Sunday, September 25, 2011

What Are You Afraid Of?

On my road trip back to IU, my cousin and I found ourselves in need of a good latte and a little relaxation. We wandered into a coffee shop in West Jordan, Utah, sat down with drinks in hand and each grabbed a book that interested us. I chose The Best Travel Writing of ... some year I can't remember. But, I do remember one essay that left an impression on me.

The author was describing her experience of staying at a luxury hotel in Los Angeles where she had fond memories visiting during her childhood. One of things she took great delight in were the warm chocolate chip cookies that the staff placed on her pillow each night as part of their turn down service. She said that the little piece of oozing, sweet goodness was a way of finishing the day with "good taste in her mouth" - a reminder that every day you deserve things that bring you joy.

With this chocolatey memory in mind, she checked into the hotel wanting to give her body and soul a healthy dose of self love. However, as she ate dinner in the hotel that night, she couldn't help but notice how things had changed. The menu might have been different, the decor changed here and there, but the biggest change was in the mindset of the guests. With a batch of fresh, crusty rolls nestled inside a napkin lined basket, a server walked by offering these just made delicacies only to receive responses of "No thanks," "I'm fine," and "Oh, I couldn't eat that. It's not on my diet." The guests she watched didn't just brush off the offer of freshly baked bread, they fervently pushed it out of their realm of thought. It was as if they were afraid to think about eating it, let alone set one of their plate.

That night, as she wandered up to her room, she was comforted in thinking about the cookie surprise that was soon to greet her. She opened the door, expecting the smell of sugar to waft out. Instead, the odor was clean sheets and some "soothing scented" air freshener. Her shoulders drooped and she sighed. Apparently, their new clientele wasn't the cookie-going type either. In their need to push out thoughts of a simple, sweet bite of bliss, they dissolved the moment of joy she was hoping to receive.


I think about those who constantly push away the bread basket, look only at the no-carb portion of the menu and never seem to have a ounce of space left in their stomach for dessert - not even a bite. Where did their love of food disappear to? At what point did people start analyzing every portion of their meal to the point where they have trained themselves to be afraid of eating a harmless, little cookie?

This Friday, we had a "girls night in" and made frothy, melty milkshakes with fresh strawberries, whipped cream, and of course, sprinkles. It was so refreshing to sip our creamy concoctions and whole-heartedly enjoy it! We didn't "indulge" - we treated ourselves to something we love and something we deserved. It was a great reminder that it's okay to have a milkshake. It's okay to savor a dessert. It's okay to relish in a moment of sugary contentment. In fact, it's moments like that that you should never be afraid of.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Nourishment from Nothing

Her steady, calloused hands gripped the edges of a large, metal pot that was filled with dents. She squinted her eyes as she maneuvered the heavy cauldron from the plastic, dirt-covered table, up over her head. Like her pot, this woman gave the impression that she had weathered many storms and that no foreseeable challenge would ever knock her off her block - not even the challenge of cooking in the midst of the world's largest garbage dump, as she has done for the for the past 20 years.

This Friday, I had the privilege of seeing the award winning documentary "Waste Land," which depicts the lives of the humble yet driven "pickers" who collect recyclable materials out of Jardim Gramacho, where 7,000 tons of garbage arrive daily from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. One of the pickers the documentary focused on was Irma, the woman I have described above, who cooks delicious, nourishing meals from foods that her fellow pickers find in the dump. While this may sound disheartening at first, Irma spoke about her cooking with nothing but pride.

My jaw hung loosely as I watched her stir her metal pot, pieces of tender chicken submerged in a bubbling brown broth. She was working with the ingredients and tools she had - ingredients that were thrown away, unwanted or forgotten. I consider myself a "resourceful" chef - scouring the fridge and pantry to use the ingredients I have on hand, but what Irma is doing takes sustainable eating to another level.

As I ate dinner that night, the food on my plate began to take on a new meaning. I am so thankful that I have access to fresh foods and that I can afford to buy ingredients when I need them. There have been times where I glance at my kitchen and feel uninspired, but thinking of Irma's creativity is motivation enough that we can create something beautiful and wonderful out of what most consider to be "nothing."

I'm not suggesting that you go dumpster diving for your next meal or feel that you have to use foods that are going bad. This week, as you sit down at the table with your family and friends, supping on spaghetti marinara or homemade chili, maybe you can think about Irma and her devotion to feeding her community with the little, but sufficient ingredients she has. Maybe each of us can look at our meal and eat it with appreciation, regardless of how simple or ordinary it may seem.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Keeping it Fresh

You walk into a small town diner at 8 a.m. each weekday morning, and there he is, sitting at the counter with his habitual cup of steaming, black coffee and the number 7 - eggs over easy, white toast, a side of plump sausage links.

Waltzing into a rooftop lounge with a view overlooking the city skyline, he's there too, every night after work, sipping his Johnny Walker Blue on the rocks (with a twist, of course) and gazing at his 8 oz ribeye next to a bed of celery root puree.

These men, although at different ends of the social and financial spectrum, have something in common. They are regulars at their respective joints. While it's great fun to be a "regular," to be in a place where people know your name, what you like to eat and make sure that it's done to your specifications, being a regular is ... well, regular. Normal. Predictable even.

You always praise a child when they do something out of their comfort zone - the first time they dress themselves, when they choose to spend time studying for their math test instead of playing video games, when they ask their date to their first semi-formal dance. Doing things outside of your norm is a cause for celebration!

If we take the time to switch things up in other areas of our life, why not take the time to throw a few new recipes into our repertoire?

For this week's Friday Night Dinner, our theme was "Make Something New!" I cracked open one of the dozen recipe books on our baker's rack and flipped through the pages of recipes I had always said I would try, that I wanted to take a crack at, but hadn't gotten to it yet. Sound like something you've done before?

I decided to make a simple, but delicate and savory eggplant tart. With my fresh eggplant from the farmer's market, I diced, sauteed, seasoned and placed the succulent slices atop a sheet of pastry dough covered in a layer of fluffy ricotta cheese. After baking it for 15 minutes, I pulled it out of the oven, sliced it and viola! A new, never before tasted dish was born. It was that easy! I just needed to take the time to do it.

Now, I'm inspired to make at least one new dish each week. Who knows, maybe I'll even find my new favorite dish out of one of these whimsical culinary adventures. So, what do you say - are you going to be a regular today, or try something new?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Daily Devotion

It's 7 p.m. and I stare at her as she walks in the front door, back from another day of classes. All day we've been waiting for this moment and now we're craving to do it, like we do every day around this time. It's our daily devotion and we do it right.

Every night, my roommate and I sit down at our little cafe table and eat dinner together.

While this may seem like just an ordinary part of our day, we have both realized how special and unique our supper ritual has become. Looking back on my past three years at college, I've learned that most college students could care less about taking an hour out of their busy schedule to eat a meal together. I'm not even talking about cooking - just the conscious choice to share dinner with a friend, to talk about how their day has been and what is on their mind.

Living with a someone who values coming to the table each night to eat, laugh and discuss, just as much as I do, is a blessing. Finally, I don't feel out of place when a huge smile spreads across my face when we're simultaneously chopping vegetables, squeezing slices of lemon into tumblers filled with seltzer water and clinking our glasses of wine, saluting our health and whatever reminds us of the joy in our lives.

Even though it's just an hour or so out of my day, it's an hour that I know I can count on - an hour where I can relax, where I can share new things I've learned and ask for help on the things that present challenges.

If this doesn't sound important to you now, maybe you should take the time to figure out what you do where you engage with others and reflect on how to deal with the world that rushes by. Maybe coming around the table each night with your friends and family is just the thing you've been looking for.