Thursday, October 31, 2013

Day of the dead

On October 31, 1994, the city of Chicago experienced a torrential downpour.

Although the home town football team is famous for beating its opponents in inclement weather, the Bears managed to get trounced by the Green Bay Packers 33 to 6 later that evening at Soldier Field.

About an hour after returning from a business lunch with my new boss, John Platt, I was drying my socks in the microwave (seriously) when the phone call came from Minnesota. My mother called to let me know that my dad had had a heart attack while having lunch at their little house on 3rd Street in St. Paul. Although an army of paramedics arrived just a few minutes after she had called them, it was too late to save my dad.

Just as I think of my dad on February 3 (his birthday) , I also am reminded of him every year on the 31st of October, because that is when he left us for a new and better location. Although Halloween is usually a day of joy (especially for the younger generation) it always carries a sense of melancholy for my sister and me.

If you dig deeper into the origins of the holiday, Halloween SHOULD be a time of joy, not only for those who have lost loved ones on October 31, but other folks as well.

Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a three day Mexican festival that has ancient origins, possibly going back to the pre-Columbian times of 3000 years ago. In modern Mexico, the holiday focuses on family and friends getting together to pray for departed loved ones. The purpose of the meetings is to encourage visits by folks who are no longer with us, and the gatherings generally include offerings such as favorite foods, beverages, and memorabilia.

The offerings are called ofrendas, and may sometimes include items that would likely be considered unusual by most people. For reasons that I’ve explained previously, I brought a bag of oranges and 2 quarters to the ofrenda offering at a local church a few years ago.

Mexico isn’t the only country that celebrates the Day of the Dead, since it is celebrated in a number of countries in Latin America, Europe, and Asia. In 2004, I was stranded for 4 days in Hong Kong due to the fact that I had traveled there just before the Qingming holdiday (also called Grave Sweeping Day). Since the government office that I needed to go to for my visa was closed on the following Monday (Qingming) I had to wait until the following Tuesday to obtain the paperwork that I needed to return legally to my residence in Guangzhou, China.

I’ll never know for sure, but I strongly suspect that all the energy generated by the Day of the Dead offerings around the world will generate enough energy to bring the ghost of Larry Brennan a little closer to earth again.

After all, to quote one of my cousins (at his funeral), he was a really good guy.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

yes, we have no bananas

Here’s a quick quiz for you.

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is:

1) the name of a religious singing group

2) the lunch special at the local St. Vincent DePaul shelter

3) a country

If you didn’t pick #3, don’t feel bad. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is indeed a country, but that’s a fact that’s not known to a lot of people. It’s not a very big country, it doesn’t have a lot of people, and it has a fairly tiny GDP.

It’s total area is 150 square miles, roughly 2/3 the size of the city of Tucson. It has a total population of 120,000 people, roughly the same size as the city of Surprise, Arizona, and its GDP is $1.259 billion. To put that in perspective, its GDP is less than the Tea Party caused our country to lose per day during the recent shutdown.

Formerly a British colony, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines become fully independent in October of 1979. It is located in the eastern Caribbean, and is a very lovely place. The video below will allow you to take a tour of the islands that make up the country:

let’s take a tour

Since it is located in the Caribbean, it is subject to the tropical storms that are very common in this area - and therein lies the problem.

The main source of income for the country is banana production, although tourism and a secretive financial sector also make their contributions to the economy. Volcanic eruptions, and fairly frequent hurricanes, have caused extensive damage to the country’s banana plantations on occasion, causing the local plantation owners to sing a song that was first made popular in 1922:

yes, we have no bananas

The country came to light this morning, when it became the “topic of the day” on Bing. In the event that you aren’t familiar with Bing, it’s a search engine that was unveiled by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in May of 2009.

The country’s reliance on a single crop for most of its income mirrors the problems faced by the island nation of Nauru, which is the third smallest country in the world. When the phosphate mines that fueled the county’s economy petered out, the country briefly got support from the Russian mafia, but eventually switched to a reliance on tourism to sustain itself.

Few of us will ever get to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, but the recent filming of the Pirates of the Caribbean pictures has led to an increase in both visitors and investors, which should bode well for the country.

Eventually, the country will figure out a way to further diversify its economy, but until that happens, consider this option:

What a GREAT PLACE for a vacation !!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Crisco kid

A couple of weeks ago, Sharon made another batch of her world famous chocolate chip cookies, filling the house with a marvelous aroma, and replenishing the supply of tasty treats in our glass cookie jars.

Naturally, she used Crisco as one of the ingredients, which got me to pondering the following question:

Where did Crisco come from?

In order to keep fats solid at normal storage temperature, it is necessary to hydrogenate the substance. The hydrogenation process was discovered in the late 19th Century, and was patented by a man named Wilhelm Normann in 1903. The patent was acquired by the Proctor and Gamble company a few years later. Although the original purpose of the patent was to produce soap, Proctor and Gamble used it to produce the world’s first shortening made entirely of vegetable oil. The name “Crisco” is actually a modification of the phrase “crystallized cottonseed oil”.

Even though the formula has been changed in recent years to reduce the fat content in Crisco, some nutritionists still feel it may not be good for your health, but it’s better than the alternative.


Lard is pig fat in both its rendered and engendered form, and can be obtained from any part of the pig as long as there is a high concentration of fatty tissue. Despite its higher fat content (as compared to vegetable shortening) lard is still popular with many chefs and bakers because of its distinctive taste and wide range of applications. Rumor has it that lard was even used in Mrs. Wagner’s pies, which were made famous by Simon and Garfunkel in 1968. Sadly, even though Mrs. Wagner’s was the largest pie bakery in the country in 1940, the company went out of business in July of 1969.

Crisco contains less total fat than lard, even though it has a higher amount of polyunsaturated fat. Surprisingly, it also has less total fat than most other vegetable oils, including olive oil.

Trying to determine the health effects of hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils can be enormously difficult, but it appears that the real villain is something called “trans fats”, which can result from the hydrogenation process. Even though the can of Crisco in our pantry includes both fully and partially hydrogenated palm oil, it has ZERO trans fat.

Those delicious chocolate chip cookies in our cookie jars may not be the healthiest way to end a meal, but I’d heartily recommend having a couple for dessert on occasion.

After all, life is short.