Another fabulous Peter Minakis dinner last night at Estiatorio Skara. Peter is the well-known Toronto chef, cookbook author, and host par-excellence of his Supper Clubs that are held in upscale Mediterranean restaurants across Canada throughout the year. His blog handle is “Kalofagas” and has long been one of my favourite cooking sites.

Growing up, one of my most memorable flavours is that of Mastiha, the resin of the Mastiha tree native to the island of Chios in Greece. It’s one of those flavours that you can’t describe because it has no relevant reference base, i.e., you can’t say “It tastes kinda like….”. It is absolutely unique and absolutely addictive. My grandmother used to add it to festive breads and other baked goods.

About 7 years ago I came across an eau de vie made from Mastiha. It’s flavour is intense, albeit a little too sweet for my taste. I tend to enjoy it more in the summer months with some ice cubes to dilute the sugar.

But last night, I was introduced to Mastiha water at Skara (under the MastiQua brand). Wow is all I can say! This is a private importation by the restaurant. I managed to convince the owner to make me a deal on a case of 24. It was pretty steep as bottled sparkling water goes, but worth every penny. Now to find a local retail importer where i can get a better volume deal.

Corruption, the breakdown of trust, and the proliferation of nuttiness

Two recent corruption stories in a seemingly never-ending stream: NBC anchor Brian Williams’ exposure as a “misrememberer” (read, liar) about his Iraq war experiences, and the discovery that nutritional supplements at some of the US’s largest retailers do not contain any of the stated nutrients.

The real danger in each story of corruption is that, taken together, they all contribute to an accumulating gestalt of mistrust that eventually leads (as it already has) to a generalized mistrust of authority and expertise. So while one can accept that there will always be isolated incidents of corruption in almost all areas of human activity (think Madoff, Wall Street, pedophile priests, and even Brian Williams), without throwing entire categories under the bus, nevertheless, once mistrust crosses a threshold, it inevitably leads to larger consequences.

A good example of this is the anti-vaccination movement, where recent research has shown that no amount of data from reliable sources can change their minds because there are no “reliable” sources in their worldview.

The same goes for why the economies of entire countries are in peril once people believe that corruption is so widespread that no one is willing to pay taxes because they know the money will be stolen (think Greece). None of this will change without swift and aggressive action against wrongdoers. Justice must be seen to be done, and let’s face it, it rarely is.

Food is a state of mind

Noted physician and public health expert, David Katz posted an interesting article on how eating well is a key to weight management, and how pharmaceutical solutions may not be the desirable or effective way to go. I commented as follows:

Food choices are certainly one part of the weight management equation. The failure of rimonabant due to elevated suicide risk is an important clue to another hugely significant part of that equation: Human beings are hard-wired to use food for comfort and stress reduction, and when you take away such an important resource, it can have catastrophic effects. Food represents our first experience of the outside world, and more importantly of that first person who loves, comforts, and protects us. From that moment on, it is inextricably woven into every relationship and every experience.

Food and eating are powerful psychological metaphors, e.g., expressions such as being unable to “swallow” some statement or “stomach” some person. And it is no coincidence that Valentine’s day is often represented by chocolate! It is also no coincidence that eating disorders are not really disorders of eating but mental disorders that are reflected in eating.

There has been speculation that all addictions are, in the end, displacements of the original “drug” of choice, food. And it is certainly irritating when people who smoke, or gamble, or drink to excess, or shop themselves into bankruptcy, have the gall (Hmmm….another digestive reference) to look down on fat people and snicker with contempt. Most of us soothe the pain of living with something, and we are certainly designed to use food for that purpose.

As a result, the real underpinnings of obesity are ultimately psychological, and the failure to address that reality will continue to produce the astonishing recidivism (between 80-98% depending on the study) that we have seen in all efforts to lose weight. There is nothing “common sense” about weight management. Exhortations to “Eat better, eat less, exercise more” are simplistic answers usually promoted by those who don’t suffer from the problem. While they may be absolutely true, they are also nearly useless in telling us HOW to implement them. It’s like telling a poor person that there is no mystery to getting rich: “Work hard, spend less than you make, invest the remainder wisely”. Then life gets in the way…..

Sucking the marrow from life

Like many kids growing up in the 60’s, I got “into” yoga and other eastern practices at a very early age. I did Aikido for many years. Studied Japanese in university. Tried Transcendental Meditation. Spent years in ashrams, monasteries and temples, communing with monks and other sages from many denominations. I’ve always had an interest in what we call in Psychology today, Transpersonal Psychology; how people search for transcendent meaning, i.e., meaning that transcends our death.

Some 20 years back, I took a mindfulness meditation course with one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s senior students. We walked for hours at an excruciatingly slow pace, staring at the ground and attending to each gruellingly slow step. We then ate lunch in absolute silence, slowly bringing each mouthful from fork to mouth and then chewing it to death. I almost lost my marbles. At a certain point, the Zorba in me rebelled and I realized this just wasn’t for me.

Mindfulness is really big these days. So I was pleased to read this most wonderful article by Gina Barecca, that gives a very Greek twist to the whole experience of mindfulness. A wonderful read.

You want more than to be “in” the moment because being “in” it isn’t enough. You want to throw your arms around it and hold onto it, wringing every bit of intensity, significance and pleasure from the moment the way you’d wring water out of a wet cloth.

Dr. Who catch-up

My daughter is a huge Dr. Who fan. I tried to watch a few episodes in the past, but never got beyond the first 5 minutes as the plots seemed too bizarre and the story line impossible to follow. This year, I vowed to watch the first episode of the new season featuring an older Doctor. To no avail….what a piece of crap I thought, why would anyone watch this and how could it garner an audience for some 50 years?

I asked my daughter about the show’s appeal and confessed the difficulty I’d had watching it. “Of course”, she said, “You can’t just come into a Dr. Who episode ‘cold’, there’s too much back-story, too much history”. She suggested I start at the series “rebirth” in 2005, where the storyline was re-set to bring a new and younger audience into the fold. I did as she suggested and can now claim, after 10 episodes, I’m hooked!  What a great series. My wife and I have vowed to do a marathon over the next month and catch up all the way to the latest season. Try it. It’s on Netflix.

Time-Restricted Feeding

A new study just published in the journal Cell Metabolism may have significant implications for human obesity. While the study is in mice, it is also extremely well controlled and the results are very compelling. It turns out that restricting feeding to a window of 9-12 hours has significant metabolic effects on everything from blood glucose to cholesterol. The graphic below shows the effects of various feeding schedules on obese and normal weight mice.


The link above goes to the Abstract, but unlike many on-line peer-reviewed journals, Cell Biology allows you to access the full article from the page.



Naive or heroic?

There seems to be an almost constant flow of stories of Westerners kidnapped, killed or injured in non first-world countries, which are also, coincidentally, hotbeds of terrorism and violence. Just a couple of days ago, a 47 year-old female American teacher was stabbed to death at a mall in Abu Dhabi. The UK MailOnline writes:

“The teacher, had moved to the Middle Eastern country in search of a better life following a divorce”.

This latest story is one in a series that includes aid workers, journalists, ex pats such as the teacher above, and even tourists. Here’s my question: Why would you go to seek a “better life” in a place with embedded social values that are so antithetical to those that are inculcated in the West? Why would you want to visit such places as a tourist? Why would you leave your kids and wife in the UK to go deliver aid in Syria and risk being captured and beheaded by ISIS? Journalists take on these risks fully knowing what they are getting into; it’s part of the job, just like it is for soldiers. But why would “ordinary” people embark on such misadventures?

The classic definition of heroism is when someone places himself at serious risk in order to help others. The term has been widely corrupted in recent years to include sports stars, actors, and even golfers; anyone in fact who takes any risk in order to entertain others. “Achievement” and “risk” have become almost interchangeable, i.e., anyone who achieves anything notable and admirable takes on heroic status.

I was having the discussion with my son recently and he came up with an intriguing line. He said, “I don’t travel to places where the people who live there are trying to escape and come here”. Surely, there is some good sense in this. Is it just innocence that drives people to risk their lives in god-forsaken hell-holes, or is it something more significant…some form of heroism that I just don’t get?

Cash is king

I’m fascinated by deception. Not only the lengths to which deceivers will go, but the mental gymnastics that are necessary to actually figure out what they’re up to. It has all become very, very clever. And few businesses are as clever and creative as the automobile industry. Illegible fine print flashed across the TV screen for 3 seconds. Top-of-the-line models shown with bottom-of-the-line pricing and a “Model shown is the GLX series, pricing for the GLC series”, disclaimer.

A friend recently bought a new Toyota. He regaled me with tales of his prowes in getting a “great deal” on a lease. “One percent interest” he exclaimed. “And they gave me $2000 for my old beater!”, he continued. I asked him about the actual price of the car. He said it was $28,000. A few days later, I saw the car in the paper from the same dealer. It showed the 1% lease interest and a “cash price’ of $24,000.

In other words, if you lease the car, the price on which all calculations are based is $28K, but if you have cash, they’re ready to sell it to you for $24K, a $4000 difference.  In other words, the real interest rate isn’t 1%, it’s really whatever percentage it would be if you added back the additional $4000 you’re paying to get the 1%….probably something like 5-6%. Hell, if you have a good bank line of credit, you could buy the car for about 3%!

No wonder they gave him money for his beater!