Jan 172017

When I was a child my mother and brother were both very fond of French cuisine. As a child I was too young to understand why they chose this particular fascination. I suspect but do not know that one factor was the publicity given to Julia Child, both by her books and her popular TV show.

My mother kept the kitchen knives on a magnetic knife bar mounted on the window sill. Why this was done I don’t know for sure. After my mother and brother were both deceased I learned that Julia Child had promoted magnetic knife bars. I strongly suspect that this was a major factor in its installation.

The problem with the knife bar we had was that it wasn’t very strong. My understanding is that stainless steels largely eclipsed carbon steels for use in kitchen knives as the 20th century progressed. By the 1970’s, most of the kitchen knives my mother owned were stainless steels. In general, stainless steels are much less magnetic than carbon steels, and so have more trouble adhering to magnetic knife bars. It’s also possible that my mother simply bought a cheap unit.

The result was that our kitchen knives would periodically fall down. Sometimes this would result in a cascading, domino effect. My father had worked in the mines in Butte, Montana before he taught law at the University of Montana in Missoula. Though he never worked underground, I suspect he formed a life-long fear of the damage that various tools and mechanical devices could do.

My father did not cook. When my mother would put a knife back on the knife bar it would sometimes cause the others to come crashing down. Inevitably this would provoke a strong startle response in my father. I believe he would dramatically exaggerate this response in a passive – aggressive but wordless protest. The knife bar really did represent a genuine danger, and obviously harshed the mellow of the Crowley household.

By the time I got to high school I became fascinated with knives in general. I took great pride in sharpening knives on sharpening stones, including my mother’s kitchen knives. At one point I got a great idea: I would create a wooden knife block and give it to my mother as a Christmas present. This would do two things, namely demonstrate that I was a clever and crafty person and solve the PROBLEM OF THE CHRONICALLY FALLING KNIVES. I found some scrap boards in the attic. I recall having to enlist the help of a friend’s father to cut the boards with a table saw. I used wood chisels to hog out the slots in which the knives would rest. I remember gluing the boards together with epoxy adhesive. Needless to say, this block was customized to hold my mother’s knives. Being that my carpentry skills were at a beginner’s level, this block was an old school vertical type. Most knife blocks today are angled, which is a superior design ergonomically.

The big day came, and I bestowed this gift to my mother. Sad to say, she never used it! Deeply entrenched in her irrational fixation with the flawed magnetic knife par, the wooden knife block was sentenced to storage in a basement storage room. When my father died in 2014 I found it again, languishing in dust.

Part of the reason I’m attracted to skepticism as an intellectual enterprise was witnessing first hand the irrational behaviors of my mother, and the real world harms that resulted. Even given rational solutions, my mother failed to adopt them. There is a wider point to this story, namely that we should be open to change based on reason and evidence at all points in our lives.

 Posted by on 01/17/2017 Growing Up In Montana Tagged with: ,  Comments Off on The Knife Block
Nov 222016

It’s an ongoing truism that “kids today are different.” No doubt true, and surely this is in part due to changing educational methods. I was in high school from 1976 until 1980 in Missoula, Montana. I strongly suspect that the unique demonstration I once witnessed in a history class would not be performed today.

I wish I could remember the name of the Hellgate High School history instructor at the crux of this story. I remember virtually nothing of his class besides this particular demonstration. He was intelligent and sufficiently erudite to not arouse any negative memories in me. I think the classroom was on the second floor of the building and faced east.

His demonstration was a great example of the pedagogical power of props. In this case the prop was a percussion cap rifle. As I recall, he used this prop to illustrate the power and effectiveness of this particular device for those who owned them. The percussion cap rifle was a great advance technologically over the flint lock rifle. Perhaps it fit into an historical narrative about “taming the west.”

As I recall, the rifle he brought into class that day was quite long. I think it was a muzzle loader. The instructor stood in front of the class, explaining the various functions of the rifle, probably illustrating how to use the rod to ram a ball down the muzzle. He did not “load” the weapon with black powder, nor ram a ball down the muzzle. He did however, load a live percussion cap into the piece.

At this point my memory of the event becomes much more deeply ingrained. Knowingly and purposefully, he cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger, discharging the percussion cap! This was unexpected, profoundly startling, and really loud. In retrospect, I believe he had obtained permission from the administrators of the school to do this.

I remain curious if such a stunt was an artifact of the times, the late 70’s, or was a product of a firearm tolerant culture like that found in Montana, or both. I strongly suspect, but don’t know, that such a demonstration would be utterly inconceivable today, in any public school.

 Posted by on 11/22/2016 Growing Up In Montana Tagged with:  Comments Off on The High School History Demo
Nov 142016

Have you ever had frostbite? I have.

I think I was in about the 8th grade when my father started telling me how he enjoyed ice skating while growing up in Butte, Montana. Being indoors in the winter time in Montana in the 70’s was boring, isolating, and claustrophobic, I was interested in finding an outdoor activity that entailed being outside. Missoula had a pond, fed by water from the Clark Fork river, that froze over and was officially sanctioned by the city for ice skating. It had a “warming hut” that was supervised by an employee and was surrounded by tall wooden poles that supported powerful flood lights and a speaker that played music from one of the local radio stations. The flood lights obviously enabled skating at night.

Being that this was a pond, and that the water level of the pond would vary over the course of a winter, giant cracks would form on the surface. The city was clueless regarding maintenance of the rink, and would only flood the top surface about once a season. They would never scrape off the accumulated ice shavings that would inevitably accumulate on an ice rink.

Being that my introduction to ice skating was through my father, I took what he told me about it very seriously. He told me that all the serious skaters in Butte would
use speed skates, not hockey skates or figure skates. My father and I drove to Butte to buy ourselves some speed skates. Not surprisingly, we were the only two
humans on the rink wearing speed skates…

The skates had no insulation. The upper part was one thin layer of leather. Whatever insulation to keep my feet warm had to come from my socks. Over the course of
several seasons I tried numerous sorts of socks; wool socks, silk socks, and special “Space Age Socks” which I believe had little strips of Mylar woven into them. None of them worked to keep my feet warm! One night I even sprinkled chili powder inside my socks, but the rink happened to be closed that night, and I was not able to go skating. That
was a bad idea! My feet began to burn painfully…

I still continued to skate, despite having cold feet. I discovered a pattern: I would start skating and my feet would become very cold. This would be uncomfortable and borderline painful. Eventually the pain would go away, but this was actually my feet becoming numb. When I would finish skating and change into my tennis shoes, the feeling in my feet would return in a matter of minutes. I did this repeatedly, and didn’t think anything of it.

One night I returned to the warming hut after changing into my shoes and my feet remained numb. By the time I was in the car and driving home I became more concerned, as the feeling had failed to return to my feet. When we got home I decided to warm my feet in hot water. In retrospect, this was the WRONG thing to do, and I take full responsibility for my ignorant action. This did not result in a return of feeling. I went upstairs and joined my unflappable father in the study. I told him what was going on. He suggested I had frostbite, and the correct action was to put my feet in a pan of COLD water and warm it up slowly. My mother was in a bedroom, and became aware of my predicament. She became alarmed, and called her friend Betty, who was a nurse. This resulted in new orders; namely to put my feet in a pan of WARM water. This was the wrong advice, and my father was unwilling to overrule this bad advice. I didn’t know better either way.

My feet were placed into a pan of WARM water. Eventually the feeling started to come back, and I became less alarmed. But with it came PAIN.

By the time feeling fully came back into my feet I was in agony. I believe this was the worst physical pain I’ve ever been in my life. It was a searing, burning pain. I believe I was given some sort of OTC pain killer, probably acetaminophen or aspirin. This did nothing. I remember writhing in pain sitting in the study next to my father, trying not to exhibit the outward signs of burning agony.

In retrospect, I must assign blame to myself for the initial immersion in hot water, yet that was an act born of ignorance, not willful disregard of good advice. I wish my father would have interceded and overruled the bad advice from Nurse Betty. The good news is that I never lost a toe, or experienced necrosis.

If you live in a cold environment I believe it’s essential to thoroughly understand the nature of both hypothermia and frostbite.

These days MCcormick Pond is no longer used for ice skating:


 Posted by on 11/14/2016 Growing Up In Montana, Opinion Tagged with:  Comments Off on Frostbite
Sep 042016

Our family had a pressure cooker in the 1970’s. My mother and brother were fascinated with cooking, particularly French cuisine. As I recall the pressure cooker enjoyed a certain vogue at that time but I was simply too young to assess its cultural impact properly.

My father subscribed to Gourmet magazine. He was a genuine intellectual and a voracious reader. Though he grew up in Butte, Montana he had lived in both Los Angeles and New York. From these facts I concluded that he might be a genuine “gourmet” though he left all the cooking to my mother. I thought he might have a dormant set of cooking skills.

Another factor in this family equation was that my mother became quite interested in “health foods” in the early 70’s. She developed type II diabetes, and decided to treat her condition nutritionally. Sadly, this resulted more in reading about the subject than actually changing the diet of our family. One of the books she acquired was Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. Lappé famously promoted the notion of “complimentary proteins” which has now been largely discredited.

As I recall, my father alluded to an article in Gourmet that included a Caribbean recipe for black beans and rice. He enlisted my help to make it. This was unprecedented, as our family functioned on rigid yet unstated gender-based roles. My father “went to work” and my mother stayed home and cooked. I believe my mother helped during our beans and rice adventure, as cooking rice was considered slightly tricky. She knew enough about nutrition to avoid white rice so we used either brown rice or the sub-par “converted” rice. My father taught me how to dice an onion, though he used a “fan” pattern for his initial cuts rather than a series of parallel incisions. This resulted in a collection of different sized chunks. In retrospect, his technique betrayed inexperience, as he meticulously cut garlic in the same manner. Being that I was in high school, and this was happening on a Saturday, I recall feeling highly impatient to speed up the process.

We decided to use the new high tech pressure cooker for the beans. The unit we used was what Wikipedia refers to as a “first generation” unit. Per Wikipedia:

“Also known as “old type” pressure cookers, these operate with a weight-modified or “jiggly” valve, which releases pressure during operation.[5] Some people might consider them loud or very loud because the weight-modified valve operates similarly to the piston in a steam engine. They typically offer only one pressure level—with the exception of some newer “old style” pressure cookers that allow the operator to change the weight of the weight-modified valve.”

Here’s a photo I pulled off Google Image Search. This unit is either the same one we had in the 70’s, or is remarkable similar:

Pressure Cooker Two

Once filled with uncooked food, the unit is set on a burner on the stove top. When it reaches its proper temperature the rocker weight on top starts oscillating. The device we had vented continuously, which led to considering it a “ticking time bomb.” It had to be monitored constantly, as it was prone to malfunction, and a malfunction in a pressure cooker was potentially very dangerous. The problem was that the vessel was squat in its proportions. Foods like beans were notorious for foaming up. Bits of food would rise to the top and clog the vent hole. This caused the regular steam venting to cease and was cause for immediate panic. The pot was immediately taken off the stove and quenched with cold water. This happened during our beans and rice adventure.

My father had worked in the copper mines in Butte before he became a lawyer. I suspect he had seen the results of blue collar workplace accidents, which resulted in a long standing fear of machine tools and mechanical devices. Suffice it to say the pressure cooker freak-out in the Crowley household led to the unit being quietly set aside.

Fast forward several decades. Living on my own, I encountered Roger Ebert’s fascinating essay entitled The Pot and How to use It.

I was sufficiently aroused by Ebert’s glowing recommendation to buy an Aroma brand rice cooker from Costco. It was a cheap unit costing perhaps 30 dollars. The non-stick coating in the inner pot became scratched, despite my use of plastic tools. I didn’t cook much rice in the vessel and began using its slow cooker function instead. From there I transitioned to an ordinary crock pot, albeit a older model that had a rotating knob that controlled temperature.

Not long ago I became fascinated with Indian cuisine, probably because of its inclusion of strong spices. I began to watch Indian cooking videos on YouTube. Many of them utilized pressure cookers, particularly to cook “dal” or split legumes. Many of the units in these videos vented intermittently rather than continuously, as did our family’s unit from the 70’s. I decided to buy a pressure cooker for myself so I could cook Indian food at home.

I didn’t research this class of machines before actually buying one. I didn’t know that modern units are considered “third generation” vessels, per Wikipedia.

I gather that modern units employ thermostats and relays like those found in rice cookers, and are thus programmable. Per Wikipedia:

“3rd Generation with smart programming. Smart Programming includes pre-set cook times and settings, based on heating intensity, temperature, pressure and duration. Programmable electric pressure cookers have become as intuitive to use as the microwave.”

While the Wikipedia entry sounds like hyperbolic advertising copy, I would have to concur! The ability to set the cooking time is obviously a virtue. Yet the greatest advance is simply that the machine does not have to be constantly monitored for malfunction. I’ve had my Farberware cooker for about a month now, and it’s experienced ZERO malfunctions. I suspect, but do not know, that this is due to the taller, more cylindrical shape of the machine as compared to our 70’s unit. The unit does not vent at all during its operation. This completely eliminates the low grade fear induced by continuous venting. The “ticking time bomb” is a cliche for a good reason: The ticking sound reminds us of its inescapable presence and threat.

The go-to virtue of the pressure cooker is that it cooks food quickly. But so does a microwave oven, and we don’t hold the microwave oven as a tool that facilitates fine dining. In my opinion, the primary virtue of the pressure cooker is that it retains moisture better than a crock pot. My unit has a “warm” function that automatically kicks in after the “cook” cycle. I can set food in the vessel late at night and have a hot breakfast ready for me the next morning. The food will still be perfectly moist even after 7 or 8 hours. I doubt this would work with a crock pot.

The go-to virtue of quickness is a benefit when I cook my lunch. I usually combine bulgur, buckwheat, or barley with some sort of dal, usually one of the quicker cooking varieties like masoor dal, urad dal, or moong dal. Cooking times are similar, and I’ve gotten excellent results in only 20 minutes. From there I add chopped vegetables, and allow them to warm for 5 minutes or so. Delicious and nutritious!

I no longer use a rice cooker to cook rice. I’ve had perfect results cooking slightly tricky sorts of rice in the pressure cooker. I cook big batches of brown, red, or black rice that lasts for several days. I soak the rice overnight then rinse it in a colander. I add water at a ratio of 1.5 times the weight of rice.

The freedom from worrying about overcooking curries and stews is a godsend. I can start dinner cooking any time in the day then dine at any hour of my choosing without worrying that the food will be desiccated. The Farberware unit that I own has a more robust inner metal pot than the flimsy Aroma rice cooker. The non-stick coating seems to be superior as well, but I’ve not owned it long enough to assess its long term durability.

I never thought I would give up my crock pot! I imagined it to be a perfect and mature technology. I no longer think this, and now swear allegiance to the modern pressure cooker. Though it sounds hyperbolic and exaggerated, the pressure cooker has changed my life for the better, and I HIGHLY recommend people seriously consider buying one.

Farberware Unit

 Posted by on 09/04/2016 Growing Up In Montana Tagged with:  Comments Off on An Homage to the Modern Pressure Cooker
Mar 012016

We all have bad habits. In some cases, behaviors that others perceive as “bad” are not even noticed by the person engaging in the bad habit. We often hesitate to confront others on their bad habits for fear of offending. Sadly, this can result in the individual continuing the bad habit. The following is a short account of a man who chose to identify a bad habit of mine which led to me at least becoming aware of it, and to largely overcome it.

When I was in college at the University of Montana, a fellow lived on my dorm room floor named Jim Strain. At one point he was engaged to a woman named Joan Daly. She was serious about changing her name upon marriage to Joan Daly-Strain. Sadly, this happy state of affairs did not come to pass. I had various adventures with Jim, including crayfish fishing and watching one of the first World Cup soccer match finals broadcast on TV.

One night I walked downtown to the bars, either with the intention of meeting Jim, or simply to hang out and drink beer. I never cared for the Stockman’s Bar, as it was frequented by jocks who played poker. It had a violent vibe that always intimidated me, and made me genuinely frightened for my physical safety. I believe their motto was “Liquor up front, poker in the rear.” But for whatever reason, that night I entered “Stocks” and proceeded to chat with Jim Strain.

Jim was belly-up to the bar, chatting with an older man, whom I was introduced to. As I recall, the older man was a professor of economics at the U of M. I began to recount a story to Jim. Periodically throughout my monologue, the econ prof would interrupt me with a strange verbal interjection: “DING!”

This happened several times, and eventually I stopped my monologue. Jim began to chuckle at my confusion. Finally Jim enlightened me as to what was going on. “Matt, every time you say “you know” he’s saying “DING!”

Most people have interjections such as “you know” and “like” periodically peppered throughout their speech. These days I find myself interjecting “literally” at unnecessary points. Sadly, verbal interjections are one of those bad habits that can tend to creep back into one’s speech if one doesn’t maintain a certain verbal vigilance.

So step number one: Be aware of your own speech! It’s frightfully unlikely you will run into a freaky econ prof who will raise your consciousness in such a goofy way. Polite adults don’t usually do such things. Step two: Cut it out! Practice paying attention to what you ACTUALLY say. Articulate, thoughtful speech is a virtue, and one not commonly applauded these days. Eschew verbal “filler phrases” such as “you know” and “like” which are analogous to nervous energy discharges such as needlessly pushing eyeglasses further up one’s nose.

 Posted by on 03/01/2016 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Ding!