Oysters: An ethical choice

Photo of OystersAwhile back, Slate published a great article on why vegans should eat oysters. The author writes, “Oysters may be animals, but even the strictest ethicist should feel comfortable eating them by the boatload.”

From my observations, the main reasons that vegans choose not to eat animal products are: 1) animal products are implicated in the greatest portion of the environmental destruction linked with food production; 2) many animals suffer when they are raised and killed for food; and 3) there are clear health reasons to limit meat and dairy. Oysters, savvy bivalves that they are, stand firm against these three points.

First, oysters are good for the environment. They are listed as a “Best Choice” on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list. Most oysters are farmed, but unlike other farmed seafood, they require very few inputs. In fact, they can improve their local ecosystems by filtering the water. I used to think that oysters could actually break down or sequester chemical pollutants, but their main effect is to remove algae, sediment, and excess nutrients, which improves water clarity and the conditions for other organisms to thrive. They also build reef structures that provide habitat for other tiny organisms.

Second, oysters feel about as much pain as plants do. They have no central nervous system, and there is no evidence to suggest they suffer any more pain than, say, a portobello. Humans have labeled them animals within our classification system, but they clearly belong in a different category from creatures with brains.

Lastly, oysters are a good source of of zinc, iron, calcium, selenium, and Vitamin B12 – nutrients that are abundant in certain animal products but that vegans might have a harder time obtaining. I’d argue that a few oysters are a better choice than a multivitamin, considering that vitamin and mineral supplement pills may be ineffective or even harmful.

Writing this post definitely has me craving a half-dozen oysters on the half shell!

Choose Your Own Adventure, new mom edition!

The time is 2:00 pm. You are home on maternity leave with your 6-week-old baby, and your spouse is at work. The baby just fell asleep, but you’re not sure for how long she’ll stay that way. What do you do?

Option 1: Lay down for a nap yourself
—>Go to C, E, G, I, or K

Option 2: Take a shower for the first time in 3 days
—>Go to B, D, or F

Option 3: Do the dishes and clean your cluttered apartment
—>Go to H or L

Option 4: Write overdue thank-you notes
—>Go to A or J


A Wait, what? Thank-you notes should never trump sleep for an exhausted new mom! Go to Option 1. (However, people start to ask you if you received their gift, and you feel super guilty.)

B You hear the baby crying mid-shower. So much for shaving your legs!

C Congratulations, you get a 1.5-hour nap! But consequently you miss the Amazon delivery of the size 1 diapers you desperately need.

D You take an amazing, 20-minute shower. But you accidentally put way too much leave-in-conditioner in your hair, so it looks super greasy. You feel icky, but oh well, it’ll be 2 days ’til your next shower!

E Your baby wakes you after only 15 minutes. How could she be hungry again? Is this a growth spurt? Keep truckin’, mama…

F You get in the shower, but only after you turn on the water do you discover that you’re out of soap. Also, you forgot a towel. It’s a drippy walk down the hall to the linen closet!

G You lay down for a nap, but the baby is groaning and tossing and turning (even though she’s asleep). This makes it too hard for you to sleep, so you just lay there scrolling through Facebook. Oh well!

H You tidy up your apartment, and feel great about it. But the next day, it’s suddenly even messier than before! You decide it’s okay to live in squalor for the time being.

I You sleep for one hour (yay!) but it is fraught with dreams about accidentally leaving your baby at home unattended when you return to work.

J You successfully take a 5-minute shower and write 2 thank you notes before the baby wakes. Unfortunately, you can’t remember who gave you 3 of your gifts…guess those people aren’t getting thank yous!

K You fall asleep but wake up cold and soaking wet – looks like your letdown reflex was activated in your sleep again!

L You empty the dishwasher but then say, F*ck it, I need a nap. Go to Option 1.

M You tidy up quickly, but forget to empty the bag in the diaper pail, which is 100% full when the baby has his afternoon poo-splosion.


Soup-er Simple: My top 6 soup spices

I reached a point last year where my spice cabinet was overflowing with bottles and packets, and I knew I had to pare down. So I asked myself, what spices do I really use and love? When making soups (my specialty) I rely almost entirely on the following set of dried herbs and spices. I would recommend this set to any home cook who is building out – or paring down – their spice cabinet.


Five-spice powder – This is my mainstay for winter soups, especially anything based around sweet potatoes, squash, beef, or lamb. The blend of cinnamon, fennel seed, cloves, star anise, and white pepper imparts a rich, earthy sweetness to the soup. Be judicious with this powder – a little goes a long way.

Curry powder – A boring soup can be turned into a delightful curried concoction in a flash with the addition of a good curry powder. Different curry powders have different blends of ingredients and different spiciness levels, so you may need to try a few to find your favorite. Add a few tablespoons to the pot along with any vegetables you are simmering, a minute or two before adding in the soup liquid (stock, water, etc.) so the powder can “toast” and develop its flavor.

Cayenne pepper – A tiny shake of cayenne adds kick to all types of soups and enhances the natural flavor of the ingredients. Adding heat is also a great way to reduce sodium in your soups – believe me, you won’t miss the salt if your tongue is tantalized by capsaicin!

Thyme – Thyme lends brightness and grassiness to lighter summer soups. Add a few generous shakes of the dried spice, or throw in several whole sprigs of fresh thyme (and remove the stems later).

Bay Leaves – A single bay leaf lends aroma and depth to an entire pot of soup or stew. I throw one in to almost every soup I make! Toss it in at the beginning, once you add the liquid – it should simmer the whole time the pot is cooking. Pick it out before consuming.

Turmeric – It took me awhile to develop a taste for the flavor of turmeric on its own, but it’s really, really healthy, and easily disguised in hearty soups. Thus, turmeric is on the list mainly for health reasons! Add extra to curried soups, or toss some in with a beef stew, minestrone, or chili.

Honorable mentions: Salt & Pepper – Obviously salt is a requirement to bring out the flavor of the soup ingredients. But don’t overdo it, and remember that stocks, broths, and canned goods (tomatoes, beans, etc.) often already have a lot of sodium included. Black pepper, if used, should be freshly ground on top of the individual bowl, since it’s flavor gets lost when you stir it into the large cooking pot.

Do you agree with my list? What spices are your mainstays for soups and stews?

Guide to my 5-month-old’s night-time wake-ups

All moms know that enduring unpredictable night wakings is one of the biggest challenges of rearing offspring. On a whim, I created this chart to explain the wildly different thoughts running through my head based on on the time of night my sweet daughter wakes up. Enjoy! And please excuse the cursing – my brain loses its filter between 5 and 6 am.


Insect photography with the iPhone

The iPhone is a great tool for insect photography due to the quick shutter speed and excellent close-up/macro focus ability. Here are a few photos I’ve taken. I’m thrilled with the gorgeous detail – insects are so beautiful! Click on an image to see a larger version.


Photos have been edited with Instagram. Photo credit: Julie MacCartee.

Soup-er Simple October delight: Puréed sweet potato, apple, and chickpea soup

It’s October, which means it’s time for pumpkin spice lattés, apple picking, and the re-emergence of comforting fall soups. I threw this simple soup together last night with a few basic ingredients, and my husband and I loved the result. So I thought I’d share!

This soup really couldn’t be much easier. It’s quick to prepare and doesn’t require a single perishable ingredient from the refrigerator. It’s a great way to use up mealy apples that have gone slightly past their prime. Serve it as an appetizer at a dinner party, or enjoy it for lunch in your house while wearing your favorite sweatshirt and slippers.

October sweet potato, apple, and chickpea soup

Vegan, dairy-free, and gluten-free. Recipe makes about 8 servings.

1  large onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 very large or 3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 apples, cored and cubed (leave skin on)
1 15-oz can chickpeas (or white beans)
1 box of veggie broth/stock, or water
Five spice powder (add to taste, ~1.5 tbsp)
Cinnamon (add to taste, ~1 tsp)
safflower oil or another high-heat oil (~2 tbsp)
olive oil or coconut oil (2-3 tbsp) (I always add some healthy fat to my soups to make them more savory and satiating)
salt (add to taste)

Cook time: 20 minutes

Add some high-heat oil to a large stainless steel pot, and turn heat up to medium. Add the chopped onion and a sprinkle of salt; cook until soft. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute longer. Add the cubed sweet potato and apple, pour in some vegetable stock/broth or water to barely cover the ingredients, and bring to a boil. Lower heat, cover, and simmer for about 10 minutes, until the ingredients are soft and mushy. Rinse the chickpeas and add them to the pot. Add the olive oil or coconut oil, cinnamon, and five spice powder. Cover and cook for another five minutes to allow chickpeas to soften.


Purée the soup by using a hand blender directly in the pot (by far the easiest way!) or by transferring the soup to a blender or food processor. Add salt or additional spices to taste.


Aflatoxin infographics: Making a complex issue more digestible

Aflatoxin – a naturally-occurring toxin produced by a fungus that infects certain crops – is getting a lot of attention right now in the agricultural development sphere.

I worked with a small team of USAID staff and implementing partners to develop an infographic on aflatoxin. Our goal was to create an eye-catching one-pager that conveys some core messages: 1) Aflatoxin is bad for human health; 2) Aflatoxin has global economic consequences; 3) Aflatoxin is a common/widespread problem; and 4) We can do something about it! This infographic has been shared with a variety of audiences to help spark interest in the topic and elevate it as a priority in international development.

Click on the image to view a larger version:

For another take on an aflatoxin infographic, here is a nice, concise image from the International Livestock Research Institute:

ILRI aflatoxin infographic

A face-to-face conversation, half a world apart

A few weeks ago, I stepped into a large gold-colored box stationed on Woodrow Wilson Plaza in Washington, DC, and came face-to-face with a young man from Afghanistan. We stood about the same height, about ten feet from one another, yet we couldn’t shake hands – because the man was actually standing in Herat, Afghanistan, in a similar box in a similar public square. We were two participants in Amar Bakshi’s art installation of “Portals” that connect people around the globe for short conversations.

For better for for worse, I happened to sign up for a portal time slot when PBS was doing interviews. I agreed to let them film my conversation and ask me a few questions afterwards. Because I knew any portion of my conversation might wind up on TV, I had a hard time relaxing and felt somewhat hindered in the topics I could broach. But I still enjoyed meeting my Afghan counterpart, who was interested in becoming a doctor. We talked about med school, public health, food, and sports.

Interested in the short PBS News Hour piece on the project? Watch the video below. My entry begins at 2:20. It’s always a weird feeling to watch myself on camera!


Here’s a transcript of my portion of the video. I am “WOMAN”:

WOMAN (ME): Yes, what do you eat typically?

MAN: Red meat, chicken or something like that.

AMAR BAKSHI: And that, I think, is powerful in itself for people.

WOMAN (ME): I had actually planned to maybe talk about some maybe more in- depth, tough questions.

MAN: Do you live in Washington, D.C.?

WOMAN (ME): But when you’re kind of faced in just that short moment of someone you haven’t met, it’s difficult to dive right into the meaty, kind of controversial, tough questions.

AMAR BAKSHI: People can go in there and chitchat about the weather. And often they do, because it’s hot here and there.



AMAR BAKSHI: But they can also go in and talk about — and they do — marriage, online dating, you know, freedoms, war, loss.

KHALED SALAR: Life has really changed in Afghanistan, and everything has had a really big impact on our lives. Learning about a country or a culture through TV or media is really hard, but getting to know people and getting to talk to them in person is — it’s much more effective.

PREETI PARULEKAR: For a lot of people here, sometimes, you can feel very conflicted about to what extent did we play a role in causing that?

It was a really good experience. It was really interesting to hear kind of about his life and his perceptions of the U.S. and kind of to get a feel for a real person living in Afghanistan.

MAN: And what is your favorite sport?

WOMAN (ME): I wasn’t disappointed that we talked about some of the lighter stuff, because a lot of times that’s what you actually talk to people about in daily life. I think the value in this experience is just having that moment with someone partway across the world that you absolutely wouldn’t meet otherwise.

And I think it tells you that every human on the planet has something to connect around. And so it was a pleasure to get to talk to someone that I otherwise wouldn’t meet and make that small connection, even just for a moment, to start off my day.