Weigh-points

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the long, twisting road I’ve already traveled and left behind me as I continue on this endless journey to Wellville. I started off as a child making childish food choices, living off of buttered noodles and Kraft dinners, hoarding Oreos and giant Hershey bars in my room. As a teenager, I finally learned to cook real food by watching PBS: Jeff Smith on The Frugal Gourmet, Graham Kerr, an aging Julia Child, even Justin Wilson. In my 20s, I moved on to the rotating stable of Food Network chefs: Emeril, Bobby Flay, a few women I’ve already forgotten. I discovered Cooking Light in my 30s, and it began an awareness of the ingredients I used in my cooking. Each one of these stages was a “weigh-point” on my Road to Wellville – they shaped my skills, my appreciation of ingredients, my understanding of flavor. When I was in my final year of college at 37 years old, I took an Environmental Science course, and as part of a class project, saw Food, Inc. (more about that below) for the first time – and I think that might have been the most fateful weigh-point of all. Finally, I had a cause to shape my dietary choices around. I gave up fast food and most processed foods immediately, and even now, though I slip from time to time, they have never become a habit again.

Today, as the wind pushed snow sideways across my dooryard, rattling around the doors and windows trying to find its chilly way inside, I heated the oven and made bread from scratch (something I started doing around that same time in somewhere between 2009/2010) and thought about that year, the important changes I made then and the far-reaching effects they had. I didn’t make those changes based on what I hoped to see on my scale; I made them because I knew they were the best changes to make for me and my family. Maybe that’s why they’ve lasted. Because here’s the thing: there really is no JennyCraig-NutriSystem-P90X-Insanity-weightlosspill-doitfast-doitnow-loseweightfast lasting cure for obesity. Getting weight to come off is easy. Getting it to stay off? That’s the incredibly hard part, and it takes more than some secret as-seen-on-TV method or a celebrity diet. It takes an entire mental makeover. But it can be done.

So on this incredibly cold Maine evening, I’m posting an essay I wrote during that winter two years ago, flush with the excitement of what I was learning. Things I still use now in my daily life, like a mental GPS, keeping me on the road to Wellville.

Bread

The Complicated Life

It’s a warm day in April, sun shining brightly through the window cranked open over my kitchen sink.  A light breeze blows in occasionally, tossing the ends of my hair in a pleasant sort of way; it makes me smile. I am standing at the counter, the sleeves of my thin, black cotton sweater pushed up to my elbows.  I gather the materials: the enormous glass jar of flour I keep on my counter, with its round-handled glass lid; from the refrigerator, a canister of yeast; kosher salt from the small green bowl that rests on my stovetop; warm water from the sink—not too hot, nor too cold.

I scoop flour, cup after cup, into a large bucket I own for just this purpose. I whisk yeast into the water, watch it sink slowly into the water and blend, softly bubbling. I add rosemary and salt to the flour, or rich black kalamatas, skins oily, flesh purple, and chopped shallots with their faintly rosy translucence. I pour the yeasty brown water into the flour, and with my bamboo spoon, stir and stir and stir until a sweat beads out on my upper lip, and then I know it’s time to rest.

It doesn’t look impressive. A small mass of ugly tan, lumpy dough at the bottom of a plastic bucket. If I held it in my hands, it would be sticky and heavy. Someone else might look at it and think, No way will that ever be edible. I know better.

I cover the dough and wait. Two hours. Then two more.

 ~

My best friend had been making her own bread for years. And while I’d enthusiastically supported her as she bought her own grain grinder, joined a grain co-op, and began making her family’s bread herself from these home-ground whole grains, I had no real interest in doing the same. She is a happily married woman with a supportive spouse and excellent co-parent for her two children. I, on the other hand, was an exhausted single mom, attending school full-time, and feeling most days as if even the drive to McDonald’s was overwhelming.

But during the Fall of 2009, I learned that my exhaustion was being caused by something more. My thyroid had gone haywire, flooding my body with thyroid hormone, causing my heart to pump hard and fast at odd intervals of the day, my hair to fall out (symptoms which I’d blamed on stress), and my body to feel tired and achy constantly. In short, all of the symptoms I had previously chalked up to single motherhood now had a cause, an explanation.

As my thyroid hormonal levels stabilized, my energy returned, and with it came a newfound desire to maintain better health. I’d missed cooking over the last several months, missed the way it brought my children and I together in the kitchen, missed seeing my daughter’s enjoyment in eating whatever new dish I came up with, missed cleaning up afterwards with Ronan. I’d missed the challenge of cooking, too—I am not a by-the-book cook, but an instinctual one, and a better cook for it. I’d missed the challenge of coming up with new ingredient combinations and trying to tease out the best possible flavor from each dish I came up with.

~

There was a time I hated getting my hands dirty. I would cook with one hand safely away from the mess of whatever I was preparing, a distasteful expression wrinkling my nose as my working hand became contaminated—with raw meat, cookie dough, eggs, it didn’t matter. Now I revel in the feel of the dough sticking to my fingers and under my nails, the fine whisps of flour clinging to the small hairs on the back of my hand. In the getting dirty, getting messy, I feel more connected somehow to what I’m doing, what I’m making.

~

I began taking a class on Environmental Science in January, 2010. It was my senior year of college, an education I had begun five years before at the non-traditional age of 32, and it was the last class left to fulfill the lengthy General Education requirements every university demands here in the United States.

I have never excelled at science or math-related courses. I found them boring and difficult to understand, and there was little room for creativity in the memorization of cell construction and the steps of photosynthesis. Still, I had postponed as long as I could, and it was time to get it over with.

But I was pleasantly surprised—my Environmental Science professor seemed to have an instinctive understanding that science should be interesting, fun, even creative. She taught concepts in a way that were clear and logical, and her passion for the care of our environment was never overshadowed by political bias. She didn’t need to convince us. She simply presented the science and let the facts shape our choices for handling our waste, our diet, our energy use. I felt invigorated, and suddenly I developed a desire to connect better with the earth, especially to become more closely acquainted with the sources of the food I was bringing into my home.

This newfound desire coincided with the reemergence of my interest and love of cooking. By this time I’d taken to limiting evenings dining out to once a week, and instead cooking in—garlic-crusted salmon, avocado and spring greens salad, whole chicken stuffed with rosemary and lemons, pasta tossed with fresh vegetables and white wine, roasted butternut squash and sweet potatoes.

I’d also—with some trepidation, never having tried making bread before, and having a somewhat impulsively enthusiastic nature that quickly gives way to weariness and leaving tasks half-started—began baking my own bread from an easy no-knead, bread-making technique I had come across on the King Arthur Flour website.

My first attempt was a disaster.

The simple beginner recipe calls for two pounds of flour, a tablespoon and a half of active dry yeast, a tablespoon of kosher salt, and three cups of lukewarm water. I mixed my dry ingredients in the clear plastic 6-liter bucket I had ordered from Amazon for just this purpose, and then added the water. Within seconds, my mixture was impossible to stir, having formed into huge chunks of gluey flour that I could not begin to navigate my spoon through. I tried adding more water, then more, then finally set the whole bucket aside in frustration. Later that evening, I dumped the entire mess in my garbage can, thinking perhaps I had gotten the yeast measurement wrong.

I started again the next day with a trip to the local Hannaford grocery for more flour, and realized my mistake immediately. The small bags that I had assumed were two pound bags, gleefully having dumped the entire bag into my bucket the day before, were in fact five pound bags. Problem solved. Things were looking up again for my bread.

~

After the dough has rested, it fills the bucket, nearly to the top, full of air bubbles. Gluten strings cling to the sides of the bucket, and its surface is shiny.

It is time to shape the loaves. I dust parchment paper with corn-meal, dumping a small pile in the center of the rectangular paper, spreading it within my fingers until a rough circle takes shape, then set it aside. Now more flour. I sprinkle it over the top and rub it between my palms, and when I pull the dough from the bucket, it is wet and sticky. I plop it on my flour-coated peel, coat more flour over the dough’s surface, then pick up the ball and gently pull the surface of the dough around to the bottom—being careful not to work it too hard for fear of deflating the air pockets within that will deliver a light, spongy crumb interior to the finished product—until I have a smooth beautiful circle that I set gently on the parchment paper. It rests again while the oven heats.

I rinse my hands at the sink, sloughing off spare bits of dough and flour, still amazed that I can do this—bake bread—and I sit at my kitchen table, listening to the whirring fans of the convection oven as it heats. The stone on the shelf inside heats, too, awaiting the bread. It is a well-used stone; once it was a brand-spanking-new creamy color; now, it is shiny, dark-brown with black patches, each patch representing a loaf of rosemary-olive oil bread, a hand-made pizza with roasted herbed tomatoes, pepperoni, and fresh mozzarella, food made with love and care.

~

In Environmental Science, I began investigating our food system and the industrialization of food in the United States—the conscientious turning-away from the small family farmer, and the willful move toward producing our meats, fruits, and vegetables on a factory-line basis—I came across the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc. The question at the heart of Food, Inc. is simple: What are we really eating in America? Where does our food really come from? Primarily focusing on the subsidized crops of corn and soybeans, as well as on our industrialized meat system, the movie presents several arguments that left me questioning the choices I was making for my family, and the long-chain of effect I set into motion with each of my food purchases.

I simultaneously became aware of two things: one was the unconscionable perversion by man of the food cycle I believe God put in place, as animals had become not something valuable, but just another commodity to be grown and disposed of like corn. The other was an awareness of the incredible toll that the industrialization and impersonalization of our food system has taken on people, as our farmers become immune to the very drugs their chickens are treated with while being crushed beneath the weight of debt laid upon them by corporate farming practices, as the food produced causes the poorest of Americans to become heavier and heavier, as lowered safety standards endangers immigrant workers who are quietly returned to their home countries when they have expended their usefulness to the corporations employing them.

At a time when I was beginning to develop a close, loving relationship with food again, I was simultaneously becoming aware of how far removed I really was from its origins. Where my grandparents had developed friendships with their milkmen, their butchers, their produce grocers, I rarely gave a thought to where my ground beef or bacon came from, never lost sleep over the migrant worker picking strawberries in California, or the Fijians going without easy access to clean drinking water, while I bought tall square bottles of Fiji water by the case.

Suddenly, after years of lazy recycling, buying organic for personal health—not environmental—reasons, and never questioning the ease with which I was able to slip fresh berries into my cart in the middle of January, my eyes were being opened.

I saw connections everywhere. My dietary choices related to not just my health, but other, less fortunate individuals’ health. They related to the chemicals leeched into our groundwater supply, to how I chose to dispose of our waste, and how much I was actually wasting. I wanted to overhaul all of my consumption habits and get my friends to do the same.

I became the least fun party guest, and I loved it.

~

After awhile, I use my knife to slice an X into the top of the bread, drizzle some olive oil over the gash I’ve just cut, pinch some kosher salt over it, and then use my peel to slide the loaf onto the hot stone in the oven. Right now it looks like a sad, flat, flesh-colored ball, a nipple-less female breast, but I know appearances are deceiving. I pour some water into a tray beneath the stone. The steam will fill the oven and deliver a golden, crackling crust to the finished loaf.

~

I read labels now. I stand in the Hannaford organics aisle, my cart pushed off to one side, and read labels. I’m checking for key words: Non-GMO, Organic, Locally Grown, Made from Recycled Materials. I try to figure out if the product I’m buying is packaged in something I can recycle easily. Sometimes the process feels overwhelming and exhausting, and I want to veer across the wide main aisle that transects the store and throw some Goldfish and Keebler Cheese and Crackers in and call it a day.

But I don’t.

I understand now that there are larger reasons to buy carefully. I understand now that purchasing organically grown, non-genetically modified foods, helps our environment to be a cleaner, more livable place—you see, I’ve learned it’s not the earth that needs saving; it’s the humans living on the earth that are in trouble. Equally as important, I’ve learned that each purchase I make is a sort of vote. I see the faces of the average poor family of four who, struggling with two full-time jobs, two children, and the health-costs associated with early-onset diabetes, choose chips over a pear because the chips are more affordable (Don’t believe me? Compare the prices for yourself the next time you find yourself in the Produce aisle.). I’ve realized that because I can afford to make better choices, I must make better choices, because every food purchase we make is a vote. The more votes we cast for organically grown, environmentally friendly foods, the more likely they are to be farmed.

I’ve also learned that supporting local growers by buying seasonally available foods not only casts a vote against the large, corporate, industrialized food system, it casts a vote for the small farmer, who has a tougher time than ever competing against corporate giants who want to do everything they can to drive the small farmer out of business.

What has happened to our culture that has caused us to value big business over small, which has caused us to lose these small personal connections to our food, in favor of one thoughtless, gluttonous transaction after another?

I don’t know. But what I have learned is that I can no longer view my food that way. It is a gift from God, truly, and as such, it should be valued, understood, respected, and consumed with care.

~

My home fills with the indescribably lovely smell of fresh-baked bread. I feel as I have transformed myself. I am a baker. I am thinking of learning to grind my own red wheatberry grain as other people I know do. Suddenly I want to learn to live off the land, to garden, to farm, to compost, to cook delicious things from the ground, to forget McDonalds and Subway and Wendy’s, to live a simple, and yet paradoxically, infinitely more complicated life.

The timer beeps, and I rise and cross to my oven. Steam stings my cheeks, and my eyes water, as I open the oven door. The smell, rich, brown, and yeasty, is heavenly. There is my loaf. It has blossomed, golden and lovely, opening itself to the delicious heat of the oven, rising and growing. I use the peel to scoop it off the stone and rest it on a rack to cool.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Honesty is Healthy:

Author:Dory Diaz Photography

Dory is a professional wedding and portrait photographer, writer, and social media addict.

Subscribe to this blog!

Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

5 Comments on “Weigh-points”

  1. Olga
    March 6, 2013 at 1:55 pm #

    I just can’t believe I found someone (by accident) who has the same poin of view. I love your article .. It is full of love… Being healthy means loving food we eat. Being healthy means appreciate everything we consume. Beeing healthy is the way of life. It doesn’t need to be for weight loss only…. 🙂 Thank you. You are great !

    • March 6, 2013 at 2:22 pm #

      Oh, Olga, thank you! It’s great to hear from people that struggle with the same issues I do – it really helps me to keep putting my writing out there. And let me know how things go with the smoothies, too!

  2. Olga
    March 6, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

    I will tell you no prob 🙂 I have added you in google+ … and I am following you here now… Today I will make homemade almond milk 😀 so excited about it

  3. Olga
    March 6, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

    and ps. I love that : JennyCraig-NutriSystem-P90X-Insanity-weightlosspill-doitfast-doitnow-loseweightfast lasting cure for obesity.

    • March 6, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

      Yes!! Even the Jennifer Hudson for Weight Watchers ads made me crazy because clearly the reason she’s REALLY kept the weight off is that she’s been exercising along with everything else.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: