Friday, September 30, 2011

Speaking of Food. . . .



Food is vital to life, an art in itself, and a four letter word.  My personal relationship with food, through many ups and downs, has evolved from abusive to experimental over the past 30 years.  Read on if you dare, but consult your physician before trying anything blah blah yadda blah. . . .

I was a true string bean until second grade.  To choke down my home-grown vegetables was to earn a bowl of fruit and Jell-O soup.  I only thought about eating what was set before me, and refused some of that . . unless it flew toward my mouth making airplane noises-  playing Godzilla was irresistible.  It wasn't until after starting elementary school that I developed a less than healthy routine.

I would walk home from school every afternoon (nothing impressive, probably half a mile) and have an innocent little snack.  There wasn't much else to do in a town of 112 when most of its citizens are old enough to be your grandparents.  When the cookies and peanut butter were gone, I was bored again.  Time for another snack.  Somewhere between second and sixth grades I became unable to think straight without the chilly white fog from the refrigerator wafting across my cheeks.

I could get creative in the kitchen.  A pile of lunch meat on a plate with a thick slab of cheese in the middle would snap and crackle in the microwave as if applauding my gastrointestinal ingenuity.  Arby's had nothing on my cheese-melts.  Chips, more cookies, and I knew where the chocolate was hidden.

Mama would come home and fix dinner after resting her feet before hitting the kitchen.  The whole family usually sat down together for home-cooked meal around 8:00 or so. I would be anything but hungry after my indulgent snacking session, but I had to finish that meatloaf to justify ice cream.

Then one day I looked down and realized that I needed a bra worse than my little sister.  A chubby chest and chaffing hams scared the cherub into action.  I was 12 years old and spilling over my huskies at 220+ lbs. Something had to give.

Nothing displaces bad habits like good ones, but developing them can be an epic hurdle.  My turnaround began in the summer after seventh grade when I started riding my mountain bike out and back on a hilly 12-mile route every day.  After getting back to the house I would enjoy 4 graham crackers with peanut butter between the pairs, a tall glass of iced coffee, and an orange-  nothing more until dinner time.  Within two years I was down to 185lbs, not to mention considerably taller than I was at the height of my girth.

The lesson I'd learned in self-discipline was more valuable than going from a 40" to a 32" waist.  I managed to stay in reasonably good shape for the duration of my high school years, continuing my cycling in the summers. . . . then came college.

I have a theory regarding the legendary "freshman fifteen"- I believe it's more prevalent at colleges with cafeterias and all-you-can-eat meal plans.  The University of Texas at Tyler had only accepted juniors through graduates up until 1998.  I was part of the second freshman class starting there in 1999, and there was nothing for a freshman to do. . . or eat.  No cafeteria, no dorms-  just books and classrooms.  There was a small "Campus Cafe."  Recommending their biscuits and gravy was our only established hazing ritual.

The only form of student housing on campus was University Pines-   a students-only apartment complex located on campus, but not managed by the college.  I moved in with three guys I'd never met.   Two of them became really great friends, the other was a Dorito bandito.  Munching on stolen chips in his room, skipping classes to practice on his bass guitar-  he only lasted one semester.

We had good times at The Pines, but it didn't start out healthy.  My two friends and I would go to Wal-Mart together and shop for groceries, tossing what we wanted into the basket and then splitting the bill three ways.  That granted all of us the right to eat as we pleased from the spoils.  Our main staples for the first year were corny-dogs and Ramen noodles.  I was snarfing down two corny-dogs for lunch and three for dinner daily.  Burnout was inevitable.

By my junior year I had been working for University Pines as a Community Assistant in return for free rent and chump change.  I'd been compelled by my employer to leave my original roommates and move into a 2-bedroom apartment with another, more reserved, CA.  He ended up becoming one of my closest friends, but we didn't split the grocery bill, and he never cleaned the bathtub. . . . but I'm not bitter.

As a result of my new living arrangement, my foodstuffs became slightly more sophisticated.  I began cooking up Hamburger Helper and Zatarain's dirty rice mix fairly often, and making my own dagwood-style sandwiches on bread as exotic as pumpernickel, 7-grain, or Health Nut. (thank you, Mama, for weaning me from Wonderbread)

Graduation rolled around, and all of a sudden I was dumped into the real-world.  A single guy in his early 20's, far from the bustling social scene of the college campus, has a lot of quiet time on his hands to think about life, love, and his next meal.  I began to wonder why I continued to buy boxes full of pasta and chemically enriched powders-  surely I could save money and avoid eating things I couldn't pronounce just by purchasing the ingredients separately!

Soon I was cooking up one-dish-wonders from scratch, usually starting with a base of brown rice, black olives, mushrooms, a can or two of Rotel, and any combination of chicken, beef, ground turkey, jalapeƱo peppers, and beans.  One kitchen session could produce dinner for a week when I alternated between monster salads and my southern goulash.

With few obligations aside from work and church, I began to focus on fitness in my free time- partly to pad my loneliness and partly with the misguided notion that my envisioned ripples would help put an end to it.  As one who functions best with a set of rules to follow, I began researching.

I'd often scoffed at fad diets, having friends known to try three different programs (Weight-Watchers, Slim-Fast, Atkins) within the same 6-month period with little to show for their effort.  I diagnosed it as Chronic Dietitus, and still believe it to be an American epidemic.  I could rant on about how there's a diet for every taste out there.  At a garage sale I once found a book called The Peanut Butter Diet.  I almost bought it for laughs, but refrained out of fear I would actually try it.

God made me a very curious creature.  There are so many schools of thought out there on the most ethical, and healthiest ways to eat.  After watching documentaries like King Corn, Food Inc., Supersize Me, FatHead (recommended), The Botany of Desire, Julie &; Julia, and Forks Over Knives; reading books like The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Zone; and some really interesting blogs that I'll get to later, I have put a number of ideas to the test.

I think one reason I enjoy trying different nutritional disciplines is because clearly defined guidelines regarding when or what I consume are a challenging exercise in self-discipline and inspire me to become more creative with my limited options.  I've come up with my own challenges- like abstaining from French fries or carbonated soft drinks for a year, and subjected myself to various comprehensive approaches to food.

Going from vegetarian to bacon buff at the drop of a hat was a lot easier before I had a wonderful wife cooking for me.  I never ask her to be a mouse for my trials, but my own rotating restrictions frustrate the cook none-the-less.

The good news (for both of us) is that after researching and approaching nutrition from so many different angles, I'm beginning to get a firm understanding of the common denominators that the most healthy and effective exercise and nutrition programs share- sometimes even when the camps seem diametrically opposed.  In my next post I'll share my take on different schools of thought, what I've tried, and what I've gleaned from first-hand experiences ranging from mainstream to quite exotic!


Monday, September 26, 2011

Food and The Windmill

More than halfway through my second year here, I can definitively say "I love New York."  Being from the south, for most of my life "New York" brought to mind only skyscrapers, purse snatchers, taxi drivers in turbans, and a green-faced lady with a big torch.  The maple trees, farmlands, wine country, and genuinely nice people in the upstate Finger Lakes region are some of the nation's best-kept secrets. 

I didn't know what cold was until I spent a winter here. But       compared to other regions in the northeast we have it pretty good- it can be a comfortable temperature in the summer when Buffalo is on fire, and we get mere inches of snow in the winter when cars are buried in New England.  The long summer days make the frozen tundra worth enduring in the colder months.

Adapting to the meteorological climate has been easier than warming up to its culinary counterpart.  The search for decent Mexican food, for instance, was an extreme challenge at first-  but eventually we discovered a few diamonds in the rough. . . where at least there was a tolerable amount of shoe polish in the salsa.

A lot of eateries in the northeast are seriously lacking in spice. 'medium' in Yankee, is marinara where I grew up.  Hot?  Hard to come by.  Even the red pepper flakes at the pizza joints seem dead.  Shake out enough onto a slice of pizza to make it crunchy and you'll still getting more fiber than fire.  Down south just a couple of flakes will light you up.  It may be that containers of the condiment here have aged 5 years on the same table, the flame going out over time since no one uses the stuff.

Even small-town diner menus are perplexing.  What on earth is "meat sauce?"  Texans are discriminating regarding our carnivorous capers.  We need to know the animal we're ingesting-  not his name and birthday, but species, please?  "Meat sauce" sounds like it could be dog bullion or horse gravy. 

The same cloud of ambiguity applies to seafood. . . or is it lakefood?  Every restaurant worthy of metal forks up here has a Friday Fish Fry (Irish Catholic tradition.)  I've partaken, and it's pretty good.  I can name several swimmers I'm sure I didn't eat, but as for what kind of fish I actually ingested?  Not a clue.  For some reason those specs never make it to the menu.  It wouldn't fly down south, where catfish is king (save us, David Beard!)

I could start talking about BBQ, but I don't want to cry myself to sleep tonight.  Let me just state what every grill-owner should know-  cooking meat outdoors does not instantly qualify as BBQ.

After recovering from the initial menu-shock, over time I began to realize that the northeast has plenty of it's own specialties.  The regional delicacy here seems to be chicken spiedies (pronounced 'speedys') -  super scrumptious sandwiches made with marinated chicken.  Breakfast pizza is a deliciously gut wrenching heart-stopper that you don't find down south.  Corned beef served with cabbage or on a Reuben is a surefire winner.  Burgers and hot dogs can be better here, because the protein is often laid out on nice fluffy "rolls" with more artisan character than Wonderbread-ish flour 'n paste "buns."

There is more great Italian, Irish, and Asian food here than you can shake a spoon at.  In the areas with greater concentrations of Petavegans, locavores, and warmists (like around Cornell) the trendy organic, free-range, grass-fed, locally grown produce is amazingly tasty, even if you have common sense.

There are at least 2 festivals of some sort within 30 miles of home on any given weekend from late spring through the fall in New York.  Naturally this state has a knack for festival food-  kettle corn, Philly cheese steaks, pierogis, and more.  Nothing comes close to Blue Bell's homemade vanilla ice cream, but all the roadside stands here that offer Perry's in the summer have been a satisfactory substitute.

I should know what to order and what not to by now, but sometimes nostalgia gets the better of me and I get burned. . . figuratively, of course.  On Saturday, Jenn (my wife) and I decided to finally drive over to the outdoor market place near Penn Yan, NY called The Windmill.  It's sort of like Canton trade days after rehab.  Located in Mennonite/Amish country there are plenty of interesting people in bonnets and straw hats peddling their crafts.

After browsing and ogling for a while, the hunger pangs kicked in.  Jenn had no trouble deciding what she wanted, and trotted over to a stand for some fall-off-the-bone grilled chicken.  I, on the other hand, can't bear to make a decision until I'm sure I'm making the best one possible.  An environment like that, with different booths hiding around every corner and offering such a wide variety of edible wonders, throws me into a culinary twilight zone of wafting scents and indecisiveness.

I trotted back through a couple of the pavilions to purvey my options and something I'd never heard of caught my eye.  "Stuffed Potatoes,"  the sign said.  I've heard of them baked, mashed, salted, hashed, steamed, au gratin, French fried, butterflied, and powdered. . . but never stuffed!  I couldn't imagine how to stuff a potato.  Just hollowing it out seemed like quite a feat.  I pictured a chef cutting a perfectly cylindrical channel through the center of a spud with a drill-press and auger bit.

I trotted over to the vendor's booth and asked him what a stuffed potato looked like.

"Well, yuh kinda have to order one. . . ."

A generous bystander intervened, offering to let me have a peek at his.  "Stuffed" apparently means "hacked into 8 pieces, then smothered."  What a letdown. . . . but I was tired of searching, and it didn't look bad, so I ordered one- with chili and cheese.  Of course it wasn't 2 seconds after I placed my order that I looked over my shoulder across a half-acre of picnic tables and saw The Polish Princess' Pierogi Palace, what have I done?!?  It was too late,  I'd fallen for New York's commercial chili again.

You see, in New York this is Chili** and it's pronounced 'chy-lye.'  Where I'm from, this is chili and it's pronounced 'chili,' as it should be.  My mutilated potato was defamed by a mass of tomato soup, ground beef, kidney beans, and plastic cheese.  It wasn't unbearable.  It was the vendor calling it chili that left the bad taste in my mouth. 

Just one trip to Terlingua to taste the real thing and he'd work with a paper bag over his head until the recipe changed, the menu item was renamed, or he found another line of work.  He wouldn't be able to call that stuff 'chili'-  no more than I, after living in New York for a year, can continue to call 30 degrees Fahrenheit 'chilly.'


**I have to give a shout-out to my good friend Nate-  he's a northern native that somehow bucked the trend and can cook up an excellent pot of red stew worthy of the name.  There are always exceptions to my generalities,  thank God!

Friday, September 23, 2011

A New Leaf

It's funny how fast pipe dreams can go up in smoke or trickle down the drain.  My attempt last year to document friendships and meet at least 2 new people a week for a year fizzled out halfway through.  I guess that's when my amazing circle of friends was locked tight, and upstate New York began to feel like a place to call home.  My routine was established, and the new wore off.  I went from pioneer to peer-  trailblazer to tribesman.

One of my most intense regrets of late is neglecting my journal.  Up until about two years ago I had documented almost every day of my life since the 8th grade.  I had made it a habit.  Like clockwork I would hammer out the happenings of any given day before keeling over into the sheets.  But then I got married. 

Our first home was a 600 SF one-bedroom apartment, and my persistent pecking on a keyboard less than 7 feet from my sweetheart's head after 10pm never made her swoon.  When we moved north in 2010 the office was banned from the bedroom.  With my PC and desk no longer positioned between the bedroom door and the Neverland Express it was out of sight, out of mind. 

Journal entries became more and more sporadic.  The initial burst of creative energies that sparked One Face in early 2010 served as a temporary patch-  I was able to roll the highlights of any given week into the stories here of how I met so-and-so,  but keeping up with Eclectic Scribe, One Face, and the editing of my first novel soon became too much to juggle.  That's when One Face, the closest thing I had to a journal, took a nosedive.

Being on-line and available to the masses, a blog like this will have a decidedly different tone than one meant only for personal reference and reflection.  Though I won't have the liberty to share some things that might be furiously scrawled in a private journal under lock and key,  I will be motivated to keep it concise, thought provoking, and hopefully entertaining rather than posting a monotonous laundry list of any day's events.

My intention is to regularly share funny stories, lessons learned, and deeper thoughts (when they are too much for distilling to poetry.)  The poetry is found at EclecticScribe.com. . . One Face will be an arena for the art of articulation and maybe, one day, some feedback and conversation.

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