Lentils are a humble ingredient that appear in many earthy foods. Not the fancy dishes that tap dance around the table, but simple, nourishing foods like Indian dal or hippy mush, the kind of food that feeds villages. It turns out that lentils come from a plant that has a similarly beneficial impact on the land where it grows, an on the communities that cultivate it.
During the height of the 1980s farm crisis, four Montana farmers joined forces in a hunt for alternatives to the commodity agriculture system that was destroying their land and communities. The soil was losing its fertility, thanks to the predominant industrial agriculture practices in the region. Droughts were becoming more frequent, which exacerbated the soil’s issues. Farmers were going broke, crushed between rising prices for inputs and lower prices at market.
The four friends were determined to farm their way out of this mess, and began by exploring various crops that would add fertility to the soil. One, a lentil named Indianhead, was bred as a cover crop, intended to be plowed into the soil to add nitrogen. But when plants make nitrogen, reasoned David Oien, one of the four founders of the Lentil Underground movement, what they’re really making is nitrogen-rich protein.
“Indianheads were cheap,” Liz Carlisle writes in Lentil Underground, a book about Oien and his movement. “They were great for his soil. And since they were bred to make nitrogen, they were 24 percent protein. Why not add them to the cattle ration? Or for that matter, why not try some himself?”
The Indianheads were delicious, and Oien began eating copious amounts, though it was a while before he admitted to his neighbors that he was eating his soil-building crop.
Oien and his friends founded a company, Timeless, to market what they grew. The name came from a meeting that went way into the night, and nobody knew what time it was.
Twenty-five years in, the Lentil Underground includes a widening base of organic farmers that grow for Timeless, including old hippies, young environmentalists, gun loving rednecks, conservative Christians, Libertarians, the state’s Organic certification inspector, and Montana’s Democratic Senator Jon Tester. The personalities and “against all odds” tension of the book makes for a fun read that’s as much about ecology and economics as it is lentil farming.
In addition to being an agricultural and social movement, the Lentil Underground is also a political movement. It was while working for Montana lentil farmer and Senator Jon Tester that Carlisle first learned of the Lentil Underground. Members of the Lentil Underground weren’t shy about calling their senator with ideas, especially if your senator is a lentil grower.
Thanks in part to their efforts, the recent Farm Bill contains a pilot program called the Pulse School Pilot provision-Pulse being the plant family of which lentils are members. The Pulse School Pilot provision funds the purchase of $10 million in lentils and other pulse legumes.
Lentils are such a nutritional powerhouse that the U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies them as both a plant and a protein. And those high-protein Indianheads? They are still being grown, marketed as Black Beluga Lentils, and are popular with high-end chefs.
Many other varieties of lentils, in a rainbow of colors, also bear the Timeless label, as well as a Black Kabuli Chickpea, which functions ecologically like a lentil (and makes a striking hummus, Carlisle says).
These legumes are grown in rotation with grain and oilseed crops, and sometimes a pasture phase. The oilseed phase could be flax or sunflower or safflower. The grain phase could be one of several heritage grains like Farro or Purple Prairie Barley, marketed by Timeless. Other heritage grains, like Kamut and Spelt, are bought by the friendly competition, Montana Flour and Grains.
Legumes are able to build their legendary proteins, and thus supply the plant with in-house fertilizer, thanks to a symbiotic relationship between the plant’s roots and a type of soil bacteria. This trans-species cooperative effort that goes down below the lentil plants is a metaphor for the entire Lentil Underground movement. And the more I learn about it, the more I feel the urge to eat some lentils.
There are no recipes in the book, alas, but companion book is in the works: “Pulse of the Earth,” by Claudia Krevat.
Carlisle explained her default Ethiopian-style lentil recipe to me. It’s a recipe that she never tires of. I’ve cooked it twice, and I’m hooked.
It uses red lentils and Ethiopian berbere spice mix, and results in a dish called messer wot, aka spicy lentils.
I cup red or yellow lentils
1 medium or larger onion, minced
2 cloves fresh garlic
1 tablespoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons berbere mix
¼ cup olive oil
A key step to this recipe, Carlisle said, is to “... let the onions, water and berbere enjoy each others’ company for a few minutes.”
Add a minced onion to a pan with enough water to cover it. Add your spice of choice. While the spice of choice for Carlisle is usually berbere, sometimes she uses Indian dal spices, sometimes curry powder, sometimes plain cumin.
Simmer the onion, spice and water for 30 minutes. Then add olive oil, garlic, and salt. After another five minutes, add lentils, and more water or stock as the lentils start to swell.
I was surprised that she added the lentils dry, without soaking or cooking them first.
Most red and yellow lentils are decorticated, she explained, which means the outer skin has been removed. The Timeless Petite Crimsons that she uses cook in 5-10 minutes.
Keep adding water or stock as the lentils swell, and cook until they are done to your desired tenderness.
At this point, I much prefer to let the lentils and broth cool to where I can puree them in the blender, where it becomes a creamy, dreamy silky and spicy soup, which I can then reheat, adding water as necessary to thin it. My wife prefers her messer wot unblended, because she likes the texture of the lentils.
And that’s OK. There is strength in diversity in the Lentil Underground. As long as we don’t run out of berbere spice mix, everything will be cool.
Last Updated on Thursday, 19 February 2015 13:34
“As I looked across the rolling expanse of prairie, filled with the beauty of a Montana sunset, I sent up a little prayer of thanksgiving from my heart for this our very first home. Only a rectangle of prairie sod, raw and untouched by the hands of man, but to us it was a kingdom ... .
“ ... We have no regrets; life is fuller and sweeter through lessons learned in privation, and around our homestead days some of life’s fondest memories still cling. We are of Montana, now and always ... I feel that creating a home and raising a family in Montana has been a grand success, and my cup seems filled to overflowing with the sweetness and joy of living.”
– Pearl Price Robertson, a Big Sandy, Mont., homesteader in 1911.
Mrs. Robertson’s poignant words, part of an interpretive display at Parker Homestead State Park, relate how deeply many early-day settlers felt about their life in Montana.
Parker Homestead State Park is located between two of Montana’s most popular state parks, Lewis and Clark Caverns and Missouri Headwaters State Park. It is about 10 miles west of Three Forks on U.S. 287. At less than two acres in size, Parker Homestead represents an important part of Montana’s heritage: the Homestead Era of the late 1800s and first 20 years or so of the 1900s. The original Homestead Act, granting 160 acres of land, was established in 1862. For most of the Great Plains, this was far too small to successfully farm. The Enlarged Homestead Act, of which Montana Sen. Joe Dixon played a major role in formulating, passed Congress in 1909, allowing 320 acres of land. It was still not enough, but it was a start.
The boom this new plan brought to Montana was born of railroad hucksterism, false advertising and a total lack of understanding of the land and climate mixed with a huge dose of high hopes and dreams. Thousands of people were lured to Big Sky Country. This episode left a mark on the topography of Montana. Some of the evidence will be with us for a long time to come, but much is already gone.
A display at Parker State Park explains, “the Montana soil is swallowing hundreds of old homestead buildings like this one. Each takes with it untold stories of men and women whose lives brought them drought, blizzards, loneliness and companionship, and fear and simple joys, much like we know today yet sprung from a world that will never be again.”
In the 1890s, newlyweds Nelson and Rosa Ellen Parker lived in a small miner’s shack on Antelope Creek. Later, they built a cabin close to the Jefferson River, only to be flooded out. The Parkers and their three young children escaped in a rowboat determined to rebuild on higher ground. In 1901, Nelson filed to homestead on 160 acres and built the two-room, sod-roofed cabin that still stands today.
Sheltered from the summer sun by a small grove of cottonwoods, the log home is testament to the “can-do” attitude so prevalent among our earlier settlers. After the Parkers moved closer to Three Forks, the cabin was empty until 1939, when the Jewett family bought the place and happily raised four children in just three rooms. Eventually, they also left.
While it is important and interesting to know who occupied this place, it is not the real story represented here. Life that once resonated from the Parker cabin was typical of the other rapidly disappearing structures scattered throughout our state. The Parkers and Jewetts carry the banner of so many other families.
Visiting the park and reading the excellent and unobtrusive interpretive displays allows one to envision a time in Montana that helped establish some of the strong roots represented by those farm and ranch folks who stuck out the sour end of the Homestead period.
Last Updated on Thursday, 19 February 2015 12:55
Though many experts feel that the United States is heading into another energy crisis, retired Devon Energy executive vice president Bill Whitsitt has a very different perspective.
“The new American energy revolution is here!” Whitsitt said. “As with any revolution, it has shaken our assumptions about many things, including our economy, environment, national security and energy costs for our citizens. In short, it is already causing all Americans - and Montanans - to think differently about energy in our future.”
Whitsitt was the keynote speaker at the 40th Annual Economic Outlook Seminar at the Crowne Plaza on Feb. 3. The half-day event was co-presented by Northwestern Energy and the Bureau of Business and Economic Research. The seminar highlighted economic trends for local, state and national economies.
Speaking to around 150 business men and women from across the city, Whitsitt was optimistic that the energy industry was not in a crisis, but in the middle of a revolution.
He reminded attendees of the 1970s when it was pervasively believed that we were literally running out of energy. He then pointed out that this definitely proved to be false – in fact, the U.S. currently produces 84 percent of its energy needs domestically.
“Strikingly, the concept of energy independence – something that has been viewed as more of a pipedream of presidents than a realistic goal - seems within reach,” Whitsitt said.
With the industry thriving, the economy is benefitting as well. While other industries experienced difficulties during the most recent recession, the energy industry grew its workforce by 200,000 jobs. An American Petroleum Institute study estimated that the oil and gas industry directly and indirectly influenced over 43,000 jobs in Montana. This accounts for approximately 10 percent of the state’s economy.
Whitsitt said that technology and innovation are the key factors contributing to the current energy revolution and that they have allowed Americans to access “new” forms of energy that hadn’t been available in past years.
“These energy forms are new not because they weren’t around before,” Whitsitt said. “They’re new because we can now, with new technology, economically implement these types of energy that simply weren’t possible before.”
The speaker argued that the values of technology and innovation are seen most clearly through the process of hydraulic fracturing. He discussed how advances in geoscience have helped drillers “see” underground strata with seismic data, assess the likelihood of finding hydrocarbons in geologic formations and understand how oil and gas move through the pores of rocks more dense than concrete.
“The technology development and innovation in this sector have been astounding,” Whitsitt said.
The speaker didn’t deny that fracking was accompanied by a fair share of environmental issues, but he pointed to websites like FracFocus that are doing what they can to keep the industry honest about the fluids, sands and additives that are used in hydraulic fracturing. He also noted that companies are initiating innovative practices, such as reusing water and drilling multiple wells in the same location, that better protect the environment while increasing conservation and efficiency.
Renewable energy also plays a role in Whitsitt’s “Energy Revolution.” He noted that the Energy Information Administration projected a 24 percent growth in renewable contributions to our nation’s electricity-generating capacity by 2040. Currently, 40 percent of Montana’s electricity is generated by hydropower facilities while 6 percent is generated by wind turbines.
Whitsitt noted near the end of his presentation that all of these factors combine to paint an optimistic future of our state’s energy future.
“All this should inspire optimism about our energy future and how it is reshaping Montana and the ways we think about energy,” Whitsitt said. “It should also reaffirm the excitement we see and feel every day about our state’s ability to lead in this important and dynamic area.”
Last Updated on Saturday, 14 February 2015 14:01
In 1916-18, Morton J. Elrod, professor of biology at the State University of Montana in Missoula and a prominent Montana naturalist, sounded themes remarkably similar to those of modern critics in his musings about “The American University.”
In an overview about the emergence of American universities, he stressed the mingling of public and private resources to achieve larger societal goals, not all of which he approved. He specifically repudiated “extension” – delivering lectures and coursework in the communities surrounding campuses – activities strongly supported by former UM Presidents Clyde A. Duniway (1908-12) and Edwin B. Craighead (1912-15). As Elrod warned, “The dangers … [resulting] from this method of teaching are superficiality, cheapening and a tendency to educational sincerity.” He thought the danger compounded by the challenge of finding “a sufficient number” of qualified itinerant lecturers and teachers, with the result of settling for almost anyone available, qualified or not.
Elrod attributed this national obsession with extension to the misguided campaign to provide higher education to everyone seeking it regardless of preparation, readiness or motivation. By his estimate, one person enrolled in college for every 400 citizens in the United States – for every 300 by including the normal schools – was the highest rate in the world and probably too high for effective educational management.
He had discovered that a “study of the chain of American universities, extending from Harvard westward to California, is far from reassuring, and shows a tendency that is distressing, if not alarming.” In his view, “The rapidly increasing number of students at the different institutions, coming upon the teaching force so rapidly … in the last decade, has thrown upon them a burden that has not been properly met.” As a direct result, “The proportion of full professors in each staff has been … continuously and rapidly decreasing … the proportion of associate and assistant professors has remained about constant, and the proportion of instructors or assistants has alarmingly increased, and the conditions are changing in this direction yearly.”
He warned gloomily that these developments, if unchecked, portended disastrous consequences for American higher education.
In an analysis familiar to modern critics – including disdain for the “unfaculty,” the just-in-time teaching appointees familiar in later years – Elrod assigned the causes for these and other damaging changes to the phenomenally increased numbers of students, making “the work of caring for them much greater”; the stagnation of institutional resources that failed to keep “pace with the increase in students”; and the inexorable competition among institutional leaders for ever more students, wasting resources with extravagant expenditures for grounds and student buildings and too little for instruction and research.
Once again, his critique rang themes that resonate loudly in more recent times. Inevitably, as he complained, “inexperienced” instructors and assistants provided most of the teaching and “fewer” students ever actually worked “with men who have achieved eminence in their profession.”
About half of the staff had temporary appointments at low salaries, thus driving down the average for all. “The ranks are slowly being filled by those who may be considered the less shining lights, the professions and trades offering greater inducements than teaching.” Other so-called innovations, such as “summer session,” engendered “superficiality of work,” commercialization and diversion of faculty members from thoughtful research to “purely utilitarian” and “elementary phases of study.” Engaging in summer work to avoid poverty exacerbated the need for rest and interfered with serious study.
Elrod traced many of the problems to the replacement of the college “entrance examination … by the certificate of graduation” from high school. Traditionally, universities had dictated the required high school curriculum and the high schools delivered it, as he knew from personal experience had indeed prevailed during the tenure of founding President Oscar J. Craig (1895-1908). To make certain and to maintain standards, the universities had required the applicants for admission to pass entrance examinations that assured adequate preparation. The “certificate method” in response to public demand allowed the high schools to control not only the high school curriculum but the college admission process as well, since the high schools designed and delivered the courses and certified the student outcomes.
Elrod thought that standardized admission examinations administered by an external agency – such as the SAT or ACT then in development – offered the only solution, one he strongly urged at the earliest possible date. To illustrate what had happened, he noted that “About nine or 10 years ago, the University of Montana, by vote of the faculty, accepted as part of the entrance requirement any subject which the high schools of the state were willing to recognize in their course of study.” That decision virtually abolished all academic standards. As many traditionalists of his time and later, Elrod also deplored the proliferation of electives in the college curriculum, another of former President Duniway’s reforms, resulting inevitably and inexorably in the “differentiation of the courses of study into groups, the adoption of major lines of work and the rise of the professional school.”
As he said, “Educational institutions seem to have gone mad on the utilitarian side, due largely to the development of the professional school.” Rather than a broad and prescribed course of study, the students chose “what to study,” invariably following the “line of least resistance,” taking their leave at graduation with little more insight and understanding than when they first arrived on campus. Elrod apparently found little of value in the curricular changes that occurred in Montana after the Craig years of the early 20th century.
George Dennison is president of the University of Montana.
Last Updated on Friday, 06 February 2015 16:19
After 1919 and the end of World War I, Montana state government responded to other pressing needs in the wake of the war and provided little immediate assistance to the multi-campus University of Montana. Faculty salaries and the repair and renovation of existing facilities fell to new lows, causing the chancellor and the board to discuss enrollment limits and reductions in instructional staff to deal with the problems.
Prior to American entry into World War I, the board had authorized the chancellor to initiate a facilities planning process in preparation for the time when resources permitted action.
Planning proceeded, with George H. Carsley and Cass Gilbert contracted to prepare campus plans for implementation when resources permitted. In response to the worsening resource crisis, Chancellor Elliott worked closely with the presidents to develop a strategy for a “University Funds Campaign” sponsored by the alumni of all four campuses of UM and funded with private support.
In relatively short order, they secured the necessary signatures to place two initiatives on the ballot in the election of 1920: No. 18 for a levy of 1½ mills dedicated to support the ongoing operations of the university and No. 19 to authorize a state-funded $5 million bond issue.
Last Updated on Thursday, 05 February 2015 16:18
It was Lent, 1965. We were Presbyterians, high school juniors and seniors, kids from the suburbs. Our pastor, George Ramsey, had taken us into Detroit to attend a Lenten service in an old, beautiful church. We were ushered to the back of the balcony, a symbolic back of the bus.
It also made us less conspicuous. We were about the only white people there. I remember an atmosphere of hostility, and the face of one very pretty woman who one looked up at us and glared.
The service started. Nothing stands out in my memory until a large black man in a suit climbed up the stairs of the carved stone pulpit. Who is this man, I wondered. He began to read.
“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’
“And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.
“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11: 5-9.).
The preacher was Martin Luther King Jr. He was not a particularly handsome man, nor did he possess the charm of a TV preacher, but he was intense and compelling. His voice, without a microphone, easily reached to every corner of the old church as he began his sermon.
“Knock,” he said. “Knock. You don’t tear down the door. You knock. And your Brothah, (pause) your Brothah, (pause) I say, your BROTHAH will give you bread.”
Dr. King didn’t just talk a good talk, he walked the walk: in Montgomery, Selma, in Detroit, in front of a million people at the Lincoln Memorial, without a flak jacket, until James Earl Raye assassinated him. It takes great courage to choose to face death and not fight back.
Just two years later, on July 23, 1967, in what became known as the Long, Hot Summer, Detroit erupted into violence. Centuries of suppressed anger won out over Dr. King’s plea for reason and nonviolence. Looters smashed windows and helped themselves to whatever appealed: TVs, furniture, groceries, clothing. Most of the inner city black community, along with their white counterparts, huddled inside their homes. The heat and humidity added to everyone’s misery. Detroit has never been same.
That long-ago violence in 157 American cities settled nothing. Now, almost half a century later, the protests, both violent and peaceful, radiating from Ferguson, Missouri, tell us that, indeed, nothing is finished. So far, no modern day Martin Luther King has come forward to provide a meeting ground for groups with opposing viewpoints.
Christ taught his disciples to pray “Give us this day our daily bread.” In the Judeo-Christian Bible, bread is the symbol for all God’s gifts, not just food – for grace, for life itself. “And who is my brother?” asked the Pharisees. Jesus answered them with the story of the Good Samaritan: Your enemy is your brother, the foreigner is your brother, and you must give him whatever he needs.
But right now, no one is giving unto anyone. The Great Recession has turned us all into misers. The land of plenty, with amber waves of grain, has become the land of stubble. I hate to admit this, but I have several bags of dried legumes and several pounds of rice, “just in case.” To paraphrase J.B. Phillips, my God is too small. I, too, need a spiritual adjustment.
When they collect the offering at All Nations Church here in Billings, they sing “You can’t beat God’s givin,’ no matter how hard you try.” On this Martin Luther King Day, let us all, wherever we fit in our city, be gracious to each other. Let us operate out of faith, not out of fear.
Can I hear an amen?
Last Updated on Thursday, 15 January 2015 14:04
When Rocky Mountain College history Professor Tim Lehman included the potentially controversial statement that George Armstrong Custer had a son with a Cheyenne woman in his book, “Bloodshed at Little Bighorn: Sitting Bull, Custer, and the Destinies of Nations,” it wasn’t put in to create controversy.
It was merely one part of his research of the best sources he could gather, and he decided he couldn’t leave it out once all the facts were added up.
“I just go by the best evidence I can,” he said. “There are a number of oral traditions passed on through the Cheyenne people with different families and branches that all talk about that. It’s consistent with all the evidence.”
But since the time of Custer’s death, propaganda to portray Custer as a Christ-like hero of Manifest Destiny had always been an agenda. Custer’s grieving widow, Elizabeth “Libbie” Custer, garnered so much sympathy from the U.S. public and military that rarely anyone spoke ill of Custer. She wrote three books on her husband that, according to Lehman, “silenced his critics and elevated his claim to greatness.”
Any personal knowledge of a Cheyenne mistress - especially one with whom he fathered a child with named Yellow Swallow - would eventually be thrown into the ash heap of history as Libbie would live to be 90 years old, outliving most whites with potential knowledge of the affair.
Recorded native oral history, however, has several sources that Custer had a son named Yellow Swallow with a woman whom Custer called Monahseetah (Meotzi). She considered him her husband and was devoted to him. Lehman says that although many people are dismissive of oral accounts because they can have variances, there were more than enough overlapping stories about Meotzi and Custer’s son to conclude it couldn’t be dismissed.
“I guess the fans of Custer want to ‘see no evil,’” Lehman said of those most often dismissive of the evidence. Their agenda to whitewash history and view Custer as a saintlike martyr loyal to Libbie would be skewed. Likewise, it would be odd for natives since he’s often viewed as the ultimate manifestation of villain.
After the 1868 Washita River Massacre, Custer kept captured women and children as POWs for four months. Meotzi birthed a baby two months into captivity, but could have gotten impregnated by Custer afterward. She was employed by him as an interpreter even though she couldn’t speak English.
In 1927 a cousin of Meotzi’s, Kate Bighead, recounted to Thomas Marquis in detail how after the Washita Massacre she first saw Custer in the spring of 1869 when he smoked a peace pipe with Cheyenne chiefs, promising he’d never attack them again.
“I was then a young woman, 22-years-old, and I admired him,” she said. “All of the Indian women talked of him as being a fine-looking man.”
Bighead detailed how Meozi was sought after by Cheyenne men because of her beauty – which also was described at length in a letter by Custer himself.
“She said that Long Hair (Custer) was her husband; that he promised to come back to her, and that she would wait for him,” Bighead recounted. “She waited seven years, and then he was killed.”
Joseph White Cow Bull, an Oglala Lakota and veteran of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, told David Humphreys Miller in 1938 about meeting Meotzi in 1876. He tried to court Meotzi and recounted seeing Yellow Swallow, a boy with light streaks in his hair.
“They said the boy’s father had been a white soldier chief named Long Hair; he had killed her father, Chief Black Kettle [at the Washita River Massacre] eight winters before, they said, and captured her. He had told her he wanted to make her his second wife, and so he had her,” he said.
“She was in her middle twenties but had never married any man of her tribe. Some of my Shahiyela (Cheyenne) friends said she was from the southern branch of their tribe, just visiting up north, and they said no Shahiyela could marry her because she had a seven-year-old son born out of wedlock.”
Unlike many other troopers who fell during the Battle of The Little Bighorn, Custer’s dead body was spared from drastic mutilation – Custer’s brother Tom had his head smashed in flat by a Lakota warrior, Rain In the Face, who had a personal vendetta against him, for instance - because some Cheyenne women recognized him as father to one of their own, according to Bighead.
“In a kinship society like the Cheyenne, that means a lot,” Lehman said.
The mutilation that did occur to Custer was ritualized, according to Bighead. His trigger finger was cut off, and sewing awls were stuck in his ears to “enable him to hear better in the afterlife,” she said.
Bighead said Neotzi mourned hard upon the news of Custer’s death, cutting her hair and slashing her arms. She was heartbroken that the man she’d considered her husband had to be killed by her own tribe and allies after he broke his peace pipe promise to never attack them again.
Last Updated on Thursday, 01 January 2015 16:28
Eleven years ago on New Year’s Day, I arrived in Cuba with a group of students from the University of Montana in tow. We were there on a hard-to-get educational permit. Our goal was to get a handle on the state of Cuba’s agriculture system, which, thanks to geopolitical circumstances, had been thrust in an aggressively organic direction. We also wanted to get our mouths around some Cuban food, and our minds around the enigma that is Cuba.
Now, with President Obama’s recent steps taken toward normalizing relations with Cuba, it will be interesting to see how the Cuban food system, as well as the rest of the country, changes.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s agriculture system was characterized by monocultures of sugar and tobacco.
These crops were sent to the U.S.S.R. in exchange for gas, food, agrichemicals, and equipment. At the time, Cuba boasted the most tractors per capita of any nation on earth. When the Soviet Union tanked, Cuba suddenly had to grow a lot more than sugar and tobacco, but without the inputs and supplies on which it had grown dependent.
Politicians in the U.S. saw this as an opportunity to tighten the noose on Castro’s regime, and made the embargo more severe by passing the 1993 Torricelli Bill (aka the Cuban Democracy Act), which made it illegal for U.S. companies to do business with foreign subsidiaries that did business with Cuba. This isolated the nation even more. The average Cuban’s caloric intake dropped to as low as 1,000 calories per day. Fertility rates dropped and abortion rates climbed.
The Cuban government began breaking up the large state-owned plantations and putting them in the hands of the workers, who turned many of them into vegetable farms, orchards, and animal pasture. In cities, vacant lots, yards and rooftops were converted to gardens.
Agroecology, a powerful agricultural paradigm in which farms are treated as ecosystems, took firm root in Cuba. Farmers markets appeared, becoming one of the first signs of the emergence of a free market in Cuba.
The resourcefulness with which Cuba attacked its food issues was reflected in many other ways that Cuba dealt with scarcity. Cuba functioned as if the world was actually a finite place, with limited resources, and the mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” went without saying. Broken tools, and appliances that most Americans would toss were repaired.
Anything with wheels was put on the road.
Despite long odds, the people were fed. Average caloric intake rose above 2,500 per day.
Infant mortality dropped to lower levels than in the U.S. But these impressive metrics came with a hefty price tag in terms of civil liberties. It was a common occurrence for members of our group to be pulled aside and told, in hushed tones, about the government spies, the threat of prison, and lack of freedom and opportunity.
Along with sharing their dissatisfaction with their own government, many Cubans also vented frustration with ours. In addition to the material hardships caused by the embargo, there was a widespread pain at the loss of contact with their neighbors to the north. Cubans, by and large, love and respect Americans, and the embargo hurt their feelings.
We made a lot of friends in Cuba, smoked some fine cigars, heard some amazing music, and ate some surprisingly bland food.
Given the agricultural strides Cuba has made, the underwhelming food surprised me. One of the world’s hottest peppers, the habanero, is named after residents of Havana, but the cuisine was devoid of spice.
“We don’t eat them here,” I was told.
Not that I’m conflating piquancy with flavor. But the food was largely so boring that any spice surely would have helped. This isn’t to say that Cuban food is inherently bland, but that the Cuban flavor has gone into hiding - holing up in some private homes, and offshore, but rarely found in restaurants. There were some very notable exceptions, like the El Romero vegan restaurant in Las Terrezas, a welcome and inspiring respite to the steady diet of pork we were fed. But more often, it seemed as if the years of repression had suffocated the culinary soul of Cuba, and most of the cooks who had grown up during the embargo didn’t really know what to do with the newly emerging diversity of produce.
Hopefully, along with increased freedom and opportunity, normalizations with Cuba will allow some flavor back into the lives of ordinary Cubans. But at the same time, the advances made in Cuban agriculture may be threatened by the availability of fossil fuel-based farming practices, and diverse, agroecological systems might revert to monocultures. I hope not.
I’ll leave you with a recipe for Sopa de Ajo, or garlic soup. There aren’t any hot peppers, but the paprika hints at the Spanish roots of Cuban cuisine. The recipe comes from the wonderful cookbook “Three Guys from Miami Cook Cuban” (Gibbs Smith).
Sopa de Ajo
3 tablespoons olive oil
6 slices white bread, cubed
12 garlic cloves, minced
1 28-ounce can peeled whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 teaspoon paprika
1 bay leaf
4 cups chicken stock
¼ cup sherry
6 eggs, yolks and whites separated
Sauté cubes of bread in hot oil in a pot until they begin to brown. Stir in minced garlic and sauté for another minute – just long enough to cook the garlic slightly. Mash the garlic and the bread together with a spoon.
Add tomatoes, paprika, bay leaf, stock and sherry. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for one hour. Salt and pepper to taste.
Separate the eggs, add three tablespoons of the hot broth to the egg yolks, beating constantly, to temper them. Add egg yolks to the broth and whisk in rapidly until smooth.
Quickly whisk in the unbeaten egg whites until mixed completely. Bring the soup to a boil, remove from heat. Garnish with parsley and serve.
Last Updated on Thursday, 01 January 2015 14:53
‘Twas a night before Christmas and all through Montan’
Not a cowpoke was pokin’, not one lonesome ranch hand.
We all had concluded our afternoon chores,
We had eaten our beans and had toasted s’mores.
We had washed behind ears and had slicked down our hair
And had flossed our brushed teeth with the greatest of care.
All our boots was arrayed ’round the dimmin’ camp fire
Hopin’ Santa would fill ’em with our hearts’ desire.
Now we all was bunked down ’neath our warm wool bedrolls
With our piggies a pokin’ through our stockings’ toe holes.
With our heads on our saddles and our backs to the ground
We was wheezin’ and snorin’ a Christmas time round.
When out on the prairie there arose such commotion
That it shook me from slumber with a perplexin’ notion
That somethin’ peculiar was about to begin
And I weren’t real sure o’ what trouble we ’as in.
So outta my bedroll like a rattler I sprang
And I grabbed for my rifle so as to take aim
At whatever was causin’ that riotous sound
When to my surprise ol’ Santa flew round.
He was driving a buckboard, the Xmas Xpress,
Nary touchin’ the ground with all its excess
Of presents and such stacked in and upon
And I gawked there before him with just my spurs on.
(And my long-johns, o’ course, ’cause I always sleep in ’em;
I do hope their mention offends none o’ the women.)
With the stars in the heavens and the sagebrush around
He pulled up the buckboard and gently touched down.
Then quick as a rabbit round them boots he did spring
Fillin’ them to the brims with the nicest of things:
For Lefty, a lasso and pink bubblegum;
For Dusty, a stick-on tattoo of his mum;
For Cookie, a wine rack and a pan for bread dough;
And for Shorty, suspenders so his butt-crack don’t show.
And for Juan, the vaquero up from Mexico way,
The most amazingest gift that I’ve seen till this day:
A beach towel displayed with a luminous scene
Of Guadalupe, Our Lady, atop a moonbeam!
When having completed his cowboy camp chore
St. Nicholas chuckled and circled once more
Ticklin’ all o’ them piggies pokin’ out o’ them socks
And awinkin’ at me standin’ there still in shock.
Then mountin’ the buckboard, his Christmas conveyance,
He shouted out to his hosses that had stood in abeyance,
“Giddyup my bold broncos, my steadfast ol’ team,
O’er mountain and prairie and forest and stream
We have yet to travel this miraculous night
And we’re racin’ to beat the dawnin’s first light.”
Then he held fast the reins and he sat himself back
And he gave me a nod and a tip o’ the hat
And with a big grin gave this parting adieu,
“Merry Christmas to all o’ you ol’ buckaroos!”
Last Updated on Thursday, 25 December 2014 12:59
Ah, distinctly I remember,
It was in the bleak December,
And each separate, dying ember
wrought its ghost upon the floor ...
Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore.’
– Edgar Allan Poe
The raven is my friend. Memories and ghosts fill my Christmas, gifts from the past. And the most treasured gifts have been the kind that don’t come wrapped in sparkly paper.
I grew up in Detroit, so trees came from a lot, not the forest. I can’t remember anyone, back in the 1950s and ’60s, having an artificial tree. Christmas smelled like fresh fir.
At our house, there was no such thing as an imperfect tree. The salesman always threw in some extra branches, and my dad and grandpa would drill holes in the bare spots and insert a branch here and there.
Dad put the lights on with painstaking precision. We hung no ornaments until he was satisfied. Then we could take our turn. Tinsel back then was made of tin foil, and then a few years later, of aluminum.
This, too, we put on strand by strand. We were wildly extravagant, buying new packages every year. Some of our neighbors and used it over the next year.
My mother came home one year, a day or two before Christmas, with the best tree ever: a gigantic Scotch pine.
The tree salesman cut the price to practically nothing because it was so large that he hadn’t been able to sell it. We lived in a late Victorian home with 9-foot ceilings, but the tree was still too tall and too wide.
We took the leaves out of the dining room table and moved it to a far wall. After Dad and grandpa hacked off the bottom, the pine slid partly into the bay window, but it still took up half the room.
Another year, my brother and I created a faux stained-glass manger scene on the triptych of our front windows using tempera paints. The project took hours and hours. Our father then backlit the window with his photographic flood lights.
We entered our work in the Christmas lighting contest for the local paper, sure that we’d win. Predictably, first and second place went to electrical extravaganzas, but we took third. I was disappointed that we didn’t take first. The children in our family were expected to earn straight A’s.
Other memories have the bleakness of Poe’s raven. The Christmas I was 19, 1967, I had knee surgery. I was still in the hospital, in a ward, when my father came to tell me that my grandfather had died at the same hospital. After he left, I cried, whether from physical pain or grief, I don’t know. Probably both.
A nice, traditionally built, black nurse came to ask me what was wrong. I remember her compassion. She sat down on my bed and put an arm around me. I’m sure that she was flesh and blood, but sometimes God shows up with skin on. Was she an angel?
Most families have food traditions. We dined on oyster stew on Christmas Eve. The oysters were special order, to be eaten with equally special little round crackers.
But the name stew was misleading. It was whole milk topped with butter and salt and pepper. My dad relished this, but I can’t think of anything more blah.
I would call oyster stew the German equivalent of lutefisk. But we all ate it because that’s what we did. Tradition!
Also in the German tradition, we didn’t get to open our presents until Christmas morning. We were allowed one present after church, then had to go to bed and try to sleep. When we woke up the next morning, usually just after our parents had fallen into bed, we could open our stockings, and then we had to wait. We were not to get the grown-ups up until 7 a.m.
The gifts weren’t as important in my memories as the expectation. We took turns opening presents, but by 10 a.m. it was all over. I always felt let down, that whatever I’d been seeking hadn’t arrived. Surely there was one more box.
Now I celebrate Christmas with few presents, I seldom cook an extravagant meal, and I am often alone for the day. This year I have a small, hand-blown Christmas tree that I bought at St. Vincent de Paul. One of the tiny ornaments is missing, which is probably why someone donated it. I may or may not get out my crèche.
But nothing is missing any more. My hollow center has been filled with the Spirit and I have peace and a quiet happiness. It is enough. I am enough.
I know that there are many reading this who had childhood celebrations filled with anger and chaos. But just as you can start your day over at any time, you can reinvent Christmas as well.
Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. Forget your age. Buy yourself the toy you never received and play with it.
If the turkey always resulted in a fight, shun that angry bird and have filet mignon. Or even sushi. It’s your choice. Be brave, live recklessly, be joyful.
We started with the Raven. Let us now finish with Tiny Tim. Merry Christmas! And God bless us every one!
Last Updated on Thursday, 25 December 2014 12:47