Archive for May, 2009

Book Banning Abated

May 28, 2009

Have you been following the controversy over the summer reading selection at Washington State University? It looks something like this: The best-seller Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by good food guru Michael Pollan was slated as a must read for all incoming freshmen. Then the university administration scrapped the book and an appearance by Pollan, saying it was simply too costly given the tight financial times the institution faces this fall.

But pulling Pollan and his award-winning polemic — which casts a critical eye over industrial farming in America — may have been triggered by political pressure within the university hierarchy, cried some. The land-grant university in Pullman, Washington, sits in an area known for its big agribusiness operations, including wheat crops.

Enter university alum and former chair of the Board of Regents Bill Marler, a well-known food safety lawyer, who shone the spotlight on this subject in a blog post this week. He even offered to foot the bill for Pollan’s appearance. University president Elson Floyd accepted his donation and the event will go ahead as originally planned.

A date has yet to be set for Pollan’s food-focused chat. For now, a victory for free speech, intellectual debate, and academic freedom. Oh, and the benefits of blogging. And maybe the makers of the soon-to-be-released film Food, Inc., which features Pollan, might want to capitalize on the controversy. Food for thought.

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The Comfort of Food

May 27, 2009

It turns out it is impossible to write a food blog when one is struck by a violent stomach bug. Have no fear dear reader, no graphic details follow.

Down for the count for most of last week, I lost six pounds (we’ll see how long that lasts) and am only now, gingerly, making my way back into the land of food. No recipes today. I think most folks know how to make white rice, apple sauce, and black tea, which is pretty much all I had.

But now that I’m on the mend, I’ve been thinking about how much joy gets sucked out of your world when you can’t break bread with people.

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Last week I canceled two cooking classes. Gone, too, was the spanakopita I intended to serve at the annual staff appreciation lunch at my kid’s school. Ditto the chocolate-mint frosted cupcakes for the spring fair bake sale. And the lemon blueberry bundt cake my son and I wanted to make to thank our neighbor Lance for his many kindnesses, like mowing our “lawn” and sharing baseball tickets. When you’re unable to eat you also miss out on all those lunches, dinners, tea breaks, and quick drinks with friends that get penciled onto the calendar before illness comes calling.

Life sans sustenance, and the social interaction that goes with it, is a bit grim. And yet in the middle of the worst of it, my ten-year-old was delighted to have a go at making his own dinner. And he took on the task of ferrying glasses of water from the kitchen to the couch with great diligence. When I was able to keep a modest bowl of plain white rice on board I was both happy and humbled. Friends rallied by offering to feed and entertain the offspring —  or simply showed up with ginger ale, diluted broth, or whatever else they thought might ease my suffering.

When I started penning these posts a couple of months ago, my intention was to focus on eating lots of leafy vegetables and whole grains. You know, the sort of food that is supposed to keep you healthy.  Funny how unappealing all that wholesome stuff sounds when you’re sick. I have a pantry packed with brown food and a fridge full of green veggies that I literally can’t stomach. And when I think of my last pre-sickness supper — a quick pasta fix with sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, pine nuts, blue cheese, and cream — I still wince. I don’t think I’ll be able to face this former favorite for quite some time.

Enough with all this illness, it’s time to return to the world of wellness, eating, and a regular routine.  But before I do, I’m curious to hear from others about what kinds of food they turn to when they’re under the weather. Growing up, we used to get dry toast with just the thinnest coating of Vegemite, that dark, pungent, yeasty spread that Australian kids consume with abundance and many Americans would likely feel sick at the sight — and smell — of. These days, it’s not what I’d seek out for comfort when I’m feeling crook (that’s Aussie slang for sick).

Everyone seemed to have a cure for what ailed me. Haiga rice said one. Some kind of fermented Japanese food I didn’t quite get the name of said another. The ubiquitous chicken soup added a veritable army.

So what soothes your stomach when it’s out of sorts? Chime in with your tried-and-true health tonic. In the meantime, keep well.

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Lentil Soup: An Antidote to Swine Flu Fever

May 8, 2009

I knew trouble was brewing. The ol’ scratchy throat, lethargy, and pounding headache were all clues. So I started sipping lemon-honey-herbal tea, downed Airborne, Emergen-C, and some Chinese immune-boosting pills a pal slipped in my purse, wrapped my neck in a warm scarf, and tried to rest. I was determined to ward off whatever dreaded lurgy was lurking.

Alas, the germs won, despite my best efforts. I came down with every “itis” under the sun — laryngitis, conjunctivitis, cold-itis, fatigue-itis. No fever-itis, though, just a garden-variety virus-itis. Still, for about a week I was sick.

So I did what President Obama advises, and my kid’s school superintendent urges — and, um, common sense would dictate — I canceled all my commitments and stayed home in the hope that I would 1. get better and 2. not spread the misery.

Aside from work (home office), picking up and dropping off my kid (the pink eye, a really wicked case, kept me off school grounds), and caring for my son, I basically quarantined myself. No yoga, dance class, hiking, or sailing (not that I felt like doing anything so active). No in-person work meetings or interviews. No school volunteering. No teaching a parent nutrition class.

Amazingly, I got better, only to reenter the real world and the paranoia over piggy or  H1N1 flu.  (An aside for other immigrants: doesn’t that name bring to mind all those visa classifications we have to wade through?)  The whole hog brouhaha hit home in a major way. Yes, I am a proud parent of a child whose school was closed during the swine flu scare. Where’s my bumper sticker?

Happened to have a house full of ten-year-old boys when the news hit, so I calmly explained what was going on and why, stressing for this somewhat anxious and analytical crew that there was nothing to be alarmed about.  The health officials responsible for the decision were simply being very conservative and cautious in their approach to handling the contagion.

I needn’t have worried.  The four boys did a little dance of glee, started making plans for playdates and sleepovers, and then went back to the serious business of beating each other with boffers (not as bad as it sounds).

Meanwhile, the less-than-impressed parents began shooting off emails in an effort to figure out childcare swaps for the workweek ahead.  Then we started to get a barrage of information in the inbox about whether or not we should, ah, come together. Stuff like: “Students should stay home and away from other people and groups.” One family decided to follow these instructions to the letter and dropped out of the makeshift co-op. Fair enough. I wondered whether we’d be treated like pariahs if we showed up for regularly scheduled programming.

As the week progressed, complications developed. Would we care for a child with a cough and cold? Hmmm. I’m a little tired of sickness setting up shop in my family. A month or so ago my son was felled by the worst flu he’d ever had (I suspect it could have been the oink-oink variety, but I have no proof.) He ran fevers of 103-105 for three days, was delirious one night, begging me to “turn down the microphones.”

By day, my normally busy, active boy lay listless on the couch, in the dark, not even interested in reading, one of his greatest pleasures. When I attempted to read to him he said softly, ” Please stop, Mama. It’s hurting my head.” Unheard of. A big believer in just letting an illness run its course, I was concerned enough to call the pediatrician who suggested we come in to rule out anything truly terrible. He was impressed that a kid who showed up with a fever of 102.5 was still standing and coherent. So was I being overprotective — or simply following routine public health protocols — when I balked at the idea of my kid spending the day in close quarters with a buddy with a minor malady?

Before things got tricky, the district reversed itself. School was now open for business again. Everyone’s childcare crisis averted, kids trundled back to class Wednesday in various stages of good and not-so-good health. My son wasn’t one of them. He woke up that morning complaining of a sore throat.

Here in Northern California we’re having wacky spring weather — a crazy hot beach week followed by rainy, cold, curl-up-with-soup days. I hear the East Coast has been dealing with similar temperature swings. This weekend, we’re back to balmy temps and blue skies.  Sickness always seems to come calling during such wild seasonal shifts. That’s when a bowl of soup can be your best friend.

Lentil Soup

(This recipe is probably adapted from somewhere, just honestly can’t recall where. Update: Works especially well with the addition of a teaspoon or so of caraway seeds for some extra zip.)

It’s easily tweaked to accommodate the ingredients you have on hand (or not). Season to taste; some folks prefer more heat than others. Comfort food for cold days, when you’re under the weather or not. I’ve even dished this up for Thanskgiving dinner.

1013229679_aa04e7f201_b Flickr photo by photobunny used under the Creative Commons license

You Need:

3 cups of red or green lentils or yellow split peas
4 carrots, diced
4 stalks celery, diced
1 onion, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch of kale (stems removed) or spinach, roughly chopped
6-8 cups vegetable stock or water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 teaspoons curry powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
salt & pepper to taste
cilantro or parsley (minced, for garnish)
non-fat, plain yogurt (optional)

Steps:

1. Saute onion and garlic for a few minutes in a large soup pot. Add spices.

2. Add celery and carrots and cook for 5 minutes or so.

3. Mix in lentils and enough stock or water to cover ingredients. Cover with pot and bring to a boil. Then reduce to a simmer for 20-30 minutes, until all ingredients are tender.

4. Add kale or spinach to soup and mix over low-medium heat until greens are wilted (stir occasionally). Cook for another 20 minutes or so. Lentils should be soft when cooked.

5. Garnish with herbs, add a swirl of yogurt, if desired.

6. Soup should be quite thick in consistency. Serve as is or ladle over brown rice or quinoa for a meal in a bowl.

A Shout Out for The Garden

May 2, 2009

Go see this award-winning documentary about a highly-politicized patch of green and the community who cultivated it in South Central Los Angeles.  The saga of this urban garden and its people screens this week at the Elmwood theatre in Berkeley and the Lumiere in San Francisco.

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It’s gritty, complex, full of shady backroom deals, greed, and, being L.A., the odd celebrity or two. Mostly, though, it’s the story of some 350 working class Latino families trying to survive in a harsh and unforgiving environment. Check out those towering banana plants. Marvel at that healthy cactus. Look at those rows of colorful corn. So much abundance in a previously blighted 14-acre plot.  The South Central Farmers fought the good fight — and they’re still at it — for the basic human need to grow food.

Bring the kids (ages 10 and up). Tell your friends. Don’t just take my word for it: Read what Kenneth Turan at the L.A. Times has to say about the film. View the trailer.

It’s got conflict. It’s got drama. It’s got poor versus rich. It will make you want to go home and do as Tezo, one of the main character’s in the film suggests at a post-screening Q&A, “tear down your fences, rip up your lawns, grow your own food, and build community.” That’s a sentiment I can totally dig.