named Charity Dean was in charge of Public Health. The author’s emphasis is on the extreme decentralization of public health policy and action, which was a terrible obstacle to a concerted effort against the pandemic.

All this background is very interesting. However, I was disappointed in the chapters about how these same people were called on, and then ignored in 2020, at the point when their plans could have reduced the enormous death toll from the coronavirus. Much information is also presented about the way that the administration in Washington, having fired many of the civil servants who would have taken charge of this emergency, failed to provide leadership or infrastructure to cope with a spreading infection and the overwhelmed medical system. I remember the squabbling between various agencies such as the NIH and CDC, and the fact that these once-neutral organizations had been politicized. I remember well how needed medical equipment such as ventilators was unavailable and the President (one of the big obstacles) said the states should do their own procurement. All this is covered in the context of the experiences of the individuals at the center of the book’s focus.

The author had a very close focus on these individuals and their nearly ineffective efforts to influence government policy or change the minds of stubborn and personally ambitious government bureaucrats, which is interesting. However, as I read about their struggle to reduce the impact of the catastrophe, I always felt as if I was missing some bigger picture of the crisis. Lots of very good material was in the book, but I still felt somewhat lost when I read it, especially when the author goes into a digression about the early life and traumas of one or another of the main characters. 

A lot of the book is really good and powerful, but it nevertheless left me frustrated and wishing for a more comprehensive viewpoint. I was especially frustrated by the extreme focus on Californians and how they coped, because the implication was that no other state had any reasonable response at all — and I don’t think that is true. In fact, for example, almost all the schools in the US were shut down in the spring of 2020, not only those in California. I note that the book was published in 2021, so perhaps the big picture couldn’t yet be grasped.

One message of the book is that the issue of future pandemic preparedness is critical. An article by Bill Gates in the New York Times on Sunday summarizes the way that the mistakes described in Premonition could be repeated if better political and practical measures aren’t taken:

“When the World Health Organization first described Covid-19 as a pandemic just over three years ago, it marked the culmination of a collective failure to prepare for pandemics despite many warnings. And I worry that we’re making ‌‌those same mistakes again. The world hasn’t done as much to get ready for the next pandemic as I’d hoped. But ‌‌it’s not too late to stop history from repeating itself. The world needs a well-funded system that is ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice when danger emerges. ‌We need a fire department for pandemics.” (Bill Gates writing in the New York Times this week)

My main fear for the future isn’t really in The Premonition at all: we have recently experienced the polarization of political sides in American life, with serious attacks on science and medical knowledge. My current “premonition” is that this situation is likely to derail any future efforts to deal with possible (or actual) coming pandemics. The author called out the authorities who in 2019 believed that immunization alone was the route to stopping the spread of disease. He made the case that many other measures, in general the need for social distancing, were also essential. How will this play out now, when a substantial minority have become convinced that medicine is a conspiracy against them. This minority oppose immunizations of any kind. Even wearing masks is politicized. Not to mention closing schools! What kind of a future does this foretell?

UPDATE: As one commenter says, an article this week in the New York Times has more updated material on the way the CDC was forced to act in dysfunctional ways in 2020. See this article:  “‘We Were Helpless’: Despair at the C.D.C. as the Pandemic Erupted.”

Blog post © 2023 mae sander.
I thank my friend Phyllis for recommending the book, 
and for thoughtful discussion of the issues.


Monday, March 20, 2023

World Water Day 2023

Fresh water: a diminishing global resource. (Source: National Geographic)

Global Reality in 2023 from Pure Water for the World:

  • 1 in 4 people on our planet lacks reliable access to safely managed drinking water.
  • Waterborne illnesses continue to be a leading cause of death, with an estimated 829,000 people dying each year from water-related diarrheal illnesses.

Drinking water: something that’s easy to assume is always available. Yes, a few American cities have viciously caused their citizens to be denied this essential need, such as Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi. However, most of us in the US don’t give drinking water a second thought. The unfortunate fact is that one quarter of the world’s population lack safe drinking water. 

This week is the United Nations’ World Water Day, March 23. The official website describes the global situation:

“Dysfunction throughout the water cycle is undermining progress on all major global issues, from health to hunger, gender equality to jobs, education to industry, disasters to peace. … Billions of people and countless schools, businesses, healthcare centres, farms and factories are being held back because their human rights to water and sanitation have not yet been fulfilled.”

Catastrophes Cause Water Crises

Wars, earthquakes, overcrowded cities, and many other misfortunes result in a lack of safe water for drinking and all other purposes. Although it’s been over a month since the earthquake in Turkey, clean water remains a serious problem for the huge number of people whose homes and cities were reduced to rubble. Relief efforts have brought drinking water to some areas; others are still in great need, such as the province of Hatay (source). Relief organizations include the Planet Water Foundation:

“Planet Water Foundation, a leading non-profit organization focused on providing access to clean, safe water, is deploying 12 of its disaster response water filtration systems in Türkiye as the country continues calls for global support to provide drinking water to earthquake damaged communities.”


Water was airlifted to Turkish earthquake survivors. (source)

The war in Ukraine has caused severe disruption of the supplies of safe water for the battle-ground cities. While some damage to water resources is a side-effect of the fighting, Russian invaders are also inflicting intentional damage on water resources as well as on other infrastructure. Some consequences of the fighting: “flooding of large areas due to dam breaches, pollution from untreated waste water spills, dumped ammunition, an increase in mine water levels, and a significant decline in the quantity and quality of water for drinking and agricultural purposes.” (Source:

In Ukraine: collecting drinking water from a distribution point (source: NYT)

Climate Change and Water Supplies

“Climate change is already affecting water access for people around the world, causing more severe droughts and floods. Increasing global temperatures are one of the main contributors to this problem. Climate change impacts the water cycle by influencing when, where, and how much precipitation falls. It also leads to more severe weather events over time. Increasing global temperatures cause water to evaporate in larger amounts, which will lead to higher levels of atmospheric water vapor and more frequent, heavy, and intense rains in the coming years.” (Source: National Geographic)

 Blog post © 2023 mae sander. Photos as credited.
Shared with Elizabeth’s weekly blog party.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Around Ann Arbor

In my neighbor’s garden, a flower defies the snow.

Utility box near the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market.

At the fish market in Kerrytown near the Farmers’ Market.

A Red Dragon Roll at Slurping Turtle.

Bulk Spice Counter at By The Pound.


Locally raised mushrooms at Argus Farm Stop.

And potatoes. Winter supplies. I hope spring comes soon.

Also from Argus: hydroponic lettuce.

Curtain call by Zurich Chamber Orchestra at Hill Auditorium.

All photos © 2023 mae sander

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Phillis Wheatley Reconsidered

Boston in the mid-18th century was home to many enslaved Africans and also free men and women of African descent living there, along with the White, mainly British, inhabitants. My knowledge of this era was minimal, and reading The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatly by David Waldstreicher offered me a hugely interesting education in that time and place. 

Boston residents at the time were beginning to question the moral and religious implications of enslaving other human beings. As the century proceeded, antislavery sentiments became more and more mainstream and normal. Principled opposition to slavery grew simultaneously and in concert with the opposition to British rule.  The Revolution was coming!

Phillis Wheatley, the subject of this history, is frequently remembered in historic accounts because of her prominence as a poet. Waldstreicher portrays her in the context of the era and the intellectual climate of the times. She arrived in Boston in 1761 as a small and not-very-healthy child of around seven years old, who had been torn away from her father in Africa. She was purchased by the Wheatley family who lived in the center of the city. Her age was estimated by the fact that she was missing her front baby teeth; she was so young and small that they paid a low price for her. Within a few years, she learned to speak, read, and write English, and began to write impressive poetry in the classical style of the era. As I read this, I was deeply disturbed by imagining such a small and vulnerable child being kidnapped, sold as property, and valued only as a slave.

In both Boston and London in the 1770s, there were active and important intellectual and political debates about the moral and historic issues of slavery. As Phillis Wheatley’s poetry became known and admired, prominent members of society in Boston as well as visitors from London sought to meet her, and even requested that she write poetry to commemorate some of the participants in the debate, In particular, by request she wrote a poem about Lord Dartmouth, who was a proponent in British political life of the American requests for more respect, more economic freedom, and less tolerance for enslavement of Africans. 

Eventually, her family/owners determined that she should travel to London for the occasion of publication of her first book. Also for this book, they felt that she should have a portrait painted; the artist was probably Scipio Moorhead, another enslaved African who was unusually gifted and accomplished. Again, I cringe when I think of the horrific loss of opportunity for the African captives who served in the homes of these Bostonians: people who manage to have such a pure reputation in history as I was always taught it. 

An engraving of the portrait. The original oil painting is lost.

"Contemporaries would have recognized at once the pious and the literary conventions in the portrait, or at least the engraving based on it. The now famous image of Phillis Wheatley is the 'portrait of a young bluestocking.' ... The narrow black band around her neck may be a subtle variant on the metal collar that had been a convention in portraits of African slaves. Nevertheless, this is the portrait of a lady as a poet, a thinking person, who rests her arm and elbow on her own table, her own papers." (The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley. p. 206-207).

Phillis Wheatley's book of poems was successful in many ways, including as a sort of autobiography: "The poems ... tell a story. They chart her development as a poet, her fulfillment of her early promise, and her development into a sophisticated adult worthy of patronage, capable of wisdom on 'various' topics, Christian but literate in the classics, African and American but also decidedly British." (p. 262). 

To London and Back

The description of Phillis Wheatley's trip to London is fascinating. She visited famous places, such as the Tower of London and the new British Museum, which was just receiving material from the voyages of Captain Cook. She met famous people, both British and American -- including Benjamin Franklin. And her accomplishments as a poet were greatly appreciated by the local people. 

Upon her return from London, “Eleven newspapers in the colonies announced Phillis Wheatley’s return as a passenger on a ship laden with goods…. These reports were even more effusive than the advance notices and initial reviews of her book.” (p. 274) She was treated as a celebrity, and participated increasingly in the ongoing controversies about abolition and the morality of holding slaves. Her book was selling; what’s more, her opinions and her status became important in the public eye.

Another cringey subject in this book is the way admiring Bostonians related to Phillis Wheatley, both recognizing her genius and accomplishments, but also reacting with bigotry. They often wanted to meet her and take tea or dine with her, but were halted by prejudice, which for her created "an everyday balancing act, always knowing her audience at least as well as they knew themselves." (p. 145). Specifically: 

“…after her return from London, Phillis did take tea at the same table with white women—but only when they insisted. Eunice Fitch—none other than the second wife of Timothy Fitch, owner of the [ship] Phillis, who had sent a slaver to Africa as recently as 1771—overruled her anxious daughters and stepdaughters, ‘who could not bear that they should sit down at table with a colored person’ (as someone who had heard the story later put it using polite nineteenth-century language).” (p. 144)


Phillis Wheatley became a free woman in the autumn of 1773. The process of emancipating a slave in Boston at the time was complicated and could be expensive. Details of exactly how and by whom she was made free are not clearly known. Her freedom seems due mainly to the fame and fortune that she acquired in London. Fame: because she was recognized there as an important and to some extent symbolic person, a key indicator of the evils of enslaving human beings. Fortune: because funds from the sale of her book of poetry and also other rewards she received were significant, though complications later ensued. 

Although she was no longer enslaved to the Wheatley family, Phillis Wheatley continued to live in their large home as a free person. Susanna Wheatley, the matriarch of the family and original purchaser of the young Phillis, had been ill for a long time prior to Phillis’s voyage to London; on her return, Phillis attended to Susanna in her final illness, and mourned her deeply when she died a few months later. It’s complicated —

“Susanna was her enslaver and yet something like kin by adoption. Phillis did feel in some measure chosen, rescued from a still worse fate: ‘I was a poor little outcast & a stranger when she took me in: not only into her house but I presently became a sharer in her most tender affections.’” (p. 294)

Boston, 1775 and After

The anti-British sentiment in Boston grew, and soon became an armed conflict. Bunker Hill, Lexington, and Concord are all familiar names to any American who knows even a small amount of history (like me). Phillis Wheatley was present in Boston, and then evacuated when things became dangerous. Though the loyalty to the American side by enslaved or free Africans was not assumed (the politics are very complex), Phillis was on the side of the rebels. Among other things, she wrote an ode to George Washington and wrote letters directly to him during his early campaigns, which he acknowledged publicly and answered with letters directly to her.

In Massachusetts, there was a hot war, which is well-covered by the standard histories of the time. During the war years, there was also a constant debate about enslavement of Africans, and about the various views of racial differences. As the principles of citizenship and democracy were explored, the civil rights of non-European, non-White residents, including voting rights were discussed, and legal rights for all races (men only, of course) were eventually achieved. Eventually,"the bill of rights in the actually ratified Massachusetts constitution of 1780 did include language about 'all men' being 'born free and equal.' Enslaved people began to use that provision in court when suing for their freedom. No single decision banned slavery, though judges seemed reluctant to enforce hereditary bondage." (pp. 359-360). \

Much of the remainder of The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatly covers these issues in very interesting detail, though Phillis Wheatley's role was often as a symbol, not a speaker. Her accomplishments were seen as proof that race didn't result in any natural inequality of human beings. 

In her own life, in 1778, she married a man named John Peters, and lived with him through some very hard times; she died in 1784. Little is known about her final years with Peters. Her second book was never published, so she had little or no income. In fact, the manuscript with her second collection of poems was lost and never recovered.

"The ambiguities of emancipation persisted and magnified throughout the final years of Wheatley’s life and shaped the actions she took. She tested the meaning and substance of her freedom. She experienced on a personal level many of the triumphs and the tragedies of the first U.S. emancipation, which might also be called the first Reconstruction." (p. 360).

The final chapter of this biography summarizes the reputation and readership for Phillis Wheatley and her poetry throughout history, and the way she influenced later Black poetry and other intellectual history.

What I learned

Before I read The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley I had minimal knowledge of the events, such as the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party that preceded the American Revolution. I had even less knowledge of the development and publication of the ideas of liberty and the anti-slavery movement in Boston and their influence on the same thoughts throughout the British colonies that became the United States. In particular, I learned that both the British loyalists and the revolutionaries both tried to claim the loyalty of the African-Americans, both free and enslaved. 

In reading this book, I learned much more about the development of the principles of liberty for both Whites and Blacks. I also learned that writers opposing slavery and denigration of Africans often invoked Phillis Wheatley's accomplishments of proof of their point about racial justice. 

As I read about Phillis, her emancipation, and her growing participation in the anti-slavery movement, I learned a lot about the legalities of slavery and the challenges of emancipation in that era. Further, I learned about the challenges of making a living as an author in that time, and about the dependence of authors on patronage by wealthy, noble, and prominent sponsors.

Above all, I learned about the life and work of a great American poet. Much of Phillis Wheatley's work is quoted in the book, with interpretations and explanations of the way the poetry fit into its time and place. As I understand it, author David Waldstreicher. has reinterpreted many of the poems in the light of the historic events and controversies of the era, especially the anti-slaver movement. Recognition of Phyllis Wheatley’s poetic accomplishments was widespread in America, England, and even in France, where Voltaire mentioned her success. 

In reviewing this book here, I didn't try to create a full summary of the many interesting features of the poet's life and times, or of her poetry, which was covered in quite a lot of detail. My review is very incomplete -- if you want to actually know about Phillis Wheatley, you should read more, definitely not just my brief thoughts!

Review © 2023 mae sander

Friday, March 17, 2023

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

At the Giants Causeway, March 2011. This mysterious rock formation was made by the
giant Finn McCool of Ireland. (Or if you prefer, by volcanic activity)
One of many places we have visited with Arny and Tracy on our visits with them in Ireland.

On several trips to Ireland, I've come to love the green beauty of the Irish landscape and also to appreciate the cuisine, which is not in the least dominated by corned beef and cabbage or by potatoes. These are the American cliches about Irish food! Here are some photos that I have posted before, to celebrate Ireland.

Clonmacnoise National Historic Site, County Offaly, Ireland.

Opening an oyster at Moran's Oyster Cottage at Coole near the estate made famous
by William Butler Yeats. We've been there several times.

Lemon tart at a restaurant in Galway.

Swans near Moran’s Oyster House, reminding me of the Yeats poem “The Wild Swans at Coole.”
”But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful”

Irish sheep in 2016.

Ancient Dolmen at the Burren near Galway, 2005

"Under bare Ben Bulben's head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross." -- W.B.Yeats

Photos © 2005-2023 mae sander

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Who is the king of Chicken a la King?

Chicken a la king, said the respected New York times columnist Marion Burros in 1989, is an “unspeakable mixture of flour-laden sauce with bits of canned mushrooms, canned pimento and overcooked chicken.” (The Entree that Wouldn’t Die by Marion Burros)

Burros quotes James Beard on the subject:

“Usually prepared in mediocre fashion, it is found in many tearooms and restaurants. Their version has little to do with the original, which is really quite good if done with care and fine ingredients. It should be served at once and not kept hot over water for hours - this can kill even the best food.”

While Burros lists two or three possible origins for the name “a la king,” the current Wikipedia article lists five possible origin stories. Some were named “Keene” and some named “King,” and they were mainly the chefs or patrons at well-known restaurants at the end of the 19th century when the dish first became popular. The 1906 edition of the Fanny Farmer cookbook offered a recipe for it. Its popularity lasted well into the 1960s or so. I think it is one of several dishes that were good and even imaginative in their original form 100 years ago or so, but degenerated into commercial mediocrity or downright ickiness.

For some reason I occasionally make this dish (which I associate with school cafeterias and other institutional food) but I use decent ingredients, and it’s not that bad. Last night I had some very rich chicken stock that I made when roasting a chicken. A really good sauce made from such stock is in my opinion necessary (not the pasty white or yellow glop that was a standard feature of the dish in my past).

Ingredients for decent chicken a la king: home roasted chicken, roasted red peppers,
frozen peas, chopped green onions, and really good fresh mushrooms.

I add the chicken at the last minute because I don’t like it to be overcooked.

Garnished with the green onions, and eaten with home-baked sourdough bread and a fresh salad and cranberry chutney…
Not bad at all!

Blog post and photos © 2023 mae sander

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Salman Rushdie, “Victory City”

Did I understand Salman Rushdie’s new novel Victory City?
I knew nothing of the real city it is based on, not even the name.
But this magical novel has a life of its own, independent of real history.

Pampa Kampana was a sorceress. A goddess spoke through her and she could do many magical miracles. For example she founded an entire city by sowing seeds that grew and became its inhabitants. She gave these vegetal people a collection of human memories so vivid that they believed that they had an actual past, and eventually forgot her role in their origin. The setting of her life is a semi-mythic, semi-real city in India; while Rushdie’s novel seems to reflect real history, I knew nothing of it at all but found the book readable anyway. The novel is presented as an adaptation of Pampa Kampana’s own epic poem encompassing her many adventures in her long life.

According to her narrative, Pampa Kampana lived nearly 250 years, for the entire existence of the city, and become its de facto ruler several times. She married Hukka, the first king of the country, and bore him 3 daughters, and then married his brother Bukka, the second king, and bore him 3 sons. She also had affairs, especially with a Portuguese horse-seller who was traveling around the area. She was a sensuous woman, and loved men; she was also fond of good things to eat, for example, visiting “her favorite fruit stall in the grand bazaar tasting the first perfect mango of the season, an Alphonso from Goa.” (p. 221)

For many long years, Pampa Kampana never aged, but looked eternally young, disconcertingly younger than her children, grandchildren, and more generations. She remained a big political influence during the reign of several kings, and insisted on the rights and the role of women in civic life — unlike in a conventional Indian state. When her influence waned, she escaped to a magical forest. On a few special occasions she could turn herself and companions into birds or, more exactly into supernatural creatures called apsaras; in this form they could flee from their enemies or go long distances to where they needed to be.

Apsaras such as this one are “celestial nymphs” or shape-shifters.
(Coincidentally, I saw this one in a museum two weeks ago!)

Pampa Kampana’s history is related in a vivid, myth-like narrative. Salman Rushdie can be captivating or horrifying with a variety of cruel things that happen to Pampa Kampana and her family, and with the portrayal of rulers who become corrupt or power-drunk. His imagination can be exotic as with the story of a forest inhabited by rival green, brown, and pink monkeys, or can be traditional, invoking many Hindu gods, goddesses, and other supernatural creatures.

Pampa Kampana is a practical leader, and her followers trust her. For example, when arriving in the forest, she made sure that she and her companions wouldn’t starve:

“As to their first meal, Pampa Kampana tells us that it was the forest itself that provided for them. A shower of nuts fell around them from above, and banana trees like those in the forest of Hanuman gave up their plenty. There were fruits they had never seen before hanging from unknown trees, and bushes of berries so delicious that they made one weep. They found a fast-flowing stream of cold sweet water close by and by its banks grew anne soppu, which was water spinach, and Indian pennywort, which could be used medicinally, to ease their anxiety, and even improve their memory. They found air potatoes and clove beans, black licorice–flavored sunberries and wild red okra and delicious ash gourds.” (p. 124)

In her 247 years, beginning when she was 9 years old with the death of her mother in a mass suicide of widowed women, Pampa Kampana experienced such a wide variety of experience that it’s a wild and exciting novel to read. I checked on the non-fiction background and learned:

“All of this is true, sort of. Oh, not Pampa Kampana and her seeds, but that mass suicide did happen, in the early 14th century. Hukka and Bukka were real, and so was the city they founded, whose name Salman Rushdie has taken as the title of his 16th novel, ‘Victory City.’ That’s English for Vijayanagar, the capital of the empire that dominated the region for, well, Pampa’s life span is just about right, until a decisive military defeat in 1565. Vijayanagar’s ruins are now called Hampi, its temples are a UNESCO world heritage site, and its architectural remains stretch across the subcontinent’s south, right down to its fingertip point. The empire’s vast armies, its reliance on war elephants and its long quarrel with the Muslim sultanates to the north — all of that is real too, and there were even several Portuguese wanderers, who left records of their travels.” (New York Times Review)

I’ve read quite a few other novels by Salman Rushdie, and I wouldn’t say this is my favorite, but it’s readable and challenging and has lots of interesting descriptions. If I were not so ignorant of the history of India, I might like it better, but unfortunately, I have never read anything else about the pre-British experience of this intriguing subcontinent. I’m challenging myself to go back and reread Midnight’s Children!

Blog post © 2023 mae sander


Monday, March 13, 2023

What is Milk?

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently announced that they will not object to the word “milk” in product names like coconut milk, soy milk, almond milk, oat milk, and other plant-based beverages. Evidently, the FDA experts think consumers are smart enough to know that these aren’t dairy products, and the public isn’t going to be confusing them with dairy milk. This seems very obvious to me as these products aren’t new at all — they’ve been in use and called “milk” for centuries! The problem isn’t with consumers, it’s with the powerful dairy industry that hopes to regain a market share that they enjoyed for several decades — but this hasn’t been true forever!

A number of historic discussions recently have been pointing out that in fact, almond milk has been made and used for nearly 1000 years. And soy milk was invented even before that in China, and has been in use in the US for well over a century. Oat milk only dates back a few decades. But the use of the word “milk” for any milky liquid whether from a plant or from animal milk is not new in the least. The dispute over the commercial use of the word “milk” isn’t even new: it’s come up before with the FDA and the milk producers.

Outside the discussion of plant-based milk, there’s another possibility on the way: lab-generated milk proteins and enzymes. Products made from such vegetarian but chemically identical substances are already on the market, competing with both dairy milk and with plant-based milk. 

According to the Washington Post:

“Dozens of companies have sprouted up in recent months to develop milk proteins made by yeasts or fungi,…. The companies’ products are already on store shelves in the form of yogurt, cheese and ice cream, often labeled ‘animal-free.’”


Journalists and Peevers “Protect” the Word Milk

I can’t fault the dairy industry for trying to hold onto their customers (even the ones who are lactose intolerant). But the milk of human kindness runs cold in my veins when it comes to really careless journalists that claim that the word “milk” has always meant only cow’s milk: not even goat’s milk! Lovingly, these self-satisfied boobs describe how they are utterly peeved to hear a customer in Starbucks ordering a coffee with “oat milk”! Or “soy latte.” 

From an Atlantic article titled “Milk has lost all meaning” this claim:

“At this point, it’s unclear what milk is anymore.”

This is stupid! Here are some historic views of non-dairy milk.

From SECONDS Food History:

Coconut milk … has been used in Southeast Asian, African and Indian cuisine for centuries (possibly longer); horchata, a drink made from tiger nut milk, was introduced to Spain from North Africa before the year 1000 CE; and doufujian, a precursor to soy milk, has been popular in China since the 14th century.”

From Atlas Obscura:

“Almonds have been central to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines as far back as the Roman era, yet almond milk is likely a religiously-motivated, European innovation. The first mention of almond milk appears in a medical context in 12th century Salerno, but it quickly spread from the Mediterranean as far as Germany, England, and Denmark. During Lent, European Christians were barred from consuming milk, as well as eggs and meat. So they needed a substitute….

“Animal milks were typically destined for cheese and butter production, not drinking, thanks to a lack of refrigeration. One could make a faux butter by combining almond milk, salt, sugar, and vinegar and straining the result, even if it sounds like a far cry from today’s almond butter (or real butter).”

Nutritionist Marion Nestle on "What this is about"

"Simple. The dairy industry does not like concoctions made from soy, almonds, cashews, macadamias, oats, peas, or other such plants to get to be called 'milk.' It argues that they are not as nutritious as milk and will confuse consumers into thinking they are the same. Most surveys show that the public understands the difference quite well and has reasons for choosing plant-based alternatives that may or may not have anything to do with nutrient contents (think: animal welfare, dairy fat, environmental protection, industrial production, or what have you)....

"For the record, I like dairy products. But the dairy industry is a mess (overproduced, increasingly consolidated, fighting public health and animal welfare concerns) and needs to get its act together. The FDA is not helping it get there with this decision"


Cartoon by Joe Heller 
What next?

Non-dairy creamers have been around for a number of years, along with plant-based whipped toppings and similar foods. These are designed to please people who have any reason to skip dairy products, whether based on taste, on health, on religious restrictions, or on ethical objections to animal products. Starbucks, for example, now offers many alternative types of milk and cream in their hot and cold beverages, and I can’t see what the peevers are so bothered about!

I wonder if the linguistic and food-history ignoramuses will come after creamed corn next: after all, the white liquid in the can, sometimes called “corn milk,” came out of the corn cob and kernels not from the cream-top of a pail of cow’s milk. What about tiger’s milk? “Leche de tigre, literally ‘tiger’s milk,’ is the citrus-based, spicy marinade used to cure the fish in classic Peruvian ceviche.”

What about shaving cream? Face cream? Will they condemn a monarch butterfly for loving milkweed with its white liquid sap?

Maybe a clown will throw a pie shell filled with Cool Whip in their faces. 

Shared with Elizabeth’s Tuesday blog party.

Text © 2023 mae sander. Images from product ads.