Pumpkin Everything Tuesday, Oct 14 2014 

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Pumpkin biscotti, latte, bread, soup, and even ravioli. This is the season for pumpkin everything. The fruit—yes, botanists consider pumpkins a fruit—play an important role in American fall traditions. Halloween is no more complete without a gutted and carved Jack-O-Lantern than Thanksgiving is without a pumpkin pie.

Some countries, such as New Zealand and Australia, use the term pumpkin to refer to the broad category of winter squash but here it typically means the large orange, round or oblong fruit, although we can find them in an endless variety of shapes and colors.

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It’s estimated that 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins are produced in the U.S. every year. Illinois is by far the top state for pumpkin production, raising 90-95% of them, mostly for Libby, a division of the Nestle Company. California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan grow most of the remainder.

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Pumpkins typically range in size from less than one pound all the way up to more than 1,000! They are native to North America. Most pumpkins are grown for eating and can be boiled, baked, steamed, pureed, or roasted. They are a good source of Vitamin A. The seeds are often roasted and salted as well.

The tradition of carving pumpkins is thought to have been brought from Great Britain and Ireland where they carved many different types of fruits and vegetables. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s when it is recorded that they were used as lanterns. Catholic children are said to have carved turnips to represent a face, placed a candle inside them, and walked door-to-door begging for soul cakes on the eve of All Saints and All Souls in honor of deceased loved ones.

(Information gathered from mayoclinic.com, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Wikipedia.)

(Photo of my niece, Kelly, with a giant pumpkin, taken by a friend.)

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

Fall Colors Tuesday, Sep 30 2014 

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Spring blossoms with hope, summer peaks with flora and fauna, and autumn bursts with color.

The leaves are beginning to change in the Midwest. A new splattering of vibrant yellows, oranges, and reds is seen everywhere we look. It’s like fireworks shooting a new display every day.

The process of leaf changing is fascinating. Much has to do with the declining hours of daylight and the types of trees. Aspen leaves turn bright yellow; oaks’ turn red or brown; dogwoods’ turn purplish red or light tan; and some of the maples’ turn brilliant scarlet. Others, such as elm leaves do not change at all. They simply die and fall off.

For the trees with leaves that do change, leaf color is influenced predominately by the shortening of daylight but also by pigments in the leaves and weather. For optimum color, leaves require a warm, wet spring, favorable summer temperatures, and warm, sunny fall days with cool but frostless nights.

During the spring and summer, the trees take in water from the ground through their roots and carbon dioxide from the air. They use sunlight to turn the water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and glucose in a process called photosynthesis.

There isn’t enough light or water in the winter for photosynthesis. The green chlorophyll disappears from the leaves revealing the yellows and oranges that until then were present but unseen. The cool nights of autumn turn the glucose bright reds and purples.

Unlike the tender leaves of deciduous trees, the tough needles of evergreens with their heavy wax coating and fluid inside their cells resist freezing and withstand severe winter conditions.

(Information gathered from the U.S. Department of Agriculture)

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

The Weight of Weather Friday, Sep 26 2014 

Some dispute the effects of weather on the body. For those of us who feel it in our joints and bones, we don’t need any scientific basis for the phenomena. We are our own meteorologist. Many of us can predict the weather by the effect of barometric pressure on our bodies.

Last month we had heavy cloud coverage, rain, and a high mold count in the Chicago area for several weeks that knocked me off my feet. The mold and humidity triggered my asthma and fibromyalgia resulting in labored breathing and pain that made it difficult for me to get off the couch.

More than 5 million people in the United States have fibromyalgia. The Mayo Clinic describes it as a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue and sleep, memory, and mood issues. Tension headaches, temporomandibular joint disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, and depression are common. There also is an increase in levels of certain chemicals in the brain that signal pain. The brain’s pain receptors develop a memory of the pain making them more sensitive causing them to overact.

Stress and weather, especially low air pressure, are my greatest causes of symptoms. The heavy weight of the air results in great pain.

Air pressure is also called barometric pressure because it is measured by barometers. Barometers measure the current air pressure at a particular location in inches of mercury or in millibars.

High pressure systems moving in often predict cooler temperatures and clear skies. Low pressure systems bring warmer weather, storms, and rain.

Atmospheric pressure is the weight of tiny particles of air molecules exerted upon us. The pressure and its density is related to the weather—the air’s temperature and height above the Earth’s surface.

The Earth’s atmosphere is pressing against each square inch of our bodies with a force of about 14.7 pounds per square inch. The force on a space of a little larger than a square foot is about 1 ton and it is up to our bodies to balance the pressure within us with that outside.

Since the pressure depends upon the amount of air above us, the pressure decreases as we go higher. As elevation increases there is less atmospheric mass resulting in the barometric pressure dropping about 1 inch of mercury for each increase of 1,000 feet. Our ears pop as we move up to balance the pressure between the outside and inside of our ears and we breathe faster to bring more air molecules into our lungs to make up for less air.

I feel considerably less pain on clear days and at higher elevations, so perhaps the solution for me is to keep my sights on the heavens and stay high above the clouds.

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

Don’t Ask for Ketchup on That Dog Friday, Jul 18 2014 

The crack of a baseball bat and aroma of hot dogs heaped in condiments signal summer is here in full swing. And the two often go hand-in-hand.

Many a summer festivity, picnic, barbecue, and baseball game include hot dogs. It’s estimated that more than 7 billion hot dogs will be consumed this summer in the U.S. Americans eat about 60 dogs a year.

The creation of the hot dog is debated but the name is thought to have originated in Germany in the mid to late 1800s where it wasn’t uncommon to consume dog meat. Sometimes they also are called franks, after Frankfurt, Germany.

Today hot dogs are cooked sausages typically made from pork and/or beef, fillers, flavorings, and preservatives. The filling is encased in small intestines of sheep or sold without any skin.

Their more nutritious, but not so delectable, cousins may be made from chicken, turkey, or vegetarian ingredients. They may also be gluten-free, preservative-free, or organic.

Hot dogs can be grilled, steamed, fried, broiled, or microwaved. They are pre-cooked but should be served warm to avoid Listeria bacteria. My favorite dogs are Hebrew National 100% all natural kosher beef. They are tasty and relatively healthy.

Hot dogs can be topped with mustard, ketchup, onions, mayonnaise, relish, cheese, chili, or sauerkraut, but beware where you make your garnish selection. Areas and baseball parks, such as Coney Island and Fenway Park, offer their specialties with signature flavorings and toppings. In some areas of the country the dogateur will be highly offended if you request toppings outside the local cuisine.

The traditional serving in Chicago is a Vienna beef hot dog topped with mustard, chopped onions, sport peppers, fresh sliced tomatoes, a pickle, and a sprinkle of celery salt. One last important touch is that the delicacy be served in a poppy-seed bun.  You don’t want to frustrate a vendor in Chicago by asking for ketchup. It you really want it, you might ask them for ketchup on the side for your fries.

For a twist on tradition, order a corn dog, which is dipped in corn batter and deep-fried. Enjoy a plain hot dogged chopped in some baked beans or a mini-hot dog wrapped in bread dough and served as an hors d’oeuvres.

Nathan’s Hot Dogs holds an annual hot dog eating contest every July 4th. This year’s winner, Joey Chestnut, proposed to his girlfriend before chowing down 61 franks and buns.

Hopefully, the young man does not practice every day. Although delicious, the tasty treat is not recommended as a daily diet. The American Institute for Cancer Research states that consuming one hot dog or serving of processed meat every day increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 20%. Hot dogs also are high in sodium, fat, and nitrites. In addition, hot dogs pose a choking risk in young children. The suggestion is to cut them into small pieces to reduce the risk.

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

Back to the Beginning Tuesday, Jul 15 2014 

Farming got a boost in productivity with the discoveries of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers but we now know that more food does not mean more nutrition. These substances have toxic results on our health. The nutritional differences between conventional and organic foods are debated, although most people see the health benefits of foods without chemicals.

A 2012 study, which some believe is flawed,  found no significant difference in nutritional value between conventional and organic foods. But a new analysis from the United Kingdom analyzed over 300 studies and concluded that organic crops are higher in antioxidants.

They also have lower levels of toxic metals and pesticide residues. Most significantly, organic crops are said to have an average of 48% less cadmium, a metal that can cause kidney failure, bone softening, and liver damage.

Organic farmers are not allowed to plant genetically engineered seeds or use synthetic pesticides, artificial fertilizers, hormones or antibiotics. Not only does this result in healthier food, organic fruits and vegetables have higher levels of favor-enhancing nutrients, so they taste better.

Organic farming also benefits the livestock, farmers, and environment. Organic farmers provide more humane conditions for the animals and leave soil and water supplies less contaminated. Additionally, farm workers avoid contact with the toxins used on conventional farms.

Organic foods can be expensive in some areas, but perhaps not in the long run. If we are healthier, we can live better and longer with fewer medical bills. Sometimes advances in science bring us back to the beginning where less is best.

Read more about organics at: Organic Center and the USDA website.

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

 

More than a Meal Tuesday, Jun 3 2014 

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My daughters, Lisa and Erin, took me overnight to the quaint, little town of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to celebrate my big birthday. Since I am still recovering from pneumonia, we kept things fairly low-keyed. We spent the day relaxing at the pool and then went to The Baker House for dinner.

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Although the 17,000 square foot, 30-room Queen Anne Mansion was built in 1885, the decor is 1920s. Rich, dark woods, copper ceilings, and antique light fixtures adorn the opulent home.

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The wait staff and some of the diners can be seen wearing period clothing. Guests are welcome and encouraged to don the vintage hats that hang on the walls.

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Pre-prohibition cocktails and a limited but delicious menu is available. We had cheese fondue for an appetizer. Both of my daughters had pork tenderloin and potatoes, and I had honey mustard salmon with wild rice for dinner. Our waitress brought raspberry parfait for my birthday and we also ordered crème Brule. We were not disappointed. The food and atmosphere were so much more fun than an ordinary restaurant.

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The Baker House is listed in the National Register of Historic places under its original name, Redwood Cottage. The lakefront home was built by Emily Baker as a summer escape for her and her five children. It was later a sanitarium for wealthy Chicagoans suffering from minor emotional disorders and addictions, a speakeasy during prohibition, and a hotel and restaurant with various owners. The current owners purchased the home in 2010 and renamed it after Emily Baker. They consider it their residence as well as a hotel and restaurant.

The Baker House is located at 327 Wrigley Drive, Lake Geneva. http://www.bakerhouse1885.com, 262-248-4700.

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

Bunny Hop Tuesday, Apr 22 2014 

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The bunny that hippity-hopped into most of our homes this past weekend was made of chocolate, and once spotted, lost its ears. But if we look out the window throughout the Midwest, it’s not hard to spot the real ones bouncing around gardens and parks as more than half of the world’s rabbit population lives in North America.

Bunny is an informal name for rabbit. Rabbits live in groups and wander meadows, forests, grasslands, wetlands, and even desserts. They are herbivores, feeding on grass and seemingly, all of our favorite garden flowers. They also eat large amounts of cellulose. Interestingly, rabbits are incapable of vomiting.

Rabbits, except for cottontail rabbits, are born blind and hairless and live underground. They are most active at dawn and dusk and will sleep more than 8 hours, often with their eyes open watching for predators. These little guys can live 9-12 years if left unharmed.

Although rabbits and hares are both in the family, Leporidae, they belong to two separate species. Hares are born with fur and good vision and are typically larger, have longer ears, and larger hind legs than rabbits. And they do not burrow as rabbits do. Rather they make nests in grass.

Rabbits are often domesticated but hares are not.

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

Hello Spring Tuesday, Mar 25 2014 

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Congratulations Winter Survivors!

According to the calendar, spring has sprung. Now if only we could get Mother Nature to understand that.

I don’t have to tell you that it’s been a tough winter. Most, at least in the Midwest, experienced the toughest season in decades. We had way too many bitter cold days and way too much snow. But we got through it. We’re still here, ready for warmer temps and sunny days. Pat yourself on the back for your outstanding ability to endure, persevere, and move on.

Like the first crocus that pops its head up from the cold, hard ground, we emerge into the new season bright with hope and optimism. Embrace the moment. Before long, we will be complaining about the heat.

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

Save the Daylight Tuesday, Mar 11 2014 

Yay for Daylight Saving Time! Except for dancing in the dark, daylight makes us happy. Seeing some light at the end of a long work day feels as if we still have plenty of time to ourselves.

Daylight Saving Time (notice the correct terminology is “Saving” not “Savings”) has a long history and a mixed bag of pros and cons. The main intent for it is to save energy. If we use less energy to light our world, how can it not result in savings?

Modern Daylight Saving was first proposed in 1895 by a New Zealander named George Vernon Hudson and implemented in Germany in 1916 to conserve coal during World War I. The U.S. officially adopted DST during that time as well.

Then the U.S. program got tweaked along the way. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law. In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson called for Daylight Saving time to begin on the last Sunday of April and end on the last Sunday of October each year. Ronald Reagan amended this program to begin at 2 a.m. on the first Sunday of April and end at 2 a.m. on the last Sunday of October. Finally, President Bush signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that extended DST by four weeks.

DST does save energy in the evenings but this may be offset by more consumption in the mornings. Also, some parts of the world benefit more than others. Although DST helps to save energy in cooler climates, there is increased demand in warmer ones. Little impact is seen in areas closer to the earth’s poles such as Iceland and Alaska and near the equator where there is only a small variation in daylight through t the year.

Some of the disadvantages of the time changes include the confusion over meetings and appointments in neighboring areas with different time zones as there is in the state of Indiana. Overall, DST causes disruption to scheduling, travel, sleep patterns, and we also have the time, expense, and inconvenience of physically changing the clocks. Farmers see some disadvantageous because grain is best harvested after dew evaporates and cows are sensitive to the timing of milking.

And there is some impact on our health. More daylight allows more exposure to the sun and an increased chance of developing skin cancer. And interestingly, heart attacks increase the first three weekdays after the spring transition.

But the extra daylight is believed to benefit retailers and centers for outside sports and activities as well. In addition, DST results in a slight reduction in traffic fatalities and accidents involving pedestrians. It also reduces violent crimes in some categories. And there does appear to be fewer fires because of the practice of replacing batteries in smoke and carbon monoxide detectors when we change the clocks.

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

Step Carefully Tuesday, Feb 25 2014 

With the exception of my philtrum, (That’s the groove between the nose and lip. I just wanted to use that word because it sounds cool.), every inch of me is bruised and hurting. I fell last night and have more colorful spots on me than the tattooed lady at the circus my husband likes to talk about.

The snowplows pushed snow up to the top of our mailboxes on the street, which we have to step up on to reach the box. A brief thaw and refreeze turned the mound into solid ice. I took one step up and fell right down to the street with a thud.

It will be interesting to see the statistics at the end of the season on weather-related injuries. We’ve had so much cold and snow here in the Midwest; I’d be surprised if the emergency rooms aren’t keeping unusually busy with sprains, strains, lacerations, and breaks due to falls and heart attacks from shoveling.

I’m really good at giving advice that I don’t take but here are a few things we can keep in mind the rest of this winter:

  • Keep our hands out of our pockets. We can’t brace ourselves, or even balance very well, if our hands aren’t available.
  • Take small steps. It’s easier to recover from a slip if are feet are closer together.
  • Dress appropriately. At least my jacket offered some padding, and if I had to remain on the ground for a while, I wouldn’t be chilled.
  • Hold on to the handrails. When walking up and down stairways, the railings can prevent us from going all the way down should we slip.
  • Walk cautiously. My fall is a reminder to slow down and step carefully. If you don’t, nature will force you to do so. I’m not moving very quickly today.

And here are a few suggestions when driving:

  • Drive slowly enough for conditions.
  • Keep space between vehicles.
  • Use headlights.
  • Brake before turning.

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

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