It’s a joke, right?

Cover - Good Omens

Sometime around the time Jean-Francois and I started dating, he presented me with a few books to read. Some were his favourites (Kurt Vonnegut), two were books he picked because he wanted to show that he “got me”. One, Foucault’s Pendulum, was a literary historical suspense thriller by Umberto Eco. It had me researching references for weeks. The other was Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, a comedy about the Second Coming that was also lush in layered interpretation, jokes, allusions and generally good fun.

There is one joke in Good Omens that is like a latent virus in my memory. It flares in response to certain events or topics centred on food and nutrition. It is a joke about one of the four riders of the Apocalypse: Famine. In this novel, Famine is a ruthless 1980’s business executive in the food industry. His latest two projects, Nouvelle Cuisine and Highly Processed Fast Food, both so beautifully meet his primary goal, that he cannot help being a bit smug. His goal, starving humans to death.
Why does Famine keep coming to mind? Because I think anyone who works in the industrialized food industry worships, intentionally or not, at his altar. My reading list this week supports this theory:
Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss, looks at the science behind make food we crave–even if it is bad for us. I am on the second chapter of this one, and really loving his investigated challenge to these moguls. It’s like he wants us to ask them all: How could you not know that you are helping to make us all sick?
Pandora’s Lunchbox by Melanie Warner is more about how the demands of our lifestyles created a market for processed foods that now is making us fatter, slower, and sicker. Combined these two books look at the relationship between our desire for convenience to enjoy the good life and our desire to make enough money to have the good life.
And then there is Just Food by James E. McWilliams, published in 2009. This book looks at how those of us trying to make smarter, healthier, and more sustainable choices about what and how we eat, is creating deep anxiety in regular people. Basically we feel guilty all the time.
Each of these books is well-written and researched. But the subject matter makes me flip between the three. Why? Because each reminds me of Famine, and his cool, clean, metro sexual smugness. Pratchett and Gaiman were joking, trying to remind us that not all food is created equal. So, why are we still choosing to grow, make, market, and buy foods that hurt us and some many of our friends and family? Famine is winning despite the availability of nourishing food for many of us. (Don’t get me started thinking about all the food deserts created by executives who put cost benefits above humanity when deciding where grocery markets should be located.)
Yes, Jean-Francois always did understand how to set my mind on fire. He still does.

Cords, adapters, disks, and leftovers

I stress about things. Not like most people, but with such a degree of obsessive focus that I can forget all about the bigger picture. This tendency gets worse when I have deadlines or when Jean-François is in Singapore. When both hit during the same week, I become a crazed hermit-like creature who mumbles to herself and forgets to brush her hair.

Such has been my life for the past week or so. My current obsession: reducing the amount of stuff in our closets and cabinets as we prepare to move. I even created a daily routine with a task-based schedule so I do not miss a beat.

My “Move Routine”

  • Wake up
  • Prepare Coffee, when I run out, switch to tea.
  • Eat breakfast. (Strategy: Finish Oatmeal first, then cream of wheat, then use up flour making biscuits.)
  • Pack one box of books.
  • Test one computer and two hard drives.
  • Test four computer cables.
  • Lunch: start with fresh veg and fruit in lower bins. Serve with steamed rice (couscous when rice is gone, other grains when that is gone) and use ingredients on door in cooking.
  • Do my job for 6 hours.
  • Dinner–Veg and herbs with pasta. Use cheeses and condiments for sauces. When pasta is gone, make cheese plates with veg, biscuits.
  • Do 2-4 more hours of work.
  • Visit clothes pile–sort by season first, then toss/donate stuff not worn in two years.

So far, I have stuck with the routine, but I am getting tired of rice and pasta. Oddly oatmeal is going down well. With luck and persistence, I may get our food stock to near zero before  moving day.

But any pride I might feel for not wasting food fades when I look at all the computer and IT stuff that we need to send to recycle. It looks like we replaced food waste habit with an e-waste habit. Just look:

Two Japanese-English electronic dictionaries, three external hard drives that are no longer compatible with our computers, cables galore, speaker for iPod that does not work with newer models, several electronic mice, and electronic toys.

Two Japanese-English electronic dictionaries, three external hard drives that are no longer compatible with our computers, cables galore, speaker for iPod that does not work with newer models, several electronic mouses, and electronic toys.

We have six notebook computers (seven if you count the Dell that Jean-François needs to drag around for one client). Two 27-inch monitors. Two bluetooth keyboards for notebooks, two for our iPads, one for my mobile phone. One raid storage, one server, six external hard drives, three mobile phones from Japan that we no longer use, one from Singapore, two point and shoot cameras, two flip video cameras, two DSLRs, three robots (two are cat toys and one a flying thing we just had to have), cordless phones for a landline that we do not have, a recording pen, an old digital voice recorder that is not compatible with newer computers… I could go one.

To be fair, we both work from home and the monitors, iPads, phones and three notebooks are always in use. One of the DSLRs travels with Jean-Francois, the other I use when he is travelling, sometimes. But the bulk of this stuff is junk. These pieces are too old, or broke during the move from Japan, or do not provide enough speed or capacity for what we think we need. It is easier to upgrade than fix.

And this may be why I am annoyed. What good we are trying to do by changing how we consume food is more than offset by our nonchalant attitude to our digital assets. We are tech-gluttons and I am sure there is a special place in hell for people like us.

The four on top have battery life issues (no life at all, really). And no, we don't have a Mac-gadget addiction. No, not us. No sirey.

The four on top have battery life issues (no life at all, really). And no, we don’t have a Mac-gadget addiction. No, not us. No siree.

Any thoughts on what we should be doing to stop the insanity? Better yet, anybody want a free, 5-year-old 1TG hard drive with all its cables? Or a free Nikon D70 with two lenses?

[Sorry for the off-topic rant, but it has been all I have been thinking about for days now.]

Blogging and deterministic non-linear systems. And butterflies.

Once upon a time, I made my living doing mathematics – and one of my favourite mathematical truths is this: deterministic nonlinear systems are extremely sensitive to initial conditions. You may know that truth as the butterfly effect.

It’s an amazing thing, when you think about it: if you take two identical planet Earths, and change one little thing in one of them – one little puff of air – you nudge it down a whole new path.

You can change the world right now if you want to: all you have to do is put your lips together and blow.

Go on, you know you want to.

Butterfly

The world you just created looks very similar to the one that would have existed had you not blown – but eventually, the differences between them will become bigger and bigger. Storms will happen on different days; people’s life paths will be altered; different people will be born; different people will die.

Anyone who’s ever told you that you couldn’t make a difference was wrong.

When people ask me why I bother to reduce food waste in my life, and why I blog, I tell them about non-linear systems and butterflies, and about the power we all have to nudge ideas and culture and behaviour in any direction we want. I tell them that those small nudges make a huge difference … eventually. And, if I’m feeling particularly lyrical that day, I tell them that that’s what a soul is: the consequences of our actions, rippling through time, forever magnifying, and forever reshaping the world — no matter how small we were in life.

Given that, you may not be surprised to learn that I’ve been disappointed that I haven’t been able to attend to this blog much in the past couple of months – but work has taken over most of my evenings and weekends, and it promises to keep doing that for at least a few more months.

The good news is that Bonnie Lee has agreed to step in to help pick up the slack, and keep those little puffs of 222 million tons wind flowing out into the world. I’ll add in my two hundred and twenty-two cents when time allows, including some overdue comments on the blogs I follow.

Butterflies

When you’re trying to change the world, two butterflies are better than one.

And now, back to work…

A Simple Hi-Tech Solution to Retail Food Waste

Reblogged from Food Cowboy:

19 days.

That’s how long it will take food companies to waste as much food as they donate this year.
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In all, they will throw away 34 million tons of good food – including enough fresh produce to feed 50 million elementary school students every day of the year. But don’t blame them, blame us.
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Unlike consumer food waste, which is a behavioral issue, commercial food waste comes down to logistics: Food is expensive to move. If it can’t be sold, it can’t be transported far.
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Supermarkets reject thousands of deliveries of wholesome but cosmetically imperfect food every day because they know it won’t sell. Truckers who get stuck with them don’t have time to search for food banks – and food banks, with their forklifts and 18-wheelers, are not well equipped to go out and get them. That task is better left to small food pantries and “food rescue” groups that can take the food right to where it is needed. But they can be hard to work with, especially for national retailers.
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Asian lessons in food waste

The first thing that struck me was the abundance of fruits and vegetables. I hadn’t stepped into a North American supermarket in over a decade, and had expected it to feel familiar and comfortable, but somehow it didn’t. There was something here that made me feel uneasy – which is an odd thing for fruits and vegetables to do. Against the backdrop of the bizarre food experiences I’d had living and traveling in Asia, how could a stack of onions not feel normal? From a food perspective, Asia had been such a strange ride, right from the beginning…

* * *

 It was August, 1998 – the evening of the 22nd, to be exact — and Bonnie Lee and I were heading out for a special meal. The town had no street names, and we had only a Japanese map to guide us. If we were concerned about anything at all, it was that we’d be late for our reservation, or not find the restaurant at all. We had no idea what to expect when we got there; no idea that we’d soon be greeting our long-anticipated celebratory meal with horror; no idea that this was one of the countless Asian experiences that would change our relationship with food forever.

There was a lot we didn’t know.

We were fresh off the boat. We’d been living in Kitakyushu for just over a month, and it wasn’t at all what we’d expected. The apartment we lived in was old and run down, and it had a squat toilet. The bugs in Southern Japan were like something out of a science fiction movie, and the fauna in our apartment included dani (little red biting critters that live in tatami mats) and mukade (venomous, armored centipedes). The river that ran through Kitakyushu was brown, and its basin was lined in concrete – the only legal construction material in the area, it seemed. The exotic rural charm we’d been expecting wasn’t really what Kitakyushu was known for; it was more famous as center for toilet manufacturing.

Oh, and it was hot.

The temperature had been hovering around 90℉ since our arrival; the humidity, around 85% – which was a challenge given the lack of air conditioning at home and at work. We weren’t at all sure we’d made the right move in coming to Japan for a year, and as the guy who’d suggested the move, I had a lot riding on this dinner.

We’d just gotten our first paychecks, and this was our first indulgence. Food was one of the things that had drawn us to Japan, and the restaurant had been recommended by a coworker. His English was bad, and my Japanese was worse – so I hoped that I had managed to communicate just how special I needed this night to be. I wanted something purely Japanese, something extravagant that we could never find elsewhere, something with air conditioning.

ようこそ ようこそ

We found the place easily (though we had to double and triple check the Chinese characters on the door to make sure), and it seemed perfect. The building was made of dark wood, not concrete, and the dining area was small, quaint and well appointed. There were white table cloths, and the waitstaff was attentive a very professional. The menus were in Japanese, of course, and none of the waitstaff spoke English, but that was no surprise. We were very likely the first non-Japanese who had ever entered the place – perhaps the only ones who ever would. And although we couldn’t read, we knew a few phrases, the most important of which was, Osusume wa …? – “What do you recommend?” We didn’t quite understand the whole answer, but it contained a few words we did know: sake, oki and ebi – rice wine, big and shrimp. Perfect. Local wine and jumbo shrimp. We ordered that.

The sake came along with a few small, beautiful starter dishes, and it was lovely. It was served cold, and complex – nothing like the pure, harsh ethanol they call sake in North America. We were excited to see what would follow. It wasn’t long, however, before that excitement turned into something quite different.

The oki ebi – which was actually lobster and not jumbo shrimp – came out in a small basket. On some level, it was beautiful. It was served on a bed of shredded daikon, and decorated with wasabi, a couple of slices of carrot, and a few fresh, bright green shiso leaves. But all that freshness and beauty were juxtaposed with something else altogether. The lobster meat, which was uncooked, was garnished with the head and thorax of the mutilated but still-living lobster, which sat upright in the daikon in obvious distress.

Now, many people would argue that a lobster’s capacity for pain is minimal, if not nonexistent – but here’s what I know for certain: whatever that capacity is, this lobster was feeling the extent of it. It was having as bad a day as any lobster can have. Its eyes were wiggling back and forth frantically at the end of their little lobster eye stalks. Its antennae, which were long and fell outside the basket, were in constant motion. If its legs were still attached, it would have been trying to get away – but those legs were impotent now, and arranged neatly in front of it on a bed of daikon.

We were a little taken aback.

Although neither of us was (or ever became) a fan of raw shellfish, we felt that we had to eat our new tablemate. To not eat it at this point seemed like far too great a waste – though there was no way we wanted to eat it while it was still staring at us. Our initial plan was to wait until it stopped moving, but after 15 minutes it became clear that the creature was determined to live despite its obvious challenges. We placed it face down in a (clean) ashtray, and ate its flesh while it died.

* * *

Despite the disturbing meal, despite the concrete, despite the bugs, despite everything, we ended up enjoying Japan that year, and for the next twelve years after that. In that time, we traveled both in Japan and in the rest of Asia, and our notions of food were constantly challenged. Some images that stand out: buckets of silk worm pupae sold as snacks in Seoul, bright purple meat topped with the disembodied dog heads in a street market in Hanoi, fried grasshoppers in Bangkok, perfectly bronzed Peking duck served with bill and all … well, you get the picture.

All the larvae you eat

Sparkle

So what was it about this supermarket in L.A. that I could possibly find so disconcerting? Well, for one thing, the celery. In Japan, celery is sold by the stalk, and each stalk costs about a dollar. Over the years, that had come to seem normal. When you spend a dollar or more on a stalk of celery, you don’t do it casually. You buy it because you have a use in mind. You don’t just slather it in Cheese Whiz and wolf it down. You prepare something that highlights its crunch and flavor. You savor it, perhaps over two meals … or even three.

On some level, I’d been looking forward to buying bunches of celery again, but now that I could, it seemed wrong. The bunches were huge – much bigger than I remembered – and I couldn’t even begin to imagine how I would use a whole bunch in a week. Images from childhood popped into my head – images of wilted, unused celery stalks finding their way into garbage cans by the dozen. After thinking in terms of individual stalks for so long, that was a level of waste I couldn’t comfortably be complicit in.

Not far from the celery, I saw something that surprised me: yamaimo, mountain yams indigenous to Japan – and a food which I have a personal connection to. My first year in Japan, Bonnie Lee and I had headed into the mountains in search of yamaimo with a friend. We had dug waist-deep holes for hours in hard dirt, and had emerged from the day exhausted, with one, tiny, misshapen yamaimo to show for our trouble – and our friend was thrilled with the haul. He turned that one six-inch root into three dishes that celebrated the elusive tuber’s raw earthiness and glutinous texture. He turned one little yam into a feast for three, and a precious memory.

Understanding the amount of effort that went into finding one yam, the whole notion of wasting even a gram of it was out of the question. But what did an exotic yam with a slimy texture represent to the typical shopper here? Perhaps just an experiment that could easily be discarded if it didn’t work out. On some level, that was at the core of what I was feeling in the market that day. It was as if all the food had been stripped of any intrinsic value. It was cheap, plentiful and robbed of all history, of all connection to labour and life.

In China’s Guangxi province, there is a village called Ping’an, which sits in the heart of some of the most impressive terraced rice fields in the world. The town houses about 180 families, and their ancestors carved the terraces out of the surrounding mountains over a period of about 300 years. The slopes are steep, and the only way to get there is by foot. It’s well worth the walk. From Ping’an, the terraces spread out as far as the eye can see. When the rice fields are flooded, the landscape is made of giant mirrors — and during the growing season, the mountains are ringed with bright green contour lines.

Ping'an village from above

In Ping’an, people get the value of arable land – they had to build theirs from scratch – and they get the value of the food that grows on it. We were fortunate enough to have a meal there, which was a tribute to the valley that spread out in front of us. Our lunch for two consisted of six bite-sized pieces of chicken fried in a glutinous rice paste, a light soup made from the wild mountain vegetables that grow between the terraces, and a small bowl of rice – and it was served with an 8 ounce glass of sweet, smooth, weak rice wine.

Everything was from the land, and the portion size was enough to thoroughly satisfy, but not enough to stuff – designed to virtually eliminate the possibility that guests would leave something uneaten. Nothing was wasted. When you waste food in Ping’an, you see what you are wasting: the effort that went into building the very land, and the effort of those you can see working in the fields.

Out standing in his field

Not so in our local supermarket. Here, it seems that the relationship we have with food is broken. Half the aisles are filled with chemical experiments that our ancestors would barely recognize as food. We’ve transformed produce and meat into an industrial products, and commoditized them, removing all our connection to them. At least dog heads on piles of meat are honest. They remind you where the meat came from. They remind you what was given up so you could eat. They remind you not to waste. And, although I didn’t enjoy watching that one lobster suffer, that memory serves as a constant reminder of where I chose to stand in the food chain, and of the connection I have to the living things that are affected by my choices.

Giving thanks

Another year has passed, and it’s time for those of us in the US to give thanks for what we have. What many of us will have today is turkey – and what we’ll have tomorrow is plenty of leftover turkey. Sadly, way too much of that will end up in the trash (about 200 million pounds of it, with a value of roughly 280 million dollars, according to the Natural Resources Defence Council).

Brussels sprouts

Thanksgiving sprouts, ready to be carved…

So, if you’re partaking in a feast today (with or without turkey), enjoy! And remember to store and freeze leftovers properly so that none of that great holiday food goes to waste.

And, while we’re on the topic of thanks, thanks to all of you who have followed and commented on 222 million tons in the past year. I know I’ve been a little quiet for a couple of weeks (thanks to a hectic work and travel schedule), but I’m hoping to be able to give 222 a bit more attention soon. In the meantime, you may want to look at these:

Mad dogs and Englishmen. And me.

What is most troubling, and sad, about industrial eating is how thoroughly it obscures all these relationships and connections.

Michael Pollan

The gate to the Hindu temple grounds was locked, and had a sign on it warning off non-believers. From my vantage, I could see a small corner of the main temple building, which sat on Bukit Gasing’s peak, on a point overlooking the jungle – and its elaborate, colourful design hinted at wonders within. There was no getting closer to get a better look, though. Even a walk along the outer wall was impossible, the only path being closed off by fences.

Clearly, the temple wasn’t the main attraction for hikers here – and it wasn’t immediately obvious what was. The way forward was blocked. To my right there was a cliff; to my left, some fairly uninviting jungle. The only way forward, in fact, was backward, down the road the cab had used to bring me here, and I already knew there was nothing particularly interesting about that. Still, I had no choice.

It occurred to me that I could have taken a minute to do some research before heading out, but I had made the decision to go on this hike on a whim. After lunch, and some prompting by Bonnie Lee over Skype, I had realized that I needed to take a few hours off. Between work and things 222, I had stared at my computer solidly, day and night, seven days a week for more weeks than made sense – and I knew there was some hiking to be done on Bukit Gasing. So I headed down to the main road without much thought, and grabbed a cab.

The cab driver had no idea where Bukit Gasing was, let alone any hiking trails, but after asking a few other drivers, he had whisked me here, up the road I was now walking back down. At least I wasn’t staring at the computer – and it was a beautiful, sunny day, on a road that offered a view of a huge mosque with a sprawling mess of city spreading out from it in every direction.

Still, I had come here for a hike, and so when I saw a gap in the trees, I decided to step through it and into the jungle. If all I was destined to do was walk down a hill today, then I figured I may as well do it surrounded by nature. I was immediately rewarded with the sight of a couple of macaques busily foraging. The one closer to me stared me down, and made a noise that I’m sure he thought was threatening, but which only managed to be cute. I steered away from him to let him get on with his day, and started my descent into what I had thought of as a jungle, but which the macaques (it now occurred to me) probably thought of as a big salad.

A cousin of the troupe I saw on Bukit Gasing, who I met in Batu Caves

The way quickly got steep, and it was at times a bit hard to get my footing, which made for a clumsy but controlled descent – and one that was noisy enough to scare off any and all creatures of the woods. Whenever I stopped to take in my surroundings, I could hear frantic activity about hundred yards ahead, as macaques crashed through the leaves to escape from the new guy in the neighbourhood.

One big salad

I came to a level clearing, and as I walked across it, casually wondering where I was, a sudden rush of sound and motion gave me a start. The dirt just ahead of me seemed to come alive, and sprinted away with a rapid series loud thumps. Whatever it was came to a stop just as suddenly, and as I got closer to take a look, I saw that it was a lizard (a monitor lizard, I now know) – at least two feet long – and it struck me that I had no idea what lived in this little piece of jungle. Did these particular lizards bite? Were there snakes? I didn’t have a clue, and hadn’t done an ounce of research, though it was clear to me now that the salad I inhabited wasn’t purely vegetarian, and I wasn’t 100% certain where I sat on the local food chain. Yet here I was, on a little used path, staring at a medium-sized carnivore staring at me, with a way to go (I guessed) and no easy way back. I reminded myself that I should plan a bit better next time, and moved along giving my new friend a wide berth.

Dragonfly

For the next fifteen minutes or so, I moved down the hill a bit more cautiously, and paying a bit more attention to the shadows. I don’t know if there are snakes on Bukit Gasing, but I do know that something brown with yellow stripes that might be a snake lurks there … as do some very cute little mammals that look like squirrels with funky haircuts. And there are dragonflies, beautiful red and burgundy ones – a small cluster of which swarmed around me when my jungle path finally met up with a real hiking trail.

The real trail was beautiful and wide. I could see the way back to the road from where I was, but decided to explore the more manicured part of Bukit Gasing while I was there, even though I was a bit thirsty by then. I made a mental note to bring water on my next impromptu hike in the tropics.

I stuck to the flat paths just to get a feel for the place, and was about to turn around and head home, when I met a sweat-drenched couple coming in the other direction. They mentioned that they had gotten lost in the paths ahead, and for a second I considered turning back. Then they mentioned that there was a river ahead, and that they had followed a steep path on the right after that. This had led them to some abandoned homes, and a very spooky ancient deity.

Well, the universe doesn’t have to ask me twice, and the wisdom of turning around suddenly evaporated.

Jungle mushroomsSo off I went to find the river and the path and the spooky deity. The river I found soon enough (the water was brown and undrinkable), along with some very funky looking mushrooms (which at this point were looking quite tasty), and I chose one of the steep paths on the right. And up I went. And up. And up.

The jungle eventually gave way to a steep escarpment, which I clambered up, until I came to a wall – a very familiar looking wall, with a Hindu temple behind it, only now I was on the wrong side of the point. Rather than climb down the escarpment (which seemed a bit treacherous) I followed a narrow path along the wall out to the point, and back to the side I had come from, hoping I would see a way through to the road (though suspecting there was none that didn’t involve pole vaulting).

And this is where I lucked out … there was a gap in the wall that I could step through, and suddenly I was where only the faithful could go, locked into rather than out of the temple grounds. I was tempted to get a closer look at the temple, but there was a gatekeeper nearby, who, when I explained how I had accidentally found my way in, was only too happy to let me out.

And so there I stood again, outside the gate, back where I had started. Drenched in sweat. In 100 degree weather, I would later learn – something that would have made sense to check before I headed out.

I found another path into the salad, and headed down the mountain again. By now, I was a bit peckish, and parched – and it seemed ironic to me that I felt this way in what was essentially a giant buffet. Edible greens, fruits, nuts, mushrooms and roots were all around me, not to mention bugs and meat in various forms – yet I had no way to know what was edible and what was not. I didn’t have the basic sense not to starve in the middle of a buffet. I was dumber than even the bugs here, who had figured out that I was food hours ago.

Note to self: the next time you go to the jungle, bring bug spray.

Lessons from the animal kingdom

There’s a lot we can learn about better ways to interact with the environment from our fellow creatures. Edo and Pyx, much to our amusement and edification, make it their daily challenge to find new ways to reuse old things.

Caught hiding in their new fort

Our tireless feline upcyclers

As imaginative and dedicated as they as they are, they can’t hold a candle to Norman.

222 million tons, live in L.A.

There are few things that I enjoy more than making people think and laugh, and hopefully I’ll be doing a bit of both in L.A. on October 30, 2012 at the CODA Electric Vehicle Speaker Series. It would be great to meet a few of my fellow bloggers and followers there, so I’m hoping some of you live nearby and are available. As a bonus, you’ll get to test drive a CODA.

If you’d like to attend, RSVP to concierge@codaautomotive.com by October 29.

222 million tons in LA Times

Yesterday this URL got more than its usual amount of exercise thanks to an article in the LA Times: New app builds on efforts to reduce food waste. Most food waste articles focus on the magnitude of the problem, so it was particularly nice to be featured in a piece that was looking at what people are doing to make things better, including some who are already making a huge difference like EcoScraps and Food Cowboy.

It was my first interview, so I didn’t quite say everything I wanted to say the way I wanted to say it, but hopefully I’ll get other opportunities to bring attention to the food waste issue and things we can all do to make a difference.