The Halloween Switch-a-roo

November 5, 2013 § 5 Comments

It never ceases to amaze me how utterly maddening the search for Sugar Awareness can be. Just when you think you’ve found her, she dodges away licking a lollipop and singing “Got-cha!!”

I’ll give you a for instance. As we all know, Americans just experienced one of the most unabashed displays of sugar worship known to our calendar: Halloween. As I’ve mentioned before, despite the sugar onslaught I do love Halloween. In our house we devote an inordinate amount of time to Costume Development… for example my older daughter Greta decided to go as a medieval princess character from a favorite movie. Consequently a large portion of my October was spent communing with yards and yards of burgundy velveteen while Greta patiently sewed imitation pearls to the bodice, one… by… one.

30 Pounds of Fructose

30 Pounds of Fructose

Ilsa, meanwhile, announced early on that she wanted to go as “a pair of pants” with her good friend Brett; they would each be one leg of course. Therefore, when I wasn’t up to my eyeballs in gold brocade and eyelets, I was hemming an enormous wad of elastic into a pair of polka dotted trousers that would have fit Andre the Giant.

This is the fun part. The candy part, however, presents problems that can’t be solved by embroidery and clown shoes. Thus, about a week prior to the holiday, I was delighted to receive a flyer in Ilsa’s backpack advertising a “Candy Buy-Back and Fall Festival” at a nearby dentist’s office.

YES! I’d heard about Halloween candy buy-backs before and was soooooo curious: would anyone actually go? Would it be a dreary, grey event, kids lining up to reluctantly part with their hard-earned fructose and food coloring, before taking an oh-so-exciting tour of the dentistry facilities? How could you actually make getting rid of candy… fun?

Well, unfortunately, I’m here to tell you how: you give them more candy.

But let me back up. My friend Robin and I arrived with our corresponding kidlets to what looked surprisingly like a fun event: there were kids everywhere and loud, weird music playing (the theme from “Grease” was blasting from the DJ’s console when we arrived). There was a variety of low-tech games and activities such as a ring toss, mini-bowling and a spin art booth. At a craft table kids were coloring pictures of pumpkins and weaving friendship bracelets from embroidery floss. There was a booth for face-paint and temporary tattoos and every twenty minutes or so they’d announce a door prize, which varied from an iTunes gift card to a new haircut.

It was surprisingly festive. I was totally impressed. It was a beautiful fall day (unlike Halloween- upon which it rained) and it was working. Kids were showing up, turning in pounds of candy, and they were clearly having fun.

My eight year old was determined to do it ALL- Ilsa hit every table and played every game. When it was all over she left with face paint AND a tattoo AND a colored paper pumpkin AND a spin art masterpiece. The only thing she didn’t leave with was less candy.

In part that’s because of the truth of that old saying about bringing a horse to water. After explaining the principles of the Candy Buy Back to Ilsa the night before (one dollar for every pound), and weighing her candy (which amounted to juuuuuuuuust over one pound), she was of the considered opinion that it “just wasn’t worth it.”

I didn’t blame her. Because of the rain we had come home with substantially less candy that other years, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to talk her out of her entire haul… But because the buy-back candy was being donated to make care packages for U.S. military  (I had a lot of ambivalence on that count as well- couldn’t we just send them a nice brisket, maybe?) I did manage to talk Ilsa into cheering some nice soldier somewhere with a single, solitary piece of candy. She picked a Dum Dum lollipop.

Do you know how small a Dum Dum is? It is pretty much the smallest piece of candy you can possibly find that isn’t a breath mint. So if you’ve ever supposed that going an entire year without sugar would henceforth transform one’s kids into sugar-shunning tofu-heads, let me correct your misapprehension.

(For our part, at home, we’ve instituted a two-piece-per week rule. At that rate I figure they’ll finish off their candy bags just in time to start buying candy with their social security money.)

Meanwhile Ilsa’s friend Brett- who has an allergy to nuts and consequently couldn’t have most of his Halloween candy anyway- turned in his pound and got a nice crisp dollar bill in return, as well as a dentist’s idea of a goody bag: toothbrush, flossers, and a two-minute timer.

Replacement Fructose!

Replacement Fructose!

But something was amiss… what was it? It took me a minute, but then I put my finger on it: grown-ups were wandering around eating enormous sugary donuts on paper plates. Robin directed my attention to the refreshment table by the DJ where electric-colored cupcakes, gigantic pastries, and gallons of apple cider rested: a sugar buffet of the highest order.

And then we noticed the prizes for the cute kids games: can you guess? Lollipops. In fact, all the kid games were being run by other kids, so whether you won or not they were pretty anxious to give all-comers a prize. Upshot: Ilsa donated to the soldiers one lollipop; by the end of the event she had accumulated five or six new ones.

Now I should qualify this by pointing out that, unlike the refreshment table, the lollipops being handed out did not contain fructose. They were clearly labeled as being sweetened with Xylitol, which is a ”tooth friendly” sugar alcohol. I’m not a fan of sugar alcohols because they have been known, to varying degrees, to cause gassiness and other gastric distress. But beyond that I’m just… skeptical. As No Sugar proponent and author David Gillespie rightly points out, after over a hundred years of ever-increasing sugar consumption, we’re only now just figuring out the health costs of fructose, so who knows what eventual side effects may be the result of such recent lab-borne ingredients as sugar alcohols?

But you know, we had a fun afternoon. Ilsa came away sad not to have won a door prize, but delighted to have a ghost popping out of a pumpkin painted on her cheek. When we first arrived the volunteers informed us they had already collected 27 pounds of candy, and by the time it was all over they said they had lost count. So for the low-low price of perhaps- what?- thirty-five dollars maybe, this dentists’ office had removed untold amounts of fructose from the diets of the kids running around. It’s actually a pretty noble thing, especially when you consider that, among many other things, more fructose= more business for dentists.

But then there’s that big, problematic refreshment table. I’m not suggesting they serve brussels sprouts and marinated kale mind you, but could they have had cheese and crackers and a big bowl of apples from a nearly orchard, maybe? Some of those cute little mini bottles of water? How hard would that be?

Not as hard as figuring out how to send a brisket to the troops, anyway, I can tell you that.

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 80

November 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

Ah, Halloween. Parents have developed many strategies for dealing with it, this mother-of-all-candy-holidays. Let me count the ways…

  • My friend Miles says that in Dayton, Ohio the “Switch Witch” comes to visit many of her fellow parents houses the night after Halloween, leaving toys in place of sweets.
  • There’s always bribery. I hear many parents follow the example of the dentist I heard about on NPR: offer to buy the crap to keep it out of their kids tummies. In the case of the dentist, the going rate was $1 per pound, up to 5 pounds. Not bad!
  • I’m pretty sure my Mom adhered to the “Out of sight, out of mind” policy, in which we would eat one piece of candy after dinner for a week or so, and then we’d forget all about it. The remainder would, I’m quite certain, end up in the trash well before it was time to worry about pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce.
  • I know at least one family who simply opts out altogether. They stay home and pick a special family dessert to make instead.

Even if you’re not convinced that sugar is a toxin, most parents seem to get that consuming candy on Halloween-scale is not good. Maybe it’s because of the unfortunate kid every year at the parade or the party who overdoes it and throws up, or maybe we just know, instinctively that consuming a pillowcase full of anything, anything at all, can’t be good.

Of course, nobody eats ALL their Halloween candy, do they? Here’s what we always used to do when I was a kid: after trick-or-treating till our lips turned blue from the late October air (“Mo-oooom! If I wear my coat no one can see my costume!!”) we’d all congregate on the floor of someone’s living room and pour our bags of cheap treats out on the floor to sort and count and trade. I always liked this part the best- we were like little pirates, or maybe bankers, gleefully portioning out the gold coins.

Greta’s Halloween Haul

And now that I have kids, they do this. Monday night our gaggle of kids racing ahead and dutiful parents lagging behind all trooped back to my friend Katrina’s house where the kids immediately took over the living room by unceremoniously dumping several tons of high fructose corn syrup in a variety of colorful wrappers onto her carpet. A frenzy of sorting and showing off and bartering began.

“I have NERDS!”

“Look! A mint-flavored Milky Way!”

“What are these?”

Who gives out BBQ chips?”

“Oo! What do you want for your Sour Patches?”

Meanwhile, Katrina’s dog Inky was wasting no time. Ignoring the candy completely, he made like a Hoover vacuum when an entire baggie filled with popcorn ended up on the floor, deftly maneuvering around the Tootsie Rolls and tiny boxes of Junior Mints.

I laughed when I saw that our friend Robin had brought homemade mini-cupcakes along for everyone. It reminded me of the Farmer’s Market last weekend when virtually every vendor was plying my children with candy- pressing Starbursts and — into my hand before I could say no… of course they went directly into the trash when we got home.

School Halloween “Snack”

Nonetheless, I have to admit I was astounded on Halloween day to walk into my older daughter’s sixth grade classroom to find all the kids having a Halloween treat consisting of a sugar doughnut and a large handful of assorted candy. My eyes got big. What, did they not feel tonight was going to be sufficient? Did they have to be primed with sugar, pre-event too?

People just can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to the idea of making a child happy. And what easier way to make a child happy than with an inexpensive little bit of sugar? Of course, the problem is, it’s too easy, so everyone everyone EVERYONE wants to get into the act. Robin’s adorable, homemade cupcakes aren’t the problem, it’s all the junk which likely came before that, and will likely come after that too. I know I sound like a broken record, but I truly do think that we’ve simply forgotten that everyone loves to see that smile on that kids face… everyone loves the feeling of making a kid happy. What we need to realize is that it has become SO cheap and SO easy to hand a child a treat, that inflation has set in. No longer is it sufficient for the teacher to bring the kids doughnuts- there has to be a pile of candy next to it. No longer is it sufficient for kids to get a single treat at each house, now many houses go to the trouble of packing little paper candy bags full of several treats each. No longer is it sufficient to have a treat or two (or fourteen) from the candy bag that night, we have to provide dessert on top of that. Because, what else do you do? It’s Halloween! Or Christmas! Or Valentine’s Day! Or somebody’s birthday! Or you’re just feeling depressed! Or happy! You see what I’m getting at here.

Sweet Poison author David Gillespie told me that he’s always interested to watch what happens to American kids after Halloween: they all start getting sick. Sure, you could blame it on the change of temperature, but what if it’s not just that? Would we all be so quick to dole out those easy-to-come-by bits of happiness to children if we knew it was going to hinder their immune systems? Would we view it the way we view handing out free cartons of cigarettes to soldiers now?

Then again, I still love Halloween. I spend much of the month of October getting ready for it, picking out costume patterns and fabric with my children, and then sewing like a madwoman. When the appointed night comes, we venture forth, armed with flashlights and reflective tote-bags and cameras, not to mention the optional umbrellas or long-underwear . We tromp around West Pawlet Village with our friends, often running into other groups and joining up like packs of amiable, gaudily-dressed and highly-supervised wild animals.

Then, this year, the most amazing thing happened. Early on, our group had effectively snowballed to an impressive size- perhaps thirty or more adults and kids found ourselves congregated in the parking lot of the West Pawlet Fire Department. Out of nowhere something was happening. Grown-ups were yelling “Stop! Stop! Everybody come over here! Everybody join hands!”

As we all looked around blankly, trying to discern what exactly was going on, it became clear that my friend Sue was orchestrating something. All thirty or so of us large and small and costumed and not put down our flashlights and bags of candy and joined hands.

Once we were all in an enormous circle, Sue let go hands at just one spot so we formed a curved line. Then she began walking around the interior of our circle, making a spiral inward, inward. And because we had all joined hands, we were all walking too, following her, passing each other, giggling and making faces and talking to one another animatedly.

Once she got to the middle-middle-middle and could go no further she turned 180 degrees and began to walk a spiral back out again. Have you ever done this game? It seems like something I must’ve done at camp or elementary school or something, but never, never had I done it on a moonlit night in the parking lot of the West Pawlet Fire Department with a group of parents and children I love so well. And never before with a group of tiny Mad Hatters and queens and monkeys and fairies and zombie monsters. As we spun around and around the wheel of our friends and children, it felt like we had joined the witches themselves to perform a rite of autumn. It felt positively pre-Christian.

Isn’t it something like this- that is so much harder to achieve than that fleeting bit of happiness that comes in a plastic wrapper- that we really want from our holidays? A sense of connection, of community, of ritual, of transformation? You can’t buy that by the bag down at Rite Aid, and I suppose that’s how it should be.

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 50

May 24, 2011 § 4 Comments

I find myself writing things like “once again, we realize that sugar is in absolutely everything including your sneakers,” and “as I mentioned before, my kids are happily eating their carob chip cookies, and plotting their eventual revenge.”

I feel like I am, how shall I say this? Repeating myself. There are two reasons for this: one, because of the blog format, I can never be sure what the reader reading this sentence right now already knows, so I reiterate a bit to make sure they’re with me to a reasonable extent. The second reason is due to the very nature of eating. I mean, what else do we do as often as eating? Three times per day plus snacks… It’s really a wonder we get anything else done. When traveling it often seems to me as if, for the Europeans, work is just a brief respite between the real business of the day- coffee, lunch, and dinner.

I think often too, about the Little-House-on-the-Prairie days, when it was a full-time job just to get those three meals on the table, day after day after day… The stomach does not take a day off- and neither did Ma.

Which brings up the notion of monotony. In a diet which has added sugar entirely absent from it, variety equals morale; and we need morale or we risk mutiny on the bounty. Whereas in the past I’d relied upon the health food section of the cereal aisle to provide me with variety, nowadays I work a whole lot harder than that. Breakfast is the hardest meal in the no-sugar day as David Gillespie concurs in Sweet Poison. In fact, one of Gillespie’s five “rules” for living fructose-free is: “Be careful at breakfast.” Oooooo! Sounds like a good title for a new diabetic horror movie. SOOOO many breakfast foods are laden with an obscene amount of sugar that it’s no wonder we sometimes get confused: “Hey Mom, is this blueberry buckle for breakfast, or dessert?”

As if this weren’t bad enough, people delight in celebrating with “Sadie Hawkins”-style sugar too- sugar when you weren’t expecting it, such as having “breakfast for dinner”- pancakes with maple syrup- or “pie for breakfast”- which they do as an annual fundraiser in a nearby town. I’m all for fun and variety, but even before our Year of No Sugar began, the thought of having a nice piece of lemon meringue pie for breakfast makes me a little queasy.

But somehow, all this breakfast sugar isn’t supposed to count. No one thinks of having chocolate cake with ice cream for breakfast- ew!- but what is the difference between that and french toast with syrup or- if you’re at IHOP- chocolate chips and whipped cream?

So I work hard at breakfast. In the case of my youngest daughter- who is six and has been clinically diagnosed as “always hungry”- I’m actively competing with the school breakfast which features nifty things like Frosted Flakes and Goldfish Grahams with crystalline fructose (Better than just fructose! It’s like sugar heroin!) If I’m going to get her at least reasonably full before she encounters that sugar buffet, I’m going to have to be creative.

Therefore, whereas I used to sleepily throw three or four boxes on the table with some bowls, now I actively plan a loose breakfast rotation: soft boiled eggs and toast, yogurt with strawberries, oatmeal with bananas, toast with cheese and cantaloupe, bagels and cream cheese with slices of orange… occasionally I brew some peppermint tea, or my husband makes a frothy milk drink we call a “steamer,” (which we grew to love back when we used to make it with maple syrup.) This morning I sprang European “Ovaltine” on them (American Ovaltine has sugar in it) and the results were mixed: they loved it, but … the drink was so good it got them reminiscing about other delicious drinks they only distantly recall at this point: hot chocolate, hot apple cider, juice.

“I really miss having sugar,” Greta, our oldest, said with feeling, “It’s so hard.”

“Me too.” Ilsa agreed, lightly.

Then Greta had a thought which she hadn’t before.

“Hey- what will we do about Halloween? And Thanksgiving? And Christmas?” she was wide-eyed, preparing to panic.

Oh boy. “Well, we’ll have to be creative,” I began, “we’ll…”

“I love Halloween,” Ilsa broke in. Oh boy. Here we go, I thought, melt-down time. Where’s the Kleenex…?

“But,” Ilsa added, “what should I be? Should I be a monkey?”

And just like that, the conversation shifted and panic was averted. For now. I was amazed at Ilsa’s simple, unconscious reminder to me: sure, food is really, really important. But it isn’t everything.

The Very Best Milky Way

November 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

E.O. Schaub

Halloween is a tough one. It’s the only holiday I can think of that is so utterly centered on the joyful celebration of cheap candy. I mean, total junk. Every year my kids come home with an incredible assortment of not just the classics- Tootsie Rolls and Hershey bars, but some truly weird stuff: eyeball gumballs encircled by bulging veins, gummy cheeseburgers, packages of barbeque chips and unlabeled “mystery taffy.” The Halloween candy bag is the graveyard where crappy candy goes to die.

Even after a hefty parental culling and sorting process, it takes us months to get through so much as a small portion of their gargantuan haul, mostly because we adhere to a strict one-piece-per-night-and-maybe-not-even-then policy. It doesn’t help that I fully resent the role I am pulled into of being a spokesperson for the candy companies: I explain what each one is, impatient for them to choose so we can move on to our bedtime routine. “Snickers? well that has caramel and nuts inside. Three Musketeers? Well, it has this mush inside… I don’t know how to describe it. You just have to try it. Skittles? Well they’re like fruity M&Ms. Yes, they’re good! They’re all good! It’s candy for crying out loud!” How did I get roped into this, anyway?

Three days before Halloween this year I realized we still had half-full bags of last year’s candy in the back of our top pantry shelf and I, heaving a huge sigh of relief, finally pitched them into the trash without remorse. I have several friends who would likewise pitch the entire trick-or-treat business with similar enthusiasm. One family we know avoids the whole business altogether and just stays home, while others go out grudgingly, knowing full-well most of the evening’s proceeds will have a date with the garbage can before Thanksgiving rears its equally gluttonous head.

Me- I’m pretty conflicted about the whole thing. On the one hand, I have memories of trick-or-treating being one of the high-points of my childhood years, to the point that when my friends started deciding we were “too old” to go I was genuinely mystified and definitely disappointed. Why couldn’t we still go? Who doesn’t like to dress up in costumes? And get free candy? Instead we got cheap cans of shaving cream and— being too timid to assault any actual property— started spraying each other in the street. The cops showed up in about four seconds. Welcome to the suburbs. « Read the rest of this entry »

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