Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Week in Food

Oh Minimalist, I will miss you.

Slaughterhouse inspections, Chicken McNuggets, and Vladimir Putin: the strange history of dark meat.

While Cairo rages, Milad Zari bakes. And bakes.

Some are calling for a low-salt, low-sugar future. The Germans point the way.

Good times for Iowa have a down side for the rest of us.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Need to Do Some Gift Shopping?

I was reading the Daily Dish yesterday and was struck by one of their posts: a photo of a rubber ducky with the DEA logo on it.

It's one of the many items on sale at the Drug Enforcement Administration gift shop. Now I knew the government sold some weird things. If you're in the market for an amphibious landing craft, the government surplus site is the place for you. I almost bought one but decided I was too busy to fulfill my childhood dream of invading New Brunswick. But I began to wonder what other things you could buy from the federal government. Although I've been in a number of national monuments and historic sites, I tend to gravitate toward the books section of any gift shop and not notice what else is available. But now that I've found the site Government Gifts and Memorabilia I have begun to grasp the breadth and variety of the retail smorgasbord offered by Uncle Sam.

I always need more office supplies, but I've never been particular about brands or makes. Now I've decided these gavel pencils from the Supreme Court gift shop are a must-have:

And with the cold weather we've been having who would pass up a chance to buy U.S. Capitol afghans? Being of a less practical frame of mind, I myself have realized that my life will never be complete without a Herbert Hoover signature magnet:

One of the best-selling items in the National Archives Gift Shop is, of course, the photo of Nixon meeting Elvis:

And from the George Bush Presidential Library you can get all kinds of goodies, such as this box that seems to have been inspired by the opening sequence of The Colbert Report:

I also noticed the Bush Library gift shop sells some books, which is fine although it doesn't really reflect the Bush spirit. When Brendan Gill recalled that when he stayed at the Bush family estate in Kennebunkport the only book he could find in the entire house was Jokes for the John (I am not making this up). A sample title from the books section: Indians Who Lived in Texas. Note the past tense. According to the Census over 100,000 Native Americans live in Texas, but I guess it makes for a more comfortable reading experience if you stick to the dead ones. Survivors of genocide tend to raise awkward questions.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some shopping to do.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Bible in the Classroom

"Oh just about everything's a sin. Have you ever sat down and read this thing?"--Reverend Lovejoy on the Bible.

Many of you probably recall the survey done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life last summer, which revealed (surprise!) that the citizens of the most religious country in the world are rather ignorant about religion. Unfortunately, if your knowledge of religion is lacking, that handicaps your capacity to understand many other things, such as Iraqi politics, much of U.S. history, and virtually all literature written in English prior to 1870, to name three examples.

The survey merely confirmed what many educators, writers and thinkers have long known: that Americans know very little about one of the most powerful forces in human history. What's really staggering is American ignorance of a relatively small facet of the big subject we call religion: a little book known as the Bible, that book many of our boorish ancestors used as license to set up little enclaves of intolerance on the Eastern seaboard. According to the survey's findings fewer than half of Americans could name the four Gospels, and only about half know that the Golden Rule is not one of the Ten Commandments. In 2007 Representative Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) called for the display of the Ten Commandments in the houses of Congress. It turns he couldn't even name them:

I've always been bemused by Republican Bible-thumping: if they actually opened theirs (if they have them) and read them once in a while they might have to question their own political positions: for instance, according to the Christian point of view helping the unfortunate not only isn't wrong, it's a divine command.

On the surface it's a laudable attempt to address this ignorance that Texas public schools were required to offer a Biblical studies elective as of 2009. And the Texas state legislature specifically declared that the aim was not to proselytize but to "teach students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy," and that the classes "shall not endorse, favor, or promote, or disfavor or show hostility toward, any particular religion or nonreligious faith or religious perspective."

All well and good. However, in spite of the law mandating that the study of the Bible's impact on Western culture be taught in a manner "that neither promotes nor disparages religion...[and not] "from a particular sectarian point of view," and that this would be ensured by teacher training and curriculum standards approved by the state attorney general, there's been a problem.

In fall of 2009 the Texas Education Agency announced it would not provide the training and materials because there was no funding from the state legislature.

Some school districts promptly canceled the class. Others forged ahead. In spite of the laudable intentions behind the law--and I have no doubt many Texas teachers have attempted to teach this class in a fully objective, academically acceptable spirit--I am also sure that in many communities this has been next to impossible. In many parts of this country you say the word "Bible" and immediately the listener's neocortex stops working. This is nowhere better illustrated than in one of the first articles I read on the Bible studies elective:

"I think it is a good thing because a lot of kids don't have that experience, and they already want to take prayer out of school as it is, and you see where our kids are ending up!" said Tyler resident Laura Tucker.

And this month the ACLU began investigating a Bible class being taught at the high school in Big Spring, Texas. Some residents objected--to the investigation, not the class.

"I found it to some degree offensive that someone could come in, any group or groups and basically tell you, you cant have a class that has any faith view that might be expressed," says parent Chipper Smith.

Some people in this country (most of them white Christians) will never grasp what the word public means in this country. That there's a sphere where it's not all about them. Where they don't get to dictate to the rest of us.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Week in Food

An unlikely alliance: Michelle Obama and Wal-Mart.

Do you prefer your buffalo grass-fed or grain-fed?

There's beef and then there's "beef" (or "taco meat filling," if you prefer).

Some expensive foods are predictable: the $2800 steak, the thousand dollar mushrooms....but then there's $400 leftover pot roast.

Burns Night is coming up. Sae whit better time tae learn freish ways tae sloch haggis?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

BP Oil Spill Update

In the midst of all the non-news about WikiLeaks (rich people try to avoid paying taxes? REALLY?) and that Americans want to cut the deficit, but they don't want to cut a single government program and they don't want to pay higher taxes, it's easy to forget everything that's not the front page.

Remember that oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year? We haven't heard anything in some time, so everything must be okay, right? Think again. Oil is still washing up on shore. And chemicals found in oil are turning up in the blood of some residents of the Deep South:

This month the Louisiana Environmental Action Network released the results of tests performed on blood samples collected from Gulf residents. Whole blood samples were collected from 12 people between the ages of 10 and 66 in September, November and December and analyzed by a professional lab in Georgia, with the findings interpreted by environmental chemist and LEAN technical adviser Wilma Subra.

Four of the people tested -- including three adults and the 10-year-old -- showed unusually high levels of benzene, a particularly toxic component of crude oil.

Public health in the South already blows. The last thing these people needed was one more toxin.

Of course, if you listen to Southern elected officials, everything's just fine.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Terrifying Fact of the Day

In the wake of the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, gun sales are up:

5% increase nationwide.

60% jump in Arizona.

And here's a gun dealer in Indiana talking about his business:

His number-one seller? The Glock 19. The very make Jared Loughner used.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Karofsky, Watch Out

When I went to the homepage of The Washington Post this morning I saw evidence of how much further the paper of Woodward and Bernstein has sunk into inanity--or at least poor layout and design. I saw a picture of Chris Colfer next to the headline, "Loughner Trial Likely to be Moved to California." Americans are so dumb I assume this will result in an Internet rumor that gay teens are shooting people. On the upside, maybe this will make homophobic high school bullies back off.

And if rumor spreads that gay teens are shooting democratic members of Congress maybe the GOP will warm up to the Log Cabin Republicans.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

America and Americans

I am always flattered when when people from other countries point out what they like about mine. Spanish friends, for example, have told me that (Arizona notwithstanding) they were pleasantly surprised by how much more assistance was extended to immigrants in the U.S. than in Spain. Upon reflection, I've decided their reaction probably says more about Eastern Massachusetts than it does about the U.S. in general. So I was intrigued when Andrew Sullivan posted a clip he called "America From the Outside," in which Craig Ferguson and Stephen Fry discussed what they liked about the U.S.:

One of the characteristics they both seem to admire is American optimism, the sense of unlimited possibility. Optimism is admirable but I find its typical American embodiment impossible to separate from a particularly unappealing naiveté. Fry notes how the phrase "only in America" always denotes something big, bold and new. I associate the phrase "only in America" with the notion of unlimited social mobility: "Only in America could a poor boy from a farm become a millionaire."

Fry finds "beguiling" the theory that attributes this sense of possibility to immigration: "[people] came here by choice. They wanted to leave Europe. Mostly Europe. And come here to start a new life. The gene pool is people who said this isn't good enough....American is a gene pool of people saying, 'let's risk it.'...It's a tempting way of looking at it."

That's not quite how I would describe the millions of Irish peasants who fled starvation or Jews who escaped pogroms. Nor how I would describe my own maternal ancestors who were transported from Ulster to Maryland in the 1680s to lessen crowding in Irish jails.*

I don't mean to discount the courage of the millions of voluntary immigrants to this country, nor the hard work of the many people who have come from poor beginnings to achieve outstanding material success. But the opposite side of this simplistic coin of optimism and mobility is the sense that if your life is anything less than what you would like, if you're poor or unhappy or have trouble paying your bills, it's all your fault. The ways in which our society is inherently unjust, the fact that certain people have the deck stacked against them from day one, isn't allowed to be part of the narrative.

There's no ugliness or pointless pain in American history, it's all Progress. Thus when the new Republican members of the House read the Constitution out loud, they somehow managed to do it without reading any references to slavery. A Mexican-American studies class at a Tucson high school has been declared illegal by the Arizona State Department of Education for addressing discrimination against Hispanic Americans. The editor of a new edition of Huckleberry Finn deleted all instances of the word "nigger."

These are a symptoms of a cultural blindness that has truly poisonous effects. It locks most Americans into a sense of tribal self-righteousness. We can never really be wrong. We can be the second-biggest culprit in leading the world toward global catastrophe, we can lock up millions of black men and make it nearly impossible for them to resume normal lives after they've "paid their debt to society," we can make hundreds of people disappear into torture chambers, but everything's all right in America.

The Americans Sarah Palin patronizingly called "Joe Six-Packs" understand they're getting poorer, that they're lives are getting worse, but the American Story doesn't allow them to understand the nature of their problems. Instead it provides scapegoats, such as welfare queens and over-paid union employees. Their tax dollars are being siphoned away to buy deadbeats health insurance and pamper criminals (in a telling moment during the Alabama episode of Stephen Fry in America, he remarked that Alabama was not a place where he would want to be "poor or in trouble with the law." When Fry himself was seventeen, he was convicted of credit card fraud. Yet he was given a second chance and allowed to take the entrance exams for Cambridge. I find it easier to imagine that happening in the UK than in the Land of Opportunity).
This land of optimism is seething with resentment that occasionally erupts into violence. Today Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head in Tucson. She was one of the many members of Congress who received threatening calls for supporting the Affordable Care Act.

Her assailant has been described as a white man in his twenties: just the sort of American, so the Story goes, who should have been pursuing opportunities with optimism and that can-do spirit.

*Don't feel too bad for my relatives: they quickly realized there was a really good life to be had in the Colonies if you were willing to enslave people.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Way We Live Now

At the library where I work we make it easy to steal books. The barcode and the RFID tag are both on/in the dust jacket. So slip the jacket off and you can walk out with the book without setting off the alarm.

This morning I found an empty book jacket on a shelf. The title? Do Hard Things. According to the blurb, it's a book urging teenagers to rebel "against the low expectations of today's culture by choosing to 'do hard things' for the glory of God."

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

More Proof...

...if any were needed, that the American consumer is the dumbest animal on earth. Today's Washington Post has an article on the recent increase in auto sales. This part caught my eye:

Auto sales in the United States jumped 11 percent over the year, with the strongest single gain coming with midsize sport-utility vehicles such as the Jeep Cherokee and the Honda Pilot.

According to the government's fuel economy rankings, the Cherokee and the Pilot rank near the bottom in gas mileage among cars by their respective companies ( doesn't create firm links for search results, but if you click on "search by make" and then "2011," you'll find links to both Jeep and Honda gas mileage rankings).

And of course, gas prices are going up.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Week in Food

Finally, there may be a use for genome sequencing other than telling us how much we have in common with fruit flies: better chocolate.

The New York Times touts the virtues of bison.

Neanderthals didn't floss. But don't worry: Paleolithic oral hygiene's loss is modern archaeology's gain.

Somehow. of all the food-related questions scientists could explore, this one never occurred to me.

2011: the Year of the Tomato.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

My 2010 Reading

Recently a friend of mine informed me that she read 57 books in 2010. That's staggering (to me, at any rate). That's more than a book a week. Then my friend at Three Good Rats announced she had read 72. I know it's not a contest, but as someone who's always thought of himself as a reader I found myself feeling lazy and inadequate. When I compiled my own list I found myself with a paltry 28. In my defense I don't keep a list of books I read so I've possibly forgotten a few. I will also add that since I teach lit classes to a local group of retirees I spent a fair amount of time reading short stories before I taught them and dipping into some relevant criticism as well.

But enough defensiveness. My 2010 list is below.

These books I read simply because I wanted to:

Strip Jack: an Inspector Rebus Mystery by Ian Rankin

Black and Blue: an Inspector Rebus Mystery by Ian Rankin

(Detective Inspector John Rebus is my favorite fictional detective and Ian Rankin one of my favorite mystery writers)

This Book is Overdue: How Librarian and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson (an enjoyable, but perhaps overenthusiastic, look at my profession)

Homecoming by Berhnard Schlink

Germany 1945: from War to Peace by Richard Bessel (a fascinating and troubling account of the end of the Third Reich and the beginning of West Germany; it also offers an excellent account of what is possibly the only time in history that an army fought savagely against an enemy force not to win but to hold them off long enough to surrender to another one).

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines (one of the best novels I've ever read; WARNING: if you have any heart at all, this book will destroy you)

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel (absolutely brilliant)

Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens by Andrew Bearhs

The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics and Religion by Matt Taibbi (Matt Taibbi is one of my favorite journalists and political commentators: he's always savagely funny and on target).

I re-read these books, some in their entirety, others in part:

A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America by Tony Horwitz (a fascinating account of European voyages to North America in the centuries preceding permanent European settlement)

The Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era by James McPherson (partial)

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (this book is amazing)

The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré (probably the eighth or ninth time I've re-read this book)

Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud (partial; this book is fewer than 200 pages so it's kind of pathetic that I didn't finish)

The Crucial Decade--and After; America, 1945-1960 by Eric Frederick Goldman (This book is utterly fascinating. In retrospect this country seemed so secure just after the end of the Second World War. At the time it was stricken with fear: plagued by Communist witch hunts, temporary food shortages, conflicted between its traditional isolationism and its new international commitments, and stricken with anxiety about social change).

These two I re-read for the Great Narnia Read-A-Long:

The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

The Magician's Nephew by C. S. Lewis

These I read in my capacity as a book reviewer for The Globe:

Everything by Kevin Canty

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: The Early Years by Ilan Stavans

Model Home: A Novel by Erich Puchner

Bliss and Other Stories by Ted Gilley

The Hard Way Round: The Passages of Joshua Slocum by Geoffrey Wolff

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro

Turbulence by Giles Foden

Gordian Knot by Bernhard Schlink

Dreams in a Time of War by Ngugi W'thiong'o

Ford County: Stories by John Grisham

What else was I doing with my reading time? Magazines and blogs. The London Review of Books, The Atlantic, Scientific American (what I understand of it, that is), Americas. The Daily Dish, Political Animal, Informed Comment.

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