I once had a conversation with friends about "passions" in life. We felt bad because we didn't have any! But since then, I've decided I actually DO have two: Eating & Reading. Both of those seem to occupy a great deal of my time. Now add writing. Food & Books, who could go wrong with that?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Taco Tales

I splurged on fish tacos the other day, from the Million-Dollar-Hamburger-Stand which is a couple of miles from my workplace. As I was driving back to work, with fresh lime zest and salsa aromas permeating the car, I starting thinking of the tacos from my 1950's American childhood. Ay yi yi, no estan los mismos!

The tacos of my childhood were fairly simple: hamburger meat (now referred to as lean ground beef) fried up with an envelope of taco seasoning, grated sharp cheddar (preferably bright orange), ketchup (yes, seriously), and maybe some shredded iceberg lettuce - stuffed into brittle taco shells which tended to shatter upon first bite, imbedding sharp edges into soft gums and palate. Taco nights were popular though. For my mother, because it was something all 6 kids would actually eat with a minimum of whining and complaining. For the kids, because tacos were messy, noisy, filling, and a delicious change from dry meatloaf or, God Forbid, liver and onions - which people actually served to children in the 1950's. That might explain Baby Boomers penchant for recreational drugs and therapists. Not necessarily in that order.

However now, as a result of American travelers and Mexican immigrants, I can get a wide variety of tacos from roadside trucks, taquerias, sit-down restaurants, or hamburger stands. A beef taco now means braised and shredded beef, not ground, served on a hot, soft tortillas with a choice of salsas. The fish tacos which inspired this blog post were composed of fresh corn torillas, seasoned and grilled mahi mahi, thinly sliced green cabbage, picante salsa, a squeeze of lime juice, and all drizzled with a cilantro-sour cream sauce. Muy, muy sabrosa! And I'm quite sure I paid more for those two tacos than my mother did for her ingredient list for tacos which fed 2 adults and 6 children. Oh well, it' s not like I eat them every day - who could afford that?!

Postscript: I was sitting in In-n-Out Burger last weekend thinking about tacos and burgers. Although the tacos I can get now are a vast improvement over the 1950's, I cannot say the same for hamburgers. The burgers of my childhood were made at home, from meat, not fillers. And the fries were actual potatoes, not potato meal or chemicals made to look like a potato. If you ate a burger and fries in the 1950's or 60's, you felt full for the rest of the day, not the rest of the hour. The stuff now may be fast, but it's not always food by my standards. Nuff said.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


The Audacity to Win, David Plouffe: Now that the 2008 election has been over for more than a year, a plethora of political pages seems to be hitting the bookshelves. I'm not interested in the hottest tomes, such as this or this because they seem to be primarily written as entertaining money-makers. But I came out of the library last week with David Ploufe's contribution to the political genre and have had my nose buried in it all week.

I'm more than a little surprised at that. I've voted in every presidential election since I was first eligible, and that was quite a long time ago. But I'm quite sure I have never read a political campaign analysis cover to cover like I did with this book. It's well written and, even though we all know the outcome of the campaign, David Plouffe manages to convey just the right amount of suspense and tension throughout. It is a fascinating look at the inside management of an American presidential campaign - and one of the most unusual, difficult, and exciting campaigns that our country has ever seen.

I confess. I was an Obama supporter from the beginning and I am very glad to this day that he won the election. But putting that aside, I think this book makes good reading for anyone who wants to know how our election system actually works. And how that system may have been permanently changed by the Obama campaign. It's not just for political science wonks - or Obamamaniacs. I started reading it of curiosity. I finished reading it out of a desire to understand a part of our political system. Even if Mr. Plouffe had not run a winning campaign, he would have to take pride in the fact that his book was interesting and educational to a politi-phobe like me.

Here are a few things I learned from the book:

  • American democracy appears simple upon first glance. Go to the voting booth, cast a ballet, and elect a president. Upon reading this book, I realized we have one of the most complex and intricately designed systems in the world. I don't have enough space here to elaborate. Read the book.

  • An American presidential campaign is brutal and non-forgiving. The candidates and the campaign workers don't sleep, don't eat, don't stay in one place for longer than 24 hours, and don't have a life outside of the campaign until the election results are called. It's inhumane but certain people, like David Plouffe, have chosen campaign management as a career path and seem to thrive on the stress and deprivation. (Although one manager did end up in the hospital at one point from pressure and stress.)

Here are few things I learned about the 2007-08 Obama campaign:

  • By the time of the election, the campaign had 6,000 staff members and 90% of them were under the age of 30. This was a campaign planned, executed, and won by a new generation of voters, using techniques not seen in previous political arenas.

  • The campaign focused early-on on non-traditional groups: first time voters, sporadic voters, minorities, residents in small or non-essential states, and detached independent voters. They outmanuevred the Clinton machine by taking no one for granted and courting people who were often ignored by bigger candidates.

  • Technology played a major role. Around the time McCain was admitting that he did not know how to send an e-mail, the Obama campaign had an e-mail list of 12,000,000 active addresses. They were able to communicate directly to their voters, without media filters or time delays. I was on that e-mail list, so I experienced it first hand. Information from the campaign was often in my mailbox hours or even days before the news came through traditional channels. And their Twitter followers had the info long before I did.

  • On-line fundraising exceeded the campaigns wildest dreams. In the beginning, two surprising groups were responsible for the bulk of the contributions: college students and retirees. The average contributions were between $25 to $50 but they kept coming and coming and coming. After Sarah Palin's nomination and subsequent attacks, donations began spiking and were sometimes coming in at rates as high as $500,000 an hour. Ultimately, the campaign raised a mind-boggling $750 million - most of it from small donors.

  • The candidate himself was intimately involved in every aspect of the campaign and set the initial tone for goals, communications, and strategy. While Axelrod, Plouffe, and Gibbs were responsible for implementing the strategy, Obama had the final word and did not hesitate to over ride the campaign managers if the messages were going off-track. His background as a "community organizer" gave him an unusual connection to the thousands of volunteers, young staffers, and supporters and they were included in activities to an unusual degree.

Really, you'll have to read this one for yourself to get the full impact. I suspect Republican campaign managers will be studying it closely over the next 3 years. Get ready for red colored e-blasts in 2012!

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver: There are times in my reading career when I find myself trudging through pages because of past history or a sense of loyalty to the author. When that happens, I'm reluctant to admit defeat or disinterest - I try to convince myself that I should like the book, because I've like other works by the same author. The Lacuna, unfortunately, was one of those books. I have thoroughly enjoyed Kingsolver's earlier works - Animal Dreams, The Bean Tree, and the complex, lengthy Poisonwood Bible. She is an excellent writer. But I could not overcome a separation between myself and the book this time. I just didn't care about the characters or the subject matter.

The story fluctuates between Mexico and the USA, set between 1930's and the 1950's. It's creative and well structured, and is receiving good press and positive reviews. I don't want to discourage anyone else from trying it, but I just wasn't that interested in Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, Mexico's convoluted political system, American 1950's Communist paranoia, etc. I never bonded with the narrator and without that connection, it just made tedious page turning. I have to confess to skimming through large parts of it, and skipping through to the last chapter just to see how the author would tie up all the loose pieces.

I'm returning it to the library today - too many books, too little time. Perhaps I should admit that, for me, Kingsolver is like a friend from the past. We had good times, and have nice memories, but no longer have anything in common. Maybe I have moved through a lacuna and am now on the other side - a past admirer but no longer enthralled. At least not with this particular work.

Perfectly Pulled Pork

I had this meal one week ago, and I am still craving leftovers. I was part of a moving crew helping to move a friend's mother to her new apartment at the spiffy retirement center here in town. It was a long, hard day of climbing stairs, carrying furniture, unpacking boxes, and trying to keep an 86 year old calm and accepting of change. Whew. After 8 hours of that, we needed a really good meal and some really good wine. Fortunately, we had both.

Dinner was centered around Pulled Pork - a pork shoulder roast cooked for 15 hours in a new smoker, which had been delivered from Santa. Luckily for me, that was not my contribution to the dinner because it required getting up at 2:00 a.m. to start the smoker! My friend's 20-something son cheerfully took on that task - and probably did not have to set his alarm because he was still up at 2:00 a.m. The pork was perfect - falling apart tender, smoky to the core, and amazingly flavorful. Oh, how I wish I had some right now.

We surrounded the pork with soft yeast rolls, homemade cole-slaw, hot polenta with shaved parmesan, and slow cooked beans. The only other thing we needed was fake Southern drawls, but that's a bit hard to pull off in the Napa Valley. The Napa Valley contribution was several bottles of sparkling wine, a couple bottles of Merlot, and a lot of glasses to wash the next morning. Pull me in, though, I'd love a repeat of this one!

Miraculous Medicine

Routine Miracles, Conrad Fisher M.D. : If you've ever looked at my previous blog, you'll know that I've been hooked on medical memoirs for a couple of years. I'm not quite sure why this is. Maybe because I'm an aging Baby Boomer with an increasing roster of physicians in my address book. Or maybe because I once had plans of becoming a nurse - which was a very odd career plan for a person who fears needles, hates math, gags at bodily smells, and is impatient with sick people. Fortunately for my hypothetical patients, I did not get into the nursing program.

Anyway, now I can read about the medical profession without actually putting anyone in danger. Routine Miracles is the latest title I found at the library. It's not a memoir, but a collection of essays and chapters in which he examines the astonishing advances which have been made in the last 25 years. And in which he examines the widespread negativity and dissatisfaction within the medical profession and amongst the students and interns he works with on a daily basis. According to Dr. Fisher, we are living in a time when the health professions should be filled with excitement, pride, thankfulness, and reward, due to the "miraculous" tools which have been developed and which are saving lives which would have been lost only 5 or 10 years ago. He examines cardiac advances, intrauterine fetal surgery, HIV drugs, corneal transplants and many more. But regardless of these advanced treatments and techniques, the medical community is still downtrodden and pesimistic.

Dr. Fisher attributes this to 4 primary factors, not necessarily in this order of importance:

  • The high costs of medical training: apparently it's not unusual for a new physician to begin his/her practice facing six-figure debts from medical school and advance training. After spending 8-12 years, or more, in post high school education, the new MD can then face $100,000 to $200,000 in school loans.

  • The tradition of medical school teachers and older physicians to berate, criticize, and belittle their students. Dr. Fisher asked one of this classes, "Has anyone been told you are the best, better than the faculty?" No hands go up. "Has anyone here been told you are worse than students in the past, that you are not diligent, devoted, or hardworking?" 80% of the hands go up. He compares this to a football coach telling his team that they are the worst players he's ever had, and then wondering why the team is despondent.

  • The health insurance industry. This subject comes up over and over throughout the book, and states studies in which 92% of physicians identify insurance companies as their #1 problem, 7% identify insurance companies as a major problem, and 1% feel insurance companies are not a problem. He feels very strongly that the control insurance companies have over the medical profession is limiting advancement and decreasing the routine miracles we are coming to expect.

  • The pharmaceutical industry. The need for profit with the drug industry is creating some interesting situations. For instance, Dr. Fisher states that there are now 12 drugs for erectile disfunction, while research for malaria prevention and treatment has diminished. Why? Market share. American men have the dollars and interest in ED drugs, while malaria occurs mostly in poor, 3rd world countries where the Return on Investment in very, very low.
The book is filled with hope and encouragement, though, despite the somber assessment. Dr. Fisher offers suggestions and hope for the future. You'll have to read the book for yourself though, if you're interested. Gotta go now, I have a doctors appmt.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Very Veggie

Alas, we were so busy eating this very veggie feast that I forgot to take pictures! I'll have to use my power of description now to recreate this menu. Let me start by saying I am not a vegetarian. I like food too much to adhere to diet restrictions, even when I know it's healthy and environmentally responsible! But I had a certain well-loved vegetarian guest this weekend, so here's what I served on New Years Day:

Starting off, a Curried Roasted Butternut Squash Soup, made with vegetable stock and a tiny splash of cream. I was not expecting to like this, but ended up going back for 2nds. I heard later that some pp went for 3rds. It was a definite hit! Now I have to claim culinary conceit, because I made up the recipe as I went along.

Following up, a Garden Fresh Lasagne, made with tomato sauce from this summer's tomato crop (freezer), some organic spinach, organic mushrooms, and fresh chard from my winter garden. To make sure we did not suffer protein withdrawal, I also layered in ricotta cheese, goat cheese, mozzarella cheese, parmesan cheese, and asiago cheese. Probably should have put an "Extreme Lactose" warning label on top before serving.

Accompanied by, an ordinary tossed green salad and warm, crusty french bread.

Finished by, Maple Syrup Spice Cake with Toasted Hazelnuts. I put the leftover slices in the freezer this afternoon just so that I would stop eating this!

Combined with friends, family, great wines, converstation and laugher, the menu was a great kickoff for 2010! I hope I have many more evenings like this in the new year.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cantankerous Olive

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout: this was a Costco impulse buy last Saturday. I justified tossing it into my overloaded cart by saying , "well, it is the book club pick for January and all the library copies will probably be checked out." Olive would not have justified it. She'd say, "I deserve to buy a book, damn it" and leave it at that.

Olive won the Pulitzer Prize. Now I see why. At first it seemed like a collection of unrelated stories but as the connections became apparent, the complexity of the book became apparent. Olive appears sporadically even though she is the main character. I never knew when she would appear, or for how long. She was annoying, touching, outspoken, sensitive - completely unpredictable and often very unlikeable. Olive does not hold back. She says what she thinks, even when it damages her relationships. Olive is not introspective and yet, even at 72 she has the capacity to grow and change.

The book is full of dark subjects but doesn't require the reader to dwell on them: death, suicide, inadequate parenting, infidelity, divorce, depression, alcoholism, and disappointment. Every character is flawed, no one has a perfect living situation. Any yet the book is uplifting, not depressing. While I was reading it, I wasn't really aware of the unrelenting troubles and disappointment in each character's life - the author has created a mirror of community life. Full of problems, each person coping in a different way, and throughout it all, Olive stays true to her cantankerous self, occasionally revealing the soft inner core which is present in all of us.

I started reading it Saturday afternoon and finished on Sunday. I can do that, because I have a bit of Olive in me - interruptions be damned, can't you see I'm reading?!