4 posts categorized "Food and Drink"

September 09, 2011

5 Simple Ways to Save the World

by Barbara O'Neal 

On Sunday evening, I had friends over for a summer supper.   We sat on the back patio and ate corn on the cob and potato salad and lightly fried squash and tiny sweet tomatoes.  The ears of corn were not all exactly 10 inches long and evenly covered with kernels from end to end in straight 6032456619_8eb5d0bda9_m rows.  They were 3 inches long, some of them, and plump to bursting.  One had zigzagging rows that were nonetheless juicy and delicious. Two ears were long and elegant, the race-horses of corn, which I gave to our guests.  I picked them from my garden an hour before the guests arrived, along with the tomatoes—I had hoped some of the little yellow pears would be ready, or at least one or two big romas, but only the Sweet 100s were ripe.  (In a week, I’ll be drowning in tomatoes, of course, but I will sun-dry them).  The potatoes were a particular thrill—I grew three bags of them for the early crop, leaving these for last. They were white potatoes, some two full pounds each, their skins as thin as the membrane over an egg white.

As we feasted, I thought back over how much time and energy it took to grow this much food, enough for a single meal for four people.  I started in March, with seeds under grow lights, and planted in May, and all these months since, the sun and the rain and the winds have come, day after day. I pulled weeds and fretted over onion grubs.  

It’s humbling, and illuminating. 

We all know the food delivery system is broken, a side effect of industrialization and subsidization.  It seemed like such a great idea—feed everybody cheaply and easily!—but in theory, it isn’t working out.  We all hear the stats—children are fatter, we are fatter, we are less healthy, and meanwhile, Somalia starves.  This year, there have been three massive recalls of meat—36 million pounds of turkey, for example, which is a catastrophic waste of life. 

We all want, most sincerely, to find answers, but when you’re dealing with such an enormous problem, it’s hard to know how to take a single step.  

As a food writer, I have learned much more than I ever wanted to know about the food industry, and it has been enough to dramatically change the way I eat.  I’m not going to bore you with all that, but know that I am a passionate eater, and love food, and the way it comes to us, feeds us, nourishes us both heart and soul, is very important to me.  

One thing that’s clear about society is that it’s impossible to change big things all at once, overnight.  But it’s surprising what little things can do.  Little baby steps are good.

1950s PHILIP MORRIS Lucille Ball vintage cigarettes advertisement hollywood smoking Think about cigarettes.  Remember when everybody smoked everywhere?  In grocery stores, in hospital rooms, in restaurants and malls and EVERYWHERE?  It didn’t suddenly change overnight.   It was one little thing at a time.  No smoking in stores—that’s kinda disgusting.  Smoking sections in restaurants.  Take that cigarette outside, would you?

And now, we’d no more tolerate smoking in a grocery store than we would allow someone to poop in the aisles. 

This spring, finally overwhelmed with all the information I had gathered in studying the food industry, I started looking for easy ways to start changing things in my own world.  Here are 5 easy ways to change the world from where you are.


Not everybody has the time, inclination, or space for a big garden, but almost everyone has a little spot for a planter of tomatoes, a bag of potatoes, or a bag of lettuce, or some peas growing up a IMG_1896 trellis on the balcony.   It’s good on so many levels that nearly every food-industry challenge starts with this single idea.  It saves money and transportation costs, it’s more nutritious, it connects us to the cycle of food and eating, and gives a clear idea of how much energy it takes to produce it.  

Besides, all that, the food you grow yourself tastes about 900% better than what you get at the grocery store. 

(And that photo is one of potatoes I grew in bags in my backyard.)


This is fresh, fresh food. It supports the local economy.  It reduces transportation costs.  And again, it tastes really, really good, and you don’t have to do the work yourself.   For a list of Farmers Markets, plug in your zip code here and find one near your home.


Please.  This is one of the areas I have trouble not banging the drum so hard I drive people away, so let me say it very simply.  Last year’s recall of a half-billion eggs brought some attention to the subject of battery cages, but there is more to do. 

This single act will make a massive change in the world.  I know they are more expensive.  They also taste 100 times better, and it is simple common humanity to ask that a chicken who gives her life to producing eggs for us should have a clean space, fresh air, and some room to move around.  Simple. 

That’s totally worth $2 a carton.



Driving a car is understood to be bad for the greenhouse effect.  Cow farts are pretty bad, too, and to my absolute astonishment, I discovered that rotting food in landfills accounts for something like 34% of the methane gas in the air!  That’s a dangerous greenhouse gas, and pretty staggering sums.

However, this is not as easy to carryout as the others, especially if you live in an apartment.   But if you do have a little bit of backyard, you can have a compost heap, and it’s easy.  There are all kinds of tools and buckets and styles to choose from these days.  We have a barrel turner, and a stationary one with worms (remember I have a big garden and really lousy soil, so this was a good investment for me).   The compost coming out of them is very rich stuff.  Which will make for a better garden next year, and so on and so on and so on.  

MEATLESS MONDAYS (or Friday or Wednesday)
Human beings are omnivores, and therefore, most of us like meat.  In industrialized nations, however, we are consuming way, way more than we really need, and that demand puts a crippling pressure on the environment.  Reduce your intake by going meatless one day a week and help save (and feed) the world. 

What are some of your ideas for saving the world in teeny, tiny bites?  Do you have a garden or a pot of tomatoes on the balcony?  Or a Farmers Market in your neighborhood that you adore? 


April 16, 2011

Rights of Spring

Rights of Spring

By Brunonia Barry

I’ve never understood why the New Year starts on January 1st, right at the height of winter instead of in the spring. What’s new about it? Here in New England, January, February, and usually all of March are more of the same old same old: more cold, more snow, more ice, more darkness. I understand that the winter solstice means that the days are getting longer, and we’ve turned the corner on winter, but you’d never know it by looking at our heating bills. If we’ve turned a corner, it must be a blind one, because on January 1st, spring is nowhere in sight. Usually there isn’t a hint of spring until early April, and even then we get the occasional freak snowstorm sent our way to remind us not to get too giddy just yet. 

In Salem, we are not a giddy people, but there are certain signs of spring that lighten our mood. These signs have nothing to do with flowers and robins, but they do have to do with birds of a different feather: snowbirds. I have come to believe that every seasonal business in New England is run by people who winter in Florida. And who can blame them? In any case, those snowbird businesses are now coming back, and the signs are everywhere. Here’s one of my favorites:

Lobster Shanty sign

The opening of the Lobster Shanty not only heralds spring in Salem, it does so with perfect New England attitude.

It’s 61 degrees today, and everyone’s out on the streets, high fiving each other with the attitude of survivors. We survived another New England winter, one of the worst in memory. We shoveled snow almost every day of the week, first when it fell from the sky, next when it fell from our roofs. In some cases, we even shoveled those roofs. We spread salt, then rethought the environmental implications and shoveled sand. If we have attitude, we have friggin’ well earned it. You want a lobster? Get it your own damned self!

It’s a good thing that the tourists don’t start showing up in Salem until mid May. They find us a whole lot more hospitable by late spring. By that time, we have almost forgotten the three-day storms, the stocking up on food, the fighting for shoveled out parking spaces. By the time those heralded May flowers arrive along with the emerald green lawns and the blooming dogwood, the cutting ocean wind has turned into gentle ocean breeze. We have all but forgotten those February vows of “Not one more winter!”

But it isn’t May yet. It is only April. And though we finally know that spring has come, we don’t quite trust it. I still remember the Nor’easter that dumped 14 inches of snow on us one April 23rd. I’m not going to tempt the imps by making some kind of declaration that the worst is over. Even though I think it probably is, I will never utter those words aloud.

So, in the spirit of Patriot’s Day and those contrarians who fought for independence from their oppressors, I will (with all apologies to Stravinsky) declare independence from the oppression of winter by proclaiming my. . . 


1.The right not to have our front vestibule look like a sand, salt, shovel, and gravel storage room.

2.The right to immediately get in my car and drive without having to warm it up and scrape the windshield for 15 minutes.

3.The right not to have to wear a thick sweater, a turtle neck, a waffle T-shirt, and six scarves under a down jacket that makes me look like the Michelin Man.

4.The right to actually leave the thermostat where my husband sets it and not sneak downstairs in the middle of the night to crank up the heat.

5.The right to drink my tea with ice.

6.The right not to grab onto walls, fences, sign posts, parked cars, fire hydrants and random passersby in an effort to stay upright while walking down the street.

7.The right to see the sun after 3:30 PM.

8.The right not to have my nose turn red and start to run whenever I step out the front door.

9.The right not to cause myself a medical emergency when I can’t locate my hat, scarf, and/or gloves.

10.The right to happily say “It’s too hot out here. I think I’ll go back inside where it’s cool.”


Those are my Rights of Spring. What are yours?


October 28, 2010

Overheard at the Opium Den

Overheard at the Opium Den

by Diane Chamberlain

 Head in coffee beans         

 It all began years ago when I decided to rent a room in my house to a young couple. They were delightful tenants, but I found it challenging to write when they were around. One evening, I escaped to the only place that was open nearby: Starbucks. I studied the menu board, feeling awkward. I wasn't a coffee drinker, so I wanted to order a small decaf, but the word 'small' was nowhere on the menu. I saw Tall. And Grande. And whPoisonat on earth did Venti mean? A kindly barista gave me a tall decaf that tasted like poison and pointed me in the direction of an inviting red velvet chair, which turned out to be every bit as cushy as it looked. I'm one of those people who actually uses her laptop on her lap, so the chair was perfect for me.

  Di starbucks
 Activity swirled around me. I lived in Northern Virginia at the time, DC right outside Washington, DC, and the evening crowd at the Starbucks consisted of foreign students hunched over textbooks, self-conscious couples on Match.com dates (I was soon to become one of them), young people--pierced, tattooed and adorable--socializing with one another, and a large group of middle-eastern men who sat near the front door. At first, it was hard to concentrate on writing because the people-watching was too seductive, but I gradually tuned out everything around me and lost myself in my work.

Ten o'clock, closing time. The hours had flown by and I'd written fifteen pages! If I worked so efficiently at Starbucks in the evening, why not try it in the morning as well?

My cushy red chair (yes, I'd already come to think of the chair as mine) Red velvet chair was vacant the following morning, but the crowd was entirely different. A laptop on nearly every table. People with phone buds in their ears, sitting alone, talking to the air. Consultants--the DC area is awash with them--meeting with their clients. Flow charts spread out on tabletops. Again, I wrote pages upon pages. This time I had caffeinated coffee. It was morning, after all. When I went back that evening, I decided to try a latte. And a blackbottom cupcake. Already, I was hooked. I quickly dubbed Starbucks "The Opium Den" believing there is an addictive substance in the lining of their cups that is activated by heat. Otherwise, why would I crave coffee that is so bitter and burned tasting that the first time I was served it, I thought there was something wrong with it?

Years later, I am still hooked. Addicted woman  My addiction costs me more than four dollars a day, but for that four dollars I receive far more than a coffee high, breakfast (cinnamon scone), an expanding waistline and an office away from home. The truth is, I've been touched, enlightened and enriched by things I've overheard in the Opium Den.

It's my duty as a novelist to gather stories wherever they can be found, right? Megaphone The first time I eavesdropped in the O.D. was when two men sat down at a table near my chair. It was clear from their conversation that they were discussing theTeen boy   welfare of a teenage boy.  As a former psychotherapist specializing in adolescents, I'm a sucker for teenagers. I'm sure the men thought I was deep in my work, but I was actually glued to their conversation.

The blond truck driver was the boy's father; the dark-haired born-again Christian, his stepfather with whom the boy lived. It was clear the men were meeting to find a way to help the boy cope with social and family issues. Obviously, there'd been some ugliness between the men in the past and I could tell they had very different approaches to child rearing. Yet their love of the boy was deep, transcending those differences as they explored solutions to help him.   When their conversation was over, the men stood and embraced, touching me with their caring and nobility. As they walked out of Starbucks, I reread the scene I'd been working on and knew it lacked the emotional depth I'd just had the honor of witnessing. I deleted the scene and started over again.

That was the first time customers at the Opium Den inspired my writing, but it wasn't to be the last. There was the day two unsuspecting women gave me the gift of an idea for a novel. 

Women in coffee shop 

          "Did you hear about Sharon Smith?" the brunette asked her friend as she sipped her Venti Americano.  "Her ex and that bitch he married were awarded custody of her son!"

        "You're kidding!" responded the redhead with the Grande Latte. "Why would a judge take a child away from his mother?"

        "Her ex and the bitch are both lawyers, that's why. Sharon didn't stand a chance."

        "If that happened to me," said the redhead, "I'd change my name, take my kid, and disappear."

Voila! I had my character and the core of her dilemma. I gave her a used computer filled with information that would allow her to save many lives—if only she would turn herself in to the  authorities--and my novel, The Escape Artist, was born.

Does my eavesdropping sound--I don't know--creepy? I don't go out of my way to listen in, but I'm interested in people and apparently, I have very good hearing. Ears Sometimes, though, my hearing ability doesn't matter.


   Not long ago, I was sitting in my comfy chair at the O.D., typing my manuscript as I sipped my Grande half-caf-with-steamed-milk.  Sharing the leather sofa across from me were three women, and I couldn't take my eyes off them. Legs on couch

My best guess was that they were two middle-aged daughters sitting on either side of their elderly mother. They were speaking a foreign language–-Middle Eastern, I thought, although I couldn't hear them well. The two younger women looked very American, but it was the elderly woman who had caught my attention. Her face was incredibly lined. I’d never seen so many crinkles and wrinkles in one place, and she was absolutely beautiful. She was tiny and she wore a little beige hat that looked hand-knit. On the side of the hat was a small, floppy, coral-colored flower. I was pretty sure she was on to me and my snooping, so I tried to stop staring at her but didn't do a very good job of it. Her face was like a magnet for my eyes. I wanted to get up and hug her.

The younger women, soft mirrors of their mother, had a few lines on their faces too. They clearly loved their mother. They talked non-stop and seemed to be explaining something to the older woman, using their hands to help in their descriptions. Their mother didn't say much. She nodded and said “oh” from time to time, a tiny smile on her face as she sipped from her Starbucks cup–which somehow looked incongruous in her hands. Old lady hands I noticed she wore identical rings on the ring finger of each hand. Each gold ring held a single pearl in a large, round beaded setting, and I wished I knew the significance of those rings.

The younger women were oblivious to me, but the old one was not. I felt her eyes on me and wondered who or what she saw in me. A third daughter? One who was missing? I glanced at her one more time and suddenly understood my attraction to her. In her face, I saw both of my grandmothers, long gone. I saw my mother, who had never looked this old, although she lived to be eighty-eight. I saw all of them in her, and I felt the yearning for people I loved but could no longer talk to or touch. 

It was time to leave. I turned off my laptop and slipped it and my notecards into my carry-all. I got up and walked past the leather sofa, but impulsively turned back and stepped in front of the women.

“I’m sorry I’ve been staring at you,” I said to the elderly woman, not knowing if she understood me or not. “It’s just that I think you’re very beautiful.”

The younger women smiled and translated for their mother, who laughed and said "thank you.” One of the women said, “She’s our mother,” with more pride in her voice than those three little words could possibly hold. I was a little weepy by the time I reached my car. I wished I could take my mom to Starbucks. Mom 4th teeth

I thought of how lucky I am to have my office away from home. Writing is so isolating. I need to be around people even if I'm not directly interacting with them. It all comes back to replenishing the creative well, and there's only so much well water my home office can hold, even though I have a great house. It's over 4000 square feet of space. I can work in my office or in the sunroom or on the screened porch or at the dining room table. But you won't find me in any of those rooms in the mornings. You'll find me in a cushy chair at the Opium Den. I expect that I'll be there for many years to come--or at least for as long as they continue to put that coating on the inside of the cups. 

  How about you? Do you have an office away from the office, and if you do, what draws you there?



June 26, 2010

Summer and a Whole Lot of Smoke

Summer and a Whole Lot of Smoke

By Brunonia Barry

Last weekend, as my six week book tour for The Map of True Places came to a close, my husband and I drove north to New Hampshire for a much anticipated friends and family reunion at Brunonia Cottage.

Now, if you think I’m so egotistical that I named a summerhouse after myself, it is simply not true. I was named after the summerhouse. A Victorian cabin built by my great grandfather with family money that has long since disappeared, Brunonia Cottage has been in my family for six generations. It stands alongside three similar summerhouses on a small lake in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and as true places go, this one is at the center of my map.

Campsign That the cottage has survived all these years is testimony both to the building practices of the time and to dumb luck. It has nearly collapsed under various winter snow loads, lost several of its outbuildings to falling trees, survived multiple economic downturns, family breakups, extremely rambunctious children, hurricanes, an ex-convict who holed up there one winter using the walls for target practice, and a wildfire that almost claimed all three camps.

The cottage didn’t have a name until the first year my grandfather attended Brown University. Evidently, Brown students often refer to their beloved alma mater as Brunonia. The summer after his freshman year, my grandfather named the cottage after his university. Carried away by his own collegiate enthusiasm, he named the canoe and the cat Brunonia as well.  He was what my grandmother liked to call a rabid alumnus. An amateur composer, he wrote fight songs for Brown’s football team and drinking songs for his college buddies. Ultimately, there were far more drinking songs than fight songs, my grandfather being more enamored of liquid refreshment than contact sports. Years later, when his grandchildren were born, he strongly suggested that each one of us be named Brunonia, and though I’m quite certain he was kidding, I know that everyone at least considered the idea. He was a charismatic character who could talk people into doing all sorts of silly things. His powers of persuasion were greatly enhanced by the fact that he had quite a bit of money, which everyone hoped to inherit. My mother, being a more down to earth New England type, refused to saddle me with such a first name, seeing the inevitability of nicknaming and imagining the difficult time a girl might have with the nickname Bruno. So Brunonia became my middle name, and eventually, as my grandfather always suggested to me, it became my pen name as well. 

My grandfather was my writing mentor. He was a wonderful piano player and wrote quite a bit of music, which he would always play for his guests after dinner and a few drinks. He and my grandmother kept a flat in New York and, in the early days, they often took the milk train down from Boston to go to Harlem and listen to jazz. They lived a charmed life and a rather fast life. In the end, to the horror of both his wife and children, there was nothing left to inherit.  One day, he woke up and simply announced that everything was gone. When the family protested in disbelief, he answered, “What are you complaining about, you had fun didn’t you?” And they had to admit that they had. Adventures with my grandfather were the essence of fun.

When asked what he would do now that he’d spent all his money, he replied that he planned to retire to Brunonia Cottage and grow marijuana, an idea that sent shock waves through the rest of the family who feared he might be serious. At seventeen, I found the idea delightful. But he never got the chance. One night after dinner, he went to the piano and played a medley of the songs he had written, including all of the Brown football and drinking songs. Then he stood up, swore under his breath, walked out to the back porch and collapsed.

The following summer we found two huge marijuana plants on the beach. Most likely, they were planted by one of my cousins or by the hippies who lived across the street, but it made us wonder.


Isn’t it funny, the things you remember . . . and the things you don’t? I had forgotten about the marijuana plants until the day of the reunion when my friend, Gail, reminded me. She also reminded me that I had taught her to smoke. Not marijuana, Marlboros.

 I was incredulous.  “I have asthma,” I said. “I don’t smoke.”

“Well, you did that summer,” Gail said.

 And then another memory started to flood back, the memory of lighting up our stolen cigarettes and practicing the art of French inhaling. The next morning, having taken our example, the little kids tried the same thing in the woods and almost burned down the state of New Hampshire or at least all three camps. Everyone ran outside, carrying brooms, hoses, buckets of water, blankets, anything they could find to smother the flames that were quickly spreading across the dry pine needles in the grove between the cottages. By the time the volunteer fire department arrived, the flames were out, but we spent the next three nights taking turns keeping watch to make sure the fire hadn’t spread underground and wouldn’t reignite. We were all immediately grounded, and the little kids missed a trip to Santa’s Village, something they were still lamenting last weekend at our reunion. I offered to drive them that afternoon, and to pay for it as well, if only they would stop complaining. 

On the day of the fire, smoking was banned in all three cottages with one exception made for my grandmother who had been chain smoking unfiltered Camels forever and refused to give up her habit. Her smoking was relegated to the front porch where she quietly puffed away for years. We tried on several occasions to get her to quit, citing the health risks. She was in her eighties when she told us she didn’t want to hear another word about it. She said that she would never give it up, that she’d been smoking all her life, and that it hadn’t hurt her yet.  The minute she made her pronouncement, I became fearful. Be careful what you declare, my mother always used to say. Don’t tempt the imps. But my grandmother was a powerful matriarch, so I told myself that any imps would be crazy to mess with her. And, even in her eighties, my grandmother was the healthiest woman I had ever met. In all the years I’d known her, she’d never had so much as a sniffle.

A year after my grandmother made her declaration, she died in a fire caused by smoking in bed. Irony isn’t an imp, it’s a bitch.

Someone mentioned the death of my grandmother at the reunion, and someone else just as quickly changed the subject. That’s the way it goes with people you know well. They know when to move on.

“I gave up smoking three years ago,” Gail said quietly to me.

“Let’s all have another drink,” someone else suggested. 


To learn more about Brunonia, click here