Ruminations: On the historic rise of the birthday cake

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Photo by Lara Starr

Photo by Lara Starr

copyright the Chronicle March 4, 2015

by Tena Starr

My family isn’t overly fond of cake, which got me to wondering about the history of the ritual. How is it that cake and candles are such an entrenched tradition that people who don’t even really like cake still have it at a birthday celebration?

(To be honest here, Chris at Parker Pie made this year’s birthday cake, and most of us confessed that we did, indeed, like it. So maybe it’s just the cakes we make ourselves that we’re not so fond of.)

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Navigating the complexities of the simple life

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WEB Hewitt bookcopyright the Chronicle December 3, 2014

The Nourishing Homestead: One Back-to-the-Land Family’s Plan for Cultivating Soil, Skills, and Spirit, by Ben Hewitt with Penny Hewitt. Published by Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, 2015; Paperbound, 352 pages; $29.95.

Reviewed by Joseph Gresser

Some books need to be written again as each new generation comes of age. Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, may have set the template for one of these books, the exhortation to the reader to give up conventional expectations and live a radically simplified life.

Living the Good Life, by Helen and Scott Nearing, set forth a version of that message adapted for a very different world. To give them full credit, the Nearings lived according to their principles far longer than the year or two Mr. Thoreau spent in the woods.

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Ruminations on apples: the good, the bad, the useless

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The cover of Apples of Uncommon Character.

The cover of Apples of Uncommon Character.

copyright the Chronicle October 8, 2014

by Joseph Gresser

Apples of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Modern Classics & Little-Known Wonders, by Rowan Jacobsen. Published by Bloomsbury, New York City, 2014. 311 pages. Hardbound. $35.

At this time of year, even a short walk along any back road will reveal the remains of a long-passed way of life. At intervals, forlorn apple trees, still bearing after years of neglect, will offer their meager , or occasionally abundant, fall harvest.

With the advent of grocery stores and the availability of any fruit or vegetable we might desire regardless of the season, we have moved away from the world where apple trees were a necessary luxury.

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In Charleston: Sixty years of oysters

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Stewmaster Darald Moulton followed a tried and true recipe Saturday at the Charleston Fire Department’s sixtieth annual oyster stew supper.  Photo by Paul Lefebvre

Stewmaster Darald Moulton followed a tried and true recipe Saturday at the Charleston Fire Department’s sixtieth annual oyster stew supper. Photo by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle October 8, 2014

by Paul Lefebvre

Sixty years ago a photograph was published of Marilyn Monroe standing over a New York City sidewalk register whose hot air lifted her skirt higher up her legs than anyone expected to see.

Sixty years ago Elvis the Pelvis recorded his first hit, “That’s all Right,” a song sung in such a seductive voice that it went beyond ballistic as soon as people saw him perform it.

And 60 years ago, the volunteer firemen of Charleston held their first fund-raiser, an oyster stew supper that has gone on to become an annual event in a region known for its chicken pie suppers and strawberry shortcake.

How to explain the popularity of oyster stew in landlocked country nearly half a day’s drive from the ocean?

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Ruminations: on dumpster diving, or clearing out the garden

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WEB rumination curious harvestcopyright the Chronicle September 10, 2014

by Joseph Gresser

A Curious Harvest: The Practical Art of Cooking Everything, by Maximus Thaler and Dayna Safferstein; published by Quarry Books, Beverly, Massachusetts, 2014; 160 pages, softbound, $24.99.

There is hardly any point in searching for a topic for this column. Like a cow grazing in the field, the writer is best off using what he finds before him.

In this case it is A Curious Harvest: The Practical Art of Cooking Everything. Elka Schumann handed a copy of the book to me a week or so ago while we stood talking in the kitchen at the Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover.

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Ruminations: On seasonal cooking in northern Vermont

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web ruminations cookbookcopyright the Chronicle August 6, 2014

by Tena Starr

Marcie Kaufman is a professionally trained chef who lives in Jay. She graduated from the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier in 1992, but began her career earlier, in 1987, as an apprentice boulanger and patissier.

To translate broadly, that means she is a very good baker and pastry maker.

Ms. Kaufman has now written a cookbook called Seasonal Appetite, a Chef’s Celebration of Vermont’s Seasons. She says the solitude of her own kitchen has replaced the restaurant’s “animated discourse.”

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Weather problems drive up beef prices sharply

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Bob Butterfield’s son, Ethan, is pictured with his seven-month-old heifer, Chloe, on one of the Spring Hill Angus farms, in Barton.  Chloe was an embryo transplant calf, or “E.T.” for short.  Her egg was taken from a top-ranking heifer.  Chloe is off to Randolph, New York, soon, to be auctioned at the New York State Angus Association sale.  Her genetics make her a desirable purchase, Mr. Butterfield said.  Someone from Montana has already expressed interest.  Photos by Natalie Hormilla

Bob Butterfield’s son, Ethan, is pictured with his seven-month-old heifer, Chloe, on one of the Spring Hill Angus farms, in Barton. Chloe was an embryo transplant calf, or “E.T.” for short. Her egg was taken from a top-ranking heifer. Chloe is off to Randolph, New York, soon, to be auctioned at the New York State Angus Association sale. Her genetics make her a desirable purchase, Mr. Butterfield said. Someone from Montana has already expressed interest. Photos by Natalie Hormilla

copyright the Chronicle May 7, 2014

by Natalie Hormilla

BARTON — The price of beef in most stores is at a record high, and the price of locally raised beef is getting higher, too.

The average price of a pound of ground beef in most U.S. states hit almost $3.70 for the month of March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index (CPI).

That average price was up from $3.55 in February and $3.47 in January. In March of 2013, it was $3.33; four years ago, it was $2.24.

Just like in the rest of the country, shoppers at the C&C Supermarket in Barton have been wondering why the prices have been so high lately.

“We had a sign over the meat department for three months, stating why we had higher beef prices,” said Ray Sweeney, who works in the meat department at the C&C. “Just to kind of explain ourselves.”

“People were asking a lot,” he said.

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Ruminations: Start a new tradition with Christmas cookies

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Some of our Christmas cookies from a previous year.  Clockwise from the bottom center, are:  Cuccidati, or Italian fig cookies; pizzelle; almond cookies (recipe not provided here); merenguitos; and more pizzelle.  Photo courtesy of Natalie Hormilla

Some of our Christmas cookies from a previous year. Clockwise from the bottom center, are: Cuccidati, or Italian fig cookies; pizzelle; almond cookies (recipe not provided here); merenguitos; and more pizzelle. Photo courtesy of Natalie Hormilla

copyright the Chronicle December 11, 2013

by Natalie Hormilla

Some years ago, when we got tired of too many Christmas gifts with too little meaning, we started to give away Christmas cookies.

The whole process is beautiful.  We bake together, listen to Christmas tunes, talk about the people we’ll give them to, sip amaretto, and just hang out as a family.

The best part is giving them.  The cookies we make for Christmas make their appearance just once a year.  They have a way of inspiring talk about those past family members who carried the recipes into the present.

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Hungry Vermonters face cuts in aid

hunger web

Joe Patrissi at the NEKCA food shelf. Mr. Patrissi said it was fully stocked on Monday morning, but demand is great, and a few hours later several of its shelves were bare. Photo by Tena Starr

Years ago, Kim Arel found herself in a tough spot.  She had two young children to feed, and for a brief time the only way to swing that was to visit a food shelf.  “I was surprised to see other people there that I didn’t think I would,” she said in a recent interview.

Later, when she was in a better place, Ms. Arel decided to pay it forward, and became a donor to food shelves herself.  And for the past 12 years or so, she’s been running the food shelf in Jay, which serves five towns.

Last week, she said, many of her clientele were talking about the latest round of cuts to 3SquaresVT, the program that helps poor Vermonters put food on the table.  “They don’t know what they’re going to do.”

Those cuts, which will take effect on November 1, are due to the expiration of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding, which passed in 2009 and included a temporary increase for help with food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  The temporary boost increased the monthly SNAP benefit by 14 percent. Continue reading

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Three-fourths of the region is overweight

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From left to right, Zylus and her sister Giada Hodges of Newport, and Autumn Walsh of Brownington enjoy healthy snacks provided by Meghan Stotko and the Lunch Box at Saturday’s screening of Weight of the Nation, sponsored by the district health department.   Photo by Tena Starr

From left to right, Zylus and her sister Giada Hodges of Newport, and Autumn Walsh of Brownington enjoy healthy snacks provided by Meghan Stotko and the Lunch Box at Saturday’s screening of Weight of the Nation, sponsored by the district health department. Photo by Tena Starr

by Tena Starr

NEWPORT — About 75 percent of the people in Orleans and northern Essex counties are either overweight or obese.  Thirteen percent of 12- to 19-year-olds are considered obese, as well as 11 percent of kids under five.

In the state as a whole, 28 percent of children and 58 percent of adults are either overweight or obese.  The rate of obesity in the Newport area is 31 percent, the worst in the state.

Those are some of the alarming statistics presented at Saturday’s filming of Weight of the Nation, an HBO documentary that tackles the challenges associated with the country’s growing rate of obesity, as well as the history of America’s weight problem.

The morning’s events, which included the movie, a brief discussion about what can be done, and a story walk and healthy snacks provided by Meghan Stotko and the Lunch Box, was organized by prevention specialist Jennifer Woolard at the health department’s Newport office.

Ms. Woolard said she hoped to start a conversation about how to have a healthier community.  Orleans County is the unhealthiest in the state, she said.

The reason for that perhaps mystifies Ms. Woolard, who noted that the area has parks, community gardens, sidewalks, good grocery stories, farmers markets, and bike paths.  It also has woods and fields, lakes and streams, and a thriving local food movement.

In other words, people in the Northeast Kingdom have access to both healthy food and ways to burn off calories.

That can’t be said of other parts of the country, inner cities, for instance, where children have no place to safely engage in physical play.  But it’s certainly true in the Northeast Kingdom, where many can just walk out the front door in order to ride a bike or go for a walk in a safe neighborhood.

The rate of Vermonters who don’t get enough physical activity is 17 percent, says the health department.  In this area, it’s 27 percent.

Ms. Woolard said she doesn’t have the answer; she simply set out to start a discussion and to offer information.  “We want to make it community driven, we don’t want to tell people what to do,” she said.

That was the message of the day.

“Today is not about blame or shame,” said Jim Burnett, director of the district health department in Newport.  “But we are not immune from the struggle of dealing with overweight and obese.  We are, sadly, on a trajectory, where maybe for the first time, our children may have a shorter life span than their parents.”

About 30 people attended the event, which was held at Waterfront Cinemas.

Access to both good food and ways to engage in physical activity are factors in the nation’s struggle with an increasingly overweight population, but so is income, and that might be the key to figuring out why one of the most rural areas of Vermont also has the highest percentage of overweight people.

The highest rates of obesity are among lower income Vermonters, according to the health department.  And Orleans and Essex counties are the poorest in the state, according to U.S. Census data.

The film, done in collaboration with the Institute of Medicine among others, is a captivating tour of human biology, U.S. food policy, and small steps that have been taken throughout the country to initiate change.

While it doesn’t abdicate personal responsibility, it does point out that obesity became epidemic in the country in the past 30 years for reasons that often go beyond personal choice.

When the U.S. government started keeping track, in 1900, of why people died the three main causes were pneumonia as a result of influenza, tuberculosis, and diarrhea.

Today, five out of ten untimely deaths are related to being overweight, according to the film.  Two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese, which leads to diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, sleep apnea, heart trouble, and pain.

While the natural tendency is to look at the situation as a lifestyle choice, biology says the behavior was laid down a long time ago.  “Biology plays as much a role as psychology,” says one doctor in the movie.

For one thing, people aren’t genetically programmed to turn down calories.  Human DNA is programmed to ward against scarcity:  If food is available, eat it, and human DNA hasn’t changed much in thousands of years.  It certainly hasn’t changed in the last 30 years, although lifestyles have changed dramatically.

The audience laughed when the film pictured cavemen devouring a wild pig.  You really wouldn’t expect people of that time to take two bites and say I’m full now, says the narrator.  Humans are genetically programmed to eat what’s available while it’s available, she says.

And for thousands of years that worked out just fine since food wasn’t reliably plentiful, and it took a certain amount of effort to acquire it.

That’s the biology in a nutshell:  People are designed for a world of scarcity where food is not easily available, and it takes a substantial expenditure of energy to get it.  Humans are programmed to survive in a hunter gatherer world that no longer exists, at least in most cultures.

Enter agriculture.  Humans became farmers.  And, historically speaking, shortly after that, industrialized agriculture developed, at least in the U.S.  By the early twentieth century, the federal government had made cheap, plentiful food a priority.  But what to do with it?

What’s followed is a glut of corn and soy in the U.S., the film asserts, a glut that’s subsidized and is used to produce cheap, and unhealthy, food:  beef fed by cheap grain, sodas sweetened by cheap corn syrup, cookies, crackers, and snack foods that pack a high caloric punch and little nutrition.  The food the nation produces in mass quantities is inexpensive compared to fruits and vegetables, which receives no government subsidies.

It gets worse.

Humans became sedentary.  Instead of cultivating crops or doing other manual labor, they began to sit in front of screens, more and more screens all the time.  In fact, Americans are using less calories per day than in 1970, but consuming more.

And then came marketing.

Obesity goes up as income goes down, the film says.  In part, that’s because people are programmed to acquire as many calories as possible for the dollar.  The dollar menu at a fast food restaurant is a lure for poor families because it saves time, and it saves money.

The film goes on to note these grim numbers:  The profit margin for a soft drink is 90 percent.  The profit margin for fruits and vegetables is 10 percent.  Naturally, companies being in the business of making money, heavily market their most profitable products.

On the more sinister side, perhaps, is the fact that the federal government subsidizes the corn and soy industries, encouraging further production of cheap, but unhealthy, food.  The government is driving farmers, who are also interested in making a living, to overproduce food that isn’t good for the country as a whole, the movie says.

“The kind of food we eat is the kind that’s most profitable,” one analyst flatly says.  Another says it would cost the food industry between $36- and $40-billion a year if Americans cut 100 calories a day out of their diet.

Remarkably, the film says that this country doesn’t even produce enough fruits and vegetables to meet the dietary needs of its citizens.

A brief discussion, led by Dr. Alan Rubin, followed the movie.  Some mourned the loss of IROC, which provided indoor recreation facilities.  Others mentioned what is available in the way of opportunities for exercise, which the area doesn’t lack.

Those who are interested in furthering the discussion are encouraged to contact the Healthworks Coalition at lesley.becker@neklsvt.org.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

To read the Chronicle’s editorial on this subject, click here.

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Editor’s Picks pages.  For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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