2011 - %3, November

Thanksgiving Cat Blogging

| Thu Nov. 24, 2011 10:00 AM EST

This is Inkblot last night, helping to supervise Thanksgiving preparations. That's a big ol' pot of boiling sweet potatoes he's interested in—or thinks he is, anyway, since he'd probably recoil in carnivorous disgust if real-life tubers ever showed up on his dinner plate. Still, a cat can dream, and really, you never know what's in a pot until you've thoroughly checked it out, do you? It might have been turkey stew or something.

Have a happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Enjoy the day and forget about politics. And if you're wondering what those boiling tubers are for, the answer is Praline Sweet Potatoes, an ancient family recipe originally from the LA Times. I don't care for sweet potatoes myself, but it seems to be pretty popular with everyone else. The recipe is below. Enjoy!

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My Accidental Thanksgiving With the Tran Family

| Thu Nov. 24, 2011 7:00 AM EST

To share a meal is to know a nation. That's what I think. A year ago this Thanksgiving (before I worked for Mother Jones), a long-running mixup led me on a remarkable and memorable adventure. It all started with spam. 

Four years ago, I'd started receiving group emails from the Tran Family, Somewhere USA, detailing Thanksgiving preparations. Surely these emails were intended for some other James West, I thought, and I deleted or ignored them. But they kept coming. By Thanksgiving 2010, curiosity got the better of me. I decided to investigate this enduring case of mistaken identity—who were these folks? And was the real James West upset he’d never received their holiday emails?

I tracked them down, culminating in a YouTube video clip that went viral and sparked a journey around the world, from Sydney to West Palm Beach Florida in time for the Tran Family Thanksgiving. What were the odds? America’s slowest news week, cravings around identity and tradition, and social media all combined to land me in the center of this extraordinary family's hospitality.

The story took on a life of its own, and among the thousands of online comments on the video, something else surprising and heart-warming materialized: a long list of invites to share meals around America. Arizona, Austin, Chicago, Seattle, New York, Rhode Island, San Francisco.

So I made this trailer. And maybe one day, when I have the time (wink, nudge MJ editors!), I'll discover more Thanksgiving tables across America as welcoming as the Tran's.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 24, 2011

Thu Nov. 24, 2011 6:57 AM EST

US Army Pfc. Charles Washington, Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul automatic rifleman, holds a gate open for an Afghan man as he exits the hospital in Shah Joy, Afghanistan, November 21, 2011. Members of PRT Zabul went to the hospital to conduct a key leader engagement. Washington is deployed from Charlie Company, 182nd Infantry Regiment, Massachusetts National Guard. Photo by the US Army.

A Peek Inside Our Farm

| Wed Nov. 23, 2011 9:00 PM EST

My boss: Maverick Farms director Hillary WilsonBoss lady: Maverick Farms director Hillary WilsonAs some of you may know, when I'm not scribbling away for Mother Jones, I help run a small farm and grassroots project in Valle Crucis, a small community in the Appalachian mountains just outside of Boone, North Carolina.

You may be wondering what precisely the hell is Maverick Farms and what my role is there. Mainly, these days, I'm sort of the farm mule. I tend to our flock of 40 laying hens—let them out of their house in the morning, keep them fed and watered, etc. I do heavy lifting jobs, like moving vast piles of compost from one end of the field to the other in a wheel barrow. I help set up irrigation pipes when the rains don't come; things like that.

I also earn my keep in the kitchen, cooking most lunches and dinners during the growing season for a farm crew ranging in size from three to seven or eight, depending on what's going on—a task which provides the fodder for my Tom's Kitchen column.

But now that I'm so busy writing, I'm no longer involved full-time in farm operations. Like so much of the broader sustainable food movement, Maverick is pushed forward these days by a young woman: Hillary Wilson, 27, the daughter of the couple who started the farm in the early '70s and the younger sister of my girlfriend, Alice Brooke Wilson. The three of us took over the farm in 2004, along with our friends Sara Safransky and Leo Gaev, and the project has evolved considerably over that time.Rebecca Bilodeau, a 2011 farm hand, tends plants in the passive-solar greenhouse.Rebecca Bilodeau, a 2011 farm hand, tends plants in the passive-solar greenhouse.

Hillary grew up here and started working on the farm with her father Bill when she was 17—and from the start, she was the most experienced farmer among us, despite being the youngest by a decade. Hillary now oversees not only a 3-acre vegetable farm, but also the crazy projects I'll get to below. I'm kind of her consigliere these days; she's the boss.

When we first launched, we knew we never wanted to be a niche operation selling to the high-end country club and resort restaurants that dot the area, which is a magnet for vacation homes for people who live in the hotter regions to the south and east. The idea of growing for a small elite while most people who live here year-round rely on fast-food chains and multinational grocery giants for food never appealed to us. We wanted to work on the ground to build an alternative food system that works for everyone.

So from day one, we saw the farm as a laboratory for finding solutions to what I see is the main riddle facing the sustainable food movement: how to expand access to healthy food in a way that works for farmers. The laboratory has had its share of spectacular near misses, like the major effort our first several years to transform the farmhouse into a restaurant one weekend each month. It was fun to play chef and come up with elaborate menus, but we realized that unless we were willing to charge exclusive prices, the dinners took up too much time to justify the money they brought in.

Alice Brooke Wilson and I, hoeing the corn. Alice Brooke Wilson and me, in the early-season corn patch. Over the years, we've concluded that the task of creating an accessible alternative food system is really about community building—about working with other farmers and with the broader community to create new economic models. In 2009, after four years of running a small CSA on our own, we launched High Country CSA, a multi-farm year-round CSA project designed to help stabilize the market for locally produced food and take advantage of our region's particular mountainous geography.

In the three counties that surround us, elevations range from 1000 feet to 3500 feet above sea level (we're at about 2800 feet). As a result, the area has a stunning diversity of microclimates, long winters, and mostly small farms (in the 1-3 acre range). The multi-farm CSA model gives our community a robust institution that delivers a variety of high-quality food even under challenging growing conditions.

And it's not just for people who can afford a big upfront payment for the season's produce. We invite people to pay for their shares in installments throughout the season, and in 2010, after a slog through the USDA's byzantine bureaucracy, we became one of the few multi-farm CSAs in the nation that can accept SNAP/EBT payments (ie, food stamps). As far as we have been able to find out, we are the only rural multi-farm CSA that takes EBT—although we would love to find out otherwise.

With the multi-farm CSA up and running, we're embarking on our next project: a farm incubator program, in collaboration with Appalachian State University, which has vacated a 13-acre educational farm a couple miles away. In our community, as in most of the nation, the only way we're going to create a food system that makes sense is to get more smart young people on the land. Hence, what we're calling FIG—the Farm Incubator and Grower Program.

The new incubator will create an "agricultural commons" to give landless farmers access to land and equipment to start new farm businesses, and will help link them to affordable land once they're ready. Hillary is a natural to lead the incubator—she's been teaching novices how to farm since I showed up here nearly eight years ago, when my entire growing experience involved a rather weedy eight-square-foot community-garden bed in Brooklyn. She's also worked closely with the dozens of young interns who have moved through Maverick over the years, eager to get experience working the land.

Kaitlin Melven, 2011 farm hand, tends our farmers market stand in Boone. Kaitlin Melvin, the other 2011 farm hand, tends our farmers market stand in Boone. 

So that's pretty much what we're up to here at Maverick Farms—that and eating well. For Thanksgiving, one of our star former interns, Hana Crouch, is coming over to cook a turkey that she raised and slaughtered (and that I have requested that she dry-brine). I'll be making those side dishes I wrote about a few days ago, along with a classic apple pie. We'll have some friends and family over, and we'll cook and laugh and drink and enjoy this most unlikely holidays in our fast-food nation: a day to celebrate food, the land it came from, and the people who grew it.

GOP Blows Up Yet Another Norm

| Wed Nov. 23, 2011 8:12 PM EST

We all know that Republicans have done their best to hamstring President Obama's ability to get anything done via routine filibuster. That's old news. We also know that they've slow-walked his executive appointments for the same reason. That's also old news. We even know that they've tried to prevent the new Bureau of Consumer Protection from functioning at all by refusing to confirm a director — any director. That's yet more old news.

So what's next? Today Harold Meyerson passes along their latest brainstorm: they're going to prevent the NLRB, an existing body that already has existing board members, from operating by the simple expedient of refusing to show up for meetings. No quorum, no votes:

In a letter made public yesterday, Republican Brian Hayes wrote fellow GOP-er John Kline, chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, that he might well not participate in the Board’s scheduled November 30 vote on changing the rules for union certification elections.

In his letter, Kline complained that he was not privy to some of the deliberations of the board (that is, of the two Democratic members) and thus might fail to show up for the scheduled vote. But in a long and devastating letter that board chairman Mark Pearce sent to Hayes yesterday, Pearce documented more than a dozen instances in which he and the board’s staff invited Hayes and his own staff to participate in all aspects of the rule-development process — hearings, data collection, even just trying to get Hayes to tell him which portions of the proposed rule he supported and which he opposed, and negotiating a compromise based on that discussion — only to have his entreaties either rejected or ignored by Hayes and his staff. In essence, Pearce told Hayes, you moved heaven and earth to ensure your exclusion from the process.

Whenever Republicans blow up another longtime tradition of governance, I always think, "What can they do for an encore? What's the next norm to go down for the count?" This one isn't as important as the filibuster norm, or even the debt ceiling norm, but on a smaller scale it's certainly every bit as egregious.

But I wonder what's next?

Rocky Balboa Heads to Broadway

| Wed Nov. 23, 2011 5:40 PM EST
Sly should seriously think about getting those veins checked out.

In 2011, the American people witnessed all kinds of previously unfathomable weirdness: For starters, we found out that small albino cyclops sharks really do exist. We saw the ex-CEO of Godfather's Pizza actually become the front-runner in the 2012 Republican presidential field. The White House told us that an alien invasion was not imminent. And just this week MoJo senior editor Dave Gilson gave us a disturbing, childhood-ravaging mash-up of The Adventures of Tintin and Newt Gingrich.

After being through so much, we're almost at the end of the year. 2011 can't possibly get any weirder now, can it?

Oh, yes. Yes it can. The Los Angeles Times' "Culture Monster" reported on Tuesday:

Sylvester Stallone is getting back in the ring with Rocky Balboa one more time -- but not as a star. The actor is co-producing "Rocky: The Musical," based on the Oscar-winning 1976 movie that launched his career.

The star appeared alongside his co-producers, the Ukranian boxing stars (and siblings) Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, at a press event in Hamburg, Germany, where the musical is set to open in November 2012.

Inspired by the box office success of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," and surely not intimidated by the troubles that musical encountered along the way, Stallone and company are reframing the underdog boxing tale as a love story between Rocky and Adrian..."Rocky" purists shouldn't fear -- hits from the films, including "Gonna Fly Now" and "Eye of the Tiger," will be included in the show...The world champion Klitschko brothers will help train the performers in boxing maneuvers.

Let me get this straight: They are turning Rocky into a musical.

And this man...

...is producing the show in Germany. I'm sure it'll end up being the manliest, most steroid-cocktail-drenched musical play ever to grace the stage, but...a musical?

Is this real life? This isn't an Onion headline? Does this mean we should expect The Expendables: The Musical to make its Broadway debut soon, too?

Stallone, famous for insane bodybuilding, his endorsement of fun, cancerous products in his films, and a popular action franchise that completely misses the point of its first movie, announced in March that he is also kicking off a new men's brand clothing line inspired by the fashion sense of (you guessed it) Rocky Balboa. Perhaps the musical is just more of the same cross-promo.

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Salsafying Cranberry Sauce

| Wed Nov. 23, 2011 5:33 PM EST

Cranberry salsa—that's salsa, not sauce—has been my Thanksgiving dinner contribution of the last few years. I gave up on the traditional stuff long ago, after too many Thanksgivings where the cranberry offering slides out of a can and plops into a bowl, maintaining its floppy cylindrical shape until someone mashes it into a gelatinous goo and sticks a spoon into it. I'd wager that secretly, only about a fourth of Thanksgiving eaters even like the stuff.

"Not so!" shouts Ian, my MoJo colleague from the next cube over. Ian hails from the fair hills of Connecticut. "In New England, cranberry sauce is an important marker of a good Thanksgiving," he tells me, glaring at me for questioning what he sees as an essential holiday coulis.

But I say, why suck the life out of this tart, crimson New England bead, reducing it to an insipid mess of sugar and limp berries? According to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers' Association, the cranberry is one of only three fruits native to North American soil, along with the Concord grape and the blueberry. It's time to get to know the fruit in raw form, and salsa allows you to taste the tangy snap of fresh cranberries. In the recipe below, the cranberries' tartness pairs well with the heat of ginger and chilis. Orange zest pulls it all together. So what if we've wandered off the traditionalist's map? On a plate heavy with roasted, boiled, sautéed, and simmered vegetables, a bit of raw crunch is a welcome respite.

Cranberry Salsa

Recipe inspired in part by SHASH's cranberry salsa recipe on AllRecipes.com

• 1 bag of fresh cranberries
• juice and zest of 1 orange
• 1/4 cup sugar
• 2 tablespoons minced ginger
• 1-2 serrano peppers
• juice of 2 limes
• a pinch of salt
• 1 bunch of chopped cilantro

Directions: In a saucepan, heat sugar, orange zest, orange juice, and ginger with 1/4 cup water until the mixture reduces and turns syrupy. In the meantime, chop the cilantro and serranos. Combine chilis and cranberries in a food processor until finely chopped. Transfer into a bowl, and add the ginger-orange syrup. Stir in cilantro, salt, and lime juice. Add a little more sugar and lime as needed; the salsa gets better after a couple of hours of soaking in its own juices. Eat with tortilla chips as an appetizer, or serve as a side dish.

Did BP Oil Make Shrimp Lose Their Eyes?

| Wed Nov. 23, 2011 4:51 PM EST

Little more than a year after BP oil disaster, seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is "as safe to eat as it was before the oil spill," the FDA insists on its website.

But along the Gulf itself, questions linger within the very fishing communities that rely on the Gulf's bounty both for sustenance and a living, as this CNN report shows (video below). For one thing, shrimp populations have plunged. The New York Times reported last month that Gulf fisherperople were complaining of the worst white-shrimp season in 50 years, with yields 80 percent lower than normal.

Several fisherman and processors make similar complaints in the CNN piece, and admit that they feel less safe eating shrimp now than they did before the spill. One makes an even more startling claim (see 2:47 mark of the video): "fisherman are bringing in shrimp without any eyes … they evidently have lost their eyes and they're still alive."

Romney: Indict Ahmadinejad for "Violating the Genocide Convention"

| Wed Nov. 23, 2011 4:35 PM EST
Mitt Romney totally knows the definition of the word "genocide," guys.

When asked about Iran and Israel at Tuesday's CNN national security debate, on-and-off Republican front-runner Mitt Romney replied in his typically tough, unambiguously pro-Israel fashion. After chiding the Obama administration for being "disrespectful to our friends" and playing softball with our foes, Romney said that as president he would take the necessary steps to confront the Iranian regime. One of the hallmarks of his plan: indicting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for "violating the genocide convention." (During the debate, Romney first said "Geneva Conventions" before backtracking and going with "genocide convention.")

You could give Romney the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he actually did mean to say the "Geneva Conventions" and that, under the pressure of a nationally televised debate, he merely misspoke. But Romney simply meant what he meant; he has been calling for this indictment since at least the end of 2007. Here's an AP report from September of that year:

"The Iranian regime under President Ahmadinejad has spoken openly about wiping Israel off the map, has fueled Hezbollah's terror campaign in the region and around the world and defied the world community in its pursuit of nuclear weapons -- capabilities that make these threats even more ominous," Romney said in a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon posted on his campaign Web site, www.mittromney.com.

In New York, Romney told reporters: "I think the invitation should be withdrawn. I think instead, Ahmadinejad should be indicted under the Genocide Convention."

Because Romney has been calling for this indictment since before Iran's bloody Green Movement protests, it's safe to assume that he was specifically referring to the Iranian President's over-the-top, alleged call for Israel to "be wiped off the map."

And here's where candidate Romney again steps into the murky waters of international law: The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, as adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in the years after World War II, defines genocide as any number of "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

Experts in the field cite an array of factors that would almost certainly impede Romney's proposed foreign policy initiative. "There are so many layers to [Romney's] argument that need to be explored because the implications are very serious," says Elizabeth Blackney, an anti-genocide activist and author. Blackney also argues that before any potential Romney administration can determine if Ahmadinejad's comments or threats would justify US support for an indictment, the former Massachusetts governor needs to elaborate on his plans. "US policy has been to not honor the International Criminal Court; we are not a signatory to the Rome Treaty. So is Romney signaling that he would recommend law enforcement under the [statute]... and fundamentally change American policy toward the ICC and the Genocide Convention? [His comment during the debate] was not very well thought out."

While there have been other voices arguing in favor of such an indictment, it's widely interpreted that a statement supposedly egging on genocide is not legally considered a tool of genocide, unless it can be taken into evidence as proving direct intent and premeditation. Furthermore, it would be unprecedented to indict a foreign leader for a genocide that hasn't even taken place yet.

Student Occupiers: It's the Debt, Stupid

| Wed Nov. 23, 2011 3:40 PM EST

College students have, to some extent, always been poor and hungry. But in the past few years, undergrads' plight has become truly dire. It's not hard to see why the Occupy Wall Street movement has struck a chord on campuses.

Just check out these stats: Unemployment among college grads is twice what it was in 2007. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the unemployment rate for 16-24-year-olds is twice the national average; grads under 25 are twice as likely to lack a job than their older peers. The New York Times reports that just half of students who graduated in 2010 had a job in the spring of 2011, and even those who did get jobs were often way overqualified:

An analysis by The New York Times of Labor Department data about college graduates aged 25 to 34 found that the number of these workers employed in food service, restaurants and bars had risen 17 percent in 2009 from 2008, though the sample size was small. There were similar or bigger employment increases at gas stations and fuel dealers, food and alcohol stores, and taxi and limousine services.

Earlier this week, students from an OWS offshoot called Occuppy Student Debt pledged to refuse to pay back their student loans. Some of the members of the group have shared their stories on the group's site. Here's one entitled "Suckit Sallie":

I was one of those kids who always pushed hard and dreamed big. I skipped a grade, was in all the right AP classes, one of 2 or 3 black student on the honor roll, and went out of state for college @ 17 and had no doubts I would make it in life. I used the government and Sallie Mae to make it through grad school within 6 years, and expected to be somewhere way different than where I am now…..

I am 25 now and living back @ home. With a different phone number to avoid all of the harrassing phone calls asking me to pay back $1400 a month I just don’t have. After 10 months of searching, even with my masters from a good school, I could only find an overnight stock job @ toys r us. I get talked to crazy all for $8 an hour. I am back in school, but becuase I went into default prior to getting in school, I can’t get a deferment yet. But there is no way I can pay my way out of default on $8 an hour. 

More stats on the dire financial straits of America's college students:

 

Sticker Shock

Average tuition (in $ thousands) at private and public colleges has climbed steadily over the last decade:

 

 

Deeper in Debt

The amount that students owed quintupled between 2000 and 2011.

 

School vs. Shopping

In 2010, for the first time ever, Americans' outstanding student loans ($ in billions) exceeded their total credit card debt:

 

Plus: If you're curious about how students are making ends meet, check out the last-resort methods our readers turned to to pay for their degrees.