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Michael Pollen said in The Omnivore’s Dilemma  that American’s are confused about what we should eat because we lack a food culture. Somehow, long before nutritional counseling, calorie-counting, the food pyramid, and Dr. Oz to tell people what was good for them, Italians knowingly paired olive oil with tomatoes, and the oil served to help the body absorb the fat-soluble antioxidants and lycopene (http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/wellness/story/2012-06-18/ellie-krieger-power-food-pairings/55695752/1).

South Americans ate beans and rice together creating a complete protein, and Japanese paired sushi with wasabi, letting its anti-microbial properties aid with the body’s processing of sometimes questionably-fresh fish (http://steamykitchen.com/15015-real-fresh-wasabi.html). Funny how long it takes us to recognize the wisdom of our elders. Modern food science is just beginning to find the wisdom of centuries-old traditions, many of which we have deemed “unhealthy” because of a fear of fat, carbs, cholesterol, or whatever taboo is en vogue at the moment.

There is a return in some circles to a more thoughtful way of cooking and eating, of knowing where your food comes from, how it is grown, and putting care into its preparation. As much as I love the idea of Slow Food (http://www.slowfoodusa.org/), the truth is that the pace of our society does not allow for a sauce that has simmered on the stove all day to be poured over our freshly picked vegetables each night. Thus, Stouffer’s lasagna.

Since each day does not provide sufficient hours for the homemade preparations of yesteryear, holidays are the times we relish our slow food. Sometimes. Except the green beans and condensed soup from cans topped with a can of fried onions. yum. I do cut corners, but I am rather smug about the fact that I have never served my family anything slathered with Campbell’s. There is no “Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee” going on here.

One food culture with which I have had the pleasure of becoming acquainted is Catalan, from the Catalonia region in northeastern Spain. My husband planned grand menus with aspirations for his kids experience their family’s food traditions, so between Christmas, the day after Christmas, New Year’s, and the Epiphany, I’m slow-fooded out. I would say that in general I spend more time cooking and cook more from scratch than the average working American, but certainly not as much as the traditional Spanish housewife! One New Year’s delight was a traditional soup, esculella i carn d’olla, complete with homemade meatballs,

http://www.foodbarcelona.com/escudella-i-carn-dolla/

This website gives one version of the recipe. I unfortunately didn’t capture any of my own photos of this dish.

http://sabatica.cat/bon-nadal/

shell noodles, cabbage, carrots, turnips and parsnips, garbanzo beans, leeks, onions, celery, a whole chicken, ham hocks, lamb shanks, beef bones, white sausage, blood sausage, pigs feet and chicken feet.

http://sabatica.cat/bon-nadal/

If you imagine this would require a big stock pot, you are correct. Try three. While I enjoyed the root vegetables and the dogs have been feasting on pig scraps for a week, what I appreciate about this soup is the broth. Some of it still sits in a pitcher in the fridge, and it is not a liquid. The bones boiling away all day with their marrow scraped out have made a broth that when chilled is just like Jell-o, minus the sugar and red dye. This is not fat, no, this is gelatin. I thought I needed something poured from a white paper envelope inside a cardboard box from the grocery store to make things quiver like that. I’m not gonna lie, it grosses me out just a little. But that’s because I have been taught a sanitized food gospel of stuff that’s bleached, processed, waxed, and additive-d up until it bears only a distant resemblance to God’s natural goodness from whence it came. Turn your nose up if you may, but if this was made from well-raised pastured animals, this broth is true health food. Put down those Snackwell cookies and stare into the eyes of something truly wholesome.

My favorite dish by far from the homespun holiday menus was a cannelloni pasta served alongside a creamy chestnut mushroom soup. While husband simmers onions and olive oil for the homemade marinara, I whisk together a bechamel sauce. White sauce goes down in the pan.

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Perfect squares of pasta dance in the boiling water, plunge into ice water to cook, then are rolled up with a meat filling of ground veal and local pastured ground turkey and  pork, chopped up nice and fine. Sadly, nobody in town had lamb brains to give it that special touch. Pasta rolls in, pour over more bechamel, a little tomato sauce, finish with Parmesan.  Out of the oven it’s bubbly, and in the mouth it’s rich and creamy, with the perfect balance of white to red sauce with the sprinkling of salty parmesan starting to crisp up on top. Time-consuming, yes, but oh so satisfying. So satisfying that I boil up some more pasta and make a fresh batch of cream sauce the next day to roll up the leftover meat for a fresh batch to carry over to a neighbor who just lost her husband. Because this is comfort food at its best.

I could have watched several movies, caught up on reading, and washed and clipped my dogs’ hair with the time spent in the kitchen this holiday season. While it’s true that a good haircut lasts a lot longer than a good meal, I consider the hours time well spent. I experienced highlights of a rich and celebrated food culture that has been practiced for generations upon generations. Here’s to a holiday season spent without Marie Callender!

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Have you seen the new show Touch, with Keifer Sutherland? It’s about him and his son, this boy who doesn’t talk, but sees life in mathematical equations and figures out who needs to meet who and how relationships and situations need to work together. His dad is as needy and stressed out as anyone else in this world, but suddenly finds that his son is trying to communicate with him, and together they have a mission. I was thinking on my walk this morning about how screwed up we all are. And I know what you are all thinking, but it’s not just me. It’s easy to look from the outside and think that a person who has all the “stuff” of a good life is happy and has it all figured out. If a person isn’t obviously starving or homeless or strung out on drugs, they can give the impression of having it all together. Then you get to know people, and realize that truly, everyone is broken. As I look around at people I love, we are all falling apart. The family you thought was perfect suddenly explodes and you realize that it never really was perfect. Another family cannot cope with the stress of exceptionally needy children and meds are not always enough to alleviate the anxiety. Another has no family and feels so alone. It seems that things didn’t work out the way anyone had hoped. Now the in-laws are moving in because they can’t take care of themselves and the house could be foreclosed at any moment and mom and dad live in separate houses and never talk. You too know that if people look close enough, they will begin to see the cracks in your own life. These were my musings as I walked the trail today.

The downside of living where I do is the painfully long drive to get anywhere. The upside is that the Appalachian Trail practically crosses through my backyard and I get to live closer to nature than a National Geographic special. My section of the trail is rocky, wooded, and hilly. This morning my two schnauzers and I went to explore a new section of the trail, me lumbering along at human-walker pace, them darting ahead and then back to me over and over at manic-little-dog pace. For the most part they stayed on the trail, but also dashed easily into the woods in hot pursuit of a rabbit or a squirrel or rock that looked a lot like a squirrel. With a good deal more trouble than them, I could have followed them into the woods, fighting through thorny brambles and branches and stumbling over rocks. It’s spring, which means the bare brown landscape has given way to splashes of green with buds on the trees, weeds and wildflowers popping up from the ground, and some thorny branch or another reaching out to grab you at every turn. A month ago I had easily walked through the woods without a path, and even gotten lost for an hour or so and wondered if the rumored mountain lion would find me before I made my way out. But with spring comes an increasingly dense thicket of brush that by midsummer is an impenetrable wall through which only the bravest of woodsmen armed with hatchet and tic repellant would dare to tread.

I marveled at my dogs’ ability to find the perfect openings to dash into the woods, never tripping on a vine or getting caught by thorny wild blackberry branches. Thinking of this, I stopped and bent my head down to their eye level, trying to see what the world looked like from their 18-inch high perspective. From where I had stood, much of the brush was about chest-level and impeded my free access to the woods. I could see over the brush to what lay down the path, and at my eye level stood the trunks of trees. Down where the dogs ran, the picture was different. It was much more green and lush, the newly sprung weeds and growth having grown above their own heads. It was exciting down here, with undiscovered paths and an unending kaleidoscope of green, brown, and grey. The world had become more wild. Small stones became boulders to charge over. You could stare into the eyes of a beetle and trace each petal of a tiny blue flower. From down here, I could see how it would be easy to become distracted by each movement in the woods, any hint of life out there. If I were small and quick, I too could have darted out after the tail of the little brown rabbit that crossed our path. Down here, life the woods was personal. I was not just walking through it, I was in it. I could see and smell more of the woods, but I could not see far beyond my nose. Standing back up (luckily there were no hikers out to see me writhing around on the ground talking to the flowers), I was able again orient myself and see ahead on the path that would lead me back home. Weeds and fallen trees receded into the background and were no longer obstacles to me. From up where I stood, I could grasp a bigger picture of the forest than when I lay on the ground. I looked up to see two huge birds with wings outstretched gracefully soaring above me, circling closer. I like to think they were hawks, but more likely they were vultures. What must their perspective be, I wondered? They could see all the intersecting paths in the woods and roads and people and animals around. They would not have gotten lost in the woods and wondered if they would ever find their way home again. They had a big picture perspective greater than mine or my schnauzers’. From up there, where you can’t see the details, things must look so simple. Peaceful. Like Bette Middler sings, “From a distance there is harmony.”

How little some of our petty problems would look from the perspective of the vulture (you can see now how it would be better here for me to plug in eagle or hawk?). How insignificant they must be from an eternal perspective. What do our little lives look like down here to God? Can he see all these connections like the patchwork birds-eye map of paths and roads and neighborhoods around me? Not the Bette Middler “God is watching us from a distant land” sort of objectivity; that’s too impersonal. I don’t think God dismisses our pain. But maybe the interconnectedness and personal-ness that the boy sees in Touch. I would like to have that sort of perspective. It’s comforting to know that there is someone bigger than me who can not only see all our messes, but see how our messes fit together, and maybe lead us to people who can help each other sort the messes out. Seems that for some reason God lets us screwed up people show other screwed up people how to get out of the holes we have dug. If we are honest, we will admit that we are all broken, and maybe that brokenness can help someone else deal with theirs. Maybe we are all meant to Touch.

 
Posted 9th April on my old site; I moved it over to my new blog 🙂

It’s too hot to breathe. I’m sitting in Panera slurping down a smoothie instead of strolling the streets of Chattanooga, which seems charming and eclectic from the downtown view. Normally I’m a fan of hot and humid, but this is a bit excessive. This may not be the best summer weekend for a road trip on the east coast, when temperatures soared and storms took out electricity for 3 million people across 11 state. When Tennessee recorded the largest electrical usage ever in a single day and the temperature reached 110 degrees fahrenheit, I was glad to have power in this city. I usually think that I could live without air conditioning, as people in places without our cheap energy have always had to do. We would just be used to open windows and adapting to our surroundings. Seems idyllic and natural until someone opens a door and the furnace blast hits me in the face. Yesterday I told my husband that air conditioning was not his God-given right. Easy for me to say while I sat with the cold air blowing in my face.

We humans are incredibly adaptable, but for some reason it is far easier to adapt toward comfort and ease, and much harder to give that comfort up than it was to adjust to it’s arrival. What a hardship it is, for example, when the seedless oranges are $1.29 each st my grocery store, and consequently there are no oranges in my fridge. Oranges do not grow in my part of the country, but I have grown accustomed to the ease of my $4.99 bag of organic oranges on the shelf at all times. I have never seen an orange tree, or an “orange grove”, but I doubt they resemble the Tropicana commercials. I don’t know the man who picked my oranges, but I do know a 10-year-old boy who leaves my school every winter because his parents are migrant farm workers and they have picking to do in Florida. He returns in spring to finish out the school year, just in time to be tested on everything he missed. Did his mom pick my oranges? Was she paid a living wage and given a break every four hours? Not likely. Although my organic oranges cause less environmental damage and are more healthful for my family without chemical fertilizers and pesticides and orange dyes, they should not lull me into a false sense of self- righteousness. The cost of growing oranges naturally, paying workers fairly, then shipping them across the country or the world and stocking them on the shelves of my local chain grocery should certainly make this orange a luxury item, shouldn’t it? A special holiday treat? And how is it that it is available at pretty much the same price all year round regardless of the season?

Don’t get me wrong, I love good deals. I was raised to believe that scams like “buy one get one half off” were sinfully close to full price. A true sale was at least 50% off, but 75-90% off was a truly good price and worth considering a purchase. My mother and I would chuckle knowingly at my poor clueless dad, who would walk into a store for something without so much as glancing at an ad or clipping a coupon, and leave the store with a full-price roll of paper towels. Apart from the wastefulness of paper towels themselves, he didn’t even get the store brand! So I think you get the point that I appreciate low prices. Lately though, I have been thinking about the cost of those low prices. There is a cost to our earth and health, as products are produced fast and cheap with the use of dangerous chemicals, plastics, fumes and fertilizers that are pumped into our air, water, into our babies’ milk, and onto our toy and closet and refrigerator shelves.

 

I have long been considering the cost to our health, and doing my best to prepare and serve natural foods rather than processed ones and protest companies like Monsanto who would sneak under-tested and unsafe chemicals onto our food, genetically alter it in labs, then sue farmers who would save seeds from their own crops to replant.

But even beyond the long-term cost to the planet and the health of the next generation, what about the cost right now, today, to other humans? Take a look around the room. The lamp, ballpoint pen, end table, chew toy for the dog, throw pillow, t-shirt and tennis shoes, hair brush, coffee mug. If you could see where each item originated, it would be like a world’s fair. Indonesia, Bangladesh, Mexico, Guatemala, Portugal, and of course, our favorite source of all things cheap, China. Even if the products they sent us were not full of lead and dangerous toxins to kill off our children, there is an immediate human cost. How old is the girl working the textile factory that made my t-shirt? Will the man who dumps waste at the plastic plant that formed my tv remote and toothbrush handle develop cancer from his duties which nobody bothered to tell him were dangerous? What about the woman who is injured at work from a faulty metal machine and has no recourse such as woman’s comp or disability? When she has to return to work to feed her family before she has fully recovered, will they have filled her spot with an able-bodied person leaving no opening for her? I don’t know her or her debt or her family responsibilities or her hunger. I don’t even know if she exists. I do know that it is dangerously easy to grow accustomed to my comfortable cheap American dream lifestyle, and never give a thought to the true cost. I don’t want to live blindly. I will concede that its not completely our fault. We are cushioned from the truth, separated by miles and oceans and sleek advertising. I have no way of knowing whether a slave built my flat screen t.v. But now that I have an inkling, I have a responsibility to look deeper.

It will make my life more complicated to not mindlessly grab things off the shelves, but I can take it one step at a time. I do not have wear Nike shoes if I am not sure of the conditions of the workers. Neither do you. I look at labels and choose not to buy most clothing on the store racks. My closet is pretty full already anyway. I recently found a website (http://www.fairindigo.com/) that sells fair trade clothing and ordered some things. I also paid a little more and purchased some Tom’s shoes (http://www.toms.com/), whose company donates a pair to a needy child for every pair you buy. I can encourage companies to ensure they have safe and fair facilities, whether in the U.S. or abroad. It adds layers of complexity and headaches to life to be ever vigilant over the origin of your socks and the ingredients in your cereal, but I would rather live consciously and troubled than oblivious and comfy. I believe that if Target and Sears and Reebok and Apple and Dole are pushed hard enough by the the public (that’s us), they would have to look into where they made and bought their products and be a little more open with the consumers (again, us).

I hope you join me in working to live a little more deliberately and compassionately, and pass on any good ideas or initiatives that you run across. Habitual comfort is hard to break, and we will need each others’ help. For now, the a/c is still running, but hopefully if I reach the point where I no longer have it, I can keep perspective and stay the course. It is quite possible the the people making control panel and transformer and fan parts for this air conditioner did not have access to chilled air themselves.

This is a blog dedicated to mindful living, caring for those around us, and simple creativity, looking back to learn and forward to grow.

I have seen times of want and plenty and can appreciate both. I have lived in the concrete jungle of town houses and strip malls in suburbia and in crowded city apartments with a brick-lined view of the alley out my bedroom window and more languages than I could distinguish spoken outside my front door. Most currently my abode lies atop a mountain where my closest neighbors are 16 Rhode Island Red chickens and the view from my bedroom window is trees, trees, and more trees. Fresh air and well water are abundant. Good ethnic food is not. Diversity in my current town consists not of nationalities, but in the variety of tattoos one can design to paint on one’s body. Five tattoo parlors and not a single Indian restaurant. Four pawn shops and seven thrift stores and no Macy’s or Gap. You get the point.

I have also visited many places, from a garbage dump/slum in Mexico,  AIDS hospice in India and Buddhist temple in Thailand to the streets of Paris and London and the beaches of Jamaica and Maui, with a few stops in between. Which is my favorite? Where would I like to live the rest of my life? I could never choose. You could drop me in any of these locations and more and I am determined that I would live a full life and be pretty much the same person. What I have found in all these towns and homes and hotels are people who are not so different. Different roles, different languages, but all people need and want the same things. Food, clean water, family, security, acceptance, fulfilling work, love, companionship, a warm bed. My tattooed redneck neighbors are not so different from my lawyer friends in suburbia and my no-speak-English immigrant friends in the city as you might think. I have found that I do not have favorities. “Love the one you’re with,”  I guess!

This blog is for anyone anywhere who wants to live a little bit better tomorrow than you did today, and share that with others. Maybe you see the value in planting your own tomato plant and picking it yourself, whether that tomato is on  your 100-acre homestead, the balcony of your high-rise apartment, or a remote village in Tajikistan. You care about things that are invisible and clean wholesome living and would do your best to help your neighbor, whoever and wherever he may be. Please share your musings and ideas as we work to build community in a sustainable world.

Here’s to creating the best version of ourselves!

 

p.s.– I’m moving over my blog posts from blogger to here, because it looks like Google is trying to take over the internet. Just sayin.

 

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