Wednesday, November 13, 2013

dinner: it takes a family

Does one person take responsibility for getting dinner on the table in your house?  I love to cook, so that's how it used to be around here.  That changed when I started tutoring in the afternoons/evenings almost a decade ago.  I never sat down to map out a new plan, but one evolved.

Monday is my busiest day: I grocery shop and write/edit in the morning, tutor at my house from 12pm to 5pm, then leave for the evening at 5:30, dropping Olivia at her three hour swim practice on my way to a writer's meeting that usually ends around 9:15.

Here is how this past Monday night's dinner found its way to our table:

On Sunday night, I marinated a flank steak and stuck in the fridge for overnight.  When I finished tutoring at 5pm the next day, I chopped up some bok choy and garlic and left them in a bowl next to the stove.  Then, just before leaving with Olivia at 5:30, I put millet on the stove to cook and left Gareth to watch over it.  Gareth did his homework on the bar in our kitchen so he could keep an eye on the pot.  When the Millet finished cooking, he took it off the heat and carried on with his homework. 

Steve arrived home thirty minutes later, grilled the marinated flank steak, put it in the fridge, then left with Gareth to coach Gareth's soccer practice.  When we all arrived home at 9:30pm (egad!), Olivia set the table, Gareth poured drinks, Steve cut the meat, I sauteed the bok choy and garlic, someone served the millet and voila!– dinner was served.


If you're thinking we're insane to dine so late, you're right, but we do it on some nights because it's the only time we can eat together.  And if my Monday night sounds like a logistical nightmare, I should tell you I didn't plan it.

It just happened.

I do try to plan simpler dinners on crazier nights, but as to how it gets prepared? I wing it.  It's just a matter of doling out responsibilities according to skills and availability.  And all kids have skills.  They can wash, peel and chop vegetables, cook rice or pasta, stir soups, baste meats, start the grill, and wash dishes. 

You'd be surprised, even the littlest fingers can peel garlic, which happens to be the most annoying job in the kitchen!  Olivia has peeled piles of it for me over the years, usually while sitting in front of her latest show.  I send her off with a whole head and she comes back with this beautiful pile of shiny cloves.  Just don't ask me where all those papery skins end up. 

Through this process of sharing responsibility, we discovered that dinner is not one job, but many.  And the cook?  Not one person, but one family.

Tag-teaming dinner has more than practical benefits.  Cooking teaches kids that we all need to take responsibility for the food we eat (mom is not the de facto cook in the house unless she chooses to be).  It also teaches hands-on that high quality healthy food doesn't come out of a plastic bag or a box--it comes from raw materials.  And of course, cooking teaches cooking!  If our kids go out into the world knowing how to cook, they'll be more likely to eat healthy meals made from whole foods when they are adults. 

That all sounds great, but I don't want to mislead you into thinking I have miracle children.  While Steve and I almost always tag-team dinner, the kids don't help every night, and I'm sure you can imagine the freak-out that occurs on the nights when I do ask.  The outrage, the indignity, the affront! 

Still, of all the chores we might coerce our kids into doing, this one offers the best kid-friendly payoff.  They don't care about the urine on the base of the toilet seat or the dust on the television.  But they do care about food.  You want cookies? Melt some butter.  You want homemade ranch dressing?  Get out the mayo and go cut some chives. 

Of course, like anything, cooking has a learning curve.  Years ago I left Gareth to cook a chicken while I went to tutor.  I'd cleaned and prepped it, so "all he had to do" was put the bird in the oven at 5pm then set a timer to baste it every 20 minutes.  He didn't have to worry about when it would be done because his dad would be home in time to take it out of the oven. 

Simple, right? 

When Steve arrived home at 6pm and checked on the bird, he discovered an ice-cold chicken shivering in an ice-cold oven, it's little wings tucked in tight against the frigid air.  Gareth had dutifully basted a raw chicken every twenty minutes for an hour without ever turning on the heat!  When I asked him if he noticed the chicken hadn't cooked he said, "I thought it just took a long time." 

I suppose the moral of that story is it doesn't have to be perfect (although I prefer dinner not be raw).  If you're having trouble finding time to get dinner on the table, it's okay to consider the crew of worker bees that is your family.  I know the kids are busy too, so if they have a freak-out, just remind them they don't have to make the whole meal (the point is that nobody does).  But if they want a decent homemade dinner in these hectic times, it takes a family.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

the pumpkinization of october

Have we gone plum-kin crazy?!

I love the fall.  It might be my favorite season (Although I say that about every season when it's at the cusp of it's glory.  Just ask me about winter on New Year's Day.). 

But for today, I'm restricting my praises to autumn.  I am drawn throughout the year to it's deep colors, choosing purple, orange and red for all manner of things from dish towels, to sneakers, to the color of my bike.  Then there are the fall vegetables.  Forget those fragile sissy spears of scallion and asparagus I raved about in April.  In October, I want the thump of a butternut squash and the heft of a box of sweet potatoes to celebrate cooler weather. 

When I made my first pan of roasted vegetables in September, Olivia came into the kitchen and said, "It smells like school!" (Meaning, it smells like the time of year when school starts, not, it smells like that horrible building in which I'm held prisoner for 6 hours a day 5 days a week!).

These little things - a side dish for dinner that we haven't had in nine months - help us notice and celebrate the year's transitions.

So what's the gripe? 

Retailers, eager to exploit the pleasures of a new season, can really drive the thing into the ground if you let them.  And pumpkin is the flave-o-fall extraordinaire.  In October, I can drink myself into a stupor on pumpkin ale then wake myself up with a pumpkin latte. For breakfast I can smear pumpkin cream cheese on a pumpkin bagel, or if I'm not in the mood for a bagel, I could whip up a batch of pumpkin pancakes from a boxed mix instead.  While I'm in the baking section, I may as well snag some pumpkin bread, or pumpkin muffin, or pumpkin scone mix so I have something to go with my pumpkin soup for lunch.  And if I don't want soup, I could lather the bakery with pumpkin butter for a special treat! 

I can't help but wonder: is there also pumpkin jerky? pumpkin quiche, or perhaps salted, gingered, or candied pumpkin nuggets? None of this is to mention the pumpkin seeds --do they sell them in pumpkin flavor?  

When you shop for these pumpkin products, you will notice piles of real but mostly inedible pumpkins posing in Halloween pyramids about the store. How ironic that when I asked the clerk if the pumpkins were edible he looked at me in surprise, "Oh!  I don't know!" he said, as if it had never occurred to him to eat a pumpkin before.

Could it be that we are surrounded by pumpkin simulacra?--representations of pumpkin-flavor so prolific that we have forgotten that the flavor of our October coffee (which tastes more like cinnamon and allspice than pumpkin if you ask me) derived in the first place from a vegetable shockingly called: a "pumpkin?"

After surviving the pumpkin pandemonium at the grocery store this morning, I'm thinking again about lessatarianism.  I didn't even eat any of that pumpkin flavored stuff, but I still feel a little ill--as if I did.  It must be the power of pumpkin-persuasion.  Whatever it is, it's got me screaming "less is more!"

As in less pumpkin-flavor.   I have nothing against a bounty of actual pumpkins.  Here are my pretties for the season: 

notice the not-dead-yet plant in the background!

Even after the grocery trip, I don't feel remotely ill when I look at this pair of squash.  One is a little pie pumpkin from my co-op, the other is a Cinderella pumpkin - as good to eat as it is to look at. 

If you're in the mood for a real pumpkin too, stop by your local farmer's market--they have the kind you can eat! It's not that the traditional pumpkin patch pumpkin will poison you or anything, but it might bore you to death with its flavorless, skimpy and stringy self. 

Instead, get a beautiful, bulgy, knotty orange or green sensation--a Fairy Tale (or Musquee de Provence if you want to be French about it), a Cinderella (pictured above), a Jarrahadale (blue/green/gray that will shock you with its orange flesh), or a Hubbard (big or little, bulbous, orange). 

If you want to have fun with it, pick one out for its pumpkin personality rather than for its perfection.  Let it cheer your kitchen or family room for a bit, then, when the day arrives, slice the thing open and roast it.  You know I'm not a food blogger, so here are the details if you need step-by-step instructions with pretty pictures.

You can scoop out your cooked pumpkin and use it as is, but I like to throw it in a colander and forget about it for an hour to let excess water drain out (unless I'm using it for soup). 

I also puree it because some of us are funny about texture around here and don't like any "strings" of pumpkin to show up in our soup or pancakes, but that step is only necessary if you're family is texturally challenged. 

If your pumpkin is big, freeze the puree in 1-cup portions so you can pull it out for various recipes.  Add it to bread, pancakes, soup, cake and pie, but for god's sake, don't stir it into your coffee or drop dollops into your beer--pureed or not!  

We usually cook a pumpkin or two each fall, making sure to save enough puree for a thanksgiving pie.  And that's about enough, because as you know, less is more.    

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

shout-out for family dinner

When the kids were toddlers, sitting at the table together felt like a circus.  I remember mushy food thrown on the floor, shared and slobbery silverware clattering on the table, halted conversation that competed with one child who banged their sippy cup on the high chair and another who whined about eating peas.  Amid the fussing and the mayhem, it's easy to wonder: What's the point?  In fact, while Steve and I always sat down to eat as a family when the kids were young, it was a civilized dinner by ourselves that I really craved.  THAT sounded like real quality time! 

Back in those baby/toddler years, we ate together because that's how Steve and I were raised.  It just felt normal.   I didn't know that during those nights spent wiping sticky fingers while trying to eat our black beans and rice, we were instilling a routine into all of us that would pay off down the road.

We all know that dinner time is social---even if some nights devolve into things less civilized.  But in our digital age, meal time can provide respite from phones, ipods, and other hand-held electronics.  When I was a kid, the rule was, "no books at the table"--I clearly grew up in a different century-- but the idea is the same: we should talk to each other.

I've also discovered that mealtime can teach respect for food.  Sitting together gives me a chance to brag about my cooking, which of course, I take full advantage of, but it isn't just self-serving.  Talking about cooking can reveal its artfulness while reminding the kids that food preparation takes effort, heart and soul. 

I also talk about where the food came from:  how's that chicken? you know it came from Polyface Farm; or eat up your arugula - it's fresh from our co-op today; or you know that farmer with the big melons (ha!), he said these beets would be like candy.  And my favorite: "how 'bout them tomatoes? You know I grew those!" --Except that latter thing happens so seldom with me being a plant killer and all.

Of course, sometimes dinner offers a chance to disrespect the food.  No matter how many delicious meals I've prepared over the years, the one that lives in infamy? eggplant custard.  I had high hopes when I set out to make it, but it proved a gray and slightly slimy casserole for which superior flavor could not overcome the shortcomings of color and texture. Alas.

Despite such misguided concoctions, mealtime teaches respect for the cook.  The rules around our table are far more lax than the ones I grew up with (sit up straight, napkin on your lap, no elbows on the table).  I can't be bothered to police the dinner table so closely, but there is one rule I especially treasure: you NEVER eat before the person who prepared your food has sat down to the table.  After all the work of making a meal, this one gesture of respect and thanks goes a long way to acknowledging the effort.

This is especially fun when the kids did the work.  We can honor them and also shower them with praise: Wow, look how well the vegetables were chopped; this pasta is a perfect al dente; who peeled that garlic?

If you respect the endeavors of the cook, then you are also more likely to eat the food he or she prepared for you. 

Then there's respect for each other: it's boring, but it's true that you learn manners when you eat in a group.  I never tell Olivia to chew with her mouth closed because her brother does it for me.  Better she learn it from him than on a date with a cute guy who doesn't like the looks of her fish and broccoli in partial breakdown. 

If you don't want to get kicked by a sibling, you also learn to pass food around the table after you've served yourself, to use your napkin when there's spaghetti sauce on your face, and wait your turn to tell that hilarious story from the lunch room at school.

While I saw over the years that family dinner could do all these great things: teach community, nutrition, manners, and respect, I didn't understand the value of family dinner as a sustained ritual until this summer when suddenly, Gareth had somewhere else to be every night: at Chipotle, playing soccer at the school, at the pool, spending the night at a friend's.  He could easily leave in the morning and not return for days--and all that time wearing the same pair of underwear! 

I was at first baffled about how to get him back.  If he's welcome at the friend's house, or has already eaten out, then why should he come home?   Then it hit me:  family dinner!  After years of eating together, it made perfect sense to him when I said, "have fun, but you have to be home for dinner."   We had taught him, perhaps inadvertently, that food is more than a convenience or a pleasure.  It is part of the social fabric of our family.

Looking back, I can see the seeds of that idea in bloom. Before we eat, we usually wait for everyone to be seated, but it's not always easy to get everyone to the table.  Have you ever called a child to dinner forty-eleven times and gotten no response?  When one of our darlings just cannot tear themselves away from Breaking Bad, or Switched at Birth, or whatever other internet/cable sensation has captivated them, we begin our meal without them. 

With the other child sitting gleefully at the table with us, we chew quietly and smirk at each other while we wait for the offending family member to notice the silence in the house: the lack of clattering pans in the kitchen, the absence of a bouncing soccer ball in the dining room (no balls at dinner unless they're collard balls!), the long period of time since anyone yelled, "Dinner!"  He or she will inevitably come bolting into the dining room: "You ate without me!" 

Yes we did. 

It surprised me the first time this happened to see how much it mattered to the kids.  I suppose no child (or parent for that matter) wants to be cast out of a family ritual. 

Rituals bring families together--something about the obligation to one another, the predictability of repetition, the knowledge that we can count on each other to show up, and for dinner: the responsibility of getting the food on the table together (who's turn to set the table? who's getting drinks? someone get those potatoes out of the oven please). 

Good or bad, there are things we can count on about dinner: Olivia will never stop talking, then will complain that we never let her talk.  Steve will ask us to comment repeatedly on the part of the meal he prepared, regardless if it only accounts for 10% of what's on the plate; Gareth will put ice cubes in his soup even if I tried to let it cool; I will huff when people use salt. 

None of that is to say we haven't had some bad times around the table.  Who could forget the animal-shaped napkin rings we couldn't use because the kids nearly tore each others' eyes out fighting over the rocking horse? 

the unwitting source of so much familial strife!

And that doesn't rival the night when a cabbage roll inspired the debate: is 'frickin' a cuss word

To make it work, family dinner doesn't always have to be pleasant (but I can say we've definitely laughed more than we've fought); it doesn't have to be fancy (eat cereal together if you have to), it doesn't have to be every night (we have dinner some nights at 9pm and others not at all because of soccer and swim schedules), it just has to be. 

As we transition through these teen years and the kids become more independent, I hope that our determination to eat with the kids while they were young will perhaps inspire our kids to eat with us when we're old. 

I know I wouldn't mind the company.  

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

a plant killer and a primadonna go gardening

My sister, Laurie, and I got a plot in a community garden! 

After nine months of waiting for a spot to open, we were so excited to get this news that we did silly stuff like photograph our plot stake:

We grew up with a huge vegetable garden. That means that in our day, we picked a lot of green beans; we ate way too much egg plant, and we spent a good number of afternoons huddled on the front stoop while mom and dad fought over how to put jars in the canner (the potential for food spoilage and broken glass in the same activity always put my overly cautious mother right over the edge).

We had fun with it too.  Every year, my father would let one zucchini grow unfettered, "just for grins." If you leave a tomato on the vine, it will get riper and riper, but a zucchini?  A zucchini will just get bigger and bigger. 

A humongous zucchini might be fun to look at, but it's not so great to actually eat.  Still, after all that tending and growing, Dad couldn't let it go to waste.  So my mother would stuff it.  Then we'd all sit around the table gazing in wonder at this tremendous boat of a vegetable that my father had grown.  Should we have taken it to the fair?

It's too late for zucchini this year, but the park service insists that we plant something--within two weeks of signing our contract.

With this new sunny space, and the imperative that we move quickly, we raced to our plot, eager to see the site of our future vegetative triumphs.

We found this:

And for some context:

I suppose we should take the rule about keeping your garden plot functional as more of a suggestion than a hard and fast requirement. 

Not to be discouraged, we surveyed the situation and made a plan. 

We'd clear it out.  We'd get something growing.  We'd be a great team!

Thankfully, Laurie knows someone (her husband) who knows someone who has the kind of machinery you need to knock a job like this out in a jiffy.

That's great, but there's a glitch.  You see, the overgrowth was never our problem. 

If you have been reading this blog for a while, I wonder if perhaps you have guessed the real challenge. 

When I met Laurie at the plot the second day, I wondered as I watched her digging, if she knew what the real challenge would be.

The thing is, I've had a vegetable garden before.  When Steve and I first got married, I persuaded my apartment manager to allow me and the other residents to plant gardens on an empty plot of land.  I grew tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, bell peppers and carrots.  I loved that garden, laboring over it all summer. I even carried huge cans of water from the distant spigot every day. 

As I expected, it grew green and luscious.  I strutted around amid my leaves and vines like Foghorn Leghorn himself.  Oh, to be young and prideful; I had not yet discovered the true color of my thumb.  

Then one day, it died. 

Perhaps it wasn't just one day, but little by little, something in the way of disease or critter struck each and every plant I'd grown--before I'd picked a single thing. If I were Laura Ingalls, my journal would have come to a tragic end that year, the words falling off the page as my bony little fingers recorded my final words.

Oh the tragedy.

"How could it all die?" you ask. 

You should know. 

I am a plant killer, remember?  There's really no other way to explain it.  These things happen.  This kind of "luck" strikes people like me.

I'm not telling my sister any of this.  I don't want to dissuade her from our partnership.  You never know, she might cut me out of the whole deal. 

Instead, I'm scampering around wondering, what can a plant killer hope to grow, starting in late September?

Oh - I know! Why not something I've already begun to kill!  Although I haven't had a big vegetable garden since that first travesty, I do grow herbs in my yard's one sunny spot.  I dabble with vegetables in there, but they almost always come to a bad end.

This year, I thought I'd try my hand at some fall crops, planting broccoli, spinach and lettuce.  To my surprise, they grew heartily.  "Everything looks so good!" I thought.

Unfortunately, the deer thought so too.  Little by little, they've stripped the leaves in the dark of night, working their way furtively down the row.  I know this isn't the same as killing something with your own hands, but still, a better gardener would have deer semen, or deer blood, or whatever it is people in the know use for a deterrent--perhaps a fence?!  Not me.  I just sit and watch as my little plants disappear, one bite at a time.

Since the new garden has a fence, Laurie and I decided to transplant my broccoli and spinach.  She is excited and doesn't appear to understand the kind of liability I pose. Failure wouldn't occur to her anyway because her thumb glows so green it might have uranium in it.   When she walks into my house, my plants perk up in desperation, hoping she might notice their plights and intervene. 

While Laurie might not see the risks inherent in gardening with a plant-killer, I know full well how much I need her.  I was counting on her to give this garden a fighting chance.  I was feeling confident she can lead me into the world where plants live long enough to bear fruit.

Then my hopes were dashed when she showed up for our first day of labor wearing earrings and flip flops!

How can a person garden dressed like that!?  For god's sake, she's probably even wearing deodorant.

Our whole lives she has out shined me as the fancy pants in the family.  I suppose I should revel in the fact that we've found something to do together for which I'm the one with the better outfit.

Still, if she's going to make this happen for me, she needs to get dirty! 

You'll be glad to know that like true partners, we switched jobs.  I dug the holes (without posing for pictures thank god!) and she did the planting.

It doesn't look like much, but it's a start.  Hopefully together, we have what it takes to make this thing grow!


Interested in a community garden?  Check with your local park service to see if you have plots available for rent near you.  Ours is cheap - less than $10/month!


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

dear teacher, you're too sweet for me

Dear Teacher,

Please stop with the candy already! 

My daughter, Olivia, came home from school last week and announced that her math teacher has a huge jar filled with candy in her classroom.

That tells me this year won't differ from those past where my kids' teachers have doled out Jolly Ranchers, Starburst, Laffy Taffy and other food-dye, preservative and refined sugar-laden little bombs of distraction on a regular basis.


Four years ago, we experimented with nutrition to help Olivia focus in school.  As part of that experiment, we removed refined sugar from her diet. Two months later, we had a different child on our hands.  She was focused, happy, and energetic in a shockingly balanced way.  Most importantly, she was present.  Present like I'd never seen her before.

She actually told me, "Mom, I don't have that foggy feeling anymore."

Granted, we made other changes to her diet besides eliminating sugar.  We went gluten and dairy free, beefed up the amount of whole grains and vegetables she already ate, and added a few supplements like Omega-3 fish oil.  However, after seeing the benefits of these changes, it was the addition of sugar back into Olivia's diet that appeared to have the greatest negative impact on her behavior. 

On any given day after school, Olivia's ability to sit and do her homework independently told us whether or not she'd eaten candy during school that day.

Can you guess, dear teacher, who gave my daughter the brain-killing candy she ate during those school days when we noticed her changed behavior?


I understand that we live in a world full of people who make different choices than us.  We have the neighbor-kid whose cupboards are packed with soda, fruit roll-ups, and oatmeal pies.   We have the generous boy in the lunch room who brought marshmallows and pudding for lunch--and the sweet girl next to him who brought cupcakes to share for her birthday.  We have the nice ladies at the bank, the hairdresser, and even our favorite Vietnamese restaurant who all want to hand out lollipops like it's Halloween. 

And speaking of that, we have Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Easter--all holidays for which the candy companies are happy to manufacture some kind of sweet must-have.  I'm telling you, if they invent a candy for Thanksgiving, I think my head will explode.

I understand and accept that we have to negotiate all of these hurdles on our road to a healthy lifestyle.  But YOU dear teacher.  YOU were supposed to be on my side.  The lady at the hairdresser hasn't made a career out of building the esteem and intellect of my child. 

You have. 

The lady at the bank doesn't hold a position of authority and influence over my child.

You do.

Why then, would you undermine all of our efforts (that's yours and mine), by drugging my child during the part of the day when she needs to be the most on, the most focused, the most well-behaved--for you?

If you think I'm being melodramatic then check out this infographic comparing sugar to cocaine. 

You may know that sugar is linked to big bad things like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.  You must also know from your own experience that sugar causes hyperactivity.  But did you know that too much sugar has recently been connected to learning, memory, dementia and Alzheimer's?

I saw the effects myself in my chemically sensitive child, but perhaps my story about Olivia's sugar-free transformation doesn't impress you.  That's fair.  You can google "sugar and the brain" and find a plethora of articles such as this one: Psychodiabetes: Sugar on the Brain, this one: This is Your Brain on Sugar, and this one: Harmful Effects of Excess Sugar.  Oh, and this one: What Eating Too Much Sugar Does to Your Brain.

Dear teacher, you cannot give my daughter candy then ask her to sit still and focus.  You cannot give her candy then ask her to raise her hand before talking.  You cannot give her candy then ask her to learn

This one really burns me up: Dear teacher, you cannot give my daughter candy then punish her for acting as if she's eaten candy.  

Dear teacher, I know your job is hard.  That's not just lip service.  I tutor learning disabled students and can tell you that one-on-one instruction is hard enough.  I have the utmost respect for you and the work you do in a classroom overstuffed with children.  But I implore you to figure out a way to do that work without candy-bribes because, in the long run, candy just makes your job harder. 

If you think you can't teach without sugar, check out Dr. Yvonne Sanders-Butler talking about how she implemented a sugar-free policy at her elementary school in Lithonia, GA over a decade ago.  I find her whole story fascinating, but if you're pressed for time (I know there's a stack of papers waiting to be graded), then skip to minute 16:45.  That's when she discusses the changes she saw after they removed sugar from their cafeteria.

Do you still think that one Tootsie Roll or that one Jolly Rancher never hurt anyone? 

Even if you are right, you have to consider that you're not the only source of sweet. It's everywhere. Your classroom could be the one place besides home where a child isn't presented with the temptations of that fine white powder. 

You also have to consider that you're a role-model.  You're the teacher! You're not just feeding your students candy, you're teaching  them to eat it.

Dear Teacher, we are in this together.  I will try to do my part: help with homework, send my kids off with a balanced breakfast in their bellies, and pack them healthy lunches for their school day. 

I just ask that you please, please stop with the candy already.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

the wheels on the car go round and round

I am a controlling mom.  It's the thing I most love and hate about myself.  When the kids were toddlers, I thrived in matriarchal heaven, ruling my roost with dictatorial glee.

Lest you worry my children lived in rigid deprivation, I always provided the illusion of choice in our house.  Would you like the apples or the pears? the peas or the carrots? the beans or the beets?  Would you like to play with puzzles or blocks? draw or paint? run or walk? It's your choice my little darling. 

The beauty of caring for toddlers is that they only know what you tell them.  They can't ask for pop tarts, potato chips, or the Disney Channel if they've never had or seen them before. 

Of course, I couldn't control everything.  I accepted food-goo smeared on the furniture, toys on the floor, sleep deprivation, and a marked lack of the quiet introspective time I needed so badly.  The house belonged to the kids, and that was okay.  I couldn't, however, give up what little quiet I could garner in the car.  Translation:  I just could not live without my NPR. 

One of my cardinal rules of parenting toddlers was always that nothing happens "just this once."  You can't let the kids jump on the furniture, eat ice cream before bed, or run wild around the grocery store (instead of ride in the cart) "just this once."  I always told Steve, "For a toddler, once is the same as always." 

To protect my NPR time, then, I never, NEVER, played kids' music in my car.  No Barney tapes, no Wiggles CDs, no Disney Channel on XM.  That way, they didn't know they could ever listen to anything but the calm and measured reporting of Diane Rehm and Kojo Nnamdi that I found so soothing.  My kids couldn't (and didn't) miss what they didn't know.

Once, however, after riding in his Aunt Laurie's van (always a bad influence, that darned sister of mine!), Gareth told me in his sweet little boy voice, "Mom, in Aunt Worie's car, she can play Barney!"  He said it with amazement and just a hint of sadness that I admit, almost made me feel bad for him, but I didn't relent.

I responded with a sinister willingness to deceive: "Really!? That's pretty cool! Too bad our car doesn't do that."

Gareth: "Yeah, I know!" 

He moved on to something else.  I swear, he wasn't even scarred. 

And I went on with my NPR.

Of course, the years went by and the kids grew out of "Wheels on the Bus." Despite their developing musical interests, however, we managed to keep a peaceful balance regarding radio use.

Until last year.

That's when I completely lost control of the car radio.  I lost it to Olivia, my tween monster who had a new-found passion for pop music.  Personally, I don't know how a child can listen to the same three songs over and over and OVER again for weeks.  I'm sure I never did this with Leif Garret, Andy Gibb, or Air Supply.  I'm sure of it.

In the mind numbing haze of repetition, I've caught myself entertaining angry sounding internal dialogues with the most repeated artists, asking Bruno Mars, "You should've bought me flowers? Really?  Well, I should've bought you laudanum. Take that!"  And Rihanna, "You couldn't possibly still want me to stay when I want so badly for you to go away!"  Then there's Katy Perry.  I don't talk to her, but I'll say that "Teenage Dream" feels more like a grown-up nightmare.

I cannot even bring myself to link up to these songs.  Surely you too have heard enough?

As the year progressed, the ten minute drive to Olivia's school became the longest ten minutes of my day.  The music, on its incessant loop, would assault me with sameness when I felt the most groggy and vulnerable.  Listening to Taylor Swift sing "I Knew You Were Trouble" every day before eight o'clock in the morning never failed to send me into a tailspin of suburban mother madness - a place where I wanted to bang my head incessantly into the driver's window of my minivan in a way that would involve drool.  

Still, I tried to hide at least some of my frustration from sweet Olivia who couldn't imagine I'd have a problem with her music choices. Having denied her the Wiggles during the car rides of her early years, I felt I owed her this coming of age.  I remember discovering pop music as a tween and feeling somehow, that I had discovered myself.

So I let the music play. 

Then, just when I thought I might have to flee my car in rush hour traffic, Olivia showed up with her ipod.

"Hey, Mom.  Look!" she said, holding up the gleaming device.  "I thought I'd listen on my ipod so you can hear your NPR!"

Feeling oh-so satisfied with this display of problem solving acumen, she plugged herself in with a smile and left me

in deafening silence.

Now I drive around listening to Michelle Martin's Tell Me More just like I wanted.  But I keep finding myself with things I want to say, stuff I want to share.  When I offer up my little insights, however, Olivia jerks an earphone out of her head and says, "What?!" with unmasked annoyance. 

Be careful what you wish for, right?

It's Karma coming back to get me, I know, because if I had to choose between the Wiggles, Katy Perry, and the silence in which I now find myself, I'd definitely go for a little family sing-a-long to Big Red Car.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

tarragon summer

Have you ever noticed that food has fashion?  When I was a kid, chocolate mousse dominated the runway of restaurant desert menus.  I have to admit, I wouldn't mind if that trend found itself suddenly back in vogue.  The "chocolate mousse cake" that replaced it isn't worth the raspberry-swirled plate it usually comes on. 

Regardless, on the lightly whipped heels of the mousse I loved so much, came potato skins - remember those cheesy, bacon-bit laden little boats of perfect bar food we scarfed down after too many beers in college? (or was that just me).  And after college, chicken wings flapped their way into the Friday night happy hours of our twenties, with curly fries hot on their trail.  Perhaps I used to drink and then eat too much?!).

At some point, I grew up, stopped eating in bars, and became a more committed vegetarian (the kind that turns her nose up at imitation bacon bits).  Still, there was food fashion to be found, even in a home cooked meal.  In the 1990s, Gourmet and Bon Appetit would not be satisfied until they'd incorporated Italian basil and balsamic vinegar into each and every one of their recipes.  Once the food editors tired of that, we got cilantro and lime followed by sesame oil, ginger and Thai Basil.  Then, sometime before the restaurant became a thing, the chipotle pepper took over our cuisine. 

I happily rode these waves of food fashion, adapting to them far more easily than I did to the idea I should change out my Tivas for something more edgy.   But that ended about ten years ago when I began to cook seasonally. I quickly grew disillusioned with the cooking magazines that asked me, in the cold of winter, to make a Christmas veggie platter out of fresh broccoli and cherry tomatoes.  Further complicating my relationship to food, we discovered Olivia's food allergies.  The imperative that I cook without wheat, gluten, dairy, eggs, and peanuts sent me suddenly adrift, thrust into my own world where I invented new recipes and adapted old ones according to the limits of both season and diet. 

I'm sure there is something new and ever so fashionable in food right now, but I'm no longer privy to such trends.  Instead, my exposure to cooking magazines starts and stops with Living Without (a magazine for people with food allergies that I highly recommend if you are so in need).  I use recipes out of it occasionally, but mostly, I just read the articles (Ha!  We've all heard that before).  This leaves me largely to my own odd devices.  That, my friends, is how I've ended up in a summer where, around our house, the unlikely pairing of tarragon and jalapeño peppers hit runway pay dirt. 

Perhaps I'm no better at the fashion of food than of shoes, or perhaps it's just that bounty rather than trendy determines what lands on our plates these days.  You see, my basil did poorly this year.  Usually I have enough to stuff a mattress, but this year it languished (did I water it too much? too little? at all?  Maybe it didn't like the unusually cool weather?) Regardless, I haven't had much basil to work with.  But the tarragon was happy, and the peppers were plentiful, so why not? 

I used to think I didn't like Tarragon.  Not because I thought it tasted bad, but because I thought it had no flavor at all.  I grew the stuff years ago.  I planted it, watered it, weeded around it, cultivated it.  But I couldn't taste it.  Still, I persisted, dutifully putting it in salads and marinades.  No matter what I did, however, it always disappointed.  Then one summer at the farmer's market, I came across a woman selling tarragon plants.  "Huh."  I said, sort of moronically. "Your tarragon doesn't look anything like mine." 

You have to remember that I'm a plant killer, a gardener of ill-repute, as it were.  It's one thing to kill your plants, but it's quite another, isn't it, to lose track of your plant in the weeds, causing you to mistakenly cultivate the wrong thing! 

I think that at some point in the growing of my tarragon, I mistook it for a weed, pulled it out, and began caring for an impostor.  For two summers, I tended to...something.  I watered it, weeded around it, cut it fresh, dried it for winter, and fed it to my family in various forms.

Yes.  I fed my family a weed! (Not to be mistaken with: "I fed my family weed," which is how I keep reading that sentence).  Is it technically still a weed if you eat it?  I guess I'm just grateful that I didn't have any wild and poisonous hemlock lingering around in my herb garden like a snake, waiting to strike at the first opportunity.

Would you know the difference?

Mexican tarragon

  poisonous hemlock


It's been quite a few years since I began growing real tarragon, despite my horticultural challenges.  Still, until this summer, I hadn't cooked with it much.  Perhaps my years of eating a weed left a bad taste in my mouth?  But this summer, in the absence of plentiful basil, I found myself turning more and more often to this subtle little gem.  And since I had more jalapeños than we could eat, I just kept throwing them in the same bowl.  In salad.  On beets.  In pasta.  On meats.  

Do the two go well together?  Sure.  I'm not going to write a cookbook about it or anything, but I've enjoyed all the spicy hot, tarragon-laden foods we've been eating.  This is how regional foods evolve, right?  Not through fashion trends set out by the whims of traveling food editors, but through availability.  You cook with what you have.  If I'd been lucky enough that bounty and circumstance had brought lemons, olives and mint to my kitchen table in the same summer, I just may have written a cookbook about it.  However, I also can't complain.  I could have been the person to whom the butcher said, "Sorry, there's a Depression out there, I only have cow tongue on the block today" (please don't let that ever happen to me).  And what if my weed had been flavorful? I would have made a great discovery indeed!

Regardless of what the season brings, then, eating locally and seasonally connects you to your region:  the thrivings and failings of its plant life, the labor and luck of its farmers, the whims of its weather, the lurkings of its fungus, the creepy crawlings of its insects, and the work you did, or didn't do, in your own garden (no matter how misguided!).  In this way, food becomes part of your story, your history, and not just an incidental purchase, made for fashion under fluorescent lights at the grocery store. 

So this summer will be the one that was too cool for basil. The summer when Olivia caught pneumonia, when Gareth learned to drive, when the AC stayed quiet, and no one went swimming.  The summer we didn't eat weeds.  The tarragon summer. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

a smattering on bikes, barrels and bogs

I rode my bike to the farmer's market yesterday morning.  I love it when it works out that I can combine exercise with errands.  I really do hate driving around in a car--aside from the other annoying things like the exhaust, the heat, the traffic and the music that Olivia insists on playing, I think it's the getting in and out of the car that really bugs me.  Something about that just requires too much effort.  How odd that it's easier in my mind to ride 6 miles to the market than it is to drive there and have to, egad, get out of the car--and then later, horrors, have to get back into it!

So, I set out on my bike for a few cucumbers, a melon, and some milk (yes, I admit I'm still buying that boutique milk.  It's just so good we can't help ourselves).

I had wondered at first if carrying the milk on my bike would work.  I tried to imagine the various disaster scenarios: would it spoil in the heat on the thirty minute ride home? Would the bottle break from the bumpy ride? What if I crashed?  Would the bottle go flying and bonk someone on the head before smashing into a million little milk-laden daggers on the sidewalk where my vulnerable bike tires, or perhaps my soft fleshy body, would land just seconds later?

I worked all of that out by packing a small soft cooler for the bottle.  It would protect the bottle from cracking during the ride, would keep the milk cool, and would at least keep the broken glass contained should some unforeseen accident occur. 

Feeling like I had it under control, I rode into the market feeling all invigorated and car-independent.  I purchased my goods and packed them up in my panniers (basically saddle bags for a bike) then coasted happily out of the parking lot.  It wasn't until I clunked over my first bump that it hit me:


I knew immediately that this was how butter must have been discovered.  Some poor bloke (turned genius) slung an animal skin full of milk over his donkey one day, stopped for a swig hours later, and found something really unbelievably delicious had formed.  I just hope he wasn't too far from water when it happened. 

You hear of people being "ahead of their time."  I never expected to have the dubious honor of being ten thousand years behind my time. 

If I was to be the great butter prophet, I definitely dropped the butter ball, so to speak, in not happening upon how to make the stuff until the 21st century!  My failing only gets worse when you consider that I didn't even have cream in my satchel.  The last I checked (which was yesterday), you can't make butter out of 2% milk - even if it's the best, creamiest, richest, and most expensive 2% milk you've ever tasted.  If you went to the trouble to keep the milk cold, your chances are even worse. 

None of that stopped me, however, from worrying about it for every bump and jostle of that suddenly very long six mile ride.  What would we do with a half gallon of butter? How would we get it out of the bottle with that little neck at the top?  How does that play into my imagined accident scenarios?

Finally, I traversed my final bit of rough road and got the stuff home.  I pulled it out of my bag and beheld:  cold milk.

We haven't drank it yet, but it looks normal.  Surely there won't be a weird lump or some such thing that plops into Gareth's glass when he goes to pour it, right?  Something like that could ruin a kid on milk for a lifetime, don't you think? 

So the lesson is:  you can ride your bike to the farmer's market, even if you're buying milk. 

In case that's not a revelation for you, I have a few other butter facts that I found interesting once I started googling:

The word "butter" is Greek for "cow cheese."  Hmmm.  That sounds more like something that comes from the ears or toes (thank goodness cows don't have toes) than the udder.  I don't think that name does the stuff any favors.

The Irish, and other northern peoples, used to store butter in barrels that they buried in the mud.  They called these "butter bogs."  Apparently, the longer they left the butter to sit in the mud, the better the butter got.  I wonder if anyone tasted the 5,000 year old barrel one man found in Ireland back in 2011

Over time butter has been used to shine up hair, smooth skin, and to treat infections and burns.  It's also been used in religious ceremonies, in tea, and as currency.  Some crazy people, if you can believe it, even put it on toast! 

Weirder than toast, however, Dairy Goodness's History of Butter claims the Irish, Norse, Finns and Scotts loved the stuff so much they were buried surrounded by barrels of it!  I guess that gives a new and less savory meaning to the phrase "butter bog."

The same source reports that in Elizabethan England, newlyweds received butter as a wish for fertility.  Of course, this made me wonder if butter-wrestling has ever been a thing. 


Nothing so interesting as that going on around here, however.  After all my worrying, I'm now left feeling cheated because, instead of some magical, medicinal, spiritual, and seductively slippery butter in my bag, all we've got is this suddenly deficient jar of plain old milk.

Monday, August 12, 2013

like a squirrel in the tomato patch OR lazy locavore hangover

This time of year, it's easy to eat local.  In fact, it's sometimes hard to keep up with all the local stuff that greets me, with little vegetable arms upstretched, yelling, "me! me! pick me!" when I open my fridge.  All those vegetables, dying to be eaten, just break my heart! 

Eating locally gets harder, of course, during the colder months, so I supplement the food that I get from various farmers' markets, coops and buying clubs with the food that I've canned, frozen or dried. 

And guess what, the bulk of the preservation happens: NOW. 

I mentioned in the spring that I'd grown a bit fat and lazy on my winter larder.  Mama bear is not supposed to emerge from the den feeling as if she's just finished Thanksgiving dinner.  No, no.  She is supposed to claw her way back into the world feeling ravenous, edgy, and predatory.  What had happened to me?  Instead of anticipating spring with an eagle's eye for the first signs of fresh crispy stuff, I emerged feeling lethargic and a little drunk on a winter spent eating rich homemade soups and roasted foods that, thanks to my summer industriousness, had required little prep.  I wrote about how I needed to wake up and snap out of it in lazy locavore back in May.   I did rally to make several batches of strawberry jam that week, but while I've managed to do the hard work of eating fresh food all summer, I've sort of been dreading canning season.

Of course, we all know I could have a lazy summer and still have a lazy winter.  There's a grocery store just down the street packed to brimming with already chopped and jarred food.

But it wouldn't be the same.  Darnit!  You know that too.  You see, I don't just want to be lazy.  I want to be inspired.  Can a person be both lazy and inspired? The politics and economics of supporting local farmers, the environmental aspect of eating local and organic, the spiritual enrichment of eating seasonally: these things all simmer in that winter food.  Unfortunately, none of that gets in there without the work.  Winter food has labor and love bottled up with it in those jars.  Leaving that out would be like forgetting the salt in the tomatoes. I think the value of that work is what I get a little drunk on as curtains of cold and gray shroud the picture window in my kitchen (maybe the "work" is more like the tequila in the margarita?). 

The problem with that: you have to actually do all that work: the washing, chopping, hulling, paring, freezing, drying and canning.  And instead of doing it, I have been walking around with my lazy locavore hangover, telling myself that canning season is not yet upon us.

Until I casually asked Gareth's friend if his mother had begun her usual canning routine.  His eyes bugged out: "Are you kidding? She's a maniac!  She's been canning round the clock for weeks!"


Like a squirrel caught lolling fat and lethargic in the tomato patch (yes, the squirrels ate my tomatoes again this year), I snapped to attention.  The other bushy tailed rodents have been out gathering? And I've got nothing to show but some tomato skin between my teeth and a meager stash of strawberry jam?! 

While I've always suspected that my interest in food preservation must hearken back to some sort of survivalist hoarding instinct, I never realized there was a competitive element to it.  I always wondered why I got so antsy feeling when my sister would call and tell me proudly: "I'm canning salsa today!" 

If I wasn't canning too, I'd get all defensive: "Well, why didn't you tell me?"  As if she should always let me know her plans so I could be sure to keep us even.   Now I'd learned that someone else had already put up jars in numbers?  I needed to get my bushy-tailed-ass in gear. 


I put up blueberry jam, peach jam, pickled banana peppers and the dreaded labor intensive salsa all in one weekend.

Then I called my sister to tell her so.

Of course.

So I guess I'm writing to say I have the fire back.  I found myself yesterday scrounging around the kitchen to see what I could boil, blanch, pickle or dry.  Not enough cukes, not enough jalapenos, not enough beets.  And the market had closed for the day.  I growled in frustration. 

Quite honestly, I'm surprised one of my kids didn't end up in a jar.  But I shouldn't be, really.  I mean, if you're going to pickle your kids for later enjoyment, do it when they're fat and perfect at eighteen-month olds; don't do it when they're honing in on eighteen years.  By then they've grown old and tough, their skins thick and bitter with self-righteous indignation.  Who needs that with a shot of vinegar and dill?

Anyway, I finally found some wax peppers to dry.  And that led to the herbs.  Rosemary, basil, thyme and tarragon all waited majestically for me in the garden.  With bundles of aroma tied and hung, and piles of pesto in the freezer, this squirrel (or am I a bear?) called it a day.

Until tomorrow--when the tomatoes arrive.


Interested in doing some canning but don't know where to start?  Check out Pick Your Own.  That link will take you to the "All About Home Canning" page, but the website is pretty comprehensive on food preservation in general.  Just scroll down past the paragraph about blueberries to links for your specific questions.  If you're overwhelmed, I'd recommend you pick one thing and focus on that.  I'd start with jam, tomatoes or applesauce.  These are easy to get in jars and are acidic, which makes them easier to can safely.  My first canning project was applesauce.  I used a recipe from the Ball Blue Book.  Applesauce is so easy (once you've pared and cored!).  You just cook it down, ladle it into jars and process! :)   And if you do apples, you still have plenty of time to get canning supplies (see Pick Your Own for suggested kits).  Good luck!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

still no 'poo, are you?

It's been a year and a half since I gave up shampoo, so I think it's time to check in.  I'm still at it, if you're wondering.  While my family dabbled in baking soda, the practice didn't stick for them.  They all have their reasons: Gareth refused because he's a teenager.  Olivia gave it almost nine months before she decided her lackadaisical hair-washing skills weren't enough for the combination of long hair and baking soda.  Steve, who probably only tried it because he was afraid of what I'd do if he didn't, lasted almost a year before he confessed that he wanted to switch back because his hair, which looked perfectly clean to me, felt "weird."


I acted like he was crazy, but I had a secret: my head/hair felt a little weird too.  I didn't want to admit it because I was committed to the cause. I'm a martyr! A fighter! A true soldier in the battle to keep sodium laurel, sodium lauryl sulfates and parabens out of our water ways! But I couldn't deny to myself that my hair, which also looked perfectly clean, felt a gunky the word?


My hair felt fine when it was dry, but when I'd wring it out after washing it, my hands felt like they had an oily film on them.  Yuck.  Despite that, however, it actually looked better and was easier to style than it was before I gave up shampoo.  For the record, "easier to style" means I didn't need to do anything to it. I could wash it and let it drip dry and it would look exactly the same as it always did, except without the shampoo, conditioner, hair gel, blow drying, and hair spray I'd always felt I needed to make my limp, thin and lifeless hair look like something instead of nothing. 

So, while I didn't know why my hair had that feeling when wet, I didn't want to go back to the old routine. I saw the gunkiness of my hair as a sacrifice I had made for all the little crayfish and minnows that no longer make their homes in our waterways.  And if you must know, I didn't explore ways to eliminate the gunk because I was too busy moralizing about my sacrifice, thinking a little righteously about how I'd stuck with the cause when Steve--that irresponsible shiny-haired-'poo-using-traitor I married--had not. 

I did, however, begin to worry about what would happen when I got my hair cut.  I hadn't gone in about nine months (one of my many beauty and fashion failings), and the last time I'd gone, I'd let them wash my hair--a decision I regretted because the shampoo returned my hair to its old corn silk condition.  I know that sounds nice, but soft isn't always good.  Corn silk for me means straight, flat, lifeless, and too slippery to style.  It took a month to build up the weird residue that felt gross but gave my hair its new body.

If I wanted to avoid another month of shampoo-recovery, I had to refuse the shampoo.  But then how would I hide the secret of my gunk from Carrie, my hair stylist of twenty years? 

Not sure how to face her, I put off my hair cut, letting what had been a short over-the-ears cut grow to my shoulders!  I am such a wimp.  Finally, I could avoid it no longer, so I scrubbed my hair as best I could, and steeled myself for the humiliation.

When I explained my green hair care plan to Carrie, she was cool. I expected that, actually, because Carrie is cool.  Why else would I go to her for 20 years?  If she thought I was a lunatic, she didn't let on, so I relaxed. She cut my hair and we chatted as we always do about books and movies and politics.  Everything was going to be okay!

Then the moment came.

She stood behind me, fiddling with the back of my hair.

"So...I know you haven't been using shampoo..."

I'm telling you.  I could hear the words clacking together in her head like marbles as she sifted through them for the ones that would say, "Your hair feels scuzzy" without actually saying that.

She continued: "Your hair is clean...but it's almost as if, well, it has feels like..."  She scrunched up her nose.  Then her eyes lit up.  "It feels like it has a build up of too much product on it. That's what it is!"

I could see her relief at having stumbled upon such a safe description.  No, my hair wasn't scummy or oily, or fit for critters to nest in.  It was just overstyled.  As in, my hair had too much civilization in it instead of too little.

Ultimately, we laughed at her euphemisms as I assured her they weren't necessary.  If I couldn't hide the gunk, I didn't want to endure the awkwardness of pretending it wasn't there.  If for no other reason, let the same person cut your hair for twenty years so that when the time comes, they will have the guts to say, "Hey, your hair's kind of gnarly.  What's up with that?"

I was really glad we talked about it because she motivated me to get rid of the scum, and she gave me a clue: product

Out of habit, I had continued to use hairspray with my baking soda regimen.  Are you shocked and disappointed to hear I ever used hairspray at all? I had to.  No matter what fabulous things Carrie had managed to create on my head while I'd sat in her chair over the years, they were always utterly destroyed by the time I got to my car.  The sight in my rear view mirror never even remotely resembled the masterpiece I'd seen just moments before in her magic mirror.  Why? Because Carrie (rightly) didn't apply hairspray with the same 1980s vigor that my hair has always required. Without it, my hair falls instantly limp into my face where it drives me crazy for the rest of the day.  I hate that!

I had just assumed I still needed the hairspray, regardless of my no 'poo status. 

I was wrong.

My first order of business when I left Carrie's that day: eliminate the hair spray and see what happened.  The second: revisit the use of vinegar.

I used vinegar last year and liked it at first.  After a few times, however, it left my hair greasy - as if I had used too much conditioner, or hadn't rinsed my hair well enough.  That, actually, is exactly what had happened (too much conditioner/vinegar).

This is where I tell you, if you've tried and failed with no 'poo: understand that it is a process.  Perhaps you already knew this? I didn't.  If after using baking soda your hair feels too dry, or too oily, or it accumulates the gunk, don't quit (like some traitorous husbands have done!).  But also, know that you don't have to be heroic and endure embarrassing hair scum. 

Just experiment. 

I had been using this common prescription: 1 Tablespoon of baking soda in 1 cup of water.  My hair is thin and tends toward the oilier side, so this solution proved too weak.  I reduced the water, mixing my 1 Tablespoon of baking soda with just enough water to be thinner than a paste.  Now, I work this into my hair instead of just dumping it over.  Then I really scrub.  It feels gritty, but I like that feeling on my scalp.  I do this every other day, and it works well.   After a week or two, however, it starts to get that dry-but-too-thick feeling:  in other words: it starts to get the gunk (despite the fact that I don't use hair spray anymore).  That's when I hit it with the vinegar.  Instead of the 2 Tablespoons of vinegar in 2 cups of water like I tried last year, I use just 1 tablespoon in 1 cup of water (same proportions, just less of it).  This leaves my hair feeling smooth and shiny, but not greasy.


The moral of the story: you don't have to be a weird-haired martyr for the local stream beds!  A little experimentation helped me to make my hair better than it ever was: cleaner, more full of body, not scummy when wet, and easy to style.  I just wash it, comb it, and let it dry.  No shampoo, no conditioner, no hair gel, no hairspray.  That's a lot of money left in my pocket, time left in my day, and a lot of questionable chemicals left in their bottles.

It just took a little perseverance (and a fearless hair stylist).

And since so many people come to my blog under the search terms: "no 'poo pics": here are a few weird faceless pictures for your scrutiny.

unfortunately, the baking soda doesn't help with the way my
natural part extends down the back of my head.  
i'm certain this will be a bald spot in old age. :( 

this is from the side.
you can see the very tip of my nose sticking out on the left.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

baking soda & laundry: is it a conspiracy or a miracle?

I'm off my rocker--gone plum baking-soda-crazy.  I'm telling you, I love that stuff!  I wash my hair with it, brush my teeth with it, bake cookies, do the laundry, slap it under my arms in great powdery puffs, then turn around and scrub the tub and toilet with it. 

I'm hauling it out of the grocery store in 4 lb. boxes and storing it in recycled 1 gallon grain buckets in my laundry room, and it occurs to me: I hope this isn't a raw material for some kind of homemade explosive device (baking soda does everything after all). If it is, then my repeated trips to the grocery store, where I have swiped my card with my cart loaded down under boxes of suspicious white powder, have most certainly earned me a spot on one of those top secret government watch lists that prevent you from flying on planes or crossing carelessly into Canada. 

Rather than a threat to public safety, however, I wonder if this miracle stuff isn't more of a threat to corporate profits in the cleaning and beauty industries.  In my shift to no poo almost a year and a half ago, I managed to replace shampoo, conditioner, hair gel and hair spray with just baking soda! What was a no frills girl like me doing with all that crap to begin with?  (More on that later in my highly anticipated follow-up post, "no 'poo, part...III?!" or some such title).

There are a ton of websites packed to brimming with how-to-use-baking-soda advice.  You'd think you wouldn't need any more from me, but last year I found several that included recipes and advice for washing hair and doing laundry with just baking soda and vinegar--and I don't seem to be able to find those sites this year.  Everything I can find, like this Life Hacker  list and this Care 2 make a difference list suggests adding baking soda to your shampoo or your laundry detergent in order to "boost" their performance, That both lists (and others) use the word "boost" suggests to me that their information came from the same source--perhaps there is a detergent or chemical association out there somewhere that has adopted a clever "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" stance, flooding the internet with green living advice that suggests baking soda should be used only in conjunction with store-bought products?

I don't know why I'm going all conspiracy theory on baking soda today!  Really, I'm just hear to tell you that while I think both of these above lists are otherwise useful (check 'em out! get excited about sodium bicarbonate!), for laundry and hair, you don't need to couple baking soda with anything but it's good friend vinegar.  I assure you that together these two are good for more than just volcano making.

After I gave up shampoo last march, I began looking into how baking soda might substitute for other household products. As with shampoo, I had a lot of concerns about what my Trader Joe's laundry detergent contained.  Check out how it is rated by The Environmental Working Group.  Not good. You can search that same site to see how your brand is rated, and if you want to know still more about toxicity in detergents, you can read here, and here.  Unfortunately, you will see words and phrases like "hormone disruptors," "fertility problems, "eutrophication" (excessive growth of algae), and "loss of aquatic life."

Eventually, I learned that I could wash my laundry (and my moldy shower curtain, btw!) by putting 1/2 C of baking soda in the wash cycle then adding 1/2 vinegar during the rinse cycle.  (Do not mix them in the same cycle.  Of more concern than the creation of a possible volcano, they will neutralize each other, leaving you with little more than a mildly salty solution with much less punch.) 
Steve is not particular about most things, but for whatever reason, the laundry matters to him.  He has long complained that our "natural" detergent from Trader Joe's doesn't work.  Sometimes the wash would just randomly smell bad, and it didn't have a long life at all if forgotten and left to sit wet in the machine by a certain member of the family who cares deeply about a lot of things like the environment, social justice and local food sources but who can't seem to get into much of a dither about forgotten laundry. 

Since Steve already felt I'd compromised the cleanliness of our clothes with my TJ detergent, I worried that he would reject my new laundry strategy out of hand.  So naturally, I snuck the suspect ingredients into our wash routine without him knowing.  I carried on in that clandestine way for a month, letting him whittle away at our last bottle of detergent when he washed, but then, when it was my turn, creeping furtively around the laundry room like a fiend, as if I were trying to slip the laundry a mickey when no one was looking.  Now we're getting to the real conspiracy, I suppose.

The results were amazing!  Baking soda removes odors and stains, vinegar acts as a fabric softener.  Our clothes came out bright, soft, fluffy and smelling fresh--which means, by the way, that they smelled like nothing.

If you use this method to wash your clothes, you should know that they will not come out smelling like a synthetic blue sky or a chemically induced meadow complete with faux-smelling butterflies (what do butterflies smell like, anyway?).  If you've grown to rely on these smells for assurance that your clothes are indeed clean, no worries: it doesn't take long to forget about them.  In fact, once you're desensitized, a trip down the detergent aisle of the grocery store will overwhelm you with perfume so thick you'll feel like you just licked a dryer sheet.

I feel like I need to spit just thinking about it.

Once I'd determined the baking soda and vinegar were effective, I broke the news to Steve--unveiling my deception as if it were the most casual thing in the world.  He was leery until I told him I'd been doing most of our laundry this way for a month.  Since then, he actually agrees our laundry seems cleaner and brighter, and even Gareth has learned to set the timer so that he can add vinegar to the rinse cycle. 

As for cost, I wish I could say the BS&V way is cheaper, but that depends on your current method.  If the number of loads advertised on detergent bottles are to be believed, then it seems buying baking soda and vinegar together costs about the same as purchasing an equal amount of detergent.  If you count fabric softener, however, then BS&V is cheaper.  Regardless, it's certainly not more expensive, and it's absolutely more green.

And I think it's more clean. 

So hooray for no more store bought detergent! No more reading labels and wading through articles about toxicity! And most importantly, no more crapola going down our drains from the washing machine!

Perhaps it's a miracle after all.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

trayvon martin and the privilege of invisibility

Amid the media frenzy over the George Zimmerman acquittal on July 13th, I came across this Jet interview with renowned scholar and activist bell hooks.  When asked about how African American parents should talk to their kids about the dangers black children face today, hooks reminds us that our current crisis doesn’t present a new dilemma for African American families.  She explains that black parents have always practiced what she calls, "parenting for justice"--a phrase she uses to describe ways black parents teach their children to be activists for justice while also raising their kids’ awareness regarding the inequities and dangers they will face growing up black in America. 

Reading the interview I was immediately reminded of a performance by my fellow Listen to Your Mother cast member Taya Johnson back in May.  Taya's piece, Peanut Butter and Jelly, recounts the tragic and sudden loss of her husband and the subsequent challenges she faces raising their special needs son alone.  Embedded in this story, however, is the fear and weighted responsibility Taya and her husband felt in the moments when they discovered they would have a son.  Taya notes that parenting is terrifying for everyone, but adds, "our fear was doubled as raising an African American boy presents a unique set of challenges and concerns."  She continues that racial "anger, fear, ignorance and hatred is often directed to and acted upon black boys and men." In the face of these threats, Taya and her husband made a plan: their family, with a strong emphasis on the role model of the father, would help their son Marcus to navigate these challenges. 

Sadly, Marcus's father did not live to see that plan through, leaving Taya to rely on male members of their extended family to help Marcus know the man his father was. Still, I find it remarkable that even though they wouldn't have used this language, Taya and her husband had planned how they would "parent for justice" before their son was even born.

Of all the fears and anxieties I felt when pregnant with my son, I never worried that I was bringing him into a world that would not welcome him.  I have never worried that someone in our neighborhood might perceive my son as a threat.  I have never counseled him on how to avoid arousing the suspicions of others.  I have never advised him about how to stay safe if confronted by the police. 

I have never had to deliver these dire warnings because Gareth enjoys a privilege that white people, including myself, take for granted.  It is the privilege of invisibility.  Gareth’s whiteness lends him a legitimacy and a belonging that allows him to walk regularly to 711 to buy candy without fear. He is invisible because no one notices him.  No one suspects him.   Of course, I worry endlessly that he will step carelessly into traffic, but in all the times he has made that trip, it has never crossed my mind that he might get shot. 

Such freedom of movement should not be a privilege; it is a right. 

The work of securing this right for all young people should not fall to African American parents alone.  White people can “parent for justice” too. 

First, we can educate ourselves and our kids about racial profiling.  I don’t just mean that we should understand that it happens.  Rather, we need to understand what it’s like—or admit that we don’t really know so that we can ask questions and find out. 

Have you ever felt targeted by the police for something beyond your control?  This has only happened to me once in my life, and arguably, it wasn’t beyond my control.  In January 2001, I went to DC to protest the election of George W. Bush.  Despite my peaceful intentions and my right to free speech, the police repeatedly treated me like a threat to society rather than as an active, socially conscious part of it.  They blocked my way, barked orders at me, refused to look at me, and refused to answer my questions.  At one point, when the police unlawfully blocked the protest route, I turned down a side street chatting and laughing with some fellow marchers.  Two police officers came out of nowhere and attacked the young man walking just in front of me.  They threw him to the ground and raised their clubs at him, yelling for him to lie still.  I watched in horror before I was corralled away by additional officers (no, I was not arrested). 

Later that afternoon, as I was driving home, I contemplated my treatment and the mixed emotions it had evoked.  I had felt indignant, angry, misunderstood, and sometimes afraid.  Most surprising to me, the unfair treatment made me want to fight back.  I wanted to yell at the police, point my finger in their faces and tell them how wrong they were about me.  I wanted to push them to make them acknowledge me when I was talking to them.   I didn’t do any of those things, but I was shocked to discover how quickly the police could make me want to. 

While driving my car and marveling at this surprising turn of my character, a police cruiser drew alongside me on the highway.  When I saw that black and white in the corner of my eye, I flinched and cowered a bit in my seat, expecting him to pull me over.  I had learned to feel like a criminal in just one day.  Then I remembered that this officer had no way of knowing that I'd protested earlier--that I was no longer the subject of his suspicion and ire.  By getting in my car and driving away, I had disappeared back into the privilege of my invisible self, a self who was free to move about the city without question.  I felt a tremendous sense of relief. 

My one day of minor mistreatment doesn't even make a drop in the bucket when compared to the systematic infringements of racial profiling.  If I could feel so targeted, so angry and so vulnerable in such a short time, what must it be like for young black men who endure the suspicious gaze of those who unjustly fear them on a regular basis—and during the formative years of their childhood no less?  How often do they feel afraid?  How often do they alter their plans to avoid trouble? How often are they incited to violence they wouldn't otherwise commit?  

I have heard arguments that profiling is an insignificant problem because innocent people should have nothing to fear.  That argument overlooks the more far reaching damage done to a population that falls perpetually under a suspicious gaze.  Even more importantly, the argument ignores the fact that racial profiling subjects the same population to repeated risk of dangerous conflict.  Eventually, someone gets really hurt, or as happened in the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, someone dies.  

That is unacceptable.  To truly bring an end to racial profiling however, we must overcome an even greater hurdle: our fear. 

Have you ever felt unduly afraid or suspicious of a young black man?

I've spent a lot of time studying things like race theory and the history of slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights and stereotype.  Still, I live in this society that privileges whiteness while demonizing blackness, and I am not immune to its influences. 

I admit that there have been times when I have looked twice at unknown black teens who have walked through my neighborhood or past my car.  I am ashamed of those feelings, but instead of hiding them, I think we should confront them.  We should ask ourselves where our fear originates: in personal experience, or elsewhere?  Far more than personal experience, we will find the seeds of fear in Hollywood, on television, in the news, in the application of the law, and in the law itself.  

As these many sources of fear show, no one of us has single-handedly created this culture, but whether we like it or not, we are all stewards of it.  Understanding the root of it can empower us to resist.  Instead of blindly perpetuating fear and stereotype, we can question them.  We can educate ourselves about their origin and history, and we can “parent for justice” by teaching ourselves and our kids to look beyond stereotypes to see the promise and the humanity they mask. 

Without fear, the practice of profiling would die, and we could finally guarantee young black men the privilege of invisibility--the privilege of moving freely without evoking suspicion and incurring harassment. 

We can do all that, and if we think Trayvon Martin should be the last innocent black child to die for our fear, then we must. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

recycling and "the debris" in tennessee

I just spent a week's vacation in the smoky mountains of Tennessee.  We stayed on Lake Watauga, a body of water touted as the second-clearest lake in the country.  Hearing that, and reading from the rental agency that we should avoid bringing paper and plastic kitchen products because they have "limited trash facilities" and excess trash would be "frowned upon," I expected pristine.  I was not disappointed.

I took this from our deck just minutes after we arrived. 
I've never seen the end of a rainbow before--it went right into our own pot of gold: the lake!

Olivia fishing on our dock.

Taken from my canoe in the river that feeds into the lake right across from our cabin.
Canoeing through here felt otherworldly.
It was completely still and silent, save the kingfishers darting among the trees.

Showing you all that, however, is like showing you a family photo album that has pictures of the wedding, the birthdays and the vacations, but not the death, the divorce, or the long days at work.   So I'll have to turn my camera around for you. 

There was also this:

This is what our dock looked like on the first morning, surrounded by what we came to call "the debris." 

Apparently, recent weeks have brought record amounts of rain to the area.  Locals boasted that the lake was EIGHT FEET higher than usual.  We didn't doubt it as we could paddle around in the canoe while peering down at fences and walkways that lay still and unused 6-8 feet below us. Our own boat house poked only its nose above the flood:

Unfortunately, like a mischievous child, those eight feet of water crept their sticky fingers up into everyone's yards the week before we arrived, lifted everything buoyant, and set it adrift.  Consequently, the lake roiled with floating driftwood, bits of twigs and leaves, and, you know it's coming: plastic crap.  Lots of it. 

Are you thinking that the lake and my vacation were ruined?  I admit it was shocking to see so much trash in this beautiful place, but "the debris" came and left in waves.  It traveled like the blob, in big amorphous slurries that answered to the whims of the wind and the moods of the river that fed into the lake.  Also, it's wasn't smelly or slimy or slick.  It floated atop the water, leaving no trace of itself when it moved on. 

What made it feel dirty was the plastic.  You may know that one of the big problems with plastic as a pollutant is that it's light weight, making it highly transient.  I could swim in this lake and see my feet it was so clear, but when "the debris" arrived, we'd watch plastic containers, balls, water bottles (oh, the water bottles!), and even a broken pink plastic tricycle (darn I wish I'd gotten a picture of that) float by amid the wood and the twigs.  Whatever trash might have been sitting around in people's front yards, half buried, waiting to be fixed, or waiting to be thrown away, had gone traveling.   

Are you wondering why people had so much plastic crap in their yards to begin with?  I bet it didn't look like a lot when it was contained to people's property.  We all have stuff tucked away in our yards, don't we?  If a flood came up on my carport right now, a few plastic buckets for gardening, a sidewalk chalk container, a hoola-hoop, a big plastic watering can and some Ping-Pong balls would all go a -traveling.  None of it really looks like trash right now, but it sure would have if it had floated past my dock last week while I fished with my kids. 

Is the moral of this story to keep our plastic trash tied down in case of a flood? Or is it simply to avoid having so much plastic crap to begin with?

On one evening, I sat on the dock splashing my feet in the water.  The light was just so, the water a mirror, my feet feeling baptized by the kind of cool that speaks of depth and mountains.  Everything was so still, I could see the current from the nearby river, running relentless and purposeful through the middle of the lake.  I felt that calm we all hope to find on vacation.  Then, I noticed a huge piece of white plastic, jagged and bobbing, sailing like a great ship down the center of the current. Are you old enough to remember those cars that used to drive around with bullhorns on top of them blaring political messages into quiet neighborhoods?  I actually don't think I'm old enough to have ever seen one myself, but you've seen them in the movies, right?  This chunk of a defunct plastic container, sailing past in all its glaring trashiness, reminded me of those cars. It blared its bullhorn through the evening sublime to tell us once and for all to PLEASE STOP THROWING SHIT IN THE LAKE!"

In a great irony, while lamenting the presence of so much plastic, we discovered that the local municipality did not provide recycling services. 

Were we to throw our recycling in the trash?! 

As far as water goes, I had only brought one 5-gallon jug with us in case we discovered the tap wasn't potable.  We didn't need it, however, because the well water tasted pure and wonderful--no way did I want to miss that for some prepackaged Polar Springs a la polyethylene blah blah blah. 

But beer didn't come out of the tap (darn it!).  Neither did wine.  And not everyone on our trip had come with reusable water bottles with which to take advantage of the tap.  With a crowd of sixteen (it was a family reunion kind of event), we accumulated a pile of recyclables faster than "the debris" could collect at our dock.

What to do with it all?  I announced that we should save it, and I started a pile on my back porch.  I had no idea what I would do with the regiments of cans and bottles that soon stood ready for battle outside my door, but I recruited them anyway.  People humored me, sending an occasional soldier to join the ranks. 

I know, however, that they also thought I was a little crazy.  I never saw anyone put a bottle or can in the trash, but I know they did it.  I found the evidence, unhappy and ashamed, gone AWOL under my kitchen sink. 

I imagine my family quietly slipping the offending items behind their backs and into the garbage while casually talking to me about whether the fish were biting.  They didn't know that just as quietly, while commenting on the latest influx (or outflux) of debris, I snuck many of those cans and bottles back out and deposited them on the porch where they stood proudly at attention, awaiting my orders.

On the final morning, they marched dutifully into bags, filling two-and-a-half plastic trash bags with discarded plastic, glass, and crushed aluminum.  Were we really going to dump all that into the "limited" waste disposal system of our hosts? I just couldn't bear to do it.

So the moment of reckoning came.  Steve trudged up the stairs with his packing face on.  If you haven't seen it, you should know it's not something to trifle with. 

"Um, hon?  I've got all this recycling." I gestured to the bags that pressed hopefully against the sliding glass doors like orphan children looking for a ride home.  I want to take them with us."

He stood erect, arms straight down at his sides, and looked at me.  Everything about his body said, "You've got to be f--king kidding me."  I'm sure that at times like this, he must wish I could just be a normal person.  The kind of person that says, "When in Rome..." or "to hell with it, we're on vacation!"  Even I wish I could be that kind of person sometimes.  I think I can be really annoying with my inability to let certain things go. 

We take vacations precisely for that reason, right?--to let go.  I get that.  I showered less, I ate and drank more. I peed through my shorts in the lake for god's sake!  But some things aren't meant to be let go.  I still brushed my teeth.  I took my thyroid medicine; I fed my kids...and, I recycled. Or at least I tried to. 

In the interest of saving our marriage as it wavered precariously on that top step, I saw Steve take a long slow breath.

"Maybe in the cooler?" I ventured.  (We had a huge cooler with us).

He huffed his begrudging assent and gathered up my precious cargo.  I dared not say another word.

With our cooler "packed," we hit the road--me grinning as we rolled through the countryside, Steve probably rolling his eyes.  We stopped for a quick breakfast along the way.  When we returned to the car, I noted a distinct Eau de Frat House in the car. 

"Ew.  The car stinks!" we all agreed.  The kids and I laughed because we knew, as much as Steve might hate that, he'd never endeavor to empty the cooler now that we'd buried it under our mountain of vacation paraphernalia.   So we drove merrily down the road, in our old tin can of a car, smelling like a stale beer.  And you know what?  Even Steve smiled eventually.

At home, we dumped our cargo in the recycling bin.  I'm happy about what we were able to bring home, but I also know a lot of recyclable material slipped by me in the course of the week.  For that reason, I have a little recycling vacation advice for myself and anyone else who might want it:

-if renting a vacation home, check ahead of time to see if it has recycling services

-if not, check the local town/city to see if there is a place where you can drop recyclables during (or at the end of) your vacation.

-if not, plan to bring your recyclables home (bring appropriate containers, plan room in the car, warn spouse of your plan before that moment when he/she thinks the packing is finished).

-check ahead of time to see if your tap water will be potable. 

-if so, bring reusable water bottles that can be kept cold in the cooler at the beach, on the boat etc.

-If not, bring 5-gallon jugs of water to fill reusable water bottles.  That way, you can avoid using a gazillion individual water bottles, some of which are sure, at some point in the next millennium, to set sail right into the middle of someone else's vacation!