Going vegan taught me how to love food, savor it and cherish it. So, even though “vegan” sounds restrictive, it broadened my palate and my life. I hope to write some stories about my culinary adventures and discoveries here.
I just finished reading the introduction of this book and Gorham’s memoir portion and LOVED it!
It’s so well written, and the layout of the book is artful. What a powerful story.
I’ll work my way through the recipes next, starting with the beets.
Liz, your writing career is an inspiring story as well.
Tess--I understand more than you know! Just minutes before seeing your message today, I had to be honest with myself and admit that I’ve had a small cup of coffee every day for five days in a row. I let myself indulge for fun over the weekend; then I used finals week (I’m a college instructor) as an excuse to continue indulging. Today, I realized, I must stop, NOW, face the inevitable headache, and get it out of my system before I’m so deep in it takes me months to recover (like it did the first time).
All that said, AFTER I quit caffeine, I did some research about it, and all of the research says that you should quit by tapering back, starting with half de-caf, then reducing the amount of cups per day, then increasing the de-caf, and finally quitting it completely. It’s probably a less painful route.
Some recommend downgrading from coffee to green and black tea, which are a different type of caffeine with less radical effects on the body.
Finally, it sounds like you might have the same challenge I do: a psychological need for caffeine. For example, this week has been going really well, which is unusual for finals week. Do I credit myself for being organized, my students for being great students, my colleagues for being supportive? No! I tell myself, “It must be the daily coffee!” And now, I have yet another justification for my sweet treat.
Sigh. I’ll make today’s cup my last in support of your efforts. Your comment helped me remember that once I got through the withdrawals, I felt SO MUCH BETTER and had significantly more energy in my life--the exact opposite of what I expected.
So, hang in there. Get over your cold, eat really healthy food, drink lots of water, and be patient with yourself. Caffeine has sharp claws and doesn’t let go easily. It’s fine if you go back to drinking it, but sneak in some de-caf, explore other soothing warm drinks that don’t have caffeine (I actually like Pero), and know that I’m back in the fight with you.
For the month of October, 700 of us are blogging every weekday about vegan living and eating. I think this is the 5th year of the event, and it’s my first year taking part. Blogging every day has been a challenge but fun, and reading others’ blogs has been inspiring.
You can find information and a list of all bloggers here: Veganmofo.com.
My blog is here: All But The Kitchen Sink
(I had to use my other blog because I could not figure out how to do the blogroll and the banner on my Culinate blog.
I just listened to James McWilliams give a talk related to his book Just Food. Upset by current food writing that is “puffy, not critical, celebratory, and rarely delves into complexity,” he investigated common beliefs about food:
Local is not necessarily the best way to lighten your carbon footprint. Instead, we should do two things. One, grow food where it grows best naturally (where the water and soil and temperature are right) and ship it by truck or train (not air) to other places rather than dipping into underground aquifers to grow food in the desert. Two, eat no meat or at least less of it. He said individual Americans eat 260 pounds of meat each year; that should be cut to none or to 12 pounds per year (one pound per month). This, more than anything, lightens your carbon footprint.
Organic is not necessarily better. He said genetically modified food has been studied for 12 years, and so far there is no decisive evidence that organic foods are higher in nutrition or that GMOs are dangerous to our health. However, he did say that we should not be growing monoculture GMO soy and corn and cotton that goes to feed animals and into processed food. Instead, we should be growing “orphan crops” like sorghum, sweet potato, and millet.
McWilliams was not against industrial agriculture for plants; he said he has no problem with factory farmed carrots, but subsidies need to change. He showed the two pyramids I’m sure you’ve all seen by now. One triangle shows what the federal government subsidizes, and this is in direct opposition to the food pyramid which the government recommends we follow for a healthy life.
70% of farm subsidies go to meat and dairy, according to McWilliams, and only .37% (yes, that’s point 37) to fruits and vegetables combined.
No wonder so many of my students perceive a healthy diet as an expensive and elite one.
I plan to read McWilliams’s book Just Food because he seems to take no sides and instead critically questions all of the sustainable food movement’s “dogma.” He tells Portlanders local and organic is not necessarily best, and he tells ranchers that Americans should cut meat out of their diet. I found the critical inquiry refreshing and surprisingly less confusing than some of the other food writing out there because he’s not rushing to a conclusion but reveling in the complexities, asking us to hold two (or more) competing ideas in our minds at once.
He’s the geeky gadfly unsettling writers like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver. I just found his food blog at The Atlantic online. If you’ve read any of his work or heard him speak, I’d like to hear what you think.
My sour month is nearly over, but I’m not sure what to do. I don’t want to go back to sweets, not yet. One more month? Or, am I just delaying the inevitable? I don’t want to cut sweets all together. I’ve done that with caffeine with great effort and equal reward; I’ve done it with meat and dairy with ease and joy. Sweets, however, are my ingredient to learn and practice moderation. Still, I don’t feel ready to “go back.”
I just had this thought as I made tea in the kitchen: When I remember who and what I want to be in the world, I know exactly how to eat: whole, fresh, plant foods, no indulgences or sweets, just contemplative balance that radiates health. Right. Not realistic. I have a career, writing and art goals, a family, a house to tend. There will be days, probably a few in a row, when I don’t get enough sleep. I’ll crave sweets. I’ll give in. I’ll wallow in chocolate and chips. Then, a few days later, I’ll pull myself back together and happily munch kale and roasted beet wraps for lunch, oatmeal for breakfast, whole grains and veggies for dinner.
This wrestling match with sweets is forcing me to try to accept the fact that I am human, that even though I believe our food choices help take charge of the quality of our lives, we are not in complete control. Right now, for example, I’m home for a sick day, something I’ve not done in many, many years. I didn’t even have the energy to ask, “How did I get sick?” I just did, in spite of healthy meals for a few weeks now, good sleep, lots of yoga, washing my hands obsessively at work, and so on.
Sweets, like dust, make me face the inevitable. No matter how well you clean your house, the dirt comes back. No matter how powerfully healthy I try to make my diet, sweets, salt, fats will eke their way back in. And these things are not bad! I have nothing against sweets, salt, or fats. I just don’t like the way they bludgeon the other foods in the cupboards, demoting carrots and broccoli to Junior Varsity status.
This weekend, I made it through a craving. It wasn’t one of the strongest cravings I’ve had, but it was rather insistent. Somehow, and now I wish I’d paid more attention to how I did it, I got through the craving to the other side without any sweets or sweet substitute (no fruit-sweetened anything, not even any fruit). What was on the other side? This will sound weird, but a feeling of maturity, of adulthood, of control…hmmmm…not control…of achievement, of something gained that could be acquired no other way.
So, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to make it through at least one more craving. When the desire for sweets (which we know by now is really chocolate), I’m going to wait it out. I’m going to get to the other side again and see what it’s all about.
My sour month is not going much better. It’s not as hard as it was two weeks ago, but I have this ache, like something’s missing. I miss sweets…no, I miss chocolate, like you might miss a really good friend, someone you talk with regularly who is now camping in some remote back country for a month and incommunicado.
Last week, after one particularly stressful day in March, I came home and made a chocolate smoothie. It’s fruit-sweetened, so I wasn’t cheating, and it makes a rich, thick, frothy mug of chocolate. After one sip, I kid you not, I felt soothed and more at ease. Two more sips, I was smiling, relaxing on the sofa, and sure once again that I could face another day.
Because of this experience, I decided to re-read Dr. Neal Barnard’s book Breaking the Food Seduction.
For some people, a love of chocolate is not a problem. Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who can have a small square of dark chocolate and be satisfied. However, if you’re like me, you want one more square, three more the next day, half a bar the day after that, and soon you’re eating an entire bar in one afternoon without a second thought.
There are many possible reasons for this compulsive eating. Most likely, you simply fall prey to chocolate’s “opiate effect,” which involves not only the sweet, rich, silky experience of eating chocolate but an overpowering combination of caffeine, theobromine (another stimulant), phenylethylamine (an amphetamine that creates an effect similar to marijuana), and anandamide (another marijuana-like drug). To sum it up, Dr. Barnard explains that chocolate is “basically the whole drugstore: traces of mild opiates, caffeine, amphetamine-like components, and the equivalent of a slight whiff of marijuana, all wrapped into a smooth, sweet taste” (42).
I haven’t read far enough into the book to remember what Dr. Barnard suggests to do about this opiate effect. It doesn’t sound like it’s a bad thing unless you’re like me and quickly go from a modest square or two of chocolate to compulsively inhaling an entire bar.
No matter what he recommends, I doubt I’ll cut chocolate out of my life. For me, it will be one more life lesson through food. Can I learn to eat a modest amount of chocolate occasionally, not a gargantuan amount regularly? Can I find joy in restraint? Can I be satisfied with less?
At the moment, that sounds dreadful. I disdain the idea of ritualistically arranging a little square of chocolate on a pretty plate, closing my eyes, and letting it dissolve on my tongue, meditatively mindful of its fleeting taste and texture, wiping my mouth daintily, then getting up and getting on with the day.
Even though there are consequences (like pants not snapping closed), I like eating bowls full of chocolate chips. I like chewing and chomping on a large chunk of chocolate with a cup of flowery herbal tea. I like sitting on the sofa and inhaling chocolate chips for twenty minutes as my mind perks up, switches from negative and defeated to positive and invincible. It’s cozy and comforting, and the amount matters.
Could I save up those occasional single squares of chocolate and eat them all at once in a bi-monthly banquet of goodness?
Somehow, that doesn’t seem as sane, mindful, or healthy as the occasional square (maybe two squares?) enjoyed thoughtfully, but it sounds way more satisfying.
Maybe I will simply embrace my compulsive ways with chocolate. Schedule it into my life, a bi-weekly binge. Maybe I’ll keep using the chocolate smoothie as a healthier alternative. Other than showers, I don’t know what April will bring. We’ll see….
End of week two, beginning of week three…
I swear I don’t eat that many sweets, but going sweet-free is so hard! Like last March, it’s taking me about three weeks to stop craving dessert. Week two was particularly hard. I’d rationalized some great reasons why I shouldn’t do this, but before I finished explaining my reasoning to my husband, he cut me off with an understanding but firm smirk. I’d been explaining that maybe my metabolism, my lifestyle, the unique nature of my being require that I eat sweets regularly, that going sweet-free could actually be damaging me… It sounded logical in my mind, but even I could hear how weak the argument was when I started saying it aloud.
Last Friday, I had a near-meltdown with chocolate chips that I choose to see as a moment of triumph. I mean, you only reach greatness by risking failure, right?
It was Friday afternoon, the last week before finals (aka: I was exhausted), and I just needed that little pick-me-up, a moment of relaxation, a mindless indulgence. You know where this is going, right? To the baking drawer and the bag of dark chocolate chips.
When I’m stressed and tired, a dangerous combo, I zone out on the sofa eating chocolate chips, letting them melt a little, then crunching away, the deep richness oozing down my throat as I stare off into space.
The problem is, I eat and eat and eat until I’ve consumed at least two cups of chocolate chips, probably more. It’s the quantity as much as the chocolate and sugar. The freedom to indulge, consequences be damned. A moment to give up all responsibility and sense of consequences.
I’d decided to do this on Friday. There was only a third of the bag left. I knew I would have to tell my husband about it. I decided I didn’t care. This is just too hard, and finals week is coming, all those papers to grade; I deserve this. I opened the bag, selected a small handful to begin (just three chips), and popped them in my mouth.
I let them melt the whole way. I eyed the rest of the bag. I paid attention to the taste. A little bitter. I either needed to shovel more chips mindlessly and not notice the mild dissatisfaction, or I needed to put the bag away.
I put the bag away.
My husband exclaimed, “Three chocolate chips?!?” and compared it to him eating three pieces of chicken (remember he’s meat-free for March). I emphasized the tiny nature of these three chips and pointed out my triumph.
I did not indulge. I did not compulsively eat the entire bag just to get it out of the house and over with. I did not turn off my mind. I also did not find any sweet escape from my life, but my life is not so bad, not bad at all actually, and my students are doing well, and after finals is spring break, so what do I have to worry about?
The next day, as I whined to my husband and best friend over the weekend, “…not even any muffins! I mean, I just wanna a muffin…” One of them asked me about sugar-free recipes. I thought of my friend Wendy Gabbe’s book “Scatter Sweets,” which is vegan and gluten-free, and which has the chocolate smoothie recipe I’ve been making. Could there be anything else sugar free?
Blueberry muffins! Cheating? No! My husband reminded me that Meatless/Sweetless March is about adventure and exploring alternatives.
So, on Sunday, I made fruit-sweetened blueberry muffins. Perfect! Sweet relief...
Near the end of week one…
While my husband ordered bland vegetarian options at business meetings and passed up the open-faced turkey sandwich at his favorite lunch counter for the first week of Meatless March, I munched two cookies on Wednesday, made a sugar-free but super-sweet chocolate smoothie yesterday and today (it’s sweetened with Medjool dates), and have started talking about my life and diet in terms of restrictions rather than embracing my sweet-free challenge with the adventurous attitude Meatless March is supposed to be about.
I am just not committed to this idea of no sweets for March. I thought it would be easier this time around. When I became veganish (I still eat the occasional egg), people said my diet seemed too restrictive. I joyfully explained how I’d experienced the exact opposite. The removal of meat and dairy opened my life and palate to abundance and diversity I’d never experienced before. Now, however, I focus on what I cannot have: no muffins, no cookies, no jam on my almond butter sandwich, no agave in my tea, no eating after 7pm… (I have no idea where that rule came from, but I broke it Saturday night with a piece of toast and a smoothie. Rebellion is sweet.)
Maybe what I’m really learning this March is moderation. Maybe I should have NO restrictions, and see how I do having just a little of this and that (like Carol said about her one cookie in her comment in Part 2 ). But I know I can’t really cut myself loose like that. If it’s not already obvious, I have a bit of a compulsive and addictive side to my palate.
Sweet and fattening foods affect the brain just like heroin does, according to The Oregonian * in an article last week. They trigger the “pleasure centers” of the brain, and some people (like me) get addicted to these foods and “increasingly compulsive” (aka: gorging on cake, see part 2).
“Increasingly compulsive” describes me with sweets. I guess I could say, “Hey, it’s not heroin!” and indulge all I want, but obviously, all this resistance to a sweet-free March is showing me just how much I need to do this.
The thing is, even as I feel sorry for myself about this month’s “restriction,” the food choices I am making really are not restrictions. My food choices are about being mindful, about paying attention, about living life fully by noticing life as it happens.
So, is a sweet-free March a good idea? Are my sugar-free, but still sweet and chocolately smoothies defeating the purpose? Or, am I finding healthy alternatives?
Although I have to admit I’m not sure I’m ready to give up the smoothie, I want to approach March more like people who fast during Ramadan or Lent. It’s about shaking up routine, removing what we take for granted (or gorge on in my case) and cleansing heart and mind, getting more in tune with life, remembering what it means to go without, finding clarity and strength in the restriction, living fully in spite of the restriction, developing a new routine for the month, and finding new rituals that cast light through the murky rush of each day.
Well, here goes, on to week two….
How We Live section C Wednesday, March 2, 2011 “Humans are Hard-Wired for Fat.” I can’t find it at Oregonlive.com, since it was originally from McClatchy-Tribune, so “here’s from another news service.
I feel disgusting. I ate a piece of thickly frosted cake from Dovetail Bakery the size of an unabridged dictionary after a three-entrée dinner shared with my husband. It’s not yet March, so the cake is not verboten, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that I feel horrible—like a day’s worth of food is sitting in the top half of my stomach so over-packed it can’t be processed. I imagine this is what it feels like to have that surgery where your stomach is banded to the size of a walnut and you forget and go and eat an entire vegan club sandwich. It hurts. Plus, the sugar effect has me sweetly tired and I want to go to bed, but if I can’t lie down. I need gravity to help me keep this all inside.
This is not the kind of mindful life I want. This is mindless. I literally turn off my mind and delight in an animalistic gorging of sugar and fat. When my husband suggests that I eat only half of the cake and save the rest, I freak out for two reasons. Most of the pleasure derives from the fact that I’m letting myself eat as much as I want for as long as I want, so half the cake ruins the eating experience. Then, I worry about having the cake sitting around for more days of indulgence.
For example, when I was a junior or senior in college, someone gave me a giant heart-shaped box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day. I didn’t really eat candy then. Ice cream, yes, but not candy. It was like handing me drugs. I ate a piece of chocolate, so rich and sugary it stung my throat. Then, for the rest of the day, I skipped down the hallway from my room where I was studying to the dining room where the box sat on the table, picked up a piece, and munched it as I skipped back to my room. When more than half the box was gone, I rationalized that it was better to eat it all in one sitting and get it over with. Go back to normal life tomorrow. I figured there was no way my body could hang on to all that sugar and fat, so it would leave my system; whereas a few pieces a day for a few days would make me fat.
Now, as I sit on the sofa and moan lamentations about my excessive indulgence, my husband says that maybe I restrict my diet too much and lead myself to this binging. He says maybe I should eat a little bit like this more often. I think of the Valentine’s chocolates and decide he’s wrong. However, I go to my calendar to see what my pattern has been. Just over a month ago, I started noting days when I ate a significant amount of chocolate. I’m fine with a square or two, but for some reason, since the end of December, I seem unable to eat less than half a large bar.
When I looked at the calendar, I found that for two days I’d eaten a modest amount of chocolate (2-3 squares), but the next two days I’d eat half a bar, and the day after that I’d eat some chocolate and a decadent piece of vegan cake! I did this three times in six weeks.
I know sugar is addictive. I know that some people will need more of it more often to achieve the effect they desire. I guess that’s what I need to figure out—what effect does this binging achieve for me? A mindless, sweet, emptiness. I just sit and zone out for a while after and feel good.
Okay, but that doesn’t explain the overpowering desire to binge in the first place. It’s not like I’m thinking, “Oh, I’m stressed, I’ll eat a bunch of cake and feel better.” In fact, often, these binges occur in the evening after a relaxing day.
Some of you know my story of quitting coffee (and all caffeine…except for what’s in these dark chocolate bars I’m munching.) I know coffee must stay out of my life just like a recovering alcoholic must keep liquor out of her life. I know one cup will send me back to a daily habit of guzzling gallons of the stuff. However, I don’t want to have to be so rigid with sweets. Like I wrote during last March’s sour month (read “this” and “this”), I want to be able to find a balance and not be overwhelmed by such intense cravings.
As much pain as this cake caused, and as much as I want to say I’ll never do over-eat this way again, I know it’s not that easy.
What causes intense cravings? How do you indulge modestly? How do you deny a craving?
Nine years ago, my husband and I started a tradition we call “Meatless March.” During the month of March, every year, we eliminate meat from our diet to launch us out of food habits and into the adventure of exploring new foods and recipes. We loved forging new gastronomical territory together and bonding over successes and failures.
However, five years ago, I committed to a nearly-vegan diet; now I eat meat-free year round. My husband continues to eat meat, but he also continues to observe “Meatless March.” We experimented with ways I could re-join him in the adventure, and last year, he came up with a plan that proved to be a mighty challenge for me. While he gives up his beloved chicken every March, I must give up all sweets: no sugar, no sugar substitutes, no agave, brown rice or maple syrup, etc.
Yep, that also means no chocolate. *Gasp!*
If you’re still reading, you now know why I call March a sour month. Last year, I absolutely dreaded the month. Until my husband challenged me to give up sweets, I had been sure I didn’t consume that much sugar. To my surprise, I saw that I ate a lot more dessert than I ever noticed or admitted.
It took just over two weeks to stop missing sweets, to stop waking up each day and thinking, “Nothing sweet today. No dessert today. No chocolate today.” By the end of the month, to my surprise, I didn’t want anything sweet. I’d imagined baking a pan of blondies—a vegan dessert of chewy, brownie-like batter topped with caramelized pecans. I even decided I’d let myself eat the entire pan if I wanted to. By the end of the month, I didn’t want them, and I realize now that I haven’t made blondies since before last March.
Even so, it’s not like my sweet tooth changed permanently. March functions as a ballast stabilizing my life. The 31 days of zero sweets recalibrates my palate. Afterward, I am satisfied with much less. Most importantly, I return to eating desserts in a normal, healthy way: on occasion, without guilt, without gluttony, and because it sounds good. At some unrecognizable point during the year, however, I lose balance, start consuming more desserts, usually gluttonous bouts of stuffing my face with chocolate while stewing about a rough day. Soon, those feasts happen closer and closer together. Then, “Voila!” it’s January, and I’m eating entire dark chocolate bars in one sitting! (I’m not exaggerating.) Worse, I’m turning to dessert for all the dangerous reasons: comfort, security, pity party, escape, relaxation, numbness.
So, it’s almost March.
I feel pretty confident but a little apprehensive. I tend to forget that my husband is in this with me, that he, too, will be longing for his comfort foods. It’s just that he usually makes it look so easy, I forget that I’m doing this to be in it with him. Okay, back to the point of Meatless March—to forge ahead together into new culinary adventures. Perhaps I will explore sugarless desserts, if there are such things, or concoct new rituals in place of dessert. Herbal tea? Sigh. Sounds like a poor substitute.
Stay tuned to hear how my sour month goes. I could definitely use some encouragement, and any advice or recipes will be very welcome.
It’s only a little after seven, but it’s already dark enough outside that we turn on the dining room light, a nostalgic feel after long, bright summer days. It happens so fast, the shortening and darkening of the days. I try not to think about it and turn my attention to our dessert.
My man leans back in his chair, curves his right hand around his bowl, and with his left hand holds his spoon straight up in the air. He closes his eyes. The back of the spoon faces me, reflecting in miniature a woman, elbow on the table, chin leaning into hand. She looks like a Modigliani painting sort of stretched and swerved, languid. Behind her, warped by the spoon’s reflection, floats an image of a large etching of a poppy flower framed in blue.
If I could paint this scene—the man contemplating his last bite and the tiny reflection of his dining company—I would title it “The Eater,” but secretly call it “The Chef and the Artist” because for this moment I feel like a real chef as I recognize myself in that spoon-mirror, and see my mom’s etching behind me which reminds me that I come from artists, that it’s in my blood, blood being something I’ve thought a bit about today.
My man opens his eyes and aims the spoon at the last bite of dessert, hesitant for someone so practiced at detachment, he clings to the bowl, wishing it not to be over, then scoops up the black, lavender, and cream morsel and savors.
Since living in this house, I’ve battled the ivy—tenacious climbing vines embedding themselves in the fence and looping over to the lattice, threatening to reach the roof. It grows in our absent neighbor’s back yard. Three times a year I pull out ladders, climb up, and rip, cut, and pull until the ivy remains only on her side, still clinging with its millions of gripping feet, crouching behind the fence until I turn away then stretching itself back over. It’s invasive. It’s non-native. It must be eradicated. I know I sound like a savage dictator; even so, I am relentless.
Then, this year, during the third cutting of the ivy, I found thick, thorned berry vines weaving their way through to our side of the fence along with the ivy. I cut them out just as mercilessly. Unlike the ivy, however, the vine fought back and drew blood at first strike. Thorns the size of candy corn, curved and sharp like a cat’s claw, fit into my flesh like a toothpick into play-dough and sliced rough, easy lines down my arms, filing back layers of flesh beaded with blood. I grumbled and lamented the absent neighbor and these invasive weeds becoming my problem.
However, one berry vine escaped my shears until a hot August afternoon when I noticed a crown of bees dizzying themselves around some white blossoms, small green berries, and large black ones. The air near this vine smelled like pie, fresh, hot, berry pie. The vine turned out to be a blackberry, a Himalayan blackberry, just as invasive and non-native as the ivy I am told, but armed with weapons to defend and sweet gifts to woo.
A fully ripe Himalayan blackberry, soft to the touch, falling off the stem and warm from the sun pressed between tongue and roof of mouth oozes a rich syrup comparable to nothing but itself that wakens the body like a magic potion. Celestial ingredients swirl around the digestive tract, reminding the body’s particles and parts of their solar system origins until it feels like your feet may very well lift off the ground and return the body to its source.
I wrote a polite letter to the absent neighbor, void of any angry sentiments about her ivy, suggesting nothing but a breezy, friendly request that I enter her backyard to pick her beautiful blackberries. I hoped the mail would be forwarded to wherever she resides. Before sending the letter, I walked to the front of her house and knocked in spite of half a dozen locks on the outer and inner doors as well as the gate to her backyard, heavy shades drawn over all the windows, paint peeling, and that soundless sound of a house not lived in. I mailed the letter expecting no response and watched longingly as the berries ripened and fell.
Then, Monday morning, the answering machine light blinked. An unfamiliar voice drawled unclearly and my finger hovered over the “stop/erase” button to cut off some unwanted solicitation. Then I heard the word “blackberries”:
“I’ll be in town this afternoon. I’ll unlock the gate. You can come pick between showers. I’ll lock the gate again Wednesday. You have today and tomorrow to pick the berries.”
A few minutes later, my cell phone rang. “Hello.” Nothing. “Hello” I said annoyed. “Yes, this is 2830, I’ll be by later today to unlock the gate. You can pick the berries between showers today or tomorrow. I’ll be back Wednesday to lock the gate.”
Her voice waivered in a way that suggested she might be older. I envisioned someone short, but no other characteristic came through the phone lines. I thanked her enthusiastically and offered to leave her some berries on her back porch. “No thank you” she said and hung up.
It was a mission if I chose to accept it. The little gate would be unlocked for just over 24 hours. I plotted and planned. Tuesday morning it rained. I waited impatiently for a break. Even though I had all day to pick the berries, I felt antsy. I had to get to them before someone else did. I’d learned that another neighbor, apparently with his own key to the gate, picked the berries when he pleased. “He’s older,” I told myself, “he’ll only pick the easy ones.” I packed a small ladder to get to the hard-to-reach ones, covered my arms and legs in denim and thick cotton, and went out into the rain.
It was weird being in someone else’s back yard, like entering a different zone with different weather patterns. My house, just on the other side of the fence, seemed far away and unfamiliar. In her backyard, I heard nothing. No sound of the birds I hear in my backyard, no buzzing of bees, no squeaking bicycles, no wagons of toddlers pulled by parents rattling by. Maybe it was the rain, dampening ground and sound, but her yard vibrated with an intense privacy, cloistered and hiding something ethereal. Nothing moved back there. No wind. No squirrels. No birds. I felt relieved to see a few tiny ants on the fallen berries rotting into the grass.
I approached the berries studiously. Vines wove around each other in tall arches creating dark empty spaces deep inside the brambles. Greener vines reached out to inspect me. I felt watched. I picked the low berries, but even though they were black, most were not ready. Anything but the softest Himalayan tastes bitter and poisonous. The ripest ones were few and spread out, high up or deep inside the darkness.
My mind cleared. I was nothing but patience and concentration. I crouched, stretched, tucked, kneeled, and maneuvered through the vines. Sometimes the best berries tumbled out of my hand as I backed up to put the berries in my stainless steel bowl. Thorns that had curved away from me when I reached in now dug deeply into my shirt, jeans, and gloves on my way out. I ignored the pain, even when thorns sliced into the softest, whitest skin of my stomach and ribs, my cotton shirt as useful as gossamer against these knives. I let myself be violated by these sinewy ropes, let them pull me into their musky den because the berries were worth it.
I stood on the top step of my little ladder and leaned toward our side of the fence, grasping for a huge, thick berry. I feared falling in. I’d brought my cell phone in case I got stuck, but I knew now a knife and shears would have been more useful. Vines ranged from pencil-thick to one as wide in diameter and as solid as the post for a stop sign. The thorns varied in thickness too, but all stayed tight on the vine and hard, ready to gauge repeatedly.
When I finally left, brushing off seeds and debris, I could not tell the difference between blackberry juice and dried blood. Turns out, most of it was juice, but a few wounds remain on my right arm and torso, enough to justify my feeling that I’d entered a jungle and navigated a foreign land, not simply turned the corner of my block and entered a yard separated from mine by only a thin, tall layer of wood.
That afternoon, I mixed fresh peaches with the blackberries, a tablespoon of sugar and lemon juice, and covered the shimmering black gems with a lemon-poppy biscuit topping. As it baked, the hot blackberries emitted bewitching fumes, their sinister sweetness so black and deep I thought for sure they would turn my pale hair into sleek raven feathers, but no such luck.
We ate the cobbler while it was still warm, only detecting the peaches by their different texture since the shadowy juice had stained the peaches an inky slate color.
Still relishing his last bite, my man notices my note from the answering machine message on the table.
“What’s her name?” he asks about our absent neighbor.
“Constance,” I said.
I looked out the dining room window over the fence to her two empty upstairs rooms, the only windows without shades pulled. I’d never seen anyone in those windows, anyone in the house or in the backyard, and yet, I have always felt watched by that house. Watched in a shy, inquisitive way, like the backyard produced those berries just for me, having come to know me and know what I would like, like an apology for the ivy, like an understanding, like a timid, guarded friendship.
It had been an adventurous and full weekend, so by Sunday night, I ached all over and looked forward to sleep. After a long overdue grocery run, I put away our stock while my man finished where I had left off grooming the front yard, another long overdue task. It was 97 degrees outside and 80-something in, so I brainstormed what to make for dinner that would require no heat.
Spike and I were happily gnashing ingredients when my sweaty man came in from the yard.
“The symphony’s playing in the park,” he said, “The neighbors just left.”
“Our park?” I asked.
“How do people know about these things?” I exasperated.
“The paper. It was in the arts section,” he said.
“I read that section!” I huffed and then gave in, “When does it start?”
“I dunno. I’m sure not for a while. They’re early risers getting a good seat,” he said about our perpetually organized neighbors whose order I envy on frequent occasions.
I eyed the clock. Almost seven. I bet it started at six. By the time we finish dinner it will be over. Oh well. At least I knew that it happened so I could say I missed it. From the dining room I hear the newspaper shuffling, then, “Hey! It’s happening right now!” my man says, and suddenly it seems like something we don’t want to miss. “Wanna go? Just walk there and back?” We’re both super hungry and don’t want to delay dinner.
I survey my nearly-heatless dinner. The one thing simmering on the stove can be turned off and left to sit. “Sure!”
We rush out the door, my man’s gray shirt showing sweat from yard work and my shorts smeared with turmeric.
Two blocks away from the park: “I don’t hear any symphony,” I say.
“It’s probably on the other side of the park.”
One block away: “I hear it!” I say triumphantly but then notice the hesitant look on my man’s face.
“It sounds like a finale,” he says in a cautious tone, like he doesn’t want to incite a tantrum.
“No….” I start to argue, but he’s right. Drums, timpani, crescendos left and right…okay, I’m not a musician, but big loud booming and swelling of instruments crests then floats away to a moment of silence before applause fills the park just as we arrive to see green hills covered in people, blankets, and coolers.
We stand dumbfounded for a few minutes. A woman smoking a cigarette turns and glares at us for some mysterious reason. I watch the crowd. “Hey,” I say, “No one’s leaving.” The conductor is speaking in the microphone but trees and wind distort his voice and we have no idea what he’s saying. Then my man says, “Intermission!” Oh good, I think. How long is intermission? We don’t know, but my hips and calves ache so we sit on some grass beneath a tree at the very edge of the crowd.
I study the people closest to us: Popeye’s chicken and potato salad; scrumptious containers of food from Whole Foods deli; watermelon slices, wine, beer, and what looks like a mound of cheesy nachos. I’m so hungry, I think, but they’ll start playing again any minute. I try to be content. I’m hungry. I’m so hungry.
“Should we go back for our dinner?” I ask after at least ten minutes of intermission.
“No, they’ll start as soon as we get up.”
“Yeah, we’ll get back just in time to hear the end,” I say sarcastically. But I’m hungry. I finally notice that all of the musicians are wearing white, and if I train my eyes on the white far ahead, I can see they are not sitting down but milling about. Some sort of enormous sausage concoction drifts through the crowd. Groups sharing blankets pass tastes of this and that back and forth…
“Keys,” I say.
“Keys. I’m getting our dinner,” and before he can make an argument against it, I insist, “I’ll make it in time. I’ll be right back.” He hands me the house keys.
I walk as fast as my stiff legs and flopping flip-flops will go, dodging sticky smashes of burgundy colored plums someone is letting go to waste on the sidewalk. I barely slow my gait once in our house a few blocks away and beeline to the kitchen. I stack to-go containers on the counter, fill some with vegetables, one with the food I simmered on the stove, scrape out Spike to fill another, place it all in the bottom of a grocery bag I just emptied, fit two plastic plates on top, two cloth napkins, one knife, and I zoom out the door, back through the plums baking into syrupy pie filling on the cement, and back to our tree at the park.
No music. Blankets and crowd still in place. Mean smoking lady gone. A few more picnickers have arrived even later than us. “I made it!” I beam. My man unpacks the bag, discovering what’s for dinner as he peels off each lid, and by the time we take our first bites, the music begins again.
My almost no-heat dinner fit the bill perfectly:
We had three dips: leftover roasted pepper hummus from the store, just-made fava bean edamame dip, and “Bombay Hummus” straight out of Spike that I worried my man wouldn’t like because it strayed from our normal favorite hummus. We smeared dip into the open pita bread then stuffed in chunks of seitan (a high-protein faux meat made from wheat gluten—way better than it sounds) that I simmered in red wine, soy sauce, and onion powder. Then we fit in some shredded lettuce and the juiciest, sweetest, crispiest green bell peppers ever in existence from our farmers’ market.
My man bites into a pita thick with Bombay Hummus. I watch. “Wow!” he says, the fresh ginger making its mark, “This one’s good!”
As violin music wafts through the trees to my ears and the breeze swirls my hair, I savor the taste and texture of cool, juicy bell pepper, the rich and chewy seitan, and the Bombay Hummus that releases fresh ginger and garlic slowly through the creamy garbanzo beans and raw cashews.
A perfect finale to our fun weekend. I suppose it was really an encore—one more burst of fun before our energy and time ran out.
The “Bombay Hummus” recipe is from a cookbook from Rebar Restaurant in Victoria, B.C. (Rebar Modern Food Cookbook.) However, I altered the recipe significantly. Although I love Rebar, I have to say I like my version better. So, I’ll call this Harmonious Hummus because seemingly cacophonous elements combine compatibly in this dish.
1-inch piece of fresh ginger peeled and chopped into chunks. (I buy fresh ginger and then freeze it; this doesn’t seem to hinder the flavor at all.)
1 can (19 fl. oz.) garbanzo beans drained and rinsed.
1/4 cup raw cashews
juice of one lime
2 garlic cloves
1 tsp. sea salt
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
fresh ground black pepper to taste
2-4 Tbsp olive oil
Combine all ingredients in a food processor, except for the oil. Pulse, scrape down the sides, then drizzle in oil as you blend the hummus. Puree until it is as smooth as you like it. I prefer a small chunks of cashews for texture and only 2 tablespoons of oil, but more oil and more blending will make a smoother spread.
Smear on pita, fresh bell pepper and carrots, between slices of bread with fresh tomato or lettuce, or roll it up in a tortilla wrap.
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