You are currently browsing the Breaching The Web blog archives for October, 2011.

Flu Lit

October 28th, 2011

A few years ago, I read a couple of histories about the 1918 Flu Epidemic (if you are interested, I recommend the one by John M. Barry, author of Rising Tide). Soon after, and entirely by coincidence, I read William Maxwell’s haunting They Came Like Swallows, an autobiographical novel published in 1937 about the impact of the 1918 epidemic. I loved that book — it’s beautifully written from the point-of-view of a child, and describes how the disease ravaged one family, physically and spiritually.

Since then, I have occasionally wondered about flu (or of other diseases) as a literary theme — not in thrillers or apocalyptic novels, or in those “sick kid” books that used to dominate YA before vampires, but as a tool of literary art. Now, don’t get me wrong — I am a huge fan of thrillers and apocalyptic (or more specifically, post-apocalyptic) books (although not of “sick kid” books), and I’m not intending to denigrate them in any way. I’m just curious at how literary fiction treats flu and other diseases, a curiosity I found reawakened by Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.

So I did some poking around to see what I could find. Here’s a short “flu lit” reading list. I’ve only read Maxwell’s, but I am looking forward to reading these.  Do you have additional suggestions for the list?

They Came Like Swallows William Maxwell (1937)
Pale Horse, Pale Rider Anne Porter (1939)
The Big Rock Candy Mountain* Wallace Stegner (1943)
Memories of a Catholic Girlhood* Mary McCarthy (1972)
Wickett’s Remedy Myla Goldberg (2005)
This Time of Dying Reina James (2006)
The Last Town on Earth Thomas Mullen (2006)

* These books have significant sections that focus on flu, but are not primarily about flu.

Why we don’t rebel

October 27th, 2011

America was founded by rebels.  So I find it perplexing that we don’t honor the rebels amongst us.  Love ‘em or hate ‘em, isn’t OWS just carrying on the grand tradition of our founders?  Or do we only love rebels when they carry guns? It’s even more perplexing that we don’t rebel more often. Given our roots in revolution, our annual celebration of that rebellion, and the way we treat the Founding Fathers as Biblical figures, you would think we Americans would rebel all the time. It ought to be a rite of passage — before we can get a driver’s license, we should be required to participate in 3 protests and get arrested once. But we aren’t. I think that’s odd.

Psychologist John Jost at New York University just published a paper about why people do or don’t rebel. Jost suggests that “a fundamental need for certainty and security dampens our desire to rock the boat” and prevents us from rebelling. You can read about the details of the study (which strikes me as sound, although I have not read the original paper) at the link. Unsurprisingly, they found that people who support the government aren’t interested in protesting. But they also found that among people who are critical of the government, uncertainty (even if the source of the uncertainty is unrelated to the government) decreases their motivation to protest.

This means that a successful protest requires a strong impetus to overcome the inertia introduced by uncertainty. Jost suggests that OWS has been so successful due to multiple stimuli: the example of Arab Spring, the spectacle of the bank bail out and subsequent selfishness of our economic elites, and the housing crisis. These forces have combined to overcome the status quo bias and send people out into the streets.

(I suspect that there’s some relationship between this status quo bias and the link to uncertainty, and Stanley Milgram’s Authoritarian Personality, especially to the group of students who pushed the buzzer after the screaming started, but who stopped before the screaming stopped — that is, the group of students who went too far but not all the way. I haven’t thought through what the connection might be, and luckily no Institutional Review Board would ever approve an experiment to test it. I strongly suspect something is there. Feel free to run with this idea if it resonates with you, I release all claims to it.)

Interesting links

October 26th, 2011

A few interesting links I have lately surfed over, across or around:

A confused monster

October 16th, 2011

While grocery shopping today, I encountered a very confused monster.  I made a video for you: A confused Frankenstein monster

Tab dump

October 12th, 2011
  • Construction has started on the Blackfriar’s Bridge Solar Platformin London. This is a train station bridge with solar panels installed on the roof — it will be the longest solar bridge in the world when complete.
  • Canada launches its War of 1812 commemoration, which focuses on how the war (when Canada joined forces with the English and Aboriginal Canadians to repel American invaders) defined Canada. There’s also a War of 1812 website to help educate Canadians about the importance of the war.


October 11th, 2011

Miss Representation is a new documentary that takes on the issue of the media’s portrayal of women, and the very real harm this causes to women and girls in the United States.  Watch the trailer here:  Newest Miss Representation Trailer (2011 Sundance Film Festival Official Selection) .  Oprah is distributing the film, and it will be shown on OWN.

This is an old issue.  But it’s still with us, and it still matters.

Will to adhere

October 10th, 2011

Today’s quote of the day is from an optimistically ambiguous apocalyptic novel:

Buildings, streets, the economy, the government, even our families, stay together simply because we want them to. Without that will, that desire to maintain, things fall apart.  — from Quarantined, by Joe McKinney

Pumpkin Custard

October 9th, 2011

Image by Lady_Fox via Flickr

Mmmm… pumpkin pie. I love the texture, the flavor, and of course the sweetness.  What I don’t love is the crust — unless it’s homemade, it’s usually tasteless. Luckily, pumpkin pie is just a custard in a crust. If you leave the crust out, you won’t lose much.  The custard is simple and fast to make.   You can whip it up in a food processor or mixer.  It’s even low in fat, but that’s just a happy accident.

I have a small 3 cup food processor, which isn’t large enough for all the ingredients.  I mixed up the eggs in a bowl and blended the evaporated milk, sugar and pumpkin together in the small food processor in 3 batches.  Then I dumped the pumpkin mix with the eggs, added everything else, and stirred it up.  It worked fine, but I think next time I’ll use my stand mixer.

I made 6 custards in stoneware coffee cups.  Cups, not mugs!  They are really, really cute.  My husband and I enjoyed a couple for dessert.  Tomorrow morning I am going to have pumpkin custard and steel cut oatmeal for breakfast.  That will be brilliant.

Pumpkin Custard
Makes 6 1-cup servings

3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 15-ounce can pumpkin puree
1 12-ounce can evaporated skim milk
2 large eggs
3 large egg whites
2 teaspoons vanilla

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Spray a baking dish with vegetable oil spray (not olive!). Use one of the following:

  • a 6-cup baking dish
  • six 1-cup ramekins
  • two 3-cup baking dishes

Place all ingredients in a food processor and process with a blade. Pour the mixture into your baking dish(es) of choice.

Bake 45 minutes, until the center is firm and the surface is dry to the touch. A larger dish might require a few extra minutes of cooking. Serve warm or at room temperature.

You’ll find a Google docs version of the recipe here.

Cooking Solves Everything

October 8th, 2011
A cook sautees onions and peppers.

Image via Wikipedia

I cook a lot, but it still feels like it’s not enough.  And lately I’ve fallen into a bit of a rut, cooking the same things over and over again.  I’ve been inspired by @genehack to try and get some of my cooking mojo back.  I’ve been particularly focused on cookbook exploitation (a simple idea which emphasizes cooking recipes in cookbooks you already have as a way to both get cooking and save a few bucks) and have made some tasty new meals.  It feels good.

But cookbook exploitation aside, I bought Mark Bitman’s Cooking Solves Everything as soon as I saw it.  It’s not really a cookbook — it’s not even a book, it’s a Kindle single (which is a long-form article) — but it does include a few meal ideals in the back, written in Bitman’s characteristic free-form style.

This little book is brilliant.  I’m a big fan of Michael Pollan, but as good as his work is, it takes a very high-level, almost “public health” approach to why we should cook and eat more real food.  I can’t get motivated to cook by thinking about how cooking will save the planet, any more than I can get motivated to visit the gynecologist because routine pap smears bring down population-level cancer rates.  What’s in it for me?

Bitman takes a completely different approach, as the subtitle to the book suggests: How Time in the Kitchen Can Save Your Health, Your Budget, and Even the Planet. See, saving the planet is still part of the reason for cooking, but it’s not the only reason.  It’s also fun and educational and fast and convenient and healthy and cheap and good for the people you love.  Bitman lays out 10 reasons for cooking, and for each he describes and explains the logic behind them in an accessible, compelling, and emotionally relevant way.  I felt very motivated to get in the kitchen and cook after reading this book.

Hearty Minestroni

October 3rd, 2011
Wintry Mine-stew-ni

Image by katxn via Flickr

Tonight for dinner I made this beautiful, rich,  minestroni-like soup that I call “Wintry Mines-stew-ni” because it’s so deliciously chunky and warm and filling.  It’s like a hug in your tummy.  Credit for this recipe goes to Casual Kitchen’s Wintry Tomato Soup. I swapped out the water for homemade chicken stock (you can use store-bought, I won’t tell), and I adjusted the seasonings to my liking.

The biggest change I made was to add smoked Spanish paprika. This adds a sweet, smoky middle note, making the flavor more complex and interesting — it also deepens the red color. You can use any smoked paprika, or if it’s all you have, you can use regular paprika. But I really feel the smoked version is worth the extra cost.

The soup reheats beautifully.  You might need to add more stock or another can of tomatoes when you reheat it — the pasta will expand in the fridge overnight.  You can also freeze it, but leave the pasta out until you reheat it.

I garnished each serving with a tablespoon of pesto .  You could also garnish with Parmesan cheese, a glug of a high-quality dipping oil or a sprinkling of fresh basil.

Wintry Mines-stew-ni
Serves 6-8


1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 onions chopped coarsely
2 zucchinis, diced coarsely
1 pound mushrooms, stems removed and cut into quarters
6 large cloves garlic, minced
4 cups chicken broth
1 cup water
2 14-ounce cans stewed tomatoes
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 teaspoon ground black pepper (more if you like it! I usually add 1 tablespoon or more)
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 cup ditalini pasta
1 handful chopped fresh basil, oregano and/or thyme
(or 1 Tablespoon dried basil and 1 Tablespoon dried oregano)


Chop the onions, zucchini and mushrooms to a size that you’d like to see on your spoon — make them a bit chunky.

Heat the oil in a dutch oven, add the onion and garlic, and saute on medium heat until soft (4-5 minutes) minutes. Add the zucchini and mushrooms and saute for another 4-5 minutes. If you are using dried basil and oregano, add it with the zucchini.

Add the chicken broth and water. If you like your soup chunky, add the tomatoes directly. For a smoother soup, whir the tomatoes in a blender before adding them (I always do this). Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add the pepper, salt, paprika, and pasta and cook for 15 more minutes. Be sure to stir occasionally so the pasta does not stick.

Updated to add: here’s a link to the Google Docs version of the recipe, for printing.