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 88

December 8, 2011 § 8 Comments

Let me tell you- this whole Christmas in a No Sugar household business? It is not for the faint of heart.

But before I begin, I’d just like to issue a formal declaration to all friends and family members: you may not, repeat NOT use the following information as ammunition to forward your argument that I am off my gourd and have been for the last, oh, say, eleven months or so. If you are helpfully wondering if I would like to talk about this, the answer is no. If you make the ill-advised decision to taunt me with quotes from this essay, I promise to sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” loudly until you cease and desist. Listening to me sing, as many of you already know, does not promise to be a very pleasant experience. You have been warned.

But… the holidays are coming– and I mean this in the most ominous way possible. Sometimes, it feels like we’ve been in training for the month of December this entire year. Christmas– the mother of all sugar holidays, the most fructose-laden of them all: more than Thanksgiving, which is a limited, one-day-only gluttony, more than Halloween, which focuses almost exclusively on the kids, more than birthdays and Easter and Valentine’s Day combined… As the dozens of mail-order catalogs arriving at our house every day clearly confirm, Christmas, for many of us, is about celebrating the birth of Jesus through a month-long marathon of sweets, treats, cookies and cake.

Greta's Journal

But that’s not what bothers me. What bothers me is the dread that my children are already expressing at the prospect of facing a sweet-restricted Christmas. Sure, we’ve discussed that Christmas itself will be the day we have our “special dessert” for the month, and that otherwise we can use dextrose to make versions of our favorite traditional treats… but on this account my daughter Greta refuses all attempts at consolation.

“Oh help me… I feel so helpless like I have know will or say in anything,” she wrote in her journal tonight. “Like my mom’s & Dad’s say & will com(e)s first and overpowers mine.”


Her entry goes on to lay the blame for her situation on David Gillespie, the author of Sweet Poison, from whom I’ve derived so much inspiration. (Sorry David!) As we were getting ready for bed I tried telling her that Mr. Gillespie is actually a very nice man, and remind her that he has six children of his own who also avoid fructose, including one daughter just her age. But Greta isn’t having any of it.

“I hate it! I hate it! I hate it!” she explodes, pounding her fists on her mattress. Her eyes are shining with tears.

Now, you may not be aware of this, but my eleven year old has a bit of a flair for the dramatic. (Perhaps it’s our retribution for naming her Greta- as in Garbo.) But, believe it or not, this is by far the most displeasure she has expressed with our No Sugar Year to date, and I have to admit I was a bit taken aback. Of course, I hate the idea that “my” project is causing them angst, sadness, ridicule at school… but I knew there had to be that side of it, didn’t I? Didn’t I?

While Greta’s outburst worries me, Ilsa worries me more. Ilsa is six. The other day we were buying sandwiches at a local shop when she reached out her hand curiously to touch a bowl of something on the countertop near the coffee carafes. When Greta suddenly warned her “That’s sugar!”, she actually flinched.

Then tonight, as she was using a magazine for a craft project, she showed me an ad for Haagen Daz ice cream. “Mama, I’m glad we’re not keeping this.” she said. “It hurts me.”

Oh. Shit.

Really, honey?” I stopped what I was doing and looked at her closely.

“Yeah.” She looked at me a little seriously, a little incredulously, as if to say, What, you didn’t know?

SO it’s been a busy night around here tonight! (What with me color coding my Mildred Pierce coat hanger collection and everything…) Directly following the “I hate it” episode, I took a de-e-e-e-e-p breath and asked both girls to look at me from where they sat, half-tucked into their comforters in their parallel beds, each with it’s own sizable coral reef of stuffed-animal life-forms.

“Listen. I want you to know. I know this year has been really, really hard. And I want you to know how much I appreciate the fact that you’ve gone along and done this project with me all year long. And it’s almost over- the really strict part. It’s almost over.” I feel like a broken record, even though I mean it. Is there really nothing I can do to assuage this sadness/anger/pain I have willingly invoked in them? Will words- in which I put such complete faith- really fail me?

Suddenly, as if on cue, Greta raises her index finger in the air, in a dramatic professor “Aha!” pose.

“My First Biography!” she declares with an impish grin that has- at least for the moment- erased her tears. “My Terrible Childhood!”

I smile. Now, that’s more like it.

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 84

November 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

If you had asked me to define “Game Supper” before I moved to Vermont 14 years ago, I probably would’ve guessed a potluck involving Scrabble, or possibly Bridge. Not only was I a “city mouse,” but I had been a devoted vegetarian for over a decade. To me, “game” meant only one thing: Monopoly.

I can imagine how horrified that version of me would’ve been- the me who insisted that our sit-down wedding dinner for one hundred consist entirely of vegetables and fish- to encounter the amazing annual phenomenon that is the local Game Supper.

Lucky for me, I’m a carnivore now. These days our whole family looks forward to enjoying the spoils of the hunt even though we didn’t get up at the crack of dawn to go sit in a cold tree stand sprinkled with deer urine for several hours. Then again, who knows? At the rate we’re going, maybe in another ten years we’ll be doing that too.

Pawlet Game Supper

Every November (read: deer season) each town around here has their own Game Supper benefitting deserving local causes such as the volunteer fire department and the sixth grade annual field trip to Boston. We’ve been to the Pawlet Game Supper for the last few years and the menu is reliable: Moose Meatballs (the whole reason to go), Bear Steak (to say you’ve had it), Chicken and Biscuits (for the very squeamish,) and Venison, Venison, Venison. Venison Stew, Venison Steak, Venison Sausage, and if you’re in luck maybe Gib made his famous Venison Salami- only one piece per customer please, supplies are limited.

Of course there are sides- mashed potatoes and squash- if you have any room left on your plate, which you won’t. Salads, rolls and paper plates filled with cocktail-sized blocks of Vermont cheddar wait on the tables once you’re done running the buffet line. And if you’re still hungry- which you won’t be- and still eating sugar, there’s always the football-field sized dessert table, with slices of apple, lemon merengue and chocolate pie making kids drool from all the way over by the fire exit sign.

But the word on the street was that “Rupert’s Game Supper is better.” So this year it was time to check that one out too. Which is how I came to try beaver. It’s also how I came to spit beaver out into my napkin .0395 seconds later.

Rupert Game Supper

If anyone ever asks you to define what “gamey” tastes like, you should send them to try a nice dish of beaver. One friend remarked that eating beaver is like “eating an oil slick” and I have to say I couldn’t agree more. But I tried it.

Rupert: Ze Menu

Another key difference between Pawlet and Rupert’s suppers is that they wear funny hats at the Rupert Game Supper- antler headbands, chicken hats, sombreros- you name it. Nobody I asked knew why.

This year, however, I had a whole new appreciation for our Game Suppers as the one local event we could attend with confidence in our Year of No Sugar. The distinctions were crystal clear, with one or two exceptions: the meat was on one side of the room, and the sugar was on the other. After all the back handsprings we’ve done to ferret out fructose this year, the clarity of this division was quite comforting.

Which returns me to an increasingly familiar refrain: the idea of going back in time a bit in order to avoid the health impacts our over-processed, over-convenient lifestyle has bestowed upon us. There is a point at which all these hippy-dippy themes- no sugar, no plastics, no pesticides, eat local- start to converge; suddenly we begin to see what it is we’re driving at- what great-grandma used to cook. And much of it looked a lot like the Game Supper.

Although I’m pretty sure Great-Grandma never wore a funny hat.

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 68

August 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

It seems appropriate that we are hunkered down here in the house today, like everyone else we know, waiting out the rain and wind of Hurricane/Tropical Storm/Rather-Wet-Zephyr Irene. I’m perfectly happy to sit still for a while- for the last few days we’ve been racing around at a breakneck pace trying to squeeze ten pounds of summer into a one pound bag and frankly, I’m bug-bitten, sunburned, and exhausted.

Among other things we managed to squeeze in a visit to the Washington County Fair. Although it’s a hallowed, end-of summer tradition around here, we’ve never been and in fact, I realized, I’ve never been to a county fair of any sort. But now I’m hooked.

It’s hard to explain what is so compelling about the whole county fair thing: barn after barn of impressive, almost regal animals- from looming oxen to preening roosters- each one unique, each one cleaned, brushed and shining, ready for their fifteen minutes of fame. Everywhere you go you encounter that familiar, homey smell of manure and hay. Young children look oddly serious in their white shirts with paper numbers, purposefully leading their animals here and there. You have to stand back and be grateful for a moment that such an old fashioned-seeming event as this is going strong in the age of “I don’t have time for that.”

Because of course what this event celebrates is time. You can’t have an animal and care for it properly without time. And appropriately, this reminds me of food and how, as a culture, we supposedly have no time for that either, anymore. This connection makes sense: every one of these animals originally gained it’s position on the farm as either a direct provider of food or to aid in the production of it. Wandering around the goat and sheep pavilion it gave me pause to read the signs above the brilliantly groomed animals detailing their names, the intricate names of their breeds, and then that their job was: “Meat.” To a modern sensibility this seemed incongruous- isn’t meat a lowly thing, not to be named or well cared for, but to be shunted to a back lot, fed a diet of mud and antibiotics, slaughtered in secret, before being shipped anonymously out, to be consumed without a thought?

Pardon me- as a former twenty-year vegetarian I tend to get a little melodramatic on the subject. Today, as an enthusiastic meat-eater, I am no less concerned with the animal’s well-being and the obvious relationship that holds with the fact that we are then putting that animal as food into our bodies. After all, they taught us in elementary school that “you are what you eat,” so who wants to be a poor, miserable, doped-up, factory-farm creature?

But we just don’t have the time or money to worry about that- that’s the cultural message we hear from all around us- our society needs to make progress, move forward, spend more time interacting with technology and less and less and less time worrying about the Hot Pockets (Now in “Nuclear Waste Flavor!”) they we are putting in our mouths.

I know. I’m sounding evangelical and I apologize. The funny thing is, that even at this event which seemed to celebrate the very point that I’m ham-handedly trying to make here- ie: that good, healthy food connects to a longstanding agricultural tradition of good, healthy animals- even here we were simultaneously confronted with the equal and opposite message- namely: eat crap! It’s delicious, cheap and fun!

You know where I’m going with this. As we made our way further and further from the animals and closer and closer to the midway, we encountered an astounding array of junk for our perusal: buckets of fries! Giant bags of Kettle Korn! Slushies that glow in the dark! Sodas too large to carry!

My kids were anxious to get to the rides, and were impatient with me stopping every thirty seconds or so to take pictures of the gastronomical Sodom and Gomorrah. I couldn’t help it- what has happened? I wondered wide-eyed, what have we come to? In his interview with Nightline, Dr. Robert Lustig compared our modern food court to an opium den; here at the carnival this unsettling image of debauchery and debilitation seemed entirely too appropriate.

Likewise, the audience in attendance that day showed ample evidence of enjoying a diet closer to the midway side of the fair than to the 4-H side. Being substantially overweight was not the exception, I realized looking around, but the norm. It made it easier than ever to believe the recent prediction that by 2030 half of Americans will be obese. Not overweight, mind you: obese. Are we worried yet?

Earlier that morning as we prepared to make the forty-minute drive to the fairgrounds, I had quietly grumbled to myself, annoyed at the work involved with preparing a picnic lunch to bring and lug around with us all morning. It took time. It was heavy. All I wanted to do was leave– why couldn’t we just be normal? I whined to myself. Why did I have to torture our family with this No Sugar Madness? Wasn’t I just being selfish and pushy and fanatical?

But let me tell you how happy I was to have that lunch when we started to get hungry… which wasn’t very long after we had arrived and meandered through a few exhibits. Already we were famished. We sat on a picnic bench under the shade of a big pavilion and devoured our cheese and tomato sandwiches, crackers with peanut butter and a small basket of plums like it was air- we breathed it all in. And after eating? I felt really, really good.

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 59

July 7, 2011 § 5 Comments

I almost can’t believe it: we’re half-way through.

Today is the seventh day of July, so in fact we’re officially past the six-month mark. After an entire June of clammy wetness it’s finally starting to look more like summer here in Vermont… the marble-quarry swimming hole was full of people when I drove by this afternoon. Also, I hear strawberry season is practically over, (didn’t it just start?) so I hurried out and bought two quarts… never mind going picking.

Of course, summer in Vermont has truly arrived just in time for us to go away: we’re preparing for a trip. A big trip. We leave Sunday for two weeks in Italy.

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re not thinking: “Gee, will Eve ‘s family visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa? The Vatican? The Coliseum?” I know you’re not thinking that because that’s not what everyone here has been asking me. What everyone here has been asking me is: “Oo! What are you going to do about the Sugar Project?”

Yeeeaaaaah. Good question. It’s one to which I have given much thought, but have yet to receive any brilliant revelations about. My circular thought pattern runs something like this: the Italians are serious about their food, in particular fresh, homemade food- this will be extremely helpful. Also very helpful will be the fact that the Italians aren’t too big on desserts- gelato and tiramisu notwithstanding. The first time our family went to Italy two years ago I recall more than one instance in restaurants when we had to ask if, in fact, there was any dessert to be had. It was often an afterthought, as in: “Oh! Yeah- we have dessert… Would you like dessert?”

In one of the more local establishments we ordered two different desserts and both struck my American palate as… not very good. Instead they were creamy and cake-y and lemon-y and almond-y. They were not what I would call sweet. I didn’t care for them very much- at that point I was still looking for that taste explosion at the end of a good meal to signify it’s end, like fireworks at the end of the Fourth of July festivities. I mean, you just can’t go home till the grand finale practically blows your eardrums out- or taste buds off as the case may be. We Americans are not big on subtlety.

Therefore, by comparison, we should be in good shape, right? No one will be tempting us with deep-fried Twinkies or Death-by-Chocolate Sundays… However. Gelato is good. Really, really good. Did you know that you can request “crema” on top and they will put a perfect little dollop of whipped-cream on top? Did you know it will likely be between eighty and ninety degrees our entire first week? Do you think, at the tourist-thronged landmarks we are sure to be visiting, we’re going to be encountering gelato every-blinking-where we go?

So last night we had a babysitter and Steve and I hashed it out over dinner.

My husband started out the bargaining. “How about one dessert per day?” he helpfully suggested. I about spit out my drink. I pointed out that, on a fourteen day trip, this would result in us having more desserts in the month of July than we would have in the entirety of 2011.

“How about one dessert for the whole trip- our July dessert?” I countered. The look of abject horror on his face was impressive.

“Now, we’re not going half-way around the world to torture our children with wonderful ice cream they can’t have.” Oo! The “torturing your children” card- well played!

“How about one dessert per week?” I re-countered. As you can imagine, this went on for some time.

Other ideas were floated: what about family voting on a case-by-case basis? Although this appealed to my democratic side, I’m reasonably confident that my otherwise very-supportive family, when faced with an Italian gelato stand in all its glory, would nonetheless vote the No Sugar Project out every time- possibly before breakfast.

By the end of our meal we seemed to have reached some sort of consensus: we will, of course, have our July dessert in Italy. Very likely, we’ll end up having more than one dessert during the course of our trip. Whatever we have will be rare and special. So, basically, we’re going to wing it.

On the whole, Italians seem to have gotten the sweets question right… enjoying little wonderful golf-ball-sized scoops of gelato as a special treat is a lesson we “more-is-more” Americans would do well to learn.

Then again, I’ve been to Italy four times in my life, and every time I go I’m dismayed to see that the gelato scoops have gotten a little bit bigger. Ever so gradually, they’re becoming more American.

A Year of No Sugar: Post 17

January 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

This project certainly has its up and downs. Just a few days ago I was on the verge of despair: a good and trusted friend had offered the observation that our project was big on “deprivation,” and this sent me into a bit of a tailspin.

Why was I doing this exactly? Am I a masochist at heart? Worse, am I torturing my family in a misguided effort to further my own career as a writer? To give me fodder for a book? Wouldn’t that pretty much make me the culinary equivalent of Joan Crawford?

It didn’t help that I made the mistake of taking the girls with me to the supermarket, so we could drool over all the lovely products in shiny packages that we weren’t buying. Note to self: go to Price Chopper during school hours. At home- away from all the shiny bells, whistles and cartoon characters- is where the kids are at their most philosophical about the project, which is nice because it would seem to indicate they aren’t feeling, you know, deprived.

At school, I see them struggling- which is hard for me. Both of them have graduated from “Mommy I had a brownie at school today” to “Mommy, I had a brownie at school today- I’m sorry,” to “Mommy, everyone had a brownie at school today- but I couldn’t! It was terrible!”

Now, we’re keeping in mind my “outside the house you decide” policy, right? Whereas the menu with mom and dad is strictly no-added sugar, when at school or a friend’s house I have been emphatic that it is their own decision. No guilt. Definitely no apologies. Make this of this project what you want it to be. In fact, I might be blue in the face from repeating this.

I guess I just assumed they would choose to have the sugar items and not give it another thought- this unforeseen response is much more complicated. It doesn’t help either that everywhere we go my ten-year-old announces to anyone within hearing-range the specifics of our project, to which the usual response is a puzzled, piteous grown-up look that seems to say: “you poor thing, you have crazy, controlling hippy parents, don’t you? Do they make you eat tofu for breakfast?”

Thank goodness for the health food store. This is the one place so far that the complete-stranger response to project has been unequivocally positive. While I shopped for carob chips, dried mango slices and seaweed crisps (nope! Second ingredient: sugar) my ten-year-old was deep in conversation with the cashier, who seems very upbeat about the whole thing, and totally unfazed.

“Yes, but just think how healthy you’ll be,” she said to Greta, who was not getting the doe-eyed sympathy she had been hoping for. “You’re going to feel so good!” I drank her words in, simple platitudes though they were, drank in the lack of implied critique, the lack of hesitation in her voice. Maybe we weren’t insane! Then again, I thought, they’re probably used to getting all the nutritional kooks through their door; being v-e-r-y open-minded is part of the job description. But still.

The bill was, of course, enormous- one bag of no-sugar groceries? Ninety dollars. Lack of judgmentalism? Priceless.

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