June 22, 2012 § 17 Comments
Can you believe how much sugar has been in the news lately? Between Mayor Bloomberg’s soda embargo and HBO’s high profile documentary on obesity in the US, not to mention the new statistics coming out weekly pronouncing sugar responsible for everything from hemorrhoids to hammer toes (Sugar makes you fat! Sugar makes you stupid! Sugar makes you really, really annoying at parties!) it seems to me a wonder that we all haven’t started treating the stuff like rat poison rather than our favorite ingredient for summer fun.
But it is our favorite ingredient for summer fun (and spring, fall, and winter fun) and it all goes to show how terribly addicted we all are- both biologically and socially- to this ingredient which has been proven comparable to cocaine in the effects it has on our brain. As I’ve alluded to in prior posts, ever since our family’s official Year of No Sugar concluded, I’ve been living the strange life of a reformed addict… like the alcoholic who is convinced they can drink “occasionally,” or the rare person who can smoke the “once-in-a-while” cigarette without getting hooked. Can one have “just a little” sugar? The slope is sooooooo slippery that I continue to be unsure.
I’ll give you a for instance: a few days ago, I took our two girls strawberry picking. I was in a panic because strawberries have had a rough year- what berries there are have almost been picked out of our area farms already. For a good hour the kids ran up and down the rows exclaiming over especially big or funny-shaped examples… it was like a perishable treasure hunt. In our enthusiasm we picked two full flats- a good $45 worth of the pretty little orbs. It was a great fun. Once we got them home, however, I was forced to contemplate what on earth we would, in fact, do with all of them.
Sure, we’d eat a lot of them plain, or sliced on our cereal and oatmeal. But what else? In the past I would’ve made a host of pies, breads, scones and muffins. With the remainder I would’ve made steaming pots of strawberry jam. In short: sugar, sugar, and LOTS of sugar. This year…? In the midst of my sugar identity crisis I’m paralyzed by indecision- and thus the strawberries sit undisturbed, taking up a ridiculous portion of our fridge, and not getting any younger, mind you.
I’d like to pick up where I left off last year experimenting with some no-sugar jams using Pomona pectin, or maybe attempting some no-sugar freezer jams/fruit spreads… but these things take time and patience. These days those things are in short supply as I’m frantically packing our older daughter up for her first-ever week of sleep-away camp and (by the way) trying to finish this little book I’ve been working on entitled A Year of No Sugar (remind me to tell you about it sometime…) so here’s my Official Prediction: in a panic at the eleventh hour I’ll wash and freeze the lot of them, discarding a depressing amount that have already shriveled while I was having my extended Hamlet moment of indecision (To bake? Or not to bake? That is the question…).
Meanwhile, summer rolls onward and sugar pops up on a regular basis to say “Boo!” In the last week our family has celebrated a graduation, a birthday, our anniversary, and Father’s Day not to mention the arrival of the local carnival and, of course, summer itself. Even without this celebratory traffic-jam, a day doesn’t go by when I don’t confront the Sugar Question: lemonade at the farmer’s market? Cotton candy at the fair? Chocolate buckeyes by the register at the local sandwich counter? Ice cream? Ice cream? Ice cream?
Is it good enough that we don’t drink soda (now in garbage pail size!), don’t buy candy bars (still legal!), don’t buy processed or added sugar foods (now, with more ingredients than ever!!)? Maybe. It’s something I struggle with every day while the world keeps spinning around me, largely oblivious, despite the increasingly scary statistics and revelations.
Even if the bucket soda ban and the HBO series aren’t perfect, and of course they aren’t, they’re terribly important by virtue of the fact that they’re trying to begin the conversation. They’re sending up the first real flares that something is amiss- that we need to take a cold hard look at what people consider “food” and what its doing to our bodies as a result.
Meanwhile, I’m back to the drawing board on another important problem: my strawberry surplus. Anybody have a good recipe for strawberry soup?
May 8, 2012 § 9 Comments
Okay, I’ll admit it. I don’t exercise.
I should. I want to. But right now exercise is fitting into my life about as well as an elephant in my sock drawer. Instead I sit a lot, mostly at the computer, writing, writing, writing. (My finger muscles are very toned, thank you.)
Also, I snack. I eat when I am hungry- and quite honestly, I get hungry often. And I eat foods with fat: red meat, full-fat dairy products, butter and cheese.
According to conventional nutrition wisdom, I should be a prime candidate to be overweight… maybe even obese. So why is it that I am not? How many of us know people out there who don’t seem to follow any of the rules and they’re still thin anyway? What gives?
I am thinking about this because I just finished reading Gary Taubes article in Newsweek about HBO’s upcoming documentary “Weight of the Nation.” About a week ago I saw a trailer for the program and was heartened to see this desperately important topic making prime-time… until I realized, like Taubes did, that the experts in it were pushing “the same tired advice.”
“Eat less and exercise” and “fat makes you fat” are mantras that sounds so easy, so simple, that we all feel they must be true. However, they’re not true. As Taubes details in his article, Americans have been following this advice from the health experts for decades now- eating less meat, eating less fat, exercising more- and where has it gotten us? Fatter than ever before. The latest statistics predict 42% of Americans will be obese by 2030.
Not overweight, mind you. Obese. Clearly, there’s something wrong here.
Yesterday I volunteered at a local fundraising event and I was saddened and astounded at what I saw: a significant percentages of attendees were very, very overweight.
Many were encumbered to the point that it becomes hard to move around, hard to walk, hard to find clothing. I imagined the number of health problems that must have been represented at this event and I was deeply saddened. I felt these folks had, in some way, been let down by our health establishment.
I’m imagining the overweight person who, attempting to follow professional advice, cuts out fat, cuts down on red meat, and works out at the gym. And what are they presented with on the way back to the locker room? A juice bar or soda machine. Well, why not a little treat after such a good work-out? After all, it’s not red meat, it’s not fat, and I’ve exercised, (which makes one both thirstier and hungrier, while burning off relatively few calories.) After all, it’s just sugar…
Even if they choose a diet soda, there’s new evidence saying that may be just as bad for weight gain. It’s really no wonder that so many people just give up- they’re being given advice that does not work.
So, we need a new story, a new mantra. Could we replace “Eat Less and Exercise” with “Eat Good Food When You’re Hungry, Don’t Worry Too Much About Exercise, and Above All Just Cut Way Back On Sugar”?
Hmmmm. A little cumbersome.
How about “NO Sugar Sweetened Beverages”? Still a little long. “NO SSBs” is too cryptic (NO South Sea Bananas? NO Special Spaghetti Bowls? What?).
We could try “SODA KILLS!!!” but that’s a tad melodramatic, don’t you think? And anyway, people will say: “Well- ha ha- I just drank an Adrenaline Attack and I’m, you know… not dead!” They’ll nit-pick us to death until we end up with something like: “SODA Significantly-Contributes-to-the-Resistance-to-Insulin,-Building-Up-of-Arterial-Plaque-and-Cancer-Friendly-Environments-in-Your-Body-Which-Degrades-Your-Quality-of-Life-for-Years-and-Years-Until-it-Eventually KILLS!!!” Try putting that on a bumper sticker.
We could go simple with “Shun Sugar.” That’s kinda catchy- but too general. Maybe we should just swipe a line from the guidelines put forth in David Gillespie’s book Sweet Poison: “Rule Number One: Don’t Drink Sugar.” Hey- I kind of like that.
“Rule Number One: Don’t Drink Sugar.” Why don’t we ditch “eat less and exercise more” in favor of this one? It’s worth a try.
It isn’t the answer to everything, of course, but if we could just follow that one rule, I’m betting we’d be in a whole lot better shape. Literally.
May 3, 2012 § 6 Comments
The weirdest thing happened to me the other night. Greta just turned twelve last week, and as part of the festivities she requested the very same chocolate cake as she had last year for our No Sugar monthly dessert: my Grandmother’s Sour Milk Devil’s Food Cake with Buttercream Frosting. I’ve always loved this cake; Greta, for her part, seems ready to pledge allegiance to it.
But the night of our family celebration I found I couldn’t finish my piece- it just wasn’t appealing to me right then. I didn’t think anything about it until a few days later, when half the cake still languished in the fridge, and I hauled it out for us to finish off. The girls had no trouble with that assignment, but I… I didn’t like it. Huh? How could this be? I wondered. This was my Grandmother’s cake, after all- one of my very favorites! Why was I behaving as if I were a reluctant kid eating her lima beans?
So, again, I didn’t finish it. In point of fact I went so far as to throw away not only my piece, but the final remaining piece into the trash as well. I’m trying ever so hard not to give my kids an eating disorder (or myself, for that matter) but what that seems to mean is that sometimes I eat sugar when I don’t even want any- just to be “normal.”
What a strange turn of events. Another similar example came when we recently attended a fundraiser at our local library and the inevitable Bake Sale table was there. The first thing my friend Sue said when she saw me was: “Don’t blog about this!!” But I was actually impressed- sure, there were gummy-worm-encrusted cupcakes and a “fruit punch” that somehow was colored both green and orange at the same time, but a small portion of the table was devoted to paper plates of grapes and sliced cheese. And kids were buying them… not that they weren’t buying the cupcake liners full of frosting too, but they were buying them. This, I thought, is progress.
Too bad my kids vote fell on the frosting side of this equation. Ilsa proudly emerged from the fray bearing an oatmeal cookie larger than her outstretched hand (bad enough) and frosted thickly in an unnatural pink (worse yet) before being showered in rainbow sprinkles (seriously?) Then Greta surfaced with what were billed as “Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Truffles” or balls of cookie dough dipped in chocolate.
Have I taught them nothing? I wondered. What happened to all of last year? Despite the fact that I usually manage to keep a pretty good lid on the sugar-treats at home, sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one in our house who remembers last year. Then again- after such a long absence, should I be surprised if they value the ability to have a sugary snack just like all their friends all the more?
Greta gave me one of her two “truffles” which I tried. I had that same weird sensation as with the birthday cake- I felt like I was supposed to like it. All my senses were telling me I would- the texture, the smell, the appearance- and yet… I didn’t. I just didn’t. I was utterly confused. It was sickly sweet and left a bad aftertaste lingering on my tongue. Once upon a time I would’ve had a hard time not going back for more of these funky little concoctions, (cookie dough anything? I’m so there!) Now? I was pretending to enjoy it. I was relieved when it was gone.
So, is this weird yet? It’s not just for my family’s benefit that I’m pretending to enjoy things that I once would have loved- it’s also me trying to fool myself into thinking I’m no different than I once was. But I am different. Maybe that means I won’t enjoy the desserts I once looked forward to. And for all my thousands of words and hours writing about the evils of added sugar- I can’t help but admit that I feel ambivalent about that. Does this mean no more homemade Rhubarb Pie? No more afternoons canning my favorite Sour Cherry Jam? No more (and I hesitate even to type these words) Chocolate-Peanut Butter ice cream?? I’m teasing, but I’m also a little serious- picking cherries, making pie from rhubarb just picked in our yard, all these things are rituals which have come to define, in some ways, who I am. Heck, I ate a Chocolate Peanut Butter ice cream cone the night before each of my two girls were born (now there’s a selling point for Ben & Jerry’s: It’s cool! It’s delicious! And it may induce labor!)
In his book Sweet Poison David Gillespie described this very phenomenon- that as he and his family shunned sugar they gradually began to lose their taste for it, preferring instead much subtler treats: whole fruit, as well as desserts and snacks made with dextrose. The answer- at least for me- seems to be pretty clear: if I want to enjoy desserts I’m going to have to make them myself, with dextrose. I’m not so sure how the rest of my family is going to feel about that. But you know what they say… you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
April 20, 2012 § 4 Comments
Easter hit me like a ton of bricks last week. It shouldn’t have. After all, I had it all planned out. It was school Spring vacation and we were going to be traveling, so in anticipation of the holiday I had picked out a host of items that would fit easily into my carry-on: pretty tissue paper, tiny pencil sets, little boxes of origami paper, and brightly decorated cloth bags to serve as the “baskets”… To all that I added one small stuffed animal each, and then stopped to consider the inevitable question: should I buy a sugar-added treat? Just one?
A little plastic carrot full of jellybeans, perhaps? Or a teeny tiny chocolate bunny?
I wavered. Just for a moment. Then I thought- ah, heck with it. This is fine- more than fine. It was a pretty cute little assemblage if I did say so myself- and I love this kinda crap so I should know. Plus, I knew in the course of our travels we’d be seeing relatives- first stop Grandma’s house- and I figured, between one thing and another, there’d probably be a sugar-treat for them in there somewhere.
I had no idea how right I would turn out to be. The day before the holiday at Grandma’s, suddenly chocolate bunnies began materializing out of thin air- popping out of toasters, zip-lining in from skylights like Tom Cruise’s character in Mission Impossible. Steve appeared with two chocolate chicks; my mom had gold-foil wrapped Godiva bunnies at the ready.
For those who are counting, that’s two chicks and two bunnies, so far. Okay, I thought- there are the treats. Done.
Then we were off for the “big” part of our trip- a mini-family reunion in California. Easter, of course, was morning after our flight- so you can picture me late that first night, jet lagged and hiding in the hotel closet, desperately trying to find a way to quietly stuff crinkly tissue paper into little cloth bags. I’m pretty sure it sounded like I was trying to process ball bearings in a blender. Fortunately, after spending the entire day on the airplane everyone was exhausted and sleeping so soundly I could’ve been trying to stuff a live hippo under the fold-out couch and no one would’ve so much as rolled over.
In the morning the girls got up and -surprise!- the Easter Bunny had found us. That little guy is amazing. He must read all our Facebook posts or something.
But, as it turns out, there was more Easter in the offing. My Uncle Jim- who I adore- was incredibly thoughtful, and had arranged for each of the five kids in attendance to have their very own personalized basket with (and you knew this was coming) a chocolate Easter bunny inside, and handfuls of other candy treats. Okay.
Then it was time for the Easter egg hunt.
Now, let me just state now that I am a terrible person, and I know it. Should I be carping about the amount of sugar involved in celebrating a “normal” Easter, or should I be incredibly grateful for the the fact that my children have so many wonderful family members who love them and care enough to want to celebrate them and make them happy on such a holiday? Would I prefer they not celebrate with us? Of course not! I feel terrible even telling you about it. This, of course, is exactly the problem: love- celebration- affection, in our culture, equals sugar. Which is why I’m telling you about it.
So to sum up, our vacation week was one of sugar popping up incessantly. Beyond family and pagan rites of Spring, candy just seemed to be… everywhere! It was in our shoes! Behind our ears! Did I mention our hotel put handfuls of chocolate mints on our nightstands every time they made up the room? Did I mention that, between the Frosted Flakes, the Yoplait yogurt and Otis Spunkmeyer muffins, the hotel breakfast bar was a freakin advertisement for the HFCS industry? Did I mention that when your kid orders a blueberry waffle in a restaurant they just assume you want an entire can of Reddi-Whip dumped on top of it, in addition to your maple syrup? I thought this was California- land of the ridiculously healthy!
Sure, Californians seem a little more obsessed with antioxidants and “Superfoods” than anywhere else ( do we really need menu labels reminding us how good for us blueberries are?) but they still think the same wrongheaded things we all think: that kids somehow deserve, and even need sugar in some weird primeval way. That honey or agave is better for you than sugar. That fruit juice is good for you, and that having the occasional soda isn’t going to kill you.
But it is going to kill you. Not so very long ago no one talked about diabetes- it was considered pretty rare. Now, we all know people with diabetes- lots of them. There are enough people with the condition to support their own mainstream magazine on the subject.
People are acclimatizing themselves to this new order of things with amazing readiness- as if type II diabetes were something we just have to accept- a mysterious modern illness that everyone has a statistical chance of getting sooner of later and, to a certain extent, whaddaya-gonna-do-about-it. But people seem to forget that, although type II diabetes moves slow, it can still kill you. And they forget that we know what causes it, that it’s preventable. Heck, it’s even reversible if we catch it in time.
But unfortunately it’s easier to cross your fingers than it is to effect actual change in your life and your diet- especially when everyone around you is encouraging you to have another soda with your hot fudge sundae. Why not? What’s the worst thing that could happen?
A few years ago, my aunt died from complications of diabetes. If not for that she would’ve been at this reunion with the rest of us. I’d say that’s pretty much the worst thing that could happen.
Later on in our trip my seven-year-old looked at me. “Mommy, the Easter Bunny will still come at home, won’t he? Our regular baskets will be waiting for us at home, right?”
For a moment I was speechless. I was bewildered by the mere thought of yet another basket of candy. Potentially a fourth chocolate bunny…? (I guess they aren’t kidding about how they multiply.) I was still strategizing how I was going to make a whole lot of this stuff disappear without the kids noticing too much. Seriously??? I thought. Is this not enough candy for you!?! But then I realized that she was asking a different question. It was not so much about sugar treats per se, as much as it was about home and traditions we have established as a family. She just wanted to know the rules.
“No honey” I said. “The Easter Bunny only visits us in one place.”
PS- The Easter Bunny giveth, and the Easter Bunny taketh away. Although some of the Easter chocolate was enjoyed in California, the majority of it was left behind in our hotel room. I hate any kind of waste, but the trash can seems to be one of our primary lines of defense in the war to avoid frying our internal organs with fructose.
April 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
Here’s my situation: currently, I am somewhat frantically pulling together a book ( a fascinating book!! Soon-to-be described as “unputdownable!!” Coming to a New York Times Bestseller list near you!!) about last year, our family’s Year of No Sugar. In the book I am spending lots of time writing about spending more time cooking food at home from scratch, the direct result of which is that I have officially become busier and less available to cook food at home from scratch than ever before.
You have to love irony.
But the time has come, I suppose to put my money where my mouth is- or at least my cooking where my free moments are, which is to say, few and far between. I know that the conundrum of being torn between commitments to work and wanting to feed my family well is hardly unique, but if I thought last year was a challenge, this year is certainly proving to be even more so.
I’m not sure if it helps that I feel terrifically guilty about our new state of being, about the fact that we’re eating out on average two or sometimes three times a week compared to only once a week previously. It’s not even that we’re suddenly eating lots of sugar in doing so… we’re not. In fact, we’re still eating at the same we-really-do-make-it-ourselves establishments we found refuge in during all of our No Sugar escapades last year. We’re still being incredibly moderate when we do indulge in a dessert- rather than ordering three or four desserts, ordering one dessert and three or four spoons instead. We’re still avoiding soda and juice as if it were rat poison, still packing school lunches at home, still even making my own bread and tomato sauce from scratch.
So what’s my problem, exactly? For one thing, I’m too lucky. I know that there are lots of people who couldn’t afford to eat out this much, and certainly not at the nicer kinds of places that are likely to have cooked their meals from scratch. I’m also incredibly fortunate to have discovered Kate- the talented caterer who lives a mile from my house and who offers wonderful home-cooked soups, quiches and biscuits once per week for pick-up straight out of her kitchen. Out here in the country- where we like to brag that you have to drive half an hour to buy a carton of milk- her appearance on the scene with fresh, homemade, convenient take-out made with local ingredients is nothing short of a Food Miracle… if I have a Food Fairy Godmother I think it might be Kate.
Is it okay that I’m this lucky? Somehow it makes me feel like I’m cheating. Other times it’s still hard to get the dishes done, the piano practicing complete, the homework read, the activities attended and the children showered and in bed before we have to get up and do it all over again- even with those crutches. There’s some weird, control-freaky part of me that is reluctant to give myself a break and remember that we’re all human and to -as they say- take it one day at a time. Reminding me of those things is one of the things my husband is here for, apparently- because he’s awfully good at it, even if he does have to repeat himself a bit. As he points out, I can’t spend all morning making a homemade lasagna and then beat myself up for not accomplishing any writing, and neither can I write all afternoon and then be annoyed at myself that I didn’t make every item on our dinner table from scratch.
But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? We can’t have our cake and eat it too (if you’ll excuse the sugar-based proverb.) When I was pre-teenager my mom began law school: I remember it well- it was the same year she started buying Swanson Hungry Man dinners. There it is, right? The modern day trade-off- the liberated woman bargain, if you like- in a nutshell.
We can’t eat like crap because it’s convenient and then be surprised when our health suffers. Neither can we spend our lives grinding our wheat berries by hand and churning our own butter, and ever expect to accomplish anything but the relatively thankless and quickly forgotten job of getting ourselves fed for one more day. Somehow we have to prioritize the things we care about. How do you choose between your ambition and your food? Your life’s work and your family’s health? You don’t, of course, but maintaining that balance is excruciatingly hard; a highwire act on rollerskates. In a rainstorm. I’m trying my hardest, but still, like any mom- I question myself. I wonder… could it be better?
April 2, 2012 § 5 Comments
Just in case you missed this great interview with Dr. Robert Lustig last night on 60 Minutes!
March 22, 2012 § 8 Comments
There’s been a good two and a half months distance now between the No Sugar project and us, and I think every day about what it all means… What were we trying to do with our year, exactly? Did we do it? Does that mean it’s “over”? What place does sugar have in our lives, if any?
Normally, I’m overly analytical anyway, but since January I’ve been pulling together what will be my book (insert trumpet call here!) about our Year of No Sugar, so consequently I’ve been doing an awful lot of backward looking and thinking, even as everyday we are moving farther and farther away from 2011. It’s kind of giving me vertigo.
Most fascinating to me is the wide variety of reactions to the end of our project from friends, acquaintances, and readers. Many people have said “Congratulations!” which is lovely, and many more seemed simply relieved that we aren’t doing “that sugar thing” anymore, just in case it might rub off on them or something. Half the people seem to expect us to now be on a permanent sugar binge in order to make up for lost time, while the other half seem to think we’re terrible hypocrites if we so much as pause to consider reading the dessert menu.
The fact is, for us it’s ever so much more complicated than “All Sugar All the Time!”or “No Sugar Never Ever!” My kids still want to get a dish of ice cream after dinner the way they always did. And me- selfish, guilty parent that I am- I often really want to give them that dish of ice cream as if it were a nice, compact serving of normality I could hand them, with a pretty cherry on top. “See!? We’re not so weird, after all!”
But, the thing is, we are weird. We were weird before- not eating at McDonalds and avoiding soda, and we’re weird now- avoiding juice and crap sugar food (donuts, cookies, free lollipops), as well as anything that’s sweetened when we know it needn’t be: dried fruit, chips, crackers, tomato sauces.We’ve become much, much more selective about the sugar we do consume- and in a culture like ours which is utterly saturated with sugar, that’s weird.
Then again, we’re much more mainstream than we were last year: we’ve stopped flipping out about things like orange juice in the salad dressing or sugar in the bread. We no longer give our waitress the Spanish Inquisition, which is nice for everybody. And anyway, after a year of questions, we also already know which items will have the sugar in them. Sometimes we have them, and sometimes we don’t.
I was also fascinated to find that for about the first six weeks of 2012, sugar actually didn’t taste good to me. It tasted saccharine, syrupy sweet, and usually resulted in a bad aftertaste as well as a rapid headache. This was a phenomenon I had particularly noticed toward the end of our No Sugar Year, when I had begun to enjoy our sacred monthly “treat” less and less. I wondered how long this would last- would I ever enjoy sugar again? Or had I inadvertently removed all the joy of sweet from my life? Given myself a tastebud-ectomy?
But after having small amounts of sugar on a regular basis- a teaspoon’s worth here and there- I have found that my taste for sugar has gradually returned: I can now order the Mango Sticky Rice at the Thai place and simply enjoy it.
Which I view as a good thing. After all, alcohol is a potentially addictive poison, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying a glass of it with dinner on a regular basis. Likewise, I want to be able to enjoy a bit of fructose- potentially addictive poison anyone?- in the occasional dessert. For me, that’s part of the joy of life.
So I’ll have my glass of wine and maybe a small dish of the amazing gelato at that Italian restaurant. But I’m walking right by ninety percent of what’s for sale at my local supermarket- row after row of sugar-sweetened beverages, snacks, candy and convenience entrees. We drink water, snack on whole fruit, rudely ignore candy and cook from scratch. It’s not as simple as “Yes Always!” or “No Never!” but that’s fair, I guess. Food is what keeps us alive, brings us together every day, and gives us the means to celebrate and enjoy. If it isn’t worth our serious consideration, I don’t know what is.
February 13, 2012 § 7 Comments
We found one of the hardest things about eating No Sugar for a year was finding good products and snack foods that didn’t have added sugar hiding in them somewhere. Whenever we came upon a good one, we have held to it fast. Here are just a few of our favorite things…
Above is a very recent find: Freeze Dried Crunchies! One and two ingredients snacks with a bit of sweetness… no ingredients save the fruit and (in the case of cinnamon apple) cinnamon. Our family unanimously agreed that the Cinnamon Apple are by far the best. We found them at GNC in the mall, of all places.
These days, whenever possible, I spend a fair amount of my weekend cooking, baking, and drying. This weekend I made a no-knead bread recipe and dried pears- both are extremely easy, but just require TIME to sit, rise, dry, whatever. (The pear slices, for example, took seventeen hours on the dehydrate setting in my oven.)
My most recent Farmers Market discovery: apple-only applesauce! Who would’ve thought No Sugar applesauce would be SO hard to find? (remember: added fruit juice counts as added sugar!) Ryan and Rachel Yoder make this pretty sauce and sell it alongside their homegrown dried beans and popcorn at the Dorset Sunday market.
Dried fruit is very tricky since so much of it has added sugar- try finding dried cranberries without added sugar and you’ll see what I mean. However, you can find it, often at the local health food store. I recently tried these Calimyrna Figs and realized they tasted just like …. what? Fig Newtons, of course!
We’re lucky to have friends who let us get in on a bulk organic produce order once a month or so. It’s truly amazing how much more produce you’ll consume when you know you have a ready supply on hand. We fill up our fridge with organic apples, oranges and pears (above) and store the overflow in our basement at about 55 degrees. Aluminum cans with holes drilled for airflow keep them fairly well.
Any extra fruit I worry might be going bad (such as these pears above) gets dried into fruit chips on the dehydrate setting in my oven. As I mentioned, it takes forever, and means the oven isn’t free for quite a while, so perhaps a separate dehydrator appliance is in our future someday… They never make quite as much as you think, and they never last long- but aren’t they pretty?
Another favorite snack has been fresh-popped popcorn, usually with melted butter and nutritional yeast sprinkled on top. Since we’ve been eliminating teflon from our kitchen, and ALL poppers seem to use it, I’m next going to try popping in a pot on the stove. (This is Ryan and Rachel Yoder’s wonderful popcorn.)
Homemade yogurt isn’t as much of a pain as you might imagine- just heat on stove or in microwave, add starter (a heaping spoonful of existing yogurt), and (if you have a nifty Donvier machine like we do) put in the cooker for a good 16 or 17 hours to cook. After that cool in the fridge for 3 hours. Voila! This fridge shot is a rare sight- this stuff disappears in our house like you wouldn’t believe.
February 7, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Do we really want ice cream to be this available? This picture was taken at a local elementary school… Gotta love the image of the skateboarder being ridiculously active at the bottom, which of course makes it all okay. At least the machine is out of order!
February 1, 2012 § 4 Comments
I feel like somebody chewed me up and spit me out. I sound like somebody who should consider giving up my three pack-a-day habit, at least while working at the coal mine. I am alternately forlorn and annoyed and impatient to be well again. I feel like I’m out of practice: I haven’t been sick in a while… at least not garden-variety-sick. Not regular, ordinary, I-just-have-a-nasty-headcold-and-deserve-to-be-grouchy sick.
Of course, I did have that mysterious, debilitating something in the fall time, (which to this day remains a mystery, albeit nearly a forgotten one as all symptoms have thankfully subsided, never to return, knock wood.) But honestly, I can’t quite recall the last time I was just plain sick. Sore-throat, chesty-cough, feel-like-a-piece-of-poo sick.
Although everyone will say I’m crazy, I can’t help but consequently think my immunity has lowered since we went back “on” sugar. Insanity? Maybe. And for all that we’ve really only indulged this month in a fraction of what the average American family would actually consume, fructose-wise. For instance, we went out and bought ketchup and mayo. We’ve eaten at restaurants without putting the menu through the Spanish Inquisition. We’ve gotten take-out pizza and eaten at our local pancake house.
Interestingly, one thing I’ve found is that I really can’t take much sugar anymore. As I alluded to in an earlier post, it doesn’t taste right to me- it goes all funny and saccharine-tasting in my mouth. I can have the pancakes which have a small amount of sugar in the recipe itself, but maple syrup? In all but the most minute, eyedropper-dispensed quantities maple syrup no longer strikes me as palatable. I can order pizza with a tomato sauce that in all likelihood has some amount of sugar in it, but I no longer feel compelled to visit the platter of baklava strategically placed next to the cash register afterwards.
As if to compensate for this fact, my husband Steve has taken to regularly bringing me little treats- candy bars, hot chocolate cubes, bags of tiny cookies- to the degree that I have begun to wonder if he isn’t something of a pusher in this regard. I know, he wants me to relax, to enjoy myself. Especially when I don’t feel good, a little pick-me-up in the form of a Kit-Kat would once have vaporized in about a minute and a half.
Now? Not so much.
But the funny thing is, he won’t have those treats either, for a different reason: in the last two weeks he’s been on a super-strict Paleolithic-inspired diet in an attempt to shed some nagging pounds. In Steve’s deductions, not eating sugar wasn’t enough to compensate for other calorie-grabbing habits such as the nightly drink-or-three, or snacking before bed. On top of this he’s wondering if recent rumors are true that diet soda- which you’ll recall, was his one and only “exception” during our Year of No Sugar- actually can contribute to weight gain every bit as much as sugar can.
So out has gone the soda, ditto the nightly drink. Out has gone the wheat and dairy. Out remains (once again) the sugar. So far he’s lost seven pounds, but it all looks torturous to me: most meals for him consist of eggs, steak or chicken, and water. I know, I know, look who’s talking, right? As a friend of ours recently put it, perhaps our family would do well to try A Year of Abstaining from Abstaining. I’m not sure we’re “meta” enough for that though.
Personally, I wouldn’t mind if we could abstain from having the Mucus Truck parked on my chest. Could we do that? Just a thought.
January 25, 2012 § 1 Comment
I’ve had a little time to reflect now on the Year of No Sugar and the effect it has had on me, so here it is: It’s made me a sugar junkie.
Well, sort of. This is why: like never before, I now really notice what sugar does after I eat it. When I eat a cookie, or have a piece of chocolate, here is what happens: I enjoy it. Then I realize my mouth feels… funny: cloying and overly sweet like I just drank maple syrup- yuck. A few minutes pass and I feel a small headachey feeling creeping around the base of my brain, followed by a weird energized feeling… a sugar “buzz” if you will. After a while, of course, it passes.
Sometimes I don’t care a bit about whatever dessert option might be around, while other times I find myself wondering if, perhaps, there’s one more piece of that hazelnut bar we bought back at Christmas time… (no, there isn’t.) And then I think, well, maybe just one of those three remaining mini-pastries from the Lebanese shop… Yesterday was a moment when I gave in and had one mini-pastry after lunch (a particularly weak time of day for me) and, yup. there it was again: enjoy, yuck, headache, buzz. All from basically two bites worth of honey, pastry and nuts.
But I’m glad January is over and with it the aftermath of not just all that leftover holiday sugar which came cascading home with us, but also the remains of the many celebrations in our house that also follow Christmas- not just New Years, but my mother’s birthday followed by my younger daughter’s as well. You might recall that last year we skated by the sugar issue by concocting a banana split that had everything- whipped cream, cherries, banana, homemade ice cream- everything except added sugar. Would they hate it? Would Ilsa feel deprived on her birthday of all things? Oh, the parental horror! It wasn’t until the kids exclaimed happily over the first few bites, that I relaxed a bit- we just might make it through this year after all.
2012, however, has already been markedly different. I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what I do and do not actually want to eat, sugar-wise. But if you aren’t not eating sugar, how DO you know when to stop? Do you refuse to have dessert to celebrate your own mother’s birthday at the restaurant that has the best bread pudding you’ve ever had? Do you not have a piece of the special peanut butter and chocolate pie your daughter requested for her seventh birthday, even though that’s your Achilles-heel of desserts? Do you not join in and have a slice of the mint ice cream cake you labored over for all the kids at your daughter’s clown party? Oh, and of course there are all those leftovers… After all my work to make them, do I simply throw the rest away?
I’m not being rhetorical here, I really don’t know. No, not even now.
Although Sweet Poison author David Gillespie had told me that after a while you “just don’t want” the taste of sugar anymore, during our entire Year of No Sugar I found I kept wanting things: the croissants at our favorite bakery, an ice cream cone on a hot day, ketchup on our french fries. Sure, we got used to skipping, substituting, going without, but did we ever stop wanting?
Then the other night my husband and I had a babysitter night, so we went out to try a new restaurant. At the end of a nice meal Steve became convinced I wanted dessert. A year ago I wouldn’t have even considered it a proper meal out without that final sweet component- like fireworks being intrinsic to the fourth of July- but this time I demurred. I was full. I didn’t want any. Still, he kept encouraging me to pick something from the menu. There was no convincing him that I didn’t, in my heart of hearts, want the chocolate chip cookie sundae but- much to my astonishment- I didn’t. I mean, I really didn’t!
All this month I’ve been playing guilty catch-up from a year of denial, with my kids, with my husband, with myself: it’s pretty hard to say “no” now, after my family gave sugar up for a year, on my say-so. Because I thought it was a good idea. Because I thought it would make us healthier. Because I wanted to write about it.
So I don’t say no as much as I want to right now. Selfishly, I don’t want my kids to think I’ve become the Scrooge of the food universe, or my husband to think he’s lost his fun wife who used to get all giddy at the thought of combining chocolate and peanut butter. I still do, after all. I’m still fun. Right?
So did we order the ridiculously sinful chocolate chip cookie in a cast iron pan with ice-cream and whipped cream on top? Sure we did, because I’m still fun, damn it. I was almost embarrassed by the conspicous decadence of the thing when it arrived- I felt as if we had a circus elephant sitting on our table. I had a few bites and of course it was very good- in the way that only a warm cookie with cold ice cream on it can be. Very good. But then I put my fork down. I was happy to see that really, really, I could take it or leave it.
And if that’s the ultimate legacy of our year, I’ll take it.
January 4, 2012 § 6 Comments
Pop quiz: What’s harder than a Year of No Sugar?
Answer: The week after a Year of No Sugar.
Oy! I’m not sure why I was ever, ever looking forward to our release from the world of No Sugar… this week has easily been as hard as the very hardest No Sugar week. Why? Because, while No Sugar may be hard in terms of will power, it was always extremely easy in terms of the rules: “No Sugar” means: No. Sugar.
No, not in mayonaisse. Not in bacon. Not in buns or salad dressing or juice. I will not eat it in the house, I will not eat it with a mouse. Everywhere we went well-meaning waitresses and relatives and friends would politely try to argue “but there’s only a little… look! It says .000001%!…” But the rules as we had made them were simple. “Is it in the ingredients?” I would ask. And of course, it always was.
I love the straightforwardness of that. And I am hating the lack of it now. Sure, on midnight, at 12:01 as we watched Lady Gaga blather on about how magical New Year’s is in New York City, we each ate our treat for the evening (Ilsa: a cookie, Steve and Greta: a Lebanese pastry, me: a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup.) But the next morning was when it got complicated.
For breakfast we decided to visit one of our favorite local restaurants, Rathbun’s Maple Sugar House. The last time we had been there was last New Year’s Day, the very first day of our No Sugar family experiment, and before I was fully understanding that a pancake house would be entirely off the table in such a project. (Sometimes, admitedly, I can be a little slow on the uptake.)
Immediately, the questions started coming. “Can we get a hot chocolate?” “Can we have maple syrup?” “Can we have juice?” No hot chocolate. Yes maple syrup- but not a lot. No juice.
And the questions have just kept coming. I certainly can’t blame the kids- they’re simply trying to figure our what the new “rules” are. Trouble is, Steve and I don’t exactly know. “Moderation” is the most elusive term I know.
Monday morning, for example, Steve celebrated our last day of Christmas vacation by making another favorite and long-forbidden treat: crepes, with sugar and butter. Oh, how we had missed those. Sure, it was a lot less sugar than he would’ve ever used before, but I was starting to feel anxious… were things spiraling out of control? It was starting to feel like sugar was creeping in- making an appearance at almost every meal…
And then yesterday I took the girls to the supermarket. “Mom! Can we buy these crackers? And cereal? Actual real cereal?” “Ooo! What about roast beef?” We must’ve sounded like Amish on an annual trip to town. Gritting my teeth I capitulated on the crackers, but demurred on the cereal and roast beef. One thing at a time, I said.
I had even promised them- in a fit of guilt for all my family had put up with in the last year- to get them each a small check-out counter treat on the way out, as we had used to do quite often. This simple task, it turns out, was a fiasco. Did you know that ALL gum these days has not just sugar in it, but also sugar alcohols (maltitol, sorbitol, xylitol) or aspartame… and that most of them have both? Not to mention the phenol tocpherols or whtever toxic waste it is they put in gum these days that actually requires a warning label on the package. We were unable to find a single package of gum in which sugar was the only toxin.
I was astounded. Do we really give this little of a shit about what we’re putting into our bodies, our kids bodies? I wondered. I thought back to the huge sacks of Halloween candy the kids brought home in October- I mean, who knows what was in all that stuff. (Thank God it all sits uneaten in the back of our pantry cupboard. Maybe the kids will forget about it and I can throw it away after they’ve both gone to college.)
And then there was the argument/discussion Steve and I had yesterday at lunch. It all started with me asking Steve not to buy maple syrup, segwayed into whether or not I’ll continue baking with dextrose, and touched on things like whether banana bread and apple muffins count as dessert and whether snacking between meals is okay or not. I imagine some people would think we are giving this whole what-we-eat and how-we-eat-it entirely too much thought, bordering on obsessive, and maybe we are. I really don’t know anymore. It’s exhausting. Personally, right now I’m feeling like moderation kind of sucks- it takes entirely too much thought and energy. I think we may have to go live under a rock and only eat pine cones from now on.
Of course, we can’t do that. And I honestly have no desire to be the dietary freaks of our community who carry their own marinated sawdust or whatever in a pouch with them so them can eat separately-but-equally everywhere they go- no. Yes, I admire folks like Scott and Helen Nearing or Tasha Tudor for being so passionate about their ways of life- they are fascinating to me. But their sacrifice was huge: they had to remove themselves from society in order follow those ideals- which above all sounds pretty lonely. So I guess we’ll have to muddle through and figure this out, tocpherols and all.
It’s almost too bad- there’s a lovely rock on our hill that doesn’t have anyone living under it yet.
January 1, 2012 § 13 Comments
My six year old is soon to be seven, but she still uses a handful of words she hasn’t realized yet that she herself made up. One of them is “gladfully,” which she uses to mean “thank goodness,” as in: “We arrived just in time for the movie, gladfully.”
There’s something inspiring about that to me, about the fact that she assembled that word one day, out of necessity to express a particular emotion, and drawing from all her previous experiences… and it worked, so here she is still using it. When we’re kids we’re much more used to figuring stuff out, to winging it. By necessity, kids are improvising all the time. As Indiana Jones once famously said, “I’m just making it up as I go along.”
This year, we’ve been making it up as we go along too. Looking back to this time last year I realize how awfully clueless we were about what A Year of No Sugar would entail: we had yet to fully understand what fructose was, its many, many aliases, and what the deal was with omnipresent “no sugar” ingredients like sugar substitutes and sugar alcohols. I had yet to go through my banana, date, coconut, oligofructose, and “what do you mean I can’t have carob?” phases. I had yet to read David Gillespie’s Sweet Poison, and through it to discover dextrose as a non-fructose sweetener. All I knew was that Dr. Robert Lustig’s YouTube lecture had convinced me: sugar was a toxin.
Now, as we sit on the doorstep of being done with our No Sugar Year, I feel a crazy mix of emotions: relief, delight, surprise, apprehension. What happens next? What was it all for? Have we changed our lifestyle for the better, or have we merely stubbornly proved a point? I took offense when a friend termed our project an “intellectual exercise,” as if that characterization somehow minimized our effort, but does it? And is it? Perhaps the answers to those questions will be slowly revealed to us as we progress forward into 2012: the Year of Figuring Out What to do Now.
Recently, we’ve had a whole series of family conversations about this what-happens-next business, and a lot of talk has centered around looking forward to things we haven’t been able to enjoy this year. This morning I took a breakfast table poll and found out that Greta misses BLTs as much as anything, and that Steve misses restaurant condiments perhaps even more than dessert: ketchup on his french fries, salad dressing on his salad, mayo on his sandwiches. After careful consideration, Ilsa decided that, in addition to maple syrup, she was looking forward to having Jell-O, (which is kind of funny since we never make Jell-O.)
Me? I miss a good chocolate chip cookie, for which we never did find a suitable fructose-free replacement. If we ever make it back to Italy, even if it’s in February, I intend to have more than one gelato. I look forward to being able to eat out without giving our waitress the Spanish Inquisition.
It’s safe to say that Steve is especially excited about the end of our No Sugar Year. I know this because during our Christmas travels he bought a handful of Dutch chocolate bars and a 64 piece Lebanese pastry sampler for us to enjoy “after the first.” I’m trying not to be alarmed about this mild case of gourmet sugar hoarding- after all, how many husbands would’ve been supportive of a family project like this one? Then, the other night when I expressed a lack of interest in a sugared dessert, Steve made the comment, “Hey- I want my wife back.” I must admit, this kind of freaked me out. Back? Had I gone somewhere? Was I no longer the person who loved a good Reese’s Peanut Butter cup? Have I become a permanent killjoy?
I don’t think so, at least I hope not. The way I see it, it’s quite the opposite: my appreciation for food and where it comes from, what it’s made of, and what is required for its preparation has gone up manyfold. More than anything this year has taught me how much I love food, how important it is, and how little attention our culture collectively pays to it. Food is the stuff of life- we are what we eat- feeding yourself well is caring for yourself- choose your favorite slogan. It’s all more true than we could ever fully realize.
This year has taught me that, just like anything toxic- alcohol, nicotine- we need as a society to start handling sugar (fructose) with care, as potentially addictive, potentially dangerous. I wonder, can we even do that? Do we have the self-possession to realize that “moderation” does not mean “whatever the amount I eat is”?
I’ve come to understand that sugar, while fun, is nutritionally “expensive.” Why would I want to waste my allotment of it on vending machine cookies or breakfast cereal? Why not save it for that truly something special? Americans instead simply decide to have it all: the good, the bad and the ugly… and then are tragically surprised when health ramifications ensue. No one ever told them sugar could be really, truly harmful.
Steve likes to cite the fact that the ice cream Sunday got it’s name from the fact that the soda shop that invented it only served it on Sundays. Just think of that. Can you imagine Friendly’s only serving ice cream one day per week? Consequently, my 2012 proposal to my family is to have dessert with actual sugar in it once per week. After this year, that sounds to me like a whole lot, but then again after our adventures at Christmas visiting relatives and friends, watching how much sugar is involved in their everyday lives, I think it will be a reasonable compromise.
Likewise, after tonight we’ll return to eating bacon and ketchup without fear. We’ll buy Hellman’s Mayonnaise again for our tuna fish sandwiches. I won’t blanch at restaurant bread that has a teaspoon of sugar in the ingredients. Heck, I may even stop taking pictures of my food.
Some things, however, will stay permanently changed. Juice is off the table; soda always was. I almost never bought cookies or other store-bought desserts before, moving forward those will remain promoted to the “never-never” list. I will continue to check my crackers and other products, avoiding anything with sugar as a filler ingredient. Fast food restaurants are still entirely out. Chain restaurants will be in the category of “in case of extreme emergency.” Instead of them, we’ll stubbornly continue to seek out good restaurants, local restaurants, places where they actually make the food they serve. At home, I will continue to make my own pizza, yeasted breads and quick breads. Perhaps most significantly, I will continue use dextrose for everyday baking and cooking.
Am I worried about going forward with the rules changing in this fashion? Nervous we’ll go overboard like an alcoholic who thinks he’s got his act together and can “handle” it? I am. But Steve likens our No Sugar Year to what he experienced in the Marines. “You go through an experience that changes you,” he says, “and you get out and you say, “’Now what?’ But still, you really aren’t the same. That conditioning is always there. That’s how I feel.”
I honestly don’t expect us to plow through those Lebanese pastries in the fashion we would’ve a year ago. Rather, I imagine we’ll have a bite or two- as we each did with our allotment of one of Grandma Sharon’s famous Christmas sugar cookies- and then say “That’s good. And sweet!!”
Only time will tell. Gladfully.
December 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Maybe I should’ve known Aunt Carol’s house would be the hardest of all. Why? Because Aunt Carol is great. She is the kind of relative who not only bakes fourteen different kinds of cookies for the holidays, but she bakes enough to give every relative who’s in town a huge sampler plate of them to take home as well. She’s been known to make her own chocolates, and to decorate kid’s birthday cakes so elaborately they might do for a small wedding reception.
I identify with Aunt Carol in this respect: food is an expression of love. And up until this year, I too brought a sweet gift for all the relatives that I had made in my kitchen… some years I brought homemade jams, others I made little cakes in canning jars. In the years when our kids were really small and making something myself wasn’t happening I brought locally-made gifts like maple sugar cotton candy and maple cream spread. Sensing a theme here? If food can equal love, than I guess sugar can equal Christmas.
Because of this, I always knew the holidays would represent our greatest sugar challenge. This year we are spending them in Michigan with my husband’s extended family, as we do every other year. A good eleven-hour drive from home, this area is a suburban ocean between the city-shores of Toledo and Detroit, and there’s just a lot more of everything here: people, convenience stores, fast food restaurants, chain restaurants, billboards, freeways, parking lots, sirens… coming from our little Vermont town of a thousand residents the contrast can create culture whiplash. Then again, there’s more variety here too: we can’t get authentic Greek or Lebanese or Indian food in Vermont, but we can get it here.
But back to Aunt Carol. Since long-before I ever happened upon the scene, my husband’s family has been getting together to exchange gifts on Christmas Eve. This year Aunt Carol had volunteered to host again so we all arrived in our Christmas coats and fancy shoes at 6:05 on the dot.
Immediately, it was a problem. Greta took one look at the usual spread- cookies on the counter, fudge in a pretty glass basket, local Dietsch’s chocolate samplers open on the sideboard- and quickly came to the conclusion that this was going to be the worst Christmas ever.
Ilsa- by comparison, is easy. She asks, “Can I have this?” and when the inevitable answer is no, she shrugs it off and runs off to go play. It may be that Greta just has a bigger sweet tooth, but more likely I think is the possibility that she has a pre-teenager’s burgeoning need for independence and to make her feelings known by all in the immediate vicinity. She, unlike Ilsa, spent a good portion of her Christmas Eve pouting and making meaningful, tragic faces in my direction.
Dinner wasn’t much easier. As she has other years, Aunt Carol had lovingly and graciously provided a buffet for all of us, and, ungrateful wretch that I am, I couldn’t eat most of it. There was store-bought pulled pork and chicken, white and whole-wheat buns, baked beans, applesauce… of course, sugar to one degree or another in all of it. I don’t know if it was intended for our benefit, but I was extremely, extremely grateful for the one large tray of mac and cheese that evening… if not for that we would’ve been stuck eating olives for dinner and I’m pretty sure Greta would’ve gotten enough mileage out of that to extend her extreme pout-fest well into her thirties.
None of the relatives said much about the sugar project, probably because they think I’m loopier than the Cocoa Puffs bird for talking my family into it in the first place. But they all were nice enough to ask about my recent health issues, so I guess they still like me.
And then, thankfully, the present opening began. Greta and Ilsa were fully diverted for the remainder of the evening opening gifts, trying things on, helping the babies and toddlers, and creating a Bionicle masterpiece with cousin Donovan. That sour, Grinchy frown disappeared from Greta’s face, and it was replaced by the happiness of being a kid at Christmas. Thank God.
Granted, eating right next to a plate of forbidden chocolates and cookies on Christmas Eve isn’t ideal. But it was, I think, the biggest challenge we’ve had all year, and we survived it. I’m proud of that- and proud of my family. And profoundly grateful for them. A good way to feel on Christmas, I think.
So what did I bring this year? Sweet things from my kitchen, of course! Over the past few weeks I’ve been experimenting with “quick breads” of all kinds- banana, apple, pumpkin pecan… all made with no fructose; just fruit and good old dextrose. I wonder if anyone will notice.