Monday, November 5, 2012

Distribution of Wealth and Chocolate Chips

 Or, a Wonky Look at Toll House Cookies

lineup 2

What could be more American than a chocolate  chip cookie? Buttery cookies studded generously with chocolate chips. Who doesn’t love them?

Recently I read ‘Why Let the Rich Hoard All the Toys’, a Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times. The column was about the distribution of wealth in our country. About the fact that the top 1% of Americans have a collective worth greater than the entire bottom 90%. Put together. Kristof makes his point by asking us to imagine a kindergarten with 100 students (something needs to be done about class sizes!), where one kid had more toys than 90 of the other kids, put together.

Kristof reminded me of two things I’ve been thinking about for some time.

The first has to do with methods of learning. You hear about people who are aural learners, visual learners, and tactile learners. But what about olfactorial learners? And especially important, what about those of us who are gustatorial learners?

Which leads to the other thing I’ve been thinking about. How would our favorite cookie fare with this sort of distribution of wealth, AKA chocolate chips? Could perhaps a gustatorial example help clarify how extreme the inequality is in this country?

Using the Economic Policy Institute’s briefing paper, ‘The State of Working America’s Wealth, 2011’, I followed their numbers for the distribution of net worth, listed on page 4. 

That is, the top 1% of households (ranked by income) have 34.6% of the total U.S. net worth.

The next 9% have 38.5% of the total U.S. net worth, all together.

And the next 90% (which means me and, I suspect, all of you) share between us 27% of the total U.S. net worth.

I made a batch of chocolate chip cookies, carefully counting out the chips in a 11.5 ounce bag.  There were about 660. I say about because I may have eaten one or two along the way.

Normally my recipe makes 60 cookies. Because I didn’t want to tax my brain too much, I decided to make 100 small cookies. Look—the cookies all started out just the same, 9 grams each of cookie dough.

cookies pre chips

Yes, I recognize the irony of using a ‘made in France’ silpat. But I like their healthcare system, and this liner, too!

To 90 of the cookies I stuck two chocolate chips in the top.

baked 90 percent

The next nine cookies got 28 chips each, which was definitely excessive.

nine percent 2

I used a separate pan for that lone final cookie, and lined it with foil. I didn’t want to ruin my  pan with all that oozing wealth. All those chocoate chips had to somehow fit into that one little scoop of cookie dough.

1 percent pre chips

I know, oozing chocolate doesn’t sound so bad. But oozing burning chocolate is less attractive.

In the end, I noticed that the cookies with more chips spread more than the ones with two chips. As if wealth begets wealth.

But no way 9 grams of dough would spread enough to accommodate 228 chocolate chips. That’s no cookie. 

1 percent baked on rack

Meanwhile, 90% of people get the cookie below:

90 percent baked

And 9% get this one:

9 percent baked on plate

Or, by the numbers, left to right:

lineup 2

Approximately 283 million of us get the one on the left.

About 28 million get the one in the middle.

And 3 million get the one on the right.

It just doesn’t seem right.


I understand that cookies aren’t the same as people. And I don’t expect every single cookie to have the exact same number of chips as the next cookie. But it seems a batch of cookies that tries to approach a more fair distribution is a better cookie. A more civilized cookie.

The kind of cookie you might like to enjoy with a friend and a cup of tea.

Don’t forget to vote tomorrow!

kim boyce choc chip

And maybe reward yourself with a proper batch of cookies. I like these ones.

A bit more info:

In his column, Kristof recommend Joseph E. Stiglitz’s book The Price of Inequality (he’s a Nobel prize winner in economics). I don’t generally read much about economics, but I’ve put it on my to-read list.

For more on the inequality of wealth distribution in the U.S., take a look at the Gini coefficients (which measure income equality) for countries around the world—it’s fascinating. You’ll see our ranking places us in a different group of countries than we generally like to believe we belong.

Rather than being aligned with other ‘First World countries’, we’re with the kinds of countries that still have capital punishment. Countries where fairness in elections is questioned. Where health care isn’t easily available to all citizens. Er…

(Thanks to Obamacare, the U.S. finally has improved in the access to healthcare department).

Lots to think about as we eat our cookies.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A is for Anise

I’ve always loved anise flavor, in any guise. Many of my early taste memories revolve around anise. As a little kid back when it was fun to be a little kid, I had plenty of freedom to explore my world by myself.  Remember those days when you had free reign of the block until you heard your mother yell up and down the street that dinner was ready?

Fennel by visualdensity on Flickr

All that running through the neighborhood tired me out. My favorite way to catch my breath was to flatten a hiding place in the tall grasses and wild fennel that seemed to forest Berkeley’s empty lots. I’d snap off a stalk of wild fennel and lie hidden in the grass. The fennel plants, with their lacy green foliage and bright yellow flowers, drooped over me. I stared at the sky, crunching the stalk between my teeth, releasing the peppery sweet cleansing flavor.

Not everyone liked anise. I could usually find someone more than happy to trade his black Chuckles square for my green one. That green square, incidentally, was lime. I always wondered—it just tasted like bad green flavor to me.

At the movies, while other kids cemented their teeth together over Milk Duds, Jujubes, or Sugar Babies, I tended to buy a box of Good & Plenty. Not because I didn’t like those other candies—I liked them fine (and my friends knew I’d take any black jujubes off their hands). It’s just that the pink and white Good & Plenty were fun to eat. I’d nibble off the candy coating, and then have a nice piece of licorice to suck on.

cake in pan

I quickly learned that if I bought licorice instead of chocolate I wouldn't have to share as much of my candy. ‘Aha’ moments are supposed to be life-changing moments when you gain sudden clarity and insight. I suppose the realization that liking licorice afforded me more candy at the theater was my first ‘aha’ moment.

rhubarb upside down 4

Maybe the moment when I first saw the recipe for Rhubarb Anise Upside Down Cake on Epicurious (it was originally in the April 1999 issue of Gourmet—which I still miss, but that’s another story) was another ‘aha’ moment.

The cake was fun to make. Aren’t all upside-down cakes fun? First you get to melt brown sugar and butter (one of my main childhood hobbies—why did I ever give that up?). Then you get to arrange the fruit in a pleasing pattern.

Rhubarb upside down 2

And it was fun to turn out of the pan. Not a single square of rhubarb stuck to the pan.  After the cake was out, I took a spoon and carefully scraped out all the rhubarb flavored buttery brown sugar. And ate it over the sink.

The cake was delicious. I’m sorry there aren’t any pictures of a slice of the cake, but it disappeared pretty fast. It’s a moist cake, made with buttermilk (always a promising sign!), flavored with a teaspoon of anise seeds, pounded in a mortar and pestle.

I’ll make it again soon. Since rhubarb is just about finished, I think I’ll use up some of the frozen plums I squirreled away last summer. To make space for the bushels of blackberries I‘m planning on picking this summer.

Monday, June 4, 2012


“I’ve been in a bit of a slump,” I said this morning to Franny. By that I meant mainly with this blog. I have been writing other things (at this point for myself), reading, and starting my garden. But this blog has been sadly ignored.

Two things happened when I said that. Franny ran upstairs, and I remembered a picture I’d taken when I visited my parents last spring.

A couple of seconds later Franny came running down. “Do you have three minutes, Mom?”  And she sat down next to me with Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go!. “I read this yesterday when I was babysitting. When you said ‘slump’ I thought of it right away.”

places you will go

I’m not sure how pleased I should be that a book Franny read to a three-year-old struck her as possibly useful to me. But I knew better than to argue. As usual, she was right.

By halfway through the book I was hooked. Especially once we arrived in the Waiting Place. It sounded so familiar, full of people waiting for things to come and go, phones to ring, and the pot to boil.

My interest piqued, I listened a bit more carefully, waiting for some instructions. Surely on the next page Dr. Seuss would lead us away from the Waiting Place.
 Somehow really

This was not what I expected. Though perhaps I should worry that I was thinking Dr. Seuss had all the answers.

apple slum recipe cover resize

And that picture I’d taken? On that visit I’d looked through my mother’s old recipe file. And there, in the dessert section, I found this yellowing scrap, with my name written across the front (I remember feeling quite proud of that cursive capital ‘G’ and ‘S’).

apple slum recipe 2

Opening it I found my first recipe. I had given it three names. The first was simply (and so descriptively) ‘Stuff’.  Then I tried ‘Apple Mush’, but decided that wasn’t texturally pleasing.

Actually, I’d wanted to call it ‘Apple Slump’, but thought that sounded a bit depressing. Apparently I didn’t yet realize that ‘Apple Slum’ wasn’t exactly tempting either.

In my defense, I was barely 7 years old. I’m a little shocked by the paltry amount of sugar I added, though maybe I was balancing it with the sugar in the cookies. So clever. I think I get extra points for proofreading, having caught and crossed out the ‘h’ in sugar. I knew enough to add 4 butter (4 cubes? 4 Tablespoons?).  Dessert should have butter. I think the recipe was my answer to the banana pudding on the Nilla Wafer box.

The last thing I remember about that recipe is how proud I felt when I wrote it, and presented it to Mom. Like a real cook.

And most importantly, I remember how seriously she took me and my recipe. We even made it together. I think the cookies got crushed, and perhaps the eggs omitted. In my memory, it really wasn’t that bad.

Maybe slumps don't have to be bad.

Here’s the recipe, as I wrote it:

Stuff    Apple Mush     Slum   Apple Slum

Mixer Bowl.

1. Crack 2 eggs
2. 2 teaspoons of shuger
3. Stir 10 cookies in
4. 4 Butter
5. Appelsuac
6. 1 Tablespoon of cinnamon


With its creative spellings and vague directions, if you squint you could almost think it was an early American recipe. Almost.
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