Eternal Vigilance

I’m currently reading The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution, by Thomas P. Slaughter. Near the beginning of Ch. 8 he uses the phrase “eternal vigilance.” “Eternal vigilance was the price paid for the blessings of liberty.” Or as it was stated over 200 years ago:

“Free government, in any country naturally verges by imperceptible advances to tyranny, unless corrected by the vigilance of the people. Nothing but perpetual jealousy of the governed has ever been found effectual against the machinations of ambition.” [From the National Gazette, Jan. 16, 1792, p. 3, as quoted by Slaughter.]

This sentiment, uttered by the so-called “friends of liberty,” was in contrast to the sentiments of the so-called “friends of order,” who were concerned that the American republic was spinning out of control. In this historical context, typical of the periods both before and after the Revolutionary War, the vigilance is required against those that seek too much government.

What struck me about this quote and Slaughter’s slightly altered phrase, “eternal vigilance,” is that in today’s patriotic rhetoric it is rather the “friends of order” who have co-opted the phrase. We are being called to vigilance against foreign enemies. In today’s rhetoric implied in the call for eternal vigilance is a strong standing army, expanded powers for the national police to ferret out dissenters within our borders, both citizens and aliens, and a large military budget to pay for it. Two centuries ago “eternal vigilance” was the watchword against taxes, a standing army, and federal government attempts to clamp down on dissent within its borders.

I wonder if many of today’s patriots who bandy about such sentiment as a defense of our huge, permanent military are aware that they have turned 180° from the sentiment of the Revolutionary period.


In Defense of BPI (sort of)

In recent months there has been a major smear campaign against the local Siouxland business, Beef Products, Inc., better known as BPI, and their primary product, “lean finely textured beef,” what they prefer to call LFTB, but what most of us are more familiar with by the term “pink slime.”

Much of what is written about pink slime is misleading, false, and in the case of Jamie Oliver, outright lies. I personally try to avoid eating pink slime. In my personal hierarchy of bad stuff, it’s safer to eat than tilapia. It’s almost certainly safer than the 5 lb tube of hamburger you buy at the grocery store. The problem, in my mind, isn’t with what’s in it, but rather the extent to which it’s processed.

My geeky, scientific self loves the whole concept of LFTB. Fat, cartilage, lean beef, and bone all have different densities. That means that if you put those products in a centrifuge you can actually separate the beef from the fat and cartilage in the same way your friendly neighborhood phlebotomist separates your red and white blood cells to see if you’re vigorous enough to give blood.

In old fashioned packing plants a lot of meat ended up on the floor. It was simply not worth the cost in man-hours to separate the tiny bits of meat from the other bits of cartilage, bone, and fat that surrounded it, so all that got scooped up and shipped to the dog food factory.

What BPI did was to take all those left-over bits (after all the familiar cuts were removed) and run them through something akin to a sieve or a potato ricer. That creates a pinkish substance that almost looks like a batter. They then toss that “finely textured stuff” into a centrifuge, which separates the lean beef, bone, cartilage, fat, etc. into separate layers so the meat can be used. The end product is 95% pure lean beef (and 100% beef product, ie, there’s some fat and cartilage in it) which is so finely ground it’s more liquid than solid. (If you’re worried about that other 5%, LFTB is waaaay more pure than a hotdog or a sausage. Besides, fat, cartilage, and bone all have important nutrients that you can’t get from lean meat. It’s one of the reasons soup stock is so good for you.)

And this leads us to some of the libelous images often associated with LFTB. Before there was a way to economically recover the leftovers from the butchering process, those leftover bits and pieces were scooped up with a front end loader and sent to a dog food factory. The FDA doesn’t require the same high standards for animal food as it does for human food, and so the images of these leftover bits and pieces being hauled off to the dog food factory, when superimposed over a hamburger patty made from LFTB, the associations can be a bit disgusting.

But BPI doesn’t use leftover bits and pieces scraped off the killing floor with a front end loader. Once it was determined that the bits and pieces had economic value, they were handled in a completely different manner by the packing plant – separated onto their own conveyor belt instead of being dropped on the floor – and sold to BPI. The cow parts that end up at the BPI plant are butchered and processed with the same care as the ribeye steak that you see in your grocer’s meat counter.

The second thing that gets completely misrepresented is the addition of ammonium hydroxide gas to the product. Ammonium hydroxide is a chemical compound that naturally occurs in nearly all growing things. Every time I eat home-made bread, fruit fresh from the tree, or a grass fed, organic beef steak, I eat ammonium hydroxide. So while it’s an additive, it’s an additive of something that’s already there.

Ammonium hydroxide has a very high pH. (In other words it’s a base rather than an acid.) Arguably the biggest health danger in ground meats is the potential presence of E. coli, which requires an acidic environment to grow. Meat is naturally acidic, so it’s an ideal breeding ground for E. coli. What the BPI process does is increase the ammonium hydroxide levels in their meat to change the pH balance, making it less acidic and therefore making it very difficult for E. coli to grow.

Jamie Oliver, in his offensive program on pink slime (from his outrageously anti-American television series called Jamie’s American Road Trip), replicates the creation of pink slime by pouring household ammonia into a vat of hamburger, mixing it up, and forcing it through a sieve. That has nothing to do with the BPI process whatsoever. It was simply a bit of theater cynically and purposefully designed to misdirect the audience from the subtly of the process by setting up a red herring.

In fact, if you believe that the industrialized food system that we have in the western world is a generally good and healthy thing, you ought to embrace LFTB with thanksgiving because it addresses one of the most pernicious problems in our food system in an ingenious manner – by slightly changing the pH of the meat with a natural chemical already found in the meat, the meat becomes inhospitable to E., coli, one of the biggest killers in our food system.

My problem with LFTB, or “pink slime” as it has been called by its detractors, is not the product itself (some of my best friends are hot dogs, after all, which are essentially the same thing) but rather the process. LFTB is a long, long way from cattle on the hoof. Even though the collection process for these bits and pieces is very stringent, what else manages to accidently get into the mix? What happens to the lean beef when it is broken into such fine bits that it becomes a liquid? At this point I’m speculating, but I wonder, does the process break down the cell walls of the meat? How does this process (whatever it is) affect the nutritional make-up of the product or how the body processes it?

This is the sort of thing that worries me about LFTB. While it is essentially pure lean beef it is also a processed food. It is certainly not processed in the same way that a Dorito is processed, but it is a few steps farther away from natural than the beef steak in the meat market. Joel Salatin, farmer, lecturer, and whole food evangelist, offers the following test: “If your grandmother doesn’t recognize it as food, don’t eat it.”

Of course the LFTB, which really does look like pink slime, is mixed in with more traditional hamburger, so the BPI frozen patties at the store really do look like any other hamburger (except for the lack of E. coli crawling around the patty — but I jest), but the pink slime itself does not pass the grandmother test. That’s what makes me nervous. With all of our scientific hubris, we break real food down into its constituent parts and then rebuild it into a “new and improved food.” The catch is that many years later we discover it’s often not better, but actually detrimental to our health. Even though there’s no evidence to date that LFTB is any different than hamburger, except for the slightly higher pH, I wonder about what we don’t know.

There’s probably nothing wrong, in and of itself, with the LFTB. But there is something terribly wrong with the way we have industrialized food – from the pesticides and fertilizers to the additives and “natural flavors.” LFTB is a link in that chain. To every extent possible I avoid the chain altogether and seek out real food which is more nutritious than industrial food. So, even though Chef Jamie Oliver and the producers of the documentary, Food, Inc., make me angry, I still have a hard time siding with BPI. I don’t care that it’s “lean finely textured beef,” it still looks like pink slime to me. And I’ll admit that I’m inconsistent. I like my hot dogs to be pink, but I’m not ready for my hamburgers to go down the same path.

After all, grandma would recognize a hot dog.

p.s. To hear BPI’s version of the story, they have posted five videos on YouTube, which can be accessed from their home page at

Spring Is Here

It was raining when I left the house yesterday. As I pulled the car out of the garage I was dismayed to see the tiny, wet granules on the driveway that appeared to be sleet. I knew it was supposed to get up into the lower 60s so I wasn’t worried about the ice sticking. But I was dismayed to see the sleet. And then I realized that it wasn’t sleet. They were buds from the hackberry tree which the rain had knocked onto the driveway. The temp was in the upper 50s. It was a beautiful spring morning. There was nothing wintery about it at all.

And I realized it was high time to move beyond this whole cruise ship theme. So I updated my header photos to pictures with more of a spring-like theme. The dozen photos in this collection are as follows:

A tropical flower somewhere in the tropics, the location of which the mists of time have hidden.

Spring rains and groundwater seep out of a cliff face and off an overhanging rock in Zion National Park.

A yellow sulphur butterfly alighting on the sparse grass of Monument Valley, Arizona.

The blood-red flower of a camellia bush in February.

The flower of the soulangiana tree, better known as a Chinese magnolia, is one of the earliest blooming flowers in the southern U.S.

A male goldfinch feeding at our feeder.

A great egret patiently hunting in swamp southeast of Lafayette, Louisiana.

I went to find a snowy owl in the wind-swept fields of Nebraska and all I saw was this red-tailed hawk sitting atop the center pivot irrigation system, observing life, and vigilantly keeping the snowy owls away.

High up in the cliff walls above the Virgin River in Zion National Park, the spring rains have left their mark in the sand.

Teamwork: A black vulture and a boat-tailed grackle observe the retirees along the Gulf Coast. The vulture is no doubt waiting for someone to die. The grackle merely wants the old guy's boat shoes so his feet will match his tail.

Nothing says spring like bears coming out of hibernation. This particular one can be found in Barstow, California, along Route 66.

Even though its almost summer along the Colorado-New Mexico border, spring has not yet found its way to the top of the three peaks of the Sierra Blanca Massif.

Bay Leaves

I’ve made no secret of my disdain for dried bay leaves in cooking. My general advice is “fugetaboutit.”

Nothing says spring like faded brownish-green bay leaves fresh from the can ... not!!!

But I had the opportunity to do a scientific experiment yesterday with fresh dried bay leaves. (I know, that’s a contradiction of terms. A good rule in cooking is never use an ingredient which forces you into a logical fallacy or internal contradiction.) I purchased a brand new container of McCormick brand bay leaves, and moments after removing the hermetic seal, I popped two bay leaves into boiling water and simmered them for a half hour.

During the duration of this scientific experiment the kitchen smelled wonderful. Pretty much the same as every Whole Foods Market that I’ve ever been in. (So that’s your secret, John Mackey, one of your employees in every store is tasked with simmering bay leaves and piping that aroma into the shopping area.) But at the end of the simmering period? …

… the water tasted vaguely of boiled leaves. Brenda tried it too and said she thought it might taste a little like soup.

I’ve tried this before with not-so-fresh bay leaves … and admit it, the bay leaves on your spice rack are probably months, if not years old … and I got nothin’ — little aroma while simmering, no taste in the water afterwards. So “fresh from the factory” dried bay leaves certainly improve the situtation, but what they add is negligible. (I suppose the French would call it subtle. Most of their food is, after all, subtle negligible and can be greatly improved with a dash of tabasco sauce or a shake of Moroccon or Algerian curry powder … nothing improves the French like the North Africans … but I digress, and the French who have their cars burned in the streets on a semi-regular basis probably disagree.)

So my advice is save your bay leaves for making victory wreaths or as aroma therapy when you can’t make the trek to the big city to visit the nearest Whole Foods Market. But as an ingredient in soup? Fugetaboutit!

I’m Tempting You With a One Hour Meditation That’s a “Must Listen”

Every year, around the time of the first Sunday of Great Lent, Fr. Tom Hopko offers a variation of his meditation on the Temptation of Jesus as interpretted by Fyodor Dostoevsky. (I suspect some of the non-Orthodox may be a bit surprised by this, assuming that Dostoevsky is merely a long-winded Russian novelist. But he was also a highly respected churchman and his “story within a story” of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamozov is considered one of the great Christian exegeses of the meaning of temptation.)

Well, this year Fr. Tom has absolutely outdone himself. I propose that his mediation be required listening for all Christians. It can be found here.

A word about Fr. Tom and his podcast are in order. His assumed podcast audience is Orthodox Christians and he frequently speaks about issues internal to Orthodoxy that would hold little interest to non-Orthodox Christians. (There are many other podcasts at Ancient Faith Radio which are aimed at a wider audience.) For instance, he has an ongoing series on church polity, bishops, and the canons of the Ecumenical Councils (currently at the 29th episode — and we aren’t done yet!) which is quite specific to Orthodox polity which would probably sound pretty darn esoteric to the non-enlightened. He also has a stream-of-consciousness style of talking that requires patience to get the hang of. But if one can put up with his quirks, he is an amazing teacher. His series on Charles Darwin that he did last year (17 episodes! That may be longer than the Origin of Species) is marvelous, but so meandering that it could boggle the unprepared mind.

But in this particular explication of the temptation of Jesus he is focused, avoids becoming parochial, and gets to the heart of the matter, even though the truth may offend some. Again, this one is a must-listen for everyone!

Pictures added

I have edited the previous post (about the new header photos). Since it’s inconvenient and time consuming to continually hit the “refresh” button on the browser just to look at the header photos, I turned the previous post into a gallery post with all twelve photos included.