Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Would You Like a Side of Acorns with that Seal?

We know that sometime after the harvest of 1621 the Plymouth colonists shared a feast with their native neighbors. Although we don't know what they did eat, we have a good idea of what was not included on the menu. Surprisingly, some foods that we consider Thanksgiving staples did not appear on the original groaning board.

Ham, for example. Although the colonists had brought pigs with them from England, there's no evidence that they had butchered a hog at this point. They probably did eat wild turkey, goose, venison, or grouse; it's just as likely that the first Thanksgiving included some fatty and nutritious seal, which at the time was plentiful in the waters surrounding Cape Cod.

Although cranberries might have appeared on the table, the colonists lacked sugar, so their wild turkey was not adorned with cranberry sauce. There's little doubt corn was part of the meal, but it would have been dried corn at this time of the year. The season for fresh corn had ended before the harvest.

Neither sweet potatoes or potatoes were common in New England at this point in time, so if you're planning a historically accurate Thanksgiving you can leave these off the menu. The residents of Plymouth Plantation certainly had no notion of the marshmallow and, remember, no sugar, so candied sweet potatoes would have been as foreign a concept to them as General Foods International Coffee.

It goes without saying that not even Squanto possessed a ready supply of french cut green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and Durkee dried onion rings, doesn't it?

Finally, historians have uncovered no evidence of a Puritan recipe for pumpkin pie. In fact, the colonists not only lacked sugar, they lacked milk; no cows made the crossing on the Mayflower. Pumpkin would have made an appearance at the feast, maybe even stewed pumpkin, but no pumpkin pie.

Enjoy whatever you've decided to cook tomorrow. Rejoice in the fact that you're not huddled around a fire pit eating seal and are instead quaffing quantities of beer glued to the illuminated box of football. Plus ca change...

Monday, November 24, 2008

Squanto Would Have Loved This

I'm actually going to post a recipe here, or at least what passes for a recipe in my kitchen. The secret to cooking is to, at all times, attempt to make what has begun as healthy as unhealthy as possible, and to make what begins unhealthy as fat-filled and calorific as possible. Adhere to these standards and everyone will believe you are a good cook.

Keeping these tenets in mind, the only thing better than bacon is candied bacon. I know it sounds weird, but it's not. It's delicious.

First, buy some decent thick-cut bacon and fry it until it's medium-well, crisp but not too crisp. Put it aside, clean out the pan. In the clean skillet, melt together one cup of sugar or brown sugar, three tablespoons of honey, and two tablespoons of water. Cook on medium high until it stops bubbling and has turned into a syrup. Turn the heat to low and place the bacon strips into the syrup, turning once until coated. Put the coated bacon on wax or parchment paper and let it dry.

Eat the candied bacon until you puke.

Serves anywhere from one to six, depending on how much sugar and fat you and your friends and family can eat at a sitting.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Why Burgers Grow on Stalks

Unfortunately last night's meeting did not feature fisticuffs. I did get home early enough to make a dent in my Netflix queue, and feel compelled to recommend King Corn, a smart, funny, engaging documentary about how our food is produced. While driving across the country, two friends realize that all the corn grown in Iowa is not edible sweet corn but instead the beginnings of processed food. They decide to rent an acre, move to Iowa to farm it, and follow their corn into the food chain.

You won't learn anything from the film that you don't already know from the work of Michael Pollan. Our bodies are mainly corn. When we eat meat we're eating corn, because the cows have been confined on feedlots and quickly fattened with cheap corn. Drink a soda, or eat cookies or candy, and you're consuming corn in the form of high fructose corn syrup. By attempting to follow their crop from the field to the table the filmmakers show exactly how and why this is the case. Along the way, they give us the history of our current Farm Bill and the rationale behind farm subsidies that pay farmers to produce more and more corn, more corn than can be eaten fresh so by necessity more and more corn that, in its natural state, is inedible. We also watch them attempt to taste their crop, turn part of their yield into homemade high fructose corn syryp, and visit one of the feedlots that is the destination for about a third of their acre's bounty.

Most intresting is their simple illustration of the economics that leads to agribusiness. Once they arrive in Iowa, they sign up for government subsidies for their acre. That year's basic subsidy is $28/acre, paid half before planting and half after the harvest. Their yield was about 180 bushels, which where selling for about $1.58/bushel at harvest. After expenses, they were around $19 in the red for their acre. The basic subsidy offset this loss; add in additional government incentives (the amount of which they didn't explain - I'm making a guess here) and the profit was maybe $12 an acre. This is why the family farm can't sustain itself. The price of equipment isn't part of this formula, only the price of fertilizer, herbicide, and seed. In order to make barely enough to lease and service the large tractors needed for this kind of farming one would have to farm at least 1,000 acres, although bringing in $120,000 a year might not be enough. Farms must get bigger and bigger, with greater and greater yields, in order to be profitable.

The only real solution would be a change in our subsidy policy, to go back to subsidizing controlled yields in order to keep the price of grain high rather than encouraging overproduction and therefore cheap grain. On the other hand, because of our current farm policy, the price of food is cheaper than it's ever been. Remember when steak was a luxury? Cheap corn makes beef affordable, and makes the dollar menu possible.

Rent the film and see all this for yourself. In addition to being thought-provoking, it has a killer soundtrack and is beautifully shot and edited. You'll be glad you saw it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


I began the week frustrated by the fact that I have a meeting each and every night, plus at least one daytime meeting three out of the five days. That's a whole lot of municipal government in action, folks. As it turns out, though, we've got a full moon right now, so thus far the meetings have been incredibly action-packed.

It all started with the Zoning Hearing Board Monday night. I was there to hear testimony on an item that ended up being continued until next month, but before that happened the Board held a hearing on a request for a variance to allow a warehouse to be converted into an artist's live/work space. The warehouse is situated in an alley in the most densely populated neighborhood of my city; the variance was to waive the requirement to provide off-street parking for two cars. In other words, granting the variance would mean that two additional vehicles would fight for the very limited parking available in the alley.

Current residents of the surrounding blocks packed the meeting. Parking, as you might guess, is an extremely emotional issue. So emotional that a fistfight almost broke out. So emotional that one resident called the Board a bunch of a-holes, screamed that the meeting was a joke, and incited his friends and neighbors to verbally abuse the Board and the applicant. Someone speaking in support of the applicant was shouted down and called "beside the point." After all that, the applicant got his variance, and will now have to live among neighbors who resent him and his car.

Last night it was on to the Recreation Board, normally a sedate, boring, and pointless-seeming hour of my time. Little did I know that football season had just ended and the recriminations just begun. The room was packed with angry coaches and parents. The issues? Trophies for pee-wee football. Trophies are unfair! Little kids love trophies! Trophies cause fights! Since the trophies were already purchased they will be distributed, but a policy will be developed for 2009. Next issue: some kids didn't get to play in every game. Parents screamed at coaches, coaches screamed back, after an hour and a half we hadn't even gotten past public comment and to the agenda, and I'd had enough and left.

Tonight should prove equally interesting. I'm attending a discussion of the creation of a BID in our downtown, which is in effect an additional property tax. If the full moon turns parking and pee-wee football into infernos of feeling, I can't imagine the effect it will have on a debate about the creation of a new tax.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

High Atop the Grassy Knoll

It's the week before Thanksgiving, which means it's time for our annual reconsideration of the Kennedy assassination. PBS got things started last night by rerunning Oswald's Ghost, a documentary that's useful in that it outlines the day's events and all explanations of said events, both logical and illogical, in a mere hour and a half. Lone gunman, magic bullet, grassy knoll, CIA/Bay of Pigs/Castro, FBI/mob, David Ferry and a band of not-so-merry gay men, Oswald as government agent, Oswald as KGB agent, Oswald and his mother as nut cases: it's all there.

I'm just young enough that November, 1963 means nothing to me personally. I can tell you exactly where I was when Kennedy was shot: in a bassinet in Brooklyn, sleeping or crying. I was about a month old. What's interesting to me is our culture's absolute and resolute refusal to put the "mystery" of who was behind the tragedy to rest. If anything, the intervening years have only added more and more layers to the onion, rather than providing answers.

Could Oswald have acted alone, out of a desire to enter history? I guess. Sure, he was apparently dyslexic and failed his sharpshooter exam, but everyone gets lucky once in a while, and maybe that was his day, where he could get three shots off in six seconds and hit his moving target. Could a shadow government have used him as a patsy? I guess. Sure, all sorts of things happen beyond the knowledge of the public. What's interesting is that the public believes lone gunmen were responsible for every other assassination, or at least most of the public believes this. John Wilkes Booth, acting along. Sirhan Sirhan, acting alone. James Earl Ray, acting along. John David Hinckley, alone and obsessed with Taxi Driver. Each of these men could just as easily have been patsies and part of a larger conspiracy, but most of us don't go there. For some reason, though, we've decided the Warren Commission was part of a larger cover-up and that there's more to this particular story than meets the eye.

Undoubtedly the times had much to do with this. The same administration that rushed out the Warren Report was also lying to the public about Vietnam. The intervening years didn't exactly engender a larger trust in government, what with Watergate, Iran/Contra, Whitewater, Lewinsky, WMD and the rush to Iraq. On the other hand, it's not as if 190 years of scandal-free government preceeded the assassination; Teapot Dome, anyone?

What probably makes the events of that long-ago November stay with us as a mystery and a controversy is the fact that, in many ways, the hegemony of the post-war era ended with the flight of those bullets. I don't mean the cliched end of Camelot, end of idealism here, I mean the beginning of distrust, unrest, and disaffection that lasted for the next 20 years, until everyone decided they'd had enough and it was morning in America again. Whether or not he acted alone, Oswald accomplished his purpose. He entered history.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The $13 Flight Takes Off

Cheapie Irish airline Ryanair announced last week that it plans to offer service from it's base outside London to New York, Boston, LA, San Francisco, and some as yet undetermined cities in Florida. The cost? Ten euros, currently around 13 bucks. I'm assuming that's one way, but still, that seems too good to be true. Of course, this apparently is too good to be true, since Ryanair charges fees for everything from checking in at a counter to speaking with an agent. Add in the fees and you still have a round-trip flight to England for, say, a hundred bucks. Is it worth it?

I've never flown Ryanair, but apparently it out-budgets American budget haulers. The windows don't have shades, the seats don't recline, there's no back pocket in which to stuff smelly sandwiches and boring magazines, and you have to put up with a live version of QVC for the duration of your flight, with attendants hawking everything from beverages and meals to jewlery, watches, and George Foreman grills. OK, the George Foreman grills might be stretching it, but you see my point.

If you're hopping from one European city to another all of this is probably an inconvenience you'll put up with for an hour or two in order to get to your destination cheaply. The question becomes whether enough consumers will be willing to fly for at least six hours without being able to recline their seat, and with what amounts to a live auction going on in front of them. Yes, suddenly we're all poor, and maybe this will be the only way any of us can afford international travel for the next couple of years, if we can afford it at all. On the other hand, maybe I'm just too old for this kind of crap, because I think I'd rather stay home or take a cheap flight to Ft. Lauderdale than spend that number of hours trapped upright in a small seat breathing bad air.

No start date for the service has been announced, because Ryanair has yet to purchase the needed planes. Once it's up and running, we'll see what the market will bear, and how frugal the American consumer can really be.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Top of the Morning

I'm not the smartest person in the world. I'm pretty certain that, were one to gather up all that I don't know and put it in one place, one could fill the hold of a battleship. I do know, however, that if the water company pulls up to your driveway at 7 AM and starts digging holes on said driveway that you aren't in for a good day. I also know that if you put on some clothes, walk to the end of the driveway, and ask the water men, "What's up?" and they say, "Just looking for the source of a problem," your day isn't likely to improve.

That is all.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Very Good Thing

I have no doubt that everyone's in need of a laugh right now, so I'm happy to report that I have discovered what is probably the most hilarious show on TV. Maybe you've read about it: Whatever, Martha, on the Fine Living Network. Actually, the Fine Living Network is itself pretty hysterical. It is, essentially, a bunch of repeats from Bravo and HGTV, one constant loop of Queer Eye and Emeril and other shows from the recent boom discussing cooking, gardening, and other points of accessible luxury none of us can any longer afford or even care about. Really, gracious entertaining feels very 2006. These days entertaining no doubt involves a 12-pack of Milwaulkee's Best and some tuna casserole, but I digress.

Whatever, Martha is Mystery Science Theater 3000 with the sci-fi B-movies replaced by old clips from the Martha Stewart Show and the robots replaced by Alexis Stewart and her friend Jennifer Koppelman Hutt. The clips play and Alexis and Jennifer snarkily comment on them. What makes the show funny, beyond the quick wit of the hosts and the ridiculous datedness of the clips, is the fact that Martha's daugher is one of those doing the snarking. Alexis isn't entirely mean, but she does enjoy making fun of her mother as much as the rest of us.

A block of shows runs weeknights from 8 to 10 PM (each show is half an hour, but be sure to record rather than watching live - there are way, way too many ads, probably 15 minutes of them in each show). One of last night's shows featured face painting with a very scary "clown" named Peanut Butter, who looked eerily reminiscent of a club kid from the Michael Alig era and who inisisted on glueing beads to the faces of Martha and some of her staffers. In another segment, Martha demonstrated how to make tools for the maintenance of your terrarium while Alexis and Jennifer mercilessly mocked not only the tools but the entire endeavor. No description does the show justice. You really must tune in and see for yourself.

Each show ends with some absolutely random and inappropriate sex and dating chatter between Alexis and Jennifer. It's amusing enough to listen to someone defend getting drunk and having sex on the first date, but to hear a exegesis on the joys of drunken first-date sex coming from the mouth of Martha Stewart's daughter is pure ironic genius.

The best part of all this? Martha herself is the executive producer, proof that she's not only a master markerter but also has a wicked self-depracating sense of humor. "Who doesn't have a bunch of 1990s video segments and B-roll lying, unused, in the basement?" I hear Martha asking. "On today's program, I'll show you how to repackage those used segments and make them look like new!"

Monday, November 10, 2008

Leaf Blowing, Exposed

I know I'm finally an adult because I now own all manner of yard and gardening equipment. Because my house is surrounded by a lot of trees I end up with a lot of leaves each fall, so I broke down last week and bought a leaf blower. Leaf blowers, as it turns out, are a lot like relationships: the first one is practice, so you can get it right the second time.

I don't yet completely regret my decision to get the electric rather than gas-powered blower; the electric is lighter, plenty powerful, easier to store. The problem is the 100-foot cord. I'd somehow managed to own a home without having a really, really long orange extension cord, and the blower didn't come with one, so off I went to the big-box home store to purchase one. Some of those cords cost as much as the blower itself. That's crazy! I thought. Why would you spend 35 bucks on an extension cord?

So it doesn't tangle. I bought the $13 cord, and it turns out it's resting state is in knots. So it stays attached to the blower. This cheap cord slips out of the cord clip, and in the middle of an important blow it tends to detach and curl around itself into yet another knot, causing me to stop and straighten everything out. So it comes with a holder. Go ahead, try to wrap a 100-foot cord around your forearm without creating even more knots. I dare you.

Before buying an electric leaf blower you might want to assess the number of outdoor outlets around your house. As it turns out, I have a dearth. The extension cord won't reach all parts of my yard. Sure, I can buy a second cord, but I don't even want to think about dealing with twice as many tangles, and the need to wind up double the cord.

One day I will decide on the ultimate solution. I will simple cement over my entire property. Sure, the neighbors will hate me, but nature in all its permutations will finally be at bay.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

New Media 2,956, Old Media 1

What made Tuesday's election truly unprecedented? It's not what you think. Not only did Obama's victory shatter racial barriers, close the book on Rovian Republicanism, and signal a change in American politics, culture, and values, it also showed that print is far from dead. Yesterday morning, in virtually every city, town, and village across the country, newspapers were in short supply, grabbed up immediately to be kept as mementos.

I live in an area where I can't get home delivery of the NY Times on weekdays, so I set out as usual around 8:30 yesterday morning to pick up a copy. My neighborhood Wawa was already sold out. Around the corner, my neighborhood coffee shop was also sold out. On to the neighboring neighborhood, whose Wawa was also sold out. I finally found what might have been the last remaining copy in eastern Pennsylvania two townships away, left over probably because the front page was somewhat tattered and therefore not suitable for framing. I didn't care; I actually wanted to read the paper, and I like getting newsprint on my hands, an experience the Internet cannot deliver, at least not yet.

We might go online more and more for information, but we clearly don't go online for keepsakes. What would a screen capture of the Times' online edition saved to disk mean, anyway? The print edition featured the simple word "Obama" in 96-point type, with a color photo of the man himself taking up the rest of the space above the fold. The online edition contained its usual collection of links to the right and left of the screen, with three lead storied vying for the rest of the space on the front page. For visual, and visceral, impact, print wins.

There's no doubt that in order to remain competetive newspapers have to figure out a way for their print editions to become something more than mementos. On Wednesday, November 5, though, for one historic day, newspapers were once again Americans media of choice.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day Fun Facts

Long lines at the polls are predicted for this Election Day, which can certainly be a pain. Waiting in line is really nothing compared to what Americans once had to go through in order to cast a ballot, though. Perusing the history of Presidential elections is enough to make one happy to be voting in 2008 rather than 1808.

We elect Presidents on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Why? you ask. Well, we originally didn't vote for the President, but for the electors who chose the President. We still do this in that the popular vote determines who will make up the Electoral College, but originally those electors weren't pledged to any candidate. Presidential candidates' names didn't even appear on the ballot. On the one hand we didn't have a deluge of yard signs, robocalls, and advertising before elections, but on the other hand Presidents weren't exactly elected by the people. Back then Senators also weren't directly elected; they were appointed.

Anyway, states held elections any time they wanted, so long as the electors could make it to the capitol by December 3, the date they would choose the President. Because travel could take a while by horse or carriage, elections took place any time between mid-October and mid-November. Sometimes electors had trouble making it to the capitol in time, though, so it was decided to choose one national Election Day. Early November seemed best because the harvest was over then (remember those good old agrarian days?) and the electors would have a month or so to get to Philly or, later, DC. The white men of property (expanding suffrage is the real hallmark of our electoral history, but I'm not going to go into that here) needed to travel to get to the polling place to vote on electors. In those days caucusing or balloting took place in cities, towns, county seats, and everyone lived on farms, sometimes a day away. So, Monday was no good, because you'd have to travel on the Sabbath to arrive by Monday, and Wednesday was market day, when people needed to be in town but were busy selling and trading. Tuesday was deemed the least disruptive day to hold elections. National elections originally took place the first Tuesday in November, but then one year that fell on November 1 and everyone complained it was too early, so it was changed so that elections could never fall on November 1. Now November 2 is the earliest possible date, November 8 the latest.

It used to be that we voted by voice, yea or nay, or by throwing colored rocks or beans in a pot, yellow for Thomas, blue for Silas, etc. Those beans were a pain to count, though, and in lean years maybe even a waste of beans. In the meantime political parties had come to prominence (George Washington and John Adams actually had no party affiliation), and the system of direct election of people rather than electors had been devised. When you're voting for people for a bunch of offices beans become too complex, so the paper ballot made the most sense.

In order for the white men to vote, they had to bring a ballot with them. In other words, no ballots were provided by the government or local board of elections. By now pretty much all white men could vote, but not all of them could read. That didn't matter, since pre-printed ballots were provided by the political parties. You could also cut them out of the newspaper, if you could read and afford a newspaper, but why bother when the Whigs or Know-Nothings or Democrat-Republicans were happy to give you your already completed ballot? These were ususally printed on long and narrow pieces of paper and were commonly referred to as "tickets," and this is where the phrase "party ticket" was born.

Once someone gave you your ballot you had to get it to the Judge of Elections. Actually, I should rephrase that: Once someone gave you a stack of ballots, you had to get them to the Judge of Elections. Yes, you could hand in as many ballots as you could carry. This was the nineteenth century version of "absentee voting." Handing in the ballots was probably easier said than done.

The "polls" then consisted of a room where the Judge collected ballots. Voters weren't allowed in the room, however, in an attempt to ensure the integrity of the process. Probably also because many of the voters were blind drunk, but I'll get to that in a minute. One had to pass ballots to the judge through a window or a slot. To get to said slot or window, one had to make one's way through a throng of people milling around, attempting to prevent ballots of one party or another from being cast. The whole process resembled a violent video game come to life: Grand Theft Voting. Fights, even riots, were common on Election Days of yore.

The fact that votes were routinely purchased with liquor undoubtedly had a lot to do with this. Party bosses would hand out ballots in the back room of saloons. Anyone willing to cast a ballot would be treated to some rum, ale, whatever drink was at hand. Anyone willing to mill around and prevent the other guy's ballots from being cast could also expect a free drunk that day. Yes, I'm primarily talking about cities here, but farmers also enjoyed a drink or two while visiting the county seat. Election day violence, and bribery with alcohol, were one of the arguments for Prohibition in the first place, and were the reason that bars remained closed on Election Day even at Prohibition's end.

In short, we've come a long way, even if every once in a while an election hinges on a hanging chad or two. So go vote - the worst that will happen is a wait in line - and then go drink, because come tonight you'll be either happy or sad, or a little of both, and this long exhausting process will finally be over, and, most importantly, the bars will be open.

Monday, November 3, 2008

I'm Pissed

It was a gorgeous fall Saturday, so Brody and I went to the local farmers' market, as we do most Saturdays. This week, the alpaca wool people had brought two of their alpacas along. Brody has met the alpacas before. He seems unsure of how to feel about them. I think he's mainly confused: he knows they aren't dogs, but he can't quite comprehend what sort of creatures they are. A visit to the market isn't complete without checking out the alpacas, which involves Brody putting his nose through the cage and then retreating, putting his nose in and then retreating, until one of the alpacas spits on him and we leave.

On Saturday we were joined at the alpaca booth by a friend and her niece. I hadn't seen this friend in a while, so we stopped to chat. Suddenly, my friend said, "Look! Your dog is peeing on you!" I looked down to find Brody, leg lifted, urinating on my leg. I jerked his leash and he stopped, looking either guilty or confused, I'm not sure. In our time together he's done his share of weird things, but he'd never urinated on me before.

Because I was on my way to do some other errands I didn't want to go home and change, so I was forced to walk around the market looking for some water, explaining along the way that my jeans were soaked because my own dog had peed on me.

Was it the presence of the alpacas? Was he marking me, so the alpacas wouldn't think they could have me? Have I become so round that I resemble a fire hydrant? Did I look like a tree? I'm just glad I wasn't wearing shorts and sandals.