Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Holsteinballs, Chocolate Stout and Other Adventures in Vermont Cuisine!

Pumpkin Lane. What a lovely name for a road! Little did I know when I decided to see where it led, that I would find myself face to face with my dinner choice. Well, OK, not technically this evening's dinner, because clearly the ground beef I'd made into meat balls earlier in the day was not from any of the Holsteins that stopped, stared and then posed for a picture. It was an idyllic farm scene - rolling green hills, cows happily grazing on grass and enjoying the hay that had been put out for them. Across from the field sat a large, white farmhouse. The front lawn was filled with pumpkins of all sizes, green and orange, with a sign that said 'Self Serve'. Adjacent to the driveway was a large sign announcing that this was the 'Snug Valley Farm'.

Hmmm, that's familiar, I thought to myself. Why does that name seem so familiar?

At first I figured it was because I'd been compiling a list of local farms to contact for my research project, but then I realized that, in fact, I'd opened a package of hamburger meat with the Snug Valley label on it earlier in the day to prep for dinner. So there I was, standing face to face with these adorable, curious cows who had stopped grazing on grass to come say hello to me. And it dawned on me that this was probably the closest I'd ever been to seeing my protein dinner choice before it ended up in cellophane. It wasn't a traumatic experience, particularly since I didn't see the cows being slaughtered, but rather saw them enjoying a cow life. And they weren't in one of those horrible CAFOs where most beef cattle spend a good chunk of their life standing around in cramped paddocks, where the ground is a bed of dirt and feces and they are fed diet high in corn and given loads of antibiotics (to treat them for illnesses related directly to their living conditions and diet, ironically).

But this did give me pause for thought about my dinner and its origins. And that, is in fact, precisely what the first few days of my Locav-or-ganic Challenge have given me - more to think about, at every meal. Beyond the obvious questions that you'd expect when taking on a challenge like this, such as 'where am I going to find local meat?' and 'how am I going to survive without chocolate', after only three days I've found myself asking other questions, such as:

'Is eating locally, sustainably raised meat really worse for the environment than eating a diet that is, perhaps, void of meat but full of processed foods and foods that have been shipped from distant fields?'

'How many meals do I really need to eat each day?'

'What is my body telling me about my changing diet, now that I'm eating way more meat and no refined sugars, and minimal gluten?'

Yes, it's most definitely been an interesting few days. My first day, Sunday, I decided to go for a 10k run before eating anything. Or maybe I did have an apple, but not my usual oatmeal breakfast that's for sure! I got through the run, had my almond milk shake (as per my rule, the almond milk was 'stocked food' that I'd brought with me to Vermont). Then, mid-afternoon I decided to dive into making something out of the local ground pork I'd purchased at the co-op the day before. I quickly decided to make burgers - tossed in some onions, spices, an egg and some local, homemade garden ketchup, pattied them up and put them in the oven to bake. About 20 minutes later the fire alarm went off. Oops - so much fat was jumping out of the baking dish I was rather taken aback. I can't recall the last time I'd cooked anything with so many fat drippings. I topped it with some onion and more homemade ketchup, made a nice garden salad with it and then dug in. Wow. The burger was soooo delicious - I think this was partly because the meat was juicy and full of flavor, partly b/c that ketchup I bought as so yum!

In the evening I went to Vermont's state capital, Montpelier, to meet up with a cohort in the local food movement (yes, I need friends!). We enjoyed a pint of local, organic beer at the Langdon St. Cafe, then he needed to grab a bite to eat. I wasn't the least bit hungry and didn't want to burden him with finding a place that served local food in any case, so I watched him eat. Then we went to another bar and I enjoyed a local(ish) chocolate stout. Woohoo ! Myth # 1 debunked - You can 'go local' and still have your chocolate...and in alcoholic form nonetheless!

Yesterday, I headed to Burlington at noon, enjoying a leftover pork burger and salad just before I headed out on my trip. My afternoon was spent meeting folks at UVM - the university has been collaborating with Hardwick's Center for an Agricultural Economy on several local food projects. Two of the staff members took me for a tour of the Intervale - 350 acres of farmland in the city limits (adjacent to the unviersity) that have been preserved in a land trust and that serve to feed residents of the city through various means. There are community garden plots, a number of CSA operations, incubator farms, small scale farms. I even saw pigs on one piece of land!

In the evening I hung out with a self-proclaimed clean energy geek that showed me around town (on bikes of course!), then took me to a pizza place called American Flatbread with a twist - all the doughs are made from organic wheat and the restaurant endeavours to source its ingredients from local and/or organic suppliers. Close enough for me to be acceptable, given the circumstances. We shared the vegetarian special which had a potato leek sauce. Also enjoyed some beer brewed on the premises. Next, my new friend took me to a meeting he was attending of the Burlington Permaculture group. Seriously, I should be living in this city!! To round out the evening, I did some grocery shopping at the City Market, a co-op grocery store with a full line of foods.

Today, as I've already related, I made meatballs, or Holsteinballs, as I've decided to call them after my accidental viewing of the alive version of my meal. Dinner was rice pasta (also from stocked food), which was a last resort after I searched the town high and low for spaghetti squash (this was why I'd ventured down Pumpkin Lane in the first place!), with organic marinara sauce, meatballs and salad. Lunch was a pork burger and salad. Breakfast was a protein shake.

OK, so clearly I'm not a purist, but my diet has changed significantly nonetheless over the past few days and already I've noticed some very interesting things

First, I've been waay less hungry/inclined to eat than usual. I'm not sure why this is - I suspect it's because I've cut sugars and most carbs out of my diet (partly b/c this locav-or-ganic deems that necessary, partly b/c I've been reading up on the GI Diet, Primal Diet, etc.), while at the same time increased my 'happy' meat consumption significantly.

Secondly, I enjoy eating meat. I didn't think I did for a long time, so my dinners were often tofu stir-frys, omelettes and the like. Now that I'm eating more meat, I find myself looking forward to trying new recipes out and so far I've been rewarded with delicious meals!

Thirdly, I'm not sure I'm spending more money, overall, than I would be if I was eating my normal diet. This is partly b/c I am not eating as much for lack of hunger, and partly because I'm not going to grocery stores and picking up items I don't need. However, I have also made the observation that my 1.25 lbs of ground pork cost me $8.00. Not sure how that compares to conventional meat here in the States, but I made four burgers from that meat, and think $2 for one serving of meat is pretty decent. If I were to guess, I'd say the salad and other ingredients for my burger and meal were approximately $2 , so....$4 for a meal does not seem v. expensive to me.

In a nutshell, I am thoroughly enjoying this new locav-or-ganic experience tremendously. I've previously dubbed it a challenge, but the truth is that it is really a remarkable opportunity - an opportunity for me to try new recipes, to meet the people (and cows) who make it possible for me to eat daily, to try new food and drink, to listen more closely to my body and give it things that make it feel good, to visit unique grocery stores and restaurants, and to become more engaged and connected with every meal I prepare. I'm looking forward to more adventures in local food and am SO glad that I am temporarily living in Vermont, which is far ahead of the the rest of the States and Canada with respect to developing its local food systems!

Below are the before and after pictures of my sustainable & local Holsteinballs meal.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Girl Gone Locav-or-ganic

Well, technically the title of this post should be 'Girl Going Locav-or-ganic', because, despite having spent the past year immersing myself in the scholarly and popular literature concerned with local food and preaching the tenents of 'going local' to anyone that would listen to me, the truth is I have been, by and large, a hypocrite. Here's my story....until now:

Baby Steps
I've spent most of my food dollars over the past year on imported fruits & vegetables and industrialized cuts of meat at the Food Basics that is a five minute walk from my house in Kingston, Ontario. Of course I visited the farmer's market every Saturday and some weekdays too, but the purchases I made there were minimal in comparison to those I made at chain grocery stores. This summer I became a loca-veg-ore, which is to say that I sourced about 95% of my vegetables from the community garden plot I co-tended and a local CSA operation (Vegetables Unplugged) on Wolfe Island, where I worked three hours a week in exchange for a week's worth (often more than one person could eat) of delicious, organically grown vegetables. And I did tend towards vegetarianism during the months of August and September, purely in an effort to minimize wastage from thes two local sources of food, which didn't always have a long shelf life. Still, the fact is that I continued to buy the rest of my food from the store - my bananas, salad dressings, tofu, chicken, rice, quinoa, raisins, etc. And I rarely, if ever, chose the oranic option, party b/c Food Basics doesn't carry the broadest range of food options (i.e. organic was hard to come by) but mostly because I've become disillusioned about industrial organic and find myself almost as skeptical of large organic brands as I am of Wal-Mart's claim that it's going green (green consumerism seems rather oxmoronical to me, but perhaps that's just me).

Which Weigh to Go?
In addition to studying up on local food systems as of late, I've also been reading much more about nutrition for personal interest.

I've decided that there must be something I've been missing in my attempts to slim down in the past, because I definitely, definitely exercise more than the vast majority of people and, for the most part, eat unprocessed, healthy foods in reasonable portions. A visit to a holistic nutritionist in June was the beginning of a wide awakening to the amount of contradictory information that is, literally, being fed to the public . She suggested, as a start, that I eliminate gluten and dairy from my diet, eat organic whenever possible and take supplements (whey protein, greens and fish oil). All of this after she reviewed my current eating diary and told me it was much, much better than the average person's ?! OK, so apparently I've been eating better than most people, but still can't seem to shed the weight

On top of that, every time I read another book or see a film about food, I find myself sickened by the thought of eating 'sick' meat and eggs (sick because the animals that they come from are treated inhumanely from birth until death and injected with endless antibiotics to keep them from dying from the ill treatment and improper diet they are receiving). Then there's the poison-laced fruits and vegetables (hey, if pesticides are meant to kill insects, I'm a bit wary about what they're doing to my internal organs), and the genetically modified grains (e.g. corn, soy), not to mention the highly processed food-like products that are more a product of modern chemistry than of the ancient, mysterious wisdom of Mother nature.

Eyes or No-Eyes? 'Eye' Don't Know :(
To top it all off, I find myself utterly confused as to whether a vegetarian or omnivore diet is better for the planet and for my health. And, within the omnivore diet, is it better to avoid grains and other foods that are, essentially, a product of mankind's relatively recent forays into agriculture. I've come across some pretty convincing arguments that suggest a diet rich in protein, vegetables and fats is far better for the individual than a diet that contains processed grains (i.e. flours,), sugars and is low in fats.

A Locav-or-ganic Emerges

I am not ready to give up meat yet. This is not because I am a meat-lover. In fact, a much greater proportion of my current meals are vegetarian or some variant thereof (not clear on what you call someone who eats eggs a lot...). There are two reasons I'm not ready to give up meat First, I have yet to be convinced that a vegetarian diet is superior or even comparable to an omnivore diet. Recently I interviewed a young farmer/activist who had been a vegan and then started to get involved in local food movements and found himself swayed towards eating meat (locally produced of course). Secondly, I am not so sure that a vegetarian diet (eaten in Canada) is necessarily less harmful to the planet than an omnivore diet that consists of meat raised in natural conditions. Polyface Farms and its owner, Joe Salatin, make a strong argument for the need for livestock as part of a closed system of agriculture.

So, with the decision about meat vs. vegetarianism made, the 'what next' for my diet has become pretty clear: I have to start eating what I preach, I have to 'go local and organic'. I have to make a commitment to ensuring the vast majority of the food I put in my body is produced/raised manner that is sustainable and healthful for all involved - for the planet (land, soil, water, air, biodiversity etc), for the livestock being raised, for the producers/farmers and farm workers, for the local communities where the food is produced, and for the health of those that choose to eat it.

I know myself well enough to know that any sort of purist commitment will be too much to bear when I can't commit the entirety of my energy to this new way of eating, so instead of going 100% local, I am giving myself a couple of caveats.

  • Firstly, if (and only if) I can't find something that I am absolutey craving (e.g. a banana for my morning shake) from a local source, I will buy the organic version. That being said, I do intend to let the season dictate my eating choices for the most part, but I suspect I'll have some challenges with breakfast and that's where the organic option will likely be a saving grace.
  • Secondly, I'll allow myself to use up the existing foods I have, regardless of their source. It should be noted, however, that I've just moved, so have very little food stocked, althogh I did bring about 10 cartons of almond milk with me, as well as a jar of whey protein, bottle of fish oil, bag of pecans and bag of rolled oats.
  • Thirdly, I'm still going to use salt, pepper and other spices. Like I said, I'm not a purist
  • Finally, if I am served a non-local meal at someone's house or taken to a restaurant where non-local food is the only option, I'm OK with that. When I make a dining out choice, however, it will always be for a local/organic restaurant
So, in summary, I'm planning to go Local or Organic, hence the witty merging of the words Locavore and Organic :)

Lucky for me, I came to this conclusion about my future food diet at around the same time (today, in fact!!!) I landed in Hardwick, Vermont. How is that lucky? Well, it just so happens that Vermont has been cited, by Michael Pollan nonetheless, as being 30 years ahead of the rest of the nation in terms of the development of its local food system. Hardwick, a small village of 3,000 people in the Northeastern Kingdom,is one of two locations I've selected to do my case study research on for my Masters thesis. There is an extremely strong sense of community here (based on my impressions from a 14 hour visit I made earlier this month), plenty of producers in the surrounding countryside, and some great in-town sources of local food that I know I will be frequenting often, including Buffalo Mountain Co-operative (local and organic groceries) and Claire's Cafe (locally sourced, absolutely delicious meals at reasonable prices).

So, without further adieu, I enter a new chapter in my relationship with food. I am hopeful, bordering on confident, that this burgeoning relationship will bring me more enjoyment, energy and positive challenges than any past relationship has. I'll check in on a semi-regular basis with how things are going - the good, the frustrating, and the delicious.

*First local/organic meal consumed while writing this post. 3 egg omelette (eggs purchsed at farmer's market in Bangor, ME, en route to VT), raw milk cheddar cheese (NE Kingdom, VT), spinach (farmer's market, Bangor, ME), organic mushrooms (Pennsylvania), tomato (farmer's market Bangor, ME), carrot (farmer's market, Bangor, ME) and red onion (farmer's market, Bangor, ME)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Battle of Breakfasts on Marathon Day

This past Sunday I successfully completed my first half marathon! I’d been training since April and was rewarded with a better-than-expected finish time and the jubilation that comes with completing a challenge that you may have had doubts you could accomplish at some points along the way. While following John Stanton’s training program (from his book ‘Running), I also committed myself to eating a very healthy diet in the four months leading up to the marathon – this meant abstaining from alcohol and sweets, focusing more on my protein intake and generally eating for energy only. Well, over the four months, I had varying degrees of success with my commitment to eating well and not drinking – there were successive weeks where I drank not a sip of wine or ate any candy, but there were also a few weeks where I boozed it up big time and indulged in chocolate.

Right, well, in any case, as per the subject of this blog, by the time the BIG day finally arrived, I’d spent enough time studying nutrition books and reading advice from running books to know, with pretty high confidence, the answer to that burning question - ‘what should I have for breakfast?’ I was surprised, therefore, when I discovered what my newly minted friend, Tarek, planned to eat for breakfast before he ran the full marathon, given that this was to be his third time running 42 kms. So here’s an account of what each of us ate and our rationale for doing so. Let us know what you think.

A big thank you to Tarek, my first ever guest blogger!!!


The night before I was going to run a marathon my friend asked me what I was going to have for breakfast. After I told her she gave me a look of shock and mild disgust.
“Why not some oatmeal or porridge, or something healthy” she barked. Apparently she had issues with my store brand Nutrigain bars and cheese and crackers, and once she found it was Cheese N’ Crackers, not crackers and real cheese, I thought she might actually get up at 6am and make me a breakfast!

I’m actually thankful she didn’t. I would love to have someone make breakfast for me any other day but not on race day, plus I wasn’t a fan of anything she suggested. Runners are always told not do anything different around race day, so I did what I normally do, have a few beer before bed. In the mornings I rarely eat breakfast so eating anything, and eating anything that early is more than enough change for me. I like to keep it simple; easy to digest carbs and by the time the gun goes off I am ready to run and every 10km I took a GU (pronounced Goo) Gel.

For some reason Shannon didn’t say anything about my gels, maybe she felt she shouldn’t since she had criticized my breakfast already, or maybe she thought that since I was the experienced runner I knew what I was doing. To be honest, I have no idea why I take these gels. No one has ever told me I should, for some I reason I felt like I should, and during all 3 of my marathons I’ve done the same thing, taken one every 10km and chased it down with water. I’ll probably eat the same thing for breakfast next year too. It’s not like I eat Nutrigain bars or Cheese N’ Crackers often, the last time was probably last year before the 2008 marathon. I’m preparing to run 42km and burn over 3500 calories. I think my body handle whatever I put into it that morning, even if it is “crap” (ok she may not have called it that but I’m sure she was thinking it).

Let’s take a look at what was in my breakfast:
Two Our Compliments version of a Nutrigain bar (I’m actually using what’s in a Nutrigain bar, I’m assuming that they’re both pretty much the same):
• 130 calories per bar
• 3 grams of fat per bar
• 24 grams of carbohydrates (12g being sugar, 2g being fiber)
• 100 mg of sodium
• 2 grams of protein

It also contains:
• whole grain rolled oats
• enriched flour
• modified corn starch
• high fructose corn syrup
• Niacinamide (???)
• Guar Gum (???)

Two servings of Kraft Handi-Snacks Cheese N’ Crackers (a serving is on package of 4 or 5 crackers and a small ‘pocket’ of “cheese”):
• 100 calories
• 6 grams of fat per serving
• 11 grams of carbohydrates (3g being sugar, and no fiber)
• 360 mg of sodium
• 2 grams of protein

It also contains
• modified milk ingredients
• whey powder
• soybean oil
• hydrogenated cottonseed oil
• papain (???)
• TBHQ (that can’t even be a word, there are no vowels in it and that’s how it’s listed on the ingredients)

I’m not sure what was in the gel and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t recognize many of the ingredients. I barely recognized any from the cereal bar and cheese and crackers.

So after running for 3hrs 30mins and 24secs I crossed the finish line and went on to have chocolate cake (made by Shannon from scratch, including the frosting), beer, wine, whiskey, deep fried appetizers and probably some other stuff. Do I feel bad about eating and drinking all that? Not in the slightest. I just ran a marathon I can eat whatever I want, for a day.


I wasn’t really worried about what I was going to eat for breakfast the day of the half marathon. I knew from the literature that the meals you ate the day before the marathon were more important. I’d made an effort to include protein in my lunch and dinner, and to minimize my intake of any wheat or dairy products. Dinner the night before was a salmon steak (grilled), a baked potato and garden salad - a pretty clean dinner. When I saw Tarek drinking beer, I decided I could treat myself to a few candies that I’d picked up at the Bulk Barn for the post-race celebrations. I tried to keep hydrated with lots of water that evening as well.

After dinner, talk turned to the marathon, of course, and I nonchalantly asked Tarek what he was planning to eat the next morning (actually I think I asked him earlier in the afternoon, but for the story’s sake we’ll pretend I asked after dinner). When he told me he was having Nutri-grain bars and cheese & crackers I cringed. Processed, wheat heavy foods along with dairy - precisely the things my holistic nutritionist had suggested I cut out of my diet complete a few months prior. I just didn’t see how these foods, which I presumed would be high in sugars and high on the Glycemic Index, would get him through 42 kilometres and not cause his stomach a bit of grief. And yes, yes I did think he was feeding his body ‘crap’. I made no comments re: his gel plan because I have no clue whatsoever about gels and would therefore not be inclined to dish out advice about something that I have no clue about. I only give out advice on things I think I know something about (think being the key word!)

I asked (maybe I demanded) an explanation for this choice. His lame-o response was that he doesn’t usually eat breakfast, and didn’t want to have anything oily. OK, OK, I can agree with not having eggs and bacon, but just because you don’t have breakfast regularly isn’t reason to feed your body poorly on the day you want it to perform at its peak. Clearly Tarek’s business schooling had taught him a different incentives method than mine - the stick versus the carrot (no pun intended)! His second line of defense was that his chosen breakfast was convenient – my protestations that a bowl of cereal and a banana would be just as quick fell on deaf ears. Personally I think he just wanted to relive some childhood attachment to that cheese and cracker combo. I mean who doesn’t love to spread cheese with a little red, plastic stick?

My breakfast choice, I surmised, was much better and just as convenient as his. In line with what I’d been reading about the Glycemic Index and the advice of my nutritionist, I opted to start my morning off with a bowl of oatmeal. I’d discovered that instant oatmeal is a high GI food (processing will do that!), so had the large flake oats. This low GI food would take a long time to digest, the sugars would be released slowly and it would keep me satiated for the entire race. I added some homemade raspberry jam (mom’s) and pecans to the oatmeal. To give me a bit more energy, I had an almond milk smoothie. I made sure to have the unsweetened vanilla almond milk and added half a banana and a scoop of frozen blueberries. Yum!

My breakfast was pretty quick. All in all, my oatmeal took 1min40secs (you can still nuke the large flakes) and my shake took about a minute to prepare and blend.

Here are the basic nutrient facts of my breakfast

Robin Hood Oatmeal (1/3 cup)

Calories – 150
Fat – 2.5g
Sodium – 4mg
Fibre – 4g
Sugars – 1g

Ingredients – 100% prairie grown oats

Raspberry Jam (1 TBSP)

PEI raspberries, jam

Pecans (1 TBSP)

Approx. 100 cals for jam and pecans

Almond Milk

Calories – 40
Fat – 3g
Sodium - 180 mg
Sugars – 0g
Protein – 1g

Ingredients – Purified water, almonds, tapioca starch, natural vanilla flavor, calcium carbonate, sea salt, potassium citrate and soy lechtin

½ Banana

50 cals

Scoop of Blueberries

50 cals

And that is what I had on the day of my half marathon. As close to the source as possible, as low in sugar as possible, and very, very much in line with what I have every other day of the week. In fact, it’s exactly what I eat every other morning of the week! Sometimes I don’t have the shake until after I’ve gone for a jog, but that’s the only difference.

Yes, after the race we all gorged on carbs and beer and more carbs. I made a chocolate cake – I’d rather know what ingredients are in something than take a guess at what the store bought version has. Plus, my cakes always taste better!

I can’t argue with Tarek that AFTER the race we deserved some indulgence, but I do think that eating a healthy breakfast every day is important and especially so on a day when you are going to be challenging your body physically. A healthy breakfast is important and it doesn’t have to take long to prepare or eat. Plus, I reckon my breakfast tasted better than Tarek’s.

In the picture below, Tarek (left), myself and another runner (Devin) have our cake and eat it too!!