22 June 2015

The Charleston Shooting and Making Medieval Bodies

I've been thinking a lot about Charleston this week, and all the other recent shootings and cop-on-civilian violence. Trying to figure out how I can engage beyond ranting at friends and family.

I'd already been thinking about making my (MA-level) Middle English literature course about bodies -- normative bodies, "other" bodies -- and it occurs to me that I can push that in the direction of figuring out how we got to this place where we believe some bodies are more important than others.

Potential texts for the syllabus:

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Canterbury Tales: General Prologue, Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, Miller's Tale, Prioress's Tale
Troilus and Criseyde?
The Second Shepherds' Play
Sir Orfeo
The Knight with the Lion
The Hereford Mappa Mundi
The Tale of Two Married Women and the Widow
The Book of Margery Kempe
Travels of Sir John Mandeville
Maybe one or two of Marie de France's Lais

selections from The King's Two Bodies
Karl Steel's essay on making the human
something by Carolyn Dinshaw
selections from Metzler's book on medieval disability
excerpts from Lisa Lampert-Weissig's book on medieval poco
Asa Mittman's essay, "Are the Monstrous Races Races?"
Gillian Rudd on Sir Gawain
An essay from Medieval Masculinities
Something on medieval anti-semitism

It's probably too much. Maybe I'll ask each of the students to choose two of the essays, and report on them for the rest of the class.

I'm open to suggestions. I'd love suggestions, in fact.

19 June 2015

Dylann Roof and Mainstream Racism

Dylann Roof: "you've raped our women, and you are taking over the country."

Donald Trump on Mexicans: "They're rapists.... I will build a great, great wall on our southern border."

Jeb Bush on what he likes to read: "I like Charles Murray books to be honest with you." Murray is the author of The Bell Curve. He claims:
social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor.... disadvantaged groups are disadvantaged because, on average, they cannot compete with white men, who are intellectually, psychologically and morally superior.
The rationale for the Confederacy:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth...
South Carolina still flies the Confederate Flag. Still think Dylann Roof is a lone wolf?

12 June 2015

Most Commonly Used Words: All the Presidents

Luke DuBois at Hindsight Is Always 2020 has charted the most common words used by each of the presidents. The results are historically embedded, but the differences are fascinating. Here's the most common word used by each president:

Washington: gentlemen
Adams: France
Jefferson: limits
Madison: enemy
Monroe: parties
Adams: mutual
Jackson: bank
Van Buren: results
Tyler: Texas
Polk: Oregon
Taylor: empire
Fillmore: deem
Pierce: central
Buchanan: slavery
Lincoln: emancipation
Johnson: republican
Grant: products
Hayes: coinage
Arthur: likely
Cleveland: treatment
Harrison: wages
Cleveland: reserve
McKinley: Puerto
Roosevelt: corporations
Taft: procedure
Wilson: processes
Harding: relationship
Coolidge: veterans
Hoover: unemployment
Roosevelt: democratic
Truman: Soviet
Eisenhower: nuclear
Kennedy: alliance
Johnson: tonight
Nixon: truly
Ford: barrels
Carter: US
Reagan: deficits
Bush: idea
Clinton: 21st
Bush: terror

DuBois doesn't include Obama in his analysis, but the Boston Globe made "wordles" for several of his speeches. His most commonly used words in speeches from 2009 to 2011: nation, people, Americans.

Interesting contrasts among back-to-back presidents: limits / enemy, mutual / bank, slavery / emancipation, alliance / tonight, terror / nation, truly / barrels. Other than that, no comment.

09 June 2015

Vegan (Gluten-Free) Pantry

If you're trying to prepare vegan meals at home, it helps a lot to have a well-stocked pantry, supplemented with shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables once or twice a week, so you're not inventing the wheel every time you need to get supper together. Here's what I usually have on hand.

  • dried lentils, split peas, navy beans, chick peas
  • pasta, rice, quinoa, popping corn
  • canned tomatoes, black beans, kidney beans, chick peas, baked beans
  • baking: unrefined sugar, gluten-free baking mix, baking powder, baking soda, corn starch, cocoa powder, dark chocolate chips, chick pea flour, pectin, baking chocolate
  • jam
  • rice cakes, corn cakes, corn chips, potato chips, GF bread
  • cereal
  • nuts and nut butters
  • sunflower oil, olive oil
  • coconut milk
  • vegetable bouillon
  • coffee and tea
I keep canned beans on hand as well as dry ones for the days when I don't have the time or energy to cook dry beans from scratch, but since the cans are all lined with plastic, I avoid them with possible. I don't use bouillon very often, but it's handy to have on hand. I use a lot of red split lentils because they cook fastest. To cut down on cooking time for the dry legumes, I bring them to a rolling boil in the evening and let them sit overnight. The Mate and I usually make enough jam in the summer and fall to last all year -- strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, apricot, peach, plum. Last year after Sukkot I made jam out of the etrog, with a couple of oranges mixed in to sweeten it a bit. I used to think it was some kind of arcane process requiring lots of specialized tools ... but it turns out it's pretty easy.

I switched to unrefined sugar after I learned that the white stuff is filtered through charcoal, sometimes made from bones.

Herbs and spices: 
  • herbes de province, Italian seasoning, basil, oregano, marjoram, thyme, rosemary
  • cumin, coriander, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon
  • curry powder, chili powder
  • peppercorns in a grinder, unrefined salt
I buy spices as whole seeds and grind them as I use them; they last a lot longer that way. For small quantities I use a mortar and pestle; if I need more, I grind them in the coffee grinder (and then wash thoroughly).  

  • vegetables and fruit
  • prepared soups
  • sorbet
  • compost
  • freezer jam
  • applesauce
Sometimes I buy frozen vegetables and fruit at the supermarket. But I also freeze a lot of my own. When fruit is in season, I buy extra for freezing: it works best to freeze them on a cookie sheet and then put them in bags or containers so they don't clump together.  Apple sauce is super easy to make: cube the apples, boil in a large pot with a couple of tablespoons of water until they're completely soft, run through a food mill, spoon into clean jars, and freeze.  When bananas go brown, I skin them and freeze them in chunks for smoothies, banana pancakes, and banana bread. 

Same with vegetables: I buy lots of kale, spinach, swiss chard, beet greens, and leeks in season, cook them, and then freeze in bags, flattened for easier thawing. (It's worth every penny to pay extra for the heavy-duty brand-name ones, because they last for many, many uses.) I make soup or baked beans in big batches and then freeze extra servings in pint mason jars. 

When freezing soup or jam or applesauce, use wide-mouth jars. Anything that gets narrower at the top will crack when the contents freeze. Leave a half inch or so of extra space at the top to accommodate expansion, and rest the lids on top of the jars when you put them in the freezer. Screw them on after the contents have frozen.

  • margarine, milk substitute, vegan mayonnaise
  • condiments of various sorts, including red and green chili pastes, tamari, pickled ginger, ketchup and mustard
  • maple syrup
  • tahini, for mashed potatoes and creamy soups
  • non-dairy cheese, yogurt; hummus
  • potatoes, carrots, onions, celery
  • greens
  • leftover soup, cooked vegetables
Greens have to be cooked pretty quickly after shopping, whether they come from the farmer's market or the supermarket. If I'm not going to use them right away, they go in the freezer. Root vegetables and celery keep for quite a while, so you can stock up at a farmer's market every couple of weeks.

  • fresh fruit
  • tomatoes
  • fresh ginger, garlic, hot peppers
I buy oranges, lemons, and bananas, but otherwise stick mostly to whatever is local and in season or I've managed to freeze when it was. Apples last for a long time if they're stored correctly, so in New York I can get local apples late into the fall/winter. Right now I still have some blackberries in the freezer, left over from last fall, foraged in the fields outside of town.


It helps to join a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm: you pay a few hundred dollars up front, and then you get a share of whatever vegetables and fruit the farm can produce all summer long and into the fall. Another alternative in New York City is Urban Organics, and some other cities have similar schemes where you get a weekly delivery, and fresh vegetables and fruit appear in your home every week. The variety is usually better than what's available at my neighborhood urban supermarket or farmer's market. With parents and grandparents who lived through the Great Depression and the hungry post-war years in 1940s Germany, I have a deep aversion to throwing food away -- so I cook. 

The Mate and I do a lot of cooking on weekends -- steaming, baking, and roasting vegetables, baking quick breads, cooking up big batches of soup and stew. Some goes in the fridge, some in the freezer, and then on a weeknight when one of us is teaching late and the other is riding herd on the pre-teen while trying to finish grading essays or prepare for a class, we reheat some leftovers and bang, there's a healthy dinner on the table.


We buy fair trade when we can -- chocolate, coffee, tea, bananas. Hershey has committed to making sure all of its suppliers avoid child or slave labor ... by 2020. Yes, you read that right: the people who brought you the Pennsylvania theme park buy chocolate from suppliers that use slaves and children, and sometimes enslaved children, to pick the cocoa beans.


But here's the thing: unless you can buy yourself a farm, or you can devote a significant amount of time to your food, you're not going to be able to eat locally grown organic food cooked at home from scratch all the time. So do what you can and keep moving -- and instead of indulging in guilt, use that energy to advocate for better resources. Or go for a nice long walk while you remind yourself of all the things that you're already doing to curtail climate change.

31 May 2015

Want to Go Vegan? How To Stick With It

This is the last in a series of three posts answering questions from a friend; the previous posts were on cooking vegan and eating vegan meals in restaurants.

This is the toughest one: what arguments do you tell yourself to stay with it? The decision to forego animal products is a personal one and, at the moment, a fairly counter-cultural one, and thus is bound to engender some flak or just bafflement from friends and family. And occasionally strangers.

There are a lot of reasons why someone would choose to go vegan, including concerns for animal rights, individual health, the health of the planet.

Various population-wide studies going back years have demonstrated that vegan diets are healthier than diets that include animals, as long as some attention is given to protein and vitamin B12, and as long as people eat a variety of foods regularly, including fruits and vegetables, nuts and legumes, and whole grains.

Climate science is also clear that vegan diets have less planetary impact than diets containing meat. It takes about ten pounds of feed to produce a pound of meat, meat requires more water to raise than most vegan foods; all that feed needs to be transported from the field to the animal; and animals release a lot of methane as they chew their cuds.

Factory farming is horrifying in terms of animal welfare as well as pollution and the use of antibiotics and pesticides.

Some people argue that the problems with meat consumption can be solved by relying on local, sustainably raised meat sources. The problem with this is the size of the human population: to feed all the people sustainably raised meat in the quantities Americans eat would be impossible. There's just not enough land to graze all those animals.

Others advocate eating fish instead of meat because the sea appears to be an endless resource, covering nearly three-quarters of the earth's surface. But fishing, too, has been mechanized and industrialized. Many species are declining and ocean environments are threatened by pollution and bottom trawling. Eating only line-caught fish helps, but there's still the problem of eating high on the food chain. Fish farms are also an environmental disaster.

Finally, though, if you slip occasionally and eat animal products, don't beat yourself up. Re-commit yourself based on whatever the reasons you had for going vegan in the first place, and keep moving.

23 May 2015

Want to Go Vegan? Some Easy Recipes

My friend Karen asked for some help going vegan. This post is #2 in a series.

First off, if you're making drastic changes (or even not so drastic) to your diet, take it slow. Learn one new recipe a week and then slot it into your rotation. My favorite cookbooks are The Joy of Cooking (yes, really) and Laurel's Kitchen. Neither is a vegan cookbook, but both are very well written and go into depth about foods and cooking techniques. Laurel's Kitchen also includes a very handy food guide with information about nutrient contents of individual ingredients as well as their recipes; I wish the editors would update the book.

But I almost never cook from recipes; I read cookbooks for ideas and then add things into my own repertoire. I try to shop local, so I cook with what's on hand rather than shopping to prepare a particular recipe, and I have a few dishes in my head that take wide variation. Here are a few of my basics:

Creamy cauliflower soup

Wash and cut up a whole cauliflower. If if came with leaves, include them, but chop them into little pieces. Cook in a couple of inches of water until it's soft. Add soy milk, a tablespoon or so of tahini, and some salt (or a vegan boullion cube, if you're so inclined). Puree, but leave some texture. A stick blender makes this easy but it can also be pureed in a regular blender or a food processor. For safety, let it cool a bit first -- enough so it's not hot enough to burn -- and then reheat.

This also works well with broccoli, asparagus, or leeks and potatoes. For the latter, I saute onions and the chopped leeks for 15 minutes, then add cubed potatoes, cover with water, and boil until soft.

Lentil stew

Chop an onion, some garlic, and some celery (with leaves) and saute in a couple of tablespoons of oil of your choice. I like olive oil, which means you have to keep the heat relatively low and be patient. Once they're golden and maybe a little brown, add dried basil, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, and some curry, with a little water so it doesn't stick, and stir in with the vegetables for a couple of minutes.

Add red split lentils (rinsed first) and some chopped greens (spinach, kale, collards...), cover with water, bring to a boil and then simmer until the lentils have fallen apart: 15 or 20 minutes. Keep an eye on them, and keep adding water as they absorb what's already in with them. Once they've disintegrated, add a package of crushed tomatoes and bring back to a boil (just) stirring constantly. Salt/pepper to taste.

You can substitute green lentils, navy beans, cannellini, black beans, or split peas, though they all take a lot longer to cook. Speed cooking time by rinsing them and putting them in a pot and bringing them to a boil and then letting them sit overnight; cook separately from the other ingredients. With split peas, leave out the tomatoes. For variety, add one or more root vegetables, or include more than one kind of bean. Black beans and chick peas or navy beans and kidneys are nice combinations.

These stews also work with canned beans. And you can boost the spices and serve over rice or quinoa or steamed potatoes.

Today, I used black beans, grated carrots, and a few tomatoes that needed eating, and then pureed the results with a stick blender.

Stir fry

This one also starts with onions, celery, and garlic, though I leave the pieces a lot bigger than for stew. It might have potatoes and eggplant or broccoli and snap peas and green beans or cauliflower and bell peppers and tomatoes, or any variety of other vegetables in combination. It might be flavored with green curry and some coconut milk, or indian curry and a little soy sauce, or soy sauce and chili peppers and green onions sliced in right before serving. I made a very inauthentic red coconut curry stirfry with beets and cannellini once. I might eat it over rice, noodles, or potatoes.


A salad spinner is super helpful for vegetarian cooking, not only for salad, but also for washing all those greens. Rip up some salad, wash and spin. Slice, shred or grate whatever other vegetables you have on hand -- cucumbers, carrots, beets, baby spinach. If you're so inclined, you can also add some cut up fruit. If you want to make it a meal, add cannellini, chick peas, hummus, or cubed tofu.  Dressing can be plain olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepp er.  Add vegan mayonnaise to make it creamy, or use honey and mustard.

The Bottom Line:

The agriculture industry has persuaded us that cooking is hard, maybe with some help from The New York Times Cookbook and Iron Chef. It's not. Learn to cook from scratch, with recipes in your head that you can modify based on what's around. Keep your kitchen stocked with basics -- a few cans of different kinds of beans, a couple kinds of dry beans, rice and pasta, and whatever dried herbs and spices you like. In the fridge, root vegetables and onions and celery last quite a while. If you can only shop once a week, cook the greens right away -- they keep well in the fridge for a few days, or you can freeze them to add to soups.

08 May 2015

Want to Go Vegan? Eating In Restaurants

A friend asked for advice on going vegan. So this is the first of a series of posts in an attempt to answer some of her questions.

Eating vegan in restaurants can be a challenge. When I can choose the restaurant, I'm good to go; Indian restaurants almost always have good vegan options, and Chinese and Japanese restaurants also usually do.

At diners and diner-like restaurants, I usually do pretty well off the list of side orders, combining a couple of vegetables with some baked beans and a salad, for instance.

But sometimes you get stuck with a plate of wilted lettuce and tasteless tomatoes with salt and pepper out of little paper packets. Maybe some bread or home fries, if you're lucky. Then what?

If you know it's coming, you can plan ahead. I often carry a bag of almonds or cashews, as they make great vegan snacks and are also good to supplement an inadequate meal. If it comes as a surprise, I drink a lot of water and then go in search of more food. Even vending machines and gas stations will almost always have something vegan -- potato chips, pretzels, peanuts.

It gets easier. Around home, I've learned which restaurants have at least one item on the menu that I'm happy to eat, as well as a few with enough great options I actually re-read the menu each time I eat there.

If fast food is the only option, Wendy's salad bar can work; Taco Bell will sell you a tacos or a burritos with just beans and vegetables, and if you add enough of their tiny packets of sauce, they're not bad.

And I try not to be too hard on myself. The tofu and the chicken wings get deep-fried in the same oil, and the Vietnamese soup might contain fish sauce or chicken broth, but I try not to make myself crazy, particularly when traveling.

Hiking in the Dolomites and staying in mountain huts a couple of summers ago, I was getting really low on protein; day after day, I was eating polenta or potatoes and not much else, after I ran out of nuts and dried fruit. I was going to have to quit hiking or eat meat. so I chose the meat. I had to retreat to a corner of the bunk room and choke it down without anyone watching, and it still grosses me out to think about it, but boy was I strong the next day.

I try to learn from mistakes: When I went to the Lake District for a hostel-to-hostel hike a few weeks ago, I brought along a huge bag of TVP: dried soy chunks to reconstitute with water. Much lighter than nuts, so pound for pound, it goes much farther, and thus lasts much longer.

But also, I try not to beat myself up over the lapses. I'm never going to be perfect, so I just do my best and keep on moving.