A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Friday, October 15, 2010

The poster child for extinction...

Mauritius is a small island off the coast of Africa, east of Madagascar.  In 1598, Dutch explorers found a large flightless bird there.  The birds were not tasty, prompting them to call them “walghvogel”, or “loathsome bird”.  Extant writings state the meat of the bird tasted bad, but early journals claim the meat was good but tough.  Apparently the local pigeons were tastier.  (Pigeons and doves were relatives of the dodo.) 

Eighty-some years later the dodos were extinct.  This was not so much due to consumption by people and the dogs and pigs they brought, but more so by the destruction of their forest habitat and the cats and rats introduced that destroyed their nests.  Because dodos had no predators before the arrival of the explorers, they likely had no real fear of them.

Judging by the bones that were left (and in 2005 a new cache of bones, determined to be of dodos killed in a flash flood, were found) the dodo was about three feet tall and weighted forty-five pounds.  Because it had stubby wings and a small breastbone this bird was flightless.  Scientists believe that the dodo may have originally been capable of flight, but flight was unnecessary on an island with no predators and readily available food.  Eventually the dodo evolved to its flightless state.

The etymology of the name “dodo” is arguable.  It has been suggested that name is onomatopoeic, however that is impossible to prove.  Yet pigeons and doves make a cooing sound, so it does makes sense.  It has also been ascribed to the Dutch word dodoor meaning “sluggard”, but may also be derivative of the Dutch word dodaars, meaning “knot arse” as it had a cluster or knot of feathers on its hind end.  Apparently dodaerse can be found in the 1602 journal of Dutch Captain Willem van Westsanen.  Others claim that the word comes from the Portuguese doido, meaning crazy or foolish.

All these names show a certain lack of respect for these birds.  Possibly from being somewhat trusting and large, they were thought to be lazy and stupid.  We currently say, “dumb as a dodo”, or “dead as a dodo”.  But humans are the dumb ones.  The demise of of the dodos was over three hundred years ago, yet we continue to destroy habitats and unthinkingly harm other species.  I wonder what other creatures were destroyed at the same time as the dodos, perhaps some insects or bugs, which seem to warrant the least consideration from us. 

Dodos are funny.  They are the arse of many jokes.  What’s not funny is the attitude we take toward them.  We will never know what they were like.  They may have proved to be like parrots, who can have the intelligence of a five-year-old.  In the meantime, we dispatch other species to join them.  I ask you, who are the dumb ones?


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cruciverbalists Unite!

For a couple millenia, people have been playing with words.  Acrostics have been used since the time of the ancient Greeks.  The Romans played with word squares, the most famous one being:


This roughly translates to "The sower Arepo holds the wheels at work."  Arepo is a concocted name, and it's not a particularly meaningful sentence.  But the beauty of the piece is that the words can be read in all four ways:  across, down, up, and backwards.

On September 4, 1890, the first crossword puzzle appeared in the magazine Il Secolo Illustrato della Domenica constructed by Giuseppe Airoldi.  It was called "Per passare il tempo" - "to pass the time".  It was a four-by-four grid with both horizontal and vertical clues with none of the cells shaded.  In 1913, Arthur Wynne published a puzzle he called a "word cross" which later gave way to the term "crossword".   Crossword puzzles are currently popular internationally, although they are constructed differently in various countries.

American crosswords feature grids of white squares, of which usually one-sixth are shaded ones.  The pattern also appears the same when viewed upside down.  The weekday puzzles published in newspapers are 15x15 squares, and the weekend ones are 21x21, 23x23, or 25x25.  The weekday ones are easier.  The New York Times crossword, the most famous of crossword puzzles, is considered the hardest in English.  The Sunday puzzle is the most difficult, prompting actor and puzzle solver Paul Sorvino to call it, "The bitch mother of all crosswords."  The smallest words have no fewer then three letters.  Clues are given, usually separated into "Across" and "Down" columns, all numbered with their corresponding numbers in the cells.  British crosswords are similar, although in both Britain and Australia the grid design resembles a lattice, with a higher number of shaded squares.

Japanese crosswords feature a white cell in all four corners, and no shaded cells can touch.  To make things more difficult, a puzzle can use all three Japanese writing system:  hiragana, kanji, and katakana, all mixed together.  Hebrew puzzles are particularly perplexing since modern Hebrew is written without consonants, which can lead to ambiguities, but more so because Hebrew is written right to left, but Arabic numerals are written left to right.

Italian puzzles are usually oblong and large, 13x21 is typical.  They often use two-letter words, as well. The French also use two-letter words, and theirs can be square or rectangle.  Swedish puzzles don't have separate lists of clues.  Since they don't use shaded cells, the clues are placed in those spots, with vertical and horizontal arrows pointing which direction clues are to be applied.  Other countries use the same template, sometimes taking up an entire page, with photos replacing a shaded cell block.  

There are various tips for solving crosswords.  Being familiar with the author of the puzzle helps.  Young people tend to use more trendy, hip words, while older authors tend to use more classical or common knowledge words.  Sometimes there is a theme to the puzzle, which helps determine what kind of words are used.  Clues with question marks are usually tricks, the answers not being direct.  Answers do correspond grammatically, i.e., a clue in the plural means the answer will be plural.

Lately crosswords have been touted as one way to exercise your brain, even marketed as a deterrent to Alzheimer's or senile forgetfulness.  Personally, I have doubts about this, since my one Sunday ritual has been doing the L.A Times Sunday crossword for decades, and I find myself getting increasingly forgetful!

If you consider yourself a cruciverbalist (from the Latin "cross" and "word"), you may want to join the Crossword Community Center and find kindred souls!


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

You say tea mold, I say kelp tea

Kombucha is a fermented drink with a tea base that has been claimed for centuries in many cultures to have health benefits, mainly as a digestive aid and a way to detox.  Because it is acidic and mildly alcoholic (no, you won’t get drunk on it), it is thought to be antimicrobial.  It’s been proven effective in animal studies, although there are not yet any known human studies.

It is also sometimes called "mushroom" tea, though it doesn’t contain mushrooms.  This name comes from the starter, which is a mass of beneficial yeasts and bacteria forming a cluster.  There are many names for this starter, SCOBY (Symbiotic colony of Bacteria and Yeast) being the more scientific one, and “the mother” being the more common one.  In Russia, where the first recorded history of kombucha exists, it is called “mushroom” or “tea mushroom”.  It is popular in Asia, where the Japanese make it with dried kelp, or kombu, and who gave it the name kombucha, which in Japanese means “kelp tea.”  The Chinese use three words for it, “red tea fungus/mushroom”, “red tea mushroom”, and “tea mold”.  Red tea is simply their interpretation of what we call black tea.

Kombucha tea is not too difficult to make, and much cheaper than buying it if you are a kombucha drinker.  Here’s what you need to make your own:

Starter (store-bought, or from another tea)
Large food-grade glass container with wide mouth
Small glass bottles for pouring the finished product into
pH test strips
Cheesecloth or coffee filters with string or rubber band
Funnel for pouring finished product into bottles

Any type of tea may be used: black, green, oolong, whatever your preference. (Note: "herb" teas are not considered teas for this purpose.) Teas containing oils may require more fermenting and should probably be avoided until you are a "kombucha master." You can use organic cane sugar or refined white sugar. I have not tried honey myself, but a friend who uses it says it takes much longer to brew it using honey.

Like brewing anything, special care must be taken to ensure that you are working in a clean environment with clean utensils (and hands!), using the proper temperature. Care must also be taken to use a low pH factor (between 2.5 and 4.6), as a higher factor could lead to contamination and a lower one will make the tea too acidic. You can use distilled vinegar to control the pH factor. Start with an eighth of a cup. You should test at the beginning and end of the brewing cycle.

Start with about three quarts of boiling water. Add 4-8 tea bags (I prefer strong tea myself, but the choice is yours.) Remove from heat and add one-cup sugar. Once the tea has cooled to room temperature, pour into a food-grade glass container, add the starter, and cover with cheesecloth secured with a rubber band (you can use a coffee filter in a pinch.) Let the tea ferment for one to two weeks - the longer you let it ferment, the sourer it will taste. Make sure it is in a warm place, but not in direct sunlight. You will see a culture develop. Sample by taking a small amount out of the container - do not drink from the container itself! Once it has reached the taste you prefer, remove the culture with very clean hands or preferably clean rubber gloves and place into a clean bowl with enough liquid to keep it moist. Strain the liquid and bottle it. At this point you may add flavorings or fruit (rosehips is tasty!) Let it sit at room temperature for a week to allow the yeast to carbonate the liquid. Capping the bottles tightly will aid the carbonation. Once it is ready you can refrigerate the bottles.

You may want to start a new batch with a small amount of liquid from this batch, which will aid in keeping the pH factor low. Thoroughly clean the food-grade glass container and start the process again, using freshly brewed, sweetened tea and the culture you removed.

As its popularity increases, one can find commercial kombucha more easily, and with a variety of flavorings.  I hesitantly bought a bottle recently that was ginger-flavored.  It had a pleasant taste, and I’m hoping the ginger added to its health value.  Chocolate kombucha?  Nah, I’ll pass.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Homely, but forgetful...

When I was in India I liked to read the matrimonials.  “Homely girl with PhD in Sanskrit.”  “Homely” does not mean ugly, as it does here, but rather a woman who can keep a nice home, which includes the cooking arts.  This seems to be and has been a standard for women worldwide, and at one time in the U.S. a woman’s reputation was made or broken by her abilities in the kitchen.  To aid a woman’s memory, recipes were written in rhymes, common in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth.

Rhyming Recipes could be written in any verse form, but couplets seem to have been the most popular.  A classic one for salad dressing is by Sydney Smith, an English writer and Anglican clergyman who was also a member of the Bluestockings:

Two boiled potatoes strained through a kitchen sieve,
Softness and smoothness to the salad give;
Of mordant mustard take a single spoon,
Distrust the condiment that bites too soon!
Yet deem it not, thou man of taste, a fault
To add a double quantity of salt.
Four times the spoon with oil of Lucca crown,
And twice wine vinegar procured from town;
True taste it requires it and your poet begs
The pounded yellow of two well-boiled eggs.
Let onion’s atoms lurk within the bowl
And, scarce suspected, animate the whole.
And lastly in the flavoured compound toss
A magic spoonful of anchovy sauce.
Oh, great and glorious!
Oh herbaceous met!
‘Twould tempt the dying Anchorite to eat.
Back to the world he’d turn his weary soul
And plunge his fingertips in the salad bowl.

The Nebraska State Historical Society offers one from 1903 for bread. 

A book was published in Boston by Hattie A. Burr around 1886, The Woman Suffrage Cook Book (a second edition – 1890 - copy is available online for $750).  It included recipes from many famous suffragettes, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton who offered this breakfast dish :

Cut smoothly from a wheaten loaf
Ten slices, good and true,
And brown them nicely, o'er the coals,
As you for toast would do.

Prepare a pint of thickened milk,
Some cod-fish shredded small;
And have on hand six hard-boiled eggs,
Just right to slice withal.

Moisten two pieces of the bread,
And lay them in a dish,
Upon them slice a hard-boiled egg,
Then scatter o'er with fish.

And for a seasoning you will need
Of pepper just one shake,
Then spread above the milky juice,
And this one layer make.

And thus, five times, bread, fish and egg,
Or bread and egg and fish,
Then place one egg upon the top,
To crown this breakfast dish.

Here is a modern one that I made up for soup.  It was my favorite recipe when I was working full-time, going to school, and had a busy life:

Choose a flavor and open the can.
Then carefully pour it into a pan.
Place on stove and turn on the heat.
Warm until it’s ready to eat.
Ladle into bowls, serve with crackers.
Share it with some other slackers.


Monday, October 11, 2010

"I like it on..."

Don’t get excited.  Despite the sexual innuendo, this refers to where a woman likes to keep her purse …the floor …the couch …the kitchen counter …wherever.  This is Facebook’s attempt to create breast cancer awareness.  Also on Facebook is SC Johnson’s “Pink my Profile” app where one can tint their profile photo to show support.  Many, many groups and companies have campaigns for the annual October Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  But from all reports, while these might create some awareness, they are not creating an increase in donations for breast cancer research.

According to the National Institutes of Health, from figures compiled by the CDC and the American Cancer Society in 2006, the leading causes of death for American women are heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, COPD, and finally breast cancer, with heart disease far and away the greatest killer.  Thus said, this is not to belittle the efforts toward breast cancer awareness, but to examine the tactics of the businesses who pander to it.  For instance, Astra Zeneca, the seventh largest pharmaceutical company in the world, sponsors the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which began in 1985.  NBCAM is a partnership of government agencies, medical associations, and national public service organizations whose aim is to promote awareness.  Their website is impressive, but is copyrighted by the Astra Zenica Healthcare Foundation, which to my mind makes its data questionable (though not necessarily wrong), especially since they are the manufacturers of the breast cancer drugs Arimidex and Tamoxifen.

Of course, it is sadly not unusual for groups to create a lot of hoopla that in the end adds to their bank accounts.  I just wish they hadn't done it with this issue, which is near and dear to my heart.  The symbol for breast cancer awareness is a pink ribbon.  A history and explanation of the pink ribbon, "pinkwashing", and "slacktivism", along with an interesting description of medical sociologist Gayle Sulik's book Pink Ribbon Blues:  How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women's Health, can be seen here.  

Breast cancer has a history that is long and slow in advancement.  It is one of the oldest types of cancers written about, presumably because it is more readily observable compared to internal cancers.  The Edwin Smith papyrus, written in Egyptian hieratic script in the sixteenth century, is based on material from an ancient Egyptian text on trauma surgery.  It covers eight cases of breast tumors that were treated by cauterization.  It also stated that the disease was untreatable.

In the seventeenth century there was enough understanding about the circulatory system that doctors were able to connect breast cancer with lymph nodes.  Successful surgeries removing breast tissue, lymph nodes, and the chest muscle beneath during that century enabled the work of William Stewart Halsted, who began performing mastectomies in 1882.  The "Halsted radical mastectomy" usually involved the removal of both breasts, associated lymph nodes and chest muscle.  This form of surgery became the standard, and is still implemented today.  In the 1970s, because medicine could now recognize systemic illness due to a new understanding of metastasis, effective but less radical procedures were developed.

In the 1920s mammograms were invented, which enabled detection of a breast tumor before it had a chance to greatly develop.  With an 85% efficacy rate, it remains a very valid preventative measure.  In 1994  and 1995, the discovery was made of two genetic mutations that could cause breast cancer - BRCA1 and BRCA2.  In 2002 a third mutation was discovered - BRCA3.  These mutations explain that some families share a propensity toward breast cancer.  Someone whose mother, grandmother, aunt, or sister had or has breast cancer is advised to get a mammogram at the same age their relative was first diagnosed, or by the age of 35, whichever is sooner.

Breast cancer is not just a woman's disease.  It happens to men, too, but at a much lower rate, usually occurring between the ages of sixty and seventy.  Family history is an important indication for men to be concerned with as well.  In 2009, the third week of October was designated "Male Breast Cancer Awareness Week" by the advocacy groups Out of the Shadow of Pink, The Brandon Greening Foundation for Breast Cancer in Men, and A Man's Pink.

While I am dismayed at the way this disease has been taken advantage of by some businesses and groups  for their own interests, I have nothing but love and respect for breast cancer patients and survivors.  To the people I know and love, and to all the rest who have dealt with it or must deal with it currently, my best thoughts and wishes go out to you.  This month and every month.