It’s no surprise MAGA Mussolini has called the imminent danger of a coronavirus pandemic a hoax, nor is it a surprise his MAGA followers swallowed that lie and called for more. They always do. These developments have become so predictable that they no longer warrant the bother of linking to the news stories about them. All the rest of us can do, those of us who live in the fact-based world, that is, is resist the implementation of damaging policies by those who live in the fantasy world of MAGA hate-based politics.
The Sick Child, an 1893 painting by the American artist J. Bond Francisco (1863-1931).
The great surprise is how well scientists and doctors have done in the past 100 years in restricting another pandemic like the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 and 1919, which killed 100 million people around the world. The Spanish Flu came on the heels of the close of World War I, and after it had finally flamed out it had claimed more lives than that most horrific “War to End All Wars”. That was the way the balance had worked throughout history, with battlefield deaths generally being outpaced by the communicable diseases unleashed in the gatherings of large armies and refugees. The later twentieth century holds the dubious distinction of tipping that balance toward human mayhem as the major cause of death in wars.
What is most remarkable about the efficiency of modern science in preventing the kind of communicable disease pandemics which have periodically scourged humanity is that scientists and doctors have done this despite the huge increase in population at the same time worldwide travel has skyrocketed in volume and speed. More people than ever before are moving faster and more frequently from one part of the world to the next, and all the while they are sharing untold numbers of germs both dangerous and mundane with local populations.
In the taking over of the New World by European colonists only two and more centuries ago, those sorts of introductions – though at a slower pace – led to genocidal destruction of the indigenous population through their exposure to an array of unfamiliar diseases. People more often lived in lighter concentrations then than they do now. Travel was certainly far slower, and most people then lived their entire lives in the familiar surroundings of one city or of a handful of farm villages.
The great danger now is the introduction of an unfamiliar permutation of a familiar virus or bacterium. And yet for 100 years the world’s scientific and medical professionals have forestalled the disaster that could easily overtake us if they weren’t vigilant. Calling their sincere efforts a hoax helps no one, and acting on such misinformation would amount to carelessly flipping a lit cigarette butt onto dry brush.
To maintain the integrity of a supplied drawing, people usually color as much as they can within the lines. Some people use crayons, while others use markers or pens. When it comes to using electromagnetic spectrum in the United States, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is in charge of allocating bands within the spectrum and making sure everyone stays within their specified lines. The NTIA does its work within the Department of Commerce.
The Department of Commerce also oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which in turn oversees the National Weather Service (NWS). Independent of all these Department of Commerce agencies is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates the parts of the spectrum allocated for its oversight by the FTIA, such as radio, television, and cellular phone frequencies. Beginning late last year, the FCC has been auctioning spectrum to mobile phone companies for them to use in their 5G networks. When the FCC auctioned off spectrum in the 24GHz (gigahertz) band, they raised alarm within the NOAA since that agency uses the 23.8GHz band in its weather satellites to measure water vapor in the atmosphere, a key component in its ability to forecast the weather.
This image of an outdated January 2016 Spectrum Wall Chart from the NTIA is only useful as an overview of just how tightly packed bandwidth allocation is in parts of the spectrum, based on the jumble of colors. For a better view, download a PDF (Portable Document Format) of the chart from the NTIA website, though even then it can be a strain on the eyes without higher magnification.
Now anyone who has ever manually tuned a radio receiver with a dial knows the radio stations do not stay exactly within their spectrum lines at all times, and depending on the power of the transmitters the different stations use and atmospheric conditions and the varying state of the ionosphere, some stations can occasionally push into the territory of other stations. That is what worries NOAA administrators about the 24GHz band proposed for 5G use by mobile phone companies and their man in the FCC, Chairman Ajit Pai. NOAA administrators believe 24GHz is too close for comfort and may occasionally interfere with its use of 23.8GHz, which it cannot change because it is determined by the physical law of water vapor’s behavior. They believe the interference could cause as much as a 30 percent drop in forecasting efficiency, akin to stepping back in time to 1980.
This inter agency squabble isn’t even necessary, it turns out, because if the FCC and American mobile phone companies followed the European model for ensuring minimal interference with weather satellites, they would simply add greater restrictions to the transmitting power of 5G antennas in the higher bandwidths and rely more extensively on mid-range bandwidths that are not only better for 5G transmission, but also safely removed from the vicinity of crucial weather data transmissions.
A May 2019 news report from Sky News in London, England.
There will be a World Radiocommunication Conference in Egypt in October and November, where attendees will set international standards for 5G. Considering the attitudes and policies of the current presidential administration, the American delegation will probably resist the European model and go its own incautious way in order to serve the interests of the major telecommunications companies. It’s possible the American model may turn out fine eventually, but considering the drawbacks of being wrong, wouldn’t it be prudent to heed the concerns of weather forecasters, at least until more field testing proves without a doubt the safety of using the 24GHz band of the spectrum? To satisfy the greed of telecommunications executives and the desire of some smartphone users for faster loading Facebook feeds, is it worth having a hurricane drop in on us unexpectedly? A real hurricane, that is, not one drawn with crayons, however neatly.
Legal judgments in lawsuits against the makers of Roundup herbicide continue accumulating in the plaintiffs’ favor, with the latest one entailing an award of $2.05 billion to a married couple who alleged that they each contracted non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) from years of using the herbicide in their home garden. As in many lawsuits, high dollar amounts are likely to come down a great deal in the final settlement, and most of the money will end up in the hands of lawyers, not the plaintiffs.
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup and similar generic herbicides, and it is glyphosate which the plaintiffs in thousands of lawsuits around the country are alleging is linked to their cancer. Meanwhile, glyphosate continues to be readily available without label warnings to home gardeners as well as professional landscapers and farmers since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not ruled it is a carcinogen. European environmental and health organizations have ruled glyphosate is a probable carcinogen, differing from their American counterparts because they reviewed independent scientific studies instead of regulatory studies, many of them funded by agribusiness.
Welted thistle (Carduus crispus) possesses some fine qualities, including pretty flowers as seen here, but most people consider it a weed. Photo by dae jeung kim.
While United States government agencies continue to tilt the scales in favor of agribusiness, the courts appear to have no such bias. Consumers in that case have little recourse other than to seek compensation through the courts for their pain and suffering, which they allege were caused by the makers of Roundup (first Monsanto, and currently Bayer) and other purveyors of glyphosate herbicides. Consumers who are still healthy and use herbicides might want to exercise caution by looking for other options, though the only way they would know that is through their own research or by word of mouth, since there continue to be no cautionary statements about the risk of cancer on the label of glyphosate products the way there are for instance on cigarette packs.
Bottles of vinegar at a supermarket. Safer to use than horticultural vinegar, this more easily available common household vinegar may be a better option for casual users who do not require a heavy duty herbicide. Photo by Ms angie gray.
A safer herbicide option is vinegar. Ancient cultures derived vinegar from soured grape wine, but since it can be made from anything that produces ethanol, today most of it is sourced from corn, a cheap source. Unlike glyphosate, which migrates to the roots of affected plants, vinegar only burns the tops, meaning gardeners will have to reapply it when the weed sprouts new growth. Also unlike glyphosate, vinegar does not damage soil fertility with long term use. Damage to soil fertility is another effect of glyphosate that the manufacturers dispute even though some scientific researchers have upheld the observations of the effect by attentive farmers and gardeners.
Gardeners will be disappointed in the weak effect of using the vinegar commonly sold in grocery or home improvement stores, and that is because it is only a 5 to 7 percent solution of acetic acid in water meant for pickling food or cleaning surfaces, not killing weeds. For home gardeners, the most effective vinegar for killing weeds that is appropriately labeled as such, with accompanying safety warnings, is 20 to 30 percent acetic acid. Probably by reason of the low popularity of strong vinegar and the danger for casual users in believing it is relatively harmless, it appears to be available online only, not in stores. Vinegar that strong, while still mostly water, is potently acrid stuff which can burn a user’s mucous membranes, eyes, and skin, and may corrode hard surfaces and harm any small animals, such as toads, living in a garden. Test a small area first if there’s a chance overspray could affect something like bricks in a walkway. The best that can be said is it’s a good thing weeds are outside in the open air. Spraying strong vinegar in the garden may be unpleasant for the applicator and those in the vicinity and should be done with caution, but unlike using glyphosate, there’s less risk of serious damage to the gardener and the garden.
Mr. Vonnegut was most of all a Humanist, as he himself proclaimed, and the last thing any Humanist would claim is to also be a Saint. On looking back at Vonnegut’s work, the one feature that stands out as discordant from our modern perspective is his treatment of female characters, whom he usually portrayed without much depth, and sometimes unsympathetically for no good reason. That again is viewed from our perch 50 years in the future. Mr. Vonnegut was not out of step with his times in regard to men’s views about women, sad and embarrassing as that may seem to us now. 50 years from now, who can say how people will view us for opinions and attitudes we hold in keeping with our own time?
An anonymous painting, possibly by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich (1712-1774), of a fire at Dresden Castle.
We must remember that until Slaughterhouse-Five came out in 1969, nearly every book and movie in Western culture depicted the Allies in World War II as the good guys, and the Axis as the bad guys, with little shading of gray to add any moral nuance. The Humanist in Mr. Vonnegut could not abide that state of affairs, particularly since he had been present as a prisoner of war at the Allied fire bombing of the German city of Dresden, a target which had virtually no military or political value. The primary reason Allied command ordered the fire bombing was to terrorize the civilian population. In doing so, the Allies sought to deal out righteous retribution for German bombing of English cities earlier in the war. Atrocities, in other words, were perpetrated to one degree or another by both sides, and that is the nature of war and part of human nature and cannot be avoided, no matter how much books and movies gloss it over and glamorize one side over the other. And so it goes – to borrow a phrase from Mr. Vonnegut.
Slaughterhouse-Five was not revisionist history, but a necessary corrective to over two decades of mostly superficial accounts of World War II, at least in the popular media. It joined John Hersey’s 1946 non-fiction book Hiroshima in telling of war’s cost in suffering and the capacity for cruelty, alongside acts of kindness. In 1970, a non-fiction book written by Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, was published and changed the national discourse about relations with Native Americans, a discourse which had been dominated for over a century by white people of European descent demonizing them.
American prisoners caught in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 march to their quarters in Dresden, Germany. In February 1945, Allied air forces fire bombed the city, killing as many as 25,000 Germans, mostly women and children. The 1972 film, directed by George Roy Hill, starred Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim, the character based on Kurt Vonnegut, and Eugene Roche as his friend Edgar Derby, the ranking soldier among the prisoners.
Important works by great writers and historians come along infrequently and, while nothing and no one is ever perfect, their overall worth to humanity becomes even more apparent over time than at initial publication. Mark Twain’s 1885 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, another great work that has stood the test of time, has also been subjected to periodic bouts of righteous indignation and banishment by different groups for divergent reasons over the years. Certainly we cringe today at some of its language and at the attitudes Mr. Twain portrayed, but many readers, perhaps most, understand that at the heart of the novel is the growing respect and friendship between a white boy and a black man, which in its day was a radical idea that undermined social conventions. We are all prisoners of our time and cannot, like Billy Pilgrim, the central character of Slaughterhouse-Five, become unstuck in time. But we can be charitable and preserve and cherish the greater Humanist vision given us by Kurt Vonnegut and other writers whose works have stood outside of time, imperfect as the writers and their works, like we and our works, will always be.
“Lenin was sent into Russia by the Germans in the same way that you might send a phial containing a culture of typhoid or cholera to be poured into the water supply of a great city, and it worked with amazing accuracy.”
— Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
At a February 13 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing to question newly appointed Special Representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, on United States policy toward that country, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) impugned Mr. Abrams’s veracity since he is a known liar who narrowly escaped felony perjury charges in 1991 by cooperating with Iran-Contra Affair Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh. Mr. Abrams took exception to Ms. Omar’s statement. She went on to outline his participation in war crimes and meddling in the internal affairs of several Latin American countries, all while serving as the Reagan administration’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, an Orwellian title for someone who demonstrated contempt for human rights if they got in the way of his neo-conservative anti communist dogma.
None of the activities and attitudes Representative Omar outlined as pertaining to Mr. Abrams are in dispute, yet in the February 13 public hearing he didn’t want to own up to them. Elliott Abrams has been the point man for dirty work abroad for Republican administrations for nearly 40 years, and yet he expects American citizens and the people of the world to believe he has performed his services only for democracy and for human rights. When someone points out publicly how his record has demonstrated the exact opposite, Mr. Abrams gets testy, even nasty. Apparently his narcissism doesn’t allow for anyone calling him out as the nasty person he truly is, though it’s interesting that in his reaction he confirms it.
Everyone around the world must know, and the Venezuelans in particular must realize, that since the current presidential administration has assigned Elliott Abrams to the case in Venezuela that country is now in for a nasty, horrific time at the hands of the new envoy. It is as if a hockey team has sent in its most egregious enforcer off the bench. With Mr. Abrams on the job, Venezuelan oil will soon be back within the control of big American and European fossil fuel companies and the international banks will be able to squeeze indebted Venezuela dry, and that’s the endgame of the whole regime change charade and manufactured humanitarian crisis of aid supplies rotting at the Venezuelan border. The only ones who don’t know this, or pretend not know, are corporate media outlets and the consumers who uncritically suck at the corporate media teats of CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and major newspaper and radio outlets. Slap a patina of democracy and humanitarianism on it, no matter how flimsy, and the American public will largely stand up and salute it, no questions asked, lest they be branded unpatriotic. It worked in 2003 for the Iraq invasion and has worked innumerable times before.
And it’s a tactic which has always worked wonders for Elliott Abrams in his career of promoting democracy and humanitarianism, while only incidentally serving corporate and government interests, which are the same thing. What a great guy! Anyone who believes otherwise is unpatriotic, and possibly a communist. A reasonable person might question why the despicable Mr. Abrams is representing the United States abroad in any capacity at all rather than lying low in shame, if not in jail, but then to stay sane a reasonable person had best give up such honest questions in today’s America.
A scene from the 1984 film Dune, directed by David Lynch, with José Ferrer as the Emperor, Siân Phillips as the Reverend Mother Gaius, Kenneth McMiIlan as the Baron, and Alicia Witt as Alia. Warning: gruesome images.
It wouldn’t be surprising news if the current administration resurrected for its damnable purposes Mr. Abrams’s fellow war criminals Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger. Now that’s a triumvirate of inglorious foreign policy pros to sicken the world! In their world it’s bad enough up is down, 2+2=5, and evil has the upper hand, but everyone is also expected by the current administration, its leaders and its followers, and even by the press, the so-called Fourth Estate for its purported independence from power, to not only swallow their hypocritical bilge, but attest to its toothsome flavor and heartily endorse it for others to swill in large doses. Here’s to you, Mr. Abrams!
When Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol and had it published in 1843, the Christmas goose was a traditional feast, and turkey was an uncommon replacement. Goose was relatively inexpensive and plentiful, and turkey was quite the opposite in Europe at least, where it was not native. After Scrooge, the rich man, has metamorphosed into a warm, charitable human being, he makes a gift of a turkey to the family of his clerk, Tom Cratchit. At the time, a gift of a turkey for Christmas dinner was considered quite an upgrade over goose.
A mixed Greylag and Canada geese flock in a farm field in The Netherlands in February 2011. Photo by Uwactieve. During winter, geese often feed in farmers’ fields, gleaning grain fallen among the stubble of the harvest.
Now the tables have turned, so to speak. Turkeys raised on factory farms have become cheap to buy for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, but since they have been bred for size and other characteristics, such as being able to withstand close quarters, flavor has been lost in the breeding. Roast goose, meanwhile, has been largely neglected in Western culture over the past 100 years. At the same time, Canada goose (Branta canadensis) numbers have exploded, to the point they are now nuisances in many urban and suburban areas across North America and even western Europe, where they have been both introduced by people and settled by way of natural migration in the past several centuries.
Canada goose populations have followed a curve similar to that of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), another once common North American animal that European settlers hunted to such low numbers by the early twentieth century that conservationists took measures to curtail hunting and preserve and protect both species. From that low point in the early twentieth century, Canada geese and white-tailed deer have rebounded to numbers higher perhaps than they were before Europeans migrated to North America. Both species have adapted so well to modern urban and suburban development, liking and even preferring some human-made habitats over undeveloped country, that many people now consider them pests, and even expanded hunting seasons cannot keep up with controlling their booming numbers.
Canada geese have found well-tended parks and golf courses with water features to be ideal habitats year round, making long migrations unnecessary. Photo by Marta Boroń.
Some municipalities in North America hire hunters to cull Canada geese and white-tailed deer, donating the meat to food banks. It’s an interesting development that in 150 years goose has once again become the roast meat at the center of holiday dinners for some poor folks like the Cratchits. They are perhaps eating some of the same Canada geese that have been pestering the rich folks on their golf courses, though naturally the municipalities paying to cull geese to help feed the poor would only do so on public lands, such as public golf courses and parks, and not on privately owned golf courses, since everyone knows rich people don’t believe in government assistance for anyone but themselves.
Romanesca Orchestra Holland, with from left to right, Eric Bergsma, Femke Wolthuis, Willem Wolthuis, Tim Nobel, and Don Hofstee. February 2010 photo by Femke Wolthuis. Romanesca is a European folk music style with roots in the 16th century, and was the origin of songs like “Greensleeves”.
In Western culture, even people who don’t recognize the name of the song “Greensleeves” usually recognize the tune. For some it may have another name, but for people brought up in a predominantly Anglo-Saxon system such as that in the United States, the song “Greensleeves” is ingrained. Not bad for a tune that dates back at least 500 years. Music theorists can argue about what gives the song its staying power, but everyone else accepts it as indelible because it is simply beautiful and yet evocative and melancholy in a way they can’t quite put their finger on.
In the 1962 film How the West Was Won, Debbie Reynolds sings “A Home in the Meadow”, to the tune of “Greensleeves”, adapted by the great film composer Alfred Newman, with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. Gregory Peck plays Reynolds’s wayward romantic interest.
No wonder songwriters over the years have pinched the melody for their own tunes, with perhaps the most famous example being the Christmas carol “What Child Is This?”, written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865. “What Child Is This?” borrows its power from the simplicity of “Greensleeves”, and a Christian listener does not need to recall the history of the original lyrics to “Greensleeves” and how they may relate less holy concerns than the lyrics of the Christmas carol. Christmas itself is a custom largely borrowed from pagan beginnings, and overlaid with a thick veneer of Christian rituals and symbols, but what does that matter really to the ordinary worshiper? It’s like jazz in how riffs and digressions can build up over an underlying kernel of something old and familiar, making it new again, and even if the original is barely recognizable, it is nonetheless there, providing a touchstone.
“What Child Is This?” performed by Naomi and Wynonna Judd for their 1987 album Christmas Time with the Judds.
A person goes to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and hears the uplifting carol “What Child Is This?” and has one thing or several in mind about it, but all about the perceived divinity of a humble baby and the overwhelming sense of mission He embodies already at a tender age. The ultimate origin of the tune in an old folk song about lovers matters not at all. That’s something for scholars to run rings around. The main point is how the tune has appealed to such a basic need in people that it has lasted centuries and been co-opted by tunesmiths and the lyrics rewritten numerous times. Who can put their finger on it? Songwriters everywhere want to know, since they could be certain then what always appeals as aesthetic pleasures known in the human heart and mind, and would predictably be able to strike gold both in fortune and art time and again, rather than stumbling upon one or the other blindly, and rarely if ever both together.
“11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”
— The Apostle Paul in a letter to the Corinthians, 1 Corinthians 13:11-13, from the King James Version of the Bible.
DNA kits are very popular now, both for people ordering them for themselves and for those giving them as gifts. Sales of kits doubled in 2017 over all previous years, and have increased again in 2018 over 2017. Interest appears to derive mostly from curiosity about immediate ancestors, on which the kits do a good job of enlightening people, and secondarily about genetic health risks, on which the kits dealing with the subject deliver mixed results, needing confirmation from a medical professional.
One area of controversy with the results, at least for Americans, has come from links to African ancestry for European-Americans, and links to European ancestry for African-Americans. Most European-Americans, or white folks, get results that include some ancestry going back to Africa two hundred years or more, usually less than 10 percent of their total genetic makeup. Most African-Americans, or black folks, get results that include around 25 percent European ancestry.
Portraits of six generations of the Sternberg family in Jiří Sternberg’s study, Český Šternberk Castle, Czech Republic. Photo by takato marui. Tracing ancestry is easier in the pure bred lines and close quarters of Old Europe than in the melange of ethnicities and transcontinental migrations of the New World.
Compared to the ethnic homogeneity of most Old World countries, Americans are mutts, and the melting pot was particularly active in the years of heavy immigration from Europe from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. Africans brought into the country as slaves until the Civil War eventually made up a larger proportion of the total population through that period than they have since, averaging close to 20 percent of the total for the first hundred years of the republic, and settling to a range of 11 to 13 percent of the total population afterward. It shouldn’t therefore surprise white people taking DNA tests to discover they have at least a small percentage of relatively recent African ancestry.
It is interesting, however, that DNA test results for black people yield an average of 25 percent European ancestry. It is not surprising there has been mixing of the races, despite laws against miscegenation going back centuries, but that black people have a much higher percentage of European ancestry than white people have a percentage of African ancestry, and yet black people are still and always considered black. This is Pudd’nhead Wilson territory, in which even a tiny percentage of African blood is tantamount to an entirely African genetic heritage. In America, once a person has been accepted into white society, it requires a considerable amount of African genetic input, along with other factors involving economics and relationships, for a person to fall from grace, as it were, from whiteness to blackness.
In this 1896 illustration by Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), “Man” is precariously at the top of a tree encompassing all life on earth.
The grade has always been uphill, on the other hand, for black people to be accepted into American society, always predominantly white, no matter how much they were genetically European. Initial branding of blackness meant staying black in the eyes of white society until extraordinary circumstances or subterfuge intervened. In all this, what the majority of people, black and white, seemed to have missed was that racial differences were minuscule, along the lines of one half of one percent of the genetics every human being shares. Race itself is an artificial concept, a social construct, rather than a real biological divider.
It’s all in the mind, and those who would reinforce race as a divider of the human species have to perform mental and ethical gymnastics to justify their beliefs since science won’t do it for them. The idea that DNA test results with some percentage of African ancestry are showing merely what goes back millions of years for all of humanity also does not hold up. Yes, everyone on earth does have common ancestors in Africa, but that is not what the makers of DNA home test kits design them to illustrate, since they typically only research genetic relations going back several centuries, that being within the time frame for which they have reliably detailed information on background in their databases.
The immigration scene of young Vito Corleone, played by Oreste Baldini, in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Godfather: Part II. Unlike Vito Corleone when he matured, the majority of immigrants, then as now, do not end up engaged in dangerous and unlawful activities, despite what rabble rousing politicians want everyone to believe.
There also appears to be an assumption among even open-minded white people that since Africa is the cradle of all humanity, then Africans themselves must be genetically closer to that cradle than the rest who emigrated to far continents. African ancestry noted in the DNA test results must, they reason, be hearkening back to long ago ancestors white people share with everyone on earth. No. The test results show genetic input from recent African ancestors. And those recent African ancestors have evolved along with everyone else on earth, including Europeans, triggered by similar environmental and social changes pushing them to adapt. The European discoverers should not be so quick to flatter themselves with ideas of inherent superiority that they lose sight of how other societies have adapted quite well under unique circumstances without prizing discovery and conquest above all else as the sine qua non of human existence.
Since 1968, when the New England Journal of Medicine editors precipitously and unfairly saddled adverse reactions of some people to Monosodium glutamate (MSG) with the name Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG has been stigmatized as a food additive that is apart from and somehow unhealthier than other food additives. The first person to report symptoms to the Journal was a Chinese-American doctor, Robert Ho Man Kwok, who complained of numbness at the back of his neck, general weakness, and heart palpitations after eating at a Chinese restaurant. On this slim testimony and that of several others, the Journal coined the phrase Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.
A type of kelp known as Dasima in Korea, and Kombu in Japan, is a key ingredient in Dashi, a broth from which Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda identified the quality of umami in 1908 that led him to the discovery and production of MSG. Photo by freddy an.
Use of MSG is not limited to Chinese cookery, however, and it can be found in many processed American foods such as Doritos, which millions of Americans appear to consume regularly without complaint. It would be interesting to see if more people would attest to adverse reactions to eating Doritos if they were made aware the product contained MSG. It is listed among the ingredients on the package, and using its most recognizable name, too, rather than one of the many names that can hide its presence, such as autolyzed yeast.
This is not to say no one can have a real adverse or allergic reaction to MSG. But for just about any ingredient in food there are some people who react badly to ingesting it. The main thing to remember is that in scientific studies of MSG, as opposed to the purely anecdotal stories that appeared to satisfy the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968, no one has found that MSG is any more dangerous than any of a multitude of other food additives. If it were as dangerous as some people appear to believe it is, not only would the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) likely take it off its generally recognized as safe (GRAS) list, but thousands or even millions of Asians and Asian-Americans would be suffering every day from its effects.
Yet Asian chefs and home cooks continue to add MSG to their meals. They are either perverse in their determination to eat the possibly unwholesome ingredient, or they are unconvinced by the nearly hysterical denunciations of it coming from some people in North America and Europe. Given the ubiquity of MSG in highly processed foods that Americans eat and enjoy every day, any real or imagined adverse reaction to it could just as easily be called American Junk Food Syndrome. There is already one name for that, which is Obesity. American food processors discovered around the time of World War II that MSG was a useful flavor booster for otherwise bland or even flavorless foods like canned vegetables and corn snacks. MSG by itself does not encourage obesity, but its overuse in helping to make some rather unpalatable and non nutritious foods delicious does contribute to obesity.
Shavings of Katsuobushi, a preserved and fermented skipjack tuna used in Dashi, the umami broth from which Professor Ikeda first isolated MSG. Photo by Sakurai Midori.
At the same time as food scientists and agribusinesses were discovering how to make cheaply made, highly profitable junk food flavorful, they were also inadvertently taking the flavor out of healthful foods by manipulating them to improve qualities like pest resistance, standing up to shipping, or tolerating being confined on factory farms, all at the expense of flavor and nutrition. Those practices yielded bland, watery supermarket produce, and meats needing seasoning and breading and all sorts of treatments in order to taste like much of anything. It’s not all that mysterious why shoppers, particularly poor ones who can’t afford to seek out higher quality ingredients, turn to highly processed, highly flavorful foods, even at the cost of poor nutrition and cumulative destructive effects on their health.
In this country, people like to blame the victim. After all, free enterprise and free choice means people don’t have to eat junk, doesn’t it? It’s also useful to have an Other to blame, as in Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. The sensible thing would be to teach children in schools about moderation in all things, including sprinkling additives on their food. A little bit of MSG on already healthful food gives an umami flavor boost and has not been shown to do harm to the great majority of people who eat it that way. MSG put on every unwholesome, processed food cannot be healthy since the bad effects of poor quality food combine with excessive amounts of this otherwise relatively harmless additive. Enormous amounts of any additive are probably not healthy, not just MSG. School administrators could stress in the curriculum healthful eating instead of allowing vending machines full of snacks, sodas, and sugary fruit drinks in the hallways. In the case of young people at least, free enterprise and free choice should take a back seat to learning healthy habits.
The Three Sisters of Native American agriculture are corn, beans, and squash, grown together where they can complement each other and, when eaten together such as in succotash, they can complement each other nutritionally. The Three Sisters get on so well together that it’s tempting to ascribe their harmonious relationship to one of the many Native American legends describing it, ignoring the thousands of years of human trial and error, experimentation, and opportunistic capitalization on circumstance that played into the development of the relationship.
Corn provides a tall stalk for the bean vines to climb upon, and her deep roots help stabilize the soil and pull up nutrients from deep down. Beans fix nitrogen from the air, providing fertilizer for herself and her two sisters. Squash sprawls on the ground where her large, prickly leaves keep away some pests and provide a living mulch for her sisters, keeping the soil moist and inhibiting weeds.
Gateway image of the Three Sisters of Native American agriculture: corn, beans, and squash at Little Turtle Waterway in Logansport, Indiana. Photo by Chris Light.
The nutrients available from all three plants provide most of what a person needs. Add to that the capacity for all three to keep dried in storage through the winter, and it’s easy to understand how Native Americans in North America adopted them as the foundation of their diet. This Thanksgiving, along with hearing or reading some entertaining and philosophically informative legends about the Three Sisters, there can be great enjoyment in tasting one of the many recipes for succotash as part of the holiday dinner.
“Single Girl, Married Girl”, an Americana song from the Carter Family catalog, sung by The Haden Triplets on their eponymous 2014 album, produced by Ry Cooder. The song, the singers, and the producer all share deep roots in American music. For more of The Haden Triplets, view their NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert, where they lead off a four song set with “Single Girl, Married Girl”.
Most succotash (derived from a Native American word, like numerous others) consists of a base of corn and beans, leaving out the squash, but for autumn dining, and especially for Thanksgiving with its reminders of the autumn harvest and the debt of European immigrants to Native Americans, adding squash to a succotash recipe can only improve it for the season. The squash and its seeds will add many of the benefits a person could get from eating turkey, another native of North America, including tryptophan, the chemical many believe is responsible for a satisfied diner’s desire to relax on a couch after Thanksgiving dinner, as well as lazily escaping from kitchen cleanup duty.