Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...
30 April, 2009
WFF '09 Review: Food, Inc.
In medieval England, it was said "God sends meat, but the devil sends cooks". Appropos of this was my Friday night at the Wisconsin Film Festival which ended with a showing of Food, Inc.. As the title implies, it is a look at the corporate control over America's food supply as well as a Michael Moore-like polemic against it.
The film begins with a series of clips that try to capitalize on the positive connotations we have with all things "natural" as well as appealing to our sense of nostalgia. We are told that the way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000. Someone else pops onscreen to decry the use of agrarian imagery in selling food produced with the latest factory methods while another interviewee reminds us that the modern supermarket carries all sorts of food year-round which has disabused people of the old-time practice of eating seasonally. Finally the dichotomy of multinationally-owned factory farms vs. small, private ones is introduced.
This opening sequence established the film's style – a mix of talking heads and stock footage – as well as its rhetorical style – statistics & history blended with a heavy dose of emotional appeals.
After the introduction, Food, Inc. is split into 10 sections, each emphasizing a different aspect of the corporate food chain. "Fast Food To All Food" starts things off by blaming the rise of fast food for turning our daily bread into an industry. Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, inveighs against the Golden Arches for introducing the factory system to food. They needed big suppliers to provide volume. Today we see the results with the pork and beef markets being dominated by a handful of companies. Chickens fair no better in this scheme. Companies like Tyson demand that the animals grow larger and quicker than in the past while the lives of the chickens themselves has become nugatory. Millions of them spend their short lives in horrible, crowded conditions where everyone's favorite white meat never sees the light of day.
I found it odd to blame McDonalds and its demand for the industrialization of the food chain. What was Upton Sinclair bitching about at the dawn of the 20th century if not a factory system that chewed up and spit out workers and the quality of the product be damned?
Over the next 80 or so minutes, Food, Inc. covers a lot of ground. Corn and the massive government subsidies the people who grow it receive gets due attention. These subsidies explain why everything has corn syrup in it these days as well as why meat is comparatively cheaper today: feeding animals corn is much more inexpensive than letting them wander a field chewing on grass or feeding them other grains. The section entitled "Unintended Consequences" notes the massive amount of pollution that factory farms create in the form of run-off as well as the inability and/or unwillingness of the USDA and FDA to do their jobs properly. It is also here that the worst of the film's emotional appeals has a home. We are introduced to a woman whose son died of e-coli poisoning and has refashioned her life as one of a food safety activist. While her attempts to lobby a Congresswomen are worthy of inclusion, the overwrought melodrama of her son's death was incredibly overdone and was a huge distraction. "Bullshit emotional appeal" are the words I wrote down during the screening.
Again, the film says a lot and it's easy to get lost amongst statistics, the terrifying tales of Monsanto lawyers, gross-out scenes (such as when the viewer witnesses hamburger meat filler being cleansed with ammonia), and the nostalgia for the days when there were actually butchers with shops on street corners. Food, Inc. is nothing if not a visceral movie. (No pun intended.) And there is a trio of points with which I took real issue.
First is the section "The Dollar Menu". We follow a family eating from Burger King's dollar menu and they tell us that they lack the time to cook and are too poor to eat well by shopping at a grocery store. The film pulls out a heavyweight - Michael Pollan, to counter the family's comments. He notes that fast food is cheaper only because the industry is heavily subsidized. The increase in Type II diabetes is also noted, the implication being all that corn syrup available at fast food joints.
I was reminded of comments by another person who has written about food, Barry Glassner. He said, "The fast-food industry deserves a lot of criticism and I level it in the book, but at the same time, to be able to get a complete or nearly complete meal for a few bucks, with distractions for the children thrown in at no extra cost, is not in itself a bad thing. And until those of us on the progressive side of the political spectrum have real alternatives in place, we'd be well advised to look at the good as well as the bad."
The movie avoided addressing the concerns of that family. All it could say in return was that fast food was bad as an industry and as food. It should be noted that at the end of the film, a list of things people could do was given and this included buying local, buying organic, and growing a garden. Good advice but good only for folks like those in the audience that night at the Orpheum: middle class people who can actually afford the prices and had the time to dedicate to a garden. If the family above can afford conventional foods, how are they supposed to be able to buy organics and/or locally grown foods which are much more expensive?
Second is a quote from a chicken farmer in the part of the film called "In the Grass". He says that, yes, we can feed the world without industrialized farming. Hand in hand with this comment is Food, Inc.'s implication that genetically altered foods are bad. The film spends an hour and a half being critical of industrialized farming but that chicken farmer's comment is the only time where it addresses whether or not the world, with a population hastily approaching 7 billion people, can be fed using small scale farming, "natural" techniques. Although skeptical, I'm willing to concede that that farmer may be right. Unfortunately all Food, Inc. does is give that lone statement before moving on to shots of pigs being led to the slaughter. When biologist E.O. Wilson spoke here a few years ago, even he conceded that genetically altered foods would probably be necessary to feed the world. He may be wrong but by simply letting one person have the be-all-end-all comment on the subject, the film really drops the ball.
The last thing in the film which got in my craw was how it dealt with nostalgia. While some of it was perfectly applicable, the overall message was that, before McDonalds food was safe and natural. The thing is, this is untrue. As I noted above, Upton Sinclair found deplorable working conditions on Chicago's killing floors as well as tainted meat. A 14th century Londoner might well have bought a pasty made with offal or found that his venison pasty really contained beef. Going back further to ancient Rome, we find that lead was used to make poor quality wine sweeter. The romantic notion that Food, Inc. purveys of a time when all food was wholesome and people didn't get sick from what they ate is pure fantasy.
Another aspect of the film's use of nostalgia involves fast food. It wants you to believe that there was this prelasparian state where everyone ate home-cooked meals or ate at nice restaurants and then fast food came along and changed drastically things for the worse. While the fast food industry of today is quite new, fast food has been with us for centuries. As Vickie L. Ziegler wrote in her essay "Fast Food in Medieval Europe":
While we generally think of fast food as a uniquely American invention of the late twentieth century, it has in fact been around since Roman times in urban settings in which there were a great many poor and /or single adults living in small rooms… Many artisans, other workers, and classes of the urban poor, such as impoverished widows, lived in single rooms, where there were no cooking facilities, not even a hearth.
Fast foods of the London of the late 13th and early 14th centuries containing wheat included pies, hot cakes, pancakes, and wafers. Meat pies and pasties were especially adaptable for ease of carrying and consumption, much like today's Big Mac.
Several hundred years ago meals ready to eat were mostly consumed by the urban poor and we know how those pasties could be a bit spotty. How little has changed with regards to fast food – it largely plays the same role today as it did centuries ago. Telling people who rely on fast food to go organic and local is not a real alternative.
Despite being very informative, Food, Inc.'s myopia lessens its impact as something which induces contemplation. It asks only those questions which can be answered with "Corporate/fast food agriculture sucks!" and doesn't compel the viewer to look at a larger picture which includes a realistic view of history and people who cannot afford to shop at Whole Foods.
Dane101 announced yesterday that the Madison Mallards will be having a Big Lebowski event. It will no doubt be a hoot.
But I must ask: does anyone go to a Mallards game because baseball is being played? The Brewers have 44 promotional nights listed on their schedule while the Mallards, who play many fewer games, have 37.
Madison is not a baseball town and hasn't been one in a while, if it ever was. The UW is, to the best of my knowledge, the only Big Ten university without a baseball team. (I believe that it was in the early 1990s when the sport was demoted to recreational status.) We've had a few minor league teams shuffle through town since I've lived here but only the non-professionals of the Mallards have prospered.
So 'fess up – who goes to the games for the bobbleheads, beer, and pitches thrown out by the guy who worked as a gaffer on Mork & Mindy instead of the baseball?
I finally got around to reading Linda Falkenstein’s article in the latest Isthmus called "Rebuilding the Burger" which examined the veggie burger or hamburger replacement patties made of nuts, soy, vegetables, etc. At one point, Robert Miller of Nature's Bakery is quoted about their products:
"The ingredients are on the label, and you recognize all of them as food," says Miller, perhaps unconsciously playing off one of Pollan's maxims: "Don't eat anything your grandparents wouldn't recognize as food."
Two things occurred to me when I read this. First is that Michael Pollan's maxim will soon have to be reworked to something like "Don't eat anything your great-grandparents wouldn't recognize as food". The grandparents that survived The Great Depression and fought World War II are quickly dying and being replaced by Baby Boomers who grew up in suburbs eating at the new fast food joints or in front of the idiot box with a TV dinner sitting on a TV tray. Fast food and convenience foods are a post-WWII phenomenon and so there is an ever-growing number of grandparents these days who recognize a lot of crap as food.
The second thing which popped into my mind was whether a member of Tom Brokaw's favored generation would recognize a veggie burger as food. According to Wikipedia, the veggie burger was invented in 1982 while this site claims it was a year earlier. This leads me to believe that my recently departed grandmother, who died at age 93 back in January, would indeed recognize Nature's Bakery's tofu-walnut burgers as food – food for farm animals.
Similarly, I don't think she'd recognize "veggie bacon" or "Facon", as I call it, as food for people.
It looks more like a movie prop than something edible. This kind of shit is the true "Frankenfood".
If you want to know what your grandparents or great-grandparents ate before Swanson's introduced the TV dinner, go ask Clara, a 93 year-old great-grandmother who demonstrates what many ate during The Great Depression on YouTube. Here's part 1:
An interesting story about freight rail bottlenecks in the Chicago area which would, no doubt, have an impact on passenger rail service here in Madison since both Amtrak and freight trains utilize the same tracks. (h/t to MWHSR blog.)
I have been getting interested in birds lately. That is, I've been looking at a Birds of Wisconsin guide so that I know what I'm looking at when they land outside my porch as I sit there enjoying a beer.
My neighborhood is full of robins and I saw a couple cardinals earlier this morning. But I spied with my little eyes a bird several days ago that I didn't recognize. Thumbing through the guide, the closest match I can find is this:
That's the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The guide says that they are to be found throughout Wisconsin during the summer and are migrate here late in the spring. Now, I saw it in mid-April which, to my mind, is about a month away from late spring. Perhaps an early comer?
In addition to birds, my neighborhood is home to the usual armies of gray squirrels but I've noticed a blonde one scurrying about as well. We're also infested with rabbits, much to this would-be tomato farmer's chagrin. Lastly, a family of raccoons took up residence in a storm drain kitty-corner from my house but, with all this rain, they've no doubt sought a drier home.
According to 77 Square, 80's fashions are back. This trend needs to be stopped now!
Take it from me, kids, you're playing with fire.
Sure, it may start with a pair of leggings here and a shoulder pad there but the trend will not be content with just that. If we don't take proactive measures, we'll soon be beset by Jheri curls and pastels. And then, horror of horrors, we'll see people like this walking our streets again:
Via Slashdot comes news that the United Nations' World Digital Library is now online with hundreds of old maps, books, and other documents available for public perusal.
One map that caught my eye was the Emigrant's Map and Guide for Routes to North America by Gotthelf Zimmermann dated 1853 and printed in Stuttgart, Germany. The reason I found it so interesting was that it showed the route taken by my German ancestors from their homeland to America. My father told me that two brothers emigrated by taking ships from Bremen. The first left in 1835, I was told, and landed in Philadelphia while the second emigrated about 10 years later and made his way to Baltimore. (Or was it the other way around?)
The map shows the route that would have been taken by the ships that carried those two brothers, one of whom you can blame for having an ancestor who annoys people with his blog.
First they leave Bremen and head for the English Channel.
Having traversed the Channel, it was off to the North Atlantic heading south. If you look at that bunch of four lines, you may be able to make out that the second one down is labeled "nach Philadelphia" or "to Philadelphia".
Here you can see the various routes to Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, and other harbors.
Many Germans made their way to Wisconsin so what does the Emigrant's Guide have about us?
A few weeks ago, Jesse Russell of Dane101 pleaded with the Wisconsin State Journal, "Please don't charge me". It was a response to a blog post written by our honorable mayor in which he asked the WSJ and The Capital Times to charge for reading the news online rather than having the papers go away and/or to have the increasingly incestuous relationship between the WSJ and TCT be split asunder. Mayor Dave made his modest proposal:
Charge me. Please charge me. Why is it that I should expect to pay for news delivered on paper, but not expect to pay for the same story I read online? It costs something to hire reporters and editors and why shouldn't I, as a consumer of the news, pay for some of that cost?
Contrariwise, Russell believes that "information should be free". He recognizes that reporting the news is a costly venture but feels that average readers should not have to help shoulder the burden. Instead, he prefers that news organizations take a particular non-profit route.
One model is currently being floated by Maryland Senator Bejamin [sic] Cardin. Under his Newspaper Revitalization Act, newspapers could reorganize as nonprofits and be considered under a status typically reserved for educational entities. Advertising and circulation revenue would be tax exempt under his proposal and, while the paper could still cover politics, they would be barred from making political endorsements (worth noting even though I'm pretty sure the opinion is wrong, The Daily Finance argues that the status would actually bar newspapers from covering politics. The reason I think The Daily Finance is wrong is because The New Haven Independent is a non-profit news site and they haven't had any problems covering politics since they launched in 2005).
So what about The New Haven Independent and other non-profit news sites? Do we have an example of one that doesn't ask anything of its readers?
Now, I personally don't have a list of all the non-profit news organizations and they come in various shapes & sizes but I did find some info on a couple that is instructive. Let's start with The New Haven Independent and a piece written by its founder, Paul Bass. He writes a lot about leaving corporate media but he notes how he went about funding his venture:
I pursued a similar model: a not-for-profit built on three revenue streams, as with “All Things Considered.” One: grants from foundations to support specific kinds of reporting. Two: general sponsorships from charitable groups. Three: Voluntary donations from readers who give permission for us to deduct $10 or $18 monthly from their credit cards.
Similarly, Joel Kramer, the founder of another non-profit news agency, MinnPost, also talks about the pecuniary role of readers in a piece he wrote for Nieman Journalism Lab.
Like almost all news on the web, MinnPost content is free to all, but we do ask our readers to become members, which entails making an annual donation. This is a variation on the model that public radio and public television use, but minus the intrusive pledge weeks.
MinnPost has had early support from major donors and foundations, and we believe that serious journalism is a community asset, not just a consumer good, which is why we’re nonprofit. But we are focused on breaking even by 2011, or at the latest 2012, without relying on foundation support to keep the lights on.
Why? Because (a) we think it’s possible to reach break-even; and (b) we think it’s desirable, since foundations already have so many causes to support, and it’s questionable whether they have the capacity to support journalism on the expansive scale that may be needed to replace what’s being lost, especially regionally, in the for-profit industry.
Kramer differentiates his non-profit organization from another, ProRepublica:
This is different from a pure philanthropic endeavor, like ProPublica, which (at least in its current plan) depends for its success on the continuing generosity of foundations or very large individual donors.
Neither Bass nor Kramer do what Mayor Dave suggested Madison's papers do – charge readers to get at content. However, they refrain from assuming that readers have some utopian right to free news and actively court readers' money. There's no such thing as a free lunch is more than just a pithy aphorism – someone has to pay for the gathering & reporting of news. Non-profit status means not trying to make money for owners or stockholders; it does not mean giving away something for free.
Kramer gives us this thought:
With each new announcement of a paper closing, or a news company contemplating bankruptcy, or a dozen more journalism jobs being eliminated, my belief intensifies that the nonprofit approach has the best chance of sustaining serious regional journalism.
Donor's gave MinnPost $1.2 million at startup. That money has to come from somewhere and it seems both unreasonable and unfair for readers of news to just step aside and assume that others will do the dirty work. Foundations and charities only have so much money with a multitude of deserving causes around so it is unreasonable to assume that they'll be able to cover the costs for regional news sources around the country. Surely there will be individual donors like the members of MinnPost and it is unfair to let them pay while those who do not receive those same benefits.
Joel Kramer said above that serious journalism is a community asset. And isn't a free press how we voters get informed, i.e. – a vital part of self-governance? It's worth noting that both MinnPost and The New Haven Independent not only ask for readers to give money, but they probably couldn't do what they do without it.
So why all the hesitation at actually having to pay a little bit to get your news?
Just as I posted my plea for convenience when it comes to passenger rail in Madison, I hear that President Obama announced his plan for high-speed rail in America. The Capital Times is loudly proclaiming that Madison is part of the president's vision as spoke in the Chicago Hub Network, 1 of 10 rail corridors that his plan aims to fund with an initial disbursement of $8 billion with another $5 billion over the next five years. The Chicago Hub Network will use its namesake as a point of departure for trains going to Milwaukee, the Twin Cities, St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Louisville. Presumably Madison would be on the route between Milwaukee and the Twin Cities.
The thing is, if you look at the administration's map (PDF), Madison is not on it. To wit:
Presumably this map just shows primary routes and not all of them. Regardless, what I see is the current route of the Empire Builder getting some track upgrades to accommodate trains traveling at higher speeds than they do today rather than Madison's inclusion in the Chicago Hub Network. However, I would imagine that formulators of any project can submit an application for funding whether or not it's one of the Fed's favored corridors.
Madison's prospects of once again being served by intercity passenger rail are the best they've been in decades. Gov. Doyle is looking to bring new service to Wisconsin and upgrade existing routes by using as much federal money as possible. If Madison does get an Amtrak stop, it would likely be out at the airport instead of downtown.
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently ran an article which described this news as disappointing to some commuters.
On the drive from Waukesha to Madison, Roger Danielsen has often wondered why he couldn't take a train instead.
But now that the state is pushing for $519 million in federal money to build a 110-mph passenger rail line between Milwaukee and Madison, Danielsen says the planned train still wouldn't lure him out of his car.
The reason: Madison's new train station would be built at Dane County Regional Airport, on the city's east side, not downtown near Capitol Square or the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. And Danielsen, a Waukesha graphic artist who travels regularly to Madison on business, is one of a number of state residents complaining about that decision.
'If traveling to Madison, what possible reason would I want to be dropped off at the Dane County Regional Airport, miles from downtown?' Danielsen wrote in a recent e-mail to state and federal officials. 'If snail transportation to get from the airport / I have to take local bus to where I wanted to be in the first place downtown, you just put me back in my car again, time-wise and convenience-wise.'
Why would the stop be at the airport instead of someplace downtown? "Currently, the state Department of Transportation has expressed 'a strong preference' for putting a high-speed rail stop between Minneapolis and Milwaukee at the Dane County Regional Airport" as
"To reach downtown Madison, trains would have to slow down on their way through numerous crossings, then back up all the way to the airport to leave town, Wade said. That also would boost the cost of the route, he said. Wade did not have figures on how much time or money a downtown spur would add."
While each side has a valid point, it would be wise to look at a recent survey by HNTB which reveals:
"The survey showed Americans would be most excited by the possibility of more convenient travel (71 percent), less expensive fares (69 percent) and faster trains (55 percent) with the introduction of high-speed rail in their region."
Now, if you put the Amtrak stop downtown, passengers on the train whose destination is not Madison will see an increase in travel time due to the maneuvers the train has to pull in order to get back out of town. Commuters from the Milwaukee area, such as Mr. Danielsen above, will see convenience go down as they're left out at the airport when they want to be downtown. When I worked at the state off the Square, I knew of a few Milwaukee residents who took Badger Bus to get to work in downtown Madison. Even more used the services of the state carpool van. What is the lure for these people to use the train if it's going to drop them off miles from their destination?
The survey also found that
more than half of Americans (54 percent) would choose modern high-speed trains over automobile (33 percent) and air travel (13 percent) if fares and travel time were about the same.
Both the van and the bus get these people right downtown where they work and they do so in a manner that is probably going to be cheaper than the train. It's $44 round trip from Milwaukee to Chicago currently on the Hiawatha so I would look for a similar fair on the Milwaukee-Madison route. I can buy a round trip ticket for a Badger Bus ride online for $35.00.
While buses and ride share programs win on price and convenience, trains would theoretically be faster – by about 20 minutes or so. But that time is eaten away by having to commute from the airport which would also incur an additional expense.
The transportation planners who are devising passenger service for Madison should carefully consider the results of the HNTB survey with convenience being a big factor for potential riders of the rail. I suspect convenience would be maximized if the Amtrak station were positioned downtown as most commuters would likely have a destination there or on campus. Plus people looking to visit Madison for leisure purposes or attend a convention would also probably be aiming for downtown. Mayor Dave is right when he observes that it's a relatively short distance from Dane County Regional Airport to downtown Madison. (By contrast, it's about 3 times the distance from O'Hare to downtown Chicago. And traffic is much worse.) Still, 5-6 miles is 5-6 miles when competing against a stop at Monona Terrace.
However, if Madison is going to take one for the team, then Metro Transit is going to have to step up to the plate. Currently, only route 20 serves the airport and that will take people to the north transfer point before they can go anywhere else. Either Metro starts a shuttle service of some kind or a private company will have to because route 20 is not particularly convenient and taking a cab is quite an expense. Current options dramatically lessen the appeal of the train for commuters.
Budget Travel Magazine has named Mineral Point of one of the top ten Coolest Small Towns. (You can check out my adventures in Mineral Point here.) CBS's Early Show will announce the winners, including what place MP finished in, tomorrow during the 8 A.M. hour.
If you're part of the vast majority of humankind that has never heard of lutefisk then know that it is whitefish (usually cod) that has been dried and reconstituted via a process that includes soaking it in lye. It's a Nordic dish though it's most commonly associated with Norwegians.
Fishin' For Tradition opines that the origins of lutefisk lie in the Lofoten Islands of Norway. A fishing community, the catch was dried outside and treated with lye in preparation for export. Today in America, the Olsen Fish Company in Minneapolis is the largest supplier of lutefisk with the Midwestern states getting the vast majority of it. In the Madison area, Soderholm Foods distributes lutefisk to Sons of Norway lodges, churches, and other groups that serve the fish.
The movie takes the viewer to various locales where lutefisk is served and shows how it fits into the preservation of Norwegian traditions. At the Sons of Norway lodge here in Madison, members of the Edvard Grieg Chorus cook lutefisk while singing. Over in DeForest, people hunker down for a lutefisk dinner at a Lutheran church. Many of the diners are older folks who continue the traditions of their families by gathering with friends & family and eating lutefisk in the late autumn.
Commentary is provided by UW-Madison folklorist Jim Leary and Patty Hager, a lecturer at the UW who teaches Norwegian. They echo the sentiments of the diners and note that lutefisk is associated with Christmas and childhood and is also a symbol of ethnic heritage. Indeed, during the Q&A after the screening, Eric Nelson revealed that he grew up in a Norwegian household and ate it. Now, with his family aging, he decided to make a movie that was a testament to them and their traditions.
Of course, not everyone is as enamored of lutefisk as was the woman who said that, with some lutefisk and rutabaga, you've hit a home run. The dish is the butt of many jokes and the movie played a verse of "Oh Lutefisk" which was sung to the tune of "'O Tannunbaum":
Lutefisk... Oh Lutefisk... how fragrant your aroma Oh Lutefisk... Oh Lutefisk... You put me, in a coma You smell so strong... You look like glue You taste yust like an overshoe Put Lutefisk ... come Saturday I tink I'll eat you anyway.
Fishin' For Tradition also took us to Madison, Minnesota, the self-proclaimed Lutefisk Capital USA, for their annual lutefisk eating competition, where Jerry Osteraas defended his title. He remained champion after defeating several opponents, including a trio of brothers who looked absolutely disgusted after trying lutefisk for the first time.
Look for a DVD release soon so, if you missed it at the festival, you too can enjoy this fun Nordic culinary saga.
My Friday night shorts series continued with Ladies of the Land. Like Rare Chicken Rescue, the movie clocked in at around 30 minutes and, this time, four women involved in farming are profiled. Ladies of the Land alternates between showing the women plying their trades and discussing what attracts them to agricultural work alongside commentary from a couple academics who study and support women farmers.
Early on in the movie, we are treated to some nice shots of the countryside and learn that, even 20 years ago, women were not generally recognized as farmers. However, more women are going into farming today. Suzy Chavie, for instance, decided that she'd had enough of the corporate world and also wanted to raise her child in the country. And so she moved out of the city and started an organic farm. This kind of story rings true with two of the other women featured. The odd woman out, Kim Tait, was already farming with her husband when he suffered an untimely demise. But she opted to keep the farm going and did so with the help of Rebecca Claypool who help to introduce the movie to the audience.
Most of the women did not come from a farming background yet found something about the life appealing. Lyn Garling just had an inexplicable attraction to raising cattle and so she started the Over the Moon Farm. Elly Hushour heard about the salutary effects of goat's milk and decided to start raising goats. Throughout the movie the women describe the almost ineffable pleasures of raising animals and tending the land.
The experts, on the other hand, offer some different theories. One noted that women are less willing to go into conventional farming as it is very capital intensive. Instead, women tend to run smaller farms which give back to the community and act as de facto community centers. In addition, we are told that women like meeting their customers and value their relationships with the land and their neighbors.
The implication here is that men like none of these things and prefer conventional farming because, well, it's more "manly", apparently. Had a male professor or a male farmer tried to draw such distinctions between women and men who farm, I can't help but think that such touch feely theories would have been rejected.
There were no real disappointment but I did come away with a wish list. It's too bad that it didn't discuss more just who the women are that are going into farming. I'd like to know whether a significant number of the women are like Ms. Chavie who abandoned city life for something more bucolic or whether they are more like Ms. Tait who had a farming background and became the primary operator. Are young women taking over family farms?
I also wish that the movie actually showed more farming. I once asked a co-worker who fought in the Vietnam War if any Hollywood movie gets close to his experiences. He said that some did but the one thing that they can never get is the smell – the smell of the jungle. I suppose that trying to make a movie about farming is similar in that you can never really get across everything. But while shots of Ms. Chavie in her kitchen preparing to put up vegetables while her son frolics in the yard are nice, they do very little to actually convey the incredibly hard work of farming.
Despite a Lifetime Network vibe, Ladies of the Land is an interesting and concise look at an emerging trend in our society.
When Dan Carey down at New Glarus brewed up his Berliner Weiss, this appeared on the label:
Napoleon hailed this tart beer style “the Champagne of the North”. A lively and elegant masterpiece this Berliner Weiss is a kaleidoscope of fresh flavor. Barrel fermentation, Pinot Grigio, Riesling grapes and Wisconsin White Wheat are bottle fermented with five proprietary yeast strains. A connoisseur’s rare jewel both spirited and subtle, Enjoy your sparking toast under summer stars.
What Carey didn't mention is that one usually drinks a Berliner Weiss mit Schuss or with a shot of syrup. The beer is quite sour and the syrup sweetens it a bit and adds another flavor, generally raspberry (Himbeersirup) or woodruff (Waldmeistersirup). Well, I got my hands on some Waldmeistersirup recently and had me a Berliner Weiss mit Schuss.
In my haste for a beer after work, I used a pint glass instead of the customary goblet. Never having used syrup before, I was unsure how much to put in and my beer ended up with a couple tablespoons of it.
I suspect that, if I'd have been served one in Germany, I'd have been given a glass with more syrup. As it was, the beer had a slight green tint and a hint of the earthy woodruff flavor. Despite not having used enough Waldmeistersirup, it was rather tasty. I like sour beer and that flavor was still present with the syrup providing undertones.
Tonight I'll drink another but use a goblet and more syrup.
Rare Chicken Rescue was the first of three shorts at the Monona Terrace on the Friday night of the Wisconsin Film Festival. It was ostensibly part of the "Farming and the Land on Film" series but was really a portrait of Mark Tully, who happens to breed rare chickens.
Tully, you see, suffers from depression and at some point in the past that the movie never identifies, his life reached its nadir. But the birds saved his life and now he dedicates it to seeking out rare breeds of chicken and raising them on his farm. Tully says that 69% of all breeds are on the verge of extinction and, with this in mind, he goes on a journey across his native Australia seeking the elusive Azeel and Sumatran.
Rare varieties, we are told, grow more slowly and produce smaller eggs so they're essentially useless for commercial needs. Hence it is people like Tully and those he meets on his trek that keep rare poultry lines going. We meet Judy Hunt who also raises rare birds but she has no Azeels nor Sumatrans. Tully also takes us to a chicken show where breeders put their finest specimens on display and judges critique the animals on their shape, plumage, etc.
Although our hero returns home empty-handed, audience members were well-rewarded with one of the best viewing experiences of the whole festival. Clocking in at a mere 26 minutes, it's easy to write Rare Chicken Rescue off as an alternately touching and funny profile of a fairly eccentric person. But this would be to miss what a masterwork the movie really is. While it certainly is touching and funny, the movie blends many elements together seamlessly & judiciously, and not a frame was wasted.
I appreciated how Tully's depression was treated. His condition is not mentioned right away nor was not dwelt upon. Instead we get it in bursts. Tully will say that chickens have an almost unconditional love but the audience then is transported back to him driving his truck for a while before the topic of his depression is broached once again. With the emphasis not on his illness, the shot at the end of the movie with Tully holding an egg in his hand as a chick emerges seemed more poignant than it might have been had his depression taken center stage the whole time.
The makers of Rare Chicken Rescue also deserve kudos for their Errol Morris-lite approach which worked well. It was like a less arty Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. The interviewees generally looked directly at the camera, there was a reenactment (when the young Tully is given the box of chicks), and the slow motion shot of the albumen and yolk of a freshly cracked egg fall into a frying pan – all would have been right at home in one of Morris' films. But these techniques were not overused nor were any others such as the wide angle lens on the camera as it worked its way through a brood of chickens.
Plus there were little touches which I appreciated such as how the camera did not follow subjects. They went offscreen but also came back into view. Another element I enjoyed was some of the contemplative idylls interspersed throughout. There were shots of Tully just staring off into the distance as he drove, for example. Rare Chicken Rescue was impeccably paced and a real breath of fresh air after having watched Handmade Nation in which someone had to be talking all the time and its occasional lapses into Blair Witch Project camerawork made me dizzy.
Rare Chicken Rescue was, put simply, brilliant. I was entertained, witnessed a touching portrait of a man afflicted with depression, and learned about chickens to boot. It utilized a variety of techniques including animation, reenactments, and interviews and none them overstayed their welcome. Perhaps the best 26 minutes of my entire festival.
Dark! All-encompassing, eternal darkness! Human eyes cannot penetrate the stygian blackness of this unholy confection!
And then there's this one from The Onion last month.
Lovecraftian School Board Member Wants Madness Added To Curriculum
ARKHAM, MA—Arguing that students should return to the fundamentals taught in the Pnakotic Manuscripts and the Necronomicon in order to develop the skills they need to be driven to the very edge of sanity, Arkham school board member Charles West continued to advance his pro-madness agenda at the district's monthly meeting Tuesday.
The Cap Times had a piece yesterday about Shirley Abrahamson's re-election to Wisconsin's Supreme Court that contained an interesting quote from former mayor Soglin:
"We see that when WMC doesn't get in, with all the outside money and negative ads, when we have a race where the qualifications of the candidates and the issues are considered, the progressives win easily in Wisconsin," said Soglin.
What a sorry commentary on our electorate.
A corollary of what Soglin said is that, when the WMC and outside interests purchase negative ads, Wisconsin voters are rendered stupefied. They sit in front of their televisions like zombies: "Candidate X soft on crime...must vote candidate Y..."
Just because the WMC and its ilk pay for negative ads doesn't mean that resources where voters can discover the qualifications of the candidates and learn about the issues miraculously disappear in a poof of emotional appeal. The League of Women Voters still ask questions of those seeking office and publish those answers for all to see; the candidates have webpages; and, theoretically, newspapers and other news outlets have information on the issues. Yet all the WMC, etc. have to do is run enough TV commercials which traduce the candidate they don't like by using words like "liberal" & "judicial activist" to seemingly get tens of thousands of people to abandon the progressive values that they would otherwise express with their vote.
This year's Wisconsin Film Festival started for me on Friday with the first of the two screenings of Handmade Nation directed by Faythe Levine who has adopted Milwaukee as her home. I discovered that a co-worker was also in attendance across the aisle. She was clutching a pair of knitting needles and was busily stitching away as she waited for her daughter to enter the theatre. This gave rise to the suspicion that I was the only person in the audience who was not a crafter.
The movie is a look at the so-called DIY craft movement which is a subset of the crafting community at large. According to the movie's website, the movement recognizes "a marriage between historical techniques, punk and DIY (do it yourself) ethos while being influenced by traditional handiwork, modern aesthetics, politics, feminism, and art." As a crafty resident of Milwaukee, Levine started the Art vs. Craft fair there and currently owns Paper Boat Boutique & Gallery. The Handmade Nation book, co-written with Cortney Heimerl, was released last fall. I'd read the book and was keen to discover what the movie would bring to the table.
After a clever stop-motion introduction, we were introduced to Iliana Rodriguez as she loads a car in preparation for setting up shop at the Renegade Craft Fair in Chicago. She comments that the DIY craft scene involves many people who grew up being creative and are trying to incorporate creativity into their adult lives. All too soon, Ms. Rodriguez is gone (although she reappears later) and we are introduced to several other crafters in quick succession who each throw in a sentence or two which illustrate the description above. One woman remarked that her crafting was a stance against our hyper-consumer culture while another described it as "Something women can do on their own terms."
The movie finally settled down after a few minutes and began to devote more than a few seconds to its subjects. Jenny Hart of Sublime Stitching was the first interviewee to get more than a couple sentences in. Hart, who commits act of embroidery, admitted that she was initially worried about the reaction to her work from purists. Luckily the purists, who were apparently much older, reacted positively and were quite happy that there was a younger generation taking an interest in the craft.
As Handmade Nation continues, we are introduced to more and more crafters around the country such as the Buchanans of Milwaukee who do screen printing (I believe they are both UW-Madison grads and say in the movie that the U is a great place to learn the craft) and Deb Dormundy of Rhode Island who makes books. Along the way there are a lot of stories that echo one another – dissatisfaction with an office job and our consumer/big box culture of commerce are gripes that are repeated throughout the movie. Many of the crafters attended art school as well. Crafting is also a means of self-expression for these folks. They can take traditional methods and stitch them together with pop culture to create something more personal and meaningful.
Don't be fooled, though. There were many light-hearted moments sprinkled in amongst the more serious philosophical rhapsodies. For instance there was Nikki McClure's comment about her very popular calendars in which she described them as her spores. Plus the aforementioned Deb Dormundy created a music video, some of which we get to watch.
Despite an interesting subject, Handmade Nation bogs down rather quickly. While I enjoyed watching the crafters ply their trade and learning how they got to where they are now, hearing them all inveigh against consumer culture grew dull very quickly. This was a feature of the book as well but it at least had essays and contiguous pages of color photos to draw one's attention away from the rebellious repetition.
The biggest disappointment, however, concerns those essays. In the book, profiles of individual crafters were grouped together by geographical location and between the sections devoted to a particular area of the country were essays that fleshed out the movement as a whole. Unfortunately, the subjects they tackled are almost absent in the film. That the DIY craft movement arose, at least in part, from the Riot Grrrl scene of the mid-1990s is discussed in the book but never broached in the movie. Another essay discussed the vital role the Internet played in the growth of DIY crafting. This was touched upon in the movie here and there such as when one subject said the Net was a great help but that she hoped it didn't close brick & mortar shops. But the dots were never connected and this is the main problem. We witness many people who discuss what they do and why but there's precious little which demonstrates how the subjects are bound together as a movement instead of crafters working in isolation. The craft fairs are portrayed as alternatives to big box stores but do they also bind the crafters together? The movie profiles individuals instead of documenting a movement.
Handmade Nation felt like a supplemental DVD to the book which came in a sleeve taped to the inside of the back cover. It would allow the reader to see and hear the subjects in action as opposed to only reading their words. Unfortunately, the movie didn't expand upon much from the book and, indeed, avoided many elements that made it an interesting read for me.
Finally! BBC One has begun airing trailers for series two of Ashes to Ashes.
In you are in the dark here then know that AtA is the sequel to Life On Mars. The American remake of Life On Mars went off the air last week, if I'm not mistaken, after one season. I watched the original pilot and the one that aired. The former was just a piece of shit while the latter was OK. It simply copied an episode of the the superior BBC show. The American version featured Harvey Keitel as an iteration of Gene Hunt that just couldn't hold a candle to the original.
A few weeks ago, my friend Dogger and I did some sowing. We got our flower seeds put into some handy Jiffy hoolies to get them going. And now my impatiens and begonias have sprouted.
Two weekends ago we planted our tomatoes and chilis. I went with Amish paste toms, jalapenos, and cayennes.
Come August, I should be canning tomatoes like there's no tomorrow. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with all the peppers, though. Dry some cayennes, I suppose, and make hot sauce with some of the rest. I'll surely be giving a bunch away too. As for the jalapenos, some will be eaten fresh and I see lots of jalapeno jelly in my future.
My buddy, Old Man Standiford, recently got a puppy which he named Maddy. Here she is:
Maddy's your typical pup - all excited and likes to play. She had a field day with my jacket sleeve. She can't fetch yet but will be able to soon as training is on the horizon. Her master likes to hunt and is tired of fetching the prey himself.