Category Archives: Living

Is Your Dinner Home Cooked?

khana

An article in Slate magazine argues that cooking dinner at home is a glorified ideal which actually results in nothing but drudgery for the one who prepares the meal, most often the woman in the household. The article references a study from researchers at North Carolina State University which argues that the benefits of a home cooked dinner, often cited by well known food writers such as Michael Pollan,  might be overestimated.

Predictably, this lead to much debate and dissent. A response  by  Joel Salatin that there should be any reaction other than reverence for the ritual of the dinner cooked at home. He exhorts us to stop the soccer run, ditch the TV shows, “get out of the car and get in the kitchen”. This is directed mostly again at Mom who picks up chicken nuggets on the way to practice rather than taking advantage of the slow cooker, the refrigerator and today’s “techno enabled kitchens” to cook the family a healthy meal. There is a mention, at the end of the piece, of men who are part of the problem as they spend their weekends rider a mower on an “ecological dead zone” aka the suburban lawn instead of growing a vegetable garden to feed their families.

The first step in making sense of this would be to ask the question: what, exactly, is a home cooked meal? Does heating up frozen dinners at home qualify? A family sitting and eating together at a table,  each with their own frozen choice perhaps,  is certainly a component of the dinner-at-home scenario.  Does it matter of the meal was actually cooked at home from scratch? It is important to think about this because the problem with the idea of the home cooked dinner is really twofold: the problem of time and the problem of choice.  Cooking a meal from start to finish: including cleaning and cutting vegetables and meat, actual cooking time, serving and cleaning up afterwards is an enormous time sink. In the real world we are all dealing with several chores and errands plus working at earning a living and there is never enough time so those frozen dinners or pasta in the box becomes an important resource.  This option also allows each member of the family to pick the option they want. Nothing is more energy sapping than cooking and serving up a nutritious dinner and have kids (and adults!) say they do not like it or want to eat it.

The frozen scenario is not really the one that  the pro-cooked-dinner writers favors. They paint a picture of Mom coming out of the kitchen with heaping bowls of  steaming hot food , fresh from the kitchen.  This picture has really no basis in reality. In every society at every time of human life, those who were financially able to, employed cooks and maids to cook and serve food, this was not just for royalty or the very rich but even true for middle class families.

Today, no one has a cook other than the 1% . So, it is mostly up to Mom to come home from work, tidy up the house, take care of errands, laundry, help with homework and cook dinner. Many mothers would prefer to heat up the frozen meal and use the extra few precious minutes to be with their children. Are these parents unaware of the results of the trade-off? No, they are simply trying to make sense of the options in our increasingly hectic and complicated lives. It is not easy to ditch soccer and ballet if every other parent around you is fixated on the “best activities” to put on the college applications of their kid who is , at the moment, just learning to tie his shoe laces.

It takes  organizing to plan meals for a family for a whole week, to shop accordingly and have the meals appear on time. Let us start by acknowledging that. When was the last time someone said of their spouse, with pride, that they cooked dinner at home every day? Did we as adults recognize that while today’s meal may not crack our top ten, it does represent a whole hour of labor and caring from someone? And do we encourage our children to recognize this as well? It is not simply about who makes dinner but the true value we assign to this task.

 

 

#Farming Friday 22: Want To Be A Farmer?

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Are you planning your life ahead and thinking you might want to try farming?  Is this going to be a viable and fulfilling option, you wonder? The answer, it seems , can vary widely. In the US, a recent article with the somewhat dismal title “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to be Farmers” has been gaining  a lot of attention. The discussion throws up concerns over scale of farming, credit etc. In contrast, young farmers in Kenya are presented with farming as a great opportunity to contribute to their country’s development, earn a good living and even, be “cool”! What is your opinion?

A Reason to Love Okra

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When I first moved to the US, I was surprised by the prevailing wariness toward okra that I saw on the cooking shows. I always loved okra, or ladyfingers as they are known in India (part of the British legacy). It was one of the delights of summer, cut fine and crisped up with sprinkle of turmeric and salt or in a variety of other recipes brimming with flavor. And then I realized that okra (I finally got used to calling it that) was mostly eaten in stew form and realized that the American and Indian okra experience were fundamentally different.

For me, okra cooked and served as almost a stir fry without any sauce (or gravy, as it is sometimes called in India) is the most alluring option. The main difficulty in cooking okra is the slime that suddenly oozes out during cooking , catching the novice cook by surprise and leaving them bogged down with a goopy mess instead of the crisp, green slices of flavor that was their goal. I found the easiest way to deal with this is to cook rapidly on fairly high heat. If the recipe calls for cooking slowly on medium or low heat, then I turn to the trick recommended by grandmothers; add some acid, slices of tomatoes will usually make the slime disappear.

And, why, you are thinking, do I need to learn slime slaying techniques anyway? Well, it turns out that a study in China found that okra may be helpful in treating Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Rats who received the okra supplement had lower glucose and insulin levels and their triglyceride levels were also lower than the rats which did not consume okra. More than enough reason to try out some new okra recipes!

#Farming Friday 16: The Reason for Big Farms

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How often have we heard the lament that smaller farms are being swallowed by bigger ones and family farmers are being pushed out? It sounds really familiar, right? But the reality is that 98% of US farms are owned by families, says this farmer. And the reality also is that farming is hard work, and increasing the size of operations brings much needed benefits to the farmer. Does the farmer ever get to go on a vacation, for example? It is difficult : “Cows, chickens and pigs aren’t like a house cat, you can’t just fill up their food bowl and tell them you’ll see them tomorrow.” But bigger operations which would enable farmers to hire help might give them a much needed break. The idea of a small, idyllic farm with adorable little chickens  and piglets running around is lovely but the real world may require other solutions.

Tastier Tomatoes?

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This is a quick post. I just saw this piece on hydroponic tomatoes   that are reported to be as flavorful as heirloom varieties. What is the environmental impact of large scale greenhouses used for growing crops that would otherwise not be grown in that area, one wonders?  Time to plug in my favorite food rule: Eat in Season. In summer, enjoy the tomatoes, can them if you like for winter but when the snow comes in do think about all the root vegetables you could savor. The comments are also worth a read and it took only a quick glance to note that, yes, Monsanto had been mentioned, never mind that it has nothing to do with the story!

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

#Farming Friday 15: Land Grabs in Laos

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This post in the Farming Friday series is delayed but the issue it highlights is crucial today as farmers are being displaced in many parts of the world as they lose their land to outside forces, sometimes government projects or corporate interests or urban expansion. This is the experience of specially of farmers from minority ethnic groups in Laos who are being deprived of their lands. While the framework to protect their rights does exist, it is not being put to use.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

 

 

The Episode of the Disappearing Oysters

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Thanks to a free weekend from Showtime, I was able to catch up on another episode of their show on climate change, “Years of Living Dangerously”. (I reviewed the first episode here).This episode had two story lines: one, in which Ms. Lesley Stahl travels to Greenland to explore the melting glaciers; and the second, where Mr. Ian Somerhalder brings us the climate debate going on in the evangelical community in the USA, a debate that has a significant impact on actual policy making.

We were treated to stunning views of glaciers which drove home the point of how beautiful our planet is and how callous we are in our stewardship of all that it offers. The rumble of the glaciers cracking served as reminders of how quickly all this could vanish. In fact, the melting of glaciers is also opening up possibilities for oil exploration and there is more investment going on in this right now than the GDP of Greenland! This provides income boosting opportunities for the inhabitants of Greenland and here we come up against the reality of climate change: when the environment changes and people’s livelihoods are threatened, policy making and taking action becomes more fraught.

The other narrative thread revisits some territory from the first episode: the attempt to establish that climate change is real and happening now to those whose belief in their faith casts doubt over this. The starting point is the campaign to shut down coal plants in North Carolina and elsewhere in the country. Mr. Somerhalder’s foundation has been committed to calling attention to the issue of  the impact of coal in an effective campaign on social media. But, initiatives like this are being met with resistance by certain faith based groups. We meet pastor Rick Joyner who remains unconvinced about the evidence on climate change despite his daughter’s efforts. She is joined in her effort by Dr. Katherine Hayhoe  who also featured in the first episode; and is a skilled and dedicated communicator on climate change issues.

To illustrate the impact of climate change, we are introduced to the oyster fishermen of Apalachicola Bay which was once full of oysters but is almost empty today. Increased use of water upstream due to drought, and a rise in the sea level, has changed the salinity level of the bay waters making it unsuitable for oysters. A source of income and food has disappeared and, as we know, this story with different players is being repeated all over the world.

The show does not present easy answers: we hear the dilemma of the leadership of Greenland, “our country is not a museum”, people have to survive and they want to give their families a good life; we watch as a tentative coexistence between faith and science develops,  but finally it is up to each of us to find our position and act on it. What is worrisome is that time is not on our side and we need to make changes soon.

I wish that the potential impact of climate change on our food system was highlighted in Years of Living Dangerously. Perhaps that will come in other episodes, there is certainly enough material on it for a whole show to itself!

 

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

 

 

Will There Be A Second Green Revolution?

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Last week, The Economist published a piece on the possibility of a second Green Revolution on rice fields in Asia and Africa. The possibilities outlined in it make one hopeful for the future, at a time when stasis on climate change and polarization among the players in the food system usually make for a grim outlook.

The second revolution, if it comes, will be crucial in feeding the growing population as current yields are dropping off from previous levels. And what is remarkable is that the increase in yield required to meet demand can be obtained almost entirely from areas missed by the first Green Revolution. This is because, the green revolution took off in irrigated areas while passing by the rain dependent regions. These areas fall in the marginal category where harvests are often disrupted by drought or floods. Now, the International Rice Research Institute is  offering farmers a rice variety that stays dormant during long periods of flooding and then resumes growth. This would be an invaluable trait for dealing with the possibility of increased rainfall and  flooding due to climate disruption. And, because this offers the possibility of increased production on marginal lands, the impact in terms of greater income would go to the most vulnerable sections of the rural poor whose impoverishment is a result of their dependence on unproductive land.

But how was this new strain of rice developed? The scientists at IRRI had identified a rice strain from Odisha, in eastern India, as having a high flood tolerance. This was then crossed with other rice varieties but the experiments were not successful. Finally, the scientists identified the gene that enabled flood tolerance, and spliced into other rice varieties, to achieve more than a dozen varieties of rice , all flood tolerant and collectively known as “Sub 1”.This is what was so striking for me: decades of traditional breeding saw no success, yet once the genetic sequence of the rice from Odisha was marked, it took only four years for flood tolerant seeds to be produced!

This presents a promising option for making agriculture resilient to future climatic uncertainties in a short period of time, in addition to increasing production on marginal lands and providing income opportunities for the rural poor. This would be a revolution indeed! The article is here and an interesting account of the farmers growing Sub 1 rice in Odisha is here.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

 

#Farming Friday 14: Holiday On A Farm

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All of us cannot be farmers and some of us might not even be ready to give it a try, that too on a holiday. But here is the charming account from someone who took a working holiday on a farm in Italy. I might like to go there now, after reading this, but am still not sure about the “herding the pigs” part!

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

Farmers Respond to Climate Change

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As the last post mentioned,  the US government’s latest report on climate change takes note of the challenges that await farmers in the coming years. But, as we know, farmers are dealing with variable and unpredictable weather right now, so that the crops they grew and the way they grow them is also changing.How are they doing so, what are they changing?

One interesting aspect of the response to changes in climate has been the rediscovery and resurgence of neglected/marginal crops. Often, these would be crops indigenous to a certain area which required little tending and were, sort of, taken for granted. Now, their ability to grow in marginal areas has become an advantage. An example here would be the case of the lima bean in Kenya. This bean remains dormant in the soil, waiting for the rain and so can survive dry spells,so it has moved from being a marginal crop to the center stage of  cultivation.

“Climate Smart Agriculture”  which consists of ensuring food security, adaptation and mitigation (as defined by the FAO) is redefining farming in different countries. The success stories range from harvesting water to grow millet in the Sahel to adoption of rice production techniques to use less water by smallholder farmers in Vietnam; from carbon farming initiatives in Australia to reduction in the  contribution of Danish agriculture to emissions by better use of manure and lower use of inorganic fertilizers.

And what about American farmers? Some of them, it seems, see the disruption in climate as simply another weather pattern, but they are also aware of the  need to follow good practices on the farm to be able to deal with the weather patterns. This means that they are quick to adopt the climate efficient techniques suggested by the USDA: practicing no-till farming, planting cover crops etc.

Whether changes come by way of policy decisions , as responses to the threat to a way of life or as pragmatic reactions to constraints, all these changes  will add up to a better food system. But will they be enough to get us through the crisis ahead?

(Image Courtesy:freedigitalphotos.net)