Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Heirlooms and Rarities


One of my favorite things to eat is the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus). Its Latin name translates as "beautiful swimmer," and it is indeed a lovely creature to behold. It's not so pretty when molting, but it remains ever tasty. There's no crab that compares eating-wise, except for maybe the 大閘蟹 (dazhaxie, or hairy crabs) from 阳澄湖 (Yangcheng Lake), just outside of Shanghai. 大閘蟹 are, not suprisingly, increasingly rare.

Blue crab also just made the list of endangered American foods. When I was a kid, my family would take roadtrips to the Chesapeake Bay just to eat. It was a churning, veritable feast. My dad would tie a pork rib on some string, and I would fling it into the surf. After a few minutes, I'd reel back in five or so crabs clinging desperately to their catch, and I'd hurriedly pry off my catch, almost as desperately, into the pot. Now, the Chesapeake is in such bad shape. I wonder if it still smells as I remember of brine and kelp and sand, or if today it reeks of rot and death.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Received in the Mail

This week a flier landed in my mailbox begging me to "Order online: Save gas and the planet!"

Is it that advertisers genuinely don't get that shipping a dress from Ohio to my doorstep eats up petroleum, or is it that they think we consumers are dumb enough to think shipping is the efficient option? I can't decide which is worse.

It takes an average of three cups of gas to ship one cup of orange juice to anyone outside of California or Florida, where most oranges we eat in the U.S. are grown. But an increasing number of oranges are grown in South America and Africa, so an already high cost will further increase.

I'm lucky that eating locally in San Francisco means a lot of the things I love have long growing seasons. But I realize it's a long shot to expect people, for example, in the Midwest to give up citrus fruit and seafood.

I've been looking more closely at how my own buying patterns affect what has to be made, grown, and shipped from elsewhere. Nothing delivered from more than an hour's drive away. Nothing that was grown in a greenhouse. This is something I've been thinking about especially as more data on the pollution that wafts across the Pacific to the U.S. has come to light.

It's not about how everyone else or another country should be doing something.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Phone Books

There's been a lot of chatter recently among wandering writer-types about an insufferable someone who just published a memoir about his misadventures as a travel writer. Basically, this person says, in between having sex on tables and drinking to feel good about himself, he wrote entire books by plagiarizing travel mags and cribbing addresses off the internet. While I'm sure much of the memoir is packed with lies (as memoirs tend to be), his book sheds light on one truth: Travel writing is easy to fake but very hard to do well.

Some say he actually was pretty good at pounding out glorified phone books jazzed up with snappy one-liners. But really, his writing was hollow. It brought nothing new to people's understanding of the places they were visiting. It relied on generalities and perpetuated misconceptions. In the end, his writing made the world a worse place.

Good travel writing is this: You write everything down. You don't print all of it. You test the seats on trains, humor slimy restaurateurs and poke under crusty bedspreads. You read the awful, local paper and the hokey pamphlets. You strike up conversations with every stranger who slows down. You always note the color of the carpet. You confirm cross streets. You run through worst case scenarios when you go to the bank, market or post office. You determine where every embassy of every country is located. You are annoying. You look for dishes on the menu that boring people won't be scared of. You save little slips of paper. You draw many circles on many maps. You go.