Pickles, Wonder Food of the Future; or all about carflickles

I thought pickles were a nothing food, no value, no calories, not really food, just salt. I thought they were just there on my plate in a restaurant for the crunch and the pucker, you know? Something sorta green on the plate to make it look like there’s more variety? Turns out I was wrong.

According to an old book my mom sent me called All About Pickling (Ortho Books, 1975): “The art of pickling predates recorded history. It’s roots probably go deep into Chinese culture. We know that laborers on the Great Wall of China ate lunches of salted vegetables…. Cleopatra valued pickles as a secret of beauty and health. She introduced them to Julius Caesar and soon he added pickles to the daily diets of the Roman legions and gladiators, thinking pickles would help keep the men in top physical condition…. The ‘new world’ was even named after a Spanish pickle dealer ‘Americus Vespucius.’… Early Puritan settlers believed that pickles should be served daily as a ‘sour’ reminder to be thankful for the ‘sweet’ gifts of the land.”

I had no idea America was named after a pickle dude. How weird is that?

So I just had to make some!!

I made a few other food items this weekend, too, actually. From left to right: six cups of cooked down strawberry puree sweetened with maple syrup to use as flavoring for homemade yogurt (I bought a yogurt maker to start cookin that treat myself!), eight pints of strawberry jam (only three left from the first batch I made in late June), a jar full of apricot fruit leather (yummo!!), a half-filled jar of dried blueberries (eight cups of fresh berries made only THAT much? SOOOO not worth the effort), three quarts of a pickled vegetable medley which I like to call carflickle (carrots and cauliflower, in a pickling brine with purple onions, garlic, and dill), and dilly beans (pickled green beans). Whew! And if you think I’m tuckered out…yup, you’d be guessin right!

But all the produce is local and mostly organic, and I’m trying hard to do what I can within my current means (financial and time) to preserve some of this summer bounty for the long winter ahead when the cool, crisp crunch of pickled cauliflower might bring us back to that lovely Saturday in August when we spent the day at J and S’s house puttin’ up our veggies. (J and S went to Peru in Jan. on the same trip as I did — they are good people, those two.) Ah, but do pickled veggies really have any food value?

On this count the book shared some interesting nutritional facts that surprised me. For instance, the brining solution is high in potassium. The “vitamin A content of fresh produce is actually increased through the pickling process. Even though some of the vitamin C is decreased, pickles still retain richer deposits of the vitamin than other processed foods. … Vinegar prevents oxidation which allows the vitamin to escape from cut surfaces.”

Who knew? Well, other than my grandma, and pretty much all the immigrants who came to our country and homesteaded, and well, most people throughout the world. Ah, yes, well, okay, so I’m late in coming to this but at least I’m gettin there! I’ll be sure to report how they came out when we crack ’em open in November or December. Hope it’s worth the wait. 🙂

On Gratitude…

I’ve read two unrelated articles in the last day that have really made me stop and think. I’ve been in mega self-improvement mode for the last year, and two weeks from tomorrow my sabbatical ends and I go back to teaching full time, so I’m trying to tie up some loose ends.

Looking back over the last year, I can see that I’ve made a lot of progress in several areas of family and personal life. There have been some lingering issues that are unresolved, of course, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on how far I’ve/we’ve come:

1) My husband and I have a one-on-one meeting each Sunday to discuss any relationship or personal issues and devote some time to maintaining the health of our marriage.

2) On Saturday mornings, the three of us (me, hubster, and son) hold a family meeting to give each of us, and especially our son, a chance to air concerns or make requests. We also use that time to go over our week’s schedule.

3) I lost twenty-five pounds and have kept it off for months now. I have finally recognized that I have a weight problem whether I am currently overweight or not. So I need to be vigilant and keep my physical health front and center. Stress eating is most likely to occur if I do not take time to plan and cook decent food. So I absolutely must make time for planning and preparing. So far, so good. But I continue to go to weight Watchers each month and weigh in and attend a meeting.

4) I started reading again. Not for my job. I read as an English Professor a lot. But I mean reading for pleasure and for enlightenment. I started a book club at my church, killing the proverbial two birds with one stone by forming this club within our “Women’s Group.” There was such a women’s group at our church in the past, but right now our book group is it. The best things about doing the book group this year are getting to read and discuss some terrific books and getting to know these awesome women. I’ve never belonged to a book group before. I highly recommend it!

5) I am exercising more. Okay, not as much as I’d like to or need to, but more than before. And I’m okay with that. It’s improvement. I’ve added regular walking into my fall schedule (along with time to plan, prep food, and read), so I am sure to have the time to exercise if I merely stick to the plan.

6) I have become a writer. Early on in this blog I wondered if I were a “real” writer if I did not write every day. The funny thing is that the more I wrote on this blog, the more I felt like a real writer. The more I wrote, the more I thought of my life in terms of what I would write about it. I love writing now as never before. I’m not sure how I’ll fit blogging into my schedule this fall. But I’m going to try to find a way because it keeps me thinking in terms of words on the page and helps me produce raw material. I have not scheduled time in my week this fall for blogging, but I have, however, scheduled in time for my creative writing. I’ve NEVER done that before. When school started, I used to stop all creative or scholarly writing. I’m not willing to do that anymore.

7) Most recently I’ve also gone a long way toward helping my family to reduce its ecological footprint in terms of food consumption. We had already joined a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm a couple of years ago. We enjoy getting a share of fresh veggies direct from the farm each week of the growing season. Now I’ve also signed us up for a pasture-raised meat CSA and a fruit CSA. I also just discovered that not five miles from us there is a local dairy (with organic cows) that delivers milk in those old-fashioned glass milk bottles! I still haven’t figured out a good source for other food products like grains, but I’m getting there. It feels SO good NOT to feel guilty about contributing to global warming by eating non-local, highly processed and over-packaged food. We’re not yet where I want us to be, but much improvement on this front!

Now, back to some things left unfixed and the two articles I read.

A lot is unfixed. Such is life. But one thing that I have noticed this year and that really bothers me is a certain bitterness I have been feeling about some things that have happened to me and to loved ones in the last few years. I have also, the more I learn about the state of the world, become more anxious about our planet’s future than I ever have been before. I have been working hard this year to try to find a way to let go of the rancor and fear and to embrace a sense of peace. I am naturally optimistic and positive, but I’ve become less so in recent years. This sabbatical year I have been looking for a way to regain my healthier outlook on life, to restore balance.

So, anyway, yesterday I read this article in the Sept. 2008 issue of Body and Soul magazine: “Thank-You Therapy” by Terri Trespicio. The title may sound like it’s a trite essay, but it contained the right info to help me. Here’s what I learned:

(a) A study showed that people who wrote five things for which they were grateful each week in a journal felt better about their lives than people who kept track of their problems or just kept a record of events. The gratitude group also was healthier physically and, get this, spent more time exercising — up to 80 minutes more a week! Further, people who kept a daily gratitude journal for two weeks were more likely to “offer emotional support and help to others” than those keeping the other journals.

(b) A study showed that the earlier truism that people have a set point for happiness (a predetermined level of happiness that pretty much stays the same over the long term regardless of circumstances) is not exactly true. In fact, they found that about half of a person’s happiness comes from genetics (their set point) and 10% from circumstances, but a full 40% comes from “intentional activity,” our habits, essentially. The author makes the point that you can actually “bump up your happiness set point” if you commit to a regular practice of gratitude. Gratitude can be learned. We get better at it if we practice it. Hmmm.

(c) The article gives a lot of examples of how to practice gratitude. Here are some of the ones I most liked: “enjoy a mindful meal,” reflecting with gratitude on the people who helped bring that food to your table; “start a gratitude wall” by writing things for which you’re grateful on stickie notes and putting them on a wall (I’m thinking of doing this on my office window); “pay a thank you visit” to someone you appreciate ; “flip your complaints” (i.e., every time you complain stop and think of something for which you are grateful); “set an alarm” to go off during the day and when it does, stop what you are doing and focus on something for which you are grateful; “count blessings, not sheep” before bed; for five minutes write “a bliss list” of as many things that you can remember for which you are grateful and keep the list in your purse or pocket to look at when you are waiting in lines.

The other article appeared in the UU World in Spring 2007, but I just got around to reading it this morning: “The Heart of Our Faith: Gratitude Should Be the Center of Unitarian Universalist Theology” by Galen Guengerich. This article clinched the whole gratitude thing for me, providing another reason for cultivating gratitude in my own and our family life. Here’s an excerpt that hits at the heart of gratitude as a religious principle:

… A sense of awe and a sense of obligation, religion’s basic impulses, are both experiences of transcendence, of being part of something much larger than ourselves.

The feeling of awe emerges from experiences of the grandeur of life and the mystery of the divine. We happen upon a sense of inexpressible exhilaration at being alive and a sense of utter dependence upon sources of being beyond ourselves. This sense of awe and dependence should engender in us a discipline of gratitude, which constantly acknowledges that our present experience depends upon the sources that make it possible. The feeling of obligation lays claim to us when we sense our duty to the larger life we share. As we glimpse our dependence upon other people and things, we also glimpse our duty to them. This sense of obligation leads to an ethic of gratitude, which takes our experience of transcendence in the present and works for a future in which all relationships—among humans, as well as between humans and the physical world—are fair, constructive, and beautiful.

Gratitude. Yup. That’ll work, I think. When one is filled with gratitude, there is no room for bitterness. When one is deliberately grateful, one turns away from fear. When one feels ones extreme good fortune, one works willingly and gladly for the good of others. When one is thankful, one is FULL of thanks, not rancor or fear. Not that I am FULL of rancor and fear, but I’d rather squeeze out those emotions and make room for thanks.

Now, I’ve got two weeks before school starts to try to get a habit of gratefulness started!

Another Trip to the Dentist: “Lucky Duck”

I arrived late at my new dentist’s office this Wed. I was in no hurry to get my cavity filled. UGH! Right away I was ushered into the examination room, and within a couple of minutes the dentist arrived and took a look at the tiny cavity in one of my upper left molars. “You’re a lucky duck,” he stated matter-of-factly.

It took a minute for his comment to sink it. Whatever could he mean? His pointy metal stick was still inside my mouth, so I said nothing. Then he said it again. Lucky duck.

“Uh. How so?” I asked quietly once my mouth was free of foreign objects.

“Your pin-hole cavity has re-mineralized.”

“You mean I don’t need to have a filling?!!!”

“Yup. You’re a lucky duck. That fluoride treatment at your last cleaning must have done the trick.”

Now, I’ve never heard of such a thing, but it makes perfect sense to me when I think about it. I was elated.

Huh? ELATED, you say?! Isn’t that a bit overboard?

Yeh, well, I’d been feeling kinda sorry for myself earlier this week because I had an optometrist appointment on Tuesday and found out that my near vision is finally showing my age. The Doc said, “The end is near….though you’re ahead of the game, really. Most folks’ vision starts to go at around 39 1/2. You’ve got almost four years on those people. Of course, your being near-sighted helped stave off the inevitable. I’ll give you six months to a year. Then we’ll need to get you into some reading glasses.”

I’ve worn glasses or contacts since I was in high school. I’m used to having poor vision. But I always kinda took a sort of pleasure in the fact that I could at least see up close unaided. Now I felt as if I had been given six months to live! I know. I know. Ridiculous. But it hit me hard. Here I am trying so much this year to get my act together: losing weight, seeking balance, getting proper sleep. And it just seemed to me that it was all too little, too late.

Of course, this is absurd. I am healthy and doing fine for a 43 year old woman. Yes, I still need to deal with the regular exercise issue, but overall I’m in really good shape. That day at the eye doctor, however, I was inconsolable. Then I went to my dentist appointment the next day, and I thought, “Hey, I’m not in such bad shape after all. Maybe my body isn’t falling apart. Probably eventually I’ll have to get that filling, but for now, I’ve got a respite. And so what if six months from now I need reading glasses? What’s the difference? It’s not as if I don’t ALREADY wear glasses!”

Then the dentist said, “While you’re here, let’s take a look at that other molar that is giving you the sensitivity problems.” He poked around up there a bit and then suggested that I visit a specialist, an endodontist (what the heck is that, anyway) to check out that problem further. Before I left the office, the receptionist made an appointment for me at the new guy’s office for the next day. (Yikes, three medical appointments in a row — what a week!)

So, wouldn’t ya know it, that guy found out that I have not one but two cracked molars, which is why I have experienced extreme cold sensitivity and moderate achy pain on that side of my mouth for the last year and a half. Duh. Why didn’t my old doctor take me seriously when I brought up this problem in the first place? SO glad I found a new dentist!

The diagnosis: cracked tooth syndrome. Seriously. That’s what they call what’s wrong with me.

The treatment: two crowns for the cracks and if ALL — and the endodontist was very clear on this point — 100% of symptoms do not disappear after the temporary crowns are fitted, well, then it’s time for a root canal before the permanent crowns are attached.

Funny thing is I’m still happy. I may be getting a painful and expensive set of crowns because I grind my teeth from years of stress, but, heck, my pinhole cavity healed itself. I may be getting reading glasses in another six months, but at least I can still see.

I’m a lucky duck.

What a Difference Some Sleep Makes…

I used to say, “I’m a night person.” And, well, I stayed up far into the night working (sometimes grading papers as late as 2 or 3 a.m.), so I figured that being capable of such feats proved that I was, indeed, a night owl. These days, since I am on sabbatical this year working on my book and not teaching, I’ve gotten in the habit of going to bed the same time as my husband, about 10 p.m. Lo, and behold, I can and do get up much earlier than I had heretofore thought possible, like, say, about 6:07 a.m. and I prefer going to sleep at a reasonable hour. In fact, I would rather get up early than stay up late.

What the heck is going on here?! I thought whether one is a morning or night person was something … er … inviolable. I mean, aren’t you born with such inclinations? Isn’t it just who you are?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been thinking a lot about my schedule and wondering if I might actually be able to create and sustain a more balanced work/home life by rethinking how I spend my time. So I figured that now would be a good time to try out a written, explicit, detailed schedule and see if this approach might work for me.

And this week is the inaugural week of full implementation of my new schedule. Huzzah.

No, seriously, it’s downright weird to have mapped out everything from time for grooming and eating breakfast to driving and family time. I’ve tried, though, to create a schedule as near as possible to what I’ll actually be doing this fall when I return to the classroom. The idea is that I can then tweek it to get it right before going back in Sept.

Anyway, the thing is that now that I am getting at least eight hours of sleep every night, all of a sudden so many things seem do-able. I’ve even been working diligently on a project that has been on the back burner (scorching slowly and creating an acrid smell in my mind) for many months. If all goes according to schedule, I’ll be done with what I need to do for the latest stage of that project this Friday!

NOTE: I also kinda cheated because I told my husband and son that if I finished my work on schedule, we would all go out to dinner at TGIF’s on Friday to celebrate. Now they are being extra supportive of my getting my work done 🙂

All these years, I always thought that I was just stuck with the pattern I was in. I’m a night person so I might as well stay up … even though I know I’ll still have to get up in the morning and go to work and I’ll be tired but oh, well, this is my life and I have all this work to do. Now I see that change is possible. Why do I see this now? Because I got some sleep! Lesson here? When one is overwhelmed by life’s busyness and the incessant have to’s and should’s, maybe getting some sleep is the first thing one should do. Then, one can think a little clearer about solutions. I KNOW that isn’t always possible, but, come on, isn’t more possible than you say…?

I’m working pretty hard to meet my obligations, but when my alloted time is up, I stop. I can’t tell you how good this feels. And I sleep, too. A full third of my week, yes, eight hours a day, is spent sleeping. I have heard that people from a lot of other cultures think Americans, with their workaholic frenetic activity all the time, are puzzling at best and insane at worst. I always understood, intellectually, their perspective. But in terms of really seeing this and being willing and able to make a change…?

Now, I’m not saying it will be easy. Old habits die hard. The academic life is notoriously boundary-less and all-consuming. But as my Weight Watchers leader says, “If you say I hope I’ll keep the weight off after I lose it, you won’t. You need to say that you will keep the weight off and here’s my plan…”

So I no longer just hope that I’ll find the time one day to get enough sleep. I’ve got my plan and I’m doing it.

G’nite all!

Total Eclipse and Dunkin Doughnuts: Vacation Fun

Yes, last night I let my ten-year-old son stay up past ten to watch the total lunar eclipse together. And okay. We consumed vast quantities of hot chocolate and doughnuts from Dunkin Doughnuts. So there.

My husband has been ill with a bad cold the last few days, even had to stay home from work the other day, so he sat this one out. (I think he was secretly glad that he had such a primo excuse to bow out…!) It’s vacation for my son, so his 8:30 p.m. bedtime didn’t exactly HAVE to be adhered to last night, especially when the whole moon was going to disappear behind the shadow of the earth. How cool is that?!

The thing is that there are a lot of trees around our house, and I just didn’t think we’d get a clear view of the luminous hunk of rock in the night sky. So we bundled up and headed down to our favorite park on the Merrimack river. As we pulled up, we realized that we did have a clear view of the moon, but there were a lot more lights around the park than we remembered. If only we had found a great, dark spot away from it all — but we live in a city. Sigh. So I drove us out of the parking lot and over towards the boathouse. It’s paved. I wasn’t really breaking any laws! And the lights didn’t shine so brightly there.

I parked the car and we saw the start of the eclipse. Then I began to wonder if my son’s enthusiam would last all 78 minutes until the moon was fully covered. Then it hit me. Dunks! Yes, right across the street there was a glowing Dunkin Dougnuts shop. We skuttled inside to get out of the cold. And brrr it was frigid outside. We were surprised to see the place overrun by teenagers. I guess the lady that works there was surprised, too. She said to me, “Do you think all these kids are here because of the eclipse?”

I don’t know about them, but I know we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the grand occasion. I’m NOT even going to look up how many Weight Watchers points hot chocolate and a doughnut are, and I do not plan to duplicate the high-caloric outing anytime soon!!

Anyway, we high-tailed it back to our spot across the street. Pretty soon another car pulled up sort of near us. The guy got out and started taking pictures of the moon. Then he drove away. But then he came back a few minutes later. That’s weird, we said. Then we saw him drinking out a Dunks cup!

The thing about the eclipse that was so surprising to my son and me was the orange glow. “How come the moon can still be seen even though the earth’s shadow is supposed to be hiding it?” asked my son.

Dunno, I replied.

Then we spent about a half hour talking about light and reflection and space and the coolness of the whole thing. We guessed, correctly, that the glow of the moon was due to a reflection of light from earth somehow (turns out it was from our atmosphere). Finally, with just a few minutes to go, I dragged my kid outside of the car and hugged him tight as we watched the last sliver of light disappear. The orange ball hung in the air, strange yet familiar.

As I turned to get back in the car, I saw a crowd of teenagers in the parking lot of Dunkin Doughnuts gawking at the sky. Yup. Mystery solved.

Odds and Ends: Various Interesting Queries Leading to My Site

From time to time, I see interesting search terms that people used to find my site, and I try to provide the needed information, however belatedly, for which those folks were searching. Here are three random queries of note:

(1) “Village Empowerment Project” donation

Ah! Is this a query about HOW to donate? If so, please go to the website of the Village Empowerment Project and contact John Duffy, the Director of the program. He will let you know how to make a tax deductible donation to the Peru project. (And a worthy cause it is!) The project is run primarily through the generous donations of individuals. Talk about a big bang for the buck — about $200 buys a transceiver radio which can save dozens of lives in these rural outposts and about $300 buys a vaccine fridge that can protect hundreds of children from deadly diseases. Now that’s a bargain! 🙂

(2) Time of the day Peruvians eat breakfast

As in my post of two days ago, the answer is “depende.” Those who work in the fields or mines, eat breakfast according to the needs of their work schedule — early, undoubtedly. My impression is that they have a light breakfast of coffee and a roll before heading to work as early as 6 a.m. Then they take a longer break for lunch and enjoy a big meal (starting anywhere from noon to 3 or so and lasting at least an hour usually). We ate breakfast anywhere from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and when we ate in restaurants, there were others around at that time, though never huge crowds. But maybe there are never huge crowds in restaurants in that part of Peru anyway…? I imagine most of the working poor, though, eat early.

(3) recipe for malfattis

I mentioned a while back that my Aunt D’Vern (Grandma’s sister) used to make malfattis and bring them to family gatherings, but I did not provide the recipe at that point. These are so delicious that I must share our recipe now. Not sure how many Weight Watchers points these are (though if I were making these while on the program, I would lighten up the ingredients with low-fat ricotta, etc.) I have trouble figuring points out sometimes because so much depends on the number of servings per recipe, and family recipes do not usually include that detail…. Anyway, here is D’Vern’s malfattis recipe (and, yes, it is Italian food and she was of Scandinavian heritage):

1 pound of ricotta cheese
1 cup of french bread crumbs
1/2 cup of parmesan cheese, grated fine
2 eggs
1 package of frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed
1 clove of garlic, minced
black pepper to taste

Drop by spoonfuls onto about 3/4 cup flour on cookie sheet and shape into little finger size rolls. Boil in salted water until they float, then drain in colander. Arrange in alternate layers in baking pan with extra thick meaty spaghetti sauce. Bake for about an hour at 350 degress (F) to mix flavors.

Looks like a simple recipe, huh? The mixing is simple, but the rolling into finger-sized bits take a while. Delicious, though. Now I may just need to make this recipe!!


On a side note, I hit a milestone of sorts for my blog this week. I have now had over 5,000 views of the site recorded since beginning on Sept 6. Not bad for a little experiment during my sabbatical. I am surprised by how much the blog has come to mean to me, though. And I suspect that I will be finding ways to use this technology when I return to teaching in Sept. of this year. Thanks to my readers for making this such a wonderful writing experience!

Final Word (Probably) on the Odd Congruities between The Hobbit and My Trip to Peru

My husband and I were reading The Hobbit to our son, as some of you may recall seeing in earlier posts where I pointed out several ways in which the book seemed relevant to me (as I prepared for my service trip to Peru). Well, we almost finished reading before I left — got through the climax at least — but still had Bilbo’s return home to read. As expected, said husband and son finished the book without me. Boo hoo! So when I returned, I read the final pages alone.

Bilbo, after being knocked out during the final battle and thus unable to help his friends, returns to consciousness when the battle is over. “He was now weary of his adventure. He was aching in his bones for the homeward journey. That, however, was a little delayed….” Ah, yes. After being out of commission for a while in Peru, having succumbed to all manner of intestinal bugs, I, too, was ready to go home (and felt as if I had been of little use to my friends on the last part of the trip, especially). As you may imagine, going home (when one begins that process in rural Peru) is a long, drawn out process which necessarily includes things like completing inventory of equipment left behind at home base, bringing the group together to reflect and feast at the beach, taking all manner of public transport to get to an international airport, flying several hours, passing customs in the US, transferring to another plane, and getting home from Logan International.

A weariness set in for both Bilbo and me. By the time Bilbo returned to Elrond’s house, he “had fallen quiet and drowsy” and slept exceedingly long. The elves, in fact, remark, “Tomorrow, perhaps, you will be cured of weariness.” This week since I came back, I have gone to bed uncharacteristically early, sometimes on the heels of my ten-year-old son at 8:30 p.m. I have also eaten with voraciousness, clearly making up for the lost calories of my starvation diet in Peru (not that the food didn’t look delicious — I just couldn’t eat anything). Yes, I am now fully rid of my intestinal bugs, thank goodness, and my appetite has returned with all manner of cravings. For someone who has been doing Weight Watchers since October, I am, understandably, cautious about wild abandonment when it comes to food. But honestly, I have decided that for this week alone, I just wouldn’t worry about what I ate. I felt that somehow I needed to feed my body and soul, and I wasn’t counting points along the way!

In the end, Bilbo returns to his home in disarray. This is where our paths diverge. I came home to the three things I asked my husband for in a desperate email from Casma one day: (1) clean bathrooms, (2) a clean, pettable dog, and (3) a few food items that I knew I could eat to get me back on track (Activia yogurt, instant chicken noodle soup, pasta, applesauce). My child did not fall apart upon my return, as he has sometimes done in the past (though we found out Friday that he had NOT done the work for his book report due that day … or a whole host of other in-class work in January!) Anyway, I am deeply grateful to my husband for holding down the fort while I was in Peru. He did a great job of juggling a huge number of tasks.

Back to Bilbo…. The book does say that Bilbo became a bit “queer” after he returned home — that “he took to writing poetry and visiting the elves,” in fact. And, of course, he began writing his memoirs, “There and Back Again.” AH! Yes, I can clearly see the impulse to write and process the trip as well as the love of poetry that emerges from a personal encounter with danger and deprivation. The yearning to listen to the elves’ beautiful music and enjoy their feasting and merriment makes perfect sense.

In Montessori education they discuss the Fundamental Needs of Human Beings. Yes, food and water, shelter and clothing, etc. But also religion, friendship, and art are fundamental. Without these latter things, we cease to be fully human. I have not fully fathomed my reaction to this trip to Peru yet. As someone suggested to me the other day, I am still “filing” things away in my brain. I do recognize in me a much stronger attraction to art in all shapes since I went away. I might even call this attraction a clear and pressing need. While I was in Peru, too, I found myself searching for the beauty and found much of it in that place, most often in the faces of the people, but elsewhere, too.

I leave you today with some of those beautiful faces…









101 Uses for a Fondue Pot… Low Points, Special Meal

My sister and her kids gave my little family two fondue pots for Christmas, one is for chocolate and is kept warm with a candle and the other is cast iron enamel and heavy duty. Came with a cook book, too, and that’s where I discovered some new uses for a fondue pot that I had never considered.

For instance, there is this thing called Asian hot pot, which no doubt you’ve all heard of but I had not. In any case, we had it for New Year’s Eve supper. We cleaned and sliced a ton of veggies and arranged them on a platter — oh so artistically — and we cut some chicken and some beef very thinly on the bias, so to speak. I heated veggie broth until it was boiling and separately cooked some Chinese noodles, which I made into little nests in individual bowls for each of us, with sliced green onions on top.

We sat around the fondue pot and dipped our meat and veggies into the hot broth to cook it, nibbling as we went. I made a few sauces for dipping: hoisin, terriyaki, garlic and ginger, Thai peanut.

AWESOME! And as far as Weight Watchers goes, this was tops, I tell you. First, it’s very healthful eating with all those vegetables and lean meat. Second, it takes so long to cook the whole meal, one bit at a time, that you eat less but are still full. Third, it is ever so charming to sit around such a flaming contraption chatting and eating — it is supposed (according to the cookbook) to be reminiscent of cave days. Communal living and all. Which is why one never fondues alone 🙂

Of course, knowing I was having such a low-point supper, I knew I’d have time for those 10 points of cheese fondue in the other pot, but, hey, it was New Year’s Eve (and I had the points saved anyway). My ten-year-old son went absolutely nuts for the cheese fondue. When I was a kid, fondue was all the rage. Funny how the wheel turns. Here we are again.

Did you know that you are SUPPOSED to scrape the browned bits of cheese off of the bottom of the fondue pot after you are done? Seriusly. It’s a rule! It’s not something to do in secret. No, this is the bit that is to be given to the guest of honor. Or broken up and distributed among all guests. We all took a bit, though I teased my son by saying that I was giving it all to Daddy. Anyway, that bit of browned cheese … heaven! It pops right up with a fork, just like the goofy old book said.

I wonder if they have fondue in Peru. Maybe I’ll find out. Leaving in just one more day!

The Poor Helping the Poor: Women “crazy for God” in a Lima Barrio and Other Stuff I’ve Been Reading

This semester I’ve been working with a student who is going on our service-learning trip to Peru in January. She needed an additional General Education class in liberal arts to graduate in the spring, so I agreed to do an Introduction to Gender Studies directed study with her on women in Peru (spread out over the school year). I figured this helped the student but would also give me a formalized opportunity to learn more about the country to which I am traveling soon. And, wow, has it been interesting!

We spent most of the semester reading and discussing seven short stories written by Peruvian women. These are collected in the book, Fire from the Andes: Short Fiction by Women from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, edited and translated by Susan E. Benner and Kathy S. Leonard. The stories were very interesting and sometimes difficult, inlcuding a magical realism piece with supernatural green slime and multiplying twins, a story about a man’s shadow who severs herself from him, and a story told from the perspective of a young female terrorist. It was particularly interting discussing these stories with the Engineering student with whom I was working, as this stuff is pretty foreign to her typical studies.

Oh, and also, we began by reading two travel literature stories about American women who had gone to Peru. These are in the collection called The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007: True Stories from Around the World, edited by Lucy McCauley. We read Barbara Kingsolver’s essay about going to Peru with a Heifer International group and observing the effects of that organization’s work, and we read Jennifer Sieg’s “The Cuy of cooking” about being served roasted guinea pig while in the Andes. (How many Weight Watchers points is cuy, anyway…?!)

Now we are reading The Call of God: Women Doing Theology in Peru by Tom Powers, S.J. This book describes and analyzes the work being done by women in one of the poorest neighborhoods (barrios) of Lima, one of the largest cities in the world (over 8 miliion). A full 49% of Lima’s residents live below the poverty level. The neighborhood discussed is nicknamed El Agustino (and is ranked as the second poorest barrio in Lima), and the women who are “doing theology,” a theology of action, there are a part of an organization founded by the poor and for the poor: Servicios Educativos El Agustino (SEA). Actually they work in multiple smaller organizations under the umbrella of the SEA, from Cup of Milk (an infant nutrition program), to Communal kitchens and bakeries, to education coops, to facilitating organizations for micro-enterprises, etc.

Now, as luck would have it, it just so happens that one of our graduate students in solar engineering (who is going on our trip and who is from Peru) spent his childhood growing up in El Agustino. We discovered this one day while chatting. What an amazing coincidence! That student’s story is inspirational — a gripping tale of how hard work and perseverance brought a family from the depths of poverty to a decent standard of living, and how a yound man is determined to give back to his country through becoming educated.

I have asked this grad student to see if he can arrange for my undergraduate student and me to go to the SEA in El Agustino the day after we arrive in Peru. He seemed excited to make this side trip with us. The project goals, however, must come first, and if we are needed for other purposes, then we won’t be able to spare the time. If we are able to squeeze it in, that visit will take place THIS Saturday (Jan. 5)! I will try to get to an internet cafe on late Sat. if I can and let you know if we got to visit El Agustino.

I admire these women so much. As I read about their work and their dedication to helping their neighbors on a very practical level as an expression of their faith — indeed, as a call from God — I am amazed at their courage and strength. One woman, Sr. Serrano, said:

“I quit my job and I got involved — and I have never regretted it. Eventually I was elected … President of the Federation of Communal Dining Rooms of Lima and Callao …. This was just when the violence [terrorists caused major disruption in the country in the 80s and 90s] was escalating in Peru and I received several death threats from the terrorists. I guess that any sane person would have quit and gone into hiding. So I guess I am saying I am loca — crazy for God, if you will. Really deep down I was scared and I was conscious of the danger. But when I would go out, I would commend myself to God and I felt that God was carrying me.”

Of course, this can’t help but make us think of the recent assassination of Benezir Bhutto, who also expressed a similar sentiment to her friends. The price some are willing to pay, the risk they will take to help their country! I just can’t see myself being able to stand against such threats so bravely, however much I might wish to be that selfless and strong.

I’ll leave you with another quotation which epitomizes the work these women do in El Agustino. The daughter of Sr. Serrano says:

“My mother (Benedicta) has a little plaque that says, ‘Poverty is no disgrace. It is inconvenient.’ She does not mean to lessen the dehumanizing influence of poverty. But she will not admit that it is a disgrace, because we are poor. I remember her telling us, when food was not available, that Jesus invites each one of us to give up what we have in this world and to help those who are poor. Look, we are poor helping those who are more poor. If everyone did this, no one would go hungry or homeless or die unnecessarily because of the lack of a common medicine.”

If everyone did this….

Christmas without Grandma: Eating my Way through Grief

This year was the second Christmas without Grandma. I didn’t fall apart like last year, when we decorated the tree. I didn’t get all sniffly when I prepared the lefse and rommegröt. I didn’t feel particularly glum when I cooked Grandma’s Swedish meatballs.

But I ate. A lot.

Even so, I did not go off the Weight Watchers plan. I just lucked out because I started the program back in October on a Tuesday, so my week ends on Monday night. Christmas Eve was Monday night, and, as always, I had barely eated into my 35 extra points for that week. So enjoying a second helping of meatballs, multiple lefse, and rommegröt, a handful (only one!) of M & Ms and a glass of wine, only put me 18 points down out of my 35. Then the week “ended.”

Christmas Day I got 35 more points. Yippee! I used up 16 of my 35 for the week on Christma Day and night. The day after Christmas there was still lefse calling to me, but I only used 6 of the 35. You see, the feasting was abating. 🙂 Of course, that leaves me little room for New Years Eve (which will fall on the last day of this “week”), but that holiday isn’t very important to me, and I’m not a big drinker, so I think I’ll make it through without going outside my points total.

The last time I did Weight Watchers, I was so “good” during the holidays, only eating minimally of high points foods. And I felt horribly deprived. Ugh. That approach was clearly not sustainable. I’m looking for a different path. Eat basically what I want on select days of the year when food matters to me, and then work doubly hard to lose what I gain right away instead of letting the weight creep up.

Truth be told, I needed to eat through my grief this year. The food of Christmas spells comfort to me, it stirs memories of unconditional love and vast quantities of assurance and hope. I miss Grandma, and eating “her food” with near abandon, helped me to feel her near me again.

What I did do “right” was NOT eat filler stuff that I normally would consume just because it was in front of me. I ate the things I really loved, and I stopped when I was full. But when I got a little hungry again, I ate more of the good stuff instead of counting and waiting and apportioning my pleasure to small doses per day.

Now, one of the down sides to having a week that starts on Tuesday is that my regular Weight Watchers meeting time is on Tuesdays and thus is cancelled for two weeks because of Christmas and New Years. I coud go to some other meeting, but I am pretty busy getting ready for my Peru trip and doing holiday things, and I prefer to stick with the group leader and members I know. So I’ve decided that I’ll go and weigh in, at least, on the day before I leave for Peru, Jan. 3. That way I’ll know how my strategy worked this holiday season, and I’ll also have a way to find out what happens to my weight on the trip. (I’m curious if I’ll lose weight when not trying — merely because of the conditions we’ll be under in rural Peru.) Anyway…

Did eating help me deal with my grief? Yes.

Do I still have a problem with eating? Yes.

Do I need to get back to eating fewer points per day? Yes.

AM I doing that? Yes. Well, after I finish those last four lefse, that is….