On Carrots And Plastic

winter vegetables

Dear Fellow Root Vegetable Lovers, Vegan Friends and Food Science Colleagues,

A friend of mine emailed me a link to an article that had captured her attention in the Norwegian press, and whose title translates as “Stressed Carrots Taste Worse”. I’m really glad she did, because it made me aware of a terrible carrot storing habit I had to this day. I realize that it was, respectively, an offense to your delicate taste buds, a crude lack of respect for your lifestyle, and a poor recognition of your hard work. Thus to all of you, I apologize.

All these years I have thought I could teach my grandma to suck eggs – or as it happens, to store carrots – and I was so wrong. My grandma, by the way, would have stored her carrots in the root cellar in a container full of sand, but as the article points out, today, luckily, we don’t need sand anymore: we have plastic.

Plastic. That’s were the shoe pinches. I confess that I have repeatedly lost my temper in front of all this plastic. I have savagely ripped these plastics bags, furiously thrown away these plastic baskets and called them “stupidly redundant” as I emptied carrots in the vegetable compartment of my fridge. I have wished I could teleport myself to the farmer’s market Place des Lices and have a bunch of sandy carrots dropped off straight into my reusable bag.

I wonder how I can have been so arrogant as to ignore that this plastic packaging, though “perhaps not very environmentally friendly”, was carefully designed to provide me with the healthiest, tastiest carrots? Now it all becomes clear. Of course the plastic basket protected my carrots from chocks during transport. And how can I have failed to notice that the plastic bags had perfectly calibrated holes to provide my carrots with the right amount of oxygen?

Now perhaps we should all just pause for a minute and wonder what exactly was wrong with our Grandmas’ root cellars. I am absolutely sure that conducting research on vegetation stress is very interesting and fruitful from a biological point of view. But I can’t help to think that this whole carrot and plastic story has a bit of a bitter aftertaste, and that this is what happens when one demands that research imperatively yields practical applications.

As a scientist and root vegetable lover, all this makes me, in fact, a little sad.

Take care and eat well,


PS: Did you know that carrot greens make a delicious soup? Here is my recipe.

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On Spring Cleaning And Carbon Dioxide

spring cleaning

One fine day the snow is gone and it is spring. This year, its seems alarmingly early.

What I love most about living in Scandinavia is the sharp contrast between seasons. It took me a little time to adjust to the pace. Sometimes, after four years, I still get caught by surprise. I forget how fast the scenery changes every single week. Gradually, I’m learning to listen to this perpetual reminder from nature: seize the moment, now, seize the moment. It touches me so deeply. The sense of time passing. The rhythm. The cycles.

I moved to Scandinavia on a particularly snowy winter. Here I was, in the North, where I wanted to be. I felt like the luckiest person on earth. Shortly after my arrival, I traveled to the mountains to attend a two weeks winter school. When I came back, the snow was gone, and I discovered with pleasure that the yard in front of my building had a lovely little grass patch.

Once again, I had felt this lump in my throat, this being-out-of-step feeling that accompanied me to every scientific meeting I went to. This time it was mixed with guilt. I felt it wasn’t right to be feeling out of place when I was given a chance to spend two weeks listening to great lectures, in a fancy hotel were I was served excellent food and wine every day. And there was the good salary, the tax exemption, and the chance to live in a beautiful residential area right next to the campus where I was working as a research postdoc.

Every spring, dumpsters appeared in my neighborhood, neatly aligned in the parking lots. From my kitchen window I could witness an endless procession of cars with trailers filled with stuff that people busied themselves throwing into the quickly growing pile. Kids were climbing on it, playing there, occasionally pulling out a toy in perfect condition. I might sound dangerous or unhealthy, but really it wasn’t. I can assure you that there was no risk to find a rusty nail in those dumpsters. There was almost nothing in there that was fit for the bin. It was just stuff that people didn’t want anymore. I personally remember saving a beautiful and, though a bit thirsty, perfectly alive houseplant and a couple a terracotta flower pots in which I grew basil on my balcony for two years.

Even though “applications to carbon dioxide capture and sequestration” clearly appeared on my job description, I had not given it much attention. Being a physicist and not a geologist, it wasn’t directly in my area of expertise, and I didn’t know much about it. Not only did I have no particular interest in it, but I spontaneously tended to think it was a bad idea. I still do. And most importantly, I was interested in doing basic research. I didn’t care what pretext the funding agency needed to hear this time to deign giving us some money.

As soon as a dumpster got filed, it was taken away and replaced by an empty one. On dugnad day I found myself raking leaves with my neighbors, putting them in big plastic bags and throwing them in together with outgrown children bikes. I was astonished to see that the rakes went in the dumpster, too, when we had finished.

I saw my colleagues get married, get well-paid jobs, have kids, buy apartments in nice neighborhoods. I saw young couples throwing perfectly usable Ikea furniture into these dumpsters. Buy new stuff. Throw old stuff away. It seemed to be the logical, unavoidable path. Upgrading. Taking long-distance fights to conferences at the other end of the world and short distance ones for one day meetings at the other end of the country.

I was asked to attend a seminar at the funding agency. It became very clear to me that they took carbon dioxide capture and sequestration very seriously. Their argument was that “people” would not change their lifestyle quickly enough to allow carbon emissions to drop as fast as they should to limit global warming.

“People”. How ironic.


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on second-hand clothes and tumble dryers

I remember feeling very pleased with myself when, about a decade ago, I simultaneously started refusing plastic bags and buying clothes made of organic cotton. Only much later did I realize that resisting over-consumption was not just a matter of saving the planet.

I thought: you need money to buy stuff. Well, of course I already knew that. More precisely, I though: you have to work to get money to buy stuff. ‘Duh!’ you’ll say. ‘Has that girl just come back down to earth, or what?’

If I wanted to quibble a little, I’d point out that your reaction was a little hurried. What if I had been an annuitant, or inherited a fortune, and suddenly lost everything? But anyway. I am not, and I didn’t.

Here’s what I thought. I thought: if working means being employed to do something you don’t like or disagree with, then not spending a lot of money – or simply not buying stuff – is a way to become less dependent on your job. I truly like the not buying option, and I literally delight in applying it whenever I have the chance. But we’re speaking of clothes, and, friends, I live in Scandinavia. It’s pretty darn cold here.

Fortunately, I also thought about something else. I thought: someone has to work to produce the stuff you will buy. Do I really need that shirt so much that someone has to get up in the wee hours and spend the day sewing in a factory instead of slowly sipping a cup of tea while reading a book?

My point is, it took me all these years to start buying second-hand clothes. I wish I’d done that before, ’cause they’re awesome. No toxic smell of new textile. No hesitating about what color to choose.

I hang them to dry on the clothes line. Sometimes it takes a while, but hey, I have time. I don’t need to run to my job: I have no plans to buy a tumble dryer.