Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Recipe spectacular: Memories of Potica.


My grandparents were poor, yet they saved money all year long in a tin coffee can to celebrate Christmas with their ten grandkids in St. Paul. Every Christmas they arrived from the Iron Range in their blue station wagon loaded to the top with Christmas packages and baked goods.

Of all the many homemade gifts (including monkey puppets made from socks), my favorite was Grandma Dolly's homemade Potica bread. Every year she elaborated on how big a task it was—how she'd rolled out dough so thin it covered a large table; how she'd spread a paste of cinnamon, butter, and finely ground walnuts; how gently-and-oh-so-carefully she tightly rolled the expanse of dough, sealed its edges, and then cut it into loaf lengths before baking.

I continue her tradition each year with a much easier Potica recipe. Rather than a few days, my recipe requires a few hours and will never be truly authentic. Yet as the scent of baked cinnamon, walnuts, and oven-fresh bread fills my kitchen, I always think fondly of my grandparents, who passed on a love of Potica and so much more.

Illustration of Potica. Does not represent the actual recipe.
Image source: Creative Commons.


Mary Casanova's "easier" Potica recipe comes from Betty Crocker's International Cookbook.

Yield: 2 coffee cakes

1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
3/4 cup lukewarm milk (scalded, then cooled)
1/2 cup margarine or butter, softened
3 eggs
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 1/2 to 5 cups all-purpose flour
Walnut Filling (see below)

FOR WALNUT FILLING: Mix all of the following ingredients together.

2 1/2 cups finely chopped walnuts
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/3 cup margarine or butter, softened
1 egg
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Dissolve yeast in warm water in large bowl. Stir in milk, margarine, eggs, sugar, salt, and 3 cups of the flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to make dough easy to handle.

Turn dough onto lightly floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Place in greased bowl; turn greased side up. Cover; let rise in warm place until double, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. (Dough is ready if indentation remains when touched.)

Punch down dough; divide into halves. Roll each half into rectangle, 15 x 12 inches, on lightly floured surface. Spread half the filling over each rectangle. Roll up tightly, beginning at 15-inch side. Pinch edge of dough into roll to seal well. Stretch roll to make even.

With sealed edges down, coil into snail shapes on lightly greased cookie sheets. Cover; let rise until double, about 1 hour. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Bake until golden brown, 35 to 45 minutes. Brush with margarine if desired.


For more holiday recipes, check out past posts:
From 2015:
-Eric Dregni's gravet laks.
-Betsy Bowen's bird feed for Christmas Eve.
-Sue Leaf's meringue cookies.
-Jeff Manuel's favorite hotdish.

From 2012:
-Beatrice Ojakangas's Finnish Christmas Stars and Old Danish Christmas Kringle.
-Brenda Langton's cranberry tart.
-Jenny Breen's brussels sprouts with honey horseradish.
-Atina Diffley's corn chowder.
-Helene Henderson's Swedish pancakes.
-Beth Dooley's sweet potato salad.


Mary Casanova grew up on the edge of St. Paul and lives in Ranier, Minnesota. She is author of more than 30 books for children and young adults, including Frozen, Moose Tracks, Wolf Shadows, When Eagles Fall, and the forthcoming Wake Up, Island.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Recipe spectacular: Taconite Tater Tot Hotdish

Early visitors to Minnesota's Iron Range (here at Missabe Mountain Mine in 1937)
were meant to stand in awe at the size and complexity of open pit iron ore mining.
As Jeff Manuel writes, there has long been a close connection between politics and
iron ore mining (and, incidentally, hotdish) in Minnesota.
Image: Minnesota Historical Society Collection, HD3.112 p59.


During my years of research for Taconite Dreams, I came across some interesting taconite-themed recipes. One of my favorites is Taconite Tater Tot Hotdish. This recipe comes from Senator Amy Klobuchar, who submitted it to win a 2011 hotdish competition among Minnesota’s congressional delegation. I made this recipe at home this fall. I can’t say that it has any special connection to the holidays—or taconite for that matter—but it’s the kind of hearty hotdish that’s good on a cold northern Minnesota night.

It’s not surprising that the recipe comes from a senator. As I discuss in my book, there has long been a close connection between politics and iron mining in Minnesota. For DFL politicians like Klobuchar, the Iron Range is a crucial voting bloc that can potentially swing a statewide election. Yet it has been difficult to solve the region’s longstanding economic woes with public policy, which makes cultural appeals to the Iron Range, like taconite-themed recipes, more important than ever for Minnesota’s politicians.

If you need a drink to go with your hotdish, try the taconite special. This was a cocktail made by a Silver Bay bar specifically for engineer Edward W. Davis in the 1960s. After working for decades to perfect the taconite process, Davis retired to Silver Bay in the 1950s to be close to the Reserve Mining Company plant named in his honor: the E. W. Davis Works. He joked to reporters that he was the “undisputed patriarch” of Silver Bay and a bar in town made the taconite special just for him. According to Davis, the recipe was “plenty of gin and orange juice, with a maraschino cherry for trim” (Carl Hennemann, “He Hopes Amendment Will Pass-Dr. Edward Davis: ‘Mr. Taconite,’” St. Paul Dispatch, October 21, 1964).


Sen. Klobuchar's winning recipe (along with a lot of tasty non-winning recipes).

Check out pretty great pictures of the final products on Sen. Al Franken's Flickr page. 


We've published a few other holiday favorites this week:
-Eric Dregni: Gravet Laks
-Betsy Bowen: Feeding the birds on Christmas Eve night
-Sue Leaf: Meringue cookies


Jeff Manuel is author of Taconite Dreams: The Struggle to Sustain Mining on Minnesota's Iron Range, 1915–2000. He is associate professor of history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

"In Taconite Dreams, Jeffrey T. Manuel has done something difficult and truly important. He’s built a historical bridge from the nostalgic, often over-romanticized early days of iron mining to the all-too-real struggles of our present Iron Range region. He takes the controversial issues of economic decline, environmental impact, and cultural struggles and provides a clear-eyed assessment of how things got this way and what it might mean for the future."—Aaron Brown, journalist, author, and host of Great Northern Radio Show

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Reflection, renewal, and the art of canoeing. (With bonus Christmas meringue cookie recipe.)

Sue Leaf in May 2013 at the Minnesota River Valley National
Wildlife Refuge. "On a river, roads seem not to exist and only
the clear and sparkling water serves as a passage through the world,"
writes Leaf. Photograph by Tom Leaf.


When I was a child, I was given the gift of a canoe. The gift was not the watercraft itself—I would wait many years for that—but rather, a sure intuition that such a craft might offer me a new way of seeing, a new way of living in the world. The glimpse of that first canoe awakened a feeling so deep within me that the naturalist Sigurd Olson might have called it a genetic memory, traces of an ancestral past.

It took many years of holding a paddle in my hands, and of actually being on the water, to reconnect with the feeling that first came to me in childhood. Much of that intervening time was spent, as intervening time usually is, in details: learning to pack a food box for a canoe trip; making sure that my children had appropriate clothing for a paddle; figuring out how to keep everyone happy under spare and sometimes challenging circumstances. But when enough time had passed, and when I had grown old enough to be less preoccupied with the mundane, I realized that canoeing had indeed opened up to me an inner eye.

Sometimes drivers on a road trip eschew freeways and choose secondary roads to reach their destinations. They discover that the countryside looks very different traveling a two-lane highway. The freeway seems not to exist and suddenly they see silos and corncribs, the rare dairy herd in pasture. They slow to enter a small town and see grocery stores and post offices with American flags, white frame churches and bars lit with neon signs.

The same disappearing act occurs in canoe travel, only on a different order of magnitude. On a river, roads seem not to exist and only the clear and sparkling water serves as a passage through the world. River banks are invariably rife with greenery—willows, box elder, emergent plants like arrow weed and bulrushes. Even in a heavily cultivated region such as southern Minnesota or the Red River Valley, a narrow river valley serves as a slender oasis for birds and mammals, a refuge from the stranglehold of human beings.

Rivers were the means by which Native Americans, and later, early explorers and French voyageurs, moved cross-country. Lacking horses, but adept at living in the north woods with its many waters, they built canoes and paddled up and down rivers. They carried the exceptionally lightweight boats across the land to get from one river to another. This opened up vast possibilities for travel. Minnesota’s rivers flow into three major bodies of water: rivers in the northwest flow into the Red River of the North, which eventually empties into Hudson’s Bay; rivers entering Lake Superior flow east through the other Great Lakes and end up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the north Atlantic Ocean; and tributary rivers of the Father of Waters, the Mississippi River, flow into the Gulf of Mexico.

A path between rivers can quickly take a traveler from one watershed to another. Certain paths—portages—became historic links and they are commemorated still today in names: Portage, Wisconsin: the link between the Fox River flowing into Lake Michigan, and the Wisconsin River, joining with the Mississippi; Savannah Portage State Park: the link between Lake Superior and the Mississippi; Grand Portage, Minnesota: connecting the chain of lakes on the northern border with Lake Superior. Ancient portages have not gone away. They criss-cross the Boundary Waters and some live on as hiking paths. Riverine thoroughfares have not gone away, either. They just got eclipsed first by corduroy roads, then by gravel roads, and finally by asphalt roads that did not follow a natural course, but a human desire for speed and ease.

But for me, the waterways rise again to stream through my imagination. On a quiet, verdant river, with the trappings of human civilization hidden from view, I think of how effortlessly we get from Point A to Point B. I imagine the various people who have preceded me down this stream. On rivers that were historical trade routes, like Wisconsin’s Brule River (leading via portage from the St. Croix River to Lake Superior) I imagine the Ojibwe families who moved between villages; the explorers, like Henry Schoolcraft, for whom it was the final segment of his journey home from Lake Itasca; the French-Canadian Voyageurs, carrying furs to trading points farther north and east. I think of the various languages that have called out warnings of big rocks, or significant rapids, or rang with greetings as people met going upstream or down.

I think of a world before roads, of how rivers made it far more cosmopolitan than people today could have imagined. The river murmurs to me: I was here first. Let me carry you into the heart of things.



In the early days of the Roseville school system, the first superintendent of schools, Emmet Williams, used to give his administrative staff Christmas gifts. My dad was a curriculum coordinator for the district and one year, Dr. Williams appeared at our house with a cookie jar filled with meringue cookies. We all loved them and my mother especially so, because they are very low in calories. So here is the recipe—Christmas cookies that are okay to eat. I use egg whites from fresh eggs, because the cookies do bake, but dried egg whites would work.

Meringue Cookies

2 egg whites
1/2 c. white sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 c. mini chocolate chips
3 T. unsweetened cocoa powder (optional)

Beat egg whites to stiff peaks using an electric mixer. Use a large bowl because whites will triple in volume. Gradually add sugar, vanilla, and cocoa powder. Mix in chocolate chips by hand.

Drop by teaspoonfuls on to baking sheets lined with aluminum foil. Bake at 250 degrees for one hour. Then turn off oven and let dry in oven for 2 additional hours or overnight.

Makes three dozen.

Hungry for more? We kicked off a holiday recipe spectacular week with Eric Dregni's gravet laks and Betsy Bowen's bird-feeding tradition at midnight on Christmas Eve.

Sue Leaf is the author of Portage: A Family, a Canoe, and the Search for the Good Life and Potato City: Nature, History, and Community in the Age of Sprawl. Her books The Bullhead Queen: A Year on Pioneer Lake and A Love Affair with Birds: The Life of Thomas Sadler Roberts, both from Minnesota, were finalists for Minnesota Book Awards. A trained zoologist, she writes frequently on environmental topics. She and her husband Tom have paddled the waters of North America for forty years. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

On global science fiction cinema and environmental catastrophe.

The French poster for the 2014 film Snowpiercer. Global science fiction cinema
and its common depiction of post-apocalyptic scenarios is increasingly resonating
with current world events.


Last week, Beijing resembled an apocalyptic scene from a science fiction film. Shrouded in thick smog, China’s capital city came to a standstill. For the first time since instituting a color-coded emergency response system in 2013, the government issued a red alert, its highest air-pollution warning level. Schools and factories were closed, motor traffic was restricted, and subways sounded warning broadcasts that resembled bombing raid alerts.

Meanwhile, representatives of 195 nations gathered in Paris for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change to forge a new international agreement limiting global warming, with the objective of preventing serious climate-related catastrophes. After decades of failed talks, tensions ran high, discussions centering around the question of the respective roles of developed and developing nations, terms that reflect an understanding of the globe that is itself shifting dramatically each year. In what UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has deemed “truly a historic moment,” the summit concluded with an unprecedented consensus that nearly every country, whether developed or developing, would make an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, thereby helping to lessen the effects of climate change.

Science fiction (SF) cinema has much to contribute to broader debates on the future of the planet. Ecological devastation is a mainstay in contemporary SF around the world. From the dusty California of Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium to the unnamed East African country devoid of life in the festival hit Pumzi, such films suggest how the genre is uniquely poised to speak to urgent environmental concerns. Scarcity of natural resources (water, air, food) has been a particularly prevalent topic for current SF cinema. These films imagine life evacuated of these resources in the near future — producing built, lived-in dystopias that contain, at their most critical, possibilities for counternarratives of hope. Indeed, perhaps more than any other genre, SF is deeply intertwined with globalization and its discontents, but also for the possibility of utopias, in particular small-scale or fragile ones.

International films, prescient messages

Pumzi, the 2009 Kenyan science fiction short film directed by Wanuri Kahiu, takes place in a dystopian future thirty-five years after World War III, known as the “Water War.” The global fight for water has resulted in its shortage, making the land uninhabitable and forcing the world’s inhabitants to retreat underground. In an East African subterranean community ruled by a totalitarian regime, survivors live in closely monitored sealed compounds, recycle their own urine, and collect sweat from their own bodies. The film follows one woman’s attempt to explore the possibility of once again growing life on the outside. In so doing, it simultaneously invokes the ways in which Africa has continually served as a “reservoir” of primary resources for the Global North (and, increasingly, China) and how Africa is an origin point for the anthropocene — the beginning of human life. Pumzi stages this “return to the source” narrative through a fragile seedling, in stark contrast to global melodramas where Africa is saved by Euro-American do-gooders.

Alex Rivera’s Spanish-language film Sleep Dealer (2008) also imagines an impending global water crisis. Set in a futuristic Mexico where water is controlled by a multinational corporation via a heavily monitored dam, residents must now pay money to collect the water from their own communities. Like Pumzi, the film has a broad canvas in mind: alluding to the water struggles of 21st-century Bolivia, it also suggests the pillaging of resources in colonial Latin America. At its core, it critiques the economic exploitation of natural and human resources linked to NAFTA and the xenophobia that is its collateral damage (“Mexican labor without the Mexicans!”). This connection is prescient, for the current United Nations Conference on Climate Change has added the global refugee crisis, along with water scarcity, to its list of the devastating effects of climate change.

Water also plays a significant role in Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 film The Host. In this case, however, it’s not about its scarcity, but rather its contamination. An American military officer orders his Korean subordinate to dump formaldehyde down a drain that runs into the Han River, leading to the creation of an aquatic monster who also is the host of a lethal virus. The monster calls to mind radioactive mutant creatures from 1950s monster films (most notably, Godzilla, which was inspired by the American testing of nuclear weapons near a Japanese fishing vessel), and the film could be interpreted as a criticism of the U.S. military presence in South Korea, a reflection on viruses such as SARS and avian flu that plagued East Asia in the first decade of the new millennium, and ultimately a cautionary tale on illegal dumping. The film takes on additional relevance in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, whose effects continue to resonate throughout the world.

Thinking globally

In Bong’s most recent film, his English-language debut Snowpiercer (2014), an attempt to halt global warming through climate engineering backfires, resulting in a new ice age. Based on the post-apocalyptic French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, most of the film takes place within a sealed ecosystem, in this case the Snowpiercer train, which is the brainchild of a billionaire who builds the train to save the last vestiges of humanity, a motley group compartmentalized by class. While the 1% at the front feast on sushi and indulge in spa treatments, the majority of the passengers are kept at the back, where they are fed protein blocks made from insects and forced to labor to keep the train running. A globally diverse production — shot at a Czech production studio, with a Korean director, an American scriptwriter, a team of mostly Korean producers (including renowned auteur Park Chan-wook), and a cast featuring actors from the U.S., Korea, England, Scotland, Canada, Romania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina — the film tackles issues of global warming, labor, and food shortages. Just as Pumzi ends with the promise of a tree able to grow above ground, Snowpiercer also concludes with the possibility of life existing outside, as two of the younger characters make it off of the train, where they spot a polar bear.

In each film, the careful construction of a local world in scarcity paves way for errant tactics: modes of grappling with the seemingly overwhelming nature of environmental disaster. At the same time, each film is itself a global object, if we consider not only the use of transnational co-productions but also the ways in which the films are circulated and distributed. While SF cinema has long been associated with large-budget U.S. (and, to a lesser extent, Western European) productions — as showcased by the centrality of costly special effects for the genre — these contemporary examples suggest that some of the most trenchant critiques may be found outside of this circuit. In this way, global SF is a unique window into the difficult challenge to think globally during what might be deemed the twilight of the anthropocene.


Jennifer Feeley and Sarah Ann Wells are editors of Simultaneous Worlds: Global Science Fiction Cinema. Feeley is an independent scholar and translator. Wells is assistant professor of comparative literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"Jennifer L. Feeley and Sarah Ann Wells have done a marvelous job of bringing together established scholars with emerging voices to create a unique critical collection on global science fiction cinema, which they show is neither an impossible dream nor an artificial unity, but rather a major way to think about science fiction cinema in the new millennium."
—N. Katherine Hayles, Duke University

Recipe spectacular: Feed the birds (and squirrels and mice, too) at midnight on Christmas Eve

Page from Great Wolf and the Good Woodsman
by Betsy Bowen.

This is a continuation of a series running this week on authors' favorite holiday recipes.
See also: Bury your fish for better flavor and other questionable Norwegian advice, by Eric Dregni.


Sunflower seeds

* Cut carrots in chunks
* String some of the popcorn for the tree outside.
* Put everything in the empty pie dish (after dessert).
* At quarter to midnight on Christmas Eve, bring it outside.

First, hang the popcorn string on a tree near the bird feeder, to distract the squirrels. Put fresh seeds out for the chickadees (and a few for the squirrels and mice, too). Accidentally drop a few carrots near snowshoe hare tracks. Next, go to the goat barn. Give them the carrots, and the corn and leftover popcorn to the hens who wander in.

By now, it will be midnight. Sit a while, and listen. Did you know that on Christmas Eve, at midnight, all the animals can talk?

Watch for stars and northern lights when you walk back to the farmhouse. Sweet dreams.

Page from Great Wolf and the Good Woodsman
by Betsy Bowen.


Betsy Bowen has written and illustrated many children's books, including Tracks in the Wild, Great Wolf and the Good Woodsman, Plant a Pocket of Prairie, Twelve Owls, Hawk Ridge, and Big Belching Bog, all published by University of Minnesota Press. She lives in Grand Marais, Minnesota.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Recipe spectacular: Bury your fish for better flavor and other questionable Norwegian advice.

A fishing boat in Norway's Lofoten Islands. Author Eric Dregni
spent a year on a Fulbright Fellowship in Trondheim, Norway,
where his first child was born.
Images courtesy of the author.

This is the first in a series running this week on authors' favorite holiday recipes.


The fishmonger at the Ravnkloa seafood shop in Trondheim tricked me. Seeing a curious and gullible tourist, he asks me if I’d like to taste a bite of dark red fish meat called “hval” that had been marinating. Always eager to try something new, I take the slice he carved with his razor sharp knife. I munch on a big piece that tastes more like beef than cod and asked the name of the fish. He smirks and replies, “In English, it’s called ‘whale.’ ” After that, I switch to the Fiskehallen, a less touristy fish shop, for all my fish needs.

My pregnant wife Katy and I are living for a year in Trondheim, Norway, and I’m determined to try all kinds of fish, but swimming mammals like whale was not on the list. I prefer herring, or the “silver of the sea,” which was always a special treat growing up in Minnesota and now at the Fiskehallen the variety is mouth-watering: with juniper berries, with rømme (35% fat sour cream), with mustard dill, as matjes herring filets, etc. I dream of someday traveling to the World’s Longest Herring Table in Florø, Norway, in June where a 400-meter-long table extends through town and is piled high with all sorts of herring.

In the meantime, I’ll have to be content with a new-found treat: herring cakes, essentially a fried patty of ground herring, egg, and bread crumbs. I fry them in a little oil, garnish them with lemon and serve them to Katy. Her face scrunches up when she eats them and asks me, “Why would you want to mash up fish fillets into a little ball anyway?”

Our Norwegian friend Inger is equally disgusted. “You ate herring cakes? Ugh! My mother once tried to save money at home so she said we were going to eat herring for weeks. We had salt herring and herring cakes and now I can never eat them.” Even so, Inger gives us a jar of pickled herring for Christmas.

I always viewed pickled herring as a special treat, but to most Norwegians it’s considered poor food because it is the cheapest fish. Just as in the past when torsk, or cod, was daily fare and the elusive salmon was reserved for special occasions. Now fish farms in the fjords make salmon as cheap as the overfished cod.

Inger tells me that the other food staple growing up was hval. “When I was a girl, whale meat was very cheap. I do like whale meat, but it depends how it’s cooked. Sometimes it can taste like tran (cod liver oil) if they don’t cook it right.” Even though the Fiskehallen has large posters advertising whale meat, I don’t feel right about munching on Moby Dick. Perhaps I’ve been exposed to too many Greenpeace pamphlets showing the slaughter of these poor mammals.

Instead of whale, I can try the fish balls or cod tongues if I feel adventurous. For the uninitiated, though, the fishmonger at the Fiskehallen recommends klippefisk, or dried cod. “It’s a little snack that you can eat called ‘Lofoten Candy,’ ” he says, in reference to the rugged Lofoten Islands where giant schools of cod are fished.

My classmate Helen loves klippefisk. “It’s mostly what children eat, though.” Children? “Oh yes, they have it as a snack. I only have it about once a month now and it reminds me of my childhood.” Not to burst her bubble, I try to hide that eating klippefisk seems like chewing on fishy shoe leather and the package gives my whole backpack the smell of the sea—and lures alley cats to follow me around.

In spite of the value placed on fresh fish, I read that in Norway’s past, fresh food was considered unhealthy. Meats and fish were usually salted. With the rest of the fish, creative Norwegians either boiled, buried, dried, pickled, or soaked it in lye. No wonder a Portuguese fishmonger in Bergen lamented, “Norway has the best fish in the world, but they don’t know how to cook it!”

A fish market in Bergen, Norway.

I’m sure the Mediterranean countries have fantastic recipes, but I find Trondheim to be a fish-eaters’ heaven with unusual catches of the day including peppered mackerel, curried herring, smoked salmon, dried cod, salt cod, cod tongues, and marinated whale. Still, though, we haven’t found the recipe to write home about.

To find the best fish, I vow to try the whole range of fish products at the Fiskehallen. The daily catch of cod to trout to shrimp to halibut is displayed. Even so, the finicky older women of Trondheim waiting in line are very careful to get the best. Perhaps they remember the Norwegian expression, “Take everything for good fish,” meaning you’re a gullible fool if you assume that any fish is edible and fresh.

Truly fresh fish is highly prized in Norway. An acquaintance named Hans Erik tells me that even a few hours is too long for some connoisseurs. “I know a fisherman who will only eat fish on his boat, so it’s the freshest possible. The first thing he does on his boat is start the water boiling. Then he throws in his line. That way, the fish is barely even out of the water before it’s on your plate. He won’t eat fish any other way.” I’ve heard the Norwegian expression for such fresh cod is called “blodfersk,” or blood-fresh. I think that if that’s the only way to have truly fresh fish, I’ve never had it.

Perhaps in hopes of not having to eat all these bizarre specialties, my Katy asks her Norwegian midwife, Sigrid, if there is any food she should avoid eating now that she’s pregnant. “I don’t think so. You can eat what you want. Well, some people say that pregnant women shouldn’t eat rakfisk. I don’t know what it is in English, ‘rotten fish’? But if you like it, I think it’s OK.”

Rakfisk in our Norwegian cookbook is defined as “fermented fish.” At the Fiskehallen, we ask the fishmonger about this dangerous-sounding dish, but he says it’s a delicacy only available at Christmas. Katy breathes a sigh of relief knowing she has a brief reprieve until December.

Instead, our friend Henning recommends the cured salmon, which is a special treat around the holiday season as well. He explains, “Gravet laks, or cured salmon, is similar to rakfisk, but better. To make gravet laks, we catch the salmon, put some dill on it and then bury it in the ground for a few days. It sounds strange, but it’s very good!” He explains that ‘gravet’ means ‘buried,’ like ‘grave’ in English.” I just hope it’s not a premonition.

Henning asks the fishmonger at the Fiskehallen where they bury their salmon. The fishmonger replies, “We have a new way to make gravet laks without burying it now, so there’s no risk of botulism.” Henning is obviously disappointed that his favorite food has somehow become sanitized and safer. Back in our apartment when we smother the cured salmon in a mustard-dill sauce and wash it down with aquavit, Henning is satisfied.

Katy loves the fresh taste of gravet laks and begins to crave it to satisfy the little Norwegian baby in her belly. Finally we’ve found the best recipe for fish that somehow comforts us when we’re thousands of miles from home. We must enjoy the gravet laks while we can because only in Norway will it be truly fresh. When we compare the freshness and texture of this uncooked gravet laks to Japanese sushi, Henning is appalled. “No, no, no! That’s just raw fish. You could get sick!” he explains with a grimace.

(aka Cured Salmon)
(aka gravlax in Swedish)

* 1 1/2 to 2 pounds of salmon. Two symmetrical pieces (preferably frozen already to kill microorganisms) cleaned, boned, scaled, preferably with the skin on. Center cut (toward the head) is best because it’s thickest and juiciest.
* 1 bunch of dill
* 1/8 cup of kosher salt, or coarse salt (regular salt can be substituted)
* 1/8 cup of sugar
* Shot of brandy or aquavit (optional, but an extra shot is always welcome for the cook)
* 2 tbsp. white, black, and/or pink peppercorns (optional, I think it detracts and masks the subtle fish flavor)

Directions: Rinse the fish in cold water and dry with paper towels. Place skin side down on large piece of saran wrap or aluminum foil. Put dill sprigs on top and sprinkle the salt, sugar and optional peppercorns evenly. Pour brandy over fish. Put other piece of fish on top, flesh side down, skin side up. Wrap up very tightly in plenty of foil or plastic wrap. Put heavy weight (e.g. 4 cans, five pound weight, an iron) on top of fish and refrigerate at least two days, but preferably three or four. Turn the fish every 12 hours or so and resituate the weights on top. When gravet laks is finished, scrape off excess salt, sugar, pepper and dill and dry with paper towels. Slice the fish very thin.

Serving suggestions: Plain with mustard dill sauce (mix chopped fresh dill with even parts of mustard and mayonnaise and a bit of lemon juice. I like some honey in it too, but Scandinavians would scoff at this). Goes well with boiled potatoes, especially new potatoes.
Another favorite is on top of scrambled eggs and thinly sliced bread for a kind of smørbrød (open-faced sandwich). Smoked salmon is also delicious this way. Pils beer and a shot of aquavit are mandatory to wash down this treat.

This piece is adapted from In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream by Eric Dregni.

Eric Dregni is associate professor of English and journalism at Concordia University in St. Paul. He is the author of more than a dozen books including By the Waters of Minnetonka, Never Trust a Thin Cook, Vikings in the Attic, Midwest Marvels, and the forthcoming Let's Go Fishing!, all published by University of Minnesota Press.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

"Before the fence, before the checkpoints, before the border guards, there are the documents and the bureaucrats": On immigration and literacy.

Assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

The United States is a nation of immigrants. But immigrating here—or coming as a refugee—has never been easy. Refugees and immigrants take difficult, dangerous, and expensive journeys.

And they also undertake paperwork. Lots of it. Potential immigrants and asylum seekers must present themselves on paper as people who deserve to be here. There is nothing simple about the mundane bureaucratic mechanisms by which some hopeful residents are let in to the country and others are left out.

Recently, a refugee to the United States who goes by Arnessa tweeted about the process. In addition to filling out forms and submitting everything from birth certificates to utility bills, she and her family had to write their story: “Where you were born, where you are now, what you are doing, everything.”

How that story is written can mean the difference between a welcome mat and a fence.

In my research with both documented and undocumented immigrants in the United States, I listened to experience after experience of people using their literacy, some successfully and some not, to get papers.

Consider this experience of a woman who failed to get papers:

Before coming to the United States illegally, undocumented Brazilian migrant Juliana submitted reams of documents to a distant U.S. consulate. She traveled there on five separate occasions to try to attain papers for herself and her son. She wanted to reunite with her husband, who had been living in the U.S. for more than a decade. She filled out the forms honestly and to the best of her ability. But something was off in her papers that no amount of revision or persistence could fix. She and her son were denied visas without knowing why. After her failures, she booked a flight to Mexico City, hired a coyote (human smuggler), and crossed the border with her son on foot, during which process she feared drowning, starvation, and rape. She remembered most vividly the pain of picking cactus needles from her skin after having run through the desert at night. What might she have written that could have allowed her to book a flight directly to Boston—instead of being locked in a van in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Texas until her husband paid the coyotes the sum they were owed?

And consider this experience of a woman who achieved papers:

Portuguese immigrant Cristina had been in the U.S. for more than 30 years as a legal permanent resident. She arrived as a child, learned English in school, and then left school at 15 to work in a factory to help support her family. She considered the U.S. her home. And so she wanted to upgrade her status from resident to citizen. She paid hundreds of dollars to take the citizenship test, which required English literacy. She took the test three times. Three times she failed, citing her trouble with reading and writing. On the fourth try, she passed. She described her surprising winning attempt in this way: “They asked, ‘What color is your car?’ That’s easy. White. I wrote. ‘White. My car is white.’” She was surprised that on that try, on that sentence, her writing was good enough to become American—if only, in her words, “American by paper.”

For the United States, literacy is a first line technology of enforcement. Before the fence, before the checkpoints, before the border guards, there are the documents and the bureaucrats.

And for immigrants and refugees, literacy is a tool to try to write one’s way into the nation. And so there are also the applicants, or the “aliens” as many official forms call them, sweating as their writing is judged.

This use of literacy to let some in and keep others out is not new. In the earlier part of the twentieth century, the United States used literacy tests to justify race-based exclusion. Sometimes one’s literacy would prove one was white (and therefore allowed to stay) or nonwhite (and therefore excluded). People have also long used their literacy to work the system. In response to late nineteenth-century Asian-exclusion laws, for example, many families invented “paper sons.” Hopeful immigrants would memorize fictional familial histories, the geographic layout of made-up neighborhoods, and complicated webs of pseudonymic relations—all to prove they had the right relations for legal entry. Sometimes their false aliases remained, to the dismay of relatives, on their headstones at death.

In our contemporary system, relying on literacy as a gatekeeper for migrants and refugees continues to be fraught.

If you were an asylum seeker, would you stop to collect utility bills as you fled conflict? What if the stories you and your family members wrote as part of the asylum-seeking process didn’t exactly match up—as they don’t for many of us when we, for example, are swapping old stories around a holiday table, never mind in the confused traumatic aftermath of war? And what if your education was disrupted by political instability and you don’t read or write well? In any of these cases, you might be stuck.

Even when the bureaucratic appetite for literacy is met—the citizens of the United States can write the colors of their cars, refugees’ family stories are corroborated, utility bills are accounted for—even then some refugees and immigrants will not get placement. The system is flawed.

Part of the problem is that we often see writing as a transparent means of communicating. Simply write your story, the government says to Arnessa. Simply write that your car is white, the examiner says to Cristina. But what happens between one party posing the question and the other party putting pen to paper is maddeningly complex. It is shot through with the high-stakes nature of the interaction, histories of unequal educational access, and cross-cultural and cross-linguistic misunderstandings, to name just a few complicating factors.

Another part of the problem is that literacy is profoundly specific. Someone might be literate, in the sense of being able to decode words, but not have the particular bureaucratic writing skills to pass a citizenship test or to fill out a form. Juliana was skilled in religious writing and biblical interpretations, but couldn’t fill out the immigration form well enough to migrate legally. Cristina could read medical prescriptions to administer to the elderly clients for whom she cared in her job, but failed her citizenship test three times. Such failures speak to the way individual literate skills—marked by culture, race, family—may or may not match up with what the U.S. requires to call it a “home.”

Paperwork is ubiquitous. For many of us, it is simply a nuisance. Yet as refugee crises make clear, papers—and the literacy required to attain them—can be a matter of global social justice, indeed of life and death.


Kate Vieira is assistant professor of English in the program in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her book, American by Paper: How Documents Matter in Immigrant Literacy, is forthcoming in March from the University of Minnesota Press.

Monday, December 7, 2015

On agonistic democracy and Anonymous

Members of the hacktivist group Anonymous wear masks based on the film
V for Vendetta's character V, who had been influenced by Guy Fawkes.
This mask appears at a 2012 protest in Montreal. Source: Wikipedia.

Assistant professor of media and screen studies at Northeastern University

November was a busy month for Anonymous. On November 5, the hacktivist group released the names and social media information of hundreds of presumed Klu Klux Klan affiliates. In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks of November 13, Anonymous began revealing thousands of presumed ISIS sympathizers' Twitter accounts and shutting them down through a distributed-denial-of-service attack conducted by means of a botnet. Whereas #opKKK #hoodsoff has come under scrutiny for the publication of an inaccurate list of politicians with alleged connections to the Klan, #opParis has been openly criticized because many of the pro-ISIS Twitter accounts have nothing to do with the Islamic State or even Islamic fundamentalism.

This is certainly not the first time that Anonymous comes under scrutiny for publishing inaccurate information or for denying freedom of speech to its opponents. Additionally, Anonymous is often criticized for exposing while refusing to be exposed, and for pointing the finger without taking responsibility for its actions.

But is it really true that anonymity is incompatible with accountability?

To begin with, as Gabriella Coleman has recently pointed out, Anonymous activists meet on public chat channels and entertain ongoing relationships with the press. This exposes them to a certain degree of accountability, as (good) journalists will tend to verify the accuracy of leaks as well as the leakers’ identity and motivations. Second, Coleman argues that the name of Anonymous is itself associated with a certain degree of fallibility, that is, the public does not expect from Anonymous the same level of objectivity it expects from a reputable news organization.

This fallibility reminds us that those who band behind the name of Anonymous are first and foremost activists. These activists employ powerful imagery and clever stratagems to affect the media discourse even when the information they disclose or the actions they undertake are questionable. In this sense, following Foucault, we could think of Anonymous as a temporary breakdown in the order of the discourse—a suspension of the invisible discursive structures that regulate both the kind of enunciations and the speakers that are allowed in the public sphere of communication. If the outcomes of Anonymous’ operations are questionable, why do they keep getting so much media attention? How is it possible that individuals who evade accountability are nevertheless able to get their message across? Have journalists abdicated their professional standards?

There are many reasons for why Anonymous, after a decade of existence, is still newsworthy. Many of these reasons have less to do with Anonymous itself than with an ever-accelerating news cycle, which leaves journalists with very little time for fact-checking. Yet there is also a subjective reason for why this collective of enunciation that keeps troubling the ordered count of a community’s parts—as Jacques Rancière would put it—is still able to attract so much media attention.

As I argue in my book Improper Names, I believe that, similar to other shared pseudonyms that have preceded it, Anonymous is a form of symbolic power that is constructed outside of the boundaries of an institutional practice. Whereas politicians, magistrates, and military and religious leaders derive their authority from the institutions that invest them with certain powers, Anonymous’ symbolic power is inseparable from the actual uses of the moniker. In other words, each use of the name affects the public perception of Anonymous, and therefore its subsequent uses. This does not mean that such uses are spontaneous and unregulated. Rather, there is always an authorizing context within which the mode of disposition and usage of a shared pseudonym is regulated.

The main authorizing context of Anonymous is the Internet Relay Chat. It is in this sprawling network of text-based chats that the hacktivists plan and coordinate—both in public and invite-only channels—their operations. It is also here that dissent over the actions of specific individuals is voiced and expressed. And it is in IRC that tight-knit hacker groups, which often collaborate or clash with Anonymous on specific operations, coalesce and compete for attention. In this sense, we could say that Anonymous’ symbolic power emerges through a series of agonistic challenges over the use of this open reputation. It is no accident that many journalistic accounts of Anonymous report and emphasize these tensions—often as a sign of weakness and scarce reliability.

Rather than seeing these conflicts as flaws, I believe that Anonymous’ internal strife has been propelling the group through a series of transition phases since its inception in 2005-06. Because there are no institutional mechanisms to prevent someone from making use of the pseudonym, the only way for affiliates to affirm their proposed course of action is to multiply their efforts in the name of Anonymous. Indeed, the fact that there are no formal procedures for expelling someone from Anonymous does not mean that the users of the moniker have not developed ethical guidelines to regulate the uses of the name. In this sense, the real challenge for the various factions that make up Anonymous is how to manage this symbolic power so as to allow for a series of adversarial uses of the pseudonym.

As political theorist Chantal Mouffe reminds us, whereas enemies do not have a common symbolic space, adversaries acknowledge each other but also recognize that they want to organize such space in different ways. Thus rather than asking whether Anonymous is reliable or accountable to the general public perhaps we should ask whether Anonymous has developed a catalogue of practices--concerning for example the power of IRC administrators and operators, the use of botnets, and the ethical implications of doxxing—that allow Anons to be accountable to one other. Whereas there are plenty of indications that this is certainly the case within specific operations, the question remains of how such knowledge circulates and is handed down across different geographical areas and different generations of Anons. In other words, the capacity of Anonymous to evolve into a more mature—and why not, organized—movement depends on its capacity to systematize a pragmatic knowledge that can be handed down from one generation of hacktivists to the next. If to formalize such knowledge would entail a step towards institutionalization it would also provide a powerful shield against the recurring infantilization of the movement.


Marco Deseriis is author of Improper Names: Collective Pseudonyms from the Luddites to Anonymous. He is assistant professor of media and screen studies at Northeastern University.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

What would an environmentalism that engages with the contemporary realities of migration look like? John Hultgren exposes connections between anti-immigrant politics and environmentalism.

The U.S.-Mexico border at California and Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico.
Here, author John Hultgren asks: What would an environmentalism look like
that engages with the contemporary realities of migration?
Image via Creative Commons.

Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University

What do Donald Trump, Canadian environmental activist David Suzuki, and British naturalist Sir David Attenborough have in common?

They have all recently argued for strengthening restrictions on immigration.

This might seem strange. Suzuki and Attenborough are progressive environmentalists, while Trump is a hardcore conservative. In the United States, it seems odd to hear of “progressive” environmentalists embracing immigration restrictionism, a policy position typically championed by the political right. A recent Pew Research Center report found that there is a sharp partisan split on immigration among the American public, with Republicans being far more likely than Democrats to suggest that immigrants are harming society. Indeed, anti-immigrant sentiment has become so vociferous on the right that President Obama recently criticized Republican candidates for their “un-American” remarks, noting that such views run “contrary to who we are.”

Many American environmentalists are well aware of contentious debates over immigration that have periodically raged in groups like Earth First! and the Sierra Club.

Still, they would likely argue that viewing environmentalism as central to immigration restrictionism is an overstatement.

It isn’t.

Anti-racist organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for New Community have long pointed to The John Tanton Network of anti-immigrant groups—highlighting the role that the former Sierra Club and Audubon Society member played in forming restrictionist groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Center for Immigration Studies, and the Social Contract Press. The point that is often overlooked here is that Tanton is not alone in his environmental restrictionist sentiments—far from it. Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, is a former environmental journalist who has written extensively on the supposed environmental impacts of immigration. Philip Cafaro, the President of Progressives for Immigration Reform, is professor of environmental ethics at Colorado State University. Michael Hethmon, senior counsel for the Immigration Reform Law Institute, has been described as entering into the immigration restriction movement out of fears that “immigrants would overburden the environment.” The list could go on.

A typical move among many environmentalists when confronted with these facts is to distance themselves from these restrictionist activists. They aren’t really environmentalists, the narrative goes, but are “greenwashing nativism”; in other words, they are appropriating environmental logics to advance their xenophobic positions. But how about others who have embraced environmental restrictionism, such as deep ecological hero Edward Abbey? Or ecologist Garrett Hardin? Or environmentalist David Brower? Or Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson? Or ecological economist Herman Daly? Their environmental bonafides are more difficult to dismiss as mere greenwashing.

The “problem” of immigration points to a problem of environmental thought. Environmentalists lack an adequate understanding of how “cultural” norms of sovereignty, nationalism, and race intersect with “natural” ideals of wilderness, ecosystems, and carrying capacity. The result is a paradox: on one hand, most environmentalists have social commitments to ideals of liberal equality, multiculturalism, and in some cases, social justice; on the other hand, they continue to conceptualize nature through the very same lenses of these restrictionist environmental activists. In this sense, by displacing racism, nationalism, and xenophobia into the realm of “culture”—by arguing that restrictionists aren’t real environmentalists but are actually driven by social commitments to racism, nationalism, or sovereignty—environmentalists fail to confront the ways in which commitments to nature can be complicit in producing social exclusion. How strange it is that our efforts to “speak for nature” have so frequently been tinged with a language of nationalism.

My argument is that we environmentalists shouldn’t shy away from these historical intersections. Analyzing how genuine environmentalists have embraced restrictionist politics not only provides us with a more complete understanding of the machinations of the contemporary anti-immigrant movement, it can also prod us into reflexive self-examination—which might help us figure out how to construct a more effective environmental practice oriented around socio-ecological justice. For example, what would an environmentalism that engages with the contemporary realities of migration look like? One that focuses on the transnational political economic processes that cause migration, rather than barricading national borders; one in which wilderness remains sublime but agricultural fields, sweatshops, and desert crossings are also transformed into sites of political intervention; one that envisions how threats to prized local rivers, forests, and lakes are connected to social and environmental threats abroad? This would be an environmentalism that could better resist the structures causing socio-ecological injustice, and that could more effectively build alliances with other social movements.

The good news is that environmentalists are moving in this direction. In 2013, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace USA, and all announced their support for a path to citizenship for immigrants. Earth First! went even further in rebuking the logic of borders, making a strong case that they represent “a scar on the earth.” The bad news is that as climate change intensifies and begins to disrupt profit-making as usual, immigration restriction could well re-emerge as the low-hanging fruit in efforts to build a more sustainable United States— a “simple” solution that doesn’t require “us” to revamp political institutions, forms of production, or consumer practices. As migrants and refugees, driven by prolonged droughts, extreme weather events, and rising seas change the composition of existing forms of nationalism, this reality becomes all the more likely. Progressive environmentalists might be gradually moving away from restrictionism but, faced with a changing political landscape in which overt racism and xenophobia are no longer socially acceptable, restrictionists are increasingly relying on logics articulated from within environmentalism to advance their anti-immigrant agendas. For environmentalists like me, this means that we share a greater obligation for resisting anti-immigrant logics and for forcefully re-envisioning what an environmentalism would look like that tears down walls rather than builds them up.

Further thought: As the world turns its eyes on Paris, the relationship between climate change and the current refugee crisis will attract significant attention. Amid the French state of exception, will refugees be constructed as threats to the nation-state? Or will environmentalists work to further develop transformational coalitions with migrant and refugee rights’ organizations? This latter possibility offers hope—only by rethinking who we environmentalists are can we truly confront the structural forces producing socio-ecological injustice.


John Hultgren is author of Border Walls Gone Green: Nature and Anti-immigrant Politics in America. He is lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University.

"Strong, provocative, and insightful. . . John Hultgren advances the field theoretically through his critique and integration of competing perspectives on sovereignty in environmental politics."
—John M. Meyer, author of Engaging the Everyday: Environmental Social Criticism and the Resonance Dilemma