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Vegan “cheese”: Any good ones? June 30, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I’ve been a vegetarian over half my life: no meat of any kind, including no poultry or fish. No fertilized eggs. No meat byproducts like gelatin. No pseudomeats, bacon bits, and the like. But I’m not a vegan: I enjoy our own cosseted heirloom chicken flock’s rich, tasty eggs, and I enjoy cheese, sour cream, and yogurt.

Recently, though, I’ve been trying to reduce the dairy component in our friend Ben’s and my diet. After reading Alicia Silverstone’s book, The Kind Diet, I bought some Earth Balance “butter” and found that it worked just fine, as long as you added a pinch of salt. I often use olive oil instead of butter in recipes, but when I want butter, Earth Balance works for us as an acceptable dairy-free substitute, with no hidden animal products like gelatin (see my earlier post, “Gelatin is everywhere,” for more on this).

OFB is my guinea pig on this, since I haven’t told him I’m trying to switch to more vegan dairy alternatives for our cholesterol and weight’s sake as well as my conscience. He hasn’t noticed the switch to Earth Balance, and I’m not about to tell him.

Unfortunately, there’s still the cheese issue to contend with. Cheese on sandwiches; shredded, crumbled, and grated cheese on salads; cheese in sauces and on pizza and pasta: OFB and I love cheese in all its variations. Could vegan “cheese” make the grade?

In a word, no, at least as far as the vegan “cheese” in our local grocery is concerned. I bought blocks of vegan mozzarella and Monterey Jack before OFB and I set out on our mini-vacation. I typically buy veggies, dips, chips, hummus, nuts, pepitas, sunflower seeds, dried fruit, and cheese for the road so we don’t eat nasty fat- and sugar-laden snacks out of desperation.

This time, I thought I’d substitute the vegan “cheese” for real cheese and hope we’d enjoy it. So I sliced the blocks of “cheese” into strips and put them in zip-lock bags. But I was curious, so I tasted them before putting them in our cooler. Eeeewwww, they were totally revolting. The pasty texture and aftertaste were so awful I made myself throw them out, telling OFB when he later asked “Don’t we have any cheese?!” that I’d forgotten to get any.

I’d still like to make the switch to vegan cheese (and sour cream and yogurt). I checked online and found a couple of suggestions: Cheezy from Redwood in the U.K., and Earth Balance Gourmet Brand over here in the U.S. (Tofutti brand yogurt and sour cream were also highly recommended.)

Problem is, now I’m scared. That pseudo-cheese was one of the worst things I’ve ever tasted. Does anybody out there have a yummy cheese alternative that actually tastes (and cooks) like cheese? Have you tried Earth Balance Gourmet Brand cheese or Cheezy, and if so, what did you think? Is there a source for Cheezy in the U.S.? Any other thoughts? Please let me know!

           ‘Til next time,



Gelatin is everywhere. June 29, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here, with troubling news for vegetarians, vegans, and anybody who’d prefer not to eat something made by boiling animal hides, bones, and connective tissues. No, I’m not talking about glue, but about its close relative, gelatin (or, for you Brits, gelatine).* Boiling all these animal parts releases collagen, the stuff that connects our own tissues, and that’s what gelatin is.

Gelatin’s ingredients are frightening enough in themselves. But gelatin made from beef parts can also carry the risk of transmitting mad cow disease (aka bovine spongiform encephalitis) if it’s made from an infected animal. There are other issues, too.

Googling “gelatin in food,” I found an article on the Vegetarians in Paradise website (www.vegparadise.com) that was a goldmine of helpful information. It contained this report from Professor David Klurfeld, chairman of the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at Wayne State University: “Gelatin is a poor source of protein, and it is essentially low in essential amino acids. It was the basis for the liquid diets in the 1970s that caused the deaths of dozens of people from lack of essential minerals.” The American Medical Association also weighed in with a similar analysis. Bad news for everyone eating gelatin-based foods to strengthen their hair and nails!

The Vegetarians in Paradise article (“Is Gelatin Hiding in Your Food? Bone Up on Some Hidden Sources”) includes a fascinating history of gelatin, which was first used in 1808. The first patent for gelatin was awarded in 1845 to Peter Cooper. I quote: “Most of Cooper’s efforts were focused on his glue factory that used the same animal byproducts as gelatin.” (Eeewww!!!) Fifty years later, Cooper sold his patent to the couple who invented Jell-O, which has been sold continuously ever since. Meanwhile, Charles Knox introduced his “Sparkling Granulated Calves Foot Gelatine” in 1894, along with, again quoting the article, “a recipe booklet explaining the difference between food gelatin and glue used for carpentry.” Yum! Knox unflavored gelatin has also been a grocery-store staple ever since.     

Maybe you aren’t worried about getting mad cow disease (I’m sure the risk is minimal) or starving to death on a liquid gelatin diet. Maybe you don’t mind eating something made from cow or pork hides, bones, and connective tissue, and occasionally even fish skins and bones—after all, traditional soup stock is made with most of this stuff, too (not hides, though, I hope!). But if you’re vegetarian like me, you just don’t want to eat gelatin, period. The trouble is, it’s a lot harder to avoid gelatin than you might think.

Sure, you know enough to avoid Jell-O, aspics, and those little boxes of Knox unflavored gelatin. But would it occur to you to avoid an energy bar or a bag of marshmallows? How about gummi candies, gumdrops, Altoids, and Junior Mints? (Sorry, Jimmy Buffett.) 

Just as I wouldn’t expect to buy a carton of yogurt or a box of breakfast cereal and find that it listed hotdogs as an ingredient—though no doubt those mad food scientists are working away on an egg-, bacon-, and pancake-flavored breakfast cereal even as I write—I wouldn’t expect them to contain gelatin. But many of them, including popular brands like Dannon, Yoplait, Lucky Charms, and Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats,  do. So do lots of candies, ice cream, cottage cheese, sour cream, and margarine (pretty much all the butter-flavored and heart-healthy brands, sadly). And cream pies, cheesecakes, puddings, and frostings. And consommes and sauces. Vegetarians in Paradise points out that even cookies like Nabisco Devil’s Food SnackWells contain gelatin. Not to mention medicines and vitamins that come in gel (as in “gelatin”) caps, unless the package specifically says “VegiCaps.” It’s also used as a coating for some pills, and is a common ingredient in cosmetics.

Why add gelatin to all this stuff, anyway? The answer’s obvious in the case of Jell-O, capsules, gummi candy, and foods like aspic. I assume the gelatin acts like its relative, glue, to hold energy bars together and “glue” those frosted toppings onto cereals.  But for products like yogurt and “buttery spreads,” the answer is simple and, in my view, insidious: Just as manufacturers add tons of artificial sweeteners (or even sugar and high-fructose corn syrup) to replace the fat in low-fat products, they add gelatin to provide the firmness and body dairy products would normally have if they left the fat in. When you see “low-fat” or “lite” anything, take a good long look at the label. I wouldn’t be surprised to see gelatin listed on those new nonfat half-and-halfs that have been transforming the dairy shelves.

Mind you, not all products in a category—or even from the same manufacturer—contain gelatin. Take Dannon yogurt, for instance. Plain Dannon yogurt, even nonfat, is gelatin-free. Full-fat flavored Dannon yogurt and Dannon yogurt drinks are gelatin-free (at least they were last time I checked). It’s when you get to the Dannon low-fat and nonfat fruited yogurts that you see the dreaded word “gelatin” in the ingredients list. Similarly, plenty of puddings, including Kozy Shack brand and some from Jell-O itself, don’t contain gelatin. You just have to look.

What’s a vegetarian to do? Well, that depends. There are plant-based gelatin substitutes like agar-agar and carrageenan (both made from seaweed), guar gum, xanthan gum, arrowroot powder, and cornstarch (or modified cornstarch, the ingredient in Ultra Gel Supreme). Unlike gelatin, you need to learn how to use each of these ingredients, and it may take a few tries to get the consistency you want. A good guide to using agar-agar and carrageenan is on the VegCooking website, www.vegcooking.com, under “Gelatin Alternatives.” Ultra Gel Supreme provides detailed instructions on its package.

There are also thickeners for jams and jellies like Sure-Gel and Pomona’s Universal Pectin. Pomona’s box claims that it can also be used in aspic, jello, pies, and the like. Presumably, so could Natural Desserts’ Unflavored Jel Dessert, a vegan alternative to plain gelatin that’s made from vegetable gum and tapioca dextrin, among other things.

Then there are Kosher gelatins. Some of these claim to be vegetarian, some don’t. And some that claim to be vegetarian have been found to contain up to 50% collagen, a sure sign that animal-derived gelatin was used as an ingredient. Kosher gelatins that are supposedly vegan include Lieber’s unflavored gel, Carmel’s unsweetened gel, Hain Superfruits, and KoJel’s unflavored gel. But I say, caveat emptor (buyer beware)!

I’ve never tried a gelatin substitute myself. There are plenty of great things to eat that don’t require it. But I admit, when I think of my Mama’s beloved Black Cherry Wine Ring, Rum Pie, and Coffee Ring with Whipped Cream, I’m tempted to grab one of those veggie-friendly substitutes and see what I can do. I’ve resisted so far because I fear that the results would be gummy rather than Jell-O-like or creamy. Any advice from folks who do use vegetarian “gelatins” would be much appreciated!    

Gelatin: Yet another reason to read those microscopic and seemingly interminable ingredients lists before you buy (look for gelatin, hydrolyzed gelatin, and hydrolyzed collagen). But please be considerate of other shoppers and don’t block the aisle while you’re doing it!

                ‘Til next time,


* I’m indebted for today’s topic to a comment by Jen, whose wonderful Nyack Backyard blog (http://nyackbackyard.blogspot.com/) is a joy to read. Thanks, Jen!

Rain, rain, come this way. June 28, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Gack. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood returned from a brief vacation to find Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, becalmed in heat, drought, and humidity. Every day, the temperatures shoot up to at or just over 100 degrees F., with the humidity nearing 100%. Rain clouds continuously sweep overhead, sidelining poor Silence with sinus headaches, but pass us by with no rain.

Meanwhile, neither Silence nor I have any heat and humidity tolerance, so we drag ourselves through each day like a pair of beached walruses. (Silence says, “Speak for yourself, Ben!!!” Hey, that was “walrus,” not “whale.” Ow!) Even our normally sprightly black German shepherd, Shiloh, has melted into a semipermanent fur puddle under the ceiling fan in the living room. And the poor plants! Just when they were really growing well.

So please, if you’re getting rain, could you send some our way? And if you happen to know any effective rain dances, we’re more than ready to try them!

Greek pasta. June 27, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here, with a dish from our recent travels. While in Asheville, NC, our friend Ben and I ate at a modest Greek-Italian restaurant just down the road from our beloved Log Cabin Motor Court. We ordered Greek salad, warm Greek pita with tzatziki sauce for dipping, and what the menu referred to as “Greek pasta.” The Greek salad and pita with tzatziki were excellent, and by the time the pasta arrived, OFB and I were full. Which was a good thing, since the pasta, spaghetti with olive oil and feta, was bland, to say the least.

However, I saw an excellent opportunity here. Taking our pasta to go (and adding ample sprinklings of crushed red pepper, black pepper, and salt), we stashed it in the fridge in the small but fully functional kitchen of our little log cabin. After a quick trip to the nearby Ingles market the following day, I set about turning our leftover “Greek pasta” into a delicious dinner.

Here’s what I did: I cooked broccoli florets until just tender in boiling water while sauteeing minced onion and crushed garlic in a little extra-virgin olive oil. The second the broccoli was fork-tender, I turned off the heat, drained the broccoli, and rinsed it with cold water. Once the onions had clarified, I dumped in the pasta with its crumbled feta, added the broccoli, stirred well to blend, and topped the dish with flaked Parmesan. I slapped the lid on the pan, turned the flame to its lowest setting, let the pasta heat through, and served the dish with a salad and wine. Yum!!!

The modified dish was so good that I’ll add this pasta to my permanent repertoire. But with a full kitchen, pantry, spice selection, and fridge at my disposal, I’m planning to try some more modifications until we find our favorite. Adding artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, and strips of red, orange, and/or yellow bell pepper to the onion/garlic saute instead of the broccoli should make a delicious dish. Sauteed mushrooms and bell pepper strips with onions and garlic, feta and flaked Parmesan, crushed red pepper, black pepper, salt, and Greek oregano would be delicious, too. You could saute sliced mushrooms with the onion and garlic and add the just-cooked broccoli instead of the pepper strips. If you eat meat, you could add grilled or rotisserie chicken, or beef or shrimp hot off the kebab. You could add Greek yogurt to make a creamier dish, or anise liqueur (in this case, skip the peppers, broccoli and olives, please) to give the dish more depth. Yum! The possibilities are endless.

Greek salad and warm Greek pita (which is quite different from a thin, dry Middle Eastern pita, in fact, more like a rich Indian naan) with tzatziki sauce are great accompaniments to this pasta. I like a simple Greek salad: Romaine lettuce, quartered ripe paste or whole ripe cherry tomatoes, slivers of red onion, chopped scallions (green onions), chopped bell peppers (any color or a combination), kalamata olives, and crumbled feta cheese with a dressing of extra-virgin olive oil, salt and balsamic vinegar. Fresh herbs—basil, thyme, mint, and/or cilantro—added directly to the lettuce before adding the toppings creates a delicious, fresh salad. Grilled artichoke hearts are fabulous on this, too.

Check your local grocery’s freezer section for Greek pita. We can find Greek pita at our local farmers’ market, too. To make tzatziki sauce, buy Greek plain yogurt (or strain regular plain yogurt to drain off the whey and make a thick, cream-cheese-like yogurt) and mix in crushed garlic and minced fresh cucumbers to taste.

Try this meal, you’ll like it, I promise! And if you come up with variations of your own, please share them with us.

                 ‘Til next time,


Cooking’s trinities. June 26, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. You just never know what you’ll learn when you do an internet search. Having recently eaten in a Chinese restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, I came away with the question I always have after eating in Chinese restaurants: Why don’t the Chinese use onions in their dishes? Garlic, yes. Scallions (green onions), yes. But where’s the plain old honest-to-goodness onion?

I love Chinese food, but I can’t think of a dish I order (except for moo shu/mu shu vegetables) that wouldn’t taste better to me if it had onions in it. When I cook Chinese food at home, I add them and love the results. So I keep asking myself why, why are there no onions when I go out to eat?!

Mind you, China’s cuisines are vast and various. Maybe it’s just American Chinese restaurant food that shuns onions. This morning, I determined to find out. Heading to Google, I typed in “onions Chinese cuisine.” I was directed to a Wikipedia article called “Holy trinity (cuisine).”

This article didn’t address the use or lack of onions in Chinese cuisine. But boy, was it fascinating! So I decided to share what I learned with all of you cooking and food enthusiasts out there, and urge you to check the original article to find out more.

A “holy trinity” in cooking is defined as three cornerstone ingredients that define a specific cuisine, such as the celery, bell peppers, and onions that form the basis of Creole and Cajun cooking. Here are some other trinities the article listed:

Chinese: scallions, ginger and garlic, or garlic, ginger and chilli peppers, or (in Sichuan cuisine) chilli peppers, Sichuan pepper and white pepper 

Japanese: dashi (soup stock), mirin (a sweet rice wine) and shoyu (soy sauce)

Thai: galangal (a ginger relative), lime leaf/kaffir lime (leaves and rind) and lemongrass

Indian: garlic, ginger and onion

French: celery, onion and carrots

Italian: celery, onion and carrots, or (in the South) tomatoes, garlic and basil

Spanish: garlic, onion and tomatoes

Cuban: garlic, bell peppers and Spanish onion

Mexican: ancho, pasilla and guajillo peppers

Greek: lemon juice, olive oil and (Greek) oregano

Lebanese/Middle Eastern: garlic, lemon juice and olive oil

West African: chilli peppers (habaneros or scotch bonnets), onions and tomatoes

Again, I recommend that you check out the original article to find the “trinities” of other cuisines and details on how these trinities are prepared and used in the various cuisines. Let me know if you disagree with any of them!

While you’re thinking about it, what is your own personal “trinity” of essential ingredients? Yow, it’s not easy to narrow them down, is it? But I know one thing: One of mine would definitely be onions. Which brings me back to my original question. If anybody can tell me why there are no onions in Chinese cuisine, please help me out here!

                 ‘Til next time,


Only you can prevent garden fires. June 25, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood returned to our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, yesterday from a mini-vacation in North Carolina. (See Silence’s post, “Away from it all,” for more on that.) Needless to say, it’s a long drive from Asheville, NC to Kutztown, PA, and we barely had time to pick up our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, from boarding, unpack, and make sure all the critters had fresh food and water before we collapsed.

So it wasn’t until this morning that we rushed out to check on our veggie garden beds and greenhouse. We’d asked our petsitter, April, a professional gardener who takes care of our cats, birds, fish, and chickens when we go away, to please water our veggie beds if it was dry. We’d dumped tons of water on our raised beds and greenhouse plants before we left. We drove back through rain and saw deep puddles in our yard when we returned. But still, you just never know. Once veggies really start growing, you never, ever want to let them dry out. 

That’s why our friend Ben and Silence, with an enthusiastic Shiloh in tow, were rushing out to check on our plants first thing this morning. Greenhouse: check. Peppers: check. Squash and pumpkins: check. Basil and other herbs: check. Potatoes: check. Onions and other alliums: check. Miscellaneous: check. Tomatoes: Yikes. More water! More water!!!

It was while we were frantically watering and refilling our water jugs from our rain barrels that we noticed something unusual: smoke. We ourselves have a wonderful fire pit. Our neighbors have wonderful fire pits. But the smoke we were seeing and smelling wasn’t coming from a fire pit: It was coming from our neighbors’ raised veggie beds!

Rushing to the rescue, we saw that one of the long boards on the neighbors’ raised tomato bed was burning. Two large cavelike holes had already been burned in the board, and the whole thing was about to go up in smoke. The neighbors themselves were nowhere in sight—presumably off at work—but mounds of smoking wood ashes were piled in the veggie bed.

Six gallon jugs of water later, our friend Ben and Silence had managed to quench the flames. The long board is still stout and serviceable, and no veggie plants were harmed by this impromptu fire. Whew. Thank heavens we happened to be there to see it!

Our friend Ben even feels responsible for this veggie-gardening disaster. These neighbors are, in their own words, city folks who know little to nothing about gardening and country living. It was OFB who pointed out that wood ashes were great additions to the compost pile. But it never occurred to me that anybody would dump hot ashes on a compost pile, much less a garden bed!

Our friend Ben and Silence are not looking forward to having the “please don’t do this again” discussion with our neighbors. We’re certainly not looking forward to pointing out the damage to their brand-spanking-new raised bed. So please, please learn from our neighbors’ mistake and don’t let this happen to you!

Instead, let your wood ashes cool completely before moving them from your fire pit or burn pile. Once they are completely cool, spread your wood ashes in a circle around the trunks of your fruit trees and bushes to deter slugs, snails, ants and other pests, or add the alkaline ashes to your compost pile to balance more acidic ingredients. Do NOT add them directly to your veggie beds. And, please God, whatever you do, do not, EVER, add them to your veggie beds while they’re still hot, warm, or have even a flicker of life left in them. Otherwise, like our neighbors, you could be sending your plants and beds up in flames. And you might not have our friend Ben and Silence next door to save you.

Away from it all. June 25, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in pets, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I have just returned from a trip to North Carolina to visit family in Greensboro, then spend a couple of days by ourselves in Asheville, one of our favorite places. And whenever we go to Asheville, we stay in our all-time favorite guest lodging, The Log Cabin Motor Court.

The Log Cabin Motor Court is a cluster of 19 adorable ca. 1929 log cabins tucked into a wooded mountainside on the Weaverville Highway. It’s a scenic, peaceful, private retreat back in time, but a 5-minute drive down the highway (also known as Merrimon Street) puts you in the heart of downtown Asheville.

The cabins are perfectly maintained, and have cable TV, wireless internet access, a/c, and heat. Our favorite cabin has a fireplace, gas flame heat, and kitchen. The furnishings are rustic, with lovely locally handmade quilts on the beds. Each cabin has a porch with chairs and a table for outdoor relaxing under the trees, and some have outdoor grills. OFB and I love sitting on the tiny porch with books and glasses of wine, looking through the feathery hackberry, white pine, and hemlock branches and watching the stars come out. Each porch is bedecked with a string of tiny white lights, adding a festive air, and many cabins have charming red shutters on the windows. For those who want to prolong their stay, there’s a laundry building, too.

A bundle of seasoned wood is provided for each fireplace (you can buy more if, like me and OFB, you just can’t resist watching the flames and breathing that fabulous woodsmoke smell morning and evening). As if all this weren’t enough, it’s pet-friendly, too! (Check out photos of the cabins and get more details at www.cabinlodging.com.) Oh, and did I mention the wonderful Bavarian Restaurant & Biergarten, also in a period log building, at the entrance to The Log Cabin Motor Court (www/bavariandining.com/)?

Over the years, OFB and I have stayed at The Log Cabin Motor Court as late as Thanksgiving and as early as March. This was our first hot-weather visit, so we had to skip the fire this time, to our great regret, and rely on the a/c and overhead fan to fend off the 98-degree weather (it did, thank goodness). My favorite time to go is in October, when we can enjoy the fall leaf show in the Blue Ridge, it’s cool enough to have as many fires as we like, I can sit and knit or cook to my heart’s content in the little kitchen, and it’s perfect weather for walking in downtown Asheville to our favorite stores—Malaprop’s Bookstore, The Grove Arcade, yarn shops, craft shops, Tibetan shops, you name it. Not to mention a mind-boggling assortment of great restaurants. (We have our favorites, but this trip, decided to try all-new restaurants and added some new ones to our must-go list.) But we haven’t had a bad visit yet.

However, the point of this post isn’t to urge everyone to go to Asheville and stay at The Log Cabin Motor Court, however special both are to us. Instead, it’s to talk about a feeling I get every time I stay there.

Picture our favorite cabin: There’s the little front porch with its cheerful string of white lights and its round table with two rustic rocking chairs. You enter the cabin and find yourself in the main room, which immediately surrounds you with the distinct and wonderful fragrance of logs and fresh mountain air (as opposed to, say, creosote or air fresheners). Behind the door is a suitcase rack and a wooden shelf; under the shelf and above the rack is a bar with coathangers so you can hang your clothes. (Since we drive, we travel with extra coathangers, pillows, and a large cooler and several tote bags stocked with provisions.)

Continuing to look around, you see the stone fireplace and mantel, with stacked wood and matches waiting for you. Next to it is what looks like a cute cast-iron woodstove but is actually the gas heat stove, which will provide realistic flames that you can enjoy on cold nights after your wood fire has died down. An antique (but fully functional and electric) lamp and rustic chair complete the picture. Oops, did I say picture? Yes, there’s an oil painting of a flowery field hanging on the log wall over the mantel.

Overhead is a fan light, gently moving the air in the room and illuminating the big, antique four-poster bed with its beautiful quilt and quilted pillow sham. A rustic log-stemmed light casts reading light directly over the headboard. Heading down the opposite wall, another original painting adds brightness to the logs, followed by a rustic dresser with another primitive light fixture, a shelf for the television, and then, on the wall with the entry door, a window over a round table and two chairs, with another log-stemmed light fixture on the wall like a sconce. Braided and rag rugs add more color and comfort to the homey scene.

The kitchen opens off this main room, and it has everything: a gas range, fridge, microwave, sink, cabinets, drawers, and shelves. A large double window over the sink slides to let breezes waft in through the screen, providing a view of more cabins stretching beyond but with cheerful checked calico curtains to give some evening privacy. A central ceiling light and an additional light over the sink, a gas heating unit that provides comforting flames, and a fully stocked set of dishes, glasses, cups, silverware, pots, pans, utensils (even a corkscrew!), coffeemaker, coffee, salt, pepper, hot mitts, towels and dishrags, dish soap, dish drainer, cutting board, grater, and etc. etc. complete the picture.

Off the kitchen is the bathroom, with a privacy-glass window that hinges open for fresh air. Shelves and racks attached to the logs provide space for toiletries and plentiful towels, washrags, etc., as well as a basket of Cashmere Bouquet soaps (whoa, that takes me back!). A huge shower gives ample maneuvering room, and a rag rug—along with the log walls!—adds great rustic atmosphere.

Can you see our cabin now? OFB and I come in, toss our extra pillows on the bed, hang up our clothes, stash our laptops, set out our essential toiletries. We put our books (and in my case, if it’s cool or cold enough, knitting) within easy reach. We transfer our beverages and other essentials from our cooler and bags to the fridge and counter. Then we head up the road to the nearby Ingles market to stock up on fresh produce, breakfast staples, and other essentials so I can cook the meals we want to eat “at home.”

One of the most wonderful things about The Log Cabin Motor Court is its easy access to essentials. If we didn’t have a car, we could bike to the big, well-stocked Ingles grocery. Two veterinary clinics and a specialty cat clinic are evern closer. Flea markets, antique and local craft shops, wine and liquor stores, greenhouses and garden centers (including one very upscale garden artifact shop) are closer still. Gas stations, pharmacies, upholsterers, car repair shops, and specialty shops of all kinds line the Weaverville Highway on both sides of the Motor Court.

And the restaurants! Asheville itself is renowned for its fabulous restaurants, from classic Southern cuisine to Indian, Thai, Middle Eastern, vegetarian, Latin, and far, far beyond. And we’ve enjoyed all of it. But we discovered this trip that we didn’t really have to go farther than the Weaverville Highway five miles on either side of us to find great food. Besides the really great Bavarian restaurant at the entrance to The Log Cabin Motor Court, there’s Mexican, Greek, Italian, Thai, classic Southern, classic family-style, classic breakfast, local-organic, pizza, hoagie, and many another choice, again within biking (and sometimes hiking) distance. And these are all unique, family-owned restaurants, not chains. Yowie!

Anyway, there’s an actual point to this post, and it’s not just that Asheville is wonderful or The Log Cabin Motor Court is a fantastic place to get away from it all while still enjoying plenty of comforts and conveniences. Instead, it’s about what comes to my mind every time we stay there.

Our friend Ben and I live in a modest cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. It’s not anybody’s idea of The Biltmore Estate, a McMansion, or even a typical suburban home. As a child visiting us with his mother once enthusiastically exclaimed, “Momma! Can we get a place like this? It’s just like an apartment, but it’s a house!”

From the mouths of babes. But within the walls of this modest cottage, two enthusiastic collectors have built a framework in which they could showcase their collections and make them accessible: books, music, movies, chess sets, marbles, stamps, coins, rocks and fossils, shells, plants, cookbooks, Zuni fetishes, pueblo pottery, textiles, vintage clothing and accessories, decorated eggs, Christmas ornaments, one-of-a-kind furniture, original art, evocative photographs, acoustic guitars. Not to mention the raw materials for making wonderful things: beads, yarn, spices, cookware, fabrics, gardening supplies, pet supplies, aquarium supplies. And on and on. (And on.)

In a limited space, if you want to live an attractive, free, uncluttered life, you have two choices: Opt for extremely limited possessions, or (like us) devise ways to keep most of your possessions out of sight and to create large, spacious areas showcasing just a few of your choice objects at a time.

But when I stay at The Log Cabin Motor Court, I wonder. Could OFB and I really live in a cabin the size of the one we love year-round and make it work? We’d need to add shelves to the cabin walls, and either replace the TV with a CD player or add a shelf with a CD player in the kitchen. We’d need to trade the microwave in the cabin for a toaster oven. We’d need to limit ourselves to one dog, one cat, and one cage of birds (either a parrot or two or three parakeets). We’d have to forget about our aquariums—unless we could get really creative about adding one to the bathroom—and choose just three or four houseplants to keep us company.

But you know, I think we could do it. At least, I like to think we could. Yes, it would be nice to convert that grassy lawn at the very back of the complex to a community garden for the residents. Yes, it would be nice to win the lottery and buy the whole place, designating specific cabins for specific functions, such as the cooking/dining cabin, the library, the TV and games cabin, etc. And yes, it would be great to give cabins to our friends and family to use whenever they wanted. But just that one cabin, with its main room, kitchen, and bathroom, would probably be enough for me, our friend Ben, and our pets in the end. And that’s enough to really make you think.

                  ‘Til next time,


Shamelessly plugging along. June 19, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , ,

It’s once again time to share more wild and wacky blog search phrases that have landed here at our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, over our virtual transom. If this keeps up, we’re going to have to institute the PRA version of the Darwin Awards. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do! As always, original search phrase in bold, our response following:

old ben’s almanac: Let’s try not to get personal, please.

black poor richard: We’ve gotten this query a number of times in the past. Can anyone shed any light on it?

shamelessly plugging along: Speak for yourself, unless you happen to be a Nobel or MacArthur Fellowship nominator. In which case, our friend Ben would be happy to plug along as shamelessly as you like.

tomato benjamin franklin: Now here’s an exciting development! If anyone knows of a tomato named for our hero and blog mentor, the great Dr. Franklin, please let us know!

breaking news on lovers: We suspect there hasn’t been too much breaking news on this topic since the days of Romeo and Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere, and Antony and Cleopatra. Sorry.

smoking elephant ear plants: We’d rather grow them as ornamentals or eat them in patra roulades, ourselves. But do let us know what you think.

another name of extravegance: We enthusiastically recommend the dictionary. But we urge you to try Spell-Check first.

has dr oz had tattoos removed? Poor Dr. Oz. People arrive at our blog all the time trying to find out how old he is and/or whether he’s had plastic surgery. And now it’s tattoos. We have no idea, but let’s start a rumor and say that a little bird told us he had a tattoo removed from his ankle that said “I hate Dr. Phil” shortly before becoming a regular on “Oprah.”

amish almanac: Hmmm. We don’t know of a specifically Amish almanac, but you might check the Amish newspaper, The Budget, and see if it’s advertising one.

someone put red flags on our front lawn: Hey, it wasn’t us.

squirrel silence: Really? Our squirrels are notable for making a racket. And Silence Dogood says, if that remark happens to be personal, “I resent that!”

chocolate pi freak: We hope you enjoy every piece to the 3.14159265…

Animal “shortening”? Say it ain’t so! June 18, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , ,

Silence Dogood here. I was just scrolling through my e-mail and saw that The Utne Reader had sent its newsletter with the headline “Twinkie Ingredients Demystified.” Now, who could resist a headline like that? Certainly not yours truly. I may not indulge in Twinkies these days, but they occupied near-cult status throughout my childhood.

Scanning the page, I saw that the article was by a guy who’d decided to photograph all the ingredients in Twinkies. I clicked the link, expecting to be grossed out by a bunch of chemicals. Little did I know! Sadly, Utne only showed six of the photos; you had to go to the guy’s website to see them all. But that sixth photo stopped me in my tracks. The caption said “Animal Shortening.” And it looked like Crisco… or lard.

Animal shortening?!! Good God have mercy, what kind of euphemism will they think of next?!! Rushing to Google, I found that indeed, “animal shortening” was defined as lard, beef drippings, or rendered suet. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, the whole point of shortening was that it wasn’t lard. Either you used lard, or you used shortening (in our house, Crisco), which was made from vegetable oil. And never the twain shall meet.

As a passionate vegetarian, I have not been so shocked by any food-related revelation since they started putting gelatin in yogurt and candy (I had to give up Altoids and marshmallow creme, aka fluff, sob). Animal shortening?!! That’s lard, people. Let’s call a pig a pig. All I could think of was eating in a restaurant in San Antonio years ago and ordering refried beans. The horrified waiter told me I didn’t want to order that: “It contains the L-word.” “Pardon me?” “You know… lard.”   

Eeeewwww, lard. To think that Twinkies contain the L-word, too. Unfortunately, I just returned from the grocery and am not about to turn around and race back out just to look at the ingredients list on the back of a box of Twinkies. But I’ll check it out next time I’m there. I’m very curious to see if they list “animal shortening” or just “shortening.”

If I find that it just says “shortening,” I may start rampaging through the aisles. Hey, I can always plead the Twinkie Defense.

                 ‘Til next time,


A singular need to play god. June 17, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , ,

Our friend Ben recently stumbled upon an article from The New York Times while following a link back to a news article on Yahoo! News. As it was in the Top Ten Most E-mailed in the NYTimes list, I imagine many of you have seen it as well. If not, I urge you to go online and read it (www.nytimes.com). Some of you may find it focusing, perhaps even life-altering; but everyone will find plenty of food for thought, even if, like me, you’re a Luddite* and find 6 pages of high-tech commentary something of a slog.

The article, “Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday” by Ashlee Vance, first appeared in the Times on June 13. From the title, I thought the story would be about cyber-enhancement, and wandered over to see what it had to say. But it wasn’t about cyber-enhancement. It was about the end of the world as we know it, or, as its supporters like to put it, “the Post-Human Era.”

The Post-Human Era certainly has that dinosaur-extinction chill about it, as in nuclear winter or an asteroid striking Earth. But these people are talking about the development of a superintelligent reasoning machine that would usher in what they call the Singularity. And they’re trying as hard as they can to bring it about, preferably in the next two decades.

Say what? Are we talking about insane megalomaniacs a la James Bond villains who are trying to destroy the world? Nope, we’re talking about Bill Gates, the founders of Google, the titans of industry and high-genius inventors. Just your normal, apparently harmless computer geeks.

What’s in it for these people to destroy our world, enslaving or annihilating humanity in the process? In a word, immortality. Or at least a reasonable facsimile. In the article, many of the people interviewed confidently predicted lifespans of 700, 1,000, or even 3,000 years. For themselves, of course, not for the rest of us hoi polloi crawling down here in the dust at the foot of Mount Olympus.

Herein lies the most chilling aspect of the Singularity and its proponents: With absolutely no qualms, they predict a future of Haves and Have-Nots (capitalization theirs), with themselves in the former category and everyone else relegated to the equivalent of livestock. As one interviewee put it, “It is rich people building a lifeboat and getting off the ship.” The ship, in this case, being the common good of humanity and all life on Earth.

Cybergeeks, like pure scientists of all stripes, may be so wrapped up in what it’s possible to achieve that they’re simply oblivious to the consequences of those achievements. But the rich and powerful are not so naive. They see the consequences, calculate the benefits to themselves, and are happy to put everyone and everything else at risk to pursue those consequences.

However, in my opinion, they err. There is a group of people who have concerned themselves with issues like these for more than a century now, and they are a different type of creative genius: writers who envision the outcomes of human behavior in science fiction and fantasy. Many have tackled the subject of man versus the god-machine, and in every case, the future they have seen has shown the machine winning and man losing, at least up to a point. At that point, because it is fiction, often a heroic individual or band of individuals saves the day at the last second. But in real life, I ask you, what are the chances of that?

Let’s look at just a few of these apocalyptic scenarios, without the heroic endings: In “The Matrix,” machines keep humans stacked in trance-sleep, much as we keep factory-farmed chickens, to produce heat to enable the machines to function. In “2001: A Space Odyssey,” HAL the computer takes over the ship. In “The Terminator” series, machine-men are sent to destroy humanity’s future. Even the “Jurassic Park” series feeds into this, with its concept of combining science and greed without calculating the ultimate cost. As does “Avatar.”

Call me a cynic, but I think we’d be fools to count on a hero rising up and saving us and our world from the Singularity, the god-machine. What’s he or she supposed to do, detach the power plug?

And yet, the assumption of the men who are working to bring this about is the same one that has motivated immoral men for all of human history, the assumption of hubris: I can master this. Yes, this machine is all-powerful, but it will answer to me. I can control it. Yeah, right. Could you just stop long enough to ask yourselves this question: Why should it?

Many writers have also addressed this, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which the supposedly wisest of the wizards, Saruman the White, assumes that he will rise with Sauron rather than being enslaved by him, despite all evidence to the contrary. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series addresses this basic flaw in logic over and over again as well.

Our expression, “You’ve/I’ve/he’s/etc. created a monster!” speaks to this. No one can control his or her creation, not even God, who allows free will and weeps to see its consequences. But not being God Creator, who plays in all the universes and in time and space across all worlds, we don’t have the luxury to try a planetary experiment and watch it crash and burn. We have only the one planet and our dreams. If we allow a greedy elite to destroy our only home, we’ll have only ourselves to blame.

After reading the main NYTimes article, our friend Ben clicked on the embedded links, as I urge you to do also. One was to a paper by the mathematician and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who is credited with first defining the Singularity in its modern sense. One was to a website, www.SingularityHub.com, that supports the work of the founder of Singularity Univeristy, the man who is the chief proponent of the Singularity as envisioned by today’s elite, the genius inventor Raymond Kurzweil. This website included a link to Kurzweil’s own website, www.kurzweilAI.net, which featured a 2007 followup piece by Vernor Vinge called “What If the Singularity Does NOT Happen?”

Okay, our friend Ben thinks that only widespread, creative speculation on our future and our world, be it scientific or fictional, can help us move safely foreward. Perhaps that’s because, growing up, our friend Ben daily saw a framed 18th-Century French print in my parents’ hallway depicting a blindfolded, obviously reckless, sensuous young woman with the comment (rough translation): “She does not see the precipice.” The reckless young woman is not the only one. We do not see the precipice, either.

That’s because we need to involve historians, moralists, philosophers, ecologists, artists, and high creatives of every type and stripe in our deliberations, not just the rich and powerful, not just the politicians, not the corrupt of every kind, to shape our own and our world’s future. We need the young and old, the poor and rich, the innovators, priests and priestesses and shamans, from every culture and every continent, to come together to envision a future for humankind and all life on Earth. Would you really entrust the future of life on Earth, including your own, to a bunch of suits on Wall Street or PACs in Washington? Gods, I hope not.

Picture for a second the tough gang of Kung-Fu thugs beating up the tiny, fragile hero of the new version of “The Karate Kid.” Sadly, the little hero is our world, and the big, tough thugs are us.

It’s not hard to understand the thugs’ payback: Who wouldn’t want to live forever? I would, because I love the beauty of the world; I’d want to enjoy it for endless time to come. But who’d want to rule the world? Not me. Not anyone I know. But unfortunately, there are apparently enough people who would, who’d forsake the world of nature and interlocking creation to ascend the throne of power, the Darth Vader paradigm. Is this the future anyone (else) would want?

Proponents of the Singularity would dismiss me as an ignorant hick whose fears are pathetic and whose backwards, slow-witted ideas stand in the way of (their) progress. The scariest thing of all the things I read about the Singularity was a reader comment on Vernor Vinge’s 2007 essay. Another reader had raised some objections to the Singularity, and the reader who scares me attacked him, telling him to get out of the way and “Let the ones who know what’s best decide what to do, and let them act as they see best.”

Couple this with the cynical realism of every major Singularity player, all of whom say that, whatever the cost to humanity, whatever the consequences to our world, well-funded research will continue apace because no government is willing to let another government get their hands on this much power first. This was just the mentality that brought us the nuclear bomb, a weapon now in the hands of insane dictators and other leaders who are eager to earn glory in the afterlife by annihilating the present one.

But in the end, it is not governments who create bombs and other horrors. It is the people who invent them, the brightest, “the ones who know what’s best.” People whose intellects are of such an isolating order of magnitude that they lose touch with the greater issues and simply do things because they can, never considering the consequences. Like a computer hacker who wreaks untold damage, not because there’s anything in it for him, but because he thinks he sees how it can be done and is curious to know if he’s right, these masterminds are missing something far more valuable than sheer intellect: a sense of the whole, a sense of connection to all life, a sense of obligation to work for the good of all life, a need to see, not just the next step or the next mile, but clear to the end of the road.

Again, our friend Ben can sympathize. There is nothing in life as exhilarating as the experience of pure thought. When your brain hits that wavelength, it is a high that leaves all others in the dust. To curb free thought, to stop this amazing process, would be more immoral than to create the god-machine.

What is needed instead, in my opinion, is to insert a full stop between thought and action, to say not “I think I can do this” but “What will happen if I do this? Will it lead to good or bad?” To pair the creators with the far-seers, the wisdom keepers, the moralists and philosophers, the historians, and all people who are caretakers of our world. The people who know enough of our past to foresee future consequences. These people have historically been known as “the Wise” for a reason. They fully understand the interconnectedness of all life, the ultimate meaning of Hippocrates’ great law: “First, do no harm.” It is they, the “see-ers” (thus, seers), not the doers, who are and have always been “the ones who know what’s best.”

In some cases, as with our hero and blog mentor, Benjamin Franklin, and (ultimately) Albert Einstein, the two roles can combine in the same mighty person, the epitome of all we can strive for. But in our pragmatic, fast-paced world, too often, the Wise have been marginalized while the movers and shakers have been exalted.

Unless a far-seer like the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Krishnamurti, Thich Nhat Hanh, Mahatma Gandhi, Chief Seattle, Albert Schweitzer, Helen Keller, Hildegard of Bingen, St. Francis, or Eckhart Tolle inadvertently gains some kind of celebrity, they are viewed as irrelevant. Sure, they’re great souls, but could you please move the line along so I can get my Starbucks? And even the Wise who make it onto the public radar are usually dismissed with a mental pat on the head. After all, these guys are talking about world peace, respect for all beings, partnership with nature. Let’s get real!

Our friend Ben says, we’d damned better get real before our final reality is mass enslavement or a mass grave. Before we end all life on Earth, not through our own ignorance and abuse of resources, but through a single deliberate invention. We must reintegrate with our world, end the alienation, before it’s too late.

“The Earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” It is not for a few greedy men, and the power-mad governments that pay them, to play god in God’s place.

* What is a Luddite, you ask? No, it’s not some obscure cult, but rather someone who is technologically challenged like yours truly. Say, someone whose eyes roll back in his head when a friend attempts to explain the thousand steps necessary to upload a photo or export text, and who believes that such machines as are necessary should be here to serve us—simply, with minimal input on our part—rather than vice-versa.