img_2250

Honey, Cooking, and The Science Behind The Sweet

A.V. Walters

Honey is a foodstuff of almost mythical proportions. It is one of a handful of foods that, left in its original form, never spoils. Honey has been known to last literally thousands of years—and still be edible and sweet. Honey will crystalize—a condition that may put off the uninformed consumer—but crystalized honey is still good. If it offends, you can simply warm it gently and it will resume its liquid amber loveliness.

Honey has three characteristics that, acting together, serve as its natural preservative. Despite being a liquid, honey has a very low water content of only 14 to 18 %. Bees will not “cap” honey in the comb until it has reached this low moisture threshold. Most bacteria cannot survive in such a low-moisture environment. Honey is also highly acidic, with a pH between 3.0 and 4.5. That acidity will kill off the few remaining things that might want to grow there. And, as we all know, honey is sweet. That natural sweetness also discourages bacterial growth. Archeologists have found sealed honey in ancient Egyptian tombs that was still preserved and unspoiled. Add to these three basic characteristics are the enzymes in honey that come from the bees’ stomachs. These enzymes combine with nectar sugars to produce gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide—natural components of honey. Blended together all these characteristics make a super-food that keeps, nearly indefinitely.

Herbalists and healers of ancient times understood these qualities in honey. It was widely used to treat wounds, for skin ointments and to prevent infections. To retain its natural preservative qualities though, stored honey must be sealed. Because honey is hygroscopic (naturally low in water) it will absorb liquid from the air and eventually spoil if left uncovered. Though honey is naturally pure, it can contain trace amounts of bacteria, and while this is not a problem for healthy children and adults, raw honey is not recommended for infants or people with compromised immune systems.

What about cooked honey? Cooking honey poses two questions: Does cooking undermine honey’s otherwise beneficial qualities? And, is it actually toxic? Purists and practitioners of natural or ayurvedic medicine will tell you that cooked honey is poisonous, and should never be eaten. There’s a smidgeon of science that supports that position, technically, but most feel that’s a little extreme. At the end of the day, this is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. Honey is essentially a natural, supersaturated sugar solution. Added into that are enzymes, courtesy of our friends, the bees. Many of the purported health benefits of honey are connected to those enzymes. But, when you heat honey, the enzymes begin to break down, beginning at about 118 degrees, Fahrenheit. Over-heating may result in losing most of the beneficial properties, making honey just another sweetener. (A good reason to gently heat your crystalized honey. You can warm it in a bath of warm tap water or in a double-boiler, at very low heat, to protect its enzymes.) In cooking, you can preserve honey’s integrity by adjusting how and when you heat it. Whenever possible, wait and add the honey until later in the cooking process (this is especially true when sweetening sauces or glazes.) Or, you can also “dilute” any heated honey mixture with a larger quantity of unheated ingredients. Check your recipes to see if there might be ways to limit exposure to high temperatures. Needless to say, honey is always at its best when used in recipes that are never heated, like salad dressings, toppings, dips or icings.

But, is it toxic? When honey is heated, its fructose, in combination with its natural acidity, degrades and begins to form hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), which is mildly toxic. The hotter it gets, the more HMF forms. The solution is dilution. Diluting the honey with other ingredients, (prior to heating) lowers the acid level of the honey, helping to prevent HMF formation. Even then, the actual HMF toxicity levels that result from normal cooking are very low. Our evolved human gut is fully capable of digesting cooked honey products, with no observable adverse affects. If you are a purist—don’t heat your honey. Otherwise, take reasonable efforts to preserve the maximum beneficial effects by keeping honey temperatures as low as practical. You can cook and bake with confidence, knowing that you are not putting yourself at risk.

There is one group that should never consume heated honey. That is your BEES! Bee guts and intestinal systems are relatively simple and cannot safely digest HMFs. Ingesting even a small amount of honey that has been heated can result in bees developing gut ulcerations. Many beekeepers use heat to separate wax from honey—and feed the resulting honey back to the bees. Don’t do it! Only give bees cold-processed, unadulterated, honey. Even adding water to honey, for bee feeding, must be done carefully because once water is added, the honey mixture is subject to bacterial spoilage, and fermentation. (Think mead!) If you use watered-down honey for bee feeding, make sure that it remains fresh. Remove any unconsumed honey blends within a day or so, replace with a fresh mixture, and periodically clean containers.

The very characteristics that give honey its extended shelf life can require some adjustments when cooking or baking with it. The most obvious is that honey is a liquid, so when substituted for sugar, you must adjust the balance of dry and wet ingredients to retain the desired texture. Every cup of honey used as sweetener contains about three extra tablespoons of liquid. So, you must reduce the other liquids in your recipe, increase the dry ingredients, or a combination of both. (The approach you take will depend on the recipe.)

It is often assumed that you can do a “cup for cup” substitution of honey for a recipe’s sweetener. Not so. In addition to increased moisture content, honey is sweeter than sugar when measured cup for cup. Depending upon the bees food source, and the seasonal time of production, honey can be anywhere from 1.25 to 1.5 times as sweet as sugar. You’ll have to substitute accordingly, and remember to taste as you go. Honey has a lower glycemic index rating than sugar (55 compared to sugar’s 61) so it’s a healthier option, with a slower impact on blood sugar. It’s easier to standardize baking with lighter honeys—the darker honeys come laden with their own native flavors. They can add depth and character to your baked goods, but darker honeys are a shifting exercise in taste exploration. Since the sugars in honey brown faster than regular sugar, you might have to lower your baking temperature by 25 degrees and cook your baked goods a little longer. Even if all your adjustments are correct, remember that baked goods made with honey are moister than sugar baking. If you’re looking for a drier finish—carefully bake longer, at a lower temperature.

Finally, honey’s natural acidity can play havoc with the leavening in baked goods. Most leavening agents (baking soda/baking powder) are “base” ingredients. The higher acidity in honey can act to neutralize your leavening agent—leaving an unadjusted recipe as heavy as a brick! You will need more leavening to achieve a proper rise, usually an additional 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoonful per cup of honey sweetening. There is no need to adjust if you’re using yeast. Yeast usually does well in the more acidic environment of honey. Add the honey to the bread dough mix, itself, to avoid interference with yeast performance. Do not “proof” your yeast in a honey mixture.

Honey as a food product has been with us for thousands of years. Whether you revere it for its mystical healing properties, or enjoy it as a healthy sweetener, it’s helpful to know how it behaves in cooking and baking. Following these tips, along with a little experimentation, will yield light and tasty results.

IMG_2289

 

Food Fight

A.V. Walters

It has come to the attention of Big Ag that the fastest growing sector of agriculture is organics. 2016 saw well over four million acres under organic cultivation. The total organic slice of the American food pie was over 35 billion dollars. You cannot boast that kind of success without attracting attention.

Big Ag wants in, in a big way. Organic produce and products are, after all, significantly more expensive than “conventional,” chemically infused crops. It’s a “value added” product, without the trouble of adding value. In fact, these are high-end consumers who’ll pay more, but want less. Less chemicals, less guilt, and less health impacts from fertilizers and pesticides. Of course, there are a lot of pesky regulations related to organic certification. But American Business knows it way around regulations.

Recently the industry group coordinating with government regulators, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), held its annual meeting. Not surprisingly, over the past decade the elected leadership of the group has been shifting towards large-scale, corporate producers, squeezing family farmers out of the mix. Organic products are regulated by the USDA, the agency in charge of enforcing our National Organic Program (NOP.) In decades past, nobody much cared about the definitional details of organic agriculture. The industry was the backwater of hippy back-to-the-earth folks. Conventional agriculture only cared that the program made production and certification expensive and burdensome—so it wouldn’t compete with their monoculture view of farming. In it’s early years, organic farmers debated earnestly just what “organic” meant.

It’s not merely the absence of pesticides that defines the heart of “organic.” It’s about creating a food and commodities system that is sustainable, humane and healthy for both consumers and for the planet. During the 1980s, those same hippy farmers debated long and hard about what practices could be included under the organic umbrella, and what methods did not measure up to “sustainable.” The old organic mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant,” spoke to a holistic approach to farming, and to the planet, in stark contrast to modern, industrial and extractive farming methods. Organic farming promoted crop rotation, natural soil enhancement, composting, non-chemical pest management, antibiotic and cage free animal husbandry and regenerating the environment through gentle agricultural practices. By any definition, organic farming should build soil and animal health—leaving us with a more diverse and stronger ecosystem. It is a moral and philosophical rejection of the chemically saturated monoculture and confined livestock systems that dominate American food production.

Things went well, until organic became synonymous with money. The results of this year’s meeting illustrate where we’re headed. In the early days, when easing the burden for “transitional” farmers was important, some non-organic or synthetic practices were permitted, provisionally—to be “sunsetted” out of organic production within 5 years unless, by a margin of two thirds majority, the NOSB voted to reauthorize them. This year the Board voted that any 5 year exemption is automatically “rolled over,” unless the NOSB votes it down—creating a slippery slope of standards erosion.

One of the big debates this year was whether hydroponic growing systems could be classified as organic. Really? How could a “farming” system that grows produce entirely without soil (often completely indoors), fed exclusively on a mix of liquid fertilizers and nutrients, wholly outside of any natural system be considered organic? What happened to “feed the soil?” What happened to organic farming acting in concert with nature to make the planet healthier? The Board couldn’t agree on the hydroponic issue, and has kicked it over to the next meeting, when there will be an even larger majority of corporate board members on the Board. Can you see where this leads?

Just as troublesome is the failure of the USDA to enforce the standards of the National Organic Program. Large scale producers regularly break the rules, with no penalty from the government agency charged with protecting consumers. Small scale organic farmers are thus doubly burdened—with the high cost of certification, and then forced to compete in the marketplace by corporate farms that advertise organic, but don’t play by the rules. The little guys end up subsidizing the cheats. In the long run, failure to police the standards will only undermine the organic message—the cheats will kill the golden goose. Consumers, small scale organic farmers and the planet will pay the price.

I don’t have a solution. I recommend that you support your local organic farmer through farmers’ markets, cooperatives or CSAs, that you start your own garden, keep bees or even chickens. I think we need to get involved, not just in the politics of food production but in some hands-on action, to protect our health and the health of our soils, our water and our planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ousted by Facebook

A.V. Walters

Some of my readers follow me through Facebook. My Facebook persona is a far more political animal than my WordPress presentation. I am, however, true to character. Even in the throes of a political rant, I am never foul or rude. I suppose I am pushy, since I often urge people to exercise their rights to free speech, or to seek redress with the government for infringements of our rights.

Today I have been blocked from my Facebook page. I suppose the keys to my relief are in my own hands. Facebook insists that I need merely upload a picture of government issued picture ID, in order to resume my Facebook privileges. Who is this, Big Brother? I’ll be damned (oops, slipping into profanity over this one) if I’ll tow the line on this, without some good explanation for why I should be treated differently than other Facebook members. What do they want, a tattoo on my arm? Is this someone’s attempt to silence me? Has there been some complaint? If so, say so. I’ve been trolled before, and if that’s the source, I can deal with that. But without some rationale or explanation, I won’t provide my personal identification information beyond that required of regular members. If you’ve followed me on Facebook, it’s possible that I won’t ever be able to post again. In fact, this post through WordPress may be silenced, too.

 

And So It Starts…

A.V. Walters–

This past weekend, in nearby Traverse City, a local off-duty police officer showed up to an anti-racist rally, in a pick-up truck decorated with what is commonly called the Confederate flag. He pulled into a no-parking zone, stepped out of his vehicle and proceeded to down a beer (openly, in a public place) while heckling the protesters.

Naturally, complaints were filed and the Police Department initiated an investigation. It wasn’t his first flag incident. The officer, an eighteen-year member of the force, resigned. The investigation continues. I read the story and did some of my own research.

 

Last night, as I came out of the grocery store, I passed a large man standing next to his pick-up truck, also adorned with a “Confederate” flag. A man was engaged in a quiet conversation with him; I caught the drift.

“It’s a symbol of racial hatred,” the smaller man was saying.

“No it’s not!” The flag-bearer puffed out his chest and then loudly proclaimed, “It’s about my heritage.” Shoppers averted their eyes and scurried off to their vehicles.

I put my groceries in the car and returned to join in the discussion, “I agree with this gentleman,” I said calmly, nodding in the man’s direction, “It is about racial hatred.”

“No,” the flag-bearer bellowed, “It’s about my proud heritage.”

“Then you’ve got the wrong flag.” I responded. The other man confronting him turned to me and mouthed the words, “Thank you.”

The “son-of-the-south” turned to me in a way that was only slightly menacing. “No, this is the right flag, alright. My ancestors died for this flag.” I wondered if I was going to get myself assaulted, for this.

“No, I don’t think so.” I answered.

“You calling me a liar?” (Often the refuge of a man short on facts.)

“I think that you are misinformed. Did any of your ancestors fight under Robert E. Lee?”

He looked a little stunned. “I doubt that, we’re from Texas.”

“Then you’ve got the wrong flag. That flag,” I said, pointing at his truck, “Was never the flag of the Confederacy.”

“Huh? Well, sure it was. It’s the Confederate flag.” A few people stopped to listen.

“No it’s not. That flag was the battle flag—sort of the regimental colors—for troops fighting under Robert E. Lee. It wasn’t the flag of the Confederacy. There were a number of different flags adopted by the Confederacy during the war, but that flag wasn’t one of them.”

He looked confused. “But… my people died for that flag.”

“I’m not questioning your heritage, but you’ve got your flags wrong. The flag you’re displaying didn’t become popular until the 1950s, when racists started to use it to oppose the Civil Rights movement and the Brown vs. Board of Education case that integrated the schools. That flag,” and again I pointed, “Was never the flag of the Confederacy and was used specifically to show racial hatred and intolerance.”

“Well, I don’t know anything about those other flags.” Now, he wouldn’t even look at me.

“I can’t help you, there. But, the one you’re flying is a symbol of racial hate and intolerance, not the flag of the Confederacy.” Some of the people around us were nodding, almost imperceptibly.

The other gentleman in the conversation added, “That’s what I was trying to tell him.”

The flag-bearer wouldn’t look at any of us. He turned and stalked away. The small crowd began to disperse without a word. My co-conspirator and I looked at each other, and nodded, before going our separate ways.

 

And that is the danger of having a bigoted bully as President. It emboldens ignorance and hatred. It normalizes bad behavior in ways that make violence and social unrest more and more likely. If we want to live in a civilized society, the rest of us need to step up and stop it, nip it in the bud, whenever we see it. This is going to be an exhausting presidential term.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Signs of the Times

A.V. Walters

It’s almost over, thank god. I can hardly wait for the end of this election season. My inbox is overflowing with solicitations for money, for support, or just for the opportunity to wallow in righteous indignation.

I admit it, I’m a wonk. I research the various races and candidates on the ballot. I spend the time on the internet checking the records and policies of all the candidates. It isn’t a straight party ticket for me; I don’t vote tribal. My choices will be on principle and on the issues. I don’t reward bad behavior.

Though it’s no substitute for research, I confess I enjoy the rough and tumble world of yard-signs. We’re relatively new to the community and nothing is as revealing as what folks post on their front lawns. I chuckle when the lawn signs advocate for inconsistent candidates—is it marital schism, ignorance or some more primal form of loyalty dictating those screaming confessionals?

For the first time in my life I have posted a yard sign. It’s for a minor local position. I like this woman, I like her policies and she’s the wife of the family that owns the local hardware. I get a lot of my local information from the characters who hang out at the hardware. Like many candidates in the area, she boasts roots in the area that go back generations. I see that as a warning to uppity folks, like me, who’d consider a run for office on principle. Around here, who “your people are” matters a lot more than your positions. Local is tribe, too. As a newbie, if I ran for office, I wouldn’t stand a chance.

This has been a particularly hard fought election year. The local paper reports that there’s been a serious spate of yard-sign shenanigans. People are stealing yard-signs. People are posting yard signs in yards, other than their own. I’m not sure which is more offensive, silencing free speech or trying to pawn off support where there is none. I see it all as a form of dastardly contagion, direct from the top down. It’s been an ugly contest season, in which the two-party system has failed us. The major candidates at the top of the ticket have failed to behave, failed to follow the conventional rules of decorum.

Call me old fashioned, but I like civil discourse, honesty and issues-based debate. It goes to my deep belief in deliberation through the marketplace of ideas. It ought not be about personalities, but about weighing the value of the candidates’ ideas and records. Indeed, it’s clear that both of the Presidential contenders have done their utmost to conceal just who they are from the voters. This is not a good way to start a relationship.

This kerfuffle of a contest has brought out the brute in everyone. Further down the food chain, that same childish ugliness plays out, stealing signs and undermining democracy. What’s missing in all this is that on the morning of November 9th, we’re going to have to get up, get back to business, and figure out a way to move forward in the world—or are we doomed to this new fashion of obstruction for its own sake?

house-sept-16-2

Taking the Sting Out of It–

A.V. Walters–

IMG_2306

We keep bees. People respond to that with raised eyebrows—and usually some positive acknowledgement. The raised eyebrows are about the dark side of beekeeping. Most people think of beekeeping in terms of being stung.

Yes, we get stung from time to time. It comes with the territory. Usually, when it happens, you can point to some mistake you made—you moved too quickly, you inadvertently crushed some bees while stacking hive boxes, you didn’t use smoke (or enough smoke, or too much smoke) when performing an invasive activity. There are rules and rhythms that protect you from being stung. Bees only sting when provoked, and often give plenty of warning.

I react to stings, so I take every precaution. I only handle the bees when wearing “the suit.” I listen to the tone of the bees during hive work—you can hear it if their level of alarm amps up. Rick and I agree that it isn’t worth it to work on agitated bees. It’s not good for them, and we’re not happy to be stung out of our own stupidity. We can always close up a hive, and come back to it on another, better day. We plan ahead of time what it is we hope to accomplish, in a hive, and endeavor to do it in the least disruptive way. The hive is their home. They have every right to defend it.

Bees demonstrate stages of annoyance. First, you should take note if the bees are looking at you. I laughed when I first heard that—except that it’s true. Usually, when you work in a hive, the bees go about their business and ignore you. But, if they’re lined up, looking at you, it’s a warning. (It’s funny looking, the first time you notice it—as though they were spectators at a circus and you’re the main attraction!) Then, if they raise their back ends—you’ve crossed another warning threshold. Listen closely to the tone of the bee’s constant hum. In an irritated hive the background hum raises in volume and pitch. Time for more smoke, or to close it up. Guard bees may “thunk” you, that is, fly right into your chest or face—to make impact, but not sting. Again, we’re talking serious, threat-level warnings here. Bees do not want to sting. A stinging bee is a dead bee—they lose their stinger and innards in the process, so it’s a KIA hero’s defense. Move slowly and deliberately. Try not to breath on the bees (certainly don’t blow on them.) Do not wave your arms in a swatting defense. It only makes things worse.

Timing is everything. Happy bees are less likely to rise to alarm. What makes for happy bees? Good weather, ample food and available water. We try not to open the hives in bad weather—the bees are stuck inside and as crabby as school kids denied recess. We do our bee work midday, so most of the bees are out in the fields. And we make our disruptions as short and productive as possible.

There are three physical levels of reaction to stings. A normal reaction includes the initial pain of the sting, some level of swelling and discomfort at the point of sting, usually resolving overnight. The worst reaction is life-threatening anaphylactic shock. If you respond to stings this way, you probably shouldn’t be keeping bees. I don’t have that problem, but I have an Epipen, just in case. I fall into the middle category, what’s called a “large, local reaction.” After the initial sting, the site swells well beyond the actual sting—often a painful raised welt up to eight inches across, that is painful, itchy and lasts up to a week. It makes me a little sick, too. I have to keep taking antihistamines until the swelling starts to abate. Things can get ugly if I am multiply stung.

There’s some good advice about how to handle a sting. First, get away from the hive. A stinging bee releases an alarm pheromone that attaches to the site of the sting. Other bees may zero in on it, and continue in a defensive attack. Rick and I work as a team, but if one of us is stung, the other closes up the hive for the day. Second—waste no time removing the stinger. Even unattached to the bee, the stinger continues to pump venom. Use a dull bladed object to scrape across the site of the sting. Do not use tweezers, as squeezing the whole assembly can result in injecting more venom. After the stinger is removed, you can gently squeeze the sting site to eject any venom still near the surface of the wound. Ice it, as soon as you can. Take an antihistamine—Benadryl or similar, to stave off any excess reaction. I use an herbal antihistamine called Hista Block, that doesn’t make me so drowsy. Depending upon the level of swelling (and discomfort) you can also take an analgesic. Some sources suggest using a topical spray, but others warn of possible cross-reactivity at the wound site, so I don’t. Most importantly, take these steps as quickly as you can. Time is critical in warding off the body’s defense to the venom—our defenses are the biggest problem. Depending upon your level of reaction, you may consider medical intervention if you have multiple stings. Afterwards, make sure you launder the clothing in which you were stung because the pheromone on your clothes can inspire later hostile actions by the bees. (Nobody told them not to respond to the outdated alarm.)

This is how I cope with the sting potential when keeping bees. I have beekeeping friends who do not react as I do, who handle their bees without suiting up, without even wearing gloves or a veil. I envy them. One friend actually welcomes beestings, because he claims they alleviate the arthritis in his hands!

Work smart and bee prepared. That’s my motto.

Of course none of this helped over the weekend when I was rescuing some tiger lilies from a construction site. Really, it wasn’t theft; they’d been bulldozed and would have died but for our valiant efforts to rescue them. Unfortunately for me, the bulldozer had disturbed a nest of Yellow Jackets.

Yellow Jackets are a whole different story, than bees. They are just rude! They sting, without warning—and a single yellow jacket can sting repeatedly! (Which it did, as I ran a quarter of a mile down the road, to escape it.)

Days later, I’m just recovering. The good news is that we got the tiger lilies planted, so there’s some reward for my experience.