Saturday, November 19, 2011

Alternative Holiday Gifts to Match Your Values

Play Freerice and feed the hungry

Tired of the holiday fights over the latest dumb toy? Not sure what to get? Want your gifts to match your values? Well, here are some ideas for gifts for anyone on your list who would appreciate a gift with real values rather than just another thing.

These are gifts that help people and help the world. They sure beat another necktie or useless tchotchke that will just collect in the back of a drawer or closet.

Gaiam logo_145X80


Kiva is...

a non-profit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. Leveraging the internet and a worldwide network of microfinance institutions, Kiva lets individuals lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity around the world. Learn more about how it works.

My personal involvement with Kiva gave me my second chance to meet Bill Clinton...I was almost on a discussion panel with him, thanks to the folks at But in the end I just got to shake his hand and talk with him.

And speaking of Bill Clinton, here's what he has to say about Kiva:

Kiva Gift certificates are a great gift. Give someone the tool to directly help someone else in the world fulfill a dream.

Plus there are other gifts which help fund the organization and raise awareness about them. (The Kiva piggy bank looks particularly cool!)


Pretty Bird Woman House was a woman's shelter that was attacked and looted and was going to have to close. The Netroots saved it with a massive outpouring of support.

Here is their story:

Jackie Brown Otter created The Pretty Bird Woman House after the brutal rape and murder of her sister, whose Lakota name means Pretty Bird Woman.

PBWH provides emergency shelter and advocacy support for women on the Standing Rock reservation who have been victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. It opened on January 5, 2005.

In the fall of 2007, the Pretty Bird Woman House was forced to move out of its original location after a number of break-ins through the exterior walls left it in such bad condition that the women could not safely remain there.

Well, the incredibly generous netroots really came through for them, and by the end of December of 2007 we had enough money to get them a new house! Pat yourselves on the back, and keep those donations flowing.

A "video" about saving the shelter:

There are some material items they need if you want to donate that way in someone else's name:

What the shelter needs: Pretty Bird Woman House will always be in need of the following items: towels and washcloths, twin and queen size sheets and blankets, toothbrushes and toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, women's hygiene items, diapers of all sizes, baby wipes, first aid kit items, and analgesics such as ibuprofen and aspirin.

The women seem to run through shampoo and diapers the fastest, so it would be helpful when you are considering material donations to prioritize those 2 items.

New or gently used clothing for women and children, as well as all kinds of toys, are always appreciated. For the women's clothing, M-XXL are the most common sizes.

There is also a continuing need for new sweat suits, underwear and bras for women who have been sexually assaulted, since they often must leave their clothes behind at the hospital as part of the evidence gathering process. In one incident, a hospital released a woman in only her hospital gown and blanket. Sheesh!

Send the items to this address:

Pretty Bird Woman House
211 N. First St
McLaughlin, SD 57642

Or you can donate money to help keep them going:

Pretty Bird Woman House
P.O. Box 596
McLaughlin, SD 57642

Phone: 605-823-7233
Fax: 605-823-7234

Pretty Bird Woman House is a 501 (c) 3 charitable organization.

Donate to Pretty Bird Woman House in someone else's name and connect them with women who really need your help.

I would also like to expand that theme a bit.


I would like to highlight another Women's shelter and health center in the Sioux Nation that could use help. The Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center was set up on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in 1988 and added a women's shelter in 1991. Here's a bit about what they do:

The Resource Center has expanded to include many programs benefitting people locally, nationally, and internationally. Some examples are the Domestic Violence Program, AIDS Prevention Program, Youth Services which include the Child Development Program and the Youth Wellness Program, Adult Learning Program, Environmental Awareness and Action Project, Cancer Prevention, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Awareness Program, Clearinghouse of Educational Materials, Food Pantry, Wicozanni Wowapi Newsletter, Diabetic Nutrition Program, Scholarships for Native American Women, Reproductive Health and Rights, "Green Thumb" Project, and Community Health Fairs.

This is another center that needs support in another part of the Sioux Nation. They support themselves by selling items to support the center. Purchases made through this site will support their efforts.

Sierra Club Logo

Next I want to highlight a wonderful Alternative Gift Site:


The gifts offered in "My Shopping List for the World" are unique. They are like no other gifts in our world today. They are gifts of peace and justice, gifts that are sustainable and that build security. These alternative gifts multiply and grow, sometimes exponentially, and offer hope and new life to people facing grave crises and need. They challenge the trivia of our modern culture. These are authentic gifts that people really use and cherish. They always fit and are never thrown away.

They have an ever changing list of amazing gifts you can give in someone's name. Here are just a few:

In the United States:

Training Women for Self-Sufficiency:

Domestic abuse and unemployment are daily realities for many women across the USA. Organizations that provide job training and social services enable them to secure sustainable, living-wage jobs, support their families and safely transition from poverty to economic self-sufficiency.

Featured here are two such organizations. LA MUJER OBRERA (The Working Woman) in El Paso, Texas, uses a women-centered curriculum that provides Mexican immigrant women with job training for the 21st century. This innovative approach to education combines community organizing with the creation of economic alternatives and bilingual workforce development. The WOMEN’S INITIATIVE NETWORK (WIN) of Wichita, Kansas, serves women escaping domestic violence. Survivors of abuse are provided with emotional support as well as educational and employment opportunities througha social services model that fosters healing, self-worth, and self-sufficiency.

$180 - 1 week of job readiness and life-skills training
$9 - 1 hour of job readiness and life-skills training

In Latin America:

Save a Forest and Feed a Family:

Produce like tomatoes and carrots are considered to be foods only wealthy people can afford, but a lack of access to these nutrition-rich fruits and vegetables contributes to malnourishment in children in Central America. Their meals often consist of only rice and beans. Farming families are desperate to learn ways of growing produce without resorting to slash-and-burn practices that destroy their environment.

SUSTAINABLE HARVEST INTERNATIONAL (SHI) provides these struggling families with the materials and training they need so they can grow food while protecting the environment. SHI has provided more than 2,100 families with the seeds and training needed to grow foods such as cucumbers, cabbage, and onions while generating income. Over 90% of the families working with SHI have started organic gardens next to their homes. Children are now getting the essential nutrients they need and families are able to increase their income by selling
excess produce.

$17 Supports family’s training with field trainer for 1 week
$7 Plants 10 fruit or hardwood trees on a family’s farm

In Africa:

Sustaining Lives with Solar Cooking:

In developing countries of Africa, the demand for wood as a fuel for cooking leads to the rapid loss of trees. This loss contributes to the erosion of soil and polluting of waterways. AHEAD (Adventures In Health, Education and AgriculturalDevelopment Inc.) works to reduce deforestation by teaching communities how to harness the sun for solar cooking. Solar panel and box cookers can reduce the use of wood by as much as 50% by using the sun’s energy. These devices coupled with rocket stoves and "heat retaining ovens" may further reduce the need for wood. Solar cooking helps villages reduce their reliance on wood as a fuel and in turn, reduce emissions of toxic fumes and smoke. With an average of 1,500 people per village, AHEAD is currently teaching individuals in seven villages in The Gambia and four villages in Tanzania to use solar energy topurify water and prepare meals.

$17 - 1 solar oven
$6 - Water pasteurization indicator

They currently have 35 projects you can donate to as gifts in someone's name.

And speaking of Solar Cookers, here is a project that not only saves wood, but saves lives in a war torn area.


The Solar Cooker Project of Jewish World Watch is committed to protecting refugee women and girls from rape and other forms of violence. Women and girls who have fled the genocide in Darfur, Sudan are particularly vulnerable while performing the critical task of collecting firewood for cooking. Our mission is to reduce the frequency of these heinous crimes by providing women in refugee camps with an alternative cooking option: the solar cooker.

One Woman's Story
When we met Imani in the Iridimi refugee camp in Chad, we promised to tell the world her story. After her harrowing escape from her village in Darfur where she witnessed the murder of her husband and two sisters she hid for days from the savage Janjaweed militia and survived with only water in the unforgiving sun. Imani walked over 300 miles until crossing the border into Chad, finally arriving at the Iridimi refugee camp. Without sufficient fuel to cook her meals, she had to leave the relative safety of the camp to collect firewood. At the refugee camp, she learned to use a simple sun-cooker to prepare her meals and no longer has to risk her safety. Imani told us that because she no longer has to leave the camp she now feels protected and secure.

So help the environment and help refugees survive in safety with a Solar Cooker for Darfur refugees.

And I want to end with one of my all time favorites. This organization combines so many excellent projects in the United States, Haiti and Latin America. Tree planting, solar cookers and solar heating projects throughout the region. Let me introduce you to:


Trees, Water & People is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that was founded in 1998 by Stuart Conway and Richard Fox, and is staffed by a group of dedicated conservationists who feel strongly about helping communities to protect, conserve, and manage the natural resources upon which their long-term well-being depends. Our work is guided by two core beliefs:

* That natural resources are best protected when local people play an active role in their care and management; and
* preserving local trees, wetlands, and watersheds is essential for the ongoing social, economic, and environmental health of communities everywhere.

TWP develops and manages continuing reforestation, watershed protection, renewable energy, appropriate technology, and environmental education programs in Latin America and the American West. TWP's international programs have been recognized nationally and internationally, receiving the Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy, the Rio Tinto Prize for Sustainability, and the UNEP Sasakakwa Prize, as well as awards from Kodak, The Conservation Fund, and eTown, the nationally syndicated environmental radio show. TWP's programs have been featured on National Geographic Television, CNBC, CNN, National Public Radio, and in the Christian Science Monitor.

Among their projects are

So give a valuable gift helping forests, watersheds and people. (Usually you can donate to specific projects but that function seems down right now, but general donations support all the excellent projects).

FROM A READER: A reader recommended adding this one...

The Okiciyap Food Pantry is in desperate need of donations to help relocate a donated building to house the food pantry, and is only $825 into the $20000 they need for Dec 23 according to their site meter. There was an earlier NAN diary about it that didn't get enough eyes.

Now let's face it. Many people want THINGS as gifts. And I am shopping through Think Geek and Wireless and such places to get some cool gifts for the more material people on my gift list. But for those who appreciate gifts that reflect values, the organizations I list above are excellent options.

Return to Mole's Consumer Advice Page.

Return to I Had a Thought

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Passover and Jewish Origins

Every year at Passover I write a diary focused on the origins of Jews. Passover celebrates, supposedly, the escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. It is an origin myth and, much like Thanksgiving, it has much about it that is mythical and some that is likely to be true. The escape from Egypt is considered one of the defining moments in Judaism, perhaps THE defining moment. Into this event is placed the entirety of the ancient Jewish identity, supposedly divided into "12 tribes," as well as the defining of Jewish religious law. That is a lot to put into one holiday! But there is a more general theme, that of the struggle for freedom that many cultures can relate to.

The problem is that the bible account is internally inconsistent and is clearly a mixture of several traditions and myths. That does not mean that there aren't kernels of truth in it, but it is not clear how many events are covered by the Exodus story and what times those various events took place, or if any of the characters involved were real people. What is clear is that the story was written LONG after the events it claims to describe took place, which is common for ancient legends. The bible cannot be taken literally because it is often internally contradictory. That is odd if it is the revealed word of God, but it is very understandable if it is the collected lore of a small group of semi-nomadic people (Hapiru? Shasu Bedouins?) who eventually established a small state or collection of tiny states and were desperately trying to define their identity in relation to their often much stronger and very aggressive neighbors.

Most of the bible was never written down anywhere close to the events that are described. Much of the Torah (the first five books of the bible) did not form a coherent text until much later, probably the reigns of King Hezekiah or Josiah when the single Kingdom of Judah was trying to lay claim to the entirety of Jewish tradition at the expense of the then conquered and exiled Israel (which was probably the origin of the biblical and modern Samaritans). So the bible has about as much historical merit as, say, the Iliad or the story of Jason and the Argonauts or the Hindu Bagavad Gita. It cannot be ignored because historical people, places and events are there in the background, but it must be taken with Lot's wife's weight in salt.

The bible account of Exodus is now thought to conflate at least two (and maybe many) separate stories: one about an escape from Egypt (or, as I will mention later, maybe from Egyptian control rather than from the state of Egypt per se), and one about a forced expulsion from Egyptian territory. Neither of these events is recorded in Egyptian records, but the structure and narrative of the biblical story clearly involves both an escape and a forced expulsion. This suggests that two groups of proto-Jews came from an Egyptian background of some sort.

I have read about a dozen books on the subject, but I find that the two most convincing are Jonathan N. Tubb's book Canaanites (1998) and Israel Finkelstein's book The Bible Unearthed. Both use primarily archaeology and only occasionally try to fit biblical stories to the archaeological facts. Most other books start from the bible and try to smoosh in archaeology to make sense of the biblical chronology. Needless to say, as a scientist, I prefer an approach that gets facts on the ground first and only afterwards tries to fit in the bible. To these two main sources I also add a casual observation from the book Salt by Mark Kurlansky.

In the bible, the Hebrews are a coherent group of about 12 tribes (really the number and the names vary over time) who often look to a single leader (something that probably never happened until the Maccabees, if even then) and who migrated from Babylon to Canaan to Egypt then back to Canaan. Archaeologically, the Hebrews were a group that evolved in situ from the native Canaanite population. There is almost no archaeological evidence for a Babylonian or Egyptian origin, yet it is interesting that these two empires played a powerful role in the early history of the Jews, so influences and even people from both of these empires clearly helped shape Judaism even if the bulk of the Jewish population were basically native Canaanites.

Passover celebrates a man named Moses leading "his people" out of Egypt against the wishes of the very powerful king of Egypt followed by the reception of "THE LAW" and the entry into the "promised land." This is the foundation myth of Judaism. It is, quite simply, a myth with many false leads and dead ends...but it also hints at historical facts.

So just who was this "Moses?" He is the central character of the Passover myth, but who was he? Was he real? There is no corroborating evidence that any such person existed. But the name is intriguing. It is absolutely NOT a Jewish, or even a Canaanite, name. In fact it is only half a name at all and it is very clearly Egyptian. The nature of the name may give a hint at the origin of the Jewish religion.

There is no question that "Moses" is the same as the Egyptian "Mose" which means "born of" as in the names of the Pharaohs "Ahmose" (born of the moon) or "Tuthmose" (born of Thoth). The entire story of Moses, including his partially recorded name, suggests Moses was an Egyptian or an acculturated foreigner, fully integrated not just into Egyptian society, but possibly into the Egyptian royal family. He was buddies with a royal prince (of which there often were very many) and may well have been brought up educated within the royal sphere (as many Egyptian nobles and foreign princes were). Moses may or may not have had foreign origins (a minor Canaanite prince?), but he was culturally Egyptian and had an Egyptian name. So when we look into his beliefs, we have to look to Egypt and the situation in Egypt to understand him.

What was his full name? The most common names based on "Mose" were Ahmose and Tuthmose, neither of which would fit with Jewish ideas of who their leaders should be since both imply Polytheism. Either one is a possible real name for Moses, though I favor another somewhat more far-fetched possibility. Maybe something like "Atmose," a name I essentially make up based on what had recently happened in Egypt. His name probably was NOT Atmose, but it might have been and it would really explain a great deal about Jewish origins. But more on that later.

Let's start with three solid facts, really about the ONLY solid facts there are regarding the Jews at this early stage. These three things are the ONLY things we can be sure of:

1. Genetic studies show that almost all modern Jews are descended from a population that lived in the area of ancient Canaan, quite closely related to modern Palestinians. Jews and Palestinians (as well as Lebanese, most likely) are modern day Canaanites and are probably descended from the earliest inhabitants of the region. There certainly were groups who came from Babylon or Egypt who mixed with the Canaanite natives to form the Hebrew culture. And there certainly were Greeks who mixed with the Canaanite natives to form the Palestinian culture. But there is no genetic evidence for this to date. Y-chromosomal studies indicate that modern Jews, including Sephardim, Ashkinazim and Sabra, and to a much lesser degree even Ethiopian Jews and the South African Lemba, are a genetically homogenous group (compared with most populations which show more genetic diversity) that originated in the area of Israel and Palestine. Modern Jews and modern Palestinians show remarkable genetic relatedness, indicating both populations derive from the same ancient stock in the Levant. The genetic evidence puts Jewish origins precisely where the bible puts it at about the time the bible puts the formative years (the same time Phillistines/Palestinians are becoming an ethnicity). As a side note I should mention some recent evidence that shows that links between Jews and other populations can be two ways. A recent study shows that about 20% of the modern populations of Spain and Portugal also are genetic descendents of ancient Jews. This shows either that there was considerable intermarriage between the Sephardic Jews and the Iberians prior to the expulsion of the Jews or, more likely, that the Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism by the Spanish became a significant part of the population of Spain.

2. The very first historical mention of "Israel" was during the Egyptian 19th dynasty, in the reign of Pharaoh Merneptah (the son of Ramesses II and hence soon after the Exodus supposedly took place). This inscription refers to the complete destruction of a group of people (not an organized nation or city) called "Israel." This earliest written mention of "Israel" gives us an almost unique fixed point in which to place ancient Jewish history. Whatever the origins of the Jews, a unique people who were the genetic ancestors of modern Jews existed in Canaan by the reign of Merneptah and got their collective ass kicked by Merneptah's armies. Again, they were a group of people or ethnicity, not a nation, at this time, based on the grammar used in the inscription. I should also note that the first mentions of Philistines (and/or related groups, collectively called "Sea Peoples") occurs at about the same time.

3. The archaeological evidence for this period (as outlined in Israel Finkelstein's book The Bible Unearthed) is also interesting. In the region that became the earliest core of the Israelites, what is now the highlands of Israel and the West Bank, archaeology shows us there was a very typical, if somewhat impoverished, Canaanite population. This population has typical Canaanite pottery, typical Canaanite religion (with many deities including El (same as Elohim), Yahweh and Astarte, names seen in the bible being worshiped by the Jews), and almost a typical Canaanite diet. This Canaanite archaeology is not interrupted by any invasions. There is no obvious large scale new influence from either Babylon or Egypt. But there is one, and only one, change in the archaeology of this region during this period: pig bones disappear from their garbage dumps. At the point when Israel is supposed to first be forming according to the bible, and just about when Merneptah kicked some proto-Jewish ass, the future Jews still worshiped many gods and were in every way Canaanites, but they gave up eating pork. For a long time I found this fascinating, but not a critical aspect of the search for the origin of Jewish beliefs. It is evidence that confirms the genetic evidence that modern Jews are descended from Canaanites, but I never realized that it could also help determine the origin of Jewish beliefs. But later I will show why this really is a key bit of evidence, along with the name "Moses" pointing to an Egyptian origin of Jewish beliefs even if most proto-Jews were Canaanites. Jewish Monotheism and pork aversion may really come from Egypt as the Passover myth suggests.

So we have an ethnic group called "Israel" that gave up eating pork in the exact place and time that the Israelites were forming an ethnic identity according to the bible. And this population seems to be the true genetic ancestors of most modern Jews. And they were definitely Canaanites.

The bible story from Joseph to the Exodus, whatever truth there is in it, took place during one of the most interesting periods of Egyptian history, spanning the so-called 15th through 19th dynasties of Pharaohs.

The 15th dynasty was considered a huge disaster and embarrassment by the proud Egyptians, because it was a dynasty of foreigners. In fact, this dynasty, the so-called Hyksos, were primarily Canaanites (probably with some non-Canaanite, maybe even Indo-European, elements). So Canaanite rule in Northern Egypt predates the Exodus and somewhat corresponds with the period that Joseph was supposed to be entering Egypt. This Canaanite dynasty was ousted by the native Egyptian 17th dynasty, which then became the famous 18th dynasty once it reconquered all Egypt. Also predating the Exodus, during the late 18th dynasty, was a brief and controversial period of official monotheism in Egypt, the period many people know because it was founded by the Pharaoh Akhnaten and ended during the reign of Tutankhamen, the Pharaoh perhaps best known by the world because his rather hastily and shoddily assembled tomb goods were discovered almost intact. The Exodus, whatever it was, is thought to have taken place during the early 19th dynasty, during the long and glorious reign of Ramesses II. And the first ever reference to "Israel" (see below) occurs during the 19th dynasty reign of Ramesses II's son, Merneptah. This is the general historical outline. Now lets look at details.

Some time before the Exodus, during Egypt's so-called Middle Kingdom in the Middle Bronze Age, Egypt saw a large influx of Canaanites into it's Northern area (the Delta). Entire settlements are Canaanite, rather than Egyptian, in character. At some point either this foreign element destabilized Egypt, or took advantage of existing instability due to other causes, and the Egyptian Delta was taken over by a group of people known as the Hyksos. The meaning of Hyksos is debated, but may mean "foreign kings." Archaeologically, the Hyksos are clearly Canaanites with a hint of other non-Semitic influences. But in essence, the Hyskos rule over Egypt was a Canaanite dynasty and Canaan and Egypt became far more closely linked than ever before. Some think that this might be the time that Joseph entered Egypt, if there ever was such a single event. It does fit the timing suggested by the bible for when Joseph lived and it was a time when Canaanite advisers would certainly have risen to great power. At some point, though, the southern, native Egyptians expelled the Hyksos and re-established not only native control over Egypt, but Egyptian control over Canaan.

One possible theory, though not well accepted, is that the expulsion story contained within the Exodus story may just possibly be an echo of the expulsion of the Canaanite Hyksos rulers out of Egypt. I tend to see this as unlikely just because the timing seems off. However, Canaanite domination of the Superpower Egypt would certainly have made a lasting impression on all Canaanites, including the people who became the Hebrews, and could easily have influenced later myths. If Haiti took over the United States for awhile and then was expelled, you can be sure that Haitians would remember that period of dominance for centuries to come! It would become legendary. So a Hyksos/Hebrew link, though tenuous, may have some validity and just might form the basis for the expulsion story within Exodus.

At all times of Egyptian history the population was diverse and there was room for advancement even for prisoners of war. Three different groups were always part of the Egyptian melting pot (with other groups appearing more sporadically): Native Egyptians (probably related to the Berbers), Nubians/Kushites from what is now the Sudan, and "Asiatics," who were essentially Canaanites of various sorts. The life of a man named Urhiya and his son Yupa illustrate how "Asiatics" (in their case maybe Hurrians, not Canaanites, though both groups mixed during the Hyksos period) could attain the highest ranks of Egyptian society (described in Lives of the Ancient Egyptians by Toby Wilkinson). Urhiya was a first generation immigrant to Egypt with a foreign name, yet he rose to the rank of Army General and High Steward to Ramesses II, the Pharaoh most often thought to be the one reigning during the Exodus. Urhiya's son, Yupa, rose to even greater rank, in the full confidence of the Pharaoh.

The story of Joseph can be considered in the context of two known aspects of Egyptian history: the ability of foreigners to rise to the top ranks of Egyptian society, and the period of Canaanite rule in the Egyptian delta, the 15th "Hyksos" dynasty. At about the right time according to the bible for Joseph to have lived you had the Canaanite rulers of Egypt. And you have the fact that even when native Egyptians ruled you had ample chances for Canaanites to reach the highest ranks of Egyptian society, you have very real precedents for people like Joshua. I think it is very likely that a group of Canaanites linked to a major adviser to pharaohs (Hyksos or native or both) may have been part of Jewish origins.

There is then a gap in the biblical story that spans exactly the period between the Hyksos and the 19th dynasty. From Joseph to Moses and then Joshua, there is nothing much mentioned. And this is supposed to cover precisely (almost too precisely!) the period that separates the Hyksos from Ramesses II. We have no idea from any source what might have happened in this period. To me this suggests that Joseph had nothing to do with the Hyksos, but rather was a 19th dynasty Canaanite who, like Urhiya, made it big in Egypt among a group of Canaanites who sometime later left under an Egyptian or Egyptianized Canaanite named SomethingMose (Moses). If so, Joshua probably SHOULD be among Egyptian records and so could be part of Urhiya's family...maybe. If Joshua was a real person and really was powerful in Egypt, his tomb should be out there. On the other hand, there currently is no existing evidence for a high ranking Canaanite named Joseph and that suggests he may well have been remembered from Hyksos times, a period that later Egyptians preferred to forget and expunge from the records. OR...and here is a key thing, maybe he was a Canaanite who made it big during the 18th dynasty reign of Akhnaten who was caught up in Egyptian monotheism and spread it to his Canaanite relatives and followers. Such a person would DEFINITELY be wiped from the Egyptian records. There is no evidence for this, but it would explain the lack of evidence for someone who SHOULD be attested in the archaeological and historical records (which were well kept) and WOULD have stood out. So Joseph might have been a high ranking Canaanite during the Hyksos dynasty (the lack of reference to him and the biblical time scale support this...weak evidence), or he was an 18th dynasty Canaanite close to the Akhnaten monotheism (no evidence, other than the lack of reference to a Joseph who should be referred to, and the possible influence of Akhnaten's monotheism on Judaism) or he was a 19th dynasty Canaanite, just possibly in the family of Urhiya, who made it big just before someone named SomethingMose (Moses) led an Exodus.

There seems no direct connection between Joseph and Moses. So the Joseph line may be one thread of Canaanite/Egyptian history that contributed to the origin of the Jews, and the Moses line might be a separate thread. And both might be peripheral to the main thread of Jewish history which, according to archaeology and genetics, is almost exclusively Canaanite.

After the expulsion of the Hyksos, Egypt reached the pinnacle of its power under the 18th and 19th dynasties, and even into the more troubled 20th dynasty. These three dynasties are the most important for Jewish identity because it is in this period that entities that were Hebrew and/or Israeli began to take form. Again, the very first reference to both Israel and to groups related to the Philistines (ancient Palestinians?) come in a single 19th dynasty Egyptian text that mentions the destruction of both. In this text, both Israel and the "Sea People" (among whom the Philistines were later included; the name "Sea People" could mean either people from across the sea or people from the coast or people from the islands...all of which points to Greek and Anatolian origins) are groups of people, not nations, and are clearly bit players, simply ruffians to be beaten up by the Egyptian military power or, in the case of some "Sea People" (specifically the Sherden) they were also mercenaries in the Egyptian Army. Specific reference to the Philistine branch of the "Sea People" came about 75 years later. These very first references to Philistines and Israelis clearly come after any Exodus.

Turning back to the 18th dynasty, this is the Egypt most people know something about because it included Akhenaten and Tutankhamen. Akhenaten is interesting because he is the first person in recorded history to be monotheistic. He tried to reform all Egyptian religion to focus on a single god, the visible sun disk, the Aten. If the theory that Jews had already entered Egypt by this point is true, and if they had not yet left, then they would have experienced the tumultuous time of Akhenaten's religious reforms. Many people think that Akhenaten may have been the inspiration for Jewish monotheism. I have problems with this. Akhenaten's religion was not a widespread religion. It was rather HIS religion with HIMSELF as the ONLY link between the one god and humans. It was not very much like later Jewish monotheism, though there are definitely some common themes. Furthermore, there is no evidence at all for Jewish monotheism at this time or for centuries afterwards. And yet, some see close parallels between some of Akhenaten's own writings and later biblical passages (particularly certain psalms). Could some small group of Canaanites have taken to Akhenaten's religion and preserved a memory of his writings that later got incorporated into the bible? Maybe, but as with the Hyksos/Hebrew connection, this is very tenuous. However, one new piece of information I recently came across strongly suggests that some of the earliest uniquely Jewish beliefs may well have come from Egypt, not evolving in situ in Canaan.

Remember that I said above that the very first archaeological difference in what is now the highlands of the West Bank and Israel that shows a new group was evolving in what became the core of ancient Israel and Judah was the disappearance of pig bones from their garbage dumps, indicating that a ban on pork was the first defining feature of what became Judaism. This change is unique among the Canaanites and unique in the whole region. To many it seems so distinctive as to be difficult to explain. Some, including myself, have envisioned a local strongman who got sick after eating pork or a whole group that got sick after eating pork, leading to a prohibition on pork. I should note that the claim that this aversion to pork grew out of an avoidance of parasites doesn't hold up because the effects of such parasites would happen well after consuming the meat, so wouldn't be obviously linked to the meat. Furthermore, cows, sheep and goats are also subject to parasites. Others have hypothesized that the fact that all Canaanites ate pork might mean that the proto-Jews were specifically distinguishing themselves from their neighbors by abandoning pork. To me this would only make sense if a Canaanite religious ceremony of considerable importance involved pork, and emerging monotheists rejecting that ceremony threw the pork baby out with the polytheist bathwater.

But all of this speculation ignores one basic fact. Rejection of pork, though unique among the Canaanites, was NOT unique at that time, but was actually a characteristic of one of the region's major Empires...Egypt. This is something I picked up re-reading the book Salt by Mark Kurlansky. In this book there is an offhand reference to the fact that ham would have probably been invented by a culture as into the salt-curing as the ancient Egyptians had they not been averse to eating pork. The religious leadership of ancient Egypt considered pigs carriers of leprosy and considered pig farmers social outcasts. This is a critical piece of evidence in considering the origin of Jewish beliefs! The very first archaeologically attested characteristics of the proto-Jews was the adoption of an Egyptian aversion to pork shortly after the Exodus was supposed to have happened.

Getting back to the Egyptian historical contex, Akhenaten, busy with religious turmoil, neglected his empire in Canaan. This period is extremely well documented because we have extensive archives of diplomatic correspondence from this time. Canaan was a mess, with small cities fighting it out and with groups of semi-tribal/semi-bandit groups roaming the countryside and occasionally even taking over cities. These semi-tribal group were of mixed origins, but the term used for them, Hapiru, is thought by some to be the earliest form of the word "Hebrew." The Hapiru/Hebrew link was once thought to be exact. More recently, it has been largely rejected. However, it is hard for me to ignore since it appears at just the right time for early Jewish origins, and it seems to be coming back into vogue (as evidenced by the book Ramses II by Christiane Desroches Noblecourt published in 2007). The word is similar (particularly taking into account the lack of written vowels in Semetic languages), it refers to a group that seems very much like the bands of roving Hebrews under Joshua, and they occur before and at the time of the Egyptian reference to a people (not a nation) called "Israel". The current theory can be summed up as: Not all Hapiru were Hebrews, but all Hebrews were Hapiru. The group of Canaanites (perhaps fresh from Egypt?) that became Hebrews and Israel, may have just been one band of bandit Hapiru, and that rather derogatory name may have stuck...or even been proudly adopted the way many Australians are proud of their convict ancestry. It should be noted, though, that the name "Hebrew" was applied much later than the name "Israel." "Hapiru" predates both. It would be odd if the earlier Hapiru came back into vogue after a period of being called "Israel," but not unheard of.

After Akhenaten, a series of warrior Pharaohs ruled Egypt, and retook Canaan. Various groups of Hapiru were subdued, others served as mercenaries under Egyptian rule, and some served as laborers. It is quite possible that the group that became Hebrews were a group of Hapiru that served as mercenaries and/or laborers under the Pharaohs Seti I, Ramesses II and Merneptah. This was a period of Egyptian domination, but there were Canaanite rebellions as well. In fact, this was also a period of uncertainty within Canaan as the Egyptians and their main rivals, the Hittites from what is now Turkey, fought it out for domination of the region. Some, including Christiane Desroches Noblecourt, believe that the Exodus occurred in the context of Ramesses II's military expiditions into Canaan and the Hittite control of various regions in Canaan in opposition to Egypt. Hittite control of parts of Canaan would give an opportunity for dissident groups like the Hapiru to escape Egyptian domination.

Did one group of Hapiru, possibly including some people influenced by Akhenaten's religious reforms (now being suppressed by the reestablished Egyptian priestly authorities) and serving as mercenaries and laborers in Egypt, suddenly make a bid for freedom and escape into the wilderness east of Canaan, perhaps aided by the newly established Hittite control of part of the region? This is a perfectly plausible scenario that fits reasonably both the archaeology and the bible, but it is just a story and is supported by little more than circumstantial evidence. But that text I mention that is the first reference to Israel and to Philistines was written during the reign of Merneptah. Based on place names and general events, many place the biblical Exodus story as referring to the reigns of Seti I and Ramesses II, or of Ramesses II and Merneptah.

One thing that strikes me is that around this time Egypt controlled most of Canaan, in fierce competition with the Hittites, another empire I love to read about and I have visited the ruins of their capital city. In fact this is the period where the famous battle of Kadesh took place, claimed by Ramesses II as a great victory, but in reality an embarrassing stalemate for both empires. This battle eventually led to the world's first documented peace treaty, but there was a considerable gap between the battle and the treaty during which things were very much in flux in Canaan.

One of my pet theories is that the Exodus is not at all about Jews leaving Egypt proper. Maybe it is about Jews throwing off Egyptian imperial control at one of the periods of declining Egyptian rule. That would place the Exodus story either right after Kadesh, or at a later date than I suggest above and would turn the story on its head somewhat. But Canaanites did gain independence from Egypt at a slightly later date that is traditionally thought for the Exodus, and certainly the Jews would have been one of the communities that would have gained and celebrated freedom from Egyptian control. It all could have happened right in Canaan rather than in Egypt. But that is just one of my pet theories. I am not aware of any archaeologists or biblical scholars who see it that way. But it would simplify the story a great deal.

So we see Canaanites entering Egypt and even ruling before the 18th dynasty expelled them. We have a period of Canaanites being split between urban, pro-Egypt but squabbling and sometimes rebellious city-states (the hated Canaanites of the bible would fit this description), and non-urban troublemakers called Hapiru, a name similar to Hebrew. During the 19th dynasty we even have an outright reference to Israel. Then, during the 20th dynasty, there was a sharp decline of Egyptian control, and there were cataclysmic events that included either invasions and/or native uprisings and/or uprisings by former mercenaries that brought down several Empires (e.g. the Hittite and Mycenaean nations) and weakened others (Egypt). The Iliad may date to these events since the same wave of unrest and instability engulfed the Greek world and was a time when Troy itself (another city I have visited) was destroyed. In this period of massive unrest (around 1200-1140 BC range) the Philistine city states developed. It is at this time that the bible places the rise of a unified Kingdom of Israel that then split into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The biblical story of the rise of Israel is not well supported at this point. It is only during the period of the divided kingdom that we get historical references to kings like Omri, Ahab, Jehoram and others. So there is about a 200-year gap in the written references from the first mention of "Israel" during Merneptah's reign, to Moabite references to king Omri (of Israel, then only one of two Jewish kingdoms). And archaeology does not support any great united Kingdom of David and Solomon but rather suggests the Hebrews were little more than bandit groups akin to Hapiru. However, there is little question that the Hebrews/Israelis did indeed exist at this time, eschewing pork, just like Egyptians, but not otherwise different from other Canaanites, who emerged in the Hill Country (a backwater) of Canaan and eventually, in the times of Omri and Ahab, became a major local force. Judah, though it is more important in the bible, was the minor partner with only Israel (the denegrated partner in the bible) ever fielding a large army and conquering neighboring lands. In fact the second historical reference to Israel is a Moabite reference to king Omri of Israel kicking Moabite ass! After that, though, most references are Assyrian and Egyptian references of tribute from Israel and Judah, or conquest of various cities in Israel and Judah. Of course eventually Assyria destroyed Israel and Babylon destroyed Judah, though there always was a population that remained in Canaan, eventually forming the Jewish people that exist today.

So there it is. The echoes of the Passover myth that exist in historical and archaeological evidence are few. But they are there. To me the name "Moses" is so un-Jewish that it must reflect a real Egyptian name that got modified later and so reflects a real person. The Pharaohs are real and the cities the Jews were supposed to have labored on were real and did involve Hapiru labor. And soon after, Merneptah defeated a tiny group of people called "Israel." Somewhere in that thin evidence is a real Passover story. But we may never know what it is. Yet that story still resonates even beyond the Jewish community to become something of a human story of freedom.

So to all, a Gut Pesach.

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PASSOVER MATZOH: My Family Agrees, It's Osem

Passover is the day we celebrate freedom from slavery and a supposedly seminal event in Jewish history. Well, the historical basis for this is uncertain. But for Jews around the world this holiday is a major part of our year and Matzoh plays a central role.

My family is not so religious, as people have probably gathered. One Passover we spent with a friend that ordered a massive amount of Chinese food for our celebration. The eggroll of our affliction...and pork products did play a role in the Seder.

And when it comes to Matzoh, my family is eclectic. We often get egg and onion...usually Streits. My son loves "yellow Matzoh" meaning Goodman's egg Matzoh. Plain Matzoh is fine. Everything Matzoh (Manishevitz) is a bit much, but not bad. And chocolate covered Matzoh, if it uses good dark chocolate, can be an amazing thing! The only one we were left a bit flat by, though we appreciated the effort, was Manishevitz "Mediterranean" Matzoh didn't quite work. Also some egg Matzoh is made with fruit juice and this just doesn't work for us.

One year we happened to buy a 5-pack of Matzoh for Passover. We tend to eat Matzoh on a regular basis...all of us. So buying in bulk around Passover makes sense.

This year we happened to grab the Osem "Israeli Matzoh," subtitled "Matzoh with a Mitzvah" because they donate some tiny amount of gelt to plant trees for every 5-pack people buy. Planting trees is good. So we bought it.

Then we tasted it. THIS is what Matzoh should be!!

All four of us agree...this is some of the best Matzoh we have ever tried. A bit dry, but that is what you expect. PERFECTLY fresh, crisp and tasty. I love it. My wife loves it. My teenage step daughter, who currently disparages the world, loved it. My son...he ate it. We are not sure if it's his favorite, but it sure pleased him.

Osem's "Israeli Matzoh with a Mitzvah" is THE Matzoh to eat. Don't know how easy it is to find outside of NYC, but we got it at our regular supermarket. So if you like Matzoh, buy the Osem 5-pack. My entire family rarely agrees 100% on something. But we all LOVED this Matzoh.

And for those who think a review of Passover Matzoh is too trivial to blog about, well, all I can say is take it up with Moishe. He's the one who led us out of Egypt and gave us those commandments.

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Cold Remidies: What Works and What Doesn't

Cold and flu season has begun yet again. And people take a whole slew of medications, some with nasty side effects, to try and get themselves through it. What works and what doesn't? As a biologist and as a parent, I have paid close attention to this topic and want to share some of my conclusions.

First of all beware of any "natural" or "homeopathic" remedies. It isn't that none of them are helpful...but there is absolutely no regulation of them and they have no obligation to back up their claims with facts. A lot of these remedies are basically based on nothing with no facts, no evidence and often just plain made up claims to see what used to be called "snake oil": basically a quack remedy.

An example is Echinacea. This was touted some years back as a hugely effective "natural" cold cure. But when people actually studied it they found it had no more effectiveness than a sugar pill. There is no evidence that Echinacea works. Back then I tried it and found it didn't help me at all. And when the scientific evidence came out I knew didn't help me because it doesn't do anything for a cold.

But it isn't just "natural" remedies you need to be suspicious of. Many cold medicines have so-called "cough suppressants." Supposedly these calm your cough. Again I never found they worked that well, or at best inconsistently. Well, turns out actual scientific studies show these over-the-counter "cough suppressants" are about as effective as Echinacea...which means not at all. This was research published in a top scientific journal, and yet we are still being sold "cough suppressants" which are basically ineffective. PLUS they have nasty side effects. My advice is don't buy a cold medication that contains a supposed "cough suppressant."

So what does work?

Cold medication contain three basic ingredients that DO work: analgesics, decongestants and antihistamines.

Analgesics are basically pain relievers. Some can also reliever fever and inflammation. There are three basic types: aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen. All of them work. Aspirin has the side effect of irritating the stomach and so isn't used so much any more. Acetaminophen works well but has a major problem in that its effective dose is awfully close to its dangerous dose. Many people who overuse cold medication wind up overdosing on acetaminophen. This can destroy your liver. It is fine to take a medication with acetaminophen, but NEVER take more than the recommended dose. The best analgesic is ibuprofen. It is the most effective, relieves the most symptoms, and can be taken in relatively high doses. For any kind of pain relief or illness, ibuprofen should be part of your medication. Not only does it relieve pain, but it inhibits something called prostaglandins. These are chemicals your body makes that are part of the pain response and are one of the main reasons you just plain feel awful when you have a cold or flu. Taking ibuprofen won't cure your cold or flu but will make you feel much better. It also, like aspirin and acetaminophen, lowers fever. That is particularly critical in children. I remember once when my son had a fever. We had medicated him but we were out and it wore off before we could get home. He suddenly became very listless and miserable, and I felt his forehead and could tell his fever had shot up. We went right to the nearest store and bought some children's ibuprofen and gave it to him. Within an hour he was feeling much better and his fever came down. This isn't just about making him feel better either. Fevers, back before analgesics, could kill people, particularly children. In the old days, the level of fever my kid had that day would have been very dangerous. Today, with analgesics, fevers don't kill people anymore except in very rare cases.

So, ibuprofen is one of the best medications you can take when you have a cold or flu. Or, for that matter, almost any kind of pain. But you can even boost its effectiveness. If you take a regular or below recommended (NEVER above recommended) dose of acetaminophen along with a regular or even say 1 and a half dose of ibuprofen, the two do something called synergize. They work far far better together than apart. Together they relieve pain, fever and that general ill feeling amazingly well. Since most cold medicines for some reason use acetaminophen, then taking a regular dose of a cold remedy along with some ibuprofen can really help you. Just avoid the cold remedies with so-called "cough suppressants."

Decongestants are kind of a mixed blessing I feel. They basically dry you out. This means if you have a stuffy nose, that will go away for awhile. But it doesn't really clear you up permanently. It just dries you out temporarily. As long as you are still sick, that stuffiness will come back all the worse once the decongestant wears off. And while it is effective you feel dried out, which in itself can be irritating. Still, if I have something I really have to do that day, I take a decongestant. Furthermore, if you need to be awake, cold medicines with decongestants tend to make you slightly speedy and this can counteract the drowsy effects of the next medication: antihistamines.

I mentioned above prostaglandins above as one of the chemicals in your body that just plain make you feel awful. Histamines are another kind of "bad-feeling" chemical. That watery eyed, stuffy, allergic feeling is caused by histamines. Antihistamines inhibit this, making you feel better. They work well. But they also make you sleepy. This is great if you can stay home in bed. If you can, do so and take an antihistamine along with some ibuprofen and acetaminophen and go to bed. Do this for a day or two and your cold or flu will clear up MUCH faster because you are giving your body a chance to fight it off. That combination is your best bet for over the counter drugs. Check the packaging. If it has acetaminophen and an antihistamine, take it along with a separate dose of ibuprofen. By the way, for all of these go for generics. They are cheaper and just as effective. Just check the label for what the medication contains and what dose. Some generics are lower dosage, but most are the same medicine, same dosage, just cheaper than name brands.

Avoid antibiotics if you have a cold or flu. They don't do ANYTHING for cold or flu (which are caused by viruses, not bacteria) and can actually make you worse. That said, sometimes when you have a cold or flu you get what is called a "secondary infection." THESE can often be treated with antibiotics. But don't take an antibiotic UNLESS a doctor tells you specifically you have a secondary infection. One way you can tell if you have a bacterial infection (which would require an antibiotic) rather than a viral infection is if you are producing a greenish liquid. For example, an eye infection that oozes a clear or white liquid is probably viral. If the liquid is green it is probably bacterial. This has to do with what kind of white blood cells respond to the infection (a cell called a neutrophil produces the green color). In general though don't take an antibiotic unless there is evidence of a bacterial infection. It can actually make things worse. Antibiotics are way overused in America and it leads to major problems.

What else? Drink lots of water, tea, juice, etc. These mostly keep you hydrated. Your body gets dehydrated when sick because it is under so much stress and you probably aren't eating and drinking as much. So make an effort to drink these things.

What about zinc? Evidence I have seen suggests it works for colds (not flu?) if taken with the very early symptoms. It makes it harder for the virus to actually infect the next cell. Taking a medication with Zinc can help if taken at the right time.

Vitamin C? Evidence shows that taking vitamin C, particularly if you are taking it before infection, can reduce both severity and duration of a cold. It isn't a cure all, and don't take megadoses. But a regular dose of vitamin C can help you avoid and keep colds to a minimum.

I have found that the EmergenC Immune Defense packets, if I start taking one or two a day either at the FIRST sign I may be getting sick or when people around me are sick, helps to keep me from getting very sick. It has both vitamin C and Zinc and I think these are what do it...the rest of its ingredients may well be just window dressing. For example, the elderberry and hibiscus extracts in it probably do nothing at all. But it is a convenient way to not only get the vitamin C and Zinc that WILL help, but also, since it is taken in water, it can help to keep you hydrated. I am not so fond of the taste so I dilute it down a lot when I drink it, really making it a chance to hydrate. I think this combination of vitamin C, zinc and proper hydration help my body keep the cold at least partly at bay.

Another thing I think is important is controlling mold in your home. This may sound unrelated, but mold creates a constant irritation to your lungs. The combination of a cold or flu and the presence of mold in your apartment can create a situation where you get a persistent cough that won't really go away until you get away from the mold. It is like the combination of a cold or flu and mold puts your body's immune system into overdrive and it starts in a small way (sometimes large) hurting your own body. You almost become permanently sick. This is an oversimplification, but there is evidence that it is roughly true. I have experienced this personally. When my apartment was, over several years, experiencing leaks we had persistent mold problems. I considered it mostly cosmetic. But I also noticed that any time I got a cold it just would not go away completely until I visited a drier climate (which would mean less mold). Then it would go away until the next cold. By now we have dealt with all the leaks and the mold. Once those were dealt with I stopped getting the persistent coughs. It could be coincidence, but from what I have learned it probably is connected. To find out how to combat mold in your home, read my article on mold and mildew.

Colds and flu are a fact of life. They are viruses that evolve very quickly, so our immune responses grow ineffective against them. Antibiotics do nothing against them. So mostly what you are doing is relieving the symptoms of the illness so you feel better, keeping fever down because that can actually be dangerous, and giving your body a chance, through hydration, rest (that is one way antihistamines can help), vitamin C and zinc, to fight off the virus on its own.

Always remember that if a cold or flu lasts too long, or your fever gets really high, SEE A DOCTOR. When one illness hits you it can make you more susceptible to other, worse illnesses and those can be serious if not treated.

If you take nothing else away from this article always remember, NEVER take more than the recommended dose of acetaminophen, ibuprofen is the best analgesic, ibuprofen and acetaminophen taken together in modest doses work extra effectively, and don't bother ever with so-called "cough suppressants." Antibiotics don't help a cold or flu, though if the doctor finds evidence of a bacterial secondary infection, THEN it can help. Also antihistamines work well but they will put you to sleep unless also taken with a decongestant.

Also flu shots DO help. Not always, since the flu virus evolves quickly and the vaccine is designed based on the previous year's viruses, but it does help, sometimes quite a bit. I advise getting them.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

NYC Restaurant Review: Great Sechuan - Food At Your Fingertips

Great Sichuan
# 363 3rd Ave, New York NY10016 40.74123 -73.981879
# (Btwn 26th & 27th St)

This is one of the best and most authentic Chinese restaurants I have found in NYC. I am amazed at how many lousy Chinese restaurants survive in NYC...but this one is great. Not fancy, but with what seem to me to be real roots in China rather than perpetuating the mediocre American interpretation of Chinese cuisine.

My son loves the place and they love him. The service is generally so-so, which is typical of the most authentic of Chinese restaurants. But once they got used to my son, they remembered what he always ordered and welcomed us warmly every time we came. They are good people who serve good food in a no frills restaurant. They always have two TV's in English one in Chinese. I have never decided if I liked this or not. I think I like the odd contrast between the two programming styles.

They have a good lunch special. Price wise I recommend it. You will get good food, appetizer, main course and rice, for a good price. And you will be satisfied. But it isn't their BEST food. Just their good food. On this cheaper menu I'd say the Double-Cooked Pork and Kung Bao Chicken stand out from what I have tasted so far.

But the regular menu has some real gems. First off there are the Pork Soup Dumplings. Now these don't beat the soup dumplings at Joe's Shanghai, but they are still amazingly good dumplings. For the uninitiated, soup dumplings are delicious dumplings with soup inside them. They are poke a hole in them with your chopsticks to let the steam out before you pop them in your mouth. But they are also one of the best inventions ever. Joe's Shanghai are the best I have ever had, but Great Sechuan does a great job of them as well.

The regular Pork Dumplings are also good, though I personally feel that the wonton skin they use is too thick. I like very thin skinned dumplings. But as that style of dumplings goes, these are very good. My son loves them.

The Cold Shredded Amazing Chicken is also great. Maybe not quite "amazing" but I definitely enjoyed it. A tad spicy, with very tender white meat chicken. This was one of the more authentic seeming dishes.

This place is also unusual among traditional American Chinese restaurants (as opposed to Indian-Chinese fusion restaurants) in that they have lamb dishes. This is usually a big gap at Chinese restaurants. I have not tried the lamb dishes here yet, but they seem adaptations of traditional Chinese dishes, not Indian fusion cuisine. Now I like Indian-Chinese fusion, but I have yet to try true Chinese lamb dishes and this restaurant gives me that chance. I plan on trying it!

The Chong Qing Dry & Spicy Chicken is amazing. Spicy and again, to my palate, more authentic than most Chinese restaurants. Also on the spicy side is the Sichuan Fried Rice, which is a nicely spiced up version of an old standard.

They used to have what seemed to be a Mao inspired part of the menu which seemed really interesting and authentic, even if the political theories associated with the food were not so palatable. We had a couple of things from that part of the menu that were unfamiliar and delicious. But now they seem to have pared that down and Mao`s Stir-Fried Shredded Pork is one of the few items from that wonderful part of the menu that remains.

I love good Chinese food...and outside of Chinatown and a handful of other restaurants I have found I often am disappointed by the Chinese food in NYC. Great Sechuan was a nice surprise. Good food, reasonable prices and a level of authenticity that is rare in American Chinese restaurants. I highly recommend it.

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NYC Restaurant Review: Stone Creek Bar and Lounge - Food At Your Fingertips

Stone Creek Bar and Lounge
140 27th St Between 3rd Ave and Lexington

I used to live just down the street of this place...but they hadn't opened yet. I wish they had! This is one of the better bars in the neighborhood.

First off, they have a good sense of happy hour:

$2 off mixed drinks, drafts and select wines
Stone Creek Specials:
Monday Nights: 25-cent Wing Night
Tuesday Nights: Bottle of Wine and 2 Appetizers - $35
Wednesdays: Trivia Night at 8 p.m. (weekly prizes & drink specials)

Second, their Stone Creek Ale is quite nice and nice and cheap during those happy hours.

It is also a nice, relaxing place. It does get crowded sometimes, which is fine. But it retains a laid back atmosphere even then. They don't rush you. It is comfortable and relaxed.

AND they have good food. The pulled pork sliders are probably the best they have. The Roberto's Quesadilla is also great. The Crispy Calamari, Pigs in a Blanket, Jalapeno Poppers and Chicken Fingers are definitely good, but more standard than the Quesadilla and sliders. The Chicken Satay was disappointing, but it was the only disappointing thing I had. I haven't yet tried the Gruyere Macaroni & Cheese but it is on my list of things to try when I go back...and I will go back. I have tended to like their onion rings but not be so impressed with their french fries...but I particularly like THIN french fries, so that may be part of it.

Definitely a good place to try in the neighborhood for good beer and good food...better than some of the more well known places around. It isn't a family sit down place, but I have been tempted to take my son there because I bet he'd like the burger sliders. But taking your kid to a bar is kind of frowned upon!

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NYC Restaurant Review: Mia Chef Gelateria - Food At Your Fingertips

Mia Chef Gelateria
379 3rd Avenue, New York, NY 10016
(212) 889-8727

"This is the best ice cream I have ever had!"

That is my son's reaction the first time he tasted the Gelato here. Stuck among a bunch of almost anonymous store fronts, this place is a major find! I have to agree with my son that it is AMONG the best ice cream experiences I have ever had. My best was Robin Rose ice cream in Venice, California, but they are long gone now. So this is close to the top.

Their flavors vary. And they encourage you to try everything before ordering. And they encourage you to mix flavors. I have always gotten a small (which is very generous) with two flavors. It is PERFECT.

Their standard chocolate is magnificent. They balance it perfectly. It is dark chocolate but not bitter. I don't mind bitter, but this is just right. My son always gets this along with their Oreo cookie flavor. I love it too. They recommend it with the pistachio. I agree. Which brings me to their pistachio. Most pistachio ice cream you get is really almond flavored with a handful of pistachios thrown in. Which is fine with me because I actually like that. This pistachio is richer and more honestly pistachio and I have gotten it every time. One time mixed with chocolate. Other times mixed with other flavors.

They have had Nutella, Captain Crunch, Pecan Pie, Reese's peanut butter cup, White Chocolate and cherries, etc. etc. etc.

Every flavor is a near perfect representation of what it claims to be. I could die happy with this gelato in hand. If you are anywhere near the neighborhood, don't hesitate. Go for it. You will come back for more.

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NYC Restaurant Review: Manhattan Restaurant and Wine Bar: Reserve - Food At Your Fingertips

* Thai, Wine Bar
* 407 3rd Ave, New York NY10016 40.742723 -73.980787
* (Btwn 28th & 29th St)

I was first introduced to this restaurant by a co-worker because they have a good lunch deal. One appetizer and one entree for a good price and beer or wine for $3 more. The food was good, fresh and creative. And I liked the fact that a Thai restaurant was doubling as a wine bar (unusual) and that I could get a Laotian beer there (something else I hadn't encountered).

I have been back for dinner. For drinks they have a happy hour with many beers and wines cheap. But for me and my family the food is the main draw.

The service is great. My son is very picky and will eat only a very few things. Rice is the only guaranteed thing he'll eat at an Asian restaurant. But here he asked if he could have plain, cold tofu and they opened a package fresh for him, cut it up and served it...for the price of extra bread or something. Very accommodating. And my son loved it.

My wife and I are far more adventurous. I will say that, though the lunch special and happy hour drinks are very reasonably priced for the neighborhood, their dinner menu is just a tad too pricey for the serving sizes. They could do a bit better on this, but it is a minor point given that the food is very good.

Some great suggestions:


Khao Thung: minced shrimp and chicken coconut relish on crispy jasmine rice crackers...again I would have liked more for the price, but it was delicious and unique. Recommended!

Gratong Tong: 3 golden tartlets with minced chicken, shrimp, corn and carrot. This is also one of the options for the lunch special appetizer. My first impression was that it was wonderful. I was very satisfied with it. But once I had had it a few times I lost interest. I definitely recommend it, but once the novelty wore off (and it took a few times!) I saw flaws in it. I think they could do a bit better, but I still order it from time to time.

Chicken Satay grilled marinated chicken skewers; served with peanut sauce and cucumber chutney...a basic Thai dish. Theirs is good, but not special. If you want an old standby this is good. My son liked the plain chicken without the sauce, so it can appeal to a kid as well. Sometimes Chicken Satay is dry. This was nice and moist for the most part. The sauce seemed standard, possibly mass produced, but decent.

Massaman Beef Sandwich braised angus beef curry with avocado on baguette and green salad on the unusual take on this dish...kind of like Vietnamese sandwiches meet Thai food. I definitely like it...fresh and well prepared. But I feel it needs something more. Something else, perhaps a vegetable to add texture and flavor. But even without that I will definitely get it again.


They have three pizzas, each for $9. They are small for the price. Personally I think they should make them a tad bigger. But other than that, they are delicious and an interesting mix of Thai and Western tastes. And they pick three of my favorite Thai dishes to adapt to a pizza format.

Green Curry * with green curry chicken and fontina...I think this is my favorite of the three pizzas...but I think I have to try all three again to make sure ; -)

Larb * with minced chicken, fresh mozzarella and mint mushrooms and peppers.

Tom Yum * with shrimp, lemongrass, galangal, mushrooms and peppers


Gra-Praw * with fresh basil, string beans, onions, bell peppers, hot peppers, chili and garlic...a more standard dish, done freshly and very well

Pad Kee Mao * spicy sautéed flat noodles in gra-praw sauce with fresh basil leaves, crispy bell peppers, onions and string beans...another standard dish done well.

A note on the side dishes: my son loves rice. Plain and simple rice. The sticky rice at Reserve is a pleasure. It is among the best I have had. To Westerners this sounds silly. But having lived in Japan I know how important the rice can be, and here it is done perfectly.

The wine list is extensive, but I have to admit I have not had the chance to explore it. I have yet to jump to the idea of Thai food with red wine (which is my favored). They have good beers including a slightly sweet Laotian beer that reminds me just a tad of a Scottish beer I once had, oddly enough. The desserts sound wonderful, but I have yet to try them. There is a magnificent gelato place down the street that has tended to draw us, but one day I will have to try the Chocolate Lava Cake with ice cream and the Mango with sweet sticky rice, the two desserts that most attract me.

Overall a great restaurant well worth trying and coming back to to explore the menu. I would urge them to up their portion sizes a touch on the dinner menu, but it is still one of the places I like to go to.

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Thursday, November 3, 2011

One of the greatest stories ever told: Kaze no Tani no Nasicaa

One of the most magnificent stories I have ever encountered (presented both as Anime and in much more elaborate form, as Manga) is the story by Hayao Miyazaki of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. In many ways it was his rough precursor to his later Princess Mononoke, but in both the original (not dubbed) Anime, and in the Manga he made from it, there is a much richer and more ambiguous plot.

Let me just say that the Manga version of this story has so much more to it. It was so complicated a plot that my mother (despite a Ph.D. in Anthropology) lost track of the political threads. But it is one of the richest, most beautiful and amazing stories ever told. The movie version is excellent, and the animation wonderful if somewhat dated. But the Manga goes so far beyond the plot in the movie it is almost a different story.

This story comes from the imagination of one of Japan's greatest animators, Hayao Miyazaki. It is inspired by ancient Greek myths (hence the name "Nausicaa") and from traditional Japanese stories.

Here is one of the best trailers for Naushikaa ever made: (Korean trailer but gives the BEST impression of the story)

I prefer finding subtitled versions, but the fully dubbed English version, done but the generally lousy, but in this case excellent, Disney, can be found here:

The name Nausicaa comes from Homer's Odyssey and was a deliberate break by Miyazaki with Japanese tradition, though he combined the Western myth of Nausicaa with a Japanese myth of a Princess who loved insects.

Japanese Movie trailer, with the amazing original music (with ocarina notes indicated):

The basic plot of both the Anime and Manga (though the Manga takes it so much further) is that humans destroyed the world in seven days of fire...after that remnants of humanity hung on in small pockets of safety while the rest of the world is engulfed in a toxic forest of fungi and insects.

The Manga in particular explores the political outcomes of this as well as the environmental developments, but the bottom line is that the world of humans is failing centuries after the seven days of fire. War leads to the resurrection of some of the old weapons and these threaten to complete the destruction of humanity. Into this end of days scenario comes Nausicaa, a savior who combines berserker rages with scientific discovery with tearful love for all living things. Nausicaa with all her ambiguities becomes a potential savior. In the Anime her being a savior is definitive. In the Manga it is much more ambiguous, but still fascinating.

This is one of the best stories you or your children will ever see. Check out the anime for the simpler version.

Or, if you prefer a far more complex, ambiguous story, I strongly recommend the manga version as one of the best stories ever told bar none...It always brings tears to my eyes throughout the story.

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