2012 - %3, November

Thoughts on Our National Feast Day, With 6 Recipes

| Wed Nov. 21, 2012 4:13 AM PST

In his 1996 book Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom, the great food anthropologist Sidney Mintz concluded that the United States had no cuisine. Interestingly, Mintz's definition of cuisine came down to conversation. For Mintz, Americans just didn't engage in passionate talk about food. Unlike the Spanish and their paella or the French and their cassoulet, most Americans don't fixate on and quarrel about what comprises, say, an authentic cheeseburger or a proper TV dinner.

But things have changed in the 16 years since Mintz cast his judgement. People are talking about food now—and have become all too obsessed with it, according to some. "Nobody cares if you know about Mozart or Leonardo anymore, but you had better be able to discuss the difference between ganache and couverture," the literary critic William Deresiewicz recently complained in the New York Times.

Thanksgiving has evolved along with food's cultural status. I remember when it meant a shriveled up, industrially produced turkey surrounded by side dishes flavored mainly by canned cream of mushroom soup, garnished with cranberry "sauce" that retained the shape of the can from whence it emerged. Now it is greatly fussed over—people are spending more time and money chasing down excellent ingredients, and subjecting them to ever more elaborate preparations.

All of that is great, and a major step forward. But I hope our emerging food fixation also inspires us to think about what Thanksgiving is and why it matters. First of all, of course, we can't think about it without acknowledging the atrocities of the European settlement of North America—fairy tales about how the holiday emerged from cooperation between settlers and Native Americans aside.

Despite its problematic origins, this holiday long has long seemed like a kind of miracle: a celebration of the harvest and to convivial feasting right here in the nation that invented indiustrial farming, styrofoam-encased fast food, and car dining. If Thanksgiving had been drained of all meaning by the recourse to instant mashed potatoes, I hope it's not now evolving into a "vehicle of status aspiration and competition, an ever-present occasion for snobbery, one-upmanship and social aggression," as Deresiewicz described what he called our emerging "foodism."

In other words, I hope we can all relax a bit about precisely what we're buying for the table—whether it's heirloom enough or rarefied enough—and spend more time pondering why it matters where our food comes from. "[W]e eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we're eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world," Michael Pollan famously observed in The Omnivore's Dilemma. That's something to remember on Thanksgiving—and there's also something that Pollan forgot: human labor.

Calm down, and remember that Thanksgiving is a feast, and feasts are fun.

Just as every apple in your pie and every squash in your soup represents nutrients extracted from soil and petroleum burned in the process of production and distribution, they also represent the effort and skill of farmers and workers. Unfortunately, in the United States as in most of the world, food system workers, from farm fields to meatpacking plants to big-box grocery sections, are among the lowest-paid and most-vulnerable people in the workforce. Spare them a thought, too—and support their efforts to win better pay and treatment.

And also, calm down, and remember that Thanksgiving is a feast, and feasts are fun. Don't kill yourself in the kitchen. If there's one thing I've hoped to accomplish in my Tom's Kitchen column, it's that great-tasting food doesn't have to mean a high degree of difficulty. Simple techniques can lead to delicious food—and more time to enjoy that food, as well as the company of friends and family in a spirit of gratitude.

To that end, I offer thanks to have found an engaged and smart group of readers with whom to share my investigations of our food system, in all of its awfulness and emerging promise for change. And here are a few Thanksgiving-worthy recipes from the Tom's Kitchen vault: simple, and, I hope, delicious.

Roasted Broccoli With Garlic and Chili Pepper

2 Quick and Easy Sides to Spice Up the Thanksgiving Table

Raw Kale Salad, With Hat Tips to Brooklyn and Caesar

Making a Hash of Breakfast (for Thanksgiving morning)

Ice Cream to Melt the Blues

Butternut squash soup with sautéed greens

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Thanksgiving and the Rise and Fall of the Bird Empire

| Wed Nov. 21, 2012 4:13 AM PST

 Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

I was struck yesterday reading this report that the population of wild birds in the UK has dropped by 44 million since 1966. The calculation comes from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the British Trust for Ornithology, and others. Today's 166 million nesting birds numbered 210 million in 1966. Which means that for every five birds you might have seen while strolling the British Isles 46 years ago you'll see only four now. Our world grows quieter... Or does it? 

Numbers from The Economist:  Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Numbers from The Economist: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons 

Because at the same time that wild birds are declining worldwide the kingdom of poultry rises. In 1960 there was roughly one chicken for for every person on Earth. Today there are three chickens for every person alive. That's 19-plus billion chickens at any one time—a wildly dynamic number since in the US alone 23 million chickens are killed daily, 269 a second

Numbers from WATTAgNet.com: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Numbers from WATTAgNet.com: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Turkey photo: lynn.gardner via Flickr

To put it bluntly there are shiteloads of birds today. Just not as many in the air or on the waters or in the forests or grasslands or islands like there used to be. Many are in coops and worse. The lucky ones are free range. Globally we now eat almost as much poultry as pork, the number one meat consumed. Domestic birds thrive albeit mostly miserably. 

 Based on National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Based on National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Counts: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

And wild birds decline. The National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count reveals that North America's most common birds in decline are down 68 percent since 1967—from 17.6 million to 5.35 million. Some species have declined 80 percent in the past 4.5 decades.  

Numbers from the National Audubon Society:  Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Dominic Sherony via Wikimedia CommonsNumbers from the National Audubon Society: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Dominic Sherony via Wikimedia Commons

What's hopeful for me is that many of these depressing data come from something new and refreshing: the rise of citizen science. The Christmas Bird Count is the largest and oldest citizen science effort underway, according to Wikipedia. It transformed a bloody 19th century ritual—an annual day-after-Christmas no-holds-barred bird hunt to kill whatever, wherever, the more the merrier—into a bird count. Courtesy of the unusual foresight of ornithologist Frank Chapman, an officer in the newborn National Audubon Society. I'm thankful for that. And for where the next 100 years of that awakening might lead us.

Benghazi and the Fox News Effect

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 11:51 PM PST

Why has the shameful witch hunt against Susan Rice continued to gain traction even though there is literally not a shred of evidence that she did anything wrong? I'd say this Pew poll tells us all we need to know. The only segment of the country that really cares about the sham Benghazi scandal is Republicans, and the reason Republicans are riled up about it is because of Fox News. How far down the rabbit hole have they gone with their 24/7 hysteria? A friend who follows their coverage closely emailed a few days ago to tell me what it's like these days: "Listening to Fox on this is like watching a Fellini movie."

And while we're on the subject: as they've started to lose traction on their more outré conspiracy theories (Obama watched the attack in real time, he ordered military troops not to intervene, he was blackmailing David Petraeus, etc.), Republicans have been reduced to blustering about their outrage that the intelligence community's explanation of what happened in Benghazi has changed over time. There's nothing especially scandalous about this, of course, since that's pretty much what you'd expect to happen as they got more information. It's not really clear why the mainstream media is paying any attention to this unusually lame complaint.

But my friend points out something that really can't be emphasized enough: in fact, their explanations haven't really changed all that much. "They still think protests against the video were part of this in various ways; they still don't think al Qaeda or even meaningfully 'al Qaeda-linked' groups were involved, although perhaps an individual or two; and they still think this wasn't 'pre-planned' to any significant degree. I'd say those initial talking points have held up remarkably well." Given the usual fog surrounding events like this, I think that's right. See Joe Klein for more on this.

Marginal Tax Rates, Take 2

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 6:47 PM PST

Yesterday I wrote a post that described the effect of letting the Bush tax cuts on the rich expire. Thanks to the fact that rates would only increase on income over $241,000, it turns out that the effect on anyone earning $1 million or less is pretty modest:

Several commenters pointed out that this table only applies to ordinary income, and that's true. The Bush tax cuts also lowered rates on capital gains and dividends, and Obama would let those go back up on high earners. In addition, Obamacare includes a 3.8 percent surcharge on investment income over $250,000. All of this adds to the tax bill for the wealthy, but it doesn't change the basic issue here: moving up from one bracket to another would still only affect income above that bracket. And tax rates on capital gains, which are mostly utilized by the rich, would still be well under the rates for ordinary income. As usual, TPC has all the details if you want to dig into this further.

Beyond that, there's a fair amount of additional complexity for upper middle-class earners up to about $200,000 or so, thanks to a wide array of tax credits and deductions that phase out at various income levels. Megan McArdle provides the chart below, which shows some of the most common ones. The red lines indicate where the phaseouts are complete:

None of this really affects our discussion of people with incomes over $250,000, but it does illustrate the fact that moving across a phaseout line can sometimes have a significant effect on your taxes:

For example, a married couple filing jointly in 2013 with two kids at home and one in college who go from making $100,000 to $125,000 loses a $2,000 child tax credit and $1800 worth of HOPE credit, an increase of almost 4% in their effective—not marginal—tax rate. The marginal tax rate on their extra earnings is 15.2% just from deduction losses; that comes on top of the 28% they'll be paying the federal government in income taxes, and whatever state income tax they owe.

I don't have any real point to make here. I just wanted to acknowledge that my income tax chart only showed one piece of the picture. It's the most important piece for most people who earn under $1 million (above that, investment taxes tend to become more important), but there are still plenty of little gotchas in the tax code that can have funny effects as they phase in and out.

Could "Present and Voting" Help Reform the Filibuster?

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 2:58 PM PST

Senate reformers have been talking lately about new filibuster rules that would require minority senators to keep talking during the entire length of their filibuster. No more nonsense about just announcing a filibuster and then heading out for drinks. Gregory Koger points out a problem with this:

A determined majority could outlast a single obstructionist, or a few senators, but an organized succession of twenty or so senators could occupy the floor one at a time, each demanding the presence of a majority of the Senate. In order to restore attrition filibusters, the Senate needs to balance the rules of the game so that only one pro-bill senator is required to stay in the chamber while an anti-bill senator filibusters.

Right. As long as the minority can tag team, while retaining the right to roust majority senators out of bed at any time by demanding a quorum call, the cost of a filibuster is far smaller for the minority than the majority. But what if we changed just this single aspect of things?

Here's an idea. Senate Rule XXII, which controls the filibuster, originally required two-thirds of all senators present and voting to break a filibuster. In 1975 this was changed to three-fifths of all senators duly chosen and sworn. But what if we went back to the present and voting standard?

In that case, the majority would still have to hang around, so there's a cost to trying to break a filibuster. But the minority has to hang around too. At any point, if too many minority senators have gone home or skipped town, the majority can call a vote and break the filibuster as long as they have three-fifths of all the senators currently on the floor.

Obviously this would require several other rule changes to be effective. And maybe it's not possible to create a set of rules that would effectively make this work. What's more, I think it's a dumb idea anyway. Should the Senate really be run on the basis of which side can muster up the most physical stamina?

Still, if this is the direction that reformers want to go, it's worth a thought. I'd be interested in hearing from some Senate rules guru why it couldn't work.

Foreign Policy Experts React To The "Red Dawn" Remake

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 2:17 PM PST
Paid For By The Committee For Good-Looking Young People Against Totalitarian Foreigners.

Well, Hollywood has remade Red Dawn, and the foreign-policy wonk community is baffled.

The 1984 original (directed by John Milius) depicts the trials and triumphs of the Wolverines, an all-American teen guerilla squadron that defends Colorado against invading Soviet, Sandinista, and Cuban forces. (The film was so culturally influential in the United States that the 2003 operation to capture Saddam Hussein was named after it.) The 2012 version takes place in Spokane, Washington. Barack Obama is president, and the attack is happening on his watch. The remake updates the villains to North Korean troops—aided by Putin's Russia—who conquer large chunks of America with their warplanes, electromagnetic pulse machine, and use of anti-Wall Street propaganda.

The North Koreans. These guys. (It's important to remember that the film is not satire, and that the last movie to portray the North Koreans as an existential threat to the US was Team America: World Police.)

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The Tea Party Strikes Back

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 12:48 PM PST

For two weeks, the extreme right has been forced to listen to party sages blame the 2012 election loss on them. Todd Akin! Richard Mourdock! Demographic apocalypse! The 47%! Now they're fighting back:

“The moderates have had their candidate in 2008 and they had their candidate in 2012. And they got crushed in both elections. Now they tell us we have to keep moderating. If we do that, will we win?” said Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader.

....Ted Cruz, a tea party favorite, trounced Texas’s establishment candidate in a primary on his way to becoming the second Hispanic Republican in the Senate, and the battle he waged in the Lone Star State epitomizes the fight between the two sides. Although he is considered a rising star with a personal biography that GOP leaders wish to promote, Cruz falls squarely in the camp that thinks Romney was not conservative enough and did not fully articulate a conservative contrast to President Obama, except during the first presidential debate.

“It was the one time we actually contested ideas, presented two viewpoints and directions for the country,” he said at the Federalist Society’s annual dinner in Washington. “And then, inevitably, there are these mandarins of politics, who give the voice: ‘Don’t show any contrasts. Don’t rock the boat.’ So by the third debate, I’m pretty certain Mitt Romney actually French-kissed Barack Obama.”

I think that Vander Plaats is selling himself short. Given the fact that conservatives eventually decided that George Bush was nothing more than a big-spending, Latino-pandering RINO, they could argue that moderates lost two elections for them (1992 and 1996), won two elections but destroyed the party brand in the process (2000 and 2004), and then lost two more elections (2008 and 2012). So that's a full 24 years that moderates have been screwing things up.

Will this narrative gain traction? I don't know. But I could definitely see things playing out this way. One possibility is that the extreme right has one last big hurrah, nominating someone like Rick Santorum in 2016, and then gets absolutely blown out of the water due to a combination of a toxic candidate, changing demographics, and an economy finally in pretty good shape. And that will be their Waterloo. Cooler heads will finally prevail and by 2020 we'll have two relatively sane political parties in America.

I have no idea if things will really play out like this. But it's certainly a possibility.

Bachmann's Ed Allies Warned of Mind Control Scheme

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 12:28 PM PST

Since we reported last week on Georgia GOPers' four-hour, closed-door briefing on a planned United Nations takeover of the Deep South, the event's organizer, Sen. Chip Rogers (R) has dropped his bid for another term as majority leader and distanced himself from the contents of the presentation. On Monday a spokesman told the Huffington Post that Rogers "probably sat politely if he was there, that is his style."

But the conspiracy in question—that liberals like President Barack Obama are using a mind-control technique called "Delphi" to push a one world government with the aim of foisting sustainable development on the world's citizens, as outlined in a decades-old UN agreement called "Agenda 21"—actually has much deeper roots. How deep? As Bluestem Prairie blogger Sally Jo Sorensen points out, the Delphi siren was sounded in 2002 by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann's allies at the education watchdog, the Maple River Education Coalition. That year, when Bachmann was still speaking at group functions and pushing its policies at the state capitol, the MREC hawked a two-page instructional document titled, "Beware the Delphi Technique." It warned:

The Delphi Technique was developed by the RAND Corporation, a liberal think tank, in the 1960s. It was developed originally as a way of using repeated surveying of a group of people to bring them to agreement or "consensus."

The original survey technique has been adapted for use in controlling and manipulating meetings or study groups called to get public input for issues in education, police community relations, state control of child care, etc.

Delphi was framed as the vehicle by which central planners at the state and federal level would ultimately break down the walls of sovereignty and push a pantheistic global union. But all was not lost; there was an easy way out:

Maple River Education CoalitionMaple River Education Coalition

Bachmann, as far as I can tell, never discussed Delphi directly. But it was a pretty integral aspect of the MREC's push against the Profile of Learning, the Minnesota curriculum standard that launched Bachmann's career in public life. Beginning in 1998, she criss-crossed the state on behalf of the group and maintained close ties with the MREC during her time as a state Senator in St. Paul. In hearings as a state Senator Bachmann used her platform to push the Agenda 21 conspiracy in a fashion that would have fit in at the Georgia state capitol; she once questioned a panel of professors on whether they supported population controls or intended to ban humans from living in certain areas. She also fretted that the United Nations definition of sustainable development would lead to a moratorium on light bulb production.

In early November, Bachmann scored the narrowest re-election victory of her congressional career despite the fact that her district became more conservative after redistricting. She held off a challenge from Democrat Jim Graves by just one point—in a district that Mitt Romney won by 15. Raving against sustainable development helped launch Bachmann's career, but if this month's election results are any indication, her frequently conspiratorial warnings may also be what eventually brings it to an end.

"Did Jesus Die for Klingons, Too?" and Other Pentagon Projects

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 12:07 PM PST

Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn (R) is the rare Republican these days who is willing to argue that cutting defense spending is not only feasible, but important. To that end, he recently published a report identifying nearly $70 billion in wasteful spending from the defense budget. Many of the items make his GOP colleagues who believe the defense budget is sacrosanct and untouchable look incredibly foolish. A quick run-down:

  • The 100-Year Starship Project: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has spent more than $1 million to "foster a rebirth of wonder" and to make space travel to other solar systems feasible in the next century. To that end, the agency paid $100,000 to sponsor a strategy workshop in September featuring a session called "Did Jesus die for Klingons, too?" on the theological threat to Christianity that the discovery of life on other planets might pose. A related conference devoted to the future of space travel included a workshop on "what intersteller explorers might wear." (Hint: Not polos and khakis.) The event featured an "intergalatic gala" for which attendees were asked to come in "starship cocktail attire."
  • Caffeine Zone 2: The Office of Naval Research supplied funds to Penn State University researchers who developed a smart phone app designed to "help people manage their caffeine consumption to suit their lifestyles." Coburn notes that two such phone apps already exist without the help of military financing.
  • Beef Jerky Roll-ups: The Defense Department invested $1.5 million to develop a new twist on beef jerky. The savory snack is designed to be more like a "fruit roll-up" than a Slim Jim, and to double as a sandwich filling if necessary. Coburn notes that the private beef jerky market has no shortage of products that the department might use, and that the jerky industry is thriving without the help of taxpayer dollars.
  • "Does this caulk gun make me look taller?": The US Air Force paid $680,000 to fund research on whether men were perceived as taller when they were holding a pistol than if they were simply wielding a caulk gun, paint brush or a power drill. Answer: Yes.
  • The Search for Extraterrestrial Life Institute: Remember those old screen savers from SETI that supposedly tracked the search for life in outer space? Based in Berkeley (of course), SETI amassed a huge array of telescopes that scanned the skies for "electromagnetic signals that could hint at the presence of an intelligent alien civilization." In 2011, SETI went dark for lack of, well, finding anything interesting and lack of funding. Thank heavens the Air Force stepped in! According to Coburn, the Air Force saved SETI from extinction with a $2 million infusion of funds to see if the SETI telescopes might supplement the country's existing search for aliens.

Coburn's report, called "Department of Everything," is useful in poking holes in Republican arguments that the Defense Department should be spared a single dollar of cuts lest national security collapse entirely. But it's also sort of a sad testament to the way the nation's budgeting process has gone wildly awry. All sorts of domestic needs that are starved for funding—everything from medical research (Coburn finds DoD funding breast and prostate cancer research) to alternative energy development to paleoentology—have found their way into the defense budget because that's the only place Congress is willing to spend money these days.

Butterball's PR Staff Mysteriously Absent Pre-Thanksgiving

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 12:03 PM PST

A while back, the animal advocacy group Mercy For Animals turned up some alarming footage of workers at a Butterball facility kicking and throwing turkeys and hitting them with metal rods. MFA sent out a bunch of emails yesterday reminding reporters of that awful footage. I thought this might be a good opportunity to ask Butterball a few questions about its operations—including its reaction to MFA's allegations. So I sent the company a few questions, including: 

  • How many turkeys does Butterball sell every year?
  • How long does it take for an average Butterball turkey to reach slaughter age?
  • Are Butterball turkeys fed antibiotics? How about ractopamine (Topmax)? Any other growth enhancers?
  • How has Butterball responded to Mercy For Animals' allegations of abuse at factories?

I got an away message from the first spokeswoman I tried, so I forwarded it along to someone else. Here's what I got back:

I hope you're well today. I received your note below from my colleague, Bridget.
Unfortunately, resources who are appropriate to answer these questions are limited this week and are unavailable to respond by your deadline.

I wrote back:

Okay, but it does seem like this week of all weeks would be a crucial one for answering these questions! I'd really like to include Butterball's input if at all possible.

No dice. The spokeswoman responded:

Thanks, Kiera. Due to scheduling, we just won’t be able to make it work. Re: the MFA allegations, I can share with you the company statement if you’d like – let me know.

I wrote:

Okay. Can you at least tell me whether Butterball uses antibiotics, ractopamine, and/or other growth enhancers?

And...crickets. No company statement, no answers on growth-enhancers, nada. Mind you, this is the same company that runs a fully-staffed hotline to tell you how to cook your turkey. The company's website boasts that "No question is too tough for these turkey talkers, and they are ready and excited to tackle any challenge you throw at them." 

Except, it seems, when it comes to the turkeys themselves.