Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Food-based Voting?

Ice cream and a corn dog in Des Moines, and pizza in Manchester, N.H. (Photo: New York Times)

Would you vote for somebody who turns up his or her nose at the food you love?

That's one of the points made in the New York Times article Where the Votes Are, So Are All Those Calories.

John Kerry learned that the hard way in Philadelphia in 2004. Dana Milbank captured the essence of the problem in the Washington Post:

"...the Massachusetts Democrat went to Pat's Steaks and ordered a cheesesteak -- with Swiss cheese. If that weren't bad enough, the candidate asked photographers not to take his picture while he ate the sandwich; shutters clicked anyway, and Kerry was caught nibbling daintily at his sandwich -- another serious faux pas.

"It will doom his candidacy in Philadelphia," predicted Craig LaBan, food critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which broke the Sandwich Scandal. After all, Philly cheesesteaks come with Cheez Whiz, or occasionally American or provolone. But Swiss cheese? "In Philadelphia, that's an alternative lifestyle," LaBan explained.

And don't even mention Kerry's dainty bites. "Obviously, Kerry's a high-class candidate, and he misread the etiquette," LaBan said. "Throwing fistfuls of steak into the gaping maw, fingers dripping -- that's the proper way." (Here's the whole article)

It got me thinking about the conclusions we draw about people based on what they eat, and how they eat it.

Many made fun of Bill Clinton when he would go for a run, Secret Service agents in tow, as he made detours to McDonald's to...er..refuel, before embarking on the return leg to the White House. But under the chuckles many saw a man whose weakness for junk food gave him the down-to-earth, regular-guy (albeit with poor appetite control) air that candidates work strenuously to achieve. When he left Pennsylvania Avenue and set up his office in Harlem, its proximity to excellent soul food restaurants was not lost upon journalists and Clinton-watchers. Oh, yes...then came the heart attack and his embrace of the South Beach Diet. Yet another way the regular guy saw himself reflected in Bill Clinton.

From the NYTimes article: "Those wanting to be president must never, ever refuse or fumble the local specialties, lest they repeat the sins of John Kerry (dismissed as effete when he ordered a Philly cheese steak with Swiss in 2004) or Gerald R. Ford (on a 1976 swing through Texas, he bit into a tamale with the corn husk still on)."

Not every candidate should be expected to know how to tackle an uncommon food - but what I would watch for is their willingness to sample the unknown, to take on something less than straightforward, and be willing to get their hands dirty.

So where is the candidate who will dine off the beaten campaign food track? Let him or her head to a dim sum restaurant in any of America's Chinatowns, and peek into the big rolling steam carts as they trundle by the tables. I'm sure many would order potstickers, har gow (crystal shrimp dumplings), char siew bao (barbequed pork buns) and maybe even sesame balls for dessert. Once exotic, these treats have now entered mainstream America. But how comfortable would a potential governor or president be tucking into nor mai gai - a ball of glutinous (sticky) rice with meats and shitake mushrooms, wrapped in a big lotus leaf? And would they dare to order - and eat - fong sao?

Literally, fong sao means the claw of the phoenix. A euphemism for chicken feet, stir-fried or deep-fried, then marinated and finally steamed. One has to pop the foot into the mouth, bones and all, and do lots of deft manifpulation with teeth, lips and tongue before politely depositing a pile of minuscule bones into a napkin or plate. If a candidate tackled that, it would tell me that he or she is:

  • Unafraid

  • Curious

  • Open to new ideas and experiences

  • Not superficial

  • Willing to deal with problems

  • Really into diversity
  • - no lip service here!
I want to see candidates fearlessly eating oysters on the half shell in Seattle, lentil ice cream in Pullman, rocky mountain oysters in Montana, the hottest red and green chile in New Mexico, and garlic cheesecake in Gilroy, California.

What puts me off?

Prissy eaters who literally wrinkle their noses and pucker their visages when presented with unfamiliar foods. I'm not talking about little children, either! We've all encountered adults like this, haven't we? If only they knew that expression makes any face highly unattractive, and is simply rude.

How much ruder if that expression was seen on the face of a senatorial, gubernatorial or presidential hopeful.

This is a wonderfully diverse land - that complexity reflected in food as well as people. A candidate would do well to show his or her comfort with that diversity at the gut level.

Friday, November 9, 2007

True Tale of a Wild Cranberry Harvest

NOTE: This is the tale of a wild harvest. No location will be divulged, out of respect for Matt, my Cranberry Foraging Guru. The secrecy also serves to preserve my safety.

(I was warned not to talk too much.)

It was a few years ago that some friends told me about their annual trip to gather cranberries in a bog, here in the Northwest. Intrigued, I asked lots of questions - and a couple of years later was actually INVITED to go along.

The equipment: rubber boots, extra clothing, a bucket, and empty mesh bag - the kind in which you buy fifty pounds of onions. A sack lunch, and a thermos of hot coffee. And most important: a canoe. (Really.)

The four of us gathered well before sunrise at Matt's house on a cold November morning. We hoisted the two canoes onto his van, then hit the road for a very long drive to a remote lake.

It just so happened that I had shaved my head completely just the day before, in support of a friend with cancer. Aware that we lose most of the heat through our head, I was still not prepared for the way that cold dawn fog insinuated itself into my very pores. A wool cap was far from sufficient: I still felt somehow naked. I verged on a headache.

In the half-light, we carried our canoes down an icy wooden ramp, clambered in and began paddling. The sun was just starting to come up, and birds were piping up all around.

After about 20 minutes at a good pace, we moved toward a narrow channel. The water was shallow, and our paddles kept getting tangled in weeds. Eventually, it was clear we would have to get up and carry the canoes across at least part of the channel.

(Why, in all those excited conversations about the romance of cranberry picking, was portaging in cold muddy water never mentioned, HMMMMMM????)

I stepped out of the boat and promptly sank knee deep in the mud, my rubber boots filling with icy water. A loud yelp from another member of the party let me know she was, if you'll pardon the expression, in the same boat.

Somehow, the other two were able to stay above the mud and pulled us out. The mud smelled awful, and the water in my boots was so cold it hurt; what was worse, though, was I just couldn't get enough traction to lift the canoe. My partner Brian made me sit in the craft, and to my amazement LIFTED the front of the canoe and slid it across the mud till we reached enough water to start paddling again!

After a while, the bog came into view. This was when I learned a bog is actually a floating island of peat and moss, and in this particular case, supports a huge mass of cranberry bushes. As we hopped on to the bog and started walking across it, the whole island shook.

Matt knelt down and started chipping at the thin ice with his fingers. There, nestling in the moss, were scads and scads of gorgeous, plump cranberries, ranging from white to salmon to a deep crimson. Some were very hard, some were a little mushy, and all were ours to gather to our hearts' content!

Unlike picking strawberries or huckleberries, though, one is not tempted to sample raw cranberries. They are bitter and tart, and make one's face pucker up with an expression as acrid as their taste.

We put the berries into buckets, which we then emptied into our mesh bags. Martina and I noticed that Matt's and Brian's bags were filling considerably faster than ours, and did our best to coax our frozen fingers to speed up. It wasn't till we got back home that we realized the two men were scooping up handfuls of berries along with leaves, twigs and bits of moss while we were fastidiously picking the fruit berry by berry.

We got to know the perils of the bog as Matt walked to a fresh patch, stepped into a weak spot on the bog hole and sank to his chest. After the rescue, the conversation turned to the subject of bog people.

From Wikipedia: "...bog people are preserved human bodies found in sphagnum bogs in Northern Europe, Great Britain and Ireland. Unlike most ancient human remains, bog bodies have retained skin and internal organs due to the unusual conditions of preservation. Under certain conditions, the acidity of the water, the cold temperature and the lack of oxygen combine to tan the body's skin: skeletal preservation is very rare in these bodies, as the acid in the peat dissolves the calcium carbonate of bone. The bodies provide very useful research material for archaeologists. Some of the bodies retain intricate details like tattoos and fingerprints."

Idly, I wondered what scientists of the future would make if they found the body of a bald Asian woman in a peat bog in North America.

My bag was about two-thirds full when I felt my back and knees would not hold out any longer. The rest of the party was ready to quit at the same time, so it was time for a meal and some warmth. Our wet clothes were steaming in the sun. Matt gathered some driftwood and quickly made a small fire. That, the food and thermoses of hot coffee, were as welcome as cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving.

The paddle back to the van went much more easily, with no muddy misadventures.

At home, I emptied my berries into big tubs of water to clean them, and marveled at the sight of all the shiny fruit - must have been at least twenty pounds of it.

It took a few days before the aches and pains of the trip subsided, after which I busied myself making batches of cranberry sauce, juice, and more.

Here's my recipe for my favorite sauce, which involves oranges and star anise. If you like the taste of licorice, this will floor you.

Juice and zest (I like to leave it in strips) of two large oranges
2 star anise
2 cups sugar (white or brown, or a mix)
1 pound of cranberries
Pinch of salt

Put the whole lot in a saucepan on medium heat. Cook till the berries pop, then stir and continue cooking till it looks jammy, about 15 minutes. Add more sugar to taste, if desired. Put into sterilized jars and refrigerate. It keeps for months!

Besides pairing with turkey, this sauce is great on a piece of bread with cream cheese.

Cranberries are incredibly versatile. I've used my wild harvest in a chocolate cranberry torte (recipe), the accompanying deep red sauce flavored with Chambord. They make beautiful salad dressings, and the shockingly pink cranberry relish from Mama Stamberg. Last year, I was delighted with my first batch of cranberry vodka. With tonic, it's DIVINE.

I made the canoe trip to the bog twice more after that, but with my knees getting a little stiffer, last year passed the torch on to my teenage son. Sadly, this year neither of us went, and I understand pickings were slim. So it's store-bought stuff for me this year, which will suffice, but will most definitely be short on the thrill and pleasure of canoeing to the cranberry bog.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

No Sex Please, We're Singapore Airlines.

Exactly the sort of picture that Singapore Airlines would rather you not see.

Australians Tony and Julie Elwood share a romantic moment on their double bed in the exclusive suite aboard the Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2007.

Picture from KOMO TV

Highly-acclaimed Singapore Airlines is the first to use the massive Airbus A380. The first class area of its giant superjumbo contains 12 private suites complete with double beds.

Singapore Airlines has taken the unusual step of publicly asking passengers on its new Airbus A380 plane not to engage in any sexual activities.

Officials say the suites were not sound-proofed.

It said it did not want anyone to offend other travellers or crew.

Singapore added that while the suites were private, they were also not completely sealed.

"All we ask of customers, wherever they are on our aircraft, is to observe standards that don't cause offence to other customers and crew," the airline said in a statement.

Singapore Airlines recently took delivery of its first A380, with the first services between Singapore and Sydney starting on 25 October.

It is now set to take delivery of a further five A380s in 2008, out of its order of 19.

Read the full story from BBC NEWS