November 30, 2011 § 5 Comments
Oh yeah- Thanksgiving. The mother of all quintessentially American holidays… and- not coincidentally- the mother of all gluttonous holidays as well.
It’s kind of amazing all the different foods that we’re supposed to concoct in order to have it be “real” or “traditional.” It’s daunting. In fact, I have a dear friend whose family bags the whole thing and makes a large Thanksgiving pizza. Not just turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes- oh no!- but cranberries, gravy, and whatever other sides you grew up eating with them: maybe peas, corn, applesauce… maybe green bean casserole with the crunchy tin-can onions on top or strawberry Jell-O with little banana UFOs floating inside, or perhaps yam casserole drenched in brown sugar, butter and tiny marshmallows… No matter what, everyone seems to have a food it just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without. (For the record, for me it is my mom’s Oyster Stuffing. It. Is. So. Good.)
So once you get through making all the mandatory foods, the “it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without” foods, and anything special or new that you decided to throw in this year – you’ve got yerself a fairly serious Mount Kilimanjaro of food.
However, despite the fact that it was a ridiculous starch-fest (more stuffing with your mashed potatoes, my dear?) and the fact that many of those “traditional” dishes (marshmallows? Did the Pilgrims have those?) can practically cause instant diabetes, despite all that we got through the entire meal- with only minor modifications- No Sugar style.
Gravy is always a prime suspect- but Mom bought it at Whole Foods and checked the ingredients so we were safe on that account. She also made that green bean casserole and I was amazed to find only dextrose (!), not sugar or any icky variant thereof, in the ingredient list. Well, yay! Not that this was health food you understand, but still.
My proudest achievement of the day was my dextrose cranberries, which I had practiced earlier in the week just to be sure they would meet everyone’s Official Turkey Day Fruit expectations. I mean, these might be the only cranberries some of our guests would eat all year! In the making, I was amazed on many counts:
- It was ridiculously easy. Because everyone I know always buys those cans of jellied stuff saturated with High Fructose Corn Syrup, I’d gotten the impression it was rocket science- instead its about as easy as making oatmeal.
- I was very stressed about gaining the correct amount of sweetness and jelly-like texture. The problem was solved by cooking the berries in a mixture of boiling water and dextrose, and then adding a healthy dollop of one of my newest favorite things: glucose syrup. More on that in a minute.
- Did you know cranberries pop when you cook them? How much fun is that?
Luckily, I had recently gone in search of glucose syrup- thanks once again to No Sugar guru David Gillespie- in the attempt to make one of his No Sugar recipes. Glucose Syrup? It sounded scary, like an ingredient for a science experiment involving frogs and tweezers. And it sounded even less appetizing than dextrose. Hmm. But I really wanted to make his granola bars recipe, and my attempt to do without resulted in a delicious granola bar confetti- it just didn’t hold together at all.
So like dextrose, I found it online. I purchased a tiny tub of the mysterious stuff, which arrived looking more like an ingredient for my laboratory than food. It’s clear, gooey, and tar-like in consistency… it gets absolutely everywhere when you try to measure it. Yuck- this was not the kind of ingredient anyone was going to want to lick the spoon of. Then again, I reasoned, Gillespie had never steered us wrong yet.
And of course, he was right: glucose syrup is the perfect solution for anything that needs not only sweetening, but also the viscous thickening that many traditional sweeteners provide: molasses, for example. More and more lately, I’ve been using dextrose powder, to the point where I actually almost forget that I’m making any modification. If the recipe says “1/2 cup sugar” I read “1/2- ¾ cup dextrose. But there are situations where dextrose alone just isn’t going to create that thick texture you need. Enter: Glucose Syrup. Wearing a cape. The cranberries are saved!!
Lastly, I need to talk about the pie. Our Sugar Dessert for the month was to be our Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. But because, as I described, I’m so used to my big orange container, I completely forgot at first and used dextrose in the crust rather than actual sugar. When I got to mixing the pumpkin with the spices, I had to remind myself- go get the sugar.
The pie was delicious, as pumpkin pie always is. It only takes ¾ cup of sugar in the entire recipe, so compared to many desserts, the swetetness is fairly mild and not likely to cause us all Banana-Cream-Pie-style headaches. Actually, our monthly dessert passed with such little fanfare that it made me wonder- have we entered a new stage here, where sugar just doesn’t matter so much any more? Can it be, after eleven months of diligence, and with the help of magical ingredients like dextrose and glucose syrup, that we can get to a place where we are conditioned to be perfectly happy with a vastly reduced level of sweet? Have we really, at last, shunned sugar?
And I couldn’t help but also wonder… if I had used dextrose in the pie filling too, would anyone have noticed?
October 13, 2011 § 1 Comment
I can pinpoint almost the exact moment when the other person’s face changes. If there were words running across their forehead like a stock ticker they would read: “Uh-oh. Here it comes.” It’s that moment when I start telling them about the No Sugar Project.
By virtue of the project I’ve initiated here, you might be tempted to think I’d be a pretty good in-person advocate of No Sugar: proselytizing at every conceivable opportunity, keenly expounding on a handful of key salient facts and shocking statistics, handing out my little business cards printed with my name and website address like they were, well… candy.
But I’m so not like that it’s kind of ridiculous. So when I’m at a bonfire party, say, like we were last Saturday night, and my daughter runs up to me complaining about the fact that there isn’t anything to drink but apple cider and what should she do… then, to the curious person I was talking to, I go into Explaining Mode. Half apologetic, I relate the Reader’s Digest version of our “Family Project,” carefully monitoring the listener’s face for the tell-tale switch from curiosity to boredom, repulsion, defensiveness.
Of course, most friends and acquaintances are way too gracious to express these reactions outright, instead I get the forehead ticker. Something every-so-subtle shifts in their posture towards me and they assume the expression of someone who is politely interested, yet has no intention of changing any aspect of their current life, thank you very much. They are ever-so-subtly on their guard, as if I had casually turned the conversation towards the fact that aliens talk to me through my toaster oven.
At the bonfire I got several different variants of this reaction throughout the course of the evening. It’s hard. Even though I am a “True Believer” to the Sugar-is-a-Toxin cause: I am a writer to the core, and extemporizing is not my strong suit, to put it kindly. Instead, I much prefer to sit and put words together, reviewing them until it all comes out right- waaaaay better, more convincing and interesting than I ever could have described in person.
Plus, I’m just really, really bad at being persuasive. I would have been the worst debate team member ever. Whereas my husband is frequently described as the kind of guy who could sell snow to eskimos, I on the other hand, would have a hard time selling lemonade in the desert. In such a conversation, I can’t help but feel anxious that the other person will feel put-upon, like I’m trying to tell them What To Do– like I’m sooooooo smart that I have all the answers.
Not everyone reacts this way, of course. Every so often I’ll end up talking to someone who is genuinely intrigued by No Sugar, doesn’t feel threatened, and asks questions that are clearly motivated by actual interest. Then it gets kind of fun.
Anyway, like all parties in Vermont this was a potluck, so I decided to let dessert do some of the talking for me. I brought my Famous-In-Our-Family No-Sugar Coconut Cake, which you may recall is a recipe from David Gillespie’s terrific “how much sugar” website. Even though I’m painfully awkward about it, I tried to encourage everyone I spoke with to try the cake. In some cases, for all their enthusiasm I might as well have been offering them Castor Oil Pudding.
But after the first bite a new look came over their faces, and the stock ticker changed. “Oh!” It now read. “This not only tastes like dessert, but- actually- a really good dessert!”
My favorite part was watching people come over and take a piece who had no idea that it was any different from any other on the buffet table. “Oh!” one woman exclaimed, “It’s still warm!”
“Really?” her companion asked. “Get me a piece too, will you?” Before long, the entire cake was gone.
And, I am happy to say, sitting among a host of pies and cookies, it was the first dessert to go. It probably helped that most other desserts seemed to be supermarket purchases- cookies in plastic boxes, pies in aluminum tins with stickers on the cellophane. Delight in my culinary success, however, turned to dismay when my children came to me complaining bitterly that the only dessert they were allowed to have on the table was gone and they hadn’t even gotten a piece. Whoops.
I promised up and down that I would make another one, just for us. Tomorrow. I promise. Satisfied by my assurances, they went back to whooping with their glow sticks in the dark.
Beyond promising another Coconut Cake, I don’t have all the answers, of course, any more than anyone else. We’re all just fumbling about trying to do the best we can in a world that moves faster and faster every day. We want to protect our families and ourselves but feel frustrated by the lack of answers and the potential for disrupting our life, our routine, what we have come to understand as “normal.” Don’t mess with my world,” those forehead-tickers seem to read silently, “I have a hard enough time as it is without you telling me I can’t use convenience foods or have a soda when I want to.”
I know. It’s a message that’s hard to hear. And there aren’t lots of clear answers… yet. But I firmly believe there will be, and when they start to come we will look back and be amazed all at once that we didn’t see it before… just like with cigarettes, or lead paint, or DDT or BPA. Toxins that were really fun or convenient until we realized- they were killing us.
I don’t want to make people’s lives any harder than they already are. I don’t want to take away joy. But after all I’ve read and experienced, I can’t help but wonder what causes all these modern maladies? Why are so many people so sick? What’s up with skyrocketing diabetes/obesity/cancer/autism/heart disease/weird new allergies? No Sugar isn’t the answer to all these things- but given it’s overwhelming prevalence in our society, it’s pretty likely to be the answer to some of them. And maybe a lot of them.
Couldn’t we turn our stock tickers off long enough to begin to find out?
June 7, 2011 § 8 Comments
Rhubarb is one of those funny New England fruits- like gooseberries or husk cherries- that sound adorable and quaint to the uninitiated, rather like something our grandparents might’ve made into a buckle or a fool. Then there are the devoted fans who know: there are few things better than an ice-cold slice of rhubarb pie. We have two rhubarb plants in our gardens- they’ve been here way longer than any homeowner- and every year we look forward to the first rhubarb pie of the season the way others look for the first robin sighting or the first blooming lilacs.
Rhubarb and I go way back. My mom used to make rhubarb pie when I was growing up, which is kinda weird, since we lived in the suburbs. I used to think she picked it from a plant in the backyard like we do now, but she recently told me that no, she bought it at the market- the plant we had was too sour, even for rhubarb. No matter. I still have my Mom’s recipe, complete with her perfect five-minute Cuisinart crust, and I make it every year with an almost religious devotion: for me, eating that first bite of rhubarb sweet-sour pie is reliving a moment of childhood happiness.
Oh, and did I mention the sugar? Oh yes, the sugar. A cup and a half of the sweet stuff to balance out four cups of the sour-red-celery-like stuff. My cousin Nan likes to tell the story of the first rhubarb pie she ever made: “I couldn’t believe it really needed that much sugar, so I cut it way back.” She recounts that when the pie came out it was utterly inedible. “Yup,” she’ll say laughing “rhubarb r-e-a-l-l-y does need that much sugar!”
So of course, as soon as the stalks were up from the ground this spring, I set my sights on dear old rhubarb pie for our May monthly dessert. It almost came to a food fight though: our eleven year old wanted Coconut Vanilla Pudding Cake and our six year old has her heart set on a batch of sugar cookies. Nurturing my inner tyrant, I decided that since neither of those choices was seasonally dependent, plus the fact that I had the distinct advantage of being the one who would actually make the dessert, rhubarb would prevail. Caesar lives.
The funny thing about so many pies is how much better they can get after a day of sitting in the refrigerator, getting chilled and letting all those sweet and sour and buttery flavors rest and meld together. Rhubarb pie is a classic example of this: out of the oven it is really, really good. Our of the fridge the next day? Ridiculous. Amazing.
Not to miss out, we had it both ways- the first night warm, with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, and the next night cold. It was heavenly… there it was again- a bite of my childhood, all the best parts in one single taste…
Something was amiss. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it, and finally I realized it was this… this taste in my mouth… like the aftertaste you get from drinking a diet soda. Bleh! What was that? Then I knew: it was the sugar. Sugar and I, it seems, are now like old friends who haven’t seen each other in so long that when they get together it’s fun, but… a little awkward.
Nobody is more surprised than me about this turn of events. I expected a lot of things in our Year of No Sugar project: to gradually lose cravings for sugar (which I have), perhaps to lose a few pounds (which I haven’t), to notice sugar’s effects much more dramatically (which I have). For some reason, though, I didn’t expect to lose my taste for sugar itself. Does this mean (shudder) no more enjoying treats… ever?
(Cue the ominous music: Dun dun dun DUN…)
Meanwhile, I’ve been exploring the online work of Australian author David Gillespie, author of Sweet Poison, who I am going to insist on mentioning repeatedly until you go out and buy his book, because he’s a freakin genius. (If you do buy his book, be sure it is by Gillespie; in America there is a book by the same name by Dr. Janet Hull which focuses on the evils of aspartame).
It was in Gillespie’s book that I first heard about the possibility of using dextrose as a sweetener. Dextrose isn’t fructose; it is recognized by the body as glucose, which means your body knows what to do with it. Could this be? I wondered. Could we really have a dessert that didn’t have sugar in it or taste like bananas? And was actually good? I fairly salivated at the prospect.
Finding dextrose, however, isn’t as easy as wandering down to your local health food store. After looking high and low I gave up and ordered a ten pound container of the stuff online for about twenty dollars. At last the box arrived and it was… enormous! The orange plastic jar is roughly the size of a beach ball and is packaged similar to those colossal jars of weight-gain powder you see in mall vitamin stores. Seriously? I wondered…
Spurred on by what is left of my sweet tooth, I tackled David’s online recipe for “Strawberry Ricotta Cheesecake.” I was fully prepared to be deeply disappointed. I reminded the kids this was “an experiment” and might not be as wonderfully delicious as the name might suggest. But it did look pretty great in the oven, rising and browning just a bit on the top… and the smell was a warm, faint strawberry-inflected sweetness, distinctly dessert-y.
It cooled on the stove and sank a bit while we had dinner. After dinner, I eyed the “cheesecake” with great trepidation before finally cutting into it and distributing the plates. It sure did look good…
One bite, however, and my skepticism evaporated. In it’s place appeared surprise. Also, delight. I smiled big. I looked around and saw that the kids were smiling big too- in between big bites of white fluffy dessert- dessert that contained no fructose… effectively no added sugar. And it was GOOD! Really good!
If this was a made-for-TV movie, this would be the exact moment that the soundtrack featuring the Hallelujah chorus would break in, playing jubilantly over jump-cuts of us stuffing our faces with the fluffy treat. I couldn’t stop exclaiming how good it really was! I mean, it wasn’t S-W-E-E-T !!!… but it was quietly sweet- which at this point seems to be what we really prefer anyway. We all polished off our plates. The kids immediately were getting ideas: could we make ice cream with dextrose? How about sugar cookies?
Although I am old enough to be suspicious of anything that promises to be a panacea, I can’t help but wonder: would it work- and equally important, would it be heresy- to attempt a dextrose rhubarb pie?