Monday, June 18, 2012

You Think You've Got Problems

"There’s no suffering,
 no shame, no ruin—not one dishonour—
 which I have not seen in all the trouble  you and I go through."
Sophocles, Antigone

The lovely illustration here is Walters manuscript leaf W.692, is from a Mughal manuscript copy of Anvar-i Suhayli (The lights of Canopus), a collection of fables by Husayn ibn 'Ali Va'iz Kashifi (died 910 AH/AD 1504-1505). It dates to the late 10th century AH/AD 16th or early 11th century AH/AD 17th. It depicts "the fate of a man who, escaping from a wild camel, jumps into a well. There his predicament grows even more precarious when he lands on the heads of 4 snakes, grasps in desperation at a bush gnawed by two rats, and looks down to see dragon waiting to devour him should he fall".

He's having a bad day. To which I say, big deal. Except for the rats, I’ve suffered worse.

My complaint du jour is about jam recipes. This is the season for fresh fruit that begs to be drowned in sugar and cooked down to sticky mush and put into jars to savor during the cold dark winters we experience for fifteen minutes each year here in San Diego. Having sampled a number of jam recipe books, I’ve found I especially like the recipes in Rachel Saunders Blue Chair Jam Cookbook, particularly for her combinations of fruit and spices.

Possessing the whiney entitlement of any aging American on Social Security; plus an inborn sense of outrage I modestly claim to be superlative; and compounded by a temperament best described as being a bitch, I have found much to complain about nonetheless.

I recently attempted my holy grail of jam: a sour cherry conserve that includes alcohol. A conserve is a jam that includes a mix of fresh and dried fruit, as Rachel explains, “often with the addition of liquor, spices and nuts.” What’s not to love? But before I begin my complaining: a disclaimer. I’ve never met a recipe I followed religiously: the fun is to use the same general proportions and customize.

I used Rachel’s recipe called “Italian Prune & Cardamom Conserve”. I started with farmer’s market plums that made no pretense about being Italian. I have no idea what their provenance was except that they were grown in California. But I didn’t have enough, so I had to cut the recipe in half, and then still add enough fresh cherries to get to the right measure of fresh fruit. Then I substituted dried sour cherries for the boring white currents which are, IMHO nothing more than albino raisins. Then, instead of using slivovitz “or other dry plum brandy” all I had was blackberry brandy. The added benefit here was that it turns out I had enough surplus brandy to sip while cooking.

Here’s my beef with this woman. She eschews precision. Example:
“To test the conserve for doneness, carefully transfer a small representative half-spoonful of conserve to one of your frozen spoons. Replace the spoon in the freezer for 3 to 4 minutes, then remove and carefully feel the underside of the spoon. It should be neither warm nor cold; if still warm, return it to the freezer for a moment. Nudge the conserve gently with your finger; if it seems thickened and gloppy when you nudge it, it is either done or nearly done. Tilt the spoon vertically to see how quickly the conserve runs; if it runs very slowly, and if it has thickened to a gloppy consistency, it is done. If it runs very quickly or appears watery, cook it for another few minutes, stirring, and test again as needed.”

I’ve always had a lot of trouble dealing with clarity and specific detail. I’m all like, can you maybe vague this shit up a bit for me? The scientific terms like “thickened and gloppy” and “for a moment” are bad enough, but “done or nearly done” kills me. It’s done or it’s not done. One would assume that the person who wrote the recipe would be able to provide more than general clues wrt/doneness. But, my favorite (not) part of the above is when she gets all existential and tells you what the jam should not be like: “it should be neither warm nor cold”.  This kind of specificity would be slightly more helpful if one was searching for an albino cat in a blizzard. (I have no idea why I seem to be fixated on albinos in this post.)

I keep a cookbook/notebook in which I meticulously write down the actual ingredients and proportions of what I'm cooking, so in the unlikely event that I ever stumble on jam recipe perfection I will be able to reproduce my success. After listing my ingredients and specific amounts, I decided to attempt to out-obfuscate Rachel’s instructions:

When the conserve has cooked down for anywhere from 20 minutes to three days, test it for doneness by balancing a smallish smidgen on the head of a pin. The angels on the tip of the jam-encrusted pin should neither stick too tightly together to perform a musical dance number to Michael Jackson’s Killer better than inmates in a Korean prison, nor should the angels slide off in large-ish clumps into the aether while screaming “Noooo!” in tiny angel chorus as they drop to the sticky floor. Did I mention you should make sure your floor is sticky by this point? Do so now. If at least 17 - but not more than 7,856  - angels can do the polka decently in the jam (and by decently, I mean the quality of their polka-ing, not the decency of the gangsta hand signs they make while dancing) then the jam is done. Maybe. Or, perhaps the jam would be better used as spackle to repair nail holes in plaster walls; or to dye an albino gerbil pink; or alternatively, to sweeten and flavor a vanilla Vicoden martini. You decide.

The final product was, by the way, the best jam ever. 

Friday, June 01, 2012

GMO: To Do or Not To Do

"The protestors, thinking they’re attacking some Monsanto-like evil corporation, are so consumed with their hatred of GMO that they are spreading misinformation, refusing to allow scientists to even engage in the research into GMO, and rather than engaging the scientists in dialogue are threatening to just destroy their experiment. This is the worst kind of bullying, extremist, anti-science garbage out there. At least the creationists don’t show up in our labs and start spitting in our test tubes. The climate denialists might make a lot of noise but they aren’t threatening to blow up James Hansen’s computer."

I recently posted here about food, and included the link below to an article promoting laws that mandate that all GMO foods should be labeled. I still maintain that GMO foods should be labeled. People are entitled to know what they are eating, and to decide whether or not they will ingest GMO fruits and vegetables. It seems to me even ideological oppononents -  say, Newt Gingrich and Nancy Peolsi for example - would agree about this.

Then, there’s agreeing to disagree. I spent most of my professional career in administrative positions which supported basic and applied university research. I respect science, and like most Americans have directly benefitted from improved health care practices developed through medical research. I subscribe to the wisdom of distinguishing between  facts (which I loosely define here as empirically observable and repeatable results) and opinions (which, for purposes of this argument I define as conclusions based on often conflicting judgements and theories regarding the application facts). As the cliche says, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

Which leads me to this. I distinguish between the right to know what’s in your food based on the label, and the right to choose what food you consume. To eat or not to eat GMO: that is the question.

There is still plenty of scientific wiggle room on the question of whether it is potentially harmful to humans to routinely ingest food that has been grown from genetically modified sources. My opinion is that I risk substantially more potential harm by gardening without a tetanus shot. But maybe that’s just me. Further research on GMO food is something both sides should support in order to arrive at any discoverable facts about long term effects on humans.

I subscribe to the whole local, organic credo and routinely shop at farmer’s markets. I can taste the difference between real food and processed foodstuffs. My heart wants to side with the farmers, the cooks, the people who still want their food to be fresh, delicious, nutritious and slow. But my head says that anti-science is more dangerous than good science. And facts should weigh more than opinions, no matter how appealingly old fashioned and “natural” those opinions. 

This article, with its appeal to science and reason, persuaded me to think twice about GMO food; and I recommend it: Environmentalism and anti-science, how GMOs prove any ideological extremity leads to anti-science.