Sunday, September 30, 2018

Salmon Farm Force Power Flight Jacket


Don’t overthink the title of this post. I had to get your attention. I’m sure nobody would read another word past the title “Salmon Farming – Pros and Cons.” But stop, don’t leave! I promise this will be interesting. Maximum strike open flight force! Stay with me! I’ll even include some gratuitous eye candy along the way. You’ll be glad you read this, trust me. I’m going to entertain you, improve your life, and empower you. Join me on my journey from aquaculture skeptic to true believer. Hyper strike epic!


During a recent trip to Norway, my family was lured to the Havforsknings Instituttet. We thought this place would be devoted to the study of people who have foreskins, but it turns out to be a marine research center and aquarium. It was a great place, but despite all the cool otters, penguins, and exotic fish there, eventually we all got museum knees and had to sit down. So we headed over to the auditorium for a show about orcas, looking forward to some violent footage of their eating habits. At least, that’s what we thought was on the docket.

What we actually got was this long documentary about aquaculture—specifically, salmon farming. It could have been pretty interesting except it was pitched at the grade-school level. The best part was when an interviewer cornered an aquaculture scientist and asked, “Yes or no: is farmed salmon safe?” The scientist replied, “As far as we can tell, yes.” So tepid! So honest! In America the response would have been, “You bet your ass it is. There isn’t a safer food on the planet. Mega jacket open flash strike!”

I’d already been vaguely aware that Norwegian salmon was farmed. To be honest, this bothered me a bit every time we enjoyed it at a restaurant. When my wife declared that some salmon she ate in Oslo was the best she’d ever had, I had this cognitive dissonance—like, could it really be that the best salmon isn’t even wild? I decided her salmon was very good, but not as good as the local salmon I’d had in Scotland. This upheld my sense of myself as a sophisticated foodie until I considered that the Scottish salmon was possibly also farmed. After our trip, when I wrote my Food of Norway post, I tried to chase this Scottish thing down. But the more I looked into it, the more it looked as though I was in fact an uncultured rube, incapable of separating “real” food from rubbish.

Instinctive aversion

Upon reflection, I have to concede that my historical preference for wild salmon has been largely a knee-jerk thing. I recall Anthony Bourdain saying that, as a chef, he loved farmed salmon because it was relatively cheap, yet he could charge as much for it as for a nice lamb chop. (I’ve tried to find this quote, but Googling “Anthony Bourdain” is lately too depressing.) Meanwhile, I read years ago in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma that farmed salmon isn’t necessarily healthier than grass-fed beef. I’ve come to realize that at some point I unconsciously lumped farmed salmon into the broad category of “food that has been tampered with,” which I instinctively avoid (except that I don’t, not really, but let’s not think about that right now).

Above all, I must confess I have enjoyed being the kind of gainfully employed person who can afford the good, wild stuff. Maybe my kids don’t get to wipe their butts with raw silk, but damn it, they get top grade wild Sockeye salmon!

Visiting Norway had me challenging all of this. Boring though it may have been, that museum documentary did showcase an industry that is clearly careful and responsible. Can you imagine a zoo in Kansas showing a documentary about feedlots? Hell no—they wouldn’t dare. Nobody would want to watch it, and moreover, the beef industry would crucify everyone involved.

A brief pause for eye candy

Okay, I did promise some eye candy. Here you go.

What’s really wrong with farmed salmon?

Virtually all of the salmon from Norway—over a million metric tons a year, worth $8 billion, according to the New York Timesis farmed. Granted, Norway seems to do a nice job with it, locating the farms in the fjords; they’re just netted-off areas of ocean where fish are generously fed. Not so different from a cruise ship, really.

Still, some environmental advocates strongly deride farmed salmon, even the Norwegian stuff. Kurt Oddekalv, leader of the Green Warriors of Norway, described farmed salmon to the Times as “the most toxic food in the world.” And I read in the Guardian how Don Staniford, of the Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture, “a Liverpudlian who has lived in Scotland for many years, argued that cramming carnivorous, migratory fish into crowded tanks and releasing toxins, diseases and parasites into the surrounding waters was inherently unsustainable.” I took this with a grain of salt, noting how the word “tank” was used to describe a facility contiguous with open ocean. (This guy kind of puts the “pud” back in “Liverpudlian.”)

I’ll admit that it has always creeped me out a bit that farmed salmon wouldn’t be pink without a little help. According to the website, “The pink color of Norwegian Salmon comes from a natural oxycarotenoid called astaxanthin. In nature, salmon receive astaxanthin by eating crustaceans. Norwegian Salmon receive these same beneficial nutrients as supplements in their feed.” It must be said that salmon farmers don’t use very much. As Time magazine reports, “The pigmenting compound doesn’t come cheap. It is the most expensive element of salmon feed, according to a 2011 study, taking up nearly 20% of total fish feed costs. Controlling and optimizing the concentration of astaxanthin in fish food is time and labor intensive.” Reading this is, psychologically speaking, a mixed bag. It’s like, “Don’t worry, it’s all very precise—a tightly-run factory!”

But then, so is the production of just about everything we eat, honestly. I don’t kid myself:  the practice of agriculture is closer to a factory than to a farm. It’s easy to be skeptical about farmed salmon when we peek behind the curtain, but we ignore other industries that hide behind a fence or a wall.

I watched some candid Internet footage of salmon being fed. Their feed consists of little dusty brown balls, like dog food, which is kind of depressing—but then, I feed my beloved cat cat food, which is also little brown balls. I should just get over it.

The problem is, just when I’ve figured out a way to discard another misgiving about farmed salmon (I am a cheap bastard, after all), another issue pops up, like ideological Whack-a-Mole. Wikipedia questions the sustainability of aquaculture: “Salmon require large nutritional intakes of protein, and farmed salmon consume more fish than they generate as a final product. On a dry weight basis, 2–4 kg of wild-caught fish are needed to produce one kg of salmon.”

Should we trust Wikipedia? Maybe not, but NPR essentially agrees: “It takes about three pounds of feeder fish to produce one pound of farmed salmon … but feeding more salmon depletes the ocean’s smaller fish.”

There are other issues. When farmed salmon escape their enclosure, they can breed with wild fish and create nonviable offspring. There’s also an issue around the spread of sea lice to the wild population. According to the Times, these parasites “feast on the mucus and skin of the fish before moving on to the muscle and fat, making the fish vulnerable to infections and sometimes killing them.” Yuck! Makes me want to opt for the burger—unless I allow myself to remember the poor overweight cows standing around in their own waste in tiny pens, jacked up on antibiotics because their blood pH has been screwed up by a diet of corn that they didn’t evolve to eat.

Of course, eating only wild salmon isn’t an obviously practical solution. The Times reports that the wild salmon population in Norway has fallen by more than half since the 1980s. There just isn’t enough wild salmon there to produce the 14 million meals of Norwegian salmon that says are consumed every day worldwide.

Meanwhile, even if you insist on wild, you’re probably being duped at least some of the time. According to this article in Time, researchers conducting DNA testing found that about a third of salmon they tested that was touted as wild was actually farmed, and “you’re three times more likely to get duped at a restaurant, where 67% of the salmon were mislabeled, than a grocery store.”

Here’s an interesting product: wild keta salmon from a company called Pacific Seafood.

So what is keta salmon? According to Wikipedia it’s a type of Pacific salmon. Hence “Pacific Seafood,” I guess. But look at the label closely: this fish is a “wild product of China.” I’m not a geographer, but I just checked and China is well beyond the range of wild Pacific salmon:

So I’m getting a little confused here. I also note that this product has FD&C Yellow #6 and Red #40. Why?! “(Color enhancer.)” Yeah, but—why? Isn’t this Chinese Pacific salmon naturally pink? After all, it’s wild!

So what is to be done? As is so often the case, there seemed to be no simple answer. I was on the verge of shrugging my shoulders, reconciling myself to a future of very expensive wild Alaskan salmon when I’m feeling flush, and otherwise settling for canned salmon—which is always wild, but not all that tasty, particularly because it’s got all these sections of softened vertebrae in it, which are probably really good for you but are kind of chalky and aren’t so pleasant to crunch. But then, when I mentioned to my wife I was planning a blog post on farmed salmon, she said, “Instead of doing a trifling amount of research, throwing in a largely ignorant dose of pure opinion larded with stupid gags, and releasing another half-baked, largely useless essay on the world, why not interview a real expert for once?”

No, of course she didn’t really say that. What she actually said was, “You could interview my friend R—, who really knows this stuff.” So I did. Her friend, who has a Master’s and a Ph.D. in Aquatic and Fishery Science and works for a scientific research agency, happily obliged. (She asked to be quoted anonymously, though, as she doesn’t need “any more hate mail.” Whether her name even starts with “R,” I refuse to divulge.)

Another brief pause

Still there? Good job! Here’s some more eye candy.

The real skinny on salmon farming

I had a fascinating 45-minute discussion with R— about aquaculture. To begin with, she corrected some of the misconceptions I’d come across. For one thing, regarding efficiency of production, the feed conversion rate is now closer to 1-to-1 (the 3-to-1 statistic being really outdated).  Theoretically, she said, the conversion rate could be 0-to-1 as alternative feeds are developed. She forwarded me a couple of very thorough articles on the subject. Without getting into too much detail, here’s an interesting statistic: as explained here, one study found that for a given amount of feed, farmed salmon produces over three times as much edible product as poultry, and five times as much as pork.

Regarding interbreeding between farmed and wild salmon, R— pointed out that this isn’t a big problem on the west coast of the U.S., because we’re mainly farming Atlantic salmon here, which cannot breed with wild Pacific salmon. She concedes that “there are risks of farmed Atlantic salmon interbreeding with wild Atlantic salmon when they are farmed in areas where Atlantic salmon are native (i.e., the east coast and Europe).”

On the subject of alternative (non-fish-based) feeds, R— explained that this is being pursued very carefully: “There are definitely studies around how you maintain health with fish using alternative feeds; for example, they know that taurine, an amino acid, is essential to a fish’s diet.” I find this a pleasant contrast to the beef industry, which is notorious for using antibiotics to make animals gain weight faster, and the poultry industry, which grows its chicken “so fast that they have trouble walking because their legs won’t support the weight, in addition to other related health problems” (according to the Chicago Tribune here).

R— confirmed that antibiotics are not widely used with aquaculture, and asserted that farmed salmon is very safe and sustainable if it comes from Norway, British Columbia, Scotland or the US. In this country, there are nationwide regulatory standards for aquaculture to make sure its practices are safe. As for Pollan’s suggestion that farmed salmon may have fewer Omega-3s than grass-fed beef, R— clarified that currently, given the fish-based diet farmed salmon eat, wild caught doesn’t have more Omega-3s than farmed. This could change, if the aquaculture industry formulates feed from other sources, but they’re “experimenting with using fish processing waste, marine algae, even kinds of yeasts to feed to fish so they’ll still have lots of Omega-3s.”

(By the way, you know that bit about astaxanthin being added to the feed to produce the pink color? Well, far from the dye that Pacific Seafood adds to their “wild” salmon, astaxanthin is also sold to humans as a health food supplement. Dr. Andrew Weil, whom I consider a pretty staid, reliable source, touts its health benefits here.)

R— had a lot to say about the issue of scale, and the impossibility of meeting an increasing demand for seafood with a declining supply of wild fish. “Every other food we eat is [mainly] farmed except for fish,” she pointed out. “Why should fish be the one holdout? What other endangered or declining species are we running out to eat?”

Aquaculture, she explained, is scalable because there’s so much ocean that we’re not using: “One team calculated that we could replace the entire global wild captured fisheries with aquaculture and use less than 0.01% of the ocean’s surface. It’s totally doable; the question is what scale people will accept.” She’s frustrated because so many people reject aquaculture due to outdated information. “It’s so engrained in people that farmed fish is bad. When it first got going in the ‘70s all these NGOs cried foul because there was no oversight; now, these same NGOs are admitting that globally, [aquaculture] is what we need to do, but we’ve got these entrenched ideas in place that are hard to overturn.”

Hunger games

Having enough money to demand wild salmon is a convenient dodge, for a wealthy subset of the population, but it doesn’t address the wider problem. “What it comes down to,” R— pointed out, “is there are too many people [on the planet], but nobody wants to have that conversation. Everything has its impact. We can have this high-and-mighty attitude [about insisting on wild-caught] but everything we eat, everything we wear has an impact on the environment. I heard a lecture once where the guy said, ‘If everybody became vegan, we’d have to cut down every tree on the planet to bring enough land under agriculture to feed everybody.’ I’m not sure if that’s exactly true, but it’s interesting to ponder.” 

I’ve long felt that vegans, while admirably innocent of the many crimes committed in the name of animal husbandry, aren’t necessarily helping to solve anything. It’s not like they’re inspiring any significant number of people to follow their lead. At least if I insist on grass-fed beef I’m helping to create the market for it, which can help reduce the proportion of cows incarcerated in feedlots. For years I felt like holding out for wild salmon was similarly reasonable, but in fact there just won’t ever be enough wild salmon for everybody, so my position was unrealistic—it carried a strong whiff of “let them eat cake.” I like to think of myself as a responsible and fair person, not some unapologetically snobby epicure, but as the playwright Wallace Shawn has observed, “Sympathy for the poor does not change the life of the poor.”

During our conversation R—pointed out, “Eating seafood shouldn’t be a rich-person privilege. Omega-3 fatty acids have huge health benefits; why shouldn’t everybody get this food?” I totally agree: but without economies of scale, how can farmed salmon compete, price-wise, with a Big Mac or Chicken McNuggets and all the other cheap crap so many Americans are lured into eating, at the expense of their own health and that of our environment? Given that aquaculture is one of the most efficient forms of protein production, don’t we ultimately have a responsibility to promote it?

Here’s where choosing farmed salmon gives us a rare opportunity to eat like a king but also save money, while contributing to the growth of a responsible, sustainable industry. For bonus points, put your money toward local, or at least domestic, farmed salmon. Here are a final couple of tidbits R— sent me: the US imports 90% of the seafood we eat, creating a $15 billion seafood trade deficit. Meanwhile, over half the seafood we import is farmed anyway—so why not farm it here, where we do it safely and sustainably, and benefit our own economy?

Let’s return to my question about whether the best-tasting salmon could actually be farmed. Well, why not? Think of the most expensive Wagyu beef: is it hundreds of dollars a pound because it’s from wild-caught cows? No. It’s from cows raised meticulously by humans in a very controlled environment. So what’s wrong with raising our own salmon, too?

Now, if I sound like a scold, just remember this: open fighter force power launch! Maximum strike zone flight scatter! Go! Go!

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

From the Archives - Busted By a Cop on Highway 24!


Recently, a particular stretch of California State Highway 24, which has always been legal for bicycles, has been marked illegal. This seems wrong, and has resulted in a lot of emails flying around among the members of my bike team. I wrote about this to a local bike advocacy group, who reached out to the DOT, who replied that the law hadn’t changed (i.e., the stretch is still legal) so they’re having the Traffic Office go check the signage. (Breaking update: as of September 25, Caltrans has confirmed the signs are wrong, and replacements will be installed in a few weeks. Until then, we are assured that it is okay to keeping riding this stretch of Highway 24.)

For the record, here’s a photo of the new sign posted on the on-ramp (recently snapped by a bike pal), and below that—to keep handy in case you get pulled over—the last photo of this ramp that Google shot for their Street View map:

There was a similar problem with the signs some years ago (after some construction), and I got caught out. Bikes are required to exit and rejoin the highway in certain places, such as Wilder Road, and I complied. Alas, when I tried to rejoin the highway I discovered a) a sign declaring Highway 24 to be illegal for bikes, and b) a cop parked right there on the shoulder. What could I do? I couldn’t go back the way I came, but I didn’t want to flout the law right in front of the cop. So I asked her for clarification, and she responded to the effect that she didn’t know if bikes were allowed and didn’t care. So boldly I rode and well, into the jaws of the on-ramp, right in front of the cop, half expecting to hear her siren start wailing. But it didn’t.

That episode ended well enough, but another time, almost thirty years ago, I got ticketed on my bike on that same highway, albeit in the westbound direction. I vaguely remembered writing about it at the time, and—lo and behold—here is that story, from my archives.

(I almost named this post “BSI Orinda: Bike Sign Investigation,” after a quip in a biking pal’s email.)

Busted by a Cop on Highway 24 – August 14, 1990

So one minute I’m just riding along, minding my own business, not a care in the world—well, actually, that’s not quite right. I’m not feeling particularly carefree because I’m riding my bike up Highway 24, westbound toward Fish Ranch Road, and there’s a lot of traffic whizzing by. Even though the shoulder is over eight feet wide, it’s an unpleasant section; I only ride it because it’s such a convenient shortcut. So anyway, one minute I’m making my not-so-merry way along 24 and then suddenly there’s this cop stopped ahead of me.

He’s got his big macho Mustang cruiser pulled over on the shoulder, his door open just enough for him to drop to one knee like T.J. Hooker in a prime time shootout.  Only he’s just putting out his arm, palm facing me, in the universal law enforcement signal for “STOP!”  Great, I’m thinking. What the hell am I doing wrong?

“You were supposed to exit back there,” he says sternly.  I have no idea what he’s talking about. I have this biking guidebook called Roads to Ride that says Highway 24 is legal from Orinda to Fish Ranch Road.  I tell the cop about the book, being very careful not to act smug, and I realize that I sound like I’m totally making it up. Meanwhile, I’m well aware how futile it is to argue with a cop, especially one in a big bad Mustang.

“No!” he says, clearly displeased at my insubordination. “You have to exit!  There’s a sign!” Trying not to shrug, I reply, “ I know there is, but it’s up there.” I point up the road toward the next exit, for Fish Ranch Road, where I’ve seen a “BICYCLES MUST EXIT” sign.  This seems to piss the cop off even more.  “NO!  There’s another one.  Back there.”  He points down the road.  All I see is a stampede of cars going eighty-five in a fifty-five zone.  I tell him I’ve taken that exit before but it doesn’t go anywhere.  “I know!” he snarls.  “You have to get off and get right back on again!  It’s for your own safety!”

He asks for my driver’s license. I don’t have it on me but I give him the number from memory. He writes it down in his little book, and I know my situation is futile.

There are two kinds of cops, and it doesn’t really matter which kind you get.  The first kind is the guy who, growing up, never expected to become a cop. If he is a generally disappointed person who wishes he’d become a doctor, maybe he gets some satisfaction out of giving doctors tickets. And if he wishes he’d had the opportunity to go to college, maybe he enjoys foisting citations on overprivileged college kids like me. (Or maybe he’s just doing the same thorough job at this as anybody would at anything, and I’m only imagining that what-ifs and woulda-coulda-shouldas ever enter the picture.)

The other kind of cop is the guy who, as a kid, always knew he’d be a cop one day, and loves being a cop. To him, being anything else—like a doctor or a college kid—would be unthinkable, as would letting me off the hook. In his worldview, those who break the law must be brought to justice, and giving me just a warning would be like throwing a wrench into the spinning wheels of his very raison-d’être.
I don’t know which type this cop is. If he were really burly and had the standard-issue bushy mustache I’d assume he was the second kind, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean I was right. In any case this guy is oddly small and skinny for a cop, or at least for a highway patrolman with a souped-up Mustang.  His service revolver, in contrast, is definitely on the large side and I wonder whether it pokes him in the leg when he’s driving.  And does he have a nightstick in the car? Does he normally slip that through a loop in his belt as he exits the car, like the cops on TV? Or does he only bring it out at night?

I think some more about his gun. Do cops all get issued the same type of sidearm, or do they get to choose? I think about Dirty Harry explaining to a colleague his choice of a 44 Magnum: “A 357 Magnum is a good weapon, but I’ve seen 38s bounce off of windshields. No good in a city like this.” Suddenly I realize that this officer has caught me staring at his gun. Not a good thing for me to be doing. Does he think I’m contemplating making a grab for it? I quickly flick my eyes away, like when I’m caught gawking at a pretty girl. The cop stares at me for a second, and then turns his attention to my bike.

Oh, this is just great.  My bike totally looks stolen, because I spray-painted the frame with neon orange Krylon, and did a poor job at that, so there are little hardened drips all over the place.  “What make is this bike?” the cop asks, looking at the sticker on the head tube. The sticker has a skull and crossbones on it, only one of the bones is a big wrench. Above the graphic it says “HERCULON LOVE GODS” and below that, “DRUNK ROCK!”  I got it from a buddy of mine who’s in the band.  The cop looks up at me. “What make, and what year?”

I honestly don’t know; this bike sat in a warehouse for months, maybe years, because the English manufacturer got in a fight with the American distributor. Eventually the distributor got tired of storing all the frames—I think there were a couple hundred of them—and started selling them to the public for $40 apiece. That’s a great price for a handmade racing frame, so after discovering this great deal via a classified ad, I turned all my friends onto it and lots of us bought these as our backup bikes. The frames were unpainted so we all did them up with the same orange Krylon, like we’re part of a cult or something. I try to figure out how I could possibly explain all this to the cop without sounding like I’m deep into a highly criminal enterprise, but I can’t come up with anything.

“I don’t know what year,” I tell him. “Probably 1988 or ‘89.”  He asks again what the make is.  “Uh . . . Orbit?” I stammer, knowing I sound like I’m hiding something. Eyeing me very suspiciously, the cop says, “I’m gonna need to see the serial number.” 

I know where the serial number is: it’s stamped on the bottom bracket shell. Unfortunately, it’s obscured by the plastic cable guide that bolts on there. I remember thinking, when I built up the bike, that it was pretty lame of the framebuilder not to have foreseen this problem. Feeling like things are going from bad to worse, I lift up the front wheel and tilt the bike all the way back so the cop can see the BB shell. There’s a lot of black grime on there so he doesn’t immediately realize why the serial number is unreadable. He scrapes the grime away with his fingers, eagerly, like this is some thrilling forensic moment of truth.

“Oh, gosh,” I say, “I think that plastic thing is covering it up.  If I had an eight millimeter wrench, I could uncover it.  Hold on.”  I look through my seat bag, feeling very grateful that it’s far too small to conceal a firearm.  I know exactly what’s in there:  an inner tube, a patch kit, and some tire levers. I don’t need to look to know that I don’t have an 8 millimeter wrench, but I really want to seem helpful. The cop tells me to stay put and goes back to his car. He fetches the CB and starts talking on it, standing next to the car. I see him eyeing his reflection in the window. Does he like the way he looks when he talks on the CB? Or is my perspective all wrong and he’s actually keeping an eye on me? At least the driver’s license number I gave him is legit and will match up with my info—height, weight, etc.—in SCMODS (the State County Municipal Offender Data System). On top of that, I have a totally clean slate, in the eyes of the law, so chances are I’ll get away with nothing more than a citation.

Which he does, in the end, give me, for failing to exit the highway as required. Before he gets back in his cruiser, he fixes me with one last stare, like I’m damn lucky to be getting off so easy. And suddenly this whole episode seems completely absurd: a college kid who’s never done anything wrong before comes off as some kind of minor-league criminal, but the over-equipped and needlessly vigilant cop can’t make anything stick. It’s like a parody of a cop show.


It was tempting, when I went back to edit this today, to add a little more commentary, acknowledging  the role that color—i.e., my being white—played in this ultimately harmless encounter. But the fact is, I’d only recently moved to the Bay Area, and it never occurred to me at that time that a young black man in the same situation—even on the outskirts of suburban Orinda, California—might have fared far worse than I did.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here. 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Spelling Focus - Is It “Kindergartner” or “Kindergartener”?


This post concerns the spelling of a single word: is it “kindergartner” or “kindergartener”? If this strikes you as an intrinsically interesting question, read on. If you couldn’t care less, perhaps you’re at the wrong blog and should go here instead.

A little background

Among my friends, I’m known as the grammar and spelling guy, mostly because I was an English major in college. There’s a common misconception that English majors are automatically good at grammar and spelling. Actually, many aren’t. Just because you love words and writing doesn’t mean you pay that much attention to the rules. Consider this glaring (to me) grammatical error in a novel, The Sparrow, by bestselling author Mary Doria Russell:
Some actual real live person still had to receive the request … and route the data back to whomever’d asked for it.
Now, I’m not some stickler who would call out a writer for saying “who” where “whom” is called for, because “whom” can come off as overly formal or punctilious. That is, I don’t wish George Thorogood had sung “whom do you love.” But when somebody uses “whom” where “who” is called for, he or she is trying to be punctilious, and failing. That’s a bad combo, and I wish I could have advised The Clash not to sing “exactly whom I’m supposed to be.” Similarly, I wish Russell’s editor had caught her error.

But to be clear, my obsession with precise grammar isn’t an English major thing—it’s a Dana thing. I envy Russell’s ability to write good fiction, and I would never suggest she isn’t worthy of an English degree. She doesn’t happen to have one, by the way … she studied Anthropology, but that’s neither here nor there. I promise you I didn’t learn a lick of grammar in any of my college English classes.

Anyway, this post was born when a friend of mine, who is the principal at an elementary school, wrote to me asking about the correct spelling of “kindergartner.” There was a small debate about this among members of his staff, and he confessed (to me) that he was embarrassed at even having to think about it. For the record, I don’t think he should be embarrassed, since the matter is far from simple. (If he’d spelled his title “principle,” well, that would be another story.)

So here’s my take.

Kindergartner vs. kindergartener – which is correct?

I have always spelled it “kindergartner.” I’m not sure why; this just seems intuitively obvious, even though I know it comes from the German word “kindergarten” (i.e., a word ending in “en” that presumably should keep that “e”). This hardwired preference aside, I would never question anybody spelling it “kindergartener.”

As I type these words, Microsoft doesn’t flag either spelling as wrong, for what that’s worth. But then, Microsoft flags “micturate”—a perfectly good word—as a misspelling, so its spell-checker can’t be trusted.

I looked up “kindergartner” in the American Heritage Dictionary, which is a dictionary I like pretty well, and it says “kindergartner also kindergartener.” That suggests a slight preference for the former. For the etymology, it says “[German Kindergärtner, from Kindergarten, kindergarten; see KINDERGARTEN.]” Aha! So that might suggest that kindergartner is more authentic, straying less far from the original German.

I would never base my assessment on just one dictionary, of course (especially since Trevor, a well-educated, word-loving friend of mine, despises the American Heritage Dictionary). So here’s what Merriam-Webster (online) had to say:

So it matches what the AHD said. Of course, if you really want the authoritative guide, you have to go to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED (or perhaps its evil twin, I can’t tell) spells it “kindergartener” but just below this it adds, “(US kindergartner).” Aha! So there you have it! The British is “kindergartener” and the American is “kindergartner.” Right?

Well, not so fast. There’s some real weirdness with that online dictionary. I typed “kindergartner” into the search box, and hit Enter, and the website took it upon itself to change my query to “kindergartener” and show the results for that. So clearly, at first blush it didn’t like “kindergartner.” But look closely above: there’s a wiggly red line under “kindergartener” to suggest that it’s misspelled. I right-clicked on the underlined “kindergartener” and got this:

 So, to recap: when I type “kindergartner” the website doesn’t like it, and substitutes “kindergartener,” which it—or, well, somebody—doesn’t like, and I’m offered “kindergartner” as a replacement. (I think it’s Google Chrome flagging this word, because the Internet Explorer and Edge browsers don’t flag it. But if it’s Google suggesting “kindergartner,” they’re sure being weird, because the context-sensitive menu includes “Ask Google for suggestions,” as though the suggestion just above it, “kindergartner,” was from someone else.)

There’s another problem with Oxford’s suggestion that Brits spell it “kindergartener” and Americans “kindergartner,” which is the word origin Oxford provides for this word: “North American.” Well, if it’s a North American word, why wouldn’t Oxford (and everybody else) defer to us, and recognize our way of spelling it?

And while I’m on the warpath with this dictionary, is it really appropriate to suggest this word is North American at all, when it’s otherwise described as German? I’m not arguing that no English words originate in North America; for example, “hella” was coined right here in the Bay Area. I guess Oxford could argue that only “kindergarten” is German and the North Americans coined “kindergartner,” but then why would the Brits have their own spelling? It’s not like the Brits spell “hella” differently.

I decided to check out the German-ness of “kindergartner.” Having never studied this language, and being kind of lazy, I turned to Google Translate for help. It translated the German “kindergartner” as “kindergarten teacher.” So that suggests that going straight from the German isn’t actually a legit thing to do—that perhaps “kindergartner” (or “kindergartener”) is a more casual formation, along the lines of getting “teenager” from “teenage” and “gamer” from “game”—i.e., it’s actually an American thing. But when, as a cross-check, I put in “kindergarten teacher” in English and translated it to German, it gave me “korschullehrer.” WTF?! When I typed “kindergarten student” in English and translated it to German, it gave “kindergartenschüler.” And for the English “kindergartener” it gave “kindergartenkinder” which is obviously a different translation than for “kindergartner,” and also seems redundant and, when fed back through from German to English, produces the plural “kindergarten children.” So I give up on the whole Google Translate thing. It’s actually never been that reliable anyway.

Next I checked the Associated Press Stylebook. This is what my wife and her colleagues used for reference back when she was a bona-fide journalist. (Out of respect for this noble profession I used to keep one at my desk, too.) Of course the Stylebook is too slim to include all the spellings you could need an authoritative opinion on, but I figured it was worth a Google search to see if they have a more comprehensive version online. I came up with this, from the online AP Stylebook which is hosted, apparently, by Twitter.

I’m going to disregard this completely because they’re using Twitter, and because they’re using those silly “@[whatever]” references, and worse, a hashtag. Hasn’t Twitter caused enough problems in the “fake news” sphere and toward the gradual digitization of the American brain? I refuse to acknowledge that the modern Stylebook has any remaining cred whatsoever. They’re dead to me now.

With all this in mind, and really needing a definitive answer, I visited the New Yorker website. I consider this magazine to be the closest thing I have to a bible, and in over 35 years of reading it I’ve only found three or four grammar or spelling errors. (I also found this glaring error of opinion, but that’s another matter.) I started by searching the New Yorker archives for “kindergartner.” I clicked on the first hit, which was this article from 2016, by Rebecca Mead. Here is the spelling she used, in context: “In March, Stanley Druckenmiller, the billionaire founder of Duquesne Capital, told CNBC that Trump has a ‘kindergartner . . . view of economics.’” So that’s pretty clear: New Yorker prefers “kindergartner,” and that’s good enough for me. So we’re done, right?

Well, not so fast. Here’s a quotation from the first New Yorker article I found when I searched on “kindergartener,” with the spelling again given in context: “Writing about the kindergartener on hallucinogens raises a wider consciousness that we are living in a world in which kindergarteners are partaking of hallucinogens.” It’s from this article here, from 2017. And guess who wrote it? Rebecca Mead! So she’s not even consistent, and the New Yorker’s legendary editors evidently didn’t balk at the discrepancy.

Does this support the British-vs.-American theory of the two spellings? Actually, it does. Rebecca Mead is torn between the two cultures. She was born and raised in England, but moved to the U.S. thirty years ago for grad school and ended up staying … that is, until very recently, when she decided to move back to England because of Trump, as detailed here. (I haven’t actually finished the article yet, but I can tell you it doesn’t include the word “kindergart[e]ner.”) Since Mead has been recently turning away from the U.S., it kind of makes sense that her more recent article would employ the British spelling. Unless, of course, she uses the two spellings interchangeably and arbitrarily … which is certainly possible.

So, what remains to be solved is, what should one do with all this information? I suppose that if you ever find yourself ensnared in a debate on this topic, and want an easy way out, you can forward this post to your interlocutor and let him or her make of it what he or she will. Or, you could cherry-pick the evidence I’ve given, keeping only what supports your pet spelling and leaving out the rest. This will enable you to get your way, seem authoritative, and have that cool sneaky feeling of having pulled a fast one.

Myself, I’m going to keep spelling it “kindergartner,” because I’m of German descent (though also, admittedly, of English descent), but moreover because I’m an Americanborn American. And these colors don’t run! ;-)

More reading for word lovers

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Food of Norway - Part II


As far back as the Book of Ecclesiastes, people have grasped that there’s nothing new under the sun. Perhaps nobody appreciates this better than Hollywood, with their endless sequels and cycles. So it is with albertnet. Based on the popularity of The Food of London and The Food of Scotland Parts I and II, and now The Food of Norway Part I, I’m doing another cheap ‘n’ easy retread: Part II of The Food of Norway. (For Part I, click here.) Herein I’ll cover Cheap Eats; Fails; Things We Didn’t Eat; Weirdness; and Adventures in Norwegian World Cuisine.

Cheap eats

“Cheap Norwegian food” is essentially an oxymoron. I’ve never seen such uniformly overpriced fare. Walking by a 7-Eleven in Oslo (these are common, oddly), I saw an ad for disgusting vulcanized plastic nachos, with a price of “only” 80 NOK. That’s like $9.50 US. I searched on “cheapest restaurants Bergen” and found Zen Café, my favorite capsule review of which was “crap and good.” (I think that was supposed to be “cheap and good.”) TripAdvisor rates this place with one dollar sign ($), as in “cheapest category.” Lunch for four—meaning a single entrée apiece, no drinks, no appetizers, and no dessert—ran us about $90 US. Although that lunch was a highlight (see below), I cannot call it cheap.

That being said, we did manage, ultimately, to find some fairly reasonable places. One was called Sostrene Hagelin and was a fish-themed fast food joint. For “only” $40 we had a take-out lunch of fiskesuppe, fiskewraps, and fiskekake. The soup was pretty rich and creamy and included a seemingly infinite number of strangely uniform reconstituted fish balls. The first few bites—because we were starving—tasted pretty good. Then it got tiresome, and finally uncanny … you’re peering into this Styrofoam cup at all these little white spheres thinking, “What is this stuff?” The fiskewraps were pretty good: basically wraps with (albeit farmed) salmon or trout. The fiskekake (fish cakes) were, again, reconstituted and a bit rubbery, but highly filling. By the end of the meal I was quite satisfied … in fact, I kind of never wanted to eat again. But good! (Alas, I don’t have any photos of that food … we literally had our hands full carrying it all out.)

The next cheap find was the Kebab Huset, a little shack near the college campus run by a guy from Kurdistan. He was one of the few people we encountered in Norway with really poor English language skills (not that I can speak a word of Norwegian, so I’m not complaining). Normally you can guess your way through menus and such because, near as I can figure, Norwegian is just poorly spelled English. But we guessed totally wrong on the two entrees we bought. I wanted something wrapped up in pita, so I chose the “pita brød, lam.” My wife didn’t want any pita, so after a long, confusing, grinding-of-gears consultation with the proprietor, she settled on the “rullekebab lam.” What I got ended up being folded in one of those weird square tortilla-like things, and hers—you guessed it—was wrapped up in pita. They were 90 NOK (a little under $11, which is a still a lot) but they were huge. Check it out (the “pitabrød, lam” is on the left):

They were pretty tasty. The lamb was just lean enough, and not too greasy. There was the matter of sauces, though. There were big, opaque squeeze bottles up on the counter colored yellow, white, and red. I assumed mustard, mayonnaise, and ketchup, and had him hold the red. My wife had another long, convoluted, ships-passing-in-the-night discussion that got her nowhere, following which the helpful proprietor gave her a sample of each—squirted on her hand. Half a dozen paper napkins later, she announced the sauces were curry, something mayo-ish but also a bit ranch-ish, and hot sauce, all of which she likes. So her rullekebab was pretty much drenched in condiments. I’d give this food about a 7 for quality, a 10 for quantity, and about a 9 for economy (by Norwegian standards). “Crap and good!”

But can you get even cheaper? Why, as a matter of fact, you can. Check out this frozen pizza, which had the shockingly low price of 20 NOK (about $2.50 US) at the corner grocery:

“First Price,” not to be confused with “Fisher Price” (“this pizza is not a toy!”) is the grocery store house brand. The variety, “med paprika dypfryst,” literally translates “with deep-frozen peppers.” At least they’re honest. I should point out that most of the cheese you see on there we added (driving up the price). In fact, the “cheese” it came with was probably non-dairy. The most interesting thing about this pizza was the box. Look at this closely:

On the upper left, you have the standard product description, designed to lure the consumer into buying and/or to prevent buyer’s remorse later (“The tasty pizza pleasure for yourself or to share”). We get this description in German and Spanish as well. Below that, we have the baking instructions in no fewer than eight languages—but English is not among them! I guess they figure English speakers are a tough sell, but that once we’ve ponied up our money, we’re perfectly happy winging it on the preparation (or eating the pizza raw). I randomly baked the pizza at 200 degrees Celsius, whatever that is, until it looked done. I ended up really enjoying it, but then I love all pizza. I could probably rifle through the pockets of a passed-out homeless guy, retrieve a smushed slice, eat it cold, and enjoy it.

Does Norwegian food get even cheaper than that? Yes it does! In Bergen we stayed at a hostel, where lots of travelers leave behind food, which gets tossed in a “free” bin. After an egregiously expensive Italian dinner in town, we came back to the hostel, my appetite only teased, and I found a box of pasta, a jar of goulash, half a jar of pesto, some random bits of cheese, a bit of butter, and some milk—almost all of it from the free bins—and made a scrumptious and almost entirely free meal. I felt mighty vindicated after the restaurant rip-off.


We didn’t have any epic fails—that is, anything that gave us food poisoning, or was totally inedible like the plaice we had in Bath. But we had some pretty lame fare for giant sums of money. Consider this calzone:

I couldn’t quite figure it out. It was supposed to be pesto, and looked like pesto, but didn’t taste like much of anything. And what was that goo inside it? Thousand-island dressing? Fortunately this was my daughter’s entrée and I only “had” to have a bite (i.e., the mandatory parental tariff). I asked her how she liked it. “It’s pretty good,” she said, fighting not to sound lugubrious, in the spirit of a good sport who knows you just shelled out major bucks for her lunch.

At the same place—a “we’ve got you trapped” cafeteria near the ferry landing in the tiny town of Voss—my other daughter shared this big stupid sausage with me.

I guess it could have been worse, but it really needed to be hot. It wasn’t. (You know those oily rollers that 7-Eleven hot dogs get slowly rotated on, like some crazy torture rack, throughout the day? Well, maybe there’s a benefit to that after all.)

Here was a fail from a pretty pricey Italian place:

Can you imagine paying like $15 for that, and then sharing it with three other people? It’s fricking tiny! And what the hell is it? Other than the nice tomatoes, it looks like a pile of curds and compost that a goat was eating before suddenly taking ill and throwing up. Or maybe the goat had just eaten the foam rubber stuffing out of a cheap armchair and that’s why he barfed.

This apple cake looked pretty good, and was from a fancy place where we did have some pretty good food. The problem was, it was insipid and overly sweet … so much so that even my kids didn’t want it. In my family I’m known as “the closer” and ended up eating it. Laboriously chewing my way through it (because I hate to waste food), I found myself wondering, “Why am I doing this? How did I get here?”

Things we didn’t eat

Norwegians are really into fish and bread. They have historically specialized in dried cod. They have a process for drying cod by hanging it in a salty marine wind, and once it’s as dry as jerky, they can store it unrefrigerated for thirty years. Here’s what it looks like:

Full disclosure: the above is actually a dried King Cod, which is hung from a ceiling to give good luck. I don’t have the story completely straight because this was an hour into a museum tour and I was getting pretty tired out.

Here’s a place we didn’t eat at:

Look closely: “pimp your hot dog.” Talk about lost-in-translation. But that’s not what turned us off. It was those giant udder-like condiment dispensers. Utterly unappetizing. (Full disclosure: this was not in Norway, but the airport in Frankfurt en route.)

We did not eat at this place because it had permanently closed:

Probably a taqueria in Bergen was a quixotic endeavor to begin with. The fact is, Norwegians don’t eat a single thing that is spicy. We encountered nothing with even a hint of spice, not even black pepper. What a bunch of pansies.

We did not buy one of these fish at the famous open-air fish market:

What a crazy, huge, ugly creature. When we first examined it, its mouth was closed—but then suddenly it gaped open! I about had a heart attack, and the fishmonger laughed with great mirth. She has a little fishing line attached there that she can yank on to frighten the tourists. Probably spends half her day doing that … and I would too.

We did not eat any of these:

I always thought “cheeze doodles” was a playful nickname for Cheetos, but it’s actually a brand. Again, I’m bending the rules here; it’s a Swedish product, from the company Old London Wasa.

We also didn’t eat at McDonald’s, even though we encountered quite possibly the fanciest McDonald’s ever:

They wanted just 20 NOK (about $2.50) for a “Chili Mayo Cheese” burger, which I have to admit is cheap, but then you get what you pay for. I’d rather not participate in the cultural imperialism those Europeans quite rightly complain about.


Yeah, we had some weird food. First, we got these crabs at a high-end grocery; all the meat had been pulled out of the shells (which is a lot of work) and then stuffed into the main shell. Seems like a great service to the consumer, eh?

What made this weird is that the tomalley and other innards (kind of the entrails of the animal) had been shredded up and stuffed in there along with the tasty white crabmeat. It was kind of a lower layer, no doubt there to plump up the overall offering. The first few bites were great, but then we got into murky territory. The tomalley tastes really bad, an intense, putrid sea-stink kind of flavor. What were these grocers thinking?

Then there was this so-called “fish pudding,” which was kind of like tofu except tougher, and of course instead of soybean cake it was reconstituted fish.

The large brick of it did last a long time. Every time my wife would bring it out, the rest of us would groan. “It’s good!” she would say, unconvincingly even to herself, very much in the spirit of fake news. It did fill us up, though (or at least end our interest in eating). Note the 2.4% ABV “Lettøl” (i.e., light) beer in the background—purchased solely to wash down the fish pudding.

Speaking of weird, check out the strange spelling here:

If you saw “appelsinjuicen” on a menu, would you ever dream it was orange juice? That’s just plain mischievous.

Adventures in Norwegian world cuisine

Here’s a pretty nice Italian appetizer:

I mentioned a Vietnamese place earlier, which I couldn’t bring myself to call “cheap” despite its “$” rating. But it was good. Was it authentic? Well, the Asian waiter didn’t speak a word of English, which left him out of the mainstream among Norwegians, so perhaps it was. I’ve never been to Vietnam, but the food didn’t taste Norwegian, anyway. Check out these noodles:

The sauce was a tiny bit grainy, but good. Here’s a soup:

I could never make that at home so I’m going to call it authentic. And this curry was as good as what I’ve had in San Francisco:

Moving on to other world cuisine, I’ll remind you of the very exotic kebab place. And then we encountered this treat, in the free food bin at the hostel, which is bona-fide Russian:

In case you can’t read the label, it says “каша бананоьа.” Hmmm, I guess that’s not so helpful. Phonetically that reads “kasha bananova,” which you can probably guess is banana kasha (porridge). We didn’t actually eat this; my older daughter brought it home as a souvenir for a friend whose ‘rents are from Russia.


If I were a natural born promoter, I would always be sure to finish on a high note, but I guess I’m not. Think back to my first Norway post, though … we did have some darn fine meals in Norway, especially the salmon. And guess what? I have more to say about farmed Norwegian salmon, so check back next week!

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.