Monday, January 20, 2014

Why the Magi brought gifts

                                   Christmas gifts of years past.

[Note -- this was written in mid-December, as I was busy wrapping gifts for dozens of friends and family members, for charities and hostesses. It is now late January. Hanukkah, Christmas, Epiphany -- all those gift-giving occasions have come and gone. This still seems Important.]

The Magi traversed wild deserts and hostile trails seeking the new-born king whose star they saw. They went to Bethlehem to take the baby gifts -- gold, frankincense and myrrh -- things of this world, material things. Why, when we are told so often, and so harshly, that Christmas is too materialistic, would the Three Kings have been the first to bring the Christ Child gifts of this world?

In the Catholic teaching, God gave us bodies, and a world of plants and animals, seas and mountains, fields and orchards to live in. Then God became human to live among us -- in the Catholic teachings, fully God and fully human. He broke and ate the bread, drank the wine, laughed with his friends, and walked the dusty paths of Israel. He welcomed the material gifts, like the ointment from the woman who washed his feet. We owe it to the God who shared these gifts of shape and form, taste and sound with us to appreciate them and in our turn, share them with others. 

Instead of rejoicing in gifts this season, we wail about the materialism of the world, and the burdens of giving. It can be tough. We feel pinched for time and money. The demands appear insatiable. Who has any idea what a teenage boy wants -- that we can afford or appropriately give him? Or a friend of exquisite taste? Or someone living out their last days asleep in a nursing home? Not to despair -- there is always something to give, from a tech-friendly gift card, to an hour sitting beside the sleeper as a quiet companion.

If we don't want to take the Christian view of the season, we can see the holiday as a chance to show our deep delight in the world we live in. The fact that we are body intertwined with spirit means that our relationship with everything around us is one of interaction. It is not given to us to reproduce just in the most physical sense. Every time we cook, garden, clean, create a song, make a child, throw a pot, write a story, we share in the creation of and maintenance of the world. Resting, enduring, pushing the Sisyphean rock up the hill, we share in the creation and maintenance of the material world. It is our gift and our task. 

As artists, we have even more responsibility. If we don't share the things that we create with our talents, and recognize those of our fellow artists, how can we think that people in general will take the time to do that? It doesn't seem to me to be an either-or. Each aspect, material and spiritual, supports and enlarges the other.

                               Snowflakes, a gift (Micki Glueckert, December 8, 2013).

Cross posted at

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Sopa Teologa -- Peruvian bread soup of the priests


The "Soup of the Priests" -- a specialty of Trujillo in northern Peru. [Photo credit.]

Looks tasty, but why call it Soup of the Priests, or "theological soup?" The traditional story is that Dominican monks prepared it to celebrate the end of arguing among the Franciscans and the Augustinians in Trujillo. In 1610, the Spanish viceroy attending the funeral of the saintly Franciscan priest Fr. Francisco Solano told the two groups to put aside their arguments. Apparently they agreed, and a month later the Dominicans created Sopa Teologa to honor the occasion. One source said that the soup was "the product of the benevolence of the parishioners who came with their products and leftovers, to fill the big pot that was cooking with chicken broth or turkey flocks."

Traditionally huge quantities -- tens of thousands of bowls --of Sopa Teologa are made on Palm Sunday. The faithful put aside the fasts of Lent that forbade eating meat and feasted on this soup that was rich with milk, cheese, and various meats, including beef, goat, pork, chicken, turkey, and duck. Chickpeas, rice, lentils, olives and hard-boiled eggs all could play a role as well. Then they fasted again from Monday until Easter Sunday.

Original recipe combines ingredients typical of the district.  | Photo: A.  Castro.
On Palm Sunday, large quantities of Sopa Teologa are served in Trujillo.  Photo credit

Several writers noted the blending of culinary traditions in the "mongrel" sopa teologa. The soup base -- bread soaked in milk is definitely European -- the Native Peruvians had neither ingredient. Soaked in milk and boiled with broth, the bread loses its character  and becomes a thickener, just as in Spanish gazpachos and garlic soups (sopa de ajo).

The Peruvians had already domesticated chickens, and they grew tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers. It's hard to tell how authentic to Peru in 1610 the seasonings of oregano, bay leaf, parsley, salt and pepper were. Some Peruvian versions of the recipe call for  a sprig of huacatay -- a Peruvian herb from the marigold family, often sold in a paste as "black mint." Saffron is added to some variations; that also would have come from Spain.

All of the members of the onion family -- the leek, onion and garlic -- came from the Old World. The cheese again is an Old World contribution. The Inca had root vegetables that resembled celery and carrots -- these might have been the original ingredients, along with the potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers.

Another tradition associated with Sopa Teologa is "At the top of the plate is placed a thread, which means the union of two people. 'It is also the idea of the dish, because it unites two culinary traditions as a kid and turkey. I think it's a very romantic plate,' [s]he said in a brief respite to orders." [Rosa Pantoja Jet, owner of a Trujillan restaurant.] That is consistent with a tradition that Priests' Soup is also served at weddings.

The circle of bread on this soup may be the "thread" that is often associated with the soup in translations. [Photo credit]

The source of many of the English-language recipes for Sopa Teologa appeared to be a post from "Yanuq, Cooking in Peru." I haven't tried the recipe, but it's the one that my cousin who is married to a Trujillano sent as definitive. Another one from a Peruvian site differs very little. Many of the images of Sopa Teologa show it garnished with slices of hard-boiled eggs and/or black olives.

"SOPA TEOLOGA / Theological Soup      

   Ingredients :
2.2 lb to 3 lb (1 - 1 ½ k) chicken or hen
2 celery stalks
1 large carrot, diced
1 leek, cut in 3-inch pieces
Bay leaf
¼ cup chopped parsley
6 to 8 bread slices
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 medium onions, chopped
2 tablespoons ají amarillo fresco / fresh yellow aji (chili) seeded, deveined
1 tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
9 oz (1/2 lb) fresh farmers cheese (feta), diced
3 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
2 cups milk


To prepare stock place chicken or hen pieces in a large pan. Cover with water. Add carrot, celery, leek, oregano, salt, pepper, bay leaf and parsley sprig. If its a hen boil for 2 hours, a chicken will cook in less time. When cooked, remove chicken bones and cut meat in pieces. Save stock.

On a separate bowl, soak bread slices in milk combined with stock (about ½ cup). Blend or process.

Sauté onion, add garlic, blended aji and tomato in a pan. Season to taste. Add the processed bread. Stir until thickened.

Add 4 cups of chicken or hen stock and bring to a boil for 20 minutes. Add potatoes, and cheese. Boil for 10 minutes more until potatoes are cooked.

Finally add milk and chicken pieces.

Serve in soup dishes and garnish with chopped parsley.   8 servings"

The soup theologian Easter


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Intelligent plants? What's a vegetarian to do?

 Food? or sentient beings? [Market at Ortygia (Siracusa) in Sicily, September 2013. TWC photo.]

     A recent article by Michael Pollan in The New Yorker details major new scientific research that suggests that plants are far more sentient than most of us think. What does that mean for vegetarians? If that potato, or the celery stalk, or the raddicio are all ripped from living things with intelligence, able to to sense chemicals, sounds, light and react appropriately should we be eating them? Should we become frutarians and only eat fruits, nuts, and seeds -- things that the plant wants to have separated from itself, to further its species?

      And what about fermentation? Should we allow other creatures -- bacteria, yeasts, and fungi to partially digest our fruits and nuts before we eat them, as suggested by Sandor Katz and others? Note -- when we eat the pickles, yogurt, bread, and the like, we are intentionally consuming whole clouds and colonies of these helpful creatures.

      But then -- fruit. Should we even eat that? Eve "ate of the fruit of the tree." Why was it a fruit, and not the leaf, or flower? Does this mean that fruit contains knowledge, like the pills imagined by L.Frank Baum that were distributed by the Highly Magnified and Thoroughly Educated Woggle-Bug in "The Marvelous Land of Oz?"

       Of course, much of the human race is omnivorous, eating meat and dairy products, along with fruits and vegetables. Whether their food is sentient or not generally doesn't enter into the calculus of whether it should be eaten, just as long as it's not the next door neighbor. For some vegetarians and religious groups, however, the intelligence of the food is an important issue. For them, the new research might raise questions about the ethics of eating the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.

Are plants really that smart? 

     "When food is scarce and acacias are overbrowsed, it has been reported, the trees produce sufficient amounts of toxin to kill the [antelopes]," says Pollan  A plant that can produce its own weapons to kill an attacker sounds fairly "intelligent" to me.

                                         Which is smarter, the corn or the geese?

       Even better, "Several species, including corn and lima beans, emit a chemical distress call when attacked by caterpillars. Parasitic wasps some distance away lock in on that scent, follow it to the afflicted plant, and proceed to slowly destroy the caterpillars."

      Plants use chemicals to communicate with each other, to defend themselves, and to attract creatures who will pollinate their flowers. An example is caffeine, which a New York Times article describes as both attractive to bees and toxic in larger doses to herbivores. Some plants deploy high doses of caffeine in seedlings, and in leaves and stems as toxins to discourage creatures that might eat them. Citrus plants, such as lemons, grapefruits and oranges, have caffeine in their flowers, where it draws honeybees. They  remember those flowers better, and return for another dose. Smart plant.

Bees on an orange blossom 

     Another example of clever (yes, that's anthropomorphizing) behavior is the ability of mushrooms to create little winds that help spread their spores. A recent article describes how "oyster and shiitake mushrooms release water vapour that cools the air around them, creating convection currents. This in turn generates miniature winds that lift their spoors into the air." Scientists believe that it's likely that most mushrooms can do the same thing.

                              Anchorage mushrooms, August 2013 [TWC photo]

What about wheat?

      Initial Google searches mostly turned up opinions about the evils of wheat. Is wheat attacking us, poisoning us with phytochemicals and gluten,so that we will stop eating it? That's what some of these writers appear to be saying. Given that today's wheats exist only because of human breeding, and could not live in the wild because their seeds are too tightly encased in the hulls, it would seem suicidal on the part of the wheat.

                                 Alaska wheat at State Fair, August 24, 2013 [Photo, TWC]

        Wheat plants do produce chemicals to fight off specific pests. Aphids, for example, are attracted to wheat seedlings that haven't been chewed on by other creatures. But once the aphids show up, the seedlings emit  odors into the air that repel other aphids. Other research done on corn and cotton plants shows that while the insect chews on the plant, it releases digestive juices that trigger the plant to create substances that will be toxic to the insect, and/or repel other insects, and/or attract parasitic wasps to come and lay their eggs on the invading insect. What's more, it does this during the daylight, and not at night when the insects aren't feeding.

                               Wheat field, Berrien County, Michigan. [Photo, Micki Glueckert]

      Nonetheless, the aphids continue to eat the wheat. British scientists are studying ways to change the wheat genes so that it makes stronger insecticides. Others are looking at altering what happens in the tiny aphids' digestive systems so that they die from eating wheat, and other mechanisms to shift the natural balance in favor of the farmer. Aphids gotta eat too, son, but hopefully something else.

                                                             English grain aphid

       Wheat doesn't just have insects and other creatures from the animal kingdom to fend off. Some weeds send out chemicals through their roots that inhibit the growth of wheat that's nearby. "Roots of certain plants produce allochemic substances which check the growth of other plants to conserve resources, such as, Convolvulus arvensis, a weed that inhibits the germination and growth of wheat." Convolvulus is field bindweed, a morning-glory relative, and considered one of the most noxious weeds around. Horses that eat it get sick, it carries viruses that infect other plants, and it has a dozen different ways of invading and choking off other plants, above and below ground. [Parenthetically, it also is being studied for its ability to inhibit tumor growth, and might have other uses in medicine.]

                                                   Field bindweed 

The microbiome -- wheat and microbes serve each other

      At the other end of the spectrum, wheat, like all living creatures (humans included), survives only in a complicated network of microbes living around and on it. The microbes need the wheat just as much for their survival, as shown in studies dating back at least to the 1920s. The wheat roots provide a surface for fungi to grow on, and the fungi draw nutrients from the wheat itself. But in exchange, the filaments that the fungi send out draw moisture to surround the wheat roots, acting as tiny irrigation systems.

            One experiment showed how wheat could be altered to grow in high heat and drought. Scientists sterilized the wheat seeds to remove their existing microbiomes, then covered them with microbes that normally grow on grasses that live near hot springs at temperatures of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. The wheat wrapped in its new microbiome thrived in the heat, and used 50% less water.

     It does begin to look like plants, wheat included, can act with purpose to protect themselves, and  to shape conditions to improve their lots in life. That doesn't mean that we should stop eating them and become breatharians (there's no evidence that that's a sustainable approach). If we could figure out a way for our own microbiomes to incorporate chloroplasts, living on air along with soil, sun, and water has potential (some creatures do this already). For now, at least, we might want to accept the fact that we live in a world of mutually interdependent species, and start enjoying all of the companions that we carry around with us.

        St. Josep Market on Las Ramblas, Barcelona, November 4, 2011 [Photo, TWC.]