Olfactory Tales

I shook open the flat sheet and kicked up a wind of memories hidden in the heavy damp smell of the linen closet. It was the smell of holiday tablecloths, sun soaked curtains, and cool summer evenings slept away on the porch (the year we decided to put a bed out there, just for the fun of it). Every evening I would watch the silvery moon through the screens, and watch the leaves toss shadows on the still grass. The crickets, whose brilliant song in the evenings fades in and out of backgrounds like a classical tune at a cocktail party, would play a live symphony for me in my porch bed. I often had the fear that if I payed too close attention I would discover that the sound was not real and the crickets would disappear. They never did.

I stayed out there every night through soccer season. The musk of the muddy leaves, which had been crunched by cleats kicking soccer goals in the make believe championships of my backyard, would rise up through the cool air at night. When the fall air turned to ice, and tinted the night sky with softer shades of blue, I simply piled on more blankets and trapped my hair and feet in wool. Every morning I awoke triumphant, and refreshed and arrived at the breakfast table with ice cold air still clinging to my pajamas wrapping me in the spirit of adventure. The best pancakes, it seems, are always those eaten while ruddy faced and wearing winter air and wool socks.

Christina just walked into the room carrying a steaming plate of crispy rice (Tadig) and my latest creation, thinly sliced stir fried pork with Bok Choy and pickled ginger. The smell of maple syrup saturates the air, which must be imagined, as neither recipe contains the stuff.

2 portions pork tenderloin
2 small baby bok choy heads
1/4 small onion
2 cloves garlic
1 Tbsp toasted sesame oil
1 Tsbp grape seed oil
salt, soy sauce, white wine vinegar to season
2 Tbsp flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup cooking wine (white) or wine for cooking. You could substitute apple cider.

Slice the pork thin and coat in a mixture of flour and baking soda. In a frying pan, heat both oils until they are very hot. Put the onion (diced) and a little salt in the pan. Add pork and brown on all sides. Pour in the wine, and be careful not to excite the fire. Add garlic (minced) and bok choy (diced) and a bit of soy. Garnish with pickled ginger!

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Recipe for Rejuvenation

Three years have gone by and I am sitting in the exact same lecture hall, in the front row, while the hungry eyes of the undergraduates try to figure out where my good side is and how they will secure a seat for themselves on it. We, the teaching assistants in the front row, are the graders. As professor drones on about grading percentages and study habits, I can feel the eyes of the students boring their way into my brain. The power they think that I have is imagined, largely because in a class of 200 students, I cannot even keep track of their names. There will be no favoritism, no easy A’s. This doesn’t discourage the students from flashing enthusiastic smiles, laughing too hard at my jokes, and boldly stopping by to introduce themselves to me after class.
We are all trying to be noticed. No one wants their genius to go unrecognized, their voices to be lost in the thunder of the trees falling in the woods. I wish that I could sit with every one of these fresh minds and have them tell me their most brilliant moment. Instead I sift through essays, and read carefully from the lines, and sometimes try to read between the lines, searching for the wisdom I once had but have forgotten. I have changed, and the shoes they are wearing don’t fit my feet, which have grown calloused from traversing paths of resistance. I am more guarded with my battles now.
Walking swiftly from the classroom, I am floating in a sea of bouncing backpacks. The occasional bike whizzes by. Scruffy teenagers and twenty something’s wave paper flyers with caged and tortured animals bearing the PETA logo. There was a time where I would have talked to them. A bearded man hands out information on socialism. I did not stop to hear about where and when the meeting will be. A young boy wearing a tie recites the King James Bible. I ignore him.

I feed the love in my heart and it repays me with an abundance of energy. It sweetens the mealy apple, and fills my day with meaning.

Recipe for rejuvination:

Find someone.
Anyone.
Sit with them for a bit.
Listen to their words, and hear what they say with their actions.
Don’t try to help them.
Don’t try to think of answers, solutions, jokes, or something to say to break silence.
Forget about your own problems and how they relate to theirs.
Just let them talk.
Be with them for the discomfort between words.
Offer love.

Now go home and repeat this recipe for yourself.
Find yourself.
Here.
Sit with yourself for a bit.
Listen to your words and hear what you say with your actions.
Don’t try to help yourself.
Don’t try to think of answers, solutions, jokes, or some thought to break the silence.
Forget about their problems and how they relate to yours.
Just listen to your thoughts.
Be with yourself, even though it may feel uncomfortable.
Offer love.

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Culture in a Pill

How to live. How to get the most out of life. Somehow we have become convinced that the treasure chest of life’s enjoyment is unlocked by the key to perfect health. Perfect health is something that we measure in numbers, for no other reason than because we have found no better measurement and it fits into the protocol of modern science.

We can’t really rely on asking people how they feel, because how one feels is not objective, so we instead measure weight, height, bone density, blood pressure, muscle mass, tooth color, hair texture, oxygen consumption. If you fit into the ideal, that you have achieved success and therefore qualify for the gift of happiness. Of course, there is always room for improvement, so if for some reason you have achieved the right measurements and are still un-fulfilled, you might want to try getting your teeth a few shades lighter.

The concept of the “French Paradox” illustrates what happens when one culture tries to describe what is happening within another from outside of the cultural context. What is the French paradox? As Americans who struggle to tailor our diets to fit within the recommended pyramid structure (in order to stay healthy) we are baffled by the French with their diet of fine cheeses, white bread, rich sauces, and wine. The French seem to have lower incidence of chronic disease and trimmer waistlines, and yet they eat from the top of the pyramid! How can that be, we cry out!!

Nutrition sciences, do to lack of funding, rely on technology from pharmaceutical companies when analyzing food. As a result, we place a lot of significance on what is in food, and less significance on how the food is eaten. American scientists rush to find the key to life hidden within the French diet rather that observing the differences in how the two different cultures approach the dinner table (or the drive through dinner drop-off).

A team of young scientists in white lab coats are unleashed on France. They take out the measuring tape and calculate BMI, and abdominal fat. They measure blood pressure, insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease. Yes indeed, the French seem to meet the requirements for optimal health and therefore the gift of happiness. The American scientists sit back and scratch their heads. There must be something in their food that we don’t know about.

In 2006 a team of scientists at Harvard medical school purified a polyphenolic compound found in red wine which originates in grape skins called resveratrol and fed it to mice, along with a high fat diet. (reference: Vol 444| 16 November 2006| doi:10.1038/nature05354) The results were amazing. The mice, while they had no less propensity toward obesity, maintained youthful liver profiles. They lived much longer lifespans than their non-resveratrol consuming controls. They had improved insulin sensitivity and cholesterol, and decreased organ pathology.

Current regulations in the United States do not require FDA regulation of supplements. Anyone can place a supplement on the market, and until somebody reports getting hurt, people are free to experiment on themselves at will. Resveratrol, though it is a promising longevity pill in certain animals, has not been tested much in humans yet. The team of scientists from Harvard launched a product line of resveratrol and could probably all now retire!

One recent human study reported that resveratrol is metabolized quickly and is not highly bioavailable in humans from supplements. The study found reveratrol to be safe in the short term at doses of up to 150 mg 6 times per day, however. (Mol. Nutr. Food Res. 2009, 53, S7 –S15). (The S in front of the reference means that this article was published in a supplement journal and did not have to be scientifically peer reviewed, so take it with a grain of salt!)

If you are looking for the key to health as measured by western science, you can play lab rat with yourself in the supplement aisle of your local co-op or by clicking on the ads which have no doubt found their way to this page by my mention of the word “resveratrol“. Of course you could also try the pursuit of a perfect moment and enjoy a fine cheese, some fresh baked bread, and some grapes with a loved one, at a leisurely pace, under the umbrella of a late summer sky.

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Hide and go seek

“12..11..10..9..8..7..6..5..4…3..2……1 here I come ready or not!!”

I am walking gingerly through the cleared path between the trees, which are newly colored with autumn. I place my feet carefully on the soft grassy dirt, until I reach the edge where the sun cannot reach and no longer feeds the grass with her light. The earth is much cooler here, forcing a chill up my legs, which are still free with summer shorts. I hear whisper, and evil chatter, which I am certain is a part of some scheme to terrorize me. I peer behind a tree, my heart lurches and then settles into a strong pound.

They are going to get me, I am sure of it. If I don’t find them first, they will find me. I begin to walk faster.

I am frantically looking now. Running, from tree to tree, branches crunch beneath my feet. Just when I see one, it eludes me and I feel crazy, like I have imagined it there. I run faster, eyes bulging, breathing rapid and shallow, frothing like a racehorse, I am hyper-vigilant. AHA! I swipe with my hands at a figure, but my hands come up empty. I am crazy. I am sure of it.

I slump against the tree, sliding to the cool earth, resigned, surrendered, they will get me I am sure but my legs are cramped and my stomach uneasy and I cannot go on looking.
“Hi”
I look up into soft brown eyes and hair golden with sun.
“Hi” I say.
“What are we looking for?” She asks.
“Problems” I say.
“They are all around us” she says. I look beyond the little girl to the trees in the forest, and snickering little problems camouflaged to blend in with the trees and the rocks and the dirt are doing somersaults and handstands and playing games with one another. They are mischievous, but innocent little creatures.
“Who are you?” I say.
“Solution”. She says, and she takes me around the woods and introduces me one by one to my imagined attackers. One of them steals my wallet and leaves me spinning in circles trying to catch him, another one trips me until I fall on the forest floor. Innocent little creatures looking to have a laugh. I make a mean face at them, yelling and trying to look threatening.
Solution begins to giggle, “You should really see your face right now, it is hilarious” I imagine myself terrified of these little tricksters, and using my strongest defenses, and I start to laugh too.

I often find problems to be impossible to see clearly without the help of solutions. When I am in the woods, I try to call out for the hidden solution before seeking out problems.

Squash soup:
The comfort of nutmeg in the early fall.

Preheat the oven to 400.
cut in half (and remove seeds) 1 large butternut squash
place squash face down in a baking dish and add a little water to the pan.
cover with tinfoil or a lid
bake for ~40 min (until tender)

in a soup pot, heat 2 Tbsp olive oil and a little salt
add 1 large yellow onion diced
cook until the onion is sweet

Scrape squash and onion into a food processor and blend
add back to the soup pan and thin with

EITHER
1 1/2 cups milk
OR
1 1/2 cups almond milk (yummy)
OR
1 1/2 cups half and half
OR
1 1/2 cups orange juice

What you add depends on your personal beliefs, preferences, tastes, politics, etc…

grate some fresh nutmeg on the top. Serve with love.

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3000 a day keeps a runner at play!

“You don’t look like you love food enough to be a decent chef.” One meal with me would eradicate this statement from the mind of it’s deliverer. I am never good company at restaurants, because I have to read the entire menu slowly, imaging each flavor combination and how it would feel in my mouth at that very moment. Fortunately for my waistline I have always had a preference for the crunchy, the tart, and the more acidic foods, leading me toward binges of tart apples and crunchy salads instead of cakes and ice creams. I remember as a little girl sitting on our shag carpet, crunching through apple after apple and lining the cores in front of big bird as he danced happily in the square television before me. I felt satisfied when I had completely blocked out his scratchy voice with my crunching.

According to an old school mentality, a proper chef must have “dimples on the elbows” as my grandmother used to say. Of course, my grandmother lived most of her life in the days before American culture developed a strong taste for endurance exercise. ~3000 calories a day. That is what I am supposed to eat to maintain my body weight in these days of high intensity marathon training. I remember reading recently that it is common for chefs to be marathon runners, and for marathon runners to be foodies. Makes sense.

Here is an interesting scientific bit of information: the hungrier you are, the more your brain releases pleasurable chemicals in response to food. We might say something like “food tastes good when you are hungry” but what is really happening is the brain is being bathed in mood altering neuropeptides including endocannabinoids and endorphin which make us feel a heightened sense of pleasure. Since the brain’s response to a calorie deficiency is to make food more rewarding, dieters are told not to get too hungry.

Today, on my run, I saw an old friend who I used to work with. He was on the grass stretching, his bike lay obediently beside him. I recognized him from the prominent scar on his shaved head.

“HEY!” I stopped (I always forget I don’t have to scream for the other person to hear me when my music is on).
“Hey” he said rubbing his finger in his ear.

“sorry” I laughed. I looked at the bike, bicyclists seem to have a relationship with their bike that goes beyond appreciation of it’s function. “you are biking again???” I pointed out, as if he didn’t know. It really surprised me to see him on his bike, because he had spent weeks in a coma after a near death bicycle accident a few years ago. His whole head is covered in scars, and he lost entirely his sense of smell as a result of the accident.

“Yeah” he said “I took some time off, and then one day I thought to myself ‘what am I so afraid of’ and now I am back to doing tricks on my bike and riding fast on the street.” This caused me to feel a little embarrassed about my own refusal to bike after a minor accident I experienced two years ago which caused me to chip a tooth. “I have been meaning to ask you” I said. “Without a sense of smell, can you taste anything?”

“Nope” he said. “Well, I can tell if it is sweet, salty, bitter, or sour, but I can’t detect flavors like cherry or watermelon. I know if something is good!” I had a million more questions, but I was starting to get cold and stiff muscles from standing there. I ran off with my questions, wondering if his food preferences changed at all after the accident, or if he lost his appetite for certain foods entirely. I wondered what he thought of fast food now that their aroma enhancers were powerless over his olfactory blindness.

As I write I am having a delicious lunch of pasta with cauliflower, green onions and shredded cheese. I have an ice pack on each leg. For breakfast I had two sandwiches with almond butter and raisins, for first lunch I had grape-nuts cereal and a protein smoothie, for second lunch I am having the pasta. Dinner tonight will be Thai coconut soup with chicken and some spring rolls. I think that should come out to about 3000, and if not I am sure my brain will let me know.

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Stacked and Elegant Vegetable Towers

Here is one of the dishes I will be preparing at my “market talk” at the Minneapolis farmer’s market on Saturday, Sept 5, beginning at 10:30 am. If you live in the area, please come out and join us!

Stacked and Elegant Vegetable Towers

2-3 eggs

1-2 cups yellow cornmeal (plain, don’t accidentally use cornbread mix)

1-2 cups flour

Canola oil (for frying)

salt

1 medium eggplant

2 medium zucchini

2 heirloom tomatoes (or beefsteak, or whatever kind tastes good to you)

2 medium balls fresh mozzarella in water

1 bunch basil

salt and pepper to taste

Slice the eggplant thin and lay out on toweled surface. Salt the eggplant liberally and allow to sit until it starts to sweat brown liquid. Mop up the brown beads with a paper towel, flip eggplant and repeat on the other side. Slice zucchini thin and tomatoes (salt the tomatoes if you like).

Crack the eggs into a bowl and beat with a fork. Pour flour and a little salt onto a plate (about 1 cup). Pour cornmeal onto a separate plate.

Heat ~1/2 inch of oil in a frying pan until very hot. Dip eggplant in flour, then in egg mixture, then in cornmeal to cover. Fry carefully in the hot oil until tender and brown. Repeat with zucchini. Using a fork, carefully transfer fried zucchini and eggplant to paper towel.

Assemble stacks layering first eggplant, then basil, then sliced cheese, then basil, then tomato, basil, zucchini, basil etc.. until you have the desired tower height. Season with fresh pepper and salt!

Late August delivered big red jellyfish to long island sound, bringing a deterrent to the waters just as they became warm enough to comfortably swim. I remember the courage I needed to summon just to dangle my limbs into the salty abyss. Home, in the late summer months, was a portable fiberglass hull with an enormous white billowing sail. She was a beautiful family sized sailboat. We bought her when I was five. That evening my family sat around the dinner table, shouting out names and competing to be the one to come up with the most clever. “Panacea” my parents settled on “because it is the cure for what ails you”.

Panacea was not a part of my 5 year old vernacular, but I thought it was clever that it had the sound of “sea” in it. The accompanying dinghy (most sailboats carry a small motorboat or rowboat to use for emergencies, or when at anchor or mooring to bring passengers to shore) was named “the little pill”.

I felt a certain pride about being a boat kid. I loved to show off, how I could climb around on the boom, how I could balance when the boat was heeling, her rails skimming the water. Some days we heeled over so far that the sound threatened to devour us, it seemed. On these days, the really windy days, I would beg my father to allow me to take the wheel. I especially wanted to steer when it was rainy or stormy, so that I could imagine myself as a heroic captain battling with a turbulent sea. “Not right now”, he would say. When the sound had returned to a calm glassy pool, he would call below for me and, swelling with fatherly pride, ask me if I still wanted to steer. He would tell me where to point the bow of the boat and I would old the wheel steady, feeling the thumping of waves against the rudder as we glided along.

Our home port was just to the left of a blue tower with a smoke stack attached. It had two square windows, which resembled two black eyes to me. When my father said “point to the left of that tower” my heart would sink a little. I knew it was time to leave our summer adventures behind, and school concerns would soon take residence in my curious mind.

The salt flakes, the tangled hair, the tanned skin, these things were badges of honor as far as I was concerned. When we got home my poor mother used to have to chase me around the house with a comb to relieve me of the salty dreadlocks that I so desperately wanted to keep, in an attempt to hold on to the last glow of summer as she set.

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Cucumbers, because hydration means life

The two hours of leisurely running felt as colorful and relaxing as flipping through a magazine. No matter how much faster I believed I wanted to go, my legs resisted. My quads felt like they were draped in vests of lead, the kind you put on before taking an x-ray. I wondered if this humbling challenge of pushing unrested legs is a step to the magic arch a person must push through to enter the ranks of an elite runner, or if it is simply an exercise for my ego. The meaning depends entirely upon the interpretation. I was drifting down the street, like a lazy boat carried by an asphalt river, while others zoomed by. I felt the sun soak into my skin, the last lingering heat of summer. Soon there will be reds and golds and autumn smells.

Food is a constant desire in these 60 mile weeks. I left behind the salads in favor of more energy dense foods to keep up with my training, like crackers and cheeses, meats, almonds, Eggs Benedict and cupcakes. Today I felt a longing in my heart for heirloom tomatoes and cucumbers. Last year I worked, briefly, doing marketing research for farmers markets. My job was to surf the Internet all day extracting material about the nutritional and nutraceutical value of different types of produce. I had a long list of vegetables to research, all of them were very marketable: blueberries, a powerhouse of antioxidants! Apples, soluble fiber to help lower cholesterol! Carrots, beta-carotene for night vision! Tomatoes, heart healthy lycopene! and then I came to cucumbers. Cucumbers are….hydrating.
Suddenly cucumbers seemed totally uninteresting to me. They had no fancy pharmacological activity, not many flavonoids or polyphenols to brag about or fancy pants phytosterols, no great vitamin contribution, no omega 3 fatty acids to ward off inflammation.
They simply hydrate.
Then it hit me. Hydration is really important, although generally not very marketable in the food product world (unless you are selling beverages). Our bodies contain about 65% water. Manufacturers of food products have a different relationship with water in food, it increases the likelihood of spoilage causing a limited shelf life. A limited shelf life is a major roadblock for a country that relies on shipping food around to keep everyone fed. This is one reason that the frozen foods and the snack sections of the grocery store seems to just keep spreading. Many of the snack foods available in stores are dehydrated or low in water, so that they keep for longer.
Cucumbers, because hydration means life.
The Salad:
dice 1 whole large cucumber and put it in a salad bowl. Add some sliced heirloom tomatoes (or heirloom cherry tomatoes yum!!) Dress with red wine vinegar and oil. Top with 1/4 avocado, 2 slices of turkey, 1 slice of nice Italian salami, and some broken up mozzarella cheese. Garnish with crackers.
Christina’s vote: (Poor Christina, I ate this whole thing by myself! By the time she got home I was licking the bowl)
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