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Archives for Food and Dieting

The Pickles of Wrath


I am writing this from a bunker deep within the recesses of my house. Whether this dispatch will reach anyone before tragedy overtakes us, I cannot say. Just know that I have fought the good fight. Know that, whatever happens, I did my best to mitigate the tide of what was to come.

I can hear them coming now, knocking on my door, feigning a friendly disposition and acting as if nothing was wrong. They were my friends once – neighbors and relatives. Back in the spring when all seemed possible, we exchanged information, helped each other out, borrowed tools and exchanged materials. We all shared a common goal: to bring down the price of our grocery bills.

It all seems so ironic now – how naïve we all were back then.

I remember those days, from the humble beginnings on each of our kitchen tables, laying out carefully each little patch of vegetable for which we hungered. We knew, even then, not to try anything difficult the first year. Our newly plowed soil hadn’t the years of enrichment as that of some of our more established neighbors. We would not make that newbie mistake; just a little lettuce, some tomatoes, peppers, onions, cucumbers and squash.

And only two zucchini plants, we laughed, well remembering our office days and entering a break room festooned with useless, giant baseball bat-sized vegetables.

Then came the days we realized we were not alone. As we each broke ground on our tiny plots of soil, we’d wave to each other over fences and hedges and share advice we’d read the night before over the internet. There were those among us who had established gardens already and they offered roto-tilling services and tips specific to our local soil.

I laugh now to think of how we’d talk at night of how wonderful it was to live in such a helpful, caring community.

It started innocently enough. There was one elderly gent, a longtime resident of the area, whose garden was the envy of us all. One day, we all said, we would have a garden like that. He spoke of his early peas and potatoes. He could plant earlier than any of us, since his soil had been worked and enriched for the past 20 years.

While we watched and waited, weather having delayed the tilling of our newly-established plots, he offered us little teaser gifts of cucumbers, early tomatoes and tiny zucchini. He’d come whistling over, his straw hat at a jaunty angle, and show us what just a little patience and effort would eventually afford us.

Then one day our own gardens suddenly began producing. For a week, each afternoon featured a show-and-tell among us as we pulled the first vegetables to be consumed that evening for dinner. We feasted on cucumber salads, zucchini and pasta, salad with grape tomatoes, fried zucchini rolls, cucumber sandwiches and tomato basil salad. We scoffed at those suckers who bought those hideous grocery store vegetables and strutted about our frugality and thrift.

When the garden began producing more than we could eat at the time, we began canning and freezing, frantically trying to keep ahead of the wave. Sure, it was the hottest time of year, but part of being frugal warriors like us was to not waste good food. So what if it meant we’d have to eat zucchini bread for every meal every day of the coming year to use up all that those two plants yielded? So what if I have enough jars of garlic dills to supply every deli between here and Vermont? We would not be wasteful!

‘But wait!’ we thought. ‘We will share our abundance!’

And that’s how it began: Each evening a representative of each household would stalk the neighborhood with an armload of vegetables, looking for someone, somewhere, upon whom to unload them.

Pretty soon we began avoiding each other, afraid that if we threw our hand up to wave, someone would stick a zucchini in it.

Our elderly neighbor for whom we had so kindly relieved his over-production? He had burrowed into the bowels of his house, the only testament of this existence the hum of his air conditioner. We suspect he is the one who prowls the neighborhood at night, leaving grocery bags of cucumbers on people’s doorknobs. We’ve had to release the dogs several times at night.

That’s the only time we open our doors these days. That — and to throw the useless, giant baseball-bat sized zucchini into the compost pile.

Posted by Jeanne Jackson at 6:54 PM | Permalink

Frugal Eats


Two years ago I posted a column here about my mother and her beans. During the oil crisis in the 1970s, my mother’s method of protecting us from the economic collapse she was positive would transpire was to buy tons of dried beans.
I am quite sure any day now that John Edward will call me up to tell me he’s channeled my mother, who is pushing aside all the other spirits just to say, “I told you so.” (She will also add, as she’s fading away, “…and get that hair out of your eyes.”)
I come from a long line of wary, frugal women. My grandmother, having been widowed in the midst of the Great Depression, raised six kids on her single income as a milliner. My uncle swears they “never knew there was a depression.”
My grandmother’s method of feeding an army on a tight budget was mixing pasta with just about any vegetable you can imagine or, as you might expect, any legume she had hanging about the house. In my family, dried beans are heirlooms.
My grandmother’s real secret weapon was a legendary cabbage dish made in a huge lasagna pan. I know it featured breadcrumbs and was baked in the oven. But the amazing thing about this dish was its ability to expand in your stomach and make you feel full. I will have the decency not to mention the aftermath of such a fibrous meal, but it was good – well, it wasn’t horrible. I never watched the creation of this dish or got the recipe, to the relief of the rest of this household’s residents.
I have my own tricks of culinary frugality. When we homeschooled the Heirs we were a single income family on a civil servant’s pay, so economy was a way of life. Back then our “vacations” were contingent on where the Commonwealth of Virginia decided to send Dirtman for a conference and “eating out” meant opening up a cooler in the back of the car and having a roadside picnic. I recall one trip to Pennsylvania where Dirtman, the Heirs, my brother, my nephew and I all shared the same hotel room paid for by the state during a national soils conference. We ate out of a cooler full of sandwiches. The big feature of the trip was the swimming pool and that the room had cable featuring Cartoon Network.
In frugal mode, the first thing to go is cold cereal, which is a financial black hole. Cold cereal and milk evaporate in this house. So cold cereal is replaced by rolled oats, stone ground oatmeal and farina, all bought in bulk. Milk is mixed with dried milk in a 1/1 ratio. This practice has drastically reduced the traffic in the kitchen at ten o’clock at night and also reduced Dirtman’s waistline.
Like my mother and grandmother, a lot of the money-saving methods I used back then stayed with me when our finances loosened. We continued to buy in bulk and scratch cooking continued simply because it tastes better. A lot of my grandmother’s thrifty recipes are now featured in tony Italian restaurants for not-so-thrifty prices and so I’ve always been able to entertain without breaking the bank.
I will admit that some of my more radical ideas from back in the day have been banished by mandate from our table forever. I was forced to vow never to serve a casserole featuring TVP (texturized vegetable protein) ever again. Deer and rabbit have also been banned. And I’m not permitted to forage for greens anywhere but an officially designated garden (women of Italian extract find it difficult to walk anywhere without scanning the countryside for edible greens. It’s in our DNA and a great comfort to know that, in a pinch, we can always resort to grazing).
So far I’ve managed to disguise the increase in bean consumption. I don’t think anyone has caught onto the fact that what I present as “dip” is, in fact, bean dip – is, in fact, (though I’ll deny it if mentioned in front of Dirtman or either Heir) hummus. “Hummus” is considered something only eaten on the west coast by liberal nut cases. That innocent can of chick peas has absolutely nothing to do with hummus.
Meanwhile, I surreptitiously stockpile my bags of dried beans for when things get really bad. So everyone knows where to come when they’re starving and, of course, they are more than welcome. So long as I can serve from upwind.

Posted by Jeanne Jackson at 8:28 AM | Permalink

The Real Chocolate War


Chocolate. Why’d I have to find out about the chocolate?
I’m of the firm belief that it’s not my job to fix everything in the universe. So I don’t go out of my way to dig up all the miseries of the world, contemplate them, expose them and lay them out for everyone to join me in a good ol’ wallow.
But if, in the course of my going about my business, happy-go-lucky and enjoying things like, say, dark chocolate nonpareils, I come across information about the enslavement, trafficking and torture of children required to bring about that chocolate, I am forced to pay attention. It’s the universe’s way of tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “You are probably the last person on the planet to find out about this and, while you are only an ineffective, non-confrontational and usually invisible middle-aged housewife, just thought you ought to know.” The Universe apparently knows who is eating all that chocolate.
Oh. Man. Wasn’t there anyone else to bother with this? Because now I’ve got to give it up.
It’s one thing to see cause to give up something you were never really interested in to begin with. This is the secret to how I got through Lent when I was a kid – I’d pick a food to give up, like kale for instance, that my mother had to force-feed me anyway.
That’s the feeling I’ve always had about my refusal to wear or buy diamonds or anything diamond-like (thus encouraging that fashion that has caused so much misery). I probably wouldn’t be a diamond sort of person anyway. Oh, I have an engagement ring and a necklace with a single diamond my parents gave me one Christmas, neither of which I wear that I would were it not for my diamond boycott. But, other than those sentimental pieces, I’m not a big fan of that over-the-top kind of glitz that diamonds flash.
And my boycott of Wal Mart is similarly easy because it only means I pay a little more for a few things and have to wait a little longer to save up to buy other things, rather than buy the landfill-fodder that store promotes. I’m not really giving anything up but a modicum of convenience and a couple of bucks.
But chocolate? Aw…man…not the chocolate.
That’s hitting me where it hurts: right on my food obsession.
While the reasons for the unstable cocoa market are complicated, the issue is exacerbated by the fact that the major cocoa processors – the corporations like Nestle, M&M/Mars and Hershey that have the most clout in the industry – have basically said it’s not their problem, which seems to the general consensus of everyone at every level except, of course, the children whose problem it really and truly is. And while the industry has set a goal to eliminate inhumane practices in processing the cocoa, their deadline has come and gone and the only progress made is the extension of the deadline.
The European Union, who you would think could help out battling such atrocities, is more interested in preventing British-produced chocolate onto the continent as a measure to further protect the economy of those very plantation owners who contribute to the exploitation. After all, first things first.
So, I can’t be a part of it. There are Fair Trade chocolate sources that are expensive and will require more than a trip to the grocery store. And, while I will make use of them, I know that the price and the effort will drastically curtail my consumption of chocolate.
But I know chocolate is the absolute last thing people would be willing to give up – or jump through all kinds of hoops to obtain when it’s so readily available on grocery store shelves. This, though, is one of the main reasons I just. Can’t. Let. This. Go.
I can just picture some corporate cocoa processing executive sitting back with smug satisfaction at the fact that most of those fat, stupid, spoiled Americans lead too indulgent a lifestyle to ever consider boycotting his client’s chocolate. The companies who buy his cocoa have an easy enough excuse to give the occasional radical like me.
Oh yeah, they did without ivory for the sake of the elephants, but how many people could afford ivory anyway? And the public was placated by toothless legislation against blood diamonds and good ol’ DeBeers is still able to sell their huge back log for inflated prices. Why, if the American chocolate producers were ever economically hit by a boycott, they might put pressure on the processors. . . to. . . comply to the new regulations.
But I know that will never happen. I can no more make a difference in Nestle’s or Hershey’s corporate policies than I have with the DeBeers diamond cartel or the Walton family. And, like with the diamonds and WalMart, when I tell people they will roll their eyes, call me a naïve extremist, pat me on the head and dismiss everything I say from then on.
Of course, if Hollywood got involved (WARNING: Very over-the-top graphic, as befitting a PETA ad), this issue would be more publicized. There would be magazine ads dispersing guilt to anyone contemplating chocolate chip cookies and television commercials showing someone unattractively smeared with slathers of fudge.
But that sort of publicity is saved for the welfare of cows and chickens. Children on another continent can fend for themselves.

Posted by Jeanne Jackson at 8:49 AM | Permalink

Life on the Weight-Loss Plateau


I haven’t mentioned my weight loss program since March, leading some to believe that I’ve once again lost steam in my never-ending quest to finally rid my mailbox of Lane Bryant catalogs.
The reason I’m reluctant to make a report is that the television is barraged with ads and programs claiming amazing numbers of pounds lost or showing pictures of people who start out looking like Kathy Bates, lose 10 pounds and wind up looking like Calista Flockhart.
I can report a weight loss of only 15 pounds, but I still look like an Oompah Loompah, only an Oompah Loompah 15 pounds lighter. That’s okay by me. I’ve gone the rapid weight loss route several times. One dish of Starbucks Coffee Ice Cream and it’s all back again.
So it’s slow and steady for me and certainly nothing I can’t convince myself to do for the rest of my life. I remember seeing some diet program (it may have been an Oprah episode, back when I was watching her show) where the expert took a group of women out to lunch to show them how to eat in a restaurant and still lose weight. They ordered a grilled chicken sandwich, hold the mayo, which he proceeded to take apart by setting the bun aside (okay so far . . .) and then pointed out that the chicken breast meat was “shiny.”
“That means ‘fat’,” he said and proceeded to wipe the meat with a paper napkin. By the time he finished with the platter, it looked about as appetizing as Styrofoam.
I would never be able to live the rest of my life wiping all the shiny food that comes my way. In fact, I would never be able to live knowing that I had to completely avoid anything fattening. A life without cannoli? Why bother?
I do know there are certain foods I cannot have in my house, surprisingly un-gourmet foods that I cannot stop eating until they’re gone: pot stickers, Chip Ahoy cookies, the aforementioned coffee ice cream and – don’t tell anyone because this is really embarrassing – Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. Apparently I’m not alone in my lack of control around noxious food. My friend Karen, a gourmet cook and major foodie, is powerless around Cap’n Crunch cereal.
So there is nothing off limits to me, I just can’t drown myself in food and have come to know my “trigger foods,” which are foods that are the gateway to a full-fledged binge. One donut can wipe out an entire pantry.
Having gotten the whole eating thing worked out, my loss is slowing even more, almost to the point of being an actual “plateau” – which is a dieting term for “I refuse to eat any less or move my butt fast enough to burn any calories.” So I, with my vast dieting experience, know what comes next: I must . . . ugh. . .formally. . . errrrrrrr. . . ex-er-cise.
The Treadmill of Torture and I have a nodding acquaintance right now. There were times we were closer, but it gets very tyrannical when given too much attention. But I’m now to the point that a morning knocking around what I insist on calling the garden isn’t cutting it anymore. And the only dog that walked at my pace is on maternity leave.
So it’s me, the Treadmill of Torture and my search for something to listen to while we’re communing so I don’t realize that I am walking to nowhere, which has all sorts of existential ramifications that I become aware of by way of an excuse not to do it. It seems no matter what I listen to, eventually the realization that I absolutely hate what I have to do for 40 minutes creeps through the soundtrack and suddenly a miles’ walk may as well be 30 miles.
My brother, a long-time runner, assured me that, as I get into better shape and lengthen my workout, the endorphins will kick in. I assume the endorphins numb the brain to the fact that you are now walking even further to nowhere. Frankly, all I got out of his advice was a gut-wrenching sense of dread at the phrase “lengthen my workout.”
Still, I show up four times a week. I know I’ll never come close to being considered “thin,” not with these sturdy Sicilian hips. I’m just aiming to live longer, if only to annoy my kids.
If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, though, don’t bother with paramedics. Call Dunkin’ Donuts.

Posted by Jeanne Jackson at 12:48 PM | Permalink

The Never-Changing Scale


So there I am, eagerly anticipating the scale readout. This does not happen often and I am relishing the moment because I’m about to see the payoff from my past month of exercising every day, giving up all alcohol, and carefully monitoring what I eat.
The analog gives me the three dashes and then . . . the same number as a month ago.
At first I am dumbfounded. I try again and . . . the same number as a month ago.
Let us leave this sad, deflating snippet of my life for a moment for a little background information.
As I approach my 50th birthday in June, this is, by my rough calculations, the 35th diet attempt, not counting the countless three-day false starts. I am what nutritionists, dieticians and doctors call a “yo-yo dieter.”
My dieting pathology follows a predictable course and one time I thought I had actually mastered it until I realized I was living on next to nothing but still gaining weight. By way of throwing a temper tantrum, I went back to eating everything in sight. It wasn’t until I’d regained all 50 pounds I’d lost, and then some, that I found out it was a medical condition, which would have been diagnosed and taken care of easily if only I’d overcome my opinion that “only sick people go to the doctor and I am not a sick person.”
As an aside, once medication took hold, I had that blissful – albeit brief – experience that dieters pray for: fat “melting” away. Unfortunately, only 20 of the total poundage melted and the rest kind of sat back and got comfortable where it was, which was mostly on my bottom half, making me look like those toy punching clowns, though I doubt if you deck me one I’d pop back up quite so happily.
Normally my dieting goes like this: I carefully watch what I eat all week, lighten up a little on weekends. For exercise, I grab whatever dog is closest to the door and we keep walking for 15 to 20 minutes, turn around and walk back.
The first week I lose 5 pounds. This is water weight. I know this because when I went on my first diet at age six, my mother told me so. She repeated this when I started my diet at ages 10 and 13. Same diet every time, a diet she got out of a paperback with a lady in a bathing suit in a pear on the cover. It was 500 calories a day, all boiled vegetables. And what kid doesn’t love boiled vegetables?
Though at 13, she found a doctor who agreed to add to my daily allowance a special pill that not only would curb my appetite, but made me shake so much my braces sparked. I ended up pretending to take it, then flushing it down the toilet, at least until it floated back up once and my mother found it. There aren’t many teenagers who get yelled at for not taking their speed.
When I was in charge of my diets, though, I was vastly more sensible. After the initial 5 pounds, I know I’m in for real weight loss which, while not as dramatic, is much more visible. Every seven or eight pounds drops me a clothing size. I thought this was torture.
The point is, I thought I knew what to expect of my body and now it’s turned on me. We had an agreement: I eat totally unpalatable food and work it till it hurts to sneeze and it gets smaller and, by way of a bonus, sleeker. It’s not supposed to ignore my efforts and it certainly isn’t supposed to start sagging.
Okay, I will admit I had one moment of indiscretion. But I feel completely justified in my decision to ignore all dietary restriction: Dirtman went to Little Italy in Baltimore and brought me home cannoli from Vaccaro’s Bakery. Vaccaro’s cannoli cream is a gift from God Himself and I would be an ungrateful believer indeed should I pass up this opportunity which does not come often in one’s lifetime (not that it can’t, since they do mail order. And, no, I am in no way related to the Vaccaro family, though I’m sure previous purchases have put not a few of their grandkids through college).
So I’m rethinking my goals. Yes, I feel a lot better after exercising every day and have more energy. My clothes fit better and I think – I think – I can tie my shoes tighter.
For now, I suppose, I’ll have to be happy with that – an energetic 50-year-old with skinny feet.

Posted by Jeanne Jackson at 2:36 PM | Permalink

The Treadmill of Torture


Here I am at month number two eating freakin’ tasteless Styrofoam and grass of healthy eating and there is minimal progress to report. Still, there is progress which, for us, is. . .um. . .progress.

For instance, Dirtman wore socks several times in the last few weeks. This is a major accomplishment since Dirtman has been pretending the reason he goes sockless is because he’s really cool and so manly he doesn’t need them. I happen to know he wasn’t wearing them because it required bending over to reach his feet.

For the record, I always wear socks and even go so far as to have shoes that require tying. Only now my face doesn’t turn purple when I do it.

Go ahead and scoff at our puny little triumphs. We’ve embraced the fact that we’re never going to be dancing around like most of the people in commercials because they’ve “lost 120 pounds in a month!” or the cutesy-voiced bitch woman who makes me want to kick in the television: “This is a size two.”

Our moments of bitterness during those annoying commercials are nothing compared to the rage we feel about the more painful injustices of having to lose weight. And this goes beyond the fact that we can’t go to a moderately-priced restaurant and get a meal both low in fat and normal in portion size. We are from a generation that was told to clean our plates because of the starving children in India. (Have you, by the way, checked up on those kids? Doing pretty well on all our leftovers, I’d say. . .).

Marketing aside, there are things about losing weight that are just not fair.

For instance, it’s not enough to walk for 30 minutes anymore. No, now three times a week I’m supposed to do weight training. Isn’t it enough that I’m carrying me around all day? A couple of five-pound weights hardly seem like much compared to the hips I’m dragging up and down the stairs.

And why doesn’t laundry and vacuuming count?

Now – now – they tell me that there is no such thing as a negative calorie food. I was counting on eating 137 stalks of celery to prepare for a Starbucks Coffee Ice Cream binge and wasted all that time doing the math. I don’t balance my checkbook, but spent a good long time adding up how many calories it takes to bite, chew and digest each single stalk. Don’t tell me I’m not motivated.

Then there is this: I have two brothers. My brothers eat five times what I eat, order dessert and wash it all down with a Guinness. The next morning I will make them slabs of pork sausage, a couple eggs and a couple pieces of toast slathered with butter and jam. I will have yogurt.

They will gain nothing. I won’t be able to button my fat pants (you know you have them too). And they’re not even carrying me around for exercise like I am. See? Not. Fair.

Even my treadmill engages in unfair practices. It tells me the usual information like how fast and far I’m going and even lets me know how many calories I’m burning, though I think this particular feature on my machine is waaaaaay off. It also evaluates the level of exertion I’m putting into my workout. With a real strenuous workout a little light goes on next to the word “endurance.” This is only theoretical, of course, since no one who has ever been on the treadmill has seen that light go on.

The next level down is “moderate” and then down to “fat burning.” There is another light and it’s the one that goes on while I’m on the treadmill. There are no words for my level. I guess they were too polite to print the word “lame.” But I’m panting, sweating and miserable, which is how I gauge the level of my exertion. How can I not at least be “fat burning?” I’m not up there just chewing celery, ya know.

And, really, as much information as I had to put into the treadmill’s computer so it can accurately calculate the calories burned, you would think they’d have a way to compensate for leg length. My brother, who is a runner, says that I’m nitpicking, but that’s only because he can think straight because he’s allowed to eat like a person.

We are truly trying to get beyond our bitterness about having a pathetic metabolism and focus on all the wonderful things that are happening because we’re eating healthy and exercising. And, of course, this month brings Valentine’s Day when we go to our favorite restaurant and . . . oh . . .

Not. Fair.

Posted by Jeanne Jackson at 2:50 PM | Permalink

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