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Archive for March, 2012

Locavores for a year

I haven’t read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, bestselling by all accounts, but I did read her non-fiction account of living locavorouslyAnimal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Lifelast month. The book begins with Kingsolver, her husband, and two daughters leaving Tucson, Arizona to rural Appalachia to “begin the adventure of realigning our lives with our food chain”.

Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles.

Alarmed by Arizona’s (and indeed most of the United States’) food related fuel extravagances, Kingsolver and family resolve to take charge of their food’s provenance and “wring most of the petroleum out of our food chain, even if that meant giving up some things” (such as bananas). To emphasize the ecological motivation behind eating locally, the book contains statistics like this one:

If every US citizen ate just one meal (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meat and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week.

While this may well be true, I’d be extremely interested in learning its source. Kingsolver’s arguments are not new, but they are well-composed, and her story is really fascinating and makes me secretly covetous of her abundant farm and its juicy heirloom tomatoes.

It is true that most of us born in the last few decades are estranged from the earth, have little or knowledge of seasonal produce, and expect brussel sprouts, rhubarb, basil and asparagus all year round. We’ve probably never shelled peas, and only seen cauliflowers wrapped in plastic, and we don’t know when to expect the best kale or the juiciest tomatoes. Probably the most useful concept in Kingsolver’s book is that of the vegetannual, “an imaginary plant that bears over the course of one growing season a cornucopia of all the different vegetable products we harvest”.

So goes the year. First leaves: spinach, kale, lettuce,  and chard (here, that’s April and May). Then more mature heads of leaves and flower heads: cabbage, romaine, broccoli and cauliflower (May-June). Then tender young fruit-set: snow peas, baby squash, cucumbers (June), followed by green beans, green peppers, and small tomatoes (July). Then more mature, colorfully ripened fruits: beefsteak tomatoes, eggplants, red and yellow peppers (late July-August). Then the large, hard-shelled fruits with developed seeds inside: cantaloupes, honeydews, watermelons, pumpkins, winter squash (August – September). Last come the root crops, and so ends the produce parade.

Now, in the context of the life history of an annual, that just seems like common sense.

As an Indian living in America, I couldn’t agree with Kingsolver more that my cultural identity is strongly tied to the food I eat, and my food culture.

Food cultures concentrate a population’s collective wisdom about the plants and animals that grow in a place and the complex ways of rendering them tasty.  These are mores of survival, good health, and control of excess. Living without such a culture would seem dangerous.

Food cultures, she writes, “are both aesthetic and functional, keeping the quality and quantity of foods consumed relatively consistent  from one generation to the next”. It is this knowledge about quality and quantity that seem to be lost when we adapt food from foreign cultures. Take the French Paradox, for instance. In The Sweet Life in Paris, David Lebovitz writes that

Americans became obsessed with the French paradox when a report aired on 60 minutes in 1991, which explored the question of why the French eat lots and lots of rich, fatty food but have very low rates of cardiovascular disease. The impact was so profound that red wine sales in the U.S. soared by nearly 50 percent for weeks afterward.

Ignoring the other components of the meal and disregarding the context of a strong food culture that emphasizes tiny portion sizes, disapproves of second helpings, and treats food as a social event, red wine and olive oil (and many other good foods) are isolated and extolled as good for you. Kingsolver addresses the same issue, “How can people have such a grand time eating cheese and fattened goose livers and still stay slim?”. Well, they slendersize their food. Kingsolver laments the lack of a strong food culture in the United States as responsible for both the alienation from food production, and food-related disorders that are so prevalent among young Americans. I am not a food historian and do not claim to be privy to any nation’s food culture (even my own is so vast that I can only claim to be familiar to some of it), but I am aware that foreign food cultures tend to be oversimplified and represented by restaurant staples. Indian food, for example, is probably chicken tikka masala, and garlicky dal. Hardly accurate. So I know that American food can scarcely be summarized in the fries and burger meal. What is American food culture? How does it incorporate native plant and animal species (and no, I am not talking about Monsanto’s corn)? I am also not talking about Lunchables or Lean Cuisine. How did all the rich food traditions brought over by the immigrants many years ago amalgamate to produce a nation’s unique food?

Eating locally can be challenging if you are an immigrant, or if you are non-American living in America. Food cultures are built around locally available produce and when you cross an ocean or two, you might be surrounded by plants and vegetables, exotic though they may be, might not offer easy incorporation into traditional cuisine and methods of cooking. And so, immigrants throng ethnic markets which provide comforting, familiar sights and smells, transported from halfway across the world. We may learn to cook and love dandelion greens and purple asparagus, but we often suffer a hankering for San Marzano tomatoes or murangai keerai (a variety of greens). Eventually, some of us come to a happy medium.

Food cultures depend on cooking as an everyday way of life. And since “cooking is a dying art in our culture” (while Kingsolver refers to American culture, I believe cooking is on the decline elsewhere in the world too), food cultures are threatened by empty kitchens. In my opinion, this may have something to do with the devaluation of homemaking. Traditionally the domain of womenfolk, cooking, and other ‘duties’ have been often relegated exclusively as women’s roles. Unfortunately, that did not only contribute to efficient division of labor and a well-nourished family, but in combination with patriarchy (espoused by men and women alike), led to housekeeping being perceived negatively. While many a parent has instructed their son not to chop cabbages and instead “Be a man”, cooking has become not only unmanly, but also inferior.

Arlie Hochschild writes in  The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home that:

The more women and men do what they do in exchange for money and the more their work in the public realm is valued and honored, the more, by definition, private life is devalued and its boundaries shrink. People generally have the urge to spend more time on what they value most and on what they are most valued for.

Kingsolver talks of “cooking without remuneration” and “slaving over a hot stove”. In order for cooking to be approached with passion and enthusiasm, “approaching mealtimes as a creative opportunity, rather than a chore, is an option. Required participation from spouse and kids is an element of the equation”. Cooking (good food) needs to be redefined as a pleasurable, family activity, a priority – like exercise, and a necessity – like paid work. Children, especially, can be involved in food production, shopping, and preparation. Perhaps then, they won’t be “presumed to hate greens”.

Many of us who aren’t farmers or gardeners still have some element of farm nostalgia in our family past, real or imagined: a secret longing for some connection to a life where a rooster cows in the yard.

I do share this secret longing, not for the rooster, perhaps, but for a real vine-ripened tomato, and not one ripened en route by spraying ethylene. So, when Kingsolver writes of her year eating farm fresh eggs, peppers, mushrooms, beans, and greens, I am consumed by a somewhat amicable brand of jealousy. Especially because it seems all too easy. Kingsolver, of course, has the advantage of a rural upbringing, and her husband’s hundred acres of woodlands and 4,000 square feet of tillable land in Virginia, and previous agricultural experience. And tractors, and overseas vacations. Her experience is hardly that of a typical farmer, not even one who does not sell his produce but rather lives on it. Her problems with pests, weeds, and generally running a farm seem to be trivial (but hard work). In Bird by Bird: Some insructions on writing and lifeauthor Anne Lamott writes:

But it is fantasy to think that successful writers not have these bored, defeated hours, these hours of deep insecurity when one feels as small and jumpy as a water bug.

Writers, artists, computer programmers – we all do. Did Kingsolver never feel defeated, insecure? Ever?

Since most of us don’t have her obvious advantages, or don’t aspire to be full-time farmers, I am certainly interested in learning what urban renters and home owners with limited space could do and grow.

Elsewhere in the book, I am puzzled by Kingsolver’s defense of tobacco farming, especially when she is very vocal about industrial farming. Admittedly a product of a tobacco county, she writes:

Yes, I do know people who’ve died wishing they’d never seen a cigarette. Yes, it’s a plant that causes cancer after a long line of people (postfarmer) have specifically altered and abused it. And yes, it takes chemicals to keep blue mold off the crop. And it sends people to college. It makes house payments, buys shoes, and pays doctor bills.

Monsanto’s corn does that too. Industrial farmers have kids in college too. And while we’re on the subject of money, local, organic food is almost always more expensive than industrial food available in supermarkets. Eating cheaper food can help make house payments too. But I thought that wasn’t the point?

There certainly is “…a perception of organic food as an elite privilege is a considerable obstacle to the farmer growing  food for middle-income customers whose highest food-shopping priority is the lowest price”. Some of the expense can perhaps be controlled by following Michael Pollan’s rather austere food rules: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. By food, Pollan obviously means real food.

Industrial food (and all that comes with it), is not exclusive to the United States. Indian environmental activist, Vandana Shiva, has written heavily on the impact of industrial agriculture  and the importance of biological diversity in India and around the world.

It is important to look at food, plant and animal, not just as a commodity enjoyed only by us human beings, but as something that reminds us of the interconnectedness of all earthlings.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life is my entry to the  What’s in a name 5 challenge – a book with a something you’d find on a calendar in the title.

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Maybe my type

…they don’t realize any human agency is involved, because fonts for them are part of the software ether that appears mysteriously on their computer, manifestations of some ghostly form. So they’re very astonished when they hear that people do this.

– Matthew Carter, type designer (of types such as Verdana and Georgia)  in Just My Type (2011)

Simon Garfield, in his book Just My Type: A Book about Fonts (2011), aims to correct this very notion. The book is essentially a history of typography which highlights the human aspect that might easily be overlooked when all one has to do is to browse through a really long dropdown of funky sounding font names to select one that looks like it might work. Designing types and setting them, especially in the analog era, was painstaking, laborious work. Garfield peppers the long story of types with font related anecdotes, some more engaging than others.

I used to be a font virgin until a few months ago, when I read and re-read Robin William’s utterly absorbing The Non-Designer’s Design & Type Books. While this book, as its title implies, does not document the history of fonts, my font literacy did go up by a notch. Having some familiarity with them, I am now more visually aware and notice fonts on road signs, product labels, music records, and children’s books.

The subject of Garfield’s book is endlessly fascinating, especially since it addresses both the creation and the application of typefaces. However, except for some parts, I found the book a bit tedious. I sometimes think what really motivated me to finish the book was the fact that it was due at the library. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a total fontophile. I may know Old Style fonts from Modern fonts, but I still am a font novice, and it is unlikely that I am going to remember the unique stories of several of these unique fonts, let alone what they look like. After I put the book down, all that remained of those vignettes about FrutigerSan Francisco, and Johnston Sans was mostly just a hazy blur. I think I was overwhelmed by all those fonts. It didn’t help that the book seemed a little lacking in organization (again, my perceptions might be biased because I know so little about fonts). In the end, a bunch of font trivia could not really sustain my interest.

I do remember some of the stories –  the beauty of the Ampersand and the readbility exercises for motorway signs. I will always remember that Obama used Gotham (as did some other forgotten contenders). I was also drawn to Blackletter.

Third Reich propaganda not only employed gothic lettering for its message, but it made the message itself: one slogan read “Feel German, think German, speak German, be German, even in your script”.

Blackletter might be based on medieval calligraphy, but makes frequent appearances on modern newspaper mastheads, heavy metal album covers, T-shirt lettering, tattoes, and is generally denotative of extreme cultures.

Pompous or sublime, legible or difficult to decipher, most fonts have their use. As I was reading Garfield’s book, I do remember feeling that all sorts of typefaces were being lumped together – desktop fonts, decorative fonts, invisible fonts meant to be used in vast quantities of text, quiet fonts meant to be used in large sizes, and loud fonts meant to be judiciously. You really cannot compare a Frutiger  with a Fraktur. That’d be akin to likening a banana with a durian. But then maybe I just experienced font overload.

I would like to take a moment to highly recommend The Non-Designer’s Design & Type Books even if, and especially if, you re not a graphic designer. I would have done well to read this book four years ago. I am certain that my posters, reports, and newsletters would have benefited from a knowledge of basic design principles. Robin Williams, the author, sums up all her design wisdom, wittily and frequently thus:

There is one more general guiding principle of Design (and of Life): Don’t be a wimp.

Be brave! Be Bold!

Sound advice, indeed.

Garfield writes of Robert Bringhurst in Just My Type. In The Elements of Typographic Style, the Canadian typographer says:

By all means break the rules and break them beautifully, deliberately and well.

Robin Williams also has some words for those of us who like to break rules. This rule is aptly titled Robin’s Rule about Breaking Rules which warns us:

You must remember what the rule is before you can break it.

We know Bringhurst will concur.

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Le sweet parisien

If David Lebovitz is to be believed, Paris and chic Parisians might have more in common with my hometown in India and its citizens, than I would have imagined. Take (some of) our notoriously smelly streets, for instance. While many alleys and walls offer my countrymen (well, some of them, to be clear) the convenience of porta potties, they offer un-pretty views together with overpowering foul smell. Imagine my surprise when I read that Frenchmen, gorgeous, dapper Frenchmen, believe in the same right to expedient public relief.

When men do get the urge, they simply pull up to a little corner of la belle France and take a break. If you’ve searched your guidebook to find the historical significance of those corners of semicircular iron bars guarding historic buildings, now you know: they’re to discourage men from relieving themselves on history.

The problem’s gotten so bad that the authoritirs in Paris came up wih le mur anti-pipi, a sloping wall designed to “water the waterer”, by redirecting the stream, soaking the offender’s trousers.

Or, take line-cutting, which Lebovitz insists is “rampant” in Paris, “so much so, there’s a word for it: risquillage or ‘taking the risk'”. Based on my own experiences in India, I’m inclined to believe that my fellow Indians don’t really believe in the line, or to be more specific, they don’t really believe in the kind of line that a queue represents: people standing one behind the other. They are a lot more comfortable standing next to each other, forming a different kind of line. They also believe in their elbows, and Parisians evidently share this belief.

In The Sweet Life in Paris, acclaimed baker and cookbook writer, David Lebovitz, shares his “delicious adventures in the world’s most glorious and perplexing city”. Except, his escapades are not sweet and delicious. They are about being a stranger in a strange land, and the intricacies of having to understand and adapt to cultural differences. They are amusing, tangy and definitely delicious. The Sweet Life in Paris is a memoir of the most mouthwatering kind: one with recipes, though the stories themselves are about cheese, shower curtains, the French health care system, French housecleaners, and everything in between. It is Lebovitz’ humorous guide to dressing, dining, eating cheese, drinking streets, and navigating streets like a Parisian. Le sweet parisien.

To life in a foreign country you need to learn the rules, especially if you plan to stay [sic].

Paris, fascinating Paris, may be all that it stands for – glamor, sophistication, and melt-in-your-mouth macarons. But who said it was going to be  convenient, easy, or just like back home in America? Why, the Parisians even eat their bananas differently.

Watch a Parisian eat a banana: the skin is carefully peeled back, the fruit is set down on a plate, then eaten slice by painstaking slice, using the tines of a fork with the aid of a knife.

When searching, unsuccessfully, all over the city for a 110 cm shoe lace, administering hypodermic injections to his stomach (French doctors expect you to do it yourself, apparently), or complaining that “the coffee here is among the worst I’ve ever had”, Lebovitz always speaks of Paris with some brand of affection, perhaps in the same way that I kvetch about the abundance of aggressive stray dogs in my beloved hometown. Lebovitz’ central thesis can be summed up in the overused maxim, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, or at least try to keep an open mind and expect differences, even if you won’t eat a banana in the painful Parisian fashion.

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