29 December 2009

A Brief History of My Relationship with Food

My mom's friend Laurien gave me the new book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer over winter break. Reading it has forced me to re-examine what I thought I believed about why I eat what I eat. I first began thinking about my own consumption as an ethical issue in my sophomore year of college in Peter Singer's class Practical Ethics. I had always considered myself an "ethical" person, despite not being a religious person by any means, but it wasn't until Singer's course that I encountered different systematic approaches to personal decision making. My college boyfriend fancied himself a deontologist and I fancied myself a rule utilitarian and we would argue for hours. Based on my rule utilitarian analysis of the world coupled with a heavy dose of Peter Singer, I became a strict vegetarian for a few months, eventually expanding my eating to animals that were "ethically treated," an ambiguous phrase that I wasn't even sure how to define myself.

In my junior year of college that deontological boyfriend gave me my first Michael Pollan book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and I devoured it. I went on to read The Botany of Desire and In Defense of Food and began to revise my definition of what it meant to eat ethically. I became obsessed with factory farming, corn and sustainability and decided that there were a number of factors that would impact my decision to eat meat. In In Defense of Food I learned the word "flexitarian" and adopted it for myself. Venison and other wild game became my meat of choice.

In my senior year of college I visited several farms for my journalism courses, including Bobolink Dairy. The owners of Bobolink, Jon and Nina White, were generous hosts and showed me what a farm could look like. Both Jon and Nina knew most of their cows by name, and could point them out to me from across snowy fields. They introduced me to a newborn calf named Beltane, and then invited me back in a few months for the festival of Beltane, when they would eat him. In those few months before the festival, I thought long and hard about what it meant to be eating an animal that I had met and been literally introduced to. Did it make it more wrong, or more right? Should it matter?

One of my biggest pet peeves is people who will eat absolutely anything unless it has eyes, or a beak, or some other feature that is a reminder of the animal the meat comes from. I used to be like that as a child, covering my eyes in front of the fish counter at Ralph's or while walking by the hanging ducks in the window of the Asian grocery. But this ickiness feeling is a construction of our culture, not a part of human nature, and a harmful construction in my opinion. Are we really so disconnected from the origins of what we put in our bodies that we can't deal with anything that reminds us of the fact that these animals were once alive? If we can't deal with the fact that these animals were once alive do we have a right to eat them? I say no. With this in mind I set out to catch a fish in Yosemite this last summer and insisted that the ranger who lent me his equipment let me kill it. It was hard, and there was a little ickiness in my stomach, but I did it and felt good about it because it didn't last long (and also the trout up there are not native). I breathed a sigh of relief and ate the trout for dinner (that's me on the left eating my trout). I have never felt so connected to what I was ingesting and it felt awesome. I can't wait to be in a place in my life where almost everything I put in my mouth was harvested or killed by my own hand or that of someone else I know.

Anyhow the point is I ate Beltane the calf and I liked it, and I felt better about it than any bovine I had ingested before or have ingested since.

Eating Animals takes a stance that is a lot more hard-core than Pollan's philosophy. Although Foer praises Pollan's writing, he implies that the author has not gone far enough in his recommendations. Foer is convincing, describing the horrors of factory farming in far gorier detail than Pollan or Food Inc. But I am halfway through the book and he has yet to address the possibility that one can eat eggs, dairy and meat responsibly. I am not going to give up my flexitarian status yet, but I am going to be a lot more discerning about food labels that claim things like "cage free" or "organic." I've also given up a lot of seafood. If Foer's statistics are correct, it is almost impossible to find real food out there from real farms. However, it is out there--I've seen it in New Jersey--and I can probably find it in Santa Cruz. That makes me happy.

25 December 2009


So as if the computer crash weren't bad enough, my mom and a friend and I were driving to dirt Mulholland for a hike when my Subaru made crazy noises and broke down. It's sitting in Van Nuys now waiting for the mechanic to open tomorrow at eight. I wish there was such thing as cloud driving. When is Google Car coming out?

I did make some egg cozies though, to keep (my new favorite thing in the world) soft boiled eggs warm. I also made an amazing pie yesterday. It's apple sour cherry with apple jack. MMMMMMMM.

24 December 2009

An Apology for All Equations (and my addiction to them)

My father pointed out that in my last post I went on and on about the virtues of presenting science as accessible, and then included in my postscript the derivation of a rather formidable looking thermodynamics equation. Am I a hypocrite? Maybe a little bit. I'm definitely guilty of having used the word "nerdy," which associates an interest in science with images of pocket protectors, skinny white boys and all things "uncool."

As for the equation, don't be intimidated. Rho is density,a is radius, c is heat capacity and kappa is thermal conductivity. If this is unfamiliar, that's probably because it is presented in the specialized lingo of the discipline of thermodynamics. But basically, the equation relates specific qualities of the egg, such as temperature and size, to how long you need to cook it for. Lingo and symbols can make smart people fear physics principles that are deceptively simple. My favorite example is F=ma: Newton's second law. As I see it, F=ma is basically just a brilliant restatement of the obvious. It's a giant DUH: when you make something move, it moves. That's it. A force (F) is something that makes something move, the mass (m) is the something, and the acceleration (a) is the moving.

My definition of moving, by the way, does not include traveling at a constant speed in the same direction. An object will do that on its own, no force required.

Anyhow, the point is that we need equations in order to make doing science a lot easier, but that doesn't mean that when an equation is involved the concept should be lost. Behind every physics equation is something real, something physical. That's what makes it physics.

How to Boil and Accessorize Eggs

I have continued to obsess over soft boiled eggs (I'm making one RIGHT NOW). Yesterday I went to Koontz Hardware in West Hollywood while I was waiting for my friends and they had a pathetic selection of egg cups. So I went to Etsy which sadly didn't have the selection I dreamed it would. But there were a few awesome handmade egg cups, and also several people making custom knitted "egg hats," or "egg cozies." The hats keep your soft boiled egg warm in its egg cup until you are ready to eat it. Naturally I need one. I plan on hitting the yarn this afternoon (an egg hat seems easy enough, right?). My egg is ready.

Mmmmm, yum. So on another note, I was looking up soft boiled egg suggestions this morning and I got to a blog called "Ask Mr. Breakfast Mr. Breakfast blogged the following:

"I'm not a scientist, in the pompous go-to-science-college sense of the word, but I have a theory. Egg shells are what those fancy scientists call "porous". Basically, that means it has tiny microscopic holes that allow the egg to absorb air. I believe that the air that enters the egg over time creates - what I call - "a little wall of air" between the egg and its shell. Super fresh eggs have hardly any little wall of air at all. Therefore, the egg is all smooshed up against the shell. In the end, it's like a shoe. A tight shoe is hard to remove. A shoe with some room slips right off. Wow, maybe I am a scientist. Is there a test I can take?"

This really got my hackles up. Is that what some people see as science? A "pompous," "go-to-college" thing? I mean nothing against college, I think a higher education is something to be valued, but that's not what science is. Nor is there some "test" that makes one a scientist. As long as science is used in everyday conversation to mean something separated from what we do every day, something associated with old white men in lab coats who are "pompous" something is definitely wrong.

Jay Lemke, a prominent science education researcher with a PhD theoretical physics, puts it this way:

"Why does this mystique of science exist in our society? Whose interests does it serve to maintain that science provides absolute, objective truths whose proofs are accessible only to experts who are much smarter than the average person? I have already suggested that it is not just scientists themselves who benefit from this image. Those I have called "technocrats," professional managers and decision makers who justify their own preferences with selective interpretations of "the facts" and "expert knowledge," benefit far more and are far more dangerous to society. They are dangerous because they disguise their own privileged interests as objective public and institutional policy. They tell us that something must be done because the facts require it. The facts, they say, are provided by the experts, the scientists, and no one who is not a qualified expert has the right to dispute them. In this way, narrow interests are made to seem objective necessities, and policy debate excludes most of the people whose lives will be affected by a decision. That is dangerous. A complex society is headed for disaster when its basic decisions are made solely within the frame of reference of a small elite (From Talking Science, 1990, Ablex Publishing, pg 148)."

P.S. A fresh egg is difficult to peel due to the higher acidity of the egg. Because the egg shell is porous (well done Mr. Breakfast, that is indeed what the "fancy scientists" call it) it loses some of the carbon dioxide in the white over time as air passes through the pores. Less carbon dioxide means lower acidity (corresponding to a higher pH) meaning that the white is less likely to stick to the shell and the egg is easier to peel.

Also check out this formula for soft boiling eggs from the University of Exeter School of Physics
For those who are as nerdy as I am, the derivation is here.

23 December 2009

The End is Near

The end of traditional computing that is. Since my disastrous crash I've remained obsessed with getting as much stuff off of hardware and into the "cloud" as possible. For example I got the beta version of Google Chrome so that I can download extensions. The extensions allow me to make Gmail my default mail application, and seamlessly integrate mail collection into my browsing experience. Goodbye email client! One less thing to crash. I also got an extension that opens an Internet Explorer tab in case I ever get to a page that can only be viewed properly in IE. Goodbye Microsoft proprietary programs that are totally unstable and clunky and I hate them!

My dad is wary of my enthusiasm, arguing that the internet is not reliable, and that he needs to be able to access his data and emails offline. Good point, but Google is working on it (and others too I'm sure). With Google Gears (built into Chrome, downloadable for Mozilla and IE, don't know about Safari or Opera), Google automatically synchs my Gmails to my hard drive, and if I'm offline I can interact inside a Chrome window with the saved emails as if nothing was wrong. Of course I can't send or receive email when I'm offline, but I can write messages that are queued on my hard drive and then sent automatically when I reconnect to the web.

I feel like I'm one of those people in the sixties who built underground bomb shelters filled with canned food to protect against the inevitable Russian attack and the end of the world. But seriously, I'm totally going to be ready for the revolution, and it's going to be awesome. Meanwhile I'll sit here with my canned corn and my wireless radio and use up the air in my bunker.