Thoughts on Hillbilly Elegy, by JD Vance

After the results of the 2016 General Election, many in the “intellectual, liberal” community were stunned that an unfathomable Presidential candidate like Donald Trump could actually win.  Yet he did.  In the discussion and introspection that occurred afterwards, a common tidbit of advice passed among friends who sought to understand what had just occurred was to “read Hillbilly Elegy”.

It’s said that the defining characteristic of a person’s success or happiness in life is nothing that a person is born with.  Rather, it’s who one’s parents are, who it is that will shape a child’s early experiences and prepare them to become contributing members of society.  It’s clear from reading this book that a massive chasm exists between the privileged and nonprivileged in this country and that chasm begins with parenting.

Hillbilly Elegy is essentially the fairy-tale story about how a Scots-Irish Appalachian male, a hillbilly, escaped the circumstances of his childhood and overcame all of the norms, mores and lack of expectations imposed on him by the society around him.  I imagine that the early parts of the book would be a hard read to anyone, but as a parent of two young boys I struggled not to feel the pain that Vance described from his early years.  With the knowledge of my two sons vulnerabilities and the role that their father and I play in their lives, reading a story of a child’s struggle to establish relationships with the ever revolving cast of men who were his mother’s ephemeral boyfriends was hard to digest.  His mother is no saint–her instability and increasingly out-of-control drug use force the author to find other shelters in the world.  Luckily, his grandmother Mamaw and grandfather Papaw are reformed delinquent parents themselves who turned their lives around to be strong pillars in his life.

A good portion of the book illustrates in very interesting detail the belief system that is ingrained in Appalachian culture, largely defined by a Scots Irish heritage.  A main value in this culture is loyalty to family beyond any expectation or rationale.  Aside from the typical playground fisticuffs that might be required in the defending of a mother’s honor–this belief system has made it so that the forced consumption of a sister’s undergarments were an apt punishment for someone who had insulted that sister.  Or even that the author’s mother could expect him, out of loyalty, to provide a cup of clean urine to prevent her from failing a surprise job related drug test–despite all of the pain and suffering that her drug use had personally caused him.

The book reaffirms many unfortunate stereotypes of poor working class whites, with portrayals of colleagues that Vance encountered in his work in Ohio.  In one example, a fellow laborer could only be bothered to come to work four days a week, and of those four days would take three or four bathroom breaks of over a half hour in a single day.  In another example, parents in the community would repeatedly espouse the value of hard work, but would be unable to themselves hold on to a job because of lack of work ethic.  Vance himself joined the military where he was inculcated in the importance of even showing up being the first step in accomplishing something worthwhile.  Through pushing himself past his own limits, it gave him the confidence to think of the world beyond the hardship of his upbringing and to reach for it.  Most importantly the military ingrained in him the value of his word, and of keeping his word.

Some of the most poignant passages of the book come from Vance’s reflections on the differences in the norms of his current life in the professional class to his prior life as a hillbilly:  how everything, from his understanding of what makes the world run to his diet have gone through 180 degree reversals.  Children in urban professional environments are expected to excel–where children in hillbilly environments weren’t even expected to show up.  To me, these were some of the most interesting passages of the book.  It’s clear from the tribalism and vitriol pervasive in today’s civic environment that there is so much that must be done here.  Bridging the gap and helping to change the opportunity-less, and often miserable, worlds of the other JD Vances out there should be everyone’s problem.

Interestingly, Vance also touches upon even how stereotypes shape the poor whites’ perception of themselves in frankly self-defeating ways.  A stunning example of this is the role of religion in people’s lives.  Where most people viewed themselves as “highly religious”, the reality is that going to church or even practicing goodwill towards their neighbors was a seldom occurrence for those in his community.  Ironically, having the benefit of a church community providing necessary stability and support would improve the lives of those children who are similarly trapped in difficult upbringings like the one that Vance faced.

Like many readers, I hoped the book contained a silver bullet solution to this problem and part of my motivation for reading the book was to understand more about what can be done, whether by the government, we in the “elite, liberal” parts of the country, or specifically by the technology industry.  I’ll spare you the surprise–there is no one solution.  Vance goes so far as to say that the problems which underlie the societal despair of poor whites can’t be solved by any one institution, but can only be influenced by exposure to what is possible.  While this is disheartening, I sincerely applaud the author’s courage in shedding light into a dark corner of American society and illustrating what it’s like to be in another person’s less fortunate shoes in such a compelling way.

Easy Taro Dumplings (Yu Yuan)

Being taiwanese, this recipe encompasses two thing that I love.  1–taro.  2–things that are chewy.  There are lots of dessert shops that sell these over tofu pudding and shaved ice all over Taiwan, and I could hardly walk by one without buying a bowl.  🙂  Now that it’s been some time since we have had a chance to visit, had to learn how to make this myself.  It’s surprisingly easy!


1/2 of a Taro

sweet potato starch 

For accompanying ginger soup:

-ginger, about 10 slices

-brown sugar, dark brown Taiwanese style if available.  

-a tricky part of this recipe is selecting the taro itself.  The objective is to find one that is airy inside, these are more fragrant, flavorful, and have a crumbly texture.  Apparently the way to look for these is to weigh them in your hand.  Select the ones that feel light and dont buy them if there is mold on the outside.  Here in California, some Taros are imported from Hawaii and Taiwan, so look for those.

-When you get home shave off the skin of the taro with a sharp knife.  I usually put on disposable latex gloves to do this as exposure to taro causes some people’s hands to itch.

-Cut the Taro into smallish (1 in) cubes, and steam.  I use a rice cooker to do this.  let the taro cool.

-Mash taro, and then add sweet potato starch a bit at a time.  Mix and knead the dough and continue to add potato starch until the end result is around the consistency of play doh.   At this point, continue to knead the dough–the more you knead it the chewier the end result.

-roll into 3/4 diameter rolls and then cut, or shape into balls.

-you can freeze these, or cook them immediately.  Add to boiling water and cook until they are floating–then keep in a minute or two more for good measure.  (They take a bit longer to cook from frozen.) 

Separately, you can create the ginger broth.  basically boil the ginger slices, then cover and simmer for a while until the flavor of the ginger permeates the broth.  After the broth has reached your preferred level of gingery-ness, add brown sugar to taste.

Serve hot or cold, and enjoy!!

Asian/Italian Fusion: Tilapia Filets, “Chicken Marsala Style”

With the new addition to our family I don’t get a lot of time to cook the way I used to.  I keep it pretty simple on the weeknights with just one meat and just one veggie (no starch), which has also helped a little with losing those last 10 lbs I’ve been trying to get rid of after mommyhood.  That said, I recently discovered how wonderful the fish is at Crystal Springs Fish & Poultry and have been making a point to get a few fish filets on saturday to cook during the week.  While I’ve had years of experience with chicken, beef & pork, cooking fish is relatively new to me and there have been a few misses along the road.  This recipe however, which is a riff on my favorite chicken marsala dish at buca’s, is definitely a keeper.  🙂

I also included my favorite recipe for lacinato kale.  I am seriously addicted to this preparation–poor hubby gets it at least once a week!

Tilapia Filets, “Chicken Marsala Style”

2 Tilapia filets, 1.5 lbs total weight
1 shallot, minced
1 T butter
3 slices ginger
3 T flour
6 white mushrooms, washed and sliced
Salt & Pepper
3T Choya Umeshu Plum wine

Rinse the tilapia filets and season both sides with salt & pepper.  In a non-stick pan over medium heat, melt the butter and add the ginger, then the shallots and let butter brown.  Dredge tilapia filets in flour and immediately place into the pan (don’t do the dredge part beforehand, everything will get soggy).  surround the filets with the sliced mushrooms.  Let cook without flipping for ~5 minutes, until a golden brown crust forms.  Flip filets to the other side and repeat.  Remove the filets to a serving plate, reserving the mushrooms in the pan (when cooked through tilapia is white with no pink in the center).  Deglaze w/plum wine, and reduce about half, then pour over fish filets.

Sweet & Spicy Lacinato Kale 

1 bunch lacinato kale
3 dried spicy red peppers, or 1 t pepper flakes
5 cloves garlic
2T grapeseed or other vegetable oil
3T mirin
2T soy paste

Wash the kale and cut crosswise (across the stem) into half inch slices.  Heat the oil in a frying pan and add spicy pepper and garlic, cook for 1 minute to let the flavors permeate through the oil.  Add the kale and toss to coat relatively evenly.   add mirin and cover for 1 minute.  add soy paste and stir to distribute. cook for another minute to caramelize a little, and you’re done!!

** As a side note, I also learned recently that not all farmed fish is bad.  At Crystal Springs Fish and Poultry they carry Loch Duart farmed salmon, which is raised in pens in the ocean.  So…no overfishing of wild salmon and you don’t have to ingest gross antibiotics.    But the best thing is this salmon is absolutely delicious…tender and marbled with all those good-for-you fish oils.  In fact, they serve this salmon at the french laundry and Prince William and Kate’s wedding!  If it’s good enough for the duke of cambridge, it’s good enough for my family. 😉

Habit-forming Homemade Granola Bars

I found this recipe in a magazine and the idea of them persisted in my mind so long I actually ended up making some.  Glad I did–they make a very nice breakfast and they are filled with healthy ingredients.  Yummy moist texture, too.

  • 1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted & cooled
  • 1/2 c. unsweetened applesauce
  • 1 1/2 T. molasses
  • 3/4 c. dark brown sugar
  • 2 c. old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 scant c. all-purpose flour
  • 1 scant c. whole wheat flour (I substituted flax-seed meal here which is rich in omega – 3, for all you nursing/pregnant women out there)
  • 1 t. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 t. kosher salt
  • 1/4 t. baking powder
  • 1 c. mixed dried fruit/nuts (I used apricot & pistachio which was good, as well as apricot & chocolate chips which was SUPER good)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and arrange rack in the center.  Line a 9-inch square baking pan [I used a round springform which made the bars easy to remove] with parchment paper.  Whisk the butter, applesauce, molasses, and brown sugar together in a large mixing bowl.  Stir in the oats, all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, cinnamon, salt, and baking powder with a wooden spoon until just combined.  Add the dried fruit and mix until the fruit is evenly distributed

Press the mixture into the prepared baking pan until evenly distributed, and bake until the bars turn golden brown, about 25-30 minutes.  (The bars will still be slightly soft in the center of the pan)

Remove pan from the oven and let the bars cool slightly.  Cut the bars into 9 squares and serve or transfer to an airtight to store.  Bars will keep in and airtight container at room temperature for about 3 days.

Nickel & Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich: Should be required reading for all

As a member of the educated and disproportionately privileged professional class, as well as being the product of immigrant upbringing, it is with some embarrassment that I admit to stereotyping those in poverty as not hard working enough, lacking self-control, or results and participants of substance abuse.  Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich, has given me cause for pause.

The premise of the book is straightforward.  Ehrenreich, a white woman in her 50’s, temporarily leaves behind a world in which she has a doctorate degree, a mortgage and the corresponding material comforts, and a steady job with 401k, to strike it out in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota with the goal of determining whether it’s possible to survive through hard work on a minimum wage.  During this time, she works as a cleaning lady, a waitress, and at as a clothing sorter at Walmart.  While I won’t go into the details about her experiences, suffice to say by the end of the book she finds that she was barely able to survive on the wages she earned to put a roof over her head, to travel between it and her places of work, and to keep herself adequately clothed and nutritionally sustained on a diet of fast food.

On the surface, the main message of this book is to underscore the importance of education and indeed–above all this should be required reading for students as a means to decribe the trials of everyday life and what it takes to survive on without the benefits of value-added skills.  Beyond that–I found this book heartbreaking and at many times throughout felt a tremendous sense of injustice and depression that people experience this in our “1st world” American society.

We all know that unemployment is at highs not seen since the great depression,  but what is not as obvious and measureable is how many people are in what Ehrenreich terms “poverty as acute distress”–meaning that despite working sometimes multiple minimum wage jobs (and thus not considered unemployed) some can barely afford a lunch of Doritos or hot dog rolls to keep from fainting at the end of a work shift.  The main problem is affordable housing.  While there are plenty of jobs which provide the federally mandated $7/hour which translates to $170/week or $680/month after taxes, where in the United states can any rental property be found for the affordable housing ratio of 30% or ~$230/month??

Besides not being able to feed oneself, other hardships faced by those with low-wage jobs include:

1) Living day to day out of a suitcase if one cannot afford permanent housing.  This means living without luxuries you and I take for granted like having dishes to eat from, a stove to cook from, or even a refrigerator to store unfinished food.

2) Not being able to store unfinished food precludes the ability to cook healthy meals–minimum wage workers typically subsist on a diet of fast food.

3) The vulnerability women face while living in temporary housing situations.  As such, the home is no longer a sanctuary after a long day’s work making it hard to truly unwind.  In one situation with paper thin walls an even more fragile windows, Ehrenreich avoided her “home” going there only to sleep at the end of a long evening, with one eye open.  She soon developed tics and involuntary habits of picking at her clothing, which abated when she moved somewhere safer.

4) The catch 22 of having to dress a certain way to work, but not having the money to procure the shirts needed.  We’re talking about a $5 white colored polo-shirt that was the dress code to work at Walmart.  Keeping work outfits clean between trips to the laundromat was a whole other issue.

5) Looking for a job while not having access to an answering machine.

Perhaps the message has hit home especially poignantly because of our recent trip outside of the bay area bubble to another state where unemployment is around 10%.  I wondered throughout the trip how a region could survive with so few apparent industries apart from tourism, a well that has dried now that most Americans are just trying to scrape by and don’t have the money to spend on vacations.  This area seemed to have a self-contained nature, where service jobs provide the income people use to spend on buying things, causing the need for more service jobs.  Upon further thought, my hunch is that far from being “different”, that self-contained service economy might be the makeup of most of the United States.

The observation also seeded the question in my mind–Is there really a need for companies like Wal-Mart, which trades us demeaning, mind-numbing low-wage jobs for the ability to buy poor quality material goods at ridiculously low prices?  This breeds a culture of disposable acquisition, where things are too easily obtained and provide too little satisfaction, which in turn leads to spending beyond means.

Ehrenreich ended her study concluding that it was possible to survive on minimum wage, but that any large unexpected expenditure such as a necessary doctor visit, an injury, or needing maintenance on her car would have been a drastic set-back to her ability to manage finances.  That said, some efficiencies certainly could have been had, like sharing housing with another person.

I came away from this book wondering how I could make it required reading for the kids in our school systems.  The illustrations of the small cruelties encountered while surviving day to day in an unskilled job would be ample motivation for disinterested teenagers to stay in school.  As I child minimum wage seemed like alot to me, but this book describes in vivid detail that the costs do not balance.

Not knowing any educators who influence our national curriculum however, I’ve resorted to telling everyone I know about this book.  🙂

Valentines Day at Home

Hubby and I tend to celebrate Valentine’s day early to skip the crowds, and have a quiet evening at home when Feb 14 rolls around.  This year he requested rack of lamb, which is a favorite of mine as well.  I am particularly proud of this recipe which features a delicious chocolate balsamic vinegar from Sigona’s market–a fitting way to celebrate my favorite holiday.  

Mike & Sophie’s Rack of Lamb

1T Instant Coffee
1T Water
2T pure Maple Syrup
1 dried chili, cut into small pieces
2T Sigona’s Chocolate Balsamic Vinegar
1t coarse sea salt
1 Frenched Rack of Lamb, ~1.5 lb
1 butternut squash, washed and cut into quarter inch slices, seeds removed
1 package mushrooms, washed and quartered
1/4 cup chicken stock

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

Combine Instant coffee with water in a small bowl and mix until coffee is dissolved.  Add Maple syrup, cut chilis, balsamic vinegar and salt.  Microwave for 15 seconds.  Cut the rack of lamb into pieces, with 2 ribs per piece.  Put into quart size ziploc bag, add microwaved mixture and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.  Put a single layer of butternut squash slices in the bottom of a baking dish.

In a medium skillet, heat a bit of oil on medium high heat and sear/brown the lamb pieces on all sides (reserve marinade).  Place on top of butternut squash in the baking dish, and bake in oven until internal temp ~ 160 degrees F for medium rare.  Meanwhile, add the mushrooms to the skillet containing pan drippings and toss quickly.  Add marinade & stock, scrape bottom of pan, cover and cook ~ 3minutes. Remove the cover, reduce liquid in pan until about a quarter remains and sauce becomes slightly thicker.  Remove lamb, & squash, let sit a few minutes, serve with mushrooms & sauce.  I paired this with a “bacony” buttermilk cornbread (recipe from joy of cooking), which worked well!

Started off as “Thrifty”, ended up being “Green”

I just commented on a BlogHer Thread “What green practices are you most proud of?”.  Thought I’d share my comments here:

I started doing most of these things because I don’t like waste.  Yet the side benefit is that they’ve turned out to be great for the environment!

– Reusable shopping bags:  I snag a ton of these from the annual conference my work hosts, and use them religiously during my weekly trip to Trader Joe’s. It’s tricky getting them back to the car and have a tendency to clutter up the hallway, but it’s worth it.

– Reusing Glass containers:  Glass jars of all sizes are no longer recycled, but washed and occasionally goo-goned, then used as storage for all kinds of food.  This has the side benefit of not leaching plastic into the stuff I eat.  I even use a glass VOSS bottle for my water bottle, which is handy because it can be tossed into the washing machine and kept clean!

-Communisty Supported Agrigulture (CSA) box: this started off as a bid to get more veggies into my diet, but has had the side effect of giving me a greater appreciation for unprocessed food.  hubby and I go through a box of these veggies with just the two of us, granted, veggies make up the bulk of our diet these days.  Cooking all of these vegetables has also encouraged me to stretch my cooking skills, and I now bake my own wheat bread for sandwiches as well (although still looking for a recipe which will deliver the soft and chewy results of store-bought!) You can find a CSA Box as well at

You can see the actual post at BlogHer.

Californian Springtime Soup (for cold weather)

Here is another recipe I put together last night.  we have some fairly bitter dandelion greens from our CSA box, and I wanted a “white bean” soup to provide richness and balance the flavor.  In my mind, bacon was definitely part of the equation as well.   Here’s what I came up with, will be eating some tonight so will report back.

-3 slices bacon
-3 stalks green garlic, sliced finely
-1 medium onion, chopped fine
-8 red-skinned potatoes, cut into half inch cubes
-1 cup dried lima beans
-1 quart chicken stock, preferably home made
-a few sprigs thyme
-salt, pepper to taste

**Gruyere Cheese, for shaving

before:  Rinse lima beans and remove anything that looks like it doesn’t belong there.  put lima beans in 3 inches of water, bring to a boil.  Let simmer for a few minutes, covered, then turn off heat but keep pan on the stove with the cover on, for ~2 hours.

Chop the bacon slices into very small pieces.  In soup pot on medium heat, cook the bacon until alot of the fat has been rendered out (in other words, the fat basically melts into oil, leaving behind the meat, which will eventually turn dark brown like bacon bits). Do not allow to burn!  Add green garlic, chopped fine.  add onion and cook until the veggies are translucent.  As the veggies are “sweating” at this point, you should be able to use the liquid which comes out to scrape off any fond, or carmelized bacon juice, from the bottom of the pot.  🙂 Add potatoes & thyme, cook for 1-2 minutes.

Add chicken stock, lima beans, and some of the bean water as well.  bring to a boil, and simmer for 2 hours.  season with Salt & pepper.  finally, add the dandelion greens, and possibly some toasted bread crumbs to thicken.  (you could also dip chunks of bread if you like).  enjoy!

Update: Hubby and I had this soup last night and it is a winner.  The finishing touch is to shave some gruyere cheese on top of each soup bowl, ideally while it is piping hot so that the cheese melts on top.   It’s delicious.

an otherworldly parsnips recipe

One of the things I like most about subscription to our CSA box is that occasionally we’ll get veggies that I’ve never tasted or even seen before.  it was through these means that Sunchokes, agretti (a relative of the tumbleweed family!), and nettles were introduced into our lives–despite their wild-west heritage, agretti are delicious and I liked sunchokes so much I actually sought them out at the Farmer’s market once, nettles I can live without, or maybe I prepared them incorrectly. 

Another more common produce item which I’d just not experienced before was parsnip.  Parsnips are not super-prevalent here in the US and indeed, the only place I’ve ever even seen them sold is the farmer’s market.  Apparently this is because of how difficult they are to grow and store.  That said, they are delicious and if you’ve never had them before, imagine something starchy like a potato, but sweet like a carrot.  Parsnips are downright heavenly when roasted in the oven, and drizzled with maple syrup, giving them a brittle, carmel-like glaze:

Roasted parsnips with Maple Syrup (Adapted from Donna Hay Magazine & the Two Small farms recipe page)
2-4 parsnips, peeled and quartered–parsnips should be white, firm and not spongy inside. 
olive oil
maple syrup
salt and pepper to taste

pre-heat oven to 400F.  line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil, and spread out the parsnips out.  Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper, and toss briefly and arrange in a single layer (do not allow to overlap or touch, they will not carmelize correctly).  put in oven for 45 minutes, until the parsnips begin to brown at the edges.  Remove from oven and drizzle 1/2-1 teaspoon maple syrup onto each parsnip piece.  put back in oven for about 15 more minutes.  Maple syrup will reduce and turn into a brittle-like candy on the outside and bottom of each parsnip.  peel off the aluminum foil and eat, or serve.

Obama Family to eat home grown Veggies!

Home grown veggies get major press today as it was disclosed that the White House will have its own veggie garden for the first time since WW2!  This shines a strong and positive spotlight on fresh, locally grown veggies as a way to combat obesity and make investments in one’s personal health.  Although I don’t think many people will necessarily grow their own food, they can turn to other forms of Community Supported Agriculture–or consuming food grown by local farmers.  We’ve been subscribing to a CSA box for three years now, and living in California we’re spoiled for choice with the farmers markets in every town, and a multitude of subscription services available.    That said, there needs to be awareness and strong support elsewhere in the country too, and the Obama’s garden will be a big step in that direction!

Here’s a link where you can find out more about the Community Supported Agriculture choices near you.