BIG POT COOKING RULES AGAIN!

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[One year ago, on December 5, 2013, I made a big pot of minestrone and blogged all the whys and hows behind this warming, labor-saving concoction. Now that icy winds are biting again, the gorgeous red leaves of autumn have fallen from the trees, we’ve begun sitting around the (gas) fire of an evening, and I’m still as lazy as last year, if not more so — why not reblog it? Why not indeed?]

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IN PRAISE OF BIG POT COOKING

I’ve never really liked to cook, although I used to pretend when I was younger. I didn’t want to humiliate my children by being the only mother who hadn’t contributed anything to the PTA cookbook. There was also all that social life involving other couples coming over for dinner. Which — it goes without saying — the hostess (i.e., me) had to have made.

Now there are no more PTAs in my life, and we socialize with surviving other couples by going out to restaurants so they don’t have to have us over for dinner in return. But whenever I do find myself in the kitchen, I rely heavily on big pot cooking.That means everything goes into one big pot, and then comes out of the same pot all ready to be eaten.

There are numerous advantages to this simplification of culinary life.

1. If you do have company over, you can be in the living room with the company until it’s time to eat. Supper’s all ready and kept warm in the pot. No more perspiring over a hot stove while politely rejecting insincere offers of assistance; no more hearing tantalizing bits of conversation that drift in from the other room but you can’t quite make them out; no more feeling like the hired help.

2. If the meal is just for you and your beloved, what’s in the pot is definitely going to last until tomorrow and probably the next day, too. Think of it: no cooking for two more days! You might even get a fourth day out of it, but I advise freezing that last bit until you’ve both forgotten about it. Then when you finally discover it, defrost it and heat it up, it will taste just like new. Better than new! (“This is great! Why didn’t we eat it earlier?”)

3. Washing up is a cinch. For the first two or three days, cram the whole pot back in the fridge after supper, so you only have a plate, glass and fork or spoon to deal with. When you finally do have to wash the pot, remember it’s just one pot! Also remember what a mess you used to make when you tried to master the art of French cooking with Julia Child. And be grateful.

A recipe? What a coincidence you should ask! Here’s what’s bubbling away on my stove at this very moment as I type! I had to make it, so I could photograph it, so you could see it. And want it. And make it for yourself.

MAJOR MINESTRONE

(Adapted from Mark Bittman, “How to Cook Everything.” His is good. Mine is better. I’ll put money on it.)

First you will need:

A POT

A 5 TO 8 QUART POT

and

A SOUP LADLE

A SOUP LADLE

You will also need:

  • A chopping block, sharp knife and can opener
  • 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large chopped yellow onion
  • as much chopped garlic as you like (I like a lot)
  • 6 or more cups of your choice of chopped vegetables from the store, plus whatever is in the house. I use some, but not all, of the following: peeled potatoes (not yams!), carrots, zucchini, yellow summer squash, string beans, pea pods, red pepper, sometimes celery, sometimes grape or cherry tomatoes, sometimes cauliflower or broccoli florets, sometimes turnip, sometimes parsnip
  • frozen peas, at least a cup
  • handful of chopped parsley, kale, baby spinach, swiss chard, or even baby lettuce
  • 8 cups of vegetable broth, no-chicken broth, chicken broth — or a combination of any of the above plus enough water to get to the minimum 8 cups. (As you cook, you will probably want to add more fluid, so keep extra broth, tomato juice or vegetable juice on hand.)
  • 1 15-ounce can of well rinsed no-salt beans (pinto, white, black, or great Northern), but not garbanzos or kidney beans unless you really love them
  • 1 15-ounce can of fire-roasted tomatoes
  • handful of brown rice if you have any (it’s optional)
  • handful of any kind of pasta, preferably gluten-free (If spaghetti, linguine, or fettucine, break into pieces)
  • shaved or grated Parmesan or combination of Italian cheeses

As you can see, this soup recipe is extremely fluid — no pun intended. In other words, you can put in just about anything but the kitchen sink or the Vitamix:

Everything but kitchen sink and Vitamix

EVERYTHING BUT KITCHEN SINK AND VITAMIX.

The only real work is cutting up the vegetables.

Veggies cut up and ready to go...

VEGGIES CUT UP AND READY TO GO.

Now we’re all set:

  • Heat olive oil in pot till it starts to smoke
  • Turn down heat and add chopped onion and garlic
  • Saute till onion is soft, then add all the rest of the chopped veggies
  • Cook for a couple of minutes, stirring.
  • Add salt and pepper, the rinsed beans, the canned tomatoes and about 6 cups of the broth and/or water
  • Throw in rice (if you’re using it), pasta, and the chopped greens.

It should look like this:

Nothing more to do but wait...

NOTHING MORE TO DO BUT WAIT…

Partially cover, let cook on low heat for about two hours, adding more liquid as needed. If you use up all your broth/water, even adding plain water is okay.

Does it now look like this?

Does yours look like this?

ALMOST DONE!

Time to:

  • Set the table
  • Adjust the seasonings
  • Ladle into soup plates
  • Dribble olive oil over the surface of each plate
  • Add generous helping of shaved cheese
  • Eat!
BON APPETIT!

BON APPETIT!

P.S. Vegan if you omit the chicken broth and cheese. I don’t.

P.P.S. Fresh fruit and a square of 70% chocolate for dessert. On a napkin!

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Afterwards: One spoon, one plate, one glass in the sink. [Per person. ]

Told you so.

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A LESSON AT LUNCHTIME FROM JAVIER

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 JAVIER.  PERSONABLE. MODEST. GOOD FOR WHATEVER AILS YOU.

JAVIER. 

After emerging from stressful and expensive taxis  in New York, Bill and I sometimes calm ourselves at the Heartland Brewery, situated on the Eighth Avenue side of the Port Authority.  [This, of course, is only if the taxis have taken us to the Port Authority, terminal for buses bumping southbound into the belly of New Jersey.  Taxi trips to Penn Station, whence New Jersey trains  flow (or lurch), are openers for quite another kind of post. Contain yourself.]

The Heartland Brewery, darkly panelled to produce an interior of almost stygian gloom, is not quite empty at about two-thirty in the afternoon, but nearly.  It’s an eatery right out of what I recall as the Midwest. (“Heartland,” get it?)  I only passed through the Midwest once, in 1952, when my father drove cross-country in his brand new ’52 Pontiac, loaded with my mother, me and quite a lot of luggage that didn’t have wheels because no luggage had wheels yet. The purpose of his trip was to find a lifetime of happiness for us all under the California sun,  and never mind what kind of food they served along the way. But Heartland certainly does bring back memories of those once-in-a-lifetime mid-America meals in all their caloric glory. Whenever we sit down and open the menu, I’m surprised not to find chicken-fried steak still on offer.

The great thing for us about Heartland, though, is its flexibility.  It is willing to depart from its printed offerings if the kitchen’s not too busy — which apparently it rarely is, at least by the time we get there.  So Bill can have a Swiss cheese sandwich on thickly cut rye toast, with mustard and tomato inside, a heap of crisp french fries alongside, and a cup of ketchup all his own, plus a bonus of two excellent dill pickle spears. Not only is this not on the menu. Its constituent parts are almost all things not usually found in our longevity-seeking, gluten-free, lactose-free (except for goat cheese), deep-fat-fried-free home. But after our taxi traumas, treats are in order — on the understanding that  leftovers don’t get on the bus with us. What leftovers? There never are any.

The first time we were there, Bill had to describe this “novelty” lunch in detail to the waiter. Thereafter, the waiter remembered. How could he not?  A Heartland customer who, peculiarly, wanted something not on the menu? Of course, we had to remember the waiter, too.  Otherwise — with another waiter — it might always be the same story: “Why can’t I? Javier always manages to get it!”

[Just so you know — in case you too want the Swiss on rye — Javier is on the 11 to 4 “lunchtime” shift.  Although I would recommend leaving the sandwich to Bill and having what I had last time: the one non-mid-America thing on the menu. It’s a sashimi-grade tuna burger, done medium rare, served bunless with ginger slaw on top, wasabi sauce in a cup, and a side of spinach sautéed in olive oil and garlic instead of the standard fries. Really good.]

The point of all this, however, is not to guide your eating choices but to guide you to Javier.  Just a few questions and a wealth of  information pours out of this man. One wonders how he holds it in when Heartland does get busy. The youngest in a family of Cuban emigres settled in Miami, and the only one of the children born in the United States, he is perfectly bilingual. He speaks his fluent English mainly at work though, since he lives in a mainly Hispanic community in Weehawken.  He also visits Cuba regularly to see relatives left behind, and is entirely comfortable there, too.  Cuban medicine, he declares, is the best in the world, and available without cost to everyone.  Cuba has universal literacy, too.  Javier advises a visit soon (if it can be engineered minus relatives in Cuba) because — he further opines — when Castro goes, American money will move in and ruin it.

But setting aside his travel advice, the really fascinating thing about Javier is his extracurricular life.  He coaches speaking!

“You mean you teach Spanish on the side?  I ask.

No, he doesn’t mean that.  He means “speaking” as in “public speaking.”  Javier is active — a co-chairperson, I think — in his local Toastmasters organization.  The local meets every Thursday, at which time aspiring public speakers stand up and deliver.  Javier coaches the newbies, gets them ready for the mike.

“You must make a pretty good speech yourself,” I say, “if you can coach.”

“Oh, yes,” he exclaims.  “People like me.  I’m personable.”

“And modest,” I add.

“That too,” he agrees.  “You see how easy it is for me to talk to everyone here?”

“We do, we do,” we assure him.

“Of course,” Javier continues, probably missing another bus to Weehawken thanks to our charisma,  “it’s much easier to talk to somebody one on one, the way we’re doing.  Speaking to a group is different.  That’s scary.”

“Even for you?” (I do like to lead people on.)

“Are you kidding?” exclaims Javier.  “I’m petrified every time! You know public speaking is one of the three things people are most afraid of?”

“What are the other two?” asks Bill, who’s pretty much polished off the fries by now and has freed up his mouth for talk.

“Spiders is one of them.”

“And the third?”

“Anything you want to name.”  (Which is a pretty good answer, when you think of it.)

“Like cancer?”  [Trust a medical man, even one retired from practice, to come up with the big C.]

Javier shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “It can’t be a disease or death. Anything else you want to name, though.”

What does he mean, “it can’t be?”  If I want to be afraid of cancer, why can’t cancer be up there with spiders for me?

But I didn’t speak out, so Javier didn’t explain. Instead, he asked:  “Do you want to know what I tell my students when they say they’re too scared to get up there and do it?”

Yes, we both wanted to know.

Javier (with gravity): “Public Speaking doesn’t get easier. It just becomes more possible.”

A light bulb went off in my head.  (Forgive the cartoon visual; it had been a long day and, as you already know, New York taxis are exhausting.)  “That would work for writing, too,” I said.  “Wouldn’t it? I’m always so afraid of the next blank page.”

“She tries to write,” Bill explained.

“It works for everything,” declared Javier.  “Everything in life you’re afraid of doing. Speaking, writing, flying, roller blading.  ‘Whatever It Is doesn’t get easier. It just becomes more possible.'”

Second light bulb:  Blog post!

“Javier, may I take your picture with my i-Phone?”

The next morning there was, understandably, a minor editorial change.  My blog, my prerogative.

 “Writing doesn’t get easier as you write. It just becomes more possible.”

 Gnomic perhaps. But worth the price of two Heartland lunches, don’t you think?  I might even get a tweet out of it.

Thank you so much, Javier.

A TRIP BACK IN TIME: PART III

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Spanish saints of long ago.

[In the summer of 1990, I left the United States for the first time in forty years on an inexpensive two-week tour for older travelers sponsored by the University of New Hampshire. “Inexpensive” was key for me — which explains why the destination was Salamanca, Spain, the hotel had only one star, the food was unhealthy and unexciting, the program had twenty-eight participants (too many) and I agreed to share a room with a stranger. It wasn’t all a disappointment though. R., my luck-of-the-draw roommate, turned out to be terrific. And during that first trip I learned what I liked when traveling and what I didn’t.]

Among my discoveries was that one of the joys of travel can be eating.  This insight did not come from the breakfasts and dinners at the Gran Via included in the program price, which sustained (perhaps over-sustained) life but could hardly be described as “joys.”  However, in our second week of Salamanca togetherness, R. and I broke step with the others for lunch at a “real” restaurant in a part of the city not considered “Old.” There we found that food as we know it did indeed exist in Spain, together with spotless tablecloths, cloth napkins, crystal wine glasses, leather bound menus and a young waitress clad in sleeveless pastel linen eager to practice her charmingly shy but correct English on us  — the daughter of the proprietor, home for the summer from college in the states.  The bill, by our standards, was high. But worth every penny.

After we had paid it, carefully doling out equal numbers of pesos from each of our wallets, came the interesting question of who was to keep the “factura.”  I want to say that like small schoolgirls playing hooky from the tour, we played one potato, two potato or eeny miney moe for it.  But I seem to recall that in fact R. ceded it to me because of the two of us I was the virgin traveler.  Here it is, all fancy-framed and still hanging in my kitchen:

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Souvenir of my first European restaurant meal in forty years.

I see we had wine, salad, perfectly cooked salmon and black coffee. The bread on the bill came, and was charged for, without our ordering it, but neither of us was then savvy enough to send it back when it appeared, not knowing we would have to pay.  Oh well.

Our second hooky experience was more adventurous.  We cut out for a whole day — missing, I think, an educational visit to a convent or two — not specifically for a restaurant meal, but to see the Prado in Madrid. (How could anyone come to Spain for twelve days and not see the Prado?) But it goes without saying  we weren’t going back to Salamanca after the museum without first experiencing gastronomical Madrid.

It was a round trip by train, tickets acquired at the train station by means of R.’s then relatively primitive Spanish.  (She’s far more fluent today.) A woman who taught first grade in a New York City public school wanted to come with us.  Here we are after two or three hours of wandering from Velasquez rooms to Goya rooms to the museum bathrooms. Some people take photographs in museums despite pictograms everywhere showing cameras with big X’s on them, but I was good and didn’t.  So all you get of this wonderful museum, through the kind ministrations of a passerby, is the three of us outside, beneath Velasquez himself:

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NYC public school teacher (left), R. (center), me (right) and Velasquez (on high).

Afterwards, we had a short stroll through a park nearby:

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Madrid. Near the Prado.

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Madrid park.

And then — a Madrid meal!  Bookish ladies, we took a taxi to what  the Frommer guidebook identified as Hemingway’s favorite restaurant and ordered, with reckless disregard for gastrointestinal consequences, what the elderly waiter, who spoke some English, identified as Hemingway’s favorite dinner.  Was he really old enough to know? Was this kitchen lore? Piggyback hearsay?  It was roast pork, with many trimmings. (We were all three ethnically Jewish, but had left observance far behind long before crossing the entryway.) It was heavy on the plate, heavy on the fork and later heavy on the stomach, especially in the Spanish heat.  Also very very expensive.  Maybe they got away with charging extra because of the Hemingway benediction? But it was a cozy little place, and fun while we chose and chewed, and I’d probably go again if I were still there, If only to try to find my own favorite dinner on the  menu.

As I acknowledged in the first of these three posts, the Hotel Gran Via — despite its single star (not to be confused with a Michelin star) — did try.  One night, they even provided musical entertainment to enhance their tasteless and boring dinner.  I tend to disfavor non-spontaneous simulations of native culture, trimmed and flavored for tourists.  But then I thought: the musicians were at least working, which might not have been the case for them every day.  And many of our program’s twenty-eight participants seemed to enjoy the hokey performance.  So who was I to carp? I took a picture instead:

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After-dinner song at the Gran Via: employed musicians, gratified patrons.

Another afternoon we were taken to a sort of bullfight, with paella afterwards. I say “sort of” bullfight because this bull had had much experience, which is not supposed to happen, and had been trotted out and put through some paces for our benefit.  Neither matador not bull died at the end, and no one was even injured.  (There were no picadors.)

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Showing tourists how the cape stuff is done.

But the paella was pretty good.  Not quite as good as one Bill and I ate in Barcelona twelve or thirteen years later, but maybe third most memorable meal of the trip, so I’m not complaining.

Another discovery was how much I disliked being endlessly bused from place to place to cover all the “must see” historic artifacts and “must see” cathedrals in the area, with too-long stops on dusty highways for impromptu lectures and photo ops. The lectures could have been delivered on the bus, if it had been equipped with sound equipment.  And souvenir books contain better pictures, taken by professional photographers, than you can ever take yourself.

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“Professor Nena” lecturing about aqueduct with great seriousness during bus stop on way to Segovia cathedral. Lecture was followed by photo op.

I also became depressed by all the unrelieved religious suffering depicted in Spanish art.

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Excruciating suffering in Segovia cathedral. Note the skulls below the crucified Christ.

I preferred Segovia’s window boxes:

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Cheering view from the bus.

Sitting in Segovia’s Plaza Major, where we ate lunch-time sandwiches, was also a pleasant experience: we watched whoever walked by while waiting for more busing. We were going on to Alcazar, summer palace for Ferdinand and Isabella.

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Alcazar: the royal summer palace. It’s above the plain, so presumably somewhat cooler than below. But it wasn’t really cool inside, believe me, despite the thick stone walls. And we weren’t wearing layers of fifteenth-century royal trappings!

What I really wanted to see was how life was being lived in 1990 by people still alive. Which is probably why I took this picture on our next day’s busing to the province’s largest city:

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You can see where my mind was at.

But by the time we got through the Sculpture museum in Vallodolid, and hurried past the Palacio de Justicia (which would have been interesting to me, but no dice), it began to rain.  So this is all I can show you of Vallodolid cathedral.  Does it look much different than other cathedrals of the period?  I am not the one to ask.

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Vallodolid cathedral in the rain.

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Vallodolid’s Plaza Major. Same (unanticipated) rain as above. We didn’t have umbrellas.

Here’s a happy picture.  On the next day’s bus trip, to Avila, our pit stop for toilet needs was (oh joy!) an up-to-date modern bathroom.  You can see that R., like me, thought it a welcome event.  At last!

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What a great john!

Our destination that day was the monastery of St. Thomas at Avila:

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Inside the cloisters of the monastery of St. Thomas at Avila.

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Leaving the St. Thomas monastery.

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Edible souvenirs of Avila’s Santa Teresa. I didn’t buy any.

When we reached the Avila cathedral, I was cathedral-ed out.  But I couldn’t resist these three near the door:

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Detail: Avila Cathedral.

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A photo op of something outside Avila. I photographed the photographers. Oh, there is R. in the purple t-shirt, tirelessly taking pictures. I wonder if she still has them, and if so, whether she ever looks at them.

Our last bus trip was to:

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Graffiti even here, in Spain. How did they manage to spray paint so high?

First stop: the Hostal de San Marcos, Leon. This is the most luxurious of all the stops for religious pilgrims. We weren’t supposed to photograph the interior, but this time I was not a well-behaved tourist:

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Illicit shot of interior of Hostal de San Marcos, Leon.

And then it was back to Salamanca for our farewell dinner at the Gran Via.  They tried to make it festive.  We actually had fresh oranges for dessert.  Here is Pedro — yes, I finally found his picture! — peeling an orange decoratively:

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Pedro — waiter, maitre d’, général factotum. He did his best. We tipped him generously. I’m glad I found his picture after all.

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But of all the photographs of this first trip [and I’ve spared you more than half of them], the ones I still like best — together with the two from behind the village of La Alberca in the last post — are these, taken in front of Avila cathedral.  I couldn’t decide which I preferred, so I enlarged and framed them both. They hang over the upright piano in our small dining room where I can look at them every evening while we have supper.  The children so intent on their game and oblivious to the foreign lady with the little camera are now adults in their thirties.  But in my awkward pictures they remain forever at play with a ball, caught in a moment before they grow up and raise their eyes to the saints above them.

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Avila cathedral, 1990.

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Avila Cathedral, 1990.

Well, what’s past is past. Time to put the album away and get going with making dinner.

HILARY MANTEL: BRINGING HISTORY ALIVE

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I’m not a great fan of historical fiction, if by that we mean novels about fictional characters placed in a historical period for background color and to add pages of authorial research to the plot.  Long, long ago, when I was still consuming books from the children’s section of the public library, I very much liked “The Little Maid” series — A Little Maid of Bunker Hill, A Little Maid of Ticonderoga, and so forth — which gave its young readers digestible snippets of American history served up in stories about  patriotic little maids saving the day for the adults.

But once I had persuaded everyone who mattered (the librarian and my mother) that I was old enough to go upstairs to the grown-up section, the allure of historical fiction began to fade. As my taste gradually matured, most of this sort of reading matter became less believable.  Forever Amber was exciting in my adolescence because the fictional Amber slept around so much, not for its unpersuasive description of the court of King Charles II and seventeenth-century London.  Gone with the Wind was slightly better, but  probably only because many of my generation saw the movie before reading the book. And now that I’m really grown up (so they say), A Georgette Heyer Regency novel, for instance,  featuring a proud but financially challenged fictional heroine in a high-waisted column of white dress and carrying a reticule just doesn’t do it for me, even if her similarly fictional counterpart is a strong-jawed disdainful hero with a title, horses, property beyond belief and secret longings in his heart for the heroine.  I suppose Baroness Emma Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel (1901) or Rafael Sabatini’s wildly romantic Scaramouche (1921) and its many sequels were acceptable page-turners for the times in which they first appeared. And A Tale of Two Cities, a standard in the American public high school curriculum when I was young, is simply Dickens, irrespective of its historical context, stirring words  (“It was the best of times, It was the worst of times….”) and Sydney Carton redeeming himself by being guillotined in the end.  (“It is a far far better thing than I have ever done….”) That said, I have by and large closed the door on bodice-rippers and tales of derring-do.

But when we turn to fiction about identifiable historical persons, who actually did live and love and suffer and die in centuries gone by, we must discriminate between bad, okay and very good — the distinction based largely on the quality of the writing and one’s ability to suspend disbelief.  For a short while in college I was indeed in thrall to Mary Renault’s three novels about Alexander the Great, despite the fact that his bisexuality tilted strongly in favor of his own sex. Her work made his conquest of the known world seem (to me, then) somewhat real.  But it was also frustrating, because Alexander was dead at 33, and all cut up with battle scars by then, and wouldn’t have given me the time of day anyway. Girlish reasons, I admit, but what can you expect from a college girl? (Renault also wrote one about Theseus, but that was less gripping because Theseus was mythological and not a real man.)

There are other such books, of perhaps higher literary merit. Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and Burr are probably the best of the five or six he wrote in this genre.  I do intend to tackle Marguerite Yourcenar’s Hadrian’s Memoirs (in translation) at some indefinite time in the future.  But the absolutely most enjoyable and entirely convincing literary fictions about a historical figure I have read are Hilary Mantel’s relatively recent Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies.  She’s not only an accurate historian and an imaginative novelist but a superb writer.

As you may know, these are novels about Thomas Cromwell, the man behind Henry VIII’s defection from the Catholic Church and his divorce from his first queen, the man who sent supposedly saintly Thomas More to be burned at the stake, divested the church of its property in England for the benefit of the crown and shortly thereafter contrived to have Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, convicted for adultery (and incest with her own brother) so that she could “legally” be sent to the executioner when she was unable to produce a male heir to the throne.

Sound like a bad guy? Don’t rush to judgment.  Mantel shows you early sixteenth-century England exclusively through Cromwell’s eyes.  You are there.  You live his life. She omits no known historical fact in the public record, but benefits enormously from the almost complete absence of any record of Cromwell’s private life by creating one for him.  You not only see with him, but also think with him, feel with him, maneuver with him, sympathize with him.  In a way, you become him — whether you approve of yourself as Cromwell or not. Give Mantel fifty pages, more or less:  if you can get through that much, you will be hers, and perhaps Cromwell’s too, until he dies.

Unfortunately, neither she nor he are there yet. She is still writing the third book of the trilogy.  So until she finishes and this ultimate treat reaches publication — what might there be of equal allure to get me through hot damp July in Princeton?  What a question!  More Hilary Mantel of course.  Before she tackled Cromwell, she labored intermittently over the French Revolution for almost twenty years.  The book, finally published in 1992, is A Place Of Greater Safety, and it tells its panoramic story through the lives of three of the most important figures of the revolutionary period :  Maximilien Robespierre, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Camille Desmoulins. It runs 749 pages in the paperback edition and I’m only at page 220.  But that’s far enough to report that I am half in love with Camille, of whom I had not known before.  (He’s the one who jumped up onto a table in front of a crowd gathered before the Bastille on July 14, 1789 (le quatorze juillet) and delivered a speech so incendiary the population erupted and the monarchy soon toppled.

A Place of Greater Safety, written earlier than the Cromwell books,  is not as smooth a read.  It has a much larger number of significant players to keep straight in your head and a more intricate and shifting scheme of political events to follow, so that if you begin it, I cannot promise easy sailing all the way through. But if your idea of what the French Revolution may have been like while it was happening is based on Hollywood screen sets populated with heavily made-up movie extras in picturesque rags who are going to go home at the end of the working day to a gin and tonic and a nice dinner — then look at how Hilary Mantel sets the scene.

We learn early on (page 26) about bread:

When the Lieutenant of Police goes to his desk — today, last year — the first piece of information he requires concerns the price of a loaf in the bakers’ shops of Paris. If Les Halles is well supplied with flour, then the bakers of the city and the faubourgs will satisfy their customers, and the thousand itinerant bakers will bring their bread in to the markets in the Marais, in Saint Paul, in the Palais-Royal; and in Les Halles itself.

In easy times, a loaf of brown bread costs eight or nine sous. A general laborer, who is paid by the day, can expect to earn twenty sous; a mason might get forty sous, a skilled locksmith or a joiner might get fifty. Items for the budget: rent money, candles, cooking fat, vegetables, wine. Meat is for special occasions. Bread is the main concern.

The supply lines are tight, precise, monitored. What the bakers have left over at the end of the day must be sold off cheap; the destitute do not eat till night falls on the markets.

All goes well; but then when the harvest fails — in 1770, say, or in 1772 or 1774 — an inexorable price rise begins; in the autumn of 1774 a four pound loaf in Paris costs eleven sous, but by the following spring the price is up to fourteen. Wages do not rise. The building workers are always turbulent, so are the weavers, so are the bookbinders and (poor souls) the hatters, but strikes are seldom to procure a wage rise, usually to resist a cut. Not the strike but the bread riot is the most familiar resort of the urban working man, and thus the temperature and rainfall over some distant cornfield connects directly with the tension headaches of the Lieutenant of Police.

Nearly one hundred pages later (on page 122), we see five lines inserted between two paragraphs of the story:

Price inflation 1785-1789:

  • Wheat     66%
  • Rye          71%
  • Meat         67%
  • Firewood 91%

And then (on page 136), we get to January 1789 in Paris. This is no Hollywood movie set.  This is why I like Hilary Mantel so much:

New year. You go out in the streets and you think it’s here: the crash at last, the collapse, the end of the world. It is colder now than any living person can remember. The river is a solid sheet of ice. The first morning, it was a novelty. Children ran and shouted, and dragged their complaining mothers out to see it. “One could skate,” people said. After a week, they began to turn their heads from the sight, keep their children indoors. Under the bridges, by dim and precarious fires, the destitute wait for death. A loaf of bread is fourteen sous, for the New Year.

These people have left their insufficient shelters, their shacks, their caves, abandoned the rock-hard, snow glazed fields where they cannot believe anything will ever grow again. Tying up in a square of sacking a few pieces of bread, perhaps chestnuts: cording a small bundle of firewood: saying no good-byes, taking to the road. They move in droves for safety, sometimes men alone, sometimes families, always keeping with the people from their own district, whose language they speak. At first they sing and tell stories. After two days or so, they walk in silence. The procession that marched now straggles. With luck, one may find a shed or byre for the night. Old women are wakened with difficulty in the morning and are found to have lost their wits. Small children are abandoned in village doorways. Some die; some are found by the charitable, and grow up under other names.

Those who reach Paris with their strength intact begin to look for work. Men are being laid off, they’re told, our own people; there’s nothing doing for outsiders. Because the river is frozen up, goods do not come into the city: no cloth to be dyed, no skins to be tanned, no corn. Ships are impaled on the ice, with grain rotting in their holds.

The vagrants congregate in sheltered spots, not discussing the situation because there is nothing to discuss. At first they hang around the markets in the late afternoons, because at the close of the day’s trading any bread that remains is sold off cheaply or given away; the rough, fierce Paris wives get there first. Later, there is no bread after midday. They are told that the good Duke of Orleans gives away a thousand loaves of bread to people who are penniless like them. But the Paris beggars leave them standing again, sharp-elbowed and callous, willing to give them malicious information and to walk on people who are knocked to the ground. They gather in back courts, in church porches, anywhere that is out of the knife of the wind. The very young and the very old are taken in by the hospitals. Harassed monks and nuns try to bespeak extra linen and a supply of fresh bread, only to find that they must make do with soiled linen and bread that is days old. They say that the Lord’s designs are wonderful, because if the weather warmed up there would be an epidemic. Women weep with dread when they give birth.

Even the rich experience a sense of dislocation. Alms-giving seems not enough; there are frozen corpses on fashionable streets. When people step down from their carriages, they pull their cloaks about their faces, to keep the stinging cold from their cheeks and the miserable sights from their eyes.

Six months later Camille Desmoulins climbed up on that table in the midst of a roiling crowd of such desperate people and precipitated the fall of the Bastille.

I proceed towards page 300.  Anyone care to join me?

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PROACTIVE DEFENSE STRATEGIES FOR YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM

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[This is the last in a series of four pieces arising from my recent, and in some ways still ongoing, experience with an obscure and distressing skin affliction apparently extremely rare in adults. They haven’t been only about skin, though. Is anything ever really just about what it first appears to be?]

I never thought I would ever be filing a Getting Old Blog post under a caption that would turn me off and on to something else in a blink of an eye if someone else had written it.

I am also entirely aware that no one, including me, wants to be told what to do, and that advice about what to do about your health and general well being is particularly unwelcome. Until you’re plagued with unwellness.  For most people, that tends to happen more as you get older. Which may be why the caption above sounds like something you might find in a publication from AARP [American Association of Retired People], all of which go straight into the recyclable paper bin at our house. [They go there because AARP’s advice is always conventional. It’s also nothing Bill and I don’t already either know or don’t find too simplistic.]

So if you’re in what used to be known as “the prime of life,” you should probably move on for now, while you still feel pretty good — knock wood!– and full of pep and vigor. Unless you’re curious. Or tend to take the long view. Or for some other personal reason have begun to ask questions about the effects of a first world market-driven economy on human well being which are not the usual economic, or political, or even environmentally concerned questions.

As for those of you who are no longer young, or youngish, and don’t feel quite as good as you used to, if you ever did feel really good, you may not like what’s coming, either.  It’s very hard to swim against the tide, to begin doing things other people aren’t doing, to investigate aspects of health your doctor may not know about or may shrug off, to risk being thought a crank.  It’s easier and pleasanter to be like the other guys, go with the flow, enjoy doughnuts (or on a more upscale level, pain au chocolat, foie gras, Sacher torte), and avoid striking out on your own.

No, I don’t think we can live forever if we eat only the right things and use non-toxic personal care and cosmetic products, and if we try to rid our indoor environments of most of the sources of the minuscule amounts of contaminants that slowly build up inside us and force our immune systems into an ongoing battle which they will eventually lose as we, and they, age.

What I do think is that each of us can live somewhat better for somewhat longer.  I believe there’s a certain satisfaction in being master of your ship, in having some control over what happens to you — however hard it may seem at first. I believe in fighting the good fight. As the worthy Rabbi Hillel is said to have said:  “If I am not for myself, who is for me?”

He is also said to have said: “If am only for myself, what am I?” And then, “If not now, when?”  That’s why this last, and possibly distasteful, post of the series.  Take what you wish, or don’t wish, from it.  I guess the point is that to a considerable degree your well being can be up to you, whatever the odds and whatever age you are.

A.  Food and drink.

It’s axiomatic that we are what we eat.  But what are we eating?  What is “food?”  Not everything the Food and Drug Administration says is safe to put in your mouth and swallow, and that can make its way through your digestive system (with more or less difficulty) and out the other end (with more or less difficulty) is “food” in the basic sense of the word, however tasty you may find it.  In first world countries, it is much more likely to be an edible non-food substance. Or else what looks like food — but is so impregnated with toxins and (in the case of factory farming) antibiotics as to be worse than useless as nourishment.

I begin with the assumption that “food” — as human beings and all other forms of animal life have consumed it for millennia — is organic material caught, gathered, or grown and then ingested for two purposes:  (a) to provide fuel/energy for life to continue at optimum levels — in other words, to provide sufficient, but not overly sufficient, calories; and also (b) to provide all the macronutrients and micronutrients — the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, anti-oxidants, etcetera — that enable every cell of your body to repair itself and function properly, as it was designed to do.  These, of course, include not only every cell of your heart, lungs,  brain, liver, kidneys, digestive system, bones, joints, skin, blood but also the cells that provide you with immunity from the perils of the biological universe in which we all live.

A great deal of what almost all of us eat today in prosperous first world countries isn’t that, even if we pay more for it under the assumption that more expensive always means “better.”  I can only speak specifically of the United States here, but I am going to assume that matters in Canada and Great Britain are similar, and from what I’ve seen of the new supermarkets in France, that  that allegedly gastronomically elite country is moving in our direction as well.  Except for the very poor, who may not qualify for or avail themselves of food stamps, we all get enough calories — more than enough, if the obesity rates are to be believed.

It’s the other, equally important, element in food as our great-grandparents knew it that is now in danger of vanishing from our food supply.  Our advertising and packaging skills are magnificent. Our ability to keep manufactured food from spoiling practically forever is extraordinary.  [What is the shelf life of a Twinkie or a Cheez Doodle?  And why do you suppose that is?]  Our laboratory knowledge of how to enhance taste appeal to the destruction of nutritional value is put to fullest use, so that you will eat more and buy more.  We know how to get the most profit out of livestock through factory farming that is both cruel to the animal  or bird or fish and detrimental to the health of the consumer. We know how to protect crops from every kind of infestation by saturating the earth they grow in with toxic pesticides that go into the root system and thereby also saturate the developing cells of the very foodstuffs they are designed to “protect,” so that you can’t “wash it off” no matter how hard you scrub.  [And how do you scrub a strawberry or a blueberry, anyway?]

These areas of discourse are beyond the scope of any blog post. Let me say only that I have never been, and still am not, a saint here.  Until about thirteen years ago, my principal concern with the food I ate was its calorie count coupled with a lingering awareness that one should get enough “vitamins” (available through a supplemental tablet, I thought) and “protein,” which I assumed was available only from animal sources, defined loosely to include eggs, milk products and cheese.  As I grew older, however, and felt lousier, I began to read more about what I was eating and what I perhaps should have been eating.  Then I met Bill, a vegan at the time.  (Now more of a modified and knowledgeable vegetarian with lapses. We’ve changed each other.)  So by the time I encountered the virus that just laid me low for over three weeks, I was pretty far along in knowing what was going into my mouth and making reasonably wise choices about it — as far along as I thought I could get without being a self-sufficient organic farmer.  And without being entirely ascetic.   I already wanted the most nutritional bang for my buck, even if it cost more.  And I already wanted the least amount of toxins and chemical additives (with known or unknown harmful qualities) in my food.

These are now my assumptions:

1.  I stick with the outside aisles of big modern supermarkets, where the produce, meat, fish, dairy are.  I avoid almost all of the middle, a fairyland of processing and packaging.

2.  Organic is better than non-organic, because you can’t wash off the toxic pesticides.  Yes, it costs more. But then I think of all the money I’m not spending on the stuff I’m now not buying.

3.  Less animal-sourced “protein” is better than more, but if I’m going to have it once in a while, I make sure the eggs come from organically pasture-raised chickens and that the beef comes from grass-fed cows (even if it is harder to chew) and is also hormone free.

4. If I must, once in a while, buy something edible that has been processed and packaged, I choose glass containers over cans because almost all can linings made in the United States contain a coating of epoxy resin made from BPA (bisphenol A), which disrupts the endocrine system as well as helping preserve the contents of the can.

I am also aware, in an almost entirely unscientific way, that in general: (a) raw is more healthful than cooked; (b) microwave heat changes the molecular structure of food and thereby presumably destroys all its nutritive value other than its calories;  and (c) no-stick pans, however easy to clean, are bad for you because something harmful in the no-stick surface gets into the food you prepare on it.  I should also now add awareness that: (d) no matter how carefully I tread through the quagmire of American food production, my aging digestive system will no longer fully benefit from what I ingest and requires careful supplementation from trusted sources. (Not the drugstore.)

Of course, there’s more.  There’s always more.  So perhaps I hadn’t been quite ascetic enough when I encountered the triumphant virus four weeks ago. I have since begun to monitor what we consume much more carefully. We gave away the microwave two years ago, but  since the arrival and eventual departure of the general viral exanthem with which I’ve been contending while I was away from the blog, I’ve also rid the kitchen of the two no-stick pans remaining, and augmented the supplements I take with S-acetyl glutathione, a powerful antioxidant now newly formulated in nutritionally available form.

Given my up-front acknowledgement that nobody really welcomes advice about how to eat from anyone else, I will stop here — but with a reading list.  If anyone wants to explore any of the ideas set forth above and is an absolute novice in this kind of thinking about what to feed yourself, I guess that person should begin with Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.” It’s short and very easy to read.  If Pollan seems too difficult to put in place in your own life, Andrew Weil is a gentler, kinder guide. “8 Weeks to Optimum Health” might be a good one of his books to start with.  A more recent book of his is “Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-being.” I eventually found him too permissive in certain ways, and his recipes not always to my liking.  But I would trust him.

On the subject of protein from animal sources, you might want to check out T. Colin Campbell’s “The China Study” (subtitled, “Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health”) and Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals,” a compelling and extremely well-written book even if you have no concerns whatsoever about the current state of your well being.  For hard-core pursuit of health, there’s Joel Fuhrman’s “Eat to Live.”  Everything he says seems to me to be right; to try to do everything he says is beyond me.  (And we did try, twice!) Fuhrman has subsequently written many other books and “nutritarian” handbooks.  I consider them inspirational rather than directive, but well worth reading.  It’s also worth incorporating into your life as much of what he has to say about health as you can.  Weil and Fuhrman are both M.D.s.  So is William Davis, author of “Wheat Belly,” the somewhat excitable style of which I disliked, but whose book seems essentially reliable and deserving of attention, even if you decide not to act on what you discover in it.  (He’s not alone in condemning what has happened to wheat in the last 100 years and what eventually happens to you when you eat it regularly; other nutritional authorities have reached the same conclusions.)

If weight is also an issue, you may find “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead” both amusing and a good kick in the pants to get going and do something about it. It’s an awkwardly made film by an Australian amateur named Joe Cross about his own successful pursuit of a very great weight loss, supervised by Joel Fuhrman, and the even greater successful weight loss of someone he encountered while in in the United States who was inspired by his example to do likewise.  I am certain no one reading this blog can possibly be as fat as either of those two men, but it’s encouraging to think that if they can do it, anyone can!    Less entertaining but a book I found helpful with weight loss issues even before I embarked on the quest for healthier food thirteen years ago is “The Philosopher’s Diet: How to Lose Weight and Change the World,” by Richard Watson.  It may be out of print, but is probably still available in libraries and on the used book market.  Watson was a professional philosopher, and his slender book embraces more that “mere” weight loss.  I have read it four or five times.  It begins with two quotations, not entirely irrelevant to this post and its three predecessors in the series.

War Came.

Bodies lined the roadside.

Their fat sizzled in the sun.

Lamentation for the Destruction of Ur.  Third Millennium B.C.

And:

Diet … Course of life: way of living or thinking …To regulate oneself.

Oxford English Dictionary

Finally, in case anyone is interested in where reading all this has led me, I suppose I should conclude by saying that my present nutritional guru, to the extent I have one, is Frank Lipman, an M.D. trained in South Africa who has been practicing what he calls integrative and functional medicine in New York at the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center for some time.  He has incorporated into his practice of the traditional allopathic medicine taught in Western medical schools many of the insights and practices of other treatment modalities and therapies, including herbal medicine, Eastern medicine, nutritional counseling, biofeedback, meditation, yoga and acupuncture.  He has also become the go-to doctor for certain celebrities, which is in a way too bad, but is also how I discovered him, so I shouldn’t complain.  [He was recommended in her blog “goop” by Gwyneth Paltrow, owner of what is said to be the cleanest intestinal tract in show business — a blog I used to follow for fun before she became such a brand, and an expensive one, at that.]  Celebrities aside, Lipman offers what seems to me sane, balanced nutritional and other counsel to address sub-optimal functioning; he can help with becoming less unwell and on the path to feeling better.

I have never met him, and don’t expect to.  He has certainly never heard of me. But if you’re interested, you can find him online where I did:  at www.drfranklipman.com  [In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that I don’t blindly buy many of the products offered there, but I do buy, and use, a few of them.]  Most of the useful stuff is in his Blog, which can be explored at leisure from the website. You can also sign up for his newsletter, which will bring the most recent blog pieces into your email inbox once a week.

Well, that should keep you busy, if you haven’t already gone away and left me until I go back to pieces of memoir and photos of cats.  Onward!

B.  Personal care products, makeup and cleaning products.

When I was growing up, there was an advertising slogan for something or other used in the home that proclaimed:  “Better Living Through Chemistry!”  Yes, indeed!  It has certainly happened!  Our laundry is now whiter and brighter and can smell like a summer breeze.  [Haven’t you seen all those smiling ladies in television commercials rapturously embracing what emerges from their washers and dryers after little Tommy has got mud and jam and chocolate syrup all over everything?]   Our non-washable clothes come back from the dry-cleaner safe from moth and encased in plastic that keeps them that way. Our dishes sparkle, our windowpanes are absolutely transparent, our homes are dust-and-bacteria-free and gleaming.  On a more personal note, our hair shines, but remains manageable, our teeth are whiter than white.  Underarm deodorants and antiperspirants prevent our body odors, if any, from offending others — and even deter us from perspiring and ruining our cashmere sweaters!   Our faces, if we choose, can be a canvas for a whole palette of treatment and cosmetic products to keep us young looking, and visually competitive, and attractive to the other sex. (Some of these are unbelievably expensive, but others can be acquired at your neighborhood drugstore.) I understand men too have a cornucopia of available shaving and after-shave products from which to choose the perfect solution to whatever problems they seek to eradicate along with their daily stubble.  And then there’s hair color, and straightening (aka “relaxing”), and “highlighting.” With regard to these, only the price and the tipping are non-toxic, except perhaps to your credit card.

All this, and more, has come at a price in personal harm which until now I didn’t really think about much. Thanks to such better living through chemistry, plus air-conditioning behind closed windows in summer, which are also closed in winter to keep the heat in — the domestic interiors in which we live are today apparently far more toxic than even an urban outdoors polluted by vehicle and industrial exhaust. We inhale these toxins from our indoor air; we absorb them from our clothes and furniture through our skins; we apply them directly to ourselves in the personal care products we use.  And our seemingly indomitable immune systems take them all on, and try to subdue them as best they can, so that we don’t get as sick as we might.

But all these things are “safe,” you may protest, or else they couldn’t be sold!  Federal agencies judge safety by the application.  The minuscule amount of toxicity in one spritz of Pledge is “safe.”  But go on spritzing, and sudsing, and purifying, and deodorizing — and it gradually builds up in you, and builds up, and builds up; after a while the amount you harbor inside of you isn’t quite so minuscule or safe anymore.  General malaise, poor digestion, dry and itchy skin, undue fatigue, unexplained aches and pains too minor for medical help but not quite minor enough to ignore?  And then something more identifiable, about which a dermatologist or other medical specialist may remark when asked:  “It happens.”

In a very few ways, Bill and I had begun to address this huge problem earlier.  I have never had wall-to-wall-carpeting because I like wood floors — which is fortunate, because no matter how clean you are, tacked-down wall-to-wall carpet harbors mold and mites and things that are very bad for your lungs.  Thanks to Bill, who does have lung issues, we had already installed a large air purifier in the bedroom and another downstairs.  We also have a water purifier installed in the kitchen for the water we drink and cook with.  But the products with which we, and our cleaning ladies, filled the bathrooms and the under-the-sink kitchen cabinet and the laundry room and the utility closet?  We have a big job ahead of us there!  Not to mention my personal bathroom clutter of Bobbi Brown and Laura Mercier and Lancome and Chanel cosmetics, makeup removers, plus Crest toothpaste, and the shampoo and conditioners from France promoted and sold by the hairdresser.

It will involve study, elimination, and trial and error.  I’ve already replaced the shampoo, got rid of the conditioner, thrown out all aerosol sprays, eliminated any cleaning product or personal care item with “natural fragrance” (unless from an entirely natural source like lemon oil or lavender), chucked the Tide, the Clorox, the fabric softener, the handy laundry “pods” I wrote so happily about in a post a few months back.  No more plastic bags in the closet, entrapping the PERC (tetracholorethylene) with which my dry-cleaned clothes were saturated.  No more conventional dry-cleaning at all, because PERC is a known neurotoxin. The way to go seems to be either wet-cleaning and air drying, or else dry cleaning with carbon dioxide.  There are cleaners who have installed the special equipment required for these two processes.  They charge more.  There’s one in Princeton, and I am about to find out how the five oldish sweaters I brought them last week for a trial run will look when I pick them up.  As for everything else, I am in transition.

The two authoritative sources for how to proceed are the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and its sub-division Skin Deep (for cosmetics and personal care items).  If you have the interest and can invest the time, you can find out everything you need to know about safely cleaning yourself, your clothes, your hair and your indoor environment from their websites.  The EWG site is http://www.ewg.org  The Skin Deep one is http://www/ewg/org/skindeep/  If you have young children, you may also be interested in reading about the effects of toxicity on child development (and on the development of children’s brains and neurological systems) by subscribing to the newsletter of the Children’s Environmental Health Center of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, which can be obtained on the Center’s website: http://www.cehcenter.org  You can go a little crazy, as I have.  (But then, I have just been through a crazy-awful time, and if somewhat detoxifying the place where I spend most of my life these days will help prevent its recurrence, or help prevent something equally unpleasant, I am hyper-motivated to try.)  Alternatively, you can take it slowly, one piece at a time.  Or you can forget the whole thing, and rest assured that this post is almost over.

I will not give up everything in favor of castile soap, white vinegar, baking soda, washing soda, hydrogen peroxide (for disinfecting) and tea tree oil — the six substances apparently sufficient for cleaning, disinfecting and deodorizing everything in one’s home and laundering one’s clothing. I know I will not give up Keratin treatments twice a year at the hairdresser, because really straight hair has changed my life for the better to a degree you would not believe unless you had spent most of your life, as I did, wildly curly-haired in a straight-hair culture.  I will not entirely give up my indulgence in several costly French fragrances (in eau de parfum or eau de toilette form), although I may not apply them as frequently as I used to. I will not abandon the light application of cosmetics that enhance my face and the look of my eyes, although I will try to find alternatives to what I am currently using on the Skin Deep website.  But I will be moving, product by product, towards less toxic ways of living (irrespective of the loss to the manufacturers of these unnecessary products of my tiny contribution to their financial health). And that’s probably more than enough from me on this subject, although I will be glad to answer any specific question about it raised in the comment section below, to the extent that I can.

Finally, as I step down from the podium, let me add that If this excessively long piece has been in any way helpful, or has made you think about things you take for granted in new ways, then it was worth writing.  And if not? Well, I guess we can’t win ’em all. Now that I’ve stopped scratching, I’ll be back to my usual sort of thing next time.

 

 

 

 

 

SHEILA’S RIDICULOUSLY EASY ROAST CHICKEN

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Workless Dinner for Four

WORK-FREE DINNER FOR FOUR ADULTS

I admit up front that I’m ambivalent about putting this recipe (if you can call it that) out into the greater world.

You may have already surmised that I would be perfectly happy never to step foot in a kitchen again, except perhaps to boil water for a cup of tea (from a tea bag) or a cup of coffee (instant).  Not that I don’t enjoy beautifully prepared food; I just want it not to have to be beautifully prepared by me.

Sheila’s way with chicken has therefore strongly appealed  to this side of me from the moment she told me about it during the year her youngest child and my older one were in first grade together at P.S. 166 Manhattan.  Sheila (not her real name) had no great love for the culinary arts either; after a divorce, she was busy rebuilding her pre-marital career as a literary agent, which took a lot of non-kitchen time.

[Back story:  Sheila and her senior-vice-president-of-a-major-corporation husband had split over the Vietnam War.  He was (predictably) a hawk, whereas she was a dove. How could she continue living with such a man?  She moved out, but had to stay in the neighborhood — so their three children could continue their schooling uninterrupted although their home life was thereafter split between parents:  three and a half days with one, three and a half days with the other.  I’m not sure how that worked out. After one year at P.S. 166, her youngest child joined his two older sisters in an expensive private school paid for by their hawkish father, and I lost track of Sheila.  But not until after I got her roast chicken recipe.]

Okay, let’s return to the chicken.  What’s so good about Sheila’s method, besides how it tastes (if you’re not vegan or vegetarian), is that there’s no basting, no perspiration from sticking your head in a hot oven, and no drying out, either!  If you use a disposable roasting pan  — de rigueur with lazy cooks like me — the washing up will be minimal, too.

So what’s not  to like?  Why am I ambivalent?  I’ll tell you.  Back when Sheila and I were roasting chickens for our respective broods, there was no angst and public outcry about the lives of chickens.  Maybe chickens had it better in those days, before up-to-the-minute “modern” meat and poultry production practices had come into being to squeeze every last bit of profit from every edible thing with a face.  We could gnaw on our drumsticks with impunity.

But nearly two years ago, I read Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer.  It turned me from a confirmed old meat-and-chicken eater into something else.  No, not into Natalie Portman (as if it could), although among the tributes reprinted in the book is one from her:  “Eating Animals changed the way I choose what to eat.  After I read it I gave it to everyone I love.”

It’s not only that after reading Foer’s book the drumstick between my teeth became the leg of a little bird that was once alive and had feelings. It’s that I learned the life of chickens — in America, anyway — is no longer a life any chicken should lead.  From birth until early death, they are crowded together in cages or pens where they can barely stand up, are fed unnatural (and bad for you) fattening agents that produce enormous breasts  — consumers want lots of white meat! — and birds so heavy that if they did have room to stand up, they couldn’t support their own weight.  In Eating Animals, I found out where factory-farmed chickens have to shit (guess!), and about the antibiotics they were fed to keep them alive under such inhumane, unsanitary conditions until slaughter.

[News just in: the FDA has now prohibited the use of antibiotics in food intended for human consumption. About time — in that we may in future become less immune to antibiotics when we need them.  But will that in turn mean more infections and diseases transmitted from what we eat?  Higher prices, because more animals will die before they can be slaughtered and sold? It almost certainly will not mean a change in the factory farming practices that produce contaminated poultry and animals.]

[By the way, “Eating Animals” is not just about chickens. Factory-farmed meat is almost all meat, and more than an ethical problem.  Factory farming makes animals and poultry diseased and deformed, it makes us sick, it pollutes the environment.  It’s a public health concern. Want to know more?  Go read for yourself.  He’s a terrific writer. It’s a revolting book.]

You will therefore understand that for nearly a year after reading this book, it was hard for me to approach the butcher section of my local Whole Foods.  Every time I drew near the case containing those seemingly sanitary shrink-wrapped packages of chicken parts, steaks, roasts, chopped meat, liver, I felt nauseous. Whole chickens and Cornish game hens were the worst:  they still looked like what they had been.  Only the heads, feathers and feet were missing.

But it’s hard to break lifelong (and I mean very long lifelong) habits.  It’s hard to confine yourself to nuts-grains-fruits-vegetables.  Especially if you’re also trying to avoid gluten and stay reasonably svelte and sometimes have a meal with other people.

Eventually, some compromise was necessary. (It’s not a perfect world.)  After nearly a year of ratatouille, and gluten-free pasta with tomato sauce, and vegetable soup, and meatless chile, and salad salad salad in the summer (but never chicken salad), I capitulated somewhat. With help from Whole Foods.

Last week, at every Shop-Rite in New Jersey — as I learned online — you could buy a whole roasting chicken of 2.9 pounds for $3.74.  ($1.29/lb.) I did not go to Shop-Rite. Instead, I went to Whole Foods and bought this 2.9 pound roasting chicken from White Oaks Pastures, Inc. for which I paid $13.02. ($4.49.lb.)

2.9 POUND CHICKEN COSTING $13.02

2.9 POUND CHICKEN COSTING $13.02

You may not be able to see the label clearly from the photo, so I photographed the label again after it was taken off the chicken.

Reassuring label on very expensive chicken

REASSURING LABEL ON VERY EXPENSIVE CHICKEN

Yes, readers, I paid over $9 more than I would have had to pay at Shop-Rite to be assured that my chicken had led a happy life before it came to me. Money well spent:  Now I know my chicken freely roamed in pasture all its life, pecking here and pecking there on its own two legs, never being injected with anything dubious to make it taste better or fresher or cleaner or more chicken-y.  My chicken was never transferred to a fattening-up facility, or a cleaning-the-slime-and-shit-off facility.  It spent its whole life on the same farm.   It was raised without antibiotics or hormones.  It was not physically altered at any time.  It had an “animal centered” life. It was therefore a “Step 5” chicken.

[Don’t give Whole Foods too much credit, though.  They do also sell Step 1-4 level chickens, which are cheaper.  Bottom line is bottom line.]

I do not ask how my chicken was slaughtered. I don’t really want to know.  I hope its end was merciful.  But too much knowledge is not a good thing for an old woman like me who still — out of habit or nostalgia or weakness of will, or despair over what to feed her carnivorous guests — does think about roasting a nice chicken once in a while.

So here we go.  Remember: you don’t have to use a chicken like mine.  Sheila’s method works with all kinds of chickens (if you are able to get past what you just read in this post).  I can also assure you that if yours is a Shop-Rite chicken (or its clone), it will have a bigger breast than mine, and more fat under the skin, and smaller, skinnier thighs and legs.  It may even taste more like what you think of as chicken, because of all the crap it’s been fed.  Mine — the Step 5 chicken — tasted like the chicken I remember from the better part of a hundred years ago, when I was a child.

Be that as it may, on behalf of lazy cooks of chicken everywhere, I thank Sheila, wherever she is these days.  Those of us who can’t quite make it to veganism or vegetarianism are grateful.

1.  Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

2.  Pull all visible and detachable globs of yellow fat off your chicken and discard.

3.  In disposable paper cup, mix 3 Tbs. olive oil, liberal amounts of garlic powder, salt and pepper, at least 1 tsp. paprika and at least 2 tsps. powdered cumin.  Stir with old wooden stick you can throw away. If you have no old wooden stick, you’ll have to use a teaspoon and wash it afterwards.  Result should be thick, dark and fragrant with cumin.

4.  Massage contents of paper cup all over outside of  chicken and also over inside walls of the open cavity.

5.   Throw away cup (and stick) and wash your hands (and spoon, if that’s what you used).

6.  Place  lubricated chicken in roasting pan, breast side down.  Don’t forget: BREAST SIDE DOWN.  Tuck giblets, if you have them, under a leg or wing.

7.  Put chicken in preheated oven, close oven door and go away.

8.  Come back in thirty minutes and turn oven heat down to 325 degrees.  You do not have to open the door or inspect the chicken.

9.  Chicken will be done in one more hour, if you like well-browned chicken, in 3/4 hour if your preferences run to golden.

STILL UPSIDE-DOWN CHICKEN IN ROASTING PAN, READY TO REMOVE TO PLATTER

STILL UPSIDE-DOWN CHICKEN IN ROASTING PAN, READY TO REMOVE TO PLATTER

10.  Transfer chicken to platter or carving board, right side up.  A fork alone may do it, but may not.  Best to take chicken into your own hands, protected by two disposable paper towels or washable potholders.

11.  Add vegetables, rice or potato.  Carve.

EAT!

EAT!

********************

 Tomorrow you can atone with tofu.

IN PRAISE OF BIG POT COOKING

Standard

I’ve never really liked to cook, although I used to pretend when I was younger. I didn’t want to humiliate my children by being the only mother who hadn’t contributed anything to the PTA cookbook. There was also all that social life involving other couples coming over for dinner. Which — it goes without saying — the hostess (i.e., me) had to have made.

Now there are no more PTAs in my life, and we socialize with surviving other couples by going out to restaurants so they don’t have to have us over for dinner in return. But whenever I do find myself in the kitchen, I rely heavily on big pot cooking.

That means everything goes into one big pot, and then comes out of the same pot all ready to be eaten.  There are numerous advantages to this simplification of  culinary life.

1.  If you do have company over, you can be in the living room with the company until it’s time to eat.  Supper’s all ready and kept warm in the pot.  No more perspiring over a hot stove while politely rejecting insincere offers of assistance; no more hearing tantalizing bits of conversation that drift in from the other room but you can’t quite make them out; no more feeling like the hired help.

2.  If the meal is just for you and your beloved, what’s in the pot is definitely going to last until tomorrow and probably the next day, too. Think of it: no cooking for two more days!  You might even get a fourth day out of it, but I advise freezing that last bit until you’ve both forgotten about it. Then when you finally discover it, defrost it and heat it up, it will taste just like new.  Better than new!  (“This is great! Why didn’t we eat it earlier?”)

3.  Washing up is a cinch.  For the first two or three days, cram the whole pot back in the fridge after supper, so you only have a plate, glass and fork or spoon to deal with. When you finally do have to wash the pot, remember it’s just one pot!  Also remember what a mess you used to make when you tried to master the art of French cooking with Julia Child. And be grateful.

4.  Unless you’re making pork stewed in the milk of its mother — as the French sometimes do, only they call it something else — what comes out of the big pot is likely to be healthy.  Okay, somewhat healthy. At least it won’t be deep fat-fried. (It needn’t violate any rules of kashruth either, if that’s a concern.)

A recipe?  What a coincidence you should ask!  Here’s what’s bubbling away on my stove at this very moment as I type! I had to make it, so I could photograph it, so you could see it.  And want it.  And make it for yourself.

 MAJOR MINESTRONE

(Adapted from Mark Bittman, “How to Cook Everything.”  His is good. Mine is better. I’ll put money on it.)

First you will need:

A POT
5 to 8 quart pot

Soup Ladle

You will also need:

  • A chopping block, sharp knife and can opener
  • 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large chopped yellow onion
  • as much chopped garlic as you like (I like a lot)
  • 6 or more cups of your choice of chopped vegetables from the store, plus whatever is in the house. I use some, but not all, of the following: peeled potatoes (not yams!), carrots, zucchini, yellow summer squash, string beans, pea pods, red pepper, sometimes celery, sometimes grape or cherry tomatoes, sometimes cauliflower or broccoli florets, sometimes turnip, sometimes parsnip
  • frozen peas, at least a cup
  • handful of chopped parsley, kale, baby spinach, swiss chard, or even baby lettuce
  • 8 cups of vegetable broth, no-chicken broth, chicken broth — or a combination of any of the above plus enough water to get to the minimum 8 cups.  (As you cook, you will probably want to add more fluid, so keep extra broth, tomato juice or vegetable juice on hand.)
  • 1 15-ounce can of well rinsed no-salt beans (pinto, white, black, or great Northern), but not garbanzos or kidney beans unless you really love them
  • 1 15-ounce can of fire-roasted tomatoes
  • handful of brown rice if you have any (it’s optional)
  • handful of any kind of pasta, preferably gluten-free  (If spaghetti, linguine, or fettucine, break into pieces)
  • shaved or grated Parmesan or combination of Italian cheeses

(As you can see, this soup recipe is extremely fluid — no pun intended.  In other words, you can put in just about anything but the kitchen sink or the Vitamix.)

Everything but kitchen sink and Vitamix

Everything but kitchen sink and Vitamix

The only real work is cutting up the vegetables.

Veggies cut up and ready to go...

Veggies cut up and ready …

Now we’re all set:

  • Heat olive oil in pot till it starts to smoke
  • Turn down heat and add chopped onion and garlic
  • Saute till onion is soft, then add all the rest of the chopped veggies
  • Cook for a couple of minutes, stirring.  Add salt and pepper, the rinsed beans, the canned tomatoes and about 6 cups of the broth and/or water
  • Throw in rice (if you’re using it), pasta, and the chopped greens.

It should look like this:

Nothing more to do but wait...

Nothing more to do but wait…

Partially cover, let cook on low heat for about two hours, adding more liquid as needed.  If you use up all your broth/water, even adding plain water is okay.

Does it now look like this?

Does yours look like this?

Almost done!

Time to:

  • Set the table
  • Adjust the seasonings
  • Ladle into soup plates
  • Dribble olive oil over the surface of each plate
  • Add generous helping of shaved cheese
  • Eat!
BON APPETIT!

BON APPETIT!

P.S.  Vegan if you omit the chicken broth and cheese.   I don’t.

P.P.S. Fresh fruit and a square of 70% chocolate for dessert.  On a napkin!

*****************

Afterwards:  One spoon, one plate, one glass in the sink.  [Per person. ]

Told you so.