Ode to the Plantain.

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OK, this isn’t really an ode because . . . well . . . I’m not a poet and I know it. But a lunchtime discussion with a colleague has inspired me to write an homage to a little-known and easily overlooked fruit; the plantain.

Depending on where you’re from or where you’ve lived, you are probably already familiar with the plantain. If you’re not, find the nearest tall building, climb to the top of it and jump. Just kidding! But seriously, if you don’t know what a plantain is, your life’s not worth living. I’m just playing.

What can I say about the plantain? More importantly, what can’t I say about the plantain? Anything bad, that’s what. I mean, seldom has a better or more perfect food than the humble yet confident plantain existed. Humble because, unlike it’s genetically engineered cousin, the banana, the plantain turns a soft golden brown—not a garish yellow—when it ripens. Confident because the plantain chooses not to hang out in bunches but rather lie serenely in solitude on the grocer’s shelf. How many times have you walked right past the plantain, nose in air, drawn to more exotic-sounding or exotic-looking fruits like cumquats and starfruit?

Yet the plantain perseveres, waiting patiently for the day you may pick one up. For some of you, that day has yet to come. And I can’t blame you for, you see, the longer the plantains lies on the shelf, the less appetizing it appears. The skin goes from firm green to golden to brown and eventually to black. And it sags and wrinkles along the way. Who can blame you for passing by in oblivion, or worse, turning away in revulsion.

But what the plantain knows (and what you don’t) is that it is most delicious precisely at the point at which it looks least appetizing—when it’s skin is black and wrinked. The flesh, by now a little mushy, though still golden in color, clings reluctantly to the skin as you peel it away, ready to be roasted, boiled or—my favorite—fried.

You see, the plantain is not only deceptively delicious, it is also surprisingly versatile. Where I’m from, we eat our plantains fried and I would wager plantain eaters anywhere that it’s the best way to eat them. Ghanaians pound it into fufu (slightly inferior to a nice cassava fufu, if you ask me). Latinos fry, grill, and bake the green ones as well as the ripe ones. But I prefer them simply fried. Served on the side or with a spicy sauce, plantains can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner!

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I proclaim the plantain to be a little slice of heaven. Heaven, I say, because like Paradise, the plantain is always perfect. When has the plantain ever disappointed? When has the plantain not been delicious and fully satisfying? Sure, sometimes it’s a little dry but on such occasions, I blame the cook. Attempting to cook the plaintain before it’s perfectly ready to be cooked will result in a sub-standard meal. But all in all, the plantain is perfection itself.

I remember having plantain sandwiches for breakfast and again for lunch. Slices of perfectly ripe plantain fried to a deep amber hue, laid out on buttered bread, preferably the mini-baguettes (Fullah bread) so readily available at any corner shop in Freetown. Can anything be more delicious than the intoxicating mix of warm plantain and recently melted butter?

How I adore the lowly plantain, which looks like nothing more than an oversized banana yet gives so much and asks so little?

Check out this link for fried plantain recipes from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

New Radio Show: July 23, 2007.

The July 23 edition of Diaspora Sounds is now available for your listening pleasure. Listen online or download to an mp3 player and listen later.

Click here to see the playlist.

Listen to the previous show here.

What do you know, it turns out we’re all from Africa after all.

In what must surely come as a blow to adherents of race theory, a new study published in the journal Nature proves once and for all that the planet’s people are descended from a single human population whose origins lie in sub-Saharan Africa.

The scientists who conducted the study examined genetic data and skull measurements to arrive at their conclusions.

Read the full story below.

iPhone Made Me a Believer.

I have a confession.

Unlike millions of people the world over, I have never been crazy about Apple products. Mac computers, iPods, Minis, and Nanos did nothing for me. I scoffed at Apple loyalists, likening them to religious zealots who fanatically believed Apple products to be vastly superior to comparable electronic devices. In my eyes, they were weak-willed trend chasers who were intimidated by complicated user interfaces and easily swayed by slick packaging and even slicker marketing. After all, I had never seen an Apple or Mac product that I felt was truly superior to anything else on the market.

But on Monday, all that changed after I had a close encounter with the iPhone, Apple’s first foray into the world of mobile telephony. And I have to admit, I was impressed.

The iPhone has, by far, the best interface I have ever seen on a mobile device, or any other electronic gadget for that matter. At 4.5 inches (115 mm) tall, 2.4 inches (61 mm) wide, 0.46 inch (11.6 mm) thick and weighing in at 4.8 ounces (135 grams), the iPhone is not the smallest phone out there. But it is by far the most revolutionary.

First off, there is not even a keypad and with only three external buttons, all functions and features are accessed through the touchscreen. On the left side of the iPhone is a mute switch. No need to access menus to look for profiles or the mute option. The power button is also external and, at the bottom of  the front panel, is a single button that takes you to the default screen, from where you can access all the other programs and features included in the phone. There is no stylus so you use your fingertips to select menu options and scroll through photos or contacts. If you rotate the phone from its normal upright position to a horizontal position, the screen image automatically reorients itself. To zoom in on an image, simply place your thumb and index finger on the part of the screen you’d like to enlarge and move them apart, as if you’re literally stretching the image. The included browser shows the full web page and you can move around on the page the same way you scroll through contacts or photos; with your fingertip. To access a link, simply tap it with your finger. To zoom in on any part of the web page, simply stretch the image with your thumb and finger.

For phone calls and text messages, simply tap an icon to summon a numbered keypad or QWERTY keyboard, which appear on the bottom of the screen. I assume most mobile phone users make calls directly from the contacts list anyway, so there’s little need for a real keypad. I wasn’t too crazy about the virtual QWERTY keyboard, though, because it seemed a little crowded and I didn’t get a chance to check whether the keyboard would widen itself if the phone is tilted horizontally. Minor detail. Oh, did I mention the iPhone also plays music through it’s built-in iPod function, boasts a four- or eight-gigabyte internal hard drive, and has a camera?

Perhaps the worst thing about the iPhone is that the battery is non-replaceable so users have to send their phones back to Apple after a couple of years to have the battery replaced. But that was the same deal with the iPod and it didn’t seem to hurt its sales. Also, the iPhone only works through AT&T’s mobile network. It would have been be nice if non-AT&T mobile customers could also own an iPhone. Also, I don’t know how/whether the iPhone works outside the US.

Now I’m no slouch when it comes to mobile phones and, in terms of features and functionality, I’d put my Nokia N80 up against any phone on the market, including the iPhone. But the iPhone wins hands down for its revolutionary user interface.

Finally, Apple has created a product that lives up to its hype.

Jews for Jesus Leave No Stone Unturned in Search for Converts.

These days, it seems you can’t walk two blocks in DC without a member of Jews for Jesus handing you a flyer. While I’m generally very offended by any form of religious proselytizing, I have to confess I always accept the flyer and I always read it. I don’t do this because I think Jews for Jesus are on to something: quite the opposite, I think they’re full of—how can I put this diplomatically?—excrement.

But I have to give props where props are due and Jews for Jesus get props for being timely and innovative with their material. For example, in the middle of a DC heatwave, one of their flyers was entitled “Keeping Cool,” and it was all about how Jesus (Y’shua) is “the Son who refreshes . . . like rivers of living water.” Now from my reading of the Bible, I know that Jesus has been likened to a shepherd and even a sheep, but the river analogy is new to me. Kudos to Jews for Jesus for taking such an innovative approach to the Messiah. I mean, on a hot, sticky, humid summer day in DC, nothing sounds better than diving into a cool, refreshing body of water. And if Jesus is like that cool, refreshing body of water . . . well . . . I can understand how some people may be swayed. Not me. I’d rather see Jews for Jesus distribute a tract about the urgency of global warming and how to forestall and reverse its negative consequences. But that’s obviously not where they’re coming from.

So anyway, today’s flyer was not actually handed to me; one of my colleagues brought it in and placed it on the kitchen counter. Entitled “Paris Hilton: The Prison Life,” the flyer talks about how the law made Paris do the time for her crime, despite her parents’ hypothetical wish to pay someone else to serve out their daughter’s sentence. The punchline comes when the flyer informs me that, unlike Paris, I don’t have to serve out my sentence because Jesus has already sacrificed himself so I won’t have to. In other words, the sentence—the punishment for my sins—is eternal damnation, but Jesus could spare me this fate. The catch is, of course, I have to ask him to. Or rather, ask Jews for Jesus to pass on my request.

Which is where things get a little tricky for me. You see, I’m an old-fashioned guy who believes in accepting responsibility for my actions and facing whatever consequences may befall me. For that reason, I choose to live a life that conforms to my own personal ethics, doing unto others as I would have them do unto me, and all that good stuff. At the end of the day, if hell is where my immortal soul winds up, so be it. But I’m pretty sure I know where the only eternal parts of me—i.e., the individual atoms that make up my body—will end up. What’s left of me will end up right here on earth, making up the worms that eat the dirt into which I decomposed, and the birds that eat those worms, and the cats that eat those birds, and so on and so forth.

But that’s not what Christian proselytizers (let’s not kid ourselves, Jews for Jesus is a Christian evangelical group) want us to believe. They want us to believe that, as individuals, we are incapable of doing the right thing. In fact, they want to convince us that at the end of the day, our entire earthly existence is sinful and that we are doomed to an eternity in hell. But unlike the people Jews for Jesus hopes to convert, I’m fully prepared to deal with the consequences of my life choices and I don’t need anybody (the Messiah or anyone else) to take the heat for me. That’s how I roll.

But I have to add that, although I have little sympathy for Paris Hilton’s legal predicament, I can’t help but feel a little bad for her that Jews for Jesus is now using her story in an attempt to get people to read their tracts. That makes them almost as pathetic as Paris. I’m also annoyed because until today, I had successfully banished Paris Hilton from my consciousness, having fully convinced myself that she is a figment of our society’s twisted imagination. Now, thanks to Jews for Jesus, I can no longer deny the existence of Paris Hilton. Even worse, I’ve devoted half-an-hour and part of a blog to her.

Come to think of it, if there are no annoying proselytizers giving out flyers in hell, it might actually not be such a bad place.

War on Menstruation Enters Latest Phase.

We’ve all heard of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and it’s many negative effects on women’s moods and whatnot but now, it seems menstruation itself is being targeted as a medical condition; and of course, the pharmaceutical companies are lining up with their version of “the cure.”

Read on . . ..

Can You Spell “Uptight?”

Rotraut Susanne Berner—author of several children’s books that have sold well in both her native Germany and internationally—was thrilled to get a letter from a US publishing house expressing interest in translating and publishing her books in this country.

Then there was a minor glitch. First, the publisher asked that all smokers be excised from the drawings in Berner’s books. I guess we wouldn’t want our children to see images of adults smoking.

But there was another, larger issue. One scene in the book, set in an art gallery, depicts a nude painting with bare breasts. But that’s not all. There’s also a statue of an anatomically correct naked man atop a pedestal. Well, anatomically correct is a bit of an exaggeration. The cartoon statue stands about seven millimeters tall and you wouldn’t be able to see his bits even if you used the Hubbel Telescope.

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But this was all too much for the publisher, Boyds Mills Press. They asked Ms. Berner to remove the offending painting and statue from the scene. She refused, offering a compromise instead: She agreed to have black censorship bars placed over the offensive cartoon breasts and the nude statue’s microscopic member. The author said that, while she would consider letting her drawings be censored, she believed her readers had a right to know that they were looking at censored drawings. The publishing house rejected the compromise.

So the author turned down their offer.

Good for her for not buying into the hyper-uptight, anti-sex, puritanical madness that is so much the vogue in the US today. In one of my first posts, I talked about how the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) routinely rates films with sexual content more severely (R and NC-17) than films with graphic violence. At the end of the day, the average American child will see millions of violent images over the course of their lives but our society will take care to protect them from images of nudity. And millions of American women who watch Desperate Housewives or read Cosmo will be exposed to artificial and unnatural standards of beauty that will undermine their self-esteem, distort their image of their own bodies, and lead to unhealthy eating and dieting habits and a host of other consequences of negative body image.

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So why make such a big deal about cartoon nudes in a children’s book? Why is the American public so opposed to anything remotely deemed sexual (not that these cartoon nudes are particularly sexual). I’m sure part of the answer lies in Christianity’s anti-sex posture, which deems sinful and dirty anything having to do with “the flesh.” I personally think the whole discourse is idiotic. At the risk of exposing myself to accusations of insensitivity towards the visually impaired, I would like to ask, Who among us has never seen breasts? And, despite such medical advances as the Caesarian Section, I would venture to say that most of the human population still enters the world through a vagina. Why then treat the body as something dirty, an object of shame unfit for the eyes of children?

I don’t have children of my own but if I did, I’d rather they saw nude art than violence in movies or stick-thin women on TV and in magazines.