Monday, April 26, 2010

The Food Experience

I've been blogging a lot about food - the buying of food, the cooking of food, the research of food and the finding of really good food, but what of the truest of all things that come to mind when we think of food - what about the consumption of food? The actual act of eating the food? Have I lost sight of what this is all about?

The simple answer is: no. It is simply that I believe that for most of us this is where our focus has always been, leaving us nearly blind to all of the other facets of food. It was my feeling when I began this blog that I did not need to worry about the consumption portion of the conversation, because that was something that I simply had already mastered and understood so completely - there was no need for any reflection. I was wrong.

I had an epiphany of taste today and it came from, if you can even believe this, an English muffin.

Let me back up for a moment to contextualize this conversation before I go any further. I have been home sick since last Thursday as a result of one of the worst Ileitis/Crohn's disease flare ups I have ever experienced. I have been a slave to the ever so bland "BRAT diet" (Bananas, Rice, Applesauce and Toast) for five days running. I have, in my kitchen, waiting for me (and so far still safe to consume since being purchased Tuesday night): organic potatoes, a head of cauliflower, fresh asparagus, baby spinach, red tomatoes and, lord help me, they look amazing - fresh red strawberries... but I can eat none of them. I can eat only the BRAT. Needless to say, I ran out of BRAT supplies quickly, so, yesterday, after coming out of the hospital with a discharge letter saying: eat BRAT and see your GI ASAP, my husband took me over to the supermarket to get more BRAT stuff. As I was grabbing a loaf of white bread, I had a stroke of inspiration - English Muffins are just like toast, so I grabbed them. Which leads us back to today...

The English Muffin Moment - A True Food Experience

Thomas' English muffins are not organic, they are not fresh, and I did not, unfortunately pick them up at a local bakery or market straight from the baker's hands... I bought them at King Kullen. Their list of ingredients is also not something I would shout from the rooftops as an exemplar of the untainted foods I am on a quest to find to nourish myself with on this "Search for Sustenance" I have set forth upon. However, today, this morning. no one could convince me of the virtues of any other food stuff outweighing that of my luscious english muffin.

I woke with, yet again, an unsettled stomach - waging war upon itself over issues no soldier in the battle could even remember - and feeling as though I had been beaten before my day even began, stumbled into the kitchen. When I entered I noticed my husband had left out the toaster for me, a glimmer of hope for a day filled with small serendipity. I clambered to the cabinet, grasped the familiar orange and white box set inside a clear plastic bag and fumbled for a muffin. After forking the muffin in two, I placed each piece (one always smaller than the other!) into the toaster slots and waited.

When they popped, I was already taken a-back at the beauty of my English muffin. I thought about taking a picture of the toasted masterpiece because it looked just like the commercial. I almost grabbed my phone to take a picture, but my stomach lurched and I knew not to break the cardinal rule of English muffin consumption - eat while still warm! I put a hint of butter on each muffin half, stacked them on top of each other to contain the heat and melt the butter and brought the muffins back to bed (I never do this, but my tummy was making the rules).

I sat down, put the covers back over me and closed my eyes. I wanted to get through eating the muffin without any stomach interruptions...

With my eyes closed, I bit down and my other senses took over. I could smell the warm muffin with the hint of butter as it passed under my nose to my lips. I could feel every nook and cranny gently scrape the roof of my mouth as the grains on the bottom of the muffin half rolled along my tongue. I could hear every crunch and crackle as the nooks and crannies burst in my mouth to reveal their soft inner, un-toasted, yet still warm, muffin yumminess. And I could TASTE , of course I could taste! - the butter, the muffin, the toasted outer parts, the warm insides - so DELICIOUS. And with every bite I repeated the same ritual.

I found myself chewing longer just to savor the experience, listening closely, recognizing that even sound plays a part in the true food experience! It was fantastic, it was wonderful, it was sustenance not only for my stomach, but for my soul and my sanity. I had been going mad with blandness and limitations - sure that I could never, in fact, get better without sustenance.

The whole experience called to mind a book I picked up some months before I started losing my vision called The Flavor Bible. It was one of those books that I planned to read over a long course of time, perusing here and there as the mood strikes, instead of reading by brute force cover to cover. Well, I recall, in the beginning of the book, the authors began to discuss the many levels and aspects of taste - calling in all of the senses and even emotion/sentimentality. I am paraphrasing because I, of course, do not have the book in front of me, but I imagine that if you have the opportunity to flip through this book or decide to buy it (I think it might be worth it!), you might see the true validity and possibility in the mundane English Muffin becoming quite so spectacular for me today.

I challenge you to have an epiphany of taste. Eat quietly, eat purposefully and enjoy the experience. Yes, we need food to live, but let's really think about that we need food to LIVE. What if the food experience defines our living - not just by what we eat but also by how we eat it? This is something to think about when we are rushing in a breakfast or lunch while juggling all types of life things around at the same time! This is definitely something to think about when eating dinner in front of a television or over a pile of work...

Well, if nothing else (I am really sorry, I can not avoid this pun), it is food for thought.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Jack Bishop is my New Hero!

After my shopping for all of my fresh produce last weekend, I was looking forward to making some delicious meals with my new ingredients. I knew they would taste wonderful because they were fresh, but beyond that, I really had little idea of what I should do with them. I imagined I would be spending every evening, on the computer, or my iPhone, searching frantically on for the perfect vegetable recipe. I further imagined that through these searches I would find a short list of pleasing recipes that were simple enough to use over and over again.

Vegetables Every Day: The Definitive Guide to Buying and Cooking Today's Produce With More Than 350 Recipes
My new Veggie-Bible!
On Tuesday night, however, something wonderful happened - I ended up in Barnes & Noble. I decided to mosey over to the cookbook section to see if I could glean any veggie knowledge from a quick perusal of some cookbooks in stock. After about two minutes, I was sitting on the floor, cross-legged, with a small pile of vegetable cookbooks in front of me and Vegetables Every Day by Jack Bishop opened in my lap. I was in instant "book-love." I knew I wouldn't need to look at any of the other books in the pile in front of me and I knew I would not be searching the internet for my veggie recipes!

Jack Bishop put together an alphabetical listing of all types of vegetables, wrote an introduction for each and followed each up with a number of recipes that are both simple and enticing. My mouth was watering as I read each recipe. I felt like I should be taking notes as I read each introduction. I wondered if people would judge me if they saw me in the supermarket or at the farmer's market carrying around my new cookbook to reference it as I attempted to pick out the freshest and tastiest vegetables. I wanted to go home and cook all of the vegetables in my kitchen even though we had already eaten dinner and it was well past nine pm!

I brought the book with me to work the next day to show everyone I could. I felt that everyone needed to have their own copy of Bishop's book. On Wednesday afternoon, I started cooking right away when I entered the house - I wanted to try Bishop's Roasted Asparagus and his Roasted Potatoes with Garlic and Rosemary. Both recipes were simple, they did not require a ton of ingredients, and they were DELICIOUS. My husband and I were blown away by the amazing flavors and became instant super-fans of Jack Bishop!

I am looking forward to my next shopping trip, so I can finally feel free to buy nearly any vegetable I see with the confidence that I will have something to do with it when I get home. I am taking notes in my cookbook to try to see how many of the recipes I can try. I am excited by the entire adventure and owe Jack Bishop a huge THANK YOU!!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Tomato Trauma

I started off my work-week by bringing in some pasta with my homemade sauce to eat for lunch today. As I ate, I told my coworker of my Marinara Sauce mission on Saturday morning and how, for the sake of my husband, I had to make sure there were pre-made meals ready to go in case he got sick again! I began to discuss the recipe and how many cans of tomatoes I had used, when my coworker interjected with, "I know you are concerned with food and everything, have you heard about how the canned tomatoes are bad for you?"

I was so happy and horrified at the same time. On Saturday evening I actually said to my husband, " I don't even remember how to peel tomatoes. I think it is a pain in the butt." He asked why I mentioned it and I explain that I wasn't sure how I felt about the cans, even though that was how my family had always done it. I did, however, point out to him that the fresh tomatoes would probably make for a truly delectable sauce and, for that reason alone, I would someday undertake this mission of peeling.

So, when my friend at work, Chris, laid this bombshell on me about the canned tomatoes, I simply imagined myself in a big mess of tomato juice, peels and seeds, hopelessly trying to peel some tomatoes. Even so, I needed to know what was wrong with the canned tomatoes!! He said he couldn't remember it exactly, but it was something about the cans leeching some chemical into the tomatoes - gross! I decided to Google it and impressed Chris with my Googling skills, when I began to read, out loud, the same article he read. It was a wealth of information.

The article is called The 7 Foods Experts Won't Eat and it, evidently made a lot of news when it first came out, but I must have been unwilling, or at least, not ready (it looks like it was published right around THANKSGIVING time!), to hear what it said. Well, I am more than ready now! I highly recommend that you read this article ASAP and in order to accommodate you with the appropriate time required to do so (and, in turn, share the news with your friends and family once you have finished reading), I will stop writing right now.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

I Stopped and I Shopped and then... I Ate

Since my husband and I ate out most of our week off due to the deluge in our basement, this previous week was eventful in ways I thought my Easter/Passover break would have been. First, we finished the chicken breasts we had in the house, then we finished the Ahi Tuna steaks and we ran out of eggs and milk. I felt as though a weight was lifted. When I attempted to find something to eat Friday night, I was delighted by my struggle, but Saturday morning, though, I was frustrated. I feared I would not be able to find the replacement foods I needed due to my husband's recent infection from allergies gone wild - I was going to have to shop local and alone... was I just going to end up with the same stuff?

Well, before I even blogged yesterday, I decided we needed something to make it through these days of sparse food, in case I was less than successful, so I made a HUGE batch of marinara sauce (for my family's recipe, click here). I was inspired to do so when I saw what my husband had noshed on all day when I was at work on Friday: there was evidence of cereal, chips and salsa, yogurt and then he confessed to getting a Bacon egg and cheese sandwich in the morning. I was able to trace his eating pattern by the plates strewn all over the kitchen counter, in the sink and some, woefully, in the living room. However, this was all before his allergy medicine and he was therefore miserable and delirious, so all infractions are forgiven!

I then dilly-dallied for most of the day before buckling down to get to the store. Truth be told, I feared a repeat of my last shopping attempt... Finally, at around 6:15pm, my husband dropped me off at my local Stop n' Shop, a store I am not all too familiar with, but have always liked the organic foods aisle in. My goal for the trip: buy FRESH produce, organic when possible, check out the egg situation, see if this store carries Gardein and, finally, reacquaint myself with what is available in the organic foods aisle.

One day later and, after I have eaten, I can say that I feel satisfied with my first truly conscious food shopping (EVERY SINGLE ITEM was scrutinized before I placed it in my cart), but the process itself was quite a difficult one for me to take on alone. Perhaps I bit off more than I could chew (pun intended!) for a first go . Here were my major stumbling points:

1. Stop N' Shop is not "My" Grocery Store. I know "my" grocery store (a Waldbaums, recently turned King Kullen), like the back of my hand. I know their layout, I understand the flow of the store an intention of placement of items. I have been going there for so many years, I pretty much know where, in general to find all things, even if they are not things I normally buy because I know which aisle it would be in.

2. I still have pretty bad vision. Even though potassium has been helping me out in the energy department , it did not, miraculously return my vision to normal (unfortunately). For this reason, my extra careful scrutiny of items was an agonizing process of glasses on, glasses off, reading labels, reading ingredients, looking at prices, leaning over the mountains of potatoes, lemons, nectarines, bananas, mushrooms, tomatoes, etc. and deciphering: are these Organic? Some of this issues would have been solved if Stop N' Shop were "my" store - after 45 minutes in the produce section I finally discovered that organic produce has a large orange, curve sign above it (I almost wanted to cry when I saw that - there should be a grocery store KEY somewhere that tells you these things! I would have been through that section in 15 minutes!). Some of the issues would have been solved with another set of eyes!

The result of these two minor issues: the shopping trip took me a little over two hours and my organic aisle did not get the attention I had plan to give it due to (of course) a pretty damning headache that lasted until I finally fell asleep.

And yet, I still feel as though this trip was a great success. Here's why:

  • I did it! If you have been following my blog, the fact that I actually made it out to the store, is a success in and of itself. In addition, the fact that I did it on my own is also pretty damn cool (even if it did suck me dry for the night!)
  • I bought fresh (and mostly Organic). I always buy my fruit fresh, but I noticed over the years that I have been buying more and more of my vegetables frozen or canned. I don't know and/or remember what led to this transition, but so it goes. We actually have a second freezer in the basement and a full pantry. I was struck, at the end of this trip, when putting all of the items away, how I did not need to go downstairs with ONE item. The majority of my purchases went right in the refrigerator. I can't remember the last time that happened and it feels right. My freezer will still be used, of course, like tonight, when I put in all of the extra marinara sauce to be consumed at a later date.
  • I found Gardein. I thought this would be a difficult item to find, but there, at the end of the produce section, is the refrigerated case, was the product Tal Ronnen wrote about in his cookbook The Conscious Cook, that I was so curious about. It is protein, made of soy (no GMOs), but not tofu and, he claimed had a texture so similar to meat that many people he had served it to did not even know the difference. I have toyed with tofu before, so I know how arduous it can be to get the texture "right." This Gardein piqued my curiosity (Gardein's website). There were three varieties in the store, I bought one of each!
  • I learned my way around... a bit. If you spend two hours in a place, you get to know a little bit about it. I was no a complete stranger to Stop N' Shop before this trip, but I definitely feel a bit more comfortable about going back there again (and maybe next time STARTING off with the organics aisle, instead of ending off with it!).
Only time will tell if this was truly a success - can we eat the fresh food while it is still fresh? Did I buy too much for the week, or too little? What meals will come from these choices (although I had some in mind, I definitely have not planned them all out!)? Is this supermarket a viable option for healthy eating, or will I find something even better at the farmer's markets? And... the big question: Can we find the sustenance we need from these purchases considering I did not buy any meat?

Well, today was day 1, and while we did eat the chicken and the tuna steaks, there are still meat remnants in the house. Here's how our food day played out:
  • Breakfast: We both ate our respective cereals. My husband also had a yogurt which he has been taking with his antibiotic.
  • Lunch: My husband made a tuna fish sandwich and a salad. I could not resist - I had to try the Gardein (Sante Fe) with a salad. The Gardein was really, surprisingly good! I am still not completely sold on this product, as it is packaged and microwaved, but, it was delicious. I can absolutely understand how Tal Ronnen's dinner guests were fooled into thinking they were eating meat.
  • Snack: We cracked open a box of organic, no wheat, gluten-free, dairy-free chocolate chunk cookies that were extra yummy!
  • Dinner: Pasta with home-made marinara sauce and ricotta.
I don;t know if this is the healthiest day of food ever, but I can, at least say that some of yesterday's purchases have already gone to work!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Food Revolution and Consumption Revelation

Not long after my last post I spun into a very helpless and hopeless place: I was overcome with lethargy, brain pain and an inability to get myself through a shopping trip. How long after the blog, you ask? Well, I took my shower, got dressed, finished making my list, waited for my husband (who would be driving me, of course) and when I saw he was gathering his things to go, I grabbed my shoes, put one on, started to tie it and - WHOA... that was it. I needed to go to bed. It was very upsetting for so many reasons, not the least of which being that my health seemed to be impeding me from doing good for my health! Anyway, it was finally enough for me to say I need to see my neurologist again and, by some miracle, I got an appointment for the next day, Tuesday.

My Consumption Revelation
Here's the consumption revelation, thanks to my neurologist: I have been severely lacking in potassium. I forgot that she was the one that prescribed the potassium pill to me in June of last year. I stopped taking it in August because it scared the heck out of me! I started reading all about the side effects of too much potassium (ie. potassium is used in the "lethal injections" for the death penalty), but never bothered to read the side effects of too little (almost everything I have been feeling in the last couple of weeks/months!). I thought I was smart enough to handle this one on my own with bananas and V8 juice, but there was no way to keep up. I started taking the potassium pill again on Thursday and the difference in my energy level alone was palpable - not only by me, but also by those around me.

This one particular revelation has me wondering if I should seek a nutritionist's advice about my food choices, since I am so heavily medicated, however, I fear a person who will simply hand me a pile of vitamin supplements rather than tell me what foods I should be seeking. It is a developing thought in my mind right now... it needs time, further research and advisement from others, before I will feel confident enough to act on it.

For now, I want to work with food.

Food Revolutions each Friday
Fridays are becoming a great day for food reflection for me, since I end off each Friday night watching Jaime Oliver's Food Revolution. I love this show, if, for no other reason, than the validation of my own thoughts. I am not crazy: many constructs in this country have been built up to work against us.

I have seen, first hand, the cafeteria food offered to our own students and wondered why children would be offered this food. I teach in New York City where, a number of years ago, the mayor declared that there would be no more soda sold to our students in schools - I thought, "This is an awesome move. I am proud to be a part of this," and the soda machines moved out. However, a huge contract was signed and the soda machines were replaced with Snapple machines (Snapple In NYC schools)!

How is this better? Yes, bottled water is an option, but the rest is sugar water. I remember asking, years ago about the cafeteria food and learning about the rules that keep binding Jamie up in Huntington, WV. It is, in short, heart-breaking... and, when educated people start really learning about what is going on it will then be seen for what it really is: criminal.

My Own Elementary Food Learning
I never took home economics. I went to catholic school and that was not part of the curriculum. However, my mother, my grandmother and even my grandfather (who barely ever cooked!) all took the time to teach me about food. In fact, wow, I didn't even realize this until just typing this now, but my last conversation with my father before he died was about cooking. The last words I ever spoke to him were, "Thank you," for the mini-lesson he gave me on cooking fried pizza (OK, OK not the healthiest recipe ever!), before meeting his regular Wednesday-night poker crew on Thanksgiving Eve in 1988.

My point is this: food was a very serious part of my at home curriculum - my mother would cook as if she were running her own cooking show in the kitchen hoping that we were always listening. My grandmother took me grocery shopping with her in Brooklyn when I was in grade school - I remember her teaching me about the difference between a male and female eggplant. I remember my grandfather, on a similar trip showing me how to pick out a good ear of corn by poking my nail in a kernel to see if it squirts out "milk." I remember being so happy coming home to my mother after these trips anxious to share what I learned.

Are these learning moments no longer available to children? Were these things taught in Home Economics? If parents, grandparents and other family members are not up to the task - isn't it our schools' responsibility to do so? Last night, on Food Revolution, one of the politicians said something like, " (I am pretty sure I do not have down exactly...) We've taught them to read and write, now we'll teach them how to be healthy." I was so taken a-back by this statement - isn't it completely backwards? And do not get me wrong, I value a good education (I am teacher for goodness sakes!), but doesn't health come first? The gentleman was all smiles when he stated this, he believed he was one of Jamie's converted, and he is definitely moving in the right direction, but I think he is still missing a really big piece of the puzzle.


Well, that's my say for now. I think I might have a little more left later today or this weekend, so stay tuned, but if you have not yet checked out Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution Global petition, I suggest you do!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Washed Away Dreams...

After I wrote my last blog, I woke up the next morning with a plan: I was going shopping! I waited for my husband to eat his breakfast and wipe the sleep from his eyes before I engaged him in one of my food conversations. It was raining Tuesday morning, so I wasn't sure that it would be the best day for a farm visit (I really want to look around when I get there if I can!), so this conversation was going to require some extra finesse - I wanted to negotiate TWO days of food shopping: Tuesday for Whole Foods and the Farmer's Market at the ferry and Wednesday for the farm trip. It took some negotiating, a quick glance at our whole vacation spread before us (we had exactly seven days left), a sketch of all of things each of us wanted to accomplish in that time, but it was agreed - we would go out to the Whole Foods in New Jersey, right over the bridge.

I opened my MacBook to search for the exact address and get directions when I heard it... a splash. I leaped up, "That's water," my heart was in my throat - what pipe just burst?! My husband said, "No, something just fell. RELAX." Unfortunately, we were both right - I heard a splash because my laundry bag, full of clothes (of course) fell into brown, smelly water that was at least 5 inches deep in our entire basement. Needless to say, we didn't make it to go Whole Foods, the Farmer's Market, nor have we fulfilled any of our vacation/free time desires. I'm sorry to say that the time in between was filled with ordering in and not eating very healthy either, but after you have been cleaning a basement filled with sewage, or dealing with the wreckage from it, the last thing you want to do is cook (and one is left wondering - should you be cooking like this??) So we ate pizza, sandwiches, more pizza, ordered from Better (a "healthy" take out place by us), but very little home-cooked food (one meal at my mother-in-law's?).

So, it's Monday again... I didn't mean for it to be exactly a week since my last post (I thought I would have SO much more to write about in the interim!), and I am going to attempt to go food shopping again, but we are shooting for today, and we are going local. I am going to go check out our Stop n Shop - I used t go there all of the time because of their great organic selection, but it was getting very expensive. I have heard the prices have gotten better, I guess I'll find out today. I also plan to cook tonight and, hopefully, continue to make a dent in the meat in our house, but I have to be realistic here: our home is still sort of like a funhouse. There is not much we can do about it since we have to wait for the insurance adjuster on Wednesday to see it as is, but it is hard to ignore and it is difficult to focus on anything else besides CLEAN UP CLEAN UP CLEAN UP! So wish me luck, that I can focus on all aspects of personal health: my internal as well as my external!

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