Monday, April 26, 2010

You Ate What!?: Uncommon Foods & the Beauty of the Sandwich

I must confess that there was a time in my childhood where I ate plain butter on occasion. To be totally honest, it wasn't butter. It was actually I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! Yikes. That was a dark period in my life.

I find it fascinating to hear the different things people enjoy consuming that elicit the response: "You eat what!?," which comes about most often in cultural exchange. I was a bit surprised when I first encountered the popular Mexican street food called elotes, or roasted corn on the cob smeared with mayonnaise, hot sauce, sour cream, cheese, lemon juice, salt, butter or any combination of the above. As it turns out, that's delicious! By contrast, I found it far more difficult to enjoy several Thai snacks including deep-fried crickets and sticky rice, bees, and live shrimp. It just doesn't seem comfortable to put something that's still moving into one's mouth. However, I do recognize that those are all totally legitimate forms of protein, and I think, given more time, I could grow to appreciate a good deep-fried cricket.

But there's no need to go abroad; there's no shortage of unusual foods being consumed by our very neighbors. I've recently gathered some information on this topic, and I'd like to throw out a few under-appreciated food combinations I've come across in my research and personal life:
-(Vanilla) ice cream with slices of cucumber and sunflower seeds (Qiqi Puranchenkova)
-Apparently, dipping bread in maple syrup or honey mixed with peanut butter is a Southern treat. One might also enjoy dipping honey in pretzels (Caleb Kennedy, Shira Kresch)
-Potatoes and nutmeg
-My immediately family has always enjoyed graham crackers dipped or crushed in milk and banana with peanut butter, respectively

One of the foods that has most wowed me in the course of my life is a Southern-style cake. I've yet to actually experience one, but it is on my list of things to eat before death. To give you a sense for their wow factor, one woman trained in the tradition reported that "three or four [layers] weren't nothing to brag about." A really well-made cake might have up to thirteen layers! But, don't let your imagination run too wild; the layers are more like pancakes than the layers us Yankees are used to. You can read about and watch the art of making these cakes and get the recipe here. I'm still on the hunt for someone with enough chutzpah to try making this with me.

While we're on this topic of things edible, I must share a new fascination of mine: the sandwich. So taken for granted. I only recently learned that the sandwich is named after an 18th century aristocrat named John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich (a town in Kent, England). He would often order his valet to bring him meat in between two slices of bread, and others who started to enjoy it would order, saying: "the same as Sandwich!" He reportedly liked the food because it allowed him to eat and play cards at the same time, without getting his fingers greasy like eating meat plain. Once my fascination with sandwiches took hold, I discovered the most amazing website: Insanewiches, which highlights highly creative and bizarre sandwiches (see: "best insanewiches" in the right hand column). Inspired, I'm working on creating my own signature sandwich, to be appropriately called: The Julie. The genius behind The Julie, is not the same sort of creativity as seen in the Insanewiches, but rather it is that the majority of the contents are made into a paste, so you don't have to deal with the frustration of whole tomato slices, avocado slices, etc. falling out of your sandwich. It's very stressful and it ruins everything. So, the basic recipe for The Julie recommends the following layers between two slices of whole wheat bread (Arnold's is a quality, yet cheap brand): hummus, signature guacamole (half of an avocado, minced tomato/mushroom/jalapeno pepper/garlic/onion to taste), cucumber embedded into the hummus and guacamole to ensure nothing falls out, and spinach. It's still a work in progress and I'm toying with the radical concept of fruit on sandwiches, especially with dried berries and thin slices of apple. All input and constructive criticism is welcome; I have big dreams for The Julie.

Postscript: I am very interested in learning about more under-appreciated food combinations from anyone who knows of any.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

What do Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and Howard Hughes Have in Common?

The answer? They are all considered "eccentrics." In this post, I will do a highlight reel of my new favourite book, entitled: Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness by Dr. David Weeks and Jamie James, wherein the two psychologists present a study they conducted throughout the U.S. and Great Britain to explore what an eccentric is and what causes a person to be one. Before this study, psychological research on eccentricity was almost nonexistent, since eccentrics do not seek psychological treatment because their condition usually does not impose suffering. Weeks and James hoped that examining the sources of eccentricity might shed light on how we can all better become ourselves. Throughout the course of their research, they were amazed to find that eccentrics seemed significantly happier and more comfortable with themselves than the population at large.

The study, which they argue makes for the largest population group ever sampled by a group of psychologists short of the U.S. census, found that the prevalence of eccentrics in the population could be estimated at about 1 in every 10,000 people, with the highest per capita population to be found in none other than Minneapolis/St. Paul! While the people in the study varied greatly in character, Weeks and James developed a list of shared characteristics among eccentrics, including: "idealistic (wanting to make the world a better place and the people in it happier); happily obsessed with one or more hobbyhorses (usually five or six); intelligent; opinionated and outspoken, convinced that he or she is right and that the rest of the world is out of step; noncompetitive, not in need of reassurance or reinforcement from society; not particularly interested in the opinions or company of other people, except in order to persuade them to his or her--the correct--point of view; single; usually the eldest or an only child; and a bad speller."

The book also includes a review of historical eccentrics from Benjamin Franklin to Davy Crockett. My personal favourite is John Chapman (1774-1845), better known as Johnny Appleseed, who "devoted his whole life to the apple, traveling across the country planting countless thousands or millions of apple trees over an area of land estimated to exceed 100,000 square miles... He dressed in old coffee sacks with holes cut out for his arms and legs, and went barefoot except in the extreme cold... The one thing that could ruffle his placid demeanor was to hear any slanderous reference made to the apple in the Garden of Eden."

While I recommend that you read the book for yourself, I can't help but share the portraits of a few of my other favourite eccentrics from the study itself:

-Minnesotan Marvin Staples walks everywhere backwards, believing living life in reverse makes him feel younger and has cured him of chronic backache and arthritis in his knees. (He is in the Guinness Book of World Records for traveling the furthest distance by walking backwards.) He said, "The Hyokas Indians used to walk backward trusting the Great Spirit to catch them if they fell. The Hyokas and the Sioux also did things backwards to make people laugh and to forget about their problems."

-John Slater, who has spent the better part of the past ten years living in a cave in Scotland which floods with water at high tide, is the only person to have ever walked from Land's End to John O'Groats (in Great Britain) in his bare feet, wearing only striped pajamas (but accompanied by his dog who wore suede booties). He once volunteered to spend six months in the London Zoo as part of a "human exhibit" to raise money for the conservation of pandas, but zoo authorities "foolishly declined" this offer. Slater's life goal is to raise a million pounds for charity. His motto is: "Wag your tail at everyone you meet."

-One man, who became completely enthralled by the legend of Robin Hood, moved to Sherwood Forest and legally adopted the name "Robin Hood." "He now wears a historically accurate medieval forester's costume--all in green, complete with longbow, a quiverful of arrows and a feathered hat--seven days a week." 

Weeks and James conclude that certain types of deviant behavior can be healthy and life-enhancing. Eccentrics embrace their freedom to be original and inspire others to do so. Moreover, this book reminded me of the pervasive societal misconception that "It matters what people think of me." The authors show that realizing that as a foolish notion unleashes a wealth of possibility for our human potential and happiness. 

But this book also got me wondering: have I ever even met an eccentric, if they are only about 1 in every 10,000 people? (Maybe Mark Smith, K College folks?) Anyway, I am on the hunt now, and I would love to hear from you, if you think you might know one!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Two Steps to a Smarter, Happier Nation

"Dr. Oz"* (of Oprah Show fame) believes that in order to do the right thing, we must make the right thing to do the easy thing to do. For instance, Dr. Oz has replaced the couch in front of his TV with a stationary bike, making it easy to sprinkle his daily routine with plenty of heart-healthy exercise. In this way, I have devised two plans that have the potential to relatively easily increase my breadth of knowledge and quality of life that might also work well for the population at large.

First, I propose educational music. Today, I memorized all of the books of the New Testament in order by listening to this song. It only took a few listens, and I think it is now stuck with me for months (and maybe years). Now I'm working on learning the capitals of hispanic countries with this video. As the inept Spanish teach in the linked video shows, educational, a'cappella songs are intrinsically self-deprecating for the singer, which only adds to the fun! 

What if the easy listening music "Muzak" we are constantly bombarded with at public establishments ("Crocodile Rock," "Brown Eyed Girl," smooth jazz, etc.) and the catchy tunes we listen to in our leisure time actually had this sort of practical application to our lives (instead of all being about love/romance/sex/moral deviancy)?

The only example in popular culture that comes close to this "educational music" I am proposing that I can think of is Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire." In addition, Bill Nye and a few other children's "edutainers" (comes from educational entertainers and is a term I just coined) have worked to build a relationship between education and popular music. However, the "edutainer" approach falls short of my vision by only targeting children and by often doing parodies of already popular songs. Let me know if you can think of any further examples of educational music in popular culture.

My second idea, regarding how to increase the general well-being of our population, is that St. John's wort become a more common, widely-marketed dietary supplement for your average Joe. For those who aren't familiar with it, St. John's wort is a plant often used as an herbal treatment for depression (and it has been widely documented as an effective treatment for mild forms). It is an over-the-counter dietary supplement with minimal side effects that induces positive mood. 

I have designed an experiment, starting today, that seeks to test the effectiveness of St. John's wort on a person not suffering from depression (i.e., me). I track my mood on a 9-point scale (5 being neutral, 1 being "depths-of-despair" and 9 being "cloud 9") three times per day and will continue to do so for two months. For the first week (this week), I will not take St. John's wort, and then for the following seven weeks I will consume it at the recommended dose for the mildly depressed. At the end of the two months, I will chart the mood records to reveal the results. I have confirmed with a medical doctor that this study should not pose any significant threats to my health.

I realize the obvious weaknesses of this study: the subjectivity of self-evaluated moods, the placebo effect, etc. Nonetheless, I think the study has the potential to yield some interesting results that might suggest the need for further, more reputable research. If it does induce an almost euphoric mood in an already happy person, I think it could help us "all just get along" a little better. Expect a post soon on the progress of this cutting-edge experiment!

*Note: I do not endorse Dr. Oz.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

SkyMall: The Best Mall

Many of you may be familiar with SkyMall, the shopping magazine you find in front of you on airplanes, filled with delightful and zany inventions. For years I've considered it one of the greatest joys of air travel (although you can peruse their products anytime, it's just not the same). If you're familiar with SkyMall, and with me, you might find we're a perfect match-- both creating unique, innovative products that no one else seems to appreciate.

Let me first offer a sample of my own work-in-progress product list. My personal favourite is a fashionable food thermometer, which makes you look chic and trendy while ensuring that you don't ruin the rest of your week by eating a burrito that is hotter at its core than you expected. (It has happened to all of us.) You can even customize it to your ideal food temperature, so nothing is ever too hot or too cold. That's right, Goldilocks, this one is for YOU!

Another invention, to which most of the credit goes to my collaborator and "fraintance" Jeff Hollenbeck, is a lead, pen(cil) stamp used for standardized testing. When fellow students are losing precious seconds filling in circles like monkeys for multiple choice questions on the ACT or SAT, you can just stamp, stamp, stamp your heart away with this mechanism! To be totally honest, this idea is becoming less and less marketable with the onset of computerized test-taking. But who knows how many students could advance their scores on the ACT/SAT in this year alone with the release of the lead stamp invention?!

By comparison, SkyMall features such unusual products as tools for "potty training" your cat to use your personal toilet (seen here), a ball-point "spy" pen boasting a hidden video-recording device (seen here), and a "gentle" alarm clock that slowly emits light, rejuvenating fragrances, and soothing nature sounds to wake you up over the course of a half an hour (seen here).

The only weakness to SkyMall, other than the fact that I am not on their team, is their marketing. First of all, they make no effort to get noticed on ground (not just in the sky). The do not circulate or publicize outside of airplanes (and the internet), and in doing so they're missing out on expanding their customer base to elderly or sick people who don't travel, people who are afraid of planes, and people who don't have enough money to fly (but who might be willing to splurge on a secret spy pen). Now, I will explain a second weakness in marketing. Listed under the heading: "The Greatest Gift... is to help others help themselves" in SkyMall magazine are the "E-pen," which removes unwanted facial hair on women, and an anti-snoring aid, amongst other products. These items should never be gifts. SkyMall needs a loyal customer base; giving these gifts to one's friends might end the friendships and thus would not provide such a stable base of support.

Hopefully, it can be understood by the preceding discussion that SkyMall and I are a match made in heaven. We are both dedicated to innovation in the daily lives of common people. We both see the importance of potty training our cats, spying in our day-to-day encounters, and testing the temperature of food before we take the risky leap of taking a bite (presumably they would like this product as well). My hope is that someone from SkyMall reads this and sees that I could be capable of writing catchy blurbs for their products, critical analysis of SkyMall corporate growth and loss, or coming up with the product lists for each magazine. My more realistic hope is that you have gained a new appreciation for SkyMall and will do a thorough read-through of the magazine the next time you travel on commercial air.

Notes: Credit goes to Shira Kresch for reminding me of the joys of SkyMall. On an unrelated note, let me offer my apologies for coming off as a profit-driven, capitalist swine in this post.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Why Evangelical Christians Matter and Why I (Sometimes) Like Them

Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Columbia University, calls the tremendous ongoing growth of the evangelical movement the most important religious and social movement in American history. Other scholars call it a revolution in American religion, restructuring our political and religious identity as a nation. Whether you agree or disagree, you are surely familiar with evangelicalism, the widespread adoption of a Bible-based worldview promoted by a diverse group of Christians who, over the past twenty-five years, have kept growing and growing, and growing. It’s not difficult to see this boom happening in my home state of Minnesota, with the unparalleled growth of Eagle Brook Church, an evangelical community started in 1991 that now boasts the highest weekend attendance of any church in the state (over 11,000). In December, Eagle Brook, which broadcasts televised sermons from its Lino Lakes campus to sites in Spring Lake Park and White Bear Lake, released to the press that it will be building two additional sites in Blaine and Woodbury, respectively. The Eagle Brook experience may seem foreign to Christians who are new to the “mega-church” scene; the sights and sounds of Eagle Brook include stadium seating, rock-type music, smoke on the stage, and a few hands waving in the air.

This past summer, I conducted twenty-four interviews at three Twin Cities churches as part of my Senior Individualized Project ("senior thesis") at Kalamazoo College. I studied Eagle Brook’s various campuses, House of Hope Church on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul, and Central Presbyterian Church in downtown St. Paul to examine how the traditional patterns linking social class and belief about God in America are challenged by the increasing popularity of evangelicalism among the upper-middle class. One of the most important findings of the study posits that the congregation at Eagle Brook demonstrates a stunning in-group theological unity (i.e. everyone believes the same things), unparalleled by mainline Protestant churches like House of Hope and Central. In my analysis, I argued that Eagle Brook does this by directly defining expectations for the beliefs and behaviors of its congregants and by capitalizing on emotionally-charged group experiences with the sacred. They achieve this with culturally relevant services and by demonstrating mastery of the art of oral communication in a nation of talkers.

In a left-leaning state, there is no shortage of negative stereotypes about evangelicals. When I told fellow Minnesotans (or fellow students) about my thesis, they often responded with disparaging perceptions about evangelicals. Upon beginning the study, I myself assumed that evangelical culture embraces a stagnant thinking and irrational faith. After attending a few services and conducting several interviews, I discovered that, on the contrary, “Eagle Brookers” invest great energy into wrestling with the doubt and mystery of a Christian faith. Further, Eagle Brook places a radical emphasis on reducing global and local poverty beyond that of any church I had ever seen or heard of before.

Like many others, before I began the study I found it hard to rationalize the staggering costs of the facilities at Eagle Brook, with the construction of the Lino Lakes campus alone totaling $24 million. But throughout the course of the study, I began to see the astounding social impact of “Eagle Brookers.” According to my interview with executive pastor Rev. Scott Anderson, in the past three years alone, Eagle Brook has raised $2 million for the reduction of AIDS in Mozambique. Anderson said, “We can do more, too. I see it as a failure of the church that people…are starving. Shame on us when the Church of Jesus Christ is more worried about the air conditioning level in an office than about the people who are dying all around us.”

According to the Eagle Brook Church website (, since 2007, “Eagle Brookers” have filled and donated 4,300 backpacks to kids in need through Here’s Life Inner-City. Their March 2009 food drive yielded 23,100 pounds of food and almost $17,000 in cash donations for local food shelves. In November 2009, Eagle Brookers donated 5,753 gift-filled shoeboxes to be given to children in desperate situations around the world through Operation Christmas Child. The list of local and global social contributions goes on, and the point remains that Eagle Brook is making an astonishing social impact.

The facilities may be expensive, but the Eagle Brook community realizes that with such privilege comes great responsibility. Whether or not you agree with the theological or political opinions of the majority of evangelicals, there is no denying that the seriousness with which social issues are addressed at most “mega-churches” and the magnitude of their impact on poverty reduction leaves most mainline Protestant churches (and many secular non-profits) in the dust. As Eagle Brook and its like-minded churches nation-wide plan even more radical goals for poverty reduction in the coming years, I look forward to a more just local and global community. (Click here for a two-minute snippet of a sermon from Willow Creek Church, which inspired the "mega-church" movement. Click here for my favourite full-length sermon from "Willow" on enemy love.)