Sunday, June 29, 2008

Another reason to avoid eating grasshoppers: lead poisoning

Photo of grasshopper from suneko's flickr collection
If there weren't already enough reasons to avoid eating grasshoppers and other insects, a story on the San Francisco Chronicle presents another: lead poisoning. California residents from the Mexican state of Oaxaca have been found to have high levels of lead in their blood, and one of the likely exposure pathways is consumption of grasshoppers (known as chapulines in Mexico) from the Zimatlan area of Oaxaca. Lead is a potent neurotoxin, especially for the young. Exposure during youth may affect a person's adulthood -- recent research from the University of Cinicinnati shows a possible connection between lead exposure and the tendency to commit violent crimes (more from Living on Earth).

Here's part of the of the story from the Chronicle (my emphasis):

But health investigators on both sides of the border have concerns about traditional foods sent from Oaxaca's Zimatlan area after finding a possible link to high blood lead levels found in Oaxacans living in the scenic town of Seaside overlooking Monterey Bay.

"We are seeing an alarming rate of acute exposure," said Eric Sanford, a community health clinic doctor at the Seaside Family Health Center.

Sanford says many of his patients are U.S.-born children of Oaxacan parents from the Zimatlan area, who have higher blood lead levels than any other group in Monterey County with some reaching 20 micrograms per deciliter.

"I fear that other Oaxacans from the same villages living elsewhere in the U.S. may be experiencing the same problem," said Margaret Handley, an epidemiologist at UC San Francisco.

Researchers first linked the high lead levels to deep-fried grasshoppers, known as chapulines. Further tests showed similar results in pumpkin seeds, dried herbs, hot sauce and mole sent from Zimatlan. Handley's research showed that one grasshopper exceeded the Food and Drug Administration recommended daily limit of 6 micrograms of lead for a child by 60 times.

In Oaxaca, grasshoppers are fried and seasoned with garlic, salt, chili powder and lime juice in lead-glazed pots. Chemical reactions allow the bugs to absorb lead during cooking and storage, according to Mario Villalobos, a chemist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who works with Handley.

But Villalobos has no answer when asked why U.S. residents from Zimatlan have higher lead blood levels than immigrants from other parts of Oaxaca, who eat the same foods.

"We have yet to pinpoint why this problem is so localized," said Villalobos. "It'll take more extensive research and more tests to solve this mystery."

More articles about eating insects: my post about why some humans are queasy about bug eating (including me), the new wave of entomophagy (eating insects) in the New York Times Magazine (including a restaurant in Santa Monica, California) and "Eating bugs — tasty and good for the environment?" from Earth News.

Random link from the archive: Indian Dal Export Ban

Technorati tags: Mexico : Food

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A blooming onion feast (for insects, anyway)

photo of onion flowers
A few months ago, I purchased two red onions from the farmers market but was unable to use them before they started to send out bright green shoots. Just for kicks, I planted them in the garden. They grew vigorously, eventually sending up several-foot tall scapes and later some flower buds.

A few weeks after the buds formed, my order of "blooming onions" was ready. Each scape is topped by a mass of small white flowers that is about the size of an orange. They are wildly popular with the pollen-eating and nectar-drinking insects in the backyard.

photo of onion flowers
The flowers are visited by the European honey bee (Apis millifera), of course.

photo of onion flowers
I was pleased to find a large number of small bees also visiting the onion flowers, with about two or three bees on each flower cluster at any one time, each one working from flower to flower, often more interested in the pollen than the nectar. I'm guessing that these are native bees, but don't know anything else about them.

photo of onion flowers
I don't know if the onions in ground will be edible, but even if they are rotten hunks of roots, my blooming onion experience will still have been great.

To end this photo collection with some liberal arts, how about a poem about onions. One of my neighbors is a professor of English literature and recommends Pablo Neruda's Ode to an Onion. She strongly suggests reading it out loud to obtain the fullest appreciation of the poem.

Random link from the archive: Whole Urad Dal Soup

Technorati tags: Nature : Gardening

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Homemade crackers

Photo of home-made crackers
I have baked a lot of things over the years, but never tried crackers until last weekend. In late May the Los Angeles Times Food Section had a guest piece by master baker Peter Reinhart (author of the Bread Baker's Apprentice and other baking tomes) about baking crackers at home. It was just the inspiration I needed.

I tried the Four-seed snapper crackers, which contain ground flax seeds, ground pumpkin seeds, ground sunflower seeds, and whole sesame seeds. The instruction to roll the dough so that it is "nearly paper thin" made me worry about a dough-sticking disaster, but for some reason they didn't stick at all. Perhaps the ground seeds acted as an anti-stick agent. Or perhaps the high content of bran in the medium-grind whole wheat flour helped. Whatever the case, they were indeed "a snap."

Next time I bake these crackers, I'll make two tweaks to the recipe. First, a sprinkling of coarse salt on the egg wash before baking would be a nice addition. Second, I used only about one-tenth of the egg wash on the crackers, thus wasting almost an entire egg (the wash is one egg and 1/2 cup water). To avoid this waste next time, I'll make them on the same day that using eggs in another preparation, and will make the wash using a small amount of egg from the other preparation.

The L.A. Times has a policy of dropping articles behind a pay wall after a few weeks, so if you think you might want to try making your own crackers, visit the article soon. (Or buy Reinhart's "Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor," which also contains the recipe)

Random link from the archive: L.A. Times Food Section

Technorati tags: Baking : Food

Sunday, June 01, 2008

A Visit to the Carrizo Plain National Monument in Central California

Update, January 2013:  Huell Howser, a true California treasure who was known for his aw-shucks manner, his genuine interest in the people he met, and wide-ranging explorations of this huge state, died in early January. In his last years, he donated all of his programs to Chapman University in Orange County, where they will be available for on-line viewing (my understanding is that this is a work in progress, given the volume of episodes that Howser and his team produced).  I think that Howser visited the Carrizo Plain more than once, but I can only find one episode in the archive right now.  In this episode, starting at 11:43, Howser visits the Carrizo Plain to see the soda lake, talk about the California prairie, view Native American pictographs, and learn about the endangered kangaroo rat.

In conversations around the office coffee maker, the topic of vacations often comes up.

"So, got any vacations planned?" someone asks.

"I might go to the Carrizo Plain for a few days," I respond.

"The Carrizo Plain? I've never heard of that place."

"It's a grassland in the hills between Bakersfield and Paso Robles, one of the few remaining examples of native grassland in central California."

"The location explains why I have never heard of it. When I drive between SF and LA I set the cruise control the moment I get on the freeway and only stop for gas."

The Plain Story
I first read about the Carrizo Plain National Monument (Google map) a few years ago, probably in the Nature Conservancy magazine (the Nature Conservancy is one of the partners in the land protection). That short article made a strong impression and I resolved to someday visit the plain. Later on, I saw part of an episode of California's Golden Parks (hosted by the effusive and enthusiastic Huell Howser, a personality so distinctive that YouTube has numerous spoofs of him). But even though I have lived in California for a long time, I never managed to make it to the plain.

This year I finally found the time and motivation to make the trip.

After a few hours driving south on I-5 from the Bay Area through a completely flat landscape bordered by alternating lush agriculture, sun-baked scrub, and an occasional view of the massive California Aquaduct bringing water from north to south, I exited at Buttonwillow to follow Highway 58 to the west. This is California's oil country (California is the third largest oil producing state in the U.S.), so the land immediately west of I-5 is pockmarked by extraction rigs, tanks, and other equipment. The first few miles of Highway 58 are not very inspiring.

Landscape between I-5 and McKittrick

After about 15 miles of the dry scrub, the vegetation starts becoming much greener. The road winds through steep grass-covered hills that are dotted with yellow, purple and greenish-white wildflowers. It is a spectacular drive, made even better by the oil-field and desert scrub prelude (it is most likely far less appealing in later summer after most green things have been withered by the intense heat and aridity).

Wildflowers on hillside along Highway 58

After about 30 minutes of the winding road, a steep descent brought me to the northern tip of a long flat valley. The ground has sparse vegetation, punctuated by patches of orange flowers that hug the earth.

The northern part of the plain

Hardly a Plain Plain
A few miles down Seven Mile Road, a left on Soda Lake Road, and I finally reached my destination. The plain is vast -- 15 miles by 5 miles in size -- and ringed by mountains.

One of the highlights of the plain is an enormous soda lake. The photo below shows the lake in the dry season -- it's a massive field of salt (sodium chloride and sodium sulfate). In the rainy season the lake is filled with water and visited by birds that feed on the shrimp and other creatures that somehow survive the dry season.

The soda lake

On the second day I took a hike along the main trail in the park, the Caliente Ridge trail. The trail goes along the mountains on the western side of the park, passing through fields of purple wildflowers and providing views of the mountains to the west and plain to the east. Although the drive to the trailhead is somewhat nerve-wracking -- it's an unpaved single-lane road with many steep sections and blind turns that climbs two thousand feet -- the trail itself is wide and relatively flat.

Wildflowers and view from Caliente Ridge Trail

Examining California's Fault
One of the notable features of the Carrizo Plain is that the San Andreas Fault passes along the eastern edge of the plain. There aren't dramatic gashes in the land from the fault -- it makes itself known in subtle ways like the path of the Wallace Creek. An educational trail starts from Elkhorn Road at the northern end of the park and provides a dramatic view of the fault's power.

The photo below shows the current path of the creek as a dotted blue line.

The zig-zag in the creek's path is a result of movement along the San Andreas Fault. The land on the left side of the fault is on the Pacific Plate, the land on the right side is on the North American Plate. Because the Pacific Plate is slowing moving north (a few inches per year), part of the creek is carried north.

If the fault was not there, the creek would follow a path similar to the green line in the photo below.

The annotated photo below shows everything at one time: the current path of the creek (blue lines), the path of the creek if the fault was not there (green line), and the approximate position of the fault. You can read more about the fault at the Bureau of Land Management or Wikipedia.

Summing Up and More Photos
All in all, I found the Carrizo Plain to be a wonderful place. It is so far from anywhere that you can experience the sounds of nature without disturbance -- the song of a meadowlark, the fingers of wind rustling through the tall grass. Visually, it is one of the few places I have been that offers such long views across a flat landscape. And being so close to the San Andreas fault is a somewhat novel feeling. I hope I can visit the Plain again someday.

You can see more photos of the area in my Carrizo Plain photoset on Flickr.

Random link from the archive: Unusual Greens, Part 4 - Purslane

Technorati tags: California : Travel