Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

I think all of us can agree that 2016 had a bit of a rough run. It was politically charged; it was tragic and sorrowful; it was also beautiful in many ways; and I hope it will open the door to some much needed healing in the year to come. Holding with tradition for the eighth year running, I put together a bit of a recap of the past year seen through the eyes of My Munchable Musings.

This year seemed particularly replete with environmental and social grievances, as if the Anthropocene - the age of Homo sapiens - had finally come into its own. Despite international efforts to overcome poverty and injustice, we are still battling inequalities reminiscent of bygone eras. This was my fifth year Living Below the Line, contemplating the trade-offs the food insecure face in terms of costs, calories, and nutrition. Perhaps a product of my own news filters - thanks selection bias and algorithms for reinforcing our bubbles - but there also seemed to be considerable coverage of human-induced environmental problems and social justice issues. Imminent climate change catastrophes made late headlines, victims of environmental exploitation made small waves, and the world watched rather silently (or preoccupied) loss of human rights and dignity. Thanks Twitter for making the world's atrocities so much more accessible (and Storify for allowing me to rehash it all).

Going back through my actual blog posts from the year, however, there seemed to be much more to celebrate. In true Munchable fashion, we took a bit of a tour through through the beauty of biodiversity and food, at the intersection where art and agriculture collide. About halfway through the year, a challenge to compile a week of photos depicting beauty in nature made its way around the interwebs. A lunchtime conversation spurred a post on the amazing tuber diversity. And of course I could not go a full year without pontificating on the joys inherent in the art of bread-baking. These may seem like small potatoes, but to me they seem more like beacons of hope amidst stormy weather.
Finally, this year saw many developments here at command central. At the end of January, I left the damp of England after 2.5 years and moved to Australia in order to continue the over-education process. On the two month journey between the two Commonwealth countries, I made a second transcontinental rail trip to see immediate family in the US, followed by a first foray into Southeast Asia (including some history lessons and another train trip). Starting the PhD has helped me finally come to terms with my identity NOT as an ecologist, but as intentionally straddling disciplines (good luck with that...).

Mid-way through the year, I did some stock-taking as a 30th birthday exercise. Almost as a physical reminder of this aging, I proceeded to tear my ACL and menisci (...lesson to all that gymnastics takes hours of training, particularly when you are no longer 17). To ensure the year ended on a high note, I scheduled in my first surgery and overnight stay at a hospital the week before Christmas. I suppose out of necessity, the new year will be one of recovery, and not just for me, but hopefully more broadly from all the cruelty, divisiveness, and hatred that has taken place recently. Here's to a more enlightened 2017.

Read Years Passed

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Light Six Candles

The eve of December 24th not only marked ubiquitous Christmas observances, but also the commencement of the eight-day Jewish holiday of Chanukah. It is not a particularly important holiday, augmented and shaped into its contemporary form to align with holiday celebrations around Christmas and New Years. But the holiday itself commemorates two events that

First of all, Chanukah is about a battle victory. While postured as another tale of the underdog overcoming oppression against all odds, it actually recounts the rebellion of a moderate fanatic group of Jews - the Maccabees - against assimilation into the growing Hellenic civilization during the second century BCE. On the one hand the holiday celebrates the survival of The Temple (for another couple hundred years, that is) and associated religious observances, while on the other hand it is shrouded in violence and bloodshed. Some historians suggest this takeover of power led to corruption, which ultimately resulted in the rise in Roman rule in Jerusalem.

But we don't learn about that in Hebrew school. Instead, we learn about the second more mythological rationale for celebrating Chanukah. As the midrash goes, after battle the Maccabees confronted a sad state of affairs in the Temple. The supply of oil for the eternal lamp was enough to last only one day, and yet it kept the flame fed for eight. A miracle! As such, we observe the holiday by lighting candles for eight nights, eating potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly donuts (sufganiyot) fried in oil, and playing tops with the acronym נס גדול היה שם (a great miracle happened there).

While not a fight for oil itself (more like religious ideology and political power), it is interesting to me the juxtaposition between conflict and fuel, which is an issue of great concern even today. In Indonesia, oil palm plantations are expanding with a vengeance, set to double in output in the next decade. But this influx of large, often international companies has instigated a growing number of conflicts with local communities, where the underdog is still losing out to the seductive powers of money and influence.

A bit closer to home for many of us, this last quarter has drawn attention to the ongoing struggle of Native Americans on their traditional lands. Protests around plans for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to transverse sacred sites and important waterways now include not only members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, but other activists and military veterans. This show of solidarity has so far yielded some success in battle, but the war won't so easily be won with such a corrupting force as this liquid gold.

So while frying up some sweets and savouries in a more innocuous oil, perhaps dedicate some thought to our contemporary conflicts over oil (in its many forms), religion, and power. There are more than enough to last you eight nights.

Sourdough Sufganiyot (modified from Chef in Disguise)
1/2 cup happy sourdough starter (I fed my 200% hydrated plain flour in prep)
2 tbs coconut oil, melted
1/3 cup coconut milk
1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
2 cups plain flour
1 tbs chickpea flour/besan
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

2/3 -1 cup smooth jam
~500ml vegetable oil for frying

  1. Start by sifting the flours, baking soda, and salt together. Add in the sugar.
  2. In a separate container, mix starter, oil, milk, and extract together. 
  3. Combine all ingredients and then gently knead until they are integrated well. Pack away in a tupperware and stick in the fridge overnight. If you want to fry them up on the day, let them sit for a couple of hours covered. Similarly, take the dough out of the refrigerator a couple of hours before you want to start frying.
  4. Roll out dough to a thickness of about 2cm. Use a round cookie cutter (or an empty can, for instance) to cut out circles of dough. Allow to rest on parchment for about 15 minutes. 
  5. Meanwhile, heat oil a few centimeters deep over medium-high heat (I used a wok, which worked well). You know it's ready by placing a small piece of dough in and seeing when it begins to become active and float. Prepare a tray lined with paper towel or clean newspaper to drain.
  6. Dunk a few dough rounds in the oil, using a slotted spoon to to flip over when the underbelly starts to become golden. Then fish out and place on the paper. When it's slightly cool, coat lightly in cinnamon sugar. 
  7. Fill a pastry bag (or ziplock) sporting a decorating tip with the jam. When the donut has cooled, puncture with a chopstick about halfway through, then pipe in the jam. Now you're ready to serve!
More Chanukah Oil:
The Hannukah Story - New York Times 2009

Friday, December 23, 2016

Jingle the Waste Away end of the year is often characterised by celebration - by eating, drinking, giving gifts, and traveling to see friends and family. While I'd never want to diminish the importance of spending time with family, this time of year is also notorious for excess and waste. I've already dug a bit into consumerism and waste this year, but as we approach the period of gingerbread houses and eggnog, food is front and centre. Not so surprisingly, in the United Kingdom for example, an estimated 4.2 million Christmas dinners went to waste in 2014.

In industrialized nations, this waste occurs at roughly three points: 1) at the farmgate, where retailers determine if produce meet their aesthetic standards; 2) at the shops, where retailers ensure shelves are always amply stocked; and 3) in the home, where we either cook too much or fail to prepare foods in time. And while some of these things seem out of our control, it is important to recognize that we don't just waste food during holiday times; we can actually be proactive about this waste year-round. 
We're in a bit of a predicament about waste reduction ambitions for points 1 and 2. Australia has a highly concentrated food retail market - Coles and Woolworths make up an astounding ~70% of the market, though only 45-50% for fresh produce (which, alongside bakery, are the biggest retail wasters). A Conversation piece from earlier in the year essentially argued that curbing waste on this end of the food chain comes down to policy and regulation, drawing on the example of retail food waste bans in France. The vast market power these businesses enjoy allows them almost free reign in dictating the quantity and quality standards that farmers must meet. Organizations like OzHarvest help on the other end, by collecting and redistributing food surplus to charitable organizations. But there is a big sea, and there are both legal and logistical issues to overcome to fully address the approximately 44 million tonnes of waste. Australian retailers are still lagging in discounting products close to their sell-by dates to move them from the shelves to people's plates (and not the bins), and there are other low-hanging fruit.

But there are also the choices we as consumers make that affect food waste, and ultimately would have trickle-down effects in terms of the Big Guys' sourcing practices and policies. A Rabobank study found that Australian households toss 14% of their weekly groceries. The Foodprint Melbourne Project found that the amount of food thrown away in the city in one year could feed two million additional people over that same amount of time. For my environmentally-inclined readers, this also amounts to 3.6 million hectares of land, 2.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, and 180 million litres of water. Decreasing these numbers and making more conscientious decisions about what we buy, can provide a signal to retailers from the demand side for how they should act., the good news is that food waste at the household level itself is easier for us as individuals to control, and particularly important during these times of festivity. Here are some holiday jingles as a reminder:*
  1. You're makin' a list, and checkin' it twice, buying too much is not very nice!
  2. How to tell, does it smell, the date says it should go. But oftentimes, the food is fine, use your senses and you'll know.
  3. I'm dreaming of a leftovers sandwich, one from the meal the eve before.
  4. The platefuls of food are frightful, but spring will be so delightful; dump scraps in the compost so, things can grow, things can grow, things can grow.
Well, that's all I've got. Stay tuned for some quick Chanukah musings on oil and a recap of the action-packed year. Here's to a foodwaste-free holiday!

Further Wasteful Reading:
America the Wasteful (2013)
Smashing Pumpkins (2014)
What's my Age Again? (2015)

*1. You're eyes are bigger than your stomach, so buy less - Santa Claus is Coming to Town  2. Check if food is spoiled and not just past the "pull-by" date - Jingle Bells  3. Use leftovers to make a simple sandwich or freeze 'em for a rainy day - White Christmas  4. Compost non-meat leftovers - Let it Snow

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Where Art and Ag Collide
Giuseppe Recco's Still Life With Fruit
There is something magical about walking around an open-air market, glimpsing the varieties of fruits and vegetables, ones you'd never see - maybe never even imagine - gracing the supermarket shelves. It's like entering a gallery, a visual experience wherever you turn. 

I have never been much of a modern art person, usually drawn to the large landscape paintings that captured feelings of awe and humility (e.g. Romantic era paintings of nature), or sense of exploration and adventure (e.g. Hudson River School). This realism attempted to interpret humans' complex relationship with the 'natural world'. Yet this overlooks one of the most central interactions with the environment; it is not often the context in which we discuss another flavour of realism, the still-life paintings of flora and fauna particularly popular during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Four Seasons in One Head
There was an article in National Geographic, a couple of years ago now, which tries to piece together the evolutionary history of our modern-day watermelon. Cultivated crops are products of generations selecting fruits, vegetables, seeds, and grains that exhibit traits of better taste, more edible material, and ease of growing. Crops are in essence a most direct product of people's relationship to nature. Amazingly, some of this evolution is captured in art over the centuries, documenting how cultivars have ebbed and flowed with the passage of time. While the food still-life genre seems to bore some people to tears (sorry sis), it is a beautiful snapshot in time for the botanically-inclined. 

Perhaps a more explicit nod to humanity's direct confrontation with nature in the form of horticultural or extractive pursuits were Giuseppe Arcimboldo's series of seasons and elements (I'm a particular fan of autumn...). This vein of work seems to present a marriage between science and art, trying to meld botanical accuracy and metaphor within an image. At times I wonder how much effort was spent on studying rare or geographically-distant varieties of plants, how much the use of one particular cultivar was a carefully meditated decision, and how much we could learn from these paintings about the agricultural systems and trade flows of those eras. Perhaps it is not too late to change PhD topics, after all (...just kidding, I'm very content where I am!...)
Album Vilmorin. The Vegetable Garden (1850-1895)

Anywho, I had in mind no specific agenda for this post, no earth-shattering message; just a musing inspired by one of the various prints adorning my walls. So I'll end with acknowledging the artistry in marketing seeds themselves. Many a visitor returns from France with an A3 sheet adorned with a random assemblage of heritage varieties of fruits and vegetables. Little do most of us realise that we can thank the Vilmorin-Andrieux & Cie seed company (dating back to the 18th century) for this unintentional form of wall decoration. If you search 'vintage seed packet', a further array of masterfully depicted heritage plant varieties will emerge, testament to the beauty of agro-biodiversity and the skill of botanical artists. Not the obras we frequently find in halls of a museum, but a more subtle and everyday aesthetic.

So maybe, just maybe, you and I will look at still-life paintings (and seed packets!) with a more discerning and inquisitive pair of eyes. Art museum fieldtrip, anyone?

Monday, October 31, 2016

A Bitter-Sweet Reflection on Reefs was only a few days ago, the panicked cry that made brief headlines in the news. On the eastern coast of Australia, in the portion of the Great Barrier Reef north of Port Douglas, researchers have proclaimed that most corals are dead. It's the worst bleaching event recorded in the Barrier Reef. The decimation can be ascribed to a number of complaints - rising sea temperatures, strong El Nino conditions, crown of thorns attacks - yet there has been a longer history of impacts from degradation on the land and direct exploitation of the reef itself.

For the far north, temperature may be the biggest threat to corals. Moving further south in the Great Barrier Reef Catchment, there are other forces at work that derive closer to home. The sugarcane industry in Queensland dates back to 1861, fueled by south sea indentured (and forced) labour, not unlike its turbulent counterparts in Latin America and the Caribbean. But the troubled history of human rights infractions in most of the Western world is a topic for another time and place. Sugarcane, along with pasture and banana, replaced over half of the primary tropical forest in Northern Queensland. Even today, the management of grazing land and cane results in pollution that makes its way into coastal waters. those of you who are familiar with the challenges in the Gulf of Mexico, realize this is a similar (albeit, tropical in flavour) phenomenon. A large amount of cash crop (corn in the US, sugarcane in Queensland) is grown, using an associated amount of fertiliser and other chemicals. When there is a heavier rainfall, particularly during those summer storm months, soil is washed away along with the nitrogen, phosphorous, and pesticides, and eventually makes it to the Gulf or the Reef. This influx of nutrients stimulate the growth a algae (and the voracious crown of thorns starfish in the GBR), which ultimately use up oxygen when they die and decompose. The silt and other particulates block sunlight from penetrating the water column, making it difficult for marine plant life to survive. Basically, these conditions can become drastic enough that the coastal areas are uninhabitable for fish and other wildlife.

Now, the obituary to the Great Barrier Reef that has coral scientists up in arms may be a bit melodramatic, and could very well be counterproductive to actually doing something to increase the reef's resilience. Yet research shows that existing policies and management plans have so far proved inadequate to addressing the scale and severity of the problem. As an avid baker, it is quite concerning that by buying the Australian-grown cane sugar available in the grocery store, I inadvertently contribute to the reef's degradation. It's hard to find a meaningful indicator of sustainability when always worrying about greenwashing with labels, particularly when they involve partnerships between WWF and Coca Cola. But we do what we can, and try to stay informed as possible (particularly when feeding a bunch of conservationists...). For now, the Bonsucro certification (applicable to several sugar brands in Oz) does lay out thorough ecological and social standards that sugar production must meet - touching on labour, climate change, biodiversity, and downstream impacts. Maybe coral-inspired cookies will be my next [bitter]sweet baking adventure...