Friday, January 23, 2015

Peach Bellini

It is that time of year when winter seems to drag on forever.  It feels like it's been cold and grey forever, and as January rolls into February, it's hard to see any end in sight - especially in Seattle, where the weather can remain cool and rainy through June.  Once upon a time, I snagged a standby ticket and flew down to Arizona for a few days in March, where there was sun and heat and fresh avocados and hammocks under the grapefruit tree.  It remains one of my best memories, and around this time every year I start to dream of tropical beaches and sunny skies.

Tahiti remains out of reach for the moment, but recapturing that summery feeling isn't impossible.  First, you will need peaches.  Ideally, you will have home-canned peaches in their golden syrup, all ripe and juicy and bursting with flavor.  If your summer was a little too busy for canning, check your grocery store.  You will pay a pretty price for any peaches this time of year, but just remember it's less than a plane ticket to Tahiti.  In a pinch you can use frozen peaches from the frozen fruit section or the grocery store, which will have more flavor than store-canned peaches.  If you are bereft of even frozen peaches, check out the canned juice section, especially if you're near a Trader Joe's or Uwajimaya; many times you can find thick peach nectar that will substitute.

Mmmm, peaches.

You will also need a bottle of champagne.  Prosecco is properly used, but any bubbly is fine.

Peach Bellini
2 ripe peaches, peeled
1 bottle Prosecco or champagne
1 tsp lemon juice
optional: 1 tsp sugar (omit this if using home-canned peaches or peach nectar)

Home-canned, fresh, or frozen peaches:
If you are using frozen peaches, bring them to room temperature and taste to see if they need sugar.  Puree the peaches, lemon juice, and sugar in a blender or food processor.  Fill a quarter of your champagne glass with peach puree, then top with bubbly and stir gently if the puree is thick.

Peach nectar
Fill a quarter of the glass with nectar, then top off with bubbly.

Crank up the heat, put on some ocean sounds, and sip your peach bellini while pretending there are blue skies outside.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wednesday Culture: Race and the Academy Awards

By now you've no doubt had a chance to review the Oscar nominations for this year and - hopefully - have run into one or more articles objecting to the completely white, largely male field of contenders in the bigger categories.  The omission of "Selma" is especially dismaying; whether or not it deserves Best Picture, it's at least as good as any of the nominees.

When we're looking at problems in racial inequality with our criminal justice system or our police force or education and employment opportunities, it can be difficult to take Hollywood too seriously.  With all of these more serious concerns, are movies really a big deal?

Absolutely.  Think about it this way - movies and TV (and the marketing that accompanies them) are an incredibly powerful and insidious influence.  Americans watch on average five hours of TV per day, and that doesn't count the magazines, the billboards, the radio stations, and the movies, all of which contribute to what we think of the world and the people around us.  Hollywood models for us a way of living, whether we're aware of it or not, and that in turn affects how we think and treat those around us. In one study,

The researchers point out that propaganda films exhibiting a highly controlled vision could be very effective in causing the entire audience to think exactly what the filmmakers want. Of course this has already been seen with Triumph of the Will, the groundbreaking Nazi propaganda film that captivated German audiences in the 1930s.

-This Is Your Brain On Film

Fiction is one of the primary ways that we are able to imagine what's next for ourselves as a society and recognize and develop solutions to current problems.  And that makes inequality at the Oscars a very big deal.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

In honor of the holiday, there will be no post today.  Regular posting will resume Wednesday.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday Life: Great-Grandma's Coconut Candy

It's been so sunny lately that I've been put in mind of what is usually a Christmas treat (but really good for all times of the year) - coconut candies.  These candies are really more like fudge, a sweet, creamy, melt-in-your mouth concoction with just a bit of nuttiness from the coconut.  If you need to get on the good side of any aunt, these are just the thing.

 The recipe is from my great-grandmother, who noted that a good sunny day was essential to the candy making process, and it's true; too much humidity in the air means that your candy may never set properly (or be too sticky or soft if it does set up.)  In Seattle, that usually means the summer (preferably on a cooler day), but if you're lucky enough to get a nice dry winter day by all means take advantage of it.

Canadian Coconut Candies
2 c white sugar
3/4 c cream or milk (use cream - trust me)
2 T white corn syrup
1/8 tsp cream of tartar
pinch of salt
1 c coconut
candy thermometer (not required, but very helpful)

Assemble your ingredients and a large kettle (by this, my great-grandmother means a deep, heavy pot, not a tea kettle.)  Combine sugar, cream, and corn syrup in the kettle over medium high heat (closer to medium than high) and stir until it starts to boil.  Add cream of tartar and salt, put lid on, and boil 1 minute.  Then take lid off and boil until it forms a soft ball. (Soft ball on the candy thermometer.  If you don't have a candy thermometer, drop a tiny bit of the hot sugar in a cup of cold water - if it forms a ball, you're there.  Be sure to check frequently because you do NOT want to miss this stage.)

Remove from heat and set aside for 10 minutes.  Once the candy comes together, you're going to be moving very quickly, so prep an area where you can set the pot and roll out the candies, including a sheet of wax paper to put the candies on.  Beat the candy mixture until soft and creamy (it will go from a kind of ivory color to white) and add the coconut.

Working quickly, form into small balls (1/2 inch diameter) and set on the wax paper.  It's ideal to have several people helping because once the candy cools it will become grainy and will be hard to press into balls.

These will keep about a week in a sealed container in a cool place.  Remember: the aunts get first dibs.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


by contributing blogger Alex Peterson

Hurrah! The U.S. economy has recovered! We’re Number One! We’re Number One! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! And already some are taking credit for it. But whose credit is it? Does anyone specific deserve credit for the recovery of the U.S. economy? If you can spare five minutes, read on to acquaint yourself with the murky work of macroeconomics and reveal how little power President Obama has.

All the news reports about the economy you’ve read or heard recently referenced the 5% growth of the economy last year and that unemployment is down to 5.6%. Both of these facts are true but they are selectively picked from the broader realm of macroeconomics, or how countries’ economies work. And macroeconomics has lots of numbers to choose from, and most of them don’t show the same rosy glow as recent reports suggest. The wider definition of unemployment (the U6 instead of U3 rate, for fellow wonks) is still double that, 11.2%. The 5% growth number is only for a part of the year (Q3), while the total yearly growth will near 3%.

But this is still progress! Our economic growth has been much worse than this in the past, and at the height of the recession the U6 was at 17.4%. To whom, then, should we direct our relief: to Obama and his championed stimulus in 2009? Or should we honor the Tea-Party with their belt-tightening measures from 2010?

I won’t bother linking you to the large number of opinion columns written supporting one of these approaches or another. Because neither of them did anything by themselves. Obama relied on a Republican Congress to not shut down the government, and they didn’t. Congress counted on Obama not to take extreme actions by himself, like suspending banks or confiscating gold. Throughout the Great Recession both political forces, Democrat and Republican, have struggled to pass more significant legislation that would test their ideologies but have failed each time.

So, if you’re looking for someone to credit (or blame!) for the slow but steady U.S. recovery, look in a mirror. We elected a conflicted government to walk a middle course between their prescriptions for our recession. We will continue to live with that decision for at least two more years.

If you are looking for more social science-y goodness: I recommend Crash Course, a weekly YouTube channel that has series on history, literature, human development, psychology and cosmology.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Wednesday Culture: Agent Carter

Let's talk about Agent Carter.

"Agent Carter" is the most recent spinoff from the Marvel Universe; a TV show coming on the heels of the (moderately) successful "Agents of SHIELD," it features the post-WWII adventures of British secret agent Peggy Carter, formerly romantically linked with Captain America before he crashed in Antarctica.  There's plenty to like about the concept - spies, post-war setting, the origin story of a secret organization (SHIELD), connections to Marvel's very successful superhero franchise, etc.  It also has the fine distinction of being the first Marvel project with a female lead.

I want, very much, to like this series.  It has all the things I should like - a female lead (who happens to be a spy), double-crosses, MacGuffin gadgets, great settings and costumes, an English butler - and I've been favorably impressed with the actors so far.  I just wish I could say the same of the writing.

Unfortunately, "Agent Carter" suffers from a significant lack of stakes, and that has led to a bland story and bland characters.  I give Hayley Atwell credit for acting the hell out of a meagerly written role, but so far the audience hasn't been given anything to truly care about.  Sure, she's working as a double agent, and if she gets caught, I guess she'll be accused of treason, but no one really seems to care - and if the characters don't care, why should the audience?  Agent Carter fights bad guys and rappels down deep holes in the middle of the night, but there's never any tension in it.

And maybe that's because there aren't any personal relationships.  Agent Carter is British, and given her history, is also very reasonably closed off to any potential friendships.  That's a fine character choice, but so far there's been no reason to want her to not be closed off.  She's perfectly right in her realization that anyone who gets close to her will be put in harm's way, and she seems to operate fine without other people, so why mess up a good thing?  Well, because relationships allow you to humanize a character, for one thing, and they allow you to set up stakes and complicated unlikely situations that will keep your audience on edge.  Remember Sydney in the very first episode of Alias, finding out that she worked for a terrorist organization, and then finding out that her long-estranged father worked for the same organization, and then becoming a double agent for the CIA and then learning that her father was also a double agent and she'd have to work with him?  Yes, yes, Alias is my go-to, but that was a great set-up.  Sydney had a troubled relationship with her father, and now she was going to have to rely on him to stay alive.  Those are some good stakes, my friend.

I still have hope for the series.  I hope that Agent Carter will be given more of a personality, and that the interchangeable white men in the background of her agency will become more distinct, and maybe that we'll find out what exactly her agency does, because right now it seems like sort of a police station, only without the law (only kind of with the law?) and it's just chock full of those interchangeable white men.  I hope that Peggy Carter will get some friends, both outside and inside her agency, who will challenge her to make hard choices, and I hope that Jarvis will abandon his stiff upper lip thing for something a little more interesting - maybe Wodehousian.  I feel that Jeeves, or someone of similar strength of opinion, would be a great foil to Peggy, and maybe inject some much needed humor into the proceedings.

And I hope that we move away from the Marvel-verse to let Peggy Carter stand on her own because really, this could be a good show.  Peggy Carter, Mother of Shield - that is a show I would watch the heck out of.  Can we get a little of that?

Monday, January 12, 2015

Monday Writing: The Trouble with the Hero's Journey

Last week we looked at an overview of Joseph Campbell's monomyth.  Campbell claimed that his outline provided the structure for a universal human mythology.  He was so convinced of the clarity of this structure that he wrote in 1949,

"Perhaps it will be objected that in bringing out the correspondences I have overlooked the differences between the various Oriental and Occidental, modern, ancient, and primitive traditions.  The same objection might be brought, however, against any textbook or chart of anatomy, where the physiological variations of race are disregarded in an interest of a basic general understanding of the human physique."
   -Joseph Campbell
   Preface to the 1949 Edition

And there, naturally, is where we will begin our critical examination of the Hero's Journey.  One of the primary complaints made against the monomyth is its extreme generality.  Campbell outlines seventeen stages for the journey, but since they're not all required in each myth (or required to happen in the order described), his structure devolves to the basic underpinning of departure - adventure - return.  And that is such a vague description that it loses all usefulness as any kind of analytic tool.  The study of mythology is a study of human culture; claiming that all mythology is the same implies that all cultures share the same values, i.e. the values that Campbell picks out.  It's a rather ethnocentric view of the world, and it's so general that any story can be made to fit simply by picking the appropriate stages and ignoring the rest.

Next, there is the issue that the monomyth is a male story.  In Campbell's seventeen steps, women appear only as very minor characters - the old woman to provide aid, the young woman to tempt, or the goddess-bride as the reward - and never with any motivation that doesn't center on the male hero.  The journey is based on traditionally male choices - abandoning home to pursue personal glory, struggling (often violently) through trials alone, being rewarded with a bride, overcoming female power by denying the temptress, and returning to the community as a hero, now greater than anyone he left behind.  There's no room for relationships or acknowledgement of the community support that may have enabled the hero to depart in the first place, as these are traditionally female values.

Next week, we'll look at one response to Campbell's monomyth - the Heroine's Journey.