Let Them Eat Cake. Or Violet Macarons. Whichever.

March 6, 2014 § 2 Comments

I haven’t read the book French Women Don’t Get Fat, but perhaps I should.

We just got back from a week in Paris where we did nothing but eat wonderful, rich food everywhere we went. And despite recent reports that even the famously-thin French are getting fatter, I couldn’t help but think that, to all appearances, the French just don’t do obesity.

Not only do you simply not see many overweight people, but the entire culture seems geared toward a slender, more agile people, to whom we klutzy Americans bear little resemblance: teeny tiny bathrooms, waiters fitting six people around what Americans would term a “table for two,” elevators that reminded me disconcertingly of being buried alive. The shower in our apartment was so far elevated off the ground that some mornings I had the sense I was mounting an alpine expedition armed only with a towel and hand soap. After the first day of our trip I switched from my American satchel (in which I have been known to stuff my entire full-length down coat and still have room left for a bag lunch and an umbrella) to a much smaller purse, because I had no desire to sweep clean every nearby shelf and countertop everywhere I went. Paris is oriented toward people who are comfortable being Small. Efficient. Compact.

Eve Tries Bone Marrow

Eve Tries Bone Marrow

How can they get away with this? I thought. Haven’t they heard about the fact that the rest of the modern world is blowing up like the Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man? About people getting too fat to fly coach? Or use tanning beds? Or be buried in a regular casket?

Apparently not. Sure, they’ve picked up a few bad American habits over the years- I hear fast food and snacking are on the rise- but we saw little evidence of such. I’m neither the first nor the last person to ponder some version of the French Paradox, but after considering the matter for the week I did have a few sugar-related insights.

For one thing, the French have no qualms about getting all militant about certain aspects of their food. Baguettes by law may contain only three ingredients: flour, salt and yeast. (The weight and price of them is controlled by the government too.)

Now let’s think about that for a moment. Legislating ingredients? In America, land of the bucket soda and fried butter on a stick, the concept of legislating a food’s ingredients– beyond making reasonably sure it contains neither arsenic nor broken glass- seems positively Orwellian.

And yet, after reading too many American bread labels that resemble more closely the fine print on a liability waiver than a food description, how lovely, how very civilized it seemed to me, to be able to simply buy a loaf of bread and know that it contained only what it needed: flour, salt and yeast.

No antifungal agents!

No Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Shortening!

And, need I even say it? No added sugar.

Speaking of sugar, it’s worth noting here that the French have no aversion to sugar. In fact, in restaurants, it is generally taken for granted that diners will have three courses: appetizer, entrée and dessert; “Pris Fixe” menus always allow for a dessert choice.

One could get into trouble here, no doubt. Some might succumb to the siren song of a creamy chocolate mousse or fluffy little profiteroles… me? I am a sucker for a beautiful, shiny fruit tart- every where we went there seemed to be a luscious Tarte Tatin lying in wait, ready to pounce.

We handled such temptations as we have learned to do- declining dessert most times, saving it for special, and when we did have it, ordering one serving for the four of us to share. Two bites apiece can be surprisingly perfect.

That being said, I noticed something I’ve experienced before in Europe: many desserts simply aren’t as sweet as one expects them to be- or should I say as sweet as Americans would expect them to be; they’re much more sophisticated than that. Whereas it often seems Americans only recognize one melody in our Song of Dessert- !SWEET!– the French have a flair for intertwining harmonies and rhythms that emphasize a much broader field of taste interest: from creaminess and flakiness, to fruit, floral and spicy.

It’s this greater range that allows the French to arrive at insanely delicate things like Macarons (little tissue-paper-esque sandwich cookies) in flavors of Rose Petal and Mint. A recent offering from upscale confectioner Pierre Herme is described as being the flavor of “Smoked Tea, Saffron, Iris, Carrot and Violet.” On their website this limited edition bite is described as “offering an otherworldly experience.” Take that Oreo.

Am I waxing a little too poetic here? (You’re lucky, I stopped just short of comparing American desserts to Britney Spears and French desserts to Madame Butterfly.) And certainly, there are exceptions. If you’re waxing nostalgic for good old-fashioned blast of American-style sugar, all one need do is find the nearest crepe cart and order one avec “beurre et sucre” (butter and sugar), or, if you prefer, Nutella (sweet hazelnut spread) Wham!

Perhaps I’m getting too preoccupied with dessert details in a blog concerned with avoiding sugar. Aren’t we just talking about two different degrees of the same problem? Who cares about subtle versus blatant when we’re talking about the health scourge of the world? But then there’s this: you can order dessert without added sugar in France. Yes. During the course of our trip I encountered plain yogurts, cheese courses, and fresh fruit plates all presented right alongside the crème caramels and sorbet trios, all as if these were perfectly legitimate desserts! Try that in an American restaurant and see how far you get.

So it all comes down to a fundamentally different attitude towards dessert, and, really, a fundamentally different attitude toward food: rather than sating oneself with a ginormous “Death by Chocolate” sundae, you have a tiny cookie flavored of saffron. Rather than crappy supermarket bread with 147 ingredients that will last indefinitely on your counter, you buy a fresh loaf on your way home from work at the boulangerie. It’ll be stale in a day or two, but who cares? We’ll have eaten it by then and bought another.

Sure, not everyone can afford to buy those saffron or rose petal cookies, and yes, they have cheap crappy cookies in French supermarkets too. Surely, someone is buying those. But people are eating cheeses, plain yogurts, and fresh fruit for their “treats” too. And because the price is regulated, everyone can afford a nice three-ingredient baguette. Which is nice, because I’d like to think that everyone has the right to good quality food. The right to just have food in our food. N’est-ce pas?

A Year of No Sugar: Postscript 9

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.”

Thank God.

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.

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 61

July 27, 2011 § 2 Comments

So here we are on the plane coming home from our family trip to Italy, and I’m not at all sure how to feel about the way No Sugar went over the last two weeks. On the one hand, you could say we did really well… we drank cappuccino while everyone around us had gelato. We drank water, water and more water. When we met up with relatives and extended family in Northern Italy they were kind enough to make special requests for us at restaurants and to engineer no-sugar versions of things like Barbecue Sauce for us when we ate in. We held fast to our individual exceptions and steered clear of so many fun European treats we would’ve loved to have: Nutella, flavored yogurts, those funny little snack cookies that Europeans do so well. We looked the other way when passing elaborate shop windows filled with pyramids of chocolate truffles, fancy meringues and exotic looking candies.

Can You Guess Which Yogurt Has Sugar??

And, as I mentioned before, sugar is easier to separate out in a place like Italy, easier to spot than in America where its presence is so much more insidious and pervasive. It’s true that ordering water instead of soda is actually considered a respectable option in Europe, whereas in America it’s somehow slightly looked down upon as slightly odd or cheap. (“Oh, you’re just having water?”) And sure, I was well supplied with my big bag of Snacks For Emergencies including Larabars, coconut cookies and any fruit we managed to pick up along the way… not to mention that we guiltily threw away more sugar than I care to think about: complimentary Swiss chocolate bars, Italian Baci, a large tub of “Tiramisu” ice cream.

And yet…

Yet, like some sort of mutant slime from a cheesy horror movie, I kept feeling sugar creeping back in... around the ancient marble door frames and through the windows’ bulky wooden shutters, following us like shadows along the tourist-jammed streets. Small things, mostly. Once, Steve accidentally came home from the supermarket with a large vanilla yogurt rather than plain. Once, while staying the night in a B&B I put granola on my plain yogurt in desperation to avoid the Nutella and sweet yellow cake that constituted my other breakfast options, all the while looking the other way while my kids ate Cornflakes. (Cornflakes! Horrors!) Once, in a cafeteria across the street from the Duomo, we picked out what we thought were strawberries and yogurts for the girls’ snack, only to discover all that white stuff was whipped cream… not yogurt. Once, while having our unsweetened cappuccinos for a snack, we were sufficiently crazed with peckishness that we ate the hard little gingerbread cookies that had thoughtfully been placed on the saucers. Yes, these are the things that keep me up at night: whipped cream ambushes and postage-stamp-sized complimentary cookies.

Then again, other things are bigger. Twice our whole family succumbed to the siren song of gelato- (only once, in my opinion was worth it: peach, with little bits of skin throughout.) With an average of 95 degrees each day in Florence, and an average of fourteen tourists slurping a cone for every ten you passed on the street, keeping it to only twice was quite the superhuman effort.

Once, I heard our affable waitress describe the Tiramisu dessert as “buonissima” and I- swept away by the joy of a delicious meal and the fact that I was understanding far more of the Italian conversation than I had expected to- impulsively ordered two for the girls… only to have it not be all that “buonissima” after all. Phoo.

Once, we partook of thin slivers of a delicious Crostata Ciocolatta which was the birthday dessert of our now eight-year-old cousin whose family we met up with in Northern Italy. This was in the Dolomites, an alpine region of Italy so far to the North that prior to World War One it was part of Austria… and, as it turns out, a very dangerous place in which to send my husband off to the bakery. The first time he found the bakery as if in a trance, wafted in on the scent of a fresh apple strudel, which he promptly bought- helplessly- only to then give away to the extended family we had met up with. The second time he came home with a combination of sweet and not-sweet pastry, and by the third time he was arriving home with little marzipan hedgehogs and delicately wrapped bars of chocolate embedded with animal crackers or hazelnuts. I knew we had to get out of there, quick.

Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that none of these “sweet” treats, when tried, yielded that sugar blast Americans are so fond of… While an apple strudel or chocolate pie in the United States wouldn’t be considered worth it’s salt if it failed to make your teeth ache, the things we tried in bites here and there truly surprised us: apple strudel actually tasted like apples; the chocolate pie tasted of pastry and cream. No explosion of sweet; no King Kong-sized portions. When we saw a Ben & Jerry’s in Florence, I wondered what the Italians thought of flavors like Chocolate-Chip-Cookie-Dough Ice Cream and Phish Food (doesn’t that have caramel and gummy bears in it?), when juxtaposed with the elegant subtlety of a, say, peach gelato? Do they think we’ve completely lost our minds?

Back in Florence, on the last night, after very kindly being served complimentary biscotti as we tried to pay the dinner bill (help!) Steve and the girls had a goodbye treat of yet another gelato (that’s three, for those keeping score) while I abstained. By that time I could feel the ground moving beneath me. I agonized as I packed my suitcase. We had had so much more sugar here than we would have at home, yet so very much less than we would have had if not for The Project… What did that mean? Had we been good? Or not so good? Both, I imagine. In fact, I suppose the answer was that we were human.

Oh, and yes, we had a great time… thank you. Of course, most vacations, no matter how much fun, have to end. Lucky for us.

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 60… Florence, Italy

July 17, 2011 § 3 Comments

Breakfast - Not Frosted Flakes

Our family has been in Florence for five days thus far (not counting Monday when we arrived in a state of exhaustion that can only be described as hallucinatory). I love how it seems like we left home eons ago and it hasn’t even been a week.

In some ways it feels like we’ve left the No Sugar Project at home too. This is not to say we aren’t doing No Sugar- we are. It just seems to matter less. We can go through entire meals, entire days worth of meals, enjoying incredible tastes- freshly made al dente pasta, thinly-sliced, delicately salty prosciutto, crunchy, garlic-rubbed crostini with pungent green olive oil- all without having to ever give much thought to The Sugar Problem. As long as we ignore the small table of “dolci” we pass by on our way to find the restroom, we can get along without feeling deprived a bit.

Okay, I must admit I’m not being the Spanish Inquisition here the way I am at home- by the same token, I don’t have to be. Do I actually ask if there is sugar in the freshly made “pici”? No, but I already know the ingredients of pici: four and water. Do I need to ask the ingredients of things like “Prosciutto e melone” or “Insalata Caprese” (tomatoes, basil leaves and mozzarella)? It would be like asking what the ingredients are in my morning eggs, or my glass of water.

So what’s up with that anyway? I know Italians have believed in fresh and local foods long before anyone ever dreamed up the term “locavore.” Twenty years ago when I lived in Rome as a student, I was amazed to attend the morning markets and find produce so fresh it still had dew and a little bit of dirt on it. It took me a while to get used to the idea of going to so many different places just to compose a meal: the outdoor market for fruits and vegetables, the butcher for meat, the bakery for fresh bread and pasta. Unlike us trendy Americans, Italians’ belief in such things doesn’t stem from a desire to save the planet or the polar bears or even necessarily to benefit their own health. No- food comes close to being a second religion around here for the deceptively simple reason that they know what’s good.

I got that phrase from my grandmother, who would use it to approvingly describe someone who knew how to appreciate something important, usually food. Scratch that- always food. As in: “Of course he likes the schnitzel! He knows what’s good.” Even thought she was of German heritage, not Italian, the sentiment was the same: what could be more important than really, really good food?

Now don’t get me wrong, we’ve had our share of sugar thrown at us- just not in the restaurants. On the two Swiss Air flights it took to get here the stewardesses kept trying to hand us Swiss chocolate bars- how often do you really think people say “no” to those? Then we arrived- at looooong last on nooooo sleep- at the apartment we have rented, to find a huge dish of hard candies on the coffee table, little wrapped chocolate “Baci” thoughtfully placed by the bedside, and a huge tub of complimentary “Tiramisu” ice cream in the freezer- specifically “per le bambine” our landlord explained.

Need I mention the entire supermarket rows of nothing but four million kinds of snack cookies? The fact that they have approximately three gelato stands for every one tourist? (It’s as if the people from Planet Gelato invaded years ago and no one noticed.) Sure, Europeans like their Cokes and their Nutella as much as anyone else. You can’t say they don’t have a sweet tooth… just that sweets aren’t so insidious here as in American culture. It’s a fairly easy separation, if it’s something you want to separate.

And crazy us- we want to. Remind me why again?

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