Posts Tagged ‘food’

Thinking about the second donut

Photo: Jack Lyons, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Photo: Jack Lyons, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Some mornings the donut fairy comes to the kitchen at NCPR and I arrive to find a festive box in pastel colors so happy they are nearly radioactive. Me, too. Visible through the lid is an array of donuts frosted in colors, some of which–through the miracles of chemistry and marketing–are exact Pantone matches for the ink colors in the packaging. We live in a time of wonders.

But I can’t say that I am down with modern thinking on donut decoration. A bit of a traditionalist, me. When you put a dollop of frosting and a dusting of sprinkles on top of a glazed donut, it begs the question, “Why did you put a cupcake in the deep fryer?” And of course, I am too manly a man to consume a donut with pink frosting. Not while anyone is looking.

And I have traditional tastes in filling—red jelly, Bavarian creme, chocolate creme, lemon creme, apple—all lovely. That gooey white stuff? Plain sugar is supposed to go on the outside.

So I’m somewhat picky in my selection. But once one commits to a donut, eat the whole donut. By the afternoon at NCPR, the box is half-filled with half donuts. Really. If it’s about health and diet, eat a carrot. Or eat a whole donut half as often.

That’s what I tell myself I am doing, but I notice that I tell myself that every time a box shows up, rather than half the time–so my math needs a little work. In fact, I am giving serious thought to going for a second donut. That chocolate cruller has a seductive shine. Maybe two donuts one-fourth as often?

The Tree of Love: a natural history of chocolate

It’s impossible for a parent to choose a favorite child—or at least that’s what I tell my kids—and it’s almost as difficult for an arborist to pick a single best-liked tree. For different reasons, I have many pet species. One of the, um, apples of my eye is a species I’ve never laid eyes on, but it’s one I’ve appreciated since early childhood.

Cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) with fruit. Photo: Luisovalles, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) with fruit. Photo: Luisovalles, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Native to Central America, the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao to arborists) grows almost exclusively within twenty degrees latitude either side of the equator (in other words, where most of us wish we were about now). The seeds of the cacao tree have been ground and made into a drink known by its Native American (probably Nahuatl) name, chocolate, for as many as 4,000 years.

The cacao is a small tree, about 15-20 feet tall, bearing 6- to 12-inch long seed pods. Packed around the 30-40 cacao beans in each pod is a sweet gooey pulp, which historically was also consumed. After harvest, cacao beans go through a fermentation process and are then dried and milled into powder.

In pre-contact times chocolate was a frothy, bitter drink often mixed with chilies and cornmeal. Mayans and Aztecs drank it mainly for its medicinal properties (more on that later). In the late 1500s, a Spanish Jesuit who had been to Mexico described chocolate as being “Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant taste.” It’s understandable, then, that it was initially slow to take off in Europe.

Chocolate became wildly popular, though, after brilliant innovations such as adding sugar and omitting chili peppers. Another reason for its meteoric rise in demand is that it seemed to have pleasant effects. One of these was similar to that of tea or coffee. There isn’t much caffeine in chocolate, but it has nearly 400 known constituents, and a number of these compounds are uppers.

Chief among them is theobromine, which has no bromine—go figure. It’s a chemical sibling to caffeine, and its name supposedly derives from the Greek for “food of the gods.” Even if people knew it more closely translates to “stink of the gods,” it’s unlikely it would put a damper on chocolate sales.

These days chocolate is recognized as a potent antioxidant, but throughout the ages it’s had a reputation for being an aphrodisiac. I assume this explains the tradition of giving chocolate to one’s lover on Valentine’s Day. Does chocolate live up to its rumored powers? Another stimulant it contains, phenylethylamine (PEA), may account for its repute.

Closely related to amphetamine, PEA facilitates the release of dopamine, the “feel good” chemical in the brain’s reward center. Turns out that when you fall in love, your brain is practically dripping with dopamine. Furthermore, at least three compounds in chocolate mimic the effects of marijuana. They bind to the same receptors in our brains as THC, the active ingredient in pot, releasing more dopamine and also serotonin, another brain chemical associated with happiness.

Photo: Klaus Hopfner, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Photo: Klaus Hopfner, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Don’t be alarmed at this news; these things are quite minimal compared to what real drugs can do. Consuming chocolate has never impaired my ability to operate heavy machinery (lack of training and experience have, though).

Most people would agree that chocolate is no substitute for love, but these natural chemical effects may be why romance and chocolate are so intertwined. Well, that and marketing, I suppose.

Dogs can’t metabolize theobromine very well, and a modest amount of chocolate, especially dark, can be toxic to them. This is why you shouldn’t get your dog a box of chocolates on Valentine’s Day, no matter how much you love them. And assuming it’s spayed or neutered, your pooch won’t benefit from any of chocolate’s other potential effects anyway.

Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County

Updating the good eats report

Mmm..chili! (Not from any restaurant in particular...just good winter fare.) Image by jefferyw, Creative Commons.

Mmm..chili! (Not from any restaurant in particular…just good winter fare.) Image by jefferyw, Creative Commons.

The Ottawa Citizen just ran an item on “best bites of 2014.” In it, Peter Hum mourned restaurants that folded and offered his take on others worth trying:

But fortunes of the restaurant community aside, there were eateries, both cheap and cheerful or swish and splurgy, that delivered memorable and even delicious dishes. Below are 10 of my highlights, plus just as many honourable mentions, in roughly the order that I’d want to eat them if I were having that proverbial over-the-top last supper.

If you want still more, here’s something from the HuffPost Canada from last March about 20 recommended Ottawa restaurants (with a slide show).

This all made me think back to a Dale Hobson Listening Post from 2012 about “fine dinering”. Complete with a map of where to find various establishments. Not necessarily the exotic or trendy. Just good eats.

Reader Barb had this to say about Plattsburgh Homestead:

Everything’s homemade, I’m pretty sure they do fried chicken and the homemade pies alone are worth the hour drive for me. If you go on Saturday, you may be treated to an impromptu performance by the local barbershop quartet that has breakfast there.

Is it time to update that conversation? Which restaurants survived another year that you’ll gladly eat at again and again? Which ones folded that you will miss?

Restaurant babble aside, here comes a standard disclaimer: at least some of the best food you should be coming out of your own kitchen, the healthiest and most economical way to eat by far.

After a very filling December, I fear it’s time for a wee diet in my life. The deprivation that lies ahead must be why thinking about food is so very alluring!

Another regional winner: chocolate

Dark, milk or white, there's god chocolate being made right here. Image: Ajout d'une transparence

Dark, milk or white, lots of chocolate is being produced all over the place. Image: Romainhk, Creative Commons

New York, Vermont, Quebec and Ontario all produce lots of maple syrup, an array of dairy products, big crops of apples and so on. NCPR has reported on micro-breweries, craft beer studies, wine producers and wine trails and experimental crops, like saffron. Cocoa beans don’t grow here but it turns out our region makes some pretty good chocolate too.

As reported by Laura Robin in the Ottawa Citizen:

Hummingbird Chocolate Maker, a three-year-old bean-to-bar chocolate company based in Almonte, has won a second set of honours in as many weeks.

The International Chocolate Awards 2014 announced Monday Hummingbird has won Bronze in the Plain Dark Single-Origin category in the intensely competitive Americas semi-finals for its Hispaniola bar, which is made with beans from the Dominican Republic.

Last week, Hummingbird won Silver in the Canada-wide competition in the “dark chocolate bars flavoured with an infusion or flavouring” category for its Fleur de Sel bar, which is also made with beans from the Dominican Republic.

Not knowing much about the International Chocolate Awards I went to their website. Wow, what an amazing number of categories! And how might one apply to be a judge? (Hmm, experts only. Too bad.)

Vermont’s Lake Champlain Chocolates (est. 1983) has its own bean-to-bar award winner in a new line under the Blue Bandana label: “winner of the 2014 Good Food Awards for its 70% Madagascar Dark Chocolate Bar and 70% Madagascar Wild Pepper Dark Chocolate Bar.” Here’s a company Q & A with Eric Lampman about that award and why he wanted to work on single-origin craft chocolate.

Truth be told, it’s hard to write about all this without wanting to do more investigative reporting and some quality control sampling. But it’s nice to see this level of diversity and success as people in our region broaden what we make and eat.

Where it starts: cocoa fruit with cocoa beans. Image by Mininus, Creative Commons

Where it starts: cocoa fruit with cocoa beans. Image by Mininus, Creative Commons

Still growing in mid-October

 

Photographed on October 14 in Rossie, NY by John and Liz Scarlett.

Photographed on October 14 in Rossie, NY by John and Liz Scarlett.

I received a couple of photos from our Rossie friends, John and Liz Scarlett featuring irises and morning glories flourishing against a background of fall foliage. There was a time when we would most likely have seen the first snowfall and certainly several killing frosts by mid-October. It’s a changing climate.

A whole shed wall covered with morning glories. Photo: Liz and John Scarlett, Rossie

A whole shed wall covered with morning glories. Photo: Liz and John Scarlett, Rossie

Irises against fall foliage. Photo: Liz and John Scarlett, Rossie

Irises against fall foliage. Photo: Liz and John Scarlett, Rossie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also heard from two regular contributors to the All In garden posts–Adirondacker George DeChant whose photos regularly grace this blog as well as our Photo of the Day; and Cassandra Corcoran of Monkton, VT who keeps in touch throughout the growing season with updates from her garden.

Outside the post office Long Lake. Photo: George DeChant

Outside the post office Long Lake. Photo: George DeChant

Over in Monkton, Cassandra planted some cannellini beans with 7.5 ounces of seed and harvested over a gallon of shelled dried beans from that investment.

The cannellini bean patch, from 7.5 ounces of seed. Photo: Cassandra Corcoran, Monkton VT

The cannellini bean patch, from 7.5 ounces of seed. Photo: Cassandra Corcoran, Monkton VT

 

The harvested vines. Photo: Cassandra Corcoran.

The harvested vines. Photo: Cassandra Corcoran.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bucket of beans, prior to shelling. Photo: Cassandra Corcoran

Bucket of beans, prior to shelling. Photo: Cassandra Corcoran

Beans for the winter. Photo; Cassandra Corcoran

Beans for the winter. Photo; Cassandra Corcoran

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After several years of sharing garden photos with us, I thought you’d enjoy seeing a picture of Cassandra herself. I think of this photo as The Dancing Gardener.

Gardener Cassandra Corcoran, Monkton, VT

Gardener Cassandra Corcoran, Monkton, VT

Still happy to see your late harvest and garden-clearing photos. Send to ellen@ncpr.org and remember: we’ll be getting those seed catalogues in the mail before you know it!

Quebec farm tries exotic crop: saffron

Crocus sativus plant, Peißnitzinsel, Germany. Image HeiWu, Creative Commons

Crocus sativus plant, Peißnitzinsel, Germany.
Image: HeiWu, Creative Commons

Do you cook with saffron? Me neither.

It’s rare and expensive. But then again “expensive” can also be worth growing yourself, or trying out as a cash crop.

I was surprised to read this recent CBC item about a farm in Quebec that’s giving saffron a try.

Pur Safran, located in the small Quebec village of St-Elie-de-Caxton, expects to harvest 450 to 500 grams of the precious spice before the end of October.

“We would like for Quebec to become self-sufficient in saffron production, because we can do it,”  said Pur Safran co-owner Nathalie Denault, who not only produces the spice, but teaches other potential growers the ropes.

Saffron comes from the reddish-orange stigmas of a particular crocus flower and is considered to be the most expensive spice in the world.

Crocus sativus, Atlas des plantes de France. 1891

Crocus sativus, Atlas des plantes de France. 1891

NPR’s food blog, The Salt, had an item in early September entitled: These 5 crops are still harvested by hand and it’s hard work. The foods listed were saffron, vanilla, chocolate, palm oil and cottonseed oil.

The tropical stuff isn’t going to do well around here. But saffron starts as a bulb and is pretty tough. Much of the world’s supply comes from places like Kashmir, which reportedly suffered severed damage to saffron production due to floods this year.

The Quebec saffron farm has a (French language) website Pursafran with more photos and info on their efforts. Saffron is famously associated with the yellow dish paella, but can also be used in many other recipes.

Actually, I did grow saffron from a few bulbs when I lived in Kars. It’s no harder than any other crocus. The hard part (for me) was remembering where I’d planted it and remembering to watch for the flowers and harvest the delicate stigma in the fall.

Having moved to North Gower, I can start that attempt again, if I mail order more bulbs and keep better track of where they are!

Harvesting saffron in Iran. Image:Safa.daneshvar reative Commons

Harvesting saffron in Iran. Image: Safa.daneshvar Creative Commons

Where should cooking be taught?

Home Economics classroom on the third floor of Union City High School in Union City, New Jersey. Creative Commons photo by Nightscream, some rights reserved.

Does this look familiar? (Home Economics classroom on the third floor of Union City High School in Union City, New Jersey.)  Creative Commons photo by Nightscream, some rights reserved.

Last week’s post on a free cookbook for low-cost meals included a manifesto-like quote from an important food thinker, Michael Pollan:

“Cooking is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your diet. What matters most is not any particular nutrient, or even any particular food: it’s the act of cooking itself. People who cook eat a healthier diet without giving it a thought. It’s the collapse of home cooking that led directly to the obesity epidemic.”

One could dismiss that as just so-much self-promotion for Cookedone of Pollan’s many books about food, nutrition and health.

But let’s presuppose agreement. That home cooking saves money and produces better nutritional outcomes. Its decline is hurting the nation’s health. If so, what’s the best way to revive a depressed skill?

Well, here in Canada the Ontario Home Economics Association (OHEA) is campaigning to have Ontario schools require at least one course on food and nutrition, which would presumably include attention to home cooking. As quoted by this CBC article:

“We think that all children need to have the basics of nutrition and some cooking skills so that they know how to make food from scratch and don’t reach out so often for fast food or prepared entrees or mixes and other items that are so readily available in our stores,” said professional home economist Mary Carver.

“We can see the decline in health in Canadians in general, particularly children, there’s a great rise in childhood obesity… a rise in type 2 diabetes, a rise in high blood pressure and cardiac disease in adults. All of these are lifestyle and diet-related issues and they put a huge strain on our healthcare system.”

place holder

WW II era poster on efficient storage of food. Source: National Archives and Records Administration

A petition drive is underway to make that a new graduation requirement.

The funny part is schools used to require even broader coverage of  life skills under the umbrella of home economics. Which used to be mandatory material – for girls.

My own mini-activism at Baldwin High in the mid 70s included a fight for the right to take shop instead of stodgy “home ec.”  The principal was only willing to offer a compromise, in which I could take two electives instead: family foods and family clothing. Those were co-ed courses taught with amazing enthusiasm by a real character. Mrs. Ota understood local culture and her students very well: people in Hawaii (people everywhere) like to grind (eat).

We whipped up important ethnic mainstays. Stir fries, pancit, lap cheong bao (bao = Chinese buns, usually with savory or sweet filling), crispy wonton, adobo. Bagoong and patis were even demystified. (Fermented fish sauce become trendy with the urban popularity of Thai food. But the smelly backbone of humble Filipino cuisine was then the object of general derision.)

Mind you, local food in Hawaii at that time earned sharp criticism on the nutritional front. (The stereotype about southern cooking is that everything is deep fried. The rap on Hawaii food is that it tends to feature too much fat, white rice and shoyu.)

Setting memory lane and nutritional shortfalls aside, where should healthful cooking be taught? Ideally, we’d all be learning home cooking at home, from Grandma, Uncle Frank, Mom and Dad.

The trouble is, that doesn’t always happen. Whole generations are growing up in homes where scratch cooking is a rare thing.

School seems like a sensible place to convey basics. The trouble is, cooking is just one of many life-skills worth teaching. One could add other vanishing subjects, like consumer finance and budgeting, simple home repairs and basic auto maintenance. Not to mention new skills, like computer use and programming. All of that – plus lots of P.E., classes for learning trades and/or college track content, music, art and foreign languages – would be available at perfect schools. Served by great teachers with unlimited budgets, and no competition for instructional time…as seen on planet “in your dreams”.

Also, would one course on food, nutrition and cooking be enough to cover so much material? How are the bitter battles about what’s healthy going to be settled? (The meat and dairy industry verses the crowd that says it’s healthier to eat little or none of those things?) Where would the money come from, for kitchens and enough food to do real cooking?

But I’m not done with the questions, because I’m endlessly curious. Do you think cooking should be taught in schools as part of required curriculum? Who taught you to cook? Where are young people today learning that skill?

NCPR has done stories on regional efforts to take scratch cooking even farther, with schools that grow their own gardens to cook and eat together. Or the example of a carrot tasting contest at Long Lake Central School, which teacher Becky Pelton called “…probably the most rewarding, the greatest learning experience I’ve had since we’ve had the garden”

The garden-to-plate model seems ideal. But that level of engagement is really hard to pull off without strong support and some degree of autonomy.

Kudos to the schools that are already doing that. And to the homes where cooking is still practiced.

What’s your relationship to fast food chains?

A typical Tim Hortons store sign, known across Canada. Photo: Creative Commons, some rights reserved

A typical Tim Hortons store sign, known across Canada. Photo: Creative Commons, some rights reserved

The big news in the fast food business today is Burger King’s purchase of Tim Hortons for $11.4 billion.

As summarized by the BBC:

The deal would create the world’s third-largest fast-food chain, with 18,000 restaurants in 100 countries.

The new group would have a market capitalisation of about $18bn and annual sales in the region of $23bn.

Burger King’s majority shareholder, 3G Capital, will own about 51% of the merged company.

Analysts have much to say about the deal in terms of market share, stock price and long-term impact. Customers may mostly be wondering if their usual menu is going to get shaken up.

Interest on this runs especially high in Canada because Tim Hortons is a beloved institution to a degree not seen at all in the U.S.

I am generalizing, of course. Not everyone loves Timmy’s. But Tim Hortons commands what I’ll call Canada’s public space in terms of grabbing a coffee or a quick bite. In place after place across Canada that is where people gather and cross paths, from all walks of life.

Hence the news has many Canadians wondering – no worrying – what it may mean, as shown in this coverage from CBC:

…what’s at stake for the Canadian icon?

“Tim’s won’t die because of foreign ownership, they’ll die because foreign ownership will bring forth … death by a thousand cuts,” says Alan Middleton, executive director of York University’s Schulich Executive Education Centre.

In a joint press release, the two entities reassured customers that they’d continue to operate “as standalone brands,” promising to preserve each companies’ “iconic brands.”

But such early day promises don’t always last.

While this announcement has its own resonance for investors and the business landscape of fast food outlets, I’m wondering where fast food fits into readers’ lives these days.

I don’t drink coffee, and doughnuts are not my friend as I try to hold the line on middle-age spread. Matter of fact, most fast food has become unattractive to me for a variety of reasons. But we go on long road trips where finding a washroom becomes somewhat attractive. I don’t have a data plan for my phone, so free wifi is another attraction. (Note: It’s only polite to buy something when utilizing services, so I will get a pastry, or a side of fries at the golden arches.)

The public radio demographic is famously stereotyped as Prius-driving, granola heads. So the sample audience for this post may well lean toward outliers (which Merriam-Webster defines as “a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample”).

Still, I am curious. Canadians, is Tim’s really special to you? If so, can you describe why?

And readers on both sides of the border, have you seen your relationship with fast food change over the years? How so and why? Do you see that happening in general, or just in more health-conscious spheres?

For me, fast food chains have become occasional travel hubs that have almost nothing to do with the food they offer. What are they to you?

A slow, but sure way to grow LOTS of garlic

These small bulbs can be used as regular garlic or planted out one more time to size up bigger. Photo: Lucy Martin

These small bulbs can be used as regular garlic or planted out one more time to size up bigger. Photo: Lucy Martin

Fellow gardeners who grow their own garlic may be confronting an annual conundrum right around now. The harvest is here, with lovely bulbs to dry and eat. But some has to be saved to plant in the fall for next year’s crop.

Eat or plant? Doing one feels like stealing from the other. I always felt like there just wasn’t quite enough for either purpose.

Last spring I wrote about one way to get around that tug-of-war: use bulbils.

At the time I spoke from partial theory. I’d heard “Fish Lake Garlic Man” Ted Maczka demonstrate bulbil multiplication at the Perth Garlic festival in 2011. This consists of NOT trimming off the so-called flower stalks, or scapes that grow on hard-neck garlic.

What grows if the scape of hard-neck garlic is left to fully develop: lots of bulbils. As a bonus, they are beautiful to behold! Photo: Lucy Martin

What grows if the scape of hard-neck garlic is left to fully develop: lots of bulbils. As a bonus, they are beautiful to behold! Photo: Lucy Martin

By letting some of these fully develop, you get heads with bulbils that range from the size of rice to pomegranate seeds, depending on the variety involved.

I confess, I found the ones the size of rice just too exasperating to bother with. (Sometimes size does mater.) I played around with the bigger bulbils and feel they deliver a reasonable return on space. Growing and replanting bulbils has a number of advantages: they are cleaner – usually free of soil-borne disease, very cheap to produce and an easy way to boost your count.

The main disadvantage is how slow it can be. It can take several growing cycles to get to the bulb size produced in one season of conventional planting (by clove).

Anyway, I’ve been giving that a try. This year, as I deal with my harvest in early August, I can finally say “Whoa, Nelly! That’s enough garlic!”  Indeed, that’s more than enough. I have garlic aplenty, to eat, plant and share. And you can too.

In my case I’ll also be sharing surplus with friends who recently moved to a large country property where they’ll have lots of space and time to pursue a self-sufficiency life style. They can plant out a big bed and be rolling in garlic – in not too long a time – at zero cost.

Here come the photos to illustrate how this worked in my garden. (Note: For those who want more info I’ve found this commercial outlet in B.C. an excellent source of details on all things garlic, including propagating with bulbils.)

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POSTSCRIPT (Monday Aug 12)

I regret to add I just learned that long-time garlic evangelist from Ontario’s Prince Edward County, Ted Maczka, died on Dec 30, 2013.

Here is an obituary from the Toronto Star, in which his daughter, Barbara Campbell called him the Jonny Appleseed of garlic in Canada:

“He pioneered this,” Campbell said. “Nobody else was doing anything in garlic back in the ’70s.”

RIP “Fish Lake Garlic Man”!

 

The next step: plant the wee one in the fall. By spring it'll be the size of a small radish. Photo Lucy Martin

The next step: plant the wee one in the fall. By spring it’ll be the size of a small radish. Photo Lucy Martin

Re-plant the small radish size in the fall and it'll grow into a small bulb, with individual cloves. Photo: Lucy Martin

Re-plant the small radish size in the fall and it’ll grow into a small bulb, with individual cloves. Photo: Lucy Martin

Divide the small bulb into cloves and plant them again to grow into regular bulbs. Photo: Lucy Martin

Divide the small bulb into cloves and plant them again to grow into regular bulbs. Photo: Lucy Martin

Got it? Each of these can be a big old bulb, in two cycles. With time, you'll never be short on garlic again. Photo: Lucy Martin

Got it? Each of these can be a big old bulb, in two or three growing cycles. With time, you’ll never be short on garlic again. Photo: Lucy Martin

Garlic comes in a wide array of varieties. Labels and clear separation will be essential to not get them mixed up. Photo: Lucy Martin

Garlic comes in a wide array of varieties. Labels and clear separation will be essential to not get them mixed up. Photo: Lucy Martin

 

When names offend — food edition

Kaffir lime leaves are used in some South East Asian cuisines such as Indonesian, Lao, Cambodian, and Thailand (มะกรูด). Citrus hystrix leaf (Image by Fatrabbit, Creative Commons, Wikipedia)

Kaffir lime leaves are used in some South East Asian cuisines such as Indonesian, Lao, Cambodian, and Thailand (มะกรูด).
Citrus hystrix leaf (Image by Fatrabbit, Creative Commons, Wikipedia)

Last week I blogged about Ottawa’s newest pro team, the Redblacks. As best I can tell, that name has nothing to do with the type of controversy associated with teams like the Washington Redskins. (Although one reader pointed out on a Facebook comment that I neglected to mention similar arguments about the Redblack’s mascot, “Big Joe” modeled after a real Francophone lumberjack.)

NCPR’s weekend guy Jonathan Brown and I exchanged a few emails on the topic. I admitted much fondness for the (unofficial) UC Santa Cruz mascot, the Banana Slug. And mentioned personal displeasure at how the University of Hawaii caved in on their long-honored insignia of a rainbow. (Emblematic of the many rainbows seen in wet Manoa Valley and for Hawaii’s rainbow of multi-ethnic cultural heritage.)

Just as I was thinking this sort of brouhaha is mostly confined to the world of sport, I read that a key ingredient in Thai cooking is in dire need of a less-racist name.

How many cooks and foodies out there are proud because they know about kaffir limes? (I use the leaves, which impart a quintessential flavor.)

But now I’ve learned the name “kaffir” is basically equivalent to the “n-word” in places like South Africa. Oh dear.

L.V. Anderson, assistant editor for Slate, writes about the whole issue here, including an attempt to track down how “kaffir” might mean different things:

As it happens, the very earliest written instance of kaffir lime yet to be uncovered suggests that the word’s origins have nothing to do with the South African slur. As the Oxford English Dictionary points out, Scottish botanist H.F. Macmillan used the term in his 1910 Handbook of Tropical Gardening and Planting to refer to a lime found in Sri Lanka, the home of the ethnic group that refer to themselves proudly as the Kaffirs. Macmillan lived there for 30 years, and it was there that he wrote his botanical handbook. It is difficult to say how he, and the other people he heard using the term kaffir lime, understood the connotation of the word, but it seems at least possible that the name began innocuously. Given that the earliest evidence of the lime’s name comes from Sri Lanka, lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower told me, “It seems very likely that it comes from that particular strand.”

Citrus hystrix Kabuyao (Cabuyao) fruit (left), used in Southeast Asian cooking, with galangal root. (Image by Fuzheado Creative Commons, Wikipedia)

Citrus hystrix Kabuyao (Cabuyao) fruit (left), used in Southeast Asian cooking, with galangal root. (Image by Fuzheado Creative Commons, Wikipedia)

Anderson says even if the origin of the name is free from malice, it rankles now. So maybe the safest thing to do is use what it’s called in Thailand: makrut.

Of course words mean different things – depending on time, place and the ear of the beholder, as explored in this June article by Geoffrey Nunberg “When Slang becomes a slur” for the Atlantic. Nunberg says it all shifted in the 1960′s:

That was when we collectively acknowledged that every group was entitled to control its own linguistic destiny, and decide what it should and shouldn’t be called—that groups had the right to define themselves.

“Redskin” has simply been the slang word the white man used for the Indian. Like all slang words, it was infused with the attitudes about the thing it names.

The principle had far-reaching consequences. When the decade opened, liberal-minded people referred to Negroes (or to “the Negro,” as LBJ liked to say), while an unreconstructed rear guard still talked about “coloreds.” By the decade’s end, pretty much everybody was using “blacks.” Over the following decades Orientals became Asians, queers became gays, and the new terms “Latino,” “Hispanic,” and “Chicano” were added to the vocabulary. And the old word “slur” acquired a new meaning to refer to a word that conveyed an ethnic or racial insult, one whose use was not just unkind, but as a social thought crime. Not even the vocal reactions against “political correctness” in later decades called the right of self-naming into serious question. Those on the cultural right may ridicule PC ideas about race and gender, but in their public discussions they’re as fastidious as anybody else about avoiding words that are regarded as offensive or simply outmoded.

This debate resonates in Canada too, over teams small and large, as shown by complaints about the Nepean Redskins (they changed the name) and the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos.

A similar back-and-forth exists for the military’s policy of naming helicopters for tribes like Apache or Kiowa – criticized in this June op-ed in the Washington Post by Simon Waxman.

Hold on, says U.S. Army aviator Maj. Crispin Burke in his piece “Everyone Relax – The Army’s Native American Helicopter Names Are Not Racist“. Burke says “there’s a difference between honor and exploitation”:

Although not an official policy, Army officials typically name attack aircraft for tribes that historians have noted for their martial prowess. The RAH-66 Comanche, for instance, honored a tribe of mounted warriors that out-maneuvered, out-rode and out-fought the best-equipped U.S. Cavalry—a feat even more impressive when one considers the Comanche first encountered the horse only in the late 17th century.

So what evidence do we have to suggest that Native Americans aren’t offended by the Army’s tradition? Take, for instance, the fact that Army Material Command actually gets approval from Native American tribes before naming its aircraft. That’s according to the Department of the Army’s Pamphlet 70-3, paragraph 1-11-4-g, for you sadists out there.

Still not convinced? Well, consider that some Native American tribes don’t just approve of the Army’s naming convention, they give their outright blessing—literally.

In 2012, Native American leaders were on hand to bless two brand new LUH-72 Lakota helicopters—named for the nation which handed the Army one of its most notorious defeats at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

The two helicopters, christened “Eagle” and “Turtle” for prominent Native American symbols, carry honor feathers in their cockpits, gifts from the tribe to the North Dakota National Guard.

Frankly, this tends to be a dangerous conversation. Debate opens up all kinds of name-calling, regardless of how individuals approach the topic.

Case in point: I am often offended by those who seem to want to control this discussion by suggesting anyone who disagrees is a racist. (Bad as racism is, politically correct bigotry is no more attractive.) To some extent I value freedom of expression more than some (utterly impossible) goal of making sure no one ever has hurt feelings.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to learn and remember “makrut lime”, because I see no need to make a freedom of speech issue over the other name. (I had no idea that word came with so much baggage!)

How do you decide which words to drop from your general vocabulary?