A recent move by the World Trade Organization threatens to put more mystery in your meat, while undermining our national sovereignty.
On May 18 the WTO ruled that American meat labels violate Canadian and Mexican free trade rights. The labels were created in accordance with the U.S. Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) laws, and show where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered. The labels are directed at American consumers, and were implemented through the American political process. But they put Mexican and Canadian livestock producers at an unfair disadvantage, the WTO ruled. So they must go.
The House Agriculture Committee acted quickly in response to the decision. The very next day, a bill to repeal COOL laws for beef, pork and chicken was proposed. A day later the committee passed it, 38-6.
National Farmers Union president Robert Johnson was on Capitol Hill following the WTO’s decision, meeting with legislators and urging them to keep COOL, as it were. Johnson’s team visited 150 offices, he told me by phone. Their message was simple: “... do nothing for these next several months while this process plays out.”
The House Agriculture Committee is jumping the gun, he said, but the Senate, “... will not be in any hurry to do anything.”
“Normally in the WTO, before any action is authorized, is the time when countries are encouraged to negotiate. And that is precisely what should happen.”
In a joint statement, Canadian and Mexican representatives praised the ruling, and called COOL “... damaging to North America’s supply chain and harmful to producers and processors in all three countries.”
The Canadian government has been tossing around the $1 billion figure for the damages its meat industry has suffered under COOL. The U.S.-based National Cattleman’s Beef Association (NCBA) claims the implementation costs of COOL to U.S. producers to be “... in excess of $1 billion for beef alone.”
Johnson chuckled when I brought up these numbers. “It’s laughable,” he said. “Nobody really believes that.”
Such costs, it is argued, come from keeping foreign-born animals separate from their U.S.-born counterparts, which industry claims is a record keeping nightmare.
“The livestock industry is already segregated and hyper organized,” Johnson said. When you buy a steer, “... you get a printout for every animal, carcass by carcass,” showing its weight, level of marbling, and other characteristics. To implement COOL-style record keeping, Johnson suggested, involves little more than tweaking the computerized record-keeping systems already in place.
Auburn professor Robert Taylor recently published a study comparing the pre- and post-COOL marketplaces. He told me in an email that WTO based its decision on data that is not only weak, but secret.
“The WTO relied on analyses of proprietary Canadian cattle data analyzed by consultants to the Canadian Cattlemens Assoc and the Canadian Government....no independent economists can access the Canadian data.”
Roberts said his study made use of the meatpackers’ mandatory price reporting data, which told a different story, in which COOL has negligible impact on the Mexican and Canadian meat industries.
This argument will get a fair hearing WTO’s process is allowed to continue, Johnson says. He expects the Canadians and Mexicans will seek retaliation based upon this ruling in the form of a tariff, at which point the United States will request arbitration. Canada and Mexico will be authorized to prove economic damages before they can retaliate. And this is where their job becomes a lot harder, as the damages will have to be proven in public.
But if COOL, in reality, isn’t so bad for North American ranchers, I asked Johnson, then why are so many companies against it?
It’s the international meat packers, he said, representatives of which sit on the boards of the National Cattleman’s Beef Association and its Canadian and Mexican counterparts, and who send well-armed lobbyists to Capitol Hill.
Johnson says the global meat conglomerates don’t like COOL because it eliminates a practice among meat packers that, while it lasted, was as convenient as it was profitable.
They were passing off foreign meat as American-grown, and with the USDA’s unwitting assistance.
“Meat imports are required to be inspected by USDA,” Johnson explained. “Consumers see a USDA-beef stamp, and they think it’s American made.” Many Americans want to eat American-grown meat, which is why there is so much popular support for COOL among consumers, and among many non-NCBA affiliated producers as well.
“Consumers want to know what’s in their food, and producers would like to tell them,” Johnson says. But the multinationals “do not want to label country of origin, so they can go back to pretending that any product was U.S. product.”
Assuming the meatpackers fail to force a sovereign nation to change its laws, the fact that a global trade agreement could do so casts an unflattering shadow on the already unpopular Trans Pacific Partnership free-trade deal.
“This does make it more difficult for Congress to pass fast track,” Johnson offered. “One of the arguments that’s being made is that there is nothing in the TPP that would require us to change our laws. Now we have a bunch of people in the House that are stampeding to change a law. It undercuts an argument made by fast track supporters that we’ll be able to keep our own laws.”
This is why many of the same groups that oppose COOL are also in support of TPP. They want the meat to flow like free capital, anonymously, across borders and around the world, to wherever it can return the most on some investor’s dollar. If you’re a consumer looking to weigh the myriad of health, environmental, animal and human rights impacts of meat eating, or if you just don’t want to eat meat from China, your agenda is at odds with the priorities behind free-trade agreements like the TPP. If what’s happening via COOL is any indication, the TPP won’t be a victory for transparency in labeling.
How the World Trade Organization finally resolves the dispute over COOL will say a lot about how much power Big Meat really has. If Johnson is right, and we keep COOL, it will be a victory for knowing where your food comes from, at the expense of Big Meat. It promises to be an engaging process.
Last Updated on Thursday, 04 June 2015 12:05
Sometimes we need to be reminded of the fact that not everything is on YouTube.
Rummaging through the shelves of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Library to find materials for a book I’m writing, I recently came across a stack of five DVDs. The makeshift case covers, titled “Montana,” lacked visual appeal, except for a pink warning sticker that indicated, “This DVD-R may not play on all machines.” Intrigued, I hauled them home and inserted the first disc into my laptop. Bam! The series of half-hour lectures hooked me just like Season 1 of “Homeland.”
What unfolded before me was one man’s account of the history of Montana, which he perceived as a story of colonial exploitation. On the recording, shots of a professor and his audience – students with teased hairdos and oversized glasses, holding notepads instead of smart phones – alternated with 1981 footage of smoke rising from sooty chimneys; farmers riding combines across dusty fields; people waiting at remote train stations. More captivating than the images, however, was the voice of the speaker: Montana’s celebrated historian, K. Ross Toole.
“There are, I think, undeniably new winds sweeping across America,” the voice said at the beginning of each episode. Its slow and rhythmic cadence reminded me of a John F. Kennedy speech I had to listen to on tape a zillion times for a research project in 1991. Like JFK, Toole enunciated each syllable, as if wanting to signify how carefully he had chosen the spoken words. The winds of change are gusty, he said. “And they will alter what happens in Montana, and whether for better or worse does depend on Montanans, and how they, or you, read those winds.”
A Missoula native, K. Ross Toole was a museum director and rancher before he became a history professor at UM. He died a few months after his final lecture in 1981. Some among you might remember taking one of his classes. Perhaps as a high school student, you answered quiz questions on his book “Montana: An Uncommon Land.”
Toole’s vision, including his early environmentalism, his skeptical view of unfettered growth and his contempt for political apathy, may be last-century news to you. As a recent transplant, on the other hand – I only moved to Montana from Berlin, Germany, in 2009 – I was happy to lend him a fresh ear. What was it about this stern-faced man in suit and tie that made him, by some accounts, the most popular professor ever to teach at UM? Perhaps what made him controversial also made him so successful. He wasn’t just a historian. He was an opinionated one.
From his lectern, Toole marshaled old newspaper editorials, statistical reports and biting humor to drive home his point: Montana’s wide open spaces, once its greatest curse because they caused huge distances to the markets, had become its greatest blessing, as the U.S. began to run out of quality lands.
“It would be a terrible irony if we were to turn a curse into a blessing, only to turn it back into a curse.” Short-term booms apt to depreciate land values downstream should be outlawed, even if that meant slower growth, he argued: “We appreciate together, or not at all.”
More than 30 years after his final lecture series, Toole’s prediction of the increasing value of pristine lands has proven true. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent restoring ecosystems damaged by mining. Yet it seems many of his students never got around to punishing elected officials who make decisions for their own rather than future generations. The state’s newspapers are no longer in the hands of the Anaconda Co. Instead, dark money rules campaigns.
Would students still hang on Toole’s words in an era of multimedia presentations and ubiquitous personal devices? I bet they would, even though they might not sit still in his lecture hall. With his elegant rhetoric and his ability to focus his argument, Toole would be the quintessential TED speaker. He might even become the star of one of those Massive Open Online Courses.
As it stands, however, his final lectures aren’t even on YouTube. Until that changes, visit your public library if you run out of “Homeland” episodes to watch.
Henriette Lowisch is graduate program director at the University of Montana School of Journalism.
Last Updated on Thursday, 28 May 2015 22:34
Fifteen thousand years ago, after leaving its home base in northern Canada, a runaway continental ice sheet passed through these parts, scouring the landscape and moving the Missouri River 50 miles to the south. The lakes that now make up the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge were once a horseshoe bend of the pre-glacier Missouri.
This north-central Montana wildlife haven, seven miles east of Malta, is part of a once incredibly rich animal kingdom frequented by the plains tribes, including the Blackfeet, Cree, Gros Ventres and Assiniboine nations. They hunted and gathered roots, berries and herbs here. Tipi rings found on the refuge are evidence of their passing.
In 1936, recognizing the wildlife values of the area, the federal government established the refuge under the joint management of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In February 1972, USWFS took over sole jurisdiction.
Prior to the establishment of the sanctuary, water levels of Lake Bowdoin and the surrounding ponds fluctuated wildly between spring runoff and the dry summers. The shallow water remaining through the summer months was hot and stagnant and frequently became infested with botulism, killing thousands of birds every season.
To help solve this problem, the Fish and Wildlife Service established a system of dikes designed to hold spring runoff and keep water levels as high as possible. An evaporation loss rate of 36 to 40 inches each year doesn’t help the situation, especially in drought years. A Milk River diversion at Dodson, about 25 miles to the west, reaches the refuge by way of a viaduct. Although they don’t always get as much volume as they want, refuge managers rely on their Milk River water rights to ensure adequate flow is available. Water levels still fluctuate, just not as dramatically.
Vanishing water creates alkaline deposits, another management issue on the refuge. Salts such as sodium, calcium, magnesium and potassium are leached from water when it dissipates in the warm dry air, leaving a white alkaline or salt residue on the earth. In the dry months, winds blow away the salts. In a strong gale, it may appear that the lakebeds are on fire as the light colored accumulations fill the air. During high water times, the alkaline buildup is flushed out. If it weren’t for nature’s compensating actions, the closed lake basins of Bowdoin would eventually become useless to wildlife.
Good management has created one of the best nature viewing areas in Montana. More than 230 different species of birds and waterfowl have been identified. Bowdoin also is considered Montana’s prime place to see pronghorn antelope in their natural habitat. Big-game hunting is not allowed, so the herd has natural age distribution. Big animals are evident.
Bowdoin’s upland native grasses are considered to be of extremely high quality as evidenced by the presence of the Sprague’s pipit and the Baird’s sparrow – birds that choose only the best.
Along with Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Bowdoin has the largest colony of white pelicans in Montana. Some of us who float prairie waterways call these birds “the river’s Air Force.” With their enormous black-tipped wingspans, they silently fly in military-like formation. At Bowdoin, they congregate and nest on the Pelican Islands.
Some years, in order to accommodate a growing population of nesting Canada geese, refuge managers create artificial islands. In winter, mounds of dirt are piled on the thick ice, and then spring melt allows the new “land” to form.
Habitat is defined as a place that provides a living creature with everything needed for survival, and the piping plovers find this haven to be good for their needs. However, at times it’s necessary to provide a man-made lair for these small birds. A sandy shoreline is too bare, so pebbles are spread on a beach to help camouflage the aerie from predators.
Bigger animals especially need adequate cover, and they find it here in the form of shelterbelts made up of tall grasses, shrubs and cattails. These protected areas also provide food for the many birds and mammals that remain throughout the cold months.
The names of all the neighbors who live here throughout the warm days are too numerous to mention. Included though in the population are double-crested cormorants, whitetail deer, great blue herons, ring-necked pheasants, sandpipers, sharp-tailed grouse, coyotes, osprey, an occasional bald eagle, falcons, ducks, tundra swan, loons, owls, the yellow-rump warbler and the yellow-billed cuckoo.
From the time the “transient residents” arrive for the summer until they gather in autumn to begin their southern sojourn, constant chatter fills the air. There is much to “talk” about and do as new life is created.
Early morning and late afternoon in the spring and fall are the best times to visit the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge. Its 15,500 acres can be seen via a 15-mile circular route. This special natural community is easily reached from Malta.
Last Updated on Sunday, 17 May 2015 14:55
Processed foods take the heat for a variety of heath issues. Foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, for example, are known to cause high blood sugar and obesity.
Several studies in the last year have helped uncover an entirely new mechanism by which many metabolic disorders can be triggered. Certain additives that are commonly used in processed foods are being shown to impact health, at least in mice, by altering the body’s population of bacteria that live in the gut. Collectively referred to the microbiome, the importance of this bacterial community is just beginning to be understood.
Research published last September demonstrated that artificial sweeteners can raise blood sugar levels in mice, stimulate their appetites, and possibly lead to obesity and diabetes. The artificial sweeteners appear to create these conditions by changing the micriobiome’s composition.
Last month, a different set of research was published that also suggested a disease pathway mediated by microbiome disturbance. This time, commonly used food additives called emulsifiers are the culprits.
Emulsifiers help keep the sauce smooth and the ice cream creamy, they hold dressings together and prevent mayonnaise from separating into oil and water. The new research gives reason to suspect that emulsions could raise your blood sugar, make you fat, and even make your butt hurt.
The study, published in Nature, looked at two common emulsifiers, Polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), and found a range of metabolic problems that appeared in mice that drank water dosed with these chemicals in quantities proportional to what a human might consume. The mice that consumed either emulsifier tended to eat more, gain weight and develop conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, and metabolic syndrome, which is a range of pre-diabetic conditions.
The effects of these additives were dependent on the dosage; the more emulsifier the mice ate, the worse off they were. A control group drank water laced with a common preservative, sodium sulfite, and did not show any negative effects on the gut.
The team found that the bacterial diversity of the mice microbiomes were altered. They also discovered the mucous membrane of the gut was thinner in mice that were fed emulsifiers.
The thinner mucous membrane allowed the microbes closer to the gut wall than they would normally get, they wrote, which could cause the observed inflammation of the gut wall, and diseases like irritable bowel syndrome.
John Coupland, a professor of food science at Penn State University, thinks this research could be a game changer, providing it can be shown that these emulsifiers can do to humans what they do to mice. “[It] really challenges a lot of the way we think about assessing toxicology and nutritional value of foods,” he said in an email.
Dr. Coupland noted that Polysorbate 80 and CMG are very different molecules. While Polysorbate 80 is small, and doesn’t carry an electrical charge, CMC is large, and charged.
These molecules are not only built differently, but they behave differently, he said, pointing out that CMC is technically not even an emulsifier, but a thickener that makes emulsions more stable. That they both cause similar microbial disruptions, mucous reductions, and associated health problems is a striking discovery.
In an email interview, the study’s co-author, Dr. Benoit Chassaing, acknowledged that CMC is more of a thickener than an emulsifier, but noted that it does have emulsification properties, due to its charge. And he suspects the resulting emulsifying activity is to blame.
I asked how they originally thought to look at emulsifiers. Chassaing explained: The incidence of IBD and metabolic syndrome has been markedly increasing since about the mid-20th century, and this dramatic increase has occurred amid constant human genetics, suggesting a pivotal role for an environmental factor. We considered that any modern additions to the food supply might play an important role, and addition of emulsifiers to food seems to fit the time frame of increased incidence in these diseases.
We hypothesized that emulsifiers might impact the gut microbiota to promote these inflammatory diseases and designed experiments in mice to test this possibility. The team is currently investigating other common emulsifiers, aiming to identify any others that might cause microbial disturbances, or inflammation of the gut. Carrageenan, Chassaing noted, has already been found to cause inflammatory bowel disease in rats. Extracted from seaweed, carrageenan is widely used in processed “natural” foods. Like CMC, carrageenan is more of a thickener than an emulsifier, but is, like CMC, on the spectrum of additives that exhibit emulsifying properties.
One molecule his team is investigating is lecithin, which is a true emulsifier. Like carrageenan, lecithin is used in many “natural” processed products. If lecithin shows similar activity to carrageenan, CMC, and Polysorbate 80, it would cast a shadow over many, many processed food formulations. Organic processed foods are still processed foods. Organic approved additives like carrageenan can still give you ulcerative colitis.
Food additives are tested for certain toxilogical activities, like the ability to cause cancer, or to cause a mouse to instantly drop dead. But they aren’t tested for any potential effects they might have on one’s microbiome, or their ability to stimulate one’s appetite, or cause conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.
If the recent results on mice can be repeated in humans, current testing protocols for food additives will be revealed as woefully inadequate.
If you stay away from highly refined, heavily processed foods with long lists of ingredients, you can avoid most of these additives in one swoop, and not have to worry about inadequate testing procedures.
But not everyone has the luxury of being able to avoid processed foods, especially the poor, and, ironically, people stuck in institutions like hospitals. That’s why we need the standards by which food additives are evaluated to be updated sooner, rather than later.
Last Updated on Thursday, 16 April 2015 10:52
BOZEMAN – Montana’s Smith River has made the top 10 list for most endangered rivers, issued by the group American Rivers.
Waterways on the list each year are considered at high risk of pollution or other impairments because of development decisions expected in the coming year. In the case of the Smith River, plans for a 12,000-acre copper mine are cited as the risk.
Scott Bosse, American Rivers’ Northern Rockies director in Bozeman, described the Smith as one of the most “beloved” rivers in the state.
“It’s a 60-mile-long limestone canyon that is known throughout the country by anglers for its wild trout fishery,” he said, “and by recreationists just for its spectacular scenery and awesome camping.”
The river, noted for its healthy populations of brown and rainbow trout, runs between the Little Belt and Big Belt Mountains to the Missouri, just south of Great Falls. It’s listed as No. 4 on the list of endangered rivers.
Bosse said his group has called on Gov. Steve Bullock to deny state permits for the mine unless it can be designed in a way that eliminates any risk to the river’s water quality and fish and wildlife populations. That likely is a tall order, he said, because the type of landscape where the copper lies means a high risk of acid runoff, among other things.
“Contamination by toxic heavy metals, de-watering because the mine would have to pump groundwater, nutrient pollution, arsenic contamination,” he said. “There are a whole host of threats.”
The mining company planning the project, Tintina Resources Inc., is based in Canada and has promoted that it can safely mine the copper. The project would be on private land.
Other rivers on the most-endangered list this year include the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, the Columbia River on the Washington-Oregon border and the St. Louis River in Minnesota.
The report is online at b.3cdn.net.
Last Updated on Thursday, 16 April 2015 10:50
BOZEMAN – Pallid sturgeon come from a genetic line that has lived on this planet for tens of millions of years, yet it has been decades since biologists have documented any of the enormous fish successfully producing young that survive to adulthood in the upper Missouri River basin.
Now, fisheries scientists with Montana State University, the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have shown why, detailing for the first time the biological mechanism that has caused the decline of pallid sturgeon in the Missouri River and led to its being placed on the endangered species list 25 years ago.
In a paper published in the journal Fisheries, the scientists show that oxygen-depleted dead zones between dams in the upper Missouri River are directly linked with the failure of endangered pallid sturgeon hatched embryos to survive to adulthood.
“We certainly think this is a significant finding in the story of why pallid sturgeon are failing to recruit in the upper Missouri River,” said Christopher Guy, the assistant unit leader with the USGS Montana Cooperative Fishery Research Unit and the MSU professor who was the lead author on the paper. “We’re basically talking about a living dinosaur that takes 20 years to reach sexual maturity and can live as long as the average American. After millions of years of success, the pallid sturgeon population stumbled and now we know why. From a conservation perspective, this is a major breakthrough.”
The study is the first to make a direct link among dam-induced changes in riverine sediment transport, the subsequent effects of those changes on reduced oxygen levels and the survival of an endangered species, the pallid sturgeon.
“This research shows that the transition zone between the freely flowing river and reservoirs is an ecological sink – a dead zone – for pallid sturgeon,” Guy said. “Essentially, hatched sturgeon embryos die in the oxygen-depleted sediments in the transition zones.”
Guy said fisheries biologists long suspected that the Missouri River’s massive reservoirs were preventing hatched embryonic pallid sturgeon from surviving to the juvenile stage. But early attempts to tie the problem to low levels of dissolved oxygen were unsuccessful.
“The reason for that is we hadn’t sampled deep enough,” Guy said. “It wasn’t until we sampled water down at the bottom, where those sediments are being deposited, that we found there was no dissolved oxygen. Because hatched pallid sturgeon embryos are negatively buoyant, they tend to sink into that hostile environment.”
Last Updated on Thursday, 16 April 2015 10:42
By NANCY WHITE - For the Outpost
The beginning of 2015 has seen many changes for Downtown Billings. One of those is a new martini bar on Broadway, Doc Harper’s.
This establishment celebrated its “soft” opening Jan. 14, and has seen a flow of customers since then. It’s named after the Bruce Harper’s father, Dr. R.D. Harper, and his picture can be seen upon first entering the bar.
Doc Harper’s occupies a smaller space than some competitors, but utilizes it well. The main floor is about 30 feet wide by 120 feet long, but it has an upper level that provides more seating. This set up aids the bar in not feeling overwhelming.
The atmosphere is close and intimate, rather than crowded. The décor leans toward New Age, with interesting wall art made up of mirrors that gives the establishment an “urban-vibe” feeling, while the tables are set up so that larger groups are able to pull up a chair and visit with one another without having to shout to be heard.
When I asked the group next to my table why they decided to come to Doc Harper’s, they told me that they were excited because “Doc’s gives us a place to go, where we can stay connected with downtown Billings and not feel like we don’t belong. This place can really bring different people together.”
And they were right. The age range was not something that is typically seen in bars, especially in Billings. The generation gap seemed to disappear when people walked in the door. Doc’s provides people a more “upscale” experience without the prices that would break a budget.
The servers were all ready to greet patrons with a smile and a menu. The list had a grand assortment of specialty cocktails, wine selections, as well as local brews from Billings’ own Angry Hank’s and Canyon Creek, to name a few.
As well as a plethora of drinks, customers are also able to order a variety of meat and cheese trays from the menu. The prices were reasonable, and the drinks were fantastic.
The signature drinks of the bar include Doc’s Preferred and Barb’s Grapefruitini, named after Harper’s wife. The servers were also knowledgeable about the drinks, and were ready to give suggestions, and knew exactly what went into each drink.
Doc Harper’s is also becoming more of a part of the downtown scene, as it was part of this year’s St. Patrick’s Pub Crawl. The crawl started at 5 in the afternoon at the Pub Station, and a group of bagpipers and drummers in traditional kilts and dress made their way through the venues in Downtown Billings. It was a great way to kick off the celebration for the weekend, and hopefully for many more to come.
Last Updated on Saturday, 04 April 2015 10:31
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