Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The best food--EVER

Isabel asked me a little while ago: “What is the best food you have ever eaten?” The timing of her question was perfect, as it was about 92 degrees and the air was so thick you could sip it up with a straw.

Without hesitation my mind zipped through 22 years and thousands of miles back to a stretch of Red Sea coast just south of al Hodeidah in Yemen. It was spring, which in that part of the world meant high temperatures and high humidity. My friends Tim and Nick planned a three-day backpacking trip along the coast and they invited me to join them. Being a sucker for a dumb idea, I agreed.

There was nothing along the coast where we hiked except for two or three small fishing villages inhabited by Yemenis who turned out to be fairly suspicious of our motives for sleeping in the hot sand. I can’t say I blame them for being suspicious. Here were three “Amrikis” walking along a stretch of coast that never saw a tourist, taking pictures, speaking Arabic, and sleeping just outside the village at a time when the daily high temperatures were close to 110 degrees.

We were dreadfully underprepared for the conditions and on the first day I came as close to heat stroke as a person can get without actually succumbing. In the early afternoon we stopped in the meager shade of a few palm tress—some standing, some fallen—and had a nap. Though calling it a nap implies some sort of agency on my part. Really what happened was I took off my pack and the next thing I knew it was late afternoon, there was sand stuck to my face, and my muscles were all cramping up pretty bad. I had passed out next to the fallen palm where I had sat to get my pack off.

We had assumed we could get water—though now that I think about it I really don’t know what we were thinking. When we all got up that afternoon we scouted for the wells we had heard were present on that part of the coast. Eventually we found a pit in the sand with some stagnant water full of mosquito larvae twitching around in the heat. Even they seemed really uncomfortable. This was the well.

And, even though we were fairly dumb, we did understand that we needed water or things could get a lot worse. So, we used a tee shirt to strain water into our bottles. We managed to keep most of the visible wildlife out of our water containers and hiked on to a spot where we could sleep.

Yemen is not too far north of the equator and the sun sets fairly early there year-round. And even though we had probably burned several thousand calories hiking in the heat of the day, none of us felt hungry. We built a small fire from driftwood and bought a couple of fish from the fisherman next door. We tried to roast the fish on sticks with little success. We went to sleep by eight o’clock that night with semi-raw fish and who knows what all-else sloshing around in our guts.

The sand holds on to the heat of the sun far better than the air does, so that night was terribly uncomfortable. It was like trying to sleep on one of those heating pads people plug in and adhere to lizard enclosures to provide the cold-blooded creatures steady warm temperatures. The problem is, I am not cold-blooded and it is hard to sleep when you are being slow-roasted. Eventually exhaustion won and I fell asleep.

Hunger woke me at 4 am, and I laid still for a while, hoping it would just go away and let me drift back to sleep. It didn’t go away and when I opened my eyes I was rewarded with a sight I will not forget. The Southern Cross was there in the dark night sky, hanging out over my head like it had been hoping to get my attention, to catch my eye—just to say “hey.”

I was by then awake enough to have to actually do something about my hunger, so I reached into my backpack and grabbed some Turkish soldiers’ bread called kudam. I ripped off a chunk of the dense bread and crammed it in my mouth. And within a few seconds I spit it back out and my mouth felt like it was on fire.

Turns out some painful biting ants had crawled into bag and gotten into the bread and were not pleased with my efforts to reclaim the bread. I fell asleep full of resentment and more than a little hungry. When dawn came I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

The second day was better, in the same way that the second day of radiation therapy is probably better—not because anything is really improved but because the parameters of the pain have been set and you know what to expect a little bit better.

We hiked a few miles and set up camp late in the afternoon. Nick thought there might be a small town a mile or two inland and set out walking. I joined him. And he was right. In the village we bought some bottled water, had a bowl of bean stew at a shack, and then discovered the best food I have ever eaten. It was at a non-descript little market stall with a portable generator. The man who ran the stall had a big cooler full of homemade popsicles. We each bought one and ate it at brainfreeze pace. We then each bought another and ate those as we walked back to camp to tell Tim what we had found.

I made the roundtrip one more time with Tim and ate two more of the popsicles. They were made of Vimto and nothing has ever tasted better to me, before or since. After fortifying ourselves with popsicles we hitched a ride back to my apartment in Hodeidah, where Tim and Nick showered and caught the next bus out of the coastal plain and up into the mountains, where they lived in 7,000+ foot altitude of the capital, Sana’a.

So, I told Isabel about the backpacking trip and the near-heat stroke and seeing the Southern Cross and the ants biting my tongue and then the miraculous taste of the Vimto pops. And now, at least for a couple of days, I will remember that sometimes the simplest things really are the best.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Dora the Exploiter

“How about this one? It’s only got 12 grams of sugar.”

“Yeah, but look at the serving size. It says this little box has TWELVE servings. If you ate the whole box that’d be 144 grams of sugar.”

“But I won’t eat the whole box.”

“Over the next two days you would. Right?”


“Put it back.”

When I shop with my daughter we have a series of conversations, all very much like this one, throughout the store. All the way from Produce to Frozen and on to the checkout line we debate the merits of food item after food item. Most fail to pass parental muster.

It is getting downright annoying to Isabel. And frankly, it is getting annoying to me, too. Why is there high fructose corn syrup, added sugar, hydrogenated vegetable oil, or some combination of this terrible triumvirate in just about everything that looks good to Isabel?

A newly published study by Yale University doctoral student Christina Roberto of the Rudd Center might just explain some of Isabel’s preferences. For years companies have sought to link their products with celebrity spokespersons the buying public feels good about. They hope the good feeling will rub off on their product and sales will go up.

The strategy must work, because corporations continue to compete for the endorsements of major stars like Landon Donovan, Drew Brees, and Tiger Woods. Of course, sometimes the brand risks the taint of scandal if the endorser happens to get caught doing something the public finds distasteful. It becomes a little awkward when your cereal-box model is a serial adulterer.

Companies that make food designed to be eaten by kids don’t have to worry about the whiff of scandal if they choose animated beings as their spokescharacters. Dora the Explorer is unlikely to be caught in a three-way with Diego and Boots. So, as long as there are new three-, four, and five-year olds discovering Dora, Dora will be an effective endorser.

Roberto’s research asked kids to compare the taste of identical food served from non-identical bags. One bag was clear, the other had a cartoon character sticker on it. And, as chance would predict, about half the kids said the food in the stickered bag tasted better. But much more significant was the percentage of kids who said they would rather eat a snack from the stickered package. According to a report on CNN, “between 50 percent and 55 percent of the children said that the food with the sticker on it tasted better than the same food in the plain package. (The percentage varied with each food.) And between 73 percent and 85 percent selected the food in the character packaging as the one they'd prefer to eat as a snack.”

Roberto’s research seems to indicate that children can be easily manipulated into preferring one snack over another simply because of the packaging. This is not surprising news—we have all been children. We have all been duped by bright and shiny packages.

When I am at the store with Isabel and she pleads for a particular brand of yogurt or fruit roll or cereal, the package is often the main attractor to her—though she might deny this, (none of us wants to admit being manipulable.) But the plain fact is we are subject to manipulation and advertisers know this. And children are the most susceptible of all.

In recognition of this fact, Norway, Sweden, and Quebec Province have banned all advertising during children’s television programming. Over 30 other countries set limits on advertising during children’s shows. Some of the laws on the books specifically ban marketing using cartoon characters.

An analogous situation exists in medicine, where prescription drug makers have been advertising their drugs directly to consumers, who then do the adult version of crying and screaming and whining and wheedling to their doctors to get specific prescription drugs. Sales of heavily advertised drugs go up. And doctors are being put in the same position as parents who know what is best for their child but can’t always fend off the most persistent requests.

My response to studies like this shows me that I am certainly a liberal who believes the power of the government should be exercised in the public interest. Corporations are going under the heads of the parents and advertising directly to kids, who then whine and cry and scream and wheedle and do their own manipulating of their parents in the grocery store. And CERTAINLY it is the parents’ job to just say “no.” The government cannot take the place of parents. But just as certainly, parents and government can work as partners to improve the health of the nation’s kids.

Before Isabel and I go shopping again I will talk with her about Christina Roberto’s research and try to manipulate her. I want her to feel used by advertisers and resentful about it. If that doesn’t work, I’ll just go to Plan B, which is to shop only when Isabel is at gymnastics practice.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The National

I have had the great good fortune to see a group called The National three times in the past 14 months and I want to share them with anyone who might stumble across this blog. There is a good, quick review of the band and its history on Wikipedia, so I will not give you all that stuff here. All I want to say here is that The National are the first group to have caught my attention in the way REM did in 1984 since…REM did in 1984. They are smart, insightful, melodic, soulful, and LOUD.

I saw The National last night at the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and they blew me away. My wife and I were right up front and the proximity allowed us to see what we could only intuit from our earlier shows: the band has a lot of fun onstage and really seem to get along well and understand each other. Our clothes were vibrating in the blast from the woofers and still every word of their impressionistic lyrics was clear.

The other times we saw them were at the House of Blues next to Fenway Park in Boston. Both shows were amazing and I was a little nervous about how their often dark and atmospheric music would translate to an outdoor, blue sky, bright sun kind-of-day. Their first song showed me I was crazy to have any trepidation at all. I’d say they blew the roof off, but there was no roof.

Here are a couple of pictures:

And here is a live (in the studio) version of their song called Runaway