Strawberry and Coconut Pudding

This is a very similar recipe to that for the Pear and Almond Pudding of my previous post – in fact, the only differences are that I use strawberries and coconut as the featured flavourings. The pudding base, as such, is the same and the process of making it is much the same – and of course, it is just as delicious!

You will need:

110g butter, melted
1/2 cup milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste
1 cup chopped fresh strawberries (leaves and cores removed)
1/2 cup caster sugar
1/2 cup coconut flour or fine desiccated coconut
1 cup plain or self-raising flour*
2 teaspoons baking powder (*1 teaspoon if using self-raising flour)

Method:

Place flour, coconut flour, sugar and baking powder in a bowl; mix well

Combine melted butter, milk, eggs and vanilla paste; add to dry ingredients along with chopped strawberries and mix with a spatula until well combined

Place pudding batter in a well-buttered cake tin; place tin in a larger baking tray and pour water into larger tray to come about halfway up the sides of the cake tin

Bake at 160 degrees C (150 degrees C for fan-forced oven) for 45 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean when poked into the centre of the pudding; alternatively, steam in a sealed pudding basin for 1.5-2 hours, again testing with a skewer to check if cooked through

Serve warm with cream and extra strawberries, if desired

Pear and Almond Pudding

I am gradually learning to be less surprised when dishes I invent turn out to be delicious. However, when it comes to sweet things, the sense of wonder is still fresh since, as I’ve said before, desserts are definitely not my forte in the kitchen. This pudding recipe was somewhat hastily cobbled together from ingredients I had in the pantry and a couple of ideas I had about how one assembles a pudding batter… and it was, if I may say so, very, very good. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that it is a perfect cold-weather dessert – served warm with cream, it is nothing short of divine.

You will need:

110g butter, melted
1/2 cup milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon vanilla paste
1 large ripe pear (or two smaller ones) cut into small chunks; you should end up with a good heaped cup of pear pieces
1 cup plain flour
1/2 cup almond meal
1/2 cup raw caster sugar
pinch allspice powder
2 teaspoons baking powder (if you use self-raising flour instead of plain, you’ll only need one teaspoon of baking powder)

Method:

Mix milk, eggs and vanilla paste together with the melted butter; in a large bowl, combine flour, almond meal, sugar and baking powder (I find a butter knife a good mixing implement for the dry ingredients)

Add the pear pieces and the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients in the bowl and mix gently with a spatula until well combined

Place batter into a well-buttered cake tin; place tin into a larger baking tray and fill tray with water to half the height of the cake tin (obviously you’ll need a deep enough baking tray for this) this will help to keep the pudding moist during baking

Bake at 160 degrees for 1 hour* or until a skewer comes out clean from the middle of the pudding. Serve warm with cream or custard, as desired

*Alternative – place the pudding batter in a well-buttered pudding basin and steam over simmering water for 2 hours (or until skewer comes out clean) – check the water level after an hour and top up if necessary with boiled water from a kettle

Sweet-and-Sour Pork Stir-Fry with Black Rice

For an almost completely last-minute recipe, this worked out extraordinarily well. Not only did I make the plan for the recipe the night before cooking it; I also changed plans during the preparation as to how I would go about making the sweet-and-sour sauce. I had spent several hours prevaricating as to whether I would try to make my own sauce or would use the bottled sweet-and-sour sauce currently inhabiting our fridge. In the end I went with the former and it was completely delicious – so I now have a recipe to add to my ever-growing collection, which is always a happy outcome.

The choice of black rice as an accompaniment for this dish was also somewhat off-the-cuff, in that we just happened to have a packet of black rice kicking about in the pantry. It looks a little like wild rice but I believe it is a different grain – when cooked, it turns a deep shade of purple-black and it has a savoury, nutty flavour and toothsome texture. It made for a wonderfully balanced dish with the stir-fry. It’s also a very vegie-rich concoction, although you could, of course, increase the quantity of pork if you so desired. It would also work quite well, I think, with chicken instead of pork – although I have yet to test this hypothesis.

As with any stir-fry, it is best to prepare all the ingredients before beginning cooking. This can sometimes be tedious but I tend to go for stir-fries on evenings when I’m in the mood to inhabit the kitchen – or when I have company and conversation (as I did this evening) or a good movie (or cooking show) to watch…

You will need:

1 cup (uncooked) black rice

1 tablespoon vegetable or light olive oil
1 medium onion (if you can find the long, pink-tinged eschalots, use one of these), finely sliced
2 small or 1 medium-sized carrot, cut into small batons
1 whole garlic shoot, finely chopped
small knob of ginger (about 1-inch cubed), finely slivered or grated or crushed
pinch cinnamon
pinch allspice
350-400g free-range pork fillet, thinly sliced
sweet-and-sour sauce (see below)
425g can pineapple pieces (or equivalent fresh pineapple, chopped into chunks)
3 baby sweet peppers (or one medium-sized), thinly sliced
1-1.5 cups fresh bean shoots
white pepper to taste
1 tablespoon arrowroot powder
1/2 cup water

Although you can use a bottled sweet-and-sour sauce with the above ingredients, the version I made contains the following:
1/2 cup Chinese cooking wine
2 tablespoons plum vinegar (rice wine vinegar would probably also work)
2 tablespoons palm sugar
2 teaspoons honey
50g tomato paste
1/4 cup pineapple juice

Stir sauce ingredients together in a jug or bowl until sugar and honey are dissolved.

Method:
Place rice in a small, heavy-based saucepan and cover with water to a depth of 1.5cm above the level of the rice. Cover pan, place on heat; bring to boil and simmer for 35-40 minutes until rice is tender – it may or may not have absorbed all the water by this stage.

Heat oil in wok or large, deep frying pan. Add onion, carrot, garlic shoot, ginger, cinnamon and allspice and cook, stirring, until onion begins to soften

Add pork and cook, stirring, until pork slices are browned. Add pineapple pieces and sauce mixture. Turn heat down and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally

Add capsicum, bean shoots and white pepper; toss together with other ingredients in wok

Mix arrowroot powder with water; add mixture to wok and stir through; continue to cook, tossing, until sauce has thickened – this should only be a few minutes

Drain rice (if necessary) and place in bowls; serve stir-fry on top of rice. The quantities given in this recipe will comfortably feed four to five people.

A Lengthy Argument

Every so often I manage to get myself embroiled in a long-drawn-out philosophical dispute on Facebook. Recently I engaged in one such argument that covered rather a lot of ground. The starting point for the debate was an article I posted which addressed the most recent smearing of Planned Parenthood by pro-life activists and set about correcting the latter’s misinformation about the donation of aborted foetal tissue for medical research. Of course any mention of anything to do with abortion is almost guaranteed to enflame the righteous anger of representatives from both sides of the debate; and this occasion was no exception – apart from, perhaps, in the range of ideas covered. Not only did I attempt to defend my position on abortion against the main respondent (who is a committed Catholic); I also managed to cover quite a lot of territory around sex, death, bodily autonomy and the possession (or otherwise) of certain rights. As often happens when I engage in online debate, the process did help me to clarify many of my own thoughts on particular ethical issues.

Here is how the main argument panned out (allowing for some time discrepancies in the order of comments and replies):

Respondent: Donating one’s own body/body parts is one thing. Donating those of another who has been mercilessly butchered completely another thing. Face it. No one person’s lifestyle is worth stealing the entire life of another person. Medical progress does not have carte blanche over common decency.

Me: The decision to have an abortion is rarely made solely on the basis of the mother’s ‘lifestyle’ – that claim is spuriously made by anti-choicers in their efforts to belittle the experience of women and claim that their needs are nothing more than frivolous desires. More often, it is a matter of the woman realising that she is not in a fit state, mentally, emotionally or in terms of support to undergo the ordeals of pregnancy and birth, or to raise a child with a tolerable level of well-being. Nor did I wish to imply, in some of my later comments, that a miscarriage is not often a devastating occurrence for the woman and those close to her – but that is relative to how much ::she:: wanted to have the child. The foetus itself, as I’ve already argued, has no interests of its own – the interests in the case are entirely those of the mother and any others who wish to care for the eventual child.

Me: It seems that every opponent of abortion resorts, sooner or later, to a version of the supposedly emotive query, “What if your mother had aborted you?” Well, what if, indeed? I would never have existed – but neither I, nor anyone who now knows me, would be any the wiser for it. A nonsentient foetus has no capacity to have interests. It ::makes no difference:: to that foetus whether it lives or dies. There is no ‘future self’ who will mourn the lost opportunity for life. It’s all very well to stand on rules about intentional actions and so on but the very same outcome occurs in a spontaneous abortion (miscarriage). None of it makes any difference to the experience of a foetus – it has no experience in any case. The distinction between a deliberate act that causes no suffering and an unintended occurrence with the same outcome that causes no suffering is academic at best.

I have a question for which no pro-lifer has yet seemed to offer an adequate response: since they are so fond of quoting the ‘millions’ of babies that have been murdered through abortion, what do they suppose would have been the consequences if all these millions of babies had actually been born? What would the quality of their lives have been like, especially if they were born into families living at or below the poverty line? What would be the consequences for the environment of all these extra human consumers? And, in the spirit of my previous point, what about all the other humans now existing who might never have been born had all those aborted foetuses been carried to term?

Finally, pro-life activists have no concept of common decency – they continually resort to bullying tactics and peddling misinformation and exaggeration, trying to scare women into keeping their pregnancies. It was not ::that:: long ago that dissecting dead bodies was considered more than a mere affront to common decency – it was a criminal offence. Controversial conceptions of the good (to use a phrase I found in a philosophy article recently) do not have carte blanche over demonstrable scientific and medical realities.

R: Embryonic and foetal human beings ::do:: have capacity for interests. They wouldn’t be alive otherwise. Their interests are merely more remote in time than for people at later stages of development. You have no right to stand in judgment of their stage of life, because that’s simply what it is: a ::stage:: of life. At least giving people the chance to live first is virtuous. Deliberately killing them because they ::may:: not have the life that ::you:: deem worthy of having most certainly isn’t. Besides, a society that believed in everyone having the right to life would likely be more genuinely concerned with improving the general quality of life of its citizens.

Me: As the priorities of the pro-life activists generally demonstrate, we ::don’t:: live in a society that values life. If we did, there would be more effort made to improve the quality of life of everyone. As it is, as far as most pro-lifers (especially the religious right in the US) seem to be concerned, it’s a case of, “Alright – we’ve made sure you got out – now you’re on your own!”

Beyond that, there is a fundamental difference in worldview that appears to prevent any useful dialogue between the pro-lifers and the pro-choicers. There is no such thing as an objective measure of human worth. All we have to go on is the capacity for the existing foetus, as a foetus, to have experience. Certainly, it has the potential to have experience – but that is not enough to provide a concrete reason in the here and now for keeping it alive. Potential is an unknown quantity; and an argument from potential can be used to prove far too much – as I’ve pointed out before, in the light of current science, ::every:: human cell has the potential to become an individual human life – and denying any cell that potential by refusing to take the necessary actions is functionally the same as taking action to induce an abortion – if one is a sin of commission, the other is a sin of ::omission::. Argumentum ad absurdum quickly ensues.

The only way to mount an effective argument against abortion is to appeal to the inherent worth of human life – and not everyone believes that humans ::have:: intrinsic worth. There is no objective means of differentiating all humans, at all stages, from any other living organism. A developing foetus might have the potential to have interests; but a young pig already ::has:: the capacity to have interests, in the here and now, which we violate whenever we slaughter a pig for pork or bacon. So in theory, if you’re prepared to eat bacon, you should be prepared to accept the abortion of a nonsentient foetus.

R: Except that the interests/potencies of human beings transcend those of animals. We wouldn’t be having these arguments if they didn’t. I don’t need to differentiate between the stages of life of different species. I already know that a human foetus, given time, will develop into a person essentially just like myself; that’s enough for me to draw the line. As a human being, I have a right to use animals for my benefit (within reason, of course, not abusing them); I don’t however have a right to treat another human being as a disposable possession.

Also, Catholic moral teaching doesn’t preclude research performed on stem cells, or any kind of cell, obtained from an already living person (eg: bone marrow, cord blood, etc) – anything that ::doesn’t:: involve the destruction of a human being. In the case of human cloning, it’s ridiculous to compare refusing to artificially create a human life with consenting to destroy a naturally-conceived human life. An individual cell, left to itself, won’t develop into anything. A foetus is already a naturally-developing living organism. In fact, the natural process of cell differentiation already denies each cell from fulfilling its potential to become anything other than what it becomes (eg: once it becomes a brain cell, it can’t become a heart cell, blood cell, etc.); so is nature guilty of ‘sins of omission’?

R: How can you exalt human scientific ingenuity while still insisting that we are no more special than any other life form?

Me: Why do human interests transcend those of other animals? In our own minds, perhaps. I don’t see other animals bowing down to worship us. We use our own standards to claim that we are better than other animals – convenient, no? We grant ourselves the right to use other animals, just because we can. Human exceptionalism amounts to nothing more than might=right. The arrogance of this is borne out by the reaction that occurs whenever another animal has the effrontery to attack a human – we respond by destroying that animal and as many others like it as we can.

Me: Nature is whatever it is. It is not a sentient being with intentions. Nature bears no blame for anything it brings about – except if you suppose there’s a human-like god presiding over it.

Me: And one more point – the developing human embryo is, technically speaking, not left to itself. It requires the support of the woman’s body to continue living and developing. The woman is within her right to bodily autonomy to refuse to nurture another being, especially if doing so would lead to negative outcomes for her, be they mental, physical or situational. Furthermore, the right to bodily autonomy dismisses out of hand any claim that a woman should consent to pregnancy whenever she consents to sex – the one is dependent upon the other but that does not run both ways. It certainly does not follow that they are therefore inseparable in actual practice. I find it not a little ironic that in this – which is one area in which humans ::do:: differ notably from most other animals (with the exception of some other great ape species, especially bonobos), in that sex is a means of social bonding and not just reproduction – the religious moralisers are hell-bent, so to speak, upon restricting us to having sex in the way the majority of animals do – ie: only when it is a suitable time to have offspring. It is neither reasonable nor realistic to suppose that every human sexual coupling should be carried out with the intent of producing another human.

R: The right to bodily autonomy is dependent upon the right to life, so the former cannot usurp the latter. Even if the pregnancy is ‘unwanted’ the fact remains that another life is now in the equation. Adoption is always an option. The perfection of the human sexual act (which requires responsible use of bodily autonomy at a more personal level) is called to be an intimate union of love and life, as God himself is. That’s the Catholic position.

Me: Life is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the exercise of personal autonomy (of which bodily autonomy is a part). Also required are sentience and – importantly – the intellectual ability to make at least some informed decisions. It would be odd to suggest that, for example, a 3-year-old has the right to personal autonomy in most circumstances. It seems equally odd to assume any right to sentience or intellectual ability exists. Organisms either have these things or they don’t. There may also be circumstances in which the right to personal autonomy trumps the right to life, such as in cases of voluntary euthanasia – or, given the topic at hand, abortion of a nonsentient foetus. It’s all very well to assume that any baby can be put up for adoption (when there are already so many children running the gauntlet of foster homes) but that discounts the entire experience of pregnancy and birth, which put tremendous strain on a woman’s body and mental condition. When the alternative is the ending of a life that has barely begun and knows not that it even is alive, that is in point of fact a much more tolerable outcome in terms of the total quantity of suffering in the world, than for a woman to be forced to undergo pregnancy and birth against her will.

Me: I will also point out that I think it is profoundly odd to suppose that anything humans do, sexually or otherwise, is perfectible in any absolute sense. To begin with, the standards are arbitrarily chosen – one person’s perfection is another person’s flaw. The Catholic position may have its own standards and even claim them as truth; but it doesn’t follow that these standards ::are:: truth. The Ancient Greeks, for example, thought that love – including sexual love – between men and boys was the perfect expression of the concept; procreative sex with women was generally assumed to be a necessary evil.

Me: I would also suggest that a right to life only exists for a being that is the subject of a life – one that has a real and present interest in remaining alive rather than being killed. A human foetus is not the subject of a life, even if it has the potential to become such in the future. To put it bluntly, it has no more sentience than a cabbage – and we don’t claim that a cabbage has any right to life.

Me: I just noticed an odd point in your argument – you seem to imply that the mere presence of life entails the existence of interests. I’m not sure that follows – trees, grass and vegetables are alive, yet they have no capacity to have interests, at least as far as we can discern.

R: How many times do I have to restate it? The foetus is already a life. It’s the faculties that are in potency and developing. A human foetus is not going to grow into a cabbage, it’s going to grow into someone just like you and me. Philosophically speaking any life form has at least the most basic forms of interests in growth and nutrition, even if they’re not interests as we might commonly think of them – ie: conscious interests. In this context, foetal human life has all the human interests mostly still in potency, but they are real by virtue of the nature of the life form.

R: I didn’t claim that life is the only thing required for autonomy, but all other rights naturally flow from the right to life, thus it is the principal right.

Me: I don’t dispute that the foetus is alive or that it is human – claims to the contrary from the pro-choice side are factually erroneous. However, I ::do:: dispute that the foetus, as a foetus, has any capacity to have interests. It ::cannot:: matter to a foetus whether it lives or dies, any more than it could matter to the aforementioned cabbage. The idea that a human foetus could possibly have any interests at all is based not upon biological facts but upon the belief that its life is valuable simply by virtue of being human – since it will, if not aborted, develop into a human with consciousness and (presumably) the ability to value its own life, we apply our own emotive responses and imagine, from our own perspective as conscious beings with interests, that it is a great tragedy to terminate the foetus.

I understand that argument from the perspective of valuing human life, qua human life (I used to share the same position). I don’t agree that it is a knock-down argument in the abortion debate, however. No actual suffering is entailed by the termination of a nonsentient life. At the end of the day, one’s position on abortion is dependent upon one’s understanding of the basis of ethical consideration. This is the point I was endeavouring to explain earlier, but perhaps not with any great success. As an Epicurean hedonist (though an imperfect one, as the title of my blog attests), the basis upon which any being is afforded moral consideration is its capacity to experience pleasure or suffering. By these lights, in any situation where a woman is considering terminating her pregnancy, the moral consideration belongs solely to her, as the being with the relevant capacities. The foetus, certainly prior to the third trimester, will not suffer – at all – from its termination. The decision in this case ::must:: belong to the woman and must be based upon her estimation of the probable consequences of continuing her pregnancy. The contrary position, that all women who become pregnant ::must:: bear a child (or at least allow their pregnancy to continue on its natural course, whatever that turns out to be) is virtually guaranteed to cause suffering in some (perhaps many) cases. To me, at least, from the basis of my understanding of ethics, it appears self-evident that the former is the more morally sound position to hold.

Me: Put simply, quality, rather than quantity, of life is paramount, under my understanding of ethics. Similar to the attributes I mentioned above – sentience and intelligence – life either is, or is not. We certainly have no say, nor indeed any capacity to have any say, in whether or not we are born. What makes our lives valuable to us is our subjective experience – something that often includes fear of death, or at least fear of the process of death. I have no fear whatsoever of death in and of itself; however, I do fear the possibility that my death may involve a long-drawn-out experience of pain and/or indignity (which is one reason I am in favour of voluntary euthanasia) – and I am, of course, aware of the potential suffering of those who love me and may mourn my loss. Apart from these things, however, I see no reason to be fearful of dying, of not existing. How could it possibly affect ‘me’?

Yes, of course life is necessary in order for there to be experience – but I’m not sure that entails a necessary right to ::the opportunity:: to live in the first place. When we consider how improbable it is for any given individual to exist at all – all of the factors that must come to bear upon any particular combination of genetic material occurring; and all the unimaginable billions of individual lives that will never happen – it’s quite difficult to argue for any absolute right to ::come into:: existence. It’s a different matter to maintain that one has a right to continue living once one has had the chance to actually experience life. However, the value of life itself is – if not, perhaps, entirely dependent – intricately bound to the quality of experience that obtains for any individual living organism. I would never advocate the wanton destruction of life just because it can be done, of course (and in the vast majority of cases, a woman’s decision to have an abortion is far from taken lightly) – but the absence of life is, in the long run, preferable to a life that consists predominantly of suffering.

The Bigger Picture

Having stated my case with regard to intrinsic human worth, I thought it might be interesting to explore some of the implications of this stance – and importantly, some of the things it does not imply, even though they might be claimed as logical conclusions by those who would argue against my position. One of the most significant issues that comes to light, when discussing the value of human life, is that of population control and the environmental impact – including the impact upon other animal species – of human numbers and activities. This seems like a useful scenario through which to discuss the practical consequences of both sides; but a few general observations are worth making first.

To begin with, the reaction from many people, when I say I don’t believe that humans are intrinsically valuable, is to assume that I don’t think human life is valuable at all. It’s almost as if it’s not enough for humans to value our own lives – we need some higher power or principle in order to reassure us that we’re right to think we’re important. And life is important – especially to the individuals living it. Nearly all living things strive to stay alive, by whatever means they have available – unless there is some other motive that overcomes the will to live. There is no further justification required, for life to be accounted valuable, than for one to be the subject of a life – which means we may suppose the life of any sentient being to be subjectively valuable to that being (although that isn’t always the case). When people claim that life is intrinsically valuable – that is, that its value does not depend upon any subjective assessment – they almost always apply this distinction exclusively to human life. The reason for this seems to be that they want a way to say that taking a human life is wrong, even if that life is not sentient, or the person no longer values their own life; and they want a reason to insist that humans are more important than other living things, just because we are. Life might be valuable as a phenomenon, but the life of a human being is worth immeasurably more than other lives because… well, again, just because.

Rejecting the concept of intrinsic value means, essentially, removing the “just because” element from estimations of human worth; it means that “a being possessing immeasurable value in and of itself” is not part of the definition of a human being – as some philosophers and religious thinkers would have it. There must then be a reason for the value of human life, beyond mere membership of the human species. That reason can be as simple as the value that any individual human places upon her own life; or it may extend to other factors, such as that human’s ability to affect the lives of others, positively or negatively. Of course, it’s not particularly fashionable to allow the possibility that one human life might be worth more than another – but realistically, we all know that there are certain humans that we care about much more than we care about other humans – that is just the way we are wired. Perhaps it is to squash our embarrassinly preferential tendencies that people keep insisting all humans are valuable just because. But the notion of intrinsic worth is not necessary to achieve the basic measure of respect to which all sentient beings are entitled – it is enough to assume that others’ lives are as valuable – subjectively – to them as our own are to us.

When it comes to concerns about human population, the assumption of intrinsic human value becomes highly problematic. Despite ample evidence of the destructive effect humans have on the planet in our plague-like numbers (7 billion is more akin to a ravaging swarm of locusts than a population of mammals), the idea that humans have an intrinsic right to live in any way we choose, no matter what the consequences for other life forms, still holds sway in discussions about the possibility of reducing human impact upon the planet. Opponents of population control never fail to cite the example of China’s coercive one-child policy; they hardly ever seem to consider the possibility of encouraging voluntary limitations on the number of children people choose to have (if they choose to have any at all). Reproducing is still often seen as a right, with little said about the concomitant responsibilities. Humans are the only animals that have the ability to reliably control our own fertility – yet efforts to constructively manage human populations are continually stymied by those who see ‘reproductive freedom’ as code for ‘unrestricted abortion access’. It’s true that access to safe, legal abortion is an important element of family planning services; but it’s far from the whole picture. All relevant evidence indicates that allowing women the autonomy and technology required to limit their number of offspring is one of the most reliable means to lift societies out of the cycle of poverty – yet this is a solution the so-called ‘pro-life’ brigade will oppose with their dying breath.

Those who portray abortion as akin to the Holocaust and other acts of genocide are fond of quoting the numbers – millions upon millions of tiny little babies mercilessly slaughtered by their own mothers, no less. This melodrama is never followed up with any thought for what might have become of these humans had they been born. With a human population of 7 billion and rising, what are the consequences of adding more and more new people? We have already wrought environmental damage on a vast scale and driven untold numbers of other species to extinction. But of course, consequences such as these are the last thing on the minds of those who believe humans are immeasurably, intrinsically valuable. To their way of thinking, more human life is inevitably a good thing – even if it costs the earth.

Corn and Asparagus Pasties

Every so often, a recipe that I randomly dream up turns out to be so good that I absolutely must publish it. Tonight was one of those occasions. This is probably the most delicious pastie filling I have ever created – and it’s vegetarian into the bargain, so it is another step on the road towards reducing our meat consumption. It could be used to fill pies as well, of course, or it would make a great topping for pasta – or if you’re feeling especially decadent, it could be served, poutine-style, over chunky potato fries. It could, alternatively, be placed in a shallow baking dish, covered with a sheet of pastry and baked as a large pie to serve several dinner guests. Tonight it was enveloped in flaky puff pastry and served with homemade chips. Culinary satisfaction is mine!

The quantities below will make enough filling for about a dozen pasties, depending upon how large you make them. I only made two pasties tonight, so I have a large pot of filling left in the fridge for future use. I expect it will be turned into more pasties for tomorrow’s lunch.

Anyway, to make the filling, you will need:

1 small brown onion, finely chopped
2-3 garlic shoots, finely chopped (these have a milder flavour than garlic cloves, so if substituting the latter, one or two will be sufficient)
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons butter
small amount of light olive or vegetable oil
1/2 cup flour, made up of 2 parts wheat flour and 1 part maize flour (this is optional; plain wheat flour on its own will also work)
1 cup stock (I used the Massel vegetarian chicken-style cube variety for this)
1 cup milk
about 12 fat asparagus spears, trimmed and chopped into short lengths
1.5 cups corn kernels (frozen or fresh)
salt and pepper to taste

For making pasties, use puff pastry – bought frozen or, if you’re feeling particularly brave and have an afternoon to spare, homemade. One day, I will make my own puff pastry, just for the sake of being able to say I’ve done it. This time, however, I went with the bought variety, which we just happened to have in the freezer.

Method:

Melt butter with a small amount of oil in a heavy-based pan. Add the finely-chopped onion, garlic shoots and dried thyme; fry gently until onion is tender.

Remove pan from heat and stir in flour to make a roux with the butter. Return pan to heat and cook roux for a minute or two, stirring to ensure it doesn’t stick to base of pan.

Add stock and milk to roux, stirring to ensure smooth consiststency. Continue stirring over low heat until the sauce thickens. This should only take a few minutes, if the stock and milk are warmed before adding to pan.

Stir corn and chopped asparagus through the sauce; continue cooking for another minute or two. Season to taste with salt and pepper. The filling is now done; set aside to cool.

To make pasties, take a thawed sheet of puff pastry and slice down the middle into two long rectangles. Place a large spoon of filling at one end of each rectangle, leaving about 1.5cm around the edge of the pastry. Brush a little water around the edges and fold the other end of the rectangle over the filling. Press down to seal the filling in the pastry, then fold the sealed edges over. Press the tines of a fork into the folds. Pierce the top of each pastie, brush with egg wash and bake at 180 degrees (160 for fan-forced oven) for 30 minutes or until pastry is puffed and brown.

A Life Less Valuable

I have been involved in some interesting arguments recently concerning the value of human life and the idea of intrinsic worth that tends to be the central claim of those who oppose things like abortion, euthanasia and stem-cell research. It’s a subject about which I have written before; but I do find it useful at times to revisit old discussions to clarify and expand upon points I have previously made – perhaps in order to further refine my thinking and hone my argumentative skills. In short, my position is that intrinsic value – that is, value that does not depend upon any subjective estimate of worth – does not exist, for the simple reason that the act of ascribing value to anything, be it a living being or an inanimate object, is necessarily a subjective act.

There is a strong connection between the kind of thinking that holds human life to be intrinsically valuable (because human life is almost the only thing that is ever considered to have intrinsic value) and the kind of thinking that considers moral values to be objective. As I’ve argued in a previous post, I don’t believe morality is an objective phenomenon, for much the same reason that I don’t believe in intrinsic value. Estimations of worth and evaluations of actions as right or wrong are contingent upon subjective responses and relevant circumstances. It’s fair to assume that most sentient beings value their own lives, at least to some extent – but this is not enough to establish intrinsic value, not even of humans. Not all humans are capable of valuing their own lives; not all humans are sentient – in fact, at a certain period of life, namely the first few months in the womb, no human is sentient. At that time, any value we have is contingent upon whether or not our parents value our existence. At the other end of the journey, a human who is lingering with a painful illness may not value her own life anymore and may actually desire death as the only possible means of alleviating her suffering. Yet those who think human life is intrinsically valuable oppose both abortion and euthanasia on the grounds that no human has the right to end a human life, even their own. The clash of rules and consequences could hardly be more pronounced – by upholding this arbitrary rule that human life is immeasurably valuable in and of itself, the quantity of suffering in the world is increased.

People who are strongly religious or who otherwise identify with the political pro-life brigade are apt to refer to abortion as the greatest crisis facing our society; Mother Teresa of Calcutta famously said that abortion was “the greatest destroyer of peace today.” It’s hard for someone like me to see abortion as the terribly urgent problem that it is portrayed by pro-lifers to be. To begin with, there are millions of already-born children who are suffering terribly in the world, from starvation, from disease, from abuse, from the effects of war and natural disasters; moreover, pro-lifers are almost exclusively pro-human-life, so they tend to ignore completely the even greater numbers of nonhuman animals who are subjected to lives of abject misery and to horrifying maltreatment at the hands of humans. These seem, to me, to be far more pressing issues than the availability of safe medical procedures to terminate pregnancies. Similarly, when it comes to embryonic stem-cell research, the opportunity to alleviate the suffering of already existing people seems worth the sacrifice of nonsentient embryos which, in all likelihood, would otherwise be discarded anyway.

The thing is, since I don’t believe in the concept of intrinsic worth, I don’t automatically consider human life to be more valuable than nonhuman life. The hypothetical dilemma of choosing whether to rescue a dog or a human baby from a burning building (assuming you can only save one) – a scenario which tends to be thrown at people like me, who question the intrinsic value of human life – would not be an easy or straightforward choice for me. Perhaps it makes some moral decisions easier, to assume that human life just is valuable, no matter what. However, like all rules-based and so-called ‘objective’ ethics, it doesn’t square with reality and can even lead to highly undesirable consequences in certain circumstances. I would much rather have the complexity and richness of an ever-changing world in which relationships are endlessly mutable, even if it sometimes leads to confusion and error; better that than to be beholden to man-made moral rules that constrain us to make bad choices.

Food Fundies

I’ve been watching and reading quite a lot lately about food and nutrition and what is particularly striking about today’s food culture – in the affluent West, at any rate – is the near-religious fervour with which some people promote their preferred diet. The vitriolic arguments about food that take place in online fora are every bit as heated (and every bit as likely to degenerate into flame wars) as those that take place between religious believers and atheists; and just as with religion, off on the sidelines there are the moderates, who watch with bemusement as the vegans, the paleo dieters, the raw foodists, the carb-avoiders and various other followers of the latest food fads defend their corners, hurling self-righteous volleys of abuse at all detractors. It’s enough to set up the popcorn vendors for life.

Now, I’m well aware that I care more about food than the average middle-class Westerner – scarcely a day goes past in which I do not cook something and on most of those days off, I’ll be reheating leftovers from something I’ve cooked previously. Indeed, if I miss out on cooking for more than a couple of days in a row, I begin to feel quite out of sorts. What’s more, I also have my food-related passions and my ethical commitments – I will defend with my last breath the value of eating meat from humanely-raised animals, for example. However, I am also sufficiently informed to realise that the science of food and nutrition is still in its infancy – as Michael Pollan put it, nutrition science is pretty much where surgery was in the 16th century. That is enough for me to apply a healthy degree of scepticism whenever someone sings the praises of a particular diet – even if it has ‘changed their life’ and they feel good as new after six weeks of following their new eating program. From the point of view of individual experience, it may well be that the person has stumbled upon a food combination that suits their own body chemistry – but that is certainly no guarantee that it will work for everyone. This is one area in which the resemblance between religious evangelists and food evangelists runs very deep – neither is content to simply accept that a particular belief system or dietary regimen works for them. No, they must preach their gospel and convert as many people as possible to their ways. Pluralism is but a lame compromise to the true believers.

Another thing that food fanaticism has in common with religious fanaticism is the existence of vested interests behind the scenes. Just as organised religion has historically been allied with various political regimes, so the diet industry – and governmental nutrition guidelines – are heavily influenced by the corporate giants of the food industry. Historically, the church admonished the faithful to be obedient to their earthly authorities, those whom ‘god’ had placed above them – this was obviously serving the interests of the elite. Similarly, whenever health advice is issued, the food industry tends to respond either by countering the advice – such as the meat industry stepping up its advertising of beef and lamb when the health authorities had been advocating a reduction in red meat consumption – or by jumping on the bandwagon, as evidenced by the vast range of products pandering to the ‘gluten-free’ obsession or incorporating the latest ‘superfoods’, like quinoa, acai berries, chia and kale. As with the tenets of religion, it seems like a good idea to treat the claims of the food industry with suspicion – especially when we consider the possible consequences of particular dietary trends. The rage for ancient grains in the West has driven up the prices of foods that are actually dietary staples for some people in developing nations, reducing their access to essential nutrients; the demand for meat resulting from the popularity of the paleo diet (despite the claims of advocates that they prefer to opt for free-range or wild meat) can only add to the appalling excesses of industrial meat production.

Ultimately, the religious impulse and the fad-diet impulse arise, I think, from the same core human trait – a desire to perfect ourselves and the world in which we live. We want to believe that there is an ideal way of being which, if we can achieve it, will solve our problems and reduce our troubles to a minimum. If we can pray and control our behaviour according to the tenets of a particular religion, we will attain heaven, or nirvana, or some other elevated condition; if we can eat particular foods to the exclusion of others, we will achieve something like perfect health and a clear conscience. I like to consider myself a (mostly) rational sceptic but even I am not completely immune to this kind of thinking. I genuinely do feel that if a majority of people could turn to a more ethical way of eating – less meat, from humanely raised animals; more vegetables from local sources – then it really would improve the world and make people healthier. Perfection, however, is something for which I have given up striving – I don’t think it is realistic to expect perfection, nor even to think we can actually define it. People’s values and preferences vary so widely that what is ‘perfect’ for one person will be terribly flawed by someone else’s standards. What will be better for the environment, for human health and for the welfare of farmed animals will represent a huge fall in profits for the food industry that relies upon subsidised monoculture crops and intensive animal feeding operations. Everything in life is a trade-off. It’s up to us to work out what our priorities will be.

Morality in the Moment

I’ve written quite a few posts now that have touched upon the idea of objective, as opposed to subjective, morality and the the implications for morality of believing in a godless universe. My overall take is that it makes little sense to speak of morality in terms of objective principles, when morality itself seems to be a product of the subjective experience of sentient beings – our conviction that certain behaviours may be classified as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in ethical terms stems from how we feel with regard to those behaviours; to the extent that those feelings may be empirically quantifiable (though we haven’t really worked out how to do that yet), perhaps there could be some objective basis to morality; otherwise I think it’s fair to say that morality exists because of subjectivity, not because of any external, cosmic or divine laws.

I’ve had a couple of ideas today, whilst listening to a debate between William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan, that expand upon my views regarding morality as an entirely subjective phenomenon independent of religious belief; and something that, in spite of or even because of those characteristics, still matters. The more arguments I hear purporting to demonstrate that morality is based on religious faith – or on a somewhat deeper level, that morality depends for its very existence upon the theistic god (whose moral laws, ironically, could be called subjective, being the product of a supposedly personal mind), or some kind of platonic moral ‘truth’ that obtains independently of sentient beings – the more I am convinced that this argument boils down to one premise: namely, that human experience is simply not enough to provide grounds for moral thought and behaviour. That premise, as with the many contradictions of religious thought, sits awkwardly alongside the belief that humans are the beloved special creations of the author of the universe.

This all makes me kind of angry, if I’m being honest. People who think in terms of eternal reward or punishment as the motivation for moral behaviour, or who ask why certain actions are wrong just because they cause suffering, are demonstrating a deep-seated and destructive form of selfishness, as I see it. They find the ultimate justification for their behaviours in terms of whether they will receive reward or punishment for those behaviours, rather than considering the experience of others. I don’t have a problem with selfishness as such – it’s an inescapable fact of our human psychological constitution, to a greater or lesser extent depending upon the individual; and in fact, selfishness can be harnessed to demonstrably positive effect, when it motivates us to do things that benefit others as well as ourselves. It does not follow, however, that selfishness is our sole motivation. People who argue that in the absence of divine reward or retribution for earthly behaviour, humans will revert to unbridled self-interest are forgetting that empathy is also a feature of the human psyche. The rewards of helping others come most often in the form of the effect this has upon our own mental well-being – because we care about the experience of others. We don’t need a god to hold out a carrot and stick for us, in order to behave morally towards our fellows.

People who believe – or want to believe – in objective morality also often claim that if the naturalistic, materialist view of the universe is correct – and thus if the universe will eventually succumb to heat death – then nothing we do matters. The explanation, such as it is, for this usually boils down to an assertion that if humans have no cosmic significance and if the consequences of our actions will not be visited upon our souls in an eternal afterlife, then what we do whilst we live has no meaning, no value, no worth… so we can basically do whatever we want and get away with it. People who question why anything should be right or wrong, or who claim that nothing matters if our ultimate destiny is to simply cease to exist, are not only displaying a kind of arrogance but also demonstrating the propensity of humans to think ourselves into the future and thus fail to live in the moment.

In all seriousness, who do we think we are? Why should we be troubled by the notion that the universe is indifferent to our existence? We might be unimportant in the grand scheme of things but embracing our insignificance need not require us to wallow in nihilism. Joy and suffering matter to us when they happen – I would challenge anyone to be indifferent to pain or pleasure when they are actually experiencing it. It makes no sense to discount the value of our experiences just because they don’t last forever. Similarly, it is ludicrous to suppose that, just because we don’t stand to merit an eternal reward or be condemned to eternal punishment, that the effects of our actions in the here and now make no difference to ourselves or anyone else. To suppose otherwise demonstrates a profound failure to appreciate the moments in our lives – in effect, it’s a case of not seeing the trees for the forest. It actually doesn’t matter, when it comes to our capacity to know pleasure and pain, happiness and misery, that these experiences don’t matter beyond our own existence. When it comes to morality, the way we live and interact with our fellow sentient beings and the world around us should be all that concerns us – anything else, whether it’s a god with strange whims, an immortal soul or an endless afterlife, is just an unnecessary and even potentially harmful distraction.

Home, Hearth and Health

I am currently listening to a talk by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Cooked: A natural history of transformation, amongst other books (books that I mean soon to add to my library or at the very least, borrow from my local lending library). I have been listening to quite a few of Pollan’s talks and interviews on YouTube recently and a lot of what he says resonates with many of my own thoughts about food, as well as informing me about several things of which I was previously unaware, especially with regard to industrial food production. The most striking thing was the extent to which monoculture crops – namely corn and soy – have become the mainstay of the food industry, especially in the US. These two plants find their way into almost every processed food item, often in the form of oil or sweetener or simply as bulking agent; and most insidiously, into meat, because they are fed to cattle, chickens and pigs on feedlots and factory farms.

I’m not sure about how much corn and soy specifically are a feature of processed foods in Australia but I would be unsurprised if food manufacture here is similarly predominated by monoculture crops. I’ve seen, just to give an example, the huge fields of canola – and nothing but canola – that grow on the outskirts of Cowra, an hour from my home town of Bathurst. I’m already well aware that a majority of Australian meat is raised on intensive farms – that is a problem across the developed world. It is certainly true that the more I learn about industrial food production, the more I appreciate my own kitchen and the more determined I am to shop locally for fresh igredients and ethically produced meat, as well as working towards developing a productive kitchen garden of my own.

I love my kitchen. It’s the room in which I probably spend the majority of my time when I’m not sleeping or working. At the moment it still has the aroma of the corn-and-bacon chowder I cooked for dinner tonight. Preparing and eating food has become an extremely important part of my life; but it wasn’t always this way. I didn’t grow up watching with fascination as Mum transformed fresh ingredients into dinners, although I was peripherally aware that things were going on in the kitchen and that a roast lamb dinner didn’t start out looking the way it did on my plate. I grasped a little of what Dad was doing when he made minestrone, pizza, lasagne or pumpkin soup (they were his specialties) but I was never really involved in the cooking process, nor did I, at that time, evince any great interest in being so.

Since then, of course, things have changed dramatically and I am now one of an apparent minority of people in modern Western society who cooks the majority of my food from scratch, using whole ingredients. For a long time now, I have been somewhat flippantly insisting that everything homemade is healthy – no matter how much fat, salt or sugar it contains! – but it now appears that there is some truth to this. Pollan speaks of research findings on the relative health of people who cook most of their own food, as opposed to those who more regularly eat processed and convenience foods. In what should come as little surprise, the research showed that people who cook their own food are healthier, even allowing for differences in income. It is very gratifying to find out that my assumptions have been correct; but I think there is something more profound going on here. Undoubtedly, there will be a variety of reasons for the greater health benefits of home cooking – certainly, people who cook will be thinking more about their food and are probably much less inclined to take it for granted than those who predominantly live on takeaways. There can be no question that home cooking is psychologically healthier as well – it’s more likely that home cooks will be sharing the food they prepare with family and friends and enjoying the satisfaction of exercising a fundamental human skill (though one that has become far less common in our modern era). Certainly this has been the case for me. Indeed, food and cooking have come to mean much more to me than just sustenance and nutrition. This is an area of my life in which I can consciously, actively and tangibly live according to my principles – and the value of that cannot be overstated.