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Wednesday
Jul022014

Vegetarian in the Garden of Earthly Delights 

Credit where credit is due.

A few nights ago I attended a dinner sponsored by investment advisors, including my friend The Broker. (I always wonder what clues he would leave for Batman. Holy hedge fund!) The dinner was held in a private room at Juniper, the restaurant at the relatively new Hotel Vermont on Cherry Street in Burlington, Vermont. The Broker assured me that the vegetarian offerings would be far better than what I had at Kismet. He was right.

The aesthetic of the place was based on modern spare design with local, natural materials. The servers were professional in demeanor and casual in clothing. A bright green “Keep Calm and love Vermont” t-shirt was the uniform.

The menu has snacks, appetizers, “shares” appropriate for just that, sandwiches, and regular entrees.  I saw roughly ten things that I could feel good about, which is stellar vegetarian fare for most conventional restaurants.

My choices:

Half Pint Farm greens, beets, sharp provolone, watermelon. A decent salad of a good size. The watermelon seemed odd but actually worked.

Eggplant caponata, vegetable crudo, Castleton crackers. Good, dense caponata in a big ramekin. Plenty of scooping items. Castleton Crackers rate a “meh” on my rigorous cracker scale, but I don’t blame the management for trying to keep it local.

Hemp seed whole grain burger, arugula, carrot ketchup. An actual restaurant-made veggie burger with an interesting flavor and texture. The carrot ketchup was also interesting but not socks-knocking. It needed a little something to make it more than just orange. I liked having the arugala on the side so I could choose my level of greenery. The bun had some real texture and crust.

Lemon tart. Tart lemon custard in a shortbread-ish crust. Slightly difficult to attack with a fork, but tasty even as it crumbled. Strawberries and blackberries as well as whipped cream on the side. A success.

My dinner companions seemed satisfied with their meaty entrees. However, my main point is that vegetarians will not be disappointed at Juniper.

Friday
Jun132014

Good News for the Gluten Sensitive 

This is a short one. The science speaks for itself.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat that gives bread dough its resilience. Without gluten, bread would be crumbly and would fail to rise. Protein levels in wheat vary from around 10% up to the high teens, with so-called “heritage” varieties, the oldest types, having some of the highest levels in general.

There are certain people, slightly less than 1% of the population, who have a specific allergic reaction to gluten called celiac disease. In celiac sufferers gluten causes inflammation of the cilia, the tiny hairlike projections in the intestines, which prevents them from absorbing nutrients. Celiac sufferers experience severe gastrointestinal symptoms and chronic malnutrition unless they eliminate all gluten containing foods from their diets.

Early in 2011 a researcher published a study establishing the concept of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or NCGS. It was a set of less-severe gastrointestinal (and other) symptoms associated with the consumption of gluten. A cardiologist published a popular book (filled with errors of fact) on the subject later in 2011 and the idea took off.

Now there is a 10.5 billion dollar industry in the United States that fills entire sections of supermarkets with gluten free food. Any food item in the store that just happens to be gluten free is so labeled. Restaurants now carry gluten free options.

Jessica R. Biesiekierski, the researcher who performed that 2011 study on non-celiac gluten sensitivity, published a new study in 2013 with more participants and a more rigorous protocol. The results were a reversal of the previous study. Gluten did not cause symptoms in the individuals studied, and various biomarkers (signs of inflammatory response) had no relationship to gluten consumption.

Take a cue from the Japanese. They import 3.5 million metric tons of our wheat every year and consume wheat at a higher rate per capita than we do. They are less obese, healthier, and live longer. So be happy; have a bagel or some whole wheat toast. Maybe a plate of linguine arrabbiata. And stop worrying about gluten.

Monday
May262014

Vegetarian at the Abbattoir 

I’d like to change the pace with a negative restaurant review, plus a Philippic aimed at complacent, traditional chefs in general.  

In my experience, being a vegetarian at a restaurant is generally an exercise in diminished expectations. There are a few out there that focus on us as a demographic, and they tend to do reasonably well. Most, however, seem to view us as an afterthought; second class citizens of the culinary republic. I actually went to one chef-owned restaurant where the only thing on the menu I could eat was “frites” (expensive French fries).  Even the salads had meat in them.

I recently visited Kismet, an upscale restaurant in Montpelier Vermont. I later remembered that after the last time I had been there, a couple of years before, I had vowed to avoid the place. They just don’t seem to give a damn about vegetarians.

On my previous visit I had ordered a veggie burger. Kind of anomalous for an upscale joint, but then the fancy places have been elevating the burger to pretentious heights lately. What showed up was essentially inedible. First, it was a double stacked arrangement with three bun pieces, two burgers, and other ingredients. It was a normal burger diameter but it stood about five inches tall. It was suitable for a crocodile or a python with a dislocatable jaw, but not for a normal human mouth. Maybe the chef was being artistic in some Dadaist way, but it needed disassembly before consumption, and that’s not what a burger is about. Then there were the burgers, or to be more accurate, non-burgers.  They were half inch thick pieces of plain fried tempeh. Boring, unappetizing, and demonstrating no interest in, or mastery of cooking. I mean really, I was paying something like $17 for this, and they couldn’t mix up some kind of flavor-enhanced veggie burger? I gently noted to the server that tempeh wasn’t a burger, and that a burger should fit in the mouth of the species homo sapiens.

On my more recent visit to Kismet I ordered some kind of veggie and grain plate. Again with the plain fried slabs o’ tempeh. Add a dollop of plain rice, some unflavored steamed vegetables, a few canned condiments, and you have what I might prepare at home if I was pressed for time and filled with self-loathing. They managed to make fiddleheads unappetizing. It was a complete culinary face-plant. I felt a strange mixture of annoyance and actual embarrassment for the chef.

My dinner companion at Kismet had baked oysters and a ribeye steak and pronounced himself eminently satisfied. My appetizer was polenta fries, which were very good – crispy and chewy and slightly spicy. The chef was not incompetent, which made the abysmal main course that much more irritating.

Note to chefs: tempeh, and its blander cousin tofu, are not complete food items unto themselves. They are vehicles for flavoring and protein rich filler to be mixed with more interesting things. Pitching an unadorned slab of fermented soybeans at one of your customers is a gesture of contempt. No, I don’t have any recipe suggestions. You are, theoretically, professionals, and should know the full spectrum of your craft.

Yes, I know, *real* gourmets are eager to eat goat anus tartare on a bed of pickled larks eyeballs. Vegetarianism is for Buddhist ascetics and animal rights freaks who disapprove of plungering food down the throats of waterfowl. Throw a bowl of rice at them and move on to your real customers, the carnivores.

May I suggest that you are being lazy? Cooking with meat is like making jewelry with gold – the intrinsic characteristics of the material get you halfway home. Start with a good piece of steak, or swordfish, or some prime oysters, and even simple preparation will satisfy the customer. The grains and produce that make up the bulk of a vegetarian diet lack the intensity and complexity of flavor that let you coast to victory with a little lemon butter. You need imagination and you need to work at it to surpass our quotidian home cooking. There, the oven mitt is thrown down.

Note to restaurant owners: I have noticed that when groups of people are deciding on a restaurant, there is generally a democratic vote, but with a veto option. If one person “hates that place,” then it gets dropped from the running. Quite often there is a vegetarian in the group, our veto power giving us more clout than our numbers would have you suppose. When one of our carnivorous friends suggests that we all dine at “L’Abbattoir Sanguinaire” we are going to suggest the place down the street. A friend of mine recently suggested either Kismet or a more vegetarian-friendly place nearby for lunch, and my response was predictable. Unless you run that place down the street, it’s past time for you to up your game.

Friday
May232014

Driving Nails With Scissors 

There was a bill that that was going through the Vermont legislature this last session, H.883, which proposed to consolidate Vermont school districts. It would have eventually reduced Vermont’s 270 districts down to 50. Advocates pointed to long term cost savings, better ability to serve students, and equality of funding. Opponents cast doubt on these points and mourned the loss of local control. H.883 went back and forth, got diluted, and eventually died in the House at the eleventh hour. And there was much rejoicing.

My take is that we are trying to solve the wrong problems. I see this debate as people trying to drive nails with a pair of scissors and arguing about how to sharpen the scissors.

First, everyone is missing the point on funding, both in terms of amount and equality. Taxation ought to be based a person’s ability to pay. We tax people for school funding according to the value of their real estate holdings. Sure, through Act 60 we have shared money across towns and income adjusted to some extent, but the system is a kludge. The saying is that it took the tax burden off of poor people in poor towns and put it on poor people in rich towns.

Taxing people according to real estate value worked a century or more in the past, when income was hard to track and most people farmed. Real estate value was a decent bellwether for income; more acres equaled more crops. Now the situation is inverted. Few people farm, income is easy to track, and there is no strong connection between real estate value and ability to pay. With your average dairy farmer it is inverse. Current use taxation helps, but let’s just admit it: the most income sensitive tax is an income tax.

We should be collecting all education tax as an add-on to the income tax at the state level. It would be collected by the state but it would belong to the schools. It should be distributed to schools on a per pupil basis, with a multi-year rolling average to prevent funding shocks. We could put aside a percentage as a dedicated education rainy day fund to even out economic dips.

From H.883:

“At the same time, technology and globalization and other societal demands are changing what our students need to know and be able to do in order to contribute to building a strong economic and civic future for the State. Notably, our students need to acquire what are generally called “21st century skills,” which include the ability to innovate, adapt, handle nonroutine problems, reason from evidence, synthesize and analyze complex data, work confidently with technology, collaborate in teams, and communicate effectively through a variety of media.”

Our schools aren’t designed to do this. The fundamental structure of the K-12 school hasn’t changed in a hundred years or more. I once heard it said that our schools are doing a wonderful job – of training the farm kids of the 1890s to do the factory jobs of 1910. The present structure is focused on obedience, repetition, tolerance of boredom, alienation from nature and community, fear of failure, obsession with time limits, and the categorization of students according to the needs of moribund heavy industry. Most schools resemble medium security prisons and operate much the same, despite the best intentions of educators. The structure, both physical and rule-based, overwhelms the occupants.

And what about those time limits?

Here are a couple of statements I think everybody can agree on: Each student learns a subject at a different rate of speed. That rate will vary according to the sub-section of the subject being studied and the physical and mental state of the student at the time. A student will not learn all subjects at the same rate of speed. One student might have an easier time with math and a harder time with reading and another student just the opposite.

Obvious to the point of utter banality, you might say. I agree.

So why do we force all students to learn all subjects at the same rate of speed? Most states define a school year at 180 days. We can observe that some students master a subject in far less than 180 days. They get bored and waste time. Others might need 200 or 250 or 300 days to master the same subject. They are rushed through the subject matter, tested, branded as failures (or partial failures), and spit out the other end of their grade level to endure the frustration and humiliation again the next year.

I read a parable somewhere about an infant learning to walk. The kid grabs onto a table leg and pulls herself upright. She lets go, takes a few wobbly steps, and falls down. At this point she realizes that she is a failure at walking and crawls on all fours for the rest of her life, as we all do. Of course not. She grabs onto the table leg again and repeats the process until she can walk. Short of an actual physical disability, she will eventually walk, run, jump, and scare the crap out of her parents by climbing things. This is because small children don’t have a concept of failure. We have to teach them that. And we do.

One of the ways we do this is by imposing arbitrary time limits on learning. It’s useful for beating down children into a state of docile self-doubt and filtering for industrial productivity. It’s also convenient for administrators, but last time I checked we didn’t create and maintain schools for the convenience of administrators. Except that we do.

Another way we teach failure is through standardized testing. Standardized testing will not work until someone invents the standardized child. Until that mythical time we are merely distracting students and teachers from real learning. What we get are snapshots of a teacher’s ability to jam a student into an artificial framework under time pressure, and the student’s willingness and ability to be so jammed, combined with the student’s physical and mental state at the time of the test. It is like one of those snapshots that catches you with one eye closed and your mouth twisted into a palsied rictus.

We should get rid of grades and grading. Segregating students by age and ramrodding them all through academic material at the same speed is patently idiotic. We all know this is unrealistic, and yet we accept it. Testing them all on a particular day at a particular hour and considering this an accurate indicator of their mastery of a subject is just as idiotic. A student should be able to study a subject until he or she achieves mastery of it and then move on. Perhaps a particular student might take four years to learn what we now call 9th grade reading. At least the student ends up being able to read.

To consolidate, or not to consolidate, that is the irrelevant question. Fifty school districts based on the present educational foundation would be just as abusive and pointless as 270 districts. It’s an administrative question, not an educational one. Those fifty putative districts would be just as poorly funded.

We need to look past the wreckage of our present system, think about what outcomes we want for the children of Vermont and build schools based on how children actually learn.

Saturday
Mar292014

Rumble Strip Vermont 

I’d like to bring your attention to a remarkable website. True, it was created by a friend of mine, but I have always had the option of ignoring it. I visited it just recently and it was so much fun I thought I’d share it with you.

The site is Rumble Strip Vermont and it is run by Erica Heilman. Erica records conversations with people, edits them, and puts them online. Professionally she is a private investigator, although you’d never guess it when you meet her. This is probably one reason why she is a good investigator. She’s a great conversationalist, which is what her kind of investigation is all about.

The result is a lot of seemingly ordinary people talking about their lives; hobbies, professions, tragedies, thrills. It is the amazing contained in the quotidian.

The latest installment is some pieces about a local institution, Thunder Road. Thunder Road is a quarter-mile oval track next to a steep hill with concrete bleachers and a beer-drinking and picnicking area above. All our local heroes come out on Thursday nights to drive dangerously and bask in the best glory – fame among friends. Erica gets the story and gets the story right.

Stop in at Rumble Strip Vermont and enjoy. Keep stopping in – I’ve never been disappointed.