Bob Schwartz

Month: June, 2013

The Fig Paste Story

Fig Paste
Interest and talent for food runs a range. Some are world-class, others are moderately capable and knowledgeable, others don’t know or care. We are lucky if we are beneficiaries of those who take the making of food seriously and can follow through all the way to the table.

The artifacts of fine food are like those of any of the fine arts: you have plenty of tools and materials at hand, but some you may use only rarely. The tools are on racks or in drawers, the stable foodstuffs are on shelves, but some things are relegated to the refrigerator for freshness.

That is how the fig paste came to the refrigerator. It was purchased in December, in time for the holidays. It in fact came out of a holiday display of it and other fruit pastes, a pretty arcane category. It did end up in a very tasty dish back then. But a little container of fig paste goes a long way, and so to the fridge it went. In December.

The plastic container is quite small, about 2 by 3 inches, an inch high. It will fit easily in a refrigerator of more than 20 cubic feet. Except that in a busy, busy refrigerator, where ingredients and leftovers are always coming and going, there is a lot of rearranging to be done. So the tiny container, filled with delicious fig paste, is not so much homeless as peripatetic.

This weekend, as if to re-establish its raison d’être, the fig paste worked its way into another dish (crostini topped with fig paste and goat cheese: delicioso!). But Monday morning always comes, there’s a price to pay for all that eating, and now the fig paste is squeezed into, of all places, the butter drawer. It is in rich company (butter, cream cheese), but now the door to the drawer is challenged. Does it truly belong there? And so it has moved again, hoping it will not have to wait another five months for a role, even a very small supporting one. They also serve who sit hidden on the second glass shelf.

Istanbul Spring

Today's Zaman
O Istanbul. Crown jewel and epicenter of Turkey. Literal crossroad of the world, east and west. Beloved city of many world travelers, who find themselves immersed in a multi-millennial mix of cultures. In Istanbul, you are simultaneously located and dislocated in geography and time.

The hours of coverage of the clashes in Taksim Square will not make this quite clear. Protests against the demolition of Gezi Park, one of the last green spaces in modern growing Istanbul, ripened into broader complaint about the direction of the democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan.

Today in Taksim, Erdogan acted on his threatend lost patience, setting the police on occupying protestors, whom he believes to have been infiltrated by violent political activists and radicals. Tear gas, water cannons, and other dispersal techniques followed.

Turkey—and particularly its world-class city Istanbul—does not fit easily in any of the usual boxes. The anomaly is the work of a single man, a visionary autocrat who managed to give autocracy a good name, who took one of the most culturally rich but tradition-bound countries in the world and pushed/dragged it into the twentieth century.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938) disrupted and redirected a country’s trajectory as few have ever done. First President of the Republic of Turkey, and still almost a god-like presence, he was determined to see Turkey regain its former glory not by looking backward but by moving forward and becoming a modern, secular, European-style democracy. Along with universal education and changing the way that people dressed (he banned the fez, for example), he literally changed the language, reformatting Turkish with a Roman alphabet.

It worked for the most part, though with sporadic gaps. The old and the new live comfortably and excitingly with each other, as a visit to Istanbul demonstrates. Turkey is thriving. Those whose image of Islam is informed by skewed sketches find one of the world’s most Muslim countries defying stereotypes.

Democracy has been an on-again, off-again phenomenon in Turkey. As the twentieth century crept into the twenty-first, the progress that Ataturk enabled led to expectations that would not be denied. The rise of Islamism and traditionalism under the current leadership, even as Erdogan pushed important reform, does not sit well with a generation—again particularly in Istanbul—that takes secularism, modern culture and principles of freedom very seriously.

That is how we get here today. Even as Prime Minister Erdogan was intent on ending the occupation of Taksim Square, dozens of lawyers joined in and were arrested at the courthouse. These tensions are nothing new for Turkey; the military has been in charge more than once, and was then turned out. What is new is how much of the world is watching.

This isn’t about whether a little city park in Istanbul should make way for a shopping center, or whether drinking alcohol should be restricted in Turkey (another issue that has seeped into the discussion). It isn’t the same as other “springs”, Prague or Arab, about moving from dictatorship to democracy. This is a democracy already, one of the most interesting in the world. We are watching the kind of challenges that twenty-first century democracies will be facing, and seeing whether purportedly enlightened leaders can find appropriate ways of meeting them. For the sake of Turkey, and especially for the sake of glorious Istanbul, let’s hope so.


A Food Breakthrough on National Donut Day

Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich

Updated to include Donut Burger.

Today is National Donut Day. Celebrated on the first Friday in June, it was begun in 1938 to celebrate the Salvation Army’s distribution of donuts to soldiers in World War I.

Donuts, particularly glazed donuts, are quite possibly the world’s most perfect food—provided you are not concerned about health. (Bananas, which use that “perfect food” slogan, are also great, and are much healthier, but bananas are obviously not quite donuts.)

There are plenty of special deals on National Donut Day, including free donuts with or without a purchase. But something has happened to make this NDD even more special.

Today Dunkin’ Donuts rolls out its Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich:

Going Where No Breakfast Has Gone

We’ve gone and changed breakfast forever. Again. Bite into this smorgasbord of bacon slices and pepper fried egg, sandwiched by a Glazed Donut.

Let’s talk about bacon. Bacon is quite possibly both the world’s most perfect (taste) food and least perfect (health) food. The stunning brilliance of combining bacon with a glazed donut can’t be overstated. A Nobel Food Prize can’t be far behind.

On the practical side, you have a choice. You can eat glazed donuts or Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwiches once a year on National Donut Day. Or you can eat them every day. Or something in between.

Aristotle advised moderation in all things. With all the temptations he did face in ancient Greece, he still never had to withstand the allure of a Dunkin’ Donuts Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich. So as Aristotle would suggest on National Donut Day: go on, live a little.


Donut Burger

Many thanks to the reader who clued me in to Donut Burgers. Not only am I not eating enough donuts, I am also not keeping up with donut cuisine. As with all cutting-edge dishes, the origins of the donut burger are controversial. It is generally attributed to singer and producer Luther Vandross, who ran short of hamburger buns and substituted Krispy Kreme donuts, to create what is sometimes called the Luther Burger. It is now a staple of state fairs and other places where eating unusual things is essential to the experience. In all honesty, though, I’m not sure I get it, or want to get it. On the other hand, they say don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

The Next Civil War: Religion

Lincoln Penny
A few years ago, I proposed that the American divide over abortion might one day reach the dangerous depths of a much earlier conflict over slavery. Not since slavery—not even with still-festering questions about racial and other inequalities—has an issue had such a basic and visceral impact.

The poll numbers on abortion have shifted, the judicial context may be stable (for the moment), but the legislative activity is still a battlefield: among the initiatives, just today Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed a law prohibiting insurers that offer abortion coverage from participating in the state’s exchange under the Affordable Care Act.

Yet even with that, abortion will not be the biggest issue that cleaves America in the next few years. It will be, much more than it is now, religion.

Not one religion against another, or one religion-based position against another. We are approaching the point where half of America has an explicit or implicit affinity with some organized religious denomination or belief, and half does not. The not includes a wide range from atheists, agnostics, areligionists or anti-religionists to those who are “spiritual but not religious.”

America is not a theocracy or, officially, a theocratic democracy. But “theocratic democracy” (see Israel) is the way a number of Americans see it approvingly. Our conventions, traditions and even our money support this, and when they didn’t support it sufficiently, it was enhanced—as when during the Cold War against godless Communism, “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.

The dynamic between religious and secular has long played out in America in just about every official sphere. But in the past, those who fought for the secular and even succeeded (prayer in schools) were considered an aberrant and weird fringe. The fringe is now a minority, but still in some eyes, aberrant and weird. What happens when that fringe turned minority becomes an equal partner in American civics, citizens who are guided by bright moral lights, just not those that emanate from lamps they don’t believe in and refuse to support—or allow to rule their lives? What then?

Abraham Lincoln said we could not survive half-slave and half-free. The nineteenth century would not have hinted at it. but the American twenty-first may be half-God, half-not. What might Lincoln say then?

Mountains or Molehills: How to Unflatten the News

Mt Everest - Justin Bieber
Digital access has made the news world flat. Flat as in if you use a news aggregator, there is some attempt on the site to stack the most important stories within a category, but since all categories have the same dignity, you really wouldn’t know, being from another planet, whether the civil war in Syria is more or less significant than Justin Bieber racing his Maserati through his exclusive California neighborhood (hint: it’s not Bieber).

Just as digital has created this unsortable mess and mass of news, such that Hamlet, who insane or not could tell a hawk from a handsaw/heron, would have trouble telling an important story from an inconsequential one (hint: your uncle killing your father to marry your mother is an important story).

Here is a solution. Since it is very easy to adjust type size digitally, stories that aggregators, editors or writers are willing to admit are not earthshaking might be presented in a smaller font, while those that are vital could use a larger one. This was always a convention of print news, and there is no reason that the capabilities of digital information shouldn’t be used to bring this approach up to date. As in:

Top Stories

Civil war in Syria threatens regional and global stability and peace.

Justin Bieber continues to race his Maserati around his neighborhood, despite complaints from neighbors.

Getting and Giving a Break

Everyone is someone else’s pain, or at least pain in the ass. We don’t always know this or acknowledge it about ourselves, thinking how we are put upon or suffering at the hands of others, yet unwilling to see how others are overlooking our own silliness or meanness.

We are constantly getting breaks from family, friends and particularly from those in loving relationships. Since we can’t actually count the number of breaks we get—most are silently and even unconsciously given—the best path to balance is to give breaks to others as infinitely as possible. This can seem painful, because we are convinced it is our duty to make the world or someone we know and love “better.” Except that more than we realize, others are making the world better by allowing us to be who we are without comment or critique. Compassionate criticism has its place, but so does giving breaks, more often than we do.

Moral Mondays

Moral Mondays

Today, Monday, June 3, is another Moral Monday in North Carolina. A Mega Moral Monday. Small and local right now, Moral Mondays have the potential to be the kind of broad movement that in recent years progressives have wanted but so far been unable to achieve.

In May, the North Carolina NAACP began peaceful protests each Monday at the General Assembly. The civil disobedience is meant to bring attention to legislative curbs on Medicaid expansion, workers’ rights and voting rights, and to the lack of legislative progress on gun control and public education funding. There have been an increasing number of arrests of activists, 153 so far. This week, the protests are expanding across the state.

All movements are more likely to fall flat than catch fire. The Occupy movement reflected real dissatisfaction and outrage, but never sufficiently articulated the underlying principles that would galvanize people to commit and to connect with each other in big numbers.

Moral Monday is built on a foundation that is at the heart of what bothers so many Americans. As is apparent from many of our political controversies, some of those who claim the moral high ground sometimes seem to ignore possible moral shortcomings in their policies, e.g., a Christian imperative to lift the poor and heal the damaged may be at odds with extreme cuts in government support and programs. (In this regard, see questions about Ayn Rand that arose in the most recent election.)

Moral Monday simplifies what is admittedly a set of very complex issues to a very basic baseline: If you claim, by the light of faith or by a sense of enlightened humanity, to believe in moral action, then your idea of morality must be your primary guide. You are free to choose that morality; no constitution, no set of laws, nothing can or should move it. But once you have chosen, and especially after you say it loudly every Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, or on whatever days you proclaim your core beliefs, your duty is to act on it. If you don’t act morally, or if you try to rationalize around that morality for some supposed greater cause, you are only human, but should investigate and consider your action, and even your possible hypocrisy.

Moral Mondays may not make it beyond North Carolina. But it is possible that in a little while, all around the country, more and more people will start the week by taking a stand and, if necessary, getting arrested for it. There is a global and historic tradition for this sort of action, and great change has been made.

Thank you North Carolina NAACP. Mondays will never be the same.