We Can Thank Bacteria For The Smell of Rain


Yesterday my oldest daughter asked why it smelled so wonderful after it rained.  I had to admit that I wasn’t sure, but that we’d find out.  A quick internet search revealed that there are actually many “rain smells” and they do not all have the same cause.  A bit more cyber-reserach seemed to point to bacteria as the source of the smell my daughter enjoyed so much.

We’re big fans of bacteria around our house– anyone who likes bread, beer, and cheese relies pretty heavily on the stuff– but I was surprised to credit bacteria with our favorite rain smell.  According to the folks at howstuffworks.com, the particular rain smell that we associate with rain (and with being in the woods) is the smell of a bacteria called Actinomycetes releasing it’s spores into the moist air.  Check out this link for more information on Actinomycetes and rain smells in general. It’s fascinating stuff.

So it turns out that we have one more thing to add to the list of the many wonderful things that bacteria do for us human beings.


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Marcella Hazan’s Love of Loquats

Marcella Hazan died this past Sunday at age 89.  I mourn her passing along with millions of people around the globe who read her cookbooks or were lucky enough to take a class at her cooking school in Venice, Italy.  Mrs. Hazan was known for her passion for Italian cooking and for precise, yet simple recipes that helped countless Americans learn to cook authentic Northern Italian food.

As a relative newbie in the world of food journalism, I probably have no place writing about this icon, and others are far better suited to singing her praised.

But I had a single, brief, but very important encounter with Ms. Hazan that I cherish.

This past May, I wrote an article about loquats for Zester Daily.  I love loquats and am always trying to convince people how delicious they are, often with little success.  The loquat piece got a surprising amount of comments, and among them – several steps down – was a magnificently cranky response that chided one of the other commenters for calling loquats “insipid.”  Then after declaring loquats “paradisiacal,” the writer spun on me for complaining that I didn’t know what to do with my backyard fresh fruit.


“What we would have given in northern Italy to have found ripened loquats at the market,” she admonished.  “Why should anyone expect any experience more enjoyable than just eating them, peeled of course in most cases, figs, peaches, and pears, and loquats included.”

The author of this opinionated rebuke signed herself Marcella Hazan.

That Marcella Hazan.

Well, that put me in my place.  There’s no doubt that her response to my article was cranky.  But I love cranky.  To me, an occasional burst of crankiness is nothing more than a sign of passion.  There are times when things MUST be done a certain way—the right way.  Whether I agree or disagree, I respect a person who takes a stand.  Marcella Hazan knew how things should be done and she was happy to tell us all in no uncertain terms.

What I also loved about her response was that it was a comment on another comment!  Marcella Hazan, award-winning, internationally acclaimed food writer, was still in the trenches — reading not only articles but blogs and their comments, and calling out those who were clearly wrong – an 89-year-old street-fighter of food journalism who had no qualms about starting a flame war when it was called for.

I was delighted.  And I still am.  To discover that Marcella Hazan had read my article was very special.  To have her berate me for my opinions was even better – particularly since Ms. Hazan’s opinions came from hard-won experience.  And though our interaction was brief, I mourn the fact that it will be no more.

And it reminds me that this matters.  Food writing has become a conversation, thanks to the internet and publications like Zester Daily.   It’s an international conversation that stretches across the world and across cultures.  It’s a conversation that includes everyone from newbie food writers like myself to iconic figures like Marcella, who literally changed the way America eats.  I have loved food and food writing all my life, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to participate in this greater world.  Marcella welcomed me as an equal.  An equal who was wrong.  But an equal.





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Eat Sunday Dinner Classics: Shattered

Every Wednesday brings you a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults.  This essay originally posted on June 21, 2011.  


This post has been a long time coming— mostly because I’ve been so heartbroken that I haven’t wanted to think about the “unfortunate incident”, much less write about it. But here goes…

About a month ago I broke the lid to my grandmother’s favorite Guardian Ware pot with tempered glass lid. She used it to cook every meal I ate at her house and I think of her every time I cook with it. I inherited the pot just after she died ten years ago, and I’ve always known that I was putting the glass lid at risk by using it (especially since I live in earthquake territory). But I believe in using family heirlooms (in spite of the Sugar Bowl Tragedy of 2010.) I figured it was better to enjoy using my grandmother’s pot and thinking of her on a daily basis than to keep it it packed away “for safekeeping”.

My grandmother’s pot has an amazingly thick bottom and it’s a pleasure to cook with. I sometimes fear I shouldn’t use it because it’s aluminum, but then I decided that it’s magical cooking properties make it worth the possible risk of cooking in aluminum (which nobody can seem to agree on anyway). Until I started cooking with this pot I was unable to make rice without burning it. I know I could get a rice maker, but that’s just one more piece of equipment to clutter up my kitchen and I already have a box of pots and pans in the garage labeled “secondary cooking equipment”. I haven’t opened the box in almost two years and I don’t miss anything in it.

I think the real reason that I was so upset about breaking the lid is that I know it was an accident that could have been prevented if only I’d been paying attention to what I was doing. I remember the exact moment I looked at the glass lid on top of my microwave and thought, “Huh- I should move that. It’s going to get knocked off and break.” Five seconds later, it did. I knew before it hit that there was no way it would survive the trip. I burst into tears the second I heard the crash.

I was miserable and I lunged for the phone to call my mother even before I cleaned up the broken glass. This is not normally my natural reaction, but I figured that if anyone would understand how bad I felt, it would be my mother. After all, the pot had belonged to her mother and my mother had given it to me. I felt guilty about breaking the lid and telling my mother was kind of like confessing. Through my tears I told my mother that I couldn’t believe I’d been so careless. At that moment I realized that although I was upset at losing the lid, it was my own lack of attention that was really upsetting me.

Normally, I am very good at paying attention. In fact, it’s a character trait that I value highly in myself and appreciate in others. You learn a lot when you pay attention to the things going on around you and to the people and objects that you value. Only a few days earlier I’d given my photo students a lecture about paying attention in class. I told them that understanding and analyzing photographs was simply a matter of paying attention to what they saw in the frame. I described what I saw in a single Cartier-Bresson photograph for a full twenty minutes. (I could have gone on longer, but decided I’d made by point by then.) I also told them that their open-book final exam would be easy if they had taken good notes throughout the term and PAID ATTENTION in class and when doing their reading. Then I proceeded to give them 90 percent of the answers on the final exam they’d be taking in two weeks. I figured if I was going to give my students a lecture about paying attention, I’d better make it worth their while.

This lecture ran through my brain as the lid to my grandmother’s pot fell to the floor. I knew I could get a replacement lid. The old lid was chipped anyway, so it wasn’t such a bad idea to get a new one. What was really bothering me was the fact that I hadn’t been paying attention. I was feeling lazy and tired and in pain when I put the lid on top of the microwave. I’d been in the middle of cooking the first meal I’d prepared since injuring my shoulder several weeks earlier and it was harder than I thought it would be. My shoulder ached as I lifted a cast iron skillet off the stovetop and put it on top of the microwave next to the lid. My arm dropped unexpectedly with the weight and the jerk of this unsteady movement led to the demise of the lid. On some level, I knew that this was a stupid thing to do and yet I did it anyway. I was too tired and lazy to behave responsibly. And this made me crazy. It’s been weeks since the accident and I haven’t made a decent batch of rice since then.

One of my least favorite character traits is that I have trouble making allowances for myself that I easily forgive in others. And I have trouble letting go. But my parents have just arrived for a two-week visit and my five year old is clinging to my mother’s neck as I type these words, saying “I’ve been waiting for this moment!” I guess it’s time to let go. To forgive myself, forget about the broken lid and enjoy the visit.

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