Grow Your Own

Russell has the proverbial green thumb. He’s been growing his own vegetables up in Detroit for some time, and before we came up to Maine he gave us some plants to bring along.

We’ve replanted the vegetables into a little bed I’ve created among the rocks, with some garden soil and cow manure mixture added to the native Stonington soil to give them a kick start. I’ve been attentive to watering as do weeding, and I’m happy to report that our Detroit transplants are thriving in the cooler Maine climate and are growing like crazy. They are pretty to look at, too.

Our little garden plot includes broccoli, celery, kale, lettuce, and Brussels sprouts. We’ve already eaten some of the kale, which was quite good — but I suppose it’s natural to think that when the food is fresh and something you have grown yourself. Now, if only I liked broccoli . . . .

Boxed Lunch Roulette

Yesterday I went to a professional event over the noon hour where every attendee got a boxed lunch.  At such events, the boxed lunches are grouped and stacked by the kind of sandwich printed on the outside, and you make your choice, take your box back to your seat, and hope for the best.

lunch_boxI say “hope for the best,” because when it comes to boxed lunches there’s a significant element of risk involved.  Sure, you can choose whether you want “roast beef” or “chicken salad” or “Italian” or “a wreck” (whatever that is), but of course the sandwich descriptions barely scratch the surface of the important information you’d like to know in deciding what to have for lunch.  At a restaurant, you’d be able to make choices about the bread to be used, find out what is put on the sandwich and add or subtract as you see fit, and pick your side dish, but in the boxed lunch scenario you’ve got none of those options.  You’ve got a mound of closed boxes in front of you, and it wouldn’t be seemly to start opening them up and pawing through the contents to determine which box is best suited to you.

Yesterday I went for the grilled chicken sandwich box. The grilled chicken came on a sub bun and — inevitably! — had lots of sliced tomato and shredded lettuce and other vegetable matter on top.  In the boxed lunch world, the prevailing assumption is that everyone will want every conceivable vegetable on their sandwich.  Call it the highest, or lowest, common denominator effect.  I despise both tomato and shredded lettuce, so I had to figure out how to remove them.  Since there was no utensil in the box, I removed the offending items by hand, which was a messy operation that created a small mound of unappetizing, limp vegetable matter in the box.  Add to that the fact that once shredded lettuce is added to a boxed sandwich it can never be fully removed because it tends to adhere to the bread and hide in cracks and crevices of the meat, and you’ve captured one aspect of boxed lunch roulette.

There’s more, of course.  With a standard boxed lunch, you get a side and a dessert.  Usually the side is a bag of potato chips or Doritos, but sometimes, if you’re lucky, it’s a small fruit bowl or edible pasta salad.  Yesterday it was barbecue-flavored potato chips, which equates to a losing spin on the wheel.  I’ve not conducted a scientific study, but I have to believe that barbecue potato chips appeal to only a tiny, tastebud-challenged segment of the American population.  Lacking the ability to appreciate delicate and nuanced food flavors and spices, this poor group must opt for chips coated in heavy, dusty, quasi-sugary artificial flavoring that stains your fingers red as you eat them.  I therefore passed on the chips and found myself wondering — if you’re making boxed lunches, why not just opt for regular potato or kettle chips, rather than pushing the envelope with something like barbecue or ranch or vinegar flavoring?  But although the side was a dud, the dessert was a positive — an oatmeal cookie that I saved and brought home to share with Kish.

Ultimately I got a pretty good sandwich after the vegetable removal process was completed, skipped potato chips that I shouldn’t have eaten anyway, and brought home a good cookie.  All told, I’d say I broke even in yesterday’s exercise in lunch box roulette.

Salad ‘Speriment

I’m posting this because I’m hoping that my doctor might see it.

He’s been after me to change my eating habits.  It’s the same old tiresome nanny-like refrain — eat less meat, and when you do eat meat, make it chicken or turkey, and try to eat more fish, and eat more leafy green vegetables.  Lots more vegetables.  Except in my case, the latter request means eat any leafy green vegetables, because I loathe them with every fiber of my being and typically avoid them like the plague.  There are sound scientific reasons for doing so, and anyway you can plausibly argue that the U.S. Supreme Court, deep down, agrees with me.

IMG_0092But you have to listen to your doctor, don’t you?  And when you’re past the double-nickel milestone, you feel like you really should listen to your doctor.  You’re supposed to be wise and savvy at that point, and after all, you’re paying the guy.  And who knows?  Maybe with that M.D. degree he might actually have some useful insight into how I might actually be able to avoid the many appalling health calamities that routinely seem to strike down men my age.

So today, when I went out to lunch with an astonished associate from the firm, I ordered a salad.  This is the first lunch salad I’ve ever ordered.  In fact, it’s the first salad of any type I’ve ever ordered.  In fact, it’s the first salad I’ve actually consumed.  It was an arugula and spinach salad with cranberries and goat cheese and grilled butternut squash, with grilled chicken on the side to make it palatable and some kind of dressing.

And I ate every bit of it, Dr. Z!  Every bit!  Because I was hungry, and would have eaten the plate!  Are you satisfied?  Because I have to tell you that the entire time I was munching on the leafy green items that apparently are my failsafe ticket to long life, I was thinking of a cheeseburger.

The Arugula Initiative

Every year, when I go to the doctor for my annual physical, I hear the same thing:  you need to change your diet.  Consume less red meat, try to eat more fish, and — especially — eat more vegetables.  So, as the date of my annual physical nears, I always find myself trying to choke down some green, leafy item so that I can tell my doctor, in good faith, that I’m trying.  I’m like the kid who hopes to make up for months of complete inattention to dental hygiene by brushing and flossing diligently on the morning of his dentist’s appointment.

IMG_4810The doctor isn’t fooled by this charade, and I feel bad that I am not more compliant with his instructions.  He’s a doctor, after all, and has gone through years of education and training that allow him to say, with absolute conviction and sincerity, that I should eat more vegetables.  The problem is that I just don’t like vegetables!  At a restaurant, I’ll always order soup rather than salad — or if the soup options are of the gazpacho variety, I’ll just eat bread until my steak, medium rare, is brought to the table.

Fortunately, my lovely wife has come up with a solution to this problem.  It’s called arugula.  When she first asked if I liked arugula, I thought she was referring to that part of the human body that hangs down from the roof of your mouth at the back of your throat.  Instead, it is a leafy vegetable that looks like a weed from your garden and has a spicy taste.  Who knew?  It turns out that if you apply some tart vinaigrette dressing and add some parmesan cheese and blueberries or nuts to a bowl of arugula, it is reasonably edible.

So, we’ve been eating arugula lately, to the point where we must be mindful of arugula fatigue.  Arugula farmers the world over are celebrating the arrival of another convert to arugulaism.  And, when I go in to see my doctor for my check-up in a few weeks, I’ll be able to tell him I’ve been eating more vegetables — and for once my statement will have the incidental merit of being true.

Organic Odyssey

First Lady Michelle Obama apparently is a big fan of vegetable gardens, organic food, and healthy eating.  She encouraged a group that runs farmers markets in the D.C. metropolitan area to set up a market near the White House, and on Thursday she decided to visit the market to buy some “organic Tuscan kale.”  This story — which emphasized how her one visit inconvenienced workers and residents in the area, the “carbon footprint” of her one block drive to the market accompanied by Secret Service agents and staff, and how much the hoity toity offerings at the market cost — was the result.  

Mrs. Obama thinks that organic foods are important to healthy eating.  Although a recent study in the United Kingdom disputes that conclusion — and although I personally wouldn’t recognize “organic Tuscan kale,” much less eat it, under any circumstances — supporting healthy eating seems like as good a “First Lady cause” as any.  Her experience with the farmers’ market just confirms that the First Family lives in a fishbowl, where legitimate security concerns make it impossible for the President, or the First Lady, to do simple everyday things without great dislocation and expense.  Articles like the linked piece inevitably will result.

A bigger concern for the Obamas, I think, is that emphasizing much more expensive organic kale, or free range animals, or eggs laid by chickens in the wild, is going to strike many Americans who are going through tough economic times as weird and totally out of touch.  A home vegetable garden, which Mrs. Obama planted at the White House earlier this year, is just fine.  A visit to an upscale market that features “organic dandelion greens” for $12 a pound, when many Americans are dining on the cheapest box of Kraft macaroni and cheese to save a few bucks, sends a message that probably isn’t helpful to the President.  Talking about her discussions about vegetables with “kings” and “queens,” as she did on Thursday, doesn’t seem like a good message, either.

So It Begins . . . .

According to this story, some Senators are beginning to consider ways to pay for the proposed health care plan.  My guess is that, if a health care plan passes, it will be paid for by a series of different taxes, many of which will be viewed as taxing “unhealthy” activities — like drinking the “sugary soft drinks” noted in the article.   Such taxes are in line with the “sin taxes” that are routinely imposed by governments, such as taxes on cigarettes.

We therefore may see taxes on dietary choices — like eating meat, or eating Twinkies.  As a non-vegetable eater who occasionally enjoys a bowl of sugary breakfast cereal, I’m probably in trouble.

Once you begin to tax activities, however, it is difficult to decide where to draw the line.  Is drinking a “sugary soft drink” any more risky than, say, mountain-climbing or water-skiing?  Should  taxes to raise revenues for health care programs be viewed as a kind of “user fee” designed to raise revenue from those who are most likely to use the health care programs, much like the user fees imposed on individuals who camp in national parks?

General Tso

General Tso

General Tso

When I go to a Chinese restaurant, I often order General Tso’s chicken. I like it because it is a meat-oriented dish, not served larded with a bunch of limp, overcooked vegetables. If you go to a place that makes it with broccoli, of course, you just ask that they make it without the broccoli, and then you end up with a dish of rice, chicken, and a tasty sauce. It is very good lunch-time fare.

Because I like General Tso’s chicken, I thought it was only appropriate to pay homage to General Tso himself — regardless of whether he invented the dish, or whether he enjoyed the dish and made it popular among his troops. I envisioned General Tso cooking as a hobby, or perhaps serving his chicken concoction to his legions of troops huddled at the base of the Great Wall. In either case, he obviously was a man of good taste and breeding, richly deserving of the immortal fame that accompanies commemoration on the Webnerhouse blog. Imagine my disappointment in learning that General Tso — although an actual Qing dynasty historical figure, pictured above — had nothing to do with the meal which bears his name. Not only is it believed that General Tso never even tasted the dish, it is suspected that the dish originated in America, not China! O, rank heresy! This discovery has shaken to the core my belief that ethnic restaurants are, in fact, reflective of actual ethnic cuisine. Why, it would be like learning that hamburgers and french fries aren’t American inventions.

Vegetable Week: A Non-Green Life

As I have noted already, I don’t like the taste, texture, or smell of vegetables. Why would anyone want to eat something that is squishy, or slimy, or shot full of seeds? I suspect tht many people, deep down, share these views. Does anyone honestly believe, for example, that broccoli smells wonderful? If they could make an independent, guilt-free choice, would anyone really choose a forkful of cauliflower over a spoonful of Frosted Flakes?

I admit, however, that there is more to my anti-vegetable stance than just my physical revulsion at the thought of eating vegetables. I freely confess that, as time has passed and more people have learned about my curious eating habits, my refusal to eat vegetables has become a noteworthy part of my persona. I’m otherwise an unremarkable person, and at least this trait is somewhat memorable. And I’ve gained some unusual skills — just hand me a fork and watch me use the tines to deftly remove banana peppers, chopped celery, or other botanical foodstuffs from my plate and see if you disagree. I’ve also developed a useful set of rationalizations to help to explain why I’ll eat some items but not others. Corn, for example, is technically a grain, like wheat or barley, so corn on the cob is an approved menu item, and potatoes and yams are tubers, so french fries are okay.

I also enjoy the reactions I get when I explain this all to people. Years ago, when I worked at Alpine Village in Lake George, New York after my freshman year in college, one of my co-workers was a nursing student named Ceal. My eating habits plainly disturbed her. After I told her that I didn’t eat vegetables, she asked what I took for “roughage.” When I told her I did not take anything, she unconsciously backed away from me, as if I might experience an abdominal explosion at any second. So far, at least, it still hasn’t happened.

Vegetable Week: The Cultural Impact

Another way to assess the value of vegetables versus meats is to look at their impact on our culture. In that regard, vegetables fare very poorly indeed. Many of our holidays revolve around preparing and eating a traditional meat dish, such as the Thanksgiving turkey. If you go to a baseball game, you have a hot dog. The characters in American Graffiti keep returning to a particular hamburger stand that is the locus of their cruising activities. In America, there is an entire genre of restaurants — the steakhouse — that celebrates meat consumption by featuring particular cuts of beef and, typically, oversized portions. There is, of course, nothing comparable on vegetable side. People don’t eat a beet at a hockey game, or feast on the broccoli casserole at Christmas, or hang out at the fava bean palace on a Friday night.

Of course, another way to measure cultural impact is to consider poetry, and literature, and song. In these categories, too, meat blows vegetables out of the water. Consider:

But man is a carnivorous production
And must have meals – at least once a day;
He cannot live, like woodcocks, upon suction,
But, like the shark and tiger, must have prey.

Lord Byron (1788-1824)
‘Don Juan’ (1821)

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.

Robert Burns

And then there is Shakespeare:

‘Brutus’ will start a spirit as soon as ‘Caesar’
Now in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,
That he is grown so great?

Julius Caesar, Act I, sc. 2, l. 146

And, as to song, I give you Tom Waits:

Vegetable Week: Convenient Darwinism, Revisited

I have previously noted, see Convenient Darwinism, that the theory of natural selection is a flexible one that permits all kinds of odd arguments. For example, I would argue that we are genetically predisposed to crave meat. There is a biological basis for this argument. Scientific studies (see, e.g., here and here) suggest that the reason that the human brain evolved to its current size is because, at some point in the prehistoric past, the diets of human ancestors changed. These distant ancestors began to eat meat, and their brains grew. Indeed, some scientists conclude that the inclusion of meat in the diet, with its protein and high-caloric content, was essential to supporting the high-energy consumption qualities of the advanced human brain.

You could also argue that the theory of natural selection suggests that eating meat promoted bigger brains and keener intelligence for another reason. Eating plants doesn’t present much of an intellectual challenge. You see a plant, tear it out of the ground, and eat it. It is so unchallenging that the most tiny-brained creatures on Earth can do it. Eating meat, on the other hand, imposed much greater intellectual challenges. The animal from which the meat must be taken was desperately trying to avoid that fate, and therefore our ancestors needed to figure out how to track, trap, and kill the unwilling prey and then butcher and cook its meat. Those difficult tasks encouraged cooperation, language, social behavior, and the development of tools, among other things. The puny, weak-brained primates who couldn’t figure these challenges out were less likely to survive to reproduce; whereas the studly, brainy hunters thrived. And, from a social standpoint, the choices would be easy. If you were wandered across the savannah in Africa 2 million years ago, would you rather be a member of a dull-witted tribe that sat around munching dimly on grasses, ferns and brussel sprouts in a cold damp cave, or part of an active, fun-loving tribe that consumed sizzling haunches of meat around a roaring campfire and then, sated, talked animatedly about how to bring down that wild boar that had been seen around the neighborhood?

So, don’t listen to those who argue that our “natural” state requires a diet of vegetables. Stand up for bigger brains, social behavior, and tools! Stand up, and let your inner hunter/gatherer roar!

Vegetable Week: Curse of the Health Nazis

One of the worst aspects of our modern society is that we constantly are hectored and beset by the well-meaning yet firm advice of so-called experts on all manners of personal choices that used to be left up to individuals to decide — such as what to eat. The news is filled with all kinds of “studies” that tell us what is good for us and what is not. “Nutritionists,” “healthy living” activists, vegans, and other zealots feel free to lecture us about why we are making “bad choices.”

When you’ve lived long enough, and pay any kind of attention to the news, you come to realize that many of the studies turn out to be wrong, and the “conventional wisdom” often is misguided. The first “health scares” I recall hearing about as a kid involved cyclamates and “red dye no. 2,” both of which were found to be harmless in later studies. We have heard that salt might be good, neutral, or bad; we’ve changed the “food pyramid”; we’ve countlessly revisited whether drinking milk is healthy or not; and we’ve made countless other modifications in “recommended” food choices as new “studies” have been published that contradicted the allegedly scientific “studies” that were published only a few years earlier. Junkfood science is an interesting website the debunks some of the prevailing views on food choices, including the recent “study” that was reported as indicating that diets with red meat are linked with decreased life expectancy.

So, don’t cite a bunch of studies in arguing that I should eat vegetables rather than meats, grains, and cheeses. My view is just that people should be free to make their own decisions, without having to endure the criticisms of sanctimonious advocates. If you actually want to eat slimy vegetables rather than a juicy cheeseburger for lunch, that’s fine by me. Just don’t tell me that I am making unwise health choices, or act like you are holier than thou because you picking something disgusting to eat rather than something delicious.

Vegetable Week: Nix v. Hedden

One of the great, yet underappreciated, Supreme Court opinions ever published was Nix v. Hedden, in 1893. In that seminal decision, the Court wrestled with the weighty question of whether a tomato is a “vegetable,” or a “fruit,” within the meaning of the Tariff Act of 1883. The entire decision, including title, reporter’s note, background description, and the Court’s opinion itself consume only four pages of the U.S. Reports, and the opinion of Mr. Justice Gray is a mere two pages long, with nary a footnote in sight.

The Court’s opinion was straightforward. It unanimously found that there was no evidence that the words “fruit” and “vegetable” had acquired any special meaning in trade or commerce. As a result, the words used in the Tariff Act had to be given their ordinary meaning. The Court then applied the ultimate test — namely, when are tomatoes served during a dinner meal? The Court reasoned: “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables, which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with or after the soup, fish or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.” In short, because no rational person would consume a tomato for dessert, it must be a vegetable.

It’s too bad we have moved beyond the days when the Supreme Court could address truly momentous legal issues, like whether a tomato should be deemed a fruit or a vegetable. In any case, Nix v. Hedden is a very helpful authority to cite when smart-alecks — like my good friend Dr. Science — argue that my anti-vegetable stance should not extend to tomatoes because, botanically speaking, they are properly classified as a fruit. Take that, Dr. Science! The Supreme Court as spoken, and as a lawyer I am bound to follow precedent.

Vegetable Week: The Legacy of Frau Graf

It all began, I think, when my youngest sister, Jean, was born. I was six years old.

When my mother went to the hospital to deliver a child — and Jean was her fifth — Gramma Neal would pay for a caregiver to stay with us while Mom was in the hospital. In those days, women who delivered babies were in the hospital for a week or so, so the selection of the caregiver was a big deal to Jim, Cath, Margaret and me. Our favorite caregiver was a kind woman named Della, who would make us milkshakes (using ice milk rather than ice cream) and grilled cheese sandwiches. On the occasion of Jean’s birth, however, Della apparently was not available, so our caregiver was a tough, no-nonsense woman named Mrs. Graf. She was a strict disciplinarian, to put it mildly. One day when Jim returned home from school a few minutes late, she tugged his ear (just like you would see in a Little Rascals short) until it was red and he hollered in pain.

For one fateful dinner, she served stewed tomatoes. They were, arguably, the most unappetizing food imaginable — pink and skinless, translucent and veiny, served on a wet dish covered in watery juice shot full of seeds. No rational person would eat them, and I refused. She forced me to do so, upon pain of corporal punishment. They were disgusting and made me physically ill, and I think I have hated vegetables ever since. Now, I’m not saying that I would have grown to like vegetables, even if Frau Graf hadn’t forced me to eat them some 46 years ago. There is no doubt, however, that her insistence that I eat stewed tomatoes contributed to my steadfast disdain for all vegetable matter. And I’m equally sure that, every time I turn down a salad or ask that my entree be served without vegetables on the plate, the six-year-old lurking inside me thinks: “Hah! Take that, Mrs. Graf!”

Welcome to Vegetable Week

Anyone who knows me knows that I do not like vegetables and do not eat them. This has been a fundamental part of my character for decades. I am now more than 50 years old, and I am not going to change, no matter how dire the health warnings or how curious the looks may be. In recognition of my lifelong dislike for vegetables, I hereby declare this to be “Vegetable Week” on the Webnerhouse blog. I will try to provide some commentary on vegetables, why they suck, and why people should stand up and refuse to eat them, no matter how guilty health nazis try to make them feel about their food choices.

I suspect that many people share my disdain for vegetables, and believe, deep down, that vegetables look disgusting, smell bad, and taste worse. In hopes of ferreting out people’s true feelings about vegetables, I have instituted the first Webnerhouse poll: