I haven’t posted in a bit, mostly because we’ve been running around trying to get ready for Christmas while taking turns being sick. My partner won the being sick contest; he spent all last week in bed with flu-turned-pneumonia. Despite the illnesses, Christmas is coming at full speed, and in my home baking takes a center role in the seasonal preparations. I’ve been adventurous this year, with mixed results.

I had a bit of nostalgia after the St. Nikolaus celebration at the Athaneum. St. Nikolaus day was one of my favorites as a child, because it seemed like something special for our family, like a secret. We put our shoes out on Dec. 5, and woke to find them filled with German chocolate and chocolate eggs with tiny toys hidden within. St. Nikolaus would visit the Deutsche Schulen, along with Ruprecht. In our variation, Ruprecht is allowed a reprieve from hell (or purgatory?) once a year to serve St. Nikolaus. He wore a tattered cloak, crossed with bells and chains that he would shake at the children. He carried a switch, and eagerly brandished it at the children who might have been naughty enough to earn a beating. He also carried the bag of gifts for St. Nikolaus, with oranges, nuts in-the-shell, and chocolate coins. St. Nikolaus was kindly but stern, and inquired into our behavior, grades, and German-language skills. Now, the celebration is held at the Athanaeum, and includes gingerbread house-making, a puppet show, and a traditional tree lighting ceremony that includes the Indianapolis Maennerchor.

Of course, after the St. Nikolaus celebration, in my moment of nostalgia and baking for my daughter’s ICC Christmas party, I decided to bake apple kuchen. Suffice it to say, I suspect the kuchen would have been better if the dough had risen and I had used sufficient butter in the topping. The oatmeal-cranberry-chocolate chip cookies turned out much better. (I only used one kind of chocolate chip and added a teaspoon of orange zest to the batter.)

In the midst of all this holiday baking, we are still dealing with my daughter’s seeming sugar intolerance, and the oh-so-wonderful behavior that comes with it. So last night when I finally got around to making muffins for her school lunch, I sought out some information about soaking grains. We tried a recipe that soaks flour and rolled oats overnight in milk and apple cider vinegar, and it was meh, but I think that it just needed more seasoning and blueberries or something. I don’t tend to prefer things like apple cinnamon, but things that are a bit ‘brighter’ so to speak – like cranberry and orange. I also put out our steel cut oats and buckwheat in buttermilk (1 tsp cultured buttermilk/cup water) – we’ll see how that works in the morning.

My daughter has two days of school after today, and I still have to make their Christmas pajamas. The expense of buying fabric to make our own versus the cost of buying pajamas from Walmart or Target was pretty frustrating, and might just become a new post, together with an article about Walmart, labor, and unions I read recently. In the meantime, I’ll rejoice over this article as though it were written as a holiday present just for me – at least until I can open my new tea infuser and copies of Tolstoy and Chekov.

Happy Holidays!

The news is full of the effects of Alabama’s immigration legislation. I can’t tell for sure whether the exodus of Hispanic immigrants is surprising because so many documented residents left, or if the attitude is more of the I-told-you-so variety. Either way, we are getting real-time updates of what an exodus of hard working laborers looks like – and not just in Alabama. That means we are renewing our attention to farmers’ claims that US citizens can’t or won’t do the work. A lot of those claims are anecdotal, about workers who come and leave after 30 minutes, an hour, a day. I’ve also heard, more than once, that farmers ought to turn to work-release inmate labor – if that says anything about how our society perceives the role of farm workers…

I have thought quite a bit about this one, and at least in part that is because I myself could use a job, and I wonder if I am one of the Americans who ought to be out in the fields. It’s not that I’m opposed to farm work, per say. I even worked on a farm once, and promptly quit – not because the work was too difficult but because I found out the field was a Monsanto genetic research facility [winces]. The biggest hurdle would seem to be moving my family. My six year old is in school, and my partner does have a job. Where would we stay – in a tent? A more abstract concern would be how temporary work would affect my student loan repayments. So… I’m not heading south anytime soon.

I also thought about whether the food I buy comes from these farms, and how this problem will likely affect our family’s food supply. My first thought was that food will get more expensive if much of the harvest is left in the fields. Then I remembered – aha! Our food is mostly either local or from the west coast. And then – I remembered economics.

If the harvests in Alabama (and other southern states like Georgia) rot, we can expect food costs to rise. In classic supply-and-demand fashion, if demand stays even but supply falls, then prices go up. When farmers vie to get into the market, prices fall, but in this case there is less competition between farmers. This affects our west coast producers too, because their incentive to keep costs low diminishes. Competition instead shifts to consumers, who will have to offer more to get the goods.

More than simply affecting supply and demand, though, the changes to the way we produce food will also raise prices because it will become more expensive to produce it. There are those who would harangue the farmers for paying too little, and those who accuse the workers for accepting too little (taking jobs from those who have to work for more), but it is also us – the consumers – who pay too little. Many of us are aware that organic produce, for instance, is more expensive than other, mass-produced produce. Similarly, Fair Trade products are more expensive than goods without that certification. Fair Trade products are priced deliberately to provide a fair wage to producers and harvesters. The importance of these products is diluted as the largest scale retailers offer similarly marketed goods at lower prices. However, organic and fair trade goods – and the price variation – suggest what prices might look like if we consistently paid fair, livable wages to our farm workers.

Everyone deserves dignity, and fair wages are a part of that. As we dismiss the value of the labor, we dismiss to an extent the value of the laborer as well. At some point, we must consider that if we want farmers to pay salaries that people can afford to take, we will have to help them pay for it. If not, those farmers will go out of business, and those large agri-corporations that remain will increasingly outsource their farms to Mexico – which would, in a manner of speaking, resolve the immigration issue.

It’s Tuesday! We got some wonderful produce in this week, although the season has decisively shifted towards fall. It was a rainy, chill morning. The rain has been an interesting backdrop to some of what my family has been discussing over the IPS intersession, as a lead up to Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF. Because I’m the kind of mom who thinks that school breaks are a great time to do learning projects, we are learning about what UNICEF is and what it does, both as a research project but also so that she understands what she is raising money to achieve. It turns out that UNICEF does quite a bit, and since the girl is still six, we are focusing on a particular aspect of what UNICEF does – providing clean water. But it’s Food Themed Tuesday! Yep: water is integral to food, agriculture, and health, and our agricultural practices certainly impact the water supply, by diverting water to fields for export crops, by polluting water supply with pesticides and herbicides, by replacing tree lines with crops that do little to prevent erosion, among other things. Crops don’t only provide the vegetables we eat; we grow crops for energy, for livestock feed, for genetic breeding and research, and we often do so following agro-industrial standards that are more suited for profits than for sustainability.

We watched Blue Gold this afternoon, and while it’s obviously intended to be a persuasive film, it makes a lot of good points along the way. It reminded me that water scarcity isn’t just an issue in the Horn of Africa, but a problem for everyone – especially those of us in the industrialized countries. We have achieved a point of industrialization wherein we are able to sustain the pretense of having beaten nature. We build vast cities in the desert, ship in water (not by truck but via pipeline), and call it good. We are frontier minded, but the frontier is vanishing beneath the haze of urban industry. How many of us drink bottled water because it’s ‘safer’ than tap water, without considering how often they share a source?

It’s funny, but as I was looking up information about Veolia water, the huge transnational corporation that ran our local water utility in a “public-private partnership” since 2002, I discovered that the city ended that contract early (for $29 million), transferring control this year to Citizens’ Energy Group, a “public trust” run like a not-for-profit. Waste water is still managed by United Water, affiliated with Suez, another private transnational group. I also found out that water prices are expected to triple over the next 15 years. To review, control of Indianapolis’ water utility changed hands 2 times in 10 years, with significant changes each time.

Indianapolis is not yet at the point where most people consider water shortages a critical issue. But dry periods over the last several summers, and also spring rains heavy enough that the ground can’t hold the water, suggest that water supply will be increasingly tenuous. Farmers planted corn (an Indiana staple) late this year, with smaller yields because of the early floods, and harvests scanter still with the dry weather in July. Increasingly, nature forebodes a reassertion of its whims, and we are unaccustomed to meeting nature on its terms. A great deal of attention is paid to finding realistic water supplies in developing nations, but few people spend their time pondering the changes that we in the industrialized world must make to persist into the future. Societal collapse seems inconceivable, yet history chides us quietly to the contrary. In yet another example of how we seem to be rushing headlong into a precarious future, I wonder, what changes will come, and can we act in time to forestall the most extreme consequences?

Woot! It’s co-op day! Every Tuesday I’m like a kid in a candy store, only with fruit, veggies, and other awesome deliciousness! In honor of my giddy excitement to see what the week’s order will bring, let’s hear it for food-themed Tuesdays!

If you’re wondering, the answer is yes: I am totally one of those hyper-intensive food moms. Really a hyper-intensive all-around mom. Not the kind that follows kids around with de-germ-ifyer, but the kind that will spend hours trying to figure out how exactly to make a balanced diet that her kids (including the larger-than-life grown-up one) will actually eat. I remember growing up with stories about all the food my great-grandma would make for the family, and how she taught my grandma to cook, but the foods I remember eating as a kid are frozen pizza, macaroni-and-cheese, and Kids’ Cuisine frozen dinners. My mom was always really good about making sure that we had fruit and vegetables with dinner – I definitely remember trying to hide brussel sprouts under the napkin! But she was busy, worked long hours, and needed easy dinners.

I have felt compelled to relearn all my nutritional knowledge over the last few years. The springboard for this was when I was “spilling sugars” when I was pregnant with my youngest. We had awesome midwives, and they really helped me to understand what was going on as a long-term trend, rather than a temporary condition called “Gestational Diabetes.” In short, I had a really poor understanding of what parts of food become sugars. I mean, sugar is a sugar, but so are carbs, starches, etc. So our awesome cheap-food diet was working against me. For all those who have ever wondered how poor people can be overweight, it’s right there in the processed food box. Pasta, rice, white bread, potatoes, and on and on… Inexpensive foods you can find at the dollar store because your neighborhood lacks a real grocer. Pretty much all of those foods-in-a-box break down into sugar.

I also learned there are simple and complex carbs, some foods have a lower glycemic index, and ok so I’m still a bit fuzzy but I know to buy colored potatoes and whole grains. I also know if I can find the blue/purple potatoes, my daughter will eat them! I know to work in leafy greens, and try to use a variety of vegetable-colors. I also figured out that molasses is a good iron source, but I have a harder time keeping straight how to get the kids calcium and iron but not together…

It’s not as simple as avoiding high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in favor of more “natural” sugars either. While the jury is still out on the effects of HFCS compared to cane or beet sugar, I think that a survey of the nutritional info on the side of our food packaging suggests at least one certainty: we put sugar in everything, in large quantities, a lot. Soda may use HFCS instead of cane sugar, but we also started drinking cases of soda each week, and a lot of other sweetened foods as well. It takes crazy amounts of work to find food that doesn’t break down in some fashion to sugars. And by “crazy amounts of work” I mean the easiest, most consistent way has been to just prepare our meals from scratch.

*GASP* (Yeah, “from scratch” is the crazy part.)

But I make a mean spelt pizza. And some other stuff, although I almost never start out with a recipe. I have basic categories that I fill with appropriate food. My kids will eat fruit and dairy all day long, so dinners are protein and veggies, and maybe some decorative flavoring also. And it’s working. My daughter knows she has to eat certain kinds of food to fill out her diet, to turn food into energy she can use. When she came home from school upset because someone called her fat (!!!) (also, she’s a freaking string bean – I’ve worried about her being underweight since she was a baby) we talked about what it means to be healthy, how you can be overweight OR underweight, and neither is healthy. As we talked about what foods are healthy foods, I realized: she has no conception of any other dietary practices. She doesn’t see commercials. She knows she likes Pop-Tarts but can’t have them, but all those other cereal-candies aren’t even on her radar! You have to realize, this is the same kid who ate fast food three nights a week when I was an undergrad and didn’t know what else to do; she doesn’t ask for McNuggets anymore. We’ve come really far, and I’m really, really excited about it. But it has been a journey.

The good news is that nutrition is a really good way to direct my neurotic tendencies in a way that benefits my family without overwhelming them. They just get to eat really good food. Except for last night – it turns out that the purpleness of cabbage does not compensate for the vegetableness of cabbage, at least in my daughter’s opinion.