book review

Gardening Baby New Year

Before you ask the doctor for that round of antibiotics to treat that cold you picked up over the holidays, blow your nose and read this book:


Diversity is the answer to everything, it seems. World peace, weeds, robust ecosystems, soil fertility, pathogens. I think I’ve told you that I’m no fan of antibacterial soap. I would politely thank my mother-in-law for the bottle of whatever antibacterial, Bath-and-Body-Works, super-synthetic, overfragranced soap she would give me at Christmas, but then refill it with run-of-the-mill, this-barely-works-for-beans liquid soap as soon as the original contents ran out. Diversity is our friend. And that goes for the thousands (no joke) of bacteria varieties colonizing our homes and bodies.

(Parenthetical note about handwashing:

Hand washing prevents the spread of pathogens and saves many lives a year, but it doesn’t do so by sterilizing your hands. Instead, hand washing appears to remove microbes that have newly arrived, but not yet established on the hands. For example, when scientists experimentally put nonpathogenic E. coli on people’s hands, washing with soap and water removed much of the E. coli. It didn’t matter if the water was cold or hot. It didn’t matter for how long people washed (so long as it was at least twenty seconds). Also, ordinary bar soap was more effective than antimicrobial soap at getting rid of the E. coli. (p.250)

Yay, bar soap! I love bar soap!)

Twenty seconds of soap and water. [Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash  ]

Twenty seconds of soap and water. [Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash ]

According to Rob Dunn, doctors in the late ‘50s were struggling with certain Staphylococcus aureus type 80/81 infections of newborns in their hospitals. They did various experiments that wouldn’t meet current standards of medical ethics and came to the realization that, if newborn babies’ bodies were first colonized by beneficial bacteria, 80/81 couldn’t get enough of a toehold to infect anyone. Bacterial diversity provided protection against a particular pathogen. Invasive species have a hard time taking over a field full of lots of different plants, grazed by different herbivores. But an empty field? Or one planted with only one crop? Easy pickings.

When we pump that antibacterial soap and squirt that antibacterial cleanser, we might get rid of certain harmful bacteria, but we’re also wiping out the good guys. Then, on our newly clean surface (i.e., our empty field), when something like E. coli wanders over, it finds lots of room to spread out and set up shop. The result? We get sick.

Same thing goes for when we kill our gut bacteria willy-nilly. Hence everyone downing the latest, trendy probiotic foods to try to pump up diversity. And the evil bacteria we were targeting in the first place only mutate, share the trait, and come roaring back stronger.

What are the best ways to increase diversity in order to prevent the bad guys from taking over? Dunn offers some suggestions.

  • Eating fermented foods made by hand is a good place to start. In fermented foods, like sourdough bread, they find that the flavor is influenced by the microbes present in the flour, on the baker’s hands, and in the bakery itself. Part of why a particular cook’s foods taste a particular way might be because of the particular microbes she and her kitchen pass along!

  • Leave the windows open, to bring more environmental goodies into the house.

  • Wash dishes by hand to prevent “the fungus that lives in dishwashers” everywhere(!).

  • Get a pet.

  • Plant a diverse garden.

  • Buy local foods, covered in local soil and microbes.

So garden your home and body, this new year, with plenty of diverse microbes, and keep the bad guys at bay!

New Year, New Thoughts on GMOs

This past summer, my family was in Bend, Oregon, where we explored some lava tubes. It wasn’t particularly thrilling, but the ranger talk beforehand addressed the plight of the area’s bats. Like bats across America, they were in danger of “White-nose syndrome,” a deadly fungal infection which we cave explorers might unwittingly carry on our clothing or gear, from other caves we’d explored. Hey, I’ve read The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, and I know the efforts to prevent invasive species from spreading to new territories is well nigh impossible, so it’s just a matter of time before the Bend, Oregon, lava-tube bats succumb to white-nose syndrome.

Or is it?

I kicked off the new year by reading an exciting book that got me re-thinking genetic engineering of the natural world:


Kornfeldt, a Swedish science journalist, kicks off the book with a bang, talking about a Siberian scientist’s efforts to resurrect the woolly mammoth and restore a Pleistocene ecosystem, thus saving (or helping to save) the planet. In brief, because ancient DNA can’t just be purchased, fully intact and ready-for-prime-time at the corner drugstore, little dribs and drabs and bits and pieces have to be revived through insertion in living cells. Say, those of the woolly mammoth’s closest living relative: the Asian elephant. We don’t get the actual woolly mammoth living again, but rather a new creature bearing genetic similarities. I will leave you to read this wonderful book on your own and draw your own conclusions, but I have to say, after Kornfeldt talked about the impact of species “resurrection” on other fields, I was won over.

Take the plants and animals wiped out by invasive species, for instance. Those poor little bats, say, or the American Chestnut tree, which used to account for 25% of American deciduous forest cover, before fungal infection introduced by the imported Asian Chestnut tree decimated billions of American Chestnuts in fifty years. The American Chestnut didn’t have millions of years to evolve resistance to that dumb fungus, so it wiped them out. But what if we introduced, through genetic modification, just that ability? What if we revived the American Chestnut?

Chestnuts provided food for everything from squirrels, passenger pigeons, and insects to people. They were considered tastier than the European variety and were ground into flour for cakes, roasted over open fires, candied, or used in brewing. The timber was used in house building and the bark for tanning leather.

We need this tree back!

Families chestnutting, baby! [Thanks, Wikipedia]

Families chestnutting, baby! [Thanks, Wikipedia]

And we can have the American Chestnut back, through genetic modification. After disappointing efforts to hybridize American and Asian chestnut trees, the rescue changed directions. Scientist William Powell has been working on implanting a single gene, found in wheat, strawberries, bananas, and some other plants, that fights off various fungal diseases. Letting the American Chestnut benefit from the evolutionary and breeding know-how of other plants, that is.

Now, when we foodie types think of GMOs, we rear up in protest because we’re thinking of crops genetically modified to withstand repeated deluges of pesticides. Nobody wants that, obviously. But what about GMOs that are GM-ed to bolster resistance to invasive diseases and species? What about GMOs that are GM-ed to even the playing field in our new, globalized world?

Kornfeldt was very diligent in mentioning the fears and hazards of “playing God” with nature, but, to paraphrase someone she interviewed, we’ve already been playing God, but just not doing it very well. It’s not like nature and the planet are in tiptop shape at this point, so how can we use our new technologies and understanding for good? Let’s save our bats and our native species. If we’re going to mess with genetic engineering, let’s try to save some of our remaining planetary companions.

Read the book, if you get a chance. And, if you want to thank me, you can send along a genetically-modified American Chestnut sapling.

The Cooking Family

Last chance to buy tickets for Thursday’s Bellevue Farmers Market Happy Hour! Come celebrate, drink, nibble, and continue to support our community treasure from 5-7pm at Pearl.

[Photo by  Scott Warman  on  Unsplash   ]

[Photo by Scott Warman on Unsplash ]

I’ve been thinking about how food brings people together, whether they want to be connected or not. In the case of chef and culinary historian Michael W. Twitty, he discovered both the connections and the “or not” when he researched his family’s background and interwove it with the history of slavery and food in the American South.


If you love to trace food history globally, this is the book for you. With the importation of slaves, the traders also brought foods (and food know-how) native to several locations on the African continent to America and the Caribbean. Once enslaved cooks were scattered across their new locations and faced with some new ingredients to accompany familiar ones, variations on tradition African dishes were adapted into the cuisine we now think of as “Southern.” Hoppin’ john, jambalaya, sweet potatoes, greens, okra preparations, gumbo spiced by a “holy trinity of bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes…that is as Senegalese as they come, or Dahoman or Kongolese” (62). Because slave food rations were so limited (all the good food they cooked landed on the slaveowners’ tables), slaves kept garden patches to supplement their diet. When Twitty hits a rough financial patch in his own life, he plants his own garden, based on family knowledge:

During those lean times I had to be strategic. Corn was tasty but carried with it too many chances to attract pests and bacterial infestation. Cabbage did too. No Southern garden was complete without either in its due time, but I could not afford to waste space on buggy plants. My father taught me how to make weak lye-soap sprays. My provision patch would be organic as much as possible, bugs picked off and squashed underfoot, with things grown together to confuse buggy pests, conserve water, and to crowd out weeds.

What does he grow? Six varieties of sweet potatoes, pattypan squash, cowpeas, herbs, peppers, pole beans, okra, greens, four heirloom tomatoes, peanuts, lettuce, garlic, onions, melons, and more! He had me wondering if such abundance was even possible in a Pacific Northwest patch, or if I’d have to buy a million-dollar greenhouse with a heating system and import soil from Virginia to recreate his abundance.

But the book is about more than food and making connections to African roots. The Cooking Gene is also a family story. The amount of research Twitty (and others helping him) have put in boggles the mind--he can name way more of his forebears than I can. The history of slavery in the South played out personally in his family's movements geographically and in their genetic makeup. While most African-Americans are about 10-15% "white," Twitty is 28%, meaning he can call a greater number of great-great-great-grandmothers unfortunate members of the #MeToo movement than most. Ouch. It’s one thing to trace genealogies when nice official records were kept, but since slaves were considered property, names and personal information were rarely written down about them. Instead, you might find a brief description, a vague age, and a “value” assigned. Uncovering so much of his background involved mighty detective work.

Nor does Twitty leave the DNA stone unturned. I was fascinated to read about the different DNA-analyzing companies and the differences between them, and what he and other family members discovered by getting their numbers done. Twitty even found the comparatively rare white female forbear in his family: a white woman who had had children with a non-white man! He conjectures she might have been an indentured servant because, heaven knew, that wouldn’t fly in many other circumstances.

The Cooking Gene isn’t a demand that white chefs quit appropriating black African-influenced cooking, but rather that Southern cooking be honest and embracing of its true origins and give respect and credit to the cuisine’s pioneers, people who were able to wring from slavery and oppression beautiful foods and a way to hold on to their lost cultures.

Years of Our Lives Down the Tubes

Words with Friends recently congratulated me on my eight-year anniversary as a player. This was not advisable on their part because my first reaction was "Eight years? Eight years?! I've blown countless hours on this game over the past eight years???" Granted, much of that time was spent as I slumped on the couch, already wasting my life away because the television was on, but still--

That'll be eight years, please.

That'll be eight years, please.

Their message had the further misfortune to coincide with me finally getting around to reading a book on addictive technology and highlighting half the thing:


Consider some startling facts author Adam Alter lays out there:

  • "In 2008, adults spent an average of eighteen minutes on their phones per day; in 2015, they were spending two hours and forty-eight minutes per day."
  • "One recent study suggested that up to 40 percent of the population suffers from some form of Internet-based addiction, whether to email, gaming, or porn," and college kids have it even worse, hitting 48%.
  • "Most people spend between one and four hours on their phones each day--and many far longer...Over the average lifetime, that amounts to a staggering eleven years [italics his]."

What qualifies as an addiction? It used to be that addictions were just for substances, but now behavioral addiction has been shown to have similar symptoms and affect the same pathways of the brain as substance addiction.

Almost half of the population [has] experienced the following symptoms: [the] loss of ability to choose freely whether to stop or continue the behavior (loss of control) and [the] experience of behavior-related adverse consequences. In other words, the person becomes unable to reliably predict when the behavior will occur, how long it will go on, when it will stop, or what other behaviors may become associated with the addictive behavior. As a consequence, other activities are given up or, if continued, are no longer experienced as being enjoyable as they once were. Further negative consequences of the addictive behavior may include interference with performance of life roles (e.g., job, social activities or hobbies), impairment of social relationships, criminal activity and legal problems, involvement in dangerous situations, physical injury and impairment, financial loss, or emotional trauma.

Yikes. Now, Words with Friends is no World of Warcraft (named as the most addictive video game of all time, so far), but reading this book taught me about the microrewards and other little tricks even WWF uses to keep players playing--those "coins" we accumulate, the periodic "events" and solo challenges and game variations. Scrabble used to be a game I'd invite people over to play. Now we all just sit on our phones and only very occasionally use the chat feature to interact. Even when my mom, my sister, and I get together and haul out the physical Scrabble board, in between our turns we'll often be on our phones!

My eyes have been opened. Consider this post awareness-raising. I'd offer some solutions here, but I haven't gotten to that part of the book. It's too late for my oldest, collegiate child (who bought her own iPhone and stares at it constantly), but the two I still have at home are going to be badgered with more conversation at dinner and face-to-face interactions over those home-cooked meals.

Make some eye contact today. Quit reading this blog and put down your phone or shut your laptop and go interact with a live person. Imagine adding back eleven years to your life, without even going to the gym!

Steel-Cut Oats Three Ways


Oh, the conflicting nutritional advice! As you know, I'm on a Good Gut kick for the New Year, keeping the microbiome happy with fruits, veggies, fiber, and probiotics. Hence the morning smoothies, including this latest peach-mango version which didn't feel as fibrous as the berry because I didn't have to chew seeds with each sip. Next time I'll throw in flaxseed meal to make up for it.

But then a friend said she and her husband are doing thirty days of ONLY meat, fruits, and vegetables. No grains (even whole grains) and no dairy.

And then this book which I'd put on hold came in at the library:

I'd been interested because I wanted more vegetarian recipes, but Rip Esselstyn is not just vegetarian, he's vegan. Good-bye, dairy with probiotics! The man doesn't even use oil to fry or roast. What the heck? And, just when you think you'll ignore all the health claims and try some recipes, he's got testimonies sprinkled throughout of people who rescued their cholesterol, their diabetes, their blood pressure, etc. after just--you guessed it--seven days of this "plant-strong" vegan diet. If you're at the end of your health rope, you may want to consider this extremism, though I had questions about some of the claims. Knowing calcium is fat-soluble, how will I get enough from dark, leafy greens, if no oils or butter are used to cook them? And how long were the rescued able to sustain their adherence to the diet? Unless you have a philosophical reason to be vegan, I think it would be difficult, and it requires a lot of cooking and a LOT of fruits and vegetables to keep up, which are expensive in time and money.

All that aside, there are definitely recipes I've bookmarked. First off, I tried this one:

Banana Steel-Cut Oats

1 super ripe banana, smashed

3 c water

1 tsp vanilla

1 c steel-cut oats

1 Tbsp chia or ground flaxseeds

1/4 tsp cinnamon

1/8 tsp nutmeg

1 kiwi, peeled and sliced

1/4 c berries, fresh or frozen


In a small pot over medium heat, mix the smashed banana, water and vanilla. Stir in the oats and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce to low, stirring, occasionally. Cook 15-20 minutes, depending on how chewy you like your oats. Add the seeds and spices and serve, topped with fruit.

Esselstyn claims this makes two servings. Maybe two servings for horses. It makes a lot. Frankly, while it was tasty, it made more oatmeal than I wanted to eat, even in two sittings. And if I were forced to down half of it at one sitting, I don't think I could eat steel-cut oats again for at least a week. A small bowl of it was great, though.

What to do with the leftover oats?

You can just stir in a little milk the next day and nuke them, but congealed oatmeal looks so unappealing. Instead I opted for muffins that obeyed none of the new rules. Here's the original recipe, and here's my guilt-induced modification:

Leftover Oatmeal Muffins

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 c whole wheat flour

3 Tbsp sugar

4 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

½ cup add-ins (such as nuts, chopped chocolate, coconut flakes, fruit, etc. I used coconut and choc chips)

1 large egg

1 cup (185 grams) cooked oatmeal, preferably steel-cut

½ cup (120 ml) whole milk

2 tablespoons (28 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly


Preheat the oven to 400°F, and grease or paper a 12-cup muffin tin. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and add-ins. In another bowl, lightly beat the egg. Add the oatmeal to the egg, and mash with a fork to break up clumps. Add the milk and the butter, and stir or whisk to combine. Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture, and stir briefly to just combine. Divide the batter evenly between the wells of the prepared muffin tin. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of one of the muffins comes out clean.

So that took care of another cup of the oatmeal...

This morning I looked at my container of congealment and did more internet searching. Someone suggested slicing it, frying the rounds in butter and serving with maple syrup. Ooh...not vegan, again, but appetizing. I went for it. No picture because it basically looks like you're frying up veggie burgers, but I will pass on my learnings:

  • Make the slices as thin as you can because, as with all fried things, it's the crunchy bits that are the best.
  • A skillet set on medium works, with about a 1/2 Tbsp of butter. Flip the cakes when the first side is nice and brown.
  • If you were trying to convince someone other than yourself to eat these, you may want to invest in some powdered sugar or fresh-fruit garnish, to decrease the hamburger-y appearance.

That's it for today's diet adventures. This week I'm experimenting with the formation of new habits and will report in next week!