Reading the Clean Eating Movement

 Celery

I like to think that eating healthy is a personal goal. It’s right up there with getting more sleep, making it to the gym and trying desperately not to eat that pan of brownies that is currently beckoning to me from the freezer.

Confession: I already ate half the pan of brownies.

It was while I was feeling insanely guilty about that half-pan of brownies that I started to think about the language of diets in North America.

Cleanliness is Next to Godliness

If we want our bodies to be “pure,” we do “a cleanse,” a sort of baptism for our innards. We want our lettuce to be natural, organic, and well, green. We shop at Whole Foods and avoid the Dirty Dozen.  It’s all very wholesome.  Sometimes, we even have to battle the sugar demon.

While I have wondered if throwing holy water on those brownies and shouting “The power of Christ compels you!” would make the sugar cravings stop, I’m not totally convinced.

In a lot of ways, it seems like the language of clean eating has invoked some religious connotations, whether its proprietors meant to or not. Our notions of healthy vs. not healthy have been wrapped up in a larger narrative of clean vs. dirty, as if eating that stupid banana (instead of the brownies) will absolve us of our dietary sins.

Naughty_Cake_Pop_(8458287244)

 

The Food Narrative

In our attempts to ward off these diseases, the narrative of food has become steeped in religious imagery. From a linguistic point of view, clean eating bases its ideas on eating foods that make the body pure and clean.  The message implies that if you eat the cleanest food possible and make your body like a temple, you will save yourself from the hellfire of disease.

Okay, enough ranting for today.  I’m off to gnaw on a piece of celery.

 

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Hell Going: Short & Sweet

         eating between the lines

 

 

Sometimes, short stories get a bad rap.  In school, we read those dark and moody stories about women who claw at yellow wallpaper and men who invariably always seem to be plotting some sort of murder-most-foul.  While there are many fantastic short story collections out there, Hell Going is among the best.  Irreverent and precise, Lynn Coady’s nine new stories are sure to dazzle readers at every turn. hell going

Ranging from a nun charged with helping an anorexic girl eat again to the perspective of an alcoholic reporter, Coady captures the humour in even the darkest situations.  Her descriptions are quirky, adding a playful tone to the narrative style.  What I liked the most was the way Lynn Coady plays with structure in every story. In “Wireless,” she uses italics and a lack of quotation marks to denote a character’s drunken state.  In other stories, the reader must work to piece together the narrative, because it skips back and forth, keeping the momentum zipping along. While some may find that the endings do not offer the reader a big surprise, they always leave the reader with something interesting to think about.

In one word, Hell Going is contemplative.  It challenges the reader to connect with characters that might at first seem odious, but like an onion (to borrow from Shrek) they are multi-layered.  This, I think, is the fascinating part of Coady’s stories.  She opens up several worlds and allows the reader to explore unusual situations.  Even if you don’t traditionally read short stories, the quick and witty narrative will draw readers into the unusual and deeply fascinating stories.

In Honour of Fall and some really sweet SHORT stories…

Pumpkin shortcake with Apple & Pear Compote:

1/2 cup pumpkin puree
1/2 cup milk (I used 1%)
1/4 cup water
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pinch ground nutmeg
1/4 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Cooking spray or butter
1 teaspoon granulated sugar mixed with a dash of cinnamon

Apple  & Pear Compote

1/2 cup water
½ tsp vanilla extract (or to taste)
1 tablespoon honey
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch salt
1 apple, sliced & peeled

1 pear, sliced & peeled

How to Make It:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

  1. Strain your pumpkin puree to get rid of any extra moisture—this can be done with a strainer over a bowl or by using cheesecloth, or paper towel (if extra thick).
  2. Combine in a medium bowl: pumpkin puree, milk, water.  Stir until fully integrated.
  3. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, brown sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg in a large bowl.
  4. Add the cubes of butter until they are nicely ground up.
  5. Combine pumpkin mixture with dry ingredients and stir until smooth (ish).
  6. Space dough approximately 2 inches apart on your buttered baking sheet (about ¼ cup of dough per shortcake).
  7. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon.
  8. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown.
  9. Devour awesome shortcakes with fantastic short stories!

 

pumpkin cake

Going Home Again, Or An Odyssey of the Mind

eating between the lines

Going Home Again is equal parts a journey across the world—from Spain to Toronto—as it is an odyssey of Charlie Bellerose’s memories.  What starts out as a murder quickly dissolves into a trip through the attic of Charlie’s mind, where he dredges up ghosts and old lovers past. If it weren’t for Dennis’ Bock’s well-developed prose or his ability to draw me in through an easy, conversational narrative tone I might have set the book down.  Going Home Again evokes the question: can we ever go home? Perhaps.  The real question is this: is this a place that readers will want to go?

going home againIn many ways Going Home Again has the feeling of a stream of conscious journal, with the added benefit of clean, polished prose.  The story follows Charlie, who is recently divorced, to Toronto and spans across a year as he tries to rebuild his life across the world from his lovable daughter Ava and his ex-wife Isabel.  When Charlie delves into his past love affair with Holly, there is the sense that the original vein of the narrative has slipped away and entirely new story is beginning.  Luckily, this jarring departure from a linear narrative only serves to deepen curiosity, as the pacing is quick and lively.

Despite the sometimes-meandering plot, I was captivated by Bock’s attention to detail in his scenes.  Describing the sun in Madrid as “orange sherbet,” or the way he establishes so clearly the changing seasons in Toronto make it easy to step into the setting of the story.  Charlie’s characterization is comprehensive and though we don’t learn much about the supporting characters, Charlie’s love of his daughter and brother as well as the struggles that he faces makes him relatable—and readable.

“Instead of stepping back into the safety of the past, I stepped out onto he streets…” says Charlie in an early scene.  I’m not sure that I believe him, given that the journey we take with Charlie is not only back home to Canada, but also into the realm of memory.  For some readers—notably those who get frustrated with an overload of exposition—this book will be a challenge.  If you are like me, and stubbornly read through the frustration, Going Home Again does prove itself to be humorous, endearing and a journey worth taking.

…Since Charlie goes home to Canada, I thought my favourite butter tart recipe might be in order (since butter tarts are a pretty Canadian dessert).

Photo by Stephanie Spencer

Photo by Stephanie Spencer

What you need:

1/4 cup butter

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 pinch of salt

1/2 cup corn syrup

1 egg (whisked)

1/2 tsp vanilla

How to make them:

1. If you have already made pie crust or bought pre-packaged pastry, roll your pastry out and fit it into muffin tins.  (If you don’t have a recipe for pastry, see below for my favourite pie crust recipe.

2. Mix together butter, brown sugar, salt and corn syrup in a small bowl.  (Note: if your butter is still cold, it is best to let it sit on the counter for a few minutes to let it soften).

3. Add egg and vanilla to brown sugar mixture.

4. Pour yummy butter tart mixture into tart shells equally.

5. Bake at 400 F for 15-20 minutes or until the filling is browned and bubbling.  If you are like me and enjoy runny butter tarts, be sure to take them out right at 15 minutes.

Eating Between the Lines, Or Books + Food = Awesome

In honour of books, food and the awesomeness that happens when they are combined, Eating Between the Lines will be a new Friday segment on Considerablespeck.  Since Giller Prize season is upon us, the next few weeks will be dedicated to the Giller Shortlist titles, starting with Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid.  So pull up a chair, check out these great books and why not have a snack too?

The Crooked Maid: Assumptions Aside, a Killer Read

              Following a cast of characters who are mysterious, unreliable, spiteful and at times wholly evil, a subtle mystery begins to unfold in Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid.  Even desolate, ghost-ridden Vienna, with its bombed out streets becomes a character as we follow Robert and Anna on a quest to uncover what happened to their loved ones while they were away during the war.  While it is slower-paced than other mysteries that I have enjoyed, the visceral imagery, fascinating characters and surprising twists make this story a worthwhile read.

          What I loved the most about this narrative is the way that Vyleta artfully layers his mystery by frequently switching point of view.  There is a large roster of characters that Vyleta allows his reader to step into the minds of—too many to name, in fact.  It works, because the characters are so well interconnected that the reader will see many of the scenes from a variety of viewpoints, each time exposing a small answer to the quandaries Vyleta raises at the beginning.  When, for example, we learn that Anna’s husband knew—and was searching for—Eva, the crooked maid, the suspense mounts and we begin to discover just how many of the once seemingly isolated characters are linked by the tiniest of details.  In any other book, it might have been disorienting.  In The Crooked Maid, it is enlightening. crooked maid

Set in post-war Vienna in 1948, much of the story unfolds around the alleged guilt of Wolfgang Seidl, Robert’s stepbrother.  He is suspected of pushing their father out of the window and throughout the story we are urged to ask the question: is he good or bad?  Guilty or innocent?  But at the heart of the narrative is a coming of age story about Robert, who is lead into the adult world as he learns about love, sex and human nature.  Although all of Vyleta’s characters are fascinating, Robert’s flawed, yet lovable charm kept me reading on to find out the truth about his father.  Maybe it was the way that he doggedly believes in his stepbrother’s innocence despite the mounting evidence, or the way that he dotes on the sometimes cruel and vicious maid, Eva, that makes Robert endearing.  In any case, his plight infuses the often-macabre narrative with a much-needed burst of young innocence and charm.

The Crooked Maid is not what you’d call a fast-paced, heart-in-you-throat kind of read.  There were times when Vyleta mentions Robert’s darn black eye once too many.  There are moments, such as the beginnings of each numbered section where a narrator zooms out and tells the reader interesting factoids about Vienna during and after the war that cause the exposition to trip up the flow of the otherwise engrossing narrative.  In any case, there is an abundance of sharp, meaty dialogue to keep the story interesting.

Late in the narrative, Eva exclaims: “I refuse to be responsible for your assumptions” (289).  In many ways, this statement suits the overarching tone of The Crooked Maid.  As many times as Vyleta and his characters seems to circle around to the notion of villainy, I too found myself asking the question: is it good or bad?  Of course, I was talking about the book.  What sold me in the end were the characters.  Many of whom, I was sure were rotten criminals turned out to be quite different.  I found myself making assumptions about many of the characters only to have them challenged later on.  This is what is golden about this book: Vyleta skillfully sets the reader up with a set of assumptions and then carefully picks them apart.  Even the Nazi-supporting mother, Frau Seidl is humanized in a way that is deliciously shocking.

If you like reading books that are gritty and full of vicious prose, this book is for you.  Not only does Dan Vyleta take us along for a winding and eye-opening narrative, but he also builds for us a world that is so real and fascinating that it is hard to leave when it is over.  Though they might be vile on many counts, Vyleta’s characters make for a read that is killer.

And now for the recipe: Viennese Crescent Cookies

viennese cookies

I’m a huge cookie fanatic–especially ones that include almonds, so when I saw this recipe I knew I had to try it.  (This particular recipe is adapted from one that I found on the Food Network).

Here is what you will need: 

1 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 cup ground almonds
Confectioners’ sugar

How you do it: 

Cream the butter, adding the sugar and vanilla until it gets fluffy. Mix in flour and almonds, then let the dough chill for at least one hour. (If you want them to stay the size they are when they go into the oven, you might want to chill them for longer).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Using approximately one teaspoon of dough for each cookie, shape them into crescents. Put them on an ungreased sheet pan in rows (leave some space in between) and bake until golden brown, about 12 to 15 minutes.

Let cool 5 minutes, then dip them in confectioners sugar, or chocolate.

Ta-dah! Some Viennese cookies–a guilty pleasure–to go with The Crooked Maid.

Note: Eating Between the Lines Sequence photo taken by Lin Pernille.

 

In a Jam

Strawberry Jam

Everything becomes a “son of a bitch” when it is hot outside and you have just scalded yourself for the fifth time while making jam.  Earlier in the day, it had seemed like a good idea to take on yet another culinary project, since as of late I have neglected my domestic goddess.  Matt, ever the practical one, was a bit concerned:

“How do we know it’s going to turn out?” he asked.  He eyed the canner as if it were a homemade bomb.

I gave him my very best “honey do” look and said, “How hard can it be? Mash the berries! Cook them! Stick them in the jars,” I said.

Thirty minutes into the jam-making experiment, I was singing a different tune.  It sounded a lot like “It’s a Small World,” but with a whole lot of swear words added in for good measure.  Our kitchen had transformed itself into the bowels of hell as the steam rose like an eerie fog, lit from beneath by the flickering light.  On the stove, boiling water popped and hissed.  We ran frantically from counter to stove a factory conveyor belt of two.

“Lid!” called Matt.

I dunked the metal clamps into the boiling pot, shielding my face from the steam and cursed as another splash of water scalded me on the wrist.  As I hopped across the floor and dropped the lid onto the jar, I wondered what could have possessed me to make jam on a hot summer day.

Meanwhile, Matt fished around in the canning pot for another jar.  “Shit!” he said, as a jar slipped out of the tongs and splashed into the water.  “It’s like bobbing for apples, but with third degree burns!”

We laughed.  Yet another ridiculous kitchen experiment gone awry…

It wasn’t until we had filled all of our jars with strawberry jam, its ruby contents gleaming in the sunlight that we had a terrible realization.

Matt hunched down to eye-level with the jars and wrinkled his nose.  It was a disapproving sort of wrinkle.  “What’s that white stuff?” he said.

I bent to look at it too.  “Google it,” I offered.

But Google didn’t have any answers.  Suddenly, the kitchen was cloying, the air seemingly evaporated leaving only a hot, sticky mess of crimson splayed across the walls, our shirts and the floor as if a massacre had taken place.

It was looking grim, to say the least.

Matt shrugged.  “Just keep going, I guess.”

“It’s not safe!” I said, “Botulism does not make a nice gift!”

“It won’t be botulised!”

“How do you know?”

“I know.”

“But HOW?”

We both eyed the strawberry jam.

“I guess we’ll have to take a chance,” said Matt.

I sighed.  “Fine,” I said.  “But if it’s poison, let’s say you made it.”

Another twenty minutes of processing and boiling (and cursing) later, the jam jars sat out on the counter.  They looked innocent, peaceful, like rubies in a forbidden temple.  (You know, before Indiana Jones removes them only to release a giant crushing boulder).  We both just kind of stared at them, unsure of whether or not the jam would be awesome of poisonous.

And then something miraculous happened: there was a click.  One lid had sealed, meaning it wasn’t going to turn into poisonous muck in my pantry.  More clicks rang out through the kitchen—the sound of success, tiny rounds of applause.  Success at last! We’d made jam, not poison!

Is it possible to relate jam back to writing?  I think so.  You see, lately, I’ve been shambling around in the drift of my latest story.  It’s felt weird, because I haven’t exactly known whether or not I was on the right track.  There have been some tense moments, too, where I wondered if I would have to start all over again and scrap what I had written.  But when I think about the jam jars and that satisfying pop that they made when I knew that they were just right, it struck me that plotting a story (when writing in the drift) is a lot like making jam for the first time.  There are a lot of times when I have no idea what I’m doing, but I keep on muddling through the drift until the story…clicks into place.  So what do you do when you’re in a jam for plotting?  Keep on wading through.  It may be a son of a bitch to get through, but it sure as hell is sweet when it all clicks into a place.

Soul Food: Writing Pitfalls and the Zen of Bagel-Making

Fresh whole wheat bagels in the oven

Restless and annoyed, I set to work in my kitchen to make some whole-wheat bagels.  It’s not something that I do often, being that my name is neither Martha Stewart nor do I have a strong urge to use my creative energy on food.  But today I was hungry and irritated by that feeling of unease that comes with being halfway through a novel and not quite understanding where it should go.  Sure, this is normal.  Writers are supposed to be uncomfortable, you say.  But here’s the thing.  How do you deal with feeling lost on a solo writing quest?

In school, we get gold stars, a nod of encouragement, awards of various kinds and perhaps the odd A+.  I don’t know about you, but I was one of those kids who loved getting A’s.  In fact, somewhere, trapped in the recesses of my parents’ cavernous basement are boxes filled with old report cards and plaques from each year that I was in school.  When I finished school, I was broke, jobless and determined to write.  This led me through a series of odd jobs: selling hand cream, fetching doughnuts (yes, that is a job), stamping election postcards and editing the odd doctoral paper (to name a few).  It was tough going, but worse still was that no matter how hard I worked there were no gold stars in sight.  The only gold star, it seemed, was to be plucked out of odd-job land and into some sort of professional gig.  Surely, then I would find the gold star that I so craved…

Flash forward to the present.  I’m sitting in my kitchen, feeling rather pleased, because despite my strictly anti-Martha Stewart inclinations (sorry, Martha), I made some pretty kick-ass bagels.  There still isn’t a gold star, but I’m starting to realize that gold stars don’t matter anymore.  It isn’t really the outside praise that keeps the fire going—it’s something deeper, more intrinsic that fuels me on every morning, despite the writers’ block, impending deadlines or that odd, unsavory rejection poised and waiting to attack in my inbox.

I never did find that elusive gold star, but here are some things that help me keep things in perspective:

  •  Acknowledge when you’ve done something well.  Let the little things that don’t work out go.
  •  Remind yourself that what you are doing is important.
  • Read inspiring quotes.
  • Go for a jog, do some yoga…anything that gets your heart rate up and your muscles feeling happy.
  •  Complete some other task that makes you feel accomplished (i.e. bagels. Will they win me a Pulitzer? Nope, but they taste pretty damn good.)

So here’s what I think: don’t wait for someone else to tell you that what you are doing is important—you already feel that it is or you wouldn’t be doing what you are doing in the first place.  Be your own guide.

Here’s the recipe for my Super-Simple Zen Bagels:

(adapted from Spark Recipes)

Ingredients:

1 1/8 cup of water (room temp)

2 tsp margarine (or butter)

1 ½ cup whole wheat flour

1 ½ cup white flour

1 ¼ tsp salt

2 tsp sugar

¾ yeast (preferably bread machine or fast acting)

  1. Add the ingredients into your bread machine in the order above.  (Remember: not Martha Stewart, here.  Besides, shouldn’t you be getting back to writing?)
  2. Select the dough setting.  When the dough has been through the whole cycle, separate it into ten portions and form them into circles.
  3. Put them on a greased cookie sheet or something to that effect where they won’t stick like carbuncles and put a cloth over them to rise.  This will take between 40-50 minutes.  (While you are doing this, preheat your oven to 400 degrees and go back to your writing, or whatever task you are avoiding by reading this post.)
  4. Now here comes the fun part.  Once you’re back from kicking ass and getting that long dreaded project finished, it’s time to boil those sons of bitches! And by sons of bitches, I mean bagels.  DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT boil your notebook, laptop or any other writing utensil!
  5.  Bring 2 quarts of water to boil in a large saucepan.  Add the bagels to the boiling pot one at a time and watch them get all puffy.  Do this for 2 minutes. Once boiled, put the bagels back onto the cookie sheet and bake them for 20 minuutes (or until golden brown).
  6.  Breathe a sigh of relief, because you made bagels! This makes you a kitchen goddess, or something to that effect.  Give yourself an awesome pet name and go back to what you were doing.

Home Made Almond Butter, Or Patience

Almond butter

For the last little while, I’ve been toiling over several manuscripts.  Apart from being kind of paranoid, I’m also a total perfectionist.  But the other day, I was getting fed up with the process.  I wanted the damn stories to be done–perfect (or as perfect as they can be)–so that I could send them out to find their homes! Of course, that’s just not the way things work.

It struck me that patience has to be a part of any process if the product is going to turn out right when I was making almond butter in my brand new candy apple red food processor.  Let me tell you–after what seemed like a ridiculously long time of watching almond dust spurt up at the clear dome, I was beginning to wonder if maybe I’d made one of those really stupid cooking mistakes that I make from time to time.  (Think baking brownies with honey, coconut oil and no flour as a misguided attempt at clean eating.  Suffice it to say, I’ll make my brownies the “dirty” way from now on).

But then something that can only be explained as kitchen magic happened.  The almond dust started separating into little round globs.  I’m not going to lie, it still didn’t look like anything that I wanted to eat.  In fact, it looked gross.  But it was progress.  After some time of lip biting and watching the icky globs, they began to transform into smooth creases of creamy butter. When the fragrant smell of almonds filled the kitchen and they churned easily in the processor I knew that I had something good.

That’s the thing with process–it takes time to get to that moment of goodness.  But once you get there…it’s about as perfect as it gets.

Here is the full recipe for my almond butter (super easy):

1. Roast the almonds (3 cups) at 350 F for 10 minutes (or less if they seem to be browning quickly).

2. Puree the almonds, adding a cup at a time to the food processor until smooth.

3. Add any oils or spices to the almond butter after removing from the food processor.  (I like mind plain, but 2 tsp of honey is also nice).

Note: If using olive oil, don’t put it in the food processor, or it will get bitter and become one of those stupid cooking mistakes…