American Food, Part II

Holiday promotions are part of the food and beverage industry too. Miller Lite knows how much you love to drink beer under the Christmas tree, and their Keg Stand will cost you $50, beer not included. They tell us supplies won’t last long.

The apparatus holds the tree on top with “room for a quarter-barrel keg (which holds the equivalent of about 83 bottled beers) and ice bucket underneath. Finally, a hole in the top of the box allows the tap’s spout to fit through so revelers can pour a beer right next to the tree.” Miller also sells beer-infused ice cream bars. Well, who knew?

The wizards of the food industry are constantly bombarded by the food police and the advocates of organic food. I think the only thing wrong with organic food is the folks who promote it and their high-handed convictions in the cause. They feed on many platitudes and attitudes about food.

I’ve maintained that people with some degree of education generally know what foods to eat and what’s good for them. (Is that true, I wonder?) Still, food science marches on. Researchers claim that fat (not obese) people live longer. So, how much weight is too much, guys? Another elaborate study on fruit flies tells us that human taste buds operate like those in the bugs to make up for diet deficiencies.

You want science like this to control your diet and your life? I mean, what’s wrong with sandwiches? Stuff ‘em with lettuce if you want your greens. Did you know that pizza is the best-liked food in the world? How frightening is that? I live around the corner from a great farmers market so I’m fortunate not to be subject to the onslaught of the packaged, processed, fatty foods that outrage the food police.

We all seem to be captive to our childhood preferences in food. For many years I had a thing for French toast and bacon in the morning. Those associations with breakfast die hard. You know about Proust and the madeleine dipped in tea? Taste, memory and associations together make us into creatures of the past.

So sometimes, as I said here, we simply have to give way to our built-in historic preferences. The alternative is food guilt, and who needs that?

American Food

Those of us lucky enough to be brought up in a genuine gastronomic culture can be either snooty or appalled by American food—or at least the diet that most Americans eat. Authorities keep warning us that such food is not only unhealthy but dangerous.

This diet typically is high in sodium, refined sugars, omega-6 fatty acids, trans fats, and excess calories. It’s also low in the vitally important long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. People who maintain a diet loaded with simple carbohydrates (such as bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, fruit juices, and sugar) have an increased risk for problems with their digestive system, liver, pancreas, heart, circulation, and overall brain health.

Not to mention the American addiction to junk food like hamburgers and French fries, Twinkies and Coke. Full disclosure: last night I cooked myself a really good hamburger and ate a salad with that to temper my misbehavior, finishing off with a little Haagen-Dazs and a cookie. I say OK to such indulgence once in a while. Harkening to dieticians and the food police can make you feel guilty, not to say hungry.

Poor people eat more junk food. It fuels obesity, but it’s cheaper and provides instant gratification. Do the hordes of MAGA supporters eat anything but junk food? Look at the way Trump eats.

Food manufacturers spend billions of dollars on research and development to create flavor profiles that trigger the human affinity for sugar, salt, and fat. Consumption results in pleasurable, likely addictive, effects on the brain. At the same time, massive marketing efforts are deployed, creating powerful brand loyalties that studies have shown can trump taste.

The best thing about American food has always been its simplicity and freshness. A good steak, fresh fish, corn on the cob, non-processed cheese, fresh greens and fruits—this is the stuff I grew up on. Hopefully you did too.

The latest gastronomic traditions in American cooking can compete with the best in Europe and Asia. And the fact that we have incorporated the traditions of French, Italian and Asian cookery in our food provides variety and nourishment of a different and welcome sort.

However, living in Mexico really tests your ability to avoid junk food. Snacks and soft drink consumption is off the charts. The government puts labels warning of excessive fat, sugar, etc. on packaged food. Their impact has been negligible. Recently the state of Oaxaca passed a law forbidding the sale of high-calorie and sugary drinks to minors. Permit me to be skeptical, since here obesity even in the young is out of control.

The best food in Mexico, as in the U.S., is the freshest and most nutritious. Beans, vegetables, fruits and even corn tortillas are everywhere. The better restaurants serve up endless variations on these staples, often with great flair. For lunch I just finished a large taco of chicken, mushrooms and refried beans, all dipped in a bit of Heinz Ketchup to show biculturalism. Beats McDonald’s every time.

Thoughts on Moving

Mercado Sanchez Pascuas

I moved to a new house a little over a week ago. Which prompted me to review all the many times I’ve moved since, for instance, leaving graduate school and getting married. It turns out that I’ve changed domiciles some 16 times in those 61 years. Reasons for this instability range from job change to partner change, from responsibility to choice.

For movers I’ve used everything from U-Haul to FedEx. My latest move, about a mile across town, went very smoothly and made me grateful for all the good help I had. But it also brought on a lot of anxiety, fatigue, and irritation. Clearly, my age is showing.

Moving, as we know, brings out the best and worst in people. Stress-wise I would compare it to:

    • taking on a lot of questionable debt
    • a poker game—being sometimes in control, often not
    • the trials of a migrant trying to cross into a new country
    • being grateful for a former tenant who left behind a lot of booze and a big bottle of Tums.

I had great friends offering to help box the 3,000-plus vinyl LPs and CDs I’ve collected over the years. Finally, my new roommate and I did it ourselves, and she provided sort of an organizational roadmap for the move and the services (internet, utilities, etc.) and people we had to contract with.

We had to paint and make a few repairs to the new place. Our new landlady was accommodating and paid for much of this. The local moving crew was friendly and competent. The physical packing and moving was completed in a very few days.

So why did I experience so much fatigue and anxiety? Moving gives you no excuse for harboring old papers, files, and stuff you will never want or need again. Housecleaning means cutting loose from the past, which can be liberating or disturbing. I felt it both ways.

And then there’s the pressure of trying to find new places for all the stuff you brought with you—the clothes, cookware, houseware, underwear, hardware that need to find a new home. This takes time and involves making lots of petty but necessary decisions.

Being here just over a week I find the experience still a little unsettling. And yet I’m right next door to a large farmers market, and other small shops selling everything abound in the neighborhood. People have been friendly and helpful. What’s not to like? Moving at its best seems always to cut both ways.

The Nutmeg’s Curse

The reviews of Amitav Ghosh’s new book, The Nutmeg’s Curse, have not always been positive. Some have declared it to be anti-science. Yet others, like Roy Scranton, found that it “elegantly and audaciously reconceives modernity as a centuries-long campaign of omnicide, against the spirits of the earth, the rivers, the trees, and even the humble nutmeg, then makes an impassioned argument for the keen necessity of vitalist thought and non-human narrative.” I’m with Roy, with a few reservations.

The overall best review I found with a contemporary context is here, in The New Yorker.

Ghosh begins with a narrative of how the 17th century Dutch arrived at the Banda Islands in the Pacific to capture, enslave and kill the islanders in order to insure a monopoly on, of all things, the nutmeg, that highly treasured spice. He finds these events a paradigm for how colonialism and the “free” market have come to dominate trade by subjugation. The result is also tied inextricably to climate change and the rebellion of nature it embodies.

The U.S. has led this robust decadence through military and economic dominance. These are Ghosh’s carefully chosen words:

The job of the world’s dominant military establishments is precisely to defend the most important drivers of climate change—the carbon economy and the systems of extraction, production, and consumption that it supports. Nor can these establishments be expected to address the unseen drivers of the planetary crisis, such as inequities of class, race, and geopolitical power: their very mission is to preserve the hierarchies that favor the status quo.

And our New Yorker reviewer Olufemi O. Taiwo finds that

Ghosh sees potential in what it calls a “vitalist” politics, and in an associated ethic of protection that would extend to “rivers, mountains, animals, and the spirits of the land.” Ghosh identifies this ethos, in contrast to the world-as-resource view, with peasants and farmworkers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—places and people long seen as peripheral to history.

So in one way the book is a history of vitalism, culminating in the Gaia concept: “that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.”

In Ghosh’s terms:

The awareness of a Gaia-like earth did not wither away of itself because of literacy; it was systematically exterminated, through orgies of bloodletting that did not spare Europe, although its violence was directed most powerfully at the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Yet, not only has that awareness survived among the Indigenous people of the Americas; many of them also credit their perceptions of the Earth with having made their own survival possible, in the face of exterminatory violence. Never have these perceptions of the Earth mattered more than at this moment when the mechanistically ordered world of modernity is disintegrating before our very eyes.

As I said earlier, I have a few reservations about this really wonderful book. One is that vitalism can be undercut (and often is) by superstition and turgid magical thinking. Ghosh documents this but not sufficiently so.

Also, it’s hard for an old rationalist like me to accept this total spiritualizing of nature. Yet the alternatives seem to have led the world deeply astray. If you accept Ghosh’s arguments about our awful colonialist appropriation of nature, his approach to vitalism, or something like it, must follow.

The book makes you think of the many varieties of human wretchedness and, maybe, of human possibilities for redemption. More than a critique, this is an indictment of much Western thinking. In its way it is finally a religious statement.

Vegetable Soup

It takes a lot to get me off the news. Constant stewing about Trump and the upcoming election, however, gets all the wrong juices flowing. Following the latest Senate follies can bring on dyspepsia or worse. Case in point: the recent Amy Coney Barrett hearings in which the Democrats, with a few exceptions, rolled over and played dead.

As the proceedings concluded, senator Dianne Feinstein, the senior Judiciary Committee Democrat, gave Chairman Lindsey Graham a big hug and complimented him for leading “one of the best sets of hearings that I’ve participated in.”

After a dose of antacid to calm things down, it was time to change the channel. Cut to the Michigan Trump rally where El Cheeto was leading a chorus of “Lock ‘em up!” for Gretchen Whitmer and Hillary Clinton. Hmm, inciting violence against a sitting governor and a presidential opponent? When is too much enough?

It was time to eat some lunch and cool down. I made vegetable soup out of some old but still good stuff in the hydrator of my fridge. It was comforting to the stomach and tasted great. Here are five reasons why soup is good and good for you. No. 5 is the boost to your immune system that soup provides, helping to stave off colds and flu.

So in the age of coronavirus (another of the gifts Trump has brought you), soup can be a protector. It also relieves stress and increases bone and muscle strength. Take off your mask to eat it.

The Forgotten Zucchini

Going to the supermarket is still an adventure though not always a welcome one. Hunting for the foods you want to make a certain recipe takes a kind of focus, distracting you from the nauseating news of the day and the perils of COVID. It can give your unsettled life a temporary sense of purpose.

So you have an idea that you want to make zucchini with onions and tomatoes to go with the fish you bought. The recipe was a simple holdover from your childhood that never failed to bring back good memories. Maybe you’ll add in a poblano and some spices.

Your first stop was to pick up a can of good Italian tomatoes and then maneuver on to collect other, unrelated things. That was a mistake because it got you distracted from finding the remaining ingredients. Your first mistake was not making a list. At the store one needs to keep a sharp focus because there are so many other distracting items. In fact, a supermarket purposely distracts you so you’ll make impulse purchases.

By the time you get to the produce aisle, you pick up other items but fail to recognize those nice bulbous green zucchinis waiting in their bin. You are by then thinking about the latest Trump revelations to Woodward, the fires in the West, the disastrous election looming. You are totally distracted and pass by the zukes.

Of course you don’t realize the omission until you get home, cursing and flailing your poor memory. Thus a welcome distraction (going to the store) becomes a little tarnished because you were too distracted to buy what you came for.

Going Out for Butter: A Break from Mexican Solitude

One of life’s necessities is having butter for your morning toast. Without that you have to resort to jam or some dumb substitute like cream cheese. Toast without butter is like Washington without the Redskins. Excuse me, it’s now the Washington Football Team.

So, after some hesitation this morning I fired up the car and drove to the supermarket. (There are no butter stores nearby.) I did pause out of concern for the climate. Driving to the store would involve burning gasoline, polluting the atmosphere (if slightly) and making an “unnecessary” trip. Butter won out, naturally, and I salved my conscience by deciding to make other culinary purchases so as to prolong the time before the next trip.

At the store I donned my ill-fitting mask and walked up the nonfunctioning escalera móvil. The butter selection at the store was, as usual, disappointing: a whole lot of tasteless Mexican mantequilla and none of the stuff I like, Danish Lurpak or French Président. They used to carry those brands off and on, but no more. I had to settle on something called Lynncott unsalted, which is not too bad.

Completing the rest of my purchases (I forgot the milk) and heading to checkout, I reflected that settling for second-rate butter was God’s punishment for a) being so choosy and b) making a self-indulgent trip to buy it. While I was there, I thought I’d check out the gin and found Boodles on sale for thirty percent off! God was smiling after all. Gin and butter, nothing better.

So the trip was a success after all. A break in the viral solitude is worth a lot, and even something as mundane as going to the supermarket is a welcome diversion. You get to see other people in ill-fitting masks, driving their carts fast to get in the shortest possible checkout line. You see the checkout clerk, patient behind her face shield while a customer badgers her for a few more pesos discount. Like cattle we wait to get through the line and out to pasture. Human nature in the supermarket is worth watching.

Hard Truths about Climate Change

Climate math: What a 1.5-degree pathway would take

How McKinsey Destroyed the Middle Class

Op-Ed: The McKinsey I hope the world gets to know

Do we really have any chance to come to grips with climate change? Like many of us, I go back and forth on that one. Some recommend throwing out the whole capitalist system. If that seems a bit unlikely, you’d need to know how to redirect the system and what it would really take to decarbonize global business.

A pretty convincing roadmap for that is provided by McKinsey, the firm some love to hate. The critics hate its high-pressure culture, its stress on process, its success. But the business of America is still business, and McKinsey’s leaders have recently tried to transform their firm’s role to reflect the totally changing world we’re living in. I almost went to work for McKinsey in 2006, which would have been to the delight of my capitalistic forebears, but that didn’t happen and I’m grateful.

Anyhow, McKinsey recently issued a report on Climate Math that challenges business to meet the demands for a 1.5-C degree warming limit. This is very much worth your reading so you can understand in some coherent detail the challenges in achieving that goal.

 . . . With further warming unavoidable over the next decade, the risk of physical hazards and nonlinear, socioeconomic jolts is rising. Mitigating climate change through decarbonization represents the other half of the challenge. Scientists estimate that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would reduce the odds of initiating the most dangerous and irreversible effects of climate change.

The report offers five necessary and difficult steps to get to that goal. “The good news,” they say, “is that a 1.5-degree pathway is technically achievable. The bad news is that the math is daunting.”

None of what follows is a forecast. Getting to 1.5 degrees would require significant economic incentives for companies to invest rapidly and at scale in decarbonization efforts. It also would require individuals to make changes in areas as fundamental as the food they eat and their modes of transport. A markedly different regulatory environment would likely be necessary to support the required capital formation.

The report traces five needed interdependent “shifts” in areas that we all know, with varying means and prospects of achieving reform:

    • reforming food and forestry
    • electrifying our lives
    • adapting industrial operations
    • decarbonizing power and fuel
    • ramping up carbon capture and carbon sequestration activity.

Each of these areas plays out in three scenarios the report envisions, not as predictions but as “snapshots” to get where we have to go.

All the scenarios, we found, would imply the need for immediate, all-hands-on-deck efforts to dramatically reduce GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions. The first scenario frames deep, sweeping emission reductions across all sectors; the second assumes oil and other fossil fuels remain predominant in transport for longer, with aggressive reforestation absorbing the surplus emissions; and the third scenario assumes that coal and gas continue to generate power for longer, with even more vigorous reforestation making up the deficit . . . .

Relying so much on reforestation seems to me dubious at best, despite the report’s qualifications. The final pages state in bold type, “It is impossible to chart a 1.5-degree pathway that does not remove carbon dioxide to offset ongoing emissions. The math simply does not work.”

The challenges here are immense and the report does not shy away from them. But finally we are getting serious analysis of how feasible (or unlikely) the 1.5-degree goal is.

Flight of the Bumblebees

Climate Change Could Push Bumblebees to Extinction

Bumblebee Decline Linked With Extreme Heat Waves

Climate Change: It’s a Buzzkill for Bumblebees, Study Finds

A major study has documented what has long been suspected: the bees are dying, and the world’s plants and biodiversity will suffer from that. Bumblebee extinction seems to be underway, and populations have declined across Europe by 17 percent and in America by some 46 percent.

The study found that over a 115-year period nearly half of the North American regions home to bumblebees lost all their populations. That’s called extinction, and it’s irreversible. The pattern was observed across a number of studies.

Bees are the great pollinators, as we know. According to one report:

Tomatoes, squash, and berries are just some of the crops we can thank bees for pollinating. Animal pollinators like bees, birds, and butterflies could be responsible for up to 1 out of every 3 bites of food we eat, the US Department of Agriculture says.

Honeybees have also been affected. Climate change and its consequent heat waves are the major cause, since bees can’t tolerate a rapidly heating climate. The study predicted “with surprising accuracy” how changes of bumblebee communities and species have reflected the pressures of increasing heat. More detailed studies are called for. Changes from farming, land use and pesticides are another factor.

Said one of the study’s authors: “What I suspect is that you wind up with this really terrible one-two punch. Climate change is making bees want to move to new places, and then you have things like pesticides and human land uses that are stopping them from moving.”