Sunday, July 8, 2007

I am what I ate--and I don't know where it came from

My sister, like my mother, is a self-described tree-hugging liberal. Over the past several years she has preached the gospel of "think globally, act locally". She applies this principle to everything, including grocery purchases. As for me, I didn't care where my produce came from as long as it had the label "USDA Organic".

That was my feeling until I read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Yes, it's great to live in a society where we can get bananas year-round, but, as Ms. Kingsolver asks, have we ever thought about what it took to get them into our markets? The hours of poorly-paid labor that it took to harvest these golden-yellow bunches? The big companies that make millions for its executives yet fork over little for those who do the actual work? The barrels of petroleum that it took to bring the lovely fruit to the local Stop and Shop? They had me at petroleum!

I was already aware of the pesticide residues that are on conventionally grown produce, but was not as much aware of the cost of transportation that is used to get our lovely bananas to the stores. This, as I stated in my last post, was what frightened me about the products in my home, in this case, food.

However, as I continued to read, I found a fascinating portrait of one year in the life of harvesting fresh produce, and it left me feeling empowered. I could feel the gratification that Ms. Kingsolver and her family felt when they harvested bushels of potatoes, the joy when the asparagus was ready to be picked, the wonderful description of a truly home-grown Thanksgiving--especially the tale of the pumpkin soup baked in a pumpkin tureen. Imagine the worst possible thing that could happen once it's placed on the table, and there you have it.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle also portrays the Hopp-Kingsolver family's ventures in poultry raising and, eventually, slaughter. I feared that this would offend vegetarian readers, but Ms. Kingsolver chronicles the slaughter efforts with sensitivity and honesty. Yes, she did slaughter roosters and turkey, but her poultry was fed an organic diet and was allowed to roam free, unlike the mass-breeders of poultry today.

What I admired most about Ms. Kingsolver's narrative was that she advocated buying locally, organically, and humanely without being preachy about it. Had she written with such a tone I would not have enjoyed this book. Normally, if I like a certain book, I will sit with it for hours, fully reading the whole thing. This book, however, was like a rich dessert; I wanted to savor it slowly, and not want it to end.

There is a list of websites and articles at the end of the book that provide further information. I have since found several local produce farms near me, as well as a beef-raising farm, that I intend to investigate soon.

One more thing--there is a very charming chapter that is about cheesemaking, along with a recipe for mozzarella that comes from the New England Cheesemaking and Supply Company. I visited their website yesterday and found a cheesemaking kit for purchase.

Now I know what to get my tree-hugging mother and sister for Christmas.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

My Chemical Romance

I'm in the middle of two books right now that have me scared shitless about the products in my home. I'll start with Organic Housekeeping by Ellen Sandbeck.

It's no secret that I am a lousy housekeeper. My friends and family come over and will spend part of their visit either giving me tips for keeping a clean abode, or they will help me clean my abode. My goal for the future is to keep my guests from doing this, so they can just relax and drink good wine.

Anyhoo, one of the reasons I picked up Organic Housekeeping is that, as a lifelong asthmatic and allergy sufferer, I thought it would be a good idea to eliminate as many toxic chemicals from my cleaning supplies and replace them with natural, affective alternatives.

So I'm in the middle of the chapter on the chemicals most dangerous to our environment and I come across this list:
  • Acetone, which is found in many nail polish removers. Can cause damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, liver, and reproductive system.
  • Glycol ethers, found in many skin care and hair care products, are also used as antifreeze and in brake and hydraulic fluid. Can cause kidney and liver damage as well as intestinal distress. These chemicals are also used in toothpastes.
  • Tricolsan, the main ingredient in many antibacterial products, degrades into a form of dioxin.

As I washed up this evening, I inspected the labels of my favorite shampoo, conditioner, and facial cleanser. Both of them contain glycol ethers. I was too scared to examine my toothpaste ingredients. I may as well be cleansing with Prestone.

I found two bottles of nail polish remover in my bathroom cabinet and immediately disposed of those--in the trash, not down the drain, out of fear of polluting my local water supply. I was not distraught over this, as I am a nail-biter and rarely use nail polish.

Now before you think I'm getting out of hand or am being irrational about these fears, let me add that Ms. Sandbeck provides an extensive bibliography at the end of her book, full of websites, books, and magazine articles.

However, I'm not scared enough to stop using my favorite shampoo or facial cleanser. My skin and hair are in the best condition they've ever been.

In my next post I shall write about the other book I'm reading that's got me scared about the food I consume. I may as well drop everything and move back to the prairie a la Laura Ingalls after all.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

A Long Winter's Nap

As I write this, the sun has set, the cool summer breeze blows through the trees, and there are enough clouds in the sky to produce a storm. A thunderstorm, that is. Nothing like the blizzards that the Ingalls family had to endure in The Long Winter.

The sixth novel in the Little House series tells of a winter so bad, no trains could get through to deliver groceries or supplies. Much of the townsfolk starved, and there was no wheat. One chapter tells of how Almanzo Wilder rode south with another townsman in search of a gentleman who had bushels and bushels of wheat stored in his house. Almanzo managed to buy all of this wheat for a dollar and a quarter a bushel. They took it back to Loftus's store in town, where Loftus decided to sell it for three dollars a bushel. A riot ensues outside the store, and Pa Ingalls manages to convince Loftus to ration the wheat to the families for what Almanzo and his friend paid for it.

These days, people wait outside stores for other things. Pa Ingalls, who bemoaned progress in The Long Winter, would be somersaulting in his grave right now if he learned that just two days ago, people waited in long lines outside of stores for a cell phone. But not just any cell phone, no sir--the long-awaited iPhone. I cannot justify spending $500 on a phone, then paying $100 a month for service. The phone clearly does not pay for itself. While it seems like a nifty little gadget, it does not seem worth waiting 6 hours in line.

That having been said, I must find my tent, so I can pitch it in the parking lot while I wait for the release of the last Harry Potter.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Return to the Prairie

I was in my favorite used bookstore earlier this year and came across the Little House on the Prairie series. I suddenly found myself overcome with a wave of childhood nostalgia, and decided to take a look. Each book was $1.00 apiece. I bought the whole series; at $9.00 total, I felt that I got a deal.

I only read a couple of the books when I was in elementary school. At the time, I found them to be, well...girly. I hated how all of the women on the prairie stayed at home to raise the kids, churn the butter, and do the baking, while the men did all of the hard labor in the fields. As a kid I thought this was very sexist. I was raised by a mother who was a self-described "tree-hugging liberal" who detested gender stereotypes. She was the first female supervisor of the northeast branch of her company, a distinction she remains proud of. But I digress.

Well, I have just finished the first four books in the series and am in the middle of the fifth one. I am very surprised that I didn't like Laura as much as I did when I was a kid. In the early books, Laura Ingalls Wilder portrays herself as a tomboy who gets into scrapes such as wading too deeply in the creek or sliding down the straw stack. I could relate to this!

I finished Little House in the Big Woods in one night and both Little House on the Prairie and Farmer Boy in one day. In Little House in the Big Woods, Mrs. Wilder does a really good job of portraying the innocence of childhood, which is appropriate, given that her character is only five years old in this story. She described her family's small log house in Wisconsin, holidays with her extended relatives, and how her Ma made the food and clothes. (That having been said, Mrs. Wilder's description of making headcheese is as unappetizing as the name of the dish itself).

Little House on the Prairie chronicled her family's first trip west, and seemed to be a how-to book on building your very own log house. The chapter that chronicled the construction of the house, as well as the accompanying illustrations, reminded me of the Lincoln Logs that my sister and I played with as kids. Mrs. Wilder made it seem so easy to gather up some logs, chop them, and build your very own cabin. The process of building the house, and making it a home, were what made this book my favorite one of the series so far.

In Farmer Boy, Mrs. Wilder wrote about the childhood of her husband, Almanzo. I am skipping my review of Farmer Boy until I get to the point in the series where Laura and Almanzo meet.

The fourth book in the series, On the Banks of Plum Creek, tells of the Ingalls' family's stay in Minnesota. At first, they lived in a sod house, then Pa Ingalls built a house of materials that were BOUGHT FROM A STORE--something that was big in those days. Ma Ingalls worried about being able to pay for all of these materials, but Pa told her not to worry; they'd pay for it all with the profits from their first wheat crop. Pa's frequent reassurance that the wheat would provide them with a better life only foreshadowed the horrible event to come--millions of grasshoppers feasted on the grain, and all of Pa's profits were gone. I feel that this book is where all childhood innocence was lost; for me, it was the first time Mrs. Wilder portrayed hardship on the prairie.

I'm in the middle of By the Shores of Silver Lake right now, where Laura and her family venture out to a railroad camp, where Pa is working now. I loved the description of Laura's first train ride--red velvet seats, men and women dressed in their finest--it made me wonder why Metro North and Amtrak couldn't at least make their seats out of a more comfortable material.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to chop down some trees, make Lincoln Logs out of them, and build a log cabin for myself.

Welcome, Bookworms!

I can't believe it. I actually have a blog. I thought I'd start this blog to share one of my biggest passions--books. I love to read, and so far, since Memorial Day, I've read 16 books. I'm now on book 17.

I'll update my postings later, but I thought I would just introduce myself for now. Welcome, Bookworms!