Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Family and Potatoes by Theresa Curry

Scrubbing potatoes for a holiday meal, I felt the frigid water on my hands and thought of my childhood home.
Long before I ever heard the words “fingerling” or “Yukon gold,” I helped my mother mash potatoes for holidays and Sundays. She believed pan drippings deserved a creamy mound from which to scoop a gravy lake. Part of the fun was eating around the mound without breaching the dam, so all the gravy was saved for the last salty, juicy bite.

But for everyday meals, we usually baked potatoes. Every night we scrubbed eight potatoes from a 50-pound bag, stabbed them a few times and rolled them right onto a hot oven rack. Often, we had guests for dinner, not formal guests, expected and planned for, just whoever was playing in the basement with my brother or doing homework with my sisters.

Somehow, I can’t remember how we expanded the meat and vegetables – perhaps we just ate smaller portions – but I do know that everyone was welcome, and everyone got their own potato. We counted who was in the house an hour or so before dinner, and scrubbed one for each.

Dinner was expected promptly at 6:30. Counting backwards, this meant 5:30 was the very latest we could start baking the potatoes even if we turned the oven to 450 degrees. Sometimes, in those pre-microwave days, we had to speed up the cooking process to meet our deadline.

Our house had been a boarding house during World War II, and there were buzzers from the kitchen to all the floors. If my mother pressed the buzzers repeatedly near dinner time, we knew she needed all four of her daughters in the kitchen right away. As soon as we ran into the kitchen, we turned the burners to high, and the electric stove glowed red before we even figured out what to put in the pots.

I’d start the water boiling in our largest pot, peel the potatoes, and cut them in tiny pieces to simmer quickly. We had other tricks, too: my sister shaved the ground beef with a sharp knife so the tiny pieces would thaw faster. It was kind of a game for us, getting the meal on the table by 6:30. Behind the swinging doors to the dining room, my father and grandfather rattled their newspapers and pointedly checked their watches. Our friends and boyfriends became accustomed to our mad dash to the kitchen at dinner time.

Holiday meals often meant 20 or more people, and when mashed potatoes were on the menu, we put one for each guest into two giant pots. My mother’s mashed potatoes were simple and perfect, just potatoes, butter, salt and pepper.

In the years since, I’ve added roast garlic and olive oil. I’ve left the skins on, folded in goat cheese, turnips and cauliflower. I’ve tested recipes that pile on trendy ingredients until the potato is scarcely recognizable. Still, the beginning is the same: pick a potato, scrub it clean, cut out any dents or dirty spots. As I breathe in the earthy smell from the growing pile of peels, I give thanks, not only for the dazzling feasts of the winter holidays, but also for the everyday generosity of sharing a simple family meal, and my nights in the kitchen with my mother and sisters.

               Theresa Curry is the Food Editor of Flavor Magazine. She lives and writes in Waynesboro.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

How Lucky We Are! by Pranav Chavan

As news coverage gets better, the world gets smaller. We have always been, but now must act as, one large family – no matter how big, no matter how rich, no matter how uneducated, no matter how poor.

Visiting India last summer, I saw what it was like to live in the slums. Children live in houses made out of leaves and mud. They bathe and wash clothes in rivers, cook by roadsides on small fires made from twigs and leaves, study for school under streetlights because they have no electricity at home—if, that is, they are lucky enough to go to school.

I began to think of these people as family. Have you ever thought of how the child in ripped rags felt, longingly watching children in school uniforms returning from school, while he is picking up trash? He has no clue how to read or write and sees his future as no better than the trash he is picking up. He doesn't have the opportunity to go to school because he must spend his day picking up trash to sell so his family will have food to eat: simple food - rice with yellow soup.

How can we live a life full of luxury when children just like us cannot even have a decent meal? We ask our parents to buy us cellphones, video games, the latest toys. The list goes on and on. We want and want. Do we ever consider what we really need, instead of what we want? When will we stop this cycle of greed?

We seem to be very self-centered and selfish, unable to think beyond ourselves. We don’t know how to truly share or give. This is very harsh, but I would say we all are worse off than beggars. Beggars want basic necessities, but our wants know no limits - we keep on wanting. When we focus on materialistic items, we get lost in acquiring them, forgetting our bigger family and our life as God would have us lead it.

At school, we are supposed to be getting a good education. Why? So we can acquire things? An education should teach us to think beyond ourselves: help us to see things through the eyes of another person. An education should not promote just buying more stuff. It should help make us family. Stuff cannot make you happy for long.

Have we become too lazy to make an effort to learn and to help the less fortunate? Have we become so self-absorbed that we are blind the needs of those who don't have anything?

I hope we can all became people who serve others. This world is a big family; it is an extension of you and me. So what if others look different? They are just people like you and me with the same basic needs. We have just been much more fortunate. Isn’t it only fair that we share with those less fortunate? Sharing and caring makes us good human beings. Let us all try to be one!

This holiday season, as you enjoy your own gifts, keep your world family in mind, and spread the holiday cheer.

God bless you!

                            --Pranav Chavan is a 6th grader at St. Anne's Belfield School in Charlottesville.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Guest at the National Book Awards by Marc Conner

Life in Lexington, Virginia can give one a narrow understanding of what it means to be American. While I think our region is more diverse and complex than it might appear, nevertheless it’s a big world out there, and it can be a good thing to journey out and encounter the broader cultures that, perhaps, we cannot so easily see from our valley enclave. When I journeyed to New York City a few weeks ago to attend the National Book Awards Ceremony, I was reminded of the ways in which the America of the 21st century is a complex world of stark contrasts.

The journey from the Shenandoah Valley to New York is always a bit of a surprise. I flew out of Richmond, which means an easy drive to the airport, a short flight, and before you know it you’re in a taxi screaming across the Triboro bridge into the Bronx and then Manhattan. My hotel was in the heart of the theater district, and Times Square has more lights these days than Dominion Power could count. But the culture shock was pleasant, the moreso because I knew I was in this strange land for just a short visit.

The ceremony was a black tie event, and I hadn’t worn a tuxedo since my wedding 19 years ago. Thoreau’s words were whispering into my ear: “beware of any enterprise that requires new clothes.” But, I thought, it’s for a literary cause, so maybe Thoreau would be OK with that.

The award ceremony was most exciting when the winner for the year’s best American novel was announced. The list of past winners is a who’s who of American literature—Hemingway, Faulkner, Warren, Oates, and—my own personal favorite—Ralph Ellison, for Invisible Man in 1952. That novel sounds the very definition of “American-ness” when it declares at its end: “whence all this passion for conformity anyway?--diversity is the word.” The winner this year was Colum McCann, for his novel Let the Great World Spin. McCann was obviously the people’s choice, as shouts and applause greeted the announcement. And his novel is fabulous—rich, inventive, moving, going into many characters’ minds, a terrific New York city novel—as is Invisible Man. And what’s really interesting is that McCann is an Irishman, born in Dublin, and living in New York for the last decade. His novel was published in America, which makes it eligible for the award, but he himself straddles different cultures and nations.

And it strikes me that this is a very appropriate recipient of our National Book Award. In the age of Obama, when national, ethnic, and racial identities are re-inventing themselves and all our boundaries have become more fluid, it is right and fitting that we celebrate a great American novel by a writer whose very American-ness is a new invention. Indeed, McCann is most American in not being American. He joins the ranks of other great writers—one certainly thinks of Ellison—who also wrote Great American Novels about the very challenge of being American. On this night, an Irishman showed the world that being American has become a very intriguing identity, after all—one that encompasses equally the great city of his novel, and the small valley town that I call home.

Marc C. Conner is Professor of English and Director of the Program in African-American Studies at Washington and Lee University.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Fixing the Economy by Tip Parker

 It’s easy to complain that the government is spending too much to bail out the economy, piling up too much debt for our children, and getting too involved in our lives. But we need to understand two reasons why this recession is different from anything that most of us have experienced.

The first reason is the record amount of debt that households, businesses, financial institutions, and state and local governments, have piled up. At the end of last year, they owed 46 trillion dollars in round numbers. The federal debt of 6 and a half trillion dollars was big, but it was just an eighth of the country’s combined total. Households owed twice as much as the federal government, mostly with mortgages, credit cards, and automobile loans.

The federal debt can be passed on indefinitely, but much of the rest must be repaid. So instead of buying more things, many people are hunkering down and trying to pay for the things they have already bought. When people pay off their debts instead of buying, other people who would have made and sold the things that people aren’t buying, lose their jobs. This becomes a loop when those who lose their jobs can’t repay their own debts, and the loop has grown too big for people and businesses to break on their own.

In most recessions, the government breaks the loop by spending and by making it easier to borrow. But that is not working very well this time because households, businesses, and financial institutions already owe too much.

Job loss is the second reason why this recession is different. For years, we followed the idea that globalization is good for everybody, and that we could somehow replace the middle class jobs, particularly in manufacturing, that have gone overseas. But it didn’t work that way. The country exported large chunks of the production side of the economy and many exported jobs were never replaced.

The recession is also eliminating many jobs that won’t come back, like making and selling big houses, SUVs, and luxury goods that people can no longer borrow to buy. Businesses won’t invest to create jobs unless they see a path to profits. Today, that path is hard to see. And sadly, my analyses show there is a high risk that many baby boomers will need jobs because their retirement plans won’t provide enough income.

So America must create millions of new jobs for unemployed workers, boomers who can’t retire, and young people starting out. The jobs will have to be in this country and hard to export. That will require major new industries like alternative energy, water and energy conservation, upgraded transportation, sustainable buildings and communities, and yes, a more effective health care system.

People in many other countries have similar problems, but they are ahead of us in solving them because they are working with instead of against their governments. For example, El Salvador and Iceland get a quarter of their electricity from geothermal plants, Germany has the most photovoltaic power plants, and China is the leading producer photovoltaic equipment. If we don’t pull together as a team, and use our government to create a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren as our forbearers did, the American middle class will continue to decline.

Tip Parker lives near Harrisonburg.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A "Woman's Right To Choose and the Stupak Amendment" by Eva Robertson

It is interesting that while the overwhelming majority of Americans support health care reform and a "public option," now less than half of this country supports abortion rights. And many people, even pro-choice advocates, believe that the 11th hour Stupak Amendment contained in the most recent house bill on health care -- restricting the right of any person or insurer to use federal subsidies to purchase or offer a health care plan that includes abortion coverage -- is an acceptable compromise in getting health care reform passed.

In a way, I can see the reasoning behind accepting this provision. The bill contains sweeping reforms -- a public option, drastic changes in regulation governing the insurance industry, and increased access to coverage. If lawmakers believed the Stupak Amendment might be enough to satisfy the right wingers and buy their co-operation on the goal of sweeping reform, well -- it's a bitter pill to swallow -- but mightn't it be worth it?

This amendment goes much further than the previous federal legislation banning use of federal money to cover abortions. Under the 1976 Hyde Amendment, private and state insurers could offer health care plans with abortion coverage as long as no federal funding was used to pay for the service. Under the Stupak amendment, however, no insurer – private or government -- may offer a plan that includes abortion coverage if any federal money is used to fund the plan or if any participating member of the plan receives a federal subsidy, and under the bill, approximately 86 % of women would be eligible for a subsidy. In effect, the new legislation would eradicate existing abortion coverage and require women to purchase a "supplemental policy" on the private market, something that is not currently available, and which it is unlikely insurers would see any financial benefit in offering.

I take control over my body for granted. But I am constantly reminded that I live in a society that, by and large, views my right of self-determination as limited. On a purely theoretical level and provided rape is not involved, I can envision having respect for a society and a legal system that, while allowing women the choice of how to deal with a pregnancy, yet also, as a matter of policy, imposed sole responsibility on her for the costs of an elective abortion. As women’s rights proponents, can we legitimately complain that men dominate our bodies in the social, political and private spheres, and then also ask them to support and subsidize elective abortions? Maybe we can, but to the extent a woman’s decision to abort is uniquely personal to her, a requirement that society foot the bill for her choice would seem to undercut her moral independence.

In practical terms, however, there are tens of thousands of unwanted children born every year to impoverished young women who are neither prepared nor willing to care for those children. This is ultimately society's problem and responsibility. The social and economic costs of ignoring this reality are getting ever uglier. The Stupak amendment may not affect abortion access for women of means, but it promises to deepen the class chasm that is at the root of the women’s health care crisis.

Eva Robertson lives in Harrisonburg. She writes the blog Dogwood


About Me

I write for lots of different venues, so this blog provides links to those places. Plus, occasionally, stuff that appears no where else . . .