Monday, April 26, 2010


The use of written disclaimers is understandable to anyone familiar with the climate of litigation in this country. Their language is reasonably clear, and the purpose of their use as a loss prevention device is self-evident.

Then there are those noxious messages that are virtually incomprehensible, which appear after an advertisement on radio. The advertisers find people who can read quickly, and then use technology to reduce the space between the gabbled words even further.

Since the purpose of these messages is to protect the advertiser from claims, surely they should be understandable? One might hope - vainly, it seems - that the Advertising Council would come up with some form of self-regulation, so that these disclaimers could really fulfill their purpose, instead of cocking a virtual snook at the listener. The greed of the advertisers is made clear by these incomprehensible messages: the truth is that the advertisers don't want us to be able to understand what is being said. If these messages were spoken more slowly, the advertisers would have to abbreviate their sales pitches, which they would obviously be reluctant to do.

How long will we put up with such nonsense, before Congress is forced to consider legislation designed to prevent this abuse?

Monday, April 19, 2010


No, this has nothing to do with General Motors. In this case, the initials stand for "genetically modified". When some folk see those words, their hackles rise. They are absolutely opposed to genetic modification of agricultural products. They stress that (for example) designing corn that incorporates a pesticide can upset the balance of nature. If the bugs can't feed on the corn, then the birds that depend on the bugs can't survive either. If a GM crop is grown in a field adjacent to one containing unmodified crops, the latter can become contaminated. Of course, I am not saying there is nothing to these and other points raised by opponents of GM food.

At this point, I should disclose that, many years ago, our stockbroker bought some Monsanto shares, and that company and its ubiquitous pesticide "Roundup" are seen as the chief villains. Notwithstanding our minor investment in this company, I'll try to remain objective.

There is a strong case that we need GM crops to help feed a hungry world. Those who express this viewpoint sometimes consider their opponents as latter-day Luddites.

As you might expect, I am somewhere in the middle! On balance, I believe that the advantages of GM agricultural products outweigh the disadvantages. However, in one respect I am 100% in agreement with Barbara. Food often doesn't taste as good as it did when we were growing up. One of the most obvious cases is that of the strawberry. The huge red berries one can buy at the supermarket seem virtually tasteless. We look for smaller berries, often to be found at local Farmer's Markets.

Another example is the tomato. These look great, being firm, beautifully curved, and attractive. Yes, and often virtually tasteless. A partial exception to this judgment is the so called "Cherry Tomato". We almost always use cherry tomatoes in our salads these days.

Related concerns apply to animal husbandry. There is a move toward larger sizes and standardization. I have another concern: When we breed such a bird as the turkey into obesity, we increase the poultry farmer's profits, but are these waddling creatures leading as happy a life as their ancestors? I don't know, but I do have my doubts. We have even learned to raise the offspring of some creatures by cloning. This and other breeding techniques can produce a standardized product welcomed by the purveyors in the marketplace.

My beloved elder sister, Evelyn, who died over twenty years ago, was a supporter of "British Breeds", a society whose objective was to ensure reproduction of many types of domestic animals in their original form. The motives of those who supported this movement were varied, but all felt it was important to maintain established breeds for future generations.

I think that such a concept is equally important for fruit, vegetables, and other agricultural products. I hope that growers who concentrate on GM agriculture will maintain a supply of seeds, etc. of the original product.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Have you ever been told that you are guilty of using stereotypes? Many of us are told that we should avoid stereotypes at all costs. Some stereotypes are so far out that one can't take them seriously. For example, there's the nursery rhyme that begins "Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief..." Because of my upbringing in England, I learned that the Scots were mean and the Irish were drunkards. Such stereotypes are obviously prejudicial.

However, few, if any, stereotypes are made up out of "whole cloth". There is often some folk wisdom behind them: just because some concept depends on a stereotype doesn't mean it is always wrong.

My late mother, who died in 1996 at the age of 105, had a favorite joke. She said that Heaven was where the French were the cooks, the English were the police, the Swiss were the organizers, the Germans were the mechanics, and the Italians were the lovers.

Hell, on the other hand, was where the Italians were the organizers, the French were the mechanics, the English were the cooks, the Germans were the police and the Swiss were the lovers.

See? The whole joke is based on stereotypes. Most of us would say that there is a good deal of truth behind these supposed national characteristics.

Judging people based on stereotypes is clearly inappropriate. Nevertheless, we probably all know of situations in which the stereotype accurately reflects some personality characteristics. There is certainly some truth when I sign myself, as I sometimes do, as "Nitpicker". It's quite ok to grin at that!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Bread and cheese

In wartime Britain, there wasn't much choice of cheese. There was a somewhat bland variety, allegedly "cheddar", but usually described by those I knew as "mousetrap" cheese.

To digress for a moment from time to time some mice have crept into our Colorado home. Our wonderful handyman (Roger Opfer) has stopped up most of the crevices and other "ports of entry", thus preventing more mice invasions. However, we did need to use some traps, which he baited with peanut butter, which works very well.

I have no objection to peanut butter, but it is not part of my regular diet. One day, Barbara found a jar of peanut butter in the refrigerator, and wondered why it was there. I explained that Roger had put it there to preserve it for the next invasion.

Soon after the end of the war, we were able to obtain Camembert and Danish Blue, and then there was Brie, very much a favorite in Northern California these days.

In the 50s, one of my friends was a Cheese Factor in Cheshire. He would travel to farms in the area where cheese was made, and purchase it for later retail sale. Cheshire makes its own blue cheese, which is very similar to a cheese I buy these days from the Cheeseboard, Shropshire Blue.

The Cheeseboard is a Berkeley institution. It's just about a mile down the road from our house, in what was once known as Berkeley's "Gourmet Ghetto", before Cocolat was brought down by an employee's embezzlement, and the Pig-by-the-Tail charcuterie went out of business. One can sample a variety of cheeses at the counter before buying anything. Instead of awaiting the calling of one's number, you take a playing card, and these are called out in order. If you are lucky enough to draw the "Joker" you are attended to immediately. Another advantage is that there is a discount for older folk, which increases as one ages. Barbara and I cheerfully accept a 20% discount these days. (If we make it to 100, "what you see is what you get"). Barbara doesn't look her age, so she usually carries her driver's license, but she has an honest face, and I think that the employees trust her when she explains that she is over 80 now.

The Cheeseboard also sells olives, sometimes free-range eggs, and a variety of bread products. Barbara and I really love their English muffins, but my favorite product is their fresh baguettes, often still warm when they are sold. I eat a slice of baguette almost every day of the year, usually with some cheese and a small slice of Black Forrest ham.

Perhaps the Cheeseboard's best known product is its vegetarian pizza. Always delicious! From Tuesday until Saturday, quantities of these pizzas are sold, including many ready-baked, sold whole, half, or a quarter. The Cheeseboard recently expanded, with a separate entrance, where they sell warm pizza. The new premises have tables and chairs to sit at, and offer beer and soft drinks to accompany the food, and (on Saturdays) live music. However, we usually buy our pizza half-baked, and pop it into an oven at 425 degrees F for 8 minutes.

On many visits to the UK, I have chosen a "Ploughman's Lunch". Involving a thick slice of bread and a chunk of good cheddar, usually served with olives or other condiments. In many British pubs, one can order a "Stilton Ploughman's" for a slightly higher price.

This brings me to tell you the names of some of my other favorite cheeses. I love Gruyere. This comes in two varieties at the Cheeseboard. There is the "Reserve", and "Cave-aged", slightly more expensive. When I am shopping at the Cheeseboard, I usually ask the server to give me a "blind" taste of each of these, and up to now I have always been able to determine which is the cave-aged, my favorite.

I am fond of "stinky" cheese, even Limburger. Actually, I don't think I have ever met a cheese I didn't like. Of the many excellent English cheeses, I also enjoy Cotswold with chives, Double Gloucester, and several others.

Of the many other excellent French cheeses, I particularly appreciate Bleu d' Auvergne. I buy strong German cheeses and several Italian cheeses, including Gorgonzola, Parmesan, and Romano. That's enough: I am beginning to get hungry!

I really prefer a cold lunch, whereas I like hot food at dinnertime. Recently, Barbara and I visited a delightful restaurant at Larkspur Landing, which features an impressive array of South-East Asian food. Barbara and I weren't very hungry that evening, but with my glass of red wine I needed something to eat. You guessed it: I chose a small slice of baguette, the last morsel of Camembert, and a deliciously creamy Montagnola.

Yes, I am a creature of habit when it comes to bread and cheese.