Thursday, January 19, 2017

What I've Been Reading: "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan

After years of hearing real foodies revere Michael Pollan’s name, I finally decided to pick up one of his books. I had resisted for a long time; maybe it’s the hipster in me that doesn’t want to jump on popular bandwagons, or maybe it’s the fact that so many real foodies use CAPITAL LETTERS in conjunction with discussing Pollan’s books, during which they warn me about all those ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS that Michael Pollan says are so bad for you and by the way the “cellulose” in parmesan is actually SAWDUST AND I AM USING ALL CAPITAL LETTERS TO TRY TO SCARE YOU INTO THINKING THAT THIS IS THE WORST THING EVER.

So I must admit, I expected Michael Pollan to be a bit like the capital-letter-using bloggers: inflammatory, overly nostalgic, and not particularly scientific. I was wrong.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals is one of the most fascinating and challenging books I’ve ever read. Pollan’s writing is vivid, thoroughly researched, full of breadth and depth, and quite entertaining. Also, he doesn’t use caps lock at all.

The phrase “the omnivore’s dilemma” refers to a struggle unique to animals that can eat a wide variety of foods: on one hand, they are resilient and can survive in many different situations. On the other, they have to expend an enormous amount of brain space to figure out what to eat and whether or not it will poison them. Pollan argues that throughout most of history, humans have had established cultures of food to help them avoid the omnivore’s dilemma. But with the modern-day jumble of new foods and food substances and a lack of food culture (especially in the US), the omnivore’s dilemma is back, stronger than ever.

So, how do we decide what to eat? The book sets out to answer the question by delving into the structure of three distinct food systems: conventional processed food, organic and alternative food, and wild foods. 

The first several chapters are about corn, the basis of all modern convenience food. It discusses such questions as, “Why on earth do we grow so much corn? Why is corn in absolutely everything? Why can conventional farmers only make money by growing increasingly large amounts of corn?” It shows the how and why of industrial agriculture in a vivid way. 

This section— discussing food politics, government policy, and animal cruelty, can be hard to read at times because it’s exposing a part of the food chain that I have been consciously ignoring for many years. I can’t look at a McDonald’s hamburger the same way again. I don’t see a cheap beef patty, I see a water-guzzling cow raised in California during a water crisis, shipped to a feedlot where it’s fed an unnatural diet simply because there’s a surplus of corn, slaughtered with a ramrod in its forehead and pulverized by machines that are impossible to keep clean. It’s difficult to keep looking at these threads that wind through so many deeply broken systems— much less understand what my place is in reforming them— but if I want what’s on my plate to align with my values, I can’t look away.

The second section is structured around Pollan’s experience volunteering for a week at Polyface Farms, run by local-foods farmer Joel Salatin. Pollan describes the science of rotated grazing, symbiotic pasturing, and local food systems, as well as narrating the experience of slaughtering/butchering chickens. He also discusses the recent wave of industrial organic agriculture— an oxymoron at heart— and its complexities, vs. a local, small-scale system. He doesn’t present easy answers, encouraging the readers to ask questions of their own.

The third section talks about his adventures in trying to make a meal entirely from food that he hunted, gathered, or grew himself. His description of hunting wild pig, searching for mushrooms, and trying (unsuccessfully) to distill salt are all fascinating. He discusses humans’ original diet, the paleolithic origins of most of our food cravings for sugar and fat. (And no, he doesn’t advocate the paleo diet— he wisely points out that there is no way to sustain a population of any size on hunting and gathering.)

Although the dust jacket would lead you to believe that he finishes the book with clear answers about how and what we should eat, that’s not the case. He presents evidence and editorial, tells stories and discusses his own struggles, but he ultimately shows that the omnivore’s dilemma is just that— a dilemma. But for anyone trying to work through this tangle of questions for themselves, Pollan’s book is a great place to start.


Monday, January 16, 2017

Big-Screen TVs and My Fantasy Self

In the middle of December, Zach, Francis and I pooled our money to buy a big-screen TV. It currently sits in our living room, dominating a wall, propped atop two plastic storage bins. 

For a while, I hated it.

I resisted buying it in the first place, allegedly due to concerns about money. Zach pointed out that his Walmart holiday discount coupled with Francis’s offer to pay half made it very affordable (both in general and for us specifically). We watch TV shows pretty frequently, Francis loves Netflix, and Zach wanted to play the video games he loved as a teen. Inasmuch as an entertainment object can be practical, it definitely was.

Still I resisted. When we bought it, I felt self-conscious having a huge TV in our shopping cart. When we set it up, I retreated to my room to pretend that it didn’t exist. When we watched our first show on it, I felt tense the whole time.

Why on earth would I react to an inanimate object with such revulsion?

The answer, in short, is pride.

I didn’t want a big-screen TV because in my mind, only materialistic people buy a big-screen TV, and I am most definitely not materialistic, darn it! Yes, this means that in my life I have been automatically judging anyone who owns a big-ticket item like this, and was afraid of other people applying this judgement to me. Talk about one of those “greater self awareness” moments. It’s part of my constant struggle to avoid finding my identity in the act of not having things.

There are countless big-ticket purchases that don’t seem materialistic to me— our canoe, Zach’s bike, a trip to Pennsylvania— even though they are more expensive by orders of magnitude. But I had trouble with this purchase because it bumped up against my fantasy self, a strange version of how I want reality to be: and in that reality, Lisa and Zach do not own a TV because they are too busy taking walks and playing piano and doing meaningful things with their time, every night, always.

One night I sat for a while and watched Zach play Call of Duty: Black Ops with his two brothers, the three of them rapt as they guided their avatars around the map, alternately yelling at each other and laughing maniacally.

The next night, Zach and Francis and I squished together on the couch, munching on snacks, and watched Frasier together on Netflix. I love the sound of Zach’s laughter.

One night Zach and I spent hours playing Beatles Rock Band, singing into the microphones and trying to get the notes perfect so we could win a “Double Fab” score.

Gradually, I began to let go of the fantasy, and embrace the reality.

Yes, some nights Zach bakes a loaf of artisan bread while I compose songs on the piano, and afterward we take a walk and stop by to chat with my family.

Other nights we sit and veg out in front of the TV.

This is our reality. This is okay. This is nothing to judge myself for, and certainly nothing to judge other people for.

As is the case with so many life lessons over the past few months, the goal is the same: let go. Let go of the pride, the judgement, the fantasy world. 

And belt out those notes. I have a lot of Double Fabs left to catch.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

This Week (The Four-Season Week)

It’s been a typical St. Louis week, weather-wise: a 70-degree day with winds so strong the cottonwoods bowed, followed by a winter storm that left a thick glaze of ice over everything. It happens. As much as I like to complain about the weather here, there’s a reason that I get antsy wherever I’m in a place that has consistent weather for more than three days in a row— it makes me bored. Granted, in St. Louis you’re guaranteed suffocating heat and humidity for about five months straight, but at least there are lightning storms and tornadoes to shake things up!

The ice storm was certainly pretty; I enjoyed walking through the park near my house and gazing at the frosted trees as slivers of ice melted from their branches. That’s the magic of winter.

On Thursday I attended the first “Round Table Meeting” for the Historic Frenchtown Association. We snacked on chips and salsa and discussed ideas for the neighborhood. I left with my head spinning— there are so many things we want to do, but making them actually happen involves a lot of nitty-gritty permit applications, committee organizing, and grant-proposal writing. I had to remind myself that change is gradual, and that everything happens one tiny step at a time.

Overall, this week has been fairly quiet. The semester has started again so now I spend most of the day sitting at the computer, typing comments with a space heater on my left and a steaming mug of peppermint tea on my right. Ah, winter.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

What I've Been Reading: "Gaining Ground" by Forrest Pritchard

A few weeks ago I picked up a copy of Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm, intrigued by the title and the foreword by Joel Salatin (a farmer and author well known in local/sustainable/permaculture circles). Forrest Pritchard tells the story of his journey to becoming a self-sufficient sustainable livestock farmer in a time when precious few farmers can actually make a living at it. It’s a memoir that shows one example of what a self-sufficient model looks like, and the bumpy road it took for Pritchard to get there.

Pritchard’s writing is friendly and personal, using lots of dialogue to make you feel like you’re overhearing the scenes. In the book he faces all sorts of obstacles: naysayers in his family, government regulations, a lack of local butchers, and quirky farmhands who make life more interesting. I felt myself getting frustrated along with him as he described his first few marketing experiences in which nobody bought anything. (“Come to the St. Charles Farmers Market! I’ll buy your stuff!” I yelled to the pages.) But of course this is a story about progress, and it slowly builds to a happy conclusion as he heals the land, finds people to help, tries new animals and techniques, and learns what is most important to him.

The story dragged a bit in the middle, settling into amusing stories and anecdotes that lacked the forward motion of the first half. However, it ended on a strong note, emphasizing that sustainable farming isn’t a destination but an ongoing journey.

The book was an entertaining and informative read for someone who’s interested in what a smaller, more family-oriented future of farming might look like. The book made me extra excited to hit up the farmers’ market again in the spring!


Monday, January 9, 2017

Five Phrases to Rephrase this Year

Words matter. Especially for a verbal person like me, the words I choose to describe things shape my perspective of them, for better or worse. In the past few months I’ve started paying more attention to my phrasing, and tweaking it to reflect a more accurate vision of the world. Here are the phrases I’m committing to say more this year:

1. “I want” instead of “I need.” Whenever I talk about a nonessential item with the phrase “I need,” it subconsciously makes me feel like it is essential. (I’ve talked about this before.) The effect on my contentment level after changing this phrase has been powerful. Every time I correct myself— which I often do— it draws attention to the fact that I already have everything I need. Obviously I still buy things that I want but don’t need, but it’s important that I understand which category they fall into.

2. “We’re low-income” instead of “We’re poor.” I’ve noticed myself uttering the latter phrase lately, usually when I’ve been envious about what other people have. This is a habit I want to stop cold: we are not poor, not by any stretch of the imagination, not even by America’s high standards. We fall onto the lower side of the income scale, but that is a static measure of money; it doesn’t take into account our abundant resources, our low living expenses, or a host of other factors. Calling myself “poor” is a sign of dangerous ingratitude and twisted reality, and I’m going to stop it.

3. “I’m upset that xyz happened this way” instead of “I should’ve...” The phrase “I should’ve” is a futile attempt to control the past and put off responsibility for the present. It’s okay to acknowledge that things aren’t turning out the way I want, but should’ve is a destructive word, and I’m trying to ban it from my vocabulary except in cases of true analysis (“What can I do next time to avoid that?”).

4. “Thank you” instead of “Sorry.” As in, “Thank you for waiting so patiently” instead of “Sorry I was late.” Obviously I should apologize when I’m at fault, and I’ll still be saying sorry a lot, but for minor infractions, I like this turn of phrase because is acknowledges both what you have to be sorry about and the other person’s graciousness in dealing with it.

5. “I’m not making that a priority right now” instead of “I’ve been too busy.” This is a matter of self-honesty more than anything else. No one is too busy to do basically anything— we can squeeze minutes out of the day if we really want to. So instead of shuffling off responsibility by pretending that an outside force— busyness— has kept me from something, I should be honest about my priorities and choices. And if it sounds really wrong to make that swap (“I haven’t taken care of my health lately because I’m not making that a priority right now”), then that’s a sign I need to reexamine my priorities.

Small changes in phrasing can make a big difference. Are there any phrases you’re giving up or changing this year?


Friday, January 6, 2017

Perfectly-Styled Quinoa Salads (and other thoughts about the Internet)

The bread is just so pretty!

On the Internet lately, I’ve seen some fed-up people complaining about the proliferation of beautifully-Instagrammed photos that show idealized snapshots of people’s lives: the perfectly-style quinoa salads, the herbal tea in mason jars with hand-knit cozies, the baby photos of an angelic child who looks like they’ve never had a meltdown. The complainers moan about how all these things make them feel inadequate and depressed, and how the people who post these photos are trying to create a false picture of themselves.

Although there’s definitely some truth to that, I think that it’s a fairly negative view of the situation. First of all, the Internet doesn’t have to be a raw, unfiltered, completely honest look at every detail of your life. Why should it be? True authenticity happens in face-to-face relationships, so it’s reasonable to vet the details that make it out to your 300 Facebook friends.

And when you do you choose to post a photo of something, why not take the time to make it look pretty? I don’t photograph the pictures of the quesadilla I make that melts all over the panini maker, but I do style and take pictures of the kale salad that I picked from my garden because it’s so pretty! Life is about creating beauty, in all forms. When I see a beautiful plate of food, it inspires me to put a bit more effort into my presentation. If I’m having a bad day, I might feel envious of the person’s perfect meal, but that’s my problem, not theirs.

I know there’s an epidemic of people grabbing for attention on the Internet. But honestly, if someone’s trying to get simple positive affirmation from fellow human beings, “Look at how pretty this sandwich is!” seems like a good choice to me.

We can understand that people’s lives aren’t picture-perfect and still enjoyed staged pictures of a superfood vegan bowl. I understand that every meal doesn’t look like that. You understand that. But I think food is pretty, and quite frankly, the Internet needs more pretty stuff.

I say, bring on the artistically-plated salmon filets with lemon and capers. Post that 812th picture of your dog. Take the baby photos when your child is looking like an angel instead of a demon. Send Instagrams from your trip to the beach. And yes, take those selfies. People who want to share in your joy will, and those who have a hard time with remembering the reality behind the highlights can choose to scroll past your posts. Let’s keep sharing the simple beauty of life!


Thursday, January 5, 2017

16 Skills I Learned in 2016

Our tiny apple tree last spring

Last year, I threw myself into learning the skills of my new story: the home arts, especially cooking and gardening. As I look back on the year, I’m pleased to see how far I’ve come in many of these skills, and decided that other people might want to learn more about them too. In 2016 I learned how to...

Mm... fajitas. (See #14.)
1. Fold my clothes Kon-Mari style. See a tutorial here. Seriously, this changed the way I did laundry— I can actually find all my clothes again! When I refolded all our clothes this way, I freed up an entire drawer.

2. Use up a bunch of kale at once.

3. Make bone broth. Put bones, carrots, onions, celery, salt, pepper, and a bay leaf into a crockpot and cover with water. Let cook on low for 12-24 hours. Ladle out the broth and repeat as many times as you want. Chicken bones will eventually crumble, and you can compost them.

4. Sheet-mulch, using this book.

5. “Fake” chords on the piano. I took several years of piano lessons as a kid, but it wasn’t until this year that I picked it up seriously again. I have a long way to go, but I’m getting to where I can stumble through a Beatles song on the first try!

6. Make the perfect butter pecan ice cream

Making homemade pesto last summer
7. Save seeds from pea plants. I just left my spring crop to dry, then picked the brown pods and left them in a paper bag for a few weeks. I then shelled them and successfully planted my fall crop. Unfortunately, I harvested the next crop when they were frosty, and instead of drying in the bag, they molded. So the moral of the story is, be sure to let your seeds dry completely!

8. Bake quick, easy pizza crust that I can whip up whenever I want. (Requires a food processor.)

9. Grow succulents from a cutting. Simply pluck a leaf from the succulent, leave it in the windowsill for a couple days (this allows the cut section to form a tough layer that prevents it from getting overly hydrated when you plant it), then sink it in some potting soil and keep it moist. Soon tiny plants will pop up from the root system! I’m hoping to start doing this on a regular basis so I can have succulents to give away to friends.

I grew these myself!
10. Shift gears on a bike. Having never consistently ridden a bike with gears before, I am learning the joys of shifting (and actually riding up hills without dying) when I borrow Zach’s bike. It still confuses me that you shift down when you’re going up and vice versa, though...

12. Prune a fruit tree to keep it small (even if it’s not a dwarf variety), learned from this book.

13. Fry an egg without inadvertently turning it into scrambled eggs. Heat the cast iron well, use lots of butter, choose good eggs and crack them carefully. I like a firm white and a runny yolk. Perfection!

14. Cook vegetarian food. It’s a lifelong learning process, of course, but I’m getting better. Cookie and Kate is a wonderful resource, as well as any of the Moosewood cookbooks.

15. Wash greens from the garden properly. Fill a large bowl with water and swish the greens around for a minute to remove dirt. Then transfer them to another bowl of water that has a few tablespoons of apple cider vinegar. Swish again, then dry in a salad spinner.

16. Grow cucumbers and asparagus, my new crops this year. I also planted watermelon, but they died so I don’t count them yet.

This year I would like to make more fermented foods (yogurt, cheese, kombucha, and pickled veggies), increase the number of crops in my garden, and bike long distances without getting out of breath.

What did you learn last year? What would you like to learn in 2017?


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

This Week (Hello, 2017!)

Christmas lunch at my in-laws'! We also had homemade tamales.

Howdy! It’s your friendly neighborhood Mandolin, back for another year of blogging. Right now I’m still on Christmas break, but the semester (and the accompanying slew of students) begins on Thursday, so today I decided to get my rusty writing gears in motion before more of 2017 slipped away.

I enjoyed the Christmas season this year— I surprisingly didn’t catch laryngitis, and got to see out-of-town family and friends— but as usual, I’m relieved it’s over. January is a quiet month for me after the craziness of Christmas Traditions, where I get to hole up indoors, reassess my life, and warm my cold fingers by holding a mug of hot herbal tea.

Zach with his bread masterpiece (see below)
Or, as the case may be, take a 14-mile bike ride with Zach on a day that the temperature barely hit 20, or a 17-mile ride through mud, or just a quick three-mile jaunt in the midst of driving freezing rain. Yes, we are venturing into the wonderful world of cycling— Zach bought a new bike recently, and after trying to keep up with him on my one-speed “townie,” I’m hoping to follow suit soon. Biking, unlike walking, isn’t relaxing for me: I must have a goal or a destination to make me force my muscles to be uncomfortable for a while. But considering it’s the only cardio exercise I get (yes, I’m so out of shape that riding a bike gets me wheezing like I’m sprinting), I’m enjoying it far more than traditional exercises.

Another exciting thing that happened in January was my official election to the position of secretary of the Historic Frenchtown Association! That means I get to type the minutes of the neighborhood meetings and read them back at the following meeting, which makes me feel unbelievably spiffy. I continue to be excited about the direction of our neighborhood, both as a business district and as a community of residents. One of the biggest things that pulled me out of my funk earlier this year was the idea of getting involved in my local community: I wanted to make a difference, but I just didn’t know how. Now the opportunity has been dropped in my lap, and I’m happy to be a member who has input, but plays a supporting role rather than being in charge. 

The past few days have been nice and relaxed; taking bike rides, ringing in the new year with two of my best friends, going back to church, writing in my memoir, working on side projects, baking bread (Zach has brought a sourdough to life again, and made a fabulous loaf of yeast bread for New Year’s!), and singing lots of Beatles songs, thanks to Zach’s Christmas gift to me: a complete score of every song the Beatles ever sang. Life is good, and I’m excited about the possibilities for 2017. Happy New Year, everyone!


P.S. Me, realizing I never take any photos of myself:

Thursday, December 29, 2016

My Year

All the greatest and most important problems in life are fundamentally insoluble... They can never be solved, but only outgrown.
~Carl Jung

When people ask me how 2016 was, I say, “Actually, it was pretty great.”

A lot of crazy, terrifying, and horrible stuff happened in the world at large this year, as with every year. But if people are asking about me— my life, my family, my place in the present— then yes, I can say that 2016 was good.

It didn’t seem like it was going to be. It started off with a sucking depression that made everything seem meaningless. Everything. I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t appreciate where I was, and I didn’t know how to snap myself out of it. Whenever I had a good day, I felt silly for making such a big deal out of “nothing.” When I had a bad day, I sincerely couldn’t remember ever being happy in the near past.

I flip-flopped between these two stories (depression is an illusion, happiness is an illusion), and cognitively understood that neither of them could be true. I started taking a walk every day and journalling objective facts that I saw, judging neither good nor bad:

“I sat by the river, facing the bridge. The wind softly rattled dry leaves in the cluster of vines nearby. I heard a twig snap and saw a squirrel climbing down a tree, his supple tail vibrating until he found a branch and curled up into a ball. The traffic zoomed across the river, casting flashes of silver into the water.”

These glimpses reminded me that some parts of my reality were objective; some were not dictated by emotions.

My best friend finally convinced me to see a counselor, which was torture for about the first five sessions, but easier after that. My counselor advised me about many things, but above all, he encouraged me to let go. Letting go was hard, and it took many forms: letting go of assumptions, expectations, deeply-held convictions, false attitudes, and underlying stories of how my life should be in contrast to how it was. It was time to stop trying to solve— it was time to grow.

The change from solving to growing, like most change, was so gradual that I didn’t notice it along the way. I occasionally caught glimpses: finding a new story to tell, accepting I was normal. But as I look back over 2016, I can see the overall picture more clearly.

My situation, in many ways, is the same as it was last year at this time— same house, same job, same neighborhood, same habits. But instead of feeling empty, my life is full. I see the beauty of the present as it is. I still have all the tendencies that are hardwired into me, but I can spot them more easily: “Lisa, you’re trying to fix things. Stop trying to fix them.” “You’re only frustrated because reality is messing with your fantasy world. Let go of the fantasy world.” “Stop it with the should be’s. Focus on what is.” Although the transformation was long and often painful, it’s exciting to see the growth. 

So, 2016 was a good year for me. I pray that 2017 would be full of life, potential, and growth for all of us. Happy New Year!