Blue Marble - January 2012

Will the Lawsuit Over Oil Contamination in Ecuador Ever End?

| Thu Jan. 19, 2012 4:44 PM EST
Protesters hold photos of Ecuadorians outside of Chevron's headquarters in California.

In the past few weeks, there have been several developments in the ongoing lawsuit that Ecuadorian communities have filed against Chevron for polluting the Amazon. On Jan. 4, an appeals panel in the country sided with the communities and upheld the $18 billion judgment previously leveled against the oil giant. But the case is probably still far from over, as the plaintiffs will now need to find a way to actually enforce that decision.

This case started back in 2003, though the legal challenges date back to 1992. That's when the plaintiffs in the case—a group of indigenous Ecuadorians—first brought forward their complaint that the oil company Texaco had dumped 16 billion gallons of heavily polluted waste water into the Amazon over the previous three decades. Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001, which is why the company is now the subject of the complaint, and claims that its subsidiary "fully remediated its share of environmental impacts" before 1992.

The case has dragged on for years now, with all kinds of drama. That's included alleging that the plaintiff's aren't real, and then accusing the same not-real plaintiffs of racketeering in a US court under anti-organized-crime laws. The plaintiffs have dug up evidence of espionage and "dirty tricks" on Chevron's part. Last February, a court in Lago Agrio, Ecuador ordered Chevron to pay $18 billion in damages. And on Jan. 3, an appellate court upheld that ruling. There will still be a drawn-out legal battle over the money, however, as Chevron no longer has assets in Ecuador. The plaintiffs will have to take their case to another country where Chevron does have assets and get a court there to enforce the ruling.

Meanwhile, both sides are still raising complaints about malfeasance. Among the documents turned over by Chevron in one of the many cases, the plaintiffs' lawyers unearthed one (Exhibit F) that they believe shows that Chevron was gaming the soil testing that the company used in court to show that it had already cleaned up site. An internal document outlining Chevron's testing protocol notes that sampling points should be selected "to emphasize clean points around pits when possible." Another part of the document explicitly directs that soil samples from the perimeter of oil production stations that have already "shown to be clean" in a pre-inspection visit to the site. This document differs from what the one the company used in court to detail their testing procedures (Exhibit H). The plaintiffs publicly called on some of the experts involved in the sampling to recant.

In response to that most recent allegation, Chevron's lawyers accused the plaintiffs of "intimidating and threatening" their witnesses and called the claim "false and misleading" in a letter to the plaintiffs' legal team.

What's clear is that this case probably isn't going to wrap up anytime soon, despite the most recent ruling. Chevron maintains that the "politicization and corruption of Ecuador's judiciary" should render the decision null. (Even though it was Chevron that sought to move the case there in the first place.) Instead, the company wants the courts to go after the plaintiffs. "Chevron does not believe that the Ecuador ruling is enforceable in any court that observes the rule of law," said Justin Higgs, a Chevron spokesman. "The company will continue to seek to hold accountable the perpetrators of this fraud."

But the plaintiffs say Chevron is just trying to deflect blame. "They're trying to paint the Ecuadorians and anyone associated with Ecuadorians as corrupt," said Karen Hinton, the spokeswoman for the plaintiffs. "In their minds that was the only way they'd get out of this."

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LA to Porn Industry: No Glove, No Love

| Thu Jan. 19, 2012 12:33 PM EST

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles City Council approved a new ordinance that requires the makers of adult films to use condoms in their movies. If a porn company doesn't want to use condom, they won't be able to get a permit to shoot in the city—which has touched off quite an interesting debate.

The porn industry says they can't sell films in which condoms are used, and will probably just end up shooting elsewhere. From the Associated Press:

"It's going to be interesting to see how in fact they do try to enforce it and whose going to fund it and all of the time and effort they're going to spend," said Steven Hirsch, co-founder and co-chairman of Los Angeles-based Vivid, one of the largest makers of erotic movies.
"Ultimately I think what they will find is people will just stop shooting in the city of Los Angeles," added Hirsch. "That's a given."

Or, as one porn actress, Lorelei Lee, writes over at Salon, they'll simply ignore the law:

The most basic reason is that ordinances like the one passed this week will not have the effect of increasing condom usage in straight porn. The adult film industry has only been legal for roughly 30 years. It is still looked down on by many civilians as a shameful business, and the workings of the industry are still, in many ways, shrouded to outsiders – which is a good or bad thing depending on whom you talk to. Many of the people attracted to this industry are still those who don’t care a lot about public opinion or about obeying authorities. In the case of a condom mandate tied to permits, many producers will simply shoot in Los Angeles without a permit. Others will move production outside of the city – to places like Las Vegas, San Francisco or Miami, where some companies are already established.

I'm not convinced that the sheer fact that people will ignore the rule is a good enough reason not to try to put it in place. It seems to me that the idea is to try to find a way to make condom use more common in adult films. Although Lee may be right that the current industry standard of mandatory STI testing is doing a good job of preventing the spread of infections, she misses the outward facing issue, which is that porn-watchers don't necessarily know that the sexy pizza boy who drops trou upon delivery of an extra-large sausage to a dorm full of panty-clad undergrads recently got his junk checked by a doctor. They would be able to see whether he used a condom.

It's sad, of course, that many people get their sex education from porn. But they do.

New Study: It's Still Not Okay to Drink Alcohol While Pregnant

| Thu Jan. 19, 2012 11:18 AM EST
Your unborn offspring doesn't appreciate you salivating over this, ma'am.

Here's some well-worn conventional wisdom: If you are a pregnant woman, consuming alcohol (yes, even if it's just a Mike's Hard strawberry) is likely at the very top of your "don'ts" list.

Such wisdom, however, doesn't seem to be sinking in with a significant minority of pregnant women: According to a fifteen-year study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in September 2011, over 12 percent of American women have consumed alcohol while pregnant. Since 2008, the March of Dimes Foundation has reported that roughly "1 in 30 pregnant women [admit to] binge drinking (five or more drinks on any one occasion)."

Now a study published in a recent issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research paints an even grimmer picture of the impact of alcohol on fetal development, even—and especially—during the earliest stages. Alice Park of Time magazine reported on Wednesday:

Between 1978 and 2005, scientists at the University of California, San Diego worked with 992 women who provided information about how much alcohol they drank—as well as other substances they used—every three months during their pregnancies.

For every one additional drink the mothers consumed [above the recorded daily average] between their 43rd and 84th days of pregnancy [the second half of the first trimester], their babies had a 16% greater chance of being born smaller than average, which may put them at greater risk for mental and physical problems. Their infants were also more likely to have birth defects, such as a 25% higher risk of a smooth ridge linking the nose and upper lip, a 12% increased risk of an abnormally small head and a 22% greater chance of unusually thin upper lips.

Although there have been other recent studies that downplay the adverse effects of weekly "light drinking" during pregnancy, the UC San Diego researchers maintain that the results of their nearly three-decade inquiry raise serious concerns regarding the intake of even small amounts of alcohol during any of the three trimesters. "[O]ne of the challenges has been determining what are the windows of risk and the patterns in timing and quantity of alcohol use, and this [study] addresses that," Tom Donaldson, president of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Washington, DC, told USA Today. "This article very clearly demonstrates that risk begins with any use." 

Obama Rejects Keystone XL Pipeline Permit

| Wed Jan. 18, 2012 1:12 PM EST

This article has been updated and expanded since it was originally posted.

The Obama administration formally rejected the Keystone XL pipeline proposal on Wednesday—news that is not at all surprising, given the situation congressional Republicans created for it. Both the State Department and President Obama issued statements that said they have denied a permit for the controversial pipeline project, but put the blame on the limited time frame Congress gave them to make a decision.

"As the State Department made clear last month, the rushed and arbitrary deadline insisted on by Congressional Republicans prevented a full assessment of the pipeline's impact, especially the health and safety of the American people, as well as our environment," said Obama. "As a result, the Secretary of State has recommended that the application be denied. And after reviewing the State Department's report, I agree."

Obama also sought to emphasize that he did not see the rejection as a definitive statement on the pipeline project itself. "This announcement is not a judgment on the merits of the pipeline, but the arbitrary nature of a deadline that prevented the State Department from gathering the information necessary to approve the project and protect the American people," he said. "I'm disappointed that Republicans in Congress forced this decision, but it does not change my Administration's commitment to American-made energy that creates jobs and reduces our dependence on oil."

Under a provision passed in December, the Obama administration was given until February 21 to make its final decision on the proposed 1,661-mile pipeline. Republicans in Congress demanded that the 60-day deadline be included in a payroll tax cut extension passed last month. On Tuesday, the White House confirmed basically what I reported last week, which is that Obama can't grant permission for the pipeline in that time frame because doing so would violate a bunch of other laws.

In a press briefing, White House spokesman Jay Carney reemphasized that the bill demanding a decision is counterproductive. A possible alternative route through Nebraska that avoids some of the most ecologically sensitive areas—which the state's Republican governor requested—hasn't even been plotted out yet. That means that the mandatory federal analysis of that route can't be completed.

"Everyone—a lot of people, and certainly we—made clear back in December that a political effort to short-circuit that process for ideological reasons would be counterproductive because a proper review that weighed all the important issues in this case could not be achieved in 60 days—according to the State Department, which, again, runs this review process," said Carney.

In its statement on Wednesday, the State Department made clear that its denial of the permit application "does not preclude any subsequent permit application or applications for similar projects." So TransCanada can apply again, after it works out an alternative route through Nebraska.

For more of our coverage of the Keystone XL debate, see:

What's All the Fuss About the Keystone XL Pipeline?

A Giant Pipeline Carrying Dirty Oil From Canada to Texas. What Could Go Wrong?

TransCanada Agrees to Reroute Keystone XL Pipeline

Senate Republicans to Obama: Approve Keystone XL or Else!

Keystone XL Pipeline: Riskier Than TransCanada Claims?

In Classrooms, Climate Change Is the New Evolution

| Tue Jan. 17, 2012 9:31 PM EST

Over at Science magazine's ScienceInsider, Sarah Reardon reports on how the National Center for Science Education—a group dedicated to fighting the teaching of creationism in public schools—is expanding its mission in response to special-interest attacks on the teaching of climate science. The groups include the Heartland Institute, which has worked with the Koch Brothers to perpetuate the notion that climate change is a hoax, and which sends its "educational" materials to public-school teachers hoping to further its pro-business agenda. (Click here to check out the rest of our "Dirty Dozen of Climate-Change Denial.") From Reardon's dispatch:

"It's not like we're bored," says NCSE Director Eugenie Scott: Five state bills that would allow teaching intelligent design in schools have already surfaced in 2012. But after hearing an increasing number of anecdotes about K-12 teachers being challenged about how they taught climate science to their students, she says she began to see "parallels" between the two debates—namely, an ideological drive from pressure groups to "teach the controversy" where no scientific controversy exists.

All This Over $3?

| Tue Jan. 17, 2012 6:59 PM EST

Is the US going to start a trade war with the European Union over its efforts to cut planet-warming emissions from air travel? The US government has been threatening as much ever since the EU's plan to charge airlines for emissions was upheld in the European Court of Justice in December.

The fee has caused a flurry of outrage in Congress, and shortly before Christmas Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote a letter to the EU warning that unless the plan was abandoned, the US would be "compelled to take appropriate action." On Tuesday, the EU responded to Clinton's letter, declaring that it has no intention of dropping its plan because of the objections from the US, China, Russia, and other countries.

The Obama administration has been mulling retaliatory measures, which a senior administration official recently discussed with Reuters. Options include imposing new landing fees on European airlines, or some similar fee—which would probably make European airlines, and in turn European Union member countries, pretty unhappy.

But what often seems to go unmentioned is that the EU is actually only making international carriers pay for 15 percent of their emissions. They're giving away 85 percent of the permits. And a bunch of US-based airlines—American Airlines, US Airways, Delta, and United—have already announced that they plan to pass the costs onto customers. All whopping $3 per ticket of it.

A ticket to Europe will run you at least a few hundred bucks. Probably more like $1,000, depending on where you're going. Is that $3 really that big of a deal? It's especially ridiculous when you think about all the things you're charged for these days—checking luggage, carrying it on, printing your own ticket, having the airline print it for you, etc.—that don't have some specific benefit like fighting climate change.

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Ouch! Orangutans Eat Slow Lorises.

| Tue Jan. 17, 2012 4:48 PM EST

A new paper in the American Journal of Primatology reports on new instances of adult female Sumatran orangutans eating slow lorises.

From the paper:

We report 3 rare cases of meat-eating of slow lorises, Nycticebus coucang, by 1 Sumatran orangutan mother–infant dyad in Ketambe, Indonesia, to examine how orangutans find slow lorises and share meat.

In the video below, you can see a female after she knocked a slow loris out of a tree and bit it on the head (probably to avoid getting bitten herself since lorises have poisonous saliva), then carried it back to eat in the tree and try not to share it with her infant.

As  Madeleine Hardus at the University of Amsterdam et al report:

The mother often rejected meat sharing requests and only the infant initiated meat sharing.

   

     

Unlike chimpanzees, who hunt when fruit and their energy are abundant, the authors of this paper found orangs hunt only when fruit is scarce.

Slow loris captures occurred only during low ripe fruit availability, suggesting that meat may represent a filler fallback food for orangutans.

The authors also found that orangutans eat their meat more than twice as slowly as chimpanzees. Does this signify anything for human evolution?

Using orangutan data as a model, time spent chewing per day would not require an excessive amount of time for our social ancestors (australopithecines and hominids), as long as meat represented no more than a quarter of their diet.

Still, it's way better to tickle your slow loris than eat it, even slowly.

 

 

The Obama Administration Has Had It With These Motherf***ing Snakes on Motherf***ing Planes

| Tue Jan. 17, 2012 2:46 PM EST

On Tuesday, the Obama administration finalized a new ban on importing several species of giant snakes. The US Fish and Wildlife Service ban deals with four snakes—the Burmese python, the yellow anaconda, and the northern and southern African pythons—that are destroying the Everglades and other regions.

The species, which aren't native to Florida, will be banned for both import and interstate transportation under a century-old law preventing the illegal trade of wildlife, fish, and plants. This comes after the U.S. Geological Survey issued a report in 2009 that outlined the risks these species pose in fragile ecosystems and targeted the pet trade as the main way these snakes are finding their way into places like the Everglades.

Some of these snakes can grow to 18 feet long, so it's not a small snake problem we're talking about. Basically, what happens is that people think a giant snake would make a great pet, so they buy one. When they get tired of the snake, or can't feed it, or whatever, they end up releasing them into the wild. Then you have a giant, non-native snake slithering around, eating native rodents and birds, reproducing, and generally screwing with the ecosystem. They're a particular problem in Florida and other southern states, because they like warm weather and can survive on their own in the wild. (Although you'll find 'em slithering around in places like Ohio, too.)

According to the Department of Interior, most people who already own one of these four species of snakes won't be affected by the ban, as long as they live in states that allow them. They won't be able to take the snakes on road trips out of state or sell them across a state border, however. And you definitely won't be able to take your giant snake on a plane.

In a statement announcing the decision, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar noted that there is a growing recognition of the "real and immediate threat" that the giant snakes pose to places like the Everglades, both environmentally and economically.

There's also a fear factor involved in roving giant constrictors. A South Florida family found a 13-foot Burmese python in their pool on Christmas. The USGS report notes, however, that, "Although the largest individuals of all of the species covered in this work are probably capable of killing an adult human, most seem disinclined to do so."

Image-of-the-Week: Wandering Albatross

| Fri Jan. 13, 2012 4:48 PM EST

Credit: AntarcticBoy via Flickr.Credit: AntarcticBoy via Flickr.

The wandering albatross, that enormous glider of the southern oceans with the longest wings of any bird (some individuals exceed 11.5 feet/3.5 meters wingspans), needs strong winds to stay aloft. During periods of little or no wind they're forced to roost on the water. Now a new paper in Science reports how a warming climate is fueling faster average winds over the southwestern Indian Ocean, and this has enabled albatrosses there to fly faster and cover more water in less time. Consequently breeding males and females spend less time at sea and spell their partner more frequently at the nest (in 1970 nest reliefs happened on average every 12.4 days, by 2008 every 9.7 days). Better-fed parents meant more eggs hatched successfully (in 1970 ~66 percent of eggs hatched, by 2008 ~77 percent). Plus adult birds now lose less weight during the breeding season, weighing an average of 2.2 pounds/1 kilogram heavier than a couple of decades ago. Perhaps this positive response to climate change will help offset ongoing population declines from birds drowning in longline fisheries.

Confessions of a Restaurant Addict

| Fri Jan. 13, 2012 7:00 AM EST

This week, I'm trying to reduce my food spending by kicking my restaurant habit and cooking at home. I'm aiming to shell out no more than $60 on food all week. The rules: Stuff I already have in my pantry (olive oil, red wine vinegar, etc.) is fair game and doesn't count toward my overall spending. I'm not allowed to throw anything away. My inspiration in all this is chef and author Tamar Adler, who has mastered the art of what she calls "catching your own tail": transforming whatever odds and ends your pantry has to offer into deeply satisfying meals. Read my interview with her here.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012: My week of food-spending challenge is over, and I've had a few days to reflect on the results: six days and nights of cooking at home (except for a few cheats: two cafe hot chocolates, lunch out with a few coworkers, and one takeout Indian dinner, when I was coming down with something and not feeling up to cooking) for a grand total of $51—$9 under my goal of $60 for the week, and less than a third of the amount that I spent when I tracked my food spending for a week back in December.

I was less successful in my attempt to waste nothing; as I mentioned in my last post, plastic baggies, twist ties, and cellophane got the better of me more than once. But I didn't waste anything edible. Not bad, considering restaurants throw away a lot, as much as 20 percent of all their food, by some estimates. I hope to keep up this trend in the future, especially where animal products are concerned: Last year, the Environmental Working Group found that food waste accounts for 20 percent of the emissions associated with the production and consumption of meat and dairy products.

So will I keep up my restaurant boycott now that I'm done? Probably not entirely. To be honest, I'd miss my neighborhood eateries too much. At most of those places, I don't feel too bad about occasionally splurging—I consider it a delicious way to support local business. 

But I do think I'll be more sparing in my use of takeout and restaurants. The other night I cooked dinner in eight minutes flat. Eight minutes! It takes me longer than that to pick up Thai food. On the night when I had more time, it took me much longer to put my Indian feast together—about an hour. But I had a great time doing it, and the leftovers lasted for a few days. (If you were wondering what I did with the rest of my steamed cauliflower, it came to a tasty end: a fancy pizza my roommate made with goat cheese, nettles and a few eggs from our chickens.)

So: Going forward, I'm going to aim to take what I've learned—from Tamar Adler and from my own experiments this week—and cook the majority of my meals at home. First up: this spicy soup recipe from MoJo food and ag blogger Tom Philpott.

Friday, January 27, 2012: Sometimes when the train takes forever, they tell you why, and you understand and forgive them. And sometimes, you sit in the tunnel for what seems like an eternity with no explanation. Everyone slowly becomes sort of pissed, and by the time you get off the train, there is practically a stampede up the escalator at the station.

The latter happened last night, and by the time I finally got home, I was in no mood to cook. I  had finally made it through my leftovers from my feast a few nights ago, so I peered into my fridge to consider my options. Steamed cauliflower and the rest of my steemed beet greens do not a dinner make, I thought to myself, my crankiness level intensifying by the moment.

Then I remembered my eggs. My chickens have been laying up a storm lately, so I had plenty of fresh eggs to choose from, of all sizes and colors ranging from pale green to rich brown. A plan began to form in my mind. I sliced up a shallot and sauteed it with my beet greens in olive oil. In a separate pan, I warmed some of the steamed cauliflower with a little water. I selected two eggs and whipped them in a little bowl with salt and pepper.

Once the shallots and beet greens had cooked for a few minutes, I added the eggs and scrambled the whole mess of it. By that time, the cauliflower was warm, so I mashed it up. I washed some lettuce, and put the scramble and cauliflower in separate little heaps on the plate. Then, I used a trick Tamar recommends for a good three-quarters of the recipes in her book: I grated fresh parmesan over the whole thing. A lot of it. I added some freshly ground pepper, and called it an egg dinner.

I timed the preparation of this meal—the whole thing took eight minutes, start to finish. And it was incredibly satisfying. I ate the creamy cauliflower and eggs first, then I poured some champagne vinegar over the lettuce and called it a salad. By the time I was done, my train ride was a distant memory. I really couldn't believe how quickly this meal came together—and even more impressively, cured my crankiness.

A note about waste: I've been doing a good job of not throwing any actual food away, and I've been washing a few plastic bags here and there. But I admit to tossing plastic wrap from the parmesan tonight, that film thingy that comes on top of yogurt, and a few other annoying plastic odds and ends. If you have tips for avoiding this kind of plastic in the first place, leave 'em in the comments.

Thursday, January 26, 2012: Since I'm still working my way through the mountains of lentils, curry, rice, and tandoori cauliflower I made for myself two nights ago, I thought I'd write a little today about how I've been doing this week with non-lunch-and-dinner food: coffee, breakfast, and snacks.

Breakfast isn't too hard at all, since my habits haven't had to change: I generally eat oatmeal from a big cannister that I keep at work. Coffee, though, is another story. With a cafe a block away from my house and another one downstairs from Mother Jones HQ, it's almost impossible for me to resist the call of the $1.75 takeout joe, paper cup and all. But this week, my friend lent me an individual French press, which I've been using to make coffee at my desk. The coffee itself is comparable in quality to the stuff I get at my cafes, and it's actually sort of fun and satisfying to use the French press. As I mentioned on Tuesday, though, when I wanted hot chocolate, I caved and hit the cafe. It's harder to make that at work.

For snacks, I've been working my way through the apples, yogurt, and chocolate I bought during my big initial shopping. I've also had some ice cream, brought to me by friends. During my shopping, I considered adding a pint of ice cream to my haul, but then I thought it probably wouldn't kill me to lay off the Ben & Jerry's for a week. As it turned out, my enabling friends provided my fix.

Unrelated: I got some great tips from readers and friends on what to do with my unpalatable beans, but in the end I couldn't quite make myself eat them. So I gave them to some friends who I knew would love them:

Wednesday, January 25, 2012: Ladies and gentlemen, I might have overdone it last night. I got home from work with a vague idea about tandoori cauliflower and an hour later ended up with a multi-coursed, Indian-spiced feast. Here's my best guess at how one thing led to another:

  1. I chopped up my cauliflower, and decided to steam half of it plain and roast the other half with tandoori spice. My tandoori recipe—which I learned from some people I had brunch with a few weeks ago—is really easy: Just coat your veggies with tandoori spice, yogurt, and lemon, and roast at about 450 degrees for 45 minutes or so. I realized I had left my yogurt at work, but I had some buttermilk leftover from cookies I made last week, so I decided to give it a whirl.
  2. While half the cauliflower was roasting and the other half was steaming, I started some rice.
  3. "I need protein," I thought. I remembered some red lentils I had in my cupboard, so I made a very easy dal that I learned from another friend: I covered some lentils with water, then chopped a few cloves of garlic, two knobs of ginger, and a shallot to add when the lentils were boiling. But once I was done chopping, I realized I had too much of it just to season the dal, so...
  4. I decided to use the rest to turn the remainder of my roasted roots and beet greens into curry. I sauteed some of the garlic, ginger, and shallot in butter and added some cumin and garam masala for a minute or two. Then I added the roots and greens and decided, dimly recalling a yogurt-based sauce I had once seen in an Indian cookbook, that I would add some buttermilk. I had my doubts when the sauce seemed to curdle a bit. Regarding my many bubbling pots of food, I decided that my meal wouldn't be complete without...
  5. Some salad. I put some lettuce on a plate. Miraculously, everything finished cooking within about 10 minutes. At that very moment, my roommate got home. I implored him to help me eat the mountains of food I had made for myself. He humored me. I piled a little of each dish on my plate next to the lettuce.

The verdict: Not bad! The tandoori cauliflower was tender and tangy, and the curry fragrant with fresh ginger, weird improvised sauce and all. The dal was smooth and comforting, if not a little oversalted. The one problem was that I hardly made a dent in the heaps of food I made. Here's hoping I don't tire of these flavors anytime soon. I know it's more sensible to cook everything without spices, then add the flavors later. But this time I got carried away. I blame the deliciousness of ginger and tandoori spice.

And another confession: Remember those beans that I soaked for 32 hours then cooked? It turns out I, uh, don't really like them. They turned out too mushy and a little sour. Unless anyone has any brilliant ideas for how to disguise them to the point that they don't taste like themselves, they're on their way to becoming chicken feed.

 Okay, last thing for today: If you're craving more food-spending tidbits, you really should read this post by my colleague Tasneem Raja on why spinach is a good economic indicator.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012: I wasn't quite sure how I would handle dinner last night, since a friend and I were going to another friend's house to play music. We usually pick up Thai food before our weekly jams, since all of us come straight from work, and we like to use our two-ish hours for music playing, not cooking. But my friends gamely agreed to indulge my food-budget experiment, so I told them I'd bring over some ingredients. Yesterday morning I ran around my kitchen fretting about what ingredients to take, eventually settling on my bunch of kale, a shallot, some parmesan, and the tail-ends of two boxes of pasta, each of which was supposed to cook for a different amount of time. I left the house feeling harried and apprehensive, envisioning way-too-al-dente gemelli comingling with mushy rotini under a Spartan kind of leafy sauce. 

But much to my relief, the meal came together surprisingly well. We started cooking the gemelli in boiling water with plenty of salt and olive oil, then dumped the rotini in five minutes later. Meanwhile, my friend sauteed my kale and shallots, along with some cauliflower and leaks that my other friend happened to have in her fridge. We loosened the "sauce" with some water from the pasta, then served the whole thing with lots of parmesan. My friend was out of black pepper, so we used white pepper instead, a revelation—it gave the dish a sort of a white-sauce flavor. And the texture of the pasta was just fine—it hadn't seemed to suffer for its fraternizing. The whole affair took less than half an hour.

Next up: Lunch today. After band practice last night I finally managed to cook my beans, about a cup of which I threw together with some chopped garlic, olive oil, and parseley. I scooped those and some of my dwindling supply of roasted root vegetables over lettuce, threw it all in a tupperware, and called it salad. We'll see how it tastes.

And one confession: I got a takeout hot chocolate this morning from the bakery for $2.25. It was delicious.

Monday, January 23, 2012: My Sunday afternoon and evening got away from me yesterday, so I didn't have time to cook the dried beans I'd been soaking. Since I'd been envisioning some kind of pureed bean dip for lunch today, I had to do a little improvising. So I packed some of my roasted root vegetables into tupperware, grabbed an English muffin and my hunk of parmesan, and headed into work. When lunchtime rolled around, I layered the greens, roots, and cheese on the English muffin and broiled the whole thing in our office toaster oven. Here's the result:

The cheese could have been a little meltier, but overall it was a very satisfying lunch, with the sweet nuttiness of the roasted roots offset by the saltiness of the cheese and the tang of the greens. 

Meanwhile, Tamar read my first post and had this to say:

Your shopping and cooking looks so right on track. I'm particularly proud of your beet green use.
One thing, regarding a good loaf of French bread. It is precisely good bread's staling propensities that make it so useful. Fresh, it's great for whatever you're going to do with English muffins. But where English muffins' uses start and stop at their muffin-ness, stale bread is a salad ingredient--the croutons you quickly make, following instructions in my book, or any other one that makes it seem easy, turn just a cup of your roasted vegetables into bread salad, and there you go, lunch or dinner--or a soup ingredient--your bean broth, stale bread, some beans, olive oil. Or bread crumbs, which are all you need for delicious pasta with herbs, olive oil, garlic, and bread crumbs.

I wrote back:

I stood there in the market staring at a loaf of French bread, thinking, Tamar would totally buy this instead of packaged English muffins, but I couldn't recall the details. Good ideas on how to turn the stale bread into something useful. But I still want a slice of bread every day, and in my experience fresh bread becomes unslice-ably hard after about two days. Do you recommend pre-slicing some of it and freezing it?

To which she responded:

I do slice and freeze some bread, always. I sometimes leave half a loaf out, and feel European and perfect for a day. Then I'm pleased with my European perfection and slice the rest of it and freeze it in a few packages. More often I just go ahead and slice nearly all of it.

So next time: French bread it is.

Sunday, January 22, 2012: This morning, I went to the supermarket, list in hand. Other than a moment of looking wistfully at the takeout sushi by the deli counter, I stayed on task and managed to do all my shopping in about half an hour. Here's what I bought:

rather large scarlet turnip ($1.06)

bunch of golden beets, with tops on ($2.99)

head of cauliflower ($3.80)

bunch of kale ($2.07)

1.1 lb. baby mixed greens ($2.21)

bunch of parsley ($1.30)

head of garlic ($.32)

3 shallots ($.58)

3 apples ($2.06)

1 lb. dry cannellini beans ($2.10)

a little less than half a pound of couscous ($1.20)

can of tomatoes ($1.09)

package of English muffins ($1.99)

pint of Greek yogurt ($4.29)

small wedge of parmesan ($3.26)

bar of good dark chocolate ($2.75)

...for a grand total of $33.28 (including the five-cent bag credit). Not bad! Especially considering all the produce is organic, and most was grown in California. The big-ticket item turned out to be the yogurt, which I could have made myself for the price of a pint of milk. Next time. I mostly avoided packaged items with long lists of ingredients, with the exception of the English muffins. I'm guessing that a Tamar-approved substitution would be a really good loaf of French bread, but I can never seem to manage to keep fresh bread around for long enough without it getting stale.

Of course, shopping was the easy part. Having learned from Tamar that the key to preventing too-tired-to-cook syndrome is to prepare food in advance so it'll be handy when I need them, I put some of my dried beans in a big poat of water to soak. Then I set about cutting up my beets and turnip, saving the beet greens for me and the peels for my chickens.

Once the root vegetables were roasting in the oven, I considered the beet greens. Since I didn't know exactly how I'd use them this week, it probably would have been best to wash, dry, and save them whole. But they're pretty bulky, and my fridge is precipitously stuffed (I live with two roommates), so I decided to steam them to cut down on space. Here are the greens and root vegetables, steamed and roasted, respectively:

I managed to fit everything into two small tupperwares and took the scraps out to my chickens, who attacked the colorful peels with gusto. I was left with a few plastic bags and twist ties, which I suppose I'll save and reuse, since I'm trying not to throw anything away. The whole process of washing, chopping, steaming, roasting, and cleaning up took about two hours, a little longer than is ideal for me. The beans are still soaking, and I didn't even deal with the cauliflower or kale. Anyway, here's the result:

Well, okay. Organic and local though the fruits of my labor are, they are significantly less appetizing than the pad see ew from my favorite Thai place...so far! On Tuesday, read about my first attempt at making the contents of these three humble tupperwares into something edible. 

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January 13, 2012: So here's something embarrassing I recently learned about myself: I personally spend about 40 percent more than the average American household every week on food. And I'm talking about just me. One person. No kids to support.

I swear I am not a glutton. I eat quick oats from a big Quaker canister every day for breakfast. My lunches are pretty modest. Just a salad or a sandwich. For dinner, maybe two slices of pizza. (My most excessive habit is probably dessert, which often consists of a bowl of ice cream that is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a sensible portion.) I'm also not a foodie. Despite having lived in the Bay Area for four years, I still haven't learned to hate Subway or tell the difference between fresh, artisenal pasta and Prince spaghetti from a box.

Given my relatively normal eating habits, you might wonder how I manage to rack up such an outsized food tab. The answer is simple: I am really, really good at making excuses for not cooking. Making a meal, I say to myself, would take forever, and I'm hungry now. My kitchen is too messy; I don't even know where the damn cutting board is. Whatever I make isn't going to be as good as the Thai takeout I'm craving. I really need to catch up with my friend so-and-so; we should just meet up for dinner. And so on. Pretty soon I'm dining out four nights a week. Not like a big fancy meal every time; often it's just a burrito. But it adds up.

I had suspected that my food spending was out of control for a while, but it was only when my colleague Tasneem Raja and I commiserated over our exorbitant grocery budgets that I decided to actually track it. I kept a diary for a week, dutifully noting every last takeout coffee, plastic-wrapped sandwich, and order of samosas. The results were, well, mortifying. As usual, I purchased lunch four out of five days, and ate dinner at a restaurant or got takeout four evenings. My grand total for the week: $168.63. And that's not even including alcohol. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010 the average American household spent $117.87 per week on food. Ouch.