Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library's culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called "First Monday," where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.

Barbara's books include "From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals" and "From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food," which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including "Home Cooking in the White House" published in "White House History." She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called "Cooking in Captivity."

She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who's Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television's "The Today Show," "Martha Stewart Living" and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who in Food and Beverages" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escofier.

Articles by Author

How Anyone Can Do Better On Valentine’s Day Candy Image

If I happen to be in a drugstore on Valentine’s Day, I see men of all ages standing in line to pay for those heart-shaped boxes of chocolates tucked under their arms, and I say to myself, “You can do better.” By waiting until the last minute, they wind up in stores open later than others and buy chocolates that can be waxy, too sweet and filled with artificial flavorings. With a bit of planning, people seeking Valentine’s Day candy can present their loved ones with something really delicious.

That chocolates have taken their place as a Valentine’s Day gift of choice is easy to understand. It is a sensuous food that gives instant pleasure, having a flavor and texture people truly love. In the words of cartoonist and humorist Sandra Boynton, “Research tells us that 14 out of any 10 individuals like chocolate.” Her book “Chocolate: The Consuming Passion” came out in the 1980s when we believed that chocolate wasn’t good for us and would buy carob from health food stores, thinking it a worthy substitute. About this practice Boynton says, “Carob can, when combined with vegetable fat and sugar, be made to approximate the color and consistency of chocolate.” She adds, “Of course, the same arguments can as persuasively be made in favor of dirt.” Happily, these days we are told that chocolate contains properties that are healthy, and when eaten in moderation can provide nutrients as well as pleasure.

For reasons that have never been clear to me, gifts of chocolates have been assigned to what men are supposed to give to women and not the other way around. But I dare say that we all know men who like candy, just as we know women who love beefsteaks and roasts, foods thought to be the prerogative of men. With this in mind, I have suggestions for gender-free Valentine gifts bound to make almost anyone happy.

Burdick

Most cities and many towns have chocolate shops run by independent chocolate makers who have specialty items that make wonderful gifts and, like other businesses, these shops have online services giving everyone access to these treats. In Boston, where I live, we have Burdick candy shops, and their signature chocolate is in the shape of a little mouse filled with divine ganache. These come in your choice of dark, milk or white chocolate, and packed together in a little wooden box make charming gifts.

Burdick's signature chocolate is in the shape of a little mouse filled with divine ganache. Credit: Barbara Haber

Burdick’s signature chocolate is in the shape of a little mouse filled with divine ganache. Credit: Barbara Haber

Jacques Torres

While in New York recently, I gazed into the Jacques Torres shop at Grand Central Station and understood why this famous pastry chef and chocolatier has been dubbed “Mr. Chocolate.” His window was filled with stunning examples of his art including chocolate boxes filled with beautifully shaped pieces, and a clever and elegant Valentine’s gift of a three-piece puzzle that, when put together, forms a heart that says “I love you.”

Less is more

This leads me to an important point I want to make. Fine chocolate makers offer small sizes of gifts that are affordable as well as appropriate. Encased as they are in exquisite packaging, they are a far cry from those cardboard red hearts with tacky gold bows found in drugstores. That they are available in five-pound sizes does not make them better.

See’s

If you prefer a homespun candy, then I would recommend See’s Candies, a confection that was started by Charles See in Los Angeles in 1921 and is available in shops throughout the American West. Its logo is a picture of Mary See, the founder’s mother, whose sweet-faced, white-haired, bespectacled image is meant to reflect the fresh and wholesome ingredients found in the company’s chocolates. This brand happens to be a favorite of mine, and when Warren Buffett bought the company because he liked the product, I said to myself, “If it’s good enough for Warren Buffett, it’s certainly good enough for me.” Like any of the shops mentioned, See’s does a flourishing online business that even allows you to select only the pieces you like. This avoids the infamous practice of people squeezing and peering at chocolates found in assortments to examine their fillings, then putting them back in the box when not to their liking.

Chocolate to last

If a single gift of chocolates seems too minimal, then perhaps signing up with a chocolate-of-the-month club will strike you as a good idea. These deals vary in the quality of the chocolate, the varieties available and the frequency of the deliveries. You can, for instance, sign up with a company such as Godiva or Harry & David that can send out the gifts every three or even four months instead of once a month. There is something really exciting, not to mention romantic, about receiving such a gift throughout the year; in this way, the intent of Valentine’s Day — to express one’s love — is stretched out, too.

Don’t let your sweet tooth cloak your inner wisdom

When making this rather pricey overture, however, a word of caution is in order. Make sure that your relationship is on solid ground, for what could be more galling than knowing the person who dumped you is still receiving your generous gifts.

Main photo: A Valentine Day’s message that needs no explanation. Credit: Barbara Haber

Read More
The Good News About Cooking Mistakes Image

Once in a great while I stumble across a new way of doing things in the kitchen, sometimes as the result of carelessness. For instance, I was boiling some small unpeeled potatoes recently, having salted the water as usual, then wandered off, only to return to the kitchen where I caught a slight whiff of food on the verge of burning.

When I checked my pot I saw that all of the water had boiled off. What remained were potatoes that had crunchy skins and, as it turned out, tender and delicious interiors. When I tasted them I realized that the salt in the water had penetrated so that every bite of the potato was perfectly flavored and the crusty skins delectable. They reminded me of potatoes that had been cooked on the grill, but without the fuss of lighting fires and dealing with charcoal and its accompanying gray dust.

I am thinking about cooking this dish again, but have no idea how long it will take for the water to boil away. So I have devised a plan: I will situate myself in the kitchen along with a good novel — “War and Peace,” perhaps — and be sure to stay put while the potatoes cook, and I will pay attention to how much time goes by before the potatoes turn into the delicious dish on which I stumbled. I want to avoid ruining the potatoes and wrecking my pot.

Hot dogs, beyond the long bun

Another time, when preparing lunch for my husband, I found in my freezer one lone hot dog bun that was scheduled to hold two hot dogs. (He prefers that combination while I would be happier with one hot dog and two buns, being the bread-lover that I am.)

Hot dogs on a round bun. Credit: Barbara Haber

Hot dogs on a round bun. Credit: Barbara Haber

While I usually avoid putting any sort of bread into the microwave, I popped in the frozen bun thinking I would retrieve it in seconds and then toast it before squeezing in the hot dogs. I must have been distracted and set the microwave time in minutes rather than seconds because when I finally retrieved the roll, it had the look and texture of a block of wood, and I instantly dispatched it to the garbage can.

I still needed something for the hot dogs and could only find a plump-but-frozen hamburger bun. This time I was careful to let it thaw on its own before toasting. Then I was delighted to find that, with a bit of surgery, two hot dogs fit perfectly into one round bun. On the surface, you wouldn’t think that such a discovery would require a couple of advanced degrees, but this story does have a moral. Sometimes we are so conditioned to go along with conventional thinking when preparing a dish that we can miss a tasty or useful variation. Just because hot dogs are traditionally served in a long bun, why can’t they be served in a round one? And must we always fry our eggs in butter? How about olive oil? Speaking of which, the best boiled lobster I ever tasted was provided by a friend in Maine who served it with a fabulous warmed olive oil instead of the conventional melted butter.

Meatloaf, with whole allspice

I experienced another kitchen error years ago when preparing a meatloaf for a weekday family meal. My recipe involves a pound of ground beef, a grated raw potato, a grated raw onion, an egg, salt and pepper, and I was in the habit of studding the top of the dish with whole black peppercorns before it went into the oven. But one time I mistakenly reached for a jar of whole allspice instead of the peppercorns, and, unaware of this error, lightly tapped in six or seven over the top of the loaf before starting the cooking process. When a delicate fragrance soon filled my kitchen, I became mystified, for it was a subtle aroma not usually associated with meatloaf, which, after all, is hardly an exotic dish. When we sat down to dinner, everyone loved the new taste that had transformed my old standby recipe into something a little unusual, and ever since I have been using allspice whenever I make meatloaf.

Young chefs cross the invisible line in the kitchen

While I find such innovations delightful, in part because of their accidental origin, I am dubious about the deliberate attempt, especially by young chefs these days, to create new dishes by throwing all sorts of ingredients together.

Bacon, kale and salted caramel are the latest trendy foods to pop up with alarming regularity. In thumbing through new cookbooks, I spotted recipes for bacon in caramel corn, in s’mores, and sneaked into the streusel for an apple pie, all of which struck me as unappetizing. I found a kale recipe for what was dubbed a “green bloody Mary” because instead of tomato juice, it contained pulverized kale. A better name would have been “vampire bloody Mary,” since I like to think that vampire blood is green. All of these treatments are novelties that do not necessarily add to the taste of an altered dish. I must say, though, that I am more forgiving about the liberal use of salted caramel as long as it’s being added to a dessert and not to mashed potatoes.

To be sure, many deliberate innovations are delectable. Delicate pizzas made with bits of tender chicken and a touch of pesto, instead of gloppy red sauce and greasy melted cheese, come to mind. So does the combination of chocolate and hazelnuts, discovered by an ingenious Italian whose country makes the delectable gianduja, one of my all-time favorite confections.

Still, I like best my happy accidents, and do hope there will be more to come.

Main photo: Fried eggs in olive oil. Credit: iStockphoto / Aleksandar Georgiev

Read More
The Dinner We All Want For The Holidays Image

I am thinking about having an ecumenical holiday party this year to bring together friends of varying religious and ethnic persuasions and am enjoying the challenge of coming up with an inclusive menu that will honor my guests. I have been giving this party a lot of thought and decided to limit my scope to foods that represent Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, the main holidays celebrated this time of year. Otherwise, if I try to include dishes representing the backgrounds of each of my guests, I will get into a tizzy trying to bring in dishes that reflect everyone’s nationality and/or religious belief. Besides, I have no idea what Ethical Culturists eat.

For Christmas

First, I will be thinking through Christmas dishes because that celebration dominates American culture this time of year, so much so that it is hard to believe that the holiday as we now know it has evolved only since the 19th century. Before that, our Puritan forefathers frowned upon its observance because they saw it as pagan. When Christmas finally came into its own, it became a holiday associated with children — gifts, good food and good cheer heavily influenced by Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Those influences make clear why the holiday is so child-centered, what with hanging up stockings and leaving cookies for Santa Claus, and singing about reindeer.

As for the food I will serve, I want to avoid menu clichés such as the usual Christmas turkey or ham and will aim for other dishes gussied up to look festive. If I am feeling flush, I may go for beef tenderloins and will be extra cautious to not overcook this expensive meat. But if my guest list is large, I may cook the less costly pork tenderloins and will surround the platter with roasted apples and red potatoes and a sprinkling of sage leaves that may still be available from my garden. And this reminds me of a blunder I almost made. I recently bought a Jerusalem cherry plant because I was attracted to its shapely leaves and big red berries. I had just about decided I would decorate my holiday platters with cuttings from the plant when I discovered that the berries are poisonous, a member of the deadly nightshade family. So let us not get carried away by putting unfamiliar vegetation on food platters.

For Hanukkah

Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that generally coincides with Christmas, is a less important observance than Passover, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. But Hanukkah’s proximity to the Christian holiday has led to its growing prominence, and it too has become a child-centered event with the daily lighting of candles and the distribution of gifts. The holiday commemorates the rededication of the ancient temple of Jerusalem when its menorah miraculously burned for eight days and nights despite only a bit of oil being available. This explains why food fried in oil symbolizes the event, with potato latkes and jelly doughnuts the best known of the dishes. I have learned that I can make trays of latkes in advance, so I will prepare an assortment that will include not just those made with potatoes, but some with salmon and zucchini, and a dessert one with apples, all fried in advance, then heated in the oven just before serving.

For Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa, based on several African harvest festivals, is a seven-day holiday that was established in the United States in 1966 as a tribute to African-American culture. Fruits, nuts and vegetables play a major role in this celebration so they should be featured in dishes served. My appetizers will include toasted almonds, and I will serve a roasted chicken surrounded by such vegetables as carrots, sweet potatoes and onions. For dessert, I will have sautéed bananas with a rum raisin sauce served warm with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

Not for Festivus

Thinking about the origins of these holidays has put me in mind of Festivus, dubbed “the holiday for the rest of us,” an invented celebration made famous in an episode of “Seinfeld.” The preferred dishes are some kind of meatloaf and spaghetti with red sauce, created I suspect because they include low-budget ingredients. This spoof involves the ritual “Airing of Grievances” that takes place immediately after the Festivus dinner when each of the assembled guests lashes out at the others to complain about affronts they have experienced all year. Festivus makes fun of consumerism and the often-manufactured good cheer that dominates the culture for all of December.

The music and mood

While it is amusing to think about such a grouchy holiday, I have decided not to include it in my party since I prefer a more positive approach to my celebration. I will, however, insist that gifts are not exchanged and the music I play will be limited to classical guitar, a bit of Bach, some Gershwin and the rapturous trumpet-playing of Miles Davis.

Holiday Pork Tenderloin

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 60 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 10 servings

Ingredients

1 teaspoon dried thyme

3 garlic cloves finely chopped

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

2 pork tenderloins with a combined weight of 3 to 4 pounds

6 or 8 small red potatoes cut in half

3 large red apples cut into quarters

2 tablespoons flour

1/2 cup dry red wine

1 cup chicken broth

1/2 cup water

Springs of fresh sage for garnish

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 450 F.

2. In small dish combine thyme, garlic, oil, salt and pepper to form a paste.

3. Tie the two tenderloins together, place on rack in roasting pan and rub with the garlic and thyme paste. Roast 30 minutes.

4. Reduce oven to 350 F and surround pork with potatoes and apples. Roast for about 35 minutes longer or until meat thermometer registers 145 F. Remove potatoes and apples to a plate. Let pork stand for 15 minutes, and temperature will continue to rise 5 to 10 degrees.

5. Meanwhile, take away rack from roasting pan. Stir flour into drippings and cook at medium heat for 1 minute, stirring. Add wine, heat to boiling and keep on loosening brown bits from pan. Add broth and water and boil 1 minute. Pour into gravy boat.

6. Place pork on serving platter with potatoes and apples arranged around it. Garnish with sprigs of sage or whatever other fresh herbs are available.

Main photo: Roasted pork tenderloin with red potatoes, apples and sage. Credit: Barbara Haber

Read More
Celebrating Thanksgiving Far From Home Image

You may find yourself far from home on Thanksgiving, even out of the country, as your work calls you away or alluring travel opportunities arise. Since this holiday is distinctly American and celebrated with family and friends, being away can bring on loneliness, but these feelings can be overcome, especially if you throw yourself into cooking a Thanksgiving meal.

Even before getting into the kitchen, I love this holiday because it is just about food and people. I don’t have to run around stores in search of gifts or listen to “Jingle Bells” and other tiresome seasonal tunes being played over and over wherever I happen to be. Religious services related to specific creeds are not part of the tradition either. That is important because the holiday is deeply American and includes diverse citizens who may have on their menus lasagna or egg drop soup in addition to the usual turkey and trimmings that have come to symbolize the feast.

Suggestions to ward off Thanksgiving melancholy

When far from home, especially outside the country, Thanksgiving takes on even more meaning just because it is so essentially American and has little relevance elsewhere. Here are suggestions for heading off forlorn feelings on this special day, with food inevitably playing a central role.

If you are cooking, be sure to invite friends and neighbors who are most likely to appreciate your efforts. American acquaintances far from home will be thrilled to be invited and so will locals who may be curious about the holiday and eager to participate in it.

How to adapt to a Thanksgiving meal abroad

When planning the traditional meal, be flexible about your ingredients, as you think through what is available. Do not expect to find a huge and reasonably-priced turkey outside the U.S. An American friend living in northern France shelled out a fortune on turkeys one year because she was entertaining other displaced Americans and wanted to serve familiar dishes. My thought would be to avoid huge expenses by dolling up what you have at hand. Get local chickens or ducks, but serve them with the holiday stuffing you love. As far as I know, sweet potatoes will be available in markets around the world, so this mandatory side dish can be pulled off, though possibly without the marshmallows, if that is your custom.

The traditional cranberries may be difficult to find. They are native to New England where Thanksgiving had its origins. It is no accident that Ocean Spray, producers of all things cranberry, is located in southern Massachusetts not far from Cape Cod. If you can’t find cranberries abroad, you may have to make a sauce or relish with other tart berries — gooseberries in England, lingonberries in Scandinavia, currants in many other places, figure it out. No need to be literal-minded in preparing the meal, and you might even want to be thought of as ingenious. Your reality is that you are in a foreign country while preparing a quintessential American meal. Dig deeper into the meaning of the holiday by remembering that it celebrates the harvest, and by using available local produce you can bring out the symbolism as well as the spirit of Thanksgiving.

To some, attending a high school football game Thanksgiving morning is part of the tradition, but you are unlikely to find that outside of the U.S. Check out the availability of a local sporting match. A soccer game might be fun, or better yet, if you really want to include a traditional Thanksgiving Day ritual, call up the Macy’s parade on YouTube. A full three hours of the previous year’s parade slicked up and beautifully produced by NBC is at your fingertips, complete with gargantuan floats, massive cartoon balloons and Broadway hoofers. It is uniquely American.

Navigating family tradition

Not to be forgotten is that Thanksgiving is a family event, and family relationships are generally loaded. In my case, whenever I got together with an older brother, no matter how old we were, we would revert to being 8 and 13 years old again. It took me years to realize his customary teasing was his peculiar way of expressing love. Importing a special relative to join your Thanksgiving away from home is a sure-fire way to transplant a key part of your tradition.

Short of that, create dishes that will remind you of certain relatives. I had an aunt, now gone, who every year would bring a bowl of creamed onions nobody liked. I sometimes work up a small batch in her honor, and still nobody likes them, but that’s what tradition is all about.

Finally, video calls now allow us to hook up with the voices and images of family and friends no matter where we are. While this way of exchanging excited Thanksgiving Day greetings brings comfort and happiness to some, others may find that the sight of unavailable loved ones just brings on sadness. To offset this, have in view an array of Thanksgiving Day pies, for I have never known a thick apple pie bursting with fruit and juice that failed to bring cheer.

Main photo: Cranberries can be especially difficult to find for a Thanksgiving away from home. Credit: Barbara Haber

Read More
The Joys And Red Flags Of Extreme Recipe Collecting Image

I will go to any length to obtain a recipe that interests me, and this leads to an embarrassing admission. While waiting in my eye doctor’s office recently, I was thumbing through a tattered old magazine and came across a recipe for quick pecan rolls that was unusual in that the dough included not just yeast, but also baking powder and a bit of baking soda. This combination was new to me, and I had to find out if it was any good. Since the recipe went on and on, listing ingredients and directions for the topping, the filling and the glaze as well as the dough, I expedited matters by tearing out the page and slipping it into my purse.

Before doing this, I looked around because I remembered a scene in “The Sopranos” when Tony Soprano rips an article from a magazine in his psychiatrist’s office and gets caught and reprimanded by his doctor. I didn’t want that to happen to me. But I knew that I would obsess about the recipe if I didn’t have it, couldn’t wait to try it, and did so within a couple of days.

Culinary karma?

The dish required no rising, went right into the oven and came out looking beautiful. The rolls were puffed up and browned and turned out of the pan easily, showing off their topping of glistening caramelized pecans. When the rolls had cooled, I broke off a piece and could only conclude that the roll reminded me of Bisquick, and I instantly decided I would never make this recipe again. Maybe I was being punished for my crime.

A more honorable quest occurred when a cousin by marriage, who prides herself on her cooking, served me a beautiful puréed mushroom soup she said was made without cream, a happy fact to me because the dish was rich enough and full of flavor. When I requested the recipe, I was surprised and bitterly disappointed when told recipes from that household were never given out; in my book, withholding recipes is equivalent to withholding love.

But my determination to track down the dish was inflamed. I should add that this took place in an era before the Internet, so the challenge of finding the recipe was difficult. I had to operate on hunches, and my first deduction was that this cousin hadn’t invented the recipe but got it from a source more sophisticated than a folksy newspaper column or women’s magazine. Since I knew she was an avid reader of cookbooks, I went to the public library where I looked through book after book only to find puréed mushroom soup recipes loaded with cream. Undaunted, I searched until I came across Danny Meyer’s “Union Café Cookbook,” where I found a recipe billed as “Creamless Mushroom Soup.” Quivering with anticipation, I tried the dish and immediately recognized it as the recipe that would quench my intrepid search.

What Nigel Slater missed

I was reminded of this incident when reading Nigel Slater’s autobiography, “Toast,” in which he describes his prickly relationship with his stepmother and convincingly illustrates her greatest fault by telling us that she refused to give him her recipes. Instead of using cooking as a bonding technique, she veered in the opposite direction. Denying him her lemon pie recipe upset Slater most. One day when her pie was underway, the young Nigel passed nonchalantly through the kitchen, back and forth, all the while gauging what went into the pie, and jotting down the recipe when out of sight.

Recipe collecting to the rescue

Frantic people come to me for recipes, sometimes. While preparing dinner one evening, I was interrupted by a telephone call — an intrusion I hate — but it was a good friend on the line, apologetically explaining that her husband had just called to say he was bringing home a colleague for dinner. She happened to have some new red potatoes on hand, had remembered that I once served a great roasted potato dish, and could I please tell her how to make it. “What could be more important?” I answered, and happily passed on the recipe.

‘Elevator Lady Spice Cookies’

Good recipes can sometimes be found at strange times and places. I have in my files a recipe called “Elevator Lady Spice Cookies,” which I make now and then because they are moist and delicious. I tried to remember where the recipe came from without success until I reread Peg Bracken’s “I Hate to Cook Book,” a classic that is full of laughs and some surprisingly good recipes. In it, she recounts the time she gave a cookie to the woman running her office elevator only to be told, “I can sure make a better spice cookie than that.” She brought the recipe to Bracken who agreed it was better, proving to all of us that our time in elevators can be well-spent.

People not particularly interested in cooking may think the single-minded pursuit of recipes trivial or even madness, but I know better. On those days when a troubled world is too much with me, I can find a little solace in preparing a stupendous recipe I took the trouble to find.

Frantic Telephone-Call Roasted Potatoes

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 50 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour 5 minutes

Ingredients

2 pounds small red potatoes, scrubbed well but not peeled

4 tablespoons olive oil

10 garlic cloves peeled and coarsely chopped

4 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

Directions

1. Preheat oven at 375 F.

2. Cut larger potatoes in half and leave small ones whole.

3. Using rimmed half sheet baking tin, put oil into pan and add potatoes, rotating them in oil on all sides.

4. Sprinkle chopped garlic over all of the potatoes.

5. Drizzle soy sauce over all of the potatoes.

6. Sprinkle pepper over everything.

7. Bake until potatoes are completely tender.

Main photo: Frantic Telephone-Call Roasted Potatoes. Credit: Barbara Haber

Read More
Protect Your Tomato Garden, And Take Care Of Yourself Image

As a gardener who looks forward each year to eating my homegrown tomatoes, I have been bitterly disappointed when squirrels and other small animals either pick all of the tomatoes while still green and toss them around the yard, or snatch and eat ripening ones just before I get to them.

This has been going on year after year, but each spring, ever hopeful, I plant yet another tomato garden. My usual line of defense has been to use Havahart traps that sometimes catch the thieving culprits, but this method has become tiresome and creepy. It involves picking up a heavy trap loaded with an angry animal, getting it into the trunk of my car, and then driving for at least 10 miles to a wooded area where I release the animal, hoping it will not find its way back to my house.

But this year, I have found a different solution for protecting my tomato patch. I bought a Bell & Howell Solar Animal Off, a device that comes with a built-in stake that I have positioned in the garden in front of the tomato plants. When approached, the device emits both an eerie high-pitched sound that only animals can hear along with a strobe light that shoots off a blinding glare when anything comes near. Each morning I run out of my house to check on ripening fruit and have been amazed and relieved to find every plant intact.

Tomatoes are just the start

This got me thinking that humans too could be well served by a protective device that could repel danger or be helpful in other ways that would make life easier. I could see wearing such a gadget into a supermarket where it would blink and beep if a food I was thinking of buying contained trans fats or, in my case, cilantro. The machine I envision could be customized so that people with allergies would be warned about peanuts and such, and the gluten sensitive protected from that substance. Most important, the device would be programmed to alert us to the existence of dangerous microbes in food that could lead to illness.

In a more positive way, my machine could function somewhere between a personal assistant and a doting grandmother by picking out just the right produce in the market. I never can tell which cantaloupe in a pile will be exactly as I like it — barely ripe and sweet but not over-the-hill and mushy. Picking out pineapples is also a challenge. They too can be overripe and unappetizing, and I never can tell which one to buy. When my favorite store offers four kinds of peaches, I am at a loss as to which will be sweet and juicy and not hard and bland, but my gadget would know. I would also use it to select cheese that is at its height of flavor.

When medium rare means medium rare

The machine’s help in restaurants would be another huge service. It would do a calorie count of the dishes I contemplate and report on the existence of ingredients it knew I disliked. Again, cilantro detection would be especially appreciated, for then I might venture forth into Thai or Mexican restaurants without fear of being assaulted by that herb I cannot tolerate. The device would know whether the steak or chop I ordered was cooked as I requested before I cut into it, thus taking the edge off any disappointment. And I hope that it would be helpful in checking bills and figuring out tips, freeing me from dealing with arithmetic, my worst subject in grade school.

The cone’s the thing

I would like to think that my machine could protect people from all sorts of danger. I am reminded of the time when a good friend’s dog — a huge Malamute named Buddha — used to position himself outside the door of a Brigham’s ice cream shop in my town, waiting for people with ice cream cones to come out. Small children and little old ladies were particularly vulnerable. Buddha’s nudges would knock the cones out of their hands, allowing him to scarf down the scoops of ice cream lying on the ground. If only these victims could have been warned, these messy scenes could have been avoided.

A dairy dose of wisdom

I can think of other helpful tasks for my machine. I would ask it to keep track of all of the foods stored in my freezers to remind me which ones to use first. And I would like it to warn me when the milk in my refrigerator has gone bad, which usually happens before the date stamped on the box. I find out only when I pour it into my morning coffee, watch it curdle, and then have to toss the whole thing down the drain.

These days, when we are surrounded by a glut of information about food, often with conflicting advice, we could use a defender that could cut through the yammering and lead us on the path that’s right for us. I am grateful to have found a device that protects my tomato plants from marauders and only wish I too could have a guardian that protects me from all of the food-related issues I face each day. And, for that, no computer programmer’s algorithm will do.

Main photo: The gadget that stands guard in Barbara Haber’s garden. Credit: Barbara Haber

Read More