Sunday, July 31, 2011

After Long Absence...

It's the return of The Week in Food:

Come September, some kids won't be too happy about these meals, in spite of the caramel sauce.

Meanwhile, analysts are looking at Argentina and asking, "Where's the beef?"

The Wisconsin State Fair: they come for the deep fried beer, and stay for the bacon sundae.

I can't believe I missed National Lasagna Day.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The J.R.R. Tolkien Guide to American Politics

American political discourse moved even further from reality this week. The Lord of the Rings now frames debate over the debt ceiling impasse. The Wall Street Journal called the Tea Party House psychos members who have rejected John Boehner's proposed shredding of the social safety net budget as a sellout to the ideas of big government "Hobbits."

Yes. Hobbits. The little guys in The Lord of the Rings. Money graf:

The idea seems to be that if the House GOP refuses to raise the debt ceiling, a default crisis or gradual government shutdown will ensue, and the public will turn en masse against . . . Barack Obama. The Republican House that failed to raise the debt ceiling would somehow escape all blame. Then Democrats would have no choice but to pass a balanced-budget amendment and reform entitlements, and the tea-party Hobbits could return to Middle Earth having defeated Mordor.

In some ways using The Lord of the Rings as a lens through which to examine American politics makes some sense, given the black-and-white way many Americans view issues. For those of you who don't know your Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings is the story of an epic war between good and evil. There was no compromising or negotiating with the Dark Lord Sauron, the chief baddie of LOTR. And the Tea Party crowd certainly sees our Eisenhower Republican Kenyan socialist president as someone they shouldn't meet half way on anything. And like Hobbits, who live in this bucolic paradise called The Shire when destiny calls them into the company of the great and the wise such as the elves of Rivendell and the wizard Gandalf, the Tea Party guys are really in over their heads.

John McCain apparently liked the phrase "Tea Party Hobbits" so much he used it himself to mock House Republicans. But then freshman senator and Tea Party darling Rand Paul shot back that he would "rather be a hobbit than a troll," slyly alluding to the little known fact that John McCain will turn to stone if exposed to direct sunlight.

However, there is one big problem with the LOTR analogy, as originally presented by the Wall Street Journal:

"the tea-party Hobbits could return to Middle Earth having defeated Mordor."

As any pathetic geek Tolkien fan could tell you, Mordor, the land of absolute evil, is actually in Middle Earth. That's the problem. The Dark Lord inhabits the same continent, the same reality, as everyone else. Frankly you can't truthfully say that Washington (represented by Mordor in this analogy) or the Tea Partiers inhabit the same reality as the rest of us.

I think another fantasy analogy for American politics would work much better. Over the past 80 years this country worked out a basic consensus: it's in everyone's best interest to ensure old age doesn't mean poverty and illness, to provide the unemployed with financial help, to make sure poor people get at least some assistance feeding and caring for their kids.

Time and again somebody shows up contesting these notions, which are the underpinning of any society's claim to call itself civilized. Time and again, we think we've beaten them, and they keep coming back.

And those enemies of our modest welfare state seem to be making more progress than they have at any time since Clinton dismantled Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1996.

Voldemort is in charge of Washington. Where's Harry?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Why Do We Say "Do?"

At any given time I'm sampling at least two books that aren't on the "Currently Reading" list on the sidebar of this blog. The latest is John McWhorter's Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. One of the quirks of our language that he discusses is what he calls "meaningless do." Think about it: most of our uses of "do" mean nothing. In the sentence "I do like to swim," do adds emphasis, but "I like to swim" says more or less the same thing. In the question "Do you read a lot?" 'do' adds nothing. In other languages the question would be asked, "Liesst du viel?" (German) or "Lees mucho?" (Spanish) both meaning "Read you much?" which says essentially the same thing.

Another oddity of our language is the use of -ing verbs. Other languages have an equivalent construction, but English is one of the few languages that uses the -ing form (i.e., the present progressive, also considered a sort of verb-noun hybrid) of a verb to say This is what I am doing right now. Since I speak English, if somebody were to ask me what I'm doing as I'm typing on my laptop in my neighborhood cafe, I would say "I'm writing." If I were a Mexican typing on my laptop in a cafe in Mexico City or Guanajuato, I would say, "Escribo" (I write). Similarly, if I were a French speaker pecking away on my laptop in Montreal or Lyons, I would say "J'ecris."

McWhorter ponders why English is so odd in this respect, and in doing so he also tackles head-on one of the most absurd (and unquestioned) assumptions of English history. The area we now call England enters many history books as the Roman province of Britannia after being conquered by the Emperor Claudius in 43 AD. As Roman power waned in the following centuries and the Roman Empire was under constant attack by peoples such as the Germans, Huns and Visigoths, the Emperor Honorious decided the best way to defend the empire was to concentrate his armies on a somewhat smaller area of territory. In other words, the Romans left Britain, which was now defenseless against attacks from peoples from north-western mainland Europe: the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. The result of these invasions was a society in much of what is now England speaking a Germanic language called Anglo-Saxon with its own distinctive laws and culture, and people in Wales and Cornwall speaking Celtic languages descended from "British," the common language spoken by the Celtic inhabitants of Britain who were there when the Romans arrived (and who saw them leave). The people of Wales and Cornwall, needless to say, had their own distinctive laws and culture. Historians have mostly assumed that the Germanic invaders exterminated most of the Celtic inhabitants of what is now England, the survivors being pushed into the hinterlands of Wales and Cornwall. However, that assumption doesn't take into account one basic fact: before the twentieth century, with its repeat-firing guns and gas chambers, genocide was extremely labor-intensive work. The one exception was the European conquest of the Americas, in which the invaders brought diseases to which the natives had no immunities: completely unintentional biological warfare.

In other words, most historians of England have assumed that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived in enough numbers to kill, one on one, by sword or axe, the vast majority of the natives of what is now England. That's ridiculous. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico and Central America in the sixteenth century they had primitive firearms and the unintentional help of smallpox, but even today (in spite of the deaths of millions of natives) the Mexicans and Central Americans of indigenous descent vastly outnumber those of Spanish descent. The logical conclusion is that the original, Celtic inhabitants of Britain survived under new rulers and ultimately adopted their conqueror's language.

But before they became culturally assimilated by the Angles and the Saxons, they seem (according to McWhorter) to have put their mark on their conquerors' language. Interestingly, what other languages besides English have the "useless do" and use the present-progressive construction to express the present tense? According to McWhorter, only two: Welsh and Cornish, the languages of the people who were supposedly wiped off the map and pushed into the corners of Britain. In Welsh, the word "nes" means do (or did). So if you were asked in Welsh if you had opened the door (and you hadn't) you would say, "Nes i ddim agor" ("I didn't open") instead of "I opened not." And in Cornish, if a friend of yours is shopping at the farmers' market and somebody asks what she's doing, you say, "Yma hi ow prena hy losow" ("She is at buying her vegetables")—as if buying is some kind of condition she's in. In Welsh, if your daughter Mary is practicing for choir and someone wants to she's doing, you say, "Mae Mair yn cynu" ("Mary is in singing").

Now I mentioned that these constructions don't show up in written Anglo-Saxon (charming sample of which at left). So it's fair to ask, if English got these constructions from Celts wouldn't they have shown up in written Anglo-Saxon, given that Anglo-Saxon is the predecessor of Modern English? McWhorter's got a good answer for that: think about how much difference there is between how people talk and how they write (at least before texting and tweeting). Now think about how much greater that difference would be if, say, only a small percentage of the population could read or write? Furthermore, for about 150 years after the conquest of England by French-speaking Normans, most writing in England was done in Latin or French—Anglo- Saxon more or less disappeared. But during that time, the language spoken by most the population England was changing into a hybrid of French and Anglo-Saxon now known as Middle English. And when the first Middle English documents were written, what curious grammatical constructions appear?

Take a wild guess....

This book is utterly fascinating. More later.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Adventures in Food (or Stupidity, Take Your Pick)

I used to consider myself a spicy food aficionado (one of my readers is already laughing, and I know who you are). I grew up in a house where jalapeños and Tabasco sauce were staples. I love wasabi. Among my college friends (for most of whom Cajun food and Americanized Chinese were the outer limits of exotic), I was considered a daring, even foolhardy eater.

Well, I'm a chile wuss. Sometimes eating a mere vindaloo just hurts. Once in Chapel Hill I ate buffalo wings that made me feel as if my mouth was about to blister. I quit, on the verge of howling with pain, while everyone else around me ate with relish.

I was reminded of how low I rank among chile eaters last Friday evening. Earlier in the day I had been in O'Hare Airport in Chicago. I had not had lunch and knew I wouldn't have time to sit down and eat before boarding my plane. I discovered, to my delight, that Rick Bayless (the Julia Child of Mexican food, for those of you unfamiliar with the name) had opened a take-out restaurant in that very airport.

I scanned the menu and ordered a cochinita pibil (Yucatán-style pork) sandwich. The plan was I would eat half for lunch on the plane and half that night for dinner. The sandwich came with salsa in a small little plastic container. I did not use the salsa on the plane for fear of making a mess. I just ate half the sandwich (and very tasty it was).

At home that night, I unpacked the uneaten half of the sandwich and the salsa. I had a Homer Simpson moment of longing: mmmmmm.....chipotle salsa (chipotles are smoked jalapeños). I opened the sandwich and poured the salsa on it. I replaced the bread and started eating.

A minute or so later, I entered a world of pain. I hurt so much I couldn't sit still. I was walking around manically. I drank milk to to try to get relief (lipids are the quickest way to counteract pepper). No dice. I put ice in my mouth for temporary relief (even though I knew the melting water would actually distribute the capsaicin.)

After about four or five minutes the pain stopped. Another two or three minutes and I stopped sweating. I thought, "God, I can't even handle chipotles now? What has happened to me?" Then I had a vivid visual memory of the Tortas menu.

I had briefly considered a chicken sandwich. That was the one that had chipotle salsa. The cochinita pibil came with habañero salsa. I should have known better: the people of Southern Mexico (where the Yucatán is) consider habañeros the only real peppers. If you eat jalapeños like Northern Mexicans do, you're little better than a gringo wuss (at least according to the good people of the Southern third of Mexico).

Check out this chart that ranks chiles. As you can see, habañeros approach the frontier that divides food from weapons.

And yes, I did finish the sandwich: I'm way too cheap to not eat food I paid for.

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