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.
September 17, 2011 § 2 Comments
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.
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.
August 23, 2011 § 4 Comments
We all have some funny coincidences in our lives. Personally, I happen to have a lot of birthday coincidences: my husband and dear friend Katrina share the same birthday… three of my bridesmaids were all born in February… my younger daughter was born just one day after my mom’s birthday… and so on. Perhaps the oddest coincidence of all is that in August my dad’s birthday falls just one day before… my mom’s boyfriend’s birthday. Ahem. Now, I don’t know much about astrology, but it seems to me that there is something going on there.
So this year the girls and I traveled to celebrate both of these birthdays, and fortunately for us my mom and dad don’t live too far apart for that to be possible. But if you’re like me you’ve already realized the unique conundrum this posed for us this year: birthday cake.
Yes, what would be our August dessert? I pondered this. My brain resounded with the immortal wisdom of Highlander… “There Can Be Only One!!” What would we do? Uh…could we eat a half a piece of cake at each celebration? Would we skip dessert at both celebrations? Certainly we couldn’t shun dessert at one birthday- that would be like choosing sides, and worse… be tantamount to Birthday Treason. (They might be forced to read us our Birthday Rights- “You are under Birthday Arrest. You have the right to remain loud and silly. Anything goofy you are photographed doing can and will be used against you on Facebook…”)
I mean, these are two people I love in very different ways. They are apples and oranges. I’m grateful at least that their birthdays had the decency to fall one day apart so I always have the opportunity to celebrate everyone- but this cake thing presented a new, unprecedented problem. For the first time in our entire Year of No Sugar I had a choice to make: whose birthday got celebrated with sugar, and… whose did not. Ack!
Ultimately, I used my understanding of the two birthday honorees to figure it out. My dad is pretty adventurous when it comes to food, and always willing to question tradition in the interest of trying something new. I know he is interested in our family’s No Sugar project- we’ve had a series of conversations on the subject of what-the-heck-we’re-up-to.
On the other hand, John, who has been with my mom for the last twenty-five years or so, is more of a person who knows what he likes and likes what he likes. For his birthday dinner, for example, we were going to the Italian restaurant that has been his favorite for the last few decades. He also has a very live-and-let-live philosophy- he is entirely neutral on the subject of our No-Sugar adventure.
Then there’s my mom. Like Dad, Mom is supportive of our family project in spite of the fact that I’m pretty sure she’s worried I fell on my head before coming up with the idea. Mom’s the one who reads all my posts practically before I can even press “publish.” Yet, she’s also the one from whom I got my love of celebrations, and my implicit understanding that there are just certain things you do to celebrate a birthday. You have a special meal. You have decorations and presents and sing the birthday song. And you have a fabulous cake.
So it was decided that Mom would order a fabulous cake with a New Orleans theme, and that would be our *official* August dessert. Meanwhile, I was planning to make dinner for Dad at his house, so I would make him his longstanding favorite for dessert: poppy seed cake.
God help me if it turned out awful. I know Dad wouldn’t mind, but I’d feel terrible.
But you know what? It didn’t turn out awful. Dad loved it. Everybody loved it. I was astounded. No one even asked if there was sugar in it! Afterward I told everyone that there was, technically speaking, no fructose/sugar in the cake at all. It was Dad’s turn to be astounded. My seventeen year old brother’s reaction was along the lines of “uh, yeah, whatever.” He didn’t care. Does it taste like cake? Must be cake. What I cared about was that he had eaten the whole piece- everyone had.
Now, truthfully, the cake wasn’t quite as “floofy” (that’s a technical term) as usual, but I think playing with the amount of dextrose might fix that. And while we’re being picky, the cream cheese frosting seemed, if anything, a bit too sweet to me- another thing which could be tweaked. All in all, I counted it a success.
And of course, the next night we had cake- again! Except this time it was the real-sucrose-deal. We picked up the gorgeous confection from the Riviera Bakery where they are famous for fun things like Dr. Seuss-inspired shapes, edible candles, and cakes that look like giant hamburgers. John’s New Orleans cake was a vision in purple, green and gold, complete with white-chocolate Mardi Gras masks, and Fleur de Lis. Inside, three thin chocolate layers were interspersed with “cookies & cream” filling. It was literally a work of edible art.
Perhaps predictably, it seemed overwhelmingly sweet to me. I was surprised to find that I couldn’t finish my slice, and then noticed that neither could the girls. It was very good, but good in the way candy is good- you only need a few bites and it’s enough.
So in the end we were able to participate fully in both birthdays… apples and oranges. And we certainly got our fair share of cake. Thank goodness.
May 2, 2011 § 4 Comments
Birthday cake is good. I recently discovered it tastes even better when you can’t remember the last time you actually ate cake.
By special request of the birthday girl, the dutch chocolate cake recipe I made for Greta’s eleventh birthday is my grandmother’s, and ends up making an appearance in our house at least once a year. It’s one of those funny old recipes that actually uses Crisco (gasp!) and instructs you to do all sorts of weird things like put baking soda in hot water before adding it to the batter and sour the milk by adding vinegar to it.
I love stuff like that. I love that my grandmother made this cake for my mom, my mom made this cake for me, and now I’m making it for my family. I love the weird instructions that harken back to an age when people thought nothing of taking the time to trace the cake pans with a pencil on wax paper to line the baking pans with. It’s nice too, that it somehow results in a remarkably moist and not-overly sweet cake that everyone seems to love. It is inevitably topped off with my grandmother’s version of buttercream frosting which is essentially a boatload of butter and powdered sugar thrown together with a teeny bit of vanilla. That part is awfully sweet, and every year I find myself wondering (heresy!) what another frosting might be like on my grandmother’s chocolate cake… but I haven’t had the nerve to try it yet.
Of course, you only turn eleven once; not to mention the fact that we only have one dessert a month around here these days, so we really did it up by putting a small ball of vanilla ice cream on top of each slice. I have to admit, in addition to being delicious, the total effect was achingly sweet to my recalibrated taste buds; I felt instantly jittery and got a dramatic sugar-rush to my head that lasted at least half an hour. Oo- yuck.
The next night, we ate the last of the cake- and once again I enjoyed it, but also didn’t. Now a full four months into our Year of No Sugar, I really do feel like a firm taste-shift has occurred, and sweets hold much, much less appeal for me. I enjoy our monthly treat, but now notice that I pay for it: I feel kinda icky. Had it always been so and I just never really noticed?
It wasn’t till later that it occurred to me to do the math: the cake recipe called for two cups of sugar, and the icing called for three cups of powdered sugar… the cake divided into twelve slices, so per serving that would be… holy cow! .41666667 -nearly half a cup of sugar per serving!! And that’s not including the ice cream. Well no wonder I got a headache. It’s a miracle my body didn’t stage a full-scale revolt.
A few days later some friends stopped by on their way home from dinner, and happened to have ice cream in the car for that night’s dessert. My friend Katrina said of course, they would wait till they were home- they certainly wouldn’t make us watch them eat ice cream while we ate our No Sugar “dessert”: a blueberry-and-lemon juice concoction Greta had invented while I made dinner.
Now, I was already proud of Greta’s inventiveness in the pastry department, but then she really surprised me: “You can bring the ice cream up,” she said to our friends, “Really! I don’t mind. I had birthday cake a few days ago. I’m good!”
Well, knock me over with a feather.
February 4, 2011 § Leave a comment
It’s hard to know whether I’m being a killjoy or not. I mean- of course I am. No sugar? Hel-lo? But my thought along the way has been that there are lots of ways to celebrate, to have fun, to mark milestones… we’re just removing one of them, right?
And yet. My mom put it best when she mentioned she had purchased Valentines for the girls with no candy. It was hard, she said, not only because sugar is everywhere, but because buying special celebratory treats with sugar in them is “a lot of the fun.” Taking the sugar out of Valentine’s Day for my mom might be akin to taking the roller coasters out of amusement parks for others: like, why would you do that? Isn’t that messing with the point of the whole thing?
Yes- but, in our culture at least, we don’t ride roller coasters for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Riding a roller coaster is, I even would venture to say, a “special” activity. Over time, and due to the ever-increasing cheapness of corn-based sugars in particular, food manufacturers have become expert at hiding sugar in virtually every ingredient in practically every meal. So what’s my problem? Here is my problem: sugar isn’t special anymore. We just think it is.
This is how one can go, for example, to a kid’s birthday party and have a meal consisting of pizza with sugar in the crust, sugar in the tomato sauce, and a big glass of sugar to drink, by which I mean fruit juice. By the time we get to the overt sugar of dessert, we often don’t realize how much sugar we’ve already had. Multiply this by three times a day…? Add in the fact that dessert in Brobdingnagian portions is available at practically every restaurant into which one ventures? “Death by Chocolate” may be right.
So last night my husband Steve and I enjoyed a much more successful date night than two weeks ago, managing to have a nice meal at a restaurant in a nearby town. When I asked the waitress if the nachos contained any sugar (hey- you didn’t think I was going to eat tofu and dirt, did you?) she immediately asked if I was avoiding carbs, or sugar in particular. “No sugar as an ingredient,” I clarified, impressed with her quickness on the topic; clearly she has dealt with many a client seeking to satisfy the requirements of one eating plan or another. I mentioned that I was particularly wondering about the corn chips or the salsa.
She assured me that there was no sugar in any aspect of the nacho appetizer. Despite her confidence, I had to wonder… really? I mean, how do you know? Are we counting all of sugar’s many aliases too? I mean, it’s been a month plus and I’m still learning new ones. It makes me think of the two girls in my older daughter’s class who are deathly allergic to nuts… if I end up unknowingly eating some dextrose or evaporated cane syrup in my meal, it isn’t going to kill me after all. It’s difficult to imagine how worrisome an ordinary thing like dinner at a restaurant must be for anyone with such serious ingredient concerns.
Food in our society has gotten sufficiently complicated that one feels the need to bring a magnifying glass and a wikipedia search engine to every list of ingredients one encounters, not to mention adding an extra hour to our day for deciphering. And who does that? It’s just too hard. Eat the darn thing- we say in surrender- it’s probably not going to kill you. It seems to me that today’s time-saving food products are like tax returns: the only people who know what’s in them anymore are the professionals.
January 19, 2011 § Leave a comment
Avoiding certain foods reminds me of being pregnant. When I found out I was pregnant- both times- I commenced the time-honored tradition of beginning to mildly lose my mind. Immediately, on the advice of my small library of pregnancy books, I swore off alcohol and caffeine. Also jaywalking, swimming within twenty minutes of eating and watching any form of reality television. And both times it was the beginning that was memorably rough, trying to get used to the idea that something I regularly consumed and enjoyed was- whoops!- off the table. “Yes, I’d love a glass/cup of…of… I mean, uh, no. Thank you.”
And as any woman who has been pregnant can tell you, one experiences hunger as if it is a brand new sensation. After my fourteenth snack of the day I’d go to bed and have vivid dreams about food in which I’m pretty sure I salivated and chewed in my sleep.
I craved sweets, chocolate in particular, but every time I took a bite of anything chocolatey the most peculiar thing happened: it would turn to dust in my mouth. Literally, it tasted as appetizing as wallpaper paste. So other desserts became, of course, quintessentially important.
Thus, one of my most memorable pregnant moments occurred at my cousin Gretchen’s surprise fortieth birthday party for her husband Randy. I was feeling large and uncomfortable, and the 2 1/2 hour drive to get there seemed much longer. I recall floating my blimp-like self down to the ladies room for what was my ninth or tenth visit, when I was offered a beautiful slice of pastry- a Napoleon- by a passing waiter. Since I thought it perhaps in questionable taste to bring my dessert into the bathroom with me to pee, I demurred; I’d wait till I was back at my table.
Big mistake. Huge. By the time I returned to my table there were no beautiful, fluffy, shiny little slices of Napoleon left. All gone. The alternative? Chocolate cake.
I sat in watery-eyed silence and longingly, resentfully watched the guests at my table eat their desserts. How could they? I wondered with my pregnant-lady brain. I stopped just shy of sending my husband to announce from the balcony that there was a pregnant lady emergency and would some kind soul be willing to donate their Napoleon to a good cause?
I kid you not: I have never cared about a piece of food in my life as much as that untouchable Napoleon. So much of one’s pregnancy is spent feeling hungry for some unnamable something that when you actually find the thing that will satisfy that hunger- it is as if the clouds have parted and the heavenly choir is singing. Then to have it snatched away…? It was almost more than my hormone-addled brain could take. I was on the verge of tears in the car on the way home. I couldn’t stop thinking about how deprived I felt; how I should’ve taken dessert with me to the bathroom; how unfair it was for everyone to have dessert but me. At that moment it seemed as if the big hole in my middle that would remain hungry and incomplete… forever. All I can say is that those guests were lucky I wasn’t armed.
Of course looking back it all seems so ridiculous. Crying over a pastry? I have no idea what actual hunger really feels like- the kind that comes from genuine deprivation, and for that I am supremely grateful. It’s because I am lucky enough to have enough food on a daily basis that I can make the privileged decision to carry out an experiment such a sugar-less year in the first place.
Nonetheless it’s also worth noting the amazing power food and our brain can exert over us- when you live in a land of plenty it is certainly easy to forget.