Over the River and Through the Woods…

Thanksgiving is upon us and I have premature Scrooge syndrome. I blame my co-worker. The one who enthusiastically exclaimed she couldn’t WAIT for Thanksgiving. So EXCITED to host her “orphan” dinner with friends and travelers and random stragglers who have nowhere to go. Her eyes actually twinkled. I could almost see her exquisite menu scroll lightly in their shine.

“And you… what are you doing?”  Shrug. “Going to my mom’s…it’ll be nice….” Sigh.

I am thankful for my family, my pets, the roof over my head, the rain on the roof…

I am not jaded by my memories of Thanksgivings past. They were fine. Typical. Most annual turkeys have been served in the childhood home. Aunts, uncles, cousins, cousin’s kids and canine cram into the small Midwest farmhouse festively infested with country crafts. The men watch the game, the women watch the kids, the kids brave the steep stairs that climb up to the toys. Every year, the turkey goes in at the butt crack of dawn, and every year, Mom wonders why it’s done so early? And why Aunt Sharon isn’t here yet? Well, we say under our breath, lips pursed, we’ll just have to eat without her.  Aunt Sharon manages to arrive before carving time. Sing Johnny Appleseed, dig in, make dump salad jokes. Remember when Brent broke the bench but saved the dump salad? God, I’m so uncomfortably full, who wants pie? “Ugh”, my mom exhales at the end of the day, “this is probably the last year I’m going to have it here.” 

I am thankful for my health and Wisconsin micro-brewed beer. I am thankful for Stephen Colbert.

My “orphan” Thanksgivings began in ’91 in Seville, Spain. We gathered at Alex’s house in Nervion. A mezcla of locals and expats, lisping on about pavo and what- is-the-Spanish-word-for-stuffing? A pasty white New Englander named Jeffrey who, if you closed your eyes, had the uncanny voice of a Southern black man, exclaimed “that is some hot mutha’ f*ckin’ ajo in those tomatoes!  JO-der! ”  Years later I found myself in San Diego fussing over 25 lbs. of  rapidly desiccating poultry. My friend Shiri “helped”, by nervously putting every cooking utensil I used into the dishwasher the second I set it down. Dinner started with a civilized toast, and ended with “There Once was a Man from Nantucket…” in a raucous chorus of 25 voices, one for every pound of that dry-ass bird.   

I am thankful for indoor plumbing, organic carrots, fine-tipped Sharpies, and gay men.

Orphan memories of dancing wildly after dinner, bellies full of great food, heads full of fine red wine. Of playing hopscotch on an outdoor patio in 70 degree weather. Of scintilating conversation. Of singing “Piano Man” at the top of our lungs. Of potluck dinners with gourmet cooks, vegetarian dishes, dishes to pass, joints to pass.

But I would call home every year.  I could hear Uncle Gary in the background, telling it like it is, and Uncle Tony telling him why not. I felt that lonely, empty ache in my gut. I wish I were there. My intuitive mom would reassure me, “It’s hectic and loud…this is probably the last year I’ll have it here.”

I’d venture home on rare occasion, “Yes, I’m still single….no, I’m not seeing a woman, even if cousin Sara thinks you’d all be ‘fine’ with that…”  I head back, next year an Albuquerque turkey topped with green chile stew.  

I am thankful my husband came home alive from Iraq. I am grateful my son’s tic calmed down this week.

Seven years back in the motherland and my voice in the Thanksgiving plans is but a hoarse whisper. I recall those orphan days with an ache. I wish I were there. My brother and sister got off scott free this year, I am the sole representative. Do it for me, she says, this is probably the last year I’m going to have it here. I add green beans to my grocery list. Bacon. Defrost roasted peppers. I dust off the slow cooker, Mom’s oven is too small for multiple casserole dishes.

I hear the catch of excitement in my son’s breath as I tuck him in and remind him to pack tomorrow for grandma’s house. I can feel his smile penetrate the dark. I can almost see the reflection of dump salad shining in his eyes.

I am thankful for my mom.  I am thankful for my mom. I am thankful for my mom.

I am thankful for Johnny Appleseed, and the dry turkey and the nervous chaos and the where’s-Aunt-Sharon. I am thankful that my son has a tradition. I am thankful for that warm, roasted smell of my childhood home on Thanksgiving Day.

 I am grateful that even a Scrooge will always be welcome.  

Culinary Feminism (or) Brown Baggin’ It

A couple of my friends raised a collective eyebrow when they learned that I packed my husband’s lunch. To their credit, they were also old college friends who had seen me through women’s studies classes and unshaved armpits. They seemed surprised I had caved to The Man. If their husbands wanted a lunch, they would have to pack it themselves. One of their men ate out for lunch. Every day. No, my friends did not eagerly jump onto my lunchbox wagon.

My husband could make his own lunch. But in my house, it’s not a matter of caving in to the “white male patriarchal society” and becoming a slave to traditional gender roles. In my house, the kitchen is my domain. Not because that is expected of me, but because I have wholeheartedly claimed it as mine. I am this family’s Iron Chef. I am faster. Stronger. The food quality is (significantly) better. I know exactly what’s in the fridge and where. I do not suffer from the refrigerator blindness that claims thousands of male victims each day. Cooking is my passion, my therapy, and a great source of pride.

And let’s face it, if I watched my husband pack his own lunch, the control freak within would pummel on my insides with a potato masher until I let it out to finish the job. Ask anyone who’s tried to cook in my kitchen.

In her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver discusses her coming from an era of feminists who “recoiled from the proposition that keeping a husband presentable and fed should be our highest intellectual aspiration” We fought so very hard to get into a work force that would prevent us from slaving in the kitchen. But in doing so, we fell into the hands of a toxic convenience food industry that promised to take care of our meals for us. As she puts it, “We gave up the aroma of warm bread rising,…the creative task of molding our families tastes and zest for life; we received in exchange…the Lunchable.”

If selecting and cooking food is an area where I have decided to take charge, I am responsible for doing quality work. I trust my husband to do the same at his job. I’m not going to cheat him out of some decent nutrition in the middle of the day while he works hard for us. I pick fresh fruit, a homemade sandwich, and to his dismay, the dreaded carrot sticks. If he wants to go out or get a li’l sumthin’ at the vending machine, that’s his deal. I do what I can to ensure he eats well. It’s my job. And he deserves it.

And yes, it’s about love. He is not The Establishment, he is my family. And nothing says “I love you” like a warm buttered bagel sitting in the passenger seat next to you on your way to work because you didn’t have time to eat at home. My grateful man has called me from the road to tell me just that.

Financially speaking, it’s the smarter choice. Based on receipts collected when I didn’t pack a lunch, I see that he spends about $5 on breakfast (of the gas station variety) and $8-12 on lunch. That’s $13-17 a day. If he does that, say, three days a week, it would cost us almost $40- 50/week, or $160-200/month. And that’s a conservative estimate. What if I never packed his lunch, ever? It could add up to $240-250/month. Just for lunch. If I cook at home, I can make him a breakfast for about $2.00 or less. For lunch, I’d spend maybe $2 (or less) to $5, tops. That $5 lunch includes a pretty extravagant treat. You do the rest of the math. And I’m sure, you get the picture.

Admittedly, it CAN be a pain. Rapidly foraging in the fridge as he’s running out the door really sucks. You have to plan for lunches. They require some time. There are crabby, rushed mornings when I send him out to face the grind empty-handed. There are moments when I remove my territorial flag from the kitchen just praying for a mutiny. But realistically, making a lunch takes minutes, not hours. So I march forth. He maintains a consistent work ethic at his job, I try to do the same at mine. No matter how busy we are, as Kingsolver suggests, we can make that mental shift, “Approaching mealtimes as a creative opportunity, rather than a chore, is an option”

This fall, I will begin to pack lunches for my new kindergartener. I am not sure what the food quality is at our public school, but I am suspicious. School lunches have a very bad reputation, but that is another essay for another day. I’m darn glad I have the option to decide (for the most part) what goes into his body when he’s away from home, banking on those creative opportunities to keep him nutritionally sound.

Yes, I am a culinary feminist. I exercise my right to provide an alternative to fast food conglomerates. I am not losing my identity in homemaking, I am reclaiming it with every carrot stick, with every passionate pinch of spices. I bring meaning and value and love into my families’ bellies. With a few minutes to a half an hour of preparation, I make sure our food dollar goes into wholesome nutrition and doesn’t sink into a toxic wasteland of crap and empty calories. And making my personal brown bag theories part of a larger social awareness is an intellectual aspiration of mine. It is my right, and in my best interest, to do so.

And that, my friends, is how I stick it to The Man. Join me now in my brown bag crusade.

Taking Candy From Babies

The woman at the drive-thru bank window smiles and winks when she pushes back my deposit receipt accompanied by a Dum Dum sucker. I thank her, sigh heavily and toss it into the passenger seat, bracing myself for the round of justifications from Quinn as to why he SHOULD have that sucker at 8:30 a.m.

Oh come on, you think, poor kid, just one little treat’s not going to hurt…

Um, yes it will. Refined sugar is one of the most harmful foods consumed today. It has no nutritional value. My son’s little body will borrow nutrients like calcium, sodium, potassium, and magnesium, from healthier parts to metabolize the sugar. It will rot his teeth and gums. It can make him prone to diabetes and hypoglycemia. His brain could be robbed of B vitamins that are linked to mood stability. And although it may not be the primary cause of ADHD or childhood obesity, sugar doesn’t help. It does hurt.  

And its never one little treat. It’s an inundation of sugar that floods us every time we go to the bank, the grocery store, gymnastics class, preschool, and other people’s homes. Those nice folk plead with soft eyes, “Do you mind…?” Yeah, I mind. If I allowed my son to eat all the candy offered to him, he wouldn’t have a tooth left to gum the next gummy bear. 

Before I rant further, I will share a little family history. I come from a long line of overeaters. Binge eaters who sneak-eat junk food so their loved ones don’t know how much junk goes in. Right now, someone we love dearly has been literally eating herself to death. She is not the only one; she is just the one with frequent visitor miles at the local hospital. We have a plethora of food issues on our family menu, with all the side dishes of depression and guilt that accompany the meal deal. Diabetes, heart disease, addictive personalities, and obesity run strong and hard on both sides of the family. And they are now finding that nature, not nurture, is the strongest indicator for childhood obesity. The genetic odds are stacked against my child. Thus, my anger and motivation for change.

I can’t just slip on a pair of skinny genes, so I control my environment. I try to make conscious, healthy food choices every day, every meal. Although I come across as “holier-than-thou” these days when I talk kids and nutrition, I will always struggle with food. I love it. I love treats. This Valentine’s Day saw a gross amount of junk in the Johnson household. I was snowbound and hormonally imbalanced so I sucked in chocolates and frosted cookies like a black hole. When I allow myself to indulge, I am way more likely to allow Quinn to do the same. Part of me still believes that makes me a Fun Mom.

Despite the casualties of the Valentine’s Day Battle, I am winning the war. I have maintained a healthy weight and diet for years. I weigh less than I did on my wedding day. I brag, because I am proud that I have broken a dangerous cycle. Being pregnant turned my yo-yo resolve to eat right into a nine-month habit. The habit turned into a lifestyle. I don’t want to see Quinn struggle with food like my family has. I am teaching him that we moderate indulgences, we enjoy healthy selections, and that rewards aren’t always edible. My shining moments come when he throws uneaten Halloween candy into the garbage, or bites into a store-bought cookie and says “Yuck, it tastes like chemicals”.

But in our society, “treat” means “sweet”. We reward with sugar. Good job buddy! Let’s go out for a hot fudge sundae. Ooh, good girl went poopy in the toilet! Have a piece of candy! Oh, look how nice you sit strapped in your car seat at the bank drive-thru! Here’s a Dum Dum. Our kids learn to expect candy for good grades, taking a shit, even sitting quietly. If it’s constantly available, is it still a “treat”? No, it’s a given. Sugar carries emotional value. Sugar IS love. Our Grammy is famous for “givin’ sugar” to her grandbabies in more ways than one. That is how many in her generation demonstrate love. I have learned not to confront this strong Southern matriarch because, well, I’m a little scared of Grammy. I quiet my crusade to keep the peace with friends or out of respect for my elders. Especially when they are bigger than me, and from Texas.

But in this societal context, I am the villain. And it pisses me off that strangers AND loved ones continue to put me in the role of the bitch who says, “No” all the time. There is social pressure to not snub the generous offer. I am the butt of jokes and sarcastic jabs among my relatives due to my “alternative” choices. I am the ogre who won’t let her deprived child have just one more, teeny treat. Those who sneak high fructose corn syrup laced with mysterious chemicals into my son’s mouth behind my back are his unsung heroes. They have relieved his abysmal withdrawals caused by his evil mother with a little bump of the good stuff in the dark corners of their kitchens. This cookie is our little secret. What’s next, a puff off your cigarette?

Hey, thanks. Thanks for the setback in my uphill battle against genetics, marketing strategies and candy-infested holidays. Thanks for teaching my son to eat treats in secret. Did I mention this is a popular technique utilized by most of my overweight family members? And I really appreciate your letting me know through that disappointed look you shoot at my son that by controlling his sugar intake, I am depriving my son of love.

Let me tell you how I love my son. I keep crap out of the house. We WILL eat it, so I minimize temptation. I bake homemade cookies and granola bars for him so I can use less sugar, add whole wheat flour and cut back on the butter. I know most, if not all, of the ingredients that go into my treats. I take the time to read labels, even on “all natural” and organic products. I give him water and a snack, not a sports drink, when he’s sweating. I say “No” and stand firm when he throws a fit about treats. He eats fruit, sugar that comes with fiber and vitamins. He gets chocolate, but not an entire candy bar in one sitting.

Don’t you worry about my son. I am a firm believer that models based on moderation are more effective than those based on abstinence. He gets his sugar. But the best sugar comes from the snuggles he gets every morning, or from hearing, “Good job, I’m proud of you!” followed by a big hug, or a “let’s do something together”.

I don’t understand why I am the “alternative” and not the norm.

I challenge parents to take some time to bake, to read labels, to research, and to moderate. I challenge them to spend less money on crap and splurge on a quality piece of organic chocolate that is offered sparingly. I challenge caregivers to analyze how much sugar they serve up while they CAN still control what goes into children’s mouths. Like the child riding in a car with a smoker, your child is a captive audience. What damage to them can you prevent?    

And I beg of you; given his genetic history, let Quinn’s parents decide what’s best for Quinn without giving us shit for our decisions. You are not doing my son any favors by offering him treats, and you ARE hurting him. It is not cute. I AM defensive and angry because this is MY son. So stop creating situations where I have to be a bitch to him and I offend you. 

I don’t doubt that parents who feed their kids junk love their kids. I know wonderful parents with smart, happy kids who eat poorly. I do wonder how much smarter they would be on a healthier diet. I challenge these parents to love their kids just a little bit more by cutting the crap.

It’s easy, really, to make changes. It’s easy as, well…taking candy from a baby.       

Welcome to it….

Ever since I was little, I have loved to write. I am not the best writer on the block, but I seriously enjoy doing it. I was the only graduate student in my Masters program who was pissed that we had comprehensive exams with no option to write a thesis. I was the student who had a problem editing 20 pages down to the required 10. If you were one of those students who had a hard time turning your 5-6 pages into 10, you hated me.

There are multiple reasons as to why I’ve started this blog. I recently had an argument with one of my closest friends, with whom I usually communicate through emails. I literally spent hours formulating and editing my thoughts, choosing words carefully, selecting areas in which to be personally vulnerable while still effectively showing my anger. It was a labor of love. I have not stayed up until 1 a.m. since my son was a sleep-challenged toddler. My husband watched this process and wondered aloud what would happen if I put all this energy into writing elsewhere.

The argument subsided, and my friend and I returned to exchanging our normally dark-humored, but still lengthy emails. My husband’s comment rattled inside my head. I started making little lists of subject matter, random notes of title ideas. Little life events became titles. Then last weekend, my brother, unaware of my stirring intentions to start writing, showed me the Word Press blog he uses for work. It was a sign. I am a firm believer of signs.

There were other glaring, neon signs, but these are broken down into titles on scratch paper next to my grocery list, and will be saved for another blog on another day.

So what can you expect to see in my ramblings? I am a woman, so you will see some female musings. Or downright bitching. Don’t worry, I won’t go into depth about my menses or my womb. I am a parent, so to leave out my sometimes bittersweet, sometimes brutal thoughts on parenting (mine and others) would be a crime. I am currently very interested in the state of our children’s nutrition, or lack thereof, in this country and seem to be developing a personal crusade to change how kids eat. I also love to cook, so look here for some recipes, tips on feeding your family, or cheesy kitchen – life metaphors. I am also a wife, so I’ll talk marriage but I won’t bash my husband. Unless, of course, he is lauging WITH me. I will talk at length any day about mental health and therapy, problems with the current mental health system, interpersonal relationships, communication problems, gender issues, current events, nutrition and diet, education and working with children. And expect me to be blunt.

What not to expect? In-depth political discussion. I have a few thoughts to share, but I’m not the most well-spoken in politics. I know, how irresponsible of me, but its just not my language. I will talk about counseling and mental health guidance, but don’t expect personal therapy here. Don’t expect hardcore feminism, but don’t expect June Cleaver either. And don’t come here to save my soul with Christianity, but if you want to tell me how to be more Zen, I’m all ears.

I’m also from Wisconsin, so don’t expect me to talk about the Packer game yet….it’s still too raw…(sniff).

Ok…I have a lot to say and am looking forward to saying it. Stay tuned…..