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Archive for February, 2012

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Interview with Ngugi wa Thiong’o

We recently published Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing, by renowned Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o. In the book, Ngugi wa Thiong’o summarizes and develops a cross-section of the issues he has grappled with in his work, which deploys a strategy of imagery, language, folklore, and character to “decolonize the mind.” Ngugi confronts the politics of language in African writing; the problem of linguistic imperialism and literature’s ability to resist it; the tension between national and world literature; and the role of the literary curriculum in both reaffirming and undermining the dominance of the Western canon.

In this 2010 video with Granta, Thiong’o discusses some of these issues as well as his life growing up in Kenya, contemporary African writing, and modern Kenyan history:

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

‘Who Killed Hammarskjöld?’ and the UN in Zambia

Who Killed HammarskjoldWhile serving as United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representative to Zambia from 1998-2005, Margaret O’Callaghan spoke at a memorial service upon the anniversary of UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold’s death. In an article originally published by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and reprinted on the Hurst Blog, O’Callaghan writes about how she might have felt at the memorial had she read Who Killed Hammarskjöld?: The UN, the Cold War, and White Supremacy in Africa, by Susan Williams, at that time.

In Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, Susan Williams re-examines the plane crash that took Hammarskjold’s life as he traveled to the Congo, a hot spot during the Cold War. O’Callaghan writes:

Williams is not just raking over old ashes but shining a bright light into the dark recesses of government archives and other sources, and revealing new information which clearly indicates that the crash was no accident. She produces evidence which shows that a number of governments, themselves member organisations of the fledgling UN, along with powerful business interests, played crucial roles in the event. This is perhaps why the book is causing such a stir – despite the half century which has passed.


Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Mari Ruti on Why We Fall in Love

The Summons of Love

In honor of Valentine’s Day, we offer a post from earlier this summer:

Mari Ruti, author of The Summons of Love, also writes a blog for Psychology Today called The Juicy Bits: Love, lust, and the luster of life, recently wrote a post exploring the reasons why it is important to fall in love.

For Ruti, love “ushers us to frequencies of human life that we might find difficult to access otherwise,” and allows us a break from the pragmatic preoccupations that dominate our everyday life. Drawing on the ideas of Julia Kristeva and Alain Badiou, Ruti writes that love, “adds a layer of luster to our mundane existence, making us feel empowered and self-connected even as it ‘decenters’ us from our customary concerns.”

In considering the potential for disappointment and disillusion that comes with love or love’s failure, Ruti writes:

The problem, of course, is that we can’t access the depths of love without opening ourselves to its risks – that the price of allowing ourselves to experience love’s mystery is utter vulnerability. This is why it’s easy to refuse love’s summons, to decline its invitation to self-transformation. And those who have already been burned by love may find this invitation even more challenging. This is why I have been arguing that it might help to stop thinking about love’s disenchantments as the antithesis of love and see them, instead, as an essential part of love’s trajectory. It might help to conceive of romantic failures as love’s way of teaching us the kinds of lessons we might never otherwise learn. When it comes to love, our so-called failures are often (not always, but often) merely new opportunities for growth, new opportunities for singularizing our character. Those who understand this are more likely to welcome love’s summons because they know that the happily-ever-after is only one aspect of love – that to love is, among other things, to accept the possibility of disappointment.

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

New Book Tuesday: IR, Mystery, and More

Who Killed Hammarskjold?Our weekly list of new titles now available, including a great selection of books in International Relations, including:

Who Killed Hammarskjöld?: The UN, the Cold War, and White Supremacy in Africa
Susan Williams

Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience
Edited by Claire Magone, Michael Neuman, and Fabrice Weissman

From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust (Now available in paper)
Meir Litvak and Ester Webman

Empires of Mud: Wars and Warlords in Afghanistan (Now available in paper)
Antonio Giustozzi

Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field (Now available in paper)
Edited by Antonio Giustozzi

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Book Giveaway: Who Killed Hammarskjold?

Who Killed HammarskjoldThis week our featured book is Who Killed Hammarskjöld?: The UN, the Cold War, and White Supremacy in Africa, by Susan Williams

Throughout the week we will highlight aspects of the book and we are also offering a free copy of the book to one lucky winner.

To enter our book giveaway, simply e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu with your name and address (U.S. and Canadian mailing addresses only, unfortunately). We will randomly select one winner on Friday at 1:00 pm. Good luck and spread the word!

Praise for Who Killed Hammarskjold?:

“This is an extraordinary story, narrated with clarity and devastating effect. Susan Williams is to be congratulated for shining a light onto a very strange and disturbing incident. The result is a gripping and astonishing read.” — Alexander McCall Smith, novelist, author of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Amazon Reacts to Michael Mann and The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

Michael Mann, The Hockey Stick and The Climate WarsIn a recent post, Climate Science Watch examines the response on Amazon to The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, by Michael Mann.

While a most of the reviews of the book are quite strong and thoughtful, others give the book a 1-star rating. As reported in Climate Science Watch a popular global warming denialist web site told its readers to go to Amazon and give poor reviews to The Hockey Stick and the Climate . This tactic, according to climatecrocks.com, which also examined the reviews of Mann’s book on Amazon, is not uncommon and it posted a video of a Tea Party activist explaining how to use reviews as a way to discredit others.

The Amazon reviews of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars is also discussed on the blog Get Energy Smart! NOW!. In the post, the author considers what is the best response to this tactic:

Clearly, Amazon is not about to step in to provide some meaningful enforcement beyond what exists (such as “Amazon verified purchase”) to remove 1-star ratings, put meaningful reviews ‘higher’ in the queue despite the flood of ‘not useful’ ratings shortly after the WUWT [Watt's Up With That -- a denialist Web site] call to action.

One option would be a call to action: go to Amazon and uprate all five-star reviews and down-rate all 1-star reviews. That, however, would be simply inappropriate. Another option is to simply ignore which, in the larger scheme of things, is likely a better use of most people’s time. A third option, one that would actually require far more time than option 1, would be to go to Amazon and actually read the 5 star and 1 star reviews. If you find a review helpful, no matter what the star rating, let Amazon know and do the same if you find it unhelpful. While I have a good idea what the resulting ratings would be from a reality-based community, this is an ethical way to react to anti-science syndrome sufferering swarming within the flawed Amazon rating system.

Friday, February 10th, 2012

William K. Tabb on Replacing Dependence on Financialization

William K. Tabb, The Restructuring of Capitalism in Our Time

We conclude our week-long feature on William K. Tabb’s The Restructuring of Capitalism in Our Time, with Tabb’s own conclusion in which he explores how the United States can reduce the impact of finacialization on the economy. Tabb argues that the much-discussed but rarely acted upon need to improve the United States’ infrastructure provides a real way to move away from a dependency on financialization. As he argues, government investment has worked for other nations and has worked for the United State in the past.

It may be argued that reliance on the market, on the U.S. capacity for self-renewal, will unleash an era of growth and job creation in the country if only taxes are lowered and government gets smaller. However, one needs to ask why China is the leader in wind power and other emerging alternative energy technologies such as solar panels. The answer is its government subsidies and insistence of policy makers that the country’s power grid utilize alternative energy before any other source and do so under long-term contracts that guarantee dependable markets for startups and their new technologies. Public financing for wind turbines, solar panels, and other low-carbon initiatives has also grown dramatically in European countries like Germany where government supports green technologies. China spends 9 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, Europe 5 percent, and the United States half of that—differences apparent to anyone who has traveled on European high-speed trains or landed at one of China’s new, efficient airports.

While other countries pursue active industrial policies that facilitate gaining leadership in twenty-first-century industries, in the United States such investment is portrayed as un-American. Such criticism reflects the same nostalgia and desire to go back to the world of an imagined past, erasing the role that government has in fact played in promoting investment, from subsidizing the transcontinental railroad to supporting state research universities. It seems shortsighted to reject serious government encouragement of industries that could promote more sustained growth and create large numbers of jobs. The usual answer given is that the government cannot do this. But in other countries there is a clear record of constructive use of incentives.


Friday, February 10th, 2012

Santiago Zabala on Being a Communist in 2012

Santiago Zabala, On Being a Communist

Communism, we have been told, has been consigned to the dustbin of history. Not so, according to Santiago Zabala, most recently the co-author with Santiago Zabala of Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx.

In a recent article on Aljazeera, Santiago Zabala that many of the issues confronting us today—the breakdown of capitalism, possible war with Iran, etc.—are existential and touch on the question of Being. Unfortunately, he suggests, many philosophers, particularly analytical philosophers confine themselves to technical issues that are oblivious to the large sociopolitical issues of the day.

Zabala argues that communism might help reinvigorate philosophy’s engagement with sociopolitical questions. In fact, many leading contemporary philosophers are already rethinking communism. Zabala writes:

[F]or readers … still interested in the existential nature of philosophy, where our own Being is always at stake, communism might become a way to return to philosophy’s original sociopolitical task. After all, it should not be a surprise that distinguished contemporary philosophers who focus on existential matters (such as Alain Badiou, Gianni Vattimo and Slavoj Zizek) have also reconsidered the meaning of communism for this new century.


Thursday, February 9th, 2012

William K. Tabb on The Road Not Traveled—Nationalization

The Restructuring of Capitalism in Our Time

“The White House, whether under the management of Republicans or Democrats, was never ready for such a business-like approach. Ironically the abuse the administration would take for being ‘socialist’ would keep any chief executive from considering a protaxpayer, hardheaded business approach to banking.”—William K. Tabb on the possibility of adopting the “Swedish solution” for bailing out U.S. banks.

In chapter six of The Restructuring of Capitalism in Our Time, William Tabb explores some of the responses to the Great Recession and what the Bush and Obama administrations did and did not do. In this section, Tabb explores the option of nationalization:

The Road Not Traveled—Nationalization

Prominent economists expressed skepticism over the bailouts, including Joseph Stiglitz, a former chair of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers; Paul Krugman, Princeton professor and New York Times columnist and, like Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner in economics; and Simon Johnson, MIT professor and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. In an essay titled “The Quiet Coup,” Johnson (2009a) suggested that the finance industry has captured the government of the United States and continues to guide its rescue efforts in its own interests and not those of the country. From an international regulator’s perspective, it all looked familiar. He describes what he calls “a classic Kremlin bailout technique,” the assumption of private debt obligations by the government, which acts to squeeze ordinary citizens and make taxpayers and service recipients bear the cost of financial-sector debt. That is to say, the ruling class of the United States and its dominant fraction, finance capital, manipulates government policy in much the same way the Kremlin or a rent-capturing elite of any global South debtor country might. In this view American crony capitalism reflects the collusive relation of the financiers, their regulators, and elected officials. Johnson writes, “If you hide the name of the country and just show the numbers, there is no doubt what old IMF hands would say: nationalize troubled banks and break them up as necessary.”


Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Association of American University Presses Turns 75

AAUPThe Association of American University Presses (AAUP) was officially founded on February 8, 1937 (Happy Birthday). Yesterday the AAUP web published an essay by Brenna McLaughlin looking at what led university presses to form an association.

(According to the AAUP, there’s more brewing for the 75th anniversary year—from a continued historical review, to festivities in Chicago this June, and—most excitingly—a University Press Week to be held November 11-17. We’ll keep you posted on the details.)

Starting in the 1920s, various university press directors began talking about the possibility of starting an association and finding ways to coordinate their efforts. However, the idea for an association gained momentum at a meeting in 1928 at the Waldorf-Astoria, in a variety of representative from presses focused on “problems of advertising and selling, including both more efficient marketing to a core audience of scholars, and affordable ways to sell to a wider trade audience” (some things never change!).

Though in the words of the attendees the meeting ended with “a perfect score of no resolutions and no officers, but…’100% harmony,” momentum was set in motion for a more formal organization. The meeting did however initiate “Shelfward Ho!” a joint catalog of university press titles that achieved limited success. Meetings continued through the 1930s and in 1937 a constitution was adopted forming the Association of American University Presses with twenty-two members.

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Michael Marder: Resist Like a Plant! On the Vegetable Life of Political Movements

Michael Marder

In the most recent issue of Peace Studies Journal, Michael Marder, author of the forthcoming Plant Thinking: Toward a Philosophy of Vegetative Life, examines the recent Occupy movements and its possible connections to vegetal life. Arguing that the politics of the Occupy movement is the politics of space, Marder suggests that the movement conforms to the unique ontology of plants and “point toward the possibility of a plant-human republic emerging from it.”

Marder writes:

The politics of space, privileging the sedentary component of bodies largely exposed to the elements (tents are a poor protection from rain and cold) and gaining increasing visibility thanks to this exposure, is, I would argue, one we have learned from vegetal life. Standing for non-violence par excellence, the plant has been identified in the history of Western thought with a living icon of peace, a non-oppositional being, wholly included in the place wherein it grows, to the point of merging with the milieu….


Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

William K. Tabb on the Great Recession and the Lessons Learned and Not Learned

The Restructuring of Capitalism in Our Time

“What the decision-makers at the Fed and Treasury appear not to have learned is the most important lesson of all: that the financial sector has grown too large, too dangerous, and too parasitic.”—William K. Tabb

In the concluding chapter to The Restructuring of Capitalism in Our Time, William K. Tabb examines some of the lessons learned in the wake of the Great Recession and those not learned, at least among those making decisions. Here is an excerpt from the chapter:

What the decision-makers at the Fed and Treasury appear not to have learned is the most important lesson of all: that the financial sector has grown too large, too dangerous, and too parasitic. To prevent new and even more costly financial crises, it needs to be shrunk and restructured to fulfill its central purpose of mediating between savers and those who can use capital to increase the productive capacity of the economy. They did not learn that the unregulated reliance by major financial institutions on the short-term repo markets is too dangerous to be tolerated. Their failures stem from the difficulty of relinquishing the core of mainstream financial economic theories that have reigned for the previous three or four decades.

Some lessons have been learned. For one thing, we are less naïve concerning systemic safety and the benefits of presumed portfolio diversification. It has become clear that if asset holdings are diversified similarly, the system as a whole lacks diversification, and that financial institutions following similar strategies take on similar risk and render the entire system vulnerable. Second, as Minsky leads us to expect, the system is subject to tipping points where there is a sudden discontinuity and reversal in Keynes’s animal spirits. Third, focusing on the importance of financialization to the global neoliberal SSA makes clear the role of credit overextension in causing such crises. Fourth, the complex networks of counterparty exposure are better understood, as is the recognition that reregulation requires a global perspective.


Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

Jonathan Lyons on Islam, Women, and the West

“The expropriation of the rhetoric of women’s rights under Islam in order to unleash deadly violence on Muslim nations shows just how much the struggle for women’s equality has become a discursive one rather than a material one.”—Jonathan Lyons

Jonathan Lyons, Islam Through Western Eyes

In a recent guest post for Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, Jonathan Lyons, author of Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism, argues that Western perceptions of the Islamic world have often been dominated by the male-female dynamic, or its misunderstanding of this dynamic.

The harem, which once dominated Western perceptions/fantasies of the Muslim world, has been replaced by the harem, which has come to be a symbol of the sexist and anti-modern nature of Islamic society. Lyons writes:

By the early twentieth century, the institution of veiling had for the most part supplanted the more exotic harem as the focal point of Western attention. Still, the underlying logic of the discourse of Islam and women remains firmly in place today. The end result has been a “sexualization” of the Western view of Islam, one in which the totality of Muslim beliefs and practices and even the entire Islamic civilization are too often reduced to Western perceptions and assessment of the male–female dynamic.

Exhibit A may be found in our obsession with the hijab, or veil, as a barometer of social progress and overall well-being within Islamic societies, to such a degree that it has become a commonplace of Western mass-media coverage, social activism, and political discussion alike. For years, the veil has been a staple of endless news articles, books, and documentaries, and it is captured in magazine and television images – all as shorthand for a society, a civilization, or a system that is backward, alien, immobile, and inherently antithetical to human rights and dignity.


Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

The Restructuring of Capitalism in Our Time

The Restructuring of Capitalism in Our TimeThe following excerpt is from our featured book The Restructuring of Capitalism in Our Time, by William K. Tabb:

Not long ago the near collapse of the financial system discredited the excessive financialization central to contemporary American capitalism. By the end of 2010 total output in the U.S. economy had regained prerecession levels (although not on a per capita basis, and spending increases by those below the richest 10 percent of households had increased only modestly). As banks and the stock market recovered, the conversation moved to worrying about public debt. Financial reform was presumed to have been achieved; the financial crisis safely consigned to history. This book is a protest against this premature dismissal and suggests we need to understand the damaging role finance has assumed in the economy, the continuing problem of global capital flow imbalances, and the danger of a still worse crisis.


Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

New Book Tuesday: Camera Historica and New Titles from Hong Kong University Press

Camera HistoricaOur weekly list of new books includes the following:

Camera Historica: The Century in Cinema
Antoine de Baecque

Japanese Cinema Goes Global: Filmworkers’ Journeys
Yoshiharu Tezuka

Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography
Edited by May Holdsworth and Christopher Munn

Creatures’ Paradise: Animals in Art from the Kyoto National Museum
Meiko Nagashima

Escape from Hong Kong: Admiral Chan Chak’s Christmas Day Dash, 1941
Tim Luard

Desiring Hong Kong, Consuming South China: Transborder Cultural Politics, 1970-2010
Eric Kit-wai MaEric Kit-wai Ma

English in Asian Popular Culture
Edited by Jamie Shinhee Lee and Andrew Moody

Narratives of Free Trade: The Commercial Cultures of Early US-China Relations
Edited by Kendall Johnson

China in Revolution: The Road to 1911
Heung Shing Liu

Humour in Chinese Life and Letters: Classical and Traditional Approaches
Edited by Jessica Milner Davis and Jocelyn Chey

Transmitting Robes, Linking Minds: The World of Buddhist Kasaya
Edited by Aki Yamakawa, Yoshihiro Ono and Monica Bethe

The Auschwitz Reports and the Holocaust in Hungary
Randolph L. Braham

Monday, February 6th, 2012

Book Giveaway!: The Restructuring of Capitalism in Our Time by William Tabb

The Restructuring of Capitalism in Our TimeThis week our featured book is The Restructuring of Capitalism in Our Time, by William Tabb.

Throughout the week we will highlight aspects of the book but we are also offering a free copy of the book to one lucky winner.

To enter our book giveaway, simply e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu with your name and address (U.S. and Canadian mailing addresses only, unfortunately). We will randomly select one winner on Friday at 1:00 pm. Good luck and spread the word!

Praise for The Restructuring of Capitalism in Our Time:

Of all the many books on the economic crisis, this is the best. William K. Tabb has absolute command of his subject and provides the clearest account yet of the financial folly that has brought the United States to its knees. Eminently readable and reasonable, his book cuts through the clouds of obfuscation by politicians and economists alike to draw a clear lesson: financialization is a cancer running through the American economy, one that continues to suck the life out of industry, corrupt capitalists, and Congress, generating more froth than real growth or jobs. A wonderful book and a real pleasure to read.” — Richard Walker, University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Capitalist Imperative: Territory, Technology, and Industrial Growth

“An incisive analysis of the Great Financial Crisis of 2008, this book ranges over topics that transcend the narrow confines of traditional specialists, producing an overall analysis of the origins, development, and implications of financialization that will be discussed intently by scholars today and in years to come.” — Martin Wolfson, University of Notre Dame

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

Better Food Through Science — The Kitchen as Laboratory

The Kitchen as Laboratory

“We strongly believe that the proper use of the scientific method in the areas of food design, production, and distribution can be of great benefit to society.”—Cesar Vega and David J. McClements

We conclude our week-long feature on The Kitchen as Laboratory: Reflections on the Science of Food and Cooking, edited by Cesar Vega, Job Ubbink, and Erik van der Linden, with an excerpt from the final chapter “On the Fallacy of Cooking from Scratch.” The authors of the chapter Vega and David J. McClements argue for the importance of science and scientific research to provide more nutritious food and better distribution. They challenge the conventional view that food science is somehow opposed to healthy eating by producing “food-like substances.”

We also wanted to let you know that Cesar Vega will join two of the book’s contributors, Anne McBride and Thomas M. Tongue Jr. in a discussion of the book at the 92nd Y in Tribeca on February 17th at 12 pm. Seats are still available for the event!

Better Food Through Science

We strongly believe that the proper use of the scientific method in the areas of food design, production, and distribution can be of great benefit to society. Indeed, as candidly put by C. P. Snow in The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959) and extrapolated to the realm of food, this is our responsibility as scientists. The benefits—which are often overlooked or taken for granted—range from the production of a diverse range of ingredients and foods to the generation of stimulating insights into the reasons different foods look, taste, and feel the way they do. This knowledge complements the insightful observations of food scholars around why we eat what we eat.

As scientists, with a deep sense of responsibility toward the community we live in, we strongly oppose Pollan’s (2008) and other food writers’ and activists’ denigration of the food science profession. One would get the impression that food scientists spend all their time in corporate laboratories creating “foodlike substances” to trick consumers into purchasing more fat, sugar, and salt. This is far from fair and does not give an accurate and thorough view of what food scientists actually do. It is true that some food scientists work for food companies, developing or improving processed foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt. It is also true that overconsumption of these foods leads to a poor overall diet that negatively impacts health. Nevertheless, even these foods—for example, ice cream, potato chips (crisps), soda, and hamburgers—can be enjoyed for their desirable sensory attributes if they are consumed in moderation. Food scientists are involved in many other activities that demand the application of the basic principles of physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering to improve the manufacturing, storage, distribution, quality, safety, and nutritional attributes of foods.


Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

Bacon: The Slice of Life — The Kitchen as Laboratory

Bacon, The Kitchen as Laboratory

“Whether used as a breakfast meat, a cooking ingredient, or strictly for flavoring, bacon is one of the most universally enjoyed foods in the world. It is hard to deny that bacon is an important part of our most fundamental culinary experiences.”—Timothy Knight from his chapter ‘Bacon: The Slice of Life’”

Yesterday we posted Jennifer Kimmel’s chapter The Science of Grilled Cheese from The Kitchen as Laboratory: Reflections on the Science of Food and Cooking, edited by Cesar Vega, Job Ubbink, and Erik van der Linden. Today we offer Timothy Knight’s fascinating chapter on the history, properties, and science of bacon:

Bacon is magical. It can transform an ordinary meal into an extraordinary delight. With just one bite, you get an irresistible crunch, a distinctive smoky flavor, and an unmistakable sense of deliciousness. This chapter takes you through the finely honed mandatory steps that turn a humble piece of pork into the mouth-watering slice of “meat candy” that we know and love. So hang on tight. You are about to embark on a journey behind the magical bacon curtain, where you will learn how a lowly pork belly becomes the meat that makes your life complete.

A Brief History of Bacon

For more than three thousand years, bacon was made on farms using traditional practices that involved salt curing, dry curing, and smoking pork bellies. During the 1770s, John Harris, an industrious farmer in Wiltshire, England, established himself as the first large-scale bacon manufacturer in the modern world by using so-called wet-curing methods. With the onset of the industrial era came Philip Armour’s refrigerated rail cars and the development of more advanced preservation techniques by Gustavus Swift, both of which paved the way for the development of bacon as we know it today. In 1924, Oscar Mayer took his rightful place on the smoky-salty bacon throne by introducing the first presliced bacon. However, shoppers still had to get their bacon from the in-store butcher. So, in 1948, Mayer introduced the first prepackaged bacon, a durable cellophane-wrapped slab of sliced bacon on a thin sheet of cardboard. This allowed shoppers to select packages themselves from the retail case. In 1962, with the onset of new polymer-film technologies, Oscar Mayer began vacuum packaging his bacon (and other processed meats), once again revolutionizing retail meat packaging. An airtight envelope protected the bacon against spoilage. The back-of-package window, which allowed shoppers to see exactly what they were purchasing, was embraced in 1973.

It All Starts with a Pork Belly

A pork belly does not come off a hog resembling anything like bacon. In fact, it is not actually the belly or the stomach; rather, it is the lean and fat from the side of the hog that remains after the ham, shoulder, ribs, and loin are removed. Each hog has two “bellies.” The anatomy of a pork belly is complex, having several distinct and interspersed layers of lean and fat, which can be readily identified when looking at an individual strip of bacon. These layers are not consistently proportioned or spaced throughout the length of the belly, which is why individual slices of bacon look different (­figure 18). Trimming removes sections that are too fatty to make into bacon. White bacon is made from the abdominal region of the hog and is nearly devoid of lean meat. This fatty cut is used primarily for flavoring. In some cultures, the fat from this cut is slowly melted out of the meat structure. The remaining bacon then solidifies as a crispy-crunchy “chip.”


Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Michael Neuman Discusses Doctors Without Borders and Humanitarian Negotiaons

In a recent episode of The Leonard Lopate Show, Michael Neuman discusses Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience, which he co-edited with Claire Magone and Fabrice Weissman. The book has been published on the 40th anniversary of the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)

In the interview, Michael Neuman considered the practical realities of conducting humanitarian negotiations in complex situations. He also addressed the evolution of humanitarian goals, the resistance to these goals, and the political arrangements that overcame (or failed to) this resistance.

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

The Science of a Grilled Cheese Sandwich from The Kitchen as Laboratory

Grilled Cheese

It is not everyday that we have the opportunity to have a post on grilled cheese sandwich, so we were glad to see that The Kitchen as Laboratory: Reflections on the Science of Food and Cooking opens with Jennifer Kimmel’s chapter “The Science of a Grilled Cheese Sandwich.”

Here is the chapter in its entirety:

Why do certain varieties of cheese make great grilled cheese sandwiches? The secret lies in understanding how the molecules within cheese influence the ooey-gooey melted goodness that is the essence of a perfect grilled cheese sandwich.

It all begins with the cow (or goat or sheep). After all, cheese, no matter the variety, gets its start from milk. Even though milk is made of 80 to 90 percent water (in most hoofed species), it is still a very good source of proteins (casein and whey), carbohydrates (lactose, or milk sugar), and minerals (especially calcium). These three components, along with milk fat, are the essential ingredients for making cheese. Proteins (primarily caseins) give cheese its structure and allow the fat and a small amount of moisture to be retained while the majority of the water is removed. Lactose provides a food source for the growth of bacteria, which lend individual cheese varieties their distinctive flavor. The calcium in the milk determines how the proteins interact and this interaction ultimately dictates the softening, melting, and stretching characteristics of the heated cheese in a grilled sandwich.

Before milk is converted into cheese, the casein proteins are arranged in individual clusters, called micelles, which are suspended in what is known as the aqueous phase. They contain two-thirds of the milk’s total calcium and have a net negative charge that prevents them from aggregating together. To convert milk into cheese, however, the proteins must aggregate and form a curd, trapping both fat and water. To achieve aggregation, the negative charge must be eliminated from the casein micelles. This is accomplished either by adding acid and neutralizing the negative charge or by adding an enzyme and cleaving the portion of the cluster that contains the negative charge. While the transformation from protein aggregation to cheese is complicated, the main steps include cooking the curd and draining the whey, followed by salting and pressing the curds together. Aging is the final step, which allows for structure and flavor formation.

The ideal cheese characteristic needed to make a grilled cheese sandwich is melt. Who does not love to cut into a hot grilled cheese sandwich and see smooth, creamy melted cheese oozing from between the slices of grilled bread. But why do some cheeses melt better than others? Why do certain varieties melt as homogeneous molten masses, while others as oily lumps? Again, we go back to the molecular interactions within the cheese, primarily the interactions between the casein proteins and the calcium. The casein proteins are held together in the micelles by calcium bridges, and the number of these bridges is influenced by the acidity of the cheese. As cheese ages, more of the lactose is converted to lactic acid, causing the pH of the cheese to decrease and become more acidic. This, in turn, causes a dwindling in the number of calcium bridges within the casein micelles as the calcium solubilizes and moves from its position among the proteins to the entrapped water within the curd. The fewer the number of calcium bridges, the greater the mobility of the proteins as their connections give way.