The Suitcase Lady


November 21, 2017, 8:01 pm

The one thing on every American’s mind this week is food. Our thoughts will range from how to shop for it, prepare it, serve it, eat it and recover from the abundance of it.

So it seems fitting to talk about “the woman who changed the way America eats”. This honor goes to Alice Waters whose Berkeley, California restaurant, Chez Panisse, is the temple of the fresh, local and slow food movement.

In her new book, Coming to My Senses -The Making of a Counterculture Cook, Alice Waters traces her path from childhood to the night Chez Panisse opens.

Growing up in a Northern New Jersey suburb in the 50’s, Alice ate what all of us of her age were eating then, things like fish sticks, iceberg lettuce, bottled dressing and Campbell’s Soup. But her mother, and mine as well, knew how to cook and made many meals from fresh whole foods before the market of that name was invented.

Alice attended high school in Indiana and she partied hard. The partying continued when she and a friend went to the University of California in Santa Barbara where she was kicked out of her sorority for low morals. She then switched to U.C. Berkeley.

The free speech movement was in full swing, and she found herself in the right place at the right time. Berkeley was filled with painters, filmmakers, printmakers, musicians and those who we now call “foodies”. Attending Berkeley plus a break year spent wandering in Paris and France sealed her fate as a food sensualist.

However, her first job out of college was as a preschool Montessori teacher in Berkeley. Children were not her calling and she was fired, not for biting a mean child (which she did) but for wearing see-through blouses.

She subsequently started gathering up all her creative college friends and fielding the preposterous notion of starting a restaurant that would feature fresh, local foods simply prepared and served in a casual but ambient setting.

Chez Panisse was born in 1971. No one involved had ever attended a culinary school or taken restaurant management courses. The restaurant had about a minus zero chance of surviving. But Chez Panisse is now celebrating its 46th year and everyone knows what “farm to table” means.

Here is an excerpt from Alice Waters’ new book:

“This is my favorite recipe: ‘Go get some perfectly ripe figs in August, put them on a plate  and eat them’. No, my favorite recipe is: ‘Cut some mint from the garden, boil water and pour it over the mint. Wait. And then drink. That’s my favorite recipe.’ ”

Alice Waters

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November 14, 2017, 9:38 pm

I hope my species is as successful as the dinosaurs. If you are shocked by this statement, be assured I say it with total sincerity. Dinosaurs and other prehistoric reptiles are the subjects of much misinformation. Culturally, we view them as big, stupid, dismal failures.

Look up the second or third definition of “dinosaur” in any dictionary. The Oxford dictionary, for example, is as follows…”A person or thing that is outdated or has become obsolete because of failure to adapt to changing circumstances”. I saw the word used that way several times in print media last week.

The scientific facts about these amazing creatures are the opposite of the popular perception. Let’s start with longevity.

Dinosaurs dominated the earth for over 165 million years spanning all three periods of the Mesozoic Era; the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. Our human species has a track record of only two million years. In other words, we are a mere blip at the end of the evolutionary time line, hardly reason to brag about our success as a species.

The next misunderstood concept is extinction. I don’t expect to wake up to find an apatosaurus lumbering through my front yard. But dinosaur descendants frequently are my alarm clocks. Hundreds of them are in the trees, sky and lake each day. We call them birds.

Almost all paleontologists agree that modern avians are descended from a group of two legged dinosaurs called theropods. Fossil evidence continues to be found to support the dinosaur-bird connection. Start thinking of feathers as specialized scales. Click here for the current science on this topic.

Here are three more dinosaur facts to add to your Dino IQ.

Scientists first began studying dinosaurs in the 1820’s when bones of a large land reptile were found in England. The word “dinosaur” was created by Sir Richard Owen, a British paleontologist, in 1842. It is from the Greek and means “terrible lizard”, but most dinosaurs weren’t terrible and none were lizards.

All dinosaurs were land animals. Gliding prehistoric reptiles are called Pterosaurs. Plesiosaurs and Ichthyosaurs ruled the seas.

Dinosaurs came in all sizes from chicken size to massive. The majority were herbivores or plant eaters.

So all evidence points to dinosaurs being a highly successful animal group. At the rate our species is trashing the planet, I wouldn’t place any bets on us beating their longevity record.

Titanosaur- The Field Museum Chicago

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November 7, 2017, 8:22 pm

French cuisine and butter are synonymous. So it is understandable why a butter (beurre) shortage in France has sent shock waves through the populace. One commentator wryly noted, “It’s a huge problem because croissants are basically just a vehicle for butter and French people are basically just vehicles for croissants.”

The current situation, where supermarket shelves frequently are bereft of butter, has resulted from a confluence of events. For the past year, low milk production due to bad weather has meant low yields for fodder crops, the cows’ dinners. At the same time, the global demand for butter has increased significantly, in part due to the diet police absolving butter of some of its sins and proclaiming sugar the new number one food enemy. As a result, global prices for butter have almost tripled since 2016.

Added to the supply and demand issue is a uniquely French bureaucratic complication. The price for butter between producers and suppliers is set by law each February. The price set last February is lower than the current market price. So the supermarkets are demanding that the producers honor the lower price. They aren’t, and are free to send their butter to other countries’ tables, which is exactly what they are doing.

The butter shortages are felt most acutely in Brittany, the butter eating epicenter of France. This is the home of crepes, butter salted caramels and butter cakes. But the populace there has managed to infuse a bit of humor into the butter debacle. Some artists  have made a satirical film about dealers in a mobile home churning out butter for sale on the black market.

One of the results of my reading about the French butter crisis was learning that the French lead the world in yearly butter consumption at 18 pounds per capita. A quick calculation of my yearly butter intake has convinced me that I am eligible for honorary French citizenship. And my Christmas baking hasn’t even started.

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October 31, 2017, 9:33 pm

This is a true story about an incognito pumpkin patch. I view, or more accurately, don’t view, the patch every time I look out my kitchen window.

The story begins a year ago when our good neighbor, Farmer Dennis, planted winter wheat in his fields across the road from our house. The wheat sprouted but, unfortunately, a low spot of about two acres developed in the middle of his fields. When the abundant spring rains came, they flooded the low spot and drowned the wheat there. We named this flooded spot Lake Dennis and were not unhappy to see ducks and geese coming to paddle around in their new lake and rest in the wheat that surrounded it.  I kidded Farmer Dennis that maybe he should dig it out a bit and create a permanent waterfowl sanctuary.

However, the inevitable happened, and his ephemeral lake dried up when the spring rains stopped.

“I can’t stand to see good land be fallow,” he said to me one day. “I think I’ll try something.” Shortly after, I looked out the window and saw him driving his tractor through the wheat to the dead spot. He proceeded to dig up the soil (I believe the correct word is till). A few days later, he was back with equipment to seed the empty patch.

Naturally, I was dying of curiosity to know what I would be looking at all summer when I stood at the sink washing dishes. “I thought I would try for two acres of sweet corn,” he told me. “And I threw in some pumpkin seeds, too”.

“What a brilliant experiment”, I said. Sort of like turning lemons into lemonade, or in this case, a flood into corn on the cob and jack-o-lanterns.

We took frequent walks all summer into the middle of the wheat field to watch the progress of this grand experiment. Visiting family members often joined us. And, as these pictures relate, the hidden pumpkin patch was a huge success. The sweet corn was delicious, too. And, even better, it was all free. We are truly fortunate to have such a generous, caring and imaginative neighbor.

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October 24, 2017, 10:08 pm

I always explain to children at my programs that I don’t ask trick questions. I want to be an educator, not a trickster conjuring up inscrutable problems which convince many children they are stupid. But I do warn children when a question is especially difficult and assure them that no one knows all the answers.

In the spirit of the upcoming Halloween holiday, here are some frightfully hard questions about bones. Treats don’t depend on getting all the answers right.

Who has more bones, cats or people? Felines have more. Cats have between 230 and 250 bones…tails and toes account for the variance. Manx cats lack tail bones, polydactyls have extra toes. Humans have 206 bones.

How many bones are in a giraffe’s neck? The answer here is 7. That is the same number of neck bones in mice, us and all other mammals with two exceptions, sloths and manatees. Short-necked manatees have 6, the three-toed sloth has 9 and the two-toed sloth has 6.

Are animals with internal skeletons in the majority or minority on the planet? We lose, vertebrates comprise only 2% of the earth’s animal species. The other 98% are invertebrates such as insects, arachnids and mollusks.

How many bones does a shark have? None. Sharks and their cousins the rays and skates have only cartilage.

Which animal has the most bones? Snakes. These reptiles can have from 200 to 400 vertebrae with ribs attached.

Which parts of our bodies have the most bones? Our hands and feet contain more than half of our body’s bones….27 for each hand, 26 for each foot.

Who has the most bones, a baby or an adult human? The baby has around 300 bones at birth which fuse together into 206.

Which human bone is the smallest? The longest? The stapes in the middle ear is the smallest. The femur, or thigh bone, is the longest and strongest.

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