Saturday, May 30, 2015

Kansas City conversations

Barber Shop in Stockton
I flew out to Kansas City last weekend to do research on how Americans think about money in politics for a coalition of advocacy groups who work on campaign finance reform.  One of the major foundations that funds these groups wants us to create an umbrella strategy for the whole diverse set of approaches.

A few weeks ago I was working on the same project out in California, in San Jose and Stockton, working with a colleague and a videographer.  But this trip was solo.  I was writing the protocol, planning the day, button-holing the subjects, working the camera and mic, conducting the interviews, interpreting and processing the results.

young couple in KC

It's tiring work, but it's anthropology and it's fascinating.  (Unfortunately, it was also raining much of Saturday and Sunday and I'd caught a miserable head cold from Nico.)

It's been a tough project, full of cul de sacs and plenty of ideas that seemed promising, but wouldn't pan out.

Ultimately, it turns out that we're all used to talking about the topic within the frame of corruption and the hijacking of our democracy by the wealthy and powerful.  This  elicits an appropriate anger from people, but it also elicits negativity and hopelessness.  And that was the wall that we had come up against.

Alternately, you can tap into an underlying faith that people have in a government of the people and by the people - and what it would mean if we leveled the playing field so that regular people could once again get elected to public office.

And suddenly campaign finance reform is a common sense solution to a coherent problem.  And you have a completely different conversation.

Memorial Day shook off it's rainy morning and I cleared my head as best I could.  I pestered the shoppers at the plaza and the hip outposts of Westport, and hit I the cookouts in the Mexican and Black neighborhoods eastwards.

And I assembled my video evidence that we have a better way to engage people on how to deal with money in politics.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Pickling Sunchokes

Two years ago I planted sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes.  It is a variety of sunflower that creates edible tubers.

They are perennials that grow with a weed-ish vitality, which is something I very much treasure in a garden plant.  (As a bonus the blooms are a food source for the bees as well.)

People use them like potatoes or as something akin to water chestnuts in salads and stir fries.

Unfortunately, the tubers are best dug up in the winter, after a few hard frosts have turned some of the starches to sugars - or before the shoots come up in the spring.

That's not really the season for salads or stir fries, and if you use Jerusalem artichokes in any quantity (as you would potatoes) you learn why the plant is often derisively named the fartichoke.

Monica and I liked the taste and texture, didn't like the windiness, and didn't find much use for our sunchoke harvest last year.

However, there are rumors that pickling them neutralizes the gas-inducing properties (or maybe just moderates your intake of sunchokes to a more harmless level?).

Pickles that are both flavorful and non-mushy are a rare and hard to find treat.  (And when it comes to gardening, I have completely failed to raise cucumbers each time I've tried.)  Since sunchokes turn out to be an acceptable pickle, I will contentedly give up on trying to raise cucumbers!

Here are the results of my experiment.

Technique #1 places diced sunchokes in a crock, where you soak them in a brine with turmeric, cumin, garlic and ginger for a few days.  Then pack them into jars with garlic and chiles and leave them sit out for a week or so longer.  Once you reach the level of flavor and sourness you like, you store them in the refrigerator.

Verdict:  The texture is excellent and crunchy.  The flavor is OK, with a bit too much turmeric, but a nice closing spiciness from the chiles.  They float and turn gray unless you weight them down into the brine, which is more trouble than I'm usually willing to take.  Refrigerator storage isn't ideal.  Still, I'll experiment with this one again.

Technique #2 brines the sunchokes for 12 hours or so with some turmeric.  You rinse it off, and pack the sunchoke slices (half inch thick) into jars.  You bring a pickling juice to a boil with spices, but let it cool before pouring it into the jars.  Pour it over the chokes and can them in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Verdict: Wonderfully crunchy texture, and fine vinegar pickles overall.  I'll use a bit less sugar next time and experiment with the pickling spices, but this one is definitely a success.  Better than cucumber pickles in my humble opinion.

Technicque #3 tosses the sliced sunchokes in with spices, packs them into jars and pours a boiling mixture of water, cider vinegar, honey and salt.  As the recipe recommended, I included some shiitake mushrooms in a couple of jars, and hot Thai peppers and garlic in most of them as well as a random distribution of cloves, mustard seeds and pickling spice mixture.  I canned these pint jars in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Verdict: The mushrooms seem to lend an intriguing earthiness to the flavor.  But I think pouring on the hot pickling juice cooks the sunchokes slightly, so they don't have that raw-carrot-crunch that the other techniques preserve.  

In any case the specific spicing isn't the real test here - since I had only a motley selection of pickling spices.  It's the crunchiness.  Spicing and sweetness can be adjusted, but whatever technique results in good, crunchy pickled sunchokes is he one I'm looking for.  And for that Technique #2 wins, with #1 a close second.

Full recipes below the fold . . .

Monday, May 18, 2015

Star flower, Lysimachia borealis

Where the backyard begins to be part of the forest, the ground this time of year is blanketed with Canada mayflower.  And scattered among them are little white star flowers.

Canada mayflower

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Ending a Hiatus

Mingo County, West Virginia

2 posts in the past two months.  I'm not sure that counts as maintaining a blog.

I've kept journals pretty consistently since I was 14 or so.  Sometimes they lapse, usually either because I find myself too uninteresting to be worthy of record, or because I'm caught up in too many other things and the backlog of potential entries starve each other.

These last two months have been more that second problem.

At work we've been busy beyond our capacities - and as research director it's been my job to keep projects rolling that explore how different people conceptualize and think about: good governance, mental disability, the transition away from coal in Appalachia, the earned income tax credit, family work balance, taxation, and money in politics.

Welch, WV
There've week-long been research trips - to central Appalachia on the coal project and California for money in politics.  I leave for Kansas City on Friday.  There has been phone interviewing, both by me and by people I've been training - on money in politics, the EITC, family work balance, etc.  I've been training assistants to handle our on-line experiments at testing communications strategies - for governance, taxation, and others, but there are a lot of moving parts.  And recruiting an extra ethnographer or two for upcoming research in Philadelphia.

With so much data coming in, analysis and writing has been the bottleneck, and it's been a high priority to get me back into the thick of that.

Carpinteria, California

In California, Porter is finishing up his junior year of high school, which these days means college visits.  So, when he came back from boarding school on his spring break in March we traveled to Maine to see old friends, but also to visit the Colby-Bates-Bowdoin triangle.  Plus MIT, Worcester Polytechnic and Brown.   Only a few weeks later we all went out to visit him on Family Weekend at Cate - meeting his teachers and advisor and seeing him perform in his chorale and camerata, and in the school musical - (he was the policeman in Singing in the Rain).

I've sworn to not neglect the garden.  Sunchokes have been dug up and pickled, the garden tilled and planted with potatoes, beets, and parsnips.  Chard and fennel overwintered and are growing again.  Mustard and cilantro seeded themselves, and I've planted more - as well as little patches of basil, parsley, broccoli, greens, leeks and tatsoi.

Monica came home with a few starts of cabbage and cauliflower, and though I doubt I'm diligent enough to save them from the caterpillars, I've planted them.  I even loaded some dirt onto the high hugel and put in some squash seeds.  Asparagus is up, though sadly I've only spied a single morel. Still to go in are the tomatoes, hot peppers and eggplants.

Asparagus and chard
My sad little peach tree didn't come back this year.  The root stock has put out some suckers, so I cut the top off and let it be.  The cherry is in leaf and I pulled off a few dozen caterpillars (winter moths, I suspect).

The apple trees put out blossoms, but whether they will set any fruit this year is anyone's guess.  The little crabapples seem to have evaded the deer, and only one of the plum trees took damage.  Other than giving them some water and checking to see if the Japanese beetles have arrived yet, there's not much labor there.

And the beehives are abuzz.