Some Monday Links

How to Tell Africa’s History? (LA Review of Books)

Lost in Translation (Commonweal)

The Attack of Zombie Science (Nautilus)

Yogurt’s Long Journey (Tablet)

Diego Rivera by Francisco de la Mora and José Luis Pescador review – rumbustious hymn to a radical artist (The Guardian)

Rivera has been featured in NOL a few times.

Some Monday Links: The food issue

Communism Destroyed Russian Cooking (Reason)

How did pizza first appear in the Soviet Union? (Russia Beyond)

How Not To Feed the Hungry: A Symposium (Law & Liberty)

Vintage Thanksgiving Postcards Are Bizarre (Hypperallergic)

Human Capital Diversification vs Pancake Mix

I went to the grocery store yesterday (late morning) expecting either business-as-usual or empty shelves. I was surprised to see both. I’m currently regretting not taking photos because it probably will be business-as-usual by the time I go back.

Some shelves were empty, and others were full. What I saw was a direct visualization of what my neighbors don’t know how to cook.

Going through my store I could see that my neighbors know how to put jarred sauce on pasta. But I saw the opportunity to blend some canned whole tomatoes and make my own sauce. “International” foods were largely untouched, but anything in the local culinary lexicon was sparse.

The whole Baking Needs aisle was basically fine, except for the pancake mix which was all gone. This is really the whole story. Who buys pancake mix? Culinary illiterates.

(Disclaimer: I’m a biased source when it comes to pancakes. I take pancakes as seriously as 75th percentile Bostonian takes the fact that the Yankees suck.)

It takes a modest amount of skill to make pancakes, but the ingredients are cheap and YouTube wants to help you. Now is a great time to up your pancake game. But even if you just follow the directions on any random pancake recipe you’re stirring together flour, salt, baking powder, sugar, eggs, oil, and milk.

The mix will either give you a crappy shelf-stable replacement for the eggs and/or milk (yuck!) or hold your hand as you stir together some powder with eggs, oil, and milk.

Thinking back to my career as an omnivore, I can recall a time when I’ve bought ingredients I really should have made. I’m not judging people who don’t know how to cook, because I’ve been there.

What I’m pointing out is that those people are always going to have the hardest time when it comes to food shortages. I’d be in the same boat if I was shopping at a store that didn’t sell the limited set of ingredients I know how to use.

There’s a tension in economics that we don’t pay enough attention to: gains from specialization vs. gains from diversification. At a system level (and in a Principles class) the two go together. But at the level of individual there is a lot to be said for diversification–you’re more robust to change, resilient in the face of problems, and perspectives gained in one domain may have lessons to apply to others.

I’m grateful I haven’t taken my own human capital specialization so far that I can’t make my own pancakes.

Are GMOs Bad For Me?

I am vaguely perceiving that there is a battle brewing someplace about labeling food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It happened in California before. The initiative lost by referendum.

Of course, I am almost always in favor of more information for the public (even when it’s likely to be used for mischief). However, I can’t avoid wondering why sellers of food products don’t just do it on their own to gain a marketing advantage over their competitors. Not getting an answer to this question, I am wondering whether this is not just another case of a minority using the power of the state to impose its views (by force) on the indifferent majority. Keep in mind that this is what the word “law” means: If you break it, you expose yourself to official violence.

I honestly don’t know what’s wrong with GMOs. I only know that they (one?) allowed for a reduced use of pesticides. This has to be a good thing because exposure to large amounts of pesticides is bad for the health of producers and handlers. (I doubt today’s pesticides cause much harm to consumers but I always wash fruits and salad components.) I invited a local libertarian who addressed the topic on Facebook to write an essay for this blog explaining the answer. That was only a couple of days ago. He has not responded. I repeat the invite, to anyone.

What am I supposed to do, I, simple citizen and consumer not especially well equipped to ascertain if GMOs are a threat or not to my beloved? As I keep telling you, fortunately, I don’t necessarily have to go to graduate school yet three or four more years to get an idea. Instead, I look at the proponents I know.

In my area, the people who fight GMOs are mostly (but not only) foofoo heads who overlap a great deal, I think, with those who cancel erotically promising dates on the basis of astrology. They are largely the same people who advocate policy which, taken together, would take us back to what Karl Marx called, “the idiocy of village life,” with a life expectancy hovering around thirty five and a 30% infant mortality They, themselves, wouldn’t survive there more five weeks or less, by the way, because they are too coddled, too self-indulgent, and not alert enough. The wolves about which they keep crying now and here really lived then on the outskirts of such villages. They would gobble up anti-GMOist for a snack.

All the same, I keep an open mind. Anyone who wants to post a comment on GMOs can be sure it will not be censored or modified in any way. I will also consider with great interest any essay on this topic for this blog. Anyone can also send me reading assignments. I will post them but I will not read them unless the sender explains clearly why I should, beginning with the source. (See the standards I apply here)

School Choice for Lunch

School is not just for learning any more. Schools now provide breakfast and lunch for students. In the past, students and their parents had the option to either eat lunch at the school cafeteria or else bring their home-made lunch to school. But now, some schools are banning home-made meals. For example, Chicago’s Little Village Academy ruled that children had to eat only a school-provided lunch.

As reported by AOL News on 11 April 2011, Susan Rubin, a nutritionist and founder of the Better School Food program, stated that the lunches offered by the schools’ food providers are not necessarily more nutritious than those made at home.

“It’s rare that I see a school, especially a public school, that actually serves food that’s good,” she told AOL News. “It makes me sick that kids are eating this processed crap.”

A Chicago Tribune newspaper reporter spoke to students and parents who opposed the ban. They told the reporter that some children don’t like the cafeteria food, and much of it gets thrown away.

According to Medical Daily (16 Nov. 2013), a preschool in Richmond, Virginia also banned homemade lunches. The school blamed the Federal Programs Preschool rules on lunches from home, which state that students may bring lunches from home only if there is a medical condition requiring a specific diet, along with a note from a physician.

Such bans have been reported at other schools. The “Healthy Home Economist” reported that a preschooler at the West Hoke Elementary School in North Carolina had to eat a cafeteria lunch containing pink slime chicken nuggets when the school decided that the turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice her mother packed was not nutritious enough.

About 32 million American children eat breakfast and lunch at school under the National School Lunch Program. Of these, 21 million students participate in free or reduced-price meals. Children in poor families that cannot afford to feed their children adequately may well need to be helped, but that does not provide any reason to ban nutritious homemade meals.

Food tyranny is not confined to the USA. Canada has a national Food Guide, and if a student’s homemade lunch does not follow it, the parent is fined. For example, the Manitoba Government’s Early Learning and Child Care lunch regulations require a child’s lunch to be “balanced.” A mother who packed a lunch was slapped with a $10 fine. Her meal was unbalanced because she did not include crackers.

Nutrition is a controversial subject. Some people think cow milk is healthy, while others disagree. Some think that moderate amounts of sugar do not harm, while others think that any artificial sugar is bad. Some believe that meat provides good nutrition, while others believe it is healthier to be vegetarians or vegans. The experts disagree among themselves. Also, of course, children have individual tastes and dietary needs. Government policy forces most of the children to consume the same meal or a narrow range of choices. Much of the food then gets thrown out.

Any decision about school lunches in government-run schools is inevitably political. The federal government is now in charge of what children eat, and policy is influenced by the special interests which finance political campaigns and lobby for legislation.

Thus, the U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidizes poultry production, and then provides schools with free chicken. Many schools do not cook the chicken themselves; they send the chicken to food processors that turn the meat into chicken nuggets and sell them back to the schools. Rather than cook pizza themselves, many schools buy pizzas from food sellers. Schools get potatoes from the government and send them to food makers that sell them back to the school as French Fries.

The cafeteria management companies save money by not having to hire cooks, and they often receive rebates from the food processors. The schools pay the full price for the processed food, which includes rebates that are not disclosed. Since homemade food competes with cafeteria food, it is in the financial interest of the big food producers and cafeteria management firms to stop competition from home production.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has declared that such sending of food out to be processed results in food high in saturated fat and salt. A 2008 study, “Impact of Federal Commodity Programs on School Meal Nutrition,” by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, concluded that what starts as healthy food gets processed into products whose nutritional value is the same as junk food. The study found that California school districts used more than 82 percent of their food commodity funds to buy meat and cheese, spending only 13 percent on fruits and vegetables.

One problem with homemade lunches is that some parents give their children junk food. In that case, the school lunch would be better. But some parents provide a superior lunch, so a ban prevents both better and worse lunches. A sensible approach is to hire a nutritionist who would inform and council parents about better food choices. Few parents seek to deliberately harm their child with unhealthy food. For better nutrition, persuasion is a better policy than force.

Baby’s a Tuna, and It’s Feeling Blue

Bluefin tuna are being hunted to extinction. They have already been reduced to a small fraction of the global numbers of a hundred ago. They may disappear from the Atlantic Ocean by 2012. The average weight of those caught has already been dropping. Other kinds of tuna and related fish are also being slaughtered, but the bluefish will be the first to go under.

Bluefin tuna are the genus Thunnus in the family Scombridae, with several species, among them Thunnus atlanticus (blackfin tuna), Thunnus orientalis (Pacific bluefin), and Thunnus thynnus (Northern bluefin).

The bluefin have a big problem: they taste very good. Tuna have been eaten for centuries. Indeed, the word “tuna” comes from ancient Greek. Canned tuna greatly increased the consumption, but what is finally terminating the bluefin is sushi. Four fifths of the bluefin tuna consumption is for sushi and sashimi. Sushi is seaweed-coated vinegar rice wrapped around a morsel of food such as raw fish, and sashimi is the raw fish by itself.

Bluefin tunas taste good because unlike most fish, they are homeothermic (warm blooded); they metabolize their temperature, like mammals and birds. With a higher body temperature than the surrounding cold water, tuna have a large ocean range. The warmth also enables tuna to swim fast (“tuna” in Greek means “to rush”), which enables them to catch more prey. So bluefin tuna grow up to a size of up to four meters. Continue reading

Race in America Right Now

I live in Northern California where Indian restaurant food and French restaurant food taste alike. That’s because the first is Mexican Indian food and the second is Mexican French food. All the cooks are Mexican. That’s an interesting economic fact. That’s not the whole story by a long shot. America is a great country where menial jobs have for generations led to entrepreneurship and in time, to dignified economic independence. So, Mexican cooks sometimes become Mexican-American restaurant owners.

In my town, there are dozens of Mexican restaurants and taco places. One full-fare restaurant stands among all others. It’s located downtown. It’s spacious and clean. The food there is reasonably good and moderately priced. The restaurant is also perfectly organized for the kind of fare it serves. Scarcely more than five minutes elapse between the moment you place your order and the moment it’s brought to your table. The table is cleaned within one minute of your leaving it so that the next customer does not have to wait.

This Mexican restaurant does not belong to a junior college drop-out, aging surfer as is often the case around here. It was launched and it is staffed by Mexicans immigrants and by their grown children and their buddies. You might say that it’s a great American entrepreneurial ship with a wholly Mexican crew.

One day, I noticed there an old Chinese man bent over a broom, laboriously sweeping the restaurant’s floor. Continue reading

Four Small Keys to Happiness

I have sorted thing out finally and I am old enough to have rid myself of nearly all social pressures on my preferences. I figure there are only four things I really like, four keys to my happiness. Here they are:

I like writing and I like re-writing. That’s any time of day or night that I am awake. I enjoy writing just about everything, including stories, essays, scholarly papers, but also advertising slogans, and even technical “how-to” notices. I write on my PC but also long-hand, even on the back of envelopes. Sometimes, people even read what I write. My friends think I have a self-esteem problem because I am pleased with just about everything I write. I have no clear idea of what they mean. I am mostly happy because I write nearly every day.

I like foods that taste like themselves, beef that tastes only like beef and fish that tastes like fish. There are a few exceptions though. It’s OK for tripe to carry other flavors. That would be cow stomach, served as menudo, in Spanish, for example. In season, I eat fresh cauliflower raw with a little vinegar. I can do that five meals in a row without tiring. As a rule, I will eat anything any other human being anywhere eats as long as it’s distinctive. I make only two exceptions: Ordinarily, I would not consume people, or even dogs whose name I know.

Nouvelle Cuisine is not for me. It’s just putting together foods that don’t belong on the same plate and sprinkling them with raspberry vinegar. California Cuisine just means eating fresh vegetables. My grandmother advised much the same and she was not from California. Almost any wine will do to accompany my food. I have no refinement in that respect (or in any other) and I don’t pretend to.

I am married to an intelligent, resourceful woman who would rather please me than not, at least much of the time. I am a decent cook myself. My tastes are not luxurious. Usually, my food is satisfying. So, I am happy most of the time.

A silvery, bounding fish hooked while trolling under sail on a sunny day at sea, I like desperately. Why “desperately”? Because it’s only happened four times. Each instance occupies an unseemly amount of space in my pleasure memory.

Making love ziplessly to a needy woman who is almost a stranger, I really, really like. It happened more than four times but it was a long time ago so, I am not even completely sure I was involved anymore.

© Jacques Delacroix 2008, 2009

The Best Meal and the Worst Meal Ever

We have been working hard and we have been stressed by the unprincipled doings in Washington. So, here is a new story.

First, let me pull rank on you, reader. I was born and reared in France. I left when I was twenty-one. My godmother was a fine cook in the French tradition. She made it a point to train my palate from when I was a little kid, including with good wines. (You would be amazed to find out what two glasses of wine with lunch do to a seven-year old.) Then, I moved to San Francisco where it’s possible (though not easy) to find an excellent Chinese meal. I spent most of my adult life there, with frequent trips to Europe where I moved around as a dedicated gastronomy tourist, though not the moneyed kind. Once, for two weeks, I sampled the most expensive Japanese cuisine, possibly the best in the world overall. For a longer period, a Vietnamese lady with a fine pair of chopsticks graced my home and my kitchen with her presence. She was supplanted for thirty years following by an Indian lady who puts her pride in her cooking. I would like to tell you that the Vietnamese lady and the Indian lady had a kitchen cat-fight and that the latter won me as the prize but that would be stretching it

In any case, I am pretty sure I know more about food than anyone raised on burgers, fried chicken and Mom’s Sunday brisket and vegetables, even with Italian great-grandma’s Italian spaghetti thrown in occasionally. Yes, this sounds a little pretentious. So, what’s your point? Now that I have got you humbled, you will pay attention to the two demanding philosophical stories rolled into one below. Continue reading