November 26

The Real Fallacy of Liberalism

Let me start with a disclaimer: I’m not a conservative. In fact, I sympathize with many of the goals of modern American liberals. But there’s a problem. It’s not the social goals, though I do disagree with some of them. Nor is it the candidates they run, though some of them are abominable. No, it’s something far deeper, and something that few people, left or right, seem to recognize.

In his book The Next Evangelicalism, Soong-Chan Rah refers to primary and secondary cultures. Primary culture is that group with whom we have direct, personal relationships. It’s the people we look in the eye, the family, extended family, and community we trust because we know them.

Secondary culture, in contrast, relies on systems and structures. It is the roads we drive on, and the market we shop at where we don’t know any of the employees. It’s the schools we send our kids to, trusting in a system rather than in the people, whom we don’t have time to know, and it’s FaceBook, where we accumulate “friends” we have never met, and with whom we share a carefully-edited version of ourselves that portrays us in our best light. They’ll never know any different because they don’t know really us.

What does this mean for how we live? Rah describes the impact of primary and secondary culture on our childcare:

Formalized child care in a primary cultural system doesn’t exist. Children are allowed to play out in the village because extended family liver nearby and they would ensure that our children would be safe. They know and trust all of their neighbors, who are likely related to them… In a secondary cultural system, we cannot trust our neighbor to not harm our kids, much less look out and care for them. Child care is obtained through agencies found in the Yellow Pages or a nanny webpage. We trust our most precious gift into the hands of total strangers who have received a seal of approval from other total strangers. (p. 101)

If you live in a city, perhaps you can’t even imagine a primary cultural system. It sounds like a fantasy. It can’t really exist, right?

Wrong. I grew up in a primary cultural system. My mom knew she could rely on our neighbors to keep me safe, just as she would keep their kids safe. Later, I spent 12 years in rural Utah, where it was much the same. We never locked our doors. We left our keys in the car. Some folks left their car running when they went into the post office or grocery store. Our neighbors wouldn’t care if we went into their house for an egg or a cup of flour, even if they weren’t home.

Life was very different during my 25 years in Los Angeles. I didn’t know my neighbors, and I locked my home and my car. I didn’t trust people I didn’t know, which was most of the 10 million people living in the L.A. basin. My safety and security were provided not by relationships, but by structures: locks, police, rules, and routines. Those friends I did have I chose because of shared interests and culture, not geography. There was really no sense of community, and what I thought was community was artificial.

Think about that when we talk about gun control. Many of those who favor it live in fear, because they don’t have much if any primary cultural system. Many who oppose it think it’s ridiculous because the chances of their neighbor shooting them are pretty slim. Both are true– in their cultural context. The fallacy is that one answer can apply to both situations. (That’s a liberal idea, too, though today’s conservatives have jumped on the bandwagon.)

Think about the food you eat today. How much of it was grown by someone you know? How much of it was prepared by someone you know? If you’re a typical city dweller, chances are, not much. That may also be true if you live in a small town, though it’s easier there to eat more food that was grown locally by someone you know simply because there are more farmers. Most of us rely instead on faceless systems and inspectors to ensure there’s no nasty bacteria on our lettuce. And, as we learned again recently, that’s not always reliable.

Why does it matter? Because relationships build trust. Without relationships, we can’t have much trust in our lives. That’s sad. It’s also not good for us. We begin to see systems as more important than people. Perhaps you’re familiar with Bob Seeger’s lament, “I Feel Like a Number.” Elevating systems over people is dehumanizing. If you have any doubt, try conducting a transaction at the DMV in Santa Monica or calling the California Franchise Tax Board.

When liberals call for racial equality, I see that as a good thing. But trying to do it solely through systems is a faulty approach. We are (all of us) human beings, not cogs in a machine. Tuning the machine cannot fix the very real human problems we face. I wonder how many of my white liberal friends who support racial equality would actually make friends with someone of another race, eat together, and have their kids play together regularly? If not, that’s not racial equality. (Remember “Separate but equal“? The Supreme Court declared it wasn’t equal at all!)

So let’s apply this to another problem everyone recognizes: school shootings. The liberal answer is gun control. If they didn’t have access to guns, they wouldn’t shoot anyone, right? Let’s assume for a moment that gun control could work. Heroin control isn’t working, but maybe gun control will. So Nikolas Cruz can’t get a gun, and that’s the answer to the problem. This autistic kid was bullied his whole school career, had just lost his only surviving parent, and had dropped through the cracks in the system. But the liberal answer says it’s not his suffering that’s the problem, it’s the gun he uses to lash out.

It’s not systems that keep us healthy, safe, and included. It’s people.

Certainly there’s a role for systems. We can’t live without them. But putting our emphasis on systems over people dehumanizes us just as much as it dehumanizes everyone else. As Rah says, God created us in community, in relationship (81, ref. Genesis 1:28). Without relationships, we are less than human.





May 4

Autism and the Glycemic Index

“Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences. We now know that there is not one autism but many types, caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental influences.” —Autism Speaks

I’m on the autistic spectrum. As a child, I was hopeless in social situations, always saying the wrong thing and unable to read body language. I also grew up on Tang, Frosted Flakes, Milky Way bars, and Kool-Aid. In my late twenties, I cut sugar out of my diet because I found that when I ate sugar, I couldn’t talk. It was like my brain locked up and wouldn’t process input. Recently, I ate a muffin that had a reduced amount of sugar in it. Within minutes, I began stuttering and floundering for words. This was during a discussion in a seminary class, so the timing was poor.

Is there a link between autism symptoms and sugar intake? A 2015 study suggests there is, and anecdotal stories from parents of autistic children abound. Other parents of ASD kids say their kids aren’t affected–and maybe they aren’t, though often the parents say their kids don’t “get hyperactive” from sugar. My own experience indicates that hyperactivity is not the only visible response. From the outside, I look like I’ve been sedated after I eat sugar. Someone who didn’t know better might think this is a good thing. But inside, I’m churning, trying unsuccessfully to process and respond to the stimulus coming in. It’s miserable.

But I do like something sweet now and again. Can you imagine going through life never having another dessert? Sugar-free commercial products are an option, though almost all contain artificial sweeteners, which I try to avoid. And the ones with sugar alcohols (like sorbitol and maltitol)– well, I won’t gross you out by describing the intestinal symptoms they cause me.

For home-baking, stevia is an option. It’s a natural plant extract with no sugars and no calories, but it’s a little too sweet and has a weird aftertaste when used alone. Stevia requires just a tiny amount, so it doesn’t bulk up a recipe like sugar does. That doesn’t matter if you’re sweetening fruit, but a cake requires the bulk and consistency of sugar to come out right. Ask me how I know. There is a 1:1 stevia product, which is stevia mixed with maltodextrin so it performs in recipes like sugar. The only store I’ve found in my area that carries it is Walmart. Amazon carries an equivalent, Stevia in the Raw, which is a bit more expensive but delivered to your door. Like stevia itself, I find the 1:1 mix has that weird aftertaste.

(Also beware of baking mixes that contain stevia and sugar, like Truvia or SugarLeaf for example, because they sort of defeat the purpose.)

So what’s the answer?

Enter the glycemic index.

“The Glycemic Index (GI) is a relative ranking of carbohydrate in foods according to how they affect blood glucose levels.” —University of Sydney

In other words, the higher the glycemic index ranking, the faster the food item causes blood sugar to rise. Glucose is rated 100. The Glycemic Index website recommends a rating of 55 or less for general health. A Harvard website ranks table sugar (sucrose) at 65, honey at 61, and fructose at 15. Clearly fructose is better for those sensitive to sugar. (Studies have shown that excessive use of fructose can raise triglyceride levels, particularly in men, so it’s not something one should eat all the time.)

The other day I was looking at a carrot cake recipe that called for a total of four cups of sugar (including the cream cheese frosting). Even using fructose, that’s a lot of sugar. But it’s easy to cut that in half while still making the recipe work. I use half fructose and half 1:1 stevia. The stevia provides sweetness with no calories or glycemic effect, and the fructose is a slow-absorbing sugar that moderates the flavor of stevia. I see the 50/50 mix as a “best of both worlds” approach.

In the frosting, I substituted neufchatel for cream cheese. That’s just a lower-fat version made with milk instead of cream. I did that not because I’m autistic, but because I’m trying to eat healthier. I also added an extra package of cream cheese to the frosting to increase the protein and further cut back on the sugar concentration. I also thought the cake might need more frosting than the recipe called for, as is sometimes the case, but I had frosting left over.

Herein lies another helpful hint: A lot of recipes can be modified a little, or sometimes a lot, to reduce the sugar content. For pies, the volume of sweetener can be cut in half and a 50/50 stevia-fructose combination can be used instead. So if your pie calls for 1 cup of sugar, skip the sugar completely and try it with 1/4 cup 1:1 stevia and 1/4 cup fructose instead. Imagine: where a recipe calls for a whole cup of brain-scrambling sugar, you may find it works just as well with 1/4 cup of slow-absorbing fructose bolstered with stevia.

If my experience is any indication, your autistic loved will thank you!


January 11

The Best Way to Peel Hard Boiled Eggs

I love deviled eggs. I often bring them to the monthly church potluck. But peeling them has always been a real pain. The shells stick. The whites get mangled. There had to be a better way. So I did what any post-modern chef would do: GTS.

It turns out there are a lot of theories about the best way to peel hard boiled eggs. Everyone insists that theirs is the best. Take, for example, this page offering 5 Egg Hacks. You gotta love that first one, literally blowing the egg out of its shell.

There are plenty of ideas for pre-peeling treatment to making peeling easier, too. Here’s my assessment of those. First, older eggs are indeed easier to peel, because the egg tends to shrink away from the membrane. Second, starting the eggs in cold water rather than adding them to boiling water doesn’t make them easier to peel, but it does help prevent cracking. (Try making deviled eggs when the whites have run through the cracks in the shell!) Heating the water to boiling more slowly also seems to help prevent cracking. Adding salt doesn’t make an appreciable difference to peelability. But adding baking soda does. Several sites recommend 1/2 tsp per quart of water, and that made the majority of the 35-egg batch much easier to peel.

Now to the peeling methods. I had no luck at all blowing the egg out of its shell. In fact, none of the methods worked quite as described. The best and fastest way I found was to put five eggs in a Tupperware with a little water, put the lid on, and shake vigorously for 5-6 seconds. Don’t overdo it, or the eggs come out with gashes, and may even disintegrate! The result: some of the eggs came out perfectly peeled. Some came out with the shells loose, ready to be peeled off easily. Some didn’t. Of these, using a teaspoon to separate the shell and membrane from the egg worked on some. But on others, the membrane was stubborn, and peeling was a chore.

Still, this was a small minority, and a great improvement over the way I’ve done it in the past. Instead of taking two hours to peel 35 eggs, I did it in about 30 minutes.

The verdict: there’s no single perfect way to peel an egg. But adding baking soda to the water, using the shake method, and having a teaspoon handy make it a lot easier!

June 14

Review: Aroma Rice Cooker

I love to cook, but I’m not much on kitchen gadgets. Tomato corer? I use a knife. Egg steamer? What’s that even for?

But when it comes to rice, I really love a rice cooker. I had one that went in the microwave, and it worked okay. It was better than cooking it on the stove, where I always seem to either burn it or make it soggy.

When the old one died, my wife and I went shopping for a new one. We wanted it to be simple, small enough for a family of four (and easy storage), easy to clean, and cheap. You can easily spend over a hundred bucks on a rice cooker, but that’s not my price range.

We settled on the Aroma Housewares 8-cup model.  They also have 6-cup and 20-cup models, but 8-cups is about right for us, plus this model offered a steamer basket.

We were a little concerned because it claimed to do so much and yet cost so little.  We were pleasantly surprised!  It does everything it claims.  It’s easy to use and easy to clean.  And it makes perfect rice, every time.

It has settings for white rice and brown rice.  I’ve used the brown rice setting on Sri Lankan red rice, also called red samba rice, and it works just fine.  It also has a delay timer, so you can set it to start cooking later in the day, perfect for use along with a crock pot, for example, for a dinner prepped before I leave the house.

When it comes to kitchen gadgets, it takes a lot to impress me.  The Aroma rice cooker is one of the few I’ve gotten excited about.

June 8

Book Review: Thirty Days of Daal

Rating: ♦♦♦♦◊ (Four Diamonds)

30 Days of Daal – Simple, Healthy Daal Recipes from India by Pragati Bidkar is a cook book, but not ordinary in any sense of the word.  The author clearly knows her stuff, and communicates it well for a non-Indian like myself.

I love Indian food, and dal is one of the staples.  (Yers, I spell it with one “a.”  As the author notes, it can be spelled wither way, or “dahl.” All can be considered correct, since the word is transliterated from Hindi.)  Yet for me, dal has been one of the most challenging dishes to make.  It never comes out quite right.  The texture tends to be mealy, and the flavor is never quite right.

“It’s easy!” my friend Gia told me years ago.  “You just [blah, blah, blah].”  Yeah, whatever.  Mine still doesn’t come out right.

30 Days of Daal  reveals the secrets of how to get that signature creamy texture, and discusses seasonings at length.  Then, as promised, it provides thirty different dal recipes, some of which are very different.  They include the classics, like Yellow Moong Daal, Palak Daal, Daal Makhani.  There are also some exciting new recipes that I’ve never seen before, like Daal Holhapuri (spicy Maratha-style dal) and Methi Daal (dal with fenugreek leaves).

More importantly, the author gives step-by-step instructions for each recipe.  She does presume some familiarity with Indian cooking, which I have but others may not.  There are also a few ingredients for which she doesn’t give English translations.  It’s possible that there are no English translations, though in my experience, the Brits named pretty much everything while they were there.  And there are occasional phrases that are unfamiliar to an American reader.  These shortcomings keep me from giving the book a five diamond rating.

Nevertheless, this is a great book for those with some familiarity with Indian cooking.  I enjoyed reading it, and I can’t wait to try every one of the recipes!

Best of all, at least at the moment, the book is available from Kindle FREE.  How much better could it get?

December 3

The Food We Take for Granted

farmers market 002

How much do you know about your food?  If you’re like most people, you might not even be aware of the price at the grocery store, much less where it came from and how it was created.  I do much of the shopping in our family, so I know what food costs.  I try to be aware of where it comes from, and make intelligent choices accordingly.  For example, I can’t being myself to eat summer fruits produced in South America, because they are air-shipped to the U.S. (unlike bananas, which come by boat).  It’s the only way they can get the fruit here fresh enough.  And it seems wrong to me to buy a peach, for example, that’s taken a plane ride most people in the world will never be able to afford.

Still, I am often surprised.  For example, today while researching selenium deficiency, I read that “the amount of selenium in common sources has decreased in recent decades.”  Selenium, an important trace mineral, is present in grains and leafy vegetables based on the selenium content of the soil it’s grown in.  As modern agricultural practices have tended to ignore soil health, many crops now contain fewer micronutrients than they used to.  According to one study, the decreases

occurred in different countries that share very similar historical farming management strategies, based mainly on the adoption of modern genetic varieties of crops and agronomic practices related to the acceleration of the growth rates of plants.

It’s worth noting that much of the Western United States has soils naturally low in selenium.  This includes Arizona, southern Utah, New Mexico, Oregon, and large portions of California including the Imperial Valley.  Thus, our reliance of California vegetables may make us more susceptible to selenium deficiency, as may our reliance on mega-farms for much of our food.

We wouldn’t know that, because the USDA in its infinite wisdom tells us, for example, that beef steak contains 33 mcg of selenium per serving.  Actual analysis suggests ranges from about 20 to 70 mcg, depending on where the cows are raised.  In fruits and vegetables, content can vary by a factor of ten.  Rice has been sampled as high as 1.0 mcg/g and as low as .02 mcg/g, depending on geographic origin.  USDA says rice contains .11 mcg/g, so you could be getting ten times more… or 82% less.

We take our food for granted.  It’s supposed to be healthy and nutritious.  But it isn’t as clear cut as we like to think.  Global economics and mega-farming have put even our expected nutritional content in danger.