Sunday, September 24, 2006

More American Than Apple Pie

After recently re-discovering a grand dessert, I'm launching here my campaign to replace apple pie as the American dessert icon with something far more American: the Rice Krispie treat.

Apple pie comes laden with problems. For one thing, apples aren't even native to America:

Apples, as the Europeans knew them, were not native to America. Explorers, Jesuits and Franciscan missionaries, and early European settlers brought seeds and occasionally small trees with them to plant orchards around their new homes. --

Moreover, what other light, apple-filled pastry with a cinammon-y flavor is out there?

Äpfel strüdel

Just look at the image to the right for how transparent this similarity really is. I don't think the greatest generation defeated Hitler so that their grandchildren could goose-step to Axis desserts.

Compare then, the Rice Krispie Treat:

  • 3 tablespoons margarine or butter
  • 1 package (10 oz. about 40) regular marshmallows or 4 cups miniature marshmallows
  • 6 cups KELLOGG'S® RICE KRISPIES® cereal

Note that the recipe includes two registered trademarks -- surely one of the truest signs of American influence. Note also that "Rice Krispie Treat" itself is trademarked.

Foodtimeline offers a short history of the Rice Krispie Treat (and similar treats), starting with the wholly inferior molasses and corn syrup based puffed grain treats from the mid-nineteenth century. You may have had these yourselves -- corn syrup popcorn balls glazed to an enamel like finish, better for use in cannon than as a confection.

Mildred Day, an Iowa State University home economics graduate, went to work for Kellogg and established the new formula --now using marshmallows.

Marshmallows provide an entirely different texture -- instead of rigid and brick-like, the Krispies are held together by a soft, pliable form of raw sugar -- a vast improvment (and also a vast improvement for popcorn balls).

This was improved even further by another American invention -- the perfection of the marshmallow making process:

Alex Doumak, of Doumak, Inc., patented a new manufacturing method called the extrusion process. This invention changed the history of marshmallow production and is still used today. It now only takes 60 minutes to produce a marshmallow. --

This invention brought inexpensive and uniformly sized marshmallows to the mass of new middle-class families that surged during the post-war boom. The uniformity in size was key, since it allowed one to measure marshmallow content without resorting to clumsy weighing techniques -- simply count out your 40 marshmallows. Parents could even use this as a teaching game for their children.

Traditionally, recipes were things shared between generations, passed on from parents to children, or occasionally published in local papers so as to create a kind of local identity. The Rice Krispie Treat forged new ground here as well:

Starting in 1941 Kellogg put the recipe on their packaging. Here then was a dessert where the recipe was passed directly from Faceless Corporate Entity to private citizen, as a result of marketing inventions from another classic American contribution: Madison Avenue. Advertising may have always existed -- but it evolved into a super-powered mutant in the American ecosystem.

The final link in this chain between Corporate giant and hyperactive child was provided by so powerful an American symbol that Sid Meier's Civilization IV, Warlords Expansion, made the supermarket the American civilization's special building (technically, the American special building is a super-version of the supermarket, called the mall; but since they were both invented by America that just doubles up the significance of this icon to American culture). It was through supermarkets that we gained access to both the ingredients and instructions for making this confection.

To sum up:
  • Invented by a home ecs major from Iowa
  • to help fund Camp Fire Girls
  • made with almost wholly trademarked ingredients
  • perfected with Jet-Puffed Marshmallows (TM Kraft Foods)
  • recipe delivered from Corporate Giant, at Madison Avenue command, via supermarket to private citizen

I rest my case.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Episode 2

My sister, Vanessa, had another serious case this week:

FULLERTON– A Fullerton man told police Sunday night that he killed his 4-year-old son, Fullerton police Lt. John Petropulos reported.

Gideon Walter Omondi, 35, walked into the Fullerton Police Department lobby at about 9:30 p.m. and told the desk clerk very matter-of-factly that he had killed his son. Officers questioned Omondi and sent police and fire units to his apartment at 3200 Palm Drive. -- O.C. Register

Again, her department told her that it had been over two years since the previous homicide, and now this. That's her in the photo, lower on the steps.

In the army, one of my roommates' parents were both in the police force. He said that working that job gave them a rather bleak view of humanity.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Zen Cat

We wrestled with it for a bit, but Jaru and I recently started letting our cat, Minou (that's her to the left), go out and meander the neighborhood. We were worried that she'd fight with other cats, run in traffic, smoke weed, and hang out with the wrong crowd.

I was also worried that she's an awfully pretty cat, and that somebody might go in for an impromptu adoption. To reduce the risk of this I made sure that we got Minou a collar with name and phone number etched onto it before we let her out. I figure that most people wouldn't adopt a cat that's clearly got an owner, whereas they might if the cat was pretty enough and the ownership was vague enough.

There's another cat in the neighborhood -- we call him Pinky. He's below. Pinky doesn't wear a collar. Maybe he's a stray, maybe not. Regardless, his owners, if they exist, have little to fear because he's one ugly cat. It's a bit disconcerting since his coloration is so close to Minou's -- but then you see that face (the pink nose is often scratched up from fights) and you just know the cat is safe from cat-nappers.

Chuang Tzu has a story where someone mentions a useless tree who's "trunk is so bent and knotty that nobody can get a good straight plank out of it. The branches are so crooked you can't cut them up in any way that makes sense."

Chuang Tzu points out:

So for your big tree. No use? Then plant it in the wasteland - in emptiness. Walk idly around it and rest under it's shadow. No axe or saw prepares its end. No one will ever cut it down. Useless? You should worry!

Friday, September 01, 2006

CSI: Fullerton

In more mixed news, my tiny sister, Vanessa, at the ripe age of 24, has recently started up her job working as a CSI and within the first month has to come across a case like this:

FULLERTON, Calif. - In Orange County, Fullerton police are investigating what appears to be the murder-suicide of a preteen girl and a 40-year-old man. -- KNBC-TV.

The Fullerton CSI unit is a civilian operation attached to the police department -- but Vanessa does get a badge. She says that murders aren't too common in her area, it had been two and a half years since the last one. Needless to say, the entire staff took the case very seriously -- they don't want to mess up the evidence on something like this.

Common of government work, despite being so young and having less than three weeks on the job, they threw her right in to help work the scene.

Big Tobacco Feeling Generous, Wants to Donate Another $250 Billion

Despite being on a smoking hiatus, I remain a tobacco apologist. While living in a world of Oscar Madisons might be nasty, brutish, and short, living in a world of Felix Ungers wouldn't be living at all.

With articles all over the web, it's hard to know where to start -- but the New York Times offers a relatively neutral interpretation.

BOSTON, Aug. 30 (AP) — The level of nicotine that smokers typically consume per cigarette has risen 10 percent in the past six years, making it harder to quit and easier to be addicted, said a report that the Massachusetts Department of Health released on Tuesday.

The study shows a steady increase in the amount of nicotine delivered to the smokers’ lungs regardless of brand, with overall yields increasing 10 percent.

Jack Shafer at Slate offers up a defense:

Yet serial liars aren't automatically guilty of every charge leveled against them. Even the tobacco company baddies, who took a wicked beating this week in the press, deserve a fair hearing before we hang them.

I suppose there's some possibility that the companies were accidentally increasing the nicotine content of their cigarettes due to perhaps new farming methods -- er, and accidentally engineering their filters to hide that fact from the testing machines (and only the federal testing machines).

Perhaps their lawyers will even be able to convince juries of this 5-15 years from now when a brand new set of class action lawsuits arise -- of the sort that previously resulted in a $246 billion settlement.

They will of course hope that conflicting data over the addictiveness of nicotine, and whether or not increasing the level of nicotine (secretly) made it harder for smokers to quit will earn sympathy from the jury (it seems to have worked on Jack Shafer). But I suspect the juries will focus a bit more on the cover-up and the likely reasons for the cover up.

Still, I thought it was awfully generous of them -- after having just recently gotten to a point where they might be able to put the past, and big lawsuits, behind them -- to offer up some brand new opportunities for future lawsuits.

There are perfectly honest and open ways to pander to our vices, and some companies do that. Hopefully they'll be able to capture a little more market share after the odd bankruptcy or two.