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Archive for November, 2009

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, by Timothy Egan

This is a book for the conservationist/forester on your Christmas list.  Timothy Egan describes the 1910 wildfires that swept through a huge section of Washington, Montana, and Idaho in the Coeur d’Alene and Bitterroot forests, wiping out an area of forest about the size of Connecticut in the process (about 3 million acres).  It is also a book about the birth of conservation as we know it, and it chronicles the work of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, as they set aside millions of acres of forest for preservation at the beginning of the 1900s.  This was an unprecedented effort, and they ran up against stiff opposition from the entrenched railroad, copper, and timber barons of the day.  This protection of land, setting aside forests for the people, necessitated some oversight, and here we see the formation of the U.S. Forest Service.

So the narrative portrays this fledgling Forest Service, the brainchild of Pinchot, working to prevent fires at every turn, to protect this national investment in nature.  The dry summer of 1910 and years of unburned undergrowth served as fuel for a fire that they had no chance to stop.  Egan writes about the heroes and cowards of the day, and he tells of the sheer destructive power of the fire, a force that felled millions of trees and wiped ramshackle frontier towns completely off the map.

The take home message of Egan’s book is twofold.  First, the fires shifted public sentiment in favor of the Forest Service, which was tragically understaffed and underfunded.  Changes in Congress provided much-needed manpower for maintenance and oversight of the forests.  But second, it firmly set the Forest Service’s misguided policy of fire-suppression-at-any-cost for much of the 20th Century (some background here).  Also, with a change in leadership in the Forest Service came a change in philosophy.  Whereas the early goal of the Service was to protect the forests for the people, to protect nature, the new goal of the service seemed to be to suppress fire as a means to protect forests for the timber industry.

Egan has a knack for writing about disaster.  His book The Worst Hard Time describes the tragedy of the American dust bowl.  It’s also an intriguing read, and he balances the story of the people with the the forces of nature that were at work as the land literally blew away.  These disasters were mindblowing in scope, and I’d recommend both books for anyone interested in learning more about this period of American history.

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Additional information on the U.S. Forest Service current policy on fire management can be found here.  Some folks that think this policy is misguided: here, here, and here.

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Low Tech

Fresh pork belly for seventh grade Bacon Unit

So, last month, in the course of discussing bacterial growth with my seventh graders, we got around to talking about salt and food preservation.  (It was only a matter of time.)  We had been talking about the conditions where bacteria thrive, and I had them suggest some ways that we keep things from spoiling nowadays.  They brought up the refrigerator, freezer, heat, plastic wrap, preservatives, antibiotics!, and salt.  So we talk about the book Salt, by Mark Kurlansky, which I loved (and here they think I’m crazy for reading a whole book about salt in the first place, but also for liking it).  They studied explorers in sixth grade social studies, so they’ve heard about salting meat for long voyages (proving that they remember some things from year-to-year, for the record).  And some of them know that shaking salt on slugs causes them to shrivel up, because apparently a few of them still play outside from time to time (and are devious enough to torture slugs with science).  And now they know what the salt does to bacteria.  I even mentioned osmosis, which they’ve all heard of — even if they don’t know what it means yet — because of Osmosis Jones (which I’ve heard of, but have yet to see).  It was a good lesson.  (Next year I’m planning to throw in a clip of Alton Brown’s “Urban Preservation II” episode, where he dehydrates the pool at the bacterial spa, around 4:55 in…).  I mention that they can make their own bacon in the same way; cure it, smoke it, slice thick, fry it up.  And if they weren’t paying attention before, they were now.

So I thought it was time that the class learned where bacon came from…

A few weeks before I had ordered a whole pork belly from Greyledge Farm in Roxbury, CT.  It came in at 11 lbs, one of the thickest and meatiest slabs of belly that I’ve gotten so far, and I was really happy with it.  The timing worked out well.  I had it at home in my fridge, and decided that this was the time to introduce pork belly to the seventh graders.  We discussed the basics of good meat sourcing, about finding a local farmer, if possible, one that can tell you about the provenance, breed, and diet of your pig.  I mentioned the farmer’s market here in New Canaan, where I got mine, and explained that any pig farmer would be happy to get you a slab of fresh belly.  It’s occasionally available at Whole Foods.  I’ve also gotten good pork belly from John Boy’s Mountain View Farm in Washington County, NY.  Walter Stewart’s Market carries Mountain View’s Berkshire pork.  Talk to Pete at the meat counter.

Yes, kids, this is where bacon comes from

I introduced Michael Ruhlman’s Basic Dry Cure from Charcuterie, and referenced this post of his for making pancetta, with the plan to smoke over hickory chips instead of drying it.  We scaled the recipe down for a 3 lb slab of fresh pork belly (using ratios; math teachers and Ruhlman would be so proud!), and we added brown sugar, black pepper, and crushed juniper berries to the cure in the zip-top bag.  After curing, I brought the pieces home to smoke over the weekend (the timing on this didn’t work out to do a smoke-roasting lesson at school, which wouldn’t be too interesting anyway; the interesting part isn’t watching the smoked meat, but eating it).

The following week we had class downstairs in the kitchen, and students worked on a review sheet on viruses and bacteria while I fried up our thick slices of bacon.  I slow cooked it that morning, wrapped in foil in a 225 degree oven for about 2 1/2 hours, then crisped it up in a pan.  There wasn’t enough for a whole BLT per kid or anything, but they did get a good taste, and several of them asked after class, “Where can I get that recipe again?”

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