Monday, January 31, 2011

Kitchen Chaos

I've spent the past two Friday nights directing chaotic kitchens. One could argue that I trained for this most of my life. As a kid I remember the Friday afternoon frenzy in my house, as my mother came home from work and scrambled to prepare for the Sabbath before the sun set. The craziness of those afternoons was perfectly matched by the calmness of Friday night, when we would sit around the candlelit table eating and talking and then move to the living room where we would bury our noses in books and magazines and newspapers, reading until each member of my family would, one by one, retire for the evening. These past two Fridays were host to Top Chef: Bastyr and Teen Feed, both of which had the same basic principle: cook a meal for a lot of people and have it ready to be served by 7pm sharp, but neither ended in the same relaxing manner that I grew up with: a glass of tea, sitting on the couch, reading in silence surrounded by my family.

The kitchen as a site for chaos and calm, emotional ecstasy and release, has been a fascination of mine ever since I read Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) in my college Spanish class. In the tradition of magical realism the book centers on Tita, born to a family in Mexico whose tradition is that the youngest daughter takes care of the mother and does not marry. Tita is born in the kitchen and raised by the family cook and expresses her feelings through her cooking. When her mother forces her to bake the cake for her sister's wedding (to the man Tita loves), Tita's tears fall into the batter and when the guests taste the cake the next day they all break down in tears for their true love.

Wedding cake scene from "Like Water for Chocolate"

My first year at Bastyr I took a class called Whole Foods Production, a basic cooking class required for all nutrition students. Each week we prepared whole foods meals, experimenting with different grains and greens and protein sources. One week I was assigned to make the polenta, a job that required 45 minutes of active stirring to prevent clumping in the pot. Our instructor explained that making polenta is an act of love. Check out her video, where she explains why she makes Bastyr students think loving thoughts while making polenta:

This past Friday night we did not make polenta, but 15 Bastyr volunteers cooked and served a meal of tortilla soup, enchilada casserole, Spanish rice, salad and brownies, to around 50 homeless youth. We put tremendous effort into designing and preparing the meal so it would be whole foods-based, nutritionally dense and still delicious and appealing. Since it was our first time using the church kitchen and making the recipes in such large quantities there were many bumps and unexpected surprises along the way. Ovens that didn't work, rice that wouldn't cook, pots that were too small. Until the very last minute it was unclear whether we would pull it off. But at 7pm as the door opened and kids lined up, we were completely prepared and even looked like we knew what we were doing. We served the kids and then we sat and ate with them, enjoying the food together. By the end of the night it seemed that the love and effort we had put into their meal outweighed the chaos that preceded it. So while a Friday night spent cooking in a church was far from the experience of my youth, it was equally gratifying.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Stuff White People Like

I never really considered myself a white person. I imagined that white people were like the popular kids at school - they knew they were privileged and that they wielded significant power. I, on the other hand, was always keenly aware that I was different from the American mainstream. I didn't grow up celebrating Christmas, Easter or Halloween, I had never even attended a school that had a dance and the once treyf Oreo cookies were substituted in my diet with kosher Hydrox sandwich cookies. I certainly felt like a minority. Confused as to why there was never a "Jewish" circle to shade on demographic surveys, I often penciled in "other" or left the entire field blank. That was before I discovered the site Stuff White People Like and realized I was apparently whiter than Wonder Bread.*

*Disclaimer: There are too many reasons why this statement (and post) might be offensive. But that only proves my point. (See SWPL #50 and #101).

1. Stuff White People Like

I don't remember when I first learned of the Stuff White People Like blog, but in the past three years it has spawned books and debates and humor and has become the very thing it mocks. I admit that I am guilt of liking just about everything on their list and that makes me feel pretty vanilla. Then I read this piece about White People Food and it struck a nerve, claiming that the New American cuisine, the Alice Waters "farm-to-table" beets and kale and quinoa diets that foodies laud has a certain "monolithic blandness" to it. And the writer makes some pretty good points along the way, albeit in a snarky self-righteous tone. But rather than wallow in criticism (another thing White People Like?) perhaps the article could focus on the ways in which American food culture has become a sort of melting pot (salad bowl?) of ethnic foods, opening more people's eyes to the variety of culinary traditions around the world and enabling fusion of different flavors. Furthermore, America's lack of definitive culinary traditions has made it easy to invent a standard "healthy" diet to counteract the detrimental effects of the standard American diet (or the "SAD" diet). Still, kale and beets are not always the answer. Sometimes it's rice or beans or kasha or tofu or sea vegetables. Or reindeer meat.

2. Anthony Bourdain

He travels the world eating exotic foods and is the foil to Rick Steves' nice guy tour guide persona. His writing style, even more than his television persona, is smart and engaging. And his episode of No Reservations in Sweden rocked my world. Bourdain visits the Sami people of Sweden, where reindeer herding is the main occupation, and their meat and blood are important sources of sustenance. They are becoming slightly more Westernized but for the most part their diets are still heavily reliant upon reindeer meat. In this 2006 study on Lifestyle, Genetics and Disease in Sami, researchers found that the Sami diet, high in meat and low in fruits and vegetables, is
"contrary to most national dietary recommendations and may be expected to be deficient in certain nutrients, particularly those that mostly come from plant foods (eg fiber and some water soluble vitamins.) Several studies have found that in general, the Sami have adequate intake of all micronutrients except for folic acid, fiber, and calcium and iron for women. However, differences in dietary intake do not appear to have led to any differences in serum lipid profiles."
Populations have lived and thrived off a variety of diets around the world for ages. And while I love kale which grows abundantly in my region, the Northwest, must everyone really include it in their diets?

3. Reality TV

While No Reservations may be the one quasi-reality show that I sometimes watch (okay, with the very occasional Matchmaker Millionaire with my roommates), there was a time when I watched an entire season of Top Chef. I was at my parents' house to stay with my grandmother who has Alzheimer's and needed to be watched. She had little attention span for anything but Top Chef on Bravo. Thankfully they were having a marathon and together we watched nearly an entire season. It was the only time I really watched the show on tv. But last year when I met with my classmates to launch the 2010-11 Student Nutrition Association at my school, I suggested we host a contest similar to Top Chef. Six months later, after hours upon hours of meetings and emails and preparation, Top Chef: Bastyr was launched and was a huge success. With eight teams of two students competing in the school's Nutrition Kitchen using limited ingredients, we invited guests to sample the fare, vote for their favorite, and listen to the judges opinions on the matter. The event raised nearly $1300 toward our meal team for Teen Feed and was a fun way to use the culinary arts to bring about social change. Hopefully it will continue next year as well, with a few tweaks and changes to make it a bit smoother.

4. Wikipedia

During the first week of work back in 2003, one of my more eccentric colleagues came up behind me and whispered in my ear, "type this into your browser: E-N-dot-W-I-K-I-P-E-D-I-A-dot-O-R-G." It brought up a page that lacked an eye-popping design and was covered in too many words. Before I could verbalize the question mark that must have appeared on my face he explained that this was Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that anyone could contribute toward and edit. He told me that it was a democratic site that would change the world, with new languages added all the time. I thought he was nuts. He spent most of his nights writing articles and would occasionally leave town for "conferences." For months I scoffed at Wikipedia. Then he left his job to take a full-time position at Wikimedia. The joke was on me. I can no longer deny the impact Wikipedia has had in its first 10 years. And I don't know what my go-to site would be every time a random question popped into me head.

5. Impact

Since it is already 2011, I can use the word impact, a commonplace buzzword in the world of non-profit organizations (Stuff White People Like #12). But even in its most basic, untainted form, it conveys a level of influence or "force exerted by new ideas." And in the hopes of making an impact, next week I will join dietitians from all over the state of Washington to lobby our legislators to support nutrition programs and legislation (see SWPL #62).

Some of the runners up for this post were "Stream of Consciousness" a la Holden Caulfield and Catcher in the Rye. But rather than listing it blatantly, I felt that employing some stream of consciousness was a better homage. "Chocolate" was another big contender, but, well, most people like chocolate. And anyway next week I have some international chocolatiers staying on my couch so I may have more to say about it then. Also, I was afraid people might get confused, inverse the descriptors and think I meant that white people like white chocolate. And that's just crazy talk.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Personal Growth

A full week into the new year now and time has become quite the luxury. With school and internship applications and other projects on my plate, it may not be the best time to step back and chart my personal growth, but if I wait for the perfect time it may never come. The topic of growth crossed my mind on several occasions this week. As I was going through my clinic notebook, making sure I have the necessary charts and tables and treatment plans, I realized I had neglected to include growth charts, which would be important in pediatrics. Growth charts allow for tracking the height and weight and other anthropometric measures of infants and children, allowing patterns to emerge. While I am well above 59 months of age, this week it felt like the right time to plot a new point on my personal growth chart.

After studying nutrition for over two years I finally had my first clinic shift with a patient. I was serving as a secondary with a more experienced classmate leading the session, but it was exciting nonetheless to be a vital part of the nutrition care process. Finally. I went to the clinic over the weekend to review the patient's chart. And then it clicked. PCOS. Depression. Metformin. Hyperlipidemia. I knew this case well. I knew it because ten years ago it was me.

Often when people ask about my background and I give them the elevator version of my experience there is a disconnect. Having studied Jewish studies and film criticism, worked for various non-profit organizations in education, the question understandably comes up: why nutrition? Over the years I have honed a vague but reasonably satisfying answer - nutrition is so important, it can improve quality of life, it's a matter of justice and social responsibility, it's empowering - and all of those things are completely true. But why did I change my life trajectory at the quarter mark and start along an entirely new path? That was the result of a long, slow and deeply personal experience. Suffice it to say that to see my first patient and confront my own diagnosis face to face, sitting this time in the clinician's seat, was at once profoundly meaningful and yet totally banal. That is growth.

It reminded me of a book I recently came across by Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck's ideas struck a chord and she argues that rather than being fixed in our sense of self - who we are and what we are - we should be willing to develop new abilities, work hard and focus on growth and learning.

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

Teaching a growth mindset creates motivation and productivity in the worlds of business, education, and sports. It enhances relationships.

There have been many times in the past few years when I doubted my decision to leave what was familiar, what I knew, what I was good at, and try something completely new. I choose to read my experience at the clinic as a wink from the universe that I'm on the right path. And it could not have come at a better time. As I work on my applications for next year and look into the great unknown once again, I have to trust that things will work out, or at the very least trust that I am willing to view my circumstances from a mindset of growth and resilience.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

My New Years Binge

It's a new year and a time for resolutions, as I witnessed by the enormous spike in attendance at my gym this past week. While I resisted the urge to post top ten lists and make promises to myself that I cannot keep, I do see the new year as a powerful tool as an opportunity for reflection.

I began the New Years season flying on the inspiring coattails of the Hazon Food Conference, a gathering of Jews on Christmas that did not involve Chinese food or movies. Rather, it was an event in the hills of Sonoma County that focused on food justice, sustainable agriculture and food education within a Jewish context. It might have been the perfect chance to blog furiously about all the people I met who are engaged in grassroots efforts to provide equal food access and education to communities throughout the country. But well outside of Wi-fi range, I was forced instead to focus on the event at hand, to talk to the people who had traveled from across the country to meet like-minded people who were excited about the (Jewish and non-Jewish) food movement.

(Photo taken at the Walker Creek Ranch, site of the Hazon Food Conference)

The next weekend I found myself once again without the familiar company of facebook, gmail and The New York Times. I spent New Years at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula, tucked away in a Wi-fi free beach cottage. It was relaxing, refreshing and majestic, with breathtaking views and scenery.

(Sunrise view of Mt. Rainier on January 1, 2011.)

What's my point and what does this have to do with a food blog? Well, while I can easily make these experiences sound incredible (and they were) I haven't yet mentioned the dark side. Each time, upon returning home, I completely binged on media and technology. While I sincerely appreciated the time away from phone calls and text messages, emails and videos, I could not stop myself from overindulging when I returned to "civilization." In fact, I spent the last hours of winter break hiding in my room watching the entire first season of Veronica Mars online - all 22 episodes - which, I should mention, I've already seen! I did pause it to make meals, do some yoga, walk around the lake and - ever so briefly - to sleep. What was going on? Why couldn't I stop? I was truly puzzled by this obsession. It reminded me of so many other situations - like when I'd had friends visit from out of town and they were thrilled to eat so healthfully in my house but then "snuck" out for Cold Stone Creamery because they could not deal with the lack of sweets I had to offer. Or when I'd gone to Guatemala and eaten "real" food for two weeks with friends who could not wait to get home and eat pizza and burgers. So I gave it some serious thought. Many of us have things that we do compulsively - eating, shopping, watching television, checking facebook - and how often do we pause to consider what is driving that urge? Determined to make some sense of my addiction I found some clues in the recesses on my old blog. Yes, I kept a blog years ago, the first time I was a graduate student, and there too I found an entry written after I voraciously consumed two seasons worth of Veronica Mars episodes. At the time I had worked hard to complete my master's degree, after which I spent six weeks traveling in Israel. Upon returning home I found myself facing an uncertain future, scared and insecure, inspired but exhausted from the previous months of excitement and I turned to a television series about a girl who searching for the truth about her best friend's murder. Driven by the need to seek out justice, she solves small crimes in each neatly packaged episode, while acquiring new answers to the larger question. Back then, as now, I latched on to Veronica's journey, followed her obsession, to avoid dealing with the looming questions: where will I be next year? what will I do after graduation? I've been down this road before and seeing it again in the distance is terrifying. Some people turn to food or alcohol to fill that empty void. I turn to mass media. I overconsume television shows, watching "marathons" (a term that makes it sound far more respectable than it is.) I overconsume online articles, clicking from one to the next in the search for greater understanding of the world, of justice, health, food and myself. Once again I find myself returning to this word, too banal to bear the weight of its meaning: moderation. Everything has its place, but how can we behave with the self-awareness to make sure it fits properly but does not monopolize our time, health and resources? How can we be satisfied with just one episode, one cookie, one beer? In a world with so much information, so many calories at our fingertips all the time, how can we avoid overconsumption?