Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Autumn recipes

Now that the weather has broken and the rains have come again, we have more time to spend inside cooking. For many people these days this is an intimidating prospect, as more and more people are accustomed to eating take-out food or, at best, taking processed food from the store and reheating it at home.

The current wave of food shows – several food channels, in fact – is not always as much help as you might think. Many of these shows are a lot of fun and quite educational, but some of them give the impression that cooking is a fantastically skilled occupation for five-star chefs, and involves a great deal of hard work. Check out one of Heston Blumenthal’s programmes, for example, and you will see celebrities savouring laboratory experiments involving amounts of dry ice and electronic equipment not generally found outside chemical factories.

It might not be a coincidence that the populations that eat the most processed food also seem to watch the most cooking shows – the USA first, then Britain and Ireland. It might not also be a coincidence that, as these cooking shows multiply, we are eating more store-bought processed food than ever, many of them hawked by the same celebrity chefs who have the programmes.

In fact, most of the recipes in their books have to be unusual, for the same reasons that the names of rock bands and race horses must be unusual these days – all the simple ones have been taken. These books are consumer products, meant to be bought, with pictures meant to blow your socks off. You’re not going to replicate that at home, and shouldn’t try. What you might create is good and healthy food, with perfectly fresh ingredients, made perfectly to your personal taste.

Carrot – beet salad
The men in my house were always convinced they hated beetroot, knowing it only as boiled red lumps. When we started growing our own, however, we began experimenting with salad recipes, and found it like a whole new vegetable.

3 large carrots
2 red beets
2 apples
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
4 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup of chives
¼ cup other garden herbs, like dill, burnet and sorrel.

Shred carrots, beets and apples. Chop scallions. Finely chop garden herbs.

Combine vinegar and oil in a large bowl, whip into a vinaigrette sauce, stir in the herbs, then slowly mix all other ingredients into it. Let stand for an hour. If you want something more Oriental, you can add soy sauce, ginger and sesame oil.

Fried Green Tomatoes

Some of you might be bringing in the last of the tomatoes from the poly-tunnel, the ones that never got red. Most people think that you need to throw out green tomatoes, but in fact, they are delicacy in the southern USA.

To make fried green tomatoes, you will need:

200 ml flour
100 ml cornmeal
200 ml milk
1 egg
Green tomatoes

First take two shallow bowls – I used plastic takeaway containers – and fill one with a mix of one cup of milk and one egg, beaten together. In the other mix a cup of wheat flour, half a cup of cornmeal, and seasonings – I used a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of pepper, some powdered vegetable stock, and a pinch of cayenne powder.

Coat a pan with oil – peanut oil or bacon drippings are ideal, but regular oil will do – and

Slice the tomatoes about a centimeter thick and lay the slices in the flour mix – one side, then the other. Then lay them in the milk-and-egg mix – one side, then the other. Finally, lay them back in the flour mix again.  Place them in the pan and fry them until they are brown on one side, then flip them over.

Potato salad
I used to think of potato salad as an oppressively heavy dish, but with salad potatoes, apples, celery and herbs, and with yogurt substituting for most of the mayonnaise, it can be made surprisingly light.

1 kg salad potatoes
4 eggs
4 apples
300g celery
Fresh salad herbs – dill, borage, chives, sorrel
Green onions
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup yogurt                   
1 tsp salt and ½ tsp pepper

Boil potatoes till tender, peel and slice as hot as you can manage. Slice eggs and celery, and dice apples. Chop any fresh herbs you have plus 3-4 green onions. Mix salad sauce and add to warm potatoes, and toss gently. Leave to cool and adjust seasoning.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

What to do with garden excess

A recent report by the Institution for Mechanical Engineers found that “30–50 per cent (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach” – in rich countries like ours, because both grocery stories, and households throw away astonishing amounts of food.

One solution, of course, is for people to grow more of their own, but gardening can bring its own waste, as not everyone knows what to do with the mountains of courgettes. Most of us grew up with refrigerators and freezers as the method of preservation, forgetting that most people used to spend the autumn making their food to dry, salty, sweet or tart to slow down unwanted bacteria. They also used their vegetables in a wide variety of foods, substituting one for another in dishes as the harvests progressed.

Brassicas: The few people who make sauerkraut anymore do so from whole cabbages, but you could also use the large outer leaves of any brassica – broccoli, cauliflower, kale -- saving the tender inner leaves for coleslaw and other delicacies. The pigeons and slugs eat brassicas quickly this time of year in our parts, so get the plants while you can.

Courgettes and marrow: Bake it in bread, cakes or scones– you will find many recipes online or in cookbooks. Try it in quiche, casserole, soups, stir-fry or sandwiches. I have heard of people using courgettes as a basis for frittatas, moussaka, tarts and latkes, and even pickles, although I cannot speak from experience.

Peas: You can do so much beyond the standard mushy peas. Try squeezing the juice out and mixing it with vodka and lemon juice to create peatinis. Make a dipping sauce for toast or crisps. Dry them by the closetful for next year’s crops, and for pea soup through the winter.

Berries: Make into jam, pie filling, mash and dry them into fruit leathers. Fill plastic bags with them and set them in the freezer for later. Pile them into a clean, food-safe container, pour in vodka until it just barely covers them, and in a matter of months you have a liqueur.

Herbs: Cut off some of the plants at the base, hang them upside-down in the closet or greenhouse to dry, and use them over the rest of the year for flavourings or tea. Or, mash basil and other herbs with pine nuts and olive oil to make pesto.

Tomatoes: Make a large pot of tomato sauce, wait for it to cool, and seal it in jars or tins. You can also pour them into old plastic containers, like butter or ice cream, and keep them in the freezer. Either way, label them well, and use a small container whenever you need to make spaghetti for the rest of the year.

Onions: Most people dry the bulbs, of course, but there’s no reason to throw away the stems. Try making onion soup just with the stems, and instead of frying the onions thoroughly as you would to make conventional onion soup, try just sautéing them lightly. It will create a very different sort of dish, and a filling one.

Beans: Many people here eat baked beans or use them in soups, but fewer people make them in salads. To make bean salad just pick the beans and drop them in boiling water for a minute or two – or if you are using dry beans, soak them overnight and cook them until they are soft. Wait until the beans cool, and toss them in a salad with diced salad greens, tomatoes, oil, lemon juice, herbs, and spices.

Remember that quiche – that French pie of egg and cheese covering cooked food – hides a multitude of leftovers and excess. If you have leftover spinach, broccoli, herbs, or various kinds of meat, you can chop and mix them, put a pie crust in a dish, and put the leftover mix on top. Then sprinkle a handful of cheddar or some other meltable cheese over it, beat together a few eggs, pour the egg mixture over everything, and put it in the oven for half an hour or so at 200 degrees. This is a very general recipe, of course – a basic template on which to build. Experiment and see what you like.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Canute and the modern world

My 12-year-old knows about the most graphic scene in the film Alien, even though she’s never seen the film. She knows the accusations against Bill Cosby, even though she doesn’t know anything else about him. She has absorbed all kinds of sordid information about the world, even though she says she doesn’t want to know it, and doesn’t know how she acquired it. All this is from a child who lives in the Irish countryside, watches less television than most, is not allowed to use the internet unsupervised and who sees mostly black-and-white films with me.

I understand completely; most of us know things without knowing where we first heard them – where did you first learn about porcupines, for example, or Iceland? Our modern media – corporations, political factions and advertisers -- take advantage of that, flooding us with images and factoids and hoping some of it sticks. Generally, it works; we carry all kinds of attitudes and certainties about the world that we picked up from some screen, and that are now part of our world-view, even if some of it is false. We didn’t ask for the information, can’t verify it, and can’t explain how it came to be part of us. Such processes are out of our hands now.

If I asked you to picture Moscow, for example, or a Mexican village, or the Amazon rainforest, you’re probably picturing a set of images from the mass media – again, you picked them up somewhere, and now they pop into your thoughts unbidden when someone says the right word. When I picture Moscow, for example, I picture a snowbound Kremlin from a thousand international spy thrillers, and I bet the same is true of most Westerners. I’m not picturing pre-schools, or shopping malls, or trailer park barbecues on a hot summer day, even though all those, I’m told, are also part of Moscow.

I could correct my thinking about that drop of information, of course, but I can’t correct the entire flood of media influence that surrounds us. I could probably name a few Kardashians or tell you something about how Breaking Bad ended, just from passing magazines at the shop in the nearby village, or hearing the radio station over the loudspeakers in the parking lot. Look up your e-mail on a computer, and you get video advertisements, pop-ups, fake news and spam. Briefly glance at a television and you see adverts for products you don’t need, trailers that spoil the best parts of upcoming films, and graphic images you can’t un-see – and I see televisions now in pubs, restaurants, doctors’ offices and bus depots.

I’ve talked about how living in rural Ireland lets you see this in fast-forward, as the country has undergone about a century of change in a few decades. Our adult neighbours grew up here with small television screens and radio, and their parents grew up with local folk songs and storytellers. These days this country is hooked up to the same Hollywood media as most Western countries, and teens in villages here get the same memes, pop songs, and self-destructive fads as teens across the world.

All this swimming in self-referential loops of pop-culture flotsam makes actually enjoying any media far more difficult; any line or image dramatic enough to draw attention is repeated, discussed, spoiled, clipped out, placed on internet lists and regurgitated until it takes its place in the flood of cultural white noise. The film Alien would be one example; if my daughter sees it someday, the originality will be gone, and only the luridness will remain.

Another is the shower scene of Psycho; everyone I know has seen it many times in some form, but few people I know have seen the film itself. They never got to know the character of Marion Crane, or felt real emotion at her tragedy, or experienced the shock at this fundamental violation of the conventions of storytelling.

Many such pop-culture references these days mock the original work, so that anything original or sincerely moving gets parodied, made into memes and GIFs, and fed to the crowd-sourced online Spoofinator. The same goes for politics, or sexuality, or religion, or any of the subjects that modern culture treats with reflexive insouciance. Such idle jabs fill the airwaves, television dial and blogosphere, as political factions, religious groups and subcultures all try to buy our attention with the currency of petty insults.  

Let’s be clear: this knee-jerk irreverence is not satire, even if we call it that. Genuine satire works when the perceptive deflate our awe of the powerful, and when it works – as when Aristophanes satirised Athens’ brutal war to the very people who had lost brothers and sons – it is genuinely painful. In the case of our mass media, many of the people doing the jabbing are powerful themselves, and can pay for the most exposure and best put-downs.

When people from various religious and political bubbles snark at each other, they form a circular firing squad, tearing each other down from the anonymous safety of their computer screen; it’s cowardice, not activism. Nor does any of it carry the genuine catharsis of irreverence, for irreverence has no power when it’s all there is, when there’s no reverence left in our culture to push against.

The ubiquity of media means that Hollywood culture imposes its will on us whether we want it to or not, and we interpret real events according to fictional templates. Our movies, television programmes, even advertisements take the form of morality plays, whose characters tend to fall into basic types: Tough Cop, Unstable Scientist, Sexy Woman, Fanatical Preacher, Slick Executive, Smart-Aleck Kid, Bumbling Dad. Those characters, in turn, fill slots in the plot: Hero, Sassy Sidekick, Unnecessarily Evil Villain or Exaggerated Fool. Plots follow a set path on a certain timetable: the Set-Up, the Point of No Return, the Climax. At the end, most characters Learn a Valuable Lesson:  Follow Your Heart, or True Love Wins, or Break Free of Society’s Rules.

Some of us notice one or two of those messages only when they violate our subculture’s taboos: that is, when we find it sexist, or anti-Christian, or racist, or anti-American, or anti-whatever-we-favour. Then we consider it propaganda – and of course it is, but everything we see is propaganda. We merely notice it because it’s propaganda against things we favour, just as we complain about “media bias” when it’s a bias other than our own. Most of the propaganda we see every day, however, is invisible to us – we grew up with it, and are no more aware of it than we are the nitrogen wafting around us.  

But stories from 50 years ago, or 500 or 5,000 years ago, though, had different categories of people, and taught different lessons – say, Honour Your Oath, or Be Content with What You Have. They acknowledged that a few people held power, and all others serve them, while our culture pretends otherwise. They did not assume that they were the pinnacle of creation, or that the future would be richer than the past. They did not think of men and women as interchangeable. Look at stories by Sophocles or Shakespeare, Jane Austen or Frank Capra, and you see very different worlds, often with ideas that bristle our sensibilities, but also with wisdom that we have abandoned.

A reasonable approach might be to grow up learning from a variety of writers, from the old and new alike, and many people throughout history have done so. In all those eras, however, the stories came from a book, or actors on a stage, or neighbours. For us, they are a flood of images and stories in which we swim from childhood, and our images of the world – of who we are, how people should act, and what our future might be like -- are woven together from what we’ve seen on screens. They were made to be the most addictive and diverting sensory input ever seen, and they drown out everything else.

Which brings me to the most frustrating thing about the flood of Hollywood media around us: we didn’t give permission for this to happen. We don’t have the right or ability to turn it off, and as much as we try to withdraw from it, we can’t eliminate it and remain in the modern world. My daughter’s teacher gives her assignments that require the internet, I get talk radio broadcast on the bus, and I get television at the doctor’s office, filling my head with jingles, gossip, and images I didn’t want. As much as we claim to love our various freedoms, we have sacrificed the freedom not to know.

I don’t care very much if my daughter knows about a horror film or a celebrity scandal; those bits of information, in isolation, do no harm. I care about the constant avalanche of images and noise around us, and how it gets into our heads and shapes our passions without our consent. I care about how it creates a slow tectonic shift of culture under our feet, moving us to the positions most convenient for the people in power. I care about finding a way to raise children while trying to hold back this tide, standing like Canute against the sea.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Classic movies and our future

We've had internet problems lately, and a lot going on, so I'm reprinting a few articles from a few years back. This appeared in Front Porch Republic in 2011. 

Invited to a Halloween party a few years ago and at a loss for a last-minute costume, I put on my most raggedy suit, bought a cigar, applied three strips of greasepaint, and walked in the door as Groucho Marx. If you think you know where this is going, don’t worry – everyone else dressed in costume too. Unfortunately, I thought Groucho would be as iconic and recognisable as Elvis or Dracula, and not one of my educated, middle-aged neighbours had heard of him.

Of course we were in Ireland, where cultural touchstones can be different, but more and more North Americans, I find, have no familiarity with classic movies either. I rarely see them in my local DVD stores or libraries, with a few predictable exceptions: a John Wayne movie or two for elderly men, a now-colourised musical for women, and the inevitable Three Stooges. Exceptions like It’s a Wonderful Life loop endlessly in holiday marathons until they become white noise, no matter how relevant in this time of bank failures.

Perhaps this is understandable; most people these days find the conventions of black-and-white movies as alien as Kabuki theatre, familiar only from decades of countercultural spoofing. Many times I have eagerly attended the rare revival, from Dark Victory as a teenager to Metropolis last year, only to cringe when the dramatic scenes reduced the audience to horse laughter. Young people might do well to explore old movies, though, for as we enter a time of austerity they might turn out more relevant and prophetic than anyone realises.

I don’t mean science fiction films from that era, with their now-hilarious predictions of flying cars and domed cities. Nor do I mean recent science fiction, which in the 1970s took the same apocalyptic turn as our religion and our politics, until by now most rental stores have a single section for “science fiction/horror.”

In defence of Zombie Apocalypse movies, our society is facing some serious problems. The coming decades will probably bring more outages and shortages, along with weirder weather and economic shocks, all feeding on each other. Energy alternatives like bio-fuels, nuclear, wind and solar might allow us to live with the per capita energy of 80 years ago rather than 180 years ago, but nothing will spare us from having to make do with less.

Post-apocalyptic fiction, though, assumes everything will disappear, overnight, ridding the world of the people we don’t like and leaving usin control. The reality will probably be less horrific and cinematic; fossil fuels will probably abate over decades, and the greatest danger will be enforced austerity for millions of people mentally unprepared for it.

That’s where movies come in – and television and other media, but I’m focusing on movies. Most of us spend most of our waking lives staring at glowing rectangles, and we weave our mental landscape of the world from media images like birds building a nest from scraps. When I read accounts of Thermopylae I still see 300, and even when I read Gandhi’s original writings I still picture Ben Kingsley.

For movies to help us prepare for our real future, though, it has to show us what such a world could look like, and neither Star Trek nor Zombie Apocalypse fiction help us show people struggling to pay the mortgage, irrigate the crops and hitch a ride to town. We do have thousands of movies that do show us this more limited future, though, because they were made in a more limited past.
Some films of the 1930s and 40s included Busby Berkeley-style fantasies, of course, but most had to show people a world they recognised, and in the details of backgrounds and dialogue we can glimpse a very different America. For one small example, take 1932’s Grand Hotel: Joan Crawford’s character eats only one meal a day, the most she can afford, while Lionel Barrymore’s dying character wants to treat himself to the finest luxuries the hotel can offer, “my own bathroom, like rich people.”

Or take the scene in 1943’s Tender Comrade where Ginger Rogers describes to Robert Ryan the kind of normal life they would have when he returns from the war: a garden where they could grow their own food, with chickens in the yard. It’s not the kind of dialogue we’re likely to see in a war movie today, but it should be. And when our soldiers return, they will have to rebuild their old lives, reboot their marriages and rediscover their children – a story Hollywood told well in 1946’s The Best Years of our Lives.

As another example, take King Vidor’s 1934 film Our Daily Bread: a young couple can’t pay their rent, and neither can most of their friends. They have inherited some land but can’t pay the taxes, for no one is around to cultivate the property. Someone realises the two problems could solve each other; they and their friends can move to the land, build a new life and split the profits from the farm.

I haven’t seen many films about working people trying to get health care — unless I watch 1938’s The Citadel. More people must care for elderly parents, but I don’t see many films dealing with the problems that causes, outside of 1937’s Make Way for Tomorrow. And has any recent film showed the down-and-out as heroes, as in Meet John Doe, The Grapes of Wrath or I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang?
To most people I talk to these days, old movies seem hopelessly corny and unrealistic – and obviously some had dated references, poor dialogue, or simply have not aged well. Their depictions of African-Americans appropriately offend modern sensibilities, as does the sight of white actors playing ethnic roles. I don’t recommend them if you’re trying to quit smoking, either; even in The Citadel, one surgeon hands another some cigarettes, saying “they’ll calm your nerves.”

Classic films also treated courtship and language with a gentleness that seems strange to us today, now that our mass media have spent four decades celebrating every new broken taboo as a victory against The Man. Are films with graphic sex and gore, however, more realistic? Is that what your life is like?

In fact, movies of the 1930s and 40s, despite their innocent image, show a grimmer world than we are used to seeing. Frank Capra’s movies have become synonymous with Norman Rockwell Americana, but their bright moments were powerful because they were surrounded by darkness, their decent characters – John Doe, George Bailey — framed, harassed and pushed to suicide and madness.

Ironically, I grew up with old movies because of this misconception; for conservative Christians in the 1970s and 80s, classic movies made safe entertainment, so my brothers and I grew up knowing Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Stewart the way other children know rappers or wrestlers. We passed every supper with trivia contests, with games our parents and grandparents had created. In one game we were given two actors – say, Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne – and had to link them with the shortest possible number of co-stars. These days I’m sure someone has a web site and algorithm to tell you instantly, but we had to calculate on the spot that the answer was one: Paulette Goddard.

Yes, it’s the Kevin Bacon game; years later a bunch of college students patented it, marketed the idea and gained fame and fortune. No, I’m not bitter.

In another game, which we called Rotunda, we started with a film and two co-stars – say, Claude Rains and Jimmy Stewart – and then each of us took turns bouncing through co-stars, from Jimmy Stewart/Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story to Cary Grant/Mae West in She Done Him Wrong and so on. The goal of the game was to make your way back to the first actor you named, but to anticipate several moves ahead, so that only you, and no one else, would reach the crucial link to Claude Rains.

This love of movies stayed with me over the years; I worked as a film critic for a newspaper chain for a while in my twenties, which sounds like a dream job until you realise how many bad movies you need to sit through. Depressingly, I found that the quality of movies has deteriorated over time; take the best films of any year, and they do not outweigh the products of even a single month of, say, 1941.

Of course such a sweeping and subjective statement will not match everyone’s tastes, and of course film technology keeps improving, each decade bringing a new kind of animation, CGI, 3-D or some other way to wow us. Few films today, though, seem to rely on great stories; they have become spectacles, as silent movies were, rather than well-written plays. Moreover, any one of them cost enough to make a hundred films like The Thin Man or The Maltese Falcon, even accounting for inflation. Few filmmakers today, rolling in wealth and with the godlike power to create whole worlds onscreen, do as much as John Huston or Woody Van Dyke did with a cardboard set.

And this brings us back to living on less. When the Great Depression hit, movies shifted away from the big-budget fantasy spectacles of the 1920s into more modest and realistic fare. In part they were responding to the demands of newly invented talkies, but also to the desires of an increasingly desperate and politically radical America. Hollywood saw an intellectual movement – imagine! – of writers and directors determined to tell useful stories by and for ordinary people. American films have never been more well-written or resonant than in the 1930s and 40s, because they have never been more gently and consciously populist.

Such ideals drew accusations of Communism even then, and some of those writers and directors did become entangled in the misguided intellectual causes of the 1930s. “A surprising number,” though, write authors Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner in their book Radical Hollywood, “came straight out of Middle America and made their choice on old-fashioned moral grounds.” There is a reason old movies are so sentimentally cited by Glenn Beck and Pat Robertson as symbols of a better America, and why the growing neo-conservative movement in the 1970s asked an old B-movie star to be their figurehead.

Movies and other media have become spectacles again, and as we move into something far greater and deeper than a Depression, I long to see well-written, idealistic stories about regular people coping with the long emergency.

I want to see films for all ages, devoid of hip countercultural irony. I want to see low-budget teleplays in which today’s equivalent of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland put on a show to raise money to build allotments in the old park, a new series of Dead End Kids movies in which modern versions of Tommy and Milty cajole the neighbourhood association to allow pigs in the vacant lot.

As we face a difficult future, talking about movies might seem like small potatoes. Look, however, how deeply they shape how we think; when I referred to a “Star Trek future” or a “Zombie Apocalypse,” you knew just what I meant.

And they are one of the last things we do in community. I took my daughter to see Buster Keaton’s The General at a rare showing recently, and while she chuckled when I showed her clips on YouTube, we had tears in our eyes laughing with an auditorium of people. It felt like a good football game or a revival tent, with waves of emotion rippling over a crowd, and for a brief moment in the darkness you are reminded that we’re all in this together.