Getting Flaky


Snow has always been more problematic for movie sets than rain, but when the filmmakers and their special effects people do it well it creates an atmosphere for viewers that suspends their disbelief to the point of not noticing smaller details, like how the snow fallen on performers doesn’t appear to melt quickly when they go indoors, where it is presumably warmer than it is outside. All sorts of obstacles dictate the use of fake snow for movies rather than the real stuff, from warm weather outdoors to shooting scenes indoors on sound stages. Real snow also compacts underfoot, making it impracticable for filmmakers to get more than one or two takes in one spot outdoors even when they go to the trouble of brushing over footsteps to make the snow appear fresh for retakes. As expensive as it is to make a movie, it makes sense to use fake snow.


In the early twentieth century, filmmakers created fake snow with bleached cornflakes, salt, flour, cotton wadding, asbestos, or combinations of those materials as well as others. All posed problems either of realism or health and safety. Cornflakes crunched underfoot and were difficult to use once sound came into movies; salt was corrosive; flour congealed on exposure to moisture; cotton was a fire hazard, and its replacement, asbestos, was a health hazard. Filmmakers experimented with many materials, but it wasn’t until Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life that they came upon a winning formula which was realistic and safe.

Snow in the City - Six Summer Saturdays - Fake snow in Chamberlain Square (6014608196)
Fake snow attracts visitors to Chamberlain Square in Birmingham, England, in August 2011 as part of the Six Summer Saturdays festival. The fake snow was supplied by Snow Business, an English firm that has also used the material on many movie sets. Photo by Elliott Brown.

For that film produced by the studio RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum), special effects supervisor Russell Shearman helped create a mix of foamite – a fire extinguisher material – with sugar, water, and soap flakes. Mr. Shearman’s snow effects were so convincing that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him and his special effects department a Technical Achievement Award for their work on It’s a Wonderful Life. Watching this Christmas classic over 70 years later, after special effects have made huge advances in duplicating reality, and noticing how at the end of the movie the “snowflakes” on Jimmy Stewart’s shoulders take a long time to melt when he comes indoors to a warm reception from his family, friends, and neighbors, should not detract from anyone’s enjoyment of a great cinematic moment or the filmmakers’ expert creation of George Bailey’s (Stewart’s) snowy odyssey one long Christmas Eve in the fictional New York town of Bedford Falls (or its nightmare alternative, Pottersville). Movie magic at its best suspends the viewer in another world for a time, and on the few occasions when the artifice shows through, it’s charitable not to be too picky and to brush them off.
— Vita

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and Vera-Ellen in the 1954 film White Christmas, directed by Michael Curtiz, and with songs by Irving Berlin, including “Snow”. The performers take the train from Florida and eventually arrive in Vermont, where snow doesn’t fall until Christmas Eve.


Mind Your Peas


The federal government sends out mixed signals about dietary health by promoting the establishment of fast food restaurants in poor city neighborhoods on the one hand, and then on the other hand advocating healthier eating by limiting consumption of fast food. It boosts the use of cheese in fast food items, and then suggests consumers curtail their dairy consumption. It works hand in glove with ranchers in the beef industry by leasing grazing rights to federal lands at minimal cost, and then warns the public off eating too much red meat. That’s a lot of taxpayers’ money wasted on bureaucrats working at cross purposes with each other.

Dane county farmers market
The Dane County Farmers’ Market in September 2007 on the grounds of the state capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. It is the largest producers-only farmers’ market in the nation. Photo by Kznf.


People are so inured to confusing messages about what’s healthy to eat and what isn’t that most of them pay little mind to medical experts and bureaucrats, or rather they take their advice with a grain of salt, and that would be in the form of sea salt or Himalayan salt for foodie elites, and regular old table salt for everybody else. Like everything else in America over the past thirty or forty years, food culture has split into two halves, something akin to the haves and have nots. There are the foodie elites of the professional and upper classes, and then there is everybody else, from the lower middle class which is frantically scrabbling to keep from sliding down into the working class, which is itself struggling to stay one step ahead of poverty.

Americans can make a quick, cheap meal of sorts from a one or two dollar box of macaroni and cheese mix. For some, meals like that are their only option. It’s disgraceful that people of limited means should have to bear the disdain of people with nearly limitless means because their diet is based on calorie value per dollar over nutritional value. The poor and the economically struggling don’t have the luxury of being absolutely sure of their next meal. As to how the well off view their meals, anyone who has ever worked as a table busser or as one of the waitstaff in a high end restaurant can attest to the tremendous amount of food wasted by the patrons, even though they may be spending for one meal what a working class person can expect to earn in a day. The upper classes have that luxury because they have the security of knowing there’s more where that came from.

Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca as The Hickenloopers, Charlie and Doris, visit a health food restaurant in a skit from Your Show of Shows, with appearances by Howard Morris as another customer and Carl Reiner as a waiter.

Unlikely as it seems, the fast food restaurants scorned by foodie elites as obesity enablers for the great unwashed may hold the key to turning things around for people who can’t afford to buy groceries at Whole Foods, aka Whole Paycheck. Taking their cue to keep promotions of healthier options low key so as not to arouse the suspicions of poorer customers whose purchases are based on calorie value per dollar, yet feeling increased pressure from public health groups to offer healthier foods, fast food restaurants increasingly change ingredients and practices in a balancing act to satisfy both constituencies. No one will ever claim that a cheeseburger and fries are healthier than a homemade meal of vegetables from a farmers’ market, but given the realities of human psychology and the country’s current economic conditions, demonizing those who choose to eat the former more often than the latter is ultimately unhelpful in lessening the obesity epidemic, while reinforcing the widening economic inequality that is driving it.
— Izzy


Far from Home Cooking


Some of the processed food for sale at grocery stores and restaurants purports to be like home cooking, and other processed foods make a name for themselves by advertising their intention to go beyond what’s available from home cooking. The Doritos Locos Taco from the fast food restaurant Taco Bell, and the Double Down Chicken Sandwich from Kentucky Fried Chicken are advertised as so different and so unlike what home cooks could easily whip up that to get the full experience at a decent price consumers might as well visit the restaurants and order those items because it’s easier than trying to duplicate them at home.


Mina Van Winkle, head of the Lecture Bureau of the U.S. Food Administration, explains Victory gardening and food processing to support the war effort LCCN2016650259
This 1917 photograph depicts Mina Van Winkle, head of the Lecture Bureau of the U.S. Food Administration during World War I, explaining Victory gardening and food processing to support the war effort. Photo from the Library of Congress.

When processed food first became widely available to American consumers in the period between the two world wars, the aim of the purveyors was to assure consumers the products were as good as home made and perfectly safe. There was no specific attempt to manufacture exotic foodstuffs, though from the start convenience was a selling point. The trend continued after World War II, with refinements learned by manufacturers in producing canned foods like Spam on a massive scale for service members overseas. Food processors marketed TV dinners in the 1950s with assurances of quality and convenience, not with any idea that they were different or better than what a home cook could produce given the time and inclination.

World War II poster from the Office for Emergency Management of the Office of War Information.

It was in the post World War II years that fast food operations, some of them, like Kentucky Fried Chicken, with beginnings in the years before the war, really began taking off in popularity, expanding across the landscape along with the newly built interstate highway system. Their offerings were traditional, and like the processed convenience foods for sale at supermarkets they mainly stressed the convenience of their food and that it was as good as homemade. It was for pricier restaurants to claim their food was better and fancier than homemade. Consumers visiting fast food establishments mainly wanted assurance the food was cheap, fast, safe, and of a quality on a par with homemade.

World War II poster from the Office for Emergency Management of the Office of War Information.

In the past 20 years all that has begun to change as consumers have drifted away from cooking the majority of their meals from scratch themselves to either resorting to convenience foods from the supermarket or eating out. The emphasis has changed in the marketing of supermarket convenience foods and fast food restaurant offerings from nearly apologetic claims that they are as good as homemade to stating that they are beyond that and are now in varying degrees gourmet, healthy, exotic, and even comparable with fancy restaurant food at half the price. Their claims are not all hyperbole, and for the most part a well-made TV dinner of today tastes better and is a better value than a comparable TV dinner of 30 or 40 years ago. Food scientists and technologists have indeed done wonders.
A typical TV dinner of the post World War II era. Photo provided by Smile Lee.

The question remains, however, whether consumers are any better off or healthier for having largely abandoned home cooking in the first place. Yes, the taste and quality and variety of convenience foods from the supermarket and fast foods from inexpensive restaurants have never been better, but at the same time people have never been fatter, with all the health problems that come with being not just overweight, but obese. It seems there’s a hidden price to all the convenience and deliciousness whipped up by food scientists in the labs of giant food companies like Nestlé and Yum! Brands (owners of Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, among others). That’s something worth pondering the next time you’re shopping the frozen food aisle of the supermarket or cruising a commercial strip for a fast food outlet for your next meal – whether the exotic, fancy dishes they’re offering at low prices are really as good a value as they want them to appear to be, with their mile long list of indecipherable ingredients and unrealistically slight portion amounts, which make their salt, sugar, and fat percentages look more reasonable than they really are. No one but the rich can get away with eating fancy, rich foods every day, because they have the money for all the doctors and health spas it takes to balance out an indulgent lifestyle. They’re not eating the cheap, ersatz stuff anyway.
— Techly


It’s a Dirty Job


“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
— Genesis 3:19, from the King James Version of the Bible.

Scientists working at Rockefeller University in New York City have isolated a soil bacterium which shows the ability to destroy illness causing bacteria that have developed resistance to other antibiotics, notably the type known as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA has been the scourge of nursing homes and hospitals for decades now, where opportunistic infections kill patients weakened by age and other illnesses, and treatment with antibiotics has become ineffective. The discovery of the new antibiotic, called Malacidin, is a major development in the fight against bacterial infections and diseases, which has seen little progress over the last 30 years.

Sir Alexander Fleming, Frs, the Discoverer of Penicillin Art.IWMARTLD4217
A 1944 illustration from the British Imperial War Museum depicting Sir Alexander Fleming at work in his laboratory 16 years after his discovery of the first antibiotic, Penicillin, in 1928.

The breakthrough is the result of an alternative approach to the standard tedious practice of testing antibiotics one at a time against various illnesses, and instead used computers to look at vast numbers of soil microbes for certain antibiotic characteristics and then narrowed down the search progressively. To cast this wide net, the Rockefeller University scientists requested the help of volunteers from around the country in submitting soil samples. The scientists particularly requested soil samples from out of the way places, reasoning that they were more likely to find microbes there for which illness causing bacteria like MRSA had not developed resistance. Places like agricultural fields are more apt to have the usual microbial soil life that has already been tested and tried because it has been in the human food chain for generations.

All of this serves as a reminder that the humble soil beneath our feet is the start and the end of everything. Food, disease and the medicine to fight disease, the foundations of our dwellings, all of it starts and cycles through the soil. Taking care of the soil is taking care of ourselves. Showing no concern for the long term health of the soil and the life inhabiting it by dumping salt producing fertilizers on it year after year in a short term effort to boost crop yields ultimately destroys ourselves because such practices destroy the life in the soil. It becomes sterile, reliant solely on a chemical stew of fertilizer that offers no substantive nutrition. It becomes like the Petri dishes that scientists struggled for years to get soil microbes to grow in, largely unsuccessfully. Now scientists are trying new methods that work within healthy soils, and they are achieving greater success. It’s a continuing battle against newly resistant bacterial strains, but without a reservoir of healthy soil to draw antibiotic reinforcements from the war would already be lost.
— Izzy


Salting the Earth


“Carthago delenda est!” [Carthage must be destroyed!] ― Cato the Elder


The National Weather Service has forecast an ice storm for the central United States this weekend. Road crews will most likely treat the roads with a brine solution before the storm arrives, and in case ice accumulates nevertheless, they will return to treat the roads with rock salt, sand, and possibly other materials to increase traction for motor vehicles and rid the roads of ice. What happens to all that salt after the storm, and how does it affect roadside plants, soil, and the water table?

Salt from Timbuktu
Blocks of salt from Timbuktu; photo by Robin Elaine.

Salt Crystals
Salt crystals; photo by Mark Schellhase.

Some of the salt dilutes with water from the ice and atomizes into droplets that passing vehicles spray onto roadside plants. The damage can most easily be seen in early spring as plants and trees sprout new foliage which may suffer from scorching on the side that received the salt spray. Most of the salt runs off into the soil and the water table near the road, where it can cause a number of problems, including interfering with water uptake by plants and contaminating residential and agricultural wells. Some salt migrates into city water supplies.
Excessive salt has long been known as a detriment to agriculture. Plants show little need for salt, while animals can’t live without it. Our word “salary” is rooted in the Latin term for salt, which indicates its crucial importance to everyday life for people. It’s ironic then that poor fertilization and irrigation practices can lead to the salinization and ultimate abandonment of agricultural land. With population growth come more roads and development into the countryside, taking over or abutting traditionally agricultural land, and consequently adding more salt to the environment.

Salt from Berchtesgaden
Salt from a mine near Berchtesgaden, Germany; 1951 photo by Roger McLassus.

Some localities across the nation have been experimenting with alternatives to use of rock salt exclusively, such as mixing in cheese brine, beet juice, or sugarcane molasses. Whether or not these alternatives ultimately prove as effective as rock salt and comparable in cost, for auto drivers who need to get out and about in an ice storm personal safety understandably comes first and environmental effects second, or even third after reckoning the tax bill for materials and labor. Considering all that, we might reflect how Cato the Elder’s oft invoked exhortation to vanquish the Carthaginians at any cost led after many years to civil war and then to the dubious distinction of empire, and we might then note how a relentless quest for domination of our perceived foes, in nature or otherwise, as often as not has unintended consequences and unfortunate side effects for ourselves.
― Izzy