Thursday, December 23, 2010

36 Hours in Berkeley, Calif.

This week I found myself in Berkeley with a day and a half to kill between my family visit to Los Angeles and the start of the Hazon Food Conference in Sonoma County. I love the Bay Area but hadn’t spent much time in East Bay and was told that was the place to be if there was a chance of seeing sun. After weeks of rain, first in Seattle, then Durham, then Los Angeles, I would settle for partly cloudy skies.

Berkeley didn’t disappoint. From the moment I arrived not a drop of rain hit my head, though it did precipitate while I slept through the night. Armed with an empty belly, a few personal agenda items and a yoga mat, I made the most of my time in this foodie haven.


6 p.m.


After sitting through rain-induced flight delays at LAX and a (quick) flight to SFO I was ready to make use of the yoga mat I was lugging around California. To be fair, Leigh and I had experienced three different yoga instructors in the week I spent in Santa Monica. But to make it worthwhile I was determined to get in as much yoga as possible. I found Yoga Mandala, a studio nearby, and popped into a Vinyasa 2-3 class, a bit more advanced than I’m used to. The instructor was fantastic and made fun of us wannabe yogis in a sarcastic manner that I was not used to but it made me laugh and helped me get through the class. I felt long and limber when I left and purchased a beginner pass that would entitle me to 3 classes altogether, for a total of $30.

8 p.m.


After yoga I was fairly hungry and it seemed appropriate to get some Indian food. I was tired too so I decided to stay local and walked to Royal Indian Cuisine. I’d planned to sit there but was a bit intimidated when I saw no other patrons and all of the owners and wait staff standing by the door. So I asked if they offered takeout and placed an order. I’d forgotten how much I loved Indian takeout, how it had been part of an old routine I’d developed in NYU. But when I tasted my dish I remembered the disadvantage to takeout – you can’t send your meal back when it’s too spicy.

10 p.m.


While working on my presentation for the food conference I logged in to my boyfriend’s Netflix account to watch Julie & Julia, the mediocre movie based on the poorly written book based on the clever blog that I’d read years ago. The story of two strong and determined women who cook their way to personal, professional and financial success and freedom seemed like an inspired selection.


9 a.m.


With less than two days to use a 3-class yoga pass I was determined to start my day with another stretching session at Yoga Mandala. This class, taught by the pregnant studio owner, was much more forgiving and involved a good deal of relaxation. I left invigorated and ready to start my day.

11 a.m.


Though my time in Berkeley did not coincide with a farmer’s market day, I was excited to experience Berkeley Bowl. I satisfied my supermarket fetish by spending nearly an hour wandering up and down every single aisle, drooling over the produce displays, gawking at row after row of bulk bins and ended up purchasing far more than I could ever eat in the next few days.

3 p.m.


After a few hours of working on my conference materials, I put on my running shoes and headed toward UC Berkeley. The campus was fairly quiet since it was winter break and I imagine running there might be more challenging when classes are in session. I made my way up the hill toward the stadium, which was under construction and completely gutted with only a few random chairs remaining. From there I enjoyed a clear view of downtown San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County.

4 p.m.


When I run in unfamiliar places I always take a credit card in case of emergency. Or in case I find some funky shoes on sale, as I happened on this particular day. Trying on the black and white T-strapped heels while wearing my running shorts accentuated how lengthy my legs could look in high-heeled shoes, which I hardly ever wear. But since I would be starting a clinic shift in just under two weeks I rationalized that this pair would be highly functional and far more professional looking than most of my shoes. I then continued my way back to the hotel but got distracted by Moe’s Books where I giddily basked in the used books section before making a few pointed purchases.

6 p.m.


After a quick shower I headed out to the Gourmet Ghetto, as North Berkeley is known, to see what all the fuss was about. I followed my nose right into The Cheese Board Cooperative, where the live music was only outdone by the enticing aroma of their signature pizza. I continued up Shattuck Avenue and was amused by the awning that asked “What Are You Grateful For?” I’d read about Café Gratitude, which reminded me of my beloved Chaco Canyon Café, though infinitely more laughable with menu items such as "I Am Thriving" and "I Am Sensational." If I’d had more time I would’ve eaten there but instead I headed toward Chez Panisse to read the day’s menu, an impressive literary if not culinary feat. I stopped for gelato at Lush in the Epicurious Garden and made my way down to a copy center where I printed my conference papers.

8 p.m.


I put my name on this list at Gather, a seasonal and “thoughtful” restaurant catering to both vegetarians and omnivores. With an eye-catching design and a central location, Gather is perfectly poised to appeal to everyone – which it clearly does, given the 45 minute wait for a table on a Wednesday night. Flying solo, I opted for a seat at the bar and read over the menu to learn that Gather offers gourmet dining without the pretension of other foodie establishments. I started with a glass of Syrah and then, on a whim, I ordered the Vegan “charcuterie” and it was truly a revelation, and the first time I understood how one could be completely satisfied – though far from full - with a relatively small portion of food. I did not want another taste to cross my palate, lest I lose the rich, deep flavor of the meal that had preceded. Satiated and content I walked back to my hotel and contemplated another movie. In keeping with the theme of the day, perhaps Big Night?

12 a.m.


I spent the evening catching up on phone calls, emails and blogging. Tomorrow morning I plan to take a third yoga class. Then pack and catch my ride up to Petaluma, where I will be out of contact until late on Sunday. Hopefully next time I will have more than just 36 hours to spend here. There are many more delectable meals to be enjoyed.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Travel Bug

Sometime during the past few weeks, while traveling between Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego, Minneapolis and Raleigh, I developed a sniffle. This was not surprising, given the time of year, the amount of time I’ve spent on airplanes, the exposure to pathogens shared by my fellow passengers and the lack of sleep from early flights. But a greater threat to my health was presented by the poor food options available to someone who finds herself in the airport day after day. As immunity decreases and sugar consumption increases the body becomes increasingly vulnerable so I was trying my hardest to avoid the great white offender. But it kept sneaking up on me and was hard to avoid while spending time in airports and hotels. Here are some of the situations I encountered:

In-flight beverages

On Thanksgiving day I had a 6am flight down to San Diego. I generally do not order anything on planes but after I finished drinking the bottle of water I had brought on board, I found myself thirsty and a bit hungry as well. I knew I’d be eating a large dinner early in the afternoon but thought I might satisfy my appetite with some cranberry juice, an apt Thanksgiving beverage. But what the flight attendant handed me was something called “cranberry drink” with very little trace of actual cranberries at all. The ingredients were corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, water, apple and grape juice, with a hint of cranberry at the end of the list. I returned the full can to the puzzled flight attendant and thanked her anyway.

Stress food

I had the misfortune to connect in Minneapolis in mid-December on the very same weekend as the second largest snowstorm in the city’s history. The airport had closed for a day, leaving thousands of passengers stranded and unable to reach their destination. My flight was scheduled for the very next day and needless to say the seats were overbooked and highly coveted. I was concerned that my flight would be delayed and I would miss my connection so I tried to get on an earlier flight. In line I met a woman desperately trying to reach her hospitalized mother who had just had a heart attack. As we stood and waited to be helped she ate a large cookie, a bottle of Pepsi and then proceeded to take out a king size package of Twizzlers from her bag. She offered me some “stress food,” as she called it. “I never eat this crap but I’m very stressed out.”

(A Minneapolis attraction)

Meal vouchers

After missing my connection in Minneapolis by five minutes, the airline agent handed me vouchers for a hotel and for meals, presumably to cover the time until my rebooked flight at 11:30 the next morning. I examined the vouchers. She had given me two vouchers for $6 each. I remember back in 2003 when I’d been in a similar situation after missing a connection and had received $15 meal vouchers. How times have changed. When I got to the hotel I asked how I could use to the voucher. The front desk staff said they were intended for use at hotels with restaurants. This one did not have a restaurant. But, he offered, the Chili’s across the street would accept them, if they hadn’t already closed for the night. Which was just as well because I was not equipped to walk more than five steps in the 4-degree weather.

It turned out the hotel we stayed out had a small market, but its merchandise consisted of only chips, candy bars, soda and ice cream. Thankfully I always carry snacks and so for dinner I had an apple and polished off the Trader Joe’s trail mix I’d been eating for days, paired with some rice cakes and what remained of my Theo’s Orange Dark Chocolate bar. In the morning when I arrived at the airport again to fly standby I used my vouchers for breakfast. And it was a good thing I had not used either of them on dinner because the bowl of oatmeal I ordered used up both of them.

These were just a few of the hurdles I faced over the past few weeks in which I’ve departed SeaTac on four separate occasions. I made strong efforts to satisfy my hunger and not get sick and to avoid sugar like the devil. Still, I wasn’t sure this was enough. Determined to avoid the debilitating head cold I usually fall victim to over winter break, I launched a pre-emptive strike of my own. The secret weapon: black elderberry syrup. It is sweet and delicious, generally sold in honey, it packs vitamin C and antioxidants and has been studied for its alimentary effects. Whether or not it is potent enough to get me through the winter remains to be seen. In the meantime, with two more flights scheduled in the next two weeks, I hope to get plenty of sleep, fluids and exercise so I can avoid catching a winter cold.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Watching Weight Watchers

On this fifth night of the Festival of Latkes, I mean Lights, I'm feeling a bit like a French fry. After hosting a Hanukkah party on night #2 where we served zucchini and curried sweet potato latkes, my home still smells more like McDonald's than I'm comfortable admitting. As a result I will probably abstain from latkes for the next few days. And now so might many Weight Watchers clients.

This week the popular weight loss and management program unveiled its new PointsPlus system, a major overhaul of the widely popular and successful Points system eating plan started in 1997. For years WW had allotted each member a number of daily points that they could reach by carefully calculating the point values of their chosen meals and snacks. Under the plan point values were based solely on calories with slight considerations for fat and fiber. But with emerging trends in nutrition emphasizing the importance of foods for reasons beyond simply caloric content, WW went back to the drawing board to create a system that encouraged greater consumption of fruit and vegetables (all now worth zero points) recognizing that the body digests and metabolizes foods differently. And that's how PointsPlus was born, reintroducing bananas (which were 2 points under the old plan) into the diets of many clients who had long sworn them off. A serving of potato latkes, on the other hand, is now worth a whopping 7 points, according to a recent New York Times article.

WW is not for everyone. It's all about counting points and carefully tracking food and snacks in a way will appeal to some more than others. I've known many people who were very successful at losing weight under the WW plan and the Times article suggests that some followers of the original Points plan have no desire to change what is already working for them. The real significance of the new PointsPlus program is in its bold and daring move to once again change how we think about food. For over a decade WW had been advocating a certain calculated way to relate to food by calorie rather than nutrient content and they are suddenly presenting a very different model to millions of members worldwide. How well that new system is accepted and integrated by the public could provide some basis for the effectiveness of instituting new policies and asserting radical new public health positions that take into account our shifting attitudes toward food and nutrition. And that is worth waiting and watching.