Grandma’s Garden

Ruth Huston gave me some of the best advice I could ever use.  Ruth was a dietitian.  Discussing some of the fad diets of the early 2000s, she said with a harsh voice that “the only way to lose weight is to consume fewer calories than you burn”.  I suppose there are many people who would want to debate that because they have successfully lost pounds by using a South Beach Diet, or a Keto Diet, or abstaining from a certain element found in many foods.

I’m sticking to Ruth’s advice.  I have also come to accept that just about anything in moderation is okay.  It’s that second cookie; or the large bowl of ice cream with chocolate syrup, whipped cream, and a maraschino cherry; or three rather than two pancakes that makes a difference. Do I really need the whipped cream and maraschino cherry?

The best evidence I have for following Ruth’s advice, and the advice of so many experts that preach moderation, is one of my grandmothers.  Grandma Ryan lived to be 104 years-old. 

Grandma would wake up in the morning and fry bacon and eggs.  She would serve toast with butter and jelly or jam, and supplement the breakfast with a cup of coffee; just one cup of coffee.  She would save that bacon grease and use it to fry her potato slices for lunch.  Supper would consist of something like roast beef with potatoes and gravy, and a vegetable – usually something that had been canned last summer from her bountiful garden – like green beans or carrots.  Often, her dessert was a slice of her homemade apple pie.  She made the best apple pie; she used lard, flour, and a dash of salt for the crust.

All that food Grandma ate would be extremely taboo today.  Bacon, butter, lard, gravy?  But you have to remember, she had a vegetable every day.  She limited herself to one cup of coffee.  She worked hard in her garden, which was about three-fourths of a city lot sitting next to her house.  She didn’t drink alcohol. (Although I can never forget her having a glass of Sherry at Kathleen and Bill’s wedding.  She had to softly slap her face at times to accept it.)

Her garden was vast, and Grandma did everything herself.  She planted potatoes, carrots, green beans, beets, onions, cucumbers, and several other varieties of vegetables.  She had a patch of dill for her dill pickles, although her sweet pickles were awesome, too.  An apple tree was the only fruit tree on her property, at least, as far as I know.  The apples and potatoes were stored in a cave located between her house and the garden.  The cave was pretty cool – literally and figuratively.  I suppose it could be eerie for some; a spider web would greet you at least once while you were down there.

The walls of the cave had shelves, and they were filled with jars of all the things Grandma had processed from the previous summer and fall.  My cousin Denise told me that the three walls were designated for our family, her family, and one for Grandma.  I don’t know about that.  Grandma gave me things to take home and I don’t remember her getting them from one particular wall. 

Grandma worked in that garden until she was 91 years-old.  After I was married, I lived a half-block from her.  I saw her often walk down to the post office to get her mail, and stop at the grocery store to pick up some milk, flour, or whatever other staple she needed to make a meal.  She wore the same thing, winter and summer.  A black hat on top of her beautiful white shiny hair; a black knee-length coat; and shoes – black, of course – with a small heel.  She carried a black purse. 

Grandma may have worn glasses, but I don’t recall her wearing them unless she was reading.  She couldn’t see anymore; she couldn’t hear; but she could still carry on a conversation.

She entered a nursing home two years after she had given up on gardening and canning vegetables and fruit.  I went to see her several times a year.  I remember walking into her room at the nursing home with my wife and two daughters.  She would remember Terri and the kids, but ask who I was.  I think she was trying to be funny. 

Today, I am the one who is canning.  Actually, I’m freezing vegetables and fruits.  However, I have canned some peaches from a tree in our yard.  I have that magic touch.  I have pickled some cucumbers and, although I didn’t pickle them like Grandma would, they have turned out better.  I actually fermented them prior to putting them in jars.  I have just discovered that the longer they sit on the shelf, the better they are.  My goodness.  My mouth is watering just thinking of them.

I also bake pies now, using lard as in ingredient in the crust.  You can’t beat it.  I don’t eat many eggs, or bacon for that matter.  I watch my red meat intake and try to have gravy sparingly.  I still like my butter, and I remember Grandma using it freely.

My daughters and I saw her for the last time at St. Anthony Nursing Home in Carroll one Sunday.  We arrived at lunch time.  Grandma was in the dining room and had finished lunch.  She had a slice of apple pie on the table in front of her.  She asked if I could feed it to her.  That slice of pie looked just like hers.  That was the last I saw of her.

I never realized until this year how much I love good food as much as Grandma, and how much I enjoy making a meal rather than going out to eat.  Hey!  I’ll be okay with just living to be 100!

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Creating news

The national media received what it had requested, and now it wants to blame the Iowa Democratic Party for not having the media’s information quick enough.  For years, national and local media have yearned for raw numbers from the Iowa Democratic Caucuses.  There was a reason why previous caucuses did not release raw numbers.  They actually have no relevance.  This year, a delay in providing information became news itself rather than the news the media is seeking.

Before you criticize the Iowa Caucuses, you should know a little about them.  That’s most of the problem; representatives of media know little about them.  You can read the manual, you can sit through one and experience it, but unless you are a precinct captain for a campaign, a caucus chair or secretary, or party leaders coordinating 1600 events, you can’t imagine the heavy task at hand. 

The New York Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, CNN, the Des Moines Register, and every news outlet around the world cannot talk or write about the Iowa Caucuses without using the word “vote”.  Let’s make it clear that not one Democratic presidential candidate left Iowa with as much as one vote.  Iowa’s Democrats don’t vote in caucuses except to elect a caucus chairperson, secretary, precinct committee people, and a slate of delegates.  Oh, yes, and there is a vote taken to adopt planks that will eventually become the party platform, the original purpose of neighborhood caucuses.  Iowa Republicans do vote.  However, as Kevin Cooney mentions in his Des Moines Register op-ed of February 4th, it doesn’t mean very much because the real election comes later in the caucus, after most people have left, and it’s an election for delegates.

Democratic caucuses are mini-conventions.  Delegates are selected to advance to the next convention level, and delegates are chosen by those individuals who share the same slant on policies as the person they want to represent them.  Many delegates are chosen based upon the volunteer work they have donated to a particular candidate.  A candidate’s precinct captain is most likely to become at least one of the delegates to move on to the next convention, whether it’s county, district, or state, and the captain is known to most of those in the preference group.  A caucus-goer “aligns” with a candidate.  Those aligning with a particular candidate vote for the delegate to represent them at the next level in the process – not the candidate.

Another way to look at a caucus is to compare it to a ballot petition.  You may sign a petition for a candidate to get on the ballot, but your signature is not a vote.  Likewise, if a candidate’s group must contain 20 people to be viable, and the group can come with only 5 eligible participants, it’s like not having enough signatures on a petition to get on a ballot. 

Caucuses differ from primaries in several ways, but a caucus is actually more democratic.  Listening to news media, you would think that it’s the other way around.  However, there is no disenfranchisement in a Democratic caucus because there is no vote (except as mentioned above).  Primaries, on the other hand, give citizens the opportunity to vote for a presidential candidate, but not the people in their neighborhood who are going to be leaders in their local politics.  As former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neal loved to state: “All politics is local.”  But not in primary states where you have no real discussion about who will represent you in party affairs that have meaning for your county, city, and state.  You can’t connect the candidate with the delegate.

On the day after the Iowa Caucuses, Meet the Press Moderator Chuck Todd said that there are too many numbers to digest.  That is part of the media’s problem.  It wants results, numerous results, and it wants them now.  Wouldn’t you rather settle for accurate results instead of quick inaccurate results?  Isn’t that what the media wanted in 2016?  And in 2012?  And in 2008? And in . . . .  It wanted the numbers of the first alignment, the second alignment, and the final delegate count.  Now that it has those numbers, it’s complaining about those numbers.

What goes around comes around.  Keep the caucuses.  Whether Iowa precincts select particular delegates to its county, district, and state conventions, who just happen to be supporting a particular candidate, should be irrelevant.  It’s politics at the grassroots level – not the level desired by the media.  At least the Democratic neighbors will know that they have a long-term voice, not just a fleeting vote.

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Bringin’ home the bacon

When I wrote about the possible dangers of having 40% fewer meat inspectors in pork slaughterhouses, I didn’t mean to cause such alarm among readers.  Just be sure to say grace before meals and everything should be okay.

As I mentioned, I still like my occasional bacon and baby back barbequed ribs. 

One of my best memories is going out to the garden when I was young and picking some fresh tomatoes for a homemade BLT.  When I worked at Farmland Foods, the company would have an employee sale every so often.  Each time, I purchased a case (24) of 1-pound packages.  I froze most of them, but gave a few packages to my mom and in-laws.  We never ran out of bacon.

This past week I noticed that Target has Oscar Mayer Bacon on sale for “2 for $11”.  Yikes!  On sale?  Oh, for crying out loud!  Who would want bacon that much?  I had to research to see if this is some sort of joke.  It’s not.

A lot of what I have been reading lately points to higher bacon prices.  It will undoubtedly affect ham prices, as well. 

Before the Trump Administration increased tariffs on the Chinese, China had bought about 60% of variety meats processed by American pork plants.  Variety meats include pigs’ feet, pork hocks, pig ears, etc.  The demand for variety meats kept the value of other pork products at a reasonable price.  Because of the recent trade war between China and the U.S., Chinese consumers were less likely to buy those variety meats.  From my experience in the meat industry, that means that a lot of cold storage plants in the U.S. are storing tons of variety meats that cannot be sold as easily in American markets.  In order to offset the disparity in products sold and unsold, the value of bacon and ham are going to rise.

Prior to the recent trade agreement, China’s purchases of American livestock products amounted to over $100 billion a year.  Slapping a 25% tariff on those goods was a blow to this country’s pork producers.  At some point, if other countries like Mexico, the second leading importer of U.S. pork products, do not increase their importation of pork products, pork producers are going to have to cut back on production.  That could make the prices of bacon and ham in the U.S. rise even higher.    

Bacon’s popularity has skyrocketed in the past few decades.  Fast-food restaurants have discovered that bacon, cheese, and a hamburger naturally complement each other.  Des Moines has a Bacon Festival that started in a bar with a few regular customers and morphed into a massive event needing a convention center, all in a decade.  Like many instances, once a person or thing becomes popular or rare, the costs go up.

In 1943, a pound of bacon cost forty-three cents a pound.  Twelve years later, in 1955, bacon was priced at 54¢ per pound.  It didn’t go over a dollar a pound until 1973 when the average price hit $1.16 per pound, thirty-two cents a pound higher than the previous year’s average of 84¢ a pound.  1980’s cost of bacon was a steady $1.48.  Bacon hit two dollars in 1986 when the average price per pound was $2.12. 

Somewhere between 1973 and 1986 bacon picked up a bad reputation and its value dropped.  A study in the late 70s or early 80s determined that eating bacon caused cancer.  I have a vivid memory of Dean Bowden, a product manager at Farmland Foods in Denison, coming into our work area, waving his hands, and yelling for us not to believe things we read in newspapers.  “In order for you to get cancer from eating bacon you would have to eat 90,000 lbs. a day” to match the ratio of nitrates that those scientists gave to lab rats. 

I got to experience the process of making bacon first hand.  I was laid off during my first year working in the pork plant.  Within a week (I didn’t even get a chance to draw one unemployment insurance check) I was called back to work the second shift.  The plant superintendent told me that he was going to make a pickle maker out of me.  I thought of Vlasic, Gedney, and other brands of pickles, but didn’t know Farmland made them. 

Pickle is actually the brine that goes into bacon, ham, and other smoked meats.  I was brought into a room with huge vats filled with water, and salt and sugar bags neatly stacked on pallets.  I was taught in a matter of minutes how to prepare brine for hams and bacon.  The pickle I made was to be used that night by the second shift of employees pumping the brine into the pork bellies for bacon, and hams for smoking.

A huge vat was filled with water.  A bag or so of salt was added; a portion of a bag of sugar, a small dose of sodium tripolyphosphate to help the meat retain moisture, and two little bottles of a white substance with labels indicating that each was approximately 10-20 grams – not even one ounce.  One of those bottles contained sodium nitrite, a preservative (anti-oxidant) and the supposed cause of cancer.  The other bottle contained sodium nitrate, also an anti-oxidant that helps cured meats retain their color.  Sodium nitrate is naturally produced in photosynthesis; sodium nitrite is synthetically made. 

The weight of the nitrites used in the process of bacon making are minuscule to the rest of the ingredients, and that includes the weight of the raw material – pork bellies.  I had read a summary of one of the reports warning against nitrites in meat.  Dean Bowden was right.  The dose of nitrites given the rats was extremely out of proportion to the ratio of nitrite in pickle.

The bacon cancer scare must have occurred again in 1988 and 1989 when a pound of bacon dropped back down below $2.00 per pound.  It lasted only two years.

The 1990s saw bacon prices hold steady between two and three dollars a pound.  Then came the 2000s.  $3.46 in 2000; $3.60 in 2001; $4.13 in 2004; and $5.14 in 2011.  Wait a minute.  I was buying bacon in 2011 and I can’t believe I bought it for that price. Well, I didn’t. 

Getting older means that you don’t eat the same things you ate as a teenager.  I didn’t eat much bacon since I no longer worked in the packinghouse and didn’t participate in employee sales.  I ate bacon, but the bulk of that was in a restaurant, eating it as a guest at someone else’s table, or finding it inexpensive at a huge meat sale.  Mostly, I avoided it.  I didn’t eat breakfast.  I wasn’t eating many BLTs in the summertime, either.  A few years ago, I picked up the yen for savory smoked bacon again.  Cancer be damned. 

Mature reasoning has led me to make sensible purchases.  I now buy bacon by the slice.  It’s cheaper, it’s easier to store, you don’t need the whole damned pound, anyway.  Besides, you’ll find that slab bacon seems to be meatier.

I know I’m not going to pay $5.50 a pound for Oscar Mayer bacon.  I need only 4 slices at a time.  The counter person always asks me what recipe I have where it calls for only 4 slices of bacon.  There’s no particular recipe, you see, 4 slices fit neatly in the pan. 

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Back to the Jungle II

In the last issue of the Prairie Progressive, Back to the jungle (Fall – 2019 p.4), and in a previous Fawkes-Lee & Ryan post, Back to the Jungle, I wrote about the effect of increased line speeds on slaughterhouse workers. This is the sequel. Briefly, prior to October, 2019, a pork slaughterhouse employee had a little over 18 hogs per minute pass by.  There was a federal rule that prevented packinghouses from running a line faster than 1106 hogs per hour.  That’s about one hog ever 3.2 minutes.  If you don’t think that’s very much, try doing the same task every 3.5 minutes for an hour.  You’ll get the picture.

Now, because of a federal regulation change, The New Swine Inspection System (NSIS), the sky’s the limit.  Hogs can go past an employee at the rate of . . . well, pigs are now going so fast it appears as though they are flying.  Moreover, you can’t just squeeze another employee into that line; they’re pretty much too close to each other as it is – and they work with knives – sharp knives.

But let’s look into the consumption end of the controversial rule.  You may not eat pork liver, lung, heart, and other internal organs and parts, but a visual inspection by a trained and qualified meat inspector can lead to a decision that something might be wrong with the carcass (ham, bacon, pork chop) by closely examining the offal.  When an internal organ shows a defect, foreign material, or an abnormality, the corresponding carcass is likely to have a related problem. 

The new federal rule removes up to 40% of meat inspectors at a slaughterhouse.  Those are good union jobs where meat inspectors check every single liver, heart, stomach, and carcass, ensuring that the pork we eat is safe and clean.  The government, with a nod from the packers, believes that employees of the company can do those jobs while meat inspectors focus on sanitary conditions.  Does it seem as though having a loyal employee doing the work rather than an independent government employee result in any sort of a conflict of interest?  That work includes looking for signs of enteric pathogens, defined as “gram-negative bacteria, such as Escherichia coli (better known as E-coli), Salmonella, and Campylobacter jejuni,” the latter found more often in poultry. 

There are three major companies in the United States that slaughter and process 57% of the nation’s hogs (compared to 32% in 1985).  You’ve heard of Big Oil and Big Pharma; now there is Big Pork.

Smithfield Foods, which owns the Farmland Foods label as well as John Morrell, is owned by WH Group out of Hong Kong and slaughters 30 million hogs per year; JBS USA (formerly Swift) is a wholly owned subsidiary of JBS, a Brazilian company that also owns Pilgrim’s Pride chicken; and the third Big Pork is Tyson Foods, an American company known mostly for chicken, but slaughters hogs at their IBP locations.

All three of these companies are vertical integration food companies, meaning they own the operation from piglet to sow, and in some cases, own the entire farm, the packing and processing facilities, as well as the trucking and marketing companies to transport and sell their products.  Often, these Big Pork companies contract with farmers to produce pigs, selling the pigs solely to the packer.  Those farrowing houses you smell in the countryside are most likely owned by the multinational companies who employ their own personnel to manage them, and pay the farmer who owns the land rent each year or month for use of the land containing the hog raising facilities and waste lagoons.  A farmer may also benefit from the manure produced by these operations.

JBS, with a plant in Worthington, MN, has been the recipient of $62 million in bailout money intended to supplement farmers hurt by the trade war.  JBS owners Joesley and Wesley Batista, Brazilian owners of JBS, have admitted “to bribing hundreds of top officials in [Brazil] and have spent time in jail over the corruption scandal.”

National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) President David Herring, a pork producer from Lillington, N.C. said: “We applaud the USDA for introducing a new inspection system that incentivizes investment in new technologies while ensuring a safe supply of wholesome American pork,”

Safe?  Not for slaughterhouse workers.  Not for the child who eats a hot dog that was tainted with meat that got past the company employee.  Not for the employee assigned to recognize an enteric pathogen and who stops the line to ensure that “gram-negative bacteria, such as E-coli and Salmonella” do not get into the food supply.  Too many stops and that employee’s job will be like skating on thin ice.

I am going to continue to eat what little pork I have in the past.  I like my bacon and my barbequed back ribs.  I also like to support those union families who rely upon those packinghouse jobs.  However, the next time you sit down to enjoy your favorite breakfast meat (sausage, ham, bacon), or dine on an Iowa Chop, or build a large lunch meat sandwich, or go after the year’s best pork tenderloin sandwich in Iowa, be sure to say grace.  It may be your last prayer.

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Wayne Ford invites you



Friday, January 10, 2020

In 2008 Iowa became the first state in America to pass the Minority Impact Statement Legislation.  The internationally known Sentencing Project based in Washington, DC had concluded in their research that Iowa had the highest percentage of black males incarcerated.  As an Iowa Legislator, I chose to visit the Sentencing Project to learn more about their research and what I, as legislator could do about it.

In 2008 I authored the legislation that made Iowa the first state in the nation to implement this historic legislation.  Since 2008, Connecticut, Oregon and in 2019 New Jersey implemented similar legislation.  Last legislative session, seven states-Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, and Vermont have introduced legislation to require racial impact statements.  Just recently Oklahoma filed to implement the minority impact statement.

On Friday, January 17, 2020 at the Iowa State Capitol (old Supreme Courtroom) The Brown and Black Forums of America will be hosting a Minority Impact Statement Legislation 101 Roundtable from 2-4PM.  This will kick off the Brown and Black Forums of America’s Democratic Presidential Forum week of activities. On January 20, 2020 the Brown and Black Forums of America will be hosting a Democratic Presidential Forum at the Iowa Events Center.  The event is a partnership between Vice TV and Cashmere Agency.

Former and current Iowa State Legislators, community leaders, lobbyists, local/ state officials, and Universities  officials will discuss the legislation history, implementation, research, impact and how other states are initiating similar legislation.

The roundtable will be facilitated by Wayne Ford who is a former Iowa State Legislator, Co-Chair of the Brown and Black Forums of America and founder of the Wayne Ford Equity Impact Institute.

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Living by the river

Yes, it’s January.  Nonetheless, it’s a good time to get out and walk, especially if you live by the river, like we do. 

Yesterday, January 6th, we saw 15 eagles on a two-mile stretch of the Des Moines River.

Beginning at the Euclid Avenue bridge east of River Place, and going south along the Trestle to Trestle Trail, we saw only two eagles.  However, once we walked over the Inter-Urban Trail Trestle, less than a quarter of a mile down river, we began to see an eagle almost every 300 feet.  We did not see the same eagle twice.

We met a man on the trail coming from down river and were excited to tell him that we had seen eight eagles at that time.  He mentioned that on the day before [Monday] there were approximately 20 eagles behind a shed on 6th Avenue above the river bridge.  Not too long after we stopped to chat with him, we saw our remaining seven eagles.

On Monday, Stephanie walked the 3-mile round trip from River Place, 2309 Euclid Ave., under the General Marcellus Crocker Memorial Bridge on the west side of the river, south along the Trestle to Trestle Trail, across the Inter-Urban Trail Bridge, around the bend and south again on the Neal Smith Trail until it connects with an unnamed trail heading north toward McRae Park.  At that point, Stephanie saw 5 eagles – 3 adults and 2 juveniles – sitting in a tree (photo above) along the west side of a man-made pond adjacent to the location where Riverside Park once sat, and is again being turned into an amusement park.  On Tuesday, we saw two, but there were several across the river from us on the south shore.

I wish the photos were better.  The pictures were taken by an iPhone and an Android.  Obviously, the best way to see these majestic birds is to follow our footsteps.  Noon is the best time of day, and the weather should be great for the rest of the week for viewing. 

You can actually get right underneath them.  However, that’s not a great location.  If you’ve ever seen eagle whitewash, you would understand.  You will notice some on the trail if you go.  For those of you who live too far from Des Moines or the Des Moines River, trust us, this is an amazing sight to see.

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