Monday, December 26, 2011

Poor People Food

For nearly five decades worth of Christmases now, I’ve endured Nat King Cole crooning about “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose.” But in all that time, I have never actually roasted a chestnut. In fact, I haven’t even seen anyone roasting chestnuts. That’s probably as much a function of the culture in which I was raised as it is my belief that roasting chestnuts was a trend of the past, a treat as modern as nuts in oranges in your Christmas sock.

But it turns out that roasted chestnuts are not the ancient relic that I thought perhaps they were. For instance, they are still a common “street food” in some parts of the world, including Turkey, where in Istanbul vendors hawk “Kestane kebab” from carts in both popular tourist districts and working class neighborhoods. I am told that warm chestnuts, roasted black, and served in a paper bag are also readily available from street vendors throughout London. My guess is that the same holds true for other majors cities throughout Europe and Asia Minor.

I’ve discovered that chestnuts were introduced into Europe by way of Sardis in present day Turkey. They were initially referred to as “Sardinian nuts” and for millennia, served as a staple food for the peoples who populated southern Europe, Turkey, and south-western Asia. In these regions of the world, chestnuts largely replaced cereals which could not grow well in the Mediterranean climate and soils. Until the introduction of the potato, the meat of the chestnut sustained whole communities who used it to make cake or bread.

Then, at some stage and for reasons unknown to me, the chestnut fell out of favor. It was maligned as “poor people food.” People abandoned “chestnut bread” because its flour did not rise. Chestnuts, it was said, gave a “sallow complexion.”

Despite all of this besmirching, and the embarrassment and shame that would invariably result from eating “poor people food,” we decided it was time to roast some chestnuts. Lacking an open flame, we didn’t so much “roast” them as we did “bake” them. Essentially, we cranked the oven up to about 400 degrees, scored the chestnuts, placed them on a baking sheet, and popped them in the oven until the shells split and were a deep mahogany color. Not exactly street authentic, but it was a worthy attempt and it worked well enough.

Out of the shell, roasted chestnuts were not at all what I expected. Being in the nut mindset, I was prepared for crunch. What I got was something that was nutty and slightly sweet, but with the consistency of a baked potato. Had we actually done some roasting, I suspect we would have added a little smoke flavor to the taste profile, but they were delicious nonetheless.

Beyond the taste and consistency, the thing that surprised me the most about roasted chestnuts was how filling they were. After having just a few, I felt as if I had eaten an entire meal. Maybe that ability to satisfy fully partially explains their previous popularity as “poor people food,” even though from a nutritional standpoint chestnuts have fewer calories per edible gram than many other nuts and dried fruits.

Given how filling (and, I presume, versatile) they are, I think I can understand why roasted chestnuts are popular “poor people food.” Although there is probably a good explanation, what I don’t grasp is how or why “poor people food” became and conintues to this day to be associated with Christmas holiday tradition in America. I’m sure by that statement that I’m advertising my historical and culinary ignorance, but so be it. For the moment, I’m satisfied to have simply experienced the gastonomical pleasure of the roasted Sardinian nut.

Afiyet olsun!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Economic Hitmen Under My Bed

Either I’m going to start seeing economic hitmen under my bed, or the narrative is more common, the strategy more versatile than I ever imagined. That idea is being fostered by a piece titled A Christmas Message From America’s Rich penned by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone in which he highlights the indifference, nay the complete disdain that America’s elites have for the 99%. In the course of that article, Taibbi skewers, among others, Jaime Dimon of Chase Bank infamy for complaining that people hate him because he’s rich and successful. Taibbi rightly points out that people don’t hate Dimon because he’s wealthy and successful. They hate him because he and his banking buddies are a bunch of conniving, unrepentant, pricks. As evidence of this, Taibbi points to happenings in Jefferson County, Alabama.

“That particular locality is now in bankruptcy proceedings primarily because Dimon’s bank, Chase, used middlemen to bribe local officials – literally bribe, with cash and watches and new suits – to sign on to a series of onerous interest-rate swap deals that vastly expanded the county’s debt burden.

Essentially, Jamie Dimon handed Birmingham, Alabama a Chase credit card and then bribed its local officials to run up a gigantic balance, leaving future residents and those residents’ children with the bill. As a result, the citizens of Jefferson County will now be making payments to Chase until the end of time.

Do you think Jamie Dimon would have done that deal if he lived in Jefferson County? Put it this way: if he was trying to support two kids on $30,000 a year, and lived in a Birmingham neighborhood full of people in the same boat, would he sign off on a deal that jacked up everyone’s sewer bills 400% for the next thirty years?”

Translation: Dimon’s bank handed Jefferson County the means to commit financial suicide and then bribed its leadership to pull the trigger. And who primarily benefitted from Jefferson County’s mountain of lethal and bloody debt? Chase Bank, of course.

But wait, there’s more. Chase also pulled a similar stunt it seems with the Greeks. Again, Taibbi:

“Having seen how well interest-rate swaps worked for Jefferson County, Alabama, Chase ‘helped’ Greece mask its debt problem for years by selling a similar series of swaps to the Greek government. The bank then turned around and worked with banks like Goldman, Sachs to create a thing called the iTraxx SovX Western Europe index, which allowed investors to bet against Greek debt.

In other words, Chase knowingly larded up the nation of Greece with a crippling future debt burden, then turned around and helped the world bet against Greek debt.

Does a citizen of Greece do that deal? Forget that: does a human being do that deal?”

That, my friends, is exactly why guys like Dimon are now despised to the point that they must fend off vitriolic attacks by “imbeciles” in the debtor class. But that really is neither my point nor current fixation. No, my interest in Taibbi’s Rolling Stone rant is the evidence it contains of the economic hitmen narrative at play. The strategy employed by Chase Bank in its dealing with both Jefferson County, Alabama and Greece is the exact same strategy, writ small, that John Perkins persuasively claims was employed by the United States to financially enslave developing nations. It is the strategy I see being employed by banks and educational institutions to financially subjugate students for years on end through massive student loan debt. And it is a strategy that I now suspect could very well be at play in a variety of other contexts where the promise of a better financial tomorrow derives not from hard word, intelligence and talent, but from debt instruments hyped and sold by economic hitmen like Jamie Dimon and his bank.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Higher Education: A Railway to Peonage

One of the many things that resonated with me the first time I read Howard Zinn’s A Peoples History of the United States was the idea that our institutions of higher education in this country, particularly the Harvards, Yales, Stanfords, Carnegie Mellons, and Vanderbilts of the system, were established not so much to further the goal of an educated populace, but to spit out a class of professionals and semi-professionals who could and would at once both serve the elites and act as a buffer against the unwashed and uninformed masses. In less refined terms, Zinn’s suggestion (or at least my interpretation) was that these degreed and credentialed folks were being groomed by our nation’s top colleges and universities to function as the plutocracy’s bitches. Being a bitch myself in that regard (i.e., a degreed professional), I’d really never consciously considered that possibility, although the idea certainly was intriguing. In fact, it was more than intriguing. Now that Zinn had challenged my conventional view on the matter, I had to admit that the theory just might have substantial merit.

Perhaps because I subconsciously didn’t want to confront it, or maybe because I was just being intellectually lazy, I didn’t follow Zinn’s strand of thought any further. The idea remained, however. In fact, it still comes to the forefront of my thinking every once in awhile, but I always let it slip back into the obscure recesses of my mind where it lays dormant until something triggers another flare-up.

Well, this morning I had a flare-up (call it an epiphany) of major proportions that has given me the clarity of sight that Zinn must have had. The catalyst for my new found vision was an article by Brian McKenna published at Counter Punch titled Student Loan Fury in the Occupy Movement. In a nutshell, the article lays bare the societal and parental lie that burdening students with loan debt in order to obtain a higher education, particularly in the more academic and esoteric fields of study that have no perceived “market value” (i.e., cannot be readily exploited by business to increase profits), will markedly improve one’s position in life. To the contrary, the article demonstrates in rather bleak terms that in many cases, a Masters or Ph.D degree is nothing more than a train ride to peonage, self-doubt, and misery.

Without getting into the reasons for this (the article hints at a general hostility toward certain disciplines and the continued and steady de-funding of our public educational systems), McKenna’s article caused me to immediately think of John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hitman. As Wiki accurately describes it, Hitman is a mea culpa in which Perkins confesses to having been an “economic hit man” for a global engineering services firm that paid him handsomely to:

“convince the political and financial leadership of underdeveloped countries to accept enormous development loans from institutions like the World Bank and USAID. Saddled with debts they could not hope to pay, those countries were forced to acquiesce to political pressure from the United States on a variety of issues. Perkins argues in his book that developing nations were effectively neutralized politically, had their wealth gaps driven wider and economies crippled in the long run.”

And then it hit me and the scales fell from my eyes. The story of higher education in 21st century America is nothing more than the Hitman narrative playing out in a different context. The uneducated students who are misspending their youth by foregoing a misspent youth for a lottery’s chance at attending an Ivy are Perkins’ underdeveloped countries. The universities and the banks which are reaping huge financial returns from the desperate students who can never hope to repay their student loan debt are Perkins’ World Bank and USAID. The political, social and financial elites are the United States in Perkins’ tale who can and will exert leverage on the wage slave graduates in order to effectively neutralize them both politically and economically. And we parents, who have bought into the hype and the promise of success that is supposed to flow magically to our kids from a blue chip educational pedigree, we are Perkins. We are economic hitmen.

I should have seen it before now, but I just didn’t. Up until this moment, I dutifully played the role expected of me by cheerleading for my kids to go the best college they could get into, even if that meant “investing in their future” by loading up on obscene amounts student loan debt. With the assistance of Zinn, McKenna and Perkins, however, I have come to realize the folly and danger of this way of thinking. As a result, I will no longer be complicit. I will no longer propagate the lie that a college degree is worth any investment regardless of amount. I will no longer be an economic hit man for the student loan industry.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Phrase is Born

Inspired by some ornery, and I presume old, bittertons that frequent a couple of sites I enjoy reading and posting to, I have decided to coin a new phrase. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you "bitter bombing."

Definition: the curmudgeon’s online equivalent to glitter bombing. The act of attacking someone or their post on a blog or website comments page without warning or provocation just because you’re a bitter old bastard that has absolutely nothing constructive to add to the discussion and you enjoy being a complete dick.

Usage example: We were having this really engaging online debate the other day until that douche bag “4skin” showed up and begin bitter bombing everyone. Yeah, that pretty much killed it off.