29 Feb

Arkansas, Cheese Dip, Velveeta, and Plastic

stobys_cheese_dip_edited1A great episode from the Gravy podcast on how my home state developed a love of cheese dip.  

There’s a dish you’ll find at every kind of restaurant in Little Rock, from the pizza places to the burger joints: cheese dip. How did it become so beloved in Arkansas? And what does it reveal about the state’s past—and present? In this episode of Gravy, Dana Bialek and I investigate this story of highways, demographic changes, and a food’s shifting identity over time.

Also here is a convenient map of must visit, cheese dip spots in Arkansas. I’ve visited more of these than I care to admit.   Of course a major ingredient of many Arkansas, cheese-dip recipes is a big, oily, orange block of Velveeta.

All this brings me to the age old question of “Is Velveeta one molecule away from plastic?” You have likely heard the same “logic” applied to margarine.   Of course, this is wrong in many ways.

 Both Velveeta and margarine are composed of many different molecules so such a statement is already meaningless.  The ingredient list of Velveeta is milk, whey, skim milk, milk protein concentrate, water, milkfat, whey protein concentrate, sodium phosphate, modified food starch; contains less than 2% of: salt, calcium phosphate, dried corn syrup, canola oil, malto dextrin, lactic acid, sorbic acid as a preservative, sodium alginate, sodium citrate, cheese culture, enzymes, apocarotenal (color), annatto (color).   Milk itself, just one of the ingredients listed, contains 12 different fatty acid molecules.  

But adding a single molecule to anything could make a big difference.  Take for example the difference between hydrogen peroxide H2O2 and water H20, which have only one atom, hydrogen, different.  

FIG 6 P13But also the one molecule away is odd because it can take much less to get a significant change.  The structure of the molecule can make a big difference without even changing the chemical composition of molecule. Lactose is made out of two simpler sugars, glucose and galactose. The chemical formula for glucose is C6H12O6. The chemical formula for galactose is also C6H12O6. Yes, they are chemically identical. They are structured differently and that gives them different properties.  

10 Jul

The Absence of Evolution in Arkansas

On January 18th, 2005 the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas sent a letter to the school board of Beebe, a small town of less than 10,000 located in the Northeast Central part of the state.  

The ACLU of Arkansas wishes to make clear our intentions in this matter. While we would prefer to avoid litigation, we seek the immediate removal of the sticker regarding evolution that now appears in textbooks in the Beebe School District. We expect to hear from you concerning this matter within two weeks from the date of this letter.

 The sticker in question had been in the front of Beebe textbooks for nearly a decade.


What had changed?  A few days earlier in Selman et al. v Cobb County School Board a federal judge ruled that stickers included in textbooks in this Georgia school district need  to be removed because it “improperly entangled itself with religion”.

This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

Approved by Cobb County Board of Education Thursday, March 28, 2002

Of course, Beebe’s sticker went far beyond the Cobb County three-line sticker.  By a July, the Beebe School Board in fear of lawsuit ordered the removal of the stickers.  A month later Beebe teachers were ripping the pages with the stickers out of the textbooks.

The teaching of evolution in Arkansas has always had a contentious history.  The landmark 1968 Epperson v. Arkansas trial invalidated an Arkansas statute that prohibited the teaching of human evolution in the public schools.  Nearly four decade later the issue of teaching evolution was still controversial. In 2003, Bob Dunning, a pastor of Rocky Comfort Assembly God Church, asked for a religious exemption for Rogers school district students to opt out of evolution studies.   Dunning brought several pastors and nearly three dozen congregational members with him to the April school board meeting.  Dunning proclaimed in these proceedings that “Evolution is the worst thing ever foisted on human beings.”  The school board voted against this 5-2 largely because local school boards cannot pass resolutions exemption students from any state required class work.  

In 2007, also in the Roger’s School District, a dentist, Don Eckard, and a patron, Mark Moore, approached Rogers school board to augment textbooks with “supplemental materials” including a DVD “How to Teach the Controversy Over Darwin Legally”and other materials from the pro-intelligent design and conservative think tank Discovery Institute .  Eckard stated

Teachers may have trouble fully meeting state science standards without supplemental materials for textbooks when some textbooks present a one-sided commitment to a portion of the material covered…all four [biology textbooks] present the neo-Darwinism theory of evolution…with very little critical analysis…no objective observer can look at these textbooks and with intellectual integrity say they fulfill state standards.

Roger’s High School science teacher, Steve Long, stated the materials were

superfluous and may detract from the overall biology curriculum by creating confusion where no mainstream controversy exist or adding additional days of instruction to an already crowded curriculum.

The school board ultimately didn’t adopt these extra materials

But all of this may be a moot point.  Fifty miles south of Rogers in the Ozarks is Cedarville, Arkansas. I graduate from the small high school here.   There were a mere 42 people in my graduating class.  I never once heard about evolution during any of my science classes. Not once.  Evolution was simply not a controversy because my teachers never mentioned the topic despite being a requirement of Arkansas state science standards.  

This absence is by far more dangerous than the visible cases about whether evolution should be taught.  In these silent school districts the choice has already been made. Censorship rules the day.

Back in Rogers, apparently unknown to Eckard and Dunning before,  the theory of evolution was apparently rarely covered.  Dr. Angela Potochnik, an associate professor of Philosophy at the University of Cincinnati with a Ph.D. from Stanford University, happens to be a 1998 graduate of Rogers High School.  In 2002,  while at Stanford she found she had deficiency in her understanding of evolution compared to her classmates. We had both faced a similiar issues only realized by both of us later in our academic careers when the gaps in our education became noticeablew .  In Potochnik’s letter to the Roger’s School Board  later that year, she noted that she could not recall evolution ever being brought up in the curriculum.  She recounts in her letter an interaction with a teacher who told her that evolution was not mentioned in class because “other students weren’t mature enough for such a subject.”  

I leave with Dr. Potochnik’s words

…we live in a state forward thinking enough–at least in our laws–to say that we will teach the methods and theories of science, including those regarding evolution.  We are as a population, I believe, forward thinking enough to realize that covering our ears when such subjects are mentioned is not a way to deal effectively with the situation.  Dissenters can, by all means, dissent.  But dissenters, either school children or their parents, should not be feared to the extent that teachers fails to teach information than can turn out to be central to someone’s academic or professional success.





18 Dec

A tomato for shiftless Arkansas squatters, robbers, cutthroats, and fiddle players

Photo by Corey Burger on Flickr (cc)

In the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, where I hail from, an heirloom tomato originated before the 1900’s. The Arkansas Traveler is prized for very flavorful, medium-sized tomatoes that resist cracking and keep on coming, even in drought and hot weather. Indeed, the Arkansas Traveler for these reasons became a mainstay tomato for much of the South. Take these user reviews of the tomato from a popular plant company

Great tomatoes for the South! These were one of the first tomato plants to produce tomatoes last year. They kept on producing when it got hot last summer and taste great.

I live in Houston where the heat and humidity boil through September, but the tomatoes continue on, although with less yield beginning in August. The flavor is awesome.

best producing plant ever

Tomato_09_Arkansas_Traveler Despite these positive testimonies the Arkansas Traveler has had a shady past.

Perhaps no other State in the Union has been so misrepresented as Arkansas. She has had much bad advertising, and the ignorant beyond her borders have wrong ideas of her and her people. By such people she is supposed to be the home of shiftless squatters, robbers, and cutthroats, who make the bowie-knife and the pistol the law of the land . . . “The Arkansas Traveler” is largely responsible for the wrong impression of our State.

How could a tomato do this kind of damage? Well the history is complicated. 

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