Saturday, December 18, 2004


[This is a post from when I was heavily pregnant with my youngest. I felt ranty]

Did you know that there is a homeopathic cold and flu remedy on the market that is made from the heart and liver of a freshly-killed duck, incubated for forty days, whereupon the organs are pulverized, freeze-dried, reconstituted, and diluted repeatedly before the solution is impregnated into sugar granules? Did you know that the quantity of duck organ the manufacturer claims is in the homeopathic remedy is "200C", or 1 part per 100 to the power of 200 (a number followed by 400 zeros, so a pretty small amount)? This means that if any given tablet of the remedy actually contained a single molecule of duck, the tablet would have to be composed of four times as many molecules as are estimated to exist in the universe.

Apparently that's not a problem for homeopaths, who believe that water retains a "memory" (their word) of stuff that has been in it, and that the smaller the dose, the more powerful its effect. So, hey, if it's not there at all, it's pretty darn powerful, huh? Seriously. I kid you not. This is the "law of infintisimals." The result of all this is, of course, that the company that makes this stuff needs one duck per year to produce an unlimited supply of cure, for which they netted over twenty million dollars in 1996. Don't believe this crazy talk? Check out Dr. Stephen Barrett's overview of homeopathy.

Homeopathy is also based on the "law of similars", which in essence claims that taking something that causes the exact symptoms you're suffering will ease them. Yeah, I'm still not joking. This of course does not mean that you should drink buckets of espresso to cure your insomnia; the law of infintisimals indicates that what you should do is drink sugar water that once contained caffeine but has since been so completely diluted that it has passed the point at which the laws of chemistry indicate that none of the original substance is still there. Except, of course, the memory. That'll knock you right out, with no side effects. Conveniently, apparently the water only remembers the homeopathic remedy, not the near-infinite number of other molecules it has contained during its life. Still dead serious, folks.

"But wait!" you exclaim. How does the law of similars mean that duck guts produce cold and flu symptoms? I wondered the same thing, myself, and so went straight to the homeopathic horse's mouth for answers. Also, of course, being of a research-oriented nature, I didn't want to take Dr. Barrett's word at face value, even if it did make gobs and gobs of utter sense. So, I went to one of the roughly two million websites out there that promote homeopathy: Homeopathy Home - The Net's Best Homeopathic Resource. (I went to more than that, but this one seemed so "scientific" . . . ) I figure, this is pretty popular stuff, seemingly condoned by lots of not-insane intelligent people, so if it's the net's best resource, they're bound to give me some highly persuasive information about homeopathy, and how remedies are developed. Basically, they told the same 200-year-old history of homeopathy that Dr. Barrett did - it developed at a time when doctors mostly bled and purged their patients, and homeopathy did far less harm then than did conventional medicine, or "allopathy." The stories diverge after this, though. The good doctor tells us that while homeopathy did enjoy great popularity for a while, it fell out of favour as medicine got, well, better at curing rather than killing people. HH, on the other hand, claims that doctors then as now were intolerant of competition and worked tirelessly to discredit and undermine the more lucrative and effective homeopathy (yes, lucrative). All right, they'll agree to disagree.

But WHY would anyone think eating the memory of duck innards would cure cold and flu symptoms?? Because eating them in normal amounts makes you feel like you have a cold? I guess. That's exactly how homeopaths figure out what various substances are going to do for you - today, as 200 years ago, healthy people ingest random stuff and then monitor their symptoms. It's not quite that simple, of course, but that's the premise. It's called a "proving," and at least in the beginning homeopaths would monitor their bodies' behaviour for days after consuming the substance to be proven, and assume that whatever was going on was caused by what they'd eaten. Or smoked, who knows really. And here's where it gets weird (surprise! It wasn't weird yet!): I checked out modern provings on the ol' HH site. Apparently, recent provings have been done with peregrine falcon wings, lava, any number of plant bits, often from specific trees, eggshell membrane, mobile phone radiation, the blood of a dying AIDS victim, . . . uh, what? Mobile phone radiation? Who ate that? Well, nobody, obviously. They attached vials of lactose to the side of cell phones to catch the memory of the radiation, since its ill-effects are already well-known . . . well, what about the falcon wing? The lava? The AIDS blood? Yeah, nobody's eating that stuff either. In fact, the falcon wing and lava are both homeopathic remedies for psychiatric and emotional problems, and the proving was the manufacturer's emotional response to them (i.e., not even the patient's response, which I guess couldn't possibly be different). As for the AIDS patient's blood, the homeopathic remedy made from it is not actually meant to treat AIDS. As far as I can tell, it's being used to treat - and I use that word extremely sardonically - a wide range of emotional and psychiatric disorders caused by severe childhood abuse. How was the proving done? Oh, the homeopath went ahead and made the extreme dilution of the guy's blood (so dilute that the virus wouldn't be present, I assume), and then she and a bunch of other people took the stuff and analyzed their own responses, including visual images that appeared to them, physical sensations like itching or light-headedness, and emotional or behavioural responses, including restlessness and joy. The woman claims that "this stimulus, perhaps because it is amplified by the many coexperiencers . . . is sufficient to produce long range effects." For a real trip down the rabbit hole, you might want to check out her full proving report.

Why did I bother looking so far into this? Because I have this ridiculous, debilitating hayfever-like condition, which is utterly crippling some days and non-existent on other days, and I'm pregnant. Actually, it may be because I'm pregnant that I've been feeling this way for over two months. So last Monday night, nose chapped from blowing, looking just like a Nyquil ad, I staggered down to Shopper's Drugmart and asked the pharmacist if, being in the family way, I could take anything to clear my horrible nose. He told me there's a homeopathic remedy that's quite effective, that Choices carries, and that of course I should drink lots of fluids and take vitamin C (?), but that nothing pharmacological was safe. I narrowly avoided attacking him, at least verbally, through sheer willpower, and came back home. But afterwards, I thought, "hey, he's a pharmacist, maybe I'm missing something in the homeopathy department." Now I'm guessing either he figured I might benefit from a placebo, since a lot of people around here probably do go in for homeopathy, or he's One of Them.

Bunch of flakes.


Guess I'm stuck till the baby comes and I can dope myself up again . . .

Friday, December 17, 2004

Virtually Drunk

[written when I was pregnant and craving a martini]

So, of course, in my delicate condition I am not drinking. This doesn't mean, however, that I can't contemplate the wonderful world of recreational libation. And as is so often the case in Vancouver, my thoughts turn like a compass needle to that vitriol-inspiring beverage, the "martini." Not, you understand, the martini, beverage of choice for philandering English makers-of-bad-puns and occasional government agents, but the "martini." Its aliases include "crantini," "chocotini," "apple-tini," and any other bastardization the self-congratulating barman can concoct. It is basically a blend of any number of liqueurs and distilled spirits, often flavoured with juice or something, amounting to two ounces of liquor and served in a martini glass. I have to admit I once asked for a martini, was asked what flavour I wanted, and responded, " . . . ? Um, gin?"

I know I'm being dreadfully pedantic, and language is a living, morphous thing, and obviously the "martini" is popular, blah blah blah, but seriously. A martini is a fairly good jag of either vodka or gin, mixed with a smaller amount of vermouth (the drier the martini, the less vermouth), and it should be served so cold that the only thing keeping it from being solid ice is the alcohol content. Some people will get their knickers in a knot over the gin vs. vodka issue, but from what I understand, either is acceptable. Gin's more commonly considered a "traditional" martini. Add what you will, an olive, an onion, a twist of orange peel, even a dash of bitters, but this is a martini. Throw in a dash of the brine from the olive jar and you have a Dirty Marty. The rest are just fruity, boozy drinks that people who actually don't like martinis consume. This is either because they don't enjoy the taste of undiluted spirits (and so "shoot" whiskey and the like, rather than sipping it), or they don't like the taste of gin specifically, or they have been served mediocre - bad - martinis. Usually a martini is bad because it is not cold enough, it has been improperly mixed, or the gin is of a particularly low quality.

So how do you make a superlative martini? Well, there's the long, purist way, and then there's the shortcut. The long, purist way is to keep your gin or vodka, vermouth, shaker, and martini glasses in the freezer until the moment you need them. A silver or stainless steel shaker will get your drink colder than a glass one does. Put a bunch of crushed ice in the shaker, pour in four ounces or so of gin, and your preferred amount of vermouth (I use about a capful, or 1/4 of an ounce), put the top on, shake it vigorously but not violently for a few seconds, and strain into 2 chilled glasses. Consume immediately. There is actually some debate over whether you should shake a gin martini at all, since too much bouncing around can "bruise" or "crush" the delicate flavours of the gin. I believe this, largely due to the number of off-tasting, luke-warm martinis I've been served in posh bars. I read somewhere on the net, but can no longer find the reference, that for this reason, a bartender should know that a shaken martini is made with vodka and a stirred one with gin. If this is so, than presumably that dashing 007 was flipping off MI-5, or the Russians, or both, every time he ordered his martini shaken. A nice thought, except apparently somewhere Mr. Bond followed up his usual "shaken, not stirred" with a curt "and don't bruise the gin." Alas, I haven't read the books and I've seen only a handful of the movies, so I'm in no position to comment. At any rate, I'm sure there's a way to shake the gin martini enough to aerate the drink (the purpose of all beverage shaking) without bruising the gin. For instance, Cigar Aficionado recommends shaking to waltz time.

But what if I don't have a cocktail shaker and I want a shortcut martini? Fine. A clever and witty jazz musician I know, who is getting a bit advanced in years, fills a highball glass with ice, fills it halfway with gin, slips in a teaspoon or so of vermouth, stirs it, tosses in a couple of olives, and he's away to the races. It's cold, it's strong, the gin isn't bruised, and you don't need a degree in advanced bartending physics to make it.

Caveat: everyone who loves martinis is a martini snob, and they each think they know exactly the right way to make one. I'm sure they'd be all down my throat about my method, but there you have it.

I leave you now with the following martini recipe, courtesy of Hawkeye from M.A.S.H:
"I think I've found the perfect martini . . . you pour six jiggers of gin into a glass and then you drink it while staring at a picture of Lorenzo Schwartz, the inventor of vermouth." (Some M.A.S.H. trivia geek on the web actually went to all the bother of finding out and then pointing out that vermouth was in fact invented by Antonio Benedetto Carpano. Some people have no sense of humour.)
Borscht du Jour
Recently we had our vegetables delivered, which is always "produce surprise," and I was pleased to find beets in the box. With the tops on! Now, whenever I get beets in their entirety, the following monologue passes through my head:

All right, beet greens! They're so yummy, and good for you! Now, how do you cook them again? Could just saute them, I guess, but that's kind of boring . . . ummm . . . What should I do with these things, anyway? Chop them up fine and throw them in the borscht? That seems like a bit of a waste . . . hmmm . . .

Of course, there are things you can do with beets besides borscht, but really, I only ever do borscht. It's great, because it's an excellent soup in which to dispose of leftovers, as long as they aren't too distinctively seasoned. Carrots, potatoes, leftover roast, wilting greens, aging cabbage, woody celery, that half-tin of diced tomatoes that's been kicking around - shred or dice them all finely, cook the bejeezus out of them in a sturdy beef (oh, all right, you can use vegetable stock if you must) broth, with the beets, also shredded, and finish it off with some sour cream. The beets camouflage everything else. The best flavorings for your stock are star anise (fish it out before serving, though), caraway, black pepper, garlic, and whatever else you particularly like.

None of this has anything to do with beet greens. Right! There is something interesting and kind of elegant that can be done with them, actually, and I don't recall seeing the recipe anywhere (even - gasp - on the internet), except my Mom's kitchen. Apparently she got it from a Ukrainian friend. For the uninitiated, in Manitoba "Ukrainian" usually means "somebody whose ancestors came here from the Ukraine about the same time mine left Ireland and England, i.e. the late nineteenth century." Anyway, here's the recipe.

Make dough for dinner rolls, about 20 rolls' worth (I halved a recipe for 36 rolls, and put the reduced recipe below). At the point where you would normally make the rolls out of the big ball of risen dough, preheat the oven to 350 F and shape the dough into little cylinders about 2-2.5 inches long and as thick as a breakfast sausage. Wrap each of these very loosely in a beet leaf, or a section of beet leaf if the leaves are huge. You should end up with roughly 24 rolls. Place the wrapped pieces in a deep baking dish (or as many dishes as it takes) with lots of space around them, and be sure that the seam or end of the beet leaf is down. Set the dish aside for the rolls to rise, and make a very thin cream sauce. This can be done by just melting two Tbsps of butter, whisking in two Tbsps of white flour, removing the pan from the heat, whisking in two cups of cold milk, and returning the pan to the heat just long enough for it to begin to thicken. Your sauce should be no thicker than unwhipped whipping cream, or even coffee cream. If it seems too thick, just mix in more milk. Sprinkle the rolls liberally with dill (fresh chopped for preference, but dried works fine) and pour the cream sauce over. You need enough sauce to fill the pans at least half an inch, preferably more. Now stick the pan in the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the ends of the rolls (what you can see besides beet leaf) are a nice golden brown, and the cream sauce is seriously thick and bubbly. I served this with (leftover) borscht and very simple pan-fried beef sausages with onions, and it seemed like a haute take on peasant food, when really it was pretty much just peasant food. They can also be frozen once wrapped, but before the sauce and all, and then just baked the same way once thawed.

Dinner rolls (makes 18 or so)
1 pkg dry yeast (or 2.25 Tbsps)
1/2 Tbsp sugar (1.5 tsp)
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup butter
1/2 tsp salt
2 lightly beaten eggs
1/3 cup sugar
roughly 2.5 cups white flour
Mix the first three ingredients and set aside. Scald the milk, add the butter, and let it cool to lukewarm. Mix in the eggs, the remaining sugar, and the salt. Add to this the yeast mixture, and pour all this into a well in the middle of 2 cups of the flour, which by now is in a large mixing bowl. Mix it all well, and add more flour till you have a soft dough. Turn out on a floured surface and knead until smooth (which is to say, not forever like you do with some breads). Set in a greased bowl, run a greased hand over the top of the dough, cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap, and let rise till doubled (about an hour). Punch down and either make the above recipe or shape the dough into rolls, place in a greased pan or two and let rise till again doubled (more like 1/2 hour this time), and bake at 400 F until golden brown - about 15 minutes. These are lovely, rich, slightly sweet dinner rolls.