Thursday, June 25, 2009

Double Bind

"Damned if I do, Damned if I don't." The perfect example of the "double bind". Only in this case the action isn't specified. You can get more specific examples and definitions but for our purposes this example of contradictory language will do. Now what are the actions I want to consider? Lets start with: "We don't save enough." vs "The economy hinges on the consumer returning to the marketplace." How about: "We must stop dependence on foreign oil." vs "The American auto industry failed because the public stopped buying cars." The policy response is "cash for clunkers" a program that hopes to encourage the sale of yet more cars albeit with slightly higher fuel efficiency.

"We are in the middle of the greatest debt destruction in history" vs "We must stimulate the economy by generating trillions of dollars of new debt."

"We are burning too much carbon." vs "Your electric bill rose because the utility argued they couldn't maintain their profit margin on reduced sales."
"There are limits to growth determined by the fixed amount of resources available on earth." vs "If we don't continue to grow we will fail."

What's a body to do? Bateson's theory of the double bind in communication implied that its persistence in language would result in schizophrenia.

I believe there is a sane alternative. The institutions that construct the language in the above examples of the double bind are vast competing forces, struggling for survival in what is clearly an end game for one or more of the opposing points of view. We however are but individuals, who, if we were to become selfish, could abstain from the limits of the duality, and construct a third way.

The objective of our collective school curriculum, from the moment we enter the system, is stated as the development of individuals with the ability to think critically, make decisions based on sound reason, and realize our unique potential. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are tested, shaped, and driven on a path of group think that allows us to be marketed to as a herd. All the while decrying behavior that might allow us to realize our individuality as selfish.

Its time to get selfish, to screen all conflicting points of view from the perspective of "does it work for me". The NYT in a story in april referred to the double bind of college loans. We were all told they were a good investment. It may not work out. When choosing a course of study we have been counseled to specialize, develop a set of marketable skills. It turns out that many "secure" positions are now dead or dying and the ability to be flexible, adaptable, and a generalist is becoming a smart survival skill. When it comes to trusting others with your money maybe investment firms don't have your best interest at heart. The failure of responsible institutions to deliver on their promises of health, wealth, and the pursuit of happiness, is obvious to all.

It would be wonderful if such a screen included an appreciation that what works for you is not achieved at the expense of others. That in itself could be understood as a selfish interest. Stability of the population, the planet, and community you live in, is life affirming.

It is time to construct a personal reality. Now the irony of such a general statement is that if we have learned anything it is that we can't "go it alone". So now we have constructed the ultimate double bind statement, to survive "I" must find my way, within a "COMMUNITY" of fellow travelers. These terms seem to be mutually exclusive. If we accept the possibility of community to be diverse, it can become inclusive.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Right to Know

The nation's attention has been turned to the idea of urban gardening. The enormous visibility of the First Lady and students from Bancroft Elementary School really accelerated the adoption of the program. Last week they gathered to harvest some of the produce they planted in March.

The First Lady's comments included; "This garden project, what we've done together, guys, has given us the opportunity not just to educate children, but to hopefully even educate a few parents and adults as we go along the way. How many of you have talked to your parents about what you've been doing? How many of you have started talking about fruits and vegetables and eating a bit more?
So we've seen some progress even among this small group of kids. The students with us today have learned about the seasons, right? We learned about when you plant what and why, where food comes from, what it takes for food to grow, the process of how food gets from the garden to the plate, and how much more delicious fresh fruits and vegetables are when they come straight from the garden."

These are important lessons. But we don't want the children to grow up with unrealistic illusions about gardening and because their school has just gone into recess, this might be a good time to backfill what these students need to know.

For example White House Associate chef Sam Kass said in the same pool report "no chemicals--fertilizer or herbicide-- had been used on the garden, but that the underlying White House soil had been "amended" with crab meal from the Chesapeake Bay, green sand compost and lime powder." He was pointing out the need to enhance the soil he was digging. Urban gardeners face a far more serious problem underscored by The National Gardening Association. They warn of the dangers of lead in urban soils. Their advice is to check with local authorities before starting a garden. To be more thorough you ought to consult the EPA pages "The Right to Know" which explains how to find out the history of the area on which you intend to plant a garden.

Mr. Kass went on to say "that the only problem he had noticed is that something is nibbling a little bit on the kale."

I might add that I find that comment a little suspicious. My experience has taught me that from the moment the students put the first spade in the earth, they became warriors with a host of creatures and critters in a fight to the death over exactly whose food this was going to be, and who was going to get to eat it. To actually get to eat any of the produce they hope to raise they are going to have to learn what an aphid is and how to kill it. This is but one of many pests gardeners learn to contend with and if they eschew chemicals they are going to scrape them off the leaves they infest and squish them with their fingers.
Other pests that they are going to have to learn to manage are outlined here; and that's just the pests that feed on lettuce.

Another form of pest we have to mitigate are the vermin, the mice and rats that will find their way into their garden. Heed the advice from Washington State U.

It is a hard lesson for all of us to learn and not some theoretical exercise; the war is on. When your food supply is at stake you learn to steel your heart and fire away with whatever you've got and that the law will allow. Urban gardeners that raise chickens will never forget the blood curdling squawk of their chicken in the clutches of a possum. You will kill the possum.

Chef Kass pointed out that rain had been plentiful this spring but our gardeners are not going to always have such luck. I have lost more tomatoes to blossom end rot, brought on by uneven watering, than to tomato hornworms. Gardeners need to know what the fertilizer and water requirements are for their plants and plan accordingly. They need to shade some crops from the hot sun and block killing winds with screens, and every gardener learns special tricks to protect their crops from early frosts.

The above is intended to illustrate the fact that we don't want to raise a generation of dilettantes who believe that gardening is an easy and part time exercise the produce of which is trouble free. Chef Kass said that "there has been one big weeding once a week and that he and a pastry chef along with "volunteers" from the White House had done the weeding." Our students are not going to be so lucky in their home gardens.

Antonio Roman-Alcalá is a realist, a professional with in-the-field experience and his story is well worth reading. He started his new career in one of the nation's first urban farms, the Alemany Farm in San Francisco.

What he reminds us of is the fact that food production, even small scale is a profession. It is not for the faint of heart or those with tired bodies.

There are many different motives by many different people who are climbing on the urban gardening bandwagon. Some hope to improve the quality of their food sources by knowing where it comes from and how it was grown. To them it is critical to measure just how much of their annual nutrient requirement they will be able to supply, and become realistic about how to supplant it during the non growing season. Others want to green their cities, cool them, and remove toxins associated with lawn maintenance. These people may need to examine the major sources of pollution and work to mitigate the main causes instead of working on the margins. Still others want to help the poor get a healthy alternative to junk food and provide money saving opportunities. It is asking an awful lot to suggest that a single parent return from her day job, feed the kids, and then weed her patch.

If this is to be a sustainable activity we are going to have to learn how to continue when the grants run out, when the volunteers go back to college, when the economy shifts and cities reclaim these plots as valuable for development. I believe that small scale farmers like Antonio Roman-Alcalá have the answer and we ought to be listening. Support local small scale farming, and appreciate the toil and trouble they go through. Grow your own salad if it makes sense, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Crossover Dreams

A skill worth cultivating in an urban setting is to actually take advantage of the wealth of cultural diversity in residence. We celebrate how diverse we are, we read of the happenings around town, but the fact is we rarely if ever actually venture beyond our respective ghettos to get up close and personal with those with whom we live in close proximity. How do I know? Because whenever I am strolling the aisles of the ethnic grocery I am shopping, I am virtually the only round eyed, white, english only speaking, guy in the store. I have also noticed an ethnic food aisle growing in my supermarkets, yours too. The difference is the super market offerings have been culled down to the most neutral "suggestions" of the real thing, without actually being the real thing. I give you Pace salsa, or Prego spaghetti sauce.

Locavore's beware, almost none of the food I am going to suggest you consider is grown locally, but then neither is your pepper, salt, grain, cinnamon, raisins. or nuts. Cities of at least 75,000 are going to be host to stores that cater to one or more of these recent immigrant populations: Chinese (which has now evolved into a pan asian emporium), Indian, which ought to be considered the entire sub continent, Middle Eastern which usually includes the Mediterranean crescent Greece,Turkey, Cyprus, and Hispanic, which again sweeps the entire latin world and demands that you appreciate the distinctions between peoples from South America, Mexico, Cuba, the Caribbean, and African.

Shopping expeditions would be worth it for the sauces and condiments alone. If you crave the fire then you haven't lived till you bring home a sambal, sirancha, or banana sauce, or one of the variety of chili pastes available in any Asian market. Kimchee and those bags of ground chilies will lift you to new heights. New to my larder are large containers of fried "shallots" and fried garlic. Unlike the onion and garlic powders on supermarket shelves, these flakes are rich in flavor, and have real substance.

Let me share the items I regularly find in my Asian markets. Fresh vegetables including the ubiquitous Napa, long "japanese" eggplants, pea shoots, various forms of what I call Bok Choi but enjoy their own identity, sprouts, guava, persimmons, garlic, melons, and frozen purees of exotic fruits (also in Hispanic markets). I will create my own dim sum brunch from dumplings found in the freezer case. Fresh noodles, and dried formed from wheat, rice, and bean flours. Cans of pickled veggies, shoots, sprouts of things I almost can't imagine eating but enjoy. There is a cultural education to be had in these aisles.

Condiments include wide varieties of soy sauces, vinegars, bean spreads, mushrooms and dried blossoms and buds. Chinese style sausage is a treat as are the 6 packs of quail and ducks from Canada. In big city markets there is usually fish for sale and you won't believe how cheap it is. Freshness isn't an issue as most of the available fish are swimming. Spices round out the trip for me and I am always on the lookout for something advertised in native script which I have to ask about. There are never less than 10 distinct varieties of rice available. Try red.

The hispanic markets often have prepared foods available to eat in or carry out. Fried things, roasts, rice, and forms of stuffed packets filled with meats or veggies. We've mentioned hot sauces and herein the variety can be excruciating, both in scope and fire. The hispanic branded spices and dried pepper varieties are exciting and challenge the buyer to start to experiment with their own takes on moles and adobes. Olive oils from Spain, coffees from Miami based roasters, rices and a wide variety of beans are always on the shelves. Fruit drink offerings are exotic and make great mixers if you're into that. Many sizes and shapes of bananas (yes there are more than just one), plantains, and other roots can be the source of carbo loads. Excellent corn meal is always available.

Indian stores often sell travel tickets, pots and pans and videos among the dal, and curries and chutneys. Saris, scarfs, and rice cookers round out the experience.

Middle eastern stores also have types and styles of feta and other mid med cheeses, breads flat and twisted, stuffed veggies, olives, peppers, and prepared giant beans. Jars of eggplant and pepper spreads are delicious and easy to serve as a side or a sauce. Jams and canned fruits are usually high in fruit content and Halvah the ever addictive sweet sits on the counter near the cashier, "ok throw in a pound".

Russian immigrants are starting to aggregate and the market follows. In Chicago and NY Polish neighborhoods are redolent with the tang of kielbasa and other deli meats and treats.. Why wouldn't you visit? You will never buy a Hillshire smoked sausage again.

The point is: When coming to terms with what benefits accrue to those living in smart, sustainable, urban places, you might stop into the local market and leave some bread and while in the process pick up an entirely new set of resources to sustain, both your body and mind. You might just stay for coffee, tea, and a bowl of soup. You will extend the borders of your neighborhood. The true spirit of community.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


When movements cross the great oceans, urban gardening (see RUAF)is a prime example, the reason for the activity is often lost in the rush to get on board. When the Bay Area by example promotes the development of local agriculture it is in the name of community building, a noble enterprise. Locavores, Greens, and health food enthusiasts, support the movement for their own reasons. But I am forced to ask myself if this expenditure of time, energy, and resources in the planting of these seeds is a truly meaningful exercise in the practice of urban living.

My understanding of human development, the growth of cities, and the creation of the enormous infrastructure to support them, was a way and means to broaden the scope of human creativity and allow the aggregation of numbers to increase peoples' collective wealth. Now that we have the great cities up and running it is a foolish enterprise to act as if we can turn back the clock and replant the groves on which they were built.

An enormous opportunity exists for new agriculture and it is reflected in the USDA policy directive re. small scale farms. All of the stake holders in the concept of urban gardening could achieve their common objectives in the support of these small scale farms while reserving precious urban space for more appropriate uses; say housing!

If eating, feeding, and responsible consumption practices are an issue then it occurs to me that what urban residents need to know is contained within their own turf. Short of dumpster diving, (a perfect reflection of the fact that we have too much food, not a scarcity), smart urban residents could use some serious lessons in how to get the most out of their locally available food supply.

Foraging, the practice of hunting and securing foods from the wild is being reconsidered in an urban context. Great fun if you have the time. Simpler is the idea that the vast storehouse of food, your neighborhood market, contains within it some of the most nutritious, affordable, and sustainable items for consumption on a regular basis and they are yours for the finding.

So drift down the canned fish aisle of your favorite market and pause at the canned salmon section. You will note more than one variety, at least red and pink and a great disparity in price. Red is scarcer, contains more oil, and therefore costs more. There is little nutritional difference. The reason that pink salmon is cheaper is that it is the most abundant, counting for more catch than all of the other varieties of salmon combined. It is also smaller and therefore less prized as a game fish. This is thought to be the primary reason it is held in poor esteem. Lets take advantage of others foolishness. Cans vary in size and the best bargain is the larger, up to 15oz. You will find many brands, generic, and popular like Bumble Bee. The only thing to look for on the label is that it is wild caught, Alaskan, and has no additives. I keep a two dollar maximum price point and have no trouble finding it on sale for much less. If you are worried about the state of the salmon consider the following report.

We now have in hand a wild caught, highly nutritious food, the proceeds of the sale of which flow back to native Americans, and is sustainable. Works for me. I am not going to write recipes here but will link to a beautiful site that you will enjoy. First a word on the can. Open one end partially and drain. Open the other end and invert and slip the can off of the tower of salmon. You can now see the back bone which you can remove by breaking away the adjoining chunks. You will see other obvious bones. Remove them and place the remaining fish in a bowl. Scruntch around with your hand breaking the pieces and feeling for bones that are trying to hide. You are now ready to enjoy this link and its recipes.