The three stooges: Ramsay, Bourdain, and Flay

Recently, my students and I were viewing a cooking show on youtube when Gordon Ramsay’s name appeared on a related video.  A handful of girls in the class became quite excited and yelled out, “Hey, we want Gordon Ramsay. Please! He’s so handsome.”

I was surprised that young teenagers in Viet Nam had heard of the pugnacious chef from Scotland. Apparently, he has fans all over the world. We watched a quick video of the Michelin chef instructing the youtube audience on the proper way to cook  a steak. It was obvious that even when Ramsay does a three  minute cooking video from  home, he has professional videographers to do all the filming. One camera stayed focused on Ramsay himself, zooming in and out,  tilting up and down, and panning left to right constantly. The other camera was focused on the food. The post-production  editing produced a rapid-fire jump cut video that literally made me dizzy with the zooming, panning, tilting and cuts between chef and food. It was horrible. Add to that Ramsay’s narration, in which he spoke so fast that I could barely follow him, (let alone my students) and the end result was confusion. The chef didn’t look interested and rarely looked at the camera. Perhaps his business manager suggested doing a few youtube videos to increase sales of his cookbooks.

Gordon Ramsay, (b. 1966) exists  in the rarefied air of ‘celebrity chef.’ His restaurants, television reality shows and books combine to give him a net worth around 80 million USD, according to some sources. His television shows include Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, and Celebrity Chef. Watching these programs, viewers are treated to a close-up view of Ramsay’s explosive  temper, foul mouth, and penchant for verbal abuse and humiliation. His favorite targets are other chefs, though he is not averse to insulting and cussing out restaurant patrons as well.

 

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He claims that he is only dishing out ‘tough love’ to struggling chefs and restaurant owners. Interesting. This guy is giving tough love a bad name. After watching a handful of video clips on youtube, I said to myself, “Enough.” The shows are  repetitive and boring : Ramsay storms into a restaurant kitchen, berates and humiliates the chef, tells him that all of the food was inedible, and then, when the other chef becomes indignant, looks at the camera and says, “Wow, this guy doesn’t take constructive criticism very well. What a loser.”

Anthony Bourdain, (b. 1956) is another well-known celebrity chef and ‘television personality.’ Bourdain gained notoriety in 2000 when his book Kitchen Confidential was released and became a best-seller. The semi-autobiographical book gives firsthand insight into the high stress and sometimes chaotic world of restaurant kitchens. Based strictly on its merits, the book is merely a decent read, but the New York press and reading public went absolutely ga-ga over it, with various publications and writers stumbling over themselves to guess which restaurant he was referring to in chapter 4, pg. 53, etc., etc.

Much of Bourdain’s popularity stems from the image he has carefully crafted of himself: a talented chef who inhabited the elite world of New York’s finest restaurants but who is really a tough man’s man, a no nonsense dude who despises wimpy faggot vegetarians and so on.

With the runaway success of Kitchen Confidential combined with Bourdain’s ego and charisma, it was inevitable that the the media establishment would come knocking. He soon landed a deal with the Food Network, followed by the Travel Channel, and then finally with CNN. Watch a few minutes of these shows, and you will see a strange spectacle: this multi-millionare New York chef trying his best to come across as an ‘everyman’ while at the same time flying around Sao Paulo Brazil in his friend’s helicopter, and bragging about his wealthy friends in far-flung countries.

Why viewers would want to tune into his show to watch him chow down a huge pastrami sandwich in Santiago, Chile and have a conversation with some rich local is beyond me. He has no insight into the culture, the people, or the history of the places he visits. During a beachside  chat with his Chilean contact, the man talked sadly about the destructive impacts of the salmon farming industry in Southern Chile and how he had seen so much wildlife disappear from the coastline over the last 20 years. Instead of pursuing that potentially rich thread of conversation, Bourdain brushed it aside with some remark about how ‘everyone’s gotta make a living.’

Bobby Flay  (b. 1964) is a spiritual brother to Bourdain and Ramsay. Wikipedia refers to him as a ‘celebrity chef, restaurateur, and television personality.’ As you would expect from someone with such titles, he has a gargantuan ego. He never tires of showing off to the world his cooking skills, which are undoubtedly prodigious. He has won numerous Iron Chef competitions over the years. But watch him jump on top of his cutting board after a competition with chef Morimoto and ‘woop-woop’ with his New York audience and you will get an idea of the guy’s character and ego. Only a guy with Flay’s ego could dream up a show with a theme like this: travel around the country and challenge chefs at their speciality.

 

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There are so many great chefs and cooks in the world who are unknown to the public. Even many who have gained respect and notoriety, such as Masaharu Morimoto and Mario Batali, manage to keep their egos in check and retain their humility. Do people like Ramsay realize that young kids around the world watch his shows? What kind of a role model is he? Does he care?

Any chef who claims to be the executive chef at half a dozen restaurants has  gone overboard with his ambitions. Isn’t it enough work to run one successful kitchen? How can one man oversee six or seven kitchens? And do all that while writing cookbooks, doing television appearances, and generally promoting the hell out of himself? No. These guys are merely selling their names. They don’t spend much time in their restaurants actually cooking for the patrons.

Let’s put these egotistical celebrities into a small one bedroom apartment for a week, fill the refrigerator and lock the door so they can’t escape. We can observe them with hidden cameras and see who comes out alive. Now there’s reality show I would watch.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100622112558.htm

http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/04/chilean-fish-farms-and-the-tragedy-of-the-commons/#.U2BtRiis3ww 

 

 

Ten reasons to hate starbucks.

There is no shortage of ‘I hate Starbucks’ postings on the internet and blogosphere. Indeed, there is even a website devoted to SB haters: http://www.ihatestarbucks.com. So I wondered if it would be pointless to add one more voice to the chorus. Perhaps this little blog will not separate itself  from  the ocean of voices, but I feel that as this vile company continues to spread all over the world,  we need to continue relentlessly exposing it.

I thought that by moving 7,000 miles away from the USA to a developing  country, I might be able  to avoid SB and its ilk. Then again, I  should never underestimate men like Howard Schultz, men whose ambition and greed  know no bounds.  Last year, I watched as Viet Nam’s first SB opened across the street from my apartment. In the intervening year, more stores have sprouted like weeds around Ho Chi Minh City. At times, I feel as if SB is following me, as they have just bought the large corner building in my new neighborhood and are quickly throwing up another store, accelerating the rapid gentrification of the area.

 

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At last count, SB has 20,891 stores in 64 countries. 2013 revenue was 14.9 billion dollars. That’s a whole lot of coffee drinks. The company’s website and wikipedia page have to be updated daily, as Schultz and team are opening, on average, two new stores a day!

Here then, for the record, are my top  10   reasons for despising Starbucks:

1)  SB runs small, independent coffee shops out of business. You remember- the funky coffeehouses with real coffee, cushy sofas, chess boards, and eclectic music which used to dot all the medium sized and large cities in the Western world.

 

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2) Their drinks are overpriced. Actually, everything in the stores is overpriced.

3) Their drinks are unhealthy and are contributing in no small way to the obesity epidemic around the world. A venti iced caramel macchiato may taste delicious to a 13-year-old, but the price to be paid comes not just at the cash register, but years later as these calorie bombs fill our arteries with sugar and fat.

4) The drinks have stupid names, befitting a status-conscious, trend obsessed , dumbed down population, who can utter phrases like ‘Grande Iced sugar -free vanilla latte with soy’ with a straight face.

 

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5) The names of the drink sizes are ridiculous to the extreme, pretentious to the core, and could only have sprung from the brains of  marketers with master’s degrees in ‘mocking the public.’ Small, medium and large have morphed in planet starbucks into tall, grande, and venti. Are you f—ing kidding me? The last time I entered a SB years ago, I refused to play the game and ordered a small coffee. The barista didn’t bat an eyelash. She obviously had seen my ‘type’ before-unrepentant old school types-  and she casually gave the order to her co-worker: ‘tall drip.’ Management must have prepped her that some holdouts might not even know what a ‘venti’ is. My, how untutored we are!

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6) SB is wasteful and a blight on the environment. Years ago, a friend I was meeting insisted on a rendez-vous at the SB in Lima. I made sure to order my coffee “For here.” I glanced at the neat stack of attractive ceramic mugs behind the barista. She instantly grabbed the paper cup and started to make my drink. I inquired. “Did you not understand me? I said ‘for here.’ ” She stared at me blankly.

Finally, she said, “So, you want a mug?” She had a curious expression on her face. I could see why. As I looked around the store, of the three dozen or so customers sitting and drinking, not one had a ceramic mug. Many of them had been there for hours. This is the standard scene at every SB. Management says, ‘unless the customer specifically asks for a mug, give everyone a paper cup.’ With the conspicuous logo, of course. All destined for the landfill.

7) The store interiors are sterile, faux hip wastelands, filled with overpriced coffee merchandise, corporate music, and a corporate vibe that is impossible to ignore. To escape the bad music, many patrons put in earplugs to listen to music on their laptops, but they must also contend with baristas shouting things like: ” Iced skinny caramel frappuccino to go!” Every ten seconds.

8) SB doesn’t want just any location in a city. They want the location. They want the beating heart, the cultural center of whatever city they land in. In Seattle, you find SB at Pike Place Market. In Portland, they are right there in Courthouse Square. In Lima, they are front and center in Kennedy Park. SB will pay any price to get the location they want. Their marketing team identifies wherever the young, trendy and rich hang out, draw an X in the middle, and go to that landlord with an open checkbook.

9) SB employees are forced to wear ugly green aprons.

10) SB’s logo is ugly, creepy, and probably satanic.

Bonus:

11) Their coffee is bad, but most of their customers probably don’t even notice. How could they? With all the sugar, milk, cream, whipped cream, chocolate, caramel and ice in SB’s drinks, how can one taste any coffee?  While people say they like SB coffee, what they really mean is they like the caffeine buzz. Put a cup of black coffee in any of these people’s hands, and they would spit it out instantly. “Ugh, what is that?”

 

The textbook industry: bad as ever

When I was a student at the University of Texas in the mid 1980s, the  ritual I dreaded the most was my twice yearly trip to the university bookstore to purchase my textbooks for the upcoming semester. I had learned quickly during my freshman year how expensive textbooks were and as the semesters wore on, I became increasingly frustrated and enraged at what I felt was a scam, perpetrated at the expense of poor students who were being coerced into paying inflated prices.

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When I complained about the costs, nobody wanted to take responsibility. The campus store manager said they  charged only a small markup from what they paid the publisher. The professors claimed there was nothing they could do. Talking to school administrators was a dead-end. The publishing companies themselves had corporate offices located in far away cities and states.

 

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It has been 30 years since I entered university and to my dismay the practice of producing, publishing and selling overpriced textbooks to unwilling and helpless students continues unabated. In fact, the situation today is even worse than it was back then, with students paying exorbitantly high prices for texts,compounding  high tuition prices and fees.

Textbook prices have increased a whopping 812 percent since 1978, surpassing the rise in health costs (575 percent), home prices (325 percent) and inflation (250 percent). The GAO, in a 2005 report, found that textbook prices increased 6 percent a year for the last two decades. College students now pay, on average, $1,200 per year on texts. This is unconscionable. The fact that this scam has been going on for so long and that nobody appears willing or able to actually do something about it speaks volumes about the state of education in the U.S.A. Furthermore, the publishing companies routinely charge American students substantially more than students in Canada and the UK are charged for the same text.

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The main villain in this drama is the educational publishing industry; the big players are Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw- Hill , Pearson and Wiley’s. The industry is concentrated and has been undergoing substantial consolidation, reflecting the consolidation in the global media industry. The five largest companies represent 80 percent of the educational publishing  market. These companies are doing quite well within this current paradigm; McGraw-Hill’s profit margin was 25 percent, Wiley’s was 15 percent and Pearson’s 10 percent. Taken as a whole, the print publishing business for the education industry was worth over $13 billion last year.

Given these figures, these companies have no incentive to change or alter their practices and students, as usual, are caught in a vice grip. Students must often choose where to cut corners, and that can often mean going without food or being late on rent. With the publishing companies, professors, and universities working within a tradition bound and inflexible structure, nothing will change unless A) students figure a way to become organized and go on a general strike or B) political leaders at the state and national level enact strict laws and guidelines to reign in the McGraw-Hills of this world. Neither seems likely.

 

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Given the extent that the internet has changed so many facets of society, the fact that college students are not allowed, in most cases, to download free content for courses is shameful. There are signs that this is changing, but for poor students, the change cannot come fast enough. Open Text Book, founded by the Open Knowledge Foundation, Flat World Knowledge, Boundless, and Chegg are all examples of this move toward free and open knowledge sharing.

I am a teacher and I use textbooks in my courses. I don’t like textbooks in general. It’s not just that they are  boring, inaccurate and written with a corporate slant, but that they are so often completely unnecessary. How did we arrive at this point where learning and education have become so intertwined with the notion of textbooks? Not too long ago, there were no such things and teachers used original source materials and their own minds to educate their students. Textbooks encourage lazy thinking in both professors and students. One way to combat these huge conglomerates is to simply do away with them altogether, whenever possible.

 

http://www.studentpirgs.org/news/new-report-shows-college-textbooks-are-ripoff-101

http://www.policymic.com/articles/62685/an-inside-look-at-the-textbook-scam-sweeping-college-campuses

http://thefutureofpublishing.com/industries/the-future-of-educational-publishing/

http://www.chegg.com/

https://okfn.org/

https://www.boundless.com/

http://catalog.flatworldknowledge.com/

smartphones and the rise of the zombies

I am trying to move down the narrow aisle of the plane with my carry-on luggage, feeling stressed and irritable. I want to unload my bad onto the overhead bin and get in my seat, but am delayed because the girl in front of me is texting with one hand and maneuvering her luggage with the other. She apparently is unable to put down her phone for even two minutes to do what she needs to do so that the rest of us can get on our way. 

I am sitting in a trendy downtown cafe in Ho Chi Minh City.  A young mother walks in with her daughter and a friend. The daughter is around 10-years-old and like most young kids with yuppie parents, she has her new tablet computer under her arm. They grab a table and sit down. The daughter is thoroughly engrossed in the show she is watching on her tablet. She sits facing away from her mother  and for the next 60 minutes, speaks not more than a handful of words to them.  The mother is unconcerned.

 

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A mother and teenage daughter sit down next to me in a restaurant in Lima, Peru. The daughter has a disinterested, aloof expression, tinged with a look of disgust, common with teenagers. They are not speaking. The daughter holds her smartphone up to her nose, texting furiously. The mother has a resigned expression. I sense that what I am witnessing is almost a daily ritual. They do not speak. When the breakfast arrives, the daughter holds the fork in her right hand, shoveling the food into her mouth so that she can continue texting. She wants nothing to do with her mother. When they finally leave, I notice they only thing they have said the entire meal is “Let’s go now.”

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A few minutes later as I leave, I notice a father sitting with his two kids. The older one is a girl in her early teens. She has her trendy , sporty new smartphone and is texting her friends. The younger boy is playing video games on his. The father stares vacantly and despondently into space, acknowledging that he has lost his kids.

A young girl in Australia smashes into a bicyclist with her car. She had been texting and didn’t see the young man whose spine she just smashed.

My teenage students arrive one by one into the classroom. They do not acknowledge each other, but simply take their seats and surf the net on their phones, tablets or laptops until the class begins. Some of them cannot  resist glancing at their phone periodically during class, until I physically take it from them.

 

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At break time, many of them run to the computer lab to get online to access facebook or play computer games, even though the break is only five minutes and I have explicitly told them not to go to the lab as they will lost track of time.

I walk down the busy city sidewalk. Walking directly toward me from the opposite direction is a young man who is texting. Oblivious to all other sensory data, he nearly crashes into me, glancing up only for a millisecond before resuming his journey onward, nose to phone.

I sit at the sushi bar with my girlfriend. To our left and right sit four single women. Each one has a Iphone or computer in their lap and is busy texting with left thumb, while eating with the right hand.

 

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A young couple sits down at a restaurant for dinner. They sit facing each other. Each immediately takes out their iphone from their pocket and begins checking their FB. For the next hour, they will speak only a few words, such as “This place is ok.” And, “You ready to go?”

A young woman sits next to me on a bus which will travel from Lima to Chiclayo on the north coast of Peru. The trip is eight hours. She falls into the seat and immediately opens her laptop. For the next 8 hours, she will do nothing except chat on facebook with her friends. She has no interest in what the man next to her is doing in her country. She could care less.

I am having lunch at a restaurant. A group of tables has been set up to accommodate a large group. They come in, one by one. It is obvious they all work together at a company. As each sits, they take out their phone and begin surfing. A few minutes later, there are approximately 20 people at the table, and though it is clear they are celebrating the completion of some project, you can hear a pin drop, as there is no conversation taking place.

A story appeared recently about a man who boarded a bus in San Francisco. He had a gun. He robbed someone. Nobody paid him any mind, as they were all busy with their electronic gadgets and didn’t even notice him.

I am having a coffee at one of my favorite cafes. I grab a random magazine from the rack to glance at while I drink my iced coffee. The magazine is filled with advertisements for new smartphones, tablets and HDTVs. The few pages that are not advertisements are glowing reviews of said products, with titles such as “Which smartphone is right for you?” The entire magazine is basically an advertisement for  our great electronic future.

The stories above are all true, and I could easily list hundreds more. They are just a random selection from my memory. Humanity, we have a problem. Although most people are still not yet familiar with the term Transhumanism, nevertheless we are well on our way to the dystopian future envisaged by men such as Ray Kurzweil. Although the technocrats themselves do not see this future vision as dystopian, it will surely be the end of the human race as we have known it.

I am part of the last generation to have grown up without computers and cell phones. Ask most people over the age of 45 if they would accept being implanted with a microchip, and they will scream, “Bloody hell, no!” But for the younger generations coming up now, it is a different story. They have been so softened up by the gadgets and toys which are so integral a part of their life, that getting a chip implant will seem to them like a logical next step. Google glass and the smart wristwatches that are now being marketed is the next phase.

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I have always had deep reservations about technology and so-called ‘progress.’ During my 20s, I searched for some intellectual underpinnings for the wariness and discomfort I was experiencing as the computer revolution took hold. I found the academic rigor I was looking for in the writings of authors such as Kirkpatrick Sale, Jerry Mander, Neil Postman, John Zerzan, and Derrick Jensen.

Of these writers, Neil Postman (1931-2003) is  probably the most accessible and readable. He wrote for the mass market, and his books are wonders of lucidity, insight, and clarity. He was able to look back over the whole course of human history to show how our present societal upheavals with computer technology resonates with prior upheavals. (See: the printing press.)

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John Zerzan is unknown outside of a small circle of intellectuals and anarchist thinkers, which is unfortunate . His books, including Running on Emptiness and Against Civilization are well worth reading, if you can find them. Zerzan is maybe the foremost proponent of a school of thought called ‘anarcho-primitivism.’

As we hurtle pell-mell into the future, I yearn for that national (or global) dialogue which has never taken place, and which absolutely needs to take place. That is, a  discussion on “Where are we going?” And, “Is this really the future that we want?” Furthermore, “Is what we are gaining more worthwhile than what we are losing?”

The classic movie “The Gods Must be Crazy” (1980) was a comedic film with a deep philosophical and sociological message. In the film, a tribe of  Bushmen in Botswana is thrown into turmoil when they recover a coke bottle thrown from an airplane. This new ‘technology’ at first proves very useful and practical for them. Yet very quickly, the tribe is grappling with new issues such as possessiveness, envy, anger, selfishness and violence. The tribal elder is at last confronted with his duty and task: take the ‘evil thing’ and throw it off the end of the earth. The tribe concludes, correctly, that this seemingly beautiful and useful thing has an evil side which outweighs whatever benefits it bestows. Our problem is that we have a tribe of 7 billion, and we have no ways of throwing our toys back at the gods, or off the edge of the earth. And unlike that small band of Bushmen, we have not even sat down to talk about the matter. Until we do, we will be  weaned away from our humanity, and led obliviously toward our cyborg future.  The gods really must  be crazy.

 

http://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/Absorbed-device-users-oblivious-to-danger-4876709.php 

 

Peruvian food in Viet Nam???

An article appeared recently in Viet Nam News about a Peruvian cooking class which took place recently in Ha Noi. The class was organized by the Peruvian embassy and was for invited guests only, mostly diplomatic staff around the city, some local chefs and various media.

A Peruvian chef cooked up a number of traditional dishes for the guests, most of whom had never sampled the cuisine previously. According to the writer of the article, there were many ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ as the Vietnamese chefs were surprised and delighted to learn many unique ways to prepare potatoes and corn.

Reading this article, I was filled with nostalgia for the time I spent in Peru. I have been there three times; in 2012 I was fortunate to be able to live in Lima for 6 months. Even if the country did not boast an exceptional cuisine, it would still be well worth visiting, given its astounding natural beauty and numerous archaeological treasures.

Ceviche_mixto_con_zarandajasIf Viet Nam is lucky enough to attract a Peruvian chef to come here and open a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City or Ha Noi, it will be time to celebrate. I think we are probably still years away from that happening, but who knows? The country is developing quickly and opportunities abound.

In the U.S.A., foodie types in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington DC have known about Peruvian cuisine for years. However, outside of those metropolises, it is still virtually unknown. Portland boasts one excellent restaurant, but when I was living in Seattle in 2011, it still did not have a Peruvian restaurant. I often sent emails to my friends in Peru, begging them to come to the Northwest and open a restaurant.

peru_mapThe staples of Peruvian cuisine are potatoes, corn, and chili peppers. The potato is native the Andean region of South America and there are somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 varieties, depending on who is counting. When I was a young man, I remember reading Jack Weatherford’s classic book Indian Givers, in which he explained, in great detail, how native American foods, once introduced into Europe, changed the course of world history. The potato in particular was to have an astounding impact on population growth in Northern Europe.

The humble spud: so unpretentious, boring, and often ugly. Yet, it is so versatile, easy to grow, delicious and filled with carbohydrates and calories that it can sustain a population almost by itself. Recently, I introduced my Vietnamese girlfriend to the joy of fried rosemary potatoes, and she became instantly hooked.

quinoaThere are many other native staples besides corn and potatoes, which are stars in their own right. Quinoa, for example, is slowly and steadily gaining popularity all over the world; its rich, nutty flavor, high protein profile, and easy preparation make it an ideal carb sidedish. It is now available in Viet Nam though it is prohibitively expensive.  Kiwicha, which is known as Amaranth in most English speaking countries, is another delicious and nutritious grain, with an almost muciloginous texture. Kaniwa, which looks similar to Quinoa, is yet another. Maca,  a tuber native to the Andes, is now a wildly popular add-on at smoothie bars in stores like Whole Foods Market. The tuber is ground into a fine texture, which can easily be added to shakes and smoothies or even sprinkled onto muesli and yogurt. Maca has a powerful physical and mental energizing effect. I once did a report on it for a nursing school class.

Peruvians eat meat dishes which are rarely seen outside South America, such as roasted Cuy (guinea pig), Alpaca, and marinated and roasted beef heart, called anticuchos.

variedades_nativas_500These staple ingredients are just the base of the cuisine. From the numerous immigrant groups who came to Peru over the centuries, including the Spanish, Italians, Africans, Chinese and Japanese, a truly unique and wonderful fusion cuisine has developed.  The chef Gaston Arcurio, who is a national icon,  has done more than anyone to popularize it around the world.  While living in Lima, I made sure to eat at least once in his flagship restaurant, Astrid y Gaston, and it was an experience I will never forget.

Gastón-AcurioA signature dish of Peruvian cuisine, and one served in every restaurant along the coast is ceviche, sometimes spelled cebiche. It a small, simple, and elegant dish made from fish which is marinated or ‘cooked’ in lime juice, with sliced onion, corn and often a side of sweet potato. You will often see a mixed seafood ceviche as well. Another well known dish is causa, which is made from boiled, mashed  potatoes which are then artfully layered with other foods and presented in a colorful manner. Papa a la Huancaina is a dish of boiled potatoes which is layered with melted cheese and served on a bed of lettuce. It is extremely popular in Lima and featured on most menus.

 

LucumaLucuma, native to Peru, is a fruit that is easy to become addicted to once you have tried it. Many restaurants in Lima serve it as an ice cream or smoothie flavor. Chicha Morada, a refreshing drink made of boiled purple corn (to lend color), cloves, cinnamon, sugar, and ice, was a daily staple for me. The Pisco Sour is the national cocktail of Peru. It is made from the Pisco brandy, key lime juice, syrup, ice, egg white and Angostura bitters. Though it will never achieve the fame of the mojito, it too is becoming well known around the world.

 

Chicha_moradaAs Peruvian cuisine  becomes known in new markets such as Southeast Asia, the never-ending story of food and cuisine cross pollination continues. Hopefully soon, average Vietnamese will have the opportunity to sample ceviche and causa, and Peruvians in Lima and Cusco will perhaps try their first bowl of Pho.

 

 

 

Smoking: a modern tragedy

One of the most difficult aspects of living in Asia for an non-smoking American  is experiencing the huge gulf between smoking attitudes in the U.S.A. and here. Whereas smoking rates have been in decline in America  and in some other parts of the developed world, they are increasing in most  of the developing world and remain stubbornly high in Eastern Europe.

The giant tobacco companies have seen their bottom line take a hit over the last couple of decades in the U.S.A. as a result of litigation, increasingly strict laws,  and an educational  campaign run by health advocacy organizations. However, R.J. Reynolds , Philip Morris, British American, and Imperial Tobacco have not been sitting on their hands. Their boardrooms all have large maps of the world on the wall. They are trans-national corporations and for every smoker they lose in the U.S.A., they gain two or three in Nigeria, Egypt, Viet Nam, China ,  Singapore, and Brazil. China now has 320 million smokers.

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Here in Viet Nam, I’m situated at their furthest pole from America in terms of tobacco education and public/government attitudes toward smoking. The Vietnamese have the unfortunate distinction of having one of the highest smoking rates in the world, especially among men. The official government statistics claim that over 50% of the male population smokes, though I estimate  the figure is closer to 75% based on my observations around Ho Chi Minh City.

According to statistics from the World Health Organization, Viet Nam has 18 million smokers with tobacco killing  40,000 every year. Over 8 million people are exposed to second-hand smoke in the workplace and 47 million are exposed at home. The future does not look bright and one major reason is that the government has a disincentive to decrease smoking rates as it has a monopoly on cigarette production. Additionally, cigarette production employs 15,000 and taxes  on cigarettes bring in $350 million to the state budget yearly. Given this situation, I think what we will see is more laws will be passed to placate those sounding alarm bells, while simultaneously doing nothing to actually enforce them.

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The laws that do exist, such as the 2009 decree which banned smoking in public places, are universally ignored. People light up everywhere and anywhere. The only non-smoking establishments which I have come across are a few European-run, fine- dining restaurants in the middle of District 1. (Which, by the way, are always packed.)

Cigarettes are sold in stores and on the street. According to law, vendors are not supposed to sell to minors under 18, but again this is widely ignored. Vendors sell to anyone who asks for them. It’s a ritual here for groups of men to sit on the street and drink iced coffee and smoke. Young men, especially in the working class, are expected to smoke. You may be considered a sissy if you don’t.

Drive around Ho Chi Minh City on a motorbike, and you will see young men riding with their phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Most of the 15 or 20 billion cigarettes consumed yearly here are tossed into the streets.

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In the evenings, one can often see groups of Asian men sitting in restaurants, enveloped in a cloud of smoke. This scene occurs not before or after the meal, but during it. The men will hold their fork or chopsticks with the right hand and the cigarette in their left. Take a bite, inhale, take a bite, inhale. The first time I saw cigarettes listed on a menu, I was astonished.  Not only do the restaurants here allow smoking, they encourage it. Might as well make a little money if everyone is already doing it.

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I have had to quit going to a few excellent restaurants, simply because I cannot tolerate the smoke. There’s a restaurant on Le Lai Street near my house which serves excellent food and has a wide selection of hard -to- find European ales. Unfortunately, it is quite popular with Asian men who come sample the ales and they all smoke. Once,  I noticed a young boy of 10 years old, probably the son of one of the servers, who was sitting inside, and I remarked to the women, “Do you know how much smoke this young boy is getting exposed to every night he hangs out here?”

The woman replied to me, “I know you are right, but what can we do? These are our customers. I cannot tell them to stop.” I explained that she could indeed make her restaurant non-smoking and that her customers would still come back for the good food and drink. She was unconvinced. This is the common mind-set here. The fear is that if you enforce a non-smoking rule, the smokers will become irate and abandon your restaurant.  I use the example of the USA as a counter argument to this, but it is an uphill battle to convince business owners.

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Finally, it should be noted that Vietnamese are hardly the only ones who have problems with tobacco addiction. I live near one of the prime tourist areas of downtown Ho Chi Minh City, known as the ‘backpacker district.’ Judging from what I see amongst the European crowds sitting on the sidewalks, in the cafes and in the restaurants, their smoking rates nearly match the Asians. I see mothers and daughters placidly sharing a pack of smokes. The majority of young European females I see around the district smoke. It’s a given. The French, of course, smoke like chimneys. Just last week, I sat in one of my favorite diners in the district to have  some lunch. At a small two-top in front of me sat a middle aged  French woman with an older  French woman, possibly her mother or an auntie. When the older woman finished her meal, she casually took one of her expensive European cigarettes out, lit it, and began blowing smoke into the younger woman’s face, while she was still eating. They were sitting not more than a foot apart.

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What can be done? Considering the wealth, power, and advertising budget of the tobacco companies, combined with the addictive power of cigarettes, the struggle for a healthier world promises to be a long and arduous one. The native Americans used tobacco ritually, and safely, for thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans. The  new arrivals discovered  the plant and started smoking  it but, divorced from its ritualistic and cultural context,  its addictive properties soon took a toll. The tobacco companies, not surprisingly, added their own cocktail of chemicals to the natural plant  to increase its addictiveness. It’s been said that tobacco is the red man’s revenge on the white man for alcohol, which has so devastated Native American communities all over the Americas. Looking at the world today, the red man’s revenge has also extended to the yellow man in Asia , the brown man in Latin America and the black man in Africa.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-lam/smoking-vietnam_b_3839177.html

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2162732/New-Vietnamese-law-bans-smoking-public-places.html

http://tuoitrenews.vn/society/9197/smoking-kills-100-people-in-vietnam-every-day

http://yourhealth.asiaone.com/content/cigarette-smoking-puts-millions-risk-vietnam

Whole Foods Market- one man’s recollections and thoughts

Whole Foods Market, the large grocery retailer based in Austin, Texas first opened for business in 1980 and now operates 365 stores in three countries, with  even more new stores in development. A publicly traded corporation, Whole Foods has revenue close to $20 billion and employs more than 58,000 employees.

I grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC and during the 1970s and  1980s there were no such thing as a ‘natural food’ store, save for a couple of old, dusty co-ops- holdovers from the 1960s and supported by a small but dedicated clientele of aging hippies and vegetarians. As a young kid and teenager, I wasn’t even aware of those co-ops. My family  got our food from Safeway and Giant Foods, two of the dominant grocery chains around the DC metro area. Those stores were characterized by their bland interiors , bright fluorescent  lighting, grumpy  employees, and sorely neglected produce sections. Whenever I accompanied my mom on a trip to the neighborhood Safeway, I wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible.

In the mid 1980s, I landed in Austin, Texas to attend university. For two and half years, I existed on dorm and student union food, supplemented with outings to local fast food joints. Then, in 1987,  I started dating a new girlfriend and I noticed that she had a number of interesting fruit juices in her refrigerator, with names like ‘pineapple-coconut’ and ‘hibiscus’ and ‘cherry-lemon.’ When she offered me a taste, I invariably ended up drinking the entire bottle. Sheepishly,  I offered to go to the store to replace them. “By the way, where do you buy all this delicious stuff?”

“Oh, I do a lot of my shopping at Whole Foods Market.”

“Whole Foods Market? What’s that?”

“Oh, that’s the cool hippie natural foods store down on Lamar Boulevard. Come on, I’ll show you.”

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And so I took my first trip to a real natural foods store. I’ll never forget it. It was a revelation. When I walked through the door, I couldn’t believe that I was in a grocery store. Instead of the harsh fluorescent lighting of Safeway, the lights were soft and unobtrusive. Hip music was playing over the speakers. Employees milled about, most with smiles on their faces, and appeared to be enjoying their work.

At the front of the store was a juice bar, something I had never heard of , selling bizarre stuff like grass put thru a modified crank. Not only could you get a fresh squeezed carrot or fruit juice, but you could also add on a host of extras like bee pollen, vitamin C, and spirulina, a blue-green algae which an employee assured me was very healthy.

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After trying to digest all that, I wandered over to the produce section and turned to my girlfriend and said, “Oh my god, everything looks so delicious!”  The fruits and vegetables were arranged and displayed artfully, piled high in beautiful ceramic bowls and earthenware.  Signs on the wall proudly stated that all of the produce was organically grown.

Going further, I encountered the spice section. Small and large mason jars by the dozens lined an entire wall, filled with what seemed to me to be every spice known to mankind. From Anise to vanilla bean, the aromas beckoned me. Starting at the beginning of the alphabet, I took down the jars, unscrewed the caps, and began to smell each one. My nose was introduced to a multitude of new and exciting smells and bouquets. After the spices, I dove into the essential oils. It was intoxicating to smell Basil, Bergamot, Cedarwood, Clary Sage, Eucalyptus, Grapefruit, Jasmine, Lavender, Patchouli, Peppermint, Pine, Rosemary, Ylang Ylang,..My girlfriend had to eventually pull me away and said,”We don’t have all night you know.”

 

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From that day on, I was constantly pestering her to drive me down to Whole Foods. Having no money at the time, I didn’t buy much. I really just enjoyed wandering around the store and  familiarizing  myself with all the new foods, fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs, flowers and essential oils that I was finding.

Our Saturday itinerary was usually the same: Spend an hour or two at Whole Foods , then go over to Book People for a couple of hours, followed by a trip to Barton Springs.

 

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This time, during the late 1980s was what I now refer to as the ‘good old days’, before WFM expanded, went public, and went on to become well known all over the country. Even before the company went public in 1992, it had started to expand into other states and to acquire competitors in the natural foods retailing market. It voraciously bought out most of its competition, including well established companies like Wellspring Grocery, Bread and Circus, Mrs. Gooch’s , Bread of Life, Fresh Fields, Nature’s Heartland, and Fresh and Wild.

In 1994, I finally fulfilled one of my dreams and got a job with the company, in a new store in North Austin. I would later work in one of their new stores in Washington DC, as well as in smaller co-ops and natural foods markets, in Austin, Washington DC, and San Francisco. Speaking with WFM employees in the early 90s,  I noticed that they were excited and yet more than little trepid about the company’s explosive growth. Rumors swirled that within a few years, WFM would have 100 stores! At the time, it seemed almost inconceivable.

Yes, my beloved Whole Foods, where I had received  my baptism into organics, juicing, vegetarianism, veganism and so much more, had sold its soul to the devil. Expanding your business is one thing- going public and getting in bed with Wall Street, as well as destroying your competition is something else altogether.

 

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Expanding so quickly and so aggressively  is inevitably going to earn you some enemies, and WFM was  no exception. With its strategy of buying out the competition and  fighting unionization of its employees, it has earned the enmity of many erstwhile supporters, including myself. Other controversies have popped up over the years, including  CEO John Mackey coming out vigorously against universal health care and continuing to sell GMO foods, while at the same time continuously proclaiming  that it is a ‘natural’ foods store.

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My bitterness and disappointment in WFM and the direction it went does not go so deep that I boycott the company. Whenever I visit or live in a city where there is one, I still shop there, occasionally. Their store designs still set the industry standard and even now, 27 years later, I get a kick out of wandering through the stores and admiring the eye-popping displays, and unparalleled selection of international foods.

 

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Also, the impact that WFM has had on the old guard grocery retailers cannot be overstated. Without WFM’s impact, many cities and towns across the USA would still be stuck with those horrifically bland and unimaginative stores. Almost every grocery store in the country, from tiny co-ops to the largest big box stores, has had to redesign itself to compete with WFM and become more warm and user-friendly. The ones who were belated in doing so lost customers to WFM.  Now though, many have caught up and added large organic sections  and are consequently drawing in some of Whole Foods’ customers. The game goes on in the cutthroat world of food retailing.

Demographic collapse and the willful blindness of the NY Times

In an article titled “Bye-Bye, Baby”  posted April 4th in The New York Times  , the (toilet) paper of record, authors Michael S. Teitelbaum and Jay M. Winter contend that the crashing birth rates seen around the world are nothing to be worried about.

I once thought it would be fun to rebut all the garbage printed in the New York Times, but that would be a full-time job, and someone else is already doing it:

http://www.tomatobubble.com/anti_new_york_times.html

Whereas in a previous blog post here I contended that the issue was receiving far too little attention, according to Teitelbaum and Winter, who work at Harvard and Yale, the issue is receiving too much attention and causing hysteria. In order to buttress this claim , they name three  publications that have written recently on this topic, although I’m not sure that a few articles appearing in the Times and the Economist constitutes a wave of hysteria.

The authors go on to conflate the dire predictions of the Ehrlichs and the over-population crowd  with the new warnings about the dearth of births, trying to show how they are two sides of the same misguided fear coin. Our Ivy League professors  opine that writers and bloggers and even politicians who are sounding alarm bells are just “chicken littles” , and that we are suffering from a massive and unnecessary case of anxiety.

They do take one paragraph to discuss Russia’s near catastrophic population decline in the 1990s, but they assure us that the overall decline in population was only ‘modest’ and that besides, her birth rate has now climbed back to 1.6, so everything should be just fine.

Teitelbaum and Winter state that, while falling fertility poses challenges, it also has rewards-  more rights and opportunities for women. While women may or may not gain greater economic opportunity from having fewer children, too many women entering the workforce and postponing and even forgoing altogether family life clearly does not bode well for our collective future.

In their summary, the Ivy Leaguers declare that ‘population doom’ is a recurring fad that should be ignored and that we should focus on our real problems. Given that this was printed in the Times, I guess that ‘real’ problem would be how to send even more money to Israel?

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/05/opinion/sunday/bye-bye-baby.html?hp&rref=opinion&_r=0

Best wine in the world

My favorite wine in the world is the Moscato (Muscat) from Alois Lageder , a winemaker from the Alto Adige in Northern Italy, near the Austrian border. The unique terrain here, combining the cold mountain air from the Alps with warm Mediterranean sunshine, helps to produce outstanding wine grapes.  I have never smelled a wine that so bursts with tropical and citrus fruit as this wine. Papaya, banana, lemon, guava, and mango blend into an impossibly enticing bouquet. On the palate, it is silky smooth, with just the right amount of acid to balance the fruitiness. Lageder also produces Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Gerwurtzraminer, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir.

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His family has been making wine since 1823 and they are devoted to biodynamic viticulture. I have been fortunate to be able to taste a dozen or so biodynamic wines, and there is definitely some ‘thing’ about these wines that distinguishes them from the pack. Gary Vaynerchuk once did  a great interview on www.winelibrarytv with a biodynamic pioneer, Nicolas Joly,  and I loved the way Joly  discussed biodynamics. He stated that one way you can tell a biodynamic wine is that you can chug it down like lemonade (not that you would want to), the purity is so refined. The entire interview is well worth watching.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolas_Joly

Biodynamic farming, invented by the late mystic and educator Rudolph Steiner,  takes years, even decades,  to master. It is a blending of the spiritual with the scientific,  requiring a deep understanding of  nature and cosmic principles. It is a profound synthesis of the earthly with the heavenly, and the rewards for humans who practice the system are healthy, resilient and fertile soils which grow remarkably delicious fruits and vegetables to nourish us.

 

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There are many wines available which are delicious, well-made and reflect a terroir with style and elegance. Very few wines, in fact only a tiny percentage, do all that and make you feel different inside, as if you have just ingested something infused with true cosmic energy.  Lageder’s wines do that.

 

 

http://www.aloislageder.eu/en/vogelmaier_moscato_giallo

 

Stay human. Say ‘no’ to transhumanism

The world is inching ever closer to the final merging of man and machine. The goal of the transhumanist movement is to ‘improve’ humanity by merging us with computers, via chip implants,  nanotechnology,  genetic engineering, and robotics. Taking up where the eugenicists left off a half-century ago, this school of thought can trace its origins back to Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous and unapologetic elitist and eugenicist.

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Transhumanists speak glowingly about the forthcoming ‘singularity’ , a moment in the near future – 2045, according to the most prominent transhumanist cheerleader, Ray Kurzweil- when artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence. Humans will  be in danger of becoming extinct from irrelevance, but by ‘augmenting’ ourselves with nano-technology and genetic alterations, we can go into our brave new world as a ‘post-human’ species.

Twenty years ago, I would have laughed at such nonsense,  but given the speed at which technology is advancing and the equal speed with which humanity, and especially the current young generation, is eagerly adopting the new technologies, it is clear that this is no  laughing matter. The people promoting this are serious and their plan to forever alter  homo sapiens sapiens is gaining momentum , and more importantly, acceptance.

One of the most prominent public faces of this movement is Michio Kaku, the theoretical physicist who appears regularly on the History Channel, BBC, Discovery Channel , and the Science Channel. Kaku is the new front man and he’s a good choice. He speaks easily and fluently about complex scientific topics and has a laid-back,  approachable demeanor. Of course, I can’t help asking when I see celebrity figures like this with lots of advanced degree letters next to their name, ‘don’t these guys have a real job?’ If Kaku spent half as much time in his office working on theoretical physics as he does putting on make-up to go on television , he might actually accomplish something worthwhile for humanity. But I digress..

In a recent program aired on The Science Channel, Kaku first informed his audience that the singularity was inevitable, then he stated that the results of it could be catastrophic, and then finally ended the show by saying we should all just embrace it.

 

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He stated, ” Most experts (a cheap rhetorical trick) agree: the technological singularity is inevitable. If uncontrolled, the results could be catastrophic. They (the machines) may eliminate everything that stands in their path, including us.” But then suddenly, he changed his tone and said, “I’ve changed my mind. I think we should embrace the singularity. Fundamentally, I’m an optimist. The solution? Merge with them. When the singularity arrives, WE will be in control. By merging with machines, we will enter a new age of super human existence. We will be ‘ homo superior’.  Who’s with me?”  At this point in the show, the geeky crowd of young futurists in some Manhattan studio , many wearing Star Wars costumes, broke out in a roar of approval and hand clapping.

You can’t get much more blatant than that. All the rhetorical and manipulative techniques perfected by social engineers over the last century were put on display. ‘Do not resist. The future has already been determined. Resistance is futile. Join us…..or die.’

Many of my young students, who already spend most of their day staring at some screen and sleep the whole night with their smart phone under the pillow, will unquestioningly accept this techno-future and even embrace  it. Chip implants? No problem, which arm would you like?

Luckily for me, I found some thinkers when I was in my early 20s who wrote critically and thoughtfully on the subject of technology and human existence and provided a needed antidote to all the  drivel that I was subjected to in the corporate, mainstream and advertising world, as well as inoculating me against the incessant pro-technology propaganda.

Jerry Mander wrote a incisive book titled In the Absence of the Sacred: The failure of technology and the survival of the Indian Nations (1991) which really blew my mind. Here at last was a prominent intellectual writing about the other side of the story, i.e. the shadow side of technology. Daniel Quinn’s novel’s Ishmael  (1992) and The Story of B (1996)  explored some similar themes, albeit in a very different format. The late Neil Postman, media theorist and cultural critic, wrote wonderful books for the mass market about the intersection of humans, technology, culture and education, including: The Disappearance of Childhood, Amusing Ourselves to Death, How to Watch tv News, and Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology. 

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The future is rushing upon us quickly, and humanity is at a crossroads. If we are to survive, we will need to evolve, and quickly. But evolve how? By merging with machines and rushing headlong into a technological dystopia, into a world run my intelligent machines?  Is there another way? Shouldn’t we be exploring other possibilities? I believe so. Even a cursory study of human history shows that we don’t handle technology responsibly. We haven’t used nuclear energy responsibly. Nor do we know how to integrate new technologies into society while still maintaing traditions, culture, and respect for each other. Technology has far outraced humanity’s ability to understand it, let alone use it well.

If we want to talk about a future evolution of homo sapiens, how about Osho’s vision.? He spoke of the blending of the Zorba’s joy of life with the discipline and insight of the Buddha to create ‘Zorba the Buddha.’  It’s a beautiful vision and one worth exploring. Humanity has the capability to evolve using the tools we have right here and now: our brains, our hearts and our will. We should not toss away so easily our humanness to plunge into a future which would be even darker and more monstrous.

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