The Declining Value of Our Food: Another Step Towards Fascism

Remember day-old bread? I’m not saying it’s a fond memory, but if you’re old enough you can still see the carts of your childhood supermarket stacked with the day-old loaves of commercial bread priced at half off. My mother would buy a loaf or two of day-old if she was cooking with it, and buy fresh for her, my father, and the three boys (I was the youngest) for today’s meals and sandwiches.

I mean, seriously, half-priced loaves of bread that were only a day old. Was that better? I’m not saying so. Preservatives and advances in food preparation, processing, and delivery have been a godsend to the world, feeding those otherwise left to starve. In fact, I saw an article that said it wasn’t antibiotics, airplanes, automobiles, or the computer that qualified as the greatest advancement of the twentieth century: it was food processing, because it had the greatest impact on saving people’s lives.

Hard to argue. I can’t say my desktop pc has saved any lives lately. That’s flippant, since modern computing does its part in connecting us, securing resources, finding and delivery food, etc. Tangentially, the space program has done wonders for food processing, e.g., freeze-dried food is a direct result of research for the space program.

None of it is simple since food transport relies heavily on the speed and reliability of air transportation, communications, etc. But for saving lives, ok, the hated preservative has done its job.

Day-old bread got hard and crunchy. While good for turkey dressing, bread crumbs, bruschetta, and fillings, it was not ideal for a ham sandwich.

Preservatives changed that. Now bread lasts over a week, indeed two weeks or more and seems nearly indestructible. For a while, artisanal loaves were a throw-back to days of yore. A good Italian boule lasted about a day with a soft and fluffy interior and flaky, crusty exterior until the ravages of time (next day, that is) softened the crust and hardened the rest. In a couple of days, rigor mortis was evident and a day or two after that—the first signs of mold.

No longer. Artisanal bread (at least in the suburbs) has gone the way of all good, niche ideas that a majority discover, embrace, then immediately find impractical. The preservative strikes again.

I pulled a hamburger bun out of my bread drawer the other day that must have been three weeks old. It was stiffer, but not hard, edible but not savory, and had not one spec of mold apparent on its surface. How many preservatives does it take to do that?

And if I could say that was the only issue with the adulteration of our bread then that might be acceptable. But bread is as much water and sugar nowadays as it is wheat—if enriched, bleached flour can be called wheat anymore. I’m sure sugar adds taste (not that a good bread needed it) and the extra water adds bulk (to the detriment of flour). Add all the preservatives and binding agents (some of which are detrimental to human health by themselves) and it seems a slice of bread is a shadow of its former self.

I imagine I could place a slice of commercial white bread in a shallow dish of cold water and it would instantaneously dissolve like a breath strip on your tongue. It’s not quite that bad, but do you see how steamy bread gets out of the toaster? Take it out hot right away and lay it flat on a plate. It leaves a sweat behind of excess water about as appetizing as licking the arm of a weight-lifter.

Why? Well, we know why the commercial enterprises making our bread do it—to make more money. CEOs are under constant pressure to expand their companies and the quick and easy ways to do that are twofold: either reduce the cost per item made (make more with less) or if the market won’t bear that, sell at a higher price per unit of measure (by reducing the amount of inventory used per item) so that less sells for the same price.

In other words, make it smaller, but don’t reduce the price proportionately. That’s why all of our food products are shrinking. This affects even fruit where no apple, orange, or peach is allowed to grow to maturity and fully ripen on the vine when it can be picked pre-maturity and shipped to ripen in your refrigerator or on your countertop. It’s smaller, less tasty, but the yield to consumers is higher. That it’s inferior matters not. And consumers seem ok with this.

I see the clamor for organic and farm-fresh and produce bought fresher at farmer’s markets is on the rise. That’s good. But still, the great majority of Americans buy their produce at the supermarket and it’s unquestionably declined in quality from just a few decades ago.

Value for the consumer is not the riding concern of the commercial enterprises growing, processing, and shipping your food. But shouldn’t it be our government’s?

It seems that local, state, and federal agencies are complicit in this trend. I’ve talked before how there seems to be no truth in advertising when it comes to the commercialization of food. Why not? Did our government just give up? Is the chase for profit turning us into a nation of fascists?

We are barely a century removed from the rampart fascism of late nineteenth and early twentieth century big business. Carnegie, Frick, Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Ford—they all built empires and collected personal wealth on a scale still extraordinary by today’s standards. When Bill Gates crossed 60 billion dollars in wealth some years back, he was considered the wealthiest man on the planet. Rockefeller’s wealth (adjusted for today’s money) was 150 billion dollars. There are a few approaching this recently, where Jeff Bezos recently passed 200 billion while Bill Gates next trails at 116 billion.

Is this a good trend? I don’t begrudge the wealthy their riches. What we need to ask is not whether Mr. Bezos is worth his money but rather: is a company that makes its founder so wealthy under any control at all?

I’ve written before that I am rather anti-Socialist, but in the same way, I am vehemently anti-Fascist. And such wealthy individuals wield inordinate power over our elected officials. Case in point: the last four years under President Trump. He, his cronies in his cabinet and other high-ranking positions, et al (meaning those career governmental employees who didn’t resign out of disgust) bow to corporate America. The entire America First campaign was code for Corporations First, Consumers Second. The specter of Fascism rears its head.

I bring up Amazon since they are now (as of May, 2020 according to Progressive Grocer) ranked second only behind Walmart in food sales in the US. These two companies (Walmart and Amazon) offer differing delivery models, but both appeal to the convenience of choice, ease of purchase, and price satisfaction.

Two large retailers in my area (Giant Eagle and Shop N Save) offer remote shopping and food delivery. I love to cook and food shopping is one of my favorite ways to relax. Yet now, since about April 2020, I allow someone else to pick my apples, my oranges, my avocados—all of my fresh produce. Do they always pick the nicest and freshest out of the pile? No. They do well, but they aren’t perfect and I can’t expect them to be. I get what I’ve asked for.

This is another way our food delivery model is changing. Remote this and remote that is the name of the day. I remember once (years ago) a produce vendor in a farmer’s market chastised me for inspecting her apples before I purchased them. She expected me to pick two apples from the top of the pile and hope they were not bruised or unfit for purchase (some were). I took my business to the next stall.

Now I just take my chances.

Stay Friendly and Healthy.

New World Cranberry Salad

Scott Louie Cooks

Cranberry salad was a staple in my house growing up. This is another of my mother’s recipes, but whether it came from my Polish grandmother or not, I can’t say, so I’m assuming it’s a new world recipe. You will need a food grinder. I use my mother’s old Osterizer Mixer grinder attachment, which has a plastic housing but steel workings and grate. This can be a bit tart, so add sugar to taste, but this is best made the day before so it sits in the refrigerator to blend and mellow.

Ingredients

  • 12 oz fresh whole cranberries
  • 1 apple, peeled, cored, and slivered
  • 1 orange, peeled (no pith at all should remain) and sectioned
  • ¼ – ½ cup walnuts, coarsely chopped (to taste)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar (or more to taste)

Grind the fruit

In your food grinder, grind the cranberries, apple slivers, and orange sections. The key to this: in my grinder, juice will back up all the way to the opening every “round” (1 round = a couple of apple slices + a couple of orange slices + a good handful of cranberries). Stop the grinder and pour off this excess juice (can save to drink or add to a smoothie or discard). Don’t add it to the salad or it will make it too soupy.

Complete grinding the cranberries, apple, and orange (pouring off the backed-up juice between rounds) until all the fruit is ground. I usually have to pour the juice off 4-5 times.

Finish

Add the ¼ cup chopped walnuts and 1 cup sugar into the bowl and stir the salad until well combined. Add more walnuts or sugar to taste. Cover and store in the refrigerator at least overnight (it helps to pull the flavors together and tighten up the salad).

mixing the ingredients

Enjoy!

cranberry salad

Make it Your Own

If it’s only my wife and I for Thanksgiving (like this year), this is plenty. Or if having a few guests, it can be doubled very easily.

I like walnuts in this dish, but certainly any chopped nut will do such as almonds, hazelnuts, or pecans, or a combo thereof.

NOTES: On Ingredients

This is a salad and not to be mistaken for a sauce or jelly. Use only fresh whole cranberries from your produce department (like Ocean Spray) or supplier.

I strain the leftover juice through a fine mesh strainer and add two teaspoons of sugar, mixing well. Very tasty. Add a little vodka for a nice drink.

Stay Friendly and Healthy.

Shattered Utopias: The Utter Failure of Socialism

The United States is deeply divided. We all see that. Each side has its policy agenda, a truth that has not changed since our founding. What has changed is our definition of ourselves as a country and as a people.

I have believed my entire life (though I believe it’s changing) that Americans are 80% moderate, fairly equally divided between liberals and conservatives, and that 10% proclaim an extreme leftist policy and 10% proclaim an extreme rightist policy.

It’s that 80% however, no matter their disagreements, who’ve held the United States together through a national belief that our country and our democracy is more important than individual aggrandizement. We admire George Washington for many things, but most of all for his abandonment of absolute power when it was his for the taking (following the Revolutionary War) and again by walking away from power after two terms as president under the new constitution, which did not limit his terms in office. That made an exceptional general and statesman great. It set the example for almost all who followed.

No one dared break that precedent until Franklin Roosevelt in the middle of the twentieth century. I feel for him, though. After two terms in which he pulled the country out of its worst economic depression, running for a third term occurred in 1940 with the world at war and the US poised on the brink of the precipice. The people were divided then, very much so, between pro-war and anti-war sentiments. It was a dangerous time, when fascism nearly took over much of the world.

So Roosevelt won a third term and was elected to a fourth during World War II, a race he could not walk away from after D-Day (in the election year) turned the tide of war to our allies’ favor. So if we excuse Franklin for the hubris that led to the encoding by law of Washington’s precedent as a constitutional amendment, then we see a fairly unbroken string of the abrogation of power through to the modern day.

Donald Trump may or may not get to test that. This is not about that. I wish to discuss the polarization of our national pride into detrimental extremism. Hubris? Donald Trump has plenty. But he does not work alone. Seventy-one million voters think he should still be president even after a disastrous four years of lies, deceit, isolationism, tantrums, cruelty of policy (e.g., immigration) and immature vindictiveness.

I couldn’t believe the average parent would condone such behavior from a twelve year old child, much less cheer it on in their president. Remember, this man-child holds the nuclear codes, destroys alliances, ignores the pandemic, declares the death toll “it is what it is”, and so clearly resides under the thumb of Russian President Putin that our national security remains in doubt to this moment.

Many feel as I do. So I cheer on the election of President-Elect Biden and so far, his selections for high level positions seem fair and balanced.

But I still fear. I feel it in the pit of my stomach. I don’t doubt Biden will execute his office with grace, good sense, dignity, and skill. That is nearly a given (but we’ll see). I fear his political-savvy friends in the DNC will pressure him to include a great number of Socialists to high office, especially Bernie Sanders in some capacity (but not at all limited to him). I pray the Department of Labor remains with a moderate. I hope the backlash to Donald Trump isn’t more extremism, this time on the left.

I have meandered a bit to get to my point. I have just read Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies by Kristian Niemietz of the Institute of Economic Affairs and I must say, someone who fears Socialism going in will be well convinced they are right. Niemietz argues against the Socialist’s apologia that the national socialistic economic policies of Russia, China, East Germany, Venezuela, Cuba, et al, that failed so spectacularly were not at all “true” socialism, as many say that real socialism hasn’t been tried yet.

Niemietz debunks this excuse on many fronts, but his most convincing argument addresses the concerns of Socialists who say that those countries (all two dozen examples) each chose a totalitarian regime (or the people had it thrust upon them) and that true socialism can only thrive in a democracy by definition. After all, you can’t distribute ownership and decision-making to the people without democratic process. The socialism was fine, they say, until totalitarian suppression squashed the freedom of group self-direction and therefore these nationalized “experiments” in socialism naturally failed.

A thesis Niemietz demonstrates has no teeth. In fact, he posits very convincingly that the above argument is backwards. People did not create a socialist economy, then choose (or have it thrust upon them) a totalitarian form of government, but rather totalitarianism springs from socialism as sure as belt-loosening follows Thanksgiving dinner.

Niemietz argues that the best intentions of social-democrats is thwarted by the very nature of socialist conventions, namely the abrogation of some individual freedoms for the good of the community. A tenet of a national socialist economy is that a commune (or collective, soviet, kibbutz, etc.) must serve the needs of the many at the sacrifice of the individual. Now, let’s not oversimplify—not all individualism is lost.

Let’s illustrate. In a free market economy, an individual (e.g., Sally) can sell goods (or work a farm, etc.) where she pleases. Due to market forces she may decide to move elsewhere. Suppose there was too much competition driving down the price of her goods. Let’s say two others created and sold the same goods. Sally could ally with them and price-fix their goods, but that is illegal in a free market system. If her goods do not sell, she has the right (indeed, perhaps the good sense) to travel elsewhere to find a market for her product.

In a commune, if Sally contributes her labor/manufacturing skill/know-how to a common enterprise, she is part of a community. Here, the contributions of the many provide the product which is either price-fixed by national mutual consent or by elected government representatives in the democracy. Sally gives up her right to set her own price or sell her own product. She gives this up freely for the benefit of the many.

Sally desires to leave the cooperative (say, on the east coast) to live on the west coast. What does this do to the commune? The loss of Sally’s expertise, her labor, her contribution to the good of the whole will be missed, perhaps detrimentally to the commune. They need her participation. This was her covenant with them, after all, when her local commune was formed. Well, this is bad for the many who decide by social decree that Sally cannot move away. She is called unpatriotic to the cause, not a team player, a selfish individualist. How can she hurt her neighbors with such a selfish move?

It would be defeating to the commune to allow its skilled workers to move. One of the first characteristics throughout history of socialistic communes is that they become self-protecting and some individual freedoms must be sacrificed for the good of the many. Freedom of movement is one of the first of individual rights to go. Communes need to restrict the movement of their key players (everyone in the commune, essentially) if they are to survive.

The old, now defunct oppressive emigration policies of the USSR, East Germany (including the Berlin wall), China, etc. were manifestations that developed quickly from their socialist economies. Such restrictions were not nascent, but rather were implemented years after the advent of these totalitarian regimes.

Eastern European spokesmen stress the debt an individual owes society because of benefits received. In socialist states, it is argued … society makes a large investment in each person, .. and one should therefore repay society by remaining a working member of it.

Dowty, Alan, “The Assault on Freedom of Emigration.” World Affairs, vol. 151(2), 1988

Moving on, let’s consider Venezuela. What began with many westerners proclaiming the victory of Chavez’s socialist agenda ended with governmental takeovers, oppressive policies, and failure of the economy. Again, Socialists proclaimed this socialist experiment flawed since Chavez essentially betrayed his own utopian plan through dictatorship.

The flaw is that Chavez felt he had no choice. His later oppressive policies were reactionary to the increasing failure of the communes to govern themselves for the national benefit, which was their purpose. Good intentions devolved into state oppression because the socialistic ideal of the unselfish, community-oriented “New Man” or “New Woman” is a myth. People do not always step up to their role. Venezuelan cooperatives (which became employee-owned semi-corporations) gained higher prices by selling their goods to foreign buyers instead of supporting their local markets. These additional funds were distributed to the cooperative “owners”. This hurt the local community so much Chavez stepped in and took them all over, destroying his own dream of mass cooperation for the common good.

People don’t always cooperate the way we desire them to. People do have self-interest at heart, which is not to say altruistic efforts aren’t part of the human experience, just that people are not a homogenous set of individuals that see eye to eye and want nothing more than to work hard for their neighbor while staring at rainbows.

Generally, people are not always selfish, but necessarily self-centered (but often selfish as well). It is human nature. Socialists say that any group of people can give up such individualism for the group, but I don’t see it that way.

Niemietz’s arguments go on from there, with far more concrete examples than I can provide here. I advise anyone on the fence to buy it. I did so on Amazon. It is easy to get and reads well.

Bless Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and let’s hope that America begins to come together from the fringes towards the middle road—the safer road well-traveled. Our lives, our constitution, and our very country depends upon it.

Stay Friendly and Healthy.

Rich & Meaty Tomato Sauce

Scott Louie Cooks

This is my go-to tomato meat sauce which I’ll use on pasta (spaghetti, fusilli, cavatappi, etc.) or as the sauce for lasagna. This started from my mother’s recipe, although hers was much simpler preferring a prepared sauce in a jar to canned crushed tomatoes or fresh tomatoes. Make this versatile sauce and freeze in pint or quart containers to use anytime.

This recipe is vegetarian if you omit the ground beef and butter (and perhaps the wine—check its label). Use olive oil for sautéing the vegetables. If omit beef, butter, and (perhaps) the wine, it’s vegan.

Ingredients

  • 2 lbs 80-20% ground beef (or chuck)
  • unsalted butter, but only as needed
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 medium green pepper, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped
  • 1 clove minced garlic or 2 cloves of roasted garlic
  • 16 oz of mushrooms (can be just white button, or use combo with cremini, shiitake, and oyster), separated into two piles: a) 10 oz (2/3) chopped, and b) 6 oz (1/3), sliced (add more or less to taste)
  • 3 oz unsalted tomato paste
  • 1½ cups of robust red wine (like zinfandel, malbec, or cabernet sauvignon)
  • 1 28 oz can unsalted crushed tomatoes
  • 2 fresh tomatoes, chopped
  • nice bunch of fresh parsley, chopped, with half reserved
  • oregano, sage, and thyme
  • 2-4 bay leaves (depending on size)
  • salt & black pepper
  • optionally add some cayenne or white pepper

Brown the ground beef

In a 7-qt dutch oven (I prefer Le Creuset), brown the ground beef over medium heat. 80% ground beef has enough liquid and fat that you won’t need oil or butter, just dump the beef into the pot. Using a wooden or plastic spatula (not metal) break up the chunkiness of the ground beef (it tends to stick together as it first cooks).

Continue to break up and turn over the beef until it is cooked and granular and most of the water has evaporated. Brown it in its own fat for some nice caramelization. Scoop out and set aside.

This is some alt text
browning the ground beef

Sauté the vegetables

There will be residual fat from the ground beef. If that’s not enough, add a Tbsp of butter. On medium heat, add the onions, green pepper, and carrots and cook until onions are translucent (about 4 minutes), stirring often. Add the garlic and the chopped mushrooms (the 2/3 portion) and stir into the other vegetables. Let the mushrooms express some liquid and evaporate off.

When the pan is sizzling again, add the tomato paste. Stir it into the vegetables and let it brown a bit. This can feel tricky as the paste may turn the bottom of your pan black, but it’s really a deep brownish-red and isn’t burning. You have to hang over the pot on this. If you suspect it is burning, stir it around and move onto deglazing the pan.

vegetables just added to pot

Deglaze the pan and add remaining ingredients

Turn the heat to medium high and add the wine. It should sizzle when it hits the pan and boil immediately. Mix it well into the veggies and paste and it will get rather thick. Be sure to deglaze, meaning scrape up all the baked-on goodness at the bottom of the pot. It should come off fairly easily.

wine thickens with the tomato past

Let the wine cook, stirring (a lazy but constant stir is fine), so that the alcohol evaporates off, perhaps a minute. Add the crushed tomatoes and chopped fresh tomatoes and stir well, bringing the whole to a simmer.

Stir in the reserved browned ground beef. Add your spices. I like to coat the top with oregano, add 2 large bay leaves (or 4 smaller ones), and sprinkle in some sage and thyme. Add salt and pepper and half of the chopped parsley. If you like, add a sprinkling of cayenne pepper and/or white pepper to add some spiciness.

bringing the ingredients together

Cook

Cover, reduce heat to low (you want this to lazily simmer). Cook for 2 hours, but check it often, at least every fifteen minutes. Make sure when it’s just covered (within the first 5 minutes) that it’s not boiling robustly which will make it burn on the bottom.

Taste, taste, taste, checking for salt and herbs. People tend to under salt, but it’s best to start with a little and add it to taste, especially towards the end of cooking.

After about an hour and a half into the cooking, start skimming the fat from the top. Due to the tomatoes, it will appear shiny red. Use a tablespoon to just break the surface to let the fat run into the spoon. Discard. Do this several times (every 10 minutes towards the end of cooking). After skimming the fat, stir up the sauce.

Finish

About 15 minutes before eating, cook the remaining mushrooms. In a sauté pan, add a Tbsp of butter, turn up the heat to medium high and add the remaining sliced mushrooms (the 1/3 portion). Stir well and let them evaporate off their water and caramelize in the butter. These will cook up quickly, so 2-3 minutes should do it. Add the mushrooms and remaining parsley to the pot.

Cook another 15 minutes, or about the time it takes for the pasta to cook. When ready to serve, remove the bay leaves.

Cook your pasta of choice, plate, top with a ladle or two of sauce and grated pecorino Romano (my favorite) or cow’s milk Romano or Parmesan. A fresh garden salad goes well with this along with crusty bread with a little salted butter or olive oil. A glass of red wine pairs well. Delicious!

Enjoy!

plated with cavatappi pasta and buttered bread on the side — add some romano, pair with garden salad and a glass of robust red wine, and you’re good to go!

Make it Your Own

Probably half of the time I make this sauce I add 2-3 cooked pork sausages cut up into bite-sized chucks. Fully cooked, I add these with the ground beef.

Instead of sauteing the sliced mushrooms near the end of cooking, roast them in the oven. Toss with some olive oil, separate out on a baking sheet lined with foil, and bake at 425° F for 15 minutes. Careful—depending on how thinly sliced they are, they will roast quickly. Check them often. When done, don’t salt them like you might if you just wanted them as-is (they make a great snack). Then substitute in at the end of cooking per above.

OR–after browning the beef and ladling it out of the pot, cook the 1/3 portion sliced mushrooms in the residual fat (add a little butter if necessary). Cook and reserve. This will save you a dirty pan later, but you should refrigerate them until needed.

Roasted red pepper flakes are a classic ingredient of tomato-based pasta sauces, but I don’t use them. I find I can control the heat better with cayenne and white and black pepper. Or add Siracha to the sauce on my plate alone and let my guests control their own heat.

NOTES: On Ingredients

I typically use a 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes, but I’ve made it with 9 fresh tomatoes. This adds more liquid, so I’d add the full 6 oz can of tomato paste. My usual practice is to use canned crushed tomatoes with my meat sauce and fresh tomatoes for marinara.

Remove your whole bay leaves at the end of cooking. Whole bay leaves present a cutting or choking hazard. Bay leaves remain rigid with sharp edges even after cooking for several hours. Breaking them up is worse–now you have many pointy hazards you can’t readily pick out. I haven’t used it, but you can buy powdered.

Always cook with wine that you would happily offer to guests (or drink yourself, of course). The better the ingredients, the better the outcome of your food. About the time I’m adding the wine to the sauce, I’m pouring myself a glass. I’m the cook, I deserve it.

Stay Friendly and Healthy.

The Decline and Fall of the American Experiment

As we plunge headlong into the winter of our discontent (Covid-wise), I reflect upon our divided nation. When is being American no longer enough for some people? Our grand heritage falls short of impressing those who scream at the loss of white homogeneity (not that we ever had it), our privileged livelihoods (much of the world gains on us), and our vaunted pride of product (not that we manufacture anything anymore).

I love my country, as many in the world love theirs. It has been an American arrogance to believe everyone else wants to be here, to be American. For many immigrants, the hope of a better life drives them to seek our shores and reinforce this belief, but one should not mistake the desire for survival with a love of our culture. And many expatriates are pleased to live in other lands without loss of love for their country. I could live abroad, at least for a few years. It is not a question of escaping the United States but rather of embracing a new experience. I have the privilege of that choice. Many leave their homeland out of necessity.

We are on the verge of a historic election. Before discussing the ramifications of this event, let us consider the following factors of recent importance to the United States:

  • Growing incompetence of its leaders
  • Rising domestic power struggles
  • Widening social divisions
  • Declining health of its citizens
  • Loss of domestic manufacturing
  • Foreign encroachment on its usual power bases
  • Perceived foreign threats leading to greater centralization of power
  • Isolationism
  • Government sanctioned cruelty and corruption
  • Climate change

I have not conjured these factors out of nothing. One can look them up. They are all contributors to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

I review such a list with trepidation. This is history repeating itself. At its height, the Roman Empire was unassailable. It was the model of civilization. From both its citizens and those impressed from occupied territories (notably Greece), great advances in science, architecture, navigation, cultivation, engineering, and animal husbandry were made. Rome fed its citizens, provided clean water, built roads to ease commerce, entertained in vast arenas, erected cities, and created the greatest military power the world had ever seen.

Sounds all rather familiar, doesn’t it? Read the list again, knowing it’s about the Romans. It’s as good a summation of our current problems as any.

Study the past if you would define the future.

Confucius

Growing incompetence of its leaders

Need I say more? But I will. Although I was a Republican for thirty years, I changed to Independent in 2009. I could see the Republican party headed for disaster with policies I no longer recognized. Mostly, I perceived the loss of honorable dealing, of conspicuous prevarications, and most importantly, the absence of decent humanity. The last four years have validated my inner prescience (though I admit many may have perceived that years before).

I’m a moderate, described by the old saying of “socially democratic but fiscally conservative”. I was a Reagan fan. Indeed, voting in 1980 was my first presidential election as an adult. I’m still a fan of Ronald Reagan, but before you judge too harshly, remember the shock and awe of the sixties and seventies. The rising tide of moderate conservatives seemed to force the long-reigning Democrats into extremism. I do not hesitate to brand many of the high ranking liberals in Congress as socialists. I rejected their extremism and believed that the moderate brand of Republicanism was the only solution to the unending wave of ultra-liberal candidates vowing to turn America into a vast workers’ paradise of strict egality and parity. Except I was reminded of George Orwell’s Animal Farm where Napoleon the Pig declares all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. That was the rich/poor socialism of some Democrats in the seventies (I’m thinking of you, Edward Kennedy, favorite of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee). [By the way, declared socialist Bernie Sanders chillingly continues this tradition].

But look at the Republicans now. The moment John McCain passed away, Lindsay Graham lost his conscience. We can only assume the moderating influence of McCain hid Graham’s true colors, but Graham today licks Trump’s ass (sorry) and asks for more. Mitch McConnell is an everlasting a-hole. Susan Collins is a lying bullshit artist. All pale before their leader, the excretable Donald Trump.

Choose your epithet. Moron? Compulsive Liar? Incompetent Buffoon? Human Joke? I can’t decide on just one. But clearly his odd arrogance (since he’s not that smart), compulsive lying, ridiculous need for approval, say-anything-on-his-mind-no-matter-how-foolish personality has moved many to follow him blindly (admitting their brainlessness), lapping up the inane comments of their Lemming Leader like cult members following their guru.

Now it’s the Republicans who have moved to extremism, leaving moderates like myself behind. Trump’s brand of leadership smacks of fascism and he seems intent on operating like a dictator even as his legal team climbs the mountain of his lawsuits.

The election is here and closely contested. We need a change to moderation and I hope the country agrees.

Rising domestic power struggles
Widening social divisions

We are divided. No one should say we’ve never been more divided, since after all, we fought a civil war. And political party power struggles began in the terms of George Washington, for God’s sake, and continue to this day. But I remember a time when partisanship was expressed during elections, but congress worked together when the spotlight was elsewhere.

Tip O’Neill was a long time Speaker of the House known for his deal-making across the aisle. I believe Nancy Pelosi could be the same kind of Speaker but for the reticence of the conservative Republicans who seem hell-bent on parroting Trump’s childish attacks. Trump has one mode: my way or the highway, and he’s emboldened Republicans to adopt that attitude.

Why else would Lindsay Graham pronounce a moratorium on Supreme Court confirmations in 2016 (because of the impending election), declaring this the bi-partisan policy of the Senate, then turn around and rush through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett? Graham showed himself to be a totally partisan, back-stabbing, lying sack of excrement. Ah, c’est la vie.

Black lives matter, except to racists, which seemed to have emerged from the wood work recently. This only means they were quietly there all along, but Trump has emboldened their proclamations as well as some trigger fingers. The peaceful demonstrations in support of BLM have been impressive even if Trump calls in our national armed forces to fight our lawful citizens.

The #MeToo Movement brought much sexism to light and I hope it’s not sidelined during the BLM push for real change. We need both movements to succeed as we build a better society. Women need a direct path through the glass ceiling so that equal pay for equal work is more than a slogan. And we must end sexual discrimination, intimidation, and assault.

Most women take care of themselves. But why should they even live with the threat when all a man has to do is grow up, seek an enlightened perspective, and act like a decent human being? It’s simple, guys.

Yeah, we’re divided. We must find common ground, folks.

Declining health of its citizens

Our obesity epidemic is no joke. Consequent health issues are rising. Diabetes claims lives. How has this happened?

Perhaps we should blame our general affluence. Perhaps it’s cheap, fast food that seems 99% fat. Perhaps it’s a general American malaise that set in post-WWII. I’m open to suggestion, but let’s be clear: our health is declining, we have one of the highest incidence of heart disease on the planet, and preventable health problems may claim more lives than anywhere on the planet (but I’m not sure about that).

Any way you look at it, we have eaten ourselves into premature death. While being an American citizen has its privileges, our neo-new-world entitlement brings easy access to food, a fear of losing our place, subsequent despair, and binge-eating as a temporary comfort substitute. When some of our poorest citizens can become obese off of food stamps, we aren’t destined to lose our sense of entitlement any time soon.

Loss of domestic manufacturing

Once domestic manufacturing declines, a country’s citizens rely more and more on imported finished goods. Look at where we are with Chinese products. I don’t fault China, nor do I fault businesses who reduce expenses by using Chinese labor.

Consider what it takes to ship thousands of tons of raw materials overseas, have it assembled, and shipped back in finished form. Why would any business do that? Clearly, American wages have so outstripped reason that when massive shipping expenses are factored into foreign labor costs, it is still cheaper to manufacture abroad.

We are a proud nation. We believe in our manifest destiny. And we want an ever higher standard of living until we’ve priced ourselves out of the market. We’re privileged. But this is endemic of our entire society. I don’t blame skilled laborers for wanting a better life. But our culture has so indoctrinated us into the stress of preserving our birthright that we’ve been blinded to the obvious consequences of our actions.

Our leaders may have seen it, but they cater to the masses. And the masses want more and more, and they want it cheaper. They don’t care about quality anymore, all the while assuming they can maintain their life style through protectionism instead of competition.

We’re not getting it back. And now we’re dependent on Chinese manufacturing which is what has Trump so upset. Also, China is a natural competitor of Russia and since the Russian leader Putin owns our president’s ass, Trump toes the line.

Foreign encroachment on its usual power bases
Perceived foreign threats leading to greater centralization of power
Isolationism

I’ve lumped these three into one discussion since they are separate but dependent issues. Many Republicans today decry the power of the European Union seeing our close allies as competitors. To be different, to be foreign threatens white America’s entitled conservatives. They might lose their jobs (can’t compete so won’t compete), they might have to share taxpayer services (the poor pay less taxes so they are less deserving), and they might have to adapt to living among those who are culturally different than themselves.

Domestic manufacturing declines so that emerging nations benefit, but that threatens our perceived world superiority. We want high paying jobs that are protected by law even if our economy can’t sustain it.

The reaction is to elect a president that will take care of them, no matter how detrimental to the country or their future. They want relief (temporary comfort) now. And they will sell out our country while waving their flags if it means their elevated standard of living is assured. Those foreign threats must be defeated, even if we destroy our alliances in the process.

So our president rules by decree. This is a trend that has been going on for decades, so I won’t pretend it’s new, but that’s the point. Our current president simply exhibits the epitome of rewriting law by executive order. Congress has to fight to keep its check-and-balance rights even as many Republican senators spit upon the constitution in the name of defending it. How did we get here?

The current regime believes to truly protect the privileged citizens, we must isolate. Nothing could be more disastrous for our country. The world has shrunk. We are part of a global economy, one now driven through multiple sources and not just the United States. Our slice of that global economy has shrunk even as its production has soared. The world is better off today than yesterday, and I hope it’s better off tomorrow. At a time we should embrace the new reality of our place in the world, we are pulling away in the misguided lie that isolating ourselves will not only protect our way of life, but ensure its continuance.

We are self-destructing before the world’s eyes.

Government sanctioned cruelty and corruption

I’ve written before of the corruption of this White House. The swamp has only risen during Trump’s tenure. And about half of all Americans seem complacent, which is silent affirmation. Have we become of a nation of criminal enablers?

This isn’t all about Trump. Following 9/11 the US sanctioned the use of torture upon detained persons. Fortunately, bad press shamed a moderation of these practices (if it truly did) but even today the level of intimidation and physical pain infliction allowed by law are higher than at any time post Geneva Convention. As we accept such practice, we lose our humanity.

Perhaps it’s that indoctrination that caused many conservatives to applaud the use of family shattering separations for potentially illegal detainees. It takes a sick mind to conjure such torture upon mothers and children, even sicker minds to enact the practice. I am left abhorred and speechless that little provision was made to fix the issue and reunite children to their mothers so that any claim that this was a threat-induced “tough love” approach is rendered specious.

So far, 14 Trump aides, donors, and advisors have been indicted or imprisoned. These are Trump’s promised “best people”. But we know the reality is that the best people resigned from the Trump administration in disgust and despair. They’ve left in droves, so that Trump has gotten what he wants—morally questionable yes-men (and women) who will lie with the same fluidity as their leader. He’s assembled a cabinet whose purpose seems to be to take advantage of the perks of office to the extent they can manage without getting caught for malfeasance and/or collusion (treason, really). Excuse me as I go throw up.

Climate change

This has been listed as a factor leading to the decline of the Roman Empire. Rome was built and prospered in an age of unprecedented climate stability that favored agriculture. As its populations grew, so, too, grew its harvests and the empire fed itself without major interruption for several hundred years.

That dependable weather came to an end. Droughts and cold spells became more commonplace. Volcanic activity increased. And if coincidentally or dependently, plagues suddenly killed huge swaths of the population.

Two of the worst pandemics were the Antonine Plague (160s AD) and the Plague of Cyprian (240s AD). It seems unknown exactly what bugs caused these pandemics, but historians have suggested smallpox or possibly bubonic plague. Both events rocked the empire to its core.

Climate change along the Eurasian steppe caused the Huns to migrate for greener pastures, displacing the Goths (and others) who overran the Roman territories.

How will climate change effect our American experiment? I can’t say unless the extremists predicting the submersion of the east and west coasts are correct. Ice is melting at an alarming rate around the poles. Will this precipitate more disease, more erratic weather, more drought or more wetland?

Grim?

If we are in a spiraling decline, can it be reversed? Our privileged culture in American has changed us and it’s not easy to change again. We don’t have to go back, only forward, but not as a nation of unhealthy, self-important citizens braying for protectionism. We must embrace our new world, reinforce our alliances, open our hearts, speak the truth as best to our knowledge, and use common sense.

If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.

Henry Ford

Stay Friendly and Healthy.

Spartan Roasted Potatoes Au Fromage

Scott Louie Cooks

Spartan potatoes are a favorite side dish that goes with any roasted meats, steaks, sausages, or chicken. The “Spartan” simply means a classic combination of SPinach and ARTichokes, to which I add roasted garlic and leeks. Plus I love cheese so any au fromage is a winner.

Ingredients

  • 2 russet potatoes, washed, skin-on, cleaned of eyes and rough spots
  • salt and black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil (as needed to coat the potatoes)
  • rosemary, chopped finely if fresh, or powdered if dry
  • ½ Tbsp unsalted butter
  • ½ cup chopped leek (can use a little more if you like the taste)
  • 3-4 cloves roasted garlic (or use 1-2 cloves of fresh minced)
  • 1 bunch spinach, cleaned and mostly de-stemmed (about 8 oz)
  • 1 14 oz can whole artichoke hearts, cleaned of tough leaves and coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2-3 Tbsp sour cream (to taste)
  • 2 Tbsp grated romano cheese (or pecorino romano or parmesan, etc.)
  • chopped parsley
  • paprika
  • 6 oz grated extra sharp cheddar cheese

Roast the potatoes

Preheat the oven to 425° F.

Slice the potatoes in ¼ to ½ inch thick rounds, trying to maintain a consistent thickness between the slices. In a large bowl, wash the potato slices to remove some of the starch, and drain. Lightly salt, tossing to distribute. Drizzle olive oil over the slices and mix up the slices with your hands, coating them as evenly as possible on all sides.

Distribute the slices on a foil-lined baking sheet. Lightly dust with rosemary. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the slices are somewhat browned on top and soft to a fork, i.e., ready to eat but not overdone.

Make the spartan filling

Over medium heat, sauté the leek in the butter. When just soft (1-2 min—leeks cook quickly), add the roasted garlic and mash and mix into the leeks. Add half the spinach leaves and let wilt, then do the same for the second half. Add the chopped artichoke hearts and mix until all is combined and well distributed (spinach tends to clump together) and remove from heat.

Make the cream sauce

Whisk the sour cream into the heavy cream. When mixed, add the grated romano cheese and whisk until combined.

Assemble the dish

Preheat oven to 325° F.

Into a glass 10×6 inch casserole dish (or your near same size equivalent), add a little of the cream sauce to barely coat the bottom. Swish the dish around to coat. Then layer half of the roasted potatoes along the bottom, piling them up as needed (may make 2 layers). Then sprinkle a little salt and pepper (not too much, or omit this step entirely, as the cheeses add a lot of salt already). Sprinkle some chopped parsley over the potatoes, then dust with paprika as if coating deviled eggs.

Scoop in the spartan filling to create the next layer. Cover with the remaining half of the roasted potatoes, layering as needed. Sprinkle more parsley and dust with more paprika. Carefully pour the cream sauce all over the spartan potatoes, ensuring it goes down all the sides and into the middle. Top generously with grated extra sharp cheddar cheese.

Bake

Bake at 325 for 30-40 minutes, or until the top is crusty and golden. Remove from oven and let stand for 5 minutes.

Enjoy!

Make it Your Own

Try substituting a hearty vegetable instead of potatoes for this dish, such as french endive or cauliflower. Instead of roasting, I would sauté the sliced endive with a little sugar to caramelize it. For cauliflower, you could simply steam the cauliflower if using florets, or sauté or roast the cauliflower steaks if using half inch slices.

To turn Au Fromage into Au Gratin simply mix the cheddar cheese with seasoned bread crumbs and distribute over the top of the dish before baking.

NOTES: On Ingredients

I keep an herb garden in the summer and I dry the leftover herb in my perpetually cool unfinished basement during the winter. Rosemary sprigs dry very nicely hanging by twine from a rafter. I also dry-hang thyme, sage, and oregano. If they dry properly, they will last forever (well, years). I take a few sprigs at a time, remove the dried leaves, and grind in a spice grinder (aka coffee bean grinder). Fresh is even better or if you have dried sprigs, grind them up.

I use Kerrygold unsalted butter for cooking and Kerrygold salted butter for the table. It’s just the best although Land O’Lakes does in a pinch. Never use margarine, which is oil that’s been emulsified to act like butter, but it gets the Razzie. Since trans fats are banned by the FDA, margarine is better for you than in the past, but still, butter wins the Oscar for taste every time. If concerned, use a little less or for a recipe with 2 Tbsp of butter, use 1 Tbsp butter, 1 Tbsp of a healthful vegetable oil like olive oil. I use this technique often anyway.

Leeks are a great onion substitute. When you want a mild but still very oniony flavor, leeks are best. If you want mild and less oniony, use shallots. If you want a full onion flavor, use an onion.

Roasting garlic is easy and tastes great. I use Jacques Pepin’s technique of slicing the whole garlic bulb through its middle, without slicing through and separating the halves. Then propping it open, I pour olive oil into its center, then shut the halves. I place the garlic bulb in a square of foil and wrap up all the edges so they meet at the top and seal it with a twist. Then roast in the over at 425° F for 30-40 minutes (careful—ovens vary, so at 30 minutes you might want to pull it out, carefully open the foil while minding the heat, and make sure it’s soft but not burning up). When done, let cool, unwrap and the gooey goodness can be squeezed out of the cut bulbs and used for a milder garlic flavor on toast, in dishes like this one, or any way you want. Wonderful.

Careful with cans of whole artichoke hearts, meaning they are not always ready to eat from the can (or jar). I prefer packed in water and not marinated. Drain off the liquid, then gently squeeze each heart to remove more liquid and test an outer leaf by pulling it off and seeing if the top is too tough to bite into (much less chew). Often the bottom half is soft and delicious while the top is still tough and unpleasantly chewy. Usually only one layer may be like that (or not at all). Check each one before quartering it and you have ready to eat artichokes in your fridge for salads and other dishes (like this one).

Stay Friendly and Healthy.