Friday, May 25, 2012

Fun with Turnips

Yes, you read that correctly: this post is entitled "fun with turnips."

In an earlier entry I mentioned that friends of ours were just discovering that turnips are delicious. We only came to this realization ourselves over the winter, with the great barley soup adventure. After the success of the Leipziger Allerlei, I decided I would buy another bunch at the farmers market to make a dish with the potatoes we already had in the pantry. I considered fixing potato-turnip latkes as a vegetarian main dish but settled on a side dish of steamed and mashed potatoes and turnips so that I could use the turnip greens, too.

With the first bunch, I had cooked up the greens with some butter, garlic, and salt. They were okay but not spectacular. But I wasn't ready to give up yet. Since they are a dark green leafy veggie, turnip greens have a ton of vitamins: A, C, K, also some E and B6, plus folate. I steamed the second bunch on top of the chopped potato and turnip wedges, chopped them coarsely, and then folded them into the mash. They added color, a little taste--and of course nutritional value.

We first ate them with pork chops, but I found that the above recipe was really rather bland. So on advice from Dear Old Dad (DOD), I added garlic powder to future servings. This increased their score on the can-I-get-Dear-Husband-to-eat-this? scale from "yeah, this is okay" to "mmm, these are pretty good"!

Then we tried them with scallops sauteed in curry butter and 1) steamed asparagus one night (from the farmers market, natch) and 2) grilled asparagus with olive oil, garlic, and grated parmesan cheese another night (pictured). I want to give a shout out to my Gram for the curry mix she brought me back from their trip to Turkey. I was planning on a spicy palate, but this curry turned out to be rather sweet. Which is just as well, because of course I just dumped some into the melted butter rather than measuring it and therefore managed to avoid burning anyone's tongue. Grilling the asparagus was another tip from a friend, who had been over eating the mushroom lasagna that didn't quite use up all the (rather pricey) parmesan I had bought at our local Cheese & Crackers store. This was quite the tasty dinner! It just tasted like summer.

By the way, I should mention that the turnips we get at our local farmers market are not the culprits in the infamous "turnip winter" of 1916-1917, the low point in the German food situation during World War I. Part of the fascination with the subject of Germany’s food situation during War World I stems from just how badly the government, the military, industrial leaders, farmers, shopkeepers, and housewives handled it. Words like “crisis,” “breakdown,” “catastrophe,” and “disaster” figure prominently in descriptions of what happened. Most historians agree that the largest share of the blame falls to the imperial government and the Prussian General Staff. At the war’s onset, neither had any plans addressing the food supply in the event of a protracted conflict, as that would have betrayed a lack of confidence in German troops’ ability to carry out the Schlieffen Plan (go through Belgium to attack France). The military’s own provisioning strategy was to purchase large quantities of foodstuffs at higher-than-market prices. This assured their preference as buyers but cost the government exorbitant amounts of money, drove up prices for lower governments and individual consumers, and reduced the available food supply.

 the British navy blockading the German pots on the North Sea, the military taking priority in food distribution and Germany’s central and eastern European allies increasingly unable to supply their large and hungry neighbor with grain, meat, or fruit (or oil, coal, fertilizer, or textiles), the food situation rapidly deteriorated. Supplies decreased, demand and prices increased, municipalities tried to institute price ceilings, farmers withheld their goods from the open market, and eventually numerous branches of food production (bread, meat, milk, etc.) were socialized and most staples were rationed "physiologically." The chapter I am writing now looks at how nutritional science and actual experiences of hunger interacted.

Postcard from 1916 "remembering the wartime" and encouraging Germans
to participate willingly in the planned food economy, here represented by
foodstuffs wearing ration cards for clothing. (That was eventually rationed
too.) Affected goods included meat, bread, sugar, soap, butter, milk, flour,
and--in the corner--toadstools (haha!). If you couldn't find these things in
stores, they were also often available on the black market at a higher price.*
Anyway, the winter of 1916-1917 was unusually long, cold, and wet. The potato harvest was bad, in part because many farmers left their crop in the fields in order to harvest it in the spring when the price ceilings would be raised. The tubers rotted. And so animal fodder became human food. The "turnips" in the name for that winter are not the Speiserübe we have been enjoying but rather Steckrübe. Speiserübe (literally, "food turnips") are white turnips--small, smooth, with some purple or green near the stems. Steckrübe ("planting turnips") are known in English as swedes, rutabagas, or yellow turnips--large, rough on the outside, and purplish on top. Although the varieties the Germans were growing tended to have a bitter taste, they were used to replace the missing potatoes and then some. Wrote a contemporary observer, an Englishwoman married to a German man, some years later:

"We had [turnips] for breakfast, dinner, and supper; we made them into jam to spread on sticky, heavy black bread that was already full of carrots and potato peelings. My gorge rises now when I think of it. We cooked them with out weekly quarter-pound ration of meat for dinner, we tried to disguise them as soup."

Today in Germany a popular "healthful" kind of whole-wheat bread has bits of carrot in it; and of course now we accept that most of the nutrients are in the potato skin, but at the time those were considered fillers at best and kitchen scraps at worst. Wrote an Australian woman musician caught for the duration of the war in Leipzig: "I think that if I were to bray [like a donkey] is all that could be expected...after a month of living on parsnips and turnips." So while we have been having "fun with turnips," we realize that not everyone does or has!

* This image is courtesy of the free online repository of WWI ephemera, europeana 1914-1918.

Monday, May 21, 2012

There's a Fungus Among Us

I need to weed like...WOAH.
Dear Husband and I split the outdoor chores. I am frequently on campus during daylight hours, so things like raking and mowing have fallen to him. Also, when we first moved in, we tried to be ultra-environmentally friendly and use a reel mower, which requires quite a bit of upper-body strength, but that only lasted two years, in part because he insisted on mowing before the temperature got too hot, which was also before the dew had evaporated, so the blades got dull easily, and it took 1-2 weeks for the hardware store to send the blades out to be sharpened, by which point the grass had grown to epic proportions and was an even bigger hassle to cut once the mower had been reassembled.

My job is to do the edging and weeding, which I succeed at maybe once a month, and any planting, which so far is happening every other year. I would love to have a "real" garden, with lots of flowers, or even vegetables, but until someone finds me a garden fairy, I will spend my Marches and Aprils busy with schoolwork and the summers busy with my own work. I have therefore grown particularly fond of the bulbs and perennials gifted to us by church friends, because they are either ridiculously easy to grow or else ridiculously difficult to kill. Our across-the-street neighbors have just offered us a lilac bush they want to replace with roses, so if/when that transplant happens, I'll post pictures of that transformation in the back corner that never got finished when we redid the beds around the house a few years ago.

Sunday morning's pre-church chore was to make the front yard more presentable by pulling the weeds out of the cracks in the driveway and edging around the various poles and trees. After an hour and a quarter, I can happily announce that we are the proud owners of a double-wide expanse of concrete that is free of weeds! Everything is finally trimmed now, but the really exciting part was what I found in the yard while digging up those little weed trees that spring up over night: fungus. Or rather, fungi, as I discovered not one but three different kinds.

The first were the innocuous little cap mushrooms to the right, what I think are Conocybe albipes. I don't think I even bothered pulling them up, although a few years ago we had a large "blooming" of them, despite the fact that we were paying a yard service $300 to--essentially--poison the yard so that such a thing wouldn't happen.

The second was this orange and white specimen, found on the edge of the front bed. I don't know what it is but left it alone, too.

And then there was the third specimen. Hello, Phallus impudicus, which has a gross factor suitable for pre-teen boys. The mature form (top image) looks just like the name suggests. The cap is usually covered with a black slime, just visible in the shriveled one in the background, to attract flies. These were large and gross enough that I dug them up. Which is how I discovered the immature form (bottom image). They grow underground and then pop out of a "universal veil," which is then called a volva (the "skin" at base of stem in the upper image). You can't see it very well from the photo, but the whitish blob in the lower image is covered in a layer of mucus, so I felt like I was birthing fungal orcs in my own front yard. Maybe that whole "Eye of Sauron" incident on campus was more than just a prank...I'll let you know if they start amassing an army to march on the Shire!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Friends and Food

Two of my favorite things are friends and food. This post brings those two together. Recently two friends provided me with some good food. One had been to the nearby Amish settlements and brought me back some (sugar-free) apple butter. My family rarely bought apple butter, but it always reminds me of childhood. It was very thoughtful of T.A. to think of me that way. The other friend had discovered No-Knead Bread and has already provided us two loaves.

He says,

Do you have a good cast iron enameled Dutch oven? That's the key piece of equipment. I hear you can use a ceramic or earthenware container as well, as long as 
1) You preheat it to 450 F for 30 minutes before you drop the dough in and
2) CRITICAL: you have a tight lid that keeps the moisture in.

The opening photo brings these two gifts together.

The No-Knead Bread has a firm crust and a moist interior. It looks very rustic when it comes out of the oven, but the most wonderful thing about it is its versatility, going well with gooseberry jelly, honey, or peanut butter & nutella. It also turns out to be an excellent supplement to a traditional Saxon dish I cooked up last week for some other friends of ours.

Leipziger Allerlei is a spring dish that pairs crayfish with fresh young vegetables like asparagus, cauliflower, kohlrabi, morels, carrots, and peas. At the farmers market I substituted turnips instead of kohlrabi and oyster mushrooms instead of morels. Even though I found crayfish at the grocery store, in the end I decided I didn't want to pick them all myself and went with crab claws. The packaging company had very considerately scored the claws at strategic places, so it was pretty easy to pull out the meat.

Then it was time to cook up a batch of crab butter. I decided to go to all that trouble because one of the things that stood out to me from my research with old cookbooks is the effort housewives used to expend preparing all the little things in the kitchen that we can take for granted in an era of prepackaged condiments. Just open your refrigerator and look on the door: all those pickles, mustards, relishes, butters, mayonnaises, salad dressings, and vinegars were once homemade. So, I gave crab butter a try.

Reserving the meat, I threw the shells into melted butter. The instructions called for breaking the shells with a mortar and pestle and later straining the mixture with a hair sieve. I don't have one of those and settled for mashing them up a bit with the potato masher. Then I popped the pot into the fridge to cool. Oops. Having forgotten to strain it at all, and not wanting to reheat the mixture because dinner guests were coming in one hour and it wouldn't cool in time, I ended up picking the broken claws all over again--this time for butter instead of meat!

Then it was time to chop the vegetables. The original recipe from 1901 says each one is to be boiled separately in salted water (and the carrots in beef broth), but my stove only has four burners, and since I learned to cook after the vitamin revolution (in the 1920s), I steam vegetables to prevent the loss of their nutrients. (I'm actually writing a chapter on this concept, hopefully the second one I draft this summer, right after the one on rationing I'm working on now.) To be more economical about it, I put each of my steamer baskets in a large soup pot and filled them from bottom to top with denser vegetables (carrots or turnips) to softer ones (mushrooms, snow peas, asparagus). By the way, did you notice the carrot on the left of the bunch in the photo above? While I was peeling it I could think of nothing else except that I was skinning an anencephalic baby. Thank you, medical school, for messing with my head.

Finally, finally, it was time to make the crab meatballs. Because meatballs were last year's It-Food--they succeeded cupcakes--I assume someone out there knows how to make little cannonballs out of meat that isn't ground beef, but as yet the skill eludes me. I had dutifully left out some bread heels overnight to represent day-old bread from a cooking culture before plastic bags and twist ties. Almost too late I remembered I was supposed to soak them in milk (to soften them!), which I did, for a few minutes. Then I squeezed them out and tore them into pieces to mix them with some of the crab butter and two egg yolks (maybe 1 too many?). But the little lumps I pressed in my hands didn't stay together very well, even with the addition of some commercial bread crumbs, so I never even got around to using the egg whites I had beaten. Still, J.G.D., J.D., and N.D. had arrived, so I forged on, dropping the crab balls into the boiling broth leftover from making the butter--where they promptly disintegrated.

As you can see from the photo, we improvised, serving our "all manner of vegetables" with a ring of crab, salvaged from the broth with a slotted spoon, instead of with crab balls. In the background are a tossed green salad, courtesy of our guests, and--in the upper right--a wedge of Gouda and the rest of one of those loaves of No-Knead Bread. It was a delightful, light, spring meal. Friends and food: a great combination, indeed.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Travel Research Advice

Editor's note: family will probably find this post less interesting than colleagues will. I'm cooking up something fun for the rest of you later this week.

The graduate students in my department recently held an informal symposium for advanced students to share their experiences and tips from recent archival research trips. These come in two kinds. Non-Americanists tend to apply for large travel grants to go live in a foreign country for an academic or calendar year (10-12 months). Americanists tend to make several shorter trips with small grants to specific archives. As a Germanist, my advice is mainly meant for those who travelling long distances, but I have also included some suggestions from the other students who spoke.

Match sources to your proposed research locations. The more finding you can do from home by internet, the better. If you are working with sources that can be found in multiple locations, first try to go to the greatest concentration of them, then decide whether it makes sense to move from place to place or to do short research trips. If your sources are in multiple locations, weigh the cost of the rent you will be paying at your “home base” versus the cost in time, money, and stress of traveling or even moving to a new city.

Newer building of the State Library in Berlin, the 4th of 5
cities in which I conducted dissertation research.
There are many options to save money when traveling, among them ride-sharing, couch-surfing with friends or strangers, and youth hostels (still cheaper than a hotel, even if you are older than the official cut-off age for membership). Look for student discounts. If possible get a room with a minifridge and microwave; then bring some silverware so you can “cook” in your room. One grad student recommended; another suggested camping at the Greenbelt National Park near the National Archives (up to 2 weeks). Finally, pack a lunch, snacks, and instant drink packets so that your money doesn’t disappear as fast.

When looking up sources online, don’t rely solely on WorldCat. Make sure you click all the way through the library catalog or archive finding aid. For instance, when I got to one of my sites in Berlin and tried to order certain books, I discovered on the request page that they were actually lost or damaged during World War II.

Furthermore, if you include signature or call numbers in a research plan with your travel research grants, this demonstrates to referees that you have planned ahead and won’t just show up at an archive and hope to find things. Of course, your actual research plan may well deviate from this once you get there, but it’s better to have one to alter than to have none at all.

Make sure you have up-to-date information about your archive(s): location, hours, ID requirements, reproduction costs, and rules about photography. (On the morning I set out to my first archive in one city, I found to my surprise that it had moved!) Also bring a couple of signed/sealed letters of recommendation from the department chair with your project description and advisor approval. I only ever used one once in Germany, but apparently many archivists in Latin countries won’t talk to you without one. Finally, Tom B. can make you official university business cards (free); or watch for a discount from Staples (typically to get 100 free if you use their online wizard).

As to dress code, you will be able to gauge the formality of relations between the archivists/librarians and researchers on your first day, but you want to err on the side of being slightly better dressed for the first few visits. This may be particularly true for women and for anyone whose grasp of the local language is shaky, as a little more jewelry or slacks and a tie instead of jeans may help convey the image of your being a serious researcher. Larger institutions and libraries will probably be more informal.

How you present yourself can be really important. Other students talked of describing their projects in certain ways to appeal to certain archivists. Some respond to confidence, but others may respond to weakness (this appears to be gendered and true for some cultures). But don’t just talk to academic and research types: network with anyone who is willing to talk about your project with you (landlords, cleaning ladies, taxi drivers). They may know someone who knows someone.

Break room for researchers at the temporary location
of the Main Saxon State Archive, which has since 
moved back to its original location in the center of 
town, now freshly renovated. German researchers 
brought their sandwiches wrapped in foil; I (re)used
 a series of plastic sandwich baggies.
Always ask about reproduction and photography guidelines when you get a place. The rules may be unclear, or the costs may have changed since the information was uploaded to the website. I only discovered at one library that photography without a flash or tripod was allowed by watching fellow patrons and overhearing a librarian explain this to a newcomer. If you are photographing, bring your camera battery charger and back up files to an external hard drive or online cloud in the middle of the day, not just after you leave the archive. A thumb drive can also be useful for smaller files.

Be prepared to spend money on reproductions. As long as you have enough to live on, they are cheaper than a return trip. It’s just money! (I think I spent about 1000 Euros on scans and photocopies; I also took thousands of photographs.) Having paid all that money, understand that it is common to use only 10% of your research in your dissertation. (Says my adviser; I am finding this out now.) It is better to have too much than too little, especially if your research question is unclear at the outset.

Give yourself time to get into new sources. Don’t be frustrated if it takes a day or two to settle into an archive or to start a new thread of research. Sure, it feels like you’re not being productive, but a well-planned research thrust is infinitely more useful than many done on auto-pilot, without consideration for how these documents shape your larger project. Go ahead, look through the new boxes or folders, assess the possibilities and the questions you may ask or answer with those sources, and take copious notes.

Keep a research journal plus separate documents for each set of sources, complete with signatures, dates, what you ordered photocopied, etc. It is particularly important to note why you chose not to work with certain sources, or 6 (or 18) months from then, you may be left wondering whether you overlooked something. One colleague uses OneNote, another a spreadsheet; I keep a running Word document with the latest date at the top.

Do not translate while you are at the archive. Not only is that a waste of time, it also compromises the record of your research. Similarly, it is cheaper to read what you have collected back home, so use your travel time to look at more sources and to ask yourself questions about the progress of your project.

Be prepared for something to go wrong. If an archive turns out to be closed (happened to me), if the books you really want are all at the bindery, or you aren’t granted access to certain documents, it isn’t because you are a bad researcher. Setbacks are normal. What is important is how you respond: are those sources critical to your argument? Can you arrange to get them elsewhere? Do you need to start planning a return trip? Can you work around them?

Little perks of small places: the staff at this medical history
library bought me ice cream and coffee on my birthday.
Be nice to the archivists. They can help you find a place to eat lunch near the archive! Consider them as colleagues, even when some act like gatekeepers or uninterested functionaries. When you leave an archive, handwrite a thank-you note. I used note cards I bought from the Farmer’s Market with photographs of rural Illinois. I had come to collect a piece of their country and left them with a piece of mine.

Start your acknowledgements section early and add to it every time you go to a new archive or meet another scholar over dinner to brainstorm over your respective projects. It is also helpful to keep a list of the institutions that want a copy of your completed dissertation.

If you have not already downloaded the campus VPN, I highly recommend it. Not only will it protect your internet connection, but you can also use it to ::coughcough:: access US-based websites. (You know, in case you’re homesick and want to watch something familiar.)

Finally, take breaks from your research, particularly if you are away from home for several months. When you are refreshed from a quick trip home, or to a new city, or even just a weekend spent at museums, concerts, or a local park, you will be a better researcher. For those on long-distance trips, find a church, take a dance class, meet your neighbors, get involved with a co-op—live where you are researching. Most of us are privileged to get to travel to research and should make time to enjoy it.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Nature vs Culture: The Primal Diet

Dear Old Dad (DOD) has recently switched from the paleo-diet to the primal diet, both designed to return eating habits to those human beings evolved for over long periods time (namely protein and plant matter), as opposed to eating habits humans have developed since adopting farming a relatively short time ago (namely grains and dairy). The idea is to eat plenty of lean protein, good fats, lots of vegetables, and some fruit in order to maintain even blood glucose, insulin, and energy levels. Recently, I got to try a primal-approved meal when I was home over a long weekend for an academic conference and crashing at My Awesome Parents' (MAP) place. We had a relaxed Sunday afternoon, visited Grammy, and fired up the grill for some salmon with a sweet glaze. Next to the tossed green salad are roasted vegetables (onions, peppers, yams, potatoes) slathered in olive oil, balsamic vinaigrette, and rosemary, which made the house smell *divine* while baking. (I'm such a sucker for rosemary. And basil. :-)

Before I left for the airport DOD provisioned me with some snack mix. Instead of marshmallows, M&Ms, or chocolate chips (high glycemic index and load), or even peanuts (bad fats), the mix has good fats plus a little kick of carbohydrates:

pumpkin seeds
sunflower seeds
chopped almonds
almond flour
chopped dried date
chopped dried mango

The almond flour has a curious texture and impacts a delicious nuttiness to this snack.

Debates about nature versus culture, evolution versus civilization, go back at least to the time period I am studying, the early twentieth century. Both scientific and ethnological studies supported a wide range of dietary practices. For instance, famous American nutritional scientist E.V. McCollum, who discovered vitamins A and D, among other things, wrote in his 1957 A History of Nutrition, "The fact that the human population in contrasting parts of the world, while subsisting on diets of different kinds, experienced approximately the same health standards was largely responsible for the belief of physiologists as late as the year 1900 that it did not matter much what kind of food people ate so long as the diet supplied enough protein and available energy." (1) The Inuit were a particular fascination to Westerners, especially after the discovery of vitamins, since their diet consisted almost exclusively of meat and blubber, with next to no plant matter.

In one respect, the mainstream medical position was fairly hands-off: as long as individuals consumed a varied diet, they were likely to get everything their bodies needed. But what they meant by that was a "mixed diet" containing plant foods AND animal products. Vegetarianism and veganism were suspect, especially in Germany, where a famous "school" of nutrition and metabolism in Munich had developed (incorrectly) high recommendations for daily protein intake (118g for an adult man doing moderately strenuous work; today the USDA recommends 45-70g depending on age, sex, and pregnancy). They gave all sorts of reasons that eating meat is "natural." Animal proteins are more complete than plant proteins, they said. Or, human beings' digestive tracts aren't long enough to get sufficient calories from a plant-only diet. Some played the "culture card": eating meat is a sign of civilization and/or racial superiority.

Meanwhile, alternative nutritionists tended to be more...paranoid may be too strong a word. They believed very strongly, let us say, that health begins with what we put into our bodies, namely food and drink. The "schools" I cover in my dissertation were located outside Dresden and taught the importance of low- or no-meat diets as well as temperance from drugs like tobacco and alcohol. One developed an elaborate theory of acid-base balance in which eating (too much) animal protein introduces excess acid (from amino acids) into the body; the acidity disturbs nervous among other functions. A better source of the small amount of protein needed on a day-to-day basis was potatoes, said one, since these possess excess bases. Furthermore, boiling vegetables caused their minerals to leach out, so veggies should be eaten raw or steamed, or the boiling liquid reused in soups, to prevent the loss of the valuable "nutrient salts" [sic: water-soluble vitamins]. A predecessor to that vegetarian champion was a physician who insisted on the danger of consuming too much water or other beverages, as this would dilute bodily fluids and prevent the normal workings of cells.

These were (quasi)scientific reasons to eat less meat. Alternative nutritionists often touted their own personal experiences with low- or no-meat diets, or organized sports competitions to prove their abilities over meat-eaters.  Others pointed to the rise in chronic diseases of the cardiovascular system, obesity, and "nervous degeneration" as "diseases of civilization" and proof against Western culture and for a "return to nature." There were also moral arguments against the cruelty of keeping and killing animals: no civilized society would condone such a thing. Either way, in both cases, proponents could call on nature (experimental laboratory science, evolutionary theory, individual and collective observations) and/or culture (the argument about "civilization") to buttress their preferred diet.

Advocates of the paleo diet and primal diets claim, "The Paleo Diet, the world’s healthiest diet, is based on the simple understanding that the best human diet is the one to which we are best genetically adapted." They rely upon much of the same science as those earlier "alternatives," including acid-base balance, but they holds up lean protein as the primary nutrient, not culprit (think: caveman diet). They also expect eating fewer grains and bad fats will reduce common disorders in Western Civilization such as acne, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. (Disclaimer: I am not researching these diets and do not have a financial interest in them.)

One of things I'm interested in with my dissertation research is how ideas of sameness and difference, individual and collective moved between medical and cultural discourses. Should everyone eat the same things? CAN everyone eat the same things? What about the possibility that humans have all evolved to some common point, after which certain variations must be tolerated? (Actually, these variations tend to intolerances: milk, fruit, legumes, grains. If an individual can tolerate dairy, why not eat it?) Finally, what say should anyone have over anyone else's diet, anyway? There's a tricky interplay here between expertise and authority. The early twentieth century saw a number of experiments  in Europe with different forms of collectivism--from war economies to socialism to fascism--all of which claimed to have some kind of power over individuals' diets for the good of the collective. How much was too much?

I am tackling such questions right now in my research and brainstorming for chapter 2 of my dissertation, on how German experiences during World War I influenced both scientific and political discourses. I will pay special attention to rations for the sick, the qualities of digestibility versus satiety, hunger edema, and the very question of the homogenization of a population through rationing. Check back over the summer for more recipes and ruminations.