Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Non-Prescriptive Kitchen Philosophy

I enjoy being thrifty almost as much as I love eating*, so I spend a great deal of time planning and cooking meals at home. I know my lifestyle wouldn't work for everyone - it's a big time investment - but it's how I like to roll. I figure most people are sick of hearing how they could eat better; I certainly don't wish to contribute to that noise. But in honor of Thanksgiving, I thought I would document a bit of my ongoing internal dialog regarding food, for whatever it's worth to you. It's a fun exercise, and I'm curious to hear some of your ideas, too.

The following are a list of rules to myself regarding kitchen and diet management ~

Don't throw away any edible food Plan to use all the food you buy. If something is about to expire, eat it. Freeze leftovers that you are sick of eating (especially soup). Freeze vegetable scraps and use for stock. Save bacon fat and use for fun.

Eating more is no cure for eating poorly Following half a pizza with a salad does not make you healthier.

Never buy prepackaged spices Go to the hippie grocery store and buy it bulk. You don't need to be spending four bucks on a glass jar.

Seek creative uses for canned tuna Two servings of lean meat for under $1.50 is an unbeatable deal. Take advantage of it.

Cook large quantities of stock and bean regularly Canned stock and beans are cheap, but home-cooked stock and beans are even cheaper and usually taste better. Make a bunch at once, portion into small containers and freeze. Do it on a day when you're sticking around the house anyway. The entire project may take several hours, but not that much attention.

Save all disposable plastic containers This includes baggies, old sour cream tubs, and any Ziploc containers that your friends happen to leave at your house. Horde that shit. You can never have enough and you shouldn't have to pay extra for it.

Don't assume that leafy vegetable greens are garbage This recipe for radish greens soup, for example, is fantastic.

Experiment with producing homemade versions of foods that you usually buy processed This includes items like crackers, refried beans, mayonnaise, vinaigrette and ginger ale. Making it yourself may not always be your first choice, but it's enormously satisfying (especially if you make it taste better than the processed version).

Find recipes that fit your pantry (not the other way around) If a recipe requires more than two ingredients that you rarely use, then simplify, substitute or move on. Don't make special trips to the grocery store. Good flavor needn't require obscure ingredients.

Eating out is the funnest use of disposable income, but you will be disappointed if you could have made a better tasting version of that dish at home And that's why you quit The Fleetwood Diner long before you quit Ann Arbor.


* In fact, pretty much all of these ideas come from Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" and Amy Dacyczyn's "Tightwad Gazette".

Friday, November 12, 2010

Cheese, a Good Pain, and the Horizon

Saturday was a dark day. After spending too many hours on Facebook, I saw that my friend M had linked to this New York Times article entitled "While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales". I don't know why I clicked it, as I suspected it would say terrible things about my good friend cheese; maybe it was because I had already sucked that day's entertainment value out of Facebook (which, more and more, felt like a substitute for the friends I haven't made in Chattanooga).

Anyway, I found the first several paragraphs quite alarming ~
Domino’s Pizza was hurting early last year. Domestic sales had fallen, and a survey of big pizza chain customers left the company tied for the worst tasting pies.

Then help arrived from an organization called Dairy Management. It teamed up with Domino’s to develop a new line of pizzas with 40 percent more cheese, and proceeded to devise and pay for a $12 million marketing campaign.

Consumers devoured the cheesier pizza, and sales soared by double digits... But as healthy as this pizza has been for Domino’s, one slice contains as much as two-thirds of a day’s maximum recommended amount of saturated fat, which has been linked to heart disease and is high in calories.

And Dairy Management, which has made cheese its cause, is not a private business consultant. It is a marketing creation of the United States Department of Agriculture — the same agency at the center of a federal anti-obesity drive that discourages over-consumption of some of the very foods Dairy Management is vigorously promoting.

Urged on by government warnings about saturated fat, Americans have been moving toward low-fat milk for decades, leaving a surplus of whole milk and milk fat. Yet the government, through Dairy Management, is engaged in an effort to find ways to get dairy back into Americans’ diets, primarily through cheese.

Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year, nearly triple the 1970 rate.

No one likes to think that they're a dupe for "the man" but I clearly am. I considered the last four cheese-laden meals I'd consumed, and why ~
Cheese pizza with crumbled sausage - Duh, it's pizza. I'm not eating pizza without cheese

Bagel with cream cheese and lox - Okay, maybe I would eat a buttered bagel, but there was lox. I'm not eating a bagel and lox without cream cheese

Turkey meatloaf with cheddar cheese, with a cheddar corn muffin on the side - I guess corn muffins and meat loaf don't have to have cheese, but cheese makes it so much better!

Welsh rarebit - It's cold outside

It happens that lately I've been extra concerned about my gut, especially when I catch the least flattering view of it in the mirror. I don't feel unattractive but my current shape isn't my ideal. I could blame it on so many things - my love of nearly all food (excluding only hot dogs and sugary junk foods in the style of Hostess or Little Debbie), a general decrease in physical activity since moving to Chattanooga, beer. I certainly knew that cheese accounted for some of my girth, but might my favorite of all foods make up the bulk of it?

I sighed at the thought of a new food rule. I'm not opposed to lifestyle changes. In the spring and early summer I worked out four hours a week and ate way less fried food, red meat and pork. The frustrating thing is that it doesn't make much difference in terms of my weight. Sure, I felt better when I lived that way, but I wasn't any smaller. The rewards just didn't match the work and sacrifice that went into that lifestyle, which makes laziness and indulgence more attractive options. Would I really subject myself to new cheese parameters? Could I really make it last beyond Thanksgiving?

In considering ways to limit my cheese consumption, I became dejected. At least I could be grateful that last Friday, I accidentally answered my phone and spoke to a trainer from my gym. Her name was C and she was calling about my freebie training session that I had yet to redeem. We decided to meet on Tuesday morning. The anticipation of this workout made me feel a little better on Monday afternoon, when my friend S and I ordered a bowl of cheese dip at the pub down the road.

When I got to the gym on Tuesday, I found C to be a very serious and very fit young woman with smart eyes and a razor sharp glance. She had me complete a form that asked questions about my weight, my desired weight, the parts of my body I wanted to work on, etc. Then she handed me a small electronic device that looked like something a Star Trek doctor would use.

"This is to check your body fat percentage. Have you used one of these before?"

"Um, not since elementary school and it was one of those creepy scissor-like thingies."

"Oh, with the pinchers?" She smiled, which seemed out of the ordinary, which made me proud. "Yeah, those were weird." She demonstrated how to use the device and handed it to me. "The bottom number is your BMI, but I'm not paying attention to that. We're just going to look at the top number. That's your body fat percentage."

It wasn't pretty. Turns out, I am over 1/3 fat.

We sat down and she looked at my form. She wrote down the percentage next to the columns where I had listed my current and desired weights, which she covered with her hand. "We're not going to look at those numbers. We're only going to look at this percentage. You really need to be here," she said as she scrawled "21% - 23%". I appreciated her discretion, but not as much as her honesty.

We talked a bit about the kind of workout I've been doing, which is almost all cardio. "That's the problem," she said as she drew a triangle. "Building muscle tissue has to be the foundation." She wrote that at the bottom of the triangle. "On top of that you have cardio activity. At the top of the pyramid, you have food and diet. But I'm not going to tell you how to eat."

"Yeeeeeesssss!" I said with a gleeful arm pump. Hello, cheese!

She smiled as if she really wanted to roll her eyes. "You know how you should be eating." Then she launched into the most articulate, informative explanation about why it's important to build muscle tissue and approach weight training holistically (as opposed to focusing on one region of the body), and how this can be done effectively. I'm not going to repeat everything she said, because I would probably say it all wrong, but let's just say that for the first time I got it. Sure, I've heard that it's important to build muscle if you're trying to lose weight, but I always found the message vague, and it got lost in the midst of those thousand-and-one other vague messages we hear every day about fitness and health. Most importantly, C focused on the lifelong benefits of muscular fitness (so you don't wear out your joints, so you can lift things when you're old, so you can increase your metabolism), which really got to the heart of my belly fears. As she said herself, it isn't about getting skinny - after all, muscle weighs more than fat. It's about health.

Then she had me work out. I began with five minutes of cardio - easy enough. Then came the regimen that has left me sore in places I've never felt before. It hurts to sneeze, and I know that comes from all that core-building stuff she had me do with a strange object that looks like this

I was honestly stunned by my capabilities. I didn't know I could use my gut, forearms and tippy toes to support the length of my body. I pushed myself in a way that I never have before and I didn't even care if I looked weird while I was doing it (even when I rolled over on my side doing that forearm thing). The sometimes painful exertion felt good.

She had me work out for a half hour. Then came the hard sell. "Have you ever considered a personal training program?"

In my winded state, I couldn't help being honest. "No."

A bitter smile. "And why not?"

Because that's something movie stars do was what I was thinking, but I said, "I guess I just never thought I could afford it."

She offered the customary sales pitch, broken down into my various options - I spend a little less per session if I sign up for more sessions per month, and I'll get a great deal if I sign up immediately. If I could afford it, I would have signed up for weekly sessions right then, but I knew I needed to think about it and look at my budget.

Perhaps misinterpreting my hesitation for a lack of interest, C said something that I would have chalked up to a down and dirty sales tactic if it weren't so obviously true. "You can't do this alone."

Doing it alone is always my first inclination, but then I remembered those weak solo attempts to improve my mental health before I got into therapy. Just as deep breathing is no replacement for a shrink, I doubt that even the most extensive internet research is a replacement for an educated physical trainer.

So, I'm gonna do it. Two sessions a month. I'm geeked. This seems like the perfect next step after many years of therapy (from which I finally "graduated" in July - hooray!!). I'm ready to make some dietary changes too but this decision feels like the revolution. I also find it exciting, because even though it really sucked to learn that I'm over 1/3 fat, I finally feel thrust into this new life in Chatttanooga. Something about the fall weather and the mild loneliness has made me incredibly nostalgic and I find myself too often on Facebook, or daydreaming about my December trip to Michigan. Now, me and my belly have a new thing, and it's focused on progress.

Monday, November 1, 2010

My Little Bit to Restore Sanity

My main motivations for attending The Rally to Restore Sanity were these ~

1) To visit Washington D.C. and particularly the National Gallery of Art, which is my favorite museum.

2) To see our friend J, who had already booked a hotel room in Dupont Circle

3) I like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert

Nevertheless, I had misgivings. My impression was that it was being marketed as an event for politically moderate people, which I am not. And for that matter, I don't think Jon Stewart is, either. So I found that angle disingenuous.

Actually, it turned out that this rally and especially Stewart's keynote speech got to the heart of some ideas that have been on my mind since the 2008 election. But before I get into that, let me take a minute to talk about why I have a lot of respect for Jon Stewart.

I almost never watch The Daily Show. I used to watch it every night (especially in 2004, 'cause that was one hell of an election year), but I haven't had cable much in the last six years. Still, I think Stewart has more journalistic integrity than anyone associated with cable news. He is obviously liberal, but he isn't a pundit. In his entertaining fashion, he encourages viewers to analyze politics and the news media that inform them. This is an anti-pundit approach. Pundits, conservative and liberal, make their fortune and their celebrity from preaching opinions to the choir about things that generally don't matter. I'm sick of all of them, even the "good" ones like Bill Maher who happen to be on my end of the spectrum. I don't care that ten years ago Christine O'Donnell talked about experimenting with watered down Wicca in high school, but now that matters. I appreciate Jon Stewart because instead of advocating for sides, he advocates for reason. He transcends the fights that don't matter and reminds us that we should do the same.

I don't know why I should be so surprised that this philosophy shaped the rally, but I was. I guess that's because no one knew exactly what to expect. I went to an anti-war rally at the Mall in January of 2007, but I don't recall any of the speakers or events. It was more like a powwow of like-minded individuals. From the moment we arrived at the Mall around 9am on Saturday morning, the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear (renamed after Stewart and faux pundit Stephen Colbert joined their two events) felt more like a music festival. Three hours before showtime, the throngs were moving toward the main stage, staking out their seats. Dan, J and I got a bite to eat at one of the museums and then J went with his brother to grab a seat near the second set of big screen monitors. Meanwhile, Dan and I made a quick visit to the National Gallery. When we emerged 30 minutes later, the crowd in the mall had doubled in size. We squeezed our way into a spot near our friends' general location, and that's where we stood for the next four hours.

Within thirty minutes, the crowd around us was so thick that I couldn't see an empty space anywhere. Luckily it was a gorgeous, sunny autumn day, just chilly enough so that the warmth of all those tens of thousands of bodies wasn't stifling. Another thirty minutes later, The Roots took the stage and kicked off a set with John Legend. Then the Mythbuster dudes came out to do some symphonic experiments with the audience (this was mostly lame, but I will say that when 150,000 or so people make a thumb-popping-cheek sound at the same time, it's pretty cool). At 1pm, Stewart and Colbert took the stage and commenced a truly entertaining series of events. For me, the highlights were:

1) When Stewart brought out Yusuf (the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens) to sing "Peace Train", which Colbert countered by bringing out Ozzy to sing "Crazy Train". After a lot of theatrical bickering between the two hosts, Yusuf and Ozzy bolted. Then the O'Jays came out and sang "Love Train".

2) The awards portion - Stewart gave awards to public figures who have demonstrated calm and reason while Colbert awarded public figures who promote fear. Stewart first honored Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga, who didn't freak out and throw a justifiable tantrum after umpire Jim Joyce made a bad call that ruined his perfect game. I admit, when they showed Galarraga's videotaped acceptance speech, I was verklempt.

3) Random celebrity appearances, such as Sam Waterston's reading of Colbert's fear poem. Kareem Abdul Jabbar appeared onstage at one point to remind Colbert that he is, in fact, a Muslim.

It wasn't a thoroughly excellent show. When Kid Rock came on stage, Dan said, "Okay, let's go." I think he would have insisted if it wasn't so incredibly difficult to move through the crowd. So we suffered through it, which was ultimately a good thing because Stewart's keynote speech toward the end of the rally was well worth the wait.

The gist of the speech was that, despite our differences, and the divisive practices of our leaders and our news media, it is possible for Americans to work together to fix our problems. I think Stewart's most persuasive argument was when he used an aerial video image of gridlock traffic merging on a freeway. He pointed to each car and made up some demographic information about each driver - gay investment banker, mother of two small children, white baptist plumber, etc. He noted how almost every car moved in an orderly fashion to make it work - "You go, then I go. You go, then I go." It's a good, everyday example of random, disparate people making sacrifices to improve a difficult situation. But my favorite statement, the words that have been ringing through my head since Saturday, was when Stewart said (as best as I can remember), "And occasionally there's a person who drives along the shoulder and cuts in front of everyone else, but that person is rare, and they are scorned and they aren't hired as an analyst."

That inspired me. Not only does it validate my frustration with punditry, it also lines up with my feelings about politeness and civility. For all of my leftist political values, in my day to day life I just want everyone to get along. And I don't mean that in a super deep, Rodney King kind of way (but please know I'm not making fun of him; he, too should be awarded for profound calm and reason in response to a terrible situation). I don't like dramatic family situations, workplaces, or encounters with strangers. I prefer calm and not worrying about the little stuff, which is more apt to happen when social groups are focused on getting along. That takes a lot of thoughtful consideration and sacrifice, but sometimes it really can work.

It worked when we were leaving the rally. We spent over an hour just getting out of the Mall. The human gridlock was almost overwhelming at some points, when no one was moving and my body was sore from lack of food and standing still for four hours. I'm sure everyone was exhausted, but of the hundreds of people I personally encountered, not a single one freaked out or acted like a jerk in any way.

We left town shortly after returning to the hotel room. I heard a bit about the rally on the radio as we were heading down I-395 (mostly about how the city had not properly prepared for the crowds), but we were on the road and with family most of the time until today. I made a point of not reading anything about the rally before I wrote this, because I didn't want this to be a reaction to anything other than what I experienced. I don't know how to sum it up better than this: for a brief moment, a Frank Capra vision of the world became real and I hope I never forget that feeling.