23 August 2011

Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide!

I wholeheartedly believe that we should ban DihydrogenMonoxide.

Well, not really. This compound is vital for all life forms. Without it, I wouldn’t exist to write this on a computer that also wouldn’t exist. So I hereby admit that the stuff is pretty nice to have around. But that which giveth life can also taketh away. I actually find it to be the scariest, most powerful, and intimidating substance in the world. (We all know that I am talking about water, right?)

My first experience, that I can remember, with water involves only outwardly benign encounters: baths of warm, soapy bubbles; glasses cool and wet with condensation on a hot summer afternoon; jumping through a sprinkler in the backyard; exploring the creek at the bottom of the hill. Happy memories, right? Sure, but no one warned me that missing my esophagus for my windpipe when downing that refreshing glass of H2O could be the end of me!

I don’t mean to be melodramatic here, but a lot can go wrong around water – drowning being the first one that comes to mind. But the thought of death from drowning doesn’t cause me to hyperventilate as much as losing the battle of control over the forces that power water. I’m talking about giant ocean waves and currents, white water rapids, frozen lakes and rivers that break beneath your feet. These forces are hard to interpret, tough to control, and beyond most of the population’s understanding - I don’t get plumbing, let alone the physics behind hydraulics in a class five river rapid.

My most recent freak out caused by water was a couple of days ago at Playa la Barqueta in Panama. What I thought would be just another fun afternoon of our tropical vacation turned into Stephanie getting beat up, thrown around, and altogether dominated by the Pacific Ocean. Those waves were down right mean. It probably didn’t help that I was nervous as soon as I got in over my knees, but they didn’t make it any easier to get a handle on things. The goal was to play around and body surf. I only got as far as a painful sunburn and a sore ass. One wave picked me off my feet and threw me down on the ocean floor hard enough to cause abrasion, a brief limp, and a flash, ultimately speculative, of fear that I might have injured my spine.

After some perfectly toned urging (a combination of seize the day, don’t be such a wuss, and you’re so close to getting it right) from Richard – who was having a great time in the water, I might add – I tried again, and again. All attempts ended in me running, swimming, or crawling for my life from the next unpredictable wave that I was convinced was directly behind me ready to swallow me whole.

I survived – duh – but only because my preservation instincts to get-out-while-you-still-can trumped my prideful impulse to get-it-the-F-right-or-die-trying. Fear is a great motivator.
But I’m not the only one who has experienced the terror that water can inflict. Take, for instance, the recent scare that the “brain-eatingamoeba” has caused. That single-celled pest swims up your nose when you’re just out for a dip. Or cholera in Haiti, giardia in streams, or botulism in canned foods. Even mosquitoes use water to breed. This stuff is bad news.

In all seriousness, far more people will die this year fromcar accidents than all of the aforementioned water borne illnesses combined – PSA, always where your seat belt – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be chilling.

Basically, what that means for me is that because I wear my seat belt, I will always be scared of water. If you don’t follow that logic, don’t worry; it's just the fear talking.

15 August 2011

Eat, or Be Eaten

For the past four years I have moved three times to three different cities in two states. I have also thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, and started and completed graduate school. Amid all this change and growth, one thing has remained reliable and constant: every time I open my kitchen cabinets, no matter what state I am in, I get a face full of moths.

While their numbers have risen and fallen depending on the season, and their food preference is remarkably diverse, I am always able to find at least one soft-winged bastard (or its poop) in my house.

In 2008, when the initial infestation began, I can’t say I was surprised. Richard and I were living in a budget apartment that was frequented by multiple residential pests. With the occasional cockroach scuttling across the counter, and houseflies venturing in from the all-too-near compost pile, what’s one more winged invader? Their original interest was brown rice. They chewed through the plastic and had their way with my future dinner.

My first thought was to get rid of whatever they had managed to penetrate. But when you live with a person who believes that food waste is what will really send you to hell, dumping food with some bugs in it is not an option. (Side note: Richard is so opposed to wasting food that I got chewed out when I washed a room temperature, half-full cup of tea down the sink instead of reheating it and consuming it.) So we kept the rice, and they flour when they expanded and upgraded their accommodations.

When it came time to pack up and move to another part of the country for school, we brought along the dry goods from our pantry, and inadvertently, the moth habitat. While our rice and flour supplies had been consumed and replaced with better-protected contents, the moths had moved on to our sesame seeds, dried fruit, and corn meal. They particularly took to the gallon bags of dried apples that we had harvested and preserved from our own apple trees.

By the time we made it to our current city, we had permanently relocated some of the pantry contents to the freezer in an attempt to rid our selves of these pests. Unfortunately, it is summer. And they love the heat. In the past few months I have found them in unopened granola bars, cracker packets, and backpacking food rations. They have chewed through every plastic and paper bag that holds food that not too salty and not too sweet. They seem to stay away from hot chocolate mix and tortilla chips, but I have found larvae cocooned under the lip of the peanut butter jar lid. That’s not including the times when the adults flutter drunkenly around the house exploring their boundaries and testing my nerves.

Mediterranean Flour Moth and Larvae (Source:

Indian Meal Moth (Source:
As best I can tell from a quick look on, we’re dealing with the Mediterranean Flour Moth, or the Indian Meal Moth. Either way, I kill on sight.

I have tried to eradicate them as best I can without completely violating my partner’s food waste ethics. As of now the plan is to wait until winter and then move all our dry goods outside for a day and freeze any lingerers. I have also vowed not to take any more pantry contents on the next move. Eat it, or donate it, Richard. I’m not giving those guys any more free room and board.

07 August 2011

Which came first, the chicken or the guilt?

When I go to the grocery store, two items on my list bring me to a complete stop in the aisle: ice cream, because it’s one of my major food groups, and eggs, because they completely confuse me. When the organic food craze swept over America, buying eggs went from simply checking for cracks to interpreting the complex language of labels designed to lull the consumer into thinking they’re choosing the “happy chicken” eggs. Labels like “natural”, “cage-free” and “free-range” sound nice and evoke images of curious hens scratching at worms and flapping their wings in the sun. But the lack of regulation in labeling means that those pleasant words can be used to describe a variety of realities.

I know that I am voting with my dollar in the grocery store, and I don’t want to support huge factory farms where the chickens are abused. So I shiver in front of the egg section long enough to read over every option and usually end up choosing the one that makes me feel the least guilty. I try to find a compromise between price, distance the eggs have traveled from farm to grocer’s cooler, and animal welfare labeling.

I completely ignore anything that tries to grab me with “natural”. Well duh, eggs are natural. That means nothing to me. “Certified Organic” can mean a few things. According to The Humane Society of the United States, this describes uncaged birds indoors, with some sort of outdoor access – the likes of which is undefined. “Certified Organic” eggs were laid by chickens fed an all-vegetarian diet, free of antibiotics and pesticides. But “free-range” is the one that makes me frown. The United States Department of Agriculture, which determines an egg producer’s organic status, has no standards for free-range egg production.

The United Egg Producers have been battling against the concern of high cholesterol levels in eggs for the last 40 years, says ScienceDaily. Now the market is shifting to include consumers who want to know that chickens are being treated humanely in the warehouses. Ninety-five percent of chickens used in egg production in the U.S. live in tightly packed cages that limit movement and natural behavior. The industry, however, still permits “cage-free” labeling to describe that living condition. Sheila Rodriguez, a clinical associate professor at the Rutgers School of Law–Camden, explains this inaccuracy in her article "The Morally Informed Consumer: Examining Animal Welfare Claims on Egg Labels."

After years of guilt-plagued grocery shopping, mooching eggs from friends with small flocks, and getting the occasional carton from the farmers’ market, I have finally made a real commitment to my own happy chickens. Today I welcomed three Americana hens into my backyard. At three weeks old they are not yet ready to produce eggs, but I know it will be worth the wait. 

I give you Sarah Palin, Liz Lemon, and Cindy Lou Who.