Monday, April 27, 2009

Through the lens of a cleanse...

I have this very, shall we say, well-loved, book (okay, it's seriously bedraggled: dog-eared, pages are coming out of the binding, food stained) I bought many years ago, ten or eleven, after I just happened to push my grocery cart down an aisle and wound up by the vitamins and cookbooks. Something about the cover, with it's fresh herbs and tall glass of juice, leaped out at me. Intrigued, I picked it up. The book is a day-to-day guidebook to doing a twenty-one-day cleanse. I leafed through it there, and, me being impulsive, within minutes started grocery shopping on the spot for the three week cleanse I took the executive privilege of deciding that John and I would embark upon the next morning. Into the cart went apple cider vinegar and fenugreek, aloe vera juice and daikon radishes. I came home later that day with adorable carrot tops and beet greens peeking out of our canvas bags, the stitching on them threatening to rip from the weight of it all, and as we unpacked, John tried to extract more information about what this new endeavor.

"So, what are we supposed to do?"

"We're supposed to do what the book says."

"But what does the book say?" He grunted, struggling to close the produce drawer.

"Oh, whatever. It'll be fun."

It turns out, the book says colonics, which we came to learn was pretty much the opposite of what John considers fun. (How was I to know?) It also says a bunch of days on a raw foods diet, culminating an a two day juice fast, and then two more days raw. John also did not consider this remotely fun. Also not fun: the apple cider vinegar-water mixture before lunch, the two hour waiting period after meals for a drink, liver cleansing juices for five days, which was pretty much like drinking not-particularly good, room temperature salad dressing, and the raw soups with blended alfalfa sprouts in the starring role. John being a small-town-turned-big-city boy, though, he is always up for new experiences and as with so many of my capricious little flights of fancy, he was happy to indulge me just to see where it went. He did the cleanse with me that year, occasionally calling during the day for advice ("Is it okay if I put ice in my wa- no? Sigh. Okay...") and to give me updates ("I drank the juice but I'm totally not doing the wheatgrass shot - I don't care what the book says - that stuff is disgusting.") and he generally kept a positive attitude except for when colonic irrigation day arrived and the hose took with it one the last remaining aspect of John's virginity. At the end of the cleanse, though, he felt light and healthy, as did I. Still, he said to me with a sunny smile and bright eyes but in no uncertain terms, "Just so you know, I am never, ever doing that cleanse again."

So on my own I have been lo these last ten or so years of cleanses, which I tend to do every spring. In April, like clockwork, when I come home lugging grocery bags heavy as if they were carrying bowling balls, filled to the top with burdock root (every bit as enticing as it sounds), hijiki and more lemons than Minute Maid's most productive grove, he says in his low-key way, "So it's cleanse time again?" I nod gravely. "Yep."

The first few years, John saw fit to reiterate that while he would continue to love and support me, there was no way he'd submit to such torture again; now he trusts that I won't ask. His reluctance is understandable: it is a bear to get through. Frankly, it works better now that we have a child to have one parent who is not competing in a sort of dietary triathlon. When my friends hear of my cleanse, inevitably they are concerned: "You have to juice fast for two days?"; "Broth for dinner? I don't care how long it lasts, that's like being prisoner in a gulag,"; "What kind of sadist wrote this book? What are her credentials? Is she a dominatrix or something?"; " You're excited that you don't have to drink an oily juice this morning? You have Stockholm's Syndrome, girl, and the tyrant is you." Oh, actually that last thought was one of my own.

So, whatever, it may be cruel and unusual, but it works. I come out the other side really revived and refreshed, my metabolism revved up and everything fine-tuned. You know that expression, working on all four cylinders? That's how I feel when the cleanse is finished, everything humming along optimally. Getting there, though, can be dicey, and it's a little bit like going through the different stages of labor. You think you can't make it - you cry, you beg, you swear you'll die - but if you white knuckle it, you'll make it through to the other side. Along the way, though, there are plenty of dark moments.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the liver is the seat of anger. If so, it would stand to reason that cleansing the liver might also release stored anger. When one is cleansing in general, emotional aspects come up all the time, and I often begin to feel like Sybil-meets-Dharma-meets-Regan from The Exorcist, which basically combines into a Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme-like character, who, I'm sure, is a delightful housemate. John is now accustomed to the vagaries of my shifting moods as we ride the emotional cleanse roller coaster, though, and he's pretty thick-skinned about being reamed like one of those many lemons for "sneezing too loud" or "folding the newspaper wrong." Now that I'm entering my final week of the cleanse - one in which I can eat cooked food and do not have to drink salad dressing for breakfast - I can say that I feel very strong and wonderful. The cleanse works. And there are things I learned from it that I never would have known if I had never done an extended cleanse. For example:

* Hearing someone crunch on pita chips while you consume your "mineralizing" soupe du jour of blended alfalfa sprouts for the third night in a row can inspire violent thoughts.

* Licking one's fingers after eating a vegan ice cream sandwich will make you fantasize of putting the finger licker's precious fingers in your Champion Juicer.

* If the CIA is looking for new torture techniques, have the prisoner sit in a restaurant while the others at his table eat French fries and he has to nurse a room temperature carrot-beet-cucumber juice.

* When you are really, really looking forward to your evening broth because it is ambrosia-like compared to your daily regiment of foul liquids it helps to reinforce the accuracy of that otherwise annoying expression, "it's all relative."

* You think about food almost constantly when you aren't eating any. Your thought pattern is like this: I need to call back Jane. She might be making dinner. I wonder what she's making tonight? Hey, I wonder what I'm making tonight. John can make dinner. Is it really so hard? They can have pasta and garlic bread. Garlic bread. I wonder when I can have garlic bread again. Oh, god, I have to drink that spinach juice for dinner tonight. Somebody shoot me. Shudder. A spinach lasagna would be amazing right now. I would so devour it. I'm filing for divorce if John asks me what day of the cleanse I'm on...

* If you have a six-year-old, he will say things like, "I wish you weren't on a cleanse so you could try this pizza. It's soooo good!" or "Wow, this is the best pad Thai I've ever had." You won't be sure if he's being passive-aggressive or just effusive, but did he always exalt about food this much?

* Even though you're not cooking, you create as many dirty dishes as you do when you are because of the endless array of fluids you have to prepare.

* Going downtown, when it entails lugging your water, tea, juice and broth for the day, can feel like a slow death for your shoulder. It would lobby to be emancipated from you but it's too damn tired.

* Your friends will tempt your resolve by saying things like, "You know, you don't have to do this," like you were under the impression that a black-masked bandit with a gun growled at you, "Go on a cleanse, NOW." You weren't actually laboring under that impression.

*Foods that normally don't excite you take on new qualities of deliciousness in your fantasies. The anticipation of steamed vegetables in a few days rivals what a child would feel about Santa Claus visiting, brown rice with a little drizzle of sesame oil sounds like a decadent Epicurean feast of the highest order. Again, "it's all relative" ricochets through your mind.

So, yay, I'm nearly done, and yippee, my skin looks great, and woo hoo, no liver cleansing juices for another year and hey, does anyone want to meet me at the Chicago Diner as soon as Sunday? I will most assuredly not be ordering a salad.

Shalom, everyone.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Rage Against The Machines...

One of the great pluses of my relationship with my husband is that we're very much alike in key ways: we have similar tastes, we have similar strengths. It can pretty much be guaranteed that if I'm into a new interest or project, my husband will be right there alongside me, proofreading, brainstorming, running off to get supplies, cutting and gluing and creating a mess to help me make this idea take shape. We are very compatible in this: we are both people who are perfectly content in a creative environment, and we both get all angst-y when we are between projects. I think a lot of our self-worth as individuals comes from our creative output, whether this is a healthy attitude or not.

The downside of being so well-matched in terms of strengths is that we're equally similar when it comes to our weaknesses. Neither of us is very practical, for example, though John is more than I am (his inner-Protestant Minnesotan is to blame), and we are not particularly adroit at the day-to-day business of playing bills on time, making sure our son gets enough sleep, finding our respective glasses, getting the clean laundry folded and put away in a timely manner. Sadly, a lot of this sounds like the stereotypical artist's refrain - how do I still thrive in this world of schedules and deadlines and responsibilities? - (and I am well aware of how pretentious and annoying that sounds, as it's hard not to call to mind the clichéd English lit snob writing an epic hand-wringing prose poem in a smoky café) but it accurately reflects the nature of the challenges we face. Not that every day offers insurmountable hurdles or that we are so tightly cloistered in our precious ivory tower of creativity, but just that the daily obligations one assumes in adulthood seem to be a lot easier for other people to accept, you know?

It wouldn't be so hard if machines didn't hate the two of us.

If it has a motor, wheels, gears, is mechanized to any degree, has buttons one must push, must be programmed, has hard little metal and plastic parts made in a factory somewhere, it has invariably been implanted with a computer chip with the directive to foil the two of us whenever possible. Currently, my oven has blown a fuse and does not work, the pilot light went out in our gas tank (April flowers bring cold showers here), our garage door is dysfunctional and must be manually opened, and, last, the car. Oh, the car.

It safely ferried my newborn home from the hospital, it has shuttled us to all manner of exciting and ordinary destinations, it hosts a number of identity-pronouncing bumper stickers (including my all-time favorite, a scratched-to-the-point-of-illegibility gem from Lawrence, Kansas: Bush + Dick = Screwed) but now the ol' wagon is ailing. Car-eating buzzards are circling overhead. The military band is rehearsing Taps in our garage (they had to open the door by hand, of course). The obituary has already been written for Car and Driver Magazine and it's ready to run at a moment's notice. (Beloved Ford Focus wagon, gunmetal grey, vehicle to John, Marla, their child and several hairy beasts, passed away from complications related to age and negligence on Tuesday...)

The Car Talk guys on NPR would egg each other on and laugh and laugh at our sad situation. The transmission is wonky - it gets stuck between gears or something like that - and, lately, the starter has not been, well, starting. We can get somewhere but when we try to leave, it won't start again. And it's unpredictable. Sometimes it takes twenty minutes or so to restart, other times, a couple of hours. Yesterday, we left abandoned the car in the grocery store parking lot and waited for the bus in the cold rain with all our shopping bags to get to my mother's place so I could cook on her stove as ours is currently unusable, as you read two paragraphs up. I am a fan of public transit so that is not an issue, but it can feel a little silly sometimes to be taking the bus to your mother's place so you can cook dinner and bathe (remember the pilot light?). You know, if you're not nineteen or so.

When I have some perspective, I can clearly see that machines do not hate us, at least not all of them. I am writing this right now on a computer that dutifully records every letter typed, and a space heater is warming my legs. Our toaster oven seems to have mastered the job of toasting without complaint. The blender and juicer shouted out from the kitchen that they are humming along just fine.

When the technology around us shorts out, malfunctions or just plain quits, it's hard not to feel like the entire machine world is in on some master plan bent on disrupting our lives. It can take some deep breathing before it sets in that these things are not us, that in our old age, we won't remember the starter problem with the car, but we'll remember the road-trip to Pennsylvania to see friends, the animal sanctuary in Michigan, the adventures with friends and family that the car helped to facilitate.

Maybe in my attempts to make peace with technology, the lesson is that I need to make peace with myself. These are inconvenient bumps in the road, but the real stuff of life is rich, abundant and expansive. Machines can never replace that.

Shalom, everyone.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

I'm mental for lentil soup...

By the way, do you remember back to the not-so-halcyon days of junior high when you referred to the stupid boys and your weird uncle and the girl who tried to copy from you as being "mental?" I never quite understood that. Isn't describing someone as mental along the same lines as calling someone cerebral, and, thus, the opposite of stupid? Was I overthinking this? Most likely "mental" is shorthand for mentally retarded in junior high parlance, right? In any case, calling someone - namely, my husband - mental, has become one of my most favorite put-downs, like, "Would you please stop getting all mental about the freezer door being left open? Jeez!" When in doubt, regress. I think The Art Of War has a whole chapter on using the skills you acquired in sixth grade against adversaries. They are lethal.

So, along the same lines of asking general questions of unsuspecting visitors to my little playpen, I have another one: do you ever forget that whole categories of food exist? Like one day, for example, you wake up and say, "Hmm. I'm feeling like making a casserole tonight. It's been a while since I had one," and you flip through your internal Rolodex of recent meals and you realize with growing incredulity that it's been forever, or at least a long, long time, since you had a casserole of any sort, and then the one you make is so delicious and so hits the spot that you get on this huge casserole-making kick until your family tells you in a loving but honest way that it wouldn't be so awful to have a non-casserole-y meal? Of course this has happened to you. Anyway, the point of this whole post is my recently renewed love affair with soup, the bowl of belly-warming, nourishing goodness that has been waiting ever so patiently to be rediscovered. Oh, and also to share a recipe I think you'll like.

I wonder why I forgot about soup? I wonder why it's only before winter has begum loosing it's icy grip from around my shoulders that I finally remembered? No matter. People probably forget about soup all the time: it's like that rather boring friend who is so steadfastly loyal, so there for you, that you kind of neglect her. This is more about you and your screwed up values than it is about your friend. Admit it. In your more aware moments, you realize that this friend is not boring, actually, she's very cool in her serene, non-showy kind of way, the exact sort of person you should seek out more. Soup is like that, too. Unlike your friend, though, who may have moved on to more appreciative company (and who could blame her?), soup remains steadfastly dedicated to you.

Soup is just a notion, hanging out in the farmer's market and cabinet, waiting to take form in a soup pot and then a bowl. From there, it will curve gracefully to the bowl's contours and that of your spoon, and you will think to yourself, "How on earth could I have gone without you for so long?" Soup holds no ill will: that is not the Way of Soup. It was made to do a job: to warm your throat, then a light a gentle path to your belly, with soupy goodness. If it can caress bread or provide a nice canvas for oyster crackers or scallions along the way, that's all the better, but never forget that soup was created to serve number one: You. Call it co-dependent, call it devoid of self-identity (and, thus, ego, and as such, a manifestation of the Buddha) but still, you know, call it.

When we were three and learning our alphabet, it was there to encourage us, an orange-y broth lesson book with floating letters, and when we are toothless and ancient, soup will fill us with nourishment and warm memories. In between it will be there for us when we're at our worst, no questions asked: sick and snotty, heartbroken, tired, impoverished. Soup loves you -- never doubt that.

Public service announcement over, but, first, some random quick points about soup:

1. If you make a big ol' pot of soup every Sunday, or whatever works for you, you will be so rewarded all week. I don't care how busy you are, naysayer: we're all busy! Don't you think I'm busy what with trying to foment the feminist vegan revolution? This is all the more reason why making a big pot of soup is so beneficial. It actually cuts down on time and expense to do this.

A. I have found if I have a container of soup at the ready in my refrigerator, it cuts down on unnecessary snacking. This makes it not only economical but good for those watching their weight.

2. Do what our grandmothers did: keep a freezer bag of leftover vegetable trimmings for making a kick-ass broth or soup. Again, this is economical and elegant in its frugality. You will also feel so rewarded when you obviate the need for a bouillon cube. Would grandma use a bouillon cube? Pish. And isn't frugality and resourcefulness all the rage these days? Create a buzz around yourself with your superlative soup-making skillz. You'll be all like the Joad family in The Grapes Of Wrath but less, you know, desperate and Okie-ish.

3. I'm getting hungry for soup now, maybe something with asparagus and petite peas. Or black beans, chipotle peppers and corn? Soup is the ultimate blank canvas upon which you make something pitch-perfect for your mood: light, spicy, smoky, subtle, tangy, rich, silky. How are you feeling? Soup is here to help match your ever-elusive moods, and, thus, create union with you. I ask you, can a casserole do that? A pizza? Like grandma said above, hands folding down in the ultimate Jewish grandma representation of dismissal, pish.

A. Experimenting with flavors and textures in your soup creating will make you a better cook. It's all about alchemy, and soup is the ideal vehicle for such experimentation.

4. There's so much to say here, about how adaptive soup is to the seasons, how it is comfortable with both peasants or royalty slurping on it, what a spectrum of colors it can come in, and on and on. I'm getting all verklempt.

5. Oh, last, perhaps my final point is soup is perhaps my clichéd Proust's Madeleine as my beloved Grandmother (do you seem how many times grandmother has been invoked here?), who was a very good cook, had a special way with it. I can still see her (totally non-vegetarian, but still, a warm memory as is everything associated with her) matzo ball soup with the round yellow fat puddles on the surface. My grandfather, a man whose mother died in his childhood and who came to this country by himself as a teenager, would hum to himself as he ate it. I wonder how much my Grandmother's soup helped to instill a sense of security, of gratitude, in her husband? Grandma was a wise, generous woman. I can say, my grandfather ate a lot of soup - pretty much at every meal - and he was a very content man. I'm not saying this will work for you but it's worth a try, right?

But enough with the talky-talk. Get out your soup pot and let's get started.

Mental for Lentil Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced

Heat the oil in a large soup pot over a medium-high flame. Add the onions and garlic; sauté until the onion is golden, about six minutes or so.

1 large carrot, sliced
1 large stalk of celery, chopped

Add this to the onions in the pot and stir together for three minutes or so.

2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons coriander
1 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste (lemon pepper would be good here if you have it)

Add to the pot and sauté for a minute or so. If the vegetables become overly dry, add a tablespoon or so of water.

2 cups red lentils*
6 cups veggie broth or water
1 tablespoon tomato paste

Cook over medium-high heat until boiling. Then lower the heat to medium-low, cover the pot and wait for about twenty minutes or so. The lentils should have smooshed by now as they don't hold their shape like other lentils. Blend this with an immersion blender (an indispensable tool for the soup fanatic) or standard blender until smooth. Return to the pot if necessary.

1 lemon

Add the juice of one-half to one whole lemon, depending on your preference. I like lots of lemon in lentil soup. You can juice one half and put a wedge on the side as well.

Season until it's just right and enjoy, preferably with basmati rice.

A last note: this is more of a dal than a brown lentil hippie soup (not that I'm casting aspersions) and as such can be emphasized more as such. Add kidney beans after it's been blended, step up the curry. I have to keep things fairly tame for the developing palate in our home. Add water as you reheat.

Shalom, everyone.

*Why red, as these are little babies are undeniably, gorgeously, proudly orange? Is this along the same lines with why people with orange hair are referred to as redheads? It must be. If so, why the orange phobia? It can be a lovely color, it's the color of your second chakra, and is nothing to fear. Is the word more recent and all things with that hue were referred to as red? Very curious.