Emboldened by the successful poached pear pie, I decided to do something about the four overripe bananas in our fruit basket. This came out delightful–moist, fragrant, wholesome, and not too sweet.
4 ripe bananas 1/2 cup coconut sugar, brown sugar, or maple syrup 3/4 cup vegetable oil (I used safflower oil) 2 cups whole wheat flour 1 1/2 tsp baking powder 1/2 tsp cinnamon tiny bit of salt optional: almond slivers, unsweetened coconut flakes
Heat oven to 375 Fahrenheit. Mash bananas in a bowl and add sugar and vegetable oil. When sort of mixed, add flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt and mix until combined (not too much). If you like, add almond slivers and coconut flakes. Transfer to pan (I like my Bundt cake silicone pan) and bake for about 35 minutes, or until a knife or toothpick inserted in the middle comes out dry. Wait until the cake cools to invert and slice.
On the last episode of the acclaimed podcast Serial, Sarah Koenig speaks to a retired police detective and asks him whether any murder case would raise the difficult questions raised by the case she focuses on. The detective replies that most cases are straightforward and few would present so many difficulties.
But is that true? It’s hard to tell. After all, in his book In Doubt, Dan Simon provides a conservative estimate of the percentage of wrongful convictions: about 4-5% of all convictions. Rabia Chaudry, a family friend of Adnan Syed, thinks that his conviction for the 1999 murder of his high-school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, is one of those. She enlists Sarah Koenig and the team to investigate, and they spend hours upon hours reinterviewing witnesses, digging up forensic evidence, and recreating the crime.
Indeed, Serial, and the subsequent show by Syed supporters Undisclosed, have raised considerable public interest in Syed’s case, which had only provoked some local interest at the time. And the latest news are that Syed has been granted a hearing to present new evidence. Which leaves me wondering the same thing that Koenig asked the detective: how many other cases, murder or otherwise, would merit a rehearing if they received the benefit of hours of careful, NPR-quality attention?
In his famous 1965 essay Normal Crimes, David Sudnow shows how defense attorneys manage to dispose of cases in negotiation with prosecutors. Their professional expertise allows them to fit each case to an existing prototype of cases, thus facilitating the attachment of a “price list” to each case. This means that the cases don’t really receive individual attention, leaving the bulk of professional time and attention for the few “abnormal” cases that go to trial. Whenever we hear about a dramatic exoneration, what we envision is someone who had been aggressively litigating and protesting for years, and who had been railroaded by the police and prosecution.
The interesting thing about Serial is that it doesn’t try to tell one of those stories. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a “normal crime”, but the show drags into the limelight what would appear to be fairly run-of-the-mill in terms of criminal trials. It is not a defense-oriented, the-government-is-the-worst-criminal sort of narrative that we’re used to hearing in cases of serious miscarriage of justice, such as the West Memphis Three and so many others. No one is particularly at their best, but no one seems to be at their absolute worst, either. Yes, there’s some racism; there’s some unexplained defense behavior (this is important, because habeas review is almost impossible without proof of ineffective assistance of counsel); but none of it rises to the level of shock we’ve been used to experience when reading Innocence Project stories.
To me, that’s the strength of Serial: showing the banality of a situation in which the factual disposition remains unclear. And it does so through Koenig’s persona, who remains agnostic about the facts. In a way, Koenig is a stand-in for a diligent juror; she repeatedly refers to procedural and technical details as “boring”, and classifies the evidence into “bad for Adnan” and “good for Adnan”. Her congenial, soft manner never pushes the witnesses to the point of big revelations (to the extent that those are even possible, fifteen years after the crime.) When she says, at the end of the series, that she feels like shaking up the witnesses “like an aggravated cop”, you almost wish she had done that in the previous eleven episodes.
And yet, it is precisely this softness and indecisiveness that lends the show its charm and magic. I haven’t yet listened to Undisclosed, and I’m hesitant to do so, because Koenig’s agnosticism makes me feel more respected and active than an enraged partisan party trying to enlist me to Syed’s defense. Which brings me to another thought: what Koenig is trying to accomplish resembles the role of the inquisitor judge in a civil law country: impartial, out there to find out What Happened. The adversarial system calls for partisanship under the assumption that the competition between the parties will yield the best evidence. But the resulting games of obfuscation result in anything but, and Koenig’s interviews with the jurors reveal just how much they were manipulated by the parties throughout the trial–regardless of whether they reached the factually correct answer.
I don’t know what will happen to Syed now that his case has been picked up. But I wish that many more seemingly simple, run-of-the-mill cases received this careful attention–if not from investigative journalists then from more active jurors and with less partisan manipulation.
We’ve been invited to a post-Thanksgiving party called You’re Welcome! And we’re not coming empty-handed. This beautiful (and entirely vegan) pie will be our contribution to the festivities.
6 ripe pears
1 cup unsweetened cranberry juice
1 herbal tea bag (we used rose hip and lavender)
2 cinnamon sticks
4 cardamom pods
1 splash whiskey
1 homemade or bought pie crust
1/2 cup maple syrup
4 tbsp agar flakes
1 tsp powdered cinnamon
1 tsp powdered nutmeg
Halve the pears and core them. Place the pear halves in a bit pot. Add cranberry juice, herbal tea bag, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom, and whiskey. Then, add hot water to cover the pears. Simmer for about 15-20 mins.
Remove pear halves from syrup. Wait until they cool down a bit, then slice thinly and arrange in pie crust.
Strain syrup from all whole spices, add powdered spices, agar, and maple syrup. Cook until reduced to a syrupy consistency (a bit liquid is okay; the agar will help it gel). Drizzle onto pie to cover pears. Bake for 30 mins at 350 degrees. Let cool completely.
It’s a cold post-Thanksgiving morning, with a gorgeous but deceitful sun outside. To stay warm, I made a simple green soup. It’s creamy, yet not too rich, and very easy to make.
6 zucchini 2 potatoes 1 onion 2-3 garlic cloves optional: powdered dried vegetables or a bouillon cube 1/2 cup unsweetened soymilk or other nutmilk 4 tbsp olive oil salt, pepper, and parsley to taste
Cover zucchini, potatoes, garlic, and onion with salted water, add dried vegetables or bouillon, and bring to a boil. Then, lower the heat and simmer until vegetables are soft. Transfer vegetables, and some of the water, into a blender and puree. Add soymilk and olive oil and puree again until smooth. Return to pot, mix with broth, and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle fresh parsley on top.
Future posts will definitely feature some of these interesting things, but today I want to talk about the movie I saw on the flight to DC: Marvel Comics’ Ant-Man. This is not an indie documentary for bleeding-heart progressives who can wax poetic about the prison industrial complex. It’s a mainstream movie, featuring CGI animation, superpowers, gloom, doom, and beautiful people, and as such it is remarkable, because it represents what the filmmakers think the mainstream is open to seeing and accepting onscreen. And what it shows them is a skewed and flawed, and yet refreshing, slice of incarceration and reentry in the Bay Area.
Set in San Francisco, the film’s hero, Scott Lang, starts his journey in prison—notably, not a generic, imagined institution, but an imagined version of the very real San Quentin. And it’s a very different cinematic San Quentin than the one in which Oscar Grant spends an important scene in Fruitvale Station; one that resembles Justice Scalia’s dark fantasies more than it resembles the actual prison we know. Scott’s first scene in Ant-Man sees him engage in a violent fight with another inmate. The many spectators, as well as Scott’s adversary, are large, black, muscular men. But then, the tension breaks, and it becomes obvious that Scott is on friendly terms with his adversary; we are told that this is some sort of rite of passage in honor of Scott’s impending release. Smiling, Scott says to his fellow inmates, “you have strange rituals.”
“You”, not “us”; because early on it is fairly clear that Scott is a special sort of inmate, one for which filmgoers will feel sympathy: he is a conventionally good-looking white man, armed with graduate education (a master’s degree in electric engineering), and his criminal history is that of a high-level hack for the morally allowable purpose of redistributing wealth. In short, Scott is a non-non-non if there ever was one, and we all root for him as he is released—be it because he terms out or because of Realignment.
But even with this relatively privileged starting point, Scott finds it difficult to cope outside. We see him shack up with friends, all of whom are formally incarcerated, and expressing hope of finding a suitable job soon. But his hopes are shattered: he manages to obtain an entry-level job at Baskin Robbins, where he is summarily fired by an unfeeling boss. Not for smart-mouthing a client (which he does, and which would be unthinkable to, say, an uneducated man of color competing for unskilled labor positions); for having a criminal history. Ban the Box, apparently, only gets one through the door; it doesn’t keep him there. And this is a crisis for Scott, who has to provide for, and win back the right to visit, his young daughter. His ex-wife is engaged to a cop, and both of them think of Scott as the deadbeat dad he is. We, however, know better; we’re rooting for Scott, and that’s partly because we haven’t been exposed to his ex-wife’s travails through his trial and incarceration. But we also learn a lesson: when someone is saddled with a criminal record and a history of incarceration, all the whiteness and the education in the world won’t help. It almost goes without saying that this message is deeply flawed. Race, class, and education make a big difference in reentry—as does another thing Scott has going for him, a supportive family. But it drives home the heavy penalty of incarceration and a criminal history with regard to someone with whom some middle-class moviegoers might identify.
It is this economic desperation, rather than a personality flaw, that leads Scott back into crime with his housemates—all of whom, except for him, are either men of color or immigrants with heavy accents. The film plays fast and loose with stereotypes, which is par for the course for sidekicks in a comic book. They are capable men, but they are capable in limited ways, and only as assistants to Scott, whose competence and ability are played up in the sophisticated heist they plan. The film occasionally takes pleasure in breaking these stereotypes; Luis’s unfocused chatter and confused narratives include references to his visits to a museum and enjoyment of Mark Rothko oils. But even when doing so, the Bay Area scenes that fly before our eyes as Luis describes the potential heist place him squarely within the imagined East Bay working class colorful subculture of dive bars, bikers, chicks and shady contacts. Luis has the info and the contacts, but he is not the brain of the operation.
The scenes depicting the heist planning elevate Scott and his accomplices to the coveted status of garage startup techies, and it is this subtle analogy that portrays them at their most competent and heroic. This nod to Silicon Valley reminded me of The Last Mile and other programs encouraging the involvement of folks of low income and education in the tech world upon their release. The film makes it clear, though, that reentry is not kind to any of our heroes, and if they are to make their way in the world, they must do so themselves. And so, their entrepreneurship is modeled after the “innovate first, ask questions later” model of South Bay, and sold as admirable and competent.
As viewers of the film know, the heist goes awry, and a chain of events is set in motion that sets Scott up to becoming “ant man”: a superhero capable of shrinking to the size of an ant. The adventure, villains, goals, and betrayals, are fairly predictable for the genre. What is less predictable, and surprisingly touching, is the ant metaphor, and how it connects to the incarceration and reentry theme from the movie.
Ants are eusocial insects. They are indistinguishable from each other. The inventor who employs Scott refers to them by numbers, not by names. When Scott complains, the inventor explains, “they are just numbers; do you have any idea how many ants they are?” We treat ants, apparently, the way we treat people in total institutions; we see them as a population, not as individuals deserving of life, health, and happiness. But Scott, reduced to the size of an ant, sees them as individuals, and names one of them Anthony. He learns from the inventor’s daughter how to control the ants with his mind by becoming part of the eusocial structure. Thus, the ants’ impersonality and collective organization is their great advantage. When one is struck down, ten rise in its stead (in fact, Anthony is struck in one of the final raids; Scott regrets it, but hops over and rides another ant in its stead). And together, because of their commitment to the collective wellbeing of the community, they are invincible.
It is notable that the penultimate scene in the movie marshals some of the laughable stereotypes for the beginning to marshal the ant metaphor of community and apply it to the formerly incarcerated. Luis tells a convoluted story yet again; but the bottom line of the story is that an indirect contact wants Scott to join the Avengers: “We need a guy that shrinks”. It is through this informal Bay Area network that an opportunity awaits our superhero. Because, like ants, the people who exit our prisons may look to policymakers, jailers, and employers all the same, and it might be easy to discount them—but when they look out for each other and act collectively, that is the source of their strength.
The intense travel and business obligations have finally won: I’m unwell. Chad very kindly made a beautiful pot of Tom Kha Kai, one of my favorite Thai soups.
1/2 package extra-firm tofu 10 white mushrooms 8 cloves garlic 1/2 butternut squash 3 tbsp curry paste 1 tbsp sesame oil 1 can coconut cream 1-2 cups water 1 cup chopped greens (we used mustard greens, but any greens will do) 2 roma tomatoes, diced a few stalks lemongrass 1 oz galanga root 2 leaves from lemon tree (kaffir lime would’ve been authentic, but we have a lemon tree 1/2 package rice noodles
Stir-fry and brown tofu, mushrooms, garlic and squash with curry paste in sesame oil. Once browned, add coconut cream and an equal amount of water. Add diced tomatoes and greens, as well as galanga, lemongrass, and lemon leaves. Lower the heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes. Separately, soak rice noodles in boiling water and add to soup right before serving.
My one and only friend Dena has outdone herself again. Her birthday gift to me was Amanda Feifer’s beautiful book Ferment Your Vegetables.
Feifer, the owner of Phickle blog, is a true fermentation enthusiast, and her descriptions of bacteria and biological processes bubble, pun intended, with a vivacious spirit of experiment. She explains the process clearly and helpfully, details the necessary (cheap) equipment (you pretty much already have what you need) and provides dozens of great recipes for different vegetables.
I plan to make pretty much everything in the book! Today I started off with her radishes and onion recipe, modifying it–I can’t seem to make any recipe as written–by adding the beets we have left over from a week of soups and juices. I shall report back on the outcome, but this is basically what I did:
8 radishes 4 beets 1 red onion 2 cups water 4 tbsp salt
I sliced the radishes and beets to a 1/2 inch thickness, tetris-ed them into a jar, then poured the water and salt brine on top. I weighed down the veg with a silicone glass cover, and now we wait.
This simple dish is something I often make to accompany other things. I got extremely lucky yesterday: Whole Foods had purple yams, which I had never seen before. The combination of white, orange, and purple made the dish beautiful as well as tasty.
The principle is simple: Take whichever root vegetables you have and dice them into 1.5-inch cubes. Place in one layer in on a baking sheet. Add olive oil, rosemary sprigs, garlic, some salt and pepper, and roast in a 350-degree oven.
An important improvement: Roasted roots are juicier and more moist inside if roasted inside an oven bag. Don’t forget to poke a few holes in the bag for steam to escape.
Cannellini beans work very well with kale, and in this gentle recipe they combine to form a warm and satisfying dish.
4 cups cannellini beans, dry 2 package dino kale 2 tsp olive oil juice from 1 lemon 1 tsp salt handful sage leaves 1 tsp herbs de provence
Soak beans in water (for hours if possible; if not, soak briefly in boiling water). Tear kale leaves into little pieces, getting stems out of the way. Add 1 tsp olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and massage leaves until tender, dark green, and not bitter anymore. Set aside.
Meanwhile, drain beans, add fresh water to cover them, and cook until tender.
Mix beans with kale, sprinkling sage and herbs de provence on dish.
Two of my favorite vegetable salads: a green one with avocado and grapefruit, and a tomato-mint based red one.
1 large package mixed greens, or 50/50 mixed greens with baby spinach 2 ripe avocados 2 red grapefruits 1 tbsp good quality mustard 1 tsp olive oil juice from 1/2 lemon 3 tbsp water
Peel and dice avocados and grapefruit. Toss with mixed greens in big bowl. Shortly before serving, mix remaining four ingredients and drizzle over salad.
10 Roma tomatoes 6 radishes 1/2 red onion juice from 1 lemon 1 tsp olive oil handful mint leaves
This one works best with very thin slices, so strive for those as you slice tomatoes, radishes, and onion. Place in bowl in layers and drizzle lemon juice and olive oil on top. Sprinkle thinly ribboned mint leaves.