Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Meadow Restoration Project Part 1

            For the past several years, Doug has been restoring a three acre part of his property back to its natural habitat. What originally began as effort to remove dying pine trees from the property has become a much bigger and ultimately more useful project. This week and next week we’ll take a look at the reasons for engaging in habitat restoration as well as the progress Doug has made on his property.

            Doug and his wife, Mary, bought their house in Folsom, Louisiana in 2000. The property had a large number of slash pine trees that were suffering from extreme stress and an infestation of pine beetles that had weakened their trunks. After removing the infested trees from the property, only a bunch of stumps remained. In place of the slash pines, Doug planted grass and brought in a stump grinder to rid the property of several hundred pine stumps. A few years later, the property resembled a small park with some pretty looking trees and a lot of open grassland. The removal of the pine trees, however, had damaged the rest of the underlying ecosystem leaving behind nothing but grass and no plants or other plant life. Unsatisfied with having a hard full of pine trees and grass, Doug planted hardwood trees to supplement and then hopefully replace the pine trees, but Hurricane Katrina put an end to that plan.

The property before the Meadow project 

            The devastating hurricane blew over the remaining pine trees and destroyed many of the newly planted hardwoods as well. The only trees that survived were the oaks, magnolia trees, a pond cypress, and a couple of gum trees. After clearing all the dead trees away, only a few trees and a whole bunch of sizeable craters remained. The grass quickly bounced back resulting in a very large and uneven yard that required more and more effort (and larger and larger tractors) in order to keep the grass from overwhelming the property. With the increased concern over Louisiana’s environmental issues following the storm, Doug took an interest in restoring the property to something suitable to the region.

The original range of Longleaf pines

             His first post-Katrina idea was to restore Longleaf pines to the property. The house sits on the southern Coastal Plain and longleaf pines were the natural habitat before European colonists arrived. Within two hundred years of European colonization, the longleaf pine was virtually extinct. The tree proved very valuable in terms of its commercial potential. French, Spanish, and later American settlers tapped, sapped, and logged the trees, but in doing so destroyed the environment that allowed them to prosper. The same problem confronted Doug and his desire to plant longleaf pines. After consulting with Latimore Smith of the Nature Conservancy about the prospect of adding the trees to the property, Smith suggested a full meadow restoration project. This would revive the natural habitat that allowed longleaf pine trees to grow. Instead of merely planting the trees, now Doug had committed himself to recreating the ecosystem where they had flourished for centuries. And would hopefully grow once again.

            Latimore recommended the expertise of Marc Pastorek, a Mississippi based meadow expert. Pastorek specializes in growing seed and providing consulting services in meadow restoration. After discussing the issue with Pastorek, Doug learned that replanting the plants would be the easy part. After all, they’d evolved over millions of years to grow in the southern Coastal Plain. The tricky part would be managing the area once the project was underway. For millennia, longleaf pine ecosystems thrived in areas prone to massive fires. Every two to three years, fires—mostly caused by lightning strikes—would burn up the grass and leave the longleaf pine, suitable to withstand fire because of its heavy bark, still standing. These fire resistant trees matured and thrived in this environment as fire cleared away the dead plants that surrounded them and provided an opportunity for new plants to grow in their place, replenishing the soil and creating a healthy ecosystem.

The green areas represent longleaf pines and yellow represents the meadow. 

            Pastorek came on board as the “meadow whisperer” and developed a plan to transform approximately three acres of the property into the meadow restoration project (seen above). Having laid out the background for the project, next week we’ll look at what happened once Doug started to put his plan into place. For information about these topics see the Meadow Project’s blog, Marc Pastornek’s work, and the Nature Conversancy

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Summer Movie Preview 2016

            Movie studios make their money during the summer. Fall is for the Oscar contenders, the late winter is for terrible movies (we haven’t forgotten you Batman v Superman). None of those movies make much in terms of profit, so summer is where the money is. The weather is too hot to stay outside (especially if you live in Louisiana) and children need something to do, so why not go to the movies? With all this in mind, let’s preview the summer’s biggest upcoming movies and see if they’re worth your money.

May 27
X-Men Apocalypse: The latest installment in the X-Men franchise is set in the 1980s with a new generation of younger mutants set to join forces with Professor X (James McAvoy) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) against the forces of Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac made up to look like an eggplant). Oh and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is floating around somewhere too. The early reviews on the movie have been fixed. The franchise’s last outing Days of Future Past was a cleverly handled time travel movie that reset the X-Men continuity so that director Bryan Singer can keep making these movies for as long as he wants or so that the movie rights won’t revert back to Marvel.
Verdict: Pass

June 24
Independence Day: Resurgence: So, they made a sequel to Independence Day? That 1996 movie starring Will Smith and a bunch of aliens who are undone by a computer virus from a mid-90s Macbook? Yeah, that’s not a great start. The movie’s trailers and marketing material, however, suggest that this might actually be good. Set 20 years after the events of the movie, planet Earth is ready for the next alien attack. Basically they’ve jerry rigged all that alien technology and created a global defense force. Most of the cast has returned including Jeff Goldblum and his off-kilter line deliveries, Bill Pullman as the former president of the United States, and even Commander Data as that weird scientist everyone thought had died in the first movie. Sadly there’s no wise-cracking Will Smith since he forgot that he used to star in entertaining movies and not piles of steaming crap (we haven’t forgotten about or forgiven After Earth).
Verdict: Go see this movie   

July 15
Ghostbusters: This rebooted version of the Dan Aykroyd-Bill Murray-Harold Ramis comedy classic from 1984 has gender flipped the cast and set the story in the present day. The film is directed by Paul Feig (director of all the recent funny Melissa McCarthy movies) and stars McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. The film’s trailer is the most disliked video in the history of Youtube. How much of that is a sexist backlash against the premise of the movie is unclear (though that’s responsible for a huge chunk of it). There seems to be little middle ground for Ghostbusters. It will either be hilarious or horrible. Either way, it’ll be worth seeing.
Verdict: Go see this movie

July 22
Star Trek Beyond: The third film in the revived Star Trek film series comes out this summer. After the pleasant surprise that was 2009’s Star Trek and the disappointing Star Trek Into Darkness, this film hasn’t gotten much attention. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg (who co-wrote the film), Karl Urban, Alice Eve, and Zoe Saldana all return as the starship Enterprise has finally embarked on its famous five year mission. Idris Elba stars as the film’s yet to be revealed villain. Fast and Furious director Justin Lin takes over the director’s chair from J.J. Abrams (who left to pursue his true love, Star Wars). With a new Star Trek series set to launch on CBS next year, this film will go a long way to seeing whether Star Trek remains a viable franchise.
Verdict: Go see this movie

July 29
Jason Bourne: The last Bourne movie came out in 2012—The Bourne Legacy starring Jeremy Renner as a knockoff Bourne. Renner seems to be playing second fiddle to someone else in different franchise movie series. He’s Hawkeye in the Marvel movies, he shoots a bow! Face it Marvel, no one wants to be Hawkeye. This year’s Bourne movie sees Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass return to the franchise that began as a straightforward action series and over the course of three films questioned the morality of expansive government power in the age of global terrorism. What else Damon and Greengrass have to say remains unclear. Is it worth checking out, especially if Damon fights another guy with a rolled up magazine or a pen? Absolutely.
Verdict: Go see this movie

August 5
Suicide Squad: The DC-Murderverse finally expands to something beyond Superman and Batman killing people and Zack Synder’s love of fascist imagery. Unfortunately, this movie looks a lot like a teenage boy’s comic book fantasy taken to an uncomfortable extreme. Just look at the costuming of the characters, especially Jared Leto’s clich├ęd ridden Joker. Look he has tattoos! And green hair! And a grill in his teeth! The movie ostensibly is about a bunch of criminals recruited to perform secret missions for the government. I saw this movie before, it was called the Dirty Dozen and at least that movie had Jim Brown and Lee Marvin chewing up the scenery and killing Nazis.
Verdict: Pass 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Louisiana Culinary Dictionary Part Two

            About a month ago, we introduced the Louisiana Culinary Dictionary, a handy guide to Louisiana’s unique and sometimes confusing culinary traditions. The first post covered everything from andouille to Creole cooking. This week we’ll finish off our journey through Louisiana’s gastronomic landscape starting with Doberge cake and ending with Red Beans and Rice.

Doberge cake—The doberge cake was created by New Orleans baker Beulah Ledner in the 1930s. Ledner adapted the cake from the famous Hungarian Dobos cake that consists of nine cake layers separated by buttercream frosting. Ledner made several changes to the traditional recipe including swapping out the buttercream for a custard filling. Today some cakes have gone even further, alternating the custard with layers of chocolate pudding.  Ledner also topped the cake with either frosting or a hard shell of fondant.

Gumbo—Gumbo is a stew that came out of southern Louisiana during the 1700s. It consists of stock, a roux, the holy trinity (explained below), and traditional Louisiana proteins. Unsurprisingly Cajun and Creole gumbos differ slightly. Creole gumbo contains shellfish and tomatoes while Cajun gumbos omit the tomatoes and also include some type of game bird. After making a roux (done by pouring one part flour into one part oil or other fat cooking at a high temperature and mixed until a dark brown), you add the vegetables, then the meat and the dish simmers in stock for at least three hours. Gumbo is traditionally served over rice.  

Shrimp gumbo.jpg
A traditional gumbo 

Holy Trinity—The Holy Trinity of Cajun and Creole cuisine is onions, bell peppers, and celery. These three vegetables form the basis for the most famous dishes of Louisiana including gumbo and etouffe. The Trinity is related to mirepoix, the traditional blend of vegetables in French cooking that are the prerequisites for making soup, stock, stews, and sauces.  

Jambalaya—Jambalaya is a Creole dish descended from Spanish and French culinary traditions. It consists of meat and vegetables mixed with rice. The meat generally consists of smoked sausage (preferably andouille), and some other protein (pork, chicken, crawfish, or shrimp). Making jambalaya involves cooking down the holy trinity of vegetables, adding and cooking the proteins, then adding stock and the rice, and cooking until the rice is finished. Jambalaya is closely related to the Spanish paella, which undergoes a similar cooking process. There is also some variation in the different forms of jambalaya. A “red” jambalaya, which is traditionally found closer to New Orleans, includes tomatoes in addition to the holy trinity. The other more rural version of jambalaya, found in southwestern and south-central Louisiana, omits the tomatoes, creating what is known as a “brown” jambalaya—the meat is traditionally cooked in a cast iron pot giving it a more brownish tint.

King Cake— The king cake began as a dry French bread dough topped with sugar with a bean inside. Over the past several hundred years the king cake has evolved into a sweet cake covered with sugar and icing. The dough is now braided, stuffed with cinnamon, cream cheese, or other fillings. The cakes are circular and hollow in shape. The colors atop a king cake are the same as the ones of Mardi Gras—purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power.  King cakes also feature a small plastic baby hidden somewhere in or underneath the cake. The superstition being that the person who finds the baby is responsibility for bringing the next king cake.

The muffuletta 

Muffuletta—The muffuletta is a New Orleans sandwich introduced to the region by Italian immigrants. The sandwich rests on muffaletta bread, a traditional Italian style of bread similar to French bread but heavier, and is covered with layers of marinated olive salad, mortadella cheese, salami, mozzarella, ham, and provolone.

Po’ Boy—A po’ boy is the Louisiana version of a submarine sandwich, also known as a sub, a grinder, a hero, or a hoagie. Po’ boys consist of a New Orleans style French bread (made most famous by Leidenheimer Baking Company). This type of bread is known for its crispy exterior and soft fluffy center. The fillings for po’ boys include roast beef, fried shrimp, crawfish, oysters, crab, or catfish. Typically you can order a po’ boy dressed or not. A dressed po’ boy includes lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayonnaise.

Pralines—French settlers to New Orleans began making their own version of this famous French dessert soon after their arrival in Louisiana. With plentiful amounts of sugar and pecans, New Orleanians replaced the traditional French almonds with pecans and added cream to thicken the mixture of nuts and sugar. The result was a dessert with a fudge-like consistency. Pralines are made by combining brown sugar, pecans, butter, and cream in a pot and stirring until the water has evaporated. The thick textured liquid is then dropped onto wax paper or aluminum foil in order to harden and cool.

Pralines cooling 

Red Beans and Rice—Perhaps the most famous of Louisiana’s Creole dishes, Red Beans and Rice is made up of red beans, the holy trinity, spices (typically thyme, cayenne, and bay leaf) and leftover pork, ham, or sausage (again, usually andouille) very slowly cooked together in a pot and served over rice. Tradition holds that Red Beans and Rice are always served on Mondays because Monday was the traditional wash day for women (who also did all of the cooking). As they did their backbreaking laundry work, poor women could start the dish at the beginning of the day and then ignore it for the rest of the day. Today, the dish is popular both in restaurants and for large family or social gatherings. This combination of easy preparation and flavorful ingredients help explain its enduring popularity.

             Now that we’ve come to the end of our Louisiana Culinary Dictionary, hopefully you have a little better sense of Louisiana’s most famous foods and maybe why we all love them so very much.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Brain Chase's Buried Treasure Found in Folsom!

            Brain Chase is an interactive online global treasure hunt. The program began in 2014 as the brain child of Heather and Allan Staker of Austin, Texas. Heather, an educator, was looking for an engaging online education program for her children, but could not find one that tested a broad range of skills. So she developed her own. Allan added the treasure hunting element, combining the educational goals of the program with something to keep kids engaged. After all, who doesn’t love a good treasure hunt? The hunt begins when Brain Chase posts a series of clues on their website. Participants watch videos, get clues, decode messages, conduct research, and then try to find the grand prize, the Globe of Magellan, somewhere in the world. The program takes about one hour per day over the course of about five weeks. The first person to find the correct location is the winner. Since the program began, the search for the Globe of Magellan has led previous participants, generally 2nd through 8th graders, to Llivia, Spain and Fuji City, Japan. This spring’s Brain Chase led 9 year old Briggs Dommert and the other six members of his family to Folsom, Louisiana. And even more specifically to the meadow of DGA’s own Doug Green.

The Dommert Family after digging up the Globe of Magellan

The Dommerts working together around the computer 

            The Dommerts arrived in Folsom just after 8 A.M. last Friday morning. Briggs led the family out to the meadow where they found a mound. Briggs and his sister Ella grabbed a pair of shovels and started digging. They soon found a wooden crate containing the Globe of Magellan and a key for a safe deposit box containing $20,000 in scholarship money. The Brain Chase was a family affair involving Briggs, his parents Travis and Lisa, and siblings Ella, Sophia, Kylie, and Levi. But it was Briggs who figured out that the Globe was hidden in Folsom. A local television crew from WDSU filmed the excavation and interviewed the family. The Dommert family, who live in Georgia, spent the day before in New Orleans. They visited the city’s famous landmarks, experienced the local culture, and tasted New Orleans’ famous food.

The treasure! 

Doug being interviewed by WDSU 

            Doug and Mary were excited to participate in the Brain Chase and host the Dommerts and the television crew. Last fall, Allan Staker decided that he wanted to have the spring Brain Chase end somewhere in the New Orleans area. After meeting through mutual friends, Doug described his meadow restoration project—which seeks to restore part of Doug and Mary’s property with natural forest and grassland (see more here)—and Allan, in Doug’s words, “fell in love with the idea immediately.” In early March, Allan came to Folsom to bury the treasure. After some consultation, Allan buried it along the walking path in the meadow. Originally Alan wanted to bury the Globe in the “weedy” part of the meadow before Doug explained that the “weedy” part was the meadow. The treasure sat underground for about two months before the Dommerts arrived to claim their prize.

            Doug and Mary enjoyed participating in such an educational project and were delighted to host a family as charming as the Dommerts. The experience also gave Doug an opportunity to share the importance of his meadow restoration project with others. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Saints 2016 Draft Recap

            Last week we previewed the Saints biggest needs heading into the 2016 NFL draft. To recap, we specifically highlighted New Orleans’ need to draft impact defensive players and to trade down and accumulate more picks in order to improve the team’s depth.

            If you’ve been a fan of Mickey Loomis’s previous drafts as the Saints general manager, the 2016 version had a lot to like. Loomis traded up twice for players he thought would help the Saints, drafted an unknown player out of Canada, and added a tall and lanky wide receiver. If, on the other hand, you understand that the draft is a crapshoot and that no team is better than any other at identifying and developing players and trading up and giving away picks in future years is a bad idea, then there’s a lot for you to dislike.

On the whole, the Saints did address some of their biggest needs, but left themselves with little room for error. With all this in mind, let’s review New Orleans’ picks.

First Round, 12th overall: DT Sheldon Rankins, Lousiville

            With their first round pick, the Saints selected a run stuffing defensive tackle from Louisville. This selection addressed the Saints’ need for a defensive tackle to bolster their anemic run defense. Will Rankins suddenly make New Orleans defensive line one of the best in the league? Of course not, but pair him with free agent signee Nick Fairley and the Saints have the makings of a decent interior of their defensive line.

Second Round, 47th overall: WR Michael Thomas, Ohio State

            With their second round pick, Loomis snagged a 6’3, 212 lb wide receiver who should be a nice complement to the Saints current stable of pass catchers. Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead are smaller and speedier players and Thomas gives Brees a tall red zone target—much like the recently released Marques Colston. The biggest problem is the Saints don’t need a wide receiver as much as they need playmakers on defense.  

Second Round, 61st overall: S Vonn Bell, Ohio State

            In order to aid the Saints secondary, Loomis traded with the New England Patriots for one of their two second round selections. Since there’s two parts to this trade, the player selected and the cost to acquire him, let’s talk about safety Vonn Bell first. With the NFL becoming more and more of a passing league, the need for quality players in the secondary has only increased. While the Saints already have Kenny Vaccaro and Jarius Byrd as starters, they spend so much time in nickel coverage (5 defensive backs) that having a starting caliber third safety is essential to mounting any kind of pass defense. From this perspective the pick makes total sense.
As is their usual MO, the Saints traded up to get Bell and gave away their 4th round pick in the process.

New England trades 2-61 to the Saints for 3-78 and 4-112

According to Chase Stuart’s empirically derived draft chart, the Saints paid 137 cents on the dollar to move up. For a team that has a myriad of draft needs and a bad history of trading up and missing on those picks, this was a troubling move.

            Overall, there was nothing wrong with the pick itself, but the trade up was too expensive especially for a team in desperate need of depth.

Fourth Round, 120th overall:  DT David Onyemata, Manitoba

            The Saints selected Onyemata, a Nigerian born player from Manitoba, by trading back up in the 4th round. Considering his background and lack of experience playing in the United States, the Saints are taking a huge risk with this pick. Maybe Onyemata helps bolster the interior of the defensive line or he could be a total bust.

            To acquire Onyemata, the Saints gave up their 5th round pick this year (152) and their 5th rounder next year to move up to 120. According to Stuart’s draft pick calculator, the Saints paid 127 cents on the dollar to make this move up. Once again, they’ve left themselves with little room for error and now only have 6 picks for next year’s draft.

Seventh Round, 237th overall: RB Daniel Lasco, California
            It’s hard to get too worked up about seventh round selections since they play primarily on special teams, if they make the roster at all. It is worth it, however, to question why New Orleans selected a running back when they already have Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller, Tim Hightower, Tavaris Cadet, and Vick Ballard on the roster. Maybe that pick should have gone to taking a shot on a defender.

            This was a very Saints draft. They continued their trend of targeting specific players despite the fact that no team possesses the ability to draft better than any other. They drafted some badly needed players for the defense, but New Orleans is not one or two players away from fielding a championship level defense. They need depth across the roster and by trading up and giving away picks both this year and next, they walked out of the 2016 draft with only 5 players and no room for error.