Saturday, March 28, 2009


“It’s a beautiful day out!” said the man walking a surprisingly swishy dog for rural New Hampshire on a road meant for Point-A-to-Point-B sort of business and not for meandering. He said it with such a genuine grin, you wouldn’t have known it was code for ‘what are you doing here’ unless you grew up in these parts and knew the language. The password is a tilt of the head and a ‘Can’t complain!’ with an equally blinding flash of cheer. My mind doesn’t translate from regular English to New Englander that fast anymore and I said something robotic and unconvincing that made me sound like a flatlander or, for those unfamiliar with the term, a vacationer visiting from any state south. I rejected “Yup, it’s a pisser” at the last possible moment knowing that it would work but only if I could say ‘pisser’ without pausing to look at the word in a squinty, suspicious sort of way like I was examining a yard sale appliance.

I was walking the two-plus miles back to my sister’s house after spending the afternoon in the bookstore which was the only place I could find that had the five vital things that would keep me sane, internet access, cell phone coverage, hot coffee, a reliable heating system and, well, books. When I got off the plane in Logan Airport in Flip Flops it was clear how unwilling I was to grasp my situation. Winter and I bitterly parted ways long ago and I stopped returning its calls. My inability to keep the woodstove going was either because I no longer knew how to load the wood in ‘blazing inferno’ formation or because the damper needs to be turned in another direction besides ‘towards Mecca’ which was my first guess. My last effort produced the equivalent in BTUs of warming your hands over a baked potato. The meager clothing options to pilfer in my nephew’s closet tells a sad tale about how unhip warmth must be and the unwillingness of my sister’s cats to drape themselves over my cold feet even while walking had me seeking relief in the less rugged climate of retail-turned-Red-Cross-shelter.

Given the frigid and slick conditions, I was impressed with all of the extra effort I’d expended hiking back and forth into town like some burley mountain women trudging along in an ‘ain’t nothin’ kind of way. I considered stopping to track and trap small game all Grizzly Adams like so I could roast a vole over the woodstove if I ever figure out how to get it hot enough. Having to check the internal temperature of the little carcass with a meat thermometer, however, is way to Galloping Gourmet for rustic rodent roasting and I doubt I can find a thermometer with ‘Varmint’ listed on the dial.

Long ago I had shunned the idea of paying extra for a lighter laptop because I thought that sort of feature was only for slack-armed sissies but the load felt suddenly significant. Any idea I had about counting this forty-minute schlep as exercise was completely squashed by Mark Rippetoe, coach and author extraordinaire, when someone asked him if adding a walk was beneficial to strength improvements to which he was quoted as saying, “Walking for an hour is not exercise. It’s shopping. If you count it at all, in any way, as part of your program . . . well, I’ll be disappointed.”

After each of my non-exercise treks that first week, I set myself up at the corner table to get my e-mail done and do some necessary cyber surfing unfortunately, by Saturday I’d established a sort of Majlis Al-Shura – a Saudi-style, town-hall airing of grievances to the prince in residence - through no fault of my own. Folk here like to refer to this practice as ‘shooting the shit.’ As each person came in, they spotted me and whether or not I had any earthly clue who they were, they’d ask about my trip to India and gossip about people I’d never heard of which is, I’m guessing, how they knew who I was after various like-minded chats throughout the town. I doubt it’s the only thing they know about me.

In some regions of this country, Americans square dance, polka, play jazz or rap, New Englanders shoot the shit. If you aren’t familiar with the term you can’t do it and shouldn’t try. At best, you’ll get your feelings hurt and at worst you’ll end up walking straight into a nickname that you’ll never shake. Just ask my friend, Booger. Shooting the shit is essentially a call and response game of wits that’s part teasing, part stand-up sarcasm and part gossip. It involves a lot of ribbing and a stealthy sizing-up and is based on the desire to figure everyone out. Consider it a residue of the Puritans without the float test which is still practiced in this country and called ‘water boarding’.

In the Pacific Northwest this style of communication is unwelcome and will quickly get you shunned in a snitty-passive aggressive sort of way but it’s an essential tool here and it’s worth spending some time developing your game given that conditions force you to depend on neighbors to drag you out of snow banks from time to time. To survive in Seattle without earning a reputation as a nasty S.O.B., if north westerners would ever refer to somebody in such a pedestrian way, I learned to bury every third thing I was going to say behind a wholesome, supportive grin.

With the way I operate, I first threw myself into the viper pit of shit-talking, no-holds barred sarcasm peppered with the foul-mouthed expletives and colorful references to naughty bits with a fervent hope that I wouldn’t get tagged with an unsavory pseudonym. I joined a construction crew to help finish a summer home on Lake Winnipesaukee and I was trying to blend before I became the Piggy in this ‘Lord of the Flies’. If you’re looking to acquaint yourself with the more colorful characters, this would be the place to do it.

I had promised my sister I’d be home from India for my nephew’s graduation and that created some scheduling issues. I now find myself with a couple of months to kill while I formulate my next diabolical plan. It reminds me a little of Stalag 13 – given my necessary confinement in subzero conditions while I dig an escape tunnel out past the gate. Not that I don’t love my family but this is New England at it’s bleakest – March – and when I agreed to teach a boot camp at Gordo’s Gym in Wolfeboro along with my day job, I pictured lots and lots of push-ups performed at my command and with precision not soccer moms squatting in Sorel’s.

I’ve been working with my brother in-law once removed – I believe we refer to that as ‘ex’ – helping finish out the miles of pine trim in a home with a fabulous view and lots of windows. ‘Finish carpentry’ for those of us who aren’t nearly clairvoyant with molding measurements or are interested in keeping most of their fingers, looks a lot like sanding. Lots and lots of sanding. Eight hours a day as a matter of fact and after my first week I’d nearly run out of games in my head to make sanding interesting.

The first day on the job, I was privy to a conversation amongst the crew about whether or not a Glock 45 leaves any traceable marks on a bullet and if the concealed weapons permit had any flexibility when crossing the border. That in combination with the fact that we’ve all inadvertently sanded off our fingerprints had me concerned. The next day put me at ease when the subject turned to female menstruation and how accurately a doctor can predict conception dates which I found intriguing but then, given how many ‘unplanned’ children they all have, I had to wonder if perhaps they were looking at conception dates from the wrong side of the bar tab. This Monday morning quarterback chat didn’t appear to be lowering anybody’s child support payments but as the new guy and the only one of us who actually menstruates, I just nodded a lot and kept sanding.

Then, after a couple of days of verbal sparring when I proved that I could take even the sucker punches standing, Spanky treated us all to the half-time entertainment as he traipsed around in nothing but a tool belt and enough back hair to shelter him from a nor’easter. Luckily, when he sauntered into the bathroom I was working on he spared me his version of pole dancing performed in the other room on an aluminum ladder. As a woman in these situations, it’s important that you go along with the joke but not be too enthusiastic so I left my dollar bills in my pocket and went back to work. Had I considered it beforehand, I would have set my quota of naked episodes to roughly one per month accounting for scandalous mishaps and moonings but four days into the job and I’d already hit my limit which means that St. Patty’s day will have to be spent at home with a book far away from any Guinness tap.

Coming from India, I got a little caught up in the romantic notion of the noble working class and this little escapade was beginning to blow that concept right out of the shimmed window. But Mahatma Gandhi spun cloth on a wheel and thought everyone should do it and who am I to argue with Bapu.

Gandhi explained it this way, “I strongly believe in the sanctity of human labor. Men and women must perform their duties with devotion. Not to labor because of one's being wealthy is unholy. Work with the hands is the apprenticeship of honesty and recognition of fellow humans' toiling.” And maybe if the wealthy homeowners grabbed a putty knife and bellied-up to the baseboard beside me, I’d be feeling a whole lot more ‘devoted’ about now. Plus, painting poly on pine to spruce up the second home of stressed manhattanites seeking a scenic overlook to admire a rare view only seen by the upwardly mobile is not the sort of job Gandhi wanted us all to get our hands dirty doing. He himself spun Khadi, an inexpensive cloth, made on a wheel called Charkha and made into clothes worn by the working class until his dying day, making little use of his University College law degree.

In Indian Opinion on January 15, 1910, Gandhi wrote, “it seems to us that, after all, nature has intended man to earn his bread by manual labour -'by the sweat of his brow' -and intended him to dedicate his intellect not towards multiplying his material wants and surrounding himself with enervating and soul-destroying luxuries, but towards uplifting his moral being-towards knowing the will of the Creator- towards serving humanity and thus truly serving himself. If so, the profession of hawking, or, better still, simple agriculture or such other calling, must be the highest method of earning one's livelihood. And do not the millions do so? No doubt many follow nature unconsciously. It remains for those who are endowed with more than the ordinary measure of intellect to copy the millions consciously and use their intellect for uplifting their fellow labourers. No longer will it then be possible for the intellectuals in their conceit to look down upon the 'hewers of wood and drawers of water'. For, of such is the world made."

It sounds beautiful until my fingertips bleed and then I find it doubtful that my whining is uplifting. I wish I could claim to be serving humanity in selfless ways but my goal is more of a labor lab in my ongoing attempt to explore functional movement. First, I keep designing workouts that ‘mimic’ real work though I haven’t dealt with the world of manual labor since my stint with the Romanian contractors. The experience of sanding for eight hours straight jacked on coffee and paint fumes is different than the experience of ‘labor’ in 20 minute timed bouts in a gym. Even if I could sand 200 feet of baseboard in 20 minutes, I’d have to do something else like it 23 more times in a day only to wake up in the morning to do it again. Second, the mental game of getting me to get up in the morning for eight hours of sanding and then focusing on each task without dallying or complaining is a rare opportunity to harden myself and my raw fingertips. Which, by the way, rugged fingertips will pay off rather nicely the first time I try and execute a Gi choke and get rejected with a burn of my fingers down the collar.

And if it sounded like I was getting uppity comparing myself to Gandhi here it should be noted that my status as an intellectual, had it existed previously, is being diminished daily by huffing polyurethane and sucking sawdust from treated lumber. One day soon, I fear, I’ll have nothing more interesting to say to my fellow noble laborers other than the occasional command of, “Smile!” like one of the carpenters who realized that most of his dialog was too dirty for someone who had all the equipment he was constantly referring to. He also replaced the game ‘Rate my Burp/Fart’ with a self-conscious ‘Scuze me’ completely for my benefit, he assured. I explained with a tight-lipped grin that smiling just lodges the flying sawdust between my teeth while I judged how quickly I could pack his pie-hole with wood putty.

I admit that’s a little not-so-Gandhi and I didn’t really mean it but I hate playing trained seal and I know that keeping the guys comfortable would entail smiling on command, pretending that dirty jokes are hilarious and Harley’s dreamy. I realized that every time I’m anything less than delighted by whatever these guys have to say, they think I’m ‘in a mood’ which might actually happen on a day when I’ve lost the mental game and feel slightly peeved after holding my arms over my head for four straight hours. And so what if sometimes I’m not radiant?

I did finally lose it and demanded a ‘cone of silence’ for the rest of the day when a simple conversation about Easter turned into references to stroking oneself complete with, um, sign language for the hearing impaired. It wasn’t the worst thing I had heard but it was the last thing I intended to hear that day. I let my opinion rip – a little spike of Sicilian what-for - and told them that my belief in fairy tales was threatened by all of their knuckle dragging and that if I was going to save myself from a lonely future with nothing but cats thanks to the picture of their gender they had painted for me - thank you very much - I would need some time alone for a little intracranial pep rally. Talk turned to football and golf clubs.

With my work day a little more wholesome, attention could now be paid to nutrition. To celebrate my first paycheck in the more lucrative dollar rather than rupees, I conned my nephew Gunnar into a ride to town for a quick meal after a week of drinking protein powder stirred into coconut milk. This has always been my emergency MRE for several reasons whenever I drop into hostile territory. First, it doesn’t have to be refrigerated since saturated fats are more stable and less prone to rancidity. Second, it’s antimicrobial and keeps my gut churning nicely until I can source clean food. Third, it has thermogenic properties which, especially here, will ratchet up my body temperature to ward of winter at least a little.
Most people still shy away from saturated fat even in coconut thanks to the propaganda regarding cholesterol and in spite of access to actual data that says otherwise. The easily searchable editorial by Harvard’s Walter Willet, M.D. in the American Journal of Public Health (1990) as quoted by Weston A. Price Foundation, "the focus of dietary recommendations is usually a reduction of saturated fat intake, no relation between saturated fat intake and risk of CHD was observed in the most informative prospective study to date."

Mary G. Enid, PhD of Westin A. Price is a big fan partly because of the antibacterial properties which she discusses in ‘Know Your Fats’. Enid writes, “A few researchers have known for some time that a derivative of coconut oil, lauric acid and monolaurin, are safe antimicrobial agents that can either kill completely or stop the growth of some of the most dangerous viruses and bacteria.” Continues Enid, “Monolaurin, in particular, is being shown to be useful in the prevention and treatment of severe bacterial infections, especially those that are difficult to treat or are antibiotic resistant. Difficult bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus as well as other bacteria have been studied here in the United States in research groups such as Dr. H.G. Preuss’s group at Georgetown University. They found that monolaurin combined with herbal essential oils inhibited pathogenic bacteria both in the petri dish (in vitro) and also in mice (in vivo).4 “ One can only imagine what cargo I snuck past customs in my intestinal track so this isn’t a bad strategy on my part.

According to an unconfirmed source, “In one study, the thermogenic (fat-burning) effect of a high-calorie diet containing 40 percent fat as MCFA [medium chain fatty acids] was compared to one containing 40 percent fat as LCFA [long chain fatty acids]. The thermogenic effect of the MCFA was almost twice as high as the LCFA: 120 calories versus 66 calories. The researchers concluded that the excess energy provided by fats in the form of MCFA would not be efficiently stored as fat, but rather would be burned. A follow-up study demonstrated that MCFA given over a six-day period can increase diet-induced thermogenesis by 50 percent.” This appeared in a website touting the diet benefits of coconut called I wouldn’t refer to it unless I could directly attest to the fact that every time I drink a glug of this brew my body heat cranks up a few degrees, a completely necessary tool given I’ve already been wearing four layers of clothes and can still feel a chill. My only concern then is the protein powder because I can’t defend the bioavailability of the whey or be assured of the quality.

I asked Gunnar where he wanted to go given that he works at the most posh of the local restaurants and one of the few that keeps its doors open past the summer season. “It doesn’t really matter. Wherever you go the food is Sysco,” he said, referring to the Houston-based wholesale food supplier that according to the ‘Every Bite You Take: How Sysco Came To Monopolize Most of what you Eat,’ by Ulrich Boser posted Wednesday, February 21, 2009 for Slate services over 400,000 American businesses including every single one of the restaurants in this happy little hamlet. Interestingly, even the folks in the nearby town of Freedom are eating Sysco food which happens to supply the kitchens at Gitmo. The locals even joked post 9/11 that wiping out the entire community would take merely a spoonful of super-powered streptococcus in a shipment.

Though that’s the kind of joke shared over a cup of coffee here and then forgotten, it actually was a concern in Washington. “Our highly centralized food economy is a dangerously precarious system, vulnerable to accidental--and deliberate—contamination,” wrote Michael Pollan in ‘The Vegetable Industrial Complex,’ which appeared in the New York Times Magazine on October 15, 2006 approximately a month after nearly 200 Americans in 26 states contracted E. coli from packaged spinach. Continues Pollan, “When Tommy Thompson retired from the Department of Health and Human Services in 2004, he said something chilling at his farewell news conference: "For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do." The reason it is so easy to do was laid out in a 2003 G.A.O. report to Congress on bioterrorism. "The high concentration of our livestock industry and the centralized nature of our food-processing industry" make them "vulnerable to terrorist attack." Today 80 percent of America's beef is slaughtered by four companies, 75 percent of the precut salads are processed by two and 30 percent of the milk by just one company.”

Slate’s article claims that much of Sysco’s produce is locally sourced, the products name-branded and the prepared foods unassuming but there are the exceptions. Take the SmartServe Chicken – Please, and bury it in a leak-proof container away from the aquifer. According to Slate, “While it looks natural, it consists of parts of other chicken breasts mashed together into a single, chicken-breastlike block. As the company notes on its Web site, our ‘unique 3-D technology gives you the look and texture of a solid muscle chicken breast, at a fraction of the cost.’“ I reserve all my sculpted so-called-food consumption to buttercream roses shamelessly swiped off cake like a toad snatching insects. Beyond that, I prefer consumables whose descriptions appear in seed catalogs not periodic tables – protein powder momentarily aside.
For the most part, or parts, Sysco’s website made very little reference to actual edibles at all. I had hoped to find some information about their suppliers and how they source their food and when I looked at their ‘Supplier Compliance Guide’ assuming that it would give me a little insight on how they choose suppliers or how their suppliers, well, comply, I found this, “Sysco's Supply Chain Operations / Supplier Compliance (SCOPS) team is the central liaison between the Redistribution Center (RDC) network and the supplier community. SCOPS' role is to successfully transition suppliers into the RDC network and to monitor and report operational issues. Our goal is to promote positive and open relationships with RDC suppliers while sustaining operational requirements that result in shared cost reductions.” Wha?

This is not at all like the wholesale market in Paris, Marché d'Intérêt National de Rungis, which you might argue is Europe’s self-serve Sysco, covering 573 acres and feeds one-fifth of the French population stocking primarily livestock and the veggies in which you might make, say, soup stock. Roaming the stalls allows the chef to put a face on purveyors of the foods that often sport faces of their own. Barbaric as it would seem to American shoppers, the French prefer to buy their bunnies whole, unskinned and identifiable in a line-up so that they know what hops onto the menu is exactly that and not feral cats which make a less tasty Lapin Rôti à la Moutarde. Americans buy and believe in brands which is how we’ve been brainwashed to think thanks to our commerce driven system. This allows the squeamish to shop in a more sterile environment but leaves us evaluating brilliant marketing campaigns while the French are evaluating food. Slogans to ape and jingles to sing are far less nourishing.

In ‘Unhappy Meals’ published in the New York Times Magazine January 28, 2007, Michael Pollan argues that the ideology of ‘Nutritionism’ – which has scientists splintering food into nutrients and then making unfounded assumptions without considering the possibility that whole foods are greater than the sum of their known nutrients – traditional wisdom is overlooked. “The sheer novelty and glamour of the Western diet, with its 17,000 new food products introduced every year, and the marketing muscle used to sell these products, has overwhelmed the force of tradition and left us where we now find ourselves: relying on science and journalism and marketing to help us decide questions about what to eat. Nutritionism, which arose to help us better deal with the problems of the Western diet, has largely been co-opted by it, used by the industry to sell more food and to undermine the authority of traditional ways of eating.”

In contrast, Kathleen Flinn writes in ‘The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry: Love, Laughter and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School’ about her time perusing Rungis with Chef Alexander Colville and says, “He gives us a lesson on quizzing stall managers. Vital questions include: Where did it come from? What did it eat? What does the seller know about the people who raised it? How long has it been hung to dry or waiting to be purchased? A good chef is not shy about asking such questions.” [pg 57] These are the same questions I asked in Ballard’s Farmer’s Market in Seattle, the same questions I would ask in India if I spoke any of the languages and the same questions I’d ask here if Sysco, an acronym for Systems and Services Company which sounds even less like it’s about the food, could answer questions on it’s website with text explaining things more clearly than:

“Sysco’s suppliers are an integral part of our business. We value our supplier relationships because we know that strong partnerships lead to growth and success – for our suppliers, our customers, our shareholders and our Sysco associates.” Right. Can I get organic fries with that?
Post World War II, America tried to foist its faceless system on the French in the name of the almighty Franc. Most of our initiatives were part of the Marshall Plan designed to rebuild France and turn the country away from communism. Julia Child explained this with the help of Alex Prud’homme in ‘My Life in France,’ “When American experts began making helpful suggestions about how the French could ‘increase productivity and profits’ the average Frenchman would shrug as if to say: “These notions of yours are all very fascinating, no doubt, but we have a nice little business here just as it is. Everybody makes a decent living. Nobody has ulcers. I have time to work on my monograph about Balzac, and my foreman enjoys his espaliered pear trees. I think, as a matter of fact, we do not wish to make these changes that you suggest.” [Pg 102] Child’s husband was assigned to the American Embassy in France and was responsible for bringing exhibits to Paris that would essentially sell capitalism rather than communism to the French.

Again, Pollan writes in ‘Unhappy Meals,’ “If there is one word that covers nearly all the changes industrialization has made to the food chain, it would be simplification. Chemical fertilizers simplify the chemistry of the soil, which in turn appears to simplify the chemistry of the food grown in that soil. Since the widespread adoption of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in the 1950s, the nutritional quality of produce in America has, according to U.S.D.A. figures, declined significantly. Some researchers blame the quality of the soil for the decline; others cite the tendency of modern plant breeding to select for industrial qualities like yield rather than nutritional quality. Whichever it is, the trend toward simplification of our food continues on up the chain. Processing foods depletes them of many nutrients, a few of which are then added back in through ''fortification'': folic acid in refined flour, vitamins and minerals in breakfast cereal. But food scientists can add back only the nutrients food scientists recognize as important. What are they overlooking?”

According to Child and most folks who enjoy a good meal, the one thing that was clearly overlooked was flavor. “The American poultry industry had made it possible to grow a fine looking fryer in record time and sell it at a reasonable price, but no one mentioned that the result usually tasted like the stuffing inside a teddy bear.” [Pg 213] Child, who was never much concerned with the nutritional density of the meals she served and preferred her chicken to taste ‘Chickeny’, knew that there was something amiss with our birds. When quality flew out the window so did the taste. But it’s cheap.

“The American food system has for a century devoted its energies and policies to increasing quantity and reducing price, not to improving quality. There's no escaping the fact that better food -- measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond) – costs more, because it has been grown or raised less intensively and with more care. Not everyone can afford to eat well in America, which is shameful, but most of us can: Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation,” wrote Pollan in ‘Unhappy Meals.’ For Americans in the end, all that money get’s paid back with interest in healthcare, vitamin supplements, gym memberships and lost wages due to our decrepitude.

In a small town in rural America, especially one with a limited growing season, sadly sourcing food begins at Wal-Mart which is not within walking distance for me and has no organic selection and no local suppliers which were not surprising given Wal-Mart’s singular focus on price slashing. Here, there are two supermarkets in town that are forgotten affiliates of giant chain stores though they look like renegade outposts that bootlegged the sign unless I’ve taken too many cart spins around boutique shops and Whole Foods –the Prada of Produce.

If I was planning to eat local and seasonal, William Bradford’s account in ‘History of the Plantation of Plymouth’ in 1620 recorded the suffering and starvation which left only 53 of 102 people alive a year later to celebrate the first Thanksgiving. That number included only four adult women. Essentially, eating local and seasonal in New England means not eating until July. That rivals Wal-Mart in cost savings and may be slightly healthier than eating Wal-Mart’s meat. I’ve managed to befriend a man with two English degrees that works in the meat department of IGA – let that be a lesson to you – and have hopes of turning him into my Squanto without the part about ostracizing him from his people in the end. All the ladies at the check-out tease him already so that may be an unavoidable consequence.

Of course I can buy my meats online and suck it up with Mexican produce for awhile but the trick is to find real local food that I’m sure is produced by the local farms after the snow melts. I may have to shift my hangout from the Bookstore to where ever it is the local farmers hang out. With any luck its got internet access, cell phone coverage, hot coffee, a reliable heating system and, well, books.