The fragrance of the Holidays

Thanksgiving is in just a few more days. The house should be filled soon with wonderful aromas of special baking. Cinnamon and pumpkin and nutmeg, toasted pecans, vanilla and cream.

So what’s going on at my house? I decided the oven really needed cleaning, so I locked the oven door and turned the knob to “clean”. It didn’t take long for the house to fill with the horrible odor of incinerated food from things I’d spilled over the past few months. I’m definitely a sloppy cook and think that self cleaning ovens are one of the great inventions of our times. Waking to snow on the ground and cold temperatures meant I couldn’t really open up the windows, so we were stuck with the smell.

As long as I was at it, I thought I might as well do things up good. So I got busy with “refreshing my hair color” and the house additionally smells like ammonia or whatever they put in that stuff.

Welcome to my house – don’t breathe in deeply.

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Let’s talk turkey, or talking Butterball blues

It’s that time of year, when cook’s (frequent and infrequent) have their thoughts turn to turkey, or how to cook the Thanksgiving centerpiece.

Organic/ fresh/ free range/ frozen/ Butterball. Brined/ deep fried (and burning up the garage in the process)/ roasted (low heat or high)/ traditional herbs/ ethnic.

Every year I read lots of cooking columns and magazine articles. Sometimes I even try something new. Usually I end up mixing some traditional herb mixture with butter and rubbing it under the skin, then roasting it in the oven for several hours.

Have you notice how it’s always done sooner than anticipated? I remember stories about turkeys going into the oven in the early morning and baking for many hours. Now, I plan on eating at a certain time and the surprise is always that the turkey is done way before intended. Each year it continues to mess up my nicely planned schedule.

So, think about it. We love the company that Thanksgiving brings. All the good food. But is the turkey ever what anyone really remembers most?

I say – make sure you have enough gravy and all will be well!

“They don’t really taste like dirt”

I was reading the latest copy of “Grow“. the alumni magazine from the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture and LIfe Sciences (CALS). I don’t think I had a clue 35 years ago why I was in that college, but it’s become clear over the years that the life sciences fascinate me. One article in the recent edition in particular caught my eye. The current dean of the college has done considerable research on the genetics of beets and their nutritional benefits. He’s known as “the beet guy”.

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I like beets. No, I love beets. The article was titled “Five things everyone should know about beets”. It talked about how beets role in history is very underappreciated, that today’s beets are not your grandmother’s beets, and that “they actually don’t taste like dirt”. Hmm. I never thought they did. But I guess that they do contain an organic compound that gives them an earthy flavor. The compound is called geosmin. It gives off a smell like a field after a rainstorm or freshly smelled earth. Human noses are very sensitive to it, and while some people don’t like it, others love it. All of a sudden things clicked for me. We have a refrigerator in the lab at work that contains a lots of reference standards. And a few people complain very loudly about how much it stinks when it’s opened. It’s the geosmin that they are smelling. And I always wondered why they found the smell so horrible when I didn’t mind it at all. SO now I know. It’s also why I like beets. And spinach and lettuce and mushrooms.

Huurah for science and helping sort these things out. (and providing absoutely useless information for most everyone else).

Sweetness: The Taste of Apples

My mother recently alerted me that Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire has been made into a PBS show.
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I had recommended the book to her at some point in the past (after my daughter had recommended it to me some years ago), and I guess she actually paid some attention to what I had told her. Really, I think she is good about listening to all her kids and friends and remembering the things they tell her. It’s definitely a strong point of hers.

While I don’t have tv reception since we live in a canyon and I’m too cheap to pay for cable service now that the kids have all grown up and moved away, I have discovered that you can view many tv shows through internet connections. I have my laptop hooked up to my tv screen and am able to pull in all kind of shows.

So, we spent the past few nights watching the PBS show. I work in the apple industry, so was particularly interested in the segment on apples. It was titled “Sweetness: The Taste of Apples” and got me thinking about what I do for a living. Hmm. Basically, if you agree with Pollan’s view that the evolutionary success of the apple is a result of its ability to satisfy the human desire for sweetness, I guess my true boss is the apple, not Tree Top. Watch the PBS video – it’s pretty interesting, in my view.

12 Brix. It’s the name of my blog. And specifically refers to the sweetness of apples – on the average, 12% sugar, or 12 Brix. There you go.

My Orwellian Baby

(a test for observant readers — find the connection between this blog entry and food)

November 3rd. 2009. My older daughter, Carrie, turned 30 yesterday. I think your 30’s are a great decade. But it makes me feel old to have a child who has turned 30. As does my annual exam, which happened today.

My regular doctor was booked up through the end of the year, so I decided to see a physician’s assistant who had an opening in her schedule. I liked her and was pleased with her examination style.

Except when she got to my family medical history. She was reviewing my children’s medical history and commented about my younger child ” Your daughter really was born in 1984?”. What response is there to that kind of a question? “No, I lied on my medical records”. “Oh my gosh. 1984? There really were babies born that year?” Well, or course I said “yes”. And added that we’d also had a 1984 party that year (before Erin’s birth, totally unrelated). The PA seemed to find this very interesting. It’s been years since anyone even seemed to connect that long ago, back when I was in junior high school, 1984 had a kind of mythical ring to it. It was far away in the future, made famous by George Orwell, and would never come.

But it did. And so did the rest of the exam, including questions like “do you experience moodiness with your menstrual cycle?” Made me want to jump off the examining table shouting “Moodiness? You want to know about moodiness? Well, I can tell you all about it!!” Instead I quietly acknowledged that “yes, I do sometimes fly off the handle”. The PA found that phrase amusing and as she was describing with her hands the imagery it created for her she almost dropped her laptop to the floor as she didn’t open the little shelf in her desk enough for it to rest completely flat.

Really a nice appointment overall. I wish my niece luck in her dreams of pursuing a career as a physician’s assistant, and also wish her luck in not having too many patients like me.

Oh, part of the obligatory “lecture” included “no one gets enough fiber in their diet. You should try to get 25 to 30 grams a day”. My response – internally – was “Ha! You don’t know who you are talking to. I’m a nutritionist, and I know all about fiber, and calcium and all those other nutrients” And honestly, I really do get enough fiber.” But again, I just quietly said “yes”.

A quiet yes. That pretty much sums it up.

Back to grade school

I recently had a business trip to Oregon. Our first stop was Salem, the state capitol. I was visiting a pear cannery but got to town early enough to visit the capitol building. It has a very pretty rotunda and an intriguing golden lumberjack gracing the outdoors top of the rotunda. I’ve never seen a similar top on a capitol.

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After visiting the pear cannery, which was housed in an ancient looking building and even has a building that is listed on the National Registry of Historical Buildings, we drove back to Portland. I had made reservations at a McMenamins lodging called the Kennedy School. Originally an elementary school built in the early 1900’s and taken out of use in the ’70s, the building has been turned into a site with guestrooms/ restaurant/ bars/brewery/meeting rooms/ theater and performance center.

The guestrooms used to be classrooms, and still have the old chalkboards on the wall. We stayed in Miss Kinney’s room:

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The room had high ceilings, lots of chalkboards, and a comfortable bed. Of course, I had to write my name on the chalkboard as soon as we arrived.
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The hallways were wide and covered with original artwork and historical photographs. We had dinner and breakfast at the restaurant (which used to be the cafeteria although I couldn’t see many signs remaining of its former life except the tall windows looking into an enclosed courtyard).

I especially enjoyed the soaking pool, with relaxation stops both in the evening and the following morning.

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After dinner, we spent a while in the former gym, listening to live music, then ambled down to the theater, where we munched on popcorn and lounged on large sofas while watching a movie. The movie, District 9, a fantasy film, wasn’t very good in my view, so we didn’t stay for all of it, but it was still fun to be able to leave the theater and just walk down the school hallway back to our room. No need to leave the building, except it was in a quiet residential neighborhood and was a good area for walking. All in all, a great place to spend the night.