Saturday, March 24, 2012

My Life with Food 5: Why I Need Help

Robin always says it's a good thing that Chris and Mike have each other because no one else would listen to them carry on for hours about food. Look at the pictures they each have on their cell phones: 90% are of food.

I have never been as adventurous an eater as they are. There are some things that will never pass my lips. I'm not even talking about Andrew Zimmerman's bizarre delicasies or Anthony Bourdain's still-beating heart of a cobra. And even Chris is put off by the idea of balut, a Southeast Asian treat of fertilized duck embryo boiled alive and eaten in the shell.

There are common, everyday American foods I do not like and try to avoid.

I will not eat ugly things: snails, octopi, oysters, eel, etc.

I have issues with certain textures. I hate grainy, dry beans, especially lima beans.

I never liked mushy things like soggy biscuits and gravy or bread pudding.

I do not eat cute things: lamb, rabbit, deer.

I don't like to stare down my dinner, so no animals served with heads attached,

I am terrified of small sharp things poking my mouth or making me choke which makes it hard to eat fish.

And what's with the way Chinese chefs cut up chicken? It 's like a blind man repeatedly threw a knife across the room in a fit of pique at some innocent fowl.

I am not allergic to any vegetables but I don't like stinky brussel sprouts or onions. And cauliflower is too bumpy.

I am not fond of melons, although I can eat them. The mass to flavor ratio is just too great and the texture is unpleasant to me.
I don't like to eat meat that looks too much like
an animal: chicken wings, chicken feet, lobster
or shrimp in the shell.

So I have issues.

You probably think at least one of my hangups is lame and I should just get over it and eat lima beans or whatever.

But they are what they are and, while I try to push back at times, they stay with me.

So, when you add my allergies to them, there isn't a lot left. At least, not a lot that my typically midewestern palate is familiar with. That's where having a foodie family can help.

Monday, March 19, 2012

My Life With Food 4: Say it ain't so, Joe

When Mike went to college in Santa Fe, he became entranced with Southwestern food and chiles. But, our empty nest provided even less incentive to add new foods to our diet.
When we didn't have to feed a starving high school basketball player, we resorted to a lot of frozen or take-out food.

About this time, I decided to return for further allergy testing. I had experienced that old feeling of paralysis more often and, although I attributed it to accidental exposure to pork, I  wanted to make sure. Sorry, Charlie. Only moments after they scratched my back, one spot in particular was driving me crazy. It was beef.

Complete testing revealed serious allergies to coffee, pork, beef, duck, lamb, salmon, catfish, crab, lobster, pineapple, orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime, barley, rye, hops, and soy and minor allergies to chicken, shrimp, tuna, milk, corn, oat, rice, brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans, pine nuts, and eggs.

Now I had to forgo beef bacon (which is a little like pastrami) for turkey bacon (which is a little like a cereal box.) Have I mentioned that Chris barbeques the best steaks on earth? And that my favorite savory dish in the world is the "brasato of short ribs atop provolone polenta with sweet white onions, english peas and veal reduction" from Postino in Lafayette? And chicken, turkey and veggie burgers don't come close to a real, honest to God hambuger.

Last year, Anthony moved into a pet-free apartment and his cat Elliot moved into our house. The third cat pushed me over the edge and, sniffling and sneezing, I went back to the allergist hoping for some relief.

She started giving me allergy shots for cats, dogs, grasses, mold and dust but she also gave me some bad news. She added wheat, flax seed, and sunflower seeds to the severe allergy list. WHEAT?!

I knew I'd miss cookies and cakes and biscuits and pancakes and waffles. But I didn't realize how much I relied on sandwiches. Bread is such a convenient holder for food. And no more fried chicken, sweet and sour chicken or fish and chips?

And wheat is so sneaky, as those of you with celiac disease know well. It is in soy sauce, catsup and gravy. It hides in soups, yogurt, baking powder, roasted nuts and ice cream. It can be used to "powder" gum and candy to prevent sticking, in envelopes and stamps you lick to stick, and even sometimes in cosmetics to keep it stable. Pasta is obviously made with wheat, but couscous, faro, orzo, farina, spelt, and tabbouleh are also wheat products. I knew that beer and whiskey were out but I thought vodka was made from potatoes and tequila was made from agave. Now almost all alcohol is made, at least in part, from wheat.

But, quite possibly the lowest blow was to my identity: I am a baker. I made really good cookies. It's the only reason some people like me and now I can't do it anymore. What's a gal to do?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

My Life With Food 3: Adjusting

Eventually, I got wise to the fact that I couldn't eat certain things. I got used to beef bacon and sweet and sour chicken instead of pork and tea instead of coffee. And eventually, Chris decided to go to law school. And eventually, we got married in Mt. Carroll on our way to Ann Arbor.

I wasn't in school and Chris was very busy reading cases so I had a lot of free time that I used to take lots of exercise classes: aerobic dance and weight-training and running. I got into great shape and started eating according to the Pritikin Plan, which means lots of fresh veggies, fruit and whole grains, very little meat, almost no fat and no sugar.

We returned to the Bay Area a couple of years later, having discovered that our time in California had morphed us into complete weather wimps.

I continued to eat carefully until I became pregnant. I had given up all caffeine and alcohol in anticipation so I wasn't a lot of fun. After five months, my doctor told me that I needed eat more since I was starving my baby. I took that as permission - nay, a demand- to eat an It's It (ice cream cookie sandwich covered in chocolate) every day and soon had gained 60 pounds.

Michael was not starved after all and weighed almost 9 pounds at birth. Because of my allergies, his pediatrician wanted us to introduce foods slowly and later than normal. Michael didn't really like that plan and started grabbing for our forks by the time he was a year old.

We tried to delay as long as we could, but when he started eating solid foods, he fell in love. Except for mushrooms and tomatoes, he liked everything. After bowling one Friday night when Michael was about three, we went to Juan's Place in Berkeley and he ate an entire bowl of salsa, one chip after another, while the adults watched in amazement. Fortunately, his iron stomach held up to the challenge.

He was always fearless about food: he ate his first oyster before he turned five. (I still haven't tried one.)  However, eclectic were his tastes, his third word was "french fries" by which he meant McDonald's. For years, his big treat was chicken nuggets and french fries every Friday after pre-school.

I enjoyed making him Mickey Mouse pancakes and  cutting his sandwiches into fun shapes but his sophisticated palate quickly outstripped my meager abilities and we ate out more and more. After all, Chris and I were both working time-consuming and challenging jobs and we were surrounded by the Bay Area's thousands of restaurants.

Moving to Pleasant Hill from Berkeley put a crimp into our routine: bereft of our favorite ehtnic restaurants and surrounded by chain restaurants. But it wasn't enough to force us into cooking.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Oakland White Elephant Sale

Every year, the Oakland Museum Women's Group holds a White Elephant Sale. It's huge!  Robin goes to find blankets and toddler toys for the chimps and I usually look for books with good pictures to use in my art.

The ladies who work the sale are dedicated and work all year to process donations for the sale. They become familiar with and even attached to the stock in their departments. They wash and iron all the linens. Don't you love these crazy tea towels?
It's a little crazy and crowded. I couldn't even face the jewelry area because shoppers were three deep around the cases. But one of the ladies told me they had jars of broken jewelry so I bought one. When I got home and broke the seal, it was mostly pins and keychains but some of the things will make good charms.
The ladies in the toy department were espcially nice to me. They dug out all  the orphaned game pieces: dominoes, dice, Monopoly, and chess pieces.

They only charged me $1.50 for all these metal player tokens.

The chess pieces were $1 
And look at all these bright colors, just waiting to be made into something special.

This year, Robin and I went crazy over the dollhouse furnishings.  We both bought bedroom suites. Mine is blue and Robin's is pink. The vanity and dresser have real mirrors. And check out the tiny rocking chair!
Who could resist a tiny treadle sewing machine, a grandfather cock and a stove that really opens!
A tiny wash bowl and  pitcher for a tiny dresser in a tiny bedroom that doesn't have running water.
Tiny pioneers carried this miniature enamel coffee pot and these cups in their tiny covered wagons to use on their itsy bitsy campfires.

Scary faces on itty bitty silver mugs. All three could be carried on a dime.
If your dolls need to to mend their clothes, here's some yarn and miniscule scissors that really work.
My prize purchase: a Chinese doll carrying a baby on her back, half off the original price.
I don't know anything about this doll but I fell in love.

And I went back and forth on this metal stove. It was as expensive as everything elsa put together but, in the end I went back and bought it. I'll use it as a prop for my business. It just makes me happy.

My Life with Food 2: The Dark Days

During my second year at UCB, I started having weird neurological problems. Sometimes it was so difficult to move that I was almost paralyzed. I had periods of synethesia when I couldn't feel anything touching my skin. I stopped being able to trust my senses and had trouble even crossing the street, let alone finishing school assignments.

I saw a neurologist who took an EEG, diagnosed me as epileptic and prescribed an anti-seizure medication called tegretol. My symptoms didn't improve, they got worse and I started getting really sick. I always had a cold or stomach virus and the slightest cut would get a raging infection. I couldn't remember even the simplest words, like "door" or understand others' speech or writing. My stress was compounded by finding out I had "cervical squamous cell dysplasia" which necessitated a cervical biopsy to remove the cancerous cells. I was pretty sure that I was crazy and/or dying.

The Berkeley Public Library saved my life. (Probably a large part of the reason I became a librarian. I would stop on my way home from UCB and use their Merck Manual and PDR.
I found out that the neurologist failed to follow guidelines in prescribing Tegretol and I was suffering three well-known side-effects: leuco-anemia (all my white blood cells died and I couldn't fight any infections), aphasia (language impairment) and depression, including suicidal thoughts. I also read everything I could on epilepsy and realized I had none of the associated symptoms and the symptoms I did have were not connected to epilepsy.

I went back to my regular doctor who helped wean me from tegretol and told me I probably had Multiple Sclerosis. I read that MS was being treated with a gluten-free diet and, although not convinced of the diagnosis, I began to track my diet in relation to my illness. I realized that attacks often occurred after I had sausage or bacon for breakfast. I was referred to an allegerist who gave me the bad (but not as bad as MS) news: I was allergic to pork, coffee, chocolate, barley, rye, duck, lamb, oranges, grapefruits and a lot of trees and grasses. When I stopped eating those foods, I stopped having attacks. I tried taking a benedryl before and after trying something on the list but it wasn't completely effective. Giving up coffee was hard and I would accommodate the occasional cup by spending the following day in bed.
A few of my original allergens

My Life with Food 1: Glory Days

My life changed forever when I moved into the room next to Chris Wu's on the second floor of Bennett Hall. I started helping him in his Shimer Saving duties, answering the phones and typing his newsletter (kind of funny since he is a much better typist than I).

There was no hot water for showers. Everyone showered at the Moons' house on a less-then-ideal regularity.

There was no food service so we cooked our own in Bennett's small kitchen or, like Chris, ate out.  We started hanging out which involved a lot of me watching Chris eat since I had no money. And, despite all odds but as you might guess, eventually we fell in love - but you knew that already.

When, also despite all odds, Shimer reopened in the Fall, Chris moved back into his room on first floor Howe and I moved in upstairs. I was hired to run breakfast service and sometimes would bring Chris breakfast in bed when I was finished.

Since I was finally being paid, I could actually partake of the restaurant fare when I joined Chris.

The choices were limited: breakfast at Dot's (great donuts and pie),

cheeseburgers (and pinball) at Eisenhart's ("Want onions?") for lunch,

pizza for dinner at Sievert's,

followed by a late night cheese plate at Poffy's Tavern.

Once in a while, we'd trek to Savannah for pizza or greasy tacos at the Riverboat. For special occasions, we went to the Brunswick for broasted chicken (famous for Kim Conley stealing Chris's crunchy chicken skin) or the Black Angus (no relation to the chain) where we hosted our rehearsal dinner years later. The nearest Chinese food was 30 miles away at the Freeport Hotel. For a really big weekend, we'd drive for three hours into Chicago for a concert or first run movie, deep dish pizza and Greek food.
I celebrated Christmas with the Wus and Chris gave me a culinary tour of Kansas City:
burnt ends at Bryant's BBQ,
a pork tenderloin that overhung the bun by inches at Joe's Grill,

burgers and shakes at Winstead's.
The whole family (except for Frankie who slept in) joined Dr. Wu (whose patients were cooling their heels in his waiting room) for french toast at Waid's.

Frankie, Chris's mom, made Stone Soup (beef vegetable with a side of folklore) and spaghetti sauce (her secret was not to brown the meat first). We had a traditional holiday dinner, including three kinds of dressing (oyster, chestnut and plain) none of which I liked since I hate wet bread. The whole family made jaio tze (pork and shrimp dumplings) on New Year's Eve.

After winter break, Chris and I moved into a first floor apartment near downtown Mt. Carroll. Chris stole some pots and pans and gold silverware from his mom. I started cooking more, most notably chili so hot that the leftovers had to be saved in glass jars marked with a skull and crossbones.

I didn't have a cookbook or any real skills so I limped along, often derailed by a fridge from the 1950s that was was broken most of the time.

When Chris graduated from Shimer in 1978, we packed up his Maverick and moved to California. The Bay Area had EVERYTHING (except deep dish pizza). I had shrimp for the first time and actually got tired of Chinese food. We didn't have a lot of money so Kam's in Berkeley offered a huge menu at reasonable prices. As a student at UC Berkeley, I got addicted to fancy coffee drinks and scones and Top Dog.

We tried Ethiopian food (not a fan) and Thai food (loved it). We celebrated at Cafe Venezia, a tiny Italian restaurant decorated with trompe l'oeil buildings festooned with laundry lines. I bought a couple of cookbooks at the used book stores on Telegraph. One was a beginner's guide to Chinese food and I tried making egg rolls and sweet and sour pork. Life was pretty good.