Friday, March 31, 2023

March Food Thoughts

The American Food Situation 

“It should shock the American conscience that in the wealthiest and one of the most agriculturally productive countries — awash in cheap food, no less — one in 10 households still live with food insecurity, a grim reality with which we’ve become startlingly comfortable. But hunger, as we learned during the pandemic and in its aftermath, is a policy choice.” (Source: VOX)

Whose policy? That of the Republicans in Congress, who refuse to renew the SNAP benefits that keep more than 30 million Americans from going hungry each day. Some benefits were discontinued earlier, but March, 2023, was the end of this program that’s essential for so many American families.

“The lapse in the additional benefits will reduce Snap allotments for the average recipient by $90 a month, with some households losing $250 a month or more. Older adults at the minimum benefit level will see their monthly Snap benefits drop from $281 a month to $23.” (Source: The Guardian

And along with the cancellation of the SNAP program, many states and cities have discontinued programs that provided lunch and sometimes breakfast to school children, regardless of need. The school lunch programs were cost-effective because of the reduction in complex record-keeping. Furthermore, they resulted in better learning by the school children, as measured by better test scores! 

To put it bluntly: March was a very bad month for hunger in America, and there may be further cuts if the Republicans in congress implement their policies. Charitable food banks are stepping in, but the cancellation of government programs will fall heavily on those in need. Globally there are many more issues of hunger and want, but I can only focus on one at a time!

In My Kitchen in March

From my California trip: fridge magnets and a menu from a lovely cafe.
I’m hoping the menu will help me with ideas for lunches.

Pad Thai: Another Asian Food Challenge

Condiments for Pad Thai. The “Sour Soup Base” (a new ingredient in our kitchen).
This is essential for the correct flavor, according to the recipe.
Len’s resulting Pad Thai was great.

Ingredients for the Pad Thai.

Rice noodles for Pad Thai.

A Sweet Breakfast Treat

A Few Simple Meals

Lunch: a tortilla and bean casserole and a
fruit and vegetable salad.

Turkey meatballs, cheese, and asian slaw on sourdough bread.
I made the meatballs with aquafaba from a can of chickpeas
instead of the usual raw egg in the meat mixture.

New ingredient: TJ’s Pepper Flakes.
Used in stir-fried Brussels Sprouts (recipe here)

The main course for this dinner was potato chips with Tzatziki!
Side dishes: green salad and fruit salad.

New ingredients to try soon: coconut oil and coconut water.
To be used in making some Thai recipes.

New Kitchen Cabinet: A Work in Progress

Installed this month: a new custom-built cabinet, still waiting for handles.
The added space is enabling us to organize our kitchen equipment much better.
When the handles are in and the reorganization is done, I’ll post more photos.

Shared with In My Kitchen at Sherry’s blog.
Blog post and photos © 2023 mae sander.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

The Red-winged Blackbirds are Singing

Song Birds by Roger Tory Peterson

When I was a child, I had a picture book about birds (not this one, probably the Little Golden Book of Birds). I continue to be especially fond of the birds that were depicted there, including the Red-winged Blackbird, the Red-headed Woodpecker, the Scarlet Tanager, the Bluebird, and the Baltimore Oriole. I loved their names, as well as the images, and when I started to be a birder, I loved discovering the real birds. Even now, every spring I’m very happy when I hear these blackbirds sing — a sure sign of the changing seasons.

Earlier this week on a walk, we saw only one of them, lurking in the bushes, but we heard quite a few of them singing their beautiful trilling song. I suspect that they returned from the South a while ago, but I haven’t been birding here recently. To celebrate the return of these spring singers, I looked for some art work depicting them.

Illustration by Roger Tory Peterson
highlighting the field mark: the bird’s red wing patch.

19th Century Print from the Library of Congress

Illustration from Audubon's famous book of American birds.

1987 US Postage Stamp

Our first sighting of a Red-winged Blackbird in 2021 was at the beginning of March.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Humanism: Reading Sarah Bakewell

What is a humanist? Sarah Bakewell’s introduction to her new book on this subject begins with this definition: A humanist is a person whose concern is “the human dimension of life … whereas scientists study the physical world, and theologians the divine one, humanities-humanists study the human world of art, history, and culture. Non-religious humanists make their moral choices based on human well-being, not divine instruction. Religious humanists focus on human well-being, too, but within the context of a faith. Philosophical and other kinds of humanists constantly measure their ideas against the experience of real living people.” (Humanly Possible, pp. 3-4)

In her introduction, Bakewell summarizes the long history of humanists: 

“Through the centuries, humanists have been scholarly exiles or wanderers, living on their wits and words. In the early modern era, several fell foul of the Inquisition or other sleuths of heresy. Others sought safety by concealing what they really thought, sometimes so effectively that we still haven’t a clue. Well into the nineteenth century, non-religious humanists (often called ‘freethinkers’) could be reviled, banned, imprisoned, and deprived of rights. In the twentieth century they were forbidden to speak openly, told they had no hope of running for public office; they were persecuted, prosecuted, and imprisoned. In the twenty-first century so far, humanists still suffer all these things.” (p. 7)

Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Inquiry, and Hope, which I have just begun reading, looks to be a fascinating book with interesting implications for the political events of the moment. More distantly, the development of humanist thought in Renaissance Italy has fascinated me for a long time, and I’m enjoying Bakewell’s account of the writers and philosophers of that era. 

The review of this book in The Guardian published last week suggests the way the term “humanist” has emerged, particularly how the usage of the term humanism is more recent than the way of thinking that’s at the center of the book:

“To date the rise of ‘humanism’ to the early Renaissance is, strictly speaking, anachronistic; there was no such term until the 19th century. But Humanly Possible traces a lineage, less of theories than of kindred spirits, over seven centuries in Europe. This runs from medieval umanisti (students of humanity), who remained Christian even while resurrecting ‘the flowering, perfumed, fruitful works of the pagan world spring’ (as John of Salisbury called them), to today’s (more secular) self-declared humanists.”

Who is Sarah Bakewell?

Here is Sarah Bakewell’s picture, drawn by Brad Craft, as posted on her web page:


A few things she says about herself:

“After fitful attendance at various schools, I studied philosophy at the University of Essex. I became enthralled by the work of Martin Heidegger and embarked on a PhD, but some impulse led me to give this up and move to London, where I found work in a tea-bag factory.  My job was to catch boxes of tea-bags spat at me by a machine, flip them on their sides, and push them in groups of six to the next person on the line. It was only for the first two hours that the machine spat faster than I could flip, but those two hours were a formative influence.

“After this, I worked for several years in bookshops: Hatchards in Piccadilly, and Collet’s International in Charing Cross Road (the latter now long gone, alas).  I did a postgraduate degree in Artificial Intelligence, then landed a job at the Wellcome Library for the History of Medicine.  I spent ten fascinating years there as a cataloguer and curator of early printed books….

“Since 2002, my main job has been writing, although I also worked part-time for the National Trust from 2008-2010, cataloguing book collections in historic properties around England.  I taught Creative Writing at London’s City University and Oxford’s Kellogg College for some years.

“Otherwise I live mostly in London, and enjoy the usual glamorous writer’s life: putting a comma in, taking it out, putting it back in again, and eventually deleting the whole sentence.”

I may write more about Bakewell’s new book as I continue reading it. I’ve very much enjoyed two of her other books on the topics of the Existentialists and the philosopher Montaigne. She’s becoming a favorite author of mine.

Monday, March 27, 2023

A Few Books about Drinks

I’ve been thinking about some books I’ve read in the past that discuss various popular beverages that we drink without noticing their history. I’ve extracted a few paragraphs for each book in order to look back on things I’ve read in the past. These were selections of my culinary reading group, which has not met in 3 years because of the pandemic. I’m hoping it will be resurrected. 

Fizz: Read in 2014.

Fizz: How Soda Shook UP the World by Tristan Donovan is a comparatively light read, beginning with Joseph Priestly's discovery of how to add CO2 bubbles to water in the 18th century. People immediately LOVED soda as shown by rapid improvements in soda-making technology and the following rise of the soda fountain as a social and dining institution. And of course Donovan ends the book with a series of wars between Coke and Pepsi. Fizz is only about artificial bubbles -- naturally carbonated spring water and natural bubbles from fermentation in beer or sparkling wine were long known and loved before artificial carbonation.

Champagne: Read in 2015

The region of Champagne, France, has the misfortune to lie just between Paris and the French-German border. In 1870, 1914, and 1939 the hillside vineyards, historic wineries, and underground aging and storage cellars were ravaged by wars between the two countries. The total destruction of whole towns and villages and the suffering that occurred, especially in the near-by trenches of World War I, are nearly unimaginable. Don and Petie Kladstrup did an excellent job with this painful history in their book Champagne: How the World's Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times, published 2005.

Champagne contains a detailed history of both myths and facts about Champagne and its origins -- especially the mythologizing that's occurred about the early cellar-master Dom PĂ©rignon. The authors begin with the invention and production of its famous bubbly wine, continue with details about the people who produced, promoted, and drank the wine (and made up things about the origins); and wrap up by detailing how the region suffered through the battles and occupations of the 19th and 20th centuries. Of course there's a bit about the Belle Epoch and how champagne became a drink of high-living Paris. I found the book fascinating, a wonderful successor to the Kladstrup's earlier book, Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure, published 2001.

Liquid Jade: Read in 2010

I enjoyed the discussion of Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West in my culinary book club even more than the reading. A strong shared impression about Liquid Jade was the sense that it broke into two parts with somewhat different approaches. The early chapters described the legendary discovery of tea, the development of tea growing, and the almost mystical view of tea drinking in China and Japan. These chapters had a much vaguer historic approach than the later chapters, which were more social and politically oriented, as well as describing the content and origin of tea varieties and how tea is processed for consumption. Even the author's discussion of tea as a trade commodity is handled differently in the earlier and later parts of the book.

The author's politics (which I didn't know but one person said were very left wing) were held responsible for her drastically negative view of colonialism, imperialism, and exploitation of workers in the later chapters about the Opium Wars, the introduction of tea-growing to the British colonies of India and Ceylon, the rapacious traders, and the discussion on fair trade in modern agriculture. One response to this in our conversation was that no one could have a positive view of the way the British treated and viewed the "coolies" who worked in the colonial tea industry. We discussed the chapter on a letter from a high Chinese official to Queen Victoria, appealing to her sense of decency and asking her to drop the pushing of opium on the Chinese people. The response was the Opium War which destroyed the Chinese authority over the opium trade and had terrible consequences.

Tequila: Read in 2012

Tequila! A Natural and Cultural History by Ana G. Valenzuela-Zapata and Gary Paul Nabhan is a book that I enjoyed. Science and poetic description combine beautifully as the author describes the taxonomy of the agave plant used in the beverage, its long history beginning in prehistoric Mexico, and the lives and traditions of the Mexican agricultural workers who plant, cultivate, and harvest the agave crop. Valenzuela-Zapata describes their hard physical labor and the taxing heat and aridity of the fields, the simple meals they cook and eat while working, and their "quixotic" oral tradition.

"Mescaleros are forever spinning yarns about mescal -- the plant and the spirit -- while working in fields or resting in the nearby shade, and while jiving on the street corner or drinking in the cantina on the village plaza," writes the author. "They keep up their running commentary while bolting for cover during a sudden downpour, or cursing the sun as it bakes the plants they have tended for seasons." (p. 31)

The labor continues in the distilleries where huge harvested "pinas" are roasted and their liquid fermented, possibly with sugar, into a variety of tequilas. The lore continues, backward and forward in time, in many traditions of eating and drinking the fruit of this very widespread plant.

Reviews © 2010, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2023 mae sander for

Shared with Elizabeth’s blog party.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Looking up and around

A mural of which I’ve been meaning to take a photo.

Looking up at a railway gate.

Looking up at a flag flying.

In the New York Times today: “When 4 Photographers Looked Up, This Is What They Saw” — an article about taking pictures from an interesting point of view. I decided to try it. I started by looking up at my house:

Looking up at our shag-bark maple tree.

Photos © 2023 mae sander
Shared with Sami’s Monday Murals.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

My Current Reading

Two Comic Novels

Jesse Q. Sutanto has written two very funny easy-reading books about an Indonesian-Chinese family who live in Los Angeles. A lot of the humor is good-natured depiction of Meddy, the narrator (a young graduate of the California University system) and her mother and mother’s sisters, whose varying degrees of understanding of American language and culture result in a variety of comic mishaps. 

I’ll just offer one or two brief quotes from Dial A for Aunties, and say that the plot is suspenseful and not to be taken too seriously. I am trying not to overthink the fact that a young man, though not of good character, ends up dead, and there’s no sympathy for him at all, he’s just a body to be disposed of.

Here is an example of the family dynamic showing up at a Dim Sum restaurant:

“‘Eat more, Meddy. You should keep your strength up for tomorrow,’ Big Aunt says in Mandarin, plopping two pieces of braised pork ribs on my plate while I carefully place dumplings on everyone else’s plates and pour them tea. Second Aunt cuts the char siu baos into two each and places one half on everyone’s plate. The table being round means all the dishes are equally within reach of everyone, but Chinese family meals aren’t complete without everyone serving food to everyone else, because doing so shows love and respect, which means we all need to do it in the most attention-seeking way possible. What’s the point of giving Big Aunt the biggest siu mai if nobody else notices?” (p. 9)

The second book, Four Aunties and a Wedding, is if anything funnier than the first. Meddy, the narrator, is marrying her lifelong love Nathan, and the wedding is being held in Oxford, England, where his parents live. As they meet these very proper Brits, the cultural confusion of the aunties is amplified because they try to speak not only American vernacular but British slang. No one gets killed in this one, which makes me like it better. Again, this little book is not to be taken seriously!

At a very formal meal at the beautiful English home of Nathan’s parents, her auntie embarrasses her in various ways: 

“As we help ourselves to the feast, I catch sight of Big Aunt dipping into her handbag. Oh no. I already know what she’s going to get before she even takes it out. It’s like I’m moving in slow motion. I reach behind Second Aunt to grab Big Aunt’s hand, but I’m too late. The bottle of chili sauce is placed on the table with an earth-shattering thunk…. 
“This is why I can never take my family to nice restaurants. I’ve tried explaining countless times why it’s rude to bring your own chili sauce to restaurants or other people’s homes, but they just don’t get it. ‘In Indonesia, everybody bring their own chili sauce everywhere,’ Ma would say. ‘Why you call that rude? Is just practical. Everybody like different kind of chili, if host is good, host will provide all the different brands. But we be understanding, don’t put that kind of pressure on host. We bring our own.’” (p. 52-53)

Sutanto is a new author to me. I read a review of her most recent book, Vera Wong's Unsolicited Advice for Murderers, in the Washington Post (here) and thought I'd see if I liked her older books. Now I might read the new one too!

Two Serious Books 

Back to serious reading, I chose Poverty by America, a very recently-published and much admired study of poverty in the US, and strong advocate for rethinking how racism and fear or hatred of poor people affect our national policies. The book studies the expensive, and rather ineffective ways that America fights poverty and proposes ways in which our nation should create new attitudes and methods to achieve more economic and racial justice. 

The topic of poverty in American life  is a very popular one, constantly under discussion in newspaper op-eds and feature stories. Why does poverty in our country seem so intractable? It’s growing, not shrinking, despite more and more federal money being spent on a wide variety of programs to help the poor. The reason the author finds for this depressing result is that while the richer Americans receive huge benefits in the form of tax breaks and subsidies, they do not acknowledge the privileges and advantages they receive. A number of factors, especially including racism, also provide them with a motive to oppose changes.

All the reviews find Matthew Desmond’s analysis to be very penetrating. Beyond analysis, he also strongly advocates for reform to the system, by a number of means. I don’t think the reviewers have fully discussed his proposed changes to our society, such as better wages for working poor people, affordable housing integrated into richer neighborhoods, and better education through less segregation by wealth and by race. One quote:

“The majority of Americans believe the economy is benefitting the rich and harming the poor. The majority believe the rich aren’t paying their fair share in taxes. The majority support a $15 federal minimum wage. Why, then, aren’t our elected officials representing the will of the people? This we must demand of them.” (p. 188)

And now a book on a completely different topic: Ten Birds That Changed the World. A review of this book sounded so fascinating that I didn’t even wait for publication in the US (scheduled next September), but I ordered a copy from England! I’m glad I did because the book is both fun to read and also very enlightening.

Each of the ten species of birds mentioned in the title has its own chapter. Each of these chapters covers an era of human history and many topics, mostly connected to the relationship between humans and birds. Specifics include how humans have affected the lives of birds, learned from birds, worshipped birds, profited from birds (especially in the case of the cormorant that produces guano), and repeatedly extinguished entire species of birds (especially the dodo, but also many others). The final chapter, whose bird is the emperor penguin of Antarctica, contains a strong analysis of how human actions have led to a climate crisis which threatens the penguins and quite a few other bird species directly, and which threatens all bird life and ultimately all human life with extinction.

What I'm Reading Next

This is the 13th in the Ruth Gaolloway series
by Elly Griffiths. I've read numbers 1-12.

... and I Read the News Every Day

Reviews © 2023 mae sander.


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