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November 29, 2007

Itch Niche.

For many of us who went to high school outside of Kansas, the second neatest thing about evolution is those crazy species that evolve to fill even the most difficult biological niches, like the eyeless fishes that can live in the near-freezing dark a billion feet below the ocean surface, or the spiders with antifreeze in their blood that live on top of the Andes and wait for frozen bugs to blow by. And how interesting tandem evolutions happen, where one species will evolve to fill a niche created by another, like those moths with the foot-long suckers to get at the pollen way inside the orchids with the foot-long flowers.

[For those who went to high school in Kansas, the neatest thing about evolution may be that itâs a word youâve never heard before. It means that since 1925 you've been allowed to find out that your ancestors were monkeys â monkeys who had developed super mental powers and amazing abilities, like something in a comic book. Dude, how cool is that?]

The first neatest thing about evolution for everyone, of course, is the way itâs managed to result in you. Interesting how it never fails to do that, and in theory, it should mean that everyone walking around right now represents their own little evolutionary pinnacle.

But now that weâre all feeling good about ourselves, Iâd like to focus on the dark, sinister underbelly of evolution. This is the bit where, for every notch of progress the lion makes toward being a better hunter, the gazelle clicks one notch further into its niche of being tasty and helpless. Or, to return to the overused moth example: the orchid evolves a foot-long bit with the pollen at the bottom (the name of which I clearly cannot be bothered to look up), and so the moth evolves a foot-long proboscis to scoop it out. Moth gets food; orchid gets tickled and pollinated. A beautiful, complete circle. Yin and yang. Right? Wrong. Because what you canât see in this lovely National Geographic photo is that right over there, standing just out of the shot, for some damn reason thereâs a guy whoâs evolved a debilitating histamine reaction to the pollen which the moth is now distributing all over the place.

This is apparently my evolutionary niche: to be the person whose response to the evolutionary processes of every other thing on the planet is to be made violently ill by them. My inner eugenicist would at this point like to take the floor, in order to demonstrate that it is for the good of the progress of the species that my sister and I both actively intend not to procreate:

Between Dianna and me, we are allergic to every single thing on this planet. You think Iâm exaggerating? Well, Iâm mildly allergic to many fruits, including all squashes, berries, and melons, and almost every vegetable (which is great for a vegan). Itâs ridiculous: Iâm allergic to cucumbers and some lettuces, which I donât think are made of anything you can be allergic to. Theyâre just water and cellulose, like an edible kitchen sponge, but they make me itch. Iâm also allergic to nuts (but not peanuts) and an impressive range of nonfood plants, including aloe. Who the fuck is allergic to aloe? Itâs the thing you use to soothe allergies, but it makes me itch. Itâs like being allergic to calamine lotion. Itâs bullshit.

Speaking of things you might put calamine lotion on, the animals Iâm allergic to include spiders, which means that when they bite me, which they really like to do, I get a violently itchy and painful swelling the size of a ping-pong ball under my skin. Chickens: the eggs and the feathers make me itch and sneeze, although itâs possible that I would be OK interacting with plucked adults. Dianna can attest to what happens to me in the presence of cats; apparently itâs not pretty, although I canât see it because my eyes are so watery and glued shut. We neednât go through the rest of the kingdom Animalia; I am apparently allergic to every animal except, according to allergy tests, cockroaches, which I suppose means that I could go ahead and move to New York if I liked cities, or go back to Japan at some point where the cockroaches are everywhere and the size of my hand. Now, cockroaches evidently hit their evolutionary pinnacle millions of years ago and are hanging out in their niche quite comfortably, but for every other species and breed thatâs still splitting off and working on its super-furry coat or its blue-raspberry-flavor venom or its rainbow-colored butt, I already have a corresponding histamine reaction coded into my genes.

That covers animal and vegetable, folks, but who the hell is allergic to minerals? Thatâs where Dianna comes in. I canât remember what animal & plant allergies she does or doesnât have, but sheâs managed to be allergic to every metal except the purest gold. Unlike all of my stupid allergies, which seem like they should have been eliminated long ago in some ancestral rodent who was sneezing too loudly to hide from a predator, hers is kind of neat. Not useful in an everyday life that involves things like using spoons, counting out change, and wearing jeans with zinc on the back of the button, but I like to think of it as proof that, despite our pasty white skin, weâre distantly descended from some vengeful and finicky Mayan sun god. âThis is alloy!â I can see him thundering from behind his glowing golden mask (and probably pausing to scratch beneath one of the cheap rings turning his finger green). âThis is not fitting tribute for ME! I demand twenty additional sacrifices to make up for it, and next time bring me a chest of 24 karat gold or itâs conquistadors for your village, so help me ME!â

I bring all of this up because I have had a mystery malaise for the last three months, and I havenât been able to shake the symptoms for more than a day or two at a time. The background feeling that I have every day lately is one of exhaustion, dizziness, and total mental fogginess, the way you might feel if youâre running on three or four hours of sleep a night for several nights in a row, even though Iâve been sleeping 10 hours a day, often without meaning to. Then, every few days when it flares up into its worse mode, I get sneezy and coughy. I thought for a while that I was getting the same cold over and over again, and that something was way out of whack with my immune system and keeping me from ever getting better. I even tried the extreme approach of altering my behavior, like staying home and drinking tea and going to bed early instead of going out and drinking whiskey and crawling into bed at 2 AM, but it made no difference at all in how I felt the next day. No matter what, the pattern seemed to hold: two days merely feeling exhausted and unfocused, three days feeling sick; repeat. After four or five doctor appointments and labwork sessions weâd ruled out everything from thyroid problems to carbon monoxide poisoning to Hepatitises A through H (which evidently they have now). Nothing.

I got kind of excited when my doctor started doing blood tests for vitamin deficiencies, which seemed like a possible answer since Iâm vegan. I try to stay on top of the vitamins and to eat pretty balanced meals, and Iâm not wasting-away-skinny by any stretch of the imagination, but I was starting to think that maybe Iâd let some nutrients slip and that my immune system was having a hard time. I was starting to fantasize about getting a doctorâs note requiring me to eat crab cakes and steak. And fried chicken. And bacon, because even though my last experience with bacon was disappointing, I canât seem to stop living in a fantasy world in which bacon and I had a much better relationship than I think we ever really did. I pictured myself heroically mustering all of my will and, swallowing my principles, tearing into a plate of Beef Wellington.

Nah. My vitamin levels range from great to really great. My immune system is terrific; actually, itâs too terrific, because apparently it just doesnât know when to quit or how not to fight. Turns out that I have an absolutely off-the-charts, broke-the-scale, out-of-control allergy to the most common grass and the most common mold in Santa Cruz county. For some reason it picked this year to get out of hand, and for the last three months I havenât been a sickly person, Iâve been an incredibly efficient histamine-producing robot, Sneeze-Tron 3000. I didnât realize, because all of my other allergies seem to manifest as localized itching, that allergic reactions could make you so fuzzy, foggy, and out-of-it, unable to concentrate on a single thing, but apparently thatâs the way a lot of people respond to this leaf mold in particular. My theory is that it happens because little bits of your brain are actually being pushed into your sinuses and then sneezed out your nose; watch for me to get measurably stupider as I commence my new regimen of sinus irrigating and so forth. I canât figure out through the brain-fog what evolutionary purpose these allergies could possibly serve â unless itâs somehow my genetic destiny to have to drop out of grad school and relocate to a climate where nothing grows and no animals live â but I am kind of pleased that Iâm continuing to keep pace with all the organisms around me. Plants and mold develop super-spores? Katie develops Super Spore Recepticon Attack.

I also donât like taking antihistamines, not just because they make me deranged and unable to drive a car or ride a bike, but because I donât like introducing a wasteful middleman into this process. Itâll just force me to develop an outrageous histamine response to antihistamines. Instead, Iâm going straight for homeopathy, which is essentially like vaccination, wherein you give your body tiny bits of the things itâs bothered by to provoke a solid, preventative immune response (wellness) against the bad immune response you donât want (illness; allergic reaction). Apparently, Iâm such a highly evolved allergy machine that I can actually mount a full-blown allergy attack in response to the 0.0000000000001 cc of ragweed pollen in homeopathic allergy pills. Katie: evolutionary superbeing or appallingly weak link? You decide, but no matter what you say we ain't making any babies. I'm allergic to children.

Posted by katie at 04:30 PM

November 18, 2007

Crunch! The Musical

"Wear your fucking helmet" is Dianna's public service campaign, not mine, and so I'm not going to bogart it (as I believe the vernacular would have it). But I will offer a tidbit from circa an hour and a half ago.

Seems like most of the time bicyclists get killed in direct car-on-bike accidents. There's a lot of talk on community cycling and bike safety forums about the problem of right-hand turns: a driver turning right around a corner is often looking left to see if there's oncoming traffic or if he's clear to round the corner. Bicyclists turning right -- or riding through some intersections, depending on on the traffic design -- are usually poised on the right-hand side of the car, just behind the driver's field of vision. A lot of accidents happen because the driver either wasn't looking for or couldn't see a bike on his right, and when the driver turns, crunch!, he runs over the cyclist.

The most frequent and common-sense piece of advice I see about this is for savvy cyclists to take this into account when making right turns, and to figure out what each intersection calls for safety-wise: either to pull out enough that the waiting driver has to know you're there and get a wave or some kind of acknowledgement; to hang back enough until the driver makes his turn that he can't possibly clip you; to move left into the lane of traffic and take a whole car's space for yourself, or to avoid the corner altogether. For this reason, at some of the crappily laned or really busy intersections around here, I often cut the right corner by riding through a gas station or parking lot or whatever if it looks safer to do so than to deal with cars swerving into and through and around a right-turn lane. That way, when I enter the bike lane on the street I want, I'm far enough from the corner that the cars and I have separate lanes or zones again, and I can pause and make sure no car's turning too tight and ending up in my bike lane. I'm generally pretty worried about the right-turning drivers, and on streets with decent bike lanes, I'm not generally too concerned about the drivers continuing straight because we each have our own space.

There's a defensive-cycling logic that says that as long as you're smart about the dangers and vehicles around you, you know where everyone else is going and what you're doing, then you're probably fine. This also seems to equal, in some of my friends, an attitude that says, "Yeah, I know, cars are dangerous, but I'm a savvy and attentive cyclist, so I don't really wear a helmet and I'm good at getting out of the way fast."

Here's the accident that just happened:

I was riding my bike down a side street toward the busy street that I live on. I was going to make a right-hand turn around the corner and continue down the busy street, which has a nice big bike lane, to my house. There was a car waiting at the stop sign as I was riding toward it, and I thought the car was waiting to turn right, even though it had no turn signal on, because it's impossible to go straight or make a left turn there with all that traffic. So, not wanting to end up on the right side of a right-turning car and risk getting hit, I slowed down to see if it would either make its turn before I got to the intersection or if it would still be waiting, in which case I would cut the corner through the gas station and directly into the bike lane. The car was evidently turning left or going straight because, as I slowed down, it started to pull straight out into the intersection. So I figured I'd be clear to ride right around the corner behind it and into the nice big bike lane. I looked down at my bike at this point, for no particular reason, as I was riding up to the stop sign to check that my turn was safe.

When I looked up a split second later, it was to see the car that had just pulled into the intersection ahead of me getting t-boned by a Corvette coming down the busy street at top speed. With the power of the crash and the geometry involved, here are a few of the things that happened very quickly: one, the Corvette pushed the other car across the intersection right in front of me, as far as the bike lane I was about to enter; and two, both cars then spun at different trajectories across traffic. All told, each car traveled probably 150 feet before stopping. The crash was bad enough that, of the things I later observed, at least one door got torn clear off the Corvette, the gas tank was torn open and leaking all over the place, and the Corvette somehow got most of the front end of the other car stuck to it.

All the people involved in the crash are alive and okay, and I was completely unharmed and uninvolved because the crash didn't get closer than 10 or 20 feet from me at the closest point. On the surface of it, this accident had nothing to do with bikes, or drivers not paying attention to cyclists, or cyclists not paying attention to cars. But here's what scared the shit out of me:

- If I had decided to pull up next to the car at the stop sign to make my right turn, rather than hanging back to see what it was going to do, I would have been about five feet from the accident and directly in its path. Both cars would have hit me immediately.

- If I had been entering the bike lane on the busy street, rather than hanging back, I would have been riding right through one of the areas that the two cars spun through after the impact happened.

- Even though I was a few feet back from the intersection, if the geometry of the impact and subsequent car trajectories had been even slightly different, I was close enough that either or both of the cars could have hit me right where I was as they spun out. If the Corvette had hit the other car on the rear rather than the front, it could very well have been deflected toward me, not away from me, and hit me at a very high rate of speed.

I don't know what your chances would be as a bicyclist getting clipped by an accident that you weren't initially part of but which sends 6 or 7 thousand pounds of out-of-control cars barreling into you, but I'm going to guess that if you're not wearing a helmet they're basically zero. Even though I didn't end up in the accident, the knowledge that I was wearing my helmet made me very, very glad, because it was just about the only thing I could have done to prepare for the contingency of someone else's accident ending up right on top of me.

And so, boys and girls, Katie has just had a point driven home about something that's probably perfectly obvious, but here it is: Safety equipment isn't really there for the times when everything is working normally and you're smart and in control of the situation. It's also not just there for the times when you do something dumb or unforseen, like hitting a rock and flipping your bike. It's also there for when other people do things that weren't even on your radar and didn't start off involving you at all, but might suddenly involve you very quickly and catastrophically.

Hooray for helmet. Also, I don't like cars.

Okay, I'm done being Dianna now; I'll go back to writing about food. Oh wait.

Posted by katie at 06:14 PM

November 09, 2007

Counterfeit Confederate Mattress

...Or, how to keep getting fat on a vegan diet. Mmmm.

On one of my recent visits to my sister in Portland, we had lunch at a delicious veggie-oriented restaurant called Laughing Planet. Actually, I lie, we had lunch there on both of my recent visits, partly because itâs delicious and partly because itâs in my favorite quadrant of the city (woo! SE!) and we kept schlepping out there to do other stuff. At any rate, this place has a varying daily special item which can be ordered either in rice bowl form or in burrito form. On the day I am talking about, the special was something called the Southern Dixie Mattress, a comfy and charming name apparently derived from the (defunct?) business next door, the Southern Dixie Mattress Co. The point of all this is of course that the burrito was delicious, and while I canât totally remember what was in it, Iâve faked up the following copycat recipe based on what I remember about the original. This is of course no substitute for patronizing this fine business, but it's cheaper than a plane ticket to Portland.

Counterfeit Confederate Mattress Burritos

This makes a big mess and a lot of dishes to wash, but it also makes a bunch of tasty vegan vitamin-A-filled burritos to take in your lunch all week, so itâs worth it. It also sounds labor-intensive because the recipeâs kind of long, but it goes fast.

Six or eight burrito sized tortillas
One large yam/sweet potato, scrubbed and cubed (donât peel!)
Approx. 4-6 oz. firm tofu, cubed
One giant or two small russet potatoes, scrubbed and cubed
A couple of cups of collard greens, washed and chopped (fresh or frozen)**
One small or  large onion, chopped
Two large cloves garlic, chopped
One 15-oz can black eyed peas, drained
 c barbecue sauce, or to taste
salt, pepper, and a pinch of sage
Olive oil or Earth Balance for sautÃing

**A NOTE ON COLLARDS: If you chop your collards too small, you will live to regret it. That is because collards are most frequently cooked by boiling, and if you make tiny little flecks of collards, whatâs going to happen when you drain the water? About half the collards will go through the holes in the colander, thatâs what. So you can either: use a fine mesh colander/strainer; chop your collards a little bigger; or use a slotted spoon to strain the potatoes and collard bits from the water. If youâre using frozen chopped collards, theyâll be small, so plan on using a strainer without huge holes or a skimmer/slotted spoon, or coming up with some other plan that involves pan-sautÃing the collards and boiling the potatoes and then combining them. Or, hell, you can make extra collards and plan for a lot of them to go down the drain. Up to you.

Youâre going to make all this crap in three different pots/pans, so youâll end up with three different stations on your burrito-assembly line. Iâd suggest a large pot, a smallish pot, and a large skillet or wok. If you donât have the right number/kind of pots/pans/stove burners to do this simultaneously, you can make this stuff in shifts and transfer to bowls; it doesnât matter.

Station 1: Mashed potatoes and Collards
Pan: Big pot for boiling

See **A NOTE ON COLLARDS at top of recipe, or seriously, youâre going to be pissed in about 5-7 minutes.

Boil a bunch of water in a big pot. How much water? Enough for your potato cubes and collards to float around freely and boil. When water boils, add collards and potatoes together; they should take about the same amount of time. Depending on the size of your potato cubes, they might cook in as little as 5-7 minutes. When potatoes are soft enough to pierce with a fork and seem soft enough to smash, drain the water, reserving about  c. cooking water. Or: if, like me, you use little tiny frozen chopped collard greens and have a colander with big holes, you will probably end up using a skimmer to pull the cooked potato cubes and as much of the collards as you can get out of the water and into a bowl or something. Drain the rest of the water out of the pot, reserving about  c. cooking water, and heave the potatoes and collards back in. Mash or smash the potatoes with a potato masher, spatula, fork, or whatever. The collards will get incorporated into the smashed potatoes. If they seem really dry and mealy, you can start adding in a little bit of the reserved cooking water. But theyâre going in burritos, so you donât want them too liquidy or goopy. At this point, throw in some salt/pepper, mix around, and thatâs done.

Station 2: Onions and Black-Eyed Peas
Pot: small to medium saucepan

Heat oil or Earth Balance in saucepan. Add onions and garlic and sautà until onions are nice and translucent. Donât burn onions/garlic or they will get bitter! Stir frequently and keep heat to medium-low. When onions are all nice, dump in can of drained black-eyed peas, a pinch of ground sage, salt and pepper to taste, and stir around until everythingâs warm and mixed. Remove from heat. There will be juice and cooking liquid in the bottom of the saucepan, so to avoid leaking burritos youâll want to either dish this out with a slotted spoon or drain off the liquid now.

Station 3: BBQ Yams and tofu.
Pan: Large skillet or wok.

Heat oil or Earth Balance in skillet. Add cubed sweet potatoes and sautÃ. Make sure you turn/stir them regularly so they donât stick and burn. Depending on the size of your cubes, this will probably take about 15 minutes. Give the sweet potatoes about a 5 minute head start, and then add the tofu. If/when the oil seems to have vanished and things appear to be sticking but the sweet potatoes arenât soft yet, turn the heat down to medium and add about a ladleful ( c.?) of water and cook, covered, until thatâs absorbed. Youâll probably do that about twice before the sweet potatoes are at a nice level of softness for eating. You can salt & pepper them if youâre compulsive like me, but you neednât bother because youâre about to do this: Remove from heat when sweet potatoes are done. Add about  c. of whatever barbecue sauce you want and stir to coat. You might add more at this point; you donât want the potatoes and tofu swimming in liquid, but you do want them all nice and coated and kind of goopy and you donât want to be stingy with the BBQ sauce and end up with bland burritos. I really like BBQ sauce.

Assembly line! If youâre feeling ambitious, you could heat your tortillas to make them nice and flexible, or, if like me youâre a little over it at this point, use them cold and know that if they split, youâre wrapping them up anyway so they canât totally fall apart. Easiest way to mass-assemble is this: On top of a big plate or cutting board, lay out a square of foil or plastic wrap and put a big tortilla on top of that. When youâre laying out burrito ingredients, start with potato & collard mixture, then black-eyed peas and onions, and finally top with BBQ yams & tofu. Roll up using secret ninja arts known only to the people who work in taquerias, or, alternatively, do a haphazard job of rolling the tortilla and then use the foil/plastic to roll everything into place.

When I did this, it made six burritos, but my first couple were really overstuffed and my last one was a little small. If you portion it out right, my guess is youâll end up with around six normal-sized burritos, or lunch for the whole week! I donât have a microwave and anyway that wouldnât help if youâve wrapped them in foil, but Iâve found that a foil-wrapped burrito stuck in a 375-degree oven for 20 minutes warms up nicely if youâre eating at home; otherwise, theyâre perfectly nice cold or at room temp.

Let me know what you think!

In other vegan food news, I used the other two tortillas from the package to make tofu scramble burritos using part of the packet of Tobyâs Tofu Seasoning Mix my sister gave me. I have found the following: If you sautà the crumbled tofu with onions and carrots and tofu seasoning mix and soy sauce and roll it into burritos with cubed avocado, soy cheese, and fresh shredded cabbage, the result is sheer deliciousness. I heartily endorse this product, or I would if I could figure out how to buy it online; it appears mainly to exist in Eugene, Oregon, and Iâm not sure where my sister got it.

Posted by katie at 07:32 PM