“We can all sit down and have a few beers together while we wait.”
– Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart), The Petrified Forest (1936)
Call before, you dig?
– Utility notification for unmarked Internet cables from hippy who finally got a job
The other day, minding my own business, and getting lots of unwanted help doing so, I got a welcome Tweet push from the 86 year old Ralph Nader inviting me to visit with him at Latitude Adjustment where he’d been interviewed about his new book, The Ralph Nader Family Cookbook: Classic Recipes from Lebanon and Beyond. Hm. My first thought was how much we forget, we who care at all, that Ralph a root product of Lebanon, one of those Middle East places that — looking back at how much Nader has accomplished in the last 55 years, beginning with Unsafe at Any Speed (1965) and the passage of seat belt laws — would have put Lebanon squarely on Trump’s shit country list, even though Nader was born here. Remember Judge Curiel? (Me neither.)
Well, Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950) did warn us to strap ourselves in because it was gonna be a bumpy night, and it’s almost like Ralph foresaw the long night’s journey into day ahead, down a Lost Highway full of potholes, loopholes and assholes — the corporates and pollies — who pave the slick roads of governance and taxation, and see democracy as a roadblock to their getaway. But it wasn’t cops at the roadblock, it was Ralph Nader, walking tall, calmly asking to see some ID, asking if they knew what he pulled them over for, and arranging a nice big fat fine. So, I was all-too-ready to listen to Ralph sprout like a green seed from a podcast.
So I found my way to Latitude Adjustment and Route 66 or, rather, Podcast 66, the one with Ralph Nader. I saw that the pods were hosted by Eric Maddox and Laila Mohhiber. Rummaged around first to check out the universal resource locator (URL) environment I was in. Said, hmm, me think me likey. Scrolling through past podcasts there were discussions of all types with personages of all ilks. Stuff like Podcast 65, “On the Ground in Idlib, Syria,” where Everyday People discuss the polymorphous perversity of turning their lives into a war zone — a place you may remember as the site where Trump sent ISIS head al-Baghdadi on his way toward outer space, and the Afterlife, allegedly clutching two virgins, as if covering his bases when he got there.
Other yummy-looking podcasts were 47, “Last Slave Ships to the US,” where Joe Womack recounts, in two parts, his life growing up in AfricaTown, Alabama, an all-Black community in the heart of Dixie; Podcast 46 serves up “Gaza Sky Geeks & Women in Palestine,” where techie skills and women’s rights are chewed over; and, all the way back to Podcast 1, “Andrius & Lithuania & Turkey & Travel,” where Maddox literally breaks beer with Andrius Mažeika, who discuss “Lithuanian Jazz and Reggae, and reflections on culture and politics from his years living in Turkey through the string of bombing attacks and the attempted coup,” writes Maddox, and adds, “Heads up, there’s some naughty language at the end.” I remember Taksim well, throwing snowballs in the yard of the Whirling Dervish lodge.
Anyway, I was already thankful to Nader for his lifetime of staring down the Man, with his six-shooter law degree and Ennio Morricone soundtrack, and corrected miscreants crying after him, “Lebanon blondie,” when he left them hangin’ just long enough to consider their sinning ways before releasing them back into the wilds of corporate finance. So there I was, at Podcast 66, listening to Ralph Nader serve up the news to, in this case, eager ears. Like a prelude to the program, that reminded one (okay just me) of Wagner’s Prelude to Act One of Lohengrin, Ralph begins. I’m all ears, dipping some flat bread into Nader’s hummus bi tahini, peckish.
So there are a lot of people who don’t even recognize that there are far more reforms and changes from living wage to health insurance to cracking down on corporate crime to solarizing our economy to having more access to government, more access to justice, criminal justice reform — all of these actually have conservative-liberal supporters. That’s what the polls show. But that isn’t what the politicians emphasize. They emphasize what divides people so they can attach to one group in contrast to another.
So, there it is: what Ralph does best, and one explanation for his largely unblemished longevity: He accentuates the common interests of the Left and Right. Today, only a moron wants to drive along without a seatbelt. (Or texting while they drive.)
And then we’re on to Ralph’s new Family Cookbook (he’s put out two others). For a moment, I’m not sure I’m ready to go on a food journey with Nader, recalling Sy Hersh’s memoir, Reporter, wherein the prize-winning journo (Pulitzer, My Lai, 1970) reveals the times he shared lunches with Nader in their early DC days:
There was nothing in those days quite like a quick lunch at the downstairs coffee shop with Ralph. He would grab a spoonful of my tuna fish salad, flatten it out on a plate, and point out small pieces of paper and even tinier pieces of mouse shit in it. He was marvelous, if a bit hard to digest.
Hersh has served up a lifetime of spicy revelation meatballs, too, come to think of it (and not always turd-free, but then consider what he’s had to muck around in).
Eric, Laila, and Ralph begin their gustatory feast by dishing up a platter of entrees — a cornucopia, really, of his achievements: Five time spoiler of the lesser-of-two-evil system, running for president as a Green; “one of the most influential figures in American history”; six decades of advocacy, civil liberties defender and truth-to-power speaker; author of many public interest books; Erroll Flynn-like (if you took away the CGI) leader of Nader’s Raiders, a kickass group of marvelous heroes who took on the Federal Trade Commission, established nationwide PIRGs, and let us into the vaults of government secrecy through the FOIA. But they came to praise Ralph, not to bury him, so we hear from Ralph about his new projects, specifically the cookbook, and, later, his take on the Fake President and the demise of democracy during Trump’s tenure.
The main meal arrives, the Cookbook, and I immediately dive in, scrolling through the recipes for appetizers and dips, soups and smoothies, salad and mains, vegetables and breads, and desserts to dive for. Baba Ghanoush, Cannellini Bean Soup with Swiss Chard, Tabouleh, Baked Kibbe, Steamed Broccoli with Garlic, Lemon, and Olive Oil, and Two-Two-Two Cookies looking so delicious you find yourself stuttering. I look and salivate at the ingredients for one of my favorite dishes.
STUFFED KIBBE COOKED IN LABANEEYE:
basic kibbe mixture (see page 51)
kibbe filling (see page 51)
5–6 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon salt
mint (preferably fresh but dried is okay), use generously to taste
2 quarts laban (see page 22)
1 quart cold water
1/4 cup uncooked long-grain brown rice
1/4 teaspoon butter
1 teaspoon salt
Simple, quiet, a palate of democratic values hoying to be heard, Nader the Socrates of the moment’s aesthetic taste, a classic battler of dialectical materialism. (Sure, hammy, but check out the words that that other 60s genius, Dylan, uses to describe his Tennessean whiskey label, Heaven’s Door (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it): “A succulent, harmonious bourbon that hits all the right notes at the right moments for the category; a study of equal parts elegance and power.” Perfect for this meal. And ain’t it so that in the backwoods of Tennessee still waters run deep?
In his interview with Eric and Laila, Nader reminds his listeners of the intrinsic value of groups coming together to break up the bread, break open the bottles, and, later, break out the wind. The a taste of the interview goes something like this:
Laila: What was the inspiration for this latest cookbook? Why now? And what impact do you hope it has?
Ralph: The growth of nutritional movements in the US, more and more people wanting to eat fresh food, not processed food. They’re upgrading their nutritional diet. Now, with Covid-19, people are growing or expanding backyard gardens and they’re spending more time in the kitchen. There’s another reason for this book: There’s still a lot of people with a high fat, high salt diet and diabetes is rampant, including among young people…So, this book attempts to elevate their diet into the Mediterranean diet…the Arabic cuisine.
I found myself drifting at this point, virtually thumbing through the Cookbook, looking at the photos and recipes, tidbits of cultural heritage about the food. Then I came across Nader’s stuffed grape recipe, simple. elegant, tasty, and reminded me of my time in Istanbul, taking the fare-sharing taxies they called dolmuşes out of Taksim square — getting stuffed into cabs, old American ‘50s style vehicles, 7-8 tangled torsoes, hanky-panky just begging to happen, the driver eyeballing us in the rearview, from which a blue-eyed evil eye hangs, feeling like I was stuck in a German expressionist painting.
Now the reverie’s in the rearview, too, and the recipe’s right before me:
YABRAK ARISH begins
Stuffed with lamb and rice, or vegetarian filling, this delicacy has become popular but it’s often found in heavy olive oil. Steamed and served hot or cold, this recipe contains no added fat products. The grape leaves can be prepared ahead of time, and refrigerated or frozen uncooked, leaving out the lemon juice and water until you cook them.
Lamb filling: Mix ground lamb meat with rice, season with salt, pepper, and cinnamon.
Vegetarian filling: Mix all ingredients together
Mixed all together. Like some trauma. But delicious.
The great thing about all these recipes is they’re familiar, easy to prepare, and really tasty; designed not for the haute couture set but for hoi polloi like me. You feel, looking at these dishes, that you won’t be ‘inviting’ in pretentious book club types (Why did Atlas shrug?); career advancers needing flattery all night, like dark personages out of Dostoyevsky; or ‘gourmands’ who take Dylan’s label seriously. Dig in, Nader says, with your hands, if need be. I fade back in:
Eric: So, speaking of the current moment, what’s the connection between that and your politics? And how do you think your kitchen, so to speak, should inform the politics of our listeners?
Ralph: Well, one is [legislatively] pressing for a more organic food. One that doesn’t have residual fungicides, pesticides, herbicides. Who knows what else is put into meat products — hormones. So, we try to emphasize with this kind of Arabic cuisine, you can look around for farmers who grow organically…[and] The recipes are so simple, and the ingredients are so easy to buy…and they’re far less expensive than steaks or chops.
And on he goes, with slow-burn elegance. Let us cut to the chase. In the Introduction of the Cookbook, Nader tells us,
My mother and father and their four children—two girls and two boys—all ate the same food. There were no food clashes; there was peace and time for what our parents wanted us to discuss, inform, and question regarding our schooling and readings.
Meaningful table dinners with fam, instead of everybody eating something different in their rooms in front of computer screens, self-isolating as a virus. To his mother, “whether at breakfast, lunch, or supper—was a daily occasion for education, for finding out what was on our minds, for recounting traditions of food, culture, and kinship in Lebanon, where she and my father were born.”
His father, who ran the family restaurant, the Highland Arms Restaurant, and liked to treat his kids to his handmade ice cream (“When the ice cream was ready, we would fill our bowls and lap it up happily.”), had a complementary philosophy about the family dining experience. But still they had table expectations that would be considered challenging today. Nader notes,
Mother knew that at the kitchen table she had our undivided attention. When we came home from our nearby schools for lunch, she would relate historic sagas, like the tales of Joan of Arc. She never read to us, preferring to rely on her memory to tell stories and recite Arabic poetry, watching the expressions on our faces closely. Coming from a vibrant oral tradition in Lebanon, she had an endless treasure trove of recollections.
Nobody said Shut Up, nobody ever got mal and started a foof fight, and look how Ralph has turned out.
I find myself musing again, thinking of all the Eid fast breaks, Easter dinners, and seders. My Dinner with Andre. The Woody Allen flicks featuring families fighting, but with ‘love.’ The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. The discussions. And I’m thinking of Nader at the first Thanksgiving dinner telling a Wampanoag guest, quietly, that he had mouse turd in his pumpkin pie, just to see the look in his eye, and it hasn’t stopped.
Eric stops my musing, asking Nader if there are ways in which food can be used to bring together people “separated by politics and by borders.” Nader is generous and expansive in his reply:
It’s pretty well known that wherever you have people who disagree politically — but boy do they like certain ethnic food — and you get them around a table and they start talking about things that are not dividing them, they broaden their vistas and their horizons and see each other as human beings instead of stereotyped people.
He notes this exactly the kind of togetherness the ruling class hates and seeks to destroy. He continues, passing around water, with “a few years ago I wrote about a left-right alliance. I came up with about 25 major changes and redirections in this country that are supported by liberals and conservatives.”
He tells Eric and Laila, struggling to figure out how to vote in a two-evil election: “Vote your conscience in swing states” Nader advises. He own that the current two-party set-up is a mess, where “49% unhappy after every presidential election.” He wonders “why the Greens fare so poorly when they are the People’s party,” with all the popular solutions for health, education and welfare issues. And though he doesn’t elaborate, he “suggests that America adopt an electoral system” similar to Ireland’s which has a preferential voting system.
They ask him what they can do as new and first time voters to prepare for an election. He recommends that they read William Greider’s Who Will Tell the People? Then he gives the podcast duo a portrait of an activist as a young person. He says,
Young people need to realize that the ten greatest social justice victories in our country were initiated by a handful of people [and] such people shared three qualities:
1. They were serious people.
2. They knew what they were talking about.
3. They represented majority public opinion.
There’s a pause during which my glass is refilled, and then to other topics.
Nader recalls the phenomenon known as Victory Gardens, which he says had been making a comeback, and that that has now accelerated with the isolation Covid-19 has brought with it. “There was time,” says Ralph, “when 35% of all vegetables were grown in home gardens…There are now about 20 million home gardens and growing, so this effort has been a success. This whole effort meshes well with the goal of more self-reliant economies.” Michele Obama is vaguely remembered for her ‘victory garden,’ presumably a photo-op gesture in support of the war effort on Terror— a new poppy flower placed for each terrorist killed, two if it was a double tap. But that’s not what Nader has in mind.
The Cookbook is quick and easy to read, the dishes are familiar and elegant. They remind one, again, of how simple goodness can be, like being all furrowed up with Kant and Hegel and suddenly seeing a simple dinner with friends and family as something akin to the Golden Rule. May I have butter? And it is had with a smile. I would be quite pleased if someone gave me Nader’s book for my birthday. People who want to hear more from Nader can tune into the Ralph Nader Radio Hour.
Along the way Eric and Laila introduce us to another new concept — Virtual Dinners. Like the Latitude Adjustment podcasts, the themes and personages are largely media under-represented everyday people facing a variety of crises. The Virtual Dinners see one family virtually breaking bread with others by way of Zoom. Dinners include Kosovo and Palestine people breaking bread and discussing statehood — Kosovo, Europe’s newest entry, and the dream of Palestine. There’s a dinner where Pakistanis talk with Germans. A dinner where the central topic is What Ever Happened to the Egyptian Revolution? And What If Your Country Was Occupied? is the subject of another dinner. And one dinner discusses a Syrian’s venture to the Greek island of Lesbos. All meet topics.
Nader’s book, Latitude Adjustment, and the Virtual Dinners are all reminders that, as we become ever more absorbed in the Hive Mind that the Internet is becoming, there is no substitute for good old-fashioned sessions where we break bread together and share, face-to-face, the negotiation of our beings through language — and the consciousness behind it that unites us all as a species. It’s food for thought!
This post was originally published on Radio Free.