Saturday, January 24, 2009

Yeast, humans, and the faltering economy

“I encourage you all to go shopping more.”
GWB, after the 9/11 attacks

I've got two herds of yeast working today--one is feasting on malted barley that sprouted over 3 years ago, the other working on 4 or 5 year old wheat berries just ground into flour two hours ago.

In a few weeks I will have some fine ale, and in a few hours, bread.

Yeast have 6,000 genes, give or take a few. More than a few of them are functionally identical to human genes--they work just as well in either species.

The economy is in free fall--a predictable and inevitable consequence of a people that lost their connection to the land. Everything of real value gets down to water, soil, sunlight, photosynthesis.

Petroleum packs millions of years of sun into a few gallons of gasoline, and a few of us got fooled by the gift.

What is the responsibility of public education teachers to their students? Who will teach them how to spin, reap, knead, plow, or sow?

(The "economy" depends on consumer spending--70% of the GDP depends on personal consumption. This is insanity.)

It is easy to blame the former President. It is easy to pin our hopes on the new king. Before everyone gets too excited, however, look at the record:
Obama's choice for education never taught, and spent his formative years in the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. The tuition there is now over $21, 000 per year.

Obama's choice for Treasurer
Timothy F. Geithner has tax issues--he failed to pay them when he was supposed to pay them. Oh, well....

Obama's choice for the Vice Presidency plagiarized a law review article--"inadvertent." Inadvertent is when a meteor hits your car, Mr. Biden.

Obama's choice for Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar sided with Albert Gonzales and happens to be a rancher.

Just sayin'.

I'm as excited by Obama's Presidency as anyone else, but I am selective about my Saviors. We're in for a rough decade. May as well teach the children to fend for themselves--make Thomas Jefferson proud.

We have lost our sense of the sacred, not because we share life with "low" critters like yeast, but because we have managed to distance ourselves from our own life spirit, soul, or whatever word you choose to use that separates something alive from, say, a rock.

We no longer have time for cross-disciplinary studies in high school--"The Test" (called HSPA here in the Garden State, but every state has its own acronym for the testing required by the NCLB) has wrested control from the teachers to the bureaucrats.

New Jersey has been revamping its end of course science test for years--it's a lucrative business, millions have been spent on it, and I do not doubt that those who develop it have an evangelistic fervor running through their veins convincing them they will save the yewts of this fine state. (Money will do that.)

Why do we teach?
What is the function of public school?

Why do we teach?
What does democracy mean?

Why do we teach?
What does it mean to be a citizen?

Why do we teach?
Are we serious about the pursuit of happiness?

Why do we teach?
Paycheck? Idolation? Idealism? Love?

Bread (and beer) both matter to me. Both involve critters (yeast) more intimately related to me than I can appreciate.

Both involve water and sugars and a nearby star that continues to fuse hydrogen atoms together without regard to this planet eight light minutes away.

Both involve mystery, and the work of human hands, and the respect of a fungus that has been working side by side with H. sapiens long before long before my ancestors starved on Eire, western Europeans decided that America belonged to them, long before the Romans, and long before the ancient Greeks.

Yeast and wheat were domesticated before there were books, and we forget.

I teach biology. It's time I reintroduced Saccharomyces cerevisiae to my students.

Life without ESPN and fancy deodorant and the latest iPod may "suck."

Life without yeast, however, reduces who we are.

Photo by Masur via wikipedia


Kate Tabor said...

Good morning, Michael!

We had some yeast working magic in the kitchen on Friday night,(although I do not grind my own wheat berries) and I think that there are some necessary elements (real and metaphoric) that are necessary for yeasty magic.

The kitchen needs to be warm - in both senses; I think that as yeast bread emerges from the pressure of kneading hands, the warmth and action builds those gluten bands, but it's the warmth and affection (needing hands) for the task that adds to the crumb.

There must be something to feed the spirit - yeast can't respire and raise the dough unless we give it something to eat, but it's more than that teaspoon of honey. We can't rise without something to feed our spirit either.

So yes, yeast and humans - we share more than chromosomal connections. Why else do we gravitate to the kitchen? I've never brewed my own anything, but someday I'll tell you the story of my mother's chokecherry wine experiment.

doyle said...

As I get older, the distinctions between real and metaphoric soften--though that may just be my brain getting old.

I get lazy, but on days when I knead for a full 20-25 minutes, I am amazed by the transformation.

I look forward to your chokecherry wine story.