Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Second Helping of American Thanksgiving

Writer's note: I started this blog post a month ago, then Christmas hit. Apologies for tardiness in completing it!

It's been exactly one year since I left Vermont, a state I was fortunate enough to call 'home' for five weeks in the fall of 2009 as I carried out my field research on the local food movement taking place in a tiny, down-and-out town called Hardwick. Truly in the 'attic' of America, I came to realize very quickly that Vermont is like no other place I'd ever been in the States. Indeed, it was like no other place I'd ever been in any of my travels. I briefly considered taking up permanent residence in a treehouse I'd discovered while wandering through town, but resigned myself to the fact that I was not meant to live in a tree, particularly in such a northerly climate. So, after a most memorable American Thanksgiving dinner with new friends, I begrudingly drove my Echo north to the Quebec border and promised myself I'd return to this magical place soon.

And I did. I returned just over a month later, just in time to welcome in 2010 (by a mere 6 hours!). I spent 4 days enjoying Vermont again, as 32 inches of snow blanketed the city of Burlington. Then, again, I had to return to Canada. Back to the reality of my thesis and the tremendous amount of work ahead of me.

I determined that I'd be ready to defend my thesis by September and would visit Vermont just prior to my oral examination in order to pick up some bonafide local food for my defense and catch up with the people I'd been so fortunate to meet while living in Hardwick. But, of course, life happens and things like finishing a thesis become secondary to important distractions such as summer patio drinking, Facebook, and the Steak Man (if there were a disacknowledgements section in my thesis, I daresay these three might make the grade!).

September arrived and I was still writing my thesis. I had a minor panic attack. My procrastinating ways were going to cost me major $$. A whole more semester's worth of tuition to be precise. So I started writing frantically and re-scheming how I could best organize my defense date to fit in with a visit to Vermont. As luck and timing would have it, it seemed I'd be ready to defend by the end of November. I smell smoked turkey and a rematch of street hockey?

Yes, that's right, I made it back to Vermont for a second American Thanksgiving with Joe, Maura, Charles, Holly, et al (there were, I believe, 15 of us at dinner). Here's the whole turkey tale:

It was 4pm on the eve of Thanksgiving by the time I found my way into the heart of downtown Burlington. I'd been driving for two days. It turns out PEI is a far distance from the rest of civilization. Why, it's even a 7-hour drive to Maine...and Maine hardly counts as civilization. I was early for dinner plans with Joe, Maura, and Phil, so I did what any Canadian would do with spare time in the States - I shopped. It was great, because the stores were really quiet. Why shop on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when you can wait until Black Friday and risk getting trampled to death in order to save 20% off something that's overpriced to begin with and that you clearly don't need?

I spent the majority of my shopping dollars on food/wine (surprise surprise), and picked up a few gifts including one for me (b/c every girl deserves a little luxury), then met up with my good Vermont friends. We finally sat down to dinner at around 8 (apparently no one likes to cook for themselves on the eve of Thanksgiving) at The Farmhouse, a former McDonald's that had been converted into a trendy resto serving up 'homey' meals sourced from local farmers.I love how in VT, the McDonald's gives way to a super popular restaurant that serves local food. I opted for the pork burger, which was topped with an egg. It was delicious, and the company was great. Joe kept saying 'you must be so excited about your thesis' to the point that I actually became excited about the fact that I had finished writing and was about to defend. To be honest, I'd not really stopped to breathe and take in the fact that I had reached a semi-notable milestone in my academic journey.

After a delectable dinner at The Farmhouse (below, see picture of my meal, a pork burger topped with a fried egg – yum!), we retired to Joe & Maura’s home. Maura had passed up dinner so she could prep for Thanksgiving. Joe and I found her in the kitchen making magic with onions and leeks. More beverages and conversation ensued then it was off to bed. A big day lay ahead.

We didn’t leave for Charles and Holly’s until 3.00. This gave Joe and I plenty of time to discuss the challenge of making the tennis balls used for street hockey heavier and less bouncy. The previous year Joe’s solution had been to fill the balls with caulk, but, as we discovered, the caulky balls didn’t hold up under constant stick action. The end result was balls leaking with caulk. Clearly, we didn’t want a repeat of this incident. Joe had surmised that the caulk and ball plan could only be executed if there were a way to seal the caulk in and ensure the seal stayed. We tossed around a few ideas, but nothing seemed likely to work, so we gave up and watched some football on T.V. I really think the Americans got the short-end of the stickwhen it comes to unofficial national sports – hockey is way more entertaining than American football.

Just like last year, we swung round to pick up Harold. He came out carrying his fiddle case and big cookie sheet with a huge oval shaped pastry on it. Evidently it was his second attempt of the day at making his father’s salmon casserole recipe. The thing was massive; more than one salmon had most definitely been sacrificed. We arrived at Charles and Holly’s house. The hockey ‘rink’ had been upgraded since the past year with a real backboard to keep Joe’s balls from flying into the street.

The drinking began in earnest. I was briefly reminded of a Sunday meal I’d enjoyed in the south of France with my friend, Sarah, where her boyfriend’s grandfather insisted I do a shot of strong liquor at noon, in preparation for the four hours of eating that would follow. I am simply not capable of such copious amounts of alcohol and food consumption. But I tried my best to keep up with the Americans and, admittedly, did find myself quite enamored with the smoked sausage that Maura and Charles had made at Penny Cluse. Harold’s salmon casserole was also divine, and Joe’s meat dip was also quite tasty.

We wiled away the afternoon eating and drinking, as more and more guests arrived and hugs were doled out. Some of the faces were familiar, others were new. Eventually, driveway hockey commenced. Alas, my game skills had not improved with age and I made neither any goals nor any assists. I did, however, get kudos from Charles for my enthusiasm. Yay for enthusiasm!!!

Dinner was served at six, with thirteen people sitting down around a long table adorned with countless side dishes including creamed onions, sweet potato casserole, brussel sprouts, mashed potatoes, and so on and so forth. Bellies were stuffed to the brim, then it was back to the drinking.

To be more specific about the drinking, Joe had brought a huge bottle of Whistlepig Straight Rye Whiskey with him. He and another guest were raving about it. It was apparently bottled at a Vermont distillery and had been awarded the highest ever rating for a rye whiskey by the Wine Enthusiast (I have no idea why the Wine Enthusiast would be rating whiskey, but apparently it was a big deal). Now, here’s the really interesting part….apparently this distillery is quite new and hasn’t actually been around long enough to age its own 10-year old whisky….so the distillery purchased the whisky from a producer, then bottled and labeled it with its own Whistlepig label (all legally, of course). And you’ll never guess where that whisky producer was located. Yes, that’s right, the Whistlepig Whiskey was, in fact, from a Quebec distillery. Just one more example of the Americans taking some thing Canadian, relabeling it and marketing it as their own. First it was basketball they claimed as an American sport, then they tried to stake claim on the telephone (invented by a Scotsman living in Nova Scotia), and now they’re staking claim on our whiskey. When will this madness stop???

Joe smashing ice to pair with the "American" whiskey (see photo to right). This picture is just amazing b/c of the transparency of the skillet - it makes no sense.

At any rate, the evening wound down with The Word Game. I won. No surprise there, I was playing with Americans after all.

We made our way back to Joe and Maura’s house, and I went to bed, spent from a most wonderful American Thanksgiving. As I drifted off to sleep, I thought about how fortunate I have been to have encountered such kind and interesting people on my journeys throughout the years. Vermont has and always will hold a special place in my heart, because it is where I finally came to fully know what it means to be part of a community. That still resonates with me, and as I look to the future, I find myself driven to be a part of building community in the place I’ve chosen to call home – this little island on the east coast of Canada. And I truly hope some of my Vermont friends will visit me on PEI, I am certain they would love it here (in the summer).

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Best. Steak. Ever.

In life, there is steak and then there is STEAK. Yes, that's right, the capitalization of the second version makes all the difference in the world.

This past weekend I had STEAK of the Porterhouse variety and it was, as the title suggests, the Best.Steak.Ever. It's possible, however, in my assessment of this particular steak, that I am also considering other elements of the dinner that made it absolutely delightful. There was, for example, the yummy side of mixed vegetables that had been slow-cooked, along with the steak, on the BBQ at low heat. Oh, and of course, the appertif to the meal included aged cheddar cheese and red pepper jelly from Riverview Country Market (highly recommended). The PEI Liquor Commission recently saw the light and started stocking OPEN Gwertz-Riesling (a Niagara wine), which also made everything taste particularly sweet and lovely. But if I had to pinpoint the one thing that made this particular steak dinner the best I've ever enjoyed, it wasn't even an edible component. Indeed, it was the man who made the meal and then sat down to enjoy it with me.

I love it when a man offers to cook for me (it doesn't happen often). And when he makes an amazing meal, even better. But I have to admit that even if the steaks had been burnt I'd still be quite over the moon about the meal because, well, I suppose I must confess to being enamored (I say this in full knowledge that he will be reading this post and, quite possibly, other members of his family too!). That's right, in the most unlikely of places (PEI), when I *really* wasn't expecting it, I found myself in the company of someone I wanted to get to know more. A lot more.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Rewind a few weeks to a rainy Sunday evening, post-10 km race and I find myself sitting at the Olde Triangle with the Steak Man (if you're wondering what his real name is, think Skywalker...or a dog's name...). Despite being in a state of exhaustion from running in the a.m. (mostly related to the fact that I had to get up at an ungodly hour, rather than the actual run itself), I was excited to be on this date. First, it meant I could indulge in an alcoholic beverage. About six weeks prior I'd promised myself that I would only drink alcohol if I were on a date, and the only other guy I'd been on dates with didn't drink (clearly, that was doomed from the outset). But it wasn't *just* because I could drink that I was looking forward to this date, I also had an intuition I'd enjoy this person's company. My intuition rarely steers me wrong. We stayed at the bar until they started stacking the chairs.

He suggested dinner the following weekend. We ended up at Rum Runners on Water Street upon his recommendation - he insisted I would not be disappointed. I had a feeling I might be underwhelmed by the food, based on reviews from friends and family, but I really didn't care in the least. In the end, we both found the food disappointing, but it didn't put any sort of damper on the evening at all. I was delighted to be drinking wine (yet again) with Steak Man, in a cozy pub where all the servers spoke with lovely British accents.

After the RR date, it was evident we were both inclined to set a third one. I determined that I would impress him with my stellar cooking skills. Or so I thought. Except that I neglected to follow the golden rule when making dinner for someone: Never, ever try something new in the kitchen. Pffft, I thought to myself, such advice is only for kitchen novices! Clearly I should use this as an opportunity to cook up the massive free-range chicken I have to pick up the day before. Truth be told, I really had no option but to cook that chicken, as there was no room in my freezer. But really, it might not have been the wisest decision to attempt roasting a 1o pound chicken on a Friday evening after work, especially given that I'd only ever roasted one other chicken in my entire life.

Unsurprisingly, dinner was late. Apparently it takes a few hours to cook a big bird. It also turns out that, in the absence of an electric knife, my carving skills are rather lacking. I had flashbacks to Grade 2, when Ms. Diezel wrote on my report card that I didn't know how to hold my scissors. To this day my sister still laughs at the way I handle them. Also, mental note for future - sometimes less is more, and more is just glue. Yes, I had the brilliant idea to tamper with Chef Michael Smith's recipe for brown butter mashed potatoes. All he wanted me to do was brown some butter and add it to the potatoes, then mash. Ah but I had to be 'creative' and pour in a bit of milk and, what the heck, some pure maple syrup too! I'm glad I had indulged in some Open by the time the bird came out of the oven, as I was able to partially blame the mini-disasters of the evening on the alcohol I'd consumed. Also, the Steak Man was a trooper and made his way through the gluey clump of mashed potatoes sitting on his plate. I like to think I redeemed myself with my old stand-by spinach salad and bananas foster dessert, both of which seemed well received (then again, he insisted the potatoes were good too, so I'm not sure where sincerity ended and sympathy began). In any case, I daresay the evening was a success despite minor setbacks in the kitchen because he insisted that the next dinner would be made by him.

Which brings us to the aforementioned steak dinner of this past Friday, which, it should be noted, was a particularly blustery, dark, and rainy one. The steaks had been soaking in Innis & Gunn beer all day (!). He told me they were big. I figured he was exaggerating, as men are want to do when it suits, but he wasn't. These steaks reminded me of the ones that some restaurants feature along with a challenge 'if you can eat this steak in under an hour, you eat for free!). So I took a picture (see below), and then took my first bite. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Apparently I make my appreciation of food well-known to fellow diners. I figure it's an important part of sharing the eating experience and make no apologies for my enthusiasm. It was entirely warranted in this case.

And that is how I came to have the best.steak.ever.

It seems this blog post has become more than a tale of two steaks, but that’s not surprising. Rarely is a food experience limited to the pleasures (or disasters!) that end up on the dinner plate. I look forward to more BBQs with Steak Man (don't worry, I will find a better pseudonym for him, I just lack the wit right now) and hope I semi-redeemed myself the following evening when I brought over lamb sliders stuffed with chevre and bacon.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Duck, Duck, Goose

I'm sitting here on my comfy red microfibre couch. It's 11.30 p.m. on a Thursday evening. The calendar tells me it's October 28th, but the breeze blowing in from the window is deceivingly summer-ish and my thermostat reads 24.5, despite my attempts to cool the place to 21 degrees.

Life is good.

Earlier this evening I had dinner with four of the most wonderful people I've been blessed to have in my life. Did I say dinner? I meant to say dinner and wine. Oh, yes, wonderful wine. And when my company departed for their respective homes in the countryside, I was left with a bit of wine 'energy' , alone in my apartment. Clearly I had to remedy this situation immediately. So I called Keri, but she was 'watching tv with Andrew'. Then I called Jen, but she already had 'uptown' plans. Finally, I called Katie, a newly found and fantastic friend. Turns out she was in the exact same predicament as me (drinking alone)...except she'd been baking since 5pm and needed someone to help her sample her pumpkin tarts. So I ditched my non-existent plans to thesis write, grabbed a half empty bottle of wine and hopped on my bike. Did I mention I LOVE living downtown?! It's true, I haven't been able to maximize the luxury of being in the 'Tribeca' of Charlottetown, but on occasions such as tonight's, I'm so very glad to live in town. On a somewhat related note, I went three whole weeks before I needed to fill my Echo gas tank!!

Anyways, tonight was great - from dinner to biking through downtown Ch'town to pumpkin tarts with Katie, but here's the best part: tonight is not an anomaly, rather tonight is representative of what PEI has been like since I returned in June. Yes, I daresay PEI has exceeded my greatest expectations, especially since Labour Day. I mean, really, we all know how fantastic an Island summer is, but it can be deceivingly so, especially with an endless stream of 'friends from away' returning home, visitors coming to check the East Coast out, and tonnes of great festivals, etc. to enjoy. Normally, however, Labour Day is supposed to mark the end of this illusion and one must prepare for hibernation. Except, erm, that hasn't happened. Since Labour Day I've been meeting loads of fantastic people, many of whom share my passion for food and there's been plenty to occupy the hours of the day and night. Of equal importance, I finally feel settled. It's been a long time coming, five months to be precise. Finally, I have a job, I have a place to call my own, I have a great group of friends, new and old, and I am closing in on the submission of my thesis.

Yes, I am most definitely glad I decided to come home.

(PS - it turns out my writing is not improved after wine consumption..)

Monday, September 06, 2010

This Vagabond Life

I am moving again.This move is not across time zones, only the Hills borough bridge - from Stratford to Charlottetown. I am, nevertheless, filled with that familiar mix of anxiety and excitement that always accompanies transition.


I turned 30 last month. And while I won't deny that I entered my fourth decade with a smidgen of trepidation, a good dollop of indulgent self-criticism and far too many glasses of gwertz, in the end it was just another birthday. No more or less defining of who I am than any other day.

But I have been thinking a lot about change lately, about transition and transformation. Right now, at this very moment in time, my life seems to be in limbo. Nothing is ever certain, of that I am aware, but to be in such a state of flux that you feel utterly paralyzed is hard on the mind, the soul and the body. Case in point, over the past three weeks I have managed to pack on five pounds. I am not sure how, as I've not been overly gluttonous. I have thus concluded that the stress I can feel pulsing through my veins is literally weighing me down. It's weighing down my body and my spirit. I have reached a point where I am literally craving some certainty (or the closest thing to it), a routine, some mundane-ness. I find myself overly preoccupied with knowing what the future holds for me, worrying that the decisions I make now will have repercussions I cannot foresee.

This has been my story for the past eight years - I have been a vagabond, ceaselessly moving from place to place and job to job, regularly throwing myself into the unknown with hopes that I will find new truths about life, the world, myself. This vagabond life has served me well. I am stronger and happier for having taken the long way round.

But when I moved back to PEI in May it was because I knew I needed familiarity and there is nothing that compares to the sense of comfortable belonging that I feel when I am on the Island.
And yet, here I am, three months after my return home and I am still not settled. Stability eludes me. Perhaps it is not meant to be, perhaps I am meant to continue this vagabond life. Or maybe I just need to be patient, stop worrying, and let it be.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Farewell Food

The past three weeks have been ridiculously hectic for me, as I transition from life in Kingston, Ontario to life in Prince Edward Island. It didn't help that it was mostly the month of May, also known as 'The Time When Canadians Come Out of Winter Hibernation'. So after four months squirreled away in 'my' house out in the country, I found myself quite abruptly plopped back into life in the bustling metropolis of downtown Kingston, where fellow grad students were up for any sort of distraction from looming theses and celebrating the end of the school year (no more TAing, yay!!).

Suffice to say that, between celebrating the return of warmth and starting the drawn out process of farewells, I have eaten a lot of food. Here are some of the highlights from the last two weeks of my time in Kingston:

Erin's Birthday BBQ Bash - I told Erin I was planning to bring some steaks courtesy of the cut of local cow I'd purchased back in January. I communicated my Bring Your Own Beef plan via the Facebook event wall, and apparently people were quite interested in my steaks. When I arrived, Erin was quite excited and announced 'the local cow has arrived!!'. Um. Erm. Awkward.

Au Pied de Cochon
- What's the furthest distance you've traveled just to have dinner (to the parents at Christmas does not count)? I think I made a new personal record when I set out on the road with Crystal, Matt & Emily for Montreal, where we had made a reservation at Au Pied de Cochon. English Translation: Pig's Feet. I'd become quite obsessed with visiting this restaurant after it had been recommended to me by Joe (of Vermont) and a number of other foodie friends. Apparently the owner/chef, Martin Picard, also has a television show about food, The Wild Chef, but I was oblivious. Regardless, Crystal, my foodie friend, and I had decided awhile ago that we HAD to go to PDC before I lef for PEI. So we drove the three hours, with Crystal's husband, Matt, kindly volunteering to be our sober driver.

To whet our appetite for dinner, we decided to check out the Jean Tallon market. I'd made a promise to myself not to over indulge at the market, since there were precious few (3) hours before our dinner. Luckily, as I'd been in Montreal only a week and a half previous, I was able to fight off many a temptation. The four of us did share the most delectable serving of fried calamari and I ordered a couple of maple-syrup based treats for after dinner (including, as it turned out, the MOST delicious square that has ever touched my lips...made with walnuts, cookie base and maply syrup). I had an inkling none of my dining companions would be interested in dessert at PDC because there'd be no room left in their stomachs. I, on the other hand, had purchased a second stomach on the black market just for this occasion. It most certainly came in handy.

Arriving at PDC, I was surprised to find the restaurant is quite small. Apparently it was formerly a pizzeria, which explained the huge brick oven, lack of normal washroom facilities, and general narrowness of the establishment. Menus were handed round and we decided to share a couple of appetizers between us - a salad of sorts (not a normal one, of course) and a crepe (actually, it looked suspiciously like a pancake to me) with asparagus and egg. I am not doing the dishes justice AT ALL -they were both fantastically delicious and generous enough in quantity that all four of us were able to share. While PDC is well known for for its foie gras (there's even a foie gras poutine), duck-in-a-can and pig's feet, I opted for the PDC Melting Pot - a little bit of everything pig - black sausage, normal sausage, pulled pork, and pork chop, all sitting atop a divine serving of mashed potatoes. I could only eat half...even with that second stomach. No dessert was had and a three hour drive back to Kingston awaited us. It was worth it though, tenfold.

In the last week, excuses to eat ramped up quite a bit:

Crystal & Matt's House Warming BBQ -
Only three days after the PDC affair, I found myself eating and drinking with Crystal & Matt again. This time the venue was their new home in Gananoque, and the celebration was in honour of Matt's birthday (age not to be disclosed). It was a wonderful evening for a barbeque and Crystal had prepared quite the spread of food. There were two tiny pooches and one massive pooch also in attendance. I've determined the answer to that age-old question 'Are you a cat person or a dog person?'. I am most definitely a dog person. Besides the food and canine company, the evening was splendid because I got to hang out with Ana, Ben, Crystal, and Matt, as well as relatively new friend, Carl, and very new friend, Sarah.

You know what really bites (aside from mosquitoes off of Lake Ontario at dusk when you're trying to enjoy a juicy BBQ sausage)? Knowing you're going to be leaving a place that is full of wonderful, amazing friends. The kind of people you want to surround yourself with for life. That's tough.

Shannon's Meat Monday - I still had local beef and lamb left from January, when I bought a rather large amount of meat, and it was being stored at Suzie's parents' house, so with less than a week left in Kingston, I figured the only way to finish it up was to invite people over. So I invited some of my best old friends - Ana, Ben, Suzie and Kopka (the husky did not get a plate of meat), as well as some of my new friends - Cat, Matt and Carl. To be honest, I had an alterior motive for the dinner invitation, I was trying to friend-matchmake some of these wonderful people. I had an inkling they'd hit it off and I was right! Added bonus, the leg of lamb was absolutely divine and the mashed potatoes with skins left on were delectable.

Ana's Multi-Reason BBQ Potluck - What better night for a BBQ than a Tuesday evening? Ana is a fantastic person. Many people know that. Recently Queen's University's Faculty of Applied Science also recognized her amazingness and hired her! Reason enough to celebrate with friends, although Ana had to make sure there were other things to celebrate - like her sister's birthday and her dog's birthday. I made quinoa salad and chocolate cake. The potluck was hopping, everyone I'd hoped to see before I left was there. The evening flew by and, evidently, the wine flowed quit freely as well. Being a 'school night', the party wound down by around ten-ish. Emily and I decided we should go out on the town, which really meant going to the Iron Duke. She was drinking rum & coke and I decided to try to keep up with her even though I was drinking wine. NOT a good idea. At some point, my purse started to resemble a smiling face. The next day was a complete write-off. After very brief consideration, I determined I would have to delay my departure by a day since I'd effectively lost an entire day thanks to Pinot Grigio.

Thai in the Park - I vowed that before I left Kingston I'd make one last visit to the Wok-In, which is a little hole in the wall on Montreal Street that serves up the best Thai food in town. Don't be discouraged by the fact that it's located directly beside Shakers, Kingston's 'premiere' strip club; this little restaurant is worth going to the shady side of town for! Notably, I lived on the shady side of town already, so was never deterred by this. I wanted to say goodbye to Crystal and Emily without the hullabaloo of a party to distract us from important conversations (i.e. boys and the such), so at Ana's BBQ we made a plan to have take-away Thai in Park. Unbeknownst to me, word about our plan got around at the BBQ and by the end of the evening, people were coming up to me and asking if I was planning to go to the Thai in the Park event!! Well, in the end it was just us three girls and Carl who enjoyed Wok-In on a blustery, rainy Thursday afternoon (evidently a 2.00pm start for lunch was too late for people who work day jobs). After lunch Carl & I had hot drinks at the Sleepless Goat, a co-operatively owned cafe on Princess Street that I will miss dearly, although I won't miss the semi-homeless woman who sits outside it, since she once inferred that I was pregnant.

And now, a Farewell to Food
And that's just a sampling of the farewell food I enjoyed over the last couple of weeks in Kingston. Other highlights included the fruit bouquet that Kate and I designed for Chris' birthday, or the last lunch I enjoyed with Ana at Pan Chan Cho's. Now I am back on PEI, and it's time to say farewell to food. Yes, indeed, my days of gluttony and indulgence ended on May 31st. Since I ran the half marathon in October of 2009, I've been packing on the pounds - mostly by eating delicious foods, but also to a lesser extent by neglecting my normal activity level. I blame it all on this business of writing a thesis, although the truth is that I always gain weight when I am living away from PEI and especially when I am in a period of transition. It's time to get back to a healthy weight and, more importantly, to re-develop a healthy relationship with food. I want to feel fit again, and I want to be able to enjoy food without having to buy a whole new wardrobe that includes elastic waistbands and flowy dresses. This past Friday I visited my old nutritionist and am now on a plan that's high in protein, veg and healthy fats, and excludes sugars and starches (for the time being). I've also signed up with the Atlantic Fitness Centre AND Largo Fitness Center, the former offering two excellent exercise facilities and a variety of fitness classes, the latter offering twice daily classes based on Muay Thai Boxing. Let the journey begin!!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Claire's Restaurant - One Delicious Reason to Stop in Hardwick, VT

I was enamored with Claire's Restaurant before I even set foot in the dining room. And it didn't have anything to do with salivating over an on-line menu, as one might expect. In fact, there is no on-line menu because Claire's menu changes with the seasons, which brings me to my first reason for aforementioned infatuation: the menu is seasonal because it's based on what is available from the farms and producers in the area during any particular season. Approximately 80% of the food prepared by Claire's comes from the very local area. Now, in a place like California, sourcing the vast majority of food for a restaurant locally throughout the year might be a challenge, but certainly one that could be overcome with a bit of tenacity. But Vermont?!? It snows there for several months a year..that's why it's known as a skiing destination, as opposed to a gastro-destination! The growing season is short, and crops limited by the geography and climate. To truly appreciate the brilliance of Chef Steven, I reckon one should hit up the restaurant mid-February and marvel at what he's pulled from the root cellar and sourced from local meat producers, bakers, and cheesemakers to create an enticing meal.

In addition to the restaurant's dedication to buying locally, Claire's also has an impressive on-line presence, with a well-designed website, a fantastic blog that's updated regularly, AND they tweet regularly (@clairesvt)! In addition to highlighting in-season foods that are featured on their menu (e.g. fiddleheads which are in season right now), the blog provides links to its suppliers, and information about entertainment and events happening at the restaurant and around town. Tweets include updates regarding drink specials and menu items of the day, as well as interesting food and agriculture related news items, etc. Savvy marketing paired with education and community events - love it!

Finally, my admiration for this restaurant was cemented after reading several news articles that explained how Claire's restaurant had come to be a reality. The restaurant truly was a community supported effort, with members of the small town of Hardwick taking a leap of faith and purchasing $1,000 coupons (redeemable once monthly for $25 of food over Claire's first 4 years of business) in advance of the restaurant's opening to provide operating capital. A community supported restaurant, what a fantastic concept!

So, of course, my first meal in Hardwick had to be at Claire's. I went with Kate, who is one of the collective that run Buffalo Mountain Co-op grocery store, just two doors down on Main Street. The interior of Claire's is inviting and warm, spacious and cozy at the same time. We took a window seat and were greeted by a friendly server who Kate evidently knew quite well. It didn't take me long to figure out that in a town this small, everybody knew everybody. The menu was tantalizing - it was the first part of October, and the bountiful harvest showed through on the tempting selection of appetizers, mains and desserts available that evening. I ended up choosing an acorn squash stuffed with tofu, grains (including groats), and topped with delicious cheese. Luckily I chose to forgo the appetizer (truth be told I had my sights set on a dessert), because the main dish was an extremely generous portion of deliciousness. I somehow made my way through it, and despite feeling very satiated, I believe Kate and I agreed to share a dessert. I cannot recall what it was, but I am certain it was delicious.

During my first couple of weeks living in Hardwick, I fought the urge to return to Claire's. I could only handle so much indulgence and feared I might become addicted to the menu if I went back regularly. I did, however, elect to attend a fundraising event that was being hosted by one of Claire's servers on a Wednesday evening, when the restaurant itself was closed. The server was raising money to fund her trip to Africa, where she would be teaching local people sustainable agricultural practices. Her weapon of choice for fundraising: a dessert buffet. How brilliant!! Who could resist the combination of 'doing good' and indulging one's sweet tooth at the same time? It was sooooooo yummy!

Finally, after about three weeks I broke down and went to Claire's for a second dinner, this time I had the brisket. It was fantastic and, again, an extremely generous serving. At some point I decided that I should check out the bar area of Claire's. Thankfully they served a number of local beers, so I was able to enjoy alcohol while sticking to my locav-or-ganic pledge. After a couple of hours at the bar, chatting with Elena, a wonderful and inspiring woman I'd met my first week in Hardwick, I realised that I'd been missing out dearly by denying myself visits to Claire's. The bar was, after all, THE place to say hello to neighbours and make new friends. It also provided excellent live entertainment every Thursday evening and great drink specials on Sunday and Monday nights. I tried to make up for missed opportunities by going to the bar more frequently than I probably should have, but am quite sure I never made up completely for missed bar fly nights!

I never did get to try Claire's 'Blunch', a twist on the traditional brunch that is served only on Sundays. But I'm heading back to Prince Edward Island soon and have a feeling I may be stopping over in Hardwick for a weekend. If so, I'm pretty sure you'll find me at Claire's on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon!

Below is the brisket I had on my second visit to Claire's.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Hardwick, Vermont - The Beginning...

In my life, I have discovered that places are like people. There are some places where you can always go, knowing that you'll find a feeling of familiarity and of 'being at home', just as there are people in your life with whom you know you can always feel comfortable just being yourself.

There are other places that you'll find yourself in for a slice of your life and, if you are open to it, these places will offer an abundance of experiences that can, in small ways and big ways, change the course of your life and/or your perspective, just as there are people that will pass through your life - they may stay briefly or stick around for longer - that will offer you insights into yourself and the world around you that will serve your evolution. Sometimes these places and people, I'll call them change agents, have such a strong impact on your head or heart that you struggle with leaving or letting them go, even when you innately know it's time to do so.

And then, in rare instances, you may be lucky enough to find yourself in a place that is a source of inspiration and evolution, as well as comfort and familiarity, just as you may be fortunate enough to meet someone whom you are instantly at ease with, but who also challenges you to move beyond your own barriers to growth and then gives you room to grow. These are what I like to think of as our soul-places and our soulmates. Perhaps that's a bit dramatic for some people. I know there are many who do not 'believe' in the concept of a soulmate, but I do believe there are some people and some places, where one's soul can rest easy that it is 'home' while also finding adventure and insight. The thing is, sometimes it's easy to overlook a soul-place or a soulmate. You find yourself instantly comfortable in their presence, so they don't necessarily offer the same intrigue that a change agent might, nor can you immediately place them in your 'safe' corner, because you don't have a history of trust upon which you can rely. So, in the end, you have to listen to and trust your instinct or your 'gut' feeling. Easier said then done, but worth straining your ears to hear and stretching your heart to trust.

And so it was in the early fall of 2009, as the leaves were doing their annual fire dance, that I found myself rolling into a tiny town called Hardwick in the North Eastern Kingdom of Vermont. Little did I know then, as I found my way to Main Street and tentatively entered the Buffalo Mountain Co-op grocery store to find my soon-to-be- landlady, Kate, that I had found that very rare treasure - a soul place.

My first night in Hardwick was a teaser, I arrived at twilight and had to drive on to PEI first thing the following morning to run the half marathon, and then return to Hardwick two weeks later just in time to see out October and begin four weeks of field research. At some point between waiting in the Buffalo cafe for Kate, enjoying a locally-sourced meal at Claire's Restaurant, where it seemed like everyone stopped by to say hello to Kate, and waking up to a crisp mountain air, my heart tugged. I knew then, without a doubt, that this little town was far more than a 'place' for me to carry out my research. It was to be another significant guiding post on my journey, and all I needed to do was be open to the direction it would send me - towards my bliss.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Stop Pushing Back....

That's really what I want to shout at the top of my lungs to all these critics and nay-sayers of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. I am sick of scrolling through the messages on the listservs I subscribe to, only to see highly educated people who recognize that the food system is broken taking digs at chef Jamie Oliver for his reality TV series that is focused on helping the residents of Huntingdon, West Virginia learn how to cook and eat healthier.

Apparently the fact that Jamie Oliver is using the medium of reality television is a big no-no to begin with. And while I'm want to agree that reality television is rarely 'real' and is selective in its depiction of reality, I beg to ask these critics what better medium they'd suggest for getting to the average American household. 7.5 million people watched the first episode of Jamie Oliver's show, I reckon a lot of them had also watched Oprah's show that day, where Jamie was a guest. That television is the most popular medium of communication today may, in fact, be one of the reasons that there is an escalating health crises in many countries today. To use this medium as a positive force is, in my opinion, something we should encourage rather than criticize (admittedly, I remain on the fence about the 'reality' format employed, but it's American television and apparently that's what the audience wants?!). Look, I spent 5 weeks in VErmont studying local food systems and there were many, many people doing amazing things in the school system, hospitals, in their communities, at the foodbanks, etc. to educate people about healthy eating, cooking, etc. And while some of these amazing people and groups have garnered some media attention, in many cases the wonderful work that's being done remains unacknowledged by mainstream media and America at large. Sometimes it takes someone with the money & an established following to catch the attention of the folks at Good Morning America or the New York Times (although, notably, the newspaper did do an article on Hardwick, Vermont, the small town I researched that is doing many things in the local food arena).

Which brings me to my next point - oh my, how dare someone use their celebrity to try to invoke change or spread a message. I once had an argument with a friend, who was much, much more of a music appreciator than I. He didn't believe that musicians should be allowed to use their status or celebrity to take any sort of stance on anything. I think he might have been thinking specifically of Bono, but regardless the argument seemed ludicrous to me. First of all, some of the greatest music that's ever been recorded is, in and of itself, a political statement. Music is one way of bringing about change, of sending a message, of starting a revolution and the musician becomes the messenger. Sure s/he may also have created the song, but it only becomes a message when people are willing to receive it because they relate to it, because they believe in it. In much the same way, a chef (celebrity or not) can be a messenger for health, through the food s/he cooks. I have absolutely no beef with someone whose followed his/her passion and become a celebrity in the process, then using that pulpit to try spreading the passion further. It only becomes a message if people are willing to listen, if people are willing to eat well and learn to cook. The power still lies with the people, not the celebrity, so let's not get all uppity about the fact that someone followed their passion, got famous in the process and then chose to use their fame for good rather than just personal profit. Because, you know, Jamie Oliver could have had very prosperous career simply as a celebrity chef and it probably would have saved him a lot of grief and he'd have been able to spend more time with his family, etc., but he didn't choose the easy route, he chose to make a difference. And yes, maybe he will profit on it, but I'd rather see Jamie Oliver selling cookbooks to Americans that previously spent money on frozen pizzas than Paris Hilton selling perfume to young females that think she's a role model.

A third criticism of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution is that it's not going to change anything. I disagree - the very fact that there are debates raging all over the blogosphere and news about whether Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution is a good thing or not is, in and of itself, changing things. People are talking about food. People are talking about health. Even if they don't agree with Jamie Oliver coming to AMerica to change the way the country eats, the fact is they are talking about food. And every revolution starts with education. Aside from that, it is my opinion that even if the Food Revolution fails to meet Jamie's expectations/hopes it will have changed the way a few people in Huntingdon go about their lives - who knows, it might even save one of those kids' lives. The thing is, you can't pick up all the starfish that wash up along the shore, but even if you only pick up one and throw it back in the ocean, it makes all the difference to that one starfish. So let Jamie Oliver and ABC spend their money trying to make change happen - this isn't costing the city of Huntingdon any money and I highly doubt the reality show being in their town is going to actually do any damage, so why not try to do some good? The worst that could happen is JO fails.

Another thing some people seem to take issue with is the idea that a chef should be doling out nutritional advice. Uh huh. Because listening to the nutritionists for the past 30 or 40 years has really helped us eh? And, according to the USDA, a french fry is a vegetable. I say 'bullocks' to listening to the so called experts. I don't see anything wrong with taking advice from a chef about healthy cooking, so long as he's not being sponsored by some big corporate food company. My mother taught me how to cook, and in doing so she doled out advice (even if she didn't realise it). In the years since I've left home, I've taken it upon myself to learn more about food and cooking. A lot of what I learned from my Mom makes sense, but I've also found myself trying different things, going against 'what mom told me'. The same stands for any advice doled out by anyone about anything - it is meant as a starting point for the listener - it is not gospel and that person can then take it upon themselves to learn more and decide if they agree or disagree with the first source of information. But the key is that the first source of information be an inspiration, that the person learning how to cook wants to learn more because of that first teacher. I therefore have no qualms with Jamie doling out sensible advice about eating and cooking.

Finally, let's get over the whole 'he's British and what right does he have to come here and tell us how to live our lives' thing. Seriously. I mean, come on, it's been a few hundred years, the British Empire is no longer an empire, can we please get over the accent? Nationalism is a dangerous thing, especially when it means refusing assistance from other countries. In the aftermath of Haiti's earthquake, when people were suffering and didn't have the resources to rebuild, nations of the world took notice and support poured in from every corner of the globe. We are a global citizenry, we need to be humble enough to recognize when we need help and accept it with open arms. I am quite certain that Americans have embarked upon many quests to help peoples of other nations when they see suffering, so why are they so resistant to letting someone try to help them. If they don't want the help for themselves, they can refuse it, but give the English bloke a chance to help those who want it.

And that is my rant for the day. Please stop pushing back.

Friday, April 02, 2010

One in Seven

C-SPAN StudentCam 2010 First Prize MS Winner - 'Childhood Obesity: A Challenge Facing America' from Matthew Shimura

8 minutes, one 7th grader, and an epidemic of epic proportions - borne by the children of the world's most powerful nation. This is not the American dream.

One out of every seven preschool children is considered obese. That literally brought tears to my eyes. How oh how did we manage to devolve to the point that children are regularly being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, eating pizza for breakfast and playing WiiFit on sunny summer days?? For all the supposed progress of the past thirty or forty years, we've completely neglected the basic requirement of life: nutritious food.

Do you remember when food was considered a source of health?

It was not so long ago, really, perhaps a generation or two. But, oh, how far from there we are now. Now what we eat (i.e. food-like substances)is the number one cause of chronic diseases, for both young and old. 70% (that's a lot) of diseases are preventable through lifestyle changes. Stop eating crap and you will live longer and, more importantly, you will live better. Start moving and you'll feel even better.

It's simple, so why isn't it happening?

What I find most confounding is the amount of flack British chef Jamie Oliver has received recently for his efforts to help the city of Huntington, West Virginia eat better. From what I can discern, based on the listservs, blogs and media reports I've read, it seems the main issue people have with Jamie Oliver is that he is A) a foreigner B) trying to tell people how to live their lives. Who, after all, is he to come to America and start cooking up healthy food for your children? What nerve he has to help out a family that wants his help and desperately needs it?

Who is he to come into your livingroom and tell you you've been neglecting your children's health?

He is, I suspect, a parent, a food lover, and a person who wants to help show others how they can make changes that could save their lives. But change seems hard and scary. It's not convenient and it requires your energy, your time, and your thoughts.

It's easier to just say 'go away, it's none of your business.'

Well, it seems to me that when kids start making videos about the plight of their own health, it's time for the nation to speak up. After all, we protect children from all other sorts of atrocities that they cannot protect themselves from. Why should we let the profiteers of agribusiness (amongst others) get away with marketing products to children that have no nutritional value whatsoever? Why should we let lobbyists dictate the policies and subsidies that make this junkfood so cheap and available that, by comparison, healthy food seems expensive? Why should we let vending machines and fast food outlets into our universities and high schools? Why should we let governments cut physical education classes and home economics?

Like Matthew says, it is a complex issue and one that requires all of us, every single one of us that eats food, to pay attention and take action.

And now I must sleep.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is Life Really Like a Box of Chocolates?

"Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get". At least that's what Forrest Gump said. I disagree. Most boxes of chocolate come with a paper insert that tells you what to expect from each and every chocolate. And even if a box of chocolates didn't come with such a guide you could just take a little nibble and if you didn't what was inside you could feed it to someone else or sneak it back into the box (if you were sharing). Practical considerations regarding boxes of chocolate aside, I also think he's being a bit dramatic with his use of the word 'never'. Surely there are some things you know you're going to get in life. For example, you are going to get older.

Time has been looming large in my life as of late. In less than six months I will enter a new decade and cease to be considered a 'Youth' by governments around the world, thus eclipsing opportunities such as workin abroad in New Zealand, where I might have honed my sheep herding skills and relegating me to a Bridget Jones existence (not that I'd mind ending up with Colin Firth, although I'd probably have chosen Hugh Grant to be honest). And in seven months time I will have hit the 2 year mark of my Masters program and, with any luck, have successfully defended my thesis. Right now, however, it feels like there's no end in sight. Every day I sit down and spend hours reading and writing, splicing these activities with minor panic attacks about how little time there is between now and June, when I aiming to have completed the major portion of my thesis. Sometimes I simultaneously want to stop time in its tracks and skip forward to early autumn. I realise this is an outrageous desire, both because it's impossible and because it flies in the face of the gift of life - the journey that each of us is taking every moment of every day. Still, there are days when I just want this thesis to be done and days when I don't want to look in the mirror and discover a new wrinkle. That's just the plain, honest truth. ON balance there are still more days when I look forward to diving into the writing because I'm still as passionate, if not more, about my thesis topic, local food, as I was a year ago. And, having spoken to many grad students, I reckon I may be in the minority in that respect. I am grateful that I pursued a topic that was of great interest to me, otherwise I cannot fathom how I'd have the motivation to trawl through the literature, transcribe 30 hours of interviews, or write a hundred page paper. And I know I can still learn how to herd sheep in New Zealand, all I need to do is change my strategy from 'get working holidaymaker visa' to 'find cute, single shepherd man who needs help on sheep farm in New Zealand'.

This is an odd post. I just took a look at my dashboard and realized I have at least four other blog posts that I've started at different times over the past couple of months but never finished. That seems to be a theme in my life right now - starting things, but not finishing them. On that note, after 5 weeks of dedication to the P90X exercise series, I took a hiatus from the workouts. I'm not really sure I can put my finger on why exactly, but I suppose it had something to do with a realization that I use exercise as a means of destressing and letting things tumble around in my head and as much as I loved Tony's workouts, I wasn't getting the space to think while hopping around the livingroom like I do when I'm out running or dancing in the living room, so I've reverted to my regular exercise routine and am mixing in some P90X when I feel like it. I also gave up on the Primal blueprint. I am more disappointed in myself for this 'non-finish', because I basically caved to sugar one day as a response to a rather emotional event that had occurred and then just kind of never got completely back on the Primal wago. That being said, I'm still eating Primally quite a lot, but my focus right now is really to develop a more neutral relationship with sugar ans I believe most of my other eating habits are very healthy. I'm aiming to eliminate refined sugar from my diet, that's my main goal right now. I am following a six step guide from the Weston Price Foundation website (sorry, too tired to link this now, maybe later), on cutting sugar out of my diet completely. I've already got the first 2 steps under my belt (eat 3 good meals a day, eliminate sugar drinks), so now am at step 3 - eliminate refined sugars, only consume natural sugars (maple syrup and honey).

I'm rambling because I'm tired and spent all day writing in academic speak and the last two hours watching Karate Kid II, which is not nearly as good as the original. I was going to cut and paste some of the half-written blog posts I've drafted but not published. I don't know if I'll ever get around to finishing any of them. Below is one post I probably would never return to, so here it is in its non-entirety:

And the Gold Plate Goes To...

I was thinking, if there were an Olympics for food, what sort of competitions would ensue and who would win? Would the athletes be human, (other) animal, vegetable or funghi? Would death by sauteeing or roasting be an inevitable part of every gold medal game? Would alcohol be allowed to participate?

Well, not that anyone's asking, but here's what I'd like to see at an All-Seasons Food Olympics:

Freestyle Aerials
Pizza dough aerials by the best 'tossers' in the business. Techinical scores for height, spins, flips and, of course, one-finger catches.
Favorite to win: Italy, obviously

If at first you don't succeed, fry, fry again. That's the advice that every competitor in this sport has surely heard at some point in their lives. Here they'll put their frying skills to the test, offering up delicacies to the palette such as fried toast (UK), fried chicken skins (US), fried eggs (Spain, obviously), and fried Canadian bacon (Canada).
Favorite to win: Scotland, with the highly unique and unforgettable Fried Mars Bar

And that's all she wrote.

Friday, February 12, 2010

56 Lbs of Meat & a Food Revolution

So I've been kind of busy as of late, now that I'm well into my second year of my masters program, I've kicked it up a few gears with regards to my work ethic. As a result, I've put a lot of other things on the back burner (pun intended!). Exhibit A: Posting to All Shanadian. Well, in any case, I thought I'd make an attempt at a short post, while I wait for my banana bread to finish baking. It's late, late Friday night and I'm hosting a Blunch here tomorrow - I figured I need a break from the isolation of living in the country and thesis related work. And, yes, I realise banana bread is not Primal. I also realise that attempting to host any sort of food gathering without carbohydrates would require more energy than I have to expend at the moment.

Speaking of Primal, however, it appears that I will be going full throttle on it over the next while as I have 1/4 of a lamb and a bit more than 1/3 of a grass-fed cow in my freezer that need to be eaten, preferably by May, when my freezer space disappears and I move back to shared townhouse, with shared fridge freezer. I managed to source both of these animals via the contacts I've made over the past year here in Kingston's local food scene. The lamb is fron Frank, who I met at a Local Farmer, Local Chef meet and greet in December. We arranged to meet at the Sleepless Goat - a vegetarian friendly co-operatively run cafe in downtown Kingston, and he arrived with two cloth grocery bags full of packaged lamb meat - shanks, legs, ground, stewing, etc. Then he sat down with me and we had a great 20 minute chat about everything food and farming related. And this is precisely why I am becoming even more passionate about local food everyday - it's becoming more and more evident that the real treasures of getting your food locally aren't just at the dinner table, where the food is fresh and far superior taste-wise, but also in the connections you make in your community with other people who care about food, the environment, social justice, etc.

And then today, my friend Crystal picked up a whole cow (after it had been butchered) from Kathy, who runs the CSA I worked on last summer, on Wolfe Island. Her neighbor had raised some grass-fed beef and Kathy took it upon herself to act as the middle woman between the farmer and Crystal & I. Unlike most middle-persons, however, I am 100% sure Kathy did not make any sort of profit for her marketing and delivery services. She met Crystal at the Kingston ferry terminal and this afternoon Crystal came over to my house for the drop off. It was quite the sight, her trunk full of packages of meat wrapped in red paper, the cuts written in black marker on the paper. I grabbed my food scale and body scale and we spent a good half hour out in the dwindling daylight hours trying to divide the beef up evenly - one quarter for Crystal's friend, the remainder split evenly between she & I. It kind of felt a bit like we were doing a drug deal! At one point a neighbour walked by with his dog ..the dog seemed very, very curious about what our packages might contain! Right, so now my freezer is chalk full of local meat, with a piddly amount of room left for my blueberries brought back from PEI, a tourtiere pie I bought at the farmer's market, and some local ground pork and sausages. I have to say, eating local in Kingston is, without a doubt, a much easier endeavour for a carnivorous person than a vegetarian. I reckon, despite my newfound love affair with meat, that I will have to host many dinner parties to get through all the meat I've taken on!

I don't have any television access out here. There's a TV and DVD player, but I disconnected the cable completely. For the most part, I don't have time to watch TV, but every once in awhile I just need to sit back and relax. I discovered the boxed set of Degrassi Junior High DVDs recently in the house and have been rather hooked on those. Over the past few days, however, I've discovered that the Food Network offers full episodes of some of its shows on the Internet. I decided I needed to watch Jamie Oliver's Food Ministry, even though I balk at the use of government terminology in the title. I'm glad I got over that, because the show is fantastic. I guess I shouldn't be that surprised, Jamie's School Lunches was also pretty phenomenal. But, oh, what an inspiring person he is! He's only 5 years older than me. He's spent a good chunk of hte last seven years working with disadvantaged youth, giving them the opportunity to become chefs, with schoolchildren, educating them about food and revamping their school lunches, and then, with the Ministry of Food, he spent six months working to get an entire English town to start cooking and 'Pass it On' to their friends, neighbours, coworkers, etc. Earlier this week, Jamie Oliver gave his TED 2010 Wish Speech. Watch it, then do something to help his wish come true, because his wish is a wish we should all embrace.

And that, at 12.46 am is about all I can write at the moment - not especially amazing stuff, I'll try harder next time. It's been a long , long day. On an unrelated note I am out of baking powder - hopefully someone will come through with bringing some to me tomorrow or there'll be no pancakes for brunch and that'd be a shame.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

It's Primal Time

So I'm about two and a half weeks into my love affair with the Primal Blueprint. Technically, though, the first week was an 'easing in' phase which really went more like this:

Days 1 to 3: Ate very Primal, felt pretty good physically and very satiated in general
Day 4: Ran out of vegetables, basically subsisted on fatty meats. Felt very carnivorous
Day 5: Went to town, stocked up on everything Primal at Tara's Natural Foods, Old Farm Fine Foods and (eck) Food Basics, then opted to eat take-away from the Wok-In and enjoyed Pad Thai, which is not v. Primal at all, but delicious nonetheless
Days 6 - 8: Hosted Australian visitor, ate copious amounts of carbohydrates in the form of homemade pancakes, candy/chocolate, sweet potato fries, Beavertail etc. Redeemed myself by celebrating Robbie Burns day with the traditional Scottish delicacy, haggis, which is, well, you know....all parts of the sheep that the English refuse to eat. (On a totally unrelated note, if you need a good laugh go here - Visitor's Guide to Scotland, by Danny Bhoy.)

And then I decided to smarten up and this is how the second week's panned out:

Day 9: Vowed to go 'cold turkey' on Primal....
Day 10 -Day 18: Have been following Primal Eating Blueprint very closely

So far, eating Primal has been a surprisingly enjoyable gastronomic experience, and a relatively painless transition from my pre-Primal diet. Here are a few of notable highlights of my tryst with all things pre-grain era:

Discovery #1 - I like fat. I really, really like fat. Who knew? I certainly didn't. And you know why I was so unaware of my affection for gristle and bacon droppings? Because, like the vast majority of health-conscious people in this country, I'd been led to believe that anything with saturated fat was not good for me. It had reached the point where I wasn't even aware that my food choices were, without exception, of the low-fat variety. Except, of course, Omega 3 Fatty acids, the 'good' fats found namely in fish (and oh how I indulged in those fatty Atlantic salmon steaks whenever I was on PEI!). But, yes, until my Locav-or-ganic Challenge in Vermont, the thought of eating red meat, especially things like sausage and bacon, did not even register on my mind as an option. So I subsisted on white chicken meat, salmon loaf, tofu, veggie burgers and the occassional indulgence in pork tenderloin. Even in Vermont, I considered myself a glutton for eating delicious bacon (especially when I incorporated it into dessert - a dobule whammy of sinfulness!!)

Now, however, as I delve deeper into the literature regarding fats and sugars, proteins and carbohydrates, I find myself questioning much of that conventional nutritional wisdom that's been directing my food choices for the past several years.

So I'm eating fat without feeling guilty or gluttonous about it for, perhaps, the first time in my adult life. And you know what I've noticed? I'm way less interested in eating between meals, and I can go longer between meals without feeling hungry. Fat contributes to feelings of satiety. And I think that might be a good thing.

I should probably qualify this whole note about fat by saying that I am enjoying fat that comes from animals, specifically animals that have been raised naturally and organically and who have ended up on my menu as nitrite-free bacon and eggs, or sweet Italian sausages, or lamb meatballs, as well as nuts, avocados, olive oil and small amounts of artisan cheese.. I've not been eating any trans-fats (found in lots of baked and processed foods), nor am I eating animals that have been raised in industrial systems (another reason I didn't eat much red meat in the past), nor have I been using vegetable fats for cooking..speaking of which...

Discovery #2 - Going Primal is a culinary adventure! So you'd think eliminating grains from one's pantry, would make for much less opportunity to be a creative cook, given how many fewer ingredients you have to work with. Ah, but this is not so, quite the contrary in fact. I can no longer rely on my quinoa salad and oven-baked sweet potatoe fries to tickle my tastebuds anymore. Rather, I have found myself dabbling with recipes I've never tried before and adapting familiar ones to fit in with my new low-carb eating.

In the last week, while working ridiculous hours on my local food research, I've managed to prepare a few brand-new dishes, including lamb meatballs with a tahini sauce. Yes, I've made lamb meatballs Vermont, but these ones had roasted eggplant in them, and I'd never made tahini sauce before. It was a delicious meal!! I also worked out a recipe for homemade salmon cakes, which are gluten free, delicious and quite handy as leftovers for three or four days afterwards. Admittedly, I am using canned wild pacific salmon, so it's not local or organic, but I am bound and determined to eat lots of salmon. Last night I roasted a spaghetti squash and topped it with sausages from a local farm and a bit of spaghetti sauce, which meant the dish had some carbs, but nothing compared to the equivalent with a wheat pasta. Oh and on the weekend, because I needed cheering up and was running out of eggs, ergo could not continue with the 3-egg omelet every day, decided to make Almond Banana Pancakes - three simple ingredients, one divine breakfast (ingredients = 1TBSP butter, 2 mashed ripe bananas, and 1 egg...mixed together and then cooked in a pan with melted butter).

Discovery #3 - It's Easier to 'Go Local' when you're 'Going Primal' - Not only does the PBP encourage eating naturally raised/grown foods (e.g. grass-fed cow, organic vegetables, free-range eggs), but also emphasizes meats and eggs, which are much easier for me to source locally than wheat, oats or quinoa. Admittedly, getting local, organic vegetables and fruits is a bigger challenge here, but one that I'd be dealing with regardless of what kind of eating I was following. So I've been enthusiastically buying up all sorts of lovely meats at the farmer's market and have a quarter of a lamb landing in my freezer later this week. I hope there's still room left for the third of a cow that I've also got dibs! Oh, I'm getting giddy just thinking about it all - eating locally is sooo much more exciting than going to the grocery store and buying meat from who knows where.

There are other things that I've enjoyed about Primal, but I'll hold off until another post. For now, I'm just going to paste some photos of yummy dishes I've been enjoying as of late.

(Salmon Cakes with Big Salad, Spaghetti Squash with Sausage, Free-range eggs and Nitrite Bacon, Lamb Meatballs with Tahini sauce)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Price of Food and the Cost of Food

'It costs too much' is, by far, the most common argument I hear with regards to why people are not inclined to purchase food that is sustainable - to their health, to their community and to the environment. I'm talking mostly about local and/or organic foods, as that is the little slice of the food world I currently find myself in, but the same claim is often laid upon conventional foods that are considered healthy - you know, the colourful, fresh ones that don't come in boxes with instructions on how to microwave contents in 2 minutes of less. So apparently, when it comes to food, as with many things it seems, cheaper is better. For a long time I just nodded my head when people used this line of defence - partly because I know people don't want to hear things that might challenge their thinking or choices, but mostly because, until recently, that was my validation for not buying local/organic. But the last year has one of great transformation in many areas of my life, including my diet and related food purchasing habits. Between growing my own food, working on a CSA farm, running a half marathon and taking the Locav-or-ganic Challenge while I was in Vermont, I realized I didn't want to be feeding my body cheap food anymore - it's simply not good for my body, nor for the environment, nor for that matter, for my palate, which has become quite fickle after enjoying local food for a few months (it's even shown a distaste for candy!!).

So, because I am a new convert to sustainable food and because I have to listen to people say 'it's too expensive' ALL the time, I am going to take this opportunity to defend the reputation of local and organic foods as 'costing too much' in comparison to industrially produced foods. First, however, I'm going to put forth the proposition that, perhaps, getting something 'cheap' or 'saving money' is not all it's cracked up to be. This quote, from an American president nonetheless, sums it up quite nicely I think.

'I do not prize the word
cheap. It is not a badge of honor. It is a symbol of despair. Cheap prices make for cheap goods; cheap goods make for cheap men; and cheap men make for a cheap country' - William McKinley

So here's the thing: there is a very distinct and important difference between the price of something and the cost of something. This is true of most consumer products available to us Westerners, from sneakers to digital cameras to fuel to clothes hangers - we pay a subsidized price at the local Wal-Mart, Future Shop or Shell station, for items that have been produced, assembled, extracted, etc. at a cost that we are never charged -these are called Hidden Costs, (or if you're an economist or accountant, you might refer to them as externalities). Whether that be a social cost, where child slavery and/or labour abuses run rampant in an effort to 'maximize efficiency', or an environmental cost, where toxic industrial wastes are dumped into rivers and non-renewable resources are depleted to such an extent that future generations will suffer, or any other of a myriad of injustices and inequalities that arise as an effect of a supposed 'free market' system. Well, I'm sorry to say, but there is nothing free about this type of economic system, except perhaps the short-term, almost-free prices that us end consumers pay at the cash register. Our 'cheap' is someone else's 'very expensive' toll to pay.

Ah, but to assume the downsides of this (not) free market are only experienced by far, far off nations, and therefore somehow not of consequence to us, would be very wrong. The costs are being borne by us all, as individuals, as communities, as societies. There are a few things, however, aside from our abdication of responsibility as citizens (this in and of itself warrants a blog post of its own), that make it rather easy for us to ignore the costs of our consumptive choices. I'm only going to cite one in this post, as I have a tendency to be long-winded and have been repeatedly chastised for the length of my posts by one particularly dedicated reader (*cough* TC *cough*).

So, in my opinion, the major problem with hidden costs: the 'Time until Incubation Problem' or the T.I.Pping point, if you will. What I'm referring to is the fact that many of our cheap purchases today will not immediately translate into costly tolls on the environment, societies, communities or individuals. One of the reasons we have such cheap food is because we've become exceptionally good at producing high yields of calorie-dense food on the same plot of land, year in and year out. This is a monumental achievement in 20th century agriculture, whereby technology and industrial practices were applied to the practice of farming with great success (if, by success, one measures only the output of food from a given acreage of land). So, through application of fertilizers and pesticides, increased use of mechanization and monoculture cropping, a cheap food system has emerged. One where most families can afford to buy their calories for the day, whether it be at McDonald's or the frozen section of the grocery store. Cheap food abounds. But herein lies the problem - a cost avoided today at the drive-through or check-out, through the establishment of a subsidized, fossil-fuel dependent food system, will be borne in the future.

For example, the costs of monoculturing, pesticide use and fertilizer application on the fertility of the planet's fertile soil will be borne by future farmers and eaters (that's YOU and/or your children), not to mention the rest of the ecosystem that makes up this planet. Then there's the costs to future generations of establishing a farming system dependent on a non-renewable resource - at some point, whole communities and nations of people are likely going to have to revert to a much less energy-intensive form of farming. Not only will they lack the knowledge to do this, they'll also discover that, without fuel to farm, it may be impossible to feed the current population with less energy-intensive farming methods and poor soil - so food insecurity is likely to rise significantly.

And even if one doesn't give an iota about the future societal and environmental costs of their cheap purchase today, there's a high likelihood, when it comes to eating this industrial food, that they themselves will pay a high price, in the form of Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, heart disease, etc.
So wouldn't that be enough to convince people to change their lifestyle, including their diet, to reduce their chance of getting a disease? Wouldn't they rather pay a little bit more for food that is healthy, pesticide-free, free-range/pastured, fresh, and delicious, then end up having a chronic disease or a lower quality of life due to preventable health problems?

Apparently, to look at the increasing rates of obesity and diet-related disease over the past few decades, the answer is an emphatic 'NO'.

And, you know, I am certain there are many, many reasons that people aren't willing (or in some cases, unable) to make lifestyle changes and give good food a chance, but I think the main problem is that we view food in the lens of a 'price to pay'. When we go to the checkout at the grocery store and fork over money for our food, we see it as a loss. And since we see it as a cost that we have some ability to minimize, we tend to stock up on bargain items and go for the cheapest price. We tend to convince ourselves that we just CAN'T afford that local, organic food, somehow ignoring the fact that we somehow can afford to have two cars for a family of three, a flatscreen television with full cable access, a 10 day vacation to an all-inclusive resort in the South, or whatever it may be. And if we dared to consider the purchase of a car with that of food purchasing, most of us would argue that the car is an investment - that it's necessary in order to get to work and make an income or, in the case of a television and cable, that it's an investment in entertainment and relaxation that is needed at the end of a long workday. Do most people think of food this way - as an investment? I don't think so. But really, isn't food the ultimate long-term investment? I mean, really, on Maslow's hierarchy of needs for human survival it's kind of right up there with water and shelter right? So, wouldn't it be worth taking time to consider delicious, sustainably-produced food as an investment - one that gives an immediate return to you in quality of taste, and long-term returns to your health, not to mention the minimization of hidden environmental and social costs?

At the end of the day, many of us (and I suspect anyone reading this blog is a part of that 'us') have the disposable income available to make healthy, good food purchases that may APPEAR to cost more at the till, but that are, in fact, less expensive in the long run, then buying the cheap alternative food-like substances in the middle aisles and freezer section of the supermarket. It is a matter of coming to terms with the fact that 'price' and 'cost' are not synonomous, and that your food purchases are not a matter of what you can afford, but rather of what you've chosen to prioritize. I can only speak for myself in saying that this has been hard pill for me to swallow, acknowledging that my 'I'm a poor student' defense was really not a very good one, given that I drive a car, pay a cable bill and go to the movie theatre regularly. Well, now I eat delicious food and don't pay for cable, and it's been a fantastic trade-off.

I almost want to apologize for the preachy, ranty tone of this blog, but I'm going to resist. The choices each of us makes as a consumer have ramifications for all of us - today and into the future - so I think it's only fair that we be able to speak up and encourage more sustainable, healthy ways of living on this planet we all share. Time to stop nodding our heads.

*** It should be noted that while I imply in this blog post that I accept the argument that local/organic foods are, in fact, more expensive than their industrial counterparts (i.e. have a higher price tag), this is, in fact, not necessarily the case - it's not black and white, but many shades of grey - I just simplified it in this post for the sake of argument or excessive rambling.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

What to Eat? Maybe a Metre of Meat

It has come to my attention over the past few years that us North Americans have, at some point along the way, probably while our governments were building super highways and capitalists were plotting ways to turn the nourishment of Mother Earth into commodities and value-added 'products' and women were fighting for equal opportunities, lost one of the most fundamental and natural instincts shared by all living creatures (and plants if you want to stretch all the way to the sun). We have lost our 'instinctual knowledge' of what we should eat, how often we should eat and how much we should eat.

This should be a HUGE red flag for us as individuals and as a society.

Not instinctively knowing what to eat in a Westernized society that offers up a seemingly endless supply of options for the palate, leads to the obvious: we must choose what we will eat - every day, at every meal. And therein lies the problem. For, if we don't know what to eat, who are we to consult about making the right food choices?? Government Agencies? Doctors? Nutritionists? Dietitians? Grandmothers? Food companies? Farmers? The TV? Grocers? Athletes? Slim People? Biologists? Anthropologists? Journalists? Health Magazines? Suzanne Somers?

And so you see, the choices just continue. Now, in addition to making a decision about what to eat, you also have to decide who to consult about what to eat. This, for many, may seem to be an easy thing (ignoring the fact that we are all more susceptible to food marketing than we'd like to believe). Anyways, I suspect most people would trust the wisdom of nutritionists, doctors, the Canada Food Guide (or other government food pyramid) and maybe, just maybe, their grandmother. I, for one, have certainly sought out and followed the advice of two nutritionists in the past, at times when I was looking to lose some weight. I also accepted the Canada Food
Guide as a decent guideline of what to eat. I mean, really, they are the experts right?

****I'm going to pause here and note that I cannot guarantee the accuracy of what I am write from hereon in with respect to the particular details of a nutritional concept or what I've taken from the various sources of information I've been reading. Please forgive me if I say something that is not accurate - if I have misinterpreted something it serves only to reinforce how confusing this whole subject of nutrition is to the average eat such as myself**** (END OF PAUSE!)

But now, as I delve deeper and deeper into all things 'food' I find myself more confused than ever as to what I should and, perhaps more importantly, shouldn't be putting into my mouth. I suppose what has happened, in short, is that I've become much more skeptical of 'experts'...even the ones that seemingly have no hidden agenda, like Health Canada. It's not that I am skeptical of their intention to provide good nutrition advice, but rather I am skeptical of the basis upon which they've drawn their conclusions about what a diet should consist of. So you see, I'm not suggesting any mal intent whatsoever, but I am suggesting that, perhaps, we should not take it for granted that a reductionist scientific approach to nutrition is an appropriate one. Nor should we assume that just because we've had an agriculture for the past ten thousand years, that the genetic make-up of our bodies has caught up/evolved to properly digest things like grains, sugars and dairy, to speak nothing of the lab-produced 'food-like' products that are so commonplace in grocery stores now.

So anyways, yes, I've become a skeptic of my own well-entrenched beliefs about what to eat. Part of this growing skepticsm is because I've been actively searching for more information about 'what to eat' and have encountered some people along the way, including my holistic nutritionist and some thoughtful friends, who have turned some of these beliefs on their head. Part of it also stems from an observation that no matter what I eat, I still seem to struggle with my weight (unless I'm on PEI where, oddly, pounds just seem to melt off), and part of it comes from an observation that we're getting bigger and bigger as time marches on. But mostly, I suppose, my skepticism arises from the realization that the industrialized agricultural system that we have today, the one which is often heralded as being a triumph of science (e.g. the Green Revolution), is completely backwards - harmful to everything from the soil, to the waters, to the animals that are a part of this industrialized system, to the people - the eaters at the end of the line. And so I conclude that if a scientific approach to agriculture can lead us so astray, surely it is possible that we've been lead astray in our approach to nutrition?

So, ultimately, I find myself torn between two almost polar approaches to eating: vegetarianism and the Primal Diet . Should I listen to the wisdom of Frances Moore Lappe, who argues in favor of a vegetarian diet in the quintessential book 'Diet for a Small Planet'? or should I follow the wisdom proffered up by Weston A. Price and followers of the Primal Diet which, from what I can surmise, argues that we are genetically still built like hunter-gatherers and therefore cannot optimize digestion of grains and other products of agriculture?

Truth be told, I've not read Lappe's book thoroughly - I skimmed it at best. It's not that I'm not interested in the possibility of going vegetarian. In fact for the past couple of years I've really been less interested in eating meat - especially red meat. It's easier to prepare tofu for one person, it's often cheaper to be vegetarian and I don't have to be concerned with eating factory farmed meat. Plus, it's often cited as being more 'environmentally' friendly than an amonivore or carnivore diet (whether this is an accurate claim is another point that I'm confused about) But then this past fall, while I was following my Locav-or-ganic Challenge in Vermont, I found myself eating large amounts of meat - as that is what is grown/raised in the state - meat and a LOT of cheese! Vegetables as well, of course, but grains are hard to come by in Vermont, so I treated myself to lamb and artisan cheese.

Having been introduced to the Primal Blueprint (I've been calling it a diet, but it's really more an all encompassing lifestyle addressing things such as sleeping patterns, exercise, etc.) via various sources over the past few months, I've come to think it might just make sense. The Primal Blueprint and this dry but very information video, Sugar: The Bitter Truth, have both partially convinced me that, in fact, it's not animal fats that we should be concerned about having in our diet, but rather the sugars and starches that wreak havoc with our insulin levels (and, in turn, our blood sugar), because when that happens our body goes into fat-storing mode. Sooo, basically, these kinds of carbs are going to end up being fat on the body. And as for eating meat, well it's a pretty well known fact that meat and fats increases satiety - so you don't eat as much and feel full for longer. They also don't affect your insulin levels.

Some people will, by this point, note that the Primal Blueprint sounds an awful lot like the Atkins diet and the Protein Power Plan. In some respects they'd be right, but for me the real attraction to the Primal Blueprint is that it doesn't just say 'eat meat, avoid grains' and you'll be fine. In fact, it says, eat lots of vegetables (not the starchy ones though), eat meat, eat fruit, eat berries and seeds. More importantly, it focuses on HOW the food you eat is produced. Just as cavemen didn't eat factory-farmed animals and fruits laden with pesticides, nor should us modern humans. So 'going primal' requires a shift to eating meats that have been pasture raised, free-range eggs, raw dairy (if you're going to eat dairy at all), and organically produced, fresh vegetables and fruits. All of this is clearly appealing to me, given that I've decided to continue my Locav-or-ganic challenge while I write my thesis here on the outskirts of Kingston, Ontario. It fits in nicely with what I'm attempting!

Is Primal another 'fad' diet? Some might argue so. And they may very well be right. I'm certainly not 100% sold on Primal. What I will note is that the mainstream nutritional advice is only about fifty or sixty years old (nutrition is a fairly new branch of science), so if you want to take a long-term view of human history, the Canada Food Guide is a fad diet too!! Not that I want to trample of the Canada Food Guide whatsoever- it is well-intentioned and may very well be the 'right' way to eat...all I'm saying is that we shouldn't assume that one way of eating is a fad and another, by default, is not a fad and therefore 'right' just because it's been around for a few years. I mean, really, wasn't there this whole idea the Earth was flat for quite a while..I bet when Galileo first threw out the idea it might be round, most people thought it preposterous..and labelled it the Italian equivalent of a 'fad' idea. So, maybe in general we'd do well to caution against carte blanche acceptance of anything. Granted, we don't all have the time to go about questioning every single thing we're told - that's where discretion and prioritization come in to play. I place priority on my health and am not completely sold on the mainstream nutrition advice (yet).

And so, over the next week or so, I shall ease myself into the Primal way of eating. I'm not saying I'm going to stick with it for life. I know some people will argue that it's just not a sustainable, sensible way of eating, given what is on offer out there in restaurants and grocery stores. And they may well be right, but I'm already an abstainer from bread and pasta, and it's hard to get local quinoa! So the real troublemakers in my diet are sugar (there's still chocolate in my pantry) and oatmeal, which I eat every morning and may well continue to eat, given that it's got a low GI and is gluten-free. Others will argue that the long-term effects of eating large quantities of meat on the heart, liver, colon, etc. are worth careful consideration and, again, I might agree (in fact, I've definitely argued this in the past with Atkins followers who weren't eating lettuce but were chowing down on sausages). But, in the end, I've decided to give it a test run. I figure, in the short-term, it really can't do that much harm and, well, what if the mainstream science is wrong and Primal is the way to go?

I finish this blog exactly where I began: confused about what I should eat. And that frustrates me to no end. Each of us should innately know what is right for our bodies, but it seems as if this abundance of food and choice, the food marketing and promises of 'convenience', the supplements, the celebrity diets, etc. have all lead us down a path of 'forgetting' - forgetting what to eat and forgetting how much to eat. And, above all, forgetting that there was a time when food was supposed to bring you health. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could remember that which we've forgotten?

*As to the name of this post, it's a tribute to the Amadeus Restaurant in Kingston, which serves up a metre of meat (sadly, I doubt it's local) as pictured below (I went last night with some meat eating friends). May the Meat be with you!