Monday, September 5, 2011


  What Columbus and his explorations discovered in the New World was not the gold and silver of their dreams, but a treasure destined to save the world from starvation, or at the very least, a terribly boring diet.  Along with the potato, tomato, the turkey, chocolate, vanilla and a dozen new vegetables and fruits, they took back to Europe a combination which had served the native people of this continent for uncounted generations as their “holy trinity” of core foods: corn, beans and squash. These three wonder-foods are nutritionally rich, life-sustaining and can be preserved from season to season.  Of course all by themselves they can be rather bland and unexciting in the flavor department. But the native people of Mexico and our own southwest had come up with a wonderful solution: enter the chili pepper, members of the capsicum family endowed with a depth of flavor, sweetness and heat which would tickle the world’s pallet forever after. all by themselves
            It was probably a physician named Diego Alvarez Chanca, on Columbus’ 2nd visit in 1493 who was responsible for seeing the potential for medical value in this new plant and who took it back to Spain. It soon found its way to Spanish colonies in India and Portugal (where it was known as pimenta), and quickly became an essential ingredient in indigenous diets as well as a major trade item.
            With a history dating back at least 6,000 years, the very word chili has its origin in the ancient nahuatl language and is a reflection of the Mayan culture and their agriculture.  As I traveled the back roads of Central America some years ago, I reveled in the almost endless variety of beans and peppers on display at open-air street markets, with each area or district giving its name to a particular favorite: thus the jalapeno from Jalapa, the poblano from Puebla, etc.. I also found that nearly every family and household had its own culinary specialty and distinct notions of what was just the right variety of pepper or peppers for that dish. While staying for stretches of several days at a time with the Mejilla family in Puebla, I would come to appreciate the individual argument for each of numerous chili choices, with the wonderful memory of a delicious mole containing seven different kinds of chili pepper (along with raisins, ground peanuts, freshly-made chocolate, and chunks of turkey meat).
            For the modern-day home chef deliberating over the question of if and which chili pepper to use, it is important to understand something of the hotness and flavor peculiarities of each variety, and some of the preparation options worth considering. The “heat” found in a chili is most intense in the seeds and internal ribs – both easy to scrape or wash out if desired. (Keep your fingers away from your eyes when working with really hot specimens.)  A pharmaceutical chemist named Wilbur Scoville, experimenting with the chemical capsacin in 1912, developed a scale for measuring the comparative level of hotness of each member of the capsicum family with the hotter examples assigned a higher number.  Today the “Scoville scale” is well-known to serious cooks and remains invaluable in making culinary decisions. My favorite flavor-enhancer, the Poblano is a relatively-mild 1,000 to 2,000 Scoville units, while the serano which I approach with much greater caution can run as high as 23,000. The habanero – the small, somewhat wrinkled orange chili you will see on most grocery shelves – can score anywhere from 100,000 to 350,000 on Dr. Scoville’s measuring stick, and commands great respect!
            By the way, the naga-bih jolokia – or “ghost pepper” – from the Assam region of India rings the heat bell at more than one million Scoville units: explorers beware!
            Shopping for chili peppers can be somewhat confusing inasmuch as many - maybe even most – supermarkets persist in mislabeling their displays; even those who by their very ethnicity should know better.  For example, my much-cherished Poblano is frequently labeled “Pasilla”, which it is NOT.( And that same Poblano becomes an “Ancho” when it is dried.) What’s more, the real Pasilla is actually a “Chilaca” before it is dried. The much-favored “Chipotle” is in reality, a “Jalapeno” which has been dried and smoked, and sauces made from it have become immensely popular in the kitchens of great chefs.
            I regularly make a Cuban-style black bean soup for which I fire-roast, sweat and peel one fresh Poblano for its rich pepper flavor, and a single fresh jalapeno for its well-balanced heat. Roasting chili peppers over grill flames (along with a handful of freshly-picked Roma tomatoes if you wish), not only brings out an entirely new level of flavors, but adds just the right touch of “smokiness” to the other ingredients in one of the simplest but most ancient of soup combinations. With a dollop of sour cream on top, this time-honored “marriage” is an inexpensive, yet elegant family pleaser.

From left to right: Habanero – very hot;  Serano – medium hot; Jalapeno – light heat.

Highly adaptable, the fresh Poblano – perfect for stuffing in “Relanos”  (above), becomes the Ancho when dried (below).

Often mislabeled, the true Pasilla, long and narrow is shown with the much blockier shaped Ancho/Poblano. One can be substituted for the other in recipes.


The bonding that takes place between members of the canine world and their human partners has left its tracks through uncounted centuries of time. Whether as hunter-gatherers, in the tending and herding of livestock, standing guard against all kinds of danger, trekking through snowfields and wild country or merely as unfaltering companions, dogs have been intimate members of human society. In
“Part I” of this series, we considered a dog-human “love story” which had its genesis in a chance meeting. The companionship we will examine today in “Part II” of this series has little to do with “chance” and has ramifications far beyond the heart-warming tale itself.
            For as long as America’s youth have marched off to war, they have come home to us scarred by their experience – often in ways which are not immediately evident or easily treated. I for one believe the adage that says “there is no such thing as an unwounded combat veteran”. Having grown up in the home of a father who carried such wounds, and having added to that my own experiences and those of my close companions in a faraway war, I was deeply affected by this book I can only describe in a fleeting and abbreviated way in these few paragraphs. I can say at the outset that the story told by former U.S. Army Captain Luis Carlos Montalvan under the title “UNTIL TUESDAY” takes its place among my list of
recent “favorites”.
            The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the way in which our Military have responded to their demands differ in one important way from nearly all other conflicts, in that our fighting forces have been subjected to numerous and all-too-frequent deployments, some troops returning to combat two, three, four and even five times!  In the deepest days of World War II, this phenomenon did not often occur. Moreover, to a greater extent than ever before (except for the American Revolution), the brunt of the fighting has fallen upon repeatedly-activated National Guard and Reserve units.
            It should not come as a surprise that our returning combatants have often been exposed to both physical and emotional trauma, with neither time nor resources for adequate rest, diagnosis and treatment for what has come to be known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. (The high suicide rate among this segment of our society is just one of many painful consequences.)
            Luis Carlos Montalvan came back from his second tour as a wounded, highly-decorated career Army Captain, his vertebrae damaged beyond repair, his brain traumatized by serious and repeated concussion and his mind addled by exposure to the suffering of Iraqi children he was unable to save from a cruel fate and whose expectant faces he could not erase from a troubled sleep. Along with his PTSD came a severe case of agoraphobia, and a fear of people and places that kept him a prisoner of his tiny Brooklyn apartment and the bottles of booze to which he had surrendered. And that was the way it was until Tuesday.
            “Tuesday” was a Golden Retriever Montalvan was introduced to by an organization known as the Wounded Warrior Project, one of a handful of young dogs trained to be service companions by selected  long term prisoners in New York State’s Penitentiary system – a program called “Puppies Behind Bars”.  Preparing service dogs to be companions for PTSD victims requires about two years of intensive training, and an investment of more than $25,000, even before they meet their potential partners; in this case through a group of dedicated professional trainers with the acronym ECAD. Only then is the individual dog fitted - through a rigorous matching process - to the candidate with whom the final training regimen will begin.
            “Tuesday’s” story is particularly touching, since both “Tuesday” and Luis were “wounded warriors” in their own way, and each needed the other in negotiating challenges worth reading about. It becomes “Tuesday’s” duty to anticipate his partner’s every need, from guiding him through New York’s crowded streets and subways, opening doors and drawers, and bringing him home when memory has flown, to reminding him to take his medications and protecting him when a panic attack is approaching. When Montalvan is accepted into Columbia’s vaunted School of Journalism, it is “Tuesday” who takes him to and from class each day, and it is “Tuesday” who shares the triumph – and a matching cap & gown at graduation.
            Altogether, “UNTIL TUESDAY” is an inspiring love story as well as a reminder to us all to enlarge our personal understanding of the special citizens who live among us – those wounded warriors – who have paid a dear price to fight our battles. And especially should we be accommodating to the presence of service dogs attending to their loving duty.


The phenomenon usually known as “The Salem Witch Trials” didn’t actually begin in Salem  (nor, for that matter, in Colonial America as we shall also see). Still, it represents a brief chapter in our history worth the retelling.
            If there is a starting point, it would probably be the village of Hartford, Connecticut, in 1662, just forty years after the arrival of the Pilgrims and the founding of the Plymouth Colony. There, an eight-year-old girl named Elizabeth Kelly began to be tormented by visions and hallucinations. She accused her neighbor, Goodwife Ayers of bewitching her. Ayer’s husband responded to this accusation by pointing the finger of blame at another neighbor, Rebecca Greensmith who, in turn said the real culprit was her husband, who was eventually executed for “having carnal relations with the Devil”, who “works in mysterious ways” the jury explained.
            As far-fetched as these stories may seem in the light of present times, they are representative of a mindset which was spawned by the very real fears of a time and place filled with a religious fervor on one hand, and a perceived state of threat and menace in every corner on the other. The “fundamentalist” faith of the Puritans made other versions of reformed Christianity – such as Congregationalism – seem dangerous, with Quakers trying to separate themselves from both.  And historians are agreed that the practice of Roman Catholicism or any hint of it was cause enough for suspicion in Colonial Boston.
            The Salem “outbreak” seems to have followed the arrival of an unpopular minister, Reverend Samuel Parris, when, in 1692, three girls aged 9, 11 and 12, all related to Parris report being “visited” and tormented by specters. They began leveling charges against several neighborhood women, including a bedridden widow. These people accused still others, and before the initial spiraling of events was over, more than 150 people are in jail as witches. One way to avoid execution is to confess, and better yet, to name co-conspirators.
            One of those who refused to either “confess” or “cooperate” was the unfortunate Giles Corey, whose wife had also been accused, and in whose defense he had testified. (Big mistake in Salem!) To encourage a confession, the elderly man was laid on a stone wall with two wooden planks on his chest  upon which heavy stones were placed, one by one while members of the court stood by looking on. It took two days for him to die, his lips still sealed against anything like a “confession”.
            Before the 1692 outbreak was over, 200 people were convicted and in prison as witches, and 19 were executed on Gallows Hill. Others died in prison or as a result of their imprisonment, and on March 23rd, 1692 Salem Marshal Deputy Samuel Brabrook even arrested four-year-old Dorcas Good, proving that age alone was no defense in Salem that year.
            While the belief in and fear of witchcraft was a reality here as it had been in Europe (*) since the 1500s, there is no doubt that some pragmatic factors were also in play. Inheritance laws might have led some landowners to see this as a way to remove a spousal obstacle to the “oldest son” option. Then too divorce was almost impossible in the colonies, and so a witchcraft charge was a swift and legal way of getting rid of an offensive (or inconvenient) mate. Property ownership was probably a leading motive.
            Perhaps the unhappiest truth revealed by the Salem experience was the questionable practice of allowing –even seeking -- the testimony of easily-influenced children in capital court cases. (Just revisit the outbreak of charges against Day Care operators in the 1980s of our own day for a recent example!)
            The Salem colony eventually tried to erase the error of their ways by paying financial damages to the affected families, finally changing the name of their community from Salem to Danvers.
             (*)  Between the years 1500 and 1660, at least 50,000 and as many as 80,000 suspected witches were executed across Europe, with Germany taking the lead with 26,000 and France a close second with 10,000.  80% of these cases involved women. In Europe they were usually burned at the stake. The last witchcraft outbreak in England took place at North Berwick around 1591. Everything from ship sinkings at sea and damaging storms ashore were blamed on witchcraft, which was seen as such a danger to humankind that defendants’ rights and ordinary legal protections were set aside in the interest of stamping out this crime. This was not a medieval practice, but a modern-age phenomenon.

The classical artist Thompkins H. Matteson attempted to capture the trial of Salem resident George Jacobs Sr. which took place August 5th, 1692 following charges brought by his granddaughter Margaret. He was found guilty and hanged on August 19th. Margaret recanted her testimony on August 20th.


Author Ted Kerasote wisely subtitled his 2007 book Merle’s Door, “Lessons from a Freethinking Dog”, a warning to the reader that this isn’t just another warm and fuzzy doggy story. “Merle”, a mixed-breed retriever in his early youth who appeared out of nowhere in the dark of a Utah desert night to become a part of Kerasote’s life is no ordinary dog, anymore than Kerasote - an outdoor writer and confirmed wanderer of wild places who lives alone in a Wyoming cabin ­- is an ordinary weaver of pet stories. In fact, it dawns on the reader somewhere along the way, that this is just as much a story about a dog’s experience with a human, as it is an account of the canine world as seen by a person.
            Where animal love affairs are concerned, it is difficult not to fall into the anthropomorphic trap of viewing animal behavior in human terms, and Ted Karasote – writing with the discipline of a scientific mind – tries hard not to do so.  As a reader, however, one can be forgiven for giving in, just a little.
             To say that Merle is one independent dog is sheer understatement. Probably born on reservation lands into an unfriendly environment, this overgrown puppy is not given to leashes, lectures or confinement, and is unwilling to submit to what some dog experts are fond of calling “pack leadership”. Even though a retriever by heritage, he sees no reason to jump into the water to bring back anything, let alone flush game birds for anybody. Not that he doesn’t understand the concept of “rewards”. On the other hand he loves to chase squirrels and Bison (the latter an unwise practice he learns the hard way). He is traumatized at the very sight of a shotgun, but yips with joy when the rifle with which he and his master hunt elk comes into view. Merle we see is capable of making highly-nuanced distinctions.
            Living life within the shadow of Wyoming’s Tetons, Kerasote enjoys hiking and downhill skiing, and regularly replenishes his wild meat food supply from the nearby elk herds. Merle develops a love for the same trails and slopes, delighting in his ability to ski in his own way.  His social life is active and ecumenical, and he becomes so widely known around town (which he covers with a walking tour each morning), that he gains the title of “mayor”.  He loves parties and social gatherings and is partial to certain kinds of music to which he learns to sing along with great enthusiasm. His favorite is Christmas music, especially the Hallelujah chorus to Handel’s Messiah which he yodels with laughable gusto.           Animal experts usually take issue with any claim that dogs can understand human language, but even if they are right, it doesn’t mean the two can’t communicate, and Ted and Merle prove this page after page. Probably because there is no other full-time “family” in Ted’s life, this interchange is an important element in their partnership. And just to make sure Merle’s education is broad-based, Ted often speaks to him in French as well as English.
            Early in the “settling-down” phase of Merle’s domestication, it becomes obvious that being home-bound does not fit in with Merle’s outlook on life – even with the person he loves, and especially during Ted’s frequent even if brief absences. The answer to this conundrum comes in the shape of the “doggy door”, which not only solves the immediate problem, but becomes emblematic in understanding the importance of freedom in the life and well-being of this animal-of-the-wild (and his human partner). “Merle’s Door” not only becomes the title of the book which would follow a dozen years later, but an unmistakable metaphor for something much more far-reaching.
            While this book would be a good read even if it was about no more than the talents and foibles of an unusual dog, its greater attraction arises from the author’s obvious compulsion to chronicle their daily life together in detail over a thirteen year period, all the while doing intensive scientific research in an effort to place his ongoing observations in perspective. The two not only educate one another as they and their partnership mature, but each undergoes a profound change in ways that can only be described as spiritual. The connection which develops between them is itself a true “Love Story”, and their final days together testify to this claim in ways you will have to read the book to understand.