Sunday, February 28, 2010

playing with my food

Nudging other projects aside (momentarily), I made a cake for my coworker last week. It was his 30th birthday and he shares the date with my son who is exactly 1 year older. So he benefited from transference as I poured some missing-my-boy energy into the celebration.

Mike is nuts about cars and drifting, so I made a three-layer cake to match his a smaller way*:

Still, it's a large cake pan (14" diam) and I ended up tripling the yellow cake recipe (the equivalent of 6-8" layer cakes) because we have a lot of people in our department...and the proportions worked better.

I made the rim template in Illustrator from his photos. I iced the whole cake in the chocolate frosting, laid the template on top and used a toothpick to make the outline. Then, I took some regular butter cream frosting and using my little cake decorating set, drew the outline and then filled it.

The chocolate frosting and yellow cake recipes are from Cook's Illustrated. The frosting uses dutch-processed cocoa (couldn't find Callebaut so I used Droste) and melted chocolate (I used Lindt milk chocolate) and copious amounts of butter as well as confectioners sugar and corn syrup. Seriously, I'll never use another chocolate frosting recipe if I can help it. The taste and texture are decadent.

We also filled his cube with balloons and shrink-wrapped that fucker. I thoroughly enjoy these significant birthdays. Maybe it's the lack of religion with all its ritual that I've supplanted with secular celebrations. Whatever it is, it's fun.

*A word about photographs. I really don't like stopping and taking pictures of my work...all consumed with process as I am and (in this case) sticky hands. Whenever I'm working on something, my dear Barbara will come around like project paparazzi to document. I usually grumble because it means I have to stop, clean off some surfaces and generally fuss about it's not-quite-doneness. Then, when everything is done (in this case--eaten) I am so grateful she took some photos. We've repeated this cycle for over 23 years so you'd think I'd stop grumbling. Let me make this completely clear: she's completely right on this one and I'm so wrong. Thank you, dear woman!

painless steak?

An Op-Ed piece from the New York Times this past week by Adam Shriver (a doctoral student at my daughter's alma mater, Washington University)...that unsettles me.

The problem:

Veal calves and gestating sows are so confined as to suffer painful bone and joint problems. The unnatural high-grain diets provided in feedlots cause severe gastric distress in many animals. And faulty or improperly used stun guns cause the painful deaths of thousands of cows and pigs a year.

The premise:

We are most likely stuck with factory farms, given that they produce most of the beef and pork Americans consume. But it is still possible to reduce the animals’ discomfort — through neuroscience. Recent advances suggest it may soon be possible to genetically engineer livestock so that they suffer much less.
A solution:

This prospect stems from a new understanding of how mammals sense pain. The brain, it turns out, has two separate pathways for perceiving pain: a sensory pathway that registers its location, quality (sharp, dull or burning, for example) and intensity, and a so-called affective pathway that senses the pain’s unpleasantness. This second pathway appears to be associated with activation of the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex, because people who have suffered damage to this part of the brain still feel pain but no longer find it unpleasant. (The same is true of people who are given morphine, because there are more receptors for opiates in the affective pain pathway than in the sensory pain pathway.)

Neuroscientists have found that by damaging a laboratory rat’s anterior cingulate cortex, or by injecting the rat with morphine, they can likewise block its affective perception of pain.
The article concludes:
If we cannot avoid factory farms altogether, the least we can do is eliminate the unpleasantness of pain in the animals that must live and die on them. It would be far better than doing nothing at all.
I understand that blocking pain in terminal patients is a humane thing to do. After all, what is the point of denying relief for that kind of suffering in hospice? And Mr. Shriver's conclusion makes some sense, if we can't change the format, at least reduce the suffering...justified by it's better than doing nothing, right?

What needles me about this approach to animal suffering is the message it sends to sloppy humans: You can kill your food without "humanity" once the animal is anesthetized from pain. So, don't worry about the abysmal conditions, digestive and dietary damage inflicted. And don't worry about half-assed stun gun performance--the creature has its pain center "interpreters" turned off--you're guilt free. It is fundamentally and philosophically so full of holes that it makes me queasy.

Wouldn't it be better to put some of that energy into finding solutions for the cruel conditions, rather than research ways to pull a pleasant curtain in front the cruelty? Aside: what happens when animals don't react to pain? Will their keepers have no clue to serious illness or injury because the animals don't low or squeal?

I'm going to talk my steak-loving self right into vegetarianism at this rate. Fuck.

Thursday, February 04, 2010


Definition of insanity:
Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

This is the suicide note my nephew left on the white board in his room before he killed himself yesterday. (The saying is attributed to Albert Einstein...for whatever sad irony that is worth.)

He'd been plagued by a number of physical illnesses, the worst of which was Crohn's disease. The terrible pain overlapping the depression overlapping the prospect of more pain proved too overwhelming for him to bear.

I grieve for him. I grieve for his parents, burying their 30-year old son. I grieve for his grandmother, with whom he lived for the past few years and mourn the end of their gentle symbiotic relationship. He helped her do the things around the house and yard that even the hardiest (and she is) 84-year old can no longer do alone. She made sure his ravaged digestive system got the healthiest food possible and provided him a place to rest and heal. In her hard life, she buried an infant son, a 21-year old daughter and her 46-year old eldest son, my children's father. Her own husband died suddenly at 50. And now this dear grandson killed himself in the basement room where he lived in her house.* She is stoic and staunch in her religion but this must shake her world.

And my heart breaks for my children. Lars was born less than six weeks after my son. He was his closest cousin; when I spoke to my son last week, he was worried about his cousin's health. The friendship between Lars and my daughter has been a wonderful thing to watch blossom as they've become adults.

And now he's gone and so is his pain. And that's the only cliché that gives me any comfort right now.

*As it turns out, he did not die in her home but in his car.