It took me less than a week to devour Freakonomics.
Freakonomics is not the latest kid-focused brand born out of the brilliant cereal-marketing minds in Battle Creek, though don’t worry, I could have made that mistake at first, too. It’s a book that everyone, and I mean everyone, else has already read. And though I am always the last one, I read it in the equivalent of probably 12 hours, spread over 7 days so I’m all caught up! (But now I have to read that McIdiot Frey guy.)
I read Freakonomics for a few reasons: 1) I’m a freak, 2) I’ve gotten strange looks when people find out that I read recipes and cookbooks in bed before going to sleep, and 3) I studied economics in college and learned absolutely nothing valuable from comparisons of government spending on guns vs. butter and why firms supposedly set their prices where marginal cost equals marginal revenue (MC=MR). Somebody, please! Teach me something so that since my Economics degree can’t get me a job, I don’t feel I’ve completely wasted my (parents’) money on college tuition!
Now, I’m not going to say that I loved the book, but it was interesting and very well-written, which made it easy and fast to read. Because I have the attention span of a Cuisinart and the need for a sense of accomplishment through task-completion, easy and fast (oh dear, am I channelling RR today?) are good things (no, I believe it’s Martha).
In case you are one of the now six people who have not yet read Freakonomics, I’m going to tell you what the book is about, but in a much less sexy, much less book-sellingish way than the author’s publicist has done.
Economic analysis, especially from a buttoned-up, tweed-jacketed University of Chicago-trained economist, sounds dry and esoteric, but remember that the title of the book is Freakonomics. (By the way, I have nothing against Chicago – I almost went there for grad school before I realized that I’d slowly but surely freeze my prissy LA ass off, but I do have something against economists. I *ahem* dated one, and boy, was that as fun as a semester of Game Thoery.) This young whippersnapper of an economist, Steven Levitt, simply leans back in his Herman Miller, starts stroking his hairless chin, and after what could only be explained by a few hits off the bong that he hides in the bottom drawer of his desk, curiously asks questions of totally non-economics phenomena, sometimes juxtaposing seemingly unrelated, every-day scenarios and people like sumo wrestlers and school teachers (though that may not be so random if he actually met my 6th grade History teacher).
Levitt starts each chapter with one of these bizarre questions that he has hackingly coughed out of his mystical lungs. Then, in a brilliant slow motion wafting and containment of smoke into facts and figures, he gels together a clear, sharp, and very entertaining economic analysis. And when once 30 pages earlier you doubted if he could logically and believably prove that Real-Estate Agents are like the Ku Klux Klan (without having actually tried to purchase a home in LA), you find yourself understanding that everything can, indeed, be explained with fundamental economic principles, models, and tools like incentives and information (im)balances. You just have to be brave enough to challenge conventional wisdom and know what to measure.
My own full, detailed analysis of a book about someone else’s analysis would confuse me too much, but I am going to highlight the last two chapters of the book, Five and Six, which have to do with parenting. For some reason, as much as the in-depth investigation of the crack dens of Chicago was an interesting explanation of why drug dealers, who were previously believed to be fur-lapelled floor-length leather coat-wearing, gold chain bling-dripping, tricked out hoopdy-driving pimps, actually still live with their moms, these last two chapters are absolutely the most intriguing of the entire book.
I am nowhere near close to becoming a parent (unless adopting an English bulldog puppy in the near future counts), so perhaps my fascination with the chapter entitled "What Makes a Perfect Parent?" has to do with the fact that my sister is now a parent. I love telling her, as Freakonomics has now stipulated, that it does not matter what she does as a parent because her daughter, my niece, will do no better nor worse in life based on my sister’s “parenting techniques.”
Levitt uses standardized test scores as an indicator of success (for now I’ll ignore my opinions about theso-called “value” of such stuff as the Iowa test and how flimsy and inaccurate those test results are - I was always in the 99th percentile or something, and look where it got me!). By pitting conventional parenting factors against one another, he determines that things like whether you work or stay at home with her during the so-called “formative” years, whether you “culture” her by taking her to museums, whether you spank her or not, allow her to watch tv or not, or read Goodnight Moon to her every night or not, do not correlate at all with children’s test scores.
Monsieur Levitt proves that such “parenting” factors that were once deemed to be vital to a child’s future, in fact, have no effect on a child’s future. No effect. None. Ultimately, Levitt’s conclusion is that a “perfect parent” as measured by standardized test scores, is not determined by what parents do, but who they are.
That could seriously injure the sales on a lot of “parenting” experts’ books out there!
And I’m about to completely kill all sales of these books based on conventional parenting by showing you some living proof. Case in point: One vicious Delicious Sarah.
My mom never slow-cooked a homemade beef stew for our family when we were little. In fact,
she didn’t make too many of any of the classic "American" dishes when we were little – meatloaf, mashed potatoes, tuna noodle casserole. We mostly ate Korean food, and it was a very special occasion when we ate "American" foods like spaghetti or steak. Is spaghetti an American food? In the Delicious house, if it wasn’t Korean, Chinese or Japanese, then it was “American,” even linguine alla vongole that Mom made from Campbell’s Clam Chowder (Don’t ask. I never did.)
With the exception of steaks that were sauteed in a frying pan and eventually just doused with soy sauce and sesame oil just like galbee anyway, all of the “American” things we ate weren’t quite homemade. It wasn’t that my Mom was a flutz in the kitchen. Mom is a wizard with Asian foods, and is somehow able to magically put together a full Korean meal faster than Rachael Ray can say “How good is that?” It’s just that Mom had more exciting things to do with her life like winning golf and tennis tournaments than to spend time poring over cookbooks in search of a recipe for the perfect baked macaroni and cheese. By the way, if it means anything to anyone (and it certainly means everything to me), my Mom still plays and sweeps the local tourneys. I just have to ignore her visor-slash-inverted-satellite-dish and it’s all good.
Things like beef stew never made it to our table unless it came from a box in the freezer or a can. We knew it would be a special "American" night in the Delicious household when, at 5:00 PM, we heard the whirr-buzz of our electric Black & Decker can opener that ended with a final vacuum-pack-releasing schloop of suspiciously realistic meat product not too unlike Alpo, mixed with incredibly perfect cubes of potatoes and carrots into a microwave-safe dish. And still, we ate our Dinty Moore beef stew over rice, with kimchee.
Now if Mr. Levitt were incorrect in his economically analyzed conclusion about future-affecting factors and if the conventional wisdom about parenting, i.e. your actions as a parent do matter, were in fact true, then it would be logical to assume that I would be in a trailer park somewhere in the backwoods of Ohio eating Spam and barking like a jindo-gae (Korean breed of dog).
But that’s not the case.
Let it be known that I bark like a poodle! A very cute teacup poodle. :)
What it all boils down to (that would be “reduces down to” if you’re doing balsamic vinegar) is that if you feed your children trailer trash canned cuisine like Hormel Corned Beef Hash, you are not somehow vacuum-packing and sealing their Spam-tastic fate. Conversely, it doesn’t matter if you feed your children fois gras and caviar in hopes that they will go on to live a lifestyle of the rich and famous, and presumably take care of you in your old age in their Bel-Air mansion with live-in nursees instead of sticking you in some sorry-ass nursing home. It only matters that you do feed your children, and that you do it because you love them. Levitt says that “the things that matter were decided long ago,” factors over which you have very little control.
So whether parents feed their daughter truffled scrambled eggs with pancetta-wrapped dates, or Dinty Moore Beef Stew with kimchee and goh-choo-jahng, will have no effect because if it’s in her, she’s going to end up as fanatical Ms. Freaky F. Freakalicious food freak who slow-cooks beef stew without a pressure cooker, from scratch, and immediately blogs about it. No matter what.
And for the record, I do not now, and have never, not since my childhood, ever liked fish eggs. Ever.
Beef Stew that Has Nothing to Do with Dinty Moore
Cut 3 lbs. boneless beef for stew (chuck, short rib, round) into 1½" chunks and season liberally with salt, pepper, and any other dired herbs. You might think I'd go straight for the very Asian sesame seeds and red pepper, but ha! I used oregano and thyme. ;)
Dredge beef in all-purpose flour, shake off excess, then brown on all sides in about 2 T. olive oil in a large pot.
The conventional wisdom is that you should drain off the fat from the meat in the pot, but Freakonomics says that fat tastes pretty damn good.
Add to the pot 1 cup chopped onions, and sprinkle 1-2 tsp. of dried herbs (your choice), and pour in 3 c. beef broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a soft simmer and let cook until meat is tender. We all know that not all stoves are created equal. Mine took about an hour.
Add 5 large carrots peeled and cut into 1" slices, 3 large potatoes peeled and cut into 1" chunks, and 3-4 cloves of garlic, smashed. You may want to add a bit more beef broth if it has reduced down a lot. Season to taste with salt and pepper (about ½ tsp. each). Cook with the beef until the carrots and potatoes are soft, about 30 minutes.
I ate mine right out of the pot standing over the stove with a glass of red wine (so I guess canned food does teach you about instant gratification), but of course you might want to serve it in bowls with rice. Kimchee is highly recommended.