blogging for books: Bend your Brain, from The Minds Behind Marbles: The Brain Store

September 16, 2014

I thoroughly enjoyed Bend your Brain.

Bend your Brain is a book of mind-bending puzzles in five categories:  visual perception; word skills; critical thinking; coordination; and memory.  Each category begins with a brief description of which brain tasks are involved in each category, and why the skills are important.  The puzzles increase in difficulty in five increments, from “mind-warming” to “mind-blowing”.

The book reminded me of the “brain teasers” I used to enjoy as a child.  These entertainments (and board games that utilize related skills) are way less prevalent in the video game age.  The puzzles, even at the “mind-blowing” level are challenging enough to be stimulating but not so difficult as to be frustrating.  A few struck me as more tests of popular culture knowledge than brain capacity.  There was one exercise where you were supposed to recognize celebrity mouths.  Problem was, I’d never heard of half the celebrities, let alone being intimately familiar with their mouths.  The same went for certain consumer logos.

It’s interesting to see that even in the mind bending arena, the mind tends to run in familiar ruts.  For instance, I am very good at word games and play plenty of them without being confronted with this book.  The coordination chapter presented far more difficult challenges for me.  The memory chapter is an excellent exercise in mindfulness.

All in all, this is a great book to take along on car trips, plane rides,or any place you will have slack time and prefer to be stimulated rather than bored.

soylent green is dinner

September 16, 2014

I was thinking back to an article I read in the New Yorker last summer, about a techno-geek in the Bay Area who decided that eating was a waste of time.  He was referring to the whole shebang:  hunting and gathering, agriculture, grocery shopping, kitchens and their attendant equipment, dining areas, and, of course, all the time devoted to preparing and consuming food.  So he developed a product he named “Soylent”.  For those who aren’t familiar with this early seventies sci-fi classic, Soylent Green is set in the near future (actually, now, in 2014, very near in the future) where the world is terribly overcrowded and fresh meat and produce are a rarity as precious as diamonds.  People subsist on wafers known as “Soylent Green”.  No one knows what’s in the wafers, until Charlton Heston makes a startling discovery:  Soylent Green is people.

This real-life Soylent, I presume, isn’t made from people.  I don’t know what’s in it, I presume a mixture of essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and carbohydrates.  When I was a nutrition major in college, around the era of the movie, we referred to such compounds as “total parenteral nutrition”.  They were given intravenously to seriously ill people who could not take in food by mouth.  I certainly don’t know anyone who took it voluntarily.  Whatever this new Soylent isis, people do appear to be able to subsist on it, with occasional breaks for what the developer terms “recreational eating”.  It’s popularity has spread to small but enthusiastic group, largely college students and tech employees.

I have nothing against Soylent per se.  It sounds like a useful nutritional supplement, better than the old TPN, for those seriously ill people.  And if a perfectly healthy person wants to drink this yucky shake–the polar opposite of organic– instead of all the tasty treats available in this world, I suppose they aren’t doing anyone else any harm. But I do find their absolutist utilitarian mindset, a mindset I’ve seen echoed (albeit to a somewhat lesser degree) in the high tech industry, quite perturbing.

The main objection Soylent’s adherents have to old fashioned food is that its a “waste of time”.  And what do they do with all the extra time they’ve gained? They “work”, of course. What are they working on that’s so much more important than cooking or eating?  They don’t say and I don’t know. What I do know is that the major work of humans since caveman times has been the gathering and preparation of food.  Food is integral to all human cultures and religions, and a major component of most rituals and celebrations.  In fact, studies have shown that in pre-industrial cultures, people, despite their lack of modern “labor-saving” conveniences, actually have more leisure time.  Once they have gathered and prepared food they consider their work for the day to be done.

The developer of Soylent also believes clothing to be a waste of time.  To this end he wears two identical outfits until they wear out, then replaces them.  If food and clothing–two essentials–are a waste of time, I shudder to think how he views literature or music or art or any of the other ways we experience and express ourselves, and that lend our lives beauty and meaning.  Personally, I love to eat.  I view all my meals as “recreational eating”, from the coffee and smoked salmon rollup I enjoyed this morning, to the Sunday night dinners with my extended family, to the lunch of tasty leftover salad and tuna I am anticipating as soon as I finish  this post.  The developer of Soylent anticipates a future where drones will deliver Soylent to his front door and he can “refuel”.  Sounds like fodder for a dystopian fantasy for me, if creative writing wasn’t a waste of time.

What’s concerning to me is that this mindset is so popular amongst workers drawn to the tech industry (Google, Facebook, etal) who are gaining more economic power with each passing year and becoming the drivers of our culture.  We might want to think more deeply and critically of the vision of culture, indeed of the meaning of life, that they are holding up to us as an ideal.

a carnivorous day on Mt. Hood

September 10, 2014

A couple of years ago I attending another Nicky USA event, a tour of their then-new sausage-making facility on the Central Eastside. It was an unusually enjoyable press event, complete with a tour of the frigid, operating room-clean sausage making facility, lots of yummy samples, alcoholic accompaniment, and even free T-shirts. I wasn’t sure how I’d garnered an invitation, surrounded as I was by burly butchers and chefs with impressive tattoos.
So I jumped on the chance to attend Nicky’s “Wild About Game”, now in its 14th year in the Wy’East Lodge on Mt. Hood. Wild About Game has two parts: vendors offering interesting stories and luscious samples of their wares; and a chef’s competition featuring four cook-offs between a Seattle chef and a Portland one, each using a Nicky Farms protein. The event is open to the public, and draws a large crowd of both restaurant industry folks and foodies.
Nicky’s USA made its reputation on wholesaling game meat to restaurants. In recent years game meat has gained cachet as the truest free-range meat around, with minimal effect on the environment and a healthful fatty acid profile. The popularity of the paleo diet jibes with Nicky’s protein-rich ethos, though I doubt cavemen ever ate duck pastrami reubens. Nicky has also made the wise decision to broaden their partnerships beyond game, and works with food producers as widely ranging as Salt and Straw ice cream and Hama Hama oysters.
I found conversing with the vendors and trying their samples to be the most interesting aspect of the event. Some highlights: 1) Bee Local Honey, which manages beehives atop Portland roofs in various neighborhoods. It makes sense that honeys from different locations would have their own terroir, just like wine, but I never knew that honey from atop Mt. Tabor would taste so different from honey in Creston-Kenilworth, a couple miles away. 2) Tails and Trotters northwest hazelnut finished pork: I first tasted jamon Serrano, cured wild boar fed on acorns, in multiple small towns in Spain in 1996, and have never eaten its like since. Ultra-strict regulations on the importation of this ham have loosened somewhat, and Fermin (another Nicky client) sells a quality approximation. But Tails and Trotters feeds their hogs Northwest-grown hazelnuts instead of acorns, which tastes different but just as good 3) Manchester Farms Quail: The birds are for sale, yes (again, with a healthier fatty acid profile than most chicken) but the most interesting product they make are their cute, largely yolk, speckled eggs. They are high in nutrients and their shells protect against salmonella. I am not personally a big hard boiled egg fan but these sure look adorable. 4) Snake River Farms American Style Kobe Beef–This was one of the most delicious samples I tasted here. Yum. 5) Estancia Grassfed Beef: They sponsored a blind taste testing between their grain finished and grassfed beef. The grassfed beef is chewier (better mouthfeel, in my opinion) and more flavorful. No comparision. 6) Sasquatch Brewery: made a delicious and unusual black peppercorn beer. Slightly hoppy and slightly spicy, neither overwhelming. 7) Salt and Straw ice cream: they outdid themselves with bone marrow ice cream, but I couldn’t bring myself to taste it as all I could think of was clotted blood. The woodblock chocolate was as delicious as usual, though.
Compared to all these great samples of the basic product, the chef competition was underwhelming. Seattle won, and deservedly so, with a rabbit loin and blackberry dish, but frankly, while every dish tasted perfectly decent, none were stunning or even as exotic as their unusual proteins promised. The squab dish from Bamboo Sushi tasted like sweet and sour chicken. The rabbit pasta from Ava Genes tasted also, alas, like chicken, and made me feel even guiltier about eating the relative of my former pet bunny Ralphie than I already did. Jason French’s goat pasta (Ned Ludd) was rich and sumptuous, but not as good as the goat tacos offered directly at the Nicky USA booth. I voted for the Mexican soup with elk meatballs from Josh Scofield of Toro Bravo–they were delicious–but honestly, they could have been ground beef.
If anything, the afternoon was an advertisement for home cooking, using Nicky’s fabulous products and the products of their clients.20140907_132549

new orleans discoveries

September 10, 2014

I recently visited New Orleans after wanting to go there all my life. (my husband and I had been making plans go there when Katrina hit). Its’ always a bit scary to finally see someplace where you’ve built up so much anticipation: what if the reality doesn’t match the fantasy? But on the whole it did: sultry weather, overgrown gardens, hanging moss, fabulous food, music everywhere. All the “bad neighborhoods” we were warned about turned out to be largely hype. Some areas are creepily deserted, especially at night. I remember looking at a church and realizing it was only the shell of a church, with vacant lots surrounding it on all sides. But one effect of Katrina is that the devastation ripped apart the established social and racial structures of the city along with the physical ones, lowering prices so much that people of all demographics are moving in and creating a new, more integrated New Orleans with a remarkably vibrant attitude. And–we found pretentious farm to table small plates along with the etoufee, twenty five cent martinis and gargantuan shrimp po boys.
Here are a couple of discoveries to share:
1) The Art of Alabama Food: This was the name of a photography exhibit we saw in the French Quarter. To be honest, I still associate Alabama with George Wallace barring the schoolhouse door. It does not bring up images of trendy food to me. Yet there I was, looking at gorgeous images of trendy food served all over the state, with the epicenter seemingly in Birmingham, a city I definitely associate with some of the most unsavory events of the civil rights battles of the 1960’s. Many of the pictures are evocative presentations of the foods you might expect (ribs and white bread; baked grits with country ham and heavy cream; chicken in white sauce). But how about bouillabaisse (Birmingham) or sea bass in banana leaves (Orange Beach). Or the wonderful hybrid of PB and J in phyllo (Huntsville). Times change. Vive la difference. The Art of Alabama show will be touring nationally.
2) Old New Orleans Rum: We were walking along Magazine Street, hot and sticky, when we ducked into New Orleans only Whole Foods Market to enjoy the air conditioning and pick up a cold beverage. What should we find but a table sampling a just the right icy beverage–New Orleans rum, combined with pungent ginger ale, like a cocktail in a jar. It was eleven in the morning. They poured big samples. why not? We walked back on the street fully refreshed, and a lady handed us a bag of Mardi Gras beads, just because she felt like it. So far Old New Orleans rum ( has limited distribution outside of the area. It deserves a wider audience.

blogging for books: meat and potatoes

August 21, 2014

I confess, it took me a couple of weeks to test any of the recipes from Meat and Potatoes.  The ninety degree plus midsummer heat made heavy meat meals unappealing, and the stratospheric meat prices at the supermarket made meat-centric meals uneconomic.  But when I finally tried one of the “meat and potatoes” combos (New Mexico red chile and coffee crust tri tip, creamy blue cheese polenta and caramelized onions) my husband absolutely raved about it, comparing it to some of the better meals he’s eaten in local restaurants.  Fama, a self-taught chef and host of the TV show “meat and Potatoes”, organized his cookbook by meals, including two sides to accompany the protein of choice.  There’s lots of info on choosing and prepping different cuts of meat, with lots of emphasis on lamb and game.  The sides are an excellent aid to meal planning, especially for novice cooks, and balance the main dish well in taste, color, and texture.

I would recommend this book primarily for those novice cooks.  The recipes are very simple and easy to follow, using a short list of easy to find ingredients.  I found myself revising the recipes, both to add more nuance and to lower the excessive butterfat content.  In the tri tip meal I followed Fama’s suggestions for a superb rub utilizing chipotle chiles and ground coffee, but eliminated the butter.  The  accompanying blue cheese polenta, inspired by the taste of “corn smut” ( a fungus that grows on corn) had an appealingly funky taste but I halved the bleu cheese, eliminated the butter, and substituted 1 cup of milk and 5 cups chicken broth for the six cups of milk called for in the recipe.  I also used fresh ground polenta instead of instant.

On the next relatively cool day I made chicken arrabiata with mushrooms, roasted new potatoes and broiled broccolini.  Again tasty and simple, and this time lower in butterfat.  The combination of shitake and Portobello mushrooms in the chicken sauce was inspired but I did add a lot more red pepper than the 1 tsp called for in the recipe.  Even so, the sauce was hardly “arrabiata”–albeit mushroomy and satisfying.  The roasted potatoes and broiled broccolini scarcely justified a recipe but did taste good.

Several other recipes await cooler weather, most notably the parsnip/paprika fries and the paella with pepper bacon. 


Blogging for Books: The Banh Mi Handbook

July 22, 2014

The Banh Mi Handbook, by Andrea, Quynhgiao Nguyen, demystifies the popular Bietnamese sandwixh.  One of the pleasant surprises of this attractively designed and useful cookbook is how simple it is to create a banh mi.  For one week, while evaluating this cookbook, I made banh mi sandwiches for dinner every night.  Dinner came together in a half hour max, and my family’s tastebuds were never bored.

This was hardly surprising as ‘banh mi’, far from being an esoteric label, simply is Bietnamese for “bread made from wheat”.  A legacy of French colonialism, the banh mi incorporates French imports (baguettes, aioli, pate) with Vietnamese flavors (cilantro, hot peppers, bright crisp vegetables).  As a sandwich it is by definition simple to assemble, and its general nature allows for considerable improvisation.

Nguyen, an acclaimed cookbook writer who is a contributing editor at Saveur magazine, constructs her cookbook in a very practical way.  she outlines the basic components of a banh mi, then gives you the tools to delve as deeply into the process as you want.  For instance, you can bake your own banh mi rolls or simply buy inexpensive French bread at the supermarket (it’s supposed to be soft).  You can make homemade aioli or substitute storebought mayo.  You can make your own sausage or buy it at the deli.  The crisp quick pickles are so easy and good there’s no excuse not to make them at home.  A “master bahn mi” recipe provides rules for construction.

I tested three filling recipes, all with excellent results:  the Hanoi grilled chicken, the pork meatballs, and the coconut curry tofu.  All were simple and delicious.  the citrusy red cabbage pickle was so yummy we now keep a jar in the fridge for general use.  Ditto for the sriracha and cilantro/maggi mayonnaise.  I confess I used Fred Meyer French bread and storebought mayo, to no ill effect.

Maggi Seasoning, a flavor enhancer with a powerful umami hit, was a French import that became a mainstay Vietnamese seasoning.  I was not overly eager to use this–It seemed more like an additive to me–but Nguyen offered a gluten free alternative made with Braggs amino acids that proved an excellent substitute.

Normally, I think that specialized one food cookbooks like this are a waste of money, but the Banh Mi Handbook is so helpfully and clearly written and explodes with so many menu ideas that it is well worth the purchase.


warren weinstein website finally up

July 21, 2014

When I opened the newspaper almost three years ago and read that my mother’s friend, Warren Weinstein, a seventy year old economic development consultant in Pakistan, had been captured by Al-Qaeda, I assumed that this would be major news and that the Obama administration would make a major effort to ensure the return of this elderly man, who had worked in this dangerous part of the world for 30 years, supporting US interests.

Instead he languished in obscure captivity.  Most of the news articles I read about him were in the Indian press.  Several Indians had been kidnapped by the same branch of Al-Qaeda, but apparently the Indian government maintained an active interest in their release.  To the Obama administration, Weinsteins capture and suffering clearly represented acceptable collateral damage from their misguided foreign policy.

About six months ago, al-Qaeda released a video showing Weinstein, in a clearly deteriorated condition, pleading for his release.  Still no response from the government or a jaded and apathetic public.  Finally, his family, perhaps galvanized by the prisoner exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, has run out of patience.  they have put up a website and urge US citizens to pressure the government to negotiate for Weinstein’s release.  Is this “negotiating” with terrorists?  Yes, probably.  To live as a world citizen, one has to negotiate, even though that is more difficult than sitting at a computer screen and dropping drones on people a half a world away.

To help, please click on the following website  which provides more information on his case and links for emailing Obama and your senators and representatives.

blogging for books: knitting reimagined, by Nicky Epstein

July 3, 2014

Browsing through knitting books, I could knit everything. When I am actually committing to a project, I subject it to a stricter filter, as considerable money and time is involved. Will I (or my intended recipient) actually wear the knitted garment? Can I master the knitting techniques required or will I end up felting a mangled disaster out of frustration? How does the yarn feel and look? Is it easy to work with?
Using these criteria, out of the 25 patterns in Knitting Reimagined I would actually knit two. Not bad, but whether it justifies buying this book is open to question. Nicky Epstein is a well regarded and innovative knitwear designer who is the author of Knitting on the Edge, among other books. I found most of her designs, while extremely creative, a bit too showy for my tastes: big colorful designs, leaves coming up out of a dress, elaborate cowl necks, and the like. Some people like to wear artwork. Personally, I’d rather regard my body as the artwork and wear simple, graceful clothes to enhance it. Knitting Reimagined “reimagines” commonly knitted items such as sweaters and shawls by doing interesting things with construction, edging, and how stitches are put together. Epstein’s instructions are fairly easy to understand, and each pattern is ranked according to difficulty and time required. A section entitled “reimagine it” suggests further innovations, such as changes in length or in yarn used. A background in sewing or even pattern drafting would be helpful, as potential difficulty arises not with the knitting per se but how the various knitted parts are put together.
The first pattern I picked was entitled “royal lace coat with hood”, a romantic, fanciful coat made fromaand seven lacy rectangles cleverly stitched together with a removable hood attached. The second was entitled “crisscross weave tank”, another romantic, feminine number knitted with cotton ribbon yarn. This pattern is actually quite simple until you get to the shoulder straps–all six of them, which cross intricately in the back. “Follow the photograph” states Epstein. Well, okay. Although frankly, I like this type of intricate knitting. It’s to me what rock climbing might be for someone else–an activity I do with full concentration, one stitch at a time. It’s kind of a meditation.


Not I

April 18, 2014

I recently read a Not I, by Joachim Fest, a memoir of the author’s ( a well known German journalist and historian) childhood, which spanned the rise of Hitler and World War II. Fest’s parents, most notably his father but his mother as well, did not support the Nazi regime, and at considerable personal risk, did not hide the fact. They never joined the Nazi party. They did not greet neighbors on the street, as they were supposed to, with a “Heil Hitler!”. They read forbidden books and listened to forbidden music. They refused to let their children join Hitler Youth. They retained Jewish friends, counseling them to leave the country (some did, some refused until it was too late), doing favors for them, sheltering them when they were out after curfew, and (at their request) burying their possessions until “after the war”.
The Fests paid a considerable price for their courage. Mr. Fest not only was fired from his job in 1933 for failure to join the Nazi party, he was forbidden to take any paid employment, throwing their formerly well off family into, if not poverty, a drastically lower scale of living. The family was shunned by neighbors and their house repeatedly searched by the SS. Joachim was expelled from public school for drawing a caricature of Hitler on his desk. (he was then sent to boarding school) After the actual outbreak of war many of their family members were killed by the Russians, and the women raped and tortured, including a relative disabled by polio. Their home was reduced to rubble from bombing and all their possessions destroyed. Joachim was forcibly drafted (at the age of 16) in the last days of the war and spent 2 years in an American POW camp. His father was imprisoned, under much worse conditions, in a Russian POW camp.
Yet, of course, all this suffering pales in the face of the Holocaust. And all these acts of resistance, no matter how admirable, remained essentially personal at a time when the only effective action was massive, probably violent,political action. Fest’s father realized this, and both he and his wife, though they survived the war,did not survive their guilt, and died broken people. As the book states: “I asked him when he had learned for the first time of mass crimes in the east….my father stared silently into space for awhile…”There were rumors, and a BBC broadcast. Alarmed by these hints I spent almost three months at the beginning of 1943 looking for irrefutable evidence. Then I was sure: they were murdering as if possessed….I didn’t want to talk about it then and I don’t want to talk about it now. It reminds me there was absolutely nothing I could do with my knowledge. Not even talk about it. In the face of a whole battalion of hangmen it is better to remain silent!”
I read this, as a Jew, and think, yes, there is something he could have done. He could have talked. He could have fought. He could have stormed the concentration camps. This of course would have required massive support, and Fest, the father of five young children, was operating in an environment where most of his neighbors would have readily turned him into the SS for listening to the wrong music. How critical a mass of people do you need before an act of martyrdom becomes an act of revolution? I realize I can’t honestly say.
I realize that in the face of all kinds of unspeakable horrors that have go on all the time–Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia–in the face of the (admittedly lesser, but still inexcusable) crimes of our government, such as Guantanamo, I also tend to fall back on living with personal integrity and raising my children to do the same. I also think of the quote I’ve had on my bulletin boards since the Vietnam war, from Phil Ochs: “Ah, in such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty”. The Fests, living in a horribly ugly time, took refuge in beauty–music, literature, the fruit from their trees. They believed that if they toughed out these awful times as decent human beings, the Nazis would burn themselves out. They believed that a country that produced Bach and Beethoven would not be reduced to barbarism. And once they realized, to their horror, that they’d been mistaken , they felt impotent to do anything about it.
In the face of considerably less repression, I feel that the vast majority of Americans–and most especially those that should know better–suffer from a similar impotent malaise.
Joachim Fest admits that while the war broke his parents, for him it was, ultimately, his formative years. Traumatic as they were, he was a child for most of them. He was poor but never starving, he had a loving family, he went to school, played games, took piano lessons. He was shielded from the worst of it until he was almost an adult.
In the years since WWII the Nazis have deservedly become the representation of the worst evil man is capable of. Contemplation of that evil has spawned such studies as the famous “buzzer” one where people, subjected to various stresses, are ordered to deliver electric shocks to other participants in the experiment. A disturbing number of people, of course, do press the buzzer. I’ve always been able to tell myself comfortably–and I really do say this with assurance–that no matter the pressure, I would never press the buzzer. I am not a buzzer presser.
What makes Not I so disturbing is that the Fests were not buzzer pressers either. But that, in the context of Nazi Germany, wasn’t nearly enough.

warren weinstein still alive; pleas for help with release

December 27, 2013

If you click on the following link:  you will see and hear a heartbreaking video from Warren Weinstein pleading that American public place pressure on the Obama administration for his release.

Weinstein, now 72 years old and suffering from a heart condition, was captured over two years ago by Al Qaeda in Pakistan.  He had been scheduled to leave Pakistan, where he had been working for the US government, in the next few days. His capture made minor headlines and then fell from the news.  Mr. Weinstein and his family are long time friends of my mother’s and in the year following his capture I publicized any news updates about him that I could find, but they were few and far between and mostly in the Indian press.  While theoretically the Obama administration was negotiating for his release, I could find no evidence to indicate this.  The only government that seemed to remember his existence, was again, India, who has seen quite a few of its citizens captured by the same branch of Al Qaeda.  Over the past year, I have not posted much about Warren Weinstein because I’ve had nothing to say.  Now at least there is proof that he is alive.

   We may not know the full details of Weinstein’s work or the details of his capture.  Obviously any video emanating from a prisoner is generated under duress and its contents are suspect.  None of this matters, really.  Weinstein was working for the US government.  He willingly put himself in a dangerous position for work that he believed in, for work supported, presumably, by the Obama administration.  His friends, family, and co-workers know him to be a kind, sweet, intelligent man.  But now, in his time of need, the Obama administration obviously finds him inconvenient.  They prefer to pretend he does not exist.

Please do not allow Warren Weinstein to be forgotten!  Please use the power of social media to get the word out about his plight and pressure Obama to negotiate for his release.  


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