Book Review Week – Out of Old Ontario Kitchens

Out of Old Ontario Kitchens
Christine Bates
Pagurian Press Ltd. 1978, 190 pages, out of print

My local used book shop, besides being supervised by one of the coolest felines ever and occasional guarded by Thor the Thunder Poodle, is a treasure trove of cool old stuff, and the food writing shelf almost always contains something that just has to come home with me.

I grabbed Out of Old Ontario Kitchens thinking is was the Upper Canada version of Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens, a cookbook that I grew up with in Halifax. While it’s similar, the Nova Scotia book is straight-up recipes, while the Ontario book also has bits of history and anthropology that offer explanations of the many dishes included.

Christine Bates, at the time that she wrote this book in the late 70s, was a senior historical interpreter at Montgomery’s Inn, a historic museum just outside of Toronto. Bates began a search for pre-Confederation recipes and food references in conjunction with her work at the museum which boasts a working Victorian-era kitchen, and besides hosting tours, also hosts a variety of food-related events throughout the year.

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Book Review Week – 97 Orchard

97 Orchard An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement
Jane Ziegelman
HarperCollins, 2010, 254 pages

97 Orchard Street is known today as the New York City Tenement Museum. Built in 1863 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, over the course of 70 years, it was home to over 7000 people. Initially lacking in gas, electricity and running water, and some rooms having no windows, it was the lowest, cheapest, dirtiest housing available to new immigrants.

Lack of amenities, and often lack of access to ingredients they were familiar with meant that immigrant families living in the tenements of the Lower East Side had to adapt. Ziegelman traces the stories of five immigrant families (Irish, Italian, German and Eastern European Jews) and looks at the influence these cultures had on the foodways of New York City. From German-owned breweries, Russian tea rooms, Jewish delis and Italian restaurants, each successive wave of immigrants altered the local food culture.

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Book Review Week

Writers sometimes joke that being a writer is like doing homework all the time. The essays and book reviews we are relieved to be rid of when we leave school are a constant in our daily work lives. If someone had told me 30 years ago that I’d willingly write “book reports” for a living when I grew up, I’d have been one very unhappy girl. And choosing to write book reports doesn’t mean that writers don’t procrastinate, especially if there’s no deadline or pay cheque to act as an incentive. Which explains why I have enough books stacked up here by my desk to fill a week with reviews of books on food history. Perhaps a self-imposed deadline and announcing it to the world will do the trick.

Four of the five books I’ll be writing about this week are by Canadian writers, covering Canadian food. The last, while focused around the tenements of New York, shares enough parallels with the changes in Canadian foodways over the years that I’ve included it, as it also reflects the experience of Canadian immigrants and their contribution to Canadian food culture just as US immigrants changed the way people in that country eat.

Check back each morning this week as I review a new book, and get into the back to school spirit by doing homework without the incentive of pay OR a gold star.

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This Is the Chinese Cookbook You’ve Been Waiting For

I appear to have created a recurring series of food and recipe book reviews based on books I’ve found in my building’s laundry room. The Fabulous Chinese Cookbook by Harry K. Long dates back to 1965 and this particular copy has been much-used based on the dog-eared pages and splatters and spills, particularly for the “Broccoli with Beef” recipe. The previous owner appears to have been a smoker, so The Fabulous Chinese Cookbook won’t be staying in my collection as even flipping through it causes wafts of stale cigarette smell that give me a headache and make me nauseous. But I’ll endure for long enough to talk about it for a bit.

The preface about the author indicates that he was a well-respected Vancouver chef with a desire to share his recipes before he retired. It also indicates that Mr. Kam Long, who is presumably the Harry K. Long from the cover, “shares his experience in fine cooking by teaching you to prepare extraordinarily tasty and wholesome food, suitable for any diet and pocketbook.”

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Summer Reading – Lunch With Lady Eaton

Lunch with Lady Eaton – Inside the Dining Rooms of a Nation
Carol Anderson and Katharine Mallinson
206 pages, Ecw Press; April, 2004

When the first department stores opened across the country, they were considered to be (as they sometimes still are now) the death knell for small Mom & Pop stores that specialized in one niche market. And while some department stores like Wal-Mart continue to expand their grocery offering, higher-end shops have all but wiped out their food and grocery departments to specialize in higher-end luxury goods. But there was a time when Canadian department stores not only sold every dry good item imaginable, but they also made and sold food, both in their restaurants and as grocery items.

Case in point would be the long-defunct Eaton’s. The beloved Canadian department store chain began as a dry goods and hardware store under the guidance of founder Timothy Eaton. Early on, the store included coffee shops and restaurants in addition to a massive food hall. Eaton’s made their own baked goods on site, they owned dairies in rural Ontario which supplied the cream for the store to make its own butter, and by the early 1900s, the lunchroom of the downtown Toronto store was serving 5000 meals a day.

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On Professional Food Blogging

There’s an interesting piece on the Guardian’s food blog today about “professional food bloggers”, that is, people who started blogging and then went on to get book deals or paid writing gigs. The piece mostly looks at the realm of recipe bloggers and cook books, comparing the fresh voices of bloggers with the work of celebrity chefs.

I suspect that anybody who writes, dreams – even secretly – of doing it professionally. I kind of don’t buy the whole “I started a blog to share recipes with my friends and family” thing. Maybe, to start with, but if that was the case, why not just use email or Facebook?

Mind you, I also don’t get the whole idea of “community” and the assumption that everyone who has a food blog therefore automatically has something in common with every other food blogger on the planet. On the basest level we do, but that doesn’t create a community per se. Most of us also wear shoes but that doesn’t mean we all want to go shoe shopping together.

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Canadian Wine In Your Cooking

Built in the late 80s, our building, while considered swank in its day, still boasts a shared laundry room. Inside the door of the laundry room is a small counter that serves as a makeshift swap shop. Got old books and magazines? Leave them there. Old dishes, baby clothes, or home decor items? Somebody wants them!

Greg returned from the laundry room this morning and handed me this little pamphlet, published in 1966 by the Canadian Wine Institute, which, as best I can tell, no longer exists.

Now, if you know anything about Canadian wine, you’ll know that it really wasn’t taken seriously until about a decade or so ago. Canadian wine, what little there was of it, was notoriously bad. More amusing is the fact that there are no wineries, regions or specific varietals mentioned at all. The recipes included call for things such as “Canadian sweet or cream sherry” or “Canadian dry white table wine”, never giving the reader a clue as to what they should be looking for when buying said Canadian wine. I’m also a little taken aback by the number of recipes calling for sherry, although that might be the flashbacks to the bottles of “Fine Old Canadian Sherry” my teenaged friends and I consumed on the wharves of the Halifax dockyards in the 80s.

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Recommended Reading – Books on the Food Industry

So you’ve read Michael Pollan, probably Mark Bittman, but what other books should you be reading about the food industry? Turns out, someone’s compiled a list.

Created by comment/suggestions, I’m not sure I’d agree with everything on there (I’m not sure Why French Women Don’t Get Fat needs to be there, for instance), but there’s also plenty of obscure stuff that is informative and well-written but not necessarily well-known, such as the various books by Dr. Vandana Shiva (who everybody should read, just because she’s brilliant).

Also, a fair bit of it is out of date (Diet For a Small Planet, while still relevant, was written in the early 70s – it is the book that introduced and espoused the well-known (and now debunked) theory that vegetarians need to combine proteins at every meal to create a complete protein. Likewise, Diet For a New America was written in the mid-90s – in an industry where changes have been fast-paced in the past few years (I know, it doesn’t seem like it, but they are), I have no doubt that a fair amount of the information is not current.

Nevertheless, it is a fantastic list from which to get started and learn more about the industry, as long as readers keep in mind dates and context.

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When is a Badass Not a Badass?

Medium Raw
Anthony Bourdain

Harper Collins, 281 pages, 2010, $28.99CA

I was surprised, upon reading Medium Raw, to see that the sharp-clawed Anthony Bourdain had become a bit of a pussycat. And a timid one at that.

Bourdain has made a whole career out of being a tell-it-like-it-is, in-your-face kind of guy. He shit-talked people in his industry publicly, letting his feelings and opinions be well-known. And who knows if it’s the wisdom of age or some joyous glow of fatherhood, but many chapters of Medium Raw are Bourdain not just backing down, but rolling over and presenting his belly for a scratch. He once ripped apart Rachael Ray. But she sent him a fruit basket, and now they’re pals. He super shit-talked Alice Waters, but after meeting her (an event that scared him, probably because he expected her to call him out on his shit-talking) now admits that she’s probably (mostly) right about where our food comes from and changes that need to be made to our food system.

He still shit talks vegetarians, but even that is met with a softer edge, as he instead directs his anger at the factory farm systems that leave us eating burgers full of actual shit.

I guess I’m just trying to get my head around this kinder, gentler Bourdain, but it’s not jibing for me. Tony was the guy you could always count on to say what other people were thinking but were too afraid to say. Which is something I pride myself on doing, so maybe I’m just feeling a little betrayed that Tony has crossed to the other side.

He still calls people out – a whole chapter of Medium Raw is called Heroes and Villains, and he lists a pile of reasons for each call. And the chapter Alan Richman is a Douchbag has made the rounds online with food writers from all over taking sides. But I can’t help wondering – will Bourdain’s next book include a story about how he’s now friends with Richman because the GQ food writer sent him a a fruit basket?

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Not So Bright

There must be thousand of titles on bookstore shelves that deal with positive thinking. Achieve your goals, get your perfect mate, advance your career… all by simply being positive. Did you ever stop to wonder how many people that system actually works for?

Author Barbara Ehrenreich did, and wrote a book about it called Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. As evidenced by the title, Ehrenreich isn’t buying the positivity thing. Her own point of view comes from two separate situations, both of which she outlines in the book.

First, she recounts her experience with breast cancer and the seemingly constant mantra to always think positive thoughts. There is a whole industry surrounding cancer, particularly breast cancer, that hinges on people keeping positive and buying inspirational items (think of the pink ribbon campaign) to keep spirits up. When Ehrenreich admits on an online message board for cancer survivors that she sometimes feels grumpy or angry, people publicly admonish her. The belief that people are causing their own cancer, or are preventing their recovery by not being positive enough is quite prevalent.

Ehrenreich’s second experience with positive thinking – and the way in which people make money off of others’ desperation – comes when she writes a book about white collar workers who have been downsized and are trying to get back into the workforce. So much of the career counselling she writes about includes life coaches who help their clients learn positive thinking to achieve their career goals. But Ehrenreich isn’t buying it, noting that none of the positive thinking courses she took helped her to hone or improve workplace skills.

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Trauma Farm

Trauma Farm
Brian Brett
Greystone Books, 320 pages, $21.95

I almost didn’t give Trauma Farm a chance. Salt Springs Island farmer Brian Brett is also a poet (it’s his main source of income, in fact, and he jokes throughout the book that it supports his farming habit), and the first couple of chapters came off as overly-flowery. After stacks of tomes on farming and sustainable food that are dry and full of statistics, Brett’s descriptive, poetic style seemed too disconcerting.

Likewise, the style of arranging the book – stories that comprise the “18-year-long day” of life on a B.C. farm, can be confusing at first, as Brett bounces back and forth to different points in the farm’s history, while loosely arranging the chapters along the lines of a typical day at the farm. A story about the death of a cherished pet or animal will be followed by another story on a different theme where the same animal plays a role. Until the readers gets all the characters straight, and accepts the non-linear train-of-thought style, the whole thing can be hard to follow. Settling in and pretending that you’re sitting on Brett’s back porch while he sips tea and shares stories of the farm seems to be the best way to approach the book.

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The Food of a Younger Land

The Food Of A Younger Land
Edited and illustrated by Mark Kurlansky
Riverhead Books; 397 pages; $27.95

Seasonal, local, traditional. Before a certain period in time, these were the only options. There were no cross-country distribution networks, no fast food chains. And vast countries like the US had true regional cuisine.

Author Mark Kurlansky came across the archives for a book that was never published. Meant to be entitled America Eats, the book was to be an anthology of works produced by the regional offices of the Federal Writers Project. Created in the mid-30s during the depression, the FWP was part of a make-work project to help provide some semblance of an income to people in the arts (imagine that happening today!). The FWP created a variety of regional guidebooks during its run, some are still in use today, and included notable authors such as Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston and Nelson Algren.

America Eats was abandoned as the FWP wound down after the US joined the second world war. Submissions and files were gathered up – some, sadly, are lost, and nothing was ever done with them until Kurlansky stumbled upon them.

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Getting Grubby

Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces
Gayla Trail
Clarkson Potter, paperback, copyright 2010, 207 pages, $19.95

It’s a romantic notion to think that we could all move to the country and start a farm. The fact is, the majority of people live in cities out of necessity, and few of us have space for a huge garden. But Gayla Trail thinks that fact shouldn’t stop us, and that most people have a little bit of space, whether it’s a yard, a balcony or a fire escape, in which to grow great grub.

Trail’s book is an excellent primer for anyone looking to get started on their own organic garden. Concepts and directions are presented in a straight-forward, down to earth manner that is welcoming to even the most alternative of personalities – and which will speak more to hipster than horticultural society matron. In fact there are a few passages that were even a bit shocking to me, such as the chapter where Trail discusses companion planting and uses the analogy of sticking “Jesus-loving uncle Bill next to your abortion doctor sister-in-law” at a wedding. Funny stuff, but it might offend anyone picking this up without being familiar with Trail’s style of writing.

Grow Great Grub touches on all the basics of gardening in small spaces, from how to build boxes or plant potatoes in garbage bins to creating great compost. A small section on community gardens and guerrilla gardens offers more alternatives to those with no space of their own, and Torontonians will recognize photos of some of the garden spaces included in the book from various spots around the city, particularly Queen West and Parkdale.

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Nose in a Book

It’s a sad fact that most of the reading I do nowadays is work-related. 200+ news articles a day to sort through for Save Your Fork and TasteTO, books to review, articles to edit. And even my “just for fun” stack of reading tends towards food theory.

Before the holidays I combed the book guides in the newspapers and spent an afternoon on the Toronto Public Library website requesting books, a number of which were novels. Three of them finally became available last week and I bemoaned my misfortune and lack of foresight in not making some of them inactive (TPL lets you stay in the queue for popular books but accept them only when you’re ready). How was I going to get through all of these in the three weeks I was allowed to have them checked out?

Of course, I forgot how fast I can read fiction. I forgot what’s it’s like to get my nose in a book. I forgot that when I’m in the middle of a story, nothing else matters and nothing else registers. Being pulled from that story, whether by interruption or necessity is physically, agonizingly painful. Like being awakened in the middle of a sound sleep and dragged out of bed. My facial expression during the 24 hours it took me to read The Book of Negroes was almost permanently at a scowl unless I was actually reading. If I wasn’t in the book, I was thinking about how I could get back to it, or how perturbed I was at having to set it down.

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Pinch Me – Alexandra Park Comes Together Over the Stove

People who know Alexandra Park can speak to its great ethnic diversity. Like a smaller version of Toronto itself, it rings with the sounds of a hundred languages, and the delicious cooking smells of many different cultures. A Pinch of This – Recipes From Alexandra Parkis an initiative of Recipe For Community, a resident-inspired partnership with a focus on food, convening, youth engagement and neighbourhood beautification. The organization has spear-headed an number of projects that range from window flower boxes and public art to an outdoor commons area that includes benches and picnic tables. An organic vegetable garden has been created in a central courtyard with a variety of plots, two of which are raised to provide access for those with mobility restraints. There is also an outdoor kitchen with barbeques so residents can prepare meals and swap recipes.

A  project of the Green Space Collective, Recipe For Community brings together local residents to share their individual recipes, foodways and cultures. A Pinch of This offers recipes from Jamaica, Trinidad, China, Italy, the Middle East Afghanistan, the Philippines and others. With the assistance of food writer Marion Kane, and contributions from Kane, local councillor Adam Vaughan, and mayor David Miller, the book offers a culinary snapshot of the neighbourhood.

Recipes include pastelles (a Trinidadian twist on tamales), a vegetarian version of a Jamaican mackerel dish, kosheree, chicken adobo, and an oxtail stew contributed by resident Effie Henry, whose claim that she doesn’t cook by books inspired the ‘pinch of this’ title. While a few of the recipes, such as Henry’s, are obviously long-standing family specialties, a few are culled from published cookbooks and obviously represent the vibrancy and diversity of the neighbourhood. The ingenious part is that this is how many Torontonians eat – choosing to “visit” different cultures through their restaurants or recipes, so such a diverse collection doesn’t seem odd at all.

Money raised from sales of A Pinch of This will go to the Alexandra Park Green Space Collective to fund a community cooking program and gardens. The book is available for purchase for $5 by calling 416-678-3439 or emailing greenspacecollective@yahoo.ca.

Image: Geanie Sarjue prepares for the launch party of A Pinch of This – Recipes From Alexandra Park in early December. Photo courtesy City of Toronto.

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Stupid Is as Stupid Does

The foodie intarwebs are abuzz about a recent post by cookbook author Michael Ruhlman claiming that Americans are being taught that they’re too stupid to cook. While I get Ruhlman’s point (lots of people are making a profit on processed food because people are scared to try and cook food themselves), there’s a condescension to his words, a pompousness to his tone, that does a disservice to his message.

If you know how to cook, then yes, cooking is easy. Ruhlman uses a basic roast chicken as an example; sprinkle it with salt, bang it in the oven for an hour, ta da! And those of us who know how to cook understand this. But we also understand many things that a non-cook might not know; things that Ruhlman doesn’t mention in his post. Like washing and patting the chicken dry first, and taking care to clean all surfaces to avoid salmonella. Or to take out that bag of gizzards if there is one. Or whether to cook it on a rack in the pan or directly in the pan itself. Or whether to truss or not (it’s not mentioned in the “look how easy this is” post, and a small chicken doesn’t need to be trussed, but the accompanying photo shows a trussed roast chicken, which might cause confusion), or how much time to add for cooking if your bird is bigger than the size he mentions, or how to check for doneness when the bird comes out of the oven. A commenter even points out that, hey, not everyone, especially people who don’t cook regularly, might have an appropriate pan to cook a chicken in.

Ruhlman knows all these tricks of course, but he misses the point by not sharing the information, and the information is really what it’s all about. Seriously – compare his directions to these from Chef Claire Tansey. It’s the same basic recipe, but Tansey actually addresses all the little questions that can make a difference in both the final product and the cook’s confidence.

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The End of Overeating

The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable North American Appetite
David A. Kessler M.D.
Rodale Books 2009, 336 pages, hardcover

I am one of those people who cannot walk past a plate of cookies. I’m not a binger – I’d never dream of eating the whole plate at once. But over the course of a day, I’d find excuses to wander past and have one. Or two. Only to discover at the end of the day that I’d consumed a dozen without even realizing it.

Dr. David Kessler has written a book just for me, offering techniques and tips on how to end overeating and lose weight.

No, honest.

Okay, so if you don’t believe that line, I can’t really blame you because Kessler’s book left me feeling about as frustrated and annoyed as if I had been lied to.

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Down(town) On the Farm

Farm City
Novella Carpenter
Penguin Press, 2009, hardcover, 276 pages

Idyllic dreams of moving to the country to become a farmer abound – in this era of local food and “who’s your farmer”, most people involved in the local food scene long for their own garden patch and flock of chickens. We tell ourselves it’s impossible in the city, and if we choose to obey local by-laws, it usually is.

The answer then, is to live somewhere that is almost lawless – where the local cops have more important things to worry about than whether your turkey gets loose and runs through the neighbourhood, terrorizing the local crack dealers.

Such is the unique situation writer Novella Carpenter has found herself living in. A resident of downtown Oakland, Carpenter and her partner Bill rent a second floor flat in a house next to an abandoned lot, and over the years, she’s expanded her Ghost Town Farm from a few laying chickens and a garden to include honeybees, meat poultry, rabbits and pigs. She’s also taken over the vacant lot next door, and has encouraged neighbours to join her.

Carpenter’s book, Farm City, The Education of an Urban Farmer, chronicles the growth of Carpenter’s farm, a progression in which she continually pushes the boundaries of what a city farmer can do (and what a motley crew of neighbours will endure).

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The Savvy Shopper – Has Local Become a Dirty Word?

I was not a fan of the 100-Mile Diet or the philosophy behind it when the book was first published. I thought that the idea of such a narrow criteria in terms of what one chose to eat was a bit beside the point. The concept of food miles is a joke (can you really calculate the carbon footprint of a single mango?); sometimes food from away just tastes better than food grown nearby; and as an overall lifestyle change that people could make – for any reason – it would be both impractical and expensive.

The theory got a lot of flak as it grew in popularity, and charges of elitism were prevalent. Only someone with a lot of time and money could afford to search out locally grown grub. And in a society where the food budget is the first thing that gets cut in times of financial crisis, few people would be willing to give up their cheap imports. And let’s not forget about the fact that, here in Canada, many good and wonderful things that we’re accustomed to having in our kitchens – things like olive oil, spices, chocolate, coffee, tea and citrus – all need to come from away.

On the other hand, long before local food became trendy, I was an advocate of shopping locally. It only makes sense that we support the businesses around us. That we buy from the small place on the corner if their stuff is as good as the big guy’s, and that we encourage local artisans and help strengthen our local economies.

Turns out there is a backlash growing against local food. The main proponent being author James McWilliams in a new book titled  Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. I’ve not read the thing yet, and it’s not getting particularly good reviews, so I don’t want to comment on the content, but McWilliams seems to paint locavores as crazy (and maybe that’s true), and has a lot of criticism for organics.

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Margaritaville – Where Cupcake and Cocktail Collide

Here’s why purging your belongings every now and then is a good idea. Greg and I have been meaning to cull our bookshelves for a couple of years now. We live in a small apartment and shelf space is at a premium, which is to say that we’ve completely filled the four standard bookshelves in our living room. While I try to live with the rule of “something in, something out”, the husband is a bit more of a collector and the old bookshelves were beyond the point of full this past spring with stacks of books on beer piled in corners and selected food politics titles jammed in wherever they might fit.

So we started filling a box, looking at every item on the shelf, assessing whether it should stay or go. You get to keep that Clive Barker novel if I get to keep my dog-eared Nabokovs, you can keep the Michael Jackson beer books if I can keep those Marion Nestle tomes… but I can live without the Gordon Ramsay biography if you’ll part with all those old Wired magazines…

One of the things I refused to part with is my collection of 50s and 60s era cookbooks – not because I’ll ever use any of them, but because they’re cool in their own “gallery of regrettable food” kind of way. But in beside them I discovered a cupcake cookbook. Relatively new (maybe a year or two old), I remembered purchasing it but could not for the life of me remember why it got banished to the Siberia of books I never look at but must keep.

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