Thursday, October 23, 2008

Last Suppers

I've been the teaching assistant for an undergraduate class called Prisons two years in a row. In sections, our discussions invariably turn to what prisoners "deserve" and, predictably, many students make zero-sum arguments about limited resources and the mere idea of prisoners receiving more translates into the rest of us receiving less. It wasn't a far cry from Marxism if one deigned to think that maybe, just maybe, the welfare state in the U.S. was too weak to provide rights for all, and instead encouraged this sort of base competition for rights among citizens. Often the discussion would turn to food, and how it's often used by prison authorities as a weapon. Nutritional legislation requires certain minimum caloric intakes, but that's interpreted liberally by authorities who want to punish bad behavior with dietary restrictions. The superintendent from a nearby maximum security penitentiary bragged that giving prisoners "the loaf" single-handedly stopped the practice of prisoners throwing feces on their guards.

But meals play another important role in correctional facilities, particularly when we start thinking about "last meals" afforded to death row inmates. In debates over whether modern societies should still use the death penalty, or what particular means to death should be allowed, the ritual of a prisoner's last requests is rarely discussed. Typically, inmates are granted a final meal 'within reasonable limits' that is often prepared by prisoners themselves. Often there's a disparity between what prisoners receive in actuality and what the prisons report on their websites or in their press releases. The public could hardly be bothered by the daily content of these inmates' diets, but news of their last meal meets morbid curiosity. Some examples of recent inmates meals:

  • Charles Edward Smith--nine tacos, nine enchiladas, french fries, a salad with ranch dressing, beef fajitas, a bowl of picante sauce, a bowl of shredded cheese, six jalapeno peppers, a strawberry cake with strawberry frosting and 16 Pepsi's.
  • Clyde Smith, Jr.--a cheeseburger.
  • Ivan Murphy-- four pieces of fried chicken, five pieces of deep fried fish, four deep fried breaded pork chops, extra-large order of french fries, large order of onion rings, ketchup, tartar sauce, one pint of Blue Bell Moollennium Crunch ice cream, two quarts of chocolate milk.
I can't figure out what bothers me most about listing off details of executed men's last meals like that. It could be the fact that the only reason we care what these individuals were eating is merely the fact that the state was about to take their lives immediately after the meals' consumption. Or it could have to do with the eery similarity between menus; the requests don't correlate with inmates' crimes, but they do seem to reflect a certain geographical contiguity. The majority of the states that still employ capital punishment are southern and so repeated requests for fried or barbequed items with cornbread and other southern side dishes all serve as stark reminders that this country's federal structure has enabled very distinct legal cultures to evolve regionally.

I'm guessing what bothers me most, though, is where I got the information-- the site that collects this information on inmates' last meals, Dead Man Eating. It lists each meal before a graphic description of the crime for which the prisoner was executed and does so in such a flippant way that you can't figure out whether the site is for or against the use of capital punishment. The worst part of the site advertises its own merchandise--most disturbingly amongst the lot, a thong--with the following slogan scrawled across each: Dead Man Eating... looking for a killer meal?

While some early societies had the superstitious predisposition towards feeding those who were about to die in order to appease their spirits in the afterlife and deter them from haunting their murderers from the beyond, it seems that the last meal is now imposed upon prisoners as a final attempt at redemption... on the state's behalf. Take, for example, the last request of James Edward Smith, who asked for a lump of dirt; he was denied and settled for a small cup of yoghurt. Apparently the state only abides by last requests that flatter its own potential as a benefactor--to rationalize taking men's lives, it must appear to do so begrudgingly, not smugly.

And where do our dear presidential candidates fall on capital punishment? Both of them support the death penalty, but Obama's record as a state legislator in Illinois shows that he simultaneously fought for reform against wrongful convictions and supported IL's moratorium against capital punishment until the system could be fixed. He also partnered with law enforcement officials to require videotaping interrogations and confessions. I find it interesting that most supporters don't seem to be bothered that his veep pick was the author of a bill in 1994 that expanded the application of the death penalty to federal, non-violent drug traffickers, certainly compromising Obama's position of reform. Is reform too idealistic? Is drug trafficking just that awful? Or do we just not care how much of an outlier the U.S. is in relations to other democracies that have promoted abolition for ages?

While numerous other societies have long believed that a shift from authoritarianism to democracy requires the abolition of practices such as capital punishment, some of our states proudly post their executed inmates' last meals on websites of their Departments of Criminal Justice. Three cheers for democracy, right?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Kitchen Operative

Join me for a moment in imagining the day and age when an extremely tall, striking female who once played basketball for her college team, and made her living by parading her femininity on the national stage, pledged to do whatever she could to serve her country in a time of war. Julia Child was, indeed, a formidable woman. Were you thinking of someone else?

After graduating from Smith College, Child took different writing jobs and moved home to California to take care of her ailing mother before deciding to offer her services to the U.S. government in its time of need during World War II. Originally assigned secretarial duties with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the predecessor to the CIA) headquarters in D.C., she was subsequently assigned to the agency's Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section. While working with this subsection, Child developed shark repellent to coat explosives that were targeting German U-boats, because the bombs were falling victim to curious sharks who would bump into them underwater and unintentionally set them off.

The most effective deterrent for sharks is the odor of a dead shark's body. When asked in her later years how her love of cooking was ignited, she referred to her days working on shark repellent, but claimed that it was used to coat servicemen who had to spend considerable amount of time submerged under water. When the CIA recently released classified files identifying the names of 24,000 spies, the use of Child's recipe for assistance with explosives was clearly outlined. The recipe itself has never been divulged, but Child did not necessarily have to fool around with dessicated shark corpse in her Navy kitchen; apparently, certain copper compounds, such as copper sulfate or copper acetate, can also emit a similar odor that repels the bumbling fish.

Child only later moved on to discover the French culinary experience after moving to Paris in 1948. Her recipes have since been immortalized in American kitchens, while her own kitchen has literally become (part of) an American institution--currently on display at the Smithsonian. It's hard to imagine that the author of this classic recipe for French Roast Chicken began cooking by basting explosives aimed at enemy vessels.

The French Chef's obsession with smell persisted throughout her career, even if she became more interested in infusing her recipes with the odors of reduced wine and garlic than the stink of dead shark. Still, she was an odd one:

Julia Child on the nuance of smells...

Monday, October 6, 2008

Palin's wine sales

Things have been a bit crazy around here, so here's a little something to keep your gastropolitical tastebuds active, courtesy of a friend of mine, courtesy of seriouseats:

"'It was our best selling wine before (the V.P. announcement),' said Chris Tavelli, Yield Wine Bar, which has offered Palin Syrah, a certified organic wine from Chile, by the glass since July. But after Sen. John McCain tagged Sarah Palin as his running mate, sales of the wine with the conservative's inverted name plummeted—not surprising in famously liberal San Francisco. owner of

As with the GOP ticket, the Palin falls second in the lineup. The wine’s tasting note reads as it did when Tavelli wrote it months ago: white pepper, madrone, dry. Incidentally, a madrone is an evergreen found primarily in the Pacific Northwest that bears red berries in the fall. When the berries dry up, they are replaced by hooked barbs that latch onto large animals for migration."

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

VP Debate Menu- Bon Appetit!

I apologize for not keeping my promise of posting recipes every Monday and Wednesday, especially because a lot of you have told me that you not only enjoyed the goat curry recipe, but some of you actually tried it--kudos! In addition to my apologies, I offer you not one, but three recipes that you might want to try out tomorrow night in honor of the VP debate.

I can't think of many things Alaska and Delaware have in common besides crabs and lighthouses.

Cocktail: The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse is a drink that reminds me of a rowdy, very political friend of mine in college who lit his face on fire with his first flaming shot. He was fine and we laughed about it afterwards, but then we lost him in Iraq and I'm really sorry he won't be able to enjoy Obama and Biden kick ass in this election. So this recipe's for him--R.I.P., K.
  • 1/3 oz. Kahlua
  • 1/3 oz. Baileys
  • 1/3 oz. 151 proof rum
Pour kahlua into a shot glass. With a spoon, slowly pour irish cream into the shot glass on top of the kahlua. Pour the 151 rum, again with the spoon, slowly on top of the irish cream and light on fire. Blow flame out before drinking. (seriously, don't forget!)

Starter: Masala Crab Cakes
Crab cakes are a classic, but I always think they can use a little spice (read a metaphor into this if you will). This is a slightly modified version of Anjum Anand's recipe and the closest I could find to what our wedding caterers must use in their restaurant--and, sweet jesus, they're tasty.
  • 4 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 3 scallions, chopped
  • thumb-sized piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 tsp ground coriander
  • ¼-½ tsp red chilli powder
  • salt, to taste
  • 1 tsp fresh ground peppercorns
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • a few fresh coriander leaves and stalks, chopped
  • 14oz prepared crab meat
  • 1 large egg
  • 2½ tbsp mayonnaise
  • 2 cups breadcrumbs
  • 6 thai green chilies, chopped
For the tamarind mayonnaise
  • 80g/3oz mayonnaise
  • 50ml/2fl oz milk
  • salt, to taste
  • ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tbsp tamarind paste, or to taste
  • handful fresh coriander leaves and stalks, chopped
  • lightly dressed salad leaves, to serve

1. Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/Gas 3.
2. Heat half the oil in a non-stick pan and fry the onion for about four minutes, or until soft. Add the ginger and garlic and cook for another 40 seconds. Stir in the coriander, red chilli powder, salt and garam masala and cook for another 20 seconds then take off the heat. Place into a large bowl.
3. Add the lemon juice, fresh coriander, crab, egg and mayonnaise to the onion mixture in the bowl. Stir well and add the breadcrumbs. Divide into eight equal portions and form each into a circular shape.
4. Heat one tbsp of oil in a non-stick pan and cook the crab cakes in batches over a low moderate heat for about two minutes on each side, or until golden brown adding more oil as needed.
5. Place the cooked crab cakes on a baking tray and place them into the oven to stay warm while you cook the others.
6. For the tamarind mayonnaise, place all the tamarind mayonnaise ingredients into a bowl and whisk together. Season to taste.
7. To serve, take the warm crab cakes out of the oven, put them on a plate and serve with a spoonful of the tamarind mayonnaise.

Entree: Amtrak New York Strip Steak
Did you know that Biden takes the Amtrak home to Delaware every night after session ends in D.C.? If you've missed that, you must have been out cold since he was picked as veep--and, even then, I feel like they're whispering it in coma-patients' ears or something. I thought we'd serve up an entree he must miss now that he's on the campaign trail and flying/busing everywhere. I refuse, however, to offer the recipe for either of the sauces they offer with the steak. Seriously: "please select either a green peppercorn sauce or crushed plum tomato sauce to enhance your entree" [emphasis added, but are they freakin' serious??] No way, no how.

  • Steak
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Olive Oil
Pat the steak dry. Season with salt and pepper, to taste, on both sides. Place on well-oiled hot grill and cook for 4 minutes on each side for medium rare. Adjust cooking times to your liking.

Dessert: Beehive Cake
And, finally, something sweet and light (hearted, at least) to help us stomach the nonsense we're going to hear. Remember when there were conspiracy theories flying around about Bush wearing an ear-piece, aiding and abetting his performance during his debates against Kerry? I'm thinking Palin's beehive could hide some stuff. Just sayin'...

Here's a fun recipe, courtesy of Williams-Sonoma:
  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 16 Tbs. (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
  • 3 tsp. lemon zest
  • 4 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

For the glaze:

  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1 1/2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 tsp. salt

For the quick buttercream:

  • 4 Tbs. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
  • 1 Tbs. milk
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt

For the royal icing:

  • 1 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted
  • 2 to 3 tsp. milk

Sugar honeybees for decorating (optional)

Have all the ingredients at room temperature. Position a rack in the lower third of an oven and preheat to 325°F. Grease and flour a beehive cake pan; tap out excess flour.

To make the cake, over a sheet of waxed paper, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the flat beater, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy and smooth, about 1 minute. Add the granulated sugar and lemon zest and continue beating until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes, stopping the mixer occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the eggs a little at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla just until incorporated, about 30 seconds.

Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the milk and beginning and ending with the flour. Beat each addition just until incorporated, stopping the mixer occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the lemon juice and beat for 30 seconds.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, spreading the batter so the sides are higher than the center. Bake until the cake begins to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 55 to 60 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the glaze: In a small saucepan over medium heat, stir together the honey, lemon juice and salt and bring just to a simmer, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Tap the cake pan gently on a work surface to loosen the cake. Set the rack over a sheet of waxed paper, invert the pan onto the rack and lift off the pan. Using a pastry brush, brush the warm cake with the glaze. Let the cake cool completely, at least 2 hours, before assembling and decorating.

To make the buttercream, in a small bowl, using a handheld mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 1 minute. Add the confectioners' sugar, milk, vanilla and salt and continue beating until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes more.

To make the royal icing, in a small bowl, stir together the confectioners' sugar and the 2 tsp. milk until smooth. If necessary, add more milk 1/2 tsp. at a time until the icing is thick but still pourable.

Stand one half of the cooled cake vertically on its base. Using a serrated knife, level the flat side of the cake by trimming off 1/8 to 1/4 inch from the edge. Repeat with the other cake half.

Using an offset spatula, spread a thin layer of buttercream, about 1/2 cup, on the cut side of one of the cake halves. Place the cut side of the other cake half against the frosted side and gently press to secure the two halves; using the spatula, smooth the buttercream at the seam.

Using a large spatula, carefully transfer the cake to a serving platter. Drizzle with the royal icing, making sure to cover the frosted seams of the beehive. Decorate with sugar honeybees.

Phew! Enjoy.

Feminism's a wild game

These little Palin tidbits are like vials of crack and the media's our pusher. Are we, as a nation, so completely and hopelessly struck with ADD that our news networks don't think we can sit through more than 10 minutes of questions with such a high profile candidate? Here's the latest, courtesy of CBS and its latest ploy to boost ratings.

Let's break this down a bit, shall we?
Climate Change: I formed a subcabinet to deal with it and it doesn't matter whether it's man-made (read: I don't like blame when it's pointed at my party, but did Obama invent the SUV? Because then I'd like to get back to you)
Abortion: I want a culture of life in this country and would counsel women to choose life over an abortion; I don't want women to go to jail for having an abortion (read: Choose is a conjugated what-of-what now, Katie? Heavens no! I don't support choice--that's those other folks over there. Yes, I want to make abortion illegal, but only for those nasty liberal doctors who perform abortions--not for the women who choose to get them.)
Homosexuality: I'm not going to judge gay people (read: now I'm using that word 'choice' correctly-- right, Katie?)

And, of course, feminism: I'm a feminist because I provided wild game for my family (read: I'm a hunter AND a gatherer--take that, Hillary!)

Did anyone else think that we'd one day see the mother from Bobby's World running for the second highest office in the country? I'd rather have Brian from Family Guy, and, if you don't watch the show, he's a dog.