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My food pyramid is more like food columns lately

My food pyramid is more like food columns lately

I have been living on rice and pulses for weeks (pulses=lentils, split peas, red beans, pink beans, black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas…you get the idea). These foods deserve their own posts, not just for keeping me alive in this narrow stretch, but because they are also some of the first crops of humankind (and our history with them goes back way longer than that). However, as much as I love my chili and curries, tonight I couldn’t bear to look at the crock of chana masala. Plus I somehow managed to complete my training as a new employee of [Redacted], the regimented and tight-fisted financial firm where I am improbably quartermaster, and I felt like celebrating the fact that I made it through a (mostly) full week of grueling work alive.

Uh...is this a post about the glamor of working on Wall Street?

Uh…is this a post about the glamor of working on Wall Street?

So I gathered up my nickels and bought one of the cheapest meats available at the supermarket to make a strange poultry feast. Now this is one of my favorite meals, but it is kind of a monster’s dinner–and it is definitely made of meat! My readers who are vegetarians…or even just squeamish may want to skip this cooking post [ED: Why is a recipe post even here?] and come back tomorrow for Fourth of July stuff.

Chicken Livers (photo by the hungry native)

Chicken Livers (photo by the hungry native)

OK, we are making delicious chicken livers with onions in creamy marjoram vermouth sauce! I usually eat it on a bed of yellow rice, but it is really a French meal and it also works well on buttery mashed potatoes, if you want to make those. The key to the meal is fresh undamaged livers without gall bladders…but your only clue in the supermarket is color so this is sort of a Russian roulette meal. Just buy the freshest looking chicken livers and you’ll probably be fine.

Drain the chicken livers (which, rather unpleasantly, come floating in a little plastic cup of chicken blood) and dredge them in a deep plate of plain flour with a pinch of salt mixed in. I threw away one of the livers that looked like it came from a chicken with a serious drinking problem, but all of the livers smelled good (if they smell rancid or bilious, you uh probably need a new batch). Keep the bloody flour—you’ll need it! Grease a large solid frying pan with a bit of olive oil and start frying the livers on medium heat. A lid really helps if you have one!

Thanks Mom and Dad, for the really nice pan.

Thanks Mom and Dad, for the really nice pan.

I then chop up a medium onion and get a handful of wonderful marjoram from the garden. Flip the livers and throw a large pat of butter in the pan. When the butter melts and starts sizzling, put the onions in and flip them around so they don’t burn.

Marjoram

Marjoram

Add the chopped marjoram and some dry thyme and turn the flame down and put the lid on. Now mix the bloody flour with water till it becomes a viscous paste. The livers should be browned and firm and the onions transparent. Pour the flour water into the pan. Cook covered for a few minutes over low heat and then add a liberal splash of dry vermouth. If the gravy looks too thick, just ad some water and turn up the heat. Slosh everything around delicately with a spatula and add some sea salt to taste. Let the meal simmer on low heat till it looks right and then let it rest while you rice finishes (this all goes really fast).

I'll put up this mystery image so you can imagine the meal

I’ll put up this mystery image so you can imagine the meal

The meal looks like brown glop with horrible livers and dispiriting brown bits floating in it. It smells like butter, onions, trace elements, and cooked viscera. Sadly I forgot to take a picture before I fell on it and devoured it like a savage—so you can’t see how ugly it looks. Yet, when it comes out right, it is one of my best meals (and I’m a very good chef). I always imagine it being cooked by some sad scary old French man who lives alone in a forest, but when you get to know him you realize that he is a visionary genius and his horrifying meal is a gourmet treat.

They say he lives on entrails...and read all of Proust...

They say he lives on entrails…and read all of Proust…

This post concerning chicken strayed pretty far from the beaten path, but now you have a gourmet dinner you can make for next to no money! Let me know if anybody makes it! I’m new to food blogging but it seems to be all the rage out there and I thought that this meal fills a peculiar sophisticated/impoverished/delicious niche!

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Drop everything!  Pantone (a private corporation which specializes in standardizing color palettes for different industries and companies) has announced the color of the year for 2015.  The special color for the new year is…Marsala, a deep dark red named after Marsala, the fortified Italian wine which in turn is named after the port of Marsala.  I guess I was really on top of trends when I blogged about burgundy a couple of weeks ago, since burgundy is a similar color with a similar provenance (although burgundy is a purer—and prettier– dark red which lacks the earthy brown notes of Marsala).

completo-marsala-di-burberry-prorsum

According to Pantone’s fulsome press statement, Marsala is a perfect color for…well everything:  “Much like the fortified wine that gives Marsala its name, this tasteful hue embodies the satisfying richness of a fulfilling meal, while its grounding red-brown roots emanate a sophisticated, natural earthiness…This hearty, yet stylish tone is universally appealing and translates easily to fashion, beauty, industrial design, home furnishings and interiors.”

chicken_liver

Other self-proclaimed culture-makers and arbiters of taste are less satisfied with the hue.  NYmag.com felt the tone evoked Olive Garden (a mid-range restaurant franchise which makes coastal elites shudder and drop their caviar spoons) and…um…feminine sanitary goods.  The Atlantic talked about fraternity bathrooms, 70’s institutional carpet, and mystery meat with plenty of offal mixed in.  Clearly Marsala inspires strong visceral feelings (ha) and synesthesia, even if it does not necessarily make everyone want a new Marsala Maserati.

ht_pantone_color_year_marsala_jc_141203_16x9_992

I was a big fan of last year’s color “radiant orchid” which was a lovely mid-tone pinkish purple (for the record, tastemakers liked radiant orchid too and thought it betokened “economic recovery”).  I think burgundy is prettier than Marsala (which I would probably call “brick”), but the 2015 color evokes garden paths, bound books, farm equipment, trilliums, and, yes, delicious chicken liver, so I like it well enough.  It seems like my family even had a Marsala-colored Chevy station wagon when I was growing up in the late seventies.  I doubt I will be buying an all Marsala wardrobe or a Marsala blender, but the color is very pretty…for some things.  And, as ever, if you despise Marsala (or if its Olive Garden notes cause the stock market to crash) there will be a completely new corporate-chosen color of the year in 2016.

You would not believe how hot the back seat of this thing could get...

As an aside, you would not believe how hot the back seat of this thing could get…

The Groundhog, Marmota monax (photo by Bill Smith)

Happy Groundhog Day!  Preliminary reports coming in seem to indicate that the nation’s most eminent groundhog oracles are not seeing their shadows today (what with the continent bestriding blizzard and all).  Oddly, this is interpreted as a sign that spring will arrive early this year.  However I tend to think those groundhogs on TV are media personalities who have forgotten their rural roots.  When I lived on a farm, the concept behind the holiday was more straightforward:  if you saw an actual groundhog on Groundhog Day, then winter might indeed end early, but if you didn’t (and I never did) winter would not be over for six more weeks.  Today most non-celebrity groundhogs did not stir from their deep hibernation chambers.  We probably still have plenty of winter left.

Groundhog Day is observed on or around Candelmas, which ostensibly celebrates the presentation of Baby Jesus to the temple:   Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Kohens & Levites to perform the redemption of the firstborn and ceremonially purchase their firstborn son’s life back from the priests (I’m not sure Jesus ever really escaped the priesthood or the temple of Solomon so maybe his parents should have gotten their money back–but that’s a different story).  Candelmas was elided with pre-Christian holidays involving the prediction of the weather by animal augury.  The holiday’s roots in America are from the Pennsylvania Germans.  Apparently in pagan Germany, the original animal weather prophets were badgers or bears.  Imagine how exciting this holiday would be if we stuffed our pompous civic officials together with a disgruntled bear who had just been prodded awake from hibernation so people could take flash photographs!

At any rate we have gotten rather far afield of the day’s celebrated weather oracle, the groundhog or woodchuck (Marmota monax) which is actually a rodent of the marmot family, Sciuridae. Marmots are large solitary ground squirrels which, like pikas, generally live in the mountains of Asia, Europe, and North America.  The groundhog is an exception among the marmots since it prefers to live on open ground or at the edge of woodlands.  The deforestation of North America for farms and subdivisions has caused groundhog population to rise.  Although groundhogs are omnivores, the bulk of their diet is vegetation such as grasses, berries, and crops.  They are gifted diggers who construct a deep burrow with multiple exits.  This burrow serves as their chief living quarters and refuge from predators.  Since groundhogs enter true hibernation, they usually also maintain a separate winter burrow (with a chamber beneath the frost line) for the sole purpose of their months-long suspended animation.

A Groundhog Enjoying a Garden

Groundhogs, however, have a deeper utility to modern humankind than as primitive weather gods.  Devoted readers will know my fascination with liver research, and groundhogs are the principal research animal used in studies of Hepatitis B and liver cancer.  Since groundhogs are prone to a similar virus in the wild, they always develop liver cancer when infected with hepatitis B.  Laboratory groundhogs have thus been responsible for many advances in understanding liver disease and pathology–including the discovery of a vaccine for Hepatitis B and the realization that immunizing against hepatitis B virus can prevent liver cancer.  Currently 350 million people around the world are suspected to have hepatitis B.  Forty percent of those infected will develop chronic liver damage or cancer.  According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 600,000 people die every year from complications related to the infection (which is more than the total number of United States citizens killed in World War I and World War II combined).  Perhaps the Groundhog should be thought of as a profound benefactor to humankind thanks to its utility as a laboratory animal.

Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the Halloween season by exploring the greatest family of monsters in all of mythology—the offspring of Echidna! Today’s monster takes us on a dark but fascinating path: those of you with sensitive natures might wish to avert your eyes…Is everyone still here? Excellent! Today we are talking about the ultimate divine torture–which took the form of the terrible Caucasian eagle.

Allow me to backtrack…

The son of Themis, Prometheus, was the titan with the power of prophecy and the curse of conscience. He is one of the most intriguing characters in mythology since his story involves the Greek conception of humankind’s creation and ultimate destiny (all of which probably deserves a longer post elsewhere). To summarize, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and presented it to mankind, setting the latter on a path towards ever greater technical savvy and ultimate godhood. He was severely punished for the crime. Zeus bound Prometheus to a mountain peak on Mount Kaukasos with unbreakable chains and sent a terrible eagle to daily feast upon the titan’s liver. As Prometheus was immortal, his liver regenerated and he was forced to suffer the hideous torment over and over and over. The eagle, with insatiable appetite and razor claws, was one of Echidna’s offspring. This dreadful scene has frequently been painted by great artists.

Der gefesselte Prometheus (Jacob Jordaens, circa 1640)

Speaking of artists, the liver is a sensitive and frightening subject to some people. Thinking about all the delicate little hepatocytes being exposed to daily wear and tear is enought to make anyone anxious (to say nothing about the massive trauma inflicted by a quasi-divine eagle monster). Carbohydrate metabolism and protein synthesis both require the liver. Fully understanding these processes seems nearly impossible, and just thinking about how many things could go wrong is agonizing. However we must set aside our qualms and push on, for not only is the liver completely and absolutely vital to life (which can be said of other organs), its cellular makeup is unique. Certain hepatocytes are capable of leaving G0 quiescence and re-entering the cell division cycle. Evidence also points to the existence of multipotent progenitor cells in certain parts of the adult liver. This is why the liver is the only internal human organ capable of naturally regenerating itself–as little as twenty-five percent of a liver can regenerate back into a whole organ. The liver is thus a major focus of gene therapy research and stem cell study. Prometheus’ regenerating liver was not unique (though surviving such abdominal trauma certainly would be).

Prometheus Being Rescued by Hercules (Christian Griepenkerl, 1839-1912)

Prometheus was ultimately saved from his terrible fate when Heracles took pity on him. After shooting the eagle from the sky with his great bow, the hero snapped the unbreakable chains and freed the titan. Aeschylus hints that such was the will of Zeus—for Prometheus had divulged a critical secret about Thetis who was fated to…well never mind. That also is a story for another day. Prometheus was free. The Caucasian eagle was dead (though Zeus took care to memorialize it in the heavens as the constellation Aquila). Humankind remains free to keep stumbling forward with fire and a tragic thirst to find how things work. Right now, somewhere in a laboratory filled with axolotls and stem cells, we are fashioning technologies which will provide complete liver regeneration–perhaps even the growth of artificial livers. We must find this out: it is fundamental biotechnical knowledge necessary to truly understand living things. Comprehending and mastering the liver’s ability to regenerate is another step along our road to apotheosis.

The Constellation Aquila

A marble bust of Sulla

An online conversation today reminded me of Plutarch, whose lively biographies provide so very much of our present knowledge of the statesmen and generals of classical antiquity.  My very favorite passage of Plutarch (and possibly in the whole canon of Roman history) consists of three throw-away paragraphs from the life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix commonly called Sulla (or “Sylla” by 18th century classicists).  The whole biography is worth reading, for Sulla was one of the greatest figures of the Roman Republic, a peerless general who lived during the harrowing struggle between the optimates and populares.  Sulla assumed the long moribund office of dictator by force or arms (conquering Rome in the process).  He used his supreme power to make necessary constitutional reforms, and then, to universal astonishment, he resigned.  The following passage is not really about him though. 

The first paragraph is a sort of Roman joke where Sulla takes a little vacation and expresses amazement upon coming across some survivors from a town he had exterminated.  The second paragraph–my favorite–details how his troop captured a satyr and brought it before Sulla for interrogation (something worth keeping in mind when assessing Plutarch as a source).  The third paragraph details the fair auguries and good omens which Sulla viewed as he prepared for combat—a particularly auspicious liver from a sacrificed animal and a pair of magical ghost goats fighting!  It then offhandedly describes a great miltary victory Sulla won. Plutarch wrote this in 75 AD and the translation is from the pen of no less a poet than John Dryden. I love the passage for its robust color, its fancifulness, and for the window it provides into the long vanished Roman soul:

During Sylla’s stay about Athens, his feet were attacked by a heavy benumbing pain, which Strabo calls the first inarticulate sounds of the gout. Taking, therefore, a voyage to Aedepsus, he made use of the hot waters there, allowing himself at the same time to forget all anxieties, and passing away his time with actors. As he was walking along the seashore, certain fishermen brought him some magnificent fish. Being much delighted with the gift, and understanding, on inquiry, that they were men of Halaeae, “What,” said he, “are there any men of Halaeae surviving?” For after his victory at Orchomenus, in the heat of a pursuit, he had destroyed three cities of Boeotia, Anthedon, Larymna, and Halaeae. The men not knowing what to say for fear, Sylla, with a smile, bade them cheer up and return in peace, as they had brought with them no insignificant intercessors. The Halaeans say that this first gave them courage to re-unite and return to their city.
 
Sylla, having marched through Thessaly and Macedon to the sea coast, prepared, with twelve hundred vessels, to cross over from Dyrrhachium to Brundisium. Not far from hence is Apollonia, and near it the Nymphaeum, a spot of ground where, from among green trees and meadows, there are found at various points springs of fire continually streaming out. Here, they say, a satyr, such as statuaries and painters represent, was caught asleep, and brought before Sylla, where he was asked by several interpreters who he was, and, after much trouble, at last uttered nothing intelligible, but a harsh noise, something between the neighing of a horse and crying of a goat. Sylla, in dismay, and deprecating such an omen, bade it be removed.
 
 At the point of transportation, Sylla being in alarm, lest at their first setting foot upon Italy the soldiers should disband and disperse one by one among the cities, they of their own accord first took an oath to stand firm by him, and not of their good-will to injure Italy; then seeing him in distress for money, they made, so they say, a free-will offering, and contributed each man according to his ability. However, Sylla would not accept of their offering, but praising their good-will, and arousing up their courage, went over (as he himself writes) against fifteen hostile generals in command of four hundred and fifty cohorts; but not without the most unmistakable divine intimations of his approaching happy successes. For when he was sacrificing at his first landing near Tarentum, the victim’s liver showed the figure of a crown of laurel with two fillets hanging from it. And a little while before his arrival in Campania, near the mountain Hephaeus, two stately goats were seen in the daytime, fighting together, and performing all the motions of men in battle. It proved to be an apparition, and rising up gradually from the ground, dispersed in the air, like fancied representations in the clouds, and so vanished out of sight. Not long after, in the self-same place, when Marius the younger and Norbanus the consul attacked him with two great armies, without prescribing the order of battle, or arranging his men according to their divisions, by the sway only of one common alacrity and transport of courage, he overthrew the enemy, and shut up Norbanus into the city of Capua, with the loss of seven thousand of his men. And this was the reason, he says, that the soldiers did not leave him and disperse into the different towns, but held fast to him, and despised the enemy, though infinitely more in number. 
 

A Satyr Mosaic from Roman Ruins in Libya

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