Tag Archives: life without sugar

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 85

The Sink

Here is what my kitchen looks like today.

No, these isn’t the leftover results of the fact that we hosted Thanskgiving for eleven- we cleaned all that up on Friday. This is the result of the fact that yesterday I had an absolute cooking attack. I made turkey stock. I made banana bread. I made white dinner rolls just for the heck of it. The wonderfully ironic part was that none of this was actual entree material; my husband came in smelling all these wonderful smells and asked what was for dinner and I shrugged.

“Leftovers?” I said.

Why was I baking and cooking like a maniac? Well, believe it or not, I find it relaxing. And as we all know, the holidays can be a little un-relaxing. After a truly crazy week, (did I mention I had an endoscopy on Wednesday?) my kitchen was my own again. I had a whole Sunday stretched out in front of me, and the lower shelf of my fridge was being hogged by an enormous turkey carcass that wasn’t getting any younger. Eve Translation? Time to don an apron and make a big fat mess.

Meanwhile, in the midst of these recipes in various stages of production, I came to the realization that not only had the mice paid a visit to my pantry cupboard (leaving their lovely caraway-seed-poops as incriminating evidence) but so had the flour gnats- who liked it so much they had decided to move in. Ugh. So in between and around all this cooking and baking I began frantically cleaning out my entire kitchen cupboard shelf by shelf. Everything comes out, gets weeded through, and goes back in. Admittedly, I went a little crazy with the Clorox wipes.

The Pantry

It felt good though. I filled a big bag with cans and boxes to go to the local food cupboard, and my shelves are no longer dusty and disorganized. Treasure-hunt style, I found lots of interesting artifacts: five (count ’em) containers of unsweetened cocoa, several packages of powdered milk, a small bottle of Kalua someone had left here at a party, a two year old box of chocolates, lots of jam and sweet pickles that have been simply shoved to the back of the cupboard all this year, and yes, last year’s Halloween candy.

Of course I found all my new tenants too: happily ensconced in the rye flour, the cornmeal and all the dark little crevices buggies love so much. Lucky for me, my twenty-five pounds of white, wheat and bread flours were stored in big plastic bins, or I would’ve had a little gnat Woodstock on my hands.

I spent all day in the kitchen, made a huge mess, cleaned up another one, and still got very little done in the way of actual meal-making. It makes me think about how tied to the kitchen women have been in history, how necessary it was for them to not only make the meals from scratch, but to maintain the fire or the stove, the ice in the icebox, the bins of potatoes and squash in the cellar, all the while keeping things clean and keeping the critters at bay… before they had plastic bins. The kitchen, for so many women, was where they lived.

Seen in this context, the task of simply going for a year without eating sugar seems laughably easy. As contemporary people with all the modern conveniences, we don’t have to spend all day every day making our meals. Instead, what we’re going to eat is all too often an afterthought- something else we have to do too.

The Stock

The other day I watched a YouTube video documenting a contemporary family’s kitchen in which they use a wood-burning cook stove, an ice box, and light the room by kerosene lamp. Even though it was very charming, and even though I normally love that kind of living history jazz- it nonetheless struck me as a little… silly. I have no intentions of giving up my dishwasher… you’ve seen what my kitchen looks like even with it. And even though I’ve been railing against plastic lately, yesterday I was all but worshipping my big plastic flour bins. I don’t cook dinner in the microwave, but I do melt butter in it. And don’t even get me started on my husband’s coffee machine- it rivals the Starship Enterprise.

Each person must find their own happy medium. But the important thing is, that we give it some thought. There’s no easy answer to how to live in the modern world- but for me some part of it involves making turkey stock, homemade dinner rolls and not giving up my dishwasher.

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 72

Birthdays are a bitch. I mean, not in the traditional sense of “oh, crap, I’m getting older” (which, just between you and me, I find a little whiny. Getting older, I always say, beats the alternative).

No, for me the problem is that, in our culture there can hardly be a celebration so inextricably bound up with sugar as the birthday. Not to indulge in a piece of a friend or relative’s birthday cake, it seems, is tantamount to rejecting that person altogether. (“Who me? Oh no, no cake for me. I don’t even like Gertrude!”) If you aren’t having a piece of that sugar-infused baked good, you had better have an excellent reason, such as being deathly allergic to birthday candle wax, or suffering from a temporary but severe case of salivary gland paralysis.

When Banana Cream Pie Goes Wrong

Even then. You’re on the outs- you are not partaking of the gastronomical expression of birthday bliss and somehow, in some way, that means you didn’t really celebrate. This year, for us, that has resulted in some choppy waters for us to navigate in the birthday ocean. And- in case you hadn’t noticed, somebody is ALWAYS having a birthday.

Consequently, in the interest of not completely wrecking my children’s childhoods, I’ve instituted the “birthday party” policy, to wit: “If five or more children are ALL HAVING THE SAME TREAT AROUND YOU SIMULTANEOUSLY, you can have it too.” This rule is motivated largely by an experience I had at one of our own birthday parties here at the house years ago, at which one poor child brought her own vegan cupcake which she picked at miserably, while the rest of the children enthusiastically dug into their cake slices. She might as well have been eating sawdust. I vowed that day never to do that to my children.

(This rule, alas, does not apply to Steve and I, who supposedly have the fortitude to stand by and chat smilingly while everyone else around us enjoys styrofoam cups full of Ben and Jerry’s Double Fudge Apocalypse.)

So Greta and I did enjoy S’mores on last week’s Sixth Grade Camping trip, (my most egregious transgression of the year) followed by two bites of cake at a communal birthday celebration held for not only Steve and my impending birthdays, but also three other Virgo friends as well.

Only two nights later we were celebrating Steve’s actual birthday and his special request for our official monthly dessert was an exciting challenge: ever since we had it at one of Emeril’s restaurants years ago, I’ve promised to recreate his signature Banana Cream Pie. But I’ve been intimidated… it’s a complicated recipe, on top of which I’ve been told by my cousin the pastry chef that the pastry cream filling in Emeril’s cookbook recipe doesn’t “work.”

So Monday afternoon I set out on my quest to conquer the Banana Cream Pie. First you make and bake the graham cracker and mashed banana crust; then you make the pastry cream (I used a Martha Stewart recipe in place of Emeril’s) which has to chill for two hours; after that you place alternate layers of sliced bananas with pastry cream in the crust, then chill another two hours. Before serving, you concoct a caramel sauce of sugar, water and heavy cream on the stove, and whip the heavy cream with vanilla and shave the chocolate… each of which gets ladled or dolloped or sprinkled on top just before serving.

Are you getting all of this?

In between steps I made our actual dinner, which seemed incidental. Finally, we had eaten dinner, opened presents, boiled the caramel, whipped the cream and sprinkled the chocolate. We sang the birthday song, and it was time to try the pie.

Oh. My. God. Was it SWEEEEEEEET. It actually made my teeth hurt. I mean, go figure, right? There was only sugar in every one of those- what- four separate recipes that were concocted and combined… from crust to cream filling to whipped cream to caramel drizzle. It’s a wonder we didn’t all pass out from Complete Sugar Shock.

Actually, I almost did. I felt awful. A few bites in and my head began pounding in earnest- as if it were being squeezed in a vice. The pie didn’t taste right either… it was just not right at all: in addition to being heart-stoppingly sweet, the texture was too goopy. After my entire afternoon’s investment of time I was deeply disappointed. I couldn’t finish my piece. Physically, I felt awful. I lay down on the couch and, exhausted, feel asleep.

It didn’t help, as it turned out, that I was coming down with a cold. Still, I wondered, have I changed so much? Contrary to what many have assumed, I’m not trying to wipe desserts from the face of the earth… just making the argument that we need them to truly be special. Had I worked so hard avoiding sugar only to have my love for that special dessert ruined? Is it really a case of all or nothing? I hated to admit it to myself, but lately I seem to have become the kind of person who gets much more enjoyment out of a “Dirt Cookie” (as I think of my bland, Dextrose-sweetened, oatmeal-raisin cookies, that only our family would love) than a well-made piece of pie.

Then again, I think, isn’t that what this year is all about? Changing our taste-buds? Realizing that we don’t “need” nearly the amount of sugar we regularly consume? Did I expect to get through the year completely unchanged? And if I did, would that be a good thing?

Oh, but change is hard.

The next day, despite my memory of the sickly-sweetness- I tried a bite of the leftover pie from the fridge and it was… good! Whoa- really good! THIS reminded me of the pie we had at Emeril’s. After the extra hours in the fridge the correct texture had finally been reached, and the coldness had additionally softened the sweetness. I was relieved: perhaps I hadn’t lost my ability to enjoy a good sweet after all.

Later that night after dinner, I shared the last pie slice with my husband. I should’ve stuck with the one or two bites- after that it started seeming too sweet again. Afterwards I had to go brush my teeth just to get that overpowering taste out of my mouth. And the headache came back.

Who knows- maybe the legacy of this No Sugar Year for me will be a two-bite limit on all desserts. Although my body would surely thank me for it, I have to admit… I’m a little ambivalent about that.

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 71

This past week I participated in my older daughter’s sixth-grade camping trip, the anticipation of which inspired my last Hamlet-esque post on the subject of the quintessential camping dessert. (“To S’more? Or- not to S’more? That is the question.”) As it turns out, (spoiler alert!) dessert was fa-a-a-a-ar from being the only sugared item on this overnight excursion.

Shocker, right? You’re just stunned, I know.

Hidden Sugar Everywhere!

Now, could I have brought my own food? Certainly after everything we’ve learned this year I could’ve anticipated this upcoming sugar a mile away and packed a separate set of meals to bring. However, beside the not-insignificant issue of the bonding and group camaraderie (which, after all, was pretty much the point of the trip) there was a much more dire factor in my decision not to bring any food with me on the overnight: two of the girls in Greta’s sixth grade class have life-threatening allergies to nuts. If I were to bring any food at all, I could have unwittingly posed a threat to these girls, way out in the Vermont wilderness. It was a non-issue; as far as I can tell, Deathly Allergies trump No-Sugar experiments every time.

But that didn’t mean we had to have dessert. Regarding the S’more conundrum, the answer I ultimately came to at long last was: embrace the S’more! I’m awfully glad I did- despite being ridiculously sweet, they are still one of the most delicious things I can possibly imagine. The thing is, it only, only works if you are tired and sweaty, muddy and smoky, and sitting around a campfire in the dusk in the middle of nowhere. (Anywhere else? Not, repeat, NOT the same. My next bumper sticker will read: Ban the Microwave S’more!) Greta, for her part, was so giddy to enjoy the forbidden treat that she was dancing.

But it was… more than that- more than just what our taste buds were telling us. We all partook together of the same foods that night- capped off by the sensory fireworks display of the S’more- and there is some strange, ineffable bonding power in the sharing of food- even if it’s just hamburgers and chips on plastic plates. I was glad of my decision to participate in the meals fully for reasons on many levels.

Interestingly enough, every item on the dinner menu that night had a sugar and non-sugar option: green salad (great!) with dressing? (sugar!) Hamburger or hot dog? (fine-) with ketchup? (sugar!!) Potato chips? (okay…) with BBQ flavor? (Sugar!!!) If you picked and chose carefully, you could either avoid sugar almost entirely, or enjoy a meal overflowing with that non-essential ingredient we love so well. Amazing how easy it is to go from one extreme to another- how similar two plates could look even while one is loaded down with that familiar toxin and the other abstains. We got through dinner relatively unscathed.

Breakfast the next morning, however, made dinner look monastic by comparison. Breakfast was sugar with sugar and would you like some sugar on that? My head was reeling: hot cocoa (sugar) was followed by Nutrigrain bars (sugar), graham crackers (sugar) and white bread (sugar) with jam (sugar). There was also a choice of banana or apple, which were the only sources of fructose (sugar) still at least wedded to their original fiber. All that was missing from this meal was whipped cream on top and a cherry.

I had no choice but to have dessert for breakfast and hope that somehow I would magically be able to create enough energy out of it to power me through the hour-long hike back out of the forest that was to follow. How do they expect these kids to function on a breakfast like this? I wondered, wide-eyed. I was horrified to recall that this is not all that different from what so many kids are served everyday for the school breakfast.

Now, let me reiterate once more, for those who might have missed it previously, that I LOVE our school. I love our teachers and I think they are incredible and amazing people for daring to lead this excursion of pre-teenagers into the woods every year- they certainly don’t have to. They do it, I imagine, because they know it will be an incredible bonding experience for their students, that it will stay with them as a powerful memory not only throughout the school year, but- and I’m not overstating the matter here- throughout their entire lives. Small childhood events can have magical power like that.

Many of the kids on this trip had never been camping before. A significant number had never even been to the forest and farmland where it was held, despite the fact that we all live within a few miles of it and that its walking trails are free and open to the public. The kids were wildly excited about small things: telling scary stories around the campfire, getting to sleep sardine-style in the lean-to, playing “Manhunt” with flashlights in the dark. Having S’mores.

So far be it from me to rain on the parade. The problem, as far as I can tell, isn’t the teachers, or really even the school, as much as it is the culture that has grown accustomed to eating sugar not only with every meal, but, frequently, in every item on our plates. This is what we have come to consider normal. How do you undo “normal”? That’s the $64,000 question.

I got to know the kids in my daughter’s grade better than ever before on the course of this overnight, and I have to tell you- they’re fascinating. I’m endlessly impressed by their humor and creativity and leadership and resilience and energy. But I’m deeply worried about them, and what the future holds in store for them, if we can’t fix our food culture in time.