A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Day-O, Day-O

GMOs - genetically modified organisms (foods that have been altered by humans for reasons other than health or nourishment) - are gaining attention as issues of health risks remain unanswered, yet more and more crops are being grown as such, particularly corn and soy.  Yet it turns out we've been eating a GMO food for centuries, although they only became popular, and affordable, in the last century or so.  Further, the companies that made them available and affordable were monopolistic and vertically integrated (controlling the growing, processing, shipping, and marketing) and manipulated ways to build enclave economies (self-sufficient, pretty much tax-exempt, and contributing little to the general economy). Think Dole, Chiquita - the equivalent in agriculture to the 1% OWS protests against.

A plantain, red banana, Latundan banana, and Cavendish banana.

If you haven't guessed by now, we're talking bananas.  This now ubiquitous fruit is actually a giant herb - the largest flowering herb, which can get as tall as trees. They are one of 3 genera in the Musaceae family, which includes plantains.  They have no trunks, just long-stemmed leaves which grow from corms, swollen plant stems similar to bulbs and tubers.  Fiber is a by-product of the plants.

A banana corm.

Besides humans, various moths and butterflies consume them, as a number of the species are edible.  Edible bananas have a complex history of hybridization, mutation, and selection.  Most bananas are parthenocarpic, or seedless, and therefore are sterile.  Banana botany is difficult to label with Linnean tags, so cultivar names are given instead (a cultivar is a plant whose characteristics are maintained by propagation).

A "Banana Moth" adult and larval case, so named because it feeds on bananas.

Bananas come in a variety of sizes and colors.  The word "banana" refers to the soft sweet fruit that is generally eaten raw, both popularly and commercially.
Plantains are larger, firmer fruits that require cooking.  It is unclear where the word comes from, but two options are from the Arabic "banan", meaning finger, or "banaana" from the African language Wolof, spoken in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauretania.  The name of the genus - musa - comes from the Arabic word for fruit, "mauz", which is also the same in Persian and Turkish.

Southeast Asian farmers were the first to domesticate bananas.  Archaeological evidence from Papua, New Guinea indicates that cultivation goes back at least 5,000 years, possibly even 8,000 years.  Researchers think it may have developed simultaneously in different areas of Southeast Asia because of the diversity of types.  Africa also has evidence of cultivation but there is debate about when it started.  When Madagascar was colonized by Southeast Asian groups circa 400 CE, linguistic evidence reveals that bananas were introduced.  Bananas also were grown in various parts of the Middle East.  From there they eventually went to Muslim Iberia.

The largest of herbs - banana plants.

They were brought to the Americas by Portuguese sailors.  In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portuguese colonists developed plantations for growing bananas in the New World.  They were not a profitable commodity until the introduction of steamships, railroads, and refrigeration.  Most bananas today are cultivated for local markets, India being the leader in this kind of production.  Production for the world market is centered in the Caribbean.  The cultivar that is most important on the world market is the Cavendish banana, which replaced the Gros Michel banana that now has limited availability due to a fungal disease.  The Cavendish today is similiarly threatened.  The Cavendish was chosen for mass production because of its shelf life and ease in transportation, rather than its taste.

Cavendish bananas.  Image courtesy of Steve Hopkins/Wikipedia.

Each banana is composed of 75% water.  They are very high in potassium which makes them slightly radioactive.  In fact, scientists refer to a "banana equivalent dose" when attempting to mitigate nuclear danger.  Wild bananas have many large, hard seeds, that are inedible.  The Cavendish has little dark spots in lieu of seeds.

A wild or "untamed" banana with seeds.

The banana plant has a "heart" where the fruits develop, known as an inflorescence.  This is a cluster of flowers on a stem.  The female flowers turn into fruit, which hang in cluster of around twenty called tiers.  Three to twenty tiers are known as a banana stem, and can weigh anywhere from 60 to 110 pounds.  What is commonly referred to as a bunch is a cluster of three to ten fruits.  Bananas grow pointing up, not hanging down.

A partially open inflorescence.

Bananas for the world market are picked green and ripened in special rooms once they reach their destination country.  These ripening rooms are filled with ethylene gas, which gives them their characteristic yellow color.  They are refrigerated during transport at around 58 degrees Fahrenheit.  Tree-ripened bananas are greenish-yellow that slightly brown as they ripen.  Their taste is superior, but the shelf life is only 7-10 days.  Ripe bananas fluoresce when they are exposed to ultraviolet light, but not green ones.  This leads scientists to believe that critters who can see ultraviolet light, such as some butterflies and birds, can easily find ripe bananas.

How bananas look under ultraviolet light (right).

Bananas are a staple for some cultures.  Depending on the cultivar, they can be sweet or starchy, and both skin and inner part can be eaten raw or cooked. Plantains are used in stews and curries, often like we use potatoes, even mashed or baked.  The banana hearts, or flowers, are considered a vegetable in some South and Southeast Asian cuisines.  The flavor is said to resemble an artichoke, and like an artichoke the fleshy part of the leaves and the heart are edible.  Banana leaves are often used as ecological "plates" or wrappings for food.

Banana flowers.

Bananas have become a regular part of the U.S. diet, and it's hard to imagine breakfast, for me at least, without them.  Hopefully the disease that is threatening the Cavendish will be halted or controlled before it goes the way of the Gros Michel, and it will remain a staple in our diets.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Repost: Daylight Slaving Time

When I was a kid, I always wondered why we changed the time twice a year.  I asked my dad and he said, “Because of the farmers.  They need more light in the summer to farm.”  (Okay.  I bought that, even though I was thinking that the light would be the same, regardless of what hour we called it.  My dad was omniscient then.)  This is a common thought, however incorrect.  Daylight Savings Time (DST) is a controversial subject.

It is really for the benefit of retailers, manufacturers, and the sports business.  Farmers don’t like it.  They need their paid workers to work later, rather than leave earlier.  Farmers get up at sunrise no matter what the clock says.  The entertainment industry doesn’t like it – they make their money mostly after dark.  Railroads don’t like it either, as the coordination of schedules and making sure all their employees are on the correct time can be a hassle,  especially when trains run through several different times zones, and some don't observe DST.

DST is very political.  Not standardized in the U.S. until 1966, a 1987 extension was voted for by both Idaho senators.  Studies showed that fast-food restaurants sell more French fries (made from Idaho potatoes, natch!) during DST.  The extension was funded by Clorox (owner of Kingsford Charcoal – got to have those late afternoon barbeques) and 7-Eleven.  A 1984 article in Fortune magazine stated estimates that a mere seven week extension of DST would yield $30 million more for 7-Eleven stores, and the National Golf Foundation figured that same time extension would earn the golf industry $200-300 million more. 

What?  Golf?  Yes.  If DST bugs you, it’s no wonder.  It was first proposed by an entomologist, New Zealander George Vernon Hudson (unknown if he golfed).  He presented a paper in 1895 proposing a two hour shift.  In 1905, Londoner William Willett proposed advancing the clock during the summer, and he was an avid golfer.  U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, also an avid golfer, was in support of it as well.  The golf industry is not the only sport who gains profits by DST.  With more daylight hours, people play more sports after school and after work in general.

Ancient civilizations adjusted daily schedules to the sun, rather than divide each day into equal hours.  So the Roman hora tertia, the third hour after sunrise, was 44 minutes at the winter solstice, but 75 minutes at the summer solstice.  The world ran for millennia without standard timekeeping.  It was only after railroads and advanced communications came into being that the need for precise schedules arose.

An early goal was to reduce evening use of incandescent lighting – a big electricity suck.  Currently there is little information on how DST affects energy use, and what does exist is contradictory.  The first use of DST began in 1916 by Germany and its allies.  Sommerzeit, as they called it, was a way to conserve coal during WWI.  A few other countries, including Russia, started it the following year, and the U.S. in 1918. 

No state in the U.S. is required to follow DST, but if a state chooses to it must adhere to the start and end times set by federal law.  Arizona (minus the Navajo Nation) and Hawaii are the only states that do not observe it.  The continents of Asia and Africa, for the most part, do not follow it.  Nor do countries along the equator, since there isn’t much of a variation of sunrise times.  Here’s a link to see how various countries in the world deal with it.

Technically, the name of local time changes when DST is observed, the word “standard” replacing “daylight”, so in my neck of the woods, PST (Pacific Standard Time) becomes PDT (Pacific Daylight Time).  During WWII President Roosevelt instituted DST yearlong, replacing the center words with “war”, so PST became PWT.

If you feel strongly that DST, called “Daylight Slaving Time” by opponents, should end, you may want to join this group.  An early dissenter against DST was Robertson Davies, who stated that he detected “the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy, and wise in spite of themselves.”

Is time to end DST?  I say we go back to the Roman way.  It’s useless to try and force light into our time systems.  We should just go with the flow.... of light.


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fountain of Time Inspired by Poetry

Time goes, you say?
Ah no, Alas, time stays, we go.

                          Henry Austin Dobson

Some of the mass of humanity as seen from the middle
 portion of the Fountain of Time on Chicago's South Side.

Benjamin Ferguson was an American lumber merchant and philanthropist who died in 1905, leaving $1 million (about $24.5 million today) that funded seventeen public monuments and sculptures in Chicago.  Under the terms of his trust, the Art Institute of Chicago was given the power to select both subjects and locations of these works.

Taft working on the model, circa 1910.

One of the outstanding projects is known as the "Fountain of Time", or sometimes simply "Time".  It was conceived by Lorado Taft, a sculptor, writer, and educator. It was inspired by the poem "Paradox of Time" by Henry Austin Dobson.  The fountain sculpture shows 100 figures passing before Father Time, in honor of 100 years of peace between the United States and Great Britain as a result of the Treaty of Ghent in 1814.

The entire piece, complete with renovation sign to the right.

The fountain was completed in 1920, but not dedicated to the city until 1922.  It is in the Washington Park community area of Chicago's South Side.  It has gone through several restorations, the most recent was completed in 2005, which corrected much of the problems from the earlier restorations.  It has been nominated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation for funding for further repairs.

Front south view.

Taft originally envisioned it made of granite.  Other plans were to chisel it from marble or make it in bronze.  Taft won the commission in 1907.  As part of his plan for the beautification of the Midway, he proposed a commemoration of the World's Columbian Exposition that was held in 1893.  His alternative theme was the commemoration of the centennial of the Treaty of Ghent.  The second theme was chosen by the Art Institute of Chicago.

Rear north view.

The sculpture was constructed from a new type of molded, steel-reinforced concrete, which was said to be more durable and cheaper than granite, marble, or bronze.  By the time it was to be built, the Beaux Arts style was dated, which led to the trust deciding to allocate funds for a concrete sculpture.  Taft first was paid to produce a full-sized plastic model in 1913, to be evaluated five years later.  He made a quarter-scale model which was approved in 1915.  He eventually completed a full-scale plaster model in 1920.  "Time" was the first art piece to be made of concrete.

View from the east.

Originally, Taft had plans to build a matching sister fountain at the opposite end of the Midway - the "Fountain of Creation" - which was never completed.  Instead the finished parts, which were depictions of figures from the ancient Greek version of the repopulation of the earth after the flood, were given to Taft's alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Two of these four figures, known as the sons and daughters of Deucalion and Pyrrha, stand outside the entrance to the main library, and the other two are on the south side of Foelinger Auditorium.

Father Time before restoration (note that
reflecting pool below figure is empty.)

Measuring about 127 feet long, 23 feet wide, and 24 feet tall, depending on whether the base, reflecting pool, or piece of property it stands on is being measured, the sculpture features a hooded Father Time with a scythe, reviewing a parade of 100 figures representing the entire spectrum of humanity at various stages of life in a procession.  Although the figures are generic representations of people, Taft himself was the model for one of them, wearing a smock, and one of his assistant follows him.  He daughters also served as models.

The likeness of Lorado Taft.

Despite the renovations and repairs that have been made to it, much more are required to keep it a showpiece.  Continuing efforts and endowments are being made.  A testament to a time and era long past, it is hoped that ways and funds will be found to preserve this unique monument.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.
For more on "Time" and its restoration click here.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Repost: Zombies!

Zombies.  The very word conjures up visions of mysterious drugged-up humanoids, stiffly moving with no facial expressions, nor are they able to speak.  Kids love them.  The movie industry loves them.  But where did they come from?

The popular culture connotation is a dangerous but lethargic once-human creature that bids the requests of a controlling (usually malevolent) figure.  Folklore suggests that a sorcerer can put a spell on a dead body and gain control of it.  Tales of zombies come primarily from Haiti and Africa, although they appear in other cultures as well.  The etymology of the word is questionable; it most likely came from West Africa, meaning either "fetish" or "god".  Originally it was the name of a snake god, but later came to mean a reanimated corpse in voodoo cult.

Haitian folklore contends that bokors, voodoo black magic priests, can resurrect the dead through the use of coup padre, a powder issued orally.  This powder is said to be derived from the fou-fou fish, a poisonous fish similar to the pufferfish that the Japanese call fugu.  Consumption of this powder would cause a shallowness in breathing and a drop in heart rate and body temperature.  These victims would be buried by their kin, but the bokor would exhume them, then erase their memories, thus turning them into mindless drones.  They remain under the bokor's power until the bokor dies.

Actually there are several drugs that could produce the appearance of a stupor and/or death.  One of them is certainly the poison of a pufferfish or blowfish.  There are also poisons from frogs that are deadly and could cause similar symptoms.  However, people who have consumed the poison of pufferfish and live eventually return to normal, not a zombie-like state. 

Datura, also known as jimson weed, is a genus of perennial plants that have been used as hallucinogens as well as a poison for centuries.  Unlike blowfish poison, this one has an antidote.  The symptoms of ingestion of this plant is a kind of delirium, and possibly amnesia, hyperthermia, or tachycardia.  Since it has hallucinogenic properties, the victim may think (s)he's been made a zombie, and that claim could keep the myth alive.

Other ingredients of "zombie powder" include, as well as the above, the usual parts of lizards, snakes, toads, human parts, etc., found in recipes for traditional "witches' brew".

However, since none of the poisons mentioned produce the trance or stiffened movement of the classic Zombie connotation, we can correctly assume the standard movie depiction has been exaggerated in detail to add to the fright factor.  Haiti, does however, have strong beliefs in zombies.  Papa Doc, the Haitian dictator who ruled from 1957-1971, claimed to have a private army, called tonton macoutes, that answered his beck and call.  He also claimed he would come back after his death to rule Haiti forever.  He still hasn't returned after dying of a heart attack, but even so a lock and chain was put on his tomb and a guard placed there just in case.  Padlocking tombs is a common practice in Haiti, where it is a crime to make a zombie:

Haitian Penal Code:
Article 246. It shall also be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made against any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the person had been buried, the act shall be considered murder no matter what result follows.

Anthropologist Wade Davis has written a couple of books on zombies - it was the focus of his graduate studies and PhD dissertation.  Although ethnologists and pharmacologists pooh-poohed his books, some scholars find parts of them intriguing.  

There IS a zombie you can believe in.  It is the name of a cocktail that is supposed to make you feel like one.  So this Halloween, you can get into the swing of things and consume a zombie or two:

1 oz pineapple juice
1 oz orange juice
1/2 oz apricot brandy
1 tsp sugar
2 oz light rum
1 oz dark rum
                      1 oz lime juice

First, make sure you have a designated driver.  Blend all ingredients with ice except the 151-proof rum.  Pour into a tall glass and float the 151-proof rum on top.  Garnish with a fruit slice, sprig of mint, and a cherry.  (Makes one serving.)