Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Shame on Aunt Millie's. Shame on Whole Foods.

I just discovered I've been duped.

This is painful, because I like to think I know how to read labels. I also like to trust products named Aunt Millie and stores named Whole Foods.

Alas, I forgot one of my basic shopping principles:
Never trust food that calls itself "natural."

In label language, natural means nothing at all. Companies who use the term in their marketing are usually trying to hide something. I should have looked more carefully at Aunt Minnie's Hearth Fiber for Life 12 Whole Grains bread.

Here, I'll show you the inset up close. I read it as "100% natural whole grain," never stopping to wonder why the marketers bothered to point out that whole grains are natural (isn't that obvious?). But no. This bread is not 100% whole grain. It is 100% natural, whatever that means, and it contains whole grains. Twelve of them, in fact. But its third listed ingredient, after water and whole grain wheat flour, is unbleached wheat flour.

Translation: white flour.

Now I have nothing against eating white flour now and then. I make a mean challah whose flour component is 100% white. But I do dislike (hate, abominate) labels that bend over backward to make me think I'm buying 100% whole grain bread when in reality I'm not. I call that "lying."

And I don't like being told that "Aunt Millie's Hearth breads ... contain no color additive, artificial substances, or synthetic compounds, only pure and fresh ingredients, just like those found in your kitchen cupboard." I don't know ... does your kitchen cupboard contain resistant corn starch, resistant dextrin, sodium gluconate, potassium chloride, guar gum, wheat starch, calcium sulfate, ferrous sulfate, thiamine hydrochloride, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, and ascorbic acid? Mine neither.

So from now on when I buy sandwich bread, I'm going to get it at Trader Joe's. Their multigrain bread is, in fact, 100% whole grain. It has only two bizarre ingredients: natural mold inhibitor (cultured whey and wheat starch or flour) and natural dough conditioner (wheat flour, enzymes). There's that word "natural" again, but at least it's in the small type.

Interestingly, a slice (43g) of Trader Joe's bread has half the sugars of a slice (53g) of Aunt Millie's. It also has 30mg less sodium, 5mg more potassium, and 1g more protein. Aunt Millie's has more iron, because she adds ferrous sulfate (and other vitamins) to the mix. Strip out the truly natural food value, add the equivalent of vitamin pills, and call your product natural: it's the American way.

Gotta give the madmen at Aunt Millie's credit, though. Rarely can one find so much schmalz per square inch as on their website. "At Aunt Millie's," they croon, "we bake more than bread - we bake memories." Good Lord, deliver us.

ALMOST AMISH by Nancy Sleeth

If I had seen just the title of Almost Amish, I probably wouldn't have been attracted to it: I'm not a fan of Amish fiction, and I've heard too much about Amish puppy mills.

If I'd also noticed the name of the author, however, I might have picked it up: several years ago I met the Sleeths at the home of mutual friends, and I greatly respect the choices they have made about a simpler, more hospitable lifestyle.

But it was Michelle Van Loon's review/interview in Christianity Today's women's blog that caught my attention and made me think, I need to read this book. From Van Loon's article:
When she was in her early 40s, Sleeth came to faith in Christ along with her husband Matthew, an emergency room physician, and their two preteen children. Energized by their faith, the deep concern about the state of the decaying world around them led the family to make significant lifestyle changes. They gave away half of their possessions and moved to a home the size of their old garage. They reduced their energy usage by two-thirds, discovering a deep sense of family unity and purpose in the process.
Sleeth isn't asking her readers to imitate her. As she tells Van Loon:
I’m not saying, “You need to cut back your energy use,” or, “You need to hang your clothes on the line,” or, “You need to stop watching television.” I simply want people to examine their lives. Learn to continually ask yourself two questions: Will this thing (this possession, decision, or action) bring me closer to God? Will it help me love my neighbor? We get in a blur and don’t always stop to ask those questions. What I am asking is to get people to stop and to live a conscious life.
Though of course Sleeth really is doing more than asking us to think. She hopes our self-examination will lead us to make at least a few changes in the way we live: get rid of clutter, for instance, or start living within our means; buy local, or spend more time with friends and family. And she offers practical suggestions to help us simplify our lives, including easy recipes for breads, soups, and salads.

You need to have an evangelical ear to appreciate Sleeth's book: it's full of Scripture and God talk. You also need to have a rosy view of Amish community life, which (as some of the comments following Van Loon's review point out) has a hidden and sometimes extremely dark side that Sleeth never acknowledges. And you'd better be able to tolerate Sleeth's mild adherence to gender roles.

That said, Almost Amish is an inspirational book, full of gentle wisdom. Oh, and Sleeth's challah recipe rocks. It's almost as good as my own, which you can read here.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Scary Nuns Terrify Vatican

Catherine of Siena explains
to Gregory XI why he
should move to Rome
The Vatican has always been scared of forceful nuns. Even (and perhaps especially) the three female doctors of the church made prelates nervous.

  • In the fourteenth century, Catherine of Siena meddled in papal politics and brought the Avignon pope back to Rome.
  • In the sixteenth century, Teresa of Avila survived an investigation by the Spanish Inquisition of her mystical writings (and Jewish ancestry). 
  • In the nineteenth century, Thérèse of Lisieux disregarded the commands of her priest and Vatican officials until the pope gave in and let her do what she wanted.

  • And yesterday, following a two-year investigation, 80 percent of American nuns came under Vatican fire.

    The Washington Post reported that
    the Vatican has launched a crackdown on the umbrella group that represents most of America’s 55,000 Catholic nuns, saying that the group was not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, abortion and women’s ordination. Rome also chided the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) for sponsoring conferences that featured “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
         ... One of the groups singled out in the criticism is Network, a social justice lobby created by Catholic sisters 40 years ago that continues to play a leading role in pushing progressive causes on Capitol Hill.
    Interestingly, yesterday's Post also carried a short article by Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the maligned Network. Campbell, writing in honor of Network's 40th anniversary, described the group's activities as
    lobbying our elected officials to consider the needs of people living in poverty, the left-out, the marginalized in our society. We have worked on many issues of economic justice, immigration, peace building, health care reform and the environment. We have studied the adverse impact of welfare reform especially in a down economy. We have partnered with Iraqis in helping them to build lives and an economy in post-sanction, post-invasion Iraq. We have partnered with thousands of people around the country in articulating what is the common good that we seek in order to realize the promise of our Constitution.
    Even as the Vatican was worrying about the self-sacrificing sisters, yet another priest was placed on administrative leave for sexual misconduct. A third article in yesterday's Post noted that
    from 2004 until last year, [this priest] was director of the [Northern Virginia diocese's] Office of Child Protection and Safety, which trains church employees and volunteers to spot abuse and monitors youth activities “to ensure that all contact with young people is appropriate,” its Web site says.
    Yes, every organization has its bad apples. But this particular organization, remember, is the one that did not punish Boston's Cardinal Law after his part in that city's sex scandal went public, but rather rewarded him with a cushy appointment in Rome and, last year, a lavish 80th birthday celebration.

    As I understand the Gospels, Jesus had a lot in common with the nuns. He identified with the poor and spent a large percentage of his workday on health care. He sent women on apostolic missions (see Jn 4, the woman at the well, and Jn 20, Mary Magdalene in the garden). He protected children. "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me," he thundered, "it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea" (Mt 18.6).

    Apparently Jesus's priorities are very different from the Vatican's.
    Want to speak up in a language the Vatican understands? Donate now to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious or to Network.
    For further reading: The Vatican's latest crackdown is covered thoroughly and well by Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times and by Joshua J. McElwee in the National Catholic Reporter.

    Friday, April 13, 2012


    Book publisher's marketing department's hypothetical dream plot, 2012 version:
    Jacqueline Kennedy's toy poodle, having been transformed by a vision of heaven, moves to a decrepit Provençal farmhouse, falls in love with a shih tzu, and gives birth (without anesthetics) to a litter of pleasantly diverse puppies, who, being both French and Chinese, are perfectly housebroken by age six weeks.
    Occasionally while reading The Art of Racing in the Rain I wondered if author  Garth Stein ever worked in that marketing department (short answer: probably not). He sure knows how to load a book with crowd-pleasing elements:

    The dog. Like Chet, the narrator of Spencer Quinn's wonderful comic detective stories, narrator Enzo is an articulate canine of indeterminate ancestry. Chet, however, is much doggier. Enzo, by contrast, is literary, culturally sophisticated, and psychologically astute--practically an Edwardian English butler. The book does not reveal whether he ever scoots his bottom on the rug.

    The dad. Like Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Stein's Art has to do with values, machines, and fathers, but it is blessedly shorter and simpler than Pirsig's tome--none of those lengthy digressions about ancient philosophy that gave Zen weight but also made it harder to read.

    The dying woman. Like far too many popular books, films, and songs, Racing in the Rain centers on a dying young woman--in this case, with brain cancer. When was the last time you wept for a fictional dying man? Just wondering.

    The dysfunction. Like just about everything by Jodi Picoult, Racing features people in dysfunctional families fighting with, against, and for one another.

    The driver. Families, love, death, parenting--would a guy read this book? Hey, let's throw in a whole lot about auto racing! Cars! Technique! Competitions! And let's make Dad a driver! Should work.

    The dharma.  Add a few grains of motivational spirituality--the cryptic mantra, "That which you manifest is before you" (huh?); the expectation of reincarnation; the belief that the mind, or the will, controls events; the valuing of the soul above the body--why, it almost sounds philosophical, yet you don't have to think very hard.

    The dénouement.  May I tell you that the ending is reasonably happy? And that it takes place in Italy? What's not to like?

    Well, it worked. I--and a million or so other people--liked The Art of Racing in the Rain. It's not a great book, but it's well plotted and cleverly written. Sometimes you laugh; sometimes you cry. Sometimes you laugh at yourself for being manipulated into crying. But it's a pleasant read. And it does make me wonder what my dogs are thinking.

    Thursday, April 12, 2012

    Dear Mr. Romney: Don't lie. Care.

    Dear Mr. Romney:

    I am a woman. Like most other women, I am not likely to vote for you. Your unpopularity among women worries you, I know. That's no doubt why you're claiming that Mr. Obama's policies have been disastrous for women's jobs. Promoting a cynical lie, however, is not a good way to attract women's votes.

    These days the word lie is thrown around too often and too loosely. Since I am accusing you of using a lie--a serious charge--let me define my terms. A lie is a statement intended to deceive. It can be nonfactual or factual; the speaker's intent is what matters. President Bush was probably not lying when he said Iraq had WMD, even though they didn't. If he believed what he said, though it was untrue, it was not a lie.

    By contrast, when your press secretary tweeted that "92.3% jobs lost under [Obama} r women's," she was making a true statement. She may or may not have intended to deceive: I don't know if she paid attention to all the relevant facts before tweeting. By now, though, the facts have been checked, and you have no excuse for repeating her claim on your website. To do so is to turn truth into falsehood.

    Here are the facts: The recession officially began in December 2007, while Mr. Bush was president. From that date until June 2009, six months into Mr. Obama's presidency, men lost some 5.3 million jobs while women lost about 2.1 million. This is a typical pattern, says Betsey Stevenson, a business and public policy professor at Princeton University: "In every recession men’s job loss occurs first and most, with unemployment rates for men being more cyclical than those of women’s."

    My mother finished secretarial school and began her first job in 1929, the year the Great Depression hit. She managed a small office for maybe half a dozen church administrators--all male, of course. Then the stock market crashed, donations plummeted, and most of the men were let go.  Before long the only people left in the office were the president and my poorly paid 20-year-old mother.

    That's how it has always worked. Men lose jobs first; women lose  jobs later. Still, with women making up 47% of the labor force (2010 figures), they "account for just 39.7 percent of the total" jobs lost from the beginning of the recession to the present. It is grossly misleading to imply that the recession was caused or worsened by Mr. Obama, and that it was harder on women than on men. You need to distance yourself from that claim, not promote it.

    The recession was indeed hard on many women--and on just about everybody else except people in your income bracket, Mr. Romney. I suspect you truly believe that you are better suited than Mr. Obama to restore America's prosperity. Do you want women to give you a chance to try? Then forget about badmouthing the president. Instead, show us you care.

    A lot of us, as you've pointed out, need work. How would your administration help us meet our obligations and feed our families until we find it? A lot of us, or our family members, have serious health problems. How would you help us pay for medical care? A lot of us want to strengthen our public schools. How would you improve the quality of elementary and high school education? A lot of us would like to send our children to college. How would you make higher education affordable? A lot of us are concerned about the effects of pollution on our families' health. How would you keep our food and air clean? A lot of us are getting older and frailer. How would you deal with our needs for housing and medical care?

    I know that some vocal Americans believe the federal government should do just about nothing except arm our young people and send them out to kill. I know there are people who cry "socialism!" whenever the government tries to make people's lives better. Fortunately, most Americans disagree with such extremists. And yet there are honest differences between conservatives and progressives as to how the common good is best served.

    Mr. Romney, if you have ways of serving the common good that you think are more effective than Mr. Obama's ways, please tell us about them. Don't worry about your supposedly stiff persona; it doesn't bother us nearly as much as it bothers the press. And don't try to scare us with lies and negative ads. That just turns us off. If you convince us that you care about us when we need help, and if you offer us solutions that will help us survive and thrive, we will listen. Otherwise, we'll vote for the candidate who does.

    Tuesday, April 10, 2012


    This sixth installment in the Commissario Guido Brunetti series raises provocative religious and political questions. The story line leads to probability, not certainty. The context of the story - corrupt churchmen and public officials - is suggested, not offered as fact.

  • Is one of the priests in the story a killer?
  • Is another priest a child molester?
  • Did certain directives come from the Vatican - and if so, from whom?
  • Is Opus Dei a venal, murderous cult - or simply a secret society of the super-pious?
  • In a city where only 15% of the inhabitants attend church every Sunday, how do religious authorities get so much influence over political figures?

    Normally I prefer detective stories to end with the puzzle solved, the criminal(s) brought to justice, and order at least temporarily restored. I'll make an exception for Quietly in Their Sleep (whose U.K. edition is titled The Death of Faith). Maybe that's because, to skeptics like Brunetti, Paola (Brunetti's wife), Elettra (the vice-questore's personal assistant), and me, the evidence in this story for ecclesial malfeasance ranges from persuasive to conclusive.

    And maybe I resonate with this story because, although it was first published 15 years ago, it seems relevant to America's 2012 political season, with all our arguing about gay marriage and abortion and contraception and the proper role of bishops in forming public policy. These are not the issues in Quietly in Their Sleep, but our political discussions today, like the plot of this book, focus on the age-old question of just how much power religious organizations should wield in a democracy.

    I am a religious person, a semi-lapsed Catholic who goes to mass (Episcopal) every week. I believe churches do an enormous amount of good in the world. I appreciate their call to high moral standards. But churches are made up of, and ruled by, human beings, and none of us is entirely trustworthy (cf. original sin). It is good to remember that Lord Acton's famous dictum, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," referred primarily to religious power.

    After centuries of abuse from religious power-holders, a number of countries fought revolutions and established secular states - that is, political systems that kept church and state separate. America was the leader of the pack. Italy, by contrast, never completely separated religious and civil power. Quietly in Their Sleep describes what goes on when the two powers are in bed with each other. It's a fascinating detective story, not a political pamphlet, but now and then one of the characters' exasperation bursts forth. Here's Paola Brunetti, for example, arguing with her husband about the opt-out religious education their children are receiving in their public school:
    If you put people on a diet, they start thinking about food. Or, if you make someone stop smoking, all they think about is cigarettes. It seems logical enough to me that if you tell a person he can't have sex, he's going to be obsessive about the subject. Then to give him the power to tell other people how to run their sex lives, well, that's just asking for trouble.
    If you're new to Donna Leon's mysteries, you might want to check my reviews of book 3, Dressed for Death, and book 4, Death and Judgment; or just start reading book 1, Death at La Fenice. Many hours of enjoyment await you: book 21, Beastly Things, was published last week.