Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Pie for Mikey

I have been crying off and on all week when I think of Jennifer Perillo - a woman I've never met - a woman who lives on the other side of the continent from me. Jennifer is food editor of "Working Woman Magazine." She's a blogger, a mom, and was, until a week ago, a wife. Her husband, Mike, died unexpectedly a week ago of a massive heart attack.

Word of Mike's death spread quickly via Twitter throughout the food blogger community and from there to the rest of the world. If you think that it's impossible to say anything meaningful in just the 140 characters allowed in a Twitter message, Jennifer's post right after her husband's death might change your mind. She wrote, "He's gone. And my heart is shattered in a million pieces."  What more could there be to say?

Countless people across the country have offered her support. And in response to the typical question, "What can we do to help?" Jennifer replied with this in a blog post:
"As I spend Friday reflecting on the love and life that was gone in an instant, I'd like to invite all of you to celebrate his life too. Mikey loved peanut butter cream pie. I haven't made it in a while, and I've had it on my to-do list for a while now.
I kept telling myself I would make it for him tomorrow. Time has suddenly stood still, though, and I'm waiting to wake up and learn to live a new kind of normal. For those asking what they can do to help my healing process, make a peanut butter pie this Friday and share it with someone you love. Then hug them like there's no tomorrow because today is the only guarantee we can count on."
 She included in the post her recipe for peanut butter cream pie.

Yesterday, I noticed on Twitter that #apieformikey was trending in Seattle. Today it has been trending across the US, Canada, Australia, the UK and New Zealand. I saw countless tweets yesterday from people making pies and getting ready to deliver them. Some people posted their own favorite peanut butter pie recipes. It felt like a movement had begun. There's no way to know how many pies, and variations on that theme, have been made in Mikey's memory. And that's a beautiful thing.

For as many times as I have teared up this week thinking of Jennifer's loss, I have come to tears of joy just as many times reading about the outpouring of loving kindness this event has brought about. When I think not just of the kindnesses extended personally to Jennifer and her two girls, but all those pies made with love and passed along to thousands of others, I can't help but feel appreciation for my fellow human beings. My heart is full.

Of the various posts I've seen this week online, two stand out in my mind as being most eloquent. Shauna Ahern's post, "light in the darkness," captures not only her shock at the news of Mikey's death, but also the essence of the camaraderie found in the food blogger community. She describes a recent gathering of these food folks, who may have met initially in cyberspace, but in "real life" are connected by their love of food and the sharing of that love. (Find Shauna @glutenfreegirl on Twitter)

The second post is Todd Porter and Diane Cu's video: Peanut Butter Pie for Mikey. This combination of video, music and twitter messages expresses much more than a single one of those elements ever could. (Find them @whiteonrice on Twitter)

I believe it was Shakespeare who said, "'Tis an ill wind indeed that blows no good." It is my hope that Jennifer and her family will find some comfort in knowing that their loss has opened so many hearts and kitchens. For all its twists and turns and pains and mysteries, life is still good. And so are people.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Pioneer Woman Cooks

I don't know how she does it. Ree Drummond writes more blog posts in a day than I do in a month. She home schools her 4 children. Helps her husband, Marlboro Man, on their ranch. She has a cooking show premiering on Food Network on August 27th. She is an avid photographer, sharing Photoshop tips and hosting photo contests. And, oh yes, she's written a cookbook.

Part memoir, part photo album, and all heart, The Pioneer Woman Cooks - Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl, is entertaining from cover to cover. It is remarkable to see how this woman, once a strict vegetarian and city girl, has embraced meaty menus and country living. That's what falling in love will do to a person! (Yes, she does reveal her love story in the book and in serial form on her blog.)

If you are a beginner in the kitchen, no worries. Ree takes you through each recipe, step by step. She is a natural teacher and she uses her photography skills to show you the way. As an example, there are 10 photographs accompanying her recipe for meatloaf. Ten! That's like having her stand right next to you, coaching you through the process.

If you love comfort food, she's got you covered. There's the aforementioned meat loaf, plus buttermilk biscuits, fried chicken, skillet cornbread, Edna Mae's sour cream pancakes, chicken fried steak, flat apple pie, mac 'n' cheese, chicken pot pie - are you hungry yet?

But even if you have little interest in cooking or baking, the book is worth reading for its depiction of life on a working cattle ranch. Ree married into a ranching family; their business was started by Marlboro Man's great-grandfather. Throughout her book, there are photo essays that include: shipping cattle in the mud, the difference between chaps and chinks, a "miss mustang" beauty pageant, real cowboys working calves, and photos of her family at work and at play. The Pioneer Woman Cooks is much more than a cookbook, it is a portrait of her family's life, a way of life few of us ever see.

Like I said, I have no idea where she finds the time to do all she does. But I sure am glad that Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman, so generously shares her life with us.

An Effective Alternative to Anti-Depressant Drugs

I struggled with depression from early childhood until my early 40s. Yet after years of believing that there was nothing I could do to escape that dark place, I turned the corner and left that neighborhood for good. What changed my life? Reading the first chapters of a little book called, "Feeling Good."

I'll never forget that day. I saw the book on a table at Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle, thought it sounded interesting and bought it. I started reading it as I rode the bus home. I skimmed through the parts that described studies done to determine which treatment methods worked best for depression.

I skipped ahead to find out which one was the winner. The choices were: talk therapy, drugs, a combination of drugs and talk, or a method that sounded crazy - just monitoring thoughts and when painful thoughts came up, changing the subject to something more pleasant.

I expected that the drug/talk combination would come out ahead. So I was astonished to find that the winner, by a substantial margin, was simply - changing the subject. When I read that, the proverbial light bulb went on for me. All my life, I assumed that I had no control over how I felt. I believed that my emotions were in control of me. I believed I couldn't help thinking the thoughts I thought because I felt so bad.

But this research showed that just the opposite was true. I might have control after all. Instead of repeating unhappy thoughts over and over in my head, I could deliberately choose to think about something else. As my thinking changed, my mood would change.
Just change the subject. What a concept! I had never considered that before.
And so I tried it. It wasn't easy to break thought patterns accumulated over a lifetime, but I began to catch myself when I got caught up in depressing thoughts. I began to think of cleaning up my thinking as good "mental hygiene."

Most importantly, it worked and continues to work. I am quick to notice now when I start to go down the path of negative thinking. I know where that path leads and I no longer choose to spend my time there.

I am grateful, too, that finding this book helped me avoid the path called "drugs." Every time I see one of those commercials for anti-depressants and hear the list of side effects, I'm glad I avoided that choice.

Note: The copy I read was the original, published in 1980. A new, updated edition was released in 1999.

Eat Right 4 Your Type

What does blood type have to do with your digestion? Quite a bit, as it turns out, according to Dr. Peter D'Adamo, author of "Eat Right 4 Your Type."

I have been fascinated with food and physiology since nurse's training in the late 60s, and this book was a welcome eye-opener for me. It cleared up questions that had stymied me for a very long time.

For example, I had long been puzzled by my observation that some people are happy and healthy eating a certain way, but when other people follow the same diet, they gain weight and feel lousy. If there is such a thing as an ideal, balanced diet, along the lines of the "food pyramid," why don't we all respond in the same way to what we eat?

From my personal experience, I know that after 3 days of following a vegetarian diet, I have no energy. It doesn't matter what plant proteins I try or in what combinations, I barely have the strength to lift a piece of paper. But for some reason, as soon as I eat a hamburger, I feel great. I apparently have a politically incorrect metabolism.

However, according to Dr. D'Adamo, the key to healthy metabolism lies not in our ideology but in our blood type. From the research he and his father have done, there appears to be a direct correlation between blood type and digestion. Here's how it all breaks down (sorry, pun intended):

Type O Blood. The is the oldest blood type, the blood type of the earliest hunter-gatherer humans. Their diet was primarily animal protein and fat, with small amounts of carbohydrates. This diet provided the huge amounts of energy needed to survive harsh conditions. Type Os, like me, retain those ancient metabolic characteristics. (Which solves the hamburger mystery.) Grains and dairy, which were not part of the early human diet, are not well tolerated by our systems.

Type A Blood. Thousands of years later, humans began to settle down, create permanent communities and cultivate crops. This is when people began eating grains. With this addition to the diet, human metabolism began to adapt, and a new blood type, Type A, began to appear. People with Type A blood do very well on a diet of grains, vegetable proteins and carbohydrates. Meat and dairy products are not very well tolerated by Type As.

Type B Blood. Further along the evolutionary trail, humans began to domesticate animals and added dairy products to their diet. And again, blood type adapted. Type Bs have many more choices for dinner because they can enjoy a range of meats, dairy, vegetables and certain grains.

Type AB Blood. This is the newest, and rarest, blood type. It is also the most idiosyncratic, combining characteristics of A and B, plus a few of its own eccentricities.

Beyond these explanations, "Eat Right 4 Your Type" gives detailed lists of foods, seasonings and beverages for each blood type - according to which are most beneficial, which are neutral and which to avoid. There are also a few recipes in this book to get you started should you choose to try "eating right for your type."

It has been several years since I first read this book and tried eating this way. I always feel better when I follow his guidelines and avoid grains (especially any containing gluten) and dairy. I have lots of books on nutrition and cooking - this is one I come back to over and over again for good information.

Related post: Spaghetti Squash and the Blood Type Diet

Fat of the Land

I am fortunate to live in the Pacific Northwest, a place of extraordinary beauty and bounty. It is a forager's dream. However, I am not a particularly avid hunter and gatherer, unless we're talking about visiting the local PCC or Metropolitan Market.

But that doesn't mean I'm not interested in the delicacies to be found in the local forests and icy waters of Puget Sound. I am. I just don't want to be the person who hikes, camps and dives to get those wonderful foods. So I am grateful there are people like Langdon Cook, who are willing to do the hunting and gathering and then write about it so I can enjoy the adventure vicariously.

Cook's book, Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager, takes us on a culinary journey, as he collects his favorite foods in season throughout the year. Each chapter takes us on a new adventure, from diving for ling cod to hunting for edible mushrooms. He is an engaging writer, combining history, science and a few good recipes in such a way that you feel like you've been on the hike or dive with him. And then had the pleasure of eating the treasures he collected.

Here you will find stories about gathering fern "fiddle heads,"the origins of at least a dozen types of oysters, jigging for squid, sharing huckleberries with bears, identifying edible mushrooms, and much more. At the end of each chapter is a recipe, featuring that chapter's foraged food. If you find, as I did, that after reading the book you want to know more about Cook's adventures, you can keep current by following his blog.

It is amusing to me that this book about the ancient practices of hunting and gathering is available for download to your Kindle. What a world we live in!

Horse Heaven

(NOTE: This review was originally posted on May 2, 2011.)

The 137th running of the Kentucky Derby will be this Saturday, May 7. Billed as "the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports," this event is steeped in tradition, from the racing silks, to the elaborate garland of roses presented to the winner, to drinking mint juleps and singing "My Old Kentucky Home." Derby Day is also a fashion show, where women's hats rival those seen at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton last week.

For all of that, the real stars of the show are the horses. Have you ever wondered what it takes to breed and train a race horse? I knew next to nothing about the subject until I read Jane Smiley's book, "Horse Heaven." I picked the book up on a whim when browsing at a local bookstore. I remembered reading Smiley's book, "Moo," years ago and how much I enjoyed the characters she created.

Although I wasn't sure I was that interested in horse racing, I thought that if anyone could create a compelling story about this sport, it would be Smiley. I was not disappointed. In this book she has created not one story, but several, giving the reader many views into this world of high hopes, high stakes and frequent heartbreak. You see it through the eyes of trainers, owners, riders, bettors, and you hear from a woman who communicates telepathically with horses.

Of particular interest to me is Smiley's take on what a race horse thinks about his world. Beyond what might be called "horse sense," she imagines how a horse experiences his circumstances and decides what to do. (She also takes a brief journey into the mind of one owner's little dog, which gave me a new and slightly more positive perspective on those yappy creatures.) As the stories of each of her horse "characters" unfold, individual personalities emerge, contrasting with those of the humans along side them.

The business of horse racing is complex, demanding and very expensive. Smiley shows us this world in detail, from the tedium of day to day care of the horses to the coddling of their owners. The view isn't always pretty, but it is fascinating.

Above all,  this book is a series of stories about relationships: relationships between spouses, lovers, family members, co-workers, business associates, and between humans and animals. It is neither a comedy nor a tragedy, although it has elements of both.  If you are looking for an absorbing read, I'd say put your money down on "Horse Heaven" -- it's a pretty safe bet.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Post Secret

The Post Secret books are the result of a project started by Frank Warren in January of 2005. He began by leaving pre-printed post cards in various places, with a note asking people to send the cards back to him, anonymously, with a secret they had never told another person. In the beginning, just a few trickled in, and then a few more, and in a short time there was a steady flow of cards arriving at his Maryland address.

The woman who was the letter carrier on Warren's route during that time wrote a wonderful blog post last year, describing how the project unfolded from the post office perspective. She noticed the post cards as they began to show up to be sorted and delivered each day. She didn't think too much about them and certainly never turned one over to read it. But one day she dropped one of the cards and it landed message side up. As she bent over to pick it up, she couldn't help but see what it said: "I like to have sex with strangers." From that day on, life was a lot more interesting for employees at that post office.

Years have gone by, and the postcards keep on coming. Some have simple hand-written messages. Others are clever works of art. All are touching in some way.

Every Sunday, Warren posts a new crop of postcards on his blog. The Sunday Secrets have become part of my Sunday morning ritual, right along with coffee and the Sunday paper. Over the years, Warren has compiled these postcards into books - five of them so far.

What is amazing to me is that people keep writing about the same themes of love and loss, life and death, joy and betrayal, and yet each is a fresh expression. Of course, the same thing can be said of most books. And yet, this project is unique: for while reading other people's secrets might be life changing for a reader, finding the courage to share one of those secrets is undoubtedly life changing for the writer.

Having a Baby

My oldest child was born in the US Air Force Hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany, in May of 1970.

For you younger moms out there, I'd like to point out that giving birth in a hospital 40 years ago was a very different experience than what you have today. Back then, natural childbirth was discouraged. In the delivery room, we gave birth laying flat on our backs with our hands shackled - it was considered necessary to tie our hands down to prevent us from reaching down, touching our babies and "contaminating" them. Most hospitals had policies forbidding dads from being in the delivery room - it was thought that fathers would faint or throw up, thus requiring medical attention. It was better to have them wait outside where they wouldn't be any trouble to anyone.

I was aware of all this because I had been present at various births during nurses' training back in the States. Watching moms struggle to give birth, having no control over their situation, gorked out on drugs, in a room full of strangers, made me determined to have a better experience. To me, that meant natural childbirth.

Of course, at the time that I made that decision, I hadn't counted on moving to a foreign country, getting pregnant and delivering at a military hospital. But there I was. And if information on natural childbirth was scarce stateside, it was non-existent in my military community abroad. I was on my own to figure this out.

It happened then that I came across a book called "Thank You, Dr. Lamaze," written originally in the 1950s by Marjorie Karmel, who also was on a quest to find a way to give birth more easily and naturally. (Have you ever noticed how books seem to show up just when you need them?) This book did not explain the Lamaze method in a step-by-step way, because it was, as I recall, more of a memoir. But from it I did learn breathing techniques to use in labor.

I didn't get to have natural childbirth with my first child. But I came close. I was admitted to the hospital at noon and he was born around 2:30 p.m. I did my breathing and it worked! I didn't feel like I needed anything for pain. However, it was hospital policy that all moms were given spinal anesthesia before delivery. I protested, but they gave it to me anyway. After the injection, I had a half dozen contractions and my son was born.

The experience showed me that I could have a baby fairly easily without drugs. Which is exactly what I did when my second child was born in a Chicago-area hospital two years later. I had to interview several doctors before I found one who would allow me to deliver naturally. But I succeeded and am glad for having had that experience. Learning to work with my body during labor, breathing to keep my body as relaxed as possible, allowed me to experience the full-on power of giving birth. It was, to use a word often wasted on the mundane, awesome.

If you are looking for a book on Lamaze technique, there are better books available. (Check Amazon's reviews.) But I find it interesting that more than 50 years on, Marjorie Karmel's experiences have so resonated with readers that her book is still in print. To her, I say, thank you.

Are you a mom? Was there a book you read during pregnancy that made a difference for you? Please add a comment and share your experience.

Moving to Seattle

My favorite book by local author, Tom Robbins, is "Still Life with Woodpecker." I have a well-worn copy that was given to me as a gift in December of 1980 by a dear friend. She passed away a year ago, making this particular book, and the inscription from her, all the more precious to me.

Another reason this copy is important to me is that I lent it to other friends of mine and asked them to underline and initial passages they especially liked. The idea of marking up a book went against the grain for all of us, trained as we were from childhood NOT to write in books. But considering Robbins' irreverent, rebellious approach to life, I thought that, if asked, he would not only give us permission to do this, he'd probably insist on it. So my copy of Still Life is truly one of a kind, festooned with underlinings of different colors, initials and scribbles from people trying to get their pens to write.
(I credit this particular experience for giving me the courage to start writing in cookbooks, a practice that has improved my cooking immeasurably.)
At the time, I was living in St. Louis. I had a settled life with kids in school and a steady job. I had no intention of living anywhere else. But one of Robbins' descriptions of the rain in Seattle lingered with me for years. When I first read that passage, I thought, "I want to go there." Nearly a decade later, I did. And shortly after that, I moved to Seattle for good. There were many other factors involved in the decision to move, but Robbins' writing was like music playing in the background. Here is that quote:

"On the mainland, a rain was falling. The famous Seattle rain. The thin, gray rain that toadstools love. The persistent rain that knows every hidden entrance into collar and shopping bag. The quiet rain that can rust a tin roof without the tin roof making a sound in protest. The shamanic rain that feeds the imagination. The rain that seems actually a secret language, whispering, like the ecstasy of primitives, of the essence of things."