Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Food and Memory

Last Saturday I saw the film Ratatouille for the second time. James wanted to see it so I took him. The film contains one of the most touching, powerful scenes I have ever seen. The pretentious, cruel food critic Anton Ego has a meal prepared by the film's protagonist, the rat Rémy (though at the time he eats it, he is unaware it has been prepared by a rat). Ego tells the chef Linguini that "I do not like food. I love it. If I do not like it I do not swallow."

Rémy prepares a simple plate of ratatouille. The other chefs in the kitchen are skeptical of this choice, because ratatouille is simple "peasant food," but Rémy insists.

The dish is brought to Ego. He looks at it as if it is a fried cockroach, but spears a wad onto his fork. As he begins to eat it, the camera suddenly pulls back as his eyes widen in astonishment. We are no longer in the dining room of Gusteau's restaurant in Paris. We are in the kitchen of a French country house decades in the past. Ego is a little boy, standing bereft in the doorway with a skinned, bloody knee, a toppled bicycle lying on its side a few feet behind him, front wheel spinning lazily. Ego's eyes brim and his lip quivers. His mother is standing at the stove stirring a pot of something hot and steamy. She turns and sees him, smiles kindly. She gently seats Anton at the kitchen table and places a heaping bowl of ratatouille in front of him. He digs in with pleasure, the skinned knee forgotten. And then we are back in the dining room of the grand restaurant as the pompous critic is humbled by a simple dish of vegetables.

I had to choke back tears of my own as I watched this. I have been thinking about this for the past three days: how intimately connected food and memory are. It is so powerful that the faintest odor or slightest taste of something specific can transport us into a world of memories. Are we not all just chasing that perfect memory, that perfect moment? Our own skinned-knee ratatouille moment?

I can still taste the perfect baguette, salty country ham, and scrambled eggs I ate at a tiny roadside restaurant in the French countryside during my trip there in 1992. The French farmers were protesting and had managed to close the roads between Paris and Orléans. Thus diverted, our tour bus spent hours winding along on tiny secondary roads through picture-perfect French farming villages. Finally, we stopped at a truck stop diner, famished, the entire busload of 30-some American teenagers mobbing the place. The miracle worker in the kitchen managed to prepare plates of bread, egg, and ham for all of us. It was one of the most delicious meals I have ever eaten. I dream about that bread. That gorgeous, airy, delicate, sweet baguette. I press my nose to the crusts of breads and inhale, hoping to recapture that moment when I took my first bite of that crusty wonder.

Or the fresh Gulf shrimp boiled in seawater that I ate while on the beach on Matagorda Island, Texas Gulf Coast, during the geology department spring trip of 1999. We bought pounds and pounds of fresh shrimp from a seafood wholesaler on the island and tossed them into a huge pot brimming with salt water and a package of spices. They came out pink and steaming and when the first one hit my tongue I was transported. Never had I tasted something so sweet and delicious. I fell to my plate like a madwoman, ripping the heads and shells from the shrimp as fast as I could work my fingers. I ate at least two pounds of shrimp myself that night. I ate until I thought my stomach would split and I still wanted to eat more. I didn't want it to end. I have never tasted seafood as sublime as that either before or since. I am still searching, however. I fear that I will never taste such perfection again unless I return to the Gulf Coast.

Or the pizza parlor my family blundered into one pouring-down-rainy afternoon in Cleveland's Little Italy. I don't even remember why we were down there or even which visit to the area it was (it must have been 1986 or earlier) but we were hungry and I'm sure we (my siblings and I) were complaining mightily about not having had lunch yet. I remember we were the only people in the place; they were about to close. It was a narrow, cramped little hole in the wall. But the pizza, oh, the pizza. I ate more than I believed I was capable of: six pieces. For an 11-12 year old, that is a lot. They weren't small pieces, either. I mowed through them as if it was the last meal I would ever eat. I still think about it. Every pizza I have eaten since then, for the last 20 years, is measured against that one pizza from that one afternoon from a tiny place that doesn't even exist anymore. I have found a reasonable facsimile, a pizza which I am willing to admit is almost as good, from a pizza parlor here in Chelsea (we ate dinner there tonight, actually). But I am still looking for the pizza that is better than the one from childhood stored in my memory.

Or the searing hot chocolate I used to drink as a child at the ice skating rink in my California hometown when I would go there with my Brownie troop in the winter. After skating outside we would come in to warm our hands by the fire and sip hot chocolate from Styrofoam cups. The smell of the wood fire, the burn of the liquid in my mouth; this is what I think of every time I drink hot chocolate.

I think that the best meals are the ones which tap into a person's collection of memories. I believe that the best chefs are not the ones who create some fantastic new cuisine or unexpected fusion of flavors, but the ones who manage, through their food, to reach down inside a person to bring these memories to the surface. Each meal is an opportunity to rediscover long-buried or treasured memories of meals past, of foods I once knew and loved even if only for a short time. I hope that now I am not only chasing ghosts, but that I am creating new food memories with my own cooking right now.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Run Report: Saturday Long Run

Today was another 5-mile run. I wasn't relishing doing my 5.37-mile loop again so I fiddled around with Map My Run and came up with a route around Chelsea that is exactly 5 miles. I named it "5 Miles Around Chelsea." God, I'm creative!

I was feeling a little foggier than normal due largely to my having attended the Michigan Summer Beer Festival on Friday evening. 35 Michigan breweries, over 100 different beers...it was worth a little morning-after cottonmouth.

So I started out slowly, testing the waters, so to speak. After the first mile I felt good so I relaxed and fell into my normal pace. Around mile 3 I felt so good I picked up the pace a little. I kept that up until the end. 51 minutes total, nice pace of just over 10:00 per mile.

It was okay, weather-wise, but not as nice as it was last weekend. Today is very humid and warm. Typical Michigan July weather. I was absolutely drenched with sweat. The entire front of my T-shirt was soaked. When I got home I peeled it off as fast as I could. I could have wrung it out in the sink, it was that wet. I wish I didn't sweat so much. I know it's a sign that my body is very efficient at doing its job of keeping me cool, but, damn, sometimes I wish it would just scale back a little.

While I was out on Dexter-Chelsea Rd. around mile 2, I had to pass by the horrible Pulte Homes megasubdivision that sprouted like a clump of poisonous mushrooms on former farmland a couple of years ago. Ugly, stupid, cookie-cutter cheap-ass houses with no character. I gave "Heritage Pointe" (the utterly pretentious name bestowed on this nightmare) a hearty two-finger salute as I passed by the subdivision entrance.

It's lunchtime now and I am completely starving. The engine needs fuel!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Asian-style Noodle Soup

I made this for dinner last night. It's not a Weight Watchers recipe; it came from The Low-Carb Bible cookbook. It's very easy, cheap, and fast. Oh, and healthy. All the things I look for in my food these days.

  • 1 3-ounce package of Ramen noodles (discard flavor packet)
  • 3/4 lb chicken breast tenders, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1/2 cup shredded carrot
  • 3 green onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • 2 cups (16 ounces) low-sodium chicken broth (I use Swanson's Natural Goodness Low-Sodium)
  • 1/2 cup fresh snow peas, cut in half
Cook the Ramen noodles according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

Combine the chicken tenders and chicken broth in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium, and simmer for 3 minutes. Add the carrot, green onion, garlic, and ginger and stir to combine. Simmer for 3 minutes. Add the Ramen noodles and snow peas and simmer for 1 minute.

Makes 2 hearty to 4 small servings.

I decided while eating that the next time I make this I will add some more spices and maybe up the amount of ginger. I could barely taste it. Perhaps some cayenne pepper, or a little bit of cumin, coriander, or some mustard seeds. And top it off with some shredded basil.

Friday is Rest Day

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my half marathon training program included scheduled rest days. No running, no strength training, no cross-training. Nothing. Just a day to rest and recuperate.

I tinkered with the schedule (swapping rest day for cross-training day) to put my rest day on Friday, the day before my Saturday long run. I like having rest day on Friday. It means I can get to work an hour earlier than usual, so I can leave an hour earlier in the afternoon. Who doesn't like getting home early on a Friday? I can start Home Happy Hour at 4:00 instead of 5:00! And yes, I did just state that instead of taking advantage of rest day and sleeping in for an extra hour, I still have the alarm go off at the usual time (5:55 am). And yes, that is 5:55, not 5:30, 5:45 or 6:00. I have it timed so I can hear the weather report on WUOM at 5:59. The other four minutes are for cat-rumpling, dog-butt-scratching, and husband-snuggling. Then it's up and at 'em at 6:00!

Now, having transformed myself from a couch potato into an exercise maniac, I do have trouble with the concept of "rest." On days when I am either not supposed to exercise or experience circumstances that prevent me from exercising (travel, illness, etc) I get a vague antsy, restless feeling. Twitchy. Fidgety. As if there is something I should be doing but am not. Sometimes I play loose with the definition of "rest" and decide that walking on the treadmill at the gym constitutes rest so I can do some form of exercise that day. At least I'm not running, right?

I could never go back to the sedentary lifestyle I led before my journey. Back to a time when the most exercise I got was walking to and from my car in the parking lot at work. Back to a time when the trip from the basement to the second floor of my house made me pant. Back to a time when I would use half of a stick of butter to cook a meal. Ugh.

No, I've changed, and changed permanently. I have achieved total lifestyle overhaul!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Pasta with Vodka Cream Sauce

I'm posting this recipe as an example of the kind of food I have been eating since I started Weight Watchers. This is a WW recipe (from the Simply the Best: Italian cookbook). Hard to believe, right? It is so good, and so easy and fast to make (it takes longer for the pasta water to boil than it does to make the whole meal!). I made it for dinner last night.

  • 8 ounces "short" pasta (penne, rigatoni, gemelli, fusili, etc.)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 shallots, minced
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 tbsp vodka
  • 1/4 cup cream
  • 2 tbsp fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Get a pot of salted water going for the pasta. While the pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce:

Heat the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook until softened. Add the tomato paste, chicken broth, and red pepper flakes and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to low and add the vodka and cream. Stir to combine and do not let the mixture boil. Once the pasta is done, drain and add it to the sauce in the skillet. Toss to combine. Serve topped with the parsley and Parmesan. (Makes 2 generous to 4 small servings.) Yum!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Run Report: Saturday Long Run

Saturday (yesterday) was the end of Week 3 of half marathon training. I was scheduled to run 5 miles. I was out the door at 9:09 am, ready to hit the road and complete the 5.37-mile Conway-Sibley loop. The weather could not have been better: 65 degrees, dry, sunny, slight breeze. I had not run this loop since June 16 and I was curious to see how the intervening weeks of training had affected my performance.

I noticed the difference as soon as I came to the first rise on Conway Rd about 1.75 miles into my run. I leaned into the hill and maintained my pace. When I reached the top my heart rate had increased only marginally and I didn't need to slow down to recover; I kept on running smoothly. My legs didn't feel heavy, either. The remaining hills had the same effect. I was very pleased. My training is working!

I also noticed that I just felt better overall. My breathing wasn't labored, my pace was steady, and I felt strong. Around mile 4, as I was on the long stretch of Sibley Rd. back into town and still going strong, I felt for the first time that I really will be able to do this ("this" being the half marathon). I have only been training in earnest for four weeks (I repeated Week 2 of training) and I have already improved my conditioning. I should only continue to improve over the course of the next 13 weeks and then, on race day, October 21, I will be so ready!

I finished at 10:04 am, making it a 55-minute run. That works out to 10:15 per mile. That is the pace I would like to sustain during the half marathon (10:00 per mile, give or take 15 seconds). During yesterday's run I felt so fresh and energetic that I knew I could have gone farther. Well, best not to rush things; I will be doing 7, 8, and 9-mile weekend runs soon enough!

In other half marathon news, I found out last week that a friend of mine intends to run the Detroit half as well! I am very excited and glad because she has already completed two previous halfs (halves?) and I have been picking her brain for running tips. Now I will have someone to keep me motivated during the race. And I don't care what she says-- I still think she's going to beat me!

Lastly, I have concluded that I HAVE to obtain the following:
  • a headband, because I sweat so much and it always runs in my eyes
  • new headphones that will STAY IN MY EARS
  • a Garmin Forerunner 205
  • a waist-mount CamelBak hydration pack

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


My work during vacation paid off: I lost 1.2 pounds. Who goes on vacation and loses weight? I do! I was very pleased. I'm back on track after that icky 3-pound gain I had right before I left. This is how it has been since I started: bobbing up and down but always on an overall downward trajectory. That's why I don't get as bent out of shape about gaining one week as I used to. I know that my progress has been slow but steadily down and the next week is always a fresh start. So here I am, coming off a 1.2-pound loss, and I have the momentum and motivation to carry that losing trend into next week. Yeah, so, I'm not quite back to where I was three weeks ago...but I'll be back there soon enough!

This morning I calculated the Points value for my glass of V-8 juice: only 1 Point! That is good news. I will start having V-8 in the mornings instead of orange juice which is 2 Points for an 8-ounce glass. My daily Points total dropped yet again when I broke into the 170s and now every Point counts. I have less leeway to waste Points on extraneous food. I know I have my 35 weekly Flex Points I can dig into, but I like trying to stay within the confines of my daily Points allowance.

Having less Points to consume means I really have to be vigilant about everything I eat. So is it worth using up one Point on two tiny half-and-half containers for my morning coffee at work? So far...yes. I have to have my coffee! If only it was better coffee, I would drink it black (zero Points) but I just can't do that yet. Maybe I can train myself to do so. Likewise, discovering that I can have a glass of V-8 for one Point versus a glass of OJ for two Points, thereby conserving one Point during my breakfast (a Point that I can then use for my Mini Moos) is important.

Points here, Points there...it sounds awfully tedious, doesn't it, especially considering that I have to write down and keep track of everything. And yes, it does get tedious, which is why my Points-tracking vigilance waxes and wanes. I usually start off a new week post-Tuesday weigh-in all bright and chipper about tracking Points in excruciating detail and as the week wears on I lose my enthusiasm and get sloppy or just quit doing it completely.

However, as tedious as tracking Points is...when I do it for every meal every day, I LOSE MORE WEIGHT. IT WORKS. That's why I am still doing it after almost a year. IT WORKS.

I'm entering the homestretch here. I have 23 more pounds to lose to reach Goal (155 lbs). I REALLY want to get there before the end of the year. What a Christmas present that would be! Thus, I have to renew my commitment to tracking Points, to being accountable for what I eat. I got off to a very good start this morning. KEEP IT UP!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Not Quite a Beach Bum

Yesterday I returned from a week-long vacation at the beach on Cape Cod. I was there with my mother and sister for seven days of sun and sand.

It wasn't all lazing and relaxation, however. Before I left I concocted several running routes via Map My Run so I could maintain my half marathon training schedule while I was on vacation. It was very important to me to stick with the schedule and so bright and early Sunday morning (the day after we arrived) I arose at 7:30 am and hit the road. I was scheduled to run 3 miles and I had created a route that was 3.17 miles (close enough for government work, as my graduate school adviser used to say). Running somewhere other than the gym or the roads around Chelsea was very inspiring. There was something about new pavement that quickened my step and kept me more alert than usual, not a mean feat considering I forgot my iPod on the run. The road paralleled the beach or swung gently inland to wind among the cottages and hydrangeas. I got lost in the road and missed the turn than would have taken me north to where I would have turned back westward to return to the beach house. I realized that I was on course to run 4 miles and this was not in the day's plan. Well, I thought, so what? I knew I had enough energy and stamina to complete 4 miles if I had to. After months of running I better have enough conditioning to go 4 miles if need be. As it turned out after I found my way onto the road home I took a shortcut to reduce my mileage back to 3-ish miles.

The next day I ran 2.25, and the day after that I did 3.17 miles, this time following the route I had mapped out. Wednesday and Thursday were rest days, during which I instead went walking with my mother. Friday was our last day at the beach and I ran 4 miles. I bumped up the training schedule by a couple of days to get in my long run before Saturday, which we spent packing and cleaning. There was no time for a 4-mile run that morning.

So, for four of the seven days I was on vacation I ran in the morning. I also ate my customary yogurt+fruit breakfast six of the seven mornings, and had spinach salad for most lunches as well. For dinner I cooked four days out of seven using Weight Watchers recipes I had photocopied and brought along. I was determined to make this the anti-vacation in terms of food consumption. I didn't want to slack, to fall off the wagon...completely.

OK, yeah, we had fried seafood takeout for lunch twice, and I had fried scallops and a lobster roll and they were SO AWESOME. I mean, when I first heard I was going to Cape Cod, the first two things I thought were:

1. Fried seafood (shrimp, clams, scallops, etc)!

2. Lobster!

I got both. They freaking ruled! Mmmm...fried scallops...lobstah...

But come on! I was good. I was really good. I ran, I ate decently, I didn't mindlessly snack on whatever junk food all hours of the day. I did visit the Cape Cod Potato Chip factory and saw my favorite chips being produced right in front of me (manufacturing plants are so cool). I got free samples!

It wasn't a fat-drenched, grease-soaked, sugar-sprinkled week. I will find out tomorrow at my Weight Watchers weigh-in if my restraint and hard work paid off. If I gain, I hope it's not much. If I lose, even -0.2 lbs will be something to celebrate. Not many people go on vacation and lose weight.

Today it was back to the grind, and it was also a step up in my half marathon training. I've moved into phase II and have increased my daily mileage. This morning I ran 3.5 miles. This weekend my long run will be 5 miles. Only 14 weeks until the race!

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

It Happens!

My weigh-in at WW tonight was less than fabulous...I gained something like 3 lbs. over the past week. I've stopped beating myself up when this happens. It happens. I've come to accept it. I can't pinpoint exactly where I went astray over the past week. The chips and bratwurst on Sunday? The deli sandwich on Saturday? The black bean burger and fries from yesterday? It does no good to dwell obsessively on these things. So I gained a little. You know what? I've still lost FORTY POUNDS! That is an accomplishment that can't be negated by a gain here or there.

Tonight for dinner we had barbequed pork chops with a mustard seed-thyme dry rub, leftover potato salad from Sunday, and steamed asparagus (for me). As far as I'm concerned, that was a perfectly healthy meal. The potato salad was made with organic new potatoes from Tantré Farm that I picked up at the Chelsea Farmers' Market on Saturday. With the taters were diced red onions and lovage and parsley from my herb garden (organic herbs, if you would like to be precise). To moisten the dish: a dressing of Dijon mustard, cider vinegar, and olive oil was added. No mayonnaise or any of that other ubiquitous fatty creaminess that dominates the potato salad world. Honestly, I hate potato salad. Unless it's the one that I make with lovage. Not a dollop of gloop to be seen!

Monday, July 2, 2007

Detroit Free Press Half Marathon!

I did it! I officially registered for the Detroit Free Press Half Marathon!

October 21, 2007, baby!

I was asked to estimate my finish time. (Maybe to determine where I will be starting in the pack?) How should I know? This is my first half-marathon. I'd like to run at 10:00 per mile, so for 13 miles that would be 130 minutes. 2 hours and 10 minutes. I padded that out with an extra 20 minutes just in case since I highly doubt I will be able to run the entire distance without a single walk break unless something spectacular happens to my endurance between now and October.

So there's another goal: to finish in 2 hours 30 minutes or better.

Run Report: Monday Morning

This morning I was scheduled to run three miles. When I got up at 6:00 it was very crisp and cool outside (about 48 degrees) so I decided to run from home instead of going to the gym. I even had to put on pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt. This was my route today: Fire Station Loop. I call it that because it passes the Chelsea fire station. How creative, no?

It was a lovely morning. I enjoyed the stillness, the lack of traffic, the sun just beginning to rise through the trees. I passed a couple of other early-morning runners. I felt good, relaxed, moving easily. I wasn't breathing hard. Towards the end I powered up the hill on Summit between Grant and Garfield. By "hill" I mean a tiny bump with a vertical rise of about 20 feet. It's the best I can do around here..I live in Flatland! I did the 3.25 miles in 31 minutes, which works out to about 9:32 minutes per mile. That's decent. I wasn't in any hurry. It was such a nice morning I felt I could have gone farther but 3 miles was all I was scheduled for, so 3 miles was it. In any case, in a couple of months I will be doing 5 and 6 miles for my regular weekday runs anyway, so I will have plenty of opportunities to run further if I feel perky.

One More Variable

So far I have talked about Weight Watchers and running as the two major parts of my journey. There is a third part, one that cannot be overlooked, which is as crucial to my success as either of the others. That would be the surgery I underwent in February. I had a total hysterectomy and it profoundly changed my life for the better.

Having surgery put an end to several years of misery and torment. Almost immediately my health and general well-being began to improve. Six weeks after surgery I was given the OK by my surgeon to recommence running and than was when I began running in earnest. Since surgery I feel as if I am bursting with energy and vitality, qualities in which I had been seriously lacking in the years "B.H." (before hysterectomy).

This is my life A.H. After hysterectomy. And it ROCKS!