January Jeremiad

blue

They have decided that tomorrow is Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year. We all know that ‘they’ like to decide for us. Only this time, they provide proof, in the shape of a formula. I won’t even try. Sometimes Wikipedia rules.

Meanwhile, tomorrow, Belgium, more precisely Flanders, sees the launch of a ‘No Nagging’ campaign. They have decided (they are busy) to have the ‘No Nagging’ campaign start on Blue Monday, which seems ominous enough. But worse, the campaign, encouraging people not to nag or complain in an effort to promote positivity, is set to last thirty days, ending on, you have guessed it, Valentine’s Day.

Scary.  For what could be more dangerous than the final release of a built up congestion on the most emotionally laden day of the year?

Furthermore, I object. To all of it, to the positivity dictate in particular.

Bear with me.

Our taste receptors identify five ‘tastes’ or ‘flavours’: sweet, salt, sour, bitter and the ever effusive umami. These flavours are complementary and when used in the right proportion, they enhance, counterbalance and strengthen their respective qualities. Achieve the perfect blend of these five elements and you have a dish, fit for a king. Likewise, our emotional range is wide and varied. Relief, guilt, anxiety, sadness, happiness, joy and excitement interact, intermingle, fuse and combine. One does not, should not, dominate the other. Neither precludes the other.

The real power lies in the mix.

Every day, I count my blessings. But while I acknowledge what I am grateful for, I also note life’s little frustrations and try and learn how to deal with them. Acceptance of imperfections and a will to improve , rather than denial and the need for a cosmetic, cheery version of what others define as ‘happiness’.

Happiness? The umami of life? The main ingredient of well-being? Or a link in the chain of self-imposed limitations, inevitably distancing ourselves from potential fulfillment.

As for Blue Monday, with the words of Khalil Gibran,

I would not exchange the sorrows of my heart
For the joys of the multitude
And I would not have the tears that sadness makes
To flow from my every part turn into laughter

I would that my life remain a tear and a smile

And there is always Tuesday ….

Panettone and Sobriety

If people follow the recent, seasonal cri de coeur to quit social media and ditch smartphones, fewer people than ever (and believe me, you are few) will be reading this blog. But for an irregular blogger like me, this should not be a deterrent. Hence, I persevere, knowing that this post will go into the archives until our good intentions will lie, dried out in the sadness of their old-school wasteland, from where it will be dug up, clicked on, viewed and perhaps read.

I am a fan of less social media. But not so of ditching my phone as another New Year’s resolution. In fact, I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions in general. At all.

Traditionally – historically – New Year’s resolutions were religiously inspired pledges, made to a higher power. They were often inherently unrealistic, yet filled with admirable intent. Nowadays New Year’s resolutions are morally charged private commitments that, in the majority of cases, have more to do with lifestyle than anything else. Yes, there is the ‘I will be more patient, less angry, less wasteful, …’ moment, but mostly, our New Year’s resolutions center around pleasure and eating habits. More vegetables, less meat, more, much more exercise and of course, no or much less alcohol.

Is there, I ask you, a sadder resolution for the month of January than more gym, more veggies and less of the good stuff? Let’s face it. St. Nicholas is back in Spain, Father Christmas and St. Sylvester have packed up and even the three wise men are on their home journey. We are barely back on speaking terms with family members after our last Xmas fall-out. The weather is grey and wet, days are short, evenings long and dark. Sales are on, wallets are empty.

If not now, when do we need a drink?

And then there is the left-over panettone …

 

Panettone-Classico

More is More

Godiva, famous Belgian chocolates manufacturer, has stopped its production of alcohol filled pralines.
Founded in Brussels in 1926, Godiva now owns more than 500 retail stores worldwide and is available through some 10 00 retailers. Godiva also issues mail-order catalogues and enjoys an important online presence. Godiva pralines are beautiful, delicious and preciously packaged.
Godiva has not been in Belgian hands for a while now. Its current owner, Turkish Yıldız Holdings is a food and consumer goods manufacturer, specialized in biscuits and confectionary. It is also active outside its core business, in real estate, private equity and venture capital.
In 2008 Yıldız Holdings acquired Godiva.
In April 2017 Godiva stopped its production of liqueur filled pralines, only followed by an announcement in September 2017, stating a renewed company strategy.
Godiva, so its communication manager declares, wishes to ‘offer its products to every one, and pralines with alcohol are only for adults.’
Universal products for the widest audience.

Really?

Pralines are a select delicacy. They have a history and tradition. There is know-how involved. Patience and skill. The result is exquisite, with the added advantage of ‘pick and choose’.

So who are they kidding?

Food is nutrition. It is energy, satiation. At it bests it is also pleasure. But more and more, food is something else.
Food is now a health issue. We no longer eat merely to stave off hunger. Instead we make nutritional choices that are supposed to keep us in good health and shape. Foods are labeled, categorized. Brain-boosting, fast, carcinogenic, ketonic, junk, energizing, cleansing, organic, whole.

whole foods

Sharing food is in my opinion the most beautiful act to bring people together. What stronger image than sitting together, breaking bread, raising glasses in a toast – of good health? Offering, accepting, savouring, uniting.

But food also separates. That is when food is power. Have and have-nots. Upstairs, downstairs. Those who control the granaries, those who think they know better, or best. And closer to home, well, ask any parent, and child. And now praline maker.

An overreaction on behalf of a few chocolates, you say? I wish it were.

‘Pralines for every one’, Godiva says.
I have never met ‘every one’. ‘Every one’ does not exist, except in the minds of tyrants and dictators for whom ‘every one’ is a template of a reduced human image, a fictitious entity without freedom, choice, liberty, voice, desire and preference.
With its decision to stop its production of liqueur filled pralines, Godiva has left the liberal world-wide luxury realm of sensory pleasure in favour of a limited, narrow-minded and bland dietary restriction with an obvious ‘Muslim/No alcohol’ flavour.

I would have welcomed a Halal extension to the Godiva selection. A special edition Eid al-Fitr gift box.

choc

Sometimes, less is more.
But often more is exactly that. More.

Anger and The Dog

Ten meters ahead of me, a reasonably handsome and well-dressed man is walking his well-groomed dog. Let’s call the dog Rex. Rex is on a leash and like all dogs, takes his time following his master, sniffing along. Inevitably, Rex, at a certain moment must like what he smells and leaves his business card. Against a car.
At the same moment, for nothing longer but a moment, I am a dog hater. Or rather, a dog owner hater. And let me remind you, it is not even my car Rex pissed against.
It happens. Occasionally I hate dogs, and cats, when they scratch at the carpet that leads up to my apartment. I hate taggers and people who litter, I hate plastic wrapped fruit and vegetables, I hate journalists who copy-paste nonsense on climate change. I hate vegans who post Peta video’s.

Be assured, I have but a few amateur anger chips on my shoulder. Unlike those who hate with a vengeance and feel the need to name their hatred, invoke a god, tie a bomb around their waist and kill innocent people.
I must have said this before but I am not a politician or policy maker. I am but a humble voter who when called upon goes into her cubicle and casts her vote. The extent of my civic duty.
In the bigger scheme of things, my little displeasures remain mostly unanswered and unsolved. There is after all plastic to be hauled out of the oceans, there is renewable energy to defend. What is dog piss but a bit of acid sprayed on a parked car or a front door?

But do I suffer my little miseries alone? And how do others deal with their frustrations? Am I alone with my anger?

I would never suggest violent action. Nor will I pin Rex’s owner to the wall and give him, verbally, what I, at that moment at least, think he deserves. But back to our professional hater. How do I deal with him?

Many seem to find solace in a minute of silence, in the offer of free hugs, teddy bears and flowers, and the lighting of candles. For many, there is comfort in the eloquence of resilience and solidarity. Alas, I am not one of those many.

I do not endorse hate speech. I believe in the law, not in eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth. I know that paranoia leads nowhere and that revenge begets revenge. But I do believe that the perpetrators of hate crimes, fanaticism and terror will not be stopped by kindness, understanding and turning the other cheek.

It is terrible to think we live in a world where people drive cars into innocent pedestrians, where fanatics blow themselves up amidst innocent crowds of shoppers, commuters, music lovers and spectators. Here at home and abroad, in capital cities, small cities, any day of the week, any time of day. It has happened, it will happen again.
Still I am an optimist. I believe the world is a better place now than it was before. Not everywhere, not always, but in general. More freedom, more justice, more equality, more opportunities, less poverty, better healthcare, more awareness, be it with regard to the environment, human rights, notions of peace and dignity.

But for my anger…

As I watched the One Love Manchester concert, this anger bubbled up once more. Anger and confusion for despite all its best intentions (and massive fundraising), I am not sure what I witnessed. Kiss and make up in action? Love and peace and understanding? Oblivion? ‘Don’t look back in anger,’ they sang. Rhetoric might be a powerful tool, but it is content I need.

So tell me, anger aside, how then, do we look back?

Various scenarios go through my mind. Politicians worldwide, both from the left and the right, tweet and lecture and whisper in my ear. Scholars and intellectuals, endorsed or self-proclaimed, analyze, scrutinize, berate and advise. History repeats itself and tells me to beware. But my heart and head are not in concert. Where do the answers lie?

In need of clarity, I would desperately like my mind to resemble a peaceful mountain lake, filled with cool, clear water, glistening in the sunshine. Unfortunately though, my mind resembles a stormy sea at best, a murky mud pool at worst.

Don’t you just hate that?

Mama!

I once called my favourite child with the gentle reminder that the following Sunday would be Father’s Day. At the time we were not living in the same country and I thought a gentle reminder would be appreciated by both child and father. My gentle reminder however was met with a contemptuous groan.
‘Everyday, somewhere in the world, it is either father’s or mother’s day,’ my favourite child said. (note the lower case)
I have since stopped reminding any and everybody, especially my favorite child, of any and every possible celebration or commemoration, of either men, women, gods, children or other.
Still, was my favorite child right?
There are about 29 different days on which Father’s Day is celebrated throughout the world and 33 different days on which Mother’s Day is celebrated. 78 countries celebrate Father’s Day on the third Sunday in June, while there seem to be 86 countries opting to celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of May. Which, coincidentally, is this next Sunday.

This next Sunday, the 14th of May. Just saying….

freddy

MAMA!

Powder and Cubes

cube chicken

I just found out that bouillon cubes are not dehydrated stock. I am devastated. For years now I imagined Knorr, Liebig and Maggi factories to be packed with boiling stock pots, obviously of industrial size, filled to the rim with meats and bones, carcasses and vegetables, circled by chefs in white aprons, checked by chemist in similar aprons and in charge of safety and uniformity; everything giving off whiffs of our grandmother’s homey, old-fashioned, red gingham curtained kitchen.

gingham

In my imagination, childish and simple, these deep, wonderful liquids were then, thanks to advanced hi-technological know how, acumen and sapiens, miraculously transformed into dry cubes.

Wrong.

Bouillon cubes, it seems, are not dried out stock. They are, in fact, nothing more than little blocks of paste, made of already dried ingredients. Fifty per cent of each cube is salt. The rest is stuff. Flavors, flavor enhancers, MSG, stabilizers, spices, fat, starch …

As I said. Stuff.

Chicken bouillon cubes have never seen a chicken, although for legal reasons about 3% needs to come from some sort of chicken ingredient. Chicken fat for instance. Apparently the chicken flavor comes from baked yeast. I don’t know where the beef flavor in beef bouillon cubes comes from. I do know it comes ‘not from a cow’.

Bouillon cubes are safe. Salty but safe. FDA, EMA approved. Still, I feel duped. Tricked. Deceived. Hoodwinked. Misled.

It is not hard work, making broths. It is just time-consuming and, most of all, it leaves a mess. A big mess. But the result is always great, for believe it or not, very little can go wrong, preparing a home-made stock. Make it, freeze it and Bob’s your uncle. Bob. Not von Liebig, Julius Maggi or Knorr.

For years now I have been making my own stocks, broths and bases. Vegetable, chicken, beef, bone and very occasionally, fish. I cook these up in my –  Ikea ;)  – kitchen. So visualise this: 10 misty square meters of fatty meat and bones and veggies’ fog, steaming away into gooey goodness. Yes, Mr. Lebovitz, I don’t have the surface either and like you, I get on with it.

But not always.

Sometimes life interferes.

Like you, I don’t know in which world those blog writing, organic market dwelling foodies live. Whipping up dinner for eight at a moments notice, their make up flawless, their aprons stainless, their broths at hand. So, like most of us, I grab a cube.

Although safe and convenient and government approved, we seldom know exactly what we eat or what is inside the things we eat. Most of our baking goods for instance are made with egg powder.

eggpowder

Now egg powder is a safe and convenient alternative to the real deal. It has a long shelf life, is easily stored, hygienic (think of where the egg comes from), demands less handling and less energy and is, as a result, cheap. As it comes in different forms and varieties, egg powder has endless possibilities. Whole egg powder for pasta and crackers, egg yolk powder for dressings and croissants, special egg yolk powder, able to withstand high heat, for emulsions such as mayo, and egg albumen (the posh version of egg white) powder for ready-made savoury dishes and pastry products. Egg powder is an indispensable ingredient in the food industry. As is milk powder. Or all those e-additives – E100 or Curcuma. E621 or MSG. E441 or gelatine. But cream powder, cheese powder, juice powder, butter powder…. ? And that’s only the pulverized stuff.

Safe, convenient, cheap. But do I want it? And bear in mind, the alternative is of course somebody at the stove, baking and cooking away. In my case, that somebody is usually, correction, always, me. So, every so often, bring on the cube, I say. That guiltless, salty lump of taste.

As John le Carré once said ‘Your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.’

Tasty.

 

(L)Eggs and Bunnies

easter

It is the holiest of times for Christians. Christians, yes. That dying breed, that silenced group, that persecuted lot.
Once a religion, distinguished by its pantheon of saints and martyrs, by its rituals, parables and miracles, Christianity has now, for many, become an embarrassment, linked to past sins, to scandals, bans, memories of indulgences, crusades, bigotry and falsehood. Let’s face it. It all smells so medieval, doesn’t it? A club of men, fishermen for C*** sake; the only women either virgins or prostitutes. A bit Hemingway-ish, give or take a bullfight.

Religion is a tender subject. It exposes our vulnerability and places us in the spiritual realm of faith. A leap down that sharp abyss where words and phrases take on an eternal quality, juxtaposing the human and the divine, obedience and disobedience, left cheek and right cheek, right and wrong. And there’s the rub.
On Palm Sunday, two church bombings in Egypt, targeting Coptic Christians, killed dozens of people. The news made the headlines. But it did not create an outrage. Not in the way a vicious chemical attack did. The question is, why not?

A utopian era of contradictions
Everywhere, we salute minorities, coming out of their closets. We try to help the voiceless find their voice, we try and pull the disenfranchised away and free from their marginal position, into the center of power. We strive for equality or at least equal opportunities. Our public debate is a testimony of our desire for fairness and justice. We all want ‘a better world’. But striving for that better world, the question remains what to do with the old world.

The right thought, the right speech, the right action
Public utterances are being closely monitored and dissected for bias and political incorrectness. Cultural appropriation is the new template. Gender neutrality the new paradigm. But what should be a strength is quickly becoming a weakness and the powers that be, or at least once were, are now on the receiving end. How does one defend old beliefs and opinions without falling into the pitfalls of an antiquated discourse?

No matter my religious affiliation, like so many of us, I am what is called a cultural Christian. My calendar, my holidays, my food choices, my vocabulary and expressions are infused with Christian tradition. I am proud of that heritage. But pride is not enough.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

Traditions are not costumes we slip on and off. Rather, they are the transmission of long-established customs and thought processes. They make us who we are and define who we wish to be. Therefore they should never be taken for granted, but coveted and scrutinized, improved, defended and secured. And the only way to do so is through knowledge, understanding, awareness and familiarity.

More courage. Less guilt.

The Holy week and Easter Sunday. A reason for spring cleaning. Egg hunts. Bunny rabbits. Legs of lamb. Or just a few days off.
For many, however, Easter means resurrection. Hope.
And even Hemingway’s old man cannot but agree.

It’s silly not to hope. I believe it is a sin.

besteaster