Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Food Rules

Food Rules: An Eater's Manual
Many of us in the US are eating large quantities of food which has traveled many miles to get to our tables, most of it highly processed and overly-packaged. There is little dispute that how we eat in in this country is making us unhealthy. And it’s also not very Green.

Several years ago, Michael Pollan set out to discover exactly what we should eat to be healthy. He came up with a succinct seven word formula: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

He elaborated on this answer in the best-selling In Defense of Food, in which he contends that “most of the nutritional advice we’ve received over the last half century…has actually made us less healthy and considerably fatter.” In this book Pollan also delved into the history of the Western diet and the diseases of civilization, and concluded with a guide to healthier and happier eating.  

For those of you short on time but still wanting to eat well, let me recommend Pollan’s newest offering, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, a handy pocket guide for which no knowledge of science is required, a perfect companion to In Defense of Food.  In this slim volume, he presents 64 simple rules on how to eat well (more than seven words, but still easy to manage.)

Some of my favorite rules include: Rule 13: “Eat only foods that will eventually rot;” Rule 20: “It’s not food if it arrived through the window of you car;”  and Rule 64: “Break the rules once in a while.”

To find material for this guide Pollan solicited help from a number of sources, including the readers of Tara Parker-Pope’s New York Times online blog Well. In response to the words: “I’d like your help gathering some rules for eating well.” (posted on Well on March 9, 2009), he received 2,791 comments. (I am comment No. 2201 on page 89 of the blog.)  He acknowledges that this “overwhelming response enriched the project immeasurably” and thanks us all (as a group) in both the introduction and the credits.

I don’t want to spoil the book for you, so I will just mention one more rule — 52: “Buy smaller plates and glasses. The bigger the portion, the more we will eat —upward of 30% more.”

Coincidentally, portion size was much in the news last week. In a paper published in the Obesity Journal on March 23, Brian Wansink, a food behavior scientist at Cornell University, and his brother, Craig Wansink, professor of religious studies at the Virginia Wesleyan College and an ordained Presbyterian minister, announced the results of their study of 52 Last Supper paintings made between the years 1000 and 1800. The results are summarized by Dave Itzkoff in his Arts Beat blog (New York Times online March 23). “After the sizes of the food in the art works were indexed against the average size of the disciples’ heads (which can vary from painting to painting), the study found that the main courses grew by 69 percent, the plates grew by 66 percent and the size of the bread grew by 23 percent.” If art mirrors life, then this study confirms that we have indeed been upping our serving sizes for far more years than we had realized (and if Michael Pollan is correct, the amount of food we consume).

Also in the news is Britain’s Jamie Oliver, aka The Naked Chef, who has been taking on the lunch ladies of Huntington, West Virginia (dubbed the unhealthiest metropolitan area in America) on primetime TV in the hopes of reforming their school lunch program. I am pretty sure Huntington hasn’t heard about Meatless Monday or Food Rules. If you watch the show, you will learn that some of the school children can’t recognize a potato, let alone a beet or a tomato. Jamie is doing his best to get the children to eat more plants, but he has a difficult road ahead. You can follow the saga on Friday nights on ABC for the next few weeks.

Let me urge you once again to check out Food Rules and to share its wisdom with those you love. It is a quick and entertaining read. The rules are simple and painless, and by following them you will be making yourself, those you feed, and the planet healthier.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Birds Without Borders

The 40th anniversary of Earth Day is next month and a group of us had met over lunch to plan some activities/projects to commemorate the day. But before the work began, the topic of birds came up. One friend from the shoreline was already well-acquainted with the monk parakeet, which has been steadily moving up the coast since it was first noticed in Long Island in the '70s. Indigenous to South America, this species was introduced to the US by the pet trade; large numbers of them are now living in the wild, in many parts of the country. These colorful birds are noisy and messy, and they build huge, rather unsightly nests from sticks. A pair of them had just appeared in the front yard of two other friends in New Haven’s Beaver Hills neighborhood, and quite clearly were contemplating building a nest in a tree next door. The nests are huge to start. The birds live in them year-round, and once the family has established itself, the nest gets bigger and bigger and bigger; it is not uncommon for one nest to house seven pairs of birds, each with their own living unit. This did not bode well for neighborhood relations. The adjacent neighbor liked to keep his car in the driveway and always blamed our friends (who feed the birds) for any mess that happened to sully his car’s shine. Our advice was to our friends was to quit filling the feeder at once in the hope that the parakeets would fly away.
We returned from lunch to a close encounter of our own. We were just about to reach for the gate to the yard when we heard a loud thud of something banging against a window and beheld a swirling profusion of gray feathers. A large hawk had nabbed a lunch of his own. Startled, as we were, believe me, he soared off with his prey, pausing in the hawthorn tree, frozen, staring down at us. Too close for comfort, he left the yard, landing a few feet away in the callery pear tree on the other side of the hedge. We took a few steps in his direction, and off he flew to dine undisturbed on the other side of the highway. One less mourning dove will now be frequenting our back yard feeder.

Marsh Hawk, or Cooper’s Hawk? It's likely one of these, but I can’t be certain which one because we didn’t see it’s face — we were too startled by the proximity of the struggle to get a good look. Both are year-round residents in Connecticut. Both are good-sized birds. The book we keep handy for such occasions, a gifted copy of The Reader’s Digest Book of North American Birds, points out that the hawk’s greatest foe is the plate glass window. “When Cooper’s hawks see a window, they see whatever the glass reflects, be it sky or trees. They think they can just fly through it. Sadly, they sometimes even succeed, but the price of success is still a broken neck.” This hawk was lucky. But, then again, so were we. A hawk with a broken neck, clutching a dead mourning dove, lying in the kitchen sink in a sea of broken glass, would not have been a pleasant welcome back.

Our tiny yard is littered with gray feathers, a reminder that the boundary between civilization and the wild is ill-defined. It’s a line we cross more often than we realize.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Scrap Into Cash

You might think that all the activity on lower Chapel Street in New Haven on a fine Saturday morning is at CitySeed Farmers’ Market. But if you continue east past Fuel and the Devil’s Gear Bike Shop, you will find cars, vans, trucks, shopping carts and totebag-wielding pedestrians lined up at the entrance to Alderman-Dow Iron & Metal Co. waiting for the opportunity to turn their basement junk or salvaged metal into cash.

On the first gorgeous Saturday of the season we took our place in this line. The saga began last fall when we replaced an old and leaky aluminum storm door with an energy efficient one (for which we received a tax credit.) We had broken the door down into smaller parts so we could store it for the winter and needed to get rid of it, along with some other junk which had accumulated over the years. We didn’t have enough stuff to warrant paying for a dumpster, and we couldn’t arrange a bulk trash pick-up since this was construction debris. What to do? I looked up Scrap Metal in the Yellow Pages (these places don’t have much of a web presence), made a call, and found we could actually turn this trash into cash.

So there we were with our trusty sedan, its trunk full of stuff. Finally it was our turn to enter. We were newbies, and chaos seemed to reign. We had done some sorting of our metal by type — we had our pipes, our box of wire, our box of small parts. But we would have done better if we had sorted by what was magnetic and what was not. (Our Alderman-Dow mini magnet will help us prepare for our next visit.) A patient worker helped us sort the pieces into boxes and shopping carts (we were tying up the line). Each category was then weighed and recorded.

We watched as our stuff was divvied up once again. Clearly some items were more valuable than others. Some excellent pure aluminum door braces were carefully placed into a special spot. A few other things were tossed onto a heap of discards. If we had brought copper, we would have struck the mother lode. The boss recorded our last name, rattled off our totals and began to peel off our payment from a huge wad of bills. Our one trunk load yielded $33.

It just about paid for the tank of gas we purchased on the way home. There’s a lot more stuff where that came from. We’ll be back.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ladybug Luck

Oh happy day! The sun has been shining down on New Haven since mid-week. On Thursday the temperature got to the mid-sixties, and actually felt like the mid-sixties for the first time in months. It was warm enough to stroll up the street for an outdoor lunch at Nica’s Market. So many people had the same idea that we had to wait for a table. Orange Street had come alive. It was so bright and balmy, so Springlike, so strange to see the trees still bare. But so nice to be sitting outside. (It’s been a very gray, wet winter in The Have.)

Just before we arrived home, the first ladybug of the season lit on my left shoulder, and we both instantly smiled at my good fortune. In the split second I had to admire her before she flew away, all I managed to note was that she was orange-red with at least two black spots. And then I paused to consider what makes ladybugs so lucky. It should come as no surprise that I have lots of information to share with you.

The ladybug is actually a beetle (Coleoptera) in the family (Coccinellidae). There are thought to be more than 5,000 different species of ladybird in the world, with more than 450 species found in North America alone. This beetle is universally regarded as a symbol of good luck. In Christian cultures, the ladybug has strong associations with the Virgin Mary.

Why does every culture associate this little red creature with good fortune? It is most likely because the ladybug is one of the most effective forms of pest control. I looked up “ladybug” in my 1978 edition of The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, published by Rodale. The entry reads: “The familiar ladybug is probably the best-known beneficial insect in the garden. Both the cherry-colored adults and lizard-like larvae are important in making poison-free gardening as easy as it is. Larvae have the best appetites, consuming aphids, asparagus beetle eggs, Colorado potato beetles, grape rootworm, bean thrips, alfalfa weevils, and cinch bugs. The beetles specialize on aphids, scale, mealybugs, whiteflies, and spider mites.” They have few predators, since, for their protection, they exude a yellow, sticky substance with a repulsive taste.

John M. Samaha, SM, a brother at the University of Dayton, wrote extensively on the the Marian roots of the name “Our Lady’s Bird.”  He also spoke in great depth about the first use of ladybugs as pest control in the US. In the 1890s, the  orange groves in California’s Santa Clara Valley were being decimated by a previously unknown pest — the aphid, which had arrived on flowering peach trees imported from China. The aphids had a field day in the groves and soon spread all the way to the East Coast. The Department of Agriculture tried a variety of pesticides, with little success. The visionary Mr. C.V. Riley, chief entomologist of the Department of Agriculture, suggested introducing other insects which would prey on the aphids. When he learned that the ladybird beetle was keeping aphids under control in Australia, he had some sent to California. When set free in an infested orange grove on trees covered with gauze screens, the ladybugs cleared the trees of pests within a few days. More ladybirds were imported, and California scientists began to raise them in wholesale quantities.

Ever since then, they have commonly been used as pest control, both to combat large-scale infestations of crops, and to wipe out aphids in home rose gardens. But, as with most actions, there have been unintended consequences.

All ladybugs devour insects, but some species proved more aggressive than others in their eating habits. The USDA turned once again to foreign imports. One of these was the multicolored Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis), which was imported and released as early as 1916. Over the years, federal, state, and private entomologists released the insect at a number of locations, but this species did not take hold and spread until the 1990s. It is now found on both coasts and throughout most of the US. Some scientists believe that current infestations originated not from intentional releases, but from beetles accidentally transported into New Orleans on a freighter from Japan. Harmonia axyridis has achieved notoriety for autumnal home invasions in which swarms of ladybugs enter homes through unprotected openings to escape the cold, all the while attracting others with their pheromones. And remember that protective substance they release when threatened? While nontoxic, it apparently stinks and leaves yellow stains. Scientists in Mississippi have found that catnip oil is useful as a repellant.

Even worse still, not only are these Asian lady beetles home invaders, they have been found to prey on native species! 

In fact, today most species of ladybugs native to North America can now only be found at the base of the Rockies and further west. I had no idea just how lucky I was to have that ladybug land on me. While I don’t believe “my ladybug” had enough spots to be Harmonia axyridis, I can not identify her. Although she may have been the seven-spot, which is also non-native, I like to think she was one of the rare ones, but now I'll never know.

In 2008, after being unable to find a single specimen of the nine-spotted ladybug (the New York state official insect) for 16 years, scientists at Cornell started The Lost Ladybug Project, funded with $2 million from the National Science Foundation. The project is intended to help scientists better understand why some species of ladybugs have become extremely rare while other species have greatly increased both their numbers and range.

The project has enlisted the help of citizen scientists, in particular schoolchildren, around the country, asking them to locate and photograph any ladybugs they can find and to upload the photo and geographic location to the project website—a hands-on science project.

At Cornell, South Dakota State University, and the nearby North Central Agricultural Research Laboratory, scientists are breeding colonies of nine-spotted specimens captured in the grasslands of South Dakota, where the species is also now becoming rare.  Researcher John Losey said, “Specifically, we’re testing if the introduced species could have introduced a disease, outcompeted the natives for aphids or interbred with the native species… Once we know why they declined, we will be on our way to being able to help them and other species in the same predicament. All this research was made possible by our dedicated volunteer ‘spotters.’”

After losing a colony of nine-spotted ladybugs in 2008 and nearly losing another in 2009, researchers in South Dakota recently discovered that the colony could thrive if their diet included varieties of aphids that have been around since the early 1900s. This could be a breakthrough in understanding nine-spotted ladybug decline.

The Lost Ladybug Project is a perfect teaching tool for the classroom or a youth group. The site has all the materials you need, including instructions for a sweep net to help you collect specimens for study without harming them. You can go online to see the most recent map with confirmed sitings. While most of the rare varieties have been recorded in the western US, there have been two recent sitings of the two-spotted variety in Massachusetts. Everyone, young and older, is welcome to submit photos. So keep your digital camera handy and your eyes wide open so you can help the Cornell scientists solve this mystery. There have been 4728 ladybug photos contributed as of March 20, 2010.

What more can you do?  Learn to identify ladybug larvae so you don’t accidentally kill them thinking they are problem pests. And try attracting ladybugs to your garden by planting  plants with pollen or nectar, such as dill, calendula, Queen Anne’s lace, fennel or cock’s comb.

Even if you do not believe in the luck of the ladybug, I hope you have a newfound respect for this valuable and endangered creature, and that you will never, ever harm one, in either its larval or its adult state.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Ripple Effect

McElligot's Pool (Classic Seuss)One of my favorite books is McElligot’s Pool, written in 1947 by Dr. Seuss. It may seem an unusual choice for someone who has spent as many years in school or read as many books as I have, but a favorite it is. The plot is a simple one. A boy, Marco, is fishing in a small pool where people have long been tossing junk, and he is mocked by a farmer for thinking he’ll catch anything more than a boot or a can. Marco retorts by describing how the pool might be a pond connecting to a brook and eventually to the sea, and by naming the vast variety of fish that might at that very moment be swimming toward him. The book is all about possibilities:  “Oh, the sea is so full of a number of fish. If a fellow is patient, he might get his wish.”

Starting a blog was a minor leap of faith, akin to deciding to fish in McElligot’s Pool. I didn’t know who might read my blog (if anyone) or what might become of the ideas I posted there. I found my groove after a few entries, began posting regularly in December, and my readers have been growing in number ever since. I have my usual followers (not all of whom are visible on the blog), but there have also been a few unusual blips in readership. A beekeepers’ blog picked me up the day I referenced Bees without Borders, and my blog is listed on a tourism website in Fiji as well as on a science study site (for my reference to “nectar guides.”)

Although only a few readers have left comments on the blog itself, a number of them have e-mailed me. Two have confessed Fiji Water guilt and have promised to drink what they have on hand and not to purchase any more.

I received the most e-mail about cast iron pans. Some recalled fond memories of meals their moms had cooked. Two people told me they have taken cast iron pans out of storage; two others have ordered new ones. A brother wondered how I “scored the skillet.”

One reader informed me she and her husband had purchased an EnergyStar washing machine at a Presidents’ Day sale and had used links in my post to obtain a rebate. I now have lots of recipes for parsnips and one offer of breadmaking lessons.  A few people reminisced about riding the train to Springfield.

Is my blog actually changing the world? Too early to say yet. Readers do seem to be taking to Meatless Monday (my first official one was today, split pea and roasted root vegetable soup for dinner!) and Earth Hour and are spreading the word. And they are sending topic suggestions by the score. If I can keep up the pace and get enough readers, who knows what my blog and I might do? It’s early and I have tons of posts up my sleeve.

On Sunday I went to a fundraiser for Cam Staples, currently a Connecticut state representative, and a person I have known since the early 1980s. Cam’s first elected office was as my alderman. Cam has recently taken his own leap of faith. Instead of running for re-election, he is running for Connecticut Attorney General. Incumbent Senator Chris Dodd’s decision not to run has had a ripple effect in my state. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is running for Dodd’s seat, leaving the CT Attorney General’s spot open. Cam, rather than playing it safe, and with only a small window of time, has decided to get out there, to become known throughout the state, and to win the nomination. Cam is diligent, honest, and true to his word. The issues he embraces are mine: the environment, transportation, health care, and education.

Cam is giving it his all. With enough support, he just might get the nomination. He just might become Attorney General. Tell any delegate you know that Cam is a good man for the job!

Back to Marco, the young fisherman in McElligot’s Pool. Marco first appeared in To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, published in 1937, after being rejected 27 times! Dr. Seuss had faith in his possibilities. Just imagine. If he had given up, not only would we not know Marco, we also would not have The Cat in the Hat!

Here’s to all the “mights” and possibilities waiting out there for us all. Just remember to look before you leap. I know my life is much richer with Marco as my guide.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Meatless Monday

When I was growing up, every Friday was “meatless.” Normally, I didn’t mind. I grew up in a household where meals were pretty programmatic. Spaghetti with meat sauce on Monday, spaghetti with meatballs on Wednesday, cheeseburgers on Saturday, a roast on Sunday… You get the picture. At home there were no surprises. On Friday my sandwich became tunafish or cheese plus. Friday dinner was a rare treat of take-out— pizza or fish and chips from Greer's (now gone), but simply the best in the day.

This custom only became a problem when I found myself out in the wider world — at a non-Catholic home for dinner, or on a Girl Scout overnight. I had to make a choice — to explain how Fridays were different for me, or to let it go. My point is that at least sometimes giving up meat was a conscious decision.

Catholics around the world still give up meat on Fridays during this season of Lent. I am no longer part of that group, but I find myself recognizing that the tradition of consciously giving up meat once a week is profoundly good for a number of reasons. I long to declare a meatless day once more, but this time I am designating a different weekday.

Today I am joining the Meatless Monday movement. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal  health and the health of our planet,” every Monday, all year long.

After I tell you a little more about it, I am hoping you will join this movement, too.

Meatless Monday is one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project. It was founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. The campaign was endorsed by over 20 schools of public health. Its goal was to help Americans reduce their risk of preventable disease by cutting back on their intake of saturated fat. In 2009 the Meatless Monday message was broadened to include the health and environmental benefits of moderating meat consumption.

Why Meatless? In summary form, “Going meatless once a week may reduce your risk of chronic preventable conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. It can also help reduce your carbon footprint and save precious resources like fresh water and fossil fuel.”

Why Monday? The site claims that on Monday “we set our intentions for the next six days. We plan ahead and evaluate progress… And studies suggest we are more likely to maintain behaviors begun on Monday throughout the week.”

Meatless Monday is actually an old idea recycled and revived. Presidents Wilson, Truman, and Roosevelt each galvanized the nation with voluntary meatless days during both world wars. Everyone pitched in and together made a huge contribution. This video is an excellent introduction to the movement.

The extraordinary website has everything you need to make your  Meatless Mondays delicious and meaningful, and to help you spread the word. There are recipes, recipe videos, tips on films and books, articles, and a section of questions and answers.

Who besides me endorses this movement? Check out the site. There you can read that the entire school system of the City of Baltimore went meatless in 2009; a Manhattan borough president recently proposed that the NYC schools should do the same. Universities from Oxford to UC Santa Barbara, schools, corporations, restaurants, and even the city of Ghent have declared Monday Meatless. You can discover the celebrities who have made Meatless Mondays part of their lives.  Simon Cowell, Sir Paul McCartney, Kate Moss, Yoko Ono, Gwnyeth Paltrow, Michael Pollan, and Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, all appear on this list. There is even a place for you to sign up to join the movement.

Claire's Corner Copia Cookbook: 225 Homestyle Vegetarian Recipes from Claire's Family to YoursSome of you may be treading on new ground here. Let me suggest a couple of great vegetarian cookbooks to get you started: Claire's Corner Copia Cookbook and Claire's Italian Feast. The Meatless Mondays website offers many others, but I know these two books very well. They are both by Claire Criscuolo, owner and founder of Claire’s Corner Copia, New Haven’s oldest and finest vegetarian restaurant, also Kosher, by the way, and a great place to eat on Monday or any other day you don’t feel like cooking. I heartily recommend Mexican Rice, Moroccan Sweet Potatoes, and Pumpkin Bread (from the original book) and Sautéd Broccoli Rabe (from the Italian one).  If you visit the restaurant, you have to try the signature Lithuanian Coffee Cake!

Meatless Monday may not sound like a very big deal. But think of this: In an oft-cited study, researchers at the University of Chicago reported that the food that people eat is just as important as what kind of cars they drive when it comes to creating the greenhouse-gas emissions that many scientists have linked to global warming. Their data has been used to posit that if all Americans gave up meat, just one day per week, that would have the equivalent effect on the environment of all Americans trading in a standard sedan for a more efficient hybrid car.

In the historical Meatless Monday campaigns, the nation asked and the citizens answered, each person making a personal commitment and taking a small step with a big impact. Together they changed history. Together all of us can do the same.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Counting Down to Earth Hour

Here’s hoping you will find yourself in the
dark on March 27, 2010 between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m.

Three years ago in Sydney, Australia, 2.2 million residents and 2,100 businesses turned off the lights in the very first Earth Hour, and by this action made a bold statement about their concern for climate change.

The people of Sydney set an example that has inspired the rest of the world.

The movement is now a global one, and participation has swelled. Nearly one billion people turned out for Earth Hour 2009 – involving 4,100 cities in 87 countries on seven continents. Earth Hour is the largest climate event in history.

Last year, 80 million Americans and 318 U.S. cities officially voted for action with their light switch.  These iconic landmarks from the United States joined with others around the world that went dark for Earth Hour, sending a powerful, visual message demanding action on climate change:
•  Empire State Building
•  Brooklyn Bridge
•  Broadway Theater Marquees
•  Las Vegas Strip
•  United Nations Headquarters
•  Golden Gate Bridge
•  Seattle’s Space Needle
•  Church of Latter-Day Saints Temple
•  Gateway Arch in St. Louis

This year, perhaps, landmarks in your city will be on the list.

WWF (the World Wildlife Fund) is the official sponsor of the event. Go to the Earth Hour website, check out the tools, and see who in your community has already joined the movement. There is still time for you to to lobby for participation by your city government, and to commit your organization, faith community, or place of business to participation in the event. The site has videos of Earth Hour 2009, ideas for events, and all the tools and press releases you might need for spreading the word.

I notice that in New Haven, IKEA has signed on, meaning their familiar presence, adjacent to I-95, will lie in darkness for one hour on Saturday night, March 27. People will notice, and, one would hope, be interested enough to find out why.

WWF has set a goal of over one billion people voting with their light switches on March 27.

Will you be among them?

Many Christians choose to give up something during this season of Lent. Why not consider giving up electricity for one hour on a Saturday night?

If you plan it right, you might even find yourself having some fun in the warm glow of candlelight. Not a bad way to make a statement.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Wrong and Wrong Again!

Let me tell you of two important errors I have cleared up in the course of the last seven days.

ERROR ONE: Regarding Lichen

Until earlier this week I thought lichen was a plant. I had once heard it was a food of reindeer in Lapland. I knew it came in various forms, and that one sort grew in gray-green patches on the bark of the Callery Pear trees lining my street. I had also noticed that it was a prominent feature on the branches as well as on the trunks of those trees that were a bit thinner.

These trees are no match for the winds known to howl down this side street. Planted to replace large maples lost to the installation of the storm sewers in the 70s, these trees grew quickly but are not hardy. Many have lost some very large limbs. But they do look beautiful for a week or two in April when they are a mass of snowy blooms.

I had never really considered the situation, but if I had been forced to make a guess, mine would have been that lichens on tree trunks were making these weak trees weaker.

I was wrong on so many levels! First off, lichens are not plants. They represent, rather, a symbiotic association between a photosynthetic organism (most commonly a green algae) and a fungus (often an ascomycete, or sac fungus). Neither of these organisms is currently considered a plant (although these things have been known to change).

The cells of the photosynthetic organism are held in place by a vast, densely branched network of fungal hyphae (filamentous strands). Each organism makes a contribution to the partnership. The photosynthetic partner provides nutrients to the fungus; the fungal hyphae provides an environment in which the photosynthetic partner can anchor.

Do lichens damage the trees on which they grow? The answer seems to be “no.” The hyphae do not actually penetrate the cells of the host tree. The lichen is only parking on the tree, not harming it.

Lichens do not grow in shade. When a tree on which lichen is growing loses limbs to disease or a storm, more light becomes available, and the lichen proliferates. Thus a tree covered with lichen may be a sign that the tree is in decline, but the lichen is not the reason why.

The absence of lichen is a larger cause for concern. Lichens absorb heavy metals and sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere. When its system becomes overloaded with accumulated toxins, the lichen dies. Lichens are thus good indicators of air pollution. Anti-sulfur dioxide legislation in the last 25 years is allowing lichens to return to formerly polluted areas. 

Their gray-green presence should actually be a welcome sight. Be wary if the lichen around you disappears.

ERROR TWO: Regarding Parmesan Cheese

A Parmesan cheese rind is a culinary treasure, not a discard.
Ever since I first convinced myself I could afford it, I have splurged on imported Parmesan, the kind that comes from the gourmet cheese section in wedges with a rind and a very high price tag.

I have always cut the rind off as close to the cheese as possible, complained about how the rind was included in the price, and promptly thrown the rind away.

Those days are over. At the end of December I read a recipe in the New York Times for Provençal Tomato and Bean Gratin that sounded simply great. And one of the ingredients was a Parmesan cheese rind! I tried to get over my past wastefulness and added Parmesan cheese to the grocery list.

Last weekend I made the recipe (over several days, this is really slow food). The rind went into the bouquet garni. Such a fragrant aroma filled the house as the beans simmered, a smell that kept me in a constant state of hungry! When I finally fished it out, the rind was a gummy, gooey mess, dripping with melted cheese. I couldn’t resist chewing off the last soft remnants. Bliss. When baked off the next day, the bean dish turned out to be one of the finest things I have ever made, well worth all the time and dirty dishes.

I am so late to this party. Googling shows that such rinds have many uses in Italian culture culinary and otherwise, including the feeding of softened rinds to toothless infants. The rinds can also be added to soup and risotto and frozen until needed, but no one ever told me.  

Better late than never, I vow never to toss another rind.