Sunday, April 14, 2024

In which I reconsider the hill I said I would die on.

I may have mentioned that I'm Czech on my mother's side. My maternal grandparents came over from the province of Bohemia in the late 1800s and very early 1900s. My grandfather's family settled in southwestern Wisconsin and then moved to the Chicago area; my grandmother's family migrated to Chicago and stayed there.

Mom's family was closer geographically to us, so we spent a lot of holidays with her side of the family. And of course Mom did all the cooking at home. So I have a fair acquaintance with Czech foods -- particularly baked goods. 

Besides the Chicago area, Czech immigrants to this country settled in several other states, including Iowa, Nebraska, and Texas. (The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library is in Cedar Rapids. I've never been, but I should probably visit sometime.) The Texas Czechs apparently came from the province of Moravia, arrived in America through the port of Galveston, settled in west Texas, and about 50 years later, started churning out kolaches for sale. Except these Texas kolaches are not the same as the koláčky I remember from my childhood. Ours were cookies. The Texas variety are more like Danish -- some with the fruit and cheese fillings I remember and some filled with stuff like sausage and jalapeños.

To me, this has always been WRONG. I could stretch my personal definition of koláčky to the bigger fruit buns, but savory ones are right out.

Yesterday at the grocery store, I saw some of the savory ones in the freezer section, and it just caught me at the wrong moment. I posted this on Facebook: 
In the ensuing discussion, during which certain of my friends stood up for the Texas kind, I stumbled across a website called Cook Like Czechs. And that's when I figured out where I'd been going wrong. 

It turns out that there are two Czech pastries with similar names:
  • the kolache -- the Danish-like yeast bun, which in Czech is spelled koláč in the singular and koláče in the plural; and 
  • the koláčky -- the cookies -- of my youth. Here's the thing: koláčky is the plural form; the singular is koláček.
When I read that, a light bulb went off. See, in English, we add "little" before a noun to show that something is a small version of something else. Spanish does the same thing by adding a diminutive suffix: -ito or -ita. With me so far? Okay. Well, in Czech, the diminutive suffix is -ek. So a koláček is a little koláč

I'd never heard the singular form -- they were always koláčky in our family. Mom might have used koláč to mean one cookie, which would have added to the confusion.

Anyway, Petra at Cook Like Czechs lists similar traditional fillings for both kolaches and the cookie version: apricot, peach, cherry, prune, poppyseed (my all-time fave), and cream cheese. Petra uses a sweet yeast dough for her kolaches and a cream cheese dough for her koláčky. My mom used yeast dough for her koláčky but made them square and folded the opposite corners in, like in the photo of the recipe at Cook Like Czechs. I make mine with a cream cheese dough but cut them into circles and put a dot of filling in the middle, like thumbprint cookies. 
Lynne Cantwell | 2015 or so
You have perhaps noted that so far, I haven't mentioned any jalapeños. 

So there is a thing called a klobasnek (in Czech, klobásník). It seems to have been invented by those Czech immigrants in Texas. It uses kolache dough as the wrapping; originally the filling was chopped meat, but over the years it has expanded to include all sorts of savory things, including eggs, cheese, sausage, and yes, hot dogs and jalapeños. Of course, because America, klobasneks became conflated with kolaches -- I guess because they use the same dough? 

Anyway, now "kolache" is the generic term for both the sweet buns and the savory things. Let's call them Tex-Czech, okay? Maybe it will keep me from stroking out when I see them in the grocery store.

Fun fact: I mentioned above that kolache is the Americanized form of koláče, which is plural. So people who say "kolaches" have pluralized the word twice. Considering there are Americans who routinely call an ATM an "ATM machine", I can't say I'm surprised.

I learned something else from the Cook Like Czechs website. There's a festive braided bread that's often made at the holidays. We've always called it houska. But this blogger says that's because our family immigrated around the turn of the 20th century. Later on in the Czech lands, the name of this bread changed to vánočka. It's the same thing, just called by a different name. If you go to Czechia now and ask for houska, they'll bring you a braided white roll. Times do change, don't they?

These moments of Tex-Czech blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Dobrou chut'!

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Big Tobacco -- sorry, Big Food -- fights back.

djmilic | Deposit Photos
Toward the end of my time in DC, I was in a bad way. I had been on and off diets for about 50 years, losing hundreds of pounds, only to gain them all back, plus some. I was on two high-priced drugs for type 2 diabetes, one of which was Ozempic. I knew that diets didn't work, and yet every doctor I saw told me I needed to go on another one. When I resisted, I was called noncompliant. The whole dance stressed me out and gave me a binge eating disorder. 

Then a therapist told me about health at every size. The idea is that the scale is not the be-all and end-all -- that your weight doesn't matter as long as your blood pressure, etc., are fine. I glommed onto the idea like a life preserver. The therapist sent me to a dietitian, who recommended a book called The F*ck-It Diet: Eating Should Be Easy. (The publisher put the asterisk in the title, not me.) A lot of what the author wrote made sense to me, so I decided to try eating whatever I wanted, whenever I was hungry.

My fasting blood sugar shot up to about 180. (Note to those who know nothing about blood sugar readings: a fasting reading of between 70 and 100 is normal; 200 is high; at 400, you need to go to the E.R.; and if it's as high as 600, you could go into a coma and die.) I started to maybe think I was being sold a bill of goods -- that as a diabetic, maybe I couldn't eat whatever I wanted. When I broached the subject with the dietitian, I was a titch confrontational -- but the upshot was that she didn't know whether a fasting blood sugar reading of 180 was dangerous for a diabetic or not. We parted ways immediately. Very shortly thereafter, I also parted ways with the therapist who'd sent me to her.

This was not my first run-in with dietitians and nutritionists, although it was the most egregious. So this past week, I wasn't terribly surprised to see this article in the Washington Post: "As obesity rises, Big Food and dietitians push 'anti-diet' advice". It's a gift article, so feel free to click through and read it. The bottom line is that big food manufacturers like General Mills are co-opting the health-at-every-size message and turning it on its head. They claim to be empowering people to reject fat shaming and eat anything they want -- including, of course, Big Food's highly-processed products. To get there, they're enlisting dietitians as social media influencers, even to the extent of paying them to promote the manufacturers' products. (That link is also to a gift article. Both are the result of a new partnership between the Post and The Examination, a nonprofit news organization that specializes in coverage of public health issues around the world.)

The worst part is how these food manufacturers are distorting the health-at-every-size message. Its roots are in the 1960s civil rights movement, according to the article; the original goal was to promote equal access to healthcare. By 1995, the movement had come up with "intuitive eating" as a way for people, including those with eating disorders, to learn to listen for internal hunger cues that diet culture had taught them to ignore. 

As interest in intuitive eating increased, Big Food began to pay attention. Clearly, the industry is scared that the anti-diet movement, along with the success of drugs like Wegovy (aka Ozempic formulated for weight loss) in tamping down desire for junk food, are going to upend their business model. After all, obesity has been deemed a healthcare crisis. So the industry is manipulating the movement's message by "essentially shift[ing] accountability for the health crisis away from the food industry for creating ultra-processed junk foods laden with food additives, sugars and artificial sweeteners," as last week's article says.

This looks suspiciously like the sort of propaganda that Big Tobacco employed for decades to convince its customers that its addictive, cancer-causing products weren't really that bad, and were even healthy.

Last fall, according to the Post/Examination article, the Federal Trade Commission cracked down on a number of influencers and food industry trade groups for not being explicit about who was funding the influencers' posts. But that just means the influencers have to be clear about who's paying for their messaging. They don't have to change their advice.

I'm not trying to discredit all dietitians. I'm sure many of them offer nutritionally sound information and don't take kickbacks for social media posts from anybody. But we've received so much terrible information about nutrition from "experts" over the years -- eggs cause high cholesterol (LOL, nope), margarine is better than butter (actually, the trans fats in margarine make butter the better choice), high fructose corn syrup is fine (not so much), dairy fat is bad (that one's being disproven, too) -- that, well, just be careful about whom you listen to. Especially if it's a paid influencer on social media.

By the way, I didn't lose any weight on Ozempic. See, Ozempic makes your appetite go away. But a big appetite was never my problem; my problem was binge eating due to stress. I ate whether I was hungry or not. It wasn't until I retired, moved cross-country, and started low-carbing that I've lost weight and kept it off.

These moments of doughnut moustrapping have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Comfort TV.

We must be in the waning days of the knock-on effects of last year's SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America strikes. A lot of shows' production schedules were delayed by the strikes, so new episodes are just beginning to filter down to your favorite channels or apps. 

I am not complaining about the strikes. They were good and necessary. People need to be compensated fairly for their work -- and they also deserve protection from greedy producers and studio heads who would rather use performers' past work to generate AI than continue to pay flesh-and-blood performers for new work.

But while good and necessary, the strikes have had an effect on this year's programming, to the point where I'm kind of champing at the bit for new episodes of my favorite shows.

So I've been watching a lot of comfort TV (which I have written about before, here and here). A lot of streaming channels show old episodes of '90s reality TV, which I've never had any interest in watching for a variety of reasons. But I was pretty excited when I discovered that the Roku Channel has all 44 past seasons of  This Old House

duh84 | Deposit Photos

You probably wouldn't take me for a person who'd be excited about watching other people renovate a house. But I find it relaxing and kind of soothing. All the guys (and they are virtually all men) are professional contractors. They are capable and confident. They're good at explaining what they're doing and why -- and in some cases, particularly on the spinoff Ask This Old House, they teach homeowners how to tackle certain projects themselves. It's kind of like watching Bob Ross, except with power tools. 

I started watching because as a homeowner myself now, I wanted to learn some of lingo that home repair guys use. I've lived in apartments for a very long time; when something would go wrong, I'd call the leasing office and they'd send over a maintenance guy (who might or might not actually fix the problem, but that's a different rant). Those days are over for me; now I'm at the mercy of contractors. And I'd like to know something about what they're talking about -- and not incidentally, whether it's worth trying to do the thing myself.

Not for nothing, 44 seasons of This Old House plus 22 seasons of Ask This Old House equals a lot of comfort TV.

Roku has a separate channel for the really old episodes, back when Bob Vila was the host. The show was originally broadcast on WGBH, the PBS station in Boston, and focused on houses in the Northeast. It's fun to play "spot the current cast member" when watching the oldest shows -- carpenter Norm Abram and plumber Rich Trethewey were so young in 1979. I recently saw an episode that must have been Tom Silva's tryout -- he was so young that the only thing I recognized about him was his voice.

Vila left the show in 1989 because he didn't want to have to do commercials for the sponsors. Steve Thomas then took over as host. He left in 2003, and that's when the current host, Kevin O'Connor, joined the show. 

TOH has spawned several spinoff series and a magazine. New shows still air on PBS stations, but ownership of the production company has changed a number of times. Roku has owned This Old House Ventures since 2021, the same year the shows went into syndication.

TOH occasionally gets out of New England. I was particularly entertained by the six episodes in season 11 in which Bob and Norm came out to Santa Fe. The local general contractor (whose company is still in business -- I looked him up) had great fun educating Norm on Santa Fe style. (The closed captions mangled the Spanish names of elements of the style. It's spelled latilla, not latia, for cryin' out loud!) 

One somewhat unexpected side effect of watching all this power-tool porn: I'm starting to think that maybe I need to acquire some power tools of my own. Even though I have nowhere to put them. Or room for a workshop.

Luckily for my bank account, the fifth season of Star Trek Discovery starts this Thursday, and I have zero interest in acquiring a starship.


I heard that: "What's a latilla?" 

Santa Fe style borrows elements from both Pueblo Indian architecture and Territorial style. Buildings are made from adobe (although these days, it's wood frame or concrete with stucco on top) and have flat roofs. Ceiling joists are known as vigas and are often just logs with the bark peeled off. The ends stick out through the side walls of the structure. The latillas are set across the vigas, closely together. The original builders would put sod on top of the latillas, but now they use regular insulation and roofing materials. (A lot of times in new construction, the builder will use modern techniques, coat the building in stucco, and stick fake viga ends on the front.)

Other Spanish terms that are common to the style: a nicho is a niche in a wall, originally for a statue of a saint (aka a bulto) but now for your shampoo in the shower; a banco is a banquette, a bench built into the wall, originally of adobe but nowadays wood-framed and covered in plaster; a portal (pronounced por-TAHL, not POR-tuhl) is a covered porch supported by log pillars with carved corbels; and a canale is a channel for water to drain off a flat roof. You'll also see kiva fireplaces, which are set in a corner and have rounded fronts instead of square. In fact, most edges are rounded in Pueblo Revival style.

You'll see some other architectural styles around here, including Greek Revival and a bit of Spanish Revival, but Pueblo Revival and Territorial style make up the biggest chunk of Santa Fe style. Here's more, if you're interested.


These comforting moments of blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe! And happy Easter!

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Slaves in New Spain.

There's a room in the 17th century placita at El Rancho de las Golondrinas called "el cuarto de cautivos" -- the captives' room. It's a small room that contains a fireplace, a couple of wooden bins, and a Navajo loom. It's meant to depict the sort of accommodations that Spanish settlers would have provided for their captives at the ranch in the 1600s.

The room is usually gated -- that is, you can look in, but there's typically no one inside to explain what it's about. Slavery is difficult to discuss. But here's one fact: the captives held by settlers here, in the northernmost outpost of New Spain, were not Black. They were Native American.

How is it that 17th century Spanish settlers held Native Americans in bondage, but in much of the rest of America, slaves were imported from Africa? 

Tinnakom | Deposit Photos

During volunteer training for our upcoming season, we heard a presentation from Jon Ghahate (Laguna Pueblo/Zuni Pueblo), an educator for the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, CO. Ghahate explained that slavery was not unknown in the Americas before the coming of the Europeans; after all, people are people everywhere, with the same urges to be both bad and good to one another. What was different among the Europeans was the Catholic Church. Christianity teaches us to be kind to other people -- with the emphasis on people. If the creature in front of you isn't a person, then no matter how you treat that creature, it won't keep you from getting into heaven. In essence, the church indemnified those who held slaves. And just as the church allowed Christians to see Africans as less than human, it also gave them the same excuse when it came to Native Americans. (Not-so-fun fact: The United States didn't grant citizenship to Native Americans until 1924.)

The year 1492 was a big one in the history of what was to become Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella married and combined their kingdoms into one, Castile and Aragon. Pretty much immediately, they set about kicking the Moors out of Andalucia in southern Spain and taking the land for themselves. And in that same year, they gave their okay to Christopher Columbus to sail west in search of a more direct, and less fraught, trade route to Asia. But Ferdinand and Isabella didn't grant the funds to Columbus outright -- they gave him a loan that he was supposed to pay back with the spoils he gained from his adventuring. (The later conquistadors got the same deal, which explains why they were so hot to find gold here.)

Columbus never made it to continental North America. His ships landed on the island of Hispaniola, which today is split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. People were living there when Columbus arrived, but very little of their DNA survives today, for a very good reason: Columbus and his men basically slaughtered them. We know this because among the Spaniards who traveled to the New World with Columbus was Bartolomé de las Casas, who chronicled the treatment of the Natives at the hands of the explorers. De las Casas petitioned Charles V of Spain to grant the Natives some rights. 

But all this meant that there weren't enough workers for the plantations that were beginning to be set up in the West Indies. So de las Casas got a bright idea: why not bring in Africans?

Eventually he realized what a bad idea that was, in terms of human rights, but by then the damage had been done. And that's how the idea was planted to bring Africans to the New World ... by any means necessary.

By the time the Spanish made their way north to New Mexico, they had "perfected" their system of dealing with the Natives. In 1510, the church approved a document that was to be read to any Indians the conquistadors met, advising them that they were now subjects of the Spanish crown and of the Pope, and they had better behave as set forth herein or they could be forced to behave. Of course, this document, the Requeremiento, was in Spanish, which the Natives had no way of understanding. (The text at the link is in English.) 

One begins to understand why the Pueblo Indians rose up and drove the Spaniards out of New Mexico in 1680. It didn't last -- the Spanish returned in 1692 -- but the Pueblo Revolt remains, as stated on the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center's website, "the only successful Native uprising against colonizers in North America."

In practice, Ghahate told us, the Spaniards didn't so much take slaves as they impressed Natives to work for them. But they required tribute -- food and supplies, as well as a guide to show them where that gold was -- and forced the Natives to convert to Christianity. In that sense, the system of slavery here in the Southwest was different than that practiced by plantation owners in the Deep South. Also here, some slaves were more like indentured servants and could eventually buy their freedom. They and other outcast people -- Jews and poor Spaniards who came to the New World to find their fortune but never did -- were known as genizaros and lived apart, in their own villages. Intermarriage with Mexican settlers was common, though. Eventually the Mexican government declared all citizens equal, including the genizaros and others of mixed race -- but in society, as you might expect, prejudice lingered. Even today, Hispanic folks here will say they're Spanish, even if their DNA tells a different story. 

DNA is causing a lot of trouble everywhere, am I right?


On a completely different topic: The Social Security Administration this week that it's making big changes in the way it claws back overpayments from recipients. This comes after news reports indicated that the existing draconian system was impoverishing some people -- even causing them to lose their homes. The two biggest changes: 1) Instead of taking 100% of a recipient's benefit until the overpayment is satisfied, the reduction will now be capped at 10% per month -- and the SSA is instituting a longer time frame for people to pay the overpayment back; and 2) instead of forcing recipients looking for relief to prove why they need it by providing a boatload of financial information, the burden is now going to be on the government to prove why the recipient needs to make reimbursement.

The changes are coming too late to help me -- I finished my penance this month -- but I'm very glad to see that others won't have to go through the same thing I did.


One more update, and then I swear I'm done: Surprising absolutely no one, Congress took the latest budget brouhaha down to the wire, approving the final six continuing resolutions yesterday. The approval technically came after the Friday night deadline, but the several-hour delay created no damage (other than to Americans' faith in government working for us and our reputation overseas and all the rest). Immediately after the vote, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (GQP-Georgia) moved to remove Speaker Mike Johnson because he, y'know, had to get help from the Democrats to keep the government running through the end of September. It's unclear whether her motion will go anywhere when the House comes back from yet another freaking recess -- but Johnson, apparently having decided that Greene has done her worst, reportedly plans for the House to take up funding for Ukraine when it returns to work after Easter.

That sound you hear is tens of thousands of pairs of eyes owned by rational Americans rolling so far back into their heads that they can see their brains.


These moments of indentured blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!