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John Whiting

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  1. From "If music be the love of food...", a gastronomic history of Electric Phoenix, an electroacoustic vocal quartet with whom I used to tour:

    The wooden spoon must go to our hosts in an upper New England college town which should out of charity remain nameless. Midway through a punishing tour we arrived late in the afternoon and were taken to the house where we were to be entertained and fed. Upon arrival we were met with a house full of boisterous kids. All the available chairs were piled high with books and papers, their outline softened by the patina of age. After we’d stood around for a while, enough chairs were finally cleared and collected for us to sit around the empty dining table.

    We were all dying for something alcoholic; even the cheapest, most watery of American beers would have been welcome. No way—this was a teetotal household. Waiting for the food, we were given a criminally thin glass of Kool-Aid—and another—and another. After an aeon a large dish arrived, full of an ambiguous vegetable stew whose watery broth could have come straight from the rain barrel. The meal was rounded out with a sloppy tasteless Jell-O. It was a foodie’s Room 101.

    Those parsimonious New England Yankees would have given the Puritans a bad name. I was so ashamed that the next night in Portland, Maine I treated us all to a lobster dinner. We attacked it with the eager enthusiasm of the College of Cardinals breaking its Lenten fast.

  2. Most "unhealthy" foods are harmless in moderation. Eating McDonald's every day: probably not a great idea from a nutrition standpoint. Eating McDonald's once a month: who cares? As part of an overall healthful diet, there's plenty of room for occasional junk.
    True, but rare. The burgeoning pattern is McDonald's one day, a pizza from the freezer the next, and, as a special treat, Taco Bell the day after that. We're raising a whole generation of Fat Guys who won't live to make a career of it. :biggrin:
  3. Children have always received their first mental conditioning from their parents (mostly mothers), then from the larger society and their peers. It's only within the last fifty years that large corporations have increasingly devoted their full resources to invading the home and taking over the instruction of the young, conditioning them to band together as peer groups whose values are injected straight into their brains by professional salesmen.

    I'm glad I'm not raising a small child. Especially if you live in a major city, how do you raise children with rational values without making them social eccentrics or even outcasts? It's a major challenge to grow up a well person in a sick society; I don't have any answers that are more than just fiddling around the fringes.

  4. I'm not particularly concerned with "carbon footprint" since I think the data on emissions and global warming are not compelling. . .
    Steven, thank you for reminding us that you are a global warming and precautionary principle skeptic. It's a useful framework within which to evaluate your comments on sustainability.
  5. His 'gastronomic hit list' includes:

    Auberge de la Grenouillère, outside Montreuil-sur-Mer

    I give him full marks for this -- an excellent, unpretentious but romantic restaurant in a fairytale location. Mary and I, together with another couple, once had a Valentine's Day dinner there in a little private cubicle -- it was unforgettable.
  6. What we accept unquestioningly as desert-always-desert was not always desert.
    It's now creeping into southern Europe. Greece and Italy were once densely forested; in the 6th century B.C. the Athenians were well aware of the damage they had done. Solon and then Pisistratus tried to introduce reclamation measures, but funding and political will were ultimately lacking. Two centuries later Plato wrote perceptively and movingly of what had been lost:
    What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and soft earth having wasted away….Mountains which now have nothing but food for bees…had trees not very long ago.. [The land] was enriched by the yearly rains, which were not lost to it, as now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea; but the soil was deep, and therein received the water, and kept it in the loamy earth…feeding springs and streams running everywhere. Now only abandoned shrines remain to show where the springs once flowed.
    Later the same abuse of the soil took place in Italy, which had been well-wooded until about 300 B.C. As a result of ecological destruction, the Roman Empire gradually became dependent on imported grain, ultimately contributing to its downfall. Ovid wrote of the land’s deterioration in much the same vein as Plato.
  7. (Now there's a science fiction story idea - California somehow loses its irrigation substructure and the entire state has to be fed on whatever food is grown in the rest of the country.)
    Potentially, not science fiction but science fact. In his lecture series, A Short History of Progress, Canadian archaeologist/anthropologist Ronald Wright tells how the irrigation in Mesopotamia that first made agriculture possible on a large scale ultimately led to the destruction of the soil itself. Over several hundred years, the land became salty from constant water evaporation and begin “to turn against the tillers,” leading ultimately to the collapse of Sumerian civilization. A few of its great cities “struggled on as villages, but most were utterly abandoned.” The land never recovered; much of modern Iraq's formerly irrigated land remains saline, “sour and barren…a desert of their making.”
  8. Well, John, your story about Cuba was interesting. Do you know if there has been any discussion within the groups who study these things as to whether or how that could occur in other places that do not have the same geography or political or cultural systems that Cuba has?

    P.S. I'll try to use a big vocabulary word here. Let's see if it fits. "Comparative Feasability Studies".  :biggrin:

    As a model for the entire planet, it could obviously be shot full of holes. For a start, try applying it to Greenland. And without a quantum leap in human intelligence, it would probably require imposition by an authoritarian regime such as Castro's.

    All it proves is that under certain conditions of enforced isolation and autonomy, plus an ideal growing climate, such a system is possible. In other words, it's no longer merely hypothetical--it has actually happened.

  9. The actions that we take as individuals, such as growing our own food, certainly contribute to the larger good; but if Al Gore (and the entire scientific establishment) are not merely scaring us with a horror story and we are indeed destroying our environment, then more is required than merely cultivating our private gardens, which will ultimately be burned up or inundated, along with the gardeners.

  10. Efficiency has been broadening our definition of 'local' for as long as people have been forming communities.
    In practice, "local" is flexibly defined in a series of concentric circles. In at least one instance, it can be applied agriculturally to a rather large island. This is from my Oxford Symposium paper:
    In the late 1980s Cuba’s agriculture and economy were essentially like those of its capitalist Caribbean neighbors. It monocropped sugar cane and citrus which the Soviets bought at inflated prices; in exchange it received 63 percent of its food imports and 90 percent of its petrol.

    With the collapse of the Soviet Union, this cosy arrangement ceased virtually overnight. The daily caloric intake rapidly fell by half, from about 2,600 calories a day in the late 1980s to between 1,000 and 1,500 by 1993.

    Cuba’s government chose to make a virtue of necessity. Deprived of Soviet oil for tractors, they reverted to oxen; with no chemical fertilisers or pesticides, they used compost, biopesticides, beneficial insects and manure (of which they now had a ready supply). In other words, they went organic.

    Today Cuba is fed by more than 7,000 urban allotments or ‘organoponicos’, which fill about 81,000 acres. Many of them occupy tiny plots of urban land—more than 200 gardens in Havana supply more than 90 per cent of the city’s fruit and vegetables. These look and taste as if they’d been picked that morning, which they probably have.

    Scientists who have seen it in action report that the system has worked. Caloric intake is up to about 2,600 a day, undernourishment has fallen from 8 per cent of the population in 1990-2 to about 3 per cent in 2000-2. Cuba’s infant mortality rate is lower than that of the US; life expectancy is the same.

    This remarkable success story demonstrates not only the viability of organic agrotechnology, but also the feasibility of a localised, low-energy economy.

  11. Isn't there a saying about the preservatives in the food making one live longer, John?

    No doubt there is--and launched by the same PR firm that told us our bodies would be better preserved by smoke curing. :laugh:

    P.S. My point about growing a vegetable patch in New Orleans in the summer of 2005 was that it would have been wiped out as a result of the larger measures that weren't taken.

  12. Feeding one’s family responsibly, even growing one’s own food, is an admirable activity, but within the context of what homo non sapiens is doing to the planet, it amounts to growing a vegetable patch in New Orleans in the summer of 2005. Putting together a paper on sustainable agriculture (Eating the Earth) for this year’s Oxford Food Symposium left me thankful to have reached the three-quarter-century mark.

  13. We've reached a point in the evolution of art where virtually anyone who calls himself an artist is an artist. Or in the case of Adria, when someone else who is an authority calls him an artist. It's not a question of whether it's good or bad, but merely of intention. Two good quotes:

    "Art is whatever you can get away with." Marshall McLuhan
    "We don't have any art; we just try to do everything as well as we can." a Balinese to John Cage
  14. Futurism and Dada have had a pervasive influence that goes far beyond those who are still conscious of it. I would find it difficult to believe that Adria, as well informed as he is, did not know about the book, or had even read it. The Futurist movement in Italy went back a good quarter century before the Cookbook and represented a decisive shift in Europe from romanticism to a passion for speed, science and technology. Acknowledged or unacknowledged, it is an integral part of the heritage of the McGee-influenced molecular gastronomists.

  15. The barrier between art and cuisine was smashed a good seventy-five years ago. Marinetti's La Cucina Futurista (Futurist Cookbook) is full of "performance art" recipes and culinary events which go far beyond Adria's relatively restrained whimsical experiments.

  16. There are contemporary writers about food, science and history, such as Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Colin Tudge and Ronald Wright, who realize that what we eat and how we produce it are no longer merely matters of ethics, but relate imminently to human survival. Biofuels now tie food and energy production inseparably together. The collective threats are grimly summarized by Gwynne Dyer in the New Zealand Herald.

    In the early stages of this process, higher food prices will help millions of farmers who have been scraping along on very poor returns for their effort because political power lies in the cities.

    But later it gets uglier. The price of food relative to average income is heading for levels that have not been seen since the early 19th century, and it will not come down again in our lifetimes.

    I've just finished writing a paper about all this, "Eating the Earth", to be presented in September at the Oxford Food Symposium. The collective evidence has proved to be even more frightening than I had anticipated.
  17. At favorite restaurants where I went often and was known to be a cheese lover, I sometimes had extra portions urged on me because the patron had a particularly good specimen and was proud of it. A restaurant that's been going for a while will know what his average consumption is and will set his price accordingly. These days, after a full meal a diner is more likely to go easy on the cheese than to overdo it.

  18. Chez Lena et Memile is indeed a splendid location, with a terrace at the top of an upward slope and a flight of steps, and looking out over a fountain, but in our experience the food was nothing special and the service rather on the surly side. It was indeed a romantic evening but we had to provide the romance ourselves.

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