Tess of the d’Urbervilles

I’m reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles. It’s not bad, but it could use some revision. I think a good editor would have made all the difference.

For example:

In her despair Tess sprang forward and put her hand upon the hole, with the only result that she became splashed from face to skirt with the crimson drops.

This excerpt is taken from the scene where Tess is on her way to Casterbridge by wagon. She falls asleep and, unable to draw rein sharply, is involved in a crash with an oncoming mail-cart, something akin to the bullet train–for mail. Yet the failure to have properly anticipated e-mail (rendering plodding hooves quite unnecessary) shows that the then editor was somewhat out of his depth. And presently we have this little bit of drama: Prince is mortally wounded. This is perhaps a small quibble, but The Horse Formerly Known as Prince would have been a better name for the nonagenarian beast (it’s certainly more trendy)—and it’s hard to know just who blew this one, the tone-deaf author or the distracted, underpaid editor).

The ‘crimson drops!!!!’ Why not just say blood? Shoddy craftsmanship.
Hole!!! Gash, wound… This novel will never sell more than a few copies.

And this is only one sentence! So goes the salt on a seaman’s lips, so goes the ocean.

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Mary Shelly

You must be nimble, duck as necessary, and quickly accommodated yourself to the colorless fact that the following brief essay is unaccompanied by a pretty picture of, say, some verdant vista, which, being frank, would be scarcely germane to the presently undisclosed (though easily guessed at, given the Promethean title) subject in hand. This cruel strategy is adopted so that the reader may, as it were, taste and savor, with a clean palate, the forthcoming biographical sketch (there, I gave it away).

I wrote this piece waking from a formidable dream and suddenly realizing that I knew very little about Mary Shelly. Topics such as–if fluoride existed as a food additive in her time, would she have insisted on a fluoride free toothpaste?—have never, during long hours of research, been resolved to my satisfaction. You hear nary a word about certain issues either. Did she, for instance, ever consider becoming a professional boxer? There is scant information on her pugilistic aspirations in the numerous biographies I’ve read (and though I’ve never been one to extol the virtues of speed-reading, the practice has some merit). This type of omission is maddening, for I am certain that she would have had a great left hook, and that a sharp shot to the solar plexus, even when delivered by a petite woman, would have made a great signature punch.

In 1826, a daring heist, the likes of which had not been seen, organized by a reserved church organist, known to a ragtag bunch of page-turners as Two Tone Mary, made a splash in the then press. But that was another Mary Shelly–from Tennessee, I think. But now put yourself ringside, it’s the 7th round of a prize fight, and Mary Shelly famously states, after spitting up globs of blood and bubbly saliva, that “poetry is the emasculation of obsession.” Fracturing thoughts are born of fracturing blows, and those following the career of the spindly-legged sportstress were shaken by such revolutionary spittle.

She survived controversy and the Mary Shelly School of Self Defense was opened in 1843, and again in 1846, as a tribute to the great lady of boxing. A decade later, a fire in the small library, next to the fancy and somewhat menacing high-tech hydraulic gym equipment, where incendiary poems and ardent billets-doux were improperly stored, forced the institution to cease its operations.

Please excuse the minor inaccuracies in this short biography (modern gym equipment is clearly anachronistic, sportstress isn’t really a word, etc), but sometimes an author must bend historical fact in order to create an authentic yet rapturous picture, such as the one of the verdant vista you sorrily missed a few fidgety moments ago.

Holy Basil

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I obtained Holy Basil seeds from my neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Slabs. Apparently the Slabses had a family relation (Virginia Slabs’s brother, so I was told) that frequently visited India, where the basil originates. The story was that, unable to hold down a job, the intrepid explorer had scurried off to the misty depths of Asia in search of elephant graveyards, in the belief that he would find there an elixir, or some incunabulum foretelling the future, or, offering direct proof of his business acumen to those that doubted, return to civilization with a bezoar that he could sell for a handsome profit. But it was all hush-hush, a pilgrimage of uncertainties—though he called it a banishment. This may sound a little unusual to you, and it did to me.

Anyhow, it’s not the sort of thing that you just blurt out over coffee and cakes, yet one Saturday afternoon, Mrs. Slabs invited me to her home in order to thank me for the geometric stacks of rutabagas I had a habit of sequestering near her doorstep, part of the rich bounty from a mad garden determined to overburden my graceful hands, the hands that one bluish morning planted seeds there, on its giddy soil. We sat in a pearl-white garden gazebo and had tea (with digestive biscuits). She insisted that I call her Virginia, and her hair, having the the color and luminosity of corn silk, gleamed in the afternoon sun. This is when I learned more of Polynices Albss and his strange trips to India. She related to me that at first the trips were of short duration, never more than a couple of months, but soon they lasted for small eternities (his term). Polynices would often return with a trunk full of old maps—she pulled various exhibits from a stash under the table–nearly obscene curios (actually the dried roots of some potato relative, having the hue of a marten’s underbelly and featuring wild but anatomically correct bifurcations, probably a sort of mandrake, and yet my instinctual probity–quite rare in a magician–demanded that I seek not to extend the conversation in a lubricious direction), various tabla drums, unplayable stringed instruments, and, on one occasion, but a fortnight ago, an ivory jewel box containing small packets of seeds and malodorous incense-like peelings in pretty muslin bags, tied with ghostly drawstrings. And now I had my Ocimum tenuiflorum seeds, formerly known as Ocimum sanctum (formerly known as: and now you may experience for yourself the syphilitic madness that grips so many botanist). Yet in common parlance, these were Holy Basil seeds.

Virginia Slabs told me that if I planted the seeds near my house I would be able to feel the heavy vibrations of an elephant herd going off to die. She had no doubt heard this chestnut from Polynices. It was getting late and I asked Virginia to give my regards to Mr. Slabs. He was a director at the Institute of Mental Wellness, and was away on business, as was frequently the case.

The next day I planted the seeds. My high expectations were generously rewarded months later when the plants spread, overtaking the rutabagas. There was something oddly Darwinian about this, but I preferred to leave the speculation to employment-seeking botanists desirous of fame and fortune in the publishing business.

Yet on a particularly balmy night, I swore I could feel deep, earth-moving vibrations, but these were after sober reflection the epileptic convulsions of an ancient air-conditioner dying a solitary death.

Rainforest Plum Jam

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PART I (For those of you following along, Part II will be available in approximately fifteen years (anyway, I’m keeping my mud-spattered fingers crossed). I will at the time refresh your memory since I don’t expect you to recall with vivid precision the minute details to follow, and I know all too well that chronic, purblind anticipation can sometimes force the hippocampus to scamper and wind up at a sister campus clear across town–if I may use a metaphor from the dreary world of academia–and spoil the whole thing.

Meanwhile I’m preparing to make my first batch of Rainforest Plum jam (trademark pending). I’ve scrubbed the counter top, lined up my glass jars, little hexagonal affairs with a rounded top, and excitedly ripped open a bag of white sugar, which I do not have in the house, and so you must now be prepared to accept the preposterous notion that this is all a fantasy. And it is. Table sugar! In my house! It’s not that I wouldn’t have a modest quantity of these heavenly grains ( beautifully chiseled by cherubs) somewhere in the unplumbed depths my cupboards–it’s that I never make desserts or jam (the very notion is incompatible with the life of an ascetic). But there’s a first time for everything. However, there are still a few little details to iron out. For instance, the ‘plum’ seeds have not germinated yet; and that small aggravation is easily dwarfed by the fact that I never have held the near-fabled seeds in my grubby hands, and this is further complicated by the embarrassing niggle that I have been unable to locate a vendor that has even heard of the darned things. Still, I persist. Purply-red jam, lip-smacking goodness—isn’t that right, Ariel? Wake me, please.

Eugenia candolleana is the little number I must have. If this is sounding like an obsession, let me assure you that it isn’t. I don’t even know if the fruit would make a fetching jam (though I’ve heard told that copious amounts of sugar can educe jam-like qualities from the most recalcitrant sources). Call it a Hyblean hunch because obsession, in my experience, is a horse of a different color. Purple, probably—if that’s not putting too fine a point on it. And there you see, we have taken a circuitous path back to the delectable, unabashedly purple berry. My God, it is an obsession! But the beauty of those long hours spent in counseling is that tiny trifles, even those with a purplish hue, are stopped from metastasizing into a monstrous, all-consuming haze. Devising incredibly malefic, scarcely feasible plans to deter mice from eating your tiny seedlings (should they germinate) is, and I’m parroting my counselor, not an appropriate way to occupy a botanist’s time (little does she know that most botanist’s have plenty of time on their hands owing to the present state of the economy).

This post is dedicated to the Swiss botanist Augustin Pyramus de Candolle, not so much for being an enterprising botanist (at the very least he was always able to reliably find work) but for having such a great name.

Sugar Apple

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Slither. In an attempt to kill you (albeit slowly) by tempting you to eat subtropical fruit, may I present the Sugar Apple? This is a rhetorical question so you needn’t answer, but the fact that you are still reading tells me that you either have an interest in rare fruit or that you have far too much time on your hands (those long, Medusa-like fingers). Whatever! I do not discriminate. Who am I to find fault in your lolling (now a double entendre due to those pesky internet acronyms—oh, I don’t discriminate against those either: discriminate is far too placid a term) on a velveteen settee, laptop aflutter, gathering information (some gossip too, I should expect) like a bee collects pollen.

And you most certainly recognized the word apple, whose job (pun intended) it is to evoke yummy pies, Adam and Eve—slither or, with elfin flexibility, computer savoir-faire–if you despise PCs. That’s a good start. Yet it should be said that the common names of plants are about as useful as your appendix. For the out-of-work botanist (most are) this one is called Annona squamosa–so much easier to remember than Sugar Apple (I’m not winning this argument, am I?)

The reason you won’t see one at the supermarket is that most Annonas don’t travel well and, once at the market, if they ever get there, have a short shelf life (three or four nanoseconds, but I don’t have a reference for this). And whereas Sugar Apple is a pleasant name, ‘putrefied mush’ isn’t—which is exactly what it is by the time your grocer shovels it onto the fruit stand, next to firm, irrepressibly taut mangoes and full-bodied bananas, yellower than Van Gogh’s sunflowers.

And here’s the worrying part: fruit of the Annonaceae family (evidently one botanist is still employed) contain acetogenins. Now it isn’t important for you to know that acetogenics inhibit mitochondrial respiration and can lead to Parkinson’s Disease-like symptoms if the fruit is consumed daily (probably hyperbole but better sssafe than sssorry), the sound of ‘acetogenics’ alone should give you the creeps. Sibilance.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that if you are ever lucky enough to be presented with a Sugar Apple at its peak, it is a paradisiacal adventure in taste.

A Nutty Idea

The case of the Sacha Inchi nut.
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The health benefits of eating nuts are the subject of many great debates. But rather than penciling in almond butter on the grocery list (never use a pen in dietary matters, you’ll regret it), I one morning decided to plant some nuts, a non-polemical, arms-length way of enjoying nature as a passive bystander–not a ravenous epicure. A nutty idea indeed. Well, I’ve already told a half lie. It isn’t really a spontaneous act when you’ve been planning the deed for weeks—for the circuitous machinations of international post for goods originating from the jungles of Peru is a tad slow and anything but extemporaneous. This is a small price to pay for the pleasure of growing rare flora. And a behemothian nut tree providing tutelary shade for the ancient temples of the Incas is sufficiently rare in my book (I’m using ink now)! But I’m leading you astray. The large tree, plukentia volubilis if you feel compelled to convey this information to a botanist, is nothing short of a lilliputian vine (probably a monster vine, but we shall see)! And I decided to write this article because my precocious vine, it’s two years old now, is showing signs of its precociousness! Something non-leafy is happening—and so soon. Will I be digging through boxes of Christmas tinsel to find out whether or not that nutcracker is, as Aunt Jane insists, strictly ornamental? I can already hear the tintinnabulation of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in my head, and I must try to get it to stop.

Except for toothpicky fashion models and the hopelessly sedentary figures at Madame Tussauds, we all eat food. That is a given. One would therefore think that our knowledge of any and all types of comestibles would be rather immerse, but there’s a dearth of information on such subjects. We are kept in a darkened room. Our food, for instance, isn’t adequately labeled. And it’s sad to say that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are allowed to go to the prom unchaperoned—why is that? But let’s try to return to the subject of nuts, entering the discussion by cracking the shell of this carapace of a question: Are processed foods bad for you? Now everybody should agree on this one, and most people are probably chafing at the bit to say heck–yes!

But let’s have a closer look. If you were to eat raw, unprepared, scrumptiously green leaves of Egyptian Taro (for the sake of your enjoyment of this article you’ll have to pretend that this is a real likelihood), you would feel as though steel bolds were suddenly perforating your cheeks and your tongue would be seeking to be relocated to some other part of your anatomy). Taro a little too exotic for you? You’ve probably heard of spinach then. Raw spinach, for one, is full of nasty things such as oxalates . These are anti-nutrients and you’ll be happy to know that they won’t kill you (unless you happen to believe that clutching a plate of raw spinach, held in place by a thin membrane of bpa free plastic–which still manages to leach estrogen-like compounds into your leafy greens–is going to provide you with some talismanic comfort as you take a fateful plunge off the top a tall building. While these anti-nutrients may not kill you then and there, you should know that these substances interfere with your uptake of vital nutrients (iron and calcium). In fact, cooking certain foods makes some nutrients more bio-available, but it also destroys others (vitamin C, for instance, is easily destroyed by heat). So here’s the rub—raw spinach has an impressive list of nutrients, but these are partly unavailable owing to the nefarious and clandestine work of anti-nutrients. And most nuts are chock-full of phytates, another class of antinutrients, but we’ll be getting to that later. But for the moment and in preparation for the test at the end of this lecture, you may want to commit the following to memory: cook your spinach.

Most experts (except for the one that always sits at the back of the bus, making rude sounds on sharp turns and then having the audacity to blame it on the borborygmus than often accompanies hungry school children ) agree that fermented foods have many healthy attributes. Sauerkraut, miso, and yogurt are all healthy choices (for those of you in the habit of daily demonizing dairy (or prone to excessive alliteration), then drop that last one and forgive my impertinence). And you can probably guess where I am going with this—if you ferment food, or cook it, you are processing it in some way–and that’s not always a bad idea.

Nuts can be eaten raw. So what about raw food? Is raw food the cat’s meow? Well, it may be for cats. Cats are obligate carnivores and must eat meat, preferably raw. Humans are a little more cheeky about the whole thing, eschewing the trappings of a strictly carnivorous life for something more unhinged. This introduces a lot of complications and makes life hell for nutritionist. But why not be like the aardvark and just eat ants? However, H. sapiens are obstinate and our motto is “when in some doubt–overreach.” On a dare we’ll eat chocolate covered grasshoppers (better than termites, Aaron Aardwark!) but baulk at being called insectivorous. We’ll eat fruit, but will refuse to be boxed in by the term frugivore. Some find a steak pretty tasty, but can’t pretend to be as carnivorous as the bobcat. And we haven’t done nearly enough to merit the hemovore label, except for international bankers, who have done yeomen’s work in this regard and are the essence of overreach. In short, we admit to nothing–but do it all. No wonder there’s such confusion. So what about raw food! Should we become raw foodists? Actually this was inadvertently answered in our discussion of processed food, and our little foray into felines and bloodsucking bankers has made a muddle of that fact. Still, you get the picture. Some foods are okay eaten raw while others, like spinach, are not. But what about nuts? Raw or roasted? Well, soaked and dehydrated at a low temperature is the current, though somewhat impractical answer. But can you imagine soaking chia seed? The water turns into a gel and soaking is useless since you can’t ditch the water! I wish someone would really sort all of this out.

Before we continue, I should acquaint you with this twofold problem: well designed studies are expensive, and you can’t get a patent on a natural substance. Given these realities, many pertinent questions go unanswered. Don’t expect the bells and whistles of twice baked, hot smoked, randomized, double blind, placebo controlled studies for that scrawny herb in your garden. If a drug company can’t make make a handsome profit, no study on a natural substance will be funded. Period. But you will know, the constant trumpeting is deafening, how wonderful statin drugs are at lowering your cholesterol. These pretty pills are manufactures synthetically and the process can be patented. The only bugaboo is that, although brilliant at corralling cholesterol numbers into the right pen (like pharmacologic Border Collies), these drugs achieve no aim, save to deplete your CoQ10—something that is actually useful for your heart)! Populations with high cholesterol do not have a higher death rate from cardiac disease than populations with the swank, picture-perfect numbers touted by the drug companies. Australian aboriginals have the highest rate of heart disease, and also have the lowest cholesterol reading of any group. Concomitantly, Switzerland has very high cholesterol levels and yet very little heart disease. Accordingly, having studied diverse populations, the WHO concluded that there is no correlation between heart disease and cholesterol levels. And since we are on the topic of nuts, I will point out that few studies have been done on the benefits of soaking nuts in water to (ostensibly) lessen the phytates. Maybe this works. Maybe it doesn’t. The point is that the scant information we do have available isn’t disseminated widely. And to complicate matters, there is also some evidence that phytates can help to suppress certain cancers. To soak, or not to soak—a ghostly question.

So, should nuts be an important part of your diet? Nuts are often touted as health food. Let’s broach the subject another way. Mother Nature, that irrepressible diva, decided, a long time ago, well before the advent of electronic advertisements lasered onto the side of buildings by invisible hands, that her precious seeds should not be eaten. Not by monkeys, not but Sirs and Dames of the British Empire, not by anyone. I’ll illustrate the point. Apple seeds contain cyanide. If in a rebellious mood you crunch down and swallow a few pips–trust me, you won’t die. If you plan on eating a pound of freshly crushed apple seed, you’d be well advised to speak with your life insurance representative first.

The songstress has her reasons for trying to poison you. She wants the seed to end up in a fresh patch of muck where it can germinate and make a new, happy-go-lucky plant. Her pristine plan takes a dark turn when one realizes that undigested seed has an especially devious (and malodorous) way of ending up in the muck that conveniently doubles as a fertilizer—but this is the brain child of a great and pragmatic lady). Now take the cashew fruit as an example. The monkey eats the sweet stuff on top and throws out the seed. Bravo little monkey, you have studied well. We, a contumelious genus, ignore the fruit and eat the seed! Even Calvin the capuchin knows that the ‘nut’ is a seed and dutifully discards it (the cashew nut is technically a legume, but that’s another story).

There’s another problem: most nuts have an attic full of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, and once the cobwebs are lifted on the daft notion that omega 3s from plant sources are desirable—not so, the body very inefficiently converts ALA (the plant version of omega 3) to usable DHA and ELA forms found in fish—a different picture emerges. If we turn on the naked light bulb hanging from the rafters, oh where’s that switch, we can focus our attention on problem of polyunsaturated fatty acids in general. They are unstable and thus prone to rancidity (honey, darling, undimmed light of my life, where did you put that hydrogen atom?) and the last thing the our pass-the-mayonaise generation needs is more oxidated fat. Lower your intake of polyunsaturated fats and you lower inflammation, the poster child of chronic disease.

And food manufacturers have become quite expert at disguising rancidity with pleasant, oh-this-is-so-fresh odors: men in white laboratory coats—Oh wait! Isn’t there’s a young woman in the back row with her eye glued to a microscope–playing fast and loose with your notoriously naive nostrils). And in another chamber something is being planned to enhance the appeal of your frosted cereal: titanium dioxide nanoparticles—and they’re in your toothpaste too, keeping it sparkling white. Yes, nano-technology is the newest foot soldier in the war that the food companies are waging against you, dear consumer. And there’s no need to label these either. Shouldn’t you know what you and your children are consuming? And what’s it all for? So that your toothpaste will sheepishly sparkle for the confiscational (new words for fascist times) pleasure of the airport gestapo?

I digress. Back to squirrel talk… Walnuts and pine nuts, for instance, are very high in omega 6 and have significant amounts of phytates. Macadamia nuts and chestnuts are both low in Omega 3 and 6, and are low in phytates. You should primarily eat these. As for my Sacha Inchi nuts, I shall patiently wait for them to produce their precious seed, and I shall enjoy eating a few handfuls, now and then, secure in the knowledge that they are a whole food, have not had a sojourn in a laboratory, have not been genetically modified, and that no nanoparticles have been contracted to perform an obscene quantum dance.

[For the record regarding polyunsatured fat, Sacha Inchi has 45% omega 3 and 37% omega 6. Beware of the health claims for Sacha Inchi oil saying it has an ideal omega fatty acid ratio, or that omega 3 from plant sources is smashingly good for you. ]

P.S. This article is intended for those of you that often wrestle with the relative merits of brown versus white rice—she love me, she loves me not, white rice, white rice not.

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