A MARTIN LUTHER KING BREAKFAST: LISTENING TO E. BENJAMIN SKINNER

Unlike Governor LePage, my husband, Clif, and I found time in our busy schedules to go to a Martin Luther King Day breakfast yesterday. It was at Sully’s Restaurant in downtown Winthrop, and while I am sorry to say that the food was what might called indifferent, the company and the speaker more than made up for this. At the breakfast, there were many people we knew, whom our friend Joel Johnson would call “the usual suspects,” but we decided to sit at a table where we knew nobody. A good decision! It’s always great to meet new people, and we were certainly among kindred spirits.

At our table, the “getting to know you” small talk soon shifted to movies, in particular to The King’s Speech, featuring Colin Firth. I couldn’t resist saying that while Firth was splendid in The King’s Speech, he would always be Mr. Darcy to me.

“Oh, yes!” came the chorus from the women sitting at our table, along with “Wasn’t he great in Pride and Prejudice?” and “He is so good looking.”

Indeed he is, and I expect he’ll always be Mr. Darcy to many, many women.

The real topic of the breakfast was, of course, much more serious than Colin Firth. It was about modern-day slavery, and the speaker was E. Benjamin Skinner, a journalist who has written for Time magazine and Newsweek International. He’s also written A Crime So Monstrous, a book about modern-day slavery. At the breakfast, Skinner told us that there were more slaves today than ever before, and he very specifically defined slavery: “A slave is a human being who is forced to work through fraud or threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence.” He also spoke of his experiences interviewing people who were slaves, and his articulate descriptions were moving and sobering.

Copies of A Crime So Monstrous were on sale, and naturally I bought one to add to our groaning bookshelves. It has a foreword by Richard Holbrooke and a back-of-the-book blurb by Bill Clinton. Lucky little Winthrop to have a speaker of such caliber as Benjamin Skinner.

On our afternoon walk, Clif and I discussed Skinner’s talk about slavery and how humans are all too ready to exploit other humans. Profit, greed, power, and lack of empathy all come into play. In our modern times, we think we’ve progressed, and in some ways we have. But in many ways we have not, and until there is a widespread belief in “the rights of man” (and women and children!), and just laws that are enforced, then our progress will be spotty at best. Fitting thoughts for Martin Luther King Day.

In the meantime, I make bread and give it away. This brings me to…

Week two: The Let Them Eat Bread report

This week I gave away three loaves of bread: one to my friend Sybil Baker and two to my daughter Shannon. There is a definite trend here. Shannon seems to be quite the bread recipient. What can I say? She’s my daughter. And in my original post, one of the guidelines specifically stated that it counted to give bread to family. It’ll be interesting to see just how many loaves of bread Shannon receives over the upcoming year. Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking of including a little unofficial rule for myself—someone besides Shannon must receive bread each week.

So far, so good. This month I’ve given away six loaves of bread, and while three have gone to Shannon, three have gone to other people as well.

Let them eat bread!

Addendum: It seems that Governor LePage relented from his previous no-show position on Martin Luther King breakfasts or dinners and that he attended a breakfast in Waterville. Good for him! Too bad he had to make such a fuss about it to begin with.

Advertisements

WHAT AND HOW WE EAT MATTERS

In this post I’d like to move from the specific—eating in Winthrop, Maine—to the general—the spike in food prices worldwide—and call your attention to Andrew Revkin’s January 10th post in his New York Times blog, Dot Earth. It’s called “Beyond the Eternal Food Fight,” and it examines rising food prices, food shortages, and what kind of diet the planet can provide to feed nine billion people, the projected population for 2050. Revkin brings Vaclav Smil, from the University of Manitoba, and Lester Brown, from the Earth Policy Institute, into the discussion, and the exchange between the three is sobering and thought provoking. It’s a rather long post, but well worth reading. 

I was especially interested in Smil’s “menu of possible food lifestyles for societies in which he identified a level that was bountiful while also easily sustained for 9 billion people seeking decent lives:

1) eating enough to survive with reduced lifespans (Ethiopia),

2) eating enough to have some sensible though limited choices and to live near-full lifespans when considering other (hygienic, health care) circumstances (as in the better parts of India today),

3) having more than enough of overall food energy but still a limited choice of plant foods and only a healthy minimum of animal foods and live close to or just past 70 (China of the late 1980s and 1990s),

4) not wanting more carbohydrates and shifting more crop production and imports to [livestock] feed, not food, to eat more animals products, having overall some 3,000 kcal/capita a day and living full spans (China now),

5) having gross surpluses of everything, total supply at 3,500-3,700 kcal/day, eating too much animal protein, wasting 35-40% of all food, living record life spans, getting sick (U.S. and E.U. today).

The world eating between levels 3-4 would not know what to do with today’s food; the world at 5 is impossible.” 

So basically, the way most of us eat in the U.S. is impossible for the whole world. 

Perhaps we in the U.S. should give some serious thought to eating between levels 3 and 4. I know I am. It’s one of the reasons why I bought Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. It also dovetails nicely with my efforts, which I’ll be writing more about in future posts, to eat organic food on a modest budget.

I LOVE ROSEMARY: RECIPE FOR ROSEMARY TOMATO SOUP

Before I get into the glories of rosemary, I want to write a few things about the recent Arizona tragedy and President Obama’s speech. (I’m sure readers know the details of what happened last Saturday in Arizona. No need to go into them here.) First, I was moved by the beauty and the eloquence of President Obama’s speech. Words do indeed matter, and his did a great deal to soothe not only a grieving city and state but also a grieving nation. Second, even though I’ve never been farther west than Indiana and have never seen Arizona, I felt as though their hurt was my hurt and their sorrow was my sorrow. A good reminder as to how even though we are a big country with many differences, we are the United States. Third, even though I had never heard of Gabrielle Giffords before the attack, I was rooting for her as soon as the news of the shooting came out, and this morning it cheered me to hear that she had raised her arm and opened her eyes. Fourth, and I’m happy to be able to honestly write this, even though I am a liberal Democrat, I would have felt the same way about Giffords had she been a Republican. 

I’ll end with a quotation from my friend Brian Hannon, who lives in Scotland. “We have a houseguest staying with us right now from Israel and she asked my roommate Katherine and I, ‘How is that Americans always talk about it being such a big place and being so different from each other, but then when I listen to you two talk about America, you always say We.’ And I said, ‘Because despite our differences, sometimes we’re just all Americans. It’s as simple as that.’” 

Now, onward to rosemary. First of all, it has such a pretty name, and that alone is almost reason enough to love it. But rosemary is more than just a pretty name. It has a clean, strong flavor that peps up a variety of food—soups, pasta, roasted vegetables, and cream cheese spreads. Because of its strong flavor, a little goes a long way, which turns out to be a strength rather than a weakness. This means that fresh rosemary, which comes in those rather expensive little plastic packs, can actually have a place in a frugal cook’s kitchen. Out of one small pack, rosemary can add flavor to a lot of meals. Finally—the cherry on the sundae, so to speak—rosemary lasts well over a month in the refrigerator. 

So let’s hear it for rosemary. It is my herb of choice for the winter, and I always have some in the refrigerator. (I also keep parsley, rosemary’s more modest sister, on hand. While it doesn’t keep quite as long as rosemary, it lasts longer than other herbs, and it is reasonably priced.) 

Yesterday was a snowy day in central Maine. As I indicated in yesterday’s post, I made a minestrone-like soup for our supper. How nice it was to have this after an hour or so of shoveling. There is something very fine about eating a hot, flavorful soup on a cold winter’s night. 

One word about the amount of beans used in this soup. I took two packs of beans out of the freezer—garbanzo and kidney beans. As it turned out, I had way too many kidney beans to use all of them in the soup, and tonight we will be having burritos with what’s leftover. So I threw in beans until I got a thickness I liked, and I did the same with some small pasta I had. (Yes, Shannon, I know you hate it when I do this.) So the amounts of beans will be an approximation. Remember, soup should be as thick as you like it, despite what the recipe calls for. 

Rosemary tomato soup with beans and pasta 

3 small carrots, peeled and chopped
3 stalks of celery, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons of oil
1 can of diced tomatoes, 28 ounces
3 cups of water
3 cups (or so!) of beans—garbanzo, black beans, kidney beans, whatever! All would work well. My guess is two, maybe, three cans. Again, it depends on how “beany” you like your soup.
½ cup of small, uncooked pasta. However, I think macaroni would work well, too. Ditto for penne.
1 tablespoon of minced rosemary
3 tablespoons of minced parsley
Pepper to taste
Parmesan or Romano for grating when soup is done 

In a stockpot, heat the oil and add the carrots, celery, and onion. Stirring frequently, cook until the vegetables are soft, about ten minutes. Near the end, add the garlic and cook for a minute or so. Add the tomatoes and the water and bring to a boil. Let it simmer for at least forty-five minutes so that all the flavors blend. Add the beans and let them simmer for about ten minutes. Add the rosemary and pasta. When the pasta is cooked, add the parsley. If the soup seems too thick to you, add a bit more water. Then, pepper to taste and grated cheese when the soup is in bowls. 

Enjoy, enjoy!

SOME SNOWY DAY THOUGHTS ABOUT PROVIDING FOOD FOR BILLIONS OF PEOPLE

Winter woodsA snowy day in the neighborhood, a day of muted colors—white, brown, dark green, more white, and a gray sky. For central Maine, this snowstorm, which is predicted to give us 12 inches of snow, is, well, usual for January. (What is unusual is a January with no snowstorms.) So I have done the usual household chores. I’ve made bread and frosted cocoa squares. Soon I’ll be making a minestrone-like soup, using garbanzo beans, pinto beans, pasta, tomatoes, onions, garlic, rosemary, and parsley. Visions of supper will sustain my husband, Clif, and I as we shovel the driveway and the path out back to the woodpile. A happy day for our dog, Liam, who loves to leap and twist and bark into the thrown snow.

This morning, before starting the day’s cooking, I read Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog in the New York Times, and his January 10th post— “Varied Menus for Sustaining a Well-Fed World”—caught my attention. In this post, Revkin quotes Nina Fedoroff, a life science professor at Pennsylvania State University. Fedoroff writes, “ [U]rbanization has rendered an ever increasing fraction of humanity unable to produce its own food—and more than that—totally unaware of what it takes….If you look back through history, a plausible case can be made that empires unravel not for political reasons, but because of disruptions in the food supply chains that feed their urban seats of power. Those food supply chains are now fast and global.”

Revkin’s post is long but well worth reading as he ponders the question: How exactly do you feed a world with 9 billion people in it? (This is the projection for 2050.)

How indeed? For some reason, my thoughts went to Ali at Henbogle. A few days ago, she responded to questions I asked her about how big her garden was and how much food she harvested in 2010. She replied, “Our yard is a bit less than 3/4 of an acre, and the vegetable garden is about 630 square feet (that does not include the blueberries or blackberries). This year, I grew about 620 lbs. of vegetables so far, I probably have 25-35 more pounds of squash and pumpkin as yet unweighed, and still have leeks in the garden.”

Impressive! Now, I’m not the first to suggest this, and I’m sure I won’t be the last, but it seems to me that gardens—even small ones—might at least be part of the answer to feeding an overpopulated world. In our country, think of all the yards just waiting to go from lawn to garden. Ali’s 630 square foot garden gave her about 700 lbs of vegetables. Multiply that by potential backyard gardens from Maine to California, and you get a lot of food.

A sustaining thought on a snowy day.

WEEK ONE: THE LET THEM EAT BREAD REPORT

Fresh BreadAfter last November’s election—so disheartening to progressives—I decided to do something in the way of a peaceful protest: make bread and give it away. This small action seemed like a fitting rebuke to the far right’s closed-fist philosophy that swept through this country—Maine included—on Election Day.

Indeed, in one of his first official acts, our new “tea-bag” governor, Paul LePage, got off to a thumping start by rescinding Democratic predecessor Governor Baldacci’s order that state officials would not be allowed to question people about their immigration status when they applied for services. LePage’s reasoning? According to a spokesman, “LePage wants to send the message that with scarce resources, he’s putting Mainers first.” The interesting part was that when LePage was questioned about how many illegal immigrants actually applied for services, LePage had to admit that not many did, but he was sending them his “message” anyway. And it seems that LePage is not going to let facts or generosity get in the way of what he thinks is a “good” message.

Alas, his message was a selfish bark that I fear will be a precursor to similar decisions.

In the meantime, I make bread and give it away. In my post “Taking Stock: Part Two” I listed the guidelines for my Let Them Eat Bread project. In short, for a year—starting January 1, 2011—I plan to give away at least one loaf of bread each week. If I can manage it, then I will give more.

Week one of the New Year got of to a rousing start with three loaves of bread given away: one to my daughter Shannon, one to my book group buddy Mona, and one to my friends Dawna and Jim Leavitt.

Let them eat bread!

SQUASH SOUP ON A COLD JANUARY DAY

blending soupGiven that the weather isn’t too cold, January is one of my favorite months, with February a close second. December and Christmas are fun but hectic, and for me, January is a time to settle in, cook (of course!), do a little organizing, and take walks with the dog.

The light in Maine in January is so clear that the sky seems to be an impossible shade of blue, and unless a storm is coming, there are usually few clouds. If there are clouds, they often settle low on the horizon, and at dusk they are illuminated with colors ranging from orange to red to lavender to black. Sometimes a dazzling combination of all four.

In the afternoon, after chores and writing are done, I bundle up, wearing a hat crocheted by my grandmother, down gloves, and plenty of layers. The dog—Liam—is a Sheltie, and he is naturally bundled up, always ready to go.

In rural central Maine, the landscape is not what you would call breathtaking or beautiful or dramatic. Still, there are pleasures to be had. On the way up the road, we pass a little swamp, covered by a skim of gray ice and quietly waiting for warmer weather. Just past the swamp is a large field, white with snow but dotted with the brown fringes of Queen Anne’s lace and other plants that have gone by.

Up the hill we go. I’m happy to say that despite surgery and radiation treatment, I can still pop right along without losing my breath. Liam, of course, is in the lead, and would gladly run up the hill, if he were allowed to do so. One of our nicknames for him is Liam Lightfoot.

In one of the houses on the hill lives a golden retriever named Sadie. She always barks a greeting, and Liam answers in kind.

When we crest the hill, we come to the part of the walk that my husband, Clif, and I have dubbed “the tundra,” a broad, broad field where the wind gathers force as it blows, making the day seem at least ten degrees colder than it really is. We hurry on, the wind nipping at us, around the corner, but I always take time to look at the expanse of sky over the field.

On this road, there are expensive houses, modest house, and in-between houses, and this mix is one of the things I love about central Maine. The dog and I go by a long, low stonewall, a patch of second growth forest, in its tangle-wood phase, and turn around after a mile or so. When we come back down our road, I look for the large patch of dried fern stalks in the woods not far from our house. With their little brown clusters at the top of stiff stalks, the dried ferns almost look as though they are growing in the snow, and they cast dark lines that appear both casual and planned.

After the walk, my cheeks are cold, and I am ready for my usual snack—popcorn, popped in a kettle on the stove. When the popcorn is popped, I settle on the couch. The orange cat is on my lap, and the dog is beside me, waiting for his share of the popcorn. Outside, the sky gets darker and darker. While I have my snack, I read either the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books.

Then it’s time to make dinner. Yesterday, after my walk and snack, I decided to make squash soup, using one of Farmer Kev’s acorn squashes, which he kindly gave to me this fall. Actually, he gave me quite a few, and I’ve stored them in the spare bedroom, which, with the door closed, is an excellent cool place for them. In the fall, when I got them, they were dark green. Now they are orange, but still perfectly good.

And what to make with the soup? Bran muffins, made with Maine maple syrup. This is a meal that takes only an hour or so to prepare, is very nourishing, economical (even if you don’t get free squash), and tasty. It’s a variation on a carrot soup that I often make, but the squash gives it a more mellow taste.

Hot squash soup on a cold January night. Very satisfying indeed.

Squash soup

1 acorn or butternut squash. Cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, and place the squash face down on an oiled pan. Cook at 350° for an hour or so, until the squash is very soft.

While the squash is baking, prepare the soup base.

1 large carrot, diced

2 large potatoes, diced

1 small onion, diced

1 clove of garlic, cut in large pieces

2 cups of water

½ teaspoon of dried tarragon

½ teaspoon of cumin

½ teaspoon of celery seed, if you have it

¼ teaspoon of white pepper

Salt to taste

A tablespoon or so of oil

Heat the oil in a large soup pan, then add the carrot, potatoes, onion, and garlic. Cook and stir for several minutes, until everything is sizzling nicely. Add the water and spices and simmer until the vegetables are very soft, about forty five minutes. (The soup base and the baked squash should be done roughly at the same time.)

Into a medium-sized bowl, scoop the baked squash from the skins, and mash the squash with a fork. Add the mashed squash to the cooked vegetables in the soup pan. Blend, using an immersion blender (my favorite way!), a food processor, or a blender. If you use a blender or food processor, the soup will have to be blended in several batches. You, of course, will need a bowl to hold the blended soup before returning it to the soup pan for its final heating. When the soup is blended, add salt to taste. Also, at this point it will be very thick, and you will want to add more water, in small batches, until you get a thickness you like. It could be anywhere from a ½ cup to a cup of water.

Oyster crackers go well with this soup, as do homemade croutons.

COOKING CHALLENGES: TIME, MONEY, AND HEALTHY (BUT DELICIOUS!) FOOD

Two big challenges facing home cooks are money and time. Sure, you can buy store-brand boxed macaroni and cheese, but as my daughter Dee used to say, “Where’s the fun in that?”  Boxed macaroni and cheese might be quick and cheap, but its flavor and nutritional value pretty much erase the quick and cheap part. Still, what to do in a household where both parents work, the children have outside activities, and the income is modest? 

Mark Bittman, in the New York Times, has an interesting take on this dilemma. In his piece “Chop, Fry, Boil: Eating for One, or for 6 Billion,” he takes on the role of a finger-wagging teacher as he exhorts his “students” to buck-up. Americans don’t have time to cook? Then how come they can find the time to watch, on average, thirty-five hours of television a week? No money for good, healthy food? Nonsense! Meals cooked with lentils and rice or cabbage or even chicken and broccoli are far cheaper than most fast food and much better for you. 

Cooking, of course, requires equipment—stove, pots and pans, knives—as well as a pantry stocked with basic food and spices. While Bittman acknowledges that some people might not have these things, he continues his stern lecture by adding, “These requirements cannot be met by everyone, but they can be met by far more people than those who cooked dinner last night.” 

Mark Bittman concludes “By becoming a cook, you can leave processed foods behind, creating more healthful, less expensive and better tasting food” that is better for the health of people and the health of the planet. 

Bittman is right, and his article, which includes three recipes, is well worth reading.

A blog about nature, home, community, books, writing, the environment, food, and rural life.