Category Archives: Social Issues

EAT AND LIVE LIKE THE SWISS

Last night, I had a discussion with Scott Davis, a neighbor who lives just up the road from me. His son Ian went to school with my eldest daughter Dee, and we exchanged information about the two “kids.” Ian married a women from Switzerland, who is fluent in English, French, and German, and at home she speaks French to her little children so that they will be bilingual. Both Scott and I agreed that this was a terrific thing to do, that nobody regrets being able to speak more than one language.

However, when I think of Switzerland, I quite naturally think of chocolate, and I mentioned this to Scott.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “They practically serve it at every meal. But you know what? The obesity rates in Switzerland are much lower than they are in the U.S.”

“Why do you think that is?” I asked.

“Well, when my wife and I went to visit our daughter-in-law’s family, we noticed that the Swiss walk everywhere, for fun and to get to places. Their portion sizes are much smaller, and their meals are leisurely. They don’t eat on the run.”

To sum up: The Swiss exercise more, eat less, and have more relaxed meal times. Sounds like a winning combination to me. The only thing I would add is that some countries make this healthy lifestyle easier for its citizens than other counties do. For example, it is my understanding that Switzerland has good public transportation and less sprawl. As a result, people don’t use cars as much and walk more.

Also, the Swiss government has mandated that all employees get 4 paid weeks of vacation a year. In the United States, the number of mandated paid vacation weeks is zero. Employers are not required to give their employees any paid vacation or holidays at all, and indeed I have worked in several jobs where I have had neither vacation time nor sick time. I know all too well that old, stressed overworked/underpaid feeling, and it is not a good one.

Let’s just say that it’s easier to have relaxed meals when you have a more relaxed schedule, with plenty of paid vacation time and some paid holidays thrown in to boot.

Now, this does not mean I think that individuals aren’t responsible for healthy and unhealthy habits. Quite the reverse—we are responsible for what we eat and how much we are exercise. But I also believe that we are societal beings as well as individuals, and some countries are better at promoting healthier, more relaxed societies than others are.

These countries, like Switzerland, usually have a high standard of living. They are not fringe countries where people are scrapping to survive for basic necessities.

And need I mention that Switzerland has universal health care for its citizens? No, but I’ll do so anyway.

So my question is, why don’t we do it more like the Swiss, when the benefits are so obvious?

 

 

AS WE HEAD TO THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE YEAR

December this year is green but crisp, and when I take the dog for a walk, I need to dress warmly—hat, down gloves, layers, and sometimes even a neck warmer. As we walk up the Narrows Pond Road, I notice there is often a skim of ice on the little swamp not far from our house, but the water hasn’t even begun to freeze underneath. The winter berries are plentiful this year, and little red dots punctuate the leafless woods. The ground is hard, which I like. When we come back from our walk, the dog’s paws hardly need to be wiped.

I love this cold season of lights and Christmas trees and wreaths, but it would be remiss of me to ignore the Grinches, who unfortunately are out in full force in Augusta this year. They want to stop providing health care for many low-income people, and they want to stop funding low-income elderly folks who are in assisted living facilities. They say that we are “broke” and that we can’t afford such niceties as health care and assisted living for those not making much money. Yet, of course, we can still afford tax cuts for the wealthy. I can only hope that this “Year of the Protester” (Time magazine’s designation) will somehow make itself felt in Maine. It is probably too much to wish that the Augusta Grinches will have hearts that suddenly swell in size. But these Grinches can be overruled, and they can be turned out of office, when the time comes.

In the meantime, here’s a recipe (maybe guidelines would be a more appropriate description) for a bean soup made from odds and ends but was very tasty nonetheless. So, good, in fact, that it would be worth making on its own. It’s a poor man’s soup, and a poor woman’s, too. I made it with meat, but I think mushrooms could be substituted to give it an earthy flavor.

This soup came about because I was making chili for a party where my husband, Clif, works. I had soaked and cooked 2 cups of black beans and 2 cups of kidney beans, and I knew I would have leftovers. Using the water that the kidney beans were simmered in, I made a soup.

But first I chopped some carrots—about half a soup bowl full—and sizzled them in a stockpot with olive oil until they were tender. I added 2 cloves of chopped garlic to the carrots and let it sizzle about a minute. Then I poured in the cooking water from the kidney beans, and I added just as much plain water. I didn’t have any fresh onion—actually, I did, but it was being saved for chicken soup, that soup of soups—so I used a tablespoon of dried onion flakes. From Clif’s chili, I had saved a bit of cooked ground beef and some cooked sausage balls, and into the pot they went. For spicing, I used 1 teaspoon of cumin, 1 teaspoon of chili powder, a pinch of red pepper flakes, 2 pinches of allspice, two or three shakes of soy sauce, and 2 tablespoons of tomato paste. I let all of this simmer for about a half an hour then added enough beans for a nice, thick soup and let it simmer a while longer. I also added a bit more water.

This made 4 servings—about a half a pot of soup. If I were going to make a full pot, I would use a pound of meat, a full soup bowl of carrots, and double everything else. Or use a big package of mushrooms in place of the meat. (I would probably cook the mushrooms with the carrots and add some water to them so that it would produce a nice little broth.)

And I would taste the soup constantly as it simmered. How else is a cook going to find her way?

 

ELECTION DAY IN WINTHROP: A BUSY TIME IN THE OLD TOWN

Priscilla Jenkins at the Keep Winthrop Warm Table
Priscilla Jenkins at the Keep Winthrop Warm Table

Yesterday was Election Day across the country, and I went to the Winthrop Town Office to do my civic duty by voting.  My name was on the ballot—I was running for a trustee position at Bailey Public Library—and it’s the first time I’ve ever voted for myself. To top off the day, I agreed to help staff the Keep Winthrop Warm table, which had a big jar for donations as well as lots of goodies on hand to give as a thank-you to donors. Keep Winthrop Warm is, well, an organization that provides fuel assistance to Winthrop residents who are in need. Despite climate change, Maine winters are still long and cold. With the price of fuel going ever upward, and salaries remaining flat, the cost of heating a home has become a significant expense. Not long ago, when my husband was at the grocery store, he overheard a conversation where one person wondered how he was ever going to afford to heat his home this winter. So I was happy to help with this project, which combined food with staying warm, two essentials.

All the goodies were homemade, and they included blueberry muffins, snickerdoodles, chocolate chip cookies, blueberry cake, oatmeal cookies, and chocolate-frosted brownies. As I sat at this table filled with treats, I showed remarkable restraint by eating only one small piece of blueberry cake, which was everything  blueberry cake should be—moist, light, and loaded with blueberries. Oh, how I love blueberry cake.

The Keep Winthrop Warm table was right outside the big room at the town office where people were voting, and even though it was an off-off year for elections, it seemed to me that voter turnout was brisk. (Today, on the town of Winthrop’s website, my suspicions were confirmed: voter turnout was 45 percent.) As I sat at the table, I noted with interest the number of people who stopped to donate and the number of people who either walked by without noticing us or who flat-out refused to donate. Some people sheepishly admitted they didn’t have any money on them, a believable statement in this era of credit and debit cards. Other people had money in their cars and came back to give us a donation.

Priscilla Jenkins, who is on the Keep Winthrop Warm committee, was with me at the table, and I asked her what she thought the percentage was of people who donated. “When you take into account the people who don’t notice us and the people who don’t give, I’d say about one-third of the voters donate,” she answered.

I couldn’t help but wonder if this is par for the course for such organizations as Keep Winthrop Warm. Still, by the time I left at 2:00 P.M., the big jar was nearly full, and the generosity of that one-third will go a long way to help heat the homes of Winthrop residents who are in need.

And, as it turned out, I was indeed elected to be a trustee of the library, a place that is very dear to my heart. I will certainly do my best to help the library thrive in these tough economic times.

Addendum—11/10/11: Today, I went for a walk and had lunch with my friend Debbie Maddi. When I spoke about the people who would not donate to the Keep Winthrop Warm fund, she said to me, “You know, times are hard, and some people have nothing to spare, not even a dollar. You can’t tell by their clothes how people are doing, especially if they’ve just been laid off.” Yes, indeed. Important words to keep in mind.

 

 

WINTHROP FOOD MATTERS: PART ONE—THE ISSUES

Last Sunday, after a chilly October bike ride along Lake Maranacook and its russet-colored shores—somehow we have skipped the blazing colors this year—I rode to Margy and Steve Knight’s house for a Winthrop Food Matters meeting. Various members of the community came to the meeting, and they all were concerned about community, good food, and resilience.

Patrice Putman, who works as director of employee development at MaineGeneral Health, moderated the meeting, and the first issue raised was food insecurity in our community. I have volunteered at the Winthrop Food Pantry for 13 years, and JoEllen Cottrell, the Food Pantry’s new executive director, was at the meeting as well. In addition, Craig Hickman, of Annabessacook Farm Bed & Breakfast, was there. His farm sponsors a private food pantry and is also the temporary home of Winthrop’s Hot Meals Kitchen, which serves free meals on Wednesday to anyone who wants dinner. (Until recently, the Hot Meals Kitchen had been in St. Francis Xavier Hall, which belongs to and is adjacent to the town’s Catholic church. Why the Hot Meals Kitchen is no longer there is a long story worthy of its own post.)

JoEllen, Craig, and I had all come to the same conclusion—due to the horrible economy, more and more people are struggling and therefore need our services. At the same time, inexpensive food from places such as the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn is becoming harder and harder to get. This, in turn, puts a huge strain on the budgets of food pantries and hot meals kitchens as they must buy more of their food at full price from conventional grocery stores. (The lack of food from The Good Shepherd Food Bank, which has been Winthrop Food Pantry’s mainstay for as long as I’ve volunteered there, would be another subject worthy of an entire post on this blog. ) Craig Hickman put it succinctly: “The excess in the system is drying up.”

From there the discussion turned to having a licensed commercial kitchen in Winthrop, where donated fruit and vegetables could be processed and then given to the Hot Meals Kitchen and to the Winthrop Food Pantry. (Because of federal guidelines, the Food Pantry is unable to accept food canned or preserved by home cooks. Such food must come from a licensed commercial kitchen.)

Various homes for the Hot Meals Kitchen were discussed, from the Winthrop Middle School to an abandoned factory in town to a new building on a piece of land. Craig spoke of how the board of the Hot Meals Kitchen voted to investigate having its own place. “That way, we can control our destiny. We won’t be beholden to anybody,” Craig said. Craig’s feeling was that if everything went according to plan, the Hot Meals Kitchen would soon be back in St. Francis Xavier Hall, giving the board time and space to pursue its goal of building a community center focused on food. (I must admit, I love this idea.)

By the time the meeting concluded, there were plans of action. Margy offered to do research about food processing for food pantries in other communities; JoEllen, of course, will be devoting her time and energy into keeping the shelves stocked at the Winthrop Food Pantry; Steve volunteered to check into the Middle School about the possibility of of having a commercial kitchen there; and Craig and I discussed writing a regular food column for our local paper—the Community Advertiser—so that we could bring various food issues to people’s attention as well as provide seasonal recipes.

Even though the Winthrop Food Matters meeting ended on an upbeat note and the mood throughout was positive, one thing is certain. When it comes to food matters, there are many angles to consider—politics, resources (both food and money), time, and energy. Yet what can be more important than the food we eat and how communities are fed? Our health and well being are inextricably twined with food.

But there are lots of reasons to be hopeful. In Winthrop, the interest in local food has never been greater. Thanks to the many farmers in the area, Winthrop grows some of its own food, and the community makes an earnest effort to provide food for those in need.

Now, onward!

(Tomorrow’s post will be Winthrop Food Matters: Part II—Food and Fellowship)

WARM BREAD AND A REFLECTION ABOUT SMALL TOWNS

This is not exactly a Let Them Eat Bread report, which chronicles my project of giving away at least one loaf of bread each week in 2011, but this post does involve a loaf of bread that I gave away last night and the events that rippled around it. Each month, my library—Charles M. Bailey Public Library—hosts an author’s night where various Maine writers come to read from their books and to talk about their work. Among others, I have heard Brock Clarke and Gerry Boyle, both of whom are terrific speakers. Last night, Susan Hand Shetterly, a very fine nature writer, was the featured author.

The program was to start at 6:30, and I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to make a loaf of bread for Richard, the library’s director. (I’ve already given a loaf to Shane, and my plan is to give a loaf to all the librarians and the assistants.) So I duly made bread, using part unbleached flour and part whole wheat pastry flour, the latter of which actually comes from Maine. (I’ll soon have to post my revised bread recipe. It really is a good one.)

At 6:15, I walked into the library, and the loaf of bread I carried was still so warm that I had to leave the plastic bag open so moisture wouldn’t accumulate. With warm bread comes a wonderful smell. As I handed the bread to Richard, who took it without hesitation, Mike Sienko, whom I work with at the Food Pantry, said, “You can put me on your bread list.” Perhaps I will.

Mary Sturtevant, another patron who was there for the reading, emerged from the stacks saying, “What a great smell!” I’ve known Mary for many years, and I’m thinking she should be on my bread list, too.

In the periodical room (reading room?) chairs were set up for the speaker. I sat down, and Lorraine Ravis, whom I hadn’t seen for years, sat down beside me. Her daughter Lisa and my daughter Shannon were chums in school, and we spent a pleasant 15 minutes or so catching up on news. Around 6:30, a worried looking Shane came in and announced that Susan Hand Shetterly hadn’t arrived, that he had called her publicist, who was positive Shetterly was planning to come to the reading. Everyone in the audience decided to wait another 15 minutes. I chatted some more with Lorraine, and there was the friendly buzz of conversation as other people talked as well. Richard, who hadn’t had dinner, tore into the warm bread.

At 6:45, Shane made another announcement. Shetterly still hadn’t arrived, and they couldn’t reach her on her cell phone. We all decided to wait until 7:00, just in case. More conversation. But at 7:00, there was still no author, and we all concluded that for some reason, she wasn’t going to come. Shane, in his usual kind way, expressed the hope that Shetterly had just forgot about the reading, that she hadn’t been in some kind of accident. We all nodded.

Then a funny thing happened. Most of us stayed until 7:30 or so, carrying on with our conversations. When we finally got up to leave, Mary Sturtevant said, “Well, Susan Hand Shetterly didn’t show up, but I had a good time anyway.”

I did, too, staying until 8:00 to talk with Shane and Richard. While both were naturally disappointed that Shetterly didn’t make it to the reading, they were tickled that the patrons had had such a good time anyway.

Many of us who came to the reading have lived in Winthrop for years and years and are at least casually acquainted. When residents of a small town have this kind of history with each other, a warm, comfortable familiarity often develops, and this sense of community is what makes living in a small town so worthwhile. Richard and Shane, both young enough to be my sons, have done much to encourage this sense of community, and how lucky we are to have them at the library. (And, yes, having lived in small towns all of my life, I am aware of how grudges and resentments can simmer in small towns. This, too, is part of the mix.)

Warm bread, a drizzly evening, a group of townspeople who know each other, an author who didn’t show up. Just another night in a small town in central Maine, a night that will be fondly remembered.

Addendum: As it turned out, Susan Hand Shetterly has a poor memory and did forget that she was supposed to come to Winthrop. She called Richard this morning to apologize and to assure him that she wants to reschedule. I’ll be there, and I expect most everyone else who came last night will be there as well.

 

HOPEFUL NEWS FROM DETROIT

In the New York Times, Mark Bittman has written a terrific piece about a recent trip to Detroit. As readers well know, Detroit has fallen on some very hard times and indeed has lost much of its population. But, with abandoned buildings and lots have come opportunities for farming and food, and Detroit seems to be in the process of making a comeback as a city that gardens. Very encouraging for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which there is something about farmers’ markets, local bakeries and restaurants, and community gardens that bring a town or a city together. In short, along with providing tasty, nutritious food, they also build community, something we all need, no matter where we live.

OH, TORONTO!

On his blog in the New York Times, Mark Bittman has written about a recent trip to Toronto, and some of the things that city is doing to promote sustainable agricultural. The links he provides to the various websites are well worth checking out.

They include The Stop, a “community food centre” that believes “in the power of food”; FarmStart, a nonprofit organization that lends money, equipment, and land to people interested in finding out if they truly want to be farmers; and Spadina House Musuem, with its orchards. (Spadina House is even part of a Rail Garden Route, so that it can be visited in a green way.)

Then there is Not Far from the Tree, an organization dedicated to gleaning unwanted fruit from Toronto homeowners. According to the Not Far from the Tree website, in 2010, their organization picked 19,695 pounds of fruit, which was then split equally between the homeowners, the volunteers who picked the fruit, and various organizations that provide food for low-income folks.

Nearly 20,000 pounds of gleaned fruit from a big city. Very impressive! And what’s even more impressive is Not Far from the Tree’s assertion that “this was only from 1/4 of the trees that were registered with us.” Imagine how much fruit could be picked if more trees were included in the harvest.

Canada has the reputation, according to the late, great Canadian author Robertson Davies, of being England’s “dutiful daughter.” The United States, on the other hand, is the “wayward child,” and it was Davies’s belief that the wayward child is actually the favorite child.

This might be the case—modest, quiet, unassuming Canada is not in the news the way its flashier sibling the United States is. But maybe it’s time for the wayward child to start learning some lessons from the dutiful daughter.

ERIC SCHLOSSER’S THOUGHTS ON BEING A “FOODIE ELITIST”

Today, via the New York Times, I came across a piece Eric Schlosser wrote for the Washington Post. The piece’s title is “Why Being a Foodie Isn’t Elitist,” and Schlosser, who wrote Fast Food Nation, addresses the charges that the food industry and its attendant lobbying groups have leveled against food writers and activists such as Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, and Schlosser himself.

Schlosser has been called “not only an elitist, but also a socialist, a communist and un-American.” Nestle has been labeled, “a food fascist,” and Pollan has been accused of being “anti-agricultural.”

Naturally, Schlosser refutes the charges, arguing that it is not elitist to be concerned about the quality of food Americans eat, and I agree with him. He views the name calling as “misdirection,” an attempt to deflect attention away from the few companies who control food production in the United States. Again, I agree. What better way to discredit someone than to call him a socialist or a communist? In our culture, those are very dirty words, just slightly below serial killer and child molester.

Schlosser honestly notes the way foodies can be elitist, by using food as a way to gain status. Expensive cookware, hard-to-find ingredients, and pricey restaurants can all be symptoms of a snobbery that not only drains the fun out of eating but could also “sideline the movement or make it irrelevant.”

Fair enough, but Schlosser’s original point is correct: It is not elitist to care about the quality of food that Americans—especially those who are poor—eat. It is not elitist to care about people’s health. And it is certainly not elitist to be concerned that the food production in this country is in the hands of a few big businesses. It seems to me that it is quite appropriate to be worried about all these issues, and it would be a very good thing if more people were, too.

And I’m going to go one step further. It is not elitist to enjoy cooking with simple ingredients that are easy to find but are of good quality. It is not elitist to enjoy feeding friends and family. And it is certainly not elitist to enjoy food.

The French believe it is the birthright of all French citizens, regardless of income, to eat good food. Hear, hear!

And this belief couldn’t be less elitist. In fact, you might even call it democratic.

 

 

 

TOO MANY OVENS IN FALMOUTH?

A couple of days ago, in the food section of the Portland Press Herald, Meredith Goad wrote about a home (a mansion, really) and its kitchen, which is part of the Falmouth Kitchen & Tasting tour. The house is 10,000 square feet, has ten bathrooms, and gold-plated faucets. There is even a morning room, which sounds like something straight out of a Jane Austen novel.

The kitchen, which Goad describes as “not so large that it is overwhelming”  has “four ovens, two dishwashers, two warming drawers…” Four ovens! I will admit that from time to time, I have wished for two ovens, especially around the holidays, but what possible use could a noncommercial cook have with four ovens? Isn’t this, well, a bit much? In fact, isn’t it too much?

I suppose that is the point—the glorious excess of it all. As primates, we are all concerned with status, even though we live in the 21st century in a country that supposedly eschews class. And in our current culture, where one oven is the norm, four ovens are so over-the-top that few people can compete with such a display.

Now, I would not want to live in a country where the government dictates how many ovens a family might own. Although I am a firm believer in social services, that would be far too much governmental control for my liking. But wouldn’t it be nice if people with enough money to live in a 10,000 square foot mansion with four ovens followed the Dalai Lama’s advice and used some self-restraint?  Especially since this country is already using more resources than the planet can comfortably provide?

Since I am clearly in fantasy land here, I will go one step further: Wouldn’t it be great if our sense of status came from self-restraint rather than showy display? Not repression—no one likes a Puritan. Not a stingy, bare-bones existence—no one likes a martyr. But instead self-restraint, which might mean being content with two ovens and a bib house that wasn’t a mansion, no matter how much money you had.

A final note of irony: This tour is a benefit for Preble Street’s Maine Hunger Initiative, and I’m sure they will be very happy to receive the money. From here I could easily segue into a piece about how strange it is that one of the richest countries in the world still must deal with hunger.

But I won’t.

 

A MOSTLY VEGETARIAN DECISION FOR US

Bags of beans
Getting ready

A few days ago Clif and I made a decision to really change our diet. Despite our natural liking for fish and meat—especially chicken—we have decided that the time has come to become “mostly vegetarian.”

We’ve been edging this way for a while, with quite a few of our meals being meatless every week. Now, we want to take it another step so that most of our meals are meatless, with fish and meat being very occasional treats saved for special occasions or for going out.

Our decision is based on simple arithmetic as well as geometry. We live on a finite planet with limited resources and an ever-growing population. We humans just seem to multiply and multiply. In a recent post, I quoted Jason Clay: “In the next 40 years we’re going to have produce as much food as was produced in [the] last 8,000.”

Then, I came across the following numbers from a beautifully written book called The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World by Carl Safina. “[W]e now take roughly 40 percent of the life that the land produces; we take a similar proportion of what the coastal seas produce. For one midsized creature that collectively weighs just half a percent of the animal mass on Earth, that is a staggering proportion…If the human population again doubles, as some project, could we commandeer 80 percent of life?”

Could we? I don’t see how it is possible and still have a liveable planet.

And now consider this: According to Mark Bittman, “About two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption…It is as much as 10 times more in the case of grain-fed beef in the United States.”

In a world with 2 billion people, it might be possible to justify eating a lot of meat. In a world where the population will soon reach 7 billion, not so much. In fact, not at all. Being a “good eater” can and should also mean eating with a conscience, and Clif and I, in all good conscience, simply cannot justify eating meat on a regular basis.

The same applies to fish. Our oceans have been overfished, and in The View from Lazy Point, Safina writes about how the ocean has been depleted of once plentiful fish, like flounder. When Safina was young, flounder were plentiful in the waters off Long Island. Now they are not. This is true for many species of fish around the world. We are eating fish to the edge of extinction.

Dairy and eggs are more tricksy, as Gollum might say. We will do our best to eat them in moderation, choosing alternatives when it makes sense. For example, broiled bread with olive oil rather than bread and butter with our meal. However, milk, cheese, and eggs are the foundations for good cooking, and I cannot eschew them entirely.

In Maine, at least, it is possible to get eggs and dairy that come from animals that have been raised in ways that don’t wreak havoc on the environment. A lot of cows in Maine eat plenty of grass and hay, and it’s pretty easy to find eggs that come from hens who are fed scraps as well as grain.

So, in the upcoming months many of the recipes and dishes featured will be vegetarian, and I will make occasional forays into vegan cooking.

I’m going to end with a quotation from The View from Lazy Point: “To advance compassion and yet survive in a world of appetites—that is our challenge.”

Yes, it is, and a very difficult one for A Good Eater, but one I am accepting nonetheless