December 16, 2011
Children—though by no means all of them—tend to be fairly picky eaters. Most expand their culinary horizons as they get older, but a few people hold fast to limited diets of safe, familiar things like chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. My friend and co-worker Niki is one of them.
You know that queasy, I-can’t-bear-to-watch feeling you get watching a show like Bizarre Foods, as host Andrew Zimmern slurps down fried worms or rotten shark meat? Niki feels that way about foods that most of us consider perfectly edible, like eggs or raisins. She has a byzantine list of rules for what she is willing (or, more often, not willing) to eat: No cooked fruit. No “out of context” sweetness (which she defines as anything other than dessert). No cookies with nuts. No soft fruit. No dried fruit. In fact, hardly any fruit other than apples. Cheese only if melted. Tomatoes only in sauce, and then only without chunks. No eggs. No mayonnaise. (Her version of a BLT is a bacon and butter sandwich.)
Everyone has a few popular foods they dislike—the first piece I ever wrote for Food & Think, about my distaste for the ubiquitous herb cilantro, is still one of the blog’s most commented-on—but Niki’s list is so long and inscrutable that she has become a source of fascination to our other co-workers and me.
It turns out scientists are fascinated, too. Researchers at Duke University have been studying picky eating as a bona-fide disorder, with “selective eating” being considered for addition to the next version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due out in 2013, according to the Wall Street Journal. Although the causes of selective eating aren’t yet known, there appear to be some patterns: smell and texture are often more important than flavor, for instance. A possible link to obsessive-compulsive tendencies is being explored.
With such a limited diet, people with the disorder sometimes find it hinders their social lives or even careers, not to mention the potential for nutritional deficiencies. But if it’s a disorder, is it curable?
Niki is giving it a shot. Although her friends and family have long become accustomed to her quirky preferences, I think the recent attention to her diet at work has caused her to think more about why she feels as she does. A couple of months ago, on the way to lunch to celebrate her 39th birthday, I commented (probably insensitively, in retrospect) that maybe when she was 40 she would start trying new foods.
She decided to do me one better and start that very day. At lunch she ordered her first Bloody Mary—a bacon Bloody Mary, so that there would at least be one ingredient she knew she liked. It didn’t go over well.
But Niki persisted. She resolved to eat a new food every day until her 40th birthday. She started a blog called Picky Niki (with the tagline: Choking Down 365 New Foods) to chart her results. So far many of the foods have bombed, but she has discovered a handful that she can tolerate, and a few she really likes. If she sticks with it for the rest of the year, her repertoire will have expanded considerably.
As for me, I will try to be more understanding of her predicament and stop the teasing. I admire what she’s doing, and truly hope it opens up new possibilities for her. And maybe I’ll even give cilantro another shot. Yecchh.
December 14, 2011
When I decided, at age 40, that I wanted to try to have a child, I knew I faced a few elevated risks over younger women: first and foremost, I might not be able to conceive at all. I mentally prepared myself—as much as I could, anyway—for that and other possibilities, including the higher risk of the baby having a genetic defect.
So far I’ve been fortunate. The one risk I hadn’t given much thought to—the higher chance of developing gestational diabetes—is the only one that has been a factor in my pregnancy. I’m fairly healthy, I have no history of diabetes in my family, and I try to eat well—lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and few highly processed junk foods.
But older pregnant women—and that means even women as young as in their late 20s, believe it or not—can have a harder time regulating insulin, leading to increased blood sugar levels. Gestational diabetes, if not controlled through diet and exercise, can cause high-birth-weight babies and potentially lead to delivery complications, as well as increasing the risk that the child will develop obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life. For the mother, there’s also the risk of high blood pressure and a higher likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes in the future.
I haven’t been diagnosed with gestational diabetes so far. But because my blood sugar was a little high during my early glucose tolerance test (this is given to all pregnant women around 28 weeks, but women of my age are also sometimes tested earlier), I was advised to exercise more frequently and follow a low-carbohydrate diet, the same advice given to those with the diagnosis.
The last thing a pasta-loving pregnant lady with a sweet tooth wants to hear is that she should cut out carbs. I have always been skeptical of the low-carb diet craze, suspecting it was a ploy by meat-lovers to make eating triple bacon cheeseburgers acceptable—as long as they’re sandwiched between lettuce leaves instead of a bun.
Luckily, the diet prescribed for me was not so extreme. The point is not to lose weight or to cut out carbohydrates entirely, but to limit them and to ration out their consumption throughout the day, always combining them with protein and a little bit of fat.
There were a few surprises in the information the dietician gave me. An unpleasant one was that my usual breakfast—a bowl of cereal—was out. Even sugarless, high-fiber varieties far exceed my maximum allotment of 30 grams of carbohydrates for the morning meal. (Blood sugar levels are especially prone to spiking in the morning, so the breakfast allotment is lower than that at lunch and dinner.) On top of that, I was surprised by how many carbs there are in a glass of milk—about 13 grams per cup. My other favorite breakfast, a bagel with cream cheese, was also way over the mark. Instead, I’ve switched to a whole grain English muffin with peanut butter.
On the upside, I’m not going to starve. In addition to the three regular meals, I’m supposed to eat a morning and afternoon snack, plus a smaller evening snack. And I can still have pasta, but instead of a big bowl of it on its own, it should be a side dish or mixed with enough vegetables and protein so the carb portion is limited. The happiest news of all? On those rare occasions when I am allowed to squeeze in a little treat, I was told it’s better to go for ice cream than sorbet, because the fat helps slow down the breakdown of carbs. Can do, doc.
December 9, 2011
Feminists popularized the phrase “the personal is political” in the late 1960s, and that principle could be interpreted to include how or what people choose to eat. So it’s not surprising that Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul is selling a cookbook on his campaign website.
The Ron Paul Family Cookbook isn’t the first collection of recipes from the Texas congressman. He has sold earlier editions in previous campaigns and given out copies to constituents for the holidays. In a play on the candidate’s libertarian ideals, New York magazine’s Daily Intel blog posted a satirical version of the cookbook that omits actual instructions or ingredients for recipes, reasoning that “any intrusion into your private decisions, whether by the federal government or by seemingly harmless recipe books, is odious and un-American!”
Of course, the real cookbook does include recipes, instructions and all, for dishes like cheese soup, Reuben dip and easy Oreo truffles, according to Slate’s XX Factor blog. Aside from a patriotic family biography, there’s no apparent political agenda within—other than, perhaps, that you should be free to clog your arteries unfettered by government regulation.
The cookbook as campaign tool is not as novel as it might seem, nor is it exclusive to any one political party. In fact, in 2008, The Obama Campaign Family Cookbook was available to contributors on his website. Though it’s not directly connected to her husband’s reelection campaign, Michelle Obama’s American Grown: How the White House Kitchen Garden Inspires Families, Schools and Communities will be released in April, just months before voters will decide if the First Lady gets to keep her White House garden for another four years.
As the Los Angeles Times reported in 2008, there is a long tradition of political cookbooks, including the drolly titled Many Happy Returns: The Democrats’ Cookbook, or How to Cook a G.O.P Goose, from the campaign season that resulted in John F. Kennedy’s narrow victory. It contained an introduction from Frank Sinatra and recipes from Jacqueline Kennedy—the article shares her secret to good waffles.
Former Louisiana Congressman Billy Tauzin served for 25 years, switching from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party midway through his political career, and also found time to co-author Cook and Tell: Unique Cajun Recipes and Stories in 1999. Martha Stewart had him on her show to prepare barbequed shrimp; he returned the favor a few years later by leading the ImClone investigation that led to her being sent to prison.
The Suffrage Cook Book, compiled by L.O. Kleber in 1915 (and re-released in 2008), contained recipes from big names in the movement, including Shrimp Wriggle from Helen Ring Robinson, one of the first female state senators, and short political passages from the likes of Jane Addams. Kleber wrote in her note from the “editress” that the recipes should be served “alike to best friend as well as worst enemy—for I believe in the one case it will strengthen friendship, and in the other case it will weaken enmity.”
In other words, as her sisters a few generations later would say, the personal is political—even when it comes to food.
December 7, 2011
One of my favorite things about the holiday season is that there are so many delicious foods that appear only this time of year—and every part of the world that celebrates Christmas has its own specialties. You could spend all of December eating a different regional food every night (hmm, not a bad idea). But, as Jesse wrote in this week’s Inviting Writing, most people have at least one favorite holiday food that they absolutely must have or it isn’t truly Christmas.
For French-Canadians, that dish is probably tourtière, a spiced meat pie that’s eaten around Christmas and New Year; it was traditionally served after midnight mass or at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. Usually filled with minced pork or a mixture of pork, beef and/or veal, it can also be made with other kinds of meat. Spices might include cinnamon, nutmeg, mace or cloves.
According to The Ottawa Citizen, the name comes from the dish used to bake a tourte, and the word tourte can refer either to the pie or to the passenger pigeon, a now-extinct species once used to fill the pie. The same article includes several intriguing variations on the basic tourtière, including one made with seafood.
I first heard of tourtière when I moved to the Adirondack Mountains in New York, a stone’s throw from the Quebec border. The French-Canadian influence here is evident in French surnames and place names, the popularity of hockey and curling, and the occasional appearance of poutine on restaurant menus. A few places around here sell tourtières around the holidays, but I never had one until this weekend, when I took a trip to Montreal.
I bought a mini-tourtière from a bakery in the indoor Jean-Talon market (a fun place to visit if you’re ever in town). It was made with duck, and the crust had a cute little duck cut-out on top. It was tasty—the crust was deliciously flaky—though I found the filling a little lacking in zing. I had read that some people eat them with ketchup or other condiments, so I decided to try some steak sauce. I don’t know if this would be considered an acceptable accompaniment by traditionalists, but it worked for me.
If you don’t live in the vicinity of a French-Canadian bakery and want to taste tourtière yourself, try one of the recipes from the Ottawa Citizen article above. A recipe from Serious Eats includes mashed potatoes in the filling, plus plenty of spices. You can even make a vegetarian version with TVP (textured vegetable protein), as in this recipe from Canadian Living magazine.
What’s your favorite holiday food?
December 2, 2011
The first time I tried a persimmon was a few years ago. I spotted the attractive fruit at the supermarket, and its smooth skin and deep orange color tempted me to buy one. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that the variety of persimmon I bought—hachiya—shouldn’t be eaten until it is extremely ripe. It tasted like industrial-strength cleaner. Since then, I’ve learned that fuyus, which are short and squat, are the variety to buy for eating fresh; pointy-bottomed hachiyas are better for baking.
Fuyus have a pleasantly firm, mango-like flesh. The most similar flavor I can think of is papaya—sweet, but not overly so, with a hint of floral or spicy tones. Both fuyus and hachiyas are usually available in late fall and early winter. Here are a few ways to use either variety:
1. In a salad. Despite originating thousands of miles apart, persimmons (from East Asia) and pomegranates (from the Middle East) harmonize nicely—both flavor-wise and visually—in a fall/winter fruit salad. For an even more colorful (and very nutritious) dish, toss them with sliced red cabbage, Romaine lettuce, Asian pear, hazelnuts and gorgonzola cheese, as in the Rainbow Chopped Salad from Epicurious.
2. As a condiment or accompaniment. Organic Authority suggests serving a fresh persimmon salsa with grilled fish or chicken. Or it can be cooked into a spicy chutney with apples and raisins, as Moscovore recommends. Firm fuyus can also be sliced and roasted to be served as a sweet/savory side dish, as in this recipe from About.com.
3. Dried. Hoshigaki, or dried persimmons, are a popular treat in Japan, where they are made through a labor-intensive process you’re unlikely to want to replicate at home. But even the shortcut method you can make in your oven—like this recipe from Martha Stewart—produces a yummy (albeit very different, I’m sure) snack.
4. In a drink. Just because I’m teetotaling for the next few months doesn’t mean you have to. Imbibe magazine’s recipe for a persimmon margarita rimmed with cinnamon salt is a novel twist on one of my favorite cocktails. On the nonalcoholic side, 101 Asian Recipes explains how to make a Korean persimmon tea.
5. In dessert. Nicole of Pinch My Salt shares her grandma’s recipe for sweet, moist persimmon cookies. And I would like to be in Denise’s Kitchen next time she makes this delicious-looking fuyu persimmon, pear and walnut rolled tart. Having spent only one very rainy day of my life in Indiana (on the interstate en route from Nashville to Chicago), I was unaware that persimmon pudding was a traditional regional food there. Joy the Baker explains how it’s made (including how to wheedle the fruits from your neighbor), describing the result as “sweet and super moist bread pudding meets spice cake.” Sounds good to me.