Strategies for homeowners to protect their assets from the growing threat of wildfires

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”

That’s how Raymond Chandler described Santa Anas in his 1938 novella “Red Wind.” And when the dry winds arrive, wildfires often arrive with them. Aptly named, they pounce like raging bulls, erratic and unpredictable, depending on wind direction and severity. It’s been happening since long before there were humans here to lament or write about them.

In the beginning, the fires were spontaneous eruptions every 30 to 130 years; they were nature’s way of preserving the valleys’ foothill greenbelts which depended upon fire to regenerate and flourish. Nowadays, wildfires happen every year with increasing frequency and severity, and 95 percent of them are caused by humans rather than nature. Experts predict that extended periods of high temperatures combined with continuing lack of rain will cancel out the seasonal aspect of wildfire danger and replace it with a year-round threat to life and what many count as their largest asset — their home. Governor Jerry Brown recently said that we have to start assuming that fire season will go right through Christmas.

Much of Arroyoland is considered by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) to be in the highest category of risk for ignition. Pasadena, Duarte, Glendale, La Caňada Flintridge and Monrovia are all tagged as Very High Fire Hazard Severity (VHFS) zones. In 1993, 115 homes burned in the Eaton Canyon area of Altadena, with embers from that fire setting off flames that burned a dozen homes in Pasadena and Glendale. In 2009, the Station Fire threatened 12,000 structures, mostly in Pasadena, La Cañada Flintridge, Glendale, La Crescenta and Altadena. It came within one eighth of a mile of Jet Propulsion Labs and destroyed 89 nearby homes and 120 other structures. The cause was arson.

We were lucky to avoid damage from last December’s multiple fires, the largest ever recorded in Southern California history (although a brush fire scorched 50 acres near Mt. Wilson just last October). Such disasters were once attributed to building homes in or near wildfire-prone areas, but that explanation no longer holds true. Stephen Pyne, a wildfire historian who’s written 30 books on the subject, told the Los Angeles Times last October: “It’s no longer just the case that we’re building homes where the fires are. The fires seem to be going where the houses are.”

Financial losses are the least of our worries when we wake in the middle of the night to firefighters pounding on our door, telling us to get out quickly. In the recent fires, some families had minutes or even seconds to evacuate before their homes ignited or exit roads were blocked. We’ve all read stories of those who couldn’t even corral their pets in time to save them. The financial aftermath comes later, afflicting those who’ve lost everything and haven’t fully prepared for such eventualities.

No matter how well we try to protect our property, we’re all somewhat vulnerable. So how do you prepare for such an event, which may occur months or years from now, or may never happen? And what do you take with you if you have to leave in a hurry?

DO THIS NOW, BEFORE DISASTER STRIKES.

Many experts weighed in on this subject after last year’s fires around California. Their suggestions are worth noting — they’ll stand you in good stead whether you’re confronted with fire or any other kind of catastrophic event that requires you to leave your home quickly.

l. Read your home insurance policy carefully.

Don’t assume that your agent, who may be very capable, has covered you correctly.   There are hundreds of sad stories from fire victims of every economic bracket who trusted they were completely covered for rebuilding but found out otherwise — when it was too late. Many were short more than $100,000 in rebuilding costs, some in the hundreds of thousands. Some could not afford to rebuild.

Your policy should not simply cover the value of your home; it should cover all costs of rebuilding it according to current codes. “Roughly 60 percent of American homes are underinsured,” according to CoreLogic, an Irvine-based company that provides data to home insurers. Amy Bach, director at United Policyholders, a San Francisco–based nonprofit representing consumers, calls it “a huge problem.” Consumers rely on their agents, who sometimes rely on formulas that do not cover costs, she says. Sometimes even the most reliable agents simply make mistakes.

Also, if you’ve updated or added onto any part of your home (such as a kitchen or deck), report that to your insurance agent. Homeowners who fail to update after making improvements are in for problems, says Janet Ruiz of the Insurance Information Institute trade group in New York.

2. Pack an evacuation bag (sometimes called a grab-and-go kit) with all your important documents, so you can quickly take them in an emergency.

It should contain birth certificates, passports, social security cards, property titles, home insurance policy, crucial health cards and records, any critical papers. You may think some of these are easily replaceable, but in chaotic times it could take weeks or months, and you’ll need many of them immediately after any disaster. You’ll want the home insurance policy to ensure you get proper coverage if you’re filing a claim with your insurer or FEMA, especially since adjusters will be overworked and rushed.

Digitize as many important documents as you can and keep a hard drive in the kit or make sure they’re available online. If you have old, irreplaceable family photos, you might send them and any important videos to be scanned and transferred to DVDs, which can be stored in a safety deposit box.

Take a video of your home including all furniture, art and belongings. This will be essential for insurance purposes. You might even want to video the inside of clothing drawers and closets if you have lots of stuff. One survivor of the 2003 San Diego fire told the L.A. Times that in order to receive insurance money, “she had to figure out how many T-shirts were in her drawers and what canned goods were in her cupboard.” Paula Baker, whose home was destroyed, told the paper: “It was exhausting. You have to make a lot of very big decisions financially and otherwise at a time when your mind is kind of reeling.”

3. In another kit, keep a change of underwear and clothes, toiletries, a supply of medications, extra prescription glasses or contact lenses and perhaps any small irreplaceable jewelry or heirlooms you would not want to live without.

Make a list in advance of other irreplaceable items you’d take depending on the time you have to evacuate and space you have in your vehicle. If there’s little time, grab your essential kits and go. If there’s more time, grab the items you’ve prioritized.

4. Don’t forget to set aside a stash of cash.

It’s key in times of disaster, and you want to have a good amount on hand in one of your kits.

5. If you have pets, keep a bag of food, pet meds and other essentials near your document and clothing kits.

You can rotate the food and meds, so they don’t become outdated.

6. Plan on exactly what electronics you want to take — phone, laptops, tablets.

And keep extra cords and chargers in your kit.

AFTER THE DISASTER

1. Keep a detailed journal starting the day of the wildfire, flood or any disaster that hits your home.

Consumer advocates say meticulous notes will help the insurance claim process go more speedily and accurately. A diary should be updated daily with the dates, times and names of those you spoke with by phone or met with, including insurers, adjusters and contractors, plus a brief entry of what was said. Keep an envelope with all receipts that document your living expenses from the time you had to evacuate. According to Amy Bach of United Policyholders, receipts for temporary housing and other living expenses will document your additional living costs that are reimbursable.

2. Even if your house has been totally destroyed, it is essential that you take pictures of the damage.

If it’s too painful, Bach says, ask a friend or relative to do it for you. Such photos, even if they show only a remaining foundation, can help indicate the size and shape of the home and damage sustained.

Above all, be vigilant when dealing with the aftermath of a wildfire or other disaster. Remember, when you’re dealing with claims adjusters and agents who are burdened with dozens or hundreds of cases under time pressure, you need to be your own best advocate.

When the Culinary Student Becomes the Teacher…

Facebook is mostly annoying, but it does have some perks — not the least of which is reconnecting with old friends. This is the story of one such incident that happened a few years ago.

A former student reached out via Facebook and invited me to eat at her restaurant. In my past life as a culinary instructor, I had hundreds of students, but this one stood out, as the best ones always do. She was not in love with pastry making, as I recall, but she passed it with a determined attitude.

My husband and I drove out to her kaiseki restaurant, n/naka, in Culver City and enjoyed what was surely one of our top five meals of all time. I was familiar with kaiseki but had never experienced it. It is the most formal type of Japanese dining, blending two culinary traditions — that of the temples and that of the palaces. From the Buddhist temples and tea ceremony comes an economically restrained preparation of food, intended to highlight the natural essence of each ingredient. The more opulent cuisines of the imperial court and the samurai household include multiple courses of ornate, costly ingredients. Modern kaiseki chefs weigh these two principles, mix in a keen awareness of local micro-seasons with a dash of foraging and highlight local ingredients to present a culinary story of a particular time and place. The meal typically hovers around 13 courses presented in a prescribed order, but the chef is free to add or subtract courses based on the season, region and personal style. Portions are small, delicate and presented on special dishes designed to visually represent the terroir. It is widely accepted that French nouvelle cuisine was inspired by kaiseki, and that is certainly possible, although I have never met a French chef as thoughtful as my former student.  Her work is intricate, deliberate and amazing.

After the meal, she came out and asked if I would offer her a critique of the meal, especially the dessert portion. I wrote up a short summary of observations, and we met for lunch. I learned that she was to be featured in a documentary series that was about to drop on Netflix, and she was expecting a surge in business. She was not happy with her current dessert offerings (she was still baking off the notes from my class some 20  years earlier) and, after hearing my suggestions, she asked if I could just come and cook for her for a little while.

I was stunned.

I’d been out of formal fine dining for decades. And although there were a few bakery jobs here and there, none of them featured tablecloths. I had mostly been earning my keep as a food writer and occasional culinary teacher. But I certainly knew how to do it. And it just so happened that I was between gigs, having tried, unsuccessfully, to switch careers with a newly minted masters degree in art history. Also, my nest was recently emptied. So I was happy to have something to do besides sobbing in a fetal position in alternating empty kids’ rooms. I agreed to help, intending to work for a few months to set up a pastry program, then move on.

That was three years ago. This month, with mixed emotions, I am saying goodbye.

I am finally getting a chance to use my new degree, teaching in a real college that gives degrees (unlike culinary schools, whose motives I will forever question). Though I will always keep my fingers (so to speak) in the food business, I am anxious to do something a little more personally meaningful. Not that cooking can’t be meaningful — it’s just that there is a limit to the satisfaction I can get from making fancy food for rich people.

There is another reason I am looking forward to stepping back. I am feeling my age. My feet, back and various bodily joints hurt more and more each month. My flour allergy (yes, a baker with a flour allergy) is getting harder and harder to manage. Also, I’m tired of getting up at 4 in the morning, and falling asleep at 7:30 at night — I basically have no nightlife (that is, it’s night when I never go out).    

My age has manifested also in the work I do. I have become a culinary curmudgeon. I was trained in the ’80s, which is a culinary light-year away from what’s happening on the scene now. I have never wanted to be an overly fussy tweezer chef, I am not interested in newfangled techniques, I fear fancy equipment and I loathe everything molecular and architectural. I don’t need a Thermomix to magically blend and cook my custards; I have a stove and a bowl and a whisk. I don’t need a silicone mat to line my baking sheets; I have parchment paper. I don’t want to use stabilizers or liquid nitrogen in my ice creams; I consider that cheating. I am not a chef who embraces change. I am the Grumpy Old Man of the restaurant world. Get off my (culinary) lawn!

That said, I have learned some things — a little about Japanese tradition, and a lot about myself. I became a faster and more efficient cook. I learned how to be more frugal in my work. I learned to appreciate ingredients in a new way and gained respect for the most mundane elements of my pantry. (I can work magic with rye flour and a lemon now.) I learned that greatness has nothing to do with size, or gender, or ethnicity, or funding; rather it is about heart, empathy, stamina and determination. I learned that I am not alone in my disdain for the “female chef” moniker, and that we’d all just like to be plain ol’ regular chefs. I learned that the student can, in fact, surpass the teacher. Often. And always in the sweetest, most delightful ways.

But most important, I learned that, despite everything, at 53 I can still throw down. And I probably still will. In a month or so I will miss it and have regret, because that’s how I roll. I try stuff, get bored and move on. I’m lucky I am able to do that, and lucky to have always loved my work. I realize most of the world doesn’t live that way, and I am grateful.

I have met my replacement. She is about 20 years younger than I am. She is well trained and well traveled. She has a great attitude and a sunny disposition. She’ll be amazing.

Thank you for everything, Niki-san.


n/naka’s Matcha Sablé

I’ve turned to this recipe time and again, because it exemplifies buttery shortbread while, at the same time, honoring the traditional flavor of matcha. In case you didn’t know, matcha is the powdered green tea used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. When I started my career, matcha could only be found in Little Tokyo or via mail order. Now you can get it at Ralph’s. 


Ingredients

12 ounces (3 sticks) unsalted butter

1¼ cups powdered sugar

2¾ cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon matcha powder

Method

1. Don’t bother sifting anything. Just combine it all in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, and blend slowly — for 3 to 5 minutes — until it forms a dough. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, press into a disc and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. (Dough can be stored in the fridge for a week, or if frozen, much longer.)

2. To bake, preheat oven to 350° and line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or a silicone mat — for you modernists). Remove the dough from the fridge, and knead it slightly until pliable. Roll out on a dusted work surface to a quarter-inch thick, and cut into desired shape. (Alternatively, you can roll the dough into logs, chill for an hour, then slice into coins.) Set onto prepared baking sheet a half-inch apart (they don’t spread much), and bake for 20 minutes, turning the pan halfway through baking for even browning. Cool completely before removing from the tray. Serve with a cool glass of milk, or a not-too-sweet dish of vanilla ice cream. Simplicity is delicious.


Leslie Bilderback is a chef and cookbook author, a certified master baker and an art history instructor. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.

The only university museum of art from Asia and the Pacific Islands reopens after extensive renovations.

Many have passed the two-story Chinese-style building on North Los Robles Avenue in Old Pasadena and wondered, What’s behind those thick beige walls topped with a green-tiled roof, curled up at the edges? A mural on the side wall provides clues — a large dragon with a twisting body, red stalks of bamboo and a seal-shaped sign containing the words “Pacific Asia Museum.” Now under the auspices of the University of Southern California, the Pacific Asia Museum (PAM) is the only university museum dedicated to the arts of Asia and the Pacific Islands, and it reopened in December after a year-and-a-half of seismic retrofitting and renovations.

I enter the reception area through an arched portal, and Christina Yu Yu, the museum’s director for the last three years, comes down from upstairs offices to greet me.  We start our interview in the first gallery of the current show — Winds from Fusang: Mexico and China in the Twentieth Century, running through June 10 as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time LA/LA initiative focusing on Latin American and Latino art. We talk about some of the changes that have taken place, including the most obvious one: the removal of the old gift shop — it used to be in the large space where we are now seated — to make way for exhibition space.  (But don’t worry; a smaller gift shop will be installed by the entrance desk.) 

“Our mission is to promote cross-cultural understanding, through arts and culture,” says Yu Yu, a former curator of Chinese and Korean art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “How to make it happen, I think there are different strategies: before, we were very much a community-focused museum, and that is something we are still very committed to — we want to introduce Asian arts and culture to Southern California.  Now that we are part of USC, [we want] to be integrated into the curriculum, that is something we’ve added.” One thing they’re working on, for example, is an augmented reality experience for visitors, possibly involving their cellphones. This collaboration with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Information Technology Program will be “like a treasure hunt.”

The building itself has long held a special place in the cultural history of Pasadena. It was built in 1924 for Grace Nicholson, an art collector and dealer who specialized in Native American and Asian art and artifacts. The architectural firm of Marston, Van Pelt & Maybury designed it in the style of a Chinese nobleman’s mansion, replete with a central courtyard containing a garden and a small pond.  To ensure authenticity, Nicholson ordered some of the materials — including ceramic tiles, stone and marble carvings — directly from China; other architectural details were made by local craftsmen who studied photographs of Chinese buildings. When the building opened, the downstairs rooms functioned as an art gallery and shop, while the second floor was Nicholson’s home.

In 1943 she donated the building to the City of Pasadena, retaining the right to live there until her death in 1948. Later it was occupied by the Pasadena Art Institute, which in 1954 became the Pasadena Art Museum.  In 1970 that museum moved to Orange Grove and Colorado boulevards and became part of the Norton Simon Museum.  The following year, the Pacificulture Foundation moved into the Nicholson building, starting the Pacific Asia Museum and eventually purchasing the property.

Small museums are notoriously difficult to sustain financially, unless they have a hefty endowment, and this one did not. After years of financial struggle as a nonprofit, the museum came under the umbrella of USC in 2013, a move that brought in more than $1 million to help underwrite the museum’s operating costs through its transitional period. USC also paid for an overall evaluation of the physical facilities, which led to the recent retrofitting and renovations; those cost another few million (the museum declines to reveal exactly how much).  In addition to the retrofitting, the university also improved collections storage spaces, reinstalled the permanent exhibition and began a thorough inventory of holdings. Ultimately, the museum is expected to be self-sustaining.

Visitors enter the museum building from the north wing, where the admissions desk and reception area are located. (The special exhibition galleries are in the south wing.) From there, a series of small galleries introduces visitors to Pacific Island, South Asian and Southeast Asian art, with the large galleries at the end of this wing dedicated to China, Japan and Korea. “We have 15,000 items in our collection,” Yu Yu says. “Geographically we cover all the regions in Asia, and chronologically, our oldest pieces are from 4,000 years ago. We have Neolithic pottery, and we also have contemporary art.” While museum officials will eventually pursue more acquisitions, their immediate focus is on exhibitions and programming.

There are a number of outstanding items on display in the permanent collection, and Yu Yu highlights them during a walkthrough. From India is a medium-size second-century sandstone sculpture showing a “loving couple,” as the label says. “This is actually one of the earliest stone sculptures in Southern California,” she points out.

In the Chinese section, her attention veers toward a blue-and-white plate, with a qilin, a lion-like mythical animal, painted in the center. It dates from the late Yuan to early Ming periods (i.e., the early 14th century) and reflects a Persian influence in its decorative border and use of cobalt blue. “It’s one of the most important pieces here,” says Yu Yu. In the Japan section, there are several classical woodblock prints, including the iconographic South Wind, Clear Sky by Katsushika Hokusai. This is the close-up of Mt. Fuji under a lacy canopy of clouds, part of a famous series depicting the majestic mountain from different angles.

The temporary Winds from Fusang exhibition explores a little-known topic — the interchange between Chinese and Mexican artists that occurred in the 1930s and then again in the 1950s, after China had become a Communist nation. The show was co-curated by Yu Yu and guest curator Shengtian Zheng, a veteran Chinese art scholar and curator based in Vancouver.

During an exhibition preview, Zheng explained the show’s inspiration. “Fusang is not a real place,” he said. “In Chinese mythology, it’s a mysterious place in the East.” For the Chinese in the 20th century, Mexico seemed a faraway and exotic place. In the 1930s Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias visited China twice, and several of his stylized illustrations are in the show, as well as works by Chinese artists who emulated him. Then in 1956, the touring exhibition National Front of Plastic Arts of Mexico: An Exhibition of Paintings and Prints introduced more than 60 Mexican artists to a Chinese audience, starting in Beijing. The show included works by Diego Rivera, Xavier Guerrero, Leopoldo Méndez, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. That year Siqueiros himself made a trip to China, meeting important officials such as Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, as well as a number of Chinese artists.

The exhibition shows their correspondence and pamphlets, actual artworks included in the 1956 exhibition, as well as art by Chinese artists influenced by the show. “This exhibition had a strong impact on Chinese muralists,” says Zheng. One was Yunsheng Yuan, who designed a major mural for the Beijing International Airport in 1979. Yuan had visited the minority Dai people in Yunnan Province, and his mural showed them celebrating the Water Splashing Festival, much as the Mexican muralists had celebrated the life and culture of indigenous peoples in their own country. The Chinese mural turned out to be a controversial one, since it showed nude figures.

Last year’s massive Equifax data breach underlined how vulnerable personal information is to cyberthieves.

When The New York Times published “The Biggest Tech Failures and Successes of 2017,” July’s massive Equifax hack topped the list of “epic failures” that “exposed your personal data to hackers.”

That so-called epic failure was unprecedented — cyberthieves breached the credit reporting agency’s repository of sensitive personal information for more than 145 million Americans, about 44 percent of the population. Exacerbating the personal risk to those Americans, Equifax executives waited nearly six weeks to publicly disclose the giant hack. Days after the breach was “detected” by the Atlanta-based company, but well before it was publicly disclosed, three senior Equifax executives sold almost $1.8 million of the company’s stock. Equifax has insisted that the executives were unaware of the breach at the time of those stock sales, but the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating. The July incident was the third hacking disclosed by Equifax for the year.

Equifax acknowledged that hackers gained access to the data by exploiting vulnerabilities in a web application, stealing names, addresses, birth dates, Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, medical bill data and about 209,000 credit card numbers. The breach also compromised 182,000 “dispute documents,” complaints that include sensitive personal identifying information. More than 240 lawsuits seeking class action status have been filed against Equifax, and all 50 state attorneys general have ordered the company to hand over information. The Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, SEC and regulators in Britain and Canada have also ordered Equifax to provide information.

If you are still unsure if your personal information was compromised in the Equifax data theft, go to the website equifaxsecurity2017.com where you can determine whether you were among the more than 145 million people whose information was lost.

Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that no person opts in to Equifax (or the only two other credit bureaus, Experian and TransUnion) and you cannot opt out. But anyone who has credit, meaning any adult American, was likely part of the breach, or vulnerable to identity theft. Credit reporting agencies calculate credit scores based on a consumer’s entire financial history to determine which consumers get loans and credit cards and at what interest rate. Credit bureaus scoop up consumers’ personal and financial information and sell it to banks and other financial institutions, even though no one gives them permission to do this. Oversight for credit monitoring agencies is lax at best, and they are scrutinized only when there is an epic transgression. Though the European Union is rolling out strict new privacy rules, called General Data Protection Regulation, in May, Republican lawmakers blocked all legislation proposed to better protect Americans’ privacy or to force credit bureau accountability for loss of people’s personal information.

In other words, you are on your own.

“Once the information is out there, it is out there,” said Clifford Neuman, director of USC’s Center for Computer System Security. “There is nothing you can do to keep it from further circulating. You can just make it harder for someone to use it and appropriate your identity.”

Following is a list of the best ways to protect yourself after your information has been breached, and Neuman said that everyone should act defensively, assuming that their personal and financial information has been breached.

Freeze Your Credit

Freeze your credit with all three credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion; that keeps any new creditors from seeing your personal and financial information in a credit report and issuing a card or loan. You need to freeze it at all three agencies because an identity thief could use your personal information to apply for credit at a lender that checks files with just one of the agencies, said Neuman. “Freezing your credit blocks people from using your information to open a credit card account,” said Neuman. A credit freeze may require a small fee, usually about $10 per bureau.

After absorbing consumer rage and a lashing from lawmakers, Equifax dropped the charge to freeze consumers’ credit following the breach. The company offered a free year of its TrustedID Premier credit protection and monitoring service to all U.S. consumers who signed up by the end of January; that includes a credit freeze, credit file monitoring for the three bureaus, the ability to lock and unlock your Equifax credit report, identity theft protection and insurance and Internet scanning for Social Security numbers. At the end of the free year, charges apply, as they already do for customers who sign up in February or later. That has angered many consumers, who’ve pointed out that Equifax’s negligence created the need for the TrustedID Premier services that it is now selling or marketing to the very consumers victimized by the breach. Naturally, some consumers refuse pay a nickel to Equifax. The company has since announced the Jan. 31 launch of its Lock & Alert service; it’s billed as free for life, but the website doesn’t provide details.

Note About Unfreezing Credit

A small fee may apply when you want to unfreeze your credit in order to apply for new loan or a credit card. (Appalling note: credit reporting bureaus have fought all state laws designed to make freezes available, along with all other regulatory strictures. Freezes make it more difficult for credit bureaus to profit from selling Americans’ personal data.)

One problem with a credit freeze is that when you want to apply for a new line of credit or a loan, you will need to unfreeze your credit and then refreeze it, which may involve fees. You will be given a PIN number to unfreeze your credit, so be mindful of the PIN number issued with your credit freeze by each bureau (for a total of three separate PINs) ; you will need to access the PIN later if you want to open a line of credit. Consumer advocates at Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), a San Diego–based consumer advocacy nonprofit, are circulating a petition on Change.org (#FreeFromAll3) to make credit freezes free for all Americans with one free thaw and one free refreeze per year.

Monitoring Your Credit and Accounts

Free credit reports are available once a year from all three credit reporting agencies by making an online request at annualcreditreport.com, checkfreescore.com and freescoreonline,com (the latter two websites offer a free seven-day trial, followed by a monthly fee of nearly $40 — of course, they bank on you forgetting to cancel). You can also request a free credit report at all three credit bureaus separately. You can space out your requests to get one report every four months.

Credit Karma is a website and mobile app that pulls your credit scores from Equifax and TransUnion (but not Experian) anytime, as often as you want, for free; it also offers  free credit monitoring, alerting consumers when there is any change in their credit report or when a new account is added to their credit report. (Credit Karma does not sell subscriber information, instead relying on digital advertising income.) Neuman uses Credit Karma.

“Once you set up an account, you get an alert when there is any activity on your credit file,” which helps detect signs of identity theft more quickly, he said, adding that you won’t have to search your credit file because of the alerts.

Review credit card and bank statements weekly for red flags. Many credit card companies and banks automatically provide some identity fraud protection and alert customers when a suspicious charge occurs out of step with a customer’s spending habits. You can learn about these services by asking your financial institution or credit card companies. Setting alerts at your bank to notify you anytime a transaction is made over a set amount, such as $50, will immediately alert you to any charge of consequence.

Identity Protection Services

For people who want to streamline their monitoring of all three credit bureaus into one subscription service, and do not mind forking over a monthly fee for expanded services like identity restoration services, instant fraud alerts and more, there are options such as IDShield and LifeLock, to name a couple. (Do read consumer reviews before subscribing.) But even these services have limitations.

“Consumer protection services can be helpful, but they can’t stop identity theft,” warns Neal O’Farrell, executive director of The Identity Theft Council, a consumer advocacy nonprofit based in Walnut Creek, California. “They… just let you know that it might be happening and help you resolve it.” 

Identity protection services will monitor all three credit bureaus, send fraud alerts when your identity is being used, scan the Internet for potential threats to your information, restore a secure identity if stolen and resolve disputes and losses resulting from identity theft. Prices generally vary from $10 to $30 a month, depending on the level of protection. The Equifax breach has been a driver of panicked consumers signing up for identity protection services, and for the record, Equifax is one of LifeLock’s credit monitoring providers. Since the Equifax breach, LifeLock’s web traffic increased sixfold, with enrollments jumping 10 times the pre-hack rates, according to Bloomberg News. Equifax has not stated what it will do to prevent another breach.

Strengthen Your Passwords

“Good password habits are essential and especially not using the same passwords forever or for multiple accounts,” noted O’Farrell, also author of a new, free ebook,  Double Trouble — Protecting Your Identity in an Age of Cybercrime, a broad examination of consumer security, privacy and identity issues (GetDoubleTrouble.com). “Protecting your personal email password is critical. If hackers get that password, they can delve through years of your personal and professional life, stuff you can’t change.” And once personal information is lost, there is no getting it back. That’s why passwords and PINs require hypervigilance to outwit hackers’ attempts at cracking them.

“The information that has gone out with the Equifax breach has gone out and it is out there,” said Peter Reiher, a UCLA adjunct professor of computer science. “It is more likely that any info that you think is private is somewhere that it shouldn’t be. And somebody can get it if they want it. It is worse when you think about passwords and credit cards and anyone with a cellphone, or Alexa, where anything you say and do is being sent up to Google and, hopefully, they are not doing something bad with it.”

Chilling. This is why making your passwords more difficult to cyber-crack, and changing them regularly is a good strategy. Avoid a short password, or an easily hackable word or name (no family members), according to Money magazine (time.com/money/collection-post/2791981/how-do-i-create-a-secure-password/?xd=emailshare). For guidance on creating a hack-proof password and a more secure login, go to “How do I create a really strong password that I can actually remember?”

Lock Your Devices

Make sure all your devices (phones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers) have password protection or fingerprint protection. Sign up for remote locking or wiping your phone clean, so that if it is stolen you can still remove any personal information lost to thieves.

Avoid Clicking Links

Do not click on potentially virus-contaminated links in emails, a common and easy way for hackers to access your computer and steal personal information. Instead of clicking on a link, Google the webpage in the email and click on that entry instead.

Hypervigilance: The New Normal

The Equifax breach is only one of many breaches. According to a Javelin Strategy and Research study, more than 15 million people were victims of identity theft in 2016, the highest number of victims in one year ever recorded, and 2 million more than the previous year. More than 800 data breaches were reported in the first six months of 2017, according to Identity Theft Resource Center. And almost 1.4 million data records were compromised worldwide in 2016, according to the cybersecurity firm Gemalto. This suggests that identity thieves are highly adaptable to the latest iteration of cybersecurity tactics. And that means consumers, whose data is presumably out in cyberspace, have to live defensively, take every measure to secure personal data against hackers and stay hypervigilant.  

With ClassPass, mixing up one’s fitness routine has never been easier

Ah, January. Fresh starts, new beginnings. It’s the perfect time of year to get back on the fitness track, now that all those gleefully consumed holiday calories are starting to make their presence known (tight waistband, anyone?). But if feelings of sluggishness or workout boredom are getting in the way, it’s easy to get one’s mojo back by mixing things up with challenging and fun group fitness classes. A bevy of inspired choices awaits thanks to ClassPass (classpass.com), an ingenious service that allows users to participate in classes at gyms and studios around Arroyoland — even around the world — without committing to memberships at those locations. Studies have shown that participants in group fitness activities tend to be more consistent in their exercise and stay motivated longer than those who do solitary workouts, so get up and check out these local options, all accessible via ClassPass, which are sure to induce both sweat and smiles well into December.

CARDIO BARRE

Where: Rock Barre, 1581 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 256-5555

What it is: The cardio barre class at the newly renamed Rock Barre offers a total body workout that also satisfies one’s inner dancer. Prior dance experience isn’t necessary, though, just a desire to see a difference in one’s butt, legs, torso and arms. Part dance, part fitness, the class combines barre work — pliés and relevés included — with the use of light weights. Owner Leana Rudish recently took the former Cardio Barre studio from being a franchise to a licensee, allowing her to bring fresh ideas into her business. She plans to keep the focus on dance fitness and this year will offer hip-hop, high-impact cardio and intensive stretching classes, as well as a traditional ballet technique class for adults. “Our instructors are so talented,” she says. “I’m excited to expand my offerings.”

GROOV3

Where:  Breakthru Fitness, 345 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena, groov3.com

What it is: For a completely different kind of dance experience, check out the high-energy vibe of a Groov3 class, created by Los Angeles dancer/choreographer Benjamin Allen. Allen’s technique leaves participants feeling confident, accomplished and fit — and maybe just a little bit like music video stars. As much a mental workout as a physical one, the choreographed hour is led twice a week by instructor Adam Noel Jones at Pasadena’s Breakthru Fitness (his third class, with a live DJ, is based at Eagle Rock’s Live Arts Los Angeles). Hip-hop- and jazz-infused dance combinations, which change each week, are taught step-by-step, accompanied by the hottest current tunes. “By the end of the hour, you know six to eight counts of choreography,” Jones says. “It’s not done to one specific song because the music is going the whole time. You could take the moves tomorrow night to a club and dance to any song. It’s a blast.”

PEDAL & PUNCH

Where: Classic Bicicletta, 91 E. Union St., Pasadena, classicbicicletta.com

What it is: Last June, Mauricio Gonzalez was inspired to create a new addition to his Classic Kickboxing space in Old Pasadena. Classic Bicicletta is an homage of sorts to the Colombian superstar cyclists he grew up admiring, such as Luis Herrera and Nairo Quintana, who, he says, are “in amazing cardiovascular shape,” in much the way boxers are. As its name implies, Pedal & Punch is a combo cycling-boxing class that begins with a high-intensity ride and ends with a round of boxing bag work. It’s both an upper body and lower body workout led by coaches with diverse backgrounds in music, dance, athletics and the military. Gonzalez says it’s an old-school class that’s all about fitness, not sparring. “Once you finish the cycling portion, you keep your anaerobic part of the workout going with the boxing. They both come together perfectly.”

POUND

Where: Gold’s Gym, 39 S. Altadena Dr., Pasadena, poundfit.com

What it is: If the idea of channeling one’s inner rock star during a workout sounds appealing, Pound might just be the perfect class. Described as “the world’s first cardio jam session inspired by the infectious, energizing and sweat-dripping fun of playing the drums,” participants do all their moves — squats, crunches, lunges, curls, arm extensions, leg extensions and butt lifts among them — to popular, pulsing music, while wielding Ripstix: durable plastic drumsticks that add a quarter-pound of extra weight to each move. The constant pounding on the floor and clicking in the air burns upwards of 900 calories an hour. Once found exclusively in trendy Crunch gyms, the Pound concept, which started in Venice about six years ago, has made its way to Gold’s Gym in Pasadena. Instructor Eddie Gleason puts participants through the paces of his vibrant, nearly nonstop 45-minute class three times a week. “I’ve had everyone from young people to seniors take Pound,” he says. “They all say they love it because it feels like they’re exercising without exercising.” In addition to burning calories, it’s touted to improve rhythm, timing, coordination, speed, agility, endurance and musicality. The YMCAs in South Pasadena and Sierra Madre also offer Pound classes.

WUNDABAR PILATES

Where: WundaBar Pilates, 860 E. Green St., Pasadena, wundabar.com

What it is: For a completely different kind of workout, which focuses on improving flexibility, building strength and developing control, check out WundaBar Pilates. At the heart of every workout is the WundaFormer, a patented apparatus that combines two traditional pieces of Pilates equipment, the Reformer and the WundaChair, with a ballet bar and jump board. “Our founder, Amy Jordan, calls it the Swiss Army knife of Pilates machines,” says Pasadena instructor Heather Morrison. (There are eight locations in Southern California and one in New York’s SoHo). Targeting each part of the body, the sweat-inducing moves are challenging and precise — but not impossible. “People of all abilities can do this,” Morrison says. “Our instructors are trained to take care of anyone who walks in the room — we challenge the people who have been coming for years while still making that first-timer feel like they can do it, so everyone feels successful and gets their best body.” It’s a total body workout, she adds. “You discover muscles that you never knew were in there. We’re asking you to think deeper about each thing versus just an external workout. It comes from within and that’s what we really want to emphasize: It’s strengthening from the inside out.” 


For information on ClassPass’ participating studios and pricing plans, visit classpass.com.

Can gene tests determine the best, customized treatments for your skin-care regimen?

Mapping the human genome was completed in 2003, and researchers, drug makers and biotechnologists have been racing to develop ways to treat disease more precisely, based on individual patients’ genetic information. In the past few years, at-home DNA tests like 23andMe and Ancestry.com have become readily available, aimed at helping consumers discover all or part of their genome and its variations.

Enter the skin-care-industrial complex, a $121 billion global industry in 2016, projected to reach $11 billion in the U.S. alone by 2018, according to MarketResearch.com.

Walking into Tracey Cleantis’ home office in Pasadena’s San Rafael district, one encounters all the elements of a relaxing spa — soft lighting; the aroma of a scented candle in the air; plush, inviting couches and chairs. It’s an appropriately welcoming, stress-free place. As a licensed marriage and family ther, C If eer If there ever        More than a dozen skin-care-specific at-home DNA-test kits, ranging in price from $12.95 to $299, are available for purchase on the Internet, and some, in brick-and-mortar stores, like London’s Gene U skin-care clinic. The DNA tests for skin care 

More than a dozen skin-care-specific at-home DNA-test kits, ranging in price from $12.95 to $299, are available for purchase on the Internet, and some, in brick-and-mortar stores, like London’s Gene U skin-care clinic. The DNA tests for skin care are marketed with tantalizing claims that genetic sequencing technology can be applied to customized skincare concoctions that will moisturize, plump, dewrinkle and rejuvenate, making up for genetic failings writ large on our skin.

The manufacturers — with names like Orig3n (orig3n.com), SkinShift (skinshift.com) and Skinome (skinome.com) — send a kit that instructs you to swab your cheek for saliva, slip the swab into a tube, seal it and mail it back. Later, you receive advice pinpointing your skin’s shortcomings, based on your DNA results. The company also directs you to a regimen of specially formulated skin-care products that, the theory goes, will meet your skin’s greatest needs, determined by your genetic information. Think: rapidly degrading collagen, skin cancer susceptibility, lost elasticity, wrinkles, brown spots.

But dermatologists and geneticists say consumers should be cautious. The American Academy of Dermatologists does not have a position on the at-home DNA tests, and none of the dermatologists contacted for this story use them or know of any colleagues who do. The industry holds promise, but is still in the first stages of development. “This is a very infantile area and you have to treat this with a great deal of skepticism, especially since the company providing the testing [also] provides the necessary materials needed to fix it,” said Dr. Whitney A. High, associate professor of dermatology and pathology at University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver and director of the school’s dermatology clinic. “I have been a clinical director here for 20 years and I don’t know anyone doing it.”

Though DNA tests are typically not employed by dermatologists, High said that perhaps in 30 years today’s skin-DNA test kits, or some version of them, will seem like a step in the right direction, and using DNA information to create personalized skin care will be common. After all, no one’s skin is exactly the same as anyone else’s. Different people have different skin structures, including various matrix matelloproteinases (MMPs), the group of enzymes responsible for most extracellular matrix proteins during growth and normal tissue turnover, High said. Among the many types of genetic variants within human DNA are the so-called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). There are roughly 10 million SNPs in the human genome; some SNPs predict disease risk and others bear a regulatory effect on how a gene functions. A company called SkinShift, based in Austin, Texas, examines 16 SNPs that SkinShift claims are linked to collagen formation, sun protection, glycation protection (against harmful sugar-protein bonding), antioxidant protection and inflammation control. Based on the results, the company claims, SkinShift can tell you what specific ingredients and products to use. But High indicated that such claims may be premature. “We really don’t know enough to fully employ what we know,” he said.

GeneU (geneu.com), a London-based company founded by Christofer Toumazou, an electrical engineer, does “skin genetic tests” in its store, looking for genetic variations in how fast collagen degrades in an individual’s skin and for genes involved in the skin’s antioxidant protection. DNA-test results and answers to a brief lifestyle questionnaire are run through an algorithm, after which two concoctions are recommended. SkinShift, founded by an internist and based in Austin, also uses a fixed number of serums; based on individual DNA tests, the company suggests a combination of purchasable serums and nutritional supplements.  In other words, DNA results are not taken into the lab, where a concoction is made to order.

“It is not like you spit into a tube and they make a skin-care product based on your DNA or genetic results…truly personalized skin care,” said Dr. Ava Shamban, a dermatologist in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. “Here is the hundred-billion-dollar question: What is the actual expression of genes in your skin? Certain genes turn on and off based on the environment. There are people who are prone to rosacea, but they don’t develop it in certain exposures, and do in other exposures. So a lot depends on environment and ultraviolet light.”

Exposure to ultraviolet light ages skin and degrades collagen, the primary protein responsible for maintaining elasticity and skin’s structural support, according to a 2015 article on molecular health in the journal Nature. Collagen-producing skin cells called “dermal fibroblasts” become less productive over time, resulting in wrinkles, sagging and irregular pigmentation. Tretinoin, the prescription vitamin-A-derived cream marketed as Retin-A, is the first substance recognized by dermatologists as an effective wrinkle treatment. It was co-invented by Dr. Albert Kligman, who was also the first dermatologist to show that ultraviolet light caused skin to wrinkle. It was approved to treat acne in 1971, but off-label use proved to diminish wrinkles, so dermatologists began prescribing it for that purpose. Thus began the research field on the reversal of skin aging. Tretinoin counters some destructive effects of ultraviolet light by stimulating procollagen (collagen’s precursor) and supporting the skin’s structure, according to the Nature article. But how this happens is not understood and whether it actually reverses the degradation that happens with skin aging is not known.

“What is happening appears to some to be a premature translation of new technologies into the marketplace, and it is confusing to people,” said Dr. Robert C. Green, professor of medicine (genetics) at Harvard University Medical School and director of Genome2People Research Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “There is a lot of good science behind linking genetics to collagen, skin color, eye color and predisposition to sun damage, but companies’ claims that by measuring this genetic marker, you can do something about it with this product” are unsubstantiated.

“To my knowledge, there is no pharmocogenetic [regarding gene variations that affect one’s response to drugs] or dermatologic application that can be used to personalize skin care,” said Green. “There are clearly skin-related medical conditions and there are a lot of genetic diseases that affect the skin in horrible ways, and there is an opportunity to look at those diseases using genetic information. But there are no genetic biomarkers that would influence skin and beauty care. And the kinds of claims being made of individual improvement based on a product that is somehow supported by DNA information is completely unsupported by science.”

Green added that genetic markers aren’t necessarily expressed; that is, having the genetic marker for a physical trait, or a disease, does not necessarily mean a person will develop it. Genetic biomarkers only increase the probability that a person will develop a trait, such as freckles. A gene variation can mean you have a lower risk for a disease such as melanoma, for example, but estimating risk based on genetic variants is likely to confuse consumers, cautions Green. But most consumers understand that wearing sunscreen is an important tool for protecting skin from ultraviolet light -— no DNA test required. Though the idea of individualized skin care routines gleaned from at-home DNA testing is exciting, the validity of using genetic testing this way is questionable. “It should make people nervous that these ‘skin DNA tests’ are not offered by skin-care companies on every corner,” High said “It has not permeated the industry to the degree that medical associations have taken a position on it, which is another reason for caution.” 

The Salastina Music Society is breaking down the walls between classical music and skeptical audiences

“I often wonder how many hipsters would come to our concerts if we advertised them as artisanal music-making with 300-year-old handcrafted violins?” jokes Maia Jaspar White about the Salastina Music Society, a chamber music ensemble based in Pasadena. The accomplished Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra violinist and Colburn School instructor co-directs the group with her music partner, fellow violinist Kevin Kumar, who has appeared as a soloist with the L.A. Philharmonic. Their quest is to make chamber music more user-friendly, satisfy their own artistic goals and have fun with fellow musicians playing the music they love.

Kumar and Jaspar White, who also directs Caltech’s chamber music program, have been performing for decades in renowned orchestras/ensembles here and abroad, as well as in the entertainment business; hear them both in the new Star Wars: The Last Jedi soundtrack, among countless other motion picture and television projects.

The pair met in the violin section of the now-defunct Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, where they struck up a friendship and shared musical goals. In 2011 they pooled their talents, contacted musician friends and created a program series under the Salastina banner to put the musical genre back into the must-hear category for any music lover. “We put ourselves in the audience’s shoes and then designed our concerts from that perspective,” says Kumar. “We both love playing chamber music. But we saw that the music was always being presented in the same old way. We started Salastina because we thought we had something unique to offer.” The name Salastina is an amalgamation of two names the pair don’t typically use — Kevin’s ancestral name, Salatia, and Maia’s middle name, Kristine.

Indeed, Salastina is breathing new life into a rich musical form that is artistically demanding, musically complex and unflinchingly intimate. Without a conductor to lead, chamber musicians rely heavily on one another during performances, working together and communicating with raised eyebrows, slight nods and an uncanny sixth sense. So often, however, chamber music concerts are straightforward and simple: Artists walk onstage, artists play music, artists leave. Jaspar White and Kumar have turned the conventional chamber music concert into part in-depth conversation, part performance, to offer a deeper and more satisfying musical presentation.

The format is applauded by both newbies and music connoisseurs. “I totally believe in this format; it takes the mysticism out of the experience and we have fun with it,” says KUSC radio host Brian Lauritzen, who has been Salastina’s resident host almost since the group’s formation; he hosts Salastina’s popular Sounds Genius series, which employs the immersive preconcert discussion to analyze the program.

But don’t call it a lecture or didactic examination, says Lauritzen. “We talk history, dissect the musical elements, pick the piece apart and then put it all back together,” he says of the casual talk that remains true to the music and its message. “By the end of the performance, everyone is a bit of an expert.”

“When you take the microscope and approach music from the intellectual, emotional and personal perspective, you create a more compelling context for people to latch onto when they are listening to the complete piece all the way through,” explains Jaspar White. “Any art, especially classical music, is appreciating what human beings are capable of creating. Beethoven was a genius; not everyone can do what Beethoven did, but everyone is capable of knowing a genius when they see or hear it.” Kumar agrees, adding; “At the end of the evening we want people to have made friends with the music, so it’s not just something to admire from afar, but they have had an engaged experience with it.”

While a preshow conversation with a host isn’t totally new to the chamber music landscape, Salastina has, over the years, taken that structure to heart, carefully integrating the format into its own signature style. “Salastina is really the best of the bunch when it comes to chamber music groups, technically and musically,” says Stephen Unwin, a JPL astronomer and self-described classical music junkie, who scours websites and calendars to catch performances whenever he can. “There are a lot of really fine musicians in Los Angeles, so it’s not hard to find professionals playing on any given night somewhere.”

Reaching out to people across the L.A. area, Salastina typically performs at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music’s Barrett Hall and small locations on the Westside. Unwin, who has attended Salastina concerts for the past five years, says he loves the small venues (“I went to one performance that was in a condo that held only 20 people. It was spectacular.”) and the social receptions that take place afterward. “So many times, after a concert, the musicians pack up and go home,” he says. “I enjoy that the musicians stay around to chat; I think they enjoy meeting us as much as we love talking with them, too.”

“Salastina audiences are very thoughtful, interested and always engaging,” says Meridith Crawford, Salastina’s resident violist, who has performed with the group for more than three years. “They love to ask questions and pick our brains. It’s fun for us as musicians when people are curious about the music.”

Seeing the audience react positively is rewarding to Salastina’s musicians and host Lauritzen. One of the group’s recurring Sounds Genius concerts is Mendelssohn’s Octet, written by the 17th-century German when he was only 16 years old. Lauritzen enjoys describing how the young Mendelssohn incorporated bits of well-known works by famous composers from his past into his octet. During the discussion, musicians play quick excerpts to demonstrate. “When the piece is finally played in its entirety and those musical moments come up, I love to see the light bulbs go off in the audience,” says Lauritzen. “I live for seeing these kinds of happy discoveries.”

On Feb. 17, Lauritzen unveils his collaboration with Salastina on Brian’s Playlist: Hope, Faith, Life, Love, a Feb. 17 concert at the Pasadena Conservatory featuring classical selections inspired by the content and structure of a moving E.E. Cummings poem. Salastina also partners with other organizations, musicians and performers for unique musical evenings. In December, the group joined Pasadena’s Red Hen Press in presenting a concert of new music by composer Eric Whitacre set to poetry by California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia and Elise Paschen, performed by soprano Hila Plitmann.  In a quite different vein, comedian/actor Seth Rogen has read Ferdinand the Bull while Salastina performed Jaspar White’s original composition based on the children’s classic in downtown L.A.

Overall, the group’s repertoire is as varied as its program offerings, Sounds Genius notwithstanding. Debuting last year, the Sounds Promising series involves up-and-coming teen musicians who not only sit side-by-side with professionals at rehearsals and concerts, but also learn about the day-to-day business of being a professional musician. “Private lessons and classes improve their skills, but it’s critically important that young people have more exposure to what kinds of career possibilities are in front of them,” says Jaspar.

The Sounds Delicious program is Salastina’s take on the salon tradition where culinary courses are paired with appropriate musical selections, treating audiences to a feast for both ears and taste buds. Recently, Salastina teamed up with Chef Becky Reams under the theme “Beautifully California”; prior to that was “The Music of India’s Cuisine” with Un-Curry, an organic Indian catering company.

Also on the calendar this year are the complete piano trios of Robert and Clara Schumann and the Second Class Citizens program, which examines why some composers, such as Zoltan Kodaly and Fanny Mendelssohn, didn’t get the fame and glory of their contemporaries.

Finally, Salastina embraces modern composers through its Annual Composers of Los Angeles series, which spotlights contemporary classical chamber music that Jaspar White contends is “accessible and listener-friendly.

“This is what also makes us different from other organizations and is the benefit of being a small company,” she says, explaining that larger organizations often feel obliged to champion modern compositions that are cacophonous, atonal and avant-garde. “We don’t think so,” she says, pointing to American Mirror, written for Salastina by L.A.–based composer Derrick Spiva. The group has performed American Mirror twice and made a recording of it this past December; the performance will be part of Salastina’s first podcast episode this month.

Jaspar White is adamant that “listener-friendly” not be considered verboten in classical music, an attitude that corresponds to the overarching mission of Salastina. “Why does listener-friendly mean simplistic and lacking in depth? That it’s not good or intellectual enough?” she says. “Just because you understand something doesn’t mean it’s less sophisticated. Classical music is not just wallpaper. It’s something that we hope people can latch onto and connect with throughout their lives.” 

For a concert schedule and tickets, visit salastina.org.

Sexual harassment is widespread in the foodservice industry — and virtually everywhere else

am a woman working in the restaurant industry, so you bet I’m going talk about sexual harassment. I let you off the hook for the holidays with a fluffy little piece about cookies. But now it’s cold, harsh January, and I am exhausted. It has been a year of shenanigans, and my only truly happy hours are those in which I can completely unplug from news updates. 

I’m going to go out on a limb to say that if there is one silver lining to this rumpus, it is that women are being believed. Another president — say, one without an Access Hollywood tape — would probably not have prompted the surfeit of discontent that led to investigative reporting and the subsequent wave of accusations. As a woman, I say, “Finally!” As a chef, I’m going to stand here waving my arms until someone notices that these problems are still rampant in the service industry, and there is little being done about it. 

High-profile harassment and assault accusations get attention because there are famous, beautiful people involved. In comparison, the cases of hotel maids, prep cooks and waitresses still go unnoticed. They also get very little help. And it’s a hundred times worse for the undocumented. The New York Times is not exactly clamoring to interview your dishwasher and barback. 

I have friends with stories that are much more upsetting than mine, and I feel lucky to have passed through relatively unscathed. But we all have stories. Sure, I have had to look at a supervisor’s penis before. Who hasn’t? I was working as a hostess at a Big Boy.  It’s about as low profile a position as can be had in foodservice, which made it easy to immediately quit. (Side note to men — no one wants to see that junk. Even your mom didn’t want to have to look at it when you were a little boy.) Not everyone is so lucky. The ability to quit at a moment’s notice is definitely a privilege.

Waitresses surely have it the worst. Of course there is tableside groping. And propositioning. Why wouldn’t there be? You are there to serve, after all. And if you’re a good girl you can get a big tip. But the customers are not the only danger. When I waited tables at a Coco’s in college, there was a line cook who, miffed at my rebuff of a storeroom proposition, proceeded to repeatedly push every ticket I had to the end of the line. Just as my orders were about to be fired, back to the end of the line they would go. All my customers walked out that day, but there were no consequences for the cook. It was his word against mine. Yes, it was just a crappy diner, and perhaps he would have been penalized in a high-end restaurant. But it was the 1980s, so I doubt it. No matter where you are, there is always some jackass on a power trip. 

The human resources department at that company was a joke. But the fact that such a department existed at all was an anomaly. Most restaurants barely have employment policies, let alone an HR department. (Some high-profile chefs are taking it upon themselves to hire outside HR firms, but this is still pretty rare.) Even if there is a harassment policy, there is no guarantee you will be believed, or get any justice. The waiter spewing vulgar, demeaning, sexually charged threats to me at Postrio, where I worked in the ’90s, got a reprimand — but then continued to taunt me for the remainder of my tenure. I could have quit that too, except that Wolfgang Puck is a great resumé line that carried a lot of clout back then. My unwillingness to put up with abuse was challenged. The industry seems large but is connected. Everyone knows everyone, rumors spread and the “troublemaker” label is real. It’s not just the filing of a complaint that will give you a reputation — quitting without notice is possibly the most abhorred trait in foodservice. 

Groping, walk-in assault, storeroom rape, disgusting language and innuendo — these are all part of the culture. It is not made up, and it is encouraged by the glamorization of such behavior by the bad-boy chefs we see in the media. The seedy tales in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential memoir, the constant verbal abuse of Gordon Ramsey, the culinarily offensive and physically abusive movie Burnt and the cooking competition shows that pit contestants against each other in unsportsmanlike ways all portray the kitchen as a mean, cutthroat place to work. And it can be. 

By the time I was in my mid-20s I had it figured out: Develop a thick skin. Be one of the guys. Swear a lot. Laugh at dirty jokes. Don’t appear weak. It is a hands-off armor that I have perfected. I also began to consciously work mainly with and for other women; another option that I acknowledge is a privilege.

Still, when I go to work alone in the wee hours of the morning, I walk from my car to the kitchen with keys in my fist protruding like iron knuckles. I lock myself in behind gates and doors, and I keep a set of knives close at hand, in case I need a quick weapon. I don’t really live scared, but I do live prepared. It’s important that men understand this. I am not alone. Every woman lives this way.

The majority of people who work in this industry do so because they have to. Putting up with and dealing with harassment is a skill not everyone develops. Nor should they have to. I was willing to work through it, but not everyone is, which is another in a long list of reasons why American foodservice is a high-turnover, high-failure-rate industry.

So what is to be done? The first thing is to tell your stories. The more there are, the more they will be believed. And if more high-profile female chefs speak out, as has happened in other sectors, the neighborhood barista is more likely to feel empowered. Only when we feel safe to accuse will the accusers be safe.

More women in powerful positions would help, too. We are not all perfect, but at least we won’t flash you. 

An increased minimum wage, and an industry salary standard, would make it easier for workers to leave abuse for a more secure position without fear of a reduced income.  Similarly, universal health care would prevent workers from staying in dangerous situations for fear of losing benefits. 

Hand in hand with calling out the bad guys is celebrating the good guys.  Let’s see more supportive chefs in the media.  And how about some stories about female chefs that cook for a living, are not Julia Child and are not just trying to please a man?

Oh — and let’s try to raise some decent boys now, shall we? 

Grade A beauty products are already right in your kitchen

Evermore imaginative anti-aging products and treatments keep proliferating — in fact, the global beauty market is expected to hit a lofty $265 billion this year alone, according to Lucintel, a Texas-based market research firm. But consumers opting for a clean and natural look need search no farther than their kitchens for effective potions. Even Goop.com, Gwyneth Paltrow’s high-living lifestyle website, runs DIY beauty recipes.

Why make your own? Many commercial lotions and creams expose users to harsh chemical ingredients, according to the watchdog Environmental Working Group. And it can be hard to justify dropping hundreds of dollars on a wrinkle-defying serum or a collagen-building cream that shamelessly exaggerates what it can accomplish “when used on a regular basis.” (Many of these “miracle workers” run more than $1,000, so use on a regular basis can easily cost more than a Chanel bag.)

But hidden away in your pantry and fridge is a stockpile of beauty ingredients that hydrate skin, lend a healthy glow and reduce the signs of aging — often as effectively as their pricey counterparts. “Americans, in general, have a misconception that skin care and beauty require fancy products with lots of ingredients to work better,” says organic spa owner Charmaine Leah, who writes the Glamology.com blog. “The reality is that an inexpensive bottle of sweet almond oil from the market will likely work just as well as an expensive bottle of the latest big-brand moisturizer.”

While there’s no official definition of “clean” (as opposed to “organic,” which the U.S. Department of Agriculture codifies using a precise set of certification guidelines), so-called clean products are typically derived from plants and other natural ingredients, and are devoid of the most demonized cosmetic chemicals (e.g., parabens and petroleum jelly).

Cold-pressed organic vegetable oils contain many phytochemicals, antioxidants and nutrients that help moisturize, protect and strengthen your skin. “Basically, if an oil can be ingested, it’s good for the skin,” says Los Angeles acupuncturist Carmella Pingatore, who makes her own oil blends. The exceptions, she says, are canola, corn and modified vegetable, which are likely derived from genetically modified crops that have been sprayed with heavy doses of harmful pesticides. Here are some of the ways other versatile oils can be used in your beauty regimen.

Best for dry skin: Olive and sunflower oils
There’s a reason Mediterranean women have used olive oil as a moisturizer for centuries. In addition to providing intense lubrication, the rich antioxidants that make it so good for your insides benefit your outsides too. Sunflower oil is just as good as olive oil but a little less expensive. In addition to being a rich moisturizer, it makes for a good massage oil because it’s thinner, more slippery and absorbable than other oils.

Best for eyes and neck: Grapeseed oil

A byproduct of winemaking, grapeseed oil comes from the seeds of pressed grapes. “It’s especially good for thin skin and fine lines around your eyes and neck,” says Pingatore. “It’s also high in vitamin C, which brightens your skin.”

Best hydrating treatment:
Virgin coconut oil (VCO)

At cooler temps, coconut oil solidifies, but if you warm it by rubbing a bit between your hands, it will turn into a smooth body moisturizer that Paltrow, Courtney Cox and other beauties swear by. The Mayo Clinic even reports that ingesting VCO can help reduce waist size. It can also be a blessing for hair — not only is it a great styling and conditioning aid, the oil can correct a shade gone brassy. Trader Joe’s carries convenient travel packages. But a word of caution: avoid using it on your face if you’re prone to acne.

Best for puffy eyes and sunburn: Cucumber

Cucumbers’ antioxidants reduce irritation, and applying cold slices reduces puffiness. Place thick slices in a plastic bag and chill (or freeze if you’re in a hurry). Place over eyes for five to 10 minutes. Applying them to sunburned skin also reduces burning and itching.

Best filler bruise
prevention: Pineapple

The tropical fruit contains bromelain, which helps decrease bruising and swelling both by eating it and applying it to affected skin. You can use pineapple that’s sold in slices, but it must be fresh, not frozen or canned. Eat half the pineapple before your treatment, the other half after. “Ingesting pineapple is part of the protocol when we’re doing cosmetic surgery,” says Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Robert Kotler, who does not also apply the fruit topically. You can buy bromelain in pill form, but fresh pineapple is more effective, beauty experts say.

Best blemish-battling mask: Yogurt

The zinc in yogurt diminishes skin redness and inflammation while reducing the amount of sebum (oil produced by the sebaceous glands). Keep pores clear by using yogurt made from skim organic milk — the lactic acid in yogurt gently exfoliates skin yet soothes for noticeable results. Apply to damp face for 10 to 15 minutes, then remove with warm water.

Best for fighting skin dullness: Sugar

It’s actually one of the best exfoliants for sensitive skin. A sugar-based scrub will dissolve as it exfoliates, so it’s impossible to overdo it. Use weekly to gently slough off dead skin cells that can rob you of your glow.

Best for busy mornings: Apricot kernel oil

Apricot kernel oil is super-light and absorbs quickly, making it a great moisturizer for busy days. It’s also full of vitamins A, C and E — antioxidants that protect the skin from signs of aging and sun damage.

Best for shiny hair and a quick facial: Egg whites

Boost your hair’s shine by adding a beaten egg white when washing with your regular shampoo. For a fast facial, beat the whites until stiff and apply to face and neck until it dries, then rinse.

Best for keeping hands smooth and clear: Milk

For reddened hands, wash them in warm milk each night — the lactic acid helps lighten skin. Here’s another good skin bleach: one ounce each of lemon juice, honey and perfume, combined. Finally, keep elbows smooth by rubbing them with lemon rind.

A final plus to using healthy cooking ingredients on your skin: If you don’t like the way one feels, you can still use it in cooking — money doesn’t goes to waste, and bathroom cabinets don’t get cluttered with half-empty bottles. Keep the oils in a cool, dry, dark place. When applying any of them, aesthetician Pingatore notes, less can be more. “If it hasn’t absorbed within a couple of minutes,” she says, “you’re using too much.”

ESSENTIAL OILS

Yummy-smelling essential oils, such as lavender, citrus, jasmine, rose, tea tree oil, frankincense and evening primrose, come from specialized cells within the plant. Readily available in health food stores, they are marvelous for targeting particular skin issues but are too potent to apply directly to one’s skin. The basic formula is add one drop of essential oil to three drops of a carrier oil (e.g. coconut, olive, sunflower or jojoba).

And then there’s that stress-relieving, muscle-relaxing, mind-relieving tub soak we all crave. Most of us run a bath, add a few drops of essential oils, then step right in. “Wrong,” says Suzanne Teachey, herbalist and owner of Nectar Apothecary in Prescott, Arizona. She offers a few tips to enhance the experience: “When it comes to putting essential oils in the bath, remember — essential oils are not water-soluble.” Combining essential oils with a carrier oil prevents the essentials from just sitting on top of the water. To get the most from a single bath, she recommends adding three to 12 drops of essential oil to one tablespoon of carrier oil.

For full aromatic effect, fill the tub and turn off the water before adding essential oils. “Otherwise the hot running water will cause the essential oils to escape the bath and scent the bathroom instead,” says Teachy.

Now that you know the essentials, it’s time to test the waters. Here, Teachey shares her go-to combos for turning tub time into transformation. All recipes should include one tablespoon of carrier oil:

Mood boost bath: This revitalizing combo can also boost concentration and memory.

5 drops lemon

3 drops rosemary

2 drops thyme linalool

Muscle-soothing bath: Target tired, overworked muscles with this trio shown to dial up circulation and dial down pain.

5 drops marjoram

4 drops lemongrass

3 drops lavender

Relaxation bath: This calming combo has been linked to less stress and better sleep.

5 drops lavender

4 drops chamomile

3 drops frankincense 

Animal crackers may be mundane, but they serve up tasty memories.

make cookies all year long. In fact, with few exceptions, every dessert I make at work includes some type of cookie as an element. That’s because my personal pastry philosophy requires that each plate have a variety of textures, and cookies provide the best crisp. But even though I make them all year long, December is when I embark on my real cookie tour de force. Even if I didn’t have family and friends with whom to share, I would still go through the holiday cookie ritual for myself because it is, without a doubt, my favorite dessert. (Accompanied by, of course, a tall glass of milk.)

And although I am physically and mentally equipped to create any cookie I want from scratch (not to brag, but, yes, I’m that good), in a few exceptional cases I defer to the superiority of the store-bought. Pepperidge Farm’s Mint Milano is one. I have been presented

on more than one occasion with attempts at the homemade version of this minty morsel, but they are never quite right. The Oreo is another. While the effect of ebony cocoa and Crisco cream filling can be approximated, the real thing is always better. Girl Scout cookies, too, are a must-buy. A homemade Samoa or Thin Mint is wrong on a number of levels, not the least of which is that it denies little girls their cookie sales. (I feel this way about marshmallows too. Yes, we can make them in cute shapes, colors and flavors, but it turns out that they taste exactly the same as a bag of Jet-Puffed once melted into your cocoa, or flaming on the end of your campfire stick.)

But of all the store-bought cookies in the world, my favorite is the very un-haute animal cracker. The recipe is easily duplicated at home (it’s not a particularly intricate cookie), but for me, the joy of eating it comes from its circus box, and the discovery and identification of the animals, which cannot be duplicated in one’s own kitchen.

I talk a lot about food-related sense memories — the way the smell or flavor of a dish whisks you back to a time and place. Nothing does that for me more than animal crackers. Carrying the box by the string handle as if it were a grown-up handbag.  Unwrapping the waxed inner bag to discover, hopefully, my favorite animals. Eating them in order of their hierarchy in the animal kingdom. Nibbling their body parts in a way that offers the animal the least amount of suffering (head first). Eating them now, I remember this ritual and am instantly sitting cross-legged in the sun in my grandmother’s yard, feeling the scratch of her perfectly manicured lawn on my bare summer legs. 

As it turns out, a lot of folks have similar animal cracker memories. Nabisco says that everyone eats its animal crackers head first, which is a relief to those concerned with what that might say about you — apparently we are all a little morbid. The string handle was not added to make little girls feel like fancy ladies, but rather so that the box could be hung on a Christmas tree. The original box looked much the same, but the wheels of the circus wagon were partially printed on the underside of the box and were perforated so that kids could punch them out after snack time and have a circus wagon toy. Simple joys.

Animal-shaped cookies were first imported from Britain in the 1870s, prompting many local bakeries to begin making them. The Brits called them “biscuits,” but here in the U.S. we preferred the term “cracker.” Like most products of the era, they were sold in bulk out of cracker barrels. Soon automation transformed small bakeries into large companies like Stauffer’s Biscuit Company and the National Biscuit Company. In 1902 Nabisco began using the infamous P.T. Barnum as inspiration — though there was never a licensing agreement between the baking company and the Barnum & Bailey Circus (a lapse we all know would never happen today).

The term “cracker” always confused me, because these were not salty like the crackers I crumbled into my Campbell’s Tomato Soup. To further confuse me, according to the 1935 film Curly Top, Shirley Temple liked the sweet cookies in her soup so much she sang about it. Animal crackers in soup still sounds yucky. After soup, sure. But in the soup? (I am making my best Shirley Temple wrinkly-nose face.)

Today there are several companies making animal crackers, but for me, Barnum’s Animals are the best. The taste is classic, and the animals are recognizable. Over the years the company has produced more than 50 different animals for the box, including a special 1995 World Wildlife Fund endangered edition, from which you could decapitate a Komodo dragon. There are 19 animals in rotation at any one time, with new animals chosen occasionally by popular vote. The most recent addition was the koala, which, thankfully, beat out the cobra. Despite the lyric in Shirley’s song “monkeys and rabbits loop the loop,” there has never been a rabbit animal cracker. This fact makes Shirley Temple a liar, which I hope was disclosed to Ghana before we sent her there as U.S. ambassador. Unlike me, Nabisco didn’t care and used the song for years to promote the product.

One final animal cracker fact: The monkey is the only animal in pants. Mull that over the next time you nibble off his head.


Despite the fact that I just railed against making these cookies at home, it’s actually sort of fun. You can buy mini circus-animal cutters, but I prefer to use some of the weirder random cutters I have accumulated through the years. Let’s just say, there are shapes that Nabisco would never consider.

Ingredients

1½ cups all-purpose flour

1 cup old-fashioned oats

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon sea salt

½ cup unsalted butter, softened

2 tablespoons honey

½ cup cream

Method

1. Preheat oven to 350°, and coat a baking sheet with pan spray. 

2. Combine flour, oats, baking soda, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse to form a uniform powder. Set aside.

3. In a mixing bowl, beat the butter until smooth. Add the honey and cream and mix thoroughly. Add the flour mixture last, and mix until just combined. Divide the dough in two, press into a thick disc, then wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. (Dough can be left in the fridge for a couple of days or frozen for longer storage.)

4. Dust the work surface with flour, and roll out the dough to a quarter-inch thick. Cut out animal shapes and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until golden brown. Cool before serving.


Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook  author.  She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.