Thursday, December 18, 2008

What I Am Reading

When I was 19, I got the opportunity to tour a maraschino cherry packing plant. I was in my late twenties before I ate another maraschino cherry after that. Part of that was the thought of the women who spend eight hours a day tucking cherry stems into jars so they would not interfere with establishing a seal on the jar. Mostly, though, it was the dye room. Cherries start off, well, cherry-colored, a shade that bears no resemblance to the color of maraschino cherries. In order to turn them bright--dare I say "cherry"--red (or, fruitcake forbid, green...whose idea is that?) the original color has to be bleached out of them so it doesn't interfere with the food dye. So there we stood, above vats of pretty snow-white cherries, and the tour guide warned us not to breathe too deeply or linger too long in the room.
I'm sure that whatever we were not supposed to be breathing in at the cherry plant is long gone by the time the cherry gets to the top of your sundae or the bottom of your Shirley Temple glass, but still, I could not shake the idea that the pretty white cherries down there were wallowing in something I wasn't supposed to breathe. Pretty much ruined cherries for me for a long time. Given that experience, one would think I would know better than to read Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated Into What America EatsTwinkie, Deconstructed is not an anti-Twinkie manifesto. The Twinkie is merely a narrative device because it embodies the essence of American snack food and includes most of the more common food additives.

The author's young child confronted him with the question every parent dreads: "Daddy, where does polysorbate 60 come from?" At least parents have some firsthand experience with "Where do babies come from?" if not a child-appropriate answer. But polysorbate 60? Other than being something with more than one sorbate, I've got nothing, and I consider myself savy with regard to ingredient lists. "Evaporated cane juice" doesn't fool me for a minute, and I even know what xanthan gum is and why it is in sour cream.

After reading the first section, I now know what goes into enriched bleached flour, and it's the maraschino cherries all over again. It is going to be a long time before I eat thiamine mononitrate, at least not without choking on the thought of what raw materials are used to synthesize it. Lucky for me, I have already switched to exclusively whole grain flours in my cooking, no enrichment needed.

I heartily recommend the book. When making dietary choices, I often ask myself, "What part of this is food?" With things like the deep fried cheesecake at the county fair, it is readily apparent that there isn't any real food there. Reading Twinkie, Deconstructed reminds us just how much non-food is in the stuff that we would normally recognize as food, like bread. Of course, one of the reasons I bake my own bread is that it's nigh on impossible to find a loaf that doesn't contain corn syrup, the subject of the next chapter up in my reading of Twinkie, Deconstructed. Fortunately, I already know it isn't food. I'm sure I will be in for a shock to find out just how non-food it is.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Five Stages of Unemployment

The economy is in the toilet. If only the job market were that good. Employment is somewhere between the septic tank and the leech field. If you haven't lost your job, chances are someone you know has. If not, you are either lucky or next in line for the pink slip yourself.

Jobs are important to people. If the jobs themselves are not important, the things the income provides--food, shelter, TP--are, and losing them can be every bit as traumatic as any other big loss. The five stages of grief have been exhaustively studied, so expect psychologists (the ones still employed, anyway) to move on to the Five Stages of Unemployment.

Stage 1: Panic
Don't listen to the people telling you not to panic. It is perfectly normal. All part of the process. Panic all weekend long--and it will be a weekend For some reason that is probably analyzed at length in MBA programs, Friday tends to be the day to get fired, right before anyone who could possible hire the newly-unemployed person head out for a weekend packed with not looking at resumes. Stage 1 is marked by a fear of what is going to happen, imagining of worst-case financial scenarios, a general sense that the world is falling apart, and mental tallying of all the purchases you have made recently that, in light of your new economic situation, seem downright stupid.

Stage 2: Obsessive Math
This stage is marked by a frantic tally of just how much income you need to keep the necessities going and how long your current liquid assets will allow you to keep a roof over your head. While this stage does not do much to alleviate the panic of Stage 1, it does hone your spreadsheet skills. Remember to insert "Excel proficiency" in the resume.

Stage 3: Throwing Yourself at the Job Market
Once the initial wave of "Holy Crap" subsides, it is replaced by irrational exuberance. Stage 3 is marked by sending updated resumes to any biped with a pulse. Careful here, or you may find yourself working for the emus. Working with the emus is fine. Working for the emus is just asking for trouble.

Stage 4: Assess the Skills You Did Not Realize You Got On The Current Job And Consider Changing Careers
Pretty self explanatory. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Here, you can expect to remain irrationally exuberant, but with some direction, just as long as you didn't get trapped into a long-term contract with the emus.

Stage 5: Develop A Plan
This is the part where rational thought starts to creep back in to the process in earnest and you start to figure out a strategy for job prospecting, making ends meet until some of the prospecting pans out, and dealing with the realistic worst-case scenarios imagined in Phase I (amazing how many of them seem a bit overblown in retrospect).

In the spirit of bad qualitative sociology, the above is not backed up by any research more rigorous than my own experience and that of friends and family who have become economic roadkill.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Turkey Gets Its Revenge

Here at the Rookery, Thanksgiving is just the two of us. Be that as it may, the perverse price incentives of the supermarkets this time of year mean it costs me less to buy a whole turkey than a small chunk of turkey. I can't bring myself to spend $9 on a two-pound turkey breast roast when I can get a whole turkey for around five smackers, so we have lots of turkey leftovers. This situation is not helped by my logic of "At 29 cents a pound, if I'm going to have leftovers, I might as well have lots of leftovers." So I bought a 20 pound bird for something like $5.50. According to Butterball, that will feed a family of 15.

Thanksgiving leftovers are usually the second-best part of Thanksgiving (best part being the non-leftover stuffing). This year, though, we spent Thanksgiving on starch restriction, and as astute celebrators of Thanksgiving will no doubt know, starch is an integral part of the traditional menu. There are ways to work around mashed potatoes. Mashed cauliflower will never fool another potato, but it is not half bad, especially with plenty of cheese. Cranberry sauce can also be worked around with a crock pot, three pounds of apples and a pound and a half of cranberries (doesn't gel, but it still makes a decent condiment and dessert). The rest of the menu, though, is pretty much off the menu. I refuse to defile stuffing by making a carbless mock stuffing, and even if I could have the sweet potatoes, there is no sweetener-free workaround for the marshmallows. I did try something called "Quick and Easy Crustless Pumpkin Pie," slightly modified to use fruit juice instead of the water and sugar the recipe called for. That is a mistake that will not be repeated. Certain things are just not meant to be de-carbed. I can only hope the recipe turns out better when you follow it exactly.

All of that adds up to lots of leftover turkey, and no leftover anything else. I have spent the last several nights seeing how many ways I could integrate turkey into dinner without having "Turkey Dinner." I have discovered something. No matter what I make turkey into, leftover turkey insists on being one thing and one thing only: soup. Turkey marinara plated up as Italian Turkey Soup. Tonight's attempt at Salsa Turkey--turkey, tomatoes, hot peppers, garlic and onions baked in a casserole dish with no added liquid--came out of the oven as Mexi-Turkey Soup. No matter what I do to it, all I get out is variations on turkey soup, and that is without breaking into the five quarts of turkey broth that I made out of the carcass.

If the gobblers can't fly to freedom, they appear intent on drowning us posthumously.