Sunday, November 25, 2007

The daily bread

About a year ago, I wondered here about the projected impact of climate change on our food and also remarked on the newly hospitable climate for olive trees in southern England. Today I learned some smart minds were studying the topic and more.

The developed world will go through some unpleasant dislocations. But the poor countries are about to get really screwed again. They'll be the ones to go really hungry.

The rest of us still have resources to get us through the climate transition.

"For the truly pessimistic, there is always the "doomsday vault," a seed bank being constructed in a Norwegian mountainside that nations around the world are stocking with every kind of seed imaginable."

Or do we?

"After all, you never know what kind of plant trait is going to save humanity if the climate makes an unexpected turn, said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which is leading the effort and who has boasted that the vault will be protected in part by the region's polar bears."

Polar bears? What polar bears? Hasn't Fowler heard? They won't be here anymore! Get another plan!

It is difficult to imagine that for the generations to come, one's daily bread won't be quite a serious matter.

Oh, well, we'll adapt. It won't be fun, but for eons to come we'll still be here. (As the Washington Post article implies, GMO is the answer to crops that withstand saltier water, drier weather, encroaching desert and chronic floods from hurricanes and typhoons.) And by "we" I mean humanity, not you and I. For us, it is probably too late for adaptation. We probably face a dotage in which our descendants tire of stories about the old days' cornucopia, of the reminiscences of seasons and the useless nostalgia for a Pacific Northwest free of tropical pests.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Argentina R Us

For some years now, I'd say since the first Bush president, it has occurred to me that the USA was inexorably sliding towards a position once enjoyed by Argentina. In the early 20th century, Argentina was one of the world's richest countries, prompting the phrase "to be rich like an Argentine." Argentina was a top immigration destination for Italians in the 20th century because of the economic opportunity it offered. Of course, not EVERYONE was rich. The society was stratified into rich and poor, with little in-between.

As the lower economic groups and the middle class felt increasingly pinched by the fallout of bad industrialization and landowning policies, they came under the sway of populist politics and its false promises. During the decades of the Peronist populist era, Argentina was bled dry so that by the 1960s the whole world would "tsk tsk" over the country's fall. Essentially, the government spent money it did not have to buy, to put it baldly, votes, until it had no more to spend.

This situation set the stage for the gross distraction in the form of the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1970s which saw up to 20,000 men, women and children either disappeared, or victims of torture and murder (I say children for this reason: I sat next to an Argentine women on a plane some time ago, who told me she'd moved to the U.S. after her brother almost died. Eventually the whole story came out. He'd been a boy scout leader, who due to illness had not been able to accompany the troop to a field trip, during which the entire group was ambushed and massacred by goons. It turned out that the other troop leader had been suspected by the military to be running a communist cell with the scouts. After learning this appalling rationale for their wholesale slaughter, the woman and her family left the country. Plus, there were babies born in torture chambers and secretly given up for adoption.)

During this infamous period, Argentina was also suckered into borrowing billions from global banks. Ok, they didn't HAVE to borrow it. But petrodollars were flooding into the banks, and they had to put them somewhere, and they offered the bankrupt Argentine government what appeared to be a way out of the hole. Public banks had reached the limit of what they could lend. So private banks GLADLY stepped into the breach. When the loans came due, Argentina could not pay and the "debt crisis" vicious cycle began.

During these decades of crisis, who was the most revered figure? Eva Peron, possibly the single biggest source of all their problems. And who was left unaffected? The descendants of those landowners and industrialists who made sure the structural changes required to reform Argentina never happened.

Now, in some ways, this is what we have going on here where not only are the poor bankrupt, but so is the government and many in the middle class. Private banks have laid out loans to people who cannot repay them (OK, they didn't HAVE to borrow) and will now lose their homes. Savings are below zero and spending is out of line with earnings.

We are distracted by sodden celebrities, meaningless flag waving and immigrant scapegoating, while we face an economic abyss. Ronald Reagan' funeral was a celebration of forgetfulness over the man who started it all. Structurally, it is hard to imagine economic reform that isn't killed by the agro, pharma and military industrial complexes and the spawn of Wall Street.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Black Sesame

Japanese cuisine has never been one of my absolute favorites, but on my recent trip there I was happy to discover several native foods that perfectly match my palate. Black sesame is one. I don't know that the flavor of the seed itself is any different from the white version, but I can tell you that the black sesame crackers, mochi and as in this photo, ice cream, were among the very best culinary memories I brought back with me.

Caveat: I have been known to bang the drum for sweets that find no takers among my circle. Red or mung bean paste desserts leave most people wondering if they can ever again take seriously my food recommendations. Same thing happens when I recommend avocado milk shakes (with chocolate!). But a food culture that can make a bland bean into a sweet confection is one I can really respect. Hey, it's nutritious!

I discovered on the web that this ice cream, on your right in the picture - with a delicate but distinct nutty flavor -- can be obtained here in NYC. I'll be stopping by next time I'm in the area.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Chestnut Nostalgia

It is one of my comfort foods. Resistant to cultivation outside its native geography, and forced to unequivocally mark the arrival of autumn and autumn alone, the edible chestnut is something to look forward to this time of year if you are lucky enough to live in its environs. It is not just a great snack on its own -- sweet but not a bit cloying like a persimmon, that other wonderful autumn fruit, can be. It is healthy and nourishing if simply roasted or boiled. It takes me way, way back to the days of chilly legs poking out of my scratchy tweed coat with the velvet cuffs, standing on frosty cobblestones for a parent to hand me the warm paper cone of singed chestnuts, with the aroma of charcoal and burnt peel wafting around us. The farinata of chestnut taken with a glass of red wine in Florence on days prior to Christmas as the temperature plunged is a memory of adulthood.

So while in Japan last month, I was delighted to learn that there the chestnut is even more evident in autumn than in Italy. It was difficult to find them roasted, but no problem finding chestnut as a sweet paste in mochi, as soft serve ice cream with tiny nuggets of chestnut meat, as filling for a fist-sized pancake, as flour for cookies or crackers, as a glacee or in the center of chocolates. Every sweet vendor -- and there are many -- had their own version of the seasonal treat. What heaven. This cake is an example of what I encountered, even if unfortunately I did not get around to sampling this one being quite sated already with that day's intake of chestnut wafers.

Luckily, less than one week after returning from chestnut land, I stumbled upon a menu item here in Portland at the well-regarded Giorgio's that compensated for this area's relative lack of a chestnut season: home-made chestnut tortellini in an apple and celery coulis. Delicate, light, the sweetness of each ingredient nicely balanced, the dish is highly recommended. Go now as chestnut season will soon be over.