8.31.2008

Getting one's gastronomical bearings

Having recently moved to a new neighborhood in Manhattan, I find that part of the fun of moving is discovering all of the places where I will buy groceries, kitchen supplies, specialty foods, wine, hardware, and the like. Our old neighborhood, the Dominican outpost of Washington Heights, left something to be desired in the way of grocery shopping, though we undoubtedly spent less when we didn't have an enormous supermarket, a la Fairway, within walking distance.

And now we do. Now we live within walking distance of the Fairway at 125th St. Oh, how we have come up in the world! Yesterday we paid a visit to said store, got lost in their cold room, bought way more than we had anticipated (sound familiar?), and left weighted down with bags and bags of foodstuffs and goodness. Oh, how I love going to supermarkets of that caliber! -- racks of anchovies and dried figs and gluten-free pasta galore; cheeses from France and Wisconsin, real roast beef, and cheesecloth.

Dinner last night was excellent, too, our first blow-out meal in our new kitchen: coq au vin, plus my version of grilled Argentina polenta with grilled zucchini and eggplant, and a simple salad of greens, all accompanied by a stellar wine that had been left by some considerate friend on the occasion of a past dinner party (alas, we can't remember whose gift it was).

As a passing note, I should mention that, while in Italy, I discovered the secret of polenta while reading Wilma Pezzini's 1982 treasure, The Tuscan Cookbook, which happened to be lying around the house where we were staying. I love grilled polenta, especially when it's cooked in a little butter and the edges become crispy, but after returning to the U.S. from Argentina I had no luck making it. Every time I cooked up a batch of polenta, I ended up with a watery pudding that more resembled grits or congee than the firm batter I was looking to fry up. I racked my brains but all that I could conclude was that I was using too much water, and I resigned myself to polenta stew, with plenty of cheese for good measure -- that is, until I read Pezzini's chapter on the subject, an experience that I like to refer to as my polenta enlightenment.

What's the secret to great polenta? Whether you like it stewed or grilled, you have to pay attention to the grind. The larger the grind, the sloppier the mix. For polenta that you can spread with a paddle, let cool, and chop up into wedges to grill, you need the finely ground grain, almost powdery in its consistency. Fairway happens to carry just such a grain, by an Argentina producer, de la Estancia. My nostalgia for Argentina led me to purchase that variety instead of any of the five or so Italian offerings that the supermarket had on hand.

My recipe for grilled polenta:

Ingredients:
3 cups water
1 t. salt
1 cup finely ground polenta
2 T. butter
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 c. freshly grated hard cheese, like parmeggiano, grana padano or piave
Supplies: clean flat surface, like a wooden cutting board

1. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil. When the water is near boiling, add a teaspoon of salt and stir to thoroughly dissolve.
2. While stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, add the polenta to the water in a slow stream. Continue to stir while cooking, on medium-high heat, for another 2-20 minutes (at this point you have to use your intuition or consult the back of the box to figure out how long your grain should cook), until the batter thickens considerably and it is somewhat of an effort to move the spoon.
3. Next, quickly, before the polenta cools and hardens, pour it out onto the cutting board, and spread it out to a 1/2 inch thickness, smoothing the surface so that it is consistent throughout. Let the polenta on the board cool, either at room temperature or by popping the board into the freezer for a few minutes.
4. Once cool, cut the polenta into wedges, or any other desired shape (squares, circles, Santa Claus shapes, etc.).
5. Heat butter on medium-high heat in a skillet until melted. Grill the polenta, a few pieces at a time, turning frequently to brown both sides.
6. Arrange polenta wedges on a serving plate, and before they cool, sprinkle them with grated cheese, salt, and pepper.  Serve with grilled vegetables for a hearty side, or use to mop up meat juices (as we did with the coq au vin).

Delicioso.

8.29.2008

The gendered aspects of bike maintenance

"I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can't get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."

--Susan B. Anthony, 1896


Last night, in one last effort to unpack our belongings before we fell into bed in a mangled heap, Chuan and I put together our bikes. Or, rather, he put the bikes together and I watched, to learn how it is done, so that I can stop relying on him, in typical gendered fashion, to keep our bikes in repair and the toolbox in order.

I have always enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together again, for those simple acts of destruction and creation teach us so much about the origin of common things. This must be part of what motivates my cooking and knitting: a desire to understand how things are made, their forms and purposes. Yet lately I am conscious that these activities, in our small household, are occurring in stereotypical fashion: while I engross myself in cookbooks and knitting magazines, my husband researches the latest model computer and plans new ways to put our bookshelves together. Before we were married, before I left home, and with no brothers in the way, I also did these things. But marriage has brought with it the convenience of specialization, and despite our best efforts at equal partnership, we too often follow the patterns set out for us: I nurture, he solves; I create, he fixes.

I know what is going on here. There are simply too many external and internal motivators (social learning theory, anyone?) that push me to be domestic and him to be analytic, so that to deviate from those roles requires a bit of effort on both of our parts, such as last night, when I found myself staring through my bike's carbon fork and trying to determine whether or not the front wheel was on straight. Was this really me? This woman who is learning to not only ride, but repair and maintain, her bike?

Yes, this is me, and I find that, once I get started, there is no limit to the things that I can take pleasure in, whether they fall under a masculine or feminine rubric. I want to ride because I want to go fast, breathe hard, get dirty and get lost. I want to ride because my body feels good when I'm above the wheels, going hard, going fast, and because riding reminds me of a time when athletics were about keeping up with the boys and not looking good for the boys. I want to get out on the loop around Central Park and surprise a few of those old men in tights, show them that I can keep up with the best of them, even if only for half a lap. I want to ride today in this body, feminine and soft and speedy all at once, and just be me.

But first, I have to build my bike.

8.27.2008

(Re)union

What about this move, and starting school, and returning to New York, has me yearning to do yoga again? I thought that I would be on my bike again as soon as I got back to the City, but somehow I can't stop thinking of my mat.

Yoga once occupied a similar space in my life as knitting and biking do now -- the sort of grounding, yet energizing activities that someone as riddled with anxiety as I am needs to stay sane -- but yoga has definitely fallen by the wayside in the past year or two. The spark went out sometime around the day when touching my toes was no longer an effort, when my scoliosis no longer plagued my lower back, and my shoulders, at last, shrugged their way out of their usual kurtosis. Yoga turned my tight, hard hamstrings -- knotted up from years of pounding the pavement day after day -- into painless, graceful limbs. Yoga forced me to sit still long enough for me to pay attention to the rumble underneath the surface, to hear my own body for the first time, and to emerge from an eating disorder.

But yoga now? Yoga this year? Staid. Uninspiring. Perhaps a tad repetitive, too, all of those Downward Dogs and Trikonasanas and Oms. After taking a course to be a yoga teacher a few years ago, I am spoiled when it comes to yoga classes: most instructors I can't stand, with their bottomless, blithe words of encouragement and their talk of bodily purity and otherworldly sanctity. I'd much rather be here, right now, in this damned body and this broken soul, thank you very much, than in the ones you think that I'm aspiring to. After my teacher training, the money that I have saved by not going to yoga classes and instead practicing on my own, may well exceed the cost of the course, which is a small satisfaction when I look back on it and wonder at my folly at spending so much to certify myself in a field where I'm no longer interested in being an expert.

Revisiting yoga has been, until now, a bit like staring at the books on the shelves in my childhood bedroom and remembering how important those volumes once were to me. Yoga had its place, to be sure, but like those things it has been supplanted in recent years by other interests. A little yoga in the morning, before work, to keep my body limber before going in to yet another day staring at the gray computer screen -- that has been enough for me this year. For spiritual insights, I find Zen more compelling; when it comes to physical activity, nothing, nothing, nothing does it like riding my bike. And still and yet and somehow, this week says yoga.

Om.

8.26.2008

Waste not, want not

I have never been a follower of those self-help gurus who specialize in de-cluttering, the kind who try to convince you to throw away most of your frivolous belongings by reminding you that people in Bali use only one knife to do all of their cooking, butchering, and yardwork, and if you happen to think that your set of Wusthofs is absolutely necessary, well then, you'll have another think coming before long.

No, that kind of mentality, which smacks of deprivation and Noble Savagery at once, doesn't appeal to me. There are small luxuries that I take such pleasure in that they are worth the extra money and the extra bit of clutter around the house, such as my knitting supplies and, occasionally, a shelf of books. Objects well-worn and well-loved take on particular meanings, and it is difficult to let them go.

Despite all of this, during our move on Sunday it became clear to me that WE HAVE TOO MUCH STUFF. Or, at least too much stuff for a one-bedroom, New York City apartment -- and we're not even in the expensive neighborhoods that force people to live in closets! No, we're rather on the outskirts when it comes to Manhattan neighborhoods, and yet we still have too many belongings and too little space.

So, while my husband and I spent several hours this afternoon caught up in despair -- would everything ever fit here? -- we soon rallied around and prepared ourselves for the tough decisions. You know, the moment when you have to actually throw something away. For ever. Yes.

Deciding what stays and what goes becomes a lesson in values, a sign of what is really important. Two sets of small plates, or only one? One yoga mat, or two? How many notebooks and spatulas and printers do I really need for this next stage of life? The answer, this time, is only as many as will fit into these 600-some square feet, only as many as will support me in the days and years to come. Our sixth apartment together, I hope that this will be my husband's and my last landing pad for quite a while.

This move reminds me of every time I have packed my bags and left the U.S. for an extended visit, trying to fit my entire life into a pair of suitcases and failing miserably when it came to putting that same life back into the same suitcases when the time came around to leave again. In the interim, I had changed and my lifestuff overflowed its carrying case.

Now is another time to scale down, pare back, live with what is essential. Who would have guessed that we would have acquired so many things in the last two years? Or, alternatively, that New York would have been so generous to us, both then and now? -- For it is by some generous act that we are staying here in this small apartment for another five years, each of us poised to begin doctoral programs, eager and waiting and resigned and trembling, shedding off the old to let in the new.

8.24.2008

Moving has its charms

We are moving from one tiny Manhattan apartment to another, tinier apartment a few dozen blocks away.

As much as I am trying to find the charm in packing my belongings into cardboard boxes and throwing out the less-treasured possessions, this effort feels a bit forced. After traveling all summer, there's nowhere I'd rather be than in my own place, and even that seems like an impossibly large project to undertake the week before classes start.

At least there's some fun in spackling the walls, right?

8.20.2008

Happiness is as happiness does


I have been reading a piece by Rachel Richardson called "Eating disorder inspires laughs" in the Disordered Times and thinking more about the mission of my blog (if I can even call it a mission).

I intentionally chose a light-hearted title for this blog, AVIDALEGRIA, which roughly means "eager happiness." When I began, I was hoping to write about the things that make me happy at a time when my job was not going well, my father was very ill, and my husband and I were facing some difficulty decisions regarding graduate school. Facing all of these stresses, I knew that I had to have something else to look forward to -- and so I cultivated my hobbies, devoted myself to my cooking and knitting and biking and friendship, and wrote about these things, to keep them with me and remind myself of all that was good and sunny and harmonious in my life.

You probably have these things, too, these pequenas alegrias (little joys) that soothe you when you are just about run ragged by everything else in the wide world. Your comforts may not be the culinary or fiber arts; you may be scornful of these things, or merely indifferent. And yet I venture a guess that you also know where to look when the bastards get you down; you also cultivate small worlds of delight and refuge. I wonder where they are, in what corners you hide when there are too many storms about.

From now on, you'll find me here, writing and snapping photos and composing blog entries, putting together bits of text and images in order to provide a counterweight to the darker moments of life. Because we need counterweights; we need joys to stand firm against our suffering, our fatigue, our despair. This is not to ignore the darker side of things, but to recognize that in order to give them a place in our lives -- to not run away or dull ourselves to those pains -- we also need what is light and precious and immutable, joyful and urgent and sublime. We need alegrias and rose water and beech trees, sea gulls and skyscrapers and tugboats, roosters and carafes and mountains.

Amen.

8.19.2008

Fat and fit: Getting the facts straight

Maybe now that this news made it into the New York Times, we will actually consider the possibility that fat people can be healthy, too. Fat and fit -- what a novel concept. (Hardly.)

I'm generally not a fan of the NYT Science Times, but once in a while they get things right.

Hooray for the CDC, solid statistical analysis, and disambiguation!

~Ai Lu

Introducing whom?

Hey:

Just to check in with you: are you reading this? Where are you? How did you find me?

Please drop me a line at avidalegria@gmail.com or leave me a comment here. Just say hi and introduce yourself.

Thanks.

~Ai Lu

8.18.2008

Nuts for nuts

As some of you know by now, I am an enthusiast of all things home-made, self-taught, do-it-yourself, artsy craftsy, granny chic -- not so much out of ecological or economical motives, but because it's more fun to get off the grid for a bit (down with secular materialism!) and understand the provenance of all things.

Today, this mission took me into the realm of nut butters. I adore nuts and nut butters, from the most basic and most American of all, peanut butter, to the more obscure macadamia nut butter and pine nut butter. My ultimate comfort food, and favorite breakfast, is a piece of warm toast spread with a thick layer of salty nut butter, topped with sliced banana. What could be a better way to start the day?

The question I have started to ask myself, having tackled mayonnaise and salad dressings and stock, is why do I keep buying the jarred stuff, when nut butter should be perfectly easy to make at home? Not to mention the fact that, last time I checked, almond butter had hit $11.00 a jar. Yowsers.

Turns out, nut butters are very easy, and fast, and -- oh my goodness -- delicious to boot. So why haven't I done this before?

A quick perusal of google.com turned up many versions of home-made nut butters, including a YouTube video on making nut butters with a juicer! I settled on a basic food processor version, which I revised as follows:

1. Select whole nuts of good quality. I used walnuts, almonds, and pine nuts for the nut butters that I made today. Cashew, macadamia, sunflower seeds, and peanuts are also commonly used for nut butters. Each of these nuts has a different flavor, so pick the kind that you like most. Walnut has a bitter, almost astringent taste, while macadamia and cashews are quite sweet. (Remember that nuts go rancid very quickly, so if you are buying in bulk, store them in the freezer. And if you have a nut allergy, good heavens, don't try this at home!)

2. Dry roast 1-2 cups of nuts on a tray in a 350 degree oven until lightly browned but not scorched, stirring the tray once or twice. See my lovely photos above of roasted almonds and pine nuts? Granted, the almonds came already roasted, so I suppose I made double-roasted almond and pine nut butter. Wow.

3. Put the roasted nuts in a food processor (read: Cuisinart) and process for several minutes, until the mixture goes past the granular phase and becomes smooth. Scrape down the sides of the food processor to incorporate all of the batter. When the mixture begins to creep up the sides and the blade is spinning on empty, add several tablespoons of a neutral oil, like olive oil or walnut oil, until you get a creamy, almost runny mixture. It's OK for the mixture to be runny in the food processor; once it has cooled down or been in the refrigerator a while, the nut butter will firm up quite a bit, so at this point, runny is better. Add salt if you like, to taste.

4. Store nut butter in a jar and keep in the refrigerator if you are not planning to consume the whole lot within the next two weeks. I think that, in the future, I will make smaller batches and leave them out of the refrigerator, because I don't like my nut butters to be too firm when I try to spread them.

Today I ate a snack of almond and pine nut butter spread on a banana and dotted with raisins -- the classic "ants on a log" that I have been eating since childhood.

I also pulled together a walnut butter that was much improved by a little honey; as I already mentioned, walnuts can be bitter, but honey and walnuts is another classic combination -- it reminds me of Greek baklava and the little Arab pastries that I ate in the narrow alleyways of Jerusalem several years ago, all honey and nuts and sweet goodness.

Now the only problem is how to get these little jars of nutty delights back with me to New York, what with all of the weight restrictions that the airlines are slapping on to luggage these days:

8.17.2008

Felicitous encounters at the farmers' market

This morning my mother, sister and I went to the Minneapolis farmers' market which, according to my sister, beats anything she has happened upon in the Bay Area -- a fact that I find incredible, given what I have heard about San Francisco's food culture.

Nevertheless, we found such bounty today that I am beginning to reconsider my high opinion of New York's Union Square Greenmarket as well. The Hmong, Latino, and Nordic farmers here in Minneapolis are certainly doing something right: they are growing great food, without a lot of the pretentiousness that we find at coastal markets. Food that is worth the extra trip, the difficulties parking, and the hot sun. Food that makes me want to take up canning, and has me wax poetic about the virtues of sharp knives. Yes, that kind of food (vegetables, to be more precise).

Hark the tomatoes and eggplants above, and the blazing squash blossoms to your right. Yes, those buggers, the yellow things in the middle.

Have you ever seen such beauties? I wouldn't have given them a second glance, except that I just came back from a month in Italy, where fiori di zucca are cooked up into the most amazing little fritters you have ever put your mouth around, the kind that you need to eat with a paper towel to keep from getting fried batter all over your fingers. (See image at left).

No, we weren't brave enough to try frying them today. These little guys were destined for greater things: a squash blossom frittata recipe from this month's Bon Appetit magazine. I have the magazine lying around our house, for pleasant reading in spare moments, and our lunch today was a happy coincidence of a) having read only yesterday a series of recipes on squash blossoms in said magazine and b) snatching up the last fresh bundle of fiori di zucca at the farmers' market this morning.

As fate would have it --.

To proceed with the narrative: we brought the squash blossoms home -- only after visiting Erik's Bikes and outfitting my sister's road bike with pedals and clips, a story for another day -- and I practiced my frittata-cooking skills again.

Like soufflés, which I write about in another post, frittatas are wonderfully fast, cheap, and whimsical meals, best for two or three or four or a couple dozen of friends to make and share together on the fly. I learned to make these egg-based dishes in response to a gluten intolerance that has plagued me over the last few years; as a cook, I have found that my dietary limitations often provoke the most startling food discoveries, veritable adventures in culinaria. Hence the soufflé, the frittata, the fish cooked in parchment paper (no breading for me), the sweeter Domincan sweet potato, the fig.

What does squash blossom taste like? Something like zucchini and nasturtiums, with a strong dose of bitterness where the flower meets the stem. Next time, I would remove that part before cooking. Otherwise, the frittata is perfect, especially with a little grana padano sprinkled over the top before it goes into the broiler. We served it with a side of fresh heirloom tomatoes and basil:

It makes me happy to be hungry, to be able to eat such food and take delight in it.

8.15.2008

The perfect fit

Yesterday, as we were cooking dinner, my sister mentioned that sometime in the last few years she had changed the way that she looks for clothes. She no longer tries to find clothes that make her look thin; rather, she buys clothes that she likes.

Wow.

What a difference this has made to her, she says. Instead of trying to base her decision purchases on which clothes make her look slimmer, she focuses on the clothes that she likes and that she thinks look good on her, regardless of what the fashion industry might have to say on the matter.

I'm sure that this wasn't an easy place for my sister to arrive at. After all, as a varsity lightweight rower in college, she had to think about body and weight to an extent that would be crazy-making for many of us (myself included). Yet she is wise enough now to know what her body needs, in terms of food and exercise, and to feel proud of the way that she looks in her clothes, whether or not they are "slimming."

And boy, does she look good! (In my very subjective opinion.) Yesterday she wore one of those soft, draping cotton dresses (see picture at right) that seem to be everywhere; I think that the fashion industry finally got the memo this year when they started to produce dresses with a little wiggle room, the kind that look great on women of just about every size. Do you know what I mean?

I've found some examples of these kinds of dresses on Etsy. Just click on the photos to find out who made them. (Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find a very representative range of body types or skin colors; even small designers tend to choose their thinnest, Whitest friends to model their clothes for the online marketplace. Hrumph.)

Am I making my point with these images? I'm not a fashionista, so I'm not really sure what to call these styles, or to what or whom we can attribute this breath of fresh air from the fashion industry. One thing I have noticed, however, is that this kind of dress -- long, flowy, soft -- really does look good on a much wider range of sizes than the usual fare.

I also wonder if we aren't experiencing something of a renaissance of the dress, in general? Despite my feminist pretensions, I think this might be a good thing. After all, the kind of women who look good in pants are generally those whose bodies resemble men's: narrow hips, long legs, square chest. Let's face it, there aren't that many women out there who fit that description. I think that dresses are much more flattering to women's bodies, of all sizes and shapes.

Another good thing about dresses? I don't want to promote rampant consumerism here, but it's a h3ll of a lot easier to find clothes that look good on your body, no matter what size you are (and yes, I know that the options are quite reduced for larger women -- but that's another gripe altogether), than to try to do the work by yourself and lose the weight that you think would make you look great in every outfit.

Let's face it, we don't need to look good in every outfit. Honestly, we don't even need to look good in any outfit -- quite a luxury -- but it sure is nice when we find something that fits our bodies and something that we can feel comfortable wearing, regardless of whether it is slimming or fashionable or exactly like our neighbor's.

I remember how revelatory it felt to finally start wearing clothes that look good on me, on my particular body; it just made other things much less important (i.e. weight). Once I accepted the fact that I am never going to have the chest or the legs that I would like to have, clothes shopping got a lot easier. It didn't hurt that I was helped in the process by my Argentine host mother, a sort of fairy godmother of fashion, who seemed to know intuitively what would look good on me and what would not. Would I have bought white pants with a pink floral print? Never. Did they look good on me with a solid pink t-shirt? Absolutely.

What is your opinion on the matter? Is the fashion industry so corrupted by the thin ideal that there's no hope for the rest of us? Or is it still possible to find clothes that you like, clothes you feel good in regardless of your size or how many fat-days you have? I'd like to hear what you think.

~Ai Lu

8.13.2008

A meal's beginning and its end

This afternoon my sister, my cousin and I went on one of those delightful, purposeless strolls through uptown Minneapolis, wandering in and out of used bookstores, examining kitchen utensils in specialty stores, and perusing the spice crates at Penzey's flagship store on Hennepin Avenue.

Now that she has graduated from college and moved out on her own, my sister needs a cookbook. I am very particular about cookbooks, and had had my eye on one in particular for a while: Mark Bittman's large yellow tome, How to Cook Everything. I found a copy for my sister, and presented her with her first cookbook just in time for dinner preparation.

We found a recipe for Simple Bean Croquettes on p. 521 and another for Tomato-Onion Salsa on p. 772. They made a simple, fresh dinner, along with a simple salad of fresh greens and a broccoli au gratin.

Before we started, I read the book's introduction out loud to my sister, and a few words stood out for me:

***********
For all but the poorest Americans, there remains an embarrassment of riches when it comes to food. We are able to scorn leftovers, to buy almost every food pre-prepared--even salad!--to eat out daily, to rely heavily on frozen foods. Yet although we may gain marginal amounts of time by doing these things, we lose the delights of working in the kitchen, the wonders of creation, the pleasures of time spent in the honest pursuit of tradition and the nourishment of our bodies and those of our families.
(p. xii)
***********

Oh, yes! Food as a "wonder of creation" indeed! How much I like Bittman's attitudes towards food and its preparation.

And how about this trio of gelati, wrenched fresh from our ice cream maker: plum sorbet and espresso gelato (The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook) and honey-orange sorbet (epicurious).

What could be a more fitting end to a summer's meal than fresh-made ices?

Are you getting enough fiber? (the other kind)



It has been a while since I have written about my love for knitting on this blog. But if this summer has been the summer of cooking, it has also been the summer of knitting.

I saw a therapist once whose opinions I otherwise was not very fond of, but who had some interesting things to say on the subject of knitting. Knitting -- or any craft work -- can be an excellent distraction from eating (when one tends to eat too much; I don't recommend it for this purpose if your tendency is towards restriction). It's very hard to binge when you have two long needles in your hands and a pile of wool in your lap! It's also hard to smoke, to drink, to have sex, to do drugs (hey! -- that's an idea: substitute one kind of needles for another...). You get the picture. Knitting emerges as the sort of perfect compulsion control technique. Oh, cognitive-behavioral therapy!

To clarify: I did not learn knitting for compulsion control. I learned to knit when I was seven years old from my grandmother, and I have been knitting ever since. I knit during the lean years where there weren't any age-appropriate patterns (late adolescence, late 1990's), I knit before the celebrities joined the crew, and I am still at it, thrilled that there are so many young designers and online knitting resources, such as Ravelry.

With the help of that therapist, I was able to make the connection between knitting and that oh-so-lovely-feeling of being in the flow (thank you, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). Flow as in: uninterrupted concentration; delight; calm; connectedness. This is how I feel when I knit; once I recognized these feelings, I was able to harness this knowledge to use my knitting more deliberately, to replace more destructive hobbies.

If I feel the urge to eat after dinner, the worst hours of the night for me, I sit down with a knitting project and dedicate myself to it for at least 15 minutes. By that time, the urge has usually passed, and I am so engrossed in my knitting that it takes all my husband has to convince me to put it down to come to bed. Knitting, I find myself absolutely bedazzled by fiber and the infinity of combinations that I can produce with my needles and thread. I study lace patterns; compare color swatches; and linger over new designs. There is so much to knit, I don't have time to think about snacking or wander into the kitchen. Knitting, at times, has been my safe haven, a place to put all of my energy and concerns and anxiety, and spin straw into gold:


Take the sweater above, my best fit yet: the Katharine Hepburn cardigan, from Lace Style. I sewed on the last buttons while in Italy a few weeks ago, and now that I'm here in Minnesota, where the weather is cooler, I wear it in the evenings.

There is something so satisfying and so nourishing in creating a sweater -- the ultimate act of self-care, I think, is to dress oneself warmly. Knitting brings me deeper comfort than consuming any culinary dish, and produces more fuzzy-inside feelings than those famous exercise endorphins.

Here's to form meeting function!

8.12.2008

The 10 best foods you aren't eating -- and other similar claims

Lately, I have noticed the proliferation of articles listing all the superfoods that we should be eating but presumably aren't.

Take Tara Parker-Pope's "The 11 Best Foods You Aren't Eating." Or a recent article by Selene Yeager for Bicycling magazine about "The New Superfoods." There's Dr. Perricone's 10 superfoods, featured on Oprah, and Best Life's "8 Foods You Should Eat Every Day."

(There's also a Women's Health's feature on the 125 best packaged foods for women -- as if we need to be eating more packaged foods).

I have mixed feelings about these features. On the one hand, it is great to see some less-commonly consumed foods get media attention, like pumpkin seeds, lentils, turmeric, and açaí (even if the last one is only readily available in Brazil). If articles like these can encourage ordinary Americans to look beyond coldcuts and fried chicken for food choices, so much the better. But these kinds of articles practice what Michael Pollan would call "nutritionism" -- lauding an individual food's presumed nutritional benefits over any understanding of where this food fits into a food culture, or even a meal.

Take açaí, for example: this tiny berry is found fresh only in tropical rain forests, and forms an important part of the diet of some Amazon-dwellers. Outside these regions, however, it is hard to conceive of the fresh fruit as being a regular item in anyone's diet. So why list it as a "super-food" if it is inaccessible to the majority of Americans? What is super about the amount of petroleum that goes towards importing, frozen, a tiny berry from the South to the North?

Instead of creating lists of must-eat foods (must eat? when? where? how much?), how about a list of how to eat.

My suggestions:

1. Eat food you like.

2. Make your own food when possible. This solves a lot of concerns regarding freshness, contents, healthfulness, portion size, etc.

3. Take time to savor your food -- turn off all appliances and remove yourself from other distractions when it is mealtime.

4. Eat food with others. Share!

5. Cultivate gratitude for your food, in any way or faith you have.

6. Slow down. This can mean chewing more slowly, eating locally grown food, joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group, or growing your own food. Take time to think about where your food comes from.

7. Read cookbooks for fun. Ask other people to share their favorite recipes with you. Make food preparation a hobby.

8. Try to eat foods in their most "natural" state -- the way food was meant to be. This includes produce grown without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers; pasture-raised meats; whole fat dairy products; and whole grains.

9. Know when to stop eating; learn to recognize when you're full, and find ways to mark the transition from "meal time" to "life time."

8.10.2008

Summer reading

Now that I have thoroughly immersed myself in the food and eating disorder blogospheres -- not that they have very much in common -- I'm interested in knowing what other people are reading.

But first, a line-up of some sites that are worth the effort -- sites that are changing the way that I look at food and fat:

If you believe that the consequences of what you eat go beyond what ends up on your hips, the Slow Food blog -- "Good, clean, and fair food" -- is a good place to start. Especially with the prices of food and other commodities rising like Noah's flood, it behooves the consumer to start paying attention to where his or her food actually comes from. That, and food just tastes better when it doesn't come from a mega-farm.

Recipe central: Epicurious. Every recipe in the last five or so years coming out of Gourmet and Bon Appetit and some other minor Conde Nast publications. The best part about it? The search tool is really, really good. Put in "garbanzo" and "chard" and you'll come up with this year's number-one bean recipe. At least according to me and mine.

Real Food: This is actually a book, but the author has created a blog, too. Nina Planck's writing on food and nutrition preceded the much-applauded Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, and in my opinion she takes the cake on this sort of food writing: more astute analysis of food science, less foodie self-righteousness. Read her book and understand why I started to eat butter and cheese again, and stopped being afraid of whole milk.

For more good, clean fun: food blogs. Check out Orangette, Gluten-free Girl, Smitten Kitchen for some food porn and otherwise harmless entertainment. Reading about these women's love of cooking makes it much easier to embrace one's inner chef, and to appreciate how much pleasure that food and cooking can actually bring to one's life.

And if you don't feel like honoring the domestic gods (Hymen, San Pascual, Juno)? How about The F-Word.org -- I love Rachel's slogan: "Food. Fat. Feminism." Now, which is the real F-word? It's up to you to decide. A compendium of articles and links about food, eating disorders, and body image with a feminist slant. Very empowering for those of us who still worry about the weight on the scale.

Speaking of weight, have you seen the different size charts out there? Such as Cockeyed's visual chart showing real people at real heights and weights? Or more visually appealing (and politicized): Kate Harding's Illustrated BMI Categories? These may be controversial enterprises -- I am not sure of the creators' intentions -- but I personally find it fascinating to see what 100 lbs, 150 lbs, 200 lbs, 300 lbs actually look like on people. It is also disturbing to see how people that I would consider normal-weight are actually considered "overweight" or "obese" by the medical establishment; this is no laughing matter when insurance premiums can actually go up for people with a BMI above a certain number!

So, what am I missing? What are you reading that I'm not?

A piece of cake, part II

I am happy to report that said cake consumption yesterday went off without a hitch.

No digestive problems, no urges to eat more (it didn't hurt that the meal before dessert was very good, too), not too much anxiety around it once I actually sat down and started eating. And saw that the cake was just....a piece of cake. Nothing more. Not a monster. Not a taboo. Just a piece of cake, lying on my plate.

And best of all? The cake tasted really, really good. Amazingly good. Moist and chocolate-y and just oh-so-cakelike.

Now, this doesn't mean that I'm going to spend the next few days in the kitchen baking up cakes and taste-testing them. Nor does it mean that I am back into glutenhood for good. What it does mean, however, is that I've passed a small barrier. I had a piece of gluten-containing, rich, sweet food, and it didn't trigger any digestive or emotional malcontent. Tomorrow it might be different. Who knows? But last night, the cake was fine. Whatever happens from here on out, I can look back to this piece of cake, and remind myself that things went really, really well. Is this repeatable? I certainly hope so.

Because cake without fear is a fine thing, indeed.

8.09.2008

A piece of cake (for the gluten-phobic)

The last month, I have been so inspired by some of the other food and eating disorder blogs that I have been reading -- like Emily Jolie's -- that I have begun to reconsider my no-gluten policy.

If bodily functions gross you out, skip down to the recipe below for zucchini chocolate cake and read that instead. It's guaranteed to not gross you out.

When I first recovered from my eating disorder, and began to eat normally after a few years of binging and purging, my whole digestive system was in serious trouble. It was as if it had forgotten how to move things forward, and every evening, without fail, I had body-stopping cramps that left me huddling on the couch with a water bottle on my stomach. I spent a miserable summer trying a series of "elimination diets" to see if I had a food allergy, and in the process learned that things seemed to get better -- a modicum of improvement -- if I eliminated gluten from my diet. I consulted gastroenterologists, allergists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, and nutritionists, with mixed success. I didn't like the GI doctors' advice to take anti-acids for the rest of my life, but I also knew that following a strict diet when I was recovering from an eating disorder could potentially put me at risk for more eating-disordered behaviors. So it was with caution that I adopted a gluten-free diet.

Miraculously, I have been gluten-free for almost three years, and it hasn't led me down the old road of restriction + binging. Absolutely the contrary. Because I couldn't rely on my old stand-bys of peanut butter sandwiches and Honey Bunches of Oats, I had to look farther afield, and start making my food myself. I didn't hurt that at this point I moved to China for four months with the man who is now my husband; living in a rice-based culture is much easier for someone who doesn't tolerate gluten well. But even after I left China for Brazil, it was as if a whole world of cooking and food opened up to me, once I was forced to cook for myself.

Cooking for myself is the ultimate act of self-nourishment. Cooking is what grounds me in a foreign country; cooking is what keeps me from going crazy about food. Cooking for others puts me in contact with my friends and family and shows them that I care about them, and allows me to spend time with them. Cooking has, in a sense, saved me from an eating disorder, and I am passionate about and respectful of food in a way that I could never be when it shared the bejeezus out of me.

Over the past few years, limited by my gluten intolerance, I have let so many other foods back into my life, foods that I never would have eaten during my eating disorder: red meat, whole milk, cheese, tuna fish, butter, mayonnaise -- the "bad" foods -- not to mention kale and beans and amaranth and sweet potatoes and beans and almonds and mangoes and sweet corn and brussels sprouts and did I mention beans? Like Shauna, the Gluten-Free Girl, by tailoring my diet to what I could tolerate, I was able to find "food that loved me back."

But this week I am going back to eating gluten. I am going to take it seriously, and see if we can tolerate each other again. It has been a long time, baby.

Which means: I know that I don't have celiac disease, that sometimes gluten makes me have an upset stomach (but mostly when I eat a lot of processed, white foods in overabundant quantities, a.k.a. binge), and that, in theory, I should be able to tolerate gluten. So what has been keeping me back? Fear, I think, of opening that door and letting in all of the foods that were once so hard for me to stop eating: cookies and candy bars, cakes and pastries and puddings. Conveniently, not eating gluten because I fear its consequences in my lower intestine has helped me to avoid binging on those very foods that once were so irresistible. Is it a coincidence that I developed an intolerance to the same foods that I once binged on? I think not. However, given what I know about my body, about eating intuitively and eating the foods that nourish me, I am willing to give it another shot with gluten. Especially since lately, even in the midst of Italian gelato and Perugian chocolates, I have been able to hold my own, to ask for food when I need it and stop when I am full.

And what better way to celebrate a return to glutenhood than baking a cake? Because I'm not afraid of cakes anymore.

When I arrived at my parents' house on Thursday, there was a mountain of vegetables in the refrigerator from their CSA share, and the clear injunction to do as much as I could to get rid of them. My mother produced an outlandishly sized zucchini and a recipe for zucchini chocolate cake, reproduced below. I got busy this morning and now have an entire cake awaiting my unwitting family.

The recipe:

Chocolate Zucchini Cake
(And please don't pretend that the zucchini makes this a "health" food. This is chocolate cake. Chocolate. Cake.)

Ingredients:
3/4 c. oil
1 1/4 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 t. vanilla
2 c. grated zucchini (I used less than half of my larger zucchini)
1/2 c. sour milk or buttermilk
2 T. cocoa powder
1/2 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. each ground cinnamon and cloves
2 1/2 c. flour
1 smallish bag of chocolate chips (however much suits your fancy)

Heat oven to 350 degrees, grease two round cake pans. Mix all ingredients and bake for 25 minutes. Glaze or frost if you so choose.

8.08.2008

Peas or beans?

I have been making some changes to the design of this blog today, and I'm wondering what other people think. My most reliable design team -- my sister and my husband -- are neither one around, so I just have to go with my gut, unless I get some response from you.

Mainly, I changed the title from a picture of sea peas (all very beautiful, yes) --


-- to cranberry beans --


-- which I think are a more appropriate introduction to my blog, to reflect the alimentary themes found within.

That, and I have been known at times to be the "bean lady."

Lunch today was a case in point: I made the garbanzo bean recipe that has won over many friends and influenced people in unusual ways in the last few months. These beans came from the can, but what food item did I bring back especially from Italy? -- you may ask. Olive oil? Aceto balsamico di Modena? Prosciutto? No, no, no! Beans -- this year's crop of little white beans from Lake Trasimeno. And I'm already planning all of the beans that I am going to order from Rancho Gordo as soon as we move into our new apartment at the end of the month. Good beans are worth it. And I'm not even vegetarian! But I digress...

Yay or nay to the beans? If you have trouble deciding, I can give you a recipe...just ask.

avidalegria@gmail.com

Good governance, bad governance, and health insurance

I have spent the morning puzzling over my health insurance options for the upcoming year, comparing various plans offered by my new university. Choice is good, right?

Choice is good, except when you're trying to simultaneously compare the labyrinthine language of three different health insurance plans. There's no doubt in my mind that such confusion is intentional on the part of the insurance companies; who wouldn't rather just sign on the dotted line and be done with it? That's what the companies hope for: that we'll assume they are taking care of us, and waive our rights away.

Not this time.

I've gone in and out of enough insurance plans over the last four years to be somewhat wary of starting over again with a new plan. In my case, I have been very fortunate: I have never been hospitalized; my health is good, overall; no serious medical conditions to look after, etc. My only real health concern, this time around, has to do with starting psychotherapy again, this time without meeting DSM-IV criteria for an eating disorder, and I'm hoping that I can get at least some coverage from my health insurance to do so.

The reasons that I want to start psychotherapy have little to do with what brought me into treatment seven years ago for an eating disorder, and are more like the everyday things that bring most folks into psychotherapy: life stresses, career changes, family problems, etc. These, and the fact that I'm starting a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology, and would relish the chance to be in therapy again myself before I start to see patients. So in this situation, I ask myself, is it even ethical for me to seek coverage for psychotherapy for the condition of "eating disorder"? Conversely, might I consider these life stresses as possibly related to the eating disorder I once had -- as risk factors for a possible relapse -- and thus justify my treatment?

Regardless of whether it is ethical or not, I am left with a lot of uncertainty about whether I'll even qualify for coverage under the best of these plans. On the one hand, it offers coverage equivalent to other medical illnesses for "biologically-based mental illness," including "anorexia and bulimia". It is wonderful that this plan offers parity for mental health care, especially given the attention that the issue has received in the news recently. But I wonder how far such parity will go: if I am presently asymptomatic, does that mean I can't receive coverage? Or does my one-time diagnosis of an eating disorder last a lifetime, if it were? (Once a bulimic, always a bulimic?) Additionally, as this is a "pre-existing condition," though one not treated in the last six months (as they define pre-existing), will I be excluded from coverage for another 12-months (as the plans threatens)?

I can hardly get my mind around whether or not I'm eligible for treatment, so I can only anticipate the problems that will ensue once I actually sign up for the plan and attempt to get the coverage that I feel is due. It is dishearteningly for me, both as a patient and as a future mental health professional, to see all of the obstacles that are put in patients' way as they try to get treatment. I am reminded of Franz Kafka, of Jorge Luis Borges, of Ambrogio Lorenzetti's frescoes of Good and Bad Governance that we saw in Siena this summer.

One side of Lorenzetti's fresco (the first image of the post) depicts the effects of good governance: the exercise of justice; profitable businesses; happy and healthy citizens. The other side of the fresco (detailed to the right) shows the effects of bad governance: persons unjustly imprisoned; crop failures; violence; poverty; plagues and pestilence. These murals were intended to teach the rulers of Siena the importance of good governance for the health of town and country.

If the state of our health care system in the United States is any indication, I would say that we are erring on the side of bad governance. If not, why do we put the burden on the ill to know their rights and insist on receiving their benefits? Why is it left up to me to try to understand whether or not I should be covered for psychotherapy? Why do we seem to be hurtling ourselves head-first into the scene depicted below, a desolate countryside full of starving and sick individuals? I am concerned for myself, but I also recognize that mine is not a severe case; whether or not I get coverage, whether or not I'll get treatment, I'll basically be all right. But what of the thousands of people who won't be all right? Who have never been "all right"?

I can only hope that these strangers, other Americans with mental or physical illnesses, can find some clause in their insurance allowing them treatment; that they have family members willing to make phone calls when they are too sick to care; that they have considerate doctors who choose appropriate, economical, humane forms of treatment; and that we see some shift towards "good governance" with the elections in the fall.

I'm voting for better healthcare. And you?

8.05.2008

Urban body

The day before yesterday I went to a beach on the outskirts on Barcelona, in a small town called Sant Pol de Mar. The water was such an intense, powerful blue that there wasn't anything to be done except throw myself into the sea and meet the waves head-on. I haven't swum in the ocean in a very long time, and as I bobbed up and down I thought how interesting it is that "sea" in Catalan, mar, is just one letter away from "mother," mare. Mother-sea, mare-mar, the sea that holds us, rocks us, sustains us. We enter her nearly as naked and wet as when we were born.

Afterwards I lay on the sand and looked around. Barcelona and its beaches lend themselves well to people-watching: on the streets, the pedestrians are stylish and handsome; on the beach, they are, in the most part, suntanned and lithe. Seeing all of this brown flesh might have made me feel ashamed of my pasty skin, or regretful for the parts of my body that don't live up to my fantasies, or angry for having not been born a Spaniard. But the spirit of the mare-mar had got to me before I had time for any of those scornful thoughts, and I merely felt peaceful, languorous and sensual, another body on the sand.

These moments when I truly inhabit my body are rare, but the sensation hasn't left me these last few days, as I frequent Barcelona's museums and wander the streets of the Barri Gótic. I am a temporary flâneur in this city, a position which forces me to be aware of my surroundings and how I interact with them. The line of the street marks the path I must take; my eyes follow the lay of a wall or the glare of a mirror, and I am there, too, a body in a city, a body marked by the city.

I feel compelled to respond to this city, to shout out "¡Presente!" like a Spanish school-child during morning attendance. Here I am, Barcelona, Barkeno, Barcino, Barchinona, BCN, whatever you preferred to be called. Your walls are thick and millennial; my skin is thin and transient, but this body allows me to greet you, to know you. I am one more body come to join in the fray, to crawl in and over your most intimate arteries, to partake in your feasts and smile at your frenzies. Here I am.

8.04.2008

Simplest of meals

I made myself a simple dinner tonight at my friend Benji's apartment here in Barcelona. What could be easier than pasta with tomato sauce?

It reminded me of high school track dinners, a pleasant memory. Pasta can be such comfort food, and after our stay in Italy I came away with so many ideas for primi piatti (first courses). This time I threw in a can of tuna for a variation on the basic red sauce.

I bought the vegetables from a Chinese family running a little fruta-y-verdura place not far from this apartment. My friend had told me that there is a lot of hostility directed towards Chinese immigrants here in Spain because of the impression that their businesses are trying to undercut the market. So I wasn't too surprised when the woman at the cash register refused to ask any of my questions about where she came from in China, pretending she didn't understand me when I said that I heard her speaking Mandarin. It was only when I explained that I was from the U.S., and that my husband was Chinese, that she began to smile and offer me a few words in Mandarin. We ended up laughing at my poor Chinese, and I left the store feeling the small satisfaction from having made the connection with her over something. How hard it must be to move to a country, and then have to pretend that you're not from the place you came from!

To the grocer's credit, the tomatoes were firm, the lettuce was fresh, and I pulled together the meal in no time. Though I love trying new food around Barcelona -- I had a tortilla espanola for lunch -- there's nothing as grounding for me as cooking for myself in a foreign city. Even tonight, with only a ramshackle kitchen at my disposal and a calico cat to keep me company, I was happier eating my own food, made with my own hands, than eating yet another mediocre tapas plate.

8.02.2008

Barkeno

I am in Barcelona, Spain.

This is my first time on the Iberian peninsula; odd, for someone who has so diligently applied herself to learning the ins and outs of the Spanish and Portuguese languages. I am here for a week, on a whim of sorts -- my original destination was Rome -- and am still somewhat amazed to be here at all.

For many years I saw Spain through South American eyes, as a distant place, separated from América by so much time and nostalgia, impossible to recover or re-live. South Americans have a homesickness for the Peninsula in a way that North Americans rarely feel for Great Britain -- perhaps because the Northern colonies have never failed as spectacularly as the Southern ones, and those of us in the United States who are decended from immigrants generally recognize that our lot is better than it might have been, had our people stayed where they were. Not so in South America, as the increasing numbers of Latin American immigrants here in Spain attest. It is a sad state of affairs when the New World cannot provide for its own and the empire's children come home to roost.

Barcelona was never quite Spanish -- or Castilian, I should say -- so being here means that I am still lurking at the margins of hispaneidad, of what it means to be Spanish. If all that is required to be Latino in the United States, as some say, is to speak Spanish -- the lowest common denominator among Chileans, Cubans, Mexicans and Spaniards -- then I certainly qualify. If one adds a requirement of "shared cultural heritage" to that label, then I would also belong, by virtue of having studied the poetry and art and music of these lands. Thirdly, I could belong by cultural affinity, the sense that something in Hispanic culture resonates well with whom I am as an individual: the manners, the warmth, the openness, the traditions of Spanish America fit well under my skin. Yet, like this city, I too am at the margins of lo hispano (that which is Hispanic), a position which is simultaneously delightful, and isolated.

Barcelona delights the traveler, with the winding streets of the medieval Barri Gótic; Antoni Gaudí's playgrounds and sanctuaries; the old haunts of Picasso and the Spanish avant-gaurde; the numerous cafés and bars sprinkled throughout; the shops of the Rambla; the democracy of the Mediterranean beaches.

Yet Barcelona also isolates the visitor who does not speak catalán and who does not understand the politics of Spanish regional integration; Barcelona is not always friendly to the traveller with a South American accent (as I have), demanding proof of identity for even the smallest transactions; and Barcelona, as all port cities, is more of an island than not, determinedly facing the infinite sea.

I'll come back to Spain again some day, to resolutely face the center of the empire in Madrid, or examine the Moorish influences in Andalucía, or ride the road to Compostela on my bike. This trip, I tell myself, is a sort of scout's mission, as I skirt around the edges of Spain and hispaneidad remind myself of the feel of Spanish in my mouth. Barcelona gives me enough of a taste of Spain to remind me that I want it, and that it is mine already, an adopted heritage that I needn't fear shaking loose.


*This photo comes from shapeshifter's photostream on flickr.com.

8.01.2008

Medusa

A man who looks a Gorgon in the eyes is said to turn to stone. Medusa is a fitting goddess for women recovering from eating disorders, I think -- she stops the wandering eye in its path, protecting herself from anyone who would criticize her or look at her harshly.

The only problem is that Gorgons can turn the same harsh gaze upon themselves. Though I prefer not to think of it, because I like Medusa too much, I can’t forget that she conquered with a mirror in the end. Perseus held one up to her and, looking at her own reflection, Medusa turned to stone, not unlike the bronze statue that I came across in the Boboli Gardens in Florence.

Even frozen, there is something of the magnificent and daring in Medusa. She is a woman who stands alone, proud and wise; her vision cuts through the quick, spotting everything, revealing every secret, every flaw. I think of her as a goddess who won’t take any crap from anyone. She is honest -- honest unto death.

Studies have shown that people with depression don’t necessarily have distorted thoughts -- it’s just that they can’t maintain the usual rose-colored glasses that most of us carry around to convince ourselves that things really aren’t that bad. We prefer these small fibs to point-blank honesty; we’d rather believe that the glass is half-full than admit that there are only a few drops clinging to the bottom. People with depression often see things just as they are -- and so much honesty can hurt, like Medusa’s gaze turned upon herself.

Still, I find her image helpful, when I’m confronted by lies and confusion around me, and can’t find the way. Those are the times when I want to be able to “say it like it is” and put a sharp wall between my own thoughts and feelings and those of the people around me. I haven’t had much need for such a stance lately, but stumbling upon this image of Medusa reminded me of all that it took for me to learn to see things with my own eyes, and honor my own visions of the world and myself. Goddess, you are great.