News posts from makennagoodman's Archive

Celebrate the Wort Moon: Make Your Own Root Beer!

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

Much of what we know about the moon consists of when it’s waning, when it’s waxing, and that a full moon makes people do strange things. And while it’s common knowledge (and not just on cheesy astrology websites) we have a connection to the moon, it’s hard to know exactly what it is, without sounding a bit like your crazy aunt who wears flowing glittery jumpsuits and calls herself by a Sanskrit nickname. But the moon is a dynamic and energetic force — especially when it comes to food.

Jessica Prentice, longtime chef and passionate food activist–not to mention the inventor of the word “locavore”–talks about the thirteen lunar cycles of an agrarian year, from the midwinter Hunger Moon and the springtime sweetness of the Sap Moon to the bounty of the Moon When Salmon Return to Earth in autumn. And now that it’s late summer, it means we’re living under the Wort Moon. The moon of making your own root beer.

The following is an excerpt from Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection by Jessica Prentice:

If they would eat nettles in March,
and drink mugwort in May,
so many fine maidens would not go to the clay.
—Funeral song of a Scottish mermaid

In late summer we enter the lunar phase known in sixteenth century England as the Wort Moon. Wort is a wonderfully old fashioned Old English word that has fallen into disuse, one that the dictionary calls “archaic.” Yet it is a word that beckons to me from history, a word that wants to be remembered.

The first definition for wort in the Oxford English Dictionary is “a plant, herb, or vegetable used for food or medicine; often = a potherb.” As early as 1605 the word wort was being replaced by the word herb, as is shown in a quote from that year: “Woortes, for which wee now vse the French name of herbes….” The word was still understood and used occasionally throughout the next centuries. In 1864: “We find the healing power of worts spoken of as a thing of course.” A love poem written in 1888 includes the delectable tidbit: “And worts and pansies there which grew / Have secrets others wish they knew.”

The original meaning of wort survives to this day in the names of many of our medicinal herbs. Saint-John’s-wort, still widely used today, is a beautiful yellow plant that was traditionally harvested on Saint John’s Day—which falls near the summer solstice. Many other medicinal herbs incorporate the word wort in their names, including lungwort, mugwort, motherwort, gipsywort, soapwort, masterwort, Indian birthwort, figwort, rupturewort, bairnwort, banewort, bloodwort, bridewort, cankerwort, clown’s woundwort, coughwort, feverwort, fleawort, glasswort, and dozens of others. In some cases the name gives a clue to how the herb is used: Lungwort makes a mucilaginous tea that soothes coughs; soapwort root is loaded with saponins, and is used in treating skin problems. But in others it can be misleading: Fleawort is so named not because it wards off fleas or cures fleabites, but because the seeds look like fleas!

The names of herbs possess much poetry. I also hear in their names a kind of ancestral memory— an ancient wisdom that wants to be remembered. The plants seem to be calling to me through their names. They remind me that once upon a time they were honored and valued; they were the primary source of healing. The herbs themselves and the gardens they grew in were our medicine chests, instead of today’s brand-named plastic bottles filled with pharmaceutical pills. Herbs were a part of daily life—a familiar, everyday, working knowledge— just as aspirin and vitamin C are to us today. The World Health Organization recently estimated that 80 percent of the world’s population still relies on botanical medicine for a majority of health problems. I find that statistic a potent reminder of how important plants are in treating illness.

I must admit that I have had my skeptical moments about the healing power of herbs. I have been dubious that the leaves of a certain plant could really cure a cough, or that the flowers of another could treat depression, or that the root of still one more could clear up the skin. Plants seem like such mild, simple, common things to have such powers. But everyone who was at my thirtieth birthday party and anyone else who has ever smoked marijuana knows that a plant can have a very powerful effect. So does anyone who’s ever gotten poison oak or poison ivy. And of course we all know that certain plants can be fatal if eaten. So whenever I find myself doubting the power of plants, I remember that if plants can make us hallucinate, or make us itch like crazy, or kill us, it is only logical that they can heal us as well.

* * * * * * * * * *

Root Beer
Makes 2 quarts

This is one of the few traditional lacto-fermented beverages modern people are familiar with—though the modern version is little like the traditional. For one thing, it is now illegal to sell root beer made from sassafras. Even though sassafras was a traditional herb long used by the peoples indigenous to southeastern North America, science experiments injecting large amounts of safrole—a compound in sassafras—into lab rats gave the animals cancer. But any compound, taken out of its plant matrix and injected in high quantities, can be toxic. Some people smell a rat: soft drink companies wanting to eliminate competition from home brewers? I make my root beer from sassafras—traditionally used as a blood cleanser—and don’t fret about the trace amounts of safrole it contains.

2 tablespoons dried sassafras (the bark of the root), available at herb stores or online
1 tablespoon dried licorice root, available at herb stores or online
2 quarts filtered water
1/3 cup birch syrup
1/3 cup Sucanat or Rapadura
1 cup ginger bug, 1/2 cup kefir grains, or 1 cup yogurt whey

Put the sassafras and licorice in a large pot and pour 1 quart of the filtered water over it.

Bring to a simmer and cover for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave covered for about half an hour.

Pour the birch syrup and Sucanat or Rapadura into a 2-quart mason jar, and strain the still-hot herbal mixture over the birch syrup. Stir or whisk to dissolve.

Add the remaining 1 quart of filtered water. Stir to combine.

Touch the liquid with your finger or use a milk thermometer to gauge the temperature. Before you add the ginger bug, kefir grains, or whey, the liquid needs to cool to about 100º F. This was the temperature the alewife would call blood warm. It should feel just warm to the touch but not hot.

Add the ginger bug, kefir grains, or whey, screw on the lid, and leave for 2 to 4 days in a warm place.

Strain equal amounts into two glass bottles with screw tops. I use the bottles from Gerolsteiner mineral water. If they are 1-quart bottles, they should be full; if they are 1-liter bottles, add enough water to fill. Screw the lids on tightly, label and date the bottles, and return to the warm place for another 2 to 3 days.

Transfer to the fridge. Once they are cold you can enjoy them anytime! When you are ready to drink the root beer, open the bottles carefully because they may have built up a lot of carbonation. Open them outside or over a sink. Turn the lid very slowly to see if the drink begins to release foam. If so, then allow it to release some of the carbon dioxide by not opening the bottle all the way and letting out some of the pressure, then opening it more and more, bit by bit. This way you won’t lose your drink to its carbonation.

All About the Noble Yam

Monday, December 7th, 2009

Mmmmm.  Do you know everything there is to know about the noble yam, besides that it’s delicious? Check this out from Dianne Onstad‘s Whole Foods Companion: A Guide For Adventurous Cooks, Curious Shoppers, and Lovers of Natural Foods. It’s a great gift book for the holidays, too, for all your food-lovin’ friends and family.

(Dioscorea rotundata, D. cayenensis, D. composita)

The genus name Dioscorea was given in honor of Dioscorides, a Greek physician and naturalist of the first or second century A.D. The term rotundata means “rotund” or “portly”; cayenensis means “coming from Cayenne,” the island that is the capital of French Guiana; composita means “composite.” The English name yam is of African origin, coming from the Guinean verb nyami, meaning “to eat.”

General Information
Yams are large, tuberous roots largely confined to the tropics of West Africa and Asia, although they are found in a few
other tropical regions. In the United States, yams can be grown only in the Deep South. Not to be confused with the American “yam,” which is just another name for a moist-fleshed variety of sweet potato, true yams may grow to a remarkable size, up to six feet long and more than six hundred pounds. Instead of growing underground like potatoes,
yams grow on plants and hang from plant stems. Their weight causes the stems to bend to the soil, and the yams become partially embedded like an exposed underground tuber. Every country and district that grows yams has its own particular favorite that it cultivates, harvests, and cooks. In some Pacific Islands yams are venerated as nature’s pantry, for they can be left in the ground to grow to an enormous size. Their flesh may be white, yellow, red, or even purple. Of the more than six hundred species, those most commonly encountered are brown, black-brown, or rusty tan, and all are shaggy-coated. Common types are elephant’s foot or suram, taro or dasheen, and the cocoyam, all of which look similar to enormous potatoes. The boniato looks like a sweet potato with its ruddy pink skin but has white flesh; a bit tubbier than the American sweet potato, it has flesh that is drier—more like that of a regular white potato.

In 1936 Japanese chemists formulated by partial synthesis steroidal sapogenins, primarily diosgenin, from the glycoside saponins richly found in the barbasco, a wild yam native to Mexico. By 1940 diosgenin was able to be converted into progesterone, an intermediary in cortisone production. While progesterone can be derived from diosgenin, this can only be done by a chemist in the laboratory; humans cannot produce progesterone in their bodies from yams or their extracts. In 1956 Dr. Gregory Pincus announced that he had formulated a drug that would stop ovulation and hence prevent conception. Up to that time, steroids that prevented conception had to be taken by injection, whereas it now became possible to use oral administration. Although most birth-control pills are wholly synthetic today, dioscorea still figures in their origin. Other steroid drugs derived from diosgenin include anti-inflammatory compounds such as topical hormones and systemic corticosteroids, androgens, estrogens, progestogens, and other sex-hormone combinations.

Buying Tips
Choose yams that are regularly shaped and very hard, with no cracks or soft or shrunken spots. Although they are available in many sizes, those with the best flavor weigh less than two or three pounds. Sometimes the yams will be cut open to show how moist and creamy the interior is; if not, scrape one with your fingernail to see if it is juicy. Store as you would potatoes—never in the refrigerator but rather in the potato bin or any cool, dry, dark place. Yams are most often available in Latino and Asian markets. Frequently you can buy them by the piece, according to the weight you need.

Culinary Uses
Yams have a flavor and texture much like a mealy potato—loose, coarse, dry, and rather bland. The raw flesh is crisp,
slippery, and mucilaginous. As versatile as the potato, yams can be boiled, roasted, mashed, fried, or made into casseroles; they are a perfect foil for strong, spicy vegetable mixtures. They absorb other flavors well but are enhanced by a sprinkling of sweet spice such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ground cloves, or allspice. Unlike potatoes, the skin is not
edible so should be removed. Wash under running water and then peel thickly to remove both the skin and the layer beneath. All yams contain dioscorine, which is poisonous (although cooking completely destroys it); this lies near the
peel. Cut the yam into whatever size pieces you want. If not cooking at once, keep in salted water, because yam discolors
easily. Added to soups or stews, yam’s delicate nutty flavor will sweeten the pot. Frequently it is used in place of sweet
potatoes in stews, chilies, and soups. On the islands where the boniato is a common food, people are fond of turning
it into chips, much as we do with the common potato.

Lore and Legend: It may well be that yams are worshiped because they can become awesomely huge. In the Pacific
Island of Ponape, the size of yams is described as two-man, four-man, or six-man, designating the number of men needed to lift the tuber. Tubers up to six feet long and weighing six hundred pounds have been recorded. The Trobriand Islanders build intricately decorated wooden “yam houses” where the splendid tubers are ensconced to be viewed by neighbors. In Cuba, yams are considered festival food, to be saved for special occasions.

Health Benefits
pH 5.79–6.81 (cooked). Antiarthritic, antispasmodic, diuretic, emmenagogue. The yam is hailed as a medicinal tonic for many uses, working as an agent to prevent miscarriages and to treat asthma. It also contains simple peptide substances called phytochelatins that can bind heavy metals like cadmium, copper, mercury, and lead and thus help detoxify the body. Those species of yam containing diosgenin are medicinally efficacious for fatigue, inflammation, spasms, stress, colitis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, PMS, and menopausal complaints. The yam’s plant estrogen (phytoestrogen) seems to act as a key to unlock and potentiate existing estrogen in the body, thus eliminating or easing many of the symptoms of low estrogen.

Two Alaskas: Which One Are You Reading About?

Friday, November 27th, 2009

Want to know more about what’s really happening politically in Alaska? Don’t go to Sarah Palin. Go to Riki Ott.

(photo from LA

From LA Progressive:

By design, Sarah Palin has been all over the national media in the last couple of weeks, since the publication of her book,  Going Rogue: An American Life (New York: HaperCollins, 2009). Since her nomination as John McCain’s running mate, Palin has had a major impact on the public consciousness. In the process, she has given many people from the Lower 48 their first serious look at our 49th state, and their first chance to watch a talented Alaskan woman in political action.

Another Alaskan woman, a contemporary of Palin, provides a fascinating counterpoint to the story Palin tells. Riki Ott, perhaps a decade older than Palin, came to Alaska as a young adult in the mid-1980s, while Palin was just a toddler in 1964 when her parents brought her. Ott. with a doctoral degree in marine toxicogy, settled in the fishing town of Cordova and took up the fishing life. Her book,  Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008), is the story of how that 1989 spill tore her community apart, and how the people of Cordova fought back over 20 years.

While Ott focuses her entire book on the struggle for justice in the Exxon Valdez case, Palin devotes just four pages (59-62) to the entire 20-year saga, though she claims that it crystallized her resolve to enter public service. Ott tells of the community’s struggle; Palin tells us about hers. Palin’s political story spans the same years as Ott’s, but you would hardly know that they were talking about the same place.

Both tell of disillusionment. Ott started out accepting Exxon’s assurances that “not one drop” of oil would spill in Prince William Sound, only to learn of gross negligence and determined avoidance of responsibility. She gave up fishing and lost her marriage in order to use her education and leadership skills in service to her community.


Read the entire article here.

Sandorkraut: The Self-Made Fermentation Experimentalist

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Fermentation is the food movement of the future. Just ask Sandor Katz, who’s a leader in the revolution against microwaves, the vegan or carnivore or pescatarian friendly, post-consumer food-reality where health and happiness converge in a crock. Katz says it better than me, so I’ll let him take it away.


The day I first made dilly beans, everything changed. And all because of Sandor Katz.

Sandor Katz is a self-taught fermentation experimentalist. To him (and his devoted following–ahem, which includes me and half the people in the room I’m sitting in), live fermented foods are a critically important staple to sustainable human health…not to mention delicious. Ever had sauerkraut? Pickles? Yogurt? Sourdough? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it. Well, what about Ethiopian honey wine? Root kimchi? Elderberry wine? Persimmon cider mead? Ginger champagne? Kombucha? If you’re dribbling at the mouth, or even a little but intrigued, prepare to enter the world of Sandorkraut.

Sandor Katz’s “fermentation fervor” grew out of his overlapping interests in cooking, nutrition and gardening. (He’s also an herbalist, activist, writer, builder, craftsperson and bicyclist.) He’s written two books: Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods and The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements. A native of New York City, a graduate of Brown University and–as he calls it–”a retired policy wonk”, Sandor Katz moved from New York and now lives at Short Mountain Sanctuary, an intentional community in Tennessee. I talked to Sandor about fermentation fetishism, underground food movements, and the benefits of fermented foods.

And so….at long last…behold the grandeur of a fermentation revivalist, and get your crocks ready!

Makenna Goodman: Can you explain what you mean when you call yourself a “fermentation fetishist”?

Sandor Katz: I am very devoted to fermentation, fermented foods, and the organisms of fermentation. I think that as a group ferments are the most delicious of foods and are nutritionally powerful. My dictionary defines a fetish as an object “supposed to possess magical powers” or “any object of special devotion.” This definitely describes my relationship to the process and the products of fermentation.

MG: Your book, Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, is a staple on the shelves of nearly every single homesteader, farmer, cook, nutritionist, thinker, and healer I know. What is it about fermented foods, in your opinion, that warrants it a food movement in and of itself?

SK: Fermentation is not exactly a food movement in and of itself. If you are a locavore and thinking about strategies for feeding yourself with local foods in the winter, you have to include fermentation. If you are part of a nutritional movement (any of them, really) and thinking about nourishing your body, you have to include fermentation. If you are a food recycler, mining dumpsters and rescuing discarded foods, fermentation is a great way to preserve a sudden abundance of random vegetables. If you are a farmer looking for strategies to add value to the vegetables you grow, fermentation is your best bet. Fermentation is an import realm of food transformation that is undergoing a revival not as a singular movement, but rather as an area of intersection among a number of quite varied food movements.

MG: How did you come to love fermentation?

SK: I’ve always been drawn to the flavors of fermentation and throughout my childhood I sought out sour fermented foods. I didn’t learn how to make sauerkraut until I was in my thirties. My motivation to learn was purely practical, having a garden for the first time and facing the fact that all the cabbages are ready at the same time. After that I started exploring many different ferments. I taught my first kraut-making workshop in 1999 and learned that there is a widespread cultural fear of aging food outside of refrigeration. That began my mission of demystifying fermentation and empowering people with simple tools to reclaim this important process.

MG: In terms of health, what are the benefits of fermented foods?

SK: Fermentation pre-digests foods, breaking down compound nutrients into more elemental forms and making them more available to us. Minerals in particular become dramatically more bio-available. Fermentation also produces unique micronutrients not found in the original ingredients but rather produced by the fermenting organisms. Some examples of these are anti-carcinogenic isothiocyanates in fermented vegetables, or dipicolinic acid in miso, which draws heavy metals out of our cells, binds with them, and removes them from our bodies. Ferments also detoxify certain foods. But the most profound benefit of fermentation is the live-cultures themselves, not present in all fermented foods but only those not subjected to heat after fermentation. The bacteria in these live-culture ferments replenish and diversify bacteria in our digestive tracts. These bacteria enable us to effectively digest food, assimilate nutrients, and create a competitive situation that helps protect us from pathogenic bacteria. Ferments have numerous benefits to our health.

Read the entire interview here.

Passenger Trains: The Future of Transportation?

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Our friends over at PlanetGreen recently interviewed author James McCommons about the future of passenger railroad. They wondered: is it bright?

With the doom and gloom of climate change and the frightening post-peak oil reality, it’s hard to understand why the US is so far behind the times when it comes to trains. Whatever happened to the days of cross-country landscapes zooming by from a sleeper car? Or how about just plain old common sense, sustainable mass transit? It’s crucial to consider the future of transportation in this country. So while we’re shelling out gazillions in gas money (depleting what little reserves we actually have), passenger trains are rusting on their tracks–and what a waste it is.

Planet Green spoke with author James McCommons, whose new book Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service asks–quite rightly–why has the world’s greatest railroad nation turned its back on the form of transportation that made modern life and mobility possible? And, more importantly–what can we do to revive it?

Planet Green: During the crazy year of 2008–when gas prices reached $4 a gallon, Amtrak set ridership records, and a commuter train collided with a freight train in California–you spent a year on America’s trains. Can you talk a bit about what drew you to the system, and what made you want to spend a full year learning more about it?

James McCommons: I’ve been an Amtrak rider since 1975 when I was going to college, so I have long experience with the current system and used it to travel all over the country in the intervening years. Although I’ve had some great train trips, many were marred by late arrivals, missed connections, and traveling on run-down equipment. In 2007, I took a cross country trip on the California Zephyr that was both wonderful and frustrating, illustrating many of the contradictions of rail travel in America. At the end of that trip, I asked myself, “Why hasn’t the rail system gotten any better and is there any hope that it ever will?” I took a sabbatical from my teaching position at Northern Michigan University to research and write the book. As a side benefit, I got to ride a lot of trains and see a lot of country.

PG: What surprised you most about the U.S. train system?

JM: That it isn’t entirely dysfunctional. In regions of the country, such as California and parts of the Midwest, where Amtrak is supported by states and where their departments of transportation have worked out cooperative relationships with the big freight railroads–who own nearly all the tracks–Amtrak actually runs a pretty good service. I was gratified to meet people–including some at Amtrak–who understand passenger railroading quite well and know what needs to be done to move it forward.

DOTs [Departments of Transportation] in Wisconsin, Washington, North Carolina, and Illinois are starting to see rail as a solution to their surface transportation problems. These DOTs understand that they have to be more than just highway departments because we can’t move people and goods efficiently by just building more roads and adding lanes to the interstates. So they are beginning to build rail expertise in their staffs, putting money into infrastructure, working with the freight railroads, and even purchasing trains themselves because the feds and Amtrak can’t supply the rolling stock. Amtrak simply operates these state-supported trains. These states and their corridor services are really models for what can be done across the nation.


Read the entire article here.

Passive Solar Technique: Let Nature Heat Your Home

Monday, November 9th, 2009

Homeowners are increasingly worried about their dependence on fossil fuels. They’re also more and more intrigued by the information about solar energy. Why? Because it saves money, benefits the planet, and makes for a comfortable house that requires little in the name of back-up fuel.

James Kachadorian, civil engineer and founder of Green Mountain Homes, has all the information a homeowner needs in order to implement a passive solar house. Read on!

The following is an excerpt from The Passive Solar House: The Complete Guide to Heating and Cooling Your Home by James Kachadorian. It has been adapted for the web.

During the summer of 1973, the U.S. economy was booming. We were all whizzing down the highway at 70 miles per hour, the legal speed limit. Gasoline was about 39 cents per gallon, and the posted price of Gulf crude oil was $2.59 per barrel. That year, my wife Lea and I had purchased a lovely old Vermont farmhouse, heated by a coal-stoking boiler that had been converted to oil. The base of this monster boiler was about three feet by six feet, and when it fired, it literally shook the house. We tapped our domestic hot water directly off the boiler, so we had to run the unit all four seasons: Every time we needed hot water, the boiler in the basement fired up. We were burning about 2,500 gallons of fuel oil each year, and in the coldest winter months, it was not unusual to get an oil delivery every two weeks.

Since we had no other way to heat our home, we were entirely dependent on the oil-gobbling monster, and on our biweekly oil deliveries to survive the Vermont winter. Our only alternative source of heat was an open fireplace. Though aesthetically pleasing, the fi replace actually took more heat out of the house than it gave off.

At that time, I was the vice president and general manager of a prefabricated post-and-beam home operation. Like others, I shared the industry opinion that the heating contractor’s job was to install the heating system that the homeowner wanted. As designers and home producers, we were not responsible for that part of new home construction. Home building plans were typically insensitive to the position of the sun. Our prefabricated home packages were labeled simply “front, back, right side, left side,” not “south, east, west, north.” We offered little or no advice on siting, except that we needed enough room to get a tractor-trailer to the job site.

To give you an idea how little energy effi ciency was considered in 1973 in house design (an area of home construction that has since received enormous attention), our homes had single glazed windows and patio doors; R-13 wall and R-20 roof insulation were considered more than adequate. (“R” is the thermal resistance of any housing component; a high R-value means a higher insulating value. Today’s homes typically have much higher R-values.) Homeowners in the 1970s rarely asked about the R-values of their home components, and our sales discussions were less about energy efficiency than about how the house would look and whether it would have vaulted ceilings.

The point is, we were not yet approaching the task of design and construction in an integrated, comprehensive way. We had not yet recognized that all aspects of a design must be coordinated, and that every member of the design team, including the future resident, needs to be thinking about how the home will be heated from the first moment they step onto the site.


In 1973, an international crisis forever changed the way Americans thought about home heating costs. After Israel took Jerusalem in the “Six Day War,” Arab oil-producing nations became increasingly frustrated with the United States’ policy toward Israel. In the fall of 1973, these oil-producing nations began to utilize oil pricing and production as a means to influence international policy. In October 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) met and unilaterally raised oil prices 70 percent. The impact of this price hike on U.S. homeowners who heated with oil was spectacular. Fuel oil prices soared.

Then the oil embargo hit. In November 1973, all Arab oil-producing states stopped shipping oil to the United States. By December 1973, the official OPEC member-price was $11.65 per barrel—a whopping 450 percent increase from the $2.59-per-barrel price of the previous summer. Iran reported receiving bids as high as $17.00 per barrel, which translated to $27.00 per barrel in New York City.

In addition to giant price increases, oil supplies became uncertain and the United States, which depended on foreign oil for fully half its consumption, was facing the real possibility of fuel rationing for the first time since World War II.

Richard Nixon was president, and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, spent most of that winter in what was termed “shuttle diplomacy,” racing from country to country attempting to bring a resolution to the crisis. He didn’t succeed until March 18, 1974, when the embargo against the United States was lifted. It had lasted five months.

As the international oil crisis was played out over those five months, every oil delivery to our home was marked by a price increase, invariably without notice. Worse, our supplier could not assure delivery. My wife and I had two small children, an energy dinosaur of a house, and no other way to keep warm but to burn huge amounts of oil. We couldn’t even “escape” to a warmer climate, because there were long lines at the gasoline pumps. We had never felt so dependent on others as we did that winter. It was plain scary!

We have done a little better recently, as today only one-fourth of U.S. oil comes from OPEC. Most imports come from more stable Western sources, and are so diversifi ed that a full-scale war in the Persian Gulf in 1991 caused
no gas lines at home. However, we are still over 50 percent dependent on foreign oil sources.

All the concerns about energy seem to have reached a boiling point in September and October 2005. Back-to-back hurricanes in the Gulf region of the United States crippled our refining and fuel distribution capabilities, and oil and propane gas soared to new record highs.


I have a background in engineering, and the energy crisis of 1973–1974 provided an incentive for me to investigate solar heating. It was obvious to me that as a country, we had forgotten the basics of good energy management. I just knew that there must be a better way to design and build houses that would capture the sun’s heat and work in harmony with nature. I also have a background in business, and I realized that the energy crisis had opened up a market ready for new ideas about how to heat homes. The energy crisis had shaken us all into action.

The years immediately following the 1970s energy crisis saw a remarkable emergence of new ideas about solar energy. Solar conferences were held, and the public was treated to frequent articles that described new solar home designs in popular magazines. The results of this collective effort were largely positive. Many new ideas were tested. Some succeeded, and others failed, but building specifications focused on energy efficiency developed during that time have now become standard practice. For example, double-pane high-performance glass is now used almost universally in windows and patio doors. Standard wall insulation is now R-20. That was previously the roof standard; standard roof insulation is now R-32. The science of vapor barriers took huge leaps forward, and highly effective vapor barriers are now standard. Exterior house wraps, such as Typar and Tyvek, are applied on most new construction to tighten up air leaks. Appliances are now more energy efficient. Heating systems have undergone major improvements. These days, it is even common for “smart houses” to monitor lighting and to turn lamps and heating equipment on and off according to need. In sum, we are now building better energy-efficient houses, in large part due to the wake-up call we got in the winter of 1973–1974.


Is Raw Milk Really Healthier?

Saturday, November 7th, 2009

The following is an excerpt from The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights by David E. Gumpert

Once I entered the world of raw milk, one of the first and most frequent claims I heard was that consumers of the stuff usually didn’t suffer from lactose intolerance. I had never been lactose-intolerant myself, but I had heard enough advertisements for products like Lactaid to know it is a big problem for many people.

Sure enough, one of the major themes that stood out to Ann Arbor lawyer and co-op member Steve Bemis in the two-hundred-plus letters that Michigan consumers sent in to the Cass County prosecutor (described in the previous chapter) was how many of them referred to digestive issues associated with pasteurized milk—difficulties the consumers said were resolved with a switch to raw milk.

Bemis knew that lactose intolerance is a huge health issue—millions of people experience major intestinal discomfort when they drink pasteurized milk because they lack the enzyme necessary to metabolize lactose, a sugar found in milk. He also knew that the medical community’s usual response to patients with lactose intolerance is to advise them to avoid dairy products, or else to seek out special pasteurized milk without lactose. Not a great solution if you love ice cream, whipped cream, and cream cheese.

Bemis determined that the sting operation against dairy farmer Richard Hebron, and the rising awareness of raw milk that resulted from it, afforded an opportunity to assess via a real-life study whether raw milk in fact alleviates lactose intolerance. With funding from the Weston A. Price Foundation, he teamed up with Ted Beals, a retired University of Michigan pathologist, during the summer of 2007 to launch a survey of members of Michigan and Illinois cow shares. The survey inquired into how many household members consumed raw milk, whether they had ever been told by a physician that they suffered from lactose intolerance, and, if they had, whether or not rawmilk provided relief. Some 731 households completed surveys—they represented a total of 2,503 people—and, not surprisingly, 89 percent of those individuals were regularly consuming raw milk.

Bemis and Beals spent the fall and winter tabulating and compiling the results of this survey. Finally, by early 2008, they had some answers: Some 155 individuals, or 6 percent of the 2,217 regular consumers of raw milk, said they had been “told by a health care professional they had lactose intolerance.” And, as the researchers suspected, raw milk had provided relief to many: Of the 155 with confirmed lactose intolerance, 127 exhibited no symptoms of lactose intolerance when they drank the fresh unprocessed milk. Yes, the sample size was small, but the results were clear. An overwhelming majority—some 82 percent—of those who had experienced feelings of bloating, nausea, gas, and other problems when consuming pasteurized milk had no such problems with raw milk.

Why was this a big deal? Lactose intolerance is a major food problem in the United States—some estimates are that as many as fifty million people suffer from it. Because dairy is such a common item in our food—in cheeses, soups, cream sauces for meats and vegetables, cream for coffee, and an assortment of desserts, from ice cream to cakes and cookies—sufferers must be super-diligent about monitoring their diets, or risk encountering a bout of bloating and diarrhea just from eating cheese at a friend’s house or a cream sauce in a restaurant.

To try to home in on just how big a problem lactose intolerance really is, Bemis and Beals engaged a national survey organization, Opinion Research Corp., to call a representative sampling of ordinary consumers. The organization determined that 15 percent of American households have at least one member who is lactose-intolerant. Based on that finding, Opinion Research concluded that about 10 percent of the US population, or about twenty-nine million Americans, have some degree of lactose intolerance (a somewhat smaller number than the fifty million estimated by the FDA, but still a significant number). Among children, Opinion Research extrapolated that the rates are even higher—some 18 percent of households with children, while the rate is 13 percent in households without children.

Lactose intolerance is just one of a number of chronic conditions afflicting many millions of Americans, especially children, and for a number of these conditions, rates of affliction have risen sharply in recent years. The mass media have been full of reports about alarming increases in asthma and allergies. For example, the Centers for Disease Control states thatasthma rates in children have more than doubled since 1980, and that “the causes . . . remain unclear.”

Much of the rise in asthma cases is increasingly being attributed to the same factors that cause allergies: immune system problems. In many allergies, it’s thought the immune response somehow goes haywire and mistakes peanuts or eggs for an infiltrating disease of some sort.

A special report by Newsweek magazine about the alarming rise in allergies explained it this way:

The cascade of events begins when an allergy-prone person encounters a substance like pollen or peanut. The body sees it as trouble and launches phase one of its offensive: the production of antibodies called IgE (immunoglobulin E). These molecules attach themselves to “mast” cells, which line the lungs, intestines, skin, mouth, nose and sinuses. The next time the person encounters the pollen or peanut, the mast cells are primed for warfare, sending out powerful chemicals, like histamine, which lead to those nasty allergic symptoms—wheezing, stomach cramps, itching, stuffiness, swelling and hives. . . . Fixing the immune system, so that it learns to distinguish good from bad without error 100 percent of the time, is every immunologist’s dream.

As the examples of the previous chapter suggested, many parents have embraced raw milk as a way to “fix” their children’s and their own immune systems. No one knows for sure why raw milk seems to help individuals suffering from lactose intolerance. Unpasteurized milk contains harmless bacteria known as lactobacilli—which are killed off during pasteurization—and some research indicates that lactobacilli produce the lactase enzyme. This compensates for the insufficient lactase found in the digestive systems of lactose-intolerant persons, and helps these individuals break down and absorb lactose.

Ron Schmid, in The Untold Story of Milk, says it’s all pretty straightforward, based on his experience as a naturopathic physician: “Raw milk is rich in lactase, but the enzyme is destroyed by pasteurization. This is one reason raw milk is much easier to digest than pasteurized; in fact, most children and adults unable to digest pasteurized milk and diagnosed as lactose intolerant digest raw milk beautifully. This has been the case for hundreds of individuals I have worked with professionally.”

You’d think the tantalizing results Bemis and Beals had come up with might have become the basis for some further government- or university-sponsored research, to try to figure out exactly what was going on here. But that’s not how things tend to work in the world of public health when raw milk is the issue.


Take a Trip Down Memory Lane…And Get On A Train

Saturday, November 7th, 2009

The following is an excerpt from Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service by James McCommons

California Zephyr: here come your game boys and microwaves

The odyssey began in early 2007 when I got a magazine-writing assignment that would take me from my home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Seattle, Washington. I could have flown, but I asked the editor if she would pay for a train instead. Sure, she agreed, if the cost didn’t exceed a jet. It was a bit more, but I made up the difference because it was a chance to climb aboard a long-distance train again.

I also wanted to bring along Kelly, my oldest son, then thirteen, to introduce him to the landscapes of the West and to train travel, too. He barely remembered the trip we had taken from Toledo to Harrisburg when he was five, and I had not been on a train since.

When we boarded the California Zephyr at Chicago’s Union Station that March, I didn’t know this one trip would encompass so much of the promise in, and the trouble with, passenger-train service in the United States today. Having ridden Amtrak for some thirty years, I knew we would likely encounter some poor service, missed connections, long waits, and run-down equipment. Still, the train offered great scenery, the camaraderie of fellow passengers, a reprieve from driving or flying, a great safety record, and an exotic experience.

So few intercity passenger trains run today that most Americans have never boarded one. Amtrak doesn’t come through their town, or it comes just once a day—perhaps in the middle of the night—or every other day. Rarely is the train on time, and more recently, it’s often been filled and with no available seats. Where I live in the Upper Peninsula is isolated, and no matter how great a renaissance rail may undergo in this country, I don’t expect a passenger train will come that far north again for a long time.

Until 1969, the Chicago and North Western Railway’s Peninsula 400 ran between the Upper Peninsula and Chicago, making the trip in about six hours, an hour quicker than I can drive it doing the speed limit. But no more. The nearest railhead for a passenger train to me today is Milwaukee, 273 miles to the south. There, I could pick up the Hiawatha, an Amtrak success story. Making seven trips daily to downtown Chicago and back, the Hiawatha is a corridor train between major cities that are too close for efficient air service and connected by a deteriorating interstate highway filled past capacity.

The departments of transportation in Illinois and Wisconsin subsidize the Hiawatha service and have spent millions building stations and helping the Canadian Pacific expand its track system to accommodate both freight and passenger trains. The DOTs want to lure some commuters off the roadways, and also give people another mode of travel. The trains run on time. They are clean, filled with passengers, and increasingly popular since gas prices skyrocketed in 2008.

We boarded the train at the Amtrak station near Milwaukee’s airport, Mitchell Field, having left our automobile in long-term parking. Commuters jammed the Hiawatha, tapping on Blackberries and yakking on cell phones. An attendant wheeled a cart down the aisle, and I bought a coffee and opened a newspaper. Frozen farm fields rolled past the window. Now, all we had to do was sit back and ride—first to Chicago, then to Sacramento by sleeping car, and then, after a few days in California visiting a childhood friend, north through the big woods and Coast Ranges to Seattle. Thousands of miles, eighty-plus hours on the rails, a panorama of western landscape, and a melting pot of human characters to encounter along the way—the trip guaranteed adventure. I told Kelly, “By the time we get home, you’ll know you’ve been somewhere.”

I had pulled him from school for ten days. He carried a knapsack of comic books, an iPod and Game Boy, school texts, and a thick folder of homework. But he was too excited that morning for algebra and instead peered out the window looking for the Sears Tower and Chicago skyline.

At Union Station, we checked our bags at the Metropolitan Lounge, reserved for first-class sleeping-car passengers, and went upstairs to the Great Hall with its Romanesque columns and hard, wooden railroad benches.

Because of its central location in the Middle West, Chicago has long been a railroad town. At one time, the city had five railroad terminals, but Union Station was the busiest. In the 1940s, it handled more than 300 trains and 100,000 passengers a day. Today, it’s still busy, with commuters riding Metra and a few thousand passengers traveling on one or another of Amtrak’s 50-odd trains that run in and out of Union Station each day.

The Great Hall was cut off from the regular flow of passengers when Amtrak remodeled the station in 1989 and moved its waiting areas and lounges belowground. Amtrak constructed the comfortable, classy Metropolitan Lounge for first-class passengers, but herded its coach passengers into the unimaginatively named Lounges A and B, which are frequently jammed with passengers and luggage, and claustrophobic in comparison to the airy, cavernous Great Hall. Veteran passengers flee to the hall and wait up there for their trains, but unsuspecting newbies, who want to stay close to the boarding areas, miss one of America’s great indoor spaces.

Kelly and I sat on the benches, tilted our heads back and looked at the winter light filtering through the overhead skylights. Homeless people slept on nearby benches, their faces and hands obscured beneath soiled jackets, sweaters, and blankets. They resembled long piles of unwashed laundry. They smelled, too. Train terminals offer refuge during the day, and in my travels I encountered homeless lying in Oakland’s Jack London Station, sleeping upright in the art deco chairs of the L.A. terminal, and squatting in corners of New York’s Penn Station. Kelly’s sad expression and stolen glances at those men were disquieting. What could I say?

We boarded the train as an ice storm whipped into the city, jamming up rush-hour traffic on the Dan Ryan Expressway and delaying flights out of O’Hare and Midway. Sleet pelted the train as it gathered speed through the western suburbs and onto the frozen cornfields of northern Illinois.

After the conductor punched our tickets, we walked forward to the dining car and ordered dinner. While we ate, the storm morphed into a full-blown midwestern blizzard. Looking into the blur of snow, I told Kelly stories about other train journeys.

His mother, Elise, and I, were once aboard a train traveling from Detroit to Chicago. The locomotive stalled for hours in a sweltering cornfield. And there was that cold night we spent riding across Kansas when the heat failed in the sleeping car. As compensation, the sleeping-car attendant brought us bottles of red wine, which we drank in sleeping bags zipped up to the neck.

In the early 1970s, Amtrak ran the “Rainbow Trains.” The consists—a technical term railroaders use as a noun to describe the composition or arrangements of the locomotive and cars—were a hodgepodge of old, hand-me-down equipment inherited from a dozen different railroads. The toilets, known as “holes in the floor,” flushed right onto the tracks, and you could watch the wooden ties rushing by underneath. In 1978 on the Sunset Limited in west Texas, I watched cooks working over smoky stoves fired by charcoal briquettes. The air-conditioning and exhaust fans had broken down, and the dining attendants threw open the windows at the ends of the car to clear the smoke. Heat from the Chihuahuan Desert blasted through the windows, and I ate with an old railroader who reckoned the engineer had the train running 95 to 105 mph.

I was in college then, on my way to Arizona to drive an elderly aunt and all her belongings back to a retirement home in Pennsylvania. In the lounge car, I met Sigrid, a blue-eyed, freckled blond running away from a possessive boyfriend in Florida. A friend had gotten her a job in California on a sprawling farm in the San Joaquin Valley, where she was to stand at the row end of a broccoli field and vector in crop-dusting planes.“I’ll need to wear an aluminum suit with a mask. You know, because of the pesticides. And I have to wave these flags to signal the pilot.”

“Those are semaphores,” I said, remembering a vocabulary word I’d picked up in an English class.

During a fueling stop in El Paso, we stepped onto the oven heat of the railroad platform and took pictures of one another standing outside the stucco-covered station. We drank cold beer in the lounge car as the train ran through Deming and Lordsburg.

In Arizona, right at dusk, we reached the ranching town of Benson. I was the only passenger getting on or off. The conductor looked me over and said, “Young man, this will be easy. We’re going to slow the train to a crawl—but not stop. When I say ‘now’—you step off. Take a big step forward and then turn around and I’ll toss your knapsack.”

When I caught the pack, he gave me an approving nod and then windmilled his arm at the engineer leaning out from the locomotive. The train throttled up toward Tucson. These days, Amtrak employees aren’t allowed to step on or off moving trains, but back then a lot went on, including running trains 100 mph over tracks rated at 50. Nowadays with global positioning systems on every locomotive and central dispatch—where a person thousands of miles away can track a rolling train like an air-traffic controller—there’s less freelancing.

When I looked up, Sigrid had her face pressed against the back window of the train. She waved good-bye. A dust devil scurried along the tracks. My aunt was nowhere in sight. I glanced across the street to a feed store where some good old boys sat on a bench regarding me as another long-haired curiosity.

Sigrid got smaller and smaller and then disappeared into the desert. And I knew I should have stayed on the train. Even now, I wish I had.


Raw Milk: The Civil Rights Movement of Food?

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009


Food regulation is one of the most important issues consumers face today. And for people who are concerned with where their food comes from (and how it got there), milk is now at the center of this debate. And because of its health benefits, many more people are turning to raw milk. Even lactose intolerant folks have found they can digest the un-pasteurized liquid; and it’s been said to reduce allergies and asthma in children—ailments that are on the rise in the U.S.

But there’s one hitch: raw milk is illegal.

I spoke with journalist David Gumpert, author of The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights, about our right to healthy food–what could very well be the new civil rights movement.

Makenna Goodman: Okay—I’m just going to ask, even though it seems like it should be obvious: What is raw milk?

David Gumpert: Raw milk is just what the name suggests—milk straight from the cow (or goat), which hasn’t been pasteurized (heated to 161 degrees for 15 seconds) or homogenized.

MG: Mass media says raw milk is bad for me. Is this true?

DG: That is a complicated question. Yes, people do become ill from pathogens that can crop up in raw milk, like campylobacter, salmonella, listeria, and E.coli O157:H7. Most of the illnesses are mild, but occasionally, people have become very ill, and those most inclined toward the serious illnesses are children. But it’s important to note that people also become ill from a variety of other foods, including raw spinach, ground beef, peanut butter, lettuce, and peppers. To the extent the mass media suggest that raw milk is highly dangerous, they are misleading people. Data from the CDC shows in the 33-year period 1973-2005, there have been an average of about 50 reported illnesses annually from raw milk. And consumers should be aware that it’s possible to become ill from pasteurized milk; there have been outbreaks from contamination that has occurred post-pasteurization and led to occasionally thousands of people becoming ill. In Massachusetts during 2007, three elderly people died from contaminated pasteurized milk.

MG: What exactly is the difference between pasteurized (the milk we normally drink) and raw milk?

DG: Pasteurization is a heat-treatment process that took hold in the early and mid-twentieth century, in response to large numbers of illnesses and deaths from disease (like typhoid and tuberculosis) spread by contaminated raw milk. That, however, was a time when much less was known about the danger of pathogens, or the importance of sanitation and refrigeration.

Pasteurization kills off pathogens, and once it was introduced, childhood illness from pathogens in raw milk declined by 25% or more. The decline in illnesses, however, coincided as well with better sewerage systems and cleaner water.

There’s been lots of debate in alternative health and nutrition circles as to whether pasteurization, in particular, depletes milk of important “good” bacteria, enzymes, and proteins. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control maintain that pasteurization has no appreciable effect on the nutritional composition of milk, but does get rid of potentially dangerous pathogens like campylobacter and salmonella. Pasteurization is really a processing function, though, and with all the concern over processed food, more people are questioning whether pasteurization does, in fact, alter milk’s composition.

MG: What are the health benefits from drinking raw milk?

DG: There was a time during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when raw milk was pushed by some in the medical profession as nearly a cure-all for conditions ranging from arthritis to diabetes to gout. Today, there are extensive anecdotal tales of improved health from raw milk, such as relief from lactose intolerance. There is also research from Europe in the last few years indicating that children who drink raw milk have reduced rates of asthma and allergies.


Read the entire article, originally published on

Richard Wiswall: GMOs Are A Dark Cloud For Organic Farmers

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Richard Wiswall, author of The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook: A Complete Guide Managing Finances, Crops, and Staff – and Making a Profit, has high hopes for farmers. In a recent interview with Laura Klein from TriplePundit, Wiswall spoke about organic farming, and the future of food.

From TriplePundit:

Sustainable agriculture is the fastest-growing sector of the food industry. On the other hand, less than 1% of American cropland is farmed organically.

In light of this conundrum, what keeps the organic farmer going?

I spoke with Richard Wiswall, author of The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook: A Complete Guide Managing Finances, Crops, and Staff – and Making a Profit, to find out more about what it’s like to be an organic farmer in these tough economic times.

“The future of organic is very, very solid in spite of level sales,” says Wiswall.  A farmer first and author second, Wiswall is seeing a groundswell of new organic farmers entering the marketplace, which he and others attribute to the writings of Michael Pollan, films like Food Inc., and the increased concern surrounding food safety issues in general.

However, there are big speed bumps in the way of an organic farmer’s success.

GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms, provide what Wiswall dubs as a “very dark cloud” for the organic farmer. Not only do GMOs operate outside the boundaries of nature, they are the source of expensive lawsuits for farmers. Companies like Monsanto regularly accuse farmers of “stealing” their seeds, even though GMO-tainted pollen often lands in an organic farmer’s land unknowingly via mother nature.

Other issues with GMO foods include:

  • GMO seeds are costly to patent and by law, can’t be saved for replanting. This is a far cry from the claims that GMOs help poor farmers from around the world
  • GMOs need increased levels of toxins to control weeds, an unsafe option both ecologically and from a human health standpoint.
  • GMOs are artificially injected with foreign proteins. Check out Robyn O’Brien’s book The Unhealthy Truth How Our Food is Making Us Sick – And What We Can Do About It to learn how foreign proteins are negatively affecting human health.

GMO “developers have not failed at making huge profits in a system where farmers are forced to market on volume, and have no market rewards for nutritional quality or penalties for ecological impact,” according to Timothy J. LaSalle.

Another huge challenge for organic farmers are Good Agricultural Practices or GAP, which audits food growers for safety standards (see the debate about one such GAP program, the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which is raging on  While the premise is solid – to ensure food is safe – GAP certification can be cost-prohibitive for small organic farmers, ranging from $5,000-$10,000.  Plus, the strict standards of sanitization required by GAP are geared for big corporate agriculture – not organic farmers.

With food safety issues on the rise, insurance companies are also heavily involved. “Insurers are pressuring retailers for GAP certifications, and retailers are pressuring farmers,” says Wiswall. [...]

Read the entire interview here.

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