No such thing as a free lunch (literal edition)

It never ceases to amaze me that people are surprised by things like this: Kids in England don’t like the healthy lunches the schools are serving them. Why are they surprised that kids will happily accept a change in their routine that is shoved down their throats. (Of course, the same people who pushed for these changes are equally happy to shove things down the throats of adults they disagree with, so I don’t know why I’m surprised by any of it.)

As I see it, there are four major variables that contribute to the quality and desirability of food:

  • taste
  • healthfulness
  • ease of preparation
  • cost

The contribution of each variable to a food’s desirability is dependent on the individual in question, obviously, but as a first approximation, desirability is directly proportional to taste, healthfulness, and ease of preparation, and it is inversely proportional to cost. In other words, people tend to want food that tastes good, is good for them, is easy to prepare, and is cheap.

The problem is that these are not independent variables. Ease of preparation requires preprocessing that degrades healthfulness (unless you want to eat all raw foods). Cheap ingredients don’t taste as good and aren’t as good for you as expensive ones; as a rule, you get what you pay for. The cheapest and easiest way to take cheap ingredients of poor quality and make them taste good is to add fat and sugar — both of which our biology attracts us to, because humans evolved in times of scarcity not abundance — and salt, which enhances whatever flavor is present. All three in too great a quantity are bad for you.

To make everyone happy in the school lunch wars, we’d have to serve lunches that meet all four criteria. Activists and most parents want food that’s healthy; kids want it to taste good; schools need to keep the preparation as simple as possible; and schools and most parents want to keep costs down. But there simply isn’t much food that is tasty, healthy, cheap, and easy. I agree that schools ought not be serving junk and calling it dinner, but anyone who wants to improve the overall quality of school lunches needs to start from a realistic assessment of what’s possible and be prepared to work within those constraints.

Feynman and I sledding

Feynman, 1994-2006

Feynman, our first basset hound, died yesterday. She was twelve. A tumor burst in her abdomen, but she wasn’t in pain for long, and we had time to say goodbye and buy her one last cheeseburger and some coffee ice cream.

She was my first dog. I don’t even know where to begin. This is the best I can do.

  1. She was a horrible puppy. She chewed up our wedding album, books, CD cases, chairs, carpeting, and four straight pins that after a night in the hospital she passed without incident. We still have the straight pins, in a plastic jar in the closet. I can maybe understand one; but four?
  2. Despite all that, and despite our obedience trainer’s joke that as a basset hound she would be her “special ed student,” Feynman was certified as a Canine Good Citizen when she was two. For years I had the certificate framed on the wall over my desk. I never hung the Ph.D., just the CGC.
  3. We used to watch a lot of TV, because we were in graduate school and avoiding work. Sometimes we were desperate enough to watch rodeo, and Feynman sat on the couch and watched with us. She was a rodeo fan. If I changed the channel, she would look pointedly at the remote control, then glare at me.
  4. You might not think a dog could glare. You might not think a dog could have a lot of expressions Feynman used daily. When I did something she thought was stupid (like put up a Christmas tree or bring home a puppy) she looked at me with a combination of guilt-inducing sorrow and something close to pity for being so thick.
  5. She could balance a Milk Bone on her nose, flip it up, and catch it in the air. She gave the impression that a lot of things were beneath her dignity, but food talks; dignity walks. Thanksgiving will never be the same without her.
  6. She had a working vocabulary of over a hundred words. We counted them, once. Her favorite was “waffle.”
  7. She once outsmarted my mother-in-law. She pretended that she needed help getting up onto the couch, and when Kathy’s mom got out of her comfortable chair to help her, Feynman leapt up into the warm spot on the chair. There was no getting between Feynman and her personal comfort.
  8. I could talk about her as the noble dog, and in fact she could carry herself with an air of nobility. But she also thought the litterbox was a snack bar and the cat a vending machine. So I won’t.
  9. When we brought Toby home from the breeder Feynman, the pampered only dog, knew immediately her gig was up. I have a photo framed on my bookshelf of her on that day looking at us as though we had sold her to the redneck neighbors. She growled at him, she barked at him, she wanted him dead. She stayed surly for a full year, and then they were best friends for eight years after.
  10. If you referred to them as “the dogs” and told them to do something, she ignored you. What, me? Toby was the dog. She was, well, Feynman.
  11. When Kathy found a kitten starving in the drainpipe under our driveway and brought it inside, it decided that Feynman was its mother and tried to suckle off of her. She kissed him so much that we had to take him away from her; he was soaked in basset drool. We didn’t want a cat, but we kept him. Now we have three. I blame her.
  12. One Christmas when we were visiting my parents it snowed and we took Feynman sledding: grabbed her, held her on the flexible flyer, and careened down the icy hill. At the bottom she leapt away, shook herself off, barked at me, then raced to the top of the hill to do it again.
  13. This summer when she came with us to the farmer’s market every week, limping around the lot on her arthritic hip, she made so many friends that there are people who changed their Saturday morning schedules so they could see her.
  14. There were times when she seemed nearly human, but she made me a dog person and taught me to be a dog, and that’s as good a gift as anyone has ever given me.

Feynman and I sledding


This morning I was standing in the frozen-foods aisle of the Asia Market, puzzling over which brand of vegetable gyoza I bought last week because the packages all look the same to me and I can’t read Chinese, when the Monkey burst into song. I found this somewhat disconcerting, because she was singing in Chinese, and I don’t speak Chinese, and I had no idea what she was singing about.


Look! A puppy!


That’s Sadie, 7 weeks old when the picture was taken, 9 weeks old now.

She is allowed to sleep on the bed, a privilege neither of our other dogs gained until they were much older, but she snores and rootches and usually ends up in the crate anyway.

She does not like to pee in the rain and will, if dragged outside, squat for an instant then dart back up the steps and, five minutes later, pee on the floor.

She slept in my lap while I drove her home from the breeder listening to Back Porch Music on NPR.

She harrasses the ducks by tracking them around the back yard.

She’s a basset hound, and while I used to think that maybe someday I would have dogs of other breeds, in all likelihood, I will just have a lot of basset hounds. It is probably best just to know your type and stick to it.

Passings, and cheese toast

My grandmother died this morning. To liven the mood I shall tell a story.

When I was about five or six years old, my parents drove me down to the beach for the day where my grandparents were camping. We had lunch, and I (and everyone else) was asked whether I wanted ham and cheese, or peanut butter and jelly. Peanut butter and jelly, I said.

Then lunch was served, and I received a piece of cheese toast. Bread, with cheese broiled onto it in the toaster oven so that it was melted and brown. You know what I mean.

But I asked for peanut butter and jelly, I said to my father.

He explained that the cheese toast was a first course, and then we would have our sandwiches.

A first course. My grandmother was fixing lunch for eight or ten people in a camper, and she was serving a first course.

In a camper.

Because, by god, we will be civilized human beings and we will do things are they are supposed to be done.

She was not a gourmet by any standard — her mashed potatoes could cement a house. Nor was she an adventurous eater. She once told a story about eating dinner at a Chinese buffet: normally, she said, she didn’t like Chinese buffets, but this one didn’t have so much Chinese food, and so it was pretty good.

But when she made dinner, good heavens, she made dinner. We had hors d’oeuvres and first courses and half a dozen side dishes and dessert, and a jello salad for every month of the year. There was a precision to her meals; she had a set of rules, and she followed them. No one else cared whether she followed them or even knew quite what they were, but she did it this way because, to her, that was how it was supposed to be done.

Given my propensity to gravitate toward the opposite of what I think I am supposed to do and my continual need to try new things — not to mention my deep love of Chinese food — one might assume that my grandmother and I didn’t have a lot in common.

But watch me get ready for a dinner party or a holiday meal or even the odd Wednesday supper, plan every detail of multiple courses, spend days prepping and cooking, and there she is. Working through me, her spirit inexorably in my genes. Running back and forth to the kitchen getting everything right while the guests are arriving, then stuffing them until they beg for mercy and wonder why in hell I don’t just sit down already.

Because, by god, we will be civilized people, and we will do things are they are supposed to be done.

I hope that wherever she is, they are doing things the right way.


Toby, 1997-2006


Toby, my younger basset hound, died this week. For two weeks his appetite was a little off; for two days he was lethargic and vomited; and his heart stopped an hour after we learned that he had advanced liver cancer. On his last afternoon he chased his tennis ball, sounding joyously. Every day he lived to the fullest, with every ounce of heart and spirit. No one could ask more.

So much has been said in honor of dogs, from Byron to a million weblogs, that there seems little point in adding words to the fray. The only epitaph or eulogy he would want is that he was a good boy. You were a good boy, Toby, and I love you. And I miss you, terribly.


black rat snake

Howdy, neighbor

This gal has taken up residence in my workshop:

black rat snake

Or guy. I asked, but she wasn’t talking.

When I cleaned out the shed Monday after leaving it fallow for a year and a half — with a job and a kid and a novel I’ve had no time for woodworking, can you imagine? — I found eight million mouse turds but no mice. Yeah, I counted. They were everywhere, along with grass seed from a chewed-up bag. Evidence of several mice, but they were gone.

Then Tuesday morning my daughter and I went outside and found a five-foot black rat snake hanging from the tool rack, looking at us. She dropped off and hid in the corner and I thought we had scared her off, but the next afternoon she was back, hanging around the rafters. So now I know what happened to the mice.

Black rat snakes aren’t dangerous — they’ll strike if cornered but they’re constrictors, so their bite isn’t serious, and I think we can leave each other alone. (She flicked her tongue at the flash, but I don’t blame her. I don’t like getting my picture taken, either.) Meanwhile, I no longer have to worry about mice in the workshop. And the kid thinks she’s the coolest thing ever.

Yep, it’s wild kingdom out here.

five spice duck canape

Five spice duck confit

five spice duck canape

For Chinese New Year, a bit of fusion cuisine. Every year we have a party for the lunar new year, and I try to make some kind of highly impressive centerpiece dish. One year I made a Szechuan duck that is similar to Peking duck, but like all Chinese duck recipes it requires last-minute preparation — in this case deep-frying — and I’d rather not spend all my time in the kitchen after our guests have arrived. So for the year of the horse (2002) I invented this as an equally tasty duck preparation that can be made a day ahead and requires only gentle warming before serving.

Molasses-ginger cookies

Most molasses cookies and ginger snaps harden not long after you take them out of the oven. The extra egg yolk keeps these soft for days.

  • 3/4 cup butter, melted and cooled
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 egg + 1 egg yolk
  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • granulated sugar for rolling
  1. Combine melted butter, brown sugar, and molasses thoroughly. Add the egg and egg yolk; combine well.
  2. Whisk together the dry ingredients in a second bowl. Add the butter-sugar-egg mixture and combine well.
  3. Chill the dough until it is manageable. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper (or grease them lightly).
  4. Form scant 1/4-cup scoops into balls; roll in granulated sugar. Place on lined cookie sheets and flatten slightly. Bake 15 minutes or until the edges are just set; the centers will still be quite soft. If using parchment paper, slide the entire paper off the cookie sheet onto racks to cool; this will help to keep the cookies intact.

Why people vote

Last fall I had a running argument with friends that voting ought not be made too easy because voting is an act of civic participation and therefore part of the fabric that binds a democracy together. People making atomized decisions in their living rooms are not participating in anything; they aren’t given the opportunity (or, perhaps, forced) to see themselves as part of a democratic society. The act of going to a polling place and voting in the presence of one’s fellow citizens, on the same day and in the same place, is as important to a democracy as the vote itself.