Leftovers As Love

why we cook for people we love

Ingredients? I’ve got the stinking ingredients.  (Painting by Joachim Beuckelaer, 1564)

“It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.” ~M.F.K. Fisher

I’m scooping Thanksgiving leftovers into containers with tears in my eyes. Mashed potatoes, turkey, wild rice stuffing, cranberry pomegranate sauce, Aunt Tricia’s pecan bars and her pumpkin parfait are packed into a cooler along with mason jars of peach jam, applesauce, and salsa. They’re for one of my sons, who has a full day of driving to get back to his regularly scheduled life a few states away. He’s got a fantastic career, wide-ranging hobbies, and wonderful friends. I’m entirely happy for him and don’t for a moment want to hold him back. There’s just something about feeding him into the next week that gets to me in a tear-inducing way. I suspect it’s more than a mom thing.

There are names for people like me in nearly every language, some of them not very flattering. We lavish attention on people we love, in part, by cooking for them. We’re the ones foisting leftovers on you as you try to leave. We’re the ones who do our best to have (what we believe are) your favorites available when you visit — even if you last said you couldn’t get enough bean pate back in the 90’s. We’re the ones who hardly taste the food we serve, our senses already full from making it. We can be annoying. We can’t help it.

Speaking for myself, it’s not entirely about the people I cook for.* It’s about me too.

I can ignore serious pressing deadlines without a sideways glance when it’s time to cook for our weekly Sunday extended family get-togethers. For a few glorious hours on Saturday I make dishes for two meals the next day, sometimes happily getting up before dawn on Sunday to knead dough or roll out pie crust to complete those meals. I can also ignore my deadlines when we host one of our regular potlucks or, as we did last month, have a house concert here. Actually, I can rely on the Feeding People Excuse pretty much every day, whether I’m working in the garden or harvesting produce from that garden to make a pot of soup. Chopping vegetables is, for me, a more reliable way to enter that lovely state of flow than clattering at a keyboard, although I wouldn’t give up writing any more than I’d give up cooking.

All this time spent in the kitchen hasn’t made me more accomplished than anyone else. I have serious faults that include broiling when I shouldn’t broil, horrendous knife skills, an overly casual approach to measuring, and chronic delight in using strange ingredients when normal ones would have worked better. I’m also (rightly) accused of making enough food for a lumberjack camp. Which gives me all those leftovers to send with you…

But I can say this. The cells of our bodies are built by the air we breathe as well as by the food and drink we ingest. To grow that food, to cook that food, is to be part of nourishing life in those we cherish. This, to me, is one of the most basic ways to demonstrate love.

 

*Yes I ended a sentence with a preposition. I’m breaking rules outside of the kitchen too. 

I Live in Dichotomy House

bull steer

I’m standing at the kitchen counter rolling out crust to make an entrée my son wants for his birthday. Beef pies. They won’t be filled with just any beef, but the tender flesh of a two-year-old steer named Clovis who spent his whole life on our little farm. It’s hard to reconcile my feelings with the facts. Right now I’m dicing the brisket, a place where Clovis liked to be scratched.

Years ago my daughter made an excellent case for raising a dairy cow as a learning experience for her and homegrown way for us to procure healthy grassfed milk we could turn into yogurt, kefir, and cheese. On her birthday we gave her a red halter and soon after we got a lovely Guernsey. Isabelle changed her life. All our lives

The spring that Isabelle gave birth to her first bull calf was another game-changer. Initially I tried to delude myself that little Dobby  could be trained to work as an ox or that we could find him a place in some farm animal sanctuary. Delusions they were indeed. Our only option was to raise him for a year or two, knowing all our hand-fed carrots and apples couldn’t forestall his eventual fate.

When he was small my daughter halter-trained him, leading him out the pasture gate to fresh grass. Even later, at 1,600 pounds, he followed her just as future steers would do. Long before they had to leave, she wisely insured they’d be calm and unafraid for the day they’d be led to the truck taking them away.

It’s a hard truth indeed to realize that calves who love to be brushed, calves who cavort in exultation when the gate to a fresh pasture is opened, calves who are clearly attached to the mother who birthed them and continues to care for them, cannot live out their natural lifespans. We consoled ourselves knowing that at least here our steers lived every day of their lives with their mother, grazing and nursing in peace until the last day they breathed. And that Isabelle could live out her natural lifespan, more than three times longer than dairy cows are typically permitted in the U.S. This is rare, almost unheard of, on today’s farms.

But I veer from my point. (This veering is a chronic problem of mine.)

My scruples once ruled. My children were raised on vegetarian food made from scratch. I used to be pretty darn strident about this. Heck, I used to be pretty strident about all sorts of things, from education to politics. My scruples haven’t changed, at least I think they haven’t, but my ability to live with dichotomy has.

Maybe it was precipitated by that not-so-great dinner of bean patties with buckwheat groats and mushroom gravy, but at this point three out of four of my offspring now include meat in their diets. (Yes friends, it’s true, our dictates don’t inform our kids’ choices. ) My husband once ate meat only at restaurants and other people’s houses because I couldn’t bear to have the flesh of once-living creatures in our home. Then he became a hunter. People dear to me quite happily flourish on the opposite end of the political spectrum and I do my (sometimes faltering) best to establish common ground, because really, every one of us wants the same things —-among them the freedom to live in safety, do what enhances our lives, and find meaning in our everyday activities. People dear to me also raise their children very differently than I’ve chosen, from sleep training to stringently academic schooling to tough love.

Every year I’ve learned more about accepting, even embracing, differing viewpoints. It’s not easy. There’s plenty of kvetching, from me and surely from the people who do their best to put up with me. This is a very big deal. It’s the foundation of peace, the only possible way forward for our species.

I slice up the very flesh I once lavished with rubs and scratches,  then I roll out dough (yes, with whole grain flour) because my son hopes I’ll try the Cornish Pasty recipe he showed me. (For vegetarian family members, I make spinach pies that are refreshingly free of contradictions.)

I have no philosophy that fully explains this contradiction. But I try to stay awake and aware as I make food for someone I love out of the flesh of an animal I once loved. I reflect sorrowfully that, since last spring, we have no cattle at all on our back pasture. I’m sure I miss those mindful beings far less than my daughter must.

I wash the wooden cutting board, wipe the counters, and consider how complicated and paradoxical life is. We live on life, pass from life, and life goes on. I don’t know what to make of it except to rationalize a second glass of wine.

13 Smart Ways To Make Healthy Foods Fun

Fun ways to get kids eating healthy.

Eat outside. It makes an everyday meal more fun. Image: CC by 2.0 Rolands Lakis

You want the little darlings to eat what’s good for them — and like it. You know power plays, bribes, and other control efforts don’t lead to healthful eating habits in the long run. So what’s a parent to do? Here are some gentle yet effective tactics.

 

Shrink It

Making healthy foods fun for kids.

If you’ve got a kids’ tea set, let em use it!

Kids enjoy scaled down versions of everyday objects. Maybe it lets them feel larger or maybe such things are easier to use. Every now and then, let your children eat from tiny dishes. No need for a tea set; you probably have the perfect sizes in your cupboard. Use the smallest appetizer plate for a dinner plate, a ramekin for soup or cereal, and a shot glass or other tiny vessel for a beverage. Baby forks and spoons are already miniature utensils. Smaller dish sizes automatically scale down portion size, meaning kids might actually have room for tiny second and third helpings. Encourage kids to serve themselves. They can refill glasses using a tiny pitcher, creamer, or even a small measuring cup with a spout. I know teenagers who still think that eating with tiny dishes is a hoot.

 

Focus on companionship

Making healthy foods fun for kids.

Togetherness is as important as taste. Make that more important! (CC by 2.0,  Mark)

When eating is about companionship, it builds positive associations between healthy food and togetherness. Relaxed conversation also de-emphasizes who eats how much of what. Kids who eat family meals regularly tend to have better dietary behavior as teens. And family discussions also boost brainpower.

 

Make fruits and vegetables the first course

Put a somewhat different selection of produce on the table while you make dinner. It chases away the hungries.

Put produce on the table while you make dinner. It chases away the hungries in a healthy way.

This is one way to take advantage of hunger to develop lean eating habits. Fruits and vegetables are brimming with nutrients but low in calories, so a first course of produce makes sense. Plus, studies show that snacking this way spurs kids to eat more veggies during the meal as well. Simply put different fruits and vegetables on the table while you’re cooking, after sports practice, or whenever appetite hits. Liven it up on occasion with a variety of kid-friendly dips and spreads.

 

Make faces

Of course you should play with your food! (Thanks to At Second Street for plate painting instructions.)

Play with your food! (Check At Second Street for plate painting instructions.)

Paint distinctive “face” plates with a simple outline of eyes, nose, and mouth. You can do this at one of those decorate-your-own pottery places or paint them at home as Second Street does. If you’d rather buy them ready-made, purchase a face plate like  Fred and Friends Food Face or one from the ThoughtfulTot Etsy shop.  Face plates let kids arrange a different visage at each meal: maybe spaghetti hair with a green-bean mouth at dinner tonight, then a tortilla beard sporting black-bean lips and salsa eyebrows at lunch tomorrow.

 

 

Accept help in the kitchen, garden, and market

Hands on ways to make healthy food fun.

Kids want to get involved. (CC by 2.0 Stephanie Sicore)

Better yet, expect help. Whether your child is a toddler or a teen, hands-on responsibilities increase maturity and builds skills they’ll need throughout life. Let your mutual interest in great taste (and a speedy dinner) translate into enjoyable time together.  You know that stage when two-year-olds beg to help with whatever you’re doing? That’s the time to start saying yes. The younger you let kids help, the better. It won’t be long before you’ll have kids who are fully capable of making dinner for YOU.

 

 

Eat like a monster 

Healthy food fun for kids.

Or a vampire. Or a zombie. (CC by 2.0  rhobinn)

There’s nothing wrong with pretzel-stick fences over cheese slice sunsets or broccoli trees sprouting from mashed-potato landscapes, as long as the kids are the ones who create and then cheerfully devour the scenery. It’s also fun to chow down adorable meals like those shown in such books as Bean Appetit: Hip and Healthy Ways to Have Fun with Food, Tiny Food Party!,  and Funny Food: 365 Fun, Healthy, Silly, Creative Breakfasts.  Remember, you won’t have to say, “What do you mean you’re not eating your dinosaur pancake!” if you make sure kids have had a hand making it. Use books like these as a starting point for inspiration. And don’t forget to make monster noises as you bite the nose off an elephant-shaped sandwich.

 

Try muffin-tin meals

Muffin tin meals.

Healthy little bites for a fun meal. (CC by 2.0  Melissa)

This worked wonders for my four kids when they were small. We called them Super Snacks. Each child got a six-cup muffin tin. We filled the six openings with different offerings in small amounts. The compartments kept each food item from the sin of touching another food, and the concept was novel enough that my kids were more willing to try something new. Back then, I thought I’d made up the muffin-tin meal concept, but it turns out lots of parents do the same thing. Well, not quite the same; they’re much more clever. Check out Muffin Tin Mondays.

 

Grow it 

How to make healthy family meals fun.

Gardening grows kids who like fresh food. (CC by 2.0 NCVO London)

If you have the space for garden or there’s nearby community garden, put your child in charge of at least one planting. A child is much more likely to eat a homegrown crop, especially after tucking peas in the ground and watching the seedlings emerge, grow, and flower. And peas, like many freshly harvested plants, are particularly tasty eaten right as they’re plucked from the vine, still warm from the sun. To avoid the misery of weeding, you might want to use a natural weed barrier method to keep them to a minimum.  There are plenty of ways to garden if you don’t have access to a bit of dirt. Start a jar of sprouts on the counter. Try container gardening, such as a pot of peppers on the balcony or a window planter of basil. You might even try an upside-down planter, or geek out by creating a vertical window garden on your own. For more ideas, check out books like Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children and Kids’ Container Gardening: Year-Round Projects for Inside and Out.

 

Get closer to your food origins

Getting kids to eat healthy.

Make bread as your ancestors did.

Try making cheese, butter, bread, and other staples from scratch. Go to pick-your-own farms. Your kids will be eager to dig into baskets of blueberries and bags of apples for a taste, but they’re just as likely to be eager to try radishes, endive, broccoli, pecans, and other treats they pick themselves. Join a CSA that encourages members to donate time on the farm. Explore your own ethnicity through food by reconnecting with the recipes, stories, and heritage that are part of your background. (Try asking grandparents and great-grandparents for their food memories. And their recipes!) Your enthusiasm can spark the same in your kids.

 

Make eating new, unusual, or typically kid-scorned foods a privilege

Getting kids to eat well.

Enjoy your food with gusto, but don’t coerce kids into trying a bite.

Rather than family policies such as “Try just three bites” or “Clean your plate,” you avoid the pressure of overt encouragement. You might say, “Would you like to try it?” rather than automatically giving a serving. You might wait until your child asks for a bite of what the adults are eating. I found it powerful to imply that the dish is something the child is more likely to enjoy when older. Any of these tactics puts the emphasis on the pleasure found in unfamiliar foods. You can’t enforce taste.

 

 

Look forward to cooking

Fun with healthy food.

Bite right into the heart of a heart-shaped pizza. (CC by 2.0 woodleywonderworks)

Talk about foods you want to try. Watch food shows together. Develop an archive of cooking videos that inspire you. Heck, consider filming your own cooking videos. Page through food magazines together to find recipes you’d both like to try. Regularly use cookbooks aimed at young cooks, such as Mom and Me Cookbook,
Southern Living: Kids Cookbook, and Mollie Katzen’s Salad People and More Real Recipes.

 

Take it outside

Getting kids to eat well.

Breakfast tastes better on the porch. (CC by 2.0 David Goehring)

A meal or snack is instantly more delightful when you take it outside. Sit on the front steps or under a tree with your plate. Pack an impromptu picnic and take it to the park. Wrap up in snowsuits to drink cocoa out of a thermos. You might even, as my Eastern European friends do, wait until a bright winter day to take a hike and cook dinner over a fire.

 

 

Ramp up the entertainment value with friends

Yes, it's quite possible your kids will be more adept in the kitchen than you. (CC by 2.0 Coqui the Chef)

Yes, it’s quite possible your kids will be more adept in the kitchen than you. (CC by 2.0 Coqui the Chef)

If your kids are young, offer a simple cooking class for your children and their friends in your own kitchen. If your kids are teens, let them sign up together for a class at a cooking school to learn pastry techniques or the secrets of French cuisine. Encourage kids of any age to start a regular cooking club. It’s a great way for them to socialize while creating menus, and shopping lists, and then cooking the dishes they’ve chosen. Let them build on their interests. They may want to devote one session to making foods mentioned in a favorite movie and the next session to making bento-box lunches.

 

When your kids regard cooking, baking, and food experimentation as great ways to spend time, they’re well on their way to understanding the allure of good food.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Wired.com

You Are the Food You Think About

fast food changes behavior, junk food brain, fast food thinking,

There’s such a thing as “fast food thinking.”

There’s plenty of evidence that food choices affect our behavior. But here we’re talking about what happens when we simply think of fast food.

You don’t even have to eat fast food to see behavior changes. It merely has to cross your mind.

We think we’re in charge of our choices. Our moods. Our long-term goals.

Apparently not.

Marketers work hard to shape consumer behavior. They use neuroscience findings to figure out how to attract our attention. They use psychological research to manipulate our needs. Of course we rationalize, “I’m the exception. I know my own mind. Just thinking about fast food can’t affect me.”

Chances are, it does.

A three-part study showed the mere act of thinking about fast food makes people more impatient, more eager to use time-saving products, and less likely to save.

Wonder why we all feel hurried? In the first experiment of the three-part study, half of the participants were shown subliminal images of six fast-food chains (McDonald’s, KFC, Subway, Taco Bell, Burger King, and Wendy’s). The images were seen only twice, for just 12 milliseconds — much faster than the conscious mind can recognize. Participants who were exposed to these subliminal images rushed through tasks even though they were under no time pressure.

Wonder why eco-friendly, well-made products aren’t top sellers? In the next experiment, participants were asked to recall a recent fast-food meal before rating products. When they did so, they were more likely to choose time-saving as the best rationale for making a purchase over other factors, such as environmental friendliness, aesthetics, or quality.

Wonder what happened to saving money? In the final experiment, participants who briefly looked at fast-food logos were much more likely, when considering compound interest, to choose a small payout immediately rather than wait for a larger payout later.

Children are even more at risk from this “fast-food thinking.” Because their brains are still developing through the teen years, young people are much more vulnerable to techniques used by marketers. Child-development experts see all kinds of detrimental effects, including what psychologist Allen D. Kanner calls the “narcissistic wounding” of children.

The problem is more, much more, than fast food. It has to do with a daily bombardment by messages telling us we should have it all and have it quickly — even though neither leads to greater happiness. As Robert V. Levine noted in A Geography of Time, people actually feel more impatient when they have access to time-saving devices.

There are benefits to waiting. Things like patience and a rush of pleasure when what you’ve been anticipating is finally ready. Picking apples together, cutting them, and baking them into a pie takes time. The smell of the crust breaking under your fork and the shared exclamation as you take the first bites together: bliss.

This experience can’t compare to a McDonald’s apple-pie dessert warmed in its cardboard sleeve.

What we eat and how we eat may no longer satisfy one of our deepest hungers: the desire for connection to people, place, and culture. We see the results of that separation in our health and environment.

Contrast these slogans:

  • “Have it Your Way” (Burger King)
  • “You deserve a break today” (McDonald’s)
  • “Your Way, Right Away” (Burger King)
  • “What you want is what you get” (McDonald’s)
  • “You can eat great, even late” (Wendy’s)

with this thought:

“As you eat, know that you are feeding more than just a body. You are feeding the soul’s longing for life, its timeless desire to learn the lessons of earthly existence — love and hate, pleasure and pain, fear and faith, illusion and truth — through the vehicle of food. Ultimately, the most important aspect of nutrition is not what to eat but how our relationship to food can teach us who we are and how we can sustain ourselves at the deepest level of being.”  ~Marc David

Living in a fast-food society changes more than our eating habits. As that recent study indicated, we unconsciously hurry other aspects of our lives as well. When we find ourselves “getting through” anything to get on to the next thing, we’re ignoring the here and now. We’re ignoring our lives as they are in this moment.

Let’s think instead of fast food as a metaphor, a symbol showing us that there’s another way to experience what’s right in front of us.

 

Originally published in Culinate 

fast food behavior, food related behavior,

A McDonald’s apple-pie dessert warmed in its cardboard sleeve can’t compare to sharing a slice of home-baked pie with a friend. (image: pixabay.com)

Gifting a Week of Meals

giving meals, cooking for others, meal sharing,

Yum. (CC by 2.0 thebittenword.com on flickr)

Soon after my second baby was born, I was informed that I’d be receiving a week of meals delivered by my friends. The next seven nights our doorbell rang and there stood someone dear to me holding warm dishes filled with delights.

A break from planning and making dinner was a blessed relief. It also exposed my family to a wider array of foods. More importantly, each night we sat down to eat a relaxed dinner lovingly made for us.

We were given so much food that we tucked lots of it in the freezer, spreading the bounty of kindness into the following weeks. One friend came laden with two different kinds of lasagna, one with garlicky white sauce and spinach, another layered with black beans and lots of veggies. Years later I still make both of her recipes.

A week of meals for families with new babies became a tradition in my circle of friends and my Le Leche League chapter. Here’s what worked for us.

1. Someone particularly close to the new mom and her family usually broached the idea to their mutual friends. We never designated a person in charge of planning. But your group of friends, or church, or neighborhood may decide that putting one person in charge of noting who will make a meal which night makes it easier.

2. We contacted the new mom with some basic questions such as best days and times to drop off food, food preferences, and if she wanted food brought ready to eat at dinner time or in advance to heat up later that day. Some moms preferred to have meal deliveries every other day.

3. Then we verified the plans with all potential participants. It worked best to accommodate a variety of needs among people contributing meals. Some preferred to drop off bags of Mid-Eastern salads or trays of sushi they picked up on the way home from work. Some didn’t have time to deliver a meal during the week but happily provided brunch on the weekend. It helped to jot down what people were planning to make so the family didn’t end up with three enchilada entrees on three consecutive nights.

4. We sent out a full schedule to everyone participating. It functioned as a reminder, listed who was bringing what, and offered suggestions such as labeling pans and including recipes. A shared Google doc can uncomplicate things. Or use one of these online meal scheduling sites to make this easier:

Meal Baby

Take Them a Meal

Meal Train

Care Calendar

Lotsa Helping Hands

Caring Meals

Of course, a new baby isn’t the only reason to provide a series of meals. It’s a great way to welcome someone home when they return from service project or military assignment. It’s a godsend when people are dealing with illness or injury. And it’s remarkably helpful during the time a family is undergoing a major home renovation. Mix it up. Rather than arranging a week of steady meals, you might offer a meal every Wednesday or set up a regular potluck date to eat together.

There may be no more basic gesture of kindness than feeding people. Food sharing is a tradition found in every culture, stretching back to our earliest history. It’s a stomach-filling, community-building kindness like no other. It can also swing back around remarkably. By the time my fourth child was born I was gifted with a full three weeks of meals, nearly all made by people I’d once cooked for. It was an embarrassment of riches but oh how those delicious foods warmed our hearts.

Other ways to build community:

Bring Kids Back to the Commons

Engage the Window Box Effect

It Really Does Take a Village

We Don’t Need No Age Segregation 

Welcome Kids Into the Workplace More Than Once a Year

Odd Second Saturday Suppers

Better Together: Restoring the American Community

The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods

All That We Share

This is a repost from our farm site

Googling Gooey Butter

online interfering with off-line, memories without internet,

Does the net affect our memories? Yes, but maybe not the way we think it does.

My sister and I were talking on the phone about one of the family trips we took as children. Our schoolteacher father and our stay-at-home mother hitched a tiny travel trailer up to the car to take their children to as many educational sites as possible each summer. That they managed months-long trips with two often squabbly girls and our toddler brother was remarkable. That they kept to a necessarily minuscule budget, even more so. They did this by never once buying prepared food of any kind. Every day at lunchtime we ate sandwiches on store brand white bread washed down with not-too-cold fruit drink, then got back in the car to keep driving. My mother cobbled together every evening meal using two aluminum pans, washing those pans and our plastic plates in a shoebox-sized sink. To me, an ungrateful and hermit-y little girl prone to motion sickness, these trips were a sort of educational hell.

Thankfully, one of our stops was in St. Louis to visit with my father’s only brother and his family. After weeks in a cramped trailer and even more cramped car, it was wonderful to spend the night sleeping in a roomy basement with cousins we hadn’t seen in years. We were even allowed to babysit ourselves while our parents went out to a restaurant. The adults brought us a rare treat, McDonalds, and we stayed up late talking and laughing. We showed our cousins how to draw grids on notebook paper to play Battleship. They showed us new card games. The next morning our aunt purchased some kind of St. Louis specialty for breakfast. Growing up in a household where doughnuts and store-bought cakes never crossed the threshold, this was unimaginable luxury. My sister and I remembered the sweet sticky coffee cake but not its unusual name.

After I got off the phone with her I got online to look it up. I got waylaid by flood warnings for St. Louis, so I checked maps to see if the water was rising by my uncle’s house. Then I was distracted by an article about pharmaceutical residue found in waterways. And of course I got sidelined by emails with editing questions, new article deadlines, some G chats that pleasantly used up too much time. Totally forgot my initial quest.

The next morning I saw the note I’d scribbled while talking to my sister. This time I vowed to focus for the few seconds necessary to Google it. I found the name of the confection almost immediately. It’s called Gooey Butter. I fussed around reading about how the cake is based on a baker’s mistake made back in the 1930’s and how customers swear allegiance to specific variations sold by different stores in St. Louis. I even looked at a few images, although none of them looked nearly as enticing as the cake I remember. Then I scrolled over to recipes. I was disappointed to note that nearly every one started with a yellow cake mix. I closed those screens sadly. I meant to email my sister the name of the cake but I’m pretty sure I instantly got caught up in the time flush that happens online. Probably never got around to it.

I realize with uncomfortable clarity that slurping up information online does little to deepen our experiences.  It would have been better to leave the cake unnamed in our memories, held on unfamiliar plates as we clustered around a vinyl tablecloth listening to our aunt say, “You’ve never had anything like it” while we tried the first sweet bite.

I succeeded in finding links to scratch recipes. Here’s the cream cheese version and the non-cream cheese version. I made the cream cheese version for my family, marginally healthier with organic ingredients. And if you ask someone who hails from St. Louis, be careful to avoid expressing your Gooey Butter preferences. Chances are, theirs are much more fervent. 

Good Butter, home version.

Eat Your Dandelions

dandelion recipe, dandelions for health, eat dandelions, don't kill dandelions,

Image courtesy of thaowurr.deviantart.com

“You EAT them?” a little boy new to the neighborhood asks. He leans forward for the answer, his face ready to constrict in doubt.

Children already well acquainted with our family’s springtime ritual stop picking.

“Yeah!” they eagerly assure him, “They’re really good.”

They aren’t referring to a new vegetable in our garden. They’re talking about dandelions.

Herbalists tell us exactly what we need grows nearby. Those plants we call “weeds” may in fact remedy what ails us. They are so common that their properties are easily overlooked in a culture searching for packaged wellness. Plantain, mullein, comfrey,mint, mugwort,St. John’s wort, chicory and purslane spring up wild in my untreated lawn and garden. Weeds, but also powerful healers.

Today we’re picking dandelions in full flower. It isn’t about finding a remedy. For me the harvest is has to do with celebrating spring and affirming the beauty around us. For my children and our neighbors it’s about fun. I wait until the blooms are at their peak. Then I call friends and neighbors to announce, “Today is the day!”

Children spread out across the yard holding little baskets. A girl squats in front of each plant, pausing a long moment before she reaches out to pluck a flower from its stem. The  oldest boy in the group walks by many dandelion plants to pick only those growing in clusters. And the newest little boy falls silent, as the rest of the children do, taking delight in the seriousness of the harvest.

European settlers brought the dandelion plant to this continent for food and medicinal purposes. The perennial spread easily across most states. It’s a testament to the power of herbicide marketers that such a useful plant became so thoroughly despised. Standing under today’s blue sky, I look at exuberant yellow rosettes growing in bright green grass and feel sheer aesthetic pleasure.

After the children tire of picking we sit together on the porch and snip off the dandelion stems right up to the flower. We mothers look over their busy heads—blonde, brown, black—and smile as we watch them stay at this task with the kind of close attention children give to real work. One girl remarks that the flowers look like the sun. Another child says her grandmother told her that in the Old Country they call the plant by the same name as milk because of its white sap. The newest boy chooses to line the stems neatly along the wide porch planking, arranging and rearranging them by length.

Every aspect of a ritual holds significance so I pay attention to the warm breeze, the comfortable pulse of friendship, and flowers so soft against my fingers they remind me of a newborn’s hair.

When we’re done the flowers are rinsed in a colander, then it’s time to cook them. I’m not a fan of frying. There are better ways to preserve the flavor and nutrients in food. Consequently I’m not very skilled. But this is easy. The children, their mothers and I drop the flowers in a thin batter, scoop them out with slotted spoons and fry them a dozen at a time in shallow pans.

After the blossoms cool slightly on paper towels they’re put on two platters. One is tossed with powdered sugar and cinnamon, the other sprinkled with salt and pepper. Handfuls are eaten in the kitchen while we cook. Then we carry the platters outside. Children run off to play in grass polka dotted with bright yellow flowers. We adults sit on the porch laughing and talking.

It’s suggested that we should be eating healthfully prepared dandelion greens and roots rather than indulging in delectable fried blossoms. That sentence fades into a quiet moment as a breeze stirs new leaves on the trees and lifts our children’s hair. I feel enlivened. Everywhere, around me and inside me, it is spring.

eat dandelions, healthy dandelions, dandelion flower recipe, fried dandelions, dandelion blossom recipe, Flower Power Recipe

Gather dandelion flowers from areas free of chemical treatments or fertilizer. Pick in a sunny part of the day so the flowers are fully open, then prepare right away so flowers don’t close.
Cut away stem, as this is bitter, leaving only the green part holding the flower together.
Douse briefly in salt water (to flush out any lurking bugs). Dry flowers on dish towels while you prepare batter.
Ingredients
3 to 4 cups dandelion flowers, prepared as above
1 cup milk (dairy, soy, almond, coconut, any variety)
1 egg (or equivalent egg replacer product)
1 cup flour (slightly smaller amount of any whole grain alternative)
½ teaspoon salt
oil (frying is best with healthful oils which don’t break down at high temperatures, try safflower oil, coconut oil or olive oil)
Method
1. Combine milk, egg, flour and salt in wide bowl. Mix well. Heat an inch or two of oil in skillet (350-375 degrees).
2.  Drop a dozen or so blossoms into the batter, stir gently to coat. Lift out with slotted spoon or fork. It’s best to hold the bowl over the skillet as you drop each blossom into the hot oil.
3. Turn flowers over to brown on both sides. Remove with slotted spatula to drain briefly on paper towels. Continue to fry remaining flowers using same steps. Toss cooked dandelions with sugar and cinnamon. Or salt and your choice of savory flavoring such as garlic, pepper or chili powder.
4. Making flower fritters is a speedier method than frying individual flowers. Simply drop flowers and batter into the oil by the spoonful, then turn like a pancake. Serve with jam, maple syrup or honey. Or try savory toppings like mustard, ketchup or barbeque sauce. These fritters are endlessly adaptable. Try adding sunflower or sesame seeds to the batter and serve with either the sweet or savory toppings.
dandelions for health, cure yourself with dandelions, dandelion benefits,

Image by photobri25.deviantart.com

What You May Not Know About Dandelions

The common dandelion, Taraxacum officinal, has been used in traditional medical systems around the world to boost nutrition as well as treat conditions of the liver, kidney and spleen; slow abnormal growths; improve digestion and more. Recently science has taken a closer look at this often scorned plant. No surprise, traditional wisdom holds up under scrutiny.

~Dandelion root stimulates the growth of 14 strains of bifidobacteria.1 This is good news, because bifidobacteria aid in digestion. Their presence in the gut is correlated with a lower incidence of allergies.2

~Dandelions appear to fight cancer. Researchers testing for biologically active components to combat cancer proliferation and invasion note that dandelion extracts have value as “novel anti-cancer agent[s].” Their studies show dandelion leaf extract decreases growth of certain breast cancer cells and blocks invasion of prostate cancer. The root extract blocks invasion of other specific breast cancer cells3  and also shows promise inhibiting skin cancer. 4

~Dandelions work as an anti-inflammatory and pain relieving agent.5

~Dandelion extract lowers cholesterol. This, plus its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities leads some researchers to believe that the plant may reduce the risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).6

~The plant’s leaves are an effective diuretic.7

~Dandelion shows promise in diabetic treatment. It slows the glycemic response to carbohydrates, thereby helping to control blood sugar.8

~Dandelion extract increases the action of estrogen and progesterone receptors. It may prove to be a useful treatment for reproductive hormone-related problems including PMS.9

~ Leaves, roots and flowers of the humble dandelion are fully edible. USDA National Nutrient Database analysis proves that a festive array of nutrition awaits any lawn harvester. One cup of chopped fresh dandelion greens are extremely rich in vitamins K, A and C as well as good source of vitamin E, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6,  calcium, iron, ,magnesium, manganese, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.10

The flavonoids found in dandelions are valuable antioxidants and free radical scavengers.11

 
1 I. Trojanova, V. Rada, L. Kokoska, E. Vikova, “The Bifidogenic Effect of Taraxacum Officinale Root,”  Fitoterapia vol 75 issue 7/8 (December 2004), 760-763.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15567259  (accessed 8-29-09)
2  Bengt Bjorksten, Epp Sepp, Kaja Julge, Tiia Voor, Marika Mikelsaar, “Allergy Development and the Intestinal Microflora During the First Year of Life,” The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology vol 108 issue 4 (October 2001), 516-520. http://www.jacionline.org/article/S0091-6749(01)96140-8/abstract  (accessed 8-29-09)
3 S.C.Sigstedt, C.J. Hooten, M.C. Callewaert, A.R. Jenkins, A.E. Romera, M.J. Pullin, A. Korneinko, T.K. Lowrey, S.V. Slambrouck, W.F. Steelant, “Evaluation of Aqueous Extracts of Taraxacum Officinale on Growth and Invasion of Breast and Prostate Cancer Cells,” International Journal of Oncologyvol 32, num 5 (May 2008), 1085-1090.  http://www.spandidos-publications.com/ijo/article.jsp?article_id=ijo_32_5_1085  (accessed 8-30-09).
4 M. Takasaki, T. Konoshima, H. Tokuda, K. Masuda, Y. Arai, K. Shiojima, H. Ageta,  “Anti-carcinogenic Activity of Taraxacum Plant,” Biological & Pharmaceutical Bulletin vol 22, 6 (June 1999), 602-605.  http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.cpl.org/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=108&sid=b7ce94b0-1484-4aef-a5a8-73e1efddb194%40sessionmgr104&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=cmedm&AN=10408234  (accessed 9-1-09).
5 H.J. Jeon, H.J. Kang, H.J. Jung, Y.S. Kang, C.J. Lim, Y.M Kim, E.H. Park, Anti-inflammatory Activity of Taraxacum Officinale,”  Journal of Ethnopharmacology vol. 115, 1 (January 2008), 82-88.  http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.cpl.org/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=108&sid=4b56dd3a-f9b3-4444-b85d-80d79eb1f3ce%40replicon103&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=cmedm&AN=17949929  (accessed 9-1-09).
6 Jinju Kim, Kyunghee Noh, Mikyung Cho, Jihyun Jang, Youngsun Song, “Anti-oxidative, Anti-inflammatory and Anti-Atherogenic Effects of Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale) Extracts in c57BL/6 Mice Fed Atherogenic Diet,”  FASEB Journal vol 21, issue 6 (April 2007), 1122.  http://wf2dnvr17.webfeat.org/aNuiM141/url=http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=5&sid=a168be9f-0a5c-41c6-b86d-2a9c3677c6f4%40sessionmgr4&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=25598840   (accessed 9-1-09).
7 Bevin A. Clare, Richard S. Conroy, Kevin Spelman, “The Diuretic Effect in Human Subjects of an Extract of Taraxacum Officinale Rolium Over a Single Day,” Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine vol 15, issue 8 (August 2009), 929-934.  http://wf2dnvr17.webfeat.org/aNuiM14/url=http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=9&sid=a26346e7-f010-44fc-88ea-891214f7539a%40sessionmgr10&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=43671001     (accessed 9-1-09).
8 Secil Onal, Suna Timur, Burcu Okutucu, Figen Zihnioglu, “Inhibition of a-Glucosidase by Aqueous Extracts of Some Potent Antidiabetic Medicinal Herbs,” Preparative Biochemistry & Biotechnology vol 35, issue 1 (February 2005), 29-36.  http://wf2dnvr17.webfeat.org/aNuiM141/url=http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=8&hid=104&sid=982fd009-501c-4a90-9ce3-7d5475b2ed05%40sessionmgr4&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=16133864    (accessed 9-1-09).
9 Zhi Xu, Ken-Ichi Honda, Koji Ozaki, Takuya Misugi, Toshiyuki Sumi, Osamu Ishiko, “Dandelioin T-1 Extract Up-regulates Reproductive Hormone Receptor Expression in Mice,” International Journal of Molecular Medicine volume 20, 3 (2007) 287-292.  http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=19007317   (accessed 8-27-09).
10 USDA Agricultural Research Service, USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 21, (2008) NDB # 11207  http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/cgi-bin/list_nut_edit.pl  (accessed 9-1-09).
 11 Hu C. Kitts, “Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale) Flower Extract Suppresses Both Reactive Oxygen Species and Nitric Oxide and Prevents Lipid Oxidation in Vitro,” Phytomedicine 12, 8 (August 2005), 588-597. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16121519?ordinalpos=1&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DiscoveryPanel.Pubmed_Discovery_RA&linkpos=2&log$=relatedarticles&logdbfrom=pubmed  (accessed 9-1-09).

This post is reprinted from an article that first appeared in Natural Life Magazine

Yes, Diet Can Affect A Child’s Behavior

research diet and behavior, food intolerance and mood, food intolerance and school problems,

USDA Commons

I’m one of those annoying people.  I grow enough organic produce to put up hundreds of jars of home canned goods each year. I grind grain to make fresh flour, use coconut oil instead of canola, even make my own herbal tinctures. I was probably a little nutty about nutrition before I had kids. I got a lot nuttier afterwards. All of my health-foodie ways didn’t ward off my third child’s problems. He was born with a hole in his heart. Even after that was resolved he rarely seemed fully healthy. He had asthma, chronic skin irritations, an ever-stuffy nose, and low resistance to any passing germ. He never complained and his disposition was so sunny that we believed the doctors who told us there was no reason to worry. I reassured myself that his life was full of good food, wonderful experiences, and plenty of nurturing from our close extended family. But that sunny disposition didn’t ease the way for him at school.

ADHD and diet,

Image mountainwaves’ Flickr photostream

His kindergarten teacher said he was cheerful but he preferred helping other kids to completing his own work.  The next year it got worse. His first grade teacher complained that he was distracted, didn’t get his work done, and tended to sit with his hands folded over his head in a posture that enraged her. At her insistence we took him to a psychologist. He was diagnosed with ADD.

I was sure we could find a solution, maybe by further perfecting his already healthy diet. So we took him to a pediatric allergist for a series of tests. The outcome shocked us. My little boy reacted strongly to nearly everything I’d been feeding him. Worse, the doctor warned us that our son’s breathing was dangerously impaired during food intolerances may surprise you,  and after the test, which indicated that his food allergies were serious. Final test results showed that my son was allergic to soy, to nearly a dozen fruits, and to every grain but rice. The foods I had long suspected, including chocolate and dairy, were not a problem at all.

The doctor was so concerned by my son’s asthma flare up that he advised the gold standard, an elimination test to uncover additional food intolerances. We went home with a long list of dietary and environmental allergens to avoid. My son’s dinner that night was a bowl of rice cereal. Ever the optimist, my son noted that he’d be happy to live on chocolate milk.

For decades experts have denounced any link between diet and behavior problems. They often poo poo’d a connection between common health problems and food as well. Back in the 1970’s, parents who insisted their children thrived on the Feingold Diet were told the evidence was entirely anecdotal. Studies that disproved diet and behavior links, despite questionable procedures, were widely publicized. One such study examined children’s reaction to food dyes. Both the experimental and control group of children were given beverages containing sweeteners and artificial flavoring, only the experimental group’s beverage also contained food dye. Both groups of children behaved similarly after the drink. Claims for a connection between diet and behavior were then denounced although press releases rarely mentioned how the tests were conducted. But scientific evidence is accumulating to prove what parents have suspected all along.

research diet and child behavior, diet and mood, diet and ADHD,

Wikimedia Commons

Our children’s minds and bodies are built by what they eat. Some children (like mine) are much more sensitive than others. Previous studies have shown that even children who are not diagnosed with ADHD or other behavioral disorders react to drinks containing artificial color and sodium benzoate. Not just a mild reaction. They typically increase their activity levels by one-half to two-thirds, in league with their ADHD peers.

But everywhere our kids turn, marketers push processed and nutritionally devoid foods at them. In fact, more than a third of the calories U.S. children consume now come from junk food.  Is it worth fighting the battle against these overwhelming influences? Certainly seems that way. More and more data is piling up to prove the point. And it’s compelling. Research shows that a junk food diet is linked to a lower IQ and a greater likelihood of school failure. And it’s not just junk food. We might feed our kids the healthiest foods, but if they don’t tolerate these foods well chances are they will react.

One study took a close look at the way ADHD behavioral problems may be caused or accelerated by diet. One hundred children with ADHD symptoms, ages 4 to 8, took part. Fifty of the children and their parents were counseled about healthful diets. The other fifty children were put on diets limited to foods unlikely to cause reactions: rice, turkey, lamb, carrots, lettuce, pears, and other hypoallergenic items.

elimination diet, food intolerance,

Image from jimforest’s Flickr photostream

By the study’s end the majority of the children on the limited diet showed significant improvement on a variety of behavioral ratings. Before the diet their symptoms put them in the moderate to severe range of ADHD, but diet intervention reduced to symptoms to those classified as mild or non-clinical. That’s big news.

In my son’s case, changing his diet wasn’t easy. But we could see the difference in a week’s time. His stuffy nose cleared. The bumps on his skin smoothed out. And we discovered that he kept his arms folded over his head so often because it expanded his lungs and help him breathe, something he didn’t need to do as his asthma got better. My son didn’t stick with all the new dietary limitations all the time, especially as he got older. And a restricted diet wasn’t the whole answer.

Together we learned that school wasn’t the right place for his particular gifts to flourish. Once we started homeschooling we were free to explore more natural learning. Without the pressure of cafeteria lunches, classroom snacks, and school parties it was much easier to feed him the foods his body tolerated well. Including chocolate milk. Being the nut I am, I took even chocolate milk to the extreme. Now we have dairy cows.

Confessions of a Subversive Cook

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It’s a family joke that I am unable to follow a recipe. Not a funny joke but completely true.

I can’t help myself. I tweak the kind of flours and fats, ramp up the spices, toss in a few extra ingredients, adjust the methods used. Yes this approach alters a recipe beyond recognition. But my family will admit the end result usually tastes good even if they like to ask, “Okay, now tell us what’s really in here.” That’s because I’ve been known to put chard in popsicles, beets in dip, and beans in brownies.

Sometimes I try, really try, to follow a recipe to the letter. There’s the real joke. Because when I do the results are awful. The casserole is tasteless, the biscuits are scratchy, and the cookies slump into pools of goo. Clearly improvising is the best route for me.

What I really like about improvisation is facing the challenge our great grandparents faced as they ran frugal households. The same challenge accepted by cooks every day all over the world. Very simply, to use everything well while wasting nothing. This is more about necessity than anything else. It means the cook knows what is in the garden, pantry, and refrigerator at all times. She knows a hard frost is coming, so the rutabagas can stay in the ground but the green tomatoes must be picked. She remembers that the potatoes in the pantry are starting to soften and must be used right away. She knows the lentils made two days ago have to be served or frozen.  She finds ways to use carrots going limp and cheese getting dry. She purees leftover soup to make sauce for an entrée and turns yesterday’s roast chicken into today’s enchiladas. In our current economy it’s not a game for many of us. This real life pursuit is more interesting and more rewarding than any competition faced on Top Chef.

I find the creative aspect downright addictive. So tonight, when our dinner guests called to say they were running late I realized I had time to make another dip to serve alongside our homemade salsa. I turned up the music and started pulling out potential leftovers. A few ounces of cream cheese abandoned when the asymmetrical but tasty homemade bagels ran out, a few spoonfuls of leftover canned chile in adobo sauce, a large cooked sweet potato. Probably doesn’t sound like a dip. Except to this recipe heretic.

I warm the cream cheese a little, then mash half the sweet potato with a fork and mix in a bit of the chile in adobo sauce. The texture is awful and the taste is nothing like dip. So I toss it in the blender. Nope, it’s too thick to blend. I add a dollop of sour cream. Blend. Oh, nice orange-y color. Taste? Needs something. I toss in a pinch of dry chipotle powder and a dash of salt. Blend. Taste. Needs more heat so I add a bit more chile in adobo sauce. Blend. Taste. It needs some freshness. I have green tomatoes, tomatillos, and peppers but I don’t think I’m aiming for a raw element. Instead I pour off a tiny bit of the liquid from the salsa we canned. Blend. Oooh, it’s good. Still needs something to round off the strong edge. Hmmm. Maybe this sort of spicy will benefit from a little sweetness. I think about putting in applesauce but first try drop of our honey. I give the blender another whirl. Perfect!

The doorbell rings, the dogs bark, and our friends come in bringing lively conversation. My improvised dip is there on the table next to the salsa, waiting to be scooped up with blue chips. The colors are an aesthetic delight and the use of leftover ingredients satisfies my frugal heart. But what’s really a pleasure is watching the whole bowl emptied by friends who rave over the taste even after I confess that it’s made out of sweet potato. In a heavenly kitchen somewhere I hope those great grandmothers nod their approval.

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Subversive Cook is now the title of my next book. I’m slow at work on it. See how you can contribute at subversivecook.com or get in touch with me using this site’s contact form. 

Unfit for Polite Society

behaving rudely, what not to say at a potluck, how we're like chimps, avoid the rich,

Volunteer with a non-profit long enough and you’ll eventually find yourself agreeing to attend a member potluck. That’s why Spouse Man and I found ourselves pulling up the drive of what was clearly no ordinary house. To us the place looked like a mansion. It was populated with casually well-dressed people who talked about jazz clubs, eco tourism and where to get the best cheese. Things I would probably talk about if my annual income weren’t equivalent to what these folks spent on really good moisturizers.

Our smiles and greetings were completely ignored, as if we were low ranking primates walking slack-shouldered around the perimeter of alpha animals. Fine with me. That way I could do as I wished without the pressure of making conversation with strangers.

I boldly filled my plate with the most unfamiliar foods and poured a glass of organic wine. Anticipating an exiting gustatory event for my first mouthful I forked up the ugliest stuff, sure that taste would make up for appearance.

Wrong. Very wrong.

I deeply wanted to spit it out, but showed remarkable restraint. Only a grimace gave me away.

Now I know the first rule of potlucks is to utter nothing but praise for the food, but I had already determined that we were invisible in the press of people all glibly chatting about topics beyond our scope of wealth. And truly, I spoke so quietly that lip reading would have been helpful. All I did was lean toward Spouse Man, point to the smeary pile of brown on my plate and advise him lovingly, “Don’t get any of this tasteless goo.”

Immediately a woman materialized behind me. A tall woman with large aggressive earrings. She said (I think into a megaphone), “I made that. It’s polenta.”

Now I’ve met polenta before and this was no polenta. It was more like Cream of Spam, extra grainy.

I apologized, stammering something unintelligible about a cook’s poetic license. I even shoveled more of the glop into my mouth without shuddering. She watched until the heat radiating from my fuchsia-toned face drove her away, surely toward people more polite and gracious than a potluck food slandering boor.

I slunk off to drink more organic wine near a large potted plant. From this unobtrusive vantage point I pretended to be a party version of Jane Goodall, carefully watching the behavior of my own species. Still stinging with shame after hurting the feelings of Aggressive Earring Polenta Woman, I’m sure I wasn’t objective. But I did find that my fellow potluckers shared common traits. I observed that we humans indulge in the same expressive pouting, posturing and nit-picking found in any group of chimpanzees.

Except chimps would have thrown the food.

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This piece first appeared on Poor Mojo’s Rant

Chimp image courtesy of Sihonorio