Complaint Department

Athena T. Cat is not happy. In fact, she is currently stretched out on the floor, feet in the air, in the process of dying of hunger despite having just eaten breakfast, as well as having had her bit of milk in her bowl, and the last drops of milk from my bowl. She is . . . the World’s Fluffiest Starving-to-Death Housecat. Continue reading

Book Review: China’s Land and Waters

Marks, Robert D.   China: Its Environment and History (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011) Kindle Edition

Robert Marks’s excellent survey history of China’s relationship with its lands and waters provides a one-volume reference for anyone interested in the country’s past and in how non-Western peoples approached their environment. It serves as a much-needed corrective to some misperceptions about non-Westerners and their surroundings as well as showing how different cultural values lead to different approaches in landscape management. Continue reading

When it Rains, It Puddles

Water goes. That is one of the few givens in hydrology – water is going to go somewhere, always down hill, or down into the soil. Which raises interesting questions for those living at the bottom of hills or in flat places. In many parts of the world, flat places tend to be soggy places. The Great Plain of Hungary was an enormous wetland prior to the 19th century and drainage plans. Large swaths of Germany also contained marshes and moors, in some ways like the Fens in England or what are now the drained lands of Holland (aka the Low Countries.) The same held true for central North America. The Dakotas, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, parts of Minnesota and Iowa, and the High Plains of Texas contained multiple natural lakes. But they were very different, with different origins and life-cycles. Continue reading

Friday Fiction Teaser: When Chicken Feet Cross the Highway

 

Alexander Nikolai Zolnerovich was watching traffic and arguing with the radio when the Little House on Chicken Feet walked across the north and south bound lanes of I-25. Traffic had stopped for the usual wreck, and the house, about the size of the semi-trailer looming in Alexi’s rearview mirror, picked its way between and over the cars, apparently untroubled by the congestion. Alexi stared, open jawed, then said some of those Russian words he wasn’t supposed to have overheard his parents using. “I didn’t . . . no way . . . it can’t be. Is joke.” He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and opened them again. The house stopped by the northbound shoulder, scratched up some of the grass with one of the chicken feet, and continued east-northeast. Alexi saw the shadow under the house, and the scratch-marks in the grass and dirt of the embankment. “Oh no.” Continue reading

Book Review: Food history of America

O’Connell, Libby The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites (2014) Kindle Edition

I wanted to like this book. And it started out entertaining and somewhat educational. It is a collection of short essays on food-based themes, from Native American crops to the rise of fast food to the trials and tribulations of alcohol consumption in the United States. Mrs. O’Connell writes well, in a modern, breezy tone well suited to American Studies or to short pieces of text for a museum display or TV program.

As I read, especially once the book got into the mid to late 19th century, I had more and more difficulties, and I was not certain why. Something about the tone kept throwing me out of the book, which is a major problem for an essay collection. It was not until I got near the end that I realized what had happened. I read the book expecting it to be recipes and foodways with some history. That is how it begins. But the second half of the work is a popular US history told with food, using eating and manufacturing trends as a lens to view culture and politics. The other difficulty lay in the author’s injection of her understanding of history into the topic. Again, since I was reading this as a cookbook and food history that happened to take place in North America, the author’s commentary threw me out of what I was expecting and took away from the book.

It is a fun read, at least the first half, and has some interesting tidbits and trivia. The recipes look workable, although I have not tried to make any of them yet. If you are looking for a light read that puts food into historical context, than this may be exactly what you are interested in. Since I was reading it backwards, as food-in-history rather than history-with-food, the author’s commentary might prove useful.  Mrs. O’Connell’s interpretation grates a little in the final chapters, because she repeats what I have read in more detailed monographs and other histories. We all know that processed foods are the tools of the devil, that fake cheese is fake, and that Europeans were the worst thing that could have happened to North America since the last time the Yellowstone super-volcano erupted (OK, I exaggerate a little on that last bit). The author errs on the side of the currently accepted historical narrative at the expense of some fairly important historical information. Does it affect her argument? Not really, but again, what I read the book for and what she served did not mesh.

The American Plate is an easy introduction to the food history of the US, especially the chapters covering the time before 1900. I’d recommend the Smithsonian’s American Foodways series, heritage cookbooks, and regional food histories and ethnographies for people truly interested in the history of how Americans ate and how our diets changed for the better (or worse) over time.

The Power of Energy in History

As part of preparation for teaching this upcoming semester, I’ve been reading up on environmental histories of Asia and European Russia. Luckily, several good summary histories have come out recently, one of which I will be reviewing shortly. But one of the themes that undergirds environmental history all over the world is that of energy usage and dependence. Every culture that has shifted from foraging to agriculture has found a way to tap solar energy through animals. Industrial peoples added wind and water power, then new forms of chemical energy, and in a few cases nuclear power. Without tapping new energy sources, cultures remained at the same plateau. It’s something the pundits and some activists tend to forget, or to discourage, in  policy and resource discussions today. Continue reading