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Grasping at straws. February 28, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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“Ben, I can’t think of anything for today’s blog post.” Silence Dogood was looking demoralized, even panicked. “Can you?”

“Don’t tell me you’ve run out of recipes,” our friend Ben hedged.

“No, of course not,” Silence snapped. “But maybe readers would like to read about something besides recipes once in a while.”

“Well, what about the snow geese that have turned up in the farm field behind our property, Hawk’s Haven, this past week? Wouldn’t readers be as inspired by this harbinger of spring as we are?” 

“I’m not sure, Ben. But I AM sure they wouldn’t want to hear about the farmers behind us pointlessly slaughtering the snow geese, their guns waking us with dread and loathing every single day as we wonder how anyone could murder the most beautiful thing God ever made, for no reason whatever.”

“Silence, I’m still not letting you go to the fields and put yourself between the snow geese and those guns.”

“You really think they’d shoot me too, don’t you, Ben?”

“Let’s just say I don’t want to find out.”

“Well, alrighty then. What are we going to post about?”

“How about the Oscars?”

“Hmpf!” Silence spat out. “Stupid, pointless…”

“Okay, okay, I know we were both hoping that Hailee Steinfeld would win best supporting actress for her amazing lead-actress role in the remake of ‘True Grit’, and that Geoffrey Rush would win best supporting actor for his bravura performance in ‘The King’s Speech’. But—”

“Shut up, Ben! Can you believe what they did instead?!! What’s the matter with those pathetic, stupid [language suppressed]? What were they thinking?!!” 

“Er, uh, maybe we need to think about something else to put on the blog.”

“Maybe Richard Saunders has something to contribute?”

“Richard’s delving into a book about George Washington, The Making of the President 1789. And he’s checking out the new Washington exhibit in Philadelphia, which sounds pretty fascinating and horrifying. But I don’t think he’s ready to post just yet.”

“Well yeesh, Ben, what are we going to do?!”

“Okay, Silence, you definitely have a point. What do you think our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, would do in our place?”

“Um, invent something astonishing?”

“Yeah, point taken. Any hope that we could invent something astonishing?”

“Like what?”

“Uh…”

“Right. Looks like we’re out of luck, Ben.”

“But hey! What about your auto-menu listing, making it simple for everyone to create wholesome, balanced meals?” 

“What about your auto-collector program, helping collecting addicts use their collections to secure at least some financial stability without sacrificing their entire collections?”

“Just a pipe dream, Silence.”

“Mine, too.”

“Aaaagghh, now what?”

“Not a clue. Folks, what do you think? What would you like to see us tackle in future posts? We’ll be very happy to take on any topics that interest you, since those same topics are bound to interest us. Just let us know!”

When opposites don’t attract. February 27, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Hasty disclaimer: This post is about language, not relationship issues.

Our friend Ben is a wordaholic, so when there’s something unusual about a word (such as the three “u”s in “unusual”), it tends to attract my attention. One thing about words that I’ve given some thought to is word pairs that happen when a positive word is given an opposite and negative meaning by adding a negative prefix, such as de-, dis-, un-, anti-, mal-, in-, mis-, and the like. (Think of deconstruct/construct, disinclined/inclined, uncomfortable/comfortable, antimatter/matter, malcontent/content, inhospitable/hospitable, mispronounce/pronounce.)

Language being what it is, there are exceptions to every rule, and sometimes pairs are made by adding both negative and positive prefixes to a root. Some that come to mind are malevolent/benevolent, destructive/constructive, antipathy/sympathy (or empathy), dissolution/resolution. And sometimes, the negative opposite can lose its negative connotation: incredible and unbelievable can be used as exclamations of approval or amazement, or as the opposites of credible and believable. And inflammable and flammable, by an unfortunate fluke (“inflammable” actually derives from “inflame”), actually mean the same thing, that something burns easily. 

But the point of today’s post is those orphaned words that have, as our language evolved, lost their opposite numbers. Our friend Ben learned this lesson the hard way because of the phrase “inclement weather.” I had read this all my life, and assumed it was a unique expression for bad weather. I had never actually heard it, so, like many words I’d only read but hadn’t realized I’d never heard because I sounded them in my head, I mispronounced it: inkle-ment. It was only when someone finally took me to task for this that I realized that this word was the opposite of clement, good, since I had never heard or read of anyone referring to “clement weather.”

Here are some other orphans that have lost their opposites:

Detestable: Nasty, hateful, yucky. But whatever happened to “testable”?

Derivative: Eeewww, you’re pretty much just copying somebody else’s stuff, you pathetic little worm. But as far as I know, there’s no “rivative” applying to original thought, inventions, or discoveries.

Anarchy: The promotion of chaos. But somehow “archy” has been lost as its opposite. We retain hierarchy for a rigidly structured system, but since that has its own negative connotations, it’s hardly the opposite of anarchy. And other “-archies” like monarchy, patriarchy, and matriarchy are too limited to oppose it.

Indisposed: Oh, sorry, she’s indisposed. But when did you last hear that someone was disposed, in the connotation of feeling well as opposed to inclining to a favorable view?

Displaced: You have a displaced shoulder, collarbone, or the like? When did you have a “placed” bone or joint, I wonder? 

Malware: Bad stuff that infects your computer and wreaks havoc. But what about the good stuff that faithfully does its job to help the computer run? There’s no “ware” or “beneware” or anything else like that that I know of.

Misogynist: Someone who hates women. God knows what the opposite of this one is; I’m sure there is one, but I’ve never heard it.

Indecorous: Oops, you’ve somehow failed to act in a socially approved manner. But when have you last heard that someone behaved in a decorous manner?

Insipid: Bland and boring. Lots of stuff is insipid, but have you ever encountered something “sipid”?

Detrimental: Ouch, this one’s definitely no good for you, it’s harmful (to, say, your career or reputation) instead. But if you’ve ever heard of anything that builds you up by being “trimental,” please do let me know.

Derelict: Yo, you’ve skirted your duties, or that abandoned building looks like it’s about to topple. If only you (or it) had been “relict” instead.

Needless to say, there are plenty more. Our friend Ben invites you to submit your own favorites!

What’s the deal about GM foods? February 25, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was enraged to read yet another article, this one in today’s Yahoo! News finance section and picked up from an AP release called “Shoppers wary of GM foods find they’re everywhere,” basically implying that GM foods were safe and people who thought otherwise were stupid.

“GM” stands for “genetically modified,” usually by giant agribusiness corporations like Monsanto to make the crops resistant to their herbicide Roundup, so farmers can spray their fields with herbicide early and often without having to worry that it will kill their crops along with everything else. The range of genetic modifications can be much wider, including putting animal genes into plants. The result is to turn our planet and all life on it into a giant lab, since no one knows what the results of this global-scale experiment will be.

But the “experts” keep insisting that GM foods are safe for human consumption, and the folks raising their voices in protest too often come off sounding like idiots who don’t know what they’re talking about and are simply opposing change for the sake of it. “If you mess with nature there’s a side effect somewhere,” George Siemon is quoted in the article as remarking. Gee, is this some Wal*Mart shopper who’s being interviewed coming out of the store? No, it’s the CEO of Organic Valley, the U.S.’s largest organic farming cooperative. “Many of these opponents [of GM foods] acknowledge that there isn’t much solid evidence showing genetically modified foods are somehow dangerous or unhealthy. It just doesn’t seem right, they say,” the article adds, making opponents of GM foods appear to have all the intelligence, education, and deductive reasoning of Homer Simpson.

So far, five major crops—corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets, and alfalfa—are USDA-approved for GM production, and according to the article, GM salmon will soon follow. (If you don’t think of cotton and alfalfa as “people food,” think again: cottonseed oil is used as a “vegetable oil” in tons of foods, including chips, cookies, and crackers, and what about all those alfalfa sprouts?) God knows what will be next.

Our friend Ben is not qualified to say precisely what will happen if we humans consume herbicide- and pesticide-resistant crops or genetically modified animals. I would, however, prefer not to become a human lab rat myself, and would appreciate it if GM foods were at least required to be labeled as such. (They aren’t.) But I don’t think that’s the real issue, and the real issue is one that farmers, plant and animal geneticists, botanists and gardeners, homesteaders, and historians are all admirably qualified to talk about: the deliberate limitation of diversity. 

A historian could tell you all about what happens when diversity is squandered for a single crop: We get the Irish potato famine, when the one variety of potato grown all over Ireland proved suceptible to the blight. Had hundreds of varieties been grown, doubtless some would have proved resistant. And had a wider diversity of crops been grown, the failure of the potato crop would have been far less devastating.

At this point, you may be thinking, but surely there are many varieties of corn and the like being grown, so why worry? Two reasons: contamination and lawsuits. Companies like Monsanto thrive because farmers have to buy their seed fresh from Monsanto every year. If they only had to buy them once, then saved seed from their crops and grew the subsequent years’ crops from their saved seed, Monsanto’s profits would decline. So Monsanto sends spies, for lack of a better word, out into the fields to make sure that’s not happening, and sues the hell out of anyone if the spies find that it is.

Fair enough, the companies have invested bazillion dollars developing their seeds, surely they should reap the financial rewards. Except there’s one little problem: The pollen from genetically modified plants often finds its way onto non-GM, often heirloom or open-pollinated plants, and contaminates them, destroying the pure strains that have been carefully raised to suit a given climate and to meet very specific flavor and use requirements. This is especially true of wind-pollinated crops like corn, since the pollen has been designed to carry over great distances.

Now, if I were a farmer or gardener who had carefully kept my own heirloom strain of corn alive and pure down through the generations, and I found that it had been contaminated by some god-damned GM corn, I’d be tempted to sue Monsanto or whatever company created the GM corn that ruined possibly hundreds of years of careful breeding and seed conservation for damages. After all, a priceless local resource would have been lost through corporate greed and heedlessness.

But oh, no. That’s not the way it works. Instead, the bazillion-dollar multinational corporation’s spies take a sample of crops from my field and determine that their GM genes are in my corn. Then they sue me for everything I’ve got, claiming that I’m unfairly taking advantage of their technology and developments without compensating them, when I’d actually as soon be dead as see my family’s generations of careful breeding contaminated by their god-cursed herbicide-friendly creation.

And horrifyingly, they win. And win and win and win. To my knowledge, not one farmer who’s found himself in this situation has ever, even once, triumphed over the unspeakable, monstrous, amoral corporate greed that drives these bloated pigs to sue and sue and sue. To crush all opposition like the dictators we claim to hate and oppose. If Monsanto were, say, Muammar al-Gaddafi or Kim Jong-il or Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, would we sit back and let them destroy principled, poor, hardworking individuals in the name of greed? I would like to think not. And yet, we sit back and do nothing as Monsanto and their ilk grind our farmers in the dust and destroy crop diversity—our only hope of continued abundance, or even survival—in the process.

This, in my opinion, is the real issue, and the real evil. This is an issue history has qualified each and every one of us to talk about. We don’t know what consuming GM plants and animals will ultimately do to us; nobody really knows, we’re all lab rats. But we do know what reducing the genetic diversity of plants and animals will do to us, and our friend Ben can sum it up in one word: extinction, and not just for the crops or animals involved.

Google still hates us. February 25, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Way back in April 2010, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood wrote a post called “Why does Google hate us?” We had suddenly found it impossible to leave comments on blogs hosted by Google’s Blogger, and found this extremely demoralizing.

Well, now it’s heading toward April 2011, and we still can’t leave comments on many of our favorite blogs. Not that we don’t try, but let us tell you, it’s a trial by fire that often ends with crashing and burning.

We’ve finally learned to look and make sure the word verification is visible on the blogs that have it before writing our comment. (Please refrain from commenting about our collective IQs.) If the word verification word(s) are actually shown—which is all too seldom—we type our comment, type in the word(s), and are almost always told that we typed them incorrectly and to try again with another word or pair of words. Well, excuuuuse us. We’re both writers and editors by profession, and we do know how to spell, not to mention proffread—uh, proofread—what we’ve just written. We did not misspell those damned words. But we dutifully type in the new ones, and our comments sometimes get through.

When the word(s) aren’t visible—just a blank box with a little boxed X in the upper left corner—we’ll try to access the post and the comments section again… and again. We really want to leave a comment! But usually, after three strikes, we’re out. 

We have an even harder time with folks who use Blogger and don’t use word verification. We’ll type a comment, type in our identification, hit “publish comment,” and… nothing. There’s our comment and our ID, as though we’d never tried to post it. So we hit “publish comment” again, a bit more deliberately this time. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, we’ll try again a few more times. (We’re stubborn that way.) But then we give up.

Recently, Blogger has adopted an even more insidious trick to block our comments. When we click on “post a comment,” a screen comes up with a big X in a round circle and the legend “This content cannot be displayed in a frame.” It suggests that we click on a second link to “open this content in a new window,” and when we do, it informs us that we need to sign in to Blogger and they won’t let us because we need to “Please enable JavaScript and cookies in order to use Blogger.” Well, okay, we’ll be the first to admit we’re Luddites, but we do have JavaScript up and running. And we’re not trying to sign in to Blogger, we’re just trying to leave a comment, for mercy’s sakes! GRRRRRRRR.

There is only one thing more aggravating than spending time and thought writing what you hope is an insightful or appreciative comment and watching it simply disappear. And that’s fearing that other bloggers out in cyberspace—people whose thoughts, photos, humor, and writing style you really admire—will think you’re just ignoring them.

So to all our blogging friends who use Blogger as a blog host rather than our own beloved WordPress, we (to borrow a line from Jane Austen’s priceless Mr. Collins) humbly beg leave to apologize. We’re still reading and enjoying, promise. We vow to keep trying to comment. We don’t know why Google hates us.

As for you, Google, shame on you!!! We’ve been devotees of your research function since day one, faithfully heading over many times a day to check out this or that. How could you betray us like this, attempting to crush our outreach efforts like Goliath stomping on David? Please devote a few seconds of your valuable time to improving the WordPress/Blogger interface. Or we’re going to start slinging stones.

Bring on the dog biscuits. February 24, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, pets, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Today’s guest post is written by our friend Ben’s and Silence Dogood’s black German shepherd, Pioneer Hawk’s Haven Shiloh von Shiloh Special.

Hello, everyone! My name’s Shiloh, and I’m scandalized to report that certain people who contribute to this blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, completely overlooked a major holiday yesterday when they decided to write about brown/orange eyes instead of International Dog Biscuit Appreciation Day. I ask you, where are people’s priorities?!!

True, we may be a day late and a dollar short, but that doesn’t mean dog biscuits aren’t still appreciated, today and every day, at least by those of us who enjoy eating them. I’ve guilt-tripped Silence into sharing a recipe for homemade dog biscuits at the end of this post, but meanwhile, I’d like to add a few tips of my own about what to look for and what to avoid when you’re buying biscuits for your dog:

* Think healthy and flavorful. We love fruits, vegetables, cheese, meat, and peanut butter, just like you do. Please don’t give us bland, tasteless dog biscuits (would you eat that?) or biscuits that are laden with so many unhealthy fats, preservatives, colorings, chemicals, and the like that it’s contributing to a national epidemic of overweight dogs. (At least, that’s what our friend Ben told me after reading an article on the subject in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.)

* Remember that we’re colorblind. Lots of dog biscuits are dyed red or green, apparently to appeal to the people who buy them for us. But please bear in mind that, though we can see some colors, we’re colorblind just like some people when it comes to red and green. If you know anyone who’s colorblind, ask them what they see when they look at red or green and they’ll tell you a dirty yellow-grey that’s really revolting. So please skip the chemical dyes and just get us the stuff that tastes best.

* Make our treats work harder. Silence always looks for biscuits that contain glucosamine and chondroitin, since I’m a big girl and big dogs are at higher risk of developing hip displasia. Glucosamine and chondroitin work together to keep my joints lubricated and functioning well and to prevent degenerative joint disease. My favorites are the wild cherry bone-shaped biscuits that combine the delicious flavor of cherries with that biscuit crunch.

* Remember that not all dog biscuits have to really be dog biscuits. Um, I guess that’s a little obscure, but what I’m trying to say is that plenty of good-for-you people treats offer the same satisfying crunch and flavor as dog biscuits, so you don’t even have to go out of your way to buy us treats as long as your house is well stocked with healthy people treats! Shredded Wheat mini-biscuits with bran, Triscuits, homemade baked whole-grain croutons, plain popcorn, pretzels, cornbread “dogs” (ouch!) with shredded carrots, and whole wheat-sweet potato biscuits are a few examples. Ditto, of course, for nuts! Just please don’t overdo it on the nuts, since they’re yummy but fatty and not so easy to digest. Two or three are plenty at a time.

* Biscuits aren’t the only things that crunch. True, we dogs love that soul-satisfying crunch that a good biscuit makes when we bite into it. But plenty of raw fruits and veggies also carry a satisfying crunch as well as delicious flavor. Please don’t forget us when you’re cutting up carrots, green or yellow wax beans, snap peas, radishes, apples, even crunchy lettuce like Romaine or Iceberg, and bell peppers of all colors. Yum! We’re not likely to turn our snouts up at blueberries, banana slices, boiled new potatoes, and baked potato or sweet potato skins, either, despite the absence of the crunch factor. Just so you know. And the dried sweet potato slices they sell at some pet stores are the best things going (after the wild cherry bones), offering plenty of crunch, flavor, and vitamins A and C. 

* Focus on flavor and texture, not shape. Silence has a bone-shaped cookie cutter that she uses when she makes homemade dog biscuits for me. So don’t tell her, but any shape is fine as far as I’m concerned. She could make Christmas tree-shaped biscuits in July, or use her round biscuit cutter, or just use a knife to cut the rolled-out dough into squares. I know it cheers her up to make me bone-shaped dog biscuits, so I try to look appreciative, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s really all about the taste and texture.

* Did I mention cheese? Just checking.

Okay, I guess it’s time to turn it over to Silence and that recipe. Go, Silence, go!  

Silence Dogood here. I see that Shiloh’s made some good points here, though I still maintain that if I’m the one who has to make the stupid dog biscuits, I should at least be able to make them in shapes that entertain me. (I have several dinosaur-shaped cookie cutters just for dog biscuits, as well as the bone-shaped one.) But I digress.

Here’s a super-healthy recipe for homemade dog biscuits using all-natural, human-grade ingredients, modified from the original which I found on the Gourmet Sleuth website (www.gourmetsleuth.com). If you’re into making your own biscuits, try these for your dog and see what you (and he or she) think!

                      Cheesy Dog Biscuit Treats

1 cup rolled oats

1/3 cup butter, softened

1 cup boiling water

3/4 cup cornmeal

1 finely grated carrot

1 cube chicken- or beef-flavored instant bouillon

1/2 cup milk

1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

1 egg, beaten

2-3 cups whole wheat flour

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. In a large bowl, pour boiling water over oats, bouillon cube, and butter; let stand 10 minutes. Then add cornmeal, grated carrot, milk, cheese, and egg; blend well. Add flour, 1 cup at a time, mixing well after each addition to form a stiff dough. On a floured surface, knead in the remaining flour until the dough is smooth and no longer sticky, 3 to 4 minutes. Roll or pat out dough to 1/2-inch thickness, then cut with cookie or biscuit cutters and place 1 inch apart on greased cookie sheets. Bake 35-45 minutes at 325 degrees F. Cool and store. Makes 3 1/2 dozen large dog biscuits or 8 dozen small dog treats. They can be refrigerated or frozen to prolong freshness.

Thanks, Silence! It’s Shiloh back with you again to add that there’s no point in freezing or even refrigerating dog biscuits when you should be giving them to you dog instead! Mind you, Silence is the dog-biscuit Nazi when it comes to keeping me restricted to just a few treats a day; she says one cherry bone treat, one homemade biscuit, a dried sweet potato slice, and a sweet potato “fry” (specially dehydrated for dogs) are plenty, unless OFB wants to see me balloon up into a poster dog for some weight-loss program. But even she’ll give me as many fruit and veggie treats as I want, and will look the other way (at least for a minute or two) when OFB slips me a piece of cheese or a Triscuit.

So please! Make every day International Dog Biscuit Appreciation Day at your house. I know your dog would appreciate it!

           Your friend,

                        Shiloh

Don’t it make my brown eyes… orange?! February 23, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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12 comments

Our friend Ben was bemused to see that someone had come on our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, this morning with the query “why do brown eyes look orange.” Now, our friend Ben has observed a wide variation in brown eye shades, from so dark that the iris and pupil seem to be one through every shade of brown—chocolate, mahogany, chestnut—through the red-gold lights of claret and the green-gold-brown changeability of hazel eyes. But orange? I’ve never seen a person with orange eyes.

Intrigued, I headed to my good friend Google to see what I could find out. It appeared that someone had asked a similar question of a site called AnswerBuddha.com, and received an answer. I quote:

“Why do my brown eyes look orange? Like, if I am not in a very light room, they look medium brown, but if it is bright or if I’m outside, they are orange with black flecks in them. It looks really cool! But why is this? Other people’s brown eyes don’t always do…” [this was the end of the question, as presented on AnswerBuddha.com; whether there was more, or at least, more than "this," our friend Ben can't say]

“OMG MINE DO THAT TOO!!! When I put on my dark brown eye liner it makes my brown eyes look Orange. So cool. Be happy!!! its so cool. but i dont get black spec’s. (HaLlOwEeN colors!)”

Still reeling from this exchange, our friend Ben next headed to Wikipedia, which shed some light on the topic in a discussion of amber eyes: “Amber eyes are of a solid color and have a strong yellowish/golden and russet/coppery tint… Many animals…have amber eyes as a common color, whereas in humans this color occurs less frequently, more in places like Brazil and Asia…”

Well, “a russet/coppery tint” qualifies as orange in my book. Unfortunately, the Wikipedia article didn’t say specifically where amber eyes fall on the human rarity scale, though it did note that green was the rarest of human eye colors. (Our friend Ben’s parents and siblings all have green eyes; mine are blue to blue-green, depending on what I’m wearing—really!—apparently deriving from my maternal grandparents’ very blue eyes.)

Now I’ll have to try to pay more attention to other people’s eye color and see if I can find a few amber-eyed folks wandering around. So if you’re in the southeastern quadrant of Pennsylvania and find somebody staring in your eyes, it might not be a hypnotist, occultist, or pervert; it might just be yours truly trying to see if, like, OMG, your eyes are ORANGE and they look, like, so cool…

Happy birthday, George! February 22, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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2 comments

Today is the birthday of America’s first and greatest President, George Washington (February 22, 1732-December 14, 1799). We now know that the famous story of the young Washington’s chopping down his father’s cherry tree, then confessing it with the statement “I cannot tell a lie,” was actually an allegory created by his early biographer, Mason Locke “Parson” Weems in his book A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington (1800), to inspire future generations. But we also know that the General really did love cherries (and all fresh fruit and nuts).

So we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac have prevailed on our resident culinary historian, Silence Dogood, to provide one authentic and one more modern cherry-based recipe so you can celebrate Washington’s birthday in style. And for those of you who aren’t especially interested in recipes but are interested in the life and times of George Washington, we suggest that you head to our search bar at upper right and type in “Happy birthday, big guy,” to find one of our fellow blog contributors, Richard Saunders’s, George Washington quiz. Take it, and see how you well you really know the Father of Our Country!

Silence Dogood here. Big George loved his cherries, but he wasn’t too big on dessert. So what sorts of cherry treats did Martha make for him at Mount Vernon? Turning to Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, containing her handwritten collection of recipes (called “receipts” back in her day), I found a recipe that was sure to sit well with George: cherry wine.

Washington, like all his contemporaries, was a heavy drinker, often polishing off four glasses of madeira after downing homebrew throughout dinner. And drinking beer with breakfast was considered par for the course in his day, followed by an assortment of alcoholic beverages, from hard cider to claret and port, not to mention gin and rum among members of the navy, as the day wore on.

Why? Was America founded by a bunch of alcoholics? Hardly, nor were the Colonists alone in their drinking habits: All Europe shared them, with good reason. With no knowledge of sanitation, and sewage being dumped in the streets and into the water supply, drinking water was—and was widely recognized as—dangerous. Encounters with E. coli and other contagious diseases usually proved fatal in the days when bleeding and purging were the recommended treatments for pretty much everything and antibiotics were unknown.

Fermentation was an easy way to destroy most of the bad bacteria, so drinking fermented (i.e., alcoholic) beverages was strongly recommended and pretty much universally practiced. Only one voice was raised against the practice, that of the youthful visionary Benjamin Franklin, who was both a teetotaler and a vegetarian, centuries ahead of his time, and recommended water as the universal beverage. Spending time in the polluted cities of London and Paris eventually cured Franklin of his idealism—fresh water was nowhere to be found in either locale—and he came to appreciate a glass of wine or a mug of beer; his vegetarianism also eventually fell by the wayside.

But even in an era of universal drinking, public drunkenness was condemned as vulgar and appalling; a gentleman (or lady, for that matter) was supposed to be able to hold his (or her) liquor. I have no idea how the people of the time managed to walk that tightrope; I’m just glad we moderns have a lot more options when it comes to choosing a thirst-quenching beverage.

But to get back to Martha’s cherry wine, which we would probably consider more of a cherry cordial, let’s just say I’m providing the recipe as a matter of historical interest rather than urging you to try it. We’ll get to a cherry recipe next that would probably have pleased George and will certainly please you.

           Martha Washington’s Cherry Wine

Take a good quantety of spring water & let it boyle halfe an houre. then beat 4 pounds of raysons, clean pickt & washed, & beat them in a mortar to paste. then put them in an earthen pot, & pour on ym 12 quarts of this water boyling hot, & put to it 6 quarts of ye Juice of cheries, & put in the pulp & scins of ye cheries after they are strayned. & let all these steep together, close covered, 3 days, then strayn all out & let it stand 3 or 4 hours to settle. take of ye cleerest, & run ye rest thorough a Jelley bagg, then put ye Juice up into bottles & stop them up close, & set them in sand.

Mmm, mmm, good! Well, maybe it was good. But I don’t think I’ll try it and see! Instead, I set myself to thinking about what our First President, a man of hearty appetite but plain tastes, who was known to leave the fancy dishes and desserts to his guests, would have enjoyed in the way of cherry recipes.

Clafouti sprang to mind, a simple, warm dish that is half-pancake, half pudding, full of fruit and flavor, but not too sweet. It would have made a great breakfast dish for George, served with his eggs, a variety of meats (including ham, bacon, sausage, and possibly fish), hominy, and biscuits before he headed out to ride over his plantations. If you’d like to make it as a dessert, whipped cream adds a lovely touch; for breakfast, you, like George, would probably prefer heavy cream poured over your portion of hot clafouti. This recipe is courtesy of Anna Thomas’s wonderful The Vegetarian Epicure Book Two (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1979). Ben Franklin would be proud!

             Clafouti of Cherries

4 eggs

1 cup flour

2 cups warm milk

3/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons butter, melted

2 tablespoons kirsch

pinch of salt

1 to 2 tablespoons soft butter

1 pound sweet, dark cherries, washed, stemmed, and pitted

Beat the eggs lightly and gradually stir in the flour. When the mixture is smooth, beat in the milk, sugar, melted butter, and kirsch, along with a tiny pinch of salt.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Very generously butter a large, shallow baking dish and pour a very thin layer of the batter across the bottom of it. Put it in the hot oven for 2 to 3 minutes, or just long enough for the batter to begin to set.

Arrange the pitted cherries evenly over the layer of batter and pour the remaining batter carefully over them. Reduce the heat to 400 degrees and bake the clafouti for about 30 to 35 minutes. It should be golden brown and slightly puffed. It’s a good idea to check it once or twice during the baking, and if it is starting to puff unevenly in large bubbles, pierce it with a skewer or fork.

Sprinkle the hot clafouti with sieved confectioners’ sugar and serve it hot or warm, topped with cold heavy cream or whipped cream. Serves 6 to 8. (Probably more like two if one of you is George Washington!)

So there you have it, a breakfast dish fit for, if not a king, at least a president! From all of us here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, Happy Birthday, George!!!

The blackbirds are back! February 21, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Ah, the joys of February. Just yesterday, for the first time in two months, the mountains of snow and ice that had blanketed our friend Ben and Silence Dogood’s rural cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, had finally retreated to the point where almost all of the ground was green or brown. Two 60-degree days last week had released us from winter’s icy grip at last. Our friend Ben almost wrecked the car on Saturday when Silence suddenly started screaming—turns out she’d seen a flock of snow geese, one of our favorite birds, for the first time since fall. Spring was clearly in the air.

This morning, the ground is white again. We became aware of this at about 6:40 a.m. when a passing car skidded into the field across from our house. Soon police and tow trucks had stopped traffic, lights were flashing, and the day had kicked off to a somewhat more lively start than is usual in our sleepy rural setting. (Fortunately, neither car nor driver was injured.) We found ourselves staring out at 3 inches of fresh snow, with more big flakes drifting down.

We weren’t the only ones who’d been tricked into thinking it was spring. One look at our feeders showed us that the blackbirds were back. Grackles, red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed, black-bodied cowbirds, starlings—there they all were, trying to convince themselves that they hadn’t made a huge mistake by showing up today.

We admire the bold, beautiful grackles, big, showy birds with iridescent black, purple, and green plumage. They aren’t the least bit afraid to snatch a piece of cat food from under the nose of our outdoor cat, Dixie, though they’ll also help themselves to seed from our feeders, standing their ground against any and all comers but not trying to drive them off and deprive them of their share.

We’re also fond of the red-winged blackbirds, so called not because their wings are red, but because mature males bear red-and-yellow epaulettes on their black shoulders. They can be found in our meadow garden during the growing season, helping us keep the bug population under control. We say, welcome back!

We feel considerable ambivalence about cowbirds, who evolved with the bison of the Plains and whose range was limited and controlled by bison populations and movements. Unfortunately, when pioneers exterminated the bison and started raising grain, the cowbirds’ range and population expanded exponentially. This is a problem because cowbirds are parasites, laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. Species that become inadvertent hosts of cowbird eggs raise fewer if any of their own chicks. While we think cowbirds are beautiful and appreciate their original role, consuming the pests that plagued the bison and making life better for both species as a result, we’re appalled by their current status.

Starlings are even worse. It’s not that we have anything against these birds individually. Right now, before their plumage dulls to black, it’s an attractive spangled glossy brown with gold highlights. Rather, it’s the number of starlings we object to. Huge flocks cover the bare trees, screaming and shrieking. These starving masses make our squirrels look like polite diners who only go back for one refill at the all-you-can-eat buffet. If there were five or even ten starlings in the yard, we wouldn’t mind. But 500 starlings! No, thanks.

One reason we have a problem with starlings is that they’re alien invaders, like stinkbugs and Japanese beetles, who have multiplied out of control in their new, predator-free environment. And we have Shakespeare to thank for it.

Not that Shakespeare meant to unleash starlings on the unsuspecting citizens of America. In fact, we suspect he’d had a few pints too many when he had Harry “Hotspur” Percy announce in Henry IV, Part I that he would teach a starling to speak to the king. He was doubtless confusing them with magpies, whose renowned talent for mimicry has caused many to be taught speech.

Unfortunately for us all, Shakespeare’s starling reference was responsible for the starling invasion here on U.S. soil, thanks to an idiot named Ernest Schieffelin, a wealthy drug manufacturer in the Bronx, and his American Acclimatization Society. Though it sounds like a group dedicated to helping immigrants acclimatize to American customs and ways, its real purpose was to import every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s works—all 600 species—and release them in New York’s Central Park.

The European starling took its turn in 1890 and 1891, and spread like contagion across the U.S., growing from an initial flock of 100 to today’s 200-million-plus, and displacing native birds like our beloved bluebird along the way. (Shieffelin’s Society was also responsible for introducing that other menace, the house sparrow, which has displaced innumerable native species of small songbird and threatened their existence.) 

We can only say that, in today’s culinary climate, in which two top trends are all things meat and all things local, it’s a shame that consuming starlings hasn’t caught on. Where are chefs and hunters when you really need them?! And incidentally, we have at least six fat squirrels here at Hawk’s Haven if anyone’s in the mood for burgoo…

What will become of books? February 20, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were having supper with our friend Rob when the topic of books came up, as it often does, all of us being avid readers. “Between Borders declaring bankruptcy—did you know they’re closing their only store in this area?—and Barnes & Noble’s book selection shrinking every time we go in there, what’s going to become of the printed book?” Silence wailed.

Rob was characteristically optimistic. “Maybe the demise of the chains will mean that independent bookstores, the mom-and-pop operations that the chains, Wal*Mart-like, drove out of business, will make a comeback. I remember there was a wonderful independent bookstore at the mall before Borders took over. And think of Malaprop’s in Asheville. It seems to still be thriving!”

Silence shook her head sadly. “How could any individual afford the overhead to open a bookstore in a mall, Rob? Much less pay the rent malls charge nowadays…”

Our friend Ben was equally pessimistic. “Malaprop’s is something of a special case. It’s in Asheville, a city of artists and intellectuals that values independence and originality. And, as far as I know, there are no chain bookstores in Asheville to challenge it with lower prices. We had a wonderful privately-owned bookstore in my native Nashville, Davis-Kidd, that finally closed because it couldn’t compete with the chains. I’m not sure any private bookstore could, if a chain store opened near it.”

“What about Bethlehem’s Moravian Book Shop?” Rob persisted. “It’s not only still open, it’s the oldest continually operating bookstore in the world!”

“Yes, yes,” Silence muttered. “But consider: What percentage of what it sells are books? It seems to me it has two rooms of books and six rooms of food, candy, ornaments, cookware, cards, jewelry, housewares, and the like. Diversifying may have saved it, but I’d hardly call it a bookstore any more, even though the staff obviously and carefully selects the books they do carry.”

“And what about Amazon?” our friend Ben added, playing Devil’s advocate as usual. “We buy a lot of our books on Amazon. Especially some of us who are addicted to cookbooks.”

Silence, stung by this comment, replied, “Face facts, Ben, Amazon can’t be beat when it comes to convenience. If you already know what you want, it’s not only effortless to order with a few clicks from the comfort of home, but you get deep discounts and free Super Saver shipping.”

“True, but you’ll miss the serendipity of looking through the shelves,” Rob noted. “In a store, you can find books you’d never have thought existed, books that call your name, not just in the cooking racks but in history, crafts, historical fiction, nature… The beauty of a bookstore is that you can browse and discover. Even though we all browse the online bookstores to the best of our ability, it’s just not the same as being able to wander around, picking up, opening, and exploring any book that strikes your fancy.”

“I just wish we could have all the options,” Silence said. “I love the convenience of Amazon, the idea that if I read about a book and want it, I know they’ll have it, or I can buy a used copy through them even if it’s no longer in print. I love going to the big chain stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders and seeing what they have available, the ‘kid in the candy shop’ syndrome. And I love going into a privately-owned bookstore where it’s clear that the owners personally selected every single book in the store based on its merit, rather than having to offer them because the chain buyers managed to swing a great deal with the publishers.”

“We’re ignoring the elephant in the room here,” our friend Ben reluctantly pointed out, “and that’s e-books and e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. Amazon claims that Kindle is its bestselling product, and more and more of B&N’s efforts seem to be directed towards selling its Nook. We’re already looking at three generations who are used to getting all their information, and much of their social interaction and education, online, with plenty more to follow. Amazon and B&N have seen that future and moved to meet it. How soon will virtual publishing replace books altogether?”

“Don’t make me cry, Ben,” Silence said, her eyes suspiciously moist. “I know some of our friends point out how convenient e-readers are. They say that it’s easy to load them up with vacation reading, for example, rather than hauling 50 pounds of books along on every trip. And the price is certainly right, given how expensive real books are these days.”

“So what is the future of books?” our friend Ben asked. “Will those of us who love to browse, who love to hold a real book in our hands, be forced to rely on libraries and used-book stores? Will publishers stop printing books and switch to an all-virtual format? Will real books, beautifully illustrated books, rare books, again become the province of the wealthy, the educated, the collector, as was the case through most of human history, while the rest of the world goes virtual?” We all looked at each other, stricken.

“You know, Ben, I think it’s time we made another visit to the Saucony Book Shop to see what Brendan’s acquired in the used-book line,” Silence finally said. “And maybe we can figure out a way to add a few more bookcases to Hawk’s Haven, while there’s still time.”

“Good idea.”

“Gee, I think I’ll check my own bookshelves, then stop by Moravian Book Shop tomorrow to fill in some gaps,” Rob added. “I’ve been putting it off, but I think maybe now I’ll make it a priority.”

Yeesh. Our friend Ben has long wondered if society would split between the book hoarders and the non-readers. Silence and I have built up a massive library just in case, and so have many of our friends. Call me a pessimist, but just yesterday, high winds took our power down for 6 hours. What if a bolt of concentrated energy wiped out every e-reader in existence? What if an asteroid hit the earth? Then books, those humble, paper repositories of human history, human knowledge, and the human imagination, would be the only thing between us and oblivion. We don’t plan to trade our library for a virtual reader anytime soon.

A cook’s tour: SmartKitchen.com February 19, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here, to tell you about the launch of a new online culinary school, Smart Kitchen. Julia Child had Le Cordon Bleu. Anthony Bourdain had the Culinary Institute of America. Now, everybody can have Smart Kitchen (http://www.smartkitchen.com/), where you can learn at your own pace, level, and time, for a subscription fee of $9.99 a month or $99 a year. There are no exams, no chef-professors breathing down your neck or criticizing your deboning skills.

Instead, you can master over 600 culinary topics through their more than 360 instructional and practical videos and library of thousands of recipes. I can’t say it better than they do, so I’ll quote:

“We are a smart online culinary school because we teach the theory of cooking and the practical skills necessary to cook like a professional chef. Our software, which covers just about everything you could learn at a traditional culinary school, allows you to follow a structured lesson plan or to just click around, from the comfort of your own kitchen.

“With all that information and flexibility, Smart Kitchen is a new paradigm and not the typical library of cooking instructions, recipes, or videos of celebrity chefs cooking too quickly. We sort the topics into manageable bites so you can learn from scratch or discover that crucial step you missed on TV (or at Mom’s knee) to gain consistency and confidence in every cooking situation.” Smart Kitchen’s technology is already used by more than 1,600 commercial kitchens to train their chefs, and is used on Air Force One, and now the Smart Kitchen staff has tailored it for the home cook. 

If you’re a visual learner who’s flirted with the idea of taking a cooking class or even enrolling in a culinary course, or someone who loves the cooking shows on TV but wants to learn how the celebs on the shows do what they do, rather than just frantically trying to reproduce the recipes, Smart Kitchen may be just what you need. Head over to their site and take their tour to see what they’re offering for yourself.

Whether you’re a culinary school candidate or not, though, I recommend Smart Kitchen’s blog, hosted by my blogging friend P Chef. P Chef travels the country and beyond checking out great restaurants, cooking competitions, recipes, and the like. His posts are always fun and enlightening. And sometimes, the blog even features a guest post by yours truly on historical cooking topics. Check it out at http://www.smartkitchen.com/blog/.

         ‘Til next time,

                    Silence

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