September 8, 2011 § 5 Comments
It’s funny. Sometimes the No Sugar Project looms HUGE in our lives, and I resent the inconveniences it creates, as if it were imposed by someone else rather than ourselves. Other times, it’s No Big Deal. Sometimes my children adore the project as if it is something significant and wonderful, something that binds us together and makes our family unique; other times they rail against me and the project for completely and totally ruining their lives or make maudlin faces at the prospect of being in the vicinity of a treat they know full well they’re probably not going to be able to have.
Take today for instance. Greta, who has just begun sixth grade, has a camping trip tonight with her entire class. The Sixth Grade Camping Trip is a school tradition that represents a lot of things: becoming the big kids in school, bonding together as they begin the transition into pre-teen-dom (because I’m not in marketing, I refuse to use the word “tween”), and predictably- unfailingly- rain.
And like any event that bonds people together this event includes food, which, in our culture, means it includes sugar. Tonight there will be a campfire with hot dogs, hamburgers and veggie burgers, on buns which contain sugar. I imagine there will be juice (sugar) and I know for dessert they’ll have S’mores (S.U.G.A.R!!!) I’ve been told the morning tradition is to have hot chocolate (sugar), but I haven’t heard what they’ll serve for breakfast yet (sugar) so we can always hope (sugar) that it’s eggs, rather than pancakes (sugar) with maple syrup (sugar!)
I guess I’ve made my point. Is it going to kill Greta to have S’mores? Or hot chocolate? Or pancakes? Of course not, any more than it killed me to have those things when I was her age. And do I really want to be the crazy zealot parent who denies her sharing treats with her classmates and teachers? Or do I want her to grow up with a fond memory of a camping trip in which she participated just like everyone else?
I, for one, have a deeply ingrained memory of my first S’more: it was at sleep-away camp. I was eleven and desperately homesick. One night we had a campfire in the center of our ring of canvas tents, and it was chilly and pitch dark. A fellow camper showed me the proper technique for melting the chocolate rectangle on top of the graham cracker square by balancing them on a rock near the flames while you toasted your marshmallow on a stick. I scraped the hot marshmallow onto the ever-so-slightly melted chocolate with the help of the second half of the graham cracker and took a bite of what I realized was the single most delicious thing in the world.
Of course, I’ve had many, many S’mores since then, (I insisted we have them the night of our wedding reception, for example) but none was ever as good as that very first one. Maybe it wasn’t about the S’more as much as it was about everything else that night: the campfire, the after-dark chill in the air, the fact that I was away from home, really away, for the first time and it being exhilarating and frightening and eye-opening all at the same time. I was beginning to realize that I could exist as a person without my family to lean back on, to define me and decide for me what I thought. And my homesickness changed: evolved into a new kind of strength I had never known before.
Yes, all that can come from one good S’more memory. Meanwhile, my cousin Gretchen tells me at her boys’ school, a “progressive” school, mind you, that there is a significant battle being waged between the parents who bring in healthy snacks and those who think Chex Party Mix is essential to a happy childhood.
“You’re taking all the fun out of being a kid!” they say, in response to those parents who bring in carrot sticks instead of Oreos.
I don’t know. On the one hand, our country’s sugar consumption has clearly gotten entirely out of control, and we have the diabetics, the metabolic syndrome, the heart disease and the obesity epidemic to prove it. On the other hand, who wants to “take all the fun out of being a kid”? Who would I be without my S’more memory?
But I’d be willing to bet at least three S’mores (maybe) that there is a happy compromise to be had somewhere in the middle. One of the most common questions we get asked about the No Sugar Project is “what will you do when it’s over?” And it’s an important question, since it seems logical to me that its answer would provide some clue as to the moral of our story… will we binge on sugar? Will we go completely crazy? Will we continue No Sugar indefinitely, realizing that not eating sugar gives us superhuman powers like invisibility and the power to blow stuff up with our eyes?
Here’s what I propose, not just for us, but for our culture as a whole: let’s make treats into treats again. Translation: S’mores on The Famous Sixth Grade Camping Trip? Yes. S’mores-flavored breakfast cereal/ snack bars/ Hot Pockets? No.
It doesn’t sound hard when you put it like that, but believe me, in our culture? The culture of “fried butter on a stick”? It is. Americans live in an opium den of food- it’s just that we can’t see it. We refuse to see it. We are encouraged strenuously from every corner to ignore it. Maybe that’s the real superhuman power this project has granted us: Sugarvision. I just hope that, after this year is over, it’s a superpower that can tolerate the occasional S’more. Or two.
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.
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.
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.