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Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Last week I attended a talk on Irish Tea, Customs and Food Lore at the local library. The speaker was Judith Krall-Russo, a Food Historian and Certified Tea specialist who has been giving such talks for the past twenty years and more.

I had thought the talk would be mainly about tea but it was actually about the history of food in Ireland. Ms. Krall- Russo, though not Irish by birth, has an encyclopedic interest in Irish food lore  and had the rapt attention of her audience. In her hour long talk, she gave us an avalanche of information, all of it interesting, some of it new and startling even to those who of us in the audience who considered themselves foodies.

In olden times, Ms. Kraft Russo said, the Irish diet consisted mainly of seafood, particularly eel, herring ( which was plentiful and known as the poor man’s food) and mackerel. With the Norman invasion, food habits underwent a change and meat became more  prominent. At one time, the Irish consumed about 80 lbs. of pork each per year. Each family kept two pigs, one for their own consumption and the other ( which was known as The Gentleman Who Pays the Rent) for sale. Surprisingly, salted meat was more expensive than fresh meat. After Cromwell and his Roundheads defeated Charles I, he rewarded his soldiers by giving them land in Ireland that he expropriated from its Irish owners. The loss of grazing rights meant that cattle could not be raised as hitherto and potatoes became a mainstay of the Irish diet with 40% of the population living exclusively on potatoes, each person consuming on average fourteen pounds of spuds each day. This may seem like an unbelievable statistic but potatoes do not have much nutrition. All went relatively  well until 1845 when the potato blight devastated the potato crop and the Irish peasantry had nothing to eat. In the four years between 1846 and 1850, over a million Irish men, women and children died of starvation and disease and another million emigrated to America. In a time of such privation, food was actually being exported to England, an unconscionable act of inhumanity. Oats and barley were the chief grains grown in Ireland as wheat was unsuited to the Irish climate.

Some interesting sidelights:

Potatoes grown on one acre of land could sustain a family of 6.

With the improvement in farming techniques, the potato yield jumped from 2 tons/ acre  in 1590 to 10 tons/ acre in 1840, a five -fold increase. Over the same period, the Irish population jumped from less than a million to 8.2 million. No surprise there.

Brown bread was for the poor, white bread for the gentry. Ironically, brown bread contains much more nutrition than white; the poor got the better of that bargain.

Shepherd’s Pie , a picnic food made with left over lamb or beef, is wrongly thought to have been a poor man’s dish. The poor could not afford any meat at all.

And what about tea, you ask?

The Irish , it turns out, are #1 in the world when it comes to drinking tea, consuming on average about 7 pounds of tea per year. At one time, 20% of the household food budget was spent on tea.  The Irish like their tea strong and hot and milky, sometimes adding up to 1/3 the volume of milk. In Ireland they say,” If it doesn’t burn your tongue, its not hot enough; if it isn’t as black as Guinness, it’s not strong enough”. The Irish also like their tea sweet; sometimes, two or three different types of sugar are laid out with the tea service. Irish hospitality is well known and guests are treated royally. When a guest sits down to tea, he gets more than just a cuppa. Tea is likely to be accompanied by sandwiches, scones, cookies, bread, butter and jam. I read elsewhere that HobKnob biscuits are a tea time favorite. I just loved that name Hob Knob so I looked it up and found that they are digestive biscuits ( similar to McVities) and are available in the U.S though they are pricey. I also read that the Irish like to add a lot of milk to their tea to disguise its poor quality. Until 1960, they bought it from English importers who gave them the worst quality teas, reserving the best for their English customers. After 1960 though, the Irish bought their tea directly from the source and cut out the British middlemen. By that time though, the Irish taste for milky tea was set and it continues to this day.

Before the talk started, we were invited to pour a cup of tea for ourselves and have some biscuits ( cookies). The tea was good and strong and the biscuits went well with it though they were not Hob Knobs. A delightful afternoon.

P.S. Ms. Kraft- Russo is not merely an authority on Irish food and tea. She has also studied Japanese tea ceremony , led a tour called ” Taste the World of Tea” and lectured on sundry food topics including the food and agriculture of New Jersey. A most enterprising lady and one I’m a little jealous of; I’d love to have done  what she is doing.

 

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I write a feature called Your Turn for our community newsletter in which I ask fellow residents their opinion on a topic of general interest. A couple of months ago, the topic was ” Which do you like better… Hamburgers or hot dogs?” As you might expect, the answers were varied and interesting and were split down the middle.

One of those responses was from Tom ( not his real name). He said he preferred hamburgers and told me how he liked them cooked. Then he added” What I really love are venison burgers. I hunt in season and when I bag a deer, I field dress it and grind up the meat to make burgers. Because deer forage for themselves and are constantly on the move, the meat is very lean, so I add a little chopped bacon to the mix to make the burgers moist.” His response was freely volunteered. I took down his words verbatim and readied my article. One day before the issue was sent to the printers, I got a somewhat panicky call from him asking me to delete that part of the interview. He was concerned , he said, that his friends might find his hunting activities objectionable and give him grief about them. I thought of telling him that he was worrying too much, but then decided against it. I didn’t want to talk him into something he wasn’t comfortable with.

I admit that, many years ago, I would have been upset with Tom because he hunted. That is not true any more. I myself have never hunted, never wanted to and never will but I recognize that hunting is a necessary evil. In today’s environment, deer have no natural enemies and their population would increase exponentially if unchecked. I read about an estate owner in France who was staunchly opposed to hunting and posted her fenced in property to forbid it. The deer herds on her grounds quickly  grew unmanageable, ate up all the shrubbery and even the leaves of trees as high as they could reach. Soon, they were starving and the local government tried to get her to allow them to thin the herds on humanitarian grounds. She refused, even when the deer began dying of starvation. Only when she herself died were the local authorities able to bring in professional hunters to cull the herd.

Shooting wild creatures, particularly lovable ones like deer, seems cruel but consider the alternative. As areas get built up. deer habitats get more and more tenuous. In the suburban area where I live, deer are constantly getting hit by automobiles. Almost on a daily basis, I see deer carcasses lying by the roadside and it gives me a pang each time. And what of the deer who manage to avoid being hit by a car? What happens to them? Well, in winter they die of cold and starvation. We don’t see this happen and aren’t aware of it, don’t think about it. Much as we might like to deny it, being a prey of hunters is a better alternative.

This is not to say that I fully endorse hunting and hunters. I have nothing but contempt for those who kill wantonly, for the sake of killing. Back in the late 1800’s, a titled Englishman undertook a train journey across the Great Plains. In the rear of the train was a open sided car which served as his shooting platform. With him was a man servant whose duty it was to re-load and pass the guns to him. In the space of about two months, this sub-human POS shot over 7,000 animals, mostly bison, leaving them to rot where they fell. No condemnation can be too strong for him or for those buffalo hunters who shot bison mainly to harvest their tongues which were considered a delicacy.

I draw the line too at those big game hunters who kill elephants for their tusks or those who hunt rhinos for their horns because powdered rhino horn is considered an aphrodisiac. Nor do I care for those trophy hunters, ” sportsmen” who hunt game on fenced in ranchlands in Texas and elsewhere.

The hunters I respect are those who hunt for food, who follow the rules and who do not kill indiscriminately. Good examples of such hunters are the Lapps for whom reindeer are a large part of their diet, Eskimo seal hunters and the Native Americans who used to hunt buffalo. All of them, after they had downed their prey, said a prayer for the soul of the departed animal and thanked it for its sacrifice. This may sound corny , even silly to some of you but, in acting as they did, these hunters exhibited a reverence for life and Nature that is sadly lacking today.

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Recently, on Netflix streaming, I watched three episodes of Royal Pains  which ran for 8 seasons on the USA Network. It’s the story of Frank Lawson M.D, a talented and well-respected physician whose career is cut short because of a moral decision… he leaves the bedside of a rich donor to operate on and save the life of another patient. The rich patient dies because of an unusual set of circumstances and Lawson is let go. In the Hamptons to recover from his setback, Lawson saves the life of a partygoer at one of the island’s McMansions and, before he knows it, becomes an on-call physician _a so-called concierge doctor _ to Long Island’s rich and famous. In some ways, the series seemed like Bay Watch: lots of nubile young girls in swim wear, parties , booze and attractive locales, many of them beaches.

I’ve lived in the New Jersey- New York area for almost fifty years but , in all that time, visited Long Island just half a dozen times. I went to Sagamore Hill, Teddy Roosevelt’s summer home, to Nets and Islanders games, to Jones Beach and for a wedding. Jones Beach was nice, but nothing in Long Island was so distinctive as to make the long trip worthwhile. So, I was largely ignorant about Long Island. Seen from New Jersey suburbia, it did not seem attractive. When I was working in NYC, I constantly heard  my Long Island colleagues complain about the difficulties of their commute. They were always complaining about the vagaries of the Long Island Rail road and the bottlenecks on the Long Island Expressway. If it wasn’t the traffic or the railroads, it was the weather they were moaning about. Storms seemed to linger over Long Island; if NYC got three inches of snow, Long Island got twice as much. Likewise, hurricanes saved their worst for Long Island. When I considered that in order to drive anywhere in the tristate area, Long Islanders had to first go through NYC, I wondered why they had chosen to live in L.I. Granted that summertime in  the Hamptons was wonderful, I still didn’t think it made up for all the long winters, the  long commutes and the high taxes.

I knew about the Hamptons, the favored playground of newly rich dot-com millionaires, but I had no idea about the lavishness of their palatial estates until I saw Royal Pains. The size and opulence of the houses shown in the TV series took my breath away. Some of the mansions rivalled those on Newport, R.I, only these were modern. In addition to umpteen bedrooms and bathrooms, they had Great Rooms with huge dance floors, tennis courts, helipads and extensive  gardens. And the lifestyle depicted consisted of nonstop partying with lots of drugs and booze and casual sex.

At one time, the optics of such a series might have made it worth watching. Thirty-five years ago, Baywatch was a hit. Now, however, the aimlessness of the lives that are depicted is a turnoff. Back in the eighties, this was still a middle-class society. Nowadays,  many are living from paycheck to paycheck and several are drifting into poverty and homelessness. In such times, the antics of the rich difficult to watch without a sense of outrage.

Royal pains has its moments and Mark Fuerstein is appealing in the role of Frank Lawson but I won’t be watching it any more.

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I was reading an interesting excerpt from Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker PhD about how our sleep patterns are the key to a much longer life. According to him, we are not sleeping the way our distant ancestors  did, the way Nature intended us to.

Walker states that in olden times, in hunter-gatherer societies, people enjoyed a biphasic sleep pattern, seven or eight hours in bed at night resulting in about seven hours of sleep , along with a 30-60 minute nap in the afternoon. Furthermore, the nightly slumbers usually began 2-3 hours after dusk, around 9pm and lasted until dawn. No doubt, this was because those early cultures did not have the benefit of electric light and even firelight represented a drain on scarce resources.

Nowadays, in the post industrial age, we have been forced into a mono-phasic sleep pattern in which we sleep  for less than seven hours a night. Typically, this begins late at night though we still wake up quite early. And ,of course, modern office hours don’t permit the taking of an afternoon nap.

In support of his argument, that this enforced monophasic pattern is harmful to health, Walker points to a study of people who had to switch from a biphasic to a monophasic sleep pattern. Previously, they had office hours that incorporated an afternoon siesta but  were then forced to fall in line with the rest of the world and work regular 9 to 5 shifts. This study showed that over 6 years, these people suffered a 37% increased risk of death due to heart disease. Another statistic: People on the Greek island of Ikaria were four times as likely  to reach the age of ninety as Americans did.

When I began to read this excerpt, I did so with an open mind, but the more I read the more my doubts began to mount. Firstly, even if a biphasic sleep pattern is ” natural”, most of us never enjoyed it once we started our working lives. So how could we feel deprived of something we never had? Just as some factory workers, medical staff and others  get used to working the night shift, is it not likely that a monophasic pattern is becomes the new standard for us? In any case, what choice do we have? There is no way we will be able to shift back to a biphasic pattern. Even nations that enjoyed a siesta are switching to a 9 to 5 schedule.

As for those people in Ikaria who have a four times greater chance of living to the age of ninety, can this be attributed solely to their biphasic sleep pattern? These people are mostly farmers or shepherds; they work hard, live in an unpolluted environment,  eat a healthy Mediterranean diet and have a less stressful lifestyle. Is it not likely that these factors all contribute to their longevity?

I think so.

I also think that , as long as one gets a minimum of seven hours of sleep daily, it doesn’t matter if it occurs all at once or in two or more installments. When the mind and body need rest, the person craves sleep. As long as that need is satisfied, you are fine. I find that, with  most of my friends who are retired, an afternoon nap is an imperative, partly because they tire more easily and partly because they no longer get seven hours uninterrupted sleep at night. One of my friends who is in his eighties wrote me to say that the day’s activities are now accomplished ” between naps”.

So… never mind about terms like monophasic or biphasic.  Just listen to your body and all will be well.

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Yesterday, I got from the library a beautiful book Aging Gracefully, Portraits of People Over 100, by the German photographer/ writer Karsten Thormahaelen. The book contains 52 portraits of men and women who have already celebrated their 100th birthdays. On the pages facing their photographs, they tell us briefly what makes them tick. The author had a wonderful relationship with his grandparents when he was growing up and his passion is taking photographs of old people. He has traveled all over the world to bring us these portraits. And what portraits! Just looking at them makes us feel good. Most of these centenarians are smiling and happy; their faces exude a quiet strength and contentment. They are from all over the world (France, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, Italy, the United States, Peru) but many are from two places known for the longevity of their inhabitants: Vilcabamba( Ecuador) and Okinawa ( Japan).

After enjoying the photographs, I tried to mine the capsule biographies for clues to the longevity of these people. What was it that enabled them to live long and, more importantly, to remain engaged and happy? At first they did not seem to have much in common. For instance, many of them had long and happy marriages but then there was Henriette Cathala, a Parisienne and former hotel staff manager. She had never been married and is happy with her lot. “No husband, no children, no problems”, she says with a smile. Sometimes, people contradicted themselves. One, a Dutchman, advised “Go to bed early, don’t smoke and don’t drink – although you can make an exception now and then for a whisky, And for gin, too.” That hardly makes him an advocate for abstinence.

Surprisingly, only a few mentioned prayer and of the five who did, two were priests.

These are the things I did find that many of them shared.

  1. Many of them were born poor and had led very difficult lives. Several had begun to lose their faculties. Some were suffering loss of hearing, one had lost the use of her legs and another was blind. Yet all of them accepted their lot and retained their positive attitude. They did not let their handicaps cramp their style but worked around them.
  2. They were still independent to a surprising degree. They lived by themselves, cooked and cared for themselves with only occasional help from the family or from caregivers. Many of those from Okinawa and Ecuador grew their own vegetables in little family plots.
  3. Many stressed the importance of walking or otherwise being active. One Norwegian described how he takes short walks every two hours throughout the day.
  4. Many had hobbies or interests which they enjoyed. Common hobbies were music, singing, working out, reading, knitting, gardening and watching TV. One man from Los Angeles took up metal sculpting late in life and had his first exhibition at the age of 100!
  5. They were very social and maintained close relationships with family, friends and neighbors. A lady from Okinawa said that it was important not to stay at home but to do things with others.
  6. They were moderate in their habits.” Never go to extremes “as one put it.
  7. Lastly and most importantly, was maintaining a positive attitude, avoiding stress and trying to do good. This was expressed by several people in different ways. “Enjoy, be happy, laugh”. “Give love to others. Be noble”. “Live and work in harmony with yourself and others’.

Perhaps the attitude of these centenarians is best exemplified by Edward Palkot of Long Island who still plays golf at age 102, lives on his own, tends his garden, eats out frequently, reads, does crossword puzzles, chats with the neighbors and loves doing the polka.

I admire the vigor and zest for life that these elders have but what I appreciate even more is the serenity and sense of fulfillment they possess. One gentleman from Okinawa, who is very much at peace with himself and his life, says that if he ever met a kind hearted fairy, he wouldn’t know what he could possibly ask  for.” I really have everything I need.”

What a wonderful thing to be able to say.

 

 

 

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I was in the checkout lane at the local supermarket and the cashier was ringing up my purchases when she hit a snag. One item had her stymied . She held it up and asked the girl at the next lane,” Do you know what this is?” The other girl knew the answer.

“THIS” was a cauliflower.

This was many years ago. It would not happen today, mostly because every item has a bar code that can be scanned. Cashiers don’t need to know what the items they are checking out are. Otherwise … who knows?

At the time this incident happened, I remember being astounded. How could she not know what a cauliflower was? Then I realized it was not surprising when you consider how few vegetables most Americans eat. Even today, the American diet is heavily meat-centric. When I’ve been invited to dinner at the homes of my friends, the meal has consisted of a salad followed by roast chicken or steak accompanied by potatoes( boiled, mashed or French Fries) and a vegetable.  “Vegetable” usually means carrots, green beans or green peas. This I believe is the standard fare in most American homes. BTW, this comment does not apply to families living in the big metropolitan centers and to first generation immigrants ( particularly Asians) who still eat the cuisine of their native countries. I know this is true when I look at the laden shopping carts of fellow shoppers in the supermarket: Meat, frozen entrees and pizzas, pasta, tomato products, very few vegetables, bags of chopped salad, cereals, eggs, desserts and soda. Though, nowadays the soda has been replaced by bottled water. When I took my friend to an Indian supermarket he was amazed at the number of vegetables on offer, many of which he had never seen and did not know the names of.

Why is this so? Why is the American diet so meat oriented? I don’t know the answer but I have observed this fascination with meat in other countries too. When we were in the Dominican Republic, some years ago, I went to a local restaurant to see what the local food was like. There on a steam table were mostly meat dishes, the only difference with high end hotels being that they were stews and casseroles made with inferior cuts of meat, what we would call ” organ meats” or ” offal”. Vegetables( except for potatoes, onions, tomatoes and carrots) were conspicuously absent and I later found out that vegetables were in short supply and relatively expensive.

Even among the poor, there is a hankering to eat more meat. I remember reading about a riot in Egypt where the rioters marched on the luxury hotels in Cairo shouting slogans, among them ” We eat bread while they eat meat!”

Many of us seem to make a connection between meat eating and upward mobility. In Shanghai, we were dining in a half empty restaurant on some the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten. Next door was a jam packed McDonalds with a line of customers snaking out the door. Our guide remarked sadly that Chinese never had a problem with obesity until the American fast food chains came to China.” Now”, she said ” kids want to eat hamburgers and fried chicken all the time. They don’t want to eat Chinese food anymore”. The results were not difficult to see. Shortly thereafter, I was looking at the Guinness Book of World Records and noticed that the world record for heaviest child was held by a Chinese boy of 14 who weighed in excess of 350 pounds( I can’t remember the exact figure). I also saw the record for the maximum weight loss was also held by another Chinese boy.

And yet, all this meat eating is not good for the body. My wife had been to a talk by a nutritionist at the public library. After talking about the desirability of a balanced diet with plenty of fiber and lots of grains and vegetables, he mentioned how they aid digestion and bowel movements. Going to the toilet at least once a day was a must, he declare; otherwise retaining this waste in the body for longer periods could lead to illnesses such as colon cancer, besides being highly uncomfortable. One lady in the audience was amazed. ” But I go only once a week !” she said. I don’t know what else was said in response but I can’t help thinking she must have been perennially constipated. What a horrible condition to be in. If I miss going even for a day, I feel terrible and I know I’m difficult to live with. To be in such a condition for a week, week in and week out, boggles the mind. No wonder I see so many TV ads for extra strong laxatives and stool softeners.

I want to make it clear that I am not a vegetarian. I do eat meat, all kinds of meat ( beef, pork, chicken, fish), though in much smaller quantities. I do not eat it at every meal though I have some protein every day. When I eat meat, it is the supporting, rather than the main, component of the meal. While I occasionally will have a steak or roast chicken, most of the time I eat meat in the form of curries, casseroles, stews or chili. And , of course, plenty of vegetables, sprouted grains and legumes. To my mind, the Japanese and the Chinese have the ideal diets; small quantities of meat or fish in almost every dish and plenty of vegetables, often raw or par-cooked. Perhaps a strict vegetarian diet is best, as some diet gurus aver, but it is not for me. I like the taste of meat and to satisfy my  body’s protein needs entirely from vegetarian sources would be difficult and too much of an effort.

 

 

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The New York Times recently had an interesting article “Does Your Doctor’s Age Matter?” It was authored by Dr. Haider Javed Warraich, a 29 year old Fellow in Cardiovascular medicine at Duke University Medical Center. In the article, Dr. Warraich states that, when it comes to choosing a doctor, patients place a premium on age because they equate age with experience. Dr. Warraich argues that “In medicine, a lack of experience may actually not be a bad thing” and to support his opinion he cites a Harvard research study which says that patients treated by younger doctors are less likely to die. The study concluded that younger doctors are less likely to 1) order unnecessary tests 2) to face disciplinary action and 3) be cited for improper prescription of opoid painkillers and controlled substances. It also found a positive correlation between lack of experience and better quality of medical care. Younger doctors were found to be more likely to use innovative practices, learn new procedures and be free of relics of the past.

Now, I have the highest respect for Harvard University but I find it difficult to accept these findings. For one thing, I have no idea how pronounced the results were in favor of younger doctors. How strong was the correlation between lack of experience and better medical care? Furthermore, some of the conclusions seem contrary to what common sense tells me. It seems to me that younger doctors, because of their inexperience, would be less confident and thus likely to order more tests rather than less.

I prefer to trust my own experience with doctors even though it is anecdotal.

To begin with, let’s agree that age and competence are not mutually exclusive. There are some good young doctors, some bad ones and many in-between. There are also some good old doctors, some bad ones and many in-between. I would not choose a doctor solely based on age. If a good friend strongly recommended a doctor (and if that doctor accepted my medical insurance), I would want to be his patient regardless of his age. I will admit that if a doctor was very youthful, I would be a little uneasy about his skills and I would definitely be uncomfortable dealing with him because of the generation gap. Contrary to the Harvard study, which said that younger doctors are “more likely to place the patient on a pedestal than themselves”, I have found younger MDs to be brash and less respectful. Sometimes, I also feel they are less interested in older patients, an unspoken vibe that “You have had your innings already.”

The one thing that I will agree with is that younger doctors are likely to be more innovative and open to new procedures and techniques. I remember that when my wife was considering a knee replacement we were very impressed by a local surgeon who had performed thousands of such operations and received the highest accolades from his patients. Then, a close friend told us of her experience with a surgeon in his forties who used new techniques that resulted in less invasive procedures, smaller incisions and a much reduced rehabilitation period. My wife doesn’t need the surgery anymore but, if she did, I know which one she would prefer.

On the other hand, medicine is not only a science but an art. Med school is only the beginning of a doctor’s education. The greater part of his education occurs later as he hones his skills on real world patients, real life situations. I remember a doctor who used to practice in Rahway. He was not impressive in his appearance or manner but his diagnostic skills were phenomenal. He was able to accurately diagnose what was wrong merely by listening to a patient’s description of symptoms and by asking the right questions. His patients loved him and valued him highly. His office receptionist once said to me, “If I ever fell ill, there is no one I’d rather have as a doctor than Dr. M.”

Insofar as choosing a doctor for myself is concerned, I would opt for the one who was strongly recommended, regardless of his or her age. Wherever possible though, I’d choose one who was in his or her fifties or younger but that is for a practical reason. I want a doctor who is not close to retirement age, one whom I can rely on for the next several years.

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