Too Big to Label: GMOs and Choice in the American Marketplace

Last week, Connecticut became the first American state to pass a bill requiring Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) products to be labeled. Due to threats from the nation’s largest producer of GMO seeds to sue any state that passes stand-alone labeling legislation, Connecticut’s bill will only go into effect once four other states pass similar legislation. The law requires no restriction, regulation, or taxation of GMO products beyond the requirement that goods containing such products be clearly labeled. Yet a large corporation has made it known that it will treat any effort to label GMO products as hostile. Given the ubiquity of GMO products in the United States, it is worthwhile to understand why a corporation would act this way.

It is important to note that a federal decision to label foods has not been made. In fact, the United States congress recently passed legislation pre-empting and preventing any measure on the part of the Department of Justice (DOJ) to control, recall, or regulate GMO seed. This act effectively takes away the ability of the DOJ to step in on  behalf of consumers if there is an issue threatening Americans or our food security. No single statement has ever been made to clarify exactly why this may be necessary, making safe the assumption that the federal government is siding with GMO seed producers. This means we may not see federal legislation impacting food labeling for sometime given anti-labeling sentiment on the part of large corporations. This is contrary to labeling requirement precedents set by the Food and Drug Administration over a century ago, an organization that has stated that there is no physical difference between a GMO plant and non-GMO plant.

Critical to this debate is an understanding of what GMO crops actually are. Plants have been modified through selective breeding and primitive cloning techniques for thousands of years but we have recently developed an understanding of genetics that has allowed for very fast changes to take place. Since the 1950’s, scientist have been infecting plant cells with viruses and bacteria selected to modify the DNA of the target cells. Such modifications are typically done to build a resistance to pests or chemicals that the plant will encounter. This technology has broadened the horizons of traditional horticulture by allowing scientist to breed plants that are highly productive yet very prone to pest problems and then modifying the organism to control such negative qualities. This can be done by changing the DNA of a cell so that the plant will become unappealing to a pest or by instilling a resistance to a pest controlling chemical. The latter option is favored by the largest holder of GMO patents, Monsanto. This company routinely engineers varieties of corn that are resistant to Round-Up, a chemical control mechanism also produced by Monsanto, so that the organism and chemical can be sold and used in tandem.

As 98% of soybeans and 90% of corn grown in the United States are GMOs engineered by Monsanto, it becomes clear that this company is doing a great deal of business in terms of seed and chemical pesticide. They have accomplished this despite receiving negative attention related to suspected anti-trust violations, predatory anti-small–farmer practices, sweeping libel lawsuits, and furthering the large scale use of toxins in the American food system. This may be why critics have dubbed the recent federal laws prohibiting DOJ intervention, the ‘Monsanto Protection Act.’

There is no doubt that companies like Monsanto have allowed the American food system to evolve in astounding ways over the past three decades. Every year brings a new record crop, an achievement touted by Monsanto as proof positive of the effectiveness of GMO crops in addressing the world’s food shortage. It is worthwhile to note, however that many developing nations that have banned GMO seeds have also reported record yields in recent years. The necessity of GMO crops in modern agriculture is itself contentious with ample support for either side.

Given the high profile of Monsanto and the continuing debate surrounding chemicals like round-up, it is no surprise that GMO crops remain controversial. But how does labeling figure into this debate? Critics argue that labeling GMO crops is not only unnecessary but will negatively impact farmers by steering consumers away from GMO crops as well. Labels are seen as superfluous because the FDA has stated that there is no physical difference between GMO crops and non-GMO crops. This seems contrary to the opinion of Monsanto’s legal team which routinely targets farmers who may be growing patented GMO seed without leasing rights to the crop. With no physical difference between two types of corn, such lawsuits would not be possible and related patents would be invalid. The view that consumers will threaten farmers by choosing not to purchase GMO crops runs contrary to free market ideals of choice. In a capitalist model, farmers would respond to such a trend by producing non-GMO crops for consumers to purchase thus meeting demand with a supply. Most large scale commercial farms are financed by a handful of corporations, including Monsanto. It seems ironic that these businessmen would shy from free-market demands but it is understandable that they would be interested in protectivist legislation.

Legislators in Connecticut have taken a step toward allowing consumers to choose. There is nothing in their bill that will have a direct negative impact on companies like Monsanto. GMO producers that are seeking to overturn or discourage such legislation are essentially threatened by the prospect of consumers choosing to not purchase their product. This is a completely separate issue from the effectiveness or sustainability of GMO agronomics. Efforts to prevent such a choice are conspicuous attempts to monopolize the American food system. It is unfortunate that such large and powerful companies do not have enough faith in the value of their products to encourage consumers to choose whether or not to purchase them and a telling indicator of the status of American anti-trust enforcement in the era of “too big to fail.”

In Defense of Profiling: Chuck Todd and the IRS


“He [Obama] had an opportunity to say something here. They let Jay Carney's words speak - I think they were very weak. It didn't seem like they had any real sense of outrage. Look at the reaction of the entire Democratic party. The Republican party is jumping on this and standing up for members of their base constituency and, at the same time, beating up the IRS is always good politics. Why aren't there more Democrats jumping on this? This is outrageous no matter what political party you are, that an arm of the government, maybe it's a set of people in just one office, but, mind you, that one office was put in charge of dealing with these 501(c)4's and things like that. “     –Chuck Todd, Morning Joe May 13, 2013

Chuck Todd is not the only member of the media calling for outrage over the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service. He joins not only ranks of scandalizing journalist but a phalanx of toe-in-line politicians eager to add momentum to a negative swing in public opinion over the executive. Even the President's decision to not take extremist outcry seriously is suspect. In the grand tradition of those eager to create memorable sound-bytes, many have expressed their own incredulity by placing a “-gate” suffix after an acronym, crafting the rather ill-iambic “IRS-gate” tag that reveals not only a lack of rhythmic appreciation but a complete ignorance of the events leading up to Nixon’s resignation with which this instance has almost no harmony. Mr. Todd and others are outraged that the IRS allegedly targeted right-wing groups and more so that the President is not living up to do what they believe he should. This outrage is not justified and reveals a symptomatic quality issue with mainstream media rather than a corrupt executive.

Using a computer system to formulate a list of prospective audits is how the IRS is able to cope with the seemingly insurmountable task of identifying those who are the most likely to engage in tax evasion out of millions of taxable entities. The keywords used to formulate this list function as the basis for a type of profiling. Despite the negative connotations afforded to profiling methodology by the racial implications demonstrated by countless cases against law enforcement officers in recent years, there is no better way to quickly identify targets with the most potential to commit a crime. In fact, profiling radicals is the basis for our Homeland Security intelligence network.

It stands to reason that a party or its affiliates associated with committing a particular crime would be subjected to scrutiny in order to determine whether or not that party or its affiliates had actually committed a crime. Take, in the current example, Tea Party rhetoric: A political philosophy that exists only to denounce the American tax system and encourage others to do so.  If an organization identifies with the Tea Party, would this not be grounds alone for greater scrutiny in terms of tax evasion? If such an organization was applying to gain 501(c)4 status, precluding and exempting them from the very taxes they campaign against, is it not in the best interest of the IRS to examine their accounts and determine if the organization is indeed “not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare” as the law requires? It is worthwhile to note that the IRS has a policy of subjecting 501(c)4 applications to further review if the group is in any way affiliated with a lobbying or political campaign group as those entities are not eligible for tax exempt status under the non-profit qualification regardless of which cause or party with which the group may be aligned. If extremists are to be believed, the answer to both the above questions is no; a smoking gun should not prompt an inquiry into whether or not a shot was fired. This is conspicuously subjective reasoning but is forming the basis of public discourse on the IRS nevertheless.

Perhaps Mr. Todd, and other media figures (pundit implies an area of expertise and will thus not be used in this editorial) aching to find the profiling of groups who are considered more likely to misrepresent themselves to the IRS an outrage worthy of toppling the executive, should consider an alternative. Imagine an executive so embedded in political struggle ala House of Cards that they must anti-profile groups that oppose their administration or else face the likes of Chuck Todd calling for their heads with each morning coffee. The IRS would be instructed to not, under any circumstances, examine the financial records of any organization politically maligned to the President of the United States. With a Social-Democrat leading the executive, all groups publicly advocating resistance to government taxation that pays for social programs would be immune to the audits that would determine if they were actually resisting taxation as they so claimed. This is the equivalent of intentionally not investigating someone for a homicide after they threatened to kill someone. Of course, this fiction is a polar opposite of our current situation such that it is incapable of finding admiration. An alternative may be for the IRS to simply avoid profiling altogether and spend more man-hours and tax-dollars on scrutinizing every application in depth. This second scenario would offer Mr. Todd more opportunities to decry bureaucratic excesses but benefit few others and risks offend the sensibilities of fringe conservative elements even more than they have been already by the status quo. 

Examination of the alternatives to IRS profiling demonstrates the lack of an appealing option. The current methodology used by the IRS to scrutinize applications for 501(c)4 status is a justifiable means of preventing lobbyist and political advocacy groups from gaining this type of non-profit status. Furthermore, any functioning organization will withstand an audit with little or no impediment to their normal business. It is the policy of the IRS to routinely audit both profitable enterprises and non-profit organizations on a regular basis to ensure accounting transparency, something the American public is keen to support following the public funds used to rescue unscrupulous banking institutions in 2008.

Without factual evidence that Democratic Party members within the executive ordered audits of Republican Party member supported groups (an act that would literally have no benefit to either party) there seems to be nothing to this so called "IRS-gate" beyond having a terrible name. The only scandal seems to be one of awful reporting on behalf of Chuck Todd’s NBC and like media outlets. “Extremist Disagree With Status Quo” is not a headline, it is a definition.

The Choices We Make

East Liberty has its roots in commerce. Through the mid-19th century, this area made a steady transition from farm land to mercantile hub with assistance from the Negley and Mellon families of Pittsburgh; East Liberty was annexed by the city in 1868. The neighborhood continued to grow as a shopping destination for the wealthy industrialists residing in nearby Shadyside and Point Breeze through the turn of the 20th century and became a vibrant urban marketplace by 1950. A series of planning blunders, like the razing of some million square feet of retail space and the erection of three housing projects, saw the decline of East Liberty in the 1960’s. The City shifted residents (of primarily African descent) into housing projects that became magnets for crime and squalor, effectively barricading the neighborhood visually and encouraging businesses to move elsewhere. This situation was alleviated in the 1990’s with the controversial demolition of two of the housing projects and the construction of shopping centers for chain retail stores, a process ridiculed as gentrification that has had undeniably positive results for the neighborhood without drastically changing the resident demographic. The resulting drop in crime and success of large retail stores has encouraged small businesses to move back into the area and has revived East Liberty as a shopping destination for eastern Pittsburgh.

What does this imply for consumers residing within East Liberty? Choice. More merchants and stores correlate directly with more options, or so it would seem. Most neighborhood residents prefer to shop at the local Giant Eagle, a chain supermarket set in a secure windowless location (replete with conspicuous security guards) since the 1990’s. The layout of the East Liberty Giant Eagle offers a great insight into the suggested shopping habits for local consumers. Entering the store leads one immediately through a maze of frozen food and prepared meals before arriving in the meat section where natural products (hormone/antibiotic free) are in short supply, located in the far dark corner. In essence: a shopper is given the choice between corn, wheat, and soy based products marketed by one of only a handful of processed food conglomerates. The meat and dairy section being an illusory transformation of these modified grains crafted in the disease filled high density feed-lots of America and Mexico completes the most accessible part of the store, a glowing monument to "take it or leave it."

The next three aisles of the Giant Eagle display further arrangements of corn, wheat, and soy in cereals, snacks, and soft drinks. In fact, one must cross over half of the supermarket to find kitchen staples like eggs, vinegar, rice, and flour. Sub-par produce is tucked into the far corner of the store in what literally feels like a secret aisle. A small section of natural products at the end in an area that makes one feel at though they are in a storeroom, at any moment subject to discover and expulsion. It isn't difficult to deduce that the East Liberty Giant Eagle is encouraging consumers to buy processed foods by making base ingredients and produce seem obscure, flaccid, and unappealing.

This may be because most Americans agree that processed foods are a cheap and effective way to feed the nation and that natural ingredients, like produce, are more expensive due to spoilage, shipping, and slower means of production. Unfortunately, this idea is flawed. It is an illusion developed through a complex system of food security subsides that favor large corn corporations like Con-Agra over smaller vegetable operations. Built upon the systematic overproduction of grains, the larger corporations see the marketplace as yet another feed-lot with which to fill with costumed grains and chemicals. The mercantile spirit of East Liberty has not been easy to supplant and although stores like the East Liberty Giant Eagle may feature unappealing produce at high prices, fresh ingredients are available at other outlets for a fraction of the cost. The neighborhood features a year-round farmers' market just two blocks away from the Giant Eagle, subverting the aims of American agribusiness by offering affordable produce to lower-income citizens.

Frequent is the example provided that one can buy a box of mac and cheese for a dollar or a bunch of bananas for five dollars (I've heard from numerous media sources), I cannot dispute that this or hesitate to point out how ludicrous this comparison is in light of a basic understanding of climate and food production. I can say that I personally eat a diet of 99 % home cooked or unprocessed food that comes from a weekly purchase of a little over twenty dollars at the farmers market. That comes to an average of $1.50 per meal if you do the math. An additional purchase of staple items like flour or rice adds an additional 50 cents per person on to a meal. For the price of two boxes of mac and cheese (a nutritionally deficient food) I can prepare a balanced meal. Purchasing the processed meat and vegetables necessary to prepare a comparably balanced meal of processed food would bring the average cost of a processed meal in our area to around $4.00. This means that in East Liberty it is considerably more expensive to consume processed or prepared food unless one disregards nutrition as a qualifier. Perhaps a balanced meal was not what our representatives in congress intended when establishing subsidies for grain farmers and tax-breaks for grain processors. My math does not account for the percentage of federal income tax paid out to corn producing corporate interests in order to facilitate lower prices at the time of purchase on corn based (processed) food items.

The same handful of companies cashing in on corn and dominating most large grocery stores favor using chemical flavorings and preservatives to enhance sub-par food. A similar pricing trend becomes more obvious for treated foods. Canned food laden with preservatives is sold at a higher cost than more natural alternatives, contrary to popular consumer belief. A recent shopping trip to the East Liberty Giant Eagle and the Trader Joe’s across the street revealed that a 7.5oz jar of sun-dried tomatoes containing large amounts of salt, soy oil, and chemical preservatives sold for almost twice that of an 8.5oz can of product containing natural olive oil as the primary preservative. This is counter indicative of what the American food culture would have us believe: The current mass-produced, chemical heavy, agricultural infrastructure is designed to lower the cost of food. In fact, even if corn and soy based products are cheaper on the shelf: taxpayers have already paid for a portion of the product via subsidized farming. A rough approximation indicates that processed corn products, like most corn-fed beef, is actually costing Americans about twice of the value listed on the package through subsidized feed and pharmaceuticals. Why, then, are low-income residents of East Liberty pre-disposed to frequent the local Giant Eagle than seek out the cheaper options available at the nearby farmer’s market and natural food store?

Since price consciousness aligns a consumer against processed foods it cannot be the reason so many choose to frequent a store that will cost them more. Choice, or the illusion thereof, may be the prime attraction. The windowless fortress of a grocery store seems to have more options for the one-stop-shopper. This is an idea that while appealing to families or working-class patrons with limited time, again fails on closer inspection. Not only are processed foods made out of only a handful of raw ingredients, but the manufacturers are owned by a few multi-national corporations that seldom compete with one another. In reality, most of the brands that appear to be competing for consumers are owned by the same conglomerate. These organizations know you stand a better chance of buying their product if slight variations are available under different brand names. The East Liberty Giant Eagle plays a part in this great consumer drama, relatively few choices are available for those who pay for the privilege of feeling that the opposite is true.

About a mile away from the Giant Eagle in East Liberty is a Market District grocery store in Shadyside. Market District is an upscale version of a Giant Eagle and is owned by the same corporation. This grocery store sits on the edge of an upper middle class (majority white) neighborhood of graduate students and professionals. Walk into the store and you will pass freshly prepared foods and a bakery before entering the produce section. There are no clear aisles in this part of the store, allowing the consumer to meander around displays. The more organized part of the grocery features all of the goods at the East Liberty Giant Eagle with the addition of several strategically placed natural food sections. The store is large, chic, and open, featuring several Giant Eagle brand products that are not available at the East Liberty location, like grass-fed beef and milk or organic eggs. The increase in variety and quality should accompany an increase in cost, especially in light of a predictable increase in the disposable income of the target patron, but in most cases the prices actually seem lower than the East Liberty location. Better food at a lower cost is being marketed towards people with more income by the same grocery store that sells processed food at high cost to a demographic more predisposed to use food-stamps to pay the grocery bill, consumers who have the ability to access resources like local CSAs but find themselves deterred for some reason or another.

This is the reality of the American food system in neighborhoods like East Liberty: subsidized grocery bills paying for subsidized food that will inevitably lead to subsidized health care. This short-circuit food production means that corporations are using the illusion of choice to siphon funds from the American taxpayers via government funding. This seems like a harsh conclusion because it is, I encourage you to do some consumer research in your neighborhood and compare your findings. Before you feel manipulated, there is an easy way to side-step this system and negatively contribute to this kind of marketing: choose to spend more time purchasing, preparing, and enjoying your food.

When I was a child, shopping entailed going to a large grocery store and walking around with my mother for an hour or two to pick up enough food to feed our family for a week or more. This paradigm stayed with me until moving to Zambia a few years ago, a place where such a model is not possible. I was suddenly forced to go from specialty shop to specialty shop in order to acquire all of the goods that I wanted to purchase, an act that was annoying at times but hugely gratifying as a consumer. Moving to East Liberty, I found myself craving the kind of shopping experience that I had in Zambia; I missed going from store to store. Fortunately, the neighborhood has a diverse array of options and I was quickly able to identify the strong points of each merchant, much as I had in Zambia. The year-round farmer’s market provides cheap produce, cheese, and local meats. The Trader Joe’s has inexpensive natural (hormone/antibiotic) free dairy and the Giant Eagle has flour and sugar at a bargain. In addition, a nearby Whole Foods provides quality meats and a selection of specialty items and the East End Food Co-op has a killer bulk selection of spices. We choose to purchase specific items at specific locations for three reasons: cost, convenience, and quality. Oddly enough, these are the traits that big chain supermarkets like to boast about but, as my experience above illustrates, often fail to deliver.

Our ability to exercise choice results in a better consumer experience because of where we live. East Liberty continues to function as a mercantile district and almost every asset (except the Giant Eagle) attracts residents from other neighborhoods to shop in ours just like consumers a century ago. Not everyone has it so easy and many choose to ignore the possibilities within their own area due to habit, tradition, and belief. Food is an immensely personal subject and finding the reason for the residents of East Liberty, for example, to choose to shop primarily at the Giant Eagle is impossible. Furthermore, not everyone wants to be confronted with choices; the freedom to choose has strong links to frustration and depression according to recent studies. For us, it took a tour of duty in Africa and a couple weeks of list making and investigative shopping to spend less and get more. That was a choice we are still willing to make, how about you?

To The Burgh


View of the Heinz factory, a strong
survivor of Pittsburgh's industrial past
B and I spent a week with our respective families once we returned stateside before going on the hunt for an apartment to begin the next chapter in our lives. B had been accepted to a graduate program in Pittsburgh and was destined to become a Masters of Arts candidate in food studies provided, of course, we found a place to live. We spent a fair amount of time kicking around the Pittsburgh Craigslist postings before realizing that the vast majority of these are poorly crafted scams. Identified by the nondescript, typically rife with misspelled words and incomplete sentences, these listings rely on the concept that a picture of the outside of a building provides some sort of legitimacy. Trying to contact the poster usually results in a run-around. We developed a renewed respect for some of the Zambian cons that we'd come across, given the complete lack of effort put forth by would-be-scammers in America.

Eventually, we hit upon a few valid leads via the online versions of a couple Pittsburgh newspapers and borrowed a car from B’s family to drive up and see prospective accommodations in person. We spent the morning checking out a few places on the upper end of our price range on the outskirts of town before grabbing lunch and going to our last meeting. The neighborhood was considerably closer to the university and downtown, was well within our price range, and had character (something lacking in the stock renovated apartments on the edge of the city). We were sold as soon as we saw the place, to the surprise of the leasing agent, and were set on making a new home in East Liberty. We got a copy of the application and headed home in the morning to go and spend some time with our families over the holidays.

East Liberty Presbyterian, a
neighborhood landmark.
The trouble started when I began to pursue the application process from Virginia. The leasing agent made a verbal agreement expressing the understanding that we would move in before the new year and promised to facilitate this aim. This same property representative became prohibitive in her absentia and the leasing process stalled miserably. The property manager never answered her phone and had no voice mail service, something we didn’t even know was possible, and insisted on faxing all documents without seeming to have any knowledge on how fax machine actually works (something I can’t fault her because nobody uses these devices anymore for this very reason). Other CA Property representatives apologized for our ongoing struggle with this employee but seemed unable to assist as policy gives each leasing agent call on certain properties. I finally received confirmation on our lease just hours before we got on the road to Pittsburgh. We made arrangements for the keys and set out for the city overnight to avoid being trapped by a pending heavy snowfall and spent the night in a nearby hotel.

This overnight driving plan, conceived by B’s father and step-mother, proved a stroke of genius when we awoke to find six inches of fresh snowfall. Still early in the season, Pittsburgh roads had yet to accumulate enough salt to fend off the weather and had grown treacherous for large trucks such as ours. We found the keys where the CA Properties representative had promised (surprise) and begun the task of hauling boxes up two flights of narrow stairs. Thankfully, B’s folks thought to call in a couple of movers to help expedite the process and the move went quickly enough. We were finished by lunch and set out to pick up our first load of groceries, grabbing lunch at a fantastic local pizza joint at the behest of one of Tammy’s friends.

Exploring East Liberty. Snow
fell almost everyday in January.
B’s folks headed back to Alexandria and we were left to unpack and take note. Our snowy new neighborhood glowed under the streetlamps outside by the time we got a call indicating Frank and Tammy arrived home safely, breaking the spell of our labors and reminding us how tired we were. We sat down to a beer and leftover pizza among the boxes. Somehow we had managed to locate, rent, and move into an apartment in a strange new city over the week around Christmas. It had not been easy, but it was done and the notion made us giddy. I slept better that night than I had in months.

We spent the next week exploring our new neighborhood, East Liberty, and settling into our new digs. The New Year came quickly, with its fireworks outside of our window and black-eyed peas on the stove. Our new beginning had come, the next great adventure, and with a bit of love and a pot of good luck sticking heavy to our ribs we felt something new: a sense of arrival. We were home.

Our first house plant, this Phalaenopsis orchid helped to remind us that Spring
would someday come and the snows would cease.
~

(Rail) Madrid


Fountain at the Royal Palace,
Madrid
B and I traveled back to Santiago via bus after spending a few days under the spell of Fisterra. From there we decided to take a high-speed train back to Madrid. The European rail system is by no means the bargain it once was. Bus and often airplane offer cheaper options than most train lines but the small increase in price was worth not having to deal with airports (which logistically add three hours onto travel time) or sit on a bus for eight hours. Renfe, the Spanish national rail service, provided a pleasant and spacious ride despite an apparent want for website design (we were moved to purchase our tickets in-person at the station). We were able to easily navigate to our hostel in the old quarter with little hassle, transferring from Renfe to the Madrid subway lines without issue.

The Spanish capitol is known for its nightlife and ‘The Way’ hostel offers opportunities for young adult foreigners to experience the club culture first hand. B and I found ourselves in a decidedly older demographic, surrounded by the gap-year youths and vacationing co-eds that make up most of The Way’s clientele. We spent a couple days catching up on sleep and then decided to get a taste of Madrid by going on a walking tour of the city and a late night pub crawl. The city has a rich culture and history, although the “famous” club scene is identical to those found in drinking towns the world over: DJs, lights, over priced drinks, and not worth your time if you have the requisite facilities in your own town.

Picasso's Guernica
The museums however, were spectacular. Three state museums constitute one of the largest collections of quality art in the world. B and I had the opportunity to explore two: the Museo Reina Sofia and the Museo del Prado, spending a day at each respective museum and seeing less than half of either collection. The former houses modern art from the 19th century onwards including the exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica. This massive (11.5ft x 25.6ft) canvas once toured the world and raised awareness of the atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War, being rolled up after each destination. The wear and tear of a world tour and resulting restoration efforts are documented in the gallery that exhibits the work today. Seeing the horrors of mechanized warfare writ large through the cubist lens had a powerful impact on both of us. Fortunately, the museum also features more frivolous works from the late twentieth century to lighten the mood after viewing civil war era art.

Vertical garden by the Caixa Forum,
Madrid
The Prado was also very enjoyable. It has one of the finest collections of European art in the world and includes works from the 12th through the 19th centuries. The halls seem to take one endlessly through the great masters of Medieval and Renaissance Europe. One of my favorite exhibits displayed a series of satirical sketches by Goya with captions lampooning the subject matter at hand. A little knowledge of Spanish history was required to put the cartoons in context and get the jokes and the museum did a good job of providing this. Another room housed a collection of works by Hieronymus Bosch including the famous Garden of Earthly Delights triptych and a beautifully ornate table displaying his equally breathtaking Seven Deadly Sins (the table allows visitors to walk around the painting and enjoy a 360 degree perspective). We enjoyed our visit to the Prado but found the layout overwhelming in comparison with the more subdued Reina Sofia. Both museums are worth a second visit but with our departure pending, we found our time growing shorter.

Flamenco club, Madrid
We made time to visit Sobrino de Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world (Guinness Book of Records) to enjoy suckling pig, a Spanish dish favored by the likes of Hemingway, and we shopped El Rastro (the sprawling open-air street market). For B’s birthday, we went to a flamenco club and enjoyed dishes of similar national acclaim (like roast leg of lamb), followed by a wonderful performance by a local group. The dance style came from the Gypsies who settled in this region under the freedoms allowed by the Muslim occupation. This ethnic group dwindled in the area under Christian persecution in the ensuing generations but left behind a unique art form that continues to this day. Our taste of Madrid came to a timely end and we embarked on the final flight of our long way home, both eager for family and the next great adventure. 

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